Dr. Robin Stern: Welcome to The Gaslight Effect podcast. I'm Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of the bestselling book, The Gaslight Effect. I'm an educator and a psychoanalyst, but first and foremost, I'm a wife, a mother, a sister, aunt, and healer. And just like many of you, I was a victim of gaslighting. Please join me for each episode as I interview fascinating guests and explore the concept of gaslighting. You'll learn what it truly means to be gaslighted, how it feels, how to recognize it, and how to understand it, and ultimately how to get out of it.
Dr. Robin Stern: Before we begin, I want you to know that talking about gaslighting can bring up challenging and painful emotions. Give yourself permission to feel them. Some of you may wanna go more deeply with your emotions. While some of you may hold them more lightly, no matter what you're feeling, know that your emotions are a guide to your inner life. Your emotions are sacred and uniquely you respect and embrace them for they have information to give you. If you want to listen to other episodes of the Gaslight Effect Podcast, you can find them at robinsstern.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for being here with me. Welcome to The Gaslight Effect podcast. I am thrilled to have with me as my guest, Dr. Steven Hassan, who is the author of many amazing writings, including several books on cults, on psychological manipulation, on brainwashing, and how to get out of them. Uh, notably his most recent book, the Cult of Trump, is something I'm currently reading and I highly recommend it. It is fascinating, terrifying, and very real. So thank you Dr. Hassan, for being here with us. And will you please tell our audience a little bit about yourself?
Dr. Steven Hassan: Sure. Thank you for so much, Robin, and, uh, I'm delighted to meet you and learn more about your incredible work. Uh, I think it's so invaluable and important. Uh, so very briefly, I am a a, a native queens person. I do live up in Boston, in the Newton area, uh, for decades now. I went, came here to go to college at BU and et cetera. But, um, I grew up at 1.3 miles from Donald Trump, uh, in Flushing, Queens, uh, middle class conservative Jewish family, the youngest of three. Uh, I have two older sisters. My mom was an art teacher in Brooklyn, uh, of eighth grade. And my father had a hardware store that he inherited from his father. And I was a creative writing major and a student at Queens College. And my story of how I got interested in this bazaro field of brainwashing and mind control and cults is I was at Queens College, an upper junior, and my girlfriend abruptly dumped me, and I was feeling sorry for myself.
Dr. Steven Hassan: And sitting in the cafeteria and three women pretending to be students, started flirting with me and asked to sit at my table. And two and a half years later, I nearly died in a van crash due to sleep deprivation, which led to a hospitalization and then a five day deprogramming from the Moonies cult. And when I woke up from realizing that my mind had been hacked and that I had become a right wing fascist who believe this fat billionaire, uh, Korean billionaire, uh, who claimed to be the Messiah, uh, was a fraud and a liar, um, I wanted to understand brainwashing,
Dr. Steven Hassan: I know I'm dating myself, but for those listeners who remember Patty Hurst and becoming Tanya and robbing banks, um, uh, yes, the phenomenon is very real and people's minds can be co-opted and people can be indoctrinated. And I sought out Robert Lifton cuz I read his book, but it was about Chinese communist brainwashing in the fifties. And I wanted to tell him about how the moonies operate cuz I was a leader in the cult before I exited. And he, he changed my life. Rob. He basically said, after I was explaining the techniques and the, and the methodology, he said, you know, I just studied it secondhand, but you've lived it. They did it to you and you did it to other people. And what you're describing is so much more sophisticated than what I studied. You should study psychology and explain it to people like me.
Dr. Steven Hassan: And you have to understand, I had a cast on my legs from my toes to my groin. I was a college dropout who was ashamed and embarrassed and confused
Dr. Robin Stern: Agree.
Dr. Steven Hassan: It's just different models for explaining the same phenomenon of how people, their own personal power, autonomy, free will, critical thinking can be undermined by a person or a, a social media platform or a political cult or anything really.
