May 26, 2018

When Living Your Truth Can Mean Losing Your Children

Chani Getter, a manager at an organization that helps formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, said that the ultra-Orthodox community has stepped up tactics against parents who leave the fold.
Sharon Otterman
The New York Times
May 25, 2018

The questioning went on for days. Did she allow her children to watch a Christmas video? Did she include plastic Easter eggs as part of her celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim? Did she use English nicknames for them, instead of their Hebrew names?

This grilling of Chavie Weisberger, 35, took place not in front of a rabbi or a religious court, but in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, during a custody battle with her ultra-Orthodox Jewish ex-husband after she came out as lesbian and decided to leave the ultra-Orthodox fold. The stakes could not have been higher. In fact, the judge, Eric I. Prus, eventually ruled that she should lose custody of her children, largely because she had lapsed in raising them according to Hasidic customs.

Ms. Weisberger’s case, which was reversed on appeal in August, is still reverberating through New York courts that handle divorce and custody matters for the state’s hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A New York State appellate court ruled that Justice Prus had erred in making religious observance the paramount factor when deciding custody. The court also said he had violated Ms. Weisberger’s constitutional rights by requiring her to pretend to be ultra-Orthodox around her children, even though she was no longer religious, in order to spend unsupervised time with them.

“It’s coming up frequently,” Kim Susser, a family law attorney, said of the impact of the case. “It is being used to underscore that you have to look at the totality of the circumstances when you are determining a child’s best interests. You can’t just look at this one factor, which is what the Orthodox community tries to have you do.”

Ms. Weisberger and her husband had originally gone to a Jewish court, known as a beth din, to receive a divorce in 2008. The religious divorce agreement granted her full physical custody of the children, who were then 5, 3 and 1.

She was raised ultra-Orthodox in Monsey, N.Y., as part of a family of revered rabbis — her grandfather is the founder of the Hasidic sect to which she formerly belonged, Emunas Yisroel. She fully expected to maintain traditional customs, so she barely noticed the clause requiring her to do so in her divorce agreement. “I don’t even remember seeing it,” she said.

But by 2012, she began openly identifying as lesbian and wearing more secular clothing. Shocking some religious neighbors, she had a transgender friend as a houseguest. That was when her ex-husband, Naftali Weisberger, sued for sole custody, claiming that her changed lifestyle was violating the divorce terms and traumatizing their children.

When divorce agreements inked in Jewish courts are disputed, the matter is often brought to civil court, where secular judges can be asked to enforce their terms. Sometimes, particularly when one parent has decided to leave ultra-Orthodoxy, this can lead to personal religious matters being placed under a microscope as a judge seeks to determine whether the parents are honoring their original agreement.

A civil court judge’s rationale for focusing on religious practice, family lawyers said, is that once a religious divorce agreement is signed and submitted to the secular court, it is seen as a legal contract. There is also a strong interest in custody cases in maintaining the status quo for children — meaning a divorce should not upend their lives. For the children of the ultra-Orthodox, that would favor maintaining religious customs.

Yosef Rapaport, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has been a litigator in Jewish courts in Brooklyn, said that he feels the details of religious practice are pertinent, insofar as they relate to the well-being of the children.

“It is something that matters, be it kosher food, or the way the mother dresses,” he said. For example, he said, when “the mother has to take the child out to the bus stop in front of the house, and the whole block looks, it is something that might embarrass the kid.”

“It might look trivial for a person who doesn’t observe these things, but it’s not trivial for the friends and for the peers of the child,” he added. “You don’t want the child to be shunned in school. Children can sometimes be extremely vicious.”

Mr. Rapaport said that it was only to be expected that a judge would look unfavorably on someone who reneged on an original agreement, even if that agreement was signed in a beth din. But family lawyers say they see differences in how much weight various secular judges give to the rulings of a Jewish court.

Pronounced deference to beth din agreements, they say, tends to happen in jurisdictions where judges, some of whom are familiar with Jewish customs, are elected by large populations of ultra-Orthodox Jews, like Brooklyn or Rockland County, N.Y.

“A lot depends on the judge,” Ms. Susser said. “Some are excellent, some may be biased.”

Etty Ausch, 34, a formerly ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman, had her children placed in the custody of relatives by order of Judge Prus. Along with general questions about her fitness as a parent, she also faced quasi-religious questions, including one about footwear: Were the fuzzy socks she bought for her children related to Christmas because they were adorned with snowmen?

Judge Prus, who lives in Cedarhurst on Long Island, is an observant Jew himself, which some advocates for the formerly ultra-Orthodox believe contributes to his willingness to wade deep into the details of religious practice in his Downtown Brooklyn courtroom. But he hears every kind of matrimonial case, and on Wednesday, he was a stern, fast-talking presence, chiding an estranged couple for relying too much on attorneys rather than working out small issues face to face.

“I can’t instill common sense in you,” he told them.

Ms. Ausch, whose story was featured in the Netflix documentary “One of Us,” began the process of leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in 2015 after alleging abuse by her ex-husband. Though her case remains open, she has taken a break in trying to regain custody of her seven children because, she said, the emotional toll has been so high.

“I didn’t foresee my family turning on me,” said Ms. Ausch, who has also since come out as lesbian. “I didn’t foresee my best friends, my family, coming to court and testifying against me.”

It is not only women who are losing access to children based on details of their religious practice. Julie F. Kay, a human rights lawyer in private practice, said she knew of at least one court that issued an order denying a formerly ultra-Orthodox father visitation rights because he showed up to a parental visit in jeans, which are not permitted to be worn by the ultra-Orthodox.

The situation is raising human rights concerns, she said, in part because American case law strongly establishes that children should not be kept away from a parent just because a conservative community might disapprove of his or her identity.

“We have a strong protection of religious rights in this country, and it’s supposed to be a shield,” Ms. Kay said. “But they are using it as a sword. The government is enabling people to force their religious beliefs on others as a condition to maintain their relationships with their children.”

Part of the issue, family lawyers said, flows from the guiding principle in family court: all decisions are made to serve the “best interests of the children.” A parent’s rights can quickly become secondary in this setting, where overworked judges may pressure parties to settle quickly.

“It’s almost presumed that what’s in the best interest of the child is for the parent to subsume their own personal needs,” said Anna Maria Diamanti, the director of the family law and domestic violence unit of South Brooklyn Legal Services. “Your need to not be oppressed is not more important than your child’s need to have stability.”

Some who have left the ultra-Orthodox say that in recent years, the community has become more organized in how it aids the religious parent and ostracizes the parent leaving the fold.

For the parent leaving, the trauma goes beyond the private dissolution of a marriage. “Their job gets in jeopardy, their home,” said Chani Getter, a program manager at Footsteps, an organization that offers support to formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews. “If they are renting from a religious landlord, surveillance goes up,” she said. Each child, she said, is considered by the community as a Jewish soul that cannot be lost.

But Mr. Rapaport said it was conspiracy-minded to accuse the community of acting as a monolith. Instead, he said, individual parents suing for custody are relying on their large networks of relatives and friends to help make their case, as anyone would.

“It’s not that simple,” he said. “We are the most split-up community you could ever think of. It’s very rare to get people together for one cause. Everyone marches to their own drummer here; it’s like herding cats.”

Ms. Weisberger married her husband, Naftali, in 2002 when she was 19. They decided to get a religious divorce in 2008 after she came to terms with her sexuality and revealed to her husband that she was a lesbian. As she came to accept herself, she also began to reject her ultra-Orthodox upbringing, which teaches that homosexuality is forbidden.

She involved her children in her transformation. In their apartment, they made a word wall that included universal values like “perseverance” and “integrity” to guide them. She allowed the children to try nonkosher food, like a chicken kebab at a street fair, and permitted her girls to wear pants in the house. That violated the terms of her religious divorce agreement, which required her to raise the children Hasidic.

Her ex-husband, meanwhile, had remarried. He was failing to pay child support to Ms. Weisberger, or even to visit regularly with the three children, according to court papers. But as soon as he sued for custody in 2012, the couple’s children, then 5, 7 and 9, were removed from Ms. Weisberger’s care. A week later, Justice Prus permitted her temporary visitation for part of each week, provided that she maintain strict religious practices in the presence of the children.

It took three years for the Judge Prus to make his ruling. During that time, Ms. Weisberger acted religiously as ordered, but she was also open with the court about her sexual identity and her shift toward a secular worldview.

“I had been scrambling to find my truth and to live my truth, and it was just like, ‘I’m sorry, this is where I am,’” she said.

Justice Prus awarded sole custody to her ex-husband, ruling that her personal transformation had caused too much turmoil for the children, who attended yeshivas and were struggling to live between two worlds.

“Given the existence of the agreement’s very clear directives,” Justice Prus wrote, referring to the Jewish divorce agreement, “this court was obligated to consider the religious upbringing of the children as a paramount factor in any custody determination.” It is, he added, “the crux of the agreement.”

“Each party’s lifestyle is completely antithetical and antagonistic toward the other,” so no compromise was possible, he added in his ruling.

Ms. Weisberger decided to appeal. Her attorneys enlisted the help of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which advocates for gay rights, and the New York Civil Liberties Union, both of which wrote briefs on her behalf. In August, the appeals court overturned Justice Prus’s decision and restored full physical custody to Ms. Weisberger.

Justice Prus, who was elected to the court in 2005 and is running for re-election this year, had given “undue weight to the parties’ religious-upbringing clause,” it ruled. And the appellate court also reminded lower court judges that requiring an adult to act religiously is unconstitutional. Judge Prus declined to comment for this article.

“It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise,” the judges of the Second Judicial Department of the Appellate Division wrote. “A religious upbringing clause should not, and cannot, be enforced to the extent that it violates a parent’s legitimate due process right to express oneself and live freely.”

Ms. Weisberger now works at Footsteps, helping other formerly ultra-Orthodox men and women adjust to secular lives their upbringings did not prepare them for. Though she no longer has to pretend to be religious, she still keeps kosher at home, and sends the children to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, because the appeals court granted authority over schooling decisions to her ex-husband.

