National Commentary

‘The Master’ and Slaves

“The Master” hit theater screens this week. It was much anticipated and feared as an expose of a particular, major religious cult (which prohibited its members from seeing it) in the news a lot these days for the escapades of some of its high-profile celebrity adherents.

But its subject from the standpoint of this writer, if not of revered director Paul Thomas Anderson, is far more general, exploring the psychological and other factors that create cults, in general. I have my own experiences, including from the inside, of such cults back in the 1970s, when they were in their heyday. The relevance for today lies in the grip such entities continue to hold on people, both in their 1970s apex mode and more subtly but equally insidious forms today.

It is generally hidden from public view how many cults exist and how many people there are still trapped in cults.

What do I mean by ‘trapped?’ Aren’t people in them doing so in accordance with their free will, as someone who sings in an average church choir? The evidence is compelling that such is not the case, and that fact goes to what defines a “cult” apart from an interest group, political party, or even a high-pressured law firm or religion.

Most of the cults that began to form in the U.S. after World War II followed an almost identical pattern, as if drawn from the same script.

There is the all-powerful, charismatic leader who claims veritable infallibility and demands complete unquestioning loyalty from his followers.

There are the pliant followers who gradually lose their own sense of identity, replacing the reference to “I” in their speaking with “we.” They are kept in line by constantly being reminded of the most shrill and cosmically-catastrophic consequences of their betraying or leaving the cult.

There is the growing total control over the lives of the followers, of their every waking activity, over all their possessions and talents, often enforced through exercises in sensory deprivation and lack of sleep. Finally, there is the cutting off of the connections of the followers to the outside world, especially to their families and old friends, often achieved with the benefit of the wild, unworldly tenets of the belief systems they are fed.

Once a “willing suspension of disbelief” begins to set in on a new potential recruit, the stage has been set for systematic introduction into the world of the cult. A mesmerizing, charismatic leader, who presents himself with enough self-confidence and revered followers to tap into and grip perceived unfulfilled needs of a victim (such as a distant or absent father), then provides special attention and promises to his flock, only introducing the downside consequences of betrayal later, when it is too late.

This is a standard script. The cult leader is an intellectually brilliant but sadistic, self-serving sociopath, a con man without a conscience, who often, in the manner stated in “The Master,” devises a belief system by “making it all up as he goes along.” It can be about anything that sets the believer in stark contrast to the “known world” while also being central to its purpose.

“The Master” has all these elements. Actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman is stellar as Lancaster Dodd, the leader of something he’s called “The Cause,” in its formative days at the beginning of the 1950s. Joaquin Phoenix is compelling as Dodd’s experiment, playing a broken down World War II veteran alcoholic. According to critic Roger Ebert, both performances are “of Oscar caliber.”

There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that the promotion of cookie-cutter cults was a project of a sinister faction of U.S. intelligence following World War II, based on the discovery during the war of Chinese-Mongolian brainwashing techniques. At its core were experiments and techniques on how to get ordinary people like Phoenix’s character to abandon their own behavior and thoughts and substitute for them someone else’s agenda.

In “The Master,” Hoffman’s character remains keenly interested in Phoenix’s because he wants to move his methods out of parlor-games for the titillation of the idle rich to a mass-based mind-bending social force.