Overcoming the Bondage of Revictimization:
A Rational/Empirical Defense of Thought Reform
- Cultic Studies Journal
Psychological Manipulation and Society
Vol. 15, No. 2, 1998
(In Response to "Overcoming the Bondage of Victimization" By Bob and Gretchen Passantino)
cult researchers Bob and Gretchen Passantino criticize the notion that through the use of
powerful and sophisticated thought-reform techniques, some cult conversions drastically
and negatively alter some individuals lives (Passantino & Passantino, 1994). The
Passantinos assert that thought reform is an erroneous theory, even though most exit
counselors and countless professionals across disciplines use it to explain the changes
seen in cult members. The purpose of the article by the Passantinos is, they say, to
"look behind the assumptions of the mind-control model and uncover the startling
reality that cult mind-control is, at best, a distorted misnomer for cult conversion that
robs individuals of personal moral responsibility" (p. 31). They go on to say,
"While mind-control model advocates rightly point out that cults often practice
deception, emotional manipulation, and other unsavory recruitment tactics, we believe a
critical, well-reasoned examination of the evidence disproves the cult mind-control model
and instead affirms the importance of the informed, biblically based religious
commitment" (pp. 31-32).
In 1994 Christian counter-cult researchers Robert and Gretchen Passantino published a major article in Cornerstone magazine attempting to debunk the theory of cult mind-control.* Beginning with a rundown of several alleged "assumptions of mind-control" and
proceeding to numerous objections to mind-control, the authors sought to demonstrate what they consider to be the faulty basis of the mind-control model of cult recruitment and influence, as well as the incompatibility of the mind-control model with Christian theology. The present article shows that the Passantinos’ assertions are incorrect and misguided. Specifically, this article demonstrates
that mind-control is more than cult conversion; that, while mind-control does not rob people of moral responsibility, it mitigates it; and that there is no conflict between biblical theology and the reality of mind-control. We contend that theological considerations inform our understanding of the sociological and psychological destruction caused by cults. Cults distort one’s perceptions of both
natural reality (sociological and psychological) and spiritual reality. Since the former is supposed to reveal the latter, as in the Christian tradition, those interested in spiritual issues must address both sides in order to minister adequately to cultists.
*"Mind-control" is used with a hyphen in this article to be consistent with the Passantinos’ many quotes.
The Passantinos are well known and respected
evangelical writers. Consequently, their critique, which is rife with errors and
misinterpretations, disturbs us very much and calls for a detailed rebuttal. In this
article, we will show that the Passantinos' assertions are incorrect and misguided. We
will demonstrate that (1) use of mind-control, or thought reform, brings about a special
variety of conversion; (2) having been under the influence of a thought-reform program,
mind-control mitigates an individuals moral responsibility, although it does not
remove it entirely; and (3) there is no conflict between biblical theology and the reality
of mind-control.1 For us, theological considerations inform our understanding
of the sociological and psychological destruction caused by cults, although others hold
similar positions without considering theological issues. Cults distort one's perceptions
both of natural reality (sociological and psychological) and spiritual reality. In the
Christian tradition, the former is supposed to reveal the latter; therefore, those
interested in spiritual issues must address both sides in order to minister adequately to
former cult members.
The Passantinos misstate the fundamental concepts
of mind-control, then imply that many countercult workers do not support the mind-control
theory, and finally argue that the mind-control concept is counter to or incompatible with
biblical Christianity. Whether or not all, most, or only a few countercult workers support
a mind-control model is irrelevant to our critique of the Passantinos' misrepresentations.
Certainly, experience with models of psychotherapy has shown that different models can be
applied with equal effectiveness to similar situations. Therefore, there is room for
disagreement about which theoretical model is most internally consistent, parsimonious,
and consistent with empirical data. We do not claim that current mind-control models are
the end-all and be-all of countercult thinking. Indeed, we believe that this field needs
newer theoretical models that are more amenable to empirical testing. We are not so much
defending the mind-control model as we are refuting the Passantinos' misleading
interpretation of that model. If the model is to be criticized, let it be criticized for
what it really says, not for misrepresentations of what it says. We use the term
"mind-control," despite its sometimes being used in a sensationalized way,
because we believe it expresses in simple language what this dispute is about, namely, the
control (which doesnt necessarily mean "total control") of the mind by
forces outside that mind.
Exit Counseling and Postcult Treatment
The Passantinos' article begins with a
description of a concerned parent seeking help. The authors cite former
and current exit counselor Steve Hassan as stating that the average fee for exit
counseling is $3,000 plus expenses for about four days of exit counseling. That is
probably not too far off the mark. In spite of the authors' insinuation that exit
counselors make good money, few have a gross annual income of more than $35,000. Because
of the nature of their work, exit counselors must be on call virtually 24 hours a day,
like firemen and paramedics. The $3,000 to $4,000 is not much, given that an average of
one case a month is about all that is possiblemany exit counselors do not even do
that many cases. Many counselors spend much time in research and preparation, and they
must be willing to go where circumstances demand. Considering the work involved in a
counseling, we believe that the Passantinos' reaction to exit counselors'
fees is unwarranted.
The Passantinos' implied criticism of the
fees for postcult residential treatment demonstrates their complete ignorance of the
overhead and staffing costs necessary to maintain a center such as the
Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center,
where we work. If Wellspring were making as much money as the Passantinos insinuate, it
wouldn't have a history of financial crises, as did all other postcult rehabilitation
centers, of which Wellspring is the only survivor. Wellspring's weekly fee for room,
board, and a highly individualized treatment program (we rarely have more than three
clients at one time) is lower than that of some specialized psychiatric inpatient
The Passantinos write, "Of course,
there were no guarantees: some ex-cultists needed additional in-patient counseling at a
special 'recovery center'" (p. 31). This statement implies that exit counseling is
unreliable. It also ignores the reality of postcult psychological distress that calls for
professional treatment. Research (Martin, Langone, Dole, & Wiltrout, 1992) on the
psychological state of cult members before and after exit counseling demonstrates that,
despite the effectiveness of
in helping cult members make a decision to leave their cults, exit counseling does not
usually relieve the psychological distress. This is not surprising because exit counseling
is an educational intervention designed to help clients reevaluate their group
involvement, not to "recover" from it. Consequently, a client's attending a
residential treatment center after exit counseling reflects not on the exit counseling's
ineffectiveness, as the Passantinos imply, but on the psychological needs of the client
due to the aftereffects of cult involvement. Recommending postcult counseling may be
considered an ethical obligation of exit counselors, not a sign of their inadequacy.
Moreover, only a small percentage of exit-counseled clients actually seek out residential
In their book Witch Hunt, under the heading
"It's Not Always Either/Or," the Passantinos state: "Another problem
Christians often have in discerning between good and bad is the tendency to miss some of
the options" (Passantino & Passantino, 1991, p.113). Remarkably, the article that
concerns us relies on the all-or-nothing fallacy criticized by the Passantinos. They
suggest, for example, that all who subscribe to a mind-control model believe that every
cult member is completely under mind-control, and totally and always unable to think for
himself or herself.
No responsible researcher or practitioner
subscribes to the mind-control model described by the Passantinos.
Thought Reform and the Psychology of
Totalism, Robert J. Lifton wrote:
Behind this web of semantic...confusion
[regarding the definition of thought reform] lies an image of "brainwashing" as
an all-powerful, irresistible, unfathomable, and magical method of achieving total control
over the human mind. It is of course none of these things, and this loose usage makes the
word a rallying point for fear, resentment, urges toward submission, justification for
failure, irresponsible accusation, and for a wide gamut of emotional extremism (1961, p.
Cults in Our Midst,
Janja Lalich write:
Thankfully, these [thought reform] programs
do not change people permanently. Nor are they 100 percent effective. Cults are not all
alike, thought reform programs are not all alike, and not everyone exposed to specific
intense influence processes succumbs and follows the group. Some cults try to defend
themselves by saying, in effect, "See, not everyone joins or stays, so we must not be
using brainwashing techniques." Many recruits do succumb, however, and the better
organized the influence processes used, the more people will succumb (1995, p. 61).
In an essay entitled "Persuasive
Techniques in Religious Cults,"
Dr. Louis J. West wrote:
The persuasive techniques used by totalist cults to bind and exploit
the members, while not magical or infallible, are sufficiently powerful and effective to
assure the recruitment of a significant percentage of those approached, and the retention
of a significant percentage of those enlisted. (1989, p.188).
The Passantinos Assumptions of Mind-Control
In a section headed, "Assumptions of
Mind-control," the Passantinos contrast biblical apologetics with psychological
techniques. The authors suggest that postcult recovery should involve conversion, but that
the secular mind-control model concerns itself only with the recovery of precult
personality. These two notions, the biblical and the secular, cannot be reconciled,
according to the Passantinos. They assert that mind-control adherents do away with
theological concerns: "Biblical analysis and evangelism of the cults has been
overshadowed by allegedly 'value neutral' social science descriptions and therapy-oriented
counseling" (p. 32). This all-or-nothing dichotomy is not characteristic of the
program we offer at Wellspring, nor that of many others.
