The Confidence Game: What Con Artists Reveal About the Psychology of Trust and Why Even the Most Rational of Us Are Susceptible to Deception

NOTE: The following article was written by Maria Popova and was taken from

“It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.”


“Reality is what we take to be true,” physicist David Bohm observed in a 1977 lecture. “What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.” That’s why nothing is more reality-warping than the shock of having come to believe something untrue — an experience so disorienting yet so universal that it doesn’t spare even the most intelligent and self-aware of us, for it springs from the most elemental tendencies of human psychology. “The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence,” Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asserted in examining how our minds mislead us, “but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.”

The machinery of that construction is what New Yorker columnist and science writer extraordinaire Maria Konnikova explores in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time (public library) — a thrilling psychological detective story investigating how con artists, the supreme masterminds of malevolent reality-manipulation, prey on our propensity for believing what we wish were true and how this illuminates the inner workings of trust and deception in our everyday lives.

Art by Edward Gorey for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,” Carl Sagan urged in his excellent Baloney Detection Kit — and yet our tendency is to do just that, becoming increasingly attached to what we’ve come to believe because the belief has sprung from our own glorious, brilliant, fool-proof minds. Through a tapestry of riveting real-life con artist profiles interwoven with decades of psychology experiments, Konnikova demonstrates that a con artist simply takes advantage of this hubris by finding the beliefs in which we are most confident — those we’re least likely to question — and enlisting them in advancing his or her agenda.

To be sure, we all perform micro-cons on a daily basis. White lies are the ink of the social contract — the insincere compliment to a friend who needs a confidence boost, the unaddressed email that “somehow went to spam,” the affinity fib that gives you common ground with a stranger at a party even though you aren’t really a “huge Leonard Cohen fan too.”

We even con ourselves. Every act of falling in love requires a necessary self-con — as Adam Phillips has written in his terrific piece on the paradox of romance, “the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams”; we dream the lover up, we construct a fantasy of who she is based on the paltry morsels of information seeded by early impressions, we fall for that fantasy and then, as we immerse ourselves in a real relationship with a real person, we must convince ourselves that the reality corresponds to enough of the fantasy to feel satisfying.

But what sets the con artist apart from the mundane white-liar is the nefarious intent and the deliberate deftness with which he or she goes about executing that reality-manipulation.

Konnikova begins with the story of a lifelong impostor named Ferdinand Waldo Demara, who successfully passed himself off as a psychologist, a professor, a monk, a surgeon, a prison warden, the founder of a religious college, and even his own biographer.

Ferdinand Waldo Demara (Photograph: Corbis)

Considering the perplexity of his astonishing ability to deceive, Konnikova — whose previous book examined the positive counterpart to the con, the psychology of thinking like Sherlock Holmes — writes:

“How was he so effective? Was it that he preyed on particularly soft, credulous targets? I’m not sure the Texas prison system, one of the toughest in the United States, could be described as such. Was it that he presented an especially compelling, trustworthy figure? Not likely, at six foot one and over 250 pounds, square linebacker’s jaw framed by small eyes that seemed to sit on the border between amusement and chicanery, an expression that made [his] four-year-old daughter Sarah cry and shrink in fear the first time she ever saw it. Or was it something else, something deeper and more fundamental — something that says more about ourselves and how we see the world?

It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it… For our minds are built for stories. We crave them, and, when there aren’t ready ones available, we create them. Stories about our origins. Our purpose. The reasons the world is the way it is. Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation. A confidence artist is only too happy to comply — and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.”

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Konnikova describes the basic elements of the con and the psychological susceptibility into which each of them plays:

“The confidence game starts with basic human psychology. From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are, after all, the best deceivers of our own minds. At each step of the game, con artists draw from a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief. And as we become more committed, with every step we give them more psychological material to work with.”

What makes the book especially pleasurable is that Konnikova’s intellectual rigor comes with a side of warm wit. She writes:

“Religion,” Voltaire is said to have remarked, “began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.” It certainly sounds like something he would have said. Voltaire was no fan of the religious establishment. But versions of the exact same words have been attributed to Mark Twain, to Carl Sagan, to Geoffrey Chaucer. It seems so accurate that someone, somewhere, sometime, must certainly have said it.

The invocation of Mark Twain is especially apt — one of America’s first great national celebrities, he was the recipient of some outrageous con attempts. That, in fact, is one of Konnikova’s most disquieting yet strangely assuring points — that although our technologies of deception have changed, the technologies of thought undergirding the art of the con are perennially bound to our basic humanity. She writes:

“The con is the oldest game there is. But it’s also one that is remarkably well suited to the modern age. If anything, the whirlwind advance of technology heralds a new golden age of the grift. Cons thrive in times of transition and fast change, when new things are happening and old ways of looking at the world no longer suffice. That’s why they flourished during the gold rush and spread with manic fury in the days of westward expansion. That’s why they thrive during revolutions, wars, and political upheavals. Transition is the confidence game’s great ally, because transition breeds uncertainty. There’s nothing a con artist likes better than exploiting the sense of unease we feel when it appears that the world as we know it is about to change. We may cling cautiously to the past, but we also find ourselves open to things that are new and not quite expected.


No amount of technological sophistication or growing scientific knowledge or other markers we like to point to as signs of societal progress will — or can — make cons any less likely. The same schemes that were playing out in the big stores of the Wild West are now being run via your in-box; the same demands that were being made over the wire are hitting your cell phone. A text from a family member. A frantic call from the hospital. A Facebook message from a cousin who seems to have been stranded in a foreign country.


Technology doesn’t make us more worldly or knowledgeable. It doesn’t protect us. It’s just a change of venue for the same old principles of confidence. What are you confident in? The con artist will find those things where your belief is unshakeable and will build on that foundation to subtly change the world around you. But you will be so confident in the starting point that you won’t even notice what’s happened.”

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Green Book by Robert Graves.

In a sense, the con is a more extreme and elaborate version of the principles of persuasion that Blaise Pascal outlined half a millennium ago — it is ultimately an art not of coercion but of complicity. Konnikova writes:

“The confidence game — the con — is an exercise in soft skills. Trust, sympathy, persuasion. The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give. He doesn’t have to threaten us. We supply the story ourselves. We believe because we want to, not because anyone made us. And so we offer up whatever they want — money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimacy, support — and we don’t realize what is happening until it is too late. Our need to believe, to embrace things that explain our world, is as pervasive as it is strong. Given the right cues, we’re willing to go along with just about anything and put our confidence in just about anyone.”

So what makes you more susceptible to the confidence game? Not necessarily what you might expect:

“When it comes to predicting who will fall, personality generalities tend to go out the window. Instead, one of the factors that emerges is circumstance: it’s not who you are, but where you happen to be at this particular moment in your life.”

People whose willpower and emotional resilience resources are strained — the lonely, the financially downtrodden, those dealing with the trauma of divorce, injury, or job loss, those undergoing major life changes — are particularly vulnerable. But these, Konnikova reminds us, are states rather than character qualities, circumstances that might and likely will befall each one of us at different points in life for reasons largely outside our control. (One is reminded of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s excellent work on agency and victimhood: “The victim shows us something about our own lives: we see that we too are vulnerable to misfortune, that we are not any different from the people whose fate we are watching…”) Konnikova writes:

“The more you look, the more you realize that, even with certain markers, like life changes, and certain tendencies in tow, a reliably stable overarching victim profile is simply not there. Marks vary as much as, and perhaps even more than, the grifters who fool them.”

Therein lies the book’s most sobering point — Konnikova demonstrates over and over again, through historical anecdotes and decades of studies, that no one is immune to the art of the con. And yet there is something wonderfully optimistic in this. Konnikova writes:

“The simple truth is that most people aren’t out to get you. We are so bad at spotting deception because it’s better for us to be more trusting. Trust, and not adeptness at spotting deception, is the more evolutionarily beneficial path. People are trusting by nature. We have to be. As infants, we need to trust that the big person holding us will take care of our needs and desires until we’re old enough to do it ourselves. And we never quite let go of that expectation.”

Trust, it turns out, is advantageous in the grand scheme of things. Konnikova cites a number of studies indicating that people who score higher on generalized trust tend to be healthier physically, more psychoemotionally content, likelier to be entrepreneurs, and likelier to volunteer. (The most generous woman I know, who is also a tremendously successful self-made entrepreneur, once reflected: “I’ve never once regretted being generous, I’ve only ever regretted holding back generosity.”) But the greater risk-tolerance necessary for reaping greater rewards also comes with the inevitable downside of greater potential for exploitation — the most trusting among us are also the perfect marks for the player of the confidence game.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Green Book by Robert Graves.

But the paradox of trust, Konnikova argues, is only part of our susceptibility to being conned. Another major factor is our sheer human solipsism. She explains:

“We are our own prototype of being, of motivation, of behavior. People, however, are far from being a homogeneous mass. And so, when we depart from our own perspective, as we inevitably must, we often make errors, sometimes significant ones. [Psychologists call this] “egocentric anchoring”: we are our own point of departure. We assume that others know what we know, believe what we believe, and like what we like.”

She cites an extensive study, the results of which were published in a paper cleverly titled “How to Seem Telepathic.” (One ought to appreciate the scientists’ wry sarcasm in poking fun at our clickbait culture.) Konnikova writes:

“Many of our errors, the researchers found, stem from a basic mismatch between how we analyze ourselves and how we analyze others. When it comes to ourselves, we employ a fine-grained, highly contextualized level of detail. When we think about others, however, we operate at a much higher, more generalized and abstract level. For instance, when answering the same question about ourselves or others — how attractive are you? — we use very different cues. For our own appearance, we think about how our hair is looking that morning, whether we got enough sleep, how well that shirt matches our complexion. For that of others, we form a surface judgment based on overall gist. So, there are two mismatches: we aren’t quite sure how others are seeing us, and we are incorrectly judging how they see themselves.”

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

The skilled con artist, Konnikova points out, mediates for this mismatch by making an active effort to discern which cues the other person is using to form judgments and which don’t register at all. The result is a practical, non-paranormal exercise in mind-reading, which creates an illusion of greater affinity, which in turn becomes the foundation of greater trust — we tend to trust those similar to us more than the dissimilar, for we intuit that the habits and preferences we have in common stem from shared values.

And yet, once again, we are reminded that the tricks of the con artist’s exploitive game are different only by degree rather than kind from the everyday micro-deceptions of which our social fabric is woven. Konnikova writes:

“Both similarity and familiarity can be faked, as the con artist can easily tell you — and the more you can fake it, the more real information will be forthcoming. Similarity is easy enough. When we like someone or feel an affinity for them, we tend to mimic their behavior, facial expressions, and gestures, a phenomenon known as the chameleon effect. But the effect works the other way, too. If we mimic someone else, they will feel closer and more similar to us; we can fake the natural liking process quite well. We perpetuate minor cons every day, often without realizing it, and sometimes knowing what we do all too well, when we mirror back someone’s words or interests, feign a shared affinity for a sports team or a mutual hatred of a brand. The signs that usually serve us reliably can easily be massaged, especially in the short term — all a good con artist needs.”

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating The Confidence Game, Konnikova goes on to explore the role of storytelling in reality-manipulation, what various psychological models reveal about the art of persuasion, and how the two dramatically different systems that govern our perception of reality — emotion and the intellect — conspire in the machinery of trust. Complement it with Adrienne Rich on lying and what “truth” really means, David deSteno on the psychology of trust in work and love, and Alice Walker on what her father taught her about the love-expanding capacity of truth-telling.


The Group Psychological Abuse Scale

The Group Psychological Abuse (GPA) scale was developed from a factor analysis of 308 former cult members’ characterizations of their groups. Four subscales were derived: Compliance, Exploitation, Mind Control, and Anxious Dependency. Reliability and validity findings suggest the GPA should be useful in characterizing the varieties of abuse and in differentiating cults from innocuous groups.

GPA Scale and Geronda Ephraim’s Monasteries

This inventory is designed to evaluate certain aspects of religious, psycho-therapeutic, political, commercial, and other groups. Please rate, as best you can, the degree to which the following statements characterize the group under consideration. Rate each item according to your experience and observations (in retrospect) of how the group actually functioned. If your group had different levels of membership (within which the group’s dominant features differed), please apply the ratings to the level with which you have greatest familiarity. Circle the best answer, using the following ratings:

 1 = not at all characteristic

        2 = not characteristic

        3 = can’t say/not sure

        4 = characteristic

        5 = very characteristic

The correct numbers are in bold on the scale.

 1.[R] The group does not tell members how to conduct their sex lives.

  1        2        3        4        5

Not at all characteristic. The group, via the ecclesiastical canons of the Orthodox Church, dictate how members should conduct their sex lives. Only carnal unions between heterosexual couples who have been married in a canonical Orthodox Church are permitted. Carnal unions are not allowed on fast days or before Holy Communion. Carnal unions are limited to basic heterosexual intercourse; masturbation, oral sex, homosexual/lesbian sex, sex during menstruation cycles, pre-marital sex, etc. are forbidden and punishable by penance of no Communion for long periods of time. For the monastics, penances of no Communion are extended to accepting carnal fantasies (i.e. the stage after dialogue before the actual act). As well, spiritual children have to ask blessings for who they can or cannot date. Usually, the spiritual Father will want to meet this person first, but in some cases, after looking at a photograph, a spiritual child has been forbidden to date the individual.

2. Women are directed to use their bodies for the purpose of recruiting or of manipulation.

                1        2        3        4        5

Not at all characteristic. Sexual promiscuity is discouraged. Women at the monasteries have to be well-covered from head to toe. The men also are forbidden to wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts, etc. Monastics live a celibate life and couples are expected to try and live like brother and sister after they stop having children so they can develop into more spiritual people (i.e. less carnal and worldly).

3. The group advocates or implies that breaking the law is okay if it serves the interests of the group.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. Though this would be more characteristic of white-collar crime and simple frauds, forgeries, etc., not so much in violence or burglaries. In some cases, individuals with warrants out for their arrest in Canada were kept hidden at St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona. A common justification for breaking the law if it’ll help an individual is from the life of St. Dionysios who hid his brother’s murderer from an angry mob, which in turn brought him to repentance and a Christian lifestyle. A common justification for the white collar crimes is that the laws in America are the laws of men and not God’s laws, thus irrelevant. Geronda Ephraim is a saint. the monasteries are God’s work, so it’s blessed to bend rules to further the advancement of his work.

4. Members are expected to postpone or give up their personal, vocational, and educational goals in order to work for the group.

                1        2        3        4        5

Characteristic. This really depends on the individual. When one joins a monastery, they give up, or rather renounce, everything of their former life (all debts are paid so as not to have anything tying them to the world, bank accounts are closed, jobs are quit, and any other plans are cancelled). Before joining a monastery, some monastics have been told to get their degree first and then come to the monastery. Others, have been told it’s not necessary. One former monastic who originally wanted to get a degree first was told, “You can choose the university of the world or the university of the desert, but you have to make your decision now. If you choose the world, you can’t become a monk.” Again, each case is different. The one common factor is that though the individual has “free will” and can choose to listen to or ignore the advice of the spiritual Father, the advice is in essence an obedience, the individual has usually cultivated the mindset that this advice is God’s will for him/her and not heeding (i.e. disobeying) this advice can lead to drastic consequences for the individual.

5.[R] The group encourages ill members to get medical assistance.

1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. Medical issues are taken seriously in the monasteries. A sick monastic tends to burden the monastery: it’s one less body available to work, and in some cases, it takes other monastics away from potential important work that needs to be done, if they’re tending to a sick monastic. Of course, if one is sick but lacks a fever, they can still work. If one is injured, then less labor intensive work is found for the individual. Overall, there really is no excuse for a monastic not to work. There is always some form of work that has to be done in the monastery. Unless a monastic is in excruciating pain or bed-ridden with valley fever or something of the sort, then they’re capable of work. And this is why medical issues are taken seriously, so things do not progress to the point where a monastic becomes an useless burden to the monastery.

6. Gaining political power is a major goal of the group.

                1        2        3        4        5

Can’t say/Not sure. Although gaining political power does not seem to be a goal of the monasteries–not to mention antithetical and anti-canonical for monastics–some of Geronda Ephraim’s spiritual children are getting involved in low-level politics across the country. As well, Geronda Ephraim as spiritual children in all levels of government, finance, law enforcement, etc. Interestingly, after Fr. Silouanos left St. Anthony’s Monastery (after 20+ years of being a monk) he immediately became a Loan Administrator at Flushing Savings Bank. After 3 years, he moved on to the I.R.S., where he has been a Tax Examining Technician for the last 5 years. In short, for the last 10 years, this man has had access to large amounts of sensitive personal information that could be very useful for the monasteries.

 7. Members believe that to leave the group would be death or eternal damnation for themselves or their families.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. Once a monastic is tonsured into the Rassaphore degree, they are taught that it is now for life. A Rassaphore is taught that if they leave the monastery, they will lose their soul. It will no longer be possible to find salvation. Interestingly, though this is the theological precepts for a Great Schema Monk/Nun–as they make vocal vows to God during the Liturgy before the Angels–there are no real concrete canons and teachings for the Rassaphore degree who, in essence, are still considered novices by the Church Fathers. The Rassaphore rank is a later innovation that wasn’t originally recognized or accepted by the early Church Fathers. Thus, many rassaphore monastics are misled, being given the burden of the Great Schema, without actually having put on the Great Schema.

 8. The group discourages members from displaying negative emotions.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. There are very high penances for monastics who display negative emotions (yelling, anger, back talk, jealousy, etc.), especially if this is done in front of lay people. The image of angelic perfection to lay people is expected. Amongst the monastics, there is expected to be love, respect, courteousness, tact, etc. The only monastics exempt from this are the superiors (and sometimes designated monastics who have a blessing to yell at and humble younger monastics “for their spiritual benefit”). Though, in some monasteries, there are monastics who refuse to talk to or look at one another, not to mention monastics who “play Geronda” and bully and humble the other monastics.

 9. Members feel they are part of a special elite.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. Geronda Ephraim teaches the monastics (via personal homilies, recorded homilies, and fax letters) that “we are the monks of the last days”. The monastics feel that they are part of a special elite as they believe that Geronda Ephraim is the holiest saint in the history of the Orthodox Church and now God has counted them worthy to be one of his monastics. Also, in his homilies,  Geronda Ephraim has related a vision in which it was revealed that those who stay under his obedience until the end (i.e. do not throw away their rassa and abandon the monastic life) will be saved.

10. The group teaches that persons who are critical of the group are in the power of evil, satanic forces.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. As the monasteries are taught to be God’s will and work, those who oppose them are considered under the influence of demonic energy. In 1998, Geronda Ephraim gave a brief homily to the monks about the new monasteries being built that year. He related a story about Gerondissa Markella traveling on an airplane. She and another nun encountered a Greek man who started questioning them about where Geronda Ephraim got all his money and he suggested criminality or demonic means. Gerondissa Markella reacted strongly, defending her Elder’s honor, and told the man he had to go to Geronda Ephraim, repent and ask his forgiveness. The old adage is true for the monasteries, “Those who are not with us are against us!”

11. The group uses coercive persuasion and mind control.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. This is such an integrated part of the monastic life. The levels and layers of manipulation run very deep as they have had a couple thousand years to perfect them. The teachings are expounded around the clock via readings during meals, personal readings (only monastic literature allowed), and services. Technically, the stance of a superior will be, “You’re not a prisoner, no one can force you to do something you don’t want” giving the illusion of free will, however, monastic teaching is every form of self-will is demonic, every protest has a danger of demon possession, disobedience is the death of the soul and leads to eternal damnation. Life within the monasteries is based on fear, guilt-tripping, psychological manipulation, ego-smashing, and bullying. Essentially, it is a struggle of wills and the monastic’s ego. The Elder has to orchestrate a radical form of therapy to humble the monastic and smash their ego. In modern terms, the Elder has to break the individual–this can result in a complete mental breakdown or a series of mini-breaks until the monastic has no more resistance and is totally pliable. The result is the Elder can now take this broken individual and rebuild–or rather remold–him/her into a “new man in Christ.”

12. The group approves of violence against outsiders (e.g., ?satanic communists,? etc.).

                1        2        3        4        5

Not characteristic. In essence, Orthodox monasticism is non-violent. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, it is taught that on Mount Athos, the only time a monastic can resort to violence is if someone insults his Geronda (thus one can blaspheme Christ or the Panagia and not be physically harmed, but not an individual’s Geronda). However, the Elders can orchestrate a group shunning of individuals if they step out of line. Though an Elder may not instruct violence to an outsider, his sadness at an event can initiate his spiritual children to take matters into their own hand. Such as when Geronda Ephraim was banned from Canada temporarily, and his spiritual children started making threatening phone calls, etc., to Bishop Sotirios.

13. Members are expected to live with other members.

                1        2        3        4        5

Can’t Say/Not sure. In the monasteries, that is a given. For lay people, it is encouraged for Orthodox to stick with Orthodox, even room mates, but it’s not always a mandate.

14. Members must abide by the group’s guidelines regarding dating and intimate relationships.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. The father Confessors at the monastery follow the Rudder and mainly the Canons of St. John the Faster which are very strict on dating, marriage and carnal unions within marriage. Deviation from these rules results in penances which for carnal sins is usually no Communion for a period of time (even up to 10+ years). For dating, it’s encouraged to get a blessing first. If a spiritual Father forbids the dating, one is expected to obey so that no negative consequences result.

15. People who stay in the group do so because they are deceived and manipulated.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. Fear and guilt-tripping are utilized when one wants to defect. Geronda Ephraim is promoted as the holiest man alive, the safest guide to get to Paradise, and really the only option in America if one wants to find salvation. When monastics want to leave they are mainly told that there is no hope for them outside the monastery. They could possibly be saved but it’s almost impossible that they will be saved, etc. Some monastics have been given extreme dispensations (or condescension) in order to make them stay–though this is essentially letting the monastics do their own will which is also detrimental to their soul.

16. The group teaches special exercises (e.g., meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues) to push doubts or negative thoughts out of consciousness.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. A monastic is expected to yell the Jesus Prayer or recite it mentally ceaselessly, 24/7, until he/she acquires prayer of the heart. Daily in their nightly vigil, a monastic does prayer of the heart, which is a breathing exercise to help concentrate the nous and lower it into the heart. This could be anywhere from 1/2 hour to the entire 3+ hour vigil (if the monastic does their prayer rule before bed). All thoughts, images, fantasies, negative emotions, etc., are to be pushed with the Jesus Prayer and the cane.

17. Medical attention is discouraged, even though there may be a medical problem.

                1        2        3        4        5

Not characteristic. If medical attention is needed, it is usually taken care of. The monasteries also have pilgrims who are doctors and if they’re close spiritual children of the individual monastery, they usually are asked to do what they can, to save a trip to the outside world. It’s better for the monastics to be as healthy as possible so they can work and be useful.

18. Members are expected to serve the group’s leaders.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. That is the concept of blind obedience and submission. Most monastic superiors have a cell attendant who clean their cell, do their laundry, bring them coffee/drinks/snacks when beckoned, etc. These attendants are expected to drop everything they are doing when summoned and carry out the expected task. Actually, all monastics have this expectation. The superior is seen as an icon of Christ and whatever they do or don’t do to the elder is the same as doing it to Jesus Christ Himself. In turn, younger monastics are expected to have complete obedience to the older monastics (except in cases where older monastics are problematic or self-willed and the other monastics have been instructed not to pay attention to them).

19. Raising money is a major goal of the group.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. Everything functions on donations so it is a very high priority. Thus all the dinners, feast day celebrations, arts and crafts, bake sales, etc. The monasteries have monthly bills (mortgages, hydro, phone bills, clothing, food, etc.). Multiply individual needs by 3-40 and it starts to get pricy.

20. The group does not hesitate to threaten outside critics.

                1        2        3        4        5

Not sure/Can’t say. Outside critics are usually dismissed, ignored, or ridiculed. Usually, something they said that was erroneous is capitalized on and becomes the buzzword of mockery. If the critic is a former monastic, they are discredited as deluded with mental issues (or even possessed). Though, in some cases outside critics of the monasteries have been threatened, there is no evidence to suggest that the Superior of the monastery instructed for this to happen.

21.[R] Members are expected to make decisions without consulting the group’s leader(s).

                1        2        3        4        5

Not at all characteristic. Monastics almost always have to get a blessing from their superior before doing something. Though in some cases, the Superior may give a general blessing for certain things, or an individual monastic may be told they do not have to ask in the future. However, in general, everything needs the approval of the superior.

22.[R] Members are just as capable of independent critical thinking as they were before they joined the group.

1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. Critical thinking is regarded as an act that can drive a monastic out of the monastery. Faith opposes Reason. Geronda Ephraim teaches that the disciple should acquire the mindset of their Elder and think, feel, believe exactly as they do; even if it is wrong or they do not agree. Opposing or questioning the elder can result in the Elder publicly shaming the monastic, humbling them in front of the other monastics, or giving the other monastics an obedience to ignore and act as if this individual does not exist (until they toe the line, repent and ask forgiveness for their egotism and pride).

23. The group believes or implies its leader is divine.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. Geronda Ephraim is taught to be the holiest man alive on earth right now, and the holiest and greatest saint in the history of the orthodox church. “He’s the closest thing to Jesus Christ Himself.” He’s taught to be clairvoyant, can read hearts, can bi-locate to other places (physically and noetically), he can levitate, he is constantly rapt in divine vision, he’s seen God, etc.

24. Mind control is used without conscious consent of members.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. Though there is a control that has been given conscious consent, i.e. via submission to the elder and setting out to do blind obedience, no novice really knows what they’re getting into. Geronda Ephraim characteristically tells his older monastics, “It’s not until 15 years or so, before a monk starts to get an idea, a taste of what he’s really gotten himself into.” There are so many layers of manipulation, which are not considered manipulation by the Elder, employed to make a monastic submit and toe the line.

25.[R] Members feel little psychological pressure from leaders.

                1        2        3        4        5

Not at all characteristic. The biggest fear of the monastic, which is daily reinforced via homilies and readings, is not to sadden the Elder, thus cutting themselves off from God. There is immense psychological pressure from the leaders, especially when a monastic starts straying via self-will and idiorythmia.

26.[R] The group’s leader(s) rarely criticize members.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. The leaders continually criticize members for their spiritual benefit. This is how they acquire the virtue of humility–by being humbled–and also it acts as a mirror so they can see their true inner state and what passions they have to work on. A member can hear things such as, “You’re useless,” “You have no brain,” etc. This could be in private, though many times it’s in the presence of other or all the monastics to have a sharper prick and be more effectual.

27. Recruiting members is a major goal of the group.

                1        2        3        4        5

Not sure/Can’t say. “In the beginning it was about quantity, now it is about quality,” an abbot once said. In the beginning, it was better to have lots of black to make a more serious statement, and to show that the monasteries were wanted, needed and served a purpose. Now that a large majority of those early monastics have returned to the world, the reins have been tightened somewhat. “Geronda Ephraim is not too eager now to make monks quickly.”

28. Members are expected to consult with leaders about most decisions, including those concerning work, child rearing, whether or not to visit relatives, etc.

                1        2        3        4        5

Very characteristic. Monastics don’t have children. they do have to consult with the leaders before talking to, writing, or visiting relatives. Incoming mail is read by the Elder, though if they don”t have time, they may get a trusted monk to read and relay the most important points afterwards (this happens with almost all mail from lay people unless they are close spiritual children). Outgoing mail is sometimes intercepted and opened. In some cases, both incoming and outgoing mail will be disposed of without reaching their destination “for the benefit of the monastic.” Phone calls are monitored either by the elder or a trusted monastic, either directly on another phone listening in, or standing beside the individual. Also, a monastic must obtain a blessing before making out going calls). Visitations are not always encouraged, especially if the relatives are problematic. Many times, the monastic only has a blessing to visit in the trapeza or an enclosed area where there are other monastics who can monitor the conversations and report back to the elder. This is also done to “strengthen” the monastic who will gain courage by being in the presence of other monastics (or intimidate them into not saying anything that will get them into trouble later).

Note: [R] items are reversed in scoring by finding the absolute difference between the rating and the number 6. Do not include the [R] designations when administering the test.

At this time the GPA Scale should be used only as a research instrument. We request that researchers wishing to use the GPA Scale contact Dr. Langone (AFF, P.O. Box 2265, Bonita Springs, FL 33959).


For more information, see:



25 Years in an Eastern Orthodox Cult – How I Left the Cult – Where to Find Help Part 1 (Elizabeth Ann)

NOTE: This is a woman’s account of growing up in the Russian Orthodox/St. Herman of Alaska/Old Calendar church. For those unfamiliar with the background of this organization, Fr. Jonah Paffhausen wrote an article about the “Journey of the Holy Order of MANS / Christ the Saviour Brotherhood and the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood into the Canonical Orthodox Church”:

Welcome. Please take a few moments to read a personal account of one family’s life after entering an Eastern Orthodox cult in America. This is a brief memoir about the serious consequences of blindly following a “spiritual father”, and what happened to a loving, normal family because of this. I also relate how it feels to be disowned by one’s own family for not being part of the cult. My hope is that this site will be of help to at least one other person coping with similar circumstances. I also hope it will serve as a warning to families: NEVER disown, abandon, or shun a person simply for believing differently.
Elizabeth Ann

St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, Fool-for-Christ
St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, Fool-for-Christ

I am a former “Russian Orthodox Abroad” member; my “identity” was Xenia of St. Petersburg, a woman whose life I was told mine own should resemble, according to God’s will. A frightening thought, if you know how this woman lived. I was forced into the church by my parents, kept in complete control throughout my teenage and young adult years, and finally escaped: first, in my mind and soul, and then physically. I still suffer some PTSD symptoms, common with cult withdrawal; however, I am finding the faith of my childhood, something simple and bright, which is the first light I have seen in a long, long time. My wish is that this blog will help ONE person, somewhere, to have the courage to speak out and perhaps even say all alone, “The Emperor has no clothes!” (Hans Christian Andersen).
View my complete profile

As you read the personal story of my family and how we came to be part of this cult, please refer to two excellent resources: The Watchtower Expositor: Cult or Cultic (by Craig Branch); and Combatting Mind Control (by psychologist and cult expert Steve Hassan.)

Craig Branch, Watchman Fellowship,  Apologetics Resource Center.
Craig Branch, Watchman Fellowship, Apologetics Resource Center.


Below are ten techniques of unethical thought reform and mind control (I quote), with some examples of how these were used by the Orthodox cult.
1) Focus on felt needs & defects, with exaggerated promises of fulfillment.
It was drilled into us over and over that we were spiritually “sick”, that our whole “mind-set” and way of life were evil, and that we were damned if we didn’t accept the new baptism and join the church. We were promised unending love from the church, help in any crisis, and spiritual fathers who would get us past the “toll-houses” and save our souls after we died. We were promised to always be the “right believers” who were the “elite and the elect of God”, and who would play a large role in the conversion of others before the final Tribulation.

[NOTE: The general teaching of the Orthodox Church is that all humans are spiritually sick. The Church or Monastery is the hospital where the sick faithful go to be treated. The sacraments are the medicines that the Physician uses to cure the souls of the sick. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the general consensus is, “You can be saved in the world, but it’s better to go to confession in the monasteries and have Geronda Ephraim–or one of his priest(monk)s as a confessor. In the last days, all the orthodox churches in the world will have apostasized and joined the ecumenist World Church/Religion. True orthodoxy will only be found in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries.

Some spiritual children of Elder Ephraim have read Elizabeth Ann’s story and callously stated that these things only happened because she didn’t have a holy elder nor was she part of the canonical church (In monastery double speak, this is code for “you’re hopeless without Geronda Ephraim or one of his priest-monks”). With an air of self satisfaction, they would state with all certainty that such things could never and would never happen in Elder Ephraim’s monasteries or parishes.

It is an odd phenomena but laymen who visit the Elder’s monasteries and decide to become dedicated disciples, often become Geronda Ephraim experts almost overnight. After a handful of visits and hours of absorbing stories concerning “miracles”, “visions”, and “prophecies”(minus the multitude that never came to pass), this lay person is now an “expert” and can tell you everything that doesn’t happen in the monasteries despite never having been invited into the monks’ quarters, nor a monks’ only homily, etc. It’s amazing.

St Herman of Alaska Monastery Entrance
St Herman of Alaska Monastery Entrance

2) Rigid Control of Time and Activities
Required to attend more and more services; demanded to read lengthy prayer books at home throughout the day; pushed to do the “Hours”; taught by book “Way of the Pilgrim” to constantly chant the “Jesus Prayer” at all times, even in school.

The Way of a Pilgrim, A highly recommended book in the monasteries
The Way of a Pilgrim, A highly recommended book in the monasteries

[NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, monastics are required to recite the Jesus Prayer ceaselessly; either mentally or out loud. This is expected no matter what they are doing: listening to someone speak to them, eating, going to sleep, working, attending church services, etc. In theory, his monastics aren’t suppose to idle talk or be too chit chatty with other monks or laymen. Everyday of the monastic’s life is ruled by someone else, and their time and activities are rigidly filled controlled. 

3) Information Control
Not allowed to read newspapers, magazines, or non-religious books, especially during the time as “catechumens.” Told that all new movies and T.V. programs and T.V. news were “of the devil.” Given more and more Orthodox “patrisitic” ( holy fathers’) writings to read and re-read. Told to cut off family, which my mother did by way of letters.

Those who control the information control the person. In a mind control cult any information from outside the cult is considered evil, especially if it is opposing the cult. Members are told not to read it or believe it. Only information supplied by the cult is true.

[NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the monastics aren’t allowed to read worldy publications (many do though when they’re afforded the opportunity), let alone information critical of Geronda Ephraim or his monasteries. If they are allowed, this will be curated by the Superior and many times it will turn into a mocking fest of the writer or commentator (many times, the monastics don’t actually get to see the article or news clip to make an informed decision. The Superior gives them only the “necessary” details and makes the informed decision of interpretation for the disciple. With big events like 9/11, some monastics were allowed to watch the news clips and footage of the planes. In some monasteries, Greece winning the World Cup in soccer is also a big enough event, so big that many of Geronda Ephraim’s monastics had a blessing to watch the highlights and in one case, the entire game (nationalist and patriotic sentiment for Greece is very high in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries)].

4) Language Manipulation
Besides being taught to laugh at certain words such as “the Latins” or “the West”, we were taught an exclusive new vocabulary for “insiders”, some of which is put in bold print in the posts at right. Our new names were to replace our real names, forever. The lovely name “JESUS” was seldom used.

1984 Cartoon

[NOTE: The monasteries also have their own vocabulary and special knocks which many laymen also adopt for their everyday use at home and among like-minded Christians–“Na Einai Evlogemeno” (“Let it be blessed”), response to be asked to do something. “Evlogeson” (“Bless”), asking forgiveness, usually a response to making an error or offending someone.

One of Geronda’s elders once observed, “Sorry lost all meaning when the word ‘Evlogeson’ was invented.” He was referring to the fact that no matter how greatly a monastic errs or offends, they have a reflex response to say ‘Evlogeson’ without thinking, with no heartfelt meaning.

Though “Latins” and “the West” are words and concepts looked down upon and sometimes laughed at in the monasteries, this is also the same spirit of almost all the Orthodox patristic writings and encyclicals since the Great Schism of 1054. Other words that receive similar attention are: “Oi Ebraioi” “The Jews” (lit. “The Hebrews”); “Oi Zionistes” (“The Zionists”); “Ta Protokolla” (“The Protocols of Zion”); “Tektonismos” (“Freemasonry”); “O Patriarches” (“The Patriarch”)].

5) Discouraging Critical, Rational Thought and Questions

Obvious contradictions and questions were greeted with either long, convoluted, and evasive explanations, or we were told that “you will understand later when you have become an adult in the faith. Just become like little children.” I was laughed at when I pointed out specific verses in the Bible, which I knew very well. I was even called “that Baptist girl” in a derogatory way. We were told during the second liturgy that clergy and priests must ALWAYS be obeyed, EVEN IF THEIR PERSONAL LIVES WERE NOT HOLY (i.e. they had murdered a person!) I quote Br. B. Now I add (“even if they have sodomized your child.”)

Human Understanding Process
Human Understanding Process

[NOTE: In orthodoxy there is an “answer” for every question, even those with no answers. Most things that are in conflict with orthodoxy or don’t fit in with the vague and contradictory theology around creation and the fall are usually dismissed as “unimportant” or “unnecessary”… “Dinosaurs aren’t important to salvation, don’t waste your time with those things” (common monastery advice to youth)… “Don’t read the Old Testament, the New Testament is what’s important. Anything of real worth in the Old Testament can be found in our church services, it’s better to read those” (advice to those who start getting ‘demonic warfare’–monastic code word for critical thinking and rational thought–after reading about God commanding His people, the Hebrews, to commit infanticide, genocide, and other atrocities)…”God allowed it in His mercy to rescue the children being abused and to punish the sinners; i.e. human traffickers, pedophiles,  polytheists, etc. See, you judge God as merciless and cruel but He has a wisdom and reason we can’t always see right away” (a Hieromonk’s explanation for the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami)… to the question of “Why does God allow some children to get raped and others not?” this hieromonk replied with the who can know the Lord’s mind response that is supposed to stop the questions there.

6) Instruction in Trance Induction Techniques

One of the first things taught to us: how to stand completely still, stare at the icons, and say “Lord Have Mercy” in five different languages, sometimes amounting to 120 phrases at a time. Again, “The Way of a Pilgrim” was to be memorized and internalized, to learn how to breathe properly and chant simultaneously. Continuous repetitions during Complines, Matins, and then Liturgy, while staring at the icons, made me go into a kind of half-sleep–still able to listen intently and remember things.

Covert Hypnosis Cult Induction
Covert Hypnosis Cult Induction

[NOTE: When the monasteries first started, Geronda Ephraim only allowed the Jesus Prayer to be said in Greek. This did result in a bit of protestations from non-Greek monastics (mainly converts) who wanted to say the Prayer in their native language. One novice spoke to Geronda Ephraim personally, who responded, “The Prayer is better in and more powerful in the Greek language. It’s the language of the Holy Spirit, it’s the language the New Testament was written. Also, we’re a Greek monastery mainly for the Greeks so it’s better if they hear the Greek language.” In some monasteries, as years went by, some individuals were blessed to say the Prayer in their native tongues (English or Russian or Romanian, etc.).

Geronda Ephraim’s monastics are also required to focus mainly on the Jesus Prayer during all the church services, in order not to be distracted by the words of the services.].

7) Confession Sessions (a powerful tool to manipulate, blackmail, and emotionally bond you to the priest; a depersonalization or stripping of yourself–submission to the group.)

As explained at left. Confessions would be labeled “good” or “bad”, depending on how much we could come up with and whether we started “weeping”. The priests put each person under an intense “grilling” session, delving into EVERY thought and action.


[NOTE: Confession is a very powerful tool in the monasteries, especially to keep the monastics in line. If one is sinning in a specific way, the Superior many times exposes this action in front of all the other monastics in an attempt to humble and crush the disciple’s ego. Other times, a monastic can be put in the Lity, near the entrance of the Church, where they go on their knees and repeatedly beg everyone for forgiveness, stating their sin or passion, until the last person exits the church. Often, a lay person’s confession will be revealed to the monastics for their spiritual “edification” and also to see how “it’s hell” in the outside world. Though the superior or senior monastic revealing these private, personal stories usually don’t reveal the name, most monastics can figure out who they are talking about. Some monastics will then take this information and speak cryptically to this lay person trying to pass themselves off as some kind of clairvoyant. They won’t say anything outright and feign humility about this “gift” but in the process, this awestruck layperson will also reveal more personal information about his friends and family. This cycle continues until the superior finally catches on, one way or another. It’s embarrassing to witness.

8) Guilt and Fear (Weapons used to maintain group/church loyalty, suppress questions and defections.)

As I have already said, FEAR was the most powerful tool which made us listen to and believe every lie we were told. The Antichrist was ALIVE and about to begin his prophesied ministry; “it was later than we thought”, and unseen demons were constantly around us. The realization of our immense sinfulness (which was never relieved) caused terrible guilt. Some of us were made to feel guilty about going to the bathroom, because our pure guardian angels would have to watch this. Thoughts of going to another church, or none at all, caused immense spontaneous guilt.

