Book Review - Escape My Lifelong War Against Cults

ICSA Today, 4,(1), 2013, 15-17

Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults

By Paul Morantz with Hal Lancaster

Review by Leona Furnari, MSW

Paul Morantz writes in his introduction that his “aim was to make this the only book you’ll ever need to read on the subject [of cults]” (p. 19). Although I don’t know that any one book could accomplish that goal, Morantz does an excellent job of presenting a comprehensive look at the topic and related issues. The book is well written and has a flow to it that keeps the reader engaged. Morantz sees himself at times as a bit of a superhero, albeit with a good sense of humor, such as when he sang the Mighty Mouse theme as he was going to rescue a man who was being held prisoner in a nursing home for mentally ill patients. This particular case provided the “adrenaline rush,” which seemed to propel Morantz in the direction of his career of fighting cults.

Morantz starts off his book with an overview of brainwashing, beginning with Mao Tse-Tsung’s thought-reform regimen. He explores terms, explains the process of brainwashing, and describes the environments that support the brainwashing or thought-reform process. He defines this process as “the art of forcing someone to adopt a new belief while convincing him that he has done so voluntarily” (p. 25). I believe this definition hits the nail right on the head.

Morantz briefly discusses the work of philosophers and psychologists whose ideas have influenced developing cults. These individuals include Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essay “Self-Reliance” was meant to encourage individualism; Henry David Thoreau, friend and protégé of Emerson who wrote “Civil Disobedience,” in which he speaks about opposing government, and about Walden, on living in harmony with nature; B. F. Skinner, a psychologist who advocated behavioral conditioning; Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who developed the Humanist Movement that advocated self-realization, or seeking one’s full potential; and Dr. Timothy Leary, who encouraged those seeking self-realization and transcendent experiences to “tune in, turn on, drop out” by using LSD. Morantz asserts that totalist movements that developed in the United States beginning in the 1960s were based on these philosophies, combined with Mao’s thought-reform techniques. He looks at characteristics of those who become cult leaders and then proceed to view their followers as “lab rats”; he speaks of a normal human tendency to be manipulated, given a particular set of circumstances.

This book is very engaging and disturbing. It is an educational tome, a memoir, and it often reads like a suspense novel. Each chapter’s title begins with “Escape from…,” starting with Mao (the overview); then the author’s own childlike innocence; and continuing through 13 other groups, leaders, and even a nursing home. Many of the groups that Morantz has fought against, or at least interfaced with, are well known, including EST, Scientology, the Unification Church (Moonies), the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), Rajneeshpuram, Charles Manson, the People’s Temple, and the leader/group that tried to kill him, Synanon. Other groups he documents are lesser known, yet no less destructive.

Many times while reading this book I had to put it down and walk away—the experience was intense, as living it certainly must have been for Morantz and the cult victims with whom he worked and for whom he fought. As a reader who both works with former cult members and their families and is a former member of a cult, I found the experiences to be very real; and although the book can read like a novel, it is not entertainment. Much of the focus of the book is the author’s work against Synanon and its leader, Charles Dederich. In fact, at Dederich’s orders, his group members placed a rattlesnake in Morantz’s mailbox in an attempt to kill him—and they were just shy of successful.

Morantz first became involved with Synanon in 1977 when he was contacted to “rescue” a woman who went there for treatment and instead was kidnapped and subjected to a thought-reform program. Morantz went on to sue Synanon, and thus became locked in an ongoing war with the group. He documents the evolution (or devolution, as the case may be) of Synanon in the late 1950s, from Dederich’s own struggles with alcohol, to his cathartic experience with LSD, his self-education on Mao’s brainwashing, Skinner’s social engineering, Maslow’s self-actualization techniques, and Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance. Dederich began holding Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, and eventually “attack therapy groups,” which used both positive and negative reinforcements to change and mold behaviors of the participants. His reputed success with rehabilitating addicts brought attention and financial support from Hollywood names, and general public acceptance as he and his program were featured in Life magazine. Over time, Dederich amassed financial wealth, property, and possessions; but he had tax-exempt, nonprofit status for Synanon. By the mid-1970s, violence had become a norm inside the group and a means of control, both toward “splitees” (those who had left) and toward outsiders who were viewed as somehow against the group. Dederich himself named the stages of the evolution: I, the drug rehab period; II, alternative lifestyle commune stage; III, new religious order.

