Psych Sleuth

Margaret Singer has made history delving into the psychology of brainwashing

San Francisco Chronicle/May 26, 2002
By Kevin Fagan

Berkeley -- The boots of the cult thug clunking on her porch practically every night for a week about 2 a.m., the silence hanging thick and menacing as he hunkered in her doorway, the cryptic notes in her mailbox - it all finally got to her.

So Margaret Singer leaned out her second-floor window the next time she heard the guy at her doorstep, and she yelled with all the bluster she could muster in her quavery, 80-year-old voice: "I've got a 12-gauge shotgun up here with a spray pattern that'll put a three-foot hole in you, sonny, and you'd better get off my porch or you'll be sorry! And tell your handlers not to send you back!"

Months later, as she sits at the kitchen table of her rambling old house in the East Bay hills, Singer still chuckles at the memory of the man skittering to the sidewalk, never to return. "If that shotgun hadn't worked, I have a World War II machine gun that can do the trick," she says, pounding a thin, bony hand on the Formica top.

She points to the bottle of Bushmill's Irish whiskey she'd just clanked down on the middle of the table, eyes sparkling behind her oversize spectacles.

It is evening, it has been another day of fielding half-a-hundred calls from shrinks, cult victims or their worried relatives, fellow scholars (she's a psychology professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley) and all the others who seek her out daily for advice, and so a little relaxation is in order.

"Pour me one if you please, sonny," Singer says, holding out a martini glass full of ice cubes. "And fill yours up, too." She sips slowly, daintily, like . . . well, as she would put it, like "a lady."

Singer drinks like she thinks, smart and solid, and when she sees her visitor noticing that, she laughs. "I might look like a little old grandma, but I'm no pushover," she says, tossing back the dregs of the glass and waving for another.

Name any major cult or near-cult in America in the last half of the 20th century, and this teacher and author of "Cults in Our Midst" has probably researched it, debriefed its victims, or helped the cops nail its leaders.

The Symbionese Liberation Army, Charles Manson's freakish "Family," Jim Jones' Jonestown followers, the Heaven's Gate, UFO wackos, David Koresh's Waco cluster, the paramilitary Synanon, even "The Family" arrested in Marin in February after a rickets-riddled baby allegedly starved to death - the list of those who have drawn her incisive gaze stretches on. And on - into cults nobody has ever heard of, bizarre little numbers centered around horses, flying saucers, giant reptiles, weight lifting, music camps, get-rich schemes. You name it.

She's also given expert testimony to help jail dozens of bunko artists who bilked oldsters of their money, done ground-breaking research on the brainwashing of Korean and Vietnam war prisoners, counseled more than 4,000 current and former cult members, and advised the military and FBI on everything from the Oklahoma City bombing to how to pick fighters who best withstand pressure. Along the way she has been hassled or fought by cults, nontraditional religions and even academics who simply disagree with her.

For a slight lady whose friends cheerily admit comes off like the most disarming old gentlewoman around - right down to the grandma-from-the-'40s lacy dress, brooch and sensible black shoes - the work doesn't match up with the appearance. It seems almost like a trick, it makes such little sense.

She's so frail that a few weeks ago when she stumbled into her antique iron bathtub at home, she lay there - inside the tub - for 23 hours straight until her husband came back from a trip and rescued her. She's unfailingly polite. Soft-spoken. Walks at a turtle's pace.

But rile her up, and she's ready to rumble. Anyone who ever battled her knows this, and just a few months ago she was showing her 10-year-old grandson how to do a headlock - which she can still pull off with some respectable force.

She'll also gladly demonstrate the neat little trick she calls the "necktie takedown," where she grabs your necktie, pulls you to the floor and steps on your face. The last time she used that one was many years ago at a hockey game, where some belligerent yahoo stole a hockey stick from her daughter, but she swears she's still up to it.

"He gave the stick back, all right," Singer chortles. "And he apologized. I'd do the same today."

What you see with Singer is what you get: velvet-covered steel.

"She looks just the like the little old lady from Pasadena - until she speaks," says lawyer Paul Morantz, who led the effort to take down the violent Synanon drug-treatment cult in Marin in the 1970s (and got bit by a rattlesnake that the cult sicced on him in the process). "Then she just grows in stature, and you see how incredibly smart she is. And tough.

