Robert Earl Burton founded The Fellowship of Friends in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970. Burton modeled his own group after that of Alex Horn, loosely borrowing from the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In recent years, the Fellowship has cast its net more broadly, embracing any spiritual tradition that includes (or can be interpreted to include) the notion of "presence."

The Fellowship of Friends exhibits the hallmarks of a "doomsday religious cult," wherein Burton exercises absolute authority, and demands loyalty and obedience. He warns that his is the only path to consciousness and eternal life. Invoking his gift of prophecy, he has over the years prepared his flock for great calamities (e.g. a depression in 1984, the fall of California in 1998, nuclear holocaust in 2006, and most recently the October 2018 "Fall of California Redux.")

According to Burton, Armageddon still looms in our future and when it finally arrives, non-believers shall perish while, through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (recently expanded to 81 angels, including himself and his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci), Burton and his followers shall be spared, founding a new and more perfect civilization. Read more about the blog.

Presented in a reverse chronology, the Fellowship's history may be navigated via the "Blog Archive" located in the sidebar below.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The guardian of presence

Robert Earl Burton, Fellowship of Friends cult founder and dandy
Photo source

"I'll Never Tell" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, June 30, 2015:
OMG! Robert Earl Burton (REB) is showing his teeth. Is there not an exercise to not show your teeth, especially when being photographed? Then, again, that is a photograph, LOL. But, REB is exempt from exercises that are imposed on everyone else in the cult, right? Here is an interesting recent story:

Fellowship Of Friends (FoF) is reported to have a role at dinners and/or meetings called ‘the guardian of presence,’ or something similar. That role has the responsibility of photographing persons who are effusing a lack of presence, for instance, when a person is speaking and simultaneously gesticulating with their hands, like some people from certain cultures are more apt to do. The role is a sort of a ‘Sergeant-at-Arms,’ if you will.

Well, there was a certain Mercurial FoF student selected for this role at an event. While REB was speaking, REB was gesticulating with his hands, and the Mercurial ‘guardian of presence’ photographed REB for such behaviour. The result from that was a leave-of-absence from FoF for the transgression.

That is about all I know about it; none of the details beyond. Perhaps the Mercurial will take it as their graduation ceremony?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Cathie L.'s story

"Cathie L." wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, April 9, 2015:
[Quoting] #10 Robert Stoltze
“Would any of you ever have thought twice about joining the FoF if you hadn’t experimented with psychotropic substances?”
I joined when I was 27, but my “magnetic center” or interest in things spiritual (wanting to know what was behind the veil of everyday reality, wanting to understand who I am, wanting to evolve, fulfill my human potential, etc. etc.) began long before that, and had nothing to do with drug experimentation. I did very little of that in college (none before that), only occasionally getting high when a joint was going around at parties, or hanging out with roommates after a day of classes and studying.

But the “magnetic center” was in me before all that. I remember clearly a childhood experience of being upset for some trivial reason, running to my room in tears, and sobbing into my pillow, when suddenly I was filled with a soft, glowing golden light, a presence clearly felt, a comforting feeling that I was loved and protected, and all would be well.

Whether this was something external that entered me, or something intrinsic to my own being, seems unimportant. It was there, I experienced it in a moment of spontaneous grace, and it has been with me ever since (not always so clearly!) I knew then that there was something unseen behind appearance of things, and I wanted to know more about it.

Another key turned in the lock when I was in high school, walking home one beautiful spring afternoon after hearing a talk given by an astrologer. (Heaven knows how this talk came to be presented at our straight-laced, conservative high school, but nevertheless….) As I walked down the street pondering the idea that the sun, moon and planets could affect us psychologically, it was as if a door opened up in my awareness. “Of course they can!” I realized. At that moment the sun seemed brighter, the air softer, the smell of the roses more sweet. Another spontaneous moment of expanded consciousness, having nothing to do with drugs.

So you see, I already wanted to learn more about these kinds of ideas and states. In college, I changed my major from English to Psychology. I read Freud, Jung, Adler, Perls, Ram Dass, Alan Watts, all the heavies. I joined an extracurricular “consciousness raising” discussion group. I was a seeker.

