Title: Toward a new model of "cult control" by Robert Vaughn Young
writer@eskimo.com (Robert Vaughn Young)
Date: 23 Feb 2000 00:23:38 GMT

Monday, February 21, 2000

By Robert Vaughn Young

(Preface: I am making this long post to ARS because I am stepping away
from this work and I want to get it into the hands of people who study or
are concerned with this issue. I do not know who has taken this view. It
is merely my perspective and opinion and can certainly prompt debate, not
to mention screams of horror from any cult. I just want it to be seriously
considered by the professionals who deal with this. Others should be
interviewed on it and the model developed and tested. Nor do I think it is
the only model. I merely think it might help some who could not be helped
before. I only ask that someone provide a copy of this to whoever might be
interested in the issue of "cult control.") 

After I left Scientology in 1989 with 21 years in the cult, the hardest
question people posed to me was why I stayed in it so long if I knew it
was such an abusive system. I didn't have an answer that satisfied me, let
alone anyone else. I think I've come up with a reply and a model. It at
least satisfies me today.

My own background and basic interests also demanded an answer to that
question. I had a pursued and obtained a BA in philosophy (from what was
then known as San Francisco State College) because of a strong interest in
what we called philosophy of behavior/mind/psychology. (The choice often
depended on the school, as well as the emphasis within the field.)  

I was then accepted into the PhD program at the University of California
at Davis. I picked them because they had a strong program in this new,
growing field of study. (Twenty years later I discovered that the field of
"cognitive science" had emerged with entire departments devoted to it and
PhDs being granted at some universities. Cognitive Science is a blend of
philosophy, psychology and some computer science, namely in the area of AI
or artificial intelligence, which was exactly what I was looking for. AI
was posing new philosophical problems but back in the late 1960s,
departments had yet to integrate them as full subjects.) 

It was this interest of mine that prompted me to read Hubbard. I was
intrigued with elements of his philosophy, namely some of the
epistemological and cosmological presentations. Scientology's Dept 20/RTC
and their attorneys (especially in my last deposition in Tampa a couple of
weeks ago) can't grasp this. When they ask why I got into Scientology,
they make all sorts of assumptions, from "personal improvement" to my
wanting to join a religion. No, I say, trying to explain, but it never
sticks. For an "applied religious philosophy" they haven't a clue what
"philosophy" even means, let alone "religious philosophy." (They think
that a "religious philosophy" is a religion. Get a clue!) But then,
Hubbard didn't understand it either, as I finally came to learn. 

Which brings it back to the issue of why I stayed. There was one incident
that happened in 1988 that I kept as my litmus test. I knew if I could
understand it, I could understand it all. 

I was on the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) at "Golden Era Studios" at
Gilman Hot Springs CA. (For the sake of brevity, let's skip why I was
there and the way it works and the like and just cut to the chase.
Besides, it's irrelevant to the point I'm making and I think I've written
about it before.) My situation had deteriorated to the point that I was
afraid I was either going to go crazy on the RPF or die so I escaped one
night. They found me at a motel in nearby Hemet and wanted to talk. I said
okay and the next thing I knew, I agreed to return to the "program" and to
finish the RPF. I did and was on it another 5-6 months (total 16 months)
before "graduating." 

Here is my litmus test. More than why did I stay in here, why did I return
if I felt it was so abusive that I escaped? And here's the kicker: they
TALKED me back in. They didn't lay a hand on me. By just talking with me,
they convinced me to give up what I had planned for weeks and executed.
They convinced me to go back to the very condition that I feared would
kill me. Why did I do it? 

And this must be remembered: I can look back (11 years after fleeing) and
see that I was right to escape the RPF and wrong to return. So why did I
return and then stay? 

Here's where the "mind control" advocates might argue their point. After
all, isn't this what "mind control" is all about where I was "controlled"
to do something that was inherently against my will? 

Or the "brainwashing" school might give their explanation from that
perspective. After 21 years in the cult, they might say, I was
"conditioned" and like some "Manchurian Candidate" or Pavlovian dog,
someone merely rang some bell or pushed a button and I complied.

