JOINING A "CULT":
V. THE CONVERSION PHENOMENON (Continued)
||C. What I shall call the functional understanding
of cult conversion and membership sees the experience as one which has
a coherent connection to the rest of the person's life, his
concerns and anxieties, patterns of coping, and general understanding
of his place in the world.
From a purely psychological point of view, it is by no means clear that
cult membership is "bad" for the person; joining an alternative
religious group may be a very effective way of coping with personality
difficulties. We have already cited studies which show that joining a cult can
be a way of ending substance abuse. The "strong
dependency needs," intolerance of ambiguity, and "ideological hunger"
identified by Ungerleider and Wellisch (63) can make cult membership a
rational choice, not essentially different, except in its acceptability to
society, from joining a convent or the armed services. Galanter found that
"affiliation with the Unification
Church apparently provided considerable and sustained relief from neurotic distress."
(64) Levine and Salter, who in 1976 published findings from a study of 106
members of nine "fringe religious groups," including
Children of God, Hare Krishna, Unification Church, and the DLM, reported that
the motivation for joining these groups was explained by the members as
dissatisfaction and alienation with contemporary society. These feelings were
markedly reduced after cult affiliation:
"For whatever reason, they feel better. On a more specific level, in those who
had them, the symptoms of anxiety and depression...have diminished markedly. They are
happier, more self-accepting, no longer on drugs (if that was a problem), and in better
control of their bodies. There is a heightened sense of security and inner satisfaction
among many of them -- a great improvement over their psychological state prior to joining.
What causes some reservations is the suddenness and sharpness of the change."
Sociologists of religion Melton and Moore use the concept of liminality and
transition state phenomena to describe the function of the cult experience.
(66) They point out that entering an alternative religion usually occurs
during or after the "severe
buffeting of early adult transition;" in order to grasp the nature
and significance of cult experience as it relates to psychosocial issues, the
experience must be seen in the context of transition state phenomena. Larry
Shinn backs up this theory with his finding that almost all people who join
the Hare Krishna movement had been in a state of psychological crisis -- e.g.
identity confusion, religious uncertainty -- before joining the group. (67)
As we can see by examining many of our cultural traditions, it is very
often the case that a transition from one niche in society to another is
accomplished by entering a limbo-like, transition state before reintegration
into society in one's new status. The institution of the honeymoon is a good
example. Marriage involves a radical transformation of almost all one's
societal relationships -- family loyalties, patterns of spending, leisure time
activities, sexual and social availability, etc. Particularly if one remains
in one's hometown after marriage, it may be difficult for the young marrieds
and their friends and family to make the transition to new patterns of
interaction. Customs such as wearing a ring and changing one's name all help
to reinforce new patterns with institutionalized cues, but the honeymoon, a
liminal state in which one leaves one's accustomed place, engages in a
limbo-like period of no material responsibilities, and then returns to a
different place in society, also helps to facilitate the change.
Conversion, William James tells us, "is in its essence a normal adolescent
phenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child's small universe to the wider
intellectual and spiritual life of maturity." (68) It is a
commonplace that contemporary society offers few transitional structures for
the difficult move from adolescent dependence to adult independence (although
the residential college certainly is a strong example). The lengthy period of
economic dependency expected of middle-class children pursuing ever-more
advanced degrees, has exacerbated the situation. As MacGowan suggests, "it is possible that, for some, membership in the [Unification] Church
offers what Erikson spoke of as a pause for identity completion before beginning life's
real work." (69) Bromley and Shupe assert:
"Most converts to new religions ultimately discover that they do not wish to
dedicate their entire lives to the cause, and they simply resume their former lives or
start anew. This is not wasted effort, however; it is a discovery that allows these
individuals to define a personal course for themselves that holds out a greater potential
for personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Were it not for the overwhelmingly negative
public judgment of the new religions many converts could look back on that period as a
high point of personal growth." (70)
Cult membership, according to Melton and Moore, is one way of giving
outward expression to the inward liminal state of young adulthood, and an
effective way of achieving separation from family. The highly structured cult
environment, in which many decisions and personal needs are taken care of,
resembles the "floating" or liminal state of the honeymoon or other
institutionalized transitional structure. Further, the researchers claim, the
unresponsive and trance-like behavior that psychologists such as Margaret
Singer report as "characteristic of the ex-cultist and that she blames
on the behavior-conditioning practices of the groups is further expression of a state of
liminality, one which has not been terminated by simply leaving or being coerced into
leaving the group." (71)
Another helpful way in which to look at joining a cult is as another
(probably not final) step in a lengthy "conversion career."
