Biderman’s Chart of Coercion

NOTE: This article is based on the writings of Albert D. Biderman, a sociologist who worked for the USAF in the 1950s. Biderman showed how Chinese and Korean interrogators used techniques including sleep deprivation, darkness or bright light, insults, threats, and exposure far more than physical force to break prisoners. A link to the entire pdf can be found at the end of the article.

Biderman book

“Most people who brainwash…use methods similar to those of prison guards who recognize that physical control is never easily accomplished without the cooperation of the prisoner. The most effective way to gain that cooperation is through subversive manipulation of the mind and feelings of the victim, who then becomes a psychological, as well as a physical, prisoner.” from an Amnesty International publication, “Report on Torture“, which depicts the brainwashing of prisoners of war.



  • Deprives individual of social support, effectively rendering him unable to resist
  • Makes individual dependent upon interrogator
  • Develops an intense concern with self.

Once a person is away from longstanding emotional support and thus reality checks, it is fairly easy to set a stage for brainwashing. Spiritually abusive groups work to isolate individuals from friends and family, whether directly, by requiring the individuals to forsake friends and family for the sake of the “Kingdom” (group membership), or indirectly, by preaching the necessity to demonstrate one’s love for God by “hating” one’s father, mother, family, friends.

Abusive groups are not outward-looking, but inward-looking, insisting that members find all comfort and support and a replacement family within the group. Cut off from friends, relatives, previous relationships, abusive groups surround the recruits and hammer rigid ideologies into their consciousnesses, saturating their senses with specific doctrines and requirements of the group.

Isolated from everyone but those within the group, recruits become dependent upon group members and leaders and find it difficult if not impossible to offer resistance to group teachings. They become self-interested and hyper-vigilant, very fearful should they incur the disapproval of the group, which now offers the only support available to them which has group approval.

Monks and nuns from the various monasteries under Geronda Ephraim during St. Anthony Monastery’s Feast Day (ca. 2006)

Warning signs
The seed of extremism exists wherever a group demands all the free time of a member, insisting he be in church every time the doors are open and calling him to account if he isn’t, is critical or disapproving of involvements with friends and family outside the group, encourages secrecy by asking that members not share what they have seen or heard in meetings or about church affairs with outsiders, is openly, publicly, and repeatedly critical of other churches or groups (especially if the group claims to be the only one which speaks for God), is critical when members attend conferences, workshops or services at other churches, checks up on members in any way, i.e., to determine that the reason they gave for missing a meeting was valid, or makes attendance at all church functions mandatory for participating in church ministry or enjoying other benefits of church fellowship.

Once a member stops interacting openly with others, the group’s influence is all that matters. He is bombarded with group values and information and there is no one outside the group with whom to share thoughts or who will offer reinforcement or affirmation if the member disagrees with or doubts the values of the group. The process of isolation and the self-doubt it creates allow the group and its leaders to gain power over the members. Leaders may criticize major and minor flaws of members, sometimes publically, or remind them of present or past sins. They may call members names, insult them or ignore them, or practice a combination of ignoring members at some times and receiving them warmly at others, thus maintaining a position of power (i.e., the leaders call the shots.)

The sense of humiliation makes members feel they deserve the poor treatment they are receiving and may cause them to allow themselves to be subjected to any and all indignities out of gratefulness that one as unworthy as they feel is allowed to participate in the group at all. When leaders treat the member well occasionally, they accept any and all crumbs gratefully. Eventually, awareness of how dependent they are on the group and gratitude for the smallest attention contributes to an increasing sense of shame and degradation on the part of the members, who begin to abuse themselves with “litanies of self-blame,” i.e., “No matter what they do to me, I deserve it, as sinful and wretched as I am. I deserve no better. I have no rights but to go to hell. I should be grateful for everything I receive, even punishment.”

St. Anthony's Monastery Feast Day (early - mid-2000s)
In the monasteries it is taught that the most ideal way for someone to practice Orthodoxy is through blind obedience to a Geronda (or Gerondissa).

Monopolization of Perception

  • Fixes attention upon immediate predicament; fosters introspection
  • Eliminates stimuli competing with those controlled by captor
  • Frustrates all actions not consistent with compliance

Abusive groups insist on compliance with trival demands related to all facets of life: food, clothing, money, household arrangements, children, conversation. They monitor members’ appearances, criticize language and childcare practices. They insist on precise schedules and routines, which may change and be contradictory from day to day or moment to moment, depending on the whims of group leaders.

At first, new members may think these expectations are unreasonable and may dispute them, but later, either because they want to be at peace or because they are afraid, or because everyone else is complying, they attempt to comply. After all, what real difference does it make if a member is not allowed to wear a certain color, or to wear his hair in a certain way, to eat certain foods, or say certain words, to go certain places, watch certain things, or associate with certain individuals. In the overall scheme of things, does it really matter? In fact, in the long run, the member begins to reason, it is probably good to learn these disciplines, and after all, as they have frequently been reminded, they are to submit to spiritual authority as unto the Lord.. Soon it becomes apparent that the demands will be unending, and increasing time and energy are focused on avoiding group disapproval by doing something “wrong.” There is a feeling of walking on eggs. Everything becomes important in terms of how the group or its leaders will respond, and members’ desires, feelings and ideas become insignificant. Eventually, members may no longer even know what they want, feel or think. The group has so monopolized all of the members’ perceptions with trivial demands that members lose their perspective as to the enormity of the situation they are in.

The leaders may also persuade the members that they have the inside track with God and therefore know how everything should be done. When their behavior results in disastrous consequences, as it often does, the members are blamed. Sometimes the leaders may have moments, especially after abusive episodes, when they appear to humble themselves and confess their faults, and the contrast of these moments of vulnerability with their usual pose of being all-powerful endears them to members and gives hope for some open communication.

Threats sometimes accompany all of these methods. Members are told they will be under God’s judgment, under a curse, punished, chastised, chastened if they leave the group or disobey group leaders. Sometimes the leaders, themselves, punish the members, and so members can never be sure when leaders will make good on the threats which they say are God’s idea. The members begin to focus on what they can do to meet any and all group demands and how to preserve peace in the short run. Abusive groups may remove children from their parents, control all the money in the group, arrange marriages, destroy personal items of members or hide personal items.


Warning signs:
Preoccupation with trivial demands of daily life, demanding strict compliance with standards of appearance, dress codes, what foods are or are not to be eaten and when, schedules, threats of God’s wrath if group rules are not obeyed, a feeling of being monitored, watched constantly by those in the group or by leaders. In other words, what the church wants, believes and thinks its members should do becomes everything, and you feel preoccupied with making sure you are meeting the standards. It no longer matters whether you agree that the standards are correct, only that you follow them and thus keep the peace and in the good graces of leaders.

TX Synodia
The monks of Holy Archangels Monastery (TX).

Induced Debility and Exhaustion

People subjected to this type of spiritual abuse become worn out by tension, fear and continual rushing about in an effort to meet group standards. They must often avoid displays of fear, sorrow or rage, since these may result in ridicule or punishment. Rigid ministry demands and requirements that members attend unreasonable numbers of meetings and events makes the exhaustion and ability to resist group pressure even worse.

The Gerondia (Head) Table at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)

Warning Signs:
Feelings of being overwhelmed by demands, close to tears, guilty if one says no to a request or goes against a church standards. Being intimidated or pressured into volunteering for church duties and subjected to scorn or ridicule when one does not “volunteer.” Being rebuked or reproved when family or work responsibilities intrude on church responsibilities.

St. Nektarios Brotherhood at The Russian Synodal Building, NY 2010

Occasional Indulgences

  • Provides motivation for compliance

Leaders of abusive groups often sense when members are making plans to leave and may suddenly offer some kind of indulgence, perhaps just love or affection, attention where there was none before, a note or a gesture of concern. Hope that the situation in the church will change or self doubt (“Maybe I’m just imagining it’s this bad,”) then replace fear or despair and the members decide to stay a while longer. Other groups practice sporadic demonstrations of compassion or affection right in the middle of desperate conflict or abusive episodes. This keeps members off guard and doubting their own perceptions of what is happening.

Some of the brainwashing techniques described are extreme, some groups may use them in a disciplined, regular manner while others use them more sporadically. But even mild, occasional use of these techniques is effective in gaining power.

CA nuns procession 5

Warning Signs:
Be concerned if you have had an ongoing desire to leave a church or group you believe may be abusive, but find yourself repeatedly drawn back in just at the moment you are ready to leave, by a call, a comment or moment of compassion. These moments, infrequent as they may be, are enough to keep hope in change alive and thus you sacrifice years and years to an abusive group.

Feast Day of St. Thekla, 2013, Canada.

Devaluing the Individual

  • Creates fear of freedom and dependence upon captors
  • Creates feelings of helplessness
  • Develops lack of faith in individual capabilities

Abusive leaders are frequently uncannily able to pick out traits church members are proud of and to use those very traits against the members. Those with natural gifts in the areas of music may be told they are proud or puffed up or “anxious to be up front” if they want to use their talents and denied that opportunity. Those with discernment are called judgmental or critical, the merciful are lacking in holiness or good judgment, the peacemakers are reminded the Lord came to bring a sword, not peace. Sometimes efforts are made to convince members that they really are not gifted teachers or musically talented or prophetically inclined as they believed they were. When members begin to doubt the one or two special gifts they possess which they have always been sure were God-given, they begin to doubt everything else they have ever believed about themselves, to feel dependent upon church leaders and afraid to leave the group. (“If I’ve been wrong about even *that*, how can I ever trust myself to make right decisions ever again?”).

CA Nuns choir 3
There are 21 nuns residing at Life-Giving Spring Monastery.

Warning Signs:
Unwillingness to allow members to use their gifts. Establishing rigid boot camp-like requirements for the sake of proving commitment to the group before gifts may be exercised. Repeatedly criticizing natural giftedness by reminding members they must die to their natural gifts, that Paul, after all, said, “When I’m weak, I’m strong,” and that they should expect God to use them in areas other than their areas of giftedness. Emphasizing helps or service to the group as a prerequisite to church ministry. This might take the form of requiring that anyone wanting to serve in any way first have the responsibility of cleaning toilets or cleaning the church for a specified time, that anyone wanting to sing in the worship band must first sing to the children in Sunday School, or that before exercising any gifts at all, members must demonstrate loyalty to the group by faithful attendance at all functions and such things as tithing. No consideration is given to the length of time a new member has been a Christian or to his age or station in life or his unique talents or abilities. The rules apply to everyone alike. This has the effect of reducing everyone to some kind of lowest common denominator where no one’s gifts or natural abilities are valued or appreciated, where the individual is not cherished for the unique blessing he or she is to the body of Christ, where what is most highly valued is service, obedience, submission to authority, and performance without regard to gifts or abilities or, for that matter, individual limitations.

Bishop Joseph at St. John the Forerunner Monastery
Bishop Joseph at St. John the Forerunner Monastery

Biderman Chart

On the Lawful Age to Enter the Monastic Life (St. Basil the Great)

NOTE: The following is taken from The Long Rules, Question 15:

Q 15. At what age consecration of oneself to God should be permitted and at what time the profession of virginity should be regarded as safe.


R. Inasmuch as the Lord says: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me,’1 and the Apostle praises him who has known the Holy Scripture from infancy2 and also directs that childred be reared ‘in the discipline and correction of the Lord,”3 we deem every time of life, even the very earliest, suitable for receiving applicants. Indeed, those children who are bereft of their parents we should take in on our own initiative, so that we may become fathers of the orphans in emulation of Job.4

Those who are under their parents’ care and who are brought to us by them should be received before many witnesses so as not to give occasion [for blame] to those who are desirous of this, but that every unjust tongue uttering blasphemy against us may be stopped,5 They should be received according to this method, but not immediately numbered and reckoned with the body of the community, in order that, in the event of their failing to persevere, they may not afterward heap reproaches on the devout life. They should be reared with all piety as children belonging to the entire community, but meals and quarters for both girls and boys should be separate, to avoid their being too familiar or too self-confident with their elders and, also, that through the rarity of their association with them, their reverence for their directors may be preserved. Furthermore, this separation would prevent their developing a readiness to commit faults when they see the more advanced in perfection incurring penalties for omissions in their duties (if at any time these should happen to be off their guard), and also keep them from being imperceptibly filled with conceit when they witness their elders repeatedly delinquent in that which they themselves do aright. There is no difference, indeed, between a child in years and one who is mentally a child; consequently, it is not surprising that the same faults are often discovered in both. Then, too, [by such an arrangement], the young would not, because of close association with older persons, come to act in a precocious and unbecoming manner by doing things which their elders carry off with decorum by reason of their age. To maintain this economy, then, and to ensure decorous behavior in other respects, the children’s quarters should be separate from those of the more advanced in perfection. Along with other advantages, the quarters inhabited by the monks will not be disturbed by the drilling which is necessary for the young in learning their lessons. The prayers assigned for recitation throughout the day should, however, be said in common by young and old. The young, on the one hand, are generally stimulated by the example of the more perfect, and, on the other, their elders are in no small measure assisted in their prayer by the children. But as regards sleep and rising, the hours, the quantity, and the quality of the meals, specific routines and diets appropriate for children should be arranged.

