Tim Stoen was an acquaintance of mine and our student body president at Wheaton College. Tim’s brother and I played soccer together on Wheaton’s team. When I learned that Tim’s son John Stoen died at the Rev. Jim Jones’ side at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978, I was jolted. I was moved deeply by the courageous but unsuccessful efforts of John’s parents to free him from Jones’ web.
That tragedy and my own spiritual struggles about religious power figures motivated me to study destructive cults from my perspective as a physician psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. For more than 35 years, I have studied the minds of destructive cult leaders and the psychology of their followers. The task has been difficult, because Malignant Pied Pipers of Our Time (2005), by the very nature of their personalities, do not seek help from psychiatrists, psychologists or other therapists.
I have learned that future destructive cult leaders experience childhood neglect, abandonment, and often shame-filled humiliation experiences with parents and parental surrogates. Along the journey of my psychological investigations, I was struck by the striking resemblance that Osama bin Laden had to destructive cult leaders. Bin Laden has inspired so many terrorists (The Cult Of Osama, 2007). When a child who is exposed to humiliation, shame and neglect reaches adulthood, he or she becomes the head of a “family” with the hope of being an especially good parent to reverse his childhood traumas. But repetition-compulsion takes over and the cult leader becomes the destructive parent to his “children” (followers)… or to external targets.
Not everyone with such childhood developmental events ends up evolving a malignant narcissistic personality organization that destructive cult leaders exhibit. Sometimes a similar background motivates some persons to search for benevolent and altruistic leadership roles. E. James Anthony has written about such individuals whom he calls “The Invulnerables.” Some persons can transcend their troubled childhoods and become reparative leaders. The difference in outcomes depends on many factors ranging from biological potentials; to availability of identification with constructive persons in the child’s environment; to influences during adolescent or young adult experiences. Study of the minds of destructive cult leaders and the vulnerability to their followers’ vulnerability to recruitment, can provide good preventative psychological medicine.
In A Boyish God, I have brought together an amalgam of my child psychotherapy cases in which the children were exposed to psychological neglect and pathological experiences with parents and especially fathers. I use the novel form to describe a young student I call Will Powers. Will comes to the scene by giving an explosive sermon for a dead bird and scaring other students at his school. A kind and perceptive teacher helps the young boy find a psychotherapist. In my novel, I explore Will’s life experiences that reveal information about his troubled parents, especially his father, and his fortunate obtaining of help in psychotherapy. I describe how psychotherapy attempts to help a child like Will.
My novel ends with an addendum in which Will’s psychotherapist enters into a deep sleep and dreams that he is in a gigantic group-therapy room. Parents of some cult leaders whose cases in reality I studied are involved in an emotional group therapy process. The dialogues with the destructive cult leaders’ parents are informative. I also take an opportunity to imaginatively explore some evocative theological and spiritual issues.
(Dr. Olsson’s previous article in the jonestown report is Thirty Years Later: Thoughts About Prevention of Future Jonestowns. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website (www.drpeterolsson.com.) A Boyish God is available through his website or at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.)
(Two recent books by Peter Olsson are The Making of a Homegrown Terrorist: Brainwashing Rebels in Search of a Cause (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Praeger, 2014) and Houston’s Homegrown Terrorist (Strategic Book Publishing, 2014).)