Another tragedy has occurred in California drawing public attention to the activity of small so-called “family cults.”

57-year-old Marcus D. Wesson was the head of what appears to have been a self-styled religious sect.

Wesson ruled like a polygamist patriarch over a small group of women and children. He was a stern authoritarian that lived off the wages of his “wives,” while he stayed home and collected welfare.

A forensic psychologist called Wesson a “charismatic psychopath” and compared him to past cult leaders like David Koresh and Brian Mitchell, the kidnapper of Elizabeth Smart reported the Mercury News.

Nine bodies lay in the wake of Wesson’s wrath. He is now charged with the murder of family members found in a twisted pile of corpses. Wesson was arrested covered in blood.

This gruesome “cult” crime is the worst mass murder in the history of Fresno, California. And some claim that local police could have done more to prevent it reports Associated Press.

Marcus Wesson is hauntingly reminiscent of another California “cult leader” named Winnfred Wright. Wright 46 was sentenced last year to a 16-year prison term for felony child abuse.

Wright’s 19-month old son died from complications connected to rickets, a rare disease contracted when someone is not exposed to the sun.

Like the Wessons the Wright family lived a bizarre life of imposed isolation.

The Wright household also like the Wessons was composed of women living in submission to one man’s rule and idiosyncratic beliefs, which included strict discipline and a strange diet that led to a child’s death.

Wright’s women later said they were “brainwashed,” and a judge agreed allowing one to be “deprogrammed,” but nevertheless later sentencing her to a prison term.

That woman told the court, “Mind control is a reality,” and expressed “great sorrow” about her baby’s death saying she would be “ashamed for the rest of [her] life” reported the Marin Independent Journal.

Marcus Wesson’s sister-in-law described him as “an evil person” that like Winnfred Wright demanded total control over his family of followers reported the Fresno Bee.

However, two of Wesson’s women broke away and took legal action to free their children.

But before police could return the two 7-year-olds to their waiting mothers they were both killed.

It seems that when confronted with losing control of his household kingdom Marcus Wesson decided to murder everyone.

In this sense he appears to be not unlike cult leaders such as David Koresh, Jim Jones and Luc Joret, who when faced with losing personal power also decided to kill their followers rather than surrender control.

But unlike Jones, Koresh and Joret, Marcus Wesson did not take his own life and will face justice.

Wesson’s sister-in-law told reporters that in the end he exercised “the ultimate control” of life or death over his family.

Now it seems the justice system will rightfully ultimately control the rest of Marcus Wesson’s sordid life.

Karen Robidoux was found not guilty of second-degree murder, in the 1999 death of her infant child this week, reported the Taunton Gazette.

The Massachusetts mother was accused of starving her baby son Samuel to death.

Robidoux’s husband Jacques was convicted for Samuel’s murder in 2002 and is now serving a life sentence.

But the mother’s attorney, Joseph Krowski, offered the defense that cult “brainwashing” coerced Karen Robidoux’s behavior

The attorney argued that his client was victimized, abused and ultimately controlled by an obscure religious sect led by her father-in-law Roland Robidoux called “The Body.”

“There were two victims here, Karen and Samuel,” Robidoux’s older sister told the press.

And after seven hours of deliberation the jury agreed with the defense and its witnesses, acquitting the “cult” mom of murder, but finding her guilty of misdemeanor assault and battery.

“Because a child died, it may be an unpopular verdict, but we felt Karen Robidoux’s intent was not to kill her baby,” the jury foreman told the Boston Herald.

He later added, “I do believe she was psychologically held prisoner,” and concluded “she has suffered enough” reported NBC News.

Private journals kept by a “cult” member were made public after the verdict and they offered further proof of Roland Robidoux’s total control over his followers reported the Boston Herald.

“Dad [Roland Robidoux] feels that the end is coming soon…Our prayers should not be for Samuel to be healed but for God’s purposes to be fulfilled…What can we do for Samuel? Nothing…God is the master. We are his servants,” wrote the “cult” member.

The mother of four was sentenced to time served and walked out of the Bristol courthouse a free woman reported the Boston Globe.

“I’m just glad the nightmare door is shut,” she told reporters on the courthouse steps.

“It was a trail-blazing case that will affect all cult cases nationally. It’s now been proven what can happen when someone is brainwashed,” said nationally known forensic pathologist Dr. Millard Bass.

In Virginia late last year another jury came to a similar conclusion regarding the sentencing of “D.C. sniper” Lee Malvo. His lawyers also claimed their client was “brainwashed.”

The teenager’s defense team contended that he was dominated and controlled by his mentor John Mohammed.

Mohammed was sentenced to death, but Malvo was sent to prison for life.

In a noteworthy child custody case in North Carolina this fall a judge ruled that the Word of Faith Fellowship (WOFF) exerted “complete control over the mind, body and spirit of its members, both adults and children.”

WOFF led by Jane Whaley has been called a “cult.”

The Carolina judge concluded, “The environment created at WOFF has an adverse effect on the health, safety and welfare of children,” and he subsequently ordered them to be removed from the group.

In a tacit acknowledgement of cult “brainwashing” another judge in California granted the release last year of a woman charged with the death of her small child to receive “deprogramming.”

Later that same judge sentenced the cult leader to 16 years in prison, while charges were dismissed against two of his followers.

The mother charged received an eleven-year sentence and told the court, “Mind control is a reality.”

CultNews reported that professional cult apologist Dick Anthony was involved in both the California and Carolina cases. Anthony is a psychologist and well paid for his work, but he failed his clients abysmally.

Judging from the prosecution’s arguments in the Robidoux case, they apparently were receiving input from someone like Anthony.

But the Robidoux verdict may be the most colossal setback for cults and their apologists to date. And will likely be cited in the future as proof of “brainwashing.”

Overall, 2003 was possibly the worst year ever for cults and their apologists.

They even attempted fruitlessly to dismiss the “brainwashing” of kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart.

But brainwashing has become understandable to the public after Jonestown, Waco and the “Heaven’s Gate” suicides. It is no longer the mystery it once was when Charles Manson and his followers entered the California judicial system.

Europeans likewise came to acutely understand the cult brainwashing phenomenon through the Solar Temple suicides in Switzerland. And the Japanese were forced to confront this reality by the cult Aum, when it attacked Tokyo’s subways.

Joseph Kibwetere sent shockwaves through Africa when he led hundreds of his followers to death in Uganda shortly after the Millenium, once again demonstrating the power of cult mind control.

And isn’t “brainwashing” something Osama bin Laden has used to transform his followers into tools of terror?

Cults and their apologists will have increasing difficulty convincing anyone that “brainwashing” is only a “theory.”

The Robidoux verdict is evidence of that.

Lee Boyd Malvo, the teenager known as the D.C. sniper is now on trial for murder.

At 17 he and his mentor/father figure John Muhammad went on a killing spree that left ten dead in its wake and terrified a nation.

Now 18 Malvo is literally fighting for his own life in a Virginia courtroom. His attorney’s hope that an “insanity” defense based upon a “brainwashing” claim will explain the boy killer’s behavior and somehow ameliorate the outcome of the trial.

John Allen Muhammad the man that allegedly “brainwashed” Malvo has already been convicted and is almost certain to receive the death penalty. If his surrogate son and accomplice is found guilty, it is likely that he will receive the same sentence.

Opinions in the press vary, but some are calling the “insanity defense” in this case “crazy” reports Slate.

And the Washington Post points out those witnesses, who observed Muhammad and Malvo together, differ in their assessment of the relationship.

Some see Muhammad as a controlling and dominant figure that molded the boy into a “killing machine.”

Others say the two appeared more like friends, without readily seen evidence of a dominant/submissive relationship.

Malvo’s taped confession is chilling. The teenager admits, “I intended to kill them all.” And when asked if he personally pulled the trigger in the shootings the boy answers, “In all of them” reports Associated Press.

With such testimony, not to mention the physical evidence piled up by the prosecution, Malvo really has no other meaningful option than to plead insanity.

But was the boy “brainwashed” by John Muhammad or is this some clever lawyer’s contrived defense?

The “brainwashing” defense did not work for Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by a political cult in the 1970s.

Hearst an heir to a newspaper fortune was coerced into becoming the pawn of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), but was nevertheless ultimately convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to prison.

President Jimmy Carter later commuted her sentence and Bill Clinton pardoned Hearst before leaving the White House.

Public awareness regarding “brainwashing” has evolved considerably since the Manson murders in 1969 and Patty Hearst’s conviction during 1976.

The Jonestown mass suicide/murder of 1978, which claimed the lives of almost 1,000 followers of cult leader Jim Jones in the jungles of South America, shocked the public and created an acute awareness of the power of coercive persuasion.

The image of parents giving their children cyanide was certainly compelling proof of the power of Jim Jones’ brainwashing.

After Jonestown Americans suddenly seemed to see the destructive cults that existed throughout the country and began to more readily recognize their methods of gaining undue influence. In repeated news stories cult “brainwashing” was discussed during the 1980s and 1990s.

Then came Waco in 1993, the second longest standoff in US history, between the cult known as the Branch Davidians and federal law enforcement. The end would once again be tragedy, when David Koresh and his followers chose death for themselves and their children.

In a succession of similar tragedies one cult after another would demonstrate the effectiveness of its own brand of brainwashing.

1994 the Solar Temple suicide in Switzerland.

1995 — the Aum gas attack of Tokyo subways that killed 12.

1997 — 39 members of “Heaven’s Gate” commit suicide near San Diego.

2000 — the horrific mass murder/suicide of the doomsday group known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in Uganda, which may have claimed more lives than Jonestown.

9-11-2001 — the senseless murder of 3,000 people in the World Trade Center attack, once again perpetrated by the seemingly “brainwashed” followers of a madman, Osama bin Laden.

Self-proclaimed “prophet” Brian Mitchell was able to brainwash Elizabeth Smart from a dutiful family member into his seemingly willing follower in approximately 60 days. Smart subsequently denied her identity to police and did not attempt to escape the lunatic that abducted her at knifepoint.

Muhammad apparently controlled Malvo’s associations, environment and dominated his thinking in a nomadic lifestyle similar to the one Mitchell constructed around Elizabeth Smart.

How have madmen from Manson to Mitchell persuaded normal people to act insane?

The process of thought reform, commonly called “brainwashing” has probably been used in various forms throughout human history. Its mechanics have been explained in detail by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton in his seminal book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.

Lifton, who once taught at Harvard Medical School, identified the features of “brainwashing” through eight specific criteria; Milieu Control, Mystical Manipulation, the Demand for Purity, the Cult of Confession, the Sacred Science, Loading the Language, Doctrine over Person and the Dispensing of Existence (see Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism).

Essentially what Lifton observed is that if an environment displays at least six of these characteristics simultaneously, it doesn’t matter what you call it, it is thought reform or “brainwashing.”

But can this work when only two people are involved?

The phenomenon of an abused spouse, often caught within what has been called a “cultic relationship,” also displays many of the same features described by Lifton. Experts have frequently labeled this the “battered woman’s syndrome.”

Was Malvo caught within the web of a “cultic relationship”?

Based upon some of the accounts that have surfaced from his family and witnesses he may have been.

But unlike Patty Hearst, who was eventually pardoned for her brainwashed behavior, Malvo’s deeds under the influence of his leader have included murder.

Perhaps the teenager was a victim of John Muhammad, but what about the victims of their rampage?

Ten people died as a direct result of Malvo’s “insanity,” and even though Muhammad may have been the master-planner of this killing spree, his puppet still pulled the trigger.

Society seems willing to forgive the misdeeds of “brainwashing” victims, but such forgiveness is far less likely if they have committed violent crimes.

The followers of Charles Manson murdered for him. Manson was later convicted like Muhammad, through a prosecution largely based upon undue influence. However, his followers were also convicted and sentenced to death.

Later the death sentences of the Manson Family were changed to life in prison. But despite their impassioned pleas that they were essentially “brainwashed,” Manson’s former followers such as Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten have repeatedly been denied parole.

As the Virginia jury weighs its verdict they are more likely to consider those caught within the sniper’s sights than the boy captured within the web of a madman’s undue influence.

Malvo’s only hope may come after his conviction, when his alleged “insanity” might mitigate sentencing.

At that point the claim of “brainwashing” might provide the basis for a sentence of life in prison, rather than the death penalty.

One year after her abduction Elizabeth Smart continues to recover from her ordeal, reports the Desert News

Her father said, “It’s like we’re fully re-engaged, as much as that can be done,” and added, “Elizabeth is doing great.”

The Smart family sought the advice of another kidnap “cult” victim Patty Hearst, to better understand the problems posed within the recovery process.

An apparent roving lunatic and sexual predator kidnapped Elizabeth. That self-proclaimed “prophet” Brian David Mitchell and his accomplice/wife, Wanda Barzee, remain in jail awaiting trial.

The Smart family hopes to avoid subjecting Elizabeth to the personal pain of having to recount her horrific experience as a court witness.

The Smart case once again brought to public attention the power of “brainwashing.”

For nine months the teenager traveled with the deranged duo that abducted her, seemingly cooperating with them and taking on their mindset.

As the story unfolded subsequent to Elizabeth’s rescue it became clear that Mitchell isolated and terrorized the girl for two months before beginning their travels.

During that time as an act of self-preservation and a byproduct of controlled influence Elizabeth largely lost her sense of identity and assumed a new “cult-like” persona.

Returned to the security of her family that cultic identity quickly crumbled and the girl resumed her former life.

This fall Elizabeth plans to attend her regular school and once again will be amongst old friends and classmates.

However, as the Smart family and Elizabeth know, their life will never really be the same again.

Apparently “cult apologists” are concerned about the Elizabeth Smart case. They seem to feel a need to dismiss any claims that the kidnap victim was “brainwashed.”

Veteran cult defenders James Richardson, H. Newton Malony and Nancy Ammerman, have all been quoted concerning the case.

Dick Anthony, another “cult apologist,” more recently weighed in.

The mainstream media apparently overlooked Anthony, who describes himself as a “forensic psychologist,” so he found another outlet for his opinions.

His commentary about Elizabeth Smart is now posted on the website CESNUR (“Center for Studies on New Religons”), run by Massimo Introvigne.

Introvigne is an interesting character and reportedly connected to a group that has been called a “cult.” The organization is named “Tradition, Family and Property” (TFP). Not surprisingly, Introvigne seems to be personally offended by the “C” word (“cult”) and the “B” word (“brainwashing”).

Within his treatise Anthony laments how the “proponents of brainwashing theory” are misleading the public by “asserting that Elizabeth Smart was brainwashed.”

According to Anthony that “theory” was “formulated by the American CIA as a propaganda device.”

Hmmm, was Elizabeth then somehow the most recent victim of a CIA conspiracy?

No.

Anthony speculates that due to Elizabeth’s “strict Mormon upbringing…[she] may actually have been predisposed to accepting the stern religious authority of the self-appointed prophet Brian David Mitchell.”

Does this mean the Mormon Church and/or her family not only somehow predisposed Elizabeth to embrace the bizarre beliefs of others without question, but also to not seek help or identify herself to authorities when kidnapped?

Anthony seems to think so.

He says, “Such offbeat theological worldviews allegedly primarily attract conversions from rebellious young persons from Mormon backgrounds.”

Despite his self-proclaimed title of “forensic psychologist,” Anthony doesn’t offer any factual “forensic” evidence. And he doesn’t really explain Elizabeth’s strange behavior. Instead, everything is attributed to her “totalistic personality,” which was apparently just waiting to be Mitchell’s next “conversion.”

The good doctor is less kind to 70s cult kidnap victim Patricia Hearst.

Anthony says, “There is good reason to think that her involvement in SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army] crimes was based upon a real conversion.”

He does admit Hearst was exposed to “indoctrination.”

But just like Elizabeth, Anthony claims the then 19-year-old Patty Hearst’s capitulation to her captors, was all about “the interaction of her pre-existing totalistic personality.”

Anthony gets a bit nasty bashing Hearst as a “rebellious” teenager who “…took psychedelic drugs” and was “dualistically divided between corrupt mainstream people and good counter-culture people and down-trodden minorities.”

Uh huh.

He concludes, “Hearst fit the profile of an ‘individual totalist’ prone to seeking for a totalitarian counter-cultural worldview.”

Huh?

Apparently, the SLA really didn’t need to violently abduct Hearst at gunpoint from her college campus or imprison the girl for months in a closet and brutally beat her. She was ready to accept their beliefs willingly, and all they needed to do was proselytize a bit to produce a “real conversion.”

Likewise, Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping, months of confinement and her assault, did not contribute to her “brainwashing”—it’s that old “totalistic personality” ready for a “real conversion” once again.

In his latest foray in the realm of “forensic psychology” Anthony cites the “research” of a relatively small group of academics that share his views about “cults.”

He mentions the work of Stuart Wright, “Jim” James Richardson, Eileen Barker, H. Newton Maloney, Anson Shupe, David Bromley and Gordon Melton and of course his sponsor Massimo Introvigne.

However, all these “academics” are within the world of “cult apologists.”

In fact, Bromley, Melton, Maloney, Richardson and Wright have all been recommended as “religious resources” by the Church of Scientology.

Melton and Barker were funded by “cults” to produce books.

Anson Shupe was paid hefty fees by Scientology lawyers to become their “expert witness” about the “anti-cult movement.”

Benjamin Zablocki, Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University put it succinctly when he said, “The sociology of religion can no longer avoid the unpleasant ethical question of how to deal with the large sums of money being pumped into the field by the religious groups being studied… This is an issue that is slowly but surely building toward a public scandal. I do think there needs to be some more public accounting of where the money is coming from and what safeguards have been taken to assure that this money is not interfering with scientific objectivity.”

This brings us back to Dick Anthony.

Last year Anthony made $21,000.00 consulting on one civil case alone, without even appearing in court.

That case involved a wrongful death claim filed against Jehovah’s Witnesses and a “Bethelite” (full-time ministry worker) named Jordon Johnson in Connecticut, by John J. Coughlin, Jr., Administrator of the Estate of his mother Frances S. Coughlin .

Johnson killed Francis Coughlin in an automobile accident and was criminally convicted for manslaughter.

The Coughlin family sued both Johnson and the organization that controlled him, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, commonly called Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Dick Anthony was hired by the Watchtower Society as an “expert,” to assist them in their defense. And in the process was deposed under oath on October 11, 2002.

The man, who prides himself as a “scholar” and “academic” actually admitted that he hasn’t worked within an institution of higher learning (i.e. a university or college) for more than twenty years.

So how does Dick Anthony support himself?

He is “self-employed.” The name of his business is simply, “Dick Anthony, Ph.D.”

What does Dick Anthony Ph.D. do?

Dr. Anthony explains, “Probably two-thirds of my time to three-quarters of my time is spent writing for publication, and probably a quarter of my time to a third of my time is involved with participating in legal cases.”

Anthony’s writings are most often connected to defending “cults,” attacking the so-called “anti-cult movement” and/or the “proponents of the brainwashing theory.”

His work on “legal cases,” is as an “expert” hired by “cults,” or somehow as a “expert witness” in a related area of interest.

What this admission by Anthony means, is that he can easily be seen as a full-time professional “cult apologist,” who has no other means of meaningful income.

How much does he get paid?

Anthony stated for the record, “My fee for reviewing materials in my office is $350 an hour. And my fee for work outside my office is a flat fee of $3,500 a day plus expenses.”

Anthony admitted that he collected “$21,000″ on the Coughlin/Watchtower Society case alone. And that was without even appearing in court.

For his deposition of only a few hours, he was paid “$3,500.”

Who else besides Jehovah’s Witnesses is willing to pay such substantial fees?

Anthony listed some of his clients for the record. That list included the “Unification Church, the Hare Krishna movement…The Way International [and] Church of Scientology.”

All of these groups have been called “cults.”

But Dr. Anthony doesn’t like the “C” word, he prefers “nontraditional religions.”

