In her course on cults, Poulomi Saha has students look beyond the headlines

A portrait of associate professor of English Poulomi Saha, who is standing with her arms crossed wearing a white T-shirt and a blue blazer. She has large eyeglasses and a short haircut.

Poulomi Saha, a UC Berkeley associate professor of English, teaches a popular and packed undergraduate course called Cults in Popular Culture. (UC Berkeley photo by Julian Meyn)

It’s no surprise that seats in Poulomi Saha’s course, Cults in Popular Culture, fill up fast. Cults have long fascinated Americans, who had no shortage of docu-series about them to binge-watch while isolated during the pandemic. Popular ones include “Wild Wild Country,” on the Rajneeshpuram community in Wasco County, Oregon; “The Vow,” about the Nxivm “self-improvement” group, and “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults.”

Like the previous fall semester, Saha’s current students are “coming in with real personal investments — podcasts and documentary series that are someone’s favorite, someone’s obsession,” says Saha, a UC Berkeley associate professor of English.

But her goal isn’t to deepen students’ familiarity with the dark and dramatic doings of the Manson Family, the Branch Davidians, Synanon and Heaven’s Gate, or to explore cults as part of the true crime genre, which includes serial murders, organized crime, bank heists, drug scandals and long-buried secrets.

In an interview with Berkeley News, Saha discussed why it’s important to teach students, especially at a top research university like Berkeley, to look past the label and dig deeper: What was the original intention of a particular organization later labeled a cult? What did it offer? What were its practices? Who joined and why? What does it tell us about spirituality and culture in America?

Associate professor Poulomi Saha lectures her large class on cults in popular culture. She is in front of a large blackboard with her hands raised to her shoulders.

In her class, Saha takes a week each to explore different intentional communities, as she prefers to call them, including the Rajneeshis, Peoples Temple, Scientology, Heaven’s Gate and the Manson Family. (UC Berkeley photo by Julian Meyn)

Berkeley News: Where does the word “cult” come from, and what does it mean?

Poulomi Saha: The word cult is quite old, from the 17th century, and shares an origin with “cultivation” and “culture.” And that’s an important relationship. It reveals something we implicitly know when we use the word cult — that an intense and sometimes self-effacing commitment to an ideal or idol reveals itself in cultivated practices of the body, in the development of shared rituals and beliefs, and is all over our social customs, our aesthetic sensibilities, our consumer habits. Cults are culture.

The word cult is at the heart of this class and my own academic interests: what makes a cult different than a religion or a sect, and why the word cult so often produces revulsion or compulsion. I am not interested in diagnosing cults, but rather in understanding how groups and beliefs come to take on that name, and all the feelings and reactions that come with it.

What a cult is, in America, is a form of spiritual or communal practice that, for some reason, encounters society in a way that upends that society’s values. The thing it so frequently upends are two essential categories of Americanness — the sovereign self and private property. If you look at case studies of groups and figures and communities called cults, how do they get that name? They have an encounter with the state because of a claim of illegality or of social perversion, and when you look at the terms of the claim, what’s being threatened is the self, or private property, through tax evasion, accusations of brainwashing or commune living.

Associate professor of English Poulomi Saha talks with one of her students.

“Students sign up because they think they know what a cult is and think they know one when they see it,” said Saha, who instead teaches them to ask about a particular group’s participants, practices, the relationships among its members and how — when labeled a cult — it can get criminalized and pathologized. (UC Berkeley photo by Julian Meyn)

How do you handle use of the word cult in class?

In my class, we stop using the word cult after the second week. That week, we take on the semantics of the term — what we think we know when we use the word, what kind of shared narratives and expectations it taps into, and how it elides so many other fascinating and important questions. For the rest of the semester, we largely use the term “intentional community” because it allows for thinking with the people who join, for whom these are life-changing experiences. It also forces us to step away from diagnosing people who join these groups as somehow acting outside themselves or their own interests. People often join groups with an intention, and these groups often build relations between their members in ways designed quite consciously to create bonds and intimacies. Intentional community also specifies the interest of the class away from other uses of the term, like “cult film,” which does not rely on the shared feeling amongst people that is so important.

How does the course begin, and which cults are explored?

The first thing I want to do is denaturalize the word cult. Students sign up because they think they know what a cult is and think they know one when they see it. Most of them tell me they’re obsessed with podcasts or documentaries about cults or are rabid followers of a reddit subgroup about a particular one. But I want to move them to inductive reasoning, to ask not, “Is it a cult?” but to ask about a particular group’s participants and practices, and how those practices elicit a particular relationship among members, and how, when labeled a cult, the group often gets criminalized, pathologized, made fun of.

We also need to ask, as scholars, how we should approach understanding these communities that promise transcendence, the utter loss of self that happens, without defaulting to talk of suspicion and brainwashing and criminality, or becoming enthralled ourselves. It is a matter of how we read, how we think critically. It’s easy to say that people who join these communities are duped and to ignore questions of will and desire and what is missing in their lives outside that they find within the community. It is also easy, especially given how much media there is, to get totally sucked in. To lose critical distance. It’s all about balance. That’s the work of scholarship.

A black and white photo of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh wearing a black hat and lifting his hands up.

Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, who died at age 58 in 1990, speaks at a news conference in Oregon on Sept. 17, 1985, in Rajneeshpuram, an intentional community that in 1981 became a city with a population entirely of his followers. The community collapsed in 1985 after coming under investigation for arson, attempted murder, immigration and voting fraud, and drug smuggling. (AP photo by Jack Smith)

This is why the first intentional community we look at are the followers of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, or the Rajneeshis, as they were called in pop culture, through the wildly popular 2018 docu-series Wild, Wild Country. It lays out a really rich narrative arc of how a group can imagine its own utopian future, present as a social difficulty and then get named a cult. It doesn’t begin with criminality and pathology; it shows the really powerful appeal, the promise of this beautiful, communal life. Before it all goes wrong. It provides a psychological understanding of how groupthink happens. One of the ways in which a cult appears in public parlance is when there’s a group mentality that disappears individuals.

But for the Rajneeshis, all the other salacious accusations laid out in the documentary notwithstanding— the ground-up muskrats used to poison the Sizzler salad bar! — they become called a cult because of the IRS. The U.S. tax code governs what gets called a religion by delineating the groups that come to have protected tax-exempt status. When the IRS says they aren’t a religion, it’s the state saying they are something else, something scary and criminal: They are a cult! This isn’t the only time the IRS does it, but it is a particularly vivid example.

Each week of the class, we discuss a different type of intentional community and have a paired theoretical reading that is either psychological, sociological or theological to help build a new vocabulary to fill the hole left by us refusing the word cult.

The next week, we turn to Scientology and theories of social control while we also talk about celebrity and popular cultural power. We then we look at Peoples Temple, which started in the Bay Area, and take up some of the reality of what happens sometimes when a radical social movement becomes so fully insular as to do the unthinkable. Peoples Temple is now more commonly known as Jonestown, which is the name of the place where followers of Jim Jones fled to ostensibly build a racially-integrated society and ended up, as we now know, “drinking the Kool-Aid” and committing mass suicide.

We then turn, celestially, as it were, and look at Heaven’s Gate, in San Diego County, a group that believed in the liberatory possibility of extra-terrestrials. And also ended in mass suicide. And we can’t talk about intense intentional communities in California without talking about the Manson Family. Here we are faced with trying to understand charismatic authority in new ways.

Syringes and cups surround vats filled with cyanide that were used in a mass suicide and mass murder event in November 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana.

On Nov. 26, 1978, in Jonestown, a remote settlement in Guyana, South America, more than 900 members of Peoples Temple, which was founded by Jim Jones as a socialist and racially inclusive organization, died of cyanide poisoning in an event termed “revolutionary suicide” by Jones and other Peoples Temple members. Jones also died that day, of a gunshot wound, at age 47. Peoples Temple was headquartered in San Francisco starting in the early ’70s and moved to Guyana in 1977. (AP photo by Val Mazzenga)

Is it true that California produces a large share of cults?

Cults and California clearly have a relationship. One of the reasons is that California represents in the American imagination this place free of social constraints and expectations. It’s why the counter-cultural movement flourished here in the 1960s. It’s also tied to a settler colonial fantasy where this is a blank slate that welcomes newness: new religions, new ways of life.

You mention that groups start as intentional communities, but then things can go wrong, and they get labeled as cults. Is it usually because the leader takes advantage of the members?

Why things go wrong in any community is always a complicated question. Certainly, in the kinds of groups I study, one thing that is prominent is the idea of a charismatic leader whose will is enacted on a community in intense ways. When anyone has that kind of power, exploitation, violence and harm are always possible. The insularity of these communities, the cultures of secrecy — whether because something taboo is happening or out of fear of judgement — mean that the kinds of social safety nets that we hope keep people from harm are winnowed away.

Do your students ever share personal stories about cults?

It happens now with remarkable regularity. Once people hear that I’m teaching this class, and that I’m writing a book on cults in America, they so often want to share their stories. In the classroom, students often both talk about how invested they are in pop culture representations of cults and how some of them have family members who were in or who left communities like this. And occasionally, it’s closer still. A student once said in this remarkable, confessional moment in a very, very large class: “I was raised in a community or group that many people call a cult.” It takes an extraordinary amount of bravery to say anything personal in a class, especially one where the topic relates to such a complicated, private part of life, like spirituality. It was the first time I’d taught the class on Zoom, in the first pandemic semester, and the student said, “It has taken me a long time to understand how the things I normalize got seen in the outside world as kind of crazy. I didn’t understand and was trying to decide how to think about who I am.”

Associate professor of English Poulomi Saha talks with a student in her lecture class.

“I hope that students feel less certain in their beliefs, what they were sure they already knew, and instead able to ask more complicated, richer and more precise questions,” Saha said of her goal for students in the class. (UC Berkeley photo by Julian Meyn)

How did the class react, when the student shared her background?

This is the thing: It was an important moment for the class because they’re very committed to making room for talking about the complicated relationship people have with communities of faith, their families of origin. So, in response to this startlingly vulnerable moment, another student raised her hand and said, “I’m raised Catholic, and if you step back from normalizing particular rituals, we have plenty of practices and rituals that from the outside must look cultish.”

So much of what we understand to be foreign, or unnatural, is thought by others as normal, or transcendental, or a sign of faith.

The extraordinary thing about Berkeley students is how unbelievably kind they are to each other. I’m blown away by it. They have more intellectual and personal generosity than I could have imagined. There are avowals from students about how their own families or communities of origin made rituals, beliefs, behaviors seem normal, and that when they arrived at Berkeley, suddenly those didn’t seem normal anymore. It’s a culture shock moment. Being totally in a cult is like living a truth that people on the outside can’t know or understand. But it isn’t that different than becoming an undergrad and going away to school for the first time, and being exposed there, utterly, to the whole world. You start to question everything you know, everything you thought was unshakeable, sacrosanct.

Tell is about the major assignment you give to students — designing their own intentional communities.

This is my favorite part of the class, and potentially the most dangerous for the same reason. The students are so very terrifyingly good at conceptualizing and designing communities that might be utterly enthralling, that might draw many people into totalizing beliefs. The “intentional community design” project is the culmination of work they do all semester together in small, intentional communities. Because of the size of the class, which is usually between 100 and 200 students, working together in groups of five or six gives them a chance to get to know each other, help with difficult concepts and develop their own specialized vocabularies.

The group dynamics and conversations about course material appear, then, in all kinds of ways in their final theoretical project. I say theoretical because it’s so easy to see how some of these intentional communities, especially the ones that offer entire programs of self-care and life-optimization and well-being, might be implemented and take off and become wildly popular. We talked earlier about the moment in so-called cults where it all goes wrong: What we don’t want to do is watch a documentary in a couple years where the origins of a group are cited as “an undergraduate course at Berkeley.” At the same time, it’s telling how invested students become in this project. It shows you how much we wish to be a part of a group that fully incorporates us and might totally change our lives.

Associate professor of English Poulomi Saha standing at a blackboard in front of her lecture class.

Saha’s favorite part of the course is having students form small groups and conceptualize and design their own intentional communities. (UC Berkeley photo by Julian Meyn)

You spoke earlier of the sovereign self as important to Americans. How does that fit with a person’s need to belong to a group with shared beliefs and practices?

We live in a culture that venerates the individual and makes us so hungry to belong to groups, to have ritual practices that bind us to people. It’s a hunger that’s very real.  A group can require you to give up your own will or desire, to conform, to believe in a set of practices or ideologies. In turn, a group offers community, friends, social stability. The language of family. It can have an aura of the sacred to it.

What is so criminalized in cults is the idea of replacing the nuclear family with this alien thing, a new family that takes up the language of brothers and sisters and may have a patriarch. A social structure, a new society.  And you can only know what it’s like when you’re fully inside the group. This is part of the fear, from the outside, and the draw for believers. When you know, you know. And the idea of having this rare, sometimes transformative access is so alluring.

What do you hope students walk away with, at the end of the semester?

With this class, it’s really the same as all of my classes in a basic way: I hope that students feel less certain in their beliefs, what they were sure they already knew, and instead able to ask more complicated, richer and more precise questions. And that when they encounter claims of cultishness, they have the ability to look beyond the easy, though compelling, narrative and instead inquire into what desires and forms of power and social relations invite followers and critics.