Spying in Guru Land - Inside Britain's Cults by William Shaw
Spying in Guru Land (Amazon.com)
Spying in Guru Land (Amazon.co.uk)
Spying in Guru Land (Powell's Books - new or secondhand)
William Shaw joined several cults in Britain, without telling its
members or leaders that he was a journalist. This book is the result.
The issues raised here are bigger than the title of the work would
suggest. There is more here than just the cult world of Britain. It
definitely has international value as a fascinating piece of research.
Shawâ€™s thesis here is that the idea that people who join cults are
*brainwashed* is just a myth, one inspired by societyâ€™s fear of the unknown and by ex-cult members who feel wronged and come to believe in the myth in order to feel better and to not take responsibility for their own actions. So far so good. A *cult* after all, is just a religion with less followers than what is
acceptably called a *religion*. As Shaw points out, for every big Waco
cult death explosion story, there are thousands of little unknown
stories of cults that fall apart with a whimper and not a bang, with no
rampaging psychotic gore attached to their demise.
On page 189 Shaw goes into the history of the notion of *brainwashing*.
The term was coined in 1951 by an American journalist called Edward
Hunter, for his book Brainwashing In Red China. That book, and Richard
Condonâ€™s novel The Manchurian Candidate, served to explain to cold war
paranoid America "how people could sympathise with Communism in the
first place." Shaw goes on to write "Since its 1950â€™s genesis, the
conspiracy-theory myth of brainwashing has always been conjured up to
satisfy people who canâ€™t understand how others come to believe things
that most of us find patently incredible."
Next up is the term *deprogramming*. If you think belief in brainwashing
is bad, wait for this... *Deprogramming* is the *antidote* to
brainwashing. Deprogramming was *pioneered* by the powerful Christian
fundamentalist Ted Patrick in San Diego, when he was reacting against a
"hippie free love cult" called the Children of God. Deprogramming
involved vicious tactics - kidnapping cult members, locking them up,
physical violence.... on the jacket sleeve of Patrickâ€™s book Let Our Children Go! was the slogan "Fight fire with fire."
An understanding of cults is hindered by the beliefs in brainwashing and
deprogramming. In addition, it is hindered by the media. The news media
is firmly in the grip of the anti-cult movement, which it believes to
consist of *experts*. On page 195 Shaw describes how in February 1994,
Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre, an anti-cult group, fed a
story to the Daily Telegraph and to the BBC about the Children of Godâ€™s
leader, David Berg, writing a letter telling his followers to "prepare
for death." Haworth was scare-mongering about a "potential Waco." The
truth was that David Bergâ€™s letter was two years old and he had only
been writing "generally about the notion of end-time, which his group
has always believed in." The Children of God (aka the Family - no
relation to Manson) in any event believe suicide to be a sin. The
ex-member of the Family that appeared on BBC South-East saying she
would have "committed suicide if Berg had told her to" was actually
As well as joining various cults, Shaw met with and interviewed a
British member of the Branch Davidians who had been in the siege at
Waco. Through this interview, Shaw gets behind the Waco media stories to
reveal a lack of evidence for the "suicide madness" we all heard so much
about. On pages 208 and 209 there are some interesting facts - that
Koresh had so many guns at Waco because he was a registered arms dealer
- that before the siege welfare workers had been to the compound and
found no evidence of child abuse - that at the start of the siege, the
children let out were examined and showed no signs of ever being
Why do people, if not *brainwashed*, join cults? Shaw observed in the cults he joined, most particularly the Emin (p56) and the Economic Scientists (p137), a
very conservative and simple view of how society *should* be. There were
well- defined, "squeaky-clean" gender roles, for instance. Cults react
against the complicated chaos of our society and yearn to make a black and white world, an ordered world which makes sense. (Page 137: "They long for a safely certain... world"). People who do not feel at home with the state of society and
with orthodox religion are the kind of people who end up joining cults.
They are at least intelligent enough to question what they have been
brought up to believe. Then they search for something they can believe
in, to rid them of a feeling of not belonging. The cult provides this. They swap the majority consensus of reality for a minority one. Another set of answers to life, the universe and everything. This is another way how *cults* and *religions* can be identical.
