Heaven on Earth: A Conversation with Cult Expert Margaret Singer

We read the headlines about the Waco hearings and the Tokyo subway poisonings, and we wonder how people could be taken in by someone like David Koresh, or wonder how people could be taken in by someone like David Koresh, or find happiness in a cult like Aum Shinrikyo. But as Berkeley psychologist Margaret Singer points out, with 20 million Americans involved in cults in the last twenty years, the answer perhaps lies no further than our own family and friends. “Under the right circumstances we all can be manipulated,” Singer says.

One of the world‟s leading authorities on cults. Singer has studied thought reform since the 50s and specialized in cults since the 60s. Because of her experience counseling Korean War POWs who had been subjected to brainwashing, Singer was appointed by the court to examine Patty Hearst in her 1974 trial for bank robbery after being abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Singer later interviewed survivors of the Jim Jones people‟s Temple cult as well as members of the Branch Davidians who survived the disaster at Waco. Over the years she‟s examined over 3,000 current and former cult members.

Author of the just published Cults in Our Midst, Singer defines cults as groups that recruit through deception, use techniques of thought reform; and believe that some special truth or knowledge resides in a leader or leaders that the members must follow. Singer estimates there are 3,000 to 5,000 cults in America.

At age 74, Singer is a warm and open woman with an impressive grasp of the vulnerabilities of the human mind. We met for the interview at her Berkeley home.

Timothy Beneke: After the Oklahoma City bombing, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians took on fresh significance. A substantial number of Americans view the Davidians as heroic Christian martyrs victimized by an oppressive government. You interviewed a number of members who  survived Waco, and families of members who perished. What can you tell us about them?

Margaret Singer: Many Americans, including some religious scholars and sociologists of religion, don‟t want to look at the reasons the authorities were concerned about the Branch Davidians. They don‟t want to look at the deception that was used to recruit and keep members. They only want to look at the Davidians‟ religious beliefs, which they‟re constitutionally entitled to.

Let‟s talk about the children first. Koresh released 21 Branch Davidian children, aged five months to twelve years, after the first assault on the compound. These children were studied by a Baylor University child psychiatrist who found them to be in terrible shape. The children had resting heartbeats of 120 beats a minute, some thirty to fifty percent above normal. They were terrified of anyone outside the cult, having been taught that anyone outside was evil and would kill them—and this was before the fiery ending had occurred. They had very little capacity for autonomous thought or independent decision-making. When they were lift alone, they divided into two groups based on gender, and one child would be the leader of each group and tell the others what to do. They did everything as a group. Many children drew pictures of Koresh as God or doodled, “David is God.” When asked to draw pictures of themselves, most children could only draw a small primitive picture, often in the corner of a sheet of paper.

We know that Koresh had sex with and impregnated twelve and fourteen-year-old girls—he wanted only his seed to be propagated. He was converting shotguns into automatic weapons. The authorities wanted to talk to him about these things. What happened at Waco was a terrible tragedy, and we need to understand how it happened, but we also need to look at just who the Branch Davidians were.

Koresh used a lot of deception to recruit members. I talked to one man who was told by Koresh that the group was a Christian rock and roll band, pure and simple. When he visited their enclave he realized it was a cult and left.

Once people get away from a tyrant—whether he is a religious or political or psychological tyrant—and feel able to  talk to people, they often express the extreme fear they felt of crossing someone like Koresh. I have counseled a small number of Branch Davidian members who survived Waco. What they generally said was that once they got embedded in the cult they realized they had made a great mistake, but because they were true believers in the general Seventh Day Adventist and Davidian concepts, and wanted to be good people, (leaving) was difficult. They realized that Koresh was lying to them and separating husbands and wives, that Koresh was the only one who was going to plant his seed in the young women in the cult. Their greatest sorrow was that some of their best friends, who were good people, were dead, and they had had no way of escaping, because of Koresh‟s control.

Fear and guilt were the predominant emotions Koresh used to control his followers. Guilt that they might be offending God if they disobeyed him—Koresh presented himself as truly a God on earth. They were also afraid that Koresh would not let them leave and would have them killed if they tried.

And they were quite taken with Koresh. I have watched films of Koresh talking to his flock; he was an attractive man with long curly brown hair strumming a guitar. Koresh used singing as a primary recruiting technique. Some of his followers said that when he sang to them they felt that he was really recruiting them, that they would be a special person who would be treated specially in the cult. He spent thousands of dollars on sound equipment, and he had a fantasy that he would be a famous rock and roll star.

Koresh also used fatigue to manipulate his followers; he would preach at his followers for fifteen or sixteen hours without pause to wear them down so they would stay.

How might a knowledge of cult behavior have helped the FBI at Waco?

By the time the FBI took over, they had a really difficult scene on their hands. They had consulted with two very good behavioral scientists, but not with any cult experts. They did not sufficiently understand how a cult is different from a hostage situation. The Davidians felt they had to obey Koresh out of fear that they wouldn’t go to heaven, or  fear that they would be killed by other members. So Koresh’s followers had to obey him. We know now that Koresh instructed his followers to set fire to the compound. This should be seen as a form of murder on Koresh’s part.

I hope that in the future, in dealing with cults, people in authority will pay attention to the complexities of influence and tight bonding and fear and guilt cult leaders like Koresh have instilled in their followers.

When people in the Bay Area think of cults, they remember Jim Jones and the so-called “revolutionary suicide” of 912 people in Guyana in 1978.

First, they did not commit revolutionary suicide, they were forced by Jones to die—they were murdered. Like Koresh, Jones had his followers sprinkle the gasoline and die at his command. These are not voluntary suicides; it‟s a kind of manipulative murder. If people said they would not swallow the cyanide they would have been shot by Jones‟s followers. Jim Jones audio-taped for posterity the final scene when everyone swallowed the cyanide. The tapes how a woman crying out to save the children—she says that they don‟t deserve to die—and Jones manipulated the group so people began to shout her down. Jones had armed guards; autopsies show that a number of people died of gunshots. Jones himself died of a gunshot wound; apparently he wanted to go quickly without pain. He saw people dying horrible deaths around him.

Jones was a great manipulator. People would often come to an evening at the People‟s Temple in San Francisco, fill out a card, and then never come back. Jones would send two attractive women followers to such people‟s houses to talk about the People‟s Temple. One woman would ask to use the bathroom, and she would look through the medicine cabinet for medicine used and the names of doctors and pharmacies. This information would be recorded and filed away. Then when the person came back to visit the People‟s Temple, the information would be given to Jones. Jones would pretend to go into a trance and say, “I sense the presence here of a woman who is being treated for diabetes by a Doctor Samuelson. Let me see, she goes to the Smith and Bretherton pharmacy in South City.” And the person would be amazed and everyone would think Jones had psychic  abilities. People became believers this way. This method has also been used by a channeling cult where channelers display similar “psychic ability.” Jones would convince people he had cured their cancers whether they had cancer or not. There was not trick he wouldn’t try.

I have listened to dozens of hours of audiotapes of Jones. He taped his outgoing phone calls. If someone left the cult, he would call them and say, “This is Dad, you are not going to tell me you‟re leaving; you‟re not going to tell me you‟re leaving; you‟re not going to tell me you‟re leaving.” He would repeat this as a hypnotic suggestion.

Jones rehearsed suicide with his followers some 38 times. He would have everyone drink some drink together. At first there were many times when people didn‟t know whether there was cyanide in the drink. Maybe the first dozen times people believed it might be real. Once in San Francisco, Jones had people drunk some wine and then said, “This is the white night that is laced with cyanide; we‟re all going to pass over.” Some poor young woman jumped up and went screaming out in the parking lot and was dragged back and ridiculed. Finally in Guyana they had the final white night.

People believed they would go straight to heaven and Jones would be there looking after them. By the time they were in Guyana they were living in hellish circumstances. Even when they were working in Redwood Valley people were working sixteen hours a day printing literature to bring to the city, and would fall asleep where they were working on the floor or on tables.

Who were his followers?

There were three types. He had Disciples of Christ Church people who recruited elderly black grandmothers, who would bring their kids or grandkids in. He had a Maoist group who were both white and black and attracted for leftist political reasons. And since he wanted to demonstrate that the races could live together, he got whites who really wanted to show that integration would work.

It soon became less than heaven on earth. He promised that if people turned their property over to him, he would provide lifetime care here on earth and then in the hereafter—he was literally going to be their condo landlord in the next life.

Because of your expertise in brainwashing you were the court-appointed psychologist who examined Patty Hearst. I remember being in a Berkeley bookstore in 1974, when over the radio we all heard a tape the Symbionese Liberation Army had just released of Hearst calling herself Tania and expressing her solidarity with the SLA. Most people in the store seemed to be laughing with giddy bewilderment. I now think out laughter was quite blind and insensitive.

Most of the public didn‟t have a clue. They thought: “Isn‟t it interesting that these nine folks pick this woman up and in no time at all she‟s become a revolutionary?” Patty was never a revolutionary; none of the seven taped speeches that the public heard were written or spontaneously spoken by her.

I interviewed her for a total of at least 24 hours shortly after the arrest. When I first interviewed her she was docile and totally flattened out emotionally. I gave her an IQ test and she scored 108. I later gave her another test when the trial began and she scored 138—she had grown much perkier and could engage in reflective thinking. The SLA had totally terrorized her. They first picked her up, put her in a plastic garbage can, and drove her all over the place. She had no calendar to measure time and no way of determining day and night. We went through her memory of how many menstrual cycles she had been through in relation to the day she showed up at the Hibernia Bank as a bank robber.

We concluded that she had probably been in a closet for about 51 days. Early on they kept her in the dark, but at a certain point when they took her to the bathroom she said she was having trouble seeing. You just can‟t keep humans in the dark without injuring their eyesight. So they started putting a lamp in her closet.

I found her to be a most interesting, very bright, low-key lady. She was never ever a revolutionary. I thoroughly analyzed the sever tapes she made when she was a hostage that were given to the public. I had copies of term papers and letters she had written, plus things written by each of the SLA members. You could tell that—except for the first tape where they‟re speaking spontaneously—you can hear the tape stopping and starting, you can hear papers flipping, and it‟s in written and not spoken English. Nothing she said  on those tapes matched her written or spoken English. I pointed out how the rhetoric matched specific members of the SLA.

I testified for ten hours with the press and the public present but the jury out. F. Lee Bailey, her defense attorney, wanted me put on before the jury to show it was not Patty Hearst who had written the speeches on the tapes. I could identify some of Bill Harris‟s rhetoric and Emily Harris‟s and there was a third person I could not match who was very formal. A reporter pointed out to me it was from something Marx or Lenin had written—I forget which.

The judge ruled that he didn‟t want to set a legal precedent of analyzing tapes to establish authorship. Later Patty Hearst confirmed to me that I was right about who had written which speech. When she was in prison I got permission to visit her. She was terrified she would be killed by an inmate. But it turned out that some of the tougher black women heard her story and said, “Leave her alone, she was kidnapped” So she was protected.

She did what she did as a matter of sheer survival. She told me they rehearsed her and rehearsed her for the bank robbery. She knew she was covered by the guns of Cinque and Camilla Hall. She knew that if she wandered away from the group at the bank they would kill her.

During the time in her dark closet they had her convinced that they had kidnapped her father and most of the powerful figures in the world. After the burnout in LA she heard the then-attorney general say on the radio that she was a common criminal and would be treated as such.

She had truly been brainwashed in a classic way, in addition to having a gun at her head. She was convicted because people did not then understand that brainwashing actually works, that it is nothing esoteric, and that perfectly normal mentally healthy people respond to it. Today, so many Americans have had relatives off in cults and seen so many changes in conduct brought about by group psychological and social influence, that I think a jury would be far more understanding of Patty Hearst. She should never have been convicted.

It is widely believed that people who join cults are psychologically disturbed.

People want to believe that they themselves are strong- minded while people who join cults are weak-minded. Most of us want to believe that we cannot be easily manipulated. But it‟s not true. Under the right circumstances we can all be manipulated.

Research indicates that approximately two-thirds of those who join cults come from normal, functioning families and were demonstrating age-appropriate behavior when they entered the cult. Of the remaining third, only about six percent had major psychological difficulties. The danger is to think that you are not vulnerable. Every one of us is more open to suggestion at certain times than others. During those down periods we might get picked up by a conniving person or a cult. I have had so many men and women tell me they‟ve just been divorced or jilted, and then a very conniving, sociopathic person conned them, and in no time at all they have this person in their home, and they‟re wondering how to get rid of him or her. They‟re the lucky ones; it‟s harder to get rid of a cult than a one-on-one controller.

It takes great character when people have been in a cult to admit they were duped. It is hard to say that they were lonely and depressed and that what was told to them sounded so altruistic and so alluring that they joined. It takes real character to call it off.

