Cult Figures

Shaw, William. Spying in Guru Land: Inside Britain's Cults. 4th Estate, 1994. 

William Shaw had the simple idea of trying to find out what was really happening in the world of religious cults by the simple process of joining them and recording his experiences. Before trying this he was warned of the dangers by Ian Howarth of the Cult Information Centre: the cults use twenty -six separate techniques of mind control, joining one, even as an observer "is like playing Russian roulette with your mind."

Shaw survived and brought back a fascinating glimpse of the world behind sensational headlines about 'Waco Wackos' and . shaved heads in Oxford Street. He joined and participated in four cults: the Emin, Krishna Consciousness, the School of Economic Science and the Jesus Army, as well as looking more briefly at the Aetherius Society and talking to a survivor of Waco.

There is certainly very little in common between the cult surveyed, and if any of them are using mind-control techniques they are hidden to the point of'invisibility. They vary in style from the Jesus Army, which seems to be a genuine religious revival amongst dispossessed and marginal elements of society: the very groups which in the eighteenth century created Methodism and in the nineteenth century founded the Salvation Army. There could be no greater contrast than with the School of Economic Science, a curious mixture of Social Credit economics, Hinduism, Mozart-worship, and typical English middle-class snobbery. With its Hampstead Christmas parties and country-house craft fairs, it is hardly surprising that the 'School' seems to attract Establishment figures including prominent members of the Liberal Democratic Party and an advisor to John Major.

Disppointingly, although the Aetherius Society is looked at in rather more depth than in some surveys of the 'lunatic fringe' I am still baffled, as I think is Shaw, as to exactly what is going on there. It is so obviously barmy that one cannot imagine why any of the apparently intelligent members that Shaw meets should take it seriously. Is it all an elaborate piss-take, a front for something more sinister, or do people join it on the same basis as grown men join the Dennis the Menace Fan Club?

The most moving and important part of this book does not involve Shaw's own experience, but is a conversation with a shattered survivor of the Waco siege. Interviewed in a drab Manchester neighbourhood, he tells a frightening story, not of cult brainwashing, but of the wall of incomprehension and hostility that develop around cults. Created to some extent by the strange beliefs and demands of the cult, but also by the blinkered attitudes of mainstream society, guided to a large extent by the anti-Cult movement.

I do not know just how much of the truth Derek Lovelock, the Waco survivor, is telling us what happened in Texas, but it is very clear after reading his account that we have been lied to about Waco by the authorities that destroyed the Koresh cult Why, for instance, although about a third of the people at Waco were British, was there never any involvement, or even comment, by the British Embassy in the USA or by the Foreign Office? Why has the US Government withdrawn practically all its allegation of child abuse and cruelty at the Waco compound, without explaining why it still went ahead with the attack? The reason, presumably is that Waco was just a cult, its members mindless zombies dominated by some of the twenty-six methods of mind control known only to the Cult Information Centre.

This important book shows some of the reasons people join cults: it could be to find some meaning to life when they are sleeping in shop doorways, or to distinguish themselves from the common herd by learning arcane truths. Some join on the same basis as they would take an evening class in pottery making. The world of cults is complex. At times it can be sinister. This book is a better guide to it than simplistic slogans about mind control. What we now need is a look at the other cultists: the anti-cultists. -- John Rimmer

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