This article is an electronic version of an article originally published as the Introduction to a special issue of the Cultic Studies Journal, 1997, Volume 14, Number 1, guest-edited by Janja Lalich. The journal was entitled, “Women Under the Influence: A Study of Women’s Lives in Totalist Groups.” Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
Introduction: “We Own Her Now” by Janja Lalich, Ph.D.
Once, in a leadership meeting, my cult leader scoffingly remarked about a relatively new member, “Hah, we own her now!” This victory was proclaimed by our leader in response to learning that the young woman had just broken her engagement with her fiancé, someone had not been interested in joining our group and who, it was feared, would hold the woman back from deepening her commitment to us.
We own her now. I own her now. I own them now. I own you now.
How often must such thoughts run through the minds of psychopaths, con artists, cult leaders, and out-of-control authoritarian figures? Some historians and researchers say that ownership of women and attitudes of dominance and control date back to the “humblest beginnings of social order” (Brownmiller, 1975); and many social commentators would argue that these oppressive attitudes prevail yet today–despite the advances in consciousness, perception, and legal rights favoring women that have been brought about by various progressive social movements.
Yet, how infrequently we explore these unequal power dynamics, and how little we truly comprehend their effects on women today. Even more sequestered from our view are the countless hidden, coercive relationships: the terrified woman held in an abusive “intimate” relationship, the “chosen” student intimidated into having sex with her teacher, the trusting parishioner tricked into a secret affair with her pastor, the selfless devotee caught in a web of pseudo-spiritual sexual shenanigans with her guru, the confused client persuaded to indulge the fantasies of her self-serving therapist. The acts of exploitation and abuse found in what might be described as ultra-authoritarian or psychologically coercive settings range from a woman being subjected to obey rigid (and often arbitrary) rules governing her daily life, personal life, intimate life, and sexual mores, to having marriage and childbearing controlled, to being a victim of ongoing sexual harassment, rape, and physical violence.
Are women more susceptible to the psychological ruses employed by others to gain power, control, and sexual favors? Are women more compliant because of their socialization to endure more, complain less, doubt themselves more, trust authorities (especially male ones) without hesitation? I have done no studies to prove it, but I think so. Almost without exception throughout the world, women are taught–directly and indirectly, and in practically every avenue and milieu of our existence from the time we are little girls on–to put ourselves aside and put the other first. What better setup for the person (male or female) who–whