PHOTOS BY: Amber Kerr-Bates
Info-Cult was started in Montreal by Mike Kropveld, a quintuple black belt cult expert who’s been balls deep in anything and everything cult-related since before you were born. When I first walked into the office, which quietly lay amongst doctors and dentists offices in a non-descript office building in Montreal, Mike, an Artie Ziff-looking fella, stood in front of a bookcase lined entirely with Nazi books. Things were off to a good start. He seemed a bit jittery at first, probably because he wasn’t used to weirdoes like me just dropping in unannounced à la Cosmo Kramer. Nevertheless, he generously gave me a tour of the office, which includes the largest compendium of bizarre literature and film that I’ve ever seen in one place. After looking at a few pamphlets on UFO abductions and reading a passage from L. Ron Hubbard’s Introduction to Scientology Ethics, we sat down to shoot the shit about kidnap rescues, the Moonies, mind control, and other stuff like that.
VICE: What motivated you to start Info-Cult?
Mike Kropveld: It was back in the summer of 1977. My friends and I went San Francisco to rescue our friend from what was being called at the time the Creative Community Project. You know it was only after ten days of being with this group—doing the seminars and looking at the works they studied—that you actually found out about the leader of this group, Reverend Moonie. Before that, his name wasn’t even mentioned.
So the Creative Community Project was kind of a front for Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church?
Yes, initially. It had to do with the fact that, statistically, they had a really high turnover rate. People would get fed up with their lies pretty quickly and leave, claiming that the organization was like a house of cards built without a foundation. What’s more is that the Moonies would acknowledge that they lied, but they spun it as heavenly deception. This meant that they brought you away from the lies and evil and sordidness of the world, and delivered you to their Truth.
Heavenly deception was there justification for lying, and people went along with it?
Yes, well, the people didn`t actually see it as lying. The thing that you have to understand is that when people believe strongly in something, it`s easy to interpret things in different ways.
And finding out that your friend was entangled with the Moonies led you and some others to California for a rescue kidnapping?
Well, I was not physically involved, because I had just come down with pneumonia. One of my friends who was also there, Josh Freed, wrote about the experience in his book Moonwebs: Journey into the Mind of a Cult. That book is also the basis for the movie Ticket to Heaven. In hindsight, we did it as friends and family who were willing to take the risk, knowing full well that it was illegal. I also think our decision was based on a certain lack of information, you know, without really understanding the other options that were available.
And now as an organization how would you advise people considering the same kind of thing?
Since we started, which is over thirty years ago, we’ve never suggested that kind of an approach in terms of getting someone out. Actually, we counsel against it.
Most people are familiar with exaggerated portrayals of cults on television and in movies, things like being rapidly brainwashed into sleepwalking worship-zombies. How does the mind control process actually work?
Well, people usually think that it`s this magical thing that turns people into robots and zombies in the flash of an eye. I mean, it makes for great, sensational journalism. But nuance and complexity are the reality. Just the way a good con artist gets you to buy into their scam, they didn`t brainwash you. To a degree what they’ve done is found what your needs are, what your interests are. And it’s being done by someone who appears sincere and nice and friendly. Obviously, if someone was sinister-looking, you wouldn`t be spending too much time with them. So they target your interests and your desires. A lot of it plays on peoples’ needs and emotions. Usually the people who get involved are going through a difficult transition period in their life, when there`s a strong need for belief and to belong.
And in the seventies this would have included a lot of lost, disoriented hippies.
Different eras had different kinds of groups that appeal.
So there are trends in music and in fashion, and then there are also cult trends.
Yes. For instance, communal organizations like the Moonies in the seventies were popular precisely because popular youth culture at the time was also communal. And there was also a certain amount of disillusionment that came out of the sixties and seventies when promises of transformation were never fulfilled and people’s desires weren’t met.
Most people are under the impression that they are in full control of their thoughts and that they`re impermeable to any unwanted psychological influence. How does this kind of person become sucked in by a cult?
Most people have this strong-headedness, but it’s really their intellect that they’re defending. Cults appeal to your emotions, and the reality is that everyone goes through emotional ordeals, regardless of your intellect. Also, some groups offer the appeal of medical help, claiming that they can heal you if certain practices and ideologies are followed. So while cults can offer different kinds of things, what they target is actually quite similar: they target everyone`s need to believe and to belong.
Have there been any recent kidnapping rescues in Canada?
The most recent kidnapping of this kind in North America was in Hamilton. A doctor and his wife kidnapped their daughter from Pastor Peter Rigo’s controversial Dominion Christian Centre. Besides that, most of the physical kidnappings nowadays seem to be happening in Japan.
With which group?
The Unification Church, or the Moonies as they’re better known. And some Jehovah`s Witnesses. That`s the claim. I would agree that it goes on, but to what extent, no one can say for sure. Even at the conferences we organize, there are some sessions that deal with that—kidnappings in Japan.
Have you had any strange interactions with cult leaders or representatives in the past?
There was one that called me and spoke like he was out of the country, like in Europe. A very controversial leader, but I’m not going to mention his name. It turned out he was actually here in the city at the time. He basically refuted everything we had on file on him, he said it was lies and that he was going to provide evidence that it was lies. So I said, “Fine. Go do that.” But we never heard anything after that. It turned out he was here in the city. I actually saw him not too long after we spoke on the phone outside this office getting off a bus.
You recognized him right outside?
Well, yes, he was a very well-known figure at that time.
It's nice to know that even cult leaders aren't above taking public transportation. One last thing, I noticed your office really stands out amongst all the dentists and doctors in the building…
Like I always used to say when we first moved in here, “Go get your teeth pulled and then come find out about a cult—two kinds of pain.”