NOTE: The following article is taken from the Cypriot newspaper “Phileleftheros” (Ό Φιλελεύθερος), December 18, 2010, p. 23. The article contains the accusations of a hieromonk who was ousted after 22 years of control methods via the administration of psychiatric drugs. http://www.zougla.gr/page.ashx?pid=80&aid=227195&cid=122
The monk, who “was expelled” from the Grigoriou monastery1 on Mount Athos 22 years after his admittance, denounces methods reminiscent of the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.2 According to his allegations, methods of controlling the monks were applied with the administration of psychiatric drugs. The complaints come from Father Christodoulos3 who also produced a movie clip which shows him tied with leg padlocks to a bed, in a room of the Thessaloniki Hospital, where he was brought for “treatment.”
Fr. Christodoulos maintains he was of sound mind. He cites the opinion of Cypriot psychiatrist, Yiangou Mikelidis,4 who states that he examined Father Christodoulos and “he is not suffering from any serious mental illness and has no need of treatment.”
“The monk’s so-called mental illness reacheded,” as he says, “up to the Prefect of Thessaloniki whose testimony was invoked to register a complaint against the Abbot of Gregoriou5 Monastery for slanderous libel. Furthermore, he accuses the monastery’s administration of not returning money that he secured from the sale of his own real estate. Father Christodoulos was not the “typical” type of monk since he sought the Abbot’s resignation, he went on a hunger strike twice and while he was not as obedient, he remained an administrator of the monastery.
When they gave him a certificate of discharge and he refused to leave the monastery, the Monastery’s administration called up policemen from Karyes who accompanied him off the Holy Mountain. They transferred the monk’s belongings to Karyes; these numbered 47 boxes with various personal items and were not delivered to him upon his expulsion.
“They tried to make me crazy”
Fr. Christodoulos (Nicholas Diamantopoulos in the world) spoke to “Φ” about everything he claims happened in Grigoriou Monastery:6
“I joined the Grigoriou Monastery in 1987 at age 30. In 2003 I did a hunger strike demanding the resignation of the Abbot because he could not exercise his duties completely. The Abbot gave me a handwritten letter in which he resigned and asked me to pass it to the elderly congregation (a copy was given to the “Φ”).
“I raised the issue of resignation before the elderly assembly (composed of seven monks) but I was told they did not accept it. I returned to the Abbot and asked to be heard by the whole fraternity consisting of about 70 monks. I developed my position before them and they thereupon prepared a document calling the Public Prosecutor of Thessaloniki to lock me in a mental hospital. With the mobilization of the police, they lead me the mental hospital. The psychiatrist chanced to be a fellow student of the Monastery’s doctor; the one who sent me to the psychiatric hospital. I mentioned to the psychiatrist that I have differences with the Monastery’s administration. I explained that this administration wants to use him to make me out as crazy.
“I called my brother from a phone booth and explained that they wanted to declare me insane. So until he came, they tied me to a bed with the help of security guard. They used straps and padlock. When my two brothers came to ask me what happened, they were paid no attention to. When they saw me tied up, they made a clip with a camera and warned those responsible at the hospital they would be given to the public if they continued to have me bound. My brothers said they would take me to another psychiatrist who is not influenced by the monastery. It took three days of contacts and interventions to allow me to leave.
“I went to another psychiatrist who, after a month of visits, advised that I am suffering from mixed personality disorder which has nothing to do with mental illness or any other serious illness. The doctor told me that I can go to the monastery with no problem. I returned to the monastery where they accepted me. (Last May I went to a psychiatrist, Giagkos Mikellides, who after examining me, opined in writing that I do not suffer from any serious mental illness and have no need of treatment. A copy of the advice was made available to “Φ”).
“In 2004 a priest-monk threatened me, saying they would expel me from the monastery. I started a hunger strike and sought the Abbot’s resignation. An assembly occurred, minus the Abbot who was then outside Mount Athos and I was told that either they would deport me from Mount Athos or I would go to a psychiatrist in Patras.
“I told them that I accept going to a psychiatrist. I went off to my hometown in Peloponnese without seeing a psychiatrist. When I returned a week later, the Abbot didn’t say anything to me nor ask me what happened with the psychiatrist. This means that two powers co-exist in the monastery. On the one hand, the Abbot and on the other an elderly congregation that insists on making me a mental patient.
“The elderly congregation has a problem because when I go out with permission, I travel abroad instead of only in Greece. With the “indiscipline” I require small chastisements for my “indiscipline” such as refraining from chanting, etc.
“In 2006 they changed the exit certificate and restricted my travels to only in Greece. On one occasion the Abbot obliged me to give him 500 prayer ropes, which I made, to enable me to go on a pilgrimage to the Patriarchate. Since then, when I go out with permission, I travel abroad without the blessing of the Abbot.
“This year in March I went to the abbot and asked him to convene the fraternity and invite anyone who has something against me to say it before all. He threatened me with a curse (that he would curse me) because I ask things beyond obedience. When he threatened me with a curse, I wrote a curse. I noted that if I am right then the curse is to fall upon the head of the Abbot; if not, then the curse would fall to mine.7 After that, I came to Cyprus where I spent Pascha and when I returned I was called to the synaxis and they asked me for an explanation about my behavior.
“I told them that I cannot respect them to the depth they want; when in 2003 they tried to make me crazy.
“Afterwards, they gave me a certificate for insult and contempt towards the Abbot, but I returned it because it did not have his signature.
“They insisted that I leave. I didn’t leave and they brought the police in and they escorted me to Karyes.
“The Abbot told the Prefect of Thessaloniki, Mr. Psomiadi, that I’m a mental patient. Then I registered a lawsuit against the Abbot for slander which is pending before the Court.8
To this day, Fr. Christodoulos still speaks out and references the injustices he suffered while living as a monk at Grigoriou Monastery. Here is a recent example, dated January 15, 2016:
“Many who know the details of my monastic life urge me to write an autobiography. If I decide to do such a “crazy thing”, the dead will roll in their graves, as well as the bones of those who are alive—the guileful, treacherous rassaphore monks of Grigoriou Monastery, Mt. Athos who through plots and intrigues that even the Italian Kamora would envy, continually tried to shut my mouth, slander me, humiliate me, ridicule me with processes that reach beyond the limits of a murder attempt at my expense.”
“I have evidence and documents stored electronically that would overturn the thrones of Churches (and not just sovereigns) if I were to publish them!!!”
