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Session 267: A Deep Dive Into Cults

The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.

In recent years there’s been no shortage of documentaries, podcasts and articles about cults and the people who lead them. I’ve been very curious about the psychology behind cults and how members become part of them and wanted to talk with someone to help shed some light on how it tends to happen. Joining me this week is Dr. Ashley Tisdale,  a Postdoctoral Fellow at American University researching the intersection of disability, race, and horror. Dr. Ash is also the author of Cult Community, a newsletter for cult fanatics. She and I chatted about the history of cults, cult leaders, survivors, and victims, the similarities between cults and abusive relationships, and things that may alert you to something being a cult.


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Session 267: A Deep Dive Into Cults

Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 267 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll get right into our conversation after a word from our sponsors.


Dr. Joy: In recent years, there's been no shortage of documentaries, podcasts, and articles about cults and the people who lead them. I've been very curious about the psychology behind cults and how members become a part of them and wanted to talk with someone to help shed some light on how it tends to happen. Joining me this week is Dr. Ashley Tisdale, a postdoctoral fellow at American University, researching the intersection of disability, race, and horror. Dr. Ash is also the author of Cult Community, a newsletter for cult fanatics. You might be familiar with Dr. Ash's work if you're on TikTok, where she shares information about obscure cults and their leaders in her free time.

Our conversation explores the history of cults, cult leaders, survivors and victims, the similarities between cults and abusive relationships, and things that may alert you to something being a cult. If something resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession or join us over in the Sister Circle to talk more in-depth about the episode. You can join us at Here's our conversation.

Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Ash.

Dr. Ash: Thank you. I'm very excited to be here speaking with you today.

Dr. Joy: Tell me a little bit about how your academic studies and life experiences led you to researching cults.

Dr. Ash: My academic background is in literature and I focus on critical race and critical disability studies in U.S. multi-ethnic fiction. While my interest in cults really started because I binge-watched Leah Remini’s Scientology docuseries, I actually realized that a lot of the questions that I have about the literature that I read could also be applied to some of the cults I started to research. And my primary question is usually how are black people impacted and how might black people be especially vulnerable to harm (or in this case, cult indoctrination) because of social and political discrimination?

Dr. Joy: Wow! I appreciate you sharing that backstory cuz that documentary wasn't too long ago. Like when did that come out?

Dr. Ash: Oh my gosh, I actually don't remember. I don't know where it was, but the series was on TV and I just watched episode after episode after episode, and I was hooked immediately.

Dr. Joy: So, so hooked that you completely changed your area of study and work?

Dr. Ash: Well, I kept focusing on literature professionally, but personally, I started spending a lot of time doing that research, so yeah.

Dr. Joy: Got it, okay. So this is more of a personal kind of hobby and interest, not necessarily what you're doing to kind of keep the lights on.

Dr. Ash: Exactly. My day job is literature, my private time is cults.

Dr. Joy: Got it, okay. Can you give us a definition of what is a cult and how it's different from religion?

Dr. Ash: Sure. And I will say that differentiating between the two is a little tricky because they both usually feature devotion towards a particular figure and they have organized faith systems. However, cults typically have a charismatic leader who thinks that they either have direct access to God or that they are in fact a god or a divine figure. Cults also differ from religions because they rely on extreme isolation and control, especially over their followers’ personal relationships, their finances, and even their eating habits.

Dr. Joy: Got it. Okay, so there can be some similarities which I think is important to kind of talk about.

Dr. Ash: Absolutely, and I think that's where things get a little bit shifty. Initially, with many cults, there are the same kind of expectations that one might expect of a religion. We expect you to come to service, we expect you to interact with and bond with your fellow members, and none of that really seems out of the ordinary. However, what happens is over time, the demands placed on followers and the restrictions placed on followers seem to grow at a very intense rate. And so what becomes expected of followers may no longer just be an attendance of service, but that you now move onto the commune, that you no longer speak to your family members. But again, that usually happens over time and I think that's where things get tricky because the initial interactions are very similar to what we see in most religions.

Dr. Joy: Thank you for that. So not only did you take a personal interest in kind of learning more about cults and what they look like and how they happen, but you've also now decided to start sharing that information online. What led you to taking that step of sharing what you found online?

Dr. Ash: The thing that really pushed me onto TikTok was actually my partner getting tired of me talking about all the cult things that I found, over breakfast. She was like, you know, maybe you should share this on the internet. Maybe there's a community of people you can build with because I want to enjoy my oatmeal quietly. And she was right. I found a community of people who are also just as interested. But that is what gave me the idea to go online.

Dr. Joy: Got it. I love that your partner was like, okay, I'm tired of listening to this so let's try to find some other people.

Dr. Ash: Yes, exactly. Absolutely.

Dr. Joy: In addition to the TikTok videos, you also have a paid newsletter where you share some of this content. What has been [the] response to that newsletter?

Dr. Ash: Mostly positive. I found that a lot of people are excited to learn more about the cults that they have heard of before and they're excited to learn about cults that they've never heard of before. I've also found that a lot of people weren't aware at all that black people led or joined cults and they're happy to have that insight. On occasion, I have had a few former members writing to me to defend their leaders and those responses were not positive. I absolutely respect their perspective of what happened, but I'm not changing my approach.

Dr. Joy: Right, I appreciate that. You mentioned earlier that you have a specific interest in looking at black people and black people's interaction with cults. Why do you feel like it is dangerous for us to assume that black people don't lead or participate in cults?

Dr. Ash: I think the reason that it's the most dangerous is because if we don't know that we are also susceptible, then we might not recognize the signs when we're being targeted and I think that's what is the most dangerous. We might see behaviors that might feel a little abnormal, but we might not immediately associate them with things that we've heard or we’ve seen before in terms of cults because we see them as a primarily white issue or something that black people don't do. “We don't do them.” And I think that that's dangerous because it is possible. We absolutely, we lead them and we join them. We participate in them in all ways and it's important that we are aware that we are susceptible.

Dr. Joy: You know, as I'm thinking through this, Dr. Ash, and you may have a far more sophisticated understanding of this. But I'm wondering—because of black people's historically strong ties to religion and spirituality—if there is some interaction there that makes it difficult for people to believe that we could become a part of a cult or lead a cult.

Dr. Ash: Absolutely. And I think the best examples of those are some of the Christian-based cults that are primarily created to target black people. We know this happened with Jim Jones. It was absolutely intentional that Jones predicated so much of the early mission of the people's temple on integration and aligning himself with civil rights leaders and specifically situating himself in Oakland, California. That was all very, very intentional. His audience and later his victims were black people who up until that point might not have seen themselves as potential cult victims because so much of the scholarship and media reporting on cults (even now) does not feature us.

Dr. Joy: Yeah. If you look at all of the like True Crime podcasts and all of the fandoms and things that occur, those are typically white victims.

Dr. Ash: Absolutely. We are not often seen as victims and it's so dangerous (obviously) because we can be victimized. But again, it's so dangerous because we are targeted and we might not even recognize the signs because we wouldn't associate what's happening to us with what we know is true. We might recognize the signs of something that seems a little culty or at least seems suspicious, but because we never see ourselves as the victims of these kinds of crimes, it might be difficult to see like we're heading down this path. And I think that's very dangerous and I think it's something certainly that cult leaders take advantage of because they are aware. As much as we are aware, so are they, and that's something that we see in these examples of true crime with serial killers or folks who have admitted to targeting black people, targeting black children. This is all intentional. But for whatever reason, even though we are victimized, even though we know the results of the Jonestown massacre, we still have this image of cult victims and cult leaders as white.

Dr. Joy: Are there any particular takeaways you have from the Jonestown massacre that you think people should be aware of?

