Although attention is paid to the psychological conditions which may
predispose some young people's attraction to cults, the dominant assumption
among anti-cult psychologists is that conversion results from manipulative,
"brainwashing" interventions by the recruiters, that it has little
to do with the content of the group's beliefs and almost everything to do with
the process of "indoctrination," and that the experience of
recruitment, indoctrination, and membership is essentially identical for all
people in all groups. Anti-cult psychologists and physicians share with the
from outer space" theorists a conviction that the situation is of
emergency proportions. For example, writing in The American Family Physician,
Eli Shapiro says:
"As a result of information obtained through personal contact with involved
persons and through access to case history material, I have concluded that a distinct
syndrome of destructive cultism can be defined. . . . Destructive cultism is a sociopathic
illness which is rapidly spreading throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world in the
form of a pandemic. Further research in prevention and therapy is necessary for the
protection of the innocent adolescent or adult who may be lured into one of these cults."
Brainwashing -- or coercive persuasion, to use the more polite phrase --
has become an issue in a number of different legal settings. Courts were first
confronted with it when asked to acquit returned POWs from Korea who had been
charged with collaborative acts. Defense attorneys argued that the mind
control practiced on the servicemen rendered them not responsible for their
actions. The 1980 court martial of Bobby Garwood, a young marine who was
captured by the Vietcong in 1965 and released fourteen years later, looked
again at many of the same issues. In criminal proceedings, Leslie van Houton
of the Manson "family" and Patty Hearst asserted, both
unsuccessfully, that they were innocent of their crimes because they had been
the victims of coercive persuasion. (38)
Coercive persuasion, according to psychiatrist Willard Gaylin, is intended
not simply to force "a person to do that which you will, but rather to force him through the
manipulation of his emotions to will that which you will." (39) Most
sophisticated theories of coercive persuasion rely in one way or another on
the work done by Robert Jay Lifton, adapting it to fit the cult situation.
Margaret Singer and L.J. West, for example, identify the following elements of
the conversion process, "which
contribute to major belief/attitude changes that approach and sometimes surpass those
observed in brainwashed Korean war prisoners":
- isolation of the recruit and manipulation of his environment;
- control over channels of communication and information;
- debilitation through inadequate diet and fatigue;
- degradation or diminution of the self;
- introduction of uncertainty, fear, and confusion, with joy and certainty
through surrender to the group as a goal;
- alternation of harshness and leniency in a context of discipline;
- peer pressure, often applied though ritualized "struggle
sessions," generating guilt and requiring open confessions;
- insistence by seemingly all-powerful hosts that the recruit's survival
-- physical or spiritual -- depends on identifying with the group;
- assignment of monotonous tasks or repetitive activities, such as
chanting or copying written materials;
- acts of symbolic betrayal or renunciation of self, family, and
previously held values, all designed to increase the psychological
distance between the recruit and his previous way of life. (40)
Other accounts speak of the exploitation of sexual drives and of
ambivalence about one's sexuality, of smiling faces, promises of total
acceptance, and "love
bombing," and of never being left alone, not even to use the toilet.
J. Gordon Melton and Robert L. Moore identify five assumptions that
underlie the brainwashing interpretation of cult membership:
- Cult members are coerced and deceived into joining these groups.
- "The...member is, by virtue of membership, in a... pathological state."
- "If a young person manifests symptoms of psychopathology during or after
involvement in an alternative religion, the group caused the disorder in a person who was
without emotional difficulties before joining."
- "Once a person enters the sphere of influence of an alternative religion this
person is forever lost to his or her family and to life outside the group."
(Unless, of course, the person is forcibly rescued.)
- "All alternative religious groups are merely machines for pseudo-religious
manipulation of persons who have lost their capacity to choose, and therefore
participation in these groups is not to be considered an expression of an authentic
religious impulse." (42)
In fact, all of these assumptions are on shaky ground. It is certainly true
that some cults use coercion and deception some of the time.
But it is equally true that many people join with a very good knowledge of
what they are getting into. For example, Emily Dietz, discussed above, seems
to have entered the DLM in a very gradual fashion; five years elapsed between
her first encounter with the group and her decision to leave college to devote
her life to it. As Robbins and Anthony have pointed out, it is difficult to
envision anyone joining the Hare Krishna movement without being aware at the
outset of involvement that this sect, whose members are visible on streets
dancing and singing and wearing long robes and shaved heads, constitutes a
highly unusual group possessing a distinctly eccentric and ritualized
Furthermore, in an effort to cut down on the number of members who drop out
shortly after joining, the Krishnas have instituted a mandatory six-month
preconversion probationary period for all new members. (44)
Bromley and Shupe contend that the stereotypical accusation of deception is
generally untrue of most cults, including the Moonies, and that the conception
of cults as deceptive arose from an overgeneralization of the activities of
one branch of the Unification Church: the Oakland family, whose strategy of
downplaying religion and their connection with Reverend Moon until recruits
have begun to establish emotional bonds with recruiters, has not been copied
by other Moonies recruiting groups, despite Oakland's obvious success.
Elsewhere, at most dinners, lectures, or workshops across the nation to which
street witnesses bring potential recruits, there are beaming pictures of Sun
Myung Moon hanging on the walls. "Guests" view slide shows and films
about Moon and the Unification Church and sit through tedious theological
lectures that would leave anyone of even modest intelligence with the
unmistakable impression that this is not merely a group of enthusiastic
Protestants or UP With People. (45)
Bromley and Shupe point out that the Unification Church's high visibility,
and the recruiting success of the Oakland Family, have made it the number one
target of the anti-cult movement, with all of the media coverage that entails.
(46) Furthermore, as is so often the case, the media to some extent creates
its own news:
The process of "self-fulfilling focus" has insured that once
attention was called to its existence by angry parents, the Oakland Family
would come under increasing scrutiny by the media. Self-fulfilling focus
basically means that publicity begets further publicity. Because some
journalists wrote sensationalist articles on the group, others (not to be
outdone) followed suit until, by the late 1970s, reporters were routinely
"going underground" to wander the Berkeley campus or San Francisco's
Fisherman's Wharf in the hopes of being invited to the evening lectures by
unknowing Oakland Family street missionaries. Afterward, such journalists,
mistaking the Oakland Family as typical of the larger Unification Church,
published lurid 'exposes' of deceptive recruitment in various popular
magazines and newspapers. In doing so they established a folklore of deception
as a common tactic in all Unificationist mission work. Anti-cult spokespersons
have fanned the fire by generalizing beyond the Oakland Family and the
Unification Church to all nonconventional religions, such as the Hare Krishna
movement, the Divine Light Mission, and Scientology. The fact that reality
does not resemble the stereotype seems not to disturb them. Many journalists
have publicized these accusations uncritically. The mechanics of news
reporting virtually guarantees that once an allegation . . . has been
published somewhere, somewhere else another journalist researching previous
articles as background for his own piece will, because of deadlines and
editorial pressures, uncritically include it as fact. Thereafter the
allegation takes on a well-nigh independent life of its own. (47)
Shupe and Bromley insist also that coercion is primarily a mark only of the
Oakland Family. They point out that many Unification Church members, rather
than joining as a result of high-pressure recruitment, rejected the movement
after their first contact, and took weeks or months to study its doctrines
before joining. Further, they claim that the diet is nutritious, and sleep
averages five to six hours a night, interspersed with occasional naps. On
their unannounced visits to various Unification Church centers, they found
"Moonies" reading literature like The Lord of the Rings
O! and attending movies such as Star Wars and Oh, God!
The second assumption, that membership necessarily entails
a pathological state, is also the subject of much debate. On one level, as
Melton and Moore point out, this is an a priori argument which does not lend
itself to empirical proof. "If one has a religious stance that assumes a person of another faith is either
deluded by false teachers or inspired by demonic forces, then a negative interpretation of
a person's involvement in a religious group . . . outside the national religious consensus
is guaranteed." (49)
However, some social scientists have attempted to approach the problem
objectively, and their results, while not conclusive, are certainly
suggestive. Ungerleider and Wellisch gave a battery of intelligence and
personality tests to two young people who had recently escaped from long-term
deprogramming efforts and returned to their Christian, celibate, communalist
group. Although both persons tested as having strong dependency needs (of the
sort often associated with alcoholism/drug addiction) and a high level of
"over-controlled" hostility, both were also very intelligent, with
subtests in the areas of comprehension and judgment in the superior range.
Ungerleider and Wellisch concluded that "the two abducted group members were able to make informed
decisions and were in no way legally mentally incompetent." (50) In
another study, the same investigators performed psychiatric interviews and
psychological testing on fifty members or former members of a variety of
religious cults. Twenty-two subjects were currently in cults, and mentioned
fears of being forcibly deprogrammed; eleven had returned to the cult after
deprogramming; nine had not returned after deprogramming; eight had left of
their own volition. Again, "no data emerged from intellectual,
personality or mental status testing to suggest that any of these subjects are unable or
even limited in their ability to make sound judgments and legal decisions as related to
their persons and property." (51) The studies in this area could be
summed up by concluding that cult members tended to have strong needs for
authority and certainty in their lives, but no evidence of pathological mental
states. (52) In contrast, articles like those by Shapiro and Etamed, who
claims that "in the first year-and-a-half
after the [Moonies] moved to the group's 225-acre estate in Barrytown, N.Y., cases of
hysteria, trauma, and attempted suicide dramatically increased in that city,"
are without any documentation or citations. (53)
The third assumption, that all symptoms of psychopathology
have been caused by cult involvement, has also been disproved. Galanter, in a
study of 237 members of the Unification Church, found that they had had a
significantly higher degree of neurotic distress before conversion when
compared to a control group; thirty percent had sought professional help for
emotional problems before conversion, and six percent had been hospitalized.
(54) At least two studies have found that recruits to various cults had been
heavy drug and alcohol users before joining, and that the group had
facilitated termination of drug use. (55)
The fourth assumption, that a person who joins a religious
cult is forever lost to family, friends, and the outside world, is crucial to
the existence of the organized anti-cult movement and also to the livelihood
of deprogrammers. (56) Furthermore, this assertion is linked closely with the
allegations of coercion, deception, and psychopathology described above. In
fact, it appears that, in every group studied, a significant proportion of
members left voluntarily. Even John Clark reports that, in a study of many
different cults, about a third or more of ex-members had left the cult
voluntarily. (57) Bromley and Shupe point out that, among the elite members of
the Unification Church who were chosen to attend the seminary in Barrytown,
seventeen percent of the first graduating class left the movement shortly
afterwards. Looser organizations such as the DLM are particularly noted for
their high drop-out rate. (58)
Ironically, much depends on what is meant by being "lost" to
family. It is striking how many families were in relatively good contact with
their errant children until they attempted to deprogram them; in fact, it was
the continued contact between cult member and family which enabled the
abduction to take place. Emily Dietz, for example, was first taken when she
came to her family's home for one of her periodic visits to her siblings.
Kathy Crampton's mother occasionally spent the night with her daughter at the
group's house, before arranging for her (unsuccessful) abduction and
deprogramming by Ted Patrick. (59) Pam Fanshier, after escaping from two
previous abduction and deprogramming attempts by her parents -- and an attempt
to have her committed to a mental institution -- was abducted for yet a third
time when she went home for a visit after her graduation from the Unification
Church seminary. (60) Not surprisingly, these failed attempts resulted in much
sharper estrangement than before, often including attempting to hide from
one's family completely, for fear of another abduction.
The fifth and final assumption is complicated, and not
susceptible to empirical proof: that all alternative religious groups are
merely machines for pseudo-religious manipulation of persons who have lost
their capacity to choose, and therefore participation in these groups is not
to be considered an expression of an authentic religious impulse. The
"machine" part of this indictment seems to relate to the religious
sincerity of the founder/leader of the cult. This is a hard claim to evaluate.
