[Carli] McConkey is broke and exhausted. She has been beaten up and has mistreated others. She has spent years estranged from her parents, neglected her children, misled the courts and has worked as a virtual slave. Fixed in her mind is the fear that in December 2012 the world will come to an end and all but a few of us will die. At 35, she is also sterile, having been persuaded to undergo a tubal ligation in the belief that she was an unfit mother to her three sons.
Carli McConkey is not mentally ill. Neither drugs nor alcohol has led her to this point. Instead, in 1996 she joined a New Age personal development group called Universal Knowledge, seeking clarity. Once McConkey converted to its aims, the group’s leader, Natasha Lakaev, manipulated her, hit her, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from her, and worked her without pay for up to 22 hours a day, seven days a week.
McConkey spent the best years of her life in a cult. She only escaped earlier this year. What’s frightening about her story is that this could happen to any of us.
Cults vary in theology and practice, but all employ similar techniques to recruit the unwary. Scientology uses the free personality test to suggest everyone has deficiencies that Scientology can best address; the Australian cult Kenja uses circus classes and the promise of counselling and personal growth; and the commune-based Australian group Jesus People uses the promise of a purer form of Christianity. Natasha Lakaev used a mish-mash of New Age theories and therapies, an end-times philosophy based on environmental disaster, and a powerful personality.
Lakaev vehemently denies all allegations, saying she does not run a cult and that McConkey is unstable. What she ran was ”just a series of workshops”, she says. But for well over a decade, a growing number of former acolytes have emerged with identical stories of a high-pressure, abusive organisation.
Most of us find it hard to believe that anybody could allow themselves to be brainwashed in the way McConkey claims. But Whitsett says people do not join cults, they are systematically recruited, often by charismatic narcissists whose need for adulation gives them the power to manipulate others. Their victims are not mentally ill or stupid. They are often of higher-than-average intelligence, but they have vulnerabilities that the leader exploits and amplifies using powerful techniques known as ”coercive persuasion” or ”mind control”. And like religious cults, personal development cults target people looking for guidance.
Cult members are also often deliberately disoriented, and outside influences removed to reduce their ability to distinguish what’s normal. McConkey says Lakaev insisted that she renounce her parents and never discuss anything that happened on the courses – claims Lakaev denies. But Carli’s mother, Robyn, remembers: ”You’d just talk generally and she couldn’t answer any simple questions because it pertained to what was happening up there, and it was all so secret. So there gradually just came a line where you didn’t know what to talk about any more.”
Cults also try to make it hard to find external, verifiable information. Lakaev uses lawyers to vigorously patrol public comment about her. She has legally pressured Google to remove links to websites critical of her and she is suing some former members for defamation over information they published on blogs.
People sometimes ask why cult members do not simply exercise their free will and run away. But Kenja escapee Adrian Norman says his free will was reduced to a ”pilot light” while in the cult. Mind control techniques are subtle and powerful. They turn your own mind against you.
”Prison walls and chains are not necessary when one believes these things,” says Whitsett.
The good news is people can escape and recover, and McConkey is determined to do so.