The Followers and Their Quest
Another Excerpt from Prophetic Charisma

Excerpt from Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities (1997) by Len Oakes

Chapter 7

Virtually everyone leaves Utopia after a time. The quick and hearty do not necessarily defect early, nor is it always the witless who linger on. One leaves when he has gained what he came for, when his commitment is exhausted, when it is no longer necessary to sort through the breviary of questions that concern his freedom.

Tom Patton, "Foreword" to W. F. Olin’s Escape from Utopia

Who are the followers and why do they follow? In Chapter 2 Max Weber’s view—that the followers are seeking salvation—and Heinz Kohut’s—that they are seeking support for a creative effort—were presented. These claims are compatible if we accept that salvation involves creativity. Neither approach rules out the possibility of other factors influencing the followers’ behaviors. Weber also said that the followers are drawn to the leader because of their extraordinary needs, but he is silent on quite what these extraordinary needs are (Camic 1980, 9). This chapter will describe the followers and explore their motives.

Charismatic groups have often been seen as movements of the oppressed, or at least of individuals in crisis who have been shaken loose from traditional values by rapid social change (Cohn 1970; Melton and Moore 1982). This view tends to see the followers as needy, "permanently emotionally scarred," or "incomplete unto themselves" (Post 1986, 684; Hummel 1975, 768). Young people who join cults often do so in order to solve personal problems, what one psychiatrist has called a "desperate detour to growing up" (Levine 198-4). Thus joining a charismatic movement is a kind of therapy (and indeed, some studies do show improved mental health among followers; Richardson 1995; Kilbourne and Richardson 1980). But terms like "oppressed" can be hard to define (Jarvie 1964, 162-69; Firth 1965). In fact, the largest survey of communal groups shows, as one of its strongest findings, that people join such groups for a wide variety of reasons, and that they come from all levels of society and comprise pretty much all types of people (Zablocki 1980). Members of cults tend to come from the ranks of the haves rather than the have-nots. They are mostly white, educated, and middle-class. Usually they join when young (ages eighteen to twenty-eight), single, and at some turning point in their lives that society deems proper for making crucial decisions about career, marriage, and religion (Melton and Moore 1982, 29; Berger 1981, 378). In fact, many scholars have dismissed the notion that followers are driven by need, arguing instead that they are motivated by love (Tucker 1968, 735), hope, freedom (Camic 1980, 9-11), and ultimate concerns (Barnes 1978, 2). Others have explained that "the purpose of charisma is to examine the law" (Sennett 1975, 180).

By far the best study of the conversion process is Eileen Barker’s The Making of a Moonie (Barker 1984). Barker spent years interviewing hundreds of followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and found that apart from a range of small differences in values (mostly in favor of the Moonies), there were no really significant differences between members of the group and nonmembers. Yet even this research focused mostly on negative issues; it queried whether or not the Moonies brainwashed their converts. The underlying assumption of such work is that there may be something wrong with anyone who would join a cult (Barker began by asking, "Why should--how could--anyone become a Moonie?" [her emphasis]).

But what if members join for mostly positive reasons? Perhaps--as one scholar has suggested--joiners may be more flexible and adaptable than average (Lifton 1961). In Benjamin Zablocki’s study of American communes there were far fewer people from broken homes in communes than in the normal population (Zablocki 1980). And the educational level of the followers of Rajneesh was far greater than most of the rest of the population (Latkin et al. 1987). Although it can be shown that each group attracts subtly different kinds of people (Wuthnow 1976), and that no single generalization applies to them all, many followers may be brave idealists. Those joining a stigmatized group know that their family will probably disapprove, their friends may reject them, and public opinion and the media will ridicule them. Perhaps it takes courage to be a Moonie. And, contrary to the stereotype of cult members as closed-minded fanatics, they are at least open-minded enough to consider joining; most people’s minds are utterly—fearfully--closed to the possibility.

