What A Cult Is … And Isn’t


Top 5 Things You’ll Learn If You Read This Whole Thing:

  1. If you tell someone you grew up on a commune, be prepared for an interesting conversation.
  2. Bob’s last name was “Cockburn.”
  3. Cults aren’t like L.A. street gangs
  4. The definition of what a cult is leaves open a whole lot of room to call culturally accepted groups “cults.”
  5. When you can’t know something for sure, it’s a good idea to pause sometimes and consider the possibility that you’re wrong.

You can actually see it happening the moment you tell people you grew up in a commune.

Synapses fire, memories shoot to the forefront of their minds, and the struggle begins to keep that one word they really want to say from spilling out of their mouths.

Some people hint at it: “Oh, really? Wow. Interesting. And on a completely different note, what do you think of that whole Jonestown affair?”

Other people are more direct: “Dude! How’d you get away with not drinking the Kool-Aid?!?” (Side note: It wasn’t Kool-Aid. It was Flavor-Aid. Grape Flavor-Aid, if you’re really curious.)

No matter the approach, the “C” word always comes into play. “So, was it, like, a cult or something?” Except it comes out more like “Cultorsomething.” just one big rush of air breaking free from the pesky brain’s restraint system.

I imagine this is a way-distant cousin of what Black people feel if there’s something approaching racism in the news and they happen to have a predominately White friend group. They’re asked — as I am about cults — to share their take, knowing full well their responses are going to be repeated to other White people as, “Black people think …” or “Black people believe …”

And so it goes with my thoughts on groups of people who choose to live differently from the mainstream in a fashion similar to my Hippie Mom and Hippie Dad.

To be clear: We were not in a cult. Which, of course, is the first thing people who are in a cult say when they’re asked if they are in a cult. But I really wasn’t in a cult. (And that’s the second thing people who are in a cult say if they’re pressed about their group being a cult.)

I first heard the word “cult” when I was 5 years old. I was playing with some friends in The Clearing — the site of what one day would host the infamous game of Kill the Carrier — when a man in a white short-sleeved dress shirt, kahki pants and a black tightly knotted tie emerged from behind one of the smaller redwoods that ringed the patch of open ground.

“Excuse me,” he called out to us from a good 30 feet away. Even as a 5-year-old, I could tell he was nervous. Moon, Chestnut, Bob and me … we all turned from our aimless digging in the soft earth and stared at him without a word. “Are… are… are your parents around?” Again, none of us said a word. We watched as the man took a few cautious steps toward us, as if he were trying to find a clear path through a minefield. He had slicked-back black hair and thick-rimmed glasses. In his right hand was a battered brown briefcase fastened closed with shiny gold latches. “Do you boys… do… do you even have parents?”

To none of our surprise, it was Bob who spoke up, because Bob always spoke up: “Of course we’ve got parents, numb nuts. Everyone’s got parents.”

Moon chuckled, but I slugged Bob in the arm. We weren’t supposed to talk with outsiders. Our Hippie Moms and Hippie Dads drilled that message into us from the time we could understand words, had made it clear to us that we lived separate from the rest of the world because those folks didn’t like how we viewed things — which, yes, I agree sounds very cultish, but I reiterate, we were not a cult.

The man paused and laughed nervously. “I, ahhh, yeah. Well, of course you’ve got parents. Are… are they… here?

The punch in the arm apparently didn’t convey the message I wanted it to, because Bob voice echoed through The Clearing: “If you’re askin’ if they’re dead, no they ain’t, mister.” I punched him again. Harder. “Daaang, Queso. What you do that for?”

I ignored him and tried my 5-year-old best to take command of the situation as Hippie Mom, she of the butt-length wavy blond hair and constant wearer of culturally appropriated moccasins, had taught me. “Listen, mister,” I said. “You’re not supposed to be here. It’d be best if you just…”

“I’m from the Department of Child and Family Services,” the man said, advancing with more confident steps. “I… I’ve… I’ve been sent out here to see if you kids are… if you kids are OK.”

“The only one who’s not going to be OK is you, if you don’t stop where you are,” Bob said, getting to his feet and dusting the dirt off his knees before balling up his fists. To date, I’d seen Bob do this dozens of times, but I had yet to see him ever throw an actual punch.

“Bob, would you shut up!” I said angrily, grabbing his arm and pulling him back down to the ground.

“Bob? It’s Bob, is it?” the man said, pausing about 10 feet from us, propping the briefcase on his bent left leg and opening the latches. He took a piece of paper from a manila folder, and scanned down “Bob? As in Bob Cockburn?”

Cockburn?” Moon said with a giggle. “Bob… Cockburn?”

Even I raised an eyebrow at that one.

Here’s a thing to know about commune life — or, at least, our commune life: We didn’t use last names. There was simply no need for them. Last names weren’t even a thing until the Middle Ages, when the Black Death wiped out 95 percent of people in a town. The survivors, for the first time in their lives, ventured to other villages in search of shelter and work. Suddenly, there were two Kents or Georges or Katherines in one place. So Kent became Kent from Westshire, which eventually became Kent Westshire, and there you have it — last names.

In our commune, there was only one Bob (thank God), just like there was only one Queso, only one Moon, only one Chestnut.. If someone showed up with the same name as one of our other residents, he simply picked a new name to go along with the new start.

Which means we were hearing “Bob Cockburn” for the first time and, though we were only 5, we knew enough to understand that it was freaking hilarious.

“Yes,” the man replied. “Is that boy… are you… are you Bob Cockburn?”

Moon giggled again, and even the demure Chestnut cracked a small smile.

“It’s just Bob, mister, and if you say that other name again…”

“What about you?” the man said, looking straight at me. “What’s your name?” He paused, and we stared at each other. It took a good 30 seconds, but he eventually realized I wasn’t as dumb as Bob and that I wasn’t going to say anything. So he continued: “Listen… kids. I’m not here to harm you. I’m here to help. My office sent me out to look into this cult of yours and get you out of here.”

At this, Bob quickly stood up, and for a split-second I thought he was going to bull-rush the nervous man with the full force of his 5-year-old might. But instead, Bob flipped up both middle fingers at him — a gesture I’m not entirely sure he understood at that point — and took off the other way, around the bend and back toward the houses and the safety of our parents.

The man was rattled. “I… I… Kids, this is serious business. I’ve read the reports. This cult is dangerous. Just come with me and you can tell me all about what goes on here.”

I looked from where Bob had disappeared, back to the man who was advancing slowly again. Moon, Chestnut and I stood up and started to back toward the edge of the clearing. I wanted to believe this man was a monster, the kind that sometimes kept me up at night as it rattled the tree branches above our trailer. But I could see in his eyes … he wasn’t. He was concerned. Worried. Maybe he even cared.

“Listen, mister,” I said. “I’m sorry you came out all this way, but we’re all fine, really. We’re just … just kids.” And when the man subtly relaxed just a tick, I took off in Bob’s wake, grabbing Moon and Chestnut as I passed them. They got the hint and started sprinting after me.

We didn’t stop until we got back to the fire circle, where Bob stood breathless with hands on knees while his Hippie Mom looked on nervously, trying to figure out what had happened.

That night, after we shared our story with the group, we were sent away so the adults could talk about grown-up things. So we sat — Bob, Moon, Chestnut and me — around a small fire we built, bundled up against what promised to be a chilly early fall night.

“What’s a cult?” I asked to no one in particular, breaking a silence that had grown uncomfortable.

The word had been bouncing around my head since we’d made it back to the houses. The way the man had said it, it seemed so… bad. But we weren’t a part of anything bad. Sure, things could get pretty weird sometimes. Even as 5-year-olds born and raised on the commune, we had a sense that some of the things that happened weren’t exactly normal to the rest of the world. But we were loved, fed, protected, cared for… everything a kid truly needed.

“I think it’s like a gang or something,” Bob said. “Like those things down in L.A.”

It wasn’t a huge surprise that Bob was linking yet another thing to an L.A. street gang. The previous spring, we’d welcomed a father and son into our group, and they came with tales of street violence and turf wars that both intrigued us and scared us half to death. The dad said his name was Elroy and that his boy’s name was Trice, but when we officially welcomed them into our midst, they became Peace and Cumulus, respectively. In the months that followed, Bob and Cumulus spent hours together, the former enraptured as the latter told of all the crazy things he’d seen in his admittedly short life.

Bob was enthralled. He talked openly about leaving the commune and heading south to join the Bloods or, as he called them, the Drips. We wouldn’t have been too sad to see him go. He had become insufferable, walking around talking about he was going to put a cap in our asses and calling the girls of the commune his “bitches,” when no Hippie Moms or Hippie Dads were in earshot.

And so it was that my first impression of a cult came with images of Los Angeles Bloods and Crips, a belief that was corrected a few nights later when I was going to bed and anxiously asked my Hippie Mom if the man was going to come back with AK’s and sawed-offs to shoot them and take us away to pimp us out like we were his hos.

“Queso… what on earth are you talking about?”

“The man. From the deployment of family searches, or whatever it was. Is he gonna come back and break up our cult?”

“We are not a cult, Queso. Where did you even hear that word?”

“The man said it. Said he was here because he’d heard about our cult. Bob said that’s like a gang.”

“Yeah, well, what have I told you about listening to Bob?” she asked rhetorically, a point I didn’t catch.

