The story of Chile's Colonia Dignidad -- well told by Bruce Falconer, in The American Scholar -- is gripping, but not for the faint of heart. It includes all the classic cult stuff: child molestation, mind control, forced labor, torture, weapons caches and, yes, mass murder. The preacher/tyrant, one Paul Schaefer, is a sort of Ian Fleming villain, with a glass eye and a network of underground tunnels -- not to mention pencils that fire bullets and, as he ages, a walker that can electrocute you. There's another Fleming trope, too -- the tough-as-nails local cop who finally brings down the bad guy, aided by an intrepid female reporter whom we assume is strikingly beautiful.
But because the members of this particular cult were Germans, who joined up after the war, there is an element of Teutonic surrealism to the whole story. They build a spick-and-span Bavarian village in the wilderness, where they dress in wool pants and suspenders, headscarves for the women, and greet a visitor with organic apple cake.
The single most disturbing moment, for us, follows the abduction and torture of one Luis Peebles. Pinochet's flunkies kidnap him and hold him in the bunker, as the SS-reject "minister" shows them how to inflict pain. After days of this, the torture stops, and he is released. And here's the chilling detail: "his clothes were returned -- neatly cleaned and folded."