Dr. Ash: Yes. Much of what Jim Jones provided his followers early on was a safe haven from the racial intolerance and poverty they faced outside of the church. Unfortunately, much of that early and positive programming overshadowed the red flags within the church. Prior to the move to Jonestown in Guayana, there were reports of fraud, of bullying, and physical assault of adults and children, and the elderly. But because of the long-term programming and manipulation, I think folks were taught to believe that they were still safer within the church than outside of it, despite all of the awful things that were happening.

Dr. Joy: So really just looking for a safe space, right? Looking for refuge from everything else that was happening.

Dr. Ash: Absolutely. The church or a group or an organization that kind of takes that transition—it’s a refuge, it's a safe haven. And all of those things that are awful kind of happening within, people are being told, they're being taught that no matter what's happening in here, it's still worse out there. It's best to be here with us suffering than out there alone.

Dr. Joy: You touched a little bit, and I don't know as much about this so would love to hear your thoughts on this. What are the personalities of cult leaders? Cuz you're describing it as very intentional. Like does somebody find something one day and realize I'm going to start a cult? What is the developmental process of somebody starting a cult and what kind of personalities are we looking at?

Dr. Ash: I think there are similarities amongst all of the different cult leaders that I have covered and even those that I have not yet covered. I think the charismatic personality, the ability to draw people in is certainly one. And I think what's key is that whether or not they began their organizations with the intention to exploit, they end up doing it. They recognize the power and influence that they wield over people and they make a lot of demands over their followers and exhibit a lot of controlling behaviors over them.

I think that another thing that they all have in common is this refusal to be challenged. Any challenge against the leader is seen as, not just disrespect, but an insult against the core of the faith. If a person has identified themselves as the one true god or the last prophet or something like that, to challenge them or to question them is an insult to the faith itself. And so what I think becomes key for them is maintaining that control, oftentimes through violence or through physical or emotional violence. And that's something that we see happen with cult leaders across ethnicity or across gender.

Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Dr. Ash after the break.


Dr. Joy: Do cults always have this kind of like faith spirituality kind of framework? Is it always tied to like a Christian kind of a thing or some kind of faith entity, or are there cults that are not even related to anything that could be seen as a higher power?

Dr. Ash: There are cults that are atheistic in nature, so they don't actually have a religious core or background. For example, I'm especially interested in UFO cults and Raëlism is a UFO cult led by Raël, that's the name of the leader. He named the group after himself and so that's also a red flag, okay? But he believes and has taught his followers that religion in itself is almost a distraction. What people should be focused on is what he says is the Elohim, a group of extraterrestrials who have the technology that we need to become better people. Even though the Elohim aren't divine figures to be worshiped, they still kind of function in the same way in that they are where human creation began and they are where we will find salvation later. So even though they are atheistic in nature, they still share a lot of the same tenets that we’ll find in traditional religions. But there are many cults like that. And that's actually something you will find with a lot of UFO religions, is that there is much more of an interest in identifying and building relationships with particular extraterrestrials rather than building a relationship with God in like a Christian sense.

Dr. Joy: Got it, okay. Are there any modern, kind of cult adjacent fandoms or followings that you've seen arise in addition to what you've already talked about, that may seem particularly attractive to black people?

Dr. Ash: Yes. I actually covered a cult very recently which is led by Eligio Bishop, aka Nature Boy and he has amassed a pretty big following on YouTube. He is a young black man who was actually arrested very recently in Atlanta, Georgia. He relied very heavily on Facebook to initially build his community and then he leveraged YouTube to continue to attract his young black and primarily female following. I think some of the things that really made him so attractive to his followers was this vision of black royalty that he imparted on them. He referred to them as kings and queens, he would dress his followers in crowns. He, I think, changed some of their names to the names of great African kings and queens. He also convinced them that by following him to these different natural paradises outside of the U.S. and out of the mainland, they would find peace and joy. All that they have to do is follow him and (of course) obey him. And as with any cult over time, he became much more controlling and eventually violent and predatory.

