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The Overwhelmed Brain

I read Oliver Sacks’ seminal The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat in 1984. But, twenty or so books later, I still find the mass of terminology and the extremely complex architecture of this magnificent organ, the brain, somewhat overwhelming.

I have some slight grasp of the major areas of the brain and the functions within it, but I would still have difficulty differentiating the anterior cingulate cortex from the periaqueductal grey on a three-dimensional model or a two-dimensional diagram.

We should also bear in mind the philosopher Wittgenstein’s caveat: “Thinking in terms of physiological processes is extremely dangerous in connection with the clarification of conceptual problems in psychology … [It] deludes us sometimes with false difficulties, sometimes with false solutions.”1

Let us begin with a simple idea: If the unconscious mind is Mount Everest, then consciousness is about the size of a pebble on the top. The “awareness” or “working memory” is about two to three seconds in capacity. Different measures lead optimistic investigators to stretch this to perhaps 20 seconds, but no further.2

At most, the tip of awareness through which we peer both into the world and into ourselves has seven channels of information (give or take two channels)3 each the equivalent of three digits wide – and only the brightest and most awake among us have nine channels available. Sleep deprivation, fasting, drink and drugs can all reduce that tip of awareness to nothing.

This does not mean that we are automata or robots, as many contemporary researchers suggest. We are able to consider our own behavior and belief, and to follow carefully laid out plans. We can marshal our thoughts and concentrate to recover information that might be relevant and predict the immediate future.

We do not simply react – through education and preparation we learn to respond more rationally to stimuli. The purpose of this book is to enhance the conscious response to attempts to access our unconscious processes.

Without consciousness, we would be in a black-out, like the so-called “paralytic” drunk. We can point our attention inwards or outwards – all seven or so channels – and when our very limited attention is fully occupied, it becomes easier to install a random instruction into that busy mind. We will explore that topic later.


[1] Cited in Merlin Donald, A Mind So Rare, W.W. Norton, NY and London, 2001

2 Once Upon a Time, Laura Spinney, New Scientist, 10 January 2015.

3 Merlin Donald, A Mind So Rare, op.cit.


This post is an excerpt from Jon’s new book, Opening Minds, an engaging primer about undue influence and how our minds work to allow manipulators to decide what is in our best interest, a book scheduled for release in the fall of 2019



A Rude Awakening: Dissociation Under the Grip of a Predator

Editor’s Note: This story, although true, is admittedly on the unconventional side of what we would normally offer; this example of dissociation, although extreme, serves nonetheless as a textbook portrayal of the phenomenon. For all those who do not understand why those in the grips of an abuser don’t “simply walk away,” for all those who cannot fathom how a parent could abandon a child, for all those who are unable to comprehend how a young idealist can go from spiritual seeker to suicide bomber, we present this illustration of just how far those under the grips of undue influence can lose their own identity. Not all cult members dissociate, but it is a common enough happenstance, even in much more conventional settings than the one presented here.


I huddle beneath the threadbare blanket, trying to convince myself that I do not hear the voice of my tormentor, the man who, just last night, as a “spiritual lesson,” gave me the bruises now spreading over my shoulders and upper arms.

“Sophia!” Nightmare calls again, his voice directly above me now. A rough hand shakes my shoulder. “Sophia,” he snarls, the cruel fingers tightening on my bruised flesh, “do not pretend to be asleep, Wife. Awake and face the consequences of thou actions.”

The arrogance in his voice, combined with the stilted, high-school theater delivery of his words and the misuse of ‘thou,’ is enough to flip a tiny switch in me, and I decide to go into hiding, in the only way I can. In a futile to escape the inevitable humiliation, I will dissociate from my physical sensations and retreat into my inner world.

If I try hard enough, I can almost believe it’s actually happening: I imagine myself surrounded by a cool, prismatic shell of pure crystalline ice, with the filigree gold setting just visible beyond. In my mind’s eye, my husband is just an indistinct blur behind the safe walls of the diamond in my wedding ring; when I am inside this stone, he can do me no harm.

I convince myself I do not feel his fingers squeezing harder. In my Empire-cut sanctuary, the violent jostling of my shoulder is just a gentle rocking. There is a slap to the top of an uninhabited head; clumsy enough to be passed off as a ‘slip of the hand,’ but hard enough to make me wince, although I am not there.

I am not there, no, not there at all. Absolutely not squeezing my eyes shut harder, and certainly not tensing my muscles, I imagine the prison of diamond grow harder around me. I am safe in protective custody.

“Sophia! I can tell you’re faking it! Awake, stupid girl, and attentive me.”

Attentive me?!? It’s all I can do not to burst out laughing. This idiot is the incarnation of Poseidon, Lord of the Oceans?

