I say that my grandmother was a cult leader, and the picture people get in their minds doesn’t always fit the reality. Giggy controlled people mostly from a distance, through newsletters and books and presentations on casette tape, all of which they could buy, first by phone, later by website. She lived in Tampa, Florida the entire time the cult existed, but her followers mostly didn’t. They lived in Montana and Australia and on the other coast of Florida. She would go on “book tours”, staying in the homes of fans/followers and being a guest speaker at their churches. She sold most of her “non-fiction” cult literature on these trips, the grandest of which was a multi-week tour of Australia and New Zealand.
There were a few years when she sort of half-heartedly experimented with making a compound, I think. She lived in a nicer mobile home community, with a club house and playground and pool with lifeguard. She always paid her lot rent on time and in the early years she maintained a beautiful garden on her quarter-acre, greenbelt ajecent lot. The park owners liked her, and I think she found time to charm them on their visits to the property. She somehow got to pick who the park manager was for several years, appointing the job to friends of hers who would then move into the rent-free manager’s double-wide. Over this period of time, Giggy invited families of followers to sell their homes and land up north to come live in trailers near her. Five households came.
Cults can be extremely pro-government and nationalist. They can also be anti-government and downright seditious. Cults can be extremely religious, devoting hours upon hours to religious service and practice. They can be anti-religious and atheist in nature. They can be based on a common interest – any common interest. Cults have formed around the common interests of sports teams, horseback riding, Lord of the Rings, and hairdressing. Cults can have political goals. They can be conservative or liberal in stated beliefs. They can be outwardly antagonistic or seductively sweet. Cults can start as utopias, small groups with common ideals and a need to enforce group norms.
All will have an unreasonable burden of influence and control on their members. That control, not a group’s beliefs or membership or disconnection from reality, is what makes something a cult and not a club or church or community. International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA)’s author and psychologist Steve K. D. Eichel defines a cult as a “high demand organization”. There are many, subtly different definitions of cult in the field of study but this is the one I subscribe to. I think what makes a group a cult is not their beliefs but the level of burden the group is on its members.