Brainwashing as a Scientific Concept (Benjamin Zablocki, 2001)

NOTE: The following article is taken from the 5th chapter of Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, entitled, Towards a Demystified and Disinterested Scientific Theory of Brainwashing.

Misunderstanding_Cults

What I am presenting here is not a ‘new’ theory of brainwashing but a conceptual model of the foundational theory developed in the mid-twentieth century by Lifton, Schein, and Sargant as it applies to charismatic collectivities. Because its scientific stature has been so frequently questioned, I will err on the side of formality by presenting a structured exposition of brainwashing theory in terms of eight definitions and twelve hypotheses. Each definition includes an operationalized form by which the trait may be observed. If either of the first two hypotheses disconfirmed, we must conclude that brainwashing is not being attempted in the cult under investigation. If any of the twelve hypotheses is disconfirmed, we must conclude that brainwashing is not successful in meeting its goals within that cult.

I do not pretend that the model outlined here is easy to test empirically, particularly for those researchers who either who either cannot or will not spend time immersing themselves in the daily lives of cults, or for those who are not willing, alternatively, to use as data the detailed retrospective accounts of ex-members. However, it should be clear that the model being proposed here stays grounded in what is empirically testable and does not involve mystical notions such as loss of free will or information disease (Conway and Siegelman 1978) that have characterized many of the extreme ‘anti-cult models.’

Nor do I pretend that this model represents the final and definitive treatment of this subject. Charismatic influence is still a poorly understood subject on which much additional research is needed. With few exceptions, sociology has treated it as if it were what engineers call a ‘black box,’ with charismatic inputs coming in one end and obedience outputs going out the other. What we have here is a theory that assists in the process of opening  this black box to see what is inside. It is an inductive theory, formed largely from the empirical generalizations of ethnographers and interviewers. The model itself presents an ideal-type image of brainwashing that does not attempt to convey the great variation among specific obedience-inducing processes that occur across the broad range of existing cults. Much additional refinement in both depth and breadth will certainly be needed.

Definitions

EE 2018

D1. Charisma is defined, using the classical Weberian formula, as a condition of ‘devotion to the specific and exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him’ (Weber 1947: 328). Being defined this way, as a condition of devotion, leads us to recognize that charisma is not to be understood simply in terms of the characteristics of the leader, as it has come to be in popular usage, but requires an understanding of the relationship between leader and followers. In other words, charisma is a relational variable. It is defined operationally as a network of relationships in which authority is justified (for both superordinates and subordinates) in terms of the special characteristics discussed above.

D2. Ideological Totalism is a sociocultural system that places high valuation on total control over all aspects of the outer and inner lives of participants for the purpose of achieving the goals of an ideology defined as all important. Individual rights either do not exist under ideological totalism or they are clearly subordinated to the needs of the collectivity whenever the two come into conflict. Ideological totalism has been operationalized in terms of eight observable characteristics: milieu control, mystical manipulation, the demand for purity, the cult of confession, ‘sacred science,’ loading the language, doctrine over person, and the dispensing of existence (Lifton 1989: chap. 22).1

D3. Surveillance is defined as keeping watch over a person’s behaviour, and, perhaps, attitudes. As Hechter (1987) has shown, the need for surveillance is the greatest obstacle to goal achievement among ideological collectivities organized around the production of public goods. Surveillance is not only costly, it is also impractical for many activities in which agents of the collectivity may have to travel to act autonomously and at a distance. It follows from this that all collectivities pursuing public goals will be motivated to find ways to decrease the need for surveillance. Resources used for surveillance are wasted in the sense that they are unavailable for the achievement of collective goals.

D4. A deployable agent is one who is uncritically obedient to directives perceived as charismatically legitimate (Selznick 1960). A deployable agent can be relied on to continue to carry out the wishes of the collectivity regardless of his own hedonic interests and in the absence of any external controls. Deployability can be operationalized as the likelihood that the individual will continue to comply with hitherto ego-dystonic demands of the collectivity (e.g., mending, ironing, mowing the lawn, smuggling, rape, child abuse, murder) when not under surveillance.