But the children can now check out secular books from the public library, forbidden to them before. Ms. Weisberger recently had a Harry Potter-themed birthday party for her youngest daughter. The children, now 11, 12 and 15, are learning how to navigate both of their worlds, and adjusting to more regular visits with their father.

Mr. Weisberger, who now also has five children from his second marriage, did not respond to a request for comment. His upstairs neighbor in the two-family house where he lives in Borough Park said she thought the whole situation was a shame.

“He’s very nice, he wants the children to be on a good path,” she said of Mr. Weisberger, giving her name only as Tzyve. “They are very nice children, very cute. The new wife, she takes care of them very well.”

Ms. Weisberger said she hopes her case will give other parents leaving the ultra-Orthodox community courage to be honest about their secular or gay identities in court.

“People kept telling me I was choosing nonkosher food over my own children; I was doing this to my own children. But I was that confident that I could be the person I am, and that’s what’s best for my children — that I was able to shut out those messages.”

But family lawyers and advocates say they still advise parents turning away from ultra-Orthodoxy to be cautious with their new identities because of the likelihood that access to their children could still be threatened.

“Yes, it’s really nice to come out and be honest,” said Ms. Getter of Footsteps. “But when you have kids, and you are in the court system, and have the community fighting you, I always say you need to slow it down.”

Follow Sharon Otterman on Twitter: @sharonNYT

A version of this article appears in print on May 27, 2018, on Page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: Leaving the Fold and Losing Custody.

TV Program - NXIVM

May 28, 2018 at 10 PM


In Cults and Extreme Belief, Elizabeth Vargas, alongside former members of controversial organizations, goes on a search to uncover how these sects use their influence to prey upon people's desperation to create powerful and often destructive belief systems. Each episode will take an immersive look at one currently active group through the eyes of past devotees and get perspective from believers and leaders that are still inside.

Right after the Mormon church gave blacks the priesthood, a polygamous offshoot saw its ranks grow

Owen Allred, then leader of the Apostolic United Brethren, in 1988.
Owen Allred, then leader of the Apostolic United Brethren
Nate Carlisle
Salt Lake Tribune
May 25, 2018

A recent blog about happenings in the polygamous Apostolic United Brethren church posed a question:

“If you find out from your DNA test that you have a percentage of Nigerian DNA, would you be worried about your right to the Priesthood and all of its blessings?”

For some respondents, the answer was yes.

“I would acknowledge that I don’t have authority, that my children don’t,” a commenter replied, “and I’d separate myself from my white spouse so as to not condemn her.”

Next month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Salt Lake City-based faith lifting its ban on black men and boys holding the priesthood and black women and girls entering LDS temples.

Making males of all races eligible for the priesthood, which Mormons believe to be the authority to act in God’s name for the salvation of humanity, is considered a monumental pivot point in LDS history, making the religion more inclusive and acceptable in America and spurring its growth in Africa, Brazil and other parts of the world.

While the vast majority of mainstream Mormons embraced, applauded and even rejoiced at news of the priesthood change, the reaction was much different in the Apostolic United Brethren, a polygamous religious community that, in 1978, was still known to most Utahns as the Allred Group and nowadays makes headlines as the church where the Brown family of TV’s "Sister Wives” fame worships.

“I burst into tears,” said Peggy Lynch, a member of the AUB. “We were so sad because we loved the [LDS] Church. We believed the church had priesthood, and they just gave it away.”

Those already practicing so-called Mormon fundamentalism weren’t the only ones upset. Researchers and people who belonged to the AUB in 1978 say the group saw its membership jump after the LDS Church ended the priesthood prohibition. The converts were LDS families who believed blacks should not get the priesthood.

Within a few years, the AUB opened its own temple and offered ordinances to its members. The AUB has never followed the LDS Church in allowing blacks to hold the priesthood.
Parallel tracks

These fundamentalists follow what they regard as the original teachings of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and the pioneer-prophet who succeeded him, Brigham Young. Fundamentalist groups began to emerge after the LDS Church officially gave up polygamy in 1890. Today, the LDS Church excommunicates any members found practicing it.

But these fundamentalists believe in more than plural marriage. Their attitudes toward whether blacks can enter the priesthood, for instance, can be traced to the Bible story of Cain and Abel. Mormon folklore holds that the mark, or curse, God placed upon Cain was black skin.

“That curse will remain upon them,” Young is quoted in the “Journal of Discourses” as saying on Oct. 9, 1859, in Salt Lake City’s renowned Mormon Tabernacle, “and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof.”

The LDS Church has disavowed such teachings, stating that they never were doctrine, and notes that Mormon leaders today “unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

But some of the faith’s splinter groups still abide by Brother Brigham’s words.

Rulon C. Allred, for one, founded what became the AUB in the 1950s. For Latter-day Saints who wanted to try fundamentalism, moving to the AUB was an easier transition than to other such groups.

While other fundamentalists distanced themselves from the LDS Church, the AUB saw itself in parallel with the larger faith. Allred even encouraged some of those who worshipped with him to maintain their standing in the LDS Church and to receive ordinances in Mormon temples. He didn’t see the need for the AUB to have its own temples or ordinance ceremonies, save for plural marriages.

To this day, AUB followers such as Lynch refer to the LDS Church as “the church.”

Allred was murdered in 1977. His brother Owen Allred became the new leader of the AUB, which is believed to have had as many as 5,000 members at the time.

But many of the AUB’s fond feelings for the LDS Church soured in June 1978, when the latter announced that then-church President Spencer W. Kimball had received a “revelation” ending the priesthood and temple ban.
Conversions follow

Lynch had converted to the AUB years earlier, married one of Rulon Allred’s sons and moved to what is now Pinesdale, Mont. When she heard about the priesthood change, she phoned her mother, who was still a Latter-day Saint.

“I remember calling my mom and saying, ‘This is awful,’” Lynch recalled in an interview. “I was shocked when she said, ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’”

Owen Allred expressed his disappointment days after the LDS Church announcement during a sacrament service in Bluffdale. A transcript makes clear he regarded Kimball’s action as caving to political pressure rather than a revelation from God.

Allred wondered aloud whether the LDS Church soon would endorse abortion and grant the priesthood to women, too.

He advised his followers to stop participating in the LDS Church and cease entering its temples.

“Do not go into a temple,” he preached, “that has been defiled by the Canaanite being invited into it.”

Allred made his opposition more public July 23, 1978, in a full-page ad in The Salt Lake Tribune. The ad quoted Young’s statements on race and accused the LDS Church of giving away the priesthood and shunning its teachings.

The last two sentences read:

“Will Latter-day Saints remain true to their former revelations, or will they yield to the pressures of this crucial day?

“Where do you stand?”

Craig L. Foster, a co-editor of the three-volume “Persistence of Polygamy,” said the ad appeared to be intended as a rebuke. If it led to some mainstream Mormons jumping to the AUB, “then so much the better.”

Another co-editor, Brian Hales, a historian who has written books about fundamentalism, has reported that “hundreds” of LDS families converted to the AUB after Kimball’s priesthood expansion.

In an interview, Hales said AUB leadership relayed that information to him; he did not have actual statistics.

An AUB spokesman did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

John Llewellyn, a former Salt Lake County sheriff’s detective who oversaw complaints about polygamists and joined the AUB a few years after 1978, estimates the priesthood change prompted “dozens” of LDS families to convert but not hundreds.

Most of those families already had been curious about fundamentalism and completed their conversions because they didn’t think blacks should hold the priesthood, Llewellyn said. But a few AUB members sought out LDS men they already knew and thought would be agreeable to the AUB’s stance on the priesthood.

“They used it as a recruiting tool,” said Llewellyn, who left the AUB a few years after joining.

Whether hundreds of families or dozens defected to the AUB, either amount would have been insignificant to the global LDS Church but a boon to the AUB. By 2000, according to Hales’ research, the AUB was up to 6,000 members. By comparison, the mainstream Mormon church counts more than 16 million members today.
Still waiting for a revelation

With LDS temples now, in Owen Allred’s view, defiled, AUB leaders decided they needed to preserve the ordinances performed there.

They built an “endowment house” in Bluffdale in the 1980s, and, in the ’90s, a temple in Ozumba, Mexico.

Owen Allred died in 2005. The current AUB leader is Lynn Thompson.

Foster said AUB members have told him that blacks would be welcome in their church. Opposition to them holding the priesthood is based on scripture, he said, and not on a belief that they are intellectually, physically or culturally inferior.

“I really have not seen any indication of racism,” Foster said. “I really haven’t.”

Lynch, who runs the blog in which she posted the DNA question, said AUB “old-timers” like her still believe blacks should not hold the priesthood, though she points out that younger generations are more flexible.

She believes in treating blacks equally in secular life and hopes for the day when they do receive the priesthood. But that permission must come directly from God, a revelation she and other fundamentalists believe Kimball never received.

Said Lynch: “I do not believe myself any more of a racist than God.”

May 19, 2018

Clearwater approves land swap with Scientology after a year of back-and-forth

Two of the three parcels Scientology acquired in a land swap with the city Thursday abut the footprint of its proposed L. Ron Hubbard Hall auditorium on Court Street.

Tracey McManus

Tampa Bay Times

May 18, 2018

CLEARWATER — The third time was the charm for the city to close a long-debated real estate deal with the Church of Scientology.

After two previous deals were scuttled over more than a year of negotiations, the City Council voted 3-1 on Thursday night to give Scientology three small downtown properties in exchange for a vacant parking lot on Cleveland Street.
City Council member Hoyt Hamilton voted in opposition and Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell was absent.

The city plans to use its newly acquired lot, adjacent to the Nolen apartments at 949 Cleveland Street, as retail parking for businesses. Community Redevelopment Agency Director Amanda Thompson said the space was critical to recruit commercial tenants at the Nolen — which has struggled without a retail parking lot — and for the 15-story high-rise under construction across the street.
Scientology will acquire the former fire marshal building at 600 Franklin St., seven parking spaces at S Garden Avenue and Court Street, and nine parking spaces on Watterson Avenue.
The vacant lot the city will receive is worth $185,000 more than the three properties it’s giving up, according to the most recent appraisals.

The Franklin Street property and the Court Street parking spaces surround the footprint of Scientology’s proposed L. Ron Hubbard Hall auditorium.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment Thursday or previous questions about the church’s intention for the Watterson Avenue spaces, which are four blocks north of the other two properties.
Hamilton said although the city would be gaining higher valued property in the deal, he is uncomfortable doing business with Scientology since church officials have almost completely stopped communicating with city officials.

The city is working to revitalize downtown with restaurants, retail and a reshaped waterfront park. But Hamilton said Scientology is "not showing they are interested in the same things the people of Clearwater are."

"I would love for Scientology to prove me wrong when I say I’m not sure that’s what they want to see," he said. "I would welcome them to prove me wrong and show that I’m wrong.

"But because of the fact they’re not communicating with us right now, I’m not inclined to move forward with this land swap."
City Council member David Allbritton said he supported following through with the swap because last year the city requested that Scientology buy the Cleveland Street lot to then trade for the city properties. The church held up its end of the bargain, he said, but so far the city had not.

"If you tell somebody to do something, you ought to follow through on it," he said. "It’s really simple to me."

The City Council first turned down the land swap in June by a 4-1 vote, with Council member voting Bob Cundiff in opposition. Before the vote, engineering staff questioned — months after negotiations had already started — whether the city might need the three parcels in the future. At that time, Allbritton was not in office and then-council member Bill Jonson filled the Seat 4 slot on the council.

The proposal returned to the council in April after city staff cited an urgent need to acquire it for parking.

It died again when no one seconded a motion by Cundiff to declare the three city-owned properties surplus. Because they did not take that step, the contract for the land swap did not even get to a vote.

Allbritton, elected in March, later said he was confused about the process and did not understand that if the properties were not declared surplus he could not make a motion to reschedule the vote on the contract.
He said he was in favor of the swap but wanted more time to study the details. He requested the deal be placed on Thursday’s agenda for a third vote.

Allbritton also disagreed with Hamilton, stating he felt Scientology does desire a thriving downtown, just as the city does.

He considered the land swap a step towards that shared goal.
"I think they want to see a vibrant downtown as much as we do, but they can’t do it themselves and we can’t do it by ourselves," Allbritton said. "It’s been years and years that we’ve been butting heads with the church, and I think this may be the first step in trying to get this done together."

May 18, 2018

Police Raids Reported Against Jehovah’s Witnesses In Russia

May 17, 2018

Officials from the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization say Russian law enforcement officers have carried out “mass searches” on members’ homes in the Urals region of Orenburg and in the Far Eastern city of Birobidzhan.

Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York, said on May 17 that 150 law enforcement personnel raided more than 20 adherents’ homes in Birobidzhan, the capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region.

The raids came after searches had been carried out on May 16 in the Orenburg region near the border with Kazakhstan in which 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses were questioned and three were taken into custody, Lopes said.
The spokesman said a criminal case had been initiated against an adherent of the Christian sect, Alam Aliyev, and that a trial was expected on May 18.
Russia’s Supreme Court in July 2017 upheld a ruling that the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be considered an extremist organization, effectively banning the denomination from the country.

The original ruling, issued in April 2017, was the first time an entire registered religious organization had been prohibited under Russian law.
Long viewed with suspicion in Russia for their positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general, the Jehovah’s Witnesses -- which claim some 170,000 adherents in Russia and 8 million worldwide -- are among several denominations that have come under increasing pressure in recent years.

The sect began operating in Russia and across the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Russia's treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses has raised concerns from governments and religious organizations in the West.
“The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said after the Supreme Court ruling last year.

May 14, 2018

Daphne Bramham: A call for an amnesty on future prosecutions as two polygamists prepare for sentencing

Gail Blackmore (right) leaves court during a lunch break in her sentencing hearing. She was convicted of taking a 13-year-old girl into the United States to marry the now-imprisoned leader of a religious sect that practices plural marriage.
Vancouver Sun
May 13, 2018

As two convicted polygamists — 61-year-old Winston Blackmore and James Oler, 53 — prepare for their sentencing hearing Tuesday in B.C. Supreme Court in Cranbrook, there are growing concerns within the fundamentalist Mormon community that more people — both men and women — may be charged.

That fear is keeping some from fleeing the religious community of Bountiful in southeastern B.C. and from seeking help to make that transition, say several women who have left, according to a group called SafetyNet in the Kootenays.

Formed by women who have left the Bountiful community, the group is lobbying governments to provide more and better services to those who leave, including education, housing, legal assistance in gaining access to their children, and help in obtaining permanent residency for mothers who came here illegally from the United States.

They are also urging the federal and provincial government to declare an amnesty from prosecution for anyone who leaves.

Currently, about six people a year leave Bountiful and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose prophet, Warren Jeffs, continues to predict the end of the world and has ordered his followers not to have sex within marriage or even marry as long as he is in a Texas jail where he is serving sentence of life plus 25 years for sexually abusing under-aged girls, according to Esther Palmer.

She is one of SafetyNet’s founders. Palmer was deemed “unworthy” and asked to leave in 2011. One of 46 children and a mother of nine, Palmer was not only forced to leave behind several children as well many other family members, they are forbidden to speak to her because she is an apostate.

As difficult as it was to be cut off from family and lifelong friends, Palmer had the unique advantage of having an education and a profession. Most of her siblings and children have been denied that.

What they were taught was to fear the government, fear the police, and expect at any moment that authorities would come knocking to arrest fathers and separate mothers from their children.

That has never happened in Canada. But it did happen at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Tex. in 2014, and in Short Creek, Ariz. in 1953.

Even though this hasn’t been the route that Canada has taken, Palmer says that fear of reprisals remains a barrier to anyone thinking of leaving, especially women and children whose husbands and fathers may still have multiple wives.

In Canada, Blackmore and Oler were the first men in modern history to have been charged with the offence of polygamy, a law which dates back to the 1890s. And even those charges were nearly two decades in the making.

In the 1990s, Blackmore and Oler’s father, Dalmon, were investigated and RCMP recommended polygamy charges, but the attorney-general’s ministry refused to prosecute, saying that the polygamy law may be unconstitutional.

More than a decade later, Blackmore and James Oler were charged with one count each of polygamy. Those 2009 charges were stayed after a B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled that the special prosecutor who approved the charges had been improperly appointed.

It was only after B.C. and Canada got a ruling from the B.C. Supreme Court in 2011 that the RCMP was ordered to reopen its Bountiful investigations.

Blackmore and Oler were charged in August 2014 with one count each of polygamy.

There were 24 women listed on Blackmore’s indictment. Four were listed on Oler’s, but a fifth was added during the trial.

Oler was also charged with the unlawful removal of a child for illegal purposes along with Winston’s older brother, Brandon James Blackmore, and one of Brandon’s wives, Emily Ruth Gail Blackmore. Oler was acquitted, but the Crown is appealing. The Blackmores were found guilty. Brandon is serving his one-year jail term, while Gail is out pending her appeal, which will be heard along with Oler’s on June 20 and 21.

Gail Blackmore’s conviction has heightened anxiety among FLDS women since she is the first woman ever arrested on polygamy-related charges.

In the past, police and prosecutors have regarded women as victims. Certainly, the religion’s teachings leave little room for women and girls to make their own decisions. As Esther Palmer said when she testified against her brother, James Oler, at the removal trial, unquestioning obedience to husbands, fathers, church leaders and the prophet is the primary lesson for girls.

Two NDP MPs — Murray Rankin and Wayne Stetski, whose riding includes Bountiful — plan to raise the issue of an amnesty both in meetings with B.C. Attorney-General David Eby and the parliamentary committee that is debating Bill C-75, which amends the Criminal Code including the sections on polygamy, forced marriage, under-age marriage and “pretending to solemnize a marriage.”

If approved, all of those sections would continue to be considered as indictable offences with a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison. But they would also allow for summary convictions, which have maximum of only six months in jail and/or a fine of not more than $5,000.

While those amendments might provide some comfort to polygamists and their families — both those leaving and remaining — it may prove anathema to many British Columbians who have fought for years to try to protect Bountiful’s women and children from polygamy’s harms.

Twitter: @daphnebramham

2 members of secretive Word of Faith sect charged in unemployment scheme

Word of Faith Fellowship Church
Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr, Associated Press
Asheville Citizen-Times
May 11, 2018

ASHEVILLE - Two members of a secretive evangelical church in North Carolina were charged Friday in an unemployment benefits scheme that former congregants have said was part of plan to keep money flowing into the church despite the struggling economy.

As part of an ongoing investigation into physical and emotional abuse at the Word of Faith Fellowship Church in Spindale, the Associated Press reported in September that authorities were looking into the unemployment dealings of congregants and their businesses.

Dr. Jerry Gross, 72, and his son, Jason Lee Gross, 51, were charged with wire fraud in U.S. District Court in Asheville. They were both charged in a criminal bill of information, which generally means defendants have agreed to waive indictment and plead guilty. They will appear in court May 25.

Jerry Gross owned the Foot & Ankle Center of the Carolinas in Forest City. His son worked there, according to court records.

The U.S attorney's office said the scheme, from September 2009 to March 2013, netted nearly $150,000. The two made it appear that they had laid off employees, making them eligible for unemployment benefits, but prosecutors said the workers remained on the job.

AP cited 11 former congregants in September who said dozens of church members filed bogus claims at various times at the direction of church leaders.

Telephone and emails messages left for Jerry Gross' attorney, Walter C. Holton Jr., and Jason Gross's attorney, David Freedman, were not immediately returned Friday.

"This is a huge first step," said former congregant Ben Cooper, an attorney. "We hope there's more to come. They've hurt a lot of people."

Former congregant Randy Fields had told the AP that his construction company faced potential ruin around 2008 because of the cratering economy, so he pleaded with church leaders to reduce the amount of money he was required to tithe every week.

To his shock, Fields said church founder Jane Whaley proposed a plan that would allow him to continue contributing at least 10 percent of his income to the Word of Faith Fellowship while helping his company survive: He would file fraudulent unemployment claims on behalf of his employees. She called it, he said, "God's plan."

The unemployment allegations were uncovered as part of the AP's ongoing investigation into Word of Faith, which has about 750 congregants in rural North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 members in its branches in Brazil and Ghana and its affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.