Dr. Robin Stern: Absolutely. So I'm just gonna jump in because, um, I, I wanna make the connections as I see them and where they are. Please. So I grew up on Long Island, not that far from Queens. I was in college at the same time that you were. And I, um, uh, fascinating. And my mother was also an artist, so that's pretty interesting. And, uh, or a nice point of connection. My father was a salesman and he ended up being a, um, vice president of Sales Revlon Cosmetics at the time. That was a big deal. And he was in charge of the National Sales Force. Sure. And I, we, he was very open about the things that happened at the office. My father was very charismatic and, um, people, whether he retained them or he fired them, whether they, uh, loved working for him when they were working for them, or felt that he was the strictest guy in the world, they really liked my dad.
Dr. Robin Stern: And when they left Revlon or when ultimately when he left, he had all these people who were still connected with him. And I was fascinated by that. And I thought, that's so interesting. Is it because he always gives them a big smile? Is it because he, uh, is this charismatic leader? And so I just tucked that away somewhere a long time later when I was thinking about doing a doctorate in psychology, which I was very interested in doing because I was fascinated from a young age, obviously, in the workings of people's minds and how they behaved and what that did. Um, I wanted to join a cult too Oh. Um, to study social intelligence. Interesting. And my advisor said to me, no. And I said, well, I, and I
Dr. Robin Stern: Well, I was very strong mind that I was confident I was a good student. I thought, I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna, um, go in, I'm gonna be undercover, and I'll just take note of what happens that makes somebody so gravitate so much to this guy who's charismatic. So when they, when he told me no, I thought, okay, well, he said it's dangerous. And I still, even though I couldn't do it, I thought he was really being silly. Um, I could withstand it. I knew. Right. And, um, I ended up doing my doctoral work by developing a so measure of social intelligence before I met Dan Goldman. Before all of this was very popular, but it wasn't a sexy, uh, scale of social uhhuh
Dr. Robin Stern: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: And I was seeing young woman after young woman, not that men aren't gaslighted, obviously they are. Um, not that it doesn't happen in families, it does, and in the workplace, but the, the pairing that I saw most often was women coming in saying, well, I don't know. I, I feel like there's something wrong and maybe I'm crazy. Um mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern:
Dr. Steven Hassan: Yeah, I agree. So I'm, you know, we each have our life experiences to form lenses for how we view things. And for me, I came from a creative writing literature, you know, orientation into this incredible experience. And fortunately it was only two and a half years, and I was, you know, already had a fully formed, not fully, but pretty formed identity and value system, et cetera. But, um, there's a lot of overlap. I would, you know, respond to you and say that for me, uh, there's a continuum of influence. And that's my influence continuum. And I have a podcast by that name where I talk about ethical influence, where there's informed consent and respect and transparency and accountability, and all the good, you know, criteria of a healthy relationship or a healthy, uh, organization or leader, all the way to the most authoritarian, brainwashing, mind control, dictator type people where people's identities are, um, created as a dissociative identity in the image of the cult leader.
Dr. Steven Hassan: And their self has been subsumed as mine was by this cult identity. Uh, and I, my model looks at behavior control, information control, thought control, and emotional control. And I have a list of variables. You don't need all of them to be mi mind controlled, but people can self-diagnose. Hmm. And, um, but for me, I've also studied hypnosis. I, I, so for me, what I wanna say to, to you immediately is that if you wanna, if you wanna mind control someone, and I'll cite Kurt Lewin's model, um, that I first read in 1961 in Edgar Shine's book, course of Persuasion about Chinese communist brainwashing, Lewin talked about unfreezing the person's identity, indoctrination or changing it, and then refreezing the new identity. Right. And the first phase is confusion and disorientation, ego destruction. But it can be done through many, you know, methods including sleep deprivation. Um, and it can be done quite intentionally, even though as a moonie, I thought I was saving people by doing it on people. Right. I, I, I had been co-opted to become a victimizer. Um, but there's a lot of people who are just raised in very dysfunctional families with very dysfunctional experiences and are doing it automatically. And they don't even have a system of doing it, but they're just doing it and they're toxic.
Dr. Robin Stern: You know, Steve, I, um, I'm so honored that you're here and so rarely do we have the opportunity to, to hear from someone who's actually been inside Hmm. Um, with, uh, with the perspective that you have and the generosity that you've shown in your writing to share your experience. And I wonder if you would be willing now to talk about, to talk about your model and what exactly happened to you. And, and I'll say before I ask you to share that I also had an experience of gaslighting that wasn't traumatic, but it was disorganizing for sure. My ex-husband, um, uh, would always be late mm-hmm.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Sounds very familiar, Robin.
