Not a Follower, Not Yet a LeaderWomen Cult Leaders Hold an Insidious, Misunderstood Power

Ma Anand Sheela in Wild Wild Country (Photo credit: Netflix)

It’s impossible to ignore the dark turn our popular media has taken. From podcasts about murders to documentaries about criminal cover-ups, creators have been scrounging into our dark histories to find strange, bizarre, and terrifying stories to highlight. Naturally, this includes cults.

The Manson Family. Jonestown. Rajneeshpuram. As an audience, we’re here for cults. We want to know about their leaders, their wicked practices, and, to a much lesser degree, their followers. From the late 1960s and spanning well into the early 1990s, cults were a scary specter from which parents hoped to shield their children, on par with urban legends about razor blades in Halloween candy and “stranger danger” abductions. Kicked off by the Manson Family murders and later bleeding into the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, the feeling that cults were a real, pressing threat to American safety was driven by breathless media coverage, aggressive policing tactics, and a stream of psychiatric professionals trying to sell books. But eventually, as more tangible threats to children such as guns in schools and drug crime dominated the news, white men with long hair and kooky beliefs began to strike less fear in the hearts of American news consumers.

Though stories of human nature gone awry intrigue men and women alike, cult leaders are almost always portrayed in pop culture as powerful men, while women in these groups, regardless of their agency or activities in the cult, are reduced to doe-eyed followers and victims. Even when women are heavily involved in the administration of cults, we rarely hear their stories.

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What makes a cult leader

Key elements of our modern-day understanding of cults and their leaders overlap heavily with themes of toxic masculinity: the objectification and commodification of women, control over their reproductive freedom, and a need to demonstrate power at all times.

Most people swear up and down they’d never join a cult, but the truth is that most members don’t realize how far in they are until it’s too late. That’s because, as Jayanti Tamm, author of Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult, writes, “the aptitude and capacity to exploit human beings is universal, and, with the right ambitious and charismatic leader, any group easily could morph into a cult.” Cult leaders are typically “fierce in singular righteousness, in the design to hail oneself absolute,” writes Tamm. They tend to be extremely charismatic, certain, and compelling. They are without weakness or failure: anything and everything is planned carefully, and should anything go awry, it must be explained away.

Many cult practices have hyper-focused on controlling the bodies and reproductive choices of women. In this way, heterosexual men are able to use their charisma and power to fulfill their own sexual and predatory desires. In her television show, Scientology and the Aftermath, Leah Remini interviews former members of groups who claim to have been forced to have abortions because having children was not permitted by their leader. Claire Headley, once a high-ranking member of Scientology’s top echelon, Sea Organization, told Remini, “If a woman got pregnant, she would instantly be scheduled to get an abortion.” If she refused, Headley said, “she would be segregated, not allowed to work with her husband, put on security watch, put on heavy manual labor, and interrogated as to why she wanted to leave.”

Scientology also provided coverage for sexual assault. Mirriam Francis and Saina Kamula, two former members who were born into the organization, say they were sexually abused as children due to the organization’s strict controls over the family unit and the separation of parents from children.

All of this is unsurprising: Decades of toxic masculinity and patriarchal religious practices have primed cis, straight men to seek power and control over women and girls. Theology has also often provided an easy cover for criminal and immoral behavior.

“This is the life of a [Scientology] child,” says Remini. “There are no more parents. Scientology is your parent. They’re in charge of everything.”

Leah Remini in Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath (Photo credit: A&E)

Behind every man

Though women are often barred from outright leadership within a cult, they frequently play critical roles in recruitment, facilitation, and maintenance of order. They are matriarchs, sympathizers, and silent leaders. In many cults, high-ranking women, though not the singular commander of the group, gain, retain, and wield power from behind the scenes. Still, the stories of women in cult leadership are often downplayed, ignored, or otherwise spun, to the extent that their power isn’t even perceived as such.

One uncommonly visible example of a woman in cult leadership is Ma Anand Sheela in the ultra-popular Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country. Indian guru Rajneesh was the titular leader of the Rajneeshpuram and figurehead of the cult, but Sheela, his personal assistant, was also pulling a lot of strings. As Rajneesh’s personal assistant, she urged him to purchase the property that later became Rajneeshpuram (and then ultimately purchased it herself), managed external communications, orchestrated large-scale events, and put herself in charge of the group’s foundation. Sheela later went to prison for orchestrating an act of biological terrorism during her time in Rajneeshpuram.

Sheela, a polarizing character, has been described as everything from a psychopath to a tragic icon, but what is not debatable is her power over the group; she dictated their attire, their diet, and their activities. This form of covert control is a large part of the reason few people know the impact of female cult leaders. Residents of Rajneeshpuram themselves have said that before they watched Wild Wild Country, they had no idea how powerful Sheela actually was.

At 17, Hak Ja Han married Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church. The church’s disciples, sometimes referred to derisively as “Moonies,” are one of the more famous examples of extreme religious indoctrination. Even after Moon’s death, the group continues to operate with Han at the helm, in large part because of her control behind the scenes as a young woman. As the leader of the church, Han has leveraged her position to become a billionaire, now leading her own group of devotees.

In fact, there’s frequently a kind of Girl Friday behind bombastic male cult leaders. Jim Jones had Carolyn Layton, his lover for a decade and the person who, aside from Jones, was most instrumental in the massacre at Jonestown. Warren Jeffs had Naomi Jessop, his “favorite” wife and the woman who most often provided counsel during his trial and sentencing for child abuse and molestation.

These women—often just girls when they became involved with cult leaders—are indoctrinated in the same way as any other member of the group. The difference, though, is that they manage to gain some sort of trust with the leader, which can lead to access to power. This is often a method of self-preservation in a traumatic situation (women who position themselves in this way can be protected from some of the harsh rules or punishments doled out to lower ranking members), but it can also be about gaining power however they can. They’re often tasked with recruitment, even bringing new women or girls into the mix for the leader’s sexual gratification. In the presence of a more mature, matriarchal figure, new members may feel more comfortable or cared for—even though they are anything but safe.

These women will continue to be relegated to the role of house mother, a terrifying understatement of their influence, simply because their power is harder to understand.

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A cult by any other name

Another way that the leadership roles of women in cults is disguised is through the assumption that serious cults are led by men. The word “cult” is frequently used to describe the interests of large numbers of women when those interests are perceived to be frivolous (think the “cult” of skincare or the “cult” of Beyoncé). The flip side is the failure to characterize female-run groups as cults to begin with. Organizations that are run by women are typically categorized as something else—they’re multilevel marketing companies, like LuLaRoe, or “internet spiritual groups,” like the followers of YouTube guru Teal Swan.

NXIVM, a network billed as a “self-improvement” organization that included several high-profile members, checks all of the boxes of a cult. NXIVM leaders demanded complete control over the lives of followers, established strong bonds within the group, and required members to either recruit or eschew friends and family. It wasn’t until police started arresting members that NXIVM was referred to as a “cult” and even then, the term was modified—it’s a “sex cult.”

NXIVM wasn’t entirely female-run; the founder, Keith Raniere, maintained a typical cult leadership role. Descriptions of his influence and control (he was referred to as “Vanguard” and believed by members of NXIVM to be the smartest man alive and the sole hope for saving the world) are extremely similar to descriptions of L. Ron Hubbard, the deceased creator of Scientology. Raniere used women for recruitment and as the organization’s public face. Relying on a handful of powerful women, including actor Allison Mack, the cult purported to offer self-improvement sessions in independently run, female-focused groups. In the podcast Escaping NXIVM, former member Sarah Edmondson describes her experience with “DOS,” or “Dominus Obsequious Sororium,” a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “master over the slave women.” DOS is an exclusive women’s-only group that Edmondson says was sold to her as a “bad-ass bitch bootcamp” and a way for women to find independence and happiness.

Allison Mack (Photo credit: YouTube)

Upon her induction, Edmondson was pressured to submit entirely to her “master,” Lauren Salzman, a woman she considered a friend, and was forced to receive a physical brand on her body. Edmondson found out later that the brand symbol included Raniere’s initials. DOS wasn’t about women’s empowerment, she says; it was about Raniere’s control over the women in NXIVM.

In an as-told-to VICE article titled “Why I Joined a Secret Society That Branded Me,” Edmonson described her indoctrination as a frog in a pot of slowly heating boiling water. “If Lauren had said to me, ‘Hey, want to join this group? You’re going to have Keith’s initials burned into your crotch.’ Of course I would have said, ‘You’re crazy. Get yourself to a psychologist.’ But it didn’t happen that way. It happened in very incremental stages, with more and more commitment and more on the line, and more coercion and blackmail,” she says.

This blackmail, Edmonson says, wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if it had not been perpetuated by another woman under the auspices of female empowerment. Similarly, it’s the role of women in NXIVM and the overarching perspective that a group with such compelling, public-facing women can’t possibly be a cult. Just as most onlookers see male leadership as a necessity for a cult’s formation, so too do media outlets reporting on these closed communities.

If a person wanted to create a documentary or a novel about a female cult leader, they’d have their pick of potential storylines. In glamorous Los Angeles during the roaring twenties, pentecostal Evangelical Amy Semple-McPherson became one of the first mega-church celebrities and touted her own (completely unfounded) ability to heal with the laying on of hands. Between 1968 and 1975, Australian Anne Hamilton-Byrne preached a mix of Christianity and Eastern religious doctrine, basing the faith of her cult “the Family” around yoga practice, the forcible adoption of children, and LSD. And as recently as 2012, Silvia Meraz was both a practicing serial killer and a cult leader, using the bodies of her members for human sacrifice in Sonora, Mexico. And yet these women and others like them don’t seem to be a popular subject matter. With the exception of Sheela in Wild Wild Country, the role of powerful women in cults has generally gone unnoticed by this new wave of creep-seeking entertainment.

Perhaps it’s because women cult leaders are messier—their narratives are, as Sheela makes clear, not nearly as tidy as men’s. These women may seem less dangerous or their stories less salacious. It could also be that, because of the patriarchal overtones in typical cult narratives, producers looking for a juicy story don’t think to look for women in these roles. Perhaps the female cult leaders of history haven’t been as bombastic or as eager to tout their power. There are likely many stories that will never be told because they don’t fit the typical framework of a “cult” in the traditional sense. These women will continue to be relegated to the role of house mother, a terrifying understatement of their influence, simply because their power is harder to understand.

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by Hanna Brooks Olsen
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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a freelance writer and consultant who lives in Seattle. Her work has been published in the Atlantic, the Nation, Pacific Standard, GOOD Magazine, Upworthy, the Huffington Post, and a few other places.