In February 2017, the AP cited more than three dozen former Word of Faith Fellowship members who said congregants were regularly punched and choked in an effort to beat out devils. The AP also revealed how, over the course of two decades, followers were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse.

AP later outlined how Word of Faith created a pipeline of young laborers from its two Brazilian congregations who say they were brought to the U.S. and forced to work at businesses owned by church leaders for little or no pay.

Over the years, church leaders have owned and operated more than two dozen businesses.

Those stories led to investigations in the U.S. and Brazil.

As for the alleged unemployment scheme, interviews with former followers, along with documents reviewed by the AP, indicated at least six companies owned by leaders were involved with filing fraudulent unemployment claims between 2008 and 2013. Most of those businesses' employees are congregants, the AP found.

The AP reviewed individual checking account records that showed unemployment benefits deposited by the state, along with income tax records summarizing how much money some of the former followers interviewed received annually in such payments.

In North Carolina, companies pay a quarterly unemployment tax based on the number of their workers, with the money going into a fund used to pay out claims, according to Larry Parker, spokesman for the Division of Employment Security, which oversees the program.

When a worker files for unemployment, the agency checks with the employer to learn the reason. If an employer says a worker was let go because of the poor economy, payments usually are approved quickly, Parker said.

During the recession, which started in 2007 and was driven by the housing meltdown, laid-off workers could receive state and federal extensions increasing unemployment to 99 weeks with a maximum weekly check of $535. But in 2013, North Carolina legislators tied benefits to the state's unemployment rate. Currently, laid-off workers can receive up to 26 weeks of unemployment, with a maximum payment of $350 a week, Parker said.

And, he emphasized, a worker must have been laid off to collect unemployment.
"If a company is trying to make workers work while they collect unemployment, that's a potential fraud situation," Parker said.

The former congregants said that not only were they coerced into continuing to work while collecting unemployment, the money fell short of what they needed to pay their bills.

Weiss reported from Greenville, South Carolina, and Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.

May 11, 2018

A One-person Cult? A Japanese Dance Master Accused of Driving a Student to Suicide

Sharon Stern's parents believe a butoh master named Katsura Kan brainwashed and abused her
Shany Littman
May 10, 2018

A visitor must pass through two gates and by three guards at the entrance to the neighborhood where Hana and Tibor Stern live. Opposite the striking, spacious residence of these Israelis living in Hollywood, Florida, is a park with a lake. Many of the homes here have pools, and in some cases there's a yacht anchored behind the house. The Florida weather is warm, even on a late-winter day, and a particularly calm atmosphere envelops the neighborhood. But for the Sterns, the comfortable, protected bourgeois bubble that they created for themselves with hard work fell apart one night six years ago.

On April 25, 2012, Sharon Stern, their younger child ended her short life not far from her parents' home, in the area where she was born and grew up. In the two years that preceded her suicide, Sharon traveled the world, reaching as far away as possible, in every sense, from Hollywood, Florida. In those two years, her parents watched as she grew more distant from them, swept up in a swirling current whose nature they could not grasp. They saw her falling apart, physically and mentally. In the farewell note she left her family she wrote, "I'm sorry. I had to. Please tell my family I loved them. Can't survive the storm."

Since then, her parents have been fighting the person whom they allege fomented that storm in their daughter's soul, and whom they are convinced bears ultimate responsibility for her suicide. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit against him in the United States, claiming that their daughter was a victim of negligence and neglect and was denied medical treatment.

"I never believed that it was possible to lose a child to hostile outside forces like this," Tibor Stern says. "It's what's known as 'undue influence' – it could be hypnosis, brainwashing or happen through art. The result is that the family doesn't exist and your former life doesn't exist, only the guru exists. He is a supreme power. What he decides for you is what you do."

Enter the guru

Sharon, known affectionately as Sharoni, was born in Florida in 1979. Her parents, who are in their late 60s today, immigrated to the Miami area from Israel more than 40 years ago. Tibor Stern had been born in Czechoslovakia to parents who survived the Holocaust, and as a youth he came with them and his two siblings to Israel. He left in a fury after participating in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, feeling that the country was exacting too dear a price from him. He had just married Hana Kobi, from an old and well-known Tiberias family, and persuaded her that a better life awaited them in America.

When they arrived in Miami, the Israeli community there numbered just a few dozen people, the Sterns relate. Presently some 80,000 Israelis live in the greater Miami area, most of them prosperously.

The Sterns opened a diamond business and were successful at it. They had two children, Ronald and Sharon, born four years apart. By all accounts, not least the family stories and photos, Sharon was a happy, creative and vivacious girl. On her phone, her mother has videos of her doing imitations in different accents. In every social event she was the center of attention, a girl endowed with self-confidence, a sense of humor and a great love of acting and dancing. After completing Hillel Day School in Hollywood, a modern-Orthodox Jewish school, she attended the University of Miami. As such, she always remained close to her family and to her childhood friends.

Relations with her parents were close and unmarred by confrontations. From their point of view, she was perfect and obedient as a daughter, Daddy's little girl. "She was the smartest girl I knew – intelligent, strong, there were never any problems with her. She was the pillar of the group, an artist, an actress, a singer, she stood out at university. Family was always the top priority for her," her father says.

In her mid-20s, Sharon met Todd Siegel, a software engineer from a Jewish family in New York. They were married in 2007. It was a magical love story, their friends say. In 2008, Sharon decided to return to school and obtain a master's in fine arts. She chose Naropa University in Colorado, where the family has a summer house, and the couple moved there.

Naropa is a Buddhist-oriented private university that was founded in 1974 in the city of Boulder by exiled Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa. In 1988, Naropa became the first recognized Buddhist university in the world when it obtained accreditation from the higher education authorities in the United States. Advanced educational methods are employed, studies are often informal and in any case inspiring, former students say.

But Sharon's parents consider Naropa a very dangerous place. It was there that their daughter first became acquainted with butoh, a Japanese form of dance theater that developed in the late 1950s. She took part in workshops given by a butoh master from Kyoto, Katsura Kan, the stage name of Terugoshi Kotoura. Kan, now 70, is considered one of the world's leading practitioners of the dance form, and was a visiting teacher at Naropa.

Tibor Stern's anger spills over uncontrollably when he talks about Kan. "Kan had been a construction laborer in Japan, but when he came here it was a big thing. The guru had arrived," he recalls. According to Stern, after his daughter's suicide, he demanded that the university take responsibility for her death, but the institution said it could find no proof of inappropriate conduct by the teacher during the period when Sharon studied there.

Stern says he began to notice a difference in his daughter's behavior in her second year at Naropa. Kan, he says, made her cut herself off from her family so that he could consolidate his control over her: "Before that she used to speak to us a few times a day: 'Daddy, good morning, how are you, I miss home.' And suddenly, a week or two could pass in which she ignored us. She stopped being the considerate, caring girl we knew. Sometimes she would yell at us and at her husband, and she became irritable and distant. There wasn't much we could do – after all, she was already a married woman.

"We spoke to her husband and we warned him, and he said, 'Don't you trust your daughter?' He loved her very much and believed that she needed to apprentice herself to this distinguished teacher. She thought it was a spiritual dance through which you see the essence of life."

What did Katsura Kan promise her?

"He told her that she was very talented but not yet ready to dance solo, and that she would have to accompany him and learn from him. She became responsible for organizing their performances and trips internationally. I asked her if this was the goal of her life, to travel the world with him, and she said no, it was only until she could do a solo, which she could then put on her résumé. That's how she also submitted to giving him money and sex. In her diaries she calls him God."

'Heartless manipulator'

In 2010, after concluding her studies, Sharon began to accompany Kan in his worldwide trips to give performances and hold workshops. They travelled to San Francisco and to France, Japan, Russia, Brazil and other venues. In March 2011, they came to Israel, where Kan conducted a workshop and performed with local butoh artists. The visit was organized by L., an Israeli (she doesn't want her name to be used) who had studied at Naropa with Stern for two years and since returned to Israel.

L.: "I remember that they had very close relations, something with a great deal of light, happiness and movement, a kind of turn-on. Because she had an Israeli background and spoke Hebrew, we connected and truly loved each other. There was something pleasant in her voice and her body, something feminine and beautiful, with so much softness. From my point of view, one way, possibly superficial, to explain this story is the yearning for depth that many people have, especially in America and especially in Boulder."

According to L., who kept in touch with Sharon after she returned to Israel, her friend talked about butoh with great reverence and said she wanted to go deeper into it and was very impressed by Kan. "I myself wasn't wild about him in terms of the content of what he taught, it didn't seem deep to me," L. recalls. "But he gave Sharoni a platform. She created a performance of her own and asked me to dance in it. She devoted a great deal to it, but I felt that she still hadn't fully grasped its essence. The question of what Kan would think of it was always hovering above."

L. had kept in touch with Stern after returning to Israel. During the 2011 visit, L. says she had the sense that the relations between Sharon and Kan were close but at the same time tense. "She told me that it wasn't possible for them to have a relationship, 'but I always love him.'"

Katsura Kan, known cult leader, Nazi sympathizer and predator of students - דלג

After a few days in Thailand, Kan and Stern went to Indonesia, followed by Japan. Her parents say that Kan realized very quickly that her mental state had deteriorated and that he could not cope with it. "He saw that she was suffering mentally," says Stern, "so he tried to send her back, and accused us of sending him a sick woman."

In the civil suit against Kan, Sharon's parents accuse him of neglecting their daughter, and of preventing her from receiving treatment. The email correspondence between Kan and Sharon shows a tormented, unstable relationship – but also one with its own internal codes that weren't always fully understood by outside observers. Sharon's parents see the relationship as one big manipulation whose only purpose was exploitation.

"He drove her crazy, because she saw him as a god," Tibor Stern explains. "When she was already in love with him, as a person or as a guru, he abused her physically, financially and mentally. She asked him why he was also with other girls, and he said he didn't love anyone, for 'my truth is that I love myself.' On the one hand, he wrote her, 'we are long life partners for sure' and that he was the only thing she had in her life, and on the other hand he suddenly stopped answering emails. She wrote him that she wanted to die, and he asked her to send him money via a Kyoto bank."

