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The unsettling cult signs that could be lurking in your community

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LA Post: The unsettling cult signs that could be lurking in your community
March 27, 2024
Harlow Calloway - LA Post

We picture cults as something from movies - twisted leaders controlling mindless followers. But the shocking truth is these destructive groups are lurking in towns across America, ruining lives through mental manipulation and abuse.

From draining your savings to stripping your freedom, falling into a cult's clutches can have a devastating toll. Knowing the cult signs and their red flags is key to avoiding these insidious traps - or escaping their grip before it's too late.

Don't think it could happen to you? The most unsuspecting people get lured into these groups' web of control. Defend yourself by learning to spot the cult warning signs today.

"I ignored so many red flags because the group made me feel loved, chosen, and special," confesses Sariah Jones, 28, a cult survivor recovering in her hometown of Phoenix, AZ. "By the time strange sexual rituals began, it was too late." She urges learning to recognize the signs so others avoid similar fates.

Cult Information Centre founder Ian Haworth has spent decades assisting former members. He laments that despite growing awareness, cults persist in recruiting vulnerable targets. "Manipulative groups twist human desires for purpose and community into weapons against members," Haworth explains. "Awareness of their tactics is crucial for protection."

So, what exactly are the telltale indicators? Experts identify key hallmarks particular to cultic groups. "Asking questions is discouraged, alternative viewpoints condemned," says Haworth. "Demanding absolute, unquestioning loyalty to the leaders is another giveaway." 

Cult specialist Rick Ross has assisted thousands of families affected by exploitative groups since 1982. He confirms that shutting down critical thinking and skepticism distinguishes cults. "Questions get labeled as rebelliousness or threats," Ross explains. "Members adopt a groupthink mentality dominated by the leader's ideology."

Dominant narratives portray the world in black-and-white, good versus evil terms. Questioning gets suppressed by gaslighting members into distrusting their own judgment. "It's difficult learning to think independently again after years sacrificing that autonomy," testifies Brad Langer, 32, also recovering in Phoenix.

Alongside paralyzing critical faculties, cults isolate individuals from outside views to consolidate control. "I got convinced everyone outside was evil trying to tear our family apart," admits Jada Snow, 29, estranged from her family after joining the Angels of God cult near San Diego. "We got punished for contacting outsiders critical of the group."

This segregation from society - heightened recently by the pandemic - leaves members more vulnerable to manipulation. Experts warn isolation also deters asking questions or seeking outside help if troubled. "Cults aim to monopolize members' reality," says Ross. "Separation from other sources of influence serves that agenda." 

Snow regrets dropping outside friends and interests on orders from leaders. "By the end, they controlled everything from how I thought to what music I heard," she recounts. "Getting back pieces of myself has been overwhelming." 

Experts caution against groups centering loyalty around special doctrines or ideologies rather than ethical principles. "Beware teachings based on hidden truths or convenient revelations known only to the leader," Ross advises. "Gurus feign exclusive insights to control followers."

Angels of God drew Snow in through promises of ushering in a divine new age. When bizarre yoga rituals and violence appeared, she felt trapped by spiritual threats. "After years reorienting my life around their mission, leaving meant losing purpose and eternal rewards," Snow explains. "My critical thinking had eroded to justify whatever happened next."

Haworth confirms the difficulty many experience extracting themselves after investment. "The sunk cost fallacy convinces people to double down when they should cut losses," he laments. Ross agrees that manipulating spiritual hopes and fears often prevents escape. "The key is spotting red flags early before indoctrination overrides rationality."

Central to consolidating power is demanding inappropriate loyalty and subservience to human leaders. Jones recalls Angels of God's guru using humiliation and public examples to dominate disciples. "We existed to serve at his whim 24 hours a day," Jones recounts. "Fear of punishment or excommunication kept us obedient."

Ross frequently intervenes in similar high-demand groups wielding undue influence. He explains how hierarchical structures concentrate control. "Members get exploited financially through mandated payments. Behavior gets dictated regarding relationships, appearance, leisure." 

Totalitarian rule also introduces capriciousness. "Cults flip environments from love-bombing recruits to hostility manufacturing crisis," Ross continues. "The volatility bonds followers emotionally to leaders."

Shoot admits her greatest regret was manipulating her parents into giving the cult significant money and then abandoning them. "Leaders convinced me that my family would sabotage my purpose," Snow says. "Now I realize it was really about gaining assets and access."  

Ross observes a pattern of driving wedges between members and relatives. "Beliefs get instilled that the cult is one's true family," he warns. "Members get coerced into profoundly damaging birth family relationships."

According to one study, over 75% of former cult members report experiencing family estrangement. Reconnecting with loved ones post-exit presents a monumental challenge on the journey to reclaiming life.

"It's been difficult conveying to my parents how completely the group reconditioned me," Snow says. "But thankfully, they are helping me undo instilled thoughts so I can decide beliefs on my own again."

Experts underscore the necessity of avoiding groups violating personal boundaries or autonomy. Ross cautions that spiritual manipulation opens doors to sexual coercion by leaders lacking accountability. 

Jones admits she awoke to violations too late. "When special rituals began expecting 'sacrifices' to the guru involving sexual acts, I couldn't differentiate right from wrong anymore," Jones details. "My identity had merged with the cult."  

Haworth confirms exploitation stems from the self-serving nature of cults. "They appeal to human hopes, then use members to acquire money, sex, or power with zero accountability," he warns. Experts emphasize never ignoring infractions, regardless of an organization's initial appeal. Abusive dynamics escalate when not confronted decisively. 

Finally, Ross identifies insulation from traditional cultural or religious institutions as a warning sign. "Cults often disparage other faiths to prevent comparisons shaking follower confidence," Ross explains. "They thrive on controlling input from media to education to strip identity." 

Jenkins reflects on the tactical isolation she experienced before leaving Angels of God three harrowing months ago. "Leaders made everything outside seem evil—news, authorities, even our families," she recounts. "It made leaving terrifying, like jumping to moral doom."  

In reality, preventing follower connections beyond the group only serves the leader's interests in limiting oversight and maintaining submission. Experts advise reinforcing ties to trusted advisors, education options, and mental health resources outside any suspicious organization.

Fundamentally, groups demanding overbearing loyalty while eroding autonomy and critical faculties set members up for exploitation. Jenkins urges others to recognize unethical deception disguised as spiritual revelation or familial bonds. "No legitimate community controls your life," Haworth agrees. 

All experts first recommend safely exiting coercive groups immediately, no matter the promises given or losses threatened for leaving. Remaining only enables further harm. Ross provides global assistance to families recovering members at https://www.culteducation.com 

If notice red flags, cult signs and you are concerned about yourself or a loved one's group involvement, experts suggest openly discussing behaviors observed or experienced. Voicing worries with care and focusing on emotional connection best helps individuals reevaluate. 

Forming a support team around those questioning also empowers them to consider leaving. "Fear of losing community or purpose keeps people trapped," Jenkins reflects. "Surrounding them with an alternative, loving community helps everyone heal."

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