Grigoriou Monastery (Greek: Γρηγορίου) is situated on the southwest side of the Athos Peninsula in northern Greece, between the monasteries of Dionysiou and Simonopetra. Grigoriou originally was dedicated to the St. Nicholas but later was renamed in honor of its founder, Gregory. It is ranked seventeenth in the hierarchical order of the twenty monasteries located on the Mount Athos peninsula. Grigoriou is reputed to be one of the most well-organized and strict coenobitic monasteries on the Mount Athos peninsula.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1975 American drama film directed by Miloš Forman, based on the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. Now considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is No. 33 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list. In 1993, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
A blog exists under the name of Χριστόδουλος Μοναχός Γρηγοριάτης—though there is no validation that the Monk Christodoulos actually wrote the posts contained therein (especially since he continues to make comments about the monastery to this day). Notably, to this day, he still speaks out about his experiences at Grigoriou Monastery. A month after Abbot George’s resignation, the following retraction was posted on this blog, “My esteemed Geronda, beloved fathers and brothers, please consider everything I posted on this blog as invalid. I recall all of my posts and have deleted them! I seek forgiveness from all of you, hoping that I will obtain favorable treatment. Pray for my salvation as I too! My Metanoia [repentance or prostration] to all of you! Monk Christodoulos. http://monaxoschristodoulos.blogspot.com/2014/03/blog-post.html
Archimandrite George Kapsanis resigned from his abbacy in February 2014 for reasons unknown. He died on the day of Pentecost later that year (June 8, 2014).
In April 2014, a blog existing under the name of “Monk Christodoulos Grigoriatis”, posted “My Second Sorry to Grigoriou Monastery.” This “Epistle of Repentance to Geronda George Kapsanis and the Holy Monastery of Grigoriou, Mount Athos” sounds more like a PR campaign contrived by the monastery. To this day, when talking about his experiences at Grigoriou Monastery, Christodoulos speaks quite differently than the content found in this epistle. Here is the epistle in its entirety:
My esteemed Geronda,
Since April 2010, I have written and published on the internet or notifications by means of mass media (television, radio, newspapers) that gave me step of speech, ungrounded, obscene and other charges against you and against the brothers of the Monastery.
I recognize fully that both you and the brothers of the monastery are persons above reproach in every respect and that my accusations were untrue. But now I am fully aware of the truth and repent for what they did. I confess that I caused you great grief and psychic pain, but also scandalized many people who did not know the ethos of Grigoriou Monastery. I publicly apologize for this, both to you and the brothers of the monastery and the people I scandalized.
As a minimum indication of my practical repentance, I’ve already deleted my website that I maintained with the unjust and false accusations which I address to you and the brothers of the monastery, and I have posted two letters of apology online (this and the preceding that I have sent).
I hope that in this way I can restore, albeit slightly, the harm I caused you.
Because I am monk and I look forward to my salvation, I put my metanoia [repentance or prostration] and ask for your blessing.
I wish you a good and blessed Pascha in love of the Lord!
My repentance towards my former monastery Fr. George Kapsanis, Elder Fr. Christopher, the Fathers of the Holy Assembly and all the fathers of the monastery. Evlogeite your blessing!!
Geronda Ephraim teaches that cursing clergymen never works and it always falls back on the curser seven-fold. However, a curse by a clergyman always sticks due to the grace of ordination. In this case, both participants are ordained priests; thus, the curse by whichever hieromonk is in the right would have stuck.
There does not seem to be any information about these proceedings available on the web.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”).
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.
NOTE: This article is taken from Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, pp. 123-155. It has been condensed.
One of the things that cults do well is the construction of inspiring and exciting alternative worldviews. They do this passionately and with great skill, and the most successful of them are also skilled at creating internally consistent social and cultural contexts to make these worldviews visible and attractive both to their members and to their audiences. Consequently, researchers attempting to study cults are confronted with a set of problems beyond those encountered by ethnographers studying other types of social organizations. Researchers of cults are faced with a kind of hall of mirrors in which they must contend with multiple layers of reality construction. In this chapter I discuss the potential pitfalls inherent in doing research on such groups.
First, let me attempt to define what I mean by cult, that problematic word:
A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds.
At certain times in its history a cult can be a precisely defined group with clear boundaries separating members from outsiders, and at other times it can take the form of a more amorphous social movement with fuzzy concentric boundaries shading off imperceptibly from totally committed inner-circle members to fellow travellers to vaguely interested spectators.
When one turns the viewing lens on a single cult in order to extract a thick definition of the forces that hold it together, one inevitably sees charismatic relationships and devotion to transcendent ideology as the important defining features.
Cults Try to Prevent You from Coming Backstage after the Show
Often cults are found to be mystical, grandiose, secretive, and multi-layered. Such characteristics have been noted by various researchers.1 There is no way to know how many times researchers have been successfully ‘fooled’ by such groups, in the sense that researchers were shown a version of reality that either differed from the typical daily life or hid from view the negative or controversial aspects. But if we assume that a researcher wants to present a thorough descriptive account, then how best achieve that goal? Whether doing content analysis of documents, participant observation, or interviews, in addition to abiding by generally accepted standards of research in the social sciences, an important first step would be for the researcher to acknowledge that there might be some distortion going on, meant either to impress or to hide, or both.
Over the years there has been a surprising likeness in reports of systems of control and influence used in cultic groups, which have served to misinform, disinform, or obfuscate in one way or another. Those efforts at information control and impression management might be called the group’s ‘mask of normalcy.’ This mask can serve to keep researchers at arm’s length, impeding an inside look at what really transpires. For that reason a researcher must be methodical, thorough, and grounded, and have a solid but flexible plan or approach.
An initial task involves acquiring basic knowledge of the group in question. Know as much as possible about the group beforehand (its doctrine, practices and rituals, lingo, history, lineage, controversies, and crises); then be ready to entertain various interpretations of findings. A central challenge, of course, is gaining access.
I offer here a glimpse of the various strategies used some of the time by some groups, with examples of the types of occurrences that might derail the researcher…These manipulative strategies pose four categories of problems for the researcher who would not be deceived: (1) tricks and setups; (2) demands, restrictions, and intimidation; (3) informants as spin masters; and (4) researcher susceptibility to the cult’s appeal.2 I will discuss each of them in turn.
Problem 1: Tricks and Setups
Researchers must remember the ease with which a group can trick visitors and outsiders. This can happen through selected interviewees, selected topics of discussion, and staged events.
When visiting a group facility or location, a researcher may believe that she is free to interview or observe whomever is there, and as a result may feel that she has been given free reign. In many cases, however, only trusted members are allowed in those locations during the time the researcher (or, in some cases, the public) will be there. As a result, ‘outsiders’ end up talking to or interviewing only those group members who were preselected by the gatekeeper, or were pre-assigned and trained as spoke-persons for the group.3 Another way this type of control occurs is through either overt or indirect censoring of responses and interactions.4
Selected Topics of Discussion
Researchers or journalists who want to interview a group leader may quickly learn that this is not so easy. One evasive strategy has been to ask researchers to submit their questions in writing to the leader, who then (either himself or through his aides) selectively chooses the questions he wants to answer. Sometimes the questions are rewritten so the leader can talk about his own favourite topics.
These events occur for a variety of reasons: to gain credibility for the group, to recruit, to fund-raise, to keep members busy, or simply to put forth a public face.
Beneath the facade there is often a hidden layer—and, in this case, more than one. While the performance itself is sociologically interesting, equally important is what is being hidden: the backstage, the secret nature of the organization, its purpose, and the control of its membership.
Manipulative strategies are devised for a particular context. The purpose is to impress and recruit, and the members’ dedication, commitment, and idealism are taken advantage of, both to put on a good front and to hide certain less desirable aspects.
An antidote to the types of tricks and setups that researchers might encounter would be to try to establish beforehand some ways to ensure getting unadulterated data. For example, whenever possible, and, if the setting permits, arrive unannounced or early. Try to visit a group’s various locations, including members’ residences, the leaders’ quarters, and any other special facilities. Also request that you be allowed to randomly select interview subjects, and ask permission to speak with members of different ranks, positions, functions, and lengths of time in the group. If at all possible, conduct your interviews off-site, which may allow members to speak more freely. Naturally, all of this must be done within ethical research standards and in a way that maintains good relations with your subjects. Be sensitive as well to the potential emotional, psychological, or physical risks that may befall your informants—whether they are current or former members. And take that same care yourself.
Problem 2: Demands, Restrictions, and Intimidation
Researchers must be alert to a group’s attempt to put demands on them by restricting visiting times, locations, and access to members, and sometimes even requesting to review and approve the researcher’s results or final reports. If a group so desires and is unable to put its stamp of approval on a report, or if a negative or critical report should surface, harassment of the authors and/or publishers is always a possibility.
Ayella5 advises that researchers be critical of the kind of access they are given. Why is a group allowing you in? Is it looking for a clean bill of health or stamp of approval? Has it been criticized recently and is now seeking outside aid in impression management? Does the group understand and agree with scientific norms of research? And possibly most critical, did the group invite you to do the research? Honest answers to such questions may reveal that a researcher is slated to become an unwitting pawn in someone else’s project, perhaps with a questionable goal, and, potentially, with just as questionable an outcome.
Cultic groups with controversial and secret practices are unlikely to be open to scrutiny. It is not unusual for such groups to work against the airing of information that might be detrimental. Groups much prefer positive puff pieces.6
Problem 3: Informants as Spin Masters
Researchers may encounter trained behaviour on the part of cult members and adherents. Therefore, while acknowledging this front-stage activity, researchers must also be prepared to seek out backstage behaviours and attitudes. Researchers might also consider ways in which they might evoke a fuller picture of what is going on in the member-informant’s mind. Such investigation requires perseverance, creativity, and critical thinking.
As noted earlier, some cults allow only carefully selected members to speak with the press or outsiders.
There is a type of briefing, grilling, and role-playing that occurs in some groups which is intended to train members to respond in desired ways, rather than as they feel. As Barker so aptly described:7
“Some members of some movements have gone further than concealing the truth—they have denied the truth, blatantly lying to potential converts and ‘outsiders.’ Furthermore, some members of some movements lie to other members of the same movement. It is not unusual for members of certain NRMs not to know what their leaders get up to—how the money is spent, exactly who issues the orders, or what the long-term goals of the leaders are.
“Sometimes members have been instructed to say that they are collecting money, food or other goods for the aged, for young people on drugs, or for poor people in underdeveloped countries. Sometimes these statements are downright lies; at other times, they are twisting the truth; at yet other times, the members may convince themselves that they are telling the truth.”
In researching cultic groups, the text is perhaps not so important as the subtext and nonverbal clues.
Planting members trained to ‘spin’ in the group’s front organizations is a common tactic among cults concerned about their public image.
Problem 4: Researcher Susceptibility to the Cult’s Appeal
Researchers of cultic groups are treading into charismatic environments. Many of these groups have great appeal—through the belief system, the activities and interactions, the members, and, of course, the leaders. Researchers must learn how not to be overly influenced by the charismatic performance of a leader—whether it consists of showing off, or feigned humility, or both. Being dazzled by the leader’s glamour is something many a researcher has experienced, if only momentarily. But the savvy researcher will acknowledge his vulnerabilities and guard against succumbing to this very human foible.
I realize how difficult it is to gain access to a cultic group, let alone remain disinterested. Barker8 spoke of the dangers of getting too close to one’s subject; she cautioned against favouritism in reporting, or researchers acting to protect members from experiencing bad press. Spending time with these groups, attending their services or meetings or events, observing members interact, sitting with them while their leader is lecturing—certainly only someone made of stone would not feel drawn in. How else can the researcher expect to gather data and draw interpretations? A researcher must both yield and hold back—a sometimes tricky mix in what are often extraordinary settings.
Operating with the authority of charisma, some leaders of charismatic groups go so far as to fancy themselves to be above and beyond human.
Many cult leaders are quite gifted at their public performances. It is not surprising, then, that the researcher, a mere mortal, finds herself responding to the charismatic lure. Naturally, the wise cult leader counts on such a response—it is not only self-validating but also likely to achieve some desired outcome. A researcher who finds himself swayed by the prowess, magical powers, wisdom, or flattery of a cult leader is less likely to be ‘objective’ in his recording and reporting. Therefore, the researcher might want to put into place certain safeguards against those automatic emotional responses. The first would be, of course, to admit to one’s susceptibility to that charismatic pull. The next would be to institute checkpoints and outside reminders to help bring you back to earth. For example: (1) ensure that you have sufficient time alone, away from group rituals, practices, and paraphernalia; (2) place regular phone calls home or to colleagues who can give you a reality check; (3) stay on a good diet with plenty of liquids, nourishment, and protein; (4) surround yourself with reminders of your usual life; and (5) engage in regular reviews of research objectives. It is important to remember that the objective is not to get recruited, or even to have a good time, but to collect data and report on your findings.
How Not to Become a Mere Apologist for the Cult You Are Studying
No researcher wants to become a pawn of the group that he or she is studying, but it is all too easy and tempting to fall into just that trap. Cultural anthropologists have long been known to become protective of the tribes they study. The more they come to understand tribes from the inside, the more they realize how vulnerable those distant cultures are to misunderstanding back home. Similarly, with cults, many aspects of their behaviour that seem weird to outsiders are much more understandable within the cult’s own milieu. It is only human nature for the researcher, having worked so hard to become familiar with the cult’s context, to wish to parade this expertise by explaining to the world why certain outrageous cult behaviours really do make sense when looked at from the appropriate perspective. Add to all this the fact that the leaders of totalistic cults are in a position to grant the researcher complete access to the cult with a mere wave of the hand, or just as easily to take it all away, as we have seen. Thus, the urge to ingratiate compounds itself upon the urge to protect the cult. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that some researchers have found it difficult to resist the pressure to become apologists rather than unbiased observers.
