Monday, January 9, 2012

Lifton on Reaffirming the Myth and How Adults and Children Respond: Understanding Doctrine Over Person Part IV

Continuing on from the previous post which discussed one of Robert Lifton's case studies which illustrated the Doctrine Over Person element of ideological manipulation, I've selected some additional highlights from his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. I believe that they will help the reader gain a better understanding of how abuse, psychological pressures, and social influence affect an unsuspecting participant in any spiritually abusive group. Manipulative salesmen and religious zealots use these very same pressures to exploit unsuspecting and good natured people every day.

I once attended a church were many of the elders talked about their testimonies, claiming to have come from families of alcoholism. I was surprised to eventually learn that many of the men who made these claims did not have parents who were alcoholics, but they were emulating the more powerful leaders in the group who did have this experience to gain favor with them. There seemed to be an unspoken expectation in the group for leaders to make these kinds of confessions as an expression of solidarity and fraternalism, regardless of whether the details of their confessions were true.

True Woman(TM) Conferences come to mind for me as well. Women are encouraged to speak at microphones after the main services in the evening to confess and “repent of feminism” which may amount to working as a phone receptionist at a cab company where a woman confesses how she directed male taxi drivers where to go to meet and pick up their new fares. Such behavior was reconstructed and redefined by those women, not as a dutiful performance of their job responsibility but as the usurping of the authority of the male cab driver which somehow qualified them as a feminist tantamount to Gloria Steinem or Jane Fonda. In other complementarian groups, having any job outside the home or having once gone to college is also cause to repent of being a secular feminist.

Apart from the pressures and the doctrine of these high demand groups, none of these people would have considered themselves to be children of alcoholics or feminists but responded to Doctrine Over Person pressure which allowed them to please their authorities. It also allowed them to feel as though they were a true and intimate participant with the group, allowing them to merge their identity with the groups that apply great pressure for them to do so. We are social creatures, and we need to be a part of community. As Christians, we are required to have fellowship with the Body of Christ and are warned against forsaking it. (But... it shouldn't require us to re-write or redefine true events of the past, something different than changing one's opinion about how they feel about those past events.)

Pressure to exaggerate and to reinterpret past history in this way to meet the desired template of a group is another example of the working of Doctrine Over Person. Hephzibah House, the IFB boarding home for troubled girls, had their own desired template and expectation for its resident prisoners. Any girl who ended up in the facility could only be a whore and a hopelessly lost criminal who somehow was not able to fully receive all of the benefits of living as a new creation in Christ, even though the Apostle Paul declares that this renewal is available to all who have faith in Jesus and are fully reconciled unto God and made holy in Him. Hephzibah girls were required to transform themselves internally to accept their lesser and hopeless fate standard and to prove Ron and Patti Williams true as a matter of their own survival and to avoid additional punishments on to that which they already suffered.

We've already considered how a whole family was pressured through shame and fear to create and believe false confessions about sexual abuse and murder, and in addition, how a prisoner of war began to believe things about his experiences that never took place. In both these examples, the individuals reduced their psychological stress by adopting a version of events that was favored or encouraged by manipulators and interrogators, a means of coping and survival.

In this next look at Doctrine Over Person, consider Robert Lifton's description about why these types of pressures have the power to affect memory, causing people in distress to create or accept imagined events as true elements of the past. The entire chapter concerning the eight criteria of thought reform in Lifton's book appears HERE online at the Apologetics Index, but I've pulled out some specific quotes which explain Doctrine Over Person specifically and why it takes place.

