The Cult Phenomenon in the United States (1979)/Clark


[Statement of Dr. John Clark to Congressional Panel, P.38-45.]

Senator Dole.

Dr. Clark?


Dr. Clark. I am John Clark. I am assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and I am involved in research of subject conversions at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

I am very glad to speak with the Committee.

Nearly 90 years ago, William James wrote, "In this age of tolerance, no scientists will ever try actively to interfere with our religious faith, provided we enjoy it quietly with our friends and do not make a public nuisance of it in the marketplace."

Those of us who have seriously attempted to study the rapidly spreading phenomenon of absolutist groups and effects of extreme pressures on their converts have reason to declare that the level of public nuisance is now so high that both scientists and public servants must react strongly before it is too late.

We have found in examining subjects in those family members who know them best that the act of rapid conversion of a deceived subject results if the conversion is maintained over a few days or perhaps a few weeks, in change of personality, and capacity to think which are already beyond these changes, are almost beyond our limits of understanding or belief.

It is not the religious definition that separates these groups from others. It is their behavior. They may represent political, social, magical, neolith points of view or none at all, but are sustained by their total commitment to some forms of opposition to the accepted surrounding culture. Each selects a slice largely dependent on the original inclination of the founding leader.

The responsibility of the acts of the members is clearly with the leaders. Expulsion or even death are among the punishments for disobedience or defection.

But it is the sudden change in individuals whose conversions have been so rapidly accomplished that is most alarming.

The Guyana affair, the behavior of members of Synanon, the Hanafi muslims, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Manson murderers, not to mention the savagery of the Nazis, the classical cult, should have alerted us to the change in the individual who does the bidding of a controlling group, committing the ultimate, most unforgivable, most uncharacteristics crimes.

The convert is made capable fo these acts and was not general, from the general run of the population. Having been rapidly converted by utterly determined people whose efforts induce trance states and who have been separated from their customary environments in these states, these individuals become dependent on their surroundings for the validation of reality.

They cannot remember the past or the subtle values which would become conscience.

They are often deluded, hallucinating, and confused in a new highly manipulative environment, in their altered states of consciousness.

Their minds are split.

They are, in effect, living in a second personality modeled on the needs of the surrounding group. Existence is no more a matter of individual free choice, because the individual has lost his past and the capacity to consider complex ambiguous ideas.

Such persons are left without an appreciation of natural differences among human beings and are utterly intolerant to the point of deadliness.

I must emphasize it is the change in individuals resulting from any sort of sudden and maintaining conversion that is most crucial to understand.

The same changes can result from disease processes and are seen as evidence of injury.

Such injuries the normal capacity of an individual to cope with an alwways uncertain future in a free society.

Their highly manipulated minds are effective only under total control and are less able to manage the unexpected without resorting to psychosis, suicide, or uncontrolled violence toward others.

The apparent certainty of their conception of reality is comfortable as long as they are obedient and their group is not threatened from within or without.

The changes in the personality we have noted have stunned parents who sense that their offspring have been maimed. They appear to have become rather dull and their style and range of expression limited and stereotyped.

They are animated only when discussing their group and its beliefs.

They rapidly lose a knowledge of current events. When stressed even a little, they become defensive and inflexible and retreat into mumbling cliches.

I should have said numbing cliches.

Their written or spoken expression loses metaphor, irony, and the broad use of vocabulary.

They rely on rote memory and cannot play with abstraction. Their humor is without mirth.

Because they have learned to live with greatly reduced sleep time in many cases, they may display a loosening of association and commonly see visions, hear voices, or experience odd delusions of smell.

Often they are physically sick, though they have tried to cure their difficulties through prayer.

An acute case of pneumonia, a ruptured appendix, a broken leg, will not easily respond to ministrations.

Even more frightening are the actual techniques of controlling the mind. Unwanted memories or thoughts are forced out of the mind by careful training.

For instance, in many cults, the feeling of panic and the image of satan stops stray thinking.

In another it is an acute migraine headache that chastens the loose thinker.

Mind emptying trances or forced chanting can accomplish the same result; there are many, many other techniques.

To me the latest casualties of these extended manipulations are nearly unbearable to contemplate. More tortured rejects are beginning to straggle home or they are being sent home, because they are useless to the cults now. Some are chronically psychotic, while others painfully can recognize that they cannot control the content of their minds enough to work out their life problems.

Others have no flow of conciousness.

These people are the worst off in the continuum of casualties now struggling to make their lives work.

These are not necessarily people who have been deprogrammed. I would like to emphasize that.

These cults or groups are armies of willing, superbly controlled soldiers who would not only kill their parents or themselves, but are ready to act against anyone.

A society in rapid cultural transition not only offers fertile grounds for these groups to flourish, but it is too preoccupied to notice how dangerous they may have become.

The culminating horror of Guyana which some of us had seen should have alerted a nation and its leaders to the persistent threat.

It was in too many ways our holocaust.