The Passantinos list, summarize, and critique
eight categories that they say represent "the principal assumptions of the cult
mind-control model" (p. 32). Before addressing the details of their critique, we want
to state that the Passantinos' eight-assumption model is inaccurate in so many respects as
to be useless as a summary of mind-control models, although aspects of their summary are
valid. Our critique will attempt to show what is false and what is correct in their
ability to control the mind supersedes that of the best military 'brainwashers'"
(p. 32). In a footnote, the Passantinos mention two factors offered by proponents of the
mind-control theory to account for cults' success: "(1) greater levels of
sophistication, technology, and psychological knowledge; and (2) the addition of
to the practice" (p. 40). Not mentioned, however, is one factor we believe is perhaps
more significant than either of these two¾ namely, that in military brainwashing the
subjects were unwilling participants, and, in fact, antagonists of the
brainwashers (at least in the most well-known instance of the brainwashing of Korean War
POWs); whereas in cultic mind-control, generally the subjects are favorably
disposed toward the cult members and, indeed, toward the teachings with which they are
being indoctrinated. This factor must not be ignored or minimized. Moreover, the
indoctrination of cult members is so subtle and deceptive that they often do not even
realize they are objects of persuasion, unlike POWs who were painfully aware of their
captors' desire to change them. So, it really is not at all surprising that cultic
mind-control is more successful than the "brainwashing" inflicted on POWs. We
will elaborate on this point when we criticize the Passantinos' objection to the
"Cult recruits become unable to think or make
decisions for themselves" (p. 32). This is another example of all-or-nothing
thinking, which the Passantinos have criticized in other works. We reject the implied
assertion that we and our colleagues in this field accept this statement as it is written.
We are well aware that many cult members do retain the ability to think for
themselves in many areas of life, even in matters religious. We have always recognized
that there are many degrees of mind-control, depending on numerous factors, including, but
not limited to (1) the type and severity of any precult spiritual or psychological
problems; (2) the degree of divergence of the cult's teachings and practices from the cult
member's prior religious affiliation; (3) the intensity of the cultic indoctrination; (4)
the degree to which the cult severs the cult member from his or her previous connections
(family, friends, activities, etc.); and (5) the kind and degree of any corrective or
disciplinary measures exercised by the cult on members who step out of line.
Having said this, we hasten to add that during the
12 years of Wellspring's operation we have worked with many ex-cult members who did
have very serious difficulty thinking for themselves and making decisions. Their problems
cannot be glibly dismissed as "precult problems" that presumably had nothing to
do with the cultic experience. One girl who came to Wellspring from a well-known
"shepherding movement" would sit at the dinner table and wait until she received
permission to eat any item on her plate before she would do so.
"Cult recruits assume 'cult' personalities
and subsume their core personalities" (p. 32). This statement conforms to clinical
experience. For example, most ex-cult members who come to Wellspring recognize this very
thing about themselves. They report that while they were in the cult they became more
aggressive or more passive, more self-assured or more confused, more judgmental of others
or more arrogant. Some have told us that they lost touch with their own feelings and
became emotionally numb, while putting on a happy front when with parents or noncult
friends. We have seen these things ourselves in ex-cultists, and we have witnessed the
dramatic changes when these individuals reverted to their normal, precult selves. But
again, we would acknowledge degrees of this "personality replacement." Not every
cult member changes to the same degree; and, in fact, some might already have a
personality that meshes with the cult, and so they will not change much, if at all. The
assumption the Passantinos uphold for ridicule is, in our opinion, generally valid, unless
it is interpreted in an all-or-nothing way.
"Cultists cannot decide to leave their
cults" (p. 32). We do not know anyone who would make such a blanket statement. It is
manifestly contradicted by the hundreds, if not thousands, of former cult members who have
left their cults of their own volition. What we would assert, however, is that many cult
members find it difficult to leave the cult, even when they may want to. Often this is due
to fear of the threatened consequences of leaving (e.g., forsaking God, being condemned to
hell, suffering divine wrath in the form of accidents or disease). Even the thought,
"What if the cult leader really is a prophet of God or the
Messiah?" can hold a member in a cult long after the bloom has faded. One female
member of the
Branch Davidians being interviewed for an Australian television broadcast was
asked, "Do you believe David Koresh is the Messiah?" Her response as she smiled
up at the camera: "I hope so." She was one who stayed and perished in the final
The Passantinos contend that those who hold the
mind-control model believe that "successful intervention must break the mind-control,
find the core personality, and return the individual to his/her pre-cult status" (p.
32). We would qualify this assertion by acknowledging that even the most abusive
organizations have some redeeming qualitiesfew are all bad. In cults it is possible,
for example, to learn the value of giving oneself to a cause, to learn the benefits of
hard work, of getting along with others in a working environment, and so on. Further, we
would emphasize that if the cult in question is a Bible-based organization on the order of
the "shepherding" movement, or what we refer to as a TACO (a totalist aberrant
Christian organization), which teaches orthodox biblical doctrine while committing
emotional, spiritual, and behavioral abuses, then clearly not everything of the cult needs
to be stripped away. Whatever was accurate, orthodox, and healthy can remain, while the
inaccurate, aberrational, and unhealthy must be excised. Probably no cult (except some
satanic cults) is all bad; therefore one of the most important, and difficult,
tasks of the counselor is helping the ex-member winnow out the bad from the good.
"Psychology and sociology are used to explain
recruitment, membership, and disaffection" (p. 32). Another blanket
statement, this is worded so as to exclude other disciplines as sources for explanations,
specifically theology. While many secular proponents of the mind-control model might
reject the role of theology in seeking such explanations, we do not, nor do other
evangelical proponents of the mind-control model with whom we are familiar. Later in the
article the Passantinos (p. 32) quote from an official description in an article in
Wellsprings newsletter entitled, "Wellspring's Approach to Cult Rehab":
Paul Martin asserts that cult mind-control renders
its victims virtually unresponsible for their actions or beliefs: "The process
whereby he or she was drawn into the cult was a subtle but powerful force over which he or
she had little or no control and therefore they need not feel either guilt or shame
because of their experience" (Wellspring Messenger, 4(5), p.1.
While the Wellspring statement might be slightly
overstated, the Passantinos overstate it further in their summary. By itself, the
Wellspring statement could be broadly interpreted, as the Passantinos have chosen to do.
However, the original context is concerned specifically with joining a cult. 2
It was not a blanket statement concerning anything and everything cult members may have
done after they joined. Regardless, our experience in treating more than 400 former
cultists and interviewing hundreds more indicates that most people who join cults think
they're joining a good group, a moral group, a healthy group. But this is largely because
they have not been afforded full information about the group they are joining. We would
agree that those who join cults are "guilty" of not asking all the right
questions, of not examining the cults claims thoroughly enough against the records
of history and Scripture, of not adequately applying the rules of logic to the
groups teachings and explanations, and of not having an adequate knowledge of
coercive persuasion techniques. In other words, cult recruits are "guilty" of
allowing themselves to be deceived. But is that a sin? Should we rebuke the victim of a
con artist for allowing himself to be victimized? Do we blame the battered wife for
falling in love with and marrying a batterer?
We feel it is crucial to distinguish between true
guilt and false guilt. Cult members are constantly made to feel guilty for
actions and thoughts which neither society nor the Bible would consider sinful. In such
cases, the guilt is false and one needs to understand and accept that and move beyond it.
(The Passantinos imply as much when they refer later to "unscriptural feelings of
guilt" [p. 33].) Where truly sinful, immoral, or illegal actions have been committed,
these actions need to be acknowledged and owned by the perpetrators. We insist, however,
that to the extent that such actions are committed while under the influence of
mind-control techniques, or a thought-reform program, the perpetrator must be held less
Under mind-control a man may be persuaded to
believe or do things that would have normally violated his conscience. His conscience may
tell him that an action or belief is wrong, but what the cult leader has persuaded him of
has so strongly influenced him that it may override his conscience. He may be led to
believe that the promptings of his conscience are really of his "lower nature,"
"of the flesh," and that the mission of the group is of a "higher
purpose," that the thoughts of his conscience are doubts that show lack of faith or
signs of rebellion. Thus, he may still have a conscience, but through the powerful
influence of the group he has reinterpreted it, or reframed his moral outlook.
The Passantinos seem unable to conceive of
noncoercive mind-control that does allow for some measure of "free will."
No one drags people into a cult. They do join freely most of the time. When they don't,
it's the rare exception rather than the rule. The point here is not whether these people
are acting as free, volitional, rational beings. The point is they don't join a cultthat
is, they don't see the group as a cult. They don't see the fine print because in most
cases, it is kept from them. The prevalence of such perceptual and judgmental errors in
all areas of life is why we have laws regarding defective products, "truth in
advertising," and fraud. It is also why for centuries the law has recognized the
concept of undue influence. The same principles hold here.
The Passantinos do not seem to realize that human
beings operate by certain laws of human behavior. Consider the case of a Christian college
student who goes out and buys a used car, considering herself to be very responsible.
Later, she finds out that the car is not as "perfect" as the salesman told her
it was. In fact, it throws a rod on her way to work. She goes back to try to have the car
fixed, but the salesman informs her that the warranty is also not exactly what he told her
when she bought the car. Now, the unfortunate girl is left with a lemon on her hands. The
church would not castigate her as having some sort of spiritual problem because of this
plight, would it?
If the same girl would go out and start attending
a Bible study that later turned out to be a
"twig," then the Passantinos would put a spiritual twist on it, impugning her
motives or her spiritual state for leading her into a "heretical" Bible study
group. But if she buys a car that breaks down, the Passantinos would, we suspect, hold her
innocent. There seems to be a double standard here.
