The Master Manipulator
Let us look for a moment at how some of this manifests in the cult leader. Cult leaders have an outstanding ability to charm and win over followers. They beguile and seduce. They enter a room and garner all the attention. They command the utmost respect and obedience. These are "individuals whose narcissism is so extreme and grandiose that they exist in a kind of splendid isolation in which the creation of the grandiose self takes precedence over legal, moral or interpersonal commitments."(l8) Paranoia may be evident in simple or elaborate delusions of persecution. Highly suspicious, they may feel conspired against, spied upon or cheated, or maligned by a person, group, or governmental agency. Any real or suspected unfavorable reaction may be
interpreted as a deliberate attack upon them or the group. (Considering the criminal nature of some groups and the antisocial behavior of others, some of these fears may have more of a basis in reality than delusion!)
Harder to evaluate, of course, is whether these leaders' belief in their magical powers, omnipotence, and connection to God (or whatever higher power or belief system they are espousing) is delusional or simply part of the con. Megalomania--the belief that one is able or entitled to rule the world--is equally hard to evaluate without psychological testing of the individual, although numerous cult leaders state quite readily that their goal is to rule the world. In any case, beneath the surface gloss of intelligence, charm, and professed humility seethes an inner world of rage, depression, and fear.
Two writers on the subject used the label "Trust Bandit" to describe the psychopathic personality.(l9) Trust Bandit is indeed an apt description of this thief of our hearts, souls, minds, bodies, and pocketbooks. Since a significant percentage of current and former cult members have been in more than one cultic group or relationship, learning to recognize the personality style of the Trust Bandit can be a useful antidote to further abuse.
The Profile of a Psychopath
In reading the profile, bear in mind the three characteristics that Robert Lifton sees as common to a cultic situation:
A charismatic leader who...increasingly becomes the object of worship
A series of processes that can be associated with "coercive persuasion" or "thought reform"
The tendency toward manipulation from above...with exploitation--economic, sexual, or other--of often genuine seekers who bring idealism from below(20)
Based on the psychopathy checklists of Harvey Cleckley and Robert Hare, we now explore certain traits that are particularly pertinent to cult leaders. The 15 characteristics outlined below list features commonly found in those who become perpetrators of psychological and physical abuse. In the discussion we use the nomenclature "psychopath" and "cult leader" interchangeably. To illustrate these points, a case study of Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh follows this section.
We are not suggesting that all cult leaders are psychopaths but rather that they may exhibit many of the behavioral characteristics of one. We are also not proposing that you use this checklist to make a diagnosis, which is something only a trained professional can do. We present the checklist as a tool to help you label and demystify traits you may have noticed in your leader.
Characteristics of a Cult Leader
People coming out of a cultic group or relationship often struggle with the question, "Why would anyone (my leader, my lover, my teacher) do this to me?" When the deception and exploitation become clear, the enormous unfairness of the victimization and abuse can be very difficult to accept. Those who have been part of such a nightmare often have difficulty placing the blame where it belongs--on the leader.
A cult cannot be truly explored or understood without understanding its leader. A cult's formation, proselytizing methods, and means of control "are determined by certain salient personality characteristics of [the] cult leader....Such individuals are authoritarian personalities who attempt to compensate for their deep, intense feelings of inferiority, insecurity, and hostility by forming cultic groups primarily to attract those whom they can psychologically coerce into and keep in a passive-submissive state, and secondarily to use them to increase their income."(l)
In examining the motives and activities of these self-proclaimed leaders, it becomes painfully obvious that cult life is rarely pleasant for the disciple and breeds abuses of all sorts. As a defense against the high level of anxiety that accompanies being so acutely powerless, people in cults often assume a stance of self-blame. This is reinforced by the group's ma- manipulative messages that the followers are never good enough and are to blame for everything that goes wrong.
Demystifying the guru's power is an important part of the psyche- educational process needed to fully recover.(2) It is critical to truly gaining freedom and independence from the leader's control. The process starts with some basic questions: Who was this person who encouraged you to view him as God, all-knowing, or all-powerful? What did he get out of this masquerade? What was the real purpose of the group (or relationship)?
