I came across this article as I began a new book, Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation (2014), by Daniel Shaw. Here is the blurb for the book, which reveals why I picked this for my next read:
In this volume, Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, Daniel Shaw presents a way of understanding the traumatic impact of narcissism as it is engendered developmentally, and as it is enacted relationally. Focusing on the dynamics of narcissism in interpersonal relations, Shaw describes the relational system of what he terms the 'traumatizing narcissist' as a system of subjugation – the objectification of one person in a relationship as the means of enforcing the dominance of the subjectivity of the other.The developmental trauma angle is the piece that is most interesting to me as a therapist (so many of the clients I see suffered childhoods with narcissistic parents, and they carry wounds invisible to most people, including other therapists), but I am also interested in the cult leader/abusive teacher angle on this - for obvious reasons if you have been a long-time reader of this blog.
Daniel Shaw illustrates the workings of this relational system of subjugation in a variety of contexts: theorizing traumatic narcissism as an intergenerationally transmitted relational/developmental trauma; and exploring the clinician's experience working with the adult children of traumatizing narcissists. He explores the relationship of cult leaders and their followers, and examines how traumatic narcissism has lingered vestigially in some aspects of the psychoanalytic profession.
Bringing together theories of trauma and attachment, intersubjectivity and complementarity, and the rich clinical sensibility of the Relational Psychoanalysis tradition, Shaw demonstrates how narcissism can best be understood not merely as character, but as the result of the specific trauma of subjugation, in which one person is required to become the object for a significant other who demands hegemonic subjectivity. Traumatic Narcissism presents therapeutic clinical opportunities not only for psychoanalysts of different schools, but for all mental health professionals working with a wide variety of modalities. Although primarily intended for the professional psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, this is also a book that therapy patients and lay readers will find highly readable and illuminating.
In the introduction to Traumatic Narcissism, Shaw mentions an article from 2003, Traumatic Abuse in Cults, and how popular and read that original article was on the web, where it is freely available.
Long-time readers are no doubt aware of my efforts to shine a critical light on a couple of abusive gurus in the integral spiritual community. This article explains their original wounding and how that gets played out in the abuse and subjugation of the follower/student.
So I found the 2003 article and want to share parts of it here, for you, so that you have a better sense of the risks inherent in being wooed by a narcissistic teacher, guru, or clergy member. And woo is the correct word - these people often are charming, charismatic, and use seduction as a means to bring you into their sphere of control.
Once once of these "teachers" gain a new follower, there is a progressive erosion of freedom, autonomy of both thought and feeling, and a coercive effort to isolate the follower from outside influence. For better understanding of how this control system works, see my post on Steve Hassan's BITE model of mind control.
So, then, here are parts of Shaw's 2003 article (the PDF is 31 pages). The original publication was in Cultic Studies Review, 2:2 (2003): 101-130.
It is worth mentioning that the "cult" Shaw was part of for 10 years (the Siddya Yoga group around its original guru, Swami Muktananda) is the same cult in which Marc Gafni's most loyal defender, Sally Kempton, was a leading member and public apologist, even after Muktananda's sexual abuse of students had been brought to light (see O Guru, Guru, Guru, an article the originally appeared in The New Yorker [pay-walled] and is fully reprinted at Leaving Siddha Yoga)..
Daniel Shaw, CSW
AbstractUsing his ten year experience in Siddha Yoga under the leadership of Gurumayi, the author presents psychoanalytic conceptualizations of narcissism in an effort to develop a way of understanding cult leaders and their followers, and especially of traumatic abuse in cults from the follower's perspective. A psychoanalytically informed treatment approach for working with recovering cult followers is proposed, consisting of providing: 1) an understanding of the leader's extreme dependence on the follower's submission and psychological enslavement; 2) a clear, firm, and detailed understanding of the leader's abusiveness; and 3) an exploration of normative and/or traumatic developmental issues for the follower, as part of a process of making sense of and giving meaning to the follower's experience.
When I began graduate school in social work in September of 1994, it had been just two years since I moved out of the spiritual community, the ashram, I had lived and worked in for more than 10 years, up until my 40th birthday. In those two post-ashram years, while still considering myself devoted to the guru and the spiritual path I had chosen, I did a good deal of soul searching, much of it through the process of psychotherapy. One of the uses I made of psychotherapy was to explore my career options, and I eventually chose toseek the necessary education and training to become a psychotherapist myself. In my first social work field placement, many of the clients I was assigned described terrible histories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in childhood, and in some cases were involved in ongoing abuse, either as perpetrators or victims. Many of these clients were struggling to recover from devastating addictions. Although my own life has been something of a bed of roses in comparison with the suffering these clients have known, I soon discovered I had a deeper connection to their experiences than I at first realized.
I had always portrayed my participation in Siddha Yoga (also known as SYDA), to myself and others, as an idealistic commitment to a noble spiritual path, dedicated to spiritual awakening and upliftment in the world. Just after school began, my perceptions were shattered when I learned of an incident concerning a friend of mine, a young woman just turned 21, who was sexually harassed in the ashram by one of its most powerful male leaders. When she sought help from Gurumayi, the now 48-year-old female Indian guru who is the head of the ashram, Gurumayi told the young woman, with contempt and disdain, that she had brought the harassment upon herself. Through her chief assistant, Gurumayi warned the young woman, "don't ever tell anyone about this, especially not your mother." The woman's mother, who had made substantial donations to the ashram over the years, was a long-time devotee of Gurumayi’s. After two years of intense inner conflict, the young woman finally did tell her story. As a result, many others began to speak out, eventually contributing to an extensive exposé of
SYDA in The New Yorker magazine (Harris, 1994). Published just two months after I started graduate school, the article revealed a Pandora's box of well-documented abuses by the leaders of SYDA that had been going on for more than 20 years.
In the two years prior to the publication of the article, I had slowly and painfully begun to acknowledge to myself and others that there were aspects of SYDA and its leaders that I found unethical and disturbing. In particular, I had witnessed and personally experienced Gurumayi verbally and emotionally abusing her followers, publicly shaming and humiliating those with whom she was displeased in cruel and harsh ways. I had heard her tell lies and witnessed her deliberately deceiving others. I witnessed her condoning and encouraging illegal and unethical business and labor practices, such as smuggling gold and U.S. dollars in and out of India, and exploiting workers without providing adequate housing, food, health care, or social security. I was aware that for many years, Gurumayi, and her predecessor, Swami Muktananda, had been using spies, hidden cameras, and microphones to gather information about followers in the ashram. I had heard whispers that Muktananda, contrary to his claims of celibacy and renunciation, had extensive sexual relations with female followers, which he then lied about and attempted to cover up with threats of violence to those who sought to expose him. Later, after I exited Siddha Yoga in 1994, I came to recognize in Muktananda’s and Gurumayi’s behavior toward their followers the hallmarks of abuse: the use of power to seduce, coerce, belittle, humiliate, and intimidate others for the ultimate purpose of psychological enslavement and parasitic exploitation.
I had deeply suppressed my doubts about SYDA for many years, but they suddenly and dramatically crystallized when I heard the story of the young woman I knew. In the phrase, "Don't ever tell anyone about this, especially not your mother," I heard a chilling echo of the voice of the incestuous father, the battering husband, the sexual harasser, the rapist. As Judith Herman says, in her seminal work entitled Trauma and Recovery (1992), "secrecy and silence are the perpetrator's first line of defense" (p. 8). It was hearing these words, "Don't ever tell," that broke for me what Ernst Becker (1973) has called "the spell cast by persons -- the nexus of unfreedom." I recognized that, like many of my social work clients who were abused as children by their parents, I too had been subjected to abuse—by the person I called my guru.'
In this paper I will: 1) present a psychoanalytic conceptualization of the psychopathology of the cult leader; 2) discuss ways that cult leaders manipulate, abuse, and exploit followers; and 3) present theories about individual relational and also broader cultural factors that influence the individual’s psychological organization in ways that may contribute to vulnerability to cult participation. I draw from various psychoanalytic schools, including object relations (both Kleinian and Middle School), interpersonal, self psychology, intersubjectivity and contemporary relational schools. As a former participant in a cult, and now an observer of cults working as a psychoanalytic therapist with former cult members, it is my hope that the psychoanalytic formulations I discuss here will be helpful to others concerned with understanding cult phenomena.
* * * * *
The Psychopathology of the Cult Leader
Thought reform, or mind control, is another important component of my conceptualization of the seductive power of cults, although it is not a psychoanalytic concept. The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1987) studied the methods used by the Chinese Communists during the Korean War to turn war prisoners into willing accomplices, and called these methods thought reform (see also Hinkle & Wolff, 1976; Schein, 1956; Singer, 1979). Thought reform techniques are readily found in use in any cult, yet it is my belief, based on my own exposure to and study of various cults, that many cult leaders are not necessarily students of thought reform techniques. One might argue that meditation and chanting, for example, are techniques specifically designed to control others, and they can be. But they are also ancient traditional spiritual practices. Cult leaders who require their followers to perform mind-numbing, trance-inducing practices may do so while fully believing that such practices are for the greatest possible good of the follower. In religious philosophies that emphasize detachment and transcendence, for instance, trance states are highly valued as avenues toward these spiritual goals. Such religious “surrender”—to a sense of one’s wholeness, one’s connectedness to life, to a loving and creative spirit both within and without—is not necessarily the same experience as submission to the domination, control, and exploitation of a particular group and/or leader. The urge to surrender, as understood by Ghent (1990), a leading theorist of contemporary relational psychoanalysis, can be a move toward inner freedom, and does not necessarily lead to submission, or enslavement.
Cult leaders, however, practice forms of control, such as intimidation and humiliation, which demand submission. In Ghent’s view, masochistic submission is a perversion of surrender. Cult leaders often use the idea of surrender as bait, and then switch to a demand for submission. Nevertheless, in so doing, they may not actually be practicing mind control in any conscious way. They may simply be behaving in ways typical of pathological narcissists, people whose personalities are characterized by paranoia and megalomania—characteristics, by the way, that are readily attributable to one of the modern masters of thought reform techniques, the totalitarian dictator known as Chairman Mao. Totalitarian dictators study and invent thought reform techniques, but many cult leaders may simply be exhibiting characteristic behaviors of the pathological narcissist, with the attendant paranoia and mania typical of this personality disorder. Thought reform is the systematic application of techniques of domination, enslavement, and control, which can be quite similar to the naturally occurring behaviors of other abusers, like batterers, rapists, incest perpetrators, in all of whom can be seen the behaviors of pathological narcissism.
I base my formulation of the psychology of the cult leader in part on the daily close contact I had with Swami Chidvilasananda (Gurumayi) of Siddha Yoga between 1985 and 1992. I also support my hypotheses with information gained from extensive work with psychotherapy clients who have described their cult leaders’ behavior in detail, as well as on my extensive reading of biographical accounts of other leaders of cults . I propose, following the profile of the pathological narcissist delineated by Rosenfeld (1971), a leading figure of the contemporary Kleinian school in London, and similar formulations from the American self psychological perspective of Kohut (1976), that the cult leader profoundly depends on the fanatic devotion of the follower. This dependency is deeply shameful to the cult leader, because, based on traumatic aspects of her own developmental history, any dependency has come to mean despicable weakness and humiliation to her. Developmental trauma in those who in later life can be termed pathological narcissists typically consists of being raised, by parents or other caregivers, under extreme domination and control, accompanied by repeated experiences of being shamed and humiliated. The pathological narcissist identifies with this aggression and comes to despise his own normative dependency, to be contemptuous of dependence, which is equated to weakness. Manically defending against deprivation and humiliation, he comes to believe that he needs no one, that he can trust only himself, that those who depend on others are weak and contemptible. Thus the cult leader, largely unconsciously, compensates for his inability to trust and depend on others, and defends against the intense shame he feels connected to need and dependency, by attaining control over his followers, first through seductive promises of unconditional love and acceptance, and then through intimidation, shaming, and belittling. This serves to induce the loathsome dependency in the follower, and the cult leader thus contrives to disavow his own dependency, felt as loathsome and shameful. By psychologically seducing, and then battering the follower into being the shameful dependent one, the cult leader maintains his superior position and can boast delusionally of being totally liberated from all petty, mundane attachments. These processes of subjugating others, and inducing in others what one loathes and seeks to deny in oneself are extreme forms of manic defense against the shame of dependency.
In fact, the cult leader does not escape dependency. Instead, he (and also, in many cases, she) comes to depend on his followers to worship and adore him, to reflect his narcissistic delusion of perfection to him as does the mirror to the Evil Queen in the tale of Snow White. One of the ways in which this perversion of dependency is often enacted can be observed when the cult leader claims that because he needs nothing, he is entitled to everything. Thus, cult leaders claiming to be pure and perfect, without any need or attachment, use manic defenses to rationalize and justify their dependence on extravagant and grandiose trappings such as thrones, fleets of Rolls Royces, and the trust funds of their wealthy followers.
For the cult leader, his ability to induce total dependence in followers serves to sustain and enhance a desperately needed delusion of perfect, omnipotent control. With many cult leaders, (e.g., Shoko Asahara [Lifton, 1999]), the dissolution of their delusion of omnipotence exposes an underlying core of psychosis. Sustaining a delusion of omnipotence and perfection is, for the cult leader, a manic effort to ward off psychic fragmentation. Again it is useful to consider that this kind of pathological narcissism and defensive mania is often seen in persons whose childhood development was controlled by extremely dominating, often sadistic caregivers, or whose developmental years were characterized by traumatic experiences of intense humiliation. Cult leaders then create elaborate rationalizations for their abusive systems, while unconsciously patterning those systems from the templates of their own experiences of being abused.
Cult leaders succeed in dominating their followers because they have mastered the cruel art of exploiting universal human dependency and attachment needs in others. The lengthy period of dependency in human development, the power that parents have, as God-like figures, to literally give life and sustain the lives of their children, leaves each human being with the memory, however distant or unconscious, of total dependency. Cult leaders tap into and re-activate this piece of the human psyche. Followers are encouraged to become regressed and infantilized, to believe that their life depends on pleasing the cult leader. Cult leaders depend on their ability to attract people, often at critically vulnerable points in their lives, who are confused, hungry, dissatisfied, searching. With such people, cult leaders typically find numerous ways to undermine their followers’ independence and their capacity to think critically.
In a religious cult, the leader is perceived as a deity who is always divinely right, and the devotee, always on the verge of being sinfully wrong, comes to live for the sole purpose of pleasing and avoiding displeasing the guru/god. The leader's displeasure comes to mean for the member that he is unworthy, monstrously defective, and, therefore, dispensable. The member has been conditioned to believe that loss of the leader's "grace" is equivalent to loss of any value, goodness, or rightness of the self. As the member becomes more deeply involved, his anxiety about remaining a member in good standing increases. This anxiety is akin to the intense fear, helplessness, loss of control and threat of annihilation that Herman, in her discussion of psychological domination, describes as induced in victims of both terrorists and battering husbands:
The ultimate effect of these techniques is to convince the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile, and that her life depends upon winning his indulgence through absolute compliance. The goal of the perpetrator is to instill in his victim not only fear of death but also gratitude for being allowed to live. (Herman, 1992, p. 77)Extending this formulation to cult leaders and followers, the cult leader can be understood as needing to disavow her dependency and expel her dread of psychic dissolution, which she succeeds in doing insofar as she is able to induce that dependency and fear in the follower. The bliss that cult members often display masks their terror of losing the leader’s interest in them, which is equivalent for the follower to “a fate worse than death.”
Herman's motivation for writing Trauma and Recovery was to show the commonalities
between rape survivors and combat veterans, between battered women and political prisoners, between the survivors of vast concentration camps created by tyrants who rule nations, and the survivors of small, hidden concentration camps created by tyrants who rule their homes. (Herman, 1992, p. 3).Tyrants who rule religious cults subject members to similar violations.
To recapitulate, from a psychoanalytic perspective, the cult leader unconsciously experiences his dependency needs as so deeply shameful that a delusion of omnipotence is developed to ward off the toxic shame. It is urgent to the pathological narcissist, who knows unconsciously that he is susceptible to extreme mortification (the sense of “death” by shame), that this delusion of omnipotence be sustained. Manic defenses help sustain the delusion, but in addition, followers must be seduced and controlled so that the loathsome dependence can be externalized, located in others and thereby made controllable. The leader can then express his unconscious self-loathing through his “compassion” (often thinly disguised contempt) for his followers’ weakness. Manically proclaiming his own perfection, the leader creates a program of “purification” for the follower. By enlisting the follower to hold the shame that he projects and evacuates from his own psyche, the cult leader rids himself of all shame, becoming, in effect, “shameless.” He defines his shamelessness as enlightenment, liberation, or self actualization. It becomes important to the cult leader, for the maintenance of his state of shamelessness on which his psychic equilibrium depends, that there be no competition, that he alone, and no one else in the group, feels shameless. So while apparently inviting others to attain his state of perfection (shamelessness) by following him, the cult leader is actually constantly involved in inducing shame in his followers, thereby maintaining his dominance and control. I have called this sadomasochistic danse macabre the “dark side of enlightenment” (see Shaw, 2000).
 There are those who would consider Freud a cult leader, and psychoanalysis, his invention, a cult (e.g., Storr ). While I think that equating Sigmund Freud to, say, Jim Jones, is absurd on its face (and Storr takes far too complex a view to make so reductionist an assertion), it is true that generations of psychoanalytic thinkers following Freud have struggled to evaluate and reform residues of positivism, determinism, and authoritarianism in psychoanalytic theory and practice (see especially Fromm , and Mitchell & Aron ). Today, many increasingly prominent psychoanalytic schools are actively seeking to expose and reject authoritarianism in theory and treatment. These include the following contemporary schools: object relations, interpersonal, relational, intersubjective, postmodern, feminist, and contemporary self psychology, to name a few. In fact, one of the most radical critiques of psychoanalytic authoritarianism comes from one of the leaders of its most orthodox institutions, Owen Renik, the editor of Psychoanalytic Quarterly (see Renik, 1993).