mind control - Harper's Bazaar
MAY 1980


Surrendering the self to a fanatical cult is the steep price thousands of Americans have been willing to pay for a sense of high purpose and security. During times of uncertainty and confusion, people are even more susceptible to the compelling -though dangerous-claims of these pseudo-religious groups.

Americans first heard the term "brainwashing" in the 1950s in connection with indoctrination methods used in some Korean prisoner-of-war camps. That frightening introduction was not to be our last encounter with thought reform.

Since then, scientists have researched its effects, sociologists have hypothesized its probable role in modern life, and novelists Richard Condon and Anthony Burgess have given us a glimpse of characters whose lives were altered drastically by mind control.

Now almost three decades after the Korean conflict, we are emerging from a consciousness explosion in which unprecedented numbers have experimented with drugs, meditation, new therapies and bizarre faiths. The search for a spiritual "high" has been unrelenting and, in many cases, the route to enlightenment has included brainwashing-especially through the techniques employed by religious cults and some unorthodox forms of psychotherapy.

Evidence from those who have experienced thought alteration suggest that the mind can be changed on its deepest level throughout life-not just in childhood, as Freud suggested. In a hopeful sense, this means we are no longer trapped by our pasts. Realistically, however, it signifies that all of us are more vulnerable than we thought to having our beliefs shaken, our psychological integration and sanity threatened, often by forces we barely understand.

According to the findings of Flo Con­way and Jim Siegelman, authors of Snapping, America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, our personalities are maintained simply by the flow of information going into our brains. Radically different information poses the strong likelihood of an extreme personality change. A profoundly disturbing experience, such as sustained physical abuse, a natural catastrophe or the great anxiety induced by a barrage of verbal assaults in the name of therapy, can undermine our rationality, our intellectual caution and our ability to judge. This suspension of the critical faculty may feel ecstatic or euphoric, but the consequences can be tragic. It is in this state, the authors assert, that we are most defenseless against all forms of brainwashing.

Mind technology-the means to accomplish thought reform-as Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, research psychiatrist at Yale University and an expert in the phenomenon, prefers to call brainwashing-is a fact of modern life. Many organizations, from the Symbionese Liberation Army to the Centrall Intelligence Agency to a host of pseudo-religious cults, know how to transform a person psychologically. Sometimes the methods are nothing more than behavior modification. Often, however, they involve physical pain or, more insidiously, the use of spiritual techniques such as long hours of chanting prayers, which reduce human awareness and exhaust the mind.

It is unlikely any of us will be subjected to the kinds of total psychological assaults that the disciples of the Rev. Jim Jones endured. It is equally unlikely that we will experience the sophisticated mind technology of an intelligence operation. The threats to our psychic well-being, instead, most probably lie in the realm of bogus therapies and religious cults. We may become exposed innocently enough at a lecture, a seminar, or through a seemingly well-meaning acquaintance who understands our quest for greater happiness and appears to have a solution.


Allen Wood, author of Moonstruck: A Memoir of My Life in a Cult and former high ranking member of the Rev. Sun Myung :Moon's Unification Church, has used the label "destructive cult" to designate those groups which impose the most severely totalitarian structure on the lives of their followers. He lists these four as the wealthiest, largest and most entrenched: the Church of Scientology, the Way International, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and the Unification Church.

A characteristic which these groups share, he and others point out, is fanatical devotion and enforced obedience to a central leader or leaders who believe themselves to be the messiah or special agents of God. This doctrine of a living messiah forms the cornerstone of the cult's theology, which is revealed to the members gradually, often as reward for a hard day's work raising money. Almost invariably, this theology enforces a we they relationship between cultists and the outside world. Often, families are said to be agents of Satan, aligned with the world of evil, which encompasses everything on the outside. Contact with them is discouraged, except as a source of money.

In addition, the cults sanction illegal activities performed by members in their behalf. Allen Wood points out that the source ofmuch of the followers' wrongdoing stems from the explicit teachings of the leaders.