Darkness and eroticism

It's not only Kan that the Sterns blame – they also accuse butoh itself. In their lawsuit they describe butoh as a collection of actions created to explore the taboos of pedophilia and homosexuality. "Butoh is a dance of pain, suffering and death," Tibor Stern asserts repeatedly. "The goal is to lose your personality and your authenticity." The website Families Against Cult Teachings, which Hana and Tibor Stern established, contains many photographs of Katsura Kan in performance, his body smeared in white, making seemingly threatening faces. But dancers who do butoh completely reject the idea that it is a cult or a dangerous art.

Psychic arrested for scamming clients out of more than $800K

Ann Thompson.Bob Nygaard
Emily Saul, Tina Moore, Kenneth Garger and Natalie Musumeci
NY Post
May 10, 2018

What’s in your future? A scam.

A self-proclaimed psychic in Midtown has been arrested for allegedly conning at least two vulnerable out-of-town clients out of more than $800,000 over the last five years, The Post has learned.

Ann Thompson, 42, who operated her years-long supernatural scheme under the name “Psychic Zoe” out of the second-story of a W. 35th building near Seventh Avenue, was finally nabbed Wednesday morning on charges of grand larceny, scheming to defraud and fortune-telling, authorities said.

Thompson, who represented herself as a renowned psychic medium and advertised $5 readings, told her victims they “needed to provide her with funds for a spiritual protection plan to ensure that family members would be protected,” an NYPD spokeswoman said.
“She assured them that the funds would be returned upon conclusion of the protection plan,” the spokeswoman said. “She refused to return the funds and said family would be in danger if funds were returned.”

Thompson, a New Jersey native, cheated one of her victims, a 49-year-old man from the Midwest, out of $72,000 after he visited the swindling psychic on Dec. 15, 2017, authorities said.
The man visited Thompson over the next week – and Thompson convinced him “that he was suffering from a number of psychic maladies which she could cure,” according to a Manhattan Criminal Court complaint.

Thompson then coerced the man into purchasing $72,000 worth of gold coins so that he could “place them in a special location at her temple which would cure his aura,” court documents show.

Thompson told the man he would have to “supply half the gold coins and that her temple would be willing to supply the other half,” the complaint says, adding that Thompson “promised” that by the end of the ritual or at any time he asked “either the gold coins or their full cash value would be returned.”

The two even signed a written contract stating the terms.
After the man consulted with his wife, he requested that his money be returned back to him like Thompson promised, but she refused, the court papers say.

Thompson pulled the same trick on another victim, a woman in her 40s from Canada, who she swindled more than $740,000 over the course of more than four years from 2013 to 2017.
The woman first visited Thompson’s second-floor parlor on Feb. 14, 2013 and during that visit Thompson told the woman that “she was in great danger,” according to court documents.

The two then developed a relationship and Thompson told the victim she needed her to purchase gold coins and other items “which would be set up in a room at [Thompson’s] temple which would help protect [the victim] from danger.”

Thompson assured the woman that everything placed at the temple was the woman’s property and that “the temple was not making any profit” in a written contract.

The woman was conned out of the hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next few years before she realized that that Thompson was a fraud, court documents say.
Ann Thompson

Both victims hired private investigator Bob Nygaard, who specializes in the apprehension pf psychic scammers, he said. Nygaard started working the case in 2016 and a formal police report was made last month.

According to Nygaard, “Thompson claimed that she needed to use money and various items to perform rituals to vanquish evil spirits, demons, and curses that were allegedly plaguing the victims and various members of the victims’ families.”

A part-time employee who works for Thompson at the second-floor Manhattan storefront claimed she had no idea her boss was defrauding clients out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“She is a very nice, generous person. She wasn’t bad,” Ashley Marks, 26 told The Post, adding that the Thompson’s business “has been very quiet, not a lot of people coming in.”

“I never heard anything” regarding the accusations, Marks said.
At Thompson’s Manhattan Criminal Court arraignment, she was ordered held on $50,000 bail.

Her next court date is scheduled for June 27.

May 8, 2018

The Conflict between Federal Agents and the Branch Davidians - free downloads

Due to interest, UC Press Journals has made the articles in the special virtual issue on The Conflict between Federal Agents and the Branch Davidians available for free download through May 31, 2018.

Here is the link to the special virtual issue.

This special virtual issue of Nova Religio contains 8 articles.

Recommended are 8 other articles on the Branch Davidians published in Nova Religio.

The Story of This Drug Rehab-Turned-Violent Cult Is Wild, Wild Country-Caliber Bizarre

From forced sterilization to attempted murder by rattlesnake bite, Synanon has a wild legacy
Hillel Aron L.A. History, Religion
Los Angeles Magazine
April 23, 2018

Christopher Bathum had no formal training in addiction treatment. He was a licensed hypnotherapist, a wild-haired oddball and convicted felon who was sued in 2010 for sexually assaulting a female patient in a rehab program he cofounded, Seasons. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount, and Bathum was allowed to start another treatment center, and then another. That enterprise, Community Recovery, would grow into a chain of 20 sober-living homes and outpatient clinics in California and Colorado. It was a tight-knit, insular community. Patients became interns, interns became employees, employees would relapse and then return to being patients. More than a few former “clients,” as they were known, referred to Community Recovery as a kind of cult.

In February 2018 Bathum was convicted of rape and 30 other counts of sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and giving his patients crystal meth and heroin. He faces another trial for 46 counts of insurance fraud.

When I first wrote about Bathum in 2015 for L.A. Weekly, I considered him an outlier, a bad actor in an otherwise decent industry that has helped countless people, including me: I spent 30 days in a rehab in 2003 and seven months in a West L.A. sober-living home. But once the story ran, I received a flood of emails and phone calls with stories of other facilities engaged in misdeeds. Perhaps those misdeeds weren’t as bad or on the same scale as Bathum’s, but far too many people seemed to cite them. As retired insurance investigator Deb Herzog told me, “The way the system is set up now, it’s just a breeding ground for fraud.” Or as recovery historian William White wrote in 1998, “The failure to define and enforce clear ethical standards governing our business practices has long rendered the addiction treatment field a predator’s paradise.”

How long should addicts stay in inpatient care? What are the most effective treatment methods? Should patients be medicated? These questions have lingered since the beginnings of modern addiction treatment. Well into the 1950s, addicts were considered hopelessly incurable. If they were treated at all, it was by doctors in hospitals. More often than not, they were sent to jail.

Synanon changed all that. Though not the first rehab, Synanon did much to convince the American public that addicts could be saved. It pioneered the idea of the ex-addict as drug counselor and of “tough love” therapy, and it invented a culture of recovery to replace the culture of street junkies. Members went on to found or play key roles in establishing numerous drug treatment centers and therapeutic communities of their own, including Tuum Est in Venice, Delancey Street in San Francisco, Amity in Tucson, Phoenix House in New York City, and Daytop Village in Queens, New York. In turn, graduates of those programs would go on to start their own facilities, carrying with them traces of the Synanon approach.

But there was nothing quite like Synanon. Launched in a dingy Santa Monica storefront in 1958 by Charles Dederich, it eventually operated centers up and down California, morphing into a utopian community, then a religion and a cult with more than $30 million in assets and upwards of 1,300 followers. True believers shaved their heads, wore overalls, and lived together at Synanon compounds, professing an almost slavish obedience to Dederich, no matter how brutal his methods.

Paul Morantz was one of the few who tried to warn the world about Synanon. The journalist turned lawyer first sued the organization in 1977 on behalf of Frances and Ed Winn, who claimed that Frances had been kidnapped, brainwashed, and tortured by the group “for purposes of financial gain…despite her emotional instability.” They were awarded a $300,000 judgment. Morantz worked obsessively to get other members out, lobbying the Marin County supervisors and the state Department of Public Health to crack down on Synanon. He was scared; he knew Dederich was capable of violence. An apostate Synanon member had nearly been beaten to death. Morantz figured that his own name must be high on Dederich’s hit list. Threatening phone calls were coming at all hours of the night, but what really concerned him was when the threats stopped.

Morantz bought a shotgun. Constantly looking over his shoulder, he’d check under his car for bombs before getting in. He was exhausted. So as Morantz returned to his small home in Pacific Palisades the evening of October 11, 1977, he was eager to turn on the TV and relax over Game 1 of the World Series—the Dodgers versus the Yankees. “For one moment I’m not going to think about Synanon,” he told himself. “I’m just going to watch the baseball game.” Morantz placed his notebooks on the kitchen table and walked to the mail slot by his front door. Through the grill of the mailbox, he could see the outline of an unusually shaped package—a scarf, perhaps; it was hard to tell without his glasses.

Morantz remembers not so much the pain as the rattlesnake sank its fangs into his outstretched hand, but the regret. “They don’t get me with this. I’m not that stupid,” he was thinking. Then he heard a scream and realized it was his own. The four-and-a-half foot reptile, its rattler removed to keep it quiet, dropped to the floor and recoiled. Morantz dashed out the back door, yelling, “Call the police! Call an ambulance! I’ve been bitten by a rattlesnake! It’s Synanon! Synanon got me!”

Word of the attack quickly went national. News anchor Walter Cronkite called it “bizarre even by cult standards.” In time Morantz would have his revenge, laying bare a grim tale whose genesis could be traced, appropriately enough, to an LSD experiment.

Acollege droupout and a drunk, Charles Dederich bounced from job to job, marrying, divorcing, and marrying again. Then he took part in an experiment at UCLA testing LSD as a cure for alcoholism. Speaking to an oral historian documenting Synanon’s short history in 1962, Dederich called it “the most important single experience in my entire life,” crediting the drug with unlocking a newfound confidence. “I became a different person, really and truly,” he said. “Everything that has happened to me since—Synanon, everything—dates from that point.”

Born in 1913 in Toledo, Ohio, Dederich was four when his alcoholic father died in a car accident. His mother raised him as a devout Roman Catholic. “I believed, literally, that I would go to hell if I didn’t go to church on Sundays,” Dederich recalled. But when he was 14, he read his stepfather’s copy of H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History and “became a militant atheist, almost overnight.” Soon after, he began drinking.

Easily bored, Dederich wasn’t one for learning or for working. He spoke in a growl and was overweight, the right side of his bulldog face drooping from a near-fatal bout of meningitis at 29. Dederich came out west to Santa Monica at 40, his second marriage in mid-collapse. He floundered for three years in the ocean breeze before walking into his first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Partway through, Dederich marched to the podium and shared with the group. People listened. They laughed, they applauded. Dederich was hooked. “I went from one AA meeting to another every night,” he told psychiatrist Daniel Casriel, one of a number of social scientists to write books on Synanon in the 1960s. “That’s all I did…. I was the first one to speak, and I’d speak all night unless they stopped me.”

After the acid experiment in 1957 (he was one year sober at the time), Dederich became a voracious reader of philosophy and psychology. Looming especially large were the nonconformity espoused by Emerson in “Self-Reliance” and the utopian notions put forth by Thoreau and Skinner. Dederich was living on $33-a-week unemployment checks, and he began to taper off from AA. When other recovering alcoholics checked up on him, Dederich would engage them in impromptu meetings. Equal parts grad-school symposiums and combative group-therapy sessions, those get-togethers became thrice-weekly affairs.

Then one day a young heroin addict named Whitey Walker, fresh out of prison, joined the group. As he began inviting other “dope fiends” to the mix, the language grew coarser, the cross talk more aggressive. Dederich loved it. The sessions became known as “synanons,” a portmanteau of “symposium” (or perhaps “seminar”) and “anonymous.” Dederich, who provided couches for people to crash on as they kicked heroin, would come to believe that addicts weren’t full-fledged adults and shouldn’t be treated as adults. The younger addicts took to calling him Dad.

When the gatherings grew too large for Dederich’s apartment, he leased a storefront in Ocean Park for $100 a month. The same year, 1958, the group incorporated as a nonprofit. Convinced that his creation was an innovation on par with the alphabet, Dederich predicted it would be as famous as Coca-Cola. The city didn’t see it that way. Its inspectors declared the building wasn’t up to code and had it bulldozed. Dederich moved his flock of 65 or so members to the old National Guard Armory building on the beach in Santa Monica, which drew the ire of neighbors (NIMBYism being a time-honored tradition on the Westside). Ten days after moving, Dederich and three others were arrested for treating drug addicts without a license and “operating a hospital in a residential zone,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “Apparently,” Dederich told reporters, “we started saving lives on the wrong side of town.” He spent 25 days in jail.

Thus began the media’s decade-long enchantment with Synanon. Early on, the Los Angeles Times ran a two-part feature on the group. The Los Angeles Mirror published a four-part series. A 14-page photo spread in Lifemagazine, hailing Synanon as “a tunnel back into the human race,” was followed by a glowing write-up in Time magazine, which repeated Dederich’s dubious claim that 80 percent of addicts treated by Synanon stayed clean. Reporters loved Dederich, who proved eminently quotable (he would later be credited with coining the saying “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”). “Crime is stupid, delinquency is stupid, and the use of narcotics is stupid,” he told The New York Times. “What Synanon is dealing with is addiction to stupidity.”

Bill Lane was a 20-year-old junkie living in Brooklyn when his mother heard about Synanon on TV. “There was no such thing as a drug rehab in those days,” says Lane today. “There was no help. You got busted, you went to prison.” He arrived at the Santa Monica compound in 1962 with no money. “When I first got there, I was sick. There was no medication. You kicked on the couch in the middle of the living room…. I just got caught up in what was going on. In all honesty, I loved it. I had a fabulous experience. It saved my life.”

Every Saturday night Synanon threw a huge party, open to the public, with a jazz band. “It was the biggest thing in L.A.!” says Lane. But life centered around synanons, which became known as Games or simply the Game, where members would sit in a circle and call people out on their secrets, their dishonesties, their hypocrisies.

“[I was] terrified by them, fascinated by them, enjoyed them, hated them, I just ran the whole gamut of emotions with those damn things,” Betty Dederich would later tell a Synanon interviewer. Before becoming Charles’s third wife, Betty Coleman was a prostitute and a junkie. “I think I stayed those first two or three days just out of total fascination,” she said of her first encounter with Synanon, in 1959. “I was sick as a dog, I was going through the usual withdrawal symptoms and everything, but I was just fascinated…. I had never been around addicts, and such a strange motley lot, you know, of people. It was a weird scene, I got caught up in it.” Coleman would relapse a number of times, but she always returned, eventually marrying Dederich.

U.S. Senator Thomas J. Dodd declared that Synanon could “lead the way in the future to an effective treatment for not only drug addicts but also criminals and juvenile delinquents.” Social scientists flocked to see for themselves, while Hollywood came out with the film Synanon in 1965, starring Edmond O’Brien as Charles and Eartha Kitt as Betty.

Ten years after its founding, Synanon boasted at least 1,100 members and was receiving $2.5 million a year in donations. It had $7 million worth of real estate in Santa Monica, West L.A., San Diego, San Francisco, Tomales Bay, Reno, Detroit, New York City, and Puerto Rico, owned a number of gas stations, and ran a $1 million-a-year specialty advertising business that sold pens and office supplies bearing the Synanon logo. Salesmen implored Fortune 500 companies to “buy from Synanon and save a life.”

“It was a whole lot more positive than everything else that was going on in 1970,” says Phil Ritter, who entered the Bay Area branch of Synanon as a nonaddict, or a “square,” in search of an alternative lifestyle. “There was a lot of drugs around, a lot of negativity.” He sold his car, moved into the eight-story Synanon building in downtown Oakland, and shaved his head, a practice that had begun as a punishment and a way to haze newcomers but was becoming more or less the norm. (Many Synanon members would appear with shaved heads as extras in George Lucas’s dystopian science-fiction film, THX 1138.) Working as a mechanic at a Synanon-owned auto repair shop, he made $50 a month.

Few noticed, but the Synanon mission had been shifting. In 1969 the organization dropped the goal of “graduation.” From then on, addiction could be treated only by keeping addicts within the fold. Synanon began to welcome nonaddicts like Ritter, too, and Dederich suggested that he was “getting out of the dope-fiend business.” He created the “punk squad,” a sort of boot camp devoted to disciplining “juvenile delinquents” sent to Synanon by their parents and the courts. And the organization began marketing the Game as a new kind of therapy.

“Synanon rebranded itself in the 1970s from a drug treatment program to a psychotherapy program and started attracting middle-class people through the Synanon Game,” says sociologist Richard Ofshe, who spent time in the organization studying it as a nonresident. By the early 1970s, some 3,400 squares in California, New York, and Detroit were paying cash to participate in Games. It was the heyday of the human-potential movement, when Americans were rushing off to therapists’ couches, new-age movements like est, religions like the Divine Light Mission, alternative communities like Esalen, and cults like the People’s Temple and Synanon—many of which began in California.

Dederich would often say Synanon was an “experimental society,” or as he put it when he was deposed by Morantz, “an ever-changing group with ever-changing goals, thrusts, directions, and so on.” After Dederich moved to Marin County, he started wearing overalls. The trend spread until the attire was all but mandatory. When Dederich quit his three-pack-a-day habit in 1970, he decreed that everybody else would quit, too—a decision that had a financial benefit, since Synanon had been spending $250,000 a year on cigarettes.

A greater financial benefit arrived in 1974, when the organization was granted religious status by the federal government. The idea came from Dederich’s consigliere, attorney Dan Garrett, who saw a benefit beyond the tax advantage: Being a religion might mean Synanon wouldn’t need to be licensed. He also pointed out that it would “eliminate a number of silly questions such as ‘When do they graduate?’ and ‘Why do they have to obey?’ Nobody ‘graduates’ from a religion.”

Naturally, Dederich loved the idea, as did the Synanon board, which unanimously approved the plan, though on one copy of Garrett’s proposal, someone wrote: “Who will be God?”

If the first phase of Synanon was about curing addiction, and the second phase was about creating a utopian community for the middle class, the third phase was all about making money. Synanon adopted the slogan “The People Business,” and what a business it was. By the end of 1976, it had assets worth $22 million, with $8 million in annual revenue coming largely from its specialty advertising division as well as a mortgage business one member had donated and cash contributions from squares. Synanon owned 5,500 acres of property, including the six-story Del Mar Club in Santa Monica (the Casa Del Mar hotel today), a cluster of nearby apartment buildings, three large compounds in Marin County, and another in Badger, California, which also had an airstrip. Add to that a fleet of 200 cars, 400 motorcycles, 62 freight trucks, 20 boats, and 12 airplanes, along with $1 million invested in the stock market. By 1977 Dederich was drawing an annual salary of $100,000 (roughly $400,000 in today’s money) and received a $500,000 “pre-retirement bonus.”

“A lot of guys could do this thing from an old Ford roadster and sit on an orange crate. They’re holy men; I’m not. I need a $17,000 Cadillac,” he told Time magazine that year. “Did you ever play King of the Mountain when you were a kid?” he went on to say. “I liked King of the Mountain. I won. I won. I was there firstest with the mostest. I was the smartest, I was older than the rest of the guys. I won. I won. The gang does not expect me to, well let me, let me say this terribly unforgivable thing that is true of all people in position: I am not bound by the rules. I make the rules in very peculiar ways.”

One rule: Don’t cross Charles Dederich. When the San Francisco Examinercalled Synanon the “Racket of the Century,” the organization sued, forcing the Hearst-run newspaper to pay $600,000 and run a front-page apology. Synanon later sued a local ABC station, which settled, and Time magazine, which called Synanon a “kooky cult” in that 1977 story. Reporters were threatened. Time’s editor-in-chief was stopped outside his apartment by two men with shaved heads, who told him, “We are going to ruin your life.”

“I don’t know what these people might do,” Dederich said to a television reporter. “I don’t know what action they might take against the people responsible, their wives, their children…. Bombs could be thrown into odd places, into the homes of some of the clowns who occupy high places in the Time organization.”

Synanon had a private security force and formed a paramilitary group, the Imperial Marines, that developed its own type of martial arts (“syn-do”) and by 1978 amassed an arsenal of hundreds of guns. “We’re concerned about the rising crime rate,” a Synanon newsletter explained. “If trouble should occur, we’re prepared to handle it.”

But if anything, Synanon was increasing the crime rate. In 1975 three members admitted to assaulting a Marin County rancher. Dederich hailed them as heroes. Another rancher was pistol-whipped. In Santa Monica, Synanites beat up two black couples who had parked their car at a Synanon apartment building. Nonviolence, Dederich said at a press conference, “was just a position. We can change positions any time we want to.”

And he often delivered those positions through endless monologues, broadcast to Synanon facilities over “the Wire,” a lower-power FM radio station. In 1976 Dederich decreed that members should stop having kids, saying, “I think children are a very bad investment.” The long rant betrayed an astonishing contempt for his followers: “All the dummies, you, you, you, all of you, you all just sit there and as this organization gets richer and fatter and more fun to be in and more powerful, you love that, but you’re all alike. You’re all alike. You sit there mum when I make these speeches.” It revealed, too, how Dederich saw himself: “I have done exactly like the rest of the guys that run the world. I could have run a state, a country, a city, it doesn’t make any difference. I’m one of those guys. I know that magic.”

After the no-children mandate, women were encouraged to have abortions. (“Having an abortion is like squeezing a boil, nothing more,” Dederich said.) Men were pressured into getting vasectomies (80 such operations took place in 1976). “There were literally endless, ongoing, intense attack sessions going on, focused on males who refused to get vasectomies,” says Ofshe. “As soon as they gave in, they’d walk into the next room, and there were doctors waiting to give them vasectomies.”

Phil Ritter was disturbed by the mass sterilization. When he spoke against it in a Game, he told me, “The general reaction was, ‘If you don’t want to do it, pack your bags.’” He went to the Marin County sheriff’s office, thinking, “Surely there had to be a law against that sort of thing.” There wasn’t. The authorities informed Synanon attorneys, who told Ritter not to come back, leaving his wife and child behind.

The next big rule was handed down after Betty died in 1977. Dederich, who was 64, wanted to remarry. “I sent up a flare, like any monarch of old times would have done,” he told reporters. “I let the word out I was available.” Of the six women who applied for the opening, Dederich chose Ginny Schoren, a 31-year-old teacher at one of Synanon’s schools. Shortly thereafter, Dederich decided that marriage should no longer be permanent; couples were told to split up and form new, three-year-long “love matches.” Within days, 230 couples had filed for divorce. Among the people filing was Ritter’s wife. Making matters worse, Synanon was restricting how often Ritter could visit their three-year-old daughter. He filed a motion to be allowed to see her more.

One day as Ritter was returning home from the supermarket, two young men approached him. Without saying a word, they beat him with wooden mallets, leaving him on the ground, bleeding, with a fractured skull. They didn’t even take his wallet. The attack was among at least 18 that the California attorney general’s office eventually linked to Synanon.

Paul Morantz always wanted to be a writer, but a girlfriend had convinced him to go to law school as a backup. He had success in fields, writing for magazines like Rolling Stoneand for a made-for-TV-movie. But he gained even more distinction as an attorney, suing a group of nursing homes that were kidnapping homeless alcoholics, shooting them up with Thorazine, and collecting Medicare and Medicaid for treating them. The nursing home case was all-consuming. He planned to get back to writing. But in June of 1977, he received a call from Ed Winn.

Ed’s wife, Frances, had a history of psychosis. When Ed noticed that she appeared to be on the verge of another episode, he planned to take her to a treatment center later, after he returned from work. So before leaving, he told her to go to the Venice Family Clinic for a tranquilizer to hold her over. The clinic, however, suggested Frances go to Synanon. She went, thinking she was going in for a simple counseling session. But within minutes of walking through the doors, she found herself being shorn by someone with an electric razor. She was screamed at as part of the Game, told her husband didn’t want her, that only Synanon could help. The next day, Frances was shipped by bus to a facility in Tomales Bay. This, she was told, was her new home. Ed had no idea. When he went to visit her, thinking she was still in Santa Monica, he was informed that he couldn’t see her for 90 days.

The story tugged at Morantz. He called one of his contacts at the Department of Public Health and asked what Synanon was licensed for. The voice on the other end of the phone dropped to a whisper. “Synanon is not licensed,” he said.

“How can it not be licensed?” asked Morantz.

“We don’t understand it either,” the health official said. “And they don’t let us in.” Back in the ’60s, when Synanon was charged with running a hospital without a license, Governor Pat Brown signed a law clarifying that Dederich’s brand of drug treatment wasn’t medical care per se and didn’t need a license. But the bill didn’t specify anything about treating mental illness, which meant Synanon could be in trouble for taking in Frances. Morantz pressured Synanon to release her. When he and Ed Winn went to pick her up, they saw a sea of people with shaved heads and overalls. Smiling. It gave Morantz goose bumps.

Something was seriously wrong. “I had a sense,” Morantz recalls today, “that everything in the 31 years of my life that had happened previously was all pointed toward this moment, this time, that this was going to be the test that I think I always wanted to have.” Morantz effectively declared war on Synanon that day. And Synanon responded in kind.

Rumor had it that Dederich could be heard over Synanon’s private radio network, ranting, “Who is this guy Morantz?… Why doesn’t someone break his legs?” In a recording of a speech later seized by the LAPD, Dederich fumed, “We are not going to mess with the old-time ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ religious posture. We’re going to—our religious posture is, ‘Don’t mess with us. You can get killed, dead—physically dead. We either have a good thing here or we don’t. If we have a good thing here, then we are not going to permit people, like greedy lawyers, to destroy it.”

To this day, there is disagreement over whether Dederich ordered the violence perpetrated by Synanon members or merely stoked their rage. Former Synanon attorney Phillip Burdette insists it was the latter. But three declarations, written in 1983 by three Synanon officials in exchange for immunity from prosecution, stated that Imperial Marines prepared a “hit list” of Synanon “enemies” that was approved by Dederich’s assistant, Walter Lewbel. The hit list included former Synanon president Jack Hurst (whose guard dog was found hanged), Phil Ritter, and Paul Morantz. They alleged that security chief Art Warfield had directed Imperial Marine Joe Musico, a Vietnam vet, to find a hit man to kill Morantz; when Musico reported the job would cost $10,000, Synanon executives deemed the price too high and ordered the Marines to “take care of Morantz” themselves.

In a subsequent deposition, Dederich claimed to have a “very dim memory of 1977” due to a series of strokes, but he said, “Most of what Synanon did in 1977, at least what I knew about, I approved of because as I pointed out before over and over again, I’m one hell of a good executive and not too much ever went on in the organization that I ran that I didn’t approve of. I don’t know everything that went on, of course.”

According to the three declarations, Lewbel was the one who directed Musico and Alan Hubbard to attack Phil Ritter; and Lewbel who ordered Musico and Lance Kenton (the son of jazz musician Stan Kenton) to travel to Los Angeles and plant the rattlesnake in Morantz’s mailbox. The day after the attack, police arrested Musico and Kenton. A month later, Los Angeles prosecutor John Watson and 30 law enforcement officials descended on Synanon’s new $1 million compound in Lake Havasu to arrest Dederich on the charge of conspiracy to commit murder. They found him, according to Watson, “in a stupor, staring straight ahead, an empty bottle of Chivas Regal in front of him.” He was so drunk that he had to be carried o to jail in a stretcher.

In 1980 Dederich pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit murder. He was fined $10,000, sentenced to five years of probation (Morantz agreed to let Dederich avoid prison time, owing to his poor health), and barred from having any affiliation with Synanon. Absent its charismatic leader, the group floundered. The IRS revoked its tax-exempt status and ordered Synanon to pay $17 million. In the lengthy court battle that ensued, Morantz provided hundreds of documents he’d unearthed that implicated Dederich and other Synanon officials in criminal acts (those documents became the foundation of Morantz’s book on Synanon, From Miracle to Madness). The court finally ruled against Synanon in 1984, finding that it had a “policy of terror and violence” and a practice of diverting “corporate resources for the enrichment of individuals.” Synanon declared bankruptcy and, in 1991, formally dissolved, though a branch carries on in Germany.

Phil Ritter eventually reunited with his wife and daughter after they left Synanon in 1978. And Morantz still lives in Pacific Palisades. At age 72, he has neuropathy, arthritis, and a blood disease he believes may be an artifact from the snakebite attack. “I’m going to set the record,” he tells me, “for the longest murder ever.”

After being convicted, Dederich moved with his wife, Ginny, into a double-wide mobile home in Visalia. He died in 1997, a few weeks shy of his 84th birthday. He was saluted on the floor of the House of Representatives by Bay Area congressman (and future Oakland mayor) Ron Dellums.

“Dederich distinguished himself in the area of drug rehabilitation and amassed great wealth before his organization was associated with violence and tax problems,” declared Dellums. “His approach to rehabilitating drug addicts has become a major paradigm for drug recovery and therapeutic communities the world over.”

May 7, 2018

Peering into the meditation mind

Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews

Some people swear by it, but studies of mindfulness have a long way to go

Bruce Lieberman
From Knowable Magazine
May 7, 2018

In late 1971, US Navy veteran Stephen Islas returned from Vietnam, but the war continued to rage in his head. “I came very close to committing suicide when I came home, I was that emotionally and mentally damaged,” Islas remembers. At his college campus in Los Angeles, a friend suggested he check out a meditation class. He was sceptical, but he found that before long “there were moments that started shifting, where I was happy. I would experience these glimpses of calmness.”

Forty-six years later, Islas says that he has never completely freed himself from his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was formally diagnosed in 2000 at the Veterans Affairs (VA) West Los Angeles Medical Center. But he’s convinced that meditation has saved his life.

Various forms of meditation are now routinely offered to veterans with PTSD. It’s also touted as a therapeutic tool to help anyone suffering from conditions and disorders including stress, anxiety, depression, addiction and chronic pain. More broadly, meditation has come into vogue as a way to enhance human performance, finding its way into classrooms, businesses, sports locker rooms and people’s smartphones through Internet apps like Headspace and Calm.

‘Mindfulness’ meditation, a type of meditation that focuses the mind on the present moment, is wildly popular. It has even become a billion-dollar business.