Dr. Robin Stern: And my parents must have been very anal that they told me the time was so important and like, what's the big deal? And why don't I just ease up? And initially I thought, no, this is your problem. But over time, as he kept saying the same thing, even though I was writing my book at the time, yep. No, I, I knew there was something wrong mm-hmm.
Dr. Steven Hassan: I, I, I can relate to that one personally, by the way. Cuz I always like to be on time or five minutes early. That's how I think it's respectful to other people to show up when you're supposed to show up. So anyway, good values. But I do wanna agree also that even though, you know, the, the, the methodologies and such, we're still human beings. We still adapt unconsciously, we are still affected by people we choose to spend time around. And so unless you take a vacation and get away and reality tests and have friends or people who truly know you and care about you, where you can verbalize this is happening and name it, you can be in a bad marriage for many, many years longer than you should. You shouldn't have gotten married in the first place maybe. So I know what you mean.
Dr. Robin Stern: Well, thank you for your, in your own experience. Do you remember the first time where you were on the road, when you look back now, you know, you were on the road to brainwashing, but then you were introduced to what? To a, um, to the idea of what, like how did it actually happen? It would be wonderful if you could talk a little bit. Yeah.
Dr. Steven Hassan: So I, I do tell the story in my first book, which I updated, came out in 1988 called Combating Cult Mine Control. And I was this ponytailed, um, you know, uh, post, you know, uh, hippie era where I was in the last draft lottery to go to Vietnam. I had a high number and I had question authority on my bedroom door in my house. I was living with my folks, um, bicycle cross country when I was 16. I worked in my father's hardware store. I'm six feet tall. I was pretty strong, very cocky, very arrogant, skipped eighth grade cuz we had SP in New York City. So nobody's gonna manipulate me. But, um, so these women flirted with me and I was lonely. And I thought, wow, they're cute. Maybe I would get lucky with one of them cuz I was a college sophomore at the point, uh, was it a junior?
Dr. Steven Hassan: I was a junior at that point. Um, and they just lied. You know, are you part, are you students? Yes. They weren't, are you part of a religious group? No, not at all. We're just students who care about the world. That was a lie. They were in a Korean mind control cult that bowed to an altar with moon's picture on it. But they just were smiling and beaming and love bombing and flattering and listening and just making calculations for which buttons should we press? Oh, he's Jewish. We shouldn't talk about Jesus. He's, he's a, he, he wants to learn and grow. He's one of those people who wants to keep improving himself. Oh, we should press on that button. Oh, he wants to make the world a better place. Um, we should press on that button. So it was a series of, of incremental steps. But what was so crazy about my story was I was working as a banquet waiter on the weekends at the Holiday Inn in Hempstead, long Island. Al I went to college mm-hmm.
Dr. Steven Hassan: And I was like, it'll be fun to have a weekend off, but I work, sorry bye. You know? And they're like, yeah, but it's gonna be so great. And, you know, pressure, pressure, pressure. And they got me to the point where I said, listen, I work, but if some weekend I don't have to work, I will come with you. Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Cell phones, no,
Dr. Steven Hassan: No cell phones, et cetera. So we're driving into this multimillion dollar, um, um, um, mansion facility in Tarrytown, New York. And as we're in entering the facility, the guy at the front of the van said, oh, this weekend we're having a joint workshop with the unification church. And I went, excuse me, I'm Jewish, I'm not interested in churches workshop. Nobody told me about any workshop. Take me back. And they're like, and they turned it around on me that a very typical technique. Stephen, Steven, are you afraid? Oh Steven, are you are, are you like close-minded about Christianity? Wow. And this is a standard gaslighting manipulation technique of wait a minute, they lied to me. I was not told. And it was snowy and cold outside and it was dark. Them
Dr. Robin Stern: They tell you that you, there's something wrong with you.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Wait a minute. Exactly. And that's a standard. Turn it around and make the person feel like that it was their fault. Yes. Or there's something defective with them. But I was and I was like, I wanna go back like now. And they're like, sorry the man's not going back tonight. Will leave in the morning. Just stay the night. And I should have just made a big stink and just gotten out, walked to the road and hitchhiked, you know, to wherever. Yeah. Right. But that you don't know what you don't know. I didn't realize the level of danger I was in. Cuz honestly, nobody thinks it could ever happen to them. They think they're too smart. I'm too grounded, I'm too worldly. You know, I'm here to tell your listeners it could happen to people. Trust me. Especially if you think it can't happen to you, you're especially vulnerable to manipulation.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Um, so the morning comes, I didn't sleep much cuz I was afraid. And like, who are these people? And there was a lot of noise. The morning comes, I'm like, okay, I'm ready to hop in the van and go back. And they're like, oh, it left already. Sorry, why don't you go to breakfast? And they were doing the delay. Wow. Distraction, sending people to smiley friendly, let's have breakfast together, let's go, you know, play volleyball before the lecture starts. And I'm like, I wanna leave. Like, oh, the phone is broken. Sorry, Uhhuh.
