Katherine Spallino, the author of a new book, The Bad Cadet: Growing Up in the Church of Scientology’s Sea Organization, has had quite a life journey. Katherine grew up on a secluded ranch within the cadet org, Scientology’s Sea Org school for children. At a young age, Katherine began to journal about her day-to-day life, capturing the thoughts and experiences of a child coming of age in a cult. Katherine’s background offers the rare opportunity to tell the story of the hundreds of children who rarely saw their parents and were indoctrinated to become future Sea Org members.
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.
This week, I published my monthly blog post in Psychology Today, discussing the case of Leslie Van Houten. She has been recommended for parole and hopefully will be released if the governor of California doesn’t veto her parole again. Van Houten was 19 when as a member of the Charles Manson cult, she was involved in the murders of innocent people. I mentioned that Manson had, while in prison himself, received Scientology “processing” and speculated that he might have learned a few control tactics from the larger cult to use in his own group.
Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) are well-known for their door-to-door solicitation and distributing literature, such as their Watchtower and AWAKE! magazines. However, most people do not know of the authoritarian BITE Model policies that affect JWs. Consequently, former JW elder Isaac Carmignani, a friend and colleague, shares critically important facts about this religious organization.
Carmignani was raised a Jehovah’s Witness (JW) and was baptized at age 11. As a child, he experienced severe corporal punishment, a well-known cult practice. From 1995 to 2006, he was an elder in the JW organization; however, in 2007, Carmignani formally disassociated himself. He disagreed with their interpretation of the Bible and the belief that only JWs were good Christians while all other Christians were evil. In fact, a member was not allowed to enter any church other than a Kingdom Hall; the name JWs call their meeting places.
Working with people in cults or who have escaped them requires much empathy, compassion, and knowledge. Rachel Bernstein has all those and more, which she’s used for the last 30 years in her work in cult intervention and re-acclimation.
Bernstein is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) from Los Angeles, California. She serves on the advisory board of the International Cultic Studies Association and has worked with the Department of Justice, providing support to cult victims who testify against their perpetrators. Bernstein and her father have known and worked together for decades now.
Elgen Strait was not only born into the Moonies but participated in an arranged mass marriage ceremony (the so-called “blessing”). His parents were active members when I was in the cult in the 1970s. He’s a fellow survivor. Strait hosts Falling Out with Elgen Strait, a podcast focused on the experiences of second-generation survivors of the Moonies. Strait’s work on the podcast aims to expose the abuse, manipulation, and hypocrisy of the Moon cult. He provides a forum for ex-second-generation members to share resources that can aid them in their journeys out of the cult and through the transition into living in the “outside world.” Listening to Falling Out has been a catalyst for many members to wake up and exit the cult. Many who left the cult continue to have difficulty staying connected and accepted by their parents, who remain in the cult.
On January 20th, 2023, Larry Ray was sentenced to 60 years in prison for racketeering conspiracy, violent crime in aid of racketeering, extortion, sex trafficking, forced labor, tax evasion, and money laundering offenses. Daniel Barban Levin escaped the cult and used writing to process his mind control experience. He also wanted to do something to help his friends, who were still psychologically imprisoned. His memoir, Slonim Woods 9, published in 2021, was a revealing and poetic description of his time in a mind control cult. Former members sometimes utilize writing as a device to release painful experiences through journaling, poetry, and novels. I loved listening to this book.
Religious liberty is one of the founding fathers’ ideals, but the idea of religious liberty and its practice produces results that can cause great harm. Marci A. Hamilton is the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit academic think tank dedicated to interdisciplinary, evidence-based research to improve laws and public policy to end child abuse and neglect. She is a leading expert on clergy sex abuse and child sex abuse statutes of limitation (SOL). She is also a leading religious liberty scholar and Professor of Practice in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches Constitutional Law and Law, Religion, and Politics.
Leaving a cult or another situation of undue influence is a truly heroic feat. Unfortunately, however, the experience of being in a cult can leave former members with many long-term effects, including radical personality change, psychological and relationship problems, and difficulties in their daily lives. It takes time and often the experience of a therapist trained in cult recovery to get beyond the mentality that authoritarian cults indoctrinate into their members.
Cults are often thought about as organizations with charismatic leaders who pull people in, strip them of all their worldly goods and autonomy, and implement mind control. However, many of these abusive methods can also be associated with domestic abuse, gangs and organized crime, and political extremism. Additionally, they can be seen in relational power abuse dynamics such as employee abuse, abuse by tutors, mentors, and coaches, and misconduct within various professions. Christian Szurko talks with us about these issues and how recognizing the pervasiveness of these methods informed and broadened his approach to abuses of relational power.
When we think of cults, we think of being recruited into them. It’s easy to forget some people are born into them like my guest today, Frances Peters, who was born and raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses before leaving in 2004 with her husband and two children. As soon as she realized how controlling and harmful the group was, she decided to leave. Since then, she’s been researching the workings of undue influence and what people can do to (re)gain their identity. She experienced how challenging it is to become a thriver instead of remaining a victim of institutionalized undue influence.