D5. Brainwashing is an observable set of transactions between a charismatically structured collectively and an isolated agent of the collectivity, with the goal of transforming the agent into a deployable agent. Brainwashing is thus a process of ideological resocialization carried out within a structure of charismatic authority.

The brainwashing process may be operationalized as a sequence of well-defined and potentially observable phases. These hypothesized phases are (1) identity stripping, (2) identification, and (3) symbolic death/rebirth. The operational definition of brainwashing refers to the specific activities attempted, whether or not they are successful, as they are either observed directly by the ethnographer or reported in official or unofficial accounts by members or ex-members. Although the exact order of phases and specific steps within phases may vary from group to group, we should always expect to see the following features, or their functional equivalents, in any brainwashing system: (1) the constant fluctuation between assault and leniency; and (2) the seemingly endless process of confession, re-education, and refinement of confession.

D6. Hyper-credulity is defined as a disposition to accept uncritically all charismatically ordained beliefs. All lovers of literature and poetry are familiar with ‘that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith’ (Coleridge 1970: 147). Hyper-credulity occurs when this state of mind, which in most of us is occasional and transitory, is transformed into a stable disposition. Hyper-credulity falls between hyper-suggestibility on the one hand and stable conversion of belief on the other.2 Its operational hallmark is plasticity in the assumption of deeply held convictions at the behest of an external authority. This is an other-directed form of what Robert Lifton (1968) has called the protean identity state.

D7. Relational Enmeshment is a state of being in which self-esteem  depends upon belonging to a particular collectivity (Bion 1959; Bowen 1972; Sirkin and Wynne 1990). It may be operationalized as immersion in a relational network with the following characteristics: exclusivity (high ratio of in-group to out-group bonds), interchangeability (low level of differentiation in affective ties between one alter and another), and dependency (reluctance to sever or weaken ties for any reason). In a developmental context, something similar to this has been referred to by Bowlby (1969) as anxious attachment.
D8. Exit Costs are the subjective costs experienced by an individual who is contemplating leaving a collectivity. Obviously, the higher the perceived exit costs, the greater will be the reluctance to leave. Exit costs may be operationalized as the magnitude of the bribe necessary to overcome them. A person who is willing to leave if we pay him $1,000 experiences lower exit costs than one who is not willing to leave for any payment less than $1,000,000. With regard to cults, the exit costs are most often spiritual and emotional rather than material, which makes measurement in this way more difficult but not impossible.

Hypotheses

Not all charismatic organizations engage in brainwashing. We therefore need a set of hypotheses that will allow us to test empirically whether any particular charismatic system attempts to practise brainwashing and with what effect. The brainwashing model asserts twelve hypotheses concerning the role of brainwashing in the production of uncritical obedience. These hypotheses are all empirically testable. A schematic diagram of the model I propose may be found in Figure 1.

p. 186This model begins with an assumption that charismatic leaders are capable of creating organizations that are easy and attractive to enter (even though they may later turn out to be difficult and painful to leave). There are no hypotheses, therefore, to account for how charismatic cults obtain members. It is assumed that an abundant pool of potential recruits to such groups is always available. The model assumes charismatic leaders, using nothing more than their own intrinsic attractiveness and persuasiveness, are initially able to gather around them a corps of disciples sufficient for the creation of an attractive social movement. Many ethnographies (Lofland 1996; Lucas 1995) have shown how easy it is for such charismatic movement organizations to attract new members from the general pool of anomic ‘seekers’ that can always be found within the population of an urbanized mobile society.

Hieromonk Ephraim & Kids

The model does attempt to account for how some percentage of these ordinary members are turned into deployable agents. The initial attractiveness of the group, its vision of the future, and/or its capacity to bestow seemingly limitless amounts of love and esteem on the new member are sufficient inducements in some cases to motivate a new member to voluntarily undergo this difficult and painful process of resocialization.

H1. Ideological totalism is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the brainwashing process. Brainwashing will be attempted only in groups that are structures totalistically. However, not all ideologically totalist groups will attempt to brainwash their members. It should be remembered that brainwashing is merely a mechanism for producing deployable agents. Some cults may not want deployable agents or have other ways of producing them. Others may want them but feel uncomfortable about using brainwashing methods to obtain them, or they may not have discovered the existence of brainwashing methods.