“Are you laughing at me, Wife? I shalt teach thou verily to laugh.” Another slap to the head, and the rising swell of anger in my mind festers and solidifies. The involuntary curve of my laugh becomes a sneer; like shrugging on a coat, I slip into another set of mannerisms, a different vocabulary of facial expressions, an internal shift of posture from prey to predator. The shivering body curled into a fetal position becomes the crouch of a tigress ready to spring, the sneer widens into a snarl, the helpless trembling becomes quivering rage.

I open my eyes: the glint that shines there is not mine. “Yes, I was laughing at you,” I tell the slovenly boy before me, my voice much deeper than my normal tone (but it is not my voice; I am not me, I am still within the diamond upon my finger, and I cannot hear what is going on so very, very far away). “I was laughing at you because you still mistake your daughter for your wife.”

The expression of blank incomprehension eventually shapes into a simpering play of compassion; his voice softens, the line of his mouth forms the parody of a warm smile. “Pumpkin?”

My eyes darken and I hear the voice fill with scorn, as my body raises itself up into a sitting position on the grimy ‘twin’ mattress we sleep on in this shoddy upstairs room. “Not that daughter.”

If I was really me, I would enjoy the look of confusion on Nightmare’s face as he rummages in his tiny brain for the names we’ve given to our future children, who exist, potentially, in an alternate universe, waiting for us to get our marriage “back on track.” As it is, our youngest imaginary daughter smirks openly at her father’s stupidity; they “have will never once” get along, as our leader Sequoia so charmingly puts it.

Finally, he manages to pull a name from his cannabis-clouded skull. “Malice,” he sighs. “Where is your mother?”

“Where is your self-control?” The Demigoddess of Revenge asks sharply. “I’ve only been in this body five minutes and I can feel the bruises you’ve given her. And less than half of them are from what apparently passes for sex with you. Just what ‘spiritual lesson’ were you teaching her this time?”

“That’s between thou mother and I,” he proclaims stiffly, drawing himself up haughtily, all five foot four inches of scrawny, filthy, couch-surfing drifter covered in threadbare clothes from the clearance racks of Hot Topic (by way of Goodwill). Malice sums up her feelings for her father in one disdainful glance, and, theatrically looking around for where her mother hid the last pack of cigarettes, retrieves them and lights one up.

“It’s ‘thy mother and me,’” she says on the exhale. “If you’re going to insist on using archaic language, at least get the right usage. And get your modern grammar right, too.”

“And what wouldst thy know,” he snaps, “about grammar?”

“Enough to know that it’s ‘wouldst thou know.’ It’s not just one or the other; you have to know which to use when, kind of like forks at a formal dinner, if anyone invited you to any formal dinners.”

“We are the Lord of Atlantis. And what wouldst thou know about grammar, then? Thee is not a denzien of this time and place.”

Malice rolls her eyes. “‘Thou art not a denizen,’ Father, not ‘denzien.’ And if you’d be troubled to rack your aged brain a bit, you’d remember the formal dinners in Atlantis involve slaves carrying vomit buckets and people throwing chicken bones across the table. In any case, the grammar expertise is in Mom’s memory engrams – four years of hard grammar, university level. So just give it up and talk like a normal person from your century.”

Nightmare’s eyes blaze dangerously, and I realize he thinks he’s caught me in a trap. “I thought we got rid of all the engrams from that body’s ego.”

I puff casually on the cigarette, thinking quickly as I take a long drag. But I am not here – I am still in the diamond, safe and so far away ….

But still, a daughter must do what she can to protect her mother. Malice, Demigoddess of Revenge, laughs derisively. “Not the informational ones,” she says lightly, even breezily. “I mean, how would you expect Mom to remember how to drive a car or do her mundane job? or even how to digest her food?”

With a sinking heart, I can see that Nightmare has seized on a fault he can use against me. My husband’s eyes glint menacingly. “Still, we might have to do some exploratory surgery again to see that there’s no emotional attachments to these engrams.” He does his best to look calculating and intelligent, but only captures calculating and brutal.

The walls of my diamond refuge shimmer, and I feel Malice’s confident façade crumbling. Great Mother, I can’t do this …

She’s gone; I’ve lost Malice, but still I dare not venture from my mineral fortress. Instead, I go with weakness; rage is replaced with anxiety, the insouciant smile melts into a trembling lower lip, and the rebellious gleam in the eye becomes a helpless, silent plea for mercy.

The Demigoddess of Sea-Foam gazes helplessly up at her father, her whole posture and manner begging to be nurtured and protected. For some reason, our ‘oldest’ daughter manifests far younger than the adult personas of our other future offspring: Effervescia, my husband’s favorite child, is always barely out of toddler-hood, her voice wispy, ethereal.

