CULTS and KIDS
Written by: Dellinger, Robert W. Posted on: 04/25/2003
Category: Cults / Sects / Non Christian Religions and Topics
CULTS and KIDS
A Study of Coercion
Robert W. Dellinger
"There's always a pretty good number of self-appointed pied pipers, self-
appointed messianic people, self-appointed gurus in any society who say to the
confused masses: 'Follow me! I have a simple solution for the complex
problems of life.' But if the social structure has not broken down, very few
people will follow them," says Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist and a
professor at the University of California's medical school in San Francisco
and in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkley.
Singer has talked to more than 500 cultist and ex-cult members, and has worked
individually and in group therapy with more than 200 people who have come out
Cults are not new. When Eastern and Western cultures collided during the
last days of the Roman Empire, a number of apocalyptic movements appeared.
After the French Revolution in 1789, France witnessed a tremendous rise in the
number of cults. Cultic groups did not arrive on the scene in England until
the 18th century, during the Industrial Revolution. And the United States had
to wait until its citizens pushed west before these assemblies proliferated.
But many social observers believe that the recent growth of cults in this
country, which began in the late 1960's and became really visible in the mid-
1970's, has been something special.
Singer estimates that three million young adults between the ages of 18
and 25 are affiliated with these movements. There are at least 250 different
cults, she says, and, depending on the definition you use, as many as 2,500
cults can be identified. According to Singer, these groups fall into ten
classes: neo-Christian-based cults; Hindu-and eastern-based groups; occult,
satanic, and witchcraft movements; spiritualistic-based groups; Zen-based
assemblies; race-based cults; flying saucer-based cliques; psychological
movements; political cults; and communal- living groups.
"It's important to note that all cults are not religious in their
content," Singer points out. "Some of them were communal living arrangements
at first. Synanon was started to help drug addicts, and Scientology began as
a new psychology and evolved into a religious body. The contents of
witchcraft and occult groups, psychological movements, neo-Christian
organizations and Hindu groups vary; but most of these movements have become
religions because of the wonderful protection that the First Amendment and the
many state tax laws give to religious entities. By using the term religion,
the new cults try to blend themselves in and appear as if they are no
different from 'institutionalized' religions. The point we're all trying to
make is: 'Yes, they are different - at a social and political and
informational and power level!'"
Singer says that today's cults are usually led by charismatic males who
center the love, devotion, and allegiance of the members on themselves.
Rabbis, ministers, priests, and other "legitimate" religious leaders, on the
other hand, keep the veneration of adherents focused on God, abstract
principles, and group purposes.
"At the time they arise, cults try to tell people that they're innovative
and exclusive because part of their appeal is to say that they're all-
millennium," she explains. "Doomsday cults say that the end of the world is
coming in one way or another - the A-bomb, etc. -and that if you join brand X
cult you'll be part of the elite who survive and take over and lead the new
order. But they usually turn out to be pseudo-revolutionary in their actual
practices. While these cults and cult-like groups are saying they are the new
way, they are really far more restrictive than any of the life-styles in the
"Cults have only two basic purposes: recruiting new members and fund
raising. Cults may claim to make real social contributions, but, in reality,
these remain mere claims or minimal gestures."
According to Singer, cults tend to have a double set of ethics. The "love
bombing" that the Moonies (members of Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification
Church) are famous for, the personality test that Scientologists give, and the
unconditional acceptance that almost all of these groups show toward potential
members, she claims, are totally contrived. "If I apply to be a Catholic, the
priest will spell out in utter detail the church's doctrine and practices by
making me take religious instructions," she says. "If I go off to be an
Episcopalian, a Baptist, a Seventh-Day Adventist, a Jew - any of the
'institutionalized' religions - they want full-capacity informed consent.
Whereas, the cults start with duplicity and deception."
"These groups are able to attract people who don't really know that it's
totally staged. And then, after they get in, these young men and women are
unaware of what the methods - the social and psychological manipulative tools
that are applied to them - are going to do to their thinking and how they are
going to be separated off from their families and from their past lives and
their past religions and past consciousness."
HOW CULTS WORK .....
Gary Scharff, once a religious studies major at Princeton University, was
recruited by the Unification Church in 1972. After finishing his junior year,
Scharff says he started feeling cynical about the merits of learning theology
from a textbook. Deciding that he needed some time to sort things out, he
went home to Louisville, Kentucky, and got a job in a tool factory. It was
there that the Moonies recruited him.
"I just met a couple of people from their bus team and was very intrigued
by them," he explains. "I had never heard of 'cult' or 'brainwashing' at that
point. I had a mixed reaction. First, I felt somewhat amused by the
literature they gave me, which seemed to be fairly childish and juvenile.
They were proposing to answer the profound questions of life in a series of
three or four lectures, and here I had spent three years trying to understand
the questions. But then, on the other hand, there was this really powerful
devotion and commitment in the young woman who handed me the literature and
struck up a conversation with me."
Scharff knew that she must be from a fringe religious group, but he
thought it would be interesting to try to understand what real belief was like
without an intellectual foundation. Gradually, he got more and more
emotionally involved with members of the group. After eight months, he moved
into the Unification Church's local center. Still, Scharff had no intention of
signing up for life. He just wanted to share their faith with them for a
while. But soon he was asked to attend a 100-day leadership training program
near New York City. Church officials assured him and his parents that he
would be back in Louisville in a couple of months. The camp, which operated
on a rigid schedule, was physically, emotionally, and mentally overpowering.
Scharff felt that he never had enough food to eat or hours to sleep.
"We spent most of the time just sitting listening to lectures," he
recalls. "You would have this being-at-the-edge-of-consciousness kind of
awareness - the same feeling you have at three o'clock in the afternoon on the
day after you've pulled an all-nighter. There's a shell that's just kind of
surrounding you, and you don't feel alert. You feel like anything could
happen, and it would take you longer to react to it and to even understand
what it was. So there's kind of an undertone of fearfulness that accompanies
all your actions."
Scharff describes the experience as a combination of affection and
deception. The love and concern made him less suspicious of his mentors; the
dishonesty and manipulation isolated him from his family and friends and,
eventually, from himself.
"There's something continuously going on, from early in the morning until
late at night," he explains. "Even in those situations where you're just
moving from one location to another in the camp, there's somebody on either
side of you. Your attention is constantly drawn towards things outside you,
and so you're not in the kind of mental posture to turn inward and reflect.
You never get a chance to talk to yourself because there's always somebody
else talking to you. And that becomes a very serious problem because so many
ideas are unloaded on you."
"Ultimately, you become so fatigued and your emotions become so strongly
accentuated that they really kind of set off to the side any kind of rational
thinking process. You become an absorber of feelings and attitudes and
behavior patterns rather than an alert adult responding to a community that is
offering something which you can take or leave. You really become committed
more by default than by choice."
The isolation, intellectual bombardment, and emotional fluctuation worked
their spell on 21-year-old Gary Scharff. After 90 days of training, he was
made director of the Pennsylvania Unification Church. During his four years
in the "Movement," he also was national director of CARP (the Collegiate
Association for the Research of Principle, a recruitment arm of the
Unification Church) and assistant director of planning and development for a
proposed system of Unification Church seminaries. He gave the initial three-
day workshop for people recruited in New York City and did some public
relations work, too.
The experience still frightens him when he looks back, even though he has
been out of the group for four years. "I went into that thing kind of
emotionally involved but nonetheless an open-minded and alert student of
religion," he muses, "and I came out of it a very fanatical, highly focused,
totally submissive servant of Sun Myung Moon."
The first step in "processing" cult recruits away from their past lives,
according to Margaret Singer, is separating them from their families and
friends. "Many of the groups refer to themselves as 'the family' in one way
or the other and emphasize 'We are your new family now!'" she explains.
"Several of the groups tell members, eventually, that their parents are
'satanic. ' Another group calls them 'potential trouble sources.' One of the
groups refers to all non-members, including parents, as the 'wog world.' In
quite a few of the groups, they say your parents are only your physical
"They even structure families within the cult if families are inducted
into the group. The People's Temple did this. Jim Jones broke up families.
He would send the children of Mr. and Mrs. A to live with Mr. and Mrs. B and
C. If married couples go in, they, too, tend to be broken up - because these
are very upwardly centered groups, and the cult leaders have found that it
works best if they prevent lateral allegiances and pairings and keep all the
veneration and affiliations directed upwards."
Because most cults suppress and monitor phone calls, visitors, and
letters, Singer says that they are often able to convince new members that
their parents have abandoned them.
Next, according to Singer, these groups try to get the neophytes to focus
on past deviant behavior - drug use, sexual misdeeds, psychological hangups,
poor social relationships. The mechanism is often some kind of group
confession or encounter session, and the result is often recruits who now see
their past as something evil. By controlling and reinterpreting all
information from the outside world, keeping members busy marketing and
proselytizing, using thought-stopping cliches and a closed system of logic,
squelching all resistance and negativity, and reinforcing only group-desired
behavior, cults resocialize vulnerable individuals.
"After they've been in a long enough time, the groups try to convey to the
new members that they won't be able to return to the outside," Singer
explains. "One of the major cults says, 'Returning from here to the world
will be like eating your own vomit!' The new members are both afraid to leave
the group because of personal failure and afraid that the group may come after
them and bring them back. Most are relatively debilitated from long hours of
cult work every day, and, eventually, they get to feeling very bad because
they start to become aware of the deception that was practiced upon them to
get them in. But by then, they have been in so long that they have almost no
easy life to return to. So the choice usually is to stay."
"What I'm trying to paint is a picture of many, many pathways to social
and psychological manipulation, to restricting reflective thinking, to
restricting secondary associations, and to keeping the person highly focused
on the leader while they're in these groups."
The Unification Church is not alone when it comes to using deception and
mental maneuvers to recruit and keep members, according to Singer and others.
Although the followers of Lord Krishna, the Hare Krishnas, reserve their hard
sell for the selling of their literature and incense, they can be heavy
proselytizers whenever a possible recruit comes by. Critics (most noticeably
Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, authors of the book "Snapping") claim that the
constant chanting of their mystical incantation or mantra invokes an
unquestioning mental state. Others contend that a horrendous work schedule
plus a no-meat, no-eggs, no-fish, low protein diet keep members of the
International Society for Krishna Consciousness in a constantly repressed
The Divine Light Mission is supported by the sale of converts' possessions
and gifts, and by the tithing of "preemies" (i.e., devotees). Counter-
cultists say that the meditative "knowledge" techniques practiced by its
congregation are consciousness-altering methods that harm a susceptible mind.
At the heart of DLM philosophy, in fact, is the idea that rational thought
prevents human beings from reaching God. Some former members have claimed
that they were brainwashed by being bombarded with the group's doctrine.
Others have reported such cognitive disturbances as memory loss and an
inability to read without "trancing out" - going into a meditative state.
Margaret Singer believes that the Church of Scientology, the Children of
God, The Way International, the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation, the
Love Israel family, and the Body of Christ all rely on coercive conversion
methods. Others have also suggested that many "Me Generation" movements, such
as LifeSpring, TM, and EST, can influence an individual's thought processes.
Father Kent Burtner, a Dominican priest who counsels former cult members
and their parents, believes that the best way to view all of these groups is
to place them on a continuum that runs from positive support of the person to
mind destructiveness through the use of deception and abusive behavior
modification techniques. "When you get to Moon and his Booneville,
California, training camp, there is no question about the subterfuge and
trickery going on there," he says. "But when you look at some of these fringe
'human potential' groups, then you get into this really fuzzy zone. Within
this gray area, there may be a case and time where an individual's freedom is
totally betrayed and another case where an individual's freedom, given
slightly different circumstances, is not. You really have to judge it on a
case by case basis."
What is significant about these movements, according to Father Burtner,
are the psychological techniques that have been used to convert and control
followers. "I don't care whether it's someone leading a Catholic charismatic
prayer group or if it's Sun Myung Moon - whether they're into a 'socially
acceptable' form of spirituality of not - if they start using methods that
deprive individuals of their ability to make a free choice, they're acting in
a tremendously destructive way towards the person," he says. "And that, to
me, is an objective evil."
WHO JOINS AND WHY .....
If these groups are so harmful, why would anybody enter one? In studying
cults, social scientists have come up with a number of reasons to explain
their popularity with today's youth and young adults. A disillusionment with
the scientific community, the military, big business and labor, schools and
colleges, government, family relationships, and religions - every aspect of
our materialistic society - has made many human potential movements and cults
appealing. A longing for moral authority and a sense of purpose has also led
people into the waiting arms of assemblies with simple answers to life's most
"It's not just a pathologigal people who join the cults," says Margaret
Singer. "There is no one type of person who becomes involved with the cults.
Rather, all of us at various times are more vulnerable than at other times.
Almost anyone who is in a period of loneliness is in a vulnerable period in
which he or she might get taken in by the flattery and deceptive lures that
cults use to recruit new members. I've found that the people who've gotten
involved with cults have tended to be somewhat depressed. The cults picked
them up between high school and college, between romances, between college and
their first job, between marriage and when they were divorced. But they were
in between a major anchoring point and affiliation."
