Steven Alan Hassan, M.Ed LMHC, has been a familiar name among those involved in the “cult controversies” for over twenty-six years. A former member of the Unification Church, he had originally been recruited into the Moon organization at the age of nineteen while a student at Queens College and spent twenty-seven months in the group. After leaving it, he has become over the years one of the leading figures among experts counseling people away from groups that they consider destructive. His impact goes beyond the United States. He has often been invited abroad. He is also the author of books translated into several languages: Combatting Cult Mind Control (1988, translated into Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian, Polish, Czech and Japanese) and Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves (2000, translated into Polish, Russian, and Chinese). A licensed mental health counselor, he is the director of “FreedomofMind.com”, which is a web site and a resource center.
The idea of this interview came during the American Family Foundation conference in Florida in June 2002, which both Hassan and the editor of Religioscope attended. Hasan said he felt that his activities are often misunderstood among people involved in religious studies or in religious movements. This led Religioscope to ask Hassan to grant us an interview, in order to explain what his approach is and how it has evolved over the years.
Religioscope – It is quite difficult to separate your work from your biography. For the sake of those who are not familiar with your books, could you briefly explain what led you to come in touch with the Unification Church in the ’70s and later to leave it?
S. Hassan – When I was nineteen years old and a junior at Queen’s College in New York, I had just broken up with a girlfriend and I was approached by three attractive women who were part of a front group of the Moon organization, who pretended to be students. They met me at the cafeteria at college and proceeded to recruit me by inviting me over for dinner, then a lecture, then a dinner and then another lecture, then a weekend away which I didn’t realize was a workshop. I did ask them if they were a part of a religious group and they looked me straight in the eyes and said, “No, not at all”.
I had never heard of Moon and knew nothing about cults. I was an extra honors student, I had skipped 8th grade, had traveled across America by bicycle when I was sixteen, had worked on an archeological dig in Israel when I was seventeen, had driven across Canada to Alaska when I was eighteen and I was not someone thinking I was going to join a group, or change my religion. I grew up as a conservative Jew. But I was inducted into the Moon organization after a period of just a few days. I describe my recruitment in detail in my book, Combatting Cult Mind Control.
Through deception, through manipulation, I was involved for twenty-seven months in the Moon organization. I was made a leader very shortly after joining, basically because Moon had just moved to the United States. He brought a very effective leader named Kamiyama from Japan and Kamiyama selected me as one of his twelve American disciples, so I was groomed directly by him. I was told to drop out of college, to quit my job, to donate my bank accounts, sent back to Queens College to set up C.A.R.P., a front group of the Moonies to recruit people to join the student club and then drop out of college. Later I was involved with political demonstrations, recruiting new people, indoctrinating people, fund raising activities.
I left the group basically because my family hired some people to deprogram me. They had been looking for me for about a year. I had been under instructions by the group not to tell them where I was. I had fallen asleep at the wheel of a fund-raising van, I should say I slept three to four hours a night on average. At this particular time, I had been up for three days without any sleep and had a very serious van crash and broke my leg. I called my sister which led to an intervention which lasted five days at which point I started questioning whether Moon was really the Messiah, the “Divine Principle” was the truth, whether I had been the victim of brainwashing or not.
In fact, during the deprogramming when the former members (one of whom I had actually recruited into the group and who had gotten out before me), a woman named Gladys, reviewed Robert J. Lifton’s book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961) with me. We went over his eight criteria of a brainwashing environment and they seemed to match my experience in the Moonies. Of course, I hadn’t believed I had been brainwashed. I thought I was just following God but it gave me a way just to orient and understand how I could have dropped out of school, quit my job and donated my bank account and so many bizarre beliefs, coming from my background.
When I did wake up from the trance, believing Moon was the Messiah, I was horrified and I felt very guilty over how many people I had recruited into the group. I felt like I had helped a demagogue get power in the United States. People started asking me to help their loved-one in the Moonies. I had decided when I first left the group I wanted to take a few months to read material and think about things in a non-pressured environment before I went public against the Moonies. I decided to go public against the Moonies. I basically turned over a lot of my Master Speaks, the private speeches of Moon, to the United States government. A Congressional investigation was going on called “Koreagate”. I had no idea I was going to spend the rest of my life helping people in mind control cults but it began my journey.
I can say that I was involved with some deprogrammings for the first year when I got out of the group because that was all that was known at the time of what to do. Some of them were actually legal interventions where the families went to a Judge and got a guardianship. Even though they were mostly successful, I think ten out of the twelve were successful in the sense of the person leaving the group, I found it so traumatic for me and especially for the person – and I just knew I didn’t want to continue doing that as much as I enjoyed helping people to get out.
I did seek out Robert J. Lifton and asked to speak with him and his reaction in 1976 was “Why do you want to talk to me about that old book?” We did meet and I proceeded to tell him about the Moon organization and its programs. His response was, “Well, I just studied it second-hand, (the Chinese Communist brainwashing programs), but it was done to you and you did it to others. If you study psychology, you can help explain it to other people.” It really set a new perspective, a new direction for me in terms of how to use my experience in a constructive way. I knew I wanted to go back to college. I first decided I would go and study with him at Yale. I hated New Haven. I had very little access to him. I got invited to come to Boston University so I moved to Boston, fell in love with Boston and this is where I have made my home.
Religioscope – In which year did you leave? How much time elapsed between the time you were successfully deprogrammed and the time you began to intervene yourself?
S. Hassan – I think it was about three to four months after I got out. I believe I had my car accident April 23rd of 1976. I believe that I woke up on May 11th, when I started doubting whether Moon was the Messiah for the first time in two and a half years and I think it was September before I started doing anything, end of August, September.
Religioscope – During that deprogramming you underwent, were you willing to stay? Did people constrain you?
S. Hassan – It is important for me to say that I was a fanatic member. I was held up by Moon personally as the model member. I was installed at the national headquarters and I was told to be the example for the then UC president, Neil Salonen to follow. If it hadn’t been for the car crash where I was trapped in the van, in pain, for a long time, if I hadn’t been in the hospital for a couple of weeks, basically away from the group, I don’t know if I even would have called my sister. And it’s also important to say that I had a cast from my toes to the top of my thigh and I needed crutches to move. When I was at my sister’s house, before anyone came in to speak with me, my father appeared and took my crutches away and so I couldn’t run away.
The first day was completely involuntary and I was very upset and angry, convinced they were all satanic and this was to be a test of my commitment which I was sure I was going to pass. The first day and the first night passed where basically they were trying to criticize Moon and I was responding, “You did not make an appointment to speak with me so therefore I am not interested in speaking with you.” That is one thing I remember saying repeatedly as a defense strategy. The other thing, when they were trying again to tell me what was true, what was right, I remember saying something like, “Who are you to play God with my mind? Who do you think you are that you will try to tell me what reality is?”
When I was given permission to go to my sister’s house, I was told to call in to make sure everything was okay. At the point that I didn’t call in, the organization knew there was something wrong so they were calling my sister’s house, she was trying to give them some excuse why I couldn’t come to the phone. Basically my family knew they had to get me out of my sister’s house because they were coming to get me, they would call the police or whatever. I had been asking to see my mother who wasn’t present and I was always very close with her and she’s someone who can’t say no, especially to her young boy. So, the next morning, my father said, “Come. We’ll go see Mom.” And we got into the car. I was in the back seat and he was driving and a couple of the ex-members were in the front. We were driving down the Long Island Expressway, missed the exit to my parent’s house, and my first thought was, “I need to kill my father. He’s lied to me.” I thought about reaching over and snapping his neck. I had been trained in some martial arts in the Moonies and literally had that thought for a couple of minutes where I thought this was what I needed to do because I’d been indoctrinated over and over again that it was better to die, that it was better to kill than to betray Father, betray God. For whatever reason, I thought to myself, “I know God, I know Father, I know Divine Principle, there is nothing they could do. They could try to torture me, there is nothing they could ever do to get me to betray our movement.”
My father went on driving to this new location, I guess he had rented an apartment, to continue the deprogramming at which point I refused to get out of the car when we pulled up to this thing. He had hired two security men who were big football player type men and at which point I just said “I’m not going to get out voluntarily, I’m going to be very violent and I am going to do everything I can to hurt whoever’s going to try to hold me down and I’m sure I’m going to get injured and if I bleed to death it will be on your conscience.” My father at this point did the ultimate “tactical maneuver”, it was not planned, but he started to cry. I had never seen my father cry like that in my life and it touched me and he said to me, “What would you do if it was your son, your only son that got involved in a controversial group?” The force of the emotion snapped me out of this anger and I stepped into his shoes and I imagined how I would feel if the situation were reversed. I still at the moment thought he had been brainwashed by the communist media and he was part of Satan’s efforts but I knew he was worried about me and I knew that he loved me so I said, “I’d probably do what you are doing now. What do you want me to do?” – “I just want you to hear the other side”. I said “I know the other side, I know all this negative stuff.” He said, “Well I need to know that you know this. I need to go to sleep at night as your parent knowing that I’ve done the responsible thing. So would you talk with them?” I said, “Yes, I’ll talk with them, but then what? If I want to go back, can I go back?” And he said, “Yes. I’ll drive you back myself.” We made an agreement.
The point of this story, at that moment, it became voluntary in my mind. The security guards were still there, but in my mind it had changed. The agreement was that I was not going to try to run away, I wasn’t going to try to call the group, I would voluntarily cooperate. And I did.
I should also say again to emphasize how fanatical I was, and I wrote about this in my book, that on the fourth day when the ex-members were making parallels with Adolf Hitler and Moon, I at one point said, “I don’t care if Moon is like Hitler. I’ve chosen to follow him and I’ll follow him unto the end.” As a Jew educated about the Holocaust and about Hitler, I never could have made a comment like this, except that I did.
On the final day of the deprogramming, the day I was going to be allowed to go back, the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back that gave me my snapping moment was they were reading from one of Moon’s speeches to members of Congress and Moon said something like, “Honorable American ladies and gentlemen, I’m very controversial and the point of the controversy is that I am brainwashing American young people. I have one question to ask you. Are Americans really that foolish that they could be brainwashed by me, Reverend Moon a Korean? Your answer is no, my answer is no too. I know no American is so foolish and I respect Americans very much.” I’m reading this and they said, “What do you think of this, Steve?” My first thought in response to that was, “He’s a snake.” That was the very first critical thought I’d had in two and a half years. I said he is lying speaking to the audience. The reality was that I had heard him speak at least a hundred times about how stupid Americans were, how pathetic Americans were, how Koreans were the master race. I’ve heard him talk about heavenly brainwashing us, I’ve heard Ken Sudo explain that Barrytown was brainwashing us. It was so clear he was manipulating the audience. In allowing that negative thought to enter my consciousness was like a dam bursting. I described the experience like being in a darkened room and someone opening up the Venetian blinds in the middle of the day and the sun coming in and you’re just shocked.
Religioscope – After that, you could have just walked away and gone to the next step in your life but for some reason it became for you nearly a life call to become involved with a number of people who had not had very positive experiences in controversial movements. I assume the very first deprogrammings you took part in were deprogrammings of Moonies. At which step did you come to think that your experience with the Moonies was applicable to experiences in other groups as well, that there were similarities?
S. Hassan – During my deprogramming they made the point about other cults. They asked me about what I thought about the Hare Krishnas, what I thought about other groups, and as a Moonie, I thought they were cults. That analogy was made very early on to me and I know that when I started doing deprogramming I came in contact with former members of other cults, Children of God, Hare Krishna, Scientology. Listening to each others’ stories, if you take the content, the theology away and talk about the process, especially in terms of Lifton’s points, they seemed to be more similar than different in terms of how we were taught to not trust our own critical thinking, how we were encouraged to think we were chosen, we were special, we had elite knowledge, that the rest of the world was ignorant and dark and evil.
I would say that several things were going on for me. I wanted to go back to college and get my degree which I started in summer school June, end of May of 1977. So from September 1976 to end of May 1977 I was doing deprogramming. I went to school. I loved college, I loved reading. Before I met the Moonies I was reading two to three books a week. When I joined the Moonies I stopped reading altogether. When I got out of the Moonies, it was hard for me to even read a page without spacing out. I had to sit with a dictionary and relearn what words meant and such. It was very amazing that I had forgotten so much of my cognitive skills.
When I left, I brought these unedited speeches by Moon. They started editing them in 1976 and forward but if you read early stuff they just literally transcribed what he said and printed it. Talking about how the Germans were trained in totalism, Germany would be a good place for us to do our work, about how the CIA would be impressed with how great the movement is doing, so many crazy things about wanting to take over the US, to control the government. So when I left, I was thinking I need to help expose this group. The Congressional investigation started in 1977. They approached me and I said “Look, don’t subpoena me. I will tell you anything you want, but I really don’t want to be public.” I had had some death threats when I left the group and I was afraid they were going to kill me. I naively thought this Congressional investigation would just expose the group. I would give them information and I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. It would be over. So, I didn’t go to Washington, I didn’t sit in on any of the hearings, didn’t critique any of the interviews, which I later regretted.
I was in college studying psychology, etc, and then two things happened. One was the final report that was released October 31st of 1978 and November 18th of 1978 Jonestown happened. And Leo Ryan who was killed at Jonestown was part of the Congressional inquiry. The final report of the inquiry stated that there were KCIA connections, the group was systematically violating numerous US laws and that it was too big an organization for any one element of the US government to follow up with. They recommended an inter-agency task force be set up because they found this group was an international behemoth.
Jonestown happened. I had never heard of the People’s Temple. I was watching TV when the news footage started coming about and I saw the bodies. It hit me in such a profound, personal way. And then as more and more information came out I felt I could have done that. In fact, in my experience, Moon had said that if North Korea invaded South Korea he would send all the Americans to die on the front line in order to get America into a land ward to protect Korea. So we were already primed to commit suicide. It was a different manner, but I was trained to die, I was trained to kill. Whatever God needed. I was his agent on earth. It affected me very very profoundly. I went on national television when I was asked to do so. Then the report came out from Jonestown about the brainwashing tactics of Jim Jones. Then there was a hearing on the Hill. I was invited to be a speaker, then I was taken off as a speaker. In fact, all the ex members were taken off as speakers. Cult members and cult PR people were invited to speak.
It was very bizarre. I felt the power of cults is incredible and we have to do something about this. I started thinking about how to do this without getting killed too quickly. Literally, I thought I would be assassinated. That much fear in me. I talked to a number of former members, former leaders, I set up an organization of ex members of Moonies, first called Ex-Members against Moon, then Ex-Moon Inc. and we incorporated as a non-profit and I edited a newsletter, I literally became the focal point for all information about the Moonies internationally. In 1979. I said to myself, “I gave two and a half years to the Moonies, I’m going to give two and a half years to fight the Moonies.” I made a decision. I wanted to focus on the Moonies instead of fighting all cults because I thought by using them as a case example, we could then expose all cults.
After two and a half years, I was totally burned out. We had no money. I was literally living on donations and flying around to help people. I just said, “I can’t do this anymore.” I had a kind of personal crisis in terms of how can I make a living, how can I have a life and do this work? I renounced deprogramming when I stopped that in 1977. I knew I didn’t want to do that. In 1980 was the first time I spoke out critically, publicly against deprogramming when I started learning about counseling techniques and communication techniques and such. I decided what needed to happen was I needed to talk with the family and friends and start orienting them on how to communicate with cult members because it was clear my parents didn’t know how to talk to me. They just tried to confront me directly. They thought this would get me out of the group and it just made me deeper inside, just reinforced all of the indoctrination. That’s when I started doing exit counseling and I started counseling people for money to do this. I started teaching workshops. And even then I didn’t think I would be doing this the rest of my life. Another two years went by, another two years went by, another two years went by. I fell in love in 1981, got married and by 1984 it was clear I wanted to get credentials so I went and did my master’s degree in counseling psychology and just kept going.
Religioscope – One could say the passage from deprogramming to exit counseling was partly influenced by your exposure to psychology. Had you already studied psychology before?
S. Hassan – Actually in my first college experience in Queens College I was a member of peer counseling support center so I was already interested in psychology, as well as philosophy and English and creative writing. I wrote poetry. I saw myself as a poet and as an English professor. That’s what I thought I was going to be.
Religioscope – How far was your orientation affected by your experience in psychology? Many people get interested in the issue of controversial movements following a personal experience but without any kind of training in psychology. So I was wondering how far your exposure to academic training in psychology contributed to this development from deprogramming to exit counseling. Or was it primarily the emotional experience?
S. Hassan – I’d say that even though I had experience doing some peer counseling in college, it was really my experience as a Moonie leader that propelled me to want to help people get out of the Moonies. And the feeling of guilt that I had. I had recruited thirteen “spiritual children” personally and I had indoctrinated probably hundreds of people. As I said earlier, I had been held up personally by Moon to the entire membership that everyone should be like me and I was absolutely horrified that I could have been used in this way or that I could have participated in encouraging the growth of this movement. So I’d say a principle motivation was guilt and somehow wanting to right what was wrong with what I had personally done.
Religioscope – Are any of your thirteen spiritual children still in the group?
S. Hassan – I don’t believe so. I’m not a hundred percent sure. There are a couple of people I have lost touch with but I believe that everybody is out. I’d say Lifton telling me that I was an expert had more to do with why I went in the direction of psychology than anything at that point because I basically felt very ashamed and embarrassed that I could have dropped out of college and done these things as a cult member. I could have been standing on street corners selling flowers for non-existent drug programs , that I could be fasting for Richard Nixon during Watergate when I felt that Nixon was a total crook! I tell the story in my book of how my father used to defend Nixon and I used to tell him how he was a crook and when I called my father from Washington D.C. thinking he would be happy that I was fasting for Nixon, my father said “Steve, you are right, he’s a crook. Now I know you’re brainwashed!”
There is a gratification in helping someone to reclaim their life. The closest analogy is helping someone who’s out drowning in a lake and you jump in and you pull him in and the feeling of closeness that you have towards the person you helped and they have towards you has been replicated time and time again. I say this because I helped rescue someone literally from a drowning. There is that similar kind of connection of “I care about you and you’re important and you have too much to do with your life than to stay in this group and waste your talents and abilities and give up your free will and such.” Unto this day this is what keeps me going with all the pressure and the stresses.
This past week I counseled this woman who had been in the Moonies in 1979-1980 and walked out. She contacted me about a month ago saying “I think I still believe that Moon is the Messiah and the Divine Principle is the truth. I don’t want to believe it but there is a part of me that still believes it and I’ve been having all these different problems.” She came here and we’ve been working together. Almost every other day she’s telling me how happy she is that she can be free, that she can reconnect with parts of herself that she was ashamed of or felt guilty about. She was afraid to tell anybody she’d been in the Moonies. She was afraid even to discuss elements of the Divine Principle much less talk with someone who had believed it too. Explain how it’s erroneous or fallacious or how it’s contradicted by other things that Moon or the doctrines said. She literally e-mails me all the time thanking me and it’s such a joy. It’s an amazing experience to know that you can make that kind of a difference in a person’s life.
Religioscope – What is your definition of a cult? I have the feeling that from your time in the 1970s until today, the kind of people you are advising has totally changed. It’s not only Moonies, it may be people involved in political groups, in psychological groups, it’s a much wider range so probably your perception of what a “cult” is has evolved over the years too.
S. Hassan – Absolutely. I’d say that the focus of my work has shifted from fighting cults to dealing with destructive mind control. I look at destructive organizations as an example of the unethical application of psychological techniques and mechanisms. First of all, let me say I’ve never had a problem with cults per se. I think that groups where people have devotion is a normal feature of human existence and that I am in the cult of scuba diving and I am in the cult of Judaism and I’m in the cult of loving John Lennon and doing other interesting things like that. No, the issue for me was always destructive cults.
My definition was and is an “authoritarian pyramid structured group that uses deception in recruitment (so there is no informed consent) and the use of mind control techniques to make people dependent and obedient.” I’ve defined mind control in terms of the control of behavior, information, thoughts and emotions, (BITE) all in creating a new pseudo identity that takes over and suppresses the person’s old identity or previous identity and that pseudo identity is in the image of the cult leader. It’s not a unique expression of their individuality and creativity. So for me the focal point is really on the methodology of how a group recruits and maintains its members as opposed to its theology. I think a group has the right to believe whatever it wants to believe. But at the point where there are insider doctrines and outsider doctrines, or there are different truths at different levels, or that you are told you are going to die of pneumonia if you hear a truth at a higher level before you’re ready, like in Scientology for example, that crosses the line away from being a legitimate religious organization.
In the spirit of full disclosure, my bias is clearly Judeo-Christian, Western, and the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I believe the women have equal rights. That people should have rights to read what they want to read, assemble and meet whomever they want to meet, to exercise dissent. I’m someone who clearly believes in the ideal of democracy in the sense that leadership should have checks and balances to prevent abuse of power, where there needs to be accountability, responsibility and rules of law. I have a clearly Western bias in that sense. I’m a believer in God, I believe that God wants us to have free will, wants us to be a unique expression of His or Her will to make the world a better place. I pray and I meditate and I chant, I sing and I dance at my Temple (http://www.templebethzion.org/) and I think it’s great. I know it’s using altered states of consciousness techniques but it’s done in an non-dogmatic, non-authoritarian manner where we are encouraged to have our own direct personal relationship with the Absolute and with each other. I have a profound respect for other religious traditions. When I’m working with someone involved with some religious cult, I fully disclose where I’m coming from and I believe it’s unethical for me to do anything more than that in the context of a counseling. If people say, “I’m an atheist or a humanist or I just don’t believe in God”, I think that is a perfectly valid point of view and I can use my psychological counseling skills just as effectually with someone like that.
Religioscope – I noticed you used quite often the expression “mind control” but only once “brainwashing”. Do you consider it as rather misleading or even inaccurate? What is your current attitude towards the word “brainwashing”?
S. Hassan – Brainwashing as I understand it was a word coined by Edward Hunter. It was putting forth an imagery of a blackboard with lots of writing on it that was being washed clean. I think that was an inaccurate description of the process then and I think it is an inaccurate description of the process now. The term was coined in a political context and it was primarily, at least in my mind, used to describe people who were being captured as military personnel, where they were being held forcibly against their will. There was some type of clear delineation of these people are the enemy and they are trying to break me down, they’re trying to convert me, or trying to get me to confess, or whatever. As compared to the term “mind control”, which for me is a bi-directional process where the agent of influence is perceived as a benign influence or a positive influence, not an enemy, and where there’s a constant give and take in interaction, and the target person is actually giving information, volunteering information to the agent of influence and that agent of influence is manipulating and using that information to construct a series of experiences and indoctrinate the person.
I think the creation of the cult identity or the pseudo identity in terms of mind control is much more profound. Whereas in brainwashing there is much more a sense of a compliance identity. As soon as the person gets out of that environment and is free, the person happily becomes himself again whereas with the kinds of groups I deal with primarily, or relationships I deal with, it’s much deeper and more difficult to say “That was them and this is me”. It’s more like, “This is me”. I wish there was a better term than mind control. In speaking with a colleague Alan Scheflin who is a law professor and someone very knowledgeable about mind control (I first read his book about CA about mind control experiment in 1978, Mind Manipulators) – he thinks we should just use the term “undue influence” in extremists groups. I’m 99% persuaded to do that and the part of me that isn’t is that I’m so used to saying mind control. My books have used the term mind control. In my next book I’ll be talking more about undue influence.
Religioscope – You have just spoken about those people acting as agents of influence. We should also pay attention to the agents of influence. In some of your writings you state that members of cults may be “unknowingly perpetrating mind control”. I think this may be very perplexing for a number of your readers because usually you have black and white: on the one hand , the manipulator, and on the other hand the person who is being manipulated. Could you please elaborate a little about those people “unknowingly perpetrating mind control”?
S. Hassan – There’s a phenomena that we see in psychology with people who perpetrate child sexual abuse that many of them were victims of child sexual abuse themselves. I would say the overwhelming majority of the people who were victims of child sexual abuse do not become perpetrators. But there is a percentage of people who do. The idea or the speculation is that there was some type of deep unconscious identification with the aggressor as a child when they were being traumatized. Rather than simply be traumatized there was some sort of identification with the aggressor that was a positive thing. Some type of profound, very deep, if you will, indoctrination, the role modeling or behavioral modeling that went on.
I bring this up because it appears to me that many of the cult leaders of today were in a cult before and broke away and had something done to their mind that altered their ability to function properly and perhaps created a similar type of identification with the aggressor. Recently in the last few years there has been a group from Attleboro, Massachusetts, that’s been in the news a lot where a ten month-old boy was not fed for fifty-one days. In fact the father of the boy was sentenced to twenty years in jail. They were waiting for revelation to feed the boy. In any case, the father’s father, Roland Robidoux, had walked out of a cult, had basically tried to get away from the abuse of authority but then became his own abuse of authority and perpetrated essentially this system of controlling behavior information, thoughts and emotions.
To say a little bit more, I really do subscribe to the model that mind control cults nurture a disorder in people so that a pseudo identity is created out of the person’s psyche that becomes their cult identity. Then their cult identity suppresses their real identity. I write in my recent book, Releasing the Bonds, about the four parts of my psyche that I think got recruited to become a Moonie, child parts of me that wanted perfect parents, wanted to be a good soldier, wanted to be an idealist, wanted to make the world a better place, wanted to be a good Jew who believed in God and such. I really do believe in terms of my own personal experience that I was very sincere when I was recruiting people into the Moonies, indoctrinating them, that I was going to help them get closer to God and that I really knew the truth even though many people later said to me, “I thought you were a like a Nazi, Steve, you were this mindless, controlling person and you didn’t care what marriage you broke up, you didn’t care what family you hurt, you were just following orders, etc., etc.” I can tell you that it was four years after I got out of the Moonies before I saw a hypnotist doing a trance on someone and as I was watching this, I was thinking, “That’s what I used to do in my lectures.” I used to use that kind of tone of voice and create images that were so engrossing that would make the room shudder. Of course, in the Moonies I thought of everything in spiritual terms. No one explained it to me as hypnosis. They just told me to model the older brothers who were lecturers and to be just like them so I was modeling and being just like them.
Yes, I am of the opinion that people who get seduced and indoctrinated into mind control cults are basically very good people, people who are not knowingly, I mean, using their pre-cult identities, value systems which is basically society’s value systems; that it is not good to lie, it’s not good to manipulate or to be totally encouraging people to break up from their wives or husbands and such. But in the Moonie mindset, this was ultimately moral to encourage people to break up in a relationship if it wasn’t going to support Moon and the organization. It was perfectly moral to lie to someone and take their money because you were going to help their spiritual salvation. I remember Moon speaking to a few of us about how when “he took power in America he would amend the constitution and make it a capital offense for people to have sex with people other than those assigned to them by the church and how we would be doing these people a favor by taking their physical bodies away from them if they couldn’t keep themselves from sinning”. In that mind set, it was a genocidal statement. In my mindset I thought, “Yeah, we’d be doing them a favor by killing them.” It’s crazy. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t the Steve Hassan from before or since.
Religioscope – Basically we should then understand that mind control has nothing to do with extraordinary psychological techniques and rather is a kind of use of deception, a use of social influence. Mind control has been with us throughout all history. It’s not a modern phenomenon.
S. Hassan – I actually would agree with you that it’s been with us forever but I would also say that it’s gotten so much more sophisticated in the last fifty years that, for example, the knowledge of how to do covert hypnotic patterns has been written about and demonstrated where it hasn’t existed before. What’s different also is mass media and mass marketing techniques. What’s different now is applying scientific methods to analyzing people’s personalities and backgrounds and such in order to figure out how to exploit them.
Just to give you an example, 27-28 years ago when I was in the Moonies and I was taught to recruit somebody, I was told that the eyes were the windows of the soul and that when I spoke to someone, I should speak to their spirit man, not to their temporal physical man. I was told to look through the people’s eyes three inches. Now, I was not told this is a hypnotic technique called eye fixation or anything like that. And whether you can say to me, “Steve, Rasputin was doing this a long time ago.” Or, “People were doing it ten thousand years ago”, I don’t know. What we do know about hypnosis now, what we do know about psychology now is if you’re systematically teaching people to stare at a certain point in order to induce an altered state.
Another thing the Moonies taught me to do: to categorize people in terms of thinkers, feelers, doers, or believers and based on what I thought they were to change my approach of recruitment to fit them. So, if they were a feeler, I would talk very emotionally about love, about camaraderie, about creating an ideal world where people are brothers and sisters and you can have the ideal wife and all of that, whereas the thinker would be very intellectual, the doer, we talk about people who are starving or poor or such. What I’m seeing, what I’m learning about psychology develops. I don’t know if you are familiar with the book called The Hidden Persuaders, by Vance Packard. It’s really worth reading. It was written in the 1950s. It was the first book that talked about how Madison Avenue was hiring psychologists in order to learn how to sell things. And basically how to manipulate people’s minds, how to manipulate people’s needs to spend money on things they didn’t need or didn’t want but get them to want it anyway. I believe that psychology all along has been progressing, developing, becoming much more sophisticated. I suspect that groups are using the Internet in a very sophisticated manner in order to recruit. I don’t know if you were aware but Aum Shinrikyo had developed videotapes as well as a video game that was used to help recruit, indoctrinate people. I don’t think that existed before.
Religioscope – Do you think there are people for instance belonging to groups which you describe as destructive cults or who are in the group, let’s take for instance the Moon organization, who are in the group by their own free choice, based on informed consent? Or do you think there are some groups which only recruit manipulated people? Do you think that within the same group there are manipulated people as well as other people that have entered the group just based on an ideological choice?
S. Hassan – Regarding the Moon organization, I do believe that people who come through the workshop system are manipulated and are mind controlled. The only people who join the group who aren’t mind controlled are being hired to perform functions. In other words, I do not know of a single person who has read the “Divine Principle” book and joined it because of its doctrine. In fact, I know of people who have read the book and left but I don’t know of a single example of someone who read the book and joined. I know of people who have joined because they wanted to get someone out, I know of people who have joined because they wanted a job and they wanted to make money or they wanted to write a story. I don’t know of anyone who consciously knew what Moon was about, knew what mind control was about and said “I want to join this group. I want to believe this. This makes sense to me.”
I’m wearing many hats. My primary one is as a therapist, to help people. Another hat I wear is as an activist. I’m constantly being asked to comment about groups that have very little experience on a day to day basis of counseling people but I make judgments about whether I think this group fits more under the destructive end of the balance, based on things like whether or not the group tells lies systematically about what they believe or whether they tell members they can’t talk to former members or read critical information or if a group makes people believe that they are going to get cancer or go insane if they leave the group, so I make opinions based on some of those features.
