Margaret Thaler Singer (July 29, 1921 – November 23, 2003) was a clinical psychologist. Her main areas of research included schizophrenia and family therapy, but she is best known for her work on cults. Margaret Singer was a well-known proponent of the idea that New Religious Movements (NRM), or "cults" as she considered them, used "brainwashing" to recruit, train, and retain members.
Her research garnered the attention of respected psychological institutions and high-profile prosecutors, and she was called to testify as an expert witness in numerous trials involving deprogramming of members of NRMs. Singer chaired the American Psychological Association's (APA) task force that investigated whether "brainwashing" or coercive persuasion did indeed play a role in recruitment by such movements. Their report was rejected by the APA, and Singer's credibility rapidly declined as the public became better informed about the true nature of deprogramming.
Singer was one of those well-meaning but misguided professionals who came to prominence in the latter part of the twentieth century, at the time when New Religious Movements, including the Unification Church, emerged as a powerful force bringing about a new spiritual awakening in American society. The ignorance regarding such religions on the part of the public, particularly family members of those recruited, rapidly turned to fear with tragedies such as the Jonestown mass suicides of members of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple. To those desperate to save their children, Margaret Singer appeared as a lifeline. Unfortunately, her efforts were misguided, and many suffered at the hands of deprogrammers. Her legacy remains as an example of how even those trained in the study of human nature can be misled by false accusation.
Margaret Singer was born in Denver, Colorado on July 29, 1921. The only child of an Irish Catholic family, Singer’s father worked as the chief operating engineer at the U.S. Mint while her mother worked as a secretary to a federal judge.
An avid cellist, Singer played in the Denver Civic Symphony while attending the University of Denver where she earned her bachelor’s degree in speech, and later, a master’s degree in speech pathology and special education. In 1943, Singer received her doctorate in clinical psychology. She remained in Colorado for the next eight years working in the department of psychiatry at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine.
In 1953, Singer began studying the effects of brainwashing at the Walter Reed Institute of Research in Washington, D.C. where she interviewed U.S. prisoners of the Korean War who had been coerced into denouncing the United States and embracing communism. While working in Washington, D.C., Singer met and married her spouse of 48 years, Jerome. In 1958 the couple relocated to Berkeley, California where she would become an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley when her husband joined the faculty of the physics department there. Singer would remain at Berkeley until her death in 2003 at the age of 82. She was survived by her husband, two children, and five grandchildren.
Upon her arrival in Berkeley, Singer found the college campus a prime location to study the New Age cult scene of the 1960s and 1970s where organizations such as Hare Krishna sought to recruit university students. Singer claimed there existed similarities between the coercive techniques applied to Korean War prisoners of war and those applied to prospective cult members.
Singer's research also focused heavily on the areas of family therapy and schizophrenia. She conducted research with the National Institute of Mental Health, the United States Air Force, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to UC Berkeley, Singer also served as a visiting lecturer at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the Washington School of Psychiatry, the department of psychiatry at the University of Rochester school of medicine, the department of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, the department of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, and various other institutions. A member of the American Psychosomatic Society, Singer was elected its first female president in 1972.
Singer published numerous articles in the field of cults and "mind control," receiving a number of honors for her work. She developed a theory about how cults recruit and retain members, which she entitled the Theory of Systematic Manipulation of Social and Psychological Influence. Singer's beliefs garnered the attention of lawyers who would use Singer as an expert witness in high-profile cases involving cult practices. Some of the more prominent cases of which Singer's opinion was sought involved the People’s Temple, the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, the Hillside Strangler of Los Angeles, and the Heaven’s Gate cult. Singer also interviewed Charles Manson and his followers.
She was also active with the American Family Foundation, the major anti-cult group in the United States at the time. Singer was an advocate of deprogramming, the process of removing a person thought to be under "mind control" from a religious or other community and influencing him or her to abandon allegiance to the group. Commissioned by concerned relatives, often parents of adult children, the process often involved forcible abduction, holding the person against their will, and subjecting them to various coercive techniques designed to break their faith.
In 1975 Singer became involved in the court case against Patricia Hearst, a newspaper heiress kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army who was persuaded by her captors to participate in an armed bank robbery. Singer was also brought in to testify in a 1977 hearing for five members of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. However in 1987 Singer’s expert testimony was not accepted in four cases in which she had been involved after the report of the APA taskforce on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC), of which she was chair, was rejected by the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) of the American Psychological Association. From 1990 on, American courts consistently rejected Singer and other "mind-control" theorists, finding that such theories were not part of accepted mainline science. In 1992 Singer sued the APA for "defamation, frauds, aiding and abetting and conspiracy," but lost in 1994.
In the early 1980s, various U.S. mental health professionals, including Singer, became controversial due to their involvement as expert witnesses in court cases against new religious movements. In their testimonies, Singer and the others stated that anti-cult theories of brainwashing, mind control, or coercive persuasion were generally accepted concepts within the scientific community. In 1983, the American Psychological Association (APA) asked Singer to chair a task force (DIMPAC) to investigate whether "brainwashing" or coercive persuasion did indeed play a role in recruitment by such movements.
Before the task force had submitted its final report, however, the APA submitted an amicus curiae brief in the ongoing case David Molko and Tracy Leal v. Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, et al. The brief characterized the theory of brainwashing as not scientifically proven, stating that "[t]he methodology of Drs. Singer and Benson has been repudiated by the scientific community," that the hypotheses advanced by Singer were "little more than uninformed speculation, based on skewed data," and that "[t]he coercive persuasion theory…is not a meaningful scientific concept." The APA subsequently withdrew its signature from the brief, based on procedural not substantive concerns. Eventually, the APA rejected the DIMPAC task force's report due to insufficient evidence.
Other critics of Singer's theories claim that her prestige was fostered in an environment of prejudice and fear, and that she sought to capitalize and profit on the cult craze of the 1960s and 1970s. In her 2003 obituary, The New York Times reported Singer continually battled threats made against her by members of various organizations, angered by her attacks against them.
Margaret Singer was a well-known proponent of the idea that New Religious Movements, or "cults" as she considered them, used coercive persuasion or "brainwashing" to recruit and train members. Her research garnered the attention of respected psychological institutions and high-profile prosecutors. She also served as a constructive member of the Board of Directors of Family Process, a board member of the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute Review Board and a member of President Gerald Ford’s Biomedical Research Panel. The winner of the Hofheimer Prize and the Dean Award from the American College of Psychiatrists, Margaret Singer was known for her calm, authoritative, and unshakable personality.
Often conducting research, therapeutic sessions, and legal business from the kitchen of her home or at a local restaurant and bar, Singer's controversial area of study lead to numerous criticisms, legal rejections, and even personal threats against her. Her single-minded, almost militant, campaign against a wide range of organizations, many of whom have since become recognized as legitimate religions, and her advocacy of deprogramming, a process which was later found to use the very techniques of coercive persuasion and abduction of which she accused the "cults," was finally recognized as neither scholarly nor professional. As noted by the Center for Studies on New Religions,
Singer's decline started with the rejection of a report of a commission she had chaired by the American Psychological Association in 1987, and with the ruling in the Fishman case in 1990 excluding her testimony on brainwashing as not part of mainline science. Still lionized by the anti-cult movement and by some media, she was increasingly criticized even by "moderate" anti-cultists, and appeared increasingly irrelevant to the "new" cult wars of the late 1990s.
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