Twisted Faith is a programming event looking at cults and twisted faith around the world.

Read more: Cults and twisted faith

Starting Monday 19 November at 20:00 on Crime + Investigation (DStv 170) and streaming live on DStv Now, Twisted Faith is a programming event looking at cults and twisted faith around the world.

As part of this 7 day block, Cults and Extreme Belief features Emmy® Award-winning journalist Elizabeth Vargas, who has traveled the world reporting in-depth investigations and conducting newsmaker interviews. Now, in this explosive series, she lifts the lid on life inside some of the world’s most controversial organizations, exposing their manipulative tactics and destructive belief systems. From the self-help group NXIVM and the Twelve Tribes to the United Nation of Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Family, each episode takes an immersive look at one group through the eyes of past devotees and gets perspective from believers and leaders who are still inside.

We chatted to Elizabeth Vargas to get some insight into her work and what viewers can expect from the series. Read about the eye-opening interview:

1. We know that the channel’s viewers are smart, curious students of human behaviour, and I want to ask you if there’s a particular aspect about Cults and Extreme Beliefs that intrigues you more than other kinds of investigative journalism you’ve covered before?

Elizabeth Vargas replied that it does not intrigue her more, but what intrigues her is why people join groups, why they find them fascinating and why they proliferate, how the idea begins and how the convince so many people to give up so much – their whole lives, all their money, even their children.

2. What were the challenges in getting the trust from past devotees and believers and leaders who are still inside, considering the risk of speaking out about these powerful organisations?

Elizabeth Vargas replied that it takes a long time of convincing, looking at those who left the group they were able to get their trust and they were very open and honest about things that were deeply painful and there was the risk of being judged for having been naïve. They told their stories because they wanted to pull the curtain back and expose the cults to the world. Secrecy and isolation is what these cults have in common. Maybe not complete isolation, but cases where even the person living next door is not aware that someone is being abused.  Members only associate with other members and no one knows what is going on.

3.  Was there a particularly difficult episode which was harder than most to process, even though as an Emmy Award-winning journalist you have surely seen it all in your worldwide travels and in-depth investigations?

Elizabeth Vargas shared that all the episodes were equally difficult in different ways, especially those that included children and it was difficult to understand how any adult or parent could allow this abuse to happen inside. She added that it’s very hard to hear details of what members have been through.

4. What is the most rewarding aspect of lifting the lid on life inside the world’s most controversial organisations?

Elizabeth Vargas shared that seeing how former members are putting their lives together is very emotional. In many cases they grew up in the cult, and had no identity documents or bank accounts, but they left and restarted new lives. The show reunited many people together as survivors who felt alone in the world and were introduced to each other.  This was very helpful to meet others who were empathetic and could understand completely because it was a case of ‘This happened to me too’ and gave all the survivors strength and comfort in knowing that they are not alone.

5.  What is your biggest hope in exposing these manipulative tactics and destructive belief systems? And how can we ensure that the desperate people they prey on have access to these facts to avoid getting drawn in?

Elizabeth Vargas explained that the show will help people be aware, and if they or a loved one are getting involved in a group a little too deeply, losing touch with themselves and their live, they will hopefully know that cults still exist and understand how they work and be better prepared if they come into contact with the recruitment drives. People will hopefully think ‘Wait a minute, that’s the group I heard about’.  It’s important to understand that recruiters for these cults don’t say that they will take your whole life and money and even your children and then abuse you.  They sell an idea of helping others and improving lives to draw people in slowly.

6. How did you immerse yourself in digging deep in order to understand why people are so blindly sucked in without questioning?

Elizabeth Vargas responded that it’s part of the job, asking the questions to get all the answers.  In many cases it’s not people who are naïve, but many who have become involved are bright people who had altruistic ideals to be better and were taken advantage of.

7. What keeps on motivating you to do good, despite knowing you can’t possibly reach or save everyone?

Elizabeth Vargas explained that her job is to tell stories about extraordinary people doing ordinary things and in these cases about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  These are ordinary people who found the courage to leave and start a new life without anything, many having been born into the cult, and left with nothing, not even an ID or a bank account and she has enormous respect for these people who are willing to speak out.         

8. Did you ever feel that your own life was in danger as a result of exposing these secretive cults?

Elizabeth Vargas replied that she did not.  One of the cults examined believes in heavily arming itself and encourages members to be armed.  All members are trained in self defence and are aremed.  The leader of this cult agreed to an interview and the team had security because of the violent way the cult portrayed itself.  During the interview however, the leader came across as a reasonable man, very different from his online image with sermons ranting and espousing violence.

9. What is the most common misconception about cults?

Elizabeth Vargas said the main misconceptions are that there are not many cults, that they don’t exist and that members must be gullible and naïve.  It’s the opposite where members did not know what they signed up for as the recruitment and joining process is very gradual and insidious.

10.  Is there a particular episode which might resonate more than others with viewers in South Africa?

Elizabeth Vargas commented that many cults are quite international. Only one had a value created which was purely national, but most cults have members scattered in countries all around the world.

Asked if there was anything else she’d like to add, Elizabeth Vargas shared that it’s important to be aware that there are people out there who are wanting to take advantage, and she still wonders how they got started and how were they corrupted?  It’s dangerous to have all that power in one person’s hand, when everything they say is taken as the world, and given a godly comparison. There are many women and men in these cults who are attracted to sexual and financial power and she wonders at what point did the leaders decide this is what they wanted?  Did they start off with good intentions and become corrupted or did they want the power and control all along.  These are questions which are still unanswered.

by Alice da Silva

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