(This is a slightly revised version of material from Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? We’ll post the rest of the chapter’s material on cult characteristics s over the next week or so in installments.)
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11. Manipulation Through Guilt. Many cults expertly manipulate their members through arousal of guilt feelings. Guilt is created, according to [Robert Jay] Lifton [in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism], by the setting of impossible-to-meet “demand[s] for purity”:
By conducting an all-out war on impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform . . . Since each man’s impurities are deemed sinful and potentially harmful to himself and to others, he is, so to speak, expected to expect punishment . . . Similarly, when he fails to meet the prevailing standards in casting out such impurities, he is expected to expect humiliation and ostracisim. (p. 424)
As one might expect, in addition to proscribed actions, proscribed thoughts also give rise to guilt. Any attempt at individual assertion or resistance to the demands of the cult’s leader or hierarchy–including even the smallest reluctance to enthusiastically parrot every assertion in the group’s ideology–is attacked as selfishness and lack of devotion to The Cause.
So, guilt-tripping attacks are especially effective when made in public. They serve as powerful spurs to orthodoxy in thought and action, and also as powerful goads to members to “donate” their assets to the cult and so prove devotion through self-sacrifice.
But with truly successful indoctrination, guilt is internalized. The simple surfacing of proscribed thoughts–let alone the carrying out of proscribed actions is sufficient in itself to arouse intense guilg feelings in indoctrinated cult members. To make these feelings bearable, to preserve their self-images as good persons trying to live their lives in accord with revealed Truth, cult members [according to Lifton] “must also look upon their impurities as originating from outside influences, that is, from the ever-threatening world beyond the closed, totalist ken.” Thus cult members escape responsibility for their sinful thoughts and actions, at least in part. They’re just weak individuals dealing with powerful, insidious forces, which they can successfully resist only with the help of the cult.
12. The Cult of Confession. Lifrton explains the mechanism as follows:
It is first a vehicle for . . . personal purification . . . Second, it is an act of symbolic self-surrender, the expression of the merging of the individual and environment. Third, it is a means of maintaining an ethos of total exposure . . . The milieu has attainsed such a perfect state of enlightenment that any individual retention of ideas or emotions has become anachronistic . . . More than this, the sharing of confession enthusiasms can create an orgiastic sense of “oneness,” of the most intense intimacy with fellow confessors and of the dissolution of self into the great flow of the Movement. (pp. 425-426)
Thus confession serves the purpose of fostering identification as a member of the cult rather than as an individual human being. It also serves the purpose of alleviating guilt, thus making the confessor dependent on the cult for that alleviation.
A great many cults and religions–the lines are often blurry–have used confession, both individual and public, for these dual purposes. The Catholic Church is, of course, the prime example of an organization that uses individual confession to these ends. The Chinese Communists are the prime example of an organization that uses public confession to these ends.
As well, there is always the possibility that cults will use information revealed in confessions to threaten, manipulate and control their members. The Church of Scientology, for example, supposedly maintains extensive files on individuals’ “auditing” sessions–therapeutic/confessional sessions in which a great deal of potentially embarrassing information is often revealed; one former Scientologist told me that the Church of Scientology records and retains every minute of every auditing session. The ChChurch’s retention of the information disclosed in auditing sessions, and the possibility of its being publicly revealed, could well contribute to the reluctance of some disaffected ex-Scientologists to speak out against the Church of Scientology.
Far worse, the hold of some cults is so intense that they intimidate their members into making false confessions, which they then dangle over their members’ heads as a means of controlling them. Perhaps the worst example of this was provided by the People’s Temple, in which parents were routinely forced to sign false confessions stating that they had sexually molested their own children.
If confession is good for the soul, it’s even better for helping cults cement their control over their members.