For cult survivors who are wondering what hit them, Alex Stein’s new book, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, should prove helpful. Alex explores many important ideas currently emerging from attachment theory, applying them to practical use in the recovery process.
Attachment theory deals with relationship. The relationship between a follower and a guru-figure is often a “disorganized” attachment. The guru takes on a parental role and becomes the only significant source of comfort, but at the same time is the significant source of distress.
Alex cites the originator of attachment theory, John Bowlby, “Most people think of fear as running away from something. But there is another side to it. We run TO someone …”
This disorganized attachment creates a double bind, where the guru traumatizes the follower, who then looks to the instigator of that trauma for resolution. Add psychological and often physical isolation from the wider world, and you have a recipe for ideological slavery.
The “total convert” becomes dissociated from society and from their own normal behavior. As Alex says, “On the one hand, the person cannot think clearly about the frightening relationship … On the other hand, the person – feeling frightened – tends to stay in proximity to their only remaining attachment, even when it is that attachment that is causing the threat. Panic is followed by giving up: giving up both independent thinking and emotional independence. The combination of isolation and fear is therefore, in many cases, able to create a dissociated follower with an anxiously dependent attachment bond to the group.”
Alex gives the example of Masoud Banisadr’s long involvement with the MEK terrorist group. In Masoud’s words, “every moment a person spends for the leader, whether in thought or in deed, is spent for good, and every other moment, even when you are asleep or believe you are doing good, is spent in favour of evil.”
Alex’s own cult experience, in a small left-wing group, the O., is described in her autobiography, Inside Out. After leaving, she studied social psychology to the doctoral level.
Alex explains the offer of “apparent kindnesses” by a leader: “In the confusion and unhappiness of the oppressive life within the closed world of the O., these acts were powerful. The momentary lifting of pressure resulted in feelings of gratitude as well as guilt about my own often-rebellious behaviour. But beyond that they made me feel as if the leader – who remained unknown to me – was, indeed, benevolent, perhaps even loving and tender. As in the Stockholm Syndrome, thus does the abuser become the perceived safe haven – a person … to whom one can turn for help, mercy, forgiveness, comfort.”
When I left Scientology, I was shocked by the devastation caused to many members – and their unwillingness to leave the cult or its doctrines. It took me some time to realize that my own cult experience had been relatively mild: in nine years, I had never been traumatized or humiliated.
Because I had not been a live-in member – and so was never socially isolated – I did not lose my family attachment, which has always remained strong. I was dedicated to the cult, but I was very lucky: I did not become a “total convert”.
I was fully immersed in the beliefs of the cult, but, more by luck than judgment, I was not fully immersed in the cult itself. Many people are not so fortunate. As Alex says, “Processes of brainwashing rest on the creation of stress or threat with no escape other than the apparent (un)safe haven of the group. This results in a state of terror that causes a dissociative state resulting from a disorganized bond to the leader, or the group as proxy. The hyperobedient and hypercredulous deployable follower existing in this airless world gripped by an iron band of terror can be asked to engage in acts they would not have previously done, nor, once out of the group, would they do in the future.”
As is so often the case, Alex was a highly intelligent and compassionate young woman, with a strong social conscience. Her high ideals were used to lure her into a cult. For her doctoral thesis, she studied a therapy cult called the Newman Tendency, whose leader claimed to practice, “Proletarian or revolutionary psychology.”
Alex gives us a “working definition” of a totalist system: “A totalist system is formed and controlled by a charismatic authoritarian leader. It is a rigidly bounded, dense, hierarchical and isolating system supported and represented by a total, exclusive ideology. The leader sets in motion processes of brainwashing or coercive persuasion designed to isolate and control followers. As a result followers are able to be exploited, and potentially become deployable agents, demonstrating uncritical obedience to the group, regardless of their own survival needs.”
Alex also considers the nature of a cult leader, for instance, quoting Richard Bernstein, “Mao was a man who had no friends … He saw everybody as a subject, a slave … He was actually an irritable, manipulative egotist incapable of human feeling who surrounded himself with sycophants.” The same could be said of most cult leaders and predatory partners. In a private affirmation, Scientology’s leader, Ron Hubbard, even wrote to himself, “Men are your slaves“.
Alex looks to psychology as well as emerging evidence from neurology to argue that “brainwashing” is a scientifically demonstrable effect: “If a charismatic authoritarian psychopath succeeds in putting people in conditions of social and emotional isolation, then engulfs them in a fictional world that distorts their perceptions of reality and, finally, creates an environment of chronic fear arousal, they can, in most cases, disable the follower’s ‘thinking part of the emotional brain.’ And once that’s gone, they can do their thinking for them, resulting in a deployable and exploitable follower. We know how this is done. The task at hand now is to both continue deepening the research, but perhaps more importantly disseminating this knowledge in order to strengthen society’s defenses against the threatening forces of totalism.”
In her final chapter, Alex addresses the problem of disseminating this knowledge: “This goes beyond the idea that simply teaching ‘critical thinking skills’ is enough. While that is, of course, important, we also should be teaching about the specific kinds of mechanisms that interrupt the ability to think critically.”
In Terror, Love and Brainwashing, Alex adds a new and straightforward approach to understanding the profound effect of manipulative processes. This is a rich and rewarding text.
It can take even the bravest and cleverest people years to leave, and years more to escape the behavioral conditioning of a totalist group. This book will help to speed that process for many people.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Alex’s book? Do you have a story about being in a totalist group or relationship that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
And be sure to check out Alex’s other book, Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult.