Margaret T. Singer Collection
Table of Contents
and the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques (with Richard Ofshe, Ph.D.)
Dr. Margaret Singer contributed immensely to our current understanding of undue influence and coercive persuasion and how victims of cults can heal.
Those who came to know and work with Dr. Singer quickly appreciated her down-to-earth personality and informality. We all knew her as "Margaret." Even today, five years after her passing, say "Margaret" to somebody in this field and that person is likely to think of Margaret Singer.
The articles and books that Margaret authored and coauthored help us understand the dynamics and techniques leaders in cultic groups use to achieve their personal goals and satisfy their hunger for control and acclamation, typically at great cost to the individuals caught in their web. However, Margaret's greatest impact on those of us in the cult recovery field came from her talks at conferences, especially when she specifically addressed ex-members. Her down-home style of speaking and light-hearted quips immediately dissolved tensions that may have been present in her audiences. Her strong stress on the need for psycho-education as the key to recovery, and her immediate call to stop blaming the victim drew ex-members to her; they realized that here was a professional who had their best interest at heart and in mind.
As Margaret presented her six conditions of a thought-reform system, she was particularly adept at explaining how groups orchestrated experiences and used trance states to gain compliance and convince followers of the elitist perfection and power of leadership. Although some ex-members in the audience didn't think their group used trance states, Dr. Singer went on to elaborate on how trance states can be brought on by the use of many simple techniques. And once she had walked us through all of the conditions present in the cultic environment, she addressed the after-effects, giving us down-to-earth, logical tips on how to deal with those effects in the recovery process and how to be patient with ourselves.
Margaret's fifty years of work carefully examining the dynamics and effects of thought-reform processes in cultic environments has created a rich legacy for mental health professionals, as well as ex-members. She defined thought reform in understandable psychological language, and she coined descriptive terms such as "coordinated programs of coercive influence" and "exploitative persuasion." Margaret also created useful tools, like her checklist of Conditions, to help us evaluate the environments where unhealthy degrees of psychological manipulation occur.
Margaret modernized the original paradigms of thought reform with the inclusion of the deception condition in the recruitment process and her insights about the evolution of the technology of influence programs. Margaret understood that, as the milieu expanded beyond Chinese prisons, so did the focus of attack shift from changing the peripheral aspects of self to influencing the more core and central aspects of self.
Her insistence on education about thought reform as one of the vital ingredients of cult recovery work has served the field well. She was the first to articulate to mental health professionals the lure of the cults and the types of psychological problems cults create.
Finally, Margaret used her in-depth knowledge and skill to reveal many destructive cults' influences in her professional field of psychotherapy. Her exposé of the distortions and corruptions that may exist in long-term therapy relationships has been invaluable.
The following collection reflects Margaret's thinking about cults and cult recovery. However, this collection is but a small part of Margaret's contributions to this field. One might say that her greatest contribution consists of the memories of the multitude of people like us, who learned so much from her talks and her writings. We hope that this collection expresses how much we honor her.
It's a delight to write about Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer. First of all, she was my mom. So, it's an easy task to conjure up all the wonderful characteristics that made her special to me personally. Equally important, my mom played a leading role in helping to define personal and psychological freedom during a period in world history where one of the greatest threats to civilization and freedom is the manipulation of our beliefs and lives by individuals, cults or other politically motivated groups with a hidden agenda.
Most of the papers presented in this book were written at our brown shingle family home in the Berkeley hills. While she did some of her work at her office at the University of California where she was a professor of psychology, the vast majority of my mother's professional work, thinking, writing and meeting with therapy clients was done at home.
In our family kitchen was a white mat-finish Formica table. The table was the center of our house and the center of my mom's work. The table served as her writing and editing desk. It was used 'to therap' people (a phase coined by my mother because therapy sounded too dismal to her). Many times my sister and I would come home from school to find someone being 'theraped' at the kitchen table. My mom would introduce us after which we would head upstairs so she could continue her session. A number of these individuals were ex-cult members who were seeking my mother's assistance in getting back their minds and their lives. Others were people who valued my mom's insights in helping them live their lives.
The kitchen table also doubled as a message board, note pad, and shopping list. My mom would get a Ticonderoga #2 pencil and jot down important thoughts, insights, phone messages and make her 'to do' list of personal errands. At some point during the week, she would erase the table with a cloth and soapy water.
Also on the table, was one of her greatest tools, the telephone. The slim-line phone was many times lost under a pile of research papers, the day's newspapers, books and mail. Despite its occasional camouflage, my mom would find the ringing phone and help whoever was on the other line.
She spoke to thousands of people around the world on the issue of cults and coercive persuasion and helped them via the phone.
Lastly, and most important to my sister Martha, my father and myself, the kitchen table actually doubled as a kitchen table where the family would gather for meals. Using the 1960s Danish modern chairs that were omnipresent in our household, we would gather around the table and individually recall what had happened in our lives that day as we ate dinner. The talk always turned to the work my mother was doing as well as the work my father was doing in the field of physics. Both of my parents were professors in their respective fields at UC-Berkeley. It should be noted that an occasional student dissertation waiting to be read and many times my mom's own research and papers were slightly stained with food that dripped or splashed off our plates.
If Athens is the center of western civilization, then my mother's kitchen table was the center both of our family and of her passionate philosophy of freedom of expression and of the mind.
She argued fascinatingly and endlessly about the insidious religious, political and individual cults that manipulated individuals into what Robert J. Lifton described as "the most dangerous direction of the twenty-century mind–the quest for absolute or 'totalistic' belief systems."
She was very focused on how environmental and psychological manipulation was being expedited by modern day cults. And, how ultimately, the techniques of mind control and thought reform were designed to destabilize an individual's sense of reality and self.
You will assuredly find the speeches and papers in this book as fascinating today as when my mother first produced these works. Her ability to use her Irish Catholic heritage and its great tradition of story-telling brings brilliant clarity to the subject and threat of thought reform today.
My mother passed away in 2003. Being the type of person she was, she worked up until her hospitalization and death. Today, her work is as relevant and as important–if not more so–than when it was originally created.
Nearly every place in the world today is threatened by some group or cult that is using the principals of mind control and thought reform to manipulate unknowing individuals. From our shores to the Middle East, from crazed celebrities jumping on couches to cult ownership of one of the nation's capital's daily newspapers, religious and political cults have a sinister ability to insinuate themselves into the mainstream and to attempt to gain an air of respectability. Margaret Singer valued those who stood up to cults and manipulative leaders. I am only sorry that she did not live to see the "South Park" television show's send-up of Scientology and the group's reaction to the piece. She would have loved it.
My mother's greatest admonition to her family–and to her friends and clients–was always this: don't be afraid to walk away from anything that doesn't seem right. She always noted how cults and groups played on the systematic manipulation of social norms. If anything, being the person that she was, she personally wouldn't walk away from things that didn't seem right–she challenged them upfront and in their face. One of things that I value most of all in recalling my mother, and her work, is that she was the first person to challenge and ask questions of anyone and any group in any setting. She feared nothing.
I am thankful to have had such a wonderful, tough, thoughtful, philosophical and street-smart person for my mother. I hope that the thoughts presented in this effort, as well as her books Cults in our Midst and Crazy Therapies, continue to advance the freedom of thought, expression and belief that my mother so prized.
On behalf of my father Dr. Jerome Singer, my sister Dr. Martha Singer, my wife Sharon Singer, and our families, we hope you take the information in this volume and use it to help educate others to the great threat of psychological and social manipulation that we face in the world today from cults, new age groups and totalistic belief systems.
San Francisco, California
Clinical research has identified specific cult-related emotional problems with which ex-members must cope during their reentry into society. Among them: indecisiveness, uncritical passivity–and fear of the cult itself.
The recent upsurge of cults in the United States began in the late 60s and became a highly visible social phenomenon by the mid-70s. Many thousands of young adults–some say two to three million–have had varying contacts with such groups, frequently leaving home, school, job, and spouses and children to follow one or another of the most variegated array of gurus, messiahs, and Pied Pipers to appear in a single generation. By now, a number of adherents have left such groups, for a variety of reasons, and as they try to reestablish their lives in the mainstream of society, they are having a number of special–and I believe cult-related psychological problems that say a good deal about what experience in some of these groups can be like.
The term "cult" is always one of individual judgment. It has been variously applied to groups involved in beliefs and practices just off the beat of traditional religions; to groups making exploratory excursions into non-Western philosophical practices; and to groups involving intense relationships between followers and a powerful idea or leader. The people have studied, however, come from groups in the last, narrow band of the spectrum: groups such as the Children of God, the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the Krishna Consciousness movement, the Divine Light Mission, and the Church of Scientology. I have not had occasion to meet with members of the People's Temple founded by the late Reverend Jim Jones, who practiced what he preached about being prepared to commit murder and suicide, if necessary, in defense of the faith.
Over the past two years, about 100 persons have taken part in discussion groups that I have organized with my fellow psychologist, Jesse Miller of the University of California, Berkeley. The young people who have taken part are generally from middle- and upper-middle-class families, aver age 23 years of age, and usually have two or more years of college. Though a few followed some of the smaller evangelical leaders or commune movements, most belonged to a half-dozen of the largest, most highly structured, and best known of the groups.
Our sessions are devoted to discussion and education: we neither engage in the intense badgering reportedly carried on by some much-publicized "deprogrammers," nor do we provide group psychotherapy. We expected to learn from the participants in the groups, and to relieve some of their distress by offering a setting for mutual support. We also hoped to help by explaining something of what we know about the processes the members had been exposed to, and particularly what is known of the mechanisms for behavior change that seem to have affected the capacity of ex-cultists to adjust to life after cultism. My own background includes the study of coercive per suasion, the techniques of so-called "brain-washing"; Dr. Miller is interested in trance-induction methods.
It might be argued that the various cult groups bear resemblances to certain fervent sectors of long-established and respected religious traditions, as well as to utopian communities of the past. Clearly, the groups are far from uniform, and what goes on in one may or may not go on in another. Still, when in the course of research on young adults and their families over the last four years, I interviewed nearly 300 people who were in or who had come out of such cults, I was struck by similarities in their accounts. For example, the groups' recruitment and indoctrination procedures seemed to involve highly sophisticated techniques for inducing behavioral change.
I also came to understand the need of many ex-cult members for help in adjusting to life on the outside.
According to their own reports, many participants joined these religious cults during periods of depression and confusion, when they had a sense that life was meaningless. The cult had promised–and for many had provided–a solution to the distress of the developmental crises that are frequent at this age. Cults supply ready-made friendships and ready made decisions about careers, dating, sex, and marriage, and they outline a clear "meaning of life." In return, they may demand total obedience to cult commands.
The cults these people belonged to maintain intense allegiance through the arguments of their ideology, and through social and psychological pressures and practices that, intentionally or not, amount to conditioning techniques that constrict attention, limit personal relationships, and devalue reasoning. Adherents and ex-members describe constant exhortation and training to arrive at exalted spiritual states, altered consciousness, and automatic submission to directives; there are long hours of prayer, chanting, or meditation (in one Zen sect, 21 hours on 21 consecutive days several times a year), and lengthy repetitive lectures day and night.
The exclusion of family and other outside contacts, rigid moral judgments of the unconverted outside world, and restriction of sexual behavior are all geared to increasing followers' commitment to the goals of the group and in some cases to its powerful leader. Some former cult members were happy during their membership, gratified to submerge their troubled selves into a selfless whole. Converted to the ideals of the group, they welcomed the indoctrination procedures that bound them closer to it and gradually eliminated any conflicting ties or information.
Gradually, however, some of the members of our groups grew disillusioned with cult life, found them selves incapable of submitting to the cult's demands, or grew bitter about discrepancies they perceived between cult words and practices. Several of these people had left on their own or with the help of family or friends who had gotten word of their restlessness and picked them up at their request from locations outside cult headquarters. Some 75 percent of the people attending our discussion groups, however, had left the cults not entirely on their own volition but through legal conservatorships, a temporary power of supervision that courts in California and several other states grant to the family of an adult. The grounds for granting such power are in flux (see box on page 81), but under such orders, a person can be temporarily removed from a cult. Some cults resist strenuously, some times moving members out of state; others acquiesce.
Many members of our groups tell us they were grateful for the intervention and had been hoping for rescue. These people say that they had felt themselves powerless to carry out their desire to leave because of psychological and social pressures from companions and officials inside. They often speak of a combination of guilt over defecting and fear of the cult's retaliation–excommunication–if they tried. In addition, they were uncertain over how they would manage in the outside world that they had for so long held in contempt.
Most of our group members had seen deprogrammers as they left their sects, as part of their families' effort to reorient them. But none in our groups cited experiences of the counterbrainwashing sort that some accounts of deprogramming have de scribed and that the cults had warned them to be ready for. (Several ex members of one group reported they had been instructed in a method for slashing their wrists safely, to evade pressure by "satanic" deprogrammers–an instruction that alerted them to the possibility that the cult's declarations of love might have some not-so-loving aspects.)
Instead, our group members said they met young ex-cultists like them selves, who described their own disaffection, provided political and economic information they had been unaware of about cult activities, and described the behavioral effects to be expected from the practices they had undergone. Meanwhile, elective or not, the days away from the cult atmosphere gave the former members a chance to think, rest, and see friends–and to collect perspective on their feelings. Some persons return to cult life after the period at home, but many more elect to try to remake life on the outside.
Leaving any restricted community can pose problems leaving the Army for civilian life is hard, too, of course. In addition, it is often argued that people who join cults are troubled to begin with, and that the problems we see in postcult treatment are only those they postponed by conversion and adherence. In a recent study by psychiatrist Marc Galanter of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and several colleagues, some 39 percent of one cult's members reported that they had had "serious emotional problems" before their conversion (6 percent had been hospitalized for it) and 23 percent cited a serious drug problem in their past. But some residues that some of these cults leave in many ex-members seem special: slippage into dissociated states, severe incapacity to make decisions, and related extreme suggestibility derive, I believe, from the effects of specific behavior-conditioning practices on some especially susceptible persons.
Most ex-cultists we have seen struggle at one time or another with some or all of the following difficulties and problems. Not all the former cultists have all of these problems, nor do most have them in severe and extended form. But almost all my in formants report that it takes them anywhere from 6 months to 18 months to get their lives functioning again at a level commensurate with their histories and talents.
With their 24-hour regime of ritual, work, worship, and community, the cults provide members with tasks and purpose. When members leave, a sense of meaninglessness often reappears. They must also deal with family and personal is sues left unresolved at the time of conversion.
But former members have a variety of new losses to contend with. Ex-cultists in our groups often speak of their regret for the lost years during which they wandered off the main paths of everyday life; they regret being out of step and behind their peers in career and life pursuits. They feel a loss of innocence and self esteem if they come to believe that they were used, or that they wrongly surrendered their autonomy.
Leaving a cult also means leaving many friends, a brotherhood with common interests, and the intimacy of sharing a very significant experience. It means having to look for new friends in an uncomprehending or suspicious world.
Many of our informants had been struggling with issues of sexuality, dating, and marriage before they joined the cult, and most cults reduce such struggles by restricting sexualcontacts and pairings, ostensibly to keep the members targeted on doing the "work of the master." Even marriages, if permitted, are subject to cult rules. Having sexuality highly controlled makes friendships especially safe for certain people: rules that permit only brotherly and sisterly love can take a heavy burden off a conflicted young adult.
On leaving the cult, some people respond by trying to make up for lost time in binges of dating, drinking, and sexual adventures. These often produce overwhelming guilt and shame when former members contrast the cult's prohibitions to their new free dom. Said Valerie, a 26-year-old former teacher, "When I first came out, I went with any guy that seemed interested in me–bikers, bums–I was even dating a drug-dealer until I crashed his car on the freeway. I was never like that before."
Others simply panic and avoid dating altogether. One man remarked, "I had been pretty active sexually before I joined. Now it's as if I'd never had those experiences, because I'm more inhibited than I was in junior high. I feel sexually guilty if I even think of asking a girl out. They really impressed me that sex was wrong." In at least one case, the rules restricting sexuality seem to have contributed to highly charged interpersonal manipulations. Ruth said she was often chastised by Mary, a prestigious cult member, for "showing lustful thoughts toward the brothers." Mary would have me lie on my face on the floor. She would lie on top of me and massage me to drive Satan out. Soon, she'd begin accusing ME of being a lesbian." Needless to say, anyone who had been through experiences of the sort described would be likely to have sexual conflicts to work out.
A very few who were in orgiastic cults had undergone enforced sexuality rather than celibacy. Describing the cult leader, one woman said, "He used orgies to break down our inhibitions. If a person didn't feel comfortable in group sex, he said it indicated a psychological hang-up that had to be stripped away because it prevented us all from melding and unifying."Indecisiveness
Some groups prescribed virtually every activity: what and when to eat, wear, and do during the day and night, showering, defecating procedures, and sleep positions.
The loss of a way of life in which everything is planned often creates what some of our group members call a "future void" in which they must plan and execute all their tomorrows on their own. Said one, "Freedom is great, but it takes a lot of work." Certain individuals cannot put together any organized plan for taking care of themselves, whether problems involve a job, school, or social life. Some have to be urged to buy alarm clocks and notebooks in order to get up, get going, and plan their days. One woman, who had been unable to keep a job or even care for her apartment since leaving the cult, said, "I come in and can't decide whether to clean the place, make the bed, cook, sleep, or what. I just can't decide about any thing and I sleep instead. I don't even know what to cook. The group used to reward me with candy and sugar when I was good. Now I'm ruining my teeth by just eating candy bars and cake."
Except for some aspects of the difficulty with making decisions, these problems do not seem to stem especially from the techniques of behavior modification that some cults apply to their members. But the next two items are another matter.
Slipping into Altered States
From the time prospective recruits are invited to the cult's domicile–"the ashram," "our place in the country," "the retreat," "the family," "the center"–and after initiation, as well, they are caught up in a round of long, repetitive lectures couched in hypnotic metaphors and exalted ideas, hours of chanting while half-awake, attention-focusing songs and games, and meditating. Several groups send their members to bed wearing headsets that pipe sermons into their ears as they sleep, after hours of listening to tapes of the leader's exhortations while awake. These are all practices that tend to produce states of altered consciousness, exaltation, and suggestibility.When they leave the cult, many members find that a variety of conditions–stress and conflict, a depressive low, certain significant words or ideas–can trigger a return to the trancelike state they knew in cult days. They report that they fall into the familiar, unshakable lethargy, and seem to hear bits of exhortations from cult speakers. These episodes of "floating"–like the flashbacks of drug-users–are most frequent immediately after leaving the group, but in certain persons they still occur weeks or months later.
Ira had acquired a master's degree in business administration before he joined his cult; emerging after two years of nightly headsets and daily tapes, he is working in a factory "until I get my head together." He thought he was going crazy: "Weeks after I left, I would suddenly feel spacy and hear the cult leader saying, "You'll always come back. You are one with us. You can never separate." I'd forget where I was, that I'm out now; I'd feel his presence and hear his voice. I got so frightened once that I slapped my face to make it stop."
Jack, a former graduate student in physiology who had been in a cult for several years, reported, "I went back to my university to see my dissertation adviser." As we talked, he wrote ideas on the board. Suddenly he gave me the chalk and said, "Outline some of your ideas." He wanted me briefly to present my plans. I walked over and drew a circle around the professor's words. It was like a child doing it. I heard his words as a literal command: I drew a line around the out side of the ideas written on the board. I was suddenly embarrassed when I saw what I had done. I had spaced out, and I keep doing little things like that."
During our group discussions, unless we keep some focus, we often see members float off; they have difficulty concentrating and expressing practical needs concretely. Prolonged recitals using abstract cult jargon can set off a kind of contagion in this detached, "spacy" condition among certain participants. They say these episodes duplicate the conditions they fell into at meditations or lectures during cult days, and disturb them terribly when they occur now. They worry that they are going mad, and that they may never be able to control the floating. But it can be con trolled by avoiding the vague, cosmic terms encouraged in cult talkand sticking to concrete topics and precise language spoken directly to a listener. In one session, Rosemary was de scribing a floating incident from the day before. "In the office yesterday, I couldn't keep centered. … I couldn't keep a positive belief system going," she said.
"Now, look, Rosemary," I said. "Tell us concretely exactly what it was that happened, and what you were feeling." With effort, she told us she had been using the Xerox machine when the paper jammed; she didn't know how to fix it, felt in adequate, was ashamed to go and ask. Instead, she stood silent and dissociated before the machine. Under pressure now, she found ways to tell the story. In cult days, she had been encouraged to generalize to vague categories of feeling, to be imprecise, to translate personal responses into code.
People affected by floating are immensely relieved to learn that others have experienced these same flash backs, that they can be controlled, and that the condition eventually diminishes. Those who still float for a long time–it can go on for two years–are generally the same ones to have reported severe depression, extreme indecisiveness, and other signs of pathology before entering the cult.
Blurring of Mental Acuity
Most cult veterans are neither grossly in competent nor blatantly disturbed. Nevertheless, they report–and their families confirm–subtle cognitive inefficiencies and changes that take some time to pass. Ex-cultists often have trouble putting into words the inefficiencies they want to describe. Jack, the physiology graduate, said, "It's more that after a while outside, something comes back. One day I realized my thinking had gradually expanded. I could see everything in more complex ways. The group had slowly, a step at a time, cut me off from anything but the simplest right-wrong notions. They keep you from thinking and reasoning about all the contingencies by always telling you, "Don't doubt, don't be negative." And after a while you hardly think about anything except in yes-no, right-wrong, simpleminded ways." Many ex-cultists, like Ira, the factory worker, or Jack, now working as a hospital orderly, have to take simple jobs until they regain former levels of competence.
Many ex-cultists report they accept almost every thing they hear, as if their precult skills for evaluating and criticizing were in relative abeyance. They can not listen and judge: they listen, believe, and obey. Simple remarks of friends, dates, co-workers, and roommates are taken as commands, even though the person does not feel like doing the bidding, or even abhors it. One woman had gotten up in the middle of the night to respond to the telephoned command of a near stranger: "I borrowed my dad's car to drive about 65 miles out into the country and help this guy I had just met once in a coffeehouse to transport some stolen merchandise, because he spoke in such a strong and authoritative way to me on the phone. I can't believe how much I still obey people."
When this behavior comes up in our group sessions, we discuss the various cults' injunctions against questioning doctrine or directives, and the effects of living for months or years in situations that encourage acquiescence. Ex-members of some of the more authoritarian cults describe constant urging to "surrender your mind … accept … melt … flow with it … Don't question now, later you will understand." Reluctance or objections are reprimanded: "Don't be negative, don't be resistant, surrender."
Joan had been the nemesis of many college teachers before she joined a cult. "I was into the radical feminist group at school; I was a political radical; I was trying to overthrow the system. In three months, they recycled me and I was obeying everybody. I still have that tendency to obey any body who says 'Gimme, fetch me, go for. …'" Ginny was described by her family as having been "strong-willed. It was impossible to make her do any thing she didn't want to do." Now, she complains, "Any guy who asks me anything, I feel compelled to say yes; I feel I should sacrifice for them; that's how I did for four years in the group."
Fear of the Cult
Most of the groups work hard to prevent defections: some ex-members cite warnings of heavenly damnation for themselves, their ancestors, and their children. Since manycult veterans retain some residual belief in the cult doctrines, this alone can be a horrifying burden.
When members do leave, efforts to get them back reportedly range from moderate harassment to incidents involving the use of force. Many ex-members and their families secure unlisted phone numbers; some move away from known addresses; some even take assumed names in distant places.
At the root of ex-members' fear is often the memory of old humiliations administered for stepping out of line. Kathy, who had been in a group for over five years, said, "Some of the older members might still be able to get to me and crush my spirit like they did when I became depressed and couldn't go out and fund-raise or recruit. I had been unable to eat or sleep; I was weak and ineffectual. They called me in and the leader screamed at me, "You're too rebellious. I'm going to break your spirit. You are too strong-willed." And they made me crawl at their feet. I still freak out when I think about how close they drove me to suicide that day; for a long time afterward, all I could do was help with cooking. I can hardly remember the details, it was a nightmare."
It appears that most cult groups soon turn their energies to recruiting new members rather than prolonging efforts to reattract defectors. Still, even after the initial fear of retaliation has passed, ex-members worry about how to handle the inevitable chance street meetings with old colleagues, expecting them to try to stir up feelings of guilt over leaving and condemn their present life.
Fear may be most acute for former members who have left a spouse or children behind in the cults that recruited couples and families. Any effort to make contact risks breaking the link completely. Often painful legal actions ensue over child custody or conservatorship between ex- and continuing adherents.
Even reporters who have gone into a cult as bogus recruits to get a story, staying only a few days, have felt a terrible compassion for the real recruits who stay behind. One, Dana Gosney, formerly of the Redwood City Tribune, wrote that it took him three and a half hours to extract him self from the group once he announced he wanted to leave. He wasdenied permission to go, he was pleaded with, he was told the phone did not work so he could not contact a ride. Eventually, he says, "Two steps beyond the gate, I experienced the sensation of falling and reached out to steady myself. My stomach, after churning for several hours, forced its contents from my mouth. Then I began to weep uncontrollably. I was crying for those I had left behind."
The Fishbowl Effect
A special problem for cult veterans is the constant watchfulness of family and friends, who are on the alert for any signs that the difficulties of real life will send the person back. Mild dissociation, deep preoccupations, temporary altered states of consciousness, and any positive talk about cult days can cause alarm in a former member's family. Often the ex-member senses it, but neither side knows how to open up discussion.
New acquaintances and old friends can also trigger an ex-cultist's feelings that people are staring, wondering why he joined such a group. In our discussion, ex-members share ways they have managed to deal with these situations. The best advice seems to be to try focusing on the current conversation until the sense of living under scrutiny gradually fades.
As I suggested above, returnees often want to talk to people about positive aspects of the cult experience. Yet they commonly feel that others refuse to hear anything but the negative aspects, even in our groups. Apart from the pleasure of commitment and the simplicity of life in the old regime, they generally want to discuss a few warm friendships, or even romances, and the sense that group living taught them to connect more openly and warmly to other people than they could before their cult days. As one man exclaimed, "How can I get across the greatest thing that I no longer fear rejection the way I used to? While I was in the Church, and selling on the street, I was rejected by thousands of people I approached, and I learned to take it. Before I went in, I was terrified that anyone would reject me in any way!"
Conditioned by the cults' condemnation of the beliefs and conduct of outsiders, ex-members tend to remainhypercritical of much of the ordinary behavior of humans. This makes reentry still harder. When parents, friends, or therapists try to convince them to be less rigid in their attitudes, they tend to see such as evidence of casual moral relativism.
The Agonies of Explaining
Why one joined is difficult to tell anyone who is unfamiliar with cults. One has to describe the subtleties and power of the recruitment procedures, and how one was persuaded and indoctrinated. Most difficult of all is to try to explain why a person is unable simply to walk away from a cult, for that entails being able to give a long and sophisticated explanation of social and psychological coercion, influence, and control procedures.
"People just can't understand what the group puts into your mind," one ex-cultist said. "How they play on your guilts and needs. Psychological pressure is much heavier than a locked door. You can bust a locked door down in terror or anger, but chains that are mental are real hard to break. The heaviest thing I've ever done is leaving the group, breaking those real heavy bonds on my mind."
According to our informants, significant parts of cult activity are based on deception, particularly fund-raising and recruitment. The dishonesty is rationalized as being for the greater good of the cult or the person recruited. One girl said she had censored mail from and to new recruits, kept phone calls from them, lied to their parents saying she didn't know where they were when they phoned or appeared, and deceived donors on the street when she was fund-raising. "There is something in side me that wants to survive more than anything, that wants to live, wants to give, wants to be honest," she noted. "And I wasn't honest when I was in the group. How could they have gotten me to believe it was right to do that? I never really thought it was right, but they kept saying it was okay because there was so little time left to save the world." As they take up their personal consciences again, many ex-members feel great remorse over the lies they have told, and they frequently worry over how to right the wrongs they did.
Perplexities About Altruism
Many of these people want to find ways to put their altruism and energy back to work without becoming a pawn in another manipulative group. Some fear they have become "groupies" who are defenseless against getting entangled in a controlling organization. Yet, they also feel a need for affiliations. They wonder how they can properly select among the myriad contending organizations–social, religious, philanthropic, service-oriented, psychological–and remain their own boss. The group consensus on this tends to advise caution about joining any new "uplift" group, and to suggest instead purely social, work, or school-related activities.
An additional issue is the cult members' curious experience with money: many cult members raise more per day fundraising on the streets than they will ever be able to earn a day on any job. Most cults assign members daily quotas to fill of $100 to $150. Especially skillful and dedicated solicitors say they can bring in as much as $1,500 day after day. In one of our groups one person claimed to have raised $30,000 in a month selling flowers, and another to have raised $69,000 in nine months; one testified in court to raising a quarter of a million dollars selling flowers and candy and begging over a three-year period.
Elite No More
"They get you to believing that they alone know how to save the world," recalled one member. "You think you are in the vanguard of history. … You have been called out of the anonymous masses to assist the messiah. … As the chosen, you are above the law. … They have arrived at the humbling and exalting conclusion that they are more valuable to God, to history, and to the future than other people are." Clearly one of the more poignant comedowns of postgroup life is the end of feeling a chosen person, a member of an elite.
