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.”

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.

Catherine Wessinger, a religious studies professor that has been called a “cult apologist,” offers her analysis of another so-called “new religious movement.”

This time it’s David Koresh’s Branch Davidians.

It seems Wessinger can be depended upon for an apology no matter how bizarre and/or destructive the cult.

Today in the Waco Tribune-Herald’s second installment of its nine part series about the Branch Davidians she once again offers her unique spin on a cult’s demise.

What does Wessinger make out of the Davidian cult tragedy?

Well, she says it was largely about “the militarization of law enforcement and the problems … and abuse that arise from such militarization.”


Apparently this college professor doesn’t wish to acknowledge the implications of a purported “psychopath” leading a cult group.

Wessinger admits, “I’m not trained in psychology so I don’t articulate those opinions…I’m sure he [Koresh] had some psychological issues.”

What an understatement.

Wessinger offers her usual apologetic spin. She has previously attempted to explain away cult tragedies such as Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown.

Wessinger once said, “If Jones and his community had succeeded in creating their Promised Land, they would still be here. But due to the attacks and investigations they endured, they opted for the Gnostic view that devalued this world.”

Again, no meaningful blame is placed upon the deeply disturbed cult leader and the inherent destructive dynamics of his control over the group.

Apparently almost any cult and/or cult leader’s behavior may be largely excused according to Wessinger’s reasoning under the general heading of “persecution.”

The professor’s new book is titled “Millennialism, Persecution and Violence: Historical Cases (Religion and Politics).”

Wessinger’s conclusions about the Branch Davidians within this context come as no surprise.

The supposed scholar says, “Koresh would have emerged from the compound peacefully, as promised, once he completed his work inside interpreting the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation. To have come out earlier, she says, “might have compromised Koresh’s need to conform to strict biblical prophecy.”

Obviously such a conclusion strains credulity and ignores the facts.

Koresh broke the law, failed to comply with a warrant, murdered federal officers and then refused to surrender for 51 days, despite the repeated pleas and guarantees of law enforcement. In the end he chose instead to kill himself and all his followers within the compound.

The cult leader’s behavior had little if anything to do with “biblical prophecy” and his “work” was really more about criminal violations of gun laws and sexual abuse than the “Book of Revelation.”

However, “apologists” like Wessinger apparently ignore such facts in favor of speculation based upon specious, but supposedly “politically correct” views, instead of reality.

The Mungiki sect or “cult” has a horrific history of murder and mayhem in Kenya. Last week alone 32 people were murdered by cult members, only the latest victims of the cult’s reign of terror, reports Sunday Nation.

However, the international media rarely devotes its resources for meaningful in-depth coverage of the brutal cult killings in Africa.


When 39 members of a relatively obscure American cult known as “Heaven’s Gate” committed suicide in 1997 it made headlines and generated seemingly endless journalistic analysis.

And in 1994 when 53 members of the then obscure Solar Temple were found dead in Switzerland, that too became the focus of rapt international press concern.

The Mungiki movement may include more than 2 million members and seems intent upon destablizing a government.

Just after 2000 hundreds of bodies were recovered in Uganda, the direct result of brutal cult slayings and suicide connected to “The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments.” But again this didn’t generate the same international news coverage that much less historically significant cults did outside of Africa .


In 1978 when 900 Americans died in an isolated cult compound in Guyana called “Jonestown” there was no shortage of journalists willing to cover that story. More than that number probably died in Uganda, but we will never know due to a lack of forensic assistance and it seems international interest.

Apparently African cult tragedies somehow don’t rate the same attention from the international media and community.

It appears that many news outlets think cult members must be white, American, European or at least from an industrialized nation such as Japan (i.e. Aum), to be worthy serious concern and meaningful in-depth reporting.

Los Angeles attorney Barry Fisher has made something of a career out of defending the interests of groups called “cults.”

Fisher was recently back in court for the Krishna organization (ISKCON), reports Associated Press.

Apparently a cause for this “activist” is fighting for ISKCON’s right to annoy people in airports. As any frequent flyer knows, Krishna devotees often work air terminals as a place to hawk books and solicit donations.

However, the courts have ruled repeatedly that free speech doesn’t really include soliciting people at LAX, which is not a “public forum” to promote book sales.

But that doesn’t deter Fisher, who historically can’t seem to find a “cult” he won’t defend.

In fact, Barry Fisher once had his expenses paid by the now infamous Japanese cult Aum, to come to its defense in Tokyo, shortly after the cult gassed the city’s subway system killing 12 and sending thousands to hospitals.

What did Mr. Fisher say? He claimed Japanese law enforcement’s response to the horrific attack was somehow an effort, “to crush a religion and deny freedom.”