“Daddy,” she whispers, “why do you have to hurt Mommy?”

Once again, Nightmare’s stony glare grows soft. Only years later will I wonder who it was he thought he was protecting in this strange playacting dance of ours. But now, only the smallest shadow of my original self is present to squirm at the twisted caricature of a concerned parent that sits down by my side and wraps his arm round a pair of shoulders still bearing bruises from his fists; the rest of me is far away, and yet literally at my fingertips. But still, an icy layer of super-hardened carbon, protected by a gleaming web of gold filigree, protects me from the poisonous murmurings of this horrible, horrible man.

“Now, Pumpkin,” he coos in a sickly-sweet voice, “if Mommy is malfunctioning, I’ll need to –”

“She isn’t malfunctioning!” the child screams, hysterical tears burning to sudden life in her eyes. “You’ve been hitting her!” The rage is spent as rapidly as it arose, and once more Effervescia crumples into a tiny ball, shrinking away from her father’s frightening embrace. “You’ve been hitting her,” she repeats in a tiny, far-off voice. “And you’re not supposed to hit her.”

Nightmare’s voice grows angry again, as he repeats his constant refrain when challenged on anything: “We’re supposed to work in tandem.” Only later, when I leaned the term thought-stopping phrase, would I understand just how he was always able to shut me down; even if I had snapped back to “myself” to argue the point, it would now be about the definition of working in tandem, rather than a discussion about his inability to keep his temper. And working in tandem inevitably meant that I must do as I was told.

Instead, I give the imaginary child free rein to plow through the whole mess, allowing myself to dissolve into a vapor of tears, my cries of protest growing ever more incoherent until they trail away into sad little hiccups of bubbling froth. Like water draining out of a tub, I envision the spirit of Sea-Foam leaving my body, spiraling away, back into the realm of unrealized potential from whence she came. Again I focus on the hard shell around me, and envision it becoming my outer body, growing to fill the space where once there was vulnerable flesh. But like the diamond on my finger, this body is harder than anything in the room, even my husband’s voice as he realizes that the favorite daughter is gone and only his wife’s hated body remains, the body he despises, the body which, he tells me constantly, disgusts him so much that sometimes he is forced to abuse it, if only to push its odious presence further from him – he loves his wife, but the body she has chosen for this lifetime simply repulses him.

That body does not feel anything now, not when Nightmare shakes the bruised shoulder roughly again and again, not even when he “accidentally” kicks a shin as he gets up from the mattress with an angry, simian grunt. The sound of heavy footsteps across the creaking floorboards does not register; a body made of diamond cannot hear.

And yet I manage to hear what the pathetic headbanger I’ve been married off to would call a ‘Pythonian shot,’ as he turns and delivers a final threat.

“I know you can hear me in that ring of yours, Sophia,” he growls. “If you’re not out in the kitchen to make breakfast for us in five minutes, I’ll send Pain in to wake you up.” There’s a sickening pause. “Remember, Brother Pain doesn’t mind hurting … children,” my husband finishes with a dark chuckle. Even though I am not there to hear him, I can envision his sneering face. “I’ll leave you to work it out,” he says, and closes the door softly behind him.

Years later, I learned that disassociation is a normal reaction to bullying in destructive relationships – those who are abused retreat into an imaginary world until the predator’s attention moves away. Back then, I just thought I was either a gifted “channeler,” or just going insane, depending on how much I believed the fantasy world our leader kept spinning around us.

How much did I really believe all of this? Over two decades later, I honestly don’t know, and the point is moot, anyway: back in that grubby apartment surrounded by the cornfields of northwest Ohio, we were ensnared in the net of a narcissistic leader who made us pawns in his megalomania, promoting himself as the “Magnus of the Eon,” who would utter the magickal spell to bring the world into a New Age – to disobey him was to risk catastrophe for the entire Cosmos. Even spelling “magickal” without the “k” could have dire consequences.

Now I can see that I had been cowed into subservience, skilfully manipulated into believing the crazy scripts of this narcissist. It might seem hard to believe that I was taken in by such insane fantasies, but I know through my work that the grip of undue influence is worldwide and pervasive, and that millions of people in all strata of life are currently living under the spell of exploitative persuasion – from coercive control in the household, through pseudo-religious cults and on to whole nations – like North Korea – all of them caught up in the fantasy of a narcissistic predator.

As a final note, although it was hard for me to dredge up these unpleasant memories of long ago, they are a valuable reminder of how much I have survived and how far I have come. I know, because I’ve lived it, that we humans are amazingly resilient creatures, and although we can be ensnared in a net of undue influence set for us by a narcissistic predator, we are also able survive, to escape, to help others out of the trap, and ultimately, to flourish.

