Escape from Tina Rosenberg

Escape from Tina Rosenberg
by Paul Morantz’
copyright August 2011

In 2011 Pultizer Prize winning author Tina Rosenberg published the book “Join the Club” which advocates placing people in groups so that peer pressure can be applied to what she calls “a social cure,” a term right out of Mao Tse Young’s game plan to indoctrinate a nation. She says it “will transform the world”—Werner Erhard could not put it better. Ms. Rosenberg should consider doing with her Pulitzer what Reggie Bush did with his Heisman trophy.

The book opens with a description of life in a community church—Willow Creek–which gives people “new identities” and brings them “nearer to God.” Does that mean we peer pressure atheists into religious fanatics—shun them and ostracize if they do not convert– because that is what peer pressure does? The author writes of past transformations, the power to force identity changes and to bring troops out of foxholes to charge the enemy as if this is a good thing.

The best example of her social cure is Alcoholic Anonymous which uses confession and peer pressure to keep people from drinking but even AA does not believe it works without lifetime pressure and its ideological insertion of 12 steps often leads to its members having a “we versus they” feeling of social superiority while maintaining self inferiority (the double bind). Not surprisingly, Ms. Rosenberg makes no mention of AA’s dark side, an AA splinter group using similar principles on drug addicts that resulted in one of America’s own Holocaust of oppression, violence and attempted murders—Synanon. It eventually used peer pressure to force vasectomies/abortions, mate-swapping, over 80 physical attacks and the formation of the Imperial Marines, a hit squad. See

Further, AA is not the example, but the exception. To understand why its majority didn’t evolve to the general formula of peer groups–the insecure provide the greatest contributions, rise to power and transform their craziness into values pressured on others—one has to look at AA’s unique history which cannot be counted on to be repeated.

At the turn of the 20th Century, an American, Frank Buckman, from Pennsylvania, felt he had slighted a friend in England but received such a catharsis in writing an apology letter that he commenced the Oxford Group, an evangelic society at a local YMCA in Britain. People gathered there to unburden themselves by confessing their real and imagined slights of each other. It spread to America where it found two members, Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith.

Wilson grew up in a quarry town in Vermont, raised in the family Wilson Hotel where everyone had access to the bar. In 1918 he and his newly married wife, Lois Burnham, succumbed to the days of wine and roses. After being an alcoholic for 17 years, and during his fourth incarceration in Manhattan’s Town’s Hospital in l934, he had a spiritual awakening–what he called a liberating awareness of God. Five months sober, he was again tempted after a business deal fell through. Standing across from the bar at the Mayflower Hotel he suddenly realized he could save himself if instead of drinking he involved himself in convincing someone else not to drink. He reached Dr. Smith, who reluctantly agreed to talk but for no more than 15 minutes. Instead, their meeting on June 10, l925 lasted into the night, the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Burnham family house on Clinton Street became a meeting place. Wilson wrote down principles for sobriety and Dr. Smith edited them from his home in Akron. AA had about a hundred members then, but many were still drinking. In 1939, a bank foreclosed on the Burnham house and Wilson and his wife became homeless, staying at various friends, once living above an AA temporary clubhouse on 24th Street in Manhattan.

The first break came in l940 when an impressed John D. Rockefeller Jr., of Standard Oil, held an AA dinner fund raiser and set up a trust to support the organization. In what turned out to be a stroke of incomparable foresight, Rockefeller made a decision that alone may have led to AA’s survival and kept it from the eventual evils peer pressure groups eventually evolve to. He limited the trust to provide Wilson with no more than $30.00 a week. Anymore, Rockefeller wisely thought, might corrupt AA.

Also Wilson concentrated on individual freedom, confidentiality and privacy. To encourage participation names of members would not be given out. The 12 steps included admission of powerlessness, learning of morals, repairing past wrongs and a surrender to one’s personal God, whatever or whomever that deity might be. Most importantly Wilson followed Rockefeller’s wisdom, prohibiting by rule any accumulation of power or money. No member could contribute more than $1,000.00.

Wilson liked to think of himself as pupil rather than teacher and stayed within AA’s concept on anonymity–referring to himself as Bill W–, refusing money for counseling, turning down publicity, rewards and titles such as an honorary degree from Yale. He declined to be on the cover of Time. In 1955 at a convention in St. Louis he ended any temptation to power by turning over the leadership to a General Service Board. AA would have no sole leaders in its future.