Fisher comes with impressive recommendations. The “Cult Awareness Network” (CAN), largely controlled by the Church of Scientology since 1996, recommends him “for information about new religions.” Shortly after the members of “Heaven’s Gate” committed group suicide in 1997 near San Diego, CAN promoted him as a “religious liberty attorney.”

Defending “religious liberty” can be lucrative. Rev. Moon has billions and the Church of Scientology is certainly not poor. And though ISKCON says it may go bankrupt rather than pay damages to children sexually and physically abused within their schools, they seem to have enough cash on hand to cover Fisher.

No doubt Barry Fisher will continue his crusade for “religious liberty.” Probably at least as long as “persecuted” “new religions” can afford to pay his fees and/or expenses.

There is a subculture within the United States and around the world that accepts the existence of UFOs as a matter of faith—since no meaningful evidence has ever been produced to prove such claims.

UFOs seem to have become the center of a kind of religion, embraced by those who profess their faith in flying saucers and alien visitors from outer space.

But according to the “Mutual UFO Network” or MUFON 2003 is the year their faith will be proven, reports the Charlotte Observer.

Typically such groups blame government conspiracies for “covering up” evidence that would prove their claims, such as the supposed Roswell, New Mexico spacecraft crash and “Area 51.”

However MFON members say, “With all the sightings and information available on the Internet, the government won’t be able to hide the truth much longer.” And there certainly in a growing network of websites maintained by true believers such as MFON.

When claims about “crop circles” were proven to be a hoax, perhaps MUFON saw this as only a test of faith, which they clearly passed.

MFON’s spokesperson insists they are neither a “joke” nor “nuts.”

But to many the behavior of UFO believers often seems eccentric and humorous, though usually harmless.

UFO Groups like “Heaven’s Gate,” led to suicide by Marshall Applewhite, are the very rare exception and not the rule. Typically, joining the UFO subculture seems more like a “license to be weird.”

Almost 30% of Americans believe the existence of life in outer space is more likely than receiving government retirement benefits—to them it appears that Social Security is actually a matter of faith.

A French cult called the “New Lighthouse” expected the end of the world to come this Thursday, but its leader Arnaud Mussy has now bumped the date, reports VOA News.

Well what do you expect from a man who says he’s Jesus reincarnated?

Mussy has proven to be somewhat feckless in his previous prophecies. There have been two other failed predictions. However, in the cult business three strikes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out.

An Apocalyptic prophecy can be a useful device for cult leaders. Such predictions create a sense of urgency to gather the faithful together. And of course the leader promises safety for his or her chosen.

One example was Elizabeth Claire Prophet, who even built bomb shelters in Montana to protect her group the “Church Universal and Triumphant.”

And once within this crisis mode members are frequently easier to manipulate.

Mussy also eerily follows in the footsteps of Luc Joret, the former leader of the Solar Temple. Perhaps that’s why French authorities continue to have his house staked out. Joret ultimately created his own self-styled Armageddon through a group mass suicide in Switzerland during 1994. Many of Joret’s followers were French-speaking.

Now Mussy and his group are holed up in a house waiting for the end, which he says will come “very soon.” The supposed “Jesus” insists that they have no intention of killing themselves.

Again, that’s what another cult “Heaven’s Gate” said too. They even published an official statement against suicide on the Internet. However, they later all committed mass suicide outside of San Diego in 1997.

French authorities seem to feel it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Mussy claims he will drop the cult and resume a regular job if things fall through. But can he so easily stop being a “savior”? If history is any guide, probably not.

Three members of an extreme Buddhist group burned themselves to death in bathtubs of gasoline. They believed the ritual suicide would take them to heaven, reports Reuters.

The leader of the fringe Buddhist cult is now in Police custody.

The Buddhist religion, typically known for its peace and kindness, is no more immune to the cult phenomenon than Christianity, Islam or Judaism. Every religion seems to have its fringe groups, frequently dominated by charismatic leaders.

Apparently the Cambodian believers were not much different than other cult members of the past such as the members of the Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate or Waco Davidians, who like them believed suicide was a route to another world.

“Cult leader” Scott Caruthers is charged with conspiring to murder three people, reports the Baltimore Sun. The leader of the group called “BDX ” is now being held in jail, though he could be released on bail for $1 million dollars.

Caruthers believes he is an alien from outer space who communicates back to the “mother ship” through cats. Mr. Caruther’s attorney has requested that he be evaluated for an “insanity defense.”

Is it really surprising that some cult leaders might be crazy? Remember the leader of “Heaven’s Gate,” former mental hospital inpatient Marshall Applewhite? He thought he was part of an intergalactic “away team.”

Some people say you have to be crazy to join a cult, but perhaps it’s far more likely if you lead one.