Terror, Love and Brainwashing
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Terror, Love and Brainwashing

Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems

Alexandra Stein

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eBook - ePub

Terror, Love and Brainwashing

Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems

Alexandra Stein

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Über dieses Buch

This book explains how people can be radically manipulated by extreme groups and leaders to engage in incomprehensible and often dangerous acts through psychologically isolating situations of extreme social influence. These methods are used in totalitarian states, terrorist groups and cults, as well as in controlling personal relationships.

Illustrated with compelling stories from a range of cults and totalitarian systems, Stein's book defines and analyses the common identifiable traits that underlie these groups, emphasizing the importance of maintaining open yet supportive personal networks. Using original attachment theory-based research this book highlights the dangers of closed, isolating relationships and the closed belief systems that justify them, and demonstrates the psychological impact of these environments, ending with evidence-based recommendations to support an educational approach to awareness and prevention. Featuring a foreword by John Horgan, the new edition has been fully updated to include recent work on political extremism and radicalization and totalitarian systems, as well as the recent highly publicized NXIVM case.

Terror, Love and Brainwashing, second edition is essential reading for professionals, policy makers, legal professionals, educators and cult survivors and their families themselves.

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1 The overthrow of the rulers of the mind

In 1985 Marina Ortiz, a young woman with a pretty, round face, was in her third year of university at Hunter College in New York City, studying media and communications and editing the college magazine. She was pregnant with her second child and had just broken up with the father of her children. Understandably, perhaps, she was depressed. She found a therapist advertised in a free newspaper distributed at Hunter. After two months the therapist shunted her into group therapy, despite Marina’s misgivings. This was “social therapy,” the invention of Fred Newman. In 1974 he described it thus: “Proletarian or revolutionary psychotherapy is a journey which begins with the rejection of our inadequacy and ends in the acceptance of our smallness; it is the overthrow of the rulers of the mind.”1
The therapist and others in the therapy group began to deluge her with invitations to various events: a workshop on sexism, productions at their Castillo Theatre, alcohol-fueled social functions held on riverboat cruises down the Hudson. At a meeting in Harlem on women’s empowerment another therapist said she was impressed by Marina’s comments and invited her to write for the National Alliance, a political newspaper produced by the New Alliance Party. From the first therapist to the National Alliance newspaper, all these involvements were the products of the Newman Tendency,i an organization run by therapist-in-chief Fred Newman.
i Since the organization changes its name frequently, morphing as needed, cutting elements and adding others, I refer to it here as the Newman Tendency. This uses one of its own names – The Tendency – while acknowledging the formative and central role of its charismatic and authoritarian leader, Fred Newman.
About a year into the process of engulfment by the Newman Tendency, two of its leading women therapists sat Marina down over drinks in a Manhattan bar, announced that the group was actually part of an underground political organization fighting for social justice, and invited her to become a full-time cadre of the International Workers Party. As Marina was, by this time, living with a man she had met in one of the therapy groups and her life already revolved around the various group activities, and, not least, she believed in the group’s stated goal of organizing to create a non-racist, nonsexist, non-exploitative society, she joined. Her personal life was already attached to the Newman Tendency through therapy, her lover and her social connections developed through the group. Her political and professional life, which previously had expressed itself in a variety of ways, including the college newspaper and other activities, had also fallen under the domain of the organization. So it was not really such a big step when Marina said “Yes.” Thus began a secret, closed life where she was under the organization’s discipline “24/7.” This outcome was not accidental or random. It was the result of a systematic, orchestrated and deceptive process of grooming and recruitment.
Marina’s initial action had been to seek therapy for depression. She was trying to help herself, to improve her life and that of her children. She was certainly not looking for a life-consuming commitment to a secretive political group. The result, however, of that initial action was that she fell under the control of Fred Newman. Newman was a former itinerant university teacher who, during the last of the six academic posts he held during the ’60s, started an encounter group under the aegis of the City College of New York philosophy department. At the time of Marina’s involvement the group had grown to around 500 members.
Marina became a loyal follower with Fred now her therapist as well as her leader. Her children attended the group’s rather shoddy school (Marina described it as a “rat-hole”). Unusually for most group members, she kept her day job, although she did as much group work as possible there. She laughed as she told me: “I did as much of their work at my job as I could, so that was typing, xeroxing – anything you can get away with time-wise – stealing supplies.” Then straight after work she went off to her second, unpaid and full-time shift for the Newman Tendency working on the National Alliance newspaper or other projects. Often, additional meetings or “socials” with other group members were scheduled late into the night, usually rotating through different bars in Manhattan. Twice-weekly therapy was yet another demand on her time. And she could be summoned to attend rallies and demonstrations whenever additional bodies were needed.
