“The Followers” is a book by Radhia Gleis that chronicles her harrowing 25-year experience in a cult. She was also featured in the internationally viewed movie Holy Hell, which was broadcast on CNN and named one of Sundance Film Festival’s and Netflix’s top 10 documentaries. It can now be viewed on Amazon Prime. Radhia Gleis spent years unpacking the reasons why she made the choices that she made and how she fell under the control of a narcissistic sociopath for 25 long years. “The Followers” is a powerful tale of her wake-up call that describes the many scare tactics, manipulation and groupthink that seemingly normalized the cults behavior. Readers will come away enlightened and better equipped to protect themselves from selling their souls, their minds and possibly their lives — for an illusion. “The Followers” won First Place in the 2021 Pencraft Book Awards.
Radhia Gleis recently discussed the book via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for writing and what pushed you to tell this story?
Radhia Gleis (RG): Actually, this is my fourth but my first published book. On the dedication page you’ll see two dedications: “To Jaime Gomez: You’re so vain you probably think this book is about you” and “To Jeanne Dalman: When others said I would never be a writer, you’re the one person who said I was! Rest in Peace, my dear friend.”
In the first section of my book, I talk about growing up with dyslexia and my challenges in school. I was led to believe that I couldn’t write or read well. Because my test scores never showed who I was, I learned to communicate my thoughts and intellect through storytelling. All the Gleises were storytellers. My first college degree was from Art Center College of Design, in illustration. I am a professional illustrator—that came easily to me.
When I got out of the Buddha-field and free of its leader, Jaime Gomez, I was isolated and traumatized. I often escaped my depression by walking the three-mile trek around two manmade lakes in the park across the street from my house. For four years I got to know the birds and animals that lived in this urban community. I used to anthropomorphize these creatures and make up funny stories about their lives. One day a friend convinced me that I should write these tales down. So, my first book was an illustrated children’s novella, called The Urban Pond Chronicles. I got lost in these characters; it was as though they were writing the story and dialogue and I was just the stenographer and illustrator. The project saved me from extreme depression.
Because of my insecurity about my ability to write, I asked a friend of the family what she thought about my book. She said, “You can’t write; it takes years of education and study to be a writer.” She reinforced my negative belief about myself. Then she finally said, “If you really want to know if it’s any good, why don’t you ask Jeannie?” Jeannie Dalman was my longtime friend from college who became a creative writing professor. I sent her a draft of the book and she said, “Radhia, YOU ARE A WRITER, don’t stop and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Jeannie died shortly thereafter. I believe she was put in my life for just that reassurance, and if it wasn’t for her, I would have never pursued my writing.
MM: How tough was it to relive your experiences in the cult?
RG: I left the Buddha-field in 2006. I wanted to leave that world and never look back. When the documentary Holy Hell came out in 2016, it was the first time I heard the terrible details of the abuse of my brothers, and I was retraumatized. This was also the same year Donald Trump took office. I wrote this book because I sought to understand how this could have happened—why did I make the choices I made in my life. And I wanted to better understand why others make their choices. So, I set out on this journey to explore these questions. In the first chapter of The Followers, I open with, “My personal story would be unimportant, except to give insights on common emotional threads that many of us have, that go deeper than the superficial facade of a person’s life.” The writing of this book was both painful and cathartic. There were times that I cried and times that I laughed out loud. Out of all the books I have written or will ever write, I believe this will be the one story that makes my entire interesting, complicated life—so far—a worthy contribution to the world.
MM: You came from a troubled family background; do you feel that the cult sought out people who were vulnerable in this way?
RG: That’s a good question and a complicated answer. In my book I talk about the psychological term “secure attachment.” If you are missing that in early childhood, then it’s an even stronger desire to seek that security. Everybody’s got a story; we all have vulnerabilities. The desire to relate, to be accepted—to belong—is a natural human trait. No one wakes up one day and says, “Ya know, I think I’m gonna join a cult!” My story is about the metamorphosis of a community of like-minded people fulfilling that secure attachment for one another, where this happy community, unwittingly—like a frog in warm water—eventually turned into a cult.