“That listening to Bob makes a person the back end of an elephant,” I replied, and Hippie Mom laughed. I loved making her laugh. She had such a sweet innocence about her that always seemed to calm my fears and ease my anxieties.

“Queso, we are not a cult. We’re a commune. We’re a group of people who want to live differently from how most other people live, and so we choose to stay away from them. But that does not make us a cult.” she said, pushing the long, curly black locks of hair back from my brow.

“Well what is a cult, then?” I asked.

She paused, looked up at the ceiling like she always did when she was teaching us our lessons and we asked a question to which she wanted to give a precise, important answer: “Let me explain it this way: How do we make decisions around here?”

“As a group,” I replied. “We have the council and we have to have conspensus.”

“Consensus,” she corrected.

“Consensus,” I echoed. “We have to have… that … if we’re gonna change how we do something around here.”

“That’s right,” she said with a smile. “And who is the most important person in this commune?”

I paused. This had to be one of those trick Hippie Mom questions. We always were told no one is more important than any one else, not just on the commune, but on the whole Planet Earth. I looked up at her confused.

“You’re thinking the right thing, son. No one is more important than anyone. I’m not more important than you. You’re not more important than your baby sister. We’re all important.”

“Even Bob?”

“Yes,” she replied with another laugh. “Even Bob is important.”

“So…”

“So a cult is a group of people who believe one person is more important than any other person, to the point where they would do really, really bad things for that person — or let that person do really bad things to them. And all the decisions? They’re all made by that one person and in a way that boosts that one person up so he starts to think of himself as even more special.. And the rest of the people just follow along and think it’s the right thing to do, even though deep down inside, they might know that’s not true.”

“That sounds awful,” I said.

“It is. Cults are all about fear. Fear of that one person. Fear of some nasty higher power that’s out to get you. Are you afraid of anyone here?”

I went through a mental inventory of everyone who called the commune ‘Home’. There wasn’t one person who treated me with anything less than pure kindness.

“No,” I replied simply.

“What do you feel when you think about our home?”

Another pause. I was never one to answer any question flippantly. “Love,” I finally said.

“And does anyone make you do anything, make anyone else do anything that doesn’t feel right?”

The truth was, no one made anyone do anything here. We enjoyed a sense of freedom I have yet to find in the outside world. “No.”

“All right then,” she said with a smile.

“So we’re not a cult?”

“Do we sound like a cult?”

“No,” I said. “No, we don’t sound like a cult.”

And so I went to sleep.

Life was simpler then. It’s that way for most 5-year-olds. Since that time, I’ve walked away from the commune, met my wife, got married, gone back to the commune on my own, left again and experienced a wide variety of what the outside world has to offer.

No matter how many years come between me and commune life, the word “cult” seems to be like my dog, dutifully trotting behind me on the way to the park.

And so I have become something of a student of those who try to live apart from our dominant culture. It interests me. Sometimes it scares me. What some people have labeled cults are often nothing more than self-sustaining communities full of good people who don’t fit in with the accepted culture in our country. And what some label nothing more than self-sustaining communities are sometimes, in fact, dangerous cults that destroy families and ruin the lives of everyone who comes in contact with them.

There’s a disturbing reality about the creature that is human beings: We seem to be hardwired to live in community with one another, to form societies, friendships and intimate relationships. Yet when we get together as a species, we are capable of doing horrific things to one another.

Crowds suck. I say this not just because I prefer the company of smaller groups of friendly people. Rather, I say this because there’s a verified, studied mania that occurs when people get together in large numbers. Look no further than the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at our nation’s Capitol. There were some otherwise very wise, very intelligent, very civilized people who were part of the mob that endangered the lives of our elected officials and peace officers, as well as the foundation of our nation.

But this crowd-induced mania is hardly partisan. The violent offenders during the past half-decade’s Black Lives Matter protestors who took things from a cry for racial justice to wanton destruction and looting are, by and large, not bad people. They’re just … human beings. Flawed, ugly, mean, nasty, violent human beings.

Indeed, the propensity to be part of a mob is neither an ass nor elephant characteristic. It’s an actual thing that appears only in the human members of the animal kingdom. Scientifically, it’s called “social contagion.” If we see someone doing something we would consider wrong while we’re in a large group, our inhibitions lower and we are more likely to do the thing we, on our own, would never do. The effect ramps up if that person happens to be popular or charismatic. Bottom line: Biologically, most of us stand ready to be sheep.

Which gets us back to cults.

The top two accepted dictionary definitions of a cult are, “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object,” followed by, “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.”

Most of us nod our heads when we hear that definition because it makes sense in our culture. Cults place religious importance on one person or thing and exclude rationality. Jim Jones. Charles Manson. Keith Rainere. Amy Carlson.

How about Jesus Christ?

Most scoff at the notion that Christianity could be considered a cult. But what truly is Christianity — or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or or or or — beyond “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure?”

