Human trafficking is defined in international law as the use of fraud, force, or coercion to enslave people. It is a scourge that operates not just through physical coercion but through the devastating use of mind control, a method of psychological enslavement. Rebecca Bender is a courageous survivor and advocate who works tirelessly to empower survivors, train law enforcement, do expert witness work, and assist policymakers. She created the Rebecca Bender Initiative and the online Elevate Academy, which empowers trafficking survivors over the age of eighteen to move forward with their lives. She found encouragement and mentorship from Carissa Phelps and Rachel Thomas, who, with me, developed the Ending the Game ten-session program for trafficking survivors under the age of eighteen.
I had the opportunity to meet Paul Jensen at the 2023 International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) annual conference, where he delivered a captivating presentation titled Discovering the Worst-Kept Secrets of My High Demand Church. He shared his journey of discovery after growing up in the Assemblies of God, the world’s largest denomination of the Pentecostal and Charismatic “Spirit Led” movement. In his talk, he revealed the little-known authoritarian cult roots of the Assemblies of God and how the church has created an official narrative that conceals its true history.
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.
The term ‘gaslight effect’ was introduced by Dr. Robin Stern in her 2007 book to describe the long-term consequences of persistent gaslighting, a subtle and often hidden form of emotional abuse. Gaslighting is a devastating form of undue influence. It occurs when an individual manipulates another person by distorting, twisting, and dismissing their experiences, making them question their memories, perceptions, and reality. Gaslighting can occur in a romantic relationship, among family members, in the workplace, within mind control cults as well as by politicians. As a result of enduring gaslighting, individuals experience constant self-doubt, difficulties making decisions, and feelings of instability. I was eager to learn from Robin about her work in this area, especially regarding what people can do to protect themselves from gaslighting.
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.
The digital age has brought about a massive change in the way we think, feel, communicate, and behave. For young people born and raised in a digital world, being online for an average of eleven hours a day affects not only their brain development, such as shortened attention span, ability to concentrate, social skills, and mental well-being. As well as this, young people’s need for connection and belonging is being exploited by unhealthy ‘influencers’ online, who are using the internet to indoctrinate and radicalize them.
Law Professor Alan W. Scheflin coined the phrase The Myth of the Unmalleable Mind which is the basic belief that we are in control of our own minds and cannot be unfairly influenced outside of our awareness. This is a comforting thought; however, history has shown that this “comforting thought” is a myth. Most readers of this book have come to this understanding the hard way.
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.
Michael Cohen is a two-time New York Times best-selling author, first with his book Disloyal: A Memoir, and now with his latest book Revenge: How Donald Trump Weaponized the Department of Justice Against His Critics. Cohen is famous for being the former attorney and personal ‘fixer’ for Donald Trump (2006-2018) and has testified for congress as well as New York’s Attorney General’s office and confessed he was in “The Cult of Trump.” I wrote about him in my book, and he is a courageous whistle-blower who, like me, has devoted an enormous amount of time and effort to shedding light on the disgraced and twice impeached former president.
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.
Conspiracy theorists are often thought of as people on the fringes of society, believing ridiculous stories and wearing tinfoil hats while living in their parent’s basement. However, conspiracy theorists have become mainstream, and the damage they do is monumental. I spoke with Dr. Michael Shermer about this and his new book, Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational. Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of the podcast The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, where he teaches Skepticism 101. For 18 years, he has been a monthly columnist for Scientific American.