Beyond belief

With the likes of Madonna and Guy Ritchie giving celeb cred to Kabbalah, cults have never been more fashionable, nor more contentious. Nick Johnstone meets US cultbuster Rick Ross who, for a fee of $5,000, offers to deprogramme ‘victims’ and return them to their families

This is a story about believing too much. It’s a story about losing sight of the boundary, the invisible line between believing in something and letting it take over your life. It’s also a story about a man who has built his life and career on saving people who he thinks believe too much.

It’s December 2003 and I’m sitting in a room full of tanned, good-looking Californians, at the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles, waiting for a rabbi to give us a free introductory lecture. I’m wearing a white name tag, my name scrawled across it. A few days earlier, in the Kabbalah Centershop, I nearly bought the ‘red string‘ ($26 for a piece of thread that ‘protects us from the influences of the Evil Eye’). Always on the lookout for a cure-all for my recurring anxiety/depression problems, here I am, ever hopeful, wondering if the Kabbalah Center will be the answer to my problems.

The lecture reminds me of some New Age, self-help nightmare, visions of Tom Cruise in Magnolia passing through my mind as the rabbi talks endlessly about how the Kabbalah could make our lives so much richer. Quite literally. We are told that financial wealth, career success, love, happiness – all these things are within reach.

The next day, at a Hanukkah party, I mention I’ve been to the Kabbalah Center. Clearly, this is not the thing to say. One woman says she’s heard the Kabbalah Center is a ‘cult’. Her partner says he’s read that the Kabbalah Center lures you in and then tries to get its hands on your money. Another woman tells me about Rick Ross. She says he is America’s top ‘cult expert’, that I should visit his website, rickross.com, and read the file on the Kabbalah Center.

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I go home confused. What is so bad about the Kabbalah Center? Given that its ideas are a Deepak Chopra-style interpretation of basic Kabbalah ideas, re-cast to suit our rehab, Prozac, self-improvement times, I found what it teaches useful in the same way I find therapy useful.

Later, scrolling through the ‘Group Information Database’ on rickross.com, online home of the Rick A Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements (RRI), a non-profit, tax-exempt archive, public-information service based in New Jersey, I find files on many different organisations, categorised both alphabetically and ideologically. There are files on ‘Hate’ groups (Aryan Nations, Stormfront and Westboro Baptist Church, whose web address is godhatesfags.com). There are ‘Religious’ groups (International Church of Christ, Order of Christ/Sophia, Children of God, Jesus People, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Brethren), ‘Neo Eastern’ (Sai Baba, 3HO, Integral Yoga), ‘Satanic’ (First Church of Satan), ‘Human Potential’ (Scientology, Landmark Education), ‘Bible Based’ (The Holy Order of Mans, House of Yahweh, Jews for Jesus, Victory Church), ‘Sci-Fi/UFO’ (Chen-Tao/God’s Salvation Church, Raelians, Beta Dominion Xenophilia) and so on.

Within these categories are individual files both surprising – Deepak Chopra, Nation of Islam, Patty Hearst, Kim Jong-il – and expected – al-Qaeda, the Manson family, Jim Jones, David Koresh/Waco Davidians, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Although Ross keeps files on almost all of the estimated 5,000 active groups in the US (and on many of the estimated 500 groups in the UK), he is keen to stress that a group or individual’s inclusion on his website does not necessarily mean they are harmful, or a cult. He also stresses that no religious, political or personal agenda motivates the opening of a file. He only opens a file if a group or individual’s behaviour starts attracting controversy.

So who is Rick Ross, and why has he appointed himself both judge and jury?

Rick Ross was born to a Jewish family in November 1952. His father was a plumbing contractor and his mother a helper at the Jewish Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona. After high school, Ross worked for a finance company, then a bank, before falling into trouble with the law. In 1974, he was convicted for the attempted burglary of a vacant show house and sentenced to probation. The following year he was sentenced to five years’ probation after he and a friend embezzled property from a jewellery company. Ross then went to work for his cousin’s car-salvage business. In 1982, aged 30, he had his first introduction to the world of groups and cults when a Christian missionary group infiltrated his grandmother’s nursing home.

After successfully campaigning to have the group removed, Ross immersed himself in the psychology and methodologies of group activity, working as a volunteer, researcher and lecturer for various Jewish organisations, before striking out in 1986 as a private consultant and deprogrammer (an Orwellian-sounding term for someone hired to ‘unbrainwash’ people). Today, deprogrammers are known as intervention specialists, thought-reform consultants or exit counsellors.

In 1992, his reputation was sealed when the FBI sought his advice on David Koresh and the Waco (or Branch) Davidians. A year later, as the Waco siege raged, CBS hired him as on-scene analyst. Meanwhile, he was in court again, after Jason Scott, the 18-year-old subject of an involuntary intervention, filed charges of ‘unlawful imprisonment’. Scott’s mother had authorised Ross to hold Scott against his will in a bid to deprogramme him from the Life Tabernacle Church, an intervention method no longer practised by professionals in Ross’s field. After the court ruled in Ross’s favour, Scott won a civil suit in 1995 and was awarded $3m damages. Out of the ashes of bankruptcy, Ross launched rickross.com and left Phoenix for Jersey City, where he founded the Rick A Ross Institute.

Looking over his career, his moral credentials seem shaky at best. But then, taking into account his claimed 75 per cent success rate for interventions (he has worked on more than 350 cases, at a typical cost of $5,000, everywhere from the US to the UK, Israel to Italy), he has rescued many people from harmful situations and has worked as an expert court witness in cases relating to controversial groups.

Fast-forward to July 2004 and Rick Ross is telling me, via phone from his office in Jersey City, about an intervention case he worked on the previous summer involving the Kabbalah Center. Like most intervention cases, it began with an inquiry from a family; this time, a British family concerned about their daughter’s involvement with the centre in Los Angeles.

‘Their daughter Sarah was becoming increasingly disconnected from her family,’ Ross recalls. ‘Her personality seemed to have dramatically changed. Her entire life revolved around the Kabbalah Center. She worked there, spent most of her after-work time there, lived with other members and apparently had no romantic life.’

Despite working long hours, Sarah did not receive ‘meaningful compensation, nor benefits such as medical coverage. She appeared largely incapable of making her own decisions, or critically examining how her life had changed, or of considering the practical consequences of her involvement at the centre, such as her personal finances.’ After years of her involvement with the Kabbalah Center, Sarah’s family believed the situation was deteriorating. ‘They called me, hoping to find a way to intervene and discuss their concerns without the centre’s interference,’ says Ross.

When Sarah told her parents she would be coming home to the UK for the first time in years, for the opening of the London Kabbalah Centre, Ross hatched a plan. The family would rent cottages in the Cotswolds – something they had done often when Sarah was a child – and invite her to take a mini-break. Sarah agreed. And when she arrived, Ross was waiting.

Initially, he explained who he was, why her family had hired him, and why he believed she was being exploited in her position of ‘chevra’ (a full-time volunteer worker at the centre). After three hours, she stormed off, telling Ross and her family, ‘I understand what you’re trying to do here. I’m very upset, I’m very angry at everybody. I’m going to pack my stuff and I’m going to go back to London. You’ve disappointed me, you’ve tricked me. I’m not going to continue with this.’ This being a typical scenario, Ross had already appointed one of her brothers to handle any upsets. After several hours of discussions, Sarah’s brother persuaded her to give Ross one more hour of her time.

‘I told her that Philip Berg, the founder of the Kabbalah Center, once signed documents “Dr Philip Berg”, but in fact he has no PhD, though he may have an honorary, unaccredited or mail-order doctorate. And Berg paid himself $2.5m for intellectual property rights regarding books and tapes – $2.5m out of the [organisation’s] non-profit.’ Ross also explained to her that the school Philip Berg claimed to be closely associated with in Israel had denounced him. ‘Now, these would be things that I would not usually say to someone in the very beginning of an intervention,’ Ross says, ‘because they might become angry and walk out. I made these points quickly and she looked at me rather startled and said, “Can you prove that?” And I said, “Yes, I have all the documents with me.”‘

At this point, Sarah and Ross began talking. Three days later, their discussions came to a close. By then, she and her family were being bombarded with calls from the Kabbalah Center.

‘They were sending urgent messages to her parents’ London home, saying, “Where is she?”,’ Ross remembers. ‘And Sarah was someone Madonna knew personally through the centre and who worked with her daughter as part of their programmes. Guy Ritchie was expecting to see her at the opening of the new centre. When the Kabbalah Center was sending her emails saying, “Where are you?” she was in a mental health facility, Wellspring Retreat, a rehab centre for ex-cult members in the US. Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center is ‘a residential treatment facility specialising in the rehabilitation of victims of cultic abuse’. It was founded in Albany, Ohio, in 1986 by Dr Paul Martin and his wife Barbara. Like Sarah, Dr Martin crossed that line between a harmless belief in something and a faith that almost wrecked his life when he got involved with The Jesus People in 1971. At the time, he was a doctoral student at the University of Missouri, studying psychopharmacology (his specialist research field was hallucinogens).

‘This bunch of people came through campus in a VW van with a rock’n’roll band,’ he tells me, ‘proclaiming that Jesus was a better revolutionary than Marx or Che, and it was pretty impressive. They had better music and better-looking girls and I thought, “Maybe this is it,” so I dropped out of grad school.’

Believing himself to have been increasingly indoctrinated, Martin left the group in 1978, in the throes of a nervous breakdown. ‘I started having dissociative episodes. I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or awake. It was like a Fellini movie.’

As he recovered, he looked for answers as to how this had happened. ‘I picked up a copy of Robert Jay Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism and it gave me cold chills because the similarities were really uncanny. I said, “Oh my god, I was in a cult!” I always thought cults were something that only happened to the weirdos, and I wasn’t a weirdo. The people in my group were the boy and girl next-door, the class valedictorian, a Vietnam war vet – a cross-section of regular people.’

After finishing his PhD and undergoing training in psychology and mental-health counselling, Dr Martin decided to focus on helping people put their lives back together after leaving groups and cults. Today, Wellspring has 15 full-time staff and nine beds. It’s a kind of Betty Ford Clinic, where patients conquer their addiction to beliefs, groups and leaders.

There is a formal screening process. ‘We make sure these people are really suitable for our programme,’ Martin explains. ‘Are they really cult victims or are they mentally ill? You have to make sure they’re not so sick or suicidal or debilitated that they could not even participate in a programme where there’s a lot of talk or dialogue.’

To verify Sarah’s story, I email a transcript of what Ross told me to the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles (earlier I had requested an interview with Philip Berg, which was declined), asking for their comment. In response, I receive a curt email from its publicist, Andy Behrman, informing me: ‘Rick Ross has never met anybody at the Kabbalah Center and to the best of our knowledge this story and the facts are entirely false.’ I forward the statement to Ross. ‘Mr Behrman knows very well who I am speaking about,’ he insists. ‘The young woman was a full-time “chevra” worker at the LA centre and well known to everyone there.’

I mention to Ross that while Sarah’s experiences with the Kabbalah Center sound troubling, her story is hardly comparable to the mass suicides of Waco or Jonestown, nor the killing sprees carried out in Charles Manson’s name. He explains that he is always careful to distinguish between a cult and a destructive or controversial group.

‘The Kabbalah Center is not stockpiling weapons,’ he says. ‘They don’t have a compound. I’ve received no complaints of physical abuse. They seem to be focused on money: buy the Kabbalah water, buy the red string, buy this, buy that, give us 10 per cent of your income, and so on.’

To determine whether a group is benign or destructive, Ross – like most professionals in his field – uses Lifton’s 1961 book as a diagnostic tool. Lifton details eight characteristics that typify a destructive group environment: dictating with whom members can communicate; convincing members they are a chosen people with a higher purpose; creating an us-versus-them mentality, whereby everything in the group is right and everything outside is wrong; encouraging members to share their innermost secrets and then purge whatever hinders their merging with the group; convincing members that their philosophical belief system is ‘the absolute truth'; creating an ‘in’ language of buzzwords and groupspeak which becomes a substitute for critical thinking; reinterpreting human experience and emotion in terms of the group’s doctrine; and reinforcing the idea that life within the group is good and worthy, and life outside evil and pointless. During an intervention, Ross brings out Lifton’s book, usually having picked apart the group’s own literature.

