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Cults, Dissociation and Models of Helping and Recovery

October 6, 2012

In order to set the record straight about some misconceptions about the presentation I made at a 2009 conference of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) in Denver, I am posting the Power Point to this presentation. Strangely, enough, the gossip about this presentation was that it was an attack on Steve Hassan when in fact, as the Power Point shows, this presentation was not about him and contained no personal attacks upon anyone. I was therefore quite surprised that Steve took it this way and then told others who were not there that this was the case, as well as letting me know that evening that he perceived that way. To this day, his perception of it baffles me as there was nothing unique to him in this presentation.

In fact, the presentation outlines different models of recovery and pointed out the predominance of the medical model among certain “cult experts”. While this does apply to some extent to Steve Hassan, more of it applies to other therapists  who do cult recovery work (e.g. Rosanne Henry, LPC), who were probably not at all happy with what I had to say since I directly challenged her suggestion of having clients identify cult leaders as having certain diagnoses. There is also psychoanalyst Daniel Shaw’s (and a number of other people’s) preoccupation with so-called malignant narcissism and the “traumatizing narcissist” (not even valid diagnoses) of cult leaders.  Although I presented credible, well recognized and accepted models, not one of these people  issued one word of rebuttal to anything discussed in this session. In fact, when some of us tried to raise these issues on a supposedly professional discussion list, these therapists were ultra sensitive and took my challenges very personally saying it made them feel “unsafe” to be questioned and challenged in this manner, rather than engage in a discussion that would have been healthy, not only for them as professionals but also for the clients they profess to serve. Is this kind of model of putting psychiatric labels on cult leaders and cult survivors really helpful to recovery? At this point we simply do not know and there is good reason to suspect that it may do more harm than good to label both the cult leader and victim with psychiatric disorders who then feel they need intensive and extensive therapy and years of support groups to recover when there is no good evidence that any of this is effective and does no harm.

To access the PDF, click on the link below:

ICSA Denver 2009 Pignotti_PDF version

This way, people can view the presentation and decide for themselves whether Steve Hassan, who was reportedly in tears during this presentation, has any cause to complain.

I can understand how some people could be upset about this, as I challenged the dominant model of so-called cult recovery in this presentation and proposed some possible different models but there were no attacks on anyone in this presentation.

Cathleen Mann also presented in this same session. The session was entitled Cults, PTSD and Dissociation: Is the Medical Model Helpful to Ex-Cultists? I guess some people were not happy that we posed this question. This is not surprising, given that some masters level mental health professionals who claim to be cult experts have been known to charge some pretty hefty fees for their services that are far above what most masters level therapists would charge.

  1. drcmann permalink

    I can attest to the plannihng and work associated with this presentation. Neither of us had Steve Hassan in mind when presenting. What an ego! Steve Hassan made a dramatic side show when attending this presentation, even asking the moderators to ask me if he could attend (??). He sat in the back, asked no questions, and cried intermittenty during the presentation, attracting even more attention to himself. If this is how he handles feedback and criticism of existing paradigms, how can he teach others to question the paradigms of cults?

  2. Brain Fart permalink

    Based on how I’ve valued your, and Dr. Mann’s, posts, I might share (a very small bit of) your interest in advancing legally credible, if not enforceable, psychology, e.g., with respect to abuse of the vulnerable, through cults or otherwise. I found interesting posts at cesnur(dot)org/testi/gandow_eng.htm and molko_brief.htm, and might pursue web research along those lines.

    I’ve been searching the web for authoritative legal doctrine regarding cults. I thought a post here might elicit a useful reply from you or Dr. Mann. The legal doctrine I’ve found is that abusive cults are legally addressed when they commit torts or crimes under other labels, e.g., undue influence or false imprisonment. Considering Margaret Singer’s loss of expert witness status, and the apparent lack of settled psychological science, I’m curious if expert witness qualification in cults isn’t more about where settled psychology and legal doctrine agree on coercion. The best summary I found was at cesnur(dot)org/testi/molko_brief.htm:

    “Amici will demonstrate that a strong consensus of relevant professional opinion supports the trial court’s decision to exclude the proffered testimony of Drs. Singer and Benson because that testimony did not meet these standards of general acceptance in the scientific community. The theories of Drs. Singer and Benson are not new to the scientific community. After searching scrutiny, the scientific community has repudiated the assumptions, methodologies, and conclusions of Drs. Singer and Benson. The validity of the claim that, absent physical force or threats, ‘systematic manipulation of the social influences’ can coercively deprive individuals of free will lacks any empirical foundation and has never been confirmed by other research. (Point I.B.) The specific methods by which Drs. Singer and Benson have arrived at their conclusions have also been rejected by all serious scholars in the field. (Point I.C.)”

    The “Point I.x” references identify subsequent text under the “ARGUMENT” heading later in the brief.

    Absent legally compelling empirical evidence, I submit that a legally credible or enforceable psychological model would necessarily leverage legal precedent, and relate undeniably to legal doctrines that the judiciary dares not fail to enforce, i.e., a robust psychological model that can be directly and irrefutably mapped onto legal precedent that enjoys consistent enforcement.

    I suspect that there might be credible empirical evidence in Pavlov’s work, e.g., as described by William Sargant in “Battle for the Mind”. Sargant’s thesis that conversion is a mammalian physiological response to overwhelming stimulus has, I assert, sufficient linkage to coercive force to argue that many psychological stresses rise to the level of provoking involuntary physical reflex responses that are subsequently defended by victims of physical or psychological abuse. Roy Masters has persistently asserted related views, and demonstrated the seemingly voluntary awake-state defenses of ridiculous behaviors suggested to hypnotized subjects. In particular, see youtube(dot)com/watch?v=FqB2UX_f0K4.

    RM asserts that trauma is hypnotic, and promotes self-administered introspection as a means to de-hypnotize generally. Beyond that, he uses both scriptural and secular models to explain human behavior, and relates their equivalence, e.g., how a proper understanding of scripture is equally good psychology. Regardless of the underlying model, treating trauma as a hypnotic conversion, whether physiological, psychological, or a combination, might warrant consideration as more efficacious than alternative approaches.

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