(72) Most people who join cults would have described themselves as
"seekers" before their conversion; urged on by the basic questions
of the meaning and value of their lives, they have at the very least engaged
in an ongoing internal dialogue critical of mainstream religion and values,
and typically sampled a number of alternative options. Thomas Pilarzyk, in his
study of members of ISKCON and the DLM, (73) found that over eighty percent
had used hallucinogens and about half had participated in communal living
arrangements. Twenty-five percent had been involved with radical political
organizations (e.g. Yippies and Students
for a Democratic Society); sixty-six percent had had some contact with
political groups. Sixty-eight percent of Hare Krishna members told the
interviewer of past involvement with groups somewhat like ISKCON in that they
religions with absolutist meaning systems." (74) For example, one
"I was a real believer in the "heart-way" in Jesus Christ. I felt I
was saved at twenty-five and freed from sin and its guilt. But I didn't realize at the
time that I had a lot more karma to burn off". (75)
Interestingly, while members of the DLM also showed a high incidence of
previous involvement (forty-five percent) this was typically with groups, such
as Transcendental Meditation and yoga groups, which were like the DLM in their
somewhat loose structure and syncretistic style.
Here are two accounts of conversion journeys to the Unification Church:
"After graduating Pratt with honors, my desire to find God became the most
important thing in my life. . . . By graduating, I had fulfilled my responsibility to my
parents. Yet I hadn't found my life work. I was convinced that God knew my life work, and
so I determined to find a way to meet Him. In college, I had fellowshipped with three
major Hindu spiritual groups and done much reading. (I had lost respect for Christianity.)
When I heard the Divine Principle, I was impressed by its comprehensiveness, its logic,
and its implications. So I determined to study it and examine it until I could prove its
veracity or falsity. I moved in physically and really joined about eight months later. By
that time my major questions had been answered..."
"While I was a Catholic nun I was considered to be happy and successful. But
after many years as a nun I realized that what had formerly held meaning for me no longer
did. I would go to Mass in the morning and feel nothing. I was aware of my searching for
answers when I first met the Unification Church members and began to spend time with them.
In fact, I became a member of the Unification Church even before I left my former
community. When I told the nuns that I had become a "Moonie" they thought I had
had some kind of breakdown, but I know that I have found meaning and happiness in my new
Benton Johnson argues that new religions are more effective than new
therapies as a cure for the kind of emotional distress that might be
articulated as a sense of meaninglessness, because the source of distress is
narcissism, lack of commitment, and so on:
"In new religions, the general conduct of [members'] lives is guided by a
single purpose and a single moral code. Whether they live and work together communally, or
whether the religious community is a kind of support group or spiritual home base after
the model of most Christian congregations, the whole of life takes on a meaning marked by
warmth and love for the serious devotee. Just as typically, however, sexual intimacy is
governed by a strict moral code that would strike most modern Americans as repressive. It
may be that these new believers have rediscovered, albeit, in exaggerated form, that
impulsive sexuality is just as destructive to solidary relationships as is impulsive
From this more or less tolerant, functionalist view of conversion, it is
but a short step to our fourth view: conversion to a cult is, quite simply, a
legitimate religious experience.
