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Dangerous Misconceptions About Coercive Groups and Relationships

Coercive groups and relationships are all around us  – from domestic abuse and pedophile grooming, to human trafficking and terrorist radicalization – millions of people worldwide are trapped in a web of undue influence, coerced to act against their own best interests.

Sadly, although these people remain caught up between false hope and real fear, most outsiders cannot see the elaborate web of coercion, and assume that the web does not exist, believing that the thirteen-year-old being prostituted to multiple men has “chosen” that life; that the woman staying with an abusive husband could leave if she really wanted to; that the cult member who believes his guru controls the weather is “stupid”; or even that the middle-aged couple who refuse contact with their nonbelieving children are simply “bad parents”.

Undue influence is designed to be invisible to outsiders, so those not in its grasp look for other explanations for the bizarre behavior they see. Because of this, a mass of dangerous misconceptions has arisen, myths about coercive control that need to be debunked. Here are some of the worst:

“If it was really so horrible, they’d leave.”

How much would you sacrifice to save the world? If you knew that, simply by denying yourself some comfort and happiness now, you could help all lifekind to ascend to a new level of enlightenment, wouldn’t you do whatever was demanded of you? Most cult members are convinced that they are working for the betterment of humanity, and through the lens of their faith, what we would see as “wrong” becomes their “right”, harm becomes help, and even murder can be explained away – what is one human life, compared to the fate of the entire universe? Even without the trappings of an afterlife, political extremists can readily contemplate suicide – or genocide – if it means creating a “better world” for their children. The fascist and communist movements of the twentieth century proved this conclusively. As Hannah Arendt said, the surprise was in the “banality” of evil: ordinary people committed atrocities because they believed in a purified world.

Many trapped in a coercive situation – especially those suffering domestic abuse – cannot see that there is anywhere else to go. Janja Lalich calls this bounded choice: whether through exhaustion, misinformation, threats, or a combination of these and other factors, those inside the prison of belief cannot see their options, least of all the option to escape.

“I would never …”

This unhelpful phrase is the bane of all survivors of high-control groups and relationships. Otherwise well-meaning friends and relatives seem determined to tell us that they would never fall for such nonsense, not realizing that they, too, could someday be vulnerable enough – or unlucky enough – to be trapped in a controlling relationship. Unfortunately, the probability of being seduced into a coercive situation has little do with who we are, and much more to do with changes to our everday relationships and routines: first-year university students away from home for the first time, seniors who have lost a spouse, or those seeking a new interest, income stream, spiritual path, or social outlet are all prime targets for manipulative people and groups.

“They must be stupid/ emotionally needy/ gullible.”

 Even in support groups for cult survivors, this phrase runs rampant – someone will mention some point of the cult’s credo they still believe, and others will pile on judgmental refrains: “You must be stupid if you believe that!” Even after years of describing the exact processes of manipulation used to ensnare people into high-control groups, popular vlogger and OMF Advisory Board member Chris Shelton still receives comments on his YouTube channel saying: “You couldn’t be all that intelligent if you were in a cult.”

Friends and family members of survivors speculate that those who were trapped must have been “emotionally needy” or just “plain stupid”. In reality, well-adjusted individuals – often with high levels of education – can and do join cults: Aum Shinrikyo (of the Tokyo sarin gas attacks) and Heaven’s Gate recruited computer programmers, heart surgeons and other intellectuals – the Rajneeshis were called the “PhD cult”; emotionally well-balanced people can be seduced by traumatizing narcissists into long-term, abusive relationships. Like those proclaiming “I would never …”, people who believe this myth have missed the important point – that coercion can happen at any time, anywhere, to anyone, given the right combination of circumstances. Indeed, those who are most confident in their invulnerability are among the most vulnerable. It is safer in this world to realize that we can be tricked.

“All religions are cults/ it’s just another religion.”

Espoused by “New Religious Movement” scholars and atheists alike, this is perhaps the most unhelpful fallacy of all. Whether they choose to ignore the coercion and maintain that those in a high-control group enjoy not having freedom or autonomy, or condemn all religions as equally coercive, such blanket statements only cloud an already highly complex issue. Comparing all religions to destructive cults is like saying that all marriages are abusive – it’s not only a vast over-simplification, it’s simply not true.

While some level of control can be found in any “mainstream” church, temple, mosque, or synagogue, it does not compare with the high levels of control found in a destructive religious group. This thinking also dismisses the reality of the high-control groups with no religious trappings, such as political groups, therapy groups, multi-level marketing scams, gangs, and human trafficking rings, or the many situations where coercion is wielded without the slightest spiritual pretense. On the other side, there are plenty of “new” (and old) religious movements which are not abusive – it is the coercion, not the belief, that is objectionable to those who love freedom. If we help people to think more clearly and to understand the manipulation of emotions, they can make their own choices about their beliefs: autonomy is the goal, not an imposed belief system.

“It’s their choice.”

No one chooses to be abused, degraded, or tortured, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Those in the clutches of manipulative people and destructive groups did not choose to become the pawns of their captors; undue influence, coercive control, gaslighting, emotional blackmail and other forms of manipulative pressure are in play, bringing otherwise sane people to believe the impossible, to ignore their friends and family, to hide abuse, to lie, cheat, steal, even murder or commit suicide – all from a lack of choice. From the wife who lies to friends that she “just fell”, to parents allowing their children to die for want of a blood transfusion, from the cult operative setting up a “hate page” full of lies about a critic, to the gang member who murders someone from an opposing group, people commit acts against their own self-interest every day – convinced, hoodwinked, and mentally bludgeoned into compliance through a web of fear, lies, pressure and undue influence.

To free society from the plague of undue influence, we must eradicate this fog of misinformation and disninformation that clouds the subject. We should gently correct those who believe them and point them to the evidence. Those of us with experience should speak out about our experiences without shame or embarrassment. The truth is it can happen to anyone, and we can only prevent that by educating the world about the reality of undue influence.

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 a misconception about coercion that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 




Jon Atack and Chris Shelton

Scientology is only the starting point in this wide-ranging and informative conversation between our board members Jon Atack and Chris Shelton, as they cover a broad range of topics, from groupthink, the fundamental attribution error, and the “blind spots” we all have to our own biases, to mass hysteria, charisma, and our need to practice courageous followership in order to be responsible members of a better society.

The Frog in the Pot – How Predatory Recruitment Works

The question I am asked most often is, “But how do people get into these groups and relationships? How can anyone believe something so stupid?”

Well, when looking at why anyone has “let themselves” be fooled into joining an abusive group or dating an abusive person, we must remind ourselves of the old, classic example of the frog in the pot of water: If you put the frog in the pot when the water’s already hot, he will hop out. But if you start with cold water and then raise the heat, you’ll end up with frog soup. We haven’t actually tried this, so cannot assure our readers that it is scientifically true (and we don’t want you to try it at home, either, but, as a metaphor, it is worth considering).

A destructive group – or an abusive or narcissistic romantic partner – won’t start off with the crazy stuff. An abusive relationship, whether it’s with one other person or with a group, usually starts out great – everything is love, light, and peace for all Mankind. Only later do you find out that, “Oh, by the way, you can’t do this, and it’s dangerous to do that, and here’s a list of rules you’ll want to study and be very careful to observe…”

So, why do we stay? We humans keep moving in the same direction, once we’ve chosen which way to go. Once we’ve invested time and energy, inertia often takes over – as shown in Cialdini’s consistency or commitment principle. The more time and energy we spend, the less willing we are to bail when things start getting strange.

If we are warned off by friends and family and told that what we believe doesn’t make sense or even sounds “crazy”, then cognitive dissonance comes into play: no matter what evidence we’re offered to show us it’s crazy, we will use the full weight of our intellectual faculties to explain it – and the more intelligent we are, the more clever the examples we can develop for believing absolute nonsense. Conditioned to the warming water, we stay in the pot, believing that that the increasingly hot flashes are good for our health.

Alex Stein’s “Terror, Love and Brainwashing” – A Review by Jon Atack

terror love brainwashing coverFor cult survivors who are wondering what hit them, Alex Stein’s new book, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, should prove helpful. Alex explores many important ideas currently emerging from attachment theory, applying them to practical use in the recovery process.

Attachment theory deals with relationship. The relationship between a follower and a guru-figure is often a “disorganized” attachment. The guru takes on a parental role and becomes the only significant source of comfort, but at the same time is the significant source of distress.

