Dec 14, 2012

The Psychology of Cults

Radio National – All in the Mind

If you sign up to a weekend personal development workshop, you don’t really expect to emerge 10 years later a shadow of your former emotional self. What sets many groups apart from what we regard as cults is a range of powerful psychological techniques which can be difficult to see through—particularly if you are at a vulnerable time of your life. We hear the story of one woman’s escape from a cult and some insights into those persuasive techniques

December 2, 2012

Are you messed up?
No sir.
Are you more jumpy that you were before?
No sir.
And how are you sleeping?
I sleep just fine sir.
When you sleep do you have nightmares?

Lynne Malcolm: A scene from the powerful recent film The Master. It depicts the disturbing relationship between a psychologically damaged war veteran and the leader of a cult called The Cause. Lynne Malcolm with you and on All in the Mind today, the psychology of cults
In a minute we’ll meet an Australian woman who emerged from ten intense years in a personal development group a shell of her former self.

Louise Samways is a practising psychologist and author of the book Dangerous Persuaders. I asked her how she defines a cult.

Louise Samways: I think one of the difficulties is that people often get into endless discussions about what a cult is and miss the point. The real issue are the techniques that are being used to try and change people’s belief systems or persuade them of a particular way of being. And that occurs not just in cults but it also occurs in sales, it occurs in politics, it occurs in churches, it’s new age you know groups, therapy groups, there’s all kinds of environments in our community where those techniques are used. But the difficulty comes when those techniques are being used without you being aware of what’s happening and you become much more vulnerable to whatever that person or that particular group would like you to believe about yourself, or about the world around you.

Lynne Malcolm: So we’ll come to those techniques in a minute but at their worst in any of these groups how damaging are they?

Louise Samways: Oh they are life threatening. One of the difficulties is, because people are participating without informed consent or proper screening, the people who are already vulnerable to psychotic episode or extremely depressed, these techniques can sort of take the lid of Pandora’s Box and leave people in a very vulnerable state surrounded by people who do not know how to contain the situation. So yes, there’s definitely been people who have become psychotic as a result of involvement in some of these groups and their techniques, and quite a lot of people who are recorded to have suicided after being unable to cope, particularly when they leave the groups.

Lynne Malcolm: Just before her 40th birthday Annette Stephens accepted an invitation to go along to a two-day personal development workshop. Here she reflects on her first day there.

Annette Stephens: I was in front of a group of people, so emotional that I just broke down. I was crying, I was screaming, and at the end of that time the leader of the group, Ken Dyers, said to the group to help me, and I think at that point I just reached out to him and when I stopped crying everyone came up and gave me a hug and it just all felt quite right at the time.

Lynne Malcolm: Annette Stephens admits that she was unhappy at the time and was looking for a better direction in her life. But she didn’t realise what a strong hold the group called Kenja would have over her life, and that her devotion to the group would cause her to leave her young teenage children.
Kenja was set up in the early 80s by the late Ken Dyers and his partner Jan Hamilton. They described their aim as empowering individuals to help them be in charge of their own destiny. Here’s Annette Stephens with her early impression of the group leader Ken Dyers.

Annette Stephens: When I met Ken he was 60 and at that stage he was still a very dynamic man and he just seemed to have answers. Plus, he was charismatic, he did have that capacity to have a group of people in front of him and hold their attention. He might have been using techniques that the people involved didn’t know about but they certainly worked. I was riveted to him, it was not unlike falling in love, that kind of instant crush, not so much wanting a relationship with him, because I didn’t, but it was as much...this man represented some kind of new pathway and it was the ideas as much as the man that I found attractive.

Lynne Malcolm: Being a member of Kenja involved participation in a range of intense sessions and activities including what they called Klowning. It was was run by Jan Hamilton.
Annette Stephens: Klowning was based on the idea that we are not who we think we are. So in Klowning we would don a hat and odd clothes and with a clown nose on we were able to be vulnerable and able to find out the really human part of us. Jan had been running these classes along with acting, and Ken Dyers was at the same time running these processing sessions from his home and the two were combined.

Lynne Malcolm: So tell me about processing. There’s a whole language that goes with this group, isn’t there, and processing is one thing that you would go through. Describe the processing session.
Annette Stephens: They consisted of two people sitting opposite each other silently looking at the other person’s eye and the recipient in session was able to have a look at the experiences and emotions and things in their life that they had not fully come to terms with, and that were unconsciously stopping them from being who they wanted to be. It was very emotional.

Lynne Malcolm: And you describe some sessions where the processee was naked.

Annette Stephens: Yes, every session that I did with Ken I was naked. Of course, you see, as a Kenjan I saw it quite differently to how I see it now. As a Kenjan, you know, Ken would say to us that nudity has no significance other than what you give it, and if you think that this is in any way inappropriate that’s your dirty mind.

Lynne Malcolm: And what about wall-walking, what’s that?
Annette Stephens: The processing sessions are hypnosis, and wall-walking is I think a self-hypnosis because it was based on detaching. We believed that we were detaching from one’s body as a spirit, and in wall-walking we would literally walk from one wall in a room to the other side of the room and detach. I describe it as being similar to an exorcism because it was that feeling of something being dragged out of the body. And once that had finished there was this calmness and then something else would come up.
Lynne Malcolm: Annette Stephens. Psychologist Louise Samways became interested in the psychological techniques used by many cult-like groups and she points out that they have quite a history.

Louise Samways: Originally a lot of these techniques grew out of research done by the CIA and the KGB after the Second World War in trying to understand how Hitler was able to persuade a whole population to a particular way of thinking and particular behaviour, and that research got out into the wider community. A lot of people like Ron Hubbard used a lot of these techniques in his organisation and then a lot of people who had been in Scientology then drifted out of that and developed their own particular groups. And then the techniques really just sort of spread like wildfire. They were taken up a lot by particular new age groups and have been used for a long time by all kinds of religions. I mean because we are social animals, these are ways of getting people to sort of comply and to feel connected and to do as they’re told and stick with a group and make the group stronger. So we’re sort of wired to some extent to be responsive to these techniques, it’s just that now they’ve got a lot more sophisticated because of the research that’s been done.

Lynne Malcolm: So what are these psychological techniques which have such persuasive powers?

Louise Samways: Well basically what all the techniques are trying to do is to put your left-brain critical thinking on hold so that other belief systems, or other ideas, are able to pass by that critical filter straight into more where your emotional right-brain is more likely to sort of accept them uncritically. So the techniques can be all kinds of techniques which focus attention and they are very similar to what happens when you induce hypnotic states. Hypnotic states are nothing magical but in fact natural hypnotic states occur on a regular basis if we allow them to, about every two hours during the day. There’s a natural down time when our left-brain sort of quietens and our right-brain and our body is able to do a bit of a tune-up of physical processes like blood-pressure and heart-rate and cortisol levels. So it’s a natural rhythm that we have to let ourselves drift into this sort of what we call a dissociative state, and then we come out of it again. Well that’s what these techniques do; they induce that natural state of dissociation. Most people that experience driving somewhere, getting there and thinking gee whiz I hope I didn’t run over somebody, I couldn’t even remember getting here. A sort of day-dreamy sort of natural state which is very pleasant. So when people use techniques that are going to help induce this state it’s not something you’re necessarily going to resist if you don’t realise that perhaps there is an ulterior motive.

Lynne Malcolm: Louise Samways says that part of inducing this hypnotic state is giving the person something to help them focus their attention.

Louise Samways: It can be a symbol like in a church, it might be the altar that you’re focusing your attention on, and particular rhythms of speech also tend to induce that state. Music is one way of doing it as well, starting to put you in a situation where you lose track of time, you don’t have clocks on the walls and often when people get involved in these groups and they are subjected to these techniques they often can’t even recall very clearly what actually happened. You’re trying to induce a state of feeling good basically, and these states do create all kinds of chemicals to sort of flow through your body and your mind and do make you feel good. So people can start to get addicted to the process as well. Then there’s a social, there becomes a whole lot of social factors that want you to feel you’re part of the group, that you don’t want to stand out, you don’t want to be seen as different or questioning.

Lynne Malcolm: There’s often a charismatic leader, how does that leader take control?

Louise Samways: Well they often take on the role of being the person who’s going to say whether your behaviour was right or wrong. And the more rules that an organisation creates, the more they control you, effectively. It’s very interesting studying some of the gurus or the charismatic figures you say you often find that they are often people who have actually started out with very good intentions and just find they have this natural ability to attract people to them, or because they may be good listeners, people feel that they’ve got something to offer. And so there’s a subtle social process that can occur between the person who finds that people are naturally drawn to them and then the adoration or adulation that they begin to get from those people. Then they start to believe, oh yes, I am special, you know I do have special powers, I do have a special gift. And you often then find that it’s actually alongside them or behind them that there’s another character who perhaps has got another agenda who can see how this can be manipulated and this can be used. So it’s not necessarily the public front of the organisation, not always, sometimes the public front’s the problem as well. But one of the reasons they are so seductive is because they often truly believe what they are saying. And because they really believe that, they don’t give out signals to you, the non-verbal signals that they are conning you. But that doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t an organisation behind them or a particular person, sometimes a wife or a husband or somebody close to them, that is pulling the strings.

Lynne Malcolm: Psychologist Louise Samways.

You’re with All in the Mind on RN, Radio Australia and online. We’re exploring the persuasive techniques often used by cults. Annette Stephens joined the Kenja group when her children were 13 and 15, so they were basically without their mother for a significant part of their growing up years. Interestingly Annette’s grandparents became followers of the Exclusive Brethren group when she was a child and subsequently rejected Annette’s parents for being non-believers, so the hurt that can be associated with groups like these was not completely foreign to her. Even so, she found it incredibly hard to leave Kenja, but a number of things started to trouble her.

Annette Stephens: Gosh I had a list.

Lynne Malcolm: There was a young teenage girl who appeared to be a favourite of Ken’s, what happened to her?

Annette Stephens: Yes, she came to Sydney with her family when she was 10. We were told that she was the embodiment of love and she was the future of Kenja and this young woman ended up processing with Ken for inordinately long times including weekends, she would stay there at weekends. I started to become concerned about this, I started to query Ken. There were both little things and big things: little things like the counsellor had instructed us to keep the door open but we kept it permanently locked so there was only one exit. And one really big thing was I had been there for 10 years and it was becoming quite clear to me that I was a failure; I had no money, I had no career, I had no relationship with my family.

Lynne Malcolm: You were no happier than when you started?

Annette Stephens: I started to hallucinate. I believed that I was floating; I was walking around streets talking out loud to myself completely unaware of it. I had deteriorated really quite considerably.

Lynne Malcolm: After a couple of attempts Annette Stephens did manage to leave the Kenja group once and for all. Her mother looked after her until she was strong enough to seek professional help. It then emerged that part of the reason she was so vulnerable to the influences of Kenja was that she’d been sexually abused as a child and though she didn’t have clear memories of the incident she’s always had a deep sense of unease about her childhood. By 2005 the leader of Kenja, Ken Dyers, was facing 22 charges of sexual assault on two 12-year-old girls. Before they were heard in court he took his own life.

Ros Hodgkins first became aware of the unhealthy hold that some groups can have over people when she became worried about the group her daughter had become involved with.

Ros Hodgkins: We lived in the country so she moved to Sydney and was looking for a church to belong to, she was also looking for friends I guess, and she became involved with what looked on the outside to be a conventional Christian church. But we soon found out that it was operating exactly as cults do; it was controlling and soon Emma became totally entrenched and in the end they were able to convince her to cut all ties with family who were questioning of course some of the things that were taking place and the control that was over her. And that then began a journey for me and our family as well to learn all we could about the phenomena of cults and how they did recruit.

Lynne Malcolm: So how long did she remain in the cult and what was her behaviour like?

Ros Hodgkins: Well her personality definitely changed, and we soon learned too that there were two sort of personalities when people go into these types of groups. They have the personality they were but it becomes almost layered by the group norm for the personality that the group leader presents, and that’s when we really realised that we had to do something to help her—also see that she was being controlled, manipulated and coerced to live a life the way the group wanted her to live. After two years our daughter was totally entrenched, she’d left her job, she had become a full-time worker in the church, and we did go ahead with what is called an intervention or exit counselling, which was remarkably successful. And our daughter then left that group and she then continued to help other people.

Lynne Malcolm: Ros Hodgkins now runs the Cult Information and Family Support service in NSW. They offer counselling and support to people who need help to adjust to their lives after leaving cult-like groups.
So what advice would Ros Hodgkins give to family members or friends if they believed their loved one is starting to get caught up in an unhealthy relationship with a group?

Ros Hodgkins: The first thing would certainly be to staying as connected as they can to find out all they can about the group, not to push further their loved-one away by saying look it’s a cult, because often they’ll get the warning that your family members will be against this but aren’t you willing to make your own decisions and not listen to family members or friends—this is something that’s so important to you. So I think that’s the big thing, that they are able to stay in contact, learn all they can about the group and continue to just ask questions to try and find our more, so that person will still think about what they are now believing in without being I guess fearful of being criticised. And then to find perhaps former members that they can talk to and understand more. It’s a very difficult thing but there is more information now on the internet and that’s how we can support families by just being there for them and helping them to perhaps get connected and stay connected, no matter what, so they know there is someone outside the group when they do want to leave, or when they get kicked out, or when something happens and they can feel that they have that support.

Lynne Malcolm: But there are some positive things about some groups and it’s likely that some people live happier lives being part of some groups than they would on their own.

Louise Samways: Look I think you’ve actually hit on a very important point there. A lot of the times that people start to talk about these groups it’s all negative. What we have to confront as a community, that these groups are often filling desperate needs in people that are not being filled by the way we now live. 

The way we are now is very isolating, people are often expected to work very long hours, or have very long commutes. More and more families are living apart, so we do not live in a community that is kind to people or respects people. So anybody really is vulnerable, it’s not just, you know, the weak-willed, it’s anybody at a particular time in their life, and particularly if they’re isolated from family and friends.

Some of the factors that are most important in human wellbeing are a sense of connectedness and a sense of control over your life now and in the future. So what often these organisations do is offer a whole list of very simple rules, if you just follow these rules then you’ll feel okay. If you just remove yourself from that world and you just mix with us everything will be okay. So they often offer a sort of a way of getting back some feeling of control. Of course that’s artificial because in getting that sort of superficial sense of control you are often giving up control of your life in other ways. But often that’s a trade-off that people are prepared to pay when the rest of their life just feels like it’s chaos that they have no control over.

Lynne Malcolm: In her practice psychologist Louise Samways has offered counselling to people who’ve been emotionally damaged after their experience in a cult. What’s her approach?

Louise Samways: One of the things that I’ve found is most helpful for people is for them to, if they can, describe some of the techniques, not necessarily the abuse that may have occurred, and then to help them understand that they were involved in quite a deliberate psychological process. And that doesn’t mean that they’re weak or stupid, but it’s often more about the fact that they were participating without adequate information. So in other words you validate their humanity and the fact that it’s not necessarily all their fault. At the same time there does come a point where it often is helpful for them to look at why they were vulnerable to the group. What was making them vulnerable, what was missing? Because that’s often the answer for them in terms of recovery, is to address what was missing before and helping them create a life now that is healthier and more balanced and does meet all their needs as a human being.

Lynne Malcolm: So what controls are in place to ensure that personal development groups or other groups are sufficiently qualified, to avoid causing emotional damage like this?

Louise Samways: Oh virtually none, virtually none. It’s buyer beware. People have to be aware of the techniques that are being used...the greatest concern of course is people who grow up in these organisations and really are trapped, and for those that grow up and then start to rebel as teenagers or as young adults and leave, it is very, very difficult because that’s been their reality. It’s not an area that Australia and America in particular have really wanted to go there.

Lynne Malcolm: So what changes would you like to see put in place to both warn people of the dangers but also help people out of these groups that are stuck there.

Louise Samways: Well I think the first thing is that there needs to be more appropriate recognition by the courts and by particularly the Family Law Court and we need education of the legal profession and I think the professional organisations, particularly the professional health organisations need to be more pro-active in first of all educating themselves about what these issues are and then making it very clear in their code of ethics of these different professional groups how the codes of ethics dovetail with belief systems. Where I think where people are not registered health professionals and are just anybody who sets up an organisation, I think they need to be as accountable as health professionals and I think that again needs to be reflected in law.

I mean in many ways I think this royal commission, because it is so broad it will be interesting to see whether some of the practices that occur you know in church groups, not for profit groups, NGOs come to light in terms of how pervasive it is and it may be that this royal commission does begin to highlight that because it is so pervasive that there does need to be a greater addressing of this in the law, so people have redress that is just as fast as what happens if it was a health professional who did the wrong thing by them. And not hide behind the fact of their religion or whatever. The issue is have they been subjected to a psychological process to manipulate their beliefs about themselves or the world around them, or to accept behaviour towards themselves which is inappropriate without informed consent.

Lynne Malcolm: Psychologist Louise Samways. And her book Dangerous Persuaders: an expose of gurus, personal development courses and cults and how they operate is available as a download online and we’ll link to that from the

All in the Mind website.

The Kenja group is still operating in Sydney under Jan Hamilton Dyers. And Annette Stephens has written about her experiences in and out of the Kenja cult in her book called The Good Little Girl and it’s put out by Big Sky Publishing.

So what effect has it had to actually write this book, it’s 20 years down the track and you’ve been able to tell your story, what impact has that had on your life and your sense of wellbeing?

Annette Stephens: When I first started to write about Kenja of course it was going to be the book that gave you 101 reasons why you should never get involved in Kenja. By the time I'd finished and was writing the book a long time had passed and I found it far more emotional writing about myself than about Kenja. It has helped me put a timeline together, you know, see things from a distance and I think it has enabled me to understand a great deal. In terms of my life it’s allowed me to move on. As I say, I am one of the lucky ones.

Lynne Malcolm: Just finally, how is your daughter now?

Ros Hodgkins: Well our daughter is wonderful—after the first year she was helping people who were caught up in cults, she’s also a member of Cult Information and Family Support and always very happy to talk to those people who’ve come out of groups and to share her story, which is wonderful because there are many success stories, there are many people who have come out and who are doing well and are helping others. And I guess that’s what it’s all about, to be able to continue to help people and to have an understanding of what they have gone through and what they do go through when they exit a cult.

Lynne Malcolm: Ros Hodgkins, head of the Cult Information and Family Support service in NSW. Head to the All in the Mind website for information and links related to today’s program. That’s and select the program in the list. You can catch up with past All in the Mind programs from there too and join the All in the Mind conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Was this article helpful?