Gary Scharff says that being a member of the Unification Church gave him a
strong feeling of commitment and sacrifice, of subordinating himself to the
higher goal of saving the world. "That was a very, very powerful incentive,"
he confides. "It was very rewarding. I felt I was really putting my life on
the line, living by what I believed. It's a feeling of really being devoted
and having, in a sense, cast your fate into the lap of God."
But probably more than any other factor, the need for love and friendship
steers young people who are making the difficult transition from late
adolescence to adulthood into cults. At the heart of their appeal is the
promise of uncomplicated warmth and acceptance. Being a member of one of
these "communities of love" means being a part of what some have called the
ultimate in-group. "If you comply and focus your thinking outward, do not
dissent, stop thinking of your past family and your past work," says Singer,
"you will get lots of payoffs because you have joined an elite group. And one
way or another in this elite group, you're going to become a perfect human
"The attraction in the majority of cases has involved normal, healthy kids
going through temporary depressions," explains Jean Merritt, a psychiatric
social worker who has been counseling former cult members and their families
since 1973. "They have been caused by the typical things that cause
depressions in that age group: conflicts with parents, boyfriend or
girlfriend; problems in school; the loss of a relative or a friend through
death or divorce. A fair number of the kids who have been approached by
Moonies, let's say, when they were feeling good laughed it off, knowing
exactly that this was probably a cult. They were not the least bit
interested. Then they were approached again when they weren't feeling so
strong, and off they went."
According to Merritt, cults usually go after single, white, middle-class
and upper-middle-class young people who have been taught to be open to
innovative ideas and to try new experiences. They are often intelligent young
men and women who are extremely idealistic and altruistic. She says that some
cults today are also actively recruiting lower and working-class inner-city
youths. But beyond that, Merritt believes there is no typical cult member.
Young and old alike who are at loose ends are easy prey to the cults' flattery
PREVENTIVE GUIDANCE .....
Margaret Singer believes in the importance of early education. "If parents
would get their kids to be a little more streetwise," she says, "that's the
main thing. There are no free lunches."
Singer believes that fathers and mothers should become more knowledgeable
about the major cults so they can answer their children's questions. But even
more important, she feels that parents need to listen and hear the feelings,
concerns and fears of their sons and daughters. "You must be the one who
helps a young man or woman find answers to his or her questions," she says.
"If you don't, a cultist may lure him or her off with false promises that
there is one solution to everything."
Just as parents should talk to their kids about drug abuse, Jean Merritt
says they also need to inform them about cults. In giving lectures around the
country, she has discovered that high school students are terribly naive about
the whole subject of cults. Even teen-agers who know that it's bad news to
get messed up with these groups, don't know why. And Merritt insists that
these people are just as vulnerable as their unaware peers because they're
likely to pass it off as just another thing, like marijuana, that Dad and Mom
will get hysterical about.
GETTING PEOPLE OUT .....
"If your child has only been involved in a group a very short time and
still hasn't left home, there are certain ways that you can respond to their
questions," says Henrietta Crampton, secretary of Citizens Freedom Foundation,
a parents' counter-cult network with affiliates in many states. "You can find
out which cult your child is involved with and who the leader is. You can
call a local chapter of CFF or maybe talk to an ex-cult member. But get the
specifics. Then you can present these facts to your child and get him or her
to understand. If you know early enough, you can stop it."
The hardest thing for fathers and mothers who have lost a child to a cult
to swallow is their own guilt. Most are ashamed. Many see themselves as
failures. But because the cults recruit mainly from the ranks of the
idealistic and committed, the loss of their child is, in fact, a kind of
horrible personal compliment.
Once a son or daughter has taken off with the group, most professionals
believe that the sooner the parents start trying to make contact, trying to
keep the lines of communication open, and trying to lure the child out, the
better. "So often parents think it's something like Hula Hoop - it's just a
passing fad," says Margaret Singer. "They don't know how really tight the
psychological and social pressures will come to bear upon their child."
Singer, Father Burtner, and Merritt believe that parents must keep in mind
that cults see the world through polarized glasses: everybody inside is good
and everybody outside is demonic or, at least, influenced by Satan. aIf
parents tip their hand too early by coming out openly against the group, the
recruit will often go underground and may not be seen again for years. To
counter this, the three counselors tell parents to keep lots of "love
messages" going to their kids.
