What do adult children of dysfunctional families, codependents, adult victims of child abuse with lingering complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder, and even certain schizophrenics share with victims of cult abuse and "brainwashing?" On the heels of finishing an ancient classic from clear back in 1978, it looks to me like it's stuck-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place, damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't, double binding. I'll try to build at least the rudiments of an initial case for that here utilizing concepts drawn from interpersonal communication and family systems theories, attachment theory, the "drama triangle," Millon's personality theory, and the concepts of codependency, "emotional blackmail," borderline personality organization, and observation of communication in "schizophrenogenic families," as well as accepted studies of cult dynamics.
I want to start with Gregory Bateson's (1956) "necessary components of a double bind situation" combined with Lifton's (1956) and Singer's (1986) dynamics of "thought reform" cults... followed by Albert Scheflen's (1978) restatement of the double bind hypothesis combined again with Lifton's and Singer's dynamics of "thought reform" cults.
1) Two or more persons. The guru or senior cult member(s) higher on the cult's hierarchal pyramid, and the junior cult member(s) lower on the pyramid (even if that junior / lower status is very high on the pyramid).
(In terms of the Karpman Drama Triangle, the senior / higher member or guru is the "rescuer" and/or "persecutor," while the junior / lower member is the "victim" attempting to move up to being a "rescuer" (or "persecutor") according to the senior / higher member or guru.)
2) Repetition of the double binding context (senior vs. junior, higher vs. lower), so that the double bind context is rehearsed sufficiently to embed it in the recipient's cultic consensus consciousness.
3) An initial negative (e.g.: critical, judgmental, wrong-making) injunction (e.g.: instruction, demand, requirement, order) made by the guru or senior / higher cult member which is enforced by threat of punishment, excommunication, painful "rehabilitation" (e.g.: repeated public confessions of wrong-doing; see Gao, Miscavidge Hill, and Wright) or even threat to physical survival. "Follow my orders, or get out, lose your status and maybe even entire support network."
4) A second injunction (negative or positive) conflicting with the first at a more abstract and less obvious level, which, like the first, is enforced by (a usually more subtle) threat of punishment, excommunication, "rehabilitation," or threat to physical survival. "You've always been a good, reliable member. If you continue to be, you will be rewarded (by nothing more than being allowed to stay, work like as slave, and take further abuse)."
5) A third, often unstated but self-evident, negative injunction prohibiting (or at least seeming to prohibit) the victim from escaping from the bind. (This injunction often depends for its force upon the cult member's acquired, conditioned beliefs and values.) "You know what happens to people who screw up. They get cleaned out mentally, physically and financially. (Will you survive?)"
6) Repetition of the second and third injunctions is no longer necessary once the victimized cult member's has been successfully conditioned by both reward and punishment to perceive his environment according to the cult's beliefs, values, rules, regulations and requirements.
Following, then, is Albert Scheflen's (in Berger, 1978) restatement of the double bind hypothesis combined with Lifton's and Singer's dynamics of "thought reform" cults:
1) The junior / lower cult member has become sufficiently regressed to a less mature state of psychological, cognitive, social-interactional and moral development (as per Freud, as per Piaget, as per Erikson, and as per Kohlberg) that he or she can no longer resist the stated and unstated (hidden) imperatives, injunctions, instructions, demands and requirements of any senior / higher cult member or guru.
2) This failure stems from a persistent exposure to contradictory instructions and experiences (e.g.: harsh criticism here, "love bombing" there). The cult member (at any level below the guru) has been immobilized by simultaneous membership in two contradictory realms (fields / boxes / frames / paradigms) of activity and value. This immobilization has prevented adequate learning in one or both realms.
3) The contradiction is obscured because one of the realms is cued by subtle, unconscious and unrecognized behaviors, as well as by covert contexts and values (e.g.: unquestioned loyalty to "the unquestionable moral cause," even when "the cause" has been supplanted -- or even wholly replaced -- by very questionable imperatives, such as ruthless wallet-vacuuming wealth accumulation, or relentless interrogation, show trials, and publich physical abuse, along with enslavement of junior / lower members to such tasks as field labor, cleaning toilets with a toothbrush, begging for donations, being at the beck and call of the guru 24/7, harassing those who try to or do leave the cult, and even submission to the guru's or senior / higher members' sexual and sadistic demands.
4) Those enmeshed / entrapped in the double-binding realm cannot -- or have been successfully conditioned to believe they cannot -- leave the arena of contradiction, making it impossible for them to have any experiences that would accurately clarify and/or explain what is actually going on.
The Effects of Double Binding via such Dynamics
For a cult exiter who has worked with many others to shake off the effects of having been "brainwashed" by a "thought reform" cult, Milton Berger's (1978) list of "processes, feelings and thoughts present simultaneously, intensely and all-together in those who were victims of repeated double bind situations" in their families of origin is stunningly similar to what is almost universally seen in cult members and exiters.
1) Confusion in the self about communication with others, as well as within the self.
2) Uncertainty about the "ground" one stands upon, as well as all interpersonal boundaries with significant others.
3) An habitual feeling of disconnectedness, of being "knocked or set back on one's heels."
4) A dim sense or awareness of being sent -- and of receiving -- simultaneous, mutually contradictory messages on multiple levels through multiple channels while being forbidden or otherwise unable to ask questions about or otherwise clarify what is going on.
5) Feeling unsure from moment to moment or encounter to encounter because of the simultaneous awareness of inconsistency and/or ambiguity of messages, attitudes and behaviors coming from the senior / higher member or guru.
6) A sense of feeling and/or being... perplexed, mystified, helpless, frustrated, guilty, a "disappointment," unapproved (and unapprovable), different, a "misfit," unacceptable, stupid, and (finally) bad. (To which I will add from my own experience along with what I have heard from others who participated in thought reform cults: being neglected, ignored, abandoned, discounted, disclaimed, and rejected as well as invalidated, confused, betrayed, insulted, criticized, judged, blamed, embarrassed, humiliated, ridiculed, denigrated, derogated, victimized, demonized, persecuted, picked on, dumped on, bullied, scapegoated, and/or otherwise abused, often in manners similar to such treatment by family members, surrogate parents, elder siblings and/or others during early life.)
7) A sense of being told subliminally (or overtly) that they were held in contempt by senior / higher cult members along with an inner acceptance of the right of such others to hold them in contempt.
8) An inner questioning, "What's wrong with me? It's clear I'm getting a message that something is wrong or I am doing something wrong, but I am not clear as to just what it is." And... "I just can't seem to do anything right."
9) A belief in the notion of being trapped with "no exit" from an impossibly ambiguous, conflicting, paradoxical situation.
10) Acceptance of the beliefs that "I can't win," "I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't," and "It's not fair," without awareness that all such beliefs exist only within the cult-instructed, conditioned, socialized, habituated and normalized realm / field / frame / box / paradigm, and not outside that realm because the member is no longer aware of any realm other than the one to which they have been conditioned.
11) A sense of unclear boundaries between self and other (higher and lower, senior and junior, as they submit to the will of those "above" and manipulate via learned skills of intimidation the will of those "below"), as if they were fused or enmeshed in some way and no longer separate.
12) The experience of being angry -- even enraged -- about the "invisible" entrapment, but "knowing" (actually believing) that they must not express or vent such emotions toward others in the cult who may be angry with them.
13) A sense of bitter and egregiously discomfiting self-criticism for being a "coward" and not striking back or lashing out at the senior / higher cult member or guru who continues to abuse them.
14) Not being able to sense (because sense has been replaced almost entirely with instructed -- in the sense of Asch's, Cooley's, McDougall's, Burrow's, Berger & Luckman's, and Gergen's descriptions of the "social construction of reality" -- beliefs, rules, requirements, regulations, imperatives and mandates) precisely what the senior / higher cult member or guru actually means (dimly, "Is it this... or is it that? I can't tell anymore).
15) Almost always feeling a delayed, emotional reaction to situations and communication with higher / senior cult members.
16) A sense of being punished.
17) A lingering -- but quickly rationalized and/or denied -- feeling of self-pity.
18) A desire to love and be loved by the abusing higher / senior and lower / junior cult members in the manner precisely defined as codependency.
What is further striking about this list is that it was originally developed to list the self-reported experiences of those who had been driven to severe anxiety, depression, neurosis, borderlinism and/or outright psychosis by their childhood experiences with dysfunctional parents, parent surrogates, elder siblings, etc. (Thus supporting my thesis of pre-existing normalization to abuse and double bound codependency seen in many cult members, regardless of "rank" or position on any hierarchal cult pyramid.)
To verify or at least strongly endorse the thesis above, one has only to
. . . a) Bowlby's attachment theory along Cassidy's, Mikulincer's, Shaver's and others' voluminous research on "anxious, ambivalent and disorganized" adult attachment schemes;
. . . c) Berne's, Harris's, et al's "games theory" in general and the three roles on Karpman's "drama triangle" in particular;
. . . d) Millon's DSM Axis II Cluster B and C personality types in interpersonal relationships;
. . . e) Cermak's, Mellody's, Schaef's, the Weinholds', and Whitfield's disquisitions on codependency, particularly with regard to covert control and anxiety-driven submission thereto;
. . . f) Forward's "FOG" (fear, obligation and guilt) model in "emotional blackmail" dynamics;
. . . g) the concept of passive-aggressive and dominant-submissive "splitting" in Kernberg's and Meissner's "borderline personality organization;"
. . . h) Bermann's, Esterson's, Jackson's, Haley's, Henry's, Laing & Esterson's, Lidz & Fleck's, and Schatzman's descriptions of "schizophrenogenic families;" and
. . . a) the stories told by cult exiters on Reddit's "cults" forum, as well as to read the "adventures" directly described by such as Jeanna Miscavidge Hill, Vennie Kocsis, Paul Haggis, Barbara O'Hare, Anna Ruston and Natacha Tormey, as well as
. . . b) reported second-hand by Arnold Bernstein, James Carver, Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman, Arthur Deikman, Mark Galanter, Gao Wenqien, Jeff Guinn, Sam Harris, Steven Hassan, Jules Henry, Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, Michael Langone, Robert J. Lifton, Walter Martin, Joost Meerloo, M. Scott Peck, Rick Allan Ross, Morton Schatzman, Edgar Schein, Margaret Singer, Kathleen Taylor, and Lawrence Wright (most of whom are certified to testify in legal proceedings involving cults).
But having also listened first-hand to accounts told by current and former members of est, The Forum, Landmark Education, Landmark Worldwide, Silva Mind Control, ISKKON, Scientology, Ekankar, PSI, Actualizations, Tony Robbins Seminars, Set Free, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification Church, the University Cathedral (of Los Angeles), the Brotherhood of Islam, the Rock Christian Church, Calvary Chapel, several Pentecostal congregations, the FLDS, the Manson "family," two biker "clubs," two paramilitary groups, several radical ("alt") right and ("radical") left political cults, four African-American Blood and Crip "chapters," two Mexican-American La M groups, and two quasi-religious prison cults, I have no doubt in my own mind that the thesis stands up at least 75% of the time.
Most of the cult members and exiters I have interviewed or worked with have pretty obvious anxious, ambivalent and disorganized adult attachment schemes that are often (though not always) rooted in "failures" to clear Freudian, Piagetian, Eriksonian and Kohlbergian developmental hurdles in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. Others were not damaged by "dysfunctional families of origin" and/or immature (or pseudo-mature), narcissistic, overly righteous, over-controlling or neglectful / abandoning parents... or bullying, invalidating, scapegoating, etc., elder siblings. But they were at some point in their lives so stressed by some collection of life challenges (e.g.: death of a parent at a crucial developmental stage, severe illness, injury leading to deformity, drug abuse, some other inducement of complex post traumatic stress disorder) that their egos decompensated to the point of loss of secure identity.
Failures -- for example -- at Erikson's "trust," "autonomy," "initiative," "competence," "identity," "intimacy" and/or "generativity" may be sufficient to induce neurotic or even borderline decompensations that allow for survival but set some people up for the seductions of promised recompensations offered by cults (studying The Guru's Word with rewarding love bombing here; public confession and self-abnegation there).
The cult that doesn't utilize (consciously and cynically or otherwise) Karpman's Drama Triangle dynamics to ultimately drive ego-decompensated members into "victimhood" at the bottom of the triangle seeking to be heroic "rescuers" -- or powerful "persecutors" -- at the top... has yet to be discovered, at least by me. Senior members at the highest levels have learned how to stay out of the bottom corner regardless of how much odious rescuing or those above and persecuting of those below they may have to do. Done long enough, of course, such rescuing and persecuting become conditioned, normalized and desensitized.
Those who walk through the doors at the store front church, the high-tech evangelical mega-temple, the guest seminar, or the celebrity center are all examples of John Kelly's, Aaron Beck & Arthur Freeman's, and Theo Millon's personality types. Many may not yet exhibit personality disorders, of course, but under stress we all regress. And they will, too. Because cult life is stressful. Observed over time, gurus and higher / senior cult members tend to display narcissistic, histrionic, and antisocial PDs to effect control over their lower level subordinates, who tend toward obsessive-compulsive, ("people pleasing") dependent, depressive, and sometimes avoidant PDs. Observed in times of crisis, one will see upper level members with Cluster A ("psychotic") paranoid PD... and lower level members (especially the career scapegoats, schleps and victims) with schizoid and even schizotypal PDs (though most will be unceremoniously cut loose if they have no further value to the guru, regardless of how valuable they may once have been when before they were run into the ground via 16-hour work days or "rehabilitation" programs).
I have treated the whole matter of codependency during and before cult membership elsewhere, and advise looking into that if one is not familiar with the concepts and developmental pathway towards abject submission and well as obsessive, approval-seeking control of others on behalf of the exalted master. In my view, the dynamics of extreme codependency are the fundamental tools utilized by gurus and higher level members to keep the lower level people at their grinding wheels.
Fear, obligation and guilt -- as treated so effectively in Susan Forward's requisite treatise on interpersonal dominance by and submission to authority -- are the most evident and egregious tools of the guru's trade. That lower level members do not see, hear or otherwise observe, sense, recognize, acknowledge or appreciate that they are FOG-bound is testimony to the subtlety and skill of the patient, alert, skilled and cynical master manipulator at the top of the pecking order. Mao, the Kims, Uncle Joe, Der Fuhrer, a long list of Africans and South Americans in medal-laden uniforms, Henry the Eighth and Richard the Third provided the models we all know and shrink from. (Gao Wenqien's remarkable, fingernails-on-a-blackboard biography of Zhou Enlai is a testament to Mao's grasp of the guru's tools and one man's willingness to suffer for his version of Eric Hoffer's "true belief," as well as a crystal clear demonstration of multi-level thought control on a very grand scale.)
Knowing as much as I do now about the slowly disappearing concept of "borderline personality organization" developed by such as Otto Kernberg, Roy Grinker and William Meissner in the '60s, '70s and early '80s, it is patently obvious to me that it explains the nature of the mind of the mid- and upper-level cult member, though rarely that of the guru (who is almost always a card-carrying sociopath). I have dealt with scores of borderlines and have seen (sometimes too) "up close and personal" how they can operate in Millon's four types (angry "petulant," manic "impulsive," dissociating "self-destructive," and depressive "discouraged"), switching between them so quickly one has considerable difficulty seeing the "flip" until one is already bleeding from the bite.
The newcomers and lower level members may not be there ("splitting off") when they walk through the door (though many are already; that's clear), but under the relentless stress of trying to cope with the ambiguities and conflicts of the guru's and upper level senior's double binds, splitting becomes a way of coping... and a way of life. (Jeanna Miscavidge's book about her adventures in the Sea Org with the highest of the high in the CoS is one of the most exquisite presentations of flip-flop splitting available anywhere.)
Healing & Moving On
HOW, one will understandably ask, does anyone escape? The short answer is that they have to have sufficient (meaning "just enough") ego strength and remaining reality orientation to become so conflicted and questioning as they move up the ladder -- vs. buying into the rewards and reinforcements -- that they are able to get out of denial. From there its move from that stage one of Prochaska & DiClemente's (but popularized by Miller & Rollnick) five stages of recovery... or Kubler-Ross's similar five stages of recovery from grief through the other four stages. (Both systems are well worth looking into for this and many other recovery and healing schemes.)
If one can get to stage four in the former or stage five in the latter, the rest of the work is a straightforward combination of
a) explanitory psychoeducation to help exiters see how the cult worked and connect the dots from that to their emotional experiences of anxiety and depression in complexpost-traumatic stress disorder, as well as splitting off into rationalized manipulation "for the cause," and use of FOG to control others;
b) deprogramming of beliefs and shame / guilt / remorse / regret / morbid reflection via modern cognitive-behavioral therapies like Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), collegiate critical thinking, and Schema Therapy;
c) use of the mindfulness-based cognitive therapies like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) per se, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mind-Body Bridging Therapy (MBBT), and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to reconstruct ego strength for distress tolerance and emotion regulation without further dependence for such upon the cult;
d) application of "deep cleaners" like Eye-Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR), Hakomi Body Centered Psychotherapy (HBCP), Somatic Experiencing Psychotherapy (SEPt), Sensorimotor Processing for Trauma (SP4T), and the Neuro-Affective Relational Model (NARM) to deal with lingering complex post-traumatic stress disorder. All of these psychotherapies are widely practiced, researched and efficacy-proven; and
e) long-term maintenance and relapse prevention by attending 12 Step programs like Codependents Anonymous and use of mnemonics like the 10 StEPs of Emotion Processing, MBBT Mind-Body Mapping and DBT mindfulness skills to keep one's self-awareness in tune to be able to deal with "slips" back into the cult mindset.
Comments -- including the understandable criticism of my unwillingness to risk my own neck with more definitive documentation of the original thesis -- are welcome, of course.
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