Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.
Emeritus adjunct professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
A Loss for the Family
Field: The Death of Margaret T. Singer
From Family Process, March 1,
2004; By Lyman C. Wynne
The death of Dr.
Margaret Singer on November 23, 2003, has evoked an
outpouring of grief, admiration, and tribute in the
public press. She has been recognized as "the foremost
authority on brainwashing in the entire world." Her loss
has distressed not only the many victims of "coercive
persuasion," but also those family members,
professionals, and paraprofessionals who have struggled
to understand and cope with what she called the "cults
in our midst."
However, before focusing on cults for much of the last
quarter century, Margaret had already established
herself as a leader in two other arenas of study and
treatment. First, during the 1950s she had become a
leading researcher in the field of psychosomatic
medicine and was elected President of the American
Psychosomatic Society as recently as 1972-1973.
Meanwhile, because she and I both had been keenly
interested in communication, a phenomenon on the path
between health and disorder, we were introduced to one
another in 1958. For more than 15 years we commuted
between Berkeley and Bethesda/Rochester, a week in each
setting most months. We spent many, many hours listening
closely to tapes of psychiatrically ill persons,
especially those identified as schizophrenic patients.
More closely still, we examined communication of members
of their families in the contexts of family therapy and
standardized research tasks. During these years Margaret
became best known as a family researcher and therapist.
For eight years she was a constructive member of the
Board of Directors of Family Process.
On a very personal note, I can say that the long-term,
close collaboration, bouncing ideas back and forth with
Margaret, was an experience of genuine mutuality. Though
we worked with speech samples collected in a variety of
ways, Margaret's special skill and experience with
Rorschach protocols was most productive.
Unconventionally, we were most interested in the
conceptualization of family members, individually and
conjointly, viewed as a transactional process between
tester and family member, or family members with one
another. Thus, we were able to use the concept of the
family as a system within which some aspects melded
together relationally, and other, excluded features were
outside the family's psychological boundary.
In retrospect, this "family research" was hard work and
good fun. In her research, Margaret engendered a
vibrant, creative spark that opened the eyes of many a
colleague and student. As a clinician she was able to
observe and clarify incredibly nasty problems brought to
her by a great diversity of clients and consultees. She,
and her astutely penetrating insights, will be sorely
From San Francisco
Chronicle, Tuesday November 25, 2003
Rubenstein, Chronicle staff writer. Kevin Fagan
contributed to this report.
Singer, the soft-spoken but hard-edged Berkeley
psychologist and expert on brainwashing who studied and
helped authorities and victims better understand the
Peoples Temple, Branch Davidian, Unification Church and
Symbionese Liberation Army cults, has died.
Professor Singer, 82,
died Sunday after a long illness at Alta Bates Medical
Center in Berkeley.
"She's one of a kind,
the foremost authority on brainwashing in the entire
world,'' said lawyer Paul Morantz in an interview last
year. Morantz led the effort against the Synanon cult in
the 1970s. "She is a national treasure.''
She testified in the
1976 bank robbery trial of newspaper heiress Patricia
Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation
Army, and at the 1977 hearing for five young members of
the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church whose
parents sought to have them "deprogrammed.''
On the witness stand or
in the kitchen of her Berkeley hills home, where
Professor Singer did much of her work, she was calm,
authoritative, smart, unshakable, funny and unfailingly
She interviewed more
than 3,000 cult members, assisted in more than 200 court
cases and also was a leading authority on schizophrenia
and family therapy.
"I might look like a
little old grandma, but I'm no pushover,'' she told a
reporter last year, just before tossing back another
shot of Bushmills Irish whiskey, her libation of choice.
"My mom spent her whole
life assisting other people -- victims, parents or
lawyers -- and often for free,'' said Sam Singer, a San
Francisco publicist. "Nothing gave her greater joy than
helping to get someone unscrewed up.''
She was occasionally
threatened by cult leaders and their followers, and she
never backed down. Professor Singer liked to tell how,
at the age of 80, she frightened off a stalker who had
been leaving menacing notes in her mailbox.
"I've got a 12-gauge
shotgun up here, sonny, and you'd better get off my
porch, or you'll be sorry!'' she hollered out the
window. "And tell your handlers not to send you back!''
She was born in Denver,
where her father was the chief engineer at the U. S.
Mint. She received her bachelor's, master's and doctoral
degrees from the University of Denver.
She began to study
brainwashing in the 1950s at Walter Reed Institute of
Research in Washington, D. C., where she interviewed
U.S. soldiers who had been taken prisoner during the
Korean War. She came to Berkeley in 1958 and found
herself in a prime spot to study the cult scene of the
1960s and 1970s.