One man who actively sought to be on that list–Charles Dederich–would take a lot from his fanatical AA days when forming Synanon, but unfortunately it did not include Rockefeller’s premonitions nor Wilson’s frugality–and he would have loved to have been on the cover of Time. He went on to prove that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The fact is B.F. Skinner, the originator of a planned perfect society concept, placed value decisions in the hands of behavior modification specialists. And Ms. Rosenberg, that means peer pressure eventually will transmit the illness of anyone’s psychology that no one completely escapes.

Ms. Rosenberg’s book reminds me of the 1965 book “The Tunnel Back” by sociologist Lew Yablonsky who similarly applauded Synanon’s admitted system of thought reform as a “cure.” Himself a participating square (non addict), Yablonsky was “washed” into writing all Synanon critics were “prejudiced” and “enemies” that had to be stopped, while accurately telling the story of the Synanon process of submitting people to peer pressure to conform, making the analogy to using Thought Reform as described by Dr. Robert J. Lifton in his l962 book Thought Reform and The psychology of Totalism. Yablonsky ate up Synanon’s rhetoric against critics the way the Nazi’s accepted Jewish blame.

Like Ms. Rosenberg, Yablonsky believed this was a “new breed of professional people,” that could cure drugs and crime, a place he described ruled by the “charismatic leadership,” “emotional appeal” and “magnetic power” of Charles Dederich. The addicts, he wrote, were attracted to the idea of becoming a “super being,” as Dederich described it, “the all-knowing, the all-understanding.” The members, he wrote, waited for Dederich’s every word and tried to pattern themselves after him like trained seals. Dederich made the decisions for all, Yablonsky wrote, based on his “inner urges and personal conclusions” and declared, “This is my house and if people cannot do what I want they should leave.”

What Yablonsky could not see, nor Ms. Rosenberg, was the last man who attracted with concept of a “super being” marched his followers across Europe.

Yablonsky, instead quoted Dederich, who was perhaps then thinking of Skinner, as saying, “People that submit to this type of leadership not only give you rights to help them, they give you the responsibility for their destiny. You can’t really accept one without the other.” At first, Dederich told Yablonsky, it was ego gratifying to have people crawling all over him but after awhile it became tedious and he had to solve problems of sibling rivalry and over dependency.

The book described the Synanon system and its thought reform aspects, as does Ms. Rosenberg’s, the severing of the past and the feelings of having “found God.” Members, he said, are forced to give up “motherlovers (mothers)” often “choose” to do so permanently later. Synanon was described with all the elements promoted by Ms. Rosenberg.

Yablonsky, never thinking how he himself might have been affected, as apparently Ms. Rosenberg has been also, quoted one of his students saying people in Synanon seemed “brainwashed” into accepting all of Dederich’s ideas completely eerily described a conversation between he, Dederich and Yablonsky’s close friend, Dr. George Bach, a pioneer in attack therapy. After listening to a tape of a Dederich giving a haircut (applying pressure by humiliating “wrong” behavior), Bach compared the technique to “brainwashing.” Yablonsky, like Ms. Rosenberg, ever the misguided want-to-be sociologist elite, said unfortunately the word had been given a negative image. Dederich said brainwashing was “great stuff.” He had been criticized by experts for it. But brainwashing, Dederich was quoted, was exactly what he was trying to accomplish. He wanted to “wash out” all that was bad. “You’re goddamn right we wash people’s brains,” Dederich told them. “If you got a dirty brain you wash it clean…

“We use brainwashing and attack therapy here to peel away those part of the self that haven’t been too effective; in fact that have put the person in the mess he’s in. We make him aware of new ideas and ways of behaving.”

Yablonsky, not knowing he was prophesying Synanon’s future, also quoted Dederich on how the games (encounter groups that applied pressure on dissenters) “bonded people.”

“In times of great stress,” Dederich told Yablonsky, “people will go back to the primary group. For example, if we wish to put a commando team together in time of war, we get a small group together, put them in a primary–group situation, and they seem to function with great effectiveness.” These are words echoed and praised by Ms. Rosenberg throughout her book. Yes, Ms. Rosenberg, it is a great way to get a commando squad out of the foxhole–even into an airplane headed for the twin towers.

A different view on the same facts reported by Yablonsky was given by a then University of California at Berkeley sociologist and author Edgar Friedenberg. Writing in the Nation, the same magazine where Walker Winslow’s article earlier denounced Santa Monica’s fight with Synanon, Freidenberg reviewed “The Tunnel Back” and described it not as objective reporting but “a masterpiece of advocacy.” Freidenberg, admitting he knew nothing of Synanon except as from what he read in the book, concluded Yablonsky had “failed to grasp the enormity of what he related.” Much of what Yablonsky so proudly wrote, he said, was shocking, hardly humane and “the candidness of the book suggested such little value on personal dignity by the author.”

Sorry Tina, but if the shoe fits…

Friedenberg noted that Synanon measured its success in “clean days” but suppressing a symptom he said is not a therapeutic victory. He queried the other effects of such a hostile symptom on the personalities, particularly the price of “making them worship fully dependent on the people to whom they had submitted.” Exactly what Ms. Rosenberg advocates.

Friedenberg compared Synanon’s procedure of public hazing, isolation, institutionalized focusing of hostilities against any remnant of the old self and use of manipulations to create (what Ms. Rosenberg calls a new identity) with that of the Maoist struggle session described in Robert Jay Lifton’s “Thought-Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.” At the time what Mao was capable of doing with such power was before the public, as the Chinese leader in 1966 encouraged chaos and near civil war as Red Guard student groups went on violent rampages throughout China, destroying symbols of “old ideas.”

“What Synanon tries to do,” he wrote, “is rather more thorough than brainwashing.” The old self is completely thrown out with the “bath water.” Friedenberg worried of Synanon’s claims of outside harassment, the fear it instills in leaving and the “brainwashing” that removes the old self leaving a “specter bound to the house,” all tempting Synanon, he wrote, into a position of similar “frightening fanaticism.”

The ultimate self-image of Synanon members, he wrote, is “only what the group is willing to concede to the member.” And the very rhetoric of Yablonsky, Freidenberg warned, “reinforces my fears that there is indeed a Synanon state of mind that is more important by far, than the club itself.”

Ms. Rosenberg, in addition to me, has her own Freidenberg.

Annie Murphy Paul, who writes about the biological and social sciences, a former senior editor at Psychology Today magazine, and winner of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, was wisely selected by Time Magazine to do the “Join the Club” book review. Calling it correctly, Herd Mentality (a Freud term for how groups are attracted to irrationality), she notes the flaw—known to any student of brainwashing– that historically peer pressure never works for very long and that many of the organizations Ms. Rosenberg cited ended in failure. Even the Church table groups at Willow Creek Ms. Rosenberg describes in her beginning ended in abandonment. Ms. Paul correctly points out, as this site does, that peer groups can be of enormous influence, but works equally in both directions. Ms. Paul correctly states how can bureaucrats decide which direction is virtuous? As did Freidenberg, Ms. Paul notes that in the real world we “insist on choosing our own friends.”

While Ms. Rosenberg seemingly skips over events like Charles Manson, Jim Jones, or how peer pressure affected Patty Hurst, she acknowledges her alleged cure has caused tragedies of cult crimes and wars. She seems to think this is no big deal; that we can just choose to omit that; we can pick the right groups and we can guarantee at all times that our BF Skinners will choose the right values ignoring the proven result of such power and/or human psychology will in the end prove chaos theory– something will always go wrong. And if you believe the Peter Principal– people advance to the level of their incompetence– how do we ever guarantee the competence of our “masters.”

As a Center for Feeling Therapist Founder once said, it is a system that can make you believe Atlantis is rising and in the wrong hands can cut off fingers, while at the same time of so speaking using the system to crucify the lives of the Center’s converted patients as result of their therapists own psychological makeups. See

To all that unfortunately may have read “Join the Club” I hope my soon to be published “Escape” (essentially from the clubs) finds a way to you and provides the then needed antidote for this mindless book. Sadly, given the bookcover says it is by a Pulitzer winning author, Join the Club well be read and as a result many will to choose to join groups and willingly follow the crowd which will lead to life ruination and a farewell to freedom of choice.

Resting in his grave, however, I am sure Joseph Stalin thoroughly will enjoy reading it.