One of the most common accusations is that the luxurious lifestyles of the
leaders are in stark and damning contrast to the frugality or poverty of their
followers. This is often true, but it is also such a cliché of American
religious experience that it hardly qualifies as a criterion for calling the
group a pseudoreligious machine. And even such passionate anti-cult crusaders
as Stoner and Parke have had to admit that Prabhupada, the leader of ISKCON
until his death in 1977, lived the life of an ascetic Hindu monk. (61) On
other indices of sincerity, Bromley and Shupe find that cult leaders are a
very mixed bag indeed. (62)
On the question of "capacity to choose," we have already seen a
great deal of research indicating that cult members are not impaired. Further,
it is surely the case that one can have an "authentic religious
impulse" toward a meretricious object. Can cult membership be considered
an "authentic religious impulse"? This brings us to the third way of
understanding the phenomenon.
Continue with the third part of
29 BROMLEY & SHUPE, supra note 9, at 93
30 I was struck . . . by the look on my son's face. The
first thought that passed through my mind was, "He's been smoking grass!"
He looked vacant, somehow -- glazed, drifting. "Where the heck you been?"
I started in on him. "We've been out all over town looking for you. What did I tell
you about getting back here on time?" Michael shook his head, as if he
were trying to clear it. "What's wrong, you been drinking?" I
asked him, continuing to bluster a little but puzzled now. "I don't know,"
he said finally, speaking very low, his eyes still not focusing." We were on our way back
to the hotel. We saw the fireworks and we were coming back, and then . . . ."
"Some people stopped us," my nephew put in. He looked
nervous and upset, but not as vague and "spacey" as Michael. Michael
had Bibles and guitars. One of them asked us, 'Do you believe in God? Do you know Christ
died on the cross for our sins? Do you have Christ in your hearts?'"
"We didn't want to talk to them, they were creepy. But, I don't know, there
was something about them, we couldn't leave."...And then Michael told
time we tried to leave, they grabbed us by the arms, made us look into their eyes. I never
saw eyes like that before. It made me dizzy to look at them." PATRICK
& DULACK, supra note 19, at 29-30.
31 ROBERT JAY LIFTON, THOUGHT REFORM AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF
TOTALISM: A STUDY OF "BRAINWASHING" IN CHINA (1963).
32 David A.J. Richards, Panel Discussion: Effects of Cult
Membership and Activities, 9(1) N.Y.U. REV. L. & SOC. CHANGE 91 (1979-80).
33 Gutman, supra note 26, at 70. The following dialogue
between Steven J. Gelberg (a Krishna devotee) and theologian Harvey Cox is
SJG: "There's an old tradition within psychology, especially
since Freud, which tends to equate religious, mystical, or conversionary experience with
mental illness. Do you think that perhaps this sort of anti-religious bias is coming into
play here? Isn't there a tendency to view any expression of spirituality that goes beyond
socially accepted religious norms as a sign of psychopathology or, more colloquially, as
HC: "Yes, as a symptom of brainwashing, or as a symptom of
psychotic, schizophrenic, paranoiac, or some other deranged or unhealthy form of behavior
. . . . A lot of this, I think, has to do with the real underlying goal of America, which
is production, efficiency, and accumulation. You can't allow much eccentricity and ecstasy
if everyone has to be geared into the productive process all the time. One of the
criticisms that sometimes people make of the Hare Krishna devotees is that they're wasting
their time. "They're just out there chanting. Why aren't they working? Why aren't
they doing something productive?" There's some suspicion even of people who live in
monasteries -- that they're just sitting around, kneeling around, praying. They're not
doing anything that's really useful. Now, there's something curious about this. It doesn't
really matter what you're doing productively. You could be manufacturing hand-grenades or
bottling liquor; but if you're working somehow or other, that's commendable. ...So, what
we have here is a set of cultural assumptions which are not self-evident. They are a
particular set of assumptions which are drawn upon often by people who pretend to be very
scientific and therapeutic, in order to enforce a particular view of reality or a
particular standard of behavior on other people. And all this applies in the face of our
insistence that we are a free and open society."
SJG: "Consider, for example, Dr. John Clark's testimony
before the Vermont Senate...While delineating the psychological dangers of cults, he
offers several interesting examples of pathological aberrations found therein: The belief,
held by some cults, that one is not the physical body but the soul, he diagnoses as
'ego-loss.' Living in any sort of religious community is 'loss of autonomy;' acceptance of
religious authority, such as guru or scripture, is 'loss of critical thinking,' and so
forth." Interview with Harvey Cox supra note 24, at 52-54.
