Introduction


Presented in reverse chronology, this history stretches from the present back to the Fellowship's 1970 founding, and beyond.
(See "Blog Archive" in the sidebar below.) It draws from many sources, including The Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the Internet Archive, the former Fellowship of Friends wiki project, cult education and awareness sites, news archives, and from the editor's own 13-year experience in the Fellowship.

The portrait that emerges stands in stark contrast to sanitized versions presented on the Fellowship's array of
alluring websites, and on derivative sites created by Burton's now-estranged
disciple, Asaf Braverman.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

"The Cult Leader as Psychopath"

"Don Juan" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, April 12, 2007:
Someone asked about how one might “diagnose” the possible personality disorders on display in the person of Robert Burton.

Back in 1994, a couple of books on cults were making the rounds in the Fellowship (“The Guru Papers” by Kramer and Alstad, and “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds” by Tobias and Lalich) (OK, the rounds of some in the Fellowship). The writers of the latter book suggested that many cult leaders could properly be described as “psychopaths,” and provided a fifteen-point profile of a psychopath.

I remember being shocked at how closely the description of the psychopath fit; everything from self-serving manipulation based upon charm, to a grandiose sense of self and feelings of entitlement, to a complete lack of remorse, shame or guilt, to an incapacity for true love or empathy, to indifference to the harm they inflict on others . . . and on and on. If you haven’t seen it, check it out for yourself; it’s quite remarkable. I’ve quoted it below (parts of the book are available on the web).

What I’ve always found fascinating is that the qualities of seeming “strength” that many people are attracted to in a leader, whether of a cult or a nation, may merely be the pathological absence of normal human capacities for love, empathy, remorse, and concern for others. It is easy to manipulate someone who seeks relief from his own insecurities and uncertainties in the leader’s absolute lack of doubt in himself or his actions.

Anyway, here goes.

From “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds,” by Madeline Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich, pp. 67-79:
The Cult Leader as Psychopath

Cultic groups and relationships are formed primarily to meet specific emotional needs of the leader, many of whom suffer from one or another emotional or character disorder. Few, if any, cult leaders subject themselves to the psychological tests or prolonged clinical interviews that allow for an accurate diagnosis. However, researchers and clinicians who have observed these individuals describe them variously as neurotic, psychotic, on a spectrum exhibiting neurotic, sociopathic, and psychotic characteristics, or suffering from a diagnosed personality disorder.
It is not our intent here to make an overarching diagnosis, nor do we intend to imply that all cult leaders or the leaders of any of the groups mentioned here are psychopaths. In reviewing the data, however, we can surmise that there is significant psychological dysfunctioning in some cult leaders and that their behavior demonstrates features rather consistent with the disorder known as psychopathy.

Dr. Robert Hare, one of the world’s foremost experts in the field, estimates that there are at least two million psychopaths in North America. He writes, “Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.”

The Profile of a Psychopath

In reading the profile, bear in mind the three characteristics that Robert Lifton sees as common to a cultic situation:
  1. A charismatic leader who…increasingly becomes the object of worship
  2. A series of processes that can be associated with “coercive persuasion” or “thought reform”
  3. The tendency toward manipulation from above … with exploitation — economic, sexual, or other — of often genuine seekers who bring idealism from below.
Based on the psychopathy checklists of Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare, we now explore certain traits that are particularly pertinent to cult leaders. The fifteen characteristics outlined below list features commonly found in those who become perpetrators of psychological and physical abuse. In the discussion we use the nomenclature “psychopath” and “cult leader” interchangeably. . . .

We are not suggesting that all cult leaders are psychopaths but rather that they may exhibit many of the behavioral characteristics of one. We are also not proposing that you use this checklist to make a diagnosis, which is something only a trained professional can do. We present the checklist as a tool to help you label and demystify traits you may have noticed in your leader.
1. Glibness/Superficial charm

Glibness is a hallmark of psychopaths. They are able to use language effortlessly to beguile, confuse, and convince. They are captivating storytellers. They exude self-confidence and are able to spin a web that intrigues others and pulls them into the psychopath’s life. Most of all, they are persuasive. Frequently they have the capacity to destroy their critics verbally or disarm them emotionally.