"She is one of a kind, the foremost expert on brainwashing in the entire world. There is no replacement for her. She is a national treasure."

Even the bathtub disaster didn't surprise her friends. "I was just mad that I'd fallen in," Singer says as she sits with her crowd of friends on their usual Tuesday night get-together at a Berkeley restaurant.

"Well, you came out of it intact, just like always, right?" says retired UC Berkeley psychologist Seymour Kessler, playfully punching her shoulder. "That's such a typical Margaret story. Tough as nails."

You'll hear the same from just about anyone in Singer's widespread orbit - particularly police and prosecutors whose job it is to shut down cults and flimflam artists. And that's even though she's gone to bat for people like Patty Hearst and Manson's killer women - arguing they were brainwashed beyond their own control - as ferociously as she fights to flatten the bad guys.

"She is the most recognized expert in her field in the whole world, and that's why I sought her out," says San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Dennis Morris, who teamed up with her several times to put con artists behind bars.

"She's also a real doll, and a very decent human being, above and beyond everything else."

Sit at Singer's kitchen table - where all welcome visitors are beckoned to chat - and you'll hear the phone ring almost ceaselessly while she rhapsodizes about the cases she's worked, the places all over the world where she's lectured, from Germany to Venezuela, the seminars she is teaching, the book she's trying to finish about elder abuse. She loves to reel it out.

"It's that Irish gab thing, I suppose," she'll tell you with a grin. Her curriculum vitae alone, stuffed with awards from the American College of Psychiatrists, National Institute of Mental Health and others, requires 23 pages to list the achievements and research subjects in her half-century career. She's got so many books, knickknacks and piles of reports lying around that she and her husband Jerome ("Jay") own two houses just to hold all their stuff; the houses perch not far from each other like citadels of academic calm, surrounded by huge, leafy trees and stone and brick steps.

You'd never know from looking at the main home's serene, wood-shingled sides that a little old lady who has analyzed some of the most mind-twisting killers in history lives there. But that's probably just as well, given the hassles she gets from wackos she takes on.

Jay Singer, a UC Berkeley physics professor emeritus who has done pioneering work in developing magnetic resonance imaging, long ago stopped trying to figure out what drove his wife of 44 years - and mother of their two children - so hard. She's a force of nature, he'll tell you, and needs no help from him.

"I don't get involved in her studies," he says with one of his trademark wry smiles. "I have enough problems managing the psychology of the other people around me, without taking on hers, too." He stops, and the smile gets a tad wider.

"Doesn't mean I'd ever try to stop her from doing what she does, though," says Jay, who is also 80. "Nobody else seems to be able to."

That's been a big relief to the cops and prosecutors who have needed her expertise in more than 200 court cases.

Morris, the assistant D.A., first enlisted Singer's prowess in the early 1990s when he was going after William von Weiland, a 48-year-old sweet talker who dragged a 93-year-old San Francisco woman to a cheap wedding chapel in Tahoe so he could bilk her of millions of dollars. Catherine Doliani suffered from Alzheimer's and dementia, and was so hoodwinked by von Weiland that she was unable to see him as anything but a loving husband. Singer scientifically proved she had been brainwashed in an elaborate scheme by Weiland, his live-in boyfriend and their accountant, Morris says.

"Margaret was such a phenomenal witness that at one point, when the defense attorney was cross examining her, the judge looked over to him and said somewhat quizzically, "You gonna give up?' " Morris recalls with a chuckle. "Her strength is that she doesn't come off as a stately academic. She puts things into very understandable terms, still using enough scientific phraseology to make it authoritative, and she is very congenial.

"I've taken her to speak with me at statewide district attorney associations, and let me tell you, especially in the law enforcement and legal end of things, we all think nothing but the best of her."

Even former U.S. Attorney James Browning Jr., now a retired San Mateo County Superior Court judge living in Arizona, has kind words for Singer and her mind-control research on behalf of former SLA member Patricia Hearst - despite having crossed swords with Singer when he prosecuted Hearst for bank robbery in 1976.

"The brainwashing stuff I didn't agree with, but Mrs. Singer was a very nice lady," he says. "And I have to admit it was fun to delve into."

It actually makes all the sense in the world that Singer wound up specializing in the realm of cults.