Guilt and Fear

[NOTE: Geronda Ephraim would never confirm if the Antichrist was born but he would talk cryptically in ways that would make people think that he was or was soon to be born. He often gives homilies to his monks telling them they’re the monastics of the last days, the last generation, and will be martyred under the Antichrist. When Geronda use to visit Saxonburg in the early 90s, he’d point to children and say, “They’re going to see the Antichrist.”

A monastic, and layperson if possible, is instructed to always find some reason to reproach themselves. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, the monastics constantly listen to and read homilies by their Elder. In all his talks, Geronda Ephraim criticizes, insults and reproaches himself. All his monastics believe he is the holiest man in the world, the last great saint of the Orthodox Church. Geronda Ephraim says he sees himself as nothing more than an useless, pathetic, beast not worthy of anything in this world. The monastics are constantly trying to acquire this mindset; not to believe only in lip service but rather to the depths of their entire being.

The Orthodox Patristic texts, as well as Geronda Ephraim, encourage their followers to cultivate an anxiety and fear that they call “Holy”.]

9) Control of Sexuality and Intimacy

In this cult, all sexual desires, normal sex in marriage, and physical love in marriage was “impure” and part of the “fallen flesh.” So it was severely restricted to only certain times during the week and the year. All was to be confessed.

Guru Cover 1/99

[NOTE: Geronda Ephraim and his priests generally teach their spiritual children to abstain from carnal relations the night before Holy Communion, on Feast Days of the Virgin Mary, during the fasts ordained by the Church (Wednesdays, Fridays, Great Lent, Dormition, Christmas, etc). Essentially, there are over 200 days of the 365 day year where an Orthodox Christian couple must abstain from sex. These numbers don’t factor in the abstinence days when a woman is on her menstrual cycle or pregnant. 

On days where sex is allowed, Geronda’s spiritual children are encouraged only to do basic missionary sex, try not to enjoy the carnal passion too much so it doesn’t lead to dirtier things, and avoid contraceptives or the pull-out method. Any act related to oral (felatio, cunnilingus, etc.) or anal (penetration, analingus, etc.) is to be avoided as they are sins that carry heavy penances (i.e. years without communion, etc.). These admonitions are only for married spiritual children as any sexual act outside of marriage (including solo acts such as masturbation) are considered serious sins and punishable under the canons.

Abstaining from sex when a couple stops having children is also encouraged. The monasteries call it “Living like brother and sister.”

10) Excessive Financial Obligations (a form of complete submission to God.)

The only place for tithes and donations was cultic Orthodox churches or monasteries (the one in Dog Canyon never was built.) Later on, in a Russian Abroad Church in Sunnyvale, CA, I was pushed to give my monthly wages to dubious causes, such as the “compound” which was to be built, with greenhouses and all.

The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios (Eng)_

[NOTE: Most of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries don’t pass around collection plates during the Liturgy, nor do they have fixed prices for Sacraments (i.e. baptism, marriage, etc.). Everything is run on donations and there are various things each monastery does to raise funds on top of whatever art, craft, food, they sell.

Rich benefactors, or potential benefactors, can sometimes be groomed and cultivated into a lifetime helper. It helps if the individual has a sick husband or wife and is desperate for a cure or miracle. If the individual goes into remission or the medication treats whatever (though more emphasis is placed on the blessing with relics than western medicine) one could be looking at a lifetime benefactor who will also bring other rich people to the monasteries. This kind of cultivation isn’t viewed as unethical because the monastery is repaying these individuals spiritually with prayer and offering them the means of salvation which “is worth more than all the money in the world combined.”


“…’mind control’ may be understood as a SYSTEM of influences that disrupts an individual’s identity (beliefs, behavior, thinking, and emotions) and replaces it with a new identity.” (p. 7, Combatting…)

“If deception, hypnosis, and other mind control techniques are used to recruit and control followers, then people’s rights are being infringed upon.” (p.37.)

Note: Steve Hassan’s FOUR COMPONENTS OF MIND CONTROL are best described and  connected with the Orthodox cults in the webpage. Personal family experiences are briefly recounted below:

Steve Hassan
Steve Hassan

1) BEHAVIOR CONTROL (includes control of environment: location, clothing, diet, sleep patterns, jobs, rituals..)

We learned to act like Br. B. and the other cult members. We learned how to fast, to celebrate feasts (on the proper old-Calendar days), how to cut off the outside world and even American holidays. (I LOVE AMERICA!!!–Elizabeth Ann.) We learned how to do all the prayer services; how to cross ourselves with three fingers, properly, at specific times during the day; how to venerate icons. We learned how to speak, dress, etc.

Sociological Definition of a Cult
Sociological Definition of a Cult


Besides the new language, we learned “stop” wicked thoughts, or “blocking” techniques like chanting “Lord Have Mercy,” or the “Jesus Prayer” over and over, louder and louder. My parents and brothers still start to chant and talk “over a conversation”, which is VERY RUDE, if the person they are talking with questions their beliefs. We learned to feel the “unseen battle” and consider ourselves the “Church Militant”, as opposed to the “fallen outside world.”

thought-police-2 Constrict-Words-1984


Fear reigned supreme. Fear of other people not in the cult (almost the whole world! ), fear of imminent death, fear of the Apocalypse, fear of the living Antichrist, fear of PERSECUTION, fear of demons, fear of the consequences of leaving the cult–or questioning things like the “Holy Fire”. Oh, did I mention that ALL psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists were trained in satanic methods? Fear of the world conspiracies. At one point, my parents were certain that our phones were always “bugged” by the government, because of our foreign friends!!
GUILT. About supposed “bad thoughts” and made-up sins. Confessions.

Behavior Control


As I describe at right: no worldly newspapers, TV news, non-religious books or magazines; even old friends and family were shunned in case they would “draw us away from the faith.” We never again saw a movie in a theater together as a family (except for ‘Pinocchio’, once). The “Orthodox America” paper gave modern movie reviews, which almost always were negative and  demonic. All questions had to be through the “spiritual fathers” or clergy. Rational, critical thinking was abandoned.




(These are explained on pp. 67 -72 of Steve Hassan’s book, Combatting Mind Control. Here I briefly connect them with my own experience.)


As my family “died” to our “old selves” and old lives, we were broken down physically, mentally, and emotionally. Fasting, sleep deprivation, rigorous prayer schedules, confessions, lectures, and lack of contact with old friends and family did this. We believed our former lives had been ALL evil, wrong, and deluded. We were the most pitiable creatures on earth–spiritually fallen.



We were given our new baptisms, new names, and new identities, with life instructions. More reading material, more lectures, and complete compliance with the behaviors of the cult members were required. We were “re-taught”.



After being completely divested of our old selves and old lives, then “taught” how to live the “truth”, we BECAME the new people. We were now part of the family! Immediately, we were told to form a “mission” church, to bring in more converts (and their checkbooks.)

Well, that is a brief overview of the initial cult experience as it related to our involvement with the Russian Orthodox/St. Herman of Alaska/Old Calendar church. It didn’t end there.


Cult Mentality: a threat to individual responsibility in the church (Greta Larson)

This article was first presented at the Fall, 2000, Conference of Orthodox Christian Laity in Dallas, Texas
”Protected by your coming, O Mother of God, the faithful people solemnly celebrate today. Gazing upon your pure ikon, they humbly say: ‘Watch over us with your noble protection and deliver us from all evil by asking your Son, Christ our God to save our souls.’” — Troparian of the feast of the Protection of the Theotokos (Pokrov), celebrated October 1/14

Greta and Cappy LarsonGod asked Mary to be the mother of God, and she agreed. She made a personal choice; she was given individual responsibility. Individual responsibility is more than just the topic of this conference, an academic topic, or a political issue: it is an integral part of our Faith. My web site called Protection of the Theotokos confronts the crucial necessity of individual responsibility in the church. The site confronts the lack of responsibility by clergy and laity in handling the topic of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. It also confronts the taking away of individual responsibility in the case of mind-control and cult activity within an Orthodox context.