One other point regarding the Wellspring statement
quoted above by the Passantinos: by broadly interpreting the statement, they have
misrepresented us. The senior author of this article [PRM] testified in the criminal case
of a cult member who participated in the killing of five people3. Martin and
his colleagues in this case did not argue that the cult member was innocent and need not
feel guilt or shame. They argued that the young man was guilty. The defendant was Danny
Kraft, Jr., who had been a member of a small cult led by
Lundgren, who killed a family of five in Kirtland, Ohio.4
Nevertheless, in this case the defendant's attorney maintained that although Mr. Kraft was
guilty, there were mitigating circumstances¾ namely, that Kraft was under the influence
of Lundgren through a process of mind-control. Therefore, Kraft was not acting entirely as
a free, moral agent because he was suffering from a mental disorder. In other words, Kraft
was made to believe something that was not true, namely, that Lundgren was the prophet of
God, and, thus, whatever he said was divinely inspired. The court unequivocally concurred
that the techniques used by Lundgren were those of mind-control. The court agreed that
Kraft did indeed suffer a dissociative disorder, identified by the DSM-III-R and DSM-IV as
scientific. Kraft was sentenced to many years in prison, but his sentence was lighter than
it would have been had mind-control not been seen as a mitigating circumstance.
The Passantinos attempt (p. 33) to strengthen
their argument by quoting Hassan:
Hassan recognizes that the cult mind-control model
(which he has adopted) is incompatible with the traditional philosophical and Christian
view of man as a responsible moral agent: "First of all, accepting that unethical
mind-control can affect anybody challenges the age-old philosophical notion (the one on
which our current laws are based) that man is a rational being, responsible for,
and in control of, his every action. Such a world view does not allow for any concept of
mind-control" (Hassan, 1988).
The problem here is that Hassan is simply wrong,
and so is the Passantinos' attempt to attribute Hassan's error to all advocates of the
thought-reform model. First, our current laws do recognize diminished capacity in
the commission of crime as exculpatory, as it recognizes undue influence in the civil
arena. Second, the biblical worldview also recognizes exculpation by reason of diminished
capacity due to mental underdevelopment (Dt. 1:39); lack of knowledge (Luke 12:36-48) or
demonization (Mt. 8:28-34; Ac. 16:16-185). So, neither Western, secular
philosophy nor Judeo-Christian doctrine views man as always fully rational and
responsible for his actions. In addition, the apostle Paul writes, "You foolish
Galatians, who has bewitched you?" (Gal. 3:1, New American Standard Bible).
Translated, the word "bewitched," baskaino, means "bewitch,
as with the 'evil eye'" (Bauer, Arndt, & Gingrich, 1979, p. 137) and "to
bring evil on one by feigned praise or an evil eye, to charm, bewitch one, hence, of
those who lead away others into error by wicked arts." (Thayer, 1972, p.98). It is
doubtful that in the Galatians reference Paul is expressing belief that the Christians actually
had the "evil eye" directed at them. However, in conjunction with the word
"foolish" (anoetos = not thinking or mindless), it seems evident that
Paul recognizes that the Galatians had been manipulated to a point where they were no
longer thinking clearly. Thus, the concept of mind-control may apply to the situation
described by Paul, or at least to quantitative extensions of the Galatians' problem.
Assumptions Seven and Eight
We accept assumptions seven and eight as written,
but reject what the Passantinos infer from these assumptions: "7. Religious
conversion and commitment may be termed mind-control if it meets certain psychological and
sociological criteria, regardless of its doctrinal or theological standards"; and
"8. The psychological and sociological standards, which define mind-control, are not
absolute, but fall in a relative, subjective continuum from 'acceptable' social and/or
religious affiliation to 'unacceptable'" (p. 32).
The Passantinos conclude this section by saying,
"According to most cult mind-control model advocates, no one is immune to the right
mind-control tactics used at the right time. Anyone is susceptible" (p. 32). After
quoting Hassan, the authors quote from Martins book, Cult-Proofing Your Kids:
"But the truth of the matter is, virtually anyone can get involved in a cult under
the right circumstances... Regardless of one's spiritual or psychological health, whether
one is weak or strong, cultic involvement can happen to anyone" (Martin, 1993, pp.
Claiming to state the views of mind-control model
proponents, the Passantinos write, "Cult mind-control must be distinguished from
or persuasion. A main distinguishing characteristic at the core of mind-control is the
idea that the individual becomes unable to make autonomous personal choices, not simply
that his or her choices have been predicated on something false" (p. 32).
This paragraph again reveals the authors'
fundamental misunder-standing of the model as propounded by most of those who hold it.
Mind-control advocates do not deny that cult members make choices; rather, the advocates
assert that these choices result from a systematic, intense, and prolonged program of
"deception, influence, [and] persuasion." Mind-control is not something
qualitatively different from deception, influence, and persuasion because it subsumes all
of these. It is an extension of these processes and others (e.g., lack of information,
fear of considering certain choices, and perceptual narrowing due to dissociative
processes such as prolonged singing, chanting, tongue speaking, meditating, listening to
charismatic speakers, etc.). This is a crucial point. It is not either deception or
mind-control. Mind-control involves deception and other processes that affect making
choicesthat is, the cult member, and on occasion even the recruit, is gradually
manipulated to the point where other options are no longer considered viable.
Objection: The Brainwashing Connection
In a section entitled "Objection: The
Brainwashing Connection," the Passantinos allege that mind-control advocates
demonstrate a "contradictory embracing and rejecting of the brainwashing
connection" (p. 33). According to the Passantinos, mind-control advocates say that
the early methods of mind-control were ineffective compared to later methods, which
require less coercion and employ techniques such as hypnosis. The Passantinos write:
"However, it stretches one's credulity to
believe that what highly trained and technologically supported CIA, Russian, Korean, and
Chinese experts could not accomplish under extremes of mental, emotional, and physical
abuse, self-styled modern messiahs like David Koresh
(high school dropout), Charles Manson (grade school dropout), and Hare
Krishna founder Prabhupada (self-educated) accomplished on a daily basis and
on a massive scale with control methods measurably inferior to those of POW camp
torturers." (p. 33).
However, the Passantinos' quotation from Hassan
two paragraphs earlier (p. 33) responds to this objection. Hassan points out that
is more subtle and sophisticated. Its perpetrators are regarded
as friends or peers, so the person is much less defensive. He unwittingly participates by
cooperating with his controllers and giving them private information that he does not know
will be used against him. The new belief system is internalized into a new identity
structure" (Hassan, 1988, pp. 55, 56).
The subtlety of mind-control is the key to its
effectiveness, and "love bombing" is one key to its subtlety; the overwhelming
"friendliness" of the cult recruiter tends to disengage the potential recruit's
defenses, catching him off guard, and luring him into the net. Despite the ridicule
expressed by the Passantinos and others, the fact is that some contemporary cults are
indeed able to control members more effectively than did the CIA and other intelligence
If those who heap ridicule on this assertion
studied the early "brainwashing" literature more closely they might understand
that their criticism is unfounded because it is based on the false assumption that early
instances of brainwashing depended on physical coercion. On the contrary, much of the
early brainwashing literature concerned situations involving civilians. Chen (1960), for
example, amply documents that half a million Chinese Christians signed pledges of
allegiance to Mao. (Was it mere coincidence that so many "weak-willed"
Christians happened to live in China at that time?) Lifton's best-known research dealt
with the effects of thought reform practiced in Chinese Communist revolutionary colleges
(Lifton, 1961). There was no physical restraint or confinement in those environments.
There was very little overt coercion, and yet there was massive thought reform. Schein and
his colleagues also found that the Communists effectively used thought reform without
using physical restraint or coercion (Schein, Schneir, & Barker, 1961). In fact, Segal
(1957) demonstrated that there was an inverse correlation between threat and physical
abuse and the degree of compliance on the part of American POWs in Korea. Testifying
before a congressional panel, he stated that "70 percent of all the repatriated Army
PW's [sic] made at least one contribution to the enemy's propaganda effort (p.89)."
The Passantinos, Bromley and Shupe, and others
have misunderstood the mind-control model in a fundamental and vital way. Bromley and
Shupe, for example, ridicule what they describe as claims that "such rapid
transformation can routinely be accomplished by neophytes against an individual's
will" (Bromley and Shupe, 1989, pp. 325, 326). But this is a patently false
representation of mind-control models, even some of the less sophisticated models. The
transformation that cults bring about is not against an individual's will. He no
longer sees things as he once did, he does not have adequate information to make an
informed choice, and he has been manipulated emotionally to make the choice presented to
him by the cult. The cult recruit is brought to the point where he either gives up his own
will in order to be taught and directed by someone (the cult leader) who knows better than
he, or he "wills" what the leader wants because the member's perceptions and
judgments have been changed as a result of a series of manipulations. As former
Children of God
member Rick Seelhoff said in "Thy Will Be Done"
(Moore, 1980). "I wanted to put myself over onto someone that knew better than I
did... I willed to not will."
The authors dismiss hypnosis as a factor in cult
involvement in toto. They miss an important point in their own references. In their
notes (p. 40, n., 5) the Passantinos quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Altogether then hypnosis should not be considered
as a technique for achieving supernormal performance or control. Rather it is a
collaborative enterprise in which the inner experience of the subject can be dramatically
altered (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, and Vol. 9).