It appears from our work that if they hope to help, therapists–and friends and family–need to have at least some knowledge of the content of a particular cult's program in order to grasp what the ex-member is trying to describe.A capacity to explain certain behavioral reconstruction techniques is also important. One ex-member saw a therapist for two sessions but left because the therapist "reacted as if I were making it up, or crazy, he couldn't tell which. But I was just telling it like it was in The Family."
Many therapists try to bypass the content of the experience in order to focus on long-term personality attributes. But unless he or she knows something of the events of the experience that prey on the former cultist's mind, we believe, the therapist is unable to open up discussion or even understand what is happening. Looking at the experience in general ways, he may think the young person has undergone a spontaneous religious conversion and may fail to be aware of the sophisticated, high-pressure recruitment tactics and intense influence procedures the cults use to attract and keep members. He may mistakenly see all the ex-cultist's behavior as manifestations of longstanding psychopathology.
Many ex-cult members fear they will never recover their full functioning. Learning from the group that most of those affected eventually come to feel fully competent and independent is most encouraging for them. Their experiences might well be taken into account by people considering allying themselves with such groups in the future.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today, January 1979.
The Love-Bombing Begins
Very few professionals have sufficient information about what leads persons into cults, particularly the recruitment procedures. Findings from extensive interviews with more than two hundred and fifty young adults who have been in various cults show that the larger and more prominent cults have extremely sophisticated recruitment methods that are taught to the street recruiters. For example, one of the cults trains their recruiters to get close enough to look at the line where the colored part of the eye touches the white of the eye: if the person has a jiggly outline, that is said to mean that the person is an open, warm, loving person who will come into the group easily; but, if they have a very sharp line, that means they are hard to get into and they should abandon them. If one can get close enough to do that type of an inspection, he is within eighteen inches of the person and into a zone of intimacy within which the other person's gaze can become quite fixed. They begin their love-bombing of the new recruit from that point onward. The influence process has begun.
Those of us who are in the professions have not yet understood enough of the various factors that lead individuals to be persuaded by these recruitment techniques. Most of us as professionals don't know the indoctrination programs of the specific cults well enough to know how to talk with the young people who are in or coming out of the cults. And, we need to understand the types of problems that cult members have prior to entering and upon leaving specific cults or cults in general.
From many reports of ex-cult members who have seen professionals while in a cult, while at home for brief periods from a cult, or after they have definitely left the cult and have sought help, the usual professional fails in almost monumental ways to give assistance to ex-cult members.
Why? The ex-cult members have had such very special things happen to them in the cults that in order to talk to acounselor they have to educate the counselor. The professional often reacts to the recounting of the cult events as if the person telling the story was or is mentally ill or is fabricating a story.
Secondly, most of us as professionals do not know the highly specific contents of the cults that continue to prey upon the ex-cult members' minds; and, thus, we don't know how to open up discussions or sense what is happening within them. For example, one of the California state hospitals is not too far from one of the recruitment and indoctrination centers of one of the major cults. A young man had been in one of these cults and had become very depressed after two-andone-half years in the cult. He began to wake up to what was going on. He called his family on the East Coast. His father answered the phone and told him he was a phony, that the group he was with had called long ago and said that their son had been killed in an auto accident; he did not recognize the voice of his son, and said, "No, our son is dead. He's gone."
The son became even more depressed, tried to kill himself, and the cult abandoned him along a freeway. The local police picked him up and took him into the hospital. He got into the psychiatric service and it took him almost two months to convince the caretakers there of what had happened to him while he was in the particular cult. Finally, the ward psychiatrist saw a series of articles that one of the local newspapers was running on cults. When this information became available to support his story, the young man got a very different kind of attention.
Cosmic Truths and Clichés
This article will, at this point, explore a type of psychotherapy–individual but primarily group–that a colleague, Dr. Jesse Miller of the University of California at Berkeley, and I have been developing. Our work is based on individual psychotherapy in interviews with over two hundred and fifty young adults who have recently left various cults and revealed a number of common problems they faced on reentering the mainstream of society. Some of these issues will be elaborated on and a group counseling program will be described with suggested individual therapystrategies, which we have developed to facilitate a successful resolution of this painful and difficult period of adjustment.
The cults pare down multidetermined reality into an oversimplified pastiche of cosmic truths and clinches that explain everything. What to believe in, what to think, and what to do with one's self in relation to the world have been made especially difficult tasks for certain young adults. The cults' supposedly sublime principles and ultimate states of awareness offer clearcut, black-and-white answers to young adults who are seeking relief from many age-appropriate developmental crises in a period of history characterized by philosophical relativism and rapid sociological and technical changes. The disillusions, revolutions, and upheavals in families, governments, and societies in recent years have seemingly made certain persons more vulnerable than others to the lure of the cults.
The Lure of Simplistic Answers
Very few of the cults are able to recruit lower-class young adults, either blacks or whites. Lower-class youths in the U.S., primarily, know that there are no free dinners and no free meals. They can recognize a street hustle. But, middle-class, upper-middle-class, and upper-class young adults have not had enough experience with the street hustlers in growing up and knowing how artful deceivers in the street can operate. Most of the cults try to reach middle-class and upper-class teenagers and young adults.
The general crisis of young adulthood usually centers around career, sex, marriage, what values to hold, to develop, where and how to live, and how to make friends. The common pressures of the late teens and early twenties have been exacerbated by current social influences; that offer a lure of simplistic answers that some cannot refuse. For the young adult who is in a mild to moderate depressed period due to what we might term being in between things–such as in between high school and college, in between jobs, in between romances, in between living home and on his or her own–the cults offer seemingly instant solutions to these issues. In addition, cults offer certain pseudo-philosophical, spiritual, and psychological dimensions to the life of these persons.Cults supply their members with ready-made friends and ready-made decisions about career, dating, sex and marriage, and the "meaning of life". In return, they demand total obedience, which they maintain through various programs of coercive persuasion. In addition to providing these ready-made answers, this period in history may make certain quests more prominent in the lives of young adults: the loose social structures, the feelings of alienation, and the promise of what turning inward may bring to modern man.
After leaving the cult with a full course of indoctrination, the young adult requires a great deal of information, support, and assistance. He or she must first be deprogrammed or meet reentry counselors, a process which generally takes from a few hours to one to three days. Although lurid details of deprogramming atrocities have been popularly supplied by cults to the press, the process is nothing more than an intense period of information giving.
The reentry counselors are usually former cult members who have a full knowledge of the specific cult's principles and procedures and can discuss their logical inconsistencies. They explain how the indoctrination methods work and what was done from a social and psychological point of view to get the members to join and stay; and, they explain how and what the cult members did to make the members afraid and guilty when thinking of leaving.
The Pressure of Meeting Money Quotas
After this reentry counseling, a period of approximately one month for rehabilitation and rest seems essential. Some persons, however, need much longer. Most cult members are debilitated from being on a low-protein diet and from long hours of work with little sleep extending over many months or years. These young adults on the streets have quotas given to them by the cults. Usually they are told they cannot come in at the end of the day until they have raised $150 or more; and, they usually have to stay on the streets eighteen to twenty hours in most cities to raise their quotas.
I have interviewed many young adults who have earned more than $1,000 a day for long periods. Some who have recently returned from Canada and Alaska–where the press and TV has not paid much attention to cult solicitors–report their average turn-in was $1,500 a day.
One of the major cults claims to have a 30,000 membership, which researchers cut down to approximately 7,000 based on various news reports. From this the following may be figured: if they were to have only 1,000 of these young adults out on the street with a minimum $50-a-day quota, they would bring in $50,000 a day. They are on the streets 365 days a year, so this one cult is roughly picking up $18 million a year (and with the $150-a-day quota, $54 million a year).
It takes from eight to eighteen months for a young adult, after leaving a cult, to re-create a sense of personal competence and to feel comfortable in making decisions and getting his life going again at the level that he once functioned on when first entering into the cult.
Thought and Conversational Inefficiencies
It is often during this period that many ex-cult members seek individual or group counseling. I am not going to get into the specific types of mental problems these young adults describe, but they report and demonstrate remarkable mental inefficiencies in their thought and conversational processes, some responding in simplistic and immature ways. Ex-cult members report having trouble putting into words the inefficiencies they experience in their mental processes. Most of the cults have long periods of indoctrination, meditations, chanting, and lectures during which the members have to sit for hours on end; some of the cults have their own training manuals, which help ensure that the language of trance induction is powerfully and carefully used in the indoctrination lectures. Others enforce prolonged "empty mind" states. These take their toll.
For example, a former graduate student, who had been in a cult for several years returned to his university after leaving the cult. He visited a former professor who wrote on the blackboard as he talked. The professor turned to the ex-cultist asking him to "outline his ideas about returning to school," meaning to briefly present his plans. The student walked to the board, took the chalk, and simply drew a circle around the professor's words. He reported that he suddenlyrealized his childlike obedience and literalness at that moment when he literally had drawn a line around the outside of the professor's ideas when asked to outlines ideas. He used this to illustrate to us the kinds of mental lapses he was seeing in himself some four or five months after coming out.
Although there is no simplistic explanation of how the cults work, I would like to touch upon the types of problems that we take up in our group therapy. This group therapy only involves people who are completely out of the cults. It is offered free for those unable to pay; or, if they are employed, we have a sliding scale, each person paying from 25 cents to several dollars per session. Participation is voluntary, and it is through word of mouth among ex-cult members; they hear of us and join our groups.
Introductions at our first meetings usually range from the presentation by a severely depressed young woman of nothing more than her first name, to five minute descriptions of past, present, and future yearnings of group members. Members who do not experience deprogramming or work with reentry counselors and who were under cult control for several years tend to give self-descriptions that drift in and out of cosmic issues. The co-therapists allowed members full freedom to present themselves in whatever manner and for however long they wish, up to about four or five minutes.
The Floating Phenomenon
Following introductions, a list of shared problems, which the leaders have drawn from contact with hundreds of ex-cult members as well as from people while they were in the cult, are outlined for discussion. Presentation of these issues by leaders who are familiar with post-cult experiences essentially focuses the group because many former cult members still do what is called in the trade, "float." They float off before your eyes into diffuse and altered states of consciousness and have difficulty in expressing practical needs concretely. The cult life generally includes incessant repetition of long lectures. These lectures are formally similar to hypnotic trance inductions and are filled with various forms of direct, indirect, and metaphoric suggestions meant to influence the attitudes and behaviors of cult members.Members who have heard these lectures literally hundreds of times, and who have been working up to twenty hours without sleep, report they often drift into trancelike and semiconscious states during the times they hear these various lectures in the cults. Their unconscious minds listen to the meaning of the lectures over and over again as part of their conscious minds drift comfortably off into a fantasy world.
Upon leaving the cult, young adults often report they have terrible difficulty concentrating, and that they spontaneously drift into these trancelike states. It is helpful to them if this drifting or floating is called to their attention so that they can learn conscious controls, which will reinstate the focusing of their own attention voluntarily. It is much easier to observe floating in two-person interactions rather than in groups where a certain amount of wandering attention is always found. Although most of our group members were rehabilitated past the times of experiencing long periods of floating, several of them nevertheless had great difficulty editing streams of associative material from their comments.
With individuals who begin to drift or float, group leaders will often gently call attention to the topic under discussion to refocus the group. Former cult members may still have great difficulty in criticizing others and appearing negative. Thus, they will associate and float out rather than interrupt, as other young adult discussion groups would do to return the discussion to its original topic. Individual members will privately complain of others who monopolize or float too much during discussions.
Other issues the group usually covers include the following:
- Various kinds of loneliness;
- Problems in making decisions on one's own;
- Types of depression and guilt;
- Problems of slipping into altered stats of consciousness; and
- The problem of wishing to talk about certain positive aspects of the cult experience.
When the young adult tries to tell family or friends anything positive that had happened to them while they were in the cult, they experience a great deal of pressure. Relatives and friends become afraid they are about to defect and go back into the cult; and yet, in our group, we permit and go into considerable discussion of what some of the positive things were. Primarily, the positive factor was that they had tremendous feelings of affection and love for a few specific individuals in the cult.
They have problems in telling anyone who has not been in a cult why they went in without revealing their entire private lives. They have a hyper awareness of being let down by others and by the sinfulness of people outside of the cult. They want to find a way to put their altruism to work again without feeling duped and used by groups they may join.
The Fishbowl Effect
They return to unfinished personal and family issues–to work, job and school problems–with which they were wrestling at the time of entry.
Another issue concerns spouses and friends who are still in the cult. They ex-cult young adult usually wishes to help such people have the opportunity to have time to think over whether they want to stay in or not. What to do and say when contacted or when they are on the street and meet individuals who are still in the cult also raises problems for the young adult.
How does the ex-cultist deal with the constant watchfulness of friends and family who are on the alert for any signs of recidivism by the former cult member? We talk about this in the group as the fishbowl effect, because many people who come out of cults have the feeling they are in a fishbowl and everyone is staring at them: their family looking for signs of them running away to the cult, or trying to protect them from cult recruitment; or, young adults of their own age staring at them and wondering why they joined a cult.
These individuals have much anger toward the cult for having used and controlled them. They have anger and concern over lost years and opportunities. They have a fearof the future and anxieties about what will happen if they don't get their lives going at the level that they would like.
They all eventually have to deal with the problem of what happens when you stop being god. For, while they were in the cult, almost all were told that they are the select, elite group. Also, these young adults have to fact the fact that few of us earn $1,000 or more a day. When the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old person, who has been taking in a thousand dollars a day, comes out of the cult and looks at his mom, dad, and professors, he realizes that type of earnings is not possible for most people in the everyday world. They therefore wonder what to do when they are no longer among a group who has been the elite and who is taking in that type of money.
This whole cult phenomena, from a psychological, sociological, historical, and theological point of view is fascinating. Although it is not one to be easily explained, I urge you to get interested in, from a psychiatric and psychological standpoint, investigating what these phenomena are that are being seen in the current cults.
This article was originally published in Journal of the National Association of Private Psychiatric Hospitals, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer 1978. Reprinted with permission.
Recently, cult apologists have attempted to create the impression that the concept of thought reform has been rejected by the scientific community. This is untrue.
As recently as May of this year, the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) published by the American Psychiatric Association cites thought reform as a contributing factor to "Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified" (a diagnosis frequently given to former cult members). Thought reform (notes 1,2,3 below) and its synonyms brainwashing and coercive persuasion (4,5) were also noted in DSM-III (1980) and in DSM-III-Revised (1987), as well as in widely recognized medical texts (6,7).
Thought reform is not mysterious. It is the systematic application of psychological and social influence techniques in an organized programmatic way within a constructed and managed environment (6,7,8,9,10). The goal is to produce specific attitudinal and behavioral changes. The changes occur incrementally without its being patently visible to those undergoing the process that their attitudes and behavior are being changed a step at a time according to the plan of those directing the program.
In society there are numerous elaborate attempts to influence attitudes and modify behavior. However, thought reform programs can be distinguished from other social influence efforts because of their totalistic scope and their sequenced phases aimed at destabilizing participants' sense of self, sense of reality, and values. Thought reform programs rely on organized peer pressure, the development of bonds between the leader or trainer and the followers, the control of communication, and the use of a variety of influence techniques. The aim of all this is to promote conformity, compliance, and the adoption of specific attitudes and behaviors desired by the group. Such a program is further characterized by the manipulation of theperson's total social environment to stabilize and reinforce the modified behavior and attitude changes (8,9,10).
Thought reform is accomplished through the use of psychological and environmental control processes that do not depend on physical coercion. Today's thought reform programs are sophisticated, subtle, and insidious, creating a psychological bond that in many ways is far more powerful than gun-at-the-head methods of influence. The effects generally lose their potency when the control processes are lifted or neutralized in some way. That is why most Korean War POWs gave up the content of their prison camp indoctrination programs when they came home, and why many cultists leave their groups if they spend a substantial amount of time away from the group or have an opportunity to discuss their doubts with an intimate (11).
Contrary to popular misconceptions (some intentional on the part of naysayers), a thought reform program does not require physical confinement and does not produce robots. Nor does it permanently capture the allegiance of all those exposed to it. In fact, some persons do not respond at all to the programs, while others retain the contents for varied periods of time. In sum, thought reform should be regarded as "situationally adaptive belief change that is not stable and is environment-dependent" (8, 10).
The current effort by cult apologists to deny thought reform exists is linked to earlier protective stances toward cults in which apologists attempted to deny the cults' active and deceptive recruitment practices; deny the massive social, psychological, financial, spiritual, and other controls wielded by cult leaders; and thus dismiss their often destructive consequences.
These earlier efforts to shield cults from criticism rest on a "seeker" theory of how people get into cults, which overlooks the active and deceptive tactics that most cults use to recruit and retain members. When bad things happened to followers of Jim Jones or David Koresh, the twisted logic of some apologists implied that these "seekers" found what they wanted, thus absolving the cult leader and his conduct.
Finally, to promulgate the myth that thought reform has been rejected by the scientific community, cult apologistsdoggedly stick to a faulty understanding of the process. Contrary to the findings in the literature, they aver that physical coercion and debilitation are necessary for thought reform to occur, and that the effects of thought reform must be instant, massive, uniform, universally responded to, and enduring.
The recent upholding of thought reform in DSM-IV is but one more piece of evidence that this orchestrated process of exploitative psychological manipulation is real and recognized within the professional psychiatric field. To say then that the concept of thought reform is rejected by the scientific community is false and irresponsible. The phenomenon has been studied and discussed since 1951, and continuing studies by social psychologists and other behavioral scientists have solidified our understandings of its components and overall impact.
© 1994 M.T. Singer
1. Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. New York: W. W. Norton. (Also: 1993, University of North Carolina Press.)
2. Lifton, R. J. (1987). Cults: Totalism and civil liberties. In R. J.
Lifton, The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age. New York: Basic Books.
3. Lifton, R. J. (1991, February). Cult formation. Harvard Mental Health Letter.
4. Hunter, E. (1951). Brainwashing in China. New York: Vanguard.
5. Schein, E. H. (1961). Coercive Persuasion. New York: W. W. Norton.
6. Singer, M. T. (1987). Group psychodynamics. In R. Berkow (Ed.), Merck Manual, 15th ed. Rahway, NJ: Merck, Sharp, & Dohme.
7. West, L. J., & Singer, M. T. (1980). Cults, quacks, and nonprofessional psychotherapies. In H. I. Kaplan, A. M. Freedman, & B. J. Sadock (Eds.), Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry III, pages 3245-3258). Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
8. Ofshe, R., & Singer, M.T. (1986). Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 3-24.
9. Singer, M.T., & Ofshe, R. (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annals, 20, 188-193.
10. Ofshe, R. (1992). Coercive persuasion and attitude change. Encyclopedia of Sociology. Vol. 1, 212-224. New York: Macmillan.
11. Wright, S. (1987). Leaving Cults. The Dynamics of Defection. Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Monograph no. 7, Washington, D.C.
Margaret Thaler Singer is Emeritus Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the American Family Foundation, publisher of The Cult Observer.
This article was originally published in The Cult Observer, Vol. 11, No. 6, 1994. Reprinted with permission.
Many persons wrote about totalitarian regimes, such as Defoe, Orwell, Zamyatin, Huxley, London, and Hofer, predicting how they thought totalistic regimes would psychologically impact individuals. Robert Lifton had the opportunity to actually study individuals who had been so subjugated. At the end of the Korean War he chose to carefully study the personal experiences of a series of Westerners and Chinese intellectuals who had been exposed to the Chinese thought reform programs both in prisons and in "revolutionary universities." Lifton delineated the techniques and methods of the Chinese thought reform program and revealed in telling detail through case studies its impact on the mind, emotions and social behavior of its victims in his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China.1
In his preface to the 1989 reprinting of that book Lifton stated that he sees his book as "less a specific record of Maoist China and more an exploration of what might be the most dangerous direction of the twentieth-century mind–the quest for absolute or 'totalistic' belief systems." He commented that he was especially pleased by the extent to which his volume on thought reform has remained central to literature on cults and on totalism in general. Lifton adds: "We can speak of cults as groups with certain characteristics: first, a charismatic leader, who tends increasingly to become the object of worship in place of more general spiritual principles that are advocated; second, patterns of 'thought reform' akin to those described in this volume, and especially in Chapter 22 (Ideological Totalism); and third, a tendency toward manipulation from above with considerable exploitation (economic, sexual, or other) of ordinary supplicants or recruits who bring their idealism from below."2
Cultic groups continue to increase and apply their variants of thought reform. As this century draws to a close we are seeing hordes of millennialists and ecofatalists gathering groups about them to set up the elite whom they claim willsurvive. These groups appear to be putting into place totalistic regimes with leaders claiming that they alone have the one answer for all. Lifton's seminal work on how totalism constricts the human mind, and requires victimization is, as this century draws to a close, going to be more useful than ever, because we are already seeing a new wave of totalism not only in cults, but in the burgeoning millennialist and ecofatalist movements.3
Thought reform is not mysterious. It is the systematic application of psychological and social influence techniques in an organized programmatic way within a constructed and managed environment. The goal is to produce specific attitudinal and behavior changes that management wants. The changes occur incrementally without it being patently visible to those undergoing the process that their attitudes and behavior are being changed a step at a time according to the plan of those directing the program.
In society there are numerous elaborate attempts to influence attitudes and modify behavior. However, thought reform programs can be distinguished from other social influence efforts because of their totalistic scope and their sequenced phases aimed at destabilizing participants' sense of self, sense of reality, and values. Thought reform programs rely on organized peer pressure, the development of bonds between the leader or (trainer) and the followers, the control of communication, and the use of a variety of influence techniques. The aim of all this is to promote conformity, compliance, and the adoption of specific attitudes and behaviors desired by the group. Such a program is further characterized by the manipulation of the person's total social environment to stabilize and reinforce the modified behavior and attitude changes.
Thought reform is accomplished through the use of psychological and environmental control processes that do not depend on physical coercion. Today's thought reform programs are sophisticated, subtle, and insidious, creating a psychological bond that in many ways is far more powerful than gun-at-the-head methods of influence. The effects generally lose their potency when the control processes are lifted or neutralized in some way. That is why most Korean War POWs gave up the content of their prison campindoctrination programs when they came home, why the Westerners thought reformed in China, with rare exceptions, dropped the effects and contents, and why many cultists leave their groups if they spend a substantial amount of time away from the group or have an opportunity to discuss their doubts with an non-member who understands the thought reform process.4
Contrary to popular misconceptions, a thought reform program does not require physical confinement or physical coercion and does not produce robots. Nor does it permanently capture the allegiance of all those exposed to it. In fact, some persons do not respond at all to the programs, while others retain the contents and behavior for varied periods of time. In sum, thought reform should be regarded as "situationally adaptive belief change that is not stable and is environment dependent."
At the end of the Korean War, I worked at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., along with Lifton and others studying the thought reform and indoctrination programs the Chinese and North Koreans had used to reshape attitudes and behaviors in revolutionary universities, prisons, and prisoner of war camps. Besides working with material from prisoners of war, I interviewed a number of priests who had been interned in China and subjected to thought reform efforts.
By the late 1960s I became aware of the cult phenomenon in our society and began to interview cult members, ex-cultists and families of cultists. I soon discovered that the basic properties of thought reform as outlined by Lifton were alive and well right here in the United States and becoming one of our least desirable exports to other countries.
The burgeoning of the cult phenomenon caused me to return to using Lifton's work and that of my colleagues from the Walter Reed years. Relying on those seminal contributions, I have continued studying thought reform as Lifton described it in 1961 and its evolution since then. At this point leaders of cults and groups using thought reform processes have taken in and controlled millions of persons to the detriment of their welfare.
In my work studying how cults and groups with totalistic views are applying their current versions of thought reform programs, I have termed such programs on occasion "coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control" or "exploitative persuasion." This was done in an effort to make more understandable the thought reform process to those unfamiliar with the concepts and history of thought reform. During this period thought reform has been called by various names, as shown in Table 1.
Terms Used to Identify Thought Reform
Thought struggle (ssu-hsiang tou-cheng) Mao Tse-tung (1929)
Brainwashing Hunter (1951)
Thought reform (hse nao) Lifton (1956)
Debility, dependency, and dread (DDD syndrome) Farber, Harlow, and West (1957)
Coercive persuasion Schein (1961)
Mind control Unknown (about 1980)
Systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence Singer (1982)
Coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavioral control Ofshe and Singer (1986)
Exploitative persuasion Singer and Addis (1992)
Having returned to an interest in thought reform programs as I was noting their use by cults, I found a colleague with interests in social influence and we began to write about "second generation of interest" thought reform programs.5
The first generation of interest was that which Lifton had delineated. The newer programs, even though they do not have the power of the state behind them, such as was present in China, appear more efficient, effective and alsooften more psychologically risky for participants than the earlier ones. Lifton noted that the managers of the Chinese programs attempted to closely monitor subjects so that when they reached the brink of decompensation, pressures could be reduced. The current programs do not monitor individuals in their thought reform programs, and thus produce a certain number of psychiatric casualties.
We compared the thought reform programs being used by cults and some of the New Age so-called "awareness" programs with Lifton's original work. Not only were the current programs speeding up the process, but they were intensifying the psychological and social pressures without monitoring the individual's responses to the pressures put on them. The newer applications attempt to gain conformity more rapidly than did the earlier programs, and attack not just the person's political self, but appear designed to destabilize a person's overall sense of self and reality.
Most of the current cultic and New Age thought reform programs make the Chinese programs appear more interested in re-cycling persons by monitoring their ability to tolerate stress during thought reform programs, while the current groups appear to rely on replacing with new recruits those who break from the stresses. A colleague and I termed what we were seeing "the second generation of interest thought reform programs" and wrote of our ongoing study of psychiatric casualties from these programs as they are being carried out currently.6
The impact of cult life, which by its very structure tends to be totalistic, has been such that many psychiatrists and mental health professionals have discussed the behavior, attitude changes, and decompensations noted in former cult members and efforts have evolved to properly classify the residual effects of thought reform stresses. In 1980 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM III), published by the American Psychiatric Association, cited "thought reform" as a contributing factor to Atypical Dissociative Disorder (a diagnosis frequently noted in former cult members).7 Thought reform and its synonyms brainwashing and coercive persuasion were also noted in DSM-III-Revised (1987), as a contributing factor to Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, as well asappearing in widely recognized medical texts.8 Most recently, in 1994 the new DSM-IV again cites thought reform as contributing to the same type of dissociative disorder. Thus the psychiatric and psychological world has come to note the impacts the stresses, conflicts, and procedures of thought reform programs have on individuals' functioning.
Lifton's work in Hong Kong interviewing repatriated Westerners and Chinese intellectuals was his first major contribution to what has become a series of works by him centering on human responses to extreme stress, the production of victims, and his interests in the broader implications of totalism and its alternatives. He has also offered the concept of proteanism and "open" instead of "closed" methods of education and personal change as the hope of the future, apparently kindled by his work on thought reform.
Lifton formulated eight themes characterizing a totalistic environment which makes ideological totalism possible. By ideological totalism he meant "the coming together of immoderate ideology with equally immoderate individual character traits–an extremist meeting ground between people and ideas." The totalist environment seeks to reeducate participants into submission and conformity, not creative individual participation in society.
Lifton found eight themes predominating in the social milieu in which human zealotry and thought reform programs grow. He concluded: "In combination they [the eight themes] create an atmosphere which may temporarily energize or exhilarate, but which at the same time poses the gravest of human threats." Below, for brevity, I am abbreviating and paraphrasing Lifton's eight themes which characterize a thought reform milieu. Quoted material is from Lifton's book on thought reform.
- Milieu control: Human communication is controlled by many means. External information and inner reflection are so controlled and managed by the system that the ordinary member becomes unable to test reality and experience a sense of identity separate from the environment. Communication is further controlled through the use of loaded jargon by the group. All information generated aboutpersons, including any secrets they reveal to anyone, must be passed upward to authorities and then used to make the leader seem omniscient. Thus people cannot trust one another and develop support systems within the milieu.
- Mystical manipulation: After controlling the milieu and communication, extensive personal manipulation occurs. Patterns of behavior and emotion are elicited in ways to make them appear to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment. Having been manipulated from above without realizing it, a person becomes sensitive to cues, and merges himself with the flow of the group to avoid continuing pressures being put upon him. He now adopts the psychology of the pawn. He drops self expression and independent actions and joins in the manipulation of others.
- Demand for purity: A two-valued world is set in place. There is good and evil, pure and impure. The emotional levers of guilt and shame can applied to manipulate and control people especially playing upon existential guilt in which a person is made aware of his own limitations and his unfulfilled potential. Denouncing others, the outside world, and "projection" is encouraged. This leads to mass hatreds, purges of heretics, and to political and religious holy wars. "For there is no emotional bondage greater than that of the man whose entire guilt potential–neurotic and existential–has become the property of ideological totalists."