In 1978, I lived in a farmhouse in Santa Barbara with several roommates. One of them, with whom I shared an interest in astrology, mentioned casually that she was involved in a group that taught the ideas of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, whom I had never heard of. I questioned her about the group and its ideas, and after several discussions, I was intrigued, and went to a prospective student meeting. Book titles like “The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution” and “In Search of the Miraculous” grabbed my interest right away. You know the rest. I didn’t have to think twice.

So this is why it seems such a crime for anyone to take advantage of these youthful, compelling, entirely human yearnings, and distort and pervert them to serve something else. It took me 7 years to “wake up,” but I did wake up.

And the process continues. All euphorias are temporary. No state is permanent. Enlightenment is overrated.

Here and now then, here and now.

"Cathie L." wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 31, 2015:
Re: #28 “Denial of Death” article

In the fall of 1979, I was asked to move from Santa Barbara to the Chicago center, located in the small town of Ravinia, on the shore of Lake Michigan. I still remember that time in vivid flashes, now and again.

The house was spectacular, a grand old midwestern mansion with a formal dining room, gigantic kitchen, a grand staircase, library, servant’s quarters and attic. There was a vast basement with ancient plumbing and a decrepit heater that barely kept the place warm, consuming oil by the truckload (steam heat). One poor student’s sleeping quarters were down there, near the noisy beast!

The rest of us were crammed into every habitable nook and cranny of the house, from the attic to the servant’s quarters. My assigned room when I arrived was an upstairs “sun porch,” no doubt fine in summer, but a barren icebox in winter. After toughing it out for a few weeks, I begged for another room, and was offered the floor of a very large closet in the master suite’s dressing area. I gratefully unrolled my sleeping bag there each night for the duration of my stay.

Not that any of us had much time for sleeping. Most of us were working two jobs to meet the rent, utilities, food and teaching payments, as well as paying for elaborate “traveling teacher” dinners and other incidentals that arose. In the cold early mornings, some of us would walk to the train station and ride into Chicago together, often meeting up again late that night for the trip home.

I remember one train ride in particular, at the end of a long day’s work at my two jobs, as a proofreader at Ernst & Whinney, followed by a part-time night job at Northern Trust Bank, typing crop reports. I had brought a book to read with me on the train, probably inspired by one of the little “daily cards,” bearing a quotation from a “conscious being,” that were given out each week.

My book was Plato’s Five Great Dialogues, and I was reading “Phaedo.” I remember having the sensation of my mind being drawn up into a higher plane of thought, feeling the clarity and power of the ancient philosopher’s words reaching me across time and space. The existence of the soul was assumed. The light of the mind was self-evident. I felt the connection. At the time I considered it a “higher state,” and I still do.

So there’s a little gratitude story here, one of the finer moments in my life that happened as a result of the efforts of my fellow friends in the ‘ship…the ones who typeset and printed those daily cards on the hand presses, the ones who established the far-flung teaching houses and worked to “create memory” for each other, who walked with me along the snow covered streets of Ravinia in the deep winter nights….a reminiscence sing.

"Cathie L." wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, June 29, 2015:
How I Left the School and Got a Life

In 1984-85, I was working at a law office in Marysville. One of the attorneys there was working with the FOF on defending the suit that had been been filed by Sanders et al. I had access to privileged information, depositions, by which I learned what had “allegedly” been going on at the Blake Cottage/Galleria. I put “allegedly” in quotes because it was intuitively clear to me that these allegations were true.

I had lived in the Court of the Caravans in the late 1970s, before the Blake Cottage was torn down. I remember seeing young male students walking back and forth from the cottage on the road to the Lincoln Lodge, or outside my caravan window, cutting across the field in the small hours of the morning. At the time I thought nothing of it, but when I read the depositions, one of which was by a man I personally knew, it all started to fall into place. Prior to that, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I remember thinking what a hypocrite Robert was, with all anti-infrasex exercises like “no sex before marriage” and “no relationships for one year after ending one.” I had thought he was celibate! Poor little fool, oh yeah, I was a fool, oh yeah.

I left in 1985, around the time MB [Miles Barth] left. I moved to the Bay Area where my parents had a home; I hadn’t severed all ties with them, fortunately. I got a job at a law firm in San Francisco, where another FOF student happened to work. Thank goodness for networking!

[Coincidentally with post #47 about the failed rocket launch today, I was working at this San Francisco law firm when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986. I remember the employees assembling in the conference room to watch the newscast, and the sense of deep sorrow and shock I felt, especially about Christa McAuliffe’s death. Another story….]

MB held a large meeting for former students around that time (late 1985- early 1986?) He spoke to the group about his reasons for leaving, but I can’t recall what he said. Maybe what he said was, “I’m not going to talk about my reasons for leaving.” [ed. - Exactly.]

He announced that he intended to start a series of small groups if anyone was interested, to continue discussing the Fourth Way ideas that he felt had value, whatever could be salvaged from the wreckage, I guess. He seemed to want to continue teaching. I signed up for the groups and went to several meetings at MB’s apartment in San Francisco. This was extremely valuable to me as a way of processing the departure from the cult and maintaining some kind of connection with ideas I still believed were useful, and with people who shared an interest in them. Eventually I moved on.

In the mid-1990s, Stella started an email group for former members on a listserv (some of you Internet old-timers may remember what a listserv is!) There was a lot of material “processed” there as well. One project that grew out of Stella’s list was a chapbook of poetry by list members. It was called Virtual Exposure. I still have a copy of it. In 1995, someone from the toadhall list published a directory, with names, former names, and addresses, an interesting bit of FOF history and memorabilia, which I also still have.

Ames wrote above (#24): “We also admitted that, though we had new friends, they were few and far between, and even fewer with which one could have a conversation like we were having right then and at the level of what we felt we were communicating.”

That’s true for me too. You had to be there to really understand it. The ties run deep. Maybe that’s something many former cult members, and perhaps soldiers, survivors of concentration camps and other shared trauma, have in common.

"Robert Stolzle" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 23, 2015:
I enjoyed reading Cathie L.’s post in #32 because I am personally still wanting to understand how the FoF devolved into the mess so many people posting here (and in the past) experienced. I found her historical account interesting. How do you think YOU WERE CHOSEN, Cathie? And what did you do in Ravinia besides work? The group I left still seemed to have the potential to help people. But “it is an ill wind that blows no one any good”, too. Humans are constantly trying to put a positive spin on their faults and travails. The accounts of how cancer helps people never end.

It seems postings here have covered most all the methods of creating “mystical experiences” already. That doesn’t diminish their personal relevance. Native American’s vision quests involved hunger and fatigue; isn’t it likely, Cathie, that your Plato experience came from that? I am sure that many of the FoF students’ higher experiences came from the fatigue and sleep deprivation of the “36 hour work octave”. I suspect this technique was built into the Fourth Way and the truth that, “Even a blind hog can find an acorn.” is the objective reality that has kept the FoF going all these years.

"Cathie L." wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, June 1, 2015:

I wasn’t chosen, I volunteered when they asked if anyone would be willing to relocate to the Chicago center. Or did you mean how did I ever imagine I was “chosen” to receive the help of C-Influence in a conscious Fourth Way school? Someone probably told me that, and it sounded good to me, romantic dingbat that I was.

I don’t remember doing much else in Chicago besides work and sleep. Museum trips? Socializing with my fellow “slaving overpaying cult members”? Sure, probably. I was only there for one winter, then it was back to California to join the slaving, practically unpaid cult members in the Renaissance office.

You might say that fatigue and hunger were involved in my experience on the train, but that would only be part of the story. I’ve been tired and hungry before and since, and not had mystical experiences. Maybe it was the rhythmic motion of the train (“out of the cradle, endlessly rocking”), and the repetitive sound of the wheels on the tracks, like a shamanic drumbeat lulling me into a trance. Maybe it was my desire to have a mystical experience, to taste Truth and consciously participate in the Great Mystery of being, to know why I am here, the nature of the soul, what happens when we die.

Maybe it was all a dream, signifying nothing. Maybe we’re all bozos on this bus. Maybe everything you know is wrong.

