In 2014, Detroit’s WJBK Fox 2 news released a damning report following their investigation of a local business venture, Agape Massage. The investigation revealed a litany of illegal activity running the gambit from operating without a license to sexual misconduct. Yet the most troubling revelation was far more sinister; under it’s seemingly unobtrusive façade, Agape Massage was the front to an abusive and dangerous cult.
Owner Craig Stasio, a.k.a. “the prophet”, claims to hear directly from God, without interference, and is said to preach a compelling doomsday message sprinkled with special, personal revelations to tantalize his captive audience. Heeding their leader’s call, Stasio’s flock of teenage, mostly female, followers severed ties with family and friends, dropped out of college, and gave up their lives in obedience to him. Former WJBK newscaster, Rich Fisher, hasn’t seen his daughter in over three years since she fell victim to Stasio’s fantasy:
Craig Stasio revealed himself to be a parent’s worst nightmare; a predator capable of convincing intelligent and capable young men and women to give up their autonomy for his maniacal pleasure. As a culture, we often pacify the unpleasant feelings that cults stir in us by convincing ourselves that only the mentally disabled or the overly gullible fall victim to their wiles. In reality, anyone, from all levels of education and privilege, is potentially susceptible to a cult – even you.
How could this be? In everyone’s life there comes a moment or age of vulnerability; a time when we need to seek outside ourselves for strength and purpose. For many, this pilgrimage leads to friends, family, religion, or a multitude of other comforting supports. For an unfortunate few, their momentary weakness is capitalized on and exploited by silver-tongued rogues offering the right bait.
When an individual is recruited by a cult, they are often courted by false pretenses and sold a distorted premise of what the cult is actually about. They become enthusiastic about the group or leader’s fabricated special calling. Often times the cult will stage a life-changing event to help solidify their confidence in the cult’s authenticity. Engaged with, and sharing in, the vision of a charismatic leader, they feel nearer to God, and develop a strong sense of comradery and family with the group. They believe it is their true home.
After this honey moon phase, the new life-tragectory that once seemed so promising, begins to feel like bondage. When doubts arise, the group continues with a more aggressive form of indoctrination that attempts to submerge the victim’s cognitive dissidence. Whenever the they entertain a question or doubt about the leader, it becomes short lived. The propaganda of the cult is such, that thinking through a doubt about the leader or their teaching becomes thought of as a fearful sin that could result in angering God or being cursed. The division of the self becomes complete; the authentic self with unaddressed complaints and desires is submerged under a pseudo cult identity in order for the individual to survive.
The cult-identity feels like a different person. If asked to imagine their past self – the self that existed before the group – often the victim experiences a visceral distance from where they are now, often describing it like a previous life as opposed to their actual past. Although troubling from the outside, to the victim the dissociation is justifiable, even predictable part of what they misidentify as their conversion experience; they’re just, “putting on the new man”, being ‘born again’, or experiencing how the ‘old must fall away.”
The cult member will remain oblivious to the duality until they’re able to reach a point where a sincere question of doubt can be entertained. When they’re capable of critically examining the leader’s motives and actions, the authentic self begins to reemerge and with it more questions, doubts, and even memories that they refused to address previously. There will be conflict between the false self and the authentic self, as the false self is a defense mechanism created out of the belief that the victim’s survival was incumbent on the pseudo-self’s existence. The inner conflict is painful, but if allowed to process becomes liberating, especially when expedited by strong and healthy support. A strong support system outside the cult has proven immeasurable to the success and healing of cultic abuse, which is why seeking out a trained counselor, is often advisable.