Sex, Lies, and Grand Schemes

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 14, Number 1, 1997, pages 58-84

Sex, Lies, and Grand Schemes of Thought in Closed Groups


This article explores the invisible dynamics of control and submission in a closed group with which the authors were affiliated for many years. Relying on Herman’s (1992) model of psychological captivity, the article illustrates the psychological dynamics of the “courtship” of recruits and the covert coercive control through which individual identity is dismantled and the worldview of the group’s leader introduced. Three methods of control are discussed: fear induction, destruction of autonomy, and breaking of personality. The last part of the article explores how cultural issues related to sexism enhance the power of high-demand groups.

We write as women who spent an average of 20 years involved in a philosophically oriented, religious community based on the teachings of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky. All of us have now left the group, most within the past 5 years. Yet, we are still dealing with the aftereffects of what we have come to see was a destructive world permeated with the dynamics of hidden control.

Some of us are still wondering what happened to our lives. How were we willingly entrapped in a destructive world for so long? No one forced us to join the group or to stay, or so it would appear. Rather, we were attracted to the group and its leader. We became passionately involved, even zealous in our apparent commitment, loyal and dedicated to our own undoing. Over time, we undermined our capacities for free thought, for hearing our own conscience, for mutuality in relationship, and for finding our own way in the world. How did this happen to us?

We write anonymously and disguise the identity of the group because we fear that harassment may follow exposure. We acknowledge that our perspective on how our group functioned is personal and that others may disagree with part or all of what we say, although we are confident that many would agree. Our goal is not to “expose” a particular group, or to “define” it through the articulation of our personal experience. Our goal is to alert others to the elements of influence that can unwittingly bind people to what ultimately harms them, and, especially, to the dangers of involvement with seemingly benevolent, self-appointed leaders. In addition to mastering our own legacy of confusion, betrayal, anger, and fear, we hope to shed light on the largely invisible dynamics of control and submission that sustain such groups and the culture at large. Also we want to offer a view of what it was like--how silent and unobtrusive the soul-killing can be.

Cults and Auras of Authenticity

Closed, doctrinaire groups with self-appointed leaders are commonly called cults. We prefer not to use the label cultic, which is so loaded with negative connotations and lack of understanding that the word itself stops further inquiry. No one ever believes that he or she is in a cult (or a cultic relationship). Just as battered women rarely recognize themselves as battered, few followers would ever acknowledge cult membership. Ask anyone you know who is deeply involved with whatever group, and most likely that person will tell you that the group is a legitimate organization with a leader, if there is one, who furthers the members’ interests (be they philosophical, religious, political). Yet, some of those groups are probably high-demand, closed environments breeding the psychological chains that enable manipulation by the leader. Mention “cultic” and the person may walk away, unwilling to talk further.

The word cult immediately erects a barrier for those outside the group as well because no one ever thinks they would join a cult. Information describing such a bizarre organization then does not apply to or interest us as average citizens. Thus, the knowledge level in the general public about this captivating form of influence is appallingly low. This lack of knowledge about closed-group influences makes people even easier prey. Just as a young girl needs to learn how to spot the Don Juan who is out to seduce her, betray her, and add her to his list of conquests, so everyone needs to learn how to spot the would-be god who would capture your soul for his own purposes. The concept of a cult often stops further inquiry in that we tend to think we know what it refers to--that is, something that has nothing to do with us.

Legitimate groups do exist where individual autonomy, independent thought, and creative action are sacrificed for a time. These limitations are instituted to effect some goal the participant freely chooses. As a matter of course in our society, don’t schools, the military, and traditional religious organizations expect the suspension of autonomy? This temporary sacrifice may actually improve the lives of the members and the community. The desired traits develop, and individuals move on to tap their own creative sources of action, thought, and feeling. The existence of such legitimate groups presents a problem for those who would look for direction from a high-demand group, especially one with a self-appointed leader. For the most striking quality of a destructive, enslaving group is its seeming authenticity as a provider of wisdom, love, understanding, organized action, whatever you are looking for.

Without the cover of the authentic, the nature and purposes of the control being exercised--to fulfill the leader’s need to bind others to him--could no longer remain hidden. The temporary use of control for the good of those involved, as those of us who are parents know, requires effort and self-sacrifice. We are relieved when our guidance is no longer necessary, when the child, at last, has the judgment to govern his or her own behavior. But when control is exercised out of a need to dominate, there is no easy escape, no graduation, from the relationship.

Recognizing Prisons Without Walls

In the now-classic Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman (1992) discusses the gradually traumatizing effects of conditions of long-term captivity. Captivity in closed groups is not physical, but is psychological. Herman found striking similarities between the dynamics of high-demand religious groups, battering couple relationships, and child abuse. In each situation, participation looks voluntary--that is, the victims look as though they choose to stay with their oppressors--but is actually maintained through the dynamics of covert control. Initially enthralled by the charm, intelligence, or perceptiveness of the perpetrator, captives gradually become prisoners bound by the invisible chains of dominance and submission. Such relationships or groups are prisons without walls. The leader captivates members through a combination of enticement and intimidation, but primarily, at least in the beginning, through a process akin to courtship.

In closed groups where covert control is exercised, strange, trancelike dynamics operate that prevent those participating from seeing the most obvious things. For instance, members are immune to damning information about the leader or the group, believing themselves to be in a state of “grace” or of deep love and understanding, an understanding that transcends everyday reality. Members don’t realize to what extent their perceptions have been engineered; or if they do, they think it is for their own good. One can no longer see what appears obvious to other people. Now that we are no longer so completely in the grip of the mesmerizing group environment, we find it remarkable that techniques and practices that we felt were uniquely our own--thought-stopping exercises, information control, and so on--are found consistently in many closed, authoritarian groups.

As Herman suggests, we have found surprising similarities between the dynamics of violent couple relationships and destructive group involvement. Many abusive couple relationships endure because of unacknowledged intimidation or coercive methods of control. Battered women notoriously stay with their husbands for the same reasons that fundamentalists don’t leave the flock, clients stay with philandering therapists, and disciples continue to follow deceptive and drunken gurus. In the most blatant cases of domestic violence, the man resorts to physically battering the woman to maintain his control. Such obvious abuse we recognize easily as harmful. Those far more insidious and numerous destructive couple relationships--where the psychological torment has yet to become physical--resemble most closely the culture of sophisticated groups like the one we experienced. On the surface, neither the relationship nor the group shows signs of the sensational methods we normally associate with coercive control.

According to Herman, once an individual has been enticed into a coercive relationship, exercising control over every aspect of the captive’s life becomes a top priority for the leader. From the very beginning, the ultimate goal is to create a willing victim. The enslaver wants someone who adores, respects, and is grateful to him, someone who will not only follow his will, but also will eventually come to see the world as he sees it.[1] The leader is internalized as an alter ego, which ensures that his control continues even without his presence. Herman cites Orwell’s portrayal of the totalitarian mind (not so far removed from the more common autocratic one) as descriptive of this all-encompassing goal of control:

We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. (1992, p. 76)

This sounds a bit like a Christian missionary to us, and it describes fairly well our work with new members of our group. We believed and taught that all must genuinely verify for themselves the ideas on which the group is based. We used persuasion, appeal to personal strengths, camaraderie, shared interests, and new knowledge or practices to entice new members. A sophisticated group or leader rarely, if ever, uses blatant coercion, deprivation, or outright threats, especially not in the vulnerable beginning stages.

The Courtship Entices

We cannot emphasize enough how subtle the courtship process may be. Sensational stories reported by the media--of drugging or starving new recruits; subjecting them to hours of chanting, spinning, or meditating to produce heightened states; taking people off to isolated enclaves for weeks of love-bombing; or stripping them of their clothes in ritual--make it easy for the more sophisticated perpetrator to continue to fool himself and his captives into believing in the legitimacy of his less sensational methods of enticing his “courtship captives.”

Such a courtship begins when you attract the attention of the perpetrator or his representatives. How does this occur? Our group initially uses an impersonal method to attract new people. Primarily, prospective members find flyers or bookmarks that have been specifically placed in areas where people interested in philosophy and religion are likely to be found. These flyers contain local phone numbers of “centers”--groups of members sent out to cities throughout the United States and around the world. Or a potential recruit may see a newspaper advertisement for an open meeting. This impersonal approach reinforces the reigning idea that people are brought to the group by their fate or “higher forces,” that the members have little or no influence over who comes or who stays in the group. Interested people attend a small meeting (rarely, larger meetings may be held) led by more experienced members, but not too experienced: those at the enthusiastic, honeymoon phase of the involvement, before doubts begin to set in.

Leaders of these small groups were often naturally persuasive and perhaps charismatic in their own right; many used a decided “soft sell” at the meetings for prospective new members. We explained that our community was “not for everyone.” Appeals to narcissism were barely veiled, as we displayed an attitude of inaccessibility. Prospective members needed to pass certain “tests” to be deemed “right” or “fated” to join. The best prospects were attractive and attentive, often well-dressed, apparently established in the world. Toward these best prospects a fine- trained attention was directed; glances of recognition, approval, and knowingness would be exchanged, along with an attitude of studied indifference (akin to the clerks at Gucci’s or Cartier) about whether or not they decided to join.

Of course, we see now that we wanted them to join very much because it brought strength to the group, reinforcing our sense that we were involved in something special. Also, the leader was very pleased when there were new people. He was generous with his time and attention to those who easily attracted new members. The new members themselves received special attention--invitations to dinner with the leader, or to meet with smaller groups to have discussions or go to museums or concerts--especially if they were wealthy, powerful, bright, or attractive. For a new person entering this kind of group, the attention can be heady and intoxicating. At the same time, the appearance of the normalcy of the group must be underlined. This contrasts with the usual media-sensationalized reports that are typically associated with cult recruitment: here there was no love-bombing, no promises of open marriages nor invitations to take drugs or go away for the weekend. Such obvious enticements would give away the underlying dynamics of intimidation that remain most hidden during the courtship phase.

This courtship adulation does not end once the member becomes committed to the group; instead, it is intermittently reinforced. The leader carved out relations of specialness that over time ensured his control over those who were of use to him. He poured out emotional energy to those he favored--mainly young men to whom he took a fancy and women who could do the work of running the organization. He was capable of creating an atmosphere of instant intimacy: holding your hand, whispering in your ear, flattering you with the role of trusted confidant. He was fond of giving a “marriage” gift--marriage to him, that is--and admonishing that it be kept secret. (This way it took a while to discover how many of us he had “married.”) He shone his formidable presence in your direction, bought you expensive presents--a diamond bracelet, a leather coat, an antique cameo, airline tickets to travel with him. He would choose the gift to suit the individual.

The Dynamics of Covert Coercive Control

Herman (1992) writes in detail of the ways in which coercive control is established in situations of apparently voluntary captivity. Through systematic, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma, individual identity is dismantled and the leader’s worldview is introduced. The main strategies are surprisingly simple and attest to the fragility of the person unprepared for such manipulations (this includes most of us). Methods include (1) the induction of fear, (2) the destruction of autonomy, and (3) the breaking of the personality, or total surrender. We have relied on these categorizations to organize our thoughts about our group.

Once the captive has been enticed through the courtship to commit to the relationship or group (often indicated by some kind of payment), the hard-core dynamics of control are set in motion. Bear in mind that often the perpetrator and his apprentices don’t even realize that the goal is control. If anything, there may be a kind of preconscious awareness that some kind of manipulation is taking place. Our experience goes against the usual insistence that such leaders are psychopaths well aware of their lies. In our group, we believe that self-deception, not cunning, predominated. The hidden drive for control in order to perpetuate an eccentric worldview acted as a blind spot does, evoking all sorts of defensive maneuvers. The leader’s actions were misted in illusion to cover the driving force of needing to bend people to his view. In our case, the leader commonly took to pointing out controlling or self-centered tendencies in anyone who questioned or resisted his instructions or held on too tightly to independent thought. At the same time, he was careful never to obviously force what he wanted. We were given “opportunities” to do the arbitrary exercises he believed were channeled through him by higher forces. For women, in particular, who feel a keen lack of affection and attention in their relationships with men, the leader’s intense (albeit intermittent) attentiveness became an immensely powerful means of entrapment.

Those who successfully exercise this brand of influence--covert, coercive control--are charismatic and unusually skilled at behavioral nuances. Their skills at manipulation may be compared to a folk art learned gradually, exercised sparingly at first and perhaps even with good intent. But over time, the need for control gains momentum becoming more prevalent in their actions as their craft is honed to a fine art. They learn as they go how to manipulate people (Singer with Lalich, 1995).

The Induction of Fear

Fear becomes the coercing element in this brand of control and, as such, supplies the cornerstone of the leader’s dominance. By definition, covert fear induction must go unacknowledged, hidden, disguised as something else. It must be developed gradually to take hold without the awareness of the one being influenced. Subtlety still reigns at this phase. Let us remember, while the sensational grabs your attention and alerts you to danger, subtle threats dressed as teachings grab your heart and mind. They ooze into your cells without your knowledge. Meanwhile, the perpetrator vehemently denies that control motivates him. He will deny his interest in control whether the behaviors that instill fear fall at the passive end of the spectrum of control--for instance, neglect, trivialization, and withdrawal--or at the active end of rages, belittling, criticism, or threats. This denial is perhaps the most insidious element of hidden influence. For the more concealed the perpetrator’s agenda, the more crazy, confused, agitated, or ill the target of this surreptitious fear induction becomes.

In our experience, the leader laced his conversation with references to the sad fate of those who left the group. For he was certain they had suffered a fate worse than death. The fear-inducing, threatening element of these communications was hidden by the gentle, sorry tone he used. While professing his continuing love for those who left, he spoke of how unfortunate they were to have lost “the way,” reiterating the incredible luck of those who stayed. He taught that higher forces removed people from the group for failing at some “task” he had assigned. If no obvious task was violated, his explanation would be that those leaving were mired too deeply in their negativity. Unwittingly, irrationally, of course, members began to fear losing contact with the group. (But this was a deep unconscious dread that many of us realized we carried only after we had actually left the group.) He taught that when someone was being released, the first sign was that their understanding of the group’s worldview would be “removed” by higher forces. This was a neat explanation for and means of controlling any deviations from the group’s shared outlook. With time, these veiled threats regarding the tragic results of leaving him seemed to become the leader’s favorite subject, a preoccupation even.

To make the threatened soul loss more tangible, he enforced abandonment of anyone who did leave, although this too was framed as an exercise in tough love. Remaining members were given a strict task not to speak to those who had left, as a way of demonstrating how valuable the community was, and, supposedly, to facilitate the return of the lost sheep. We were told, “Just gently hang up the receiver if ‘Jane’ [former member] calls you. This will help her realize what she has lost, and she will have a better chance of coming back.” Amazingly, this explanation seemed eminently reasonable at the time.

Now we see that, under the guise of work on spiritual development, we set aside friends of decades if they left the group--our neighbor, doctor, midwife, lover, in some cases, even spouses or children. And we are sorry today for that callousness and the pain it caused. Now we also see that this task effectively prevented us from speaking to those we trusted who had found the courage and help to leave. Somehow these people had broken through the wall of fear. They were the very people who could tell us, without the mesmerizing screen of the leader and the group dogmas, what involvement in the world on the outside was really like, and what the group looked like from the outside. How critical was it that we be isolated from our old friends? So critical that they had to be demonized as fallen souls, supposedly with an agenda to drag us along with them on their way to damnation. The leader was also careful to explain how former members never realized what they had lost as they entered back into the trance of life. He was amazed that they were often oblivious to the “tragedy” of their lives, the tragedy, that is, of losing all hope for developing their souls. While the circularity of this thought process is now painfully evident, it successfully created and sustained a view of reality that was virtually impossible to challenge.

From the beginning, behavior and thought were thus always checked by the implicit threat of being asked to leave. With stunning frequency, the leader planted the seeds of fear of abandonment, masked as caring concern for the spiritual well-being of his followers.[2] Even those of us who recognized that he was playing on our fears told ourselves he did so just as a kind parent sets limits on a child around life-threatening situations, such as running into the street. He was instilling this intimidation only to prevent us from the greater harm we would suffer by leaving him. To him, staying in the group was a matter of life and death. He needed to do whatever it took to help us stay with him so we could continue to make progress toward enlightenment and not fall back into ordinary, mechanical “life.” The longer you stayed, the more the prospect of being ejected from the community was feared. You believed that you stood to lose not only your entire community, but also your immortal soul.

The Destruction of Autonomy

Once a foundation of fear is laid (although fear induction and destruction of autonomy are not sequential activities, but overlapping ones), the dismantling of individual initiative can take place. This loss of autonomy further ensures dependency on the leader. In our group, autonomy was systematically destroyed through far-reaching control of the member’s life and isolation from outside support.

Control of all aspects of life. The “exercises” and “tasks” that were given, at first minimally, and finally with no holds barred in controlling the smallest corner of life, were so broad-based and numerous, it is difficult to recall them all. We have found that whenever a writer who has been involved in a high-demand group begins to point out controlling behaviors, the description leans toward the sensational, material for the tabloids or maybe a Psychology Today article. One thinks, “How could you ever have let someone tell you what to eat, what to wear, how long to sleep, whom to sleep with, where to live? I would never allow someone to interfere with my life in that way.” It is crucial for an outsider looking in to remember that in high-demand groups, submitting to controlling behaviors looks life-enhancing. Often it is viewed as an opportunity to move forward in reverence, understanding, self-mastery, or emotional refinement.

That coercive control might be being exercised was never a question within the group. We all thought we were willingly surrendering, as one surrenders to God. We believed submitting would help to minimize the worst and encourage the best parts of ourselves. In our community, exercises were always optional (although anyone who was intent on really working on themselves was admonished to follow them). The party line extolled that we should not follow any instruction we did not understand or take on any idea we had not personally verified to be true. Of course, professing lack of understanding or lack of verification did not safeguard one from the consequences of violating exercises, or, especially, tasks. And those who lagged in following the exercises were not given positions of power and influence granted to those who did. Violating tasks deemed essential for the well-being of the community was grounds for removal from the organization. Tasks revolved around sex, money, drugs, and, of all things, gossip.

We have downplayed the sensational, and in the following have summarized those exercises we can recall to give a flavor of how much it takes to finally remove the autonomy of people. You can also see how far people will go when they trust a leader and believe his directions will ultimately help them to gain psychological freedom, love, consciousness, or contact with the divine. The limitations seem a small price to pay for the promised results.

Control of interactions with the leader. We want to point out again that destruction of autonomy is not obvious. Verbal rather than physical abuse prevails, with passive rather than active assaults. Your perception of reality is systematically questioned, your feelings denied, your worth undermined. The invisible chains of psychological dominance are forged slowly, gradually. The dominant person establishes the terms of the interaction and builds dominance by many means. Some of those include the following: (1) he alternates kindness and abuse--intermittent friendliness erases the memory of upsetting behavior; (2) he controls inter-personal communication and decides on acceptable subjects to discuss, ignoring questions he does not care to address; (3) he allows no validation of your experience of doubt, fear, or anger with him; (4) he manipulates feelings if confronted, primarily by focusing on what’s wrong with you; (5) he displays indifference, disrespect, and disregard toward you in the guise of being above such petty, mechanical concerns; (6) he disregards or discounts any hurt feelings you might have; and (7) he maintains emotional distance in the name of being a “higher” man.

After the first few years, the leader controlled virtually all interactions we had with him, and he became more and more inaccessible. When he did invite you to be with him, he determined when you would speak. You might ask him a question, such as “How do you deal with anger?” or “Why don’t you invite women to the symposiums?” And he would answer with, “Look at the beautiful irises Joan has arranged for the table,” or “How is your mother?” These diversions would be read as ways to bring you back to the present, away from abstract intellectualizing. In fact, they effectively silenced doubts and concerns.

Control of speech. The first exercise anyone experienced was introduced at the prospective student meetings and involved eliminating certain words from your vocabulary. The words changed over time, but for many years included all contractions, and the word I. The ability to speak while eliminating these words was supposedly a sign of consciousness, or, at least, a kind of divided attention we attempted to cultivate. If, while speaking, you uttered one of the words, another student would make a hand signal to alert you to your “sleep.” This exercise threw prospective students off, minimized their ability to express themselves, and at the same time showed them one method for awakening from the “sleep” of ordinary awareness. Since “no gossip” was a task, the subjects of our conversations were also limited. The formidable exercise of not expressing negative emotions was another bulwark of the practices that curtailed our speech.

Control of dining. The leader selected the menus, often elaborate, for the group’s dining hall. He preferred fine dining with china, silver, flowers, and four-course meals. He gave explicit instructions on how to eat, including the mechanics of holding the utensils, and he put people on diets if he thought they needed to lose weight.

Control of clothing. Women were asked to stop wearing pants and wear only skirts or dresses. He liked to purchase clothing for both men and women as part of the intermittent showering of attention. This was particularly appreciated by those who were being paid bare sustenance wages working for the organization and could not afford their own new clothes. At various times, we were asked not to wear clothes that were too casual in nature, such as athletic shoes or shorts.

Control of names. He routinely assigned new names to people; he favored Anglo names in an attempt to minimize ethnicity in the group. This was especially hard on the men who were not accustomed to having their identities messed with in such a fundamental way, as are women who are trained to expect to change their names.

Control of sexuality, marriage, and children. The rule of no sex outside marriage was a tough one to enforce, though many did adhere to it. There was also to be a waiting period after leaving one sexual relationship and entering into another. There were no mass assignments of marriage partners (too blatant a control measure), but he did use his influence to encourage and discourage partnerships. He discouraged having children during the early years of the group, and children were not welcome at any events. He abruptly turned about (abrupt changes were common) on the subject of children and encouraged members to raise families. This turnabout came around the time the number of new members dropped off, at the predictable 10-to-15-year turning point in the age of the group when the initial enthusiasm begins to wane in the face of failed promises, diffused identities, and minimal enlightenment.

This may be one example where the leader’s initial inclination (i.e., not to allow children even to the extent of encouraging women to have abortions or give their children away) was a better choice for maintaining his brand of coercive control than his later acceptance of children as a necessary evil. For some women who bore children in this later phase, the awakening of primal feminine instincts signaled a definitive break in the leader’s veil of control. Why? We believe that pregnancy opens the body, obliterating, for a while anyway, our defensive structure. Did some light manage to seep in the aura of control during the days of birth? Perhaps also because the leader’s own needs became obvious for what they were (he wanted the attention we were now directing toward babies). Or, maybe women who could not protect themselves became fiercely protective with their children. Or, perhaps, in moving into the role of parents, we were able, finally, to recognize the dependence/dominance dynamic for what it was and begin to challenge the imbalanced nature of such a relationship.

Isolation from outside support and information. Control and isolation go hand in hand. By isolating his captive, the perpetrator guarantees his stranglehold on the person’s perceptions. In our community, we were discouraged from contacting our families or former friends. Rather, we were encouraged to remain with our “real family”--other group members--for any vacation or holiday. Attendance at significant family events, such as christenings, marriages, or funerals, was characterized as a waste of time. We were also advised not to discuss the group, the teacher, or the doctrines with anyone outside, as this would be “casting pearls before swine.” In fact, in the early days, we soon discovered that people were not at all interested or began to look curiously at us if we did share with them our zeal and enthusiasm for the new-found set of ideas and community. We began to develop split personalities. Some of us lived for decades without ever telling our families, therapists (for the rare few who required this “life” intervention), or outside acquaintances about our activities with the group. If you consider that many of us built our lives around the group, perhaps you can imagine what a feat this was. Once the numbing and splitting of chronic trauma set in, such inner contradictions can easily go on for years unnoticed.

We were also isolated from outside sources of information. For years we were admonished to read books or poetry or listen to music only if approved by him. For nearly 10 years, we also followed a “no media” exercise. We were completely out of touch with events in the outside world, even if we happened to have jobs there. Since most media was sensational and concentrated on the glorification of negativity, we believed that avoiding these heavy, dark influences would further our work on ourselves, again unwittingly isolating ourselves from forces that might help us regain the powers of independent thought and judgment we needed to recognize our situation. The grain of truth in these limitations (e.g., the media is a wasteland) helped us to continue to believe in their legitimacy.

Total Surrender, or Breaking the Personality

Discovering how they were finally “broken” may be the most difficult piece of the puzzle for former members of closed groups who are attempting to reconstruct their lives. According to Herman’s studies, in the final stages of establishing covert control, the perpetrator has the victims violate the codes of conduct by which they formerly defined themselves. In so doing, he removes the last vestiges of individual conscience. This dissolves the victims’ sense of themselves and disrupts their identity, thus offering the perpetrator a malleable soul. In a spiritual community, undergoing this process may appear as a positive step. We have the Christian and Buddhist contemplative tradition that supports breaking up the old identity so that direct contact with the Divine, the Truth, or Being can be established without the intervening static of ego, vanity, or personality. When the leader takes on the role of the divine, however, he uses his followers for his own purposes, binding them to him, and does not work as a helper in releasing them to their higher purposes. This breaking of the personality, which may be regarded as the seed of individual identity, is the ultimate betrayal, the spiritual rape. We gave up our own will through exercises and tasks, which we thought would help us advance spiritually and which left us open and vulnerable. The fox captures the newborn rabbits in their nest, just as the leader lassoed our newborn selves for his own purposes. Instead of allowing Divine guidance to enter these tender openings, he became the final arbiter of right and wrong, believing himself to be the Divine guide.

To accomplish this personality break and final binding, he had us do things we would never do. The circumstances of these breaks varied depending on the person. For one, it was being told to refrain from sex; for another, to have sex, perhaps with someone married, perhaps with someone not too attractive. For yet another, it might be putting on a business suit and going to an office; for another, working at a menial job in one of the group-owned businesses, giving up all the trappings of materialistic life. One woman would be advised to have an abortion; another to have children. The gay man was prevented from having relations with men; the lesbian woman might be encouraged to marry a man. The bohemian should become a business person; the professional, a ditch digger. Again, all these inversions of natural tendencies--the subjective discomfort and sense of wrongness about these changes--could be understood as “work on oneself.” However, how were they actually used? Instead of liberating an individual, these givings over of our hard-won identities (many of us were in our twenties in the early days) bound us, and kept us dependent on the person who directed us to take these actions against ourselves.

Herman suggests that commonly one is encouraged to betray primary relationships, to sacrifice others, as part of the breaking process. On a more communal scale, rejection of one’s former family and friends was the first stage of this process. Later, in the most conspicuous examples of this form of control, we were expected to inform on our friends if any should violate an exercise or, especially, a task. He might then have you, the informer, be the one to tell your friend that she must leave the group. These were cruel calls to make because of the shared belief about the dire consequences of losing the community (the fate worse than death).

We became inured to the pain we caused each other as empathic capacity shriveled. Individual movements of conscience that survived this breaking apart of personal identity were regarded as remnants of a contemptible quality to conquer in oneself, leftover from our upbringing. Thus we learned to ignore our best wisdom, our inner guidance. Conscience was to be replaced by a sort of moral relativism, that is, good and evil were relative; and the more developed a being (read the leader), the fewer constraints or “laws” bound him.

Again we are downplaying incidents that might appear sensational to try to underline how subtle even this final stage of captivity can be. Years can go by, even for those of us who lived outside the community retreat or communal house, before we realize we are living someone else’s life. A quiet despair often sets in. (More than one advanced follower was taking anti-depressants prescribed by one of the many faithful group member psychiatrists.) Interestingly, the leader accounted for despair, which began to be prevalent in his long-term members, by describing it as a necessary stage for the advanced aspirant to endure, a sign of the final stages of awakening. Because there is no physical violence, no blatant tortures, even the most broken personality can carry on as though nothing has happened. Some even become more self-confident through a deepened dependency on the leader, mistaking the power we have given him for our own.

This can be a critical time for the leader. If the despair and apathy of identity diffusion set in too deeply, the captive will no longer be as useful to the perpetrator. He must tread lightly through the dismantling, leaving enough self-sense for the person to carry on as treasurer, center director, business manager, or chef. Yet, too much self-sense means independent thought survives, and the person may leave. Ah, the trials and tribulations of guruship. From our experience, the leader mercilessly took advantage of these periods of personality breaks to exploit us to his advantage until we each, in our own way, burned out. For, eventually such a broken personality finds it difficult to maintain the heavy load of responsibility expected of longer term members. You drift away from leadership even though you stay in the group. Hence, the group always needs new recruits to continue the work, even if the long-time members don’t actually leave.

The combination of fear induction, extensive control, and the dismantling of personality created an imperceptible, crazy-making atmosphere. We were locked into a “battered follower” syndrome, psychologically beaten down, yet unable to leave. The more he would charmingly hurt, humiliate, and threaten us with abandonment in the name of helping us, the more we would salve the wounds with increased loyalty, justification of his behavior, and finding fault with ourselves. In such a situation, we drift further and further from the voice of our own hearts. For women, this voice has a unique sound we’ve tried to explore to better recognize it when it speaks to us.

How Sexism Serves High-Demand Groups

We know that women, trained in passivity and silence, are accustomed to being ignored and discounted, starting in elementary school when the teacher routinely, inadvertently calls on John and Harry and overlooks Sally’s hand (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). The now well-documented, quiet socialization of women to second-class citizenship makes us especially vulnerable to the dynamics of dominance and submission at the base of covert control. Trained to be selfless and caring for others, women were perfect recruits for “second” and “third” lines of work--work for others and for the school, the work that needed to be done to keep the organization going. Women were more willing to work for little or nothing, rewarded by the leader’s attention, or some well-timed gift of jewelry, a book, or an airline ticket. Is there a doubt that our education and socialization as women in this culture made us more susceptible to the courtship (“This must be Prince Charming”), loss of autonomy (surrender to a male god), and self-sacrifice associated with the group? On top of this, our community was inherently sexist. Through his actions and teaching, it was clear that the leader believed in the superiority of the men. He said men were a higher order than women, that women were to men as children are to women. He explained away the strong women who stayed and worked for him by saying they were on their eighth out of nine lives, while the men were only on their sixth or seventh. Hence, the women could take on more responsibility, give more. One of the leader’s highest compliments was to tell a woman that she was becoming more like a man.