||D. A number of writers have pointed out that the
current furor over cults is merely another instance of the religious
intolerance that has always marked American society. Donald E. Miller
details the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics,
and Shakers, quoting eighteenth and nineteenth century tracts that are
uncannily like those of today's anti-cult movement. (78) Bromley and
Shupe argue that one way in which to understand religious intolerance
in America is as a series of conflicts of interest between established
religious institutions and new competitors. (79)
Herbert Richardson has shown how the charges leveled at the Unification
Church today are almost exactly the same as those used earlier against
Catholics and Jews, for example charges of loyalties to foreign powers or
organizations, and an obsession with money. (80) Even some of the rhetoric
remains astonishingly similar. (81)
Time eventually cloaks most of these groups with an aura of respectability,
as we become accustomed to their presence on the American scene. But sometimes
older religious practices can become the new targets. Thomas Robbins describes
how practices (e.g. speaking in tongues) which were
once almost exclusively the province of rural, lower-class religiosity, have
now broken their bounds and are to be found on college campuses (e.g. the
Maranatha organization). What was once accepted as genuine, if déclassé,
spirituality, can now be caught up in the generalized rush to condemn anything
different (and, as Robbins suggests, to expand the clientele of the anti-cult
professionals). So John Clark, the leading anti-cult psychiatrist, was quoted
Teen Magazine (April 1983) as saying that speaking in tongues is a
mind control technique. (82)
These scholars would claim that one cannot pick and choose among
"legitimate" and "illegitimate" conversion experiences.
Thomas MacGowan asks,
"how can we claim consistency if we acknowledge Paul's experience on the road
to Damascus to be religious conversion but deny the same possibility to a young Krishna
devotee? There is a danger if we always explain away in purely psychological or
sociological terms conversion to a new religion because we then have difficulty holding on
to the distinctively spiritual dimension of our own life." (83)
Herbert Richardson presents an example of a legitimate conversion to an
alternative religion in the experience of his daughter Ruth. Apparently a
"seeker" most of her life, Ruth had been a member of the Children of
God at some point during adolescence. She had been fascinated for many years
by the story of Joan of Arc, especially the voices Joan claimed to have heard.
Ruth's own conversion to a group called Diliram, a communal Christian group
living in Nepal, also involved hearing voices. Richardson writes:
"I was struck by the fact that both the religious and the medical authorities
around her were so insistent that her way of explaining her conversion was wrong or, still
worse, that what she described simply hadn't occurred. When I heard her story, I didn't
know what to make of it, but it seemed to me at least I should credit what she said enough
to try to understand it rather than, by discrediting it, to try to evade that task."
In a letter to his wife, written from the monastery where he had gone to
visit his daughter, Richardson reports:
"I like the Diliram people very much. They are a diverse group. . . , Each one
has a story of how he or she got here that is as unique as Ruth's. A little monastery in
the foothills of the Himalayas! It is amazing to me that such people still decide to
'serve Christ'. "
"That's what Ruth seems to have come to. She said to me, quite insistently,
that being a Christian doesn't mean being "saved," but following God's will and
being his minister. It means living for God. So her conversion seems to be primarily a
moral thing. It involves a new and specific idea of who she is and what she should be
doing with her life. It is her committing herself to an ideal of life and life's purpose
so that she can begin to move in a specific direction. Concretely, this means that she now
wants to learn some skills so that she will be able to do serviceable work. (She has an
idea that she'd like to try working with the deaf.) This Fall she plans to return to
school. How does one know whether this is just another teen-age trip like the Children of
God episode or whether it is an authentic conversion? Do I believe in conversions? God's
so entering the life of a person that it is totally turned around? Yes I do. And I believe
that such conversions mark the beginning of someone's becoming what they are meant by God
to be. As Ruth said, 'My first baptism was for you, but this second one's for me.'"
