Cultivating less extremism

Alienation is when one person turns another against a third in a lasting way for no good reason. That sounds bland for an experience that is such excruciating agony. Cults also cause agony and Alienation. What can we learn from the similarities?

Concentrating just on the subjective without judging who is right: On all sides of high conflict separation in families, people involved can experience unspeakable things – pain, injustice, isolation, insecurity, dread, secrets, allegations, lied to, in a trance, not knowing who to trust or believe, fear, rage, threats, coercion. Usually one or both sides seek to distance themselves, to never have to see or make contact with the other. That works if there are no children in the middle. Containing the unspeakable may not be humanly possible. It comes out in more extreme escalating ways, in enraged or public protest or rarely even in suicide and murder.


Jonestown Nov 1978: Mass enforced suicide of 900 people

We see a paradoxical circle of terror in the news. Terrorised people risk their lives fleeing to Europe. Individuals and families keenly head to join their new promised land attracted by the certainty of extremism and ever more sadistic killings. Those who initiate or get carried along in extreme sects – however evil their terrorist murder and suicide – are driven perhaps by group-thinking the same kind of unspeakable things. Or, if we use the psychoanalytical idea of sadism, they put into others their own vulnerability to pursue, attack and to get completely rid of it. The extreme acts of group sadism will seem entirely reasonable to them. Extreme acts provide trauma and tragedy that then feed the matching retaliation. An endless deathly tribal feud starts up that may be very hard to stop.

Amy Baker’s research on Adult children of parental alienation syndrome draws direct parallels with the coercion of cults that completely take over the lives of their followers. Cults are mostly based in explicit religious or ideological extremism. Religious extremism over the centuries has taken off from all the world’s religions, driving empires, colonialism, crusades and terrorism with hardly any let up and clearly more to come.

Big public examples of extremism such as cults and terrorism are on a different scale from what happens in high conflict separated and Alienated families. Here we are watching on a big screen to see what may provide sympathetic clarity by metaphor and parallels with the more localised and very different smaller scale experiences. We can grasp better the less-public suffering and damage that happens there – especially for the children who have less power to realise what is happening or to stop it. We can see how much more we should be able to prevent or resolve the small scale family tragedies.

Learning from extremism and cults

Are there other things that we can learn about the alienation experience from large-scale religious extremism and cults? Bishop Tom Butler’s Thought for the day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (1/7/2105) is a good corrective to the usual righteous assumption. We are the goodies and they are the baddies – that is the powerful basis of many loyal religious, family, political or  other groups. It’s worth reading or listening to the full three minute talk.

Remembering that Christian nations and extremists have, over 2000 years, done good and suffered for sure, but also accumulated a long record of imperialism and terrorism, the UK has a new institutional duty to prevent extremist radicalisation of another religion. Tom Butler suggests a good place to start is to own up to the unacceptable within one’s own sacred texts.

So a Jewish rabbi shared with an Imam, a Hindu priest and a vicar Psalm 137’s lamentable verse: “Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The rabbi’s point is that we won’t make real progress in inter-faith relationships until we have the courage to discuss with one another the difficult and scandalous passages in our own scriptures.

And Tom Butler pointed out how, in a famous cult, Jim Jones, the leader of the Jonestown community on their way to mass suicide by poison, would quote from the Bible’s St Luke’s gospel about what it might take to follow Christ: “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters cannot be my disciple”. You couldn’t be more alienating than that, could you?! And that rings bells with Child and Parental Alienation where one side turns the child to hate and reject the whole of the other parent’s tribe.

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Sharon, Martin and Christa Amos

Read more about the whole Jonestown story to see how convincing Jim Jones was about ‘apostolic socialism’ and the ‘revolutionary suicide’ of 900 followers. Away from Jonestown and the immediate group pressure, when Sharon Amos got the instruction with her daughter Liane (21), she still obediently used a knife to kill her children, Christa (10) and Martin (11) before Liane killed Sharon and then herself. Jim Jones convinced many others outside the community too. In the context of the capitalist culture in the USA, a socialist community seems reasonable enough. But it got far more fanatical. Concerned relatives pursued court custody disputes to rescue their relatives. Even as they drank the mass poison, devoted followers wrote last wills leaving all their money to communist USSR, blind to the terrible ideologically-driven mass-killing in the USSR’s own history.

Owning our own scripts

Tom Butler says that people who die or kill for their faith feed on selections from their sacred scriptures or events in their faith history which encourage them to act in extreme or violent ways. The goodies and the baddies are quoting chapter and verse from the same authoritative literature as each other. You can’t trump the baddies unless you admit there are bad bits along with the good in your own holy books. And that is hard for most genuine believers to do, and impossible for the fundamentalists who believe in their absolute truth.

Most of us find our own absolute truths hard to disbelieve too. Because we work so hard at being helpful, at doing good, we cannot see that being the good guy may be part of the problem. It’s a good idea to be a bit sceptical about any absolutes … even our own absolutes may be faulty or at least not helping things.

Yet speaking about the unspeakable is an absolute necessity too. Keeping quiet with the majority may look like you’re a good guy. But not speaking makes the unspeakable worse. Some things must be loudly spoken and spoken up for. In safe private ways, or in fair public courts, speaking the unspeakable things must be the best way to go. These are among the hardest trickiest challenges and choices that human beings have to face. They are not for the faint-hearted.

For those locked into family Alienation patterns, the ‘scriptures’, stories and beliefs that all of us participants draw on are less published, less visible, and more tricky as well. An immature child is by definition vulnerable and faint-hearted. Under this kind of influence they don’t stand a chance. Karen Woodall well describes how it works under the heading: Mind-bending.

But even for adults, these inner beliefs and stories are hard to recognise and own up to, hard to trust that someone will not make mincemeat of your being open about them. We all suffer from insecurity, some extremely so. Extreme insecurity leads to either or both fight and flight – to furious attack and determined defence, to fear, fleeing, freezing or defeated giving up. Extreme insecurity and polarisation breeds more insecurity and extreme polarisation. And these are the most unspeakable experiences.

So there is much to read and reflect on in these patterns of extreme loyalty in religious and other cults, as we learn about the unspeakable more personal alienation experiences on all sides of the families. Returning from the impossible challenges of large scale terrorism and cults, improving the courts and services seems more of a do-able doddle to intervene and help children and families better.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

One comment

  1. Amy Baker published the 40 PA adults research earlier than her book. It appeared with more of the focus on the similarities between how people are made to become over-attached to cults and how children are made to be over-attached to one parent. The paper and journal were:

    Baker, A.J.L. (2005). The cult of parenthood: A Qualitative study of parental alienation. Cultic Studies Review, volume 4, no.1.

    And you can read the paper online here in the form Amy submitted it.


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