On Cults and Community
I remember way back when David was dominating the VH1 top music videos (that’s the glory days of 2008 post-Idol) one of the VH1 hosts of the show, in introducing David’s “Crush” video, had described the “bizarre” community of David fans, who were given to weeping, sobbing, and falling into trances upon hearing The Voice.
“It’s like a special cult,” she had uttered in disbelief.
It was a subtle dig against David but still a dig, and I guess I should have realized – even back then when he was dominating music charts – that mainstream media folks didn’t take kindly to him.
Describing David’s fanbase like some dangerous “cult” instead of a die-hard group of fans was a sign that he would not be taken seriously. Of course, his fanbase back then were mostly tweens and teens. If they dropped back in later and realized most of his fanbase are older women, then they’d really wonder what was up! ha!
I’m reflecting on this moment because, this week, little attention was given to another anniversary besides the big 50th one commemorating JFK’s assassination.
I’m referring to the 35th anniversary of the massacre that occurred at Jonestown in Guyana, when cult leader Jim Jones of the People’s Temple led more than 900 people to their deaths in what has often been described as a “mass suicide.”
“Don’t drink the koolaid”? A macabre allusion to this tragic state of affairs and usually uttered whenever someone wants to provide a contrary position to a dominating position put forth by group think or mass hysteria.
It wasn’t until I read an informative piece titled “Why Did So Many Black Women Die?” that I started paying attention to the fact that most of those 900 victims were African Americans, and most of these African Americans were women.
That leads to other questions: Are black women more susceptible to cult-like organizations? Statistics indicate that we are one of the most religious groups in this country. Are we more vulnerable to the trappings offered by highly manipulative people?
And I don’t ask these questions to suggest that either black people or women are “perfect victims.” I think we get targeted more.
Reading up on the history of the People’s Temple, it’s really chilling to be honest. Because, say, had I been living in San Francisco in the early 70s and didn’t find too many opportunities for community building and attended a church service at the People’s Temple, saw a nice multiracial group of people in that church, listened to the leader discuss pressing issues like social justice and anti-racism, and enjoyed a bangin’ gospel choir! (all aspects of this particular community), I sooooo could see myself joining this movement and being totally committed. One of the Jonestown survivors said, “We didn’t join a cult. We joined a community.”
And anyone can fall prey. Even historically, the strong and self-assured Sojourner Truth found herself entrapped in an abusive cult by one “Prophet Matthias,” who abused her in the same way she suffered abuse when she was enslaved. (Interesting that, right after Truth was freed, she sought community in New York City, and in her loneliness joined this crazed cult of “perfectionists.” I’m telling you!)
Cult leaders tend to share similar characteristics of abusive husbands and partners. They prey on the most vulnerable, they seduce you with the words and messages you need to hear, and then they isolate you and cut you off from the rest of the world – where you are truly caught up in an abusive situation.
What happened to Jonestown is exactly like an abused victim trapped in domestic violence. Sure, there were some who dissented, like Christine Miller who did try to “reason” with Jim Jones before the massacre started, saying: “I feel like as long as there’s life there’s hope.” She also said she and others had a right to “their own destiny.” If you ever listen to the “death tape” (floating around on You Tube but I won’t link to the chilling tape here), you can here Christine Miller being shouted down by others when she said this!
At least she didn’t go out without a protest, and she was prone to challenging Jim Jones, who at times used to wield a gun to intimidate his followers. One time in a heated argument, he pointed a gun at her, and she calmly said to him: “You can shoot me but you will respect me.”
Just knowing one of the victims of this massacre never gave up her faith despite the godless nature of the Jonestown situation is one reason why I think we need to have more nuanced thinking and discussion about “cults,” the nature of abuse, and the recognition that such situations “could happen to me.”
If we had a deeper realization of this, we wouldn’t casually dismiss groups we don’t agree with as “cults” (that often happens to churches like the one David belongs to, among others), and we certainly would be more careful when we say things like “Don’t drink the koolaid.”
Mass suicide or mass murder? Does an abused partner delight in masochistic pain, or is she simply trapped?
Aren’t we all just looking for love and community either way? The main concern is how to offer healthy alternatives to those most susceptible to the abuse that batterers and power-hungry individuals offer.