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OMOA Undue Influence in Pop Culture – Cult Recruitment and Exiting

In this month’s episode, Pearse and Spike take a look at two cult-related episodes from the popular cartoon shows, The Simpsons and King of the Hill.

In The Simpsons episode entitled “The Joy of Sects,” Homer joins the Movementarians, who promise their followers a life of Bliss on Blisstonia – if only they give up all their money and follow their Leader, by toiling in the lima-bean fields. The whole town falls under the group’s spell until Marge gets the family out. Spike and Pearse discuss the inaccurate Hollywood “cult” tropes – and consider the few bits the episode got right – as well as dissecting the extremely erroneous “deprogramming” of the Simpson family.

Moving onto the King of the Hill episode “Fun with Jane and Jane,” Pearse and Spike explore what makes this a much more accurate picture of a high-control group – and which tropes weren’t so accurate. In particular, they discuss the excellent job Hank does in helping Peggy and LuAnne leave the group on their own terms, in sharp contrast to the forcible kidnapping and deception Marge employs to “rescue” her family in the Simpsons episode.

Before you tune into this informative and high-spirited discussion, we encourage you to watch the shows so you have them fresh in your mind. Also mentioned in this podcast is a former episode with Christian Szurko, available here.

You may also upload the episode as an mp3 here.

What do you think about this podcast? Do you agree? Do you know of a movie, television or book demonstrating undue influence that you’d like to see us tackle next? We’d love to hear from you! 

The Chipmunk, the Groundhog, and the Crow – Unhelpful “Help”

Early one Spring, a Chipmunk, having lost his footing near a stream, fell into the rushing icy waters, and, by the time he realized what he’d done, he had been carried several meters along in the freezing rapids, buffeted and battered by the rocks in the current’s path.

His cries for help as he paddled frantically along attracted many of the woodland creatures, including a Crow, who cawed out: “You silly fool! You shouldn’t have gone so close to the shore this early in the year!”

However, at that moment, a wise old Groundhog raised herself up on her hind feet, surveyed the situation, and bellowed: “Look up to your left, Cousin! There’s a branch coming up – take hold of it!”

The Chipmunk looked up just in time to see the branch, and, gathering his remaining strength, reached out and caught it, digging his tiny claws easily into the wet bark. Once he stopped shuddering with fear, he pulled himself carefully to safety, crawling slowly to shore, wet and bruised, but otherwise unharmed, to where the other animals had gathered.

As soon as he was able, the Chipmunk embraced the Groundhog gratefully. “Thank you, dear Cousin!” he cried breathlessly. “You saved me!”

“You saved yourself, Little One,” the Groundhog answered gently.

The Crow fluttered down beside them. “Well, where’s my thanks?” he demanded, after an awkward pause.

The Chipmunk eyed him coldly, his wet fur bristling. “Why would I owe you thanks? While my cousin here helped me get out of trouble, all you did was tell me what I’d done to get in – and I’d already figured that part out for myself!”

vWhen someone is in a situation that is out of their control – whether that situation is an abusive relationship, membership in a high-demand group, or being caught in the web of fraud – the very last thing they want to hear is how they could have avoided it. That information, while it would have been valuable beforehand, and may be helpful in the future, is not needed by a person still in crisis. People who are being abused don’t need blame; they get plenty of that from their abuser. What they need is opportunities, choices, and practical information on how to escape the danger. It also helps if this information is given with respect and compassion, rather than ridicule. “I never would have been tricked like that!” is rarely true and never helpful.

Although we have mentioned it before, it is worth noting again that Livia Bardin’s free resource guide, Starting Out in Mainstream America is one of the best guidebooks out there on starting over after emerging from a high-control group or abusive relationship. We also heartily recommend Janja Lalich and Karla McLaren’s Escaping Utopia, and of course, Janja Lalich and Madeline Tobias’ Take Back Your Life. For other resources and recommended reading, visit our resources page.

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? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about helpful – or not-so-helpful – advice that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!