In cults and abusive relationships, those in a subordinate position usually come to accept the abuse as their fault, believing that they deserve the foul treatment or that it is for their own good. They sometimes persist in believing that they are bad rather than considering that the person upon whom they are so dependent is cruel, untrustworthy, and unreliable. It is simply too frightening for them to do that: it threatens the balance of power and means risking total rejection, loss, and perhaps even death of self or loved ones.
This explains why an abused cult follower may become disenchanted with the relationship or the group yet continue to believe in the teachings, goodness, and power of the leader.
Even after leaving the group or relationship, many former devotees carry a burden of guilt and shame while they continue to regard their former leader as paternal, all-good, and godlike. This is quite common in those who "walk away" from their groups, especially if they never seek the benefits of an exit counseling or therapy to deal with cult-related issues. This same phenomenon is found in battered women and in children who are abused by their parents or other adults they admire.
To heal from a traumatic experience of this type, it is important to understand who and what the perpetrator is. As long as there are illusions about the leader's motivation, powers, and abilities, those who have been in his grip deprive themselves of an important opportunity for growth: the chance to empower themselves, to become free of the tyranny of dependency on others for their well-being, spiritual growth, and happiness.
The Authoritarian Power Dynamic
The purpose of a cult (whether group or one-on-one) is to serve the emotional, financial, sexual, and power needs of the leader. The single most important word here is power. The dynamic around which cults are formed is similar to that of other power relationships and is essentially ultra- authoritarian, based on a power imbalance. The cult leader by definition must have an authoritarian personality in order to fulfill his half of the power dynamic.
Traditional elements of authoritarian personalities include the following:
the tendency to hierarchy
the drive for power (and wealth)
hostility, hatred, prejudice
superficial judgments of people and events
a one-sided scale of values favoring the one in power
interpreting kindness as weakness
the tendency to use people and see others as inferior
a sadistic-masochistic tendency
incapability of being ultimately satisfied
In a study of twentieth-century dictators, one researcher wrote: 'Since compliance depends on whether the leader is perceived as being both powerful and knowing, the ever-watchful and all-powerful leader and his invisible but observant and powerful instruments, such as secret police) can be invoked in the same way as an unobservable but omniscient God....Similarly, the pomp and ceremony surrounding such an individual make him more admirable and less like the common herd, increasing both his self-confidence and the confidence of his subjects. The phenomenon is found not only with individual leaders, but with entire movements"(4)
We will see, however, that an authoritarian personality is just one aspect of the nature of a cult leader.
Who Becomes a Cult Leader?
Frequently at gatherings of former cult members a lively exchange takes place in which those present compare their respective groups and leaders. As people begin to describe their special, enlightened, and unique "guru"--be he a pastor, therapist, political leader, teacher, lover, or swami--they are quickly surprised to find that their once-revered leaders are really quite similar in temperament and personality. It often seems as if these leaders come from a common mold, sometimes jokingly called the "Cookie-cutter Messiah School."
These similarities between cult leaders of all stripes are in fact character disorders commonly identified with the psychopathic personality. They have been studied by psychiatrists, medical doctors, clinical psychologists, and others for more than half a century. In this chapter we review some of this research and conclude with a psychopathological profile of traits commonly found in abusive leaders.
Cultic groups usually originate with a living leader who is believed to be "god" or godlike by a cadre of dedicated believers. Along with a dramatic and convincing talent for self-expression, these leaders have an intuitive ability to sense their followers' needs and draw them closer with promises of fulfillment.
Gradually, the leader inculcates the group with his own private ideology (or craziness!), then creates conditions so that his victims cannot or dare not test his claims. How can you prove someone is not the Messiah? That the world won't end tomorrow? That humans are not possessed by aliens from another world or dimension? Through psychological manipulation and control, cult leaders trick their followers into believing in something, then prevent them from testing and disproving that mythology or belief system.
