Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Returning to the Stanford Prison Experiment

Ben Blum, in his article The Lifespan of a Lie, sets out to put to rest the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). He suggests that the reason we have collectively embraced the lesson of the SPE—that environments strongly affect people's moral decisions—is because it lets us off the hook for bad decisions. In other words, we cannot be held accountable for immoral behavior if it was our environment, not ourselves, that caused us to act as we did.

Seemingly at variance with his viewpoint, Mr. Blum goes on to write about an attempted replication of the SPE. Emphasis added by me:

"According to Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher, psychologists who co-directed an attempted replication of the Stanford prison experiment in Great Britain in 2001, a critical factor in making people commit atrocities is a leader assuring them that they are acting in the service of a higher moral cause with which they identify — for instance, scientific progress or prison reform. We have been taught that guards abused prisoners in the Stanford prison experiment because of the power of their roles, but Haslam and Reicher argue that their behavior arose instead from their identification with the experimenters, which Jaffe and Zimbardo encouraged at every turn. Eshleman, who described himself on an intake questionnaire as a “scientist at heart,” may have identified more powerfully than anyone, but Jaffe himself put it well in his self-evaluation: “I am startled by the ease with which I could turn off my sensitivity and concern for others for ‘a good cause.’”"

An important lesson that we can draw from the Stanford Prison Study, Haslam and Reicher's replication, Solomon Asch's experiments on the bandwagon effect, and other studies on social norming, is that people generally conform to what they think they are expected to do, and much more so when that expectation comes from an authority figure. The COG employed the highest and most absolute authority of all, God. Following the words of our "prophet," David Berg, created an upside-down, morally abhorrent, alternative reality within COG Homes and was the root of abuse and exploitation within the cult.

See also, The Power of Ideology.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Past is for Education, not Self-Reproach

I think I am not alone in the undesirable mental habit of beating myself up for saying and doing stupid things. I woke in the night and as my mind slid into the familiar berating, I stepped aside and considered why.

My thoughts went back to my years in the Philippines. Each year on Good Friday, we see can a physical representation of this mental habit. Filipinos walk down main streets flagellating themself with whips until they collapse. Some go as far as to have themselves nailed to crosses for several hours. To my mind, this is absurd. What good can come of this?

Yet isn't that just the same thing I have been doing mentally? Self-flagellating as if it would do any good. Did it earn me merit? No.

The past is to be looked at for education, not as a breeding ground for self-reproach. Understanding, accepting, and honestly facing ourselves is vital to having compassion on others, not to mention essential for our own mental health.

To quote the Dalai Lama,

"When we treat ourselves with compassion, we accept that there are parts of our personality that we may not be satisfied with, but we do not berate ourselves as we try to address them. When we go through a difficult time we are caring and kind to ourselves, as we would be to a friend or relative. When we feel inadequate in some way, we remind ourselves that all people have these feelings or limitations. When things are hard, we recognize that all people go through similar challenges. And finally, when we are feeling down, we try to understand this feeling with curiosity and acceptance, rather than rejection or self-judgement."

See also: Guilt.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Dear Children,

The subject of apologies is vast and overwhelming. It is probably easier to try to sift out the few things I did right from the haystack of wrongs. But that wouldn't be an apology. 

Although I have apologized privately to you and to other young people I have known over the years, I would like to make a public statement. For what it's worth, I am deeply sorry for the following:
  • raising you in a toxic cult with twisted sense of normalcy
  • subjecting you to reading—and memorizing—Mo Letters and the Bible in lieu of more useful books and information
  • not ensuring your safety from abusive treatment
  • failing to provide you with a carefree childhood
  • having you pass out tracts, sell posters and tapes, and other embarrassing "witnessing" ventures
  • leaving two of you as nursing babies to go away for "training," per leadership orders
  • striving to be a Bible woman and thus setting a terrible example as a mother
  • remaining with a man who was physically and emotionally abusive to my children, necessitating walking on eggshells to try to avoid his tirades over petty perceived offences, angry outbursts, and beatings
  • raising you in a dysfunctional stressful household
  • dodging confrontation instead of facing and working through the conflict
  • not allowing you older ones a normal opportunity for socialization
  • not ensuring you got the education you deserved
  • limiting your opportunities by raising you in a foreign, rural backwater
  • allowing one of you to go work for evil cult overlords who subjected you to unwanted sex, and for not insisting you come home immediately when you called me upset about being there
  • and to all the young people who grew up in TFI, I am sincerely sorry for closing my eyes in denial and remaining in a cult that advocated pedophilia, child abuse, and medical and educational neglect
There are probably more things the you deserve an apology for, but they escape me now. 

In spite of me and all my failures as a mother, you have all overcome your difficult childhoods, pulled out of dark places, and have grown into mature, good-natured, intelligent adults that I am deeply proud of. 



Tuesday, October 2, 2018

More on Anonymity

The anonymity in the group caused by the taking of new names upon joining, isolation from society at large, social norming, and the deindividualization of groupthink was a powerful force.

I wrote before that perhaps this name changing was akin to Plato’s “Ring of Gyges.” To put this in more contemporary and perhaps more relevant terms, think of Tolkien’s “The One Ring.” Both were stories of magic rings that granted invisibility to the wearer. In Plato's Republic, he uses the story of the ring to consider whether a person would be moral if he did not have to fear being caught. In Tolkien's story, the ring also brought with its invisibility the propensity towards evil. Did the anonymity of name changing in The Family affect people’s psyches and give them further license to engage in behavior contrary to conventional morality?