Once again it was caused by a group of fanatic believers.

Senator Dole. Dr. Clark, do you have copies of your statement available?

Dr. Clark. Yes.

Senator Dole. Fine. If you would be able to stay with us. The next witnesses are Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman.


[Question session with Dr. Clark, by Senators and Congressmen, P.147-158.]

Senator Dole. I would like to have Dr. Clark come forward.

Senator Dole. Dr. Clark, do other people in your field have a different view than you have insofar as "so-called cults" are concerned?

Dr. Clark. In my field, there's almost no clear agreement about anything, except, to some degree, that under certain circumstances, people do lose their capacity to think clearly and to care for themselves. This has to do with the contents of their minds.

Senator Dole. Well, as I said, I viewed last night, with a great deal of interest, a tape from the David Susskind show. You were indicating then there was more acceptance now than, say, two or three years ago.

Dr. Clark. Yes. Two or three years ago, the notion that by outside manipulation the will of an individual would be lessened, weakened or gone too far off to judge reality, could be changed, this idea was not accepted broadly. There were always a few psychiatrists and people who had studied these matters for a long time.

There has always been a notion that the mind is, rather, a phenomenon that keeps on going, is acting the same way, has no shifts sideways, no narrowing, and controls itself.

In these matters, we are beginning to understand, through a lot of research, that the mind is part of the biological system. It's a function of the biological system. Thus it is capable of being manipulated either by the body itself or by information coming from the outside.

Senator Dole. Congressman Fish, I think you had a question.

Mr. Fish. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Dr. Clark, you are associate clinical professor at the Harvard Medical School at Massachusetts General. In your brief biography we have about you before us, it says that you have been working with ex-cult members for the past five and a half years. I wonder if you could tell us, is there any literature in this field based on the experience of yourself or others over these years?

Dr. Clark. Yes. Let me just add that I have not only seen ex-cult members. I have seen people involved in these organizations from the moment that they became interested, through their involvement, when they came either voluntarily or on court orders because of sickness, through their leaving the cult either by deprogramming -- which I had nothing to do with -- or by some other accident, such as becoming suddenly crazy.

There is more literature. The standards of the '60s would be Schein's book on coercive persuasion and, of course, Lifton's book on -- I am sorry; I have just put the name away. It's a wonderful book.

There has been a small amount of recent writing, including one by Mark Gallanter in the latest Journal of the American Psychiatric Association and an article in Psychology Today by Margaret Singer; a few little bits and pieces over the last few years that have dealt with these matters.

Mr. Fish. Pardon me, Doctor. I don't want to take up too much time here.

From your five and a half years in this work, has a profile emerged of the individual who you work with?

Dr. Clark. I am glad you asked me that question.

The profile is not clear. Everybody has a different profile, which always says that our attempts to characterize the victims are simply working. There is, from my experience, a majority of people who have significant psychological, physical problems before they went in and were rather uncomfortable -- very uncomfortable people who more or less sought conversion.

About 40 percent of them -- that's a small number compared to some other people's figures -- are perfectly normal people by any test that I could apply through gathering information about their past. They were normal people.

Mr. Fish. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Senator Dole. Congressman Giaimo?

Mr. Giaimo. You mention in your testimony about -- describe characteristics indicating a new personality or a controlled mind.

Dr. Clark. Yes.

Mr. Giaimo. What do you mean by a controlled mind, and does it in any way involve will?

Dr. Clark. An individual who has been brought through a process sequence of conversion, which is very similar and, I think, ultimately the same as, the sequence of hypnosis, narrows his attention gradually -- as anybody dealing with a crisis will do -- to the point where the attention is entirely on the surrounding environment. If this is maintained to a certain point, over a certain period of time, there seems to be a kind of a rupturing of the ordinary fabric of the mind, at least temporarily.

These are some of those moments that are called mystical experiences. These are moments of great opportunity for grasping new information very, very rapidly, of making change, or of producing something ingenious.

There are other times when, if the pressure from the outside is very intense, only that pressure will be listened to. There will be no structuring of something brand-new, only an acceptance of the surrounding environment.

Mr. Giaimo. To that degree he would be a captive of that environment?

Dr. Clark. To that degree he is a captive if he is not let loose within the next two or three sleep periods. After that, there seems to be very clear evidence that the individual is technically a multiple personality living in the second personality.

There are great differences in the memories of the past, especially the subtle memories of old relationships and love, which are very complicated. I have pointed in my testimony to the loss of the memory of all of those standards of the past.

They are unable to think as well, precisely because they have lost contact with a great many subtle memories of the past.

Mr. Giaimo. Is it your opinion that the law does or can or should take congnizance of this psychological state?

Dr. Clark. Times have changed since the colonial days. The techniques that are being used for this are now partly based upon available knowledge and available tools -- tape recordings that go on all day, all night; loudspeakers all through the camps; music that can be invented and put into electronic form extremely rapidly; repetition of things; printing of things; propagandizing; things that did not happen a long time ago.

