Friday, August 19, 2011
Gurus and Cults Leaders
How They Function
MANY PROBLEMS APPEAR in a new light when we look to childhood as a source of possible explanations. We are living in an age in which democracies are gaining the upper hand over dictatorships. At the same time, the cult-group phenomenon is an indication that there is a growth in the number of totalitarian systems to which people voluntarily submit themselves. People growing up in a spirit of liberty and tolerance, accepted in childhood for what they are, rather than being throttled and stunted by their upbringing, would hardly place themselves at the mercy of a cult group of their own accord. And if by chance or skillful manipulation, they did fall afoul of such an organization, they certainly would not stay there very long.
But many people joining such groups seem completely indifferent to the fact that their new surroundings are powered by mechanisms expressly designed to subjugate them, to rob them, of the freedom to think, to act, and feel as they see fit. They seem completely impervious to the fact such groups set out to impose an Orwellian form of surveillance and demand for mindless obedience from which the prospects of escaping are more or less nil. Years of brainwashing and indoctrination ensure that the victims are kept unaware of the insidious harm being done to their personalities. They have no notion of the price they have paid for their malleability because they have no notion that there is an alternative.
The thing that concerns me most about cult groups is the unconscious manipulations that I have described in detail in my work. It is the way in which the repressed and unreflected childhood biographies of parents and therapists influence the lives of children and patients entrusted to their care without anyone involved actually realizing it. At first glance, it may seem as if what goes on in cults and cult-like therapy groups takes place on a different level from the unconscious manipulation of children by their parents. We assume that in the former instance we are in the presence of an intentional, carefully planned and organized form of manipulation aimed at exploiting the specific predicament of individuals.
In my view, however, this allegedly conscious exploitation can also be traced back to unconscious motives. Terrible as the consequences were, I do not believe, for example, that the two initiators of “feeling therapy,” discussed earlier, actually set out to establish a totalitarian regime. It was the power they gained over their adherents that made them into gurus. And this is what I have in mind when I refer to the unconscious aspects of manipulation. In the end, they themselves become the victims of a process with an inexorable logic of its own, a process they were unaware of because they had never given it any thought.
Thus they sparked off a conflagration they were unable to control, much less extinguish. First, they had learned how to reduce people to the emotional state of the helpless child. Once they had achieved that, they also learned how to use unconscious regression to exercise total control over their victims. From then on, what they did seemed to come automatically, in accordance, with the child-rearing patterns instilled into them in their own childhood.
Mithers’s report on the misleading blandishments that arouse false hopes and illusions also helps us to understand how political leaders operate. For the last fifty years, a debate has been raging on whether Hitler actually believed what he was saying or whether he consciously manipulated others. Was he a man obsessed with his self-appointed mission or a consummate actor, a Pied Piper luring millions to their doom? Some biographers have changed their minds on this point, tending more and more to the view that Hitler was indeed a fanatic believer in his own crazed doctrines. The question is a complex one, but one eminently worth following up because, as we see from the cult groups, it has lost none of its burning relevance for today.
If people stand up and proclaim they are prophets or agents of God, does that mean they are calculating charlatans, or are they lunatics genuinely believing they are in direct contact with Jesus? It is by no means easy to draw the line. In the case of “Feeling therapy,” it was clearly discernible how the craving for power engulfed any kind of realistic self-assessment on the part of the founders. They ended up believing they were as marvelous as their supporters thought them to be. They were asked to take part in 134 radio shows and 104 television programs. That was enough to convince them that they were epoch-making geniuses far superior to run-of-the-mill psychologists.
With cult leaders, it is very difficult to say where the conscious end the unconscious begins. Many gurus are driven by forces they are not aware of. If this were not the case, they would not feel constrained only by destructive means. With normal, conscious, systematic planning it would not be necessary to proceed so elaborately. The gurus end up enmeshed in the webs they have woven. The examples are legion. A case in point, an extreme instance of pathological grandiosity, was the mass murder in Jonestown, Guyana, in the late seventies. Others followed suit. Common to all was the way in which mostly well-meaning but misguided and confused people sacrificed their own lives to salvage their belief in the sincerity of one obsessed individual---death as a means of preserving an illusion to the bitter end.
Many of the people who establish cult groups are paranoid, megalomaniac psychotics seeking protection from their own anxieties in the mass of their adherents by passing themselves off as helpers and healers. They proclaim that the end of the world is night and build subterranean bunkers in an attempt to escape their childhood feelings of helplessness and wage war on those feelings at the symbolic level. At the same time, they offer their services as saviors because that ensures them the adoration of their disciples and enable them, at last, to feel powerful instead of powerless. But as soon as they have grounds to fear exposure, they revert to threats and coercion to force their followers to keep silence. Suicide is the extreme form of self-imposed silence. It is also the course elected by those thirty-nine young people who took their own lives in a luxury villa in San Diego in 1997.
I do not believe that material greed alone is an adequate explanation for the system of fraud so elaborate as to inevitably involve unnecessary expenditure. The point is that it is not only the victims that lapse back into an infantile state, but it is also the people behind the system as well---be they little Hitlers or gurus. They bask in the admiration of their adherents, which they take to be proof of their exceptional status and thus completely lose touch with reality. If this were not the case, Hitler would never have prolonged the Russian campaign in defiance of the advice of his experienced generals. But he was completely besotted with himself, a helpless victim of his own delusions of grandeur. His unconscious regression made him lose all contact with reality and any level-headed assessment of the situation.
Hitler, too, believed that the adulation of masses was irrefutable evidence of his own greatness. The fact that this adulation was born of his own lies was something he could easily forget. Thus he came to regard himself as a genius. Like, Hitler, gurus use paternal or maternal promises of healing and salvation to achieve complete and utter devotion. Regression without awareness, the total relapse into earliest infancy, is the instrument they use to blind the masses and keep them in the state of boundless adulation. This kind of regression makes criticism of parent figures like gurus and “charismatic” political leaders totally impossible. Equally inconceivable is self-criticism on the part of such leaders. It has no chance against the lust for power and the lure of self-aggrandizement.
Today, anyone who really wants to know how Hitler functioned need to no more than procuring any tape of documentary footage on Hitler and watch it attentively. Observe the gestures and the facial expression of the Fuhrer, listen to the sound of his ranting, euphoric voice, read the quotations from his speeches. Then the Hitler mystique will stop being such a mystique. It is an example that can sharpen our perceptions and help us identify other, similar phenomena quickly and accurately.
For political leaders in the Hitler mold, the jubilation of the masses is as indispensable to still their effective craving as a drug is for an addict. The millions of cheering supporters do not realize that they are needed for the purpose and that purpose alone. When Hitler painted his glowing vision of a thousand-year Reich free of revolutions, his listeners had no inkling whatever that their beloved---and allegedly loving---father was getting ready to send them off to their deaths in the war because his own personal biography willed it so.
Some people are convinced that so-called deprogramming is the best---indeed, the only---prospect of freeing cult group members from their dependency and their psychological blindness. I for my part am an incorrigible believer in the enlightening power of information. If it reaches people at the right moment, it can set off a process of reflection. Depending on the individual’s personal situation, that process of reflection will either be an ongoing process or it will peter out. The effects may also be delayed, deferred until later. The human mind is not a machine, an apparatus that can be repaired via an outside agency. It has its own individual history, and that history is the sole basis from which it can operate, the only source for thought and action. Sometimes an emotional shock will enable a person to wake up out of his regression and perceive reality as it is, even if that realization is a painful one.
Can therapy help in this respect? There is no general answer to that question. There is such a market for psychological aid today and so many different salvation-mongers peddling their wares alongside the serious representatives of the therapeutic community that there is little point in making vague, general recommendations. But one thing that can be said is that extreme caution is called for in the face of promises of “complete cure” via regression. Frequently, impressive-sounding theories are paraded, which despite their scientific façade, have absolutely nothing to do with science. The ride roughshod over existing facts and make pronouncements that either is a pure fabrication or are derived from theories they are supposed to be substantiating.
Both Sigmund Freud, in his early years, and Arthur Janov were inspired by the hope that remembering and consciously re-experiencing a traumatic situation could bring about lasting relief from its consequences. This hope has not been entirely fulfilled. I know of cases where improvement has been achieved without recourse to the reactivation of memories, and others where the reenactment of the past and years of therapy has done nothing to alleviate the patient’s condition. Particularly if the therapeutic work restricts itself to a confrontation with the past. Energies briefly released by the suspension of repression are frequently drawn on by the patient to fuel new attempts at regaining the initial euphoria by means of activating more memories. This often leads to an addictive craving for pain and a reemergence of physical symptoms because the old patterns have not been properly worked through in a reliable, trustworthy relationship.
It is by no means unlikely that the attempts to use primal therapy to delve down into the earliest stages of life are bound to fail in those cases where very early traumatic experiences have caused severe irreversible damage to the brain. Constant unavailing attempts to dissolve such long-standing distress will then overtax the organism to such an extent that no positive results can be obtained. At all events, the primal therapists who have been trained more recently have increasingly moved away from the initial absolutism. Many of them combine primal therapy techniques with other methods. The techniques developed over twenty years ago are used less often today; many therapists have jettisoned both the “intensive phase” and the darkened room. Most of them have discovered that they have no need for such things in order to enable their patients to get in touch with their feelings.
Karl Kraus once said that psychoanalysis is the illness it claims to be curing. This criticism was accurate as long as psychoanalysis barricaded itself behind rigid theories. Today, however, there appears to be a greater readiness to turn new research finding from other fields to account, notably the results from infant research and the study of the fetus. There also appears to be an increasing tendency to confront the actual facts of child abuse in all its forms.
Perhaps we may look forward to a time when primal therapy will also become more receptive than it has been in the past. The positive aspect of this approach might be salvaged once its advocates are prepared to acknowledge the negative effects it can have, its limitations and the serious dangers it may involve when used as a means of manipulation. Then old concepts could be revised in the light of new insights. But adhering uncritically to the alleged infallibility of the once established methods and blaming the patients when things go wrong will relegate the whole approach into the same category as cult leaders’ empty promises of salvation. As Helga’s story shows, such promises only produce self-destructive dependencies militating against any genuine liberation of individual patients from their suffering.
Occasionally it takes years of therapy to free people from their inner compulsions, constraints, and obsessions. But fortunately not always. Sometimes a brief therapy will suffice to open up new perspectives and help patients to extricate themselves from the impasses they find themselves in. Here, additional group therapy has an important ancillary role to play. At regular intervals, news reaches me of such combined programs in various parts of the world, and some of them can indeed point to a very gratifying degree of success.
From the book “Paths of Life: seven scenarios” by Alice Miller