Monday, March 19, 2012

Thought Conversion on the Hot Seat

In the previous post, I discussed what my husband and I dubbed “The Star Chamber,” the interrogation and intimidation sessions that our former cultic church elders regularly adjudicated in the pastor's study when they wanted to address what they saw as serious behavioral non-compliance in members. Though the elders had their star chamber meetings, the thought conversion exercises were not limited to those more formal sessions. Though their manipulation was certainly not limited to only the formal sessions, the confrontations with the group of elders was quite powerful. Manipulation in informal settings can be just as effective, but star chamber sessions could affect much emotional, psychological, and spiritual harm, a special practice that involved a higher level of manipulation and force because of the ritual and the fact that a person was outnumbered by eight authority figures (the number of elders and pastors we had at the time of my attendance).



Interrogation isolates a person and disorients them, and the trauma of the experience pushes people into dissociation, a process discussed in greater length in a previous post. We remember the iconic picture from early films about gangsters of the spartan, dark, windowless room with a single, uncomfortable chair in it, an occasional table, but always with a ceiling lamp with a bare lightbulb hanging above the chair. This not only puts the subject of interrogation on display for those in the room to scrutinize, the bright, undiffused light prevents the subject from seeing much of anything but his own body and cannot see much of anything else in the environment. This naturally induces literal disorientation, because a person cannot see their surroundings.

When bent on shaming a parishioner into submission, a local church may not use the light bulb in a dark room to enhance the torture session, they do use other factors to psychologically disarm those who are “under their authority” and have challenged it. This previous post discusses what happens to consciousness when a person dissociates (a physiologic feature of PTSD), and as also noted in a series of posts on this topic, this kind of technique does alter memory by fracturing the self through the use of interrogation. People will believe fantasy to be fact after psychological and physical torture, just as a way of surviving in order to maintain a functional sense of self (because they do lose there sense of identity when they are required to conform to that which is untrue). For the Christian, manipulators can further enhance this effect by claiming that non-conformity and resistance will result in eternal damnation in a place of eternal, unfathomable torture – a special kind of emotional and spiritual blackmail which proves highly effective. Robert Lifton called this fallacious distortion the technique of the Dispensing of Existence, what some evangelical groups call a “spiritual covering,” and what Gothard defines as the “umbrella of authority.” Only the group or the cultic leader can determine your status, and they claim to be able to be able to prognosticate easily, determining your eternal status through a divine insight that only they possess. 


The Hot Seat at Ole Anthony's Trinity Foundation

Wendy and Doug Duncan who were once members of the cultic/spiritually abusive Trinity Foundation in Dallas describe their formal process of interrogation created Ole Anthony – sessions that the group called “the hot seat.” Known to reduce some grown adults to fetal position and drive others into psychotic episodes, Ole's hot seat sessions would extend for hours and took place in front of the entire group of followers. Information elucidated in such sessions through this enhanced torture technique would then haunt group members for years thereafter, levers of control that would be remembered and used by everyone in the group to maintain conformity and compliance of others through threatened shame. Ole believed that to free a person from shame, he was called to induce shame by making them fully experience a sense of their total depravity until that person became so broken that they would essentially become entirely desensitized to shame. That was his premise, anyway.

He believed that harsh, degrading sessions of shame induction were the best way to augment a person's sanctification and were absolutely necessary to make a person into an effective Christian. He also just so happened to believe that he was put on earth to purify people himself in order to make them truly fit for service to God in ways that only he could elicit. I find it fascinating that these types of sessions always start out with specific infractions and always degrade into deeply personal and mean-spirited criticisms which do little else but facilitate unquestioned obedience to the group and its leaders. (We find the same type of beliefs about breaking a child in larger and expanding sectors of Evangelicalism today.  Here's a great new review article about this troubling trend.)

Wendy graciously shares with us some excerpts from her book pertaining to the practice of breaking the spirit within the Trinity Foundation.


From Chapter 6 entitled “Breaking Spirits” in Wendy Duncan's book, I Can't Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult (pp. 87-109):

“You can have people come to Bible study three times a week but that really isn't enough to thoroughly indoctrinate people to the extent that Ole wanted. He needed some other way to profoundly and permanently alter people's personalities, and from his perspective, to fix them. Ole discovered the ultimate method for transformation when he started the hot seats.” [Quote from a former member named 'Dave']

In the spring of 1985, Trinity Foundation members embarked on the first of what would be dozens of rounds of psycho-torture sessions known as the hot seats. The “hot seat era” lasted through the early 1990s, and during that period, the hot seats became a daily part of life for the members. The group would go away for long weekends and have marathon sessions. People would curse and scream and cry – eventually arriving at the “orgiastic sense of oneness” described by Lifton. . .

The hot seats were gruesome, tortuous events, both for the person on the hot seat as well as the other participants. The stated purpose was to free you from your past, free you from the things that were hindering you from entering the kingdom of God. In practice, however, they had the effect of changing the participant's perception of himself, reinterpreting his life history, and transforming his worldview by replacing it with Ole's. No one challenged Ole's insights. Though others would pile on and point out the contradictions and faults of the person being hot-seated, Ole kept tight control of the sessions and was the sole arbitrator and judicator of which insights were genuine, who had permission to speak, and, ultimately, when the person being hot-seated was sufficiently broken. . .

It was Ole's role to discern the true meaning of any event described during each prison's hot seat, and it was always stated in a way to make that person realize his or her total depravity. He would tell people that the Holy Spirit could not have anything to do with them because they were too evil, and they had no hope of being saved. His favorite technique was to force one of his disciples into a state of despair so that he or she thought there was no possibility of salvation, and then, when Ole felt that the person was sufficiently broken, he would turn it around. God had returned, and the person was safe, and he was part of the Kingdom after all. . .

There must be some truth to Ole's premise here, but the problem was that the programming, which people received from their parents and from society – some of it no doubt was destructive – was replaced not with God's programming, but with Ole's. . .

[Quoting 'Mark.'] “[A]t the time, there was a strong belief that we were doing the right thing. None of us could see the damage. Ole convinced us that the shameful events in our past were the things that defined us now – defined our false worship. . . We believed that we were in a spiritual, life-and-death struggle for the soul of the individual who was on the hot seat. If each of us did not repent, we would be forever banished to hell. We were engaged in this spiritual warfare. There was a grand fight going on between God and Satan, a battle for our souls.” . . .

[Quoting 'Paula'] “Ole drilled into each of our heads that we were each the chief of sinners. So I always thought that whatever accusation Ole made against me, he must be right. I am guilty. The hot seats tore you down to where you were nothing but a mass of jelly. If you had any confidence or self-esteem when you began the hot seats, you sure weren't going to have any when it ended. . . I know it sounds odd that I would allow someone to abuse me that way, but I was convinced that unless I went through the hot seat, I would never be able to see what was keeping me from being real, keeping me from fellowship, keeping me from being who I was supposed to be in Christ. You submit to those things because there are things about yoruself that you believe that you don't perceive accurately.” . . .

It did not matter what you had done or what you wrote down on your list, Ole was going to make it about something else. . .

After the ordeal of a hot seat, people would report a type of dissociation – a feeling of numbness that lasted for three or four days. If brokenness was the ultimate good, the best one can do is to break people – and that's what Ole believed he was called by God to do. . .




Read more about the “hot seat” and much more in Wendy Duncan's book, I Can't Hear God Anymore, which details her experiences and the experiences of former members of the Trinity Foundation, a spiritually abusive organization founded and still operated by “Ole” Anthony in Dallas, Texas. Also, visit the DallasCult.com website to learn more about their experiences and to find lists of resources for help and healing.



Additional posts about the dynamics of altering memory through psychological pressure and thought reform techniques (geared toward the experience of the survivors of Hephzibah House):