The “Circle of caring” and “epiphany” are the words that hit me as I watched Jok Church’s TED talk. Jok Church stood on a stage in full red leather with a black, white and red dicky-bow around his neck. High lace-up red boots completed his outfit. I noticed the studs in his nose, but it was his words that gave me an epiphany.

Jok shared a story from the 1960’s, about a teacher who had protected him at school from brutal bullies. “I was the class queer”, he said. Every week, he was beaten up and bloodied in the boys’ toilets. His teacher let him to use a bathroom in the staff lounge rather than being cornered and beaten. He said, “She saved my life.”

Jok left Stow, Ohio, and moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a cartoonist, became an author of science books for children, and was active in organizations supporting AIDS victims.

Many years later his teacher contacted him; she was dying of pancreatic cancer. She said, “I need to see you. I am disappointed that we never got to know each other as adults.” Jok visited her, along with his partner, and helped her and the family with hospice care. He said, “I was able to complete the circle of caring.”

Jok Church himself died of a heart attack in April 2016.

Listening to Jok made me wonder: what is it that enables some people to make healthy choices and break the rules to protect children from group prejudices? This circle of caring involved kindness and compassion. He does not talk about the trauma inflicted by the bullies. He just remembers and acknowledges the care and protection so freely given by his teacher.

When I was at University, there was a cafe in the Students’ Union called Milk. At first, I thought it was just a trendy name for a café, until one day I looked up and noticed the photos on the wall were mostly of one guy, or the same guy in a crowd of others, in what looked like San Francisco. His name was Harvey Milk. Although on the edge of student politics, it was not until I watched the film starring Sean Penn playing Milk that I began to understand his courage.

Like many people who are concerned with social issues, Milk did not become active until it became personal. At college, he wrote a popular weekly student newspaper column, questioning issues of diversity. But it was not gay rights that finally spiked his anger into activism. It was watching the Watergate hearings, back in the early 1970s. He said, “I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up.” He stood for City Supervisor and, after a couple of failed attempts, eventually won a place, on an equalities ticket, uniting a broad constituency, including women’s groups, gay activists, Asians, Hispanics and the disabled.

Harvey Milk was a popular local leader, until his murder in November 1978.

I mention these two men, because they seem to have been able to tap into authenticity.

heart made of votive candlesI was raised in a cult, where authenticity is suppressed and devalued. Unpacking the implications of what that means to my identity and family relationships has been a painful, but, more recently, an illuminating journey.

Cults control, suppress natural affection, and unduly influence the people they recruit. According to Steven Hassan in his book Combating Cult Mind Control, ”Undue influence is any act of persuasion that overcomes the free will and judgment of another person. People can be unduly influenced by deception, flattery, trickery, coercion, hypnosis, and other techniques.” Hassan adds that experts have moved away from the term “cult mind control”, and now use “undue influence.” The term “coercive control” has also become usual.

It is not just religious cults that use a range of techniques to assert a level of control.

There are psychotherapy cults, political cults, commercial cults, terrorist organizations, and trafficking rings. There are even personality cults, where people follow a celebrity with an excess of devotion.

So how do you work out if you have been unduly influenced or whether you are thinking and analysing for yourself?

Hassan uses what he calls the BITE model; it allows you to assess how much control a cult or a person may have over you. BITE stands for Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control and Emotional Control. Hassan’s work elaborates on Leon Festinger’s model for cognitive dissonance.

Hassan also builds on Robert Jay Lifton’s work on “thought reform” published in the 1961 classic Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Lifton showed that there are a range of methods used to influence and change people’s thinking. Those methods include the use of “mystical manipulation”, “loaded language” and “doctrine over person”.

Lifton argued that “isolation from the ideas, examples and distractions of the outside world turns the individuals attention to the only remaining form of stimulation, which is the ideology that is being inculcated in them.”

One simple assessment is to ask yourself: is my information being restricted? For example, some abusive groups do not allow research beyond their own information sources. Another question to ask is: are my thoughts being stopped or regulated? Some cults use internal policing by congregation members, or keep you so busy “doing ministry work” (or recruiting) that there is no time for personal reflection. The fear of doom and destruction at the coming Armageddon is also used to control emotions. These ideas instill phobias, which can be triggered by words (loaded language) in the cult’s publications and talks, and by world events.

The cult or cult leader creates a world of false safety; this is especially true for children raised within such a closed environment. Children, who are often indoctrinated from birth by family members, cult literature, techniques, and customs, may find it difficult to challenge the status quo if they are not allowed to research and make appropriate choices for themselves. Sometimes the extra threat of shunning and loss of family is included in the mix. Added to this kind of high control is the dreadful opportunity for child sexual abuse.

Dishonest persuasion and coercive control are nothing new. Every day they make a mainstream appearance in the rhetoric of our political leaders. But research about how undue influence works, and how it derails our critical thinking skills, is fairly new. The idea that people invariably operate in packs is being challenged, not least by Jon Atack, a former Scientologist, who argues in his book, Opening Minds: “We can only become truly ethical when we separate ourselves from the crowd and think and choose as individuals.”

Here is an example of how undue influence undermines normal family connections: in the cult I was raised in, the main teachings came through a magazine called “The Watchtower.” This is how the language was used and instruction laid down:

watchtower snippet

Notice the words “disassociated one.” What that means is someone, usually raised in the belief system, who no longer wants to be part of the pack, and has started to think for themselves. It does not mean that by leaving the pack that they want to cut off a relationship with their family members. Notice also the term “disfellowshipped.” A disfellowshipped person has usually committed some Biblical sin and is ostracized. But what they have done here is link someone who wants to leave (a rational choice) known as a “disassociated person”, with a so-called “sinner.” Both are to be cut off, shunned and ignored.

