It isn't hard to have a cult. All you need is vision, charisma, and maybe a remote farm to isolate your followers and feed them a steady diet of venison chili and mescaline. The tricky part is making sure it lasts.
See, most cults live and die by their leaders. Once the figurehead is gone, members drift apart, unmoored, often falling in with other cults or charismatic leaders. It's the rare cult leader who starts something so strong enough that it thrives after his or her death. Only a few people have managed to pull it off—L. Ron Hubbard was one; Osho was another; and inexplicably, a man named Bernard Poolman was one, too.
Poolman was just a white guy from Namibia whose bald head and barrel-esque physique made him resemble the Kingpin, Spiderman's arch-nemesis. He wasn't blessed with good looks, but the man had determination. He also had more than a few crazy stories about killing demons. That was enough to turn him into South Africa's own L. Ron Hubbard, leaving behind a cult that would soldier on years after his passing, with their sights now set on America.
But before all that, according to Poolman, there was an exorcism. That's where it began.
The alleged exorcism took place during a TV interview at Poolman's house in Durban, South Africa. At least that's what his disciples believe. This was during the early 90s—years before he started the Desteni cult at his farm in Pietermaritzburg, years before his pyramid scheme would spread across the internet, and years before he met the girl he claimed could channel Hitler. Back then, the pale, heavy-set Poolman didn't have any worldwide followers. He was just an ex-cop trying to sell tutoring software for kids.
Things started casually enough, Poolman said in a 2008 interview with his cultmembers about Desteni's history. A film crew had come to Poolman's house to interview him about his software, which he claimed could fix attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other behavioral issues in children. But that day, Poolman just wanted to talk about a concept he developed called "self-forgiveness," a vague process of accepting your flaws that would later become a crucial tenant of his Desteni cult.
Poolman wasn't blessed with good looks, but the man had determination. He also had more than a few crazy stories about killing demons.
"Suddenly, one of the cameramen walked onto the set and started challenging me," Poolman recounted in the 2008 interview. "His anger was extensive."
Instead of asking the guy what the fuck his problem was, like any normal person would do, Poolman decided to take the 20-year-old cameraman's hand and get the boy to say, "I forgive myself." That's when things started getting really weird. The kid's mouth began to gesticulate, as Poolman remembered it, but no sound came out.
Then the cameraman began to convulse. His eyes rolled back in his head, and his hands balled into fists. Poolman assumed it was an epileptic fit. But at some point, somehow, Poolman came to the conclusion that the guy wasn't having just any old seizure—he was possessed by a demon. Poolman knew what to do. He grabbed the kid and held him.
"It's such a good thing, to forgive yourself," Poolman cooed.
Finally, the seizure subsided, and the cameraman was able to croak out a sentence about how he forgave himself. Poolman took that to mean that his strategy worked—the demon had fled the guy's body. The film crew's cameras rolled the whole time, capturing every second of the encounter. Unfortunately, according to Poolman, the crew was so terrified that they destroyed every shred of film evidence. Today, Desteni followers' faith in this miracle rests solely on Poolman's word.
Poolman claimed the incident was his first exorcism. However, it was a short-lived victory. He quickly realized that he didn't completely destroy the demon. He just sent it out of the cameraman's body, searching for another host.
"When you exorcise a demon, you aren't solving the problem," Poolman later said in his thick, South African accent during a 2011 YouTube video published by DesteniDaily. "You're creating a new problem."
So Poolman set off down a path to rid the world of demons forever—one that would lead him to buy a compound, start a cult, and finally die of heart failure in 2013, surrounded by a group of his Desteni disciples, people who would continue to spread his insane tales of demons, spirit channelers, and killing Hitler in the "demon dimension."
Bernard Poolman left his hometown of Okahandja, Namibia, to study law at North-West University in South Africa. He graduated in 1983 and started a career as a detective on the South African Police Force. He was fascinated by the spirit realm—his father-in-law at the time was allegedly a deep-trance medium, and Poolman would have regular sittings with the man to talk with the spirits who entered his body.
One night, according to Poolman, he received a warning from the spirit world that he should stop working on his current case, because he would be killed if he continued to investigate it. He took the spirits' advice, quit the police force, and moved across the country to live in Durban.