The Role of Charisma
In general, charismatic personalities are known for their inescapable magnetism, their winning style, the self-assurance with which they promote something--a cause, a belief, a product. A charismatic person who offers hope of new beginnings often attracts attention and a following. Over the years we have witnessed this in the likes of Dale Carnegie, Werner Erhard (founder of EST, now The Forum), John Hanley (founder of Lifespring), Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Shirley MacLaine, John Bradshaw, Marianne Williamson, Ramtha channeler J.Z. Knight, and a rash of Amway "executives," weight-loss program promoters and body-building gurus.
One dictionary definition of charisma is "a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure (as a political leader or military commander); a special magnetic charm or appeal."(5) Charisma was studied in depth by the German sociologist Max Weber, who defined it as "an exceptional quality in an individual who, through appearing to possess supernatural, providential, or extraordinary powers, succeeds in gathering disciples around him."(6)
Weber's charismatic leader was "a sorcerer with an innovative aura and a personal magnetic gift, [who] promoted a specific doctrine.... [and was] concerned with himself rather than involved with others....[He] held an exceptional type of power: it set aside the usages of normal political life and assumed instead those of demagoguery, dictatorship, or revolution, [which induced] men's whole-hearted devotion to the charismatic individual through a blind and fanatical trust and an unrestrained and un- critical faith."(7)
In the case of cults, of course, we know that this induction of whole hearted devotion does not happen spontaneously but is the result of the cult leader's skillful use of thought-reform techniques. Charisma on its own is not evil and does not necessarily breed a cult leader. Charisma is, however, a powerful and awesome attribute found in many cult leaders who use it in ways that are both self-serving and destructive to others. The combination of charisma and psychopathy is a lethal mixture--perhaps it is the very recipe used at the Cookie-cutter Messiah School!
For the cult leader, having charisma is perhaps most useful during the stage of cult formation. It takes a strong-willed and persuasive leader to convince people of a new belief, then gather the newly converted around him as devoted followers. A misinterpretation of the cult leader's personal charisma may also foster his followers' belief in his special or messianic qualities.
So we see that charisma is indeed a desirable trait for someone who wishes to attract a following.
However, like beauty, charisma is in the eye of the beholder. Mary, for example, may be completely taken with a particular seminar leader, practically swooning at his every word, while her friend Susie doesn't feel the slightest tingle. Certainly at the time a person is under the sway of charisma the effect is very real. Yet, in reality, charisma does nothing more than create a certain worshipful reaction to an idealized figure in the mind of the one who is smitten.
In the long run, skills of persuasion (which may or may not be charismatic) are more important to the cult leader than charisma--for the power and hold of cults depend on the particular environment shaped by the thought-reform program and control mechanisms, all of which are usually conceptualized and put in place by the leader. Thus it is the psychopathology of the leader, not his charisma, that causes the systematic manipulative abuse and exploitation found in cults.
The Cult Leader as Psychopath
Cultic groups and relationships are formed primarily to meet specific emotional needs of the leader, many of whom suffer from one or another emotional or character disorder. Few, if any, cult leaders subject them- selves to the psychological tests or prolonged clinical interviews that allow for an accurate diagnosis.
However, researchers and clinicians who have observed these individuals describe them variously as neurotic, psychotic, on a spectrum exhibiting neurotic, sociopathic, and psychotic characteristics, or suffering from a diagnosed personality disorder.(8)
It is not our intent here to make an overarching diagnosis, nor do we intend to imply that ah cult leaders or the leaders of any of the groups mentioned here are psychopaths. In reviewing the data, however, we can surmise that there is significant psychological dysfunctioning in some cult leaders and that their behavior demonstrates features rather consistent with the disorder known as psychopathy.
Dr. Robert Hare, one of the world's foremost experts in the field, estimates that there are at least two million psychopaths in North America. He writes, "Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret."(9)
Psychopathy falls within the section on personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the standard source book used in making psychiatric evaluations and diagnoses.(l0) In the draft version of the manual's 4th edition (to be released Spring 1994), this disorder is listed as "personality disorder not otherwise specified / Cleckley-type psychopath," named after psychiatrist Harvey Cleckley who carried out the first major studies of psychopaths. The combination of personality and behavioral traits that allows for this diagnosis must be evident in the person's history, not simply apparent during a particular episode. That is, psychopathy is a long-term personality disorder. The term psychopath is often
used interchangeably with sociopath, or sociopathic personality Because it is more commonly recognized, we use the term psychopath here.
