Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat
With a Foreword by Doris Lessing

Published by Bay Tree Publishing, Berkeley, 2003.

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   Some degree of cult behavior can be seen in all groups, so instead of asking “Is this group a cult?,” a more useful inquiry is: “How much cult behavior is taking place here?” This question has special urgency as we face the reality of a present-day terrorism whose destructive possibilities have been fearfully magnified by modern technology. Although it is not hard to spot cult behavior in al Qaeda, we are not inclined to notice it in ourselves as we respond to the threat. Yet, we had better be able to do so, because the price of cult behavior is diminished realism. We cannot afford that now.

   To heighten our awareness, Them and Us identifies four basic cult behaviors that influence our thinking: 1) compliance with a group, 2) dependence on a leader, 3) avoiding dissent, and 4) devaluing the outsider. These forces operate in all aspects of society. The core process is devaluing the outsider, resulting in Them-versus-Us behavior.

   This book makes clear the nature of the problem and the attitude necessary for its solution. The book expands on Deikman's earlier work, The Wrong Way Home (1990), showing the connection between classic cult manipulation and the milder forms of group pressure that can be found in even the most staid organizations—churches and schools, mainstream political movements and corporate boardrooms.

  In her foreword, Doris Lessing discusses the implications and repercussions of cult thinking on contemporary society.

   “From a larger perspective it may be that the terrorist threat could make clear the danger inherent in any ideology, any system of belief offering utopian goals at the cost of compliance, conformity, and the suppression of dissent. The warning sign of ideology is the sharp division between Them and Us, whether it be based on politics, economics, race or religion. The possibilities for destruction and misery endemic to such beliefs have been multiplied many times by modern science. As a result, the few can now destroy the many and that power is becoming increasingly accessible. Hopefully, the danger may cause us to recognize that we all share the same needs for meaning, security, and a positive future. From that point of view we are one family. Understanding this fundamental fact is the antidote to cult thinking.“

  There is no Them—there is only Us


   Much of my work as a psychiatrist consists of helping people become aware of the fantasies that influence what they do and how they feel. Interestingly, it is not fantasies of power and riches that cause the most trouble, but those of receiving protection, nurture, comfort, or praise; of someone keeping count, noting deeds, thoughts and efforts. It doesn't matter who a person is, no matter how outwardly independent, a child's wish for a powerful protective parent waits in the depths of the psyche and seeks expression. And express itself it does. The result is cult behavior even in people who do not belong to cults.

   Usually, the word cult refers to a group led by a charismatic leader who has spiritual, therapeutic, or messianic pretensions, and indoctrinates the members with his or her idiosyncratic beliefs. Typically, members are dependent on the group for their emotional and financial needs and have broken off ties with those outside. The more complete the dependency and the more rigid the barriers separating members from non‑believers, the more danger the cult will exploit and harm its members.

   A number of books have been written about cults. Robert Lifton's landmark study of Chinese brainwashing, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, enabled us to understand the cognitive mechanisms operating in totalistic environments, where the authorities have complete control over people's lives and use any means to convert their subjects to their own rigid system of belief. Lifton's analysis is very applicable to extreme cults, one of which I will describe in Chapter Two. But our everyday society is not totalistic. We are not subject to the total control possible to the Chinese communists (who held their prisoners by force), or to the psychologically coercive environments of the worst cults. Nevertheless, I will argue that behavior qualitatively similar to that All which takes place in extreme cults takes place in all of us, despite our living in an open society, uncoerced, free to select our sources of information and our companions. We need to understand the cult behavior that operates unnoticed in everyday life.

   Toward the end of his book, Lifton remarked that childhood helplessness and dependency produce "a capacity for totalism." I will focus in detail on the way in which the longing for parents persists into adulthood and results in cult behavior that pervades normal society. When I speak of a wish for parents I am not speaking of transference — the re‑experiencing of a specific parental relationship  — but of a yearning for parents in the most general sense. This longing results in fantasies of wise, powerful guardians even in those who are themselves looked up to by others, the best educated, the most cynical. Such fantasies exist in the borderlands of consciousness and may seldom be noticed, but they may be superimposed on people who occupy real positions of authority, success, and power, or their images may be displaced to a heavenly realm. Only by recognizing the indwelling wish can we gain freedom from the childhood world of vertical relationships and gain an eye‑level perspective.