The secrecy that often envelops cultic organizations makes that pressure all the more of an obstacle to objective research. Wilson9 was explicit in advising researchers that the ‘tendency toward secrecy is intensified’ in cults and sects.10 Investigators who are not aware of (or turn a blind eye to) this reality will be doing a disservice to their field and to their research subjects. When researchers don’t make efforts to look at what might be going on behind the scenes or when they accept the front stage at face value, the results will stack up alongside some of the weaker studies and analyses in this field.
An instance of whitewashing occurred recently when a sociologist of religion was flown out to the West Coast as an expert to do a report on a local controversial group for a lawyer and public relations firm hired by the group (or rather, a member of the group), after two or three days in the area, the scholar asserted in writing that the group was not a cult and there was no evidence of brainwashing. His report was sent to both local and national media, as well as to some families of group members who were being affected by the brewing controversy. The report helped to stave off (and water down) media exposes, and put another wedge between some of the families and their relatives in the group. The scholar’s findings, however, were at odds with other evidence from cross-corroborated, first-hand reports from almost a dozen former members and families of members, documentation from a lawsuit filed several years earlier, and extensive research done by a local investigative reporter, which included access to internal group materials and videotapes that gave direct evidence to support some of the allegations. Nevertheless, the scholar’s report, based on a couple days of visits orchestrated by the group, and supported by a well-paid public relations campaign, as well as legal threats, made it more difficult to shed light on this group’s controversial backstage behaviour.
Some apologists are quick to say that everything from the 913 Jonestown deaths to the allegations of child abuse or sexual improprieties in other groups are nothing but the result of the ‘bigoted and criminal’ anticult movement and a handful of ‘disgruntled and vengeful’ former cult members. Yet, I would argue that such mud merely sullies the waters but does not change the facts. Over the years there has been enough evidence that at least some cultic groups have engaged in illegal and harmful activities, and, on a lesser scale, have created environments held together by intense forms of enforced conformity and rigid methods of controlling and constraining their members. These situations and these aspects of organizational control must not be overlooked if we are to understand these groups and their behaviours, as well as attempt to comprehend the lives and choices of the individual members. We must not be guided by the ‘norms of academia [that] make us reluctant to believe or disseminate negative facets of controversial groups.’11 Rather it is vital to look beyond the surface appeal of any group in order to examine and assess both the individual and societal ramifications and implications. Then, as Barker suggested, one’s interpretation of raw data might ‘become a basis for social action’12 that is preferably positive in nature as opposed to simply being favourable to the group’s perspective.
The work of scholars in this field can and does have real-life implications. Apologies and whitewashing based on inadequate or biased research may help perpetuate harm by glossing over or covering up questionable practices and activities, and, at worst, a variety of improprieties, abuses, or crimes. A researcher’s job is to produce knowledge and minimize distortion. Data provided by a cultic group should never be taken at face value, and being courted or toured about by the leadership is probably not a reliable avenue to anything other than a superficial view. Every charismatic group has gatekeepers who control the group’s environment, and many groups have vast public relations operations that send out polished views of their corporate world or public face. Similarly, claims by those who appear to be opponents of the group or merely taking a critical stance must also be verified and cross-corroborated; but they should not be ignored or discounted. If Lofland and Lofland’s13 ‘questioning mind-set’ is recommended in everyday research of ‘ordinary’ situations, then it seems only obvious that such an attitude would be all the more necessary when investigating cultic groups.
Use of Whistle-Blowers in Cult Research
Another important issue in researching cultic groups relates to the use of former members as informants and/or as researchers. Generally, in other contexts, a researcher will pursue information and insights from previous participants or other affiliated persons (e.g., consultants, business partners, investors, project collaborators, fellow-travellers, relatives). But in cult research, whether or not to use former members as sources of information has been a subject of much controversy. This controversy has raised such basic questions as the following: Should former member accounts be sought out, ignored, or overtly discounted and discredited? Are such accounts valid and reliable? Why or why not? Do all former cult members express negativity about their experiences, or just the ones who have been ‘deprogrammed’? Do all former cult members who speak critically about their experiences have an unworthy agenda? Why are some scholars adamant about deriding the accounts of those who are critical of their former group?
Central to this discussion is the issue of reliability and validity of so-called apostate accounts. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.), apostasy merely means ‘abandonment of a previous loyalty’ or ‘renunciation of a religious faith.’ Yet some scholars appear determined to discredit the testimony of any and all former cult members.14 They label former-member accounts as atrocity tales, and promote the idea that they should never be taken seriously. Instead, such researchers tend to rely on the accounts of leaders and current members, as well as accepting at face value the group’s literature (when it exists) and explanations.
However, other scholars do believe in truthfulness and the value of the accounts of former members. There is a risk in doing so, however—such as being accused of being an anticult-movement sympathizer, not getting published in certain academic journals, not being accepted as a conference participant, being pressured to conform, or, as discussed earlier, being threatened or harassed by the cult in question.
Former-member reports could be regarded as vital to obtaining a more comprehensive picture of certain cults. Especially taking into account the level at which a person functioned while in the group, a former-member informant who was in leadership or had other kinds of access to privileged locations or information is a valued source of information. Wilson noted that the lack of cooperation on the part of leaders or members will influence ‘what can be discovered and how what is discovered is understood.’15 In this vein, Zablocki16 reminds us that ethnographers rarely see anything but front-stage behaviour. The implication of Wilson’s and Zablocki’s comments is that it is even more crucial to gather data from those who have participated in and left a group. Seeing only front-stage behaviour typically means that a researcher will not get to hear members talk about what is really on their minds.
Many researchers in this field insist on the need for triangulation (using multiple sources of varying viewpoints), although few seem to practice what they preach. This lack of thoroughness has been reinforced by those who strive to delegitimate the entire category of former-member accounts. For such researchers there are two types of former members: (1) ‘good’ former members (called leave-takers) who leave the group quietly, and (2) ‘bad’ former members (labeled apostates) who voice discontent about their experiences.17 Here is but one example of this crude typology:
“The apostate is a defector who is aligned with an oppositional coalition in an effort to broaden a dispute, and embraces public claims-making activities to attack his or her former group. Unlike typical leavetakers whose responses range from indifference to quiet disenchantment, the apostate assumes a vituperative or hostile posture and pursues a moral campaign to discredit the group.”