That is how undue influence works. Those that remain in the pack are threatened with their God’s displeasure. Continuing to communicate with your son or daughter or other family member is now somehow disloyal to God. They use an imagined higher authority, when in fact they mean disloyalty to the organization or the pack.

The same type of threats can be seen in the “Mo” letters, David Berg’s epistles to his followers, “The Children of God,” later named “The Family of Love.” In mock-Biblical language, Berg says, “THE MEN WHOSE OPINIONS THOU LOVEST SHALL DESTROY THEE and the Beast whose honour thou favourest shall devour thee. For why dost thou not return unto Me, O thou backsliding daughter? Why dost thou not repent of thy spiritual whoredoms?”

People believed this, and raised their children to think Berg was interpreting truth from God Himself. His remaining followers argue that his writings are permeated with the love of God. Go figure! This kind of language keeps people in check and has nothing to do with love.

Only a decade or so after the murder of John Kennedy, and a few years after the Watergate scandal, Berg capitalized on peoples’ mistrust, especially of government. He called the world: “the System”. His followers were to recruit others and separate themselves from society into communities.

Uncertainty and fear are played upon in both of these examples of high control. I have contrasted them because the outcome is the same. Whether you wander around dressed as a hippie offering free love – and advocating child sexual abuse – or you wear a suit and tie, or a dress below your knees when you go preaching door to door, the outcome is the same.

My mother was a prime candidate for recruitment in the 1960’s. A fearful, anxious woman raising three small children, she wanted the best for us all. Her particular cult dangled a carrot, but did not explain the virtual lobotomy that would ensue over the following years as an outcome of undue influence. She now not only intermittently shuns her daughter, but also her grandchildren. I say intermittently, because occasionally she responds to kindness, and then “closes down” again with cult-induced guilt.

Jill Mytton, (a researcher raised in the Plymouth Brethren) notes that there is limited “literature regarding the impact on a child’s development of being born and raised in a cultic group.” She argues, from her research with adults who were raised in cults that a “number of important themes have emerged including the experience of fear and guilt, the impact of such a closed separate life on social development, the lack of life skills that inhibits them if they leave, and the common experience of dissonance as the child seeks to resolve the messages from different environments and narratives.”

This has been my experience, especially in the early days of leaving, around 1982. I carried an enormous amount of fear and guilt. For many years I remained silent about my upbringing and my decision to leave, not least because I thought, a) what if they are right? b) I have done some bad things, and I am going to be destroyed at Armageddon anyway, so best not to talk about it.

It was only after my sister died at the age of 62, in 2012, that I began to unpack a lifetime of shunning and family dislocation. I did not go to her funeral. I was in Brazil at the time and a trip back to the UK, to spend time with people who think badly of me, seemed pointless.

I went to see my mother about a month after my sister died. She agreed to see me in a restaurant. My sister’s daughters came along, and we had a jolly time eating Chinese food, with my mother saying, “Don’t cry, she is at peace and because we have the Truth, we will see her again in the Resurrection.”

watchtower liesThey call their belief system “the Truth.” It is another technique used to unduly influence the membership. If you say it is “the truth” often enough, you do not even have to try and unpack what is being fed to you. The language my mother used is also a way of stopping both emotions and thoughts. Grieving is somehow disloyal to their God, as it means you do not trust in their teaching that the dead are raised back to the earth after Armageddon.

I left the evening with conflicted feelings. There is part of me that knows the beliefs do not add up, but there was/is a child who still remembers the fear. Don’t get me wrong, after I left, I met some fine and clever people who helped me, and I have had a wonderful life. I made some good choices. I went to University, worked in a high-level job and retired early, so I have no complaints about the beliefs holding me back. It is just the stuff underneath that is still being unpacked.

It was about a year after my sister died in 2013, that one of my nieces contacted me and said: “I am sorry for the way you have been treated. I want to leave; can I come and see you?”

We met, and I cried a lot. She laughed a lot. We were able to talk about her mother and father, but that is another story. This meeting opened my floodgates, because before then I had just buried a lot of my feelings. I began to research the beliefs, and in trying to find help for her, I discovered a lot of answers for myself. I continued to research and shared not only the information, but authentic love and caring. Within five years, my sister’s other girls, my other two nieces, left.

The first niece who left stood her ground and constantly challenged their attempts at shunning. She showed her sisters love, and also she had started to unpack the beliefs, so she could question the thinking, enabling them to begin to question what they had been taught. It also helped that they could see that she was happy and experiencing a better life now.

Cult members operate within the concept of deferred gratification. It goes something like this: we will suffer now because, at some unknown date, in our God’s time, everyone having been judged or destroyed, we will live in Paradise awaiting the resurrection of the dead.

You lot will be dead because you are not one of us. Political cults often teach that future generations will live in an earthly paradise.

There are still other members of my family in the cult, but I hope one day, they will experience freedom from undue influence. In the meantime, I think of them often, (something I never used to do) and send them love and the odd card. They do not reply.

So what was my epiphany? Simple really. It was what Jok Church called “the circle of caring”.

The creation of “them” and “us” is not part of the “circle of caring.” I do encourage you to watch his three-minute video because he ends his talk by saying, “life needs truth and beauty” and “dignity, love, and pleasure and it is our job to hand those things out.”

I think that is “the truth” that matters.


Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about recovery from a high-control group that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!