Robert Earl Burton founded The Fellowship of Friends in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970. Burton modeled his own group after that of Alex Horn, loosely borrowing from the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In recent years, the Fellowship has cast its net more broadly, embracing any spiritual tradition that includes (or can be interpreted to include) the notion of "presence."

The Fellowship of Friends exhibits the hallmarks of a "doomsday religious cult," wherein Burton exercises absolute authority, and demands loyalty and obedience. He warns that his is the only path to consciousness and eternal life. Invoking his gift of prophecy, he has over the years prepared his flock for great calamities (e.g. a depression in 1984, the fall of California in 1998, nuclear holocaust in 2006, and most recently the October 2018 "Fall of California Redux.")

According to Burton, Armageddon still looms in our future and when it finally arrives, non-believers shall perish while, through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (recently expanded to 81 angels, including himself and his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci), Burton and his followers shall be spared, founding a new and more perfect civilization. Read more about the blog.

Presented in a reverse chronology, the Fellowship's history may be navigated via the "Blog Archive" located in the sidebar below.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Apollo Camelot

Photo source

[ed. - Another enterprise of the non-profit Fellowship of Friends is "Apollo Camelot" which operates on the Fellowship's Oregon House estate. As usual, the association with the Fellowship of Friends (a cult) is omitted. From the website:]
Apollo Camelot is located in Northern California, an hour and a half north of Sacramento. Nestled in the Sierra Foothills, we raise bactrian and dromedary camels.

We breed for white, and have several white bulls from diverse bloodlines. We also raise Arabian horses, Rare French Poitou donkeys, Water buffalo, Royal Yaks, Nubian and Cashmere goats.

Our animals are cared for with the highest standards by a team of passionate and dedicated people. If you wish to know us better, you are welcome to contact us and set an appointment to visit our location.
With selling prices of $18,000 and $20,000 for these animals, it could be a very profitable undertaking.

[ed. - Zoos are not necessarily a novelty in Oregon House. For years, local Chuck Trantham housed the Foothill Game Farm on his property, featuring exotic animals from around the world.]

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fellowship of Friends President Greg Holman responds

I very much like Gregory of Nissa’s thought: “If evil was presented to us as it really is, unadorned with some semblance of good, we would not fly to it so easily." - Robert Earl Burton
Letter to the Editor, Territorial Dispatch
Fellowship; Part of the Community
by Greg Holman, President, Fellowship of Friends

Over the last few weeks there has been an effort by some to use the Fellowship of Friends to influence the Yuba County 5th District Supervisor’s race. This effort has taken the form of numerous public communications making unsubstantiated claims that the Fellowship is a cult and then trying to tie a candidate to the Fellowship to try and discredit the candidate. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for some to be fearful and distrustful of what is different or what they don’t understand. The Fellowship has dealt with this in the past by trying to work quietly and privately to educate these individuals about the Fellowship and our beliefs. However, the Fellowship is extremely troubled by this recent activity for numerous reasons and believe this public response is necessary.

First and foremost, the claims and allegations that the Fellowship is a cult and just being associated with the Fellowship should somehow disqualifies a candidate is extremely disrespectful and hurtful to the Fellowship and its many members. The Fellowship is made up of members who care deeply and contribute greatly to the community. These are individuals who donate time, energy and money to schools, libraries, other nonprofits, youth sports teams, (others?) throughout our community. The Fellowship and its Renaissance Winery engage directly with the community through our support of Sutter North Hospice, the TIP program, the Red Cross, the Community Center, the local fire department, the Sheriff’s Department, North Yuba Grown, Good Food Farms, the North Sierra Wine Trail, the Farm Bureau, and the Chamber of Commerce - just to name a few. We do what we can when we can and would wish to do more as we can. We ask nothing in return as this is what community supporters do.

The Fellowship also finds these activities disturbing on a much more fundamental level. The Fellowship is a religious organization based, in part, on the belief that through education, the awareness of the beauty inherent around us and in serving others we improve our souls and our individual paths to immortality. We understand that these beliefs and the way in which we practice them may be different than many established religions. However, labeling the Fellowship a cult based on these differences is neither rational nor justified. One of the central principles upon which the United States of America was formed is freedom of religion. To have one group’s practice of this freedom and the right used in the democratic process (which is another of our great country’s founding principles) should be an affront to everyone in our community that values and cherishes freedom of religion and our democracy.

Finally, the Fellowship is troubled by its inclusion in the political process as we are a non-political religious organization. The Fellowship does not get involved in any political campaign nor do we endorse any candidate for any office. As a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization we are prohibited from getting involved in any political campaign and take this obligation very seriously. However, equally important, we believe it is the right of each Fellowship member to have the freedom to support whichever candidate he or she thinks best without our involvement. It should be made clear to all members and the general community that the Fellowship does not take a position on, endorse, or campaign against any candidate. In fact, this letter in no way should be read as endorsing or rejecting any candidate for any race.

The Fellowship and its members greatly value being a part of this vibrant community and all the wonderful people who make up this community. It is the belief of the Fellowship that the recent attacks on the Fellowship are based on beliefs held by a small minority. However, for the betterment of our community we believe these divisive tactics should be addressed. We all need and want a harmonious environment to live in, raise our children in and through which we can experience a better life. It is in furtherance of this ideal that we have decided to publish this letter.

We invite you to contact the Fellowship if you have any questions or would like to discuss this with us (530-692-2222 ext. 8217).
[ed. - Despite Greg Holman's wholesome representation, the history of The Fellowship of Friends speaks for itself.]

"WhaleRider" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 28, 2014:
@Greg Holman [responding to above]
“…making unsubstantiated claims that the Fellowship is a cult.”
I think a simple public debate with your lord and master Mr Burton about whether or not the Fellowship of Friends is a doomsday, self-serving cult that employs psychological manipulation…and also practices deception, elder abuse, extortion, international smuggling of sex slaves, fraud, tax evasion, (others?) would bring into focus the bigger picture rather than the view of the cult presented through Mr Holman’s beauteous and narrow rosy lens and echoed by followers.

The first issue to tackle in the debate: how you describe water to a fish?

You take him out of water.

If burton were taken out of his element, made to debate in public or in court, there is a darn good chance his mental status would become apparent to more (sadly not all) of his followers who could begin to view him from a distance, break the spell, and begin to reclaim their lives, thus draining the victim pool.
“We all need and want a harmonious environment to live in, raise our children in and through which we can experience a better life.”
This is precisely why the Fellowship of Friends cult ought to be disbanded and its sexual predator leader and enabling board members prosecuted. They need to be confronted publicly in order to raise public consciousness about the cult’s true intent, to exploit and drain others in service of Mr Burton’s sexual mania and grandiosity, causing disharmony in the lives of many people, a small fraction of whom are vocal.

For despite Mr Burton’s self proclaimed exalted status, it is also one of our cherished founding democratic principles that in this great country we are all equals, if not in a monetary/power sense, but at least in principle as individual human beings with human rights and dignity.

(If we could actually incorporate that belief of treating others as equals and conducting ourselves according to this platinum rule, many of the problems facing our communities and the planet right now could be addressed and solved, IMHO.)

But no, some people believe and convince others to believe that they are different or better than others and their corrupt and self-serving actions exempt from scrutiny. This is what I have come to understand about the Fellowship of Friends as a former member these many years down the road.

The entire planet suffers at the hands of sociopaths.

There is now in the public domain a growing list of sexual predators whom have hidden their activities behind the guise of freedom of religion.

So that we all may enjoy a safe and open community, the public needs to be informed and warned that sociopaths and sexual predators are likely to exploit this grey area of law.

The Fellowship of Friends is part of that list, despite the claims of the nominal figure of its Board President.

Make no mistake, ROBERT E BURTON is behind the mask of the Fellowship of Friends.

Hundreds of men, hiding in shame, have been preyed upon by its leader.

The Fellowship’s “increased awareness of beauty” is merely clever packaging for fraud.

The following line makes me sick to my stomach:
“…in serving others we improve our souls.”
Their souls, not ours.

Life people like us don’t have souls.

And please explain exactly how does prostituting yourself or your husband and/or son to enhance your cult status improve your soul?

For that is the fate of most young male followers purposely recruited, groomed, and conveyed to the cult leader by his ardent, colluding older followers, including a minor who contracted herpes from the sexual encounter with the cult’s leader.

[ed. - The Fellowship and Friends. They're rolling out the big guns. These men are determined to set the record straight."]

"alphanumeric1" posted on, May 29, 2014:

Letter to the Editor from Greg Holman, Fellowship of Friends President, Renaissance Winery President, Alcouffe Center Vice President, North Yuba Grown member, 37-year member of Fellowship, and Randy Fletcher's business partner

Letter to the Editor from Gary Hawthorne, North Yuba Grown Chairman (replacing Freja Nelson, who resigned in protest over Fellowship vs. community divisions within the organization)

Letter to the Editor from Steven Dambeck, North Yuba Grown Board Member at Large, Fellowship leader, former President of Apollo Olive Oil, member of Fellowship for over 35 years, and Randy Fletcher's business partner

Letter to the Editor from Tom Richards, North Yuba Grown member, and for over 40 years, Fellowship neighbor (7,000-acre Richards Ranch) and supporter

Letter to the Editor from Charles Sharp, Fellowship landowner, investor and Randy Fletcher's business partner, 40-year member of Fellowship

Letter to the Editor from Nick Spaulding, 39-year member of Fellowship, and one of the organization's chief political activists

Posts by "nightshift" on and eTerritorial Dispatch , Nick Spaulding attacking critics of Fletcher and the Fellowship (since the first suggestion of a Fletcher-Fellowship connection)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Appeal-Democrat reports on election issues

[Editorial comments follow]

Excerpted from the Appeal-Democrat:
By Eric Vodden/Appeal-Democrat
the race for 5th District supervisor in Yuba County took an unexpected turn with incumbent Hal Stocker running an ad trying to connect opponent Randy Fletcher to the Fellowship of Friends. That ad included a story published on an Oregon-based website that called the Fellowship, followers of Mystical Fourth-Way Christianity, a "cult."

5th District Y.C. supervisor

A political ad that appeared last week generated some new attention in the five-candidate race for 5th District Yuba County supervisor.

The question is whether the paid ad that ran in the Appeal-Democrat brought to the voters a legitimate issue or is a case of dirty politics.

"It didn't bother me," said incumbent Hal Stocker, who purchased the ad that ran May 18. "As far as I am concerned it was factual. I don't see any reason to criticize it."

The ad links opponent Randy Fletcher with the Fellowship of Friends organization. It includes an article by Eric Salerno of Browns Valley that appeared on the Oregon-based website

Salerno, listed as a contributor to the website, said Thursday he received no payment from the Stocker campaign, but that he gave permission for its use. He noted that Fletcher had first agreed to be interviewed and then backed out.

