Explained (2018) s02e01 Episode Script

Cults

I think what attracted India to the group was this sense of unified purpose.
[LAKEITH STANFIELD.]
The group was NXIVM, and its unified purpose was self-improvement using a patented method of Rational Inquiry for Executive Success, led by a man named Keith Raniere.
But the claim that Raniere had one of the world's highest IQs, the way students had to bow to a picture of him on the wall, and how they had to call him The Vanguard unsettled Catherine.
At the end, you know, India came up to me, and she said, "Mom, this is for me.
" And I My jaw dropped.
I was in shock.
India would end up giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to NXIVM, and got drawn into something much more sinister than Executive Success.
I got a call from somebody, and she said within NXIVM, there is a secret group.
And that's the first time I heard this term "DOS.
" Dominus Obsequious Sororium.
It was sold as a female empowerment group, but That's Latin for "master over female slave.
" I was then told that they were branding these women.
The branding was part of an initiation into DOS.
A new member would be blindfolded, told to take off her clothes, and lie on a massage table.
Three other women would then hold down her legs and shoulders, and she was told to say, "Master, please brand me.
It would be an honor.
" The women were told that the symbol represented the elements, but they'd been branded with Keith Raniere's initials.
Thousands of groups like NXIVM have risen throughout history, groups that are often described as cults.
But it's impossible to know how many, because most cults insist they're not cults and almost nobody in a cult realizes they're in one.
So what makes a group a cult? And how have some been able to make ordinary people do horrible things? [MAN.]
I shall be God, and beside me, there shall be no other.
[SECOND MAN.]
Yeah! [THIRD MAN.]
We want to share this knowledge with everyone.
[WOMAN.]
It was felt that whatever method necessary was okay because we were heavenly children and God knew why we were doing it.
Waco is gonna bear witness against the ATF.
You want to keep playing that game, somebody's gonna get hurt.
[MAN.]
You are told to replace your family and discard your old identity.
Your only chance to survive is to leave with us.
[JIM JONES.]
Love is a healing remedy.
Peoples Temple was unique at that time.
It was black and white and American Indian and Hispanic.
We all walked in naively thinking, "Okay, Jim said he wants a utopia.
I want a utopia.
" We thought we were joining a movement to make the world better.
But what they were actually joining ended up defining for the world - the modern idea of a cult.
- Thank you, baby.
Shh.
In the late 1970s, the group's leader, Jim Jones, led nearly a thousand followers from the Peoples Temple in California to the remote jungles of Guyana to build Jonestown, sold as a self-sufficient utopia, free of the violence and racism that plagued America.
- You all happy you here? You happy, Tom? - Yes.
Everybody's happy down here.
You can see that that's an obvious fact.
But concerned relatives began pressuring officials with pamphlets about a nightmare at Jonestown, saying Jones was using mind programming, even holding mock mass suicides to condition them to die for the cause.
California Congressman Leo Ryan flew down to Guyana to investigate - and never returned.
- [JONES.]
It's too late.
The congressman's dead, the Congress today is dead.
If we can't live in peace, then let's die in peace.
[FOLLOWERS CHEERING.]
The images of nearly a thousand dead, the largest mass murder-suicide in modern history, horrified the world.
[MAN.]
Cultists who believed in everything that Jim Jones said took their own lives.
[WOMAN.]
Some shot to death.
Most apparently self-poisoned.
[SECOND MAN.]
There were empty bottles of potassium cyanide.
Entire families took the poison together.
[WOMAN.]
Among the bodies were those of the Temple's fanatical founder, - the Reverend Jim Jones.
- [THIRD MAN.]
Jones told them, "It is time for us to meet in another place.
" [STANFIELD.]
Groups called cults, led by charismatic leaders with extreme beliefs and fanatic followers, have existed in almost every country across the globe.
But the scale of destruction at Jonestown gave the word "cult" a new horrifying connotation and drove social scientists in the United States to publish research attempting to define what these destructive groups had in common.
