Lily Richards interviews Anke Richter, author of the new book Cult Trip
Listen to the full article here – read by Susanna Andrew
The first rule of cults is: don’t ever call it a cult. Which is a problem if you’re trying to write a book about them. The patience and pivoting that author and journalist Anke Richter exhibited in finding subjects willing to talk is extraordinary. She set out to trace the still-raw wounds of Centrepoint, the more contemporary sexual abuse in religious community Gloriavale, and the controversial tantric yoga school Agama.
But all of these communities, operating outside of mainstream cultural norms, rely on secrecy. Getting people to talk openly, even decades later, proved complicated
When she finally finds someone brave, angry or arrogant enough to speak, their stories are wildly disparate from each other. For example, Centrepoint was both a freeing and benevolent social experiment (if you were an adult) and an inescapable nightmare of unrelenting sexual abuse (if you were a child).
Of course, it’s not as clear-cut as that. There are plenty of inbetweens; women who didn’t feel taken advantage of, men who felt the therapy they received was beneficial, and children who had a happy upbringing. But mostly, a narrative of two violently opposing accounts begins to take shape.
How to tell the story was clearly a hard call to make. Richter is constantly juggling her journalistic integrity with the desire to judge perpetrators for their callousness. She openly struggles with the rage she feels at the unchecked suffering the victims endured and the lack of retributive justice they received.
I ask Richter about the lack of accountability from the adults involved. I want to know if she saw a correlation between the kind of person who ends up in a cult and the kind of person who struggles to take responsibility for their own actions.
“Totally,” she agrees. “There’s a deliberate sort of ‘Us versus Them’ narrative to keep people in and to demonise what’s on the outside.”
Although there are similarities in people who end up in cults (they’re usually experiencing a “temporary situational vulnerability” such as job frustration, money troubles or relationship issues) Richter points out “no one intends to join a cult.”
Herself included. A seasoned journalist who cut her teeth profiling the rich and famous in her home country of Germany, she turned her attention to cults after her own search for spiritual growth put her in the middle of one.
Having immigrated to New Zealand with her doctor husband and two sons nearly 20 years ago, Richter’s heritage is important. She’s better placed to see us than we are ourselves. If our collective psyche could talk it would probably say something like “she’ll be right” in a slow, Southern drawl. Self-reflection, directness, sitting in unpleasant feelings; these are traits more common to her birthplace. Forged in the fulcrum of national shame (her grandparents were adults under Hitler) she’s highly attuned to cultic dynamics.
“New Zealanders would rather swipe the uncomfortable stuff under the carpet, which can sometimes be helpful. Being a small island nation, people just have to get on no matter what. This whole mentality of ‘let’s just move on’ is great in many ways but I think when it comes to actually looking at the aftermath of a disastrous sex cult that has hurt so many people, that kind of mentality doesn’t help.”
Shame is a critical requirement for growth, too much and it’s debilitating, not enough and you don’t learn from your mistakes. Shame can motivate a person to be better.
High on a neotantric buzz, awash with somatic healing powers, for a time, the author became the subject.
“I’ve been one of these people, passionate about conscious sexuality. I wanted all my friends to do it. Anyone with intimacy issues in their relationship, or just a lack of joy in their life, I told them to do this course. I wasn’t taking a cut or anything, but I was pretty evangelical about it. It’s embarrassing, but it’s true.”
Neotantra is a modern offshoot of the ancient practice of Tantra. In essence, it’s a Westernised version of the original, without some of the more devout elements, like the need for a guru. Proponents encourage connecting to your sexual energy as a pathway to greater openness, intimacy and ascension. Maybe I’m oversimplifying things but I feel it’s akin to how we’ve adopted yoga (in order to look lean) but left behind the boring unified meditative bits.
So why exactly do sex and cults seem to go hand in hand? Too often the desire for openness and guidance on the part of a seeker gets taken advantage of by leaders.
“We all have a lot to learn about sexuality. We just take it as a given, we take cooking classes and driving lessons, but we think having reproductive organs and a libido is all we need for sex. We clearly haven’t got it all sorted or we wouldn’t see issues like sexual violence and sexual dysfunction so frequently.”
Evidently, we need instruction, but stories like the ones in Cult Trip can feel like a warning against seeking it. Except that would be to miss the point entirely. In all new frontiers, great explorations and counter-culture movements there are questionable guides; this doesn’t mean the pursuit should be abandoned. It just means we need to be careful about whom we allow to lead us.
Despite feeling like a pariah in the sexual awakening movement at times, Richter’s still convinced there are good people doing amazing things in that space.
“I think it’s really needed. But should it be in the hands of groups that are making money from it? And without ethical codes of conduct, where teachers are sleeping with students? Maybe not, right?”
Without ego she points out the impact her work (she writes for many platforms on the topic of cults) has had so far in encouraging people to talk about their experiences.
“It takes a critical mass, where enough people are saying ‘this happened to me’ in the media, for the first generation, or leaders, to not be able to look away anymore.”
The more we talk the more I find myself wondering, is this a cis-heteronormative issue? Has she heard of any cults in the gay or trans community? Richter confirms my suspicion: “I have to say, in my experience, they’ve mostly been heteronormative and binary in their approach and their teachings.”
Maybe it’s thanks to a vigorous sex and body-positive movement that the queer community isn’t so vulnerable.
Speaking of vulnerability, Richter reflects on her life in Christchurch as being a potential catalyst for her interest in neotantra. “Maybe I had a lack of intensity in my life, given I was middle-aged and married with two teenagers. A very normal life, right? Being an immigrant, I was missing some of that Germanic intensity. And then I walk into this workshop and people are sharing their innermost trauma. You laugh and cry and hug each other and you haven’t even stopped for lunch yet. I was hooked. Being a journalist I’m drawn to people’s stories, I always want to go deeper.”
Ten years in the making, it could be argued Cult Trip is a love letter to alternative living. Despite Richter’s many detractors worrying the attention she pays to “high-demand communities” (a less pejorative noun than “cult”) illuminates only the bad, Richter persists. Hoping that greater awareness of how and why these types of communities go off the rails will lead to better practices and more accountability in the world of well-being. And doing it well doesn’t have to be complicated.
One of the things I keep chewing over when talking to Richter is this stubborn idea that cults aren’t that different to certain governments or workplaces. This feels kind of revelatory so I’m surprised when she agrees wholeheartedly and points out that cultic dynamics can show up anywhere. But with most governments and workplaces, there are HR departments. There are complaint procedures. There’s room for dissent and a process for working through disagreements. Not so
“There’s nothing wrong with being a spiritual leader, per se. There’s nothing wrong with being a pastor either – they’re spiritual leaders too, in their own right. Even building a school around what you’re teaching, that’s all fine and well. It’s really about whether you’re able to check yourself, or hire someone to check you, or get some kind of assessment of your conduct. Make yourself into a cult-proof group.”
This book isn’t a salacious skimming of other people’s worst moments, it’s a riveting and sympathetic attempt to show that getting involved in a cult can happen to anyone.
The space between us isn’t so big, and Richter is a passionate advocate for bringing us back together. Thinking cults are the heartland of misfits and weirdos does no one any good. Cult leaders? That’s a different story. But these malignant narcissists get enough attention. Cult Trip gives the microphone to the survivors and participants to get under the skin of what happened and how we can avoid it happening again.