Report — From the November 2013 issue

The Man Who Saves You from Yourself

Going undercover with a cult infiltrator

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Nobody ever joins a cult. One joins a nonprofit group that promotes green technology, animal rights, or transcendental meditation. One joins a yoga class or an entrepreneurial workshop. One begins practicing an Eastern religion that preaches peace and forbearance. The first rule of recruitment, writes Margaret Singer, the doyenne of cult scholarship, is that a recruit must never suspect he or she is being recruited. The second rule is that the cult must monopolize the recruit’s time. Therefore, in order to have any chance of rescuing a new acolyte, it is critical to act quickly. The problem is that family and friends, much like the new cult member, are often slow to admit the severity of the situation. “Clients usually don’t come to me until their daughter is already to-the-tits brainwashed,” says David Sullivan, a private investigator in San Francisco who specializes in cults. “By that point the success rate is very low.”

Sullivan became fascinated with cults in the late Sixties, while attending Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. It was a golden age for religious fringe groups, and Boulder was one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting centers, as it is today. (There are now, according to conservative estimates, 2 million adults involved in cults in America.) “You couldn’t walk five steps without being approached by someone asking whether you’d like to go to a Buddhist meeting,” says John Stark, a high school friend of Sullivan’s. Representatives from Jews for Jesus and the Moonies set up information booths in the student union at the University of Colorado, a few miles down the road from Fairview High. Sullivan engaged the hawkers, accepted the pamphlets, attended every meditation circle, prayer circle, shamanic circle. When the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi led a mass meditation session at the university, Sullivan was there, watching from the back of the lecture hall.

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is the author of the novels The Mayor’s Tongue and Odds Against Tomorrow. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Opportunity Knocks,” appeared in the January 2013 issue.

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  • Sonya Herrera

    Excuse me, but Gerhard’s paintings are amazing. Nice use of “Starman” on the cover.

    I’ll start reading the article now.

    • Sranang

      It is clear that not all humans understand how to live and think as a free person and that these people will be abused. We have to establish conditions to make free thinking and free development possible. The systems in some parts of the world do establish the opposite, so abusement is encouraged

      Dutch Guyana or Suriname, where people live free

      • Anomniemm

        surinam? you mean the country with the drug dealing president who was also convicted of cocaine dealing in Holland, and his son who now is custody of the DEA? LOL

        No taki bullshit yere. Suriname is een gat en kunnen liever een voorbeeld nemen aan Brazilie.

  • Sonya Herrera

    What a mixed ending!

  • Johnathan Shatto

    When does a new issue (e.g. the November 2013 issue) become available on news stands?

    • Harper’s Magazine

      The scheduled date is the Tuesday a week and a half from its going online, but in most places it’s available sometime in the week after the online date. And in New York some newsstands put it up almost simultaneously with the online date.

      • LilMoby

        I am attempting to read the November issue through my library & Zinio. It is not available yet.

  • jigglepuss

    I discovered the shocking truth about TM – Transcendental Meditation. Check it out!!

  • Robert

    I thought this article was pretty interesting.

  • Jim Feeley

    Well this is weird (and sad) timing:

    David Sullivan, PI who infiltrated cults, dies
    By Jill Tucker
    Published 5:35 pm, Thursday, October 24, 2013

  • s

    the shocking truth about TM(Transcendental Meditation)! check it out

  • Lodewijk den Hertog

    Weird but undeniable true. It recalls the scene of Twin Peaks, for real.

  • yummyyummyfly

    David Sullivan seems unusually fascinated with the tits and “prettiness” of innocent American girls. I’m guessing he’s not had much himself.

  • yummyyummyfly

    “David Sullivan dropped out of high school to manage a rock band in Mexico City and hung out on a Sioux reservation with a medicine man named Crow Dog.

    He built military radar in Khadafy’s Libya and stared down a notorious Brazilian drug lord in the slums of Rio. And he castrated bulls in Bolivia.”

    Sounds to me like he had a penchant for making up stories to snag some “pretty” American girls, with tits, for himself.

  • yummyyummyfly

    The white people in this article are never identified as being white. The non-whites are identified by their presumed race. How interesting!

  • 18235

    EVERYTHING = BRAINWASHING….including having dysfunctional parents who can rot your brain before you turn 18.

  • Karel

    What is funny/sad. Impact Training – one of the sects, described in the article – have a Google+ page. And glowing reviews.

    Let’s read some.

    “When I stepped into the Impact Trainings I discovered the freedom of taking on my own life. During my trainings I learned to trust–myself and others, to take accountability for my results, and to joyfully, passionately engage in my life.” 5/5

    “Through my experiences at the Impact Trainings, I have learned to let go of my history that was holding me back in life from experiencing my relationships. I have found the confidence to be who I am and to live every moment of life to the fullest; facing the world and the opportunities for growth and learning head on.” 5/5

    “Before walking through the doors at the Impact Training center I felt swallowed up by my insecurities. I would spend my days replaying all of my “failures” through my head and worrying about how I was supposed to fix my future. Then I stepped into the loving, accepting environment there and had the opportunity to take an honest look at myself and to take on my life. That act alone has empowered me to claim freedom, clarity, and passion for life again! I know who I am. I know my purpose in life.” 5/5

    “I thought I had it all. Since my Impact training I have found a purpose for my life. I have found love in moving forward and a greater consciousness for myself and my kids! Impact has given me the tools to succeed in life! Impact has held my hand as I figured out who I am, and what my purpose is. I found my clarity!” 5/5

    ….I don’t need to go on.

  • John

    This was great. Subscribing to Harper’s.

  • Mercyneal

    DAvid Sullivan died last year. He was a complex person who could be quite lovely but also very difficult.


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