Some say it was a premeditated intention of the narcissistic leader from the beginning to prey on susceptible individuals. We can never really know what is in the mind of anyone. But I know this: Malignant narcissism is not a character flaw; it is a pathology. The narcissist begins to believe their own fantasy about themself. The leader actually began to believe he was a divine being, such as a Jesus or Buddha. In reality he was a total fraud from the beginning, but he started to believe his own lies and we—the followers—reinforced his illusion of himself. When I was writing this book the working title was Duped; but as I began to explore, I came to realize that it’s not so much about the leader, but about the followers. There is a growing feedback loop between the narcissist and the followers. The narcissist seeks one thing—to fill their insatiable appetite for self-aggrandizement and adulation. Narcissists are generally con artists and pathological liars, and they will do whatever it takes to get narcissistic supply. They figure out what the followers want or need, and they provide that, or at least the illusion of that. In return the followers give them what they crave: attention, adulation, and power over them. The cult was a collaboration of deceit, mutual desire fulfillment, and cognitive dissonance.
MM: What most compelled you about the cult, and how tough was it to escape?
RG: Every group has its own qualities and characteristics. But the word “cult” often conjures up images of Jim Jones or Charles Manson—a Svengali-like character who controls a group of mindless zombies walking around in a trance or who are willing to commit violence at the behest of the cult leader. The word itself carries such a scandalous stigma that it takes a lot to admit you could be so deceived, so duped as to have joined or still be a member of a cult. Whether it’s the Buddha-field, your religious or political organization, a particular ideology, or a cult of personality, you may ignore all the signs that you belong to one because it’s too hard to face that you’ve been played, manipulated, used, and controlled. No one wants to believe that about themselves. So they may not recognize themselves as followers of a cult. My book is not just about the cult I was in; it’s about much, much more than that. It’s not a story about me, per se, or some broken, gullible individuals, or the past. It’s a story about what’s happening today—to all of us.
The word “escape” further sensationalizes the idea. It makes it sound as if we were being held captive in some prison. I didn’t escape the Buddha-field—I left. Technically we could have left at any time. But it’s more complex than that, which I go into, in depth. Most cults shackle your mind and emotions. When you’re in a supportive, loving community, with like-minded people, sharing a unique lifestyle and experience that only the other members can relate to, it’s hard to imagine leaving. Of course, that “exceptionalism” is deliberately manufactured by the leader and is reinforced by the very essence of the cult’s own indoctrination, thus creating the entrapment.
MM: How much research did you do into the psyche of cult leaders in order to write this book?
RG: As a biochemical analyst and educator, I am a researcher. I read extensively about cult mind control, propaganda techniques, the pathology of narcissists and sociopaths, and the innate human urge to belong.
MM: How did you find a publisher?
RG: I am the publisher. I own Sage Card Publishing. To self-publish or go with traditional publishing is a decision every writer has to make. Both have their pros and cons, and either way it can be difficult for a new author and not for the faint of heart. I decided to self-publish because this is my story—I wanted complete control over it. It remains to be seen whether that was the right choice.
MM: What’s your favorite part of the book and why?
RG: The book is in three parts. The first part, called “The Journey,” is about my life up to joining the group. It is a psychological exploration of the causes of the deep emotional longing for community and God/self-realization. I like the humor throughout the book the best. I talk about early emotional traumas, but I don’t see myself as a victim. The style is me, raw and unvarnished; I want my reader to relate to me and trust me, so I open the kimono, so to speak.
The second part, called “The Buddha-field,” is about my twenty-plus years in the group. Although the documentary Holy Hell is very well done, the filmmaker, Will Allen, had the challenge of telling a thirty-year story in a hundred minutes. The book The Followers not only clarifies the many nuances of the leader and the followers but puts into context what the viewer thinks they see in the film, so they can further understand how the group developed and became what it did. This section also breaks down, step by step, the textbook characteristics of a malignant narcissist and parallels the leader with other narcissistic authoritarian leaders, past and present.
The third section is called “Reflections.” One of my favorite chapters in this section is entitled “What is a Cult? It’s Complicated.” It’s one of my funnier chapters but it defines the word “cult” and shows the reader how to recognize the characteristics of a cult; it also shows how we misunderstand or misuse that word a lot. In this third section I describe three types of people who join cults, whether religious, political, or ideological groups, and address many of the issues we are seeing in this county today.
And finally, although the book takes you on a long and winding journey, I don’t leave you hanging. I wrap it up and answer some of the deeper questions you may be wondering about in the last chapter and the epilogue.