I can tell you that my model has shifted since I wrote Releasing insofar as, you can decide if you want to do a graphic, but I basically continue on with an arrow going here toward constructive and an arrow going here towards destructive with two basic poles, one is ethical mind control and destructive mind control. So ethical influence respects the person’s identity; their talents, their thoughts, their feelings, their primary relationships, their goals. In terms of institutions there’re checks and balances, there’s accountability, there’s honesty, there’s empowerment on an individual level but also on a community basis. The destructive end of things is deception, recruitment, the control of behavior, thoughts, emotions, there’s totalitarian hierarchy, the person’s individuality is not respected, their creativity is not respected, their own thoughts and feelings are not respected. They have to be a clone of the leader. There’s a diminution of free will. The United Nation Declaration of Human Rights over here, totalitarian societies are here.
Each case that comes to me falls somewhere along the continuum. I can say if we take one point on that continuum and blow it up to be much bigger. Here’s the Moon organization. There’re some people who are on MFT (mobile fund-raising team) are more here. There are some people from the Washington Times who are more over here. This person lives in his own apartment. This person lives in a community thing. Is the group still on this side? Yes, it is. That is my thinking these days. I believe that the power of psychology can be used to help or to harm. I’m more and more thinking about how I can take my knowledge and apply it in a positive direction as opposed to just helping people who have been negatively affected to come back to themselves. There is a shifting going on in my approach.
Religioscope – This leads to the strategic interaction approach. One of the major innovations is to not only focus on the member but to focus on the family as a whole, to focus on his or her psychological history as a whole and not just on the cult membership. Could you please explain a little bit what are the key elements of the strategic interaction approach compared to classical exit counseling?
S. Hassan – In classical exit counseling what we basically try to do is encourage the family to get the cult member to some place away from the group, to the house, to a neighbor’s house when they’re away on a vacation or something, then approach them with love but nevertheless demands with love to please talk with these ex-members because they love that person. In some cases it is similar to alcohol intervention kind of thing where –”We love you. We are worried about you. You have a problem and you don’t recognize you have a problem and please meet with these folks.”
That still works to a certain percentage of situations, certainly not with the big groups whose leaders read my book in 1988 and said to their members, “Don’t go for three days ever to your family, always call on the cell phone or the beeper or whatever.” And if people didn’t agree to meet with me then they walked out and I never met them and it was very limited what we could do. And I also didn’t like the term “exit counseling” because when I would meet the person in a cult my interaction with them was to say, “Your family’s worried, they want you to have this information about the use of psychology, the information about your group. It’s up to you to decide if you want to stay in or leave.” At which point if they said, “Why do you call it exit counseling?” I was in trouble because it is different if someone has walked out of a cult and they need help getting out, but someone who is an active member, it’s a terrible term. And they were right. I had to get rid of the term!
Over the years basically, and part of it was because cult leaders like Kip McKean of the International Churches of Christ holding up Combatting Cult Mind Control and saying I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it would be a sin to talk to me or to read my book. Families came to me and said “We want your help but my kid would never agree to meet you no matter whatever we said. What do we do?” And so that helped motivate me to go…”Hum, what are the other options? What are the other choices?” In the meantime I was taking a lot of classes and family systems therapy and how to do family counseling. In family counseling, because it’s a system’s approach, it doesn’t focus on one member as the problem person. In fact, in family counseling theory, there is always the one identified patient, the reason everyone comes for help but then you wind up finding out Mother has a problem, Father has a problem, Mother and Father have a specific problem, other kids have problems too.
What the strategic interaction approach has evolved to is a families systems oriented, goal-oriented communication approach where I’m meeting the people and learning about them, I’m trying to get inside their skin, I’m trying to understand how they talk to each other and how I can help improve their communications with each other. I typically spend a two-day period of time with the family when they hire me, I also coach them and explain what cults are and what mind control is, I usually bring an ex-member of the group along with me. I say to them, “Listen, mind control doesn’t erase the person’s real self, it just suppresses it. You have to believe in your son, your sister, your daughter, your husband or wife’s integrity as a person. They want to know what the truth is, they want to be happy, they want love. They don’t like to exploited, they don’t like to be abused, they don’t like to be harmed. Over time, they’re going to re-evaluate whether they want to be in this group. All you can do is make it easier for them to get to that place of re-evaluation and make that time shorter.”
It’s not up to you to rescue the person like there was in the deprogramming model, exit counseling model. You have to save the person. It’s much more of an empowerment model. I say to my families, “You need to build rapport and trust. You need to gather information particularly information about how that person experiences the world and how that person is different from before they got into the group. Then you can go to doing techniques, planting seeds of doubt, asking powerful questions.
One of the most important features of the strategic interaction approach – which I think is the heart of the strategic interaction approach – is my three-step phobia intervention. Phobias are very different than fears in that there is no logical basis, there is no real danger, there’s a believed danger. I have a whole chapter in my book where I outline the most common types of phobias that mind controllers put in people’s minds. And this is a radically new concept, by the way, for mental health professionals to think phobias can be intentionally installed in another human being for the purpose of controlling them. Even though some atheists might say, “Well, religion has being doing that forever.” As far as mental health professionals go, when I say this to them they say, “Really? The Moonies put phobias in people’s minds?” Well, for example, when The Exorcist movie came out in 1974, Moon rented an entire movie theater in New York and took all the New York members to see the movie. After we watched the movie, we were bused up to Tarrytown and he gave a talk about how “God had made the exorcist and this movie was a prophesy of what would happen to people if they left the Unification Church” literally. When I tell people that they say, “Really? How could you ever believe that? It’s just a movie.” If you can control someone’s sleep and their food, their information and their relationships, you have an authority figure that speaks for God directly and you’re not allowed to criticize him and you are not even allowed to think negative thoughts about him, you can get very intelligent people to believe really crazy phobias.
