“People in a cult don’t know they’re in a cult; people being brainwashed don’t know they’re being brainwashed.”
Dr. Alexandra Stein is an educator and author specializing in the dynamics of cults and extremist groups. Before receiving her doctorate and dedicating her life to helping people learn about and identify the signs of unhealthy relationships, she was unknowingly recruited into a highly controlling leftist cult that she remained a part of for 10 years.
Dr. Stein joins BTRtoday to discuss her work, her life experiences, her prescription for avoiding dangerous and exploitative relationships, and why anybody is susceptible to being brainwashed.
BTRtoday (BTR): You recently published your second book, “Terror Love And Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults And Totalitarian Systems.” Can you tell us about it?
Alexandra Stein (AS): Yes, this is the follow-up to the doctorate I did at University Of Minnesota. For that study, I was trying to look at the differences between a healthy political group and an unhealthy one. A democratic versus cultic type of group. I looked at the Green Party as the more or less healthy one, and this New York-based group called The Newman Tendency as an unhealthy one, where people had come out and told pretty horrific stories about how controlling it was.
After I did that study, I wanted to broaden and really look at a whole variety of groups globally: from Jehovah’s Witnesses, to ISIS, up to a state like North Korea, and then back down again to these little yoga cults that I run into. Just to show how there is a core dynamic that is the same in a controlling relationship, whether it’s one on one, or small to medium and large groups of people. There are these basic, unhealthy dynamics that go on where the person at the top is hugely over-controlling of the followers. I was looking at that in the book.
BTR: When you were a young woman, you were actually brought into a Marxist-Leninist cult. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
AS: Yes, I was, and that is my motivation for doing this study. I was about 26 when I was first exposed to this group, and I got out about 10 years later, at 36, having had my life turned upside down. After I got out, I was very motivated to understand my own experience.
Part of doing that was to write my first book, a memoir which details my experience, called “Inside Out.” Then I went and studied–I wanted to broaden it, because I really wanted to prevent other young people from having that experience. Being in a cult is not a happy experience. It’s boring, it’s abusive, and it screws up your life for a long time afterwards.
I really wanted to explain it in different ways, to help young people (although old people get recruited too, it’s not just young people) to be better equipped to spot that kind of seductive come-on when it crosses their path.
BTR: Could you take us back to the moment in time when you entered this cult?
AS: I had been living in San Francisco, in Berkeley, and I was having a pretty good time. I was quite politically active in the 1970s, and also having fun, and doing a variety of things, and having a pretty good community around me. Then that sort of started drifting apart when Reagan was elected. The political climate changed.
I didn’t want to join a cult. People often ask me, “Why did you join a cult?” and well, no, I joined a group that I thought was fighting for social justice. That’s kind of what I was about, I had that in my background…That was just who I was.
I had no idea this group was a cult. They told me they had child-care centers for working women, and healthcare centers, and they were organizing poor women, and I was interested in that.
Cults work like that; they start with something that looks attractive. That was attractive to me.
BTR: So, it started out as something that felt positive. How did it start to become negative?
I gradually had to increase my commitment over time. And that was okay with me as well, because I felt that to fight for social justice you should be serious about it and put your money where your mouth is. With those sorts of things I got more deeply into it. But the real warning sign, that had I been educated about would’ve helped me, was that I was becoming isolated from my previous set of friends, and from my family.
That’s really the number one thing that I want to get across: Any relationship and any group that starts telling you “Don’t hang out with those friends anymore, they’re holding you back,” or “You don’t need those other people, all you need is me,” (which is often the case with an abusive boyfriend or girlfriend) is unhealthy. Once somebody starts isolating you, that gives them an awful lot of power. And I didn’t know that.
There were all sorts of reasons they were isolating us; they did literally say that certain friends were holding me back. They didn’t say they were isolating us, they just said that we had to spend all of our time working on the cause.
BTR: At what point did you start to realize that you were being brainwashed?
AS: I didn’t really know that until after I left. That’s the thing: People in a cult don’t know they’re in a cult, people being brainwashed don’t know they’re being brainwashed. They hardly know they’re unhappy. They are unhappy, but you haven’t got time or the mental capacity to really think about it, you’re just kind of trying to get through the day. You’re in survival mode…
When somebody starts making you frightened of everything, and making themselves the only supposed safe space, that’s the lock. That’s the emotional lock. You’re not able to think about it in a clear way.
I’m a very analytical person by nature, and I was not able to use that analytical part of my mind in terms of that relationship with the group until I got out. That part of your mind gets sort of disabled by the chronic fear that’s going on in the group. That’s what happened to me.
We were controlled so minutely. I was told more or less who to marry, I was told how to dress, you were certainly told what job to have. I had a very tight schedule; we had to fill out time-tables of 24 hours, showing what you were doing every hour of every day and that was sent up the chain of command.
My experience is not unusual. This is what happens in all kinds of cults in different ways.
BTR: Can you explain the role of a leader in these brainwashing situations?
AS: The leader has control, and starts the cult, and dictates everything, and dictates the beliefs…That is very integral to the nature of a cult. In my book I talk about how they have a very particular personality, which is charismatic and also authoritarian.
In other words, they’re a charismatic bully…you have to have both of those pieces to draw people in, with the charisma part, and at the same time to want to control them in that total way, which is the bully part.
There are charismatic people who aren’t bullies, like Nelson Mandela, they do marvelous things. If you add that bullying quality to it, it becomes dangerous. So be careful of charismatic people who are also not very nice, and start telling you what to do, and start isolating you. That’s dangerous.
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