Bad Vegan Sarma Melngailis and the curious allure of cults

Imagine being at a crossroads: maybe you’ve made a big, risky career move, or you’ve ended a long-term relationship. You feel off-kilter and unbalanced, like everything is up in the air.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, someone slips into your life; a friend of a friend of a friend (you think), and you both just seem to click. Next thing you know, you’re falling in love and they’re promising to stay with you forever and make all your problems go away. As long as you believe in each other, nothing will stand in your way.

But then they start to ask you for things – money, to make big life changes for them, and a flicker of doubt enters your mind. You dismiss it, they tell you you’re on a path together. And things start to spiral.

This is what allegedly happened to Sarma Melngailis, a former New York restaurateur who ran a hugely successful raw vegan restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, and is now the focus of Netflix’s latest docuseries, Bad Vegan. She reportedly fell victim to “cult-like techniques” used by her ex-husband, Anthony Strangis, which led to her becoming isolated from family and friends, giving him more than US$1.6 million, becoming a wanted fugitive, losing her business and going to jail.

But how do cults form, and what kind of person becomes a cult leader? The word “cult” has several definitions, ranging from “a system of religious veneration”, to “a person or thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group”.

While most people associate cults with “unorthodox or spurious” religions, perhaps a better definition is one offered up by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is a “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement or work”. But in order to examine why cults occur, it’s important to understand the people behind them.

People who start cults employ a range of manipulative tactics to exert “mind control” over their victims, experts have said. One such expert on destructive cults, Dr Steven Hassan, tells The Independent that cult leaders do this by constructing a false reality around their victims, which allows them to confuse and control their members.

Dr Hassan is himself a former member of the Unification Church, a new religious movement and alleged cult founded in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon. Members are known as “Moonies”, who believe the founder’s claims that he was a Korean Messiah. Dr Hassan says he was “deceptively recruited” at the age of 19 and spent 27 months as a member.

He explains that cult leaders will lie about who they are and their past, as well as deliberately confusing their victims by “breaking” their sense of self. A confused person is an easily manipulated person, he says – and it isn’t even that difficult to do. All it takes is something slightly out of the ordinary to interrupt a person’s everyday routine.

“A lot of what humans do is automated behaviour,” Dr Hassan explains. “For example, when you go out to eat, you walk into a restaurant, you wait to be seated, you get a menu, you wait for a waitress – there is an unspoken script that we follow.

“We only become conscious of that script when it is violated. When something happens that’s slightly out of the ordinary, like a handshake that is just a bit too long, people get confused. In that moment, a cult leader can start giving directions that bypass somebody’s critical thinking.”

The most common subcategories that cults fall into include destructive cults, the most famous of which was the Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones; Doomsday cults such as Heaven’s Gate, led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles; and political cults, which involve world leaders who have created a cult of personality, such as Russia’s Joseph Stalin.

Other subcategories include, but are not limited to, polygamist cults, which allegedly includes the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church); racist cults, which the Ku Klux Klan has sometimes been accused of being; and terrorist cults, which experts say include Al-Qaeda.

There are some cults that don’t fall into any of these. One of the most notorious groups that have been accused of being a cult, The Children of God – which included members such as the parents of Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix, who were both born into it and left with their families – has sometimes been described as an “authoritarian” cult, while others have alleged it was a “sex abuse” cult. McGowan told The Irish Times in 2019 that her family decided to leave the group when “they started advocating child-adult sex”.

Another organisation which has sometimes been described as a “cult” that is difficult to categorise is Scientology. The movement describes itself as religion where the ultimate goal is “true spiritual enlightenment and freedom for all”. However, it has also been accused of being a “cult of greed and power” as well as a “business” with political interests – allegations which the organisation and its members deny. Famous members of the Church of Scientology include Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, John Travolta and Anne Archer.

A lot of what humans do is automated behaviour… We only become conscious of that script when it is violated

Dr Steven Hassan

While a cult usually consists of a group of people, in some instances – such as Melngailis’ – they can be formed between just the leader and one or two other people.

Strangis has never been accused of abuse or other similar charges and, through his lawyer, denied allegations in a 2016 Vanity Fair article that he manipulated Melngailis. While her lawyers considered a coercive control defence, which is a form of domestic violence, the US does not have any specific laws criminalising the behaviour, and they ended up dropping it.

Still, in an interview before going to jail for three and a half months, Melngailis said: “What happened is just something that is not well understood within the legal system… Why didn’t I run? Why didn’t I leave? Why didn’t I call the police? That’s the big question.

“Nobody talks about issues related to somebody manipulating your mind. You know, I believed these things were, in a sense, reality.”

Sarma Melngailis in Netflix’s ‘Bad Vegan’

[Victims] literally can’t think because to think about the situation is to think of something terrifying without any way out

Dr Alexandra Stein


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