I recently finished reading Cults In Our Midst—The continuing fight against their hidden menace, by Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer. The book is not new—it was originally published in 1995, and the revised edition that I read was published in 2003. It is a comprehensive description of cults, which the author defines as:
a group that forms around a person who claims he or she has a special mission or knowledge, which will be shared with those who turn over most of their decision making to the self-appointed leader.
Before reading Cults In Our Midst, I’d read and watched TV programs about some cult leaders, and noticed the similarity between their behavior and the behavior of sociopaths. I developed the opinion that cult leaders were simply sociopaths who employed their natural “skills” of charisma, charm, deceit and manipulation to convince others to follow them, and do as they commanded, even when it ended in death, as in Jonestown and Waco.
I expected to see a similar view in this book, and was surprised not to find it. Singer was an experienced clinical psychologist, yet, in this book at least, she does not link cult leaders and personality disorders. Perhaps she didn’t conduct formal research on what the two have in common. But in reading the book, the connection seemed obvious to me.
Singer defines a cultic relationship as:
one in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him or her for almost all major life decisions, and inculcates in these followers a belief that he or she has some special talent, gift, or knowledge.
She describes cult leaders as self-appointed, persuasive, determined, domineering and charismatic. The cults are authoritarian in structure, and have double sets of ethics—members are to be open and honest within the group, but deceive and manipulate everyone else. The overriding philosophy of cults is that the ends justify the means.
Gee, where have we heard that before?
Anyone is vulnerable
Singer points out that everyone is susceptible to these master manipulators. She writes that two-thirds of the people who joined cults came from normal, functioning families. Still, there are some situations that increase risk:
Any person who is in a vulnerable state, seeking companionship and a sense of meaning or in a period of transition or time of loss, is a good prospect for cult recruitment. … I have found two conditions make an individual especially vulnerable to cult recruiting: being depressed and being in between important affiliations.
By “between important affiliations,” Singer meant a person was not engaged in a meaningful personal relationship, job, educational training program, or some other life involvement.
Singer spends a lot of time explaining exactly how cults go about recruiting people. One of the prime methods she describes is something we are all familiar with—love bombing. The author explains this as flooding new recruits with “flattery, verbal seduction, affectionate but usually nonsexual touching, and lots of attention to their every remark.”
Again, sound familiar?
Learning to manipulate
So how do people become cult leaders? As I said, Singer never suggests that cult leaders are disordered people who are exhibiting their natural, disordered behavior.
Singer calls the perpetrators “con artists.” She says that their prime skills are persuasion and manipulation. She writes:
There is no end to the ways a person can learn to manipulate others, especially if that person has no conscience, feels no guilt over living off the labors and money of others, and is determined to lead.
I believe that the successful cult leaders monitor, observe, and learn from what they try and, as needed revise and reformulate the folk art of persuasion.
So, reading this book, Singer seems to say that certain people simply decide that they are going to become cult leaders, and then figure out how to do it. She makes no mention of inborn personality traits or any type of personality disorder—even though her words are perfect descriptions of sociopaths.
Ostracized by her profession
During the 1980s, Singer was an expert witness on court cases involving mind control. She testified in the trial of Kenneth Bianchi, the “Hillside Strangler,” that he was not suffering from multiple personality disorder, as he claimed. On a TV show, Singer said that Bianchi was a psychopath. She also repeatedly testified against the Unification Church.
In 1983, the American Psychological Association (APA) asked Singer to chair a task force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control. Then, the APA rejected her report.
In fact, the APA filed a “friend of the court” brief in a case against the Unification Church. Dr. Singer and a colleague, Dr. Samuel Benson, had argued that the Unification Church recruiters “engage in systematic manipulation of the social influences surrounding the potential recruit to the extent that the recruit, in fact, loses the capacity to exercise his own free will and judgment.”
The APA stated that Singer’s theory of coercive persuasion was not a meaningful scientific concept, and her testimony in the case should not be allowed. The brief stated:
Specifically, the conclusions Drs. Singer and Benson assert cannot be said to be scientific in any meaningful sense (Point I.B.), and the methodologies generating those conclusions depart so far from methods generally accepted in the relevant professional communities that they are incapable of producing reliable or valid results (Point I.C.). Stripped of the legitimating lustre of a scientific pedigree, plaintiffs purported scientific claim of coercive persuasion is little more than a negative value judgment rendered by laypersons about the religious beliefs and practices of the Unification Church. (Point I.D.).
Singer sued the APA, and lost. Afterwards, she reworked much of the rejected material on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control into the book, Cults In Our Midst. Since the first edition of the book came out in 1995, powerful cults threatened and harassed Singer, and filed lawsuits against her. So the introduction to the revised edition explained that an account of one of the cults was deleted.
Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer died in 2003.
Cults In Our Midst is available on Amazon.com.