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Cult Freedom

In response to:

Heart of Darkness from the April 19, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

Diane Johnson’s article on Jonestown [NYR, April 19] is an excellent piece; however, I think it makes an unfortunate contribution to a climate of hysteria over “cults.” I will preface my comments by stating that I do not believe that freedom of religion is absolute or that authoritarian religious movements should be immune from any scrutiny or regulation. Nevertheless, surveillance and regulation based on notions of “brainwashing” have repressive implications for redirecting government scrutiny from overt acts (e.g., putting a rattlesnake into someone’s mailbox) to “consciousness” and establishing psychiatric supervision of social movements.

A reader of Ms. Johnson’s essay could easily get the impression that other “cults,” or at least relatively authoritarian “cults” such as The Unification Church or Hare Krishna, are miniature replicas of Jonestown. I think Ms. Johnson may exaggerate the degree to which the “pathetic looking members” of other “cults” have been subjected to the same experiences as The People’s Temple victims and the degree to which the allegations against Jones are really similar to the allegations against Moon et al. To my mind the systematic use of overt physical force to prevent exodus from the premises qualitatively differentiates Jonestown (and possibly Synanon) from other “cults,” including relatively “totalistic” groups such as Hare Krishna. The employment of tangible physical constraint also differentiates almost all “cults” from contexts such as POW camps or Patty Hearst’s closet.

Of course, there are many “cults” which are much less authoritarian than Hare Krishna or The Children of God (let alone The People’s Temple); however, the looser movements also elicit concerned relatives upset over “brainwashing.” A friend of the writer’s was abducted and (unsuccessfully) deprogrammed, although she was not at the time living in a commune or temple and her “cult” (Meher Baba) was hardly a context of stringent regimentation. At the risk of sounding indifferent to the fate of “pathetic” victims of cultism, I hope that notwithstanding Jonestown an assumptive validity is not now conferred upon the claims of concerned relatives and embittered apostates about unconventional movements.

Having indicted the rest of us for indifference to the abuses of cults, and having affirmed the reality of brainwashing, Ms. Johnson ought to consider the following issues:

1) How is it to be determined whether a person who is not drugged or hysterical and who talks coherently if somewhat dogmatically is really a mind-controlled robot? Should the burden of substantiation for allegations concerning the presence or absence of “free will” be on the convert or on the party which proposes to forcibly remove someone from a movement? Should it be simply assumed that members of sufficiently “totalistic” groups lack free will?

2) If a Moonie kills someone should “brainwashing” be a legitimate basis for acquittal by reason of mental incompetence and lack of free will? If, on the other hand, a devotee is to be held legally responsible for his behavior and obliged on pain of punishment to refrain from criminal acts, should he not also be granted the privileges of assumptive responsibility such as the right to do what he (or she) thinks he (or she) wants to do short of perpetrating a crime, and the right not to be forcibly seized and confined for purposes of therapy or deprogramming?

3) Should the government’s assumption of responsibility for the minor children of cultists, urged by Ms. Johnson, extend to prohibiting the brainwashing (or heavy-handed indoctrination in a totalistic context) of such children? Should this prohibition extend to the children of Catholics, Evangelicals, or Jehovah’s Witnesses whose parents may also provide for their heavy-handed indoctrination in a distinctly non-pluralistic context? Interestingly, several sociologists have predicted that authoritarian sects such as Hare Krishna or The Unification Church will increasingly de-emphasize recruitment through proselytization and will rely on systematic indoctrination of the second generation to maintain their numbers.

It is my fear that the furor over brains being washed and zombies being manufactured by cults may actually shift the nature of social control in America. The government may increasingly scrutinize the consciousness as well as the acts of dissidents, and psychiatrists and psychologists may become the arbitors of the legitimacy of social movements and the range of permissible involvement in formally voluntary associations.

Thomas Robbins

New York City

Diane Johnson replies:

I’m pleased that Mr. Robbins found my article on Jonestown to be “excellent,” but he evidently didn’t read it carefully or he could not possibly have thought it advocated interfering with the freedom of anyone. I assume he is merely devising an occasion to express his views or those of some organization.

Anyway, it does not seem to me that there is a “climate of hysteria” about cults, recent congressional ideas about investigation notwithstanding. One of the points I wished to make was that our suspicions (probably correct) that the complaints of People’s Temple members were ignored because the people were poor, black, and female is to some extent belied by a general indifference to complaints involving other cults whose members are often middle-class, white, and young. To observe, as I did, that we are apparently unsympathetic to, or even mistrust “those who trust leaders,” is not, however, the same as to recommend interfering with their right to be religious or trustful. And I made no reference to the living conditions of the other cults Mr. Robbins mentions, as I know nothing about them.

To answer the questions:

1) I hoped merely to point out that because it is hard to make determinations about free will and “influence” we tend to apply such concepts to suit ourselves: Patty Hearst, locked in a closet, etc., was held to be not “brainwashed” but responsible, but Dan White, ex-cop and elected public official who gunned down the San Francisco mayor and a fellow supervisor, had “diminished capacity,” that is, was not responsible. Diminished capacity in his case meant angry, depressed, life not going well, ate a lot of junk food—a description which could apply to millions of people. His sentence may well be lighter than that of Hearst. I believe, as Mr. Robbins seems to also, that until we can define concepts pertaining to degree of responsibility with some accuracy, independent of the incompetence or eloquence of lawyers, and of the subjective and fallible judgments of psychiatrists and psychologists, of whom I share Mr. Robbins’s apprehension, it would express a more dignified view of humanity to assume that everyone acts by free will.

2) No. Yes.

3) Regarding children, my discussion concerned child abuse, not religious training. I believe that even most government officials can tell the difference between a child being made to learn a catechism and a child being put down a well. In the case of the Jonestown children, complaints concerning their health and safety had come to the attention of welfare authorities who used as their excuse for ignoring them the same arguments Mr. Robbins is using, about religious freedom. Religious freedom is not involved.

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