These are different times. There is much more known about the position of the mind in the body, what it does with and for the body. I think there is still plenty of room for religious feeling, responses, positions, and other ways of joining together around certain very high ideals. But it would be naive of modern Americans to try to deal with a problem like this as though were were still in the 18th century.

I think it would also be naive to forget that Hitler was a cult leader in many ways. Many of his acts were based upon beliefs which came from other sources.

Mr. Giaimo. Do you believe that this subject of mind control that you are talking about is a legitimate area of congressional inquiry?

Dr. Clark. Entirely.

Mr. Giaimo. Do you think that it violates any amendment of the Constitution or the Constitution itself?

Dr. Clark. As I, a nonlawyer, understand the First Amendment, I don't think it does.

Mr. Giaimo. Nonlawyers can interpret the Constitution as well as can lawyers.

Dr. Clark. I do agree with the idea that the First Amendment should protect us from religion as well as protect religion from us.

Mr. Giaimo. So do I.

Dr. Clark. Very strongly.

Mr. Giaimo. You do believe that this new phenomenon -- if it is new -- but at least modern medicine seems to be able to look into it -- this phenomenon of mind control is a legitimate subject of congressional inquiry?

Dr. Clark. Yes. Under certain conditions of, I think, rapid cultural change, these kinds of phenomena have come up before, but not with the technical backing that the individuals practicing --

Mr. Giaimo. Haven't they come up in recent history in matters having nothing to do with religion? For example, in the Korean War?

Dr. Clark. Korean War, the Meinhof gang. It hasn't been mentioned explicitly, but those of us who have watched this also recognize the similarity of the techniques of managing people in religious and nonreligious organizations; terrorist gangs, political organizations are very potent, very absolutist. They require some of the same sort of states of mind, and they recruit in much the same way.

Mr. Giaimo. Thank you.

Senator Dole. Senator Zorinsky?

Senator Zorinsky. I will give my time to Senator Exon.

Senator Exon. Dr. Clark, in yoru testimony you said among other things "have reason to declar the reason of public nuisance it not so high that public servants must eact strongly before it is too late."

You also said those of us who seriously attempted to study the rapidly spreading phenomenon of absolutist groups and the effects on their converts.

If it is true -- and I respect you as a psychiatrist in this area -- would you give us an estimate as to how many people you are concerned about here? Do you measure it in thousands? Millions? If it is important enough for the Congress to look into, how many people are we dealing with now, and how many people do you think we would be dealing with in the next two or three years, based on hte information in the studies you have made?

Dr. Clark. To be as responsive as I can, I would have to say I don't know; and then give you an answer that will give you some notion of where I am.

One of the first jobs that has to be done is find out these numbers much more accurately; but I find now that almost anybody I talk to has within the first or second degree an experience with one of these kinds of conversions in somebody nearby.

It is almost impossible now to talk to somebody and say what do you know about groups or cults; well, my cousin just called me up. She is in a terrible state because something has happened.

It is getting closer, so that there must be many more involved than there used to be. I think it is growing.

The point is that this is a very easy thing to do, start a religion, to set up all the processes, including all the doctrines. There's no problem with money at all.

I could fix you up one in 10 mintues that would probably work.

Senator Dole. Dr. Clark, I appreciate -- I want to ask a couple of questions.

I have to make a speech downtown which started 20 minutes ago. One of the better ones I have made.

I think some of us, frankly, question both sides. We are concerned about whether you call it kidnapping in the first place or kidnapping in the second place. Neither one appeals to me; and I think we have heard directly from witnesses who are in debriefing or deprogramming, whether it is Mr. Alexander or Mr. Patrick. I read the Playboy interview. I am somewhat disturbed by it, whether -- and I don't -- maybe I shouldn't put you on the spot, since they are both here.

I does concern me if someone makes a profit, if they are qualified -- and I don't know what qualified is. I mean I am confused.

What should one be to be in the deprogramming business? Should it be someone like yourself or should it be someone like Mr. Alexander, someone like Mr. Patrick, or maybe a combination of half a dozen?

I think that's a part that distresses us; as much as we are concerned about some of the excesses on the other side, we have to concern ourselves with the excesses on both sides.

Dr. Clark. I will give you a medical answer if I can. Very hard.

I personally am uneasy about either kind of process. I am less uneasy about the deprogramming because I think that it does tend to return somebody back to his or her own original memories, original self; but I do think that the medical point of view is if someone is injured, that if necessary, first of all, one must define the injury as carefully as possible.

That's been very difficult because of the lack of access overall to even the examination of these individuals.

Define the injury. Then apply what is necessary to return the person to optimal operations -- as much returning him back to what he was as is possible.

To move somebody drastically from one personality to another is peculiarly bizarre sort of injury that may look all right on the surface, but the individual inside is simply not like the original.

It is integral -- the change is integral, not laid on like the drug experiences of the last 10 or 15 years.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).