Dominance and Submission

The everyday exercise of dominance and submission is so integral to our culture that we barely see it. Built on the foundational belief of a basic flaw in the submissive, usually the woman, and the perfection or mastery of the dominant, usually the man, this inequality justifies one person’s dominance over another.

While the dynamics of dominance and submission affect both men and women, they hit women particularly hard, for more often women tend to be on the submission side of the equation. As much as people talk about both parties being hurt by abusive relationships, the one who is forced to submit feels the immediate pain of humiliation, self-doubt, craziness, rage, and fear. For the perpetrator, the longer term effects of dominating--hardness, lack of empathy, isolation, a narrow self-centeredness, close-mindedness, and illusions of grandeur--develop only gradually. The immediate experience for the one in control is that of power, strength, and self-confidence; thus, exercising power over others gives immediate satisfaction. In this dynamic, the humiliation of the submissive brings the sense of life-enhancement to the dominator. While the addiction metaphor may be overused, in the short run, abusive control brings--not unlike an addictive drug--a hit of reinforcing pleasure, while only the longer term need to withdraw from the habit brings the pain. Why then should the person living psychologically on control give up the high?

On the other hand, why doesn’t the one on the receiving end of abusive control get away from her tormenter? This is the question, of course, that most interests us. This same question comes up repeatedly in reference to battered women. Why don’t they just leave? Thoughtful answers lead us into the thorny territory of the fearful, autocratic mind, a mind that is cultivated through Western education, the media, religion, and the patriarchal family. Though we pride ourselves on producing free thinkers, our cultural institutions forge invisible chains between the sexes made of images of male glory (Rambo) and female invisibleness (Sleeping Beauty) or subservience (Snow White), which lead too easily to both psychological and physical violence.[3]

The Lesser Sex

Subtly imbued with sex-role stereotypes and gender inequities from an early age, women are subjected to systematic training to be second best, taught that their worth and survival depend on physical attractiveness and pleasing men. (Think of the myths alone that our children hear: Cinderella, Rapunzel, Rose Red, The Little Mermaid, to name just a few, where the passive, beautiful heroine in distress is rescued by her prince). Women are raised to be susceptible to dominant men, to expect to be saved by men, and to project their own power and image of God onto men. Men, meanwhile, are vaunted in history, myth, and science as natural leaders, thinkers, competitors, and creators. And they are socialized to be oblivious to the abuse they perpetrate through this culturally privileged position and the unconscious dominance and denigration of women (and the “feminine” in themselves) that it inculcates.

Let us face, at last, the implications of this worldview, let us face them head-on. In the Western intellectual tradition, woman is viewed as less than man. This view is supported by science through the hierarchical ordering of biology; by religion through the creation myths; and by a philosophy that since Socrates has contrasted the objective, rational mind of the masculine with the subjective, feeling body of the female. (Both female and body are posited therein as an impediment to knowledge). These prejudices are woven so deeply into the fabric of our perceptions, our thinking and our sense of self, that we take them completely for granted.[4] As we discuss how coercive control relies on dominance and submission, we will see how easily this view of woman as an inferior being plays into authoritarian environments.

“Feminine” Sources of Knowledge and Power

Women’s unique sources of power and creativity have been maligned and denigrated over the centuries. Our closeness to the rhythms of nature through sexuality and the reproductive potential of our bodies have been turned against us, cited as an excuse for our absence from the spheres of cultural achievement long dominated by men. In our group the denigration of the emotions and the common perception of the body as a major block to enlightened behavior played roles of paramount importance. The body and sexuality, anger and intuition were especially controlled and devalued, effectively silencing the voice that emerges when we have full access to these aspects of ourselves.

Sexuality and the body. Being present to each moment was the ostensible raison d’être of the community. Unfortunately, presence, as we learned it, included but minimal attention to the body. Rather, we learned mainly a mental operation born of “divided attention.” Divided attention, or non-identification, was the heart of the practices that sustained and united the community. This practice produced evocative altered states, but also often effected a split from the body. This dissociative split encouraged us to believe that we were conquering our pain, suffering, and difficult emotions by passing into more exalted states of consciousness. In fact, we systematically numbed ourselves to body sensations by this practice. Most of us adhered to typically Judeo-Christian attitudes about bodily impulses as enemies to be conquered in the quest for enlightenment; thus, we isolated ourselves from those instinctual sources integral to the embodied, awakened heart and mind. We believe this may be especially true for women in whom body and mind connections are stronger because of our predominant role in bringing in the next generation.

As usual in such groups, myriad exercises surrounded sexuality. As mentioned earlier, sex outside marriage was prohibited. Though not everyone complied, marriage was strongly recommended for those in the “inner circle”; others might pursue clandestine escapades but were always subject to being turned in. Homosexuality was forbidden until recently. Women were often viewed as sexual predators whose activity had to be monitored. Dowdy richness--Victorian cameos, Gucci scarves, little stacked heels, midcalf straight skirts--was the preferred norm; for years, a 50-year-old matronly look was rewarded and encouraged. Meanwhile, charges of the misuse of sex were leveled at those who wore short dresses, tight blouses, laughed too loudly, or flirted.

It gradually came out that the leader was involved in an ongoing series of sexual encounters with young male devotees. Amazingly, in this highly controlled environment, it was exceedingly difficult for this information to be taken in. Let us remember that coercive control includes thought control. The implications of the leader’s involvement with his followers were simply not permitted to take hold in the minds of those of us who were captive to his worldview. Those outside a group always want to know: how did we manage this? Some excused it by saying the leader was still evolving, that sex was the last obstacle that he was working out through these loving relations with his followers.

More importantly, in certain states of consciousness, which we had learned to create in ourselves through various meditative practices, it is possible to experience the three-dimensional world of everyday reality as unreal, as maya, an illusion, or “a play.” In these states of mind, the dreamlike quality of everyday life becomes apparent. Along with these perceptions comes the sense of a certain delightful connectedness to everything, sometimes an infusion of love or beauty or sweetness accompanies these prayerful states of mind. We do not believe these states of mind are so different from the results of contemplative prayer, but without a genuine opening of the heart and body, these partial openings to other dimensions of consciousness can lead to dangerous delusions, especially in an environment of moral relativity. Not inherently destructive, these states of mind constitute an essential part of our humanity, but they can be misused terribly in such conditions of psychological captivity when our capacities for independent thought have been crippled or dismantled. Unfortunately, because of their misuse in the group we tend now to distrust our connection to these prayerful spaces even though we are out of the grip of the group.

In such a state of mind, the leader’s sexual activities were “dreamstuff,” not real. The emotion and shock that came with discovering his sexual involvement with many of his followers led first to denial, then gradually to reverting to these altered states of mind to deal with the doubts. As for those who were not able to handle the doubts, we assumed they had failed this particular “test” of the strength of their vision.

Anger. Western culture teaches repression of anger as a virtue for all, but as an imperative for women, unless they care to be categorized as difficult bitches. Women are taught from early days to be nice, to adapt to others’ needs, and to stifle their own anger. In the best of circumstances, it takes a long time to come to know anger as a legitimate bodily signal, a safeguard against hurt, boundary violation, and disregard of what we value. Once the functioning of this critical signal has been stifled, its radar effectively dismantled, the woman (or man) is vulnerable to being used and abused without even registering what has happened. Instead, a dull sense of flatness, a depression, chronic fatigue or hypoglycemia, rigidness or fear sets in--all more adaptable, and acceptable, forms of the surging animal rage response to mistreatment. These veiled reactions won’t provoke the perpetrator to inflict even greater harm.

Anger was well regulated in our group, perhaps even more than sexuality. Not expressing negative emotions (mainly by suppression) and non-identification (for us, a form of splitting from the body) formed the two pillars of the prevailing system of thought. To be told you were negative was the ultimate behavior control, disguised as helping you to work on yourself. This ploy could be used to prevent certain conversations and to stifle questions, doubts, concerns--or simply to put you in your place, to get a power hit. If you allowed yourself to get upset, that was a sure sign you were not advancing satisfactorily. A placid stoicism became the acceptable modus operandi. Outrage at abortions recommended, children deserted, triangles condoned, the terminally ill threatened for late payments, insinuations that a member dying of AIDS got what he deserved (for violating the no sex task), the celibate guru unmasked as sexually active, the money spent on the paramours, the snubs, the evasions, the control--the legitimate outrage at all of that behavior was successfully stifled by the central idea that negative emotion implies weakness.

Meanwhile, few noticed that anger was virtually the only negative emotion that was being controlled. Other clearly negative feelings, such as fear, disappointment, and sadness, were tolerated, as were most forms of passive aggression (lateness, condescension, ignoring, forgetting). Passive aggression was raised to a high art; it was, in fact, a major tool in the arsenal of covert, crazy-making control devices that played on the self-doubt instilled through the many assaults on identity. As we look back, it seems so obvious that all these violations against human dignity were going on in the name of work on ourselves. We were having normal, healthy reactions to them; yet, gradually, we learned to doubt and discount those reactions as pathological indications of a lower state of consciousness until we no longer had a reliable inner monitor to guide us. Having given up our own capacity for thought, we became more and more dependent on the worldview of the leader to determine our outlook.

We also had a wealth of teaching stories from the patriarchal traditions of the world to draw on for explanation of the silencing of our own perceptions. We read or heard stories such as those of the wise teacher who causes his students pain and suffering in the short run, so that in time they may prevail against adversity or develop the qualities needed to succeed in their quests. We put ultimate faith in this teacher, handing over to him our judgment, our perceptions, and ultimately our lives. He hitched a ride on the deeply embedded image of God, an archetype perhaps that we all carry. Our culture has given us only male figures to occupy that position, and also has exaggerated the analogy of man and God to the extreme by suggesting that man is God for woman. Despite our conscious efforts to deny this, the prejudice runs deep in our Judeo-Christian roots and, we believe, contributes in no small way to the dynamics of coercive control exercised most often by men.

Intuition. Intuition, in the sense of vision and a feeling for truth, represents another “feminine” quality that was derogated and denied, another quality to which women seem to have easier access. Intuition serves as a navigational tool, along with anger and bodily sensing, that contributes to a unique feminine way of knowledge. In our group, intuition was perhaps the leader’s strongest suit. A florid visionary, often he would give reports of spirits’ visitations to him in dreams or waking episodes. He also took to prophesying, envisioning events to come. His intuitive ability to size up a person or a situation was also uncanny and greatly contributed to the exercise of his folk-art form of guruship.

Intuitive vision in members, however, was condemned as imagination or fantasy, a detrimental state of mind. He discouraged dwelling on visions, classing them as part of distracting mind activity (much as it is in other mindfulness practices). Only he was permitted legitimate visions. One of us recently attended a workshop in which we were asked to visualize a “spirit guide.” No such figure came. Only a plastic, visquine sheeting appeared like a veil on the field of inner vision, effectively blocking any further sight. We had internalized a far-reaching program to ignore any perceptions other than the tangible. This program, of course, built strongly on the one already laid down by our culture, which rejects the reality of anything imperceptible to the five senses. For some of us, our attraction to him as an intuitive visionary was an attraction to a projected part of our own selves, a part with religious sensibilities that found little validation in our families, classrooms, or jobs. While we had access to the visionary through him, he defined the field of allowable perception for us and ultimately determined the validity of our perceptions. Reports of auras or visions would be labeled “the instinctive center”--another derogatory term, characterizing the body as the chief enemy of awakening. Although he often spoke of spiritual beings working directly with his followers, he clearly had sole proprietorship of visionary realms, and so established himself as the direct connection to the Divine.