As a recovering alcoholic, I still think about where the line is between heavy drinking and alcoholism. In the same way, I ask myself when a life-enhancing involvement with a group, guru or individual becomes damaging? Ross explains that the process is gradual, insidious. ‘When people typically join, they only see what the group wants them to see. Then they are gradually spoon-fed more on a need-to-know basis. So,’ says Ross, ‘there’s this escalating involvement, a process of baby steps to deeper involvement in the group. You aren’t told the more radical beliefs of a group until you’ve been so heavily indoctrinated that you’re no longer able to critically evaluate those beliefs.’

According to Ross, the kind of person who typically becomes unhealthily involved with a group is looking for ideals and a sense of purpose. They’re very altruistic, he says, ‘because to be a good cult member you have to make a lot of sacrifices’. They may have been going through a difficult period in their lives. ‘When people are lonely, depressed, experiencing a major setback and some group comes along and says, “Look, we’ve got the answers, we can give you whatever you want, just put the red string on, drink the Kabbalah water and everything will be OK,” it’s very appealing.’

Carol Giambalvo is now retired, but she was once America’s leading thought-reform consultant. (She got into the profession when her stepdaughter became involved with Iskcon, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.) To her, it’s less about a personality type than a matter of circumstance. ‘People don’t join cults,’ she tells me. ‘They simply join a group that seems to have answers for their life goals: getting closer to God, self-improvement, getting rich, getting power, getting a feeling of belonging to something real special. People are deceived and their best attributes are used against them.’

As Giambalvo points out, the one unifying factor, according to research, is that people who get involved in a cultic group are in a major transitional stage in life: ‘A mid-life crisis, going to college, graduating college, loss of a loved one through death or divorce, moving to a new country or community – these are all normal transitional stages when we’re just a little more vulnerable to undue influence.’

Marguerite Corvini, now 24 and studying for a masters in social work at New York University, fits this definition. ‘A lot of people who get sucked into these groups are at a vulnerable point in their lives,’ she says. ‘That was certainly the case for me.’

From a wealthy family, she fell in with mystical Christian group Order of Christ/Sophia after graduating from college in 2001. Unsure what to do with her life, she was taken to Order meetings by her brother Michael, then a doctor in residency at Yale University. He had been introduced to the group by his then-girlfriend Shanti, daughter of Father Peter Bowes, who co-founded the Order in early 2001 with fellow ex-Holy Order of Mans priest, Mother Clare Watts. Michael introduced Marguerite to Father Bowes.

‘I was so freaked out by him,’ Marguerite says, getting breathless, his power over her still evident. But her brother’s devotion and reverence to Father Bowes caused her to cast those thoughts aside. Soon after, Michael moved into the Order house in Boston and asked her to do the same.

She was torn, but having always looked up to her brother, she moved into the house in February 2002 to become a ‘Novice’, a commitment that required her to take a vow of celibacy and obedience for a year.

‘It was a very monastic life. I had to break up with my boyfriend. My teacher, Reverend Beatrice, would tell me not to be sexually involved with my boyfriend, because if you’re having sex with somebody, you’re releasing that sexual energy and that energy should be focused on God. And if we had any sexual thoughts about anyone, we were urged to confess to our teachers.’

Eventually, Marguerite was given a clear message. ‘I was told that having a boyfriend was not right for my soul.’ Marguerite ‘cut off’ from her boyfriend, group-speak for severing communication with non-members. ‘He would call me, leave me messages, send emails.’

Finally, Reverend Beatrice put a stop to it. ‘She called him and said: “She can’t talk to you any more, she’s made a commitment to the programme and is celibate.”‘

Didn’t Marguerite find this strange?

‘I was upset, I was angry, but all the time in my head I was like, “But if this is what God wants for me, I want to be good, I want to reach my potential as a human being.”‘

In early 2003, Mr and Mrs Corvini, having both been diagnosed with cancer within a matter of weeks of one another, contacted Rick Ross. They said their dying wish was to have their children free from the Order of Christ/Sophia. Ross began planning an intervention. Meanwhile, when Michael and Marguerite received the news of their parents’ illness, they were encouraged not to react by Father Bowes.

‘Michael didn’t see them while they were sick,’ Marguerite remembers. ‘Whatever reason he had, it was probably a spiritual thing – “They want you to talk to them, that’s why they’re getting sick, they’re trying to manipulate you with their illness.”‘

Michael’s initial reaction was to sever ties. ‘He sent them this letter and basically cut off my mom,’ recalls Marguerite, who was by now training to be a deacon. ‘And I sent a letter, too. That’s something that Father Peter does, he has everybody send letters. It’s almost like he wants the parents to be so mad they cut off their kids.’

Soon after, Marguerite was urged to cut off her friends. Father Peter, she says, explained that she was free to leave but added, ‘When you meet Jesus, he’s going to say, “What happened Marguerite? You were on the right track and you strayed.” Then you are going to have to start all over again, and it’s going to be even harder to get to where you are now.’

We were just happily doing our thing and then this whole smear campaign against us starts,’ says Mother Clare Watts, mother of four (one is in the Order) and co-founder of the Order of Christ/Sophia, in her Southern drawl from the newest Order house, in Seattle. ‘It’s been so frustrating to us. Rick Ross goes after every single group he can because it’s a money thing. Money and power and anger. He’s such a slimy character, he’s just a sleaze. We actually ended up talking to some Scientologists and they said, “Oh dear, poor you, we’ve been putting up with this for 30 years. You’re just the latest victim.” They ended up sending us a ton of stuff about Rick Ross and the whole deprogramming history. I had to start learning about all this stuff. The word “cult” meant very little. Scientology even had us get advice from their attorneys.’

I ask her to explain the Order’s basic ideology. ‘Our core ideology is the inner path, the mystical path, where we are teaching people how to go inside their being and connect with the God-self inside of them.’

During our conversation, she talks enthusiastically about Rumi, the Kabbalah, Sufism, St Teresa of Avila – all the great mystics. It all sounds harmless. So why does she think Marguerite Corvini is calling the Order a ‘cult’ and Rick Ross has a file about their activities on his website?

‘Well,’ she sighs, ‘Father Peter and I are both psychotherapists, so we work with all of our students on the psychological and emotional pieces of their healing and their growth; we bump into people’s family issues, where there are still wounds from childhood in the way of their spiritual growth, where they’re holding anger and resentment and where they’re still under the control of their families’ emotional or life control. We put a high value on honesty. This is where we get in trouble.’

With the Corvinis’ health failing, Ross had to invent an opportunity for an intervention. He coached Mr Corvini on how to call Marguerite and ask if she would come home and drive her mother to hospital. Mr Corvini put the favour to his daughter. Marguerite told him she first needed to speak with Mother Clare, who is revered within the Order for her ability to communicate with the Virgin Mary. (When I ask Mother Clare if that is true, she says, ‘Yes, I have received revelations from Mother Mary, but we teach everyone to do that. The way Marguerite puts it, she makes us look like freaks. We teach everyone to make those connections with Master Jesus and Mother Mary.’)

‘I went to Mother Clare,’ remembers Marguerite. ‘And she said, “Let’s ask guidance.” So we sit down and ask God and she gets an answer and the answer is no, you shouldn’t go.’

Mother Clare had been suspicious. ‘I said to Marguerite, “You know, it feels like they’re up to something, but your mom may be dying some time in the next few months, so why don’t you go visit her? This may be goodbye.”‘

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As soon as Marguerite got home, her father had her car taken to a garage for a service. Then, also on Ross’s advice, Mr Corvini had the phone lines cut. In the morning, Marguerite stepped out of the bathroom to find Ross, her parents, her grandmother and her best friend, all waiting for her on the landing. The intervention had begun. She thought of her car – then remembered it wasn’t there. The phone was dead. Trapped, she heard Ross out. He managed to win her over. The next day, she collected her belongings from the Order house and flew out to Ohio, where, like Sarah, she was admitted to the two-week treatment programme at Wellspring, which she credits with changing her life.