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 dissociation that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Affected For Life – an Introduction to Human Trafficking

In 2000, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime began its landmark resolution on human trafficking, with 90% of member nations signing the agreement to introduce legislation to address the issue within and across their own borders. By 2009, researchers had collected and compiled enough data to produce this informative and profoundly moving documentary, which is an excellent introduction to human trafficking, for use by law-enforcement officials, educators, government agencies, related nonprofit organizations, and anyone interested in learning more about this dreadful crime, which touches millions of lives globally.

The defining feature of human trafficking is the lack of consent – or, where consent has been given, that this consent is irrelevant when the “means” of trafficking have been used – these “means” being the very methods of coercive control discussed at the Open Minds website: deception, emotional manipulation, threats of force, misuse of authority, taking advantage of vulnerability, and even spiritual blackmail. The United Nations also states flatly that no minor can give consent; anyone below the age of consent forced to work is being trafficked, regardless of any consent given by the minor or the parents/guardians of that minor. Of those trafficked, about 33% percent are children.

Every year, global events such as natural disasters, epidemics, famine, war, poverty, the persecution of ethnic minorities, and civil unrest, create a “ready-made” population of vulnerable individuals who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in desperate circumstances, and will do almost anything to assure a better life for themselves and their children.

exploiting dreams traffickingHuman traffickers exploit dreams of a better life, and turn the human misery they cause into profit. Human trafficking is nothing short of slavery.

Many fine organizations work to help these people before the traffickers get to them, but these organizations battle limited funding, the corruption of various governments, and human greed, so criminals find trafficking very profitable indeed: a human being, once captured and “groomed” into the learned helplessness common to all victims of undue influence, can be sold and re-sold, used and re-used, endlessly. Even in the so-called “developed” world, traffickers sell human lives with little interference or recognition from law enforcement.

re-useable people traffickingInterspersed with touching personal interviews with survivors of this form of coercive control, this introduction to human trafficking features a practical and clear statement of the United Nations’ definition of terms, with a specific and thought-provoking sidebar on how trafficking intersects with – and is yet essentially different from – the adjacent field of immigrant smuggling: while smuggling is temporary (the transaction ends when the destination is reached), and consensual, (even though the conditions are usually harsh), and for a one-off fee; trafficking is an ongoing process of exploitation which may or may not involve the crossing of national boundaries, without real consent, and any “fee” the trafficked individual paid is just the beginning of the financial involvement, and often a way to keep control through a heavy “debt”.

Whether the individual is controlled through debt or fear of violence to their family, whether it is a child forced to untangle fishing nets while risking drowning, or a young woman promised a modeling career only to find herself enslaved in a brothel, trafficking is one of the worst forms of undue influence, where predators take advantage of their victims’ dreams – while turning their lives into a nightmare. This poignant and thought-provoking introduction to human trafficking should be watched by everyone who cares about global justice.

We can help by explaining the nature of human predators and their techniques of recruitment and seduction, so that potential victims are forewarned.

Warning: this video pulls no punches when displaying the true horror of trafficking; there are graphic images of violence which may disturb more impressionable viewers.


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 trafficking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Shunning in the Jehovah’s Witnesses – the BBC Takes A Hard Look

The cruel practice of shunning – ignoring a family member or friend on the orders of a group – is a surefire marker of an abusive group or situation. And yet, the Jehovah’s Witness organization persists in using this harmful method of undue influence to emotionally blackmail their adherents to stay in the bubble-world of their organization.

In this insightful article from the BBC, survivors discuss how they have been alienated from their families – one young woman brutally thrown out of her home by her own father – for being “wicked” in the eyes of the organization. According to a representative of the Watchtower quoted in the article, a member of their group is to be shunned if he or she: “makes a practice of breaking the Bible’s moral code, and does not given evidence of stopping the practice.”

But according to their policies, these criteria apply to a woman not willing to continue living with an abusive husband; many former Jehovah’s Witness women tell of how they have been shunned by their families, simply for divorcing an abusive spouse. In this group, where “male headship” is one of their policies, a woman cannot divorce her husband unless either of them has engaged in adultery and is not sufficiently “repentant.” And, although, according to the same Watchtower representative: “violence … is strongly condemned in the Bible and has no place in a Christian family”, survivor groups are full of women who, when they were beaten by their husbands, report being  counseled by elders merely to be “better, more obedient wives,” with absolutely no action taken by those elders against the abusive spouse.

Shunning is also the inevitable fate for those who are homosexual, those who accept certain kinds of blood transfusions in order to save their lives, and anyone who thinks to question the policies of the Watchtower, or, indeed, dares to question whether or not the Governing Body who dictates these rules is, as they claim, the sole voice of God on Earth.

