14 April 2011

I coulda been a cult leadah

by Nia

At my last job in the big corporate world, I heard a rumor that one of our big cheeses — the one we trusted, the only one who bothered to tell us that yes, the new office in India is indeed the death knell for you all — had "lost" two family members to a cult.

Eventually I got to know him well enough to ask him about it and was surprised to hear that it came about during his wife's search for treatment for depression. She had suffered from it all her life and felt horribly guilty, he said, for passing it on to their daughter, now grown. The wife had been seeing a certain doctor for months before the big cheese noticed that she had gone through an amount of money greater than my annual salary.

His brief account of his wife's, and then their daughter's, involvement with this doctor's practice matched several characteristics of cults that I remembered learning about in school. One or both of them gave large amounts of money to the organization; distanced themselves from relatives and friends who did not approve of the organization (the big cheese no longer had contact with either of them); relocated to be near the organization; and deferred to organization leaders when making decisions about their personal lives. An internet search revealed that the doctor was being investigated for fraudulent medical practice.

When I visited the doctor's website I discovered it was something I myself might have looked at at the nadir of my depression, when I was spending half the day searching the internet and the other half curled up in a ball on my parents' guest-room floor. His practice advertised itself as an alternative medical center for environmental allergies, and offered the usual alternative treatments like magnetic therapy, reiki, acupuncture, allergy testing, etc. In fact, the center offered more services than I'd ever seen at one place.

On the home page I found a potential hook in a long list of steps describing how new patients were evaluated and treated. Number one was an interview by a staff person. Number two was supplementation with an unspecified assortment of vitamins and minerals, to make sure the patient had basic nutritional support. The tone was almost apologetic, as if it were a legal precaution and the staff was embarrassed to have to bother anyone with it.

I am not the only person who's discovered that just a big dose of B-complex from the drugstore can make a difference in mood in a few weeks. If the new patient actually took those "just-in-case" supplements and then underwent another treatment at the same time, she might feel just better enough to notice and might attribute it to that other treatment. If you are miserable enough, have suffered long enough, know nothing about biochemistry, and believe that depression is a mysterious mental process that only experts can understand, a slight easing of it would be like a miracle and it would be easy to convince you to try one treatment after another.
Without insurance coverage, it could quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

As to the psychological manipulation end of it, I am reminded of my friend's comment: "I'd cut off my right leg if I thought it'd make me feel better." Who's to say what your thinking would be about your deliverer from life-long mental torture. Or maybe semi-deliverer: I'm guessing that the promise of further improvement would be part of the reeling-in.

I wondered if I would have gotten sucked in by Dr. Whozits if I had stumbled across his innocuous website ten years before. I hope not: I had heard about my grandfather's supplement experiments on himself my entire life (he died at 94 after collapsing on a golf course), and my mother was quite the one for the scientific method, so I'm assuming that if I had taken the supplements, eventually something would've dinged in my head about cause and effect. Luckily, I never had the money to get there in the first place.

Hard upon that thought came the urge to kick myself for not thinking of the ruse myself. I'd start small, maybe pretending to run a clinical trial and enlisting cash-strapped college students, who, once slightly less depressed, would spread the word among their social networks. A one-room office would turn into a lease on a building in an industrial park, with arrangements with local hotels for out-of-town guests. Eventually I'd start hiding my earnings in real estate. Then I'd winnow my acolytes and in each of the beach houses and the Aspen chalet and the Rio penthouse I'd install a serenely grateful guy with really white teeth who looked exactly like Daniel Dae Kim, James Franco, or Mel Gibson circa "The Year of Living Dangerously."

Image: Remix by M. Rhea of photo of poster of Kim Il-Sung and his subjects, by yeowatzup, September 2008. Photo is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.