“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  — Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

By Gina Catena

Young families and greying baby boomers chat outside popular restaurants on Fairfield’s town square, accustomed to ignoring the fact that 850 innocents are trapped in a gated, barb-wired compound outside their town.

vediccityhwy1.jpgTurning to my friend I said “Everything is calm and peaceful. Folks chat and bask in sunshine. Fairfield’s [Transcendental Meditation (TM)] community is more integrated and tolerant than in the past. But doesn’t anyone question the pandit compound? This reminds me of small town Nazi Germany, when citizens colluded to ignore prison camps only a few miles away.”

She responded with parroted remarks that I had heard elsewhere, “I don’t feel badly for the pandits. They’ve been paid. They’re sending money home to their families in India – as poor immigrants have done from time immemorial. In Indian culture it’s common for one member of a family to sacrifice their entire life to benefit the larger family.”

Her verbatim response echoed one of Maharishi’s favorite indoctrination methods – multiple repetitions of nonsense would eventually be accepted as truth.

She continued, “The Movement hired a private guard. The local sheriff didn’t feel comfortable recapturing escapees any more.” Her calm manner shocked me.

“They have a guard? Some escape? Where do they go?” I asked.

“Of course some escape!” She continued, “Some of those Indians came to see America. They are poor people who took this job. They’re not trained as holy men. They have a work contract to meditate and chant for a couple of years. Their families are supported in India while they are here. The escapees usually show up at a nearby farmhouse asking for help.”

“This is 21st century North America, not ancient India’s indentured servitude.” I responded. ”Everyone in town knows that a few miles away there are people locked inside a guarded compound surrounded by corn fields. In this country, only prisoners are so constrained. Can this be legal?”

“They have visas.” My friend shrugged.

“Who holds their passports? Do they know their rights?” I asked.

After brief hesitation, my friend responded “It’s not my business. I just quietly conduct my life here. I have my own problems.”

I let the conversation drop. My friend has her reasons. So does everyone else.

On Highway One, only two miles north of the entry to Maharishi University of Management, a highway sign points west, towards an otherwise innocuous side road directing to the TM Movement’s incorporated Vedic City, which is governed by mayor Raja Bob Wynne.

The highway sign fails to name the fenced compound, around the back side of Vedic City, that encloses over 800 Indian men. Yet, everyone in Fairfield, Iowa knows about the secluded pandit compound.

The Spiral of Silence Theory may explain why citizens of Jefferson County Iowa, including local attorneys, government and law enforcement officials, avoid public discussion of questionable legalities surrounding the forced containment and minimal compensation for these indentured “Pandits” from India.

How the Hidden has Power” and “Out of Sight Out of Mind – Making Silence Easy” provide further insight to the social milieu of such silent complacency.

Note: Gina Catena co-moderates a blog about TM Movement and TM recovery : TMFree.blogspot.com
Gina’s personal blog : comingtolifestories.com

August 28, 2012

By Cathleen A. Mann, PhD

Introduction

bookfreedom.jpgSteven Hassan’s latest book, Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs, just released in summer, 2012, is the latest in what can be seen as a trilogy of sorts, starting with Combatting Mind Control in 1988 and then Releasing the Bonds in 2000.  A large portion of the material in his latest book is a verbatim repetition of material from Releasing the Bonds. In his most recent book, Hassan reports that his sister was the impetus to changing his “approach” in interaction away from interventions, an activity that Hassan has been involved in for over 30 years.  In the preface to this book, Hassan repeats the story of his introduction to and his exit from the Unification Church (Moonies) and how that exit helped him find his life work of education and liberation from “mind control cults”. 

However, it is notable that in this third book, Hassan has greatly expanded his target audience due to what he says is cult activity “increasing exponentially,” and the “rise of the Internet”.  Since Hassan maintains a substantial Internet presence through his Web site, www.freedomofmind.com, it could be argued that he has increased public sensitivity to cults, thereby magnifying the importance of his solutions, as well as providing a forum where he can extensively promote his own theories and agenda.

“Cults are on the rise” seems to be the theme of this latest book.  But there is no proof of this claim. Hassan offers no scientific study or survey with statistics to prove his theory. It may be that “cults are on a downward turn,” or perhaps “cults have stayed the same”. These possibilities may not help in the marketing and sale of books, but they are two equal possibilities. Of course none of these statements regarding the growth or decline of cults is based upon scientific evidence. Hassan’s theories are not genuinely informative in any factual sense. 

It seems to me that Hassan’s purpose at conflating cult numbers is to frighten people and provide him with a marketing tool to sell books, rather than genuinely seeing so many groups and/or relationships as somehow being “cult-like”. He certainly hasn’t proven otherwise in this book.

It’s interesting to note that Mr. Hassan has written the preface to his new book. In the preface he offers the usual anecdotes and testimonies to his success. Hassan defines both the problem and the cure as “cult like traits seen at every level of society.”   Postulating his theory about an overwhelming societal problem, Mr. Hassan then offers his own unique solution.

Defining terms

It is important to note that within his third book Hassan has added new ingredients to his definition of a cult.  He claims in the first chapter that a cult uses (1) authoritarian leadership, (2) deception, and (3) destructive mind control.  The title of his new book now mentions “beliefs,” but this is not in his definition.  It is troubling that a book supposedly written to educate the public about cults would even enter into the area of “beliefs,” when almost all cult educators and experts don’t focus on beliefs, but rather on harmful practices.  In fact, it is a myth that cults are solely defined by beliefs. After all, the First amendment or Establishment Clause of the US Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, which includes the right to believe whatever you wish.  Hassan persists in using the term “destructive mind control,” which is not a term used in any legal setting and that has no real meaning.  Mind control seems quite ominous and rather sensational, but this term does nothing to further the discussion about the dynamics of cults and how they operate.  The research done in this area does not mention the term “mind control,” but uses terms such as “undue influence”, which express a more precise and exact meaning. 

Ultimate authority

Steve Hassan’s Twitter handle also can be seen as an interesting example of his problem with defining terms and labels. His Twitter handle is “cult expert”. Being qualified and 220px-steven_hassan_headshot_02.jpgaccepted in a court of law as an expert is typically meaningful proof of expertise. But Mr. Hassan has never provided expert testimony in a court of law.  What authority then, outside of Hassan himself, has officially recognized him as an expert concerning cults? For that matter has an authority officially recognized Hassan as an expert in anything? 

Steve Hassan’s latest book, just like the one before it, is self-published.  If Mr. Hassan were in fact “the #1 exit counselor,” surely he could find a publisher.  Having a publisher would bring in the much needed contribution of objective professional editing, and perhaps a peer review process, which might have made this a better and more credible book.

Starting with page 6, Hassan describes what he calls “common cult scenarios”.  These accounts may be the factual descriptions of actual cases or composites, but they read like the most sensational scenarios.  Hassan repeatedly places himself at the center of these brief case examples. He is the hero. He never fails to come up with just the right thing to say to successfully get through to a cult member.  Once again this fits a familiar pattern. Just like Hassan’s statement about the rise of cults, these scenarios appear self-serving and seem designed to elevate Mr. Hassan to a pedestal. Apparently, he is the one that can snap people out of a cult with just one or two artful remarks. He thus sets himself up as the ultimate authority on what to say and when to say it.  There is no mention of similarly artful things, which family members can say, even though the supposed purpose of this book is “helping loved ones” out of cults.  The definition of cult put forth by Mr. Hassan could be applied to many groups. He offers insufficient distinctions between what he considers a cult and what might be considered an ordinary group.  The message in this book seems to be that Steve Hassan has somehow become the final arbiter who will define such things for everyone.

Borrowing ideas

In Chapter 2, Hassan introduces Lifton’s eight criteria or psychological themes for thought reform, another term used to define “mind control,” even though Lifton never used the words mind control in his work.  Hassan also introduces Singer’s 6 criteria and brings in the social psychology construct of cognitive dissonance.  Even though Hassan names the origins of these ideas, nowhere in the body of his book within any chapter does he include properly cited references. In fact, the reader is told near the end of the book that a bibliography is not available, but rather can be found at Hassan’s Web site.  This is certainly not in keeping with any protocol of academic writing and seems like a device to minimize as much as possible the owners of the ideas that Hassan claims as his.  Not including such text references when you have depended upon the ideas of others might be considered something akin to plagiarism. 

This penchant that Steve Hassan has for borrowing upon the ideas of others without specifically cited attribution should be glaringly apparent to anyone familiar with Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). According to Mr. Hassan’s first book Combatting Cult Mind Control; he has studied NLP extensively with its founders. He has also described how NLP and the writings of its predecessors influenced the development of his own cult intervention model. In Hassan’s latest book (p. 208-214) he discusses concepts and techniques that come from NLP such as Visual Kinesthetic Dissociation and the idea of representational systems. But he fails to cite their source. Hassan makes no mention of NLP whatsoever, nevertheless borrowing from it quite heavily. This is especially troubling, given that NLP remains highly controversial amongst people that study cults, particularly because it can be seen as a manipulative technique of persuasion. NLP also poses an ethical dilemma when used within the context of cult intervention work. The integrity of an intervention and for that matter the interventionist is compromised by the use of such deliberately deceptive techniques and manipulation.

 BITE model

On page 23, Hassan introduces what he describes as the powerful BITE (Behavior, Information, Thought and Emotional control) model, something that he seems to see as a superior definition of the manipulation involved within cults.  Much of the BITE model is borrowed material from a 30 year long tradition of social psychological research.  In reading the elements of the BITE model within Hassan’s current book, that model has now been greatly expanded from his previous two books. The BITE model he now proposes is so broad that it could be applied a very wide array of groups.  What is troubling is that Hassan has not provided any guidelines to separate out the groups, which might warrant the cult label and those that do not.  The BITE model, as now applied by Hassan, has become a kind of philosophic construct not grounded in facts, but rather theories, many of them borrowed from others.

Hassanology

This composite philosophical approach as now devised by Mr. Hassan might be called “Hassanology”. In the world of cults Hassanology essentially depicts Steve Hassan as the ultimate savior. He is a hammer, and there is an ever expanding list of groups to be seen as nails. As they say, “When you are a hammer everything looks like a nail”. Of course this might once again simply reflect a convenient marketing strategy.

Hassan, repeating themes from his previous two books, introduces on page 52, this idea of dual identities, i.e. a pre-cult identity and a cult identity.  There is no evidence of a cult identity v. a pre-cult identity.  It is not even established that human behavior works in this way. These are not constructs that are generally accepted in psychology or professional counseling.  These claims exist entirely within the confines “Hassanology”.  Again, the tone of Mr. Hassan’s book is that these beliefs are true, rather than just one person’s untested ideas. 

Another troubling claim is that Hassan believes that all cult members suffer from phobias (p.56).  Again, Hassan presents his idea as an absolute truth, ignoring the fact that there is no scientific theory and/or scientific evidence to back it up.  Hassan seems to think that his ideas on phobias mesh with his claim that all cults practice hypnosis. He doesn’t acknowledge any exceptions. According to Mr. Hassan all cults do these things.  It is true that many cults teach members that leaving the group is wrong or bad, but where are the scientific studies that conclusively demonstrate that this practice constitutes phobia indoctrination?

Strategic interaction Approach

In Chapter 3, Hassan re-introduces his intervention model, the Strategic interaction Approach (SIA).  He states that this model will “promote change and encourage growth in the family as well as in the cult member” (p. 36).  Mr. Hassan promotes this model as the preferred alternative to “old style” deprogramming and/or “exit counseling”.  However, what Hassan does not discuss here or for that matter in his two preceding books, is that his approach includes elements of counseling.  And there is nothing specifically mentioned about the cult member being counseled explicitly understanding that they are participating in counseling, i.e. informed consent.  In fact, it appears that Hassan does not see the need to offer his SIA counseling as a matter of choice, but instead uses the family dynamic as  tool to keep the cult member talking and then to spring his counseling upon them without informed consent.  All professional counseling requires such an understanding and explicit consent before it begins. Counseling, by its very nature, is persuasive and constitutes an unequal power dynamic.  A licensed professional counselor that does not know this can do harm to people. People must agree and be amenable to receiving counseling, regardless of what the setting or stated goal may be. The ends do not justify the means. This principle is often cited concerning the questionable behavior of cults, and should apply to those attempting to help cult members as well.

It is important at this juncture to point out that there is really nothing new or unique about the SIA approach.  It merely represents a reworking of family systems theory, with no credit given by Hassan to its pioneers, such as expert family systems practitioners Virginia Satir or the Milan Family System theorists. SIA relies heavily on the body of theory and practice within family systems. Hassan’s remarks about the superiority of the SIA over exit counseling within his books is a thinly disguised attempt to say his method is fundamentally more effective,  and therefore has better results.  However, nowhere does Hassan provide a base rate and/or any type or accepted statistical method defining his results or what constitutes a successful SIA type of family work with a cult member.  Yes, Hassan provides anecdotal evidence selectively through testimonials, but there is no way to check if these are legitimate or edited for content. These testimonials are always glowing and positive, which is one of the major drawbacks to using testimonials; it’s deceiving and engenders the idea that your work with cult members is superior, always successful, and has better outcomes than any other approach.  This is why professional organizations such as the APA (American Psychological Association) have discouraged reliance upon testimonials. In contrast, one of the defining characteristics of pseudoscience is an over reliance on such anecdotal evidence, rather than scientific study.

Is the SIA approach the best approach? What happens when a cult member does not have a family suitable for the SIA approach?  Is that situation ignored?  The SIA approach, as advertised, has the family doing the bulk of the work and seems to include both deception and emotional blackmail to make it work.  Current cult members are never told they are facing an intervention. They are not told they will be subjected to counseling. And they are in a situation where family members confront them with family issues and disappointments, often in a very emotional way, which may be used to persuade the cult member to leave the group.  

In Chapter 13, the last chapter in the book, Hassan conjures up possible solutions to the “cult problem”.  First, he suggests more involvement by the legal system. Apparently he doesn’t realize that the legal system is already actively involved in sorting through cult issues. Perhaps Mr. Hassan’s ignorance of this fact is because he has never testified in any legal proceeding.  Second, Hassan calls for action by mental health professionals to join the “cause,” and that they should be trained in his SIA approach.  However, such training would be of questionable value and essentially redundant, since SIA is merely family systems, which is quite familiar to mental health professionals.  In what appears to be a contradiction, he also states that people can use his book to develop their own approach, working with their family members themselves. Why then the need to gather a group of mental health professionals under Mr. Hassan’s guidance if families can do this independently? He seems to cotradict himself. 

Conclusion

In my opinion proper distinctions are not sufficiently made regarding what are actually Hassan’s purported ideas and the ideas he has copied from others, which have not been given proper attribution.  And providing a general bibliography on a Web site simply does not meet either the academic criteria or ethical responsibility regarding meaningful attribution. Although Hassan is obviously not bound by such academic codes of honor, borrowing the ideas of others without citing them has frequently resulted in the expulsion of students from graduate school programs. No reputable academic journal would accept or countenance such omissions.  Has Hassan fallen into an academic trap? Does he believe that what he learned from others years ago has somehow now been transformed into his own ideas? Is he somehow convinced that he now owns those ideas?  The citation of sources is always an academic requirement and should be an author’s ethical responsibility, regardless of how long ago someone might have been introduced to the material.

Mr. Hassan’s latest book gives the impression that he sees his methodology as the only way, but there is a woeful lack of objective evidence to prove his theories.  It’s curious that Hassan includes pages on how to battle his critics.  Isn’t it possible that other ideas might be valid?  At the very least, extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence. Or has Hassanology become an “absolute science”? 

It is interesting to note that on page 25 under the condition “thought control,” is listed the “[r]ejection of rational analysis, critical thinking and constructive criticism”.  This is an excellent point and one that should be followed by every cult critic, cult interventionist, professional counselor, or expert. This would include accepting criticism without becoming defensive and the ability to see and correct problems. Debate should be based upon rational analysis. A person working in the cult recovery or education field should endeavor to emulate these characteristics. It is incumbent upon him or her to model this behavior, as it is the rejection of such values that quite often forms the basis for criticizing the leaders and dynamics of cults.

Cathleen A. Mann has a doctorate in psychology and has been a licensed counselor in the state of Colorado since 1994. Dr. Mann has done research regarding cult formation and the recruiting and retention practices of high demand groups. She has been court qualified as an expert in 12 states.

Update: This review was quoted by a purported “cult” in an online video produced to examine and/or criticize Steven Hassan. Subsequently Hassan’s supporters contacted the author of the review and CultNews suggesting and/or requesting that this article be deleted. Read more about this in the following CultNews report. The Ross Institute does not recommend Steve Hassan see this disclaimer.

 

Introduction

I am writing this article as a previous member of the Order of Christ Sophia (OCS) and the Center of Light (COL).When I first encountered the OCS in 1999 I found it to be a supportive and empowering organization.Over time however, I feel that the nature of the group has changed dramatically and I would now describe it as extremely destructive and dangerous. I am gravely concerned for the welfare of anyone currently involved with or considering involvement with the group and it is my hope that what I describe here will bring clarity and insight to others.

Background

I was a “student” in the OCS for several years beginning in 1999 when the organization was first founded.I later trained for the ministry and functioned as a “deacon” for 2 years, a “priest” for 8 years and then a “shepherd” (the highest level of OCS training) for 2 years. I was also a member of the board of directors for 4 years.During my time with the group I had extensive contact with its leaders and became intimately acquainted with its internal dynamics and politics.Because of my familiarity with the OCS I feel that I am in a position to offer credible testimony about the nature of the organization.

Destructive and dangerous characteristics

The destructive and dangerous characteristics of the OCS.

The remainder of this article will describe the characteristics of the OCS that I found to be most destructive and dangerous.I will divide them into four categories and discuss them separately.The four categories are:

1) The leaders of the OCS have exhibited psychologically pathological behavior.

2) The leaders of the OCS have engaged in abusive and unethical practices.

3) The OCS has become an authoritarian and tyrannical organization that encourages loyalty to the leaders of the group rather than to God.

4) Group dynamics within the OCS have created an atmosphere where members come to accept, normalize and even positively reinterpret negative practices which eventually cause severe psychological and emotional trauma including the loss of personal autonomy and identity.

Psychologically pathological behavior

The leaders of the OCS have exhibited psychologically pathological behavior.

father_peter_bowes_photo.jpgThe OCS is led by Peter Bowes (photo left) and Clare Watts (photo lower right).Both have made claims that I feel to be delusional and have exhibited behavior that I feel represents psychosis.

Bowes has claimed the following: to be the reincarnation of St. Peter; to be the reincarnation of St. Francis of Assisi; to have been personally instructed by the Buddha; to have received the authority and responsibility for carrying on the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ directly from St. Paul; to possess the highest consciousness of any spiritual teacher alive; to be the most trustworthy person alive; to be the recipient of an Apostolic succession derived from Jesus Christ; that the OCS is the most spiritually evolved organization of all time; that the OCS represents the second coming of Christ; that the Apocalypse will occur within the lifetime of the present generation; that only 30% of the population will survive the Apocalypse; that the OCS will play a pivotal role in bringing the post-Apocalyptic human race into a new consciousness.

Watts has claimed the following: to be the reincarnation of St. Clare of Assisi; to possess the highest consciousness of any spiritual teacher alive; to be the recipient of an Apostolic succession derived from Jesus Christ; that the OCS is the most spiritually evolved organization of all time; that the OCS represents the second coming of Christ; that the Apocalypse will occur within the lifetime of the present generation; that only 30% of the population will survive the Apocalypse; that the OCS will play a pivotal role in bringing the post-Apocalyptic human race into a new consciousness.

Bowes and Watts have also asserted that they can hear the voice of God and accurately discern Gods will through a process they call “receiving guidance.”While they maintain that all people have the inherent ability to do this, they insist that their level of enlightenment affords them the ability to know God’s will with unrivaled clarity.Furthermore, they frequently use this alleged ability to proclaim the will of God for others.mother-clare-watts.jpg

When questioned about the validity of these claims, Bowes and Watts have maintained that they represent the truth.And when criticized for the unethical and abusive nature of the behaviors that will be described below, they have insisted that they are leaders of the highest integrity.Bowes and Watts are convinced that they are messengers sent from God, that their conduct is virtuous and that their actions are divinely guided.I feel that they have both exhibited signs of serious psychological pathology.

Abusive unethical practices

The leaders of the OCS have engaged in abusive and unethical practices.

Bowes and Watts have engaged in unethical and abusive practices with appalling regularity and have persistently defended the moral fortitude of their leadership. Bowes and Watts play a central role in the “spiritual instruction” of anyone who participates in the OCS.They proclaim themselves to be “Master Teachers” and consider all others to be their “students.”Both are trained psychotherapists and it is my opinion that they are able to use their professional expertise to exploit psychological wounds and engineer a dynamic where group members become insidiously disempowered and dependent.Initial interactions with Bowes and Watts are predominantly positive and serve to engender people into continued participation.With deeper involvement, members become progressively immersed in a group dynamic that distorts their perception of ethics and reality.It is within this dynamic that Bowes and Watts become psychologically manipulative and emotionally abusive.

Such behavior is usually hidden from the public eye and occurs in private sessions.However, there have been multiple occasions where Bowes and Watts have publically harassed a group member to the point that they were reduced to tears.To date, countless people have left the OCS feeling that they experienced severe emotional and psychological trauma.Many have reported feeling extremely anxious, hopelessly depressed and profoundly disconnected from themselves and God.Several senior ministers, including some who are currently involved in the group, have reported these same sentiments including being depressed to the point of contemplating suicide.

While Bowes and Watts publicly profess a philosophy of inclusiveness and egalitarianism, behind closed doors they promote an attitude of superiority and disrespect toward humanity.People outside the OCS are often described as animals, useless and a waste of space.Bowes and Watts also insist that Christianity represents the highest form of spirituality and commonly insult the practices and practitioners of other religions.On numerous occasions they have made glaringly anti-Semitic remarks.

Friendships outside of the OCS are discouraged.Ministers are instructed to view people as potential recruits rather than as equals.Ex-members have reported being relentlessly pressured to dissolve previously meaningful relationships.This practice is evidenced by the fact that most longstanding members do not have any close external friendships.Even friendships within the OCS suffer under the weight of Bowes and Watts.As members ascend in rank they are told to stop relating to lower ranking members as peers regardless of the depth of their previous association.Bowes and Watts also inject themselves into relationships in such a way that they become the directive parties.Because of this, relationships within the OCS are in a constant state of flux and lack the autonomy of otherwise healthy fellowship.

Bowes and Watts have taken a particularly antagonistic stance toward familial relationships and have been responsible for the widespread devastation and destruction of countless families. This antagonism has occurred on multiple levels.

Bowes and Watts have been consistently adversarial in regard to the nonparticipating spouses of group members.They have often told members that their spouses were losers, negative, dark or possessed by demons.These malignments, and the many that will be described below, have been unfounded.Bowes and Watts have also frequently instructed members to cease all sexual relations with their partners and warned that such intimacy would cause them to become contaminated.In various cases they have pressured members into divorce.

Bowes and Watts have also behaved abusively toward the children of group members.Several teenage children have reported feeling verbally abused and bullied by Bowes.In one instance, the mother of a teenage boy was told that her son was spiritually lost, didn’t have a spiritual bone in his body and was going to grow up to be a date rapist.There have been multiple instances where members have withdrawn their children from the group and specifically told Bowes and Watts not to contact them only to find that Bowes had:ignored their wishes, contacted their child, told them that their parents’ decision to withdraw them from the OCS was sad and invited them to come back when they were 18.

Bowes and Watts have brutally attacked the relationships of group members with their parents and immediate families.They assert that family bonds are primitive and shallow and that true love can only be found in the spiritual family of the OCS.They describe familial relationships as being unworthy of time and attention and dissuade members from having close relationships with their relatives.Such messaging is incessant and is delivered in both obvious and surreptitious ways.Bowes and Watts spend an inordinate amount of time casting childhood experiences in an exceedingly negative light.Members are commonly told that they were neglected or abused and parents are frequently described in unduly critical and demeaning ways.Bowes and Watts have routinely guided members into meditative states and asked them to relive their most painful childhood memories.In the midst of this emotional vulnerability they have made extremely manipulative comments that have inflamed past hurts and instigated repugnance toward a members’ childhood and parents.They have told members that:there was no love in their childhood, their parents didn’t love them, their parents hated them and that they only received table scraps of love.Bowes and Watts have regularly taken their hostility to the extreme of pressuring members to completely sever ties with their families.On several occasions where a members’ parent has died they have instructed them not to attend the funeral, citing the biblical quote of “let the dead bury the dead.”Separation from family has inarguably become a part of the very fabric of the OCS and the degree to which Bowes and Watts have attacked and devastated families cannot be overstated.Most ex-members have reported feeling emotionally manipulated to the point where they treated their families in unconscionable ways.

Bowes and Watts have also adopted unethical and abusive practices regarding marriages and partnerships existent within the OCS.Bowes and Watts often arrange marriages, claiming that God has guided them to do so.Once the couple is married, they play a central role in directing the marriage.Such direction consists of requiring that each member of the couple has a greater loyalty to Bowes, Watts and the OCS than to their spouse.Bowes and Watts have publically asked ministers what they would do if their partner left the organization and expected the minister to profess organizational allegiance.Bowes and Watts also routinely direct couples in matters of physical and sexual intimacy.Typically, a couple is instructed to sleep in separate rooms for a majority of nights and to be sexually intimate a maximum of once per month.Such governance is not left to the discretion of the couples who are instead expected to obey these instructions as if they came directly from God.Those who have questioned such policies have been chastised and accused of being sex addicts or of being loyal to their primitive desire natures.Ex-members have described feeling abused in regard to sexuality and made to feel ashamed of being physically attracted to their partners.Many have stated that the influence of Bowes and Watts on their marriages was catastrophic.

Bowes and Watts also control the amount of time couples spend together and with their children.Ministers are required to spend excessive amounts of time performing ministerial duties that require late nights and early mornings.As the vast majority of ministers also hold full time jobs, many are overworked, exhausted and lack the time for leisure, exercise, outside interests and socializing.Ministers who have voiced concern over excessive work requirements have been ridiculed and accused of being lazy.In the case of married ministers, partners have very little time to devote to each other or to their children.Ministers who are parenting are directed to spend more time with OCS duties than with their children.Several ex-member parents have reported being told that it was sufficient for them to spend 15 minutes of dedicated time with their child each day.Others have reported being told not to help their children with their homework because that was the responsibility of the child’s schoolteacher.There have even been cases where a surrogate parent was assigned to a ministers’ child and that child was told to consider the surrogate to be their new source of parenting.

In recent months, several well respected and high ranking ministers left the OCS and communicated to Bowes and Watts that they had become tyrannical and abusive and that the organization had become dangerous and destructive.While these ministers were the first to openly criticize Watts and Bowes en masse, they were certainly not the first to leave the organization.A noteworthy statistic is that over 50% of those who have ever been priests in the OCS have left the group and would describe it as negative.Despite this high defection rate, Bowes and Watts have continued to abdicate responsibility.Instead they have maintained that ex-members have resigned exclusively because of flaws of their own.Moreover, they have demonized departed ministers by publically declaring that they: were possessed by demons, were agents of darkness, were riddled with fear and pride, had turned their backs on Jesus and Mary, had betrayed God, had fallen from grace, had led God’s children astray or had thrown their lives away.In one case, Watts told a departing minister that her marriage was shrouded in darkness and that any children conceived in such a marriage would be children of darkness.

Despite the group having a Code of Ethics and Whistleblower Policy that requires a formal investigation of any allegations of misconduct, no such investigation has taken place.On the contrary, Bowes and Watts have deliberately attempted to suppress dissention and have blatantly lied about the ministers who resigned and their reasons for doing so.They have also actively dissuaded members from speaking to ex-ministers.Some who voiced the desire to do so were warned against being lured into temptation.A recent technique that was used to suppress dissent was that Bowes and Watts emailed so called apology letters to select ministers who had left the group and cc’d the majority of OCS members.The content of these emails was misleading.While they were called apologies, they actually implied that the ministers had left for benign reasons and greatly downplayed any wrongdoing on the part of Bowes and Watts.It is my opinion that these emails represented an attempt at subterfuge and damage control and that Bowes and Watts used the forum of an alleged apology to circulate their own explanation for the mass defection of ministers.To further their suppressive efforts, Bowes and Watts had the email addresses of the ex-ministers blocked so that they could neither send nor reply to emails from members with an OCS email address.

There have also been various instances of financial abuses and indiscretions within the OCS.Ministers are not paid for their duties and are required to allocate large amounts of time to the OCS.A high ranking minister might spend between 15 and 30 hours per week performing ministerial duties.Not only do ministers not receive any financial compensation but they are required to contribute 10% of their gross income to the OCS.Furthermore, in order to accommodate group services, many ministers have purchased larger homes than they would have otherwise required and financed the additional expenses without any assistance.Ministers are also expected to work at bi-annual spiritual retreats at the groups retreat center. Again, they are not compensated for their work at these retreats but rather are expected to purchase their own airfare and pay full price for their attendance as well as their children’s attendance.Many ex-ministers who could not afford such expenses or who had difficulty devoting large portions of time to the OCS have reported being reproached and/or threatened with demotion.

It is also noteworthy that while all other ministers are unpaid, Bowes and Watts are each awarded a full salary with health benefits.Furthermore, when Bowes and Watts travel to the different COL locations throughout the country it has become common practice for members to collect money for their expenses.

The OCS has also solicited money both from group members and the general public under the pretense of raising funds for a temple that they claim will be dedicated to world peace.Yet Bowes and Watts have no immediate plans to construct such a temple and have instead funneled money to other construction projects designed to increase revenue.

Bowes and Watts have also displayed favoritism towards ministers who contribute the most financially and materially.Their emotional abusiveness has been greatly lessened in cases where a minister was contributing large amounts of money, covering the cost of an OCS facility or performing a key service.Those who have not been as useful to the OCS have been treated with much greater cruelty.

Finally, Bowes and Watts have commonly engaged in behaviors which have breached the confidentiality of ex-members.They have publically revealed confidential information about ex-members and have spoken about this information and the members in markedly negative ways.

Authoritarian and tyrannical organization

The OCS has become an authoritarian and tyrannical organization that encourages loyalty to the leaders of the group rather than to God.

While the OCS claims that it intends to bring individuals into a closer relationship with themselves and with God, it is my opinion that involvement with the group instead causes people to become less dependent on themselves and God and increasingly dependent on Bowes and Watts.

When the OCS was first established, group members were encouraged to cultivate a personal relationship with God and to live their lives according to what they felt God was directing them to do.Over time, however, Bowes and Watts have slowly supplanted reliance on and dedication to God with reliance on and dedication to themselves.

One of the key ways that this is accomplished is through an obsessive devotion to the process that Bowes and Watts call “getting guidance.”While the principle of seeking Gods divine will through meditation can be found in the teachings of other religions and is not inherently suspect, Bowes and Watts have perverted it in a number of ways.First, they claim that they have an unparalleled ability to discern Gods will and that they can know what Gods will is for an individual with a greater clarity than the individual themself can.Second, they require that all ministers report the guidances they receive to them for final approval.Finally, because of the powerful group dynamic that I will describe below, I believe that most ministers are actually entering into a process of intuiting the will of Bowes and Watts rather than truly seeking the will of God.

Bowes and Watts have repeatedly advertised that when they are speaking it should be assumed that God is speaking.Accordingly, it is commonly accepted that what Bowes and Watts say is the pure and clear word of God.In cases where a minister receives a guidance that is different from that apparently received from Bowes and Watts, it is assumed that the minister is incorrect.Any claim to the contrary is viewed as arrogant and the minister is chastised for committing the sins of pride and disobedience.

There have been many examples where Bowes and Watts have used the principle of guidance to manipulate a group member.In one case, Bowes and Watts attempted to pressure a minister into leaving her spouse.This minister was one of the most senior members of the OCS and had been chosen as the groups’ successor.Yet when the minister reported that the guidance she was receiving was to be faithful to her husband, Bowes and Watts asserted that she was wrong, attacked her character and threatened her with demotion.Another senior minister was informed that God wanted him and his wife to have children.When the minister reported that the guidance he was receiving was that they should not have children, he was also told that he was wrong, his character was similarly impugned and he was also threatened with demotion.There have been many other cases where a minister who sought to follow their own guidance was castigated.And many ex-members have reported being pushed into actions such as disowning their family, selling or purchasing homes, defaulting on loans, quitting jobs, beginning new careers or donating large portions of money to the OCS.Unfortunately, this list is by no means exhaustive.

Another example of the culture of obedience to Bowes and Watts can be seen in the way ministers have been instructed to council group members.Bowes and Watts recently began teaching that ministers should tell students what to do and expect their instructions to be obeyed as if they were issued by God.Ministers are directed to avoid imparting the principles of meditation involved in getting personal guidance with the rationale that only Bowes and Watts should be offering such instruction.Other examples of the exaltation of Bowes and Watts are the recent adoption of a protocol that requires group members to stand when Bowes and Watts enter a room and a ritual which involves members circling and prostrating to them as they are seated in elevated and adorned chairs.

In recent years some ministers have begun to adopt the abusive and unethical practices of Bowes and Watts. Particularly concerning is the fact that this trend applies especially to the ministers who have been appointed to lead the groups’ youth program.Elements of abuse, coercion and manipulation are increasing in the program.Some children have reported feeling bullied and insulted.Others have felt pressured to become more deeply involved in the OCS.Several have been confused and scared by teachings they received about sexuality and dating.Additionally, many of the children have begun to experience the negative repercussions of placing their self-esteem, self-image and self-direction in the hands of the programs misguided leaders.

Also concerning is the fact that due to the group dynamic described below, many otherwise well-meaning ministers are unknowingly serving as integral components of the machinery that has been so destructive to so many. Not only are they suffering themselves but they are also actively recruiting people into a malignant environment.

In summary, it is my observation that Bowes and Watts have supplanted God as the gold standard for the truth and the source of direction in members’ lives and that they have replaced God as the object of worship and reverence.Consequently, while members may claim that they are attempting to follow and worship God, I feel that they have been deluded into following the will of Bowes and Watts and worshiping them.

Group dynamics

Group dynamics within the OCS have created an atmosphere where members come to accept, normalize and even positively reinterpret negative practices which eventually cause severe psychological and emotional trauma including the loss of personal autonomy and identity.

An examination of the psychological and sociological literature will unearth considerable controversy regarding the topics of “cults,” “brainwashing” and “mind control.”Despite this contention, several landmark studies have incontrovertibly demonstrated the power of group dynamics and have been widely accepted by the academic community.The first one, commonly called “The Milgram Experiment,” was conducted by Yale University Professor Stanley Milgram.It examined the phenomenon of obedience to authority and clearly demonstrated that the vast majority of people were willing to deliver high voltage electric shocks to others if an authority figure told them to do so, even when they thought they were causing significant pain and suffering.A second experiment, known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment” was conducted by Stanford University Professor Philip Zimbardo.This study illustrated the psychological effects of being assigned the role of a prisoner or guard and demonstrated that people were willing to either perpetrate or accept psychological and physical abuse when provided with a legitimizing ideology and a social structure that supported it.An internet search of these experiments will yield many good references.Those looking for a single source can find an excellent BBC documentary called “Five Steps to Tyranny.”It discusses these two studies as well as others.Part 1 of 7 can be found on YouTube at. I include these experiments to substantiate the fact that apart from any debate about the legitimacy of “brainwashing,” it is a scientifically accepted fact that people can be powerfully influenced by the currents of group dynamics.I believe that these phenomena are at work in the OCS. The OCS is an organization that initially presents well.A newcomer will typically first encounter the ministers at a Center of Light (COL) rather than Bowes and Watts.These ministers are sincere in their desire to help others and the entry level classes and services that they offer emphasize universally accepted spiritual teachings as well as the traditional virtues of Christianity.The atmosphere is welcoming and supportive and most members have predominantly positive initial experiences.It is not until a member becomes more deeply involved in the OCS that the negative characteristics of the group begin to emerge.Unfortunately, as members increase their participation they also become immersed in a group dynamic which gradually skews their concept of reality and makes it difficult for them to detect negativity.This group dynamic has various components which I will describe below.

One of the primary components of this group dynamic is that the OCS places a tremendous emphasis on the cultivation of a state of openness and receptivity.Lectures focus on the fallibility of rational thought and the importance of trust and faith.Meditative practices encourage letting go and opening the heart.Many rituals and services focus on surrender.These practices and beliefs engender a state of profound suggestibility in the newcomer.Such a cultivation of receptivity is not unique to the OCS.Many religions prescribe it as a means of union with the divine and many new OCS members do initially find it helpful.However, it also makes members susceptible to the negativity of the organization and serves as the initiatory event in the establishment of the very harmful group dynamic.

A second element of this group dynamic is that the OCS places extreme emphasis on the importance of the “spiritual teacher” and the “teacher-student relationship.”Although these concepts are somewhat foreign to westerners, they do appear in many eastern spiritual practices.In these eastern traditions, however, great care is taken to ensure that the student-teacher relationship is grounded in an inherent respect for the autonomy and empowerment of the student.While these foundational elements usually exist when an OCS member first begins working with an OCS minister, the student-teacher relationship becomes inevitably contaminated by undercurrents of manipulation as Bowes and Watts become involved.This contamination is insidious as Bowes and Watts escalate their involvement with group members slowly.

The first activity that is undertaken with a spiritual teacher is an intensive process of self-examination known as a “Life Retrospection.”In the early years of the OCS, ministers guided students through this exercise with impartiality and members experienced positive results.Over time however, the ulterior motives of Bowes and Watts have adulterated the process.Group members past relationships and experiences are now cast in an overly negative light.This also occurs in relation to their present relationships and experiences.In this way, their conception of who they were in the past and who they are in the present is negatively reframed and destabilized.Upon completion of the life retrospection the member is given a new name which they are told represents the person that they will become.This further divorces them from their past and present. With the past and the present destabilized and negatively reframed, the member becomes increasingly dependent on the future.Because the key to this future is held by the OCS, the member is lured more deeply into dependency.

Another aspect of the group dynamic is that members are maneuvered into spending enlarging amounts of time with the group.Upon completion of the life retrospection, a member is offered the possibility of becoming a “spiritual student.”Bowes and Watts exert considerable energy enticing members into such an arrangement and ministers are told to constantly advertise its benefits.Being a spiritual student requires a high level of participation in OCS activities.At a minimum, students are required to attend multiple classes each week, several early morning services, special events, all spiritual seminars and all bi-annual spiritual retreats.They are also obligated to perform spiritual exercises twice daily, to send detailed notes to their teacher weekly and to meet with them biweekly.This necessitates that the member spends vast amounts of time with the OCS and its teachings.Such immersion also results in a growing social isolation and a loss of external cues.In time the group member begins to accept the alternate reality of the OCS as their own.Parenthetically, students are also obligated to give 10% of their income to the OCS and failure to do so results in termination of their studentship.

The adulation of Bowes and Watts further enhances the encompassing power of the group dynamic.As part of this adulatory practice, Bowes and Watts have assumed the titles of “Father Peter” and “Mother Clare.”True to these titles, most ministers feel that Bowes and Watts are their new parents.They are subservient to them and assume the roles of faithfully obedient and trusting children.As a student progresses Bowes and Watts become increasingly involved in their training.And in the wake of the assault that is waged against parents and family, members similarly begin to conceive of Bowes and Watts as father and mother.This establishes a powerful and pervasive parent“child dynamic that further entangles members in the influence of Bowes and Watts.

The group dynamic is also strengthened by a system of reward and punishment.Compliance with OCS dogma and subservience to Bowes and Watts is rewarded with praise and promotion.Defiance is chastised.Because Bowes and Watts have established themselves not only as parent figures but also as the mouthpieces of God, such rewards and punishments carry significant weight.An economy is created where happiness and success are only possible through submission and subservience.

OCS dogma also asserts that the meaning of life is the attainment of a spiritual experience that Bowes and Watts call “Self-Realization.”Because it is commonly accepted that only Bowes and Watts can bring a member into such an experience, members are essentially dependent on their favor for spiritual fulfillment.As a result, members caught in the group dynamic do not have practical recourse to mistreatment.They not only come to accept and normalize abuse but often internalize it as being due to flaws of their own.Bowes and Watts perpetuate this by regularly castigating members for their doubt, fear and disobedience in situations where it is actually appropriate for a member to doubt, fear and disobey them.Over time members even begin to reframe the misconduct of Bowes and Watts as positive or loving.

Another element of the group dynamic is the exploitation of the sincerity of the student and the perversion of the tenets of Christianity.Within the OCS, great emphasis is placed on pursuit of the Christian virtues of faith, trust and hope.Once immersed in the group dynamic, however, it becomes difficult for members to identify the blurring of the line between faith/trust/hope in God as opposed to faith/trust/hope in a person such as Bowes or Watts.The same pattern holds for matters of obedience to God vs. obedience to a person.In time, the sincere striving of a group member is perverted by the group dynamic and the position of God eventually becomes usurped by that of Bowes and Watts.

As the group dynamic continues to take hold, members increasingly place their sense of self in the hands of Bowes and Watts.Their self-image, self-confidence and self-direction are gradually infiltrated and controlled.In time, members experience a loss of personal autonomy and identity.In addition, as their dependence on Bowes and Watts increases, so too does the amount of abuse and unethical council that they experience.Long term members are ultimately left with a fragmented identity and a brutally wounded psyche.Yet, having been so thoroughly blinded by the group dynamic, it is difficult for them to identify that the problem is the very organization that they have been devoted to.

Bowes and Watts also use fear and intimidation to prevent defection.They frequently state that those who leave the OCS lose all consciousness of God and suffer severe negative karmic consequences.They also employ threats of an impending Apocalypse and state that the best chance of survival is affiliation with the OCS.

A final element of the group dynamic is a phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance.”After prolonged membership most members have become emotionally invested in and attached to the group.This investment makes it difficult for them to accept that the group has become destructive.Much like the phenomenon of loyalty to the abuser that occurs in dysfunctional relationships, members who have been the most abused often display the strongest attachments to the group.Many members have also been pressured into actions for which they harbor deep subconscious regret.In these cases it can be difficult for members to consciously face such regrets.Whether driven by emotional attachment or subconscious regret, questions about the legitimacy of the group result in a cognitive dissonance which a member will attempt to resolve by the easiest possible means.For many the easiest means of resolution has been to stay in the group and defend its practices.

All of these elements establish and support a group dynamic which causes participants to accept, normalize and even positively reinterpret the groups’ negative practices.Members eventually experience severe psychological and emotional trauma and a loss of personal autonomy and identity.

In conclusion

The OCS has become a dangerous and destructive organization and has been the cause of widespread devastation to countless individuals as well as to their friends and families.I encourage anyone in the group to carefully reevaluate their participation in it and to seek professional help if needed.And I advise anyone considering involvement with the group to steer clear of it.

[Editor's note: Cultnews has received repeated complaints abut Perter Bowes and OCS, which are consistent with the observations and points made within this article]

Update: It appears that the organization has split into two school groups. The schools called the “Centers for Light” are led by Clare Watts and another group of schools now known as the “Ruach Center” is led by Peter Bowes. Both groups of associated schools can be accessed at the Order of Christ Sophia Web site under “schools”.

The Daily Pennsylvanian (DP) published an article titled “Some religious organizations on campus show ‘darker side’” (April 5, 2012). This report included information about Rev. Moon’s Unification Church (UC), commonly called the “Moonies”, which is now using a new name “Lovin’ Life Ministries”.

Leaders of the controversial church, which has often been called a “cult”, disliked the DP article and ultimately demanded that it be retracted and removed from the newspaper’s Web site. The Ivy League publication established in 1885 caved in to the pressure and pulled the story. The student newspaper explained this was “due to a combination of factual and editing errors.”

Crescentia DeGoede, the local Philadelphia leader of a UC linked organization called the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles (CARP), crowed about the results she achieved through her meeting with DP staff. CARP is the UC organization commonly associated with proselytizing at college and university campuses.

DeGoede’s accomplishment was also reported by Dan Fefferman, the president of the so-called “International Coalition for Religious Freedom”, which has been characterized as a UC “front group”.

Rev. Sun Myung Moon

moontrib2reut.jpgAccording to full page ads paid for by Moon, which were run in newspapers across the United States during 2002, religious leaders in “Spirit World” had a meeting to confer special heavenly status upon him. Those assembled included Martin Luther, Karl Marx, Confucius, Jesus and God in a meeting during Christmas the previous year. And they unanimously decided that Moon is the “Savior, Messiah and King of Kings of all humanity.”

Moon also can be quite outspoken about his distaste for certain minorities. In one speech he called for a global government with him in charge and said that once empowered, he’d cleanse the world of gays, who he referred to as “dung-eating dogs”, which should be eradicated through a “purge on God’s orders.”

Does this seem somewhat similar to the rants and megalomania attributed to Charles Manson, Jim Jones or David Koresh?

Rev. Moon also was criminally convicted of tax fraud. He served a sentence in federal prison. And despite numerous appeals that conviction was never overturned or pardoned.

Moon’s former daughter-in-law Nansook Hong says, “Father [Rev. Moon] demonstrated contempt for civil law every time he accepted a paper bag full of untraceable, undeclared cash collected from true believers”. She adds, “There was no question inside the church that the Reverend Moon used his religious tax exemption as a tool for financial gain in the business world.” And that “Personally, the Moons had an almost physical aversion to paying taxes. Lawyers for the church spent most of their time trying to figure out how to avoid them. That’s why the True Family Trust fund was based not in a U.S. bank but in an account in Liechtenstein.”

Imagine how hard it must have been for the editors at DP to sit down with and defer to the demands of Moon’s church.

The DP deal

Fefferman announced that DP had “promised” to do the following:

1. Publish in their next issue at least a few of ANY letters to the editor our members submit to the DP before Wednesday, April 25th.
2. Publish a revised version of the “Darker Side” article on the Internet, in which they will correct their use of the terms Moonie and deprogramming¦The original version of the article will cease to be available after this revision has been made.
3. Publish a notification of the revision to the “Darker Side” article in print, directing readers to read the revised article online.
4. Publish a follow-up article featuring our contemporary movement in Philadelphia.
5. Communicate and consult with us each step of the way.
6. Read any quotes they intend to use from interviews with our membership to us before they publish them, upon our request.
7. Meet with Dr. Dunning [the professor who was misquoted by them in the original article] to understand his point of view and take corrective action for the misdeeds against him. They will also be encouraging him to write a letter to the editor, which they intend to publish.

DP has apparently complied with each and every UC demand.

The subsequent article published by DP titled “Creating a new generation of the Unification Church” reads like a “puff piece” based upon a UC press release filled with propaganda, rather than a legitimate news story.

“High pressure tactics” and “brainwashing” 

In this revisionist version concerns about cults are spun by an apologist into when “families feel…robbed of their children”, but children feel that “their families” are “being irrational and not letting them choose their religion the way they want to.”

“Choosing their religion the way they want to”?

The original DP article squelched by UC leaders reported about the “high pressure tactics” used by campus religious groups to recruit Penn students.

The New Zealand Herald reported about a speech made by Moon and published in 2004 on the Unification Church website. Moon said his followers “must cast aside their friends and teachers, even their parents, and follow the True Parents” (meaning Moon and his wife).

“Humanity must mercilessly eradicate all bonds and relationships with the satanic world, not showing even the slightest attachment, and in this way return to the zero point and mark the dawning of a new creation,” Moon added.

Some might even observe that Moon’s goal of reaching “zero point” seems like a cryptic allusion to the net result of what has been called “brainwashing”.

In fact, the UC has been “convicted of brainwashing” in Japanese court.

Of course according to Pastor Iwasaki Shota, supervisor of Lovin’ Life Ministries in Delaware and Pennsylvania, who is quoted in the newly revised article published by DP, this reflects a “situation in Japan”. He sees this as something like a conspiracy, which includes a “whole operation of media, government and police working on the side of the deprogrammers”. Shoto urges students “to work with Congress and ministers in the U.S. to help the situation in Japan.”

However, to better understand the background concerning UC problems in Japan read this “Joint Declaration Concerning the Moon Organization (September 26, 1997).

A former member that grew up in the UC told NPR, “Everything was a system of control…That’s what it seemed to me like. They were kind of breeding us to be a certain way. And if you weren’t that way, there was something wrong with you.”

Moon’s own daughter doesn’t necessarily disagree. “Those of us – myself included – who were born into this movement or born into this family, we had no choice in the matter”, In Jin Moon told NPR.

Another former UC member told NPR, “If you left the church, you fell off the face of the earth…It’s the worst thing you could do. One person told us at Sunday school once, that blessed children who fall out of the church go to a box underneath of hell.”

For more details about what it’s like to grow up in the UC read “Growing up with the Moonies“.

Information control

The DP deal also included making sure that no copy of the offending article remained online.

DeGoede told the UC Newsletter, “The executive editor of the DP told me by phone that she has ordered former deprogrammer Rick Ross to remove the DP article from his website, and he has said he will comply in a couple of days.”

The article as it was originally written had been archived at the Ross Institute Internet Archives (RI) within the Unification Church subsection.

After the DP editor called the previously published article was converted to a news summary, which remains intact within the RI archives.

Apparently encouraged by their success with DP UC leaders thought they might try another news outlet in their ongoing effort at information control.

RI received an email and registered letter from National Public Radio (NPR) about another archived news report titled “Unification Church Woos a Second Generation” (February 17, 2010). NPR requested that this article be removed from the RI archives.

The article was then converted to a news summary, which remains intact within the RI archives.

Why did UC leaders take such an interest in the articles archived at RI?

This probably occurred because both the NPR report and DP article prominently mention a new name now being used by the UC in North America — “Lovin’ Life Ministries”.

Anyone that does a Google search for “Unification Church” will find that the RI subsection devoted to the UC comes up on the first page of results.

This means that it is relatively easy to find out that — “Lovin’ Life Ministries” — is really just another name the UC is using to potentially recruit unwary college students.

Historically, deceptive recruitment tactics have been a frequent focus of complaints about Rev. Moon and his church.

Moon has used literally hundreds of names to promote himself, his agenda and/or pursuits over the years. This name game can be seen as an attempt to obscure the past and/or avoid all the bad press linked to Moon and his Unification Church.

The hateful “M word”

Rev. Moon’s followers now revile as “pejorative” the label “Moonie”, which they once considered a “badge of honor” in the 1970s. Today the “M word” is categorized by the US as “hate language”

It also seems that any criticism of the Unification Church is likely to be labeled “hate language” by UC leaders.

But just last week a British newspaper the Mail noted that “Moonie cult leader Sun Myung Moon” has the dubious distinction of being banned from entering Britain. He shares that honor with Louis Farrakhan and the American white supremacist Dennis Mahon.

Spin control?

Fefferman, a devoted disciple of Moon for decades is looking forward to participating at the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) annual conference in Montreal. He will present a paper titled “Are ICSA, Info-Cult, and the Unification movement ready for mutual dialogue?”

There will also be a panel discussion at the ICSA conference in July titled “Ethics, activism against, and dialogue with cultic groups” moderated by longtime cult apologist Eileen Barker.

Ms. Barker once received $25,000 from Rev. Moon to help fund her book “Making of a Moonie” (published 1984). In her book Barker generally minimized the damage done by the UC. Rev. Moon apparently got his money’s worth. Now it seems Barker may yet again yield further dividends.

ICSA’s Web site also confirms the planned event.

Eileen Barker was also once named prominently by fellow cult apologist Jeffrey Hadden in a memo he prepared proposing a plan to counteract the American Family Foundation, which is now known as ICSA. Hadden queried “whether it might be possible for the UC in collaboration with several other NRMs [new religious movements sometimes called "cults"] to raise a significant amount of money that could go–no strings attached–to an independent group, which in turn, would entertain proposals and fund research on NRMs.”

Can cultic groups really change and become ethical new religious movements?

Can Rev. Moon and the UC be trusted or is this all just contrived spin control?

Nansook Hong once remarked, “They [the Moons and UC] have orchestrated a remarkably successful campaign to win respectability and wield political influence. As usual, they have succeeded by deceitful means.”

Family business

If and when groups called “cults” do genuinely change this is typically precipitated by a dramatic shift in leadership. And if such a group wants to implement real accountability this is most often demonstrated through democratic reforms and meaningful financial transparency.

However, the UC appears to be run more like a family business than a legitimate church organization. There appears to be no meaningful accountability for UC leaders, except to Rev. Moon.

But Moon is 92, so it won’t be long now until his children begin carving up his multi-billion dollar business and spiritual empire.

The church remains essentially a family business ruled over by a hereditary dynasty.

All that appears to be happening is an old Moon is being eclipsed by new Moons.

Someone at the National Post in Canada isn’t exercising much due diligence these days concerning sources for news articles posted at the newspaper’s Web site.

An “uncategorized” article titled “Priest whose church was burned by mob jailed for breach of building code” was picked up on Thursday by the Post from the blog of a fugitive sex offender wanted on a warrant issued for his immediate arrest in the United States.

antonhein2.jpegFormer US resident Anton Hein (1996 police file photo left) is hardly a credible source for much of anything, but he runs a blog and assorted Web sites for profit from the Netherlands. Hein relies upon his Internet presence to sell Google ads and other assorted advertising for an income.

The article picked up by the National Post isn’t an original news story and relied heavily upon other sources such as Compass Direct News.

Interestingly,  Crosswalk (an evangelical Christian Web site) chose to go with the report by Compass Direct News rather than Hein, an evangelical and self-proclaimed “expert”.

So why did the secular National Post favor this fugitive sex offender with a link advising its readers to go there if they wanted to “Read the full story”?

CultNews reported about a similar mistake like this before.

The New York Times once recommended  Hein’s Web site as a resource for information about polygamists.

Later the newspaper scrubbed that recommendation.

Don’t the mainstream media have the time or patience to better research sources these days?

Here is a basic tutorial on how to avoid the embarrassment of unknowingly promoting this fugitive sex offender.

1. Click on the link  “About Religion News Blog“. A link at the top of this page appears “Who Operates Religion News Blog“, which states,  “Religion News Blog is published by Apologetics Index”.

2. “Apologetics Index” is Hein’s main Web site. At the top of that page is the link “About Apologetics Index“. And then on that page is the link “About the Apologetics Index Team.” Finally at the end of this list appears the name Anton Hein the site founder and leader of the “team” who was “born and raised in Amsterdam…briefly lived in Switzerland, Germany, and England — as well as 16-years in the USA — before returning to Amsterdam.”

Of course Mr. Hein doesn’t mention his criminal conviction for a “lewd act upon a child” and his stint in jail before being placed on probation. Shortly after his release Hein chose to violate probation by “returning to Amsterdam” without permission, which is why a warrant was issued for his arrest.

3.  A simple Google search of either “Anton Hein” or his site “Apologetics Index” should yield on the first page of results links to articles exposing Hein’s background. Under Anton Hein is “Fugitive sex offender runs counter-cult Web site“.  A search for Apologetics Index yields an index page about Hein.

Mr. Hein has chosen to bury his name behind a virtual labyrinth of links imbedded on a “team” list.

However, you would think that a news outlet like the National Post would take some time and click through a few links to confirm the credibility of a cited source.

And when someone makes such an effort to obscure their name there just might be a reason for it.

Coincidentally,  Hein’s brother Ruud Hein (listed on his team) “is an extraordinarily skillful WordPress Web site programmer and SEO specialist”. A search engine optimization (SEO) specialist is someone that attempts to improve a Web site’s search results. And Anton Hein has launched a number of Web sites such as “Cult Definition.com“, “Cult Experts.org“, “Cult Expert.com” and “CultFAQ.org” in an apparent effort to manipulate search results.

Isn’t it ironic that a man who would most likely be denied entry into Canada due to his criminal record and fugitive status can manage nevertheless to get into a prominent Canadian publication like the National Post as a cited source?

antonhein2.jpegThousands on Twitter follow a convicted sex offender wanted by authorities in the United States.

Anton Hein (1996 photo right), a self-proclaimed “expert” and “minister” dispenses religious news and advice from Amsterdam. However, the preacher is a probation violator with a warrant issued for his immediate arrest.

Mr. Hein was convicted for a “lewd act upon a child”, his 13-year-old niece, and served jail time in California before being placed on probation. Shortly after his release Hein chose to violate probation by leaving the country to relocate in Amsterdam without permission.

Hein uses his Web site “Apologetics Index” and assorted blogs as profitable platforms for Google ads. The former US resident and Dutch citizen has also managed to collect disability payments in the Netherlands, though he seems to be quite able at managing his Web business.

Despite pleading guilty to sex charges Anton Hein incredibly claims that he is innocent of any crime and calls comments about his criminal conviction “ad-hominem attacks“.

However, Mr. Hein has been listed as a registered sex offender in California. And he also has the dubious distinction of being named at a Web site as one of the “ministers who have sexually abused children”.

Supposedly an evangelical Christian Hein seems to have somehow forgotten the proscribed process for addressing bad behavior according to the New Testament.

The Christian scriptures explain that the first step on a genuine path of repentance requires that the sinner admit the sin and take responsibility, something Anton Hein appears unable and/or unwilling to do.

Instead, Hein bashes the United States judicial system, as if the courts could somehow be blamed for his crime.

Wouldn’t it be a more meaningful response if Mr. Hein summoned up the integrity to exemplify the old adage “practice what you preach”?

Despite all these glaring personal and public contradictions, Anton Hein, sex offender and self-styled preacher, has successfully managed to garner a faithful following on Twitter.

Update: Anton Hein has posted that “RNB’s Twitter stream is edited by David Anderson.” However,  Twitter followers should know that everything at “RNB” including its “Twitter stream” is ultimately controlled and operated by Anton Hein.

01newman.jpgFred Newman (photo above), notorious anti-Semite and purported “cult” leader died late Sunday July 3rd of renal and subsequent cardiac failure, he was 76.

NY1 reported Newman’s death and described him most notably as the “founder of the controversial New York City Independence Party”.

Fred Newman was a philosophy teacher, but was fired from seven colleges. Later he created something that he called “Social Therapy.” According to Newman, who was not a psychologist, this “therapy” helped people to “overthrow” what he labeled the “bourgeois ego.”

However, some former participants called Newman’s process “brainwashing.”

According to Newman his therapy is about “two workers, revolutionary therapist and slave/patient, [and their] struggle together to make a revolution through their practice.” The goal is “helping the slave reach the point of insurrection” and “to make proletarian truth and freedom where there is now bourgeois truth and slavery.”

However, Newman was hardly a “revolutionary” and somewhat “bourgeois” himself, with a four-story townhouse in Greenwich Village. He also often spent his  summers in the Hamptons and was chauffeured about in a Lincoln Town Car.

Newman taught that his therapy should include social activism. The net result of this activism appeared to be people working for Fred for free. This might include fund raising for one of his charities like All Stars, or perhaps petition drives for the Independence Party.
Newman headed a myriad of front organizations populated by his fervent devotees often called “Newmanites.”

“He had a long career of promoting unethical behavior in his clinics, children’s programs and politics in NYC”, explained Cathleen Mann. Mann, a psychologist and court expert witness who once debated Newman on television.

Long-time cult-watcher and researcher Dennis King describes the Newmanites as a “very bad…tightly organized cult composed of psychotherapists and skilled political operatives.”

King credits Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s support as playing a pivotal role in giving the group “access to teenagers in New York and to young adult volunteers whom they recruit…The researcher’s blog contains critical articles offering detailed information and penetrating analysis about the Newmanites, their fund-raising and political connections.

CultNews has reported about Fred Newman and his followers in the past.

A mental health professional once involved with Newman, but who later left his Social Therapy organization observed, “Therapy should be empowering and inclusive; it should help people build the lives they want. It should not be used as a recruitment tool for a particular movement.” The licensed counselor concluded, “Anyone considering cooperating or working with..and/or practicing Social Therapy should first read whatever historical and critical information is available.”

This week upon learning of Newman’s death the same counselor said, “If there is anything to be relieved about in this, it’s that maybe the group will fizzle out and stop using ‘therapy’ to introduce vulnerable people to their political agendas.”

Psychologist Cathleen Mann warned, “They are a disastrous group posing as legitimate psychology and counseling”. She added, “They still have Dr. Lois Holzman and nationwide recruiting centers, plus a large body of written work, and they might just find another leader”.

Associated Press reports that the conviction of self-help seminar leader James Arthur Ray (photo below) came quickly, after less than 10 hours of deliberation following four months of testimony and hundreds of exhibits. The jury concluded that the man, who once was a guest on “Oprah” and interviewed by Larry King, was ultimately guilty of “negligent homicide” in the wwwseattlepicom.jpegdeaths of three people, who sought enlightenment through his programs.

Instead of discovering the meaning of life, Ray’s victims lost their lives in his version of a “sweat lodge.”

This is not a new story.

Ray’s seminar format fits well within what is often called “large group awareness training” (LGAT), though its proponents would prefer to generically include it within what is euphemistically referred to as the “human potential movement”.

Since beginning my work in the early 1980s I have received persistent complaints about LGATs like the one Ray led from affected families, former participants and others concerned.

The Ross Institute Internet Archives includes news reports, articles, court documents and research material about LGATs.

LGATs are a burgeoning business and have become a virtual industry in the United States. Now spreading around the world such seminars have generate many millions of dollars in sales. Before beginning his criminal trial James Ray was reportedly worth millions.

Some of the LGATs included at the Ross Institute Internet Archives are Est, Landmark Education, Mankind Project, Sterling Institute of Relationship, Lifespring, Asiaworks, NXIVM and information most recently about James Arthur Ray.

Some LGATs have a long history of bad press, personal injury claims and repeated complaints. Nevertheless, they still manage to draw in new customers, despite the fact that critical information about them is often readily accessible through the Worldwide Web.

That critical information includes suicides, which have been linked to NXIVM and the Mankind Project.

Psychiatric casualties have reportedly been linked to EST and Landmark Education, which has repeatedly been the defendant in personal injury lawsuits. In recent years Landmark training has also been cited as background related to murders.

Litigation filed against Lifespring apparently led to that company’s demise.

LGATs are most often carefully crafted, deliberately planned and scripted programs, which seem by design to preclude or largely inhibit  a participant’s critical and/or independent thinking.  Many new initiates may only have a vague understanding in advance, about what they will actually go through within such training seminars. This ignorance is often reinforced through confidentiality agreements, which preclude the sharing of specific detailed information about the training with p0tential new participants.

Most LGATs appear to have the same inherent, systemic problems.

In a research project psychologist Philip Cushman listed 13 liabilities, which were first identified within encounter groups, but which Cushman later used to explain some of the core issues of concern regarding LGATs.

Cushman referred to LGATs as “mass marathon training” and identified the following key problems:

  1. They lack adequate participant-selection criteria.
  2. They lack reliable norms, supervision, and adequate training for leaders.
  3. They lack clearly defined responsibility.
  4. They sometimes foster pseudo authenticity and pseudo reality.
  5. They sometimes foster inappropriate patterns of relationships.
  6. They sometimes ignore the necessity and utility of ego defenses.
  7. They sometimes teach the covert value of total exposure instead of valuing personal differences.
  8. They sometimes foster impulsive personality styles and behavioral strategies.
  9. They sometimes devalue critical thinking in favor of “experiencing” without self-analysis or reflection.
  10. They sometimes ignore stated goals, misrepresent their actual techniques, and obfuscate their real agenda.
  11. They sometimes focus too much on structural self-awareness techniques and misplace the goal of democratic education; as a result participants may learn more about themselves and less about group process.
  12. They pay inadequate attention to decisions regarding time limitations. This may lead to increased pressure on some participants to unconsciously “fabricate” a cure.
  13. They fail to adequately consider the “psychonoxious” or deleterious effects of group participation (or] adverse countertransference reactions.

LGATs also often rely upon coercive persuasion techniques and authoritarian control, rather than careful consideration and independent thinking. That is why the LGAT process has been compared to the established criteria associated with “coercive persuasion” or “thought reform,” commonly called “brainwashing” in popular culture.

Sociologist Richard Ofshe identified the key factors that distinguish coercive persuasion from other forms of persuasion such as education and advertising and that also frequently seem to typify the techniques used by many LGATs.

Those factors include:

  1. The reliance on intense interpersonal and psychological attack to destabilize an individual’s sense of self to promote compliance
  2. The use of an organized peer group
  3. Applying interpersonal pressure to promote conformity
  4. The manipulation of the totality of the person’s social environment to stabilize behavior once modified

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton detailed the social control characteristics of organizations that operate what he described as “thought reform” programs.

Lifton identified eight primary themes or properties within rigid reform environments, which taken together contribute to a milieu of manipulation and totalistic control.

These eight criteria are:

  1. Milieu Control, through the control of information and communication
  2. Mystical Manipulation, or what can be seen as emotional and behavioral manipulation
  3. Demands for Purity, which requires absolute conformity to the behavior prescriptions as derived from the ideology
  4. Cult of Confession, expressed through the obsessive demands for confession without meaningful boundaries
  5. Sacred Science, the implicit agreement that the proscribed ideology is faultless
  6. Loaded Language, or the manipulation of language as characterized by thought-terminating clichés, which become a substitute for analytic thought
  7. Doctrine over Person, which means the reinterpretation of all human experience and emotion in terms of the group’s doctrine
  8. Dispensing of Existence, or the classification of those not sharing the ideology as inferior and not worthy of respect

At least six, but usually all eight of these characteristics, are evident within many LGATs.

Cushman concluded that LGATs can be determined to be dangerous when:

  1. Leaders had rigid, unbending beliefs about what participants should experience and believe, how they should behave in the group. And when they should change.
  2. Leaders had no sense of differential diagnosis and assessment skills, valued cathartic emotional breakthroughs as the ultimate therapeutic experience, and sadistically pressed to create or force a breakthrough in every participant.
  3. Leaders had an evangelical system of belief that was the one single pathway to salvation.
  4. Leaders were true believers and sealed their doctrine off from discomforting data or disquieting results and tended to discount a poor result by, “blaming the victim.”

Psychologist Margaret Singer noted the differences in various forms of persuasion and determined that programs, which were focused on gaining undue influence over participants, most often included six primary conditions.

These conditions are:

  1. Obtaining substantial control over an individual’s time and thought content, typically by gaining control over major elements of the person’s social and physical environment.
  2. Systematically creating a sense of powerlessness in the person.
  3. Manipulating a system of rewards, punishment and experiences in such a way as to promote new learning of an ideology or belief system advocated by management.
  4. Manipulating a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in such a way as to inhibit observable behavior that reflects the values and routines of life organization the individual displayed prior to contact with the group.
  5. Maintaining a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure in the organization.
  6. Maintaining a non-informed state existing in the subject.

The net result of such coercive persuasion techniques is the virtual shutdown, though a step-by-step process, of critical thinking. This renders victims intellectually defenseless and subsequently quite suggestible and vulnerable to the dictates of the group and/or leader. 

Ofshe and Singer specifically concluded that LGATs “appear more likely to induce mood and affect disorders.”

The researchers also cited miscellaneous reactions often associated with thought reform programs,  which included anxiety combined with cognitive inefficiencies, such as difficulty in concentration, inability to focus and maintain attention, and impaired memory (especially short-term); self-mutilation; phobias; suicide and homicide; and psychological factors affecting physical conditions such as strokes, myocardial infarction, unexpected deaths, recurrence of peptic ulcers and asthma.

Rather than being an anomaly, the tragedy that took place in Arizona under the leadership of James Arthur Ray should be seen as yet another warning about the dangers posed by many LGATs.

Some LGATs are potentially unsafe and may become toxic.

The toxicity of James Ray’s LGAT became so overwhelming it ended in death.

Notes:

The Politics of Transformation: Recruitment “ Indoctrination Processes in Mass Marathon Psychology Organizations” St. Martin’s Press 1993

Coercive Persuasion and Attitude ChangeEncyclopedia of Sociology Volume 1, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York by Richard J. Ofshe, PhD

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism” the University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill and London by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.

Cults in Our MidstJossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco by Margaret Singer, PhD

Characteristics of participants in the Forum, psychotherapy clients, and control participants: A comparative studyThe British Psychological Society 2005

Psychiatric Disturbances Associated with Erhard Seminars Training: I A Report of CasesAmerican Journal of Psychiatry March 1977 by Leonard  L. Glass, M.D., Michael A. Kirsch, M.D. and Frederick N. Paris, M.D.

Cult of PersonalityForbes Magazine October 13, 2003 Michael Freedman

An Espian’s Brief LifeThe Albany Times-Union February 1, 2004

Robert Jay Lifton’s eight criteria of thought reform as applied to Executive Success Programs” by Paul Martin, PhD published by The Ross Institute of New Jersey 2003

A Critical Analysis of the Executive Success Programs Inc.” by Paul Martin, PhD published by The Ross Institute of New Jersey 2003

 Thought Reform Programs and the Production of Psychiatric CausalitiesPsychiatric Annals 20:4, April 1990 by Margaret Singer, PhD, and Richard Ofshe, PhD

By Cathleen A. Mann, PhD

wayne-bent-strong-city-cult1.jpgWayne Bent, known to his followers as “Michael Travesser,” leader of The Lord Our Righteousness Church (LOR) in Northeastern New Mexico, recently ended a self-imposed prison protest fast.

 Bent received a 10-year prison sentence for sexual misconduct in December 2008. His criminal conviction was on a single count of touching the breast of a 16-year-old member of LOR during a “healing ritual.” 

 Mr. Bent is the self-proclaimed “prophet” of LOR, which has a small following within its compound known as “Strong City.” The group was the subject of an in-depth investigation televised by National Geographic titled “Inside a Cult.” Despite the fact that Mr. Bent and his followers spoke freely to reporters, the group continues to blame the producers of the documentary for its leader’s travails.

Bent and his church believe that anyone outside of their group is “the Beast.” Mr. Bent declared that he would “not eat at the hand of the Beast” while serving his sentence in prison.

However, on March 2, 2011 the prophet provided an explanation for ending his prolonged fasting, which included lengthy biblical and supposedly prophetic reasons. 

During his fast Bent proclaimed that “God” was going to release him from prison.  But of course that never happened and his sentence won’t end soon. He isn’t eligible for release until 2017. 

So why did Mr. Bent really decide to start eating regular meals again?

This was probably due to more personal, pragmatic considerations rather than anything prophetic and quite possibly health concerns.

 ”God told me I don’t need to fast anymore. So my family is buying me food in the store and I eat that. I don’t eat the prison food, since it is not good for me. God wants me to eat things that are good for me,” Bent said in a letter to LOR children (March 2, 2011).

Bent’s age (67 at time of sentencing in 2008) and apparent frailty certainly have made his life in prison more difficult.

And though he may prefer the relative comfort of the prison infirmary to a cell block, Mr. Bent probably doesn’t like the court-ordered forced feeding he has received.

Despite his criminal conviction Bent continues to insist he is a religious martyr. He steadfastly refuses to admit any wrongdoing regarding the females (some underage) he allowed and/or encouraged to lie naked with him in bed, while he stroked their “sternum.” Mr. Bent claims that he did not receive a fair trial. He and his followers say that the prosecutor and judge responsible for his conviction, as well as anyone else who criticizes the LOR prophet, is not on the side of “God.”

Bent explains, “So the purpose of my fast has been accomplished, and it has taken away the authority of the Beast. This little king with no clothes on has been revealed for who he is. But we warned the State early on. Over and over, proud men were given an opportunity to stand down, but their self-righteous boasting can now be seen by souls covered with the righteousness of God, as only farts in the wind.”

Such division, externalization, and refusal to accept responsibility for wrongdoing is a typical ploy of most cult leaders. 

I evaluated an LOR follower in 2009. This also included examining the inside workings of the cult group, which are pretty horrific.

Wayne Bent lacks the character to admit when he is wrong.  Instead he wants everyone to believe that he is the physical incarnation of the “divine.” He continues to write long missives to his followers from prison, which are difficult to comprehend, full of biblical references, but supposedly explain his every action and thought.

For example in his recent letter Bent states, “My fast wasn’t for myself; my fast was for the people. I gave myself for them. I was sacrificed for them. Now all of those who are led by the Spirit and could gain by these events have done so. There is no further need or purpose for my fast. And to those who cannot receive the truth, but willfully remain in their illusions, no amount of fasting would benefit them.”

At this point it’s hard to know how many LOR members actually believe Mr. Bent’s rambling letters and remain totally loyal to their imprisoned leader. 

But in my opinion Wayne Bent fears that he is becoming increasingly marginalized and irrelevant, so he continues to post on an obscure group Web site hoping to garner attention, while he remains incarcerated and isolated. 

Note: During the criminal trial of Wayne Bent cult apologist, Dr. J. Gordon Melton testified that Bent was a misunderstood religious leader. Melton seems to use this same apology for all cult leaders and controversial groups, including Scientology. However, his testimony apparently had little if any effect.

Cathleen Mann, PhD can be reached at cathleenmann@comcast.net

By Rick Alan Ross

During December I attended an international symposium concerning cultic studies in Shenzhen, China, which was sponsored by the Institute of Religious Studies of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Academics and experts from around the world attended and presented papers.

The papers presented examined everything from the evolution of destructive cults, to the personality characteristics of certain cult members, cult social interaction and various cultic methodologies. My paper was titled “Cult Deprogramming: An examination of the intervention process.”

At the conclusion of the symposium I had the unique opportunity to personally visit with former cult members in China.

The two women I spoke with were once actively involved in Falun Gong.

Falun Gong was founded in China during 1992 by a man named Li Hongzhi, who now lives in the United States.

China officially banned Falun Gong in 1999, declaring it an ”evil cult.” This view of the group was strongly reinforced by a horrific event, which took place on Chinese New Year’s eve January 23, 2001. On this date a small group consisting of seven Falun Gong practitioners set themselves on fire at Tiananmen Square.

A 12-year-old girl and her mother died. A middle aged man Wang Jindong was hospitalized with severe burns. Ms. Liu Baorong sustained no burns. At the last minute she decided not to set herself on fire. Mr. Liu Yunfang also was not injured, but as an organizer of the self-immolation was sentenced to prison. The two women I would meet, Ms. Hao Huijun and her daughter Chen Guo, were hospitalized with extreme injuries.

The story of this tragedy has been reported by the press, both in China and through Western media outlets, such as Reuters. I have read news reports and watched a video produced by “New Tang Dynasty Television” (NTDTV), which is a media outlet essentially run by Falun Gong practitioners.

Falun Gong first denied that those involved in the suicide attempt were even practitioners.

Later Falun Gong promoted a bizarre conspiracy theory, which implied that the tragic event was somehow staged by the Chinese government in an effort to discredit the organization and its leader.

Rather than admit that its intense anti-government rhetoric may have contributed to the tragedy, Falun Gong chose instead to attempt assigning blame elsewhere. Li Hongzhi and his followers refused to accept any responsibility whatsoever.

After requesting to meet with the two women survivors I was told a meeting would be possible after the symposium.

Former Falun Gong practitioners Hao Huijun and her daughter Chen Guo live in Kaifeng, which is near the Henan provincial capital of Zhengzhou. Historically Kaifeng was the capital of China during the Song Dynasty and once the largest city in the world. Today its population is about 800,000.

The two women live modestly in a government welfare housing project. Their simple one-bedroom apartment includes a private bathroom and large common area with a kitchen. There is a bed placed near the kitchen for an attendant. The fire left them both women without hands and disabled. Their faces are obscured by extensive skin grafts, the result of multiple surgeries. They have no ears, noses or lips.  Chen Guo has the use of only one eye. But they can speak, walk and seem to be in stable physical condition.

There are no mirrors in the apartment.

When I arrived Hao Huijun bowed, unable to shake hands.

dsc_2596-resized.jpgAfter our introductions I asked Hao Huijun about her perspective today, what she feels now looking back on the time she spent in Falun Gong. Is there a message she wants to share with current practitioners, particularly those in North America?

“I’ll take this chance to tell the Falun Gong practitioners in Canada and the US to stop practicing,” she stated bluntly. “I suggest they stop practicing Falun Gong and get rid of it,” instructed the former schoolteacher of 28 years who remains well-spoken and articulate.

Influenced by her mother’s commitment Chen Guo (photo above right in red) followed the path of Falun Gong, which ultimately led her to that terrible day at Tiananmen Square. She was a highly accomplished music student and pretty 20-year-old woman at the time of the tragedy. Early in our discussion Chen Guo left the room, explaining that she didn’t feel well.

But in a 2002 interview Chen Guo told Reuters, “I hope those who still believe in this cult can be awakened and throw it away. I don’t want to see another victim like me.”

Her mother explained, “In July 1999 the Chinese Government and the Chinese laws banned Falun Gong. As a citizen, we should have abided by the laws and given up practicing Falun Gong from then on. But we were obsessed at that time. And the suicidal burning occurred later on. We really feel regretful. We all suffered a great deal, brought about by the obsession. So tell [the North American Falun Gong practitioners] to never be obsessed…”

Obsessed?

How could the teachings of Li Hongzhi encourage and/or result in obsessive behavior?

Describing her professional experience with Falun Gong, noted cult expert and clinical psychologist Margaret Singer said that Falun Gong practitioners will “actually say ‘Don’t Think. Just recite the Master’s teaching.’”

That is how groups called “cults” through their teachings and practices can compromise critical thinking, impair reason and rational thought. Hao Huijun appeared to understand this.

“Please pass my words to Falun Gong practitioners: They should use reason in action¦if you look at things in a rational way, you will know what you should do,” she said. “Reason is important. In one’s life, one should never go to extremes whatever you do. One should use reason to learn how to do things, and have a good understanding…”

“Extremes”?

How could the practices of Falun Gong cause people to “go to extremes”?

American communication researchers and cult experts Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman explain in their book Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change:

“Almost every major cult and cult-like group we came upon teaches some form of not thinking or ‘mind control’ as part of its regular program of activity. The process may take the form of repetitive prayer, chanting, speaking in tongues, self-hypnosis or diverse methods of meditation¦.Such techniques, when practiced in moderation, may yield real physical and mental health benefits¦.Prolonged stilling of the mind, however, may wear on the brain physically until it readjusts, suddenly and sharply, to its new condition of not thinking. When that happens, we have found, the brain’s information-processing capacities may be disrupted or enter a state of complete suspension¦disorientation, detachment¦hallucinations, delusions and, in extreme instances, total withdrawal.”

Over the years Hao Huijun (photo below) has apparently managed to sort through her experience in Falun Gong. She hopes that current practitioners in the group will do the same.

dsc_2632-resized.jpg“Falun Gong caused so many problems. Why did these problems happen? [Falun Gong practitioners] should think about it with reason, with their own senses, and in a dialectical way. When we look at things from a normal sense, without bias, and with reason, we will know what we should do,” she said.

When told about the conspiracy theories propagated by Falun Gong concerning the self-immolation tragedy at Tiananmen Square Hao Huijun responded thoughtfully, placing it within the context of her own experience within the group.

“I thought in a similar way,” she said. “But it’s time for those who are practicing Falun Gong to calm down and think reasonably…Why were we burning ourselves? It was not that the government forced us into suicide, although the rumors went so. This is not the truth.” She concluded, “Before we fully understood, we used the same arguments and same logic in regard to incidents caused by Falun Gong.”

I told Hao Huijun that I have received complaints from families in America that Falun Gong practitioners often refuse medical care and/or discontinue medications based upon their beliefs.

“They should consult a doctor and take medication,” she responded. “Tell them to see a doctor when their children fall ill. Don’t impose what you regard right on your children,” she said. “You can see the disastrous effect this caused my daughter. I really regret that now.”

The regret Hao Huijun feels must at times be overwhelming.

China has mandated a one child per family policy, which means that Chen Guo is her only child.

Hao Huijun’s regret includes living every day with her daughter and seeing the results of that past obsession with Falun Gong. Despite the reclamation of her reason, there is nothing she can do to change the face of this reality. An awful burden, but one that she seems to accept.

Still wanting to fulfill her role as a teacher Hao Huijun hopes that others might benefit by learning from her Falun Gong experience. She wants to share the knowledge that she and Chen Guo have acquired so painfully.