- Cult of confession: The demand for absolute purity in the totalist environment leads to massive and varied uses of confession. "In totalist hands, confession becomes a means of exploiting, rather than offering solace." People can be led to falsely confess to deeds they did not do, and to falsely accuse, and through confession experience a sense of purification. Lifton noted two ends were achieved through confession: this seeming "purging milieu" only enhances the totalists hold on followers' guilt and at the same time accomplishes a symbolic self-surrender in which the person feels he is merging with the environment. A sense of intimacy is created and the followers merge into the Movement. Lifton and Camus noted the perpetual confessor easily becomes the "judge-penitent"; that is, the more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you.
- Sacred science: The totalist world is the ultimate moral vision. "To dare to criticize it, or to harbor even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only immoral and irreverent, but also 'unscientific.' In this way, the philosopher kings of modern ideological totalism reinforce their authority by claiming to share in the rich and respected heritage of natural science." Lifton saw a composite of counterfeit science added to supposedly sacred ideas promulgated by the leaders of totalist groups as one more theme and pressure that pushes a person in a totalist environment toward total personal closure–that state of feeling an all-ornothing emotional alignment with the immoderate ideology.
- Loading the language: The language in the totalist environment is loaded with thought-terminating clichés and ultimate terms. "Totalist language is repetitively centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: in Lionel Trilling's phrase 'the language of nonthought.'"
- Doctrine over person: Ideological totalism overrides personal human experiences. What you as a person experience must be subordinated to the claims of the doctrine. Totalist doctrine engages in history revision in order to justify the regime's present stance. Individual memory can be overridden and distortions imposed. "The underlying assumption is that the doctrine–including the mythological elements–is ultimately more valid, true and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience."
- Dispensing existence: A totalist environment divides people into two groups–those with a right to existence and those without such a right. Lifton noted that totalist environments even when not using physical abuse, stimulate in followers a fear of extinction and annihilation. Existence depends on obeying and merging with the totalist environment.
Lifton concluded: "The more clearly an environment exercises these eight psychological themes, the greater its resemblance to ideological totalism; and the more it utilizes such totalist devices to change people, the greater its resemblance to thought reform [or 'brainwashing']."
Thus Lifton's careful observations from his study of repatriates from the Chinese thought reform milieu laid the foundation for evaluating environments in which thought reform is the change agent used to control the expressed behavior of people.
In addition to Chinese exposed to thought reform in revolutionary universities, Lifton studied Westerners subjected to thought reform in prison settings and especially paid attention to seeing if there was sequencing in the thought reform programs they had experienced. Lifton noted there was indeed a general sequence of psychological pressures, twelve in number, put upon each person, even though they had been in separate prisons, far removed from one another, and with different staff and surroundings. The psychological steps he labeled: (1) the assault on identity, (2) the establishment of guilt, (3) the self-betrayal, (4) the breaking point, total conflict and the basic fear, (5) leniency and opportunity, (6) the compulsion to confess, (7) the channeling of guilt, (8) re-education: logical dishonoring, (9) progress and harmony, (10) the final confession: the summing up (11) rebirth, (12) release, transition and limbo.
Helping persons who have left current cultic groups by going over this sequence of psychological steps is especially useful. By so doing, these persons see and feel that common properties exist between what Lifton found decades ago and what they have experienced. What Lifton termed the two basic identities of thought reform, the repentant sinner and the receptive criminal, are among the most bothersome induced roles cultists battle after leaving their groups. Tolearn that these are roles almost uniformly induced by thought reform programs, regardless of age, nationality, education, and social class, helps to alleviate the guilt, self doubt, self abnegation, and loss of trust in the self that the current cult thought reform programs induce.
Lifton studied in carefully documented detail what in fact has emerged as one of the most powerful efforts at human manipulation ever undertaken. It led him to call attention to "closed" versus "open" approaches to human change–the thought reform methods used in a closed, totalist society versus the methods of human change used in open societies in which education, choice, individual responsibility, reflective thought are the means of seeking human change.
My work and that of colleagues studying cults and newer uses of thought reform programs has necessitated adding some orientation about the differences between a thought reform program backed by state power, as in China, and a thought reform program as seen in modern cultic groups. We also have tended to translate Lifton's concepts and findings into simple terms for youth and nonprofessional audiences. Lifton's themes, steps, and findings that thought reform could be carried out effectively in non-prison settings, as well as his many insights about human responses to totalist programs, stand as he wrote them. Cult apologists work to hide the fact that Lifton clearly commented that neither a prison setting nor physical coercion was required for thought reform to work. The same apologists tend to ignore all the rest of the literature on thought reform and decades of study of influence by social psychologists.
The people Lifton studied had either found themselves immersed in thought reform programs in revolutionary universities or were exposed in prison settings, and were aware that there was an effort to change their political beliefs. However, today, individuals become involved with cultic and other groups that recruit deceptively and are unaware before joining just what will follow. My work and that of others on such groups has found that it is rare that these groups reveal to new members just what they will be exposed to. The new members often know practically nothing of how they are going to be treated, processed, and changed. Thus some modernization such as item 1 below was needed to help other researchers and the general public see the extra mystification that is present in the current scenes in which thought reform is practiced.
After studying the degree to which Lifton's themes are present in a group suggesting a totalist milieu exists, the following six conditions can serve as a brief checklist to evaluate a group's methods. The group:
- 1. Keeps the person unaware that there is an agenda to control or change the person.
- 2. Controls time and physical environment (contacts, information)
- 3. Creates a sense of powerlessness, fear, and dependency
- 4. Suppresses old behavior and attitudes
- 5. Instills new behavior and attitudes
- 6. Puts forth the program in a closed system of logic
With the exception of item 1, these are abbreviated versions of Lifton's themes intended to simplify outlining the thought reform process. What follows below is again a condensation of the steps he found in a thought reform program. The explanations of the steps have been simplified and used by me and colleagues as we have connected Lifton's work to our current studies of "second generation of interest" thought reform groups.
1. Destabilizing the person: A person's whole sense of self and notion of how the world works are destabilized by group lectures, personal contacts by authorities, rewards, punishments and other exchanges with the group. The person is moved to a point where self-confidence is eroded; he has become more suggestible; and is uncertain about what choices to make.
2. Accepting the solution that the group offers: At this point, the person being thought reformed senses that the solutions offered by the group provide the path to follow. Anxiety, uncertainty and self-doubt can be reduced by adopting the concepts put forth by the group or leader. Newcomers observe thebehavior of old timers and begin to model themselves after the examples. Massive anxiety can be reduced by cooperating with the social pressures to conform. The newcomers begin to "talk the talk, and walk the walk" that the thought reform program is instilling.
3. Now you are in: After "the acceptance" has been made, the group reinforces in the newcomers the desired behavior with social and psychological rewards, and punishes unwanted attitudes and behaviors with harsh criticism, group disapproval, social ostracism, and loss of status.
Most of the modern thought reform groups seek to produce non-resistant, hardworking persons who do not complain about group practices and do not question the authority of the guru, leader or trainer. The more followers display the group-approved attitudes and behavior, the more their compliance is interpreted by the leadership as showing that they now know that their life before they belonged to the group was wrong and that their new life is "the way."
Recently Lifton wrote:
I have been preoccupied with questions of totalism from the time of my study of Chinese thought reform in the mid 1950s, and came full circle in returning to the subject when studying Nazi doctors in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Totalism is likely to emerge during periods of historical–or psychohistorical–dislocation, in which there is a breakdown of the symbols and structures that guide the human life cycle. Contributing to this dislocation is the mass media revolution, which creates the remarkable possibility of any one of us, at any moment, having access to any image or idea originating anywhere in the contemporary world or from any cultural moment of the entire human past. Still another powerful influence furthers our dislocation: awareness of our late-twentiethcentury technological capacity to annihilate ourselves as a species, and to do so withneither purpose nor redemption. What results from these historical forces are widespread feelings that we are losing our psychological moorings. We feel ourselves buffeted about by unmanageable currents and radical social uncertainties.
A major response to this confusion has been the contemporary world-wide epidemic of fundamentalism. That movement, broadly understood, drives from a fear of the loss of "fundamentals," giving rise to demand for absolute dogma and a monolithic self–all rendered sacred in the name of a past of perfect harmony that never was.
While the above may sound dire, Lifton, with his ever-present faith in mankind's capacity to choose the "protean self" and the "open" methods of change rather than the constricted, thought reform methods continues to contribute to efforts to insure that freedom of the mind will continue.
1 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961).
2 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (University of North Carolina Press, 1993). Note also Lifton, Totalism and Civil Liberties, The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age (New York: Basic Books, 1987); and Lifton, "Cult formation," Harvard Mental Health Letter (1991).
3 Margaret T. Singer, with Janja Lalich, Cults in Our Midst (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995).
4 Stuart A. Wright, Leaving Cults. The Dynamics of Defection, Society of the Scientific Study of Religion, Monograph no. 7, Washington, D.C., 1987.
5 Richard Ofshe and Margaret T. Singer, "Attacks on Peripheral Versus Central Elements of Self and the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques," Cultic Studies Journal 3-1 (1986); and Margaret T. Singer and Richard Ofshe, "Thought Reform Programs and the Production of Psychiatric Casualties," Psychiatric Annals 20 (1990):188-93. Richard Ofshe, "Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change," Encyclopedia of Sociology, vol. 1, (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 212-24.
6 Louis J. West and Margaret T. Singer, "Cults, Quacks, and Nonprofessional Psychotherapies," H. I. Kaplan, A. M. Freedman and B. J. Sadock, eds., Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry III (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1980).
7 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, III (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1980); Revised, III-R, 1987; and DSM-IV, 1994.
8 Margaret T. Singer, "Group psychodynamics," in R. Berkow, ed., Merck Manual, 15th ed. (Rahway, NJ: Merck, Sharp, & Dohme, 1987).
This article was originally published in Trauma and Self, edited by Charles B. Stozier & Michael Flynn. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Maryland, 1986; Chapter 6, pages 69-79. Reprinted with permission.
We read the headlines about the Waco hearings and the Tokyo subway poisonings, and we wonder how people could be taken in by someone like David Koresh, or wonder how people could be taken in by someone like David Koresh, or find happiness in a cult like Aum Shinrikyo. But as Berkeley. psychologist Margaret Singer points out, with 20 million Americans involved in cults in the last twenty years, the answer perhaps lies no further than our own family and friends. "Under the right circumstances we all can be manipulated," Singer says.
One of the world's leading authorities on cults. Singer has studied thought reform since the '50s and specialized in cults since the '60s. Because of her experience counseling Korean War POWs who had been subjected to brainwashing, Singer was appointed by the court to examine Patty Hearst in her 1974 trial for bank robbery after being abducted by the 5ymbionese Liberation Army. Singer later interviewed survivors of the Jim Jones people's Temple cult as well as members of the Branch Davidians who survived the disaster at Waco. Over the years she's examined over 3,000 current and former cult members.
Author of the just published Cults in Our Midst, Singer defines cults as groups that recruit through deception, use techniques of thought reform; and believe that some special truth or knowledge resides in a leader or leaders that the members must follow. Singer estimates there are 3,000 to 5,000 cults in America.
At age 74, Singer is a warm and open woman with an impressive grasp of the vulnerabilities of the human mind. We met for the interview at her Berkeley home.
Timothy Beneke: After the Oklahoma City bombing, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians took on fresh significance. A substantial number of Americans view the Davidians as heroic Christian martyrs victimized by an oppressive government. You interviewed a number of members whosurvived Waco, and families of members who perished. What can you tell us about them?
Margaret Singer: Many Americans, including some religious scholars and sociologists of religion, don't want to look at the reasons the authorities were concerned about the Branch Davidians. They don't want to look at the deception that was used to recruit and keep members. They only want to look at the Davidians' religious beliefs, which they're constitutionally entitled to.
Let's talk about the children first. Koresh released 21 Branch Davidian children, aged five months to twelve years, after the first assault on the compound. These children were studied by a Baylor University child psychiatrist who found them to be in terrible shape. The children had resting heartbeats of 120 beats a minute, some thirty to fifty percent above normal. They were terrified of anyone outside the cult, having been taught that anyone outside was evil and would kill them–and this was before the fiery ending had occurred. They had very little capacity for autonomous thought or independent decision-making. When they were lift alone, they divided into two groups based on gender, and one child would be the leader of each group and tell the others what to do. They did everything as a group. Many children drew pictures of Koresh as God or doodled, "David is God." When asked to draw pictures of themselves, most children could only draw a small primitive picture, often in the corner of a sheet of paper.
We know that Koresh had sex with and impregnated twelve and fourteen-year-old girls–he wanted only his seed to be propagated. He was converting shotguns into automatic weapons. The authorities wanted to talk to him about these things. What happened at Waco was a terrible tragedy, and we need to understand how it happened, but we also need to look at just who the Branch Davidians were.
Koresh used a lot of deception to recruit members. I talked to one man who was told by Koresh that the group was a Christian rock and roll band, pure and simple. When he visited their enclave he realized it was a cult and left.
Once people get away from a tyrant–whether he is a religious or political or psychological tyrant–and feel able totalk to people, they often express the extreme fear they felt of crossing someone like Koresh. I have counseled a small number of Branch Davidian members who survived Waco. What they generally said was that once they got embedded in the cult they realized they had made a great mistake, but because they were true believers in the general Seventh Day Adventist and Davidian concepts, and wanted to be good people, (leaving) was difficult. They realized that Koresh was lying to them and separating husbands and wives, that Koresh was the only one who was going to plant his seed in the young women in the cult. Their greatest sorrow was that some of their best friends, who were good people, were dead, and they had had no way of escaping, because of Koresh's control.
Fear and guilt were the predominant emotions Koresh used to control his followers. Guilt that they might be offending God if they disobeyed him–Koresh presented himself as truly a God on earth. They were also afraid that Koresh would not let them leave and would have them killed if they tried.
And they were quite taken with Koresh. I have watched films of Koresh talking to his flock; he was an attractive man with long curly brown hair strumming a guitar. Koresh used singing as a primary recruiting technique. Some of his followers said that when he sang to them they felt that he was really recruiting them, that they would be a special person who would be treated specially in the cult. He spent thousands of dollars on sound equipment, and he had a fantasy that he would be a famous rock and roll star.
Koresh also used fatigue to manipulate his followers; he would preach at his followers for fifteen or sixteen hours without pause to wear them down so they would stay.
How might a knowledge of cult behavior have helped the FBI at Waco?
By the time the FBI took over, they had a really difficult scene on their hands. They had consulted with two very good behavioral scientists, but not with any cult experts. They did not sufficiently understand how a cult is different from a hostage situation. The Davidians felt they had to obey Koresh out of fear that they wouldn't go to heaven, orfear that they would be killed by other members. So Koresh's followers had to obey him. We know now that Koresh instructed his followers to set fire to the compound. This should be seen as a form of murder on Koresh's part.
I hope that in the future, in dealing with cults, people in authority will pay attention to the complexities of influence and tight bonding and fear and guilt cult leaders like Koresh have instilled in their followers.
When people in the Bay Area think of cults, they remember Jim Jones and the so-called "revolutionary suicide" of 912 people in Guyana in 1978.
First, they did not commit revolutionary suicide, they were forced by Jones to die–they were murdered. Like Koresh, Jones had his followers sprinkle the gasoline and die at his command. These are not voluntary suicides; it's a kind of manipulative murder. If people said they would not swallow the cyanide they would have been shot by Jones's followers. Jim Jones audio-taped for posterity the final scene when everyone swallowed the cyanide. The tapes how a woman crying out to save the children–she says that they don't deserve to die–and Jones manipulated the group so people began to shout her down. Jones had armed guards; autopsies show that a number of people died of gunshots. Jones himself died of a gunshot wound; apparently he wanted to go quickly without pain. He saw people dying horrible deaths around him.
Jones was a great manipulator. People would often come to an evening at the People's Temple in San Francisco, fill out a card, and then never come back. Jones would send two attractive women followers to such people's houses to talk about the People's Temple. One woman would ask to use the bathroom, and she would look through the medicine cabinet for medicine used and the names of doctors and pharmacies. This information would be recorded and filed away. Then when the person came back to visit the People's Temple, the information would be given to Jones. Jones would pretend to go into a trance and say, "I sense the presence here of a woman who is being treated for diabetes by a Doctor Samuelson. Let me see, she goes to the Smith and Bretherton pharmacy in South City." And the person would be amazed and everyone would think Jones had psychicabilities. People became believers this way. This method has also been used by a channeling cult where channelers display similar "psychic ability." Jones would convince people he had cured their cancers whether they had cancer or not. There was not trick he wouldn't try.
I have listened to dozens of hours of audiotapes of Jones. He taped his outgoing phone calls. If someone left the cult, he would call them and say, "This is Dad, you are not going to tell me you're leaving; you're not going to tell me you're leaving; you're not going to tell me you're leaving." He would repeat this as a hypnotic suggestion.
Jones rehearsed suicide with his followers some 38 times. He would have everyone drink some drink together. At first there were many times when people didn't know whether there was cyanide in the drink. Maybe the first dozen times people believed it might be real. Once in San Francisco, Jones had people drunk some wine and then said, "This is the white night that is laced with cyanide; we're all going to pass over." Some poor young woman jumped up and went screaming out in the parking lot and was dragged back and ridiculed. Finally in Guyana they had the final white night.
People believed they would go straight to heaven and Jones would be there looking after them. By the time they were in Guyana they were living in hellish circumstances. Even when they were working in Redwood Valley people were working sixteen hours a day printing literature to bring to the city, and would fall asleep where they were working on the floor or on tables.
Who were his followers?
There were three types. He had Disciples of Christ Church people who recruited elderly black grandmothers, who would bring their kids or grandkids in. He had a Maoist group who were both white and black and attracted for leftist political reasons. And since he wanted to demonstrate that the races could live together, he got whites who really wanted to show that integration would work.
It soon became less than heaven on earth. He promised that if people turned their property over to him, he would provide lifetime care here on earth and then in the hereafter–he was literally going to be their condo landlord in the next life.
Because of your expertise in brainwashing you were the court-appointed psychologist who examined Patty Hearst. I remember being in a Berkeley bookstore in 1974, when over the radio we all heard a tape the Symbionese Liberation Army had just released of Hearst calling herself Tania and expressing her solidarity with the SLA. Most people in the store seemed to be laughing with giddy bewilderment. I now think out laughter was quite blind and insensitive.
Most of the public didn't have a clue. They thought: "Isn't it interesting that these nine folks pick this woman up and in no time at all she's become a revolutionary?" Patty was never a revolutionary; none of the seven taped speeches that the public heard were written or spontaneously spoken by her.
I interviewed her for a total of at least 24 hours shortly after the arrest. When I first interviewed her she was docile and totally flattened out emotionally. I gave her an IQ test and she scored 108. I later gave her another test when the trial began and she scored 138–she had grown much perkier and could engage in reflective thinking. The SLA had totally terrorized her. They first picked her up, put her in a plastic garbage can, and drove her all over the place. She had no calendar to measure time and no way of determining day and night. We went through her memory of how many menstrual cycles she had been through in relation to the day she showed up at the Hibernia Bank as a bank robber.
We concluded that she had probably been in a closet for about 51 days. Early on they kept her in the dark, but at a certain point when they took her to the bathroom she said she was having trouble seeing. You just can't keep humans in the dark without injuring their eyesight. So they started putting a lamp in her closet.
I found her to be a most interesting, very bright, low-key lady. She was never ever a revolutionary. I thoroughly analyzed the sever tapes she made when she was a hostage that were given to the public. I had copies of term papers and letters she had written, plus things written by each of the SLA members. You could tell that–except for the first tape where they're speaking spontaneously–you can hear the tape stopping and starting, you can hear papers flipping, and it's in written and not spoken English. Nothing she saidon those tapes matched her written or spoken English. I pointed out how the rhetoric matched specific members of the SLA.
I testified for ten hours with the press and the public present but the jury out. F. Lee Bailey, her defense attorney, wanted me put on before the jury to show it was not Patty Hearst who had written the speeches on the tapes. I could identify some of Bill Harris's rhetoric and Emily Harris's and there was a third person I could not match who was very formal. A reporter pointed out to me it was from something Marx or Lenin had written–I forget which.
The judge ruled that he didn't want to set a legal precedent of analyzing tapes to establish authorship. Later Patty Hearst confirmed to me that I was right about who had written which speech. When she was in prison I got permission to visit her. She was terrified she would be killed by an inmate. But it turned out that some of the tougher black women heard her story and said, "Leave her alone, she was kidnapped" So she was protected.
She did what she did as a matter of sheer survival. She told me they rehearsed her and rehearsed her for the bank robbery. She knew she was covered by the guns of Cinque and Camilla Hall. She knew that if she wandered away from the group at the bank they would kill her.
During the time in her dark closet they had her convinced that they had kidnapped her father and most of the powerful figures in the world. After the burnout in LA she heard the then-attorney general say on the radio that she was a common criminal and would be treated as such.
She had truly been brainwashed in a classic way, in addition to having a gun at her head. She was convicted because people did not then understand that brainwashing actually works, that it is nothing esoteric, and that perfectly normal mentally healthy people respond to it. Today, so many Americans have had relatives off in cults and seen so many changes in conduct brought about by group psychological and social influence, that I think a jury would be far more understanding of Patty Hearst. She should never have been convicted.It is widely believed that people who join cults are psychologically disturbed.
People want to believe that they themselves are strong-minded while people who join cults are weak-minded. Most of us want to believe that we cannot be easily manipulated. But it's not true. Under the right circumstances we can all be manipulated.
Research indicates that approximately two-thirds of those who join cults come from normal, functioning families and were demonstrating age-appropriate behavior when they entered the cult. Of the remaining third, only about six percent had major psychological difficulties. The danger is to think that you are not vulnerable. Every one of us is more open to suggestion at certain times than others. During those down periods we might get picked up by a conniving person or a cult. I have had so many men and women tell me they've just been divorced or jilted, and then a very conniving, sociopathic person conned them, and in no time at all they have this person in their home, and they're wondering how to get rid of him or her. They're the lucky ones; it's harder to get rid of a cult than a one-on-one controller.
It takes great character when people have been in a cult to admit they were duped. It is hard to say that they were lonely and depressed and that what was told to them sounded so altruistic and so alluring that they joined. It takes real character to call it off.
Cults are started by individuals who claim to have either old or new special knowledge, and if you just give up decision-making and come with them, you'll lead a perfect life. The special knowledge can be religious or political or, as in the case of psychotherapy cults, psychological.
Thank what it would be like if someone could tell you what to do so that everything would go perfectly. And if they tell you, it's for eternity that's even better.
I am intrigued by your research into the physiological persuasion techniques used by cults.
Cults teach members to engage in physiological techniques that are known to generate certain predictable feelings and experiences. When people have those feelings they are given a positive interpretation by the cult members. This is sometimes called "proof through reframing." They reframe the experience in such a way as to prove that the cult member is making "spiritual" progress, or whatever.
Hyperventilation is a good example. Continuous chanting or shouting will produce over-breathing and heavy expelling of air.
Large volumes of air pass in and out of the lungs causing a drop in the carbon dioxide level in the bloodstream, which causes the blood to become more alkaline–this is known as respiratory alkalosis. A mild degree of this causes people to feel high and to experience a loss of critical judgment. More extreme alkalosis causes numbness and tingling in the fingers, toes, and lips; sweating; ringing of the ears; and feelings of panic, fear and unreality. People can faint.
Cult leaders reframe these experiences as "getting in the spirit" or "moving along the path." People are told they're undergoing ecstatic transformation or experiencing God. Psychotherapy cults may tell people they are really feeling for the first time.
In cults that prescribe vegetarianism, people not used to only eating fruits and vegetables sometimes get odd sensations in the lower digestive tract. The cult leaders label this "doing battle with Satan" or "working off past karma."
I have counseled many former cult members who were seriously impaired as a result of engaging in excessive meditation. Meditation can be a great way to reduce stress, but it can be abused. I knew one man who did what his cult called a 21-21. He was the first member of the cult to meditate 21 hours a day for 21 straight days. The cult leader called his parents to come pick him up–he was completely dysfunctional and could not focus from one moment to the next.
Tell us about "love bombing."
Love bombing was first mastered by the Moonies, the Unification Church, and then other cults began using it. It's a recruiting device where you tell potential recruits that you're the most open and loving and sensitive person they're evermet. You attend to their every need and engage in a lot of nonsexual touching and hugging and stroking. It's a form of psychological seduction.
You have been subjected to many forms of intimidation by cults over the years. There are some cults you won't write or talk about because you don't want to waste time in lawsuits.
I have been sued and been subject to death threats. Once two dozen large rats were put in a vent in my house and they went up into the attic. It was a real problem getting rid of them. I must travel under an assumed name because cult members call airlines and hotels and cancel my reservations. Not long ago I got a letter from a young man who said that when he was in a certain cult he was assigned to find out where I was going and cancel all my reservations. He apologized for causing me inconvenience. Some cults sue you at the drop of a hat. They don't care about winning they just want to cost you money and keep other researchers from doing research. For that reason there are certain cults I won't name when I talk about cults. In that sense the intimidation is working.
Often I gave testimony for lawsuits that are brought against cults. The members of a cult will know someone is coming to my house to talk to me on a certain day. On that day I'll go down to get the morning mail and find a dead rat with a skewer stuck through its heart. The message is that I'm ratting. This has happened many times. People who write or do research about cults need to know what they may be getting into.
Can you give me any insight into the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan that apparently killed twelve people, and sickened over 5,500? Could such a thing happen here?
Yes, either through a US cult, or if Aum Shinrikyo decided to demonstrate their power over here. I first heard of Aum Shinrikyo in 1989 through some newspaper clippings I received from England. A lawyer had tried to negotiate with Shoko Asahara, the head of the cult, to convince some young adults who had joined the cult to contact their relatives. The lawyer and his wife and infant child disappeared and have not been heard from. A badge with the cult's name was found where they disappeared.Then in 1990 Asahara and some of his followers ran for Parliament and fortunately lost. On July 2, 1993, more than a hundred residents of Kyoto complained of noxious white fumes rising from buildings owned by Aum Shinrikyo, but city officials were not allowed to enter cult buildings to investigate. On June 21, 1994, seven died, and more than 200 people were made sick by sarin fumes that spread throughout a quiet residential area in Matsumoto in central Japan. Police were unable to find the source. In July, 1994, residents of Kamikayushiki complained of nausea and eye and nose irritation caused by fumes local officials couldn't identify. On September 1, 1994, more than 231 people in seven towns suffered rashes and eye irritation. Then in December, 1994, material believed to be sarin was discovered on a small island that belonged to Aum Shinrikyo.
So seven had already died and there had been five reports of sarin gas by March 20, 1995, when twelve people were killed and over 5,500 injured.
Why do they want to kill people?
Asahara wants to take over the world. He has some visual difficulties, which he has felt impeded his career. He apparently got very mad when he didn't get admitted to Tokyo University. He's recruited a lot of young PhD-level chemists, physicians, and other very bright people. Japanese psychologists believe that he made an appeal to these young people. He said, "You know how harsh and competitive life is in Japan in academia and in business and industry. Come out and live at the base of a mountain and have a serene happy life with us, and follow the Supreme Master." You can see the appeal. He literally means to take over the world. The earlier bomb attacks were practice sessions.
I have long believed his attacks are recruiting techniques. He said in an article that if everyone joined his group, percent of the population–he didn't define which population–could be saved, because he had the antidote to the poison gas. Then in another article he said ten percent. If you joined his group, you would not be poisoned.
Is there any doubt that he's responsible?
The idea in Japan is that prosecutors are 99 percent sure of a conviction before they arrest people. So they are quite sure. I have also been told that at least a dozen members of the cult have been murdered at Asahara's command when they left or tried to leave the cult.
People in the US really don't want to believe there is such a thing as brainwashing–they think only crazies will join cults. But Asahara takes the cream of the crop, the super well-educated.
Could this happen elsewhere? There were other gas attacks on June 1 and in early July. Asahara has 10,000 followers in Japan and 30,000 in Russia. Everyone's going to Russia to recruit cult members. American cults are fighting with each other to recruit people in Russia; it's extremely fertile ground. What I have found is that when people are depressed over some loss, and when they are in a state of major transition, they are most vulnerable to being recruited. Russia is a society that has come apart–there is a lot of depression and a lot of people are in transition. We can expect a lot of cults to arise there.
Are cults growing in number as we approach the year 2000?
Yes. Of course, it is only with people who use the Christian calendar for whom it will be the year 2000. Historically as we reach a new century, ever-present self-appointed prophets come forth and say follow me, and we'll run the world the right way, or God will come and take us to the new land.
We have a lot of communal groups forming in Idaho, Washington state, and parts of Oregon. A lot of patriot and militia groups are active in northern Idaho.
Which leads us to the militia.
Militias are voluntary affiliation groups, even though a man or small cadre of men gets them going. They do go out and try to recruit like-minded members, but they don't have the deception or the veneration of a leader that you find in a cult. People think of them as identity groups; some could be called hate groups. Earlier we heard about survivalist groups, and now they've become patriot and militia groups. The best estimates are that there are militias in 35 states and they have about 10,000 members at the moment, although they claim 100,000. The militia groups started out pro-gun and anti-federal law enforcement. They wanted to preserve their Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms, and were angry at the federal government in the abstract. As time has gone on, they've become just as angry at local government as they were towards the feds. They have now become extremely antigovernment of all kinds. They're willing to shoot the postman, the fireman, anyone who represents government. They're acquired a conspiracy theory of the world and are very anti-UN.
People I talked with spent some time in the military; they loved the camaraderie and structure of the military, and they loved the mission and purpose. By joining the militia they reclaim that camaraderie and structure and mission.
What I and others find alarming is that they have a closed reasoning system and a closed system of information, much like cults. A militia group was going to blow away people in Michigan because a Russian tank had been brought in. It turns out that government intelligence had gotten its hands on a Russian tank and was going to study it.
The militia only listens to each other's rumors; they believe irrational things and discard what the rest of the world is saying. They're spouting more and more hatred, becoming more and more anti-Semitic and racist. They believe the government is controlling the weather and causing tornadoes, and that Hong Kong police and Gurka troops are ready to descend on us. They're growing more and more paranoid and fueling their enthusiasm through hatred. That's a scary development in any society.
Published in Express (East Bay (CA) Free Weekly), August 4, 1995, Volume 17, No. 43. Reprinted with permission.
Attacks on Peripheral Versus Central Elements of Self and the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques
Richard Ofshe, Ph.D. and Margaret T. Singer, Ph.D.
This paper analyzes the literature concerning the use of massive social pressure to substantially modify a person's worldview. The use of "coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control" in China and the Soviet Union as well as in American cultic, "growth," and psychotherapy organizations is considered. Special consideration is given to the centrality of the aspects of a person's identity, which are denigrated and undercut in coercive influence and control programs. It is suggested that the technology of this sort of influence has developed well beyond what was employed in the Soviet Union and China. Applications in these cases were largely for the purpose of extracting confessions and carrying out political "thought reform." The development in technology reflects a focusing upon central rather than peripheral aspects of a person's self and the use of techniques, often borrowed from clinical psychological practice, to neutralize a person's psychological defenses. Evidence is reviewed which suggests that there is a risk factor associated with exposure to the type of influence tactics used by some organizations that attempt thought reform.
We are addressing an unusual topic–the technology of influence programs used to conduct thought reform and to effect extraordinary degrees of control over individuals. Theprograms to be described below depend on selecting, sequencing, and coordinating numerous influence tactics over periods of time that can extend from days to years.
In this paper we will address two matters. The first is an historical review of the influence techniques employed in "first" and "second generation of interest" influence and control programs. By first generation of interest programs we refer to Soviet and Chinese thought reform and behavior control practices studied twenty to thirty years ago. Second generation examples are of programs which are either currently operating or have been in existence during the last decade. We will suggest that the two categories of programs differ in the sophistication of the interpersonal and psychological influence tactics they employ.
The second concern of the paper is the presentation of a theoretical analysis of one of the principal differences we find between first and second-generation programs. The difference is in the manner and degree to which a person's self-concept is destabilized in the course of attempts to gain influence and attain control over an individual. Attacking targets' evaluation of self is a technique present in both older and newer programs. We suggest, however, that the focal point of attack on targets' self-conception is an important difference between the programs. In older programs, attacks on the stability and acceptability of existing self-evaluations were typically focused on elements we classify as peripheral. Newer programs tend to focus on elements of self we classify as central.
Peripheral elements of self are defined as self-evaluations of the adequacy or correctness of public and judgmental aspects of a person's life (e.g., social status, role performance, conformity to societal norms, political and social opinions, taste, etc.). We define as central elements of self, self-evaluation of the adequacy or correctness of a person's intimate life and confidence in perception of reality (e.g., relations with family, personal aspirations, sexual experience, traumatic life events, religious beliefs, estimates of the motivations of others, etc.).
We assume that peripheral and central elements vary in their emotional significance, with central elements having far greater emotional arousal potential than peripheralelements. The basis for this assumption rests on conventional clinical psychological understanding of the significance of early childhood experiences, emotional development, defense formation, and ego strength. That is, reality awareness, emotional control, and basic consciousness are at the core of the self. Social roles reflect later and less core learnings in human development. We propose that influence and control programs which manipulate central self-evaluations are likely to have more powerful and profound effects on targets than programs which focus on the manipulation of only peripheral elements of self.
We suggest that attack on the stability and quality of evaluations of self-conceptions is the principal effective coercive technique used in the conduct of thought reform and behavior control programs. By attacking a person's self-concept, aversive emotional arousal can be created. By supporting positive self-conceptions, painful arousal can be avoided or reduced. In the programs we have studied, the ability to generate or reduce aversive emotional arousal is used to punish or reward targets. Non-conformity is responded to with attacks on the target's self conceptions while agreement to demands for ideological acceptance and behavioral compliance are rewarded with support for positive self-conceptions.
During the last decade there has been a dramatic renewal of public and academic interest in the procedures and effects of "coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control." That is, programs designed first to induce radical changes in facets of a person's worldview (e.g., beliefs about a political philosophy, scientific theory, psychological theory, ethical philosophy, etc.), and subsequently to generate great conformity to organizationally specified prescriptions for behavior. The combined effects of (1) acceptance of a particular world view, (2) establishment of effective procedures for peer monitoring, including feedback about an individual to the controlling organization, and (3) the use of psychological, social, and material sanctions to influence a target's behavior, can render a person a highly deployable agent of an organization (Ofshe, 1980; Whyte, 1976).Over a generation ago, studies of coercive influence and behavior control programs began to appear. They described the power of these programs to influence cognition, behavior, and the mental health status of program participants. The topic was reported and studied under names such as "brainwashing" (Hunter, 1953), "thought reform" (Lifton, 1961), and "coercive persuasion" (Schein, 1961).
Recently renewed interest in the topic can be traced to the actions of various "new religions and social movements" (Glock and Bellah, 1976). Public concern has been about the recruitment activities, apparent personality changes, and emotional disorders found in some recruits, and the culturally distinct lifestyles associated with membership in some groups. Some of these organizations and communities were founded or rapidly expanded during the later 1960's and early 1970's. Beginning in the early 1970's, claims were made that some of these organizations were conducting programs of "coercive influence and behavior control" (i.e., "thought reform, "brainwashing," etc.).
Not all the "new religion," "growth," or "radical psychotherapy" organizations have been alleged to employ techniques of "mind control" or "coercive influence and behavior control." Some organizations, however, have been centers of controversy for more than a decade, and they have given rise to grass-roots reactions and substantial media attention as early as the mid-1970's.
General public awareness of "cults" came through news reports of numerous bizarre crimes and acts of terrorism committed by members of some now infamous organizations. Through these reports, the public became somewhat educated as to the extraordinary social organization, practices, and techniques of influence employed by the leadership of the groups associated with the crimes.
Starting in 1909, with the several brutal murders committed by Charles Manson and his devotees (Bugliosi and Gentry, 1974; Watkins, 1979), the string includes the 1973 Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapping and conversion of Patricia Hearst (Hearst, 1982); a 1977 murder spree carried out by Mormon polygamy sect leader Ervil LeBaron and hisfollowers against their Mormon opponents (Bradlee and Van Atta, 1981); an October 1978 attempted murder by rattlesnake engineered by Synanon leader Charles Dederich (Mitchell et al., 1980; Ofshe, 1980); the November 1978 mass murder/suicides in Jonestown, Guyana conducted at the direction of People's Temple leader Jim Jones (Reiterman and Jacobs, 1982); an attempt by members of a faith healing cult to bomb a sheriffs department in Arizona (Trillin, 1982); a 1982 infant's beating death caused by his parents acting in conformity to their cult leader's theory of childrearing (Zito, 1982); widely publicized accusations of child abuse following from alleged conformity to the visions of a leader of a Vermont commune called the Northeast Kingdom Community Church (Bearak, 1984); and, most recently, allegations of child abuse carried out for years at a nursery school reported to have used techniques of psychological terrorism to prevent children from revealing their experiences (L.A.. Times, 1984).
First Generation of Interest Programs
The modern literature on the intentional use of coercive influence and control programs starts with reports of prisoner interrogation and retraining in the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea. Studies of these "first generation of interest" programs are consistent on several points no matter what descriptive label the authors used (Chen, 1960; Farber et al., 1956; Schein, 1961; Schein et al., 1960; Segal, 1957). Although significant physical abuse was frequently a part of the influence method, it was not uniformly so (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956; Lifton, 1961; Rickett and Rickett, 1957). Even when physical abuse was used, the primary mechanism for accomplishing behavior control was that of interaction between the target and those who could sanction the person materially and socially. In addition to small material rewards, the target's interaction partners controlled the only available source of feedback as to what was socially correct in the new society. Hence, they controlled the target's only source of external feedback upon which new self-evaluations might be based.
Interaction partners typically possessed superior knowledge about both the substance of the ideology to which the target was being exposed and the behavior rules advocated by thecontrolling organization. Interaction partners were sometimes the target's organizational superiors (jailers, officials, etc.). More often, they were ideologically advanced but organization status equals who became the target's peer group. Targets often developed strong emotional ties with peer group members. These individuals came to know the target's personality and history exceedingly well.
The setting within which the influence system was operating sometimes included prison confinement of targets, but more frequently did not (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956; Whyte, 1976). In prison settings, initial conformity to demands for participation in interrogation sessions and conformity to prescribed patterns of interaction with power holders (jailers, organizational superiors, or cellmates) was instrumental to cessation of gross punishment. In non-prison settings, participation was usually obtained without having to resort to physical abuse, although it was often obtained from persons knowing that imprisonment was a possible consequence of resistance (Whyte, 1976). In settings such as revolutionary universities, initial participation in the indoctrination process was usually voluntary since the experience was viewed as instrumental to transforming Chinese society or to personal upward mobility.
In all settings, participation, conformity, and demonstrations of apparently genuine change or zeal were rewarded. In the harshest settings, rewards would include some seemingly minor but contextually significant material advantages (Segal, 1957). In all settings (with the possible exception of P.O.W. camps) peer or jailer social support, acceptance, and friendship also followed incremental changes in the prescribed direction.
The role of peer interaction in the creation and manipulation of guilt and associated emotional states is acknowledged as crucial in understanding how a target's behavior was shaped (Lifton, 1961; Schein, 1961). The target's peers did the principal work in this shaping. They had two tools with which to mold the individual.
Targets could be subjected to various forms of punishment by peer groups. Although punishment might be physical, most often it took the form of group criticism of the individual's past or present social beliefs and behaviors. Thetarget's peers could withdraw support, isolate him or her, and subject the target to seemingly endless negative feedback regarding deviations from proper ideological positions and prescribed behavior. In these criticism sessions, the target faced precisely those individuals on whom, due to circumstances, he or she was totally dependent for external validation of social identity. Peers acted in concert and aggressively criticized the target from a fixed standard of evaluation. Their focus was on any degree of deviation from absolute conformity to theoretical ideals of ideological understanding and behavior.
It was required that individuals make public to others within the group their life stories. This included prior social experience, family history, and family position. They were also obliged to reveal acts which, by the new moral code of the nearly new society, were deemed transgressions. The group's access to the target's social and political history provided a basis for inducing guilt in the individual for acts which, by the old society's standards, were proper or tolerable. The group demanded that the target acquire a sense of guilt with respect to previously privileged social position and previously acceptable actions. The target was also required to offer appropriate expressions of guilt and display remorse before peers would accept professed contrition regarding past transgressions.
First Generation Program Casualties
That the arousal caused by group criticism was punishing and harmful to targets is supported by reports that this procedure was capable of producing symptoms of severe psychological disturbance in some targets (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956; Lifton, 1961; Strassman et al., 1956). Although it might be argued that psychological distress was to some extent caused by physical abuse and deprivation, reports of responses directly related to physical abuse components of the influence process are lacking. Knowledge of the potential for physical abuse was probably a factor in the target's estimate of the threat potential of the controlling organization. Physical debilitation due to the effects of poor diet and other health factors should also be viewed as a context factor which, at least, reduced the individual's ability to cope with stress. It is probably reasonable to describe alltargets of these influence programs as (1) physically and emotionally stressed as well as (2) extremely apprehensive if not terrorized due to awareness of the ever-present and often arbitrary use of punishment power by the controlling organization (Farber et al., 1956; Gaylin, 1974). As reported below, however, neither physical abuse nor deprivation was necessary for the influence process to cause psychiatric casualties.
Reports of rates of severe psychiatric disturbance have not been published. There is general recognition of the ability of all versions of the influence procedures to induce personal confusion, disorientation, and variously described psychological disturbances in targets (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956; Schein et al., 1960; Schein and Singer, 1962; Strassman et al., 1956). In revolutionary university and cadre training schools, there was no period of physical abuse prior to participation in small group interaction. Typically, these programs were entered voluntarily.
Revolutionary university and cadre training experiences are reported to have produced the highest rate of dramatic psychopathological response of any of the systems under discussion (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956). The stress of struggle groups, peer pressure, constant surveillance together with the requirements of self-exposure and self-accusation regularly resulted in psychological breakdown. Lifton (1961) reports that influence pressures at revolutionary universities often resulted in psychotic breaks of unspecified severity. At cadre training schools, the majority of students ultimately reached the point at which they went through an emotional crisis associated with tears and depression … A religious fervor and a feeling of "conversion" frequently accompanied this emotional breakdown (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956, p.167).
After the development of fervor, "a fair proportion of students suffered one or more relapses of fears and doubts" (Finkle and Wolfe, 1956, 168).
Although the evidence is limited, it suggests that physical brutality or deprivation, even when combined with interpersonal coercion, did not regularly cause emotionalbreakdown or psychotic episodes. There is a notable absence of reports of frequent psychotic breaks among American military prisoners and among imprisoned Westerners in China. When dramatic, emotional reactions are reported, they invariably occur in violence-free settings in which targets are coerced by peers who are their intimates (Hinkel and Wolfe, 1956, 160).
The inference consistent with these reports is that psychological disturbance is more likely to be induced when targets of the influence process actively participate in group-based interaction and have been induced to tell the group about their histories and sentiments. One explanation for the relationship is that public exposure of even moderately intimate aspects of self permits peers to continually manipulate the target's emotionality. Peer group members have the ability to focus their criticisms on significant aspects of the target's self and to repeatedly arouse guilt and anxiety.
In these programs, it appears that aversive arousal, coupled with peer rejection, became the driving force through which the target was coerced. Through this procedure, conformity to behavioral demands was obtained. Targets, motivated by a desire to avoid further social/emotional punishment, learned to perform according to role prescriptions defined by the organization. The peer group's ability to immediately punish resistance, through members' abilities to arouse and sustain anxiety and guilt, permitted the organization to avoid the use of physical punishment except under rare circumstances. Social and psychological punishment by peers became the workhorse of the system. For many individuals this process induced psychological breakdown.
"Second Generation of Interest" Programs
We term as "second generation of interest" those examples of coercive influence and behavior control programs which are currently creating public concern. They can be distinguished from "first generation" programs in several ways. One of the significant differences is that the organizations and residential communities within which programs are carried out lack the power of the State to command participation. Further, they lack the right of the State to back demands for compliance and conformity withthe use of force. This results in a radically different method of generating the initial involvement of targets with "second generation" organizations.
The method typically relies on capitalizing upon some area of overlap between the interests of the target and the advertised activity or service of the organization. The point of overlap may involve anything from an exercise program, treatment for psychological or physical ailments, growth programs for personal development, the realization of superhuman abilities, or an interest in affiliation with a spiritual or social movement.
In order to conduct a coercive influence and behavior control program, an organization must obtain both psychological dominance over an individual and a considerable measure of power in the individual's life. The second necessary element, actual power, is often attained in newer organizations by making the target's continuing relations with intimates and friends, as well as economic security, contingent upon continuing membership in the organization.
The initial phase of recruitment often involves an organized "seduction" period during which affective bonds between recruiting agents and the target are developed (Bainbridge, 1978; Of she et al., 1974, 1980; Taylor, 1978; West and Singer, 1980). During this period, targets are encouraged to believe that the organization can provide a service they desire or that it is committed to goals they value. The strength of developing bonds is continually tested against demands for increasing involvement and deference to the demands of the controlling organization.
Influence tactics figure in the development of a target's dependence on an organization in at least two ways. Direct social pressure may be used to induce a sequence of decisions leading to the establishment of power relations which enable an organization to coerce an individual. Depending on the basis for the apparent interest overlap between the organization and the individual, enticements to accept the authority of the organization and to conform to its lifestyle rules may come from promises to achieve a cure for a longstanding problem, to improve the individual, to develop a career for the target with the organization, or through the availability of a ready-made community intowhich the target may fit. The target is confronted by people seeming to be genuinely interested in his or her well-being. Recruiters, whatever their sentiments, act as agents of the controlling organization and ease the target along the road to dependence.
Often, initial acceptance of the authority and rules of the organization leads to structural and material changes in the individual's life which render the target increasingly dependent on continuing membership. For example, targets may be induced to move into a communally organized residence, accept employment in an organization's business, leave school or contribute whatever economic assets they control. Given these sorts of commitments, rejection by the organization would entail loss of job, residence, and investment.
In addition to material and structural changes, the ability of the organization to increase its relative power over the individual's life depends upon shifting the target's social and emotional attachments to individuals who have accepted the organization's authority and rules. For this reason, when being recruited to some organizations, individuals find themselves recipients of great affection, displays of interest, and virtually endless invitations to group functions. Targets are often expected to involve their families with the recruiting organization. Family members, once involved, are subject to the same influence process as was the original target. This may lead to family members' becoming more committed to the organization than to the relative who first brought them in.
With increasing time and emotional commitment to a new group, it is obvious that a target's network of organizationally independent intimates and friends will atrophy if for no other reason than decreasing contact. If an organization requires proclaiming a viewpoint that seems bizarre when baldly stated (e.g., expectations of acquisition of superhuman powers, the new order is at hand, etc.), or if the organization requires highly assertive or unusual demeanor, targets are liable to discover difficulties emerging in relations with friends or family members who no longer understand them.
An organization will have maximized its structural and social power over a target if it succeeds in introducing changes into the person's life such that the individual's intimates are all subject to its authority and the organization controls the target's income, employment, capital, and social life. Under these circumstances, a person threatened with expulsion is threatened simultaneously with being cut off from many of the major social supports upon which stability of identity and emotional well-being depend. The controlling organization can create this level of extreme threat since the individuals who matter most to the target are subject to the organization's authority and will reject the person if the organization does so.
If an organization succeeds in shifting a target's social ties to other organizational members, it gains the potential to bind the person to the organization in a fashion which far exceeds the binding power of investments, job, and residence. Immersed in a social world in which peer esteem and disapproval are dispensed for conformity to community norms, an individual will find that community standards become the only standards available for self-evaluation.
Common attributes of programs of coercive influence and control are strict rules inhibiting private expressions of disagreement with community or company policy. It is also often expected that members will make frequent public expressions of agreement with policy and acceptance of community norms. One reason for the widespread existence of such rules is their restraining effect on the formation of political opposition within the group (Ofshe, 1980; Selznick, 1960).
In addition to inhibiting organized opposition, the elimination of the expression of counter-authority sentiments and demands for public displays of agreement with community standards have additional effects. These are the elimination of evidence of the validity and very existence of alternative standards for judgment within the group. Promoting displays of agreement with management policy reminds observers that others in the group accept management directives. A person introduced into a community operating with these requirements for inhibiting criticism and displaying agreement finds pervasive reinforcement for particular aspects of behavior and for verbal expressions which areconsistent with community positions.
Once the target chooses to interact with peers, the only available medium for communication is in group determined modes of thought and expression. When community-approved terminology is employed, the target gets approval. When other vocabularies or concepts are employed, the target is criticized and shunned. Through dispensing approval or criticism and isolation, the organization encourages the target to employ the appropriate terminology and to find merit in aspects of the community position. The target is, in a special fashion, being acculturated to a new world. The target is not ordered explicitly to conform to community rules. As the process of reinforcing and punishing the target's statements proceeds, the cumulative effect is to restrict the target's expressions to community-approved forms.
An individual immersed in a world in which communication is strictly limited must either remain aware of the difference between private beliefs and permitted public expression or, somehow, come to reconcile public expression with private self. If an environment that permits peer interaction only in terms of certain values and beliefs, it is likely that even a person's statements about what he or she actually values will eventually be molded into the contours of the controlling environment. This leaves the person in the position of surface conformity with perhaps private disagreement.
Having to participate for an extended period in an environment in which an individual must, on a daily basis, use a given ideology and set of customs as the basis for integrating action with the behavior and conversation of others can have a powerful cumulative effect. Because the reinforcement structure of the environment is arranged to shape behavior, participation in the environment will create a history of activity which, when reviewed, would normally tend to lead the individual to conclude that perspectives and values consistent with these activities are indeed his or her own (Bem, 1972). In some groups, there is considerable attention given to pointing out to the individual that conformity to group standards is, by definition, voluntary. That is, there is pressure to publicly agree that action is voluntary.Peripheral self-evaluations are also likely to be manipulated through the same mechanisms of community control. Since community-defined values and standards are the basis on which peers and management dispense approval and disapproval, these standards organize virtually all feedback to the individual. If the target is to exist in the community, he or she must conform to community rules even if they are not privately accepted. Once again the target is faced with the problem of integrating public conformity to one set of standards and private disagreement. The target must either remain aware of the discrepancy between personal standards for self-evaluation and community standards, while behaviorally conforming to community standards, or accept community standards as his or her own. Constantly faced with this demand, it is likely that targets will abandon personal standards in favor of those of the controlling environment. Relinquishing these standards relieves the target of the constant burden of being aware that there is, in a sense, a secret and disapproving private self judging the performance of the person's public self.
The effects we describe are not easily produced or maintained. We suspect that if the environment is to approach even temporary realization of these effects on cognition and self-evaluation, rules about expression of dissent from community positions must be successfully enforced. If targets are able to share with one another their private doubts and reservations, the principles of the reinforcement structure are violated. Knowledge that others maintain private standards different from supposed community consensus, will support independent judgment. If a target were to discover that many of those who participate in the criticism of the target's deviant actions actually shared the target's disagreement, the genuineness of the criticism would be destroyed and the punishment value of the activity significantly reduced. If, however, a target lacks even occasional external support for doubts, it is seductively easy and conflict-resolving to, at some point, literally abandon old standards by creating the rationalization that "I now understand" the correctness of the community's viewpoint, or even that "I don't understand it, but I will trust the community and conform."
Although it is theoretically possible to maintain a double standard of public conformity and private disagreement indefinitely, there is evidence that even in prisoner populations, at least temporary attribution to self for beliefs and values demanded by captors was common. A substantial part of the interest in "first generation" programs of influence and control was caused by the unexpected reactions of non-Chinese released from thought reform camps and returning POW's. For at least a short period after their release, many former prisoners expressed sentiments seemingly reflective of the ideology of their captors. Although these sentiments were rapidly shed upon release from captivity, their attitudes and judgment standards were very much biased by their experiences.
Unlike attitude changes as ordinarily treated in the literature, the sort of shift to the community's position we are describing does not seem to result in stable cognitive reorganization or even stable attributions to self as the source of beliefs. Persons fully involved in the controlling environment may maintain that they "believe" the group's ideology and that they freely accept it. It is often the case, however, that after terminating membership, and therefore being removed from the constant support and coercion present in the environment, seeming belief and confidence in the ideology of the group rapidly erode. This often leaves the person in a state of considerable confusion since he or she can no longer understand the basis for prior conformity to the group's standards.
Rather than conceive of the shift towards conformity standards during residence in the group as the result of attitude change, it may be more fruitful to view the shift in behavior as the result of direct suppression of aspects of the person's self. Once separated from the reinforcement structure of the environment and, therefore, lacking constant group pressure to refrain from acting upon or even entertaining deviant thoughts, old viewpoints, and standards for evaluation may reassert themselves. This reassertion may be surprising to the former group member and may cause the member to doubt that the group's ideology was ever believed.
First and second generation programs differ in the extent towhich they effectively use milieu control as an influence tactic. Milieu control in first generation programs was extensive over an environment which was distinct from the target's usual environment. Whether it was a prison, training center, or re-education camp, it was a special place at which targets resided for defined periods. While in residence, targets could be obliged to participate in special activities and subjected to close monitoring. The social organization of these environments could be, and was, designed to foster cognitive change in targets. The milieu was, however, merely a temporary place for the individual and the persons with whom the target interacted. They had concerns for one another which were limited to their common, relatively short-term, residence in these special places with their limited and special goals.
Second generation programs often far exceed this level of milieu control by expanding the size of the milieu which is controlled and the length of time it is to be the target's milieu. Expansion of the milieu involves including within it a greater range of the target's life activities while still maintaining a high level of control over all activities. One method for accomplishing this is to establish residential communities within which family, occupational, educational, spiritual, and social life is conducted. In these communities all aspects of life can, at least in theory, be defined for residents, and residents can be subject to peer group monitoring as to conformity on any and all of these aspects. In effect, unique worlds are created within which people often expect to live their entire lives. With expectations for lengthy residence and total involvement, it is not surprising to find that residents are under pervasive pressure to accept the standards of the society as their own.
Control in such a world comes in two ways. One is in the power of leadership to specify precisely what will be the values and norms of the environment. The second source of control in the community is the power to choose how and when to utilize methods of coercive influence to promote conformity to chosen beliefs and policies.
Techniques of Coercive Influence
As with first generation programs, second generation programs employ procedures which undermine self-confidence and manipulate a target's emotional arousal to motivate learning and for purposes of behavioral control. Unlike first generation programs, second generation programs tend to rely on the target's already established standards for judging guilt and performance. They tend to direct their efforts at magnifying awareness of guilt or inadequacy by focusing the target's attention on memories of stressful and emotionally significant events in his or her past. The result is often a dramatic increase in anxiety and the creation of a strong need to resolve it. Since participation in these activities is typically promised to result in relief from emotional problems or in improved performance, targets of second generation programs are likely to participate fully.
The cause of existing emotional or physical problems or inferior performance is often explained as the result of particular "improperly" experienced events or inadequate behaviors in the target's past. For example, one growth program alleges that imperfect vision is caused by a person's having refused to "see" something in the past. Others claim that all of a target's interpersonal problems are caused by unexpressed feelings associated with childhood events. As a method for rapidly curing problems allegedly caused by particular past events, some organizations advocate recalling memories of traumatic or difficult events and attempting to "fully experience" and express all associated emotions. Supposedly, the full expression of the emotion associated with the event will immediately cure the target's current problems. This theory rationalizes inducing the target to focus attention on emotionally difficult past events and justifies the organization's use of any available techniques to promote intense emotional arousal.
Some second generation programs rely heavily on peer group techniques, similar to encounter groups, but with a focus on intimate rather than peripheral topics. Other second generation programs employ more sophisticated emotion-arousing tactics. Techniques used in clinical psychotherapeutic practice are often appropriated to the programs. Hence, much of what has been learned about the management of emotional experience in the practice of clinical psychology and psychiatry is brought into play as a method through which to cause the target to experienceintense emotion.
Given a target's initial willingness to participate, a range of exercises can be used to generate intense emotional arousal. For example, in some cases meditative and hypnotic techniques are used to accomplish arousal. In some programs, targets in trance states are induced to imagine hypothetical events and react to them with full emotional expression. The hypothetical circumstances might involve a disaster or the realization of the target's greatest fear. In other instances hypnosis is used to induce targets to recapture the details of an event such as rape or a parent's death scene. Using simple hypnotic techniques, some programs manipulate targets into fantasizing events from "past lives," the moment of their conception or other memories they expect now to be available to them. Through the use of hypnosis and suggestion targets can be led to supposedly re-experience moments of intense emotion from their pasts or even from their imagined "past lives."
Similarly, some groups employ emotional flooding techniques, the stripping away of psychological defenses, and provide elaborate emotion-evoking exercises. Targets may be expected to engage in role-playing exercises and replay scenes from their pasts. They may be expected to role-play themselves or others, now acting out what they "really-felt." In all such exercises there is an expectation that what the target will discover is a strong emotion underlying the character's behavior and the target is expected to express this emotion.
Often the arousal techniques used by second generation programs are linked into sequences which have a "marathon" character. That is, the intensive indoctrination portion of the organization's system for managing new participants may continue for a weekend or for as long as a month. In some instances, the organization may stretch the intensive indoctrination period over a span of several months with short breaks between portions. The effects of repeatedly employing techniques for generating intense arousal should not be overlooked. There is likely to be an interaction between the frequency of raising of psychologically stressful topics and the strength of the target's response. For example, if stress experience disturbsa target's sleep cycle, the person's ability to control subsequent stress responses will likely deteriorate as fatigue increases. As fatigue and disorientation increase, the effects of the techniques used to generate arousal are likely to increase.
Given the initial desire of targets to benefit from involvement with the training organization and the ability of the organization to manipulate the target, peer group, and environment to provide targets with experiences that can be interpreted within the framework of the organization's theory, it is not surprising that targets can be significantly influenced (Bem 1972; Schacter, 1965). For example, one mass "training organization reports that fully 25% of those who begin the organization's first course are subsequently induced to become unpaid labor and recruiters for the organization. As a method for preparing targets for long term residence in a "therapeutic" community, one psychotherapy cult subjected targets to a several-week-long period of emotional stress. Another organization prepares targets for long-term involvement through early extensive hypnosis training and exercises directed at the recovery of stressful moments from the target's past.