Bromley,19 Wright,20 Lewis,21 and others put forth the notion that so-called career apostates (those bad former members) have won over and influenced the views of journalists, commentators, and, hence, the general public. Yet, I have seen no evidence of any solid effort on the part of those scholars to ascertain, for example, what percentage of former members actually even speak out about their groups, much less in the exaggerated form attributed to them. It is my contention that the image of the vengeful, fabricating apostate has a shabby foundation.
Former members are reluctant to speak about their experiences or participate in public forums—not because they do not have important experiences and insights to share, but rather because they are self-critical, cautious, stigmatized, and fearful of lawsuits. In many instances, those who have decided to speak publicly or write about their experiences have chosen not to identify the group or name the leader.
In the end, former members have provided invaluable insights into complex phenomena, making important contributions to our understanding of cults and charismatic relationships.22
The Issue of Reflexivity Bias
Reflexivity bias can occur when the researcher is also a member or an ex-member of the cult being studied and therefore sees the cult in part as reflected through his or her own internalized cult worldview and/or memories of cult experiences. Clearly, such researchers have the benefit of having had an inside look, which can provide insight into other similar situations and is a vantage point not often shared by others. Yet, the insider perspective can also colour what the researcher sees and the conclusions she draws. Along with the opportunities afforded by insider status, doing research on a cult with which one had been affiliated poses a set of unique challenges.
First, and most obviously, it is important to openly acknowledge any personal interest in the subject in general, any personal experiences that may influence objectivity, any residual cult or anticult point of view, as well as any bias one may have concerning the group being studied.23
Researchers who have been members of the groups they are studying have the considerable advantage of already knowing the cult’s private ‘language.’ They know what the leader means by his or her often-coded utterances. They know where to look, and what veils to shake loose. They are familiar with the effect of the leader’s words (spoken or written) on the devotees. They have lived with and shared the group’s attitudes towards outsiders. They may even be aware of the false claims, the tricks, the devices used to sway and convince. For example, in one group, words were manipulated to serve the leader’s sexual urges, so that ‘meditating with swami’ meant engaging in sexual activities with him.24 That usage was understood only by those in his inner circle who were expected to participate in the sexual behaviour. Someone from outside listening to an adherent of this particular swami, or observing behaviour around the ashram, probably would not catch on to the subterranean world of words, glances, gestures, relationships, and so on, whereas a former-member researcher stands to grasp more precisely the meanings of statements and actions.
The ability to comprehend a cult’s literature or spoken word is also enhanced by having shared the insider perspective.
Naturally, as with any research, a former member’s memories and perceptions must be corroborated, and triangulation becomes critical. But having been there lends a perspective and provides insights not otherwise possible. Ultimately, I see no problem in former cult members conducting research on their own group or any other so long as ‘experiences prior to entering the field [are] subjected to analytic reflection.’25
How to Get a Peek Backstage When the Cult Doesn’t Want You To
Cults are private organizations and deserve respect for their privacy. It follows from this that when a cult says ‘No, thank you’ to a request for research access, the ‘no’ response should be respected. And, perhaps even more obviously, a researcher does not have the ethical right to infiltrate a cult’s circles by pretending to be a devotee. However, it does not follow from this that cults have the right to play it coy with researchers and show the pretty side while hiding the ugly. Researchers have rights too; and, once a researcher has been invited in, there is nothing wrong with trying to see behind the masks and the facade. Doing so during any but the briefest stay at a cult is far from impossible, but it does require that the researcher keep her wits about her.
Various scholars have presented useful suggestions to help pave the way. More than a decade ago, Balch26 offered a comprehensive guide for the kind of data needed in the studies of these groups. His hope was that these categories would become standard. The categories are (1) demographic characteristics of membership, (2) historical development, (3) structure and content of belief system, (4) leadership, (5) social organization, (6) relationship between members and outsiders, (7) economic system, (8) material culture, (9) patterns of everyday life, (10) talk, (11) sexual relationships, (12) child-rearing, (13) deviance and social control, (14) recruitment strategies, (15) commitments demanded of members, (16) socialization techniques, (17) conversion experiences, and (18) defection. Balch argued that too often in published studies many of those topics were ignored or touched on too lightly to be useful for comparative purposes. In agreement with that perspective, I believe that researchers would be making a far greater contribution to the study of cults if they kept those categories in mind as they went about their work.
More recently, Balch and Langdon had these suggestions: ‘First, scholars who study alternative religions need to be familiar with the charges against them before they begin collecting data. Second, they should not take members’ claims at face value, however reasonable they seem. Third, they need to interview defectors and other critics to get different viewpoints, although here too they must be aware of hidden agendas. Finally, whatever the source of information, statements presented as fact need to be corroborated and verified with independent evidence.’27 Those four points, in my opinion, could serve as an invaluable guide for researchers of cults and controversial new religious and social movements.
Watch how people relate to each other, and especially how they act around the leader.
Ask tough questions—about money, about sex, about decision-making procedures, about time away from the group, about independent thinking. Be ready with specific questions, and don’t let them get deflected or turned back on you. Insist on specific answers, and don’t accept digressions or evasions. Get examples. Consider speaking with former members beforehand, so that you as the researcher will be armed with the types of probes that should generate some useful data.
Look carefully at all mechanisms of conformity and control. Study the living quarters, clothing style, and speech and mannerisms to assess the extent of individual expression. Find out about group dynamics, criticism sessions, confessionals, or other means of using group processes to enforce conformity through humiliation, guilt, shame, and various means of influence and peer pressure.
Determine how the group tolerates—or does not tolerate—dissent. Assess how former members are regarded, whether current members have access to former members or critical reports, and how much contact there is with families and other ‘outsiders.’ Also, find out if there is an internal justice system, a mechanism for feedback, and also one for appeals.
When evaluating documents, use the same reflexive and critical thinking as in any other project. Be sure to review both external (for public consumption) and internal (for members only) documents; in the latter category, there are likely to be tiers of documents meant for members at ascending levels of commitment or trust. Using questions such as those posed in basic research texts would be a good start: ‘How are documents written? How are they read? Who writes them? Who reads them? For what purposes? On what occasions? With what outcomes? What is recorded? What is omitted? What does the writer seem to take for granted about the reader(s)? What do readers need to know in order to make sense of them? The list can be extended readily, and the exploration of such questions would lead the ethnographer inexorably towards a systematic examination of each and every aspect of everyday life in the setting in question.’28
Fact-check everything you can. Group lore transforms easily into self-perpetuating myths that serve the cult’s image. It is important to look beyond the obvious, and use multiple sources of information and verification, including going outside the confines of the information provided by the cult and/or its archives.
