Cults Are Still Around, So Watch Out
I actually worked in Palmdale, California, once upon a time. I remember my final day on the job, my husband took a photo of me leaving the front door of the county mental health clinic, looking thoroughly jubilant.
Why is this woman smiling? Let’s just say, “Relief.” In all of Los Angeles County it is the place where one can live cheapest. It is the farthest settlement from the metropolis. In fact it’s actually closer to Bakersfield, which is in the next county. Not quite rural, but one of the several patients who had left the congestion of downtown Los Angeles for Palmdale told me that at least you could breathe the air in Palmdale. It was also a place where exchanging sexual favors for rent in a trailer park was not uncommon. It was also a place where local TV pickings were slim enough that I was actually on television. Not as a physician, mind you, but singing the songs of Edith Piaf. In those days before “American Idol” they broadcast from the local karaoke bar on a weekly basis. The night I was there, the special guest star was the fellow who played harmonica on the hit record “Moon River” forty years earlier and had been a bit-part actor in movies such as “The Wild One” with Marlon Brando. He had fallen on hard times – he dressed like a homeless person and used a length of rope as a belt for his pants.
That’s my impression of Palmdale.
First, I think the reason they call it “cult-like” is that compared to a well-organized cult, like the ones we are all so familiar with, this one sounds pretty messy. Cult gurus tend to be pretty slick – not mentally sick. The “Moonie” website is slick, and at one time untold numbers of young hippie-like humans used to be at different spots in downtown Boston, and God knows how many other cities, selling cheap carnations and extorting untold amounts of money out of people, which allegedly found its way to this man while his smiling disciples lived in abject poverty. And got married en masse with highly publicized ceremonies. Great publicity!
Oh sure, there were – and are — lots of similar groups who seem to have the uncanny ability to access people at stressful and confusing times in their lives, offering them easy solutions to the world’s complex problems. Remember the Manson Family? The camped out not too far from Palmdale. In college the most cult-vulnerable were the freshmen and the seniors, those who were at a distance from home for the first time or on the threshold of actually needing to work for a living. The were most likely to accept free room and board, in setups which turned out to be brainwashing – programming – marathons with very little food and a whole lot of sleep deprivation. Then they would gladly join a group that promised any of a number of what superficially sounded like peace and love. They became a surrogate family. The leaders always seemed to me, although they played things quite quietly, to be brilliant in their knowledge of these “brainwashing” sorts of techniques, their choice of staff, their recruiting methods. They were predators with an instinct for spotting the easy converts. This provides a wild contrast with the woman who was apparently “leading” the “cult-like group” in Palmdale. Although her children were with her when they found her, she said she did not have any. My immediate thoughts are either substance abuse or psychotic illness. “Gravely disabled,” the news reports said. Sure doesn’t sound like she can care for others, let alone herself. In any state of the USA, this would be more than ample reason to put someone on a “5150” — 72 hour inpatient “hold.”
Forget what you have heard from Scientologists who think psychiatrists are drunk with power. Any woman who does not know her children are right next to her cannot exactly be counted upon to feed and clothe them. This is a place where the most benevolent of government or some other third party HAS to intervene. In these United States, that seems to be the psychiatrists. I have done this one more than any human should have to in any one lifetime. I feel it is necessary and right, in a case such this one — but is absolutely not my favorite part of the job. I have to also ask not only the question of who would sign on to a “cult-like group” like this one, but also bring their kids, like it was a weekend at Disneyland. Buying into ideas such as “The Rapture” and leaving all worldly possessions behind (property deeds, passports and drivers licenses, and more) sounds like some pretty thinly cloaked references to a possible group suicide.
That has happened before, down near San Diego about ten years ago. They were called the Heaven’s Gate cult. The Ontario group that studies religious tolerance has called it a “destructive doomsday cult” as 39 people voluntarily committed suicide. They do a nice review of the theology. All of these groups seem to have just enough that “rings true” to keep someone listening, at least initially. I will admit that I stopped on the sidewalk and listened, the first time a “Moonie” talked to me in the Boston Public Gardens. She seemed so naive and loving, in a world I knew already was fraught with danger. And that is where they get you. Nobody ever said life was easy. With the recent increase in poverty and homelessness, I think more and more people are feeling powerless and disenfranchised. We have a country full of people who may not have the linguistic or cultural skills, let alone the intellect, to survive, let alone accomplish life goals. I am often touched by the questions asked by poor folks, usually recent immigrants to this county, ask me — how to get kids to stay in school, how to save money, how to “live the dream.” They haven’t quite heard what my grandmother of blessed memory did before she got here, that the streets were paved with gold. She checked out the blacktop near Ellis Island and knew already it would be harder than she thought. People come to the U.S.A. for a better live, like she did. It may be harder to come by in this generation then it was in hers. No matter how much help we try to give people who are trying to navigate the system, it may be easier to think of another life. Like a life after death, where things are better. It certainly is easier to take a vacation from thinking and to let somebody else do your thinking for you. I have no other way to explain how someone like Rush Limbaugh could have “Dittohead” followers who agree, at least in theory, to let him do the thinking for them. I do not deny that my own original belief system of Judaism, as my grandmother of blessed memory lived it, had thoughts of things getting better in the next life. I have heard, from her and others, how good deeds increase one’s “portion in the world to come.” It is just that any thought about hurrying up to get there is never, ever, a good deed. How bad, how inaccessible, any success must seem for these people who presumably were neither university freshmen nor seniors to think of this kind of resolution — well, I wish the U.S. could do a little better in this regard. My addiction to optimism tells me might, but for this, for the instillation of hope, no time line is fast enough. As for me and my patients, sometimes my strongest suit is simple cheerleading. I cannot count the number of times I say (or shout) each day: “Never give up/never surrender” or some similarly empty slogan that will at least get a laugh; and if I am lucky, give someone a little courage.