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How Cult Leaders Brainwash Followers

‘In the centre sits the Leader, separated by an inner circle who spread around him an aura of impenetrable mystery’

I began my formal research in 1999, eight years after battling my way out of a secret, so-called Marxist-Leninist group whose leader controlled my life in its most intimate details. He determined what I wore: a version of the advice in John Molloy’s bestseller Dress for Success (1975), featuring tailored blue suits and floppy red silk bowties. More significantly, he decided when I could marry, and whether I might have children. The leader’s decrees were passed down via memos typed on beige notepaper and hand-delivered to me by my ‘contact’. Because I was a low-ranked member, the leader remained unknown to me.

I joined this Minneapolis-based group, called The Organization (The O) believing I was to contribute to their stated goal of social justice, a value instilled in me by my family. However, what I actually did revolved around, first, being a factory machinist tending numerical control lathes and, then, grunt work in the group’s wholegrain bakery (we did at least make good bread) and, finally, writing business computer programs. The fact that these tasks seemed oddly disconnected from any strategy for social change did not escape my notice. I regularly questioned (until I learned not to) how all this was leading to justice for the poor and the powerless. A stern ‘struggle with the practice’ was the only answer I ever received, and back to my labours I would go, like Boxer the horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), hardworking but still unenlightened as to the ultimate goal.

As I ‘developed’ over the years (as our groupspeak put it) it was revealed to me that ‘struggling with the practice’ would help us transform ourselves so as to be ready to contribute to some brave new world where we would finally fight for liberation of the oppressed. Meanwhile, we foot soldiers were so exhausted by the double shifts we worked year in and year out, the endless criticisms and self-criticisms, the leadership’s frowning upon any joy and spontaneity, that we no longer had the energy nor wit to keep asking questions.

However, despite – or perhaps because of – this dull and exhausting routine, in 1991 I did eventually make my exit along with two other disaffected comrades. Together we formed what I now call an ‘island of resistance’. We were able to gradually break the code of secrecy that silenced doubts about the group and its leader. With each other as validation, we began to articulate the real, dismal and frightening story of life in The O, which had as its unlikely recruiting grounds the 1970s food co-ops of the US Midwest.

After a dramatic exit, I wrote the memoir Inside Out (2002). The book was an effort to understand how I, an independent, curious and intelligent 26-year-old, could have been captured and held by such a group for so long. It was a cautionary tale for those not yet tempted by such a fate to beware of isolating groups with persuasive ideologies and threatening bass notes.

By then, I had learned about the brainwashing of prisoners of war and others in Mao’s China and North Korea in the 1950s; I had read the psychohistorian Robert Jay Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961) and the psychologist Margaret Singer’s Cults in Our Midst (1996).  Singer described six conditions of cultic control among which were control of the environment; a system of rewards and punishments; creating a sense of powerlessness, fear and dependency; and reforming the follower’s behaviour and attitudes, all within a closed system of logic.

Lifton emphasised that thought reform took place when human communication was controlled. Added to this, I found John Lofland’s Doomsday Cult (1966), his unrivalled undercover study of an early cell of the Unification Church – the Moonies – which outlined seven steps to total conversion centred around the isolation of the follower from everyone except other cult members. All these scholars agreed that the essence of the process was to isolate victims from their prior connections and destabilise their identity, then consolidate a new, submissive identity within a rigidly bound new network. This was achieved by alternating a regime of threats with conditional approval.

As I continued to recover from the trauma of my cult involvement, I came across the British psychologist John Bowlby’s attachment theory. This states that both children and adults will usually seek closeness to perceived safe others when stressed (even if only symbolically in the case of adults) in order to gain protection from threat. I saw this as potentially useful in helping to understand how people become trapped in cultic relationships.

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Eventually, my friends twisted my arm and packed me off to the University of Minnesota. I tentatively tried a course one of them had found for me: George Kliger’s class on cults and totalitarianism. On his reading list, I found the work of the political theorist Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish refugee who examined large themes of human freedom and oppression with detailed evidence. In her seminal work, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she found that the regimes of Hitler and Stalin destroyed public and private life; both regimes based themselves on ‘loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man’.

Although The O had been a small group numbering no more than 200 at its peak, it was Arendt’s work that illuminated most clearly what I came to see as a diminutive totalitarian movement. Like the movements Arendt profiled, The O operated at the whim of a charismatic, authoritarian leader wielding an exclusive belief system to isolate each individual in order to dominate us.

In that first class, I also learned something about teaching. At his last session, the somewhat unassuming, almost doddery Kliger, in the context of discussing why people become passive in the face of totalitarianism, revealed to us that he knew personally the power of induced powerlessness. He stood up and quietly unbuttoned his sleeve. As he rolled up the fabric, the not-very-faded inked number appeared on his arm, and he explained that as a teenager he had survived Buchenwald concentration camp.

If the situation is strong and isolating enough, without any clear escape route, then the average person can cave in to the traumatising pressures of brainwashing

Inspired by Kliger, I entered the Masters of Liberal Studies programme at the age of 45. There, I learned about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments of the 1960s, which showed that two-thirds of ordinary people were willing to administer severe electric shocks to complete strangers when ordered to do so by the experimenter. I also learned about the conformity experiments of the 1950s by the social psychologist Solomon Asch, who demonstrated that, when faced with obviously incorrect information, 75 per cent of participants publicly denied clear evidence before their own eyes rather than buck the majority opinion. However, when just one other person disagreed with the majority and broke the unanimous bloc, the conformity effect almost entirely disappeared.

All of this became key to my own study of the social psychology of extremist political organisations. These scholars understood the power of extreme social influence to corral and corrupt even the most ordinary of individuals. Totalism works because ordinary people – at least those without prior knowledge of the controlling methods of totalism – are subject to the coercive manipulations that leaders employ. If the situation is strong and isolating enough, without any clear escape route, then the average person can cave in to the traumatising pressures of brainwashing.

By 2007, I had completed my PhD. My dissertation examined a New York-based ‘Leftist’ political cult called the Newman Tendency, run by Fred Newman, a former university lecturer in philosophy. A strange combination of Marxism, electoral politics, group therapy and theatre, the Tendency was active during the same years as The O. But since it was not The O, it afforded me some distance and a welcome relief from thinking about my own experience.

Newman had controlled the group for more than 40 years before his death in 2011. After interviewing former members, I learned that group members were brought in through the various programmes, but were all mandated to enter therapy that they had to pay for. Gradually, they abandoned outside jobs and worked for the group, often off the books. They shared apartments, attended meetings late into the night, and restricted relationships with outsiders. Instead, many were set up in casual sexual relationships with other followers in a practice called ‘friendosexuality’. They were also assigned a ‘friend’ whose role was to monitor and criticise to keep them in line. Those with money were soon parted from it. Some women in the group were told by Newman to have abortions, and few had children while involved.

The Newman Tendency, like The O, fit the five features of a totalist system I had identified based on Arendt and Lifton’s work.  The first of these characteristics is that the leader is both charismatic and authoritarian. Without charisma, the leader would be unable to draw people to him or herself. Without authoritarianism, leaders would lack the internal motivation and the ability to bully and control followers. ‘Yeah, somebody taught him how to abuse people,’ a former follower said of Newman. ‘He’s charming, too … If he sat down right there next to me, I’d say: “Hey Fred, how are you doing? Are you still corrupting people? … Are you still screwing 18 women at the same time?” … But you know, he was a likeable guy!’

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