After moving into his daughter’s dorm at Sarah Lawrence College in 2010, Lawrence W. Ray spent the next decade isolating, brainwashing, and controlling the lives of his daughter’s friends and classmates. Earlier this year, Ray was accused of starting a cult at a suburban New York school found guilty on 15 federal charges including extortion, sex trafficking, racketeering conspiracy and forced labor. He will be sentenced in September.
Dubbed “The Sarah Lawrence Cult Trial,” according to United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the case centered around Ray subjecting his victims to manipulation and many types of abuse. His tactics include sleep deprivation, psychological and sexual humiliation, verbal abuse, threats of physical violence, and alienating victims from their families. Prosecutors also highlighted how Ray exploited victims’ mental health vulnerabilities.
Even after a story about “Sarah Lawrence’s Stolen Children”, was published in New York Magazine in 2019, an article that led to an investigation and possible trial, reports indicated that some of his followers remained loyal to Ray. This scenario offers insight into the complex and powerful grip that cults can have on the human psyche.
Experts who study cults suggest that the human need for comfort drives people to seek others or things to soothe their fears and anxieties. Research shows that these and other elements have led hundreds of thousands of people to devote themselves to thousands of cults operating around the world.
“[They] provide meaning, purpose, and belonging,” says Josh Hart, a professor of psychology at Union College who studies personality and social psychology, worldviews, and belief systems. “They offer a clear, confident vision [and] assert the superiority of the group.”
As for the leaders themselves, they are usually portrayed as infallible, confident and grandiose. Their charisma draws people in, Hart says. And followers who crave peace, belonging, and security can gain insight into these things as well as confidence through group participation.
The content or ideology underlying a cult can be religious or vary beyond that. IN TED-Ed video about cults, Janja Lalic, an expert on cult studies and professor emeritus of sociology at Cal State University, Chico, says some cults are political, others are therapy-based, and some focus on self-cultivation.
Overall, she sees several key elements defining a cult. “A cult is a group or movement with a shared commitment to a typically extreme ideology, usually embodied in a charismatic leader,” Lalich says in her TED-Ed video.
Three well-known American cults
You may recognize the names of the following three well-known American cults or their leaders in recent history.
The Temple of Nations was founded by Jim Jones in Indiana in 1955. The group began as what appeared to be a progressive organization advocating for civil rights. Jones wanted to create an egalitarian utopian community. In the mid-1970s, Jones moved the cult to Guyana. By 1978, the population of “Johnstown” had grown to nearly 1,000. In the same year, Jones ordered his followers to drink a drink laced with cyanide. 909 dead, including children.
Someone named David Koresh, who believed he was the Messiah, founded The Branch Davidians (1955 – 1993). Koresh believed that all women, including girls, are his “spiritual wives.” Collectively, the group believed that the apocalypse was inevitable and dreading his arrival, holed up in a sprawling compound in Waco, Texas. In 1993, on a tip that Koresh was stockpiling weapons, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco raided the compound. The conflict between the FBI and the Branch Davidians ended 51 days later and left more than 80 dead.
Children of God – Family International started in 1968 and is still in existence today. The cult operates in 80 countries. Actors Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan were born into the cult but escaped and spoke out against it.
Recruitment and retention
The indoctrination process can be key to the cult’s success and leave a strong impression on its victims. While each cult may be different, experts say the methods of attracting members and keeping them there resemble a similar book of psychological principles.
One element is cognitive dissonance. The theory, introduced in the late 1950s, suggests that when people are confronted with facts that contradict their beliefs, values, and ideas, they will feel psychological discomfort, possibly followed by a need to resolve this contradiction and reduce their anxiety . In a cult setting, cognitive dissonance often “keeps you trapped, as each compromise makes it more painful to admit you’ve been cheated,” Lalich explains in her TED-Ed video. “Uses both formal and informal systems of influence and control to keep members compliant with little tolerance for internal dissent or external control.”
This obedience factor is another key element. It plays into a person’s natural tendency to follow orders and do what others around them are doing. In cultic circles, critical thinking is often frowned upon, while absolute faith is rewarded. Guilt, shame and fear are also constantly used to slowly remove an individual’s identity.
Free thought, free will and free speech are limited in one environment where total obedience to the guides is required. Experts say that cult leaders, for their part, have narcissistic and authoritarian streaks and are motivated by money, sex, or power (perhaps all three).
Although many religions began as cults, Lalich explains that some became integrated into the fabric of larger society as they grew. In addition, while religions may offer guidance and support for members to live better lives, a cult separates its members from others and seeks to directly control financial assets and lifestyles.
Recruiting can take months and resemble a pyramid scheme. This means that cult expansion relies on existing members to recruit new members. This may include extending a friendship and relationship with an individual who is new to a field, lonely, suffering from a personal or professional loss, or searching for meaning in life.
Although some of the most famous cults have collapsed in mass suicides, such as the deaths of 919 members of the Jim Jones People’s Temple, because cults are protected by religious freedom laws, it can be difficult to legally prosecute cults and their leaders . However, when laws are broken, the government can step in – as in the case of Sarah Lawrence’s cult trial