‘They used a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy to help me work through the thoughts and the whole process of how this happened to me. I’m a smart person, I’m well educated, I had pretty high self-esteem when I walked into Order of Christ/ Sophia, but by the time I came out I didn’t know who I was. Initially, I would just be driving in my car, chewing a piece of gum and listening to whatever radio station I wanted, and that was immense freedom.’

Marguerite could be talking here about drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling. It sounds like a typical 12-step recovery story. Now she’s had time to get her life back together, I ask her how she managed to lose herself so completely.

‘Well,’ she says. ‘You put a frog in boiling hot water, they’re going to jump out. You put them in lukewarm water and turn up the heat. By the time they realise they’re in a pot of boiling hot water, they’re kind of used to it. That’s what happened to me.’

And what did the Order make of her leaving? When she arrived home, there was a note waiting for her from Father Bowes. All it said was: ‘Where the hell are you?’

Soon after Marguerite left the Order, Ross set up an intervention to get Michael out as well, but as soon as Ross introduced himself, Michael fled his grandmother’s house. Today, he’s still a priest within the Order. Since then, other exit counsellors have tried to ‘free’ other members of the Order. None has been successful.

‘With Marguerite, we didn’t know yet to warn them about these interventions,’ Mother Clare tells me. ‘Now we warn people and people are aware. And they haven’t caught anybody again.’

Such is the impact of Ross’s attentions that there is now an ‘Open Letter to the Parents and Friends of Our Members’ by Father Bowes on the Order of Christ/Sophia website, which begins: ‘Families of some of our members in the Order of Christ/Sophia have expressed concern about whether we are a cult. The answer is simply, no we are not a cult.’ He goes on to attack ‘anti-cult experts’ who ‘attack legitimate spiritual communities simply because they are not mainstream. They select families that have money and charge high rates to help families force their adult children to leave.’

Two decades into his crusade, Ross has made a lot of enemies, ranging from groups anxious to protect their reputations, recruitment potential and profit margins, to group members fiercely loyal to their beliefs, such as Neo-Nazis who send Ross almost daily anti-Semitic messages. And then there’s the litigation. Presently, he’s facing three different lawsuits from groups who claim he has made slanderous, damaging statements about their activities.

‘I don’t think a day goes by when I’m not threatened by somebody,’ he sighs. ‘Whether it’s the threat of a lawyer or maybe something a little more colourful about how my anatomy might be re-arranged … I’ve had death threats. I’ve had people say they would not only kill me but would then wash my remains down the sewer personally. But if I wasn’t being sued and I wasn’t being harassed I’d honestly ask myself, “What difference am I really making? Am I really doing my job very well?” If Scientologists sent me a box of chocolates with a thank-you card, I’d think, “Boy, I must be in bad shape!”‘

As he says this, it dawns on me that everybody in this story believes or has once believed too much. Everybody thinks they’re right. Why did the Order of Christ/Sophia seemingly wreck Marguerite’s life while her brother Michael clearly feels it’s the best possible life path for him?

Why does Madonna credit the Kabbalah Center with enriching her life, while involvement with the very same centre appears to have resulted in Sarah being admitted to Wellspring?

Or is it less about the group and more about the individual? Maybe certain individuals, with pre-existing psychological problems, join one of these groups, have what they perceive to be a bad experience and end up blaming the group for everything wrong in their lives. For every Sarah or Marguerite, there are many others claiming that their lives have been enormously enriched by their affiliation with a particular group or organisation.

Why does Ross keep going? Is it really, as Mother Clare and many other critics and groups claim, a ‘money thing’? After a summer’s worth of correspondence with Ross, I believe his motives are genuine, even if there are many groups out there who claim he’s driven by profiteering.

But he, too, believes in the rightness of his moral compass. Everybody in a position of power or authority in this story, from Mother Clare to Rick Ross, believes they’re right. And then, lost somewhere in the gulf between them, are the people who don’t know how to believe in something without that faith taking over their lives.

· Some individuals’ names have been changed

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