Overall my advice is, be more like state investigators who drop in on nursing homes unannounced. Assume that things will be hidden, or prettied up. Be on the lookout for less-than-obvious findings and nonverbal cues. Charismatic leaders don’t need to hold a gun to their followers’ heads to get them to comply, but charismatic magic does only part of the job. Thus, explore specifically how the system works to bind members to the group and/or leader. Who are the key players and what are the crucial interactions? Where and when do they take place? How can you, the researcher, gain access to that?
As Lofland and Lofland cautioned, ‘The researcher is bound to doubt and to check and to hold all claims as simply claims. This creates an unavoidable tension between social scientists, group members, and any champions of those members.’29 An objective look that does not gloss over what is there requires being aware of the ways in which cultic groups can cover up or tone down. To reveal or write about these realities is not an attack on religious deviance or non-mainstream behaviour; rather, it is offering a more complete look at complex phenomena. Whether or not a researcher takes the next step of also providing a critique of certain social practices is an individual choice.
The full article can be read here:
See Balch, Robert W., What’s Wrong with the Study of New Religions and What Can We Do About It?, Balch & Langdon, How the Problem of Malfeasance Gets Overlooked in Studies of New Religions, 1998. Barker, Eileen, New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, 1995. Carter, Lewis F., Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram: The Role of Shared Values in the Creation of a Community, 1990. Singer, Margaret Thaler, Cults in our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives, 1995. Tobias & Lalich, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships, 1994. Wilson, Bryan R., Methodological Perspectives in the Study of Religious Minorities, 1988. Zablocki, Benjamin D., Distinguishing Front-stage from Back-stage Behavior in the Study of Religious Communities, 1997.
Hammersley & Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice,
Carter, Lewis F., Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram: The Role of Shared Values in the Creation of a Community,
Ayella, Marybeth, ‘They Must Be Crazy’: Some of the Difficulties in Researching ‘Cults,’
In some research textbooks the effort at derailing Wallis’ work on Scientology has become a case example of meddling in a researcher’s results and conclusions (see, for example, Hammersley & Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 1996: 283-4). Being the target of one of these campaigns is never fun. Such experiences have been described by Julius H. Rubin in Techniques for Suppressing Information Used by New Religious Groups, According to Rubin, because the leadership was displeased with what they considered to be critical reports of their group, Rubin was characterized as an enemy and sued for defamation, and other attempts were made to discredit him. In another instance, when Kent’s study on the leader of the Children of God (now The Family) was at the page proof stage, the article was withdrawn from an academic, peer-reviewed, annual publication because of the aggressive actions and threats towards the publisher (Kent & Krebs, Academic Compromise in the Social Scientific Study of Alternative Religions, 1998). Other incidents of harassment and intimidation of researchers and critics are recounted by Singer. Efforts such as these, whose aim is the control and suppression of information, tend to have a chilling effect on research.
Barker, Eileen, New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, 1995, pp. 49-50.
Barker, Eileen, The Scientific Study of Religion? You Must Be Joking!,
Wilson, Bryan R., Methodological Perspectives in the Study of Religious Minorities, 1988, p. 238.
In the article Wilson uses ‘religious minorities,’ although it is clear that he is referring to new religious movements, cults, and sects.
Carter, Lewis F., Carriers of Tales: On Assessing Credibility of Apostate and Other Outsider Accounts of Religious Practices, 1998, p. 229.
Barker, Eileen, New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, 1995, p. Xi.
Lofland & Lofland, Analyzing Social Settings: A Guide to Qualitative Observation and Analysis,
See, for example Bromley, David G., The Politics of Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements,
Wilson, Bryan R., Methodological Perspectives in the Study of Religious Minorities, 1988, p. 230.
Zablocki, Benjamin D., Reliability and Validity of Apostate Accounts in the Study of Religious Communities,
Zablocki, Benjamin D., A Sociological Theory of Cults,
Wright, Stuart A., Exploring Factors that Shape the Apostate Role, 1998, p. 109.
Bromely, David G., The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles,
Wright, Stuart A., Another View of the Mt. Carmel Standoff,
Lewis, James R., Self-fulfilling Stereotypes, the Anticult Movement, and the Waco Conflagration,
See, for example, A Collective of Women,
See Burawoy, et. al., Ethnography Unbound: Power and Resistance in the Modern Metropolis, 1991; Sobo & de Munck, The Forest of Methods, 1998; and Steier, Frederick, Reflexivity, Interpersonal Communication, and Interpersonal Communication Research,
Betz, Katherine E., No Place to Go: Life in a Prison Without Bars,
Hammersley & Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice,
Balch, Robert W., What’s Wrong with the Study of New Religions and What Can We Do About It?,
Balch & Langdon, How the Problem of Malfeasance Gets Overlooked in Studies of New Religions, 1998, p. 207.
Hammersley & Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice, 1996, pp. 173-74.
Lofland & Lofland, Analyzing Social Settings: A Guide to Qualitative Observation and Analysis, 1995, pp. 154-55
NOTE: This article is taken from the book, Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships. It was adapted from a checklist originally developed by Michael Langone.
Concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may have been manipulated, exploited, even abused. The following list of social-structural,
social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioural patterns commonly found in cultic environments may be helpful in assessing a particular group or relationship.
Compare these patterns to the situation you were in (or in which you, a family member, or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine if there is cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.
[x] The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law. [Blind obedience to Geronda Ephraim and his teachings is the foundation and essence of his “family.” Many times, he is equated with Christ, and more emphasis is placed on his books and cassette homilies than the Bible].
[x] Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished. [Questioning or talking negatively about Geronda is equated with Luciferian egoism. Both acts are punished with prostrations, the Lity and in some cases, the other monastics will be instructed they have no blessing to talk to the dissenter].
[x]Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s). A monastic, and lay person if possible, must ceaselessly recite the Jesus Prayer 24/7, either mentally or vocally. Within the monasteries, there is also the daily 1/2 hour-3 hour breathing/meditative exercise of Prayer of the Heart. Work hours are long and excessive with the purpose to “exhaust the flesh and carnal desires.”
[x]The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth). Though the dictation of one’s life, thoughts and feelings is much stricter for monastic disciples, lay spiritual children under Geronda Ephraim still need blessings for minute details of their lives–dating, getting a job, how to discipline children, etc. The spiritual Father has the last say–he can order one to break up with someone, not take a job, buy a car, house, etc., all for “the spiritual benefit of their spiritual child.”
[x] The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity). [Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries are the “last bastion of authentic, traditional monasticism in the world.” It is generally taught and believed that “Geronda Ephraim is the holiest man in the world, and the last great saint of the Orthodox Church.” Spiritual children are taught that after the “False Union” that is coming, and especially in the days of the Antichrist, one will only be able to find true Orthodoxy in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries; “everywhere else will be apostate, unionist, pseudo-Orthodox churches.”
