Brainwashed! Scholars of cults accuse each other of bad faith - 1998-12-01
After years of intimate encounters with a variety of religious groups, one recurrent phenomenon stood out. "I saw people going through a very peculiar experience," Zablocki recalls. "They would lose weight and withdraw. You couldn't have a conversation with them - they seemed to be in a different world."
At first Zablocki believed that the troubled cult members he talked to were experiencing spiritual crises - "the dark night of the soul, like Saint Teresa or Saint John of the Cross." But after reading Robert Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961) and Edgar Schein's Coercive Persuasion (1961), famous studies of the mind control and "reeducation" practiced by the Chinese on, among other groups, American prisoners of war captured in the Korean conflict, Zablocki embraced another explanation: brainwashing. Lifton's and Schein's theories of prisoner brainwashing - a process that entailed sensory deprivation, the extraction of confessions, and complete control of the prisoners' environment as a means of manipulating them to share their captors' outlook and do their captors' will - struck him as an apt description of the behavior he'd observed among the theoretically voluntary members of religious groups. From group to group, Zablocki's subjects had reported undergoing rituals more reminiscent of a prison camp than of your average Sunday school: They were deprived of sleep; they were asked to write confessions; they were told their confessions were not adequate.