Report — From the November 2013 issue

The Man Who Saves You from Yourself

Going undercover with a cult infiltrator

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.”

Underworld, courtesy Till Gerhard and Galleri K, Oslo

Underworld, courtesy Till Gerhard and Galleri K, Oslo

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.

Sullivan was not religious. Though raised Catholic, by high school he considered himself a “hardcore atheist.” Before the family moved to Boulder, his father had managed a used-car dealership in Salina, Kansas. His mother worked in a pawnshop. On Thursday nights, during the late shift, Sullivan sat with her at the counter, where he met criminals, alcoholics, and grifters trying to stay one step ahead of bill collectors. He saw how people could be manipulated if you exploited their weaknesses. He learned about desperation and the lies people told to arouse sympathy. From his grandfather, a funeral-home director who, Sullivan suspects, forged death certificates for the local Catholic church, he learned how to keep a secret. The suicide of a gay priest was called a heart attack. The botched abortion of a pregnant nun was pneumonia.

During spring break in 1968, inspired by On the Road, Sullivan and Stark set off on a tour of the Southwest in Sullivan’s baby-blue Pontiac convertible. They visited Drop City in southern Colorado, eating brown rice and tofu under geodesic domes, and the New Buffalo Commune outside of Taos, New Mexico, washing dishes after the communal meal and hitting on the women. Stark remembers how excited Sullivan would become when he entered these communities. “He had a wanderlust, a powerful urge to immerse himself in these different cultures.” When they spent the following summer in Mexico City, Stark noticed that Sullivan had begun to speak with a Mexican accent.

“There was a soul-searching element of it,” says Sullivan. “But I was also curious to know what the gurus were getting out of it. And I wanted to figure out how they picked up all those girls.”

The spiritual groups, he soon realized, shared a simple tactic: they demanded that their followers suspend critical thought. “They’d say, ‘You have to break out of your Western mentality. You’re too judgmental. You have to abandon your whole psychological-intellectual framework. Your obsessive materialism is blocking you from seeing the truth.’

“I became disturbed by how dramatically they transformed people, and in such a short period of time. They could take some regular American kid and all of a sudden he’s wearing saffron robes, walking around barefoot, all painted up, with a tiny ponytail and shaved head, dancing for hours, selling flowers and incense, living on the floor and eating disgusting food, repeating Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama. They persuaded a lot of intelligent young people to drop out of college, fuck up their whole career track, break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, and go off to some retreat. Next thing you know, they’ve lost contact with their family, they’re scrubbing latrines with toothbrushes and liquidating their personal savings.”

In 1974, Sullivan briefly dated a woman whose grandparents had joined something called the Peoples Temple in San Francisco, led by the Reverend Jim Jones. Sullivan’s girlfriend called him one day in tears. Her grandparents had announced that they were following Jones to a settlement he was founding in Guyana. They had already packed their suitcases, but Sullivan helped persuade them not to go.

He received another call around the same time from a friend whose sister was being initiated into a group called the Divine Light Mission. The DLM’s leader was a pudgy thirteen-year-old boy from Haridwar, India, named Prem Rawat. He was said to be the reincarnation of his father, the Perfect Master Guru Maharaji, the founder of the DLM, who died when Rawat was eight. The DLM had millions of followers in India, but its adolescent guru wanted to bring his message to America. He arrived in 1971, preceded by a press release: “He is coming in the clouds with great power and glory, and his silver steed will drift down at 4 p.m. at Los Angeles international airport, TWA Flight 761.” A crowd of reporters and screaming young acolytes greeted him at the airport. The DLM incorporated as a tax-exempt church in Colorado and established an ashram in Wallstreet — an abandoned town ten miles west of Boulder that had been conceived, in 1897, as a socialist utopia.

When Sullivan arrived in Wallstreet, supplicants were lined up alongside a creek outside the ashram, waiting to be granted admittance to the Perfect Master’s chambers. Once inside, they bowed before the guru’s feet, made an offering of a khata, a ceremonial scarf purchased at the gate for a buck fifty, and received a blessing. Then they sat and listened for hours to the boy’s droning pronouncements:

“The lotus flower grows in filthy water, yet it is pure.”

“You do not want to just polish the car, the outside. You want to work on the inside.”

“When we die, we will become one with God. It will be like a drop of water that falls in the ocean. Can you take that same drop out again?”

Sullivan stood in the back and watched as the boy gawked at the breasts of the American girls who bowed before him. (Three years later, at age sixteen, Rawat would marry a twenty-four-year-old Pacific Southwest Airlines stewardess named Marolyn Johnson.) But the boy did not interest Sullivan nearly as much as did the boy’s mother.

Mata Ji, “Holy Mother,” was a large, buxom woman in a sari who wore wraparound green-tinted sunglasses. She stood behind her son, scrutinizing every visitor. Occasionally, displeased by something her son said, she leaned close and whispered into his ear. The boy would stiffen, his eyes widening, and nod abjectly. When he repeated her lines she rewarded him with round pieces of taffy, hand-feeding him as one might a trained monkey. Holy Mother caught Sullivan staring. When Sullivan began to ask skeptical questions to some of the followers, a lackey asked him to leave.

Back in Boulder, Sullivan found his friend’s sister. She was a smart, pretty girl from the East Coast with artistic aspirations and a trust fund — an ideal recruit.

Sullivan met her in Boulder’s Beach Park. The conversation did not get off to a good start.

“How can you possibly sit in judgment of an ancient Eastern religion?” she said. “In India they have a deep and powerful understanding of life. We in the West, we’re spiritually impoverished. We’re a new society without traditions. Their civilization has been around for aeons!”

“They’ve been conning people for centuries,” said Sullivan. “That’s the only thing that’s ancient about this.”

“The Perfect Master says humility is a good thing, poverty is a good thing, manual labor is a good thing. What’s wrong with that?”

“If that’s the case, then why doesn’t he ever lift a finger? Why does he fly first class or in chartered jets?”

They went back and forth like this for an hour. Finally Sullivan took a different approach.

“Forget about their philosophy,” he said. “Let’s focus instead on who is really in power.”

He explained what he’d seen at the ashram, the way the mother dominated the son. Sullivan knew that the girl had come to Boulder to escape her alcoholic mother.

“If you join the DLM, you’re not going to be working for that little boy,” said Sullivan. “You’re going to be working for Big Momma.”

That cut it. She stopped visiting the ashram, finished college, and got a master’s degree in fine arts. The Divine Light Mission, she realized, was not her calling. But Sullivan had found his.

She introduced herself as Stella Zrnic, a twenty-four-year-old Croatian immigrant who had recently moved to San Francisco. She knew nobody in America and hoped that Dr. Kurt Robinson might help her.[*] She had found Dr. Robinson’s email address on a website that offered dream interpretation. In the About Me section of the site, Dr. Robinson had written: “I am a true subconscious communicator.”

[*] Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the innocent and those not yet charged with crimes.

“I’m writing to you because of the dreams and nightmares that I cannot get rid of,” Stella began her letter.

Dr. Robinson responded immediately. “Give me a call,” he wrote, providing a private phone number. “I can help you.”

Soon they were talking on the phone every day. Dr. Robinson’s voice was cheerful, friendly. He didn’t sound like any therapist Stella had ever met.

“It was brave of you to move to a strange country without knowing anybody. You are very nice, and very smart. But I worry about you.”

“You do?”

“Of course I do,” said Dr. Robinson. “You’re too young to be so unhappy, to be contemplating suicide.”

He asked about her dreams.

“I have nightmares where someone is chasing me,” she said.

Dr. Robinson didn’t seem particularly interested in that. She tried again.

“I had a dream about my mother having sex with my boss.”

“Describe it for me.” After she did, he said, “Describe it again — in more detail. I want to see how your mind works.”

He told her to read his book, which was available on his website. It was confusing, and terribly written, but she persisted because he kept asking her about it. He was thrilled when she told him that she’d enjoyed it.

“Have you been in any serious romantic relationships?”

“I was seeing someone in Croatia. But we’ve been growing apart since I moved to America.”

“How old were you the first time you had sex?”

“Sixteen.”

“Was it a positive experience for you?”

He mentioned that he led a psychology workshop at his home in Orange County, California. He hinted that his students lived with him.

“They want to learn how to be happy,” he said. “I’m here to help them.”

“Can I visit your workshop?”

“I can cure people from a distance. My soul can travel outside of my body.”

She pressed, but Dr. Robinson demurred. There were no openings available, and a long wait list. Besides, she wasn’t mature enough. If they continued to speak regularly, however, she might yet prove herself.

“It’s just that I miss my family,” she said. “And my old friends.”

“But you don’t need them anymore. We’ll be your family. We’ll be your friends. Do you trust me?”

“Yes. I think so.”

“I need to be certain,” he said.

“How will you be certain?”

“Do you have a camera?”

The psychological methods used by a cult leader are the same as those used by con men, advertisers, and politicians. As Margaret Singer writes in Cults in Our Midst:

Cult leaders and con artists are opportunists who read the times and the ever-changing culture and adapt their pitch to what will appeal at a given moment. These manipulators survive because they adapt and because they are chameleon-like. So, at some times we get cults based on health fads, business-training programs, get-rich-quick schemes, and relationship improvement seminars; at others we get fundamentalist religious cults, Eastern meditation groups, identity or hate groups, longevity groups, and so forth.

Singer, who died in 2003, was a mentor to Sullivan. “She was the most knowledgeable and intuitive person I ever met,” says Sullivan. “She taught me how to recognize the influence of a cult leader, even in people who disguised their connection to a group. She taught me how to keep my composure. And, most invaluably, she taught me how to resist being programmed.”

