Early in the afternoon of July 1, two members of the Church of Scientology walked into an office building in downtown Barrington and knocked on a locked door. The door, distinguished by no nameplate or number, was the national headquarters of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), a nonprofit group “dedicated to promoting public awareness of the harmful effects of mind control.” Most of CAN’s efforts involve distributing information on specific groups that it believes could be “destructive cults.”
When a CAN staffer opened the door, the visitors introduced themselves as Larry Miller and Joe Lewis, Scientologists and CAN members. They wanted to volunteer–help out with mailings, telephone inquiries, and other office work. They also offered to “share our experiences and learn from other CAN members’ experiences in the realm of religious rights, responsibilities, and freedoms.” (The language sounds stilted because it echoes Article II, Section d, of CAN’s articles of incorporation–“to educate the general public as to religious rights, freedoms and responsibilities.”)
But CAN members don’t “share experiences” with people it considers cultists–and it considers Scientology a cult. Miller and Lewis were asked to leave.
They came back the next day, July 2, armed with a cheesecake. Again they offered their services and again they were turned away. They came back twice more, on Monday and Tuesday after the holiday weekend. No luck.
The next day two other Scientologists, Andrew Bagley of Kansas City and Gregory Bashaw of Barrington Hills, introduced themselves to CAN executive director Cynthia Kisser in the building’s parking lot. She told them to call for an appointment. Bashaw says that when he did so the following week, she wouldn’t give him an appointment because, she said, he had caused a “disturbance” in the past. Bashaw says the only disturbance he had caused was knocking on CAN’s door.
Lewis, Miller, and Bashaw have now charged Kisser and CAN with religious discrimination in proceedings before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and in Cook County Circuit Court. (The above account is based on sworn affidavits filed by Lewis, Miller, and Bashaw in the case. The parties are not available for interviews on the matter while litigation is pending.) Their case is one of more than a dozen filed by Scientologists in a bitter nationwide battle between CAN and Scientology.
If you encountered these two groups separately, each would seem pretty normal. CAN is an organization with a cause and never quite enough resources to do everything it wants to; it has five paid staffers and a $250,000 to $300,000 annual budget with which it fields some 18,000 inquiries a year. Scientology’s local chapter works out of a storefront at 3011 N. Lincoln (national headquarters is in Los Angeles) full of self-improvement literature. Much of it sounds platitudinous, but not sinister: “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where man is free to rise to greater heights, are the aims of Scientology.”
But if you encounter the two together, you may not know what to think. Each claims the other is a clever, deceptive counterfeit. Kisser has been quoted in Time magazine describing Scientology as “quite likely the most ruthless, the most classically terroristic, the most litigious and the most lucrative cult the country has ever seen.” With equal restraint, Scientology, in its house organ Freedom, has described CAN as a “criminal clique . . . a godless mix of fringe professionals and kidnappers for profit.” Several of the Scientologists’ religious-discrimination suits echo the claim in the one filed by Ray Gonzalez that “CAN’s actual activities are to degrade, disestablish and destroy religious organizations with which CAN disagrees.”
Each sees the other as a sinister totalitarian island in the democratic sea of American society. Each has focused on the other as nemesis. And each faces the danger implicit in any long-term confrontation: that it will come to resemble its adversary.
The Citizens’ Freedom Foundation–as CAN was originally called–was founded in the fall of 1974 by 25 people meeting in Denver. The New York Times quoted cofounder Henrietta Crampton’s warning: “5,000 cults registered as non-profit organizations boasting a membership of over two million people . . . [control] children and young adults who are, as a result of sensory deprivation, etc., slowly but surely losing their minds and consequently their sense of right and wrong. They are not, as it has been proven again and again, able to come out of it on their own.” (CAN’s current estimate of the danger is down to “more than 2,500” cults. It keeps files on about 1,000 “controversial” groups and has information packets ready to send out on 35.) The Times, citing Crampton, added that famous deprogrammer Ted Patrick had been “a prime force in organizing the group.”
In case you missed the 1970s, a deprogrammer is someone who, for a price, will undertake to free cult members from “mind control.” Often the members are young people who have abruptly left home and family, perhaps undergoing a personality change; usually their parents are the ones who hire the deprogrammer. In his 1976 book Let Our Children Go! Patrick wrote that deprogramming involves “kidnapping at the very least, quite often assault and battery, almost invariably conspiracy to commit a crime, and illegal restraint.”
The Patrick connection has been troublesome to CFF/CAN almost from the beginning–partly because kidnapping doesn’t look good on the resume of a nonprofit educational organization, and partly because deprogramming as he describes it sounds a lot like cultism. So when the Church of Scientology identified Patrick as CAN’s founder in USA Today in June 1991, CAN president Patricia Ryan wrote an angry letter in rebuttal:
“Ted Patrick is not a founder. . . . The incorporation papers of CFF nowhere reflect Patrick’s name. Thus, any attempt to link Patrick with the leadership of CAN or CFF is entirely without basis.”
Clearly the last three words are an overstatement. Most people would consider the Times article a basis. Cynthia Kisser instead questions the terminology. “Mrs. Crampton said he was a ‘prime force.’ Well, what is a ‘prime force’? You might say that Mother Teresa is a prime force in your life but it wouldn’t mean she had actually done anything to further your work.
“Patrick was a prime force for those people because he showed them that they could do something–not necessarily in his way, but something.”
Nobody doubts that the Church of Scientology was founded by science fiction writer Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, after his 1950 book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health became an instant best-seller. By a process called “auditing” or “spiritual counseling,” Dianetics was said to clear people’s minds of “engrams”–detailed memories of traumatic experiences–and thus enable them to realize their full mental powers. (An early sympathizer described auditing as a “method of psychotherapy,” a connection Scientologists now vigorously disavow.) Once rid of all your engrams, you became a “clear” (Hubbard loved neologisms) and could heal yourself of many physical and mental ailments, including arthritis, allergies, asthma, “eye trouble,” migraines, colds, and ulcers. According to Hubbard, “A clear is to the contemporary norm as the contemporary norm is to a contemporary institutional case.”
Skeptical outsiders, most notably Hubbard’s British biographer Russell Miller (Bare-Faced Messiah), point out that Hubbard’s prominent early supporters, like physician Joseph Winter and science fiction editor John Campbell Jr., soon fell away and that Hubbard’s first public presentation of a “clear” in 1950 was a fiasco. According to the Los Angeles Times, Hubbard applied for increased veteran’s disability payments at the same time he was promoting Dianetics–which should have enabled him to cure himself. Scientologists contend that these and other allegations are based on inadequate or biased research; but rather than make detailed replies, the church prefers to focus on what one spokesperson calls “this incredible body of materials he gave us to help people change their environment and build a decent society.”
Over time, either through dogged research (say Scientologists) or creative fantasizing (say critics), Hubbard added the religion of Scientology to the science of Dianetics. Scientology views human beings as basically good spirits (“thetans”) that over aeons are reincarnated in different bodies yet have forgotten their spiritual and extraterrestrial origins.
The church is organized into hierarchical levels of achievement attained by taking courses that are not cheap.
The July issue of Cognition, the magazine of the Church of Scientology of Illinois, contains an insert giving “donation rates” for courses. At the low end is the Hubbard Professional Upper Indoc TR Course offered for $400: “Can you create a positive postulate with no counter-thought expected, anticipated or anything else? That’s total control.” At the high end are the $6,400 Scientology Academy Levels 0-IV: “Learn some of the most fundamental discoveries regarding life and the human mind that have ever been discovered in the history of this universe.” These figures reflect discounts available to members; the full rate is higher. Membership is $300 a year, or $2,000 for a lifetime. According to the church, course lengths vary according to students’ ability and application.
Scientology has suffered several blows in recent years. Nine of its officials, including Hubbard’s third wife, were convicted in 1979 of conspiracy and burglary, for stealing documents from government agencies in an effort to purge government files of harmful information about Hubbard and the church. (Scientologists say they were renegades who did not and do not represent the faith.) According to the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 1984 U.S. Tax Court decision denying tax-exempt status to the Church of Scientology of California for 1970-’72 (then the group’s mother church). The court also said that the church had conspired to defraud the government by impeding the IRS. (Other courts in the U.S. and abroad, however, have affirmed Scientology’s status as a religion.) Hubbard himself died in January 1986.
But Scientology has not collapsed. It remains as combative as ever. When Time magazine published an unrelentingly negative cover story in May 1991, the church replied with a mammoth publicity campaign in which it described itself as “the most courageous social reform group in the world today.” It followed up by suing Time Warner for $416 million.
