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Brainwashing and the Moonies

Brainwashing and the Moonies

Cultic Studies Journal, 1984, Volume 1, Number 1, pages 27-36.

Geri-Ann Galanti, Ph.D.

This article reports on the experiences and thoughts of an anthropologist who, under an assumed identity, participated in a 3-day Unification church workshop.  Although the author’s expectation that she would encounter “brainwashing” techniques was not met, she was, nevertheless, struck by the subtle, yet powerful, socialization techniques through which the UC members were able to influence her.  She concludes that, to be effect, preventive education in this area must address the subtleties of the socialization processes that can bring about major personality changes.

I recently had an encounter with what has been termed “brainwashing,” when I spent a weekend at Camp K, a Moonie training camp in Northern California.  As a result of my experience there, I would like to offer a few comments on the nature of brainwashing from the perspective of an anthropologist.  I went to the camp to do research for a project on deprogramming.  I thought it was important to see what the “programming” was all about.  I pretended, however, to be a young woman who wandered into their church by chance, and who knew little about Rev. Moon or Moonies.

To begin with, I was allowed plenty of sleep and given a sufficient amount of protein.  Both mornings, I got out of bed around 8:30 or 9:00 – when I was tired of laying around.  No one made me get up early.  We were given eggs, fish, tuna, something that looked like “chicken spam,” lasagna (meatless, but plenty of cheese) and other foods.  We were constantly being fed – three meals and about two snacks per day. Most people looked a bit overweight. In any case, the two things I was looking for that might “brainwash” me were not present.

I was further disarmed by the fact that the group let me know right up front that they were the Unification Church, and followers of the Reverent Moon.  The San Francisco Bay area center had earned a rather bad reputation for hiding that fact until a new recruit was already well entrenched in the group.  Apparently, this is no longer true.  I walked into the church on Bush Street in San Francisco on a Friday evening, and the first thing that was said to me was “You understand that this is the Unification Church and that we’re followers of the Reverent Moon?”  They also had a permanent sign on the front of their building stating “Unification Church.”  The first evening at Bush Street, after showing some interest in the Church, I was shown a videotape about the Church and Reverend Moon.  In order to go to their camp for the weekend, I had to sign a release, which clearly stated that I was going with the Unification Church.  However, the fact that they were now being honest about who they were, in contrast to their past deceptiveness, served to weaken my defense.

The first night, I heard the word “brainwashing” used four or five time, always in a joking context.  I finally asked John, my “spiritual father,” why that word kept cropping up so often.  He said it was because people often accuse them of being brainwashed.  The explanation I heard several times that weekend in this regard is that “people are so cynical and they can’t believe that we can be happy and want to help other people and love God and each other.  So they think that we must be brainwashed to feel this way.  Ha! Ha!”  I was also told by two different Moonies abouat a recent psychological study comparing Moonies with young adults from other mainstream religious groups.  They told me that Moonies came out much better in terms of independence, aggressiveness, assertiveness, and other positive characteristics.  The group is apparently meeting the criticism leveled at them head on.  Their explanations seemed so reasonable. They would ask, “We don’t look brainwashed, do we?”  And they didn’t.

I somehow expected to see glassy-eyed zombies.  I didn’t.  There was one new member – he’d been in the group only a month and a half – who seemed to fit that stereotype.  When I talked to him, his gaze wandered, his eyes not fixed on anything.  But everyone else seemed perfectly normal.  They were able to laugh and joke (about everything except themselves, which I’ll discuss later) and talk seriously about things.  The only thing that really struck me as strange was a kind of false over-enthusiasm.  Any time anyone performed, which was often, everyone would clap and cheer wildly.  They were good, but not that good.  During lectures, they would underscore points with a hearty “yeah!”  I must admit, however, that by the end of the weekend, much of the enthusiasm seemed more charming than odd.