Starting Out in Mainstream America – a Valuable Resource

Leaving an abusive cult or relationship is difficult enough, but for those who were born or raised in a totalist environment, the transition into “mainstream” culture can be daunting. The regular “life maintenance” tasks most of us take for granted – opening a checking account, finding work or a place to live, or simply fitting into the culture – can be overwhelming and seem even impossible for someone who has grown up inside the world of a high-control group.

Livia Bardin, M.S.W., a clinical social worker who has engaged with cult victims and their families for more than fifteen years, in partnership with ICSA, has created Starting Out in Mainstream America, a free, online guide providing practical solutions for people with needs like:

  • getting a driver’s license
  • finding a place to live
  • finding a job or job training
  • getting health care
  • finding your way around the legal system

and information about broader concepts like

  • Abuse and neglect
  • Communications skills
  • Relationships
  • Parenting skills
  • Aspects of mainstream culture like music, movies, and sports

For all these issues and more, Starting Out in Mainstream America is a valuable resource with a wealth of helpful information. Be sure to check it out, as well as the other sites listed in our resource section.


Seminar for Counselors on Survivors of Undue Influence

Gillie Jenkinson - Advisory Board Member - Counsellor and Psychotherapist - Sheffield, United Kingdom

Our Advisory Board member Gillie Jenkinson, PhD, will be offering a two-day seminar for mental health providers, “Introduction to Counselling Survivors of Coercive and Radical Cultic Groups & Spiritual Abuse”, on Friday, September 28th to Saturday the 29th, at the Existential Academy in London. The two-day course will focus on understanding cults, how they exist, and their impact on an individual on a deeper level, moving on to understanding the recovery options available for survivors.

Participants will discuss a wide range of topics, including:

  • What is a cult and why do definitions matter?
  • Differences between First Generation Adults (joined) and Second & Multi-Generation Adults (born and/or raised)
  • The cult mind-set from Gestalt Psychotherapy theory perspective
  • What is thought-reform (brainwashing) – brief introduction
  • What is the harm caused?
  • The rationale for working with cult pseudo-personality
  • Understanding cult related introjects
  • What does recovery look like?
  • The therapeutic relationship when working with former members and mistakes counsellors can make
  • Consultancy on specific cases

For more information, consult the Existential Academy, or Gillie at Hope Valley Counseling.


Open Minds On Air – Recovery with Christian Szurko

In this episode, Christian Szurko of the DialogCentre UK joins hosts Pearse Redmond and Jon Atack to discuss his work counseling people who have become involved in extremist or authoritarian groups. Christian explains how he first got involved in this field of work, and they talk about how this process works from the initial first meeting all the way through to recovery. Christian and Jon both discuss the dangers of “deprograming” and the positive alternatives that are out there. They also touch on the psychological effects that leaving an extremist or authoritarian group can have on an individual.

IndoctriNation Episode One: Rachel Bernstein Talks With Patricia Ryan

Our friend and advisory board member Rachel Bernstein kicks off her own new podcast, IndoctriNation, in a big way: her guest is Patricia Ryan, the daughter of congressman Leo Ryan, who was murdered at the start of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana.

Rachel and Patricia discuss not only what happened at Jonestown, but also compare notes on their work in the counter-cult movement, with a fascinating look back at early harassment from members of Scientology and that group’s takeover of the Cult Awareness Network. Their talk also covers how high-control groups indoctrinate their members through guilt and phobia induction, how (and why) destructive cults keep their members isolated from the outside world, and the importance of the work of those committed individuals who help people out of abusive relationships and groups.

Rachel’s goal for IndoctriNation is: “to empower our listeners to protect themselves and those they love from predators, toxic personalities, and destructive organizations.” We know she is off to a great start with this engaging and informative interview!

Talking with a Fanatic – Excerpt From “Opening Minds”

For today’s post, we present an excerpt from Jon Atack’s book, Opening Minds: the Secret World of Manipulation, Undue Influence and Brainwashing.

