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Creativity and Cults

Creativity and Cults from Sociological and Communication Perspectives: The Processes Involved in the Birth of a Secret Creative Self 

Miriam Williams Boeri, Ph.D.

Kennesaw State University

Karen Pressley

Kennesaw State University


We employ three interrelated concepts drawn from sociology and communication theories to explore the processes involved in the birth of a secret creative self: a symbolic interactionist understanding of self, a cultural-studies understanding of power relations, and a sociological understanding of cults as total institutions. We start with the assumption that all individuals develop a creative self that expresses itself in varying degrees, dependent on different social environments. We posit that individual creativity is suppressed in cult environments, and that power dynamics that result in extreme suppression can also stimulate individuals to birth a secret creative self. As case studies supporting our hypotheses, we used our own experiences as members of two different cults: the Children of God and the Church of Scientology. We suggest that after one leaves a cult, a secret creative self (sCS) may develop into a strong creative self (SCS) that is more resistant to power dynamics outside the cult. Our findings suggest that the birth (and life) of a secret creative self in a suppressive environment such as a cult may result in a strong creative self when the individual is free of the suppression.


The authors of this paper are former members of two different cults: the Children of God and the Church of Scientology. Using theories and concepts drawn from social sciences (sociology and communication), we use our own life experiences in this paper to show how suppressive environments of cults as total institutions—defined as places (e.g., prisons, asylums, boarding schools) where people are physically isolated from normal activities by being bureaucratically processed and required to sleep, work, and play within the confines of the same institution (Goffman, 1961)—may be fertile ground for birthing a secret creative self. Although a person may have been creative prior to the cult experience, this paper does not address the existence of a creative self in circumstances that may occur prior to a person’s involvement in a cult. We examine the effects of power dynamics, cult hegemony, the lack of a cult member’s self-sovereignty, and the charismatic leader’s power to label the member as noncreative or to diminish the member’s creative abilities as contributing factors that may cause a secret creative self to birth and develop within the cult. Moreover, through the case studies in this paper, we show how the secret creative self has the potential to develop into a strong creative self that is more resistant to power dynamics in post-cult social environments. We employ several interrelated concepts drawn from sociology and communication perspectives to explain the processes involved in the birthing and development of a secret creative self in a cult, and the hegemony and power dynamics between cult leaders and members.

We have used the development of self as proposed in symbolic interactionist (SI) theory (Blumer, 1969; Cooley, 1902; James, 1950; Mead, 1934) to explain how a secret creative self may develop in an oppressive social environment. Sociologists and communication scholars of SI theory view the self as a socially constructed concept. The SI theory posits that we form a sense of self through our interaction with others and the meanings we attach to symbols (e.g., symbols as words, such as “creative,” or “uncreative”) (Berger and Luckmann, 1996; Blumer, 1969; Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934). Thus, the self is not innate or an individual attribute, but rather an individual concept that is formed in relation to our social environment. Moreover, the formation of a sense of self is influenced by power dynamics present in the social environment (Goffman, 1959, 1961; Lacan, 1977).

Communication perspectives employ concepts drawn from critical theory and cultural studies that focus on power hierarchies in society, the processes used by those who hold power, called the “power elite” (Hall, 1997; Foucault, 1980; Mills, 1968), the power hierarchies of total institutions (Goffman, 1961), hegemony, and meanings provided by those in power. These theories and concepts share origination in diverse disciplines, most notably sociology.

According to a basic dictionary definition, creative means “having the quality or power of creating,” while creativity means “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination” ( Building on the power aspect of this definition, we define creativity as a free expression of thought (i.e., feelings, emotions, and/or philosophies) that originates from the freedom to think with minimal restraints from the social environment. Complete freedom of thought is nearly impossible, so it is more useful to think of creativity along a continuum of power dynamics, from complete freedom of thought in an unconstrained environment on one end to total restriction of thought within a cultic milieu. Csikszentmihalyi (1996), who identifies the components of creativity to include domains, fields, and persons, supports this idea. A domain is “a set of symbolic rules and procedures,” such as writing. Csikszentmihalyi’s summary supports our concept of the creative self:

Creativity occurs when a person, using the symbols of a given domain such as music, business, math … has a new idea or sees a new pattern, and when this novelty is selected by the appropriate field for inclusion into the relevant domain. (p. 28)

Creativity, then, is partially dependent on recognition of and acceptance by those who assign value to one’s creativity. We posit that a healthy unsuppressed creative self is a self developed when the social environment fosters the belief that one is creative and allows expression of this creativity to others. We ask, “What occurs when an individual is powerless to create or to express creativity?” We aim to examine the process of creativity within a social environment that suppresses creative thought and expression. In this paper, our focus is specifically on the aspects of power and the birth of a secret creative self in cults.

Throughout this paper we are referring to the secret creative self and not a sense of creativity that, for example, may exist in children who engage in any social interaction unless that creativity is severely suppressed. First, we explain the SI understanding of self. Next, we discuss how the power relationships one finds in cults suppress the expression of creativity among members. Unless encouraged by those in power, a creative self may be forced to form as a secret creative self while the individual is in the cult environment. However, after one leaves the cult environment, the secret creative self can emerge and develop into a strong creative self that is better able to resist power dynamics and suppression of creativity. Hereafter, we use acronyms for secret creative self and strong creative self. The acronym for creative self is CRS, so we use the acronym sCS, with the secret represented by a lowercase letter, to denote secret creative self, and the acronym SCS, in all uppercase letters, to denote strong creative self, to distinguish between the two.

Drawing from our own experiences, we explore the birth of an sCS in two distinct cult environments and the emergence and eventual expressions of an SCS when it is no longer suppressed in the cult environment. We also propose a model of the process by which cult members protect their sCSs. Our hegemonic communication model (HCM) of power dynamics in total institutions that affect creativity shows that:
Leaders encode meanings (such as label a member noncreative) to perpetuate the hegemony of the cult power elite;
Cult members decode (exert mental effort to interpret the “noncreative” label) meanings from leaders;
Members process thought by choosing a route of response (use peripheral route for accepting leader’s label, or use central route for “negotiating” by staying in group while hiding objections, or for rebelling); and
Members suppress or enable their sCSs, depending on how they manage sovereignty in their lives (applying the central route with free thought and rejecting leader’s label through rebellion).


Our synthesis of the sociological theories on symbolic interactionism and the development of self (Blumer, 1969; Cooley, 1902; James, 1950; Mead, 1934) with communication and cultural theories (Gramsci, 1935, 1971; Hall, 1997; Petty & Cacciopo, 1986) supports our development of the secret creative self (see Figure 1) and the Hegemonic Communication Model (HCM) that illustrates how the power dynamics in total institutions (Goffman, 1961) affect creativity (as shown in Figure 2). We explore these theoretical concepts and terms are explored in more detail here in the background literature.

Symbolic Interactionism Theory and the Development of Self

Cooley (1902), who was interested in the processes involved in developing a sense of self, proposed a reflexive action he called “the looking-glass self.” The process starts with how I imagine my appearance (self) in the eyes of others, followed by my perception of how others evaluate me in a situation, and ends in my reaction to this perception. The collection of perceptions the individual gathers from others and the individual’s reaction to these perceptions form a sense of self. William James (1950) was the first to conceptually separate the self and examine its two components. James saw the I as the knower, the subject, and the process, and the me as the known, the object, and the result of completed action. The I is sometimes referred to as the creative self and the me is the self-concept formed by how one sees oneself through the eyes of others (Blumer, 1969). We propose that it is at this critical point, when the individual reacts to his or her perception of others’ evaluations, that the birth of an sCS within a suppressive environment may occur. Although this also may occur in other situations, here we are referring only to social situations in which those in power suppress the creativity of others, such as in cults. We base this suggestion on Cooley’s proposition that we are not born with a sense of self, but only with a sense for self-aggrandizement, which he describes as “…persistent but plastic; it will never disappear from a vigorous mind, but may become morally higher by attaching itself to a larger conception of what constitutes the self” (p. 256).

Building on Cooley’s foundation of a basic instinct for self-aggrandizement, Mead (1934) described how the social environment shapes the self. Mead proposed a process of self-reflection, in which individuals take the role of the other and imagine how they look to another person. Individuals understand their world as interpreted by their culture, which Mead called the “generalized other.” The shared meanings of culture (the “generalized other”) shape an individual’s sense of self. Just as the “generalized other” expands as one has more contact with others, our sense of self also expands as we encounter a variety of social influences.

The process of expanding a sense of self is enabled (or hindered) by our social environment. The enormous influence of the social environment is depicted in Goffman’s theory on “the presentation of self” (1959). Here we see how individuals strive to present a self in front of others that is largely based on their understanding of the “generalized other” (Mead, 1934) and how they perceive others to see them, or the “looking-glass self” (Cooley, 1902). Later theorists combined the conceptual work of these earlier theorists into what we know today as the SI theory, which many disciplinary perspectives use (Blumer, 1969).

Power hierarchies, as explained by conflict theory, develop in society to ensure that some individuals and groups (usually those holding power) benefit at the expense of others. This process includes the power to define what is right and wrong, good and bad, legal and illegal (Goode, 2001). Here we focus on one aspect of power hierarchies—the power to name what is creative. What does it mean to have the power to name? Charmaz (2006) writes a provocative article on the power dynamics involved in naming that we can apply to the process of naming creativity:

As symbolic interactionists have long argued, names classify objects and events and convey meanings and distinctions. Names carry weight, whether light or heavy. Names provide ways of knowing—and being. Names construct and reify human bonds and social divisions. We attach value to some names and dismiss others. Much of sociology addresses relative power differentials between individuals or groups to make a name stick—or to resist the name with its attendant categorization, values, implicit or explicit directives, and implications for subsequent life. (p. 396)

The process of labeling as developed by Becker (1963) provides insights into why the power to name is crucial to our discussion of creativity in the context of cults as total institutions. Becker combined Goffman’s (1961) understanding of power dynamics and Lemert’s (1951) labeling theory to propose a theory of deviance that offers a logical explanation for why people deviate from the norms of society. In Becker’s theory of deviance, the actual act of deviance is unimportant; rather, the key to understanding what is called deviant is the rule-breaking behavior that causes persons in positions of power to label the behavior deviant.

Mills (1956) called those who have this power in society the “power elite.” The power elite in a group, institution, or society hold the power to label an act as deviant and the individual as a deviant. As the power elite change, so does deviant behavior vary across time, social situations, and place. If we substitute the concept of deviance with the concept of creativity, we can visualize the same process. It is not the creative product that is important, nor the creative individual, since those in power label creativity. How one sees oneself in the “looking-glass” eyes of others, how influenced one is by the meanings ascribed by the “generalized other,” and how one interprets and internalizes those meanings are what allow a creative self to develop further. Those with the power to name creativity also have the power to label a person creative, or, more importantly, noncreative.

In summary, SI theory explains the process of how the creative self (the I) is born or developed in every individual, when viewed in reaction to the “generalized other.” What we are adding to this explanation is the effect of a highly suppressive social environment, or the effect of power dynamics, on the development of the I and the me. Typically, we propose, the creative self can exist as an I in harmony with the more public me. However, suppressive environments such as cult environments force the I to be subservient to the me, which for a cult member is the “generalized other” of the cult. In a cult, the me overcomes the I and, we propose, the I may become ignored and obscured. Previously we mentioned that the I is often called the creative self. If others—usually the leader—do not identify a cult member as creative, the member cannot continue to have a creative self without birthing an sCS. Cultural studies theory helps explain why leaders in cults have this power and why members may follow without question.

Communication Theories and the Making of Meanings

Cultural studies theorists such as Stuart Hall and Douglas Kellner, like critical theorists Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, are concerned with the generation and circulation of meanings in industrial societies. Hall (1997) proposes that communication scholarship should examine power relations and social structures because it is futile to talk about meaning of words (e.g., self) without considering power at the same time. From a cultural-studies perspective, the ultimate issue is not what information is presented, but whose meaning it is. Critical theorists concern themselves with forms of authority and power dynamics in groups, and the role of the power elite in dulling group members’ sensitivity to repression. They examine power imbalances between leaders and members, and challenge the power elite’s control of language to perpetuate these imbalances while followers maintain an uncritical acceptance of meanings (Griffin, 2006).

We can understand the communication of the power elite (Mills, 1956) over a group through cultural hegemony (Gramsci, 1935, 1971; Hall, 1996). In this paper, we use the definition of hegemony, “preponderant influence or authority over others; domination; the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group.” Critical theorists extend the meaning of hegemony to include the whole lived system of ideas and beliefs, practically organized by the specific and dominant meanings imposed by those in power (Berlin, 1988; Berger, 1995). Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony explains the domination and maintenance of power (e.g., coercion from leaders and consent granted by members) (1935, 1971). The power elite persuade the subordinated group members to accept and adopt the imposed external values, so that they come to see the ideas of the power elite as the norm, the universal ideologies that benefit everyone. Hall (1997) and Foucault (1980) analyzed how the power elite portray their worldview as favorable to maintain their status quo and how they generate meanings to groups who serve the power elite. Foucault (1980) proposes that meaning is constructed within power dynamics:

Meaning … is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true, the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned … the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. (p. 131)

The power elite influence a sense of self by holding the power to define the meaning attached to symbols. Power entitles them to draw arbitrary lines between these labels, and these distinctions have real physical effects on group members. The right or power to make meaning can literally be the power to make others crazy (Foucault, 1980). People with power in total institutions name the normal and the abnormal, the creative and the noncreative.

Cults As Total Institutions

We see cults as total institutional settings in which people are isolated from the larger society under the strict control and constant supervision of a specialist staff, such as that which exists in prison or asylum environments (Goffman, 1961). A total institution regulates every aspect of its members’ lives, and isolates them from the outside world. In a total institution, power resides solely among the leadership. In total institutions known as cults, power and sovereignty reside exclusively with the charismatic leader who started the cult, and with the most devoted and loyal followers who will not question their leader’s views. The goal of a totalitarian institution is to provide individuals with a context for deep reconstruction of their identities, which is the resocialization process cult members experience (Boeri, 2005; Lofland, 1977; Singer, 1995).

This paper does not address how a person becomes part of a cult, since an individual may be coerced or threatened to join, recruited through deceptive promises, or may join by free choice. Once a member, however, the individual will discover the hegemony and ideology of the cult and one’s place within the cult’s power dynamics, where the leader uses various tactics to achieve ascendency in both the thought and practice of members. According to Elshtain (2008), “The cult offers a total meaning system with no grounds for disputation or interpretation” (p. 18). Transference of sovereignty from self to cult leader underpins the bedrock upon which cults are sustained. In a cult environment, members form a sense of self based on how they decode the meanings encoded by their leaders. Cult members, for example, relinquish sovereignty over their selves, as well as their creativity, and transfer the power to name these entities to the cult leader. Sovereignty empowers the cult leader to name/label characteristics of members, such as creative or noncreative. We discuss sovereignty more fully below; here we show that sovereignty is conceptually linked to the assumption that cults are total institutions.

Process of Creativity Suppression in a Cult Environment

Whereas it appears impossible for a creative self to flourish in a cultic milieu, this environment may provide some individuals with the opportunity to develop a creative self within the cult’s “generalized other” meaning system. We propose here that the creative self (the I) becomes obscured by the me, but an sCS can also be born in this situation. Such an outcome is dependent on how an individual reacts to the perceptions of others (Cooley, 1902).