Like Singer, Sullivan doesn’t think that any cult leaders are true believers. “Some of them come to believe their own bullshit — they almost have to in order to be convincing. But on a deeper level they know they’re full of shit. I say that because the guru’s teachings will always correspond with his desires. For example, if there is a pretty young convert, the Holy Spirits will always decide that she has been specially ordained to be the leader’s consort, whereas the homely, hardworking woman will always be reserved for one of his schmucks. It’s the same thing with money — the richest devotee is always considered the most devout.

“Some leaders do make mistakes. They surround themselves with a small circle of sycophants and start to believe too much in their own powers. These are the ones, like David Koresh or Jim Jones, who are most likely to take everyone down with them in a grand extension of their narcissism. And even so, they resort to mass suicide only when they come under threat and have no other way out. Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate, for instance, had a terminal illness. But the most powerful cults, like Scientology or est, don’t for a minute believe their own bullshit, at least not at the higher levels. The people in control know it’s a game of money and power.”

Sullivan first worked with Singer in the early Nineties. One case involved a woman posing as a psychologist, who had persuaded several of her male clients to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. (The men later alleged that they had been brainwashed.) Singer also collaborated with Sullivan on an investigation of a therapist based in Carmel, California. Sullivan’s involvement began when he received a call from a lawyer named John Winer.

“I’ve never had a dilemma like this,” said Winer. “I have a potential client, a woman living in Carmel, who alleges outrageous things against her therapist. It sounds crazy, but I’m convinced she’s telling the truth. If she is, it’s a huge case. But then I deposed the therapist, and either he’s telling the truth or everything is a lie.”

The woman claimed that her therapist, Dr. James D. Nivette, had seduced her and turned her into his personal sex slave. Nivette flatly denied this, and he seemed trustworthy. He was beloved in his community: a consultant for the Monterey Police Department, a volunteer at the local VA hospital, and a professor at Monterey Peninsula College. His patient had a personality disorder, he said, and had fallen in love with him. When he rebuffed her, she concocted an elaborate sexual fantasy.

The woman’s story did seem outlandish. She claimed that Nivette worked for a clandestine government agency more secretive than the CIA, and that one day he had taken her to a remote trailer park near Napa Valley (she couldn’t remember the exact location) where everyone addressed him by a code name. He drove a black Porsche with a license plate that read zauber, German for “magic.” And he really did have magical powers, she claimed — in fact, he was a practicing wizard! He had also served as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War and was shot down while flying over China. At the POW camp he seduced a female guard, who helped him escape.

She said that after she tried to end the relationship, Nivette climbed through her window in the middle of the night and crawled into her bed. She awoke with a pistol pressed against her temple. “If you open your mouth,” he said, “I’ll kill you and I’ll kill your daughter.” He raped her, then slipped back out the window.

Winer hired Sullivan to find out whether there was any evidence to support the woman’s story. The reason he chose Sullivan, he says today, “is his knowledge of psychology. . . . He’s very creative in the way he approaches a case. He is able to talk to clients in a way that makes them feel he understands them. People say things to him that they wouldn’t ordinarily say.”

Sullivan drove to Carmel and interviewed Nivette’s accuser. He examined Nivette’s public records at the local courthouse. He spoke to Nivette’s sister and his elderly mother’s caregiver. He interviewed security guards at Monterey Peninsula College. After two days, he called Winer.

“Don’t tell me,” Winer said. “She’s out of her mind.”

“No, man. Even worse. She’s telling the truth.”

Nivette, Sullivan had found, had a history of sleeping with his young female patients. If a woman refused his advances, he diagnosed her as delusional and had her committed. Nivette was so powerful in the community that nobody reported him. He collected guns and swords and intimidated his mentally fragile patients with talk of mystical powers and secret government connections. He did have FBI clearance, but it was only to work at the VA, where he counseled Vietnam vets with post-traumatic stress disorder. The FBI hired him because he claimed to be a Vietnam veteran, but Sullivan discovered that this was a lie — during the war Nivette had been a student at UCLA. Sullivan also found, in Texas, another victim of Nivette’s. She confirmed the story of the Napa trailer park and gave him directions to it.

Winer accepted the case. Margaret Singer was hired to serve as an expert witness, but Nivette agreed to a pretrial settlement. Penniless, he left Carmel and disappeared.

A few years later, in 1997, an eighteen-month-old boy was found abandoned on a street in an industrial section of San Bruno, near the San Francisco airport. On the same day, the body of a young woman named Gina Barnett was discovered in an apartment in Folsom. Barnett’s boyfriend identified the San Bruno infant as her child. The father, he said, was James Nivette. Police learned that he had shot Barnett and ditched his son on the way to the airport, then fled to France.

Nivette was extradited four years later. He is currently serving eighteen years to life at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo.

“Croatia has produced a lot of great tennis players,” said Dr. Robinson. “Goran Ivanisevic. Novak Djokovic.”