The dramatic alteration of inner experience is
precisely what cults hope to effect by their efforts. A predictable internal experience
can be induced on willing participants, and then cosmic, supernatural, or spiritual
significance can be ascribed to it. Thus, what is actually a physiological process takes
on a cosmic perspective. This is essentially what Lifton called "mystical
We further suggest that mystical manipulation is a
pathway to the other seven criteria listed by Lifton. Appealing to the initial event of
dramatically altered "inner experience" can then enhance control. Cult
recruiters, for example, tell their prospective converts to ask God for a "sign"
as to whether their movement is the true path to enlightenment or their church the true
church. Those who see the "divine light" or receive the "burning in the
bosom" as a result of their earnest prayer easily interpret it as the sought-for
"sign." But they are not aware of how their internal experiences have been
manipulated by outside events.
Objection: The Deterministic Fault
The Passantinos' false argument that the
concept of mind-control is counter to biblical Christianity has been addressed earlier,
but we believe their argument deserves additional discussion.
Part of the marvelous power of the human
mind is its ability to analyze information and make value judgments about that
information. However, as with electronic "minds" (computers), the human
minds conclusions are only as good as the information it receives. When individuals
receive erroneous information about a subject in the absence of correct information about
that same subject, they will make erroneous judgments.
Persons can also discount their own
knowledge and abilities in favor of other persons believed to be more competent. In such
cases, individuals will tend to reject conflicting data, not because it is illogical or
fails to correlate with previous experience, but because it does not line up with the
external "mind" they have "freely decided" to trust (what philosophers
call "argument from authority"). If the authority is incorrect, these
individuals once again base their decisions on false information and make incorrect
In both of these situations, one could
argue that these individuals freedom has been compromised. They may be free to
decide, but how meaningful is that freedom when the information on which they base their
decision is incorrect, or even deliberately falsified by someone seeking to control them?
Is the false information baseespecially when it is deliberately concocteda
mitigating circumstance in evaluating moral responsibility? Would Adam and Eve have been
as guilty for eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil if God had never told
them to avoid that tree? And would they have been guiltier if there had been no tempter,
if they had merely said to God, "You're not telling me what to do!"? The
Passantinos do not seem to take such nuances into account when evaluating the moral
responsibility of cultists, especially with regard to the mind-control model.
The Passantinos state that "many cults
have made deceptive claims, used faulty logic, misrepresented their beliefs, burdened
their followers with unscriptural feelings of guilt, and sought to bring people into
financial or moral compromise to unethical demands. Yet it does not necessarily or
automatically follow that these pressures, practices, or demands remove an individual's
personal responsibility for his or her actions" (p. 33). The key word in this
statement is "remove," an all-or-nothing word: either something is removed or it
is not. The more appropriate word would be "mitigate." Deception, group
pressure, and so on may not remove all personal responsibility; but they do diminish it.
Choices that "have been predicated on something false" (p. 32) are not truly
free choices. The outcome is predetermined by the skill of the information provider, not
the ethical or even rational faculties of the agent making the "choice." What
sense can be made of "free agency" when choices are based on false data? If
"free choices" result in agents being cut off from any further source of
information for a lifetime, are the agents free in any meaningful sense? Further, in what
sense can agents make a free choice to return to a life in which they will continue to be
deceived? Might the agents capacity to make informed choices (their minds and wills)
be under the control of those who control the information? If agents respond to personal
experience or outside data on the basis of false information about the consequences of
certain actions, are they making free choices when they reject true data on the basis of
lies? In what sense are such persons truly responsible for their decisions?
We are reminded of several biblical
passages. While hanging on the cross, Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they
know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Jesus also said, "That slave who knew his
master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many
lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will
receive but few" (Luke 12:47-48a, New American Standard Bible; see also Mt.
11:20-24). In other words, the moral responsibility taught in the Scriptures is based on
how much one knows. If one has been deceived, if one has been pressured, if one has been
denied access to information, or if the truth has been made to seem like a lie, then one
is either held completely guiltless or regarded as only partly culpable. We have yet to
meet one person in 12 years of working in this field full-time who says, "I knew what
I was doing; I knew I was joining a cult. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway."
That is exactly what the Passantinos are
attempting to force the ex-cult member to admit: "I knew it was wrong." But if
the ex-cult member denies that he knew it was wrong, the Passantinos are faced with the
unfortunate dilemma of saying, "Either you are lying or you're deceived." It is
difficult to accuse tens of thousands of cult members from hundreds, if not thousands, of
groups of lying. So, the Passantinos must conclude that at least some of these ex-members
were deceived. Acknowledging the diminished, though not nullified, moral responsibility of
these ex-members would be consistent with common sense and Scripture. However, in many
cases the deceit is so cleverly contrived and engineered that only God himself could see
the intrigue. But it seems that the Passantinos are so single-minded in their desire to
discredit the mind-control model that they turn it into a vulnerable all-or-nothing
strawman that compels them to advocate an all-or-nothing view of human culpability, at
least with regard to cults. In our view, their position is unbiblical and unkind.
The Passantinos' position, by way of
extrapolation, would hold, as do some New Age trainings, every battered wife responsible
for ending up married to an abusive husband. To be consistent, the Passantinos would have
to argue that these women knew what they were getting into. The senior author [PRM] of
this article has explained the dynamics of thought reform to hundreds of former cult
members and asked them, "Did you know that this was what your group was doing when
you decided to join?" The ex-members have all answered, "No." They are then
asked, "Would you have joined if you knew they practiced thought reform?" Again
their answers were all "No."
The Passantinos' assertion that there is no
diminished responsibility without the gun-at-the-head, strawman view of mind-control that
they advance runs counter to biblical and legal traditions of fraud. Lack of knowledge
has, throughout the history of law, been used to reduce a person's culpability, and the
same is true in the case of cultic deception and mind-control. It seems to us that the
Passantinos have confused bearing responsibility with facing consequences. An investor who
is conned into committing resources to a fraudulent enterprise must face the consequence
that those resources may never be recovered. The investor is in every sense a victim of
the con, even if in hindsight one can identify events or choices that may have adumbrated
the coming con. It is, however, not the investor but the con artist who is morally and
legally responsible for the investor's flawed decision.
In the current legal climate, a con artist
who cheats investors out of money faces prison, fines, and/or court-ordered restitution;
yet, a cult leader who precipitates wrongful death by discouraging or prohibiting medical
care on the basis of false or misleading information faces no legal penalty. It seems that
the Passantinos support this unfortunate state of affairs and would absolve the cult
leader of his or her responsibility, laying it completely at the feet of the follower. The
injustice of the present legal system, we hope, will eventually be rectified in spite of
such reasoning, but the psychological damage caused by blaming the victim will undoubtedly
Objection: The Double Bind
The Passantinos section on the double bind,
or circular reasoning, is rather curious. The Passantinos assert that the exit counselor
provides no proof to the cultist that his or her group uses coercive persuasion. The
authors say, "If you leave the cult as a result of
counseling), that proves you were under mind-control. If you return to
the cult, that proves you are under mind-control" (p. 34).
This quote presumes that exit counselors don't do
any homework before taking on a case, that they simply come into a situation and say,
"Yup, it's mind-control." Before seeing a cult member, exit counselors who are
thorough will make a reasonable determination that the group member really is in a group
that uses thought-reform techniques. Those who are not subjected to mind-control, even
though the family may think they are (e.g., a family complains that their son in
Bahai no longer goes to Christian church services and therefore must be under
mind-control) will not be considered for an exit counseling. Thus, competent exit
counselors do not place group members in a double bind because the counselors determine
that exit counseling is appropriate before seeing the person. We are not saying that no
exit counselor views every unorthodox group as characterized by mind-control, or that such
a person would not place group members in a double bind. We are saying that the exit
counselors we have worked with demonstrate much more discernment and integrity than the
Passantinos give them credit for.
Thus, the Passantinos are mistaken when they say,
"The standard for determining mind-control is not some objective evaluation of mental
health or competency, but merely the assumed power of mind-control the critic accords to
the cult" (p. 34). The Passantinos seem to overlook the fact that exit counselors
arrive on the scene literally with suitcases full of evidence. Responsible exit counselors
will have documentation on the practices of the group and how those practices relate to
principles of mind-control. Such documentation may take the form of personal testimonies
of former members of the group, of relatives of members or former members, or of law
enforcement officials or other agency personnel who have investigated the group or
otherwise had dealings with it. The documentation may be from news reports on the
activities of the group or the writings of mental health professionals. Exit counselors
will also have a history of how the cult members personality has changed since
joining the cult. Exit counselors will note the member's reactions to their presentation
of information about the group and its practices. For example, the cult member may meet
contrary information with a response such as, "All this stuff is just a bunch of lies
of the devil." An experienced exit counselor will show the cult member that such
remarks really do not settle the issue of whether or not the information is correct. The
exit counselor will challenge the cult member to examine the evidence, to put the evidence
to the test of veracity. Although one might challenge the persuasiveness of the exit
counselor's evidence, fair-mindedness demands that their competence and diligence be
respected. Exit counselorsat least the competent and ethical onesare not the
unthinking, hired guns that the Passantinos make them out to be.
The remaining part of this section in the
Passantinos article has to do with definitional issues. Here the Passantinos do two
things. First, they demonstrate that the network of cult critics disagree about how best
to define terms such as "mind-control" and "cult." This is true. Their
discussion of Enroth (1977, 1992) and certain contributors to Langone's (1993)
Recovery from Cults
(Zimbardo, Andersen, & Galanti) demonstrates simply that different scholars in the
field conceptualize the issues somewhat differently from Singer, Martin, and others. None
of us tries to enforce a "party line." And, as noted previously, theoretical
clarification and refinement is a need in this field. However, these differing
perspectives do not negate a common base, a common recognition that certain groups do
things to some people that seriously diminish their informed consent and seriously violate
a number of generally accepted ethical precepts.
The second point the Passantinos make, however, is
way off the mark. They say:
A definition of mind-control that removes its
involuntary component is intrinsically at odds with the prevailing teachings of Singer,
Hassan, Martin, and others that cult victims are unable to think for themselves or make
decisions. Instead, it is more in agreement with the case we have been arguing that
cult members are capable of independent thought and rational choice-making, but because of
factual and spiritual deception, faulty presuppositions, fallacious reasoning, and
improper religious commitments, they make unwise choices and adopt false beliefs instead
Again, there is a little truth mixed in with error
here. We reiterate: we do not believe Singer, Hassan, and others hold this robotic view of
mind-control that the Passantinos attribute to them. Certainly, we do not. Further,
the Passantinos' description of cult dynamics in the above quote fails to recognize that
through deception and seductive, specious reasoning cult members have been taught that
"independent thought and rational choice" are "rebellious,"
"factious," "divisive," and/or "of the devil." This is not
to say that cult members are totally incapable of independent thought. On the
contrary, in many areas, most members are still able to make their own decisions; but
typically these are areas in which the cult has not made rules or pronouncements. We would
also expand the Passantinos' description of cult dynamics to be more specifically
applicable to spiritually legalistic or restrictive cults. Such groups present a form of
religious legalism (rule keeping) which, through cunning and clever reasoning, a
"spiritual leader" is able to persuade his followers is the will of God. The
cult member, convinced that this is "of God," may be driven by guilt and fear to
the point of exhaustion. Such an environment can lead to severe depression, anxiety, or
even, in some cases, nervous breakdown and attempted or successful suicide.6
In addition, how do the Passantinos know
that solely spiritual deception, faulty presuppositions, fallacious reasoning, improper
religious commitments, and unwise choices cause cultists problems? If a person joins
a cult, according to the Passantinos, he has been spiritually deceived and has made an
improper religious decision. Well, how do the authors know? Have they talked to him? The
Passantinos may respond, "Well, yeah, we did, but he denies he's deceived." So,
the Passantinos could end up in circular reasoning themselves. If the ex-cult member admits
he was spiritually deceived, then the Passantinos are right. But if he denies he
was spiritually deceived, he does so, according to the Passantinos, because he is
The Brainwashing Evidence
In the section on brainwashing, the authors argue
that all the relevant literature shows that brainwashing is not particularly effective.
This argument is very odd. Are the Passantinos saying there is no such thing as
brainwashing? Are they saying there is brainwashing, but it does not work very well? Or
are they saying, "Brainwashing does work, but only on a few people"? It seems
that the Passantinos are suddenly jumping from presuppositional arguments against
brainwashing of any kind to admission on empirical grounds that there is brainwashing of
an involuntary, robotic, Manchurian-Candidate type, but that it doesn't happen very often.
Which way do they want it? Do they discount brainwashing on biblical and other
presuppositions? If so, then they can't allow for even rare cases of brainwashing on the
basis of empirical evidence.
They go on to state that the Koreans and Chinese
used extreme forms of physically coercive persuasion, but very few prisoners changed their
basic worldviews and commitments. However, the footnote attached to this remark (n. 36)
quotes psychologist Gary Collins as writing,
Fewer than 15% of the prisoners in Korean
detention camps collaborated with the enemy. When the war was over and prisoners were
given their freedom, only a few chose to remain in Communist China. Of these, several
later rejected the Communist way of life and returned home (Collins, 1969, p. 148).
The figure of 15% seems to us, however, to be
quite high, especially when the standard is collaboration. Apparently, the U.S. military
was sufficiently impressed by these results that soldiers in Vietnam were warned not to
resist, but instead were told to do whatever it took to stay alive.7 Moreover,
others report much higher figures related to collaboration.
In addition to Segal's (1957) assertion that
"70 percent of all the repatriated Army PW's [sic]" collaborated in some way
with the enemy, Hinkle and Wolff, in their testimony at hearings before the Permanent
Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations of the U. S.
Senate (1956), when asked, "What percentage [of POWs] confess in some manner?"
agreed that the figure would be "well over 90 percent" and that "it would
be a very small group who do not sign some form of protocol, which is called a
confession..." (1956, p.20).
Further, what about the huge numbers who were
radically transformed in the Chinese revolutionary colleges mentioned earlier? What about
the large segments of the Chinese Christian community that succumbed to Mao? What about
the classified military experiments that were discontinued because those conducting them
could not devise effective means to resist brainwashing?8
Why would mothers in Iran during the
Ayatollah Khomeini's regime send their young children into the minefields to explode mines
so that the soldiers could then cross the fields? History is replete with examples of
horrendously irrational behavior that people engage in when under the influence of
mind-control. We have talked to many women who, while members of the Children
of God, willingly engaged in "flirty fishing" (using sex to recruit
new members) at the urging of their leaders. When they came out of the group's mind-set
they said, "I just can't believe I did that. I wasn't in my right mind." Any
historian can document that some of the most radical things that have ever been done in
history, especially current history, were done by men who had put masses of people under
their control. We only have to look at Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Khomeini. The senior
author of this article has had hundreds of desperate parents tell him, "Our son isn't
the person we once knew. We don't know what has happened to him." If mind-control
does not exist or is ineffective, we would hate to see something that is effective.
The Passantinos state further that the Korean and
Chinese "techniques of torture, beatings, and group dynamics," and the CIA
experiments with drugs, all failed to produce even one potential Manchurian Candidate, and
that the CIA program was finally abandoned. The Passantinos have chosen the most infamous
examples of failed attempts of using mind-control, and then try to use them to debunk the
effectiveness of all methods of mind-control. This seems like another instance of
the Passantinos' violating one of their own cautions from their book Witch Hunt,
namely, "Similar Does Not Prove Same" (Passantino & Passantino, 1991). They
have failed to take account of the GAP study (Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry,
1957, pp. 272-274) of downed American pilots in Korea and how many of those were led to
believe that the US was engaging in germ warfarewell over 50% of the American pilots
not only signed statements that America was engaging in germ warfare over Korea, but they
also believed it. We do not consider a 50+% success rate ineffective. If the
Passantinos are going to cite the brainwashing literature, they should cite all of it,
including the studies that point to the remarkable successes of some mind-control efforts.
The Passantinos say, "Some mind-control model
advocates bring up studies that they feel provide objective data in support of their
theories. Such is not the case. These studies are generally flawed in several areas: (1)
Frequently the respondents are not from a wide cross section of ex-members" (p. 37).
First of all, invoking methodological purity is a common ploy for avoiding the real issue
in psychological discussion. Psychology is not nuclear physics. It is rare to find fields
in which all the relevant research uses representative samples. That is why replication of
empirical studies is so important and also why clinical findings are respected, despite
their limitations. These methodological problems are compounded by ethical constraints on
research (one cannot study the effects of trauma, for example, by randomly assigning one
group of subjects to a bus crash and another group to a pleasant bus ride) that are
especially applicable to the field of cultic studies. Nevertheless, a growing body of
empirical literature and a huge amount of clinical experience supports the primary
contention of mind-control advocates namely, that cult involvement causes psychological
distress to many if not most cult members (Galanter, 1989; Langone, 1993; MacDonald, 1988;
Martin et al. 1992; Yeakley, 1988).
The Passantinos also say that it is "almost
impossible to gather data from the same individuals before cult affiliation, during cult
affiliation, and after cult disaffection" (p. 37). This is true, but it does not mean
that psychological researchers are helpless. The same problem existed with regard to the
study of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam vets. There was no way to
study them before they suffered PTSD; yet some excellent studies have been done using
regression analysis (Winocur, Whitney, Sorenson, Vaughn, & Foy, 1997).
Objection: Low Recruitment Rates
The Passantinos raise an objection to the
mind-control model on the basis of "low recruitment rates." They write:
Studies show that the vast majority of young
people approached by new religious movements (NRMs) never join despite heavy recruitment
tactics... Eileen Barker
documents that out of 1,000 people persuaded by the Moonies
to attend one of their overnight programs in 1979, 90% had no further involvement. Only 8%
joined for more than one week and less than 4% remained members in 1981, two years later
In our opinion, the fact that almost 4% stayed in
the group after one overnight program is remarkable! That is amazing compared to Billy
Graham's crusades in which only about 1% of the attendees heed the altar call. And those
who do heed the altar call return to their families, jobs, and personal lives. They do not
become full-time missionaries like the 4% who join the Moonies after a brief workshop
That the Passantinos seem impressed by Barker's
finding reveals again their lack of understanding of mind-control. No responsible
mind-control advocate ever said that mind-control is 100% effective on everyone, just as
no doctor ever said that Tylenol is ineffective because not everyone who takes it finds
relief from headache. Are the Passantinos saying that mind-control must be 100% effective
in order to exist at all? Are they again shifting from a presuppositional position, which
says that mind-control cannot exist because people can't lose their free will, to an
empirical argument that says mind-control does exist, people do lose their
free will, but it doesn't work very well because only a very few people succumb? What do
they really wish to say?
Low recruitment rates demonstrate that a
mind-control environment interacts with idiosyncrasies within the person or his situation,
not that mind-control does not exist. A net will only catch fish bigger than the net's
holes. If a majority of fish pass through the net safely, one does not conclude that the
net does not exist. Mind-control is defined by its conditions, not its results, just as a
net is defined by its structure, not how many fish it catches. The power of mind-control
is revealed in what it does to those whom it captures, not by the number that it captures.
Recruitment creates the opportunity for mind-control to occur. Recruitment, though it may
be very manipulative, is not necessarily a full-fledged mind-control program (Zablocki,
Objection: High Attrition Rates
The Passantinos' next objection is a corollary of
the last-namely, "high attrition rates." The authors assert that the fact
that many people who join cults eventually leave them within a year or two without outside
aid is "deadly to the mind-control model" (p. 37). If mind-control did exist,
they imply, no one would be able to break its hold by himself. This is a distraction. The
issue is not whether there are high attrition rates or low conversion rates. The issue is
whether mind-control exists. We know of no professional who believes that mind-control is
100% effective. On the other hand, an examination of history reveals that when
mind-control is effective, it can be deadly. How else do we explain the mass suicide of
912 people in
9 A coincidental gathering of spiritually deceived individuals? What kind of hold
Koresh have over his followers that made them stay in the building after the
FBI started spraying tear gas into it? They had from about 6 o'clock in the morning untill
about noon to leave before the building finally caught fire. They could have left. What
kept them in there? What made one woman run back into the fire after she had run out of
the burning building? We could offer story after story of similar incidents. What led an
innocent boy from a small town in Illinois, Danny Kraft, to participate in the killing of
a mother, a father, a 13-year-old girl, an 11-year-old girl, and an 8-year-old girl? What
led the Nazis to gas Jews by the millions, and what led millions of Germans to pretend
they did not know what was going on?
The effects of
can be diminished by numerous factors. One of them is how conflicts and dissonance
are dealt with. One young woman, describing her own voluntary exit, said that every time
she had a doubt or a misgiving about the group she would put it on an invisible shelf so
she wouldnt have to deal with it. But then one day, the shelf got too heavy and
caved in (Tobias & Lalich, 1994, p. 55). In other words, eventually there were simply
too many doubts and questions, and she was no longer able to ignore them; she had to deal
Another factor that may weaken mind-control is a
traumatic event that occurs in the cult member's life or in the group as a whole. This
could be a beating administered (or threatened) by the leader or another member at the
leader's behest. Haferd and Outlaw describe one such incident involving Rose Watson
Thomas, a member of an obscure group named the Christian Alliance Holiness Church. They
Rose was terrified of what would happen when [an
expected phone call from the imprisoned leader] came through. Since the night before, the
commune residents had harangued her and threatened her with punishment. And she had seen
the punishment that Bishop Thomas [her father-in-law] meted out to those who displeased
him in his Christian
Alliance Holiness Churchmerciless bloody beatings that left men and
women with flayed skin on their backs and flowing wounds for days afterward. This time,
Rose felt sure, she was going to be the one who would be beaten. She was sure the bishop's
next orders would deal with the punishment to be inflicted upon her. So Rose had decided
to take her son and run away from The Frontier [the cult's compound in eastern Ohio]
(Haferd & Outlaw, 1993, p. 5).
The ability to leave a cult on one's own is not
necessarily a sign of health, that is, that the individual has been unaffected by the
group. To say and acknowledge that many people do leave cults on their own does not
address the question of why they leave, or whether they have been detrimentally affected
during the time of their involvement, in spite of the fact that eventually they are able
to walk away. We believe it is a gross error to assume that those who leave cults on their
own are as healthy psychologically and spiritually (or even physically) as when they
Objection: The Anti-religious Bias of Mind-control Assumptions
The Passantinos' next objection is "the
anti-religious bias of mind-control assumptions." Basically the Passantinos say that
brainwashing is a value judgment rather than an analytical concept, and that the
brainwashing/mind-control model almost inevitably arises from or creates an antireligious
bias. They quote sociologist Thomas Robbins, who says that the mind-control model derives
from Enlightenment ideals that seek to liberate man from religion. Then, they quote
William Sargant, who argued that Christian evangelical preaching techniques are similar to
Communist brainwashing methods. Finally, they refer to Conway and Siegelman, who
criticized fundamentalist Christians in the first edition of their book Snapping.
We fail to see, however, what relevance the
antireligious sentiments of some authors have to do with the modern concept of cult
mind-control as held in particular by evangelical proponents of the model. That some
people in the field might be biased against religion does not mean the concept itself is
antireligious or necessarily leads to such a bias. Mind-control theories can apply to a
religious setting, a psychotherapy setting, a political setting, a business setting. Are
mind-control advocates, then, antipsychotherapy, antipolitics, and antibusiness? Are
mind-control advocates antimilitary because the concept was first studied under military
Ron Enroth, well known for his evangelical
convictions, cannot be accused of an antireligious bias when he says there are churches
that abuse (Enroth, 1992). Rather, he speaks as a modern prophet against mistreatment of
God's flock. Did the prophet Ezekiel have an antireligious bias when he rebuked the wicked
shepherds who were exploiting, harming, and destroying the people of God? In this section,
the Passantinos employ an ad hominem argument that is rather poorly thought out. If
we were to employ this form of reasoning, we might conclude that the Passantinos are
guilty of an "antisecular" bias. It seems that once again the Passantinos have
violated their rule, "Similar Does Not Prove Same" (Passantino & Passantino,
The Passantinos also
maintain that the inability to draw a clear-cut line between a legitimate religion and a
cult is final proof that mind-control does not exist. Would they use the same reasoning
regarding domestic abuse? When does a husband's verbal criticism of his wife become verbal
abuse? When does spanking a child become child abuse? Where are the clear-cut lines in
these cases? Or where is the clear-cut line between political authority and dictatorship?
If the authors can locate it, they will be in great demand all over the world.
The last paragraph of this section is particularly
troubling. The Passantinos write, "In short, there is no objective, evidential way to
define groups that are 'good' (not using mind-control) versus groups that are 'bad' (using
mind-control)" (p. 38). But this is simply not true. A group can be evaluated
according to explicit criteria. For example, is it characterized by the use of certain
techniques, such as
eight criteria of thought reform? That is, does it use milieu control,
mystical manipulation? Does it have a sacred science? Does it practice doctrine over
person? Does it have a loaded language? Does it have a "cult of confession," the
demand for purity? Does it dispense with the existence of nonmembers, whether spiritually
or physically? One of the most famous books in psychology, The Open and Closed Mind,
explains how these systems work (Rokeach, 1960). There is a wealth of literature in the
social sciences about controlling, tight organizations versus loose organizations. There
are criteria in political science for determining what is and is not a totalitarian
system. Moreover, research is now underway to validate the first measure of group
psychological abuse (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994). Undoubtedly, future
research will result in improvements in our capacity to evaluate the destructiveness of
Objection: Creating Victims
The Passantinos object to the mind-control model
because, they say, it "creates victims." We would argue instead that it is
mind-control, not the mind-control model, that creates victims. We would also argue that
cult survivors are revictimized by those, such as the Passantinos, who lay all or most of
the blame for their plight at their own feet.
The authors introduce this objection by writing:
Many people who join cults want to help the needy,
forsake materialism, or develop personal independence from their familiesnot
necessarily bad goals, although misguided by false cult teachings. The cult mind-control
model, however, attributes cult membership primarily to mind-control and thereby
denigrates or discounts such positive activities and goals, misaffiliated to cults as they
are (p. 38).
This passage again illustrates the Passantinos'
failure to clearly understand what mind-control model advocates actually say. Mind-control
is not exercised in a vacuumit needs information to work with, whether it is
cult-generated doctrine or the hopes, dreams, fears, and hang-ups of the potential
recruit. Thus, the goals listed by the Passantinos may be used by the cult recruiter as
"hooks" to draw the target into the sphere of the group. We do not denigrate
such goals at all. We applaud any positive aims and activities. The problem is that they
can also be used as lures to attract new members, or as ploys to achieve legitimacy in the
community. Most of our clients at Wellspring say, "This is why I joined the group. I
wanted to help the needy, forsake materialism, develop some personal independence from my
family, and grow up. I wanted to serve the Lord." Jim Jones'
Temple took over nursing homes in the San Francisco Bay Area, significantly
improving them to the benefit of the residents. Peoples Temple members also helped drug
addicts kick their habits and obtain education. These and many other activities of the
Peoples Temple were highly commendable and worth doing, were it not for the fact that
Jones exploited these achievements ultimately to lead people to their deaths.
The Passantinos go on to say:
The mind-control model also fails to give proper
weight to the role natural suggestibility plays in making people vulnerable to the cults.
Highly suggestible people are especially susceptible to religious salesmanship as well as
many other "sales pitches" (pp. 38-39).
On the contrary, this is exactly the point we have
made. Suggestibility probably does make people more susceptible to mind-control. 10
Some people are naturally more suggestible than others, others go through periods in life
in which they are more suggestible than at other times (e.g., times of crisis,
bereavement, or transition of some kind or another). In such a condition people may be
victimized, whether by a con artist, a Lothario, or a cult recruiter. It is not
"adopting a victimization perspective" that "strips the cult member of his
capacity for rational activity." Rather, it is the victimization itself that
does thisthough we acknowledge that it does so to varying degrees in different
The Passantinos assert that "the cult
mind-control model epitomizes a 'victim' mentality" (p. 39). They quote Hassan's
remarks about the cult member being caught in a trap as an illustration of this
"victim" mentality. We find it surprising that the Passantinos should object to
this in light of the Apostle Paul's admonition to the Colossians, "Make sure that no
one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some secondhand, empty,
rational philosophy based on the principles of this world instead of on Christ" (Col.
2:8, Jerusalem Bible, emphasis added). Elsewhere, Paul reproaches the Christians of
Corinth for "tolerating somebody who makes slaves of you, makes you feed him,
imposes on you, orders you about and slaps you in the face" (2 Corinthians 11:20,
Jerusalem Bible, emphasis added).
Next, the Passantinos appear to digress into a
victim-bashing section in which they take potshots at John Bradshaw and his dysfunctional
family theory, adult children of alcoholics, the various 12-step programs, and claims of
repressed memories that later proved to be false memories.
Some would argue that in some
cases mind-control by unethical or incompetent therapists caused false memories of abuse
to arise. But that is only one of many possible explanations. We agree with the
Passantinos that a persons developing false memories in therapy does not necessarily
mean the therapist was practicing thought reform. Yet ironically,
are sometimes produced by thought reform. So the Passantinos confront a dilemma: how can
they believe in the creation of false memories (and they clearly do), and yet deny
powerful influence techniques, such as thought reform? The Passantinos seem to believe
that psychological influence can be so powerful that in a few sessions a therapist can
(sometimes unwittingly) convince a client that her parents are really members of a satanic
cult that sexually abused her for years. Yet, they deride the notion that a group led by a
skillful, psychopathic leader can cause radical behavioral changes in people who may be
under the group's influence 24 hours a day for many months or years.
The Passantinos again quote Barker, who says:
"Research has shown that, unlike those who have been deprogrammed (and thereby taught
that they had been brainwashed), those who leave voluntarily are extremely unlikely
to believe that they were ever the victims of mind-control" (p. 39, citing Barker,
1989, emphasis in original). Yet, this is precisely what we would expect. If someone has
no knowledge of what happened to him, how could he conclude he was a victim of
mind-control? One must be exposed to the information. Barker's conclusion is that this
belief in mind-control is inculcated into hapless victims, that they have been deceived
again into believing that they were under mind-control. Another alternative, however, is
that these people are sufficiently responsible individuals that when presented with
information about the techniques of mind-control and examples of it they are able to
compare their own experience with that information and reach their own conclusion that
"that's exactly what happened to me."11 Moreover, Barker faces the
same quandary the Passantinos confront regarding false memory: in three days an exit
counselor can completely change a persons outlook, but a group over a period of
years allegedly cannot.
Perhaps the Passantinos' rejection of the
"victim" label for cult members stems from their partially correct criticism of
today's pop psychology in which
everyone is a victim. One doesn't need to be saved
from one's own sins as much as from the sins of others. Psychology and sociology have
replaced Scripture for understanding human behavior and developing emotionally and
spiritually healthy persons. Yet nowhere in Scripture do we find support for the complaint
first voiced by Eve that 'the devil or the cult leader made me do it.' One
cannot remove human responsibility without also destroying human morality (p. 40).
Once again, these remarks are based on a distorted
view of mind-control and an either/or approach to understanding human behavior: either
psychology and sociology, or the Bible. However, we do not see the necessity of such a
dichotomy, though we recognize that some psychosociological and theological theories and
approaches leave much to be desired. The Passantinos seem to disallow any reference to
prior abuse as even a partial explanation for the current problems many people experience.
We believe this is both unfair and detrimental to the individual's healing.
The Passantinos seem to advocate an improper use
of the Bible that is disturbingly common in some evangelical and fundamentalist circles.
The Bible is implicitly viewed as the only textbook necessary for psychology, not just for
doctrine and morality. But the Bible does not make such a claim for itself. Are we to view
it as the only textbook necessary for geology, geography, or architecture? Shall we make
all engineering students study only the Old Testament because it contains instructions on
how to build the tabernacle or the temple and thus all construction must be based on those
models? Or shall we base medicine only on what is in the Bible?
Why, all of a sudden, are human sciences suddenly
limited to what is in the Bible? Who drew this arbitrary line and said, "We can study
astronomy, geology, medicine, whatever, but the Bible must be the only textbook for the
human sciences"? That is absurd. The facts refute this. Does the Bible talk about
manic depressive illness? Does the Bible talk about psychotic depression? Does the Bible
talk about panic disorders or agoraphobiawhat causes them, how are they cured? Does
the Bible distinguish between organic and functional psychoses? Does the Bible explain
what learning disabilities are, what hyperactivity is? Does the Bible explain what a
personality disorder is, how a dependent personality can be distinguished from a
Objection: Theological Inconsistencies
From a theological standpoint, the Passantinos
appear to undervalue the role of deceit in the introduction of sin into the world of
humans. They write:
If the cult recruiter's skill at manipulation is
considered so coercive that members are not responsible for their own beliefs, actions, or
even the decision to join/stay in the cult, then many biblical affirmations about personal
responsibility and decision-making are jeopardized. To a secular mind-control model
advocate, this may seem a trivial objection. But several advocates are Christian
evangelicals and must come to terms with the theological inconsistencies introduced when
the cult mind-control model is adopted.
For example, in the Garden, Satan personally
appeared to orchestrate the temptation of Eveand who could be more persuasive? Our
first parents succumbed to the temptation and were cast out of the Garden, and all of
humanity thereafter has been penalized by this primal sin. If our first parents could be
held morally responsible when confronted by the ultimate tempter, how is it that we seek
to excuse ourselves or our offspring when confronted by human tempters of far less power,
skill, and charisma? (p. 40).
The simple answer to their question is that the
analogy between the serpent's beguilement of Eve in the Garden of Eden and what happens in
cult recruitment is like comparing apples with chimpanzees. God had explicitly told Adam
and Eve in advance, "Don't eat of this tree." The tree was identified, the tree
was located. They knew what it was, they knew where it was, they knew all about it. God
had given them complete and adequate information. Most people we know who have joined
cults did not have anyone (and certainly not anyone with the authoritative voice of God)
saying, "Don't join this group, it is evil, and here is the evidence." But that
is basically what God did with Adam and Eve. The comparison of the Garden with the cult
situation would be more appropriate if God put Adam and Eve into the Garden with no
forewarning. They see the fruit on the tree. It looks so good. The serpent is dangling
from a branch and says, "This is good fruit, eat it." They eat it and then God
comes along and says, "Hey, you two! You just sinned!" They say, "What? We
sinned? How did we sin?" "You should have known better than to eat that
fruit." "Why should have we known better?" "You were
spiritually deceived." "Well, you never told us not to eat that
fruit!" "But if you were more spiritual you would have known."
If cult joining is simply a problem of spiritual
deception, then the sword cuts both ways. If cult members are responsible because they
lack discernment, why is not the Church also responsible for lack of discernment? Why
hasn't the church been able to recognize the wolves and warn the flock? Where was the
church speaking before Jonestown? Where was the church when Hitler came along? Where was
the church when Mao Tse-tung came along? Where was the church when
came along? Where was the church when
Lundgren came along? Who was warning the people who followed these leaders?
There was great silence in the church. There is
still great silence in the church. So, if it is only a deception issue, then we're all
wrong, we're all deceived. To say that one group is more deceived than the other when the
church has consistently sat on its hands in the face of this cult problem and has provided
virtually no resources for cult victims is to engage in self-righteous blame-shifting.
Hardly anything is taught about cults in
seminaries and Bible schools.12 Pastors know very little about cults, apart
from some of the major doctrinal aberrations of the Mormons and
Currently, there is only one cult rehabilitation center in the world, and that is
Wellspring, and it receives very little support from the church. If we are going to talk
about discernment, then we had better talk about the churchs discernment and its
obligation to heed the prophetic voice that warns about cults and spiritually abusive
churches. The church has not often done these things; it usually speaks out only after the
fact. The responsibility for the appalling silence and even complicity of the church in
Nazi Germany rests on the heads of evangelicals as fully as it does on those of liberals
and Catholics. The appalling silence of the evangelical church with the rise of Red China
rests on our heads, too. We could just go down the list. The discernment issue applies
equally to other abuses besides those relating to cults. As we write this, the church is
experiencing more persecution worldwide than at any time in history. To be sure, some
Christians are sounding the alarm, but too few know of the problems. Again, discernment is
an issue for those in leadership, not just for the victims.
coercive persuasion, or whatever one might call it) is not merely a secular concept. It is
also a biblical concept related to the problem of evil and how all men and women are
affected by evil. No group of Christians or non-Christians is any less immune to thought
reform than any other. What produces discernment? Is it obedience? Is it more Bible
reading? Is it going to seminary? Is it education? Are the discerning more holy or
The Passantinos appear to be answering this last
question in the affirmative. If so, their argument runs counter to the Reformation
concepts of the grace of God, the corruption of sin, and justification by faith
aloneall beliefs that the Passantinos hold. Their argument appears to imply that
humans are capable of unassisted evaluation of data concerning God, and of making
unassisted free choices in relation to spiritual matters. Thus, they castigate cult
members for being "undiscerning." But according to the Bible in the Reformed
tradition, revelation and grace are paramount. Humans may examine the universe and their
own nature to learn its complexities, but they may only know about God as he has revealed
himself. Furthermore, they may make free choices for or against that revelation only by
the grace of God. Without grace, they are only capable of rejecting whatever revelation
they might receive. Any other view denies the utter sinfulness of the human condition and
subverts the unmerited grace of God. Humans, then, are only responsible for thoughtfully
and purposely rejecting revelation and resisting grace, not for making "flawed
choices from bad data."
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that somehow
there is a spiritual hierarchy in which some individuals are less susceptible to cults
than others, on what basis are they less susceptible? If their susceptibility is based on
works (acquiring information and critical-thinking skills), then, according to the
Reformation tradition, their behavior has no spiritual value.13 But if
cult-avoiding discernment is based on faith, then all Christians have that and
should be able to avoid cults. Thus, the Passantinos have a grave problem, because the
empirical evidence unequivocally shows that numerous Christians have joined a variety of
cults. Where, then, does discernment come from? Is it always a sin issue in the Scripture,
or is it an issue of education, knowledge, and awareness?
Discernment may be lost because one willfully
chooses to sin, but discernment may also be lacking because one has not been educated or
warned. Is one group (cult victims) culpable, but the other (the church or society that
fails to warn about cults) not? Is evil the underlying process and factor with both kinds
of discernment deficits? In other words, is our ability to be deceived part of the human
condition, part of our fallen nature? If so, and we believe it is, then the cult victim
and the silent church and society alike suffer from Adam's fallen nature. But in saying
this we are not saying that cult joining is a sin problem that must be dealt with
evangelistically. Rather, we are saying that the cult problem for the church and the cult
victim alike is akin to the problem of physical disease. Illness, as well as death, is a
direct result of the Fall. But the cure for disease is not evangelization leading to
spiritual redemption. The cure for disease consists of medicine and education. Through
much of history, the church has been largely responsible for the advancement of medical
science in the world. Likewise, the church needs to see the problem of cults fundamentally
as a problem of evil whose solution is, to be sure, bathed in the prayers of believers,
but realized via science and education as well as theology.
The Passantinos' conclusion is a call for
evangelization of cult members. But their vision in this regard is a truncated view of
Judeo-Christian ethics and theology. Christians and others have traditionally had an
interest in opposing sinful systems as well as providing spiritual comfort for those
caught in them. The desire for the salvation of the souls of those bound in the literal
chains of slavery was admirable, but without the courage of Christian statesmen such as
William Wilberforce, strongly supported by John Wesley and other Christian leaders, we
might still have slavery in Britain and America. Evangelizing those "who have very
real spiritual, emotional, and social needs" and who "are looking for
fulfillment and significance for their lives" (p. 40) without working against the
oppression that enslaves them is hypocrisy. We believe God loves cult members and wants us
to work for their freedom, whether or not they choose to follow him.
1.In a letter to the editor of Cornerstone Magazine
Douglas Groothuis demonstrates some of the same errors as found in the original article to
which he was responding. Groothuis focuses on two points: first, "the mind-control
theory is antithetical to biblical anthropology." We contend that only in its extreme
form, as set up as a straw man by Bob and Gretchen Passantino, could mind-control be
regarded as antithetical to biblical anthropology. We agree that men and women are
"responsible moral agents," but we also argue that humans can occasionally and
under the right (or wrong?) circumstances be led into unwise, bad, or downright evil
decisions for which God will hold us, if not totally guiltless, at least minimally
culpable. We briefly refer to a few such instances in this article: mitigation of guilt by
reason of diminished capacity due to youthfulness (Dt. 1:39), demonization, or other
factors (one of those other factors would be lack of full knowledge, see Mt. 11:20-24).
Indeed, in some such cases God still holds the individual guilty, but our point is that he
holds him less so.
Groothuis' second point is
what he calls a "crucial philosophical distinction. People who join cults on the
basis of propaganda and psychological deception do so through their decision-making,
although their decisions are ill conceived." He says, "This is not equivalent to
people losing their ability to decide because they have become passive victims of
irresistible cult indoctrination. A poor decision is still a decision; to call it a
nondecision because it is unwise is even more unwise." We are afraid that Groothuis
has bought into the Passantinos counterfeit mind-control model.
2. We believe the Passantinos have failed to
distinguish the question of guilt regarding sin/crime from the additional matter of
whether the cult member should be held fully responsible for joining the cult, staying
in the cult, accepting and obeying the teachings of the cult leader, and ending
up on the one hand confused, depressed, anxious, or delusional, or on the other
hand hostile to non-cult members, exclusivistic, judgmental, or even heretical.
Consider the following scriptures:
Matthew 18:6 "But whoever causes one
of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it is better for him that a heavy
millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea."
Matthew 18:7 "Woe to the world because
of its stumbling-blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling-blocks come; but woe to that
man through whom the stumbling-block comes!"
Our understanding of these verses is that the one
who leads someone else astray from the truth, or otherwise misleads a person, will be
judged far more severely than the one misled. And these verses are not referring to
leading another into criminal activity or sin, in general, unless one includes believing a
lie in the category of sin. In their article, the Passantinos did allow for some
element of deception to exist in some cultsbut that was all, and they still seemed
to hold the cult member responsible for allowing himself to be deceived. A bit
disingenuous, we believe.
3. Case No. 90CR 012, Court of Common Pleas, Lake
County, Ohio. It is worth quoting from the statement of the presiding judge at the
sentencing of Danny Kraft:
I hope this tragedy and resulting sentence serves
as a warning to all parents and families on the destructive nature of religious cults.
That we, as a society, are mindful of the ease with which it can destroy, just as we
recognize the destructive capacity of alcohol and drugs.
4. Lundgren, a member of the Reorganized Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, split off from the RLDS Church believing that he was a
true prophet of God.
5. The fact that neither Jesus nor the Apostle
Paul told the formerly demonized individuals in these accounts to repent of their behavior
while under the influence of demons certainly implies that they did not regard them as
fully responsible for the behavior.
6. To take an obviously extreme example of such a
cult, consider the Brethren, or the "Garbage Eaters," as they are more commonly
known, led by Jim Roberts, a.k.a. Brother Evangelist. They believe they are more
"spiritual" than others because (for one thing) they seek not to depend on the
"sinful" world to meet their needs¾ hence their "dumpster diving,"
that is, scavenging for edible food in dumpsters behind restaurants and grocery stores.
Can anyone conceive of someone in his or her right mind "choosing" to live this
way? If these people, most of whom were not only relatively normal but also high achievers
before joining, are not under the leaders control, what else can account for their
behavior? They are certainly not making rational, informed decisions. They have been led
to believe that this kind of lifestyle is truly righteous and holy. After all, they are
not being conformed to the world and its systems. It seems to us that "simple
deception" is inadequate to explain such behavior.
Dr. Daniel Langer (former military intelligence officer in
Vietnam) in personal conversation with Ron Burks.
Although there are general allusions to the failed methods to
resist brainwashing in a number of our references, Dr. Louis J. West, who helped devise
procedures and experiments for resisting brainwashing, told the senior author of the
difficulties in teaching people to resist brainwashing. Dr. West also spoke on this
subject at a plenary session, "Towards a Better Understanding of Mind-control,"
given at the National Cult Awareness Network Conference at the Lincolnshire Marriott in
Deerfield, Illinois, November 3, 1990.
9. We are aware that authorities later determined
that as many as several hundred of the cult members actually died of gunshot wounds,
including Jones himself. The question still remains: if there is no such thing as
mind-control, what was it that drove the 600 or 700 others to drink the poison and
administer it to their children? What induced them to stay in the group through dozens of
suicide drills at which no guns were present?
10. In a footnote (n. 57), the Passantinos refer
to work by Anthony and Robbins as further support of their contention that most
mind-control advocates discount human susceptibilities as a factor in cult recruitment.
However, this is a matter for empirical study, not mere opining. Unfortunately, almost no
research has been done on susceptibility to cultic environments.
11. Ex-cult members are not likely to say,
"I've been under mind-control" unless they know what mind-control is. A person
who feels physically sick often does not know the cause until he hears a doctor's
12. Denver Seminary in Colorado, and Southern
Evangelical Seminary, in Charlotte, North Carolina, are two rare exceptions we know of
that offer more than a cursory glance at cults.
13. Works, or human endeavor, in this sense has no
spiritual value in relation to one's standing with God. Or the Passantinos may argue that
works are simply a religious requirement of moral obedience. But moral obedience implies
that one knows what is moral or correct. But the problem is that the uniform testimony of
former cultists is that there was absolutely nothing they saw that was immoral, illegal,
or suggestive of disobedience to God. Consequently, the Passantinos must answer the
following questions: (1) What moral or doctrinal mandates have the cultists disobeyed? (2)
Are these moral and/or spiritual mandates sufficiently clear that any reasonable person
would still act knowingly in a reckless and negligent manner to join a cult in spite of
hearing and understanding the mandates? (3) Who is responsible to present these moral or
doctrinal mandates to the potential cultist?
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