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Written by: Dellinger, Robert W.    Posted on: 04/25/2003

Category: Cults / Sects / Non Christian Religions and Topics

Source: CCN

                            CULTS and KIDS

                        A Study of Coercion                                   By                         Robert W. Dellinger


    "There's always a pretty good number of self-appointed pied pipers, self- appointed messianic people, self-appointed gurus in any society who say to the confused masses: 'Follow me!  I have a simple solution for the complex problems of life.'  But if the social structure has not broken down, very few people will follow them," says Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist and a professor at the University of California's medical school in San Francisco and in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkley. Singer has talked to more than 500 cultist and ex-cult members, and has worked individually and in group therapy with more than 200 people who have come out of cults.

    Cults are not new.  When Eastern and Western cultures collided during the last days of the Roman Empire, a number of apocalyptic movements appeared.  After the French Revolution in 1789, France witnessed a tremendous rise in the number of cults.  Cultic groups did not arrive on the scene in England until the 18th century, during the Industrial Revolution.  And the United States had to wait until its citizens pushed west before these assemblies proliferated.  But many social observers believe that the recent growth of cults in this country, which began in the late 1960's and became really visible in the mid- 1970's, has been something special.

    Singer estimates that three million young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are affiliated with these movements.  There are at least 250 different cults, she says, and, depending on the definition you use, as many as 2,500 cults can be identified.  According to Singer, these groups fall into ten classes: neo-Christian-based cults; Hindu-and eastern-based groups; occult, satanic, and witchcraft movements; spiritualistic-based groups; Zen-based assemblies; race-based cults; flying saucer-based cliques; psychological movements; political cults; and communal- living groups.

    "It's important to note that all cults are not religious in their content," Singer points out. "Some of them were communal living arrangements at first.  Synanon was started to help drug addicts, and Scientology began as a new psychology and evolved into a religious body.  The contents of witchcraft and occult groups, psychological movements, neo-Christian organizations and Hindu groups vary; but most of these movements have become religions because of the wonderful protection that the First Amendment and the many state tax laws give to religious entities.  By using the term religion, the new cults try to blend themselves in and appear as if they are no different from 'institutionalized' religions.  The point we're all trying to make is: 'Yes, they are different - at a social and political and informational and power level!'"

    Singer says that today's cults are usually led by charismatic males who center the love, devotion, and allegiance of the members on themselves. Rabbis, ministers, priests, and other "legitimate" religious leaders, on the other hand, keep the veneration of adherents focused on God, abstract principles, and group purposes.

    "At the time they arise, cults try to tell people that they're innovative and exclusive because part of their appeal is to say that they're all- millennium," she explains.  "Doomsday cults say that the end of the world is coming in one way or another - the A-bomb, etc. -and that if you join brand X cult you'll be part of the elite who survive and take over and lead the new order.  But they usually turn out to be pseudo-revolutionary in their actual practices.  While these cults and cult-like groups are saying they are the new way, they are really far more restrictive than any of the life-styles in the surrounding community.

    "Cults have only two basic purposes: recruiting new members and fund raising.  Cults may claim to make real social contributions, but, in reality, these remain mere claims or minimal gestures."

    According to Singer, cults tend to have a double set of ethics. The "love bombing" that the Moonies (members of Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church) are famous for, the personality test that Scientologists give, and the unconditional acceptance that almost all of these groups show toward potential members, she claims, are totally contrived.  "If I apply to be a Catholic, the priest will spell out in utter detail the church's doctrine and practices by making me take religious instructions," she says.  "If I go off to be an Episcopalian, a Baptist, a Seventh-Day Adventist, a Jew - any of the 'institutionalized' religions - they want full-capacity informed consent.  Whereas, the cults start with duplicity and deception."

    "These groups are able to attract people who don't really know that it's totally staged.  And then, after they get in, these young men and women are unaware of what the methods - the social and psychological manipulative tools that are applied to them - are going to do to their thinking and how they are going to be separated off from their families and from their past lives and their past religions and past consciousness."


    Gary Scharff, once a religious studies major at Princeton University, was recruited by the Unification Church in 1972.  After finishing his junior year, Scharff says he started feeling cynical about the merits of learning theology from a textbook.  Deciding that he needed some time to sort things out, he went home to Louisville, Kentucky, and got a job in a tool factory.  It was there that the Moonies recruited him.

    "I just met a couple of people from their bus team and was very intrigued by them," he explains.  "I had never heard of 'cult' or 'brainwashing' at that point.  I had a mixed reaction.  First, I felt somewhat amused by the literature they gave me, which seemed to be fairly childish and juvenile.  They were proposing to answer the profound questions of life in a series of three or four lectures, and here I had spent three years trying to understand the questions.  But then, on the other hand, there was this really powerful devotion and commitment in the young woman who handed me the literature and struck up a conversation with me."

    Scharff knew that she must be from a fringe religious group, but he thought it would be interesting to try to understand what real belief was like without an intellectual foundation.  Gradually, he got more and more emotionally involved with members of the group.  After eight months, he moved into the Unification Church's local center. Still, Scharff had no intention of signing up for life.  He just wanted to share their faith with them for a while.  But soon he was asked to attend a 100-day leadership training program near New York City.  Church officials assured him and his parents that he would be back in Louisville in a couple of months.  The camp, which operated on a rigid schedule, was physically, emotionally, and mentally overpowering.  Scharff felt that he never had enough food to eat or hours to sleep.

    "We spent most of the time just sitting listening to lectures," he recalls.  "You would have this being-at-the-edge-of-consciousness kind of awareness - the same feeling you have at three o'clock in the afternoon on the day after you've pulled an all-nighter.  There's a shell that's just kind of surrounding you, and you don't feel alert. You feel like anything could happen, and it would take you longer to react to it and to even understand what it was.  So there's kind of an undertone of fearfulness that accompanies all your actions."

    Scharff describes the experience as a combination of affection and deception.  The love and concern made him less suspicious of his mentors; the dishonesty and manipulation isolated him from his family and friends and, eventually, from himself.

    "There's something continuously going on, from early in the morning until late at night," he explains.  "Even in those situations where you're just moving from one location to another in the camp, there's somebody on either side of you.  Your attention is constantly drawn towards things outside you, and so you're not in the kind of mental posture to turn inward and reflect.  You never get a chance to talk to yourself because there's always somebody else talking to you. And that becomes a very serious problem because so many ideas are unloaded on you."

    "Ultimately, you become so fatigued and your emotions become so strongly accentuated that they really kind of set off to the side any kind of rational thinking process.  You become an absorber of feelings and attitudes and behavior patterns rather than an alert adult responding to a community that is offering something which you can take or leave.  You really become committed more by default than by choice."

    The isolation, intellectual bombardment, and emotional fluctuation worked their spell on 21-year-old Gary Scharff.  After 90 days of training, he was made director of the Pennsylvania Unification Church.  During his four years in the "Movement," he also was national director of CARP (the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principle, a recruitment arm of the Unification Church) and assistant director of planning and development for a proposed system of Unification Church seminaries.  He gave the initial three- day workshop for people recruited in New York City and did some public relations work, too.

    The experience still frightens him when he looks back, even though he has been out of the group for four years.  "I went into that thing kind of emotionally involved but nonetheless an open-minded and alert student of religion," he muses, "and I came out of it a very fanatical, highly focused, totally submissive servant of Sun Myung Moon."

    The first step in "processing" cult recruits away from their past lives, according to Margaret Singer, is separating them from their families and friends.  "Many of the groups refer to themselves as 'the family' in one way or the other and emphasize 'We are your new family now!'" she explains.  "Several of the groups tell members, eventually, that their parents are 'satanic. ' Another group calls them 'potential trouble sources.'  One of the groups refers to all non-members, including parents, as the 'wog world.'  In quite a few of the groups, they say your parents are only your physical parents."

    "They even structure families within the cult if families are inducted into the group.  The People's Temple did this.  Jim Jones broke up families.  He would send the children of Mr. and Mrs. A to live with Mr. and Mrs. B and C.  If married couples go in, they, too, tend to be broken up - because these are very upwardly centered groups, and the cult leaders have found that it works best if they prevent lateral allegiances and pairings and keep all the veneration and affiliations directed upwards."

    Because most cults suppress and monitor phone calls, visitors, and letters, Singer says that they are often able to convince new members that their parents have abandoned them.

    Next, according to Singer, these groups try to get the neophytes to focus on past deviant behavior - drug use, sexual misdeeds, psychological hangups, poor social relationships.  The mechanism is often some kind of group confession or encounter session, and the result is often recruits who now see their past as something evil.  By controlling and reinterpreting all information from the outside world, keeping members busy marketing and proselytizing, using thought-stopping cliches and a closed system of logic, squelching all resistance and negativity, and reinforcing only group-desired behavior, cults resocialize vulnerable individuals.

    "After they've been in a long enough time, the groups try to convey to the new members that they won't be able to return to the outside," Singer explains.  "One of the major cults says, 'Returning from here to the world will be like eating your own vomit!'  The new members are both afraid to leave the group because of personal failure and afraid that the group may come after them and bring them back. Most are relatively debilitated from long hours of cult work every day, and, eventually, they get to feeling very bad because they start to become aware of the deception that was practiced upon them to get them in.  But by then, they have been in so long that they have almost no easy life to return to.  So the choice usually is to stay."

    "What I'm trying to paint is a picture of many, many pathways to social and psychological manipulation, to restricting reflective thinking, to restricting secondary associations, and to keeping the person highly focused on the leader while they're in these groups."

    The Unification Church is not alone when it comes to using deception and mental maneuvers to recruit and keep members, according to Singer and others.  Although the followers of Lord Krishna, the Hare Krishnas, reserve their hard sell for the selling of their literature and incense, they can be heavy proselytizers whenever a possible recruit comes by.  Critics (most noticeably Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, authors of the book "Snapping") claim that the constant chanting of their mystical incantation or mantra invokes an unquestioning mental state.  Others contend that a horrendous work schedule plus a no-meat, no-eggs, no-fish, low protein diet keep members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in a constantly repressed condition.

    The Divine Light Mission is supported by the sale of converts' possessions and gifts, and by the tithing of "preemies" (i.e., devotees).  Counter- cultists say that the meditative "knowledge" techniques practiced by its congregation are consciousness-altering methods that harm a susceptible mind.  At the heart of DLM philosophy, in fact, is the idea that rational thought prevents human beings from reaching God.  Some former members have claimed that they were brainwashed by being bombarded with the group's doctrine.  Others have reported such cognitive disturbances as memory loss and an inability to read without "trancing out" - going into a meditative state.

    Margaret Singer believes that the Church of Scientology, the Children of God, The Way International, the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation, the Love Israel family, and the Body of Christ all rely on coercive conversion methods.  Others have also suggested that many "Me Generation" movements, such as LifeSpring, TM, and EST, can influence an individual's thought processes.

    Father Kent Burtner, a Dominican priest who counsels former cult members and their parents, believes that the best way to view all of these groups is to place them on a continuum that runs from positive support of the person to mind destructiveness through the use of deception and abusive behavior modification techniques.  "When you get to Moon and his Booneville, California, training camp, there is no question about the subterfuge and trickery going on there," he says. "But when you look at some of these fringe 'human potential' groups, then you get into this really fuzzy zone.  Within this gray area, there may be a case and time where an individual's freedom is totally betrayed and another case where an individual's freedom, given slightly different circumstances, is not.  You really have to judge it on a case by case basis."

    What is significant about these movements, according to Father Burtner, are the psychological techniques that have been used to convert and control followers.  "I don't care whether it's someone leading a Catholic charismatic prayer group or if it's Sun Myung Moon - whether they're into a 'socially acceptable' form of spirituality of not - if they start using methods that deprive individuals of their ability to make a free choice, they're acting in a tremendously destructive way towards the person," he says.  "And that, to me, is an objective evil."


    If these groups are so harmful, why would anybody enter one?  In studying cults, social scientists have come up with a number of reasons to explain their popularity with today's youth and young adults.  A disillusionment with the scientific community, the military, big business and labor, schools and colleges, government, family relationships, and religions - every aspect of our materialistic society - has made many human potential movements and cults appealing.  A longing for moral authority and a sense of purpose has also led people into the waiting arms of assemblies with simple answers to life's most puzzling problems.

    "It's not just a pathologigal people who join the cults," says Margaret Singer.  "There is no one type of person who becomes involved with the cults.  Rather, all of us at various times are more vulnerable than at other times.  Almost anyone who is in a period of loneliness is in a vulnerable period in which he or she might get taken in by the flattery and deceptive lures that cults use to recruit new members.  I've found that the people who've gotten involved with cults have tended to be somewhat depressed.  The cults picked them up between high school and college, between romances, between college and their first job, between marriage and when they were divorced.  But they were in between a major anchoring point and affiliation."

