(Sources of informativematerial come and go on the internet. To preserve
Daniel Shaw was disciple of Gurumayi, leader of SYDA yoga, Fallsberg New York.
abuses of Gurumayi and left. He is now in practice as a psychoanalyst.
by Daniel Shaw, L.C.S.W.
The Psychopathology of the Cult Leader
Thought reform, or mind control, is another important component of my conceptualization of the seductive power of cults, although it is not a psychoanalytic concept. The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1987) studied the methods used by the Chinese Communists during the Korean War to turn war prisoners into willing accomplices, and called these methods thought reform (see also Hinkle & Wolff, 1976; Schein, 1956; Singer, 1979). Thought reform techniques are readily found in use in any cult, yet it is my belief, based on my own exposure to and study of various cults, that many cult leaders are not necessarily students of thought reform techniques. One might argue that meditation and chanting, for example, are techniques specifically designed to control others, and they can be. But they are also ancient traditional spiritual practices. Cult leaders who require their followers to perform mind-numbing, trance-inducing practices may do so while fully believing that such practices are for the greatest possible good of the follower.
In religious philosophies that emphasize detachment and transcendence, for instance, trance states are highly valued as avenues toward these spiritual goals. Such religious "surrender"—to a sense of one’s wholeness, one’s connectedness to life, to a loving and creative spirit both within and without—is not necessarily the same experience as submission to the domination, control, and exploitation of a particular group and/or leader. The urge to surrender, as understood by Ghent (1990), a leading theorist of contemporary relational psychoanalysis, can be a move toward inner freedom, and does not necessarily lead to submission, or enslavement.
Cult leaders, however, practice forms of control, such as intimidation and humiliation, which demand submission. In Ghent’s view, masochistic submission is a perversion of surrender.
Cult leaders often use the idea of surrender as bait, and then switch to a demand for submission. Nevertheless, in so doing, they may not actually be practicing mind control in any conscious way. They may simply be behaving in ways typical of pathological narcissists, people whose personalities are characterized by paranoia and megalomania—characteristics, by the way, that are readily attributable to one of the modern masters of thought reform techniques, the totalitarian dictator known as Chairman Mao.
Totalitarian dictators study and invent thought reform techniques, but many cult leaders may simply be exhibiting characteristic behaviors of the pathological narcissist, with the attendant paranoia and mania typical of this personality disorder. Thought reform is the systematic application of techniques of domination, enslavement, and control, which can be quite similar to the naturally occurring behaviors of other abusers, like batterers, rapists, incest perpetrators, in all of whom can be seen the behaviors of pathological narcissism.
I base my formulation of the psychology of the cult leader in part on the daily close contact I had with Swami Chidvilasananda (Gurumayi) of Siddha Yoga between 1985 and 1992. I also support my hypotheses with information gained from extensive work with psychotherapy clients who have described their cult leaders’ behavior in detail, as well as on my extensive reading of biographical accounts of other leaders of cults.
I propose, following the profile of the pathological narcissist delineated by Rosenfeld (1971), a leading figure of the contemporary Kleinian school in London, and similar formulations from the American self psychological perspective of Kohut (1976), that the cult leader profoundly depends on the fanatic devotion of the follower. This dependency is deeply shameful to the cult leader, because, based on traumatic aspects of her own developmental history, any dependency has come to mean despicable weakness and humiliation to her. (Italics by Corboy for emphasis) Developmental trauma in those who in later life can be termed pathological narcissists typically consists of being raised, by parents or other caregivers, under extreme domination and control, accompanied by repeated experiences of being shamed and humiliated. The pathological narcissist identifies with this aggression and comes to despise his own normative dependency, to be contemptuous of dependence, which is equated to weakness. Manically defending against deprivation and humiliation, he comes to believe that he needs no one, that he can trust only himself, that those who depend on others are weak and contemptible. Thus the cult leader, largely unconsciously, compensates for his inability to trust and depend on others, and defends against the intense shame he feels connected to need and dependency, by attaining control over his followers, first through seductive promises of unconditional love and acceptance, and then through intimidation, shaming, and belittling. This serves to induce the loathsome dependency in the follower, and the cult leader thus contrives to disavow his own dependency, felt as loathsome and shameful. By psychologically seducing, and then battering the follower into being the shameful dependent one, the cult leader maintains his superior position and can boast delusionally of being totally liberated from all petty, mundane attachments. These processes of subjugating others, and inducing in others what one loathes and seeks to deny in oneself are extreme forms of manic defense against the shame of dependency.
In fact, the cult leader does not escape dependency. Instead, he (and also, in many cases, she) comes to depend on his followers to worship and adore him, to reflect his narcissistic delusion of perfection to him as does the mirror to the Evil Queen in the tale of Snow White. One of the ways in which this perversion of dependency is often enacted can be observed when the cult leader claims that because he needs nothing, he is entitled to everything. Thus, cult leaders claiming to be pure and perfect, without any need or attachment, use manic defenses to rationalize and justify their dependence on extravagant and grandiose trappings such as thrones, fleets of Rolls Royces, and the trust funds of their wealthy followers.
For the cult leader, his ability to induce total dependence in followers serves to sustain and enhance a desperately needed delusion of perfect, omnipotent control.
With many cult leaders, (e.g., Shoko Asahara [Lifton, 1999]), the dissolution of their delusion of omnipotence exposes an underlying core of psychosis. Sustaining a delusion of omnipotence and perfection is, for the cult leader, a manic effort to ward off psychic fragmentation. Again it is useful to consider that this kind of pathological narcissism and defensive mania is often seen in persons whose childhood development was controlled by extremely dominating, often sadistic caregivers, or whose developmental years were characterized by traumatic experiences of intense humiliation.
Cult leaders then create elaborate rationalizations for their abusive systems, while unconsciously patterning those systems from the templates of their own experiences of being abused.
Cult leaders succeed in dominating their followers because they have mastered the cruel art of exploiting universal human dependency and attachment needs in others. The lengthy period of dependency in human development, the power that parents have, as God-like figures, to literally give life and sustain the lives of their children, leaves each human being with the memory, however distant or unconscious, of total dependency. Cult leaders tap into and re-activate this piece of the human psyche.
Followers are encouraged to become regressed and infantilized, to believe that their life depends on pleasing the cult leader. Cult leaders depend on their ability to attract people, often at critically vulnerable points in their lives, who are confused, hungry, dissatisfied, searching. With such people, cult leaders typically find numerous ways to undermine their followers’ independence and their capacity to think critically.
In a religious cult, the leader is perceived as a deity who is always divinely right, and the devotee, always on the verge of being sinfully wrong, comes to live for the sole purpose of pleasing and avoiding displeasing the guru/god. The leader's displeasure comes to mean for the member that he is unworthy, monstrously defective, and, therefore, dispensable. The member has been conditioned to believe that loss of the leader's "grace" is equivalent to loss of any value, goodness, or rightness of the self. As the member becomes more deeply involved, his anxiety about remaining a member in good standing increases. This anxiety is akin to the intense fear, helplessness, loss of control and threat of annihilation that Herman, in her discussion of psychological domination, describes as induced in victims of both terrorists and battering husbands:
The ultimate effect of these techniques is to convince the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile, and that her life depends upon winning his indulgence through absolute compliance. The goal of the perpetrator is to instill in his victim not only fear of death but also gratitude for being allowed to live. (Herman, 1992, p. 77)
Extending this formulation to cult leaders and followers, the cult leader can be understood as needing to disavow her dependency and expel her dread of psychic dissolution, which she succeeds in doing insofar as she is able to induce that dependency and fear in the follower. The bliss that cult members often display masks their terror of losing the leader’s interest in them, which is equivalent for the follower to "a fate worse than death."
Herman's motivation for writing Trauma and Recovery was to show the commonalities between rape survivors and combat veterans, between battered women and political prisoners, between the survivors of vast concentration camps created by tyrants who rule nations, and the survivors of small, hidden concentration camps created by tyrants who rule their homes. (Herman, 1992, p. 3).
Tyrants who rule religious cults subject members to similar violations.
To recapitulate, from a psychoanalytic perspective, the cult leader unconsciously experiences his dependency needs as so deeply shameful that a delusion of omnipotence is developed to ward off the toxic shame. It is urgent to the pathological narcissist, who knows unconsciously that he is susceptible to extreme mortification (the sense of "death" by shame), that this delusion of omnipotence be sustained. Manic defenses help sustain the delusion, but in addition, followers must be seduced and controlled so that the loathsome dependence can be externalized, located in others and thereby made controllable. The leader can then express his unconscious self-loathing through his "compassion" (often thinly disguised contempt) for his followers’ weakness. Manically proclaiming his own perfection, the leader creates a program of "purification" for the follower.
By enlisting the follower to hold the shame that he projects and evacuates from his own psyche, the cult leader rids himself of all shame, becoming, in effect, "shameless." He defines his shamelessness as enlightenment, liberation, or self-actualization.
It becomes important to the cult leader, for the maintenance of his state of shamelessness on which his psychic equilibrium depends, that there be no competition, that he alone, and no one else in the group, feels shameless.
So while apparently inviting others to attain his state of perfection (shamelessness) by following him, the cult leader is actually constantly involved in inducing shame in his followers, thereby maintaining his dominance and control.
I have called this sadomasochistic danse macabre the "dark side of enlightenment" (see Shaw, 2000)
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/01/2016 09:26PM by corboy.