Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.
Psychological characteristics of cult membership are discussed. The cult nature of Alcoholics Anonymous and disease model of addiction ideology is examined. Patterns of response by individuals who believe strongly in the disease model of addiction when their ideology is challenged are analyzed.
Cults serve diverse purposes for individuals, the foremost of which can be a positive sense of community where values are focused, affirmed, and reinforced. The relationship among individuals in a cult is also hypnotic (Freud 1959; Becker 1973).
People disagreeing with an ideology binding
individuals together in a
group are likely to be criticized, punished, and
eventually excluded or
shunned by the group. This rule reads "thou shalt not
affiliation and membership in the cult rests on
In order for the cult to maintain its singular
identity, the rule must
be obeyed. Break the rule and break the spell. In order
for a singular
group identity to exist, individual identities must be
The flip-side of this phenomenon concerns the impact of individual autonomy on the cult experience--a kind of "psychological capitalism" in a psychologically-socialist world.
The stronger an individual's confidence in self, the less likely an individual will succumb to demands for cult conformity.
At least three dimensions to those ideas are worth
(a) Individuals with a strong sense of personal autonomy are less likely to become involved in cults.
(b) If they do become involved in a cult, they are more likely to recover from the cult experience in a way that preserves a strong sense of self (compared to those whose self-concept was considerably weaker prior to the cult experience).
(c) What is also likely to be true is that individuals with a strong sense of self are less likely to feel threatened when cult members attack them. Moreover, individuals eschewing cult affiliation may elicit resentment from true believers (Kaufmann 1973). (1)
Individuals with backgrounds involving chronic identity confusion, excessive guilt, and "totalistic" or dichotomous thinking, appear to experience more difficulty in re-establishing themselves in their post-cult life, compared to those individuals with a clearer sense of identity, less guilt, and more accurate sense of psychological perspective. Individuals exhibiting a strong sense of personal autonomy appear more resistant to criticism directed at them by a group of individuals at odds with their particular ideology. (2)
In clinical hypnosis, the will of the subject
becomes confluent with the
will of the hypnotist. The subject does not have a say
in the process.
The sense of ego separateness between the two is
obscured by the hypnotist. In psychotherapy this
experience is called
"transference." As long as the client in either
psychotherapy maintains an acute awareness of self,
that is, he or
she persists in appreciating the difference between
environment, a point referred to as the "ego boundary"
(1947), the hypnosis will fail. Some schools of
psychotherapy may view
this as an obstruction to good therapy, others view it
as a means to
achieving success (Szasz 1965).
Good contact and a hypnotic trance are opposing states of consciousness. Thus, good contact antidotes hypnosis. Moreover, good contact between therapist and client is not contingent upon cultivating transference. (3) Therapy fails when the client chooses to see the therapist as someone other than he or she really is, and when therapists encourage clients to see them as someone other than who they really are.
An extreme example of this ability to resist hypnosis and brainwashing is seen in the movie of a few years ago entitled "The Ipcress File." By deliberately pressing a metal nail into his hand actor Michael Caine used his experience of pain to force an awareness of self. He avoided listening to the hypnotic voice of an "other," an "other" seeking to make Caine's will confluent with his own -- against Caine's will. Caine's character found a way to maintain autonomy in the face of that psychological coercion. He was able to fight the psychological influence of an other intent on dictating a particular self concept. The point intended here is that by focusing on himself in such a way, he was able to resist the attempt by the other to force a psychological merge -- a merge that is coerced by one onto another. (4)
There are ways of applying this idea to individuals
under the "spell
cast by others" (Becker 1973). One way of testing the
cult nature of a
group is by challenging the ideology binding the group
can discover something about the nature of a group by
how well its
members tolerate opposition to the ideology that holds
together. How well do members tolerate difference of
opinion that challenges the very ideological heart of
Members of the cult are like a colony of insects when disturbed. A frenzy of activity and protective measures are executed when core ideologies are challenged. The stronger the evidence challenging the truthfulness of the group ideology, the more likely members of the cult are to either lash out in a more or less predictable fashion, fall apart, or disband into separate cult colonies.
The purpose of this brief essay is to present certain characteristic responses to "cult busting," or, the challenging of ideology that assists in binding members of a particular cult together. That cult is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), (Kurtz 1988; Antze 1987; Leach and Norris 1977).
Over the years the writer has been involved in investigating claims made by politicians, drug users, people in "recovery," members of the addiction-treatment industry, and addiction-research field regarding the disease model of addiction, particularly the alleged role of involuntariness in explaining addiction. Extensive research supports the idea that addiction is a voluntary process, a behavior that is better explained by individual psychological and environmental factors, than physiology and the chemical properties of drugs, (Alexander 1987, 1990).