They settled on three main characteristics.
A cult is a group or a social movement that's led by a charismatic leader, uh, who is authoritarian and who demands to be revered as a godlike figure.
We were taught to believe what he said was straight from the mouth of God.
In the "community," as we called it, he was God's authority.
The second key element of a cult The group has some form of indoctrination program, uh, sometimes called "thought reform.
" Or mind control.
It was almost like the operating system was the Bible, and then he was putting all of his programs in there on top of it.
And people would kind of accept them because they accepted the Bible, so they shouldn't question the Bible, so they had to believe it.
There is exploitation, uh, either sexual, financial Some type of exploitation of the members.
Whenever, you know, Sun Myung Moon needed my parents for some kind of mission or anything, they had to put the cult leader's needs before their children's.
Like my father.
He was gone most of the year when I was growing up.
But there's a small problem with this definition of a cult.
It's a value judgment more than it is a-a functional word.
Every prophet of every major religion can be considered a charismatic leader.
In fact, the biggest joke in religious studies is that "cult plus time equals religion.
" "Cult" comes from the Latin "cultus," meaning "to till or cultivate," and in antiquity, was used to describe the sacrifices, offerings, and monuments built to cultivate favor with the gods.
In time, it came to mean any unorthodox religion.
The Roman Empire referred to Judaism as a cult.
Some say that certain versions of Islam are cults.
Nowadays, most scholars prefer the word "new religious movement" or "NRM.
" And many arose, not to exploit their followers, but to help them survive in the face of an external threat.
[REZA.]
The collective's very sense of self is under attack by the world, and the only way to salvage one's identity is to come together under the leadership of this charismatic authority and to rebuild from scratch.
Jesus of Nazareth lived in perhaps the most politically and socially turbulent era in the history of the Middle East, which is saying a lot.
And so Jesus was one of at least a dozen messiahs that we know of.
New Religious Movements have arisen to help humans navigate turbulent times throughout history.
In Europe, many arose during the turmoil of the Renaissance and as a backlash against institutional religions.
In India, they grew out of social turbulence caused by a transition to agriculture, and later, as a response to British colonialism.
But one country in particular welcomed new religions with open arms from its very founding.
Going back well into the 1600s, the American colonies had developed a reputation as a safe harbor for religious radicals.
And there was one small patch of America that was especially seized by this new religious fervor.
A section of land stretching from Albany to Buffalo, known as the Burned-Over District.
The Burned-Over District became the birthplace of Mormonism, of Seventh-day Adventism, of spiritualism.
And a wide range of other social, political, and religious movements as well.
Wherever you encounter religious openings, you inevitably encounter political openings as well.
Jemima Wilkinson was one prophet from that area.
She recovered from a near-death experience with typhoid to declare herself a reincarnation of a holy spirit named Public Universal Friend.
And it was probably the first time that most Americans had ever seen a woman preaching or speaking in public.
This kind of American Sinai where people felt they were receiving all kinds of messages and dispensations, not strictly religious in nature.
This pattern repeated again and again.
And they spread beyond the Burned-Over District, like to New York City in the 1930s, where tens of thousands considered a man called Father Divine - to be God on Earth.
- [CHEERING.]
For all of humanity, I am broadcasting.
[CHEERING.]
One has to understand Father Divine as a very early progenitor of the civil-rights movement.
Father Divine's early followers were involved in protests and petition drives and letter-writing campaigns that insisted upon civil rights at a time when that call was very muted in American life.
But a call that would grow and touch off a new era of social upheaval with racial tensions erupting into violence - and a wave of political assassinations.
- [GUNSHOTS.]
Many began doubting the war in Vietnam was just.
Americans' trust in their government plummeted and the specter of imminent nuclear annihilation made the entire nation feel like it was under siege.
This drove a generation to search for new kinds of community and alternative sources of meaning.
And so what we saw at that time was the rise of these charismatic individuals, some of them American, many of them drawing from traditions of the East, particularly in India.
"We are the righteous few.
" "We know the answer.
" And that knowledge was an antidote for the turbulent times in which we lived.
But that knowledge sometimes came with a catch.
The search for alternative forms of meaning, these things have at their back a very powerful appeal.
And sometimes people start out, even the leaders themselves, believing in that appeal.
But there is a break in human nature in which idealism can very easily turn into authoritarianism.
The same religious tolerance that allowed the country to thrive Take that step.
made Americans particularly susceptible to manipulation.
[CHEERING.]
Even Father Divine was accused of taking advantage of his followers financially, including convincing them to buy him a hotel, and bilking a woman out of her inheritance.
And one man was watching all this and taking notes Jim Jones.
So Jim Jones, he studied, you know, Father Divine to see how Father Divine set up his community.
Jones' desire to learn from Divine was even immortalized in a 1980 TV miniseries.
That's James Earl Jones playing Father Divine.
But how could you sustain such a movement? How did my son Moses sustain his flock? But the cost? Ask and you shall receive, my son.
Ask and you shall receive.
Jim Jones took some of the appeals to social justice that were intrinsic to Father Divine's message, and he used them, first to attract people, and later, to manipulate people.
And it's when that manipulation becomes destructive that a group becomes a cult, according to social scientists.
It's really not about the belief system, per se.
It's about the behaviors of the group and the ways in which it uses, uh, various methods of influence and control to manipulate and exploit the members.
Charles Manson convinced his followers to murder nine people in an attempt to incite a race war.
Shoko Asahara ordered his followers to release sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 13.
And Marshall Applewhite of Heaven's Gate convinced his followers of this Periodically, that level comes in close enough and offers a graduation class, offers life out of this evolutionary level into that evolutionary level.
Which led many to castrate, then kill themselves, believing this would help them ascend to a higher plane.
The eternal fascination with cults stems from the mystery of how their leaders exert such complete control.
[JANJA.]
What they're using is basic social psychology.
They're using everyday influence and control techniques.
[STANFIELD.]
So as a public service, we present to you seven elements that social scientists say can lead to indoctrination into a cult.
Number one you're going through a transition, perhaps a difficult one.
I was a starving, not-very-successful actor in my 20s in New York.
When you're in that vulnerable state, uh, you're going to be more open to trying something.
Maybe, you know, pull a thing off a on a bulletin board that says, "Come to this yoga class.
" The first meditation began, and I felt the experience of wave after wave of love and connectedness.
Which is all part of the soft sell.
I had a questionnaire.
Just, like, questions about life and the universe, "Are you happy?" Once you take that first step and go to that first meeting or talk or meditation group or Bible study, recruiters can work on you and invite you back, and-and it basically is a process from there.
We'd encourage them to go to this retreat center in the woods, you know, where we can further indoctrinate them.
This is the first step toward the creation of a new reality.
We were kept in this closed environment no outside books, no TV, no movies to protect us from what-what my parents would say is the defilement of the world.
Over time, you're going to become, uh, more and more enveloped in this what I call a self-sealing system.
Until your most important relationship is with "The Dear Leader.
" They would have Sun Myung Moon and/or his family members come out.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the true parents of mankind Reverend and Sun Myung Moon.
" You're in a group that has found the answer, and you have this leader who is the only leader who is the only one who can take you on this path.
And everything else and everybody else is wrong.
Every Sunday morning at 5:00 a.
m.
, we just bowed to a picture of Reverend and Mrs.
Moon.
We were told to love Reverend and Mrs.
Moon as our own parents, but even more than our own parents.
Which the leader will often solidify by creating an external enemy.
He said to me, "You're going to be raped, you're gonna be beaten.
You're going to be left in a ditch.
" He said all these horrible things about what would happen to me if I left because the world was such an evil place.
This means that you're going to "psychologically" run to the cult leader.
You become in a perpetual state of denial of your own reasoning power.
You don't reason anymore.
People in this state of cognitive dissonance, they're going to choose over and over and over for the cult or the cult leader.
Which brings us to the key way cult leaders scale up their control simple peer pressure.
This fundamental human desire to be a part of a group can override even our own perception of reality.
In 1951, social psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated this by placing several students in a room.
All but one were in on the experiment.
Your task is a very simple one.
You're to look at the line on the left and determine which of the lines on the right is equal to it in length.
- [MAN.]
Two.
- [SECOND MAN.]
Two.
Two.
Uh, two.
Seventy-five percent of those tested would end up agreeing with the majority, even when their responses were obviously false.
It's this pressure to conform that the cult leader uses to control members.
In a way, that's what he did the last day at Jonestown.
He incited a riot, and then he sat back and let peer pressure work.
All to serve the whims of a likely sociopathic narcissist.
He said, "You couldn't live without me, so since I'm dying, you're gonna die, too, and you're not that important because I'm the one who's essential.
" When the kids were all outside the pavilion, then he had his secretaries and mistresses go out and shoot the poison in their mouths, and so he started killing the children.
No parent could sit there, knowing that the child died ten feet from them, and think that they were gonna go back and-and live a life in the United States.
Today, a different kind of threat is driving people to search for new sources of meaning.
There's an epidemic of social isolation so serious, it's been recognized as a public health threat in countries around the world.
Medical experts believe loneliness is becoming Australia's newest public-health crisis.
[WOMAN.]
America is in the grips of a loneliness epidemic.
The government has appointed a minister for loneliness.
[IN JAPANESE.]
There are 800,000 to 900,000 middle-aged people who have completely withdrawn from society.
People don't necessarily have a built-in community be it at the level of family, at the level of church, at the level of neighborhood.
As fewer people identify with organized religion and the communal gathering spaces they offer, virtual communities are helping to fill that void.
What the Internet has done is, for the first time in human history, made the definition of community no longer geographically bound.
We are finding statistically small, but personally huge, groups of like-minded individuals who will reinforce us and reinforce who we are.
This has led to a new generation of online leaders who are using the tools of social media to attract fervent virtual followers.
You're going to feellike you have your own hands in your own clay because you do.
The only place where you can find what you're seeking is within you.
You are accepting yourself a hundred percent for who you are.
If people don't like it, too bad.
They can hit the road.
[TARA.]
You can disseminate information quickly to a bunch of followers if you're just in your room with no social connections.
You're able to, because of the sheer size of the Internet, find a community for almost anything.
And that sense of reinforcement can be really, really powerful.
Teal Swan is one such leader.
Some people actually use depression as a way of avoiding suicide.
She's attracted a large following by offering controversial advice to the hurting and lonely.
What suicide is is pushing the reset button.
It's not a good or bad decision in and of itself.
Some have accused Teal of being an online cult leader, which she denies, although she acknowledges she has "the perfect recipe for a cult.
" "These people are desperate.
They need my approval.
They'll do whatever I say.
" And the built-in features of today's online gathering spaces can help lead the vulnerable astray.
You watch one video, and YouTube will suggest others, and often, that can lead to, for example, a spiral of radicalization.
And a lot of online spaces, like message boards, can create a cult-like community without a need for a leader at all.
These alternate movements, they provide answers, and they provide a home.
They provide someone to listen to them.
Vulnerable people at a crossroads can easily find this content.
There's often a soft sell with content that's less extreme, like a forum where men vented about sexual frustration that can pull people into a new reality, exacerbated by an external enemy and enforced by peer pressure.
Other men urging each other to seek revenge.
Just because they don't have physical spaces does not make these modern-day cults, um, any less potent.
And in the last few years, these scenes have horrified the world.
[WOMAN.]
The Santa Barbara shooter, Elliot Roger, left a trail of threats online.
[MAN.]
