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Erin Prophet Blog



Is Brainwashing a Thing?

Erin Prophet

We often hear popular references to “brainwashing” as if it is a scientific concept. In my latest book and video, I explore the historical use of the term and the way it was rebranded as “coercive persuasion” and used in court cases during the 1980s. The book is based on a lawsuit known as Church Universal and Triumphant v. Gregory Mull. I attended the trial in 1986, and my evaluation is intended for three audiences:

Mull Enterprise 1981-page-0.jpg

1) People who want to know more about “cult” coercion and brainwashing, where the concept came from and how it has been used over time. The trial and accompanying transcript, letters, book and documents provide a fascinating case study that can also be a teaching tool.

2) Current or former members of Church Universal and Triumphant, and their friends and family, as it sheds light on a crucial event in church history and controversial beliefs and practices, such as the practice of decreeing “against” people’s energy.

3) Anyone who has a friend or family member involved in a minority religion or “cult,” especially those who are concerned about coercion.

I have been working on the book for nearly twenty years. The catalyst for completion is a panel discussion that I participated in two years ago, at the conference of the International Cultic Studies Association, a group that I had previously viewed as the enemy. Not only had I changed in thirty years, but the group had also changed.

I told them that I thought it was a sign of maturity in an association when it could look critically at both its saints and its demons. Gregory had been a saint to the group, and my mother one of its demons. I appreciated that Steve Eichel, president of the association, was willing to moderate the panel and give me a fair hearing. Cathleen Mann, who had both met my mother and testified against the church in child custody cases, appeared on the panel. Though we did not agree on everything, we had a civil and measured discussion. Steve maintains, in the end, that it’s possible to distinguish between education and indoctrination. I am not so sure.

For those not familiar with the lawsuit, it was based on Gregory’s claims that he had been subjected to coercive persuasion (a term based on brainwashing) by my mother and her Church Universal and Triumphant during his involvement between 1974 and 1980. There is no civil cause of action for coercive persuasion, and so his suit was based on “fraud,” “involuntary servitude,” and “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” among other things. During the trial, experts from both sides testified about brainwashing and the lifestyle of those who lived at the church headquarters. In the book and video, I carefully consider the charges that my mother’s teachings, the lifestyle of the group members, especially decrees, can cause hypnosis. Or whether there may be other explanations for religious conversion.

I also discuss my mother’s use of confessional materials and her teachings on sexuality, particularly homosexuality, and how they related to the trial. I cover in detail the practice of decreeing “against” other people’s energy, and how it may interfere with peaceful resolution.

Finally, I take up the question of whether the suit put a religion on trial, and offer my opinion as to the lessons learned from the experience. I explain why I think Gregory had a case for intentional infliction of emotional distress but not for fraud, and what I think of the outcome.

The book, Coercion or Conversion: A Case Study in Religion and the Law—CUT v. Mull v. Prophet 1986 is self-published. I am making the video and book available for free because I want the maximum number of people to have access to this project. If there is karma, then I think it is my karma to perform this evaluation and share it with those who need it. If not, then I feel a duty to those on both sides to speak my piece and be finished. I want to thank my sister Moira Prophet Siskind as well as Rick Sheridan and others for reviewing the manuscript.

I welcome thoughtful comments and I hope that my work will help promote tolerance, understanding on all sides.

The book, videos and trial transcript are available here.

Summer Reading: Martial Arts Cult or Religion?

Erin Prophet

Book Review: Death by Budo: A Mystery in NRM Studies By Susan J. Palmer; Illustrations by Sylvia Rack.

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When messages from a long-dead Japanese noblewoman begin to emerge from a martial arts studio, the line between fitness culture and religion blurs. Death by Budo is a clever murder mystery and a (relatively) painless way to learn more about how new religions form, split, change, and become more (or less) controversial. When a murder occurs during a martial arts class, a sociologist, already investigating the group on her own, is brought in to help the police. Is the group a cult? Is it dangerous? How should they proceed?

Palmer, a sociologist based in Canada who has studied real-life minority religions like the Unification Church (Moonies), the Raelians, Scientology, and the followers of Rajneesh, aka Osho, is familiar at first hand with the mercurial quality of new religions. She has documented ways in which charismatic leaders transform and reinvent themselves and their teachings as part of the complex power dynamics that take place both within the group and between the group and society. She also shows that new revelations are often tangled up with the leader’s own emotional ties and personal crisis, even psychopathology. But even the leader often perceives the revelation as coming from an outside and divine source. At least at first. But what happens when the revelations stop coming and the leader must still provide answers?

Palmer’s plot centers around Oliwia, a bored and overweight housewife who is transformed by a powerful but flawed martial arts instructor, and in turn becomes an unlikely charismatic leader, channeling the mysterious deceased and fictional Japanese empress Lady Nii, and making apocalyptic prophecies. Before long, a second murder has been committed, the prophecies have spread, and Oliwia is not the only one receiving revelations from Lady Nii.

The only potential pain in this publication comes from the book’s realistic descriptions of the exhilaration of fitness (perhaps based on Palmer’s own experience in the mixed martial art Kajukenbo), which may inspire readers to take up martial arts themselves, if only to get in shape. The murder(s) seem almost incidental to the plot, and they glide by farcically, conforming to murder mystery tropes that make this sociology lesson go down easy.

Order Death By Budo



Revisiting Theories of Coercive Persuasion (or Why I am Addressing the International Cultic Studies Association)

Erin Prophet

Most people who know me are aware that I use the term "cult" very carefully, if at all. Why, then, have I chosen to speak at an event sponsored by the International Cultic Sudies Association (ICSA)? On July 2, I will be participating in a panel discussion at the ICSA annual conference. The panel is entitled "Church Universal and Triumphant, Elizabeth Clare Prophet and the Gregory Mull Trial: A Review of the Coercive Persuasion Model."

The choice to present at this conference was difficult. I have had an unfavorable opinion of ICSA because of its association with discredited theories of mind control and coercive persuasion, as well as the engagement of some of its members in coercive exit counseling and forms of deprogramming. However, I have chosen to join the panel based on indications that the organization is committed to a more nuanced and rigorous approach than in the past, and its acknowledgement that minority religions (aka "cults") are not all the same, nor are the experiences of their members.

I will be evaluating the 1986 trial of Church Universal and Triumphant vs. Gregory Mull (and countersuit), and aftermath. The case is indeed a laboratory for coercive persuasion models and a time capsule of the "cult wars" of the 1980s and 1990s. I will be reviewing the documentary evidence and testimony presented at the trial, including Mr. Mull’s involvement with the church between 1974 and 1980, as well as the events after he had left. I will also discuss his public conflicts with the church and with my mother, the church's leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet. This case offers a unique look into the kind of personality transformation that can occur when an individual joins and then leaves a minority religion. The ample written evidence gives insight into Mr. Mull’s state of mind, if not going all the way back to his pre-group personality, then at least to his earliest involvement.

 The above letter was written by Gregory Mull in 1980 in response to newspaper articles portraying Church Universal and Triumphant as a cult. Six years later, he was awarded $1.5 million by a jury after claiming that the group was really a destructive cult. The letter was used as evidence in the trial. The panel will address questions of agency in letter writing and other individual actions.

The above letter was written by Gregory Mull in 1980 in response to newspaper articles portraying Church Universal and Triumphant as a cult. Six years later, he was awarded $1.5 million by a jury after claiming that the group was really a destructive cult. The letter was used as evidence in the trial. The panel will address questions of agency in letter writing and other individual actions.


In my presentation, I will evaluate theories of influence promoted by expert witnesses at the trial, with a focus on mind control and coercive persuasion, and highlighting themes of autonomy, deception and free will. The testimony of Margaret Singer will be evaluated, as well as that of opposing experts J. Gordon Melton and James Richardson. The case occurred during the time of maximum acceptance of theories of coercive persuasion in US courts. I will refer to trial exhibits, including transcripts and correspondence between Mr. Mull and church officials, as well as my own experience as a member and leader of Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). The suit resulted in a $1.5 million judgment against the church and Elizabeth Clare Prophet.

I do not want my participation in the conference to obscure the fact that as a scholar of religion, I do not agree with all ICSA positions. ICSA has in the past been hostile to all “cults,” a term which I view as a loaded word, and I prefer to use minority religion. Currently, the ICSA website, while acknowledging that different definitions exist, uses the definition of “cult” as “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment.” It is easy to pick apart each portion of this definition—to identify groups that control certain of their members (for example, employees and middle management), more than others, for example, as well as groups held together by institutional, rather than charismatic, authority, whose founders are dead. And how does one determine whether an organization is ideological or not? But I do not think that a cult needs to be defined (or a group needs to meet a narrow definition) in order for an individual to need assistance in recovering from a difficult experience, and on that I can agree with ICSA.

I do not think that a cult needs to be defined (or a group needs to meet a narrow definition) in order for an individual to need assistance in recovering from a difficult experience, and on that I can agree with ICSA.


Another area of potential disagreement with ICSA is its focus is on the “social-psychological manipulation and control” said to be practiced by all cults. There is no question that minority religions, like any other group, influence and control their members. However, as ICSA acknowledges, the degree of control varies and systems of influence may or may not be constructed with the deliberate intention of harming or manipulating the followers. ICSA does not provide a list of cults, but instead focuses on providing resources for those who have left. See here for more information on ICSA and its positions.

As a former member myself, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who have left a small and close-knit group. It is difficult to replace social bonds, particularly if the majority of one’s most important bonds are within the group, and even moreso if the involvement has been close and of long duration. There is no question that small groups in a high degree of social tension with society are subject to unique pressures and often place their members in stressful situations. The gradual or sudden departure from such a group (whether voluntarily, by expulsion, or coerced deprogramming) is often painful, and may require support and psychotherapy.

In the past, sociologists have focused on evaluating the groups themselves, as well as attitudes of former members, and psychologists have focused on helping people “recover” from their experience. Both groups of experts lament the lack of evidence about individuals’ “pre-cult personality,” since those who have left under difficult circumstances often view their experience in an entirely negative light, and blame the group for all of their problems. I hope that my presentation will help provide additional insight into the divide between the points of view.

I will be participating on a panel with psychologist Cathleen Mann, moderator, and psychologist Steve Eichel, discussant. The conference agenda can be located here.

More information about the event can be found on my calendar here: