There are few people in the field of forensic psychology with the training, background, and experience of Dr. Steve Eichel. In 1975, almost a year before I was deprogrammed from the Moonies, he decided to do his dissertation research on my former cult. He has had a long distinguished career, serving as the President of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), and remains an active member of their Board of Directors. He has been published extensively in the field and, as discussed in the interview, served as an expert witness on undue influence in many cases. I asked him about his experience working for the defense in the case of DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo. Steve joined the podcast to discuss these experiences and his expertise in therapeutic hypnosis. He was one of the experts I interviewed in researching my last book. As many people know, I desire to see the law updated in the area of evaluating undue influence in its many forms, which caused me to do my doctoral dissertation on this subject.
American Cultic Culture
Beginning our discussion, Steve expressed concern about how the Internet has become a powerhouse for propaganda and disinformation, emphasizing how social media can be used for love-bombing and phobia indoctrination, as described in the BITE model. Both tactics aim to keep a person trapped in a cult, one by luring them with affection or false promises and one by inculcating them with a fear of horrible consequences should they leave. This is particularly concerning for young people who may spend upwards of ten hours a day online.
This fear can also be used in political debates. Steve mentions my book, The Cult of Trump, as perhaps the first resource to openly claim that Donald Trump had a cult-like hold on his followers and the reaction this could get due to American society’s inconsistent relationship with undue influence. On the one hand, many support passing legislation which indicates a belief in the capacity for someone to be unconsciously influenced, such as laws punishing drag queens for their supposed ability to convert children. However, many also champion absolute freedom of religion, allowing cultic groups to gain a cultural handhold.
Part of this belief that new religious movements need to be allowed to flourish to protect the First Amendment comes from what Dr. Alan Scheflin, law professor emeritus and former Board member of the International Cultic Studies Association, calls “the myth of the unmalleable mind.” This is the belief that only people who are weak, stupid, or uneducated can be brainwashed. Eichel noted with relief that this myth seems to be losing traction at his lectures but mentions that when people claim to be immune to brainwashing or hypnosis, he only needs to ask one question to get them to reconsider: are you a psychopath, or are you experiencing psychosis? Those with psychotic disorders and psychopathic traits have been long indicated to be the only groups who cannot be brainwashed.
The Moonies, Malvo, and the Effort to Update the Law
The bottom line is that becoming involved in a cult is my own experience with the Moonies in college can demonstrate a case of bad luck and not bad people. Cults prey on the vulnerable, particularly people undergoing a transitory period: a breakup, a divorce, or a move away from their family. Vulnerability can also mean youth or a minority status that can be exploited. This was demonstrated in the Malvo case, in which Steve served as an expert witness. Lee Boyd Malvo, a black teenager, was groomed by an adult, John Muhammad, to commit a series of murders. Muhammad desensitized Lee to violence using first-person shooter video games, gained the trust of his mother to ground himself in Lee’s life, and lied to Lee about his plan to create a black separatist nation where they wouldn’t be discriminated against. It’s suspected that Muhammad was, in actuality, trying to mask the planned murder of his ex-wife with seemingly random murders in the same area where she lived. Steve testified to his belief that as a minor under coercion, Lee was not guilty by reason of unsound mind and did not deserve capital punishment. While there has been a series of appeals surrounding the constitutional nature of a minor serving a life sentence, as of this interview, Malvo is still incarcerated.
This lack of understanding of a possible victim of brainwashing led us to touch on the future of what can be done to update the law. Steve noted that it can be difficult to legislate against cultic activity without giving in to authoritarianism. You can’t squash a cult by making the government into a cult any more than you can cure cancer by killing the patient. An understanding of the ever-changing face of cults is needed, as is a grasp of hypnosis that doesn’t come from movies.
The Power of Suggestion
A variety of altered states can be used to influence someone physically or mentally. Many of these, like guided imagery or meditation, are scientifically but not legally classed as hypnotic. Like a drug, this influence varies in its strength and effects, which leads many to dismiss the danger. Pulling from his work as a clinical hypnotist, Steve highlights the heightened suggestibility that lingers after a person comes out of hypnosis. He is reluctant to let his patients leave without a debrief, even when the only consequence could be a commercial seeming more convincing. This power in the hands of a less scrupulous person results in things much less silly than a hypnotized person barking like a dog on stage.
As a final word, we returned to the subject of the Internet and the moral panic around gender identity. Eichel put forth the idea that it’s a distraction from gun violence, a major threat against young people, as well as youth social contagions such as suicide and eating disorders, which are spread so virulently online. He referenced the official slogan of the American Academy of Psychotherapists: less judgment, more curiosity. A gold standard for treating gender dysphoria could involve caution and openness, a recognition that it is not always answerable by medical transition without condemnation of those for whom transition works. I agree that young people considering transition should speak to detransitioners and critics for a more comprehensive understanding. In our discussion of the BITE model, I emphasized to Steve Eichel that the I (standing for “information control”) is more crucial than ever in the Internet age. Freedom of information is necessary for every kind of decision.
Washington Post article on Lee Malvo’s sentencing