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Terror, Love, and Brainwashing

The Book Brigade talks to cult survivor and expert Alexandra Stein.

Used with permission of author Alexandra Stein.
Source: Used with permission of author Alexandra Stein.

From ISIS to small local cults, seemingly ordinary people are manipulated into carrying out acts that are often harmful or even dangerous. How does that happen?

What makes an individual vulnerable to a cult?

There is a very inaccurate stereotype of needy, weak people looking for cults to join. However, no one joins a cult. As terrorism scholar Martha Crenshaw put it, most people get into dangerous groups “by accident, on their way to other goals”. And cults do not want dysfunctional or unproductive people; that would be a drain on the cult’s resources. They want functional, useful people who will contribute in some way.

People come into cults through a variety of pathways and bring with them a variety of personality types. In addition, many are born into cults. But the one thing that seems to be supported by research is that new followers are more easily recruited when they are at a normal life “blip,” as Margaret Singer put it—if one is between affiliations, such as moving house, going to university, getting married or divorced or breaking up a relationship, experiencing bereavement. A person embarking on such changes may be looking for a new relationship, hobby, religious affiliation, or even a new gym (yes, there are many fitness-based cults). And all such changes can expose a person to a recruitment attempt.

But in my view, the main vulnerability factor is ignorance. A person lacking knowledge of how cults target and recruit people and the mechanisms they use to entrap people may not be able to identify a coercion attempt when targeted.

You identify a trifecta of terror, love, and brainwashing as key to cult behavior. Can you explain the intersection of the three?

The same dynamic that occurs in domestic violence also applies to cults. First a person is lured to group or person who seemingly shares their interests and concerns. They may then be subject to a kind of love-bombing, given extreme amounts of attention, which can feel flattering and seem the sign of having found a safe place. Then begins an attempt to isolate the person from friends and family. The potential recruit becomes engulfed in a new system and out of touch with their old, known network.

That paves the way for the group to engage in “terror” tactics, arousing a sense of threat, whether it’s fear of the apocalypse, fear of being criticized, fear of the outside world, or some other group-specific fear. I believe attachment theory provides a good theoretical approach for understanding brainwashing, and it holds that people run to a safe haven when they are afraid. If the group has been successful, the recruit, now having had fear instilled by the group, runs to the only safe haven available—the group itself.

What are the consequences?

There are two effects of running to the group. First, it creates a disorganized attachment bond, what Judith Herman described as a trauma bond in her book, Trauma and Recovery. It is strong bond that is difficult to break so long as the person remains isolated from alternate safe havens. Emotional and cognitive isolation are key, not necessarily physical isolation. Cults isolate followers by controlling their personal relationships and by restricting information sources to the cult.

Second, the disorganized attachment, characterized by running to the source of fear, causes dissociation. Running to the source of fear obviously doesn’t provide escape from the threat. Because it is a maladaptive way of coping with threat, the person goes into a “freeze” mode and is unable to think clearly about what is happening. This explains why perfectly intelligent people can find themselves unable to rationally view a cult they are involved with. It is literally too frightening and disorganizing to do so. The lack of alternate information and true havens undermine a follower’s cognitive processes on matters regarding the group. The cult can now do the thinking for them—the essence of brainwashing.

There are all sorts of cults; do they share familiar themes?

Cults really do come in all forms, I’ve seen everything from yoga to therapy to commercial to political and religious cults. The recruitment processes can vary, but the mechanisms of isolation, engulfment, and fear arousal are universal, and explain how groups hang on to and brainwash followers.

You yourself joined a cult. What was it like?

I joined a so-called left-wing political group—“so called” because it didn’t actually do anything to promote social justice and equality, which is what I thought I would be doing. It was only after I left that I realized it was, in fact, a cult.

Was your research made harder because of your experience?

The experience I had in a cult actually made the research easier. I knew what being in a cult felt like, so I had a lot of clues about the feelings and thoughts of a person caught in a cult. And people were willing to share their stories with me because they knew I had a similar experience and would not stigmatize them.

What does it take for people to defy cults and totalitarianism like the Cultural Revolution of Mao or the Reich of Hitler?

People who understand the mechanisms that cults use can see through them, which bolsters the ability to resist. They are often able to remain detached, to hang on—even internally—to some sense of support outside the group and also to a personal identity. They have an awareness of being manipulated, and that can help counteract the process.

What is the best way to support the family of a person who has joined a cult?

There are people who specialize in helping family members, but the foremost action is to educate yourself about cults and read the basic literature in the field. It’s best not to react impulsively. Second, it’s important to remain in contact with the cult member. The cult will be trying its best to cut outsiders off, but try to maintain a patient, non-judgmental, but gently questioning approach that supports the person’s prior personality. Criticizing the cult directly is usually counterproductive. Then begin to make a plan to help your loved one re-engage their cognitive abilities.

How and when can a family intervene?

The best time to intervene is before a recruitment attempt! Families and schools must educate their children from a young age about such dangerous relationships. In the same way that parents teach children about consent, about “good touch, bad touch,” they must educate them about the dangers of isolating, engulfing, and frightening relationships. It is so much easier to stay out of these controlling groups in the first place than to get out once trapped. Prevention efforts should focus on informing young people about manipulative leaders and groups.

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Terror, Love, and Brainwashing

Used with permission of author Alexandra Stein.
Source: Used with permission of author Alexandra Stein.
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