On his list of “nontraditional religions” are the Branch Davidians, Unification Church and he says, “In the United States, the Catholic Church, well it’s definitely the largest nontraditional religion.”

Dr. Anthony belongs to a “nontraditional religion” himself.

Explaining his own background Anthony stated, “I’m a follower of Meher Baba” and a member of the “Meher Baba Lovers of Northern California.”

According to Jeffrey Hadden, a fellow “cult apologist” who is now deceased, Meher Baba and his followers believe that he was the “God incarnate” and the Avatar of the ‘dark or iron’ age, also called the Kali Yuga.”

Baba died in 1969. Gordon Melton says, “By loving Baba, Baba lovers can learn to love others. In the highest, most intense, state of love, Divine Love, the distinction between the lover and the beloved ceases and one attains union with God.”

Sound like a personality-driven group that would be perceived by many as a “cult”? Anthony would of course prefer the description “nontraditional religion.”

The good doctor calls himself a “forensic psychologist,” which supposedly means the application of medical facts to legal problems.

So what facts does Dick Anthony apply to resolve the legal cases he is paid to testify and/or consult about?

When asked what specific research he relied upon regarding the Coughlin case against Jehovah’s Witnesses Anthony replied that he would largely rely upon “a range of materials provided me by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Did Dick Anthony have any experience as a psychologist helping Witnesses, “None as far as I know,” he said.

Anthony also openly admitted he had done no formal research or published any paper about Jehovah’s Witnesses.

So what facts or direct working experience would be applied or used as the basis for rendering his expert opinion?

Anthony said he would base his opinion largely on a “general knowledge of the sociology and psychology of religion.”

When pressed repeatedly during the deposition for something more specific and scientific Anthony cited, “The research of Rodney Stark…generally considered to be probably the leading expert on sects and cults.”

Stark like Anthony has received money from “cults” and has often been called an “apologist.” He is not “generally considered” a “leading expert” on the subject cited either.

Anthony later said he would rely on an article by his old friend “James Richardson [though he couldn't remember the title]…and…several articles by Catherine Wah [correct name actually Carolyn Wah].”

Carolyn Wah was the in-house attorney assigned to defend Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Coughlin case and a long-time “Bethelite” herself, working full-time at Watchtower headquarters.

Interestingly, it was Richardson who Anthony later admitted had referred him to the Witnesses for the job.

During his deposition Dick Anthony cited other legal cases he was working on at the time.

He claimed to be “a witness for the prosecution” in the criminal case against Winnfred Wright. Anthony said some of Wright’s followers were “claiming that they are innocent because they were brainwashed.”

This criminal case involved the starvation death of a 19-month-old boy.

Described as a “cult” by Associated Press, Anthony called the criminally destructive group a “little family.”

Apparently the judge didn’t agree with Anthony’s expert opinion. He ordered one of Wright’s followers released for “cult deprogramming” so she could “enter a treatment clinic for former cult members,” reported the Marin News.

Wright received the maximum sentence allowed.

Anthony also said he was advising “the Church of Scientology in Ireland…in Dublin.”

This is clearly a reference to a lawsuit filed against Scientology by Mary Johnson, a former Irish member who alleged “psychological and psychiatric injuries.” Anthony said, “I’ve had a number of conversations with [Scientology] about that.”

But despite those “conversations” Scientology decided pay off Johnson. And costs alone ran them more than a million.

And what about the Coughlin case?

After paying Anthony $21,000 in fees and on the first day of trial, the Jehovah’s Witnesses opted to settle too. They cut a check to the plaintiff for more than $1.5 million dollars. This was historically the largest settlement ever paid by the organization, which has been around for more than a century.

It seems Dr. Anthony doesn’t have a very good track record in the recent legal cases he has consulted on.

Perhaps Anthony himself explained this best during his deposition when he said, “It is the nature of pseudo-science…to pretend to certainty in interpreting situations where such certainty cannot possibly be based upon scientific knowledge. Such false claims of certain knowledge in the absence of a clear factual foundation for that knowledge are more characteristic of totalistic ideology than of genuine science.”

Indeed. So who really has a “totalistic personality” after all?

Dick Anthony seems not only a “pretend[er],” but as can be seen through the Coughlin case, he actually offers no directly applicable “scientific knowledge” or “clear factual foundation” to form his opinions.

Instead of applying medical facts and/or “genuine science” to resolve legal problems, this “forensic psychologist” seems to offer only “pseudo-science,” in an effort to please the “nontraditional religions,” who are paying clients and represent his predominant source of income.

Despite Anthony’s repeated failures he is still being paid $3,500 per day, which is not bad, or is it?

Note: Copies of the Dick Anthony deposition are available for an $18.00 tax-deductible donation to The Ross Institute

Another “cult apologist” has surfaced through the news coverage of Elizabeth Smart.

Nancy Ammerman of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research previously has spoken about the Branch Davidians.

In 1993 Ammerman claimed within a published report that the FBI was negligent because they didn’t listen to her fellow apologists James Tabor and Phillip Arnold. Both men have been recommended as “religious resources” by the Church of Scientology, which has often been called a “cult.”

Ammerman’s work regarding the Davidian standoff was lauded by Scientology through a full-page article within its own “Freedom Magazine.” And she has admitted that “various political and lobbying groups” influenced her view of that cult tragedy.

The professor’s report about the FBI was later included in a book titled “Armageddon in Waco,” which also contains the work of scholars historically associated with and/or supported by groups called “cults.”

Ammerman observed that “If [Elizabeth Smart] was a devout religious person, and [her captor] wanted to play on those religious sentiments, it’s plausible, just plausible, that she could have understood this to be some sort of religious experience,” reports the Palm Beach Post.

Is a violent kidnapping, rape and imprisonment now somehow to be categorized within the realm of “religious experience”?

Here it seems Ammerman is avoiding the “B” word (“brainwashing“), in an attempt to offer some sort of alternative “religious” explanation.

But isn’t there a more obvious and plausible understanding, which is more consistent with the established facts?

Elizabeth was initially isolated for months. This began when the 14-year-old girl was first held in a boarded up hole at a relatively remote campsite. This is not unlike what happened to cult kidnap victim Patty Hearst in 1974, when she was first confined within a closet by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Elizabeth like Hearst was brutally raped, terrorized and effectively cut off from the outside world. This made Mitchell’s process of coercive persuasion not only possible, but also enabled its eventual success. Mitchell then simply solidified his undue influence.

Elizabeth became “Augustine.” And though she had numerous opportunities to escape and/or identify herself to authorities, she did not do so. Instead, for months “Augustine” passively followed her captors, Mitchell and/or Barzee.

Her actions cannot simply be explained away by her “religious experience,” or written off as just the effects of trauma and the “Stockholm Syndrome.”

Ammerman also said, “I suppose he also could have played off of a child’s desire to be obedient to an adult.”

This is a common sense observation almost anyone might make about adult authority.

But attempting to explain Mitchell’s undue influence over the child by linking it to her religious background sounds a bit like “victim bashing.”

Such a conclusion seemingly supposes that if Elizabeth and/or her family were not Mormons, Mitchell an excommunicated Mormon, might not have been so successful.

However, Mitchell’s bizarre religious “Manifesto,” an odd hodge-podge of beliefs taken from many sources, has little meaningful similarity to the Mormon Church Elizabeth attended.

Mitchell may have claimed to be a “prophet,” but Elizabeth must have known through her religious training, that the only prophets accepted by Mormons are those that are acknowledged by their church.

Accordingly, despite Mitchell’s claims, only the current church president could be seen by Elizabeth as a living prophet today.

In actuality Elizabeth’s “religious experience” can be seen more readily as an obstacle for Mitchell to overcome, rather than a common premise or bond that empowered him.

Again, Patty Hearst like Elizabeth Smart had no apparent common bond with her captors. Hearst was not a campus radical and/or left wing political activist. And the Hearst family were conservative and Republican.

But Patricia Hearst nevertheless, due to the process she was subjected to through her confinement, isolation and treatment, succumbed to her captors and became “Tania,” a revolutionary Marxist.

A cursory review of other cult victims in groups like Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, Solar Temple, Aum of Japan and “Heaven’s Gate,” demonstrates a diversity of backgrounds and frequently that personal histories are not in harmony with the cult’s beliefs.

Any attempt to simplistically categorize cult victims seems more like denial than serious examination.

Such claims as, their common “religious” background and/or religious devotion, made the victim vulnerable, appears to surmise that this somehow can’t be done effectively or as easily to secular or less devout people.

And let’s not forget that Elizabeth was abducted not recruited.

Research indicates that almost anyone may succumb to the extreme environmental control and pressures imposed by someone like Mitchell, and almost certainly a 14-year-old child held prisoner.

Perhaps rather than engaging in specious and/or simplistic explanations, Ammerman should have explored the unique circumstances, but common characteristics that define destructive cult indoctrination, often described as “thought reform.”

The family of Elizabeth Smart has spoken with another cult kidnap victim Patricia Hearst in an effort to better understand how to handle certain issues with the fragile girl, reports the New York Times.

Elizabeth’s grandfather told reporters that her father has spoken with Hearst who advised not to press the 15-year-old about the details of the nine months she spent with self-proclaimed “prophet” Brian Mitchell.

Speaking for the family the grandfather said, “I’m going to let her tell me those stories at her own pace. We won’t try to rush it.”

It seems that Elizabeth is doing well back at home. 14 years as a member of the loving and tightly knit Salt Lake City family by far outweighs the 9 months she spent with Mitchell.

But the family has noticed that at times Elizabeth appears distracted, with something on her mind.

The Smarts say they still don’t know “the evil things that were done to her.”

Immediately after her abduction Elizabeth was kept isolated from the outside world. She spent two months alone with Mitchell and Barzee at a canyon campsite. Subsequently, the girl was moved to another isolated spot and lived with her captors in a “teepee.”

This largely parallels Patty Hearst’s early months of confinement after her abduction. Then a 19-year-old college student, Hearst was broken down and “brainwashed” by a political cult called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

It took Hearst time to heal after more than a year spent within a cult. She was found and arrested along with SLA members after a bank robbery. Fortunately, Elizabeth doesn’t face the legal complications Hearst endured.

Perhaps Patricia Hearst, more than anyone else, can empathize and clearly understand how Elizabeth feels right now.

Hopefully, the Smart family will continue to consult Hearst and seek her insights. And it might help Elizabeth better understand her own experience and the recovery process, if some day she actually met with Hearst.

Another well known “cult apologist” has surfaced in news coverage of the Elizabeth Smart abduction.

Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, was quoted in the Desert News.

Though Stark’s comments within the Desert News article are general observations, he has a long history of working closely with groups called “cults” and they frequently cite his writings.

The academic has defended such organizations as the Unification Church of Rev. Moon and testified as an expert witness regarding the “Local Church.” Critics have called both of these groups “cults”.

Stark was included amongst a list of scholars that have received money and/or expenses from “cults” in connection with research, court testimony and/or “cult” sponsored conferences, within an article titled “Brainwashed! Scholars of Cults Accuse Each Other of Bad Faith.”

A cult doesn’t require a large following and some are very small.

“Heaven’s Gate” had less than fifty members, when its leader Marshall Applewhite told his followers to commit suicide.

Some cults are a family unit, such as the women and children led by Winifred Wright, recently prosecuted and sentenced to prison after the death of a child.

All a cult actually requires is a leader and at least one follower.

This seems to describe Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, the duo that kidnapped and held Elizabeth Smart for nine months.

Within a 27 page manifesto now made public, Mitchell speaks as “the voice of God” and then explains his singular status as “God’s chosen prophet,” reports the Salt Lake City Tribune.

The transient’s writings are not original, but rather an idiosyncratic, eclectic mix of the bible, Book of Mormon and plagiarized excerpts from other sources pieced together arbitrarily.

What is telling though is the importance Mitchell places upon himself. He is the central character and defining element of his manifesto.

This is consistent with what noted psychiatrist and cult observer Robert Jay Lifton describes within his paper titled “Cult Formation.

Lifton lists three essential ingredients for the formation of a destructive cult.

The first is “a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power.”

Mitchell’s limited charisma only netted him one follower, until he kidnapped Elizabeth Smart.

Like other cult leaders such as Jim Jones and David Koresh, Mitchell’s manifesto reflects a man who sees himself as “chosen” and everyone else as wrong and/or evil.

He warns, “Repent, God says, and deliverance will come; and ‘for this cause I have raised up my servant Immanuel David Isaiah [Brian Mitchell], even my righteous right hand, to be a light and covenant to my people…’”

Barzee was “brainwashed” into embracing this worldview according to her children. And it appears that Elizabeth Smart was similarly influenced.

Lifton says this is the second component necessary to create a cult, an observable process he calls coercive persuasion or thought reform.”

Apparently, the abduction of Elizabeth was tied to a plan regarding plural wives.

Mitchell’s manifesto states, “Thou shalt take into thy heart and home seven times seven sisters, to love and to care for.” Elizabeth was to be “the jubilee of them all, first and last,” reports the Desert News.

Like other cult leaders Mitchell was obsessed with his proclaimed role and seemed to believe that the end justified the means.

According to Barzee the 14-year-old girl was part of a “prophetic” revelation. A woman that visited her in jail said, “God told them to take Elizabeth. They were doing what God asked them to do,” reports the New York Times.

It seems for some time the strange street preacher that once wandered about Salt Lake City was seen by residents as a harmless eccentric.

Benign “cults” typically don’t draw much concern.

However, Mitchell and Barzee moved from bizarre and benign to criminally destructive.

Evidence of “economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader” is the final factor cited by Lifton to determine a destructive cult.

The troubled couple certainly had the right to believe anything, but that right never included the freedom to do whatever they wished in the name of their beliefs.

Mitchell and Barzee are now where they both belong, behind bars. Perhaps the “chosen prophet” should have foreseen such an end.

It looks like some “cult apologists” are trying to soften coverage of the Smart case. Two that recently popped up in related articles are James Richardson, quoted in the New York Times and H. Newton Malony commenting within the Los Angeles Times.

Both Richardson and Malony have been recommended by the Church of Scientology repeatedly as “religious resources” and/or “experts.”

In 1997 during heated media coverage of the “Heaven’s Gate” mass-suicide, both professors were promoted in a press release from the so-called new “Cult Awareness Network,” an organization that essentially now acts as a front for Scientology and other groups called “cults.”

Malony said today in the LA Times that Elizabeth Smart’s strange behavior during her captivity might be attributed to “religious conversion” and “that adolescence is the time when the experience is most likely to happen.”

Does Malony really think that such an adolescent change of faith begins at knifepoint and continues in captivity?

The professor of religious studies at Fuller Theological Seminary is probably more interested in blunting or negating any critical discussion about cult indoctrination. And this theologian has historically made it clear that he doesn’t appreciate talk about the role of “brainwashing” in that “conversion” process.

LA Times reporter Benedict Carey seems to stretch credulity when he writes that somehow the “pressures of adolescence and personality development” may explain Elizabeth Smart’s behavior.

Is this reporter somehow blaming the victim?

James Richardson cryptically commented within a NY Times piece today that Elizabeth was kept “under horrendous conditions, kidnapped and held in captivity. We still don’t know the extent of the physical coercion.”

Here Richardson appears to be saying that “captivity” and/or “physical coercion” is necessary for “brainwashing.”

Again, this would negate or blunt comparisons to the indoctrination process used by many “cults,” which most often does not include holding members prisoner or the use of physical force.

The LA Times article is titled “Specialists in the psychology of abuse and persuasion say survival, not mind control, could explain the girl’s behavior.

However, Malony’s expertise is really in theology and Richard Hecht who is also quoted by the Times is actually a religious studies professor at UC Santa Barbara and not a “specialist in the psychology of abuse and persuasion.”

Interestingly, Gordon Melton, perhaps the most popular “cult apologist,” is also closely associated with UC Santa Barbara.

Hecht says that “brainwashing,” as an explanation for Elizabeth Smart’s behavior, is “far too simplistic.”

But many of the simple facts cited within the LA Times article are actually common features of a thought reform program, popularly called “brainwashing.”

For example, Hecht cites Elizabeth’s “loss of any context and connection with the outside world.”

This is what Robert Jay Lifton, noted psychiatrist and recognized expert in the psychology of persuasion, calls “mileu control” or control of the environment. And this is the foundational element of any thought reform program.

Carey notes that Smart “lost many of the things and people that reinforced her budding identity.”

This simply reiterates the need people have for accurate feedback from others, which cults frequently eliminate through isolation and control of the environment.

Carey then adds, “It appears she had very little say in even the smallest decisions while captive, such as what she wore and what she ate.” He concludes, “Denied any autonomy, even a resilient human nature may begin to make compromises.”

Such “compromises” is what Lifton includes within a mindset he describes as the “psychology of the pawn.”

Lifton writes, “Unable to escape from forces more powerful than himself, he subordinates everything to adapting himself to them.”

This is often accomplished by subjecting virtually every aspect of daily life, such as what is worn, eaten or “even the smallest decisions,” to the doctrine of the group.

Lifton includes this within his criteria “doctrine over person” and the “demand for purity.”

He says, “The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy.” And add this becomes evident in the subject by “the continual shift between experience itself and the highly abstract interpretation of such experience — between genuine feelings and spurious cataloguing of feelings.”

Fear also is a factor.

Carey says “fear and disorientation,” were factors that must have driven Elizabeth to an “attachment to the adults who had control over her well-being.”

This is what cult experts have often called “learned dependency.”

Margaret Singer clinical psychologist and an expert in the process of “brainwashing” explains cults, “Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, and dependency.”

This is one of Singer’s “six conditions” for a thought reform program.

Ultimately the LA Times reporter admits, “The effect of Mitchell’s religious pretensions cannot be ignored”

However, Carey claims “conversion” requires “fellow believers to teach values and rituals, as well as exert social pressure.”

Is it possible that Carey and his experts cannot recognize that Elizabeth was virtually suffocated by the “social pressure” of “believers” Mitchell and Barzee, who taught the girl their “values and rituals”?

Singer also discusses this aspect of cult indoctrination within the context of “Instill[ing] new behavior and attitudes.” And that cults “put forth a closed system of logic; allow no real input or criticism.”

And this was certainly observed by numerous eyewitnesses, including the police officers that ultimately dealt with the odd trio.

It is the effective influence of that program, which essentially explains Elizabeth’s silence, submission, and seemingly strange behavior.

Repeatedly witnesses have reported that she was within situations where help was readily accessible, but the girl said and did nothing to alert anyone.

Thought reform also explains Elizabeth’s reluctance to identify herself and her evasiveness when questioned by police. It may also be the reason she gave them the name “Augustine,” possibly a new identity instilled by Mitchell.

Again and again the facts support that Elizabeth Smart was subjected to a type of thought reform program or “brainwashing” process, directed apparently instinctually by her captor Brian Mitchell.

When major news stories about cult “brainwashing” are reported it is important to discuss the facts intelligently, rather than attempt to disguise or dismiss them and engage in some form of denial.

The LA Times reporter ended his story stating, “Assuming she was ‘brainwashed’ allows the family to gloss over the emotions that must have tormented her, emotions that Elizabeth must come to terms with eventually, experts say.”

But besides verging on “victim bashing,” such a conclusion ignores the obvious.

Elizabeth Smart will eventually need to sort through what happened during those nine months of captivity.

Patty Hearst, once a cult kidnap victim said, “I had a psychologist [Margaret Singer] who was incredibly good. I realized…you don’t have to think the things that they’ve been telling you think. You don’t have to participate in the disciplining of your mind to not have thoughts that they disapprove of. You do really remarkable and frightening things to yourself when you’re under the control of people like this.”

Based upon her own painful experience Hearst has advice for the Smart family. She says Elizabeth will “need a really good psychologist who can also work with the family.”

But let’s hope the Smarts find help from professionals who are recognized “specialists in the psychology of abuse and persuasion,” rather than apologists or generalists that might “gloss over” what really happened.