Dr. Robin Stern: Happened to those girls? Were they with you?
Dr. Steven Hassan: No, no. That was the bait and switch. You know, they're flirting with me later. When I was indoctrinated, sex was evil. You couldn't kiss a woman or hold a woman. Men were subjects, women were objects. Like everything opposite to my value system and my upbringing, et cetera. But it, yeah, I wanna convey that I was in resistance to this experience through the first day, the second day. And then I'm like, I have class in the morning, let's leave. And they're like, oh, the third day's the most important day. You don't wanna miss that. And they just keep on keeping on. And again, manipulation was extraordinary. I learned how to do it. I mean, I became a very powerful, effective recruiter and indoctrinate. And I got promoted because I was good at it. Well cuz I learned by the people what they were doing to me and what was working on me.
Dr. Robin Stern: What was working on you? What, what were the techniques that were working for you?
Dr. Steven Hassan: I think for me, my curiosity was a huge vulnerability because honestly, there were people from all over the world in one place, somewhere from Harvard, somewhere from Yale, somewhere from Princeton. Some were, you know, highly successful people. And I didn't understand that a lot of them were already believers pretending to be newcomers. I mean they really use social psychology techniques at a very advanced level. They would even organize subgroups with a, a, an announced leader and a covert member leader who would be gathering information from everyone in the group. They actually took the people they identified as goats, the people that they didn't even want to recruit to segregate them out so they wouldn't influence the, I was very systematized. And they use a hypnosis and an overload technique where it's a combination of privacy deprivation, um, um, you, you don't understand that
Dr. Steven Hassan: Uh, and and the the allure, the and, and the power, um, is, uh, group identification and but overload technique and emotional highs and lows. Mm-hmm.
Dr. Steven Hassan: And I'm like, fine, let's go talk to the rabbi. And he was completely clueless. He had no idea even what to say to me. Mm-hmm.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Um, but then the thing that was so weird was they had put in my head the what if. And what I mean by that is quite literal. On the third day, the lecture is up there, three piece suit. So you've been listening to a lot of very interesting, uh, new ideas about how the world can be made whole and how we can end poverty and pollution and crime and war. And maybe there's a part of you that's thinking, this is a bunch of rubbish, but what if, but on the other hand, what if, and they do it three times, what if, what if it's true?
Dr. Steven Hassan: So they, they plugged in the what if and then they followed it with a prayer, a very emotional prayer for like 30, 40 minutes. Oh heavenly Father, we are your lost children. On and on and on. And ev and everybody who's there, there's like a third of the newcomers who are getting recruited. The rest are believers pretending to be newcomers. But the effect creates this group consciousness where yes, we need, we, how could I just think about writing poetry when the world needed saving? You know, they put that idea in my head, which is why I went and talked to the rabbi. Like, can I go back to college and like go back to my life? Or like, is there something bigger here? So I'm back at home with this in my head. And then I have what I think is a spiritual experience where I'm sitting in my bedroom looking at a book on the floor and I open it and I think the, the paragraph my eyes, uh, light on is telling me, no, you really should look further into this group. It didn't say God wants you to join, but you know, there there's a possibility that this really is real. Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Well thank you for, for being willing to share all that. How extraordinary that you went through that and you were sitting here being the most reasonable person and yet telling us the scariest story.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Yeah. And what's happening now in the world is really frightening because under influence is everywhere through the internet, the media has been co-opted. People are being confused and mass. Um,
Dr. Robin Stern: And I think, and with the pandemic, I'm sorry to step on your words. No, it's fine. The pandemic, creating that climate around everyone where there was uncertainty, instability, unpredictability, and everyone felt out of control. What, like a fertile ground for gaslighting, right?
