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Home / Articles / Identifying Abuse / The Connection Between Cults and Domestic Violence

The Connection Between Cults and Domestic Violence

What studying cults can teach us about control and victim shaming

female victim domestic violence

Hearing the phrase “drank the Kool-Aid” is like nails on a chalkboard to clinical psychologist Patrick O’Reilly, Ph.D. The Undue Influence author says it’s a reckless and derogatory term that victim-shames the 918 people who died in Jonestown in 1978 after being poisoned with cyanide. 

“‘Drank the Kool-Aid’ suggests they committed suicide,” O’Reilly says, “when, in fact, they were murdered by Jim Jones.”

If you’re not familiar with the massacre, here’s a synopsis: Jones started what was billed as a progressive Christian church in Indianapolis in 1955 that welcomed both Black and white parishioners at a time when segregation was still very prevalent in the Midwestern city. The group would later be referred to as The Peoples Temple. 

Like most cult leaders, Jones was affable and charismatic in the beginning. He gained the trust of his followers and gradually pulled them away from their family and friends—and closer to him. He convinced many of his followers to sell their homes, give the money to Peoples Temple (i.e. him) and move to California and later to the South American country of Guyana. 

Over time, many of Jones’s followers became dependent on him. When members disagreed with Jones or talked of leaving the cult, he lashed out at them. Eventually U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and some reporters started looking into Jones. In 1978, after coming to the realization that he was starting to lose power over his followers, Jones killed 918 of them (304 children included) by making them drink punch laced with cyanide while armed guards stood by. (Those who refused reportedly were injected with the concoction.)

What does this have to do with domestic abuse? Well, if you think about it, abusers are a lot like Jones and other cult leaders, O’Reilly says. They just don’t have as many victims (usually). 

‘Cult of Two’ 

O’Reilly studied under renowned psychologist and researcher Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D., who coined the term “cult of two” to describe abusive relationships. In her book, Cults in Our Midst, she outlined six mind control strategies cult leaders and abusers alike use to ensnare their victims:

  1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how he or she is being changed a step at a time.
  2. Control the person’s environment and their time.
  3. Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.
  4. Create a system of rewards and punishments to diminish the person’s former social identity.
  5. Manipulate that system to solidify the group’s ideology.
  6. Create a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that doesn’t permit feedback.

“It doesn’t really matter what the ethos of the group is or whether there are two members or 200,” O’Reilly says. “The techniques are always the same.”

In an intimate relationship, it might look something like this: The abuser is charming at first and appears to be enamored with his victim. He takes an interest in her and makes her feel special. The abuser says things like, “I just want to spend as much time with you as possible.” 

Over time, the victim pulls away from her support system. Once the victim has distanced herself from family and friends, the abuser relies less on charm and more on threats, manipulation and violence to maintain control. When that control is lost, some abusers take drastic, even lethal, measures to regain power over their victims. 

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See Through the Insecurity

Abusers often portray themselves as smarter, stronger, more powerful than their victims. But underneath the bravado is insecurity. 

“Everybody’s motivated by different things, but you can safely say that somebody who’s a domestic abuser is an insecure person,” O’Reilly says. “He has to beat up his partner to get sense of control, to keep her from leaving. That’s gross insecurity—mixed with anger and rage.”

In other words, abusers—whether cult leaders or people who dominate their intimate partners—don’t have inherent power. They’re not smarter or better than you. They’re not special. They’re insecure people with anger issues, who—with the right support and planning—you can leave. 

When you’re ready, check out “A Guide to Domestic Violence Safety Planning.” Want to learn more about the parallels between cults and domestic violence? Read how domestic abusers brainwash their partners