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No One Joins a Cult

Kathy Werner - Columnist
Posted 2/4/21

“No one joins a cult,” said Mark Vicente, documentary filmmaker and former member of Nxivm, a cult based in Albany, NY. Vicente made this comment in “The Vow”, the nine-part HBO documentary …

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No One Joins a Cult


“No one joins a cult,” said Mark Vicente, documentary filmmaker and former member of Nxivm, a cult based in Albany, NY. Vicente made this comment in “The Vow”, the nine-part HBO documentary about the cult.

What Vicente meant was that when a person joins a particular group or movement, it is usually done because you believe in the stated mission of the group. Nxivm promoted personal growth seminars and its stated mission was to improve the world.

However, over time, as cult leader Keith Raniere gained followers, especially rich ones, his desire for power and psychological control over his followers became clear. Raniere is now a convicted felon serving a sentence of 120 years for his illegal activities in the cult he created and ran for 20 years, from 1998 to 2018.

As with most cults, the changes were incremental, and when some disciples began to question things, Raniere manipulated them to get them to stay or, if they left, harassed them with unrelenting legal actions.

Raniere followed the cult leader's playbook: convince people that you alone can help them solve their problems, improve their lives, and save the world.

Next bombard them with information, making them take one self-improvement course after another. Make them undergo endless emotional audits as you work on undermining their confidence and destroying their belief in anything but the omniscient words of you, their leader.

Thought and emotional control come next, since the follower is so consumed with self-improvement tasks that they hear nothing but the messages of the leader over and over in the echo chamber that has become their reality.

Over time, intelligent people with the best of intentions find themselves believing the lies they have been told and behaving in ways that are detrimental to their best interests. In Nxivm, some women did not recognize that they were in a cult until they found themselves being coerced into an “exclusive” secret sex ring controlled by Raniere.

We are living in a time where online political echo chambers are a breeding ground for violent political cults, as we have seen in this country with the rise of QAnon.

QAnon, a domestic terrorist group among those that attacked our Capitol on January 6, has all the earmarks of a cult. Its leader is Q, supposedly a Deep State actor who knows the “real truth” about our government.

QAnon followers were united by their beliefs in outlandish conspiracies and their need to save our country from the satanic forces in power, which they believed were going to be overcome by Trump. January 20 was not a good day for QAnon's true believers.

As Peter Coy wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek, “Inauguration Day was agonizing for followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory. There was no blackout at noon. President Trump did not hang on to the presidency. He did not declare martial law or conduct mass arrests of liberal elites supposedly involved in child prostitution. Everything they believed was proven false, and they were shocked.”

Of course, some QAnon cultists are doubling down, while others have stepped back after seeing reality disprove Q's wild conspiracy lies.

My hope is that the echo chambers that engender and encourage violent political cults fall silent. At the very least, they must be held to account.


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