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Party Just Like a Cult, Experts Say

by Jerry Markon
Newsday, 11/17/96


They range from spiritual leaders to New Age health gurus, drawing adherents with a charismatic blend of ideology, self-help philosophy and the promise of a communal lifestyle.

Some cults -- like the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, or the People's Temple of tropical Guyana -- meet their end in a violent spasm. Others, such as the Provisional Party of Communists, a leftist group of which three members were arrested in Brooklyn last week, preach revolutionary slogans but never put them into practice.

But experts say the party shares the same general traits as other groups defined as cults -- a charismatic, controlling leader; deceptive recruiting and fund-raising practices and an indoctrination that drastically changes the outlook and even personality of inductees.

"This group has all the characteristics of a cult," said Arnold Markowitz, a social worker and director of the New York-based Cult Hotline and Clinic, which counsels families of cult members. "They isolate members, control their activities, keep them up late and don't allow any relationships with outsiders."

The party, founded on Long Island in 1972, is one of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 cults nationwide and one of several hundred in the New York area, said Markowitz and other experts.

And the number of cults has steadily grown since the late 1960s, when they emerged from the counterculture movement. "There is no way of knowing the exact number, but we do know that the problem of cults is growing by leaps and bounds," said Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program of the American Family Foundation, a Florida nonprofit group that researches cults.

"Many of these groups are dangerous, but there are also many appealing things about them," Rudin said. "They provide a family. You develop friends, relationships in the group."

And cults can have further appeal in an age when some Americans are worried about changes in the economy and job market brought on by new technology.

"This is an unsettling time, and cults are branching out in who they go after," said William Goldberg, a psychotherapist and president of Cult Information Services, a New Jersey nonprofit group that educates people about cults.

"Cults are recruiting people who are in a crisis; a mid-life crisis, divorce crisis, losing their job. Anyone in a transition period is vulnerable," Goldberg said.

Two decades ago, he said, cult members were mostly in their late teens or early 20s and tended to be poor. Now, "we're seeing more people in their 30s or even middle age, and more middle-class kids and professionals."

Experts say there is a wide range of cults, with memberships ranging from 50 to 75 people to thousands. Some are religious groups with their own interpretation of biblical scripture, such as the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh and the Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple.

Both groups met fiery ends; Koresh and about 80 other people died in the 1993 conflagration at his compound that followed weeks of an intense standoff with federal officials; Jones and 912 followers died by poison and gunfire in a murder suicide at their Guyana agricultural settlement in 1978.

Other cults can be psychologically oriented groups preaching self-improvement or what Markowitz called "eastern meditation groups that follow Indian or Oriental philosophies."

One such meditation group that Markowitz and Rudin call a cult is led by Sri Chinmoy, an Indian spiritual leader based in Jamaica, Queens.

"Sri Chinmoy looks harmless, like they want to save the world," Rudin said. "But we've had many complaints about them, that members can't see their families, that they drop out of school. The same kind of stuff we hear about other cults."

Group members vehemently deny they are a cult, saying they seek to promote spiritual growth and world peace through prayer, meditation, sports and the arts.

"We are not dangerous. We are not forced into anything. There's no deceptive recruiting," said Nishta Baum, a Sri Chinmoy member.

Other groups labeled as cults have political agendas, such as the Provisional Party, also known as the Eastern Farm Worker's Association.

Irene Davidson, whose 21-year-old daughter lived for nearly three years at the party's Carroll Street headquarters before leaving last November, has no doubt the organization is a cult.

"They have a program of brainwashing people, of mind control," said Davidson, who would not give her daughter's name. "They concentrated on Stalinism. They had slogans all over the place like 'Just Do As You're Told.'"