Personality disorders, as a diagnosis, relate to certain inflexible and maladaptive behaviors and traits that cause a person to have significantly impaired social or occupational functioning. Signs of this are often first manifested in childhood and adolescence, and are expressed through distorted patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself. In simple terms this means that something is amiss, awry, not quite right in the person, and this creates problems in how he or she relates to the rest of the world. 6
The psychopathic personality is sometimes confused with the "anti- social personality," another disorder; however, the psychopath exhibits more extreme behavior than the antisocial personality. The antisocial personality is identified by a mix of antisocial and criminal behaviors--he is the common criminal. The psychopath, on the other hand, is characterized by a mix of criminal and socially deviant behavior.
Psychopathy is not the same as psychosis either. The latter is characterized by an inability to differentiate what is real from what is imagined: boundaries between self and others are lost, and critical thinking is greatly impaired. While generally not psychotic, cult leaders may experience psychotic episodes, which may lead to the destruction of themselves or the group. An extreme example of this is the mass murder-suicide that occurred in November 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, at the People's Temple led by Jim Jones. On his orders, over 900 men, women, and children perished as Jones deteriorated into what was probably a paranoid psychosis.
The psychopathic personality has been well described by Harvey Cleckley in his classic work, The Mask of Sanity, first published in 1941 and updated and reissued in 1982. Cleckley is perhaps best known for The Three Faces of Eve, a book and later a popular movie on multiple personality. Cleckley also gave the world a detailed study of the personality and behavior of the psychopath, listing 16 characteristics to be used in evaluating and treating psychopaths.(ll)
Cledde's work greatly influenced 20 years of research carried out by Robert Hare at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. In his work developing reliable and valid procedures for assessing psychopathy, Hare made several revisions in Cleddey's list of traits and finally settled on a 20-item Psychopathy Checklist.(l2) Later in this chapter we will use an adaptation of both the Cleddey and Hare checklists to examine the profile of a cult leader.
Neuropsychiatrist Richard M. Restak stated, "At the heart of the diagnosis of psychopathy was the recognition that a person could appear normal and yet dose observation would reveal the personality to be irrational or even violent."(l3) Indeed, initially most psychopaths appear quite normal. They present themselves to us as charming, interesting, even humble. The majority "don't suffer from delusions, hallucinations, or memory impairment, their contact with reality appears solid."(l4) Some, on the other hand, may demonstrate marked paranoia and megalomania. In one clinical study of psychopathic inpatients, the authors wroa: "We found that our psychopaths were similar to normals (in the reference group) with regard to their
capacity to experience external event as real and with regard to their sense of bodily reality. They generally had good memory, concentration attention, and language function. They had a high barrier against external, aversive stimulation....In some ways they dearly resemble normal people and can thus 'pass' as reasonably normal or sane. Yet we found them to be extremely primitive in other ways, even more primitive than frankly schizophrenic patients. In some ways their thinking was sane and reasonable, but in others it was psychotically inefficient and/or convoluted."(l5)
Another researcher described psychopaths in this way: "These people are impulsive, unable to tolerate frustration and delay, and have problems with trusting. They take a paranoid position or externalize their emotional experience. They have little ability to form a working alliance and a poor capacity for self-observation. Their anger is frightening. Frequently they take flight. Their relations with others are highly problematic. When close to another person they fear engulfment or fusion or loss of self. At the same time, paradoxically, they desire closeness; frustration of their entitled wishes to be nourished, cared for, and assisted often leads to rage. They are capable of a child's primitive fury enacted with an adult's physical - capabilities,
and action is always in the offing.(l6)
Ultimately, "the psychopath must have what he wants, no matter what the cost to those in his way."(l7)