As part of this study, the Adjective Checklist (Gough and Heilbrun 1983) was administered to a sample of thirty-one followers chosen to represent ten different charismatic movements. In a related effort, the Adjective Checklist was also administered to over seventy members of a single charismatic group twice, with a year between measures. In both of these studies the followers emerged as so "normal" that the composite profiles appeared quite bland; the subscale scores all fell within two standard deviations from the mean (Oakes 1992). Hence the followers studied herein appear to be fairly representative of the general population, at least as measured by the Adjective Checklist. This parallels other research, which has shown that members of new religious movements are not significantly different from the normal population (Richardson 1995). There are a few studies that reach different conclusions (Galanter 1979, 1980), but this is to be expected. Conversion to a charismatic group is not a universal process (Barker 1984). People join for reasons that differ from person to person, from place to place, and change over time. Sometimes quite normal people behave in unfortunate ways, especially when in a group with a charismatic leader. Nevertheless, despite the inclusion of a few damaged and disturbed members, the negative image of charismatic groups really stems from concerns about the group process and misplaced idealism, rather than from fear of deviates.

Max Weber felt that while charismatic groups may be useful vehicles for change and upward mobility, they may also stifle personal responsibility and create dependency. Some studies seem to support this, although invariably the authors urge caution when interpreting their results (Richardson, Stewart, and Simmonds 1979). It is true that some followers are needy and dependent (as are many nonmembers in ordinary society), but we need to consider the entire life histories of such people. It is not unusual to find followers who have insight into their dependency needs, and who can discuss these if approached sensitively. Such followers are likely to have a goal that they are aiming for, and following a charismatic leader is their strategy for achieving this goal. They may accept their shortcomings in the same way that most of us accept that we are of only average looks and intelligence. They persist in doing the best they can, trying to balance their strengths and weaknesses in pursuit of their goals. Far from responding with blind faith and unquestioning obedience to the leader (Willner 1968, 6-7, Weber 1946), they are quite capable of deserting the leader should their long-term best interests be threatened (Tucker 1968, 736; Balch 1980). Most new religious movements lose their converts almost as fast as they gain them.

In sum, charismatic appeal is too widespread and varied a phenomenon to be reduced to a simple explanation such as that people follow charismatic leaders because of economic distress or personal deficiencies. Rather, joiners may be "yearning for some moral absolute" (Jones and Anservitz 1975, 1104), and in following such a leader "they do not follow him out of fear or monetary inducement, but out of love, passionate devotion, [and] enthusiasm" (Tucker 1968, 735), [footnote omitted] Charismatic followers join the leader for something. The stated aims of the leader and the beliefs of the group are important, but the membership also performs a function for the follower. There is likely to be a deeper agenda for the followers, which may be different in each individual case. Certainly charismatic groups attract some short-term, transient members whose need for the group is brief and who move on fairly soon. But for longer-term members, deeper hopes are likely to be present.

Discussing anyone’s deeper motivations is bound to be a speculative exercise, especially when a phenomenon such as charisma is involved. But in this study two questions seemed, time and again, to tap into the followers’ deeper agendas: What has been your major change or achievement in your time here [with the leader]? If something happened that forced you to leave the group and [the leader], and you could never return, what would be your most enduring memory? It requires only the modest assumption that what these long-term followers currently have--their lifestyle, security, peace of mind, friendly relations, and so on--is more or less what they joined to get several years before, to show that many of the answers to these two questions were more accurate explanations for their followership than were their automatic recitations of their group’s rhetoric. When asked why they joined, members usually say that they joined their group because of some ideal such as salvation, enlightenment, or whatever; they may pad this explanation with complex philosophy or psychotheology. The explanation may be true in many, many ways; but when asked what joining had allowed them to achieve, or what leaving the group would mean to them, quite different themes emerged. When followers in this study were asked these questions, their responses revealed agendas that may be characterized as the "great work" each had joined their leader in order to perform. These great works were not consciously expressed as such, and probably did not involve set agendas with timetables and specific goals. Rather, a member’s great work is a hope held for future possibilities for a transformation of one’s self. It can be deduced retrospectively from the changes that the follower makes in his life after joining the group.