    Gary Scharff says that being a member of the Unification Church gave him a strong feeling of commitment and sacrifice, of subordinating himself to the higher goal of saving the world.  "That was a very, very powerful incentive," he confides.  "It was very rewarding.  I felt I was really putting my life on the line, living by what I believed.  It's a feeling of really being devoted and having, in a sense, cast your fate into the lap of God."

    But probably more than any other factor, the need for love and friendship steers young people who are making the difficult transition from late adolescence to adulthood into cults.  At the heart of their appeal is the promise of uncomplicated warmth and acceptance.  Being a member of one of these "communities of love" means being a part of what some have called the ultimate in-group.  "If you comply and focus your thinking outward, do not dissent, stop thinking of your past family and your past work," says Singer, "you will get lots of payoffs because you have joined an elite group.  And one way or another in this elite group, you're going to become a perfect human being."

    "The attraction in the majority of cases has involved normal, healthy kids going through temporary depressions," explains Jean Merritt, a psychiatric social worker who has been counseling former cult members and their families since 1973.  "They have been caused by the typical things that cause depressions in that age group: conflicts with parents, boyfriend or girlfriend; problems in school; the loss of a relative or a friend through death or divorce.  A fair number of the kids who have been approached by Moonies, let's say, when they were feeling good laughed it off, knowing exactly that this was probably a cult.  They were not the least bit interested.  Then they were approached again when they weren't feeling so strong, and off they went."

    According to Merritt, cults usually go after single, white, middle-class and upper-middle-class young people who have been taught to be open to innovative ideas and to try new experiences.  They are often intelligent young men and women who are extremely idealistic and altruistic.  She says that some cults today are also actively recruiting lower and working-class inner-city youths.  But beyond that, Merritt believes there is no typical cult member.  Young and old alike who are at loose ends are easy prey to the cults' flattery and deception.


    Margaret Singer believes in the importance of early education. "If parents would get their kids to be a little more streetwise," she says, "that's the main thing.  There are no free lunches."

    Singer believes that fathers and mothers should become more knowledgeable about the major cults so they can answer their children's questions.  But even more important, she feels that parents need to listen and hear the feelings, concerns and fears of their sons and daughters.  "You must be the one who helps a young man or woman find answers to his or her questions," she says.  "If you don't, a cultist may lure him or her off with false promises that there is one solution to everything."

    Just as parents should talk to their kids about drug abuse, Jean Merritt says they also need to inform them about cults.  In giving lectures around the country, she has discovered that high school students are terribly naive about the whole subject of cults.  Even teen-agers who know that it's bad news to get messed up with these groups, don't know why.  And Merritt insists that these people are just as vulnerable as their unaware peers because they're likely to pass it off as just another thing, like marijuana, that Dad and Mom will get hysterical about.


    "If your child has only been involved in a group a very short time and still hasn't left home, there are certain ways that you can respond to their questions," says Henrietta Crampton, secretary of Citizens Freedom Foundation, a parents' counter-cult network with affiliates in many states.  "You can find out which cult your child is involved with and who the leader is.  You can call a local chapter of CFF or maybe talk to an ex-cult member.  But get the specifics.  Then you can present these facts to your child and get him or her to understand.  If you know early enough, you can stop it."

    The hardest thing for fathers and mothers who have lost a child to a cult to swallow is their own guilt.  Most are ashamed.  Many see themselves as failures.  But because the cults recruit mainly from the ranks of the idealistic and committed, the loss of their child is, in fact, a kind of horrible personal compliment.

    Once a son or daughter has taken off with the group, most professionals believe that the sooner the parents start trying to make contact, trying to keep the lines of communication open, and trying to lure the child out, the better.  "So often parents think it's something like Hula Hoop - it's just a passing fad," says Margaret Singer.  "They don't know how really tight the psychological and social pressures will come to bear upon their child."

    Singer, Father Burtner, and Merritt believe that parents must keep in mind that cults see the world through polarized glasses: everybody inside is good and everybody outside is demonic or, at least, influenced by Satan.  aIf parents tip their hand too early by coming out openly against the group, the recruit will often go underground and may not be seen again for years.  To counter this, the three counselors tell parents to keep lots of "love messages" going to their kids.

