Photo shows a follower meditating in front of portraits of Aum Supreme Truth guru Shoko Asahara and his two sons posted on an altar at a seminary in Tokyo. Asahara, who was sentenced to death by a lower court in 2004, guru of a Japanese doomsday cult Aum which carried out the 1995 gas attack on the subway system is mentally fit, a psychiatrist reported making it more likely he will be hang reports said.    AFP PHOTO/FILES-Toru YAMANAKA  (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo shows a follower meditating in front of portraits of Aum Supreme Truth guru Shoko Asahara and his two sons posted on an altar at a seminary in Tokyo. Asahara, who was sentenced to death by a lower court in 2004, guru of a Japanese doomsday cult Aum which carried out the 1995 gas attack on the subway system is mentally fit, a psychiatrist reported making it more likely he will be hang reports said. AFP PHOTO/FILES-Toru YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

What exactly is the definition of a cult? How and why do people join them? And why are Americans so fascinated by them?

These are surprisingly difficult questions to answer despite the media saturation of cults in the United States. Cults are often thought of as inextricably tied to religion. However, the meaning of the word “cult” has shifted over time. Today, the term means a group with socially deviant behaviors.

This nebulous designation means that it can be a lot easier to join a cult than most think. Some businesses might be considered cults. Some exercise classes are described as cult-like. More than a few political movementsare classified as cults.

However, it should come as no surprise that leaving can be extremely difficult. Trying to leave can challenge a person’s entire belief system or even lead to physical or mental abuse from other cult members.

We sit down with a former cult member, a professor and a psychoanalyst to learn more about this phenomenon and what you can do if you or a loved one ends up in a cult.

Guests

  • Sarah Edmondson Actress; author, “Scarred: How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult That Bound My Life”
  • Janja Lalich Professor emeritus, specializing in cult groups, coercion and social control; author of more than a half-dozen books, including her latest, “Escaping Utopia.”
  • Daniel Shaw Psychoanalyst, specializing in former cult members and their families; author, “Traumatic Narcissism”

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