Cults: The Mind Enslaved
Jason Beghe is an actor, a Brooklyn tough-guy known for his starring role in the gritty G.I. Jane. In 2008, after fifteen years as a Scientology poster boy, Beghe left the cult and released an interview (embedded below) chronicling his descent into and exodus from L. Ron Hubbard's bizarre universe.
Beghe’s recruitment, life as a celebrity spokesman, and ultimate rejection of the cult are riveting, particularly for someone like myself who spent nearly thirty years in a cultic religious organization. I was stunned because, even though the doctrines and practices of our respective organizations are so different, I identified perfectly with the mental processes Beghe described. I also believed in a completely irrational worldview and ignored blatant contradictions.
Experts believe people join and remain in cults for similar motives regardless of variations in cult lifestyles and teaching. Harder to find in scholarly research is an explanation of how or why people in wildly differing cults exhibit such similar mental and emotional symptoms.
A potential answer is found in "Confessions of a Coward," a brilliant article by PJ Media columnist David P. Goldman. Published by First Things, the piece reveals that the scathing political and economic commentaries by "Spengler" actually flowed from Goldman’s eloquent pen. Confiding the story of his return to the practice of Judaism, Goldman admits that from 1976-1986 a compulsion to escape his Jewish identity and find post-1960s structure left him vulnerable to the overtures of the cult leader Lyndon LaRouche.
The Vietnam War, the crisis in race relations, and the cracks in the economic structure of the 1970s persuaded us that we had to do something and that indifference was morally inexcusable. And that is where LaRouche had us. His intellectual method resembled the old tale about stone soup: Having announced that he had the inside track on the hidden knowledge that underlay Western civilization (one of his essays was titled The Secrets Known Only to the Inner Elites,) he attracted a small parade of intellectual orphans, whom he then put to elaborating the details.
The first time I read Goldman’s description of LaRouches’s “soup,” my blood froze:
LaRouche claimed to trace a tradition of secret knowledge across the ages…in LaRouche’s Manichean view of the world, a conspiracy had suppressed the truth in the service of evil oligarchs…the Rockefellers, and the Trilateral Commission all figured variously in this grand conspiracy against LaRouche’s supposed intellectual antecedents. Jewish banking families kept popping up in LaRouche’s accounts of the evil forces.
The worldview promoted by the organization in which I spent my youth mirrors LaRouche's, but it was not the content that gripped me. What truly leaped off the screen of Goldman's Confessions was a clue about how cults produce this profound psychological effect that can grab even the brightest of minds into a “cult syndrome.” Goldman exposes what happens when when the "Gnostic Mind" meets reality:
You might think—you should think—that this (LaRouche’s Antisemitism) would have sent us running for the exits. But, Godless and faithless, we were all possessed by a fear of being Jewish, and LaRouche offered us a rock to hide under. In a Carto-influenced article LaRouche later tried to suppress, he put the number of Jewish dead at around 1.5 million. I knew about all this, and I looked the other way. LaRouche took my quantitative study and combined it with the paranoid musings of other researchers into a book, Dope, Inc., that had unmistakable anti-Semitic overtones. I knew about this, too, and again I looked the other way.
Cults change not only what we know, but how we know. Aristotle and Aquinas teach reality-based Epistemology, an explanation of human knowing. For these philosophers, knowledge is derived from analyzed sensory information that renders general principles. We move from encountering particulars to a generalized understanding. The classic example is that through repeated exposure to specific dogs or chairs we distill a universal concept of “dogness” or "chairness." We grasp the essence of what makes all dogs and chairs what they are instead of something else.
We also gain knowledge through the testimony of credible witnesses when we accept the analysis of trustworthy people. We test this knowledge by observing its consequences. If Caveman Bob tells Caveman Joe that red berries are delicious and Joe is sick for three weeks after a berry feast, it is unlikely that Joe will tune in to Bob’s next episode on the Caveman Food Network.
Our interaction with the world and sense of its meaning depend heavily on individual discernment and personal analysis of cause and effect. This Epistemology corresponds to the human behavior we observe every day.
Cults promote a non-human way of knowing that bypasses both the sensory evidence we gather and the individual's rational processing. Cultic knowledge is a body of truths not acquired by experimentation and reasoning, but by virtue of the authority of initiated leaders. This knowledge and its application always contain elements that contradict the senses and logic.
You might instantly object that most school classes and mainstream religions fall into this category because students and believers assent to complex truths of which they have no personal experience. Yet academic truths were gained through the process of observation by credible witnesses and can be tested. Even spiritual, moral truths can be analyzed by their consequences. As with consuming berries, we can assess the fruits of immaterial ideas, such as, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," "Thou shall not murder," and "Blessed are the merciful.” People must subject religious teachings and practices to the scrutiny of logic and ask: What are the consequences of a given faith when put into authentic practice? What is the quality of the founders' lives in terms of verifiable benefit to humanity?