Morantz presents a partial, chronological list of acts of outrageous violence Synanon perpetrated over the course of approximately three years, including threats of violence against him. After the group’s brutal attack on a former member and news that Dederich had made an online call for an attack on Morantz, he bought a shotgun to protect himself. One evening shortly after he arrived home, he reached into his mailbox and was greeted by a rattlesnake; luckily, he survived to tell the tale and continue his work.

Although in general Morantz does a great job of presenting things in chronological order and giving details in the book that very few people otherwise would be privy to, I found it difficult to decipher when exactly the attack on him took place, which for some reason I wanted to know. Morantz documents further events with Synanon, including his taking the deposition of Charles Dederich, the man who had ordered his murder, and to whom he dedicates this book.

Morantz’s work has been a passionate effort to disrupt and lessen injustices against not only individuals harmed in cults, but also society as a whole, in what he termed his “holy war” on behalf of thought-reform victims. In a landmark case against the Unification Church (Moonies), he challenged a legal precedent and won, something that almost no one (including himself) thought was possible. Morantz and his two colleagues (both with ties to the Moonies) “were asking the state [California] high court to confirm the existence of brainwashing and establish the right to sue those who would use it to force their beliefs on others” (p. 211). The California Supreme Court found that

There was sufficient evidence to rule that by the time the Moonies had identified themselves [to the plaintiffs] they had rendered them “incapable of deciding not to join the Church, by subjecting them, without their knowledge or consent, to an intense program of coercive persuasion (thought reform).” (p. 217)

This ruling was a great victory for all of those who are harmed by cults and for those who fight against undue influence and coercive persuasion.

I greatly appreciate the wealth of information in this book, but I believe that a couple things are oversimplified. With regard to Patty Hearst, Morantz states that the experts who testified on her behalf asserted that “brainwashing victims don’t act out of fear, but out of an exhilarating sense of answering to some new calling” (p. 81). Although I cannot speak directly to who said what, I believe it is less black and white than that. While victims of thought reform can become zealots for the new cause, there is also a “doubling” process, or development of a cult personality, taking place. The new pseudopersonality exists along with the precult personality. Lalich and Tobias, in Take Back Your Life (Bay Tree Publishing, 2006), state that the cult personality “smiles benignly because the [precult personality] is safely bound and gagged, locked up in a cage of fear” (p. 48). I see these personalities as different ego states that are not mutually exclusive; and while one may be present or “online” while the other is “offline” or locked up, the one that is locked up is not extinguished. Lalich and Tobias further state that personality adaptations of cult members are “both a cult-imposed requirement and a means of survival.” Perhaps for Patty Hearst either of these personalities or ego states was more online than the other at a given time. Although victims of brainwashing or ideological totalism often become zealots and “feel freed of human ambivalence,” sometimes there are cracks in the walls of the cage, and doubts creep in. I would argue that this is one of the reasons so many who leave cults are walkaways who choose to leave (or escape) without having been deprogrammed or exit-counseled.

Morantz is puzzled that, many years after her release, Hearst stated that she didn’t try to escape her captivity because she was in despair and wasn’t hopeful about what she could return to on the outside. I think he misses a key complexity for cult victims. Yes, thought reform can “produce exhilarating peak experiences,” yet that doesn’t mean that every cult victim lives every moment in those experiences. Often, doubt seeps through from the precult identity; yet, phobia indoctrination about what will happen to them should they leave, coupled with fear about how they will be perceived and how they can possibly have a life on the outside, and how they can come to terms with their own vulnerability and possible complicity, combine to produce a powerful, yet invisible prison for these victims. Some individuals are able to leave or escape in spite of these conditions; some are not. Things are not as black and white as we might like them to be—even in the cases of thought reform or brainwashing.

Morantz reports that Hearst claimed “she was raped and brutalized” while in captivity (p. 79), and he states that in “true brainwashing programs, victims are put under stress and verbally attacked, but not raped” (p. 85). I don’t know where this information comes from, but in my work as a mental health professional with former cult members, there are countless stories of sexual abuse/rape in the name of God or higher purpose. And although Morantz states that “kindness is more effective than violence”—hence, why destructive groups use “love-bombing” techniques—Patty Hearst was treated violently from the very beginning, when she was kidnapped, tied up, and thrown in a car trunk. In cults, as in abusive relationships, there is an ebb and flow of positive, bonding experiences during which the victims feel loved, accepted, and special, and negative experiences during which they are shamed, blamed, and maltreated. It all occurs within a cycle of abuse. The victims often bond with the abuser(s) and therefore stay in the environment, even when those on the outside think the victims would naturally try to escape. Or they may leave at some point and return, either to the same group or to another, similar group. What also confuses the reader here is that Morantz details many violent experiences victims had in other cults: Even though “kindness is more effective than violence at the right moment,” somehow he doesn’t allow that Hearst would be subjected to both positive and negative modes of reinforcement, which may have included rape.

Another thing that puzzles me is Morantz’s assertion that “without constant reinforcement, brainwashing tends to wear off in about 90 days” (pp. 27, 124). He states that this is the reason AA pushes for lifetime membership, but he gives no reference for the 90-day time period. Morantz states that AA’s 12-step program was identified as a “values improving” group by Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist who wrote a book called Join the Club (p. 304), and he asserts that AA uses aspects of thought reform to keep people sober. He states that the fact that AA hasn’t been corrupted by a “psychologically warped leader” is the result of how the operational structure was originally designed (p. 304). In my experience, some aspects of brainwashing may wear off while the person is still in a group, and some don’t wear off for years, or perhaps ever. I don’t see this as a black-and-white process, but rather one dependent to a great degree on the environment and the support and resources available to individuals when they exit the group, coupled with the impact of their precult experiences. I have not read or heard before of the kind of timeframe Morantz suggests for brainwashing to wear off. It would be great to have a reference for this assertion, from which I might hope to gain a greater understanding of the author’s statement.

In his final chapter, which documents the extremely damaging and degrading tactics of “The Love Doctor,” Morantz speaks of the damage to children when they are raised in such destructive environments, and the complexities for them of moving forward, especially given their lack of a precult identity. Not only are children born and/or raised in cultic environments faced with the task of developing their own identity, but should they leave, they also must completely adapt to a new culture, often without the support of family or friends.

Morantz helps the layperson and the professional alike understand how the courts and legal system work (or don’t work, as the case may be); he emphasizes that the beliefs of a group are not the issue, but rather the methods used to impose those beliefs (p. 208). It is mind-boggling to think about the extent to which so-called religious freedom can allow perpetration of abuses and deception, and the extent to which these groups benefit from their tax-exempt, nonprofit status. When Morantz clearly sets out this situation in his book, group after group, one can truly feel its magnitude. He also explores how the Internet can be helpful in exposing harm by certain groups, and how it also can become a venue for perpetration of abuse. He examines American presidents and other influential people, and expresses his opinion that those who lead and influence our country employ brainwashing and behavior modification (pp. 296–302). He also expresses his belief that the “specter of totalist thinking” and thought-reform practices permeate the modern world (p. 296). These are provocative ideas that may be worthy of further discussion and debate.

Escape is fascinating and brings the reader into a world that most do not know exists. Morantz brings together many details that most people would never be aware of, and he is able to communicate the breadth and depth of harm cults and their leaders cause. We also get a glimpse into the life of Paul Morantz—his love of USC football, women, his son, and writing, and that he is affected by a significant illness. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about thought reform or brainwashing, about cults, and/or about the legal system.

About the Author

Leona Furnari, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado who specializes in recovery from trauma, including recovery from abusive groups and relationships. Ms. Furnari is a former member of an Eastern/New Age group, and that experience led to her commitment to help others recover from abusive groups. She has been a regular facilitator/presenter at ICSA’s former-member workshops and cult-education conferences for 15 years. She has worked in child protection and community mental health, and as a school social worker.

[1] Paul Morantz is a Los Angeles-based attorney who has spent more than 30 years litigating cult and brainwashing cases with many pioneers in the field of cult psychology and education. He is also a writer and has authored books, articles, and screenplays. Hal Lancaster is a journalist and long-time friend of Paul Morantz.