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