The Church of Scientology claims eight million members worldwide, five million in the United States. (By comparison, the three major branches of Judaism together claim only 4.3 million U.S. adherents.) It continues to attract devotees. Those who find Scientology beliefs odd or implausible will have difficulty showing that the spiritual offerings of Santeria, Christian Science, or Presbyterianism are any less so when viewed from the outside.
“I have often reflected how grievously I had been deceived. . . . All the holiness of their lives, I saw now, was merely pretended. The appearance of sanctity and heavenly mindedness, which they had shown among us novices, I found was only a disguise to conceal such practices as would not be tolerated in any decent society in the world.”
Defectors’ autobiographies–how I joined, how I lived, how I got out–are a literary staple of the anticult movement, and the above paragraph could have come from one. It didn’t. It’s part of a 19th-century tract against Roman Catholicism. In the middle 1800s, as waves of Catholic immigrants seemed about to overwhelm Protestant America, popular writers voiced their fears
that this religion was alien and undemocratic and might seek to overthrow the government,
that it gained members by coercion and deception, and retained them through control gained by the confessional,
that its allegedly abstinent clergy engaged in illicit sex and practiced infanticide on the unfortunate results of same, and
that it used elaborate ceremonies to con members out of their money, which went to line the pockets of greedy and ambitious leaders.
Anyone who skims an anticult potboiler from the late 70s or early 80s will recognize these accusations. They are, almost verbatim, the charges now leveled by various detractors at the Moonies, the Scientologists, the Rajneeshis, et many cetera.
Just because the charges are common doesn’t mean they are always false. Believers living in isolated, authoritarian situations sometimes do wind up spending money in ways they later regret, or committing acts like beating children for “discipline” to the point of injury or death. No one will forget the mass murder and suicide at Jonestown in 1978. The question is, should we deal with these cases by prosecuting them after the fact as violations of law–or by instituting preventive measures ahead of time? Prevention sounds like a good idea, except that it can go overboard. Historically Americans have reacted to unfamiliar religions in certain standard ways. There would be an anticult movement in this country even if every new religion were as pure as the driven snow.
“If you were in a cult that worshiped Elvis,” explains Cynthia Kisser, “and you traveled to Graceland twice a year and sang songs to his portrait or whatever, and didn’t cause any harm to society at large, and didn’t recruit deceptively, then your cult would not be a destructive cult.”
Destructive cults, according to CAN, have two key features: they hide their true agendas (money making, empire building) from newcomers, and they “use mind-control techniques on recruits without their informed consent.” The broader anticult movement does include fundamentalist Christians who object to the doctrines espoused by various cults, but CAN itself focuses on how a cult–and it needn’t be religious–relates to its members.
Cults should not have to deceive, says Steven Hassan, a former cult member and author whose book is available through CAN. “No legitimate organization needs to lie to people in order to help them.” (But in describing his own work, Hassan acknowledges that at times he too uses pretexts to get a cult member to talk with him.)
Destructive cults practice mind control, according to CAN, with some combination of group pressure, isolation, thought-stopping activities (repetitious chanting or meditation), fear, guilt, sleep deprivation, inadequate nutrition, and sensory overload.
But when you think about it, how is cult recruiting different from military recruiting? And is mind control any different from basic training? For that matter, isn’t it a lot like commitment to a mainstream religious order?
“From a distance, they may seem similar,” says Kisser, who has heard these questions before. “But the more you delve into the facts, the greater the difference really is. With boot camp you know how long it’s going to last. You are free to talk to anyone who’s been through it, and they’ll tell you about it in gory detail. In cults, they won’t tell you what’s coming up or how long it will last. In boot camp, when you get a weekend pass, your sergeant won’t be standing beside you the whole time. Off duty, you have a great deal of personal choice. You can read the Bible or Playboy regardless of your sergeant’s views.
“A religious order is more controlling, but you are questioned and informed at every stage. You don’t find out after you’ve taken your vows that there is something here you didn’t know about before.”
So are there cults that try to trick people that way? “Nowhere do we say which group is a destructive cult,” asserts Kisser. She says she sees CAN as a consumer advocate: “We say, ‘Here is the information we have on them,’ and let you make your own decision. You might conclude that Scientology doesn’t fit the criteria for a destructive cult, and that’s fine. It’s like buying a house: there should be full disclosure, but then it’s up to you.”
But CAN does name names. It makes available lists of groups about which it has received complaints–without actually calling them destructive cults–among them Alamo Christian Fellowship, Ananda Marga, Church Universal and Triumphant, the Hunger Project, the Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lyndon LaRouche organizations, MOVE, Scientology, Synanon, Transcendental Meditation, and the Way International. Kisser herself explicitly condemned Scientology in Richard Behar’s 1991 Time story. (She says she explained CAN’s reluctance to identify destructive cults by name, but he pressed for her opinion on the Scientologists.)
To her credit, Kisser adds that there are groups she is not sure about, Amway being one. And she is enough of an independent thinker to disagree with one phrase in a piece of CAN literature that seems to imply that mind control should be made illegal. “I’ve thought about it a lot. I don’t see how you could have any legal safeguard that couldn’t be abused. The countries that have been hardest on cults are also those with the least religious rights. China has no cults. Zero. The Soviet Union didn’t. We think education is the answer.”
The connection between cults and religions prompts another familiar question. Isn’t a cult really just a religion that somebody doesn’t like? Kisser has little use for this notion. “It shows a weak grasp, intellectually and ethically, of what’s going on in this country,” she says, immediately citing the most gut-wrenching case:
“There was a group called Ecclesia in Oregon in 1988, where a little girl was beaten more than 100 times and killed. All the children in the group were beaten regularly and given inadequate schooling, poor nutrition, and poor medical care. That was ‘one man’s religion, someone else’s cult.’ People who take that approach are trying to sweep abuse under the rug. This is one of the least understood human-rights issues in the country.”
These days Kisser has less time than ever to make the issue understood. In the past year the Cult Awareness Network has become the target of more than a dozen lawsuits and administrative complaints coming from Scientologists in Massachusetts, Illinois, California, and the District of Columbia. Most of the lawsuits follow the pattern of Bashaw, Miller, and Lewis. They allege that CAN (and, usually, its local affiliate), by not allowing Scientologists to participate, engages in unconstitutional religious discrimination. Scientologists have no trouble joining CAN at the national level–for $30 anyone can receive the group’s newsletter and conference information, and around 2,000 people do so every year. But voting rights on CAN policy are vested in its 21 local affiliates. Kisser doubts that the suits have merit, pointing to Judge Ilana Rovner’s recent holding in Chicago federal district court that another voluntary organization, the Boy Scouts of America, is not a “place of public accommodation” under federal law.
Meritorious or not, says Kisser, the suits “take up my time every day and some weekends, and sometimes the better part of my day.” They also caused CAN to ask its affiliates not to take in any new members during 1992. And they cost money. The group has already spent $30,000 on legal defense. Kisser wrote in an appeal in CAN’s July newsletter: “There will never be a more important time to give to CAN than right now. . . . By sending your donation today, you will send a message that CAN will not be destroyed.”
“They’re saying bad things about my church,” says Mary Anne Ahmad. “I want them to stop.” Ahmad has been a Scientologist since 1971 and is the Chicago-based public information officer for the Church of Scientology of Illinois. She says the lawsuits do not represent a coordinated attack on CAN–just individuals coincidentally asserting their constitutional rights at the same time. “But what difference does it make? People are suing because they can’t get an answer [from CAN] otherwise.”
In its publications and in affidavits it circulates, the Church of Scientology has taken three main approaches in attempting to discredit CAN: the low road (sex), the middle road (deprogramming scandals), and the high road (Does “mind control” exist?). The church’s portrait of CAN is so negative that it’s hard to understand why believing Scientologists would care to join, let alone stuff envelopes on its behalf.
The low road: sex. Scientology publications rarely refer to CAN without mentioning the October 25, 1990, Baltimore Sun story. That story linked Michael Rokos, who was then president of CAN, to a 1982 police report showing that a “Michael Rokas” had propositioned an undercover vice-squad officer and had been arrested, tried, and given probation before judgment. The story claimed that “Rokas” bore a physical resemblance to Rokos, and that Rokos had denied the charge but resigned his CAN presidency and his chaplainship with the Maryland State Police in order to “keep CAN separate from any lawsuit he might file.” (CAN officials point out that Rokos was not connected to their group in 1982.)