Alex cites the originator of attachment theory, John Bowlby, “Most people think of fear as running away from something. But there is another side to it. We run TO someone …”

This disorganized attachment creates a double bind, where the guru traumatizes the follower, who then looks to the instigator of that trauma for resolution. Add psychological and often physical isolation from the wider world, and you have a recipe for ideological slavery.

The “total convert” becomes dissociated from society and from their own normal behavior. As Alex says, “On the one hand, the person cannot think clearly about the frightening relationship … On the other hand, the person – feeling frightened – tends to stay in proximity to their only remaining attachment, even when it is that attachment that is causing the threat. Panic is followed by giving up: giving up both independent thinking and emotional independence. The combination of isolation and fear is therefore, in many cases, able to create a dissociated follower with an anxiously dependent attachment bond to the group.”

Alex gives the example of Masoud Banisadr’s long involvement with the MEK terrorist group. In Masoud’s words, “every moment a person spends for the leader, whether in thought or in deed, is spent for good, and every other moment, even when you are asleep or believe you are doing good, is spent in favour of evil.”

Alex’s own cult experience, in a small left-wing group, the O., is described in her autobiography, Inside Out. After leaving, she studied social psychology to the doctoral level.

Alex explains the offer of “apparent kindnesses” by a leader: “In the confusion and unhappiness of the oppressive life within the closed world of the O., these acts were powerful. The momentary lifting of pressure resulted in feelings of gratitude as well as guilt about my own often-rebellious behaviour. But beyond that they made me feel as if the leader – who remained unknown to me – was, indeed, benevolent, perhaps even loving and tender. As in the Stockholm Syndrome, thus does the abuser become the perceived safe haven – a person … to whom one can turn for help, mercy, forgiveness, comfort.”

When I left Scientology, I was shocked by the devastation caused to many members – and their unwillingness to leave the cult or its doctrines. It took me some time to realize that my own cult experience had been relatively mild: in nine years, I had never been traumatized or humiliated.

Because I had not been a live-in member – and so was never socially isolated – I did not lose my family attachment, which has always remained strong. I was dedicated to the cult, but I was very lucky: I did not become a “total convert”.

I was fully immersed in the beliefs of the cult, but, more by luck than judgment, I was not fully immersed in the cult itself. Many people are not so fortunate. As Alex says, “Processes of brainwashing rest on the creation of stress or threat with no escape other than the apparent (un)safe haven of the group. This results in a state of terror that causes a dissociative state resulting from a disorganized bond to the leader, or the group as proxy. The hyperobedient and hypercredulous deployable follower existing in this airless world gripped by an iron band of terror can be asked to engage in acts they would not have previously done, nor, once out of the group, would they do in the future.”

As is so often the case, Alex was a highly intelligent and compassionate young woman, with a strong social conscience. Her high ideals were used to lure her into a cult. For her doctoral thesis, she studied a therapy cult called the Newman Tendency, whose leader claimed to practice, “Proletarian or revolutionary psychology.”

inside out coverAlex gives us a “working definition” of a totalist system: “A totalist system is formed and controlled by a charismatic authoritarian leader. It is a rigidly bounded, dense, hierarchical and isolating system supported and represented by a total, exclusive ideology. The leader sets in motion processes of brainwashing or coercive persuasion designed to isolate and control followers. As a result followers are able to be exploited, and potentially become deployable agents, demonstrating uncritical obedience to the group, regardless of their own survival needs.”

Alex also considers the nature of a cult leader, for instance, quoting Richard Bernstein, “Mao was a man who had no friends … He saw everybody as a subject, a slave … He was actually an irritable, manipulative egotist incapable of human feeling who surrounded himself with sycophants.” The same could be said of most cult leaders and predatory partners. In a private affirmation, Scientology’s leader, Ron Hubbard, even wrote to himself, “Men are your slaves“.

Alex looks to psychology as well as emerging evidence from neurology to argue that “brainwashing” is a scientifically demonstrable effect: “If a charismatic authoritarian psychopath succeeds in putting people in conditions of social and emotional isolation, then engulfs them in a fictional world that distorts their perceptions of reality and, finally, creates an environment of chronic fear arousal, they can, in most cases, disable the follower’s ‘thinking part of the emotional brain.’ And once that’s gone, they can do their thinking for them, resulting in a deployable and exploitable follower. We know how this is done. The task at hand now is to both continue deepening the research, but perhaps more importantly disseminating this knowledge in order to strengthen society’s defenses against the threatening forces of totalism.”