Excerpts from Chapter 22, Ideological Totalism, in Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, pp 431-2, (emphasis mine):
For when the myth becomes fused with the totalist sacred science, the resulting “logic” can be so compelling and coercive that it simply replaces the realities of individual experience 
[Host note: The sacred science refers to the doctrine, belief system, and both the written and unwritten rules of the group which the group and leaders never allow to come under any type of scrutiny.] 
Consequently, past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored, to make them consistent with the doctrinal logic. This alteration becomes especially malignant when its distortions are imposed upon individual memory in the false confessions extracted during thought reform.. . .Rather than modify the myth in accordance with experience, the will to orthodoxy required instead that men be modified in order to reaffirm the myth.The individual person who finds himself under such doctrine-dominated pressure to change is thrust into an intense struggle which takes place in relation to polarized feelings of sincerity and insincerity.

In a totalist environment, absolute “sincerity” is demanded; and the major criterion for that sincerity is likely to be one's degree of doctrinal compliance – both in regard to belief and to direction of personal change. Yet there is always the possibility of retaining an alternative version of sincerity (and of reality), the capacity to imagine a different kind of existence and another form of sincere commitment.

These alternative visions depend upon such things as the strength of previous identity, the penetration of the milieu by outside ideas, and the retained capacity for eventual individual renewal. . . The outcome will depend largely upon how much genuine relevance the doctrine has for the individual emotional predicament. And even for those to whom it seems totally appealing, the exuberant sense of well-being it temporarily affords may be more a “delusion of wholeness” than an expression of true and lasting inner harmony.

Take note that Lifton states that the degree to which the adult subjects in the POW camps tended to confabulate or create new memories depended upon that individual's resiliency and personal character traits prior to their imprisonment. He mentions their strength of identity, how willing they were to accept ideas that were not their own, how capable they were of resisting the new ideas, and their capacity to transcend the suffering based upon optimism about life that they possessed before they were subjected to the thought reform program in the camps. Those who were emotionally strong and healthy prior to the experience greatly influenced their personal outcome and response. He also points out that redefining one's history often offers a “delusion of wholeness” (a concept discussed by Erik Erikson, an expert in childhood cognitive, psychosocial, and ethical growth and development). Rather than a true expression of peace that flows from inner harmony, it is instead a rough coping mechanism and adaptation that allows the victim to survive their trauma, giving them optimism to keep on living instead of falling apart.

His ideas published here decades earlier have been confirmed by current and cutting edge research in PTSD today. Those with strong and supportive healthy childhoods move quickly through PTSD recovery, while children with developmental setbacks and childhood trauma face greater difficulties with unrelated trauma in adulthood, and traumatized children tend to live lives that are followed with many retraumatizations.

Consider also that Lifton addresses pressures placed upon adults. Now imagine how a child would respond to such pressures – a child who is dependent upon the adults around her for her survival but was betrayed by those adults who merely used her for self-gratification. A child of trauma lacks the ability to feel safe in the world and confident in their own understanding of how life works. They learn to adapt but lack the strength, ability, power, experience, and sophistication that an adult possesses. Their adaptations are primitive and often tend to be ineffective and pathologic once they reach adulthood. How much more damaged by Doctrine Over Person pressures would a young child be if even adults succumb and crumble under such pressure? Fantasies of idealism, pretending that abusive conditions are a heaven on earth (if only by comparison), could go a long way for a child, giving them resiliency and a reason to keep on living, despite overwhelmingly terrible conditions. Taking that fantasy of idealism from a very damaged and fragile person who has been deeply traumatized might send them into the depths of nihilistic despair.

Could this not be the case with Lucinda who goes to great lengths to sing the praises of Ron Williams, the captor who she needs desperately to believe is a benevolent despot? He demonstrated love for her by not raping her, and that might be enough for her to believe that he was the best father figure she could ever hope for and the best example of a parent she'd known up until she was sent to Hephzibah House.

The next post concerning Doctrine Over Person features material from Steven Martin's book, The Heresy of Mind Control: Recognizing Con Artists, Tyrants, and Spiritual Abusers in Leadership. Steven is a counselor at Wellspring, a Christian residential treatment program for those in recovery from religious abuse and controlling relationships..

About Hephzibah House

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