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Survey Physicians

Cult Observer, Volume 10, Number 3, 1993

 Survey Reveals Physicians' Experience with Cults

Edward Lottick, MD

In late June 1992, a stratified random sample of Pennsylvania physicians (5,400) were mailed a two-page questionnaire asking about experience with destructive cults, either personal, professional, or both.  Professional experience was defined as "with patients or their families," and personal experience was defined as "with self, family, or friends."  The survey sample group was drawn from primary care physicians (family practice, general practice, internal medicine, and pediatrics) and psychiatrists.  Surveys were returned by 1,396 participants, a 26 percent rate of return.  A number of the returned surveys (173) included personal observations and comments.

In the survey, one of the respondents commented:  "I hope you have the courage to report both the incidence of cults and the significant numbers of us who have not seen cults in our practices."  To that person I would say:  thank you for raising that question, and thanks to the many others who raised questions and important issues in their comments.  This article contains statistical data sorting physicians into "experience" and "no experience groups," and also contains some conclusions about each group.

Personal Tragedy

Many of you thought the survey was a good idea but a few questioned its cost or its appropriateness.  Because of these concerns, I feel I should briefly explain my involvement and how the survey came about.

On May 11, 1990, Noah Antrim Lottick, our wonderful 24-year-old son, committed suicide.  A brief account of Noah's death was featured prominently in the May 6, 1991, Time magazine article, "Scientology-The Cult of Greed," and again in the October 1991 Readers Digest article, "A Dangerous Cult Goes Mainstream."  My wife and I cošperated with these magazines, whose circulation is over 100 million readers worldwide, in an effort to alert others to potential dangers.

After these articles were published we began hearing from a number of people who had been involved in cults or who had family members involved in cults.  We began to wonder just how common these problems are.  Although we had learned that our family's experience was not unique, we could find very little hard data for providing a statistical model for our society.  And I began to wonder about other physicians' experiences.      

On October 1991, I introduced a resolution to the Society House of Delegates that the State Society conduct a survey regarding destructive cults.  The House of Delegates agreed and referred the resolution to the Board of Trustees, who in turn assigned the survey to the Educational and Scientific Trust.  [Editor's note (in the original article): the Trust developed and conducted the survey, and the results were tabulated and interpreted by Dr. Lottick and consultants, Dr. Arthur Dole and Dr. Michael Langone.*]        

For the purpose of the survey, "destructive cult" was defined as, "a group which violates the rights of its members, harms them through abusive techniques of mind control, and distinguishes itself from a normal social or religious group by subjecting its members to physical, mental, or financial deprivation or deception to keep them in the group."

Survey Results

Of the 1,396 respondents to the survey, 21 percent (290) reported having had personal, professional, or both personal and professional experiences with cults as defined.  Of the 21 percent of respondents who indicated some experience, 36 percent felt they had adequate resources at hand to deal with the experience, while the balance, 64 percent, felt that they did not.  The "at sea" group generally cited either lack of knowledge or lack of access to an expert in this area.

The 16.8 percent of the respondents indicating only professional experience included more psychiatrists than any other specialty, and they more often responded that they had access to resources.  Of respondents indicating any experience, 47.9 percent were psychiatrists.  Of primary care respondents, 3.4 percent of general practitioners indicated having experience, and other primary care respondents fell within a range of 13.1 to 17.3 percent having experience.

Turning to the 7.2 percent of respondents who indicated personal experience, 70 percent (5 percent of all respondents) cited a friend or acquaintance, while the remaining 30 percent (2.2 percent of all respondents) cited family.

Despite the fact that respondents named 50 different groups, the largest category of response was "cult name unknown," "not recalled," or "no name available."  According to further analysis, there was no significant variation by respondent's sex, number of years in practice, or location.  The widespread geographical distribution of cult experiences would tend to refute the comment of the respondent who said:  "I practice in a fairly affluent and stable community-middle class.  I do not believe the cults would impact such a community."

Discussion

Sadly, I previously used similar reasoning to ignore cults during the many years that my children were growing up.  Living in a predominantly middle class and family-oriented community with strong traditions and values, and reasoning that all our children were well adjusted, career directed, and successful in school, we felt there was no need to worry about cults.  We thought cults were something that affected the maladjusted fringe.

My wife and I have since come to understand that people don't join cults.  They are recruited from among the brightest and the best at those transition times in their lives when they are most likely to be vulnerable.  We had not taken into account this active and very deceptive recruiting, nor the cults' success in being accepted into the mainstream of society.  We now absolutely believe that no one is invulnerable.  We also conclude that one cult or another targets every type of community, leaving no geographical location or segment of society immune.

There also is much evidence, including this survey, that cults, especially larger cults, target the children of the relatively affluent and stable middle class.

For Physicians With No Experience

From my own personal experience, I have a message for the great majority of physicians (79 percent or four-fifths) who have had neither personal nor professional experience: you are in the position I was in before our son's death.  I feel compelled to suggest that you may need some orientation to the topic so as not to be caught unaware.  I think the State Society, and perhaps our specialty societies, need to provide information and education in this area.

We can no longer afford the luxury of thinking, "I probably will not be touched; therefore, I can neglect this area."  One-fifth of your responding colleagues have been touched in one way or another, and 2.2 percent of all respondents have had family involved.  It seems to me that social pathology needs the same scrutiny as cancer or heart disease or any other malady, and we need to be similarly aware so that we might take preventive steps.

Call for Suggestions and Ideas

I would appreciate your suggestions about the next step for Pennsylvania physicians on this problem.  Some options could include:  a Society study committee to provide research, reports, and updates; society-sponsored seminars; and lists of resources and professionals in this area.

Because of the Society's survey, we are now more knowledgeable about how cults affect the medical profession and our personal lives.  My personal thanks to the participants.  I hope now that some results are known, we can pursue suggestions from respondents and draw on the knowledge of the additional people this report will reach.

I would be happy to hear from any of you at any time, but preferably within the next month or two so we can develop some proposals for the Board of Trustees and perhaps the 1993 House of Delegates.  My address is: Edward A. Lottick, MD, 789 Wyoming Avenue, Kingston, PA, 18704; (717) 288-7506.