"I started hearing from
families who had missing members, many of them young
kids on our campus, and they all would describe the same
sorts of things, '' she said. "A sudden change of
personality, a new way of talking . . . and then they
would disappear. And bingo, it was the same sort of
thing as with the Korean War prisoners, the same sort of
thought-reform and social controls. ''
"You find it again and
again, any time people feel vulnerable,'' she said.
"There are always
sharpies around who want to hornswoggle people.''
She dispensed much of
her advice over the phone, which always seemed to be
ringing with anxious parents, victims or lawyers from
around the world, all seeking advice. For decades, she
also held court at a large table near the front door of
Brennan's bar and restaurant in West Berkeley, where she
and her husband, Jerome, were Tuesday night regulars and
where she would treat friends and admirers to corned
beef, cabbage and multiple rounds of Irish coffee.
She was the author of
"Cults in Our Midst,'' the authoritative 1995 study on
cults that she revised earlier this year with analysis
of the connection between cults and terrorism. She was
the winner of the Hofheimer Prize and the Dean Award
from the American College of Psychiatrists and of
achievement awards from the Mental Health Association of
the United States and the American Family Therapy
Association. She was a past president of the American
Psychosomatic Society and a board member of the Kaiser
Foundation Research Institute Review Board and the
American Family Foundation.
She is survived by her
husband of 48 years, Jerome, and by two children, Sam
and Martha, all of Berkeley.
A funeral will be held
at 1 p.m. on Monday at the McNary-Morgan, Engle and
Jackson funeral home, 3630 Telegraph Ave, Oakland.
Memorial donations may be sent to the
American Family Foundation, P.O. Box 413005, Suite 313,
Naples, Fla., 34101 [Better to send to
P.O. Box 2265, Bonita Springs, FL 34133].
From the Oakland Tribune
Former UC educator was psychologist,
champion of free thought and an expert on cults
By Katherine Pfrommer, STAFF WRITER
Thursday, November 27, 2003 - BERKELEY --
Margaret Singer -- a professor, psychologist, champion
of free thought and world-renowned expert on cults and
brainwashing -- died Nov. 23 at Alta Bates Summit
Medical Center after a long illness. She was 82.
"My mom was really one of the world's leading experts
on cults and she spent her lifetime fighting for
people's ability to think and act freely," son Sam
Singer of Berkeley said. "She was engaged in one of the
most important intellectual battles in the world -- the
fight against George Orwell's vision of a "1984" state
or cult that would affect people's beliefs and
Well-versed with the likes of Peoples Temple, Branch
Davidian, Symbionese Liberation Army, Unification Church
and other groups, Mrs. Singer testified in hundreds of
cases in court -- but she also assisted anyone who
called her listed home phone number asking for help.
"My mother's kitchen was action central for the
anti-cult movement from the 60s up until the beginning
of this year when she got ill," her son said. "You
couldn't put the phone down without it ringing again. It
wouldn't matter if it was Thanksgiving or Christmas day,
the phone would ring, ring, ring."
Born July 29, 1921, in Denver, Colo., Mrs. Singer
earned her degrees at the University of Denver,
obtaining her Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1952.
In the 1950s, she studied the effects of brainwashing
on Korean War veterans at Walter Reed Army Institute in
Washington, D.C., where she became fascinated with
coercive psychological techniques and persuasion -- what
became known as brainwashing.
While in Washington, D.C., she met her future
husband, Jerome Singer, in an elevator. The two moved to
Berkeley in late 1950s and both became professors at UC
Berkeley. The couple was married for 48 years and have
Mrs. Singer noticed the similarities between the
brainwashing techniques applied to the Korean War
veterans and cult members early on, and described six
conditions which were created to take control over a
person's mind against their will, her son said.
Among the cases Mrs. Singer testified for were the
1976 bank robbery trial of Patricia Hearst, who was
kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and a 1977
trial about deprogramming members of the Unification
Church, or "Moonies."
"She was so helpful, so willing to give her time,"
said colleague Hal Reynolds, student affairs officer and
director of cult awareness program at UC Berkeley. "It
was like having a wonderful resource -- who was also
warm, witty and tough at the same time. She did a lot
for UC Berkeley."
From the Los Angeles Times
Brainwashing Expert Dies of Pneumonia
By Dennis McLellan
Margaret Thaler Singer, one of the world�s
leading experts on cults and brainwashing � who
served as an expert witness in numerous
high-profile court cases, including testifying
for the defense in the 1976 bank-robbery trial
of kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst �
has died. She was 82.