When an organization can hold the power of life and death over its members and even tear apart their families for the “crime” of disbelief, then, no matter what its purported views, it is a destructive, abusive group.

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 shunning that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Predatory Surgeon Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison for Unnecessary Surgeries

Predatory surgeon Ian Paterson has been sentenced to 15 years in prison, after being found guilty of 17 counts of wounding with intent and three counts of unlawful wounding.

predatory surgeon bannerPaterson lied to patients, either exaggerating or even inventing diagnoses of cancer, so that he could perform unnecessary surgical operations. A jury at Nottingham Crown Court heard that Paterson, 59, carried out “extensive, life-changing operations for no medically justifiable reason” for “obscure motives”, which may have included his desire to “earn extra money”.

Mr. Justice Jeremy Baker told Paterson: “Each vulnerable patient you chose to exploit accepted your advice at face value. You deliberately preyed on your patients’ long-term fears without any regard for the long-term effects. You can be a charming and charismatic individual, but you deliberately used those characteristics to manipulate your patients.”

The judge also noted Paterson’s “complete lack of remorse”, a typical characteristic of predatory people.

The publicly funded National Health Service in the UK has paid £9.5 million in damages to settle cases brought by more than 250 of Paterson’s NHS patients. Private healthcare provider Spire has refused to pay compensation, claiming they have no liability for the operations performed in their hospitals by Paterson between 1993 and 2012.

Linda Milliband, who represents 500 of Paterson’s patients, says: “The injustice continues as the case has highlighted a gaping loophole in the justice system.” As well as dealing with the painful effect of unneeded surgery, patients also have to find the strength and resilience to face the stress of litigation. Spire says that the courts offer “the fairest and quickest way to determine where responsibility for his actions lies.”

hippocrates predatory surgeonThis predatory surgeon damaged hundreds of patients over two decades without either Spire or the NHS taking notice. One patient, Diane Green, has said that, through unnecessary surgery, Paterson “stole my youth” and said that doctors who examined patients after Paterson had operated did nothing to halt his despicable practices. There are calls for a public enquiry to determine who was involved in the cover-up.

We need to be more aware of predators and actively protect others from their predation; unethical physicians and other mal-practicing professionals should not be able to hide behind the authority conferred by their qualifications or be protected by their professional organizations. Anyone who turns a blind eye to such vicious malpractice should be named and shamed.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about predatory medical malpractice that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


Domestic Abuse in a Cult – Interview with Lady Cee

It is well-established that the undue influence experienced within domestic abuse and high-control groups has much in common – one can easily term an abusive relationship as a two-person cult, and the leadership of a destructive group will act exactly like an abusive partner.

In this thought-provoking and tear-jerking interview, our friend Lady Cee interviews survivor Debbie Roberts, who endured both domestic violence and the high-control atmosphere of the the Jehovah’s Witnesses, before leaving and learning to live for herself.

Do you have a story about domestic abuse that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

What Toxic Groups and Relationships Have in Common

Every group and relationship seems different and unique to those involved, so it often takes former cult members years to realize that their group used very similar methods to those of other toxic groups. Members usually have a sense of superiority that prevents them from seeing the similarities, but careful study shows the same behaviours and the same methods in all toxic groups or relationships.

People are broadly the same. We are variations on the human template, so we share the same behaviours and react to the same pressures in very similar ways.

At one end of the spectrum there are totalist nations – such as North Korea – at the other end are coercive relationships. In between are the many forms of destructive groups, from violent criminal gangs and terrorists to the many forms of cult groups, including pseudo-religious, therapy, business and political.

At Open Minds, we recognise the similarities and we share information about the predators who prey upon others and control toxic groups and relationships. We also expose the manipulative methods used for that control.

Many expressions are used for manipulation. The popular term is brainwashing, but coercive control is used legally in the UK for manipulation in relationships, and undue influence has been used for centuries at law where one person has taken over the will of another. Among the other terms are coercive persuasion, mind control, thought control, thought reform, exploitative persuasion, and even menticide, or ‘mind-killing’.

All forms of manipulation rely upon normal human psychology. Predators use our need to belong and our friendliness against us. The only society in which manipulation would not work would be a society of predators, where no one would trust anyone else. For a beneficial society to work, we must trust one another, and this makes us vulnerable to predators.

To comprehend and proof ourselves against manipulation, we have to understand the nature of predators, our natural susceptibility to influence and the methods of manipulation.

By bringing together all of the relationships in which predatory manipulation occurs, we can share not only understanding, but also recover and protect ourselves from that manipulation. This is the aim of Open Minds – a multidisciplinary approach to the problems of undue influence.

We have identified key areas: cults, gangs, totalist nations, human traffickers/slavers, pedophile groomers, toxic partners and alienating parents. By sharing what we know – whatever our level of expertise – we will make a safer world: a world where predators are recognised and not allowed to have power over the rest of us. Please help us to spread the word!