Maybe I found an acorn.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

"America's Most Peculiar Appellation"

[ed. - As in most stories about the Fellowship, it's often difficult to separate myth from reality. The reference to Karl Werner "escaping the Nazis" seems a bit misleading. I recall him speaking fondly of his days as an officer in the German navy, commanding a u-boat during World War II. Also, there were many AVAs established prior to the designation of "North Yuba" in 1985. Renaissance Vineyards, which at one time reported 365 acres under vines, has reduced their estate vineyard to 45 acres (while leasing out another 15 acres to Clos Saron and Grant-Marie wineries.)]

From Vinography: a wine blog:

By Alder Yarrow
To say that the economy of California's Yuba County peaked during the Gold Rush and has been in slow decline ever since would not be much of an exaggeration. This sparsely populated area of the state has been among California's poorest regions for decades. Yet seemingly out of the blue in 1985, it became home to one of the very first few American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the country, and by then already housed the single largest vineyard in the entire state. The story of the North Yuba AVA sounds like something out of a satirical novel: a famous German winemaker who escaped the Nazis, his young American wife, a soul-searching Israeli artist, and a bona-fide religious cult that brought them all together.
Read the rest of the story on

Monday, June 8, 2015

ISIS, Cults, and Religious Extremists: How Mind Control Really Works

[ed. - Steven Hassan, considered an authority on destructive cults, is interviewed for Yahoo! Health. See also "I was a Moonie cult leader", an interview featuring Hassan. Curiously, prior to being called Apollo, the Fellowship of Friends compound was called Isis.]
Steve Hassan is an expert on cults — and a survivor of one.
Photo: Steve Hassan/Twitter)
By Cassie Shortsleeve

The power of social influence is great — and sometimes dangerous. Would you know if someone or something else was controlling your mind?

You know how the saying goes: With great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, psychology at its most powerful can be entirely stripped of responsibility.

Groups like ISIS don’t use just violence to get their messages across, they use psychological techniques to recruit and keep members. Cults and controversial religious groups gain followers and power by instilling lifestyles of fear and obedience — arguably rewiring people’s brains and manipulating their minds. Members, then, begin to act in ways unrecognizable to family and friends, leading some to wonder: Have they lost their minds?

But what is “mind control”? How does it work? And just how much are we influenced by those in our social spheres? Furthermore, is there hope for those who have fallen victim to this kind of psychological abuse?

The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Influence

Many experts argue that mind control and social influence — how much your emotions, behaviors, and even opinions are affected by other people — occurs on a continuum. It can range from good and healthy, like friendship, to negative and unhealthy, like imprisonment.

Healthy social influence respects individuality, free will, conscientiousness, honesty, integrity, and accountability, says Steve Hassan, one of the foremost experts on mind control and cults, and author of Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-Selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults: 25th Anniversary Edition. With a healthy parent-child influence, for example, the parent is influencing the child to be his or herself and grow up to be a good adult, he says.

But on the negative side, influence is destructive. It becomes “about control and obedience, cloning people in the image of the group, not encouraging individuality or creativity, regulating what people read or who they can associate with, and the installation of phobias,” he tells Yahoo Health.

How can you tell the difference? “Ethical groups tell you up front what they want and who they are,” says Hassan. There is what he calls “informed consent” among members. But with cults and groups that practice mind control, there’s “a lot of deception, a lot of lies, and people don’t know what they’re getting into.”

What is a cult, in the first place? Hassan says there are a “million definitions, from theological to sociological. I define a destructive cult as an authoritarian pyramid-structured group that uses deception in recruitments and mind control to keep people dependent and obedient.” Of course, there are benign cults, too — people who are into rock stars or musicians, for example. And cults aren’t always religious. For example, Hassan calls the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (better known as ISIS) a political cult that happens to use religion. And cults can be all sizes — one-on-one or a state with millions of people. Many are listed here.

Most cult leaders, he adds, believe what they are preaching — which makes them more dangerous. The vast majority of leaders are narcissistic, probably personality disordered, and have some antisocial characteristics, he adds.

Hassan would know. At 19, he was recruited into the Unification Church of the United States, eventually growing into a leadership position within the cult and breaking away after two-and-a-half years. In a nutshell, the church is a destructive cult whose position is that founder “Sun Myung Moon was the new Messiah and that his mission was to establish a new ‘kingdom’ on Earth,” Hassan writes in his book.