Singer, a clinical psychologist and
former psychology professor at the University of
California, Berkeley, who also was known for her
work on schizophrenia, died of pneumonia Sunday
in a Berkeley hospital after a long illness.
Singer, who did groundbreaking research
on the brainwashing of U.S. soldiers captured
during the Korean War, often was sought out by
lawyers as an expert witness and by the news
media for comment in high-profile cases,
including the People�s Temple and the mass
murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, the search
for the Hillside Strangler in Los Angeles, and
the Branch Davidian and Heaven�s Gate cults.
Over the years, she interviewed more than 4,000
cult members, including Charles Manson and many
of his followers.
Singer interviewed Hearst extensively
after her capture in 1975. Kidnapped by the
revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army in
1974, Hearst eventually joined her captors and
participated in an armed bank robbery.
Enlisted to determine whether Hearst had
been brainwashed into delivering the group�s
revolutionary ideology, Singer testified in a
hearing outside the jury�s presence that she had
studied Hearst�s speech patterns and concluded
that on most of the seven tape recordings issued
by the SLA, Hearst was reading statements
written by her captors.
The judge, although expressing
admiration for Singer�s work, agreed with the
prosecutor�s argument that Singer�s conclusion
should be kept from the jury because the study
was �in a field that has never before been
accepted as a subject upon which expert
testimony can be given.�
The trial, which resulted in Hearst�s
conviction, greatly boosted Singer�s stature as
an expert in brainwashing.
She was born July 29, 1921, in Denver,
where her father was the chief operating
engineer at the U.S. Mint and her mother was a
secretary to a federal judge.
Singer, who played cello in the Denver
Civic Symphony while attending the University of
Denver, received a bachelor�s degree in speech
and a master�s degree in speech pathology and
After earning a Ph.D. in clinical
psychology in 1943, she worked for eight years
in the department of psychiatry at the
University of Colorado�s School of Medicine.
In 1953, she began working as a
psychologist for the Walter Reed Army Institute
of Research in Washington, D.C., where she
specialized in studying returned prisoners of
the Korean War who had been brainwashed into
denouncing the United States and embracing
She did further research, with a heavy
focus on schizophrenia, with the National
Institute of Mental Health, the Air Force and
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She moved to Berkeley in the late 1950s,
becoming an adjunct professor at the university
when her husband, Jerome R. Singer, joined the
physics department faculty. She was a professor
of psychology at UC Berkeley from 1964 to 1991.
Singer, who lectured around the world,
received dozens of national honors for her work,
including the Hofheimer Prize for Research in
1966 from the American College of Psychiatrists
and the Stanley R. Dean Award for Research in
Schizophrenia in 1976 from the American College
Singer is survived by her husband; a
son, Sam; a daughter, Martha; and five
From the San Jose Mercury News
San Jose Mercury News, Wednesday, November 26,
By Jessica Portner
UC-BERKELEY PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSOR DID RESEARCH ON
Margaret Singer, the world-renowned professor
emeritus of psychology at UC-Berkeley who
demystified cults through groundbreaking
research on brainwashing and testified at trials
against the Unification Church and the
Symbionese Liberation Army, died Sunday at Alta
Bates Medical Center in Berkeley. She was 82.
A soft-spoken woman and brilliant researcher,
Mrs. Singer interviewed more than 3,000 cult
members and testified at more than 200 trials,
including the 1976 bank robbery trial of
newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who had been
kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. The
group was a radical band formed in Berkeley
during the Vietnam era that abducted the
19-year-old heiress, calling her �a prisoner of
war� before she was persuaded to join them in
Mrs. Singer also took the stand on behalf of the
parents of five members of the Rev. Sun Myung
Moon's Unification Church. The parents alleged
their children had been brainwashed by church
Richard Ofshe, a professor of social psychology
at the University of California-Berkeley, a
self-described �sidekick� of Mrs. Singer's, said
she was a dream to work with -- unless you were
a lawyer cross-examining her in court.
�She was like a little old lady with steel tips
in her tennies,� Ofshe said. �I saw attorneys
break into tears trying to cross-examine her.
It's hard to beat on a little old lady who was a
lot smarter than they were.�
The only child of an Irish Catholic family, Mrs.
Singer was born in 1923 in Denver, where her
father was the chief engineer at the U.S. Mint.
Mrs. Singer received a doctorate in clinical
psychology from the University of Denver.
Her fascination with mind-control techniques
began in 1952 when she took a post at the Walter
Reed Institute of Research in Washington, D.C.
There, she interviewed U.S. soldiers who had
been forced to make treasonous statements while
they were prisoners during the Korean War.
Mrs. Singer's interest in cults grew when she
arrived in Berkeley in 1957. It was an ideal
location to study the blossoming New Age cult
scene of the 1960s and 1970s where Hare Krishnas
and the Unification Church were actively
soliciting members around the campus.
In a 2001 Mercury News interview about her
groundbreaking research on cult leadership and
indoctrinating tactics, Mrs. Singer said,
�People are basically lonely. They want to join
something. The more mysterious it is, the more
inviting and intriguing.� She noted cults often
recruit members by using flattery, offering
friendship, respect, and pretending to trade
More recently, Mrs. Singer co-wrote �Cults in
Our Midst,� a 1995 study on cults that she
revised earlier this year with analysis of the
connection between cults and terrorism. She won
the Hofheimer Prize and the Dean Award from the
American College of Psychiatrists.
David Clark, an American Family Foundation
associate who has worked with cult-affected
families, said that despite her fame, Mrs.
Singer would routinely console families whose
children had been in cults over the years.
�She understood their plight and realized what a
lonely place these families are in because they
went through conventional avenues of lawyers and
clergy and didn't get more support,� Clark said.
Brenda Daeges, who lives in Bellevue, Neb., was
one of those frequent callers. �I was a mess
when I met Margaret,� said Daeges, a former
member of the Apostles of Infinite Love cult who
met Mrs. Singer at a conference. �I tried to get
her to help my family. She would let me call her
collect. I don't know how many times she saved
Her son, Sam Singer, president of Singer and
Associates, a San Francisco consulting firm,
said his mother was never deterred by those who
sought to stop her. There were numerous break-in
attempts at her rambling Berkeley home. Singer
said his mother would deter prowlers by
threatening to shoot trespassers with a 12-gauge
shotgun -- even though she didn't own one.
�She was always extremely cautious because
there's a lot of people who tried to hurt her,�
Singer said. �She always stood up for what she
Born: July 29, 1923, in Denver
Died: Nov. 23, 2003, in Berkeley
Survived by: Her husband of 48 years, Jerome,
and by her children, Sam and Martha, all of
Services: Will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at the
McNary-Morgan, Engle and Jackson funeral home in
Memorial: Donations may be sent to the American
Family Foundation, Box 413005, Suite 313,
Naples, Fla., 34101
[Better to send to
P.O. Box 2265, Bonita Springs, FL 34133].
From the New York Times
December 7, 2003
By Anahad O'Connor
Dr. Margaret Singer, a leading expert on
brainwashing who testified in several
high-profile cases contending that various
groups inappropriately manipulated their members
to control their behavior, died on Nov. 23 in
Berkeley, Calif. She was 82.
The cause was respiratory failure, said her son,
In her long career, Dr. Singer investigated and
testified about techniques used by North Koreans
against American soldiers in wartime and the
Symbionese Liberation Army's influence over the
kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst.
In the 1950's, Dr. Singer interviewed a number
of American soldiers who had renounced the
United States after returning from captivity in
North Korea. The soldiers, she found, had been
isolated and plied with propaganda, at times
under the threat of physical harm.
Years later, she testified in defense of Ms.
Hearst in a case that brought Dr. Singer
national recognition and helped generate public
curiosity about mind control.
Dr. Singer and her colleagues delved into a
little known area of psychology at the trial,
arguing that Ms. Hearst had helped rob a bank
because she had been brainwashed to embrace the
values of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which
The group, the team argued, subjected Ms. Hearst
to intensely stressful conditions, like
isolating her from family and friends and
locking her in a closet for six weeks, allowing
its members to indoctrinate her and force a
bizarre behavioral transformation.
Though Ms. Hearst was convicted, the trial
bolstered Dr. Singer's reputation as an expert
on mind control. In the following years, she
repeatedly testified against the Unification
Church, led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
In one case, a libel suit against The Daily Mail
of London, she argued that the church was a cult
that brainwashed its members by showering them
with intense affection, a process she called
Dr. Singer said that she had interviewed
hundreds of members of the church and testified
that its techniques for mind control were more
powerful than those used by the North Koreans on
their war prisoners. The church lost its case.
"This has put us back to the start of the road
again," Michael Marshall, an official of the
church, said at the time of the lawsuit. "But we
shall continue to fight for recognition and to
show that we are a genuine religious movement."