When Jemaah Islamiya leader Nasir Abas was arrested in Indonesia, he braced himself for torture. Instead, Abas was persuaded to reveal his own inner turmoil about civilian casualties by a religious expert, not an interrogator. The security services effectively counseled Abas out of his fanatical affiliation. With his help, they rounded up most of the al-Qaeda related network in South East Asia, the world’s most populous Muslim region. The group, responsible for the Bali bombings, has performed no further terrorist attacks in a decade.

Despite its dreadful civil rights record, Indonesia’s approach has been markedly different to that of the United States and its allies. The US has subjected hundreds of alleged terrorists to brutal and humiliating treatment, which President Obama has admitted amounts to torture and a violation of international law.

Though this aggressive policy may have foiled some terrorist plots, it has disseminated terror rather than containing it. There were less than 500 members in the four groups lumped together as Al Qaeda when the awful tragedy of 9/11 shocked the world. Currently, there are hundreds of thousands of Al Qaeda, ISIS (Daesh) and Shia activists, many of whom joined up as a direct consequence of violent military action and reports of torture at ‘black sites’.

Shock tactics are counter-productive. However, with patience, most fanatics will reconsider even the most entrenched views, just as alcoholics, gamblers and other addicts can be persuaded to change without aggressive intervention. My long experience with cult members bears this out.

A safe setting without fear of physical or psychological torment allows a fanatic to examine fixed ideas. The counselor must have empathy for the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of the subject, and a deep knowledge of the realities of the condition or affiliation.

Gradually, the member’s own abiding doubts will surface. Then the deception and exploitation of the totalist relationship can be explored. Such interventions are comparable to the extensive and highly successful denazification process after WWII, and are relevant to anyone who has been subjected to an institutional experience or reduced to compliance by a manipulator. The template for such an intervention can be transferred to many other situations, including the deradicalisation of a terrorist.

What do you think about this excerpt? Do you agree? If you would like to read more, you may order Jon’s book here. Do you have a story about talking to fanatics that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

The Rabbi and the Turkey-Prince: Helping the Deluded to Help Themselves

There is an old Rabbinical story about a Prince who thought he was a turkey. His father, the king, tried for many years to have him cured, and many wise men came to reason with the poor Prince, trying this way and that to convince the boy, but he would not listen to any of them: instead he crouched naked under the table, eating only corn and crumbs.

Then, a wise Rabbi came to the king and said: “Sire, let me live in your house and befriend the Prince; if you allow me time, I can cure him.” The king readily agreed, but to his surprise, the Rabbi stripped himself of his clothes and crouched with the lad under the table.

The Prince, noticing him, asked: “What are you?”

Thethe prince thought he was a turkey Rabbi answered: “Like you, I am a turkey. I have come to keep you company, for we turkeys must stick together.” The Prince seemed happy to have a friend, and for a few days, Rabbi and Prince crouched naked under the table together.

But after a week, the Rabbi called for two fine robes to be passed to them, telling the Prince: “We might be turkeys, but that does not mean that we cannot dress as well as the gentlemen of the palace. Why should we be cold, when they are warm?” Seeing the logic of this, the Prince agreed, and soon was wearing clothes.

Then, the next week, the Rabbi called for loaves of bread, hot soup, and other delicious food, telling the Prince: “Why should we turkeys starve on corn and crumbs, when the men around us are eating fine meals?” So, the Prince began to eat regular meals again.

Then, the Rabbi called for two chairs and place-settings to be put at the table, rather than underneath, telling the Prince: “Why should we turkeys crouch here, when we can dine with your father’s guests, and give them the benefit of our turkey wisdom?” And so the Prince was once again acting like his old self, and, within the year, was cured of his delusion.

Like many Rabbinical tales, there is a touch of the absurd to the story, but people who help others to escape dangerous groups and relationships already know the wisdom in the tale: when trying to convince someone that they are deluded, we cannot tell them that they are wrong. Instead, we must patiently enter their reality, and work with them, helping them to educate themselves. Like the Rabbi in the story, we must not say: “You are wrong!”, but instead, gently suggest alternatives, allowing those who are trapped in dangerous relationships a choice, letting them know that their comfort and safety is important to us, rather than the facts of who is wrong or right.

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? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about helping someone overcome their delusion that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

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