The legal system has long operated under the incorrect assumption that humans are rational agents. Judges and juries base their decisions on effective storytelling. Arbiters of law often use the belief that individuals act with autonomy and personal control. However, this perspective overlooks the powerful effects of systematic social influence processes. In my dissertation, The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control: Undue Influence, Thought Reform, Brainwashing, Mind Control, Trafficking, and the Law, I make the case that our justice system urgently needs to be updated to incorporate research on neuroscience as well the psychology of undue influence. I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview attorney and ex-cult member Faith Jones who has developed an innovative model for applying the law to the concept of undue influence. Her approach complements my work in this field and contributes to driving a much-needed transformation within the legal system.
Faith Jones is an accomplished corporate attorney, author, speaker, and passionate advocate for women’s rights. A graduate of Georgetown School of Foreign Service and UC Berkeley Law School, she now runs her own law firm, specializing in acquisitions and contract law. She has authored two books, I Own Me and Sex Cult Nun, in which she recounts her powerful story of growing up in the oppressive Children of God cult. As my guest on my Influence Continuum podcast, Faith shares her life within the cult and how her journey inspired her to develop a model based on our legal and moral rights to our bodies. Faith also gave an outstanding TEDx talk; I Own Me: Understanding Our Property Rights to Our Own Bodies.
The Children of God Cult
The Children of God cult, later known as “The Family,” was established by Faith’s grandfather David Berg, a self-proclaimed prophet and pedophile, in Huntington Beach, California, in 1968. Faith’s parents were early members, and she was raised within the cult’s confines. The group targeted disenfranchised young people, particularly anti-establishment ones who sought to make a difference in the world. Initially a fundamentalist Christian group, Berg twisted the interpretation of Bible verses to justify his predatory inclinations. Over the past four decades, I have worked with many victims of this cult who have sought help to escape its influence.
Faith described the group’s authoritarian nature, with her grandfather using his knowledge of scripture to manipulate and control followers. She recounted the coercive punishments within the group, including physical discipline, food restrictions, and isolation, all justified by twisted interpretations of Bible verses. Faith also shared her experiences with coerced sex, which was justified by the leadership as her duty to God. She was told that her body did not belong to her but to God, and God wanted her to share his love through sex. In the 1970s, for a decade, the cult introduced sexual doctrines like “Flirty Fishing,” where women were sent to have sex with strangers to recruit new members. In her early 20s, Faith left the cult and began questioning its teachings, eventually realizing that she needed to create a new mental model to break free.
“I Own Me” – Applying Property Rights to Undue Influence
While reflecting on her experiences within the Children of God cult, Faith utilized her knowledge of the law to create a simple framework called the “I Own Me” model. Its primary principle is that individuals own their bodies and their inner world of thoughts and feelings and have a moral right to them. Without this right, acts such as slavery, rape, and assault wouldn’t be deemed morally reprehensible. These crimes all breach an individual’s property rights to their body. In ‘legal speak,’ no one else can access our bodies, thoughts, or feelings without our explicit, freely given consent.
When I first became involved with the forensic think tank at Harvard Medical School, my law professor and friend, Dr. Alan Scheflin, introduced me to the concept of undue influence, a centuries-old British legal principle rooted in property rights. Originally designed to ensure that an individual’s heirs would inherit their property rather than allow it to be usurped by opportunistic caregivers, undue influence was not initially concerned with psychological manipulation. So, I was fascinated by Faith’s idea that our bodies represent our personal property.
Faith emphasizes that our society’s foundation is built upon property rights and exchanges. All business deals and contracts rely on five key elements: a clear offer, willing acceptance, an exchange of value, mental capacity, and the absence of undue pressure. If any of these elements are missing, enforcing a contract is morally wrong and tantamount to property theft. By acknowledging that our bodies are our property, we can understand that violating these principles within personal relationships is also wrong, regardless of the reason or motivation behind it. Faith says that grasping this concept helps people to identify and avoid abusive situations.
The “I Own Me” model complements my own research and work to establish a more precise method of identifying undue influence. To evaluate the type of influence in various situations, I use my Influence Continuum and BITE Model of Authoritarian Control, which assist in determining the extent of unhealthy influence and mind control present in individuals, leaders, organizations, and relationships.
Coercive Control and the Law
The slow pace of the law in recognizing the harmful effects of mind control is tragic. However, countries such as the UK and Ireland have made progress in criminalizing undue influence in relationships with coercive control laws, which is a step towards holding abusers accountable and acknowledging the devastating impact of such behavior. Faith and I discussed how women experience most coercive control cases, but men can also be victims. Anyone can experience abuse, regardless of gender, and it’s something that we as a society need to become more aware of.
While some countries have recognized coercive control in relationships, the law still narrowly limits it to one-on-one abuse. There is a need for clear definitions of what constitutes due and undue influence, ethical versus destructive authoritarian control, and recognition that the same type of unhealthy control can be exerted within groups.
Ownership of Our Minds and Bodies
Faith Jones’ “I Own Me” model aligns with my therapeutic approach, in which I encourage individuals recovering from authoritarian mind control to take ownership of their minds and bodies. By being present in their bodies, developing a positive orientation towards the future, using tools to analyze situations, listening to their inner voice, and having an internal locus of control, former cult members can begin to heal. Faith Jones’ approach is inspiring and empowers people, particularly women born and raised in authoritarian cults, to make informed decisions and break free from coercion. Ultimately, we must control our minds and bodies to gain freedom from undue influence.
Growing up in a Sex Cult with Former Army Captain Daniella Mestyanek Young
Freedom of Mind: Evaluating Undue Influence in Legal & Mental Health Settings
Evaluating Undue Influence: Scheflin’s Model as a Framework
The Need to Educate Judges, Attorneys, Citizens, and Governments About Undue Influence
Coercive Control, Undue Influence, Emotional Abuse, and the Law
One-on-One Cults – How Coercive Control Made Sarma Melngailis the Bad Vegan