Lalich (2004) describes the power dynamics in cults as a “self-sealing system” that works by “a narrow realm of constraint and control” (p. 15). Cult members relinquish to cult leaders most choices that people living in democratic societies consider fundamental human rights—choices such as what to eat, what to wear, where to live, employment options, whether to marry, whom to marry, whether to have children, and how many. Additionally, the cult leaders define what and who is creative. The expression of any thought—be it through song, painting, story, or other craft—is generally discouraged, unless that expression enhances thoughts the leaders (the power elite) have already expressed. Original personal thoughts contrary to the cult’s meaning system are forbidden, and the expression of such private thoughts cannot become public. For example, musicians and songwriters are encouraged to compose music for their leaders’ lyrics; writers are required to craft stories that express the worldviews of those in power. This power dynamic in the cultic milieu supports the cult’s hegemony, and inhibits any questioning of the leader’s naming of creativity. Cult members keep busy criticizing themselves for shortcomings, consumed by working harder to achieve the group’s goals. The members’ commitment to the group’s cause supersedes creative freedom and holds in place their self-denial, exhaustion, and guilt (Lalich, 2004). Lalich’s work supports our claim that the cult members’ transference of sovereignty from self to leadership underpins the bedrock upon which cults are sustained.

The Conceptual Models

In this section we present two conceptual models that illustrate the birth of an sCS in a cult environment and the emergence of an SCS outside the cult. This process is explained by symbolic interaction theories on the self and communication theories on decoding processes. Through these models we show how the power dynamics found in cult environments affect creativity.

The Birth of an sCS

Based on the process involved in developing a self (both the I and the me), and the assumption that creativity is a free expression of thought that originates from the freedom to think with minimal restraints from the social environment, we can easily assume that the creative self is suppressed in a cult. Using an SI understanding of self, as explained above, we posit that a creative self is formed by the interaction between the individual who expresses creative thoughts through an empirical object (symbol—e.g., a composition) and the individual’s understanding of the meanings attached to the object created—meanings based on others’ reactions to the creative expressions. This combination typically results in a self composed of the creative self (the I) and the self-concept (the me), as Figure 1 depicts. Thus, in a social environment with freedom of expression, the I (creative self) and the me (objective self-concept) are separate. We propose that in a cult environment, the creative self is consumed by the me that is developed by the “generalized other” of the cult. The I of precult existence no longer exists. Any remaining creative I is suppressed and obscured; it never develops further in the cult and becomes weaker. The result is an ignored or obscured creative self. As Figure 1 shows, informed by SI, a self is a dynamic relationship between the individual and the “generalized other” in the social environment. The figure shows how the process of obscuring the creative self occurs in a cult environment. We suggest that the birth of an sCS is another option beyond the total obscuring of the creative self. The birth of an sCS allows the creative self to develop separately from the “generalized other” of the cult, to remain immune to the power elite’s interpreted meaning, and to eventually emerge from the cult as a stronger and more developed creative self (SCS).

As we explained earlier, the self cannot exist without feedback from others in our social environment. In a cult, the leader labels members creative or noncreative. Members who do not express creative thoughts are unlikely to be labeled noncreative. Therefore, an individual who suppresses creative thoughts will unlikely be labeled noncreative. However, we propose that the individuals who suppress creativity will eventually stop creating. In these cases, the creative self is obscured. In contrast, some individuals in total institutions such as cults continue to think creative thoughts but do not express them to the cult leaders. Without expression, their creative thoughts are not labeled; so these individuals are free to develop creative thoughts in secret. For them, the interpretation of others’ reaction to their creative expressions is a secret interpretation. For example, a cult member might express the thought or show the symbolic expression of a thought (e.g. a song, story, drawing) only to a trusted cult member or to an outsider who shows appreciation. In these cases, a creative self may have to be nurtured in secret by some cult members who do not want to expose their tangible expressions of creativity to the judgment of cult leaders. This process leads to the birth of an sCS. When the sCS is freed from the constraint the total institution imposes, it develops into an SCS. We next turn to the process by which an sCS develops and grows.

The HCM of Power Dynamics in Cults As Total Institutions That Affect Creativity

Our HCM posits three processes within a cultic milieu: 1) how cult leaders encode symbols (perceptions, judgments, naming, and orders) to achieve ascendency in thought and practice over members; 2) how cult members decode (interpret) meanings from leaders through a route of response; and 3) under what conditions an sCS may birth (see Figure 2). The HCM synthesizes elements of various communication and sociology theories, including the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) that mass communication researchers Petty and Cacioppo (1986) developed; cultural studies’ hegemonic encoding and decoding theory (Hall, 1997); an SI understanding of self, with the addition of our idea of how the creative self (I) is obscured by the “generalized other”; and critical theory on hegemony, power dynamics, and sovereignty (Mills, 1956; Foucault, 1982; Hall, 1997; Elshtain, 2008; Gramsci, 1935, 1971; Lifton, 1982; Lalich, 2004).

Petty and Cacioppo (1986) developed the ELM as a result of testing reactions of subjects to persuasive communications, and of reporting how subjects process thought depending on the strength of a message and the credibility of the source of the message. The results varied depending on which of two cognitive processes, or mental routes to attitude change, a listener chose to use: the peripheral route or the central route. The peripheral route is the “shorthand” way to accept or reject a message; it requires little to no analytical thinking and so is used mostly for an automatic response. The central route requires elaboration (the degree to which a person thinks about issue-relevant arguments contained in a message) and triggers opinions and emotional response that require analysis of ideas. The peripheral and central routes are not mutually exclusive; they are better understood as poles on a continuum that shows the degree of mental effort a person exerts when interpreting a message. These two routes of processing thought serve as the core elements of the ELM, and as core elements of our HCM. Within the hegemony of a cultic milieu, a cult leader uses strong messages encoded with hegemonic meaning when issuing orders or communicating to members. Our HCM shows this flow of communication from the cult leader down to the member. Once the member hears the leader’s message, the individual uses either the peripheral or central route to process thought. In addition, our HCM shows that cult members will do more than use these two routes to process thought; they also must decode or interpret the message, which then results in some type of response through an outcome or action.

Hall’s (1997) theory of hegemonic decoding options the powerless use in resisting dominant ideology supports our idea that a cult member will process thought through the peripheral route with hegemonic decoding, or through the central route and decode the message through one of two methods: negotiable decoding or free decoding. Therefore, our HCM expands on the ELM by adding the negotiable decoding and free decoding options to the central route of processing thought. For example, we illustrate in our case studies that a cult member will, at times, accept a leader’s labeling without question (i.e., uses the peripheral route with hegemonic decoding); for example, a cult leader labels a member noncreative, which the member may, at first, accept without question. This example illustrates the member exerting no mental effort to disagree with or reject the label. The member operates inside the dominant code; her thought conforms to the group’s ideologies and coincides with the leader’s preferred response. This response indicates that the I is obscured by or subservient to me. Later, however, when the cult member shares a creative expression with someone else who calls the member creative, this response encourages the member’s belief that she is creative, which may fortify the creative self and validate the I, which had been obscured. It is also here that the sCS may birth, providing the creative self with a means to survive, but remain hidden because of the suppressive “generalized other” in the cult. The next time the cult leader names the member’s creation as uncreative or the member noncreative, the member no longer unquestionably accepts this, and switches to the central route of processing. This occurs because the self has experienced some restoration, so the individual is able to oppose the leader to some degree, but hides the thought. Here the member uses the “negotiable” option of decoding in the central route. As the member accumulates more judgments or labeling from the cult leader, the member builds up disagreements; these disagreements are signs of critical-thinking skills and thought that is becoming freer. This outcome also shows that the member is reclaiming some self-sovereignty from the leader, which reduces the amount of consent the leader usually gets, and weakens the hegemony of the group. Eventually, the member may decide to leave the group to fully express her creative abilities. Here she uses the “free thought” option of decoding under the central route.