I never bought either model. As I tried to understand, I read some
articles by "experts" on the subject of "cult control" but they just
didn't fit. It was like putting on an expensive but oversized coat that
hung off the fingertips and draped across me like a double-breasted. Yeah,
it was a "coat" and the "label" was impressive but…

I wondered if it was me. Maybe I resented the idea that I had been
"brainwashed" or there was "mind control" and so that was why I didn't
like the theories. I found myself in an amusing situation where I was
agreeing with the cult that the models didn't work but there was still
SOMEthing, some point of control. Why was I talked back into a situation
that I detested and that I could look back on years later and agree, yes,
something else was at work. There WAS some sort of "control" but "mind
control"? It didn't work. 

It wasn't until my first trip to Wellspring that I found the model that
worked for me. It had nothing to do with them. It was some books that were
on their shelves that I was reading in my spare time that let me realize
the model that worked for me: the battered or abused woman. The idea
didn't take hold fully then. It took further reading (including some on
the Web) some months later to bring it together. 

Various "experts" can (and do) argue if "mind control" or "brainwashing"
really exists or if we are just talking about various forms of "influence"
that is found in everything from advertising to conversations. But they
can't argue with the fact that there are battered/abused women who stay in
abusive situations and there are women who flee and when found by the
husband are talked BACK into the very relationship they tried to escape
and then it repeats. 

Until a very few years ago, our society didn't even ADMIT to these women,
let alone try to help them or try to understand the phenomenon. Being the
male-dominated society we are, it was even legal in many states for a
husband to hit his wife, and may still be. If a woman went to the police,
they simply called the husband. But now women are stepping forward and it
isn't easy. It is like being a rape victim and speaking out. It takes
courage and it took some women to force this issue on our (American)
male-dominated society and MAKE it an issue. That is why it is a new
issue. It is not that it hasn't existed. It has undoubtedly existed for as
long as there have been men and women but - like civil rights and other
issues - it took some "victims" FORCING the issue before anyone even
admitted that it existed. 

The first time I saw the parallel between my own experiences in the cult
of Scientology and battered women was when I was reading "Captive Hearts,
Captive Minds," which is an excellent book. It was in the Intro or maybe
the first chapter that they cited and quoted the singer Tina Turner who
had been in an abusive relationship for something like 10 or 15 years. She
remarked how being with Ike Turner was like being in a small cult. The
remark jumped off the page at me. Given the success of Tina Turner as an
entertainer, one is not prone to say she is a stupid woman but there she
was in a marriage where she was beaten constantly and yet she stayed. When
she finally escaped, as she tells her story, it was after a beating that
left her head so swollen that she couldn't put on a wig. She wrapped her
head in a scarf and fled, taking no money or anything and finally got away
from Ike Turner. 

One wonders how often she has been asked since, "Tina, you're such a
talented woman, so intelligent, how could you stay with a man for 10/15
years who was beating you?" Maybe she has an answer in her autobiography.
I don't know. It is on my to-read list. But I know she was asked that
question. Every woman who escapes a man who has been beating them must get
that question and it is probably the hardest one in the world to answer.
After all, it's not that you don't KNOW you're getting beaten. And it
didn't happen just once. Nor twice. It happens week after week, month
after month, year after year. 

Nor are these women locked up. The husband goes off to work, for example,
and she has a car. She gets in the car and she goes to the store, buys
food, and brings it home, to the very place where she is being beaten and
she makes dinner. She doesn't keep driving. SHE COMES BACK. To what? More

There are also plenty of cases where the women DID escape, where they
finally got up their courage and maybe grabbing the kids, they fled and
the man managed to find them. Then, with no physical abuse, he TALKED HER
BACK. And then when the abuse started again, she stayed. Some leave, but
some stay. 

When I began to see the parallel between my own experience and these
women, I went back and re-read Lifton's 10 or however many points that he
makes for his model and I realized that it was based on studying prisoners
of war! That was hardly a secret but when he and others were making their
models of "mind control" or "brainwashing" or however you call it,
battered women weren't even a subject which, for me, was a telling
difference. After all, what repatriated prisoner of war says he wants to
go back? What prisoner of war was let out of their cell and allowed to go
into the city to relax and then went back to the prison where they were
abused and tortured? THAT, for me, is where the model breaks down and
where the model of the abused or battered woman takes over. 

Even before I realized how the plight of the abused woman paralleled my
situation, I used to wonder how people from East Germany were able to
cross into Berlin to shop and then would return. If conditions in East
Berlin were as bad as we were being told in the West, how could they step
into the West, see the difference, buy the things they didn't have back
home and then return? I don't cite this as an exact parallel, but there is
a similarity. Why would a person go BACK to a condition that is worse? I
don't think "mind control" or "brainwashing" fits that situation any more
than it fits the abused woman or that it fit mine.

One day talking with someone about this new idea that I had, I mentioned
the East German parallel and the person made an excellent point. "East
Germany was their home," she said. "People don't easily leave their homes
unless they have someplace better to go." 

And that nearly tied the two together for me, as well as back into my
situation. Where can the abused woman go? Can she just take off for
nowhere? I don't know. I do know that when I escaped the RPF, I didn't
have anywhere to GO, which was why I went to a motel. (There was another
reason but it is somewhat immaterial for this point.) When Stacy and I
successfully fled in 1989, we were in the same bind. We didn't have
anyplace to GO. We knew that the cult had the names and addresses and
phone numbers of every single family member and friend. If nothing else,
our mail had been monitored and read for years and there is no doubt in my
mind that the already-existing list was expanded from that monitoring.
(Their excuse for opening and reading all mail that comes to staff at the
org is to watch for billings to the org. It is a Hubbard policy. Staff are
then pulled in and interrogated about mail considered suspicious.) 

Knowing that they had such a list, we knew we could not go to any of those
people so we just hit the road and drove. I had already been talked back
in once. And there was one other time when I tried to escape and got as
far as the gate and was talked back. So that was one thing I knew I had to
avoid. I had to get enough space and time to get my own wits about me to
fend off another attempt, if they could find us. 

That is also why I believe cult members have to escape in secret: they are
afraid they will be talked back in or convinced to stay. I know what that
feels like.

After I began to apply the abused or battered woman model (for want of
better words) to my own situation, I had an inadvertent and unintentional
opportunity to test it and I will never forget the experience. I was back
on Vashon Island, sometime in 1999, where I had been living. (For those
who don't know, Vashon is an island in Puget Sound.) Vashon is an
incredibly unique community. When you live there, you are an "islander"
and it grants you a number of unstated privileges. It took me a long time
to realize what it reminded me of. It is what the Old West (in the US)
used to be like. A person was accepted for who they said they were until
they proved otherwise. You answered to the locals, not outsiders. That was
how Vashon islanders lived.

There were two bars on the island, across the street from each other. One
of them was where the "kids" and off-islanders hung out. It had a pool
table and a big screen TV for watching games. The other was quiet, sedate
and for the "old timers" who knew each other and everything that was
happening on the island. Even if you were new on the island, by the time
you visited, they knew you and more than you imagined. It was the sort of
place where you could sit down, have a beer and catch up on the local
gossip. Any visitors to the island looking for a place to hang out would
stick their heads in and then leave and choose the one across the street,
leaving us to our own rhythm. It was also a place where you could just sit
and if you wanted to be alone, you were left alone. It was that sort of

One night I went in, getting the usual hi's and nods and maybe a slap on
the back or giving one in return. 'Hey, where ya been!" someone asked.
"Oh, hanging around," I answered. Such a reply would be enough. If I
wanted to say more, I would. No one would pry. I pulled up a bar stool,
ordered a beer and sat watching ESPN. It was the only acceptable station
because one could watch it with no sound, and it was kept at no sound so
people could play the juke box if they wanted. 

I was there relaxing for about 15 minutes when a woman sat down next to
me. More out of reflex than anything else, I turned and looked and nodded
and she nodded back. Then I went back to the TV to watch how the Mariners
were doing. The barkeep said hi to her in a way that meant she was a

After a couple of minutes she spoke up. "You're the one they've been
picketing, aren't you?" 

I turned to her. She was sipping on her beer. She was maybe 45 and dressed
as islanders dress. (Nine times out of ten, you can spot an off-islander
by their attire.) She was clearly a local, although I didn't recognize
her. That was easy enough on this island. "Yeah," I said. 

"How's it going? They still doing it?" 

No, I said, it's been quiet lately. She told me how she thought it was
terrible, how they come onto the island like that. It's not how islanders
behave, she said. Yeah, I replied with a shrug. They just don't get it. 

"I saw you on the 'Dateline' show," she said. I nodded as she remarked
some more about it. Finally she asked the question. "So how long were you
in Scientology?" 

"About 21 years," I said. 

"Wow," she said actually surprised. "If it really is as bad as I hear, how
could you stay in it that long?" 

There it was, that same question. Well, this time I had a new answer. 

"I guess that's like asking an abused women why she stayed in that
relationship for so long when…" 

She suddenly turned to me and raised her hands in front of her, one of
those "halt" motions and said, "Say no more! I just ended an abusive
marriage of 12 years. I know exactly what you are talking about." 

And right there, we became friends. We had something in common. 

We exchanged a few more words on the subject of coming to one's senses and
then the entire subject was dropped. Neither of us were interested in it.
We each understood the other fully and spent the next hour talking about
the island, the Mariners and other pleasantries of life until she finally
paid her bill and got off the stool, shook my hand, wished me well and
said she'd tell her friends about us. 

After she left and in the year since, I've thought about that conversation
many times, how there was an instant connection by her, an immediate
recognition. She never said how long it had been since she ended the
marriage but it had probably been long enough to be asked the same
question that she found herself asking me. But it was by an incredibly
stroke of luck that the first person I said that to happened to be a women
who escaped from an abusive relationship. It could have been someone who
would have let me finish my statement and said, "You know, I've never
understood that either," but it wasn't. It was a woman who said, say no
more, I know exactly what you're talking about. And she did. Our
situations were entirely different but they were the same. 

After that I realized that for the first time I had a model that I could
use in the most difficult situations and the understanding would be based
on that person's grasp of the situation of the abused woman. With this
model/analogy, I could go on the "Oprah" show and with that response she
would get it, as would millions of women watching the show. Nothing else
would be needed. There wouldn't have to be arguments about "mind control"
or "brainwashing" and if it really exists. Abused women exist and whatever
keeps them there or brings them back, it happens. That fact cannot be

Now that I've made my point, let me expand it. In my opinion, this
model/analogy extends much further than the control of a cult. I think it
can be found in jobs where the person feels trapped and wants to leave but
can't. There might be a difference that the "boss" may not try to talk
them back, but I think this model/analogy goes farther than merely cults
and abused women. That would be up to others to pursue. My point is that
I'm not targeting Scientology. The model worked for me in my situation and
I think it would help others who have had difficulty understanding the
"control" they felt. It helped me because it lifted out of the subjects of
"mind control" and "brainwashing" and told me that it was not exclusive to
the cult. In turn, I understood - or at least sympathized - with the
plight of the abused woman. I no longer wondered why they stayed or
returned. I didn't have an answer, but I was no longer puzzled. 

At my last deposition in Tampa, there was a point where this came up. I
don't recall what it was but I was asked something that prompted me to say
that I thought the abused woman syndrome was a good model for what I had
experienced. Of course, there were the guffaws and laughs of severe denial
from their part. It is to be expected from the abusers, isn't it? No
abusive husband admits to it and no abusive cult will either and for the
same reasons. 

Before closing, let me make a couple more points of parallel. 

No abusive relationship starts that way. In fact, the chances are that if
the guy had slapped her on the first date, there wouldn't be a second one.
No, the abusive relationship starts with sweetness. When I was reading
about abusive relationships, that came up constantly, how the guy was so
nice and sweet. No, the abuse is gradual. It starts with some criticism
and when the woman accepts it, then there is a little bit more. When she
accepts that, the man does more as he introduces CONTROL. If she protests,
he backs off until he can reestablish the control. It is called a
GRADIENT. (Ironically, Scientologists will be familiar with that word.)
The woman comes to accept more and more and becomes convinced that it is
something SHE is doing wrong. As it is increased, the sweetness tapers off
until it is finally dangled in front of her like a carrot. Somewhere along
the line, the physical abuse starts. If she breaks too hard, he is sweet
and comforting and maybe even apologetic, bringing her back under control.
That is the key. CONTROL. (Another word Scientologists know well. Hubbard
even had his own definition for it and processing addressing control.)
Then one day the beatings are regular and she loses her self-respect and

Let me draw another parallel to my own situation. I mentioned in one of my
other posts to ARS that I am making with this one about the woman who
asked me if there was anything anyone could have said to me to change my
mind while I was in Scientology. No one had asked me that and I realized -
and told her - that no, there was nothing anyone could have said. 