"The group is considered to be the special recipient of God's blessing and therefore it has the right to exist on a different moral plane from other people. Unification Church members, for instance, believe the only goodness in the world is what reflects positively on the Rev. Moon. Those of his disciples who are fund-raising have the right to lie, cheat or steal as long as it benefits Moon. It's an outright teaching: Moon has said, `Even God tells a lie. It's not bad to tell a lie in order to do a good deed'. In other words, it's the ends justifying the means."

Fund-raising has expanded far beyond selling flowers on the street-corner. Hare Krishna restaurants exist all over the country, and the Church of Scientology has vast real- estate holdings. The Unification Church operates a newspaper, The Yews World, fisheries, candle factories, and is planning to manufacture armaments. "When a cult has a business," Allen Wood asserts, "they can undercut anybody because they don't pay their employees."

The destructive cults also tend to monitor closely the bodily functions of members, deciding how much sleep and how much and what kinds of food are permissible. Fund-raising activities, which often include street-peddling or begging-may take up to 16 or 17 hours a day.


Are cultists, as one might suppose, composed mostly of the ranks of the lonely, the poor and the neurotic? Who is susceptible to joining and when?

Most, but not all, cult members are in the 18-to-25 age group. Authorities agree that many join during periods of stress or transition-during final exams, after college, after a divorce. Dr. Lifton maintains that many active devotees are "severely conflicted" and seek cult membership as a way to resolve such difficulties. -

Dr. John S. Homlish, a professor of psychiatric ethics at the 14lenninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, believes that an outsider's assessment of the psychic health of those who join cults depends on his own views toward all types of religion."If, like some-especially many psychoanalysts-he considers that any religious faith stems from neurotic conflict, he will tend to look down on cultists. If he has sympathy with the religious impulse, he may see them merely as people who are searching in the wrong direction for a valid experience."

Allen Wood, now a lecturer and deprogrammer of cult members, claims it is the skillful psychological manipulation of cult recruiters which accounts for their success.


There are now an estimated 3,000 cults in America and no signs of any drop in membership among the most powerful ones. How is it possible that they have gained such a foothold in our land of freedom and opportunity? Experts who have dealt with these groups point to the uncertainty of the times and to the spiritual confusion within more orthodox faiths.

"All of us seek involvement in what I call the ultimate dimension-something transcendent," says Dr. Lifton. "We all need those moments, quiet or ecstatic, when we lose the self and move beyond the prosaic, everyday aspects of life.

"Some of us do this through having children. Others find it through communing with nature. Sometimes we seek more direct expressions of spirituality-in conventional religion, in an exploration of parapsychology, in other forms of mysticism, as well as drugs and meditation.

"But I think it is fair to say that the kind, of spiritual high people are looking for are for is something mainstream modern society has never encouraged-has even suppressed-and the cults offer outlets and opportunities for this kind of behavior in a very significant way. People are actually urged to have “religious experiences."

The sense of being part of a crucial historical movement is a highly attractive element of cult life. Says Allen Wood, "There's a crisis psychology in a cult all the time. Your mission is absolute. Your leader identifies the enemy as the current historical emissaries of Satan. If you don't succeed, Satan isn't only going to destroy you and God's most loved one-the cult head-but also the whole world. That's a very compelling vision."

The Rev. Joel MacCollam, an Episcopal priest and professional cult watcher, believes the cults may sometimes answer people's religious needs better than more traditional faiths. "Most of the groups are very good at teaching scripture, whether it's the Bible or some indigenous work of their own making. They're also excellent at stressing prayer and the interpersonal relationships within the group.

Cult fellowship is extremely intense-they `lovebomb' you with support-and people often find just the opposite in conventional, organized religion."

Dr. Lifton also refers to "the current imagery of extinction" as a spur to joining a cult: the specter of annihilation which, in the contemporary imagination, takes the form of either nuclear holocaust or the exhaustion of our natural resources "There have been waves of cult formation in the West throughout history whenever there has been a great deal of confusion and threat, a sense of dislocation, and a loss of faith in religion, the family, and government. We see this mood in America today, which partially accounts for the popularity of these new rigid structures."