Cults are started by individuals who claim to have either old or new special knowledge, and if you just give up decision- making and come with them, you‟ll lead a perfect life. The special knowledge can be religious or political or, as in the case of psychotherapy cults, psychological.

Thank what it would be like if someone could tell you what to do so that everything would go perfectly. And if they tell you, it‟s for eternity that‟s even better.

I am intrigued by your research into the physiological persuasion techniques used by cults.

Cults teach members to engage in physiological techniques that are known to generate certain predictable feelings and  experiences. When people have those feelings they are given a positive interpretation by the cult members. This is sometimes called “proof through reframing.” They reframe the experience in such a way as to prove that the cult member is making “spiritual” progress, or whatever.

Hyperventilation is a good example. Continuous chanting or shouting will produce over-breathing and heavy expelling of air.

Large volumes of air pass in and out of the lungs causing a drop in the carbon dioxide level in the bloodstream, which causes the blood to become more alkaline—this is known as respiratory alkalosis. A mild degree of this causes people to feel high and to experience a loss of critical judgment. More extreme alkalosis causes numbness and tingling in the fingers, toes, and lips; sweating; ringing of the ears; and feelings of panic, fear and unreality. People can faint.

Cult leaders reframe these experiences as “getting in the spirit” or “moving along the path.” People are told they‟re undergoing ecstatic transformation or experiencing God. Psychotherapy cults may tell people they are really feeling for the first time.

In cults that prescribe vegetarianism, people not used to only eating fruits and vegetables sometimes get odd sensations in the lower digestive tract. The cult leaders label this “doing battle with Satan” or “working off past karma.”

I have counseled many former cult members who were seriously impaired as a result of engaging in excessive meditation. Meditation can be a great way to reduce stress, but it can be abused. I knew one man who did what his cult called a 21-21. He was the first member of the cult to meditate 21 hours a day for 21 straight days. The cult leader called his parents to come pick him up—he was completely dysfunctional and could not focus from one moment to the next.

Tell us about “love bombing.”

Love bombing was first mastered by the Moonies, the Unification Church, and then other cults began using it. It‟s a recruiting device where you tell potential recruits that you‟re the most open and loving and sensitive person they‟re ever  met. You attend to their every need and engage in a lot of nonsexual touching and hugging and stroking. It‟s a form of psychological seduction.

You have been subjected to many forms of intimidation by cults over the years. There are some cults you won’t write or talk about because you don’t want to waste time in lawsuits.

I have been sued and been subject to death threats. Once two dozen large rats were put in a vent in my house and they went up into the attic. It was a real problem getting rid of them. I must travel under an assumed name because cult members call airlines and hotels and cancel my reservations. Not long ago I got a letter from a young man who said that when he was in a certain cult he was assigned to find out where I was going and cancel all my reservations. He apologized for causing me inconvenience. Some cults sue you at the drop of a hat. They don‟t care about winning— they just want to cost you money and keep other researchers from doing research. For that reason there are certain cults I won‟t name when I talk about cults. In that sense the intimidation is working.

Often I gave testimony for lawsuits that are brought against cults. The members of a cult will know someone is coming to my house to talk to me on a certain day. On that day I‟ll go down to get the morning mail and find a dead rat with a skewer stuck through its heart. The message is that I‟m ratting. This has happened many times. People who write or do research about cults need to know what they may be getting into.

Can you give me any insight into the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan that apparently killed twelve people, and sickened over 5,500? Could such a thing happen here?

Yes, either through a US cult, or if Aum Shinrikyo decided to demonstrate their power over here. I first heard of Aum Shinrikyo in 1989 through some newspaper clippings I received from England. A lawyer had tried to negotiate with Shoko Asahara, the head of the cult, to convince some young adults who had joined the cult to contact their relatives. The lawyer and his wife and infant child disappeared and have not been heard from. A badge with the cult‟s name was found where they disappeared.

Then in 1990 Asahara and some of his followers ran for Parliament and fortunately lost. On July 2, 1993, more than a hundred residents of Kyoto complained of noxious white fumes rising from buildings owned by Aum Shinrikyo, but city officials were not allowed to enter cult buildings to investigate. On June 21, 1994, seven died, and more than 200 people were made sick by sarin fumes that spread throughout a quiet residential area in Matsumoto in central Japan. Police were unable to find the source. In July, 1994, residents of Kamikayushiki complained of nausea and eye and nose irritation caused by fumes local officials couldn’t identify. On September 1, 1994, more than 231 people in seven towns suffered rashes and eye irritation. Then in December, 1994, material believed to be sarin was discovered on a small island that belonged to Aum Shinrikyo.

