Tuesday, October 29, 2013

An Open Message to Judge Susan Cook About the Williams' Sentencing: The Development of the Perfect Storm

Sentencing was just handed down today, following the guilty verdicts of the Williams Family parents in Skagit County, Washington. They were both found guilty of abuse charges for their adopted children as well as manslaughter charges, with an additional charge of “Homicide by Abuse” for the mother only. The jury could not come to a consensus on the same charge for the father, and it was subsequently dropped – a special charge reserved for those who are implicated in the death of children age thirteen years and younger. (A challenge of Hana Alemu Williams' age played a large role in the case presented by the defense teams for both parents to avoid the implications of this charge.)

Today, Larry Williams received a sentence of 333 months (nearly 28 years).

Carri Williams was sentenced to 443 months (nearly a full 37 years).

All of the jurors and the alternates attended the sentencing today in the packed courtroom.


As she was about to hand down the sentences, Judge Cook said, “I am at a complete loss as to why this happened.”
I think that Judge Cook likely made a statement about how she feels – incredulous over the idea that these tragic events ever occurred. It was more of a statement of emotion, but I also believe that apart an understanding of how high demand ideology works, you really can't understand.

A Partial Explanation of the Problem

I don't know the specific reasons as to why this family, particularly the more zealously committed Carri Williams, found a simplified formulaic approach to complex problems so appealing. I think that it's safe to say that, from all of the evidence that was reported in the press and comments in social media, she was driven by perfectionism and control. Why intense control of circumstances appeals to individuals can vary greatly, and so many influences can interfere with the how a person presents themselves when they are filmed on the stand when defending themselves against homicide charges. Though one does not need pre-existing emotional issues or traumatic experiences to fall into such ways of thinking, these factors do create what I'd call a greater foothold for manipulators and bad ideas. In the case of Carri Williams, I might speculate that she was somehow predisposed to formulaic, high demand ideology, but it would be only a speculation. And one can speculate that Larry Williams went along with his wife because he loved his wife and family, but had no easy way to exit the developing problems within the family once they were established.

I can, however, speak to the general concept of why people find certain approaches to child discipline so appealing. The condensed answer to the perplexing reasons why such extreme things happen becomes logical when you break it down into the dilemma into contributing factors. These factors create a perfect storm that can result in much suffering, even death. I reviewed the specifics of the problem with one of the basic corporal punishment systems that the Williams Family chose to use in this previous post, but I also offer this breakdown of the foundations of any ideologically-driven tragedy.

     Basic Beliefs. Life is difficult, and it presents us with difficult and painful challenges. A very common misconception about living is the foundational and general belief that “Life is fair.” Because life involves pain and difficulty and what can be chaos, we human beings have to come up with a way to stay optimistic so that we can live meaningful lives. We wish we were perfect and had mastery over life, but we are not, so we suffer loss and make mistakes. Each person must choose how they can make sense of the equation and how they will motivate themselves to remain healthily optimistic.

Life is fair” is a common belief that helps a person get around the problem of imperfection when it implies that human beings can live in that state of fairness through efforts to find it and remain there. How one esteems mankind also helps fill in this causality, explaining why problems occur and how human agency can be used to solve problems.

Such ideas are very personal, but few people actually spend time considering them. In Socrates' Apology monologue which is usually included with his Dialogues, he says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Nonetheless, people go on living, even thinking, without ever considering the basic ideas that serve as the glue that holds their optimism together. It is these ideas that contribute to their ability to live a meaningful life, though some seem to be more successful and meaningful – depending on your basic assumptions about life. And to me, it is the various ideas and the amazing ways that people weave them together that makes life so interesting.

     Human Need. When we are in need of a solution to a problem, depending on how distressing that problem is, we will become more open to suggestions that we might otherwise reject. If you're dying of thirst, you will take water from anyone – and you're compromised enough that you no longer have the ability to think about whether that water is safe and clean, or where and how you came by it. After having benefited from that water, you're inclined to like the source, just because your need predisposes you to confirmation bias. You're more likely to like people who have helped you. Even Jesus says this in Scripture in a sense: “He who is forgiven much loves much” (Luke 7:47). This is a positive effect if those who help us are ethical, balanced, beneficent, and safe – but it has a negative effect if they are not.

