The Man Who Saves You From Yourself
June 17, 2014 10:17 PM   Subscribe

David Sullivan was a private investigator who specialized in cults. In 2013, Harper's printed a fascinating, if too brief, overview of Sullivan's career in cult rescue. Among his other accomplishments he allegedly assisted in procuring a confession in the Helzer Brothers murders. He died of cancer shortly after the publication of the article, before he could even start on his memoirs.
posted by ChrisR (25 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
aww man, there goes one of the few off of my future FPP list
posted by emptythought at 10:28 PM on June 17, 2014

That was a really interesting and well written article. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:54 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

What a story. If even half of this is true, this guy's a hero.

Why is it always Marin county?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:08 AM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

The podcast of his talk is fascinating. I hope more of his stories are somehow available. I am very sorry he is gone.
posted by Anitanola at 1:49 AM on June 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Great article. It's such a shame that Sullivan died; I'm sure his work is still necessary. He sounds like a genuinely compassionate and also very clever guy.

posted by Athanassiel at 2:02 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Subscribe offer derail deleted; if you see it, please note that you can click past it, it's not a paywall. Carry on.
posted by taz (staff) at 2:24 AM on June 18, 2014

That was fascinating. I hope he had mentees that are carrying on his work.
posted by halcyonday at 3:18 AM on June 18, 2014

Great post. Thank you.

I would love know who these mentees are!

"Just suspend critical thought" is something that always rings alarm bells!
"Trust the process"!
posted by debord at 4:02 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

That was absolutely fascinating reading; I too hope his mentees are carrying on. But Sullivan himself comes across as a deeply interesting person in and of himself, and I really hope his story can be told more in-depth.
posted by kalimac at 4:37 AM on June 18, 2014

Nivette, Sullivan had found, had a history of sleeping with his young female patients. If a woman refused his advances, he diagnosed her as delusional and had her committed. Nivette was so powerful in the community that nobody reported him.

Where are class-action lawsuits when you really need them?

Amazing article. What a loss. Thanks for the link...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:11 AM on June 18, 2014

This article was SO GREAT. It's tragic that he died so young. And I need someone to pitch a gritty-but-funny HBO series based on the adventures of this man, stat.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:10 AM on June 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Awesome article, fascinating guy.

I'm puzzled by one detail though...In the "Swami Sebastian" story, if Sullivan's endgame was to make Delroy Miller flee and dissolve the cult, why actually sic Little Nick on him, when he could have just as easily lied about Little Nick coming to find him? He only needed Miller to believe that he was in danger, and he had the information to pass along to him to make that happen...Would he have really needed to give Little Nick Miller's address in California? I guess if Miller didn't panic and flee, Little Nick could "take care of things" himself. But wouldn't that potentially put the client's niece in danger also?

I guess I just feel bad that Little Nick might have flown all the way to California to an empty house. Poor Lil' Nick.
posted by doctornecessiter at 6:30 AM on June 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Presuming it happened as written, I felt a little bad for Little Nick too, but Sullivan couldn't have pulled it off without dragging him in - the information about the grudge was years out of date, maybe it didn't happen the way the detective was told, maybe they'd kissed and made up in the meantime, maybe Little Nick was out of the game or insufficiently intimidating in person. Nick wouldn't exactly tell him any of that if he rang up to ask politely.

The only way to be sure that the Swami would take the threat seriously was to see if the threat was serious. And that necessitates tipping off the Swami, because as you say the client would be in danger otherwise.

I don't think he could have played it any other way. Bravo to Sullivan. He saw the angles.
posted by forgetful snow at 7:23 AM on June 18, 2014

"Trust the process"

Is actually a mantra in theatre, for example. When it gets tied up in religion is when it gets to be a scary phrase.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:09 AM on June 18, 2014

That's a hella good article. Thanks for the post.

I've always had a sick fascination with the flim-flam man, the grifter, the con artist. To somehow take that which is the best of us (our empathy, our need for connection, or sociability, our desire to love and be loved and to belong and to have meaning) and twist it to one's own evil desires, well, that takes a pretty unique individual.

Whenever I read these stories (and especially when I hear the line, Trust the process), I always think of that famous quote from Reagan when talking with Gorbachev: Trust, but verify.
posted by math at 8:35 AM on June 18, 2014

He was said to be the reincarnation of his father, the Perfect Master Guru Maharaji, the founder of the DLM, who died when Rawat was eight.

Oh come on. They are misguided but they cannot be that stupid.
posted by bukvich at 9:45 AM on June 18, 2014

Oh come on. They are misguided but they cannot be that stupid.

Well, maybe it was that the Perfect Master Guru Maharaji gave 8 years notice of his death and during that time he was helping the new guy get his feet wet in the position, teaching him how to use the copier, etc.
posted by doctornecessiter at 10:16 AM on June 18, 2014

"Sullivan first worked with Singer in the early Nineties. One case involved a woman posing as a psychologist, who had persuaded several of her male clients to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. (The men later alleged that they had been brainwashed.)"

Woah, what? Does anyone have information about this?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:34 AM on June 18, 2014

Sullivan is not a reliable narrator as near as I can tell. He describes hare krishna food as disgusting. I have had five meals in hare krishna dining halls and all were fine. My understanding is the diet is near the top of the list of the reasons for their success.
posted by bukvich at 10:56 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh come on. They are misguided but they cannot be that stupid.

My parents were Divine Light Mission members when I was growing up (and still are involved in the various successor organizations), and from what little sense I could ever make of it, it's not like literal reincarnation, more like a succession of satguru-hood that takes place at the time each previous Perfect Master dies, to one of his living disciples, and supposedly formed an unbroken chain of transmission back to the Buddha and Jesus.

As I understand it, Rawat has since dropped all references to reincarnation as he has gradually removed or elided most of the South Asian cultural aspects of his movement and re-branded as more of a Western-style self-help speaker - a style which is indeed naturally suited to the breezy and superficial parables that are still the bulk of his public teaching.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 11:00 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was a great interesting read. Thanks for posting.

Because Sullivan “thought too much,” the Trainer christened him Anal-Cranial Inversion.

And this is frankly hilarious.
posted by sfkiddo at 1:04 PM on June 18, 2014

"Trust the process"

Is actually a mantra in theatre, for example. When it gets tied up in religion is when it gets to be a scary phrase.

It's a mantra in therapy, too, but more for the therapist I think.

I've long been fascinated by cults. I pegged myself as vulnerable to then due to various personality traits when I was in high school, so spent a bunch of time figuring out the signs. I think what I hate most about them is that they target the weak spots of vulnerable people in order to exploit them, and that pisses me off like nothing else. The "you want to be better" combine with "I will abuse you" combined with "love bombs" reminds me really strongly of the abuse cycle, too - where essentially an individual's sense of reality and reasonable healthy relationships is undermined by a combination of fear and affection.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:35 PM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

The subject's obituary on the same site has comments from people who knew him.
posted by Coaticass at 12:09 AM on June 19, 2014

Brain-washing is a pretty simple process, really--isolate them, disorient them, destroy their self-worth, terrify them, and then offer them a new identity where they'll be safe. It crops up in variant forms all over the place: army recruitment is a good example, as are some parts of British boarding-school system.

Do not trust the process. About the only thing you can reliably say about people who have been brain-washed is they will insist they haven't been brain-washed.
posted by Hogshead at 3:16 AM on June 19, 2014

Do not trust the process.

Trust the processes is one of those very simple statements where what the process is would be critical information in terms of whether you trust or not.
posted by Deoridhe at 3:47 PM on June 19, 2014

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