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bulletA. The first approach understands cult conversion as the result of being "zapped;" I call this the "rays from outer space" theory. In this scenario, a young person who is a well-adjusted member of a healthy family happens on a cult recruiter in some public place, and is either instantly sucked in or barely escapes to tell the tale. The psychological understanding in this approach is usually fairly crude and dramatic, with phrases such as "spot" hypnosis and "zombie" much in evidence, and even allegations that recruiters emanate invisible energy rays through their fingertips. (29) It is interesting that Ted Patrick's own involvement in the anti-cult movement began when his fourteen-year-old son had a "narrow escape" from a Children of God recruiter on a California beach. (30)

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bulletB. The second way of understanding the phenomenon of cult membership is that of the anti-cult psychologists, of whom John Clark and Margaret Singer are among the most active, with Robert Jay Lifton's work on brainwashing on prisoners of war in Korea their most important cognitive tool. (31) In this connection, it is worth considering the attitude of psychiatrists and psychologists toward religion. With perhaps the exception of those who have chosen to focus their studies on the psychology of religion, it is fair to say that in general the attitude of the mental health profession is that religious commitment is not a sign of robust mental health. David A.J. Richards remarks that the reductionist theories of religion put forth by Marx and Freud are "enormously influential," (32) and Jeremiah Gutman has stated: "I believe that many of those who attack the so-called "cults" as being bad for the mental health of the communicants are really saying that religion is bad for one's  mental health. Many respectable professionals in the mental health field seem to believe this." (33) Furthermore, as Robbins and Anthony point out, there are a number of ways in which cults and the "helping professions" are in competition. (34) As numerous studies have shown, many young people turn to alternative religions to perform the services normally thought of as the domain of licensed therapists: controlling substance abuse or combating depression, loneliness and meaninglessness. At least in some cases, cults seem to have quite a good track record. Therefore, it is not surprising that Psychologists for Social Action complain that cults offer a "substitute for therapy," and that they commit fraud by "substitution of the closed logic system of the cult for desperately needed professional therapy." (35) Cults present a threat to the monopoly of the licensed medical professional, as John Clark states:

"Though the physician is all too likely to become aware of the more destructive effects of cult membership through clinical experience, he may not immediately appreciate the degree to which the medical profession as a whole is under attack by these organizations. For one thing, almost all embrace magic in many forms, including faith healing, and in their general rejection of their surrounding culture discard scientific linear thinking. Thus, they reject modern medicine and consider physicians as enemies. In practice even those cults who occasionally use medical facilities are extremely reluctant to seek this help or to pay the bills." (36)

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 "rays 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." (37)

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":

  1. isolation of the recruit and manipulation of his environment;
  2. control over channels of communication and information;
  3. debilitation through inadequate diet and fatigue;
  4. degradation or diminution of the self;
  5. introduction of uncertainty, fear, and confusion, with joy and certainty through surrender to the group as a goal;
  6. alternation of harshness and leniency in a context of discipline;
  7. peer pressure, often applied though ritualized "struggle sessions," generating guilt and requiring open confessions;
  8. insistence by seemingly all-powerful hosts that the recruit's survival -- physical or spiritual -- depends on identifying with the group;
  9. assignment of monotonous tasks or repetitive activities, such as chanting or copying written materials;
  10. 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. (41)

J. Gordon Melton and Robert L. Moore identify five assumptions that underlie the brainwashing interpretation of cult membership:

  1. Cult members are coerced and deceived into joining these groups.
  2. "The...member is, by virtue of membership, in a... pathological state."
  3. "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."
  4. "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.)
  5. "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 lifestyle. (43)

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 and Jackie O! and attending movies such as Star Wars and Oh, God! (48)

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.

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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 nodded. "They 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 me, "Every 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.


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 illuminating:

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 'brainwashing'?"

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.

36 Id.

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.



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.


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.


62 BROMLEY & SHUPE, supra note 9, Chapter 5, 128-56.

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