Book Review - Malignant Pied Pipers of Our Time A Psychological Study of Destructive Cult Leaders from Reverend Jim Jones to Osama bin Laden

Cultic Studies Review, 7, (1), 2008, 79-82

Malignant Pied Pipers of Our Time: A Psychological Study of Destructive Cult Leaders from Reverend Jim Jones to Osama bin Laden

Peter A. Olsson

Baltimore, MD: Publish America, 2005. ISBN-10: 141377668X; ISBN-13: 978-1413776683 (paperback), $19.95. 205 pages.

Reviewed by Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., ABPP

Outside of a few hermits, inmates in isolation, or stranded mariners, very few people from small children to seniors are not enmeshed in one or more of a variety of groups. Groups provide us with security, entertainment, fellowship, identity, purpose, and so on. The leaders of these groups might be constructive, benign, or destructive. In analyzing these leaders, specialists from investigative reporters to mental-health practitioners to scientists and lawyers apply their distinctive vocabularies and philosophies.

Malignant Pied Pipers

The legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, immortalized by Goethe, Browning, and the Grimm brothers might describe a medieval cult leader: The Pied Piper is a magical figure who punishes a medieval town by bewitching a group of young people. First, the piper charms away the rats and mice of the town with his flute. When the citizens refuse to pay him his fee, the piper entices their children to follow him to their doom.

In these days, psychoanalyst Peter Olsson likens Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charlie Manson, Shoko Asahara, Marshall Applewhite, Luc Jouret and Joe DiMambro, and Osama bin Laden to malignant pied pipers (MPPs). In this book, Olsson presents a brief biography, followed by a Freudian interpretation and a diagnosis for each of these destructive cult leaders. He concludes,

...all the Malignant Pied Pipers in my study have predominant characteristics of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the additional elements of Malignant Narcissism. I do not quibble with colleagues who favor or add the diagnosis of Antisocial or Psychopathic Personality Disorder. (p. 25)

Olsson relies, with reservations, on the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) (2000), which is the bible of some mental-health workers, but which for behavioral scientists lacks in validity and reliability.

The book’s conversational style is readable and the summaries about each cult leader informative. For example, Olsson concludes that all the MPPs had problems with their fathers, and most were dysfunctional sexually. Such generalizations might obscure differences among leaders and their groups. For example, neither Applewhite nor bin Laden exploited the public for money, and al Qaeda terrorists are quite unlike the children and senior citizens who died at Jonestown. A minor quibble: I think Olsson overemphasizes the prevalence of killer cultists (Dole, 2006); over three decades, only Manson, Asahara, and bin Laden were aggressively homicidal toward harmless outsiders.

Psychoanalytic Theory

Whether or not you like this book might depend on your attitude toward psychoanalytic theory. In my opinion, Sigmund Freud was a genius who, through direct observation of his patients, intuitively developed a powerful theory of human behavior. Olsson has applied Freud’s conceptions and his vocabulary deductively to the MPPs. For example, he writes about the leader of the Branch Davidians at Waco, “Koresh’s knowing remark about his followers’ rebellion is an example of projective identification which is typical of all MPPs I have studied” (page 67). Note that in writing each chapter about a succession of cult leaders he has relied upon selected secondary sources, on books and articles, to deduce such unconscious processes. In contrast, an effective practicing psychiatrist would use several interviews, a case history, and a psychological evaluation before making a diagnosis and identifying major dynamics.

Other Views

It is instructive to compare briefly other specialists who have written extensively about some of the same MPPs. Thus, James Reston, Jr., in his book on Jim Jones (Reston, 1981) and the People’s Temple at Jonestown, used the methods of an expert investigative reporter who narrates a story fairly and objectively. Robert Lifton (1968), a creative psychiatrist and cult expert, has built a detailed case history (not cited in Pied Pipers) about Shoko Asahara (2000), based on his interviews and observations of the Aum Shimryko cult in Japan. Sociologist Janja Lalich (2004a, 2004b), also not cited, has used an inductive method to accumulate her very detailed data mass about Marshall Applewhite and Heavens Gate, justifying her original theory: bounded choice.

I suspect that the experimental clinical psychologist Scott Lillienfeld (Lillienfeld, Lynn, & Lohr, 2003) would consider as pseudoscience Olsson’s references to “hypnotic seduction,” “uncanny encounters,” “apocalyptic vision.” and “dark epiphany” in regard to Osama bin Laden. And if Osama is a malignant magician, are al Qaeda enchanted children? Lillienfeld might argue that it is better to rely on fact-based evidence, random sampling, and the double-blind experiment to build hypotheses about cult leaders and their followers.

Finally, criminal-justice systems encourage distinctive views about the violations of Jones, Koresh, Manson, and Asahara. Narcissistic Disorder is not a crime; murder is. That is, lawyers stress evidence, adversarial argumentation, and the rule of law.


What about help for cult victims? Drawing on 20 years of experience, Olsson has many wise suggestions. He recommends long-term psychotherapy for cult victims (as well as for their families), active love, praise and support, patience, and information. But, he warns, “Deprogrammers often provide a treatment than [sic] is worse than the disease” (page 164). Although he does cite Michael Langone, Margaret Singer, and Robert Lifton, surprisingly Olsson says nothing about the International Cultic Studies Association, exit consultation, or rehabilitation centers such as Wellspring.

Who then should read Malignant Pied Pipers? Mental-health workers who are comfortable with Freud and his followers can recommend it to their patients for its overview of destructive cult leaders. Those who are curious about an experienced, intuitive psychoanalyst’s perspective will find it instructive. The book has a number of ideas worth trying on for size. For example, after concluding that our culture creates MPPs, Olsson writes, “Only carefully cultivated independence of reason, highly developed intuition, and strength of character can help us recognize and stop a Malignant Pied Piper” (p. 177).


American Psychiatric Association (2000) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual--Mental Disorders, IV, Arlington, VA: author.

Dole, A. A. (2006). Are terrorists cultists? Cultic Studies Review, 5, 198–218.

Lalich, J. (2004a). Bounded choice: True believers and charismatic cults. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lalich, J. (2004b). Using the bounded choice model as an analytical tool: A case study of Heaven’s Gate. Cultic Studies Review, 3, 226–246.

Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: W. W. Norton.

Lifton, R. J. (2000). Destroying the world to save it. New York: Holt.

Lillienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J. & Lohr, J. M. (Eds.) (2003). Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology. New York: Guilford.

Reston, J. (1981). Our father who art in hell: The life and death of Jim Jones. New York: Times Books.