    Parents who have had their children drawn into cults have three basic options.  By keeping communications going, they can try to get their son or daughter to talk with a former member or local cult authority.  Sometimes this third party, by providing critical information about the group, can break the cult's hold.  Although many cult watchers say this approach rarely works, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, a counter-cult organization, recently reported that "hundreds of young people have been convinced to leave the various cults as a result of discussions with concerned and knowledgeable individuals.  These discussions were entered into voluntarily by the cult members, usually at the urging of their parents."

    Some parents go to the courts when their children refuse to listen to the "other side."  There are two connected legal remedies: conservatorship- guardianship and a writ of habeas corpus.  Through conservatorships- guardianships, a state places an adult in the temporary custody of another adult.  Although state laws differ about the grounds on which these legal orders may be granted, the most common reasons include being harmful to oneself and others, physical infirmity, or mental incompetence.  But civil libertarians argue that it's an unconstitutional form of legal kidnaping, and many magistrates are reluctant to issue these orders.  If a judge decides that the cultist does need a conservator-guardian, a writ of habeas corpus is then issued to gain custody of the person.  Most conservator-guardian decrees specify a time period in which medical and mental health evaluation and treatment must take place.  At the end of these days or weeks, the judge reviews the case.

    The last alternative, the forcible abduction and restraint of the cult victim, is illegal.  And although some judges have been sympathetic to parents who take this course of action, these kidnapings have been prosecuted at every level of the criminal justice system.  Ted Patrick, the well-known San Diego deprogrammer, has been jailed many times for conspiring to forcibly remove a member from a cult.  Others have been fined.  Many contemporary deprogrammers will only talk to cultists who either come to them voluntarily or through a conservatorship-guardianship.


    Whether a person leaves a group voluntarily, through a court order, or by being illegally kidnaped, many counter-cult authorities believe the recruit must be deprogrammed.  "They don't get their heads on straight unless they have a chance to talk to somebody who's been through their experience, who knows what's going on inside of them emotionally," says Neil Maxwell, a San Francisco pharmacist who has done some 50 deprogrammings and who is willing to do more.  "I think it's a fantastic process.  It's very similar to surgery to correct a condition that can't be corrected in any other way.  It's not a harsh confrontation process but rather a kindly exchange of information."

    Father Burtner agrees that even when members choose to leave cults, they still need to have the opportunity to sort things out. "We've had kids who have left groups quite on their own, went home, and then later, for some mysterious reason, went back to the cult," he says.  "Maybe they got left alone too long in the cult, and their reflective processes began to work again.  Then they panicked and fled the group.  But if that person doesn't get some good help, he or she will still suffer from the residual effects of their experience, for example, knee-jerk reactions to coercive circumstances.  Another reason a person might leave a group is that he or she overdoses on guilt.  The cult must make recruits surrender their guilt to the group, which, in turn, enables the group to control them.  But at the same time, the group must maintain positive reinforcement - 'good strokes' - for without these, the person is going to feel unworthy of remaining within the group."

    Although Father Burtner knows that some self styled "deprogrammers" have tried to shock cultists out of their present mental state with violence, he does not believe that shouting and screaming, sleep deprivation, and sensory overload are the essence of the controversial procedure.  After conducting 16 deprogrammings, 14 of which have been successful, Father Burtner is sure that emotional or physical strong-arm methods do not work because these tactics simply reinforce the person's paranoia.  "Deprogramming," he explains, "is a counseling process whereby a cult victim is given the opportunity to see a broad perspective on his or her group; to see more fully the implications of membership; to learn the rudiments of abusive behavior modification techniques and the thought-reform process; to examine the values, tenets, and practices of the group; to examine his or her own thoughts and feelings so that the person re-evaluates the affiliation and makes a free personal choice."

    According to Father Burtner, cults put up a wall between a person's own ideas and emotions and his or her reflections on these things.  The cultist is stripped of any spontaneous reactions.  The group wants to control all communication that an individual has with the innermost self - to direct what, and even whether, a person may think and feel.  "So in the deprogramming, you've got to reach through that wall and help them experience their own thoughts and their own feelings," he says.  "There are a lot of ways to go about doing that. Some deprogrammers are very attuned to people's emotional wavelengths and can help them pick up on these things, especially, with the help of parents and friends who know what's real and what's not in a particular person.  Other deprogrammers prefer to go at it by means of a rational discussion about the cult's activities, hoping that as they do it the individual will show them some areas of anxiety.  Once they've got hold of that, then they can help the person bring to the surface what's really going on underneath."

    Gary Scharff was deprogrammed in Kansas by Joe Alexander, a profes

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