From there, Poolman began selling tutoring programs for children, but his interest in spiritualism and the occult continued to grow. Then came the day of the interview, the possessed cameraman, and the exorcism, which sent a demon spiraling off into the world, searching for another body to claim. At that moment, Poolman knew he had to devote his life to ridding the world of demons for good. Eventually, according to the Desteni lore, the demons fought back.
According to Poolman, the threat of the demons became clear to him in 1998, when he and his two kids woke up to find their house covered in Satanic graffiti. Big letters reading "I Will Kill You and Your Son" were allegedly scrawled across the carport wall.
"It became clear that a demon had possessed one of our workers and then went around placing these messages," Poolman explained in the 2008 interview about Desteni's history. He called the police, but there was nothing they could do. The cops made a note of the vandalism and left the demonic spray paint for Poolman to clean up.
"We've got demons everywhere," Poolman remembered his daughter saying. Poolman said there were about 300 demons in all, swooping around his house. He had experience fighting demons, but he'd never faced a group this large.
But he went ahead and fought the shit out of those demons. Poolman claims that he and his children gathered up all the demons and forced them into his body, since that seemed like the most logical thing to do. Then he showed the demons "what forgiveness is all about." And the 300 demons disappeared for good.
"At this stage," he told his Desteni followers in a YouTube video, "I was very clear that forgiveness does actually transform the demon specifically. Therefore, I made it my objective to help as many as possible."
Poolman began holding regular exorcisms at his house in Durban. People would writhe around on the floor, screaming and possessed, as Poolman led their demons down the path to self-forgiveness—the only way, he said, to defeat them forever.
Zena Swanepoel started working for Bernard Poolman as his personal assistant in 2001. At that point, Poolman had just finished writing a book called A Virus-Free Mind , in which he described ways to reprogram people by tapping into the language centers of their minds. The book would become Desteni's Dianetics.
The formal Desteni cult was still just a vague idea when Swanepoel was hired. It would take a while for Poolman to get his plans in order and try to takeover the world. But he was well on his way to developing his techniques.
"Bernard could make anyone fall in love with him," Swanepoel said to me over Skype from South Africa. "He could knock a person down intellectually within minutes... He could mess with your head."
With Zena's help, Poolman combined the language techniques he developed in A Virus-Free Mind with the education program he sold in the 90s into a new tutoring software called Power Education by MindTechnology. Then they set off to sell it across South Africa.
"We would, in retrospect, manipulate parents into thinking they needed [Power Education]," Zena said to me. "Then we could sell something that was worth 400 rand [$35] for 12,000 [$1,030]."
Then, Poolman met a woman named Esteni de Wet and the two started dating. According to Swanepoel, de Wet took an immediate dislike to her. Swanepoel and Poolman had been very close, and she was making around $5,000 a month—but Swanepoel believes that de Wet convinced Poolman to cut her out of the picture. Poolman stopped paying Swanepoel and exiled her to an office in Cape Town.
Poolman's education software business started to gain traction in the early 2000s, and more money started coming in. Swanepoel remembers that Poolman had a fleet of sales consultants peddling Power Education across the country, and a new house outside of Pietermaritzburg—the farm that would soon become the Desteni cult's compound.
"He had a hold on our minds and our emotions. I was so in love with him and his ideas and his mind that when I became disillusioned with him, it was extremely difficult... He was so good at making us feel like we were becoming deprogrammed from society's bullshit that [we didn't realize] he was programming us."
He was so good at making us feel like we were becoming deprogrammed from society's bullshit that [we didn't realize] he was programming us.
A few years later, after severing all ties with Poolman and his business, Swanepoel ran into Esteni de Wet's parents.
"They were in Cape Town, staying at the Hilton, and I went to go see them. They were telling me about a meditation that Bernard had developed. They wanted me to try it. Then, they say the tool Bernard uses—the way it works best—is E."
According to Swanepoel, De Wet's parents dropped a pill of ecstasy into her hands in their Hilton hotel suite and told her to swallow it.
"I held it in my hands and didn't know what to say. He had everyone in the house taking it, even his daughter, Cerise, and his son, Leslie-John. All those kids."
