31 Oct 2010

Australian cult expert investigates the shadowy world of cults and counsels people who have left them

Herald Sun - Australia June 14, 2009
Taking on the cults

by Sarah Marinos

RAPHAEL Aron remembers the look on the young woman's face.

It was a look of utter confusion, hurt and despair.

The woman was 19 and concerned about her mother, who had become involved with a mysterious faith healer.

The healer seemed to be making increasingly dangerous demands.

"The mother had four wonderful daughters but she had become involved with this healer who had a huge hold over her," explains Aron.

"She was estranged from her husband and the healer's beliefs had become her beliefs. She was completely in his control.

"When the faith healer, who lived in South America, became unwell he told the woman the only way he could be healed was to have a sexual relationship with a young Caucasian girl. And so the woman went to her daughter and said she wanted her to sacrifice herself to the healer to restore his health.

"The daughter was horrified -- she couldn't believe her mother was asking her to have a sexual relationship with this man. But the woman told her daughter that this was her calling and it would be something that would change her life and enhance her.

"In the end the daughter had a breakdown and ended up spending time in a psychiatric hospital. She was a wonderful woman and a devoted mother, but this man had taken her mind away.

"I have seen so many of these stories and I often think about this family."

Raphael Aron began his academic life at the University of Melbourne in the 1970s studying commerce and commercial law.

Today he spends his working life investigating the world of cults and helping shattered families who have lost a loved one to a cult or addiction to reconnect with that person.

From his Melbourne headquarters at Cult Counselling Australia, Aron also works as a counsellor helping men, women and children who have left cults to gradually rebuild their self-esteem and sense of connection with society. He is the author of Cults: Too Good To Be True (HarperCollins, 1999) and he estimates there are at least 400 cult-type organisations, large and small, operating in Australia today. [to order the book see right side-bar or the Books section of this site]

"The world has changed since 9/11," he says. "All the predictions of the world coming to an end gained new currency and the day after 9/11 lots of cult websites said, 'you see, we were right'.

"Insecurity and vulnerability feed these organisations and at the moment, with the global financial crisis, people are feeling more vulnerable. If people can hang on to something, they will.

"Australia is far less spiritually aware than America. Americans have 'In God We Trust' on their dollar bills and you never hear a Presidential speech without some mention of God or a higher power.

"There are churches on almost every street corner in most neighbourhoods.

"Here, our biggest interest is footy and we are in a spiritual vacuum. So if people want to belong to something, what are they going to do? Traditional churches don't seem to be able to attract them."

While the 1970s saw the rise of Eastern-based cults like the Rajneeshees, Aron says the organisations on the rise today in Australia and the rest of the Western world are styled as 'personal development' or multi-level marketing groups. In many cases the motivation of the people running these organisations isn't to encourage spiritual and personal growth, it's to make money.

"You do a weekend course and then have to do another weekend course and then become an ambassador for the group," says Aron, 55.

"Then you become involved in projects to prove your loyalty and the intensity of the programs breaks down who you are and rebuilds you according to the philosophy of the organisation.

"In some of these groups people have to do crazy tasks that are almost impossible to complete and they become so tired at these lengthy workshops and seminars that they end up sharing things with each other that they don't even share with their own partner.

"There is a breaking down and re-building of an individual's personality and that is a risky and dangerous process because people who join these organisations usually have an issue they are trying to resolve in their life. They are at a point of vulnerability."

Aron has spent the past 30 years immersed in the study of cults, mind control and addiction. He is one of the world's leading authorities on cults and how they operate.

"I finished my degree but realised from day one that studying commerce and commercial law was one of the most meaningless things I've done in my life," he laughs.

But while he was studying he received two phone calls that changed his life.

Aron had gone on to study psychology and was spending time in the chaplaincy of the university fielding phone calls from students seeking advice.

"I received two calls in a matter of a week," he recalls.

"One was from a woman whose daughter had been missing for three years and she thought her daughter was in a cult.

"The second call was from a guy whose wife was at the airport with their two children and she was about to take them to India to live in an ashram.

"They both wanted help and I just didn't know what to do. I recognised that as a calling."

After finishing his study, Aron travelled the world studying organisations that offered the promise of a better life.

