An incendiary report by BuzzFeed on Monday alleged that, according to parents' claims, the music star R. Kelly is keeping young (but of age) women in a "cult" of sorts — allegedly manipulating them, dictating their daily habits, and keeping them from contacting their families, according to sources named in the article. (BuzzFeed could not reach R. Kelly for comment, but the musician's team called the claims "defamatory.") “It was as if she was brainwashed. [She] looked like a prisoner — it was horrible,” a mother, named only as "J." in the article, said of her daughter. “I hugged her and hugged her. But she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her. I don’t know what to do. I hope that if I get her back, I can get her treatment for victims of cults. They can reprogram her. But I wish I could have stopped it from happening.”
Today, "cult" is such an often used term — cult film, cult following — that it may seem like it has nearly been emptied out of meaning. But in a psychiatric/sociological sense, it has a very specific definition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a cult as "a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members."
According to the influential psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who was once an instructor at Harvard's medical school, a true textbook-definition cult can be defined as having three characteristics. First, a cult has a charismatic leader who, as the group's founding principles diminish, becomes the object of the followers' intense worshipping. Second, a newcomer to a cult undergoes an intense period of indoctrination, more commonly known as "brainwashing." And third, the members of the group are exploited — economically and/or sexually — by the leader(s) of the group.
According to the BuzzFeed article, up until very recently, the R. Kelly group allegedly featured a "den mother" who trained new women in the ways in which Kelly likes to be stimulated during sex, according to the article. (Bustle has reached out to R. Kelly's team for comment.) According to these former group members, Kelly supposedly dictates what the women in his circle eat, wear, and bathe. He even allegedly records his sexual encounters with them. "You have to ask for food. You have to ask to go use the bathroom. … [Kelly] is a master at mind control. ... He is a puppet master," Kelly's former assistant, who went by the name Mack in the BuzzFeed article, claimed.
BuzzFeed was unable to reach Kelly or his publicist for comment despite multiple requests for comment. His lawyer did respond to the media outlet's request via email. “We can only wonder why folks would persist in defaming a great artist who loves his fans, works 24/7, and takes care of all of the people in his life,” Linda Mensch wrote to BuzzFeed.
According to an article by a Ph.D. psychologist in Psychology Today, cults can be attractive to some for several reasons:
What do all groups (cult and non-cult) offer a potential recruit? Answer: friendship, identity, respect and security. They also offer a world-view: a way of discerning right from wrong; good from bad. These are powerful incentives for all people whatever their background. We are social animals. But they offer more: a structured life-style and the ability to acquire new skills. Through their (very different) ideologies they also offer moral explanations into how the world works. They provide clear answers to difficult and big questions: what it all means; the secret of happiness; life after death; the difference between right and wrong, who is with us and who against us; the saved and the damned.
In the case of Kelly's reported group, the singer offers music mentorship to the young women he brings into his circle, the families of the women told BuzzFeed News. One mother, who went by her middle name Theresa in the article, claimed that Kelly's connection with her daughter was “supposed to be a music relationship.” But it quickly turned sexual, she said.
Whether or not Kelly's group is indeed a cult is a decision for the justice system and medical experts. What is clearly founded based on the BuzzFeed article is the parents' grave concern for their daughters. “I have not talked to my daughter in more than a year,” Theresa told BuzzFeed. “We’ve had deaths in the family, birthdays, and I haven’t heard from her and she hasn’t been here for any of it. I didn’t even hear from her on Mother’s Day. All I want to do is bring her home.”