2. Manipulative and Conning

Cult leaders do not recognize the individuality or rights of others, which makes all self-serving behaviors permissible. The hallmark of the psychopath is the psychopathic maneuver; which is essentially interpersonal manipulation “based on charm. The manipulator appears to be helpful, charming, even ingratiating or seductive, but is covertly hostile, domineering….[The victim] is perceived as an aggressor, competitor, or merely as an instrument to be used….The manipulation inevitably becomes the end-all and is no longer qualified by the reality principle.” In other words, there are no checks on the psychopath’s behavior–anything goes. The Psychopath divides the world into suckers, sinners, and himself. He discharges powerful feelings of terror and rage by dominating and humiliating his victims. He is particularly successful when, through an overlay of charm, he makes an ally of his victim–a process sometimes described as emotional vampirism or emotional terrorism. Examples of this type of manipulation are plentiful in the literature of Jonestown and other cultic groups. It is especially prevalent in the one-on-one cultic relationship, where there is direct involvement with the manipulator.

3. Grandiose Sense of Self

The cult leader enjoys tremendous feelings of entitlement. He believes everything is owed to him as a right. Preoccupied with his own fantasies, he must always be the center of attention. He presents himself as the “Ultimate One” enlightened, a vehicle of God, a genius, the leader of humankind, and sometimes even the most humble of humble. He has an insatiable need for adulation and attendance. His grandiosity may also be a defense against inner emptiness, depression, and a sense of insignificance. Paranoia often accompanies the grandiosity, reinforcing the isolation of the group and the need for protection against a perceived hostile environment. In this way, he creates an us-versus-them mentality.

4. Pathological Lying

Psychopaths lie coolly and easily, even when it is obvious they are being untruthful. It is almost impossible for them to be consistently truthful about either a major or minor issue. They lie for no apparent reason, even when it would seem easier and safer to tell the truth. This is sometimes called “crazy lying.” Confronting their lies may provoke an unpredictably incense rage or simply a Buddha-like smile.

Another form of lying common among cult leaders is known as pseudologica fantastica, an extension of pathological lying. Leaders tend to create a complex belief system, often about their own powers and abilities, in which they themselves sometimes get caught up. “It is often difficult to determine whether the lies are an actual delusional distortion of reality or are expressed with the conscious or unconscious intent to deceive. These manipulators are rarely original thinkers. Plagiarists and thieves, they seldom credit the true originators of ideas, often co-opting authorship. They are extremely convincing, forceful in the expression of their views, and talented at passing lie detector tests. For them, objective truth does not exist. The only “truth” is whatever will best achieve the outcome that meets their needs. This type of opportunism is very difficult to understand for those who are not psychopaths. For this reason, followers are more apt to invent or go along with all kinds of explanations and rationales for apparent inconsistencies in behavior “I know my guru must have had a good reason for doing this.” “He did it because he loves me even though it hurts.”


5. Lack of Remorse, Shame, or Guilt

At the core of the psychopath is a deep-seated rage which is split off (i.e, psychologically separated from the rest of the self) and repressed. Some researchers theorize that this is caused by feeling abandoned in infancy or early childhood. Whatever the emotional or psychological source, psychopaths see those around them as objects, targets, or opportunities, not as people. They do not have friends, they have victims and accomplices-and the latter frequently end as victims. For psychopaths, the ends always justify the means. Thus there is no place for feelings of remorse, shame, or guilt. Cult leaders feel justified in all their actions since they consider themselves the ultimate moral arbiter. Nothing gets in their way.

6. Shallow Emotions

While they may display outbursts of emotion, more often than not they are putting on a calculated response to obtain a certain result. They rarely reveal a range of emotions, and what is seen is superficial at best, pretended at worst. Positive feelings of warmth, joy, love, and compassion are more feigned than experienced. They are unmoved by things that would upset the normal person, while outraged by insignificant matters. They are bystanders to the emotional life of others, perhaps envious and scornful of feelings they cannot have or understand. In the end, psychopaths are cold, with shallow emotions, living in a dark world of their own.

Hiding behind the “mask of sanity,” the cult leader exposes feelings only insofar as they serve an ulterior motive. He can witness or order acts of utter brutality without experiencing a shred of emotion. He casts himself in a role of total control, which he plays to the hilt. What is most promised in cults–peace, joy, enlightenment, love, and security are goals that are forever out of reach of the leader, and thus also the followers. Since the leader is not genuine, neither are his promises.

7. Incapacity for Love

As the “living embodiment of God’s love,” the leader is tragically flawed in being unable to either give or receive love. Love substitutes are given instead. A typical example might be the guru’s claim that his illness or misfortune (otherwise inconsistent with his enlightened state) is caused by the depth of his compassion for his followers, whereby he takes on their negative karma. Not only are devotees supposed to accept this as proof of his love but also are expected to feel guilt for their failings! It becomes impossible for members to disprove this claim once they have accepted the beliefs of the group.

