These people are like your family. You can’t just leave them. And what would the leader think? But you’ve given up all your money and your real family. You need to escape, but how? It won’t be easy, but you can do it. You’re not the first person to be lured into a cult, and you won’t be the last.

Cults are groups of people gathered together by a common ideological system. They center on a charismatic leader who claims to be the only one who can help them to transcend the imperfections of life. Many of the most infamous cults have involved terrible crimes like sex trafficking, fraud, murders, and even mass suicides.

According to Nancy Ammerman, chair of Boston University’s Sociology department, people who join cults are often at a crossroads in their lives, and they’re experiencing uncertainty and fear. Just like many of us have felt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Imagine that while you’re isolated, feeling uncertain about your job and your future, you find an article about the first cloned human baby. Hmm, looks like the people behind it have also started their own “Happiness Academy”. Just what you need. So you decide to give it a try.

Suddenly, you’ve fallen into Raëlism, a cult founded in France in 1975 by Raël, a former sports journalist who assures his followers that extraterrestrials created all life on Earth, and they sent him to build an embassy for when they return. But to do that, he needs a lot of money and servants. And now, my friend, you’re one of them. But don’t worry. You’re not alone. How can you identify if you’re in a cult? What can you do to escape one? And how many people fall victim to these things?

STEP 1: Read the signs

Cults often start like regular churches, personal coaching courses or self-help communities. But at some point, they start distancing you from your personal relationships, family, school or job. The award-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix spent part of his childhood in the Children of God, a cult that forced him to beg on the streets for food, embracing adultery and incest. When his parents realized it was not a regular church, the entire family left the cult. So, no matter how compelling you find Raëlism, or any other cult, don’t join anything that makes you stay away from your family and friends.

STEP 2: Escape

Australian Claire Ashman was born into a fundamentalist Catholic cult. She grew up isolated from the world, and she was forced to marry at age 15. Her husband took her into the Order of St. Charbel, a cult led by William Kamm, then convicted for rape. Eventually, she and her eight children were held by the cult. But she managed to escape when the sheriff served a an eviction notice at the property where she was a captive. After that, she had to learn how to live a normal life as a free woman. So, be alert and take any chance you have to escape.

STEP 3: Keep your documents with you

Seoyeon Lee’s mother convinced her to live with her in the Grace Road camp in Fiji. Soon, the South Korean woman realized it was a violent and abusive cult that had taken all of her mother’s money. The night before she escaped, her mom took away Seoyeon’s passport to prevent her from leaving. But she fled anyway. Other cult members blocked her and tried to catch her. But fortunately, she found a police car that took her to the South Korea embassy, where she managed to get an emergency passport and go back home. She lost her entire family in the process, but now she lives free and happy in South Korea. So, never lose sight of your important documents.

STEP 4: Distance Yourself

Fortunately, all cults do not keep their members captive all the time. So you may have an opportunity to take some distance, like Laura Johnston did. She was part of a cult called The People’s Temple in California, which moved cult members to Guyana, South America, after the cult drew attention from the media, after reports that people were being forced to stay at the camp against their will. A U.S. delegation led by California Congressman Leo Ryan, visited the Jonestown camp.

Gunmen from the cult ambushed the delegation and killed five people as they were waiting to retun home. And the cult’s leader, Jim Jones, ordered all of its members to drink poison. More than 900 people died that day. But Laura was on a trip out of the compound, so she survived. But she recognizes that she might have committed suicide if she was in the camp that day, influenced by the leader and the people she loved. So, get some distance from the cult and think by yourself.

STEP 5: Collect evidence

Jessica Joan was first hooked into the NXIVM cult as she thought it was a self-help group. But after she was required to give them compromising photographs and told to have an intimate encounter with the cult’s leader, Keith Raniere, she started planning her escape. But in the meantime, she collected evidence that led to Raniere’s arrest and conviction. Margaret Singer, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, estimates that there could be up to 3 million cult members in the U.S. So while you’re planning your escape, you can also help to stop the cult from abusing other people.

Finally, you found your way out. But while you were in the cult, democracy has fallen. Now you live in a dictatorship led by a crazy tyrant. Don’t panic. We have you covered.

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