“Djokovic is Serbian.”

“Do you play tennis? I’m actually an excellent tennis player myself.”

Stella spoke with Dr. Robinson for hours at a time. He bristled when she called him Doctor. He preferred Teacher. He explained that the world programs you in ways that limit your freedom, and that it was his job to deprogram her. If she didn’t pick up the phone immediately when he called, he became furious.

“What were you doing that you couldn’t pick up the phone? Be honest. Were you out with a boy?”

“My phone was at the bottom of my purse. I didn’t hear it ringing.”

“I’m taking time away from my practice to talk with you. Do you know how many people are on my waiting list? How many psychiatrists come to me for advice because their methods are ineffective? I’m going to have to think about whether I want to speak with you again.”

She apologized and promised to carry the phone in her hand at all times.

Dr. Robinson sighed. “I know it’s hard for you. My main goal is to help you grow. And you are beginning to grow. But in order to reach the next dimension, you need to allow yourself to be more free.”

“I’m trying.”

“Have you taken the pictures of yourself like I asked you to?”

“Yes.” She had taken photographs of her face.

“Send them to me. I want to see how free you are.”

Dr. Robinson liked the photographs she sent.

“You’re beautiful,” he said. “But I can see that you’re not completely free. Can you do something for me?”

“Yes.”

“Stand in front of the mirror fully naked. Take a picture of your body.”

“I don’t know if I can do that.”

“Don’t you feel comfortable naked? You’re a unique, beautiful human being. You have to trust me. When you show me the most intimate parts of yourself I can connect with your real nature, and then I can lead you to your true self.”

“I’ll try.”

“There’s a girl here with us who reminds me of you. Her name is Kati. She recently immigrated, too — from Turkey. You would like her. Maybe one day you can come visit us. But first you must prove to me that you’re ready.”

Although most cults use the same basic psychological techniques, they each have their own codes, symbols, and lexicon. Often the only way to reach an indoctrinated member is to communicate in the cult’s language. In order to master this vocabulary, Sullivan must join the cult himself.

“David is a chameleon,” says Patrick O’Reilly, a psychologist specializing in undue influence. “I’ve seen him work closely with gunrunners, psychopathic murderers, cult leaders. He’s excellent at assimilating to any subculture, and he is relentless about getting information. He has an uncanny ability to become whatever it is the person is looking for.”

During the winter of 2001, Sullivan infiltrated an organization based in Salt Lake City called Impact Trainings. The group, which is still active today, placed advertisements for its “Harmony” seminars, which promised to “empower the human spirit toward a free, unconditional loving and joyful life.” The seminars were held in large, windowless warehouses and lasted as long as four days. They were led by “facilitators” who established psychological control over the trainees through public humiliation.

Two days into the seminar, Sullivan found himself hiding behind the warehouse, lying prostrate beneath some bushes, whispering into a dying cell phone.

“I think they’re going to kill me,” he said. “My cover’s blown.”

Sullivan hadn’t slept since the seminar started. He had been forced to subsist on a near-starvation diet: sugar pops and water. (Protein deprivation is a common tactic; without protein you can’t think.) All he wanted was to return to the warehouse, announce who he was, try to persuade as many people as possible to leave, then run outside to his rental car and race to the airport. But Kim Kruglick, an attorney who had hired Sullivan on the recommendation of Margaret Singer, wouldn’t hear of it.

“What the hell are we paying you for?” Kruglick said. “Get back in there!”

“You don’t understand,” Sullivan whispered. “I’m at the end of my rope. I can’t take it anymore.”

“But you can’t leave now. You haven’t even been reborn yet!”

The phone died.

Kruglick was serving as a defense attorney in a bizarre murder case in Marin County. On August 7, 2000, nine nylon duffel bags containing dismembered body parts floated to the surface of the Mokelumne River near Sacramento. Early that morning, Marin County police arrested Glenn Taylor Helzer, thirty, a charismatic, handsome former Morgan Stanley stockbroker; his brother, Justin, twenty-eight; and Dawn Godman, twenty-six, a depressive, overweight woman who lived with the Helzers at their home in Concord, California.

Godman had met the Helzer brothers a year earlier, at a murder-mystery dinner hosted by the Latter-day Saints Temple in Walnut Creek. The Helzers stood out from the rest of the congregation. They dressed in black and spoke in koans. They had been raised in a strict Mormon family, but Taylor was beginning to stray. He had attended seminars conducted by Impact Trainings and encouraged Godman to go through the Harmony training. After she completed the first two levels, Taylor announced that he would take over as her personal trainer.

Inspired by Harmony, Taylor planned to start his own self-help group, Transform America, part of a grand scheme to bring about Christ’s millennial reign. He decided that God had put him on earth to take over the Mormon church and become its true prophet. His younger brother and Godman were his first two disciples.

