I met my first real "syndicate mobster" almost 40 years ago, long before seeing Martin Scorcese's eye-opening "Goodfellas" and "Casino." She had been a high-class madam and drug dealer in a southeastern city so well-known for such entertainments at the time that it later became the location of a stylish and wildly popular, Friday-night TV "cop show" series. She had also been the romantic partner of a very mysterious character who disappeared for months at a time. I learned years later that her father was a major figure in the top echelon of the syndicate in a mid-western city. So it was no surprise (again, years later) that her daughter suddenly announced one day that she was getting into the porn business. The ensuing drama left me with the seedling of a life-long interest in the psychology of big-time organized crime.
Eight years later, I went to work for an ostensibly legitimate firm that (again, much later) I discovered was laundering ill-gotten loot in various business enterprises (for which two of my superiors were ultimately indicted years later). Involved as I was at that time in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse in another sunny locale, I suddenly found myself welcomed into a subset thereof populated by several "charming thugs." None of them were "made guys" (as none were Sicilian), but the Henry Hill style was rife throughout.
By that time, I had also come to know a very beautiful young lady with a Sicilian last name who revealed that she had been the wife of one of the members of a western crime outfit central to one of Scorcese's movies. As well as another with a very wealthy Sicilian mother from New Jersey who -- she claimed -- was no less than "Uncle Carlo's" niece. Dots were beginning to connect on the heels of other involvements in several human potential cults on the west coast, but not quite yet to these "odd encounters." One thing began to stand out, however: Upon reflection, all of these people had behavioral characteristics and belief systems that were like those I have seen in higher level cult members, including a rather reptilian and calculating -- but selective -- instrumentalistic coldheartedness; unusual comfort with risk-taking; and the absolute certainty of their questionable convictions typical of malignant narcissists.
Fast forward to the mid-2010s. Digging into such as Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman, Arthur Deikman, Mark Galanter, Steve Hassan, Eric Hoffer, Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, Michael Langone, Robert Lifton, Joseph Martin, Joost Meerloo, Richard Ofshe, and Margaret Thaler Singer to edify myself about my lingering confusions about my cult experiences, I wondered on occasion if the sort of gangs I had run into in my youth operated on any known cult dynamics. Indeed, of course, they did. (ISKCON in the '70s is one of the foremost examples; I was blessed to meet one who had been right in the middle of that.) But it wasn't until I ran into Madeleine Tobias & Janja Lallich that I began to grasp how effectively the "wise guys" of the truly "big-time" Italian-Jewish-Irish syndicate appear to have utilized many of the recruiting and "membership maintenance" techniques reported in their 1994 book, Captive Hearts Captive Minds.
I was instantly online looking at several articles, including this one and this one to see if -- and how well -- the shoe fit. In fact, of course, it fit very well. Of Ofshe's "four key factors" and Lifton's "eight themes," only items one of the former, and items one and four of the latter were absent.
- The reliance on intense interpersonal and psychological attack to destabilize an individual's sense of self to promote compliance
- The use of an organized peer group
- Applying interpersonal pressure to promote conformity
- The manipulation of the totality of the person's social environment to stabilize behavior once modified
- Control of communication
- Emotional and behavioral manipulation
- Demands for absolute conformity to behavior prescriptions derived from the ideology
- Obsessive demands for confession
- Agreement that the ideology is faultless
- Manipulation of language in which cliches substitute for analytic thought
- Reinterpretation of human experience and emotion in terms of doctrine
- Classification of those not sharing the ideology as inferior and not worthy of respect
A review of applicable elements of Hassan's BITE Model (see below) adds weight to the above.
Promote dependence and obedience. Modify behavior with rewards and punishments. Exploit you financially. Restrict leisure time and activities. Require you to seek permission for major decisions.
Deliberately withhold and distort information. Forbid you from speaking with ex-members and critics. Discourage access to non-cult sources of information. Divide information into "insider" vs. "outsider" doctrine. Use information gained in confession sessions against you. Encourage you to spy and report on others’ “misconduct.”
Instill black vs. white, us vs. them & good vs. evil thinking. Change your identity, possibly even your name. Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thought. Allow only "positive" thoughts. Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt.
Instill irrational fears (phobias) of questioning or leaving the group. Teach emotion-stopping techniques to prevent anger, homesickness. Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”). Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve. Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group.
A review of Hassan's complete list in this article makes it clear that "the mob" -- as we know it from books and films, at least -- refrains from many of the more obvious and irksome techniques used by the large, mind-control cults. But in the newly emerging, eastern European and east Asian crime organizations, there's evidence that some of the elements eliminated from the list above are in use, including...
Dictate where and with whom you live. Restrict or control sexuality. Generate and use propaganda extensively. Use information gained in confession sessions against you. Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory. Require you to report thoughts, feelings, & activities to superiors. Induce hypnotic or trance states to indoctrinate. Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts. Promote feelings of guilt, shame & unworthiness. Threaten your friends and family.
The degree of "fit" with the 10-Level Pyramid Model of Cult Organization also struck me.
The "Seekers" need not be middle-class adolescents and young adults looking for "spiritual meaning." They can be welfare- and working-class people looking for some means of escape from the poverty and maltreatment.
The "Samplers" need not be "explorers" looking for "answers." They can be abuse victims looking for some empowerment.
The "New Recruits" need not be YUPPIES looking to climb the corporate ladder more quickly. They can be street kids looking for a fast buck.
The "Committed" need not be religious or philosophical "converts." They can be desperados looking for some respect.
The "Wonderbound" need not be "starry-eyed true believers" willing to do whatever to sit at the feet of the guru. They can be imitators of their own earlier abusers prepared to take risks to earn more... respect.
The "Lab Rats" need not be "converts" to codependency. They can be enthusiastic participants in capers that prove them to be worthy of further consideration.
The "Gluttons for Punishment" need not be obvious sadomasochists who sell themselves out for a brief moment of significance to the guru. They can be "tough guys" ready and willing to show just how tough they are.
The "Willful Slaves" need not be tiring plowhorses. They can be "sharp dressed men" prepared to do whateveris asked of them, including whack any troublemakers in or out of the "crew."
The "Cynics" need not be the relatively obvious thugs one sees near the top of most cults. They can be charming schnooks masking reptilian personas like the late Benjamin Siegel, Lefty Rosenthal, Eddie Mannix and Johnny Roselli.
The "Sociopaths" need not be wealth-power-adulation-and-sex-addicted gurus like L. Ron Hubbard, David Koresh, Charles Dederich, Jim Jones or Swami Prabhupada. They can be respected men like the late Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello, Meyer Lansky, Raymond Patriarca and "Uncle Carlo."
Conway, F.; Siegelman, J.: Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, New York: Dell Delta, 1978.
Deikman, A.: The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society, Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.
Deikman, A.: Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat, Berkeley CA: Bay Tree, 2003.
Galanter, M.: Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, New York: Guilford Press, 1989.
Hassan, S.: Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults, South Paris, ME: Park Street Press, 1989.
Hassan, S.: Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults & Beliefs, Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press, 2012.
Hoffer, E.: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, New York: Harper and Row, 1951, 1966.
Kramer, J.; Alstad, D.: The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Berkeley, CA: Frog, Ltd., 1993.
Lalich, J.: Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, Berkeley CA: U. California Press, 2004.
Lalich, J., Tobias, M.: Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, Berkeley CA: Bay Tree Publishing, 2006.
Lalich, J.; McLaren, K.: Escaping Utopia: Growing Up in a Cult, Getting Out, and Starting Over, London: Routledge, 2017.
Langone, M., ed.: Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse, New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
Lifton, R.: Methods of Forceful Indoctrination, in Stein, M.; Vidich, A.; White, D. (editors): Identity and Anxiety: Survival of the Person in Mass Society, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press of Glencoe, Illinois, 1960.
Lifton, R.: Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, New York: Random House, 1968.
Lifton, R.: Cult Formation, in The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Vol. 7, No. 8, February 1981.
Martin, J.: The Kingdom of the Cults, Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985.
Meerloo, J.: Brainwashing and Menticide, in Stein, M.; Vidich, A.; White, D. (editors): Identity and Anxiety: Survival of the Person in Mass Society, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press of Glencoe, Illinois, 1960.
Meerloo, J.: The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing, orig. pub. 1956, Unknown: Progressive Press, 2009.
Ofshe, R.; Singer, M.: Attacks on Peripheral versus Central Elements of Self and the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques, in The Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1986.
Ofshe, R.: Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change, in Borgata & Montgomery: Encyclopedia of Attitude Change, Vol. 1, 2nd Ed., New York: Macmillan, 2000.
Singer, M.; Goldstein, H.; Langone, M.; et al: Report of the APA Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control; New York: American Psychological Association, 1986.
Singer, M.: Cults in our Midst: The Hidden Menace in our Everyday Lives; San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.
Singer, M. T.; Lalich, J.: Crazy Therapies: What are They? Do they Work?, Hoboken NJ: Jossey-Bass Div. of Wiley, 1996.
Tobias, M.; Lalich, J.: Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Other Abusive Relationships, Alameda CA: Hunter House Publishing, 1994.