Characteristics of a cult

Anna Elizabeth Young was arrested last week in Cobb County, accused of abusing a child and killing another in Florida in the religious boarding school she ran. Officials have classified Young as a cult leader who co-founded what her daughter said was a "violent" organization.

What are cults?

A cult is an ideological organization often formed by charismatic leaders who demand high levels of commitment, according to the International Cultic Studies Association, a Florida-based nonprofit that studies cults.

Cults employ “unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control,” such as isolation from family and friends, suspension of individuality, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving, to advance the goals of the leader. Cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members, in part because of the power dynamics that arise between the charismatic leader and the followers.

“You have multiple people subservient to the leader, trying to please,” executive director of the ICSA Dr. Michael Langone said. “People who have been stuck in these systems will often justify that kind of abuse.”

Georgia woman describes growing up in mother’s violent cult

Why do people join cults?

Anyone can be attracted to a cult. Research suggests people who join are often:

  • experiencing significant stress, according to the ICSA;
  • late in adolescence (i.e. those entering college), as they might be separating from families and may be open to new groups;
  • lonely and desiring community.
  • More than two-thirds of cult members are recruited by a friend, family member or co-worker, according to Janja Lalich, a researcher who specializes in cults and extremist groups.

What makes a cult dangerous to its followers?

Extreme groups demand that followers sever all ties to people and organizations, making them more dependent on the cult itself. They must also show an "immediate and unquestioning" obedience to rules and regulations that may be arbitrary, according to an article by Dr. Adrian Furnham in Psychology Today. Followers often perform long hours of tedious work, making recruits physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Finally, groups make exit costs very high, as leaving is associated with "failure, persecution, and isolation."

Kids and cults

Langone said kids are often “used as barometers of the control” that the leader has.

“Some leaders will purposefully abuse children to assess how much control they have over children,” Langone said. “And the conflict and the rationalization process (becomes) even more emotional and intense than before because now they have guilt along with everything else they were feeling.”

Child abuse, he said, in many cases is what makes people finally leave the group.

Notable Georgia cults

  • "The Church" was a small community of families led by Albert Tony Walker and his family in central California and Texas before it moved to a 17-acre plot in Clayton, Ga. Walker instilled fear into the religious-based cult, forbidding followers from leaving the compound. Members lived off the grid, and chastising and beatings of children and adults became routine, the AJC previously reported. Walker was sentenced to 20 years for rape in 2011.
  • The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors based in Eatonton, Ga., mixes black supremacist ideas with worship of the Egyptians and their pyramids, a belief in UFOs and various conspiracies related to the Illuminati and the Bilderbergers, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Dwight York founded the group in the early 1970s in Brooklyn before buying a 476-acre property in Putnam County, Georgia in 1993. York accepted a plea bargain in January 2003 to charges including 40 counts of aggravated child molestation. He was ultimately sentenced to 135 years in prison.