A Cult Member Turned Expert Explains How Anyone Can Be Brainwashed
Dr. Alexandra Stein was brainwashed by a Marxist-Leninist sect as a young woman. Now she studies them for a living.
Photo by Marcel via Stocksy
When I arrive at Dr. Alexandra Stein's house in North London, she's on the phone. "Your number one job is to stay in contact with them," she says empathically into the receiver, giving advice on how to help someone who is getting sucked into a cult. She takes a lot of these calls from concerned family members because she is, after all she's been through, an authority on cults.
For a decade, Dr Stein was a member of a leftist political cult known as The O. Once she escaped, she wrote a book and a PhD on the topic, and became one of the leading academic experts in the field. She has just published her second book, Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. On a cold, gray Tuesday, we talk about her experiences, the definition of a cult, and whether the leader of the free world is, in fact, a cult leader.
"People don't think of political groups as cults," Stein tells me, over a mug of hot tea. "But they can be. There are zillions of political cults around the world." She would know. Stein grew up in London to South African parents, and they were heavily political as a family. "Politics was in my bones from a very early age."
When she was 18, Stein moved to America in search of adventures and grassroots activism. She found it—for a time. Then, as she tells it, the Reagan era came and a lot of her comrades disbanded and got on with their lives, leaving her alone with her political passions. She'd just broken up with a boyfriend when she first met members of The O., the fringe Marxist-Leninist cult based in Minneapolis.
They lured her in with the promise of working towards a left-wing revolution and ultimately took over her life. The group isolated her from friends and family, placing her in an approved marriage, telling her to have children as part of her mission, and forcing her to work in a bakery eight hours every day after her full-time position as a computer integrator—both jobs that she had been instructed to do by the group. She lived in "a weird, dark, secret little cult house" and worked feverishly for the cause.
Thanks to her two jobs, Stein was exhausted all the time and lost every major relationship outside the cult. While she couldn't quite work out what baked goods or computing had to do with the coming revolution, she didn't have the mental faculties or the strength to question her way of life.
It wasn't until 1991, after one failed escape attempt, that she finally extricated herself from the cult and started to wonder what the hell had happened to her. It led to a lifelong research mission to understand what had happened—and what continues to happen to people around the world today, "from political cults to yoga cults to ISIS, and everything in between," Stein says.
That's what she's trying to get the world to see with her new book—that no matter what the ideology of a cult, the techniques are the same. Their leaders operate in the same way as both totalitarian leaders and domestic abusers, and to understand that is to protect yourself from their coercion. The social psychology behind these dangerous groups should be taught in schools and universities the world over, she says.
People don't understand this, but anyone in a cult is not really able to think, or to feel.
"I have a five-point definition of a cult," Stein tells me. "One: The leader is charismatic and authoritarian. Two: The structure of the group isolates people. The third thing is total ideology, like, 'You only need me and no other belief system has any relevance whatsoever." The fourth thing is the process of brainwashing." The fifth point, she says, is the result: "creating deployable followers who will do what you say regardless of their own self survival interests."
"That's why you get people who will blow themselves up," she concludes. "People don't understand this, but anyone in a cult is not really able to think, or to feel.'
Watch: Inside the Weird World of an Islamic 'Feminist' Cult
It's like being absorbed into a group of false, sometimes cruel friends. Cults have the illusion of solidarity, but Stein describes them as a perverse group of deeply lonely individuals who have lost the will and the capacity to make decisions on their own. "You can't confide in anyone in a cult," she says. "If you say, 'There seems to be a problem here,' you will be likely to be punished, so there's nowhere to go. You're scared but you've got nobody else left in your life, so you cling to the very people who are causing you that fear."
That's how cults operate: on a cycle of fear and attachment. It's Stockholm Syndrome, only more insidious and confusing because you feel like you made the choice to join when you started out.
Alarmingly, Stein believes that everyone is susceptible to cult tactics. These groups know how to use your strength of character against you, she says. "It's a very natural human response to say, 'That couldn't happen to me.' The number of people who've kindly listened to my story over the years and then politely turned to me and said, 'How awful this has happened to you, I'm so sorry. It would never happen to me because I'm too independent.' More or less everybody says that."
"I've learned not to get angry about it," she adds. "It's a natural thing to want to distance yourself from something frightening and awful. But we need only go back to Hitler's Germany to see that it can happen to anybody. Anyone can become dissociated to the point where they are not seeing what is happening in front of their eyes."
Shockingly, Stein—who attended the Downing Street demonstrations against Donald Trump earlier this year—also believes that, going on her own criteria, the US president has all the makings of a cult leader. "Is he charismatic and authoritarian? Yes. Is he building a steeply structured authoritarian hierarchy? It does look like he is," she says, pointing to how the Trump family's involvement in the government. "Is Trump's an absolute ideology? Yes! Does he show us this process of isolation, brainwashing and fear? [The Trump administration is] certainly causing fear. And the final one, does he have deployable followers? I think we're going to see it, unless we get rid of him quick."
"I think we're seeing enough; enough to say Trump is operating like a cult leader," she says, before adding tearfully, "I wish it wasn't so."