Parents who have had their children drawn into cults have three basic
options. By keeping communications going, they can try to get their son or
daughter to talk with a former member or local cult authority. Sometimes this
third party, by providing critical information about the group, can break the
cult's hold. Although many cult watchers say this approach rarely works, the
Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, a counter-cult
organization, recently reported that "hundreds of young people have been
convinced to leave the various cults as a result of discussions with concerned
and knowledgeable individuals. These discussions were entered into
voluntarily by the cult members, usually at the urging of their parents."
Some parents go to the courts when their children refuse to listen to the
"other side." There are two connected legal remedies: conservatorship-
guardianship and a writ of habeas corpus. Through conservatorships-
guardianships, a state places an adult in the temporary custody of another
adult. Although state laws differ about the grounds on which these legal
orders may be granted, the most common reasons include being harmful to
oneself and others, physical infirmity, or mental incompetence. But civil
libertarians argue that it's an unconstitutional form of legal kidnaping, and
many magistrates are reluctant to issue these orders. If a judge decides that
the cultist does need a conservator-guardian, a writ of habeas corpus is then
issued to gain custody of the person. Most conservator-guardian decrees
specify a time period in which medical and mental health evaluation and
treatment must take place. At the end of these days or weeks, the judge
reviews the case.
The last alternative, the forcible abduction and restraint of the cult
victim, is illegal. And although some judges have been sympathetic to parents
who take this course of action, these kidnapings have been prosecuted at every
level of the criminal justice system. Ted Patrick, the well-known San Diego
deprogrammer, has been jailed many times for conspiring to forcibly remove a
member from a cult. Others have been fined. Many contemporary deprogrammers
will only talk to cultists who either come to them voluntarily or through a
Whether a person leaves a group voluntarily, through a court order, or by
being illegally kidnaped, many counter-cult authorities believe the recruit
must be deprogrammed. "They don't get their heads on straight unless they
have a chance to talk to somebody who's been through their experience, who
knows what's going on inside of them emotionally," says Neil Maxwell, a San
Francisco pharmacist who has done some 50 deprogrammings and who is willing to
do more. "I think it's a fantastic process. It's very similar to surgery to
correct a condition that can't be corrected in any other way. It's not a
harsh confrontation process but rather a kindly exchange of information."
Father Burtner agrees that even when members choose to leave cults, they
still need to have the opportunity to sort things out. "We've had kids who
have left groups quite on their own, went home, and then later, for some
mysterious reason, went back to the cult," he says. "Maybe they got left
alone too long in the cult, and their reflective processes began to work
again. Then they panicked and fled the group. But if that person doesn't get
some good help, he or she will still suffer from the residual effects of their
experience, for example, knee-jerk reactions to coercive circumstances.
Another reason a person might leave a group is that he or she overdoses on
guilt. The cult must make recruits surrender their guilt to the group, which,
in turn, enables the group to control them. But at the same time, the group
must maintain positive reinforcement - 'good strokes' - for without these, the
person is going to feel unworthy of remaining within the group."
Although Father Burtner knows that some self styled "deprogrammers" have
tried to shock cultists out of their present mental state with violence, he
does not believe that shouting and screaming, sleep deprivation, and sensory
overload are the essence of the controversial procedure. After conducting 16
deprogrammings, 14 of which have been successful, Father Burtner is sure that
emotional or physical strong-arm methods do not work because these tactics
simply reinforce the person's paranoia. "Deprogramming," he explains, "is a
counseling process whereby a cult victim is given the opportunity to see a
broad perspective on his or her group; to see more fully the implications of
membership; to learn the rudiments of abusive behavior modification techniques
and the thought-reform process; to examine the values, tenets, and practices
of the group; to examine his or her own thoughts and feelings so that the
person re-evaluates the affiliation and makes a free personal choice."
According to Father Burtner, cults put up a wall between a person's own
ideas and emotions and his or her reflections on these things. The cultist is
stripped of any spontaneous reactions. The group wants to control all
communication that an individual has with the innermost self - to direct what,
and even whether, a person may think and feel. "So in the deprogramming,
you've got to reach through that wall and help them experience their own
thoughts and their own feelings," he says. "There are a lot of ways to go
about doing that. Some deprogrammers are very attuned to people's emotional
wavelengths and can help them pick up on these things, especially, with the
help of parents and friends who know what's real and what's not in a
particular person. Other deprogrammers prefer to go at it by means of a
rational discussion about the cult's activities, hoping that as they do it the
individual will show them some areas of anxiety. Once they've got hold of
that, then they can help the person bring to the surface what's really going
Gary Scharff was deprogrammed in Kansas by Joe Alexander, a profes
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