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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:

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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