God told Taylor that the best way to overthrow the Mormon church was to adopt Brazilian orphans and train them to be assassins. Once they became teenagers, the child mercenaries would execute the fifteen highest-ranking officers of the Mormon church, preparing the way for Taylor’s ascension. But Taylor needed money to finance this operation.

One idea was to import underage girls, again from Brazil, and use them to blackmail Taylor’s married clients at Morgan Stanley. Another was to have his girlfriend, Keri Mendoza, pose for Playboy. This plan worked — the magazine accepted Mendoza’s photos — but after she was named Playmate of the Month for September 2000 she broke up with Taylor and kept the money for herself. (At the Helzers’ murder trial, Mendoza testified that the plan to import underage Brazilian girls “didn’t feel right to me in my heart.”)

On July 30, 2000, the Helzers and Godman kidnapped Ivan and Annette Stineman, two of Taylor’s elderly banking clients. Taylor ordered Ivan to write Godman a check for $100,000. Taylor then beat Ivan to death, and Justin cut Annette’s throat. Later that day the Helzers killed Taylor’s girlfriend, Selina Bishop, who they worried might be able to connect them to the Stineman murders; Bishop’s mother and a friend were staying at her apartment, so they were killed, too. The Helzers butchered the five corpses, mixing up the bodies in different duffel bags, rented Jet Skis, and dumped the bags in the river. God had neglected to educate Taylor in the chemistry of decomposition, however, and several days later, when the remains began to leach gases, the bags floated to the surface.

Godman could avoid the death penalty by testifying against the Helzers. But she still believed that Taylor was a prophet and that she would soon transcend the prison walls and reunite with him in heaven. She refused to speak with her lawyers; in fact she refused to speak with anyone who hadn’t been reborn through Harmony. That’s when her lawyers called David Sullivan.

The Harmony trainings were led by a man called the Trainer. He had a sonorous voice, a helmet of hair, and impeccable self-confidence. His enforcers were called Angels. On the first day, the Trainer conducted an exercise in which each trainee — there were about eighty in the class — confessed his or her greatest failures. Then the trainees were given new names. A victim of incest became Daddy’s Joytoy; a woman with a history of cutting herself was Slice and Dice; an unmarried pregnant woman was White Trash Slut. It was forbidden to call anyone by anything other than his or her nickname. Because Sullivan “thought too much,” the Trainer christened him Anal-Cranial Inversion.

Trainees were taught that they were responsible for their misfortunes. Daddy’s Joytoy, for instance, was told that she had seduced her father. An obese woman was forced to wear a cow costume. At one point the Trainer singled out a pretty blonde who kept one of her hands in her pocket at all times.

“Be honest with us,” said the Trainer. “You despise your husband. You despise your children.”

“That’s not true,” the woman said. “I love my family.”

“Take your hand out of your pocket.”

She shook her head pleadingly.

“Hold up your hand!”

Sobbing, she obeyed. Her fingers were fused together in the shape of a triangle.

“See how ugly your hand is?” said the Trainer. “That’s the ugliness you carry around inside of you!”

The night before Sullivan called Kim Kruglick from the bushes, the trainees were divided into groups of seven. Each group member was made to stand silently while the others took turns screaming in his or her face. They stood as close as drill sergeants, so you could feel their breath and spittle.

“You are scum!”

“You’re a rip-off! You’re incapable of love! You’ve wasted your life!”

“Prostitute!”

“Fat ass!”

“Pervert!”

To avoid suspicion, Sullivan yelled as vociferously as the others, but he was beginning to wonder how much longer he could hold up. One young woman in his group was so anguished that, in the middle of her session, she started vomiting quietly down the front of her dress.

Sullivan became especially concerned about the attentions of one fellow trainee, an attractive, poised woman with dark, intelligent eyes. He didn’t remember her name, but privately he thought of her as the Observant One. He caught her staring at him and wondered whether she had been planted by the Angels.

After the screaming exercise, the Trainer gave a new command: “Walk around the room and find the person you most despise.”

Year of the Guru, courtesy Till Gerhard and Galleri LOYAL, Malmö, Sweden

Year of the Guru, courtesy Till Gerhard and Galleri LOYAL, Malmö, Sweden

The Observant One grabbed Sullivan immediately.

You,” she said. “Anal-Cranial Inversion.”

The trainees were told to sit with their partners and spend fifteen minutes talking about how much they hated each other. As soon as they were alone, the Observant One leaned forward.

“I chose you because I don’t think you’re like the others,” she whispered. “I think you’re a spy. Or maybe the police.”

Sullivan began to wonder whether he could outsprint the nearest Angel to the parking lot.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “You got me all wrong —”

“You have to get me out of here.”

“What?”

Please. You’re the only hope I have left.”

An Angel passed near them.

“You’re despicable!” said Sullivan loudly. “You’re a liar! You’re beneath contempt!”

The Angel walked away.

“I was forced to come here,” the woman continued. “I had cancer. My fiancé left me. My boss took over my life. He told me that I had to attend the training. But I can’t take it anymore.”

Sullivan empathized with her. Two years earlier he had been diagnosed with liver cancer, and his girlfriend had abandoned him in the middle of treatment. He wanted to help the Observant One, but he couldn’t jeopardize the Godman case. He told himself not to break character. Then he broke character.

“Listen,” he said. “You’re going to put us both in serious danger if you don’t do exactly as I tell you.”

He pointed out the surveillance cameras. There was a control room where the Angels watched video monitors. He would wander into the control room and make a scene. As soon as the Angels glanced away from the monitors, she would have to escape. To buy time after she left, Sullivan would claim that she was in the bathroom being sick. When they finally realized she was missing, she’d be in Wyoming.

Two hours later, when the Angels discovered that the Observant One had escaped, they turned their attention to Sullivan. He was ordered to stand in the Humiliation Box. The Angels took turns shouting into his face. He was not allowed to sit, go to the bathroom, eat, or drink. When Sullivan got back to his room that night it looked like it had been searched.

The next morning, hoping to discourage further suspicion, Sullivan embraced his activities with renewed vigor. During a session in which the trainees were asked to deliver self-debasing monologues, Sullivan became so overwrought that he punched his chair until his knuckles bled. An Angel brought him a bag of ice. But he knew he’d have to do more.

The Trainer began his redemption speech. This is the second part of the brainwashing process; after being broken down psychologically, the initiate is overwhelmed with acceptance and love.

“No matter how low you’ve sunk,” said the Trainer in his booming, paternal voice, “I can offer you a way out. If you are willing to take my hand, we can move forward. We can find our way to a new life —”

Sullivan jumped to his feet.

“Yes!” he cried. “I feel it!”

The Trainer and the Angels looked at him in astonishment.

“Oh sir,” said Sullivan, “oh sir, can I please express what’s inside me right now?”

“Sure, Anal-Cranial Inversion,” said the Trainer. “What is it?”

“May I?”

The Trainer shrugged and handed Sullivan the microphone. Before the Trainer had time to reconsider, Sullivan leaped onto the stage and belted out, in a trembling baritone:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe

He built it gradually, the emotion in his voice rising. The crowd watched in awe.

To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

Some of the trainees began to sob. The head Angel embraced Sullivan. A few people joined in and they sang together, louder and louder, teary and off-key:

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star!

Anal-Cranial Inversion had been redeemed. He graduated the training and was pronounced reborn. The Trainer even invited him to the training for Angels. He had been deemed worthy to brainwash the next group of initiates.

Sullivan returned for the second training a month later, and then attended one of Godman’s pretrial hearings. He got her attention while sitting in the audience, flashing hand signals he had learned at Harmony: an open palm with four fingers spread wide, indicating that he was a trusted, heart connection. Godman beamed. When he visited her jail cell, she welcomed him with a wide, blissful smile. She believed he had walked through the prison walls, that he was Archangel Michael, come to save her.

He met with her regularly for six weeks. Slowly she began to realize what had happened to her.

“Taylor wasn’t a prophet, was he?” she finally said.

“No,” said Sullivan. “He’s not a prophet.”

She broke down.

“You mean we killed all those people for nothing?”

Godman testified against the Helzers. Today Taylor is on death row at San Quentin; Justin committed suicide in prison earlier this year. Godman is at the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla. She will be eligible for parole in 2043.

“You were supposed to call twenty minutes ago.”

“I’m sorry,” said Stella. “I had bad dreams. I overslept.”

“You’re like a little puppy. If I let you in my house, you would put your dirty paws all over the furniture, soil the carpet, drink from the toilet.”

“Last night —”

“Listen to me!” said Dr. Robinson. “You never listen to me. It’s all your father’s fault — he never showed you enough affection. He was too tough on you. That caused great damage.”

“Yes, Teacher. I know.”

“You are just like Kati. The intimacy problems, the troubled background. Unlike you, however, she is diligent, committed, and responsible. Is there a street you walk down every day on the way to your babysitting job?”

Stella couldn’t tell whether Dr. Robinson was being rhetorical. Dr. Robinson was often being rhetorical.

“I asked you a question.”

“Yes,” she said. “There is such a street.”

“Have you ever felt that this street is beautiful one day but ugly the next?”

“I guess.”

“Of course you have! That’s proof, you see, that reality is all in our heads. It’s not the street’s fault. The street is always the same. It’s us — we’re the ones who change. You understand?”

She murmured her assent.

“Have you begun to perceive the benefits of our conversations?”

“I feel better, but I don’t know why. Last night I had a dream that I was a turtle, and my shell was peeling off.”

“That’s very good. The shell, you see, is the hardness in you. And you must peel it away in order to access the real Stella. You are making progress.”

“Yes, Teacher.”

“One thing concerns me, however. In the pictures you sent, you’re wearing a dress. You’re wearing tights. Everything is covered.”

