When People Change with Rachel Bernstein of The Indoctrination Podcast


We don’t know what we don’t know.

Today we are talking with Rachel Bernstein about cults and stories of healing. It’s a dark world that most know little about, and most won’t until it hits home. But, as we discuss today, research into the topic is just getting started on the physiology of influence and manipulation.

With every episode, perspective is a powerful tool to influence how you see and interact with the world, even when stories are hard to hear or imagine. Those stories will shape and leave you with a lasting feeling and empathy towards others.

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Key Topics:
  • How do you specialize in the study of cults (1:21)
  • How prolific are cult-like groups in the world (6:44)
  • What inspired this work to become a podcast (8:43)
  • How do you get people to listen to a show like this before they need it (11:41)
  • What have been some of the impacts you heard as a result of the podcast (15:52)
  • From a napkin to launch, what were some of those first steps (19:23)
  • What is your advice to others who might be looking to start a podcast or heal from a cult-like trauma (25:44)
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Speaker 1 (00:02)
Hi and welcome to Cause Bods. I’m your host, Matthew Passy. Here at Cause Bodies, we have one simple mission to highlight the amazing folks who are using podcasts as a way to raise awareness for good causes and make the world is a better place, whether it’s in their own local community or they’re taking on global issues. Please visit us@callspots.org where you can learn about our guest show, their favorite charitable cause. Join our Facebook group with resources for cause based podcasters and find a link where you yourself could be a guest here on Causepods. Again, that’s all@causepods.org.

Speaker 2 (00:39)
Well, everyone, it is so good to be back here talking on Cause Pots. And I know it sounds a little bit funny, but I was just too excited to talk to our guests today that I’m willing to do with the way and I’m feeling. We are chatting with Rachel Byrnstein out in Los Angeles, California, host of the Indoctrination Podcast. It is a weekly show covering cults and manipulators and how to protect yourself from these systems of control that are out there. Rachel, thank you so much for joining us here on Call spots today.

Speaker 3 (01:07)
Oh, thank you so much, Matthew, for having me. I was excited to be able to talk to you.

Speaker 2 (01:11)
Likewise. So I have to ask you proclaim yourself as a cult specialist, and I have to know what made you a gravitate towards this field. And what is it that makes that a specialty is that some type of schooling is an experience in this having gone through some sort of cult like experience, like what puts you in this world?

Speaker 3 (01:30)
The reason that I got involved in this kind of work is that I had a family member who got involved in a cult. And it was alarming to see how quickly she changed and how quickly she was involved in this sort of group sync. And her language changed to kind of match the other people in the group. And suddenly the funds that she had in the bank that she was a teenager. So from camp counseloring and babysitting and other kind of ways that you save money, it was suddenly all gone and she was giving it to this cause. And when I remember my parents asking, what is this cause? She sort of didn’t know and she’s pretty street smart. And I thought, why is she giving everything over and changing herself for something that she’s not even quite clear about? And so it was very interesting to see also that she said she got in through a best friend of hers who she had recently made she had recently made a best friend. I thought that’s also a strange phrase, which is something that happens within culture groups. You suddenly think these are your best friends and that this friend is getting along better with her parents than she’s ever gotten on before.

Speaker 3 (02:56)
So my parents said, can we call her parents to find out how this has been for them because, yes, it does make us all get along better. Great. And my parents called her parents and they said in this very alarm tone, Where did you see our daughter? And there was a silence, because we could tell that this cultural group defined getting along better with your parents as never seeing them. They didn’t know where their daughter was. So the whole thing gave us shivers. It is something that I remembered as I was going into College to become a teacher and then going on for my Masters to become a marriage and family therapist, that we couldn’t find resources. There weren’t therapists at the time who did this work, at least as far as we could tell. This was before the Internet. We couldn’t research any cult book out there was by cult leaders. So that wasn’t helpful. And so I thought, you know what? I feel like I need to be a resource. I sort of learned this from it being dinner table conversation and really seeing the transformation in front of my eyes.

Speaker 2 (04:04)
Wow. So you went to school for counseling and therapy. You said marriage and family. And they didn’t even really have any studies for cult. So where do you begin to get that knowledge to understand this, to be able to help others?

Speaker 3 (04:20)
Now, there is one program that I know of that’s in England that was started by colleagues of mine at the University of Salford, where you can get a master’s in learning about coercion, but it’s brand new. And so because I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I learned from going to conferences, from learning from the people who were the sages in this area, like Dr. Margaret Singer, and people who really studied how manipulation affects the brain, from a friend of mine, Alan Shefflin, who’s an attorney, who kind of helped to introduce the idea of undue influence into the legal system, to understand about what some people go through and how they are manipulated without their consent or their knowledge, by going to conferences, but really mainly by talking to former cult members and talking to their families and learning about what was helpful to them, what wasn’t. And also how many times people are not believed and how many therapists also change the subject because they haven’t been taught how to help with this subject. So someone comes in and says, I was in a cult. A therapist might think, Well, I have no idea how to respond to that.

Speaker 3 (05:39)
So let’s talk about your childhood instead. So people were out there not getting assistance with this. And I talked to a lot of former cult members, and I said, Tell me about your experience and what happened to you. And let’s put words to it. Let’s find out a way to define what happened. And let’s do some research together. Because at the time, there had been some books written about people who had gone through reeducation camps where they really had been transformed mentally and physiologically. And I think that it was really through the clients and also learning from the parents and the other loved ones to know what worked and what didn’t when they were trying to intervene. Because the things that are intuitive for the loved ones to do are usually the things that make the situation worse.

Speaker 2 (06:33)
Part of me is sitting there thinking, well, this can’t be that big of a problem if we study it for so long and first getting programs. But I am afraid to ask this next question. How prolific are cults and cult like groups and cult like manipulators in society today?

Speaker 3 (06:54)
They are highly prolific. There are groups that are hundreds of thousands of members, and there are some that just have a few. But it really is in the nature of the relationship between the leader and the follower, even if there’s just one follower. And I think then you’re talking about thousands and thousands of people who are involved in cultural groups and the reason that they will always exist and I think have always existed. Now they’re just more in the news so people hear more about them. And the numbers do grow at certain times when there is a little more unrest or a little more uncertainty in the world, which is the case, there’s sort of this Bell curve. What you find, though, is that most cult groups are run by people who are malignant, narcissists, and sometimes sociopaths. Very few of them that they still are. There are people who really are delusional and really are not trying to manipulate. They really do believe the stories that they’re telling, very much like Heaven’s Gate. But as long as there are going to be people in the world who feel entitled and they need to take other people over in order to feel powerful, meaning the only way they raise themselves up is by standing on the backs of others, then you will always have cults.

Speaker 2 (08:23)
I cannot imagine the kinds of stories and the kinds of trauma that you have had to help people through and coach them through and deal with and know that exists in our everyday lives. And we are very grateful that you dedicate yourself to this kind of work to help folks who are being manipulated and used by these frankly terrible people. So with all that work that you’ve been doing, why then do you come full circle with the side? Let’s put this out as a podcast.

Speaker 3 (08:54)
There are many times that I would have a client in my office telling me a story and letting me know about what was happening behind the scenes in a group that I had heard about that maybe the world had heard about, but really didn’t know about, really didn’t know about the true nature of it. And I thought, I don’t feel right being the only one hearing this story. I feel like the world should know this. At least the people in that area who live in that area where they’re going to be recruited, government officials who are helping to fund this organization, not knowing what it is, politicians who are protecting this organization, thinking that it’s some kind of charitable organization. I think the word should get out there that sometimes people are really abusing the system and pretending to be something they’re not. There are many Wolves in sheep’s clothing with cults. So I really wanted for people to be aware. What I also wanted to be able to get across is that the people who get involved in cultic groups or even kind of cultic relationships are not different from us. And I think part of the reason that there hasn’t been a field of study for this really until recently is because there was this notion that those people who get involved in this or who are gullible enough to get involved in this are not like us.

Speaker 3 (10:31)
And so they kind of get relegated to the shadows of the different people. But there are so many people I’ve talked to who have gotten involved in cults, you would never know. There are people who are very successful or they seem perfectly fine. They got involved in their cult on their College campus or through their business or through their Church. And I really wanted to normalize the vision for people, not only so people would see that it could happen to them, but so that the people who have gone through this experience are not consistently shamed afterwards. And there aren’t assumptions immediately made about them, that there’s something wrong with them, that they were able to be manipulated because we are all able to be manipulated.

Speaker 2 (11:22)
You know, so often when we are talking to folks on callbox, we’re talking to people who are really trying to do good work and they’re trying to help people. But the problem usually happens that most folks feel like that could never happen to me. By the time they need to hear this content, it’s already too late. So how do we get folks to check out a show like this now and understand this content now so that it’s not something that they are simply listening to? Because I know it happened to me, and now I kind of want to understand what happened to me, but to prevent it from happening to other people moving forward.

Speaker 3 (12:02)
There are a lot of people who listen to the show and by listening to it and by hearing about someone’s life and what they were going through at the time that they were recruited or open to being manipulated, they can see themselves in that picture. And it’s been very powerful for a lot of people who really did think this could never happen to me to see oh, no, I actually have been there in my life, and someone did try to swoop in and take me over. There are a lot of people, too, who listen to the podcast for psychological reasons or just because they find the stories interesting. But also we have a lot of listeners from places in the world where they have dealt with groupthink and they have dealt with people coming to power in the places that they lived and taking over. And it has really been scary for them in the past. It’s turned their country upside down. And so they are particularly attuned to these kinds of stories. They want to watch out for this happening around them because sometimes cult leaders start small and they continue just to be small.

Speaker 3 (13:22)
But sometimes they grow and it depends on the level of sociopathy, actually. But sometimes people can take it into big, big areas and take it into government and take it into huge movements like white supremacy. And so I think it is an important thing for people to see that they can find their way into these stories and find something that matters to them based on their own personalities, but also sometimes based on the history of the place that they live in.

Speaker 2 (13:54)
So it’s kind of like you were saying, there might be way more cult like experiences that people are having without realizing they are in a formal, organized culture. It’s a 2020 special, right?

Speaker 3 (14:09)
Exactly. I’ve had some interesting experiences where there were a number of people who came to talk to me in my office. They’re all members of a particular group that I had gone to investigate, and I considered it to be cultic. And I won’t just call something that without having information about it or without having experienced it myself. I’ll go check it out if I can. And they were feeling threatened by the fact that I was seeing something about their group that they didn’t want, I think, to see or they didn’t want to have out there. And they all came into my office. They were all dressed the same. They were drinking out of bottles of water that had the label on them that had a picture of the leader, the water especially blessed by the leader. They use the same kind of lingo. And they talked to me about how none of them are being controlled and they’re all independent thinkers and why would I think otherwise? And I thought, wow, I wish I could hold up a mirror right now to have them see what I’m seeing. But they weren’t seeing it because they were really told that they were now more independent than they’ve ever been before, but they didn’t realize actually how they had all become like each other.

Speaker 2 (15:23)
So what has so far been the reaction or what has been some of the benefits of this podcast concept, either from guests you’ve talked to, listers, general public, have you seen any real world positive feedback from the content you’re putting out there? And if so, what was it?

Speaker 3 (15:43)
Right. So that’s been something that’s been very gratifying. I mean, one of the things that was difficult for me at the beginning was that I had never done a podcast. I didn’t know really how to put one together. It was an idea that I wrote down on a napkin. My dad used to say, some of the best ideas are written down on napkins. And it sort of came to my mind from that idea of I probably shouldn’t be the only one hearing these stories because they’re more important and I think they should get out there. And I started it, and I was paying for it out of pocket and still am. And I didn’t know how long I’d be able to sustain that. But I started getting feedback really right away, of course, with some of the podcast episodes that were done where the topic was Scientology. I got harassment from Scientology, which is part and parcel goes along with that. So I expected it. But Besides those moments and the people who really have as part of their role within their cultic group to harass anyone who speaks out against it, quote, unquote, even though I think telling facts isn’t necessarily speaking out against something, it’s just telling facts.

Speaker 3 (17:01)
I really have gotten so much positive feedback where a lot of people have said that they’ve used it as their own therapy or it was the catalyst that helped them leave an emotionally abusive relationship. It was something they realized they had been raised with by having a parent who was like kind of a cult leader, a malignant narcissist. And they didn’t know why their physiological and emotional responses to life were similar to former cult members. And now they understood why. So there have been a lot of people who have written daily I get emails from people and calls, people thanking me. One of the messages that I got, which was so powerful, was from someone who is in a culture group where they’re not allowed to go on the Internet, they’re not allowed to access any outside information, which is fairly typical. And they actually listen to the podcast on their phone. They’ve hidden their phone, so they still have access to it. And they found a quiet place in, I think, some sort of a broom closet where they listen to the podcast and that it helps to kind of embolden them to take the steps to finally leave this group, to know that people have been able to access something that clarifies things for them, that also gives them the words to use to describe what they’ve been going through and why they are feeling.

Speaker 3 (18:41)
The way they are feeling and feeling trapped or feeling manipulated is really quite powerful. I’ve also heard back from people who had been raised in dictatorships and regimes, like people who are the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, who are grateful for things like the podcast. And that’s actually on a micro level, I want people to be able to tell their story. And I know it’s part of their healing sometimes to be able to craft their story, narrow it down and crystallize it so they can share it. But on a macro level, also, being someone who is the descendants of Holocaust survivors, I care about this issue on a grander scale.

Speaker 2 (19:24)
You are self funding this he wrote down on a napkin. You’re just thinking of doing this. What were some of your next steps, and what are some of the things you learned early on that have helped you to this point?

Speaker 3 (19:37)
Well, I think one of the things that has helped is that I used to not want to put myself out there and ask for anything, ask for help, ask for people to do things. For me, it was very hard for me to even ask people to be on the show. I felt like I was leaning on them or putting pressure on them. What I realized, though, is that sometimes people are grateful to be asked and they are happy for the opportunity. And what’s been nice, too, is that now people reach out to us to be on the show, which has helped me from having to ask. But what I’ve learned, too, is that I have worked really hard to make sure that I don’t turn this into something sensationalistic and salacious. It’s very easy to do that with this subject matter. And I don’t want to just focus on the sex cults. I don’t want to focus on the things that I know are going to get ratings. I’ve tried to keep a certain kind of decorum, a certain sense that I am respecting the person’s story wherever they want to take it. They don’t have to talk about the things that some news media outlet might really want to focus on.

Speaker 3 (20:56)
It’s their choice. And so I’ll partner with them with whatever content they choose to share or whenever they’re comfortable sharing it. And so I think people have liked the fact that it’s had kind of a sensitive way about it without people being pushed. I’ve worked actually in my practice with some people who were on other shows, who were on shows on TV or expose done, who needed counseling afterwards because they really were pushed to share more than they were comfortable with and put it out to the public before they were ready. What I’ve also noticed is that it’s important to start something and to have it be really regular and predictable. People like knowing that once you say something’s going to come out each week, that it comes out each week, you need to kind of honor that commitment that you made, and that for people knowing that once a week they’re going to hear a story that might be affirming to them, or at the very least, just interesting to them, that I want to make sure to keep up, to do it on a regular basis and to have a good team. I’m lucky enough now to have developed a really good team of people who can help with getting the word out there.

Speaker 3 (22:10)
I’m really bad at PR because as a therapist, I don’t think about sort of Tooting my own Horn. That’s not my way. So I’ve needed to partner with people who will help. Remind me, like, actually, you should probably tell people that this exists. And so that’s been a very helpful thing, too. So I think part of the wisdom that we have in the world is finding out what and who our resources are that we can use to help further the goals that we think are important.