“I wasn’t looking to change religions when I was recruited,” says Hassan. “I was situationally vulnerable. I was a junior in college, my girlfriend had just dumped me, and one day, three women approached me and we started chatting. I thought they were interested in me. They didn’t tell me they were celibate. I had no idea that they were part of a cult. If they had told me what they believed, I wouldn’t have had them sit down.”

Mind-Control Tactics Explained

After that initial conversation, the women Hassan had met invited him on a weekend getaway. “I worked on weekends but happened to get that weekend off, so I thought, ‘Am I supposed to go to this?’” he remembers. Hassan attended what turned out to be a textbook recruitment weekend for the group. He was isolated, deprived of sleep, had no privacy, and had hypnotic techniques practiced on him. “Day by day, they wore me down and put ideas in my head — like that World War III was about to happen between the Soviet Union and the U.S. I wasn’t religious, but within a day, it was all about God. When I said, ‘I’m Jewish — I’m not interested in Christianity,’ they did the classic technique of trying to make me feel guilty for being close-minded. Within two weeks, they had their hooks in me. I was made a leader in the cult. I changed into a stranger.”

What Hassan knows now is that that weekend, he fell victim to the initial stages of mind control — something that, years later, he would become an expert counselor in.

Defined by Philip Zimbardo, PhD, professor emeritus at Stanford University and former president of the American Psychological Association, mind control is:

The process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes. It is neither magical nor mystical, but a process that involves a set of basic social psychological principles.

But don’t noncult religions and groups also have influence over us — and what we think and believe? Hassan says that if religious indoctrination is respecting people’s free will, is love-based, and allows people to leave if they want to, then it’s on the benign or constructive side of the influence spectrum.

The process of mind control includes a slew of steps, including isolating people, interrupting their information flow, doing an information overload, throwing off their balance, or creating mystical experiences. All of these, and more, are part of a set of criteria developed by renowned psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton that must be met in order for one to be mind controlled.

Hassan developed his own model, called the BITE model, based on Lifton’s criteria that determines just how much social influence a group has over someone. BITE stands for behavior control, information control, thought control, and emotional control. You can go through each of those components and size up where a group falls, he says. Hassan refers to ISIS as a mind-control cult on the extreme negative end of the spectrum.

Are Brainwashing and Mind Control the Same Thing?

An extreme version of mind control has been referred to as brainwashing, a term coined during the Korean War. Initially, it referred to prisoners of war taken by force who appeared to — over time and through enduring torture — buy into the communist point of view. Later, people began applying the term to nonforce situations, explains Hassan. But experts are divided on the use of the word — and the idea itself. Some argue that it’s outdated and specious. Others suggest it exists only to describe forceful situations.

“Brainwashing probably does, as a term, apply to the prisoners who turned in the Korean War, but it meets the criteria of decisions and changes in outlook and philosophy that occur under extreme duress,” H. Newton Malony, master of divinity, PhD, and former senior professor at the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, tells Yahoo Health. (Malony is considered a “cult apologist,” a term given to experts who — controversially — don’t automatically assume that just because someone is different or is in a cultlike group means that he or she is “brainwashed” or under mind control. Maloney has also served as a resource to the church of Scientology.)

We all disagree with ISIS and its social influence, for example. ISIS cannot be defended in the way they line people up and kill them. “Mind control and coercive persuasion occur when a person is not free to counter a thought or enter into a dialogue. And ISIS’ actions represent the ultimate duress,” says Malony.

“Brainwashing is far toward the destructive end of influence,” adds Hassan. “It implies force — kidnapping, beatings, branding, or threatening to kill.”

With mind control, on the other hand, there’s an illusion of having control over your own life, says Hassan. There’s benevolence toward teachers or respected individuals “above” you, and “taking over someone” requires a process, he says.

The Dark Side of Social Influence

Less radical groups use psychological tactics, as well. Take the homeschooling education program Advanced Training Institute, used by the reality-TV-famous Duggar family — where sexual abuse is, in a way, taught to be something that can be blamed on the immodesty of the victim.

“I have a real issue with any group where there’s no encouragement for people to have a conscience, and where a group proposes ideas like that women have to dress a certain way,” Hassan says. “That’s not on the healthy side of the continuum in my opinion.” Be wary of any group, he says, that uses ‘us versus them’ or ‘good versus evil’ simplistic ideology and can’t consider things from a different point of view.

Scientology is another group with recruitment tactics and practices that have been criticized as cultlike — particularly the practice of cutting ties with former members, and suggesting that current members to cut ties with those who don’t share their beliefs. “I’ve often felt that social shunning — where … [some religious groups] would not allow a person who left to have any contact with the group — is pretty powerful for us human beings. We are social animals and value family and people to a great degree,” says Malony.

The most powerful part of mind control, though, may come from the “t” part of Hassan’s BITE model: thought control. “Early on in my involvement with the cult, my father called and told me he read an article that Moon [founder of the Unification Church of the United States] had a gun factory,” he remembers. Normally, that would have stirred up doubt about Moon and the group. But Hassan had been trained by the group to do what he refers to as “thought stopping” to avoid critical thinking. So instead of asking his father: “How do you know that? What proof do you have?” he started chanting in his mind things like “crush Satan.”

“You become so polarized against the outside world,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of fear that you need to do things the right way.”

The Installation of Phobias as Part of Mind Control

When the movie Jaws was released in 1975, a new phobia of sharks was born. People took their boats out of the ocean and kept their kids on the shoreline. “People became afraid,” says Hassan. “But the truth is that shark attacks are rare.” The point is, the movie led to a misfiring of our protection system — our way of safeguarding ourselves to perceive danger, says Hassan.

Similarly, mind-control groups use phobia indoctrination, says Hassan, to keep members obedient. Sometimes, these can be personalized based on what a group learns about a person. Other times, they’re broader: that you’ll get cancer, be hit by a bus, or your family will be killed if you leave the group. While Hassan was in the Unification Church of the United States, he “was drilled with the fear of evil spirits,” he says. “I didn’t even believe in spirits before I joined the group. But when The Exorcist movie came out, Moon gave a lecture saying that this is what would happen if you left the church.”

Sometimes, in extreme cases like sex trafficking or terrorism, these phobias aren’t just talked about — they are actual, possible outcomes. “Killing is not just a threat in your mind. It’s something real that happens, as seen through the way ISIS kills,” says Hassan.

So if someone is held under these mental conditions, Hassan says they can’t imagine leaving the group and being happy and fulfilled: “The moment they can, they are out the door.”

The Power of the Situation

But why don’t people just leave a mind-controlling group, you may wonder.

“The public tends to blame the victim and see people who have been mind controlled as weak or defective instead of that they were subjected to a social influence program,” says Hassan. “And what social psychology teaches is that we are very social beings — we are hardwired to conform to what we perceive to be our social group. People identify with and follow who we believe to be authority figures, and this can be taken advantage of.”

In fact, social influence is much more powerful than you may realize. Take the classic and controversial Stanford prison experiment that Zimbardo conducted in 1973. (Ethically, it would never be allowed today.) He recruited Stanford college students to participate in a two-week experiment, in which 10 students pretended to be prisoners and 11 acted as guards. But the study didn’t last two weeks; it spun out of control, and after only six days, the prisoners were showing signs of depression, anger, and anxiety. The guards harassed prisoners, acting in sadistic ways. The study — which is taught in psychology classes around the world — sheds light on the idea of the power of the situation.

It’s research and theories like this, that could explain — at least in part — high-profile cases like that of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of publishing tycoon Randolph Hearst, who was abducted at age 19 by the terrorist group Symbionese Liberation Army, and went on to conduct a slew of crimes including robbing a bank.

Can Anyone Be Mind Controlled?

There’s an important distinction between people who join cults and leave a previous life, and people who were born into a situation, says Hassan. “For people born in, that’s all they know, and there’s a difference there in terms of sense of self. When I was recruited, my real identity got broken down and replaced by a cult identity.”

