A licensed marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles, Rachel Bernstein specializes in family and relationship counseling; children and parents in need of emotional support and coping skills; and cult intervention and re-acclimation.
On the latter front, Bernstein, who is Jewish and who appears in the 2023 Netflix show “How to Become a Cult Leader,” says she has spoken to more than 1,000 former cult members in the course of more than three decades. She also hosts a weekly podcast on cults called “IndoctriNation.”
Bernstein spoke with JNS about cults. Responses have been lightly edited for style.
Q: American cult leader and convicted criminal Charles Manson was not very attractive, but he managed to get beautiful women to not only follow him but to murder on his behalf. How was he able to convince people, whom he hadn’t met, to commit such horrific acts?
A: Manson’s appeal at first was that he spoke for the disenfranchised. When you have a person who tells people, “I don’t judge you,” even though Manson was highly judgmental, people felt too guilty to judge him. They were willing to overlook a lot.
Even if he didn’t come across as attractive or talented, they felt wrong judging him. He was also able to divide and conquer, which a lot of cult leaders do. Society didn’t accept them, so they didn’t have a place there. They only had a place with him.
Calling it the Manson family was a clever use of the word “family” because we’re willing to do things for our family that we wouldn’t for a friend. He made people feel that he was giving them something they couldn’t get anywhere else, so they felt indebted to him.
That triggers the feeling of reciprocity, and you feel that you must give back. He would objectify those whom he wanted his members to target and call them pigs. He would paint wealthy targets as people who didn’t have a heart.
Q: Adolf Hitler convinced Germany that Jews were the problem, despite the Jewish population comprising less than 1% of the country’s population in the 1930s. People cite Germany’s bad economy, as well as Hitler’s oratorical skills, as major factors in his devastating success. Is focusing on his speeches an oversimplification?
A: I don’t know if it’s an oversimplification. It’s one piece of it.
He and his henchmen were gifted orators but also gifted fear-mongers. There’s an Orwellian idea about a lie being repeated enough then it becomes the truth. The more people hear the message, the more they could see it as a truism. If you can show that a people is a threat to you, your children and the future of your nation by gaslighting the populus and rewriting history, you may be able to get people to commit atrocities, if they think their way of life and that of their future generations is at risk.
The Nazis’ language played a huge part in the dehumanization of Jews and of others whom they killed. They called Jews “vermin.” When killing something that you call less than human, the term extermination fits, because you feel you are killing vermin. You no longer see them as human beings. They viewed Jews as cockroaches. When you think you are squashing a bug, you don’t feel like you are committing an atrocity.
Q: Some think that a cult could never seduce them and that only those who are mentally ill join cults. Are they wrong?
A: People walk around with hubris saying that they will never fall into something like that. There is a disproportionate number of Jews who get involved in cults.
When a cult finds out someone has a mental illness [for example], that person will often be kicked out and seen as a liability. Cults want people who make them look good. Medication for mental illness can interfere with mind control.
They might have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which fits in well with a cult, because they desire perfection. Usually, people have a psychiatric issue after they’ve been in a cult, not before, because of how they were treated.
Q: To what do you attribute the recent rise in antisemitism?
A: When there is unrest, it’s all too easy for people to default to the usual suspects. Conspiracy theories often devolve into antisemitic rhetoric. People are looking for a way to feel strong. Just like the bullies on the playground, they will go after someone they perceive as weaker.
Jews have been singled out over and over because people consider Jews to be easy targets. For millennia, there has been an undercurrent of antisemitism right under the surface, and it’s all too easy to trigger it. These people can dig down just a couple of inches, and it springs forward. They unleash something very powerful and then they feel powerful. They can instigate a shooting in a synagogue and feel that others, even from a country very far away, are responsible.
Q: Your podcast includes several interviews with Los Angeles Jewish writer Daniel Barban Levin, whom cult leader Larry Ray abused, as detailed in the Peacock documentary “Sex, Lies and the College Cult.” Levin believed he owed Ray thousands of dollars for items the latter claimed he had broken. Why didn’t a red light go off when Ray demanded money for things that weren’t broken?
A: There are some who believed it and others who didn’t, but they didn’t want to be on the hot seat and be targeted.
Ray was able to convince them that if they didn’t see things the way he saw them, it was a sign of intellectual weakness. He separated them from their loved ones, who could point out problems. They also had to keep things private.
They had learned the way to grow was to abandon their own way of thinking. There was a disorientation that Daniel was experiencing. Just like with Stockholm Syndrome, you become dependent on the person who is kidnapping you, but you want to feel grateful to him for letting you survive another day. People go into survival mode rather than following their instincts.
Q: Keith Raniere, the cult leader of NXIVM, was sentenced to a 120-year prison term. Do you think such a sentence can scare off other would-be cult leaders, or will they think they’re smarter than he and won’t get caught?
A: A small number will think twice. But most leaders of cults are malignant narcissists who will almost always believe they are not going to get caught.
The rules or laws don’t apply to them. They will find a way to survive and get away with things. Because they are not internally motivated by a conscience, they are motivated to skirt the law. That’s most interesting to them as a challenge.
They’re learning from Keith Raniere, and they’re looking to see where he misstepped, so they don’t do the same when they start their own groups. It’s not going to dissuade a narcissist. They’re usually shocked when they’re caught doing something they knew they shouldn’t have done.
Q: How did David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, convince men to allow their wives to sleep with him?
A: He was seen as God. If God wants your wife, you are not going to stop it.
Koresh didn’t talk about sex. He said people were specially chosen, even kids. Yes, it’s very sick. This kept people in this dissociative state. People were afraid of him. Some felt they didn’t have a choice. He stockpiled weapons. He was an angry person. I worked with two fathers who left with their children before the fire; they couldn’t get their wives out.
Q: You’ve worked with so many people who have left cults. Are there common catalysts that caused them to realize they had to leave?
A: It’s different for different people. When I help to plan an intervention, I’m not sure what will push them over the edge but hope to make them feel there is no turning back.
People think about leaving long before they leave. It takes bravery because you know you will be pushed out of the community and may need to leave family members there. What pushes people over the edge is if they are required to harm others. It’s often that people will tolerate being mistreated more than they can tolerate mistreating others. That’s often the catalyst—if they’re told to neglect children or treat people badly.
Q: Is there someone like you in the government, working undercover to smoke out cults?
A: I hope they do hire someone, but if it’s undercover, I wouldn’t know.