Dr. Joy: You do bring up an interesting point around how it feels like it is easier for somebody to kind of develop these kinds of followings because of things like social media and these algorithms. You know, it feels like it is very easy for you to kinda amass a large following very quickly and do more harm to people or exploit people in ways that didn't exist maybe 10 years ago.

Dr. Ash: Absolutely. I think that's one of the things that can be so dangerous and Bishop isn't the only one. There was another Facebook cult that garnered a lot of attention a few years ago. I forgot the initial name of the group, but the group was led by Sherry Shriner. In her group, it started off as a meeting place for people who strongly believed in political conspiracy theories but she began to exert more control over her followers and their relationships that they had with one another and that they had outside of the group. Eventually, one of the followers believed that he had wronged her and was convinced by Sherry Shriner that... I think they shared a belief that some of the people in the government or the people that cause you a lot of harm are lizard people and so he had a lot of confusion about what he was learning from Sherry versus what he was hearing on the outside. And this follower asked his girlfriend to kill him and she did and so there was a murder as a direct result of his relationship to this Facebook cult. And so it is absolutely just as dangerous now to find yourself in one of these kinds of online or virtual cults, as it would be to find one in person.

Dr. Joy: Yeah. And as you're talking, I'm reminded of the recent documentary, and I'm sure you saw it also, around LuLaRoe and how some of these multi-level marketing organizations... You think it's like, oh, I'm selling Tupperware, but on the back end, it does really seem like the leaders of some of these organizations are functioning as a cult.

Dr. Ash: Absolutely. And this is a great way to kind of identify whether or not something, a group or an organization that you are involved in, is crossing a line that you need to be aware of. LuLaRoe is a great example. You have this kind of business and you're selling these clothes and things are going great, and yet the leaders are now interfering with your marriage. That's a red flag. You're supposed to be selling me leggings, not telling me about what me and my husband should be doing. What is that? It's really great that you pointed that out because that's a really good example of “I think I might be involved in a group that's crossing a line I don't wanna cross.” And if they are interfering with your interpersonal relationships and the organization that you're in is supposed to be about selling leggings—hello! Really bad.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, something else is going on there.

Dr. Ash: Something else is definitely going on.

Dr. Joy: Talk to me a little bit about how cult leaders tend to draw members in. Like what does that initiation process (almost) look like?

Dr. Ash: That's a really great question. It's so interesting that we just talked about LuLaRoe because we see this across. This doesn't stop just at religion, but very often it's by creating a warm and inviting environment. So many people just want to be in community with others. They don't want to be alone, they want to build bonds with people and they want to work towards building something beautiful or meaningful and so most of these organizations offer that. Again, we see this with LuLaRoe. It wasn't just about leggings; it was about building a business and connecting with people and building bonds and growing and putting money back into your community. And the same thing happens with cults that are religious in nature. This invitation to join the group provides people purpose and leaders initially tell people that they can provide that. All you have to do is be obedient.

And again, that obedience is often just show up when we ask you to show up. Be kind to your fellow members. Maybe dress a little conservatively, maybe we ask you not to drink alcohol. The things that they ask of people very early on are not particularly harmful and they don't seem bad or wrong. In fact, they seem like things we should be doing. Perhaps I shouldn't drink so much alcohol. I should be supportive of my fellow community members. And I think that's how people kind of get drawn in. But that's how things begin usually, it's an invitation to be a part of something bigger than maybe what you are a part of right now.

Dr. Joy: Yeah. You're talking about community and I wonder if there are other things that you feel like we learn about community from people's experience in cults.

Dr. Ash: I think the thing that we learn and that we see over and over again—whether we are talking about a LuLaRoe, whether we're talking about a Facebook conspiracy group turned cult, whether we are talking about Jonestown—we have people who want to connect with one another, who want to believe that there is more meaning to life than perhaps they thought. And they want someone to trust, to show them how to find that meaning and how to have purpose and how to do that with other people. I think so much of what we see across various types of cults is that people who are involved in them simply didn't wanna be alone and cult leaders have exploited that. They take advantage of that.

It seems attractive to ask people to come live on a commune by telling them you come live amongst your people. We are family, we love you, we care about you. The community that we build here will be a safe haven from all of the horror outside of it. And so that does probably seem quite attractive to someone who is alone and who maybe feels that the world outside has been unfair and harsh. And in many cases, it has been. I think that's what cults teach us about community, they teach us that people desire to be in community with one another.

Dr. Joy: The other interesting thing about social media, I think is that it also is an opportunity for people who have left these kinds of organizations to then share their stories. I definitely have seen a lot of people share about, is it like some kind of scented oils people have been selling? Kind of like LuLaRoe, and then I've seen a lot of women come out saying like, okay, I left this organization and here, you know. It's interesting because they typically find a lot of support from other people who have left but then there's also kind of like the emails that you've gotten in terms of defending the leaders. Like there's also a lot of backlash from people who are still members of the organizations. And so I'm curious. If we see somebody like a friend or a family member who has become a part of one of these organizations, are there any kinds of things that we can say? Like are there steps we can take to help them to kind of see maybe some of the dangers of what they're involved with?

Dr. Ash: Absolutely. I think one of the things that I've seen come up quite a lot is being able to remain in contact with them. I think so much of what cult leaders desire is that kind of complete control over their followers. Cuz as long as they have their followers isolated, they can ask anything of them and require anything of them, and there'll be little to no backlash. Again, we see this with moving people onto communes and asking them to isolate themselves from their family members. If you do have a family member or a friend who you think may be involved in something like this, being able to maintain contact with them is gonna be huge. Even if it feels like your interactions aren't always positive, the fact that you have not been completely iced out is a great sign that they still have a foot outside of the organization. That's a wonderful thing.

I think it's also important to do your best, as long as you do still have that connection, to try to get them to think about (as objectively as possible) some of your concerns. To remind them that they should be a part of organizations where they can ask questions. You should be a part of an organization where you can leave if you want to. And to just try to objectively get them to kind of think through some of the things that are happening that you recognize as red flags. So that perhaps on their own and in their own time, they recognize, wait a minute, perhaps I am a part of something or an organization that has crossed a line I maybe didn't recognize yet.

I think it's also important for people who are perhaps ready to leave (who have that recognition and want to walk out or to leave) to know that there are licensed professionals who are equipped to help them make that transition out of their organization and back into the world with people that they know and love. And I love that you brought up groups because one of my followers who was a member of a cult for a very long time shared that that's one of the things that really helped them. They found Facebook groups of ex-members and so while they felt isolated from the community that they had left because they had walked away from everyone that they had gotten to know and come to love for a very long time, they were able to find a new community in ex-members who were saying you've made the right choice and we can help identify opportunities of support for you here. You don't have to be isolated within that group to have the kind of relationships that you're looking for. I think that's something to remember.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, I think that that definitely is a positive, of being able to find support once you are outside of the cult. More from my conversation with Dr. Ash after the break.


Dr. Joy: You know, we've talked about this a little bit, but there does tend to be this sentiment that people who join cults are stupid or weak. Again, I think you've mentioned earlier that that's dangerous in thinking because then we maybe miss some of the signs. So why do you feel like this is an unfair assumption?

Dr. Ash: The most important thing I've learned from my research is that almost no one actually joins a cult. People join organizations and groups that are transformed into cults, and this transition is typically the result of manipulation and harm over time. No one should be called stupid or weak because they were manipulated. Anyone can be manipulated, no one is above that and I think that's what's key when we're talking about cults and the kinds of people who are indoctrinated.

Dr. Joy: You've already given us a couple of red flags in between questions. You talked about if you don't have the ability to ask questions of the leader, that could be a red flag. If there is no kind of like free will in terms of coming and going, that could be a red flag. Can you identify maybe some of the other red flags that people may wanna just kind of have on their radar of an organization or a group they've joined that may kind of be crossing over into a cult?