34 Robbins & Anthony, supra note 11.
35 Id. at 289.
37 Eli Shapiro, Destructive Cultism, 15 AM. FAM. PHYS. 83
(1977). It is probably worth noting that Shapiro's son was a member of the Hare
Krishna group, according to Robbins & Anthony, supra note 11.
38 Vanessa Merton & Robert Kinschoff, Coercive
Persuasion and the Culpable Mind, 11 HASTINGS CTR. REP. (June 1981).
39 Id. at 6.
40 JOHN G. CLARK, JR., M.D., DESTRUCTIVE CULT CONVERSION;
THEORY, RESEARCH, AND TREATMENT 36-37 (1981).
41 CHRISTOPHER EDWARDS, CRAZY FOR GOD: THE NIGHTMARE OF
CULT LIFE (1979).
42 MELTON & MOORE, supra note 8, 38-46.
43 BROMLEY & SHUPE, supra note 9, at 101-02.
44 Id. at 101-04.
45 Id. at 103-04.
46 ANSON D. SHUPE, JR. & DAVID G. BROMLEY, 113 THE NEW
VIGILANTES: DEPROGRAMMERS, ANTI-CULTISTS, AND THE NEW RELIGIONS (1980).
47 BROMLEY & SHUPE, supra note 9, at 105-06.
48 Id. at 111.
49 MELTON & MOORE, supra note 8, at 40.
50 J. THOMAS UNGERLEIDER & DAVID K. WELLISCH, Cultism,
Thought Control, and Deprogramming, 16 PSYCHIATRIC OPINION 10-15 (Jan. 1979).
51 J. THOMAS UNGERLEIDER & DAVID K. WELLISCH, Coercive
Persuasion: Brainwashing, Religious Cults, and Deprogramming, 136 AM. J.
PSYCHIATRY 281 (Mar. 1979).
52 Marc Galanter et al., The "Moonies": A
Psychological Study of Conversion and Membership in a Contemporary Religious
Sect, 136 AM. J. PSYCHIATRY 165-70 (Feb. 1979); Saul V. Levine & Nancy E.
Salter, Youth and Contemporary Religious Movements: Psychosocial Findings, 21(6)
CANADIAN PSYCHOL. ASS'N J. 411-20 (1976).
53 B. Etamed, Extrication from Cultism, in 18 CURRENT
PSYCHIATRIC THERAPIES (J. Masserman ed., 1979).
54 Galanter et al., supra note 52.
55 Levine & Salter, supra note 52; Thomas Robbins &
Dick Anthony, Getting Straight with Meher Baba: A Study of Mysticism,
Drug-Rehabilitation, and Postadolescent Role Conflict, 11 J. SCI. STUD. RELIGION
122-40 (June 1972).
56 The use of the term "anti-cult movement"
and a discussion of the etiology and characteristics of that movement can be
found in SHUPE & BROMLEY, supra note 46.
57 CLARK, supra note 40 at 41.
58 BROMLEY & SHUPE, supra note 9, at 110-12. On the
subject of voluntary defection from cults, see also Dick Anthony, The Fact
Pattern Behind the Deprogramming Controversy: An Analysis and An Alternative,
9(1) N.Y.U. REV. L. & SOC. CHANGE 73 (1979-80); Norman Skonovd, Leaving the
Cultic Religious Milieu, and Stuart A. Wright, Defection from New Religious
Movements: A Test of Some Theoretical Propositions, both in V. THE
BRAINWASHING/DEPROGRAMMING CONTROVERSY: SOCIOLOGICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, LEGAL AND
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES (David G. Bromley & James T. Richardson eds., 1983).
59 PATRICK & DULACK, supra note 19, at 112-15.
60 BROMLEY & SHUPE, supra note 9, at 177-80.
61 CARROLL STONER & JO ANNE PARKE, ALL GOD'S CHILDREN,
62 BROMLEY & SHUPE, supra note 9, Chapter 5, 128-56.