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The brainwashing methods of isolation, engulfment and fear can lead anyone to a cult. I should know – I was in one
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…