MM: What have readers’ reactions to this book been like so far?
RG: So far, The Followers has been exceptionally well received. To my delight and surprise, I won the 2021 PenCraft Book Award for nonfiction, autobiography. Most people get it! They love the humor and the story. They have favorably commented on how the well-researched, yet honest and unabashed style makes it colorful and entertaining. I get one or two comments from people who think the book is about politics. I can understand why they think that. It’s near impossible to talk about a president of the United States and not sound political. I like to think of myself as a policy voter not a party voter. But I definitely do not hold back on the Gleis sarcasm. This book is not about politics; it’s about pathology and human nature. And it’s soooo much more than any leader. To reiterate: It is about the followers. It’s a clarion call to all of us. Especially for people who think they are immune to being manipulated by narcissistic leaders.
MM: How do you recommend that people protect themselves from cult-like organizations?
RG: Cults are not limited to organizations. Cults can be a state of mind or ideology. We are all indoctrinated with identities from an early age. That’s the most important takeaway here. There are two basic kinds of teaching, Socratic and non-Socratic. When an idea is presented in the Socratic method, one may add, question, or dispute aspects of the premise and walk away with one’s own conclusion. Non-Socratic teaching is a blatant form of indoctrination and is not allowed to be questioned. And if one does, one may be subject to demonization, ostracization, and public mockery. The cult mentality sometimes shows signs of extremism: carrying gigantic symbols of the leader, bullying or drowning out any opposing viewpoint. And radical beliefs are usually promoted and reinforced by lies and propaganda of the authoritarian leader’s own fantasies. This can turn into mob mentality, provoking extreme and sometimes dangerous behavior, usually reflecting the followers’ indoctrinated, righteous exceptionalism. But such behavior doesn’t have to be led by a leader. The ideology of non-Socratic exceptionalism itself can be cult-like and carried on from generation to generation.
One must be keenly aware of the “us” and “them” mentality. It’s a trap. Pay particular attention to deception and lies. Also be aware of putting down, mocking, or threatening opposing viewpoints. Try to avoid falling into groupthink—going along to belong. If a leader is making themselves out to be bigger than life, greater than you or anyone else, selling themselves as the messiah, these are the clues of a malignant narcissist. The followers start to mimic the sociopathic characteristics of the narcissist. They lose all sense of individual self and become the reflection of the group, the identity, and the leader. If they show signs of cruelty or bullying to anyone who doesn’t recognize them as who they believe themselves to be, do not be tempted to imitate their behavior, but rather have the courage to call it out and condemn it.
MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?
RG: I am working on my next book, entitled Harder to Fall, about the addiction to power and money. Having spent years with drug addicts, I have experienced firsthand the power of addiction and the neurochemical influence on the addict’s personality. I think there is a strong correlation between addiction—be it to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, money, or power—with sociopathic behavior. I have seen people sell their soul to feed their addiction. I have personally witnessed the most loving, otherwise empathic person, when under the influence of addiction, transform from a benevolent Dr. Jekyll into a cruel and malevolent Mr. Hyde. It’s the nature of addiction to crave—to require—more. Enough is never enough, and the powerful desire for ever-increasing fixes—of whatever substance produces the high—can influence the addict’s behavior. This is reflected in the nature of consumerism and the unintended consequences of Capitalism.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future, and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
RG: One of my goals for the future is to be able to financially support myself through writing. Ultimately, I’m an educator. That’s what I love to do. Growing up with dyslexia and confronted with abusive teachers, I learned how not to teach. I got my graduate degree in education of nutrition. As a clinical nutritionist/biochemical analyst, I explain challenging biochemistry in lay terms to educate my clients on what’s going on with their bodies and how to correct imbalances. I always tell them “I ain’t yo mama, I’m not here to tell you what to do; I’m here to explain what is going on and help you navigate your choices to optimize your health.” The biggest takeaway from my studies in teaching adults is if you don’t satisfy the “What’s in it for me?” factor, they will not learn and thus not change their behavior. So, I’m a storyteller. I use humor, real-life stories, and allegories to keep people’s attention and help them relate to what I’m teaching. Either through fiction or nonfiction, I love a good story and I’m good at telling them—but it has to be a “teaching moment” when people are receptive or even desperate, or it’s not worth the effort. Right now, we are living in a supreme teaching moment!
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