An abridged version of this 1988 letter was printed in the New York/New Jersey newsletter of the now-defunct Cult Awareness Network (CAN).[1]

Dear Editor:

As a journalist who has written about cults for over a decade, I’m disturbed by recent changes in the focus of your newsletter. The March/April 1988 issue contains a front-page piece on an adolescent Satanist who killed his mother. Although the article cites no involvement by this troubled youth in any specific Satanic cult, the responsibility of the tragedy is ascribed to Satanic cultism.

Here, CAN is ranging too far afield.[2] If there is no organization that has “brainwashed” the individual, there is no cult. One is dealing with an individual aberration. To define Tommy Sullivan's aberration as cultism necessitates expanding the definition to potentially include every adolescent who uses illegal drugs and hates his mother. When cultism is equated with such things--and with the reading of nutty books on the occult--then it becomes such a broad and amorphous concept that it loses all meaning.

Also, I am not convinced that the young man’s Satanism was the psychological cause of his killing his mother; it may have been just a symptom. That’s a question for psychiatrists to answer, not the local police and sensation-seeking journalists.

To guide us in understanding Satanism, we are given a paper by a high school student, which the editor assures us was “very well received” by the student’s teacher. Both the front-page newsletter article and the high school essay are filled with sloppy semantics: (a) Satanism is equated with “witchcraft”; (b) Satanism is equated with the “occult” (an exceedingly broad term that could include anyone interested in astrology); (c) no distinction is made between Satanists who kill people and those who stay within the law (OR between those who belong to hypothetical Satanic cults and those who are informal practitioners).

In addition, both articles imply certain theological assumptions emanating from the Christian counter-cult movement and the Moral Majority, as filtered through deputy sheriffs and fundamentalist ministers. (If Tommy Sullivan wasn’t a member of an organization, then who brainwashed him? Obviously either the Devil or some supersecret coven that has left no traces.) The student paper cites as a source for all this an article from “Police Marksman” magazine. The title of the cited piece, “Occult Crimes,” betrays its McCarthyite tone. One might as well do an article on the quasi-leftist Rev. Jim Jones and call it “Communist Crimes.”

In the student’s paper, Satanism is traced back to Aleister Crowley, that old bugbear of British yellow journalism, who, we are told, was the leader of a “homosexual”(!) group. We are also told that the typical adolescent Satanist is one who is “alienated toward religion”(!). Revs. Sun Myung Moon and Jerry Falwell would just love that last statement.

Let’s play fair. First, most “witchcraft” (Wicca) in America today has nothing to do with Satanism, and most witchcraft/Wicca covens are not cults and do not practice totalitarian mind control (read Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon). Second, most "occultism" has little to do with either Satanism or witchcraft/Wicca: The “mainstream” of today’s occultism is part and parcel of the New Age movement and is heavily influenced by Buddhism, Yoga, Theosophy, Spiritualism, Jungian depth psychology, Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, etc. None of these trends represents an estrangement from “religion” or espouses (except in the case of specific cultic organizations) immoral or amoral behavior, although the beliefs involved are certainly different from those of Christianity (which has its own internal cult problem).

CAN’s stance on witchcraft and the occult is merely an extension of its stance on the New Age. It fails to distinguish between a few channelers who have indeed founded cults, and the vast majority of non-authoritarian New Agers. An evening spent at the Open Center in New York City, or a little perusal of its course catalog, should be enough to convince one that the New Age is no more (or less) cultic than the Christian Right. The latest rage in channeling, I note, is courses that teach one to develop one’s own INDIVIDUAL channel, thus obviating the need for a guru. This development may be silly, but it would not be cultic unless the training were part of a deceptive cult recruitment program.

Also, I question CAN’s newfound concern over Voodoo and Santeria. These are traditional forms of religion among some immigrants of Latin American and Caribbean background. In itself, the worship of traditional African gods should be no more a subject of our scrutiny than the Catholic Church’s celebration of saint days. If devotees want to sacrifice a goat in Central Park, that’s a concern for the ASPCA, not CAN. If CAN is aware of a specific Voodoo group that is brainwashing young people, it should say so. Such a group should be targeted by name rather than by the generic term alone. Use of the label “Voodoo” without specificity is like calling Christianity a destructive cult, then citing the Alamo Foundation as one’s proof. CAN, I have noticed, views non-Western belief systems in an ethnocentric manner, which partly explains its problems in objectively appraising the New Age movement.

CAN should stick to its original mission: going after groups that meet the guidelines and definition of a totalitarian cult--and that economically exploit their followers as cheap labor while subjecting them to psychological and other forms of abuse. This would include groups such as the Hari Krishnas, the Moonies, Scientology and the LaRouchians,[3] as well as specific organizations and charismatic figures engaging in abusive practices WITHIN the Christian Right, the New Age and other broad-based movements. There's more than enough work to do here without roaming over the entire map of human psychopathology and eccentricity.

[1] The Cult Awareness Network was the leading organization in the United States opposing cults in the 1980s. As such, it had to fend off a large number of lawsuits (most of them emanating from the Church of Scientology) that eventually resulted in CAN having to file for bankruptcy. In 1996, a Scientologist bought CAN’s name, logo and telephone number at auction, enabling Scientology to set up a bogus "Cult Awareness Network" that operates today on the Internet. Parents seeking information about suspicious groups that their teenage or adult children have become involved with, should avoid this Scientology front organization and never provide it with information that might reveal the identity either of the parent or of the loved one trapped in a cult.

For parents and ex-cult members seeking detailed background information on individual cults, I recommend the news archives and links at www.rickross.com and www.freedomofmind.com. For those seeking referrals to mental health professionals and support groups or to experts on specific cults, I recommend www.csj.org.

[2] My criticisms were directed specifically at the New York area CAN; the views of national CAN--which worked closely with respected psychiatrists and academic psychologists--may have been more sophisticated. Today, the exaggerated viewpoints described in my letter are rarely found among the academics and mental health professionals in the anti-cult movement, although there is certainly much criticism of specific New Age organizations and gurus whose abusive practices have been well documented.

[3] It is only fair to point out that many Hari Krishna temples have undergone major internal reforms in recent years and that the Unification Church (Moonies) in the United States has toned down to a certain extent the practices that made it so controversial in past decades. As to Scientology and the LaRouche movement, they, alas, are as ruthless and totalitarian as ever.