“I don’t feel comfortable taking naked photographs of myself.”

He told her again about Kati, who had been raised by religious parents and found it difficult to “open herself up sexually.” But he had treated her, and now she was taking many photographs of herself. First she relaxed in front of the camera. Then she was able to relax in bed.

“Poor Stella. You still have so far to go. This is part of your deprogramming. This shyness about your body is not you. It is what the world is telling you to do.”

“Yes, Teacher.”

“I’m trying to help you to be free,” said Dr. Robinson. “But you have to work at it, too.”

Stella sent him naked photographs of herself. They were demure, low exposure, her legs crossed, her hands over her breasts, though in one photograph she revealed a nipple.

“This is just you being closed,” he said. “You’re not trusting me enough. You are disappointing me so painfully. You will have to prove yourself to me in another way.”

When an acolyte absolutely cannot be deprogrammed, when she is too far gone to be reasoned with, there is only one strategy left: destroy the entire cult. Several years ago Sullivan received a call from a man in Marin County who owns a chain of retail stores. The man’s niece, Judy, had become a devotee of someone who called himself Swami Sebastian. The Swami was a tall, good-looking black man who wore turbans and flowing white robes, spoke in a Nigerian accent, and claimed to be the reincarnation of Christ. He named his group the Mother Divine Love Foundation and placed flyers around Marin County:

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Other flyers were more explicit:

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The Swami’s disciples, mostly young women, lived with him in a house in Bayshore, just south of San Francisco. They called him Abba. He explained that he was the personification of all good and all evil. In Nigeria he had been an African warrior, and when he was a young child Haile Selassie had touched his head and pronounced him a divine spiritual being. Judy had conceived a son with Abba.

The Swami owned a juice bar on Capuchino Avenue in Burlingame called Sebastian’s Take Outrageous. He used it to recruit new members. Judy, who was in her late thirties, was his oldest and plainest disciple. But she was also the richest. Abba rechristened her Blessing and told her that her role in life was to bestow blessings. This meant that she was to fund his refuge for women and babies in Jamaica and to support him with a monthly income. So far she had given him more than $35,000. Judy’s family had succeeded in getting her to leave the Swami once before, but after three weeks she returned, and the family began to receive threatening calls and letters. Cars with tinted windows would drive slowly past their home.

“I promised my wife I’d help Judy,” said Sullivan’s client, “but we have two young children, and I don’t want to put them at risk. I’ll pay you to get her out, but I don’t want this maniac to know I’m involved.”

Sullivan staked out the Swami’s house. In addition to Blessing, the Swami spent a lot of time with a stunning young woman named Heather. Heather had long, dark hair, pale skin, and dark eyes — an ideal temple love goddess. The Swami had renamed her Hathaya.

When the Swami arrived home one day, Sullivan took photographs with a telephoto lens, then sped away. He made sure the Swami saw him.

“Come back here!” screamed the Swami, running after Sullivan’s car, middle fingers raised. “Who are you, motherfucker?”

A funny thing happened when the Swami cursed: his accent disappeared. He didn’t sound like a Nigerian anymore. He sounded like an American.

Sullivan had his operatives tail the Swami. They reported that he left home each morning with three or four of his acolytes and drove to different houses in a white Cadillac. Every stop was the same: he’d knock, a woman would greet him warmly, and he’d enter the house, sometimes with the girls, sometimes without. He’d stay about an hour, then leave, often carrying a bulging envelope.

Sullivan visited Sebastian’s Take Outrageous while the Swami was on his rounds. There were bags of oranges piled up in the bathroom, bundles of wheatgrass stacked on the floor, and the serving area was grimy with rotting fruit. Sullivan noted that the business license was expired, so he called the local health board. An officer showed up the next day and ordered the juice bar to close until a new license had been procured.

Sullivan researched the LLC listed on the business license and discovered it was controlled by a man named Delroy Miller. He ran a background check on that name and found that Miller had a criminal record in a small town outside Fort Worth, Texas. Sullivan looked up the number for the police department there.

“Delroy!” said the sheriff when Sullivan called. “What’s ol’ Delroy up to these days?”

“He’s in California now.”

“Better you than us.”

“Tell me, what kind of trouble did he get into back in Texas?”

“Delroy was just a flimflam man. Sometimes he cut fraudulent checks. Sometimes he was a preacher accepting donations. Sometimes he had an aluminum-siding and roofing business. He’d get the deposit and skip the work. Or he’d case the house and send his buddies to burglarize it a week later. He did some time, and when he got out I told him he better move on. So he did. Has he been arrested?”

“No. He’s found a new calling.”

“What would that be?”

“Well, sir, Delroy isn’t Delroy anymore. He calls himself Swami Sebastian, and he has a sex cult in a small town south of San Francisco.”

“No shit. A swami.” Sullivan heard the sheriff talking to another officer. “You remember Delroy the Jamaican? Yeah, well now he’s a goddamned sex swami in California!”

