In the 1960s and '70s, the number of destructive cults absolutely exploded. As I began the process of intellectually leaving MOVE in 2007, I studied the histories of other cults in order to try to locate my own experience so that I could find a path forward. Two things struck me in this study: the exponential explosion of such groups all during the same era and the almost cookie-cutter-like quality of the structure and beliefs of the groups.
Episode three of the second season of "Murder at Ryan's Run" provides valuable food for thought about both of these issues. It's a fascinating episode that revolves around an interview with Tim Hayes recounting his experiences with MOVE as a resident of Powelton Village in the early 1970s. Before moving to Philadelphia in his early 20s, Tim was already an accomplished activist. He'd become involved in the Civil Rights movement while in elementary school and would go on to found Atlanta's chapter of the Black Panther Party. Tim moved to Philadelphia in 1973 to settle down with his family and that's when he came to know Vincent Leaphart, the man who would soon be known to most as John Africa.
Tim describes how as he came to know Leaphart, Leaphart would ask him questions about politics and history, and Tim's answers would come to shape some fundamental elements of MOVE's practices and culture. Tim recounts how one day he was getting off the bus and Leaphart saw him with a reggae record in his hands. Leaphart had never seen dreadlocks before and asked Tim about them. Dreadlocks soon became fundamental to MOVE's aesthetic and belief. This is reminiscent of Don Glassey's wife, JoAnne, recounting in Episode 2 that MOVE members took the last name Africa almost by accident. As MOVE supporters, we were always taught that MOVE members took the last name Africa because all of humanity is originally from Africa. However, JoAnne remembers that Leaphart initially intended for MOVE members to take the places of their ancestral homelands as their last names. So many of the things that we were taught were carefully envisioned by John Africa were actually based on the coincidental encounters of Leaphart.
When Tim encountered Leaphart, Leaphart would lean in and stand a little too close when he asked a question. Once he had obtained the information he was seeking he would move on, and often incorporated that knowledge into the corpus of MOVE's belief. Though I became a MOVE supporter over a decade after Leaphart died in the fire on Osage Avenue, this behavior is intimately familiar to me. Ria and Bert created a false intimacy in the same way. They often extracted bits of information, knowledge of history, etc., and used them as weapons to keep the children who were born into MOVE in their place. I never knew why I was being asked what seemed like an off-the-wall question until I saw my answer being used against someone else later.
Tim goes on to recall how, not long after these initial encounters, he began seeing Leaphart surrounded by young people who seemed to be accepting every word he said as gospel. As the number of MOVE members grew, Leaphart receded into the background, while his young disciples followed his every direction. Both episodes two and three of this season of "Murder at Ryan's Run" illuminate how haphazard the foundation of MOVE was. This again leads me back to the question of why so many groups like this were popping up in that era, and why their structures are so similar.
Hundreds of groups followed this exact pattern in the late '60s and early '70s. I've come to think of the founders of these groups as pathological versions of the beggar from the folk tale, Stone Soup. In the folk tale, a hungry beggar hikes into a town and begins regaling the townspeople with tales of his delicious stone soup. He tells them that he has the most important ingredient, the stone, and that he simply needs a few additional things from each of them. After all of the townspeople throw in their contributions they're all able to enjoy a hearty pot of soup together and the beggar is able to take his stone and move on to the next town. A relatively harmless deception brings the community together, and the beggar-- a trickster figure-- navigates a moral gray area for what could be argued is the greater good.
In the destructive cult version of this story, a person decides that they have all of the answers to the world's problems. However, they can't fully reveal all of their secret knowledge until those around them pledge absolute loyalty. Once a few dozen people fully devote themselves to this savior, incredible things begin to happen; community projects are started, houses are renovated, communal bonds are formed, and it feels like the group is on the verge of something incredible. The idea that the group possesses the answers to all of the world's problems is the stone that allows everyone to come together and pour their gifts into the pot. Functionally, it doesn't even matter if the beliefs of the group haven't been fully articulated, so long as everyone believes that the leader has the answers. In this version of the story, the cult leader isn't able to continue along to the next town because this would cause their psychological pyramid scheme to come crashing down. The founder knows that if they stick around too long, their lack of real solutions will be laid bare. In order to prevent this they often steer the group towards self-destruction through direct confrontation with the system they've set themselves in opposition to.
The 60s and 70s were fertile ground for this pattern to emerge because the cultural revolution of the late 1960s dramatically weakened faith in the institutions that had been holding things together; the family, patriotism, the church, etc. There were valid reasons for trust in these institutions to be eroded, but when the institutions were destabilized they left voids that were filled by people like Leaphart. Of course, destructive cults existed before this era, but not nearly to the same degree as they did after the cultural revolution. I don't think that a figure like Leaphart would have been given the time of day by many Philadelphians if he'd been putting forth the same ideas only twenty years earlier.
That brings us to the second question of why these groups follow such similar forms. I believe that there are natural patterns in the human psyche and that when healthier ways of meeting these needs aren't available, cults can feel irresistible. I think about it like the rock candy experiment that many of us did in middle school; sugar is added to hot water and it's stirred vigorously, a string is placed in the center of the jar, and as the sugar water cools the sugar clings to the string in a consistent crystalline pattern. We all have similar needs and desires for safety, familial love, community, meaning, etc. When the larger social structures that used to provide for at least the base level of needs of the majority of the population break down, this is the rapid stirring of the sugar water. Figures like Leaphart become unstable strings that people can cling to when nothing larger and more stable is available.
The interview with Tim, in episode three, and the interview with JoAnne, in episode two, demonstrate that MOVE had no fixed structure or plan. Leaphart was simply putting out feelers and going where he felt drawn. This process created an interesting hybridization of a diverse array of philosophies and religions, and this syncretic philosophy worked to draw followers. As Leaphart gained power he increasingly believed in his own divine mission and was blinded to his own inner demons. Once he came to believe that he was a perfect being he had to project any imbalance inside of himself out onto the outside world. He was blinded to his own capacity for evil.
Cult leaders in Leaphart's position become intoxicated by the blind allegiance of their followers and begin believing that nothing they say could possibly be wrong. Their counter-cultural critique pushes back against social mores, often justifiably. But because they have lost sight of their own capacity for evil, they fall into the basest and darkest of human desires while claiming to challenge the status quo. In episode three, Tim discusses witnessing adult MOVE members force children to have sex with each other. His window looked directly into the yard of MOVE headquarters, and he is very sure of what he saw. Tim's account supports the claims made by many of the survivors who came forward last year. This sexual abuse, which is common within cults, is a good example of important social protections being disregarded with horrific results.
Tim also discusses how Leaphart faded into the background once MOVE was fully established. Last summer I talked to an early MOVE member who said that they almost never saw Leaphart. Leaphart and Alberta had their own well-furnished apartment in Powelton village and they mainly kept to themselves. There are many close supporters who were at MOVE headquarters regularly from the late '70s until 1985 but never met Leaphart. Some members only met him a few times. Leaphart was careful about who he allowed in his presence for extended periods of time. He had to ensure that those who spent the most time with him were the type of people who could justify his own inconsistencies while still believing that he was God. In my experience, the MOVE members who spent the most time directly with Leaphart are those who have the most clearly recognizable psychological issues.
I appreciate the way that Tim points out that no matter how wrong MOVE was, nothing can ever justify the bombing on May 13th, 1985. He also points out that as a result of the horror of the bombing, everything else about MOVE, including the information on this blog and in "Murder at Ryan's Run," will always be a footnote. I've argued many times that what happened on May 13th is exactly what Leaphart intended to happen. On May 13th, Philadelphia officials played into Leaphart's apocalyptic vision, with tragic results. Leaphart predicted that the death and destruction on May 13th would help to trigger a global uprising that would eventually topple civilization and lead to an Edenic world. With this last move, Leaphart fulfilled the final pattern of most destructive cults. May 13th was Leaphart's way of ensuring that his name would live on and that he would not have to live up to his own self-created mythology.