Communal Abuse and Cults
Communal abuse is a type of abuse that is exerted, in part, by victims (survivors) upon each other in the course of aspiring for something good within a intentional community. Community abuse is almost always masterminded by a leader, and one hallmark of an abusive community is leader-on-member personal abuse. This abusive proclivity comes largely from the psychopathic qualities of the leader, which pre-date and usually explain the formation of the group. However, the availability of a large quantity of 'de-selfed,' vulnerable victims is explained by the overall workings of the abusive community. In effect, it perpetuates survivor-on-survivor abuse.
Abusive communities are often called cults. A consensus definition of "cult" has been hard to reach in our society, because there exist separatist or isolationist communities, that, while very different from the mainstream, are not abusive. Attempts have been made to define cults by aspects of high demands, total commitment, or unusual beliefs. High demands and insistence on total commitment can be part of cult technique but also part of excellence, such as in the Navy Seals. Defining cults by the beliefs held has been tricky, because freedom of belief is part of individual integrity. Poorly implemented attempts to define or identify cults in the end helps those communities that are abusive, by sowing doubt.
Better discriminative criteria are needed. This page instead defines communal abuse by the systematic traits that weaken all common members' cognitive and self-protective functions. These traits have been in evidence in diverse groups, such as Stalin's Soviet Union, multi-level marketing schemes, some religious sects, 'utopian' intentional communities, some non-profits, and some psychotherapy movements.
Abusive communities exist on a spectrum as far as controllingness goes. It seems useful to think in terms of two tiers of such communities: a tier of fervent communities that are formed around a sincere belief but devolve into abusive practices, and manipulated communities, that combine a psychopathic leader and strong conditioning against self-protection. Many communities are manipulated from the beginning, but it is possible for a fervent community to 'cross-over' into a manipulated community as the leader functions in an accountability vacuum and moves into more extreme abuse.
Communal abuse has a unclear, perhaps limited overlap with intimate partner violence. Both do entail the misuse of human attachment needs. Also, there is a type of damage in common, that of 'de-selfing', so some understanding is perhaps useful for survivors of domestic abuse as well as survivors of communal abuse.
The Fundamental Vulnerability
No belief, simple, profound, or bizarre, by itself, is able to keep a large number of people cohesively together through abusive experiences. Rather such communities misuse normal attachment behavior. With rare exception, people feel insecure because they do not feel unconditionally acceptable. This leads to trying to find and fulfill the conditions of achieving unconditional acceptance. This of course is a contradiction but it is a common situation. Abusive communities promise unconditional acceptance, (often in the form of realizing some perfected state or afterlife outcome in which one is so manifestly good one cannot be rejected). Then life in that community becomes one condition after another. Members are often led to believe they have unconditional acceptance and that what is asked is to be an expression of gratitude but the truth comes out when they fail or try to decline.
It is a myth that members of an abusive community are mentally or emotionally troubled upon joining. Actually such individuals are usually rejected because their sensitivity would lead them to exhibit distress from maltreatment publicly. What is wanted are individuals that are able to hide their suffering from themselves and others.
The First Threshold
The first threshold of abuse in communities seems to be the disallowance of any balance point between the needs of the group and the needs of the individual. This is not to say the individual is encouraged to prioritize the group needs way above his or her own, but rather it is not allowed to even think in these terms. That is, the self doesn't exist. This is the ultimate negation of the self. This is loss of autonomy. This sets the stage for the exploitation of members.
The Second Threshold
The second threshold of abuse is blind obedience Doing whatever the leadership asks is either held as the highest virtue, or the strongest sign of virtue. This is not reasonable deference in the service of discipline or formation, it is unquestioning obedience. It is not fidelity to a principle or a cause but to a person. Humans generally find it easier to be loyal to a person than to an idea, this is attachment behavior. Abusive communities always identify compliance or surrender as the greatest good.
Obedience becomes a powerful tool for manipulation, because anything, even harmful acts, or acts contrary to putative beliefs, can be made 'good' by making them the subject of obedience to the leadership. This is how people trying to be good can be made to do bad things. The reason many countries compile lists of cults is because a large number of very obedient people always poses a potential security risk. This is loss of integrity. This sets the stage for the exploitation of others by the members.
Conditioning is modifying behavior by linking desired responses to events that would not elicit those responses spontaneously. In abusive communities the desired response is always compliance. Conditioning starts by pairing something that normally would elicit compliance, like a gift, with something that would not necessarily elicit compliance like a difficult demand. After a time, a difficult demand tends to bring out compliance by itself. Conditioning decays if not renewed but in a controlled setting renewal becomes part of the routine.
Other Common Elements of Communal Control
- Special Leader. The rightness of the community is believed to reside not in set beliefs, not in long-established practices, not in durable principles, but in the guidance of the present leadership, which is the only source of truth. Because of this, ideology and rules may change quickly or even reverse. This is a set-up for manipulation.
- Doctrine of Depravity This is the belief that members instincts, desires, tendencies, feelings, and inclinations, can't be trusted. If these things agree with the leadership fine, but if they do not, it is evidence of just how much the member needs the community. By definition, any assertion of self-interest becomes wrong, and any boundary, which is a product of self-interest is also wrong. Also, the naturalness or ease of an action (or its opposite) no longer can be used as a criterion of healthiness.
- Panders to Dependency Needs Every adult has a residual desire to be taken care of by strong and wise parents (but this cannot work for adults). Abusive communities offer, usually unconsciously, the illusion of unconditional parental care by using paternalistic metaphors and protecting members from adult decisions. Dependency that is indulged in this way grows in the members over time making leaving even more unthinkable. Many daily routines in abusive communities, while exhausting, have a 'pre-school' quality to them.
- Communal Living This limits or eliminates non-believing influences, eliminates privacy, and prevents cognitive re-grouping. It is essential for 'milieu control' as defined in the next section. It also severs prior relationships with neighborhoods or settings. Travelers are often preferred for recruitment because they have no previous ties to the larger community.
- Communal Businesses. This extends all the aspects of communal living to work time. Usually members are expected to give up previous jobs, even skilled professions and work only in these businesses.
- Cloaked Recruitment. Often free classes are offered, or some very low commitment meeting is advertised. The name the group is commonly known by is not used, lest that alert potential recruits. These meeting may be 'packed' with group members who are posing as new people, and these confederates evince great enthusiasm to influence potential recruits. As any interest is shown, slightly more committed activities are presented as a way to pursue this interest. Extreme friendliness and 'love-bombing' is applied at this stage, so that later if there is hesitancy when more is requested, hurt and betrayal can be simulated to pressure the recruit to stay.
- Controlled Sex and Romance. A fundamental practice is to prevent members from forming any alliance or loyalty other than to the leader and the group. This extends to sex and romance because that forms a strong bond. Mostly commonly celibacy, (except for the leader) is enforced, even for married couples. Also commonly, the leader will put couples together or separate couples. Less commonly, having sex with anyone that asks is expected. This elimination of selection has the same effect of keeping bonds from forming. Or marital sex may be allowed, but special clothing or routines are required, which eliminates the spontaneity and passion.
- No Lateral Attachments. Friendship based on feeling are discouraged, even within the group. If people are close, they may be moved around to break it up. Even pets are usually discouraged.
- Leaving is Taboo. Whatever the ideology, it always includes a doctrine that membership must be lifelong. Because there is no such thing as 'trying it out for a while' critical thinking and considerations of whether the experience is agreeable go out the window. It also blocks the natural human response to maltreatment (which is to leave).
- Devaluing the Outsider This has many functions: 1) Isolates members from opposing ideas, 2) Isolates members from sources of attachment that would compete with the leader or community, 3) mobilizes the survival drive in members which is channeled into cult activities, 4) justifies deceptive practices, 5) provides a target to safely displace anger at oppressive conditions.
- Children Raised in Common. This is to weaken parent child bonds, which like romantic and sexual relationships, would divide loyalties. Children are indoctrinated into beliefs, that is, neither critical thinking nor comparison is not allowed. The leader may keep all parental authority to her or himself. Because children tend to be natural truth-tellers, there is a rush to get children to adopt an (approved) adult perspective and not "just be kids."
- Elimination of Leisure. In an abusive community, there is no time off, not unstructured time, no days off, no vacations, no sabbaticals, and no retirement. There is usually an enormous amount of physical work, and inefficiencies are sometimes maintained on purpose. Other time is usually spent in directed study or groups. This eliminates time to think, to reflect, to observe closely, to form real friendships, or to debate matters. It also forms the core of economic exploitation.
- Greed This is unique to multi-level marketing (MLM) but it is how such organizations work. Ostensibly MLM is not a controlling situation, in that participants usually do not live together, are free to read what they want etc.. However, in order to advance levels, participants must 'voluntarily' invest themselves in the cognitive frame and the activities of the organization. If one stays only at the entry level, one expends more than one gets. Some participants do stay at the periphery because they do not have the skill set to advance, but this is contrary to their objective. The situation is one in which skepticism is penalized monetarily and aggressive gullibility and proselytizing is rewarded. Ingeniously, most of the abuse is self-imposed.
- Ladders. Everyone is comforted by evidence that he or she is 'getting somewhere.' But in adult life, there are very few concrete systems that provide that. Abusive communities both provide different positions of status to obtain, and a closed group in which the status is uniformly recognized. Compliance is either covertly or openly the criteria for promotion, and so an unquestioning attitude is given incentive. It goes without saying that all progress on the ladder can be lost for dissent or leaving.
- Secrecy. Key parts of what happens in the group are kept secret certainly from the outside, but also from a large portion of the membership. Often what is kept secret are practices or beliefs that actually contradict the more benign information that is used for recruitment.
- A Security Force This is not always present but when it is, it is used to eliminate dissent. It may even have uniforms and a para-military flavor. It is justified on the basis of security and protection of members. Security always rationalizes and disguises loss of freedom. This force is always somewhat privileged which creates a feeling of being an insider which intensifies loyalty and obedience for the force members. These members can be trusted with 'secrets' because secrecy seems justified to security personnel. Sometimes the security force is called a crisis or mental health force.
- Dissent Labeled as Mental Illness The Soviet Union is famous for locking dissidents up in mental hospitals. Other abusive communities may not have locked hospitals at their disposal but labeling a dissident as 'crazy' is still effective at undermining the dissenting message and creating fear of thinking in unorthodox ways. Merely expelling a dissenter lends some credibility or requires an explanation. Also because of the extreme pressure to conform, dissent where it does happen, usually is released only when a member is at her or his wit's end and is perhaps hysterical or emotionally distressed.
- Manipulated Aspiration. There is a natural tendency for humans to want to outdo others to prove worthiness. This is just as or even more true inside an abusive community. The leadership often understands that dictating an oppressive practice can cause resistance, even if silent resistance. Instead, the leadership suggests that those members who do X are 'doing well' or favored, but indicate it is optional. X is usually something very time consuming (fund-raising 16 hours a day, meditating long hours etc) or is actually impossible so that the seeking of it is all consuming. When members seek to be favored in this way, the motivation is internal (even though it has been manipulated) and so resistance is bypassed. Eventually, the practice becomes a group norm.
- The Emperor's Clothes This is a familiar tactic of manipulation where it is suggested that something very fine is happening when in fact nothing is happening. To make it work further, it is suggested that only the refined can appreciate what is happening. Very quickly an insecure group member will say (and often believe) that he or she actually sees it happening. This starts a chain reaction in which almost always everyone goes along or at least keeps silent.
- Compartmentalization. As the bond of the member to the group becomes stronger and stronger, he or she is incrementally allowed to know secrets. The cognitive and moral dissonance is counter-balanced with feeling special and time invested. This is really a form of grooming. Also no one is allowed to know everything that is going on. This keeps members divided and confused.
- Involuntary Transgressions or 'Thought Crime' Thoughts, desires, and doubts that deviate from the approved agenda are stigmatized as betrayals. Since everyone has these whether they want them or not, this has the effect of keeping everyone feeling guilty. It also keeps conversations superficial because no one wants to share what they are really thinking.
- Constant Guilt It is hinted if not plainly stated that members are not doing enough, or are doing wrong things. This keeps any of them from feeling they the standing to question or oppose anything.
- Altered States. These are states of mind that are discontinuous with the one's usual state of mind. Examples are from meditation, hyperventilation, hypnosis, fasting, restraining bodily functions unnaturally, chanting, prayer, sensory deprivation, sauna or sweat lodge, extended aerobic exercise, or sleep deprivation. All these methods, in modest doses, can have a role in personal growth. In fact most initiates coming out of the mainstream culture are grateful for being shown a more biological, sensory based experience than they were aware of. Altered states do not intrinsically lead to spiritual or emotional development, nor are they themselves evidence of it. They do have the effect of making all information, memory, and history of the 'usual state' seem irrelevant or inferior. The role this has in separating the pre-community experience from community experience is obvious. Commonly the altered state is misidentified as actually being or being near some desired special blissful state, and so great harm can arise from over-indulgence or trying to 'push through.' This harm can be sickness or death, but also cognitive disorganization or weakening.
Tactics and Traits of a Cult Leader
What is of the greatest interest in understanding manipulated communities is "how he or she does it." That is, how does a leader that clearly from the outside does not provide good guidance or example manage to attract and retain devoted, even worshipful followers. Some of the traits below make the cult possible, others are made possible by the cult's existence. There often is no clear distinction to be made between the two. Unlike a legitimate spiritual tradition, many cults fall apart after the leaders death because his or her machinations were necessary to keep it going.
- Self Promotion Leaders do not hesitate to put themselves forward as able to do great or incredible things. Because lack of humility on this scale is unusual, there is a tendency for many to believe it!
- Doubtlessness Total lack of doubt is only seen in psychopaths, but for the doubt-ridden it is taken as evidence of knowing the right thing to do. And later, if the facade crumbles, it will be taken as a sign of sincerity!
- Above Accountability The leader is held out as different from ordinary mortals. Often the leader is said to be picked by God. The leader then has different 'rules' (really no rules) and lives very differently than members, often lavishly. This privilege, wealth, and adoration is often the real reason the leader has founded the community. The disparity is usually concealed, but to the extent it is not concealed it is rationalized as necessary for the leader to do his or her 'special' work.
- Claims to Be Goodness. That is, the leader doesn't only claim to 'know' goodness but to be it. Therefore anything the leader does or wants is good, without question. This dovetails with the doctrine of obedience for members.
- Pressure-Release Skillful manipulators push a target with negative attention, then suddenly become nice. When pressure is suddenly released, the target experiences relief feelings which are pleasant and lead to feelings of gratitude, even if the very same person was the one being abusive.
- Intermittent Reinforcement This emanates from the pressure release described above but it is a stronger and different effect. Warm supportive treatment is provided unpredictably amongst abusive treatment. The way intermittent reinforcement works is that when the reinforcement doesn't come, the person learns to keep trying because it will come eventually. In this context it means that abuse becomes a cue to try harder. Abusive leaders are often very skilled in recognizing the breaking point of mistreatment and flipping to warm treatment or rewards.
- Belief Teasing Most people have a strong need to believe in something meaningful. Adept cult leaders imply that they have something life-altering to believe in, but remain very vague and hazy. This allows members to insert their hopes and dreams, perhaps even unconsciously. It also keeps skepticism and the application of critical thinking at bay.
- Hides Behind Interpretation Ambiguous passages in ancient texts will be interpreted to fit the leaders desire. but unlike a request from the leader, to refuse is defy a divine or supernatural power.
- Pseudo-Esotericism Leaders (like everyone else) often know a few things that are arcane. However, unlike everyone else, they use snippets strategically to suggest deep, thorough, or well reflected understanding which just isn't there. Gaps may be filled in ad hoc by pure invention. Both the unusualness of the subject and deference to the leader prevent any probing
- New Dawn Leaders will always indicate that they are doing something new that has never been done before. This defeats any comparison, and is a set-up for flipping good and bad.
- Power Hunger The group channels considerable money to the top, which spends it not for humanitarian work, but to buy advertising or influence to gain secular or practical power. Members are encouraged to work in positions where they access to political powerful people or organizations. Celebrities may be courted and given special treatment to gain social power.
