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How to know if you're in a cult — and get out

2022-04-08 Source:www.wgbh.org Author:Alexi Cohan

Pathological lying, entitlement and narcissism are classic signs of authoritarian behavior exhibited by cult leaders that people such as Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, have fallen victim to, cult expert Steven Hassan told Jim Braude on Greater Boston Monday.

Ginni Thomas was a member of the Lifespring self-help group, which she and many others described as a cult. After getting out, she spoke to Congress in 1986 to raise awareness about the harm of cults. But she’s now embroiled in controversy after last month’s reveal of text messages she sent to former chief of staff Mark Meadows in the wake of the 2020 election, messages that included false, QAnon-related conspiracy theories. The revelations raised questions about the possibility of falling victim to groups that have broken with reality more than once.

Hassan, who used to be a cult member himself and knew Thomas in the 1980s and ’90s, said cults will often engage members in activities such as hypnosis, behavior-modification techniques and multi-level marketing schemes.

"If you want to leave, you are given irrational fears that terrible things will happen to you if you leave, and members keep trying to contact you in order to get you back in," Hassan said.

He likened Donald Trump to an authoritarian or cult-like figure, cautioning that not every Trump supporter is a cult member.

"Donald Trump displays the typical profile of an authoritarian cult leader," Hassan said, highlighting traits such as narcissism, grandiosity, entitlement and pathological lying.

Hassan said to leave a cult, one must first recognize they are under the influence of a leader.

"If you are blindly believing that any negative information is satanic and evil, and you do thought-stopping and have phobias, then you are in an undue-influence situation," he said.

For those who want to encourage loved ones to get out, Hassan recommends asking respectful questions that will encourage retrospection. For those trying to leave, he advises members begin to reflect on what attracted them to the group before they can work on healing and, hopefully, never joining another one.