This can also be exemplified by the iconic idea of the “carrot before the horse.” This might be an anachronism now that we no longer use horses for transportation, but it was once a practice to trick a willful and lazy horse into pulling a carriage by hanging a carrot suspended on a string, attached to a stick, out in front of him. The horse thinks that each step brings him closer to the carrot, and he will be tricked into walking forward. The trouble is, as Janja Lalich's political cult leader once said, You give them only a little carrot and a lot of stick.” At some point in life, we all become vulnerable to such weakness and therefore influence.
While everyone is influenced and persuaded daily in various ways, vulnerability to influence fluctuates. The ability to fend off persuaders is reduced when one is exhausted, rushed, stressed, uncertain, lonely, indifferent, uninformed, aged, very young, unsophisticated, ill, brain- damaged, drugged, drunk, distracted, fatigued, frightened, or very dependent.
Margaret Thaler Singer, PhD

     A Formulaic Ideology (Easy Answers). Specifically, the Williams chose elements from pre-packaged ideologies in order to meet their own needs so that they could find a meaningful life. They looked for religious ideas that coincided with their own basic assumptions about human agency and how problems could be overcome – and whether or not they could be transcended or eliminated. Some of these ideas were more general religious ideas. They also looked to aberrant, Bible-based systems that made untested and foolproof promises that could be attained by following a highly demanding system of works and beliefs. Because of the allegedly Biblical basis of the unique system that the Williams created, they took the implications and their power even further, for they are deified in their eyes.

I think that the biggest problem with these types of systems involves their gross simplification of very complex problems. Though human beings and their problems tend fall into general categories, no individual fits the generalization when it is drawn from the commonalities of the group. This is true of everything – from faces to aptitudes to health problems. Behavior is even more complex because every individual is unique and then becomes shaped by unique circumstances. Formulaic ideologies provide simple answers to what are really complex and diverse problems. Those they sometimes work, they usually end up creating problems that arise from the ideology and practices which can be just as bad or worse than the original problems. “The cure is worse than the disease,” in many cases. At the very least, they trade one set of original problems for another set of distractions by way of the new system.

Another problem with such systems involves the wishful thinking that is often required to make them work. This dovetails perfectly with the confirmation bias that flows from human need. We all love to think of ourselves in a positive light, and we like to find wise solutions to reduce our pain in life. Formulaic living gives us both of these benefits, and we can easily mistake the formula as a means of doing things in a smarter, wiser way. By way of an timeless icon, these formulas seem like something of the invention of the wheel, changing how we do everything in a more clever way. The problem is that the wheel was a remarkable and reliable tool that actually did aid mankind, but these life formulas either make just as much or perhaps more work than the initial problem. But we usually can't get enough information or are not interested in information that challenges us. We become more interested in the promise of what the formula can do for us as opposed to what the formula really does produce. In that sense, we trade in reality for a fantasy.

And quite often, the formulaic system has been marketed to us by a particularly charismatic sales person who uses ideas and skill and our own good desires against us in order to gain our confidence. Emotion, thought (basic beliefs), information (selective), social pressure, human need, and our desire for wisdom can be woven into a mesh that gives that leader something – be it money or just a sense that they have helped another person which feeds their ego.

Another huge “selling point” for such formulaic systems? Because the bad logic in the system and the false assumptions creates a false sense of security, they become particularly appealing to people who feel a personal discomfort about ambiguity. Some personalities tend to gravitate to having a pat answer for every mystery, even though some things exist about which we can never know all the answers. Experiences and trauma can also predispose us to great anxiety and disturbing emotions when faced with ambiguity. Formulaic systems create the illusion that no real ambiguity in life exists, even though living involves mystery and risk-taking.

     Commitment and Consistency. Cialdini defines this influence, a basic trait of human nature, as a “weapon of influence” that can greatly skew our perspective. Emerson said in his essay on Self-Reliance that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Once we make a decision, just as a trait of being human, we become more likely to stick to that decision. We also like people to think about us in the way that we want them to think, and this becomes a powerful motivator for us. If a salesman says, “Only the wisest and best people buy my product,” this desire for consistency influences us, and many people will act just to prove to the salesman that they are wise and good, even if they don't want the product.

When people get caught up into ideologies that are highly demanding and focused on perfectionism, the principle of consistency and commitment becomes even more intense for them. Most people feel regret over mistakes, and even more people have difficulty admitting mistakes. Even more people have difficulty with changing their behavior when it comes to mistakes, particularly if they are perfectionistic. It also takes a lot of energy and determination to change one's thinking and behavior after making such mistakes, so in this sense, breaking consistency and commitment becomes very difficult for everyone. Time spent in a commitment to such a system, pride, humility, fear, and resources also contribute to the level of difficulty.

     Moral Disengagement. In order to make a high demand system of ideology work, one must “merge” with it by drawing identity from the belief system and those who follow the system. Part of that merging involves doing what the group does, but a more significant part of the process involves transferring one's own critical thinking over to the formula. The more perfection-driven the system, the more critical compliance becomes, but compliance with ideas becomes key. To prove the system as true and good, one must have faith in the integrity of the system. The person themselves becomes an ambassador for the system, and at some point, the system becomes critical to their own personal identity – an intense and powerful influence.

