Psychopath as Cult Leader
Cultic groups and relationships are formed primarily to meet specific emotional needs of the leader, many of whom suffer from one or another emotional or character disorder. Few, if any, cult leaders subject themselves to the psychological tests or prolonged clinical interviews that allow for an accurate diagnosis. However, researchers and clinicians who have observed these individuals describe them variously as neurotic, psychotic, on a spectrum exhibiting neurotic, sociopathic, and psychotic characteristics, or suffering from a diagnosed personality disorder.
It is not our intent here to make an overarching diagnosis, nor do we intend to imply that all cult leaders or the leaders of any of the groups mentioned here are psychopaths. In reviewing the data, however, we can surmise that there is significant psychological dysfunctioning in some cult leaders and that their behavior demonstrates features rather consistent with the disorder known as psychopathy.
Dr. Robert Hare, one of the world’s foremost experts in the field, estimates that there are at least two million psychopaths in North America. He writes, “Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.”
Psychopathy falls within the section on personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the standard source book used in making psychiatric evaluations and diagnoses. In the draft version of the manual’s 4th edition (to be released Spring 1994), this disorder is listed as “personality disorder not otherwise specified/ Cleckley-type psychopath,” named after psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley who carried out the first major studies of psychopaths. The combination of personality and behavioral traits that allows for this diagnosis must be evident in the person’s history, not simply apparent during a particular episode. That is, psychopathy is a long-term personality disorder. The term psychopath is often used interchangeably with sociopath, or sociopathic personality. Because it is more commonly recognized, we use the term psychopath here.
Personality disorders, as a diagnosis, relate to certain inflexible and maladaptive behaviors and traits that cause a person to have significantly impaired social or occupational functioning. Signs of this are often first manifested in childhood and adolescence, and are expressed through distorted patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself. In simple terms this means that something is amiss, awry, not quite right in the person, and this creates problems in how he or she relates to the rest of the world.
The psychopathic personality is sometimes confused with the “antisocial personality,” another disorder; however, the psychopath exhibits more extreme behavior than the antisocial personality. The antisocial personality is identified by a mix of antisocial and criminal behaviors–he is the common criminal. The psychopath, on the other hand, is characterized by a mix of criminal and socially deviant behavior.
Psychopathy is not the same as psychosis either. The latter is characterized by an inability to differentiate what is real from what is imagined boundaries between self and others are lost, and critical thinking is greatly impaired. While generally not psychotic, cult leaders may experience psychotic episodes, which may lead to the destruction of themselves or the group. An extreme example of this is the mass murder-suicide that occurred in November 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, at the People’s Temple led by Jim Jones. On his orders, over 900 men, women, and children perished as Jones deteriorated into what was probably a paranoid psychosis. The psychopathic personality has been well described by Hervey Cleckley in his classic work, The “Mask of Sanity“, first published in 1941 and updated and reissued in 1982. Cleckley is perhaps best known for his “The Three Faces of Eve”, a book and later a popular movie on multiple personality. Cleckley also gave the world a detailed study of the personality and behavior of the psychopath, listing 16 characteristics to be used in evaluating and treating psychopaths. Cleckley’s work greatly influenced 20 years of research carried out by Robert Hare at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. In his work developing reliable and valid procedures for assessing psychopathy, Hare made several revisions in Cleckley’s list of traits and finally settled on a 20-item Psychopathy Checklist. Later in this chapter we will use an adaptation of both the Cleckley and Hare checklists to examine the profile of a cult leader.
Neuropsychiatrist Richard M. Restak stated, “At the heart of the diagnosis of psychopathy was the recognition that a person could appear normal and yet close observation would reveal the personality to be irrational or even violent”. Indeed, initially most psychopaths appear quite normal. They present themselves to us as charming, interesting, even humble. The majority “don’t suffer from delusions, hallucinations, or memory impairment, their contract with reality appears solid.” Some, on the other hand, may demonstrate marked paranoia and megalomania. In one clinical study of psychopathic inpatients, the authors wrote “We found that our psychopaths were similar to normals (in the reference group) with regard to their capacity to experience external events as real and with regard to their sense of bodily reality. They generally had good memory, concentration, attention, and language function. They had a high barrier against external, aversive stimulation….In some ways they clearly resemble normal people and can thus ‘pass’ as reasonably normal or sane. Yet we found them to be extremely primitive in other ways, even more primitive than frankly schizophrenic patients. In some ways their thinking was sane and reasonable, but in others it was psychotically inefficient and/or convoluted.”
Another researcher described psychopaths in this way These people are impulsive, unable to tolerate frustration and delay, and have problems with trusting. They take a paranoid position or externalize their emotional experience. They have little ability to form a working alliance and a poor capacity for self-observation. Their anger is frightening. Frequently they take flight. Their relations with others are highly problematic. When close to another person they fear engulfment or fusion or loss of self. At the same time, paradoxically, they desire closeness; frustration of their entitled wishes to be nourished, cared for, and assisted often leads to rage. They are capable of a child’s primitive fury enacted with an adult’s physical capabilities, and action is always in the offing.” Ultimately, “the psychopath must have what he wants, no matter what the cost to those in his way.”
The Master Manipulator
Let us look for a moment at how some of this manifests in the cult leader. Cult leaders have an outstanding ability to charm and win over followers. They beguile and seduce. They enter a room and garner all the attention. They command the utmost respect and obedience. These are “individuals whose narcissism is so extreme and grandiose that they exist in a land of splendid isolation in which the creation of the grandiose self takes precedence over legal, moral or interpersonal commitments.”
Paranoia may be evident in simple or elaborate delusions of persecution. Highly suspicious, they may feel conspired against, spied upon or cheated, or maligned by a person, group, or governmental agency. Any real or suspected unfavorable reaction may be interpreted as a deliberate attack upon them or the group. (Considering the criminal nature of some groups and the and social behavior of others, some of these fears may have more of a basis in reality than delusion!) Harder to evaluate, of course, is whether these leaders’ belief in their magical powers, omnipotence, and connection to God (or whatever higher power or belief system they are espousing) is delusional or simply part of the con. Megalomania–the belief that one is able or entitled to rule the world–is equally hard to evaluate without psychological testing of the individual, although numerous cult leaders state quite readily that their goal is to rule the world. In any case, beneath the surface gloss of intelligence, charm, and professed humility seethes an inner world of rage, depression, and fear.
Two writers on the subject used the label ‘Trust Bandit’ to describe the psychopathic personality. Trust Bandit is indeed an apt description of this thief of our hearts, souls, minds, bodies, and pocketbooks. Since a significant percentage of current and former cult members have been in more than one cultic group or relationship, learning to recognize the personality style of the Trust Bandit can be a useful antidote to further abuse.
The Profile of a Psychopath
In reading the profile, bear in mind the three characteristics that Robert Lifton sees as common to a cultic situation
1. A charismatic leader who…increasingly becomes the object of worship
2. A series of processes that can be associated with “coercive persuasion” or “thought reform”
3. The tendency toward manipulation from above…with exploitation-economic, sexual, or other–of often genuine seekers who bring idealism from below
Based on the psychopathy checklists of Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare, we now explore certain traits that are particularly pertinent to cult leaders. The fifteen characteristics outlined below list features commonly found in those who become perpetrators of psychological and physical abuse. In the discussion we use the nomenclature “psychopath” and “cult leader” interchangeably. To illustrate these points, a case study of Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh follows this section.
We are not suggesting that all cult leaders are psychopaths but rather that they may exhibit many of the behavioral characteristics of one. We are also not proposing that you use this checklist to make a diagnosis, which is something only a trained professional can do. We present the checklist as a tool to help you label and demystify traits you may have noticed in your leader.
Glibness is a hallmark of psychopaths. They are able to use language effortlessly to beguile, confuse, and convince. They are captivating storytellers. They exude self-confidence and are able to spin a web that intrigues others and pulls them into the psychopath’s life. Most of all, they are persuasive. Frequently they have the capacity to destroy their critics verbally or disarm them emotionally.
2.Manipulative and Conning
Cult leaders do not recognize the individuality or rights of others, which makes all self-serving behaviors permissible. The hallmark of the psychopath is the psychopathic maneuver; which is essentially interpersonal manipulation “based on charm. The manipulator appears to be helpful, charming, even ingratiating or seductive, but is covertly hostile, domineering….[The victim] is perceived as an aggressor, competitor, or merely as an instrument to be used….The manipulation inevitably becomes the end-all and is no longer qualified by the reality principle.” In other words, there are no checks on the psychopath’s behavior–anything goes. The Psychopath divides the world into suckers, sinners, and himself. He discharges powerful feelings of terror and rage by dominating and humiliating his victims. He is particularly successful when, through an overlay of charm, he makes an ally of his victim–a process sometimes described as emotional vampirism or emotional terrorism. Examples of this type of manipulation are plentiful in the literature of Jonestown and other cultic groups. It is especially prevalent in the one-on-one cultic relationship, where there is direct involvement with the manipulator.
3. Grandiose Sense of Self
The cult leader enjoys tremendous feelings of entitlement. He believes everything is owed to him as a right. Preoccupied with his own fantasies, he must always be the center of attention. He presents himself as the “Ultimate One” enlightened, a vehicle of God, a genius, the leader of humankind, and sometimes even the most humble of humble. He has an insatiable need for adulation and attendance. His grandiosity may also be a defense against inner emptiness, depression, and a sense of insignificance. Paranoia often accompanies the grandiosity, reinforcing the isolation of the group and the need for protection against a perceived hostile environment. In this way, he creates an us-versus-them mentality.
Psychopaths lie coolly and easily, even when it is obvious they are being untruthful. It is almost impossible for them to be consistently truthful about either a major or minor issue. They lie for no apparent reason, even when it would seem easier and safer to tell the truth. This is sometimes called “crazy lying.” Confronting their lies may provoke an unpredictably incense rage or simply a Buddha-like smile.
Another form of lying common among cult leaders is known as pseudologica fantastica, an extension of pathological lying. Leaders tend to create a complex belief system, often about their own powers and abilities, in which they themselves sometimes get caught up. “It is often difficult to determine whether the lies are an actual delusional distortion of reality or are expressed with the conscious or unconscious intent to deceive. These manipulators are rarely original thinkers. Plagiarists and thieves, they seldom credit the true originators of ideas, often co-opting authorship. They are extremely convincing, forceful in the expression of their views, and talented at passing lie detector tests. For them, objective truth does not exist. The only “truth” is whatever will best achieve the outcome that meets their needs. This type of opportunism is very difficult to understand for those who are not psychopaths. For this reason, followers are more apt to invent or go along with all kinds of explanations and rationales for apparent inconsistencies in behavior “I know my guru must have had a good reason for doing this.” “He did it because he loves me even though it hurts.”
5. Lack of Remorse, Shame, or Guilt
At the core of the psychopath is a deep-seated rage which is split off (i.e, psychologically separated from the rest of the self) and repressed. Some researchers theorize that this is caused by feeling abandoned in infancy or early childhood. Whatever the emotional or psychological source, psychopaths see those around them as objects, targets, or opportunities, not as people. They do not have friends, they have victims and accomplices-and the latter frequently end as victims. For psychopaths, the ends always justify the means. Thus there is no place for feelings of remorse, shame, or guilt. Cult leaders feel justified in all their actions since they consider themselves the ultimate moral arbiter. Nothing gets in their way.
6. Shallow Emotions
While they may display outbursts of emotion, more often than not they are putting on a calculated response to obtain a certain result. They rarely reveal a range of emotions, and what is seen is superficial at best, pretended at worst. Positive feelings of warmth, joy, love, and compassion are more feigned than experienced. They are unmoved by things that would upset the normal person, while outraged by insignificant matters. They are bystanders to the emotional life of others, perhaps envious and scornful of feelings they cannot have or understand. In the end, psychopaths are cold, with shallow emotions, living in a dark world of their own.
Hiding behind the “mask of sanity,” the cult leader exposes feelings only insofar as they serve an ulterior motive. He can witness or order acts of utter brutality without experiencing a shred of emotion. He casts himself in a role of total control, which he plays to the hilt. What is most promised in cults–peace, joy, enlightenment, love, and security are goals that are forever out of reach of the leader, and thus also the followers. Since the leader is not genuine, neither are his promises
7. Incapacity for Love
As the “living embodiment of God’s love,” the leader is tragically flawed in being unable to either give or receive love. Love substitutes are given instead. A typical example might be the guru’s claim that his illness or misfortune (otherwise inconsistent with his enlightened state) is caused by the depth of his compassion for his followers, whereby he takes on their negative karma. Not only are devotees supposed to accept this as proof of his love but also are expected to feel guilt for their failings! It becomes impossible for members to disprove this claim once they have accepted the beliefs of the group.
The leader’s tremendous need to be loved is accompanyied by an equally strong disbelief in the love offered him by his followers; hence, the often unspeakably cruel and harsh testing of his devotees. Unconditional surrender is an absolute requirement. In one cult, for example, the mother of two small children was made to tell them nightly that she loved her leader more than them. Later, as a test of her devotion, she was asked to give up custody of her children in order to be allowed to stay with her leader. The guru’s love is never tested; it must be accepted at face value.
8. Need for Stimulation
Thrill-seeking behaviors, often skirting the letter or spirit of the law, are common among psychopaths. Such behavior is sometimes justified as preparation for martyrdom “I know I don’t have long to live; therefore my time on this earth must be lived to the fullest.” “Surely even I am entitled to have fun or sin a little.” This type of behavior becomes more frequent as the leader deteriorates emotionally and psychologically–a common occurrence.
Cult leaders live on the edge, constantly testing the beliefs of their followers, often with increasingly bizarre behaviors, punishments, and rules. Other mechanisms of stimulation come in the form of unexpected, seemingly spontaneous outbursts, which usually take the form of verbal abuse and sometimes physical punishment. The psychopath has a cool indifference to things around him, yet his icy coldness can quicky turn into rage, vented on those around him.
9. Callousness/lack of empathy
Psychopaths readily take advantage of others, expressing utter contempt for anyone else’s feelings. Someone in distress is not important to them. Although intelligent, perceptive, and quite good at sizing people up, they make no real connections with others. They use their “people skills” to exploit, abuse, and wield power.
Psychopaths are unable to empathize with the pain of their victims. Meanwhile, part of the victims’ denial system is the inability to believe that someone they love so much could consciously and callously hurt them. It therefore becomes easier to rationalize the leader’s behavior as necessary for the general or individual “good.” The alternative for the devotee would be to face the sudden and overwhelming awareness of being victimized, deceived, used. Such a realization would wound the person’s deepest sense of self, so as a means of self-protection the person denies the abuse. When and if the devotee becomes aware of the exploitation, it feels as though a tremendous evil has been done, a spiritual rape.
10 . Poor Behavioral Controls/Impulsive Nature
Like small children, many psychopaths have difficulty regulating their emotions. Adults who have temper tantrums are frightening to be around. Rage and abuse, alternating with token expressions of love and approval, produce an addictive cycle for both abuser and abused, as well as create a sense of hopelessness in the latter. This dynamic has also been recognized in relation to domestic abuse and the battering of women. The cult leader acts out with some regularity–often privately, sometimes publicly–usually to the embarrassment and dismay of his followers and other observers. He may act out sexually, aggressively, or criminally, frequently with rage. Who could possibly control someone who believes himself to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and entitled to every wish, someone who has no sense of personal boundaries, no concern for the impact on those around him? Generally this aberrant behavior is a well-kept secret, known only to a few disciples. The others only see perfection. These tendencies are related to the psychopath’s need for stimulation and inability to tolerate frustration, anxiety, and depression. Often a leader’s inconsistent behavior needs to be rationalized by either the leader or the follower in order to maintain internal consistency. It is often regarded as divinely inspired and further separates the empowered from the powerless.
11. Early Behavior Problems/juvenile delinquency
Psychopaths frequently have a history of behavioral and academic difficulties. They often “get by” academically, conning other students and teachers. Encounters with juvenile authorities are frequent. Equally prevalent are difficulties in peer relationships and developing and keeping friends, marked control problems, and other aberrant behaviors such as stealing, fire setting, and cruelty to others.
Not concerned about the consequences of their behavior, psychopaths leave behind them the wreckage of others’ lives and dreams. They may be totally oblivious or indifferent to the devastation they inflict on others, something which they regard as neither their problem nor their responsibility.
Psychopaths rarely accept blame for their failures or mistakes. Scape goating is common, blaming followers, those outside the group, a member’s family, the government, Satan–anyone and everyone but the leader. The blaming may follow a ritualized procedure such as a trial, “hot seat” denunciation, or public confession (either one-on-one or in front of the group). Blame is a powerful reinforcer of passivity and obedience, producing guilt, shame, terror, and conformity in the followers.
13. Promiscuous Sexual behavior/infidelity
Promiscuity, child sexual abuse, polygamy, rape, and sexual acting out of all sorts are frequently practiced by cult leaders. Conversely, there is often stringent sexual control of the followers through such tactics as enforced celibacy, arranged marriages, forced breakups and divorces, removal of children from their parents, forced abortions or mandated births. For psychopaths, sex is primarily a control and power issue.
Along with this behavior comes vast irresponsibility not only for the followers’ emotions but also for their lives. In one cult, for example, multiple sexual relations were encouraged even while one of the top leaders was known to be HIV positive. This kind of negligence toward others is not uncommon in the psychopath’s world.
Marital fidelity is rare in the psychopath’s life. There are usually countless reports of extramarital affairs and sexual predation upon adult and child members of both sexes. The sexual behavior of the leader may be kept hidden from all but the inner circle or may be part of accepted group sexual practices. In any case, due to the power imbalance between leader and followers, sexual contact is never truly consensual and is likely to have damaging consequences for the follower.
14. Lack of realistic life plan/parasitic lifestyle
The psychopath tends to move around a lot, making countless efforts at “starting over while seeking out Fertile new ground to exploit. One day he may appear as a rock musician, the next a messiah; one day a used car salesman, the next the founder of a mass self-transformation program; one day a college professor, the next the new “Lenin” bringing revolution to America.
The flip side of this erratic life planning is the all-encompassing promise for the future that the cult leader makes to his followers. Many groups claim as their goal world domination or salvation at the Apocalypse. The leader is the first to proclaim the utopian nature of the group, which is usually simply another justification for irrational behavior and stringent controls.
The leader’s sense of entitlement is often demonstrated by the contrast between his luxurious lifestyle and the impoverishment of his followers. Most cult leaders arc supported by gifts and donations from their followers, who may be pressured to turn over much of their income and worldly possessions to the group. Slavery, enforced prostitution, and a variety of illegal acts for the benefit of the leader are common in a cult milieu. This type of exploitation aptly demonstrates Lifton’s third point of idealization from below and exploitation from above.
Psychopaths also tend to be preoccupied with their own health while remaining totally indifferent to the suffering of others. They may complain of being “burned out” due to the burden of “caring for” their followers, sometimes stating they do not have long to live, instilling fear and guilt in their devotees and encouraging further servitude. they are highly sensitive to their own pain and tend to be hypochondriacs, which often conflicts with their public image of superhuman self-control and healing abilities.
According to them, the illnesses they don’t get are due to their powers, while the ones they do get are caused by their “compassion” in taking on their disciples’ karma or solving the group’s problems. This of course is another guru trick.
15. Criminal or entrepreneurial versatility
Cult leaders change their image and that of the group as needed to avoid prosecution and litigation, to increase income, and to recruit a range of members. Cult leaders have an innate ability to attract followers who have the skills and connections that the leaders lack. The longevity of the group is dependent on the willingness of leadership to adapt as needed and preserve the group. Frequently, when illegal or immoral activities are exposed to the public, the cult leader will relocate, sometimes taking followers with him. He will keep a low profile, only to resurface later with a new name, a new front group, and perhaps a new twist on the scam.
5. Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “charisma”
6. Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston, Beacon Press 1963)