Lambeth's political cult: the lessons

The experience of control and domination among a former radical group in south London must be understood in its true reality, says Alexandra Stein, a former cult member and now an academic.

Alexandra Stein
28 November 2013

My one hope about the fallout from the terrible story of the Lambeth women held for thirty years within a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist” political cult is that it doesn’t end up being filed simply under “loony left”. Where this south London episode needs to be filed is under "C" for “cult”, and "B" for “brainwashing”: two words that – although a handful of contemporary academics have tried to banish them in a fair implementation of George Orwell’s Newspeak  –  are understood generally by the public, and specifically and in considerable scientific detail by several generations of well-informed scholars.

Cults that brainwash members for the purpose of satisfying their leaders’ pathological need for control are not just religious. They can be political, of the right or left, commercial as in some pyramid-sales schemes, New Age, so-called personal development, or therapy-based, and even sports-related: there exist martial-arts cults and even an extreme-running cult.

A cult is not defined by worshipping in a particular way, or a particular set of ideas. It is defined by four elements:

* being led by a charismatic and authoritarian leader

* an isolating, steeply hierarchical structure

* a total and exclusive ideology

* the use of techniques of brainwashing - the core of which involves the unpredictable alternation of “love” and terror.

There is a hidden epidemic of cults. We do not see them because they are, by nature, secret and deceptive. And we also lack knowledge and awareness. Without an understanding of their fundamental dynamics, people are often unable to identify those groups or relationships that they may run into that result in the extreme exploitation of followers [see below this article for a list of seventeen cult-recruitment warning-signs.]

I have found that the easiest way to explain cult dynamics, and the resulting "trauma bond" that exists between these groups and their adherents, is to explain that these are essentially the same as those that take place in situations of controlling domestic abuse. The group, like an abusive partner, first must isolate the follower from their existing network of friends and family.

They can then position themselves as the only “safe haven” to whom the follower can turn for comfort and advice. The trick in sealing the trap is to then create a situation of chronic trauma, stress, or fear. All persons (with the exception of, perhaps, psychopaths, such as the leaders of these groups) turn to others when under stress - it is part of our survival mechanism. Having isolated the follower, the group becomes the only place left for the victim to turn when stressed. And it this process that creates the intense trauma bond. But it is highly maladaptive to turn to the abuser when it is the abuser themselves creating the threat. Neuroscientists and psychologists now know that this maladaptive movement towards the abuser causes the victim to dissociate - they can no longer think clearly about what is causing their fear.

Now that the victim cannot think clearly about the relationship, the leader can consolidate their control. It is usually only when some other safe haven is available that people can break free - in the case of the Lambeth women it was the trust they felt in Aneeta Prem of the Freedom Charity.

Young people need to learn about this process and about the warning signs of cults - of whatever kind - whether political, religious, or any other form of extreme fundamentalism. Only with this kind of knowledge can we hope to protect the next generations and prevent others from losing decades of life entrapped by psychopathic abusers.

I know of what I speak. Although now I am an academic who researches and teaches this material, I only came to this study after losing a decade of my own life in a leftist political cult. I would hope that we can stop and think about this latest case and use it to learn, to teach, and to raise public understanding of the methods of these dangerous relationships.


Cult Recruitment Warning Signs:

* Your “gut feeling” tells you something is wrong. Trust this, and try to analyse it

* The group/person has the Total and Only answer. Only they have the right line, will make the revolution, solve your problems, empower you, make you loved, rich, effective, holy [and so on]

* Attempts to isolate you from existing attachment relationships

* Extreme, immediate and/or inappropriate friendliness or attention

* Not answering questions, or turning them back on the questioner

* Inappropriate personal boundaries

* Loaded language: strange language or jargon you initially can’t understand. Canned, repetitive phrases

* A hard sell for further commitment, programmes or contact. If you resist, you’re selfish, “bourgeois”, don’t believe in yourself [and so on]

* Encouragement to cut ties with family or friends, unless you can recruit them

* Secrecy, inappropriate “confidentiality”

* Lack of privacy - constantly with group members, constantly busy with group activities

* The ends justify the means. It’s OK to lie to others in the name of the Cause, the Lord, to achieve success [and so on]

* Challenging your fundamental identity: your strengths are criticised as your weaknesses

* Once you’re in, heavy pressure to stay in

* Those who do leave are shunned. They become the enemy, or objects of pity

* No criticism allowed of the group or leader. The group/leader is always right

* Deception: what you thought you’d get on joining or attending an activity turns out to be something else. 


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