Though we are loathe to acknowledge this, in our community, both men and women, like battered women in a scene of domestic violence, lost their judgment and were held by fear. Robbed of intuition, body knowledge, sexuality, and anger, we were vulnerable to assault of the worst kind: spiritual and psychological assault. With physical abuse, you register the blows, see the wounds. You know you have been hit. You know why you ache when you wake up in the morning. With the more intangible psychological or spiritual assaults, you don’t know what’s happened to you. You have been raped, used--mind-fucked, to use the coarse but perfectly descriptive term--to cater to a trusted caretaker’s needs. In the name of your own good, you have been used to satisfy his drives for pleasure and power over you, to absorb his smiling, hidden hostility. In this situation, you aren’t sure why your heart aches with emptiness, your limbs with exhaustion, and your gut with anxiety. You begin to carry an unnamed fear.

This is the fear of the battered woman and the dedicated disciple, the fear that keeps you in thrall to a destructive man. You begin to believe his propaganda with a visceral certainty as a means of survival. Although anyone outside the circle of your relationship or community cannot understand why you don’t leave him, you fear that if you do, the worst will happen. With an abusive husband, the fear is of dying--not being able to survive without the man, or, in some cases, even fear dying at his hands. With a spiritual teacher, it is soul death that is feared. This is not a rational process, but has roots deep in the mysteries of our existence. Once you are cut off from your own vital resources for living, you come to believe you must have your surrogate god’s support, approval, and reflection to go on. For some, the attachment appears to be more to the group than the leader, but this, too, disguises the true situation. Behind the group always stands the leader, whose standards for behavior must be met for continued acceptance by the group.


Many people have commented on the paradigm shift we in the West are going through. We see this transition taking place in the hearts and minds of individual people, such as ourselves. We have learned about the vulnerability of the idealistic mind, the unsavory and irresistible attraction of the delusional charismatic, the dangers of certitude about the great unknowables--birth, death, meaning, absolute values. While we all yearn for answers to the basic questions of existence, we now know we must ultimately discover the answers ourselves. In this age when the foundations of institutions and ways of thinking that have supported us for 3,000 years are crumbling, we are learning to recognize the signs of the free fall through space that accompany losing those old certitudes. We can also understand with what determination the human personality seeks to hang on to these traditions of thinking, behavior, and feeling. We know why the evangelical Christian movements have gained force in these times, as well as the “fringe” or “new age” religious movements. These apparent opposites are startlingly alike and in some ways serve similar purposes in offering doctrines that answer all questions, grant a sense of superiority over nonbelievers, and establish instant communities. They also often shut down the at times overwhelming creative wellsprings of the new times into which we are being catapulted. Some of us have been challenged through experiences of exploitation and betrayal to open to these scary, creative forces, to follow their lead without the direction of those who have gone before.

The appeal of the existing traditions is great, the habit of authoritarian thinking well set. For too long we have felt safe in the tower of ideas and like-minded souls. The experience of waking to our unwitting captivity, the misuse of our talents to do harm, the dangerous blinders of belief disguised as critical thought, has thrown us out of the comfortable tower of doctrinaire safety into the dark night of creative tumult. We hope that someone, somewhere, in a destructive relationship with another person or a group, someone who is beginning to see but cannot yet act, will gain a tiny bit of resolve from our shared thoughts. We encourage you to reach outside the relationship to the perceptions of people who care about you in the world. Please remember that invisible prisons have the most heavily fortified walls. If you are in a thought prison, you will need help from the outside to get out.

End Notes

  1. We use the masculine pronoun throughout because our experience was with a man; and, anecdotally, most self-appointed leaders seem to be men, although we realize that the role of perpetrator can be played by either a man or woman.

  2. Herman (1992) believes that under stress the threats of the perpetrator become less veiled. He may then show his tyrannical, desperate side. One woman who openly continued seeing a friend who had left was told that her action was “criminal” and would likely be punished by higher forces placing her mother in a car accident. Again, the more explicit forms of threat were rare. As we look back, when the leader started to make these threats, his art form was slipping, his methods of control were becoming too obvious. For some, this obvious coercion made it easier to break the spell, to move through the confusion and the panic engendered by the fear induction and to leave.

  3. We don’t know in any hard and fast way whether women or men are more susceptible to involvement with the covertly abusive, but we do know women make up 95% of all the victims in domestic violence, and, according to one source, 60% to 70% of the subjects in recent research on former members of cultic groups (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994). Anecdotally, we believe women do outnumber men as followers in religious groups.

  4. As Nancy Tuana (1993) puts it, the perception of woman as less than man is “a prejudice that is woven into the very fabric of our thinking, our self-imaging, our lived experience” (p. xii).


Chambers, W., Langone, M.D., Dole, A.A., & Grice, J.W. (1994). The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88B117.

Herman, J.L. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing at fairness. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Singer, M.T., with Lalich, J. (1995). Cults in our midst: The hidden menace in our everyday lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tuana, N. (1993). The less noble sex. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Cultic Studies Journal Volume 14, Number 1 1997

[1]1We use the masculine pronoun throughout because our experience was with a man; and, anecdotally, most self-appointed leaders seem to be men, although we realize that the role of perpetrator can be played by either a man or woman.

[2]2Herman (1992) believes that under stress the threats of the perpetrator become less veiled. He may then show his tyrannical, desperate side. One woman who openly continued seeing a friend who had left was told that her action was “criminal” and would likely be punished by higher forces placing her mother in a car accident. Again, the more explicit forms of threat were rare. As we look back, when the leader started to make these threats, his art form was slipping, his methods of control were becoming too obvious. For some, this obvious coercion made it easier to break the spell, to move through the confusion and the panic engendered by the fear induction and to leave.

[3]3We don’t know in any hard and fast way whether women or men are more susceptible to involvement with the covertly abusive, but we do know women make up 95% of all the victims in domestic violence, and, according to one source, 60% to 70% of the subjects in recent research on former members of cultic groups (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994). Anecdotally, we believe women do outnumber men as followers in religious groups.

[4]4As Nancy Tuana (1993) puts it, the perception of woman as less than man is “a prejudice that is woven into the very fabric of our thinking, our self-imaging, our lived experience” (p. xii).