Dr. Steven Hassan: Yeah, exactly.
Dr. Robin Stern: For mind control, right? So people who were into doing it or were doing it just got working even harder. And then there was the, and then the, the stuff about the pandemic itself became that which people were using to gaslight each other, masking distances. Should you take the vaccine? Should you not? And then the president of the United States was in that mix as well. So yeah, it's really, it is a scary time and um, there is danger for a lot of people that they're not able to hold onto their reality and don't really even know what it is. What is my reality anymore? I don't know. I turn this channel and I hear this and it's it and as you were saying, part of the technique of brainwashing of mine control of gaslighting is that one channel you're listening to when you're flooded with it over and over and over. And now you can be flooded on the right, flooded on the left. You can be going crazy in the media. Yeah.
Dr. Steven Hassan: And, and cell phones are the, uh, ultimate mind control device. If people don't remember I'm the human, this is a device, I can turn it off. I can choose what platforms I wanna be on or how long I wanna be on it. Yes. And are you're familiar with the Center for Humane Technology and uh, Tristan Harrison Aza Raskin's work?
Dr. Robin Stern: I'm not.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Um, they did a very popular documentary called The Social Dilemma. Oh yes,
Dr. Robin Stern: Of course. I'm familiar with
Dr. Steven Hassan: That. So they are doing the cutting edge, you know, thinking and teaching people. We need humane technology, technology that serves humans, not the other way around. And um, so I was interviewed on their podcast, the their, your Undivided attention. But the problem as I see it, is we don't have data privacy protection laws that are enforced. We don't have any laws here. We, they have them in Europe. Uh, and platforms are been co-opted with people with ideological agendas, whether it's libertarianism or they are global fossil fuel countries or companies or, uh, they are radical Christians, Buddhist Muslims, Jews or whatever. And they're using their, their this technology platform. And the only solution as I see it, is mass psychoeducation to everyone. And that's why when you said, would you come on my podcast? I'm like, yes. Cuz I don't know who else is listening right now.
Dr. Steven Hassan: But to say there really is a body of work that you can learn, it's not mystical. The mind is really, we know a lot now about neuroscience, about social psychology, how to protect yourself, how to protect your children, what to do if you have a family member or a friend who's been radicalized. What you shouldn't be doing is cutting them off on social media and calling them names. What you should be doing is reminding the warm relationship that I care about you and help me understand how you believe what you believe. Cuz if it's true, I wanna believe it too. Let's talk, let's interact humanly
Dr. Robin Stern: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Exactly. That's
Dr. Robin Stern: Brilliant. Yes. And what are the signs that you would suggest a family member look for? Uh, if they are concerned that their child or their sibling is in, is in a group where they're no longer able to communicate where they it's, well,
Dr. Steven Hassan: The, well, first thing I wanna say is you don't wanna wait for a problem. You wanna learn and expose your loved ones now, uh, cuz a l it go, it's the virus, the virus model. An inoculated vaccine will save a lot of pain later in potential death. So we need to do, make this a public health emergency and inoculate people how to distinguish what is undue influence and what are the techniques and how to protect yourself. But to answer your question, uh, frontally people know that the loved one is changed. Like they become secretive or they become super zealous. There's a, a radicalization effect where they're, they're no longer able to listen and interact and explain. They use buzzwords. It's us versus them. Good versus evil, black and white, simplistic, uh, ideology. Um, and, uh, the worst thing to say to someone who's been radicalized is you're an are you brainwashed or are you a cult in a cult?
Dr. Steven Hassan: Because I can say as a former moonie, when people said that, I just heard it as persecution and it made me stronger as a moonie
Dr. Robin Stern: So in your case, if I may, you, your accident gave you the, um, opportunity to take a pause. Right?