Aside from this more obvious psychological process of providing a cover for amoral activity, I wonder if anonymity was a basic factor in keeping the cult together. We had new personas in the cult. We could forget who we were before joining, forget our family and friends, and forget conventional mores.

Reflecting on my teen years as a Catacomb member of the COG while still living with my parents, I see how I had had two personas—the happy cult Hepsi and the past Mary with her biological family, her friends, and problems. When my best friend called me after having been away for months, I told her about my infatuation with the Children of God. She reacted as I probably would have, had our situations been reversed. She blurted with disdain, "What? You're a Jesus Freak?!" I felt so embarrassed. But not embarrassed enough to change my mind.

I had found succour in the cult. That loving, welcoming "Family" that gave purpose to my life. I had to separate my outside self, the one my friend had known, from my cult self. Then when that friend stopped by my house to visit, I was too ashamed to answer the door. Too bad I wasn't self-aware enough to realize how my behavior betrayed my real feelings toward the COG. Although that embarrassment continued lurking in the shadows of my subconscious all my years in the cult, I repressed those "sinful doubts" and gave my all to The Children of God. And that is the real shame.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Habits of Mind

One of the habits of mind that I developed in the cult was a feeling of helplessness, of being trapped and powerless. After leaving, indeed my options were limited by my circumstances: the lack of biological family to turn to, the sheer number of my dependents, my lack of education, and my neural atrophy. For years, I did feel trapped by my circumstances, and I had little energy or time to consider alternatives.

Amor Towles put these wise words into the mouth of his protagonist in his masterpiece, A Gentleman in Moscow, "If one does not master his circumstances, one is bound to be mastered by them."

I have a past I cannot change, mistakes that cannot be undone. But I will no longer allow those circumstances of my past to master me as I had in former times.

During my cult years, I stove to submit and struggled to be a good "Bible woman" with no will of my own. I was to be a "diamond of dust" and float effortlessly on God's air. The ideal was to be mastered by outside forces—God and my Shepherds. 

In real terms, this meant I was to remain a child with no self-will. And this I did. I remained in the cult. I remained in a dysfunctional relationship. I endured unpleasant circumstances, "enduring hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ." I deserved no better, or so I believed.

Through the years, this wrong thinking of helplessness had become a deeply entrenched habit of mind. More than a reflection of reality, this feeling of entrapment by circumstance was a mental habit. In order to pull out of it, first, I had to notice it. Then, I had to decide to be done with it. Finally came the day-to-day work of rewiring my brain and intuitions.

My life is mine now. Not some fairy-tale god's. Not the cult's. Not anyone else's. I am not a victim. If I feel trapped or unhappy with my situation, I need to make a plan to change it. I will earn no eternal merit through misguided martyrdom. There are no cosmic brownie points.

I choose to wake up each day with appreciation for life and freedom. With joy, not with dragging around the dregs of the past. Life is too short.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Environment can cause epidemics of evil

"You don't need a motive," Zimbardo said. "All you really need is a situation [or an ideology?] that facilitates moving across that line of good and evil." 

"What's more, a person's anonymity can be induced by acting in an anonymity-conferring environment that adds to the pleasure of destruction, vandalism and the power of being in control," Zimbardo noted.

Read the full article, "What makes good people do bad things?"

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

All cults are alike; each cult is unhappy in its own way

I just finished reading TroublemakerSurviving Hollywood and Scientology. I had never heard of Leah Remini, never seen her on TV. I was in a cult. We didn't watch TV. Then after leaving, I had no interest in television, as I had such a hunger to study and learn after years in the intellectual desert that was life in the Children of God. Like Leah, I needed to rewire my brain. But unlike Leah, I had no support system, no therapists, no friends nor family nearby, just my own large brood of children that needed care and attention and money.

Reading Leah's story, I marveled at the similarities. Groupthink, which I.L. Janis defined as “a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures," is an essential feature in all cults. Scientologists, just like their COG counterparts, are “the enlightened ones,” the ones with privileged insight into The Truth. This privilege obliges members to spend hours and hours “improving themselves” through daily reading, frequent counseling, self-criticism, and criticism from leaders, with its resultant required confessions and, in the COG, united prayer sessions. Voicing doubts or criticizing leaders was cause for censure and punishment, demotion, hard-labor, humiliation, silence restriction, and/or wearing headphones listening to group publications.

I was horrified to read of the extent of the abuse that was heaped upon adults in Scientology, and its accompanying psychological warping so that the victims believe they are deserving of such ill-treatment. In the Children of God, although adults were subject to various types of abuse and constant exploitation, the real victims were the children. Especially the first generation born in the COG were subject to physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse, coupled with educational and medical neglect. Like Leah explained about Scientology, the group's publications were deemed more important than mere academic education.

Scientology, with its courting of rich and famous celebrities, is wealthy, yet the rank-and-file members can find themselves bankrupt because of the amount of money the cult requires them to pay. Children of God members lived in poverty after giving up everything to the cult, being forbidden to hold regular jobs because they were too busy “doing the work of winning the world, that only they, as the chosen of God, could do,” and tithing at least 15% of the donations they raised. The very dedicated gave more.

I feel a kindred spirit to Leah, and I commend her strength and resolve in coming out of such a strong mindset as was instilled during her formative years growing up in Scientology.