The Neverending Story

A comment on M. Introvigne's "Liar, Liar" 

Alberto Amitrani and Raffaella Di Marzio, from the Roman seat of G.R.I.S.

November 27, 1998. 


This beautiful film by Wolfgang Petersen tells the story of the Kingdom of Fantasia, inhabited exclusively by characters created by the fantasy of children. This world is threatened by Nothingness, the dark force of habit, which is causing the disappearance of Fantasia; but in the end, a little hero will be able to save Fantasia and defeat Nothingness. 

Here are some notes on a "story" which truly seems to be "neverending". 

We were recently advised of an article signed by M. Introvigne and published on the CESNUR website. We read it with great interest, and also analysed the documents which were attached to it. A first consideration is, that CESNUR's website has truly rendered a service to information by making a large part of the documentation concerning the APA case available to everybody. Of course, direct access to documents is of fundamental importance in order to make up one's own mind about any controversial issue, like the one we are discussing. 

What made us carry on our research with greater determination was the very fact that we were unable to get hold of a document (the APA Memorandum of May 11th, 1987), which seemed to be of enormous importance for a prestigious Professional body. Today, we can only thank those who have put such accurate and almost complete documentation on the Net. 

We had no intention of going back to this issue, since we had already expressed our point of view in "'Mind Control' in New Religious Movements: clarifying some issues". 

However, several people invited us to express our opinion about certain statements to be found in the article "Liar, liar" : Brainwashing, CESNUR and APA. On the basis of our sources and documents, we shall therefore comment the part of the article entitled APA and Brainwashing: The Story and the Documents, leaving aside the whole issue of the suit submitted by Dr Singer and Dr Ofshe against APA, ASA and some specialists, since we do not intend to digress into a field which we feel is not relevant. 
However, we would have several things to say about this issue too. 

All the quotes highlighted at the beginning of each paragraph are taken from the article "Liar, Liar" by M. Introvigne. 

The beginning 

«In the early 1980s, some U.S. mental health professionals became controversial figures for their involvement as expert witnesses in court cases against new religious movements, during which they presented their anti-cult theories of brainwashing, mind control, or "coercive persuasion" as if they were generally accepted concepts within the scientific community. In the meantime, in 1983, the American Psychological Association (APA) had accepted the proposal to form a task force called DIMPAC" (Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control)»

This statement could lead one to think that the Task Force called DIMPAC was set up as a sort of "commission of enquiry" on certain "controversial" psychologists and psychiatrists. 

However, the documents we have show that this was not what happened (Letter with attached Memorandum dated July 12th 1983 signed by the then Administrative Officer of the BSERP, Arnold S. Kahn). 

In fact, the 6 page Memorandum attached to the letter (where the establishment of the Task Force is proposed) specifies the purposes of the Task Force and, hence, the job APA appointed it do: 

a) Investigate the techniques of psychological coercion 

b) Decide whether one can or must, or cannot or must not, impose restrictions on the use of techniques and principles of psychological coercion used by psychologists and non psychologists in a manner abusive of individual or constitutional rights. 

c) Establish the conditions under which use of such techniques is more or less appropriate. "The charge to the Task Force will be to define the parameters and limits to which coercive psychological techniques may be used before invoking the principle of the ‘need to protect the individual’ ". 

- Further on, the document says that the APA is especially interested in these techniques being used to promote individual well being. What the Association is interested in are, " in particular, techniques of indoctrination, ‘brain-washing’ and ‘coercive persuasion’ have not been subject to the same scrutiny as other psychological techniques ... Such techniques are currently being used by religious cults (e.g., the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, etc.) as well as nonreligious organizations (e.g., est, Life Spring, etc.)". 

- The Memo then remarks on the importance of undertaking this enquiry in the light of the increasing involvement of psychologists in disputes associated with cults, for example in the courts, where psychologists were often called in as witnesses (two cases are mentioned involving the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology), and then mentions the so-called "training seminars" like est and Life Spring which made widespread use of coercive techniques. Further on, the Memorandum says : "It is quite clear that many of the religious organizations have involved in recruitment techniques which are the equivalent of psychological assessment. It would appear that these techniques need to be well defined and, if certain people are a high risk, that these people need to be warned with regard to potential harm. The fundamental issue facing psychology is a determination of whether or not certain people need to be protected from coercive psychological techniques. It may be impossible to discuss this aspect of the abuse of coercive psychological techniques without discussing legalistic implications. A thorough discussion of coercive techniques and the possible need for recommendations in order to protect the public would be in the best interest of psychology". The part regarding the outcome of the study performed by the Task Force also expresses the hope that something may be published in the future concerning this issue. 

This document, then, shows that the Task Force was set up, not to put an end to the "anti- cult" activities of some psychologist, but for reasons of public interest, in order to safeguard the psychological welfare of individuals who might be subject to coercive psychological techniques, either in NRM's or in other organisations. 

An extraordinary "slip"? 

«DIMPAC pursued its work for some years, whilst Dr. Singer and other professionals continued to appear as expert witnesses in court cases using their coercive persuasion and brainwashing theories. Dissatisfied with this continuing state of affairs, ‘on February 5, 1987, during its winter meeting, the APA Board of Directors voted for APA to participate in the [Molko ] case as an amicus’ (American Psychological Association, Memorandum on APA’s activities regarding the Molko case, July 11, 1989, p. 1) […] The brief stated that as applied to new religious movements, the theory of coercive persuasion ‘is not accepted in the scientific community’ and that the relevant methodology ‘has been repudiated by the scientific community’»

This reconstruction would lead the reader to think that the submission of the amicus brief (which completely denied the validity of coercive persuasion theories) was brought about by an unbearable situation, where the Task Force was still going on with its proceedings, while psychologists and psychiatrists continued to make absurd statements in the courts, presented as if they had a scientific foundation. 

However, the documents we have show that this was not what happened: 

a) Firstly, the Memorandum attached to the letter of July 12th, 1983, states that the Task Force started its full proceedings in 1984, and that such proceedings would take two or three years, depending on the time required to draw up the final report. 

Since the Task Force started its proceedings in 1984, it was well within the time limit it has set itself , and in February 1987 there was no reason to hold that the work of the commission was "dragging along". 

b) Concerning the amicus brief approved by some APA board members, submitted on February 10th, 1987, and then immediately withdrawn, this whole matter would appear to be much less "clear" if it were presented in other terms. 

For example, one could say that - while the APA was waiting to review the report of the Task Force which it had set up itself and which it had appointed M. Singer to run - some of its directors decided to sign the famous amicus brief in the name of APA (some even claim that this document was approved on the basis of a round of phone calls and with no in-depth examination). All of this, of course, without consulting the Task Force which had been set up for the very purpose of studying something that the APA board members now suddenly decided did not exist ! Considering the situation, one can hardly say that APA stood out for transparency; it looked rather as if its right hand knew not what the left did. With such an embarrassing situation, APA quickly withdrew the amicus brief and then, after a few months, rejected the report by the Task Force. When one sees the facts in this light, the submission and then withdrawal of the amicus brief could well be seen as an attempt by APA to free itself as quickly as possible of a "hot potato". 

Even though the APA withdrew from the battlefield, some people today still try to pass the Molko amicus brief matter across as if it had represented a stand taken by the Association; such an attempt of course helps the NRM's, but not scientific accuracy. 

Among those who protested against the presentation of the amicus brief was Dr. L. J. West who wrote a letter (signed by about two dozen UCLA psychologists) to Dr. Bonnie Strickland, then President of APA. She answered this and other letters by saying that the whole issue of ‘coercive persuasion’ was still awaiting discussion by the members of the Association, in order to achieve a more profound understanding of the use and abuse of social influence. 