Presenting those findings to people holding opposing points of view, i.e., addiction is a disease characterized by "loss of control" (Jellinek 1960), often elicits a vituperative response. That response aroused the writer's curiosity as to the cult-like nature certain groups within the addiction field hold dearly. The bolder the presentation of ideas in opposition to the prevailing disease-model ideology, the clearer the characterizations of criticism directed back in return. Patterns of response are clear.
The writer has had many such encounters over the years and will not elaborate on their details (e.g., Madsen et al., 1990; Goodwin and Gordis 1988). Those exchanges occurred on the editorial pages of large and small newspapers, live radio-talk shows, scientific journals, local political settings, and most recently on Internet.
Conceding a confrontational style, it is a mistake to attribute the nature of critical response solely to a personal way of delivering the bad news. Colleagues present their ideas regarding similar issues in what are perhaps at times more sensitive and tactful ways, and they have met with similar forms of denunciation and character assassination, the typical form of rebuttal. Ad hominem rebuttals are the standard, (Fingarette 1989; Peele 1992; Searles 1993; Madsen 1989; Wallace 1993a, 1993b).
Is AA a cult? There's plenty of evidence supporting the idea that it is.
Greil and Rudy (1983) studied conversion to the world view of AA and reported that [t]he process by which individuals affiliate with A.A. entails a radical transformation of personal identity in that A.A. provides the prospective affiliate not merely with a solution to problems related to drinking, but also with an overarching world view with which the convert can and must reinterpret his or her past experience....Our analysis suggests that the central dynamic in the conversion process is coming to accept the opinions of reference others, (p. 6).
[I]t appears...that contact with A.A. is more likely to be accompanied by a greater degree of coercion than...most cases of religious conversion (Greil and Rudy 1983, p. 23).
Alexander and Rollins (1984) described how Lifton's (1961) eight brainwashing techniques used by the Communist Chinese operate in AA. "[T]he authors contend that AA uses all the methods of brainwashing, which are also the methods employed by cults," (Alexander & Rollins,1984, p. 45).
Galanter (1989) has written:
As in the Unification Church workshops, most of
those attending AA
chapter meetings are deeply involved in the group
ethos, and the
expression of views opposed to the group's model of
subtly or expressly discouraged. A good example is the
response to the concept of controlled drinking, an
alcoholism treatment based on limiting alcohol intake
totally abstaining. Some investigators and clinicians
success with this alternative to treatment. The
approach, however, is
unacceptable within the AA tradition, and the option is
anathema to active members. It is rarely brought up by
meetings and suppressed when it is raised. As an
involved in the group, the sponsor monitors the
carefully, assuring that the recruit adheres to the
which the sponsor was drawn; any hint of an interest in
drinking is discouraged. Similar constraints would be
applied if a
recruit questioned the importance of any of the Steps
or the need to
attend meetings regularly.
The issue here is not the relative merit of controlled drinking...it is the way communications are managed in AA. As a charismatic group, AA is able to suppress attitudes that could undermine its traditions," (Galanter 1989, p. 185). (5).
Sadler (1977) writes to that effect when she stated that "AAers seek a relationship with the supernatural in order to cease managing their own lives....The AA concept of control differs significantly from the concept of control presented to drunkards by the rest of society....AA...tells the newcomer that his life is unmanageable and that it is ridiculous for him to try to manage it....By deliberately denying the ability to control their lives, AAers' former drunken situations are brought under control....Most importantly, abstinence is not considered a kind of control. The individual who comes to AA in order to control his drinking will be disappointed. AAers insist that abstinence is possible only when powerlessness is conceded. AA offers supportive interaction in which powerlessness comes to be positively valued," (Sadler 1977, p.208).
When ideas regarding voluntariness, responsibility, and addiction are introduced to members of AA and devout adherents to the disease concept of addiction, people who are usually involved with AA in some way, the following responses are likely to occur (in no particular order):
The person introducing the taboo ideas (the heretic) is belittled and laughed at. Mocking occurs. Derogatory comments are leveled. Name calling often ensues, e.g., the writer was recently called a "thoughtless dweeb," told "you are your own worst enemy," that the writer was a "crackpot psychologist, the kind that can't get tenure because they are always bullying peers and students," a "facist," "doctor baby," an "arrogant son of a bitch," "contemptible," "immature for a guy with a Dr. before his name," and a person engaging in "highly unscientific behavior," who has embarked on a "personal vendetta."