Given a theory that asserts that cure, transformation, or enhanced functioning follows from fully experiencing stressful events and fully expressing emotions associated with these events, if a target is not cured, transformed, or improved, the reason is obvious. The target must have failed to fully experience the event or to have fully expressed the associated emotions. Therefore, until the target acknowledges relief from whatever emotional problem or deficiency prompted initial interest in the program, he or she may be required to repeat the exercise of locating and "reliving" difficult life events. Even if the target is willing to agree that he or she is "fixed," the organization may not always allow the target to claim transformation. In some organizations, when an individual's productivity goes down, or when the person is inadequately enthusiastic, it is assumed that the further release of supposed problem-causing emotion is required. The person is obliged to undergo more of the group's curative exercises.Second Generation Program Casualties
We believe that in the course of seeking to gain power over the individual through the use of arousal states as influence techniques, some programs may have the effect of unleashing more anxiety and emotion than the person can tolerate. Traumatic events, about which the target has successfully established defenses, may be recalled in such a way as to neutralize the person's established method for handling the emotion related to the topic. Stripping a person's defenses in this manner may have devastating consequences.
Often the procedures used to accomplish emotional arousal are applied simultaneously to large groups, or when done on an individual basis follow a fixed format. When done in either fashion, there is no possibility of monitoring the content of the experience remembered by the target. When the event recalled is something such as childhood physical or sexual abuse, rape, the death of a parent, or an action about which the target is particularly ashamed, fully experiencing the emotion associated with the event may prove quite overwhelming.
Judging from reports of studies of targets of both first and second generation influence systems, long periods of exposure to the surveillance and interpersonal control procedures necessary to maintain high levels of conformity can induce a state of at least temporary confusion and disorientation when the controlling system is withdrawn (Hinkle and Wolf, 1956; Lifton, 1961; Singer, 1978, 1979, 1986).
There is a growing suspicion and slowly accumulating evidence that the practices of some spiritual or psychological "growth" programs which, in our opinion, can be considered examples of second generation influence programs, have a significant potential to induce far more serious damage than disorientation. Clark (1977, 1978) reports that long term involvement can lead to transient problems for those whose histories suggest that they were normal prior to involvement and can exacerbate problems for those with histories of psychological difficulties. Reports by Glass et al., (1977), Kirsch and Glass (1977), Higgit and Murray (1983), and Haaken and Adams (1983) suggest that some psychological"growth" programs which depend heavily on the manipulation of unusual body states' and emotional arousal have the potential to induce psychiatric disturbances. Glass et al. and Kirsch and Glass report on seven casualties of a mass "training" program. Five casualties were diagnosed as schizophrenic, three with paranoid symptomatology, one was manic-depressive, and one was diagnosed as having a depressive neurosis. Only one of the seven had a previous history of disorder. All seven patients presented symptoms during or shortly after completion of the program.
Peripheral and Central Elements of Self: Psychodynamic Commentary
Second generation programs of coercive influence and behavior control appear to directly attack the core sense of being–the central self-image, the very sense of realness and existence of the self. In contrast, the attack of first generation programs is on a peripheral property of self, one's political and social views. The latter views could be seen as mere wrong learnings imposed from the outer world, for which there could be easy substitutions. The inner person, the self, was not the focus of attack. The newer programs can make the target feel that the "core me" is defective. Alter the self or perish is the motto. Thus intense anxiety can be engendered about the worthiness and even the existence of the self. The self is under attack to merge with and identify with the offered new model. Feelings of personal disintegration can be induced. For many, there is a temporary to more lasting identification with the contents, demeanors, and prescribed behaviors advocated by the program's operators just as there was with the first generation programs. It also appears that attacks on the central elements of self may have certain grave and not yet fully determined effects.
The self-elements threatened by second generation programs are those which have grown out of experiences and feelings generated in deeply intimate relationships and emotionally charged transactions over the person's lifetime. These are the elements of the historical, experiencing self which has feelings dating back to early childhood. Coping with emotions over the years shapes the development of specific psychological defense mechanisms used by theperson for handling emotions from past and present interactions. The central self has to cope with resonating to memories of experiences of intimacy, intense affective states, family relationships, sexual experiences, and traumatic life events. These central self-elements define the inner, private domain in which emotions, past and present, are experienced and dealt with and where that special sense of self experienced as "me" is located. Psychological coping and balance is maintained through the central self's ability to monitor and control emotions stirred up by reacting to and providing interpretations for both outer and inner perceptions and through judging what is real.
First generation program attacks focused on peripheral elements of self. They constituted a degree of attack on the psychological stability of the person far different from second generation attacks on central self-elements. Attacking a target's confidence in the rightness of political opinions and appropriateness of social class position may have caused humiliation, embarrassment, and punishing emotional arousal. It may even have been life-threatening. We do not mean to imply that such treatment did not evoke strong emotional reactions in those so treated. Rather, we want to contrast the hypothesized difference in impact of having one's own political background attacked and the attendant distress caused thereby, with the impact of having one's core psychological stability and defense mechanisms stripped away as can be done by the techniques used in second generation programs.
We suspect that this sort of stripping of a person's central coping mechanisms is the key to understanding the reason for psychological casualties in these programs as well as understanding why some programs are able to cause such a rapid and apparently dramatic acceptance of the program's advocated ideology. Apparently for some persons, bypassing traditional coping mechanisms by inducing them to vividly recall or relive events of great emotional significance can create a psychologically powerful experience. For some, the experience appears to be sufficient to induce psychological decompensation.
For those not so overwhelmed by the experience, we suspect that it creates circumstances in which the easiest way toreconstitute the self and obtain a new equilibrium is to "identify with the aggressor" and accept the ideology of the authority figure who has reduced the person to a state of profound confusion. In effect, the new ideology (psychological theory, spiritual system, etc.) functions as a defense mechanism. It protects the individual from having to further directly inspect emotions from the past which are overwhelming. The person is then able to focus attention on some intellectual abstraction rather than on details of the distressing events themselves.
1. The phrase "coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control" is introduced to escape any suggestion that this form of influence and social control depends upon the unique historical circumstances under which it was previously studied. Further, and of equal importance, our introduction of a new term is motivated by a desire to separate this analysis from some of the connotations which have become associated with the terms "thought reform," "coercive persuasion, n and "brainwashing."
"Brainwashing" is the least satisfactory of the common names for the phenomenon. It conjures up, at least for the non-professional reader, ideas of mindless automatons deprived of their capacity for decision-making. "Thought reform" is a more neutral term but has an historical connotation linking it to a range of attempts to propagandize, indoctrinate, and re-educate as well as coercively influence and control China's population after Mao's revolution. As generally used, "coercive persuasion" connotes a substantial reliance on physical abuse and imprisonment. It is a term developed to describe procedures used on U.S. and U N. military personnel who were captured during the Korean War.
2. The only available experimental evidence relating to the ability of group pressure to cause psychological casualties is reported in Yalom and Lieberman (1971). In their study of short duration, 30 hour encounter group experiences, a 9.4 per cent casualty rate was found. Casualties were not associated with all varieties of encounter group experience. Casualties occurred in groups in which leaders focused upon individuals, were authoritarian, and acted in an intrusive, confrontative, and challenging manner.
3. Our analysis of second generation programs is based on research and clinical work exceeding two decades, if our separate experiences are totaled. We have interviewed well over one thousand individuals, or relatives of individuals, who were formerly or currently involved in different coercive influence and behaviorcontrol programs. We have studied casualties of various programs, and have conducted participant observation field research and direct observation studies of different programs. Because of issues of confidentiality of informants and court-ordered silence, as well as the controversy surrounding many of the programs we have studied, we are being deliberately opaque as to program identities.
4. Not all second generation programs are used to influence and control targets for lengthy periods of time or to lead individuals to become completely deployable agents of the organization with which they become involved. Some organizations tend to involve people as agents used to sell commercial programs to others. For the purposes of this paper we are drawing primarily on programs which involve targets for lengthy periods of time and often include either communal residence or near isolation from relationships from non-group members.
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Originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1, 1986 Spring/Summer.
Undue Influence and Written Documents: Psychological Aspects
Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D. University of California at Berkeley
Experts investigating a purported undue influence situation need to study the mental and physical condition of the influencee, general social influence techniques, tactics of thought reform, and responses and behavior found in other high-control, intense influence situations ranging from the Stockholm syndrome to abused women and the methods of corrupt caretakers. The case of the "evil nurse" is discussed to illustrate these factors. In addition the following conditions of influence are discussed in their relationship to undue influence: isolation, creating a siege mentality, dependency, sense of powerlessness, sense of fear and vulnerability, and being kept unaware.
The law gives special attention to the issue of the fairness of the balance of power between the signer and the person(s) who obtained the signature on the document (Dawson, 1947). When the issue of undue influence in securing the signatures on documents is raised, the court is asking: What was the process which constituted the undue influence? What is the history of how this document and signature came about? What were the circumstances–psychological, social, physical, medical, and so forth–which have bearing on how free, informed, and capable the signer was at the point of signing the designated documents to freely express his or her own desires? What undue influence (improper, exploitative persuasion) was exerted on the signer?A physician needs a thorough medical, social, and environmental history to properly diagnose a patient. The investigator analyzing the circumstances surrounding the signing of a document in which the issue of undue influence is raised must secure a thorough, multifaceted history and integrate the processes, interactions, and conditions that impinged on the signer. What, if any, effects did the circumstances and conditions produce? What has subsequently transpired?
The most frequent situations in which the issue of undue influence is raised are in the obtaining of signatures to wills and the signing of documents transferring money and property.
As Nievod (1992) noted, courts will consider at least six factors influencing the signing of legal documents: the state of mind, the "freedom of will" of the signer of a contract or will, the imbalances of power or the unfairness shown to a weaker party in the transaction, the lack of independent advice, the susceptibility of the weaker party to the importuning of the stronger, and a lack of time on the part of the signer to reflect and consider the consequences of all actions.
In addition, four sets of factors are crucial to consider in such cases. Those investigating a purported undue influence situation need to (1) evaluate the mental and physical condition of the signer, including psychiatric, psychological, and neuropsychological assessments of the person; (2) be cognizant of general social influence techniques (Cialdini, 1984); (3) be aware of brainwashing tactics, thought reform programs, and various systematic manipulation programs (Boulette & Andersen, 1986; Lifton, 1961, 1989; Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Schein, 1961; Singer, 1987; Singer and Addis, 1992; Singer & Ofshe, 1980, 1990); and (4) be aware of responses and behavior found in other high-control, intense influence situations ranging from the Stockholm syndrome to abused women and the influence of caretakers on their charges (Fulton, 1987; Graham & Rawlings, 1991; McGuire & Norton, 1988; Nash, 1976; Strassman, Thaler, & Schein, 1956; Strentz, 1980; Ursano, 1981; Ursano, Boysun, & Wheatley, 1981). The investigator should consult with experts in the just cited fields of social and psychologicalinfluence about what to look for in the way of documents and observers. The latter can be of great usefulness in reconstructing what was occurring at or near the point of the signing and may provide invaluable information about relevant conditions. These experts may have suggestions about whom to interview and whom to have examine the victim of the undue influence (if the person is still living–for often the maker of the will is deceased).
The forms of control and the kinds and extents of deception–the psychotechnology of undue influence–range from blatant and overt to prolonged, subtle, and covert. But most improper influence situations considered here are organized, planned influence programs which have been exerted by the stronger party on the signer of legal documents. How did the stronger party elicit the compliance of the weaker party?
First, let us consider how compliance in general is obtained. How does one person go about getting another to do his or her bidding?
How Is Compliance Induced?
Compliance is produced by three general methods of persuasion–reason, coercion, or subterfuge–used singly or in various combinations. Each and combinations of these methods can be involved in the obtaining of signatures on documents.
Coercion can be actual or threatened; it can be physical, social, psychological, or financial in nature. Physical coercion is blatant, while the other forms of coercion are more covert. However, most coercive methods can be more easily noted by the intended victim and detected by investigators. Thus, corrupt persuaders resort to subterfuge and deception (Nash, 1976). They seek to gain compliance without fully informing the intended signer of the consequences of his or her act of signing. The exploitative persuader tries to keep the pawn unaware of his intention to elicit compliance and keeps the person less than fully aware that he or she is being moved along a preplanned course of action designed to benefit the persuader and to bilk or to gain control over the person, funds, and property of the other.
Vulnerability to Influence Varies
While everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various ways, vulnerability to influence fluctuates. The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is exhausted, rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, aged, very young, unsophisticated, ill, brain-damaged, drugged, drunk, distracted, fatigued, frightened, or very dependent. Each of these states should be considered when evaluating the state of mind of a signer of a document.
One of the first questions is: How vulnerable to influence was the person at the time of the signing? Why? What types of influence, behavior control, and methods to increase vulnerability to persuasion were present at the point of signing? Were conditions "constructed" to increase vulnerability to persuasion? Often these reach outrageous proportions.
Evaluating the Circumstances Preceding and Related To the Signing of the Documents
A brief example of a common situation in which undue influence is generated to obtain signatures is illustrated by the following example, which I name "The Case of the Evil Nurse." This case has the basic components of many undue influence cases and illustrates the process of undue influence. The term is not meant to indict nurses or females. Rather both historically and in the writer's experience, the person in the caretaker's role, or, in actuality, in the role of a gatekeeper, can set the stage and create the circumstances in which a person's vulnerability to persuasion can be increased or preyed on by an artful person. The term "artful and designing persons" has a longstanding legal use as well as being descriptive of the person frequently seen in the generic role of the "Evil Nurse."
The Case of the Evil Nurse
Ms. Rose, an 80-year-old spinster, lived alone. She had worked hard, and acquired considerable property and money, which she always stated was to go to her niece and her children upon her demise. They were her only surviving relatives and lived several hundred miles away. Formerly, they lived nearby. Since moving, their contact with theiraunt was less frequent, but the contacts were warm, established, and intact. They called, visited, and wrote. At some point they learned that Ms. Rose had fallen and that one of her tenants, "a practical nurse" who rented a house owned by Ms. Rose, had moved into Ms. Rose's large, elegant home to care for her. Shortly, when they phoned they never got to talk with Ms. Rose. The "nurse" always gave an excuse: Ms. Rose was asleep, did not want to be disturbed, was out at a doctor's appointment, was off with a friend in a nearby town, and so on. The relatives no longer received replies to their letters. When they visited, they were turned away at the door. The nurse would say that Ms. Rose had said she was too tired and did not want visitors, or gave some other excuse.
Eventually, they became alarmed and through legal help ascertained that much of Ms. Rose's considerable wealth had been taken over. The nurse led Ms. Rose to believe that a former friend of hers to whom she had loaned money had come back and secretly stolen most of her money. The nurse further led Ms. Rose to believe that she and her nephew had saved her life after a fall and had taken her into their place, actually one of Ms. Rose's own properties. The nurse and her nephew represented that they were needed to protect her from marauders, drunks, and drug users supposedly threatening her home. Sometime later, Ms. Rose was induced to marry the nephew, a man 40 years younger, so he could "protect" her as her husband. He then "managed" her money and property, and as her spouse stood to inherit Ms. Rose's considerable wealth and properties. The relatives were told they could only visit if accompanied by a lawyer. This was a puzzling situation because it was not clear whose lawyer was intended.
The niece secured legal help and investigation revealed that to accomplish these ends, the Evil Nurse had been in collusion with a corrupt accountant and renegade attorney who had represented Ms. Rose for some years and in whom she had trust. The case was a complicated one and is disguised here to protect identities. Here is where understanding the "program" of influence to which Ms. Rose was subjected becomes important.Those investigating the situation (lawyers, investigators, psychologists, psychiatrists, geriatric and other physicians) produced data that indicated a chronology of interrelated factors that revealed the progressive building of a pseudoworld Ms. Rose was led to accept and obey.
In retrospect, the crucial turning point in the building of greater control grew out of the fall. In that accident, the old lady suffered a mild sprained foot and a bump on the head which were considered medically nonsignificant by treating physicians at the hospital to which Ms. Rose was taken. It appeared that the old lady might have been overmedicated and pushed or tripped to produce some fear and transient incapacities. The Evil Nurse and her nephew played upon Ms. Rose's transient foot and head problems, and solicitously cared for her. History brought out that they spoke and treated her in ways to exaggerate her weakness, to infantilize her, and to promote her dependence on them. They convinced her that going out was dangerous, not only because "she couldn't walk," which hospital and physicians refute for this time period, but they further convinced her that drug addicts and thugs were right outside her house and that potential robbers stalked the areas. In reality, the house was near a recreation yard used by law enforcement personnel during their rest periods, and the neighborhood was well patrolled by the police because of the nearby homes of foreign diplomats.
Because of these efforts, her fears, and her heightened physical dependence, the nurse and nephew persuaded her to permit them to stay in her home, as they were now needed to care for and protect Ms. Rose who had been abandoned seemingly by the world. This had been engineered by the culprits who took over Ms. Rose's life. They induced her to think a man to whom she had in earlier years lent money had come back and surreptitiously drained her finances to indulge his drug and alcohol habits. Eventually, they convinced Ms. Rose that her niece was trying to put her in a rest home and take control of her money. Ms. Rose was told falsely that the niece and her offspring never wrote, called, or visited and that they had abandoned her. Likewise, neighbors and longtime friends who called or appeared at the house were turned away by the Evil Nurse and her nephew, who never told Ms. Rosethese visitors had appeared. The program that the culprits set into play caused Ms. Rose to be reduced to a state of terror and dependency. They eventually conveyed to Ms. Rose that the only way for her to retain control of her property and money, to avoid being sent to a nursing home, and to be protected from the potential robbers and thugs was to marry the nephew of the Evil Nurse.
Even after a court-appointed lawyer guardian was appointed for Ms. Rose, the Evil Nurse, who knew Ms. Rose had a lifelong hatred of people who wasted their money on alcohol, kept on influencing Ms. Rose to turn her against the lawyer by offering him a glass of wine in front of Ms. Rose, and later speaking ill of him for drinking the wine. Space limits the detail that can be provided here, but this much of the case gives the reader a sense of the general situation, the programmed quality, and the tenacity of the Evil Nurse and her colleagues.
Evaluations were made of Ms. Rose's medical status, mental competency, neuropsychological status, and the social and psychological influence strategies seemingly brought to bear on her.
How the "Program" Worked
Below are illustrations of how certain mechanisms of influence and control were put into place by the Evil Nurse, her nephew, the renegade lawyer, and the accountant to achieve complete domination of Ms. Rose and to secure control over the old woman's property, money, and person.
These represent only a few of the many techniques, tactics, and strategies one finds in various undue influence situations. Though brief, the analysis conveys the essence of one of the most frequent patterns which applies to the above case and many others. This outline can help an investigator conceptualize and explore a suspected undue influence case, and can aid in presenting to the court the psychology of the processes frequently seen in such cases.
The programmed quality and sequencing may seem sophisticated and overly intentional. However, it is prototypical of such cases and illustrates the ever-present folk art of manipulation to gain compliance, which artful and designing manipulators down through the ages have comeupon. Con games, street hustles, undue influence situations, brainwashing, and the Evil Nurse scenario represent forms of obtaining compliance deceptively in situations that benefit the manipulator at the expense of the complier, and follow patterns humans fall into when subjected to certain manipulative conditions.
Undue influence situations are not all the same, as was noted earlier, but the Evil Nurse scenario occurs so frequently that it can serve as a prototype of analysis in a number of similar situations.
Further, undue influence can be wielded in a far shorter time span than was the situation in this case. Most, but not all, Evil Nurse scenarios, however, involve a fair amount of time. A fair amount of time is usually necessary to set the stage for the "siege mentality." The following conditions are important components to set the stage for undue influence.
Conditions Facilitating the Work of the Influencer
Six factors are prominent in undue influence situations. They are the production of isolation, the creation of the "siege mentality," the fostering of dependence, the creation of powerlessness, the use of fear and deception, and the keeping the victim unaware of the manipulative program put into place to influence and control the person and to obtain the signing of documents which benefit the manipulators at the cost of the signer.
Isolation is set into motion by the manipulator by controlling as closely as possible all avenues of communication to and from the intended victim. The manipulator desires to create and convince the potential signer of the existence of a pseudoworld. In other words, the manipulator creates a big myth that is supported by the surrounding events and conditions that the manipulator is able to put into place. The Evil Nurse and her collaborators used such tactics as sending family, friends, and neighbors away, censoring the mail, and controlling phone calls. The Evil Nurse effectively cut off outside information and support from coming to Ms. Rose. Simultaneously, she made others feel that Ms. Rose did not want to see or talk to them. Thus, Ms. Rose was walled away from incoming information and could send none out. The EvilNurse, aided by the renegade lawyer and the accountant, became the sole source and channel of information from and access to the broader world. They were the "gatekeepers" controlling both incoming and outgoing information. The deceitful control and manipulation of information puts the victims in these situations at a great disadvantage.
2. Creating a Siege Mentality
Creating a siege mentality is usually added once the isolation has been effected. That is, anyone other than the Evil Nurse and those few she needs to assist her to carry out her plan are spoken of in ways to convey that the outside world is threatening and menacing the well-being, even the life of the pawn. The niece and her children, friends, neighbors, and even the mythical thugs and drug addicts who might be prowling nearby were used as outer threats against whom Ms. Rose and the Evil Nurse must fortify themselves. The home was regarded as a safe fort, but always potentially threatened by sinister outside forces. The niece was turned into a greedy person trying to put Ms. Rose in a nursing home and take her money. The police in their exercise yard were labeled a group of thugs and addicts, and the patrolmen in the neighborhood as potential burglars. Ms. Rose was not taken for an eye examination and needed new glasses. She could not see clearly either to read or look about. To continue isolating Ms. Rose, the nurse placed a very large table in front of the window in Ms. Rose's room so that she could not get to the window to really see what was outside. Thus, she had no way of knowing that she was being deceived, nor could she call out to others below if she were so inclined.
A sense of dependency on the nurse and her cohorts was fostered. Ms. Rose was led to see herself as alone, cut off, unable to walk easily. She was led to believe that these "helping" persons were the only trustworthy persons available. That only they, in effect, could preserve Ms. Rose's life.
4. Sense of Powerlessness
A sense of powerlessness was also created by the engineered isolation, the fostered dependency, and the siegementality. The pawn is led to see that only the influencer or the one in charge has the power to do anything.
5. Sense of Fear and Vulnerability
A sense of fear and vulnerability was fostered by the exaggeration of her physical problems, making Ms. Rose feel vulnerable and feeble. False fears were instilled by telling her she was surrounded by menacing people, known and unknown. The Evil Nurse and her cohorts had convinced Ms. Rose that only they could preserve her life, property, and money.
6. Staying Unaware
Ms. Rose had to be kept unaware and uninformed about the construction of this false reality, that she was responding to an engineered or pseudoworld. She had to be kept unaware of the playing upon fear, the use of lies, exaggerations, deceptions, and manipulations that caused Ms. Rose to see only the constructed false world the deceivers allowed her to see. The designing band of the Evil Nurse, her nephew, the corrupt accountant, and the renegade lawyer colluded to make it appear they were the only protectors of Ms. Rose in the midst of a terrifying and threatening world. They managed to induce Ms. Rose to see them as her only support and protection in the seemingly menacing world produced by their tales and behavior. They had established the conditions under which highly stressed persons who are captives begin to form bonds and become dependent on their captors.
They literally had deceived her in many ways to make her so fearful and actually their captive, and thus vulnerable to manipulations that drove her to feel her survival depended on them. They had created conditions psychologically similar to, if not totally identical with, those conditions that produce the Stockholm syndrome (Strentz, 1980). This is a situation in which bonding between captives and captors occurs, as puzzling as it may sometimes appear to the ordinary citizen.
The Stockholm syndrome was identified in 1973 after four people held captive in a Stockholm bank vault for six days became attached to the bank robbers. The hostages came to see the police and the outside world as their enemies and dangerous. A bond developed between the hostages andtheir captors. Since then a number of similar situations have been described. Psychologists have become interested in a series of groups who form bonds with their captors (Graham & Rawlings, 1991), such as battered women (Boulette & Anderson, 1986), hostages, incest victims, abused children, cult members, prostitutes with pimps, prisoners of war, Chinese civilians imprisoned during Mao Tse-tung's reign, and between caretakers and their ill charges (Fulton, 1987).
Granted there are differences between Ms. Rose and the Evil Nurse example and some of the groups just listed, but it is similar to the conceptualizations of Fulton and Graham and Rawlings, who have looked at many groups and describe the isolation, fear, dependency, and eventual bonding. These writers have tied together some basic human patterns of survival compliance noted by psychologists and others in a number of situations.
It is of heuristic value to consider applicable aspects of the Stockholm syndrome psychology to Ms. Rose's circumstances and the conditions in which many vulnerable victims of undue influence find themselves. The four conditions that are said to lead to the development of the syndrome are (1) the captor threatens the woman's survival or she feels her survival is threatened; (2) the person is in a situation from which she cannot escape or at least thinks she cannot; (3) she becomes isolated from others; and (4) the captor shows some kindnesses. If these conditions exist, often a captive bonds to her captor.
It is easy to see the psychological similarities between Ms. Rose and her circumstances, which were engineered by the Evil Nurse, and the situation in which a hostage finds herself. While there are differences, the similarities and outcomes make psychological sense when we compare Ms. Rose and other captives, not necessarily those held at gunpoint, but those bonded to controllers as outlined in the literature cited. Ms. Rose was unduly influenced to marry and to sign over her property and control of her money and house in circumstances in which she had been maneuvered and manipulated by the Evil Nurse and the nephew. She felt isolated, feared for her survival, feared she could not escape the situation, and ended up bonding to the Evil Nurse and the nephew as a means of survival. Succumbing to undueinfluence under the circumstances as outlined here suggests that Ms. Rose fell into a common human survival strategy when so manipulated and deceived that she saw the world as the undue influencers had led her to see it. She felt isolated, powerless, surrounded by hostile forces which she did not have the power to prevail against, and responded to the false kindnesses and care of the Evil Nurse and the nephew, literally bonding with her captors.
There are infinite varieties of undue influence situations. Not all situations will include all the conditions outlined in the Evil Nurse, and most cases will have their own unique set of circumstances. However, the six factors of undue influence outlined in the Evil Nurse story will serve as guidelines to help evaluate whether undue influence is at work in the signing of documents. The case of the Evil Nurse serves to encourage the investigation of the social and psychological influences brought to bear on any person where the issue of undue influence is raised.
The six factors of isolation, creating a siege mentality, fostering near or total dependency, creating a sense of powerlessness, the use of fear and deception, and keeping the person in a state of ignorance by manipulating the environment are the basic components of many undue influence situations. These six factors serve as a pattern and as a starting point for the attorney, the investigator, and the psychologist to proceed with an investigation. The questioned document examiner, too, may be included in the investigation, because the attorney may not know at the outset whether a document was forged or signed while the person was unduly influenced. There will also be cases that will involve both forged documents and those signed under undue influence.
The analysis of a suspected undue influence situation rests upon excellent history gathering from as many sources as possible and the formulation of the psychological and social influence tactics brought to bear on the person. The condition of the person–physically, mentally, and emotionally–also needs inclusion in the analysis. The presentation to the jury needs to be conceptualized in ways that the jury can understand. The jury needs to hear aboutwhat occurred and its impact, and to have undue influence tactics explained in understandable ways. They need to know about how the signer was led to see the environment that was constructed through deception and about the social techniques used to instill fear and dependency. A jury needs to understand how a person comes to bond with another under certain conditions in order to survive, and that survival can be viewed by the victim in many ways–not just surviving a gunpoint hostage situation, but surviving against a constructed, fearful world from which he or she sees only the options the influencer offers.
The example of what transpires between a captor and captive illustrates the position of the signer in the constructed environment that is often created by those who corruptly influence and manipulate the elderly, the infirm, foreigners, and others to sign documents that benefit the person in the role of Evil Nurse to the detriment of the signer.
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This article was originally printed in the Journal of Questioned Document Examination, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1992, the official publication of the Independent Association of Questioned Document Examiners, Inc. It is reprinted with permission.
This article is an electronic version of an article published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1993, Volume 10, Number 1, pages 19-32.
In recent years, families have sought help for a new problem–what to do when a son, daughter, or other relative appears to have undergone a relatively rapid and often drastic personality change as a result of affiliation with a group suspected of having unduly influenced that person (Clark, Langone, Schecter, & Daly, 1981; Delgado. 1977; West & Singer, 1980). Broadly speaking, these groups can be called cults. According to Webster's Third New International Unabridged Dictionary (1966), the term "cult" may convey one or more possible meanings: (1) a system for the cure of disease based on the dogmas, tenets, or principles set forth by its promulgator to the exclusion of scientific experience or demonstration; (2) great or excessive dedication to some person, idea, or organization, and (3) a religion or mystique ordinarily regarded as spurious and unorthodox. By "cultic relationships" we refer to those relationships in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him or her for almost all major life decisions, and inculcates in these followers a belief that he or she has some special talent, gift, or knowledge.
In the late 1960s and the 1970s, parents were seeking help because a relative had entered one of the cultic groups often referred to as "New Age" or "New Movement" groups. More recently, families have been troubled about relatives who appear to them to have been drastically influenced by one of the human-growth or group-awareness organizations (Cinnamon & Farson, 1979; Ofshe, 1983; Singer, 1983; Tipton, 1982). Still others have relatives who have become enmeshed in pseudotherapy groups or involved with a person or persons who appear to be wielding undue influence over them (SCP Newsletter, 1984; Singer, 1983; Temerlin & Temerlin, 1982). Added to these are relatives concerned about young children who are being reared in cultic organizations. These relatives are primarily grandparents and separated or divorced spouses who have left the organization. Yet another new group are whole families that have emerged from cultic organizations. By far the largest number seeking consultation are those families who have become alarmed at seeing a somewhat abrupt and marked shift in the social identity of a family member. They report noting a sudden personality change; a drastic change in goals, such as leaving school, a job, or a relationship; sudden attempts to transfer funds or personal possessions; or, more dramatically, the relative has dropped out of sight (Addis, Schulman-Miller, & Lightman, 1984; Clark et al, 1981; Delgado, 1977; West & Singer, 1980).
These situations call for appraisal and consultation with families in order to help hem realistically and legally deal with what they think has occurred. The term "therapy," which originally meant to nurse or cure, implies the presence of a condition that needs treatment. In contrast, the term "consultation" historically referred to a "gathering together" in order to seek technical or professional advice before planning or deciding something. The families of cultists usually do not seek family therapy. They are not asking for treatment of an internal condition but, rather, aid in dealing with an external organization or situation. Thus, they are seeking consultation, including information and advice, about their options and the reality of their concerns. The first stages of consultation are the gathering of factual information and observations from those involved and then helping them to define and understand the situation. This process will be outlined later.
Social Identity and Influence
A series of events in the past half century has highlighted how fragile social identity can be under certain circumstances and how easily human conduct can be manipulated under certain conditions. In brief, these events began with the Russian purge trials in the 1930s in which people were manipulated into both falsely confessing and falsely accusing. The world press expressed bewilderment and amazement at the phenomenon but, with few exceptions, soon lapsed into silence (Rogge. 1959). The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the effects of the Chinese revolutionary universities that subjected an entire nation to a thought-reform program in which millions were induced to espouse new philosophies and exhibit new conduct through psychological, social, and political coercion techniques (Chen, 1960; Hinkle & Wolff, 1956; Lifton, 1961; Mindszenty, 1974; Schein, 1961). Next came the Korean War, in which United Nations' prisoners of war were subjected to an indoctrination program based upon methods growing out of the Chinese thought reform program and combined with other social and psychological influence techniques. At that time the term "brainwashing" was introduced into our vocabulary. Interest in human influence and manipulation subsided for the most part after a few years except for general academic curiosity and the ever-present reports of blatantly unethical or illegal influence techniques being brought to bear on persons in distant countries, or local frauds, confidence games, and undue-influence situations.
Then Charles Manson's diabolical influence and control of a group of middle-class youths shocked the world (Atkins, 1978; Bugliosi & Gentry, 1974; Watkins, 1979). Soon after, in 1976, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patricia Hearst and manipulated and controlled her behavior (Hearst, 1982). By the mid-1970s, thousands of families in the United States were beginning to be puzzled and alarmed as they saw the influence of a vast array of new gurus, messiahs, and mind-manipulators on their offspring. On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones, through his controls and manipulations, led 912 followers to their death in a Guyana jungle (Reiterman & Jacobs, 1982). If Jonestown served no other purpose, it did serve to call attention to the extent of control one man could exert over his followers in the modern world. People could no longer ignore or downplay the existence and extent of such domination. They could no longer think that such control methods had existed only long ago or far away. Jim Jones's renal hours of domination brought the concepts of influence, persuasion, thought reform, and brainwashing to the attention of the world. The many families who had sought help from state and national authorities because of the conditions they claimed existed within the People's Temple had not been listened to, for few people understood the totalistic control Jones held. One of the few who listened was Congressman Leo J. Ryan, who lost his life as a result of Jim Jones's last orders. Jones was not about to relinquish his mad control over the lives of those he dominated. In the post-Jonestown world, thousands of families who had relatives in various other cultic organizations began to feel they might be heard when they described the control and influence they saw being wielded in various groups religious, health, flying-saucer, and psychological cults. The first wave of families seeking consultation were primarily describing a phenomenon in which they had noted sudden personality changes in relatives who had become involved with some of the New Age religious and philosophical cults. But as Singer (1979x, 1979b) and West and Singer (1980) noted, throughout history the ever-present, self-appointed messiahs, gurus, and pied pipers appear to adapt to changing times. Thus we see a broadening of the possible realms into which persuaders will move.
More recently, families have been seeking consultation not only about cults but also for what, for lack of a better term, we shall call "cultic relationships," which include pseudogrowth and pseudotherapy groups and "undue-influence" situations. An entirely new set of consultation problems are being presented by a number of families across the nation.
Here I am less concerned about whether or not a particular group would universally be labeled a cult. What is of interest are the properties of the relationship and the types of processes that go on between a group leader and his or her followers. In the past several years, families have been seeking consultation about groups and about relationships that cause them to question how much freedom of choice actually exists for followers, and how much initial information a new member was given about what would happen in the long run: Families are seeking consultation about the structure and impact of influence. As a shorthand convenience in this chapter, the terms "cult" and "cultic relationships," experiences in intensive indoctrination, and thought-reform programs will be used interchangeably.
The following case description illustrates undue influence in a cultic relationship situation that both resembles and differs from the more widely recognized involvement with established cults. This type of problem is becoming more frequent as the focus of requests for consultation from families. A "diet cult": A case example. A young professional woman was asked by a casual acquaintance to participate in a "free, scientific, experimental weight control project." While vague, the description implied that scientists were providing new educational methods. Instead of attending lectures and continuing her independent life, she soon was flattered by the male and female Leader into accepting their definition of her as a "natural clairvoyant healer" and "to go on course" with them. They induced her to sever ties with her family and friends, to leave her job and to join their small "weight control program." Because she was not working; she eventually turned over her car, savings, and property to them in return for the "courses in natural healing" that they urged her to pursue with them.
Growing more obese by the day, as were the several other recruits, the woman moved with the group to an isolated small town where they lived with the two leaders and were persuaded not to write or contact families or friends who were said to be apt to "lower their consciousnesses" because outsiders were not privy to the "course." The course consisted of a 20-hour, daily routine filled with 4 to 5 hours of hypnosis and self-hypnosis exercises plus many periods of hyperventilation. She spent additional hours "in group" and she was taught to "speak in voices and to hear in voices." These were trainings in how to link, randomly but rhythmically, nonsense syllables into singsong patterns and to chant these aloud for interpretation by the female leader, who supposedly was "a natural knowing interpreter." After being given her interpretations for the day, the young woman was instructed to try to hallucinate what she had just heard as if it were coming from outside her head. That is, her remembrances of the "interpretations" were now to be "heard in voices." She was to learn to hallucinate and experience her own thoughts as if they were being heard through her ears. White attempting to accomplish this, she was berated, humiliated, and alternatively threatened with expulsion from the group or told she would have to "go on basic" again. While attempting to learn to hallucinate, she became psychotic. Her relationship with the group then ended and she was put on a bus with a ticket hone to her parents. The acute psychosis subsided after several days of hospitalization, but the woman remained in the hospital for 2 weeks. Her psychiatrist asked me to be a consultant during the hospitalization. He phoned the morning after her admission stating: "I've got a new kind of cult case. This group combines odd diets, speaking in tongues, isolation, sleep deprivation, hypnosis, and a lot of magical thinking. There is no religious angle; it's a diet cult." His description of what the patient had told him indicated that she had been in a cultic group and had been subjected to many stressful and bizarre processes. The psychiatrist asked that I meet with him and his patient in consult with them about the various activities of the group. He had told her that we had worked together on other occasions and that my knowledge of how various groups utilized Ericksonian-like trance-induction techniques and created verbal systems to block reflective thought might be of value. The psychiatrist had concluded that it was unlikely that the woman would have broken down if she hid not been exposed to the stimuli of the group. In addition, he wished to hear me interview her and give my views. He told her to quiz me about my research to see if any of the studies of other groups applied to her experiences in her group. He wanted to use a consultant as a sounding board to test his perception of reality. Both the psychiatrist and patient wanted an analysis of the organizations techniques and contents and an opinion from me as to whether I thought the techniques might have contributed to her mental and emotional responses while in the group.
My role was a technical one–to learn directly from her more about the group's practices and to attempt to relate its procedures to my research on influence techniques if it seemed appropriate. As we proceeded, the psychiatrist commented on how much new material about the group she was providing, because the wording of my questions were helpful to her. He used consultation to help the patient see that her breakdown was understandable to him as her physician, and he hoped that it would be understandable to her as a kind of "reasonable" response to what she had been through. The consultant became a part of the "reality testing" her therapist was helping her to achieve. The many implications this use of consultation permits are vast and beyond what can be detailed here. Upon release, the woman, her parents, and siblings were referred to me for further consultation. The psychiatrist told her family that it was his opinion that she would not have had a breakdown had she not been subjected to the bizarre routines and processes the group used. He further stated that he found the family to be warm and closely knit, "a kind of all-American family until she became involved with these diet-cult folks," and that he did not think that any of them needed treatment at this point.
Consultation with this family began by getting a clear picture of the woman's and family's immediate needs. All of them needed to talk about the cult because they were still in the dark about what had actually happened in the group. I joined in when needed to help explain certain effects. Further, the family had been frightened and bewildered at this woman's psychotic condition when she had been sent home by the cult. They wondered if it were all right to talk with her about her time in the group. Two meetings of 2 hours each, with the entire family (including two younger siblings), were held on successive days. During these sessions, the young woman explained details of many of the "processes" the leader had used. The consultant helped this family understand the role of influence, hypnosis, and self-hypnosis in the change process to which the young woman had been exposed. The consultant also clarified for the family how her social isolation and dependency on the leaders after they had separated her from her past support systems had stripped her of her old identity. They had attacked her belief systems, both her belief in how the world operated and her own beliefs about herself and her values. Her past life had been "revised" by the cult leaders, who declared that her good relations with her family were to be denounced as "crazy dreams from your crazy childhood."
Consultation was an informational and educational process in which the woman and her family were assisted in discussing how the intensity and structure of her cult experiences appeared to have produced the exhaustion and dissociation that culminated in the acutely psychotic state she was in when the cult sent her home. Her mental state seemed to be a direct effect of the processes and combined stressors of the situation–including the beratings and her dependency on the cult leaders after losing her whole past view of herself and substituting their interpretations of reality. The consultant aided the family in making sense out of what had happened. The approach was to provide a transactional explanation rather than to ascribe her reaction solely to some inherent mental weakness.
The consultation closed with the young woman, the family, and consultant concluding that further therapy was not indicated at this time. This was in agreement with the thinking of the referring psychiatrist, who also felt that consultation, education, and finding a support system was preferable to further treatment.
After a period of time in which site greatly profited from sharing her experiences with other ex-cult members (a national network of persons who have been involved in one or another of the vast array of cults operative in the United States today), the woman again sought consultation. She reported that she was working in her profession, and was successful occupationally and socially, but that she was experiencing what she has termed "flashbacks." These appeared to be brief, dissociative episodes in which she felt depersonalized, dizzy, and anxious, that is, feeling as she often had while in the group. The fact that such episodes are a common aftermath of cult experiences was explained to her. Because she was soon moving to another part of the state and thought that the move might cause some unusual tensions, she was referred to a therapist in that area who was experienced in working with ex-cultists and those with dissociative problems.
A recent telephone call to her revealed that she had met with the therapist three times after she had experienced some periods when she "spaced out and got stuck"–her words for an Atypical Dissociative State (DSM-III. code 300.15; American Psychiatric Association, 1990) during periods of marked exhaustion and anxiety. The episodes were similar to those she frequently had had while in the cult, The therapist used behavioral and educational techniques analogous to those I, as the consultant, had offered to the woman. These taught her how to control the intensity and duration of the episodes so that they were only momentary phenomena and no longer caused her any alarm. She has now married, is functioning well in all areas of her life, and is a volunteer in a local cult clinic.
Consultation or Therapy
Reactions such as this woman's are not uncommon in persons subjected to similar treatment in cults and various intense indoctrination programs. Special approaches are needed in those relatively unusual cases in which the cult member has had a disturbed psychiatric history apart from the cult experience. Most often, the best treatment to effect a fast recovery for these people focuses on helping them properly attribute to the cult or indoctrination procedures the psychological and social pressures that overwhelmed them. They need to see that the behavior change or breakdown does not doom them to a life of fragility or a need to see themselves as weak or mad creatures. It is important to educate the ex-cultist and the family about how the indoctrination programs in intense confrontational groups produce the psychological and social effects that contribute to their changed behavior and occasional breakdowns. The focus is upon the impact and evaluation of such group processes.
This approach is not typical of the path taken in traditional therapy in which therapists wittingly or unwittingly assume that inherent, intrapersonal weaknesses of either a psychological or constitutional nature cause the breakdown or behavioral change. Such a therapy format demonstrates to the client that problems stem from internal needs and defects, and it directs the patient to seek hidden motivations and weak internal properties of the self without properly conceptualizing the context, the external factors, and the system within which the breakdown or behavior change occurred. A better perspective is that which has been effective in working with victims of many kinds–victims of kidnapping, violent crimes, natural disasters, and victims of thought reform programs. Many victims of violence and coercion need help in seeing that their symptoms arose out of their responses to intense, external stressors. They should not leave the consultation or therapy feeling that they were uniquely fragile in the face of the duress or highly unusual circumstances that existed in a group situation. Whether a family seeks consultation during the period of involvement or after a member has left a cultic relationship, some form of the general educational, consultative format described above is useful. However, few professionals or agencies have addressed these special needs of families of cultists. These families are faced with a perplexing and unusual problem that has arisen between them and an outside force. They seek specific information, concrete guidance, and advice. This outside influence has so affected one of their members that the conduct, demeanor, and personality of that person has changed to such an extent that they no longer know how to deal with him or her. Often that member may have disappeared and they have no knowledge of where to locate the relative. The majority of these families, until the entry of a member into a cultic relationship or organization, have been ordinary, normal families–not necessarily ideal or free of difficulties, but average families.
Therapists often ask: "How is consultation with families of cultists different from therapy with families in general?" This question requires several answers. The first is that therapy is a procedure therapists engage in with families who usually say, in effect, that something "internal" in our family system is not working; help us fix "our" system. The families of cultists are saying, help us deal with an "outside" system in which one of our family has become enmeshed. The families of cultists need a great amount of input from informational and assistance networks. Such information can be prodded by the consultant as well as by suggested readings and referrals to local, national, or international parent and ex-member networks, and to law enforcement and other agencies when indicated. The consultant is in the role of a broker or triage person. That is, based on the best available information, the consultant makes a tentative assessment, informs and directs the family to the next stage of procedures if they agree with the plan, and remains available for further consultation at different junctures in the subsequent efforts at problem solving, which may include ex-cultists and parents of ex-cultists if indicated.
Many professionals are unaware of cultic practices and thought reform programs and falsely assume that anyone who becomes involved in these programs is merely acting out teenage rebellion or, if not, most have a severe personality disorder or an "ambulatory psychosis," or be some type of markedly impaired person. Such practitioners are both uninformed and harmful because they often delay families from locating proper help early.
Professional assessment failure: A case example. Two children, aged 10 and 12, were taken by a drug-using, bizarre, charismatic street person into his small cultic group. Their parents were told by three consecutive therapists that the children were merely "doing pre-teenage rebelling" and the parents needed to allow the children "to individuate." The parents were persuaded to embark upon couples' therapy by each of these professionals. None directed the parents to the proper legal authorities. When this was done by a cult expert whom the parents contacted after several years had passed, swift and helpful action was taken and the children were located and restored to their parents by the police. Needless to say, by that point the children needed some appropriate professional assistance, which was provided along with consultation with the rest of the family.
The general format followed by cult consultants begins with a history-gathering period in which it is determined what group or persons the missing member is with, for how long, what contact, if any, bas been made, how it went, what the family would like in the way of help at this point, and what their hopes and plans are. An outline is made of how they and the consultant and others will proceed. The consultant needs to have available reading materials on specific cults, lists of material available in libraries, bookstores, and from cult-information agencies. A general outline is made of the social and psychological influence mechanisms used in thought reform programs and cultic relationships (Addis et al, 1984; Hinkle & Wolff, 1956; Lifton, 1961; Ofshe, 1983; Schein, 1961; Singer, 1993; West & Singer, 1980). These group processes are discussed and linked to the concrete experiences that the family or former cultist has related. The family is helped to learn about psychological and social influence techniques that may have been involved in their relative's behavior. They are assisted in getting continuing network assistance, such as meeting with ex-members of the same group, who often have specific instructions about the best ways to communicate with persons in the group. When indicated, they are given addresses of local, national, and international parent-support networks and informational agencies.
The role of the consultant varies with each family, and the multiple contingencies that may arise cannot be delineated here. A thorough history of the cultist is always obtained to determine how stable or unstable that person bad been in the past and what is known about their present physical health and mental status. For example, a mother described her adult son as severely malnourished, mute, and unable to leave her house. However, the cult leader was phoning the son and badgering him to return to the group even though he was reported to be too feeble to leave the house. The consultant recognized the emergency nature of the son's condition and put the mother in touch with a psychiatrist in her area who, upon making a house call, arranged for an ambulance transfer to a hospital.
Most of the above remarks describe my work as a single practitioner. A team approach is used by a Los Angeles agency that has developed a cult clinic for families (Addis et al., 1984). Since early 1979, this clinic bas primarily used teams of volunteers, psychiatrists, social workers, attorneys, ex-cult members, parents of present and former cult members, and a mental health administrator. A full-time professional conducts an initial intake interview with the family. This person assigns certain families to meet with individual volunteers if the problems of the family are severe. Otherwise, most families participate in group sessions. These sessions focus on education and problem solving. Staff ex-cult members and staff parents of cultists share their experiences with the new families. Cult recruitment methods and the processes used in inducing behavior changes are discussed. The objectives are to help the families gain perspective, understand what strategies and options are available, mobilize the family, and attract the cult member's attention. Addis et al., (1984) point out that these objectives are achieved over a period of time and are not instant solutions.
The staff meets before each group meeting to share information about the families that will attend. This insures continuity and coherence. In the interval between meetings of the large group, individual contacts sometimes occur between a family and a staff person because of outside developments with the cultist members. The staff person shares this information in order to keep the group abreast of developments and to help direct the consultation-education meetings that ensue.
When local cult consultants are not available, it is useful for family therapists to locate a network of ex-members and parents of former members to co-consult with him or her and families of cultists. Reviewing the literature is also helpful for formats and techniques to use with families (Addis. et al., 1984; Andron, 1983; Clark et al, 1981; Dellinger, 1982; Etemad, 1978; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982; Singer, 1979a; West & Singer, 1980).
Earlier it was noted that changes have occurred in the type of cultic groups about which families seek consultation. In the mid-1970s, families sought assistance primarily in dealing with relatives who had become involved with new religious groups. Recently, there has been a burgeoning of occult, psychotherapy, and prosperity groups.
There has also been a shift in who is coming out of cults. Instead of young adults emerging after a period of time in a cult, we now have children, teenagers, and young adults reared in cultic groups who often emerge into the general society in need of special assistance. These individuals often have had limited age-appropriate contact and experiences with the larger society, or quite unusual experiences that may ill-equip them for life outside the group.
The aftermath of cult child rearing: A case example. One young man, taken into a group by his parents at an early age, ran away from the group at age 21. He hid out with other, older ex-members who were also afraid the group would seek them out and attempt to make them return. They helped him get a laboring job and suggested he see me. He was overwhelmed by his lack of knowledge about the outside world. He did not know how to rent a room, get a telephone, start a bank account, get a driver's license, and lacked knowledge of other simple skills. All these had been taken care of by the cult hierarchy. He was embarrassed to let his employers and new friends know that he was as "uninformed as a Martian," to use his terms. My consultant's role consisted of determining that he was neither seeking nor needing therapy. He needed education, explanations, and a support system. I helped him contact some ex-cultists of his own age who were glad to assist him and quickly walked him through all the new places and procedures he needed to learn.
Entire families are now exiting from certain cults with young children who have been taught habits far afield from the mores of the outer society. Some families have sought consultation in person, some have phoned for advice and guidance in how to retrain their children. Usually these families have left cults in which incest and child-sex activities had been practiced. Once out of the cult, the parents easily return to their pre-cult behavior, but find themselves with young children who have seen and been taught behaviors that are taboo in the outer world. Consultation focuses on clearly delineating those behaviors that have been carried out in the cult but are not practiced outside. It is suggested that the parents tell the children that they had lived by the outside standards until joining the group. Now they are bringing the children and themselves back into the outside world where the parents really want to live and have their children grow up. Out here there are different rules, and they are easy to learn. A clear-cut break with the cult rules and an avoidance of guilt-inducing explanations works well over time.
Siblings of cultists are a neglected group. When teaching and lecturing, I have asked certain siblings of former cultists to appear along with the ex-member and parents to inform other families of how neglected a sibling can feel during the months or often years that a family's attention has been focused almost solely on the cultist.
As social and economic climates have changed, so has the nature of some cultic organizations. Recently, families are seeking help in dealing with relatives caught up in psychotherapy cults in which either professionals have gone astray and have multiple relationships with clients and patients, or nonprofessionals start "therapy" groups. In both instances, cultic relationships have occurred and the therapists or pseudotherapists have become the landlords, employers, financial advisers, and lovers, having "patients" move in and live with them, perform household chores, and turn in pay checks to the leader (Singer, 1983. Temerlin, 1982).
A number of occult cults have sprung up. But with the tightening of the economy, the largest number of new cultic relationships that nave appeared seem most to resemble purely financial scams. Somewhat charismatic schemers using a "psychological" or a "prosperity-minded" philosophical content entice young working adults to move into a group living situation run by the leader. The leader usually "psychologizes" about trust, integrity, and other virtues, using the vocabulary and experiential exercises of the human potential movement and encounter group. These techniques keep members dependent on him or her in continuing relational and living arrangements. Eventually the conditions resemble those in the well-known cults. These cult members drop contact with their family and old friends, put all free time and money into the "group," drop their career, and work at low-level jobs with hours that permit more time with the leader and group and less with the outside world. The personality changes originally seen in members of exotic cults now are reported in these persons living in the smaller cultic groups.
The role of the consultant to families of cultists is first to assess the immediate informational and support-system needs of the family and to see that the family begins to receive this information and guidance.
Different approaches need to be taken in those instances in which the cult member appears to have had a poor psychiatric history before and/or since being in the cult. These families are relatively few and need special assistance. However, all families, looking forward to the possible emergence of a relative from a cult need to begin to plan among themselves for their roles in assisting the reentry of the cultist into everyday life when that person exits from the group. Concrete issues such as where these persons will live, how they will support themselves, and what educational or vocational plans need to be considered ahead of time, should be dealt with by the consultant because families, in their haste to rescue a relative, may fail to plan ahead. Without being a purveyor of doom, the consultant should also warn families that a certain number of cultists may never leave groups; this possibility should be considered as one possible outcome no matter what is hoped.
Because this is a new area of family consultation, it behooves the practitioner to know when to call on cult specialists. These specialists can usefully direct practitioners to selected readings and help them contact local, national, and international groups interested in research and consultation on cults, undue influence, and persuasion issues. Generalists, it is hoped, will become more fully informed about group influence and cultic phenomena, and thus may become more able to consult directly and effectively with families of cult members or, alternatively, know when to refer these families to specialists.
Addis, M., Schulman-Miller, J., & Lightman, M. The cult clinic helps families in crisis, Social Casework, 1981, 39, 515-522.
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Dellinger, R. W, Cults and kids: A study of coercion. Boys Town, NE: Boys Town Center, 1982.
Etemad, H. Extrication from cultism. Current Psychiatric Therapy, 1978, 18, 217-223.
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Hearst. P., with Moscow, A. Every secret thing, New York: Doubleday, 1982.
Hinkle, L. E., & Wolff, H. G. Communist interrogation of "enemies of the state." Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 1956, 76, 115-174.
Lifton R. J. Thought reform and the psychology of totalism: A study of "brainwashing" in China. New York: W. W. Norton, 1%1.
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Ofshe, R. Second generation thought reform programs. Address to Citizens Freedom Foundation, Los Angeles, October 29, 1983.
Reiterman, T., & Jacobs, J. R. The untold story of the Reverend Jim Jones and his people. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.
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Singer, M. T. Psychotherapy cults. Address to Citizens Freedom Foundation, Los Angeles, October 29, 1983.
Temerlin, M. K., & Temerlin, J. W. Psychotherapy cults: An iatrogenic perversion. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 1982, 19, 131-141.
Tipton, S. M. Getting saved from the sixties. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Watkins, P. My life with Charles Manson. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Webster's third new international unabridged dictionary. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam. 1966.
West, L. J., & Singer, M. T. Cults, quacks, and nonprofessional psychotherapies. In H. I. Kaplan, A. M. Freedman, & B. J. Sadock (Eds.), Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry (Vol. III, 3rd ed.). Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1980.
This chapter was originally published in Systems Consultation: A new Perspective for Family Therapy, edited by Lyman C. Wynne, Timothy T. Weber, and Susan H. McDaniel. Guilford Publications, 1986. It is reprinted with permission.
Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.
Maurice K. Temerlin, Ph.D.
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
Although the term "cult" is usually associated with religious groups, nonreligious cults are receiving increasing attention. This paper examines the common features of cultic groups, in particular the use of thought reform, a process through which indoctrination and behavior changes are brought about in a number of contemporary situations. Several psychotherapy cults are described to illustrate the coordinated programs of exploitative influence and behavior control that characterize these groups.
The term "cult" is often associated with a process that has been given a variety of labels, including "thought reform" (Lifton, 1961), "coercive persuasion" (Schein, 1956, 1961), "brainwashing," (Hunter, 1953), "mind control" (Langone, 1988), the "systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence" (Singer, 1983), "coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control" (Ofshe & Singer, 1986), and "exploitative persuasion" (Singer & Addis, 1991). These terms reflect somewhat varying perspectives or attempts to explain to different audiences a complex and subtle process composed of techniques, tactics, and strategies of social influence long studied by social psychologists, social anthropologists, and marketing researchers (Cialdini, 1984; Nader, 1991; Zimbardo, Ebbesen, & Maslach, 1977). In this paper we will use the term "thought reform" because it is brief, has achieved wide usage in the field, is not easily susceptible to exaggerated interpretations, and succinctly describes what goes on in the process under investigation, i.e., affected individuals, as a result of planned and systematic psychosocial manipulation imposed by others, are led to adopt radically different beliefs and conform their behavior appropriately.
Whereas "thought reform" refers to a particular process of planned and systematic psychosocial manipulation, "cult" refers not to ideological content, as some mistakenly believe, but to certain social structures and relationships that shape the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of members so as to serve the wishes and needs of the leader(s). Thus, a cult may form in any content area: politics, religion, commerce, philosophy, health, science fiction, psychology, etc. That many persons still mistakenly believe that all cults are religious reflects perhaps the publicity religious cults received during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This paper contributes to the dispelling of this misconception by briefly defining "cult," outlining the basic features of thought reform as it was originally conceived and in its contemporary form, and illustrating these concepts by describing a variety of psychotherapy cults.
Definitional Issues: Cults Singer (1986) stated that cultic relationships refer to those relationships in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him or her for almost all major life decisions, and inculcates in these followers a belief that he or she has some special talent, gift, or knowledge. (p. 270)
A related definition was proposed at a conference sponsored by the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, the American Family Foundation, and the Johnson Foundation:
…a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.) designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers, 1986)
Cults, then, are likely to exhibit three elements to varying degrees:
- members' excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to the identity and leadership of the group;
- the induction of dependency through the use of manipulative and exploitative techniques of persuasion and control; and
- the tendency to harm members, their families, and/or society.
Because cults profess to help members but in actuality exploit them, cults develop a double agenda in which they employ a dual set of norms in operation at the same time, with the surface norms subservient to the deeper, hidden designs and purposes of an organization or group. Surface norms stress the idealism and the righteousness of the cause. Below the surface, however, are a set of underlying norms that efficiently run the organization. (MacDonald, 1988, p. 68)
Because cults tend to be leader-centered, exploitatively manipulative, and often harmful, they come into conflict with and are threatened by the more rational, open, and benevolent systems of members' families and society at large. Some cults eventually disintegrate as a consequence of this tension. Some gradually accommodate to society by decreasing their level of manipulation, and consequently, exploitation, harm, and opposition. Others, however, isolate themselves, psychologically if not physically. In order to manage the threat posed by the outside world and to advance the goals of the leader(s), these groups tend to:
- dictate - sometimes in great detail - how members should think, act, and feel;
- claim a special, exalted status (for example, occult powers, a mission to save humanity) for themselves and/or their leader(s); and
- intensify their opposition to and alienation from society at large.
According to these definitions, cults differ from "new religions," "new political movements," "innovative psychotherapies," and other "new" groups in that the former tend to use exploitatively manipulative techniques of influence and subordinate the well-being and welfare of followers to the benefit of the leader(s).
Cults also differ from purely authoritarian groups, e.g., military organizations and some types of sects and communes. The latter, though rigid and controlling, lack a double agenda and are not extremely manipulative and leader-centered. The social control rules of such authoritarian groups, even though sometimes coercive, are consistent, visible, and understood; they are not hidden. Though their decision-making structures are hierarchical, the leaders of purely authoritarian groups serve the group's interests, not their own. Moreover, most authoritarian groups, e.g., the military, are accountable to higher authorities. Those who head cults, on the other hand, answer to no one.
Because democratic societies value the individual's freedom, autonomy, and dignity, cultic groups generate considerable criticism. The cause of these negative evaluations, however, is not the newness or unusual beliefs of these groups, but their conduct, especially their methods of recruiting, indoctrinating, and exploiting members.
Cultic manipulations, of course, can influence some persons more easily than others. Ash (1985) notes that the following types of factors render some persons especially vulnerable to cultic manipulations: high level of current distress, cultural disillusionment in a frustrated seeker, lack of an intrinsic religious belief/value system, and dependent personality tendencies as indicated by a lack of inner direction, lack of adequate self-control (e.g., unassertiveness), low tolerance for ambiguity, and susceptibility to trance states.
Although cult recruits may be vulnerable in various ways, cults are, nevertheless, strikingly successful in bringing about and maintaining substantial behavioral and psychological changes in members. To establish a baseline against which to compare the power of cult environments, consider that with respect to nonbelievers at Billy Graham Crusades "2% - 5% of the attendees 'make a decision for Christ' and only about half of these converts are active a year later. About 15% remain permanently converted" (Frank, 1974, p. 82), i.e., are active ten years or more later. Thus, less than one percent (.30% - .75%) of nonbeliever attendees at Billy Graham Crusades remain converted. Moreover, after the crusade, these people return home to their families, their jobs, and their established identities. In contrast, two studies of the less successful centers of one organization found that approximately 10% of the persons recruited into an introductory workshop leave their old lives behind and become full-time missionaries for the group within one month (Barker, 1983; Galanter, 1980), with 5% remaining members after two years (Barker, 1983). A close examination of the Galanter study, however, indicates that the percentage joining may be even higher than reported. Four "dropouts" in the Galanter study had been taken away by parents. If these persons had stayed, the percentage remaining after one month would have been 13%, rather than 9%. Moreover, the three workshop centers Galanter examined are well known by those familiar with the group to be less effective than the San Francisco center, about which there has been considerable controversy. Most of the recruits in these centers had simply been approached on the street, whereas most nonbelievers at Billy Graham Crusades had already had substantial contact with evangelists before attending the Crusade (Billy Graham Association, personal communication to Dr. Langone, 1989).
Some investigators (e.g., Barker, 1983) falsely interpret these findings as evidence that thought reform does not occur in groups commonly alleged to be cults. Their grievous error, however, is assuming that thought reform has virtually 100% effectiveness, which no serious researcher has ever claimed.
Thought Reform: Historical Background
Singer (1986) notes that during this century a series of events has demonstrated that individual autonomy and self-identity are much more fragile than was commonly believed. The Russian purge trials of the 1930s manipulated men and women into falsely confessing to crimes and falsely accusing others of having committed crimes (Mindszenty, 1974). The world press expressed bewilderment and amazement at the phenomenon, but, with few exceptions, soon ceased to pay attention to the phenomenon (Rogge, 1959). The late 1940s and early 1950s witnessed the effects of the revolutionary universities in China and the subjugation of an entire nation to a thought reform program that induced millions to espouse new philosophies and exhibit new behaviors (Chen, 1960; Hinkle & Wolff, 1956; Hunter, 1953; Lifton, 1961; Meerloo, 1951; Sargant, 1951, 1957, 1973; Schein, 1961). Next came the Korean conflict in which United Nations' prisoners of war were subjected to an indoctrination program based on methods growing out of the Chinese thought reform program, combined with other social and psychological influence techniques (Farber, Harlow, & West, 1956; GAP, 1956, 1957; Schein, 1956).
At that time, the term "brainwashing" was introduced into our vocabulary, "a colloquial term applied to any technique designed to manipulate human thought or action against the desire, will, or knowledge of the individual" (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1975). Because of sensationalized journalistic accounts, however, "brainwashing" took on a sinister, mysterious connotation. Lifton's (1961) concept of "thought reform," besides being a more accurate translation of the Chinese term than "brainwashing," helped explain, in addition to confessions by internees, the remarkable but nonviolent and noncoercive psychological changes produced in Chinese civilians in nonprison settings. Schein's work (1956, 1961) also clearly demonstrated that neither a prison setting nor physical threats are needed to effect thought reform.
Following the Korean conflict, valuable, though sometimes controversial, psychological research helped illuminate the processes by which individuals could be controlled. Asch's (1952) conformity studies, Milgram's (1974) shock experiments, and Zimbardo's (Zimbardo, Ebbesen, & Maslach, 1977) prison role-play experiment are merely some of the more well-known experiments (see Cialdini, 1984, for a review of the social psychological research).
As this academic work proceeded, other significant events rekindled the public's interest in influence and control processes. Charles Manson's diabolical control over a group of middle-class youths shocked the world during the early 1970s (Atkins, 1978; Bugliosi & Gentry, 1974; Watkins, 1979). By the mid-1970s, thousands of families in the United States were puzzled and alarmed about the influence a vast array of new gurus, messiahs, and mind-manipulators had over their offspring. Then on November 18, 1978 Jim Jones led 912 followers to death in a Guyanese jungle (Reiterman & Jacobs, 1982). This tragedy brought the concept of thought reform to the attention of the world.
After Jonestown, public interest in cultic groups increased significantly. Initially, most attention focused on religious cults, especially those with bizarre trappings or an exotic, eastern flavor. But as time passed, cultic features attributed to fringe Christian groups (Enroth, 1986), large-group awareness trainings (Cinnamon & Farson, 1979; Finkelstein, Wenegrat, & Yalom, 1982;), controversial drug rehabilitation programs (Gerstel, 1982; Hawkins, 1980; Hawkins & Wacker, 1983; Mitchell, Mitchell, & Ofshe, 1980; Rebhan, 1983), and psychotherapy groups (Temerlin & Temerlin, 1982, 1986) led to a broader application, and consequent confusion, of the terms "cult" and "thought reform." We here propose a clarification: cult refers to a particular power structure and thought reform refers to a particular kind of social and psychological influence process. A group practicing thought reform need not necessarily be a cult, but a cult usually will practice thought reform in order to maintain its power structure.
Thought Reform: First and Second Generation Programs
Lifton (1961) described "eight psychological themes which are predominant within the social field of the thought reform milieu" (Lifton, 1961, p. 420): 1) milieu control, 2) mystical manipulation, 3) the demand for purity, 4) the cult of confession, 5) the sacred science, 6) loading the language, 7) doctrine over person, 8) the dispensing of existence.
Ofshe and Singer (1986) were the first to distinguish between "first generation of interest programs," which Lifton's work helped illuminate, and "second generation of interest programs," on which Ofshe and Singer (1986) focused. First generation of interest programs included Soviet and Chinese programs designed to extract false confessions, inculcate desired political and social beliefs, and ensure conformity and obedience to the demands of leaders. The "management" of these state-sponsored, first-generation thought reform programs controlled at the start the material and social sources of feedback and reward/punishment for persons in the program. Through the skillful use of aversive arousal and peer pressure, leaders succeeded in altering the expressed political beliefs and attitudes of targeted persons.
Second generation of interest programs, such as are associated with cultic groups, also tend to be nonviolent and, furthermore, lack the physical power and authority of the state. Therefore, in order to control targets, these programs have had to rely on subterfuge and capitalize on natural areas of overlap between themselves and prospects. Like first generation programs, second generation programs use social influence techniques, tactics, and strategies that are well-documented in social psychological, marketing, and social-anthropological research literature (Cialdini, 1984; Gerstel, 1982; Hawkins, 1980; Hawkins & Wacker, 1983; Nader, 1990; Rebhan, 1983; Zimbardo et al., 1977). It is noteworthy that more persons break down psychologically in the second generation of interest thought reform programs, which lack the near-constant personal monitoring of subjects in first generation programs (Hinkle & Wolff, 1956; Lifton, 1961; Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer & Ofshe, 1990).
Second generation of interest programs initially present themselves as benevolent, promising to fulfill the needs of prospects. Recruiters shower much attention and other positive reinforcement on prospects. Seemingly intimate and caring conversations enable recruiters to assess the psychological and social states of prospects, to learn about their needs, fears, dependency potential, and actual and possible resistances. Testimonies from group members, credentials (whether valid or bogus) of leaders, attacks on the group's competitors, and prospects' favorable reaction to members' seemingly warm and caring attentiveness tend to support the group's claim of benevolence and superiority, and to convince prospects that they will benefit by joining the group.
Those prospects who do commit to the group are rarely aware of the subtle techniques of persuasion and control shaping their behavior, thoughts, and feelings. The apparently loving unanimity of the group masks strict rules against private as well as public dissent. Questions are deflected; critical comments are met with smiling pleas of "no negativity," or some other "thought-terminating cliche," to use one of Lifton's terms. If prospects or new members persist in "negativity," they will be reminded of personal problems, doubts, and guilty memories that they have revealed to leaders. Doubt and dissent are thus interpreted as symptoms of personal deficiency.
Prospects and new members slide down a spiral of increasing dependence on the group. They are often encouraged or ordered to live with other group members. In many cases, they even work with other members. People outside the group are viewed as spiritually, psychologically, or socially inferior, or as impediments to the members' development. In order to "advance" at a satisfactory pace, members must spend long hours involved in various exercises deemed necessary by the group. In short, members spend more and more time with and under the direction of the group.
To ensure continuation of the group's rewards (praise, attention, promise of future benefits, etc.), members must implicitly, if not explicitly, acknowledge the group's authority in defining what is real, good, and true. In order to ensure that this acknowledgment is not mere lip service, the group continually challenges and tests members by establishing extremely high, if not impossible, expectations regarding activities (e.g., fund-raising, recruiting new members) and personal "development" (e.g., to be free of "negative" thoughts and doubts). Because dissent, doubt, and negativity are forbidden, members must project a facade of "happiness" and agreement while struggling to achieve the impossible. Those who fail to project the requisite facade (because, for example, they admit, usually with much guilt, to harboring doubts about the group) are attacked and punished, sometimes viciously. Those who persist in "failing through honesty" are, by one means or another, driven out of or ejected from the group. Those who succeed, whether without punishment or after punishment, do so because they learn to deceive themselves and others. They learn, much like hypnotic subjects exhibiting trance logic, how to convince themselves that the group is always right, even if it contradicts itself. Increasing isolation from the world outside the group, exhausting attention to activities serving the group, and hours practicing exercises that induce dissociative states (e.g., meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues) facilitate this splitting process, which in certain instances resembles what Lifton (1987) calls "doubling." Psychological splitting enables members to adapt to the group's double agenda, i.e., its contradictory sets of social rules. Members find themselves in a "loyalty/betrayal funnel" (MacDonald, 1988): if they remain loyal to their own perceptions about self and world, they betray the group on which they have become inordinately dependent; if they remain loyal to the group, they betray their own perception of what is real, good, and true. Dissent thus places members in a "funnel" from which there is no escape and which leads inevitably to betrayal either of themselves or the group. Hence, second-generation thought reform programs "attack the core sense of being -- the central self-image, the very sense of realness and existence of the self. In contrast, the attack of first-generation programs is on a peripheral property of self, one's political and social views" (Ofshe & Singer, 1986, p. 18). If second-generation programs, which operate in free, open societies, did not attack central elements of members' selves, they would not survive. Information from outside the group would neutralize peripheral political and social indoctrination, much as it did to thought reform victims when they were released from captivity in Korea, China, and elsewhere. Psychotherapy Cults: Case Examples General Background
Psychotherapy cults may arise from the distortion and corruption of long-term individual therapy (Temerlin and Temerlin, 1982; Conason and McGarrahan, 1986) or group psychotherapy (Hochman, 1984), or may be started by a variety of nonprofessionals (West and Singer, 1982; Singer, 1983, 1986). Leaders of groups reported on here ranged from college faculty members to a paroled felon with less than a high school education.
The authors have independently studied 22 psychotherapy cults over recent years. The groups ranged in size from 15 persons to two groups which at their peak had more than 300 members. The larger of these two groups had 350 live-in and 400 peripheral members. The groups have existed from 5 to 25 years, and all but one are still in existence. Fifteen were led by professionally trained persons (psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers) who as time went on tended to raise former patients to "therapist" status in the groups. Seven were run by nonprofessionals (ranging from former clerks to convicted felons). The "therapists" were, with one exception, Caucasian. The patients were primarily middle class to upper middle class Caucasians with some college or advanced degrees. The groups were located in six states.
Traditional methods of field research in the behavioral sciences were followed. Personal interviews were conducted with as many informants from a group as were available. Documents (legal, media, in-house papers and published writings) were examined. When available, tapes made by the group leaders and group members while they were still in the group were reviewed. When possible, multiple informants were interviewed. Although in a few instances only one or two members of a group were available for study, as many as thirty-seven informants from one group were interviewed. Interviews ranged from two hours to dozens of hours per group. Some persons came to two of the authors for therapy; some were met in the context of litigation; some were sought out because of community knowledge of their experiences. Many persons whom we interviewed were excluded from this report because they had been the victims of abusive, illegal, or aberrant therapy practices in a setting that did not meet the definition of a cult. Dr. Temerlin interviewed and/or treated 38 persons (17 in long-term psychotherapy). Dr. Singer interviewed and/or treated 82 persons.
Trainees as followers. The senior author studied a cultic group that evolved when a psychiatrist and his wife offered their clinic as a supervision placement for students working on advanced degrees in psychology and counseling. The trainees are induced to move onto the property owned by the couple, to get money from their families for therapy with the man and wife, and to follow only this one form of therapy in other field-work placements. The couple induces followers to believe that only this therapy can save them and the world. The patient-trainees are induced to get younger siblings to move in and pay for therapy and to recruit other trainees at their schools to join the "movement." The group has grown and moved to a rural setting where they are involved in running a residential treatment program for severely psychotic patients. The followers maintain the property, care for the psychotics, attempt to recruit other trainees and patients, and, as in the groups Temerlin and Temerlin studied (see below), are compiling and attempting to edit the taped ramblings of the leaders.
Temerlin and Temerlin. In 1982 Temerlin and Temerlin reported on five bizarre groups of mental health professionals which were formed when five teachers of psychotherapy consistently ignored ethical prohibitions against multiple relationships with clients. Patients became their therapists' friends, lovers, relatives, employees, colleagues, and students.
Simultaneously they became "siblings" who bonded together to admire and support their common therapist. (p. 131) The improprieties of role violations by the therapists were compounded by their use of indirect, deceptive, and coercive influence techniques which led patients to comply with therapists' wishes. These therapists violated ethical prohibitions against forming exploitative relationships with clients, misusing therapeutic techniques, and manipulating therapeutic relationships to the advantage of the therapists. These cults were formed when professionals deviated from an ethically based, fee-for-service, confidential relationship with clients and brought clients together to form cohesive, psychologically incestuous groups. Leaders were idolized rather than transferences studied and understood. Instead of personal autonomy being encouraged, patients were led into submissive, obedient, dependent relationships with their therapists. Their thinking eventually resembled what Hoffer saw in the "True Believers" (1951) and what Lifton (1961) termed "totalistic." That is, the clients were induced to accept uncritically their therapists' theories, to grow paranoid toward the outside world, to limit relationships and thinking to the elite world created by the cult-producing therapists, and to selflessly devote themselves to their therapists. The groups studied by Temerlin and Temerlin varied in size from 15 to 75 members and existed from 10 to 15 years.
The Sullivanians. For some years the media have reported the allegations made by former members of a New York group called the Sullivanians. The allegations, usually brought out in child custody suits, have been presented in the press since at least 1975 (Black, 1975). Recently, nearly identical allegations have been presented in other custody cases (Conason & McGarrahan, April 22, 1986; Henican, 1988; Lewin, 1988; McMorris, June 3, 1988; Reed, 1988; Span, 1988). Lewin (1988) stated:
For twenty years, the Sullivanians have been a quiet presence in Manhattan -- a collective whose 200 members live together in three buildings on the Upper West Side and run the Fourth Wall Repertory Company, a political theater group in the East Village. (B.1)
But many of those who left the group say the Sullivanians have become a bizarre psychotherapy cult whose leaders control every aspect of the members' lives, including their living arrangements, sexual practices, choice of profession, hobbies, child-rearing practices, and required thrice-weekly therapy sessions with a member of the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychotherapy. (B.1)
A father explains:
The basic idea of the group is that the nuclear family is the root of all evil, and that a child shouldn't have a special relationship with his parents, just as adult Sullivanians aren't supposed to talk to their parents. … Everyone, even the kids, is supposed to have as many "dates" as possible. I calculated that in one week, my son had dates with 23 different people. I don't want him to live like that. (Lewin, 1988, B.1)
Lewin (1988) further reports that group members -- even those who are married to each other -- live in apartments with more than a dozen roommates of the same sex and are encouraged to sleep with a different member of the opposite sex each night.
The group reportedly began in 1957 when a group of dissident therapists broke away from the William Alanson White Institute, which had been founded by Harry Stack Sullivan. Interviews with twelve former members of the group and an examination of legal documents (Dobash v. Bray, 1985; Sprecher v. Sprecher, 1985) and media reports, such as those cited earlier, revealed that what had started out as a therapy center evolved into a psychotherapy collective and finally into a cultic organization that controlled almost all areas of so-called "patients'" lives. Litigation between former and current members is still in progress in the New York Supreme Court (Dobash v. Bray, 1985; Sprecher v. Sprecher, 1985).
Center for Feeling Therapy. Hochman (1984), writing about a now defunct school of psychotherapy, the Center for Feeling Therapy, described the many iatrogenic symptoms he found in former clients and patients who had been members of this group:
A cult that is destructive … veers toward remolding the individual to conform to codes and needs of the cult, institutes new taboos that preclude doubt and criticism, and produces a kind of splitting where cult members see themselves as an elite surrounded by unenlightened, and even dangerous, outsiders. (p. 367)
This group, which lasted approximately ten years, consisted of 350 patients living near one another and sharing homes in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles. Hundreds more were nonresident outpatients, and others communicated with "therapists" by letter. (Some therapists were licensed, others allegedly were patients assigned to be therapists.) Maximum benefit supposedly came only to residents, and patients were led to see themselves as the potential leaders of a therapy movement that would dominate the 21st century. The leaders promulgated a "theory" which maintained that individuals function with "reasonable insanity." But if they learn to "go 100%" in five areas -- expression, feeling, activity, clarity, and contact -- they can put aside their "old images" and become "sane," which was defined as the "full experiencing of feelings." This latter, ambiguous objective was purported to be the attainment of the next stage in human evolution (Mithers, August 1988).
Numerous legal actions (Hart et al. v. McCormack et al., 1985; Raines et al. v. Center Foundation, 1985; State of California, Board of Behavioral Science Examiners v. Cirincione, 1985; State of California, Psychology Examining Committee, Division of Allied Health Professions, Board of Medical Quality Assurance v. Corriere, Gold, Hart, Hopper and Karle, 1985; State of California, Board of Medical Quality Assurance, Department of Consumer Affairs' Board of Medical Quality Assurance v. Woldenberg, 1985; Timnick, April 21, 1986, September 30, 1987) concern the Center for Feeling Therapy. In her work on several of these cases, Dr. Singer interviewed 37 former members of this group and studied 92 affidavits, countless legal documents, and dozens of hours of taped therapy sessions. Dr. Temerlin also interviewed a number of former members and studied the cited collateral sources. (The exact number is not known as Dr. Temerlin died before this paper was completed.)
In these legal cases, which are cited above, defendants were charged with extreme departures from the standards of psychology, the standards of medicine, and the standards of psychotherapeutic care, including the following allegations:
- Created a sense of powerlessness in purported patients by stripping them of social support (friendship, kinship, ordinary environment, central occupational roles, wealth) and psychological confidence (through ridicule and creating states of physical exhaustion), and then enforced massive new learning demands through a reward/punishment mechanism (including threatened loss of status, anxiety and guilt manipulations, and physical punishment, as well as sexual harassment).
- Utilized racial, religious, and ethnic slurs, physical and verbal humiliation, physical, especially sexual abuse, threats of insanity and violence, and enforced states of physical and mental exhaustion.
- Represented to Center patients that they should hate and blame their parents for making the patients "crazy," give up their children for adoption, and have abortions, ostensibly because Center members were too "crazy" to be parents.
- Engaged in sexual intimacies with patients, beat and caused patients to be beaten by other patients, allowed and encouraged nonlicensed "therapists" to conduct unsupervised therapy sessions.
- Clients were instructed to strip to their underwear and stand in a "stress position" with legs bent for an hour-and-a-half.
- Collected "donations" running into thousands of dollars from individual patients for the proposed building of a gym on the Center grounds but used the money to buy a ranch with other therapists in Arizona. • Patients were made to stand naked in front of groups; patients were ordered to inspect the genitals of other patients in front of groups.
- A male patient, who wanted to return to college to study music rather than work as a mechanic in a Center business, was made to wear diapers, sleep in a crib, and eat baby food for eight weeks because his therapist said the patient wanted to live his life like a baby.
Timnick (1986), calling the Center "a once-trendy therapeutic community," reported that the above legal hearings have "become the longest, costliest, and most complex psychotherapy malpractice case in California history" (p. 3). More than 100 former patients filed complaints of fraud, sexual misconduct, and abuse. Civil cases have settled for more than six million dollars on behalf of former clients (Timnick, 1987).
"Dr. Tim." A forty-year-old, divorced, licensed, clinical psychologist developed a cultic following in 1971, a portion of which still exists even though he has been dead several years. Dr. Tim had clients move into his house. He charged them a monthly therapy fee plus room and board and directed their lives. Dr. Tim and most of his followers fled overseas together from an eastern state when legal charges were filed against him, including accusations that he engaged in sex with minors. The group lived communally for about seven years, until once again similar legal charges threatened the leader. The group moved a third time, returning to a western state.
Once developed, the group averaged forty members, including a few children. There was a fair turnover in membership during the thirteen years the group existed even though Dr. Tim warned that leaving him would cause them to lead lives of mental suffering. Patients recruited replacements for anyone who left. Leaving was difficult, however, as Dr. Tim sent the largest men in the group to retrieve anyone who left and who could be located. Persons who tried to leave openly were physically restrained.
Dr. Tim told clients that he was "more enlightened than Jesus…and had created the ultimate therapy, combining Freud, Zen, Kundalini yoga, and LSD." The latter, he said, was to "override their egos."
No criticism or complaints were tolerated by Tim, as such indicated "being in your head," rather than "in your feelings." Anything other than feeling was labeled "being in your stuff" and, therefore, an indication of your mental disorder.
In an initial individual therapy session, Dr. Tim privately diagnosed each new member as showing covert signs of a severe mental illness (e.g., paranoid schizophrenia, manic-depression) and announced that only he could cure the person.
In group sessions members were confronted, humiliated, and chastised by him as "dumb, stupid, and crazy." They were told that their parents, especially their mothers, had caused their mental illness and they were to "dissociate" from them, except as sources of money for therapy. All phone calls involving parents were surreptitiously taped and played in group therapy sessions to demonstrate how harmful parents were to the patients.
Therapy included replacing intellectual careers with menial physical labor, ostensibly "to learn about the body, to have Zen experiences, and to learn to feel." It also appears, however, that Dr. Tim wanted house and yard servants.
Additionally, the amounts and regularity of LSD he encouraged followers to use impaired attendance and performance at many jobs. Furthermore, low-paying jobs in nearby motels and resorts made it very difficult for "patients" to accrue money and flee the group. Dr. Tim also indoctrinated members to believe that the group was all the "family" and friends they needed. After all, he maintained, they lived in a big house and had access to cars, sex, and therapy such as is not available elsewhere.
Since Dr. Tim claimed that families were harmful, he broke up and prevented marriages, had children raised by "the group" and not the mothers. He also promoted homosexual as well as heterosexual contacts. He desensitized males by having four or five men live in a bedroom together and mutually masturbate. Then he introduced as a yoga practice having the men lie on the floor with one middle finger in their mouth and the other middle finger in another man's anus while the same was done to them. While supervising these sessions, Dr. Tim would berate the men, who were bewildered because he had prescribed the practice. Dr. Tim had sexual liaisons with many of the women, several men, and certain teenage girls whose single parents were in the group. One nine-year-old girl reportedly was kept in her room for the major portion of three years, with group members often forgetting her food because they were "stoned" on drugs. Dr. Tim owned all property and cars and often used material he had learned in individual therapy sessions as leverage to cause patients to turn property and possessions over to him.
Soon after moving back to the West Coast, a number of followers left. Some went to legal authorities, only to learn that Dr. Tim had not kept up his licensure or insurance. Dr. Tim died of cancer shortly after returning to the West Coast. A small group of his former "patients" still live near one another and meet to extol his virtues and wonder why their lives have "never worked." Their confusion continues twenty years after Dr. Tim started the group, which he promised would cure and free them. Ex-members claim that they and the group who still cling to Dr. Tim's memory have been lastingly damaged.
Nonprofessional Therapy Cults
Parolees on the East Coast developed two psychological cults in states that have no laws regulating psychological practices. The men drew upon their own group therapy experiences during incarceration to develop restrictive, cultic groups when they returned to their communities. One group was based upon "primal scream" techniques, the other upon confrontational attack therapy of a type often labeled a "Synanon-clone" program.
Case One. The first man operated out of a second floor apartment in a busy metropolitan neighborhood. He recruited from nearby coffee houses, bookstores, and diners by approaching single males and females and inviting them to have coffee and talk with him about his "therapy." Sometimes he used posters offering free lectures on "sex, psychology, and loneliness." His street smarts, con-artist skills, and jargon combined to convey intense attention and seductiveness. He secured detailed histories in private sessions, later using that material in group sessions to demonstrate how "pained and damaged" each person was. He charged modest fees for initial meetings, but over time developed costly "intensives." He assembled extensive information about each person's financial status, family, "hang-ups," and social contacts. He combined this information with his own interpretations of primal scream techniques to strip individuals of their defenses and make them increasingly dependent on him. About fifteen persons over the past eight years have spent their free time with him, returning from work to his place for their primal sessions, seeing him individually several times a week, and relying on him for most life decisions. Several college students secured money from parents to purchase "therapy" from him. He asked that all fees be paid in cash. There has been turn-over in followers, but a few have been present since he began the group.
Case Two. The second group was begun by a parolee described as a middle-class, fortyish man who had learned confrontational attack therapy while in a drug rehabilitation program to which he had been remanded in lieu of prison time. His history reveals a character-disordered man, who upon leaving his drug rehabilitation program, saw the economic advantages of providing "therapy" to troubled, employed adults in a state that has no legal requirements about who can proclaim themselves to be psychotherapists. Using his assured, smooth, aggressive, and controlling ways, he "set up shop." Initially, he attracted a few clients by initiating cafe and restaurant conversations, later instructing them to recruit their friends and families. Later, he enlisted the cooperation of a psychiatrist and psychologist. They were to "screen" and "study" certain of his clients, apparently to create an aura of "science and credibility." Legal documents (not cited here in order to protect the anonymity of peripheral parties) suggested that no one he sent for screening was ever screened out or referred to more appropriate medical or psychological treatment and the research withered into a mere folder of random notes, drawings, and invoices for services.
For more than ten years he has controlled the lives of a group averaging sixty persons. Under his orders, these followers have limited their friendships to the group, severed relationships with their families of origin, spent most of their free time, including vacations, with him, and structured their lives after his dictates. He directs marathon confrontational groups, gives individual counseling, supervises the medical, financial, and social lives of his "clients," and has them spend their vacations with him in a suburban plot they have helped finance in his name.
Case three. In another state, a man dropped his business career and began a cult composed primarily of airline flight attendants. He has participated in many encounter, sensitivity, and large group awareness training programs, and has had considerable personal therapy. He has read widely in "pop" psychology and skillfully uses various psychotherapy, interviewing, interpretative, confrontational, and defense-stripping techniques. He frequented restaurants near a local airport late at night. With a cup of coffee and the evening paper, he would politely approach a uniformed, female flight attendant who was eating alone and ask to share her table. Explaining that he was a single parent caring for his young children who were at home with a sitter, he inquired about the woman's career and family and did a quick screening interview to locate lonely, vulnerable, trusting women. He made no sexual overtures, but as the woman was finishing her meal he wrote his address and phone number on a card and said in effect, "Tomorrow evening some friends are dropping by. I'll be giving a little talk summarizing some of the reading and reflecting on psychology that I've been doing lately and have a few snacks and drinks for my friends. Please drop by if you can." He eventually induced a number of women to move into his large home, pay rent, make "donations" for the group "lectures," and receive psychological "counseling" from him. Eventually he induced his live-in "patients," whom he counseled intensively, to limit their social life to the group and avoid former friends, family, and lovers. He met individually with each woman, repeatedly "analyzing" her past negative experiences and developing an intense "transference" relationship in which he was able to get each woman increasingly dependent on him. While there has been a turnover in membership, he has managed to develop a coterie of several long-term women followers who, when they are in town, are given the honor of being his lovers, baby-sitters, and housekeepers. The women more on the periphery are subjected to intense "uncovering" sessions in which he interprets their motivations and seeks to evoke intense "cathartic experiences." Those who move more centrally into his domain replace those who move out.