"I had interviewed three of the candidates previously and he was next on the list," Salerno said. "My motivation is to get the candidate's story and print it."

A Marysville insurance agent who lives in Browns Valley, Fletcher is one of four candidates seeking to oust Stocker, who is seeking a sixth term. Others running are former supervisor Don Schrader, Jenny Cavaliere and Kathie Thelen.

Fletcher said he preferred to not respond directly to the ad. However, he emphasized he is not a Fellowship member and that any connections he has with members are through his business or in helping organize community events.

"I don't want to go there," Fletcher said of the ad. "It's not healthy for the community."

Stocker said Thursday he has concerns about somebody being on the board who would support what he claims is the Fellowship's goal to develop its 1,000 foothills acres. He called the Fellowship a "special interest group" whose desires are out of step with the rest of the district.

"I am interested in land use," said Stocker. "I am interested in what happens to the countryside."

Stocker noted that Fellowship member Steven Dambeck and Fletcher work together on North Yuba Grown, an organization formed to promote foothills farm products. And he said North Yuba Grown events are being held on Chestnut Grove property owned by Fletcher.

"He (Fletcher) would do whatever they want," Stocker said. "As it relates to land use, you have to have concerns he would vote for their projects. That's where his political base is."

Fletcher said he has no knowledge of any developments the Fellowship might have planned. And he said that he and Dambeck, along with Fellowship president Greg Holman, are "business associates with interest in the community."

Dambeck, who supports Fletcher, said he expects "politicians to overstate what their opponents' position is."

"Nobody wants large development," he said. "The economy doesn't bear it."

The ad, which refers to the Fellowship as a "cult," also includes photos of Fletcher with Dambeck and Holman. It identifies Dambeck as president of Fellowship-connected Apollo Olive Oil, though Dambeck said he sold his interest in the company "seven or eight years ago."

Fletcher said the photo with Dambeck was taken during a Yuba County Alliance for Development meeting in which Dambeck won a door prize. The other with Holman, he said, was taken during an Italian Night event sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Marysville.

Dambeck, recently hired as the Yuba-Sutter Chamber of Commerce's director of tourism, called the ad "a pretty cheap shot." He said he has no "leadership role" with the group.

"We are business people who have a spiritual direction," he said.

[ed. - One obvious reason why Randy Fletcher has been able to run such a positive campaign, and avoid "going there" with "unhealthy" attacks, is that he has people like Fellowship members Nick Spaulding and Charles Sharp to do his dirty work.

While it is good to see Steven Dambeck and Randy Fletcher publicly comment on alleged conflicts of interest, they each in their own way manage to sidestep issues. Salerno's article (cited in the A-D story) contained obvious errors, two being the statement that Apollo Olive Oil is a Fellowship of Friends-owned business and Dambeck its President. Dambeck's LinkedIn profile states he was with Apollo Olive Oil from 1999-2009. Still, he seems to employ the association when convenient, and avoid it when inconvenient.

Dambeck clearly understates his "leadership role." As a prominent member of the Fellowship community for over 35 years, he has served the Fellowship in various official roles, and as an organizer of businesses and local community projects involving the group, he is certainly a "Fellowship leader." But Dambeck's strategy is often to "lead from behind," as an adviser or consultant.

Fletcher neglected to mention Charles Sharp, so Sharp's status in the business partnership remains unclear. The Fellowship organization may not be seeking development of lands, but individual members certainly are. Nicholas Spaulding has for years been representing Fellowship interests during county planning processes that might promote, or restrict, development in Oregon House.]
Steven Dambeck responds, Letter to the Editor, Appeal-Democrat [ed. - Link now defunct]
Letter: Re: Hal Stocker
Sunday, May 25, 2014 12:01 am

Permit me a few words about Hal Stocker's paid advertisement in last Sunday's paper.

In his campaign ad, Mr. Stocker said two things about me and Apollo Olive Oil, both of them wrong. I am not in any business role connected to Apollo Olive Oil, and neither is the Fellowship of Friends.

It should be a cause for concern for all of us that an elected official would spread misinformation about things so easily verifiable on public record. But much more important is the question: Why isn't he simply proud to have Apollo — one of the most highly regarded olive oils in the world — up in our neck of the woods?

Why, rather than celebrating a true local success story, does he instead attempt to throw mud on it, based simply on the religious beliefs of its owner? Nothing could be more un-American. And nothing could be less suitable in the character of a supervisor for Yuba County.

Steven Dambeck
Oregon House
[ed. - The moral outrage Dambeck expresses above, serves to distract attention from substantive allegations, and to counterattack Stocker. After all, Fletcher’s opponent is by definition Dambeck’s opponent. In his attack, Stocker irresponsibly used an article with obvious mistakes.

In response, Dambeck again chooses his words carefully. The Fellowship does not own Apollo Olive Oil, as the article states, but there is indeed a business relationship between the two parties involving use of olive trees and facilities located on Fellowship property. (All the Apollo Olive Oil videos in this series appear to be on location at the Fellowship compound: Also notice the video of Dambeck walking the Fellowship's Renaissance vineyard.)

Update May 27, 2014: An interesting article appears in this morning's Territorial Dispatch: "Fletcher's business permits in question". If the report is accurate, it would be rather curious that two experienced entrepreneurs such as Randy Fletcher and Steven Dambeck would simply overlook this basic business requirement.]

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fellowship members' latest foray into local politics

Fellowship of Friends President Greg Holman, Fellowship investor Charles Sharp with 5th District Candidate Randy Fletcher
Photo accompanying first article below: Yuba County 5th District Supervisor candidate Randy Fletcher,
with Fellowship of Friends President Greg Holman and Fellowship investor Charles Sharp.

[ed. - The political activities of Fellowship of Friends members Steven Dambeck, Charles Sharp, Greg Holman, and Nick Spaulding are drawing attention from observers in Yuba County and beyond.

Long-time Fellowship employee and political operative Nicholas Spaulding is actively engaging in negative campaigning against opponents of candidate Randy Fletcher, who until recently was is in a business partnership with Sharp and Dambeck. As noted below, Spaulding may be assisting District One Supervisor Andy Vasquez's re-election campaign. Andy recently voted in favor of the Fellowship's claim for a $520,000 tax refund from Yuba County. (Still, the Board voted to deny the request.) If it is found that these efforts are the result of an officially-orchestrated campaign and/or involve church assets, they may be violating 501(c)(3) tax exemption rules. (See below.)]

From the IRS Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations:

All IRC section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and religious organizations, must abide by certain rules:
  • their net earnings may not inure to any private shareholder or individual,
  • they must not provide a substantial benefit to private interests,
  • they must not devote a substantial part of their activities to attempting to influence legislation,
  • they must not participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, and
  • the organization’s purposes and activities may not be illegal or violate fundamental public policy.

From, May 14, 2014: New Article Ties Randy Fletcher to Cult

From the Territorial Dispatch, May 5, 2014:

Fellowship Becomes Issue in Political Race
As it has been said many times, “Follow the money trail.” In this case follow the wine trail to Renaissance Vineyard and Winery, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Fellowship of Friends, and there you will find the biggest supporters of Randy Fletcher, candidate for supervisor in the 5th district.

Do you remember all of the lawsuits that have been brought against the Fellowship and Robert Earl Burton? Do you remember what they were about? Please take the time to Google them or go to

According to this cult, all of us are walking dead people. Why do they want to get involved with us dead folks now, and what is their motivation to get a supervisor in their back pocket?

Is it possibly because of events occurring around 2012 when the Fellowship lost most of their paying members? Prior to this time, their leader forbid them to get involved politically. The word is they had a meeting and decided to start reaching out to the community. Do they have a strategy? Why did they start getting members to register to vote (those who are legal)? We wonder why they began sending certain members out to schmooze with politicians and worm their way into local politics. Some are writing articles to discredit the incumbent candidate and other candidates. Some of these were going to the Republican Party Central Committee meetings and interrupting spouting out their agendas.

Was part of their strategy to put fear into people that the government was going to control their property rights and a lot of other rhetoric? Some of our citizens have bought into this nonsense and have taken the Kool-Aid. Folks, in case you haven’t taken a look at cults and how they operate, just one of their strategies is to put fear into people, brain wash them, schmooze them until they drain their life and finances.

Some of the Fellowship’s well known members are Charles Sharp, Nick Spaulding, Greg Holman, and Steve Dambeck. In an article in the April 30th edition of the Appeal Democrat, Sharp admits his business relationship with candidate Randy Fletcher. Nick Spaulding continues to write articles in the TD about Hal Stocker. Nick has attached himself to 1st district Supervisor Andy Vasquez. Where you see Andy, you will see Nick. Vasquez recently voted, not once, but twice to give tax money paid to Yuba County back to the Fellowship. Greg Holman seems to control the Alcouffe Center in Oregon House as do many of the Fellowship members. Dambeck has made it to the Yuba-Sutter Chamber of Commerce where his status will surely provide benefit to his partner Randy Fletcher and the Fellowship.

With one supervisor, Vasquez, seemingly in the Fellowships’ embrace, adding Fletcher as an ally seems to forward the cults’ objectives. A former cult member says “The Fellowship of Friends’ tentacles reach into every non-profit in the North Yuba area. The cult has long sought to exploit any channel of public funding available. In this endeavor, a sympathetic supervisor can be an important ally and valuable asset.”

The husband and wife that solicited Randy Fletcher to run are now considered hypocrites by the community. What happened to their conservative family values and government by the people points of view?

Folks, please verify this for yourself and let us stop the tentacles from choking the life out of this community. Protect our youth and innocent people and pray that we don’t wind up with another supervisor that is beholding to the Fellowship of Friends.

Louise Reid
Brownsville, CA
[ed. - See also: Territorial Dispatch Article Ties Randy Fletcher to the Cult :( ]

From (May-10-2014 23:09)

Randy Fletcher Yuba County District 5 Supervisor Candidate Linked to Cult

It has been my experience that when a candidate dodges a question or interview that there is something their [sic] hiding.

(SACRAMENTO) - These past few months of March-May are exciting times for a candidate running for office. It's a chance to get out and explore the community and hear from the people who live there.

In Yuba County, there are four candidates competing for the District 5 Supervisor seat held by long time incumbent Hal Stocker.

However, out of the competing candidates, only one has recently been accused of being tied to a religious cult located in the Yuba Foothills called the Fellowship of Friends.

Recently, in an opinion column article of the Territorial Dispatch, a woman named Liouse [sic] Reid wrote a piece exposing candidate Randy Fletcher as the golden boy of the Fellowship of Friends.

She claimed that the cult was looking to expand it's grasp of local politics and a Supervisor on its side would be a strong ally.

Initially, after reading the opinion article, I admit I was skeptical. But the investigative reporter inside me wanted answers. On Wednesday, May 7th 2014, I contacted Randy Fletcher's office to see about interviewing him on a variety of subjects. My phone call was returned by Crystal Martin who said she was Randy's campaign manager.

Continue reading at: (May-10-2014 23:09)

From, May 7, 2014: Randy Fletcher Tied to Cult 

[ed. - The letter below references the numerous Fellowship landholders pressing to subdivide and develop their properties. Nick Spaulding has for years been campaigning to kill any legislation the would restrict such development, and Fletcher apparently supports this. In conjunction with these efforts is Randy Fletcher's campaign to bring more water to the community (via the New York Flat Dam Project that Fletcher is promoting.) ]

From Appeal-Democrat, May 23, 2014:
Letter: Re: Hal Stocker

How do know you what to believe when it comes to our candidates for supervisor 5th District? Look to the agenda of his/her biggest supporters/backers. It is my opinion that Randy Fletcher's supporters are two entities most interested in changing the land use criteria of the foothills.

Renaissance Winery, et al, and Soper Wheeler want to develop large areas of rural land into housing development.

Do we really want this quiet and peaceful area to change with all that these developments will bring? Vote to protect our rural open spaces, and the natural beauty of the foothills. Do we really want to be as busy and crowded as Grass Valley, even Penn Valley? Remember why you chose this area.

Vote for the one that you can trust to keep his word about preserving our rural community, Hal Stocker.

Donna Corson


Posted on, May 19, 2014:
If Randy Fletcher is being groomed by Fellowship of Friends members to do Robert Burton and the Fellowship’s bidding, it is quite possible Randy is not even aware of the fact. (This, despite Randy's close ties with Steven Dambeck and Charles Sharp through their North Fork Yuba River business partnership, and through the mutual promotion of their other business interests.)

Randy would be just one of the latest in a long line of people lured and deceived by Burton and his agents. To date, an estimated 15,000 spiritual seekers have joined, and then left, the Fellowship of Friends, choosing to walk away despite Burton’s repeated warnings that to leave his “church” would doom them to “a fate worse than death.” (Seriously, those are his words.) Most eventually realized Burton had deceived them, and that his “church” was a scam. (The Fellowship currently numbers approximately 1,500 members worldwide, with roughly one-third of those in and around Oregon House, CA.)

Though Fellowship of Friends President Greg Holman directly serves founder Burton, and despite the outward appearances, it is conceivable that behind the political efforts of Holman, Dambeck, Sharp, and Spaulding there is absolutely no hidden Fellowship agenda. It’s difficult to believe, but possible.
Among those with first-hand experience in the Fellowship, a natural skepticism arises from a 44-year history of Fellowship secrecy and, frankly, lies perpetrated by Burton. (For example, it was only after twenty years of claiming celibacy, while all the while abusing male heterosexual followers, that Burton admitted having “consensual” sexual relationships with followers – hundreds of them. For decades, the secret was kept from the vast majority of his flock. Only after a lawsuit brought Burton's secret sex life to the front pages of newspapers did Burton acknowledge his lie. And even then, the reclusive and cowardly Burton could not publicly confess his deception, but had his ministers announce it to the assembled congregation. It is reported that Steven Dambeck, one of those who had engaged in the secretive “consensual” affairs, led that meeting.)

The list of charges against Burton is long, and well-documented. His behaviors have precipitated lawsuits. Legal settlements involved insurance payouts and the liquidation of assets, resulting in severe financial hardships for the Fellowship in general and its membership in particular. But by all accounts, Burton has never been held to account for his alleged crimes. Our Constitution and legal system affords a “church” every protection and benefit of the doubt. (Witness the difficulties victims of abuse in the Catholic church, the Protestant church, and the Church of Scientology have had trying to hold their abusers accountable.) Very early on, Burton, like L. Ron Hubbard before him, recognized the legal and tax benefits of declaring his spiritual advice racket a “church.” Ever since, the citizens of Yuba County (and beyond) have subsidized Burton’s enterprise.

The Fellowship of Friends is first and foremost a business that, since 1970, has served Robert Burton's greed and lust. Burton is a deluded charlatan, and this can be demonstrated through his own words and deeds. Thus, we have Burton's most devoted followers continually urging us to “pay no attention to that man (or cult) behind the curtain.” They would hate to have such a lucrative scheme come crashing down.

Tim Campion
Santa Rosa, CA

"Mick" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 12, 2014:
Circa 1978 Fellowship members were asked to register & vote for Charlie Parker for County Supervisor. With their help he won, though he proved to be kind of a dud and nothing much happened.

The Fellowship has a long history of ignoring the community and the rules for civil behavior. They closed off Dixon Hill Road to the public which traverses their property for a couple of miles from North to South. My research indicates that the Right-of-Way for this roadway remains in effect until formally abandoned. (If the County were to vacate their interest there is a lengthy procedure to be followed and normally the County would be compensated.) Their massive earth moving for terracing the defunct vineyard caused a great deal of erosion and the state had to step in to enforce some mitigation and clean up efforts. They built their “Theatron” without permits. They continue to lavishly & wastefully spend huge amounts of money on landscaping, objects d’ art, lawyers and the finest jewels, trinkets, clothing & “companionship” for their (make no mistake) absolute leader Robert Burton.
Since this was a recent issue with the Board of Supervisors it would be appropriate to ask Randy Fletcher if he would vote in favor of returning some of their property tax dollars.

"Tim Campion" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 19, 2014:
183. Mick [referring to above]

I believe that was the first time I ever voted, Mick. (I sure wasn’t interested in local politics.) We thought it was pretty funny that, with the Fellowship’s few hundred votes in and around Oregon House, we could determine the outcome of an election.

In retrospect, it was likely illegal.

"Mick" added on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 13, 2014:
I wonder if the “book liberating octave” [project] is still in operation, wherein books are stolen from public libraries. These folks are not upright citizens. Librarians beware. [ed. - Mick refers to a early project involving petty crime, when the Fellowship was "assembling" its own library. Remember, if not for the efforts by Fellowship members to move these things to Apollo for safe-keeping, all these works would eventually be destroyed during the Fall of California or Armageddon. Truly, it was in posterity's best interest.]

From the IRS:
The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations
Under the Internal Revenue Code, [italics added]all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances.  For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.

 On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.

Nick Spaulding wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 22, 2014:
Tim: see IRS documents & regulations: see page 1422 “situation 5″ There is plenty of latitude for acceptable and allowable activity well within the law.
Nick Spaulding Letter to the Editor, Territorial Dispatch, April 20, 2014
Charles Sharp Letter to the Editor, Territorial Dispatch, March 31, 2014
 [ed. - See also:  Is the non-profit North Yuba Grown engaging in political activism? on this blog.]

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Elysian Society

 [ed. - In May, another Fellowship of Friends member committed suicide at his Oregon House home. Roger Pugh is memorialized on the Fellowship's Elysian Society website. 

The non-profit was founded in 1999, and incorporated May 22, 2006 (CA Secretary of State ID: C2882654.) Among its goals, assist those who cannot afford end-of-life services. Left unspoken is the fact that extreme financial demands levied upon Fellowship members usually contribute to the "client's" desperate financial condition.

The Elysian Society website features abundant donation suggestions (in your loved one's memory, of course.) And a variety of services offered stimulate the economy and beautification of Apollo. "Life families," whom Robert Burton repeatedly characterized as "dead to you," are now equally encouraged to donate to the cult that took their family member from them.

The funeral service scripts (linked on the memorial pages) are full of bromides promoting Burton, the Fellowship, and presence. Below, are The Elysian Society's declared funding sources and expenses.]


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Apollo, Land of Enchantment

Robert Earl Burton in salmon. Uncredited.

[ed. - For Robert Earl Burton's 75th birthday, a story.]
Long ago, upon introduction to The Fellowship of Friends, the prospective member was solemnly admonished, "Believe nothing. Verify everything."

After three brief, and carefully scripted introductory meetings, the prospective member was presented the opportunity to join The Fellowship of Friends. Collection of monthly financial payments ("donations") began with the new member's first regular meeting.

But from their earliest encounters, the new member faced elements of Robert Burton's teaching that were clearly impossible to verify. And this immediately placed the novice in an untenable position. If they were to remain in this mysterious and alluring group, it was already necessary to ignore a basic tenet of the teaching. In the case of "unverifiable" statements, they would have to grant exceptions, and hope that they would one day be able to verify the information. Eventually, as the indoctrination was completed, this tendency would become a normalized behavior, and exceptions become the rule.

Here is a small sampling of Burton's superstitions or myths the acolyte would have to accept, or risk reproach.
Robert Burton is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and he alone is the source of divine instruction upon earth.

Burton is a "conscious being," directly and personally guided by Leonardo da Vinci and 43 other conscious beings (also known as angels, C Influence, Higher Forces, or The Gods.)

Of the 45 conscious beings (counting Burton,) 44 are men. According to Burton, Elizabeth I of England was the sole woman in history to attain consciousness.

These conscious beings regularly communicate with Burton and his followers through "conscious shocks" which are often messages revealed only to the initiated (those conditioned to perceive them) via license plate numbers (at first, anything containing the number 44, but later on, with the advent of personalized plates, any symbolic wording or numbers,) aphorisms, "esoteric" images, etc.

Fellowship members are the only humans on earth attempting to "awaken" and create a soul. The remainder of humanity are "sleeping machines."

The Fellowship of Friends is building a literal ark, intended to preserve humanity's highest arts and culture for future generations. This ark will survive Armageddon.

The Fellowship compound at Apollo will be a refuge for members during global calamities which Higher Forces have personally indicated to Burton. (Past failed prophecies include the Depression of 1984, the Fall of California in 1998, and "Armageddon" or nuclear holocaust of 2006, which was postponed to 2012, and now looms in the unspecified but proximate future.)

All of humanity, save those who remain devoted followers of Burton, shall perish and their "magnetic fields" shall become food for the moon (which itself is an evolving organism.)

Those who leave the Fellowship are condemned to a "fate worse than death" and have no further chance of evolution. He said it would have been better were they never born.

After less than 18 months in his former teacher's conscious school, Robert Burton claims to have become a conscious being (and immediately established a connection with the 44 angels who would guide him.) But according to Burton, death is the only form of graduation from his own conscious school.

One does not have a soul, but through the methods of "self-remembering" Burton teaches, and only through these methods, one can create a soul.

Developing consciousness and a soul under the direct instruction of a conscious teacher is the real meaning of evolution, and the only path to realizing our full human potential.

Followers are told, "The lower cannot see the higher." In other words, Burton's true consciousness will never be fully appreciated or recognized by his less conscious followers.

Burton's Fellowship of Friends is the latest (and only current) manifestation in the unbroken lineage of "higher" or "conscious" school upon earth.

It is essential that one be in a true conscious school (and only Burton's qualifies,) surrounded by others working with the same objective. This work cannot be done alone.

Payment is a principle, and a dues-paying membership in The Fellowship of Friends is the only path to consciousness, the creation of a soul, and survival beyond the death of the physical body.

Mankind is subject to "feminine dominance," a weakness inherent in all humans, which must be overcome on the path to consciousness.

Humans are allotted nine lives to develop a soul. Burton's students are on different lifetimes. Some are old souls, some are young. Some are on their last lifetime, their last chance to awaken. Each evolving soul will spend one lifetime as a woman.

Humans are receptors for influences from the sun, moon, and planets of our solar system, and can be identified by "body type," according to these planetary bodies' impacts upon the human endocrine system.

Entire nations can be categorized by the endocrine "body type" that predominates, generally falling into one of seven basic types.

Our behavior is directly controlled by the tidal effects of sun and moon.
These are just a few of the superstitions the new Fellowship member faced when directed to, "Believe nothing. Verify everything." Though some of these early myths have been replaced with new myths, the recruiting and indoctrination continues in very much the same manner it began.

Burton would often challenge his followers, "Have you verified C Influence?" (In other words, have you noticed sufficient coincidences, 44s, or meaningful license plates in your everyday life to provide absolute certainty of divine intervention?) To this there was only one acceptable response.

In retrospect, former members may declare that they never bought into the myths, but in my experience, it was uncommon for followers to challenge Burton's teaching (and be permitted to remain in the organization.)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Dördüncü Yol Okulu - Fourth Way School introductory meeting in Istanbul

The Fellowship of Friends Istanbul Center (Dördüncü Yol Okulu - Fourth Way School) is holding an introductory meeting on May 31st. (See Facebook announcement for details.) In an earlier post, Ames Gilbert provided a List of Questions a spiritual seeker should be prepared to ask before joining a group.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Putting the "Cult" in Cabernet

[ed. - Published on]

Putting the "Cult" in Cabernet

© Fellowship of Friends | The road to the Fellowship of Friends' HQ

Cabernet made by a so-called cult costs a lot less than so-called cult Cabernet.

By Claire Adamson | Posted Saturday, 03-May-2014

Forget Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. Hell, you can even forget Sine Qua Non. The California red putting the cult in Cabernet is Renaissance Vineyard & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon.

It’s not your typical cult wine: it has an average price on Wine-Searcher of $46*, you’ll never see it at auctions, it’s pretty widely available and it’s unlikely that Robert Parker has even had a sniff of this wine, let alone given it 100 points.

But it is made by an organization pursuing the "spiritual work of awakening".

Renaissance Vineyard and Winery, located in an out-of-the-way AVA in the Sierra Foothills of California, is owned by the Fellowship of Friends (which should not be confused with the Fellowship of the Ring, which Tolkien described as a cult).

This "alternative religious group" believes that awakening lies in the act of "living in the present". Some jargon-heavy advice on their website suggests that living in the now is less about trying to climb onto the stage at a Justin Bieber concert, and more about letting go in order to fully experience a moment (whatever that might mean).

The vineyard covers a patch of remote land in Yuba County, on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Fellowship of Friends bought the land in the 1970s, when it was just wilderness and thus cheap (although in hindsight they should have gone for Yolo County, the name of which probably fits their #YOLO – You Only Live Once – ethos better). Since then, the land has been planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, with smaller amounts of Riesling and Chardonnay.

The vineyard – a part of the larger “Apollo” property – is tended by a collection of aging hippies led by a gentleman named Robert Earl Burton. There have been accusations from former members that brainwashing, financial exploitation and immigration fraud in the group are rife, but the Fellowship's only legal issues so far have involved unsuccessful attempts to achieve tax-exempt status and a similarly unsuccessful raid by drug officers.

The vineyard, meanwhile, is quite beautiful, and produces some splendid wines (or maybe we’ve just been brainwashed).

*Price excludes sales taxes and was correct on date of publication.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"Sex, Lies, and Grand Schemes of Thought in Closed Groups"

Fellowship of Friends cult leader and dandy, Robert Earl Burton (R. E. Burton)
"I am a goddess trapped in a
 man's body" - Robert Burton
[ed. - I have taken the liberty of prefacing this post with a statement by the author of "Sex, Lies, and Grand Schemes of Thought in Closed Groups." This post will also be found at January 31, 1997 in the timeline.]

Sandra Lee Dennis wrote, February 3, 2018:
I might as well admit to authorship of this piece. In September 1992, I left the Fellowship after 20 years in. And was still too intimidated to sign my name... And, oh my, re-reading it now 20 years later, I can only say I wish it were shorter! I still had a lot of delusion and dissociation to work through: "Words are a raft when the mind is at sea." (Goethe)

Sandra Lee Dennis (formerly Christianson/Friedlander/Morter)

"Jomo Piñata" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 13, 2010:
For those interested, the 1997 Cultic Studies Journal article about the Fellowship of Friends, authored by “A Collective of Women” and titled “Sex, Lies, and Grand Schemes of Thought in Closed Groups” is now available to read without charge, by clicking on the following link [ed. - "Jomo Pinata's" link is defunct. The following is a link to the article on the ICSA website: Sex, Lies, and Grand Schemes of Thought in Closed Groups]
This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1997, Volume 14, Number 1, pages 58-84.

Sex, Lies, and Grand Schemes of Thought
in Closed Groups

A Collective of Women

This article explores the invisible dynamics of control and submission in a closed group with which the authors were affiliated for many years. Relying on Herman’s (1992) model of psychological captivity, the article illustrates the psychological dynamics of the “courtship” of recruits and the covert coercive control through which individual identity is dismantled and the worldview of the group’s leader introduced. Three methods of control are discussed: fear induction, destruction of autonomy, and breaking of personality. The last part of the article explores how cultural issues related to sexism enhance the power of high-demand groups.

We write as women who spent an average of 20 years involved in a philosophically oriented, religious community based on the teachings of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky. All of us have now left the group, most within the past 5 years. Yet, we are still dealing with the aftereffects of what we have come to see was a destructive world permeated with the dynamics of hidden control.

Some of us are still wondering what happened to our lives. How were we willingly entrapped in a destructive world for so long? No one forced us to join the group or to stay, or so it would appear. Rather, we were attracted to the group and its leader. We became passionately involved, even zealous in our apparent commitment, loyal and dedicated to our own undoing. Over time, we undermined our capacities for free thought, for hearing our own conscience, for mutuality in relationship, and for finding our own way in the world. How did this happen to us?

We write anonymously and disguise the identity of the group because we fear that harassment may follow exposure. We acknowledge that our perspective on how our group functioned is personal and that others may disagree with part or all of what we say, although we are confident that many would agree. Our goal is not to “expose” a particular group, or to “define” it through the articulation of our personal experience. Our goal is to alert others to the elements of influence that can unwittingly bind people to what ultimately harms them, and, especially, to the dangers of involvement with seemingly benevolent, self-appointed leaders. In addition to mastering our own legacy of confusion, betrayal, anger, and fear, we hope to shed light on the largely invisible dynamics of control and submission that sustain such groups and the culture at large. Also we want to offer a view of what it was like--how silent and unobtrusive the soul-killing can be.

Cults and Auras of Authenticity
Closed, doctrinaire groups with self-appointed leaders are commonly called cults. We prefer not to use the label cultic, which is so loaded with negative connotations and lack of understanding that the word itself stops further inquiry. No one ever believes that he or she is in a cult (or a cultic relationship). Just as battered women rarely recognize themselves as battered, few followers would ever acknowledge cult membership. Ask anyone you know who is deeply involved with whatever group, and most likely that person will tell you that the group is a legitimate organization with a leader, if there is one, who furthers the members’ interests (be they philosophical, religious, political). Yet, some of those groups are probably high-demand, closed environments breeding the psychological chains that enable manipulation by the leader. Mention “cultic” and the person may walk away, unwilling to talk further.

The word cult immediately erects a barrier for those outside the group as well because no one ever thinks they would join a cult. Information describing such a bizarre organization then does not apply to or interest us as average citizens. Thus, the knowledge level in the general public about this captivating form of influence is appallingly low. This lack of knowledge about closed-group influences makes people even easier prey. Just as a young girl needs to learn how to spot the Don Juan who is out to seduce her, betray her, and add her to his list of conquests, so everyone needs to learn how to spot the would-be god who would capture your soul for his own purposes. The concept of a cult often stops further inquiry in that we tend to think we know what it refers to--that is, something that has nothing to do with us.

Legitimate groups do exist where individual autonomy, independent thought, and creative action are sacrificed for a time. These limitations are instituted to effect some goal the participant freely chooses. As a matter of course in our society, don’t schools, the military, and traditional religious organizations expect the suspension of autonomy? This temporary sacrifice may actually improve the lives of the members and the community. The desired traits develop, and individuals move on to tap their own creative sources of action, thought, and feeling. The existence of such legitimate groups presents a problem for those who would look for direction from a high-demand group, especially one with a self-appointed leader. For the most striking quality of a destructive, enslaving group is its seeming authenticity as a provider of wisdom, love, understanding, organized action, whatever you are looking for.

Without the cover of the authentic, the nature and purposes of the control being exercised--to fulfill the leader’s need to bind others to him--could no longer remain hidden. The temporary use of control for the good of those involved, as those of us who are parents know, requires effort and self-sacrifice. We are relieved when our guidance is no longer necessary, when the child, at last, has the judgment to govern his or her own behavior. But when control is exercised out of a need to dominate, there is no easy escape, no graduation, from the relationship.

Recognizing Prisons Without Walls
In the now-classic Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman (1992) discusses the gradually traumatizing effects of conditions of long-term captivity. Captivity in closed groups is not physical, but is psychological. Herman found striking similarities between the dynamics of high-demand religious groups, battering couple relationships, and child abuse. In each situation, participation looks voluntary--that is, the victims look as though they choose to stay with their oppressors--but is actually maintained through the dynamics of covert control. Initially enthralled by the charm, intelligence, or perceptiveness of the perpetrator, captives gradually become prisoners bound by the invisible chains of dominance and submission. Such relationships or groups are prisons without walls. The leader captivates members through a combination of enticement and intimidation, but primarily, at least in the beginning, through a process akin to courtship.

In closed groups where covert control is exercised, strange, trancelike dynamics operate that prevent those participating from seeing the most obvious things. For instance, members are immune to damning information about the leader or the group, believing themselves to be in a state of “grace” or of deep love and understanding, an understanding that transcends everyday reality. Members don’t realize to what extent their perceptions have been engineered; or if they do, they think it is for their own good. One can no longer see what appears obvious to other people. Now that we are no longer so completely in the grip of the mesmerizing group environment, we find it remarkable that techniques and practices that we felt were uniquely our own--thought-stopping exercises, information control, and so on--are found consistently in many closed, authoritarian groups.

As Herman suggests, we have found surprising similarities between the dynamics of violent couple relationships and destructive group involvement. Many abusive couple relationships endure because of unacknowledged intimidation or coercive methods of control. Battered women notoriously stay with their husbands for the same reasons that fundamentalists don’t leave the flock, clients stay with philandering therapists, and disciples continue to follow deceptive and drunken gurus. In the most blatant cases of domestic violence, the man resorts to physically battering the woman to maintain his control. Such obvious abuse we recognize easily as harmful. Those far more insidious and numerous destructive couple relationships--where the psychological torment has yet to become physical--resemble most closely the culture of sophisticated groups like the one we experienced. On the surface, neither the relationship nor the group shows signs of the sensational methods we normally associate with coercive control.

According to Herman, once an individual has been enticed into a coercive relationship, exercising control over every aspect of the captive’s life becomes a top priority for the leader. From the very beginning, the ultimate goal is to create a willing victim. The enslaver wants someone who adores, respects, and is grateful to him, someone who will not only follow his will, but also will eventually come to see the world as he sees it.1 The leader is internalized as an alter ego, which ensures that his control continues even without his presence. Herman cites Orwell’s portrayal of the totalitarian mind (not so far removed from the more common autocratic one) as descriptive of this all-encompassing goal of control:
We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. (1992, p. 76)
This sounds a bit like a Christian missionary to us, and it describes fairly well our work with new members of our group. We believed and taught that all must genuinely verify for themselves the ideas on which the group is based. We used persuasion, appeal to personal strengths, camaraderie, shared interests, and new knowledge or practices to entice new members. A sophisticated group or leader rarely, if ever, uses blatant coercion, deprivation, or outright threats, especially not in the vulnerable beginning stages.
1We use the masculine pronoun throughout because our experience was with a man; and, anecdotally, most self-appointed leaders seem to be men, although we realize that the role of perpetrator can be played by either a man or woman.

The Courtship Entices
We cannot emphasize enough how subtle the courtship process may be. Sensational stories reported by the media--of drugging or starving new recruits; subjecting them to hours of chanting, spinning, or meditating to produce heightened states; taking people off to isolated enclaves for weeks of love-bombing; or stripping them of their clothes in ritual--make it easy for the more sophisticated perpetrator to continue to fool himself and his captives into believing in the legitimacy of his less sensational methods of enticing his “courtship captives.”

Such a courtship begins when you attract the attention of the perpetrator or his representatives. How does this occur? Our group initially uses an impersonal method to attract new people. Primarily, prospective members find flyers or bookmarks that have been specifically placed in areas where people interested in philosophy and religion are likely to be found. These flyers contain local phone numbers of “centers”--groups of members sent out to cities throughout the United States and around the world. Or a potential recruit may see a newspaper advertisement for an open meeting. This impersonal approach reinforces the reigning idea that people are brought to the group by their fate or “higher forces,” that the members have little or no influence over who comes or who stays in the group. Interested people attend a small meeting (rarely, larger meetings may be held) led by more experienced members, but not too experienced: those at the enthusiastic, honeymoon phase of the involvement, before doubts begin to set in.

Leaders of these small groups were often naturally persuasive and perhaps charismatic in their own right; many used a decided “soft sell” at the meetings for prospective new members. We explained that our community was “not for everyone.” Appeals to narcissism were barely veiled, as we displayed an attitude of inaccessibility. Prospective members needed to pass certain “tests” to be deemed “right” or “fated” to join. The best prospects were attractive and attentive, often well-dressed, apparently established in the world. Toward these best prospects a fine- trained attention was directed; glances of recognition, approval, and knowingness would be exchanged, along with an attitude of studied indifference (akin to the clerks at Gucci’s or Cartier) about whether or not they decided to join.

Of course, we see now that we wanted them to join very much because it brought strength to the group, reinforcing our sense that we were involved in something special. Also, the leader was very pleased when there were new people. He was generous with his time and attention to those who easily attracted new members. The new members themselves received special attention--invitations to dinner with the leader, or to meet with smaller groups to have discussions or go to museums or concerts--especially if they were wealthy, powerful, bright, or attractive. For a new person entering this kind of group, the attention can be heady and intoxicating. At the same time, the appearance of the normalcy of the group must be underlined. This contrasts with the usual media-sensationalized reports that are typically associated with cult recruitment: here there was no love-bombing, no promises of open marriages nor invitations to take drugs or go away for the weekend. Such obvious enticements would give away the underlying dynamics of intimidation that remain most hidden during the courtship phase.

This courtship adulation does not end once the member becomes committed to the group; instead, it is intermittently reinforced. The leader carved out relations of specialness that over time ensured his control over those who were of use to him. He poured out emotional energy to those he favored--mainly young men to whom he took a fancy and women who could do the work of running the organization. He was capable of creating an atmosphere of instant intimacy: holding your hand, whispering in your ear, flattering you with the role of trusted confidant. He was fond of giving a “marriage” gift--marriage to him, that is--and admonishing that it be kept secret. (This way it took a while to discover how many of us he had “married.”) He shone his formidable presence in your direction, bought you expensive presents--a diamond bracelet, a leather coat, an antique cameo, airline tickets to travel with him. He would choose the gift to suit the individual.

The Dynamics of Covert Coercive Control
Herman (1992) writes in detail of the ways in which coercive control is established in situations of apparently voluntary captivity. Through systematic, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma, individual identity is dismantled and the leader’s worldview is introduced. The main strategies are surprisingly simple and attest to the fragility of the person unprepared for such manipulations (this includes most of us). Methods include (1) the induction of fear, (2) the destruction of autonomy, and (3) the breaking of the personality, or total surrender. We have relied on these categorizations to organize our thoughts about our group.

Once the captive has been enticed through the courtship to commit to the relationship or group (often indicated by some kind of payment), the hard-core dynamics of control are set in motion. Bear in mind that often the perpetrator and his apprentices don’t even realize that the goal is control. If anything, there may be a kind of preconscious awareness that some kind of manipulation is taking place. Our experience goes against the usual insistence that such leaders are psychopaths well aware of their lies. In our group, we believe that self-deception, not cunning, predominated. The hidden drive for control in order to perpetuate an eccentric worldview acted as a blind spot does, evoking all sorts of defensive maneuvers. The leader’s actions were misted in illusion to cover the driving force of needing to bend people to his view. In our case, the leader commonly took to pointing out controlling or self-centered tendencies in anyone who questioned or resisted his instructions or held on too tightly to independent thought. At the same time, he was careful never to obviously force what he wanted. We were given “opportunities” to do the arbitrary exercises he believed were channeled through him by higher forces. For women, in particular, who feel a keen lack of affection and attention in their relationships with men, the leader’s intense (albeit intermittent) attentiveness became an immensely powerful means of entrapment.

Those who successfully exercise this brand of influence--covert, coercive control--are charismatic and unusually skilled at behavioral nuances. Their skills at manipulation may be compared to a folk art learned gradually, exercised sparingly at first and perhaps even with good intent. But over time, the need for control gains momentum becoming more prevalent in their actions as their craft is honed to a fine art. They learn as they go how to manipulate people (Singer with Lalich, 1995).

The Induction of Fear
Fear becomes the coercing element in this brand of control and, as such, supplies the cornerstone of the leader’s dominance. By definition, covert fear induction must go unacknowledged, hidden, disguised as something else. It must be developed gradually to take hold without the awareness of the one being influenced. Subtlety still reigns at this phase. Let us remember, while the sensational grabs your attention and alerts you to danger, subtle threats dressed as teachings grab your heart and mind. They ooze into your cells without your knowledge. Meanwhile, the perpetrator vehemently denies that control motivates him. He will deny his interest in control whether the behaviors that instill fear fall at the passive end of the spectrum of control--for instance, neglect, trivialization, and withdrawal--or at the active end of rages, belittling, criticism, or threats. This denial is perhaps the most insidious element of hidden influence. For the more concealed the perpetrator’s agenda, the more crazy, confused, agitated, or ill the target of this surreptitious fear induction becomes.

In our experience, the leader laced his conversation with references to the sad fate of those who left the group. For he was certain they had suffered a fate worse than death. The fear-inducing, threatening element of these communications was hidden by the gentle, sorry tone he used. While professing his continuing love for those who left, he spoke of how unfortunate they were to have lost “the way,” reiterating the incredible luck of those who stayed. He taught that higher forces removed people from the group for failing at some “task” he had assigned. If no obvious task was violated, his explanation would be that those leaving were mired too deeply in their negativity. Unwittingly, irrationally, of course, members began to fear losing contact with the group. (But this was a deep unconscious dread that many of us realized we carried only after we had actually left the group.) He taught that when someone was being released, the first sign was that their understanding of the group’s worldview would be “removed” by higher forces. This was a neat explanation for and means of controlling any deviations from the group’s shared outlook. With time, these veiled threats regarding the tragic results of leaving him seemed to become the leader’s favorite subject, a preoccupation even.

To make the threatened soul loss more tangible, he enforced abandonment of anyone who did leave, although this too was framed as an exercise in tough love. Remaining members were given a strict task not to speak to those who had left, as a way of demonstrating how valuable the community was, and, supposedly, to facilitate the return of the lost sheep. We were told, “Just gently hang up the receiver if ‘Jane’ [former member] calls you. This will help her realize what she has lost, and she will have a better chance of coming back.” Amazingly, this explanation seemed eminently reasonable at the time.

Now we see that, under the guise of work on spiritual development, we set aside friends of decades if they left the group--our neighbor, doctor, midwife, lover, in some cases, even spouses or children. And we are sorry today for that callousness and the pain it caused. Now we also see that this task effectively prevented us from speaking to those we trusted who had found the courage and help to leave. Somehow these people had broken through the wall of fear. They were the very people who could tell us, without the mesmerizing screen of the leader and the group dogmas, what involvement in the world on the outside was really like, and what the group looked like from the outside. How critical was it that we be isolated from our old friends? So critical that they had to be demonized as fallen souls, supposedly with an agenda to drag us along with them on their way to damnation. The leader was also careful to explain how former members never realized what they had lost as they entered back into the trance of life. He was amazed that they were often oblivious to the “tragedy” of their lives, the tragedy, that is, of losing all hope for developing their souls. While the circularity of this thought process is now painfully evident, it successfully created and sustained a view of reality that was virtually impossible to challenge.

From the beginning, behavior and thought were thus always checked by the implicit threat of being asked to leave. With stunning frequency, the leader planted the seeds of fear of abandonment, masked as caring concern for the spiritual well-being of his followers.2
Even those of us who recognized that he was playing on our fears told ourselves he did so just as a kind parent sets limits on a child around life-threatening situations, such as running into the street. He was instilling this intimidation only to prevent us from the greater harm we would suffer by leaving him. To him, staying in the group was a matter of life and death. He needed to do whatever it took to help us stay with him so we could continue to make progress toward enlightenment and not fall back into ordinary, mechanical “life.” The longer you stayed, the more the prospect of being ejected from the community was feared. You believed that you stood to lose not only your entire community, but also your immortal soul.
 2Herman (1992) believes that under stress the threats of the perpetrator become less veiled. He may then show his tyrannical, desperate side. One woman who openly continued seeing a friend who had left was told that her action was “criminal” and would likely be punished by higher forces placing her mother in a car accident. Again, the more explicit forms of threat were rare. As we look back, when the leader started to make these threats, his art form was slipping, his methods of control were becoming too obvious. For some, this obvious coercion made it easier to break the spell, to move through the confusion and the panic engendered by the fear induction and to leave.

The Destruction of Autonomy
Once a foundation of fear is laid (although fear induction and destruction of autonomy are not sequential activities, but overlapping ones), the dismantling of individual initiative can take place. This loss of autonomy further ensures dependency on the leader. In our group, autonomy was systematically destroyed through far-reaching control of the member’s life and isolation from outside support.

Control of all aspects of life. The “exercises” and “tasks” that were given, at first minimally, and finally with no holds barred in controlling the smallest corner of life, were so broad-based and numerous, it is difficult to recall them all. We have found that whenever a writer who has been involved in a high-demand group begins to point out controlling behaviors, the description leans toward the sensational, material for the tabloids or maybe a Psychology Today article. One thinks, “How could you ever have let someone tell you what to eat, what to wear, how long to sleep, whom to sleep with, where to live? I would never allow someone to interfere with my life in that way.” It is crucial for an outsider looking in to remember that in high-demand groups, submitting to controlling behaviors looks life-enhancing. Often it is viewed as an opportunity to move forward in reverence, understanding, self-mastery, or emotional refinement.

That coercive control might be being exercised was never a question within the group. We all thought we were willingly surrendering, as one surrenders to God. We believed submitting would help to minimize the worst and encourage the best parts of ourselves. In our community, exercises were always optional (although anyone who was intent on really working on themselves was admonished to follow them). The party line extolled that we should not follow any instruction we did not understand or take on any idea we had not personally verified to be true. Of course, professing lack of understanding or lack of verification did not safeguard one from the consequences of violating exercises, or, especially, tasks. And those who lagged in following the exercises were not given positions of power and influence granted to those who did. Violating tasks deemed essential for the well-being of the community was grounds for removal from the organization. Tasks revolved around sex, money, drugs, and, of all things, gossip.

We have downplayed the sensational, and in the following have summarized those exercises we can recall to give a flavor of how much it takes to finally remove the autonomy of people. You can also see how far people will go when they trust a leader and believe his directions will ultimately help them to gain psychological freedom, love, consciousness, or contact with the divine. The limitations seem a small price to pay for the promised results.

Control of interactions with the leader. We want to point out again that destruction of autonomy is not obvious. Verbal rather than physical abuse prevails, with passive rather than active assaults. Your perception of reality is systematically questioned, your feelings denied, your worth undermined. The invisible chains of psychological dominance are forged slowly, gradually. The dominant person establishes the terms of the interaction and builds dominance by many means. Some of those include the following: (1) he alternates kindness and abuse--intermittent friendliness erases the memory of upsetting behavior; (2) he controls inter-personal communication and decides on acceptable subjects to discuss, ignoring questions he does not care to address; (3) he allows no validation of your experience of doubt, fear, or anger with him; (4) he manipulates feelings if confronted, primarily by focusing on what’s wrong with you; (5) he displays indifference, disrespect, and disregard toward you in the guise of being above such petty, mechanical concerns; (6) he disregards or discounts any hurt feelings you might have; and (7) he maintains emotional distance in the name of being a “higher” man.

After the first few years, the leader controlled virtually all interactions we had with him, and he became more and more inaccessible. When he did invite you to be with him, he determined when you would speak. You might ask him a question, such as “How do you deal with anger?” or “Why don’t you invite women to the symposiums?” And he would answer with, “Look at the beautiful irises Joan has arranged for the table,” or “How is your mother?” These diversions would be read as ways to bring you back to the present, away from abstract intellectualizing. In fact, they effectively silenced doubts and concerns.

Control of speech. The first exercise anyone experienced was introduced at the prospective student meetings and involved eliminating certain words from your vocabulary. The words changed over time, but for many years included all contractions, and the word I. The ability to speak while eliminating these words was supposedly a sign of consciousness, or, at least, a kind of divided attention we attempted to cultivate. If, while speaking, you uttered one of the words, another student would make a hand signal to alert you to your “sleep.” This exercise threw prospective students off, minimized their ability to express themselves, and at the same time showed them one method for awakening from the “sleep” of ordinary awareness. Since “no gossip” was a task, the subjects of our conversations were also limited. The formidable exercise of not expressing negative emotions was another bulwark of the practices that curtailed our speech.

Control of dining. The leader selected the menus, often elaborate, for the group’s dining hall. He preferred fine dining with china, silver, flowers, and four-course meals. He gave explicit instructions on how to eat, including the mechanics of holding the utensils, and he put people on diets if he thought they needed to lose weight.

Control of clothing. Women were asked to stop wearing pants and wear only skirts or dresses. He liked to purchase clothing for both men and women as part of the intermittent showering of attention. This was particularly appreciated by those who were being paid bare sustenance wages working for the organization and could not afford their own new clothes. At various times, we were asked not to wear clothes that were too casual in nature, such as athletic shoes or shorts.

Control of names. He routinely assigned new names to people; he favored Anglo names in an attempt to minimize ethnicity in the group. This was especially hard on the men who were not accustomed to having their identities messed with in such a fundamental way, as are women who are trained to expect to change their names.

Control of sexuality, marriage, and children. The rule of no sex outside marriage was a tough one to enforce, though many did adhere to it. There was also to be a waiting period after leaving one sexual relationship and entering into another. There were no mass assignments of marriage partners (too blatant a control measure), but he did use his influence to encourage and discourage partnerships. He discouraged having children during the early years of the group, and children were not welcome at any events. He abruptly turned about (abrupt changes were common) on the subject of children and encouraged members to raise families. This turnabout came around the time the number of new members dropped off, at the predictable 10-to-15-year turning point in the age of the group when the initial enthusiasm begins to wane in the face of failed promises, diffused identities, and minimal enlightenment.

This may be one example where the leader’s initial inclination (i.e., not to allow children even to the extent of encouraging women to have abortions or give their children away) was a better choice for maintaining his brand of coercive control than his later acceptance of children as a necessary evil. For some women who bore children in this later phase, the awakening of primal feminine instincts signaled a definitive break in the leader’s veil of control. Why? We believe that pregnancy opens the body, obliterating, for a while anyway, our defensive structure. Did some light manage to seep in the aura of control during the days of birth? Perhaps also because the leader’s own needs became obvious for what they were (he wanted the attention we were now directing toward babies). Or, maybe women who could not protect themselves became fiercely protective with their children. Or, perhaps, in moving into the role of parents, we were able, finally, to recognize the dependence/dominance dynamic for what it was and begin to challenge the imbalanced nature of such a relationship.

Isolation from outside support and information. Control and isolation go hand in hand. By isolating his captive, the perpetrator guarantees his stranglehold on the person’s perceptions. In our community, we were discouraged from contacting our families or former friends. Rather, we were encouraged to remain with our “real family”--other group members--for any vacation or holiday. Attendance at significant family events, such as christenings, marriages, or funerals, was characterized as a waste of time. We were also advised not to discuss the group, the teacher, or the doctrines with anyone outside, as this would be “casting pearls before swine.” In fact, in the early days, we soon discovered that people were not at all interested or began to look curiously at us if we did share with them our zeal and enthusiasm for the new-found set of ideas and community. We began to develop split personalities. Some of us lived for decades without ever telling our families, therapists (for the rare few who required this “life” intervention), or outside acquaintances about our activities with the group. If you consider that many of us built our lives around the group, perhaps you can imagine what a feat this was. Once the numbing and splitting of chronic trauma set in, such inner contradictions can easily go on for years unnoticed.

We were also isolated from outside sources of information. For years we were admonished to read books or poetry or listen to music only if approved by him. For nearly 10 years, we also followed a “no media” exercise. We were completely out of touch with events in the outside world, even if we happened to have jobs there. Since most media was sensational and concentrated on the glorification of negativity, we believed that avoiding these heavy, dark influences would further our work on ourselves, again unwittingly isolating ourselves from forces that might help us regain the powers of independent thought and judgment we needed to recognize our situation. The grain of truth in these limitations (e.g., the media is a wasteland) helped us to continue to believe in their legitimacy.

Total Surrender, or Breaking the Personality
Discovering how they were finally “broken” may be the most difficult piece of the puzzle for former members of closed groups who are attempting to reconstruct their lives. According to Herman’s studies, in the final stages of establishing covert control, the perpetrator has the victims violate the codes of conduct by which they formerly defined themselves. In so doing, he removes the last vestiges of individual conscience. This dissolves the victims’ sense of themselves and disrupts their identity, thus offering the perpetrator a malleable soul. In a spiritual community, undergoing this process may appear as a positive step. We have the Christian and Buddhist contemplative tradition that supports breaking up the old identity so that direct contact with the Divine, the Truth, or Being can be established without the intervening static of ego, vanity, or personality. When the leader takes on the role of the divine, however, he uses his followers for his own purposes, binding them to him, and does not work as a helper in releasing them to their higher purposes. This breaking of the personality, which may be regarded as the seed of individual identity, is the ultimate betrayal, the spiritual rape. We gave up our own will through exercises and tasks, which we thought would help us advance spiritually and which left us open and vulnerable. The fox captures the newborn rabbits in their nest, just as the leader lassoed our newborn selves for his own purposes. Instead of allowing Divine guidance to enter these tender openings, he became the final arbiter of right and wrong, believing himself to be the Divine guide.

To accomplish this personality break and final binding, he had us do things we would never do. The circumstances of these breaks varied depending on the person. For one, it was being told to refrain from sex; for another, to have sex, perhaps with someone married, perhaps with someone not too attractive. For yet another, it might be putting on a business suit and going to an office; for another, working at a menial job in one of the group-owned businesses, giving up all the trappings of materialistic life. One woman would be advised to have an abortion; another to have children. The gay man was prevented from having relations with men; the lesbian woman might be encouraged to marry a man. The bohemian should become a business person; the professional, a ditch digger. Again, all these inversions of natural tendencies--the subjective discomfort and sense of wrongness about these changes--could be understood as “work on oneself.” However, how were they actually used? Instead of liberating an individual, these givings over of our hard-won identities (many of us were in our twenties in the early days) bound us, and kept us dependent on the person who directed us to take these actions against ourselves.