The leader’s tremendous need to be loved is accompanied by an equally strong disbelief in the love offered him by his followers; hence, the often unspeakably cruel and harsh testing of his devotees. Unconditional surrender is an absolute requirement. In one cult, for example, the mother of two small children was made to tell them nightly that she loved her leader more than them. Later, as a test of her devotion, she was asked to give up custody of her children in order to be allowed to stay with her leader. The guru’s love is never tested; it must be accepted at face value.

8. Need for Stimulation

Thrill-seeking behaviors, often skirting the letter or spirit of the law, are common among psychopaths. Such behavior is sometimes justified as preparation for martyrdom “I know I don’t have long to live; therefore my time on this earth must be lived to the fullest.” “Surely even I am entitled to have fun or sin a little.” This type of behavior becomes more frequent as the leader deteriorates emotionally and psychologically–a common occurrence.

Cult leaders live on the edge, constantly testing the beliefs of their followers, often with increasingly bizarre behaviors, punishments, and rules. Other mechanisms of stimulation come in the form of unexpected, seemingly spontaneous outbursts, which usually take the form of verbal abuse and sometimes physical punishment. The psychopath has a cool indifference to things around him, yet his icy coldness can quicky turn into rage, vented on those around him.

9. Callousness/lack of empathy

Psychopaths readily take advantage of others, expressing utter contempt for anyone else’s feelings. Someone in distress is not important to them. Although intelligent, perceptive, and quite good at sizing people up, they make no real connections with others. They use their “people skills” to exploit, abuse, and wield power.

Psychopaths are unable to empathize with the pain of their victims. Meanwhile, part of the victims’ denial system is the inability to believe that someone they love so much could consciously and callously hurt them. It therefore becomes easier to rationalize the leader’s behavior as necessary for the general or individual “good.” The alternative for the devotee would be to face the sudden and overwhelming awareness of being victimized, deceived, used. Such a realization would wound the person’s deepest sense of self, so as a means of self-protection the person denies the abuse. When and if the devotee becomes aware of the exploitation, it feels as though a tremendous evil has been done, a spiritual rape.

10. Poor Behavioral Controls/Impulsive Nature

Like small children, many psychopaths have difficulty regulating their emotions. Adults who have temper tantrums are frightening to be around. Rage and abuse, alternating with token expressions of love and approval, produce an addictive cycle for both abuser and abused, as well as create a sense of hopelessness in the latter. This dynamic has also been recognized in relation to domestic abuse and the battering of women. The cult leader acts out with some regularity–often privately, sometimes publicly–usually to the embarrassment and dismay of his followers and other observers. He may act out sexually, aggressively, or criminally, frequently with rage. Who could possibly control someone who believes himself to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and entitled to every wish, someone who has no sense of personal boundaries, no concern for the impact on those around him? Generally this aberrant behavior is a well-kept secret, known only to a few disciples. The others only see perfection. These tendencies are related to the psychopath’s need for stimulation and inability to tolerate frustration, anxiety, and depression. Often a leader’s inconsistent behavior needs to be rationalized by either the leader or the follower in order to maintain internal consistency. It is often regarded as divinely inspired and further separates the empowered from the powerless.

11. Early Behavior Problems/juvenile delinquency

Psychopaths frequently have a history of behavioral and academic difficulties. They often “get by” academically, conning other students and teachers. Encounters with juvenile authorities are frequent. Equally prevalent are difficulties in peer relationships and developing and keeping friends, marked control problems, and other aberrant behaviors such as stealing, fire setting, and cruelty to others.

12. Irresponsibility/Unreliability

Not concerned about the consequences of their behavior, psychopaths leave behind them the wreckage of others’ lives and dreams. They may be totally oblivious or indifferent to the devastation they inflict on others, something which they regard as neither their problem nor their responsibility.

Psychopaths rarely accept blame for their failures or mistakes. Scape goating is common, blaming followers, those outside the group, a member’s family, the government, Satan–anyone and everyone but the leader. The blaming may follow a ritualized procedure such as a trial, “hot seat” denunciation, or public confession (either one-on-one or in front of the group). Blame is a powerful reinforcer of passivity and obedience, producing guilt, shame, terror, and conformity in the followers.

13. Promiscuous Sexual behavior/infidelity

Promiscuity, child sexual abuse, polygamy, rape, and sexual acting out of all sorts are frequently practiced by cult leaders. Conversely, there is often stringent sexual control of the followers through such tactics as enforced celibacy, arranged marriages, forced breakups and divorces, removal of children from their parents, forced abortions or mandated births. For psychopaths, sex is primarily a control and power issue.