Case four. Yet another cultic group was started about eight years ago by Ray, a man with no credentials. He has maintained a group averaging about 30 members during this period. A major portion of these followers are psychologists and graduate trainees in psychology. Ray attracts these professionals through widely publicized advertisements for seminars on empowerment. He states that he will teach them how to "merge, transform, and marry (their) own experience." He claims he is "totally free, and if you want freedom badly enough, the universe just lays down at your feet." He sells three-week basic trainings, usually held at attractive vacation resorts, in which he promises ways to "constantly recreate the self…how to bring no agendas with you and be totally free." These skills in personal "being" are promised to make participants better therapists and "free" persons.
Ray selectively recruits certain attendees of the seminars to move to his home near a large city where he avers that they will "transform, loosen up, learn to surrender, be in service, and get off their holding positions, and will learn to trust." Importantly enough, he has a "trust fund" to which followers are urged to contribute "cash only, no checks, no credit cards."
After they move in, Ray tells his followers that they are "losers who should surrender their lives to him as he is the Master Guide." Since most are professionals and from other states, they often have difficulty getting jobs because of licensing and other problems. Thus, most are forced to work at low-paying jobs or to borrow money in order to partake of Ray's offerings.
Followers who leave report a constant pressure to be "new and active," even as Ray tells them they are losers and puts them through odd and degrading "treatments." These persons report that while they were in the group they were depressed, demoralized, and chronically anxious about how to "be." Their self-esteem was crushed, and they felt dependent, wrong, and anxiously looking to Ray for behavioral clues. The predominant atmosphere of the group was a contrast between Ray's high energy and their dependent, used role. Former followers describe Ray as seeming to be the most innocent, the most tender, and yet the most ruthless man they ever met. He berates his followers to "recreate yourself by transforming, merging, and indulging -- marry that experience. I'm going to empower you."
One experienced psychologist in his late thirties gave up his administrative career in a reputable clinic to be in the group for several years. He remarked, "Somehow when I was around him, I lost my sense of self; I lost all my knowledge, all my diagnostic skills. I failed to recognize a brilliant psychopath had control over me." The group continues to thrive, and Ray now has two large facilities to house followers.
The groups reported on here, whether started by trained therapists or nonprofessionals, grew out of the leaders' assuming multiple and controlling roles over the lives of so-called patient-followers. The leaders of these psychotherapy cults seemed to corrupt and exaggerate "trendy" notions in psychology and pop-psychology and to make unlimited claims for personal powers and skills. Thus, they constantly denigrated parents, marriage, and the family unit and extolled the raw expression of "feelings" while putting down intellect and reason as hindrances to personal growth.
Some, but not all, of the leaders widely promulgated the "getting out of your head" notion and, consequently, had followers drop technical or professional careers. In many cases, the resulting drop in income rendered followers even more dependent on the leader.
The personality, character traits, and fantasy lives of the leaders of such cultic groups appear to color and direct the paths a particular group takes. Several high-energy, glib, psychopath-like leaders, for example, created groups that they stirred into continual activity. In one case, a leader told a follower to move his residence 25 times in two months. In other cases, such as Dr. Tim's homosexual group sessions, the leader slowly desensitized the members' consciences and inhibitions in order to persuade them to take up conduct and values that enabled the leader to live out his fantasies, such as being a powerful person, being above the law, not having to earn a living, being cared for by devoted followers, indulging in unbridled sexual acts, etc. Temerlin and Temerlin's early work involving trained therapists functioning as cult leaders (Temerlin & Temerlin, 1982, 1986) identified the major features of the psychotherapy cults reported on here. They wrote:
charismatic psychotherapists can so manipulate the therapeutic relationship that they produce groups which function much like destructive religious cults…The techniques used by cult therapists…a) increase dependence, b) increase isolation, c) reduce critical thinking capacity, and d) discourage termination of therapy. (Temerlin & Temerlin, 1986, p. 234)
Subsequent research, reported on here, extended Temerlin & Temerlin's findings to psychotherapy cults produced by nonprofessionals. Like other types of cults, psychotherapy cults tend to employ coordinated programs of exploitative influence and behavioral control in order to subjugate members to the needs and wishes of leaders. These groups well illustrate the processes that characterize a thought reform program, and they clearly show how leaders attack and undermine followers' sense of self, thereby depriving them of the capacity to make autonomous, informed judgments about the world and themselves.
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We are grateful to Jane Temerlin, M.S.W., wife and colleague of the late Dr. Maurice Temerlin, for her assistance in completing this manuscript, which meant so much to her husband.
This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1990, Volume 7, Number 2, pages 101-125. Book Review
Churches That Abuse. Ronald M. Enroth. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, xi + 231 pages, no index, 1992.
Review by Margaret Thaler Singer Emeritus Adjunct Professor of Psychology University of California at Berkeley
In prior works sociologist Ronald Enroth has demonstrated the poignancy and power of case studies to bring alive the interactions between leaders and followers in a range of current religious groups (The Jesus People; The Gay Church; Youth, Brainwashing and the Extremist Cults; and The Lure of the Cults).
In this new book, case histories of individuals, couples, and families whose lives have been devastated by the abusive practices of power-driven leaders are presented in detail. Further, Enroth outlines the backgrounds of the pastors and how the groups evolved. The pastors and groups are named. The authoritarian, idiosyncratic practices rationalized by these abusive pastors are detailed.
Most useful are the explanations of why the social and psychological influence techniques work. Their impact on the lives and psychology of members is explicated.
The reader is taken through the processes Enroth used so that his conclusions can be shared. He faced the tasks that those who work with a variety of victims face, namely, conveying that victims do not seek out abuse, nor do they remain with their abusers because they like abuse, nor are they stupid folk. These victims most often are altruistic, trusting persons who may be somewhat naïve, somewhat gullible, but who enter groups because of the global, glowing promises touted to be the path to honor God, to improve the self, and to aid humankind.
Enroth faced the task of exposing the psychological, social, and financial methods unscrupulous pastors use to enroll, train, and retain followers. Without accomplishing this, he could not overcome the centuries-old prejudice that causes many individuals, including some clergy, to blame victims. He has been able to lead readers to see what thought-reform programs are, and how mind control works, that is, how the enticements affect the decision making and commitments of the person who enters and stays in an abusive group.
He accomplished his two central goals: to educate readers about the processes involved so that they can grasp the techniques and methods of pastoral influence, control, and abuse; and to outline the vast range of consequences "psychological, spiritual, social, and financial" suffered by those dominated and controlled by abusive pastors gone astray on personal power trips.
There has been a need for someone of Enroth's stature in both the academia of sociology and Christian scholarship to study and convey the abusive power that pastors gone astray can wield using guilt, fear, and intimidation to control their members. Beyond that, Enroth explicates the details of the processes so that readers can grasp how common, centuries-old manipulative techniques are put into play by the unscrupulous and why such techniques work.
Enroth identified 10 sets of features he found in abusive churches: control-oriented leadership, spiritual elitism, manipulation of members, perceived persecution, life-style rigidity, emphasis on experience, suppression of dissent, harsh discipline of members, denunciation of other churches, and the infliction of painful exit processes.
An overview of the churches described indicates that control was obtained over every aspect of temporal life "ranging from dress codes, the space between parishioners in pews, the kinds of cookies eaten, the assigning of marital partners, the destruction of marriages, the separating of families" to the point that the readers see that individuals were led to replace their conscience and internal accountability with leader-dominated dictates that reflected that man's personal desires. (Few were woman pastors, and most of the pastors were self-appointed rather than ordained.)
These leaders went about training followers to join into a world created by their sermons. The teachings and preachings of abusive pastors produced self-created islands where followers were taught (deceived, coerced, manipulated) through fear, guilt, intimidation, and the use of thought-reform or mind-control techniques to accept values and conduct that relabeled reality. When looked at dispassionately, reality was reinterpreted in order to construct a church with doctrines that permitted the pastor to have excuses to indulge in whatever sexual, financial, or social habits he desired and to establish unchallenged power. These men were not teaching Christianity; they were using their assumed power to produce a group in which whatever they wanted to do was taught as "doctrine." One way of phrasing what the abusive pastors appear to reason is to say, "If I create a community that obeys my rules, these rules are then reality, and if I declare myself a pastor I can put God's imprimatur on my wishes, my fantasies, my desires."
One pastor, who began with the prominent theme of "submitting to him," was not slow to set into play the practice of "dancing before the Lord" (individuals dancing before the congregation) which was eventually transformed by pastoral instruction into "intimate dancing" with one's "spiritual connection." To an outside observer, the pastor had set into play a sequencing of desensitizing activities and mental rationalizations in the thinking and decision-making process of followers that led them to accept very sensual, overtly sexual dancing with a nonmarital partner with implied permission to extend that relationship into intimacy. Relabeling and endorsement of conduct by the pastor gave acceptance to conduct that had devastating effects on individuals, marriages, and families. To the outside observer, the pastor had created explanations under the guise of spiritual teachings that instituted practices that permitted him to indulge in behavior not condoned by either the Christian or secular society.
This semantic reframing was not an isolated instance, but rather a technique widely used by a number of pastors who instituted a plethora of practices not designed to promote Christianity, nor to promote better spiritual and temporal lives for followers, but as ways to permit themselves to instigate practices that gave them what they wanted and permitted them to do as they pleased. They reframed or renamed behavioral practices with spiritual endorsements in order to rationalize what they wanted done, to make possible indulgences in otherwise nonacceptable behavior, to enhance their domination, and to increase their realms of control.
One of the excellent features of Enroth's presentation is his use of examples of pastoral conduct to illustrate psychological concepts that assist readers who are victims themselves to understand what has happened to them. However, the same device allows clergy, psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians, and others in the helping professions to grasp the mechanics of the influence techniques and to sense the psychological changes these induce.
For example, in discussing the state of unreality many former members of abusive groups experience while they are in the groups, Enroth illustrates the frequently used psychological concept of the "double bind" to explain the actual irreconcilable contradictions found in the exhortations of the abusive pastors. One pastor preached to women to model themselves after his wife and not to appear like "worldly women" and draw attention to themselves. His wife wore a wig, false eyelashes, spiked heels, and as some parishioners commented in their interviews, The wife looked more like the prostitute Jezebel than the godly wife of Proverbs 31.
This book contains a near-complete catalogue of techniques and conduct used to produce what is termed "swallow-follow" methods of totalitarian controls used by the abusive pastors. It illustrates the technical concept of thought reform and makes the popular term of mind control understandable.
The author summarizes certain lingering problems (p. 185) he has noted in victims, such as difficulty relating to supervisory personnel in the workplace; difficulty trusting new friends, acquaintances, and workmates, all while feeling guilty for having a judgmental attitude; experiencing deep fears of abandonment by a spouse, death of one's children, or never again having a date.
He also lists the areas in which healing must occur: between victims and their friends, family, and spouses (who are often pitted against one another by the abusive pastors), and reconciliation with children (often badly abused and neglected by parents at the instigation of the leader). Finding confidence again to approach group or church affiliation and overcoming distorted spirituality are part of a long list of problems to sort out and deal with on the path to recovery.
Enroth sees some troublesome tendencies: it seems that we have a need to create evangelical gurus, Christian celebrities, superpastors in megachurches, and miscellaneous teachers and experts that we place on pastoral pedestals. What is it about people, including evangelicals, that explains this apparent need for authority figures, the need to have someone co-sign for our lives? As David Gill noted years ago:
We want heroes! We want assurance that someone knows what is going on in this mad world. We want a father or a mother to lean on. We want revolutionary folk heroes who will tell us what to do until the rapture. We massage the egos of these demagogues and canonize their every opinion. We accept without a whimper their rationalizations of their errors and deviations (p. 205).
A theme throughout the book is that spiritual abuse can take place in the context of doctrinally sound, Bible-preaching, fundamentalist, conservative Christianity. All that is needed for abuse is a pastor accountable to no one and therefore beyond confrontation (p. 189). The author believes that tendencies toward abusive styles of leadership are more prevalent than most Christians realize (p. 205). Legalisms, and the destructive applications of discipleship, authority, shepherding, and abuses within charismatic groups are discussed.
Enroth concludes, in our homes, in our churches, and in our programs of Christian education, we must strive to cultivate critical, discerning minds if we are to avoid the tragedy of churches that abuse (p. 206).
This book brings information, insight, and direction to those helping and to those needing help after being abused by a wide range of churches. Individuals, couples, and families will find help here directly for themselves. Professionals offering guidance will find that this book spells out for them what has happened mentally, socially, spiritually, and financially to the victims of abusive churches.
This article was reprinted in Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1993. The review originally appeared in RADIX Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1992, and is reprinted with permission.
Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion By Marc Galanter
Marc Galanter. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. 230 Pages, $22.95. Reprinted with permission from the Cult Awareness Network News, August, 1989.
Review by Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley
Marc Galanter is a professor of psychiatry and Director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at the New York University School of Medicine.
Galanter's book, Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, appears at a time when scholars and the general public are searching for quality research and insight into cults, but it is unfortunate that this book fails in its purposes. It is marred by major defects. First Galanter equates highly diverse groups on the basis of a single feature which he terms charisma; he then relies on a markedly restricted and outdated list of references; and finally he analyzes cult membership only after a person has joined a group, ignoring until late in the book the active agency of cults in recruiting members. He views most cult members as distressed seekers who find "relief by joining" a group, thus adding to the literature on victim blaming. Galanter writes that his "purpose is to convey a psychological understanding of the charismatic group. …A charismatic group consists of a dozen or more members, even hundreds of thousands. …Members 1) have a shared belief system, 2) sustain a high level of social cohesiveness, 3) are strongly influenced by the group's behavioral norms, and 4) impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership" (p.5). He further writes, "Among these groups are cults and zealous religious sects; some highly cohesive self-improvement groups; and certain political action movements, among them some terrorist groups." Soon Galanter views cults, Alcoholics Anonymous and the Ayatollah Khomeini under the rubric of charismatic groups. He is aware that the Ayatollah sent to the Iran-Iraq war front "youth twelve to seventeen years,…unarmed…often bound together by ropes in groups of 20 to prevent the faint of heart from deserting"(p.194). Few persons familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and its non-coercive, non-violent, independence-promoting methods would attempt to explain its conduct in the same category with the Ayatollahs and many modern cults.
Galanter's two major reasoning problems are: he equates groups with extremely diverse conduct as similar by the very fact that he labels them charismatic–a single attribute is allowed to override their vast differences. He then offers a retrograde explanation of affiliation with a sect (read cult) after membership has occurred, neglecting to take into account the active recruiting tactics of the groups. These two tactics–calling diverse groups charismatic but ignoring their vast differences in conduct, and beginning his explanations about membership only after a person has become involved with a group–keep him in logical binds throughout the volume.
One common attribution (charismatic) among myriads of characteristics on which groups such as cults, the Ayatollah, and Alcoholics Anonymous differ, is not logically the most important characteristic in understanding their conduct. For example, elephants, lions, and sheep all breathe oxygen. However, elephants are herbivores with no natural predators; lions are carnivores with no natural predators, and sheep are herbivores who get preyed on a lot. It is their differences that are paramount in explaining their conduct. Their differences tell more about the conduct of these animals than the fact that all these organisms metabolize oxygen. Once Galanter has committed himself to the idea that cults, terrorists, and Alcoholics Anonymous are charismatic groups (never defining charismatic) and then adopts the premise that he is going to reason about membership only after affiliation with a group has occurred, he has many problems.
Galanter attempts to equate and analyze these diverse groups by applying concepts from systems theory, ethology, sociobiology, social psychology, and studies of altered states of consciousness. Yet in the end, he fails to meet his own goal of conveying "a psychological understanding of the charismatic group." In spite of forays into many theories of human behavior, and his awareness that group pressures, influence, and many psychological issues exist, he does not convey that he grasps how social influence and social and psychological coercion work upon any one human psyche. A reader expects a psychiatrist to offer an explanation of the inner mental states that result from the transactions between the mind of the new member and the conduct of the charismatic group. However, Galanter avoids dealing early on in the book with group recruitment practices, even though later he writes of subterfuge and deception in recruiting practices.
The author does not achieve any synthesis among his many notions about sect-cult-charismatic group memberships because he uses parts of many models to partially explain bits and pieces of members' behavior. A reader is never offered a unified conceptual framework. Galanter's assumptions are: 1) Distressed people experience relief on joining charismatic groups. 2) This "relief effect" keeps the member in the group and the group rewards conformity and acceptance, thus reinforcing the person's desire to remain. 3) Leaving the group produces distress. He then jumps from this perspective, to a "different scientific perspective–a systems approach. …In looking at a system, we do not first ask what motivates an individual member to act. Instead we say, How are the group needs met by the overall behavior observed in its membership?" It is jumps in reasoning like this which leave a reader with a smorgasbord of bits and pieces of theories and the feeling that Galanter does not consistently analyze his material, especially as he hesitates early on in the book to deal with the known, active recruiting tactics of the groups he has studied.
Before commenting on his efforts to apply many theories without truly seeming to understand how social influence actually operates, and offering little or no grasp of its "psychology," which he contends is his goal in the book, it is well to inspect his "bibliography" (which actually is a reference list). The citings are relatively outdated. Eighty percent were published before 1980. This is a real defect since the fields he purports to draw upon (systems theory, sociobiology, drug and alcohol abuse, and cult and terrorist studies) are each fast-developing fields with vast literatures accruing since 1980. Beyond being outdated, the references reflect a narrow and selective coverage of the fields. He cites only one reference on terrorists and fails to include a single work written by an ex-member of any cult. Further, from the vast array of books about cults, he notes only Conway and Siegelman. Thus, his references are dated, narrow, and nonrepresentative of the areas he purports to consider. In analyzing his premises and theses, one comes to see that in order to apply his selected ideas from theoretical fields, he had to avoid acknowledging a vast literature or he would have had quite a different book.
The index contains no headings labeled "cults, coercion, faith, or healing" the terms in the book title. In the text he applies the term "cult" only to small groups with little threat power, (the Word of God, p.108), writes of cults in the abstract, or labels now defunct groups such as the Peoples Temple, MOVE, the Manson Family, and Black Jesus as cults (p.192). Knowing the threat power of some of the large groups he terms sects, almost any author and publisher today attempts to avoid pre- and post-publication legal harassments. Perhaps now the terms sect or even charismatic group will become touchy ones.
Galanter writes in the preface that he found the study of "contemporary charismatic groups" compelling "because of the remarkable ability of these groups to exert influence on the thought and behavior of their members, often greater than our most potent treatments. An understanding of the 'cult' phenomenon might offer valuable insights in areas as diverse as the treatment of mental illness and the understanding of group violence." He then outlines the various theories and paradigms he used in his work, such as systems theory, sociobiology, and ethology.
Each of the above theories is based on a process-oriented, transactional vantage point. In studying a process, it is essential to heed the time, the circumstances, and the context in which any transaction between persons or systems occurs. A researcher must remain aware of where in an ongoing process he/she begins observing. Each theory Galanter relies on assumes a researcher is aware that he/she is cutting into an ongoing transactional process in which the researcher must take into account the prior states of the components of the system and the interaction process that begins upon contact. Sociobiology, systems theory, etc. each assumes a researcher has accurately noted the process between components at the point the researcher begins his observations and deals with the interaction effects one upon the other among the components. Once committed to his notion of the "relief effect," Galanter absolves the group from any active part in getting the member into the group. Thus, to Galanter, the new member was a distressed seeker who found a group. Let us look at an analogy.
Assume a woman is home watching television. The doorbell rings and an encyclopedia salesman introduces himself and his wares. Assume further that the salesman is able to sell a set of encyclopedias to the woman. Any analysis of this transaction or process, be it by the man next door, a systems theorist, a sociobiologist, etc., will note the salesman initiated the transaction. The woman did not go out seeking an encyclopedia salesman. Yet Galanter begins most of his analyses of membership in "charismatic groups" after a person has affiliated with a group–after the salesman has left, so to speak. He would reason the woman in the apartment was a distressed seeker of encyclopedias. For most of his book, in spite of his forays into theory, he reasons on the basis of a simple "distressed seeker looking for a group."
The author, in spite of later noting in his book that groups actively seek out new members, primarily uses a "seeker looking for a charismatic group" explanation of membership. He then unidirectionally attributes motivations.
Initially he uses a one-way attribution to explain membership (seekers were looking for, approached and voluntarily affiliated with a group.) Later in the volume, Galanter reveals he is not unaware of the subterfuge, deception and other practices that by this point in history many thousands of observers and former members have revealed about many of the groups Galanter describes. He says of the Unification Church: "Discussions with church members from different parts of the country indicated that during the peak recruitment years of the early 1970s about half the new members were brought into the sect by deceptive means" (p.135). "In the San Francisco Bay area, the major source of recruits for the sect, the process was generally surreptitious" (p.133). Having written of the "induction by subterfuge" (p.134), and the "covert recruitment techniques" (p.135), Galanter describes in a workshop he observed "communication was regulated…conversations and ideas that did not bear on the themes under discussion were discouraged…the balance between active members and non-member recruits during small group discussions also assured control by the leaders over communication…it was possible to suppress deviant points of view, often before they were expressed. Potential converts were therefore engaged throughout the two days in an organized agenda determined by the leadership, and designed to discourage ideas contrary to the group's perspective" (p.137).
The book contains a number of statements that are to say the least puzzling, for example: "A member's decision to leave the Unification Church reflects malfunction in the monitoring of the church" (p.61). He reports that group has "a center for the management of disturbed members" (p.172), after strongly positing that group membership produces a "relief effect." Of his research methods, he writes that members "answered a structured questionnaire anonymously and sent their responses to me for computer coding"(p.174). Then (p.175) he writes: "To learn more about the role of coercion in relation to member's attitudes, I arranged to have the project team designate which respondents had been deprogrammed based on their knowledge of each one" (p.175). A reader wonders how Galanter defines "anonymous" if his project team knew who the participants were and had in fact located the subjects for him. Both this follow-up study and his earlier current member study brings to awareness the many criticisms made by other researchers that "there are no secrets in the group." Thus when a member of a high control group is asked to be a study subject that member knows the rules and the consequences of violating them. Such a person often is dependent in all areas of life on the group, knows that deviance monitoring is central and ever-present, and knows that non-compliance has serious social, emotional, financial, and other consequences. When management administers a questionnaire, how "spontaneous" and "truthful" can answers be? How can anonymity be assured, especially in groups where members have themselves monitored mail, phone calls, and know that a "party line" has to be expressed to outsiders? Such persons are patently aware of the penalties for deviance from these prescribed attitudes. Answers to questionnaires administered and collected by management under conditions in which there is knowledge that deviation is not tolerated causes those evaluating such research to ask how much credence can be given the answers. Perhaps some of Galanter's own findings help to assess this, especially his contention that joining charismatic groups reduces distress, but later when ex-members fill out questionnaires, they reveal that distress was present during their membership.
The writer never really defines coercion but alludes to it as if there is only physical coercion. At the same time, he writes confusingly about Robert Lifton's seminal studies of thought reform. He refers (p.64) to Lifton's work as being about "brainwashing…in prison camps" citing Lifton's 1961 book which assiduously uses the term thought reform and was not about prisoner of war "prison camps" but about Chinese and western civilians' thought-reformed both inside prisons and in non-prison settings. Elsewhere after describing the system of social controls in the Oneida community, many of which he has cited as used presently in the charismatic groups, he writes: "These techniques stand in sharp contrast to the crude, coercive ones described by Lifton and others in their studies of brainwashing by the Chinese Communists" (p.40). Since Lifton wrote eloquently about social and psychological pressures, it is difficult to know what "crude" methods Galanter has in mind. His writings suggest he does not understand the power and effectiveness of social and psychological coercion. This leaves him with the limited notion that only physical brutality and physical force coercion exist. He eventually finds himself in a logical morass when he writes (p.64) about the sects he has studied explaining that: "In voluntary conversions contact must be maintained in a subtle (or deceptive) way, without forcing the individual to comply with the group's views." How voluntary is a conversion induced through deception? And how non- coercive in our society is deception? Is not deception a way of forcing compliance?
Another amazing statement is: "Members of charismatic groups are remarkably compliant in filling out long questionnaires, so long as it is sanctioned by their leadership. I have found, however, that more independent sorts in less zealous groups can give an investigator no end of trouble" (p.32). A reader can conclude that Galanter finds dealing with the subservient, the controlled, the totally obedient members of totalistic groups preferable to dealing with free and independent subjects.
Galanter's clearest and most useful chapter, is that in which he draws upon his training as a psychiatrist. Here he gets closest to explaining the transactional interplay between psychological and social influence processes operating in a group and individual responses to group process. For most of the book he has left his fields of expertise–psychiatry, drug and alcohol abuse–and attempted to look at the "group" features without actually providing transactional links between group activities and individual reactions. However, in this chapter he has made an attempt to relate altered consciousness, group process, and individual reactions. He reports observing altered states of consciousness in members of the Divine Light Mission, TM, Deutsch's Baba group, the Unification Church and "est." He writes of Erhard Seminars Training that: "Certain alterations of consciousness and subjective state within this large group context are apparently used to promote this conversion-like experience. Workshop members are subjected to a variety of unsettling circumstances for long hours at a stretch that act to peel away those layers of psychological stability that normally bolster their usual state of consciousness" (p.80-81).
Galanter claims that joining a charismatic group reduces emotional distress. Yet when writing about Transcendental Meditation he notes: "One senior editor at a New York publishing house had mild hallucinations if she exceeded the prescribed forty minutes per day" of TM meditation (p.70). Elsewhere he devotes attention to a number of persons who had major psychological problems while in charismatic groups and makes no effort to reconcile his theory that joining produces a "relief effect." At points he states that leaving a charismatic group, especially if at the urging of family, is the cause of any distress he detects. He is hard put to deal with the known distress reported by and seen in members of charismatic groups whether he saw the persons or dealt with responses from them on questionnaires.
For example, in a follow-up study of 66 who left the Unification Church, he writes (p.174) "36% reported that they had experienced 'serious emotional problems' after leaving…24% had 'sought out professional help' for these problems and two had been hospitalized." A reader cannot tell if the 36% includes the others or if one is to add 36%, 24%, and 3% for a total of 63% with "serious emotional problems after leaving." At various points in the book he attempts to explain that distress reported by ex-members was caused by their "leaving" and does not consider the role of their experiences while in the group as possibly related to their states after leaving.
This book falls short of what is expected from a person who was the editor of the American Psychiatric Association's official report on cults and new religious movements. It reveals the writer has had only brief clinical experience with members of only a limited number of groups, and most of that from paper and pencil questionnaires or talks with management personnel in the groups, and a few persons seen in consultation. There is little or no indication that he has had long-term therapeutic or other contact with former members of even the groups he studied via questionnaires. This combined with his reference list, which has already been described as narrow and nonrepresentative, of the available literature leaves a reader wary about expressing enthusiasm about this book or recommending it broadly.
The book does have some interesting sections about the roles of altered states of consciousness in priming and altering attitudes. The book contents suggest the author has not had enough hands-on-experience with a large variety of sects and cults, nor experience with truly studying and analyzing the effects of various group practices on members' psychological and psychiatric status. He has left his role of a clinical psychiatrist and ventured into efforts at social surveys and group data gathering. On the whole the author is protective of "the sects" he has studied. He is aware that cults-sects-charismatic groups have the potential for harm to individuals and, depending on their behavior, can present problems to the general society.
The epilogue and the appendix include caveats encouraged by the editors or reviewers. In those eight pages Galanter briefly comments on the down-side of the groups he calls charismatic: "Aggression sometimes flows from the zeal of charismatic religious sects and domestic political movements gone awry; this combination has fueled the growth of international terrorism" (p.191). He then refers to "religious cults," naming Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Lindberg Sanders and "political charismatic groups," naming only the Weathermen and the Order in his comments on terrorism. Since he has not cited any of the vast literature on violence by cults, and only one reference on terrorists, this epilogue and added warning about violence from cultic groups is rather pale and "tacked on."
He wavers between purporting an awareness that not all is well in the "sects" and being an apologist for them. An example of the latter occurs when he attempts to "explain away" the conformity of 5150 members of one of the mass Unification Church weddings: "When the day of the ceremony arrived, members who were to be married dressed in identical outfits, as if to flaunt their conformity before those who insisted that the church made automatons of its members. The 2,075 brides all wore Simplicity Pattern #8392 with the neckline raised two inches to preserve their modesty; the grooms wore dark blue suits and maroon ties" (p.153). A reader had to ask, if Galanter likes the conformity of the members when they fill out questionnaires for him, how can he here attribute to them that utter conformity is a sign of humorous flair on their part–2075 women and 2075 men all agreeing spontaneously! Were they earlier just kidding when they filled out his questionnaires?
This book review is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1989, Volume 6, Number 1, pages 107-116.