“But Queso,” you say. “Jesus was the son of God. It’s provable.” On the first part, you may be right. On the second part, no it’s not … not by any accepted definition of what “proof” means that we would accept of our lives depended on it. While Apologists are right in citing some archeological evidence and things written down early in what we now call the Common Era, the reality is that not one first-hand account testifying to the reality of Jesus’ divinity exists, which should give the rational person at least a moment’s pause to consider the very real possibility that he is not.

The reality is, though, an opinion that Jesus was not divine would be loudly shouted down by devotees to what is, in our country, the dominant belief. That’s because what started out as something exactly like the second definition of a cult — “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister” — caught on in popularity as those in generations that followed Jesus’s death began espousing a theory of his kinship with God instead of mortals.

A skeptic could say that is the definition of social contagion.

I’m not saying Jesus was or wasn’t a part of a version of God. I am saying that those who try to explain that belief adhere to a line of thought that accepts conception of a child without sex, the ability to defy the known forces that govern our planet, the ability to revive life from death and the existence of an unseen place where those with like beliefs live in paradise apart from those who raise an eyebrow at what would be, when put into a different context, called magic.

The conviction that Jesus was the son of God is older and more widespread than the belief in L. Ron Hubbard’s thetans, but neither is rational.

“But cults lead to the deaths of innocent people,” is sometimes the pushback at this point. And I agree. More than 900 people died at Jonestown following Jim Jones. Charles Manson’s followers slaughtered a pregnant woman, among others. And just look at what L. Ron Hubbard’s work did to Tom Cruise:

An estimate 1 million to 9 million people died during the Crusades, marching across the landscape to beat back the heathens who believed in a different version of an unseen force that created the universe and who promised a different means to attain an unseeable eternal salvation.

And here’s the thing: Statistically, both views are most likely 100 percent wrong.

There are currently more than 4,300 different religions in the world. And that’s just right now. Over the course of the history of societies and religions, there have been hundreds of thousands of sets of beliefs that delve into what we call “the spiritual.” Yes, there are similarities across many. But a huge majority of them say they are right to the exclusion of all others. And they do it, again, without anything coming even close to the integrity of proof we would want if we were on trial for our lives.

Faith is a great, great thing. But it’s also a deadly thing. It causes people to act as they wouldn’t otherwise act. It causes nations to start horrific wars that produce unimaginable suffering and lead adherents to blow up cars, ram planes into buildings, drive over crowded sidewalks and cut off the heads of those who did nothing else but have the gall to believe something different.

And that leads me back to the commune.

There, it was OK to believe something different. That doesn’t mean that all beliefs were welcomed. We denied entry into our group for a variety reasons. There was a family led by a man who believed in the supremacy of Blacks over all others. That would have been harmful to our group. There was a man who, during his trial period with us, asked why we welcomed in a family from Vietnam along with him. That also would have been harmful to our group.

But the guy who kept to the traditions of our indigenous people and worshipped the elements that in so many ways structured the existence of our commune? That didn’t harm anyone. And neither did the family who believed life was created through a series of biological happenstances that resulted in a succession of other happenstances that led to our brilliant selves and that, once those biological happenstances stopped happening in each one of us, we would simply cease to exist.

We allowed in people from all walks of life — and the one common characteristic among all of us was that we were each humble enough to admit that what we held as core spiritual believes had at least the possibility of being wrong.

A cult harms people. And I think it is a good thing that its primary definition includes the words ” … devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” The devotion toward money can be a cult. Toward a career. A car. A house. A football team. A woman. A man. A movie star. A brand of beer or whiskey.

It can all become a cult that ruins lives.

Here’s what I know: So much about faith and the devotion to it is unknown. If we believe in something, we tend to give a lot of leeway to its less-rational parts. So yeah, a Christian can on Saturday point at a Mormon and say how crazy it is to base your life on the belief that a guy found some divinely inspired golden plates buried in a field in upstate New York and on Sunday be served a piece of bread and cup of wine that, at the moment of consumption, transforms into the flesh and blood of a god-man brought into this world by a virgin, a man whose death (and return to life after three days of decomposition) created a mystical force that brings the like-minded into righteous alignment with the creator of the universe.

In the end, it’s all crazy, crazy stuff and makes absolutely no rational sense.

It’s all very… well… cultish.

Q.F. Conseco is the relative of website owner and Storyteller-in-Chief John Agliata. He lives outside Escandido, California, near the Hellhole Canyon Preserve with his wife, Flaca, and their three children, Franz, Hans and Helga. All three are homeschooled and extremely unsocial. Q.F. is a singer, songwriter and poet when he is not working as a trimmer for a large medical marijuana growing operation in Humboldt County, California. He won the 50-yard dash in his commune’s field day when he was 5 years old.


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