Professor Margaret Singer dies at 82

Former UC educator was psychologist, champion of free thought and an expert on cults

Alameda Times-Star/November 27, 2003
By Katherine Pfrommer

Berkeley -- Margaret Singer -- a professor, psychologist, champion of free thought and world-renowned expert on cults and brainwashing -- died Nov. 23 at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center after a long illness. She was 82.

"My mom was really one of the world's leading experts on cults and she spent her lifetime fighting for people's ability to think and act freely," son Sam Singer of Berkeley said. "She was engaged in one of the most important intellectual battles in the world -- the fight against George Orwell's vision of a "1984" state or cult that would affect people's beliefs and behavior."

Well-versed with the likes of Peoples Temple, Branch Davidian, Symbionese Liberation Army, Unification Church and other groups, Mrs. Singer testified in hundreds of cases in court -- but she also assisted anyone who called her listed home phone number asking for help.

"My mother's kitchen was action central for the anti-cult movement from the 60s up until the beginning of this year when she got ill," her son said. "You couldn't put the phone down without it ringing again. It wouldn't matter if it was Thanksgiving or Christmas day, the phone would ring, ring, ring."

Born July 29, 1921, in Denver, Colo., Mrs. Singer earned her degrees at the University of Denver, obtaining her Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1952.

In the 1950s, she studied the effects of brainwashing on Korean War veterans at Walter Reed Army Institute in Washington, D.C., where she became fascinated with coercive psychological techniques and persuasion -- what became known as brainwashing.

While in Washington, D.C., she met her future husband, Jerome Singer, in an elevator. The two moved to Berkeley in late 1950s and both became professors at UC Berkeley. The couple was married for 48 years and have two children.

Mrs. Singer noticed the similarities between the brainwashing techniques applied to the Korean War veterans and cult members early on, and described six conditions which were created to take control over a person's mind against their will, her son said.

Among the cases Mrs. Singer testified for were the 1976 bank robbery trial of Patricia Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and a 1977 trial about deprogramming members of the Unification Church, or "Moonies."

"She was so helpful, so willing to give her time," said colleague Hal Reynolds, student affairs officer and director of cult awareness program at UC Berkeley. "It was like having a wonderful resource -- who was also warm, witty and tough at the same time. She did a lot for UC Berkeley."

Mrs. Singer authored two books: "Cults in our Midst," published in 1995, and "'Crazy' Therapies" in 1996.

She was awarded numerous honors, including the Hofheimer Prize and the Dean Award from the American College of Psychiatrists.

In addition to son Sam, Mrs. Singer is survived by husband, Jerome, daughter Martha, and five grandchildren, all of Berkeley.

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