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

INFORMATION MEETING ON THE CULT PHENOMENON IN THE UNITED STATES, February 5, 1979, 318 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. P.45-53. of Transcript of Proceedings.

Senator Dole. The next witnesses are Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman.


Senator Dole. I might say, as they are being seated, as a matter of further introduction, I happened to preview last night an hour and 40 minutes of the David Susskind show with Dr. Clark as well as Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. I hope you can be aas enlightening this morning as you were on that particular show when it was taped.

Ms. Conway. We will try, Senator Dole.

Senator Dole. You have to pull the mike up a little bit.

Ms. Conway. I would like you to tell me if you can hear my voice.

Senator Dole. Maybe a little closer.

Ms. Conway. Good morning. My name is Flo Conway.

For the last five years my colleague, Jim Siegelman, and I have been studying a phenomenon of sudden personality change that we believe has reached epidemic proportions in this country. Our study of this phenomenon is based on eight years of my master's and doctoral work in communications sciences and more than four years of our collaborative field research.

We found the most dramatic examples of sudden personality change in America's religious cults and in our research, we identified what we believed to be the cause of these sudden changes in a set of techniques applied skillfully and deceptively by most cults to bring about and to maintain comprehensive changes in human awareness, behavior, and expression.

There are two points that I would like to emphasize this morning.

First, the cult phenomenon that has exploded in the United States in the seventies is something brand-new in this culture. Never before has any society witnessed so widespread a pattern of sudden drastically and remarkably similar personal transformations.

Second, in our opinion, the issue being addressed here today is not one of religious or personal behavior; rather, it is a mental health problem with far-reaching medical, legal, and social implications.

Mr. Siegelman. We focused our investigations on the five largest cults: the Hare Krishna, Scientology, Divine Light Mission, Unification Church, the Way International and to smaller groups.

We also investigated the largest and most popularly marketed self-help methodologies.

Almost invariably these groups solicit new recruits with the promise of some life-changing experience, religious ecstasy, bliss, a personal encounter with God, moments of cosmic consciousness, a change to get it as in est or to experience what Scientology calls "becoming clear."

These appeals are powerfully seductive, when made by cult members, because of the continuing friendliness.

In most cults we found a single moment of conversion and transformation.

This usually occurs in the course of a cult ritual or therapeutic technique that is deftly orchestrated to create the experience of a momentous psychic breakthrough.

We found the most vivid example of this in the Hare Krishna's erotic ceremony where amidst burning incense participants jump and dance until they are physically overcome.

Following such overwhelming experiences, cult members may become physically high and extremely vulnerable to suggestion.

It is during this time we found that nearly ever major cult makes suggestions or commands the individuals to surrender, to let go, to relinquish hold upon the will, to stop thinking and questioning, or merely to let things flow.

These are commands which in our view constitute a covert form of hypnotic suggestion.

Finally, to maintain this hold upon its converts, nearly every group we studied instructed its members in some method of stilling their own throught processes and thus eradicating their natural doubts, questions and emotions.

The Hare Krishna accomplish this by chanting the mantra for hours each day.

In The Way International it is done through a contsant process of speaking in tongues.

In the Divine Light Mission as in transcendental meditation, it is achieved through rigorous meditation.

In the Unification Church there is a similar promise called "centering."

In Scientology, nearly identical effects are achieved through the repeated practice of strict training regimes and auditing therapy.

It is this common cult technique, the ritual stilling of the mind over extended periods of time, that is, in our opinion, the most dangerous and destructive element in the cult experiences.

By these techniques we find an individual's personality may be totally reorganized; fundamental information processing pathways in the brain, the so-called wiring of the human computer, may become altered or destroyed, causing the disruption of basic capacities to think, feel, and make choices.

Profound hallucination and illusions and in extreme instances violent or self-destructive behavior.

Ms. Conway. In the last five years we talked to people who believe they could fly; to individuals who said that after prolonged periods of meditation they began seeing blue and purple auras around people; to otheres who said that after months in a cult their own thoughts began to sound like a very weak telephone signal; and to one young man who was convince he could cure cancer by chanting Hare Krishna.

We had dozens of conversations with people who said they would have killed for their cult-leader, that they made such plans and even attempted to carry them out, and that they would have had no qualms about committing suicide, if told to do so.

We believe that these states of mind can be and must be looked at from a scientific point of view.

In engineering these life-changing experiences, cult and group leaders are using a whole new kind of technology to manipulate human awareness and personality.

This technology is based on decades of research in persuasion and propaganda, in attitude-changing modification, group dynamics, and as yet little understood elements of nonverbal communication, light, color, sound, texture, eye contact, touch, and the direct induction of suggestion.

Add to this knowledge from our Western science, ancient Eastern rituals, such as chanting, meditation, fasting and other modes of aesthetic exercises and you beging to see the scope of the body of knowledge that has been brought together by skilled entrepreneurs and marketed without restraint in the guise of religion.

The abuse of this knowledge has now raised serious physical and mental health problems that are quite outside bounds of dianosis and treatment used in psychiatry and other mental health disciplines.

The only remedy currently available for treating the states of mind produced by cult experience is the controversial method of deprogramming; and we belive that deprogramming should be recognized as a new and valuable form of mental health therapy.

The newness of the cult phenomenon is reflected in the almost complete absence of research at the professional level. There is a critical need for study of cult techniques, the states of mind they produce, as well as the deprogramming process.

We recommend that the federal body so empowered make available research funding in this area to universities, hospitals, and other responsible individuals and institutions.

We need a comprehensive picture to help establish criteria for medical and legal intervention and an ambitious campaign of public information to help laymen and professionals alike distinguish for themselves between a legitimate religion and a cult and between a valid form of mental health therapy and a dangerous form of physical and emotional abuse.

We are witnessing the exploitation of a powerful new technology.

In requesting further inquiry and research, I repeat we are not talking about any new group's religious beliefs.

We are talking about a clear and present threat to the substance of this society and our democratic process, the systematic destruction of the individual and his human right ot freedom of thought.

Mr. Siegelman. There are existing statutes under which many of America's cults may already be prosecuted. We have come here today to request direct action at the national level to counter this growing threat of mind control.

It is at the national level that those who practice mind control techniques on unwitting American citizens currently receive the full protection of the First Amendment; and it is at the national level that steps must be taken to safeguard each American's most fundamental human freedom.

This issue is complex, but the overriding imperative may be simply stated. Somehow whether through public guidelines, court precedent or specific legislation, we, as a nation, must declar explicitly that no individual or organization may by means of physical stress or any subtle or covert technique impair, make captive or destroy an individual's freedom of thought.

Thank you.

Ms. Conway. Thank you.

Senator Dole. Our next witness is Joel Alexander.

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).