But how do we tell a true conversion from just a transient
"high"? Are the unusual experiences, voices, Scripture texts, and
visions the real sign? Or is it that the changes in Ruth have been preceded by
and spring from suffering? Or is it the emergence in her of a moral will, a
sense of vocation, and a commitment to serve God with her life? I think that
all these things are important and, in Ruth's case, equally essential. Why?
Because it seems to me that the truth of her conversion doesn't hang on one or
another factor alone, but on the integrity of the whole story. Her conversion
is true because it is the fitting outcome to a long odyssey which has been
moved throughout by the providence of God. (85)
One can do quite a bit of reading between the lines here: many explanations
occur for the father's acceptance of his daughter's new direction. As a
scholar of religion, Richardson was already committed to a less than
hysterical approach to new religions. His description of Ruth's religious
journey, including involvement with Children of God, suggests that the
Richardsons had long ceased to expect -- assuming they had ever wanted it --
that Ruth would turn into a "normal" middle-class daughter, and
further that Diliram would be quite a relief after Children of God! One also
notes a certain congruence between the religion of the parents and that of the
daughter; both are using basic Christian concepts and symbols. Also, the
immediate practical result of Ruth's conversion seems to be in the direction
of greater involvement in mainstream society -- i.e. returning to school. Most
families do not accede so graciously to dramatic shifts in their children's
religious commitments and lifestyle. This brings us to the final approach to
the phenomenon of cult membership.
||E. It is my contention that the pivotal factor in
most of the issues surrounding cult membership and forced
deprogramming is generational conflict; understanding the anti-cult
movement as the product of disparate values and family tensions is the
best way of sorting out what is "really" going on here.
Parents' expectations for their children have always been a strong force in
human history. In our own time, among white middle-class Americans --
practically the only group from whom cults recruit -- the pressures created by
these expectations can be intense. (86) These families tend to have fewer
children and to invest more time, money, and emotional energy in them than did
earlier generations. Furthermore, for those of recent immigrant background,
America represents the land where one can dream dreams for one's children and
have them come true.
It is possible to understand the cult controversy as primarily a desperate
attempt by hurt and baffled parents to retrieve offspring who have
spectacularly rejected the family's values. Numerous interviews and accounts
by parents who had "lost" their adult children to an alternative
religion stress the gulf between parent and child as the motivation behind the
decision to deprogram. (Ironically, of course, a deprogramming that fails to
achieve its ends will usually result in further alienation.) To return to the
case of Emily Dietz, her parents explained why they decided to have their
daughter forcibly deprogrammed:
"Emily had reached a point where she was hardly a member of the family. If the
deprogramming were unsuccessful, we ran the risk of losing her completely. Since we didn't
have that much of her already -- she was so distant, so alienated -- the risk didn't seem
so much." (87)
Concerns about bright, college-educated progeny engaging in menial labor
form almost a leitmotif in parental accounts. Mrs. Deitz remarked to the
reporter that when Emily dropped out of college, she returned to the
Washington area and cleaned houses, "although
she was a girl whose room was always a mess." (88) The judge in the
Dan Voll case, in which Ted Patrick and Voll's parents were acquitted of
charges of assault and unlawful imprisonment, directed the jury that "you may also consider the effect
upon the minds of the Volls when they learned that their son was cleaning the apartment of
McCandlish Phillips." (89) In general, it can be said that families
show as much concern for the precipitous drop in their child's educational
goals as they do for the child's religious practices. For example, a woman,
both of whose privately educated children had joined the Unification Church,
told a researcher:
"You cannot believe that all the sacrifice in years is just tossed lightly on
one side and nobody's the slightest bit concerned. . . . Here are two parents, and many
others like us, that have done without to give their children a good start in life and
it's tossed on one side; and they are told that colleges and universities are satanic.
It's nonsense and very wrong!" (90)
Sociologist James A. Beckford, in a study of family response to new
religious movements, makes a number of interesting points. The typical recruit
is in his or her mid-twenties, unmarried, often still in the process of higher
education. In other words, recruits are predominantly young people for whom
parents still feel a strong measure of responsibility. (91) Furthermore, the
families in Beckford's study who responded with "strong and sustained anger"
to the child's joining the Unification Church and who often became involved
with the anti-cult movement were those who described their family as
close-knit, affectionate, characterized by firm and fair discipline. The
recruit was often described as a model child, sharing in family activities,
and exhibiting no problems until he joined the cult. The child's rejection of
such an ideal family and failure to respond to parental sacrifices in expected
ways, constitutes what Shupe and Bromley call a "breach of reciprocity."
Cults are particularly likely to invite the wrath of families by an almost
provocative show of replacing the family. Cults often have words like
"children" or "family" in their group name, and refer to
their "spiritual parents" replacing their "earthly
parents." The recruit may be asked to make gestures of symbolic
repudiation of her "former" family, and may even take a new name and
insist that her "old" family address her by it. Of course, these
symbols of altered spiritual status are not unique to "cults;" all
or most of them are hallmarks of joining religious orders of the more
Families whose progeny have joined a strange and societally unacceptable
religion have roughly three choices in how to respond.
||The first is to accept the choice as the
reasonable though unusual act of a rational person. (93) This is the
choice Richardson made. For most families, even if they are inclined to be
tolerant of their child's religious choice, the pressures of the anti-cult
movement tend to push them toward a more interventionist stance. Parents
attending a lecture by the celebrated anti-cult activist Rabbi Maurice
Davis, for example, might hear him compare the Unification Church to the
Nazi youth movement, as he did in the Dole hearings in 1976. (94)
||The second choice is to define the act of joining as
due primarily to the weakness of the recruit -- that is, the result of
some emotional strain, personality defect, and so on. The problem here is
that our society tends to make families responsible for their children's
actions: religion tells us that "families that pray together stay
together;" it was almost a cliché of the baby-boom period that
parents, especially mothers, were responsible for all of their children's
emotional mishaps. Therefore, to admit that one's child had joined a cult
was to admit that one's family had failed in its function. (95)
||The third option, then, is the one which many families
choose: they conceptualize their child's allegiance to his or her religion
as something that has happened to the child as a result of some insidious
outside force (brainwashing, hypnosis, coercive persuasion, etc.). This is
a pandemic, as Eli Shapiro claims, (96) and who can blame the parents if
the child is exposed to contagion? In this way, the understandable
concerns and angers of parents who have been "betrayed and
deserted" provide the human energy that drives the charge of
brain-washing and its associated remedy, deprogramming. This then leads to
the kind of abuse of civil liberties described above as well as to
attempts by various states to legislate against "cults."
To summarize, of these five modes of understanding the phenomenon of
conversion to cults, only the "rays from outer space" theory
or what Harvey Cox has called "zombi-itis" (97) seems completely
without merit. Psychological, sociological, historical, spiritual, and familial
explanations are all useful, and will apply in different combinations to
different person's experiences. However, it is my thesis that the explanation of
intergenerational conflict is the one which finally governs much of the public
responses to cults today.
New religions which demand a high degree of commitment from adherents are
bound to be disturbing to outsiders, especially to family members of those who
join. The existence of a dramatic "threat" to middle-class families
inevitably evokes responses from psychologists, therapists (both licensed and
self-proclaimed), legislators, and mainstream clergy. Some of these responses
are undoubtedly sincere, others are clearly self-serving. Most of these
responses (e.g., deprogramming, conservatorship laws) rely for their logic on a
stance of delegitimizing the "cult" as a religion which can command
the respect and protection afforded to mainstream beliefs. By the same token,
the conversion experience is explained, not in terms of religious belief, but in
terms of "brainwashing" and mental illness. This allows the cult
member to be identified, not as a maverick family member who has chosen a
different path, but as the victim of coercive persuasion in need of rescue.