So seven had already died and there had been five reports of sarin gas by March 20, 1995, when twelve people were killed and over 5,500 injured.

Why do they want to kill people?

Asahara wants to take over the world. He has some visual difficulties, which he has felt impeded his career. He apparently got very mad when he didn’t get admitted to Tokyo University. He‟s recruited a lot of young PhD-level chemists, physicians, and other very bright people. Japanese psychologists believe that he made an appeal to these young people. He said, “You know how harsh and competitive life is in Japan in academia and in business and industry. Come out and live at the base of a mountain and have a serene happy life with us, and follow the Supreme Master.” You can see the appeal. He literally means to take over the world. The earlier bomb attacks were practice sessions.

I have long believed his attacks are recruiting techniques. He said in an article that if everyone joined his group, percent of the population—he didn‟t define which population—could be saved, because he had the antidote to the poison gas. Then in another article he said ten percent. If you joined his group, you would not be poisoned.

Is there any doubt that he’s responsible?

The idea in Japan is that prosecutors are 99 percent sure of a conviction before they arrest people. So they are quite  sure. I have also been told that at least a dozen members of the cult have been murdered at Asahara’s command when they left or tried to leave the cult.

People in the US really don‟t want to believe there is such a thing as brainwashing—they think only crazies will join cults. But Asahara takes the cream of the crop, the super well- educated.

Could this happen elsewhere? There were other gas attacks on June 1 and in early July. Asahara has 10,000 followers in Japan and 30,000 in Russia. Everyone‟s going to Russia to recruit cult members. American cults are fighting with each other to recruit people in Russia; it‟s extremely fertile ground. What I have found is that when people are depressed over some loss, and when they are in a state of major transition, they are most vulnerable to being recruited. Russia is a society that has come apart—there is a lot of depression and a lot of people are in transition. We can expect a lot of cults to arise there.

Are cults growing in number as we approach the year 2000?

Yes. Of course, it is only with people who use the Christian calendar for whom it will be the year 2000. Historically as we reach a new century, ever-present self-appointed prophets come forth and say follow me, and we‟ll run the world the right way, or God will come and take us to the new land.

We have a lot of communal groups forming in Idaho, Washington state, and parts of Oregon. A lot of patriot and militia groups are active in northern Idaho.

Which leads us to the militia.

Militias are voluntary affiliation groups, even though a man or small cadre of men gets them going. They do go out and try to recruit like-minded members, but they don‟t have the deception or the veneration of a leader that you find in a cult. People think of them as identity groups; some could be called hate groups. Earlier we heard about survivalist groups, and now they‟ve become patriot and militia groups. The best estimates are that there are militias in 35 states and they have about 10,000 members at the moment, although they claim 100,000. The militia groups started out pro-gun and anti-federal law enforcement. They wanted to  preserve their Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms, and were angry at the federal government in the abstract. As time has gone on, they’ve become just as angry at local government as they were towards the feds. They have now become extremely antigovernment of all kinds. They‟re willing to shoot the postman, the fireman, anyone who represents government. They‟re acquired a conspiracy theory of the world and are very anti-UN.

People I talked with spent some time in the military; they loved the camaraderie and structure of the military, and they loved the mission and purpose. By joining the militia they reclaim that camaraderie and structure and mission.

What I and others find alarming is that they have a closed reasoning system and a closed system of information, much like cults. A militia group was going to blow away people in Michigan because a Russian tank had been brought in. It turns out that government intelligence had gotten its hands on a Russian tank and was going to study it.

The militia only listens to each other‟s rumors; they believe irrational things and discard what the rest of the world is saying. They‟re spouting more and more hatred, becoming more and more anti-Semitic and racist. They believe the government is controlling the weather and causing tornadoes, and that Hong Kong police and Gurka troops are ready to descend on us. They‟re growing more and more paranoid and fueling their enthusiasm through hatred. That‟s a scary development in any society.

Published in Express (East Bay (CA) Free Weekly), August 4, 1995, Volume 17, No. 43.