   Such recognition is not easy Freud made us aware that childhood experience may be expressed in the malfunctioning of the adult; this developmental understanding is now part of our worldview. But despite our sophistication in matters of individual pathology, we lack sufficient recognition of the dependency wishes that all of us express in covert form.

   It is difficult to write convincingly about everyday cult behavior because some of the words I must use may sound like psychiatric jargon: dependency, unconscious fantasies, longings for security. Everyone exempts themselves from the description. The psychologically sophisticated are likely to think they are beyond these things and others may think that only weaklings have such vulnerabilities. To try to circumvent this problem I will make extensive use of examples drawn from a number of sectors of society: government, large corporations, the media, psychiatry, and religion.

   The price of cult behavior is diminished realism. We cannot afford that now, if we ever could. Fortunately, awareness is a potent antidote. Increasing that awareness is the goal of this book.

The Cult Mirror

   A few years ago I took part in a research seminar on new religious movements, the religious and utopian groups which sprang up in the sixties and seventies and made the term cult familiar to all newspaper readers. Like everyone else, we in the seminar were impressed by the power of cult groups to dominate their members. A most extreme example was the People's Temple of San Francisco, whose mass suicide in Guyana was regarded as a piece of insanity, a horror that could be condemned without hesitation, in part because it appeared so alien to our lives. Other groups were only slightly less notorious for such activities as mass sterilization of their men or prostitution of their women; some cults engaged in the breaking up of families and financially exploited devotees, actions less newsworthy but nonetheless damaging.

   In reading about cults, most of us in the seminar felt repulsion and fear, but also fascination. Cults present us with images of surrender, violence, sex, and power. We respond to them with avid interest because they speak to unconscious wishes. Moreover, we can watch at a seemingly safe distance because the cults of which we are aware usually have foreign trappings or unusual social structures that separate them from ordinary society and from ourselves. Without such markings, however, cult behavior is not usually recognized, especially when this behavior is our own.

   Former cult members were interviewed by the seminar research group. We talked first with a man and a woman who had escaped from the People's Temple camp in Guyana on the morning of the mass suicide. These witnesses were not college graduates, nor were most members of the People's Temple. At subsequent meetings we interviewed a married couple who had belonged to quite a different cult, one whose members were highly educated, possessing graduate degrees in psychology or related fields. (They had worked as psychotherapists and teachers, just as we in the seminar did.) After that, people spoke who had been members of a utopian rehabilitation group for ex-convicts and, still later, we heard from members and ex‑members of several other new religions.

   The variety of personalities involved, of differing racial, economic, religious, educational, and social backgrounds, was impressive. What was most striking was that no matter whom we interviewed, the stories of involvement in exploitive, harmful cults were similar. A distinct pattern of seduction, coercion, corruption and regression emerged, no matter what the outward trappings, no matter what dogma or purpose the group espoused. Basic human responses had been elicited by a process fundamentally the same.


   At the time they joined their particular cult, most of the people we interviewed had been dissatisfied, distressed, or at a transition point in their lives. Typically, they desired a more spiritual life, a community in which to live cooperatively; they wanted to become enlightened, to find meaning in serving others, or simply to belong. An encounter with an enthusiastic, attractive, friendly person served to introduce each of them to a group whose outer appearance was quite benign. At some point during that introductory phase an intense experience took place which was interpreted as validating the claim that the leader and the group were special, powerful, spiritual; that they could give the person what he or she wanted. This experience might have been an altered state of consciousness (induced by the leader or the group via meditation, chanting, or the laying on of hands), a powerful therapeutic experience, or just a wonderful feeling of being accepted and welcomed — of "coming home."

   Won over, the newcomer joined the group, embracing its doctrines and practices. Soon the cult's demands increased and the new member was asked to devote increasing amounts of time, money, and energy to the group's activities. These demands were justified as necessary to fulfill the group's goals; willingness to comply was always interpreted as a measure of the recruit's commitment and sincerity. In order to continue, most did comply, sacrificing much for the sake of the stated high purposes of the group (often put in terms of saving the world).