Since the issue was brainwashing, I was constantly monitoring my mental state. During lectures (three per day, each lasting about an hour to an hour and a half), I would sit there and smugly critique the lecture (to myself) as it was presented.  My intellectual faculties were as sharp as ever.  I was able to note the kinds of techniques they were using as well.  Immediately before each lecture, we would sing songs from their songbook, to the accompaniment of a guitar.  Their songs are very beautiful, and the lyrics always upbeat.  As a result, you start off the lecture feeling good from the singing.  The lectures are always ended by singing a few more songs.  This puts a whole aura of “goodness” around the lectures.

The lectures were carefully orchestrated so as to create a feeling in the listener that they must be “learned,” rather than analyzed.  I could discuss this in greater detail, but for now, I will return to the issue of brainwashing.  Despite the use of questionable and manipulative educational techniques, I was constantly aware of the functioning of my intellect and of my beliefs, and at no time did I feel that they were being influenced.  This may not be the case with an individual who has not spent 13 years in college, but, as will become clear, it only underscores the power of brainwashing.  As an anthropologist, I found their beliefs interesting; as an individual, I found them ridiculous.  Nor did I experience any altered states of consciousness to indicate that I was being hypnotized in any way.  So I thought I was safe.

What I didn’t realize is that the “brainwashing” – or to use a better term, “mind control” – doesn’t come until later.  And what is really being talked about is a process of socialization, one which goes on in every household around the world.  Human beings are not born with ideas.   Ideas are learned.  Anthropologists, more than any other group, perhaps, are aware of the variety of beliefs that are held by people around the world.  We acquire these beliefs through a process that involves observation, imitation, and testing.  Beliefs that are acquired in childhood are generally the strongest, although they may be changed through experience as one grows older.  When we have experiences that conflict with our world view, we either rationalize the experience (e.g., I couldn’t find my necklace in the jewelry box yesterday, but today it’s there – I must have overlooked it, or someone must have taken it and put it back), leaving our beliefs intact (e.g., objects don’t magically disappear and reappear), or, if it happens too often and we are presented with an alternative world view which accounts for it, we may change our beliefs.  (This is the stuff that Kuhn writes about in his classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)  it is possible to explain the same event in many ways.  What cults do is to offer an alternative way of looking at things.  When everyone holds the same belief but you, their view starts to make sense.  Society, especially the smaller scale societies we had throughout most of human evolution, could not operate smoothly if everyone were to hold a different belief about the nature of reality.  Millions of years of evolution have selected for a human tendency to be influenced by the beliefs of others.  If this were not the case, how could any child be socialized to be a member of the group?  There are, of course, rebels and visionaries, people who do not accept the beliefs of the group.  But they are much fewer in number.  Furthermore, adolescence seems to be a major time for group conformity.  Teenagers appear to have a strong need to belong, to look and act like one of the group.  And it is these adolescents and post-adolescents who are most strongly attracted to cults.

How does mind control work?  Let me rephrase that.  Even “mind control” is too strong a term, for it, too, conjures up visions of men reaching invisible fingers into your brain, controlling your thoughts and actions like a puppeteer.  I think of it more as a socialization process in which one is led to think like the rest of the group.  Robert Lifton, in his seminal book entitled: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism:  A Study of Brainwashing in China, outlines the eight conditions that result in ideological totalism: milieu  control, mystical manipulation, need for purity, personal confession, acceptance of basic group dogma as sacred, loading the language, subordination of person to doctrine, and dispensing of existence.  As I see it, all of these features conspire to do two things: (1) isolate the person within a particular cultural context so that that context becomes the only reality, and (2) make the individual feel that if he becomes a member of the group, he will be special.  These features are an inherent part of any culture, and not necessarily purposefully contrived to achieve particular aims.  Let me give an example.

Several years ago, I spent a summer doing fieldwork in Guatemala.  After a month in the field, I couldn’t remember a lot of things about home, e.g., my husband’s voice.  He was back in the U.S.  Reality was where I was, in Guatemala. One regret I have is not buying more of the beautiful Indian weavings.  The reason I didn’t was that they were “too expensive.”  The finest cost approximately $30.  To buy something similar here would cost well over $100.  But I had internalized the Guatemalan standard of money.  That summer, no one was purposely trying to control my environment.  It was controlled by virtue of the fact that I was spending most of my time in a small rural village.  Though I retained most of my American ways and beliefs, my sense of reality was slowly changing, and Guatemala became the standard by which I tested reality.

Regarding the notion that ideological totalism functions to make an individual feel that if he joins the group, he will somehow be better than everyone who is not a member – this is not a new concept.  All cultures promote this idea about themselves.  The attitude is called “ethnocentrism.”  Everything we do is right and natural; everything outsiders do is unnatural, barbaric, etc.  The names that most small scale societies use to refer to themselves generally translate into something meaning “the people” or “human beings,” implying that everyone who is not a member of the group is somehow less than human.  Perhaps I am overstating the case, but what I saw the Moonies do was to do on a smaller scale what all cultures do with their members.

The techniques they use are for the most part, not very sinister.  They are things we encounter in everyday life.  They are how we become socialized.  The cult becomes a total subculture.

Which brings me to what I think is the most important part.  In the beginning, they don’t influence you by changing your beliefs.  As I said earlier, they did not affect mine in the least in that short weekend.  (although I should point out that my beliefs are very clear and strong.  Most people who join the church are self-described “searchers”: they’re looking for answers.)  the way they get to you is emotionally.  If you stay with an isolated group of people long enough, you will eventually begin to think like they do, act like they do, see the world as they do.  It’s part of human nature.  It’s what we anthropologists mean when we talk about enculturation.  The degree of enculturation (taking on the culture of another group) will depend upon the relative amount of time you associate with people from your own culture and from the new culture, among other factors.  If you associate only with members of the new culture, acculturation will generally be much more rapid.

So how do they get you to stay?  By giving you a good time, by being likeable, by being happy.  Of all the things I expected to happen that weekend, the last thing I expected was to have a good time.  Except for the lectures, which I found rather boring and insulting (I thought they were aimed at about a third grade level), I really had fun.  We sang a lot, people performed songs and poems, we put on a group talent show, we played volleyball.  We became children again, with no responsibilities.  It was like being at camp; in fact, it was called camp: Camp K.  the setting was beautiful – in the mountains, along a creek, with lots of trees.

They also make you feel really good about yourself.  One of the famous Moonie techniques is “love bombing,” which basically consists of giving someone a lot of positive attention.  For example, one morning, Jane said to me, “You know, you’re really one of the most open people I’ve ever met.  You don’t put up any defenses.  You’re really open.  I think that’s so great.”  When she said this, part of my mind went “flash.  Love-bombing, love bombing.”  But the other part of me went, “Yeah, but it’s really true.  (Don’t we all like to believe the best about ourselves?)  She probably really means it.”  In any case, it made me feel good.  Despite my intellectual recognition of what she was doing, emotionally, I bought it.

Another technique they use is to make you feel part of the group.  New recruits were constantly encouraged to take part in the many performances that were put on.  During one of the initial group sessions, when we were introducing ourselves, I mentioned that I like to dance.  That night, when we were making up our presentation for the “talent show,” everyone kept urging me to choreograph our musical number.  I felt a bit shy about it, but then figured, why not?  I had never seen a more supportive group in my life.  There was no way to fail – except not to take part.  I had about 5 minutes to make up and teach a number to a group of 15.  needless to say, my “dance” was simple and rather silly.  But it was all in fun and didn’t matter. It made me feel a part of the group.  It also gave them ample opportunity for more love-bombing.  After the show and all the next day, at least a dozen people came up to tell me what a “great” dance it was.  Despite the fact that I knew it wasn’t, it still felt good to have people compliment me on something that is important to me.  I was made to feel good by being part of the group.

They also made me feel that I was a lot like individual members of the group.  Part of my “cover” was that I was a third grade school teacher.  (I did teach 3rd grade for 10 weeks once.)  when I told this to my “spiritual father” he replied, “I used to be a school teacher too.”  He kept emphasizing how much alike we are.  (We’re not.)  He also told me how much I remind him of a close friend of his.  Someone else told me how much I reminded her of her sister-in-law.  Other people told me that I look “so familiar.”  It was rather transparent to me that this was merely a technique to make me feel that we were not so different and I could be a part of them.  (Actually, this technique was too obvious and not effective on me.)

Socialization also works through subtle peer pressure.  At the end of Saturday evening, we once again got in our groups to discuss “what we liked best about the day.”  As we went around the circle, people mentioned things like the lecture we had on Rev. Moon, or the movie about the Unification Church, or something that was said in the lecture.  As it was coming around to me, I was thinking, “My honest answer would be the volleyball game.  I really had a great time playing volleyball.  But if I say that, I’m going to sound really shallow compared to everybody else.  And I know I’m not shallow.”  So I chose something that was also true, thought less so, but which sounded much better.  When my turn came, I said, “I really enjoyed meeting a lot of really nice people.”  Because of a general human tendency to try to create a positive image of ourselves, I was slowly becoming socialized into the ways of the group.  If this were a group that valued physical activity, my true response would have been appropriate.  But this was a group that valued God, love, ideals, and so I found myself shaping myself in a way that emphasized the aspects of my being that were most acceptable to the values and standards of the group.  We are all multi-faceted.  It is a common experience to find that different people or groups of friends being out different aspects of our personality.  Generally, we change subtly as we interact with each group, thus emphasizing all aspects of our personality.  In a totalist group like the Moonies, however, the group values are so strong and so consistent that only one side of ourselves is elicited and reinforced.  We thus shape our personality as we become socialized into the group.

The most powerful aspect of the whole experience was the personal relationships.  At the beginning of the weekend, I remember thinking that there really wasn’t anyone there that I would want to be friends with.  But by the end of 2 ½ very intense days, I had developed a few attachments, especially to two of the women, Susan and Jane.  I also felt very guilty about deceiving them regarding who I was and why I was there.  Yet I couldn’t tell them the truth because then I couldn’t be sure that they weren’t treating me differently from others – nin-researchers.  Even though I knew they were deceiving me in subtle ways and that the ultimate goal that was shaping their behavior toward me was the desire to get me to join the group, I still felt guilty.  I honestly liked them.  They seemed so open and honest with me, although I still don’t know how open and honest that really was.  They seemed to like me.  My ego wants to believe they did. The whole cult issue is very clouded in my mind.  It is exceedingly complex.  If their main motive was to get me to join the group, it was because they believed that by doing so, they were helping g to save the world and my soul.  Is that so dishonest?  Yet how honest is it to consciously use those very effective techniques?  I see them as both victims and victimizers.  Simultaneously.

They presented a lifestyle alternative that was very appealing.  Community, love, idealism.  They presented a picture of true happiness. Yet we learn from ex-members (who admittedly have their own biases) that this picture is false.  Or at least, only part of the picture.  What is left out is the fear and guilt and the loss of self.

What the “brainwashing” is all about, in my view, is grabbing you emotionally.  Giving you a good time, showing you others, like yourself, who are fulfilled.  People who, like you, were searching for answers to life’s basic questions and found them.  Why not stay a little longer, and learn a little more about them?  You don’t have to believe in the doctrine right away.  You can still think critically at the end of the weekend, when you make the decision to stay on for the 7-day seminar.  But you’ve begun to develop emotional ties that will keep you there.  To learn a little more.  Until they have finally socialized you into their way of life.  They grab you emotionally until they can keep you long enough to completely socialize you.