The reason I became aware of both cult activity and sexual abuse in the church is because of my own personal experience in my parish. More than ten years ago it was discovered that my four year old sister and several of her friends were victims of sexual abuse by a man who claimed to be a convert to the Orthodox faith. Upon investigation it was discovered that the molester had been involved in a cult group (listed by several national cult awareness networks). Several other members in my parish were also converts from the same group and exhibited a continuing cult mentality as they had known the molester for fifteen years or more, yet didn’t tell my family, or any of the other families in the parish, let alone law enforcement officials, that this man was a violent criminal who was breaking his parole by attending our parish. It became apparent that certain converts in our parish still maintained an allegiance to their previous group. Later it was discovered that while they gave us the impression that they were converts from another orthodox jurisdiction, it turned out that they were from a group that is documented as a Gnostic mystery cult with pagan and occult rituals that had recently adopted orthodox rituals as a means of gaining credibility by mainstream society. Court records show that the leaders in the cult sent letters to court pleading leniency for the molester and another letter invited him to a monastery that housed children.

I first started Protection of the Theotokos web site as a way for myself and my family to reach out to others that had experienced abuse in the church first hand. We list articles on abuse, resources and a list of documented perpetrators. I had no idea the extent of the abuse problems; however I am now informed of cases in the Orthodox Church on a near weekly basis. Without much publicity, we have an average of 800 visits to the web site a month. I have received more than 2000 email messages in response to the site. Perpetrators are listed on my website that have conviction records, but I have a growing file of more than fifty other perpetrators NOT listed on my web site. I have received multiple reports on most of these fifty plus perpetrators, most of whom continue today as ”pastors” in Orthodox parishes. Needless to say, the list of victims is staggering.

This conference is honored by the presence of two courageous orthodox mothers — Catherine Metropoulos and Melanie Sakoda — who have stepped forward after seeing their children violated at church. They are both advocates for all children, not just their own. In both of their cases, they were told be silent and not speak about what happened to them, and in both cases their children could have been spared harm if others had spoken out. Yet, both Catherine and Melanie have stopped the cycle of silence and used their individual responsibility to the church to warn others of dangers in their communities.


Sexual abuse is such an explosive issue in the Orthodox Church that people aren’t even allowed to talk about it. My website, which publishes the facts (court documents, newspaper reprints, etc.), is so controversial that one member of the clergy (not present at this conference) attempted to have me removed from the program today. I also made reports to the FBI after receiving threatening messages from another source which indicated that my personal safety may be in jeopardy. It seems that talking about the crimes is actually worse than the crimes themselves. What I want to talk about today may be more difficult to confront than sexual abuse — and is sometimes a cause of sexual abuse — it is the confusing and controversial subject of what I call cult mentality and activity in the Orthodox Church.


What is a ”cult mentality” or ”cult?”

There are many different thoughts on the subject, but Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a respected authority on cult activity, describes three main factors which are a charismatic leader, brainwashing and emotional, economic, sexual or other type of exploitation of members by the leaders. Cult activity can occur on a very large scale, in a small group situation, and even on a one-on-one basis. In Russia there has recently been some trouble with cult mentality in the Orthodox Church. An article from 1999 said the following: ”

Russian Orthodox priests have abused their authority over believers by intruding into their private lives and setting up, cult-like followings, the church’s Synod has complained. ‘The priests ban parishioners from marrying for love, force others to divorce their spouses because they were not married in church, and even compel some believers to enter monasteries or nunneries …. Instead of leading people to God, such priests are more interested in surrounding themselves with tightly knit groups of admirers and warring against rival parishes and traditions within the church.’”

Group mentality in Parishes and monasteries

These same kind of things are seen more and more in the U.S. as well. A cult mentality is seen in sexual abuse cases, for instance, when groups of people will still believe a priest is innocent after a guilty verdict or a guilty plea in court. Often it is the use of cult tactics that make people vulnerable to sexual and other types of abuse.

People have contacted me confused why a priest is suddenly making changes, they are being told what to do, everyone is supposed to follow the priest in every way, etc. Often changes are made in the parish council giving the priest more and more control. Parishioners are told not to question or talk about the changes, and if they do they are called ”unorthodox,” or ”ethnic/ nominal orthodox.” Sometimes people are derided and told that they don’t understand their own Faith. This makes them intimidated and embarrassed to speak out. One person wrote to me about their experience in their Greek Orthodox parish:

”Soon after the new priest arrived, he began to wear the monk attire: black cassock, black skoufos hat, and long beard. He began to refer to …..spiritual obedience a lot, performed daily liturgies, focused on the desert fathers in his sermons, and encouraged those women who favored spiritual obedience to him to wear scarves during liturgy and refrain from communion if they were menstruating. Some people began wearing (long) prayer ropes ….. wrapped around their wrists several times. Soon it was evident which group of parishioners were the super Orthodox and which group were moderates. … Small groups of the growing cadre of spiritually obedient parishioners went on retreats to the monastery, several states away. Their purpose was to gain a blessing from (the elder) …..They returned saying that (the elder) truly had the power of discernment. Individuals took personal questions for (the elder) seeking answers, such as, Should I buy this property? Should I have a baby? Should I marry this man/woman? Should I become a monk/nun? Throughout this time, a division within the parish became evident, especially at voting time for the Parish Council. The question was, Will this man/woman support the priest or remain a moderate?”

Monasticism vs. Marriage

As shown in the letter I just read, group thinking can effect a regular parish. To me one of the most important points of that quote is that people weren’t encouraged to think for themselves, or to ask questions. They were forced to conform to an imposed standard of piety. It is important to remember that the Orthodox faith is full and multifaceted and doesn’t always fit one particular mold.

I have a personal anecdote. In my last parish there were two members who were chrismated into the parish who still lived and worked at a orthodox-style cult commune during the week, but came to our parish on the weekends. I thought this was a concern, both for the parish, and the people in the cult. However, when I asked the priest about it he accused me of gossiping. This is a common thing people are told to keep them from asserting their personal opinions. In fact Margaret Singer, one of the definitive experts on cult activity, says that:

”In many groups, there is a ‘no gossip’ or ‘no nattering’ rule that keeps people from expressing their doubts or misgivings about what is going on. This rule is usually rationalized by saying that gossip will tear apart the fabric of the group or destroy unity, when in reality the rule is a mechanism to keep members from communicating anything other than positive endorsements. Members are taught to report those who break the rule, a practice that also keeps members isolated from each other and increases dependence on the leadership.”

One person wrote to my web site about his abusive spiritual director, and I believe it shows how leaders can be deceptive:

Filotheou Brotherhood

”This man looked homely, dressed modestly, behaved in a gentle, self effacing manner, but had a highly charismatic personality that did not seem charismatic at all–art that concealed art. Whether aware of it or not, he had a splendid voice, and knew when to inflect his words so as to dramatically enhance the impact of what he said at key moments–the effect on me was almost hypnotic. Others were also enchanted. …… (M)y spiritual advisor ‘pulled’ people’s attention toward himself, rather than the God he supposedly honored, and ostensibly served. All in all, I knew something was very wrong, did not want to trust my gut instincts because I felt unable to bear the loneliness involved in ending the relationship — plus I had been going through some terrible crises and had gotten some genuinely valuable support from this man. The worst thing was that he had such a reputation for sanctity, that I and others felt afraid to even question his motives — he was protected by our own unconscious, wishful desire for evidence that God still cared enough to rise up saints in this sad world. I blamed myself and felt guilty all the time.”


Where is the new influence coming from?

In the last twenty years there has been an increased interest by mainstream society in the Orthodox church. An increasing percentage of clergy are converts. Besides the cult group I mentioned earlier that was in my own parish, there are many non-orthodox religions that have adopted orthodox icons, liturgics, theology and music into their traditions. Some of these groups are entranced by the beauty of the rituals, others are truly seeking the essence of the faith, others are using the traditions to cover up for a lack of legitimacy. Some of these groups have tried to join the church en masse — some have succeeded. Individual people interested in the Orthodox faith can be from varied backgrounds According to Don Lattin in an SF Chronicle (3/5/00):

”There has been a growing number of conversions to Orthodox Christianity … both by individuals and entire congregations. Some converts are traditionalists, such as Episcopalians upset over the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Others are evangelicals tired of the spiritual fads and the pop music of Pentecostalism. Some are serious students of the faith who read a little history and conclude that the Orthodox may have the closest structure to the early Christian churches. And there are all those spiritual seekers who dabble in Zen, Sufism or humanistic psychology and then stumble across some Orthodox monk with a long beard and a twinkle in his eye.”

My family converted from the Anglican church. We spent more than a year studying the Orthodox faith and attending the cycle of services. It was an important decision we made, each as individuals, to join the church. As converts my family was welcomed by long-time cradle Orthodox who taught us what it meant to be Orthodox, and we continue to learn more about Orthodoxy from them.

Orthodox people should be proud of the traditions they have maintained for generations and passed on to so many. Another convert is Bishop Kallistos whose book The Orthodox Church reminds us of these traditions. He points out that while the church is hierarchical, it is also ”charismatic and Pentecostal.” He goes on to say that ”the whole people of God are prophets and priests.” He also reminds us that in the Orthodox tradition, clergy and laity are equally responsible for guarding the faith. However, if lay people are no longer allowed to think for themselves, and told they must always obey their priest or bishop, this precious tradition is lost. As Bishop Isaiah of Denver recently reminded us, God wants loving sons and daughters, not slaves in his kingdom.

Kallistos Ware

How is thought reform implemented? How are people made to be obedient?

The ”no gossiping” rule is one way, charismatic leadership is one way, but Margaret Singer also cites changes in diet, sleep and stress as ways of implementing thought reform or persuasion in a cult situation. While I am not condemning fasting or liturgical services, an increased cycle of services can result in sleep deprivation, and trance states and rules of fasting can cause protein deprivation, malnutrition and other health problems. Several of the letters I have gotten describe severe health problems resulting from fasting. One former nun told me of how she left her convent after she almost died when she was told to follow the convent’s dietary restrictions which were against doctor recommendations. Extreme fasting can cause other problems even in healthy people. It can make even the strongest of us too weak to use our good judgment, and more open to suggestion.

The use of spiritual fathers and elders and confessors in the orthodox church is also a way that cult activity can be imposed. In many books about cults, confession is listed as one of the techniques used to apply cult mentality and have people second guess their own judgment. This is in contrast to a healthy use of confession as a reaffirmation of God’s love for us. It can also be used as a way for a leader to impose guilt, which is another cult tactic. Margaret Singer tells how confession is used so that members reveal past and present behavior, contacts with others, and undesirable feelings, seemingly in order to unburden themselves and become free. However, whatever you reveal is subsequently used to further mold you and to make you feel close to the group and estranged from non members. … through the confession process and by instruction in the groups’ teachings, members learn that everything about their former lives, including friends, family, and nonmembers, is wrong and to be avoided.

Margaret Singer
Margaret Singer

Here is some of a testimony I received from one former monk who was one of many victims of sexual and spiritual abuse from the spiritual father of his monastery:

”Father carefully cultivates among his novices and monks the concept of absolute obedience to the ‘elder’ (staretz), i.e. himself. He does this by his own interpretations of the Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers and by pointing to certain patristic statements found chiefly in the Ladder of Divine Ascent (e.g. 4:121, ”It is better to sin against God than against our father”). Novices and monks are led to believe that total obedience is a monk’s only path into the Kingdom of Heaven and that a monk can gain access to God only through his elder; they are led to believe that their belief in God and their belief in their ‘elder’ are one and the same; they are led to believe that if they disobey their ‘elder’ by any action or even thought, they have disobeyed and betrayed God and are therefore no better than atheists unless they repent, that is, obey.”

Who is vulnerable?

Any one of us can exhibit cult mentality: it happens whenever we allow our thoughts and actions to be dictated by someone else, or by outward appearances. For instance, it can occur in sexual abuse cases against the clergy, when people continue to believe a priest is innocent after a guilty verdict, or even after a guilty plea, simply because he is a priest. However, young people and converts are especially vulnerable, as are people going through a difficult time, such as a divorce, or the death of a loved one. Converts to Otrhodoxy are open to new ideas and willing to learn new things, but they may have a limited idea of what Orthodoxy really is. If they are told that to be Orthodox they must give blind obedience to the clergy, they might not know better.

Young people are similarly vulnerable. Not only are they usually expected to obey their elders, but they also may not yet have developed a mature understanding of Orthodoxy. There is a developing trend in this country of monastery schools, for children as young as five, or teenage novices. I personally feel that having children at monasteries is very wrong. We must certainly make sure that these children are being taught the importance of individual responsibility, not blind obedience.

Vulnerability to blind obedience is particularly problematic when whole groups, with their former leadership intact, are received into the church. If the group’s understanding of Orthodoxy is in error, if they do not understand that they need to exercise their individual responsibility to preserve our heritage, you have not one lay convert, whose misconceptions can be corrected by a priest or by other parishioners, but a serious threat to the Faith. These groups may go on to attract more converts, but only those who are looking for someone else to do their thinking for them.

This brings me to my next subject ….

NY - Full Moon over Men's Xenona

Outside groups that may influence the Orthodox Church

In this country there are no rules or laws about who wears a clerical robe. There are no rules about who calls themselves Orthodox. Many groups in this country are self proclaimed orthodox. There is also a priest shortage. As a result of these factors, there are more and more priests converts from outside groups, often with no backgrounds or qualifications other than cult leadership positions to lead an Orthodox parish. More and more priests and bishops do not have a seminary education.

In one parish a convert Orthodox priest, formerly with a cult, pronounced excommunication on several devout long time Greek parish council members, simply for asking him to account for missing funds. The priest wrote to them saying:

”….(Y)ou have been suspended from the Sacraments. This difficult action has been taken because of your divisive actions [i.e.: asking about funds] and your refusal to follow the directions of your Priest and Bishop in resolving the problems within our parish. …. Suspension from the Sacraments means you are not a member in good standing, and thus may not continue as a member of the … Council, nor as its chairman …. Restoration to the sacraments is possible and in fact desirable upon ….: resignation from your position on the parish council, confession, and an expressed desire to accept and put on the spirit and practice that characterizes the …. diocese.”


Many of you come from parishes in which the parishioners are essentially like the parish council members described above, but where there is no influence from outside non-orthodox groups. Unfortunately in more and more communities in the Orthodox world, including my own home town of San Francisco, there are groups that appear orthodox, call themselves orthodox, but aren’t affiliated with any Orthodox jurisdictions. Among the controversial groups listed on my web site, four are not currently attached to any canonical Orthodox jurisdiction. There are many more groups that we are still investigating.


Some people may ask:

Why are cults a problem? Shouldn’t they just join the Orthodox Church?

On a list assembled by Margaret Singer, she lists one of the dangers of cult activity is that cults threaten legitimate institutions Many people would say since some groups are not really orthodox, then it doesn’t effect the ”real” church. However, many of these self-trained or cult-trained orthodox have been chrismated and ordained into the Orthodox Church, sometimes on the same weekend. One non-orthodox group, for instance, has made it its mission to ”save the orthodox from themselves,” and has attempted to send out members to convert to local established Orthodox parishes to establish connections within a parish. Many of these converts present themselves as long-time Orthodox and look to fill positions as Sunday school teachers and ordained deacons or readers. The sacraments are not meant to be a magical spell. Chrismation and ordination do not impart understanding of the Faith, or erase cult mentality.

Most of you know about the conflicts surrounding the widely publicized Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission situation, which was considered a cult before its reception. Currently some Orthodox jurisdictions are attempting to take in other groups, just not so publicly. Recently I heard that one SCOBA jurisdiction is considering taking in the group that my sister’s molester had belonged to. When someone who works with me called the church headquarters to ask if this was true, the phone call was unceremoniously terminated. I then called myself and they hung up on me as well. We were not allowed to ask a simple question and receive a civil answer, much less express an opinion on the wisdom of this alleged reception.

Orthodox unity, you see, is more complicated than it seems.

Perhaps you think that these issues do not affect you or your parish, but take a look at the icon prints, periodicals and books sold in your parish book shop. Many pseudo orthodox groups sell orthodox wares as ways to make money and gain credibility.

Is that an ”orthodox bookstore” down the street from your parish, or does it just call itself Orthodox?

I believe Orthodoxy in America is at an important crossroads. The Orthodox Church is NOT a cult — but as lay people we each have a responsibility to make sure that it does not become one. The danger is there. The antidote is the example of Mary. God asked Mary to be the Theotokos, and understanding what was asked of her, she said yes. The Mother of God was a loving daughter, not a slave. We should all strive to be no less.

Geronda Dositheos