It took me a long time to open up this review DVD and watch this film, and because of past studies on Cults and the whys and how’s; I already have a good understanding of them. I am not a fan, nor am I of most of the organized “respectable” faiths either, but at least those congregations usually stay within legal parameters and offer their faithful some peace of mind and community tradition.
Cults are different because they cross the lines of propriety. They are renegades to society and basic human rights, mostly women and children, and are unified by their leaders’ hubris, hucksterism and sheer strength of mind power.
The leaders are God’s con men. They are usually always male, charismatic, some are very attractive; they communicate and express their prophecies and beliefs with utter conviction.
They are masters of manipulating the broken, the weak, gullible, psychologically damaged and feeble-minded around them in their zeal for what they purport as their rightful leadership as the anointed God-human deity in the presence of their flocks.
Oh yes, there is always scripture-supported sex and a need for virgins, complete obedience and a relinquishing of earthly goods (read: your money, all of it).
It’s believed that more than 3,000 cults exist in America today. But as recent news events of the off-shoot Mormon polygamist sect in Texas have reminded us, we seldom get to see what exactly goes on inside – from the harmless to the abusive.
Michael Travesser's cult
Nat Geo goes inside the world of Michael Travesser – yet another man who claims to have direct conversations with God, and who claims he is the human-God incarnation of the Messiah on earth.
Travesser’s Strong City cult followers in New Mexico have bought his story, and for 20 years, Travesser has told his flock to prepare for the end of the world. And now, according to his prophecy, Judgment Day will come at midnight on October 31, 2007.
Well, funny thing. God had a last minute change of plans and saves the faithful for yet another day of servitude to Michael.
Nobody questions him, his “children” consist of young virgins he beds and indoctrinates a la Charlie Manson, that his presence and love are what saves them, redeems them.
It’s a tragic documentary - but will give the people who are sympathetic to the Texas Polygamists some better insight on why all of these cults need to be exposed for the shams they are, and busted up.
“I am the embodiment of God. I am divinity and humanity combined.” So says 66 year-old Travesser, a victim of male molestation as a young teen, who came up from the protestant sect, Seven-Day Adventists as did Texas cult leader, David Koresh.
Seven years ago he declared himself the Messiah.
“One day by myself I was in my trailer just relaxing and there was nothing on my mind in particular and then God said to me you are the Messiah,” explains Travesser in the film. He goes on to describe how two women came forward to bear witness, and that God commanded him to have sex with them to consummate their relationship — despite both being married to men in the cult.
Travesser convinced their husbands he was following God’s instructions and that they should direct their misery heavenward.
More control is exerted on his flock, as he stripped his cult members of any sexual activity, except with him. Travesser has told his followers all emotional ties with anyone but him must be broken.
“A cult leader wants absolute control,” explains Rachel Bernstein, psychotherapist and cult expert who is interviewed. “And one of the main sources of threat to the leader is a member’s family.”
But not all family connections are shunned. We also meet Jeff Bent, Travesser’s son, a former San Francisco police officer and Travesser’s trusted lieutenant, who handles much of the daily operation of the cult.
Another common thread among cults is a shunning of public education for the unfortunate children born and raised in these mass forms of child abuse, or access to outside medical help and a squashing of any dissenters and a banishing of any followers who question.
Nat Geo interviews the numerous teenagers inside this cult who have little or no life experience outside. None of the Strong City children attend public school, as Travesser believes it is a bad influence.
The documentary zeros in on the most egregious crimes that these cults commit, the consuming of the available virgins for the cult leader, his rightful, scripture supported earthly sacrament of sex.
Travesser prepares for the end of the world day (his Godly tip-off was postponed per the Almighty) with a ceremony that takes seven virgins to lay in bed naked with him.
“I took off my clothes and I lay naked on my bed and he held me and a whole new picture opened up to me of God,” explains Danielle, a follower.
Surprisingly, Travesser is very open about the event on camera: “Well, it was God. God came down on them and told them to do it. Nakedness is another symbol of our relationship with God. We are naked and unashamed.”
Desperate to get even closer to God, the virgins pleaded with Michael for a full sexual experience. One of the virgins even wrote that her urging was so strong she would kill herself if it were not fulfilled.
Then, just when it looked like Michael would do as the virgins desired, he says God told him it was all just a test of faith. Was it trickery by Michael for the Nat Geo cameras to record in hopes of throwing off further police investigations?
You are familiar with this story; it has played out in the news over and over, from Reverend Moon and his Moonies, to the wild-eyed Marshall Applewhite and his 38 followers who ate poison to hasten their almighty visitation, to the charismatic and handsome Jim Jones’ who in 1978 convinced 909 people (276 were children) to drink some "Guyana punch" laced with lethal poison.
This documentary is illuminating, but the unfortunate fact remains that they will never be fully eradicated. The saying that there’s a sucker born every minute will always hold true, as long as we humans inhabit the planet.
Pass the collection plate and praise fill in the blank.