As this paper has shown, none of these contentions can survive scrutiny. It
is impossible, on both theoretical and empirical grounds, to draw a bright line
between "real" religions and "destructive cults," or between
sincere conversion to a religious belief and being the object of "coercive
persuasion." Nor is it possible to identify cult membership with mental
illness. Therefore, courts ought not to accept arguments, e.g. in the context of
claims for unlawful imprisonment, that adults who join "cults" are to
be treated any differently than those who choose to join other high-demand
groups, such as Roman Catholic convents or the U.S. Army.
63 Ungerleider & Wellisch, supra notes 50 and 51.
64 Galanter et al., supra note 52.
65 Levine & Salter, supra note 52, at 415.
66 MELTON & MOORE, supra note 8, at 47-57.
67 Interview with Harvey Cox, supra note 24, at 64.
68 WILLIAM JAMES, VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE 164
69 Thomas MacGowan, Conversion and Human Development, in
NEW RELIGIONS AND MENTAL HEALTH: UNDERSTANDING THE ISSUES 167 (Herbert
Richardson ed., 1980).
70 BROMLEY & SHUPE, supra note 9, at 209-10.
71 MELTON & MOORE, supra note 8, at 57.
72 This term was originally coined by sociologist James
73 Thomas Pilarzyk, Conversion and Alteration Processes in
the Youth Culture: A Comparative Analysis of Religious Transformation, in V. THE
BRAINWASHING/DEPROGRAMMING CONTROVERSY: SOCIOLOGICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, LEGAL AND
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES 51 (David G. Bromley & James T. Richardson eds.,
74 Id. at 59; See also Galanter et al., supra note 52.
75 Pilarzyk, supra note 73, at 59.
76 MacGowan, supra note 69, at 162-63.
77 Benton Johnson, A Sociological Perspective on New
Religions in IN GODS WE TRUST: NEW PATTERNS OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM IN AMERICA 51
(Thomas Robbins & Dick Anthony eds., 1981).
78 Donald E. Miller, Deprogramming in Historical
Perspective, in V. THE BRAINWASHING/DEPROGRAMMING CONTROVERSY: SOCIOLOGICAL,
PSYCHOLOGICAL, LEGAL AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES 15 (David G. Bromley &
James T. Richardson eds., 1983).
79 Historically, when new religious movements have appeared
they have created confrontations with groups seeking to preserve the status quo.
Virtually every new religious group of any size that has sought major change in
traditional values and established institutions has also been the target of
severe persecution. In each such case some other group in society that perceived
this intended change to be a threat took the lead in mobilizing opposition.
Whether or not these perceptions of threat were justified, opposition groups
determined that these new religions would subvert the social order if left
unchallenged. There have been few features shared by the groups we describe,
i.e. Quakers, Mormons, Roman Catholics, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day
Adventists. They have differed widely in their beliefs, their organizations, and
their memberships. The common element of such persecuted groups has not been any
specific characteristics as much as others' fears that they would have some
detrimental effect on American society. BROMLEY & SHUPE, supra note 9, at 7.
80 RICHARDSON, supra note 13, at xxvii.
81 In the 19th century, Harper Brothers. . . set up a dummy
publishing company to sell and promote Maria Monk's "Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu
Nunnery of Montreal." . . . Maria claimed that she had become pregnant
by one of the priests whose lust she was obligated to serve, and fled the
nunnery because she would have been required to strangle her own infant at
birth...Maria's story, loudly vented in the public press, appealed to the
increasing anti-Catholic feeling in the America of the 1840s. Journals sought to
outdo themselves in reporting Catholic atrocities. The public was enraged and,
in certain cases, broke into religious houses in order to liberate the young
novices who were held there captive. A perverse power to enslave the young was
attributed to the Catholic clergy -- especially Jesuits -- who were accused of
playing on the superstitions and credulity of the young... [OCRT Note:
One of our staff members recalls seeing this book for sale in Kapuskasing,
Northern Ontario in the mid 1950's]
When I hear the Catholic Father LeBar vilifying "cultists," I am
always reminded that I, when young, heard a Protestant fundamentalist describe
Catholics in the same way. There was even a "converted Catholic priest"
who, coming on a regular lecture circuit, would describe how horribly the
Catholic church had held him by the mental chains of "superstition"
until he escaped. Today, "ex-cultists" travel the same
circuit telling how they were "mentally imprisoned" by Sun
Myong Moon. Id. at xxvi-xxviii.