[x]The group has a polarised us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. “Those who aren’t with us are against us.” Essentially, the ecumenist and mainstream hierarchs, priests, Archons, AHEPA, freemasons, Zionists, CIA, etc. are inspired by demons to stop the salvific work of the monasteries and end Geronda Ephraim’s Apostolic work here.
[x]The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations). Though technically accountable to his Hierarch, it is generally accepted in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries that because he is a saint, he is not really bound by Canons, obedience to worldly hierarchs or jurisdictions. Anytime he overrides a hierarch or synodal canon/decree, it is generally accepted that he either received an obedience or a blessing from the Panagia, or Christ Himself.
[x] The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviours or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities). A book can be written about all the white collar crime, falsified documents, lies, cover-ups, lawsuits, etc. A monastic can average lying once to a dozen times a day, all blessed via obedience. This is even more so for the monastic who answers phones. The Gerondissa or Geronda many times will instruct them, “If anyone calls, tell them you don’t know where I am or I am out of the monastery for the day, and take a message.” Meanwhile, they’re in their cell all day. The one answering the phone knows this, but lies, or rather does obedience, and says whatever they are told.
[x] The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. The superior “rebukes in and out of season,” namely, one gets humbled, insulted and yelled at when they’ve erred, but also when they’ve done nothing wrong, as a test. Private confessions are revealed to other monastics at the “discernment” of the Elder, whether in a group setting to humble the individual, or without the individual’s presence and more as gossip.
[x] Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group. This is a requirement of all monastic novices. Though certain monastics have special privileges and can keep close familial communications and connections.
[x] The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. More with pilgrims–monastery tourism. In the first years, there was a drive for monastic recruitment but that has dwindled due to all the problems and issues that have occurred in the various monasteries. “In the beginning it was about quantity, now it is about quality.”
[x] The group is preoccupied with making money. The monasteries are all incorporated and they function like corporations. Besides the dependency on donations, the monasteries have all ventured into various business endeavors and projects to help earn more profits to help build bigger and better buildings and chapels.
[x]Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities. This is non-negotiable for the monastics. With lay people, if they want to remain in the monasteries good books, they should comply to any favor asked of them. Noncompliance brings about passive aggressive guilt tripping. Continual noncompliance or making excuses when help is needed can result in the monastery distancing themselves from the individual.
[x] Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialise only with other group members. “Bad company corrupts good habits.”
[x]The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group. Geroinda Ephraim has stated that those who stay with him until the end will be saved; this is based on a vision. Monastics are taught and believe that if they leave the monastic life, there is no hope for salvation for them. Lay people are taught that Geronda Ephraim and his father confessors are the only ones in America with the spiritual experience to help guide them to salvation and theosis.
Today Mind control or brainwashing in academia is commonly referred to as coercive persuasion, coercive psychological systems or coercive influence. The short description below comes from Dr. Margaret Singer professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley the acknowledged leading authority in the world on mind control and cults.
a short overview
Coercion is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as:
1. To force to act or think in a certain manner
2. To dominate, restrain, or control by force
3. To bring about by force.
Coercive psychological systems are behavioral change programs which use psychological force in a coercive way to cause the learning and adoption of an ideology or designated set of beliefs, ideas, attitudes, or behaviors. The essential strategy used by the operators of these programs is to systematically select, sequence and coordinate many different types of coercive influence, anxiety and stress-producing tactics over continuous periods of time. In such a program the subject is forced to adapt in a series of tiny “invisible” steps. Each tiny step is designed to be sufficiently small so the subjects will not notice the changes in themselves or identify the coercive nature of the processes being used. The subjects of these tactics do not become aware of the hidden organizational purpose of the coercive psychological program until much later, if ever. These tactics are usually applied in a group setting by well intentioned but deceived “friends and allies” of the victim. This keeps the victim from putting up the ego defenses we normally maintain in known adversarial situations. The coercive psychological influence of these programs aim to overcome the individual’s critical thinking abilities and free will – apart from any appeal to informed judgment. Victims gradually lose their ability to make independent decisions and exercise informed consent. Their critical thinking, defenses, cognitive processes, values, ideas, attitudes, conduct and ability to reason are undermined by a technological process rather than by meaningful free choice, rationality, or the inherent merit or value of the ideas or propositions being presented. How Do They Work?
The tactics used to create undue psychological and social influence, often by means involving anxiety and stress, fall into seven main categories.
Increase suggestibility and “soften up” the individual through specific hypnotic or other suggestibility-increasing techniques such as: Extended audio, visual, verbal, or tactile fixation drills, Excessive exact repetition of routine activities, Sleep restriction and/or Nutritional restriction.
Establish control over the person’s social environment, time and sources of social support by a system of often-excessive rewards and punishments. Social isolation is promoted. Contact with family and friends is abridged, as is contact with persons who do not share group-approved attitudes. Economic and other dependence on the group is fostered.
Prohibit disconfirming information and non supporting opinions in group communication. Rules exist about permissible topics to discuss with outsiders. Communication is highly controlled. An “in-group” language is usually constructed.
Make the person re-evaluate the most central aspects of his or her experience of self and prior conduct in negative ways. Efforts are designed to destabilize and undermine the subject’s basic consciousness, reality awareness, world view, emotional control and defense mechanisms. The subject is guided to reinterpret his or her life’s history and adopt a new version of causality.
Create a sense of powerlessness by subjecting the person to intense and frequent actions and situations which undermine the person’s confidence in himself and his judgment.
Create strong aversive emotional arousals in the subject by use of nonphysical punishments such as intense humiliation, loss of privilege, social isolation, social status changes, intense guilt, anxiety, manipulation and other techniques.
Intimidate the person with the force of group-sanctioned secular psychological threats. For example, it may be suggested or implied that failure to adopt the approved attitude, belief or consequent behavior will lead to severe punishment or dire consequences such as physical or mental illness, the reappearance of a prior physical illness, drug dependence, economic collapse, social failure, divorce, disintegration, failure to find a mate, etc.
These tactics of psychological force are applied to such a severe degree that the individual’s capacity to make informed or free choices becomes inhibited. The victims become unable to make the normal, wise or balanced decisions which they most likely or normally would have made, had they not been unknowingly manipulated by these coordinated technical processes. The cumulative effect of these processes can be an even more effective form of undue influence than pain, torture, drugs or the use of physical force and physical and legal threats.
How does Coercive Psychological Persuasion Differ from Other Kinds of Influence? Coercive psychological systems are distinguished from benign social learning or peaceful persuasion by the specific conditions under which they are conducted. These conditions include the type and number of coercive psychological tactics used, the severity of environmental and interpersonal manipulation, and the amount of psychological force employed to suppress particular unwanted behaviors and to train desired behaviors.