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about a toxic group or relationship that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

What to Say When Someone You Love Is in a Coercive Situation

As humans, we’re joiners. Your average human is a member of several groups -groups of friends, social clubs, political parties, worship groups, workplace groups and more. Only a tiny fraction of those groups are actually high-control, coercive or totalist groups .

But what if someone you love is in one of those groups? First, make sure that they are in a totalist group – just because the beliefs are strange or new does not mean the group is abusive. There are many lists of how to tell if a group you’ve heard about is a destructive, high-pressure group, but one of the best around is Janja Lalich and Michael Langone’s checklist.


If you are reasonably sure your loved one is in an abusive group or relationship, it’s important to remember these Do’s and Don’t’s:

  • DON’T assume it’s because of something you’ve done wrong.
  • DO realize that this can happen to anyone.
  • DON’T tell them ‘I think you’re in danger.’
  • DO tell them ‘I want you to know that if you ever feel uneasy, you can call me .’
  • DON’T condemn or demonize the group or person, even if you’re sure your loved one is being manipulated.
  • DO ask them questions about their experiences, asking them to re-word their answers for clarity and collect more information – which will stimulate independent thinking. For more on this, see the questions below.
  • DON’T focus on discussion of the group/relationship, especially if they don’t want to discuss it.
  • DO talk about happy times, shared memories, hobbies and things they enjoyed doing before they joined the group or got into the relationship.
  • DON’T give them cash or large checks that might be turned over to someone else.
  • DO give them phone cards or a ‘disposable’ cellphone with your number already programmed in.
  • DON’T turn your time with them into a nonstop discussion about the group/relationship.
  • DO make sure they feel relaxed, safe and welcome around you. If you live with them, keep the communication open and encourage them to eat and sleep regularly. If they are only visiting, make sure they leave fed and well-rested. They should want to come back again, so that if they leave the group or relationship with nowhere to go, they’ll feel comfortable coming to you.
  • DON’T come across as if you know more about the group than they do, even if that is true.
  • DO ask them what they’ve learned, and how it has benefited them. They are the experts on their experience; ask them to teach you about it. You’ll learn a lot about what drew them to it and what they’ve been promised – or been made to fear. It always stimulates critical thinking when we describe our beliefs – as long as it isn’t in the rote way taught by the group or abusive partner.
  • DON’T keep talking about the group if the dialogue between you becomes tense, even if you feel you shouldn’t waste an opportunity to get your message across.
  • DO shift gears and focus on more neutral subjects as a way to maintain a more comfortable connection, and increase the likelihood for future discussions.
  • DON’T feel you have to match your loved one’s serious, and potentially dogmatic and pressured tone.
  • DO act respectfully, but also show warmth and humor. Be reassuring, kind and interested. This will feel a lot more comfortable to your loved ones than the tense conversations they usually have with people in the group, or the conversations they were told they’d be having with you. And don’t interrupt when they are speaking!
  • DON’T yell, argue, or get angry.
  • DO remain calm and keep asking questions.
  • DON’T deliver ultimatums (“it’s them or me”).
  • DO let them know that you will always be there to welcome them and listen to them, no matter what.
  • DO call them, write them, send them jokes, photographs of old friends and family pets, tell them that you love them. Even if you’re being shunned, they will know you’re thinking of them.
  • DON’T ever give up!


But now that you’re maintaining a relationship, what can you do to get them out of danger? There is no “magic wand” that works on everyone, but here are some simple questions you can ask your loved one to get them to start thinking for themselves – which is always a good first step.

What attracted you to your group in the first place? So often, I hear people who joined groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses say: “they were all so friendly!” Getting them thinking about what originally sparked their interest leads naturally to:

When you first joined, what did you expect to achieve as a member of the group? In answering this, ask for their personal goal, rather than the broader group goal (such as bringing about the New Age, or surviving Armageddon, etc). As a member, did they expect to achieve tranquillity? a better relationship with God? a better lifestyle?

What have you achieved? get your loved one to compare their goals in entering the group with what they’ve achieved. There might well be some gains, but it is vital that they themselves draw their own comparisons between what they’ve been promised and what they’ve achieved so far.

What do you hope to achieve in the future? is what they want as a member of the group different now to what it was when they joined? How far do they feel they still have to go to achieve what they want from their involvement in the group?

What have you personally witnessed others achieve? In groups which promise better health, personal power, or financial gains, or even in groups where there’s simply an expectation that those in it are happier or leading better lives, it’s good to prompt you loved one to look and see just what is being gained by their co-believers.

How long do you expect it will take for you to achieve your goals? In this case, you can ask this about both your loved one’s personal goals (how long will it take before they reach the desired level of enlightenment or success), but also, for example, how long they expect to wait for the group’s goals, such as the New Age, Armageddon, or the Second Coming.


It’s important to note that these questions are good to ask oneself from time to time as well, not only about any clubs or church you are involved in, but also your relationships, your work, and even your own broader aims in life. Whether we’re involved in an abusive relationship, or simply stuck in a place we never intended to be, a little self-examination is never a bad thing.

The vital thing to remember when dealing with a loved one in a high-pressure group or a coercive relationship is to keep the lines of communication open – patience, compassion, tolerance and understanding are the best gifts we can ever give.


What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about a loved one in a coercive situation you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Disposable Women

When the reporter asks: “why is it that men do this?”, Professor Sundari Anitha, of the University of Lincoln, only has to consider for a moment; the answer is painfully obvious.

“Men do this because it’s so easy for them to get away with it,” she answers in rapid, lilting tones.

In many areas of the world where there are family ties between the “first” world and the poorer nations, it’s a steadily rising epidemic, especially in those countries where the woman’s family traditionally pays a bride-price or dowry: a man with American or British citizenship comes back to the “old country” to find a wife, marries her, enjoys the honeymoon – and then leaves, pocketing the four-figure dowry and abandoning the woman to her own devices, or worse, forcing the bride to live with his relatives to serve them.  A woman dreaming of marrying and being taken to the US or the UK with her new husband might, within a few weeks, find herself a slave to her new in-laws – and her marriage a sham. Many women find out, too late, that he is already married – and that she is only one of a string of women to be thus used and thrown away.

Only infrequently will the man go through the trouble and expense of taking his new wife back home with him; those who do will often wait until a child is born, then take his new family on a holiday to visit the relatives – and then conveniently leave the mother of his child behind with those relatives; she will never see her husband or her child again. He gains a child and sometimes several thousand dollars; she gains nothing but a new reputation as a social pariah.

The abandonment (and the loss of a bride-price which often represents decades of savings to her family) is not the worst that one of these “disposable women” has to endure; in these countries, the stigma of a woman who has had sexual relations but no husband to show for it is often so harsh that her sisters might be unable to find good husbands – she is “damaged goods,” and her standing in the community is irrevocably ruined. No one seems to notice – or care – that there is no corresponding stigma attached to the men; they are free to marry again, as often as they like, each time pocketing a small fortune.

“My life is already ruined,” one woman says quietly, as her devastated father sits not far away. “I now want justice.”

Justice is not easy to find, especially if the women have never been taken to their husband’s country. But Harjap Singh Bangal, a lawyer for the London Immigration Advice and Appeals services, would like to see the law changed to protect these women. “He’s used his passport to gain an advantage,” he says earnestly. “The UK government should then say to these people, ‘right, you’ve abused your right as a British citizen, and therefore we’re going to do something about it.'”

At Lincoln University, Professor Anitha has worked with such campaigners as Pragna Patel, Director of the Southall Black Sisters, to produce a report calling for action from the British government.

“Abandonment should be recognized as an aspect of domestic violence,” Ms Patel says, “because it involves emotional, sexual, financial, physical coercive behaviour and abuse. Once it is, then all the legal avenues that should be open to women either to seek protection or prosecution … would be available to abandoned women.”

“If the British state turns a blind eye to this, they are contributing to the culture of impunity,” she adds. “In a globalized world, we have to wake up to the fact that violence in trans-national spaces is a new and emerging form of violence against women.”

We at Open Minds hope to see the UK and other governments take up this challenge and help those who fall victim to this cruel form of undue influence.

For more on this, watch the BBC report.


What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about domestic abuse or spouse abandonment you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

The Archers: An Everyday Story of Coercive Control and Parental Alienation

Rob Titchener (Timothy Watson) and Helen (Louiza Patikas)Even outside the UK, you might have heard about the long-running much-loved BBC radio soap opera, The Archers, and its brilliant plot in recent years that has included two lots of coercive relationships.

One of those coercive relationships – the domestic abuse – is in all the media headlines. The other – parental alienation of the children – has yet to appear.

Now’s the time to get them both trending!

Coercive control No 1: Intimate partner abuse

Over a couple of years now, Rob’s slow and excruciating coercive control and emotional abuse of his wife, Helen, has been brilliantly developed and portrayed in the daily BBC radio episodes of this ‘everyday story of country folk’. All the features are there, including how even Helen’s closest friends didn’t know.

Then, earlier this year in a heated incident, Helen stabbed Rob. She has been in prison since, awaiting her trial for attempted murder. The trial has been the recent main storyline ending with a full-length jury scene in which she …. (uh-oh – spoiler alert! I’m not going to spoil it here!). You can find details of the trial week collected here.

