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How Cults Brainwash their Members

Cults, totalitarian governments, abusive marriages: what they have in common is that someone gains total control over someone else through psychology. The shortcut term for this is brainwashing. Alexandra Stein was a member of one such cult, and later wrote about the process of brainwashing. Her PhD dissertation examined the tactics of a political cult called the Newman Tendency, which was run by Fred Newman.

Newman had controlled the group for more than 40 years before his death in 2011. After interviewing former members, I learned that group members were brought in through the various programmes, but were all mandated to enter therapy that they had to pay for. Gradually, they abandoned outside jobs and worked for the group, often off the books. They shared apartments, attended meetings late into the night, and restricted relationships with outsiders. Instead, many were set up in casual sexual relationships with other followers in a practice called ‘friendosexuality’. They were also assigned a ‘friend’ whose role was to monitor and criticise to keep them in line. Those with money were soon parted from it. Some women in the group were told by Newman to have abortions, and few had children while involved.

The Newman Tendency, like The O, fit the five features of a totalist system I had identified based on Arendt and Lifton’s work.  The first of these characteristics is that the leader is both charismatic and authoritarian. Without charisma, the leader would be unable to draw people to him or herself. Without authoritarianism, leaders would lack the internal motivation and the ability to bully and control followers. ‘Yeah, somebody taught him how to abuse people,’ a former follower said of Newman. ‘He’s charming, too … If he sat down right there next to me, I’d say: “Hey Fred, how are you doing? Are you still corrupting people? … Are you still screwing 18 women at the same time?” … But you know, he was a likeable guy!’

Not all leaders want to get rich, gain sexual favours, or grab political power. But all want utter control over others. Money, sex, free labour or loyal combatants are all fringe benefits, and certainly most leaders take advantage of these, some in a big way. But absolute control over their relationships is the key.

Stein addresses the other four features of a totalist system that yields compliant followers at Aeon. And ways of breaking out of such a system. -via Digg

(Image credit: Roman Harak)


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