- Cult leaders have psychosis or narcissistic personalities that drive them to preach a message and convince others to follow, according to therapist Rachel Bernstein.
- Bernstein treats former cult members, like those who were in NXIVM and Scientology. She has also met a number of cult leaders.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
HBO’s new docuseries “The Vow” examines how NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere was able to first sell self-improvement courses as a multi-level marketing scheme, and then used the courses to brainwash followers into providing blackmail, branding themselves, and having sex with him.
Raniere was arrested on seven charges including sex trafficking in June 2019, but before that, he captured hundreds of followers over decades with his charismatic personality and teachings.
According to Rachel Bernstein, a California-based therapist who works with former cult members including eight from NXIVM, there are three main types of cult leaders that rise to power. Some are self-centered narcissists, while others have delusions that they believe so deeply, they’re able to get others on board too.
The delusional martyr
Bernstein said she considers a delusional cult leader the most dangerous because they can use their unyielding beliefs to convince others to buy into the delusion.
She gave the example of Heaven’s Gate in San Diego, a cult where 39 members committed mass suicide as instructed by leader Marshall Applewhite in 1997. Applewhite, who previously reported having a near-death experience, was convinced a UFO would soon come to earth and help humans leave their bodies for a higher existence.
“There is the sense that the leader wasn’t trying to get money out of them and he wasn’t trying to use them. He really believed that this mothership was coming and that they all needed to leave their corporal existence and go to this mothership, and they all joined in the psychosis,” Bernstein told Insider.
This group-oriented delusion is a diagnosable condition called “shared psychotic disorder,” according to the National Institutes of Health.
Other cult leaders don’t realize their charismatic potential at first, but once they do, they become egomaniacs, according to Bernstein.
She said this type of cult leader may start as a teacher, street preacher, or in another public-speaking position. Eventually, they realize people cling onto what they have to say and run with that skill.
They “suddenly realize that everyone listens to everything they say, and they are pied pipers, and people will do things just because they told them to do it. And they start to morph into this kind of ego maniacal monster,” Bernstein said.
Jim Jones, the cult leader who orchestrated the Jonestown Massacre in 1978, was one of these types.
Jones started as a religious preacher and eventually had thousands of followers at his organization the People’s Temple in San Francisco. Jones convinced hundreds of these followers to move with him to a Venzuelan jungle encampment he called “Jonestown.”
When a US Congressperson arrived a Jonestown to investigate the operation, Jones told his followers to drink lethal poison, and 900 of them did, killing themselves.
The hard-and-fast narcissist
Last, there’s the cult leader who has been a narcissist for the majority of their life, Bernstein said.
“That’s how they’ve been since they were little. They feel ultimately entitled to completely lie to you, to put on this good charming face, to get you to believe what they’re selling, whatever it is, whether it’s God or a product or anything,” she said.
According to Bernstein, most cult leaders are narcissists, and are a “bottomless pit of ego need.”
This type of personality could explain why someone like Raniere set up his cult in the manner he did, with a constant need for members’ blackmail, which he called “collateral,” and obedience to him and his belief system.
Even if a NXIVM member devoted a decade of their life to the group, one slip up would label them as untrustworthy or a failure to their community. That belief creates a “hamster wheel” of unhealthy behaviors and relationships, according to Bernstein.
“I would say most cult leaders are malignant narcissists. They don’t care about the damage they’re causing. They don’t care about the lies they’re telling, and they don’t care about the families they’re destroying. They just need to need it, and they need to be loved, they need to be adored, they need to be feared.”
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