It was around the time of the bizarre Patty Hearst story and the Jonestown massacre instigated by American clergyman, Jim Jones.

These stories only fuelled Aron's desire to gain a better understanding of how cults operated and why people flocked to join them.

"I went into organisations with an open mind. I was ready to listen and to learn. Some organisations did good work and some were disturbing," says Aron.

"I came to the conclusion that there was a phenomenon called mind control. It is still a contentious issue, but I absolutely believe it happens. I've seen it."

Aron recounts the story of a young Australian woman who became a devotee of an Eastern-style clairvoyant in country Western Australia.

She and her twin sister moved in with the older woman and broke contact with her parents. Within a year the young woman made a statement to police falsely claiming her parents had sexually abused her.

"The young woman was convinced by the clairvoyant to tell her parents they had to put thousands of dollars in her bank account or she'd accuse them of paedophilia," says Aron.

"The parents were wonderful people with high moral standards and they were well-known and respected in their local community. I worked with the police and was there when the police removed this young woman from the clairvoyant's house.

"That young woman is fine now and is expecting her first child and she looks back on that time in her life as something she can't fully understand. She wonders about the madness of that experience and how she could have ever made that statement to the police. But these things happen."

When Aron is approached to investigate a cult-related disappearance it can take months to find the person, establish whether they are at risk and to make contact with them.

"Sometimes that loved one is not in a cult, or they are in a cult but there is nothing really wrong. They just want time out," explains Aron.

"But if a person is in a cult and they are being indoctrinated and their free choice has been taken away and they are at risk, we then try and establish contact to bring them back.

"I am privileged to be able to work with numerous former cult members who are willing to be part of this process. Many of them feel they have a duty to help others who find themselves in this predicament and the former members' experience is invaluable.

"By the time they leave a cult, a person may have lost their friends, job, relationships and money. It can take months or years to rehabilitate them and to convince them that the fact that they deserted their family is not their fault.

"They need to be able to believe in themselves again. It's a long road to recovery, but it does happen."

Aron says the grief suffered by families affected by cults is immeasurable.

"It's very different to losing someone in a car accident or through illness, because there is a finality then," says Aron.

"In these cases the person is alive and may only live three or four blocks away, but wants nothing to do with their family. There is no closure. There are no answers.

"I have a friend who joined a fundamentalist cult in a commune in NSW. Eventually he decided he was leaving and taking his children. He told his wife, who was breastfeeding their youngest child at that time. But she said she was staying and this was her calling.

"He walked away with their three children 10 years ago and she has never tried to contact those children. She has not seen her children since the day her husband left. That baby she was breastfeeding would not recognise who she was now."

Barely a day goes by without Aron receiving new calls from worried families. But he is cautious about each case he takes on.

He is a loathed figure in the cult world and has been threatened with legal action numerous times by organisations intent on stopping his exposure of their practices.

"There are times when I've had to appear in court as a witness in certain cases and I've asked for protection," he says.

Nevertheless, Aron spends considerable time working with families in court situations. Typically, these cases involve a non-cult parent who has made an application to the court preventing his or her partner who is involved in a cult from allowing their children to be involved in the particular group.

"This is heart wrenching work but it is something we need to do," he says.

"The work is taxing and there are risks, but when you pull someone back from the brink of potential suicide and you think about what might have happened to their life if you hadn't been there, that's frightening.

"Often I am working with people whose children are slipping away before their eyes. How can you say no to people who are worried they will never see their children again?"

The importance of family is a key motivator for Aron, who also works with families with drug addiction issues and has written Believe: From Addiction to Redemption about this part of his work. He has nine children and is also a grandfather.

"My family is very supportive. My wife is my support, my counsel, my wisdom, my everything," says Aron quietly.

"I don't think I could do this work without my wife and children. My children have been brought up to think you are not just in the world for yourself and you are not here just to build your own castle.

"They know you are in the world to make it a better place and to create goodness and kindness. I think my children can only gain from what I do with my work."

Believe, From Addiction to Redemption by Raphael Aron (Fontaine Press, 2009), $24.95. Further details at www.believebook.com.au

Cults: Too Good To Be True by Raphael Aron (Harper Collins, 1999). Available as an e-book from www.cultcounselling.org

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