I am writing this article because I think it is important to understand what is going on.  I know that I didn’t understand, despite having done a lot of reading and talking to people about it.  I think it is because most of us have too many strong associations with the words “brainwashing” and “mind control.”  They seem so overt.  They’re not.  The process can be extremely subtle.  But because we have such strong associations, we do not recognize the process in its other manifestations.  I think that in part it is because it is so familiar.  It is something that happens everyday to every child that is born on this planet.  Society is possible only because socialization techniques are effective.  Socialization isn’t sinister.  The problem I see with the cults is the context.  As an anthropologist, I am aware of the existence of what we would term cults in other societies.  I think that cults have a greater and more damaging impact in our culture because we value the individual so highly.  From discussions with ex-members, it appears that one of the most negative effects of cult involvement is a loss of self.  Many other societies value the group over the individual.  Although I am not a psychiatrist, I would guess that it is not so damaging to the psyche to give up your individual identity to the group (the cult), if you have always been raised to value the group over the self.  But in our culture, where the opposite is true, this can be devastating to many individuals.

I think it was the contrast between my expectations and my experience that allowed the weekend to have such a strong emotional affect on me.  I was looking for something big and evil and what I found was very subtle and friendly, so I didn’t recognize its power.  I was also mistaken in believing  that the socialization process (or the influence process) was intellectual.  It’s not.  It’s emotional, and thus touches a deeper and more central part of one’s brain.  When I left at the end of the weekend, a friend who had been in the Moonies and worked for a while as a deprogrammer picked me up.  One of the first things I said to him was, “I had a great time.  Remind me again what’s so bad about the Moonies.”

The next day I was interviewing a former deprogrammer.  About half-way through the interview I asked her to describe exactly what she did during the deprogramming.  She looked me directly in the eye and said, “Exactly what I’ve been doing with you.”  This shocked me, because I didn’t think I needed any deprogramming.  I didn’t buy their doctrine.  They didn’t brainwash me.  But they did get to me.  I had forgotten all of the organization’s abuses of church members: the long hours of fund-raising, sometimes in dangerous areas, late at night; the lack of proper nutrition; the suicide training; the fear and guilt; the relative poverty the members live in, while the leaders live in splendor; the munitions factory owned by a church which is supposedly striving for world peace; the divisions created between family members; the deception; all of the horrors.  Part of me remembered them, because I remember asking questions about what exactly the church does to make the world better, knowing that most members spend them time selling flowers.  But that knowledge didn’t seem important.  The people seemed good, so by association, the group did too.  I had been influenced.  The emotional truth was so much stronger than the intellectual one that it was the only one that seemed important.

I have mixed feelings about the use of the term “brainwashing” with regard to cult indoctrination.  Because of the general effectiveness of the techniques in influencing a person’s thoughts and actions, I can understand the persistence of its use.  If someone like Patty Hearst is going to be defended on such a basis, it needs to be recognized as a powerful and legitimate technique (although degree of susceptibility will vary).  However, if the goal is to keep people out of cults, I am afraid the contrast between the stereotypic notion of brainwashing (which I don’t think we can escape) and the experience a new recruit has is to sharp, that people are disarmed and no longer aware of the techniques being used on them.  Instead, I would advocate seeing the brainwashing process in the context of socialization.  This is something with which we are all familiar and about which we hold few, if any, negative connotations.  At the same time, it is something that we are aware of the power of.  I would contend that the process of “brainwashing” can best be understood as an intensified socialization experience.  I may be quibbling over semantics, but given the fact that the words in question are so loaded, I feel that semantics are important here.  The Moonies take the raw material of our human needs – to be loved and to be accepted – and use the same techniques that for centuries cultures have used to shape individuals into members of the culture: peer pressure, reward and punishment, and the experience of being surrounded by individuals who all view the world in the same way.

My weekend with the Moonies was intended to answer some questions I had.  Instead, it raised many more.  The most solid thing I came away with, however, and my reason for writing this, is a new understanding of brainwashing.  If we are to avoid it, we must first learn to recognize it.

Geri-Ann Galanti, Ph.D., an anthropologist, did her dissertation at UCLA on the subject of psychic readers, about which she is writing a book, Beyond the Crystal Ball.  She is Principal Investigator for Urban Systems Research and is currently studying deprogramming and rehabilitation.  She also teaches medical anthropology for the consortium of California State Universities.