In her final chapter, Alex addresses the problem of disseminating this knowledge: “This goes beyond the idea that simply teaching ‘critical thinking skills’ is enough. While that is, of course, important, we also should be teaching about the specific kinds of mechanisms that interrupt the ability to think critically.”

In Terror, Love and Brainwashing, Alex adds a new and straightforward approach to understanding the profound effect of manipulative processes. This is a rich and rewarding text.

It can take even the bravest and cleverest people years to leave, and years more to escape the behavioral conditioning of a totalist group. This book will help to speed that process for many people.

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

And be sure to check out Alex’s other book, Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult.

Why Not Just Walk Away?

“If it’s so bad, why not just walk away?”

Undue influence creeps up on you. It wasn’t so bad at the start; in fact, it was great. I felt truly alive and wonderful. I had a new sense of purpose in life and a feeling of certainty for the future.

Friends and family tried to warn me off, but I felt so good that, after failing to convince them, I distanced myself from them. It was easier than dealing with their disapproval.

Later on, when things started to happen that didn’t feel quite right, I dealt with it by assuming it would all work out, if only I worked at it a bit harder. I’d already invested so much time, emotion, energy and money: I felt committed to carrying on. Also, the idea of being alone in the world was something I simply couldn’t face up to. On top of it all, the vision of admitting to myself and everyone else that I was wrong all along was simply unbearable.

Now that I’ve finally had to accept my dire situation for what it is, I have nowhere to go and no more of my own money, so I basically go through the motions, day by day, hoping that one day, I’ll find an escape route I can actually take. What seemed like a golden opportunity to understand life and belong to a group committed to helping mankind can turn into a nightmare trap. For many long-term cult members, and for those in toxic relationships, that trap has closed.

So I hope you can see that sometimes walking away isn’t an option.

“If it’s so bad, why not just walk away?”

I’ve only recently come to realise what an emotionally impoverished life I’ve had so far. You see, I was raised in this situation, so I just accepted what I was told and what I saw as being normal. I knew no different. How could I have? Most of the outside world, the real world, was blocked off from me, but I didn’t know that.

As I grew up I got more contact with this outside world, and I saw a lot of love and happiness in others that had never come my way. It slowly dawned on me that what I’d been repeatedly told about outsiders not being nice people, not living their lives correctly, just wasn’t true.

By the time I’d become painfully aware of being thought of as different and detached, it was too late to make proper friends, like all the lucky normal ones did.

These days, I feel very bitter about what I obviously missed out on, not to mention the expectations placed so heavily on me now. But I have nobody outside to turn to, and no money of my own. Maybe one day I’ll be in a position to make the break but right now I can’t just walk away. I have nowhere to go.

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 staying in an abusive group that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


The Thieves Who Robbed Us – Life in the Jehovah’s Witnesses

I was raised in a Christian Fundamentalist cult called Jehovah’s Witnesses. For some, this organization may seem harmless and not like a cult at all: that is precisely the image they work so hard to create. That is what compelled me to write this, for my experience – and the experience of other survivors – is far from benign. In reality, the organization uses all-encompassing mind control and personality re-shaping tactics in order to rob members of any natural inclination which doesn’t serve the cult’s purpose. We all recognize the removal of critical thinking skills, but critical feeling is also removed; the removal of both is vital in order to be properly conditioned and enslaved.

the thieves who robbed usMost people join cults because they seek a greater purpose for their lives, and want to belong to a different society with different rules. Cult leaders and recruiters prey on these feelings to expose our vulnerability. Once we settle into cult life, our ideas and thoughts are shifted and conditioned by the cult’s thought reform practices. The believer’s thoughts must conform with the doctrine: otherwise, they must deal with the consequences of being judged, criticized or even expelled. This usually happens gradually for those who join as adults, but for children raised inside the group, the shaping takes place during the formative years, and is all the harder to break, as they know no alternative.

Cutting someone off completely in a matter of hours is expected of believers, and while it may never be easy, it soon comes to seem normal. For folks entering adulthood, subtle changes may happen under the guise of “putting on your new [insert cult here] personality”. This extreme conditioning promotes an unhealthy loyalty to the organization or leader; this loyalty is truly detrimental to any natural tendency: you are taught to deny your feelings of love and yearning, and, through “shunning”, forbidden to see or contact your homosexual, free-thinking, transgender, or simply religiously disinterested child. You are told to deny the inherent desire to love your children, parents or siblings when they display differences in beliefs or lifestyles deemed unacceptable.

How is this loyalty gained? You are taught you will be rewarded tenfold for your ultimate sacrifices, but these sacrifices pale in comparison to letting down your God, your leaders, or, heaven forbid, “stumbling” fellow believers by making them think it’s acceptable to question authority.

Cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses demand you prove your faith through works. The greater the sacrifice, the more dedication you display. They try to convince you that the greater the personal cost, the more favor you gain with God. So, once you move beyond the grief, you achieve a vital, but ultimately false, sense of accomplishment. They actually shift your thinking from love and compassion to righteous indignation! After all, “they” are WRONG because they reject the truth. From natural inclination to self-denial. Over time it becomes familiar and you do it on a daily basis, possibly many times a day. The film you would love to see, the concert you would love to attend, your child who you would love to call and chat with, the mother or father you never said goodbye to. These are all denied, all sacrificed to “please God.”

This, to me, is the most heartbreaking part of divisive organizations that warp your thinking. Don’t get me wrong: there are many heartbreaking occurrences within these groups. This one, however, at some point or another, affects every single cult member, their friends and their families. Destroying families and relationships is a very serious matter, and does irreversible damage. This is the case even after one leaves a cult. It takes time, loving support, and sometimes therapy to regain your freedom of thought, and to confront the thieves who robbed you of all the natural love you were born to give and receive. In my case, it’s been the toughest challenge of the post-cult yearsbut an extremely important virtue to inculcate into my life. Loving freely and accepting people as they are is beautiful and rewarding to all involved.

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 growing up in a high-control group that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Doubling, or the Self Divided, Part 3

Editor's Note: This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Doubling, or the Self Divided

Separating the ‘cult identity’ is relatively easy, if you know how. But, in the last couple of years, I’ve come to know several second-generation members, and they have no pre-cult identity. Often, they have been brought up in an environment of ‘no sympathy’, which can induce something like Asperger’s syndrome, where they simply do not know how to react emotionally.

Empathy is not a feature of cults. It is a learned skill, or at least a behaviour that needs to be nurtured to develop properly. Many second-generation members lack this advantage. They simply don’t know how to care. Thankfully, they can learn.

How should a second generation member go about recovering? First of all, it is necessary to separate from the cult – not just physically but psychologically. All too many people believe that they can simply walk away. Denial is always the first hurdle to overcome with any problem.

Cults ‘resocialise’ their members who learn to behave differently. It is necessary to unlearn those behaviours.

It is hard to admit that we were wrong. That we were taken in. That the cult we believed in from the very beginning was designed to make the leadership rich and powerful, and that it has actually been of little or no benefit to humanity. I was gullible. I was scammed. I gave my positive energy to an ultimately negative movement that has damaged hundreds of thousands of people. I was also very fortunate that I was never a live-in member, and suffered neither trauma nor humiliation. Most cult members are not so fortunate.

Once the denial is over, and we are willing to look at the chaos induced in our thinking and our behaviour, we have some chance of unpicking the conditioning. I have argued ceaselessly that this is done by examining the principles we were sold in depth.

Start a study group with other survivors to analyse the significant tenets of the cult. Let everyone in the group put forward their successes and failures trying to apply these ideas, and understand just how flimsy they are. Look at the contradictions in the doctrine and see how those contradictions paralyse freedom of thought and action. Study the various ideas about thought reform – starting with Lifton.

There is no need to abandon a principle if it seems to be worthwhile. We should also cherish anything positive that came to us through our involvement. Black and white thinking is cultic – rational thinking allows for shades of grey, including a proper assessment of benefits and harms caused by membership.

