USA Today praises it, saying, “Educated is a heartbreaking, heartwarming, best-in-years memoir about striding beyond the limitations of birth and environment into a better life…. Four stars out of four.”
The Atlantic reports, “(This) one of a kind memoir is about the shaping of the mind.”
The New York Times Book Review proclaims, “Heart-wrenching…. A beautiful testament to the power of education to open eyes and change lives.”
Bill Gates gushes with praise, telling potential readers, “It’s even better than you’ve heard; an amazing story, and truly inspiring.”
Eric Kodicek, in his Amazon Book Review, shares more definitive praise: “Tara Westover wasn’t your garden variety college student. When the Holocaust was mentioned in a history class, she didn’t know what it was (no, really). That’s because she didn’t see the inside of a classroom until the age of seventeen.
“Public education was one of the many things her religious fanatic father was dubious of, believing it a means for the government to brainwash its gullible citizens, and her mother wasn’t diligent on the homeschooling front.
“If it wasn’t for a brother who managed to extricate himself from their isolated—and often dangerous—world, Westover might still be in rural Idaho, trying to survive her survivalist upbringing.
“It’s a miraculous story she tells in her memoir Educated. For those of us who took our educations for granted, who occasionally fell asleep in large lecture halls (and inconveniently small ones), it’s hard to grasp the level of grit—not to mention intellect—required to pull off what Westover did.
“But eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge University may have been the easy part, at least compared to what she had to sacrifice to attain it. The courage it took to make that sacrifice was the truest indicator of how far she’d come, and how much she’d learned. Educated is an inspiring reminder that knowledge is, indeed, power.”
We at Open Minds were moved with a cathartic moment in Tara’s life, while she attended a class lecture at Trinity College. She didn’t totally understand what the professor was saying, but she carefully scribbled his message down in her notepad: “Positive liberty is self-mastery—the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.”
Tara was still struggling to grasp the kernel of truth in that message, when she received a song via email from a good friend. It contained lyrics, two lines, from a Bob Marley song and bingo; she discovered the missing puzzle piece. Suddenly, it all made sense to her and she listened to those two lines over and over again in her mind. It’s a truth we at Open Minds Foundation wholeheartedly embrace:
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
By Open Minds Editorial Staff
Follow this link to Educated: A Memoir
The techniques of the scam artist has been elevated to new heights in destructive, authoritarian or totalist groups, which are also commonly known as cults. The term “totalist” or “totalitarian” refers to dictatorial leadership which allows no disagreement and has “total authority”. Our concern is for any authoritarian group or relationship, wherever it fits on the spectrum between autonomy and totalism.
There is no democracy in an authoritarian group. These groups have proliferated in our society. Experts list as many as three thousand dangerous authoritarian groups in the US alone. Some claim to be religious or philosophical, some are political or offer supposed therapy, others promise revelations leading to wealth or success in relationship, yet others promise eternal life.
There are many more “family” groups that cluster around an abusive individual, who has total authority. The smallest authoritarian group consists of a single follower in an intimate relationship with an authoritarian partner. The dynamics of manipulation or undue influence are broadly the same: all create authoritarian or even totalist relationships.
This definition of a totalist cult – which can be applied to any authoritarian group or relationship – was arrived at by a group of experts under the direction of Professor Louis Jolyon West, MD:
“A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical, manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the possible or actual detriment of members, their families or the community.”
This post is an excerpt from Jon’s new book, Opening Minds – A Primer on Undue Influence, scheduled for release in the fall of 2019
For today’s post, we present an excerpt from Jon Atack’s book, Opening Minds: the Secret World of Manipulation, Undue Influence and Brainwashing.
Louise Ogborn was an 18-year-old high school graduate when she took a job at McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky, to help her mother, who had lost her job. Louise wanted to study pre-med at college, but the trauma of events at the restaurant ruined her plans. Ogborn was a church-going former Girl Scout and had not received a single admonition in the four months that she had worked at the restaurant.
It was just after 5 pm when assistant manager Donna Jean Summers took a call from ‘Officer Scott’, who said he was with the local police. ‘Scott’ told her that an employee had been accused of stealing a purse. From his broad description, Summers identified Ogborn as the culprit. Scott asked Summers to search Ogborn, otherwise, she would be arrested and searched by police in jail.
Ogborn was ushered into a back room and ordered to remove her clothes, while Scott stayed on the phone. Summers then followed his directions to put the clothes in her own car, leaving Ogborn with only a dirty apron to cover herself. By this time, Officer Scott had told Summers that Ogborn’s house was being searched for drugs.
Officer Scott next persuaded the assistant manager to summon her fiancé and to leave the young woman in his charge. The fiancé, Walter Wes Nix Jr, followed Officer Scott’s instructions, and ordered Louise Ogborn to perform jumping jacks and stand naked on a chair, while he inspected her, to ensure that she had not secreted anything inside her body.
If Ogborn refused to follow an order, at Officer Scott’s direction, Nix slapped her naked buttocks until she complied. She was left prey to Scott’s orders for two hours. During this time, she was ordered to sit on Nix’s lap and kiss him. Then she was ordered to unzip Nix’s trousers, despite all of her pleas. Nix was later sentenced to five years imprisonment for his actions.
Police estimate that ‘Officer Scott’ was successful in manipulating staff in at least 74 workplaces, over a period of almost ten years. While staff at several of those restaurants have been convicted of offences, the man identified as ‘Officer Scott’ by police was eventually acquitted. Louise Ogborn was paid $1.1 million in settlement by McDonald’s.
Louise Ogborn explained: ‘My parents taught me when an adult tells you to do something, you don’t argue. If someone swipes you on the hand, you listen.’[i] Her ordeal was filmed by security cameras and made its way onto You Tube.[ii]
Police investigations showed that ‘Officer Scott’ had tried ten other restaurants that day, but even this one in eleven success rate is startling.
Louise Ogborn’s ordeal lasted for two and a half hours. When Nix left the restaurant, Summers called in maintenance man, Thomas Simms, and asked him to take over. Simms, a ninth-grade drop-out, point blank refused. Summers finally called her manager and stopped the assault. She was later convicted of unlawful imprisonment and sentenced to a year’s probation. Summers was paid $400,000 in settlement by McDonald’s.
It is horrifying to note that the man identified by police as ‘Officer Scott’ was acquitted for lack of evidence, and because it is so hard to define his actual crime. It is interesting that the first person to stand up to Officer Scott’s orders was the least educated in academic terms.
The upshot is that we teach our children to be cautious of strangers, but not simply of strangeness. We should withdraw and seek better information before complying with any request that seems in the least bizarre.
When an unusual demand is made, it should prompt questioning and resistance rather than compliance. As Chaleff shows in his fine book, Intelligent Disobedience, such training is lacking in our educational system or even as a principle instilled by parents. Chaleff also exposes the training given to school teachers that imposes obedience on students using highly questionable techniques.
Louise Ogborn put up some resistance, but, in the end, and out of fear, she capitulated to the terrible demands of Officer Scott. Her compliance is comprehensible; it is far harder to comprehend the behaviour of any of the other participants and spectators, who did nothing to stop these events.
The story seems far-fetched, but is based on over 70 actual cases where a caller successfully targeted restaurants or grocery stores in the US and convinced managers to strip search and, at times, participate in the sexual abuse of store workers. The movie Compliance and the short film Plainview are both based upon ‘Officer Scott’s’ despicable hoax calls. They illustrate the need to transform our relationship to authority.
Those of us who have counselled former cult members find it hard to understand the reluctance of some social scientists to accept the reality of manipulation, exploitative persuasion, thought reform or undue influence. The point is regularly made that members join of their own free will and that nothing compels them to remain within the confines of a cult. But the point is made as if such a belief is factual and natural and beyond any slightest shadow of doubt. Science always allows room for doubt just as cultic beliefs never can.
In truth, undue influence was recognised in law centuries before the term ‘social science’ was first heard. For more than 500 years, undue influence has been a legitimate legal concept to provide remedy for the victims of swindlers. The law of undue influence was framed because of concerns that exploitative churchmen were taking advantage of the deathbed fears of the faithful.[iii]
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about compliance that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
[i] The Louise Ogborn story is largely taken from A hoax most cruel: Caller coaxed McDonald’s managers, Andrew Wolfson, Louisvilled Courier-Journal, October 9, 2005.
http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2005/10/09/a-hoax-most-cruel-caller-coaxed-mcdonalds-managers-/28936597/; see also Ira Chaleff, Intelligent Disobedience and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strip_search_phone_call_scam.
[iii] Alan W Scheflin, Supporting Human Rights, International Cultic Studies Journal, vol.6, 2015.
