The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief
By Chris Mikul
Review by Joseph Szimhart
Chris Mikul published Bizarrism: Strange Lives, Cults, and Celebrated Lunacy in 2000, a compilation of articles from Mikul’s magazine Bizarrism that some consider Australia’s “best zine.” He lives in Sydney. Mikul developed an interest in the bizarre and eccentric early in his career as a writer of fiction after he read about the grandiose Englishman, Donald Crowhurst, who in the late 1960s entered a round-the-world yacht race only to end up trying to fake that he was sailing around the world. Mikul discovered to his delight that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. And discover he does in his latest venture, The Cult Files, which offers the general reader finely crafted essays about seventeen notorious cults. Of the seventeen, only two were not dangerous, murderous, or suicidal enterprises: Mankind United, founded in 1934 by Arthur Lowber Bell, and… and… well, that was the only one. The rest, in order of appearance, are the Thugee of India, Christian snake handlers, The Branch Davidians, The People’s Temple, Synanon, Rajneeshism, the Manson Family, the Church of the Lamb of God, MOVE of Philadelphia, Heaven’s Gate, the Ant Hill Kids, Nation of Yahweh, Jeffrey Lundgren and the Kirtland cult, The Order of the Solar Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. Mikul wrote this book with an eye on shock value as well as the bizarre.
Mikul begins with an essay about the 19th century Thugs, or the Thugee of India, who were responsible for thousands of murders in the name of the goddess Kali. Eventually, more than 4,500 Thugs were brought to justice and the movement faded. I was initially dismayed to find a clear mistake in the very first sentence of the book; here, the Mughal Empire is called the Mongol Empire, and the same mistake is repeated four pages later. I soon realized that this must have been an editor’s error because the index indicated Mughal on those pages. Happily, I discovered no more glaring errors. After finishing the book, I can say that the author clearly did his research well enough to give any reader a solid glimpse into the nature of each group described.
In his introduction, we learn that Mikul is careful to define his approach, which is basically in line with social science. He cites, for example, David Bromley, James R. Lewis, J. Gordon Melton, Anson Shupe, and the CESNUR Website as primary resources. Anyone familiar with the scholarship on fringe movements and cults will recognize those names as part of a coterie of scholars who question brainwashing theory and whether such things as cults, as defined by what they call the “anti-cult network,” exist at all. In contrast, Mikul also cites the rickross.com Website and authors who are highly critical of certain cults; for example, Six Years with God by Jeannie Mills (1979). Ross is an example of the so-called “anti-cult network” despised by some social scientists. Mills was a member of the People’s Temple. She was mysteriously murdered along with her husband and child in 1980 after the 1978 mass murder-suicide of the cult. Some people pay a price for exposing the wrong in cults. Mikul is not nearly as courageous. Despite his stated effort “to strike a balance, sticking to the facts, reserving judgment, but omitting none of the lurid details” (p.11), Mikul noticeably avoids mention of equally controversial organizations such as Ramtha, Scientology, and est/Landmark, known to sue authors who mention them in books about “cults.” The groups or cults that he does cover are hardly in position to sue or assault anyone now, but one never knows how or why one fanatic might act.
Of the seventeen groups, I was least familiar with The Ant Hill Kids, founded by Roch Thériault in 1977. Thériault was born in 1947 in Quebec, Canada. He became a hard-drinking, charismatic storyteller who claimed he was Moses reincarnated. He was also quite sadistic, retaining only a tight group of followers whose masochistic tendencies he exploited to the max. Thériault was raised Catholic, but early on he joined the White Berets, an ultraconservative Catholic society, then came to hate Catholicism and joined the Seventh Day Adventists. While he was an Adventist, four women soon came under his spell. His raucous reputation of sexual and physical abuse of members led to his expulsion from the Adventists, along with followers who included twelve women, six men and two children. Thériault had an interest in doing painful surgeries on his devotees. He pulled out eight teeth of one female member with pliers, destroying her jaw. One child in the movement died after Thériault performed a crude circumcision, squirting ethanol into the baby’s mouth as an anesthetic. “In his drunken rages, Thériault threw children against trees and walls” (p.169).
For years the authorities sought to arrest Thériault, but they could not get accusations to stick until he finally went too far in 1989. Going too far in his case was to hack off the arm of one of his female devotees at the shoulder. It took him an hour with a crude carpet knife, and finally, once the bone was exposed, to hack it off with a meat cleaver. He stitched it up and cauterized it himself the next day, but the wound would not heal. The woman went for hospital treatment, claiming it was a result of a car accident and that her boyfriend was forced to amputate her arm. The police did not believe it. After they finally found a witness who would testify, Thériault and others were arrested and convicted. As late as 2002, his parole was denied [Thériault was murdered in prison in February 2011.]. No, Mikul does not leave out the lurid details.
In context, The Cult Files fits nicely, if sensationally, in line with a host of books that describes a range of sects and cults. Several that come to mind are They Have Found a Faith, by Marcus Bach (1946); These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults & Minority Religious Movements, by Charles S. Braden (1949); Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Groups, by William M. Kephart (7th Edition, 2000); and Spying in Guru Land: Inside Britain’s Cults, by William Shaw (1995).
I found the book easy reading, and it offers enough insight to whet as well as refresh the reader’s awareness about just how bizarre and dangerous cult behavior can get. Only do not rely on the book’s bibliography to get you very far because it is very limited.