How Cults Work - First Things First
This is the second post in a series dedicated to the book Terror, Love and Brainwashing by Alexandra Stein.
In her book she starts out by describing cults as groups with certain kinds of relationships and not necessarily ones with particular ideology or doctrine. They do not have to be religious and religious groups may not be cultic.
She did her PhD on the political cult the Newman tendency. Seinfeld fans should rejoice. Fred Newman was the founder and leader of the Newman Tendency.
She quoted a former member who said "Yeah, somebody taught him how to abuse people...He's charming too, he's charming. Even though...I liked him ! I would have a problem disliking him now even after I already know about him. If he sat down right there next to me, I'd say, "Hey Fred, how you doing ? Are you still corrupting people ? Are you still screwing 18 women at the same time ?" or trying to. But you know, he was a likeable guy ! "
Stein goes on to describe how a cult starts with a leader and their relationship with a first follower is relationship zero and is moved on to other people, like a virus or disease.
"The leader's primary goal is to create a set of guaranteed attachments to others. This drive for relational control is an outcome of the leader's own disorganized attachment. Nothing a totalist leader likes less than to be left. Purging followers is another matter (and sometimes needed in order to get did of troublesome members) - but the control of the relationship must rest with the leader. Secondary benefits accrue from the primary goal of control: the ability to control others opens up the possibility of sexual, financial and political exploitation. However it is my belief that these are indeed secondary, rather than the core personality elements that drive the leader. As in relationships of controlling domestic violence this combination of charisma and authoritarianism, of love and fear, is a potent one. These two elements of the leader's personality are reflected in the structure, ideology, process and outcomes of the group. (In subsequent generations of larger groups a leadership body may evolve after the demise of the individual leader, but this too will display the two elements of charisma and authoritarianism.)" Page 16
Now this is a lot to take on. We have attachment, and disorganized attachment right off the bat.
I have never addressed attachment theory before and should momentarily focus on this. It is essential to understanding the ideas of Alexandra Stein.
This is a part of psychology that is well worth considering in attempting to understand human beings and certainly has direct bearing on the matter of cults, abusive relationships and totalitarian regimes. I cannot say it is absolutely proven or accurate. But I can say it is to the degree I have seen it worth serious consideration.
I look on concepts on the mind and human behavior and influence that do not reference observable structures or empirical - that is measurable - evidence as metaphors of the mind. For example describing a predator as a wolf in sheep's clothing that is inwardly a ravening wolf as a metaphor. It is not literally true in the most strict terms but the story increases understanding of the issue without being based on strict scientific methods. This information does not have no value in my opinion.
Much of the information on narcissists and other predators and hypnosis and rhetoric is strictly speaking not empirical and to me metaphors. I have read in these terms and written in them and consider that they are not lies but something that you should understand is not the same as scientifically validated facts.
I am taking this great care in explaining this because I want the information I present to be taken with the requirement that you know all of it has to be evaluated so you form your own conclusion and realize much of this is based on metaphors of the mind. And I can always simply be wrong about anything. That is critically important too.
I can get something wrong or pass on something with the best of intentions and just be factually incorrect. Now that I have given this disclaimer I can present a bit on attachment theory so we can understand Alexandra Stein and her ideas.
Here are some excerpts from an article on the website PsychAlive
WHAT IS YOUR ATTACHMENT STYLE?
ATTACHMENT, COMMUNICATION WITH CHILDREN, PARENTING, PARENTING ADVICE
What is attachment and why is it important?
Attachment refers the particular way in which you relate to other people. Your style of attachment was formed at the very beginning of your life, during your first two years. Once established, it is a style that stays with you and plays out today in how you relate in intimate relationships and in how you parent your children. Understanding your style of attachment is helpful because it offers you insight into how you felt and developed in your childhood. It also clarifies ways that you are emotionally limited as an adult and what you need to change to improve your close relationships and your relationship with your own children.
Early Attachment Patterns
Young children need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver in order for their social and emotional development to occur normally. Without this attachment, they will suffer serious psychological and social impairment. During the first two years, how the parents or caregivers respond to their infants, particularly during times of distress, establishes the types of patterns of attachment their children form. These patterns will go on to guide the child’s feelings, thoughts and expectations as an adult in future relationships.
Ideally, from the time infants are six months to two years of age, they form an emotional attachment to an adult who is attuned to them, that is, who is sensitive and responsive in their interactions with them. It is vital that this attachment figure remain a consistent caregiver throughout this period in a child’s life. During the second year, children begin to use the adult as a secure base from which to explore the world and become more independent. A child in this type of relationship is securely attached. Dr. Dan Siegel emphasizes that in order for a child to feel securely attached to their parents or care-givers, the child must feel safe, seen and soothed.
There are adults who are emotionally unavailable and, as a result, they are insensitive to and unaware of the needs of their children. They have little or no response when a child is hurting or distressed. These parents discourage crying and encourage independence. Often their children quickly develop into “little adults” who take care of themselves. These children pull away from needing anything from anyone else and are self-contained. They have formed an avoidant attachment with a misattuned parent.
Some adults are inconsistently attuned to their children. At times their responses are appropriate and nurturing but at other times they are intrusive and insensitive. Children with this kind of parenting are confused and insecure, not knowing what type of treatment to expect. They often feel suspicious and distrustful of their parent but at the same time they act clingy and desperate. These children have an ambivalent/anxious attachment with their unpredictable parent.
When a parent or caregiver is abusive to a child, the child experiences the physical and emotional cruelty and frightening behavior as being life-threatening. This child is caught in a terrible dilemma: her survival instincts are telling her to flee to safety but safety is the very person who is terrifying her. The attachment figure is the source of the child’s distress. In these situations, children typically disassociate from their selves. They detach from what is happening to them and what they are experiencing is blocked from their consciousness. Children in this conflicted state have disorganized attachments with their fearsome parental figures.
Developing an “Earned Secure Attachment”
The good news is, it’s never too late to develop a secure attachment! Although your patterns of attachment were formed in infancy and can follow you throughout your life, it is possible to develop an “Earned Secure Attachment”at any age.
One essential way to do this is by making sense of your story. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, attachment research demonstrates that “the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but rather how his parents made sense of those childhood experiences.” The key to “making sense” of your life experiences is to write a coherent narrative, which helps you understand how your childhood experiences are still affecting you in your life today. In PsychAlive’s online course with Drs. Dan Siegel and Lisa Firestone, they will walk you through the process of creating a coherent narrative to help you to build healthier, more secure attachments and strengthen your own personal sense of emotional resilience.When you create a coherent narrative, you actually rewire your brain to cultivate more security within yourself and your relationships.
Because our attachment ability is broken in a relationship, it is often best to be fixed in a relationship. According to Dr. Lisa Firestone, “One of the proven ways to change our attachment style is by forming an attachment with someone who had a more secure attachment style than what we’ve experienced. We can also talk to a therapist, as the therapeutic relationship can help create a more secure attachment. We can continue to get to know ourselves through understanding our past experiences, allowing ourselves to make sense and feel the full pain of our stories, then moving forward as separate, differentiated adults. In doing this, we move through the world with an internal sense of security that helps us better withstand the natural hurts that life can bring.”
To learn more about how to write a coherent narrative and develop an earned secure attachment, join Dr. Lisa Firestone and Dr. Daniel Siegel for the online course “Making Sense of Your Life: Understanding Your Past to Liberate Your Present and Empower Your Future.” End quote
Now I am not recommending any therapy or therapist or the services offered in this article. I am also not recommending against any thing offered here. I simply do not know the subject well enough to have strong confidence one way or another.
Let's focus on one thing here. Disorganized attachment.
When a parent or caregiver is abusive to a child, the child experiences the physical and emotional cruelty and frightening behavior as being life-threatening. This child is caught in a terrible dilemma: her survival instincts are telling her to flee to safety but safety is the very person who is terrifying her. The attachment figure is the source of the child’s distress. In these situations, children typically disassociate from their selves. They detach from what is happening to them and what they are experiencing is blocked from their consciousness. Children in this conflicted state have disorganized attachments with their fearsome parental figures. End quote
Disorganized attachment features dissociation. Another key idea to look at.
The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders has the following description and definition:
The dissociative disorders are a group of mental disorders that affect consciousness and are defined as causing significant interference with the patient's general functioning, including social relationships and employment.
Dissociation is a mechanism that allows the mind to separate or compartmentalize certain memories or thoughts from normal consciousness. These split-off mental contents are not erased. They may resurface spontaneously or be triggered by objects or events in the person's environment.
Dissociation is a process that occurs along a spectrum of severity. If someone experiences dissociation, it does not necessarily mean that that person has a dissociative disorder or other mental illness. A mild degree of dissociation occurs with some physical stressors; people who have gone without sleep for a long period of time, have had "laughing gas" for dental surgery, or have been in a minor accident often have brief dissociative experiences. Another commonplace example of dissociation is a person becoming involved in a book or movie so completely that the surroundings or the passage of time are not noticed. Another example might be driving on the highway and taking several exits without noticing or remembering. Dissociation is related to hypnosis in that hypnotic trance also involves a temporarily altered state of consciousness. Most patients with dissociative disorders are highly hypnotizable.
People in other cultures sometimes have dissociative experiences in the course of religious (in certain trance states) or other group activities. These occurrences should not be judged in terms of what is considered "normal" in the United States.
Moderate or severe forms of dissociation are caused by such traumatic experiences as childhood abuse , combat, criminal attacks, brainwashing in hostage situations, or involvement in a natural or transportation disaster. Patients with acute stress disorder , post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), conversion disorder, or somatization disorder may develop dissociative symptoms. Recent studies of trauma indicate that the human brain stores traumatic memories in a different way than normal memories. Traumatic memories are not processed or integrated into a person's ongoing life in the same fashion as normal memories. Instead they are dissociated, or "split off," and may erupt into consciousness from time to time without warning. The affected person cannot control or "edit" these memories. Over a period of time, these two sets of memories, the normal and the traumatic, may coexist as parallel sets without being combined or blended. In extreme cases, different sets of dissociated memories may cause people to develop separate personalities for these memories— a disorder known as dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder).
Read more: http://www.minddisorders.com/Del-Fi/Dissociation-and-dissociative-disorders.html#ixzz5WylDQLEB
Now let us see what we have so far. Stein asserted the cult leader has disorganized attachment with others that they enforce. He wants power over people but not vulnerability to them in the case of Fred Newman. And he doesn't trust people.
So he enforces his authority. This treatment is traumatic to people. It results in memories that are not stored like normal memories and not processed like normal memories.
They are not integrated. That means they are not taken in and out into context. They may be emotions that lack critical analysis which doesn't occur or they may have thoughts that include information or calculation that lacks emotional content or appropriate emotions.
Alexandra Stein later explains the idea that different parts of the brain process emotions better and other parts process information better and that by working together when you we think or talk or write about our memories we fully integrate the different parts of the brain to use our independent and critical thinking abilities. She believes it is even helped by our sleep. I certainly believe the brain does something with content while we sleep.
She sees dissociation as taking memories and leaving these traumatic memories outside the normal mental processes. This is vital to understand because if a cult leader enforces disorganized attachment then through abuse they create trauma and this features dissociation of the trauma and leaves cult members impaired regarding accessing and fully processing their memories. They may have limited access to memories or memories that feature emotions but lack critical thinking or memories that have logic but no emotions or limited emotions or inappropriate emotions for the situation.
And sometimes the condition in the memory endures because it is not being edited - that is experienced and analyzed in the present - like a normal memory. So if it featured impaired critical thinking or blocked emotions it may inspire this when recalled regarding the content of the memory. It may be resistant to self reflection and reconciliation.
Next we will look at the totalist group structure.