For all its popularity, however, it’s still unclear exactly what mindfulness meditation does to the human brain, how it influences health and to what extent it helps people suffering from physical and mental challenges. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, but psychologists and neuroscientists have studied it for only a few decades.

Some studies suggest that meditation can help people relax, manage chronic stress and even reduce reliance on pain medication. Some of the most impressive studies to date involve a treatment called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which combines meditation with psychotherapy to help patients deal with thoughts that lead to depression.

Randomized controlled trials have shown that the approach significantly reduces the risk of depression relapse in individuals who have previously had three or more major depressive episodes.

But many other studies on the effects of meditation have used only small numbers of subjects, lacked follow-up and generally been less scientifically rigorous than other medical studies – clinical trials for new drugs, for example.
A 2017 article that assessed evidence on meditation as a treatment for PTSD summed up the overall state of affairs: “This line of research is in its relative infancy.”

While questions about the clinical outcomes of meditation persist, other studies have focused on a more fundamental issue: does meditation physically change the brain? It’s a tough question to answer, but as brain imaging techniques have advanced and meditation interventions have grown more popular, scientists have begun to take a systematic look at what’s going on.

Seeking stillness

Meditation that requires one to sit still and focus on the mere act of breathing can encourage mindfulness, says psychologist David Creswell, who directs the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

But most people spend most or all of their day being anything but mindful. They skip from one thought to another. They daydream. They ruminate about the past, and they worry about the future. They self-analyse and self-criticise.

In a 2010 study, Harvard researchers asked 2,250 adults about their thoughts and actions at moments throughout their day via an iPhone app. People’s minds wandered 47% of the time and mind wandering often triggered unhappiness, the scientists reported in Science.

The capacity to be mindful is associated with higher well-being in daily life – David Creswell

“In contrast, the capacity to be mindful is associated with higher well-being in daily life,” Creswell wrote in the 2017 Annual Review of Psychology. He cites a 2003 study showing a correlation between mindfulness and a number of indicators of well-being.

When people who meditate say they are paying attention to the present moment, they may be focused on their breathing, but maybe also on an emotion that surfaces and then passes, a mental image, inner chatter or a sensation in the body. “Adopting an attitude of openness and acceptance toward one’s experience is critical” to becoming more mindful, Creswell says. The idea is to be view these moments with a detached and non-judgmental curiosity.
Creswell first became interested in mindfulness meditation when he took courses on psychology and Buddhism in high school. Later, in graduate school, he began studying meditation in connection with reducing stress and improving overall health.

“As a scientist, I’m never convinced. I’ve been trained to be sceptical,” Creswell says. “Nonetheless, I do think that there were a number of experiences I had while on meditation retreats that really struck me as very foundational.”Even the simple but challenging act of sitting still for an hour while meditating made a great impact on Creswell. “Having this disconnect between my body feeling in pain but my mind being completely silent and open… these were very powerful insights for me about how a [meditation] practice could really change people’s lives, or fundamentally change how they relate to suffering in their lives,” he says. “There wasn’t a bolt-of-lightning moment for me, but a lot of these moments of insight in my own retreat experiences that suggested to me that it was worth spending time and effort to do the science.”
People from different religious, cultural and philosophical backgrounds have expounded the benefits of meditation for millennia. Meditation is perhaps most commonly associated with Buddhism, which views it as an instrument for achieving spiritual fulfilment and peace. Creswell calls the act of meditation “a basic feature of being human.”

But the scientific evidence for its benefits is still lacking.

Mindfulness-based therapies have shown a mixture of only moderate, low or no efficacy, depending on the disorder being treated

“There is a common misperception in public and government domains that compelling clinical evidence exists for the broad and strong efficacy of mindfulness as a therapeutic intervention,” a group of 15 scholars wrote in a recent article entitled Mind the Hype. The reality is that mindfulness-based therapies have shown “a mixture of only moderate, low or no efficacy, depending on the disorder being treated,” the scholars wrote, citing a 2014 meta-analysis commissioned by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Much more research is needed before scientists can say what mental and physical disorders, in which individuals, can be effectively treated with mindfulness meditation, they concluded.

Mudra mind

Alongside clinical work, neuroscientists have wanted to know how, if at all, meditation might change what actually happens inside the brain. Does meditation make certain regions more active than others, or more robustly connect one region to another? Does meditation result in new neurons, actually changing brain structure? Some studies suggest the answer is yes.

Mindfulness meditation may spark neuroplastic renovations in the brain’s function and structure

Neuroscientists have studied the physical effects of mindfulness meditation using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other techniques for the last two decades. Progress has followed on the growing recognition that the human brain is capable of physical changes throughout adulthood, even into old age – forming new connections and growing new neurons when someone learns a new skill, challenges themselves mentally or even just exercises. The emerging view of a brain that can be continually shaped through experience, dubbed neuroplasticity, replaced the long-held idea that after the first few decades of life, the brain’s physiological trajectory was basically one of decline. A number of brain studies suggest that mindfulness meditation may spark neuroplastic renovations in the brain’s function and structure.

Looking under the hood with fMRI, scientists have found that mindfulness meditation activates a network of brain regions that includes the insula (associated with compassion, empathy and self-awareness), the putamen (learning) and portions of the anterior cingulate cortex (regulating blood pressure, heart rate and other autonomic functions) and the prefrontal cortex (the hub of higher-order thinking skills such as planning, decision-making and moderating social behaviour).

It’s uncertain, however, whether these changes in brain activity can be sustained when the individual is not actively meditating, and if so how much people need to meditate for that to happen.

When it comes to actual structural changes in the brain, some studies suggest that mindfulness meditation may increase grey matter density in the hippocampus, a brain region essential to memory. Researchers including Britta Hölzel, now at the Technical University of Munich, and Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital found evidence for this in a 2011 study.
Though intriguing, these studies are nowhere near the end goal. “We need to understand the benefits that the changes in the brain have on behaviour and well-being,” Hölzel says. “‘Changing the brain’ sounds very impressive, but we don’t understand what it actually means.”

Lazar agrees. “Most of the data has only looked at changes over the course of two months of [meditation] practice… Most people feel that [meditation] continues to change and get deeper with extended practice. So we need to conduct studies that follow people for much longer time points.”

Brain wave

Based on their studies of people engaged in meditation, Creswell and his colleagues have proposed that mindfulness acts as a buffer specifically against stress. It does this by increasing activity in regions of the prefrontal cortex that are important for “top-down stress regulation”, while reducing activity and functional connectivity in regions associated with the brain’s fight-or-flight stress response – in particular the amygdala.

The idea that mindfulness meditation engages parts of the brain involved in top-down stress regulation is widely accepted among researchers, says University of Michigan clinical psychologist Anthony King. But what’s happening in relation to the amygdala is less clear, he says. The amygdala, one of the most primitive parts of the brain, is not just a simple alarm centre associated with responding to threats. It’s central to what’s called the salience network, which is vital for noticing all kinds of important things in one’s environment. In a mother, for example, the amygdala may become very active in response to her baby’s joyful face.

Mindfulness meditation “helps people have what the old school psychotherapists call ‘reflective capacity,’” King says. “Instead of automatically responding in certain ways, it allows people to have more nuance in their ability to respond to any type of situation – stressful, fearful or otherwise – and create some psychological distance.”

Two studies by Creswell and his colleagues, one in 2015 and the other in 2016, offer some initial findings that seem to support their view of mindfulness meditation as a buffer against stress. Both studies focused on the physiological effects of mindfulness mediation training on small groups of unemployed adults experiencing stress.

In the 2015 study, the researchers found that three days of intensive mindfulness meditation training reduced functional connectivity between the right amygdala, associated with the fight-or-flight stress response, and the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, which plays a role in modulating emotions.

In the 2016 study, the researchers found that three days of intensive mindfulness meditation training led to increased connectivity between the default mode network, a network of regions engaged when the brain is at rest, and parts of the prefrontal cortex involved in regulating stress. The study also found that meditation led to reduced levels of interleukin-6, a biomarker in the blood for systemic inflammation that’s elevated in high-stress populations.

King and his colleagues showed similarly promising results in 23 combat veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2016. Brain scans before and after mindfulness-based group therapy revealed an increase in resting-state connectivity between a network in the brain that allows people to control their attention and other parts of the brain involved in rumination and spontaneous thought. This particular connectivity has been seen in healthy people, as well as people who have meditated for long periods, says King.

“What’s important about our study… is that people with PTSD can also have this change in brain connectivity patterns when they do mindfulness practice,” King says. The more this connectivity increases as a result of mindfulness training, “the more their symptoms improve,” he adds, summarising a key finding of the study.

Studies of other conditions suggest similar improvements, although many involve small numbers of subjects and other limitations that make them far from conclusive.

Mindfulness meditation may alleviate symptoms of general anxiety disorder

Nevertheless, mindfulness meditation may alleviate symptoms of general anxiety disorder by increasing connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, thereby increasing a patient’s ability to regulate emotions. Meditation may also lessen the perception of pain by reducing pain-related activation of the somatosensory cortex and increasing activation of areas involved in the cognitive regulation of pain.

Work ahead

Fundamentally, mindfulness is an elusive quality to study. It’s an internally generated experience, not a drug that scientists can give to a patient. That creates a question when comparing mindfulness between individuals and especially between distinct studies.

What’s more, there is no universally accepted definition of mindfulness or agreement among researchers on the details of what it entails, Lazar and her colleagues note in the Perspectives on Psychological Science article.

In the context of PTSD, King says it’s likely that mindfulness meditation will continue to supplement more conventional psychiatric treatments. “I would never recommend for people to go to a mindfulness class at the YMCA or the local health centre and think that that’s going to be the same as psychotherapy, because it is not. It really is not,” King says.
But “I think mindfulness is a useful technique in the context of therapy with somebody who’s trained in PTSD treatment.”

But people like Islas who have faced serious mental illness, and others who use mindfulness meditation to ease daily stress, say they’re convinced the practice improves their lives. One day, scientists hope to be able to link that experience to what’s physically happening in the meditating mind.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, and is republished under a Creative Commons licence.

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