But something interesting and terrible happens when one resigns their critical thinking over to a simplistic formula. They lose perspective, but they also lose their own personal sense of ethics. They gave this sense of right and wrong over to the ideology, and they believe that the ideology carries their own moral culpability for them. They get Flip Wilson Disease. The ideology makes them do it because the threat of challenging the ideology becomes so real and terrifying to them, that fear actually outweighs their sense of doing what is right.
Moral disengagement ''is where all the action is,'' said Albert Bandura, a professor of psychology at Stanford and an expert on the psychology of moral behavior. ''It's in our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards, and it helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next.''

  • Stated in different terms, these are all elements of experience that are involved in thought reform systems, the surreptitious process of undue influence that hooks people into a destructive ideology and holds them there. These are all things that happen when a person is subjected to the fully orbed process of a cult, aberrant religion, an extremely zealous political movement, or even a controlling, abusive relationship. This previous post may hold an even deeper meaning after reconsidering the this perfect storm. (Take special note of the third video clip.)

Punishment versus Justice

When the perfect storm of high demand ideologies, undue influence, or cultic religion comes together, people may just end up living what seems to them to be a very good life. Some people gain some benefit, but all suffer, too, though they may not realize it.  Some suffer terrible consequences.  I'm sure if someone told the Williams parents that they'd end up in prison for manslaughter, homicide, and abuse, they'd have done things differently. I love how Wendy Duncan puts it so bluntly in her book: “I never wanted to join a cult.”

Today, the Williams began the formal punishment phase for the wrong that they've done, but when I hear the term “Justice for Hana,” I cannot help but to think that the punishment of these parents through incarceration doesn't really do anything for Hana. The parents received a just punishment, but the punishment does nothing to restore Hana's life, and it does not undo the far reaching effects of abuse suffered by her brother, Immanuel. Their other siblings, the natural children of Larry and Carri, have also suffered and will continue to do so. In some ways, the psychological and social challenges that they will face are far more convoluted and confusing, and they'll be faced with sorting out their religious beliefs, too. This deeply impacts how they understand spirituality. The communities of which these parents were a part have been irrevocably changed, as have the circles that their children have been and will be a part. To truly work justice, we would have to restore all of these people, but I can't help thinking that “Life is not fair.” We work with an albeit wonderful yet imperfect system, and we're imperfect beings within that system.

What would add to the justice of incarceration, sending a message to provoke other parents to consider what they're doing and stop following corporal punishment systems for children?

We have a problem, though. 

People who have been inducted into these systems cannot think about risks because they've lost perspective. They've resigned their critical thought and assigned the duty of critical thinking and ethical responsibility over to the high demand system. The problem is that they cannot think and they cannot consider that they are at risk of suffering the same fate as Larry and Carri. How do we get them to see that Larry and Carri represent their own type of potential hari-kari for their own lives?

We need to become mindful about how we can fall prey to undue influence and how to resist it. We need to accept that high demand and destructive religions have more to do with what people do than what they believe, though beliefs are seeds that can be permitted to flourish when other conditions are present. But we fall into the system by way of behavior and deception. Having good ideas about good religion does not shield us from the power of emotion, behavior, ideology, and information when they are used against us, even if we are working to achieve a virtuous end.

We need to be more informed about undue influence and how to resist it. Develop self awareness so that you can identify cognitive dissonance. Become a hard target for manipulation. Call manipulators out on their tactics and stop facilitating what they do. Be an everyday hero. Take care of your unfinished emotional business to decrease the size of the foothold that a manipulator can use. Think about what you believe and why.

Posts and Information

Why Good People Make Dangerous Choices 
(Series of posts pondering Pearl and Lydia Schatz)

CNN And Anderson Cooper Reports and Interviews

Death and Disease in Children Disciplined for Religious Reasons


Media Reports about the Schatz Family and other Religious Chlid Maltreatment

Essential Information (with more extensive information about Lydia Schatz and Family)


First Time Obedience and Unquestioned Submission (Pearl-style, authoritarian discipline)
      • A review of the principle of sacerdotalism and parental convenience (as a control issue in dysfunctional families) as rationales for requiring FTO and “leaps of faith” required under multigenerational faithfulness.
        • Review of the tendency to make every banal daily activity one of great eternal spiritual significance as a consequence of works-based salvation. Includes a discussion of viewing personality traits that do not fit the belief system’s paradigm as sinful as well as the building up of all gender related activities as sacramental for the impartation of inward sanctification.
        • Blog host’s personal experience with inherent personality traits treated by parents as sin, the idolatry of seeking parental approval, and the consequences of requiring unquestioned submission with the use of guilt and shame that predisposes one to easy brainwashing and compliance with thought reform. Includes a section from Biderman’s Chart of Coercion addressing the powerful effects of devaluing individuals in religious settings.
      • Discussion of the development of how perfectionism, works-based salvation and First Time Obedience squelch problem-solving skill and prevent the development of critical thinking under the guise of multigenerational faithfulness.
    • Discussion of the development of how perfectionism, works-based salvation and First Time Obedience squelch problem-solving skill and prevent the development of critical thinking under the guise of multigenerational faithfulness.