   Relationships outside the group became difficult to maintain. The former life of the new member was given up; contact with outsiders was discouraged and the demands of the new life left little opportunity for extra‑group activities. However, the sacrifices were compensated for by the convert's sense of belonging  and purpose. The group and the leader (at least initially) gave praise and acceptance.

   Gradually, however, an iron fist was felt. Deviation from group dogma brought swift disapproval or outright rejection. The message to the convert became clear: what the group had given the group could take away In time, he or she submitted to — and participated in — cruel, dishonest, and contradictory practices out of fear of the leader and the group, who by then had become the convert's sole source of self‑esteem, comfort, and even financial support. Actions that conflicted with the convert's conscience were rationalized by various formulas provided by the leader. (For example, in one group lying to potential converts was explained as "divine deception" for the good of those deceived.) Critical evaluation of the leader and the group became almost impossible, not only because it was punished severely, but also because the view of reality presented by the cult had no challengers. Discordant information was excluded from the group's world.

   Exploitation intensified and the recruit regressed into a fearful submission. Couples might be separated; members would inform on each other. Morals were corrupted and critical thinking suppressed. Often the group's leader deteriorated as well, becoming increasingly grandiose, paranoid, or bizarre. In most cases, paranoid thinking tended to mark the entire cult and reinforced the group's isolation.

   Our witnesses told of how, eventually, the demands became unbearable; a mother might be told to give up her child or her husband, or a spouse directed to take a different sexual partner. Although often the person would agree to the new requirement, sometimes he or she would not. In such cases, when the member finally refused to comply with the leader or the group’s demands, he or she left precipitously, often assisted by a person outside with whom some contact and trust had been maintained.

   Leaving such a group was a flight because the group’s reaction was known to be severe and punitive. Apostates were excommunicated. It was not uncommon for ex-converts to fear that they had been damned or had lost their souls as a consequence of leaving the group. (In some cases, former members were convinced the group would hunt them down and kill them.) Many went through months of struggle to re-establish their lives, wrestling with the questions How could I have been involved in such a thing? How could I have done what I did to other members of the group? Were my spiritual longings all false? Who and what can I trust? At the same time, the closeness the group offered was often sorely missed, and until the ex-member’s life was reconstituted, he or she wondered at times if leaving the group had been a mistake. This turmoil gradually diminished, but for many a sense of shame for having participated in the cult and a frustrated rage at having been betrayed lingered for a long time.

   After listening to many variants of this story, I began to see that cults form and thrive not because people are crazy, but because they have two kinds of wishes. They want a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity; and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home. The first motives may be laudable and constructive, but the latter exert a corrupting effect, enabling cult leaders to elicit behavior directly opposite to the idealistic vision with which members entered the group.

   Usually, in psychiatry and psychology, the wish to be taken care of (to find a home, a parent) is called dependency and this is a rather damning label when applied to adults. Adults are not supposed to be dependent in that way, relying on another as a child would rely on a mother or father. We are supposed to be autonomous, self-sustaining, with the capacity to go it alone. We do recognize that adults need each other for emotional support, for giving and receiving affection, for validation; that is acceptable and sanctioned. But underlying such mature interdependency is the longing of the child, a yearning that is never completely outgrown. This covert dependency — the wish to have parents and the parallel wish to be loved, admired, and sheltered by one’s group — continues throughout life in everyone. These wishes generate a hidden fantasy or dream that can transform a leader into a strong, wise, protective parent and a group into a close accepting family. Within that dream we feel secure.

   Who does not recognize the feelings portrayed in the cartoon on page 8?

   The wish to ride in the back seat of the car —  the dependency dream — has great strength and tenacity. It should be recognized as a permanent part of the human psyche even though in adults it ceases to be as visible as it is in childhood. This dream is dangerous because in its most extreme form it generates cults and makes people vulnerable to exploitation, regression, and even violence. Even in the less intense, less obvious manifestations which occur in everyday society, the dependency dream may impair our ability to think realistically. If we recognize our dependent wishes for what they are we can make appropriate corrections in thought and behavior, but usually we do not. Rather, we engage in thinking and behavior more subtle than that of the People's Temple but qualitatively similar. The back seat of the car does not carry us home.

   Eventually, we in the seminar were unable to maintain the belief that cults were something apart from normal society. The people telling us stories of violence, cruelty, and perversion of values were like ourselves. After listening and questioning we realized that we were not different from nor superior to the ex-cult members, that we were vulnerable to the same dependency wishes, capable of the same betrayals and cruelty in circumstances in which our sense of reality was manipulated.

   As I studied the psychological mechanisms that made the cult experience possible, I began to recognize uncomfortably familiar processes. A little reflection provided many specific instances of my own compliance‑conscious and unconscious‑with the values and preferences of my peers, compliance that I had rationalized or ignored because I preferred to think of myself as very independent. Since no radical change or disruption of my life occurred and I was not acting at the behest of a charismatic leader or occult group, it had not occurred to me that I might be behaving like one who has been captured by a cult. Nevertheless, I now realize that the motivations and manipulations constituting cult behavior are present in varying degrees in my own life and that they play a role in the lives of most of us as they operate in our educational systems, the business world, religion, politics, and international relations. Just as many of the more notorious cults have proven to be costly and destructive, so ordinary cult behavior is damaging and harmful to some degree wherever it occurs, no matter how normal its outward appearance.

   When the seminar began I viewed cults as pathological entities alien to my everyday life. By the time it ended, I realized that the dynamics of cult behavior and thinking are so pervasive in normal society that almost all of us might be seen as members of invisible cults. In fact, as I will argue, society can be viewed as an association of informal cults to which everyone belongs. Yet the groups most of us belong to do not appear strange, flamboyant, esoteric, or unnatural, nor do they defy society with lurid and violent behavior. Social infrastructures and behaviors that are similarto those of the People's Temple go unnoticed.

   Surely, the reader may ask, while it is true that serious consequences result from membership in extreme cults, how can you say harm comes from the groups that make up normal society? I certainly don't recognize such effects in groups to which I belong. I am indeed talking about normal society, in which the damage resulting from cult‑like behavior is not as obvious as that headlined in the newspapers. Our own cult story is much less pronounced, with no noticeable beginning and no end; our perceptions, beliefs, and critical judgments are affected nonetheless.

   We Americans live in a constitutional democracy, priding ourselves on the freedoms we have achieved. We live, travel and work without internal passports; we have free choice of job or profession; we may hold any belief and, within wide limits, do anything, say anything, write anything, and protest anything. We choose our governing officials from a list we have ourselves determined.

   Democracy is based on an "eye‑level" world in which we look directly at each other; every citizen is a peer. Political power is delegated, not inherited, not taken, not given by divine right, but  bestowed by each of us. However, I believe that a danger exists    even in democracies that the omnipresent authoritarian impulse will manifest itself in disguised form, will lead us toward a world in which we are always looking up at those who must be obeyed or down at those who must obey us. This is so because authoritar­ianism draws its strength from the same source that supports cult behavior: dependency on groups and leaders.

   I believe that we need to bring into awareness the unconscious motivations and excluded information that influence our behavior and thought at the personal, national, and international levels. This requires that we first understand the dynamics of obvious cults and then address similar processes in ourselves and in ordi­nary society. Such understanding can provide us with tools for detecting cult behavior — our own as well as that of others — and enable us to step outside the cult circle.

   I will begin with the history of a group which evolved into an extreme cult. The story is told by two of the group's converts, a real couple who underwent the experiences chronicled, although all the names used in my account are fictional and other changes have been made in their story.

   "Hugh and Clara Robinson" were members of the cult for nearly a decade. Their story is significant because what they be­gan in joy ended in terror and pain, their own relationship almost destroyed. The progression from heaven to hell was gradual, the steps of the descent justified in the name of God and said to be required if the group were to save the world, as they came to be­lieve they could. The Robinsons' history is also significant because they were an intelligent, well‑educated, normal couple‑yet they came to believe in evil forces and in a group soul that could hold their own souls captive. Prior to their departure from the cult they and other members were spending as many as sixteen hours a day conducting one another through rites of "cleansing," exorcism, and the warding‑off of devils. It may be difficult for the reader to identify with the Robinsons in this final, bizarre phase, but their story is classic and their vulnerability is shared by everyone to a greater extent than we realize.

   Hugh and Clara escaped; others have not. Although it is im­portant that we know about cults to avoid being caught in them, it is even more important that we study such groups to become aware of the hidden cult thinking operating unnoticed in our daily lives. Cults are mirrors of ourselves.

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