Letter to my Grandchildren from Inside a Cult

I don’t have any grandchildren yet. But if I ever do, I want them to understand what it is we went through during this time in history, and even more, to understand how it is that we got here. So this is for them:

I first learned about “cults” when I was 13, the age my son is now. I watched with fascination as the horrific events of the Jonestown mass suicide/murder were revealed to the world. I paid close attention to the story, clipped all the newspaper articles about it, and imagined scenarios in which I would find a way to hide until everyone was dead or gone, and save myself–and my family, if they were there too–had I been there.

What didn’t occur to me at the time was that, had I been there–had I uprooted my life to go and join this group of people in the jungles of Guyana, had I been in the frame of mind to go along with everything they did leading up to the events of November 18, 1978 (including practice runs for the mass suicide)–then chances are, I would have willingly stood in a circle with my friends and drunk the cyaninde-laden Kool-Aid as so many others did.

A Thousand Lives: The ... Scheeres, Julia Best Price: $6.08 Buy New $11.19 (as of 05:06 UTC - Details) And that is what is so puzzling, and so fascinating, about cults. From the outside, we can’t imagine why those people would have done those things. What could possibly drive otherwise normal people to act in ways that seem not only insane, but counter to their own interests–in the case of Jonestown, counter to their most fundamental instinct for self preservation?

What could get someone to be willing to sacrifice their own life, and the lives of the people they love?

I hope to provide some insight into this question, as I find myself now, at the end of the year 2020, living in the midst of what I can only describe as a massive, dangerous, and self-destructive cult.


Teri Buford O’Shea escaped from Jonestown only a few weeks before the mass suicide and murder. She defines a cult this way:

“A cult is when you aren’t allowed to see your friends or family…I’m talking about total isolation – someone takes all your money and brings you to a place where there’s no communication, or if there is you aren’t allowed to use it.”

Cult deprogrammer Steven Hassan created the BITE model to explain some of the key elements that cults employ to control their members:

Behavior Control: An individual’s associations, living arrangements, food, clothing, sleeping habits, finances, etc., are strictly controlled.

Information Control: Cult leaders deliberately withhold or distort information, lie, propagandize, and limit access to other sources of information.

Thought Control: Cult leaders use loaded words and language, discourage critical thinking, bar any speech critical of cult leaders or policies, and teach an “us vs. them” doctrine. Combating Cult Mind Co... Hassan, Steven Best Price: $17.24 Buy New $18.94 (as of 05:06 UTC - Details)

Emotional Control: Leaders manipulate their followers via fear (including the fear of losing salvation, fear of shunning, etc.), guilt, and indoctrination.

Reading both O’Shea’s definition, and Hassan’s BITE components in 2020, it is striking to me the extent to which all of these things have been inflicted upon Americans over the past eight months:

Isolation and the intimate control of our activities and relationships, in the form of forced social distancing, the closing of businesses and schools, and most cruelly, the isolation of the elderly and others in care homes; taking money, or in our case, destroying the source of income and livelihood for millions of people in this country; control of communication and information, through what has now become overt censorship, with hints that some forms of communication may be shut down entirely; emotional manipulation through the shaming of those who do not go along with the diktat of the day, and other tactics; and an authoritarian thought-control regime, where critical thinking on the part of individuals is ridiculed, views that contradict those of the leaders are actively censored, and intellectual debate is replaced by “us vs. them” tribal warfare.

It is this last part that gets to the heart of it. To me, the essence of a “cult” is that it provides an external replacement, a substitute, for one’s own power of reasoning and moral judgement. It demands blind obedience to this substitute, and punishes harshly anyone who dissents from its pronouncements.

And this describes very well the mainstream culture I find myself in today.

I see people on online neighborhood forums bragging about wanting to turn in local businesses for “breaking the rules”–rules that are arbitrary, ineffective, and unconstitutional, but I am discovering that none of that matters for a great many of the people who live in my own neighborhood. They have been told by someone in authority–the governor of California, the local city council, an anchorperson on the television news that they watch–that everyone must now stand six feet apart, that events must be cancelled, some businesses must close, and that everyone must wear a mask when outside.

And just like that, thousands of years of human social norms and everything we know about biology just flies out of the heads of millions of Americans and they all act as if this has always been normal. They scream at, and even physically attack, those who don’t go along with it, and even force their children to isolate themselves from human contact and to wear masks that restrict their breathing. All because someone said so.

I live in a world that only a year ago I would have thought was the stuff of poorly written dystopian fiction. If anyone had told me in November of 2019 that just a year later, people would be ordered by the governor of the state I live in to close their businesses, to only leave their homes for “essential” activities, to stop attending church services, to stand six feet apart from other people, and eventually, to wear masks on their faces when out in public, and that most people would not only go along with this willingly but would cheer it on and even shame those who did not–I would have laughed in their face. The Origins of Totalit... Hannah Arendt Best Price: $8.49 Buy New $12.90 (as of 06:35 UTC - Details)

And yet here we are.

I hope that the things you have heard about this time in our history do sound absurd to you. But understand that until they actually happened right in front of me, they sounded absurd to me too. I would never have believed that the people around me would have been gullible enough, malleable enough, or vicious enough, to go along with the things that have been imposed upon us, and under the flimsiest of pretexts.


Around the same time that I learned about the Jonestown tragedy, I also learned about World War II, and specifically about the Holocaust. In hindsight, my (government) school spent a lot of time teaching us about the horrors committed by the Nazis. Disproportionately so, I later realized, in the context of a world history–including for me  recent history–filled with similar atrocities. But for some reason, my school wanted us all to focus on this one.

I came away from learning about World War II and the Holocaust with what I thought was a pretty compelling and obvious lesson: The reason these horrors occurred was that a government was able to amass near total control of the people living under it, that this kind of power is tremendously dangerous to humanity and we must do all that we can to make sure that no government ever again has that kind of power.

It was to be many years before I learned that this was not the lesson that many of my classmates came away with.

The lesson, it seems, that most Americans learned from that episode in history goes something like this:

“Antisemitism is what caused the Holocaust. Antisemitism is bad, just like racism is bad, and we must give our governments the power to stamp out things like racism and antisemitism so that we can all be safe and never again have another Holocaust.”

Battle for the Mind: A... William Sargant Best Price: $5.02 Buy New $15.89 (as of 04:04 UTC - Details) And that, I think, goes a long way to explaining why we find ourselves here yet again, with governments that have just demonstrated to us that they have both the power and the desire to exert total control over our lives.

Because the vast majority of Americans never learned that that was the danger. Indeed, if they went to the schools run by the government, they were taught just the opposite: That it is free people, and free markets, that are the danger, and that government is there to protect you from that danger; that government is a benign force, and because you can vote, it is a force that you control.

This schooling has much to do with the willingness of so many Americans around me to embrace the total state. It has prepared them for precisely that, in fact, with its focus on obedience to authority, following rules, giving the “right” answers so as to pass tests and move forward, and avoiding punishment by doing what those in authority tell you to. And it is part of a larger effort to manipulate and control what people believe is true about the world.


To this end, some very powerful and very deep narratives have been crafted and fed to us over generations. What are those narratives? Primarily, that freedom is dangerous and that the state is a benign entity that acts for the good of “the people”, and that we, “the people,” control it.

This narrative is deadly. It turns concepts of peace, cooperation, justice, compassion and freedom upside down, telling us that free people are dangerous but an all-powerful state is not; that voluntary transactions made in a free market constitute coercion, but literally taking people’s money from them without their consent with the threat of guns and prisons is not coercion.

This narrative tells us that we absolutely control the same government that takes our money from us; that can close our businesses or stop us from practicing our professions if we displease it; that puts people in prison for using substances it disapproves of; and that unleashes police to enforce laws against “crimes” that have no victims–often with deadly consequences for which those who commit them are almost never held accountable.

We are told that, through the act of voting to select the people who hold offices in this entity, we exercise control over it, and it therefore represents “our” interests. But the entities that we are not compelled to do business with, the entities that cannot throw us in jail if we refuse their terms, and which in fact will go out of business if they fail to please us–those entities, we are told, are a threat to us and must be “reined in” by the entity that takes our money whether we want it to or not.

According to this narrative, people have no inclination to cooperate or support each other in the absence of state violence. “Community” and “society” are not the products of voluntary interaction between people, of practices and standards that have evolved over centuries of such interaction, but are things that must be imposed from above, by the state. In this worldview, “community” is equated with state force–and vice versa.

Without the state, we are told, we would be nothing but isolated, atomistic “rugged individuals”, with no ability to connect with each other, no interest in supporting each other or in cooperating for mutual benefit, but constantly at at war with each other in a grim battle for the “survival of the fittest.”

This narrative must sound absurd to you. I hope it does. But remember that I live surrounded by people for whom it makes complete sense, and to whom anyone who believes differently is considered a “kook” with “fringe beliefs”, or is maybe even a “conspiracy theorist.”

The success of this narrative in my time can be measured by the widespread failure of the people around me to recognize the institution of the state as an enemy at all–even as it lays waste to their livelihoods, the things that give their lives meaning, and in many cases their lives or the lives of their loved ones.


And this brings me to my third, and I think most important, point.

Somehow, the culture that I live in has come to be characterized by an outright disdain for independent thought. Public debate has been largely reduced to the pitting of competing authority figures against each other, and the capacity of most people to engage in reasoned argument begins and ends with an appeal to those authorities. Only a very few seem able to engage directly with information themselves, and those few are largely ignored.

We have arrived at a point in history where the intellectual norm is now to abandon one’s own capacity for reason and to put in its place a collection of authority figures and institutions. Or rather, authority itself.

We have arrived at a point in history where mainstream America looks very much like a cult.

It is not a cult that anyone went out and joined, nor one that went around recruiting people, but one that has been inflicted on us, and has thrived, grown and expanded, from within.

How is any of this helpful to you now, many years into the future?

I wish I knew what to say that would ensure that nothing like this ever happened again, but I don’t. What I can do though, is urge you not to make the same mistakes that brought us to where we are at the end of 2020. In particular:

– Do not put your trust in entities that are founded in coercion, and that demand a monopoly on the use of violence;

– Do not–ever–let such entities be in charge of educating your children;

– Do whatever you can, in fact, to ensure that such entities are not able to function in the world at all;

– If you ever find yourself in the midst of a cult, you might be tempted to blame the cult members for this predicament. Don’t. It’s not worth the effort. Focus your attention where it is most needed: On the source of the problem. And remember that that source only gets more powerful when those under it are fighting each other;

– Fight with everything you have against any attempts to control information or speech, and beat into the ground until it is bloody and tattered the idea that truth is something given to us by authority figures, rather than something we are capable of discerning for ourselves.

That’s all I’ve got. From where I’m sitting in late 2020, it seems that humanity has an infinite capacity for abject stupidity and gullibility and for a reverence for authority no matter how deadly and destructive that authority becomes.

But people can also surprise you. We can also be quite wonderful and imaginative and even terribly strong when we need to be. We have hard-wiring built into us for cooperation and caring for each other and ensuring the survival of the next generation–all of which predates any state. So I have some hope for us. I do not believe that we are destined to be eternal participants in a suicidal death cult. I have hope that, as has happened with previous attempts to “plan” humanity, humanity’s own messiness will jam up the machine, and it will come crashing down.

When that happens, let’s just do everything we can to make sure no-one can ever build another one, OK?