A certified psychoanalyst and clinical social worker in private practice in Englewood, NJ, Bill Goldberg specializes in treating people who have been manipulated by destructive groups. Many of the individuals he has counseled have been alienated from their families and convinced to completely cut ties. For 36 years Bill served as a clinical social worker and administrator with the Rockland County (NY) Department of Mental Health, and for the past 35 years he and his wife, Lorna, who also is a psychoanalyst and licensed clinical social worker, have led a support group for former cult members. www.blgoldberg.com
NJS&S: Describe your work with the people you and your wife treat.
BG: Each has come to the conclusion that they were in some way manipulated counter to their own best interests. We try to help them regain the sense that they can trust their instincts. Even though they were manipulated and fooled, it’s not because they were foolish, it’s because someone else used their best qualities against them. We attempt to help them try to figure out how they were manipulated.
NJS&S: What kinds of situations did they get caught up in?
BG: Religious cults, therapy cults, political cults, science fiction cults, self-help cults, one-on-one situations. Any situation in which there is a relationship, there is the potential for abuse.
NJS&S: What do you mean by one-on-one situations?
BG: It’s a subhead under cultic studies. Another term is folie à deux—which used to be a psychiatric diagnosis describing a situation in which one person would see another as god-like and allow that person to dominate every aspect of their lives. Another example might be the battered partner syndrome, where a person will permit him- or herself to be battered and abused, and yet find it difficult to leave the relationship. This dynamic also can be found in gangs and situations where pimps control the people working for them.
NJS&S: What role does isolation—alienation from family and friends—play in such destructive relationships?
BG: Isolation doesn’t just refer to physically being apart from others. Individuals who wish to control others will often convince their victims that their families and friends are harmful to them, so that the victims end up being cut off from other points of view and other relationships. It’s necessary for that family tie to be cut so that there are no competing influences. Of course, by damaging their ties with the families, the victims are also cutting themselves off from the very people who would most likely care enough to challenge their blind faith in the person who is controlling them.
NJS&S: What would make someone want to convince someone else to break all ties with their family and friends—to engage in predatory alienation?
BG: Predators, in these kinds of situations, are so needy themselves that they can’t tolerate the victim recognizing the worth of another person, or the possibility of losing the individual whom they control. That need for control stems from their own deep insecurities. They may have antisocial personality disorder, whereby they don’t recognize others as having intrinsic worth as human beings and treat people as tools to be used for their own aggrandizement.
NJS&S: Isn’t it natural for young adults to separate from their parents?
BG: It is natural for young adults to push back against their parents in order to try to forge their own identity. That’s why teenagers rebel, and in healthy family there’s always some degree of strain between the generations. However, it’s unusual for a young adult to completely cut off ties with their family, unless their family has brutalized them or there’s some other extraordinary reason. In the absence of that kind of situation, it’s very unusual and suspect when a young adult completely cuts off ties with the family. I would wonder if there might be someone who deliberately wanted to alienate the young adult from the parents.
NJS&S: How could someone let this happen to them?
BG: We all, at times, will put our feelings on hold and go along with others. It happens in mobs and crowds, where people do what they wouldn’t normally do. It happens in rallies; it happened to a nation—Nazi Germany is a prime example.
We can be influenced by many people. For example, a fast-talking salesman can get us to buy a much more expensive washing machine or car than we wanted to buy by playing to our desire to meet a need or by appealing to our vanity. Sales techniques and persuasion have been written about for many years.
Under some circumstances, people can enter into a state of altered consciousness, which can lead to their becoming more suggestible. The closer someone comes to completely negating their own needs and input from the outside, the closer they are to a mind control situation.
NJS&S: What’s stopping them from just telling the manipulator to go away?
BG: Under most circumstances, people stop short of ceding their autonomy to another, but part of the brainwashing process is convincing the individual that the healthy part of their ego is really selfish or has distorted the situation: that they can’t trust their instincts, that they need the perpetrator, the cult leader, the dominant person to guide them.
There’s often a confusion technique that’s used to induce a state of suggestibility. It can be through sleep deprivation, it can be through hypnotic induction, or prolonged periods of chanting or meditation, whereby the individual, in effect, enters into an altered state of consciousness. The dynamics are that the individual is led, through some of these techniques, to become more suggestible, and then convinced that his or her old ways of viewing the world are unhealthy or sinful. Often the predator will convince the victim that some dire consequence will follow their leaving the protection of the predator or the predator’s group.
NJS&S: You’ve used the word “brainwashing.” Does that really happen?
BG: That word was first used during the Korean War to describe a technique—isolating individuals, bombarding them with propaganda, convincing them that their old way of looking at the world doesn’t work any more or was selfish. Other terms that are sometimes used are coercive persuasion, mind control, or undue influence.
The brainwashing process usually entails gradually cutting the person off from their familiar guideposts. The most important factor in doing that with an individual is to get them to see their closest relationships—their parents, their family, for example— as being toxic.
It’s not difficult to find mistakes that parents have made and then to exaggerate them and discuss them in isolation from the big picture. If you only dwell on the negative, you can be convinced that those negatives were the entirety of the relationship. And if you have another incentive—for example, a sexual relationship— and are being misled by people who appear on the surface to be very kind and not trying to control you, even though they are, then the stage is set for you to give up your autonomy.
NJS&S: Doesn’t this happen only to weak-willed or uneducated people?
BG: That’s a common myth. I would say that a vulnerable person would be more likely to have this happen. But vulnerability doesn’t mean that they’re weak-willed; it means that the person being manipulated might be going through a period of transition. Most people who fall into these situations are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Predators are looking for individuals that display this normal common vulnerability and then they hone in on them. If the targeted individual doesn’t respond, the predator will move onto the next person.
NJS&S: What advice would you give someone trying to help a person escape the kinds of destructive relationships you’ve described?
BG: It’s hard to give generic advice; each situation is different. But if you had a good relationship with the person and could be blunt, you could point out what alarms you: the cutting of ties, not valuing things that used to be important to that person, etc. The person reaching out has to be somebody that the individual trusts and who would be strong enough to not accept clichéd, dismissive answers. Sometimes it’s wiser to hire a professional exit counselor, who has studied the techniques of coercive persuasion, and who can point out to the individual just how he or she was manipulated.
NJS&S: But that means the person who’s been alienated from his or her family has to be willing to sit down with a counselor and reconnect with the people who have been cut off. Isn’t that a Catch-22?
BG: Yes, that is the main problem, particularly if they’ve been led to believe that awful things will happen to them if they try to reconcile with their families and old friends. In such cases, they will fight against allowing their doubts and concerns to come to consciousness, and they will likely refuse to listen to anyone who can provide them with another viewpoint. But sometimes an outside event—reading a particular book, watching a TV show, remembering an anniversary of some kind—can tap into their suppressed doubts, and they may look for someone to help them clarify what is happening to them.
If you know someone who is in a cult or a controlled situation, the wisest thing you can do is to ask them questions about their situation. For example: How do they feel about dropping out of school? Do they ever miss contact with their parents? Do they ever have doubts about the path they’ve chosen?
By asking these questions, you are bringing to their conscious mind some of the doubts that they may have suppressed. The questions force them, even for a moment, to contemplate the issues that they’ve pushed away. These questions won’t have an immediate effect, but sometimes the right question at the right time can start a chain reaction of thinking in the individual. And thinking, as opposed to blindly following, is always a step in the right direction.
"The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society
and is entitled to protection by society and the State."
— Article 16.3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations