Zealot: A Book about Cults

Zealot - A book about cults

Jo Thorneley is an Australian writer and the host of a comic podcast, ‘Zealot’. She asserts that she has an obsession about cults, and that is, no doubt, correct. Her book about the zealots who generally establish and profit in one way or another from cults is written in a witty, colloquial, stream-of-consciousness style. It aims to be – and succeeds in being – highly entertaining. It has no pretensions towards being learned or scholarly, but it is well researched and beguilingly thought-provoking.

From the outset, Thorneley eschews technical – and, ultimately, arid – questions about the definition of a cult, preferring to delineate classic characteristics of cults: run by a leader whose instructions must be followed; with a prescribed way of life peculiar to the group; with a distinct separation from the outside world; and with negative consequences, real or perceived, for those who leave the group.

Insightfully, Thorneley identifies that people are drawn to cults for a number of reasons: ‘commonly they attract people whose current religion or lifestyle is lacking – it’s too restrictive, it’s not restrictive or pious enough, it doesn’t seem to offer solutions for a chaotic and dangerous world, it doesn’t let them have enough sex with aliens.’ (p. ix) She makes the point, too, that it is very difficult to leave cults, although many people who join them in the first place are, in fact, ‘smart, educated and switched on. They just want something more, and it’s likely they’re a lot like you. Normal, good people’ (p. x). Her principal point, though is that ‘Cult leaders are usually bastards’ and ‘You probably shouldn’t join one’ (p. xi).

Thorneley takes the reader on a rollicking journey through a selection of the best-known cults of the last 40 years: the People’s Temple, the Moonies, the Family, the Children of God, Aum Shinryko, Colonia Dignidad, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians, the Raelians, and the Rajneeshees (Orange People). Slightly curiously, she omits the Scientologists, whom most commentators would also classify as a cult.

Thorneley’s accounts of cults are orthodox in their content but witty and flippant in their presentation style. She observes, in respect of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, for instance, that there are a number of well-known tricks involved with the faith healing in which he claimed to indulge: ‘The first trick is research. Jim had learned in his early years that a few minutes’ worth of eavesdropping on conversations in the church vestibule before the service could really come in handy. … The second is to find some trusted co-conspirators with acting skills. … The third trick is props’ (p10). She describes the chilling discovery of over 900 corpses at Jonestown, not attempting to advance any particular insight into the Kool-Aid tragedy, seeking refuge at times in somewhat facile throw-away lines, but spinning a good yarn along the way.

Thorneley’s account of the Moonies is extensive and amusing. She identifies the sexual side-benefits allegedly obtained by Sun Myung-Moon, and the business holdings of his family.

She devotes a significant chapter to the Ann-Hamilton-Byrne cult – known in Victoria, Australia, as ‘The Family’ – including its involvement in LSD experimentation and ultimately the litigation, both criminal and civil, brought against the leadership of the group by former members and, in particular, those who had been its victims when they were children. She concludes: ‘Mothers like Anne Hamilton-Byrne do most other members a favour by making them look spectacular by comparison’ (p. 87).

Next, Thorneley tells the tale of David Berg, the Children of God, and their religious prostitution in the form of ‘flirty fishing: David Berg sent women to lure men into the cult with their vaginas’ (p. 101). She emphasises particularly the tragic sexual abuse of Moses David’s grandson. She describes the 1992 intervention by child protection authorities in Sydney and Melbourne.

Thorneley also describes the background of Shoke Asohara and the Aum Shinryko, including its usage of LSD and then its attempts to deploy sarin gas in the Tokyo underground in a terrorist attack, as well as the many murders perpetrated by members of the cult. She notes that since the various attacks by members of the group, 200 Aum Shinrikyo members have been arrested and 13 sentenced to death.

No book on cults is complete without accounts of the 39 members of Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate, who committed suicide in California in 1997. She identifies the leader’s bisexuality and the curious juxtaposition of his draconian rules on the expression of sexuality within the group and his own practices. There is a sense that Thorneley particularly enjoys alien and UFO cults. She is somewhat benignly disposed towards Applewhite: ‘He wasn’t cheating anyone. He wasn’t knowingly deceiving anyone. He wasn’t imposing rules about fasting upon his followers and then sneaking around the corner for a surreptitious cheeseburger, or enforcing celibacy and then inviting his nubile devoted out to the back room for a special cuddle. As far as we can tell, Marshall Applewhite was a sincere cult leader’ (p. 196).

Thorneley relates the dreadful story of the inferno at Mount Carmel near Waco, which consumed David Koresh and members of the Branch Davidians. She observes of him that ‘In habits inherited from the Seventh Day Adventists, Koresh enforced a vegetarian diet free from alcohol and caffeine. In a move less strictly Adventisty, in around 1989 he also decided that he was entitled to take any nearby ladies he wanted as his spiritual wives. According to Koresh, God wanted him to have lots of sex. … The problem was, not all of the women Koresh took as wives were legally old enough to behave like wives do’ (p. 211) . She makes the point that, considering Koresh’s obvious narcissism, it is not difficult to conclude that his procuring of attention from the FBI meant that ‘he figured he’d made it’.

Thorneley’s final case example is that of the Rajneeshees. She emphasises the role of Ma Anand Sheela, whom she describes as ‘a driven uncompromising woman with an unquenchable thirst for attention, unbridled ambition and a superhuman appetite for power’ (p. 263). It was she who purchased for the group a property in Antelope, Oregon, which became Rajneeshpuram, and it was she who masterminded the use of salmonella against local people who were not receptive to the new role of the Rajneeshees in the local community. She describes how Sheela was arrested in Germany and extradited to the United States to face charges of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder, ultimately receiving a 20-year sentence in California, although she only served 29 months of the prison term. After the death of the guru, Sheela moved to Switzerland, where she set up two aged-care homes. Thorneley comments: ‘Couldn’t happen to a nicer person’ (p. 283).

Thorneley’s last three-page chapter is semi-serious. It is directed towards people who may not be sure whether the group with which they have associated themselves is a cult. She urges readers to ask of themselves:

  • Does the head of your group have an essential role in the group’s story?
  • Do you give money to the group, not for goods or services or training, but for access to secrets?
  • Are you being told what not to read?
  • If you don’t do specific things, will something terrible happen?
  • Are your friends or family suddenly bad people? (pp. 284–286).

She summarises her perspective: ‘If you’ve just realised you’re in a cult, then you should definitely tell somebody. Today. Tell somebody who isn’t in a cult that you’re in a cult TODAY’ (p. 286).

Thorneley’s Zealot is entertaining, informative, confronting and funny. Inevitably, it includes extensive reference to unlawful conduct engaged in by cult members, as well as analysis of the bizarre psychological profiles of cult leaders. Occasionally, some of the one-liners fall a bit flat, but that is not a serious defect of the book. It is a perfect vehicle for clinicians or lawyers to encourage their clients to reflect upon their involvement in a group that may have characteristics that result in harm to their members. The book is not the professional product of an anti-cult activist but, rather, a set of good stories that cannot but appeal to people, especially those who are young. It does not take itself too seriously and is as self-deprecating in style as its author.

In conjunction with her podcast, Zealot is an excellent way that is not alienating or pretentious to encourage people who may be in a very vulnerable situation to start to develop perspective on those with whom they are associating and to question whether the group of which they have become a member is what it claims to be or appears to the outside world to be. For others with an interest in cults, Zealot adds constructively to the library on the subject at the light-hearted but stimulating end of the bookshelf.

Zealot: A Book about Cults
by Jo Thorneley, Hachette Australia, 2019, ISBN 9780733640506, pb, 292 pp, $32.99
Reviewed by Ian Freckelton, QC


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