Herman suggests that commonly one is encouraged to betray primary relationships, to sacrifice others, as part of the breaking process. On a more communal scale, rejection of one’s former family and friends was the first stage of this process. Later, in the most conspicuous examples of this form of control, we were expected to inform on our friends if any should violate an exercise or, especially, a task. He might then have you, the informer, be the one to tell your friend that she must leave the group. These were cruel calls to make because of the shared belief about the dire consequences of losing the community (the fate worse than death).

We became inured to the pain we caused each other as empathic capacity shriveled. Individual movements of conscience that survived this breaking apart of personal identity were regarded as remnants of a contemptible quality to conquer in oneself, leftover from our upbringing. Thus we learned to ignore our best wisdom, our inner guidance. Conscience was to be replaced by a sort of moral relativism, that is, good and evil were relative; and the more developed a being (read the leader), the fewer constraints or “laws” bound him.

Again we are downplaying incidents that might appear sensational to try to underline how subtle even this final stage of captivity can be. Years can go by, even for those of us who lived outside the community retreat or communal house, before we realize we are living someone else’s life. A quiet despair often sets in. (More than one advanced follower was taking anti-depressants prescribed by one of the many faithful group member psychiatrists.) Interestingly, the leader accounted for despair, which began to be prevalent in his long-term members, by describing it as a necessary stage for the advanced aspirant to endure, a sign of the final stages of awakening. Because there is no physical violence, no blatant tortures, even the most broken personality can carry on as though nothing has happened. Some even become more self-confident through a deepened dependency on the leader, mistaking the power we have given him for our own.

This can be a critical time for the leader. If the despair and apathy of identity diffusion set in too deeply, the captive will no longer be as useful to the perpetrator. He must tread lightly through the dismantling, leaving enough self-sense for the person to carry on as treasurer, center director, business manager, or chef. Yet, too much self-sense means independent thought survives, and the person may leave. Ah, the trials and tribulations of guruship. From our experience, the leader mercilessly took advantage of these periods of personality breaks to exploit us to his advantage until we each, in our own way, burned out. For, eventually such a broken personality finds it difficult to maintain the heavy load of responsibility expected of longer term members. You drift away from leadership even though you stay in the group. Hence, the group always needs new recruits to continue the work, even if the long-time members don’t actually leave.

The combination of fear induction, extensive control, and the dismantling of personality created an imperceptible, crazy-making atmosphere. We were locked into a “battered follower” syndrome, psychologically beaten down, yet unable to leave. The more he would charmingly hurt, humiliate, and threaten us with abandonment in the name of helping us, the more we would salve the wounds with increased loyalty, justification of his behavior, and finding fault with ourselves. In such a situation, we drift further and further from the voice of our own hearts. For women, this voice has a unique sound we’ve tried to explore to better recognize it when it speaks to us.

How Sexism Serves High-Demand Groups
We know that women, trained in passivity and silence, are accustomed to being ignored and discounted, starting in elementary school when the teacher routinely, inadvertently calls on John and Harry and overlooks Sally’s hand (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). The now well-documented, quiet socialization of women to second-class citizenship makes us especially vulnerable to the dynamics of dominance and submission at the base of covert control. Trained to be selfless and caring for others, women were perfect recruits for “second” and “third” lines of work--work for others and for the school, the work that needed to be done to keep the organization going. Women were more willing to work for little or nothing, rewarded by the leader’s attention, or some well-timed gift of jewelry, a book, or an airline ticket. Is there a doubt that our education and socialization as women in this culture made us more susceptible to the courtship (“This must be Prince Charming”), loss of autonomy (surrender to a male god), and self-sacrifice associated with the group? On top of this, our community was inherently sexist. Through his actions and teaching, it was clear that the leader believed in the superiority of the men. He said men were a higher order than women, that women were to men as children are to women. He explained away the strong women who stayed and worked for him by saying they were on their eighth out of nine lives, while the men were only on their sixth or seventh. Hence, the women could take on more responsibility, give more. One of the leader’s highest compliments was to tell a woman that she was becoming more like a man.

Dominance and Submission
The everyday exercise of dominance and submission is so integral to our culture that we barely see it. Built on the foundational belief of a basic flaw in the submissive, usually the woman, and the perfection or mastery of the dominant, usually the man, this inequality justifies one person’s dominance over another.
While the dynamics of dominance and submission affect both men and women, they hit women particularly hard, for more often women tend to be on the submission side of the equation. As much as people talk about both parties being hurt by abusive relationships, the one who is forced to submit feels the immediate pain of humiliation, self-doubt, craziness, rage, and fear. For the perpetrator, the longer term effects of dominating--hardness, lack of empathy, isolation, a narrow self-centeredness, close-mindedness, and illusions of grandeur--develop only gradually. The immediate experience for the one in control is that of power, strength, and self-confidence; thus, exercising power over others gives immediate satisfaction. In this dynamic, the humiliation of the submissive brings the sense of life-enhancement to the dominator. While the addiction metaphor may be overused, in the short run, abusive control brings--not unlike an addictive drug--a hit of reinforcing pleasure, while only the longer term need to withdraw from the habit brings the pain. Why then should the person living psychologically on control give up the high?

On the other hand, why doesn’t the one on the receiving end of abusive control get away from her tormenter? This is the question, of course, that most interests us. This same question comes up repeatedly in reference to battered women. Why don’t they just leave? Thoughtful answers lead us into the thorny territory of the fearful, autocratic mind, a mind that is cultivated through Western education, the media, religion, and the patriarchal family. Though we pride ourselves on producing free thinkers, our cultural institutions forge invisible chains between the sexes made of images of male glory (Rambo) and female invisibleness (Sleeping Beauty) or subservience (Snow White), which lead too easily to both psychological and physical violence.3
3We don’t know in any hard and fast way whether women or men are more susceptible to involvement with the covertly abusive, but we do know women make up 95% of all the victims in domestic violence, and, according to one source, 60% to 70% of the subjects in recent research on former members of cultic groups (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994). Anecdotally, we believe women do outnumber men as followers in religious groups.

The Lesser Sex
Subtly imbued with sex-role stereotypes and gender inequities from an early age, women are subjected to systematic training to be second best, taught that their worth and survival depend on physical attractiveness and pleasing men. (Think of the myths alone that our children hear: Cinderella, Rapunzel, Rose Red, The Little Mermaid, to name just a few, where the passive, beautiful heroine in distress is rescued by her prince). Women are raised to be susceptible to dominant men, to expect to be saved by men, and to project their own power and image of God onto men. Men, meanwhile, are vaunted in history, myth, and science as natural leaders, thinkers, competitors, and creators. And they are socialized to be oblivious to the abuse they perpetrate through this culturally privileged position and the unconscious dominance and denigration of women (and the “feminine” in themselves) that it inculcates.

Let us face, at last, the implications of this worldview, let us face them head-on. In the Western intellectual tradition, woman is viewed as less than man. This view is supported by science through the hierarchical ordering of biology; by religion through the creation myths; and by a philosophy that since Socrates has contrasted the objective, rational mind of the masculine with the subjective, feeling body of the female. (Both female and body are posited therein as an impediment to knowledge). These prejudices are woven so deeply into the fabric of our perceptions, our thinking and our sense of self, that we take them completely for granted.4 As we discuss how coercive control relies on dominance and submission, we will see how easily this view of woman as an inferior being plays into authoritarian environments.
 4As Nancy Tuana (1993) puts it, the perception of woman as less than man is “a prejudice that is woven into the very fabric of our thinking, our self-imaging, our lived experience” (p. xii).

“Feminine” Sources of Knowledge and Power
Women’s unique sources of power and creativity have been maligned and denigrated over the centuries. Our closeness to the rhythms of nature through sexuality and the reproductive potential of our bodies have been turned against us, cited as an excuse for our absence from the spheres of cultural achievement long dominated by men. In our group the denigration of the emotions and the common perception of the body as a major block to enlightened behavior played roles of paramount importance. The body and sexuality, anger and intuition were especially controlled and devalued, effectively silencing the voice that emerges when we have full access to these aspects of ourselves.

Sexuality and the body. Being present to each moment was the ostensible raison d’être of the community. Unfortunately, presence, as we learned it, included but minimal attention to the body. Rather, we learned mainly a mental operation born of “divided attention.” Divided attention, or non-identification, was the heart of the practices that sustained and united the community. This practice produced evocative altered states, but also often effected a split from the body. This dissociative split encouraged us to believe that we were conquering our pain, suffering, and difficult emotions by passing into more exalted states of consciousness. In fact, we systematically numbed ourselves to body sensations by this practice. Most of us adhered to typically Judeo-Christian attitudes about bodily impulses as enemies to be conquered in the quest for enlightenment; thus, we isolated ourselves from those instinctual sources integral to the embodied, awakened heart and mind. We believe this may be especially true for women in whom body and mind connections are stronger because of our predominant role in bringing in the next generation.

As usual in such groups, myriad exercises surrounded sexuality. As mentioned earlier, sex outside marriage was prohibited. Though not everyone complied, marriage was strongly recommended for those in the “inner circle”; others might pursue clandestine escapades but were always subject to being turned in. Homosexuality was forbidden until recently. Women were often viewed as sexual predators whose activity had to be monitored. Dowdy richness--Victorian cameos, Gucci scarves, little stacked heels, midcalf straight skirts--was the preferred norm; for years, a 50-year-old matronly look was rewarded and encouraged. Meanwhile, charges of the misuse of sex were leveled at those who wore short dresses, tight blouses, laughed too loudly, or flirted.

It gradually came out that the leader was involved in an ongoing series of sexual encounters with young male devotees. Amazingly, in this highly controlled environment, it was exceedingly difficult for this information to be taken in. Let us remember that coercive control includes thought control. The implications of the leader’s involvement with his followers were simply not permitted to take hold in the minds of those of us who were captive to his worldview. Those outside a group always want to know: how did we manage this? Some excused it by saying the leader was still evolving, that sex was the last obstacle that he was working out through these loving relations with his followers.

More importantly, in certain states of consciousness, which we had learned to create in ourselves through various meditative practices, it is possible to experience the three-dimensional world of everyday reality as unreal, as maya, an illusion, or “a play.” In these states of mind, the dreamlike quality of everyday life becomes apparent. Along with these perceptions comes the sense of a certain delightful connectedness to everything, sometimes an infusion of love or beauty or sweetness accompanies these prayerful states of mind. We do not believe these states of mind are so different from the results of contemplative prayer, but without a genuine opening of the heart and body, these partial openings to other dimensions of consciousness can lead to dangerous delusions, especially in an environment of moral relativity. Not inherently destructive, these states of mind constitute an essential part of our humanity, but they can be misused terribly in such conditions of psychological captivity when our capacities for independent thought have been crippled or dismantled. Unfortunately, because of their misuse in the group we tend now to distrust our connection to these prayerful spaces even though we are out of the grip of the group.