Recall that according to Heinz Kohut, Freud’s relationship with Fliess involved (on Freud’s part) an opportunistic, dependent, and somewhat ruthless need for a strong figure on whom to lean while engaging in a difficult creative effort. Similarly, many followers, before joining the charismatic group, actively searched for a vehicle for their great work. Some explained that they were searching for people with values similar to their own, to join with in a safe, stable, utopian environment in order to marry and raise children. For others, more clearly therapeutic goals were sought. For a few, nothing less than a complete change in their life course was desired. Either way, some aspect of what Kohut has described as the playing out of the agenda laid down in the infant’s nuclear self seems to have been involved (as nearly as can be ascertained; Kohut 1971, 1977). Hence the process of recruitment does not involve the followers being spontaneously swept off their feet by a leader, nor does a group of followers "construct" a leader; leader and followers find each other for their own purposes (Little 1980, 1985).

The great work is discussed in detail in Chapter 8. It occurs at depth and must be distinguished from a simple description of the cultic life of the follower. This latter involves the follower in three relationships: with the leader, with the group, and with the self. The remainder of this chapter will discuss the first two, but it is the followers’ relationships with their selves, especially in the pursuit of their great work, that constitutes the core of charismatic involvement.

There seem to be four key themes in the process of the followers’ attachment to the leader. Each is characterized by a particular sensibility on the part of the follower, and they form a (somewhat) ordered sequence. The first theme is faith. Faith has been described as the orientation upon which the religious traditions of the world are based (Smith 1962). It is the underlying state that guides the followers’ search for a vehicle to express their great work--that is, faith that such a vehicle exists and that the great work is possible (Smith 1979). Many informants spoke of seeking a vague "something" before meeting their leader, a something that would represent to them, or bring them closer to, their ultimate concerns. As one said, "I needed him to tell me what it was I was seeking." This "seekership" culminates in the seekers finding a leader whose values coincide with their own, and who can serve as a vehicle for their great work. The faith that such a leader exists and that one’s great work is viable is implied in a positive view of life as a whole.

The second theme is trust. As the seekers get to know the leader, their impression is of someone they feel they can really trust--for the first time in their lives--with everything! The leader is the first person the seekers have ever met whom they feel this way about. Believing that he truly lives for his cause and is someone to whom they can confide their secret thoughts and their deepest fears and hopes, with whom they need never pretend, the followers trust the leader in a way quite unlike the trust one places in friends or family. The followers’ first impressions of the leader may be negative or superficial--mistrust of the leader’s rhetoric or interest in his sex appeal--but over time it is the leader’s integrity that the followers respond to, sensing someone, they believe, who has taken a stand from which he will never--perhaps can never--withdraw.

Courage is the third theme. In time the followers conclude that the leader is someone who lives completely in accord with their ultimate concerns. The prophet is living proof that the divine life is attainable; he makes living one’s convictions seem simple and natural. This gives the followers the courage and inspiration to attempt their great works, to live in accordance with their own ultimate concerns. These concerns, since they are similar to the prophet’s, presumably are attainable by emulating the prophet’s behavior and following his injunctions. The followers yearn to receive instruction (and the leader yearns to instruct), but most of all the followers take heart that what is sought is attainable through effort and courage.

The last of the recurring themes in the attachment process is projection. In continuing contact the followers come to see the prophet as the embodiment of their ultimate concerns, that is, as the exemplar of a sacred lifestyle, the fount of divine truth, or, as Christians put it, God incarnate. A study of the Rajneesh movement has it that "there was a tendency to see him [Rajneeshl as the origin of the love they [the followers] felt rising in themselves" (Gordon 1987, 59). But, as Feuerbach argued, "God" is an illusory reality that represents to people the qualities they regard as ideal (Hinnells 1984, 258). The disciple merely locates these ideal qualities in the person of the prophet through a process that is active and deliberate, albeit mostly out of awareness. Hence follower and leader use each other, each for his own ends. A relationship of symbiosis or codependence, perhaps even of mutual exploitation, is set up. This does not mean that each party is equally responsible for everything the other party does, but it suggests that there is a far greater degree of reciprocity and mutuality involved in the leader-follower relationship than is commonly thought.

To summarize thus far, the followers have great works that they hope to achieve, agendas laid down in their infantile nuclear selves that they hope to express. They actively seek a vehicle for this expression, in faith that such expression is possible. They meet and come to trust the prophet as a suitable vehicle for the expression of their great work. From the leader is drawn the courage needed for a difficult task. Like the analysand who creates a transference neurosis with the analyst, the followers project their ultimate concerns onto the prophet. The prophet is thus little more than a catalyst or a symbol for the followers, who are really having a relationship with their own selves, or with their ultimate concerns, rather than with another person. Of course the leader has an independent existence, which may confound and surprise at times, but the followers are unlikely to think too much about this.

A striking thing about the followers is how little they seek to know about the leader’s background. Few ever ask searching questions and critically evaluate the answers. They prefer to let the leader’s daily example serve as the testimony of his truth, and hence as a vehicle for their great work. To question too closely would be to disrupt the pleasant flow of here-and-now fusion. The followers are attempting to live their ultimate concerns, to enter into an active, personal relationship with these concerns in daily life. For myriad reasons, life has led them to a point where they need to measure their self against a present God in all His immediacy, not an abstraction or mere routinized charisma. For the passionate seeker, nothing short of a personal encounter with a great truth seems to satisfy.

This conclusion seems to run counter to the observation that many members of communes and alternative movements join in a time of crisis in their lives, apparently seeking a refuge and a helping hand. Such crises may, however, be the result of a long-standing frustration of the joiner’s great work. Yet most people experience crises in their lives without joining cults or communes. Research by family therapist David Kantor into the "critical identity image" may go some way toward resolving this apparent conflict. According to Kantor, the critical identity images one has of oneself are derived from past experience and underlie one’s sense of identity. He says that people have only two or three key images for each major dimension of their lives, that is, for their emotional relationships, for their power relations, and for their spiritual-ideological relations (Kantor 1980, 150). He believes that "We are especially open to the formation of new critical identity images during the transition periods that mark development throughout the individual lifecycle" (Kantor 1980, 150). This fits with the facts of conversion to alternative movements in which most joiners convert at transition points in their lives (Melton 1987). What seems to happen is that a transition crisis occurs that demands a reappraisal of the meaning and direction of one’s life. Initially there is a narrowing of focus due to stress (Bord 1975, 489), but later there may be an openness to the formation of new critical identity images. [Footnote omitted.] For some individuals this openness to new possibilities leads them to join social or religious movements in order to realize the program laid down in infancy in their nuclear self (Kohut 1971, 1977).

Personal and social crises have odd, unpredictable effects. Sometimes people discover strengths they never knew they had. Groups facing threat may generate powerful levels of cohesion that were totally lacking before. Far from individuals becoming less effective during crises, they may improve their performance dramatically. Crises are opportunities, and the really fundamental shifts in our lives take place at major transition points in our development, the "predictable crises of adult life" (Sheehy 1974). Rather than falling into a trap when needy, the converts may be rising to an opportunity they were previously unaware of (Singer 1961, 194-95; Wallace 1956, 264-81; Lasswell 1960, 198-99; Redl 1942). Thus the apparent conflict between the notions that (a) the followers join in crisis, seeking refuge, and that (b) the followers join in order to pursue a great work of personal recreation, may disappear if we understand the joiners’ lives and motives in all their subtlety and complexity.

The social rewards of belonging to a charismatic group are important. These involve not merely an enlarged social circle and support network, but also fraternity in the spiritual sense. Victor Hugo’s epigram "To love another person is to see the face of God" conveys the flavor of this. In a charismatic movement the followers become psychically transparent to each other. An extraordinary demystifying of human behavior occurs. Life is lived quite literally by learning new things each day: about one’s friends, one’s self, and one’s God. Given this learning process, and the need to achieve a great work, it becomes possible to speak of a natural history of the follower’s relationship with the group. Six progressive stages of charismatic involvement can be identified. These vary in duration, and not all followers pass through every stage. This is because while every stage is a solution to a problem posed by the previous stage, it also raises new problems. One option is always to abandon involvement with the group (although even this carries a price that may grow greater the more stages the follower has gone through).

[Most of the discussion of the stages is omitted. The stages identified are: the ‘Arrival’ Persona, Niche Work, Letdown, Goal Work, Success or Failure, and Leaving.]

Outsiders often criticize the extreme commitment of group members. But what is really happening is that leader and followers are conspiring to realize a vision that is falsified daily. For the cult is not paradise, and the leader is not God. Hence the follower is embattled; to squarely confront the many failings of the leader and the group is to call into question one’s own great work. Only by daily recommitting himself can the follower continue to work toward his ultimate goal. Each follower works out a secret compromise, acknowledging some things while denying or distorting others. Clearly this is a high-risk strategy that may go awry. In discussions with followers one often senses that in some corner of their hearts they keep a critical eye on the many inconsistencies of the group. Most can reflect on their extremes, such as being led into antisocial behaviors because of their dependence. Sometimes they feel bad about this. Later they might wonder "How could I be so gullible? All the warning signs were there, so why did I ignore them?" Outsiders wonder this, too. What is overlooked is the deeper agenda that the follower joined for, and that required the leader’s support to perform. Perhaps, paraphrasing Ernst Kris, we might describe followership as surrender in the service of the ego (Kris 1952); that is, an act that appears to be regressive but is freely willed and somewhat controlled, and that constitutes a temporary strategy in the pursuit of a higher goal. [Footnote: The case for therapeutic regression has been put by Balint (1965) and Winnicott (1960). Wolff (1978) and Gordon (1984) provide supportive perspectives on this interpretation of involvement in alternative movements. Camic (1980, 19) describes the follower's behavior as "altruistic surrender."]

. . . .

Leaving

Each of the groups studied had lost far more members than it had retained. And most of their original members had left. On average, less than 20 percent of those who joined, stayed on for more than five years, and fewer still stayed for ten or more years. Ex-members who still felt warmly about the leader were those who had succeeded in their great work. They had used the group for their purposes and moved on at the right time. Success gave them a new appreciation of the leader, gratitude for his help, and also pragmatism about his faults. They no longer needed to believe in him so intensely. Usually by the time they were successful, they had witnessed some of the leader’s less savory attributes--his mistakes and excesses. They held few illusions about his nature but retained a fondness. After success they felt restricted by the group and needed new challenges. The commonest pattern was to remain until the next group crisis (charismatic groups have lots of crises) and then move on. Probably they never again joined a charismatic movement.

Embittered ex-members tended to be those who had in some way failed at their great work. They felt conned, that they had been tricked into believing the unbelievable--and indeed some had, although most had contributed to their own miseries. But there is a special pain felt by one who has deliberately chosen to abandon reason to follow another--in deep trust and love--into an unknown darkness, only to fall flat on his face. Typically, when such a follower confronts the leader over this hurt, the leader refuses to bear any responsibility for it, even mocking and rejecting the follower. Perhaps the follower did something unethical for the leader, and in the throes of guilt needs the leader to share the burden. When the leader laughingly admonishes, "Well, you did it, not me," and dresses the tragedy up as a spiritual lesson, the follower feels betrayed--"burned to the bone," as one described it--trust evaporates, and the great work is no longer possible in that situation. Now, rather than seeing the journey as the goal, the follower chooses to leave, blaming the leader when he finds out that the impossible ideal is, after all, impossible. The failed follower leaves when it suits him, sometimes with open hostility toward the group. However, there are shades of success and failure, and even in the most rigid groups there are degrees of membership. Some leave to join another charismatic group. Some leave, then rejoin and go through the previous stages again, and continue on to later stages. Some make several attempts to join a group, several.attempts at a goal, each time achieving partial success; and so they come and go, remaining, ambiguously, a part of the group.

Each stage may become a trap. Members may get stuck in one stage and lose themselves. If they don’t move on, they become vulnerable to the excesses of the group. If one doesn’t find oneself in such a group, then someone else--usually the leader--will possess one. Charismatic groups usually have some members who are stuck at various stages. Leavers are sometimes those who have become stuck and withdraw rather than continue to go round and round. Lacking their old sense of purpose, they may forge a new one by opposing the leader and his group, becoming "career apostates" (Foster 1984b). These are disillusioned ex-followers who battle against their former group, often at great personal cost, by attempting to publicly expose every scandal associated with the group. Fortunately for them, charismatic groups usually have a lot of skeletons in their closets and dirt under their carpets, so the "mission" of the career apostate can become a full-time vocation.

After having spoken with several of these people, none of whom was necessarily "wrong" in his opposition--there genuinely were falsehoods and crimes that needed to be aired--I nevertheless gained the impression that they were driven by some need for absolution. A common refrain ran something like "I . . . was so hoodwinked while in the group that I too, condoned or took part in these misdeeds." Hence it seems likely that career apostates are trying to make amends and assuage their own guilt through their actions. But that is not all, for there is a particular discovery that people make about themselves in charismatic groups that many find especially hard to accept. It concerns how easily one can sell one’s soul, how shallow one’s sense of ultimate concerns really is, and how readily one can perform the unspeakable. . . . .

It is not pleasant to contemplate one’s moral frailty. Better to deny it and avoid charisma. The more self-esteem one can place between moral frailty and one’s self-image, the safer one feels. Against a background of overall success and achievement, such unpalatable facts may be reduced to insignificance; but if they are associated with some deep failure, they can be especially hard to bear. In waging war against cults and charismatic leaders, career apostates may actually be waging war against themselves.

There is great trauma associated with leaving, even for the successful follower. He has invested his deepest hopes in the leader, and leaving is like another leaving of home. The leaver may never be so close to--so trusted and accepted by--others again, so it is important that he leave with someone with whom he can share his knowledge and experience of the cult. There is a tremendous culture shock of reentry to the outside world, and many leavers enter therapy. Not even wealth and renewed contact with one’s family of origin can insulate against this. And most of all, that sense of purpose--the sense of being engaged in something vital and important--is gone. A new direction will appear, but it takes much longer than is comfortable.

Leaving is the natural culmination of joining . . . .

During involvement the follower experiences a range of extraordinary emotions, some of which are relatively minor but others may be of shattering intensity. He also receives powerful insights into his self and the nature of reality. These are often associated with the many rituals and extraordinary events that punctuate the life of the group, or they may occur through some interaction with the leader, or as part of the follower’s great work. The events take place in the context of inspirational leadership, without which they would not occur. For it is the leader who is the main focus of the group, who orchestrates its actions and moods, who carries the burden of responsibility for its success or failure, and it is his direction that largely--though not entirely--permits such moments to occur. Hence the follower’s relationship with the leader influences the manner of his departure. For it is the leader who ultimately is left behind, used and abandoned, outgrown. He may protest followers’ departures; curse them and predict disaster; attack their relationships, their mental health, their sex lives, their children, and their hopes. The wisest of the followers will accept this stoically, for they never know when they may need him again, but with the success of their great work, he becomes irrelevant. The followers leave him for the same reason they came to him--they have many more lives to live (Thoreau 1983). Few prophets accept this with grace. It was beautifully expressed by a woman ex-member:

"I gave him my inner child and every secret thing. I held back nothing. Life became a quest to reveal every part of myself to him. I said I loved him, but I always knew that there was something missing ... I blamed myself for that and thought that if I tried really hard, then whatever it was that was missing would fall into place. And slowly I saw that it never would, that this was it, that it would never feel right ... because he ... was stuck on being the guru. And that made me realize why I had never really been able to love him. You have to have some return for that to happen, and he never did. That was what was missing, what kept us apart despite all our talk about love. . . . He was a great teacher but a lousy human being. . . . Eventually I got to the point where I could predict what he’d say and do. . . . Still, it was a great game. I learned a lot, I owe him more than he’ll ever know--he sure cut the ground away from underneath churchy religion--but as I matured, I left him behind. It took me a while to see that was what was happening. And in a way I’m still a devotee, not of him but of what he stood for. I carry a little Fred inside me to this day. I still ask myself at times, ‘What would Fred say about this?’ It’s Fred at his best, and that’s how I like to remember him."

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