She regularly slept overnight in the newspaper’s office as “security” and now put her two young children to bed only two nights a week, childcare being shared with the other families with whom she lived. She lost contact with her own family: “You were discouraged from seeing your family. The family was holding you down, the family unit was not encouraged.” She became utterly committed to the group, convinced of their mission, which in her understanding was to create a “peaceful socialist revolution.”
But what was the group actually doing? During her tenure, Marina found not social justice, not anti-racism or anti-sexism. Rather, she saw families pulled apart, women ordered to have abortions, money laundering and fraud, including the bilking of both Medicaid and the Federal Elections Commission.2 As Newman so eloquently put it, highlighting one of the goals of his bizarre revolution:
There’s big money right now in Marxist Leninist organizing if we set up the structure. . .. I don’t know how big the money is but, there is in fact real money to be made in the model we developed – real money, serious money. The damn New York Institute for Social Therapy and Research is a bloody goldmine. . .. There’s big money out there. In all of its versions – Marxist version, cleaned-up version – all the different versions. There’s heavy money.3
During this time, cadres were being trained in armed self-defense and an arms cache was set up. According to Bill Pleasant, a group member in whose house the arms were stored:
Well there were this group of people who were known as gunmen. Everyone went through that class, but there was a clique who had not only enjoyed that stuff but they went around armed . .. But the theory was, it wasn’t so much that we would go gunning for the police, it was that we had so much money hanging around that it was necessary to defend our offices.
Ruiz, another former member, put it this way:
We did do weapons training. You know, there was a group of us that went into the woods once in a while. . .. The reality of the situation at that point for us was that we were trying to create a revolution in the belly of the beast. At a certain point in time it would become a physical struggle, so weapons training was important. You had to learn how to deal with weapons so that you could teach how to deal with weapons, you know. In the early days there were discussions about where to put the bombs, when it came to that. Later on it didn’t. It was more about fundraising, more about the emotional underpinnings and psychological underpinnings and how to move that to the Left through culture, through propaganda. It was a different look and feel, so it became protectionist when we moved down to Castillo, when we moved to the office on Greenwich Street, it was more protecting what we had.
Along with this weapons training, former members have also alleged that the group funneled money for weapons to a variety of guerrilla groups in Africa and South America.
Newman, meanwhile, was engaging in numerous sexual relationships, some of which involved breaking up other couples in the group in order for him to take over the female partner. All of his (known) relationships involved women who had first been his therapy patients, and several of these women became part of what was to become known as his “harem.” Such was the nature of the much-touted women’s leadership of the Newman Tendency.
Far from creating a peaceful socialist revolution, this was an organization where Newman exerted almost total power and control over followers. Loyalty, labor, money and sex flowed up to Newman. Marina found herself trapped in a totalist organization, and was now fully indoctrinated. In fact, and as promised by Newman, she had indeed accepted her smallness and overthrown herself as the ruler of her own mind. Now it was Newman who ruled her mind.
Fred Newman’s “Tendency” is just one example among thousands. No matter the ideology – left, right, religious, commercial, for “personal growth” or to get rich quick – the leadership, structures and processes are remarkably similar. What constitutes this type of group? In later chapters I’ll detail the steps in recruitment and – more importantly – retention and indoctrination processes along with each element of the structure of these groups, but for now I’ll focus first on vocabulary and definitions, and then give an overview to provide some context.
A note then on vocabulary. There are difficult word choices a writer on this topic must make. Some words – like “totalist” – convey important meaning and have solid roots in the field (Lifton introduced the concept in his study of brainwashing or thought reform in China and North Korea).4 I like this word. It conveys the all-encompassing nature of the beast. The way a total eclipse utterly covers the light, so do totalist organizations attempt to block out any alternate relationships or beliefs, locking daylight out of the picture. The word “totalist” gives an appropriately oppressive sense, the suffix “-ist” conveying the active role required in creating this total environment, thus flagging the actions of the leader and the organization as the agent of their wishes. The suffix “-ism” denotes “a belief in or practice of,” and so “totalism” is the practice of a total worldview or a total ideology (I discuss this in depth in Chapter 7). As Hannah Arendt said of totalitarian ideologies, they are “isms that pretend to have found the key explanation for all the mysteries of life and world”:5 the ideologies of totalism claim to supply the answers to all possible questions for all time.
Two other words in this field are tricky. First is the word “cult,” about which much has been written. I will use it here in its simplest sense, believing t...


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Foreword
  9. Introduction
  10. 1 The overthrow of the rulers of the mind
  11. 2 Fear: It’s screamingly obvious
  12. 3 Recruitment: The accidental extremist
  13. 4 Totalist indoctrination: Isolation in a crowded place
  14. 5 Family and friends: Not as close as Chairman Mao
  15. 6 The will of the Führer is the party’s law: Totalist leaders and the structures they create
  16. 7 Secrets and lies: Ideology and language in totalist systems
  17. 8 From the inside out
  18. 9 Deployable, but not Manchurian: It’s a human thing
  19. 10 The flute player: What should an open society do?
  20. Appendix A: The Group Attachment Interview
  21. Appendix B: Eye-level versus abusive, authoritarian relationships
  22. Index