This review, of a draft of an unpublished book, comes at the invitation of the author, who uses a nom de plume. I publish it because I hope that the review is of interest even if you can’t yet buy the book.
Its cover advertises this book, by Dr Niklaus Abelhauer, as ‘An easy-to-use self help guide to world domination’. This device presumes Way of the Master to be a cult leader’s handbook after Machiavelli’s The Prince. Except, in this case, the kingdom is not a physical kingdom of land, citizens, and buildings, but one composed of lonely and vulnerable people, and maintained mostly through psychological terror.
Today, Machiavelli sits on a grand pedestal. Nevertheless, we are invited to compare Niklaus and Niccolò. The Prince weighs in under 35,000 words, and can be read in a day. Way of the Master, at 200 pages of dense prose, required three sittings to complete, and felt as though it may have been shorter.
The Prince is successful in part because kingdoms need rulers, and the lives and troubles of rulers are interesting. On the other hand, the world has little use for cults: they are self-serving by design. Were I to lead such a community, I might place this book discreetly on my shelf with its spine facing inwards in case I needed it, but that’s not what Way of the Master is really about. The true intent is conveyed through the author’s transition from instructive to humorous registers throughout the book, and is revealed completely in an epilogue that I would have preferred to read at the start. There are, after all, many reasons why this book is about ‘How To’, and not ‘How I’.
Ironically, a novice cult leader might actually resort to self-help books — such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People — in an attempt to learn a superficial charm. But, once you’ve seen a psychopath or narcissist in action, you understand how they intuitively pull every lever they can in pursuit of what they need. The psychological aspect of this book is a litany of the secondary characteristics of psychopaths and narcissists, a list of human frailties, and a repeating tale about one class of person easily coercing and bullying another to protect their delusions about themselves.
The second aspect of the book is sociological. It is The Madness of Crowds for the information age: a critique of under-examined collective beliefs and, by extension, of religions. The postmodern ‘self-help’ framing strains under the gravity of this purpose. The author constantly stretches for a levity that is not always necessary, so that the humour misfires in places, or the self-help pretence shatters because the author needs to expect more self-knowledge from his ostensible reader than that reader would possess.
Such a book will mostly be about the less pleasant side of already very unpleasant people, so there is little consolation. Nobody, not even the reader, gets admiration or sympathy from Abelhauer. The journey through the first three stages was especially lonely and dispiriting, and I considered that there might be alternatives to the How To structure that could admit some love. That I finished the book suggests that I’d make a better minion than a leader.
That said, to get lost in the necessary dreadfulness of the material risks understating its value. The book is full of close studies of the ways in which degenerate leaders operate to keep their minions isolated, motivated, and obedient; how they outmanoeuvre those around them, prevent authorities from intervening, and get away with their crimes. In this sense, it is a well-observed, well-researched examination of a common pathology. The descriptions of cognitive vulnerabilities, biases, and interests that such people exploit in others are particularly compelling. I enjoyed the quotes and the case studies that broke up the prose. I would have liked to see more variety to these, and some deeper references to books about psychology, mass delusion, and control. As a contrasting voice, for example, it would have been interesting to read a little of L Ron Hubbard’s own hand, or quotes from Dobelli’s pithy book about common logical fallacies.
There is a more sinister problem with the How To device. Cult leaders are always ridiculous to outsiders. Blessed with little subtlety or self-awareness, they guard grandiose fictions about themselves against all evidence to the contrary, usually including appalling personal habits and a grubby private life. It seems a natural setting for a situation comedy, but there is no sitcom I can recall that is set inside a cult because they are not, in practice, funny.
Charles Manson might have been a source of mirth in his early days, hearing in one of the Beatles’ more throwaway songs a prophecy of apocalyptic interracial war, but there are few laughs to be had from the trajectory of the Manson family. Similarly, the famous audio cassette of Jonestown’s final moments, presided over by a barely-coherent but fully monstrous Jim Jones, is full of bathos. Among Jones’s final pronouncements is ‘Without me, life has no meaning’. Outside the room, the irony raises eyebrows, but we cannot smile. Jones needed his minions far more than they ever needed him. They were so used to being treated as his property that they cheered him on. If only they could have seen him as we do today.
People fall for cults, and always will, because we love to be charmed, and because we want to believe in supermen. Every culture has a fable of an audacious young boy who fights a giant or a god and prevails, and who wouldn’t want to carry his spear? To do something of enduring worth, singly or collectively — to write a successful book, for that matter — means nurturing a dream in the face of poor odds, against the attrition of reality, and at the risk of ridicule from loved ones. When you’re in a cult, having moored your self-belief to their cause, it will feel the same as any worthwhile endeavour. All this is a warning that you cannot treat cults lightly: to belittle them is to risk infecting more valuable human themes with the same contempt.
The protagonist of Chris Morris’s latest comedy, The Day Shall Come, is the leader of a cult. Morris just gets away with this because that leader is inept, and because the film as a whole is a satire against the American administration, which — surprise surprise — turns out to be far more sinister and hardly more capable than the two-bit cult it’s trying to infiltrate. A comically incapable leader can be only so terrifying, but Way of the Master is largely about the ones who achieved their ends at a massive cost to the people in their care.
This is why the cover’s promise of ‘world domination’ is at once misplaced and a missed opportunity. The limits of one person’s ability to control another means that most cults comprise no more than one hundred people. Those with a shallow hierarchy can command around a thousand. Bigger religions require towering bureaucracies to maintain control. By the time they’re big enough to reach millions, their prophets (Smith, Hubbard, Moon) are usually advanced in years, or long dead. However, the book touches on the idea of using the tools of Social Media as an indoctrination mechanism after a suitable period in stealth mode. This seems quite promising: you don’t need to control what your minions see when algorithms purposely create filter bubbles on your behalf. You don’t need to work too hard to correct what your followers are thinking when a thousand people can pile on a clumsy comment and drive the careless interlocutor to despair. Long friendships that become suddenly inconvenient can be silenced forever with the click of a button. Over just fifteen years, Social Media has factionalised humanity like no other force in living memory, and has enabled hidden operators to shift global opinion and go almost undetected. This is a terrifying tool for mass control, and the author gets tantalisingly close to a deep treatment of it on more than one occasion before backing away.
Let us return to the need for a kinder narrative framework. One of the aspects of this book that is clearest, most insightful and entertaining is the inter-stage quizzes. This is not least because it allows the author to add real warmth to his humour.
It suggests the beginnings of an epistolary novel made from such material. We already imagine drafts of speeches with an editor’s suggestions left in (‘Can we replace the alien abduction with an eleven-month visit to a monastery?’). We can envisage a panicked memo about how to handle difficult questions after a narrow escape from a dissenting journalist. There might be some corridor dialogue about whether the pseudoscience branding is sufficiently populist. A committee, unlike a single leader, can be aware of the evil they are perpetrating without having the power to avert it. This is why dystopian novels are so often told from the perspective of those in the middle third of the regime. The narrator can be articulate enough to explain without grasping the full horror, can be both complicit and relatable, and is in practice entirely powerless. An unexceptional junior administrator, piecing together archive material and interviews in an attempt to honour the Supreme Leader with an official biography, would make a more sympathetic vehicle for imparting the message.
Alternatively, a Gulliver’s Travels narrative would take the form of an academic anthropologist who joins two or three cults, one after the other, and is studying their relative idiosyncrasies in subterfuge. Such a person must live inside a cult to understand it, but remain separate enough to be aware of the framework and structures, to be able to compare it to the ones they’ve seen before, and to survive. Naturally the need to maintain a colossal level of cognitive dissonance would drive them almost mad.
Robert Lifton’s work is occasionally quoted in the later sections, and I wish more were made of this material earlier. It would directly help those who might really want to buy Way of the Master. A reader interested in cults will have a mind full of healthy questions: How do such contemptible people sucker intelligent men and women? What are the minions really getting from the deal? Is the summer programme that my loved one is considering joining a cult? How can I try to stop them, or limit the damage that the cult might do? If it’s a compound cult, will I ever see them again? Is a friend trying to entice me into one? How do I know if I’m being brainwashed? Is Buddhism a cult? Is Freemasonry? Can some cults actually be good? — Direct, authoritative, honest answers to these questions would be of enormous benefit to vulnerable people and their friends. These are the topics that Way of the Master sets out to address, but dropping the self-help pretence would enable a more humane narrative because the conceit of turning the reader into a monster would no longer be necessary.
Cults are tragic on an individual scale because they tempt good but troubled people from a world of dizzying colour and variety, of light and shade, dangers and rewards and loving families, with the promise of something even greater. They are then systemically impoverished and parasitised until their self-worth has drained away. Cults are a problem on a sociological scale because when a society falls for a confidence trickster, bad things happen. Mob rule and mass killings are such a common consequence of the false messiah, of the lazy ideology, and of misdirected love that examples are not necessary. You cannot just say, as this book does, ‘Don’t incite your minions to commit murder or suicide!’ whilst ignoring the fact that this is never the starting intention. Unfortunately, the tricks that keep your followers loyal will set you on that path. By the time you notice — even as their leader — events may be beyond your control.
It all makes for a very ugly lesson, and one we keep failing to learn. The healthy reader will wonder how they can stop hearing the same story again and again.