She was raised an only child in Denver, where her Army sergeant father got a postmilitary job as chief operating engineer at the U.S. Mint. Her mother was secretary to a federal judge.

"I really loved school, even though most kids didn't, and I was just fascinated at how words created mental pictures," Singer recalls. She did a stint as a cellist in the Denver Civic Symphony, but the allure of a college degree in speech - "I was always comfortable speaking to groups," she says - overrode any musical ambitions.

Bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Denver, with speech and special education concentrations, led to a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, therapy jobs - and then, to the transformational experience that launched her toward the study that would consume her life.

In 1953, Singer went to work as a psychologist for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., where she made a specialty of studying returned prisoners of the Korean War.

Struggling to make sense of how so many strong, young Americans had come back mentally broken and often politically twisted around at the hands of the enemy led her to deeper historical research. She found that patterns of similar brainwashings - "coercive persuasions" - had existed in various forms for centuries.

"After the Roman Empire, there were spectacular clairvoyant cults that came up, where the leaders would have you go talk to the wall and someone hidden would talk back," Singer says. "You had the Oneida Community in New York in the mid-1800s" - a utopian "group marriage" cult that died out as a philosophy but led to the non-cultish silver plate giant today - "and in post-World War II Japan there were cults everywhere led by men who said they were divine.

"You find it again and again - any time there is great upheaval, a big change in a society and people feel vulnerable, there are always sharpies around who want to hornswoggle people."

Research with the National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Air Force, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and more followed, with heavy emphasis on schizophrenia, and Singer began to realize that not much of anyone else was studying this sort of thing. And so, having moved to the Berkeley area to take an adjunct professor job in the late 1950s when her husband signed onto the UC faculty there, Singer was uniquely primed for the craziness that became the cult scene of the 1960s and '70s.

"I started hearing from families who had missing members, many of them being young kids on our campus or others, and they all would describe the same sorts of things," Singer says. "The person would have a sudden change in personality, a new way of talking, would hang out with one of the many cultic groups that were springing up in those days, and then they'd disappear.

"And bingo - it was the same sort of thing as with the Korean War prisoners.

I recognized the same sort of thought-reform processes, the social controls. Only now it was happening right here at home."

She began counseling people, helping with what was then the nascent practice of "deprogramming" cult members. Her academic reputation grew, and then in the mid-1970s she was enlisted to determine if SLA member Patricia Hearst had been brainwashed into spouting their ideology.

Described back then by legendary Chronicle crime reporter Carolyn Anspacher as "a fair-haired disarming woman whom many consider the nation's top research psychologist," Singer electrified the already electrifying trial by concluding that the SLA had written Hearst's most incendiary speeches denouncing establishment "pigs" and calling for revolution. She determined this through studying the group's thought and speech patterns and exhaustively interviewing Hearst.

Though the judge said he admired her work, he bowed to prosecutor Browning's demands that Singer's conclusion be barred from the jury because such study was "in a field that has never before been accepted as a subject upon which expert testimony can be given."

But the mark had been made.

"She was so far ahead of everybody else, a trailblazer, that she became the expert after that trial," says Dr. Steve Morin, UCSF psychiatry professor and former longtime aide to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco. "Every time there was a breaking case, it was natural for people to go to Margaret first, so she's been pulled, whether she wanted to be or not, into the highest- profile cases of our time."

When Charlie Manson's deranged soldiers went "helter skelter," Singer was called to debrief the women - and, eventually, Manson, too.

When Jim Jones duped his hundreds of victims, Singer helped dozens escape his clutches before the cult died in Guyana - "it was murder at his hands, not suicide," Singer insists to anyone who will listen.

When Synanon attacked Morantz and took on Singer's partner in cultic studies at UC Berkeley, professor Richard Ofshe, she was there to help make sense of the mess and counsel the victims. And when the tearful East Bay relatives of the spiritual slaves who burned to death at David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound came to her and said they longed to pray for the dead, but could never again trust anyone saying they represented God, Singer counseled them: "Just look up to the sky and talk to God yourself. You don't need an organization to do that.

"They're all the same, really, these groups - they prey on the most lonely, vulnerable people they can find, cage you with your own mind through guilt and fear, cut you off from everyone you knew before, and when they're done doing that, they don't need armed guards to keep you," Singer says. "You're afraid that if you leave, your parents will die, you will die, your life will be ruined."