The broken-line boxes in Figure 2 show the degrees of mental effort the cult member exerts in response to the cult leader’s message. If the cult member as a creator has not assigned total sovereignty to the leader, the creator will use the central route of thinking to respond to the leader’s labeling. If the creator relates to what the leader says but opposes some part of it, then the creator will apply a negotiable decoding. This slight opposition protects the creator’s creative self (I), which is struggling to be expressed (indicated in the associated balloons as outcomes of his thinking.). However, the creator keeps this creative urge hidden as a default to the sCS, while appearing to comply with and obey the leader and accept his labeling, so as to not lose position in the group. The creator will be able to apply free decoding if he has managed to sustain freedom of thought and critical-thinking skills in the cult environment, and is able to see through the leader’s bias and what risk it poses to the self. Using free decoding, the creator may reject the leader’s labeling, organize efforts to raise awareness of others about group hegemony, and may even risk loss of group membership in order to birth and preserve the emergence of an sCS.

The Role of Sovereignty in Cults as Total Institutions

We posit that cults form power hierarchies that model the domination/subordination dynamic central to total institutions. Through hierarchies, the leaders establish conditions that are incompatible with cult members’ ability to be sovereign over their creative selves. The group’s conditions require that the cult members relinquish personal sovereignty to the leader. We can further understand personal relinquishment of self-sovereignty through Weber’s (1947) description of the relationship between a charismatic leader who possesses sanctified authority and his followers. Weber represents charismatic authority with the idea that it rests on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by that person. The leader’s superhuman or supernatural endowment of wisdom or power is legitimized by the followers’ recognition of this authority as a duty. Weber specifies that the duty is for those who are chosen, by virtue of this call and of its confirmation, to recognize this quality. Their recognition stems from faith, born from their enthusiasm or through necessity and their hope in the leader. Through transfer of sovereignty over one’s life from self to one’s leader, the leader becomes the sovereign arbiter over the members, defining and interpreting the meaning of every aspect of their cult lives.

Mannheim (1936) offers an important insight into ideological belief tied to group membership and the interplay of sovereignty between the charismatic leader and her followers:

The derivation of our meanings, whether they be true or false, plays an indispensable role. We belong to a group … primarily because we see the world and certain things in the world the way it does (i.e., in terms of the means of the group). In every concept, in every concrete meaning, there is contained a crystallization of the experiences of a group. (pp. 21–22)

Crystallization of the group experiences defines the group members’ identification with the leaders (Berger, 1995). A total institution such as a cult uses autocracy and the power of labeling to identify its members, in contrast to a democracy, which invites collaborative dialogue. Here we see the institutionalization of cult members who have no voice; orders and group policy dictate thought and behavior, with no room for original thought or creativity. The development of a creative self within such a highly structured environment is suppressed by the leader of the group, since only those who hold the power to name can call an expression creative.

Case Studies

In this paper we propose two hypotheses: (1) Suppressive environments of total institutions such as cults may be fertile ground for the birth of an sCS; and (2) Former members of cults may develop an SCS that is more resistant to the power dynamics in their new social environments. We use two case studies to illustrate the conceptual models described above.

The Children of God

The Children of God (COG), later known as The Family of Love, The Family, and The Family International, (hereafter referred to as the COG), began as a religious fundamentalist group intent on following biblical principles. However, its membership drew primarily from the young idealistic hippies and ex-drug addicts who emerged on the historical American landscape during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The COG was started and led by a former evangelical minister, David Berg, who became known among his followers as Moses David (“Mo”). As membership grew and COG communes spread throughout the United States and then worldwide, Berg communicated with members through writings called the “Mo Letters.” Berg was the absolute power figure in the COG (Kent, 1994), and his writings guided the changes in the group from a typical sixties-style hippie commune in the 1960s to the controversial group of the 1980s. He appointed faithful leadership to oversee his burgeoning flock after the group continued to grow and start communal compounds, known as colonies, in nearly every country in the world. If any leaders disobeyed his command, they were quickly demoted or expelled from the group. During his 30-year reign, Berg’s own adult children were demoted from leadership and left the COG. After his death in 1994, his mistress, Maria, took control of the group and continued writing the “prophecies” she received from Berg.

As a leader with total authority, Berg was the only one who could name what was creative and what was not, and he did this often through his Mo letters, in ostentatious style. If a member was deemed creative, he or she held a special position in the group’s hierarchy, which often included living in a separate residence from the larger communal homes and enjoying ample funding from COG headquarters. The source of funding meant the members living there were freed from the time-consuming and often exhausting endeavor of garnering funds for the group through selling literature on the streets (called “litnessing”), singing in restaurants and subways (called “busking”), and selling their bodies for profit (called “flirty fishing”). These activities are well described in the literature and we will not examine them further here (see Ajemian, 2005; Bainbridge, 2002; Boeri, 2005; Chancellor, 2000; Van Zandt, 1991).

Examples of the COG colonies created primarily for those labeled as creative members include the “show” home in Paris during the mid-1970s, the “Music with Meaning” camp in Greece during the early 1980s, and the various production colonies devoted to illustrating and producing the Mo letters and other Berg-approved publications for worldwide member consumption and distribution. One of the first music colonies separated from other homes solely for creative purposes was the Boston colony started with funds from a record deal with a major recording company, acquired largely on the popularity of Jeremy Spencer, the Fleetwood Mac guitarist who had left the band abruptly to join the COG a few years earlier. The colony was composed of all the band members, their wives and children, a “roadie,” and the requisite leader selected by and reporting to Berg and his close-knit top leadership. The first author (hereafter referred to in first person in this section of the paper) lived in that home.

Like everything else that happened to me at that time (barely a year after I joined the COG), I believed my presence in the home was an act of God. The leaders preferred that the band members be married since they would be separated from other colonies indefinitely, and Berg did not think men should go too long without sex. In those early days, “sexual sharing” outside marriage was reserved for top leaders. All the members in Jeremy’s band were married except the drummer, who had been in the COG for a number of years and merited a wife (called a “mate”). The drummer let his leaders know he wanted to marry me, and within a few weeks we were mated—the COG equivalence of marriage. I did not mind helping in God’s plan. I was soon living in one of the few COG colonies designed to encourage, motivate, and allow free time for its members to be creative—in this case, produce a music album (see Williams, 1998, for detailed description of the musician colony and its members). However, I was not labeled creative and certainly not authorized to be creative. Instead, I helped by doing most of the household chores. I had no input on any music or any part of the creative process. Even my work in the kitchen was guided by detailed instructions on every step of food preparation, and my responsibilities helping the band wives who were mothers were directed by the latest COG literature on childcare. Absolutely no creative self was allowed to develop in my life. But I soon learned that those labeled creative could just as quickly lose that label. Berg did not like the music the band produced, and he would not acknowledge the album, called “Jeremy and the Children,” as a creative work. Before it was even released, Berg issued a private letter reprimanding the entire band for being unspiritual and immediately dismantled the colony. The leaders sent the band members to various homes in the COG’s emerging missionary fields in Europe. I went to Germany with my husband the drummer. After a few months, my husband was suddenly asked to join some of his band friends in Paris, France, and I joined him a few months later.

The colony in Paris was not as well run as the one in Germany, but the chaos and confusion allowed us the freedom to experience a city known for its creative inspiration. We lived in a converted horse stable near the Porte de Pantin Metro stop. Everyday I rode the metro with a fellow member to Saint Michelle or Saint Germain des-Prés, two Parisian environments that inspired some of the most creative individuals of our century. If I absorbed anything from my many hours walking these streets litnessing and asking for donations (this time in French), I was never allowed to express it. It was not until years later, when I was chosen to be a “dancer” in the Paris show group, a musical entertainment troupe that brought fame and money to the COG (called Les Enfants de Dieu in France), that my creativity was allowed to be expressed.