Dr. Steven Hassan: A hundred percent.
Dr. Robin Stern: And that, that pause as you say in your writing is so essential. Even if you just, even if you say, I'm just going away for a little bit. Right. To get, to take a deep breath to reconnect with who you are.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Exactly. So I actually did a TEDx talk. How can I know if I've been brainwashed and I have a four step reality testing strategy based on my experience, I needed to be away from the group and the constant reinforcement of that point of view and sleep and eat and have like normal interactions with people. That was absolutely vital. But, um, again, if you think that humans are rational and that you are in control of all your decisions, you just don't have an accurate map of what we know is true about being a human being. Cause the truth is, is we're emotionally driven. We rationalize a lot and we are incredibly adaptive to people in our environment and to leaders that we think are are legitimate. In my case, um, it was very traumatic to fall asleep at the wheel of a van and wake up as I'm driving into the back of a tractor trailer truck and then to be pinned in the most pain I've ever been in for 30 minutes while they thought it would blow up.
Dr. Steven Hassan: That affected me.
Dr. Steven Hassan: It's not gonna sound trite, but love is stronger than mind control. And the thing about real love is your, you're loved for your beingness versus when you're in a mind control cult, they'll conditionally love you if you perform and obey the way they want you to. But the minute you question it or the minute you disagree, they shun you. They, you know, call you names, et cetera. You're, you're the scum of the earth. Right. But people who actually say, I love you for you, no matter what, that's gonna win in the end. And that's why I tell family members, there's hope. Don't give up on your loved one. Even if they've been in a cult for 30 years, the their real self is still in there and is miserable in these mind control cults, even though they smile and say how happy they are. It's just not reality.
Dr. Robin Stern: I can't thank you enough for joining me today. And I know that my listeners, our listeners today have just benefited so much. And clearly you are deeply knowledgeable. I've never met anyone so deeply knowledgeable about this part of life and, and it is a part of life. And I, um, just so touched by your willingness to share so openly and, and I would like to join your effort. I mean, I just think that it is your effort to, um, do something on a large scale to make sure that no one ever has to go through something like this.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Yeah. Let's talk because we need a lot of smart em, empowered, motivated people who care and who haven't given up. And honestly, your work with emotional intelligence as I was learning about it in preparation for this, I'm like my, my, my tribe, people born in cults or et cetera, they need to understand what I teach them as a therapist. Your emotions are your friends. You need to identify them, you need to have a relation. You don't wanna be controlled by any one of your friends, but you wanna be able to have a robust, healthy, emotional and social intelligence of that thing.
Dr. Robin Stern: And you have to give yourself permission to have all of your feelings in order to live the life that you want to live in order to use to, to harness your emotions in the service of your goals in
Dr. Steven Hassan: Life. Yeah, exactly.
Dr. Robin Stern: And so I, I know what drives me is to KU alum.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Exactly. Yeah. I belong to a, a progressive temple in Brookline, and we have a woman rabbi, and we are appalled by what's happening with Netanyahu's dictatorship and extremist group. But we wanna repair the world. We wanna, we're not obligated to finish it. We're obligated to do whatever we can to make it better.
Dr. Robin Stern: Beautifully said. Well, thank you very much and to those listening, please pick up any of Dr. Hassan's books, but especially the cult of Trump because I'm reading it, enjoying it, and it's so important.
Dr. Steven Hassan: Yeah. Thank you.
Dr. Robin Stern: Thank you so much. Really appreciate having you. Great.
Dr. Robin Stern: Thanks for joining me for today's episode. I hope you found it helpful and meaningful. If you want to listen to other episodes of The Gaslight Effect podcast, you can find them at robinstern.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. And please leave a rating and a review. I also invite you to follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. This podcast is produced by Mel Yellen, Ryan Changcoco, Mike lens, and me. The podcast is supported by Gabby Kaoagas and Solar Karangi, all of my work and my upcoming book is supported by Susan Pettit Marcus Estevez and Omaginarium, also by Sally McCarton and Jackie Daniels. I'm so grateful to have many people supporting me and especially grateful for all of you, my listeners.