Cults and conspiracy theories have been long-time fascinations of mine. What drives people to change their way of life, leave behind friends and family, and adopt extreme beliefs? How do ordinary people become powerful leaders, attracting a flock of followers who revere them and obey their rules? This WORD Christchurch 2023, a group of excellent writers, each with their own experience in the field, will chat about how people become caught in nets of mis- and disinformation. Led by investigative reporter Guyon Espiner, the panel consists of:
- Anke Richter, a journalist, foreign correspondent, and founder of anti-disinformation group FACT,
- Byron C. Clark, an expert on far- and alt-right activism and disinformation, and
- Lilia Tarawa, a inspirational speaker and writer who grew up in the Gloriavale Christian Community.
All three panelists have written work that delves into the horrifying world of cults or extremism. Ahead of WORD, I decided to read each book to get an insight into the kind of conversation we might expect at their event, "Coercion, Cults and Control", which will be held at The Piano, Saturday 26 August from 5:30pm - 6:30pm.
Cult Trip - Anke Richter
Be prepared to take a journey through some truly shocking communities in the heartbreaking Cult Trip. Anke Richter, inspired by a conversation with a cult survivor during her own spiritual exploration, embarked on a 10-year investigation into why cults are able to coerce so many into their damaging ways. This intense read is a culmination of her research efforts that gives a startling insight into the control and abuse taking place within a range of cults.
Some of the groups examined in Anke's book include:
- Centrepoint, a spiritual cult that established itself in Auckland during the late 70s. It purported to be an idyllic place where love, communal living, and sexual freedom were encouraged. However, the place was rife with abuse, especially against young girls and women. Centrepoint's leader, Bert Potter, spent 7 years in jail for indecent assault, and six other leaders were later convicted on sexual abuse-related charges. Children experienced psychological manipulation, neglect, and various forms of abuse. Members within the commune who held positions of power would explain away these horrific occurrences as "natural" within Centrepoint's ideology. The cult was shut down in 2000 by the High Court.
- Agama Yoga, a tantric yoga retreat located in Koh Phangan, Thailand. The school took a huge hit to its reputation when the Swami and many other male teachers were outed as sexual predators. Its followers, searching for 'sacred sexuality' healing, had been routinely taken advantage of. Gaslighting, bizarrely strict rules and costly payments were the norm. Despite all the scandals, the school still operates today.
- Gloriavale, an isolated Christian community on the West Coast. In recent years many members have fled the cult, citing abuse, exploitation, lack of freedom, and strict rules, among other things, as reasons for leaving. Gloriavale's founder and former leader, Neville Cooper was jailed in the mid-nineties on multiple counts of indecent assault. Since then, many other allegations have been made against some of Gloriavale's most powerful men. These range from physical and sexual abuse to forced labour.
Though each cult has widely varying beliefs, the pattern of control is eerily similar. Common tactics include isolating members from friends and family outside the cult, pressuring members to conform by punishing behaviour that does not, and giving and withholding love and support to keep people attached. Leaders, usually charismatic men with inflated egos (and tempers), use their positions of power to elevate themselves to god-like status. Their way is the "correct" way; their rules are absolute. Victims of abuse are continuously silenced and blamed, and the abuse is often denied altogether. The outside world is deemed to be evil, full of temptations and sin and unenlightened people. When members want to leave, they are shunned by the cult. And adjusting to life without the cult's community and financial support is an incredibly difficult task. This is exacerbated by the effects of trauma, which the vast majority of leavers face.
Anke's strong sense of respect and empathy for survivors of cult abuse shines through in this work. I also admired her dedication to interviewing a wide range of cult-involved people; it was great to read so many different perspectives. Her informed outlook is sure to be a major point of interest during the panel.
Fear - Byron C. Clark
Informative and well-researched, "Fear" is a captivating insight into various extremist and far-right groups in Aotearoa throughout the past 6 years.
Byron C. Clark examines a wide range of collectives, including online communities, white supremacists, new political parties, conspiracy theorists and domestic terrorists. Some of these groups I had heard of before, while others I learnt about for the first time in this book. Pre-COVID and the Christchurch Mosque shooting, many tended to fly under the radar - now, it's clear to see that New Zealand's hostile underworld isn't so hidden after all.