As a dancer in the show group, a position I obtained mainly because of my status as the drummer’s wife, I often traveled and performed in shows all over France and the French-speaking neighboring countries. When I was at my home colony in Paris, I asked to work in childcare so I could be near my son, who lived in the COG school. By this time, sexual sharing among leaders was expanding to include selected members from the general COG population; and through my intimate relationship with a top leader, I was granted permission to work in childcare. The school leaders did not know what to do with me, and I spent much of my time designing mobile educational kits for our missionaries to use while they traveled with children. My creative self was beginning to be expressed. Empowered by my newly acquired relative freedom and expression of creativity, I attempted to write children’s stories based on the Mo letters. My pre-COG fascination with fairy tales resulted in a story about a beaver looking for a name, using lessons from a Mo letter extolling the virtues of moderation. I sent the story to the COG production colony, a publication conglomerate run by COG members in a secret location. The editors of the childcare literature were so thrilled to see a children’s story written by a COG member that incorporated Berg’s teachings that they decided to publish the story with illustrations. They sent the completed large-size coloring book of the story to Berg for his approval. I had no idea of their intentions until I was called into a room by a leader in my colony in Paris. He asked my husband to read me a new Mo letter that Berg sent to all COG members. The letter, called “The Uneager Beaver” was about the children’s story I had written. Berg hated the story and demoted the editors who had authorized the story to be made into a children’s coloring book. Moreover, he berated me and accused me of being noncreative and plagiarizing something I must have read before joining the COG. I was not allowed to write, work with children, or create anything in the future. He would have taken away my role as a dancer in the show group except that he knew our financial backers might not agree. But he insisted I spend every free minute reading his words only and distributing his words on the streets. I never attempted to express my creative thoughts to any COG members again. But I realized that someone (one of the editors) had liked my story, and despite my years of COG indoctrination that Berg was the voice of God, I doubted Berg was right in his assessment. My rejection of Berg’s interpretation allowed an sCS to be birthed and expressed in creative works that I expressed only to individuals outside the COG.

The first step I took after the birth of my sCS was to refuse to internalize the reaction of others to my creative expressions. No member of the COG dared to challenge Berg’s assessment of my (un)creative writing, but I decided that their approval was not needed for my sCS. I was a creative writer despite what Berg (the most powerful force in my life at that time) or my fellow COG members (my only “generalized other” at that time) thought of my attempts to express myself. I continued to write, but only for a select audience. The expression of my creative self became verse I wrote and gave to men in my role as a “flirty fish,” the COG version of an “escort.”

Years after the Parisian incident, I was living in Monte Carlo. Berg had resurrected the ancient religious tradition of sacred prostitution to help fund his growing organization. The pretense for raising money through sex was to witness to men who would not hear the COG version of Christian salvation through any other means. My geographic position in Monte Carlo made this charade rather believable, since the men I witnessed to were typically of Islamic religious background or held Western agnostic/atheist positions. It was these men who were the recipients of my creative verse designed to reveal the reasons for and process of salvation, which I considered a less obtuse mode of communication than the Mo letters. I was allowed this freedom only because no one knew I was doing it except for the men, who rarely met other members of the COG. The fact that I allowed myself to do this indicated that my sCS had found a symbolic outlet. However, once again, the outlet was closed by the power elite who existed in my limited world. Whether Berg or other leaders discovered that I was distributing my words instead of the Mo letters, or there was a sudden renewed focus on Mo letter distribution to the public, I do not know. I do know that I was singled out for my lack of spiritual insight, and our colony in Monte Carlo was instructed to distribute only the most recent Mo letters meant for the public to all our contacts. As a result of this distribution of what was considered subversive literature in Monte Carlo, within a few weeks we were banned from the principality by Monaco officials and risked being deported from France.

Berg’s writings (the Mo letters) were subversive to anyone not indoctrinated by the COG. I was told as much by the Interpol police. However, COG leadership was not prepared for this reaction to their leader’s words; and in their attempts to move their own leadership away from the increased public attention on Berg’s controversial literature, I was forgotten. Under this temporary lack of leadership, I moved to Italy without any COG members to live with a potential new member (called a “fish”). The other members of the Monte Carlo home joined an existing COG colony in Greece. My time away from the constant and authoritarian supervision of COG leadership eventually led to my departure from the COG.

An SCS emerged soon after I left the COG. I wrote incessantly. Moreover, I appeared only mildly affected by the opinions of others on my writing. I was untrained, relatively uneducated, limited in my command of my native language, and knew very little Italian. Yet, I submitted letters and opinion pieces that were published in local Italian newspapers, and also in local newspapers when I returned to the United States. By the time I returned to college, I noticed that the opinion of those in power (professors) did not appear to affect me as much as they did many of my colleagues. In one example, my undergraduate journalism professor asserted the opinion piece I wrote in his class was not publishable. In spite of his assessment, I submitted it and it was published in a local paper. Likewise, my first proposal for a book was accepted, and I had a published book when I entered graduate school to complete a PhD program. Although I do not delight in criticism, which I often receive, I find myself more resilient to its negative and suppressive effects on my creative self than the effect I observed on many of my colleagues. I attribute this resilience to the birth of my sCS in the cult and to the development of an SCS after I left.

The Church of Scientology

The second author of this paper discusses her initial attraction to Scientology—the aspect of Scientology doctrine that describes the artist’s role in spearheading a peaceful revolution to change the world—which led to sixteen years of experience as a follower and as management staff. She worked at Scientology’s Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, California for three years, then at the Church of Scientology’s International (CSI) management leadership base near Palm Springs, California for nine years, until she “escaped” in 1998. (Hereafter, she writes in first person for this section of the paper.)

My husband and I moved to Hollywood in 1980 to advance our careers, mine as a fashion designer, Peter’s as a musician and composer. I designed stage clothes for a growing clientele of actors and entertainers, some whom I met through my husband. We had achieved some success by 1982 with our hit song, “On the Wings of Love,” and I started a music publishing company to house my husband’s compositions. We possessed self-confidence as creative artists, but found the high level of competition in Hollywood somewhat intimidating.

Peter’s job playing keyboards for Cher’s band, Black Rose, drew us into recording studios and night clubs where we met Scientologists who told us about the Celebrity Centre in Hollywood. We soon began to attend Celebrity Centre International (CCI), where artists of all professional levels congregated. CCI reached out to us as creative people by offering spiritual advancement through the idea that spiritual authority resides within the self, and that we could unblock our own creativity through Scientology processes. We found this idea of building self-sovereignty to be strongly appealing, in a similar way to that which Elshtain describes (2008). Hubbard’s philosophy of the artist’s role elevates artists to a higher realm of abilities where they can change the world in ways no one else can. As a person whose life passion was creative expression, especially designing and writing, I was lured by Hubbard’s description (2001) of the artist’s role in society:

The artist has an enormous role in the enhancement of today’s and the creation of tomorrow’s reality. He operates in a rank in advance of science as to the necessities and requirements of man. The elevation of a culture can be measured directly by the numbers of its people working in the field of aesthetics. Because the artist deals in future realities, he always seeks improvements or changes in the existing reality. This makes the artist, inevitably and invariably, a rebel against the status quo. The artist, day by day, by postulating the new realities of the future, accomplishes peaceful revolution ... The artist injects theta (spirit of life) into the culture, and without that theta, the culture becomes reactive. (pp. 482–483)

CCI offers an alluring system comprising hierarchies, labels, and identities that reflect spiritual progress and measure power and control. Scientology’s focus on becoming super-literate was a significant attraction for me because I have always loved education and dreamed of finishing college to eventually teach. When I read Hubbard’s view that the real barbarism of Earth is stupidity, and that knowledge of self brings responsibility and control, I believed I could flourish in the Scientology environment. I learned Scientology’s pattern for the life cycle—create, survive, destroy—and immersed myself in creating and surviving across all eight dynamics (compartments) of my life (self, sex and family, groups, mankind, nonliving and living things, spirituality, and the [undefined] supreme being). I found that Scientology “technology” demands an all-or-nothing lifestyle. I was pressured to “move up the bridge” while there was still a chance to “go free” while Scientology was on Earth, before humankind destroyed itself with nuclear bombs.

My attendance and progress were monitored through CSI’s police-state-like management operations that claimed rights to setting my schedule and questioning deviance from it. At that time I was unaware of my gradual succumbing to the “dangerous environment” threats Scientology posed, by recognizing Hubbard as a leader in possession of superhuman wisdom. Peter and I adopted a sense of duty toward Hubbard, feeling called to acknowledge his abilities with a sense of personal abandon. This began what became my routine acceptance of orders and control without questioning them; instead, I accepted this as a Scientology way of life. I can see that I used the peripheral route of processing thought at that time. I readily adopted the “on source” identity that came with becoming highly technically trained in Scientology. My identity changed from fashion designer and music publisher to fanatically dedicated Scientologist. Progressing up the Scientology “bridge to total freedom” with Peter, unblocking creativity, and developing spiritual abilities as “operating thetans” (OT) became an obsessive quest for knowledge about our omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.

Being labeled “on source” or a particular case level occurs through the leadership-follower dominion, within which labels and identities are everything. Until I reached the mid-level “state of Clear,” I was labeled a “pre-Clear.” These labels are extremely significant, a billboard for one’s spiritual abilities and identity. More was expected from people labeled at a high case state in the advanced spiritual levels at the top end of the bridge. This naming system deeply affected my view of myself and self-identity in the group, and especially reflected on my creative abilities. I always questioned this because I had demonstrated a high level of creative ability prior to Scientology. I discounted my doubts about this labeling, assuming that I would become even more creative as I moved up the levels. I recall conversations with advanced Scientologists who said, “I created the universe, so I better learn to live within it,” or, “I created time; it’s just a consideration; time is not real.” I never believed that I had “created myself” before the beginning of time, as Hubbard taught. I discounted my doubts about Scientology by thinking I needed to get to the top of Scientology’s bridge to discover the “truth” about myself, hiding those doubts so I would not be perceived as “off source.” This lack of freedom to express myself honestly underlined my query: Who is in control of the creator/creative process—the individual, or Hubbard and the leaders? Knowing I couldn’t discuss my doubts openly, for fear of repercussions, I buried them. The process of discounting my skepticism and hiding my doubts planted a seed, or birthed what I would later discover as my sCS.

Despite my doubts, I made the decision to dedicate my life’s work to Scientology and joined the Sea Organization—the “elite” management of Scientology organizations worldwide. I signed a billion-year contract, pledging this and future lifetimes to “clearing the planet.” In 1986, we gave up our home near the Hollywood Hills and moved into the Chateau Elysee, which houses CCI to this day. Once I was a Sea Org member, my choices were no longer my own.

I resisted being sent away for full-time executive training because I didn’t want to become an executive slave to senior leadership. I wanted to be involved in creative roles, doing what I did best. But a Sea Org member must support “command intention” unconditionally, and denounce self to achieve Sea Org goals. I became Commanding Officer of the Celebrity Centre Network, responsible for the recruitment and growth of Scientology celebrities in Hollywood, London, Paris, New York, Nashville—ten centers overall. I experienced extreme duress to recruit new celebrities into Scientology, under threat of assignment to the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), CSI’s version of a prison camp, if I failed.

My husband left his career as a musician and composer in 1989 to join the Sea Org with me, but to work at Golden Era Productions (Gold), the CSI International Management desert base near Palm Springs, headed by Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige. To be with Peter, I was then moved out of CCI up to Gold. There I lost the identity that was closest to who I really was, an artist at CCI. I dissolved into the 800 minions who worked for Miscavige.

My nine years at Gold took form in three identities, all determined by my new labels. We were called not by our names but by our post titles: My first identity was as a Cinema Division crew member. I was named Cinema Researcher, and my responsibilities were to provide research for designing sets, props, and costumes for training films. Once the leadership realized that I could design clothing, I was named Costume Designer. The Cinema Division worked as slave labor to produce films and was subject to Miscavige’s frequent creative criticisms, verbal abuse, and discipline through deprivation of sleep, balanced meals, income, and other rights. During a six-week period of discipline while the Cinema Division was hijacked from post to do hard labor 24/7 constructing a new mess hall for the Gold base, I broke from the sleep deprivation. I walked myself off the project to “ISO” (isolation) with a fever and flu-like symptoms. An angry senior executive caught wind of my illness and sent a security guard to haul me back to work at 11:00 p.m. While stumbling down the dark path from ISO back to the project, I began to black out and saw spots before my eyes. I wondered if I was cracking up when the ground seemed to sink beneath my feet. I recovered within moments, although I was severely disoriented. Leadership employed other types of discipline. We were usually deprived of any time off, and we were frequently deprived of “enhancement” time (studying in the classrooms, or getting auditing/counseling), which was my sole reason for being a Scientologist.

Prior to my involvement with Scientology, my creativity as a designer had always stemmed from a high interchange of ideas from various stimuli such as TV, movies, books and magazines, and conversations with other artists. At Gold, I resented the suppressive restrictions of my creative intake and freedom of speech. All of our communications were controlled or censored: Owning or watching TV was forbidden, as was possessing a telephone in our room or having a cell phone. Security read our mail before and if it was delivered to us. We could not own a personal computer, or ever log on to anyone else’s computer off base, at the threat of RPF assignment. Our office computers had no Internet access without permission of Security. We could not receive phone calls from family or friends without a security guard listening on an extension, and the call was followed by interrogation about its content. We lived under 24/7 security watch and couldn’t leave the base without permission. Couples had to live with another couple, with little privacy intact.

With completely suppressed freedom of mobility and communication, I tried to persuade my husband to leave in 1990, but he refused. I left alone, and was coerced into coming back, but I only agreed in order to keep our marriage together. I was sent to the RPF, labeled an out-ethics treasonous individual and assigned to hard labor, humiliation, isolation, and mental duress. After six months, I came back to post as if “rehabilitated.” However, during the RPF, I discovered and fortified my sCS, that part of me I considered to be my core, from which free-thinking and creative expressions emanated, and which could survive while I also functioned as a Sea Org member who could endure invalidation of my creative abilities and tolerate attempts by others to suppress most things about me. My sCS was a highly expressive and idealistic woman who knew she had talent and potential despite suppression from leadership. Group conditions at Gold got worse over the next three years. In 1993, I reached another breaking point, and I attempted to persuade Peter to leave with me. Again he refused, and I left alone.

My return to Gold a week later marked my second phase in the Sea Org, when I denounced myself and rejoined the group again. My eventual ticket out of Gold was my creative abilities as a designer that managed to survive despite leadership’s suppression. I became the International Staff Uniform Project In-Charge, under close supervision of Miscavige. Hubbard’s “art technology” and policies about the Sea Org and its pseudomilitary image dictated my designs rather than my creative abilities in my own style. But the job enabled me to be immersed in my passion of clothes design, outside of Gold’s constraints. I was given a special project to work with Italian designer (and Scientologist) Claudio Lugli to design suits for the CCI staff in Hollywood. I completed the project successfully, which ignited my passion for designing again. I eventually worked at every major Scientology base around the world. I lived near London for six months, producing the UK staff clothing while manufacturing everything in Ireland, Scotland, and England, then more projects in Copenhagen, Sydney, and New York. Although I lived away from my husband for months at a time, I loved my job, because it had become my main source of pleasure.

For completing my projects successfully, Miscavige promoted me to work for the Events Unit in the PR Office in 1995. As Deputy Events Art Director, I created stage designs, awards, and the dress of Senior Executive speakers for CSI events internationally. In 1996, Miscavige promoted me again to a senior post of International Management Public Relations Officer (IMPR), working directly with him and the highest leaders of Scientology. This post could have been a highly creative opportunity for writing speeches and scripts, writing and editing for the International Scientology News, doing event planning, and writing PR programs. However, Miscavige micromanaged every word in the scripts, every line in the speeches, every piece of text in the magazine, and every target in the programs. Nothing was ever good enough or correct enough. The demands always led to sleep deprivation to repeatedly redo the work, and endless disciplinary measures. After nine months, I resigned the post. Within an hour after my resignation, two security guards escorted me to a work site at our property’s drainage canal. I hauled rocks in the desert heat for two weeks to build up the canal’s retaining walls. Compared to the abuse I had experienced, hauling rocks was a welcome relief.

My third and final phase began in late 1996 when I requested to return to my Uniform Project In-Charge post, starting with Miscavige’s favorite organization in Clearwater, Florida. For six months I developed a new image for the Flag Land Base staff, creating everything from new hair styles and make-up to an intricate uniform program. I went on to design clothing for the senior levels of Scientology management. Miscavige twice labeled me the most productive staff member on the base. This validated my identity as a creative individual, and brought me ethics protection and a promotion to an officer rank.

I lived within an ongoing dichotomy—my sCS that desired to survive as a creative individual free to communicate without suppression, and the commitment I had made to my husband to be in the Sea Org. This conflict was fueled by my disagreement with management’s suppressive treatment of staff, which tore the utopian veil shrouding my eyes. In my travels through the Scientology world, I had seen staff subject to slave-labor working conditions and degraded living conditions worse than my own, which had obliterated their self-esteem and ability to create on their eight dynamics; while at International Management, we were making about $7 million per week. I lost my naivety about the artist’s role in Scientology’s peaceful revolution. I shared this awareness with my husband, but otherwise kept my critical thoughts secret to avoid discipline.

My desire to be creative again in life finally surpassed the suppressive sovereignty of leadership in 1998. Without my sCS, I could have gone completely insane or attempted suicide, like some did. I failed in my final effort to get my husband to leave, realizing I had been in denial about losing Peter to Scientology groupthink and power dynamics. Peter had relinquished all self-sovereignty to the Scientology leadership, and exerted no mental effort to think independently or to question the status quo of the Int Base milieu. I made my final escape August 1, 1998. Miscavige controlled our divorce process, which resulted in the loss of my husband of 21 years and my identity as a creative artist in the world Peter and I had created together.

Thanks to my rebellion against Scientology sovereignty, my sCS was free to emerge. I developed a strong, highly creative self resistant to power dynamics. After I left, Scientology authorities made attempts to threaten, influence, or otherwise control my life, but I had become impervious to them. Overcoming this battle served to strengthen my resilience against power dynamics in general, despite Hubbard’s label that people who leave the Sea Org are degraded beings who would never make it outside of Scientology.

I had to rediscover the world without the Scientology polemic, and form a new identity. Using my design talent to support Scientology had killed my desire to design. Instead, as a fierce defender of freedom of speech, I found that other creative urges surged in my life. I tapped into a network of organizations who wanted to hear about my Scientology experiences. Ignoring “advice” from new associates that I needed professional speaker training before I took speaking engagements, I have since spoken at nearly 100 conferences and have lectured in numerous academic settings. Others told me that I shouldn’t speak out about Scientology at all, to avoid becoming “fair game” for their suppressive tactics against me as a critic. Nevertheless, I’ve been interviewed by dozens of radio talk-show hosts, television shows, and newspapers and magazines, including CBS Inside Edition, NBC Dateline, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and two documentaries on Scientology made for television in France. Biographer Andrew Morton interviewed me for his book, Unauthorized Biography of Tom Cruise, and he quoted me extensively. I co-authored one nonfiction women’s inspirational book in 2005, and I contributed several entries to the new Baker Dictionary of Cults. I’ve written two manuscripts about my Scientology experiences under contracts with literary publishers, both of which CSI officials suppressed from publication. New religious friends cautioned me against getting married too soon, but when the right man came into my life two years later, I decided that I, too, could have a successful marriage and took the leap. I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science in Communication degree and am pursuing my Master of Arts in Professional Writing credentials to achieve my plan to teach writing in college. Overcoming Scientology’s attempts to control or influence my life served to strengthen my resilience against power dynamics in general.


The concept of the “generalized other” discussed above (Mead 1934) is a dynamic process. When young adults leave the security of their families, typically the “generalized other” is that of mainstream society. Both Miriam and Karen joined cultic groups while in their young adulthood: Miriam as soon as she left her home to go to college, and Karen a few years after having established a career with her husband. In both cults, we see the “generalized other” composed only of the members of the cult and no longer the members of mainstream society. New members of a cult can see themselves reflected only in the views of others in the cult environment, specifically the cult leaders who interpret meaning for all members. We see this in Miriam’s story when she is not allowed to be creative for so many years. She is publicly reprimanded when she offers a symbolic expression of her creative self in the children’s story. We see the leader using his power to name when he calls Miriam an unspiritual person who has no talent for writing. Miriam is officially demoted and ordered to spend more time reading the leader’s letters. However, since a few members of the cult (the editors) thought her story was creative, Miriam incorporates their initial reaction in her “looking-glass self” (Cooley, 1902) reflection. At this critical point, an sCS is birthed, influenced by her selected meaning of others beyond the cult leader. She continues her writing in secret until she finds an audience outside the COG, who encourages her further sCS development. When she leaves the COG, she is less sensitive to criticism since she has an sCS that emerges as an SCS once she leaves the cult.

In Karen’s case, the birth of an sCS is more complex. At first, her leaders recognize her as creative; yet her creative work is repeatedly criticized, and she is periodically denied any outlet for her creativity when she is sent to the RPF. The power to name (Charmaz, 2006) is easily visible in Scientology, whose members are defined as being “on source,” “pre-Clear” or in a “state of Clear,” and whose workers are not called by personal name but by post title. Karen’s creativity is encouraged to the extent she is given labels that identify her as a creative person in the view of the whole group, such as “Commanding Officer of the Celebrity Centre Network” and “Deputy Events Art Director.” But she is just as quickly removed from these positions, and her sense of a creative self is largely dependent on the meanings of her work as the leaders of her group interpret it. Despite her intense indoctrination in Scientology beliefs, Karen acknowledges an sCS that desires to be freely expressed as a creative individual able to communicate without suppression. She attributes her sanity and her eventual departure from the cult to the sCS that is birthed as a result of the suppression on her creativity. As evidenced by Karen’s two departures from Scientology in 1990 and 1993, before her final departure in 1998, she had reclaimed some sovereignty from the cult’s leadership. During the time when she privately harbored disagreements about abuse, Scientology management policies, and doubts about Scientology technology, Karen used the central route of processing thought.

Through the HCM we can better understand power dynamics, hegemony, and sovereignty in cults, as Miriam and Karen’s case studies in the Children of God and Scientology show. The HCM posits that the sovereign cult leaders encode symbols (perceptions, judgments, naming, and orders) through the hegemony of power dynamics, and that cult members employ a route of response through which they decode meanings from leaders. Together, this combination determines their actions within and outcomes relevant to the cult.