Neither Desteni or Esteni de Wet's parents returned VICE's request for comment.
Swanepoel left the hotel and didn't think about Poolman for years, until old friends started calling her and asking what she knew about Desteni.
"People started saying, 'Have you heard what Bernie's done? Have you seen how far he's taken it?' I knew Bernard long before [Desteni] started. When I saw what he'd done, I wasn't shocked at all."
Poolman's group had grew from ecstasy-fueled meditation circles into a full-blown cult once he met the girl who could channel the spirit of Hitler in . Her name was Sunette Spies. She was a white, short-haired South African girl with a slight Afrikaans accent. She was also an "interdimensional portal."
She didn't just channel Hitler—Spies could channel Mother Teresa, Kurt Cobain, Anton La Vey, Audrey Hepburn , Da Vinci, Nietzsche, and the reptilian god Anu, who apparently created Mankind. She could even channel the essence of inanimate objects, like a tampon or a grain of sand.
Poolman found Spies around the time Swanepoel was exiled to Cape Town. He and de Wet were having breakfast at Kloof Mall outside of Durban, where he struck up a conversation with their pretty, teenage waitress. The girl's mother had just died of cancer, and after they finished their meal, Poolman found the girl crying. He invited her back to his farm. In 2006, Poolman made her Desteni's official interdimensional portal.
"He placed his hands on my back and said to me, 'Let go and relax,'" Spies explained on Desteni's Wiki. "When he spoke those words, I literally let go over everything, and everyone that ever existed within me in the world."
The interdimensional portal opened. Poolman had a direct connection to the heavens and the demon dimension.
Spies was young, blond, and pretty—the perfect person for Poolman to use as Desteni's figurehead. The fact that she could open her body and allow herself to be possessed by just about every dead famous person, spiritual leader, or reptilian alien overlord didn't hurt, either. She could fake it well, at least. Maybe not "well," but the fact that she was willing to fake it at all was probably enough for Poolman.
The thing that separated Poolman's Desteni from L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology was that, while Hubbard waited until his members were already fully invested in Scientology before unleashing the crazy, while Poolman paraded his cult's batshit-insane demon-channeling front and center—and all over the internet.
With Spies around, Poolman could start whipping out videos and writing blog posts about her channeling sessions. Soon, there were hundreds of Desteni videos on YouTube showing off Spies channeling spirits.
The interdimensional portal wasn't particularly convincing, but Desteni disciples still started trickling in. One of the first was Andrea Rossouw, who found Poolman and Spies in the winter of 2006. A demon had been allegedly possessing Rossouw since her father died, when she was 11. Rossouw claimed that the demon would occasionally leave her body, possess the body of her father's friend, and molest her. Then the demon would re-enter her body and try to convince her to kill herself.
Later, Rossouw wrote in a blogpost from 2008, the demon began to possess her boyfriend's body and beat her. The boyfriend would wake up later and not remember what had happened. Poolman invited Rossouw to live on his farm and stop the cycle of "demon" abuse. She moved in and helped the group launch their first Desteni website, where people from all around the world could watch channeling videos and talk to Poolman and Spies on the Desteni message boards.
Poolman continued to borrow pages from the L. Ron Hubbard handbook by starting his own pay-your-way self-help program, like Scientology's auditing. His was in the form of online classes, called Structural Resonance Alignment Training , and his best pupils were invited to come live on the farm.
By 2009, around 30 people were living and working off and on at Poolman's Desteni compound in Pietermaritzburg. Along with the channeling and the web self-help classes—which involved cluttering the internet with blogs praising the wonders of Desteni—the group began a head-shaving campaign called FaceWorldFaceOff. Baldness, Poolman taught, allowed you to be able to "start seeing somebody's face and not be caught up in the hair." Poolman, if you'll remember, had conveniently gone bald years before.
At this time, Desteni caught the attention of the Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults . Rick Ross, a cult deprogrammer who has worked on more than 500 deprogramming cases, began compiling information about Desteni in a thread on his website's message board . They mapped out Desteni's channeling videos, their online classes, and their cult-cliché shaved heads.
"In my opinion, based upon my interaction with Destini members online and through the message board, the group is a destructive cult," Ross later told VICE.