The plot so far could have been inspired by Evan Stark’s real cases of women who murder their coercively controlling partners – read his book Coercive Control.  However, in The Archers, Helen’s defence did not hinge round being the victim of a ‘liberty crime’ as Evan proposes in general for these situations. But it has been his thinking that has led the way in the UK, including the recent law on controlling and coercive behaviour in intimate and family relationships. Scotland is developing its own version.

12 angry white identikit etc men ... i.e. before "equal opps" was invented!

The hour-long jury episode made me think of the famous old film 12 Angry Men, which started as a TV show in 1954. The difference 60 years later is that equal opportunities have happened! The Archers’ jury had to have the women in it – especially for a crime of domestic violence!

In the UK and (I’m told) elsewhere too, you can (for 30 days after it) download the show. I like that Omnibus edition each week (5 episodes = 1 hr 15 mins). It’s like binge-watching a box-set on Netflix.  Mind you, the pictures – as they say – are indeed much better on the radio. You can get the Omnibus edition as Podcasts – and I think you can save that version.

If you cannot download BBC programmes, you CAN get the overall picture so far from pages like this one: Helen and Rob: The whole story. And The Archers Trial Week: The Key Players

Coercive control No 2: Parental alienation

Now, what has not featured yet by name – in the script or in the media – is how Rob has also long been turning, and is planning to turn, the two children against their mother. Yes, of course, that’s commonly known as Parental Alienation (PA). It’s the show’s other family pattern of coercive control and undue influence. This other alienation storyline has been equally stomach-churningly and subtly scripted and acted. Brilliant stuff! Listen to any of the Omnibuses.

Now that the trial has ended there is still a custody battle in the family courts brewing. The little boy, Henry, has been skilfully coached by Rob to say the right (ie negative) things about Henry’s mother, Helen. He’s ready to say enough to make it seem in court like it is in his best interests to stay with his step-father.  And there’s their baby too … Rob has firmly given him one name, Helen has firmly chosen another name.

And here’s a question: If the law in England and Wales, and soon in Scotland too, is called: Controlling and coercive behaviour in intimate and family relationships, shouldn’t that somehow also be able to tackle Child and Parental Alienation?!

This one could run and run!

So now is the time to get Coercive Control and Parental Alienation into the headlines and the social media as well – in the UK if not across the world. You can Like and Tweet and ReTweet this important headline news across the world. Even if you don’t get BBC Radio 4, you’ll be doing a great service to help us raise these profiles in the UK.

And even if we cannot raise an urgent profile, we think there may be quite a few years more for us to do that in! The script writers say:

” … We deliberately decided to use the dirtier route and not have [Rob] die, because now [he and Helen] are umbilically linked together as long as they have those children together. So I think they have another 20 to 30 years of the story.”   

Sunday night’s episode hinted at this. A custody battle is due to take place on 14 September. And at the end of the [last] episode Helen had a chilling run-in with Rob:  “Did you think you could tell all those lies about me and I’d just disappear?” he said. “Well, you might have fooled everyone else, but we both know the truth … You haven’t got rid of me. As long as we have a child together, you never will.”

Uniting against coercive control

The Archers plot does go with the stereotype of men as always the villain of the piece. But there is a silver lining for the understanding of Parental Alienation in that it shows that Alienation is not so gender specific as so many people think it is.

Most powerfully, The Archers unites two family coercive patterns in one go. We see how closely linked the two patterns are through the damage that undue, or harmful, influence does. Read more about the whole range of undue influence patterns here with Learning about a common enemy, and also on the website of the Open Minds Foundation.

Those who deny or rubbish Parental Alienation are also those who strongly hold to the so-called ‘gender-based’ coercive control view of domestic abuse, that it is essentially based in patriarchy and male power everywhere. See Evan Stark’s Coercive Control for more on that.

But even so, The Archers presents the most wonderful unifying moment for these two close and often furiously gender-opposed fields – domestic / intimate partner abuse and Child Alienation. Both of these are forms of family coercion or undue influence – and both feature the essential element of the isolation and the alienation of the victim by the coercive controller from their other family and friends .

A treble chance headline hit

So please talk about or otherwise promote this boost for awareness of all these three important issues.

1. Coercive control in Intimate Partner or Domestic Abuse,

2. Coercive control in Child and Parental Alienation. and

3. Coercive control as found in all kinds of Undue Influence.

Use any social media you can. You’ll find me on Facebook (search for Nick J Child) and Twitter (search for @Nick234678). There you will find my Posts and Tweets that you can Like, repost or ReTweet. And/or you can Follow me too.

I’ve suggested we all keep using this hashtag:   #TheArchersTargetKids   Or make up a better one yourself!

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 Parental Alienation that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

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