Along with this behavior comes vast irresponsibility not only for the followers’ emotions but also for their lives. In one cult, for example, multiple sexual relations were encouraged even while one of the top leaders was known to be HIV positive. This kind of negligence toward others is not uncommon in the psychopath’s world.

Marital fidelity is rare in the psychopath’s life. There are usually countless reports of extramarital affairs and sexual predation upon adult and child members of both sexes. The sexual behavior of the leader may be kept hidden from all but the inner circle or may be part of accepted group sexual practices. In any case, due to the power imbalance between leader and followers, sexual contact is never truly consensual and is likely to have damaging consequences for the follower.

14. Lack of realistic life plan/parasitic lifestyle

The psychopath tends to move around a lot, making countless efforts at “starting over while seeking out Fertile new ground to exploit. One day he may appear as a rock musician, the next a messiah; one day a used car salesman, the next the founder of a mass self-transformation program; one day a college professor, the next the new “Lenin” bringing revolution to America.

The flip side of this erratic life planning is the all-encompassing promise for the future that the cult leader makes to his followers. Many groups claim as their goal world domination or salvation at the Apocalypse. The leader is the first to proclaim the utopian nature of the group, which is usually simply another justification for irrational behavior and stringent controls.

The leader’s sense of entitlement is often demonstrated by the contrast between his luxurious lifestyle and the impoverishment of his followers. Most cult leaders arc supported by gifts and donations from their followers, who may be pressured to turn over much of their income and worldly possessions to the group. Slavery, enforced prostitution, and a variety of illegal acts for the benefit of the leader are common in a cult milieu. This type of exploitation aptly demonstrates Lifton’s third point of idealization from below and exploitation from above.

Psychopaths also tend to be preoccupied with their own health while remaining totally indifferent to the suffering of others. They may complain of being “burned out” due to the burden of “caring for” their followers, sometimes stating they do not have long to live, instilling fear and guilt in their devotees and encouraging further servitude. they are highly sensitive to their own pain and tend to be hypochondriacs, which often conflicts with their public image of superhuman self-control and healing abilities.

According to them, the illnesses they don’t get are due to their powers, while the ones they do get are caused by their “compassion” in taking on their disciples’ karma or solving the group’s problems. This of course is another guru trick.

15. Criminal or entrepreneurial versatility

Cult leaders change their image and that of the group as needed to avoid prosecution and litigation, to increase income, and to recruit a range of members. Cult leaders have an innate ability to attract followers who have the skills and connections that the leaders lack. The longevity of the group is dependent on the willingness of leadership to adapt as needed and preserve the group. Frequently, when illegal or immoral activities are exposed to the public, the cult leader will relocate, sometimes taking followers with him. He will keep a low profile, only to resurface later with a new name, a new front group, and perhaps a new twist on the scam.

"ton" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 17, 2009:
“When abuses are publicly exposed, the leader either denies or justifies the behaviors by saying that ‘enemies of the truth’ or ‘the forces of evil’ are trying to subvert his true message. Core members of the group have a huge vested interest in believing him, as their identity is wrapped up in believing in his righteousness. Those who begin to doubt him at first become confused and depressed, and later feel betrayed and angry. The ways people deny and justify are similar: Since supposedly no one who is not enlightened can truly understand the motives of one who is, any criticism can be discounted as a limited perspective. Also, any behavior on the part of the guru, no matter how base, can be imputed to be some secret teaching or message that needs deciphering.

By holding gurus as perfect and thus beyond ordinary explanations, their presumed specialness can be used to justify anything. Some deeper, occult reason can always be ascribed to anything a guru does: The guru is said to take on the karma of others, and that is why his body has whatever problems it has. The guru is obese or unhealthy because he is too kind to turn down offerings: besides, he gives so much that a little excess is understandable. He punishes those who disobey him not out of anger but out of necessity, as a good father would. He uses sex to teach about energy and detachment. He lives an opulent life to break people’s simplistic preconceptions of what ego-loss should look like; it also shows how detached and unconcerned he is about what others think. For after all, ‘Once enlightened, one can do anything.’ Believing this dictum makes any action justifiable.

People justify and rationalize in gurus what in others would be considered unacceptable because they have a huge emotional investment in believing their guru is both pure and right.”
(Guru Papers p.52)
[ed. - Also see "Dr. Robert J. Lifton on Destructive Cults."]

"ton" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 17, 2009:
“That interest in one’s own salvation is totally
self-centered is a conundrum rarely explored.”
(ibid p.54)

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