82 Thomas Robbins, Objectionable Aspects of 'Cults':
Rhetoric and Reality 23 (unpublished).
83 MacGowan, supra note 69, at 127.
84 Id. at xlix.
85 Id. at l-lii.
86 Jim Jones' People's Temple is an obvious
counter-example, and the only counter-example I know of. The fact that Jones
began as a mainstream Protestant minister, and the obvious sincerity of his
ministry to the poor and his concern for racial integration, all make the
People's Temple a wild card among the alternative religions.
87 A Question of Will, supra note 23, All.
89 PATRICK & DULACK, supra note 19, at 149.
90 James A. Beckford, A Typology of Family Responses to a
New Religious Movement, in CULTS AND THE FAMILY 47 (Florence Kaslow & Marvin
B. Sussman eds., 1982).
91 James A. Beckford, "Brainwashing" and
"Deprogramming" in Britain: The Social Sources of Anti-Cult Sentiment,
in V. THE BRAINWASHING/DEPROGRAMMING CONTROVERSY: SOCIOLOGICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL,
LEGAL AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES 132-37(David G. Bromley & James T.
Richardson eds., 1983).
92 Anson D. Shupe, Jr. & David G. Bromley, Witches,
Moonies, and Accusations of Evil, in IN GODS WE TRUST: NEW PATTERNS OF RELIGIOUS
PLURALISM IN AMERICA 248-29 (Thomas Robbins & Dick Anthony eds., 1981).
93 A striking example of parents who accept their child's
decision is that of the Van Sinderen family, whose son Davis died in the Heaven's Gate
suicides in California in March, 1997. The family, prominent in New England
social and financial circles, issued a statement in which they said that While
we did not completely understand or agree with David's beliefs, it was apparent
to us that he was happy, healthy and acting under his own volition. It seemed to
us that the group members were a supportive family unit and Davis was
spiritually fulfilled in his life with them Jonathan Rabinowitz, Death in a
Cult: The Relatives, N.Y. TIMES, Mar. 30, 1997, at A16.
94 Shupe & Bromley, supra note 92, at 249.
95 As Robbins & Anthony argue:
"Larger institutions have usurped the authority of the family but not its
culpability. Parents continue to think of themselves as responsible for the way their
children turn out because schools and psychotherapists blame them when things go wrong. It
is not surprising that they react defensively when their children repudiate the social
institutions with which they are identified. . . . Social science is that part of the
affective control apparatus of society which has stripped the family of its status as the
ultimate arbiter of affective legitimacy. Parents of converts are caught in between their
own allegiance to society and their children's repudiation of it. They thus tend to use
metaphors and a style of argumentation characteristic of the institutions which have
usurped their authority. "
"The anticult movement's use of brainwashing imagery represents the use of
social science as a rhetoric of social control. By their acceptance of this metaphor,
parents tend to mask the nature of the value conflict between themselves and their
children...Our children only appear to be repudiating our values because they have been
driven crazy by evil men. In this way parents are able to absolve themselves of
responsibility for their child's defection. Moreover, by using the social scientific style
of explanation of deviant behavior, they hope to enlist the aid of those institutions to
which they have ceded their authority, e.g. courts and psychiatrists, in subduing their
children's desertion from themselves and their world." Anthony &
Robbins, supra note 18, at 268-70.
96 Shapiro, supra note 37.
97 Interview with Harvey Cox, supra note 24, at 47.