She stops and her lips curl in disgust. It's a frequent expression when she gets rolling on this stuff.

"Flim-flam men, pimps, sharpsters - that's what they are," she says, biting off the words. "Liars. Tricksters. It's been the same ever since Eve got the apple, and I doubt it will ever change."

These spiritual mutations have little to do with real religions, she adds. "A real religion is truthful, you can come or go from it if you wish," she says. "And most importantly, there is no one leader claiming he is a god. Big, big difference."

Naturally, in a field of study as incendiary as cults and mind control, there are differing views. Even the term "brainwashing" is debated by academics and organizations. Over the years, two main camps have emerged on the overall topic: Those who define cults broadly, like Singer and the American Family Foundation, one of the nation's leading cultic educational organizations, and those who say they are simply more accepting of unconventional groups.

J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, comes down on the side of the latter. He was sucked into a battle Singer got into with sociologists of religion in the mid-1980s, when they called brainwashing study a flawed discipline, and he says the quibble is basically over the definition of what constitutes mind control.

"It's one thing to say if you hang around what some people would call a cult, you'll be influenced by it," Milton says. "But that doesn't mean you'll lose your free will."

He's alluding to his defense of the bigger groups like the Church of Scientology - though he's quick to add that when it comes to true nut cases, "people who do bad things" like Charlie Manson or the SLA, "we're all in agreement."

Singer and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, the Church of Scientology and a few other groups have had publicized go-rounds in court, but that's one subject off limits with Singer. Likewise any spats with her fellow scholars and those on the other side of the brainwashing field. Best left alone, she'll say, citing issues of respect.

Besides, she's plenty busy these days with new groups and new fights, including helping the cops nail those who scam seniors. And, she reminds us, cults are growing more numerous - about 5,000 in the United States today, most of them tiny ones "started by some self-proclaimed god who says, "I have special powers, special knowledge - follow me.' And some," she says, leaning forward with a mischievous gleam in her eyes, "are stranger than others."

Sure, there are the ones she worked on like Heaven's Gate, where 39 members committed suicide in 1997 so they could hitch a lift in a spacecraft trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet. She first encountered the cult in the 1970s when she counseled one of their ex-members in Berkeley; back then it was just another wacko UFO cult, and the body count two decades later took Singer by surprise as much as anyone.

But does that really trump the "Breatharians," whose members believed they could exist on only air, not food - until they caught their guru snarfing junk food? Or the flying saucer cult still recruiting carpenters and metal workers so that when an expected batch of aliens crash-lands on earth they will be able to fix the saucers so they can fly away and avoid intergalactic war here?

Or the health-fad nut who made his devotees drink their own urine and take repeated coffee enemas?

Ask Singer, and she shrugs. "They're all basically, really, the same," she says after a moment of contemplation. "Con men."

The one thing she hardly ever sees is devil-worship cults. Surprisingly.

"The scary movies have done a lot to give publicity to Satanism-type cults, but the ones we have are very, very small, very few," Singer says. "And the guys who were at the head of them are in the slammer."

But even more chilling than the wackiness - and sometimes murderous frenzy - of cults, Singer says, is their very ordinariness. That is, their seemingly benign exterior to the outside world, which often is not aware of what's going on behind closed doors.

"Most of them don't recruit in the poor end of town, because people in the poor end are street smart and know when someone's out to steal their lunch money," Singer says.

"No, they come off very nice at first, go for vulnerable people who are looking for answers, lonely." That means educated, open-minded, middle-class people - "what you'd call 'normal people,' " she says. Like the smart kids that became SLA recruits, Manson's women, David Koresh's victims in Texas.

"These sharpsters, when they're very good at what they do, can get people to believe anything," Singer says. "Anything. You might think you'd never get taken in - but don't bet on it."

Naturally, if a con man is sharp enough to dupe intelligent folks, he's also brazen enough to mess with an old lady. The old adage of poke a snake, and it bites back, applies here in spades.

Over the decades, cult operatives have fished through Singer's trash, sent her death threats and picketed her lectures. They've released dozens of live rats at her house, put dead ones on her doorstep (hearts skewered with lollipop sticks) and hacked into her computer so many times she doesn't use one any more. Once a cultist talked her way into working in Singer's campus office, then stole a sheaf of term papers and sent bizarre notes to the students.