I would like to highlight the most interesting beliefs described in
the book - those of the Emin cult (chapter two). A member of the Emin
upper hierarchy gives a talk to some novices, including Shaw, on page
53: "There is, he says sagely, no such thing as coincidence. It is up to
us to find the connections." In the Emin, in the teachings of its
leader, Leo, everything has significance. Every shape, number and colour
has a secret, hidden meaning. Messages from the *unseen world*.
Everything has meaning. There are no coincidences. Everything is
"I start to appreciate the weird magnitude of Leoâ€™s and the Eminâ€™s
creation," writes Shaw on page 58. "They have built this vast labyrinth
which they can lose themselves in for ever. I realise, to my surprise,
that after months in the Emin, I can talk for minutes about the hidden
significances of any meaningless object. Even the cup on my desk now has
a shape, a name, a colour which can all be woven into this wild jungle
of Emin semiology. Itâ€™s blue, which would denote nurturing, creating.
The cup is round which indicates - obviously - 'containment', which is
an Emin concept relating again to nurturing, but the shape also forms a
zero, or the letter 'O', both of which might produce other meanings. The
word cup can be broken down to c-up. Upwards? What does 'c' stand for?
Why is the handle yellow? What does the handleâ€™s shape signify? And so
on, and on, and on."
Compare these ideas: (1). No coincidence and (2). Everything having
meaning, to the teachings of Aleister Crowley. In Magick Without Tears (First published 1973. Copyrighted by Ordo Templi Orientis 1991. Published in 1994 by New Falcon Publications, Tempe, Arizona, U.S.A. ISBN: 1-56184-018-1) chapter forty, Crowley writes about the concept of coincidence. "Everything that happens, no matter what, is an inconceivably improbable coincidence... Chance
blindly rules the Universe. But what is Chance? And where does purpose
intervene? To what extent? I shall now conduct you... to Monte Carlo.
You walk quietly into the Casino; it seems to you that the excitement is
even more noticeable than usual. You see a friend at the table: 'Here in
the nick of time!' he gasps. 'Black has just turned up for the 24th time
running.' You press forward to plank the maximum on Red. The wheel
spins; Black again!... 'But-but... in the whole history of the tables a
colour has never turned up more than 24 times running!' My poor friend,
what has that got to do with it? True, from the start it is countless
millions to 1 that there will not be a run of 24 on the red or the
black; but the probability on any single spin (ignoring zero) is always
one to one. The black compartments do not contract because the ball has
fallen into any one of them... In all this the important point for my
present purpose is to show you how entirely this question of probability
and coincidence id dependent on your attention. The sequence BBBBBBB at
roulette is most unlikely to occur; but so, in exactly the same degree,
is the sequence BRBRRBR or any other sequence. The one passes unnoticed,
the other causes surprise, only because you have in your mind the idea
of 'a run on black.' Extend this line of thought a little... you realize
that every phenomenon soever is equally improbable, and 'infinitely' so.
The Universe is therefore nothing but coincidence!" So all events are
unlikely, according to Crowley.
Does it follow, then, that all things must either be meaningless, or
have meaning? Clearly in "Leoâ€™s maze" everything has meaning. In Magick
Without Tears, in the introduction, in the letter labelled "F" and dated
August 20, 1943, Crowley writes about his method for studying the
Qabalah: "As I walked about, I made a point of attributing everything I
saw to its appropriate idea. I would walk out of the door of my house
and reflect that door is Daleth, and house Beth; now the word dob is
Hebrew for bear, and has the number 6, which refers to the Sun. Then you
come to the fence of your property and that is Cheth - number 8, Tarot
Trump 7, which is the Chariot: so you begin to look about for your car.
Then you come to the street and the first house you see is number 86,
and that is Elohim, and it is built of red brick which reminds you of
Mars and the Blasted Tower, and so on. As soon as this sort of work,
which can be done in a quite lighthearted spirit, becomes habitual, you
will find your mind running naturally in this direction, and will be
surprised at your progress." (He adds to this "Never let your mind
wander from the fact that your Qabalah is not my Qabalah; a good many of
the things which I have noted may be useful to you, but you must
construct your own system so that it is a living weapon in your hand").