Healthy skepticism has always been an important part of my life; I was raised to be a skeptic while still in a religious family, and consider myself to be spiritual, while not accepting magical thinking or false conclusions in order to have “the answer”. Yes, it is smart to be skeptical, but healthy skepticism still leaves room for those of us who want to have transcendent moments, a sense of spiritual connection, and religious beliefs.
To me, having an open mind means leaving the door open to the possibility that there are many answers to the same question, that there is no one correct belief; you have the freedom to choose which answer feels right to you at the moment, without being pushed in one direction or another, by anyone. I say “at the moment,” because I know that some people want and need certain answers, but these answers can change over time as their lives change and as their emotional needs wax and wane.
Some former members I speak with feel embarrassed that they still believe in God, or follow some non-mainstream beliefs like astrology, Tarot, or psychic ability. Sometimes, these people feel they need to hide their belief from me, or even from others at my former-member support group, as though this belief is a sign that they haven’t made enough “progress”. Just like before they left their controlling environments, they live in fear of being found out, of having their secret revealed: they feel they can never be truly open about themselves, that they are different from the others around them. These worries about being seen as different or gullible only reinforce the alienation, secrecy, shame and isolation they already feel because they were involved in a cultic group or abusive relationship.
The whole point of recovery from a high-control situation is to be free to be genuinely yourself, without someone telling you how to be and what to believe. But many people are still stuck in an unfortunate mindset: they often think that if they left that “one right way to believe” because it turned out to be false, they now have to make sure to only believe the “right” way, as though there is still a wrong or right way to believe. This maintains the black and white thinking of cults. Beliefs come in many forms, none less valid than the next, but the important part is to be able to choose your belief, the ability to change your belief if you wish, and the freedom to believe differently than those around you without fear.
For more on this topic, check out Jon’s blog on science versus religion. -ed.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about healthy skepticism and belief that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
Can digital assistants with artificial intelligence be used as agents of undue influence? Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Now, M and Bixby help us to send messages, play music, and set reminders. We can even find ourselves in artificial relationships with our AI companions. We can joke with them as if they were thinking, feeling beings, but they are not.
Digital assistants are programmed to learn and adapt; with every interaction, they gather data – and then they relay that data back to Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook or Samsung. Could it be that George Orwell’s predictions have come true, but, instead of being watched by Big Brother, we are being overheard by Little Sister?
University of Bath AI researcher Joanna Bryson warns that the feeling that these digital assistants have joined the family may give us a false sense of security, because they are all actually spies, reporting information back to their controllers. Bryson says that she modifies her conversation if she knows that there is a digital assistant in the environment.
Email systems also collect information. For instance, in the UK, online shopping service Ocado uses Google’s TensorFlow algorithm to analyze customers’ messages. The results of this analysis are immediate, and we see them everywhere – we are painfully aware of the online advertising services that try to sell us variants of items we have recently bought, or even just considered buying.
Google and Facebook collect reams of data, but assure us that it is anonymized. The problem is that we have to trust everyone who has access to that data. Massive failures in security have led to data leaks from Barclays, Verizon, Wells Fargo, HSBC and, most recently, Equifax. If our “secure” banking services can be hacked, then we should all be a little suspicious about the safe use of our information by the huge corporations that hoover it up – and the on-line contracts we sign, usually without bothering to read them.
Should we hand over our privacy to artificial intelligence? Stephen Hawking has said that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk warns that AI poses “vastly more risk than North Korea.” Hopefully, we will establish ethical controls before the Terminators are released among us, but we must not sit by silently while big business scoops up every last detail of our medical and bank records, and our shopping and browsing habits, let alone our most private and personal conversations.
The military developed much of the first AI research. Siri, for instance, was intended to help soldiers before she was fitted in iPhones and Macs. These systems were initially developed as weapons, and they can still be used as weapons.
AI also has a place in the brave new world of politics. It is very likely that both the recent US presidential campaign and the UK’s Brexit were both influenced by AI applications that scrutinize social media. Online bots were used in those propaganda wars – and at every step, they were pretending to be human.
Not only do these digital assistants report to their programmers – ostensibly to improve services – but they can also be hacked. Your digital assistant might not only be reporting your every word to the hackers, but, in the wrong circumstances, those hackers may be able to cause havoc in your home, steal your identity, and empty your bank accounts.
In a recent piece in New Scientist, Bristol University researcher Nello Cristianini points out: “We have happily accepted incredible intrusions into our privacy for nearly two decades. Now we live in a world where our own personal information is used and traded and mined for value. We should ask questions about where we want to draw the line.”
It is time to ask those questions.
