When Mike Kropveld was twenty-eight, he helped plan a mission to rescue his friend, a teacher named Benji Carroll, from an international cult. Kropveld remembers hosting a meeting with Carroll’s parents and several distraught friends in his cramped Montreal living room. “His parents bought Danishes, but nobody ate them,” he says. On a trip to Berkeley, California, Carroll was recruited by members of a branch of the Unification Church, a religious order popularly known as the Moonies. It was 1977, and thanks to the Manson Family and the People’s Temple, terms such as mind control and brainwashing had entered the lexicon. At the time, the Bay Area city was a hotbed for unconventional beliefs. “People called it Berzerkeley,” Kropveld says.
Although Carroll had mostly lost contact with his Montreal community, he eventually agreed to meet his mother and sister at the San Francisco airport. They brought him to a nearby hotel, where a group of his closest friends ambushed him and held him captive in a house a few blocks away. Over two days, a professional “deprogrammer,” who also worked as an auto mechanic and antique dealer in the Bay Area, talked Carroll into returning to Montreal.
Kropveld caught pneumonia shortly before the team’s departure and was unable to go along. It was probably for the best: earlier that year, he visited Carroll and wound up living on a Moonie commune for two weeks before extricating himself. “In retrospect, I don’t think they liked me very much,” he says. “I asked too many questions.”
The group’s intervention for Carroll became local legend: journalist Josh Freed wrote a six-part Montreal Star series about it and soon began receiving calls from desperate people whose loved ones had joined cults. To field their requests, Kropveld and some friends founded the Cult Information Centre. Shortly thereafter, Kropveld established an organization called Cult Project, operating under the B’Nai Brith Hillel Foundation of Montreal. In 1990, that venture became Info-Cult/Info-Secte, a bilingual, non-profit counselling service and research archive, which Kropveld, now executive director, operates out of a second-floor office in the city’s Mile End neighbourhood. The group provides free information and advice about marginal religious orders, alternative psychological and therapeutic centres, pyramid schemes, militias, pseudoscience movements, conspiracy theorists, and occult communities.
Kropveld, now a slender, bespectacled man in his sixties, met me last April at Info-Cult’s headquarters, wearing faded jeans hiked up and belted over a pink button-down. The space has the oppressive lighting of a morgue on a cop show, and it’s crammed with bookcases, boxes, and shipping crates. A few years ago, thieves broke in and stole Kropveld’s computer. They probably thought they were robbing a storage locker.
His vast collection comprises documents—sacred texts, manifestos, court records—pertaining to more than 2,000 groups. During an afternoon of digging, I found a book on UFOs with aerial photographs of crop circles, a cheap grimoire of Satanic spells, and a ten-song vinyl LP called The Road to Freedom by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (it includes two guest appearances from John Travolta). Info-Cult survives on meagre Quebec government funding, as well as donations from foundations and individuals, some who have used Kropveld’s services in the past. He gets most of his material by photocopying court documents, writing to academic publishers for review copies of books, and encouraging former cult members to donate whatever texts they haven’t yet thrown out or burned.
Kropveld deals with roughly 1,000 clients every year, each facing conundrums that range from trivial to grim. He recalls a restaurateur in the early ’90s who wondered if he should rent his dining room to the Raelians. “I told him to come here, read up on them, and decide for himself,” he says. He also assisted a former long-time member of the messianic Ant Hill Kids commune who was struggling to fill out her CV. The group’s long-bearded preacher, Roch “Moses” Thériault, made headlines in the late ’80s for presiding over ritual dismemberments at his Burnt River, Ontario, compound. “I said, you don’t want to lie on your resumé,” Kropveld says, “but you definitely don’t want to mention Thériault.” It occurred to him that Ant Hill disciples had supported themselves by selling baked goods to the local townspeople. “Write down that you worked in a bakery,” he told her.
In his thirty-eight-year career, Kropveld has seen the membership rosters of seemingly robust movements, such as the Hare Krishnas or the Children of God, gradually erode from defections, and he’s discovered that, although cults are, by definition, estranged from society, they’re still susceptible to trends. The hippy communes of the ’60s and ’70s have given way to the self-help and wellness centres of today.
Most significantly, his experiences have made him skeptical of the way we understand brainwashing. “We tend to think that it is this all-encompassing, powerful technique,” Kropveld says. “In reality, it doesn’t work like that. Even with the most dominant movements, you still get a large number of walk-aways.” He recalls a distraught couple whose teenage daughter joined a Bible-based group. In private, the daughter confessed to Kropveld that she planned to defect but hadn’t yet told her parents: she didn’t want them knowing they were right all along. “Two weeks later, the parents called me and said, ‘Thank you so much. You saved my daughter,’ ” Kropveld says. “But I didn’t do anything. She was already halfway out the door.”
During the afternoon I spent combing through Kropveld’s library for oddities, he perched behind his computer, catching up on dozens of emails. For the most part, he says, open, non-judgmental communication will do more than a radical intervention like the one he planned in the ’70s. “There are a lot of apocalyptic or millenarian movements, but not many are what I’d call violent,” says Kropveld. We need to understand outsider belief systems, he argues, but we don’t often need to combat them—the freedom to choose one’s religious affiliation is a democratic right. “I’m not here to tell people what to do,” he says. “I’ll leave that to the cult leaders.”
This appeared in the November 2015 issue.