If they fulfill certain important needs, they clearly do so at a psychological cost to their adherents. "I have seen followers of certain cults who, after being members for a long time, behave like automatons," Dr. Lifton states. "There is destruction of the ego," adds Dr. Eli Shapiro, a Boston area family physician.

In Snapping, the authors describe in detail the alteration of a person's psyche as he or she becomes more and more involved in cult activity:

"After an individual surrenders or lets go, whether in a sudden moment or gradually, he may slip into a level of reduced awareness. In this trancelike, sustained state, his fundamental abilities to question and to act are dramatically impaired.

At the same time, he becomes almost wholly vulnerable to suggestion and command, and so emotionally dependent on the group and its leaders that, in many instances, he can no longer be deemed responsible for either his action or expression.

"Once someone's freedom of thought has been broken in this manner, most cults then add a torrent of new information in the form of direct indoctrination. In lectures, discussion groups and personal confrontations, the new convert receives the values, beliefs, doctrines and stiff regulations of the cult."

This analysis closely parallels what Dr. Lifton describes as the kind of thought reform-brainwashing-used by the Communist Chinese in the 1950s. Their method involved three basic steps: conversion, confession and re-education. A conversion moment usually occurs when, suddenly, the captive "sees" the truth of his captors' particular ideological claims. He has, by this time, suffered a tremendous amount of harassment, both physical and emotional. This moment of seemingly clear insight leads him to repent for past actions not in keeping with the principles of his new ideology. A confession follows-made in good faith, not simply as a way to escape further torture. After such a traumatic renunciation of his former self, the captive is overwhelmed by a desire to immerse himself in the tenets of his new belief.


All religious cults are fully protected under the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion. In addition, they enjoy the tax-exempt status of more established churches, a fact which has generated a good deal of controversy, since it is not clear how much of a cult's income is used for charitable purposes. The American Civil Liberties Union fully supports the right of all cults to exist, a viewpoint which Dr. Lifton, for one, supports with some reservations.

"I feel critical toward all movements which divest people of their autonomy. However, as a civil libertarian, I am cautious about applying legislative or legal solutions to broad social movements. Furthermore, I think it's unproductive to lump all the cults together. The practices of each should be studied individually. All things considered, I think the best approach is to educate people about the hazards these cults may pose."

The Rev. MacCollam disagrees with the ACLU's position. "What's at stake isn't so much the freedom to believe what you want-which is absolutely assured in our Bill of Rights-but the freedom to practice those beliefs in a way that inflicts harm on you or any other member of society. That is not a right. The ACLU doesn't seem to acknowledge the distinction."

At this point, the solution to the prob­lem of the cults lies in the hands of private individuals acting wisely when a friend, sibling or child joins. The Rev. MacCollam has these suggestions: Keep in contact at all costs. Try to cast seeds of doubt with­out being judgmental about the group. Don't send money or anything which can be converted into money. Above all, don't feel guilty: If you've treated the person well, you've done your job.

Allen Wood emphasizes that it's impor­tant to get in touch with ex-cult members, many of whom are part of such organiza­tions mushrooming around the country. A minister or lawyer can direct you. As for the somewhat notorious process known as "deprogramming"-made fa­mous by the cultist kidnapping exploits of Ted "Black Lightning" Patrick-that should also be a private decision. His fee is over $6,000.

Allen Wood, who uses another ap­proach, charges $250 a day plus expenses. "Someone who has left a cult needs to be non-pressured," he believes. "At the same time, he should continue to talk to ex-­members or therapists to try to destroy the hold that the cult had on him.

"An excellent way to do this is for ex-­cultists to get together in groups and talk once a month about what it's like to be out, what it's like to be in and what is bothering them now. For those who are strong enough, I think it's great to take a vocal, public position against the cults."

All successful deprogramming methods are based on convincing the cult member again of the validity of his own individ­ual conscience and pointing out how en­slaving the group is.

A pattern of adjustment problems faces those who have recently left cults. These involve belief in God, relationships with parents and members of the opposite sex, self-esteem and, most importantly, self-­motivation. But within a few months, per­haps a year, most recover and are able once more to control and guide their lives -a real victory for someone who has been subjected to the physical and psychologi­cal deprivation of thought reform.