In response, Poolman and his followers launched an online smear campaign against Ross. They called him a "militant Jewish [bigot]" on an "anti-Christian crusade." Desteni members even popped into Ross's online discussion, spreading an endless stream of messages about "self-forgiveness." Despite the stab at Ross's Judaism, it's unclear if Desteni was actively racist. A photo from the farm shows they had at least one member of color—though it looks a bit like someone's throwing the Hitler salute behind him.
Eventually, Ross got tired of talking in circles with Desteni, and the forum thread went dead. Triumphant after defeating the evil, "anti-Christian" Rick Ross, Poolman continued his long quest of demon hunting, now with the help of the interdimensional portal.
One night, Poolman said, Jesus himself came through the interdimensional portal. After some discussion, Poolman asked Christ to team up with him and clean up the demon dimension for good. Jesus was apparently stoked to join the Desteni team.
Together, Bernard Poolman and Jesus of Nazareth rounded up demons one by one and blew them into oblivion with Self-Forgiveness. The last and biggest demon, Poolman remembered in the 2008 Desteni history interview, was Hitler himself. He was their final foe—the boss, the Bowser, the Dean of the Demon Dimension. Once Poolman was able to teach Hitler how to forgive himself, once and for all, the Führer and his demon denizens were vanquished.
With the world finally rid of demons, Poolman and his Desteni cult set their sights on developing their online Structural Resonance Alignment Training into a full-fledged, pay-as-you-go web seminar program, rechristened the Desteni I Process, or DIP. DIP classes cost $111 per month for the first year, and twice that for the second and third.
The Desteni I Process even had some multilevel marketing thrown in—according to the website, third-year DIP graduates were encouraged to become "Buddies" and find new recruits. Buddies kept their recruits invested in the program and pocket 35 percent of the students' payments.
Desteni claims that it has had "several hundred" participants in DIP over the years. It's difficult to find any hard numbers to back that up, but the DIP website lists 62 Buddies from all around the world keeping cuts of their students' tabs. Like all good multilevel marketing schemes, the majority of the money most likely went straight into Poolman's pockets.
Bernard Poolman died the morning of August 11, 2013, but the Portal still releases videos to this day. The videos still point people to the Desteni website, which still shills the $100 self-help classes and books explaining how the reptilian god Anu created mankind. And the spirit of Hitler continues to speak on YouTube, if you want to go listen.
"We must now prove to the world that Bernard was no 'guru,'" Poolman's daughter, Cerise, wrote in his obituary. "That we are entirely capable of standing without him and growing ourselves and the group."
And they are. Desteni has managed to stand without Poolman in the years since his death—the group is still limping along, and now they're coming to America.
Before he died, Poolman recruited Texan Desteni member Cameron Cope and his partner, Katie Conklin, to sell educational software in the United States. The software, called TechnoTutor, claims no direct connection to Desteni, though suspiciously enough the group does "endorse the educational software," and reviewers on the TechnoTutor website share names with Desteni members.
Cope also ran Aconduit Marketing, a now-defunct company that claimed to let you "work with a revolutionary product that improves lives" and earn an "income potential of $14K per month," but only if you have an initial $15,000 to spend up front.
The "revolutionary product"—probably TechnoTutor—and the multilevel marketing structure sounds an awful lot like the same education software Bernard Poolman was once shilling with Zena Swanepoel. Cameron Cope was initially open to an interview with VICE, but stopped responding once asked about the similarities between the two programs.
Desteni may never become the worldwide movement Poolman wanted it to be. It may never get tens of thousands of active members like Scientology, or even hundreds of people like Jim Jones led in the People's Temple—but it only took a few dozen followers to help Charles Manson burst the bubble on the 1960s. Even Poolman's pal Jesus only had 12 disciples, and he left a decent-sized mark on the world. If nothing else, Poolman's legacy is one hell of a tale about Hitler, Jesus, and the demon dimension. That's something.
We tried to talk to Sunette, Esteni, and the rest of Desteni for this story. They sent us a bunch of long, convoluted answers to our first string of questions, and never responded to our follow-ups. There wasn't anything worth quoting in the story, but you can read the answers they sent us here.
Follow River on Twitter.