And, of course, debate and research have never stopped. 

Right about turn 

«APA subsequently withdrew from the case ‘based on procedural as opposed to substantive concerns’ and ‘never rejected the brief on the ground that it was inaccurate in substance’.»

a) This does not however seem to mean that APA OFFICIALLY approved the contents of the brief, i.e. the notion that the theory of coercive persuasion applied to NRM's is not accepted by the scientific community. If it never rejected it, neither did it ever approve it officially, turning it into the final stand of the whole Association. The only indisputable fact is that APA withdrew the brief and never presented it again. 

There is only one way to prove the contrary: to bring out an official APA document - if it exists - which states that that brief, as it was drawn up in 1987, has received the imprimatur of the Association, decreeing the end of scientific debate on "coercive persuasion". 

Even so, people would still have the right to think differently, since APA, however prestigious it may be, does not in any case represent all the psychologists on earth, nor is America necessarily and always the model to follow. 

b) Let us take a further look into the right about turn of the APA, by examining the Memo of July 12th, 1989, sent by R.D. Fowler, Chief Executive Officer of the APA, to Dr. W. D’Antonio. This document explains some of the reasons the brief was withdrawn: 

- Fowler mentions a letter, dated May 17th, 1989, from Dr. Ofshe to Dr. D’Antonio. On page 2 of his letter, Ofshe had said that the APA brief "improperly slipped through the APA’s administrative structure… and [was] filed by the former executive director of APA despite objections by APA’s legal counsel". After having denied this statement by Ofshe, Fowler says that the Executive Director of APA resigned after the episode, but that "…the APA Executive Director did not resign because a brief was filed in the case". We wonder why the APA director resigned - was it for "health reasons" or "unexpected family problems "? 

- Fowler also mentions another letter by Dr. Ofshe, of June 14th, 1989, where the latter says he was invited, together with Dr. Singer, to attend a symposium organised by APA's Division 1. The Symposium was just about coercive persuasion and its clinical, ethical, cultural and legal implications. Somebody of course might wonder, "Why did APA invite two scholars who had been entirely discredited by their Association after the rejection of the DIMPAC and the submission of the amicus brief?" Perhaps pre-empting such a possible question, Fowler comes forward with the information that the attendance at the symposium by the two scholars did not have the meaning Ofshe implies: "This statement is somewhat misleading in that this is not an APA sponsored symposium. Drs. Singer and Dr. Ofshe were invited by Division1 (one of forty plus APA Divisions) to participate in a Division 1 sponsored Symposium". If we take Fowler's statement into account, we can still ask: if a single Division of APA does not represent the whole Association, then can't we also say that four experts (the number of people reviewing the DIMPAC report), only one of whom was an APA member, do not represent the view of the whole Association? 

- From the same document, we also learn that APA's decision not to get back into the case after the rejection of the DIMPAC report was due to "… budget constraints and other pressing business". These rather surprising motives could lead us to think, as Prof. B. Zablocki (*) puts it, that it was "... simply a matter of trying to put the best possible public face on what was an embarrassing situation for the cult apologists. Neither the cult apologists nor the cult bashers had enough votes in the APA to force through whichever measure each side would have wanted. Instead there was a face-saving compromise in which the APA essentially washed its hands of the entire matter — quite properly, in my opinion. Big national professional organizations like the ASA or the APA have no business taking political stands of any sort as long as there is substantial disagreement within the membership even if one side can get 51% of the votes and the other only 49%"… The APA's action in denying cult apologist’s request to support the amicus was an implicit act of censure". 



Spring follies 

«In fact, although Singer later claimed that all drafts were still provisional and that she needed more time, by the end of 1986 APA's BSERP had submitted the latest draft of the DIMPAC report both to internal reviewers and to two outside academics, namely Dr. Jeffrey D. Fisher and Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi (…)It would also not do to state that BSERP unfairly evaluated a provisional draft of the report. 1986-87 correspondence shows that the text was the "final draft of the report, minus the reference list" (letter from Dorothy Thomas, executive assistant at BSERP, December 29, 1986)»

This reconstruction seems to show that Dr Singer continued arbitrarily claiming that DIMPAC was merely a draft, absurdly asking for more time to go on with the proceedings of the Task Force. 

However, the documents we have show that this was not what happened. 

The Memorandum of December 29th, 1986 from Dorothy Thomas and addressed to the Task Force with the title "Final draft of Task Force Report", says that, in the meeting held from October 31st to November 2nd 1986, the final draft of the report had been examined by the members of the BSERP : "For the most part, they felt it was a good report. However, because of the magnitude of the issues involved, BSERP decided to send the report out for independent review by a number of people who are knowledgeable in this area. BSERP members were also asked to give the report a more careful review (the final draft version was available to members at the meeting) and to prepare comments for further discussion of the report at their May 1987 meeting. […] BSERP will decide on a process for finalizing the report in the spring". 

In other words, this was no absurd claim by Dr. Singer, but a reality based on this document which she and other Task Force members had received. What is strange is how BSERP acted, first postponing its decision on how to conclude the report until May, 1987, then, during the same meeting, expressing its final opinion by rejecting it! On the other hand, an examination of the document put on the CESNUR website clearly shows that the DIMPAC report was only a draft. 

So we are left to ask : what ever happened between December 30th, 1986 and May 11th, 1987? 

What could have induced the BSERP to change its orientation and its work schedule concerning the Task Force so drastically? 

All we can do is list some facts, without claiming to be able to answer the question: 

1) The Memo of December 29th, 1986 advises of the "change of the guard" at the leadership of the SER ( Office of Social and Ethical Responsibility) : the new director was to come into office on January 5th, 1987. 

2) Barely one month later, on February 5th, 1987, the APA directors presented an amicus brief stating the non existence of "coercive persuasion." 

3) On March 24th, 1987, this very amicus brief was withdrawn and was never presented again. 

4) On May 11th, 1987 the BSERP (which had called the Task Force report "good" at the end of October) rejected it during the Meeting which had been scheduled to discuss its final draft and to establish the criteria for completing it. 

Any comment, at this point, would be truly unnecessary! 


«When one reads the enclosures and considers the whole controversy, it becomes clear that the issue not resolved by the 1987 Memorandum is the much larger issue of unethical behavior and misrepresentations in persuasion processes, a problem not exclusive to the field of new religious movements or ‘cults’. Unethical behavior and false representation may occur quite independently of any brainwashing, coercive persuasion, or mind control practices, both in religion and in psychotherapy (…) It is on larger issues of this kind, rather than on brainwashing as allegedly practised by new religious movements, that BSERP experts disagreed among themselves, and BSERP was not in a position to reach a definitive conclusion»

Even after reading the enclosures and all the other documents several times over, we cannot honestly share this interpretation of the expression of the Memo of May 11th, 1987 , a document which, by the way, had been forgotten by everybody and had never been mentioned, as if it never existed: "Finally, after much consideration, BSERP does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue". 

Today, this document seems to have achieved an extraordinary fame and some people have interpreted it in quite creative ways. 

But if the Task Force, according to the Memorandum attached to the letter of July 12th, 1983 (which is the document which set the Task Force up and defined its appointment), was supposed to investigate possible abuse of psychologically coercive techniques both among religious cults and among training seminars, then it is quite clear what the "issue" to be examined was. When the BSERP rejected the DIMPAC report because of its methodological faults, its lack of scientific rigor, it added that it could not express any opinion concerning the broader issue which the Task Force was supposed to investigate, since it did not have enough information. 

Our interpretation of this expression, which had been ignored for ten years and is now the subject of so much attention, seems to us to be much closer to the facts and to the documents. 

