Friday 19th September 2008

By Raffaella Di Marzio


At the mercy of the media Acheron

For those who are reading this Blog for the first time I’d like to precise that these “fragments” are scattered notes and ideas elaborated along the time on the basis of personal experience. Nothing more than this. In this Fragment I’ll discuss an event I witnessed several times in these years and which roused in me many questions and reflections. Now I want to share these questions and reflections with anyone who’s interested.

I refer to what always happens in the history of a religious group, of whichever kind it is: the crisis and the following abandonment of a certain number of members. Whichever the way it happens, it’s a very difficult moment for the group because it puts at risk its survival. Those leaving are not the only one to suffer from this situation, but also those remaining in the group, even if for completely different reasons.

My reflection is not referred to any specific case and I don’t want to give any judgment: my reflection is general and my only interest in this context is the behaviour of members and ex-members during the crisis.

If the members leaving the group are a limited number, the crisis usually ends in a short time and becomes an occasion to verify and correct deficiencies and detrimental dynamics. This happens in open enough groups, in which the leadership is exerted in a self possessed way and the actions of the leader aim to get the best for the group and for the individuals. In these cases, criticisms are dealt inside the group and a compromise is searched that safeguards at least the different positions.

Unfortunately in most of the cases things don’t go this way and haven’t this outcome. I could personally observe in the years the evolution or involution of some religious groups and I think I can indicate (risking as usual to oversimplify) two fundamental features for the type of the crisis and its end:

1) the personality and the motivations of the members (both critical and satisfied)

2) the role of the social system in which the group in crisis operates


1) the personality and the motivations of the members (both critical and satisfied)

First case. When the critical members are substantially realized individuals with serene affective-emotional conditions and their existence is not lived in function of the group in which they invest all their psychological resources, their criticism remains finalized to the good of the group itself and, when they realize that its aims don’t correspond anymore to their expectations, they leave it. This certainly causes pain, delusion etc…but these feelings are lived with equilibrium and, with the passing of time, they mild in new experiences and new models of aggregations.

Second case. When the critical members are persons for which the group is so important to play a role of “support”, lacking other groups of reference persons, then the emotional weight of belonging makes the person find only in the group the satisfaction of his emotional and affective needs. In this case, when the group doesn’t play this role anymore, is no more a support and the leader doesn’t satisfy the expectations anymore, the criticism assumes destructive features which can reveal in different ways.

2) The role of the social system in which the group in crisis operates.

The role of the social system in which the group operates is of great relevance. In the case of the “cults”, for example, you deal with minority groups perceived from the outer social system as “different” and “dangerous” and for this reason they tend to generate fear and/or aversion in those non affiliated. People giving a group the connotation of “cult” know that there is no more effective way to create social alarm and to alert those involved in the citizens security and wellness and protecting the harmless people.

The complementary behaviour to the group’s demonization is always the elevation of those claiming the merit of discovering the cult and alerting of the danger. While the group drowns in the ocean of its evils, the one who unmasked it is elevated up to the highest peaks of morality, abnegation, courage etc…

This effect grows thanks to the amplification of the case created by the press, whose role is simply the “drum”, the “echo” expanding in any direction reaching the greatest number of people. Once brought the cult through the media Acheron, the aim has been reached and the hell includes new desperate souls (“leave any hope you who enter”).

I witnessed several times this event, always showing a constant: the more is amplified in the growing phase, the more suddenly and silently it vanishes as the “case grows old” and stops making audience. After some times (maybe months, maybe years) the dichotomy between the “good” and “bad” ones slowly tempers and tends to disappear as the news disappear from the newspapers.

The role of the social system in which the group operates is also important, because it can influence the way the ex members live the exit from the group. This happens when the ex members turn to people and groups giving support. The way you support is very important, as people leaving a group are certainly suffering and confused. They are in a condition of great uncertainty as they have lost an affective reference they counted on. Their main motivation is to be understood, supported, guided and advised to overcome their personal crisis. People in such condition easily open their heart to anyone presenting himself as a good support and they completely rely on them as someone who’s drowning and who grasp the first floating object nearby.

That object could be a tree trunk or a snake, but when you risk drowning there’s not time nor way to verify it. Looking like a trunk, you grasp it.

