It looks like some "cult apologists" are trying to soften coverage of the Smart case. Two that recently popped up in related articles are James Richardson, quoted in the New York Times and H. Newton Malony commenting within the Los Angeles Times.
Both Richardson and Malony have been recommended by the Church of Scientology repeatedly as "religious resources" and/or "experts."
In 1997 during heated media coverage of the "Heaven's Gate" mass-suicide, both professors were promoted in a press release from the so-called new "Cult Awareness Network," an organization that essentially now acts as a front for Scientology and other groups called "cults."
Malony said today in the LA Times that Elizabeth Smart's strange behavior during her captivity might be attributed to "religious conversion" and "that adolescence is the time when the experience is most likely to happen."
Does Malony really think that such an adolescent change of faith begins at knifepoint and continues in captivity?
The professor of religious studies at Fuller Theological Seminary is probably more interested in blunting or negating any critical discussion about cult indoctrination. And this theologian has historically made it clear that he doesn't appreciate talk about the role of "brainwashing" in that "conversion" process.
LA Times reporter Benedict Carey seems to stretch credulity when he writes that somehow the "pressures of adolescence and personality development" may explain Elizabeth Smart's behavior.
Is this reporter somehow blaming the victim?
James Richardson cryptically commented within a NY Times piece today that Elizabeth was kept "under horrendous conditions, kidnapped and held in captivity. We still don't know the extent of the physical coercion."
Here Richardson appears to be saying that "captivity" and/or "physical coercion" is necessary for "brainwashing."
Again, this would negate or blunt comparisons to the indoctrination process used by many "cults," which most often does not include holding members prisoner or the use of physical force.
The LA Times article is titled "Specialists in the psychology of abuse and persuasion say survival, not mind control, could explain the girl's behavior."
However, Malony's expertise is really in theology and Richard Hecht who is also quoted by the Times is actually a religious studies professor at UC Santa Barbara and not a "specialist in the psychology of abuse and persuasion."
Interestingly, Gordon Melton, perhaps the most popular "cult apologist," is also closely associated with UC Santa Barbara.
Hecht says that "brainwashing," as an explanation for Elizabeth Smart's behavior, is "far too simplistic."
But many of the simple facts cited within the LA Times article are actually common features of a thought reform program, popularly called "brainwashing."
For example, Hecht cites Elizabeth's "loss of any context and connection with the outside world."
This is what Robert Jay Lifton, noted psychiatrist and recognized expert in the psychology of persuasion, calls "mileu control" or control of the environment. And this is the foundational element of any thought reform program.
Carey notes that Smart "lost many of the things and people that reinforced her budding identity."
This simply reiterates the need people have for accurate feedback from others, which cults frequently eliminate through isolation and control of the environment.
Carey then adds, "It appears she had very little say in even the smallest decisions while captive, such as what she wore and what she ate." He concludes, "Denied any autonomy, even a resilient human nature may begin to make compromises."
Such "compromises" is what Lifton includes within a mindset he describes as the "psychology of the pawn."
Lifton writes, "Unable to escape from forces more powerful than himself, he subordinates everything to adapting himself to them."
This is often accomplished by subjecting virtually every aspect of daily life, such as what is worn, eaten or "even the smallest decisions," to the doctrine of the group.
Lifton includes this within his criteria "doctrine over person" and the "demand for purity."
He says, "The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy." And add this becomes evident in the subject by "the continual shift between experience itself and the highly abstract interpretation of such experience -- between genuine feelings and spurious cataloguing of feelings."
Fear also is a factor.
Carey says "fear and disorientation," were factors that must have driven Elizabeth to an "attachment to the adults who had control over her well-being."
This is what cult experts have often called "learned dependency."
This is one of Singer's "six conditions" for a thought reform program.
Ultimately the LA Times reporter admits, "The effect of Mitchell's religious pretensions cannot be ignored"
However, Carey claims "conversion" requires "fellow believers to teach values and rituals, as well as exert social pressure."
Is it possible that Carey and his experts cannot recognize that Elizabeth was virtually suffocated by the "social pressure" of "believers" Mitchell and Barzee, who taught the girl their "values and rituals"?
Singer also discusses this aspect of cult indoctrination within the context of "Instill[ing] new behavior and attitudes." And that cults "put forth a closed system of logic; allow no real input or criticism."
And this was certainly observed by numerous eyewitnesses, including the police officers that ultimately dealt with the odd trio.
It is the effective influence of that program, which essentially explains Elizabeth's silence, submission, and seemingly strange behavior.
Repeatedly witnesses have reported that she was within situations where help was readily accessible, but the girl said and did nothing to alert anyone.
Thought reform also explains Elizabeth's reluctance to identify herself and her evasiveness when questioned by police. It may also be the reason she gave them the name "Augustine," possibly a new identity instilled by Mitchell.
Again and again the facts support that Elizabeth Smart was subjected to a type of thought reform program or "brainwashing" process, directed apparently instinctually by her captor Brian Mitchell.
When major news stories about cult "brainwashing" are reported it is important to discuss the facts intelligently, rather than attempt to disguise or dismiss them and engage in some form of denial.
The LA Times reporter ended his story stating, "Assuming she was 'brainwashed' allows the family to gloss over the emotions that must have tormented her, emotions that Elizabeth must come to terms with eventually, experts say."
But besides verging on "victim bashing," such a conclusion ignores the obvious.
Elizabeth Smart will eventually need to sort through what happened during those nine months of captivity.
Patty Hearst, once a cult kidnap victim said, "I had a psychologist [Margaret Singer] who was incredibly good. I realized...you don't have to think the things that they've been telling you think. You don't have to participate in the disciplining of your mind to not have thoughts that they disapprove of. You do really remarkable and frightening things to yourself when you're under the control of people like this."
Based upon her own painful experience Hearst has advice for the Smart family. She says Elizabeth will "need a really good psychologist who can also work with the family."
But let's hope the Smarts find help from professionals who are recognized "specialists in the psychology of abuse and persuasion," rather than apologists or generalists that might "gloss over" what really happened.