Adhering to cultic knowledge requires suppressing this essential human thought-process. Nobody joins a cult; people are attracted to cultic groups by an apparent good. This could be legitimate elements borrowed from a non-cultic faith, the “high” experienced at a self-help conference, or the camaraderie and affection offered by a new group of caring people. These attractions fill a need experienced by a vulnerable recruit. The benefits prime the new member to identify the cult as the source.
Cult members invariably begin to experience a discrepancy between cult teaching and what he or she observes. Mr. Goldman spoke of knowing LaRouche published antisemitic literature while the leader claimed to have a special love for Jewish people. Confronted with inconsistencies, the subject must choose between personal thinking and the cult-knowledge with all its perceived benefits. Once a person consciously repudiates his or her own mind, defending against intruding reality becomes imperative. As the cult-thought becomes more and more invasive, the member no longer lives life based on the normal ebb and flow of information, analysis, and personally selected behavior. Instead, the subject defaults to free-standing dictums that have no root in reality.
The mind continues to receive sensory input from the world and this causes “dissonance,” a struggle between suppressed reason attempting to reassert itself and the post-analytical intellect. 9-11 Truthers watched with the rest of the world as cascading Twin Tower debris struck Building Seven, igniting the fires that resulted in its collapse. The Gnostic certitude that Jews control the world through the U.S. government replaces the visual experience of reality with the conviction that Building 7 was destroyed by controlled demolition.
The Cult Mind frequently violates conscience, that internalized voice of universal right and wrong. For Jason Beghe, it was continuing to recruit for Scientology when he saw that expensive training was not helping him. For David Goldman, he knew assisting an antisemite spread the "Jewish Banking Myth" was wrong, but he was not willing to substitute reality for the emotional comfort of LaRouche's inner circle.
The need to limit contact with people who live according to reason explains alienation from family, friends, and non-members. Living extensions of the Gnostic group-mind are only comfortable with people who affirm the illusion in which they live. Within a cult, subjects serve to continuously monitor one another's level of blind adherence to cult ideology and to suspension of critical thought. Deviations such as questioning or criticism are met with social sanctions that vary in intensity depending on the cult. Anyone who threatens the unity of thought is deemed an enemy. Such a person threatens the essential psychologically dependent state that constitutes the essence of the cult.
The Gnostic Mind is often compartmentalized and people who eschew reason in one area of life are able to function at high levels of professionalism in others. The more dangerous cults are precisely those whose members seem relatively normal on the surface because they offer fewer external warnings to the vulnerable.
Gnostic knowledge provides profound emotional pleasures. True believers are certain that they see the truth and their fellow human beings are ignorant and duped. This conviction generates a sense of importance that many people lacked "in the real world." Men like Beghe and Goldman were not "losers," but both confessed insecurities or a sense of personal lack of completeness that was remedied by their place in the cults. The cults teach that life "outside" is devoid of meaning. It takes a great deal of mental energy to refute the constant influx of reality and this is why so many bury themselves in the "cause" of the cult to the point of obsession. Laser-focus on the group's mission produces "white noise" that blocks doubts and contributes further to the isolation of cult members from those who have no interest in the one-track-mind of those in the organization.
Understanding the cult-imprisoned mind leads to more effective intervention. Deeply addicted to perceived emotional benefits, cult members resist any threat to their voluntary mental captivity. Being ostracized or shunned by family reinforces their attachment to the group. Friends and family who want to help others leave a cult must start with providing a sense of security and kindness that will permit, imperceptibly, the relaxation of the Gnostic Mind. There will already be plenty of "stored" impressions of failure and contradiction in the cult. If the imprisoned subject feels he or she doesn't need the cult, they may have the mental strength to begin to listen to their own mind again.
Whatever its inception, cult exodus almost always entails tremendous mental and emotional suffering. The deepest pain is the sense of betrayal, of having tolerated or committed acts one knew (in the healthy mind) were wrong. There is a “honeymoon” period during which members see nothing but the good. Sooner or later the contradictions and flaws appear. Because they are dependent upon the group to supply emotional needs, the members often become bystanders as they participate in or justify abuse or irrational behavior. Providing a place without judgment is crucial or the member may return to the cult just to escape internal or external condemnation.
In Part II of Cults: The Mind Enslaved, we will examine the particular challenges to cult exodus posed by the Gnostic mental process. We owe a debt of gratitude to ex-members like Jason Beghe and David Goldman for their confessions, self-revelations which are anything but cowardly. By speaking candidly of their experiences they put to rest the harmful myth that only the ignorant fall prey to the enticement of cults. Their honesty paves the way for a new way of helping those imprisoned within their own minds.
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