“Do you have any background on the guy?” asked Sullivan. “Do you know where he came from?”

“He had some trouble in Georgia, if I remember correctly. Savannah.”

Sullivan called the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and found an agent who remembered Delroy Miller.

“He used to dress like a pimp,” said the detective. “He was a member of the Rude Boys, a Jamaican drug gang, and he hooked up with the local mafia down here. They run drugs from Jamaica through Florida and up to Georgia. Your man must have had some problems with these fellows, because he left in a hurry. We heard he ripped off Little Nick, the guy who runs the local outfit.”

Little Nick owned a sports-memorabilia store in Savannah. Sullivan called the store.

“I’m looking for Nick.”

“Who’s this?”

“He doesn’t know me. But I have some information he might appreciate.”

There was silence. Then another man picked up the phone.

“Yeah?” Nick was not a native Georgian. He had a New Jersey accent.

“Do you remember Delroy Miller?”

“What’s it to you?”

“He’s set himself up here in California as a swami. He’s got a bunch of young girls worshipping him. Some of the girls’ parents aren’t too happy about it, and they’d like to see him gone. I understand you might have some unfinished business with him.”

“What’s in it for you?”

“Nothing. I’d just be happy to reunite you two.”

Nick laughed and took down the Swami’s address. Sullivan called the house in Bayshore.

“What is this about?” said the Swami in his thick accent.

“We haven’t met, but you know who I am. I’ve been taking your photograph. I called the health board on your juice stand.”

The Swami started cursing.

“Calm down,” said Sullivan. “I’m about to do you a big favor.”

“I don’t need favors.”

“You remember Little Nick from Savannah?”

The Swami ditched the accent.

“You know Nick? What’s this about?”

“Nick has your address.”

“How did he get it?”

“I gave it to him. He’s catching a flight this afternoon. That puts him at your doorstep in about eight and a half hours.”

The Swami hung up.

One of Sullivan’s operatives was at the Swami’s house. He watched as the garage door opened and the Swami’s women ran about frantically, loading boxes into a van. The Swami yelled at them to move faster. Judy was trailing him in a near-hysterical state.

“Where are you going, Abba?” she wailed.

“Shut up, woman! Get out of my way!”

That night Sullivan called his client.

“The Swami is on an airplane and he’s not coming back.”

“Yeah, I just heard from Judy,” said his client. “She’s a wreck.”

Abba had told Judy that she and the other disciples were unworthy of him. He had wasted too much time on them already and refused to tolerate their ignorance any longer. Only Hathaya, beautiful Hathaya, had sufficiently proved her devotion. Only she would accompany him to the promised land. Yes, Hathaya was the most holy.

“I’m running, panicked, through a dark jungle. There are hundreds of eyes in the bushes watching me. A creature is pursuing me, something strong and extremely fast, and when I glance back I see it’s a lion. But then I notice that I have claws and fur, and I realize that I’m not me at all — I’m a puma. I don’t feel afraid anymore, because I’m big and powerful, and I want the lion to attack. And he does! The lion leaps on my back. We’re writhing around, biting each other, I feel very warm, and the next thing I know we’re having fierce, passionate sex, our bodies are merging into a single body —”

“Yes,” said Dr. Robinson, his voice high with excitement. “You’re beginning to apprehend the undiluted truth! Finally you are allowing me to heal you.”

Editor’s Note: David Sullivan passed away on October 11, 2013, shortly before this feature was published. Read Nathaniel Rich’s remembrance of Sullivan here.

“Can you explain the dream?”

“Of course. You’re the puma. And I’m the lion.”

“I see.”

“You’re entering a new dimension. Your fears are vanishing. You are ready.”

He explained that the others were excited to meet her. Especially Kati. But Stella would have to be eased in slowly. Dr. Robinson would meet her first, alone, so that he could prepare her. He had already picked out a motel.

Stella Zrnic, thanking him profusely, hung up. And Stela Jelincic, a thirty-four-year-old writer who moonlights as an operative for David Sullivan, dialed her boss.

“It worked,” she said. “He’s hooked.”

Sullivan took down the motel’s address. Then he called Kati’s mother to say that he had finally captured the monster who had brainwashed her daughter.

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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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  • http://sonyamherrera.blogspot.com/ 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.

  • http://sonyamherrera.blogspot.com/ Sonya Herrera

    What a mixed ending!

  • Johnathan Shatto

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

    • http://harpers.org/ 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!! http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/IndividualEffects/IsTMaCult/index.cfm

  • 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

    http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/David-Sullivan-PI-who-infiltrated-cults-dies-4924222.php

  • s

    the shocking truth about TM(Transcendental Meditation)! check it out http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/IndividualEffects/IsTMaCult/index.cfm

  • 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.”

    http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/David-Sullivan-PI-who-infiltrated-cults-dies-4924222.php

    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.

    https://plus.google.com/u/0/104651302749331402947/about

    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.

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