Courts Are Rarely Kind to ‘Brainwashed’ Victims
Months ahead of the NXIVM sex-trafficking trial, we take a look at how juries react to cults.
Allison Mack in 'Smallville'
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Though we’re still months out from a trial that will test whether or not alleged cult leader Keith Raniere and former Smallville actress Allison Mack broke sex trafficking and forced labor laws, there’s an uncertain buzz surrounding the case. To an outsider, the details sound pretty intense—nude photos kept as “collateral,” a dude’s initials burned into women’s skin, texts about wanting a “fuck toy slave”—but perhaps the most incomprehensible part is that so many women seemingly chose to submit and some even felt “empowered” by the group’s chilling controls.
If you ask cult researcher Janja Lalich, there are many reasons why victims of alleged crimes would think or act in strange and contradictory ways. We’ve all heard of “brainwashing”—the idea that through a mix of threats, isolation, and indoctrination people can be made to do things that no free-thinking human would otherwise do. But while we’re familiar with the concept and may even feel some sympathy, court cases of the last few decades show juries are rarely kind to so-called brainwashing victims. VICE reached out to some experts to shed some light on why that is.
Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta told VICE the West’s first wave of “brainwashing” panic came in the 1950s when American soldiers captured in the Korean War reportedly came back with communist ideas. The term gained some traction as it was applied to new North American religious and political sects through the 1970s. For a short time, brainwashing expert Margaret Singer was “winning a lot of cases hand over fist,” says Lalich, who was mentored by Singer.
But the public soon turned on the concept of brainwashing, which at the time was based on new and admittedly much simpler psychological theory. Religious studies experts began giving counter-testimony arguing there was no such thing, and that brainwashing claims undermined religious freedom and free will. This set a more critical tone for decades to come.
One of the most high-profile brainwashing cases involved an heiress to a newspaper fortune who was kidnapped, confined, and allegedly abused by a radical militia trying to start a revolution. Within weeks Patty Hearst joined her captors, who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, and was seen holding a machine gun during a bank robbery. Hearst’s conviction on robbery charges, according to Kent, turned out to be “the first and biggest failure of the brainwashing argument to get someone exonerated from a crime.”
Ever since, the people who study high-control groups have been trying to present the phenomenon in a way that more fully accounts for free will and our natural skepticism. “It became kind of a problem to use the concept of brainwashing in court,” Lalich told VICE. “That’s part of the reason I’ve developed this new framework in my book Bounded Choice, where we get around the brainwashing and still get a point of view across.”
Today, Lalich provides expert testimony on cults in court cases across the country, though she now talks about coercive influence—a concept that more closely resembles US laws around undue influence. Even so, she’s found that juries are inconsistent and sometimes harsh in how they judge victims (and perpetrators) who act against their own self-interest.
Modern cases vary from efforts to shut down gay conversion therapy in New Jersey to a defense of the young, abused follower of the Washington, DC sniper. In the latter case, Lee Malvo was 17 years old when he helped kill ten people—a plot he believed would earn them $10 million in ransom to start a commune of young black orphans in Canada. He was convicted on murder charges, but avoided the death penalty thanks in part to testimony by psychologist Paul R. Martin.
Lalich has testified about why the wives of a charismatic leader in El Dorado named Ulysses Roberson didn’t call police the night he murdered his four-year-old child. She’s also argued for damages in a civil case against an Arkansas Walmart distributor, which required employees to participate in bizarre new-age training exercises that included walking across hot coals. According to Lalich, victims of cult abuses tend to see more success with civil trials, as ex-Scientologists have won tens of millions.
What lessons can be taken across all these trials? For one, there’s rarely enough time in court to fully explain less obvious coercive dynamics. Kent calls the cult indoctrination process a “series of acquiescences” that gradually take away a person’s ability to meaningfully change course. Cult members often fear shunning, humiliation, and calamity if they go against the will of their leader. In some cases, they’ll even defend their abusers on the stand. “You know exactly what you have to choose to stay in the group,” Lalich said. “I think that can be the issue with a jury, to get them to understand these rather complicated concepts.”
Kent says it’s clear that in all these cases that coercive influence can get a sentence mitigated, but not dismissed entirely. For someone like Allison Mack, who has been charged with serious crimes while a long-term member of a high-control group, that means she may not face a very sympathetic New York courtroom. As for the other women who may take the stand—who may not have reported alleged abuses in a timely or straightforward way—Lalich says there’s a chance. “I think women jurors tend to get it more than male jurors,” she told VICE. “And anyone who’s been in the military gets it. So surprisingly having vets on the jury can help.”
As we’ve seen with sexual assault cases, Lalich says ex-cult victims of crimes are often too embarrassed to pursue charges in the first place. “Cult people will get discouraged by others from doing that,” she told VICE. “It’s very traumatic to go through a trial, as they’re just going to trash you. Ex-members will often say screw it—I’m just going to cut my losses and get on with my life.” On top of that, lawyers are generally reluctant to take on such messy cases, which means even fewer cult abuses go to trial.
For perspective, it’s worth noting that authorities outside the United States courts tend to be more open to the concept of brainwashing and coercive influence, and prosecuting the people responsible. “They’re not hung up on religion like we are—we don’t hold religions accountable in this country like we do any other organization. Just because you’re a religious group doesn’t mean you should be able to break the laws,” Lalich said. “I think most other countries take a harder line.”
With months to go before Mack and Raniere stand trial, and more charges expected, it’s still too early to speculate on how US prosecutors will present NXIVM’s alleged sex trafficking victims in court. But like other high-profile sexual abuse victims before them, we know they won’t have an easy time explaining their actions to a jury.
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