Coercive force is traditionally visualized in physical terms. In this form it is easily definable, clear-cut and unambiguous. Coercive psychological force unfortunately has not been so easy to see and define. The law has been ahead of the physical sciences in that it has allowed that coercion need not involve physical force. It has recognized that an individual can be threatened and coerced psychologically by what he or she perceives to be dangerous, not necessarily by that which is dangerous.
Law has recognized that even the threatened action need not be physical. Threats of economic loss, social ostracism and ridicule, among other things, are all recognized by law, in varying contexts, as coercive psychological forces.
Why are Coercive Psychological Systems Harmful? Coercive psychological systems violate our most fundamental concepts of basic human rights. They violate rights of individuals that are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and affirmed by many declarations of principle worldwide.
By confusing, intimidating and silencing their victims, those who profit from these systems evade exposure and prosecution for actions recognized as harmful and which are illegal in most countries such as: fraud, false imprisonment, undue influence, involuntary servitude, intentional infliction of emotional distress, outrageous conduct and other tortuous acts.
NOTE: This selected list is adapted from CULTS IN OUR MIDST, by Dr. Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich (Jossey-Bass Publishers, April 1995)
Continuous over-breathing causes a drop in the carbon dioxide level in the bloodstream, producing respiratory alkalosis. In its milder stages it produces dizziness or light-headedness. More prolonged over-breathing can cause panic, muscle cramps, and convulsions. Cults often have people do continuous loud shouting, chanting or singing to produce this state, which they reframe as having a spiritual experience. [Note: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, this technique is applied in the form of ceaselessly yelling the Jesus Prayer throughout the day. There is also a 1 hour period during the nightly personal vigil/prayer rule, where the monastics go outside and yell the Jesus Prayer].
Constant swaying motions, clapping or almost any repeated motion helps to alter a person’s general state of awareness. Dizziess can be produced by simple spinning or spin dancing, prolonged swaying and dancing. Group leaders re-label the effects of these motions as ecstasy or new levels of awareness. [Note: The only repetitive motion of “swaying motions” is the daily 150 prostrations–300 during Great Lent–of the daily prayer rule. And any additional prostrations due to punishments. As well, during Great Lent, there are specific points of the Service where the monastics have to do repeated prostrations (the recital of St. Ephraim’s prayer, certain chants, etc). The repeated prostrations do give a “head rush” and endorphin boost].
Former members report that a leader of one cult would pass among the followers pressing on their eyes until the optic nerve caused them to see flashes of light. This is called “bestowing divine light.” Some group members were instructed to push on their ears until they heard a buzzing sound, which was interpreted as hearing the “divine harmony.” [Note: The only real body manipulations would be if one postured themself a certain way for Prayer of the Heart and beating oneself (NSSI-Non-Suicidal Self Injury) when various thoughts, emotions, etc. become too overwhelming].
PSYCHOLOGICAL TECHNIQUES TRANCE AND HYPNOSIS
A number of cults use hypnosis and trance to put people into altered states of consciousness, making them more compliant. Examples of techniques that induce trance include prolonged chanting, meditation, singing and phrase repetition. [Note: In the monasteries, the chanting would be the daily church services, some of which can last quite a few hours. The “meditation”–though not considered as such by Orthodox monastics–would be the time allotted for Prayer of the Heart which entails breathing techniques. Singing and phrase repetition would be the ceaseless recital of the Jesus Prayer–either noetically or verbally].
Cult leaders use a number of different guided-imagery techniques to remove followers from their normal frames of reference. For example, long detailed visual stories can absorb the listeners in a trancelike state where they become more susceptible to suggestion. Another effective method popular with therapy cults uses guided imagery to regress members back to the pain and loneliness of their childhood. [Note: Though images, fantasies and day dreaming are discouraged for monastics, Geronda Ephraim often gives homilies containing many stories, not to mention lunch and dinner have readings in the Trapeza. As well, the monastics have a few hundred mp3 homilies of Geronda Ephraim on their iPods (each homily lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to 2+ hours). Also, in each monastery, the Geronda or Gerondissa will frequently give homilies with storytelling and cautionary tales].
“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16)
Former FBI Agent Joe Navarro examines why predators find clergy positions desirable in an April 2014 article in Psychology Today. (See below). He cites an article that claims that a career in clergy is the eighth most popular profession chosen by predators, following on the heels of that of law enforcement and with CEO topping out the list.
Citing Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath from his landmark book on the subject, the author points out some distinctions that he finds important regarding some of the terminology that may limit the definition of who might be a predator. He finds that the term “psychopath” (someone with a chronic mental health disorder) is overused and seems to loose meaning among a host of other types of predators.
For the average person working through the aftermath of a spiritual abuse experience, it might be worth exploring the different types of predators listed in the article. It depends on the person and their unique recovery issues, though consideration of the characteristics of leaders is a necessary part of recovery for all to some extent. All high demand or cultic groups surround and support the needs of a charismatic leader which helps a survivor understand the nature of the group that they’ve exited. Therapist Roseanne Henry, an expert in trauma and the phenomenon of high demand religions, has stated that it may be helpful for some in recovery to look at the diagnostic criteria for Borderline, Antisocial, Narcissistic and other personality disorders to see if they can find similar patterns in their abusive religious leader’s behavior. It can be quite vindicating and eye opening, for it gives the survivor the additional perspective that puts blame where blame is due – on the manipulative and abusive group leader.
Why Psychopaths, Sociopaths, and other Predators in the Clergy?
Sociopaths like to cloak themselves in a mantel of respect. They seek careers, or pretend to have careers, in fields that people associate with good character, trustworthiness, and authority, such as law enforcement, the military and the clergy.
Pursuing a career in religion or spirituality is particularly useful for sociopaths. People tend to trust religious figures simply because they are religious figures, which puts a sociopath several moves ahead when trying to scam someone. A sociopath claiming an inside track to God has a very powerful tool when it comes to manipulating people.
Plus, for a sociopath, a career in the clergy is easy—the primarily visible job requirement is an ability to talk. With typical inborn charisma, and a willingness to lie about other credentials, the sociopath is a shoo-in.
Reasonably healthy and functional people fail to think like a predator and don’t naturally consider things from such an unhealthy point of view. Ignorance of the basic insights about how a manipulator and abuser thinks makes a healthy person vulnerable to their deceptions.
Among other general factors factors, predators find religious organizations/institutions desirable because they offer an already established infrastructure, the appearance of legitimacy, a pool of access to victims who are often quite vulnerable, readily available access to information, a network of protection/information provided by the system, and the opportunity for financial gain.