Children in the monastery from the scandal of Keratea.
Children in the monastery from the scandal of Keratea.

Moreover, one who is advanced in years should be placed in charge of these little ones, a person of more than average experience and who has a reputation for patience. Thus, he will correct the faults of the young with fatherly kindness and give wise instruction, applying remedies proper to each fault, so that, while the penalty for the fault is being exacted, the soul may be exercised in interior tranquility. Has one of them, for example, become angry with a companion? According to the seriousness of his offense, he should be made to care for this comrade and wait on him; for the practice of humility fells, as it were, an angry spirit, while arrogance usually breeds anger within us. Has he partaken of food out of time? Let him fast for most of the day. Has he been accused of eating immoderately or in an unseemly fashion? Let him be deprived of food at meal time and forced to watch the others who know how to eat properly, so that he may be at once punished by abstinence and taught proper decorum. Has he uttered an idle word, or insulted his neighbor, or told a lie, or said anything at all that is forbidden? Let him learn restraint in fasting and silence.

A young monk

Their studies, also, should be in conformity with the aim in view. They should, therefore, employ a vocabulary derived from the Scriptures and, in place of myths, historical accounts of admirable deeds should be told, to them. They should be taught maxims from Proverbs and rewards should be held out to them for memorizing names and facts. In this way, joyfully and with a relaxed mind, they will achieve their aim without pain to themselves and without giving offense. Under the proper guidance, moreover, attentiveness and habits of concentration would readily be developed in such students if they were continually questioned by their teachers as to where their thoughts were and what they were thinking about. A child of tender age, simple, candid, and unskilled in deceit, readily reveals the secrets of his soul; so as not to be continually caught in what is forbidden, he would avoid unsuitable thoughts, and, fearing the shame of a scolding, would instantly recall his mind from its follies.

St Anthony's Monastery Arizona Nov03 081

While the mind is still easy to mold and as pliable as wax, taking the form of what is impressed upon it, it should be exercised from the very beginning in every good discipline. Then, when reason enters in and habits of choice develop, they will take their course from the first elements learned at the beginning and from traditional forms of piety ; reason proposing that which is beneficial and habit imparting facility in right action. At this point, also, permission to make the vow of virginity should be granted, inasmuch as it is now to be relied upon, since it is the individual’s own choice and the decision follows upon the maturing of reason. After this stage, too, rewards for good deeds and penalties for faults proportioned to the importance of the action are meted out by a fair arbiter.

1950 photograph of the children and nuns at Peukovounogiatrissa Monastery in Keratea.
1950 photograph of the children and nuns at Peukovounogiatrissa Monastery in Keratea.

Furthermore, ecclesiastical officials should be called in as witnesses of the decision, so that through their presence, as well, the consecration of the person as a kind of votive offering to God may be sanctified and the act ratified by their testimony; ‘for,’ says the Scripture, ‘in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word stand.’6 In this way, also, the fervor of the brethren will suffer no disedification, for those who have so vowed themselves to God and afterward try to revoke such a vow will have no excuse for their shamelessness. On the other hand, one who does not wish to submit to the life of virginity, on the ground that he is incapable of devoting his whole attention to the things of the Lord, should be dismissed in the presence of the same witnesses. He who makes such a vow, however, after a great amount of careful deliberation which he should be allowed to engage in privately for several days, so that we may not appear to be kidnapping him, should be received forthwith and made a member of the community, sharing the dwelling and daily life of the more advanced in perfection. Moreover to add a point which we had forgotten and which is not out of place here since certain trades must be practiced even from early childhood, whenever any children appear to have an aptitude for these, we should not oppose their remaining during the day with their instructors in the art. At nightfall, however, we should invariably send them back to their companions, with whom they must also take their meals.


1. Mark 10.14.

2. 2 Tim. 3.15.

3. Eph. 6.4.

4. Job 29.12.

5. Ps. 62.12.

6. 2 Cor. 13.1.

For a more thorough examination of this Rule, also see:

It is said that Gerondissa Alexia entered the monastic life at age 12, with the blessing of Geronda Ephraim and in his monastery on Thassos.
It is said that Gerondissa Alexia entered the monastic life at age 12, with the blessing of Geronda Ephraim and in his monastery on Thassos.