H2. The exact nature of this resocialization process will differ from group to group, but, in general, will be similar to the resocialization process that Robert Lifton (1989) and Edgar Schein (1961) observed in Communist re-education centres in the 1950s. For whatever reasons, these methods seem to come fairly intuitively to charismatic leaders and their staffs. Although the specific steps and their exact ordering differ from group to group, their common elements involve a stripping away of the vestiges of an old identity, the requirement that repeated confessions be made either orally or in writing, and a somewhat random and ultimately debilitating alternation of the giving and the withholding of ‘unconditional’ love and approval. H2 further states that the maintenance of this program involves the expenditure of a measurable quantity of the collectivity’s resources. This quantity is known as C, where C equals the cost of the program and should be measurable at least at an ordinal level.

The resocialization process has baffled many observers, in my opinion because it proceeds simultaneously along two distinct but parallel tracks, one involving cognitive functioning and the other involving emotional networking. These two tracks lead to the attainment of states of hyper-credulity and relational enmeshment, respectively. The group member learns to accept with suspended critical judgement the often shifting beliefs espoused by the charismatic leader. At the same time, the group member becomes strongly attached to and emotionally dependent upon the charismatic leader and (often especially) the other group members, and cannot bear to be shunned by them.

Hidden in the dark

H3. Those who go through the process will be more likely than those who do not to reach a state of hyper-credulity. This involves the shedding of old convictions and the assumption of a zealous loyalty to these beliefs of the moment, uncritically seized upon, so that all such beliefs become not mere ‘beliefs’ but deeply held convictions.

Under normal circumstances, it is not easy to get people to disown their core convictions. Convictions, once developed, are generally treated not as hypotheses to test empirically but as possessions to value and cherish. There are often substantial subjective costs to the individual in giving them up. Abelson (1986: 230) has provided convincing linguistic evidence that most people treat convictions more as valued possessions than as ways of testing reality. Cognitive dissonance theory predicts with accuracy that when subject to frontal attack, attachment to convictions tends to harden (Festinger, Riechen et. al. 1956; O’Leary 1994). Therefore, a frontal attack on convictions, without first undermining the self-image foundation of these convictions, is doomed to failure. An indirect approach through brainwashing is often more effective.

Nevins-Graduation1
Scott Nevins.

When the state of hyper-credulity is achieved, it leaves the individual strongly committed to the charismatic belief of the moment but with little or no critical inclination to resist charismatically approved new or contradictory beliefs in the future and little motivation to attempt to form accurate independent judgments of the consequences of assuming new beliefs. The cognitive track of the resocialization process begins by stripping away the old convictions and associating them with guilt, evil, or befuddlement. Next, there is a traumatic exhaustion of the habit of subjecting right-brain convictions to left-brain rational scrutiny. This goes along with an increase in what Snyder (1974) has called self-monitoring, implying a shift from central route to peripheral route processing of information in which the source rather than the content of the message becomes all important.

H4. As an individual goes through the brainwashing process, there will be an increase in relational enmeshment with measurable increases occurring at the completion of each of the three stages. The purging of convictions is a painful process and it is reasonable to ask why anybody would go through it voluntarily. The payoff is the opportunity to feel more connected with the charismatic relational network. These people have also been through it, and only they really understand what you are going through. So cognitive purging leads one to seek relational comfort, and this confort becomes enmeshing. The credulity process and the enmeshing process depend on each other.

The next three hypotheses are concerned with the fact that each of the three phases of brainwashing achieves plateaus in both of these processes. The stripping phase creates the vulnerability to this sort of transformation. The identification phase creates realignment, and the rebirth phase breaks down the barrier between the two so that convictions can be emotionally energized and held with zeal, while emotional attachments can be sacralized in terms of the charismatic ideology. The full brainwashing model actually provides far more detailed hypotheses concerning the various steps within each phase of the process. Space constraints make it impossible to discuss these here. An adequate technical discussion of the manipulation of language in brainwashing, for example, would require a chapter at least the length of this one. Figure 2 provides a sketch of the steps within each phase. Readers desiring more information about these steps are referred to Lifton (1989: chap. 5).

P. 190 (scrprnt)
The Stages of Brainwashing & Their Effect on Hyper-credulity and Emotional Enmeshment

page 191

H5. The stripping phase. The cognitive goal of the stripping phase is to destroy prior convictions and prior relationships of belonging. The emotional goal of the stripping phase is to create the need for attachments. Overall, at the completion of the stripping phase, the situation is such that the individual is hungry for convictions and attachments and dependent upon the collectivity to supply them. This sort of credulity and attachment behaviour is widespread among prisoners and hospital patients (Goffman 1961).

H6. The identification phase. The cognitive goal of the identification phase is to establish imitative search for conviction and bring about the erosion of the habit of incredulity. The emotional goal of the identification phase is to instill the habit of acting out through attachment. Overall, at the completion of the identification phase of the individual has begun the practice of relying on the collectivity for beliefs and for a cyclic emotional pattern of arousal and comfort. But, at this point this reliance is just one highly valued form of existence. It is not yet viewed as an existential necessity.

H7. The symbolic death and rebirth phase. In the death and rebirth phase, the cognitive and emotional tracks come together and mutually support each other. This often gives the individual a sense of having emerged from a tunnel and an experience of spiritual rebirth.3 The cognitive goal of this phase is to establish a sense of ownership of (and pride of ownership in) the new convictions. The emotional goal is to make a full commitment to the new self that is no longer directly dependent upon hope of attachment or fear of separation. Overall, at the completion of the rebirth phase we may say that the person has become a fully deployable agent of the charismatic leader. The brainwashing process is complete.

H8 states that the brainwashing process results in a state of subjectivity elevated exit costs. These exit costs cannot, of course, be observed directly. But they can be inferred from the behavioural state of panic or terror that arises in the individual at the possibility of having his or her ties to the group discontinued. The cognitive and emotional states produced by the brainwashing process together bring about a situation in which the perceived exit costs for the individual increase sharply. This closes the trap for all but the most highly motivated individuals, and induces in many a state of uncritical obedience. As soon as exit from a group (or even from its good graces) ceases to be a subjectively palatable option, it makes sense for the individual to comply with almost anything the group demands–even to the point of suicide in some instances. Borrowing from Sartre’s insightful play of that name, I refer to this situation as the ‘no exit’ syndrome. When demands for compliance are particularly harsh, the hyper-credulity aspect of the process sweetens the pill somewhat by allowing the individual to accept uncritically the justifications offered by the charismatic leader and/or charismatic organization for making these demands, however far-fetched these justifications might appear to an outside observer.

H9 states that the brainwashing process results in a state of ideological obedience in which the individual has a strong tendency to comply with any behavioural demands made by the collectivity, especially if motivated by the carrot of approval and the stick of threatened expulsion, no matter how life-threatening these demands may be and no matter how repugnant such demands might have been to the individual in his or her pre-brainwashed state.

H10 states that the ‘brainwashing process results in increased deployability. Deployability extends the range of ideological obedience in the temporal dimension. It states that the response continues after the stimulus is removed. This hypothesis will be disconfirmed in any cult within which members are uncritically obedient only while they are being brainwashed but not thereafter. The effect need not be permanent, but it does need to result in some measurable increase in deployability over time.

H11 states that the ability of the collectivity to rely on obedience without surveillance will result in a measurable decrease in surveillance. Since surveillance involves costs, this decrease will lead to a quantity S, where S equals the savings to the collectivity due to diminished surveillance needs and should be measurable at least to an ordinal level.

H12 states that S will be greater than C. In other words, the savings to the collectivity due to decreased surveillance needs is greater than the cost of maintaining the brainwashing program. Only where S is greater than C does it make sense to maintain a brainwashing program. Cults with initially high surveillance costs, and therefore high potential savings due to decreased surveillance needs [S], will tend to be more likely to brainwash, as will cults structured so that the cost of maintaining the brainwashing system [C] are relatively low.

Holy Archangel Monks socializing over wine

Characteristics of a Good Theory

There is consensus in the social sciences that a good inductive qualitative theory is one that is falsifiable, internally consistent, concrete, potentially generalizable, and has a well-defined dependent variable (king, Keohane et. al. 1994). I think it should be clear from the foregoing that this theory meets all of these conditions according to prevailing standards in the social and behavioural sciences. However, since brainwashing theory has received much unjustified criticism for its lack of falsifiability and its lack of generalizability, I will briefly discuss the theory from these two points of view.

The criterion of falsifiability, as formulated primarily by Popper (1968), is the essence of what separates theory from dogma in science. Every theory must be able to provide an answer to the question of what evidence would falsify it. If the answer is that there is no possible evidence that would lead us to reject a so-called theory, we should conclude that it is not really a theory at all but just a piece of dogma.

Although Dawson (1998) and Richardson (1993) have included the falsifiability problem in their critiques of brainwashing; this criticism is associated mainly with the work of Dick Anthony (1996). Anthony’s claim that brainwashing theory is unfalsifiable is based upon  two related misunderstandings. First, he argues that it is impossible to prove that a person is acting with free will so, to the extent that brainwashing theory rests on the overthrow of free will, no evidence can ever disprove it. Second, he applies Popper’s criterion to cults in a way more appropriate for a highly developed deductive theoretical system. He requires that either brainwashing explain all ego-dystonic behaviour in cults or acknowledge that it can explain none of it. But, as we have seen, brainwashing is part of an inductive multifactorial approach to the study of obedience in cults and should be expected to explain only some of the obedience produced in some cults.

With regard to generalizability, cultic brainwashing is part of an important general class of phenomena whose common element is what Anthony Giddens has called ‘disturbance of ontological security’ in which habits and routines cease to function as guidelines for survival (Cohen 1989: 53). This class of phenomena includes the battered spouse syndrome (Barnett and LaViolette 1993), the behaviour of concentration camp inmates (Chodoff 1966), the Stockholm Syndrome (Kuleshnyk 1984; Powell 1986), and, most importantly, behaviour within prisoner of war camps and Communist Chinese re-education centres and ‘revolutionary universities’ (Lifton 1989; Sargant 1957;  Schein 1961). There exist striking homologies in observed responses across all of these types of events, and it is right that our attention be drawn to trying to understand what common theme underlies them all. As Oliver Wendell Holmes (1891: 325) attempted to teach us more than a century ago, the interest of the scientist should be guided, when applicable, by ‘the plain law of homology which declares that like must be compared with like.’

Cats of St. Nektarios

NOTES

  1. Because of space limitations, I cannot give this important subject the attention it deserves in this chapter. Readers not familiar with the concept are referred to the much fuller discussion of this subject in the book by Robert Lifton as cited.
  2. Students of cults have sometimes been misled into confusing this state of hyper vrdulity with either hyper suggestibility on the one hand or a rigid ‘true belief’ system on the other. But at least one study has shown that neither the hyper-suggestible, easily hypnotized person nor the structural true believer are good candidates for encapsulation in a totalist cult system (Solomon 1981: 111-112). True believers (often fundamentalists who see in the cult a purer manifestation of their own worldview than they have seen before) do not do well in cults and neither do dye-in-the-wool sceptics who are comfortable with their scepticism. Rather it is those lacking convictions but hungering for them that are the best candidates.
  3. Hopefully, no reader will think that I am affirming the consequent by stating that all experiences of spiritual rebirth must be caused by brainwashing. This model is completely compatible with the assumption that most spiritual rebirth experiences have nothing to do with brainwashing. The reasoning here is identical to that connecting epilepsy with visions of the holy. The empirical finding that seizures can be accompanied by visions of the holy does not in any way imply that such visions are always a sign of epilepsy.
Advertisements

Biderman’s Chart of Coercion

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

Biderman book

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

 

Isolation

  • 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.

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

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

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

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

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

Monopolization of Perception

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

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

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

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

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

cropped-11.jpg

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

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

Induced Debility and Exhaustion

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

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

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

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

Occasional Indulgences

  • Provides motivation for compliance

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

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

CA nuns procession 5

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

Feast-of-St.-Thekla-2013
Feast Day of St. Thekla, 2013, Canada.

Devaluing the Individual

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

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

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

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

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

Biderman Chart

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:

978-613-6-26402-8-full

Cycle_of_Abuse