There are several witnesses of people who, once left a cult, turned to other groups of help and support. Obviously their tales are very different one from the other. In many cases those giving help are well-intentioned and the group plays a positive role of emotional reassurance, helping people to re-live, tell and reflect serenely on what’s happened. The contact with these people (who often had a similar experience) reveals fruitful and accompanies gradually the subject to come out from his state of confusion and pain, recovering other relationships and other chances for realization. These people with the passing of time can discriminate the good things they received in the group and what they refused and remember as “abuse”, “conditioning” etc.. Often they also engage in alerting their former friends and try to communicate (when possible) their doubts, their crisis, to help them realize what they understood. This action sometimes produces the defection of other members, but not always.

In other cases people find help in organizations emphasizing the importance of acting to curb or eliminate the danger of the group whence people in crisis have come out. For example, if the relatives of affiliated members search for help in an organization because they believe their beloved has been trapped in a dangerous cult, their understandable aim is to make him leave the group and to recover the family relationships. The trouble in reaching this goal can lead the helping group to continue in other ways.

If the “plagiarized” people don’t leave the cult, despite the several attempts to convince them, the goal can be reached in an apparently more effective way: trying to hit and destroy the cult by mean of an outer action aimed to solve the problem at the root. If the cult is destroyed, the problem is solved. In these cases the ex members are consolated and re-socialized, to be definitively convinced they’ve been plagiarized and to undertook the noble action of destroying a “cancer” harming society and not simply the individual and his family.

As far as I observed, at this point two are the possible outcomes.

First outcome: the drama is and remains personal. The person denies the important choices made in the group reflecting its directives-philosophy-values-doctrine (with consequent transformation of the relationships among partners, return to the conditions prevailing before entering into the group, etc..). The drama is personal and the consequences concern the most intimate personal and relational context.

Second outcome: the person starts to fight the group. In this case he goes beyond the refusal of his experience in the group and of his previous choices and he chooses to strive personally or as a group to fight a socially and individually dangerous phenomenon.

Once created the group committed to fight the cult, soon after it grows with new members: beside the first ex-members denouncing different kind of abuses, when the scandal is exploded other ex members initially silent appears. They add memories of further abuses they witnessed in the group without experiencing them. They don’t denounce directly suffered abuses, but they aggregate to others because moved by a pre-existing dissatisfaction and criticism which, in the moment of the of crisis, can be voiced with more strength and, providentially for them, great echo on the media.

Now let’s try to wonder what happens in the cult and which is the success reached by the action of critical ex members and “help & support” organizations trying to dismantle the group and cause the greatest possible number of defections.

Also in this case there are many different reactions, whose subtle differences cannot be described. So I try once again to distinguish between two major cases I think representative of the phenomenon complexity.

1) Reactions of the still satisfied members. These are those members of the accused group who, despite the negative witnesses of the hostile ex members, don’t deny anything of their previous experience whose value, meaning and/or doctrine they still share. In these cases the life choices taken in the group are strengthened and enhanced, as the outer action is perceived (right or wrong) as a prosecution confirming the value of the experience. In these subjects the different forms of the prosecution from the former friends are re-interpreted in the light of the group’s doctrine-philosophy-values which are more strongly felt as based and truthful. The active action against the cult in these cases get exactly the contrary effect to the wished one. It would be interesting to examine the personalities and the personal history of these members remaining “faithful” to their group and its features, which they use to interpret and face the ugly feeling of being described as “plagiarized and sectarian”.

2) Reactions of the members extraneous to the ongoing “war”. The reaction is confusion and uncertainty. It comes through reconsidering the experience inside the group, in the light of the accusations, and finding objective elements of criticism which, even if present, don’t cancel the overall value of the experience itself. These people (the majority) remain outside of any debate or fight and literally tend to “vanish” not be involved in a conflict between the parties too painful for them because the its actors are usually known, esteemed and beloved people.

Let’s now wonder: what does it happen to the leader of the alleged groups?

The reaction of the charismatic leader can be very different and it depends on many factors. When they are evil-minded persons who intentionally harm their victims to exert power on them and get some economical benefit, the reaction can be the escape, as it happened in a emblematic case here in Italy. It might raise some doubt if, despite a so clear demonstration of bad faith, his adepts keep on defending him and awarding him supernatural powers. In this case the accuses, the process, the condemn couldn’t destroy the faith of his most loyal followers.