- An End that Justifies Any Means. Bringing, say, salvation to the entire world, is a promise that if it was credible, renders any damaging action irrelevant because it will be more than made up for. Manipulative leaders justify everything as means to a fantastic end.
- Excess Often the leader will collect cars, exotic animals, houses or some other items of value in an indiscriminate, over-the-top way. This contrasts with the general poverty of regular members. While it may seem that this would seem to discredit and expose the leader, it usually has the opposite effect, almost as though there is some symbiosis between the two extremes.
- Spectacles These are meaningless displays with a lot of sensory elements but no real continuity or function. These act as diversions, and as means of making it seem something profound is happening, without the need for any substance. These differ from legitimate spiritual rituals in that, instead of repetition and reflection, the emphasis is on novelty and distraction.
- Charisma. The leader often makes an unusually strong or magnetic impression in person. This is usually due to inordinate self-confidence, lack of normal inhibitions, and shallowness of emotions that makes 'putting it on' easy. It is often taken as evidence of specialness, however.
- Naturalness. The leader lacks self-consciousness and has nothing to worry about. Disciples on the other hand, are guilt-ridden, tongue-tied, hesitant, and distrustful of their own impulses. By contrast, the leader seems gifted. The leader appears very independent, which appeals to members struggling with dependent tendencies.
- Transference Cure A person seeking deeper happiness is vulnerable to identifying with an unnaturally positive appearing person who claims to have it all together. The unconscious fantasy many of us have to ourselves 'have it together' is fulfilled in the 'transference' and targets do actually feel better. Like all dissociative effects however, this will wane over time. It can set up an 'addictive' cycle where the target wants to get 'deeper' in the program, or closer to the leader, to keep the transference cure working. Most popular self-help gurus function this way, they provide long talks that imply they have deep truths and are experiencing bliss. Only very general truisms and anecdotes are related however, rarely concrete practices or actual actionable principles..
- Claiming Unusual Powers or Abilities This always has an attraction for those who feel powerless, because it speaks to the illusion that someone special can come to set things right. There is often the hint that if a disciple is deeply devoted, he or she will get a little bit of special power her- or himself. The leader may claim or imply divinity, or the gift of special powers from divinities or aliens.
- Performs as a Mentalist This is a way to seemingly back up claims of unusual abilities. A mentalist is a type of performer or illusionist that claims unusual mental, intuitive, or 'channeling' abilities. The basic technique employed is 'cold reading' in which high probability guesses are made and then misses are minimized or rationalized quickly and 'hits' are emphasized and pursued. The target ends up volunteering all the real details although the mentalist will act like they had the details in mind already. The technique is made stronger by doing it in front of a group where is thee is even a higher probability that someone in attendance 'recognizes' the guess. Channeling or mediumship is another form of cold reading. 'Hot reading' is where information about the target already obtained from some source or from observation is presented like it is being suddenly divined on the spot. Mentalism also exploits the Forer Effect to the maximum.
- Rewriting History Stalin was famous for this. Outside the Soviet Union it was preposterous because previous history was well-documented, but inside, he controlled information. The protagonist of Orwell' novel 1984 in fact has a job re-writing history. All effective cult leaders do this. It has the function of making opposition from former disciples disappear, and disguises impulsive changes.
- Glibness A fast, well-spoken explanation seems true even if it is just double-talk
- Venality The leader bargains and makes deals with those that cannot be seduced or intimidated in a power-savvy way, never standing on principle.
- Rewards Informers Members are usually starved for attention from the leader and so informing becomes a means of improving station. This eliminates trust or any breathing room to discuss different points of view.
- Naked Emperor The leader surrounds him- or herself with uncritical believers, and since there is a tendency to change one's opinion to conform to consensus, members that do not 'see' the attribute believe it is their own failing.
- Scapegoats Leaders take credit for successes but blame failure on others. Members join in condemning the scapegoat because they are happy it is not them.
- Bribery This is often used just as a rebellious member is wavering, and it is not seen for what it is, but rather taken or described as healing benevolence.
- Ad Hoc Policy Changes Rules and practices can change suddenly. This allows coercive actions or manipulations to be disguised as actions for the good of the community. The real reason may even be the leader's boredom. This 'off-the-cuff' quality rather than a sign of not knowing what one is doing, is explained as a mark of inspiration.
