By any measure, Kerry is a lovely young woman. A 21-year-old with honey-blond hair, expressive blue eyes, and peachy skin, Kerry seems the embodiment of youthful purity — as though she had stepped out of an ad for Ivory soap, or off the cover of a Christian-music CD. Her manner is candid and friendly. She is well-spoken and thoughtful. The closest she comes to using profanity is the occasional "gosh" or "my goodness," spoken in a girlish singsong, delivered with a faint smile and an unwavering gaze.
There is something radiant about Kerry, something almost beatific. She certainly doesn’t seem the type to commit self-mutilation, to grind sharp objects into her skin or to pull her hair out in clumps, to assume weird, mangled positions on the floor until her muscles scream. Neither does she seem the type to mete out pain to others — to bully and humiliate, to kick and punch a person until he can hardly walk, until his battered kidneys begin to falter. Kerry seems the last person in the world to play a role in what she describes as "a torture chamber" — yet that is exactly what she did for the better part of two years.
The circumstances of Kerry’s descent into depravity are both ironic and predictable. The person who led her into hell did so by vowing to bring her closer to God. "I fell in love with his vision," she says, "his purpose, with his dreams. I aspired to be like him. I wanted to be around him. I felt like I’d be a better person by being around him." These days, Kerry is not so enamored of the man — we’ll call him Tariq — who drew her in. "I definitely think he’s mentally ill," Kerry says, letting out a hollow, no-kidding burst of laughter. "I personally think he has narcissistic personality disorder."
Whatever Tariq’s particular brand of mental illness, there’s no doubting that he indulged in abnormal behavior. Kerry, a Concord native, met Tariq in the fall of 2000, while studying psychology at Wheaton College in Illinois. A self-proclaimed envoy of God, Tariq lured Kerry and three others — all male — into his cult with the prospect of a mission to his native Pakistan, where they would minister to an obscure religious sect. "I know it sounds silly," Kerry says, "but I really wanted that challenge, an unreached group, unreached with the Gospel."
Most people are inclined to shake their heads at the naïveté of someone who would fall for the shtick of a man like Tariq. After all, what kind of idiot gets involved in a cult? This is a question Kerry has recently been asking herself. "What was it about me?" she says. "But then you think of the Nazis — what was it about them? I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done what they did if I’d been in their position. None of us can. That’s what this experience has made me realize, what a human being is capable of with the power of the situation."
According to Steve Hassan, a Somerville-based cult researcher, those who scoff at cult victims are taking a simplistic view of the phenomenon. "They don’t understand that these groups use manipulative, deceptive techniques," he says. "They think, ‘Oh, these people must be stupid.’ But the people who join these groups are, for the most part, highly intelligent, well-educated people who were situationally vulnerable." Hassan himself was once lured into the Moonies — the church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon — following a messy break-up with a girlfriend.
"With deception and manipulation," he says, "you can get very intelligent people to go along with very stupid things."
Indeed, cults actively pursue bright people, for the sole reason that they make more-valuable group members. Cults, too, look for people who are undergoing a transition of some sort — who have recently moved or lost a job, who are going through a divorce or have just had a death in the family — or, as was the case with Kerry, people who are entering college. Also, cult leaders are good at hiding what it is they actually do. "I’ve never met anyone who joined a cult," says Carol Giambavo, who works with the American Family Foundation (AFF), a cult-research center. "They all joined an interesting group."
At first, this is what Kerry and her cult-mates thought they had done. Tariq seemed to be the epitome of pious devotion. "He offered me Christianity to the extreme," says Kerry. "I was attracted to that." He would tell his group that God spoke through him, his eyes burning with religious zeal. He would have them pray for eight hours a day, until they entered ecstatic, trance-like states. Even when Tariq started to grow more and more controlling, more and more demanding, the group rationalized his behavior.
"He had some very good reasons for what he did — not good reasons, but convincing reasons," says Andrew, another former member of Tariq’s group. "He’d say, ‘Well, if we were going to Canada or Mexico or something, maybe we’d get by with a little bit of prayer, a little bit of discipline or training, but this is Pakistan. We’ve got to have Olympic training.’ That was how we justified what was happening."
As the group "trained" for their Pakistan trip, Tariq’s behavior got progressively worse. He deprived his minions of sleep and food. He kept them weak and pliable. "We’d be on e-mail with him hours and hours daily, into the wee hours of the morning," Kerry says. "We’d report back to him what had gone on during the day, what we had eaten, who we had spoken with. He wanted to know everything, how much water we used, how many paper products we used. He had different procedures he wanted us to go through for washing ourselves. We couldn’t breathe on our food through our noses."