When a leader is personally convinced of his powers and of the supreme aims of the group he founded, he follows all its misfortunes and does everything he can to make the group survive to the most harsh attacks of the outer world. In extreme cases, when the leader is highly disturbed and mentally unbalanced, he can self destroy, as a last act of power, and his most loyal followers are ready to obey until the end. The cases of collective murders-suicides are well known and several times I personally wrote about them.

When the leader thinks to be innocent from the accuses, he tries to defend himself with the arms of the justice, being supported in this effort by those adepts remained loyal. In Italy we got a case of a leader processed and found guilty. He’s been in prison and he had to pay a huge amount of money to his plaintiffs. Notwithstanding both he and his followers (who helped him finding the money) always proved sure of his innocence and ascribed the outcome of the process to untruthful witnesses, with consequent judicial mistake. The negative outcome of the process was interpreted as “an injustice permitted by the Lord as a proof of faith”. After many years the group he founded still grows and spreads over several countries of the world. His prestige and his followers’ faith in him are not reduced at all.

Similar cases verified in internationally known religious movements whose leaders were processed, like Ikeda (Soka Gakkai), Moon (Unification Church) ecc. The movements they guided still exists and, after the inevitable transformations, are still "healthy".

How to explain such phenomenon? Why the actions aimed to destroy a leader and his group don’t always get effective results?

I often asked myself such a tough question and I can’t say I have found an answer. Anyway I’d like to reason a bit on what makes a man "charismatic".

I think the answer to these questions is in the peculiar features of the charisma. By charisma in this context I mean that set of personal characteristics making someone strongly amiable, deserving consideration, esteem or veneration for those sharing his values, his philosophy or doctrine. I think that the individual "charisma" cannot be destroyed, despite any effort. What can be done is to hit the person deeply to weaken and discourage, to undermine his positive image in any way.

Nevertheless, as we saw, there’s no certainty that this action gets the expected outcome. I observed some charismatic leaders under attack beginning to live their role and to change it: they feel no more leaders, but victims. They don’t pretend: they really feel like victims and they’re perceived that way from their loyal followers. Sometimes there’s an inner process of self-criticism leading the leader to take on himself real and imaginary faults, in order to "expiate" everybody’s faults, also those of others.

Oppressed by the aggressive action from outside and by the pain caused to many followers involved in the "war", they tend to take on themselves any responsibility and see the humiliation they suffer as a way of rescue. When this happens, with the exception of the few attacking and accusing them, their authority and authoritativeness is not minimally reduced. If it were possible to recreate the group, even only briefly, such authority deriving from the charisma would express as before the crisis and maybe more.

I think I can say that the charismatic leader is a powerful catalyst for emotions, feelings and deep experiences which seems always enjoyable and available to create once again the group’s cohesion even when it’s (physically) dispersed. The experiences shared inside the group remain because they’re deeply interiorized.

The power of the charisma expresses at its peak when the leader dies because he keeps on living for his followers in his words, actions and teachings. This explains the survival of groups for decades, even after the leader disappeared (temporarily of forever).

With the passing of time, the group inevitably changes because of the leader’s disappearance, but the "spirit" remains and the charisma keeps on acting even if "transformed". The return of the leader (or of one influential substitute) can rebuild the system which recomposes like a puzzle whose fragments self regulate to take each its place.

These observations always refers to different cases: when the leader has been imprisoned after being found guilty, when he’s been accused of the worst crimes and then acquitted, when his image has been harmed by the media and also when he’s dead. The charisma keeps on living after him, interiorized, relived and reinterpreted from those following his steps.

I’d like to close this Fragment with a word of realism, rather than pessimism.
I believe that problems should be faced with the humility of those who understand their complexities and operate to prevent them, the only truly effective "weapon" and, what’s most, the only without the side effects of any "aggressive" medicine: to kill a virus you destroy all the immunity system.


Is it wise? But what’s more: is it useful to reach the goal of healing?

I leave the answer to those who want to. I think I have found it.


The contents of this article are unprofessional translations of those included in the italian website www.dimarzio.it.

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