That happens with the abused woman too. I read how they would later
recount the advice of friends who kept telling them that their
husband/lover was abusing them and that they should leave. I don't recall
any who said, you know, you're right! I'm going to leave him! No, they
explained the abuse! They would say - actually believing it, until they
finally escaped - that he was really a nice guy, that he was
misunderstood, that he was trying, that they would work things out, etc.,
etc., etc. 

You know who usually changes the woman's mind? The abuser. Those who flee
- like Tina Turner - simply say one day, I've had enough, and escape. Some
do it sooner. Some later. Until that moment, they rationalize their
situation. Friends or family might be able to intervene but not in the
hard core cases. In those instances, the abuser is the only one who can
change the person's mind. 

Until then money and resources are also a factor. People stay in abusive
situations because they have no money or anywhere else to go. Maybe if the
abused woman had $100,000 in the bank she would have given him the finger
and taken off long before. But what abuser would allow the woman to keep
that money for herself? (I have yet to learn of a Sea Organization member
who escaped with ample personal resources. The amount of money one has on
joining - if any - is quickly discovered and one is convinced to spend it
on the cult, thus effectively wiping out any resources.) These are the
points that have to be researched to understand this phenomenon and to
offer help.

Meanwhile you might ask, how can a person rationalize a beating? Good
question indeed. If the plight of the abused women had been known longer
than it has, maybe we would have a better understanding. Each woman will
have her own answer but until we get a grasp of it the fact remains that
it exists and there are some disturbing parallels between them and cult
members. I wasn't "abused" when I joined. It was like the "love bombing"
found in another cult. Everything is wonderful and the future is bright
and this is the place to be. Then one day, there is a little "correction."
If one balks, one is talked through it gently until it is grasped and one
is willing to accept it. The next one is attached to that one. ("Remember
how well we did last time when you were able to understand it and you had
a win?") And the next until one day you find yourself working 12 hours a
day at hard labor, under guard, seven days a week, unable to talk to
friends and family, your body racked in pain and undergoing constant
interrogation to give up your "crimes" and you accept it as necessary for
your own "rehabilitation." And if you try to escape and they catch you,
you can be talked back to the very same situation and you convince
yourself that this is right as you haul the next load of rocks out in 110
degree heat and a blazing sun for $5 a week. It is all part of your

No, when people asked me how I could stay for so long when I knew it was
abusive, that's a loaded question. I didn't know it any more than the
abused woman knew it. I kept telling myself that they really are okay,
that it must be my fault, that it is being done to help me and things
really will get better. I carried that attitude right into the RPF until
one day I broke and decided to escape. Then they talked me back and I was
convinced that it would get better. All they did was back up the gradient
to where I would accept the control. 

That is another place where I find that the "mind control/brainwashing"
models break down. It is crucial in cult control that the person feel in
control and in fact IS "in control." One is always making the decision to
stay. To that degree, it is "consensual." But how "consensual" is the
abused woman? Just because she has the freedom to drive to the store and
back and no one is keeping her in chains, does that mean she is
"consenting" to her situation? Can the husband argue that he isn't
"controlling" her because she has that freedom? Then what IS "consent"?
That may be a legal quandary as much as a psychological one but I don't
think we are ready to walk away from the woman being beaten, saying she is
"consenting to it," are we? 