To conduct his research, Byron observed activity in internet groups, attended meetings and protests, and interviewed people involved in spreading extremist views. It was fascinating to read about the kind of rhetoric that gets spread around, but also the ways in which that rhetoric is spread. Social media algorithms play a huge factor in directing people to progressively extreme content. Facebook and YouTube, among other platforms, recommend posts depending on what the user has already indicated they like. The amount of time it takes for someone with relatively mainstream political views to be shown content that incites violence, contains false information, or uses hate speech and other dangerous language, can be shockingly small. And it spreads like a virus:
During the early 2020s, a deluge of false information was being delivered to New Zealanders online, in what came to be known as an infodemic... The infection worked like this: if you believed one falsehood already, you'd be more likely to believe another.
How is this information, no matter how wacky or disturbing it may be, believed by so many Kiwis? All the extremist groups Byron investigates, although varying in the levels of risk they pose, seem to operate under one common principle: fear. We're living in incredibly uncertain times. COVID-19, climate change, war and technological developments have left people terrified that their current way of life is under threat. No one can control the future, but they can harness the present by latching onto explanations for what is happening. In certain cases, individuals are drawn to groups that feed off this fear, and further incite it, to bolster dangerous agendas. This creates an environment of distrust and anger.
"Fear" is an engaging work of non-fiction that brings awareness to some rather disturbing issues. I'm interested in hearing Byron's thoughts on navigating our increasingly tense political and personal landscape, especially coming up to our next election, and what can be done to ensure our communities are receiving relevant, informed knowledge.
Daughter of Gloriavale - Lilia Tarawa
I was especially moved by Lilia Tarawa's fantastic TED Talk on growing up in Gloriavale, so it was great to finally experience her account in written form. Gloriavale is somewhat of a household name across New Zealand - with its extensive media coverage throughout the past two decades, it's hard to find people who haven't at least heard of the infamous community.
Lilia is the granddaughter of Gloriavale founder Neville Cooper (known to his followers as Hopeful Christian). He dictated the rules, from what people could wear, eat, do, say and believe. Men and women have strict roles within the community - men are the heads of the house, and are involved in business ventures like farming and manufacturing. Each woman must remain meek and subservient, obey her husband's instructions, and care for the home and children. Women do all of the domestic work on the property, including cooking, cleaning, and clothes mending. Gloriavale's members undertake vigorous labour but in turn have every need met, so there's no reason to rely on anyone else. This is particularly important, as they believe the outside world and its people are full of sin. Residents do not usually leave the idyllic West Coast farmland - except the few that do.
The Tarawa family is one group that took this leap. After becoming disillusioned with Gloriavale's harsher teachings, they renounced their commitment and set up a new life in Christchurch. Relatives and friends still in the community shunned the Tarawas, for they had succumbed to worldly pleasures and were damned to hell for their sins. Chapters detailing Lilia's loss of loved ones due to Gloriavale's strict beliefs were heartbreaking to read. Her older siblings' desertion during her youth left her riddled with conflicting thoughts: she loved them, but she was required to foresake all those who turned from the church. After Lilia escaped with the rest of her family, she greatly missed her cousins and friends whom she was forbidden from seeing. Additionally, the years of brainwashing were hard to overcome. Making the decision to leave meant that she had to question everything she had ever known.
When I lay awake at night I'd ask myself - what do I believe? The voices in my head fought each other relentlessly.
Though Lilia does not shy away from exposing Gloriavale as a cult which has caused immeasurable harm to many, she also notes its more positive side. She grew up with loving parents, siblings, cousins, and friends. The community supported each others' needs, and she did not have to worry about most societal banes. She was also equipped with many practical life skills, like cooking and sewing. Lilia's unique perspective, that could only be developed through the experiences she had within a cult, is tremendously eye-opening to read. I was touched by her powerful journey of self-discovery, despite the numerous obstacles that stood in her way. It's so important to hear the views of survivors, not only observers, and I am greatly anticipating Lilia's words this WORD 2023.
So what are you waiting for?
Coercion, Cults and Control will be a WORD Christchurch Festival 2023 event you won't want to miss. Grab your tickets for Saturday 26 August, 5:30pm - 6:30pm at The Piano before they sell out!
And be sure to check out the fantastic reads by the panelists! They're incredibly moving, well-researched pieces of non-fiction that cover some pretty heavy topics with poise. My reading experience was thoroughly informative - I was left with plenty to mull over. I have great respect for all three writers and the amazing work they are doing, and absolutely cannot wait to hear them speak this WORD Christchurch Festival!
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