Take ISIS, for instance. Islam is, in itself, a peaceful religion, and most practitioners don’t agree with the extremist views of ISIS, which promotes violence in the name of the faith. But ISIS uses (and twists) concepts from Islam — concepts that may be more familiar to someone who is Muslim, who could be the target of recruitment. “You would have to say that their decision is not entirely counter to the culture around them, while it may seem incredibly counter to someone else,” Malony says.

The flipside, according to Hassan, is that people have vulnerabilities. “If someone is broken up or moving to a new city or graduating or has an illness or death, they may be more susceptible to someone new entering their life, because they’re vulnerable,” says Hassan. And people who may have trouble reading social cues correctly, or who have a very rule-bound approach to reality, can also be suggestible to cult recruitment, he adds.

Scarily enough, falling subject to mind control feels a lot like falling in love, says Hassan. “You have that strong feeling to be with someone, so you commit — that’s one slice of what it feels like,” he explains. “You feel swept up in this very intense emotional state. You have this very strong belief and hope that what you’re doing is the right thing.”

Where it differs from falling in love: There’s an “extreme dissonance between your real identity and your cult identity,” explains Hassan. For him, it was tumultuous going in and tumultuous coming out. In his pre-cult life, Hassan was a poet who read three books a week — to him, the essence of being human was being creative. But in the cult, he was told to cut his hair and wear a suit, go to bed at the same time every night, and throw out his poetry as a sign of devotion to God (which he did). “I became like the opposite of who I was before,” he says. “Life became about following orders.”

Undoing the Damage

For two-and-a-half years, Hassan followed the orders of the cult — until one day, he fell asleep at the wheel of a car and rear-ended an 18-wheeler. He wound up in the hospital, lucky be alive, and called his sister. Since she had never criticized his involvement in the cult — or accused him of being mind controlled — he was allowed to visit her in what he thought would be an opportunity to meet his new nephew. It turned into what experts call a “deprogramming” from the cult. Hassan admits that, at first, he was convinced that the deprogramming team— a group of people including ex-cult members sent to help him start over —had been “sent by Satan.” But when he agreed to listen to ex-members, “lights started switching on.”

Gregory Sammons, MEd, LPC, the executive director of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Athens, Ohio — a facility that offers clinical counseling, workshops, assessments, and support for survivals of spiritual abuse through high-demand churches and cults — helps people start switching the lights on for a living.

Wellspring is one of just two rehab centers in the U.S. geared toward people who have been in cults — MeadowHaven in Lakeville, Mass., is the other, says Hassan.

“The standard treatment program for cult survivors will typically last up to 10 days,” Sammons tells Yahoo Health. The program includes a minimum of 20 hours of intense one-on-one therapy with a clinician, standardized clinical assessments, and educational workshops, which help the survivor understand the cult phenomenon.

Rehabilitation is not always easy, and depends on the person’s experience in the cult. “Early in the treatment, the client and clinician will walk through a timeline of life events before, during, and after the cult,” he explains. “Recognizing what was happening in our lives before the cult can often provide a frame of reference in our recovery, which includes taking back our identity.”

In sessions, the therapist recognizes what mind control is and conveys to the survivor that it was not his or her fault for being trapped in a cult. The goal: to provide an understanding of how it happened, why it happened, and how having the right tools can prevent it from happening again, he says.

Identity confusion, phobia disorders, decision-making, sexuality, sleep, and eating issues — not to mention trust issues and trauma-related symptoms — are just some of what people struggle with in rehab, says Hassan. “When you leave a group, you’ve got all of this indoctrination in your head and sometimes you don’t know what’s true.” He adds that most people don’t rationally leave cults having researched it, but rather run away — which makes coming to terms with the change even more difficult.

“Most people operate with an incorrect notion that only weak people who are looking for someone to control them wind up in cults or mind-control scenarios,” says Hassan. “That’s simply not true.” Destructive groups don’t always look destructive at first. They also come in all shapes and sizes — therapy cults, political cults, business cults, religious cults, terrorist groups, and sex trafficking, he says. And humans are vulnerable simply by being a social species.

Education, though, about mind control, cult techniques, and psychology can help, says Hassan. And knowing how to spot unhealthy influences can help you avoid them.