He stabbed or shot six people to death.
These forums are leading to physical violence.
A van plowing into pedestrians on a busy street in Toronto.
[MAN.]
Incel.
It's an online community frustrated with their romantic lives with women.
[STANFIELD.]
Minutes before the Toronto attack, the man responsible posted a call-out to 4chan, his message board of choice, referring to it as a sergeant, as if it was his commanding officer.
[WOMAN.]
A mass shooting in New Zealand, a New Zealand mosque, leaves dozens of people dead, with the gunman live-streaming the incident on social media.
[STANFIELD.]
The attacker in New Zealand boasted to his online community about the mass murder which was enthusiastically endorsed by his community.
One trapped in an alternate reality as complete as any physical cult.
These online cults do give people who believe themselves to be disaffected or alienated from the dominant culture an alternate narrative, an alternate script to follow.
Whether that alternative narrative is built online or in the physical world, on the promises of social justice or the promise of a better, happier, successful self, they all use the same methods of control, and they're all incredibly hard to escape.
[JANJA.]
It's hard to leave a cult because it's your whole world.
In time, the majority of cult members will leave on their own, often when they discover their infallible leader isn't so infallible.
It was very commonplace for him to throw out a date when the end of the world would be.
If you look at his track record, he was very inconsistent.
Or when they find their guide to a moral life is actually a hypocrite.
They all took vows of celibacy, pretended to keep those vows.
Muktananda himself, I later learned that he was a very fervent, prodigious sexual predator.
Or when their constructed reality cracks.
My dad passed away.
The leadership allowed me to go to his funeral.
Just getting away from my situation and looking at things from a different perspective, I said, "I have to-I have to get out, and I have to get my kids out.
" The idea of leaving the cult and going into that world, uh, is-is very terrifying.
I remember being scared to cross the street because I was afraid that, you know, God would take my life.
It's difficult also because you're not used to making your own decisions.
About seven or eight years ago, I-I was in, like, a-a book club, and it was triggering, 'cause it was like, "What do you think of this book?" And I-I was just getting agitated, and I could barely get a word out, and I just stopped going.
People I loved, something I believed in, was suddenly proven to be just a delusion.
You know? So you kind of hate yourself for that.
It's going to be exhausting, and hopefully the person will have a safe place to put their life together.
The arrest and conviction of Keith Raniere has allowed Catherine and India Oxenberg to begin the long process of recovery.
Ultimately, we are completely reunited.
It's a process.
She understands that it impacted her and that she's not broken, but she's not unscathed, either.
Parts of myself that I had tried to kill off, they started coming back, and it's gonna sound ridiculous, but I began birdwatching, and that was a part of my old identity.
My survival instinct had not been crushed.
And whatever it was gonna mean for me to survive, that's what I was focusing on.
You find other weirdos.
You find other people who are who feel a little offbeat or different.
I mean, I'm an artist already, so a lot of artists we're all weirdos, right? So stone by stone that you turn over, you realize, like, "Oh, there's really nothing to fear here," and that I'm still, like, learning.
I was starting from a blank slate in my late 20s.
I still feel like I have that-that ability to learn new things that maybe some people my age don't have, and I think it's because I will always want to learn, because I was deprived of learning.
I decided when I was 21 or 22 that I wanted to, really, at some point in my life, be able to give back and to help people in a way that I didn't have when I left.
Teaching them they can make a choice for themselves, that they can do something that's good for themselves, and they can be independent like that.
You know, I'm a survivor, and from pretty early on, I felt like every day that I survive, I was flaunting it in Jim's face.
Laura Kohl returned to Guyana in 2018 with other Jonestown survivors, the lucky few who happened to be away from Jonestown the day the tragedy occurred.
I think that that's something that doesn't get said enough.
It's not Jim Jones and and the people.
It's 917 people and that other guy.
[SNIFFS AND LAUGHS AND SNIFFS.]
[CLOSING MUSIC PLAYING.]