Another affidavit distributed and publicized in a press release by Scientology representatives comes from a Catherine Lane, who claims to have recognized Cynthia Kisser in a photograph as someone who worked with her as a dancer in a topless bar in Tucson in the middle 1970s. Despite Kisser’s vigorous denials and letters requesting retraction, this accusation (often coupled with the “Rokas” mug shot) made its way through the cult press during the summer of 1991 in stories carried by the Religious Freedom Alert (Unification Church), the Chicago Crusader (Scientology), Freedom (Scientology), and the New Federalist (LaRouche).
In July Kisser counterattacked. She sued these publications, their proprietors, and others–including Ahmad and the Church of Scientology in Illinois–for conspiring to publish defamatory statements about her with malice or reckless disregard for the truth. In Cook County Circuit Court she is seeking at least $15,000 in damages from each of 7 defendants resident in Illinois; in federal district court she is seeking unspecified damages from each of 21 defendants not resident in Illinois, as well as an injunction against their publishing the material again.
“This is nasty stuff,” says Kisser’s attorney in the matter, Edna Selan Epstein–“all the more so because on some level, in the greater scheme of things, it’s trivial.” I suggested to Ahmad that the topless-dancer allegation seemed to have little bearing on the real problems between CAN and Scientology. “You might be right,” she said, “but in the context [of the other allegations] it makes you wonder what these people are really up to. How can people like this set themselves up as judge and jury over religious groups?”
I asked Ahmad if she had called Kisser for comment before publishing the topless-dancer accusation. “I’ve tried to call her several times. They won’t talk to anybody who is a present-time member of the groups they attack.” But did she call Kisser about this allegation? “I don’t believe I did. But I don’t recall.” Shortly before Kisser filed her suit, Ahmad did send Kisser a letter offering to consider a retraction–if Kisser would provide a sworn affidavit contradicting Lane’s.
The middle road: deprogramming scandals. “You have to understand how CAN works,” says Ahmad. “A mom gets worried because her child is involved in something she doesn’t understand very well. She learns about CAN and sends in $10 for a packet containing nothing but defamatory material about the group, which naturally instills fear in her.” (CAN offers the Time article, which does not say one good thing about the church; a Los Angeles Times series, which though unfavorable to Scientology is somewhat balanced; and a packet of numerous, usually unfavorable newspaper clippings.)
“That parent is going to be upset–what has her son gotten himself into? Naturally her son is unwilling to listen to all this negative material. So she calls CAN again, and they say, ‘Call so-and-so, who knows a lot more about this,’ and that person is a professional deprogrammer. The deprogrammer says, just give me $20,000 or whatever, I don’t care how you get it”–and then, according to Scientology accounts, he or she kicks back part of it to CAN. This alleged practice is Scientology’s excuse for calling CAN a “criminal clique.”
Ahmad’s description of CAN’s practices relies on CAN’s alleged connection with Patrick and on critical affidavits sworn by several people, among them former CAN activist Gary Scarff and west-coast counselor and minister Lowell Streiker, author of a book on cults called Mind-Bending.
CAN emphatically denies ever accepting kickbacks or referring anyone to a forcible deprogrammer. “We’re constantly being told that we make money off of deprogramming,” says CAN first vice president William Rehling, a Chicago attorney formerly with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. “If we were, we’d be rich!” (CAN’s statement of activity for the year ending December 31, 1991, shows revenues–mostly from contributions and publication sales–of $257,224 and expenses of $330,947, which drew the group’s year-end fund balance down to $40,905. The Church of Scientology declines to make its finances public.)
“Whatever deprogramming goes on–and I’m not sure there’s that much of it–it’s not done through CAN,” adds Rehling. “We don’t advocate it, and of course it’s illegal. We do not in any way work with deprogrammers or in any way condone it. We make information available to people, and we hold our annual conference where people from various professions can discuss cults.”
Kisser is a bit more circumspect: “CAN has no special relationship to deprogrammers, any more than it has with anyone else interested in the cult issue. This is an issue only raised by destructive cults. You don’t see the town of Barrington in a hue and cry about a criminal ring operating out of here.” (Though its office is located in Barrington, CAN’s mailing address and phone number are on the north side of Chicago–a circumstance Scientologists find sinister, but which Kisser explains by citing the need to prevent walk-ins, limit harassment, and maintain an easily remembered contact point for long-distance callers.)
What if someone called her up and asked for her help in finding a deprogrammer? “If you wanted someone, say, to talk to your sister over the phone, I might send you to someone. I’ve offered information to people, and pointed out possible areas of deception.
“I just had a call from a father who is worried about his son, who has been in a cult for about a year and is about to marry and move away. Basically, I made sure that his objections [to the cult] were based on research. They were. And I made sure that he had talked with others who had been involved, ex-members of the group. He had.
“The only other thing I could offer was some suggestions on how to make communication more effective–ways to avoid saying things to his son that might later be magnified into a break. Deprogramming never came up. He was very grateful and asked if he could call again, which of course he can, at no charge.
“What we’re doing is something like an Alzheimer’s support group. The group can’t make it go away, but we can offer you some coping mechanisms. Deprogramming is a dead-end way to solve the problem of cults anyhow. The same amount of money could be used to reach thousands more people before they get involved.”
But what about CAN’s rank and file? Many are former cult members and relatives–wouldn’t they be more likely to approve of deprogramming, even forcible deprogramming? “You have to differentiate,” says Kisser, and then she surprises me. “I don’t really know the view of the membership on this issue.
“If the corporation is run properly, and its literature and publicity are all in order, then the views of individual members are irrelevant.” She compares CAN to a group dedicated to lobbying to get the British out of Northern Ireland. Some of its members’ individual enthusiasm for the cause might carry them beyond the law, but that’s not the organization’s fault. “We don’t interfere in our members’ private lives.”
It is easier to make the case that deprogrammers hang out in CAN’s vicinity than to make the stronger case that Scientology alleges. In a 1983 Reader story about deprogramming Robert McClory reported that chapters of CFF (now CAN) acted in part as a referral agency for deprogrammers, and that the distraught parents of one particular cult member had found a deprogrammer “with the advice of CFF members.” (The story attracted numerous letters pro and con, none of which questioned these statements.) In addition, in Combatting Cult Mind Control (1988), a book recommended by CAN as “excellent” and offering “sound, practical advice,” author Steven Hassan declares himself in favor of voluntary, nonviolent “exit counseling” rather than deprogramming–but adds that “forcible intervention can be kept as a last resort if all other attempts fail.”
More problematic for CAN was the September 29 arrest of New York private detective Galen Kelly and three others in what the FBI says was a plot to kidnap and deprogram Du Pont heir and LaRouche backer Lewis Du Pont Smith. “We’re aware of [Kelly] and had communications with him,” says Kisser, “but we had no part in this alleged incident. He was never an official or an employee of ours.” She did acknowledge, however, that CAN had hired Kelly to maintain security at its 1990 and 1991 conventions, where he acted as a liaison with local police and helped in “handling problem cult attendees.” “We used his services as an expert in cult issues.”
The high road: questioning mind control. The intellectual heart of CAN is the belief that cult members, once attracted by false or misleading promises, are retained by mind control. In unsophisticated accounts this can sound like “brainwashing,” an irresistible power that turns clean-cut American kids into zombies. For parents who can’t understand why their child would embrace a cult’s beliefs and practices, “mind control” provides an explanation. It also conveniently blames the cult, and not the joiners or their parents, for the problem.
The idea of mind control has an academic pedigree going back at least as far as Yale psychologist Robert J. Lifton’s 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Lifton himself, however, acknowledges in a 1987 article that no mind-control scheme is airtight. Using the less ominous term “thought reform,” he describes it as “milieu control . . . often a sequence of events, such as seminars, lectures, and group encounters, which become increasingly intense and increasingly isolated, making it extremely difficult–both physically and psychologically–for one to leave. . . . When successful, and especially when supported by a particular social environment, thought reform can render an individual highly manipulable and susceptible to the demands of those controlling the environment.”
Social scientists do not all agree that mind control is a valid or useful concept. And their disagreement has moved out of the academy and into the courtroom. In 1990 northern California federal district court judge D. Lowell Jensen refused to admit the expert testimony of two of CAN’s recommended “national experts” on cultism and mind control, psychologist Margaret Singer and sociologist Richard Ofshe. Scientologists are fond of quoting from his ruling:
“Although the record before the Court is replete with declarations, affidavits and letters from reputable psychologists and sociologists who concur with the thought reform theories propounded by Dr. Singer and Dr. Ofshe, the government has submitted an equal number of declarations, affidavits and letters from reputable psychologists and sociologists who disagree with their theories.” Judge Jensen added that neither the American Psychological Association (APA) nor the American Sociological Association (ASA) has endorsed the view that the mind can be controlled without physical restraint.
Jensen’s decision was placed in a new light August 3, when Singer and Ofshe themselves filed suit against the APA, the ASA, and 13 of their officers and members. Their complaint, which runs to 70 double-spaced typewritten pages, alleges that the defendants conspired, committed frauds, obstructed justice, deceived federal judges, and engaged in racketeering, all in an effort to defame them and destroy their reputations. They did so, according to the lawsuit, in order to impair Singer and Ofshe’s ability to function as expert witnesses. The plaintiffs maintain that the conspiracy was “an effort to protect from civil liability the Unification Church, as well as recklessly run so called new religions, and commercial Large Group Awareness Trainings.” The suit is based on RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law more often invoked against organized crime than organized social science. Singer and Ofshe’s New York attorney, Michael Flomenhaft, says theirs is the first suit of its kind that he knows of.
If such a thing as mind control exists–beyond influence and persuasion–then it’s hard to understand why it doesn’t work better. In ex-Scientologist Jon Atack’s book-length expose of the church available through CAN (A Piece of Blue Sky), he tells how he brought many strangers and most of his friends to the Scientology mission in Birmingham, England. “Several started courses, though most drifted away without finishing.” Why did this supposed mind-controlling cult fail to hang onto these recruits?
Toronto psychiatrist Saul Levine interviewed over 800 cult members–both during and after their membership in more than two dozen groups–over 15 years. He found that 90 percent of the young people who joined cults left within two years, and that the recruitment process was remarkably inefficient:
“Approaches are made only to a youth who appears interested. . . . For every 1000 young people so approached, perhaps 250 are at a critical juncture in their lives. And of these 250, only 75 are willing to listen. Of those who stay to listen, a mere eight might feel so attracted to these new friends that they consent to the first visit.” In Levine’s book Radical Departures (not available through CAN) he writes that “the only kind of brainwashing I have come upon during all my years of studying radical departures [is] that practiced by deprogrammers.”
Levine is no fan of cults, but he has found that they often serve young people as “desperate detours to growing up,” in the words of his subtitle, and are not often profoundly or permanently damaging experiences. (“As a cult expert, that’s not my experience,” replies Kisser, but she acknowledges that those cult alumni who contact CAN are not a random sample.) Levine is neither a cult apologist nor a CAN supporter. No organized group has an interest in publicizing his work.
In the past, threatening new religions have often vanished or mellowed, as have their opponents. In 1890–63 years after Joseph Smith Jr. claimed to have had his first revelation–the Mormons finally gave up polygyny, and the U.S. government gave up trying to suppress their faith. Could some such compromise end the current standoff?
Cynthia Kisser says, “If we knew that the Scientologists were sending out an unbiased packet–if they were also giving out a list of critical sources–then we might not send out material on Scientology at all,” in effect removing it from the list of destructive cults. (Mary Anne Ahmad dismisses the idea out of hand. “I can’t believe she would say something like that. Her purpose is not to send out information, her purpose is to suppress.”)
Ironically, the three local Scientologists’ attorney John Moran says that he offered to settle their religious-discrimination case against CAN in a similar way: “At first I said we would give CAN a packet [of pro-Scientology material to balance CAN’s information] and we’d pay the extra postage. No, they said, that was too intrusive. So then we said, just include a business card with a [Scientology] phone number saying that this is where you can get a different view.” (CAN attorney John Beal denies that any substantive discussion of settlement terms has occurred yet.)
Could this pitched battle be settled so easily? Would an alleged “criminal clique” and a purported “ruthless . . . terroristic . . . cult” bury the hatchet in exchange for the distribution of a telephone number or a list of books?
It hardly makes sense–unless you take the long view. Some of the 19th century’s cults have survived to become more or less accepted parts of the 20th-century religious landscape. This is not a logical process. It is the slow, painful, and sometimes contradictory evolution of a compromise between the cult and the larger society, like the compromise that allowed Mormonism to survive. What Kisser and Moran say does not fit with today’s inflamed rhetoric; it may foreshadow tomorrow’s mutual accommodation.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell, photo/Steven D. Arazmus.