If you are a survivor of undue influence, coercive control, cult abuse, or political or spiritual brainwashing, you have been subjected to emotional trauma. The trauma can be devastating, and the recovery process is full of challenges, stress and pain. And yet it is not uncommon to hear people who survive and recover from such traumatic situations say things like:
- “In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me!”
- “So many opportunities, never previously imagined, resulted from the traumatic situation and its aftermath!”
- “I have learned and matured so much from surviving that crisis!”
If you are caught up right now in the midst of the worst of the stress and suffering after experiencing the trauma of deception, manipulation, control or abuse, you may understandably scoff at such seemingly pollyanna-esque pronouncements. However, testimonies from victims of a variety of life crises, and recent psychological research in the field of trauma and recovery reveal that this is the case for many. It can be the case for you too.
Neurologist, psychiatrist, and existential thinker Victor Frankl suggested this years ago in his seminal work “Man’s Search for Meaning”, when he explained that once we can identify underlying significance in a crisis situation, when we can make meaning out of life’s miseries, it lessens the distress, makes the entire experience more bearable, and makes it less psychologically stressful or damaging. Frankl experienced the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, so was knowledgeable about traumatic stress. [ed. Frankl’s The Doctor and the Soul is an excellent text for therapists, too]
In the mid-nineties, psychologists and researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun named the phenomenon of finding meaning in misery, “post-traumatic growth”. Tedeschi and Calhoun were not simply talking about developing resilience in the face of suffering, but about an awareness on the part of the victim of growth, renewal and good in the midst of their recovery. They studied victims who, post-trauma, felt the struggle with abuse, and the feeling of being shattered by it became a springboard for positive change and exciting transformation.
Tedeschi and Calhoun’s research went on to identify five areas where post-traumatic growth is possible. These areas are:
- Personal strength – feeling more empowered, confident and able to deal with how life unfolds
- Interpersonal relationships – allowing empathy and compassion, emerging from the experience of trauma, to enhance relationships
- Increased Life Appreciation – developing the intention to make the most of the life we have, while we have it
- Recognition of New Possibilities in Life – breaking open to see options and opportunities we were unable to see before
- Spiritual or Existential Maturation – developing self-worth, maturity, integrity and dignity as a result of the entire experience of trauma and recovery
Kasley Killam, referencing the work of Tedeschi and Calhoun in the article “How to Find Meaning in Suffering” adds:
“By focusing on one or more of these five areas, we have an opportunity to turn suffering into personal development. In particular, several factors can facilitate this process. One is receiving care; it is important to seek out emotional and practical support from loved ones or community members following trauma. Another is approaching rather than avoiding the task of coping by accepting the tragedy as irreversible and embracing the grief process. A final factor is recognizing that we are in charge of how we move forward, and thereby perceiving control over our recovery.” (emphasis mine)
Imagine! The above five areas of personal growth can emerge as a result of the trauma and suffering you are experiencing now. Or perhaps your traumatic experience is now behind you, but you have never stopped to consider how you may have actually benefited and matured from the pain and suffering. Take a moment and take stock of how much you have learned, changed and grown due to your experience of undue influence or coercive control and your efforts to survive and recover.
It is encouraging to know that there is not just post-trauma stress after crises, but that there can be positive effects and a positive legacy that can result from traumatic experiences – post-trauma growth.
While post-traumatic growth cannot be forced, and while grief and healing must run their uniquely individual course, once on the road to recovery we can consciously turn our focus to:
- recognizing and owning our intrinsic strength and resilience
- fully appreciating life with all its mystery, beauty and rewards
- recognizing that while trauma and loss close many doors, others may open
- using our increased empathy and compassion due to the suffering to build interpersonal connections
- consciously navigating existential crises which help us re-consider values, make changes to imposed or inherited beliefs that never really fit, and develop a whole new purpose for our life.
If you were deceived, exploited and abused due to coercive controls, and are now in the middle of the suffering that ensues with liberation, please find hope and solace in the fact that there is a body of research, and a wealth of anecdotal reports, demonstrating that this very trauma and suffering can initiate possibilities and personal transformation that you might never have thought attainable.
The traumas that break us open make space for new understanding and opportunities, and as they say, what doesn’t kill us can makes us stronger. Ernest Hemingway articulated it best when he said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
Take time to take stock of your entire traumatic experience. We have to own the victimization. We have to own the losses. We have to own the pain. We must not forget to claim and own the growth that is possible post-trauma.
Further Reading on Post-Traumatic Growth:
“The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook: Coming Through Trauma Wiser, Stronger, and More Resilient”, Richard G. Tedeschi, Ph.D., Bret A. Moore, 2016
“What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth”, Stephen Joseph, 2013
“Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth”, Jim Rendon, 2016
“Posttraumatic Growth in Clinical Practice”, Lawrence G. Calhoun, Richard G. Tedeschi, 2012
 Scientific American, December 15, 2015
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Bonnie’s book, “Challenge to Heal”? Do you have a story about [subject] that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
Many years ago I visited York Minster; the magnitude of scale and the sheer beauty of this wonderful cathedral inspired in me an unforgettable feeling of awe. I remember thinking how the people who had commissioned and built such extravagant temples must have been truly convinced that God would appreciate this magnificent manifestation of their faith.
Much more recently I’ve revisited this idea of the purpose of awe-inspiring works like this. Could it be that the idea was actually to overwhelm the senses in order to bring about conversion and to help retain those already in the church? I accept that this may seem like a cynical stance , but, of course, it takes nothing away from the splendor of mankind’s aims and achievements; I simply question the purity of the motivation.
We humans respond very favourably to such moments of awe: immersed in such splendour, we feel connected to something greater than our tiny selves, and so become less self-focussed and more in touch with a wider wonder. We lose ourselves in awe.
The downside is that any desirable human or spiritual experience can be re-purposed for manipulation. A person or group that can generate awe, or indeed any type of peak or euphoric experience, will automatically become highly valued. This desire to be highly valued can be driven by questionable motives.: this could be anything from a prospective partner who wants to appear awesome, to a group that wants to recruit members. Regular employers like to make their business and conditions seem awesome to potential employees and cults need to inculcate awe for their leader. At a more simple level, many drugs – both medical and street – can lead to awe-inspiring experiences, thus providing those who sell them with return business.
Of course awe is a uniquely ephemeral, fleeting and quickly-declining but delicious moment in our lives. We may be persuaded to seek more, fervently trying to repeat the initial circumstances, which of course will only provide diminishing returns. But we can be hooked on the attempts and live in hope of getting “that” feeling back.
So am I saying that awe is to be avoided? Definitely not. There are many aspects of nature which can lead to this amazing feeling. Could be a sunset, the night sky, a beautiful view or contemplation of the wonder of life itself. We just need to be aware of hidden agenda when humans set out to create such revelation.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about awe that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
Opening the conversation is the first and hardest step with a devoted follower who has been subjected to undue influence. The first barrier will always be confirmation bias: we accept information that agrees with our beliefs and reject information that does not.
When our core beliefs are challenged, we experience cognitive dissonance – and the experience is often physiological as well as psychological. We wobble when disagreed with. Many people simply push away any challenge with thought-stopping: they either demand that you shut up, or they simply stop listening.
It is noticeable that academics often preface their comments with a disagreement – they say, “No” or “But”. This immediately and automatically rouses defenses. It is much better to frame even a disagreement with, “Yes, and…”, if you want someone to listen to your position. And pay attention to their facial expression to be sure that you are getting through.
When successful, exit-counseling is an exquisitely balanced communication. The counselor does not challenge the fervent believer, and does not raise the ego-defenses; instead, shared goals create rapport– both the counselor and the subject want to find the truth. And the counselor must always want to lead the subjects to think for themselves – even when that thinking causes cognitive dissonance for the counselor!
It is important to be courteous, to allow the person to fully express their thoughts and beliefs, and to acknowledge their successes in the relationship or group, so that they will feel comfortable discussing any failures. Only friendly discussion lowers the barrier of confirmation bias. Any attempt to prove the believer wrong through evidence and rational argument will fail, until the believer is ready to take charge of the enquiry.
It sounds easy, but it can take a long time to create this friendly exchange when you are dealing with someone whose distrust of outsiders has been amplified by a group leader or abusive partner. Take that time: it is well worth it!
Humor is anathema to predators – like garlic and the crucifix to any self-respecting vampire. Cult groups typically outlaw anything that sounds remotely like humor. In Scientology, for instance, this is called ‘joking and degrading’. In Life 102 – What to Do When Your Guru Sues You, Peter McWilliams talks about the very frosty reception he received from fellow followers of MSIA when he made fun of “Mystical Traveler” John-Roger.
The experience is universal – self-made gods demand absolute respect, so humor is an excellent therapy for survivors of this prim devotion, though it can be embarrassing to realize just how silly our beliefs were.
It’s so easy to join!