- Keeps Inner Circle This holds out the possibility of advancement or favor to common members, and trains and deputizes the elite members in psychopathic practices. Everyone is kept busy trying to please the leader.
- Encourages Dependency This is done by encouraging all ties to the outside community, as mentioned, but is also done by discouraging education, forbidding personal property, and moving to remote or different locations.
- Manipulation of VIPs Celebrities or politicians are wooed and shown a very different experience in order to lend credibility to the cult.
- Narcissism The leader needs ever greater supplies of admiration, and the community becomes increasing organized around practices of adoration.
- Thrill-Seeking The utter lack of accountability, and unbridled excess can lead to boredom and disinhibition together. This along with psychopathic traits can lead to thrill seeking, both in nominally acceptable ways such as skydiving, but also in sexual abuse.
Cognitive Abuse and Thought Control
Apart from the tactics of leadership, the cultish qualities of an abusive community are evidenced by cognitive abuse, in which the critical thinking and self-determination abilities of members are weakened and manipulated. Cognitive abuse is very different than addressing skepticism or even defending orthodoxy. In a non-abusive community debate or at least questioning is encouraged-in an abusive community debate and questioning is rendered impossible.
Robert Jay Lifton has famously developed the concept of 'Thought Reform', in which he describes eight main ways The result is an inability to detect falsity and exploitation, which often persists even after exiting the community. These eight ways are adapted below to emphasize the abusive aspects for the survivor.
- Milieu Control. This involves both restriction and manipulation of information and communication within the community. All contact with the outside is controlled and monitored. Reading matter, television, radio and internet are restricted. Conversations that question or analyze what is going on are blocked or interrupted. More nefariously, false or distorted information will be given about the outside, with no opportunity for the member to verify.
- Mystical Manipulation. False origin stories or very selective accounts are given about the leader to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. This is presented like news or spontaneous story telling, but is in fact planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to give the impression that the member has only by luck entered something very special.
- Demand for Purity. The desire for purity is latent in most people as means of being lovable but of course purity is an abstract concept not an actual natural reality for humans or anything else. Abusive communities exploit this common desire by 1) Painting the outside world as impure (which is easy to do) and 2) Promising purity will be obtained through the group. This promise can't be kept of course, but this will be blamed on the member, who will redouble his or her futile efforts. To discipline wayward members, their impurity will be referenced, as though it was an actual misdeed. When impurity substitutes for badness, all moral compasses are confused, as for instance, when a leader's intrusive or violating behavior gets designated as desirable because it is purifying.
- Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members' "sins," "attitudes," and "faults" are discussed and exploited by the leaders. Since the community or leader will define portions of normal human functioning as wrong, members are never 'without sin.'
- Sacred Science. The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Often the ideology is impractical, illogical, a string of bland truisms. or even gibberish. Members will then fault themselves for failing to understand or not being moved, or they will pretend that they are due to peer pressure. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for the truth, is likewise above criticism.
- Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members' thought processes to conform to the group's way of thinking.
- Doctrine Over Person. Member's personal experiences or are subordinated to the sacred science. Any contradictory experiences are denied or interpreted as some failing of perception or understanding.
- Dispensing of Existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group's ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.
Janja Lalich has added a unique aspect of cognitive abuse:
- Bounded Choice It is well understood by now that the choices allowed a member in an abusive community are very limited. However, there is a natural human drive to make some choice and have some sense of autonomy. The effects of long-term limitations in choices is to imbue the choices that are made by a member, however bizarre to an outsider, as legitimate and self-determining. Emotional investment in the choices, including the choice to stay, increases over time. A shaky 'self' develops around the options taken, even if all the available options had been bad. It is a well-documented social phenomenon, that the worse people are treated, the more loyal they are, because they have developed reasons 'of their own' to stay. This is a concept that applies equally to intimate partner violence.
Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman have added a concept of induced brain dysfunction they call snapping, which is perhaps an element of what is popularly called brainwashing:
- Snapping is a continuous shut down in normal daily critical thinking and mental reconciliation that seems to occur when the mind is overwhelmed by cognitive dissonance, yet the person is in an intense environment that denies dissonance and the possibility of dissonance. Snapping seems to happen suddenly and Conway and Siegelman speculate on a neuro-chemical basis. There is seen in the person a 'hollowness' and a personality change in the sense of considerable subtraction from the previous normal personality. Snapping seems to yield when the affected person is allowed/forced/encouraged to use critical thinking and reasoning.
Also some traditional spiritual practices can be applied in excess to disable cognition:
- Meditation The benefits of judicious meditation are well documented. but the benefits of meditation assume a non-predatory environment. There is an unmistakable high prevalence of meditation practice--always for very long hours--within abusive communities. Besides autonomic relaxation, meditation trains brainwaves to change (lower in frequency) from a preponderance of beta waves (problem solving) to alpha (relaxation) and beyond to theta (inhibition) and delta (absorption and sleep). This is why mediation can address 'monkey-mind' very well. However, not only can 'pushed' meditation consume all leisure hours, it is intentionally a practice of suspended reasoning. Perhaps meditation eventually can produce a protective wisdom beyond everyday critical thinking. But at an intermediate stage, together with other manipulations, meditation can aid and abet cognitive abuse and thought control.
- Chanting Cognitive thought occurs in the format of language even when 'silent'. What is not well known is that even silent thought activates the larynx (voicebox) in an incipient way. Chanting is a way of tying up the voice box with syllables unrelated to thinking, and so thinking is blocked. As with monks and Gregorian chant, or other traditions, a limited amount of this is an aid to true reflection. An excessive amount leads to cognitive disablement. Some cult members are taught to start chanting whenever an outsider tries to reason with them.
Finally, what is often the most conspicuous element has to be considered:
- Bizarre Beliefs Doctrines such as travel to distant planets and remote centuries are common. Such beliefs may or may not be the impetus for the formation of the group, but always they are convenient for cognitive abuse. This is because such beliefs are so outside the normal contextual knowledge of a new member, and so far outside any usual verification framework, that they short-circuit critical thinking.
- Overwork Fundraising, recruitment, and working in community businesses for 12 to 20 hours a day is common. This not only eliminates time to think or associate, but can enrich the leaders.
- Giving Everything It is very common for a new member to be expected to turn over all assets to the group.
- Constant Recruitment Often pressure is put on members to bring in new members. Members may be assigned to recruitment duties. This is strong evidence that the main goal of the group is to perpetuate itself and become more powerful.
- Sexual Mystifying Since normal sexual prerogatives, choices, and experiences are disrupted, along with the blurring of boundaries, members are unable to recognize abuse. This together with blind obedience makes sexual exploitation both common and yet not recognized for what it is.
Benefits Real and Illusory
- A Place in the World. One never need 'find' his or her place because in fact that type of autonomy is not allowed! There is often a false egalitarianism which disguises competition.
- Routinized Interaction This can be a great boon to the socially awkward because interactions are not to be based on feeling and spontaneity but on custom, rule, or ritual (except for the leaders, which will make them seem all the more special)
- Experience of Cooperation Cooperating with others on a joint project is a very real source of satisfaction, completely apart from what is accomplished. While in mainstream life adults rarely cooperate, in intentional communities cooperation is the norm. Ex-members tend to still cherish memories of cooperative experience.
- No Major Decisions. Everything is decided for one. There is neither the burden of deciding, or the dullness of no action.
- Sense of Completion Searching for final understanding of life is probably misguided, but very human, even for the reasonably happy. Since these communities promise the answer for everything, 'searchers' may feel relieved.
- Answers for all Problems. Because the group will not want any critical thinking or internal wrestling with dilemmas, it will assure members that it has the answer to all problems.
- An Alternative to Family. Families, healthy and unhealthy, function according to attraction, attachment, and liking of members for each other. Abusive communities ignore and minimize just those aspects of relationship. This can seem a great improvement to people who have been deeply hurt in their families, are reluctant to create any family ties, but who do not want to be alone.
- To Good to be True is 'Made True'. Many of us look for a perfect world. It doesn't exist of course. However, in an abusive community, it is made to seem that it does exist, or is about to come true. This is in stark contrast to outside the group. Keeping this unrealistic hope alive distorts the meaning of problems. Even if corruption or falseness is discerned within the group, it is not seen as evidence of the true nature of the community, but rather just a brief misstep toward the soon to be perfect world.
- Suppressing Outside Criticism: Abusive communities, much more so than abusive individuals, tend to use vigorous legal and social power means to attack and neutralize outside critics. The abusive interpersonal practices are denied, putting the burden of proof on the critic, and the issue is shifted to freedom of thought and religion, making the critic appear narrow-minded and bigoted. These efforts are not about vigorously presenting one side, they are actually about squelching criticism.
- High Demands This is somewhat counter-intuitive. It seems that placing high-demands on people should accelerate their leaving. But many good people associate high demands with a high quality undertaking. Most people want to belong to something of significance. The longer the time spent in a high demand environment, the more a 'normal' life of fewer demands may seem immoral, meaningless, selfish or wasteful. Of course high demands will eventually lead to burnout, but an abusive community usually watches for this and transfers the member to a different 'compartment' with different demands that hold some illusory promise of significance.
- Trauma Bonding Suffering at a low but constant level will release endorphins and adrenaline while at the same time the member places the hardships in a 'heroic' framework. This produces a sort of 'high.' Normal life seems flat after that. If members were treated better they would be better able to leave. Also doing unusual or difficult things together bonds the member strongly to the group.
- Shunning Any member leaving immediately loses all friendship and connection. Given that non-community friendships and connections were given up when entering the community, this is doubly devastating
- Guilt Members are frequently reminded of all they have received (which may have been illusory or unasked for) but will not be reminded of all they have already given. Leaving is always framed as a grave betrayal.
- Horror Stories. A member that wants to leave will be told about extra-natural calamities that befell others who left the protection of the group or the leader. These are fabricated of course but play on the primitive aspects of guilt. (That is, at least unconsciously, most people feel they should be punished if they are disobedient.)
- Impoverishment Because members use everything in common, and usually give everything to the group, they are usually penniless, homeless, jobless, and reference-less if they leave.
- Fear Retaliation and character assassination are common towards those who leave.
- All or None. In order to leave, members are forced to reject everything about the group, because friendly or partial differences are not acknowledged. This means that members are forced to consider time and resources spent in the group a total mistake, rather than a stage of life. This is very painful, and becomes a strong disincentive to leave.
Crisis in Leaving
- Purposelessness. All purpose previously was through the group. No other purpose was allowed to develop. A member that has left has a hard time developing a purpose in life because the act of forming a conviction of any sort activates trauma of mind control as described above.
- Depression. Disillusionment, disappointment, isolation, and lack of self-understanding hit hard upon leaving. Previous comforting rituals are not possible. Depression is common.
- De-Realization Life consists of choices and consequences, albeit imperfectly linked. But in a manipulated environment, choices are few and consequences are not linked naturally. Subsequently, in an unmanipulated environment, choices may not seem real, and objectives may seem a mystery to pursue.
- Social De-Skilling. Because of the routinized interactions, the social responses that succeeded in the abusive community do not work as well out in the world. Generally social skills refine as people age, but may be quite primitive, regressed, or maladaptive after a long stint in such a community.
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Although a leaving member may have had no conscious anxiety during most of his or her stay, the duplicitous environment will have steadily affected the body, causing a slow motion 'fight-or-flight' response. This is difficult to undo, once entrenched.
- Lack of Validation. The member that has left will have a mix of positive and critical feelings about the group. No validation can come from inside the group, which has to see itself as all good. But no validation usually comes from outside the group, because outsiders, if they are interested at all in the matter, see the group as all bad.
- Overwhelming Feeling of Loss If many years and opportunities were lost because of being in the community, great sorrow will be felt. In addition engaging in constructive self-directed activity, because it reminds the ex-member of the previous inability to do so, will bring these feelings to the forefront, perhaps paralyzing them.
- Loneliness. All in-group relationships are severed by leaving, and all out-of-group relationships were severed in joining. The formation of new relationships is hampered by social de-skilling and post-traumatic stress disorder.