Dr. Singer went on to testify as an expert
witness in dozens of cases against groups she
described as destructive cults. Former members
of the groups or the anguished families of
members, like some of the people who lost
relatives among the Branch Davidians in the
Waco, Tex., in 1993, would often seek her
Several members of the People's Temple, with Dr.
Singer's help, left that group before 900 people
committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978.
Dr. Singer would often help win lawsuits against
groups that former members claimed had lured
them into dark, insular worlds that left them
"Her testimony would help people understand the
clinical impact of a cult's manipulation and
exploitation," said Dr. Richard Ofshe, a
sociology professor at the University of
California at Berkeley who worked with Dr.
Singer for 20 years. "There was a constant
stream of people who would go into these
organizations and end up in psychiatric
Dr. Singer's battles made her a target for
harassment and death threats. At times, she
found dead animals on her doorstep.
Margaret Thaler Singer was born in Denver and
earned her bachelor's degree, master's degree
and Ph.D. from the University of Denver. She
became an adjunct professor at Berkeley in the
Dr. Singer conducted several widely known
studies on schizophrenia and was a renowned
family therapist. She spent much of her career
at Berkeley, but also taught at the University
of Rochester and Albert Einstein College of
Medicine, among others.
In addition to her son, Dr. Singer is survived
by her husband, Dr. Jerome R. Singer; a
daughter, Martha Singer, also of Berkeley; and
Mercury News Staff Writer Sarah Lubman
contributed to this report. Contact Jessica
firstname.lastname@example.org or (408)
- Attacks on Peripheral versus Central Elements of Self and the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques
- Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 3, No.1.,
- Psychotherapy Cults
- Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2
- Cults, Coercion, and Contumely
- Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2
- Undue Influence and Written Documents: Psychological Aspects
- Cultic Studies Journal, Vol.10, No.1
- Churches That Abuse
- Ronald M. Enroth. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992, 227 pages.
- Volume 10, No. 1, 1993
- Mistakes Families Make
- Cults, Psychological Manipulation:
1992, Arlington, Virginia Video
- National Institute of Health, January 17, 1997,
Bethesda, MD Video
Psychotherapists Do Harm
- National Institute of Health, January 17, 1997,
Bethesda, MD Video
- Treatment Issues; Cults:
Theory and Treatment Issues Video
- Conference May 30, 1997, Philadelphia
Manipulation, Cults, and Domestic Violence: Professional & Personal Perspectives
- Psychological Manipulation: The Abuse of Women Conference,
May 30, 1997, Philadelphia Video
- Keynote Address- Psychological Manipulation: How it Works
and Why Women are Vulnerable; "Crazy" Therapies: What Are They? Do They
- Symposium -Treatment and Cults: What Works with Whom;
Psychological Manipulation: The Abuse of Women Conference, May 30 and May 31, 1997,
- AFF Annual Conference: Children and Cults
May 29 - May 31, 1998, Philadelphia, PA
- AFF Annual Conference: Jonestown Memorial
- November 13-15, 1998, Chicago, IL
1999 Conference: Cults, Psychological
Manipulation & Society, Minneapolis, MN, May 14-19, 1999
Thaler Singer, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and emeritus adjunct professor of
psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her Ph.D.
degree in clinical psychology from the University of Denver, and she has been a practicing
clinician, researcher, and teacher for nearly fifty years.
Singer's major area of work--how people influence one another-- grew
directly out of her undergraduate and graduate work in speech and psychology, and the
study of cults has been a special area of her research. Over the years Singer has
counseled and interviewed more than three thousand current and former cult members: In
1978 she was awarded the Leo J. Ryan Memorial Award, named in honor of the U.S.
Representative murdered in Jonestown,
Over the past two decades Singer has been an active
consultant and expert witness in many legal cases and has appeared frequently on
television discussing influence and persuasion.
She is co-author of Cults in Our Midst and "Crazy" Therapies: What Are They? Do They
The author of more than one hundred articles published in
professional journals, she has received numerous national honors for her various research
work, including awards from the American Psychiatric Association, the American College of
Psychiatrists, the National Mental Health Association, the American Association for
Marriage and Family Therapy, and the American Family Therapy Association. She also held a
Research Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health and was the first
woman and first clinical psychologist elected president of the American Psychosomatic
Singer lives in Berkeley with her husband, Jay, a physicist
whose special contributions have been in the development of magnetic resonance imaging.
Her son is a public relations and political consultant, and her daughter is a resident in
orthopedic surgery. Singer is the happy grandmother of twin boys.
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