We use the framework of Petty and Cacioppo’s ELM (1986) in the HCM because we posit that their findings on the relative effectiveness of strong-message arguments and high source credibility in persuasive communication are applicable to the power dynamics of cults as total institutions. Their results varied depending on which of two cognitive processes, or mental routes to attitude change, a listener chose to use: the peripheral route or the central route. As we described earlier, however, the central route requires the addition of two decoding options for the cult member. Hall’s (1997) theories of hegemonic decoding options, which the powerless who are resisting dominant ideology use, supports our proposal that cult members may change their methods of decoding from peripheral route with hegemonic decoding to “negotiable” or “free,” depending on the degree of sovereignty the cult member holds. As our case studies illustrate, especially Miriam’s, a cult member will accept a leader’s labeling without question if the member has relinquished self-sovereignty to the leader; this illustrates the member’s use of the peripheral route of thought with hegemonic decoding, exerting no mental effort to disagree or reject the label. The case studies explore how these cult members encountered experiences with others that affirmed their creativity. Negotiable decoding enabled Miriam and Karen to remain in their respective groups, and it also demonstrated critical-thinking skills and some restoration of free thought. Eventually, the members reclaimed sovereignty from the leaders and decided to leave their groups to fully express their creative abilities. Here they used the “free thought” option of decoding under the central route. Thus, in concert with Petty and Cacioppo’s ELM routes of processing thought, and Hall’s hegemonic encoding and decoding theories, the HCM is a synthesis of symbolic interactionism, mass communication theory, and critical theory on hegemony, power dynamics, and sovereignty (Mills, 1956; Foucault, 1980; Elshtain, 2008; Gramsci,1935, 1971; Lifton, 1982; Lalich, 2004).

Using the HCM as a tool helps us see how Miriam processed thought within the power dynamics of the COG, how she managed sovereignty, and how she responded to group hegemony. Miriam used the peripheral route of response during the majority of her years in the COG because she felt called to carry out God’s plans for her life through this group, whose leader was Berg. The HCM suggests that once Berg deemed her noncreative (following the children’s story incident), while some of the editors liked her work and encouraged her as a writer, she began doubting that Berg was right in his assessment. This encouragement enabled Miriam to stop responding through the peripheral route, by which she received all of Berg’s statements without question. Her doubts represented some reclaiming of sovereignty from Berg back to herself, which shifted her thinking process to the central route of processing thought, with negotiable decoding of his words. By applying negotiable decoding, she could retain her position in the group and her marriage, while secretly harboring disagreement with Berg. Her action of reclaiming some sovereignty from Berg back to herself allowed her sovereignty to grow and enabled her to regain critical-thinking skills and thus to access “free thought” under the central route. She became able to see through Berg’s power game; her eventual rebellion allowed the birth of her sCS that she had expressed only to individuals outside the COG.

Karen showed that she was able to see through the leader’s bias and the risk it posed to her survival. She not only exercised her thoughts of leaving by departing several times throughout the years, but also attempted to raise others’ awareness about group hegemony by mustering the courage to attempt to persuade her husband to leave with her, despite the risks in doing so. Each time she left Scientology, she applied free decoding, showing her rejection of leadership’s authority over her life. We assume that she applied negotiable encoding in between her departures, in order to tolerate group life and birth her sCS. She kept her creative urge hidden as a default to her secret self, while appearing to obey the leader and accept his labeling, so as not to lose her position with the group or her husband. Living in the RPF, she was able to think and act independently while her husband, in contrast, appeared to use the peripheral route of thinking during his Sea Org years. Karen’s choice to finally cut all ties with Scientology showed total rejection of the leader’s authority and her transfer of sovereignty from leadership back to herself. To preserve her sCS, and allow it to emerge as an SCS, she finally risked loss of group membership and her marriage.

Despite the institutionalization that both Miriam and Karen experienced in their respective cults, which made return to normal life highly difficult, they were both able to change the power dynamics of their lives. As the HCM illustrates, they shifted the role of sovereign from their leaders back to themselves. Once out of the COG and CSI, both Miriam and Karen’s SCS emerged with predominance, as evidenced by their pursuits in educational advancement, creative writing, and other professional accomplishments. In both of these case studies, we see testimony to the development of a strong resilience to power dynamics outside the cults.

Despite the psychological and social effects of institutionalization that make it highly difficult for cult members to resume normal life after they leave the group (Lalich, 2006), the individual can change position in the power dynamics of his or her life by shifting the role of sovereign from others and reclaiming it to self. What was once an sCS emerges and can be expressed openly. Reclaiming sovereignty of self enables the creator to manage power dynamics in general, and restores the balance of creativity and humanity in the individual, which were out of balance in the cult. The creator is likely to develop resilience to new power dynamics outside the cult that label, define, or stifle creativity.


In this paper, we support the idea that individual creativity is suppressed in cult environments. However, we propose that the power dynamics in cults that result in extreme suppression can also stimulate individuals to birth an sCS while in the group that is able to fully emerge after they leave the suppressive environment. We suggest that an sCS may develop in the cult and emerge into an SCS after one leaves the cult. As case studies supporting these hypotheses, we used our own experiences. Here we employed sociological and communication perspectives to explain how an sCS is birthed in a cult environment and how it emerges as an SCS once freed from the cult environment. We know that two case studies do not make a new theory. However, the processes we propose are supported and explained by existing theory. More studies are needed to support and further develop the conceptual processes we propose in this paper.

The processes we propose create more questions than answers at this point. For example, do they occur more in some oppressive environments than others? Does anything else affect the birth of an sCS within cults? How do the exiting process and social situation after one leaves the cult influence the development of an SCS? Although Karen’s case study shows that she was involved in creative professions prior to her participation in Scientology, we do not explore what effects that precult creativity may have on the eventual birthing of an sCS once one is in a cult. We leave this for future exploration. Here, we examined the effects of power dynamics, cult hegemony, and a cult member’s self-sovereignty as contributing factors that allow the birth of an sCS within the cult.

The ideas we have presented here also raise questions regarding processes involved in power dynamics. Although we did not explore it above, the idea that suppressed individuals can birth an sCS by resisting very powerful and influential people needs further development. Are these only individuals who already have a healthy sense of creative self before they join a group with dominant hegemony? Why do some cult members never give birth to an sCS but instead merge with the cult leader’s views about creativity or obscure their own creative selves? Does obscuring the creative self result in a weak and underdeveloped creative self when one leaves the cult? Do all cult members who birth an sCS in the cult emerge with an SCS? This emerging idea also raises the question of how individuals who birth an sCS under socially restricted situations not only develop greater creativity and resilience to hegemonic forces when freed from social restrictions but also are less influenced by powerful people and repressive situations they encounter later in life. How influential is the birth of an sCS on the decision to leave a cult and/or the success of leaving? This study also points to the need for further study about cult members who use only the peripheral route of response and choose to remain in a group. What happens to their creative expression? We open the discussion for more in-depth exploration of the birth and development of the sCS in different social environments and the expressions of the SCS after one achieves freedom from oppressive environments.


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About the Authors

Miriam Williams Boeri, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Her research focuses on ethnographic data collection and analysis of subcultures considered deviant, including drug subcultures and new religious movements. She has written one book on her involvement in a cult and a chapter in a book on sex and religion. (

Karen Pressley is an author, CEO of KAP Communications in Atlanta, and a graduate student pursuing her Master’s in Professional Writing degree. Since leaving her 16-year membership in the Church of Scientology, she has written books and articles about her Scientology experiences, and is consulted regularly by media, former cult members, and their families. Karen applies communication theory to bring further insight into the effects of cult rhetoric on creativity, human rights violations within cults, and the power dynamics of cult life. (;

[1] Acknowledgements: We want to thank the editors for their thoughtful and helpful comments, which greatly contributed to the clarity of the conceptual model described in this paper.