Although the scientific validity of the subject matter studied by DIMPAC has not changed, i.e. techniques of ‘coercive persuasion', this does not necessarily mean that everything that was ever written about it is free of defects. 

The rejection of one scientific report on a phenomenon does not cancel the existence of such a phenomenon. 

Prof. Zablocki (*) has this to say about the matter : "In my opinion, the DIMPAC committee went too far in the other direction by asking the APA to affirm that brainwashing in religious cults was a proven psychological fact. It was for this that they were censured. It is not true that the APA affirmed the contrary, that brainwashing was disproved. Instead, the APA argued that it could not go along with EITHER SIDE in this matter. I would say that neither side got what it wanted from the APA. As an organization representing ALL psychologists in the USA, it took a proper agnostic position that no final decision could be given at this time". 

Summing up 

We have reason to believe that APA, today like ten years ago, still considers "psychological coercion " to be a phenomenon worth investigating, and not a notion rejected by the scientific community. 

Otherwise, why would such "well-known people" as M. Singer , M. Langone and others, considered to be "anti-cultists", attend APA Conventions and be respected in other prestigious Professional bodies as well? For example, M. Singer has published an article on these issues in the "Merck Manual" the Bible of Medicine. The same scholar, together with J. West, has published in the "Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry", the basic textbook of Psychiatry. R. Ofshe wrote about ‘thought reform’ in the "Encyclopedia of Socioloy" after ASA and APA withdrew their support for the Amicus brief in 1987. 

If such examples do not reflect the respect that the scientific community feels towards these scholars, how are we to interpret them? 

In May 1997, the APA Monitor ran an interesting column, "What Messages are Behind Today's Cults?"  by Stanford's Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a former president of APA. Dr. Zimbardo, who has appeared on an APA program with Dr. Singer, Langone and others, says: "Whatever any member of a cult has done, you and I could be recruited or seduced into doing -- under the right or wrong conditions. The majority of `normal, average, intelligent' individuals can be led to engage in immoral, illegal, irrational, aggressive and self destructive actions that are contrary to their values or personality -- when manipulated situational conditions exert their power over individual dispositions." 

These are the facts, and they could not be otherwise, since the American Psychological Association, will never be able to avoid investigating the problem of manipulations inside certain groups and NRM's. These may be seen as special manifestations of the same processes of social influence which take place in daily life. Whether or not we use a theory like that of "coercive persuasion" to describe such extreme forms of social influence, located along a continuum of differing intensity, this is an issue which can and must be discussed with intellectual honesty in a Professional Association of Psychologists. 

Prof. Zablocki (*) has this to say about the position of APA and ASA on the issue of brainwashing theories: "Many people have been misled about the true position of the APA and the ASA with regard to brainwashing. Like so many other theories in the behavioral sciences, the jury is still out on this one. The APA and the ASA acknowledge that some scholars believe that brainwashing exists but others believe that it does not exist. The ASA and the APA acknowledge that nobody is currently in a position to make a Solomonic decision as to which group is right and which group is wrong. Instead they urge scholars to do further research to throw more light on this matter. I think this is a reasonable position to take". 

This is our position too, without any claim to having found the truth. Absolute scientific truth does not exist. If scholars continue researching, with intellectual honesty and scientific rigor, they will perhaps find a way to do something useful to prevent damage to weaker individuals within certain pseudo-religious movements, while at the same time safeguarding the freedom of conscience of every human being and the right of everybody to practice and spread his religious faith. 

Launching "Memo Wars", on the other hand, does not help to reach the truth; indeed, it creates an overheated climate which does not encourage scholars to look at the present or the future with the confidence and open-mindedness of those who share the motto which used to appear on the documents of the APA: 

"Advancing psychology as a science, a profession, and as a means of promoting human welfare". 


(*) These are representations signed by Dr. Zablocki, which are in our possession and which we publish with his permission.

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