ACCUSATIONS OF MURDER
After the initial mocking and belittling, the criticism appears to take a more serious turn. The ideas presented by the heretic are considered potentially dangerous. People who do not know better will misuse them and kill themselves or others. Thus, the heretic should be held accountable for murder, or the death of another.
The accusation of heretic-as-murderer or potential
murderer can be
leveled as an unintended result of the ideas presented
by the heretic,
in which case forgiveness by some cult members is still
possible; or it
can evolve into rhetoric in which the heretic is
described, or alluded
to, as someone who has a deliberate interest in
lives of cult members in this way.
The heretic then personifies evil in the eyes of cult members. It is at this point that the exchange could become physically dangerous. (6)
YOU'RE ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY
The heretic may also be accused at this point of having an economic investment in his particular point of view. For example, the writer has been accused of trying to pirate potential psychotherapy clients away from AA on more than one occasion in order to make money off of them.
DIAGNOSIS OF MENTAL ILLNESS
Another tangent the cult members often take is to accuse the heretic of being "mentally ill." The taboo ideas are alleged to stem from personal trauma the heretic has not dealt with, and his or her statements in opposition to the group ideology are considered "projections," the function of "denial," an "unconscious" process that is said to be a "symptom" of his or her mental illness. The heretic may be accused of expressing an emotional need to receive negative attention in order to feel good about himself or herself.
Here, the heretic may be confronted on a paternalistic basis: "He is sick. He needs help." At times, cultists may yield and take a more compassionate posture in relation to the heretic at this point, trying to convince the heretic that he/she is sick, and that he/she needs to come to his/her senses.
IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE
There is often an attack on the validity of the heretic's ideas. The heretic's ideas are termed invalid because he or she is not a drug addict. Frequently, the heretic is asked, "have you ever had a drug problem?" Whereas in the DIAGNOSIS OF MENTAL ILLNESS case the motive driving apparent concern is that the heretic's inappropriate behavior is likely to stem from a mental illness, in this case, if the heretic has not had a drug problem or shared in the problems-of-living experienced by cult members, he or she is said to be incapable of speaking from legitimate experience, as it is only by this experience that someone can "know" what the truth is regarding their cult ideology. (7)
A demand for scientific evidence to support the
heretical ideas always emerges. In AA, members often
cite scientific findings to support their claims
regarding involuntariness. That certain medical
organizations have endorsed their ideology is brought
forth as evidence of the veracity of their ideas. When
scientific evidence to the
contrary is presented by the heretic, the research is
said to be too old
to be valid, not extensive enough, subject to diverse
interpretations, and ultimately no match for personal
experience. At times, when scientific information is
brought into the discussion by the heretic,
other scientists will accuse the heretic of unethical
use of knowledge
and influence, and threaten to report him or her to
association in hopes that he or she may become
When the demand for scientific evidence is met by the heretic, a retreat to IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE may occur. One person wrote recently: "You sight [sic] science. I sight experience, strength, hope."
A favorite demand is "don't criticize what is unless you can propose a better way." Another is "your sources are not scientific enough," and "your understanding of science is not sophisticated enough."
The assault on the heretic is based on the idea that facts are cruel and insensitive to people who have done him or her no harm. "Is this the way you treat your friends, (or patients)?"
REDUCTIONISM, TAUTOLOGY, CONTRADICTION, AND NON SEQUITUR
The counter-argument to the heretic involves
philosophical reductionism to the point that few, if
regarding the issues at hand can ever be reached.
arguments evolve. Blatant contradictions emerge, e.g.,
cannot willfully control his drinking, therefore, he
must be abstinent."
Yet, people choose to abstain from drinking alcoholic
alcoholic allegedly cannot choose to control his
he should choose to control his drinking. (8)
Using analogies that don't work is a favorite tactic of cultists. The analogies are often not reciprocal. For example, the alcoholic is seen as like a diabetic. Yet diabetics are not like alcoholics.
Here is a particularly graphic account of the illogical analogy, often employed as non sequitur, by a psychotherapist attempting to "counter resistance to acceptance of the disease concept in alcoholic families," (Henderson, 1984):
Counselor: We are dealing here with an illness. We know it is an illness because it is predictable (it follows a course which we can describe in advance), it is progressive (it gets worse unless it can be brought into remission), and, if untreated, alcoholism is 100% fatal.
Family: All he has to do to straighten up is to want to do it. He just doesn't want to stop drinking. I don't buy that he has a disease.
Counselor: So you see him as just weak-willed. And when he chooses the bottle instead of his family, you feel he doesn't care about you.
Family: Yeah, [t]hat's right. He'll step all
over you. He makes promises
he doesn't keep, and I don't believe he means to keep
them when he makes them.
[Illogical transition occurs here.]
Counselor: Have you ever had diarrhea?
Family: (Laughing a little and looking at the counselor rather strangely) Of course.
Counselor: Did you ever try to control it with willpower?
Family: No. I mean...you can't (still chuckling).
Counselor: Why not?
Family: Well, it's a bacteria or something. There's nothing you can do about it...Oh...
Counselor: You have the idea. Your Dad has an illness he can't fix with willpower because that doesn't stop it. There are things you can do to get diarrhea to stop, just as there are things you can do to stop the active part of alcoholism. But all you can do for both is to set up the conditions under which getting well is possible. It depends on what disease you have. There is a specific treatment for alcoholism...[.] (Henderson, 1984, pp. 118-119)
Something is not an illness simply because it is predictable, nor because it is progressive, nor necessarily fatal if untreated. Not wanting to stop drinking is a sign of an "iron will," not a weak will. The counselor contradicts herself by saying he "chooses" the bottle instead of his family, for on the one hand she asserts the drinker does not have a choice regarding his drinking, and then on the other hand she says he chooses the bottle over his family. Diarrhea is a physical illness. Drinking is a behavior. The two are not the same. People with diarrhea are not like heavy drinkers. The fact that this psychotherapist is unwilling to acknowledge the difference here is a sign of her own problems, problems that masquerade as treatment for the "psycho-pathology" of the family. (9)
For some, those confrontations are enough to shake
them out of their hypnotic daze, arouse their
curiosity, and assist in getting them to
leave the group. Occasionally, a member of the cult may
yield suddenly to the heretic, attempting to practice a
"turn the other
cheek" portion of the ideological doctrine. If a
personal dialogue can
be achieved and continued between a cult member and the
an emotional catharsis may occur for the cultist and
this can become
a major event in breaking the hypnotic spell.
Humor is useful in further diffusing volatile contacts, along with divulging of personal information on the part of the heretic. Those intent on preserving the cult will often go underground and avoid any contact with the heretic whatsoever. (10)
These patterns of response may be useful in analyzing and interpreting exchanges involving vituperation directed at one or several individuals who have either intentionally or not stepped into a nest of vipers, i.e., the cult, a volatile experience, to say the very least.
Many psychologists regard AA as no more cult-like
than numerous other organizations. They consider that
it does more good than harm.
The purpose of this analysis is not to gather evidence that AA serves a destructive rather than constructive purpose in the lives of its adherents, but rather that as a cult, good or bad, there are certain characteristics of its members that may be drawn out when they are confronted with incompatible ideology.
This essay is a commentary based principally on the writer's personal (rather than clinical) experiences. It has not considered the individual's need for cult conformity, an issue that may be explored further. The defensiveness of cult members should also be considered in light of these needs. (see also Berger, 1991).
1. Some members are definitely split in their involvement with the cult. They may value the ideology and not the affiliation, or vice versa. In the former case they hold fast to the ideology, yet do not attend cult functions. In the latter case they hold fast to the affiliation and know very little about the ideology, nor do they seem to care to.
2. These ideas are from Lifton's (1961) study of "brainwashing" in Communist China.
3. Clearly, psychoanalysts have established a cult around the ideas of transference and the mythical "unconscious."
4. That idea was suggested to me by Amos M. Gunsberg, as was the idea of "iron will."
5. The idea of controlled drinking is anathema to members of AA because it completely undermines the role of involuntariness, the cornerstone upon which the disease model of addiction rests.
6. One particularly irate male, over 2000 miles away, persistently "fingered" the writer on Internet, a computer process whereby the login identity of the bulletin-board poster may be ascertained along with a brief biography. Each time it is conducted, the person being "fingered" is alerted, and his or her work is interrupted while on-line.
7. The research on vicarious or observational learning shows that people learn through the experience of others. As one psychotherapist describes this: "Have you ever put your hand in a rattlesnake pit? Why not?" The point here being that people don't have to put their hands in a rattlesnake pit to know there is a good chance they will be bitten should they choose to do so. (A. Gunsberg, personal communication, July 1993).
8. The idea here is similar to Lifton's (1961) discussion regarding the "thought-terminating cliche."
9. This is a projection of the therapist's.
10. On computer bulletin boards this may involve a group consensus to establish a "kill file." A kill file automatically keeps their computers from printing anything by the heretic on screen. Thus, they are protected from anxiety.
11. I am grateful to several anonymous reviewers at the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic for their comments regarding an earlier draft of this essay.
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Jeffrey A. Schaler is a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at American University's School of Public Affairs, Washington, D.C.