In such a state of mind, the leader’s sexual activities were “dreamstuff,” not real. The emotion and shock that came with discovering his sexual involvement with many of his followers led first to denial, then gradually to reverting to these altered states of mind to deal with the doubts. As for those who were not able to handle the doubts, we assumed they had failed this particular “test” of the strength of their vision.

Anger. Western culture teaches repression of anger as a virtue for all, but as an imperative for women, unless they care to be categorized as difficult bitches. Women are taught from early days to be nice, to adapt to others’ needs, and to stifle their own anger. In the best of circumstances, it takes a long time to come to know anger as a legitimate bodily signal, a safeguard against hurt, boundary violation, and disregard of what we value. Once the functioning of this critical signal has been stifled, its radar effectively dismantled, the woman (or man) is vulnerable to being used and abused without even registering what has happened. Instead, a dull sense of flatness, a depression, chronic fatigue or hypoglycemia, rigidness or fear sets in--all more adaptable, and acceptable, forms of the surging animal rage response to mistreatment. These veiled reactions won’t provoke the perpetrator to inflict even greater harm.

Anger was well regulated in our group, perhaps even more than sexuality. Not expressing negative emotions (mainly by suppression) and non-identification (for us, a form of splitting from the body) formed the two pillars of the prevailing system of thought. To be told you were negative was the ultimate behavior control, disguised as helping you to work on yourself. This ploy could be used to prevent certain conversations and to stifle questions, doubts, concerns--or simply to put you in your place, to get a power hit. If you allowed yourself to get upset, that was a sure sign you were not advancing satisfactorily. A placid stoicism became the acceptable modus operandi. Outrage at abortions recommended, children deserted, triangles condoned, the terminally ill threatened for late payments, insinuations that a member dying of AIDS got what he deserved (for violating the no sex task), the celibate guru unmasked as sexually active, the money spent on the paramours, the snubs, the evasions, the control--the legitimate outrage at all of that behavior was successfully stifled by the central idea that negative emotion implies weakness.

Meanwhile, few noticed that anger was virtually the only negative emotion that was being controlled. Other clearly negative feelings, such as fear, disappointment, and sadness, were tolerated, as were most forms of passive aggression (lateness, condescension, ignoring, forgetting). Passive aggression was raised to a high art; it was, in fact, a major tool in the arsenal of covert, crazy-making control devices that played on the self-doubt instilled through the many assaults on identity. As we look back, it seems so obvious that all these violations against human dignity were going on in the name of work on ourselves. We were having normal, healthy reactions to them; yet, gradually, we learned to doubt and discount those reactions as pathological indications of a lower state of consciousness until we no longer had a reliable inner monitor to guide us. Having given up our own capacity for thought, we became more and more dependent on the worldview of the leader to determine our outlook.

We also had a wealth of teaching stories from the patriarchal traditions of the world to draw on for explanation of the silencing of our own perceptions. We read or heard stories such as those of the wise teacher who causes his students pain and suffering in the short run, so that in time they may prevail against adversity or develop the qualities needed to succeed in their quests. We put ultimate faith in this teacher, handing over to him our judgment, our perceptions, and ultimately our lives. He hitched a ride on the deeply embedded image of God, an archetype perhaps that we all carry. Our culture has given us only male figures to occupy that position, and also has exaggerated the analogy of man and God to the extreme by suggesting that man is God for woman. Despite our conscious efforts to deny this, the prejudice runs deep in our Judeo-Christian roots and, we believe, contributes in no small way to the dynamics of coercive control exercised most often by men.

Intuition. Intuition, in the sense of vision and a feeling for truth, represents another “feminine” quality that was derogated and denied, another quality to which women seem to have easier access. Intuition serves as a navigational tool, along with anger and bodily sensing, that contributes to a unique feminine way of knowledge. In our group, intuition was perhaps the leader’s strongest suit. A florid visionary, often he would give reports of spirits’ visitations to him in dreams or waking episodes. He also took to prophesying, envisioning events to come. His intuitive ability to size up a person or a situation was also uncanny and greatly contributed to the exercise of his folk-art form of guruship.

Intuitive vision in members, however, was condemned as imagination or fantasy, a detrimental state of mind. He discouraged dwelling on visions, classing them as part of distracting mind activity (much as it is in other mindfulness practices). Only he was permitted legitimate visions. One of us recently attended a workshop in which we were asked to visualize a “spirit guide.” No such figure came. Only a plastic, visquine sheeting appeared like a veil on the field of inner vision, effectively blocking any further sight. We had internalized a far-reaching program to ignore any perceptions other than the tangible. This program, of course, built strongly on the one already laid down by our culture, which rejects the reality of anything imperceptible to the five senses. For some of us, our attraction to him as an intuitive visionary was an attraction to a projected part of our own selves, a part with religious sensibilities that found little validation in our families, classrooms, or jobs. While we had access to the visionary through him, he defined the field of allowable perception for us and ultimately determined the validity of our perceptions. Reports of auras or visions would be labeled “the instinctive center”--another derogatory term, characterizing the body as the chief enemy of awakening. Although he often spoke of spiritual beings working directly with his followers, he clearly had sole proprietorship of visionary realms, and so established himself as the direct connection to the Divine.

Though we are loathe to acknowledge this, in our community, both men and women, like battered women in a scene of domestic violence, lost their judgment and were held by fear. Robbed of intuition, body knowledge, sexuality, and anger, we were vulnerable to assault of the worst kind: spiritual and psychological assault. With physical abuse, you register the blows, see the wounds. You know you have been hit. You know why you ache when you wake up in the morning. With the more intangible psychological or spiritual assaults, you don’t know what’s happened to you. You have been raped, used--mind-fucked, to use the coarse but perfectly descriptive term--to cater to a trusted caretaker’s needs. In the name of your own good, you have been used to satisfy his drives for pleasure and power over you, to absorb his smiling, hidden hostility. In this situation, you aren’t sure why your heart aches with emptiness, your limbs with exhaustion, and your gut with anxiety. You begin to carry an unnamed fear.

This is the fear of the battered woman and the dedicated disciple, the fear that keeps you in thrall to a destructive man. You begin to believe his propaganda with a visceral certainty as a means of survival. Although anyone outside the circle of your relationship or community cannot understand why you don’t leave him, you fear that if you do, the worst will happen. With an abusive husband, the fear is of dying--not being able to survive without the man, or, in some cases, even fear dying at his hands. With a spiritual teacher, it is soul death that is feared. This is not a rational process, but has roots deep in the mysteries of our existence. Once you are cut off from your own vital resources for living, you come to believe you must have your surrogate god’s support, approval, and reflection to go on. For some, the attachment appears to be more to the group than the leader, but this, too, disguises the true situation. Behind the group always stands the leader, whose standards for behavior must be met for continued acceptance by the group.

Many people have commented on the paradigm shift we in the West are going through. We see this transition taking place in the hearts and minds of individual people, such as ourselves. We have learned about the vulnerability of the idealistic mind, the unsavory and irresistible attraction of the delusional charismatic, the dangers of certitude about the great unknowables--birth, death, meaning, absolute values. While we all yearn for answers to the basic questions of existence, we now know we must ultimately discover the answers ourselves. In this age when the foundations of institutions and ways of thinking that have supported us for 3,000 years are crumbling, we are learning to recognize the signs of the free fall through space that accompany losing those old certitudes. We can also understand with what determination the human personality seeks to hang on to these traditions of thinking, behavior, and feeling. We know why the evangelical Christian movements have gained force in these times, as well as the “fringe” or “new age” religious movements. These apparent opposites are startlingly alike and in some ways serve similar purposes in offering doctrines that answer all questions, grant a sense of superiority over nonbelievers, and establish instant communities. They also often shut down the at times overwhelming creative wellsprings of the new times into which we are being catapulted. Some of us have been challenged through experiences of exploitation and betrayal to open to these scary, creative forces, to follow their lead without the direction of those who have gone before.

The appeal of the existing traditions is great, the habit of authoritarian thinking well set. For too long we have felt safe in the tower of ideas and like-minded souls. The experience of waking to our unwitting captivity, the misuse of our talents to do harm, the dangerous blinders of belief disguised as critical thought, has thrown us out of the comfortable tower of doctrinaire safety into the dark night of creative tumult. We hope that someone, somewhere, in a destructive relationship with another person or a group, someone who is beginning to see but cannot yet act, will gain a tiny bit of resolve from our shared thoughts. We encourage you to reach outside the relationship to the perceptions of people who care about you in the world. Please remember that invisible prisons have the most heavily fortified walls. If you are in a thought prison, you will need help from the outside to get out.

End Notes
1. We use the masculine pronoun throughout because our experience was with a man; and, anecdotally, most self-appointed leaders seem to be men, although we realize that the role of perpetrator can be played by either a man or woman.
2. Herman (1992) believes that under stress the threats of the perpetrator become less veiled. He may then show his tyrannical, desperate side. One woman who openly continued seeing a friend who had left was told that her action was “criminal” and would likely be punished by higher forces placing her mother in a car accident. Again, the more explicit forms of threat were rare. As we look back, when the leader started to make these threats, his art form was slipping, his methods of control were becoming too obvious. For some, this obvious coercion made it easier to break the spell, to move through the confusion and the panic engendered by the fear induction and to leave.
3. We don’t know in any hard and fast way whether women or men are more susceptible to involvement with the covertly abusive, but we do know women make up 95% of all the victims in domestic violence, and, according to one source, 60% to 70% of the subjects in recent research on former members of cultic groups (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994). Anecdotally, we believe women do outnumber men as followers in religious groups.
4. As Nancy Tuana (1993) puts it, the perception of woman as less than man is “a prejudice that is woven into the very fabric of our thinking, our self-imaging, our lived experience” (p. xii).

Chambers, W., Langone, M.D., Dole, A.A., & Grice, J.W. (1994). The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88B117.
Herman, J.L. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing at fairness. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Singer, M.T., with Lalich, J. (1995). Cults in our midst: The hidden menace in our everyday lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tuana, N. (1993). The less noble sex. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Cultic Studies Journal Volume 14, Number 1 1997

[ed. - From the International Cultic Studies Association. During the period of my membership, The Fellowship of Friends displayed each of the followings characteristics.]

Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups - Revised

Janja Lalich, Ph.D. & Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may have been manipulated, exploited, even abused. The following list of social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments may be helpful in assessing a particular group or relationship.
Compare these patterns to the situation you were in (or in which you, a family member, or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine if there is cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.
The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iin order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
The group is preoccupied with making money.
Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
This checklist will be published in the new book, Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias (Berkeley: Bay Tree Publishing, 2006). It was adapted from a checklist originally developed by Michael Langone.
[ed. - See also this message about "undue influence" from Steven Hassan, at Freedom of Mind Resource Center: The Cult: the meaning of undue influence. (A former member of the Moonies, Steven is now a respected authority on mind control cults.)]