Speaker 2 (22:39)
Folks who are often doing the most important and the hardest work are usually the least likely to tell the world about it, even though we want them to and even though they should. I totally relate to it and understand that you mentioned having great partners. And speaking of which is part of your appearance here, we do want to promote someone who you think is a very important part of that is the International Cultic Studies Association. As usual, folks will put a link to their website so you can make a donation. If you are interested in supporting this call on behalf of Rachel, quickly tell us what is the ICSA do and why are they such a great cause to champion?

Speaker 3 (23:14)
So the ICSA is a wonderful organization. It is an organization to promote this idea that people really need to understand that there are people out there who will prey on others and how to watch out for that and also how to get healing from that if that were to happen to you. But it also approaches things in different ways. It has people looking at this from a religious standpoint, for people who got involved in Bible based cults, has a host of attorneys who look at this legally and show the limitations of the legal system. Very often, cult leaders are protected more than their victims in the law. There are sociologists and other professors, people who care about this, just looking at it as objectively as possible, seeing the movements that happen within society, and understanding it on a bigger scale in that way. But it offers workshops. I know I’ll be speaking at the upcoming conference. They have conferences where people who are former members will tell their stories, families and friends, the parents, people involved in groups, sometimes now the children of those who get involved in groups, which we’re seeing now more with conspiratorial thinking.

Speaker 3 (24:26)
Sometimes the kids are worried about their parents. They get a chance to talk. But also most importantly, not only is it that it’s a kind of a higher level because you have people really who are professors who study this, but that people can connect with each other. This is a very isolating thing for a lot of people when they get involved in a cult and also for the families for the loved ones. They feel very isolated because very often they’re immediately judged, well, your child got into something because you must not have parented them well. And so there is this being relegated into the shadows. That happens for a lot of people who’ve gotten involved in culture, have dealt with it, with their loved ones, and it gives them a place to come out into the light and connect with each other. And I really appreciate the way the International Celtic Studies Association has continued on, sometimes with a shoestring budget and is very committed to promoting human freedom.

Speaker 2 (25:30)
Like we said, folks, that is the ICSA. We will have a link to them directly here in the Show Notes. So if you would like to learn more about what they do or support them with the donation, on behalf of our wonderful guest here today, you could do just that. So with everything that you have done, I mean, obviously there’s lots of lessons to learn about how to protect ourselves, how to be aware of these things. But I guess what would be your one last message to people listening to this, both who are potentially worried that they might be involved in something like this, but also hopefully more importantly, other good folks like yourself who are trying to help, trying to do a good job and think this might be the right platform to get the word out.

Speaker 3 (26:17)
Right. I think it’s really important for there to be people out there who can remind people at times to listen to themselves, to trust their instincts, and to make sure to be very wary of a person or an organization that tells you not to listen to you, that somehow you need to ignore the questioning mind that you’re having, that’s saying something might not be right here or the person who you’re getting in a relationship with, who tells you to never question them or never criticize them, or if they’ve done something wrong, it must be because you deserved it. They sort of start to Gaslight you. I think it’s important for people out there who want to be able to talk about this, to help people, to empower themselves, to have also a sense of themselves who they are. The stronger your core is, the harder it is for you to be kind of pulled in one direction or another. Part of what I talk about and others talk about is finding something that has meaning for you, finding people who love you unconditionally, finding your support system, finding your connections so that you’re not in search of a community and you’re not in search of yourself.

Speaker 2 (27:47)
All right. So like we said, folks, if you want to support the ICSA, we’ll have a link to them in the Show Notes and go to their website, Icsahome networkforgood.com. But also, more importantly, if you are touched by the work that Rachel is doing, by the purpose of the show and by this amazing cause. You could also donate to the show directly as Rachel indicated this is all self funded coming out of her pocket and it’s incredible work. So we would encourage you to also check out Patreon. Comindoctrination again that’s Patreon.com indoctrination. We’ll have a link to that a link to the show a link to all the podcast links as well as the social here@causepods.org. Rachel, thank you so much for joining us here on causepods.

Speaker 3 (28:34)
Thank you. My pleasure.

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