Thanks to video cameras, we can watch shows like "Cops" where the police
are called out to a real life "domestic disturbance." If you have watched
that show enough, you finally saw the all-to-familiar scene of the woman
with a bloody nose who has clearly been beaten (the cops were called by
neighbors hearing the fight) and is standing there explaining it all away,
insisting that the police take no action. No, she's fine, she says. No,
it's nothing. To the questions from the police about the bloody nose or
the swelling around the eyes, she'll say anything but the facts, that he
was beating her. Do we need more evidence? There are the very people - the
police - who can take him off to jail and end the abuse if she will simply
speak up and she refuses while wiping the blood from her nose or pulling
the torn clothing up around her shoulder and telling them that everything
is okay. Of course, the police cannot legally intervene unless she
complains and she will not.

Now let me make a harrowing admission. If the police had shown up that day
when I was at the motel trying to escape, when the security guards were
parked outside to make sure I didn't disappear on them, and if the police
had asked me if everything was okay or if I needed any help, do you know
what I would have said and done? The same thing as that woman. No, it's
fine, I would have said. I'll handle it. It stuns me to think it, let
alone say it right now, but that is the truth. That is exactly what I
would have done. And do you know why? Because I didn't want to be in
trouble with the cult. If you can figure that one out, give it to the

That is why people who flee the cult - even into the arms of the
authorities - can be talked back. They can no more say "help me" than the
woman standing there with a bloody nose can tell the police. Give them a
few days rest and time to get their wits about them and maybe they can.
That is why those first few hours or days are crucial. The more time the
person gets away from the person suppressing them, the more they recover
their own sense of self. That, of course, infuriates the abuser, until
he/they finally give up and look for their next victim. Meanwhile, some
degree of control remains until the person finally sheds it. 

And don't think that all abused women are abused physically. The abuse
might be merely verbal, with other controls like control of money, sleep,
clothing, friends, beliefs, free time etc. (Gee, sound familiar?) 

Now if one were interested in studying the "abused woman" syndrome, who
would one study? This may sound like a ridiculous question but it goes to
a point the cult is making. 

First of all, one has to decide if such women exist. (This may sound like
I'm contradicting myself but hang on.) How does one decide? The obvious
answer would seem to be the stories of women themselves. But can we
believe them? Maybe they are making it up. So let's ignore them for the
moment and go to marriages/relationships and ask the women, are you
abused? Let's ask the men, are you abusing this woman? What sort of answer
will we get? Done in this way, we can conclusively "prove" that there are
no abused women because all of the women - including the ones with the
bloody noses - will deny it as will the men. Case closed. No woman is

That is exactly what the cult is doing. They are saying that those who
have left and claim abuse are "apostates" (one who has abandoned one's
belief or cause) and can't be believed. (They even paid some "experts" to
"conclude" this.) Meanwhile, they will suggest, all you have to do is ask
Scientologists if they feel abused. In fact, you can even go into the RPF
and ask and chances are (unless there is one rocky one who will be quickly
stashed somewhere else) they will respond to the man and woman that they
are not being abused. Case closed. No one is abused. 

In other words, as long as we listen to someone who has abandoned a belief
or a cause (from a marriage to a "religion") cannot be believed. 

And that is one of the reasons why abused women were not believed until
just a few years ago. Think on that. Women have been abused for thousands
of years and it wasn't until a few years ago that it was even admitted
that it happened and that something should be done about it. How many
women went to the police and were turned away or were killed or destroyed
before someone believed them? How many have simply fled and disappeared
and are still too ashamed to talk, preferring to just live quiet lives
where they can choose their own friends, have their own bank accounts,
pick their own meals, select their own clothes, keep private diaries and
not have to answer or explain themselves again? Can anyone imagine what a
joy that is to a person whose life was controlled down to the point of
what it was they could say or believe, where their very thoughts and
opinions were monitored, that they can now forget it? How many women are
out there? Compare that to how many go to the authorities or champion the
cause of abused women and take it to the media and the courts. How many of
THOSE are there? Three? Five? Ten? Should these "apostates" be believed? 

How many ex-cult members are there? How many have of them have spoken out?
Three? Five? Ten? Should these "apostates" be believed? 

I think there are many, many reasons to draw a parallel between the two
groups not only in their situation but in those who speak out and I hope
that this might spark some interest within some professional circle. I'm
no more an "expert" on sociological parallels than that woman with the
bloody nose is an expert but we do have a level of understanding. 

Robert Vaughn Young
copyright (c) Robert Vaughn Young
all rights reserved