Inside a Secretive and Controversial Religious Cult
The Clandestine Brotherhood
These people can be in that waking trance state for years at a time and tell you that they totally believe that they've made a free choice, that they totally believe that they're in control of their minds.
Jim Siegelman, cult expert
N E W Y O R K, March 25 They assume false names and give away everything they own. They sever contact with family and friends. Wandering the country, they sleep in public places and live off other peoples discards. If asked, theyd be hard pressed to tell you where theyll be next week, let alone next year.
These are not fugitives or drifters whove fallen on hard times, but bright, educated individuals who once led successful lives in mainstream America. As Diane Sawyer reported on PrimeTime Live, these people have chosen to lead a nomadic, spartan existence in search of spiritual salvation.
Followers of cult leader Jim Roberts, often known to outsiders as the Brethren, or the Garbage Eaters, constitute one of the most secretive and impenetrable religious cults in America today. Robertsalso called Brother Evangelist carefully orchestrates every moment of their hardscrabble existence.
Cult expert Jim Siegelman says the Roberts Group is the most insidious and potentially destructive of almost any other cult group around today because of the way they use the Bible, because of the way they trip their members minds and physically isolate them, and the way they spirit people all over the country so that they cant even be found.
Although the group has been around for a quarter of a century, few people know about it because Roberts an ex-Marine, hairdresser and preacherstudiously avoids contact with media and law enforcement.
PrimeTime managed to catch up with Roberts at a bus stop in California. Looking jumpy and nervous, Roberts seemed reluctant to speak to a reporter.
We no ways believe that were a cult, he said in response to a question about his group. Asked about allegations that he encourages group members to sever ties with their families, he said, Well, sometimes we do that because of what Christ taughtbut he didnt elaborate on those teachings.
Active Minds Corralled
The Roberts Group is every parents worst nightmare.
Families describe former football stars, Ivy League students and successful entrepreneurs inexplicably surrendering their dreams and dismantling their personalities to become Roberts minions, seemingly overnight.
Universities are prime recruiting grounds, says Siegelman, who wrote Snapping, a book on mind control, with Flo Conway. Its the brightest most imaginative kids whose minds are open, who are actively searching more than someone whos maybe less intelligent or more passive, who are going to wind up being a target for the recruiters.
The Roberts Group seeks out vulnerable young adults on college campuses during high-stress exam periods. Their modus operandi is to immediately and radically isolate new members from their former lives, forbidding contact with loved ones. Initiates are given a Hebrew name and taken into hiding in a different part of the country.
Fear of Damnation
They are also convinced, with help from carefully selected Bible text, that if they leave the group or disobey Roberts dictates they will be eternally damned. Few who join ever leave.
One former group member told PrimeTime Roberts twisted Scripture to isolate his followers from their own families. There is a place in the Bible where Jesus said a man's enemies will arise out of thosehis own family. But Jim Roberts turned that around and presented a case that everyone in your family is your enemy.
Attempts to communicate with family members would be punished by ostracism, the former group member said. If you communicated with your family, you were put out of the group. In his mind, he was sending them to hell because, you know, that was what it meant to leave the group in his mind.
One bearded, soft-spoken cult member in Berkeley, Calif., told PrimeTime that the secrecy was necessary to protect cult members from being kidnapped by their parents.
They fear the efforts of parents like Judy and Larry Wilcox, whose son Bart, an athlete and former exchange scholar to South Africa, abruptly left college to join the cult in 1991. The Wilcoxes, who are desperately trying to find their son, say the once all-American kid, the kind of child that you pray for, sent them a letter in the characteristically tiny scrawl of the Brethren saying only, God willing, this will be the last time you ever hear from me.
The parents of the cult members say the prospect of their independent, college-age children falling prey to a cult once seemed preposterous. They cant fathom what went wrong to make them change so suddenly. Nor do they know when, or if, they will ever see their children again.
Source: Adapted from the AFF Checklist