"One of those groups went through my mom's mail and knew everything about us - my girlfriend's name, where we went, what we bought, all kinds of stuff," says her son Sam Singer, a publicist in San Francisco. "We all put up with a lot, but nobody more than her.

"I really look up to her, because she really goes up against some bad guys, and she stays tough," Singer says. "I never resented it, and my sister (Martha, a doctor) and I came out OK, so "" He gives a shrug identical to his mother's.

Ask Singer why she keeps fighting at an age when most folks would be fishing or snoozing in front of "Oprah" (which she likes, almost as much as she adores scanning TV news), and it's one of the only times she stumbles on her words. "I suppose it just makes me feel good to help people get free," she says, rubbing her chin. "Besides, I got some pretty good security measures in now, too."

These days, she's spending more time than ever writing, perhaps because she realizes she'd better get her expertise down on paper before it starts to fade.

In 1995 she penned the book "Cults in our Midst" (Jossey-Bass), considered a landmark of its field ("Margaret Thaler Singer stands alone in her extraordinary knowledge of the psychology of cults," Robert J. Lifton, the City University of New York psychology professor who was a pioneer in the study of Nazi and Chinese thought reform, wrote in the foreward.) A year later, she followed with "Crazy Therapies," about rip-off therapists.

Both books were co-written with Janja Lalich, a former cult member who teaches sociology at Chico State University and has done editing for the American Family Foundation.

"She's a lot more fun than most people ever know," Lalich says. "She's got that Irish knack of storytelling - who could have guessed that in such a warrior?"

Well, the pals who have known her for decades could, that's who. Those would be the ones she still hangs out with, and consults, never missing their Tuesday night get-togethers for Irish coffees and grub. The common denominator for their gathering is Singer; they all have stories to tell - and most of those stories involve Singer.

"A lot of people don't know, but she used to write a "Dear Abby'- type advice column in the old Berkeley Gazette," says Pat Crossman, a social worker who once took on unhinged shrinks who killed a child in "rebirthing therapy" by smothering the girl to simulate a womb.

Singer wrote the Gazette column in the 1970s, when her son Sam was an editor there. "It was pretty funny stuff," Crossman says.

"Yeah, I called it, 'Ask Dr. Bridget,' because that's my middle name," Singer says as a basketball game blares overhead and she and Crossman dig into French bread. Killer cults, fluffy advice - it's all grist for the mill, isn't it?

"I gave real practical answers, like 'Don't shoot your mother-in-law,' " Singer deadpans in reply.

Crossman giggles. "What we've really been trying to do with Margaret for 30 years is give her advice, like how to change her hairstyle (flat, straight and short) and clothing," she says. "But does she listen? No! She's too busy to listen!"

There's no sign of any letup of that anytime soon, either, which is just the way Singer likes it. There are seminars to address, like the group of "town and gown" elderly folks she gave advice to in Berkeley a few weeks ago on how to spot a con artist. The phone still rings about 50 times a day - with reporters around the world hunting expertise, other scientists wanting to hobnob, cops looking for opinions. And of course, many of those calls are from cult victims desperate to escape or clear their minds after getting out, or worried relatives wanting help.

Back at the house a few days after her regular Tuesday get-together, on a crisply chill afternoon, Singer sits in the living room and listens while the phone machine takes message after message. The last one before nightfall is from a cult escapee who's been phoning for years from Canada and calls her "Grandma."

"I keep telling her not to call me that, but what can you do?" Singer says with a heavy sigh. "Oh, well."

"Those ones - the people who've come out of cults - I don't charge them. I'm not in this for the money, but anyway, how could I charge? They've given all their money to their guru and their families are mad at them."

You'd think after taking on so many torqued versions of spirituality that Singer might have discarded anything resembling a spiritual group, or some form of it, just for a sense of neutrality. But no, she sticks to her guns about the true difference between religion and cults. And this may come as a surprise to any of the many groups that have gotten in her face - but she's still a firm Catholic and believes in God.

She doesn't know what that God looks like, but after all her research she does know one thing.

"He doesn't look a bit like Jim Jones," Singer says, leaning back in her chair and grinning. "Of that I am sure."

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