On Cults and Community

david296I 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.

Posted on November 22, 2013, in miscellaneous. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. WOW, another fantastic post, Hg thank you.

  2. From the previous thread it seemed like a few of the commenters were having trouble with their comments being seen, I just hope that has been fixed.
    Love to read everyone’s opinions.

  3. Jennifer Hudson says Idol producers laughed in her face after elimination:


    • Hmmm, does this mean the Idol gag order is now officially lifted?

      Hopefully someone from David’s season will spill the beans on behind the scenes (cause we all know David’s too nice to say anything negative)! 🙂

    • Very thought provoking post,hg. I agree that I would love to know the real deal of AI S7 as David is too nice to tell. AI missed the boat on promoting some really talented music artists that were contestants or tried out for AI. Amber Riley from Glee and Hillary Scott from Lady A. were just two contestants that AI did not even put through. I think they had the last laugh. lol.

      • Not to mention Colbie Caillat.

      • cc halo-had not heard about Colbie. Interesting. AI sure did not know how to pick the right winners of the show that would be able to go on and have commercial success. David was so much more commercial and marketable than Cook. But I digress. In the past now. lol.

      • Backing the wrong horse and all that! I still think the success of Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson were a fluke, even if Idol wants to take full credit for their success.

  4. Dang, I guess David’s youtube channel is down again and now all the great posters here might not be able to post, lol, this whole wait think is getting from bad to worse, lol.

  5. Great topic, HG. I remember it like yesterday. I was a senior in high school. We had an amazing Government teacher, one who loved to teach out of the box. We read the newspapers together and talked about cults for weeks. (he got into more than government, obviously)
    I remember in the beginning they thought just *some* people died. Then the realization came. Over 900. Babies underneath their mothers. 😦
    I read that same article you did. It was so enlightening. As was the documentary I saw. He made people feel as if God was asking them to give over all of their worldly goods. And they just did it. Very scary. They speak to his son in the film, and he has no love for his father. He knew what he was, and said he probably only had a few months to live even then, JJ was a terrible drug addict.

  6. A girl I knew from my high school in the San Francisco Bay Area was a mistress of JJ–in his inner circle. She was the daughter of a pastor of the huge Greek Orthodox church in my town, and was very quiet and shy in school, but apparently transformed into a very tough and driven leader in Jonestown.

  7. I always get upset when people falsely use the word “cult” because I had many close family members (six of my cousins from one family and their mother) who did join a cult. They gave all their possessions (including my aunt’s entire inheritance) and were sent around the world as missionaries and to literally beg for their “church.” One female cousin hasn’t been heard from in over 30 years and one male cousin has 5 wives and is living in South America as one of the elite leaders of the cult. Ick.

    Central to the concept of a cult is the figure who sets himself up as the “true prophet” and commands absolute obedience from his flock. David may have our devotion but he does not command it. His humble gratitude for what we do in his name (donate, etc.) and for how we support him is the opposite of how a cult leader would react.

    That said, I’m in no way qualified to discuss the issue of black women and religion. I’m 15/16th Euro-American and 1/16 Native American. But I’m going to ask a question as an outsider. From what I’ve seen, black women in the US frequently have to be both the mother and the wage earner (stereotypes and as I said I don’t really know). Could their stronger religiosity be driven by the need to have someone support them as they support so many others?

    When Jonestown happened, I was in college. I admit to not even being sure where Guyana was. But I did wonder if that was going to be the fate of my cousins Charlie, Gwennie, Mimi, Edie, Peggy, and Laura and my Aunt Louise. It really put a personal face on the tragedy for me.

    • Funny how having many mistresses or “wives” ends up being part of so many cults. I remember a video not long ago, of a modern-day apocalyptic cult where the husbands stood outside the room crying, where their wives were inside having relations with the cult leader. God tends to tell the male leaders what they want to hear, doesn’t he?

    • I do think for some black women who’ve had to shoulder so much responsibility, I do believe the lure of the church in creating an emotional outlet contributes to it.

  8. Oh wow. Very interesting topic considering how devoted & devout David is to the LDS Church which is regarded as cultish by many. There’s so much I could say about it but I will respectfully refrain.

  9. Yes-Interesting point Senseless and true.

  10. And yet there are many who are equally devoted to their own (other religions) and are tremendously active in them whether Catholic or Jewish or on and on and on and never have I alluded to them as being part of a cult.

    • I should say never do people ever allude to them as being part of a cult.

    • The thing that distinguishes cults from other groups is the element of control. If you learn about the BITE model, you can see that some organizations have more elements of mind control than others, and thus are more cult-like. BITE stands for behavior, information, thought, and emotional control.

      One red flag is if the organization says to avoid outside information about the group. Here is an explanation from the author of the BITE model:

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