As I’ve outlined in my strategic approach, and I talk about this in Combatting as well, a person not confronting the group directly, not criticizing the group directly but talking about other groups that the person would agree were destructive groups, then going into what mind control is and how the person’s controlled. What I realized with phobias, what needed to happened was that a person in the cult needed to understand the difference between real fear and a phobia, the structure of a phobia, how to cure a phobia, then how other groups put phobias and then you can get into a discussion about is it possible to leave the group you’re in and be happy and fulfilled. And if not, why not? Doesn’t that parallel these other groups, destructive mind control groups? If I can find someone who has left your group and is happy and fulfilled, would you consider meeting them? In what context would you consider meeting them?
I’d also like to say the strategic interaction approach evolved because of the birth and the growth of the Internet. Before that, deprogramming and exit counseling was very content driven, very much based on the fact that I had the materials, the actual documents, the letter where Kip McKean was fired for being unbiblical by the mainline Church of Christ. But now so much has been scanned and put up on the Internet and it’s just beginning. How can we use the content that’s there and get the information to the people who are in mind control cults. All we need to do is get them online, but free enough in their thinking, they can start reviewing things for themselves, make some kind of connection.
It was clear that family members and friends, people who have a genuine affection for the person, where they have a historical connection and trust, will be in the best position to be able to help mitigate some of the indoctrination and negative influences and such, that the cult is not on the person. Particularly in the United States, a lot of the big cults want to recruit new people, want good PR, so they’re not putting people in Jonestown, in jungle environments where you can’t find them. It is the hardest situation for me when a family comes to me, “Will you help my son or daughter, but I don’t know what group they’re in, or I don’t know where they are.” In which case we have to hire a private investigator to find them. The strategic interaction approach does not work well in that situation, until the person is located.
I am basically taking what I have learned about all the techniques and mechanisms that cults use to make people dependant. I’m trying to direct them in such a way that empowers people to make up their own minds and do what they want to do. I can say as a generalization that love is stronger than fear, that blood is thicker than water in the sense that family are family and they’ll always have that extra weight over strangers or newcomers. With time and coaching people can figure out how to communicate in a way that their ideas get across to the person and hopefully leads them to make some positive choices in their life.
Religioscope – Strategic interaction approach is especially relevant to you. Do you notice a similar development with other exit counselors?
S. Hassan – I think it is really led by me and people are reading my book and they are kind of adapting to it and I’d say that it’s a direct expression of my growth as a person too. I think it is part of what I have learned. I’m always interested in learning, looking for new ways to develop. Plus I love to interview people. You know, people are in a group and they’ve left, I want to understand what their experiences were and how they’ve come to leave. And I’ve come to appreciate that things can be radically different from person to person. And therefore there is no cookie cutter approach for what is going to work for the person. By empowering the family and friends and having a series of ongoing interactions, and them letting me know what has happened, I can make suggestions of what’s missing, what’s blocking that I think might move the situation forward.
Religioscope – A final question. Do you see a role for state agencies as well? There has been a controversy in some countries, especially in Europe, there are some states which are more willing to intervene than other ones. There is a very different philosophy from the side of the State in the US. So do you think it is better that interventions belong to the private sector or do you see a role for the State?
S. Hassan – I am of the belief that the right to believe unusual, bizarre, unorthodox things is very precious. I defend people’s right to believe what they want to believe. The issue for me really comes down to the issue of how a group recruits and indoctrinates, the methodology a group will employ. I’m of the opinion that, especially in the United States, when a group is granted a non-profit status, it’s being done too mindlessly. I think no group should be given such a status that has incredible financial benefits and is subsidized by American taxpayers if it is systematically hurting people. No group that systematically defrauds people and misrepresents itself should ever be given that status and that credibility. Nor should any group that encourages its members to violate laws of the land where is can be shown it’s coming from the top down. They shouldn’t be subsidized by American tax dollars.
I am of the opinion that the government should be educating its citizens about undue influence, teaching its citizens how to avoid being victimized by con artists, by sales people who are unethical. Without naming names of specific groups one could do a very adequate job of teaching people how to be a good consumer when it comes to psychological systems, whether it’s political system, therapy system, business system, religious system, upholding United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I do believe that the government, from a public health point of view, should be spending much more money researching the size of this problem. I think it directly impacts on the number of suicides in the country. I think no one has talked about that as being related to someone having been in the cult with the phobia that you’re going to die if you leave. I think it’s a public health issue in terms of psychiatric hospitals. No one has ever gone to research on how many in-patients had been in a cult, so many have been wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia. They had been misdiagnosed because mental health profession is not trained that way.
- Combatting Cult Mind Control (1988)
- Releasing the Bonds (2000)
The interview with Steven Alan Hassan took place at his office in the Boston area on 18 November 2002. He was interviewed by Jean-François Mayer. The tape recording was transcribed by Nancy Grivel-Burke.