When a first generation member lets go, they often seem to regress to age twelve, because that is the age that any cult (including Consumerism) likes to keep its members. A twelve-year-old still believes that the parent is a hero and is still compliant to direction. Many former members shift into adolescent dissent when they leave a cult. So the message boards are full of furious, inconsiderate former members, determined to rebel against anyone who disagrees with their new fixed opinions.

Etienne de la Boétie said, ‘all would agree that, if we led our lives according to the ways intended by nature … we should be intuitively obedient to our parents; later we should adopt reason as our guide and become slaves to nobody.’ All too often, we become slaves to leaders, and do not adopt reason as our guide, but this is the necessity, if we are to mature into full adulthood.

First-generation members leave, and the men grow beards and smoke pot. They listen to the music of their adolescence and eat biscuits in bed. They have a brief honeymoon period where they regain adolescence, and then most of them grow up.

Second-generation members may have to discover adolescence, rather than return to it. They may not have had a care-giver of any sort during childhood, and they may have suffered severe abuse in groups like the Twelve Tribes or the Children of God. They may have difficulty forming relationships, because they have not been taught how. This leads to the province of attachment theory.

As cult members have often been phobically shielded from any development in the human sciences, it makes it especially difficult for them to consider well-established notions in psychology, and attachment is a very important one.

There are attachment therapists out there, but first of all it is a good idea to find out a little about how we attach. John Bowlby was the pioneer in this field, and his essays are still useful. The important message, however, is that attachment can be learned; that second-generation members can learn to love and learn to enjoy society. And those of us who have experienced cult membership are well-placed to help them.

Let me recommend just one book to all ex-members: Take Back Your Life is the best guidebook for recovery from cults that I have read. It was written by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, and everyone who has been involved in a cult should read it. In fact, everyone should read it, because we live in a society of overlapping cults, where we are surrounded by people who want to undermine our critical thinking by appealing to our emotions and selling us their products or their beliefs.

The good news is that it is possible to integrate cult experiences, after which we have something very valuable to contribute to society. At Open Minds, we love to hear from our readers about their successful recovery, so please send us your story.

This is the third part of a three-part article. Here is part one, and here is part two.

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

Doubling, or the Self Divided, Part 2

Editor's Note: This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Doubling, or the Self Divided

I have often wondered how intelligent and well-meaning people could so cheerfully commit immoral acts. Tony Ortega’s fine book about Paulette Cooper’s remarkably brave stand against Scientology – The Unbreakable Miss Lovely shows that some of her persecutors continue to justify their outrageous actions of the 1970s, because they continue to hate her. It is impossible for them to admit that they were wrong, and that Paulette was exposing a criminal and profoundly unethical organization.

Agents of Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs have occasionally tried to explain their unethical behaviour to me. ‘If we don’t use Fair Game, how will we stop the Suppressives?’ one young woman asked me. A twenty-year member explained that the perilously short time left to ‘Clear the planet’ justified ‘fascist’ behaviour. And, yes, he used the word ‘fascist’.

One answer is indeed found in those most extreme of fanatics, the Nazis. If I could elect just one individual for a Nobel Prize, it would definitely be Robert Jay Lifton. His compassionate analysis of Hiroshima, of the victims of the Chinese thought reform camps, and of the Aum Shinrikyo cult are all classics of rational analysis. I have never managed to finish The Nazi Doctors, because the subject matter is simply too frightening, but I am familiar with its core concepts.

Under the Aktion T-4 programme in Nazi Germany, family doctors murdered 70,000 of their ‘disabled’ patients. Doctors were also the profession with the highest membership in the Nazi party (45% of doctors joined up). So much for the caring profession and the Hippocratic Oath. But, as the philosopher Michael Jagger put it, ‘the gangster looks so frightening, with his luger in his hand, but when he gets home to his children, he’s a family man.’

There is a remarkable little book called Are We All Nazis?. The author, Hans Askenasy, was in a concentration camp as a child. He became a fighter pilot in the US, and then a psychologist working with disturbed and often violent adolescents. He examined the lives of the leading Nazis, and, to his surprise, found that none of them were sadists. They were committed to a cause. They believed that the German people had fallen upon hard times because of ‘inferior’ populations – the Jews and Romanies. It was their task to eliminate the toxic effect of these ‘parasites’.

The Jews, Romanies, Blacks and Communists had to be exterminated as ‘vermin’. The Slavic peoples were to be put back in their place as ‘slaves’. And the world would be saved.

Heinrich Himmler was the head of the SS, the military arm of the Nazi Party that controlled the extermination programme. Here is his own justification for the mass killings: ‘I am not a bloodthirsty man and not someone who takes pleasure in difficult duties. But … I have such strong nerves and such a great sense of duty I might say that when I recognise something … essential, I execute it without compromise. Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses lie side by side. Whether there be 500 or 1000. And to endure that and, apart from a few exceptions, to remain decent has made us tough but it is never mentioned and it will never appear in the glorious annals of history. We can have but one desire as to what is said about us these German officers, these German soldiers, these German generals, they were decent’. The ‘glorious annals of history’ take a very different opinion of Himmler’s decency.

To work their horrors, the Nazis had to separate themselves emotionally from their actions. The Nazi doctors, and the concentration camp guards, were able to put aside their humanity, their compassion and their fellow feeling, because they were wedded to a higher purpose: the salvation of the Aryan race. They shifted into the Nazi identity by ‘doubling’. At Nuremburg, one after another claimed that they were simply following orders – befehl ist befehl – they felt no personal responsibility for their actions.

Fortunately, most cult members don’t travel the path to that hideous extreme – the final stage of Lifton’s thought reform model, the actual ‘dispensing of existence.’ However, this doubling of identity can remain a problem for many years after leaving a cult.

I have no agenda to destroy any cult, let alone to harm believers – quite the opposite, although I’ve had to put up with some pretty savage attacks from those believers over the decades. If I could help a cult leader, I would. However, I would also restrain them from committing further evil, if I could.

Editor's Note:

This is the second part of a three-part article. Here is part one. You may continue to part three.

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

Doubling, or the Self Divided, Part 1

Editor's Note: This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Doubling, or the Self Divided

Anyone who watches carefully when talking with committed cult members will notice the occasional identity shift. One minute, the eyes glitter with a fanatical shine and the next the glitter is gone and the eyes seem normal again. A member’s skin can turn from grey to pink in a moment. Gestures become less forced. The eyes smile, along with the lips, in a natural or duchenne smile. These physiological changes are unmistakably evident.

It is possible to bring about these changes simply by reminding the person of life before the cult: family photographs, memories of school days, their first kiss. Anything which sends the mind back before the cult identity was formed.

What do I mean be the ‘cult identity? We form a personality from the many strands of identity. We have many identities, none of them distinct or separate personalities (multiple personality disorder is a very different matter).

We behave differently in different circumstances. We speak and act differently if talking to our parents, our siblings, our children, the boss or employees, to friends, to strangers or to a pet. We use different words and gestures. We may speak more or less politely. We may use uncouth language with friends or co-workers that we would not use with our grandmothers.

Identity is also affected by mood. If annoyed or satisfied, angry or sad, our communication will also change, but we still have a different way of expressing that mood to different people. These identities are the x and y axes of personality. They shift in the kaleidoscope of everyday life to form the continuum of the self.

A cult group imposes a single identity onto the personality, and that parasitic identity commandeers the self. Rules are established for behaviour and mood. This pseudo-identity will follow a strict set of behaviours towards superiors and inferiors within the cult, and, quite usually, restrict all behaviour towards non-members into a narrow range. Non-members are seen as inferior, while members form different strata in the hierarchy of the cult.

This synthetic, induced pseudo-identity will keep all other identities in check. It is pinned in place by thought-stopping clichés, such as ‘make it go right’ or ‘for the good of the cause’. This points towards one of the most scary aspects of fanaticism, which is called ‘doubling.’

Long ago, when I often spoke to committed members, I sometimes found myself talking to two quite distinct people. One would be hard, ‘on purpose’, and determined to wreck my life in any way possible, but then a baffled twelve-year old would emerge, and tell me that he could not survive in the hostile world outside the cult. It is hard to convince an indoctrinated believer that life in the real world is much easier than life in a cult. But institutionalization of self is one of the many problems that a former cult member will have to cope with.

Editor's Note: The following is the first part of a three-part series, adapted from a blog originally published at Tony Ortega’s Underground Bunker. Here is part two.

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


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