Is reading meaning into all things and making connections between
all things not paranoid? Shaw wonders about Leo on page 58 of his book:
"Does this sort of ever-fragmenting visionariness denote a sort of
madness on Leoâ€™s part? At times, at loose in this ultra-complex jungle
of signs and symbols, I ponder if this is what a mild version of
schizophrenia might feel like... the world becomes a highly-developed
network of meanings and messages that only you can see, and which
separates you from others who donâ€™t understand it the way you do. I am
curious... was Leo suffering from some sort of mental illness, which he
resolved into this... system of mystical symbolism?"
Shaw then relates the case of John Levinson, who joined the Emin in
1977. He has already had experiences of mental illness, but membership
of the Emin for him ended with entry into psychiatric treatment. He had
visions of colours about which Shaw writes "Anyone who has been in the
Emin for any time would understand what he saw as part of the world of
heightened perception that we were trained to achieve." Levinson went on
to commit suicide. However, other ex-members generally agreed that
whereas the Emin might have been good for them at the time they were in
it (like the sons of Goons Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan), it would
not be good for schizophrenics.
Where does that leave us? A conclusion about madness and occult
philosophy cannot be reached but I highlight the teachings of the Emin and their relation to Crowleyâ€™s writings just to provoke thought and demonstrate the value of studying cult beliefs. Shawâ€™s book both encourages curiosity and satisfies it. That is why it is a valuable read.
I have very little to say about the book that is negative. There is a
question of fairness, as Shaw finds most of his subject matter
ridiculous and absurd. At the Healing Arts Festival run by New Life
Promotions Ltd., he lumps in Kirlian Photography with the likes of
bio-feedback *aura photography*. Whereas Bio-feedback is certainly a
scam, charging money for coloured pictures, taken from a distance, of
air particles or somesuch around a person, Kirlian Photography is an
area of genuine study. It is the placing of objects onto a film within a
high frequency electrical field. The bright discharges from the objects
as seen in the photos, although maybe showing some sort of life-energy,
are not claimed by Kirlian researchers to be the *aura* that psychics
would supposedly see. The practicioners of bio-feedback photography say
that their photos definitely show the aura. There is, therefore, a
difference between the two in method and in emphasis.
Shaw also makes a couple of glaring omissions. Firstly, he covers both
George King and Benjamin Creme in chapter four, and though he is right
to point out Cremeâ€™s position in the Blavatsky-Bailey spiritual
tradition, he fails to mention that Creme was vice-chairman of Kingâ€™s
Aetherius Society until 1958. Secondly, on page 137 Marsilius Ficino
gets a mention as one of the Economic Scientist cultâ€™s "approved
figures" but Shaw does not fill the reader in on Ficinoâ€™s occult cred
as the translator of the Corpus Hermeticum in 1463. This fact might help
illuminate some of the cultâ€™s thought.
Overall thereâ€™s nothing to worry about. Spying in Guru Land is a book I
would recommend as the easy-to-read volume to "consume" if you want the
lowdown on the status of cults.
I received many email responses to my original review of
Spying in Guru Land in spring 1996. William Shaw mailed me to say that he
enjoyed it and agreed with my points about Ficino, Kirlian Photography
and Benjamin Creme. In some of the email responses I received, the limitations of the book were pointed out to me. Shaw cannot know what it is like
to be in a cult for many years, nor what it is like to grow up in one.
Secondly, although I was enthusiastic about Shaw's treatment of cults
and the way he emphasised the volume of perfectly harmless groups, his
book cannot discount the fact that there are some cults whose members
suffer terrible abuse. What separates "harmless" from "dangerous" in the
world of cults is the same thing that separates "harmless" from
"dangerous" in the world of mainstream religion, philosophy, science or
politics. The cause is rooted in normal human psychology. Look what
happened to an entire society in Nazi Germany.
- Barry Kavanagh
barry at June 17, 2006 9:49 PM