Dr. Ash: Sure. I really want to underscore that isolation is definitely one that they need to be aware of. Whether it is in person and you are asked to constantly be with the members and only with your members. Or whether it's virtually and anytime perhaps you maybe aren't at work or aren't in class, you are being encouraged to be in the chat room or on the phone or on virtual calls with other members. That is not a good sign. Any group or organization should allow you the room to go and exist outside of your organization and come back in when you're ready. I think something else that's important that perhaps doesn't get talked about as much is if you are in an organization that is encouraging you to be paranoid about non-members and the outside world, especially paranoid about things that you haven't really had a problem with before, that's also a red flag.

I think a lot of what we've seen in the media recently is a lot of this discussion about radicalization of youth, especially in terms of gun violence. And a lot of this question about how does this happen? How does this happen? I think a lot of that kind of boils down to these ideas about people and places being horrifying and that you should be afraid of them, that you need to arm yourself in defense of them. And I think that's something that happens in cults as well. Although it might not necessarily be violent, there's this indoctrination of fear. That you need to be afraid because the only place that you'll be safe is with us. You'll only be safe as long as you are here with us or as long as you are here online with us or learning the truth. That's where you will find safety. I think that's also key. If things that you are normally not afraid of are now being talked about or treated as these “potentially” sites of danger, that's a red flag.

Dr. Joy: Dr. Ash, how are cults typically disbanded? Is it typically like a whistleblower? Is it typically that like law enforcement gets involved? How do cults typically end, if they do?

Dr. Ash: I think all of those are absolutely possible, it really just depends on the organization. And I think that actually points back to that question about the difference between a cult and a religion. Often the difference is just time. Cults often kind of self-implode as opposed to religions, which we know last for maybe centuries over time. And so it might be the result of a whistleblower who identifies these kinds of dangers happening within the organization. This is something that we know happened with Eligio Bishop’s cult or “Nature Boy’s” cult. Someone escaped and shared with law enforcement some of what had happened to her and so the leader was arrested. And typically once the leader is arrested, people disband on their own because it is the leader who has the final say, who makes all of the decisions, and so everyone else is kind of left to themselves. So, often it is I think the involvement of law enforcement, but I think also, unfortunately, there are instances like with Jonestown where the leader might harm themselves or ask the members to harm themselves. Those are the most horrific of course, examples of the end of a cult—and that is by asking members to take their own lives.

Dr. Joy: You know, you just brought up an interesting point. Let's say the leader of a cult is arrested. That then means that there are probably tons of people who were still actively engaged and hadn't recognized what they had fallen into. You mentioned that there are licensed professionals. I don't know if these are therapists or some other kind of professional who help people when they leave. I wonder if you can speak any to the process of like, once you leave a cult, how do you kind of reintegrate with society and kind of undo maybe some of the psychological harm that was done?

Dr. Ash: Yes. In my research, I found that some people, once these kinds of leaders have fallen... I covered, for example, Aum Shinrikyo which was a cult created by Shoko Asahara in Japan and they led this neurotoxin attack against the Tokyo subway system with neurotoxins. Once Shoko Asahara and some of the other primary leaders were arrested, some of the group members, obviously they left and tried to reintegrate, while some other members actually created a subset, so a subset of a cult. They took many of the teachings that they had learned from Asahara, they reshaped them, they distanced themselves from the violence, but they effectively recreated the organization. And so I think that's one unfortunate possibility.

I think that what I have found about people who are trying to reintegrate, it seems to be quite difficult. But with the help of therapists and with the help of ex-members of either the same group or similar groups, people have to get help in terms of figuring out how to reconnect with family members maybe that they have pushed apart, which can be very difficult. Figuring out how to reintegrate themselves into the workforce. If you have this gap on your resume of time that's unexplained, it can be difficult to say to a potential employer, “Well, I was living on a commune for about seven years and that's why I don't have any work experience.” Again, I think that's why it's so important to reach out to licensed professionals. I was referring to therapists there to figure out, one, mentally how to deal with all that, but also to work with ex-members of the same or similar groups to align with folks who can help with that. So who can you speak to who knows exactly what you've been through, about how to fix your resume? About how to go about mending those friendships, about how to go about mending those familial relationships that were damaged.

Dr. Joy: You mentioned earlier in talking about Jonestown that some of that was really fueled by like the racism and just all the injustices that were going on in Oakland and in the California area and the bay area at that time. Are there other cults or other groups that you found that have formed almost as a response to racism or that's what it looks like? Like that's how people get involved but then it actually is an exploitative kind of a relationship.

Dr. Ash: Yes. Actually, I covered The Church of Universal Triumph, Dominion of God, which was led by prophet Jones. I covered that group on TikTok and in my newsletter. I looked at the “Dominionites” (that was what the parishioners were called) and I asked myself why wouldn't mid-century black Detroiters who were facing racial violence in their neighborhoods and in the factories they worked in, want to believe in a leader who tells them that their troubles are all temporary? By simply being obedient to God and to Jones, they would be granted the eternal reward of ruling over their earthly tormentors, so much of their attraction to Jones and to the church. The church also symbolized an eternal safety. Well after everything on earth had ended and they had survived all of the turmoil, the racial turmoil especially, they would be rewarded by God with something else. And so it doesn't really seem too surprising that they would believe in Jones and his predatory behaviors or accept his predatory behaviors because they would be rewarded later for that.

Dr. Joy: Dr. Ash, I wonder if maybe you or other people who research this kind of thing are seeing an increase in people joining cults related to the isolation of the pandemic, or because there has been so much tension around, “Wear a mask, don't wear a mask. Get vaccinated, don't get vaccinated.” It definitely feels like some of those conditions feel ripe for people kind of being pushed in some ways to the fringes. Can you talk a little bit about any upticks that we've seen or that you've seen in this?

Dr. Ash: Absolutely. I think everything you just mentioned, those conditions I think paired with the looming economic crises of the time as well, all of those. Things have happened before and history tells us that when we have this kind of political tension, the looming economic crises, a lot of fear about disease or about just things that we don't fully understand, people do turn to fringe organizations to try to understand what may be happening in the world. Because longstanding and traditional religion may not be providing them those answers. And social media, I think has provided a lot of people a platform to situate themselves as experts, as gurus who can provide the answers that traditional religious paths cannot. And I think that is why we might see virtually a lot more Facebook groups or YouTube enthusiasts, people who are developing and building a following based off their ability to provide their followers with the answers or with enlightenment. Things like that.

And I think that being at home and being isolated has definitely contributed to that so much because people quite literally could not leave and go seek out answers. They were isolated because we couldn't go out, we couldn't go anywhere. And so you have this community online that provides maybe somewhat of what you were used to before, there is some similarity in that. And I certainly think that there has been an uptick in the different types of groups online. I think a lot of them may not be categorized as cults, but they might just be kind of groups that meet and they might be conspiracy theory-based groups or things like that, that we see leaders exerting lots of control over.

Dr. Joy: Thank you for that. This is all so fascinating, Dr. Ash, and I know people will want to stay connected with you and figure out how they can learn more about what you're sharing. What is your website as well as any social media handles you'd like to share?

Dr. Ash: I actually am on all socials as @WhoAskedAsh. I have the cult community newsletter, it's All of that is available, it's linked in my bio and it's easily accessible.

Dr. Joy: Perfect. Well, thank you so much, Dr. Ash. I really appreciate you sharing with us today.

Dr. Ash: Thank you for having me. This was so fun.

Dr. Joy: Thank you. I'm so glad Dr. Ash was able to share her expertise with us today. To learn more about her and her work, be sure to visit the show notes at session267. And be sure to text two of your girls right now and tell them to check out the episode. If you're looking for a therapist in your area, be sure to check out our therapist directory at And if you wanna continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at This episode was produced by Fredia Lucas and Ellice Ellis and editing was done by Dennison Bradford. Thank y'all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.


Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
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Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here