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[Report]

The Man Who Saves You from Yourself

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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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