Monday 13 March 2017

Cult Cinema #5: the mechanics of brainwashing

Ticket to Heaven (1981); Faults (2014)

In this post, as well as talking about brainwashing and cults in a general sense, I'm going to talk about Faults, which is a good, interesting and everso slightly disturbing film that came out a couple of years ago, but in order to do that, I'll have to nest in a discussion of another film which is not very good.
So a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I'd seen a film called Ticket to Heaven, and even though it's a hundred and fifty percent inside the range of films I want to cover in Cult Cinema, I'd initially decided not to write about it. The reason for that was pretty simple: it was a below-average film with very little interesting to say. It was based on Josh Freed's book Moonwebs. I don't know how good the book is (I will soon, because I just dropped a couple of quids on a second hand copy), but the movie deals with David (Nick Mancuso), an ordinary guy who, after a horrible breakup, meets a bunch of sweet, enthusiastic folks, including a young Kim Cattrall, and goes off to their camp for a weekend, because, and this is pretty clear in the film, the cult is deliberately using Kim Cattrall to recruit young men, because straight men are going to go anywhere Kim Cattrall asks them to, and this at least is true to life. I mean, not that Kim Cattrall is in the Moonies, but that the Moonies had a thing where they'd get the pretty girls to lure in the boys with the implied promise of sexual relations, which is of course abusive to everyone involved.
And yes, they're the Moonies, or, to give them their official name, the Unification Church, although they're not named directly in the film. And on the camp, starved, exhausted and browbeaten by happy chanting youth (and Kim Cattrall), David has a life changing conversion experience and becomes a fervent member of the group. And he does all the things cult members in bad movies do, cuts off his family and betrays his friends and cons good people out of money and all the other stuff. Performances and direction are efficient and professional without being ever inspired, and everyone does the best they can with the script, which isn't so much pedestrian as a whole pedestrianised area. In short it's the sort of film that maybe fifteen years ago you'd catch on a Tuesday night at 9pm with a "5" embossed in the top left hand corner.
Monitored phone calls.
Were the real Moonies (they're pretty moribund now that Reverend Moon is dead) really that bad? I don't know. For a while there was an industry of atrocity stories about them, and the stuff that Moon himself said is pretty abusive, so maybe. Ticket to Heaven does not supply any nuanced view. In the film, they're basically just evil.

The one part where Ticket to Heaven could say something interesting and nuanced is in the third act, where the friends and family of our brainwashed protagonist kidnap him and call in a cult deprogrammer who locks him in a room and debrainwashes him. This could be interesting... but it isn't. In Ticket to Heaven, the deprogrammer is a tall, blond, heroic-looking guy called, unironically, Linc Strunc (R.H. Thomson) who fearlessly confronts David with the truth and beings him back.

Linc Strunc is an unambiguous good guy. Yeah, David's friends and family engaged in a conspiracy to commit kidnap, and yeah, they committed assault, but basically they're doing the right thing, rescuing an innocent from the clutches of a mind-controlling cult and returning him gladly into the bosom of a loving family, and Linc is treated much like the hero of one of those 1980s adventure shows where the heroes sweep in and save the day and then leave and everything's fixed and they're off to save someone else entirely in the next episode. 
Linc Strunc.
Of course, it isn't that simple in real life. And that's where I talk about Faults, which is not so much in another league as sort of demonstrating the difference between tiddlywinks and Premiership football.

I've written a lot, here and elsewhere, about the experience and psychology of conversion and brainwashing, and I suppose that if I want to talk about brainwashing and deprogramming, this is as good a place as any to tackle that properly.

What I'm calling a conversion (I've also called it an enlightenment in the past, but I'm talking about the same thing) is a psychologically traumatic process that brings a person to adopt a new ideological framework. It is literally life-changing. It doesn't have to be religious. It can be political or anti-religious and these ideologies don't have to be helpful or even intuitively true (so for example I read a month or two ago about an American who had converted to neo-naziism and how that happened).

The most persuasive psychological model has four stages.

First you have a crisis. This might come about because of some personal catastrophe or trauma. It could be the result of depression. It could just be a general sense that something is wrong. Or everything is wrong. However it happens, it leaves you shaken. You have a feeling of missing something, of being lost. It doesn't have to be a state of all consuming grief. It could be just a general feeling of wrongness. A discomfort. The sense that your certainties are being broken down.

But eventually, if this isn't dealt with in a healthy way, you come to a point where you can't cope with it. A place of collapse. The point at which you're most vulnerable. Again, this might be a breakdown, it might just be a feeling that there's nowhere left to go. It might be loud and messy, it might be contained.

It's in this darkest place that the moment of insight, of enlightenment occurs. And this is pretty important because it never comes from a vacuum where you're concerned. This is the "wait, I see it all now" moment.

And then from that comes a period of consolidation and validation, where you work out how your life is going to work in the light of how you understand the world now. Often, the people who knew you before will find you insufferable.

It's important to realise that while this model is well known among people who observe religions, it's also implicitly understood to be the case by people who are in the sorts of groups that evangelise. An issue of horrible Calvinist periodical Sword and Trowel from 1996 that I have in my possession contains an article where it goes point by point through the same process: he calls the stages "Conception", "Awakened and Convicted", "Repentance and Faith", "Justification and New Birth", and "Sealed and Assured", the final two of which cover the final stage elements of validation and consolidation respectively.

Groups like the Unification Church take it further because they understand how one can force these experiences in a person. You can separate a person from their loved ones and adopt various social pressures and even psychological tortures – sleep deprivation, constant browbeating, the tearing down of one's self-regard – and if the person was sufficiently vulnerable in the first place and you're sufficiently persuasive, you can bring them to a state of crisis quickly enough, and in that crisis supply the thing that gives them insight and makes them one of you. This is what we call brainwashing. Through the deliberate application of trauma, the brainwasher creates the convert.

It's an inexact science! It just doesn't work on most people, and most religious or political groups who do it don't really understand what it is that they're doing, but know full well that you go for the vulnerable ones. That was the case with the Christian Union in university, although it was always expressed in terms of need, so the prospect would be someone who was "hurting" and "needed Grace in their lives", which is a strange sort of predation, when the predators, even the alpha predators, don't even admit to themselves they have prey. Of course the prey only get eaten a bit, and then they're made predators too. I suppose the gnawing terror so many people have of this sort of religion is not unrelated to the frisson people get from the trope of collectives in fiction that kill you inside and make you one of them, like zombie plagues, or The Stepford Wives, or pod people, or the Borg in Star Trek (and the analogy holds there with the regular character in Star Trek: Voyager who's a recovered ex-Borg).

The difference between these movies and the way ideological movements get their recruits is that with real people it's neither magical or a hundred percent permanent. With real people, you continually need to reinforce it.

The Moonies deliberately employed a technique they call "lovebombing", which is a method of social control where you use the community to shower a person with love and acceptance and generosity until the precise moment when they ask a difficult question or break some form of group rule, in which case all affection is withdrawn and social pressure is applied until the person breaks and returns to the line. Evangelical Christians and organised socialists alike do this too, without really realising what they're doing (and actually some years ago I wrote a piece pointing out seven shared characteristics of evo-fundamentalists and hard line socialists, and pissed off all of them). In retrospect, I was a terrible evangelical. I had a sincere and powerful conversion experience but I just wasn't made for that sort of life, and I tried, and I felt bad for what was evidently wrong with me, but in the end it wasn't going to work on me. I was never the sort of person who it worked on. I was always secretly gnostic.

In our groups we all apply subtle social pressures all the time. That's part of what it is to be human. But the more extreme the ideology, the heavier the pressure.

And this is where cult deprogrammers come in. A deprogrammer is someone who uses various techniques to isolate a supposed victim of brainwashing and bring them to their senses. And the techniques they use are basically the same techniques the cults they were in use, only more so, more emphatically and more violently. And faster. Often they arrange the kidnap and imprisonment of the subject. Cult deprogrammers and their clients would argue that these actions are necessary, that they're tough love tactics, but the fact is that they're just imposing an extra layer of brainwashing with the intention of eradicating the cult identity. Again, it's through trauma, through the attempt to break a person and trigger them hard enough to be able to make them do or believe anything.

And there are real problems with that. For one thing, it doesn't always work, any more than evangelism works in the first place. The believer has to be vulnerable, at least a tiny bit conflicted. And of course it's also abusive. Many of these techniques are literally criminal, as well as morally questionable.
Ansel Roth, PhD.
Which brings me, finally, to Riley Stearns' 2014 debut Faults. 

The film centres on Ansel Roth, PhD (Leland Orser, who you are most likely to have seen as a regular on ER). He is an expert on cults and mind control. Once he was feted. He used to be on TV. He wrote a bestselling book. And he used to charge tens of thousands of dollars to stage deprogramming interventions. But at the start of the film, Ansel is reduced to hawking copies of a failed sequel (and charging five bucks extra for signing it) and doing poorly attended talks in hotels, where he fishes used meal vouchers out of the bin in an attempt to get another square meal.

Ansel's marriage collapsed. His manager has fired him and has taken to sending a heavy called Mick (the wonderful Lance Reddick, from The Wire) to scare him into settling up unpaid debts. Ansel Roth is in a bad way. Suicidally, in fact, although his attempts to end it are comedically half-arsed.
The first act of the movie strikes a tone of wry black comedy, a tone you'd associate with the Coen Brothers (but more Fargo than Big Lebowski), but as the film goes on it travels to darker, more solemn territories, and its quirks begin to fade away.

Something went disastrously wrong a few years ago, which destroyed Ansel's career. We learn in the first few minutes, as someone who was close to one of his former intervention subjects confronts him, that one of his deprogrammings ended with someone he thought he'd rescued killing herself. the man accuses him, in the middle of Ansel's talk, of having "gang-raped her mind".
It's for her own good.
And Ansel tries to stand up for himself, but that's sort of true: they forced access to her most intimate thoughts, her faith, and forced it out of her. And when she heard that the cult that she'd been part of had committed mass suicide, she went somewhere alone and joined them.

Despite Ansel's talk ending in disaster and humiliation, he's still approached after the talk by Evelyn and Paul, a middle-aged couple (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant, the latter of whom you might have seen as the awful PTA woman in Donnie Darko) who ask him to rescue their daughter. He refuses. He doesn't care anymore, he says. But they insist. They buy him a meal, and agree to pay him the money he needs to square things with his manager.

They say their daughter, Claire, is a member of a group called Faults. Not, it is repeatedly stated, the Faults, or the Faults Movement. Just Faults. He hasn't heard of them. But after much persuasion, he agrees to deprogram Claire. And so, he hires a couple of heavies to kidnap her, locks her in a room (with her parents waiting anxiously next door) and sets to work.
Evelyn and Paul.
Evelyn and Paul tell Ansel she's not well, she's cut off from the world, that she's not like herself. Ansel, when not in situations that trigger him, knows his stuff. He is open that the deprogramming has only a 50/50 chance, he is open that it's dangerous. And when he has her in the room, it begins.

A tonal shift happens. Just a slight one, but a tonal shift nonetheless. The comedy leaches away from it. The film, in its second act becomes a subtly different film (and in its final act, a subtly different film again). Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ramona from Scott Pilgrim) – she refuses to let him use the name – is self possessed and contained. She is strong-willed. She says she's only waiting for a sign from God before she rips his tongue out. But Ansel is very good at what he does and within a day or so of sleep deprivation and gentle questioning, she is opening up to him.
From a fault comes a change.
Faults is a group that implies violence; there is a strong implication is that it is abusive and Ansel understands this quickly (the account, second hand, that she has had sex with God, in front of the group; the dismissal of children as "parasites").
Claire: From a fault comes a change.
Ansel: Do you believe a change is on the way?
Claire: I don't want to talk about it.
A fault is the place where movement comes from. A fault is "a fracture, a place where pressure builds until it releases". The faultlines in the earth become a metaphor for the faults in the human spirit, our traumas. From our faults come changes. The members of Faults, led by Ira, who has "passed the human form" apparently learn how to become superhuman. But at the end, they "pass on". Everything suggests an apocalyptic suicide cult.
As the conversation between Ansel and Claire progresses, Ansel's traumas become the faults through which Claire gradually turns the tables on him. Deprogramming is a sort of brainwashing, and it ceases to be clear who is brainwashing who. It's evident that Ansel's career and relationship reversals have genuinely traumatised him, and Leland Orser gives a brilliant performance, that of a knowledgeable, genuinely competent and expert man whose traumas have crippled him. His eyes, sad and kind, are windows to a world of pain. Winstead's performance too, it is vulnerable, controlled, and persuasive.

The final act takes a quietly disturbing turn. But in the way that Ticket to Heaven isn't, Faults is true. It represents the psychological model of conversion perfectly, and shows us how that can be hacked, how it can be forced. And how vulnerability can be exploited.
Trial by TV.
Ansel: Nothing ever happens the way it should with me. Everything always fails.
Ansel's final fate is logical; it is believable, it is true. The whole film moves effortlessly from comedy to quiet horror; but the horror is the horror of the loss of control, the horror that we are all vulnerable to the forces, social and spiritual that control us. How even the most sceptical of us can be brought to a place where they've got us.

Because, because we are so very vulnerable, and we would do well to remember that.

Faults is only readily available in the UK on Amazon Instant Video; I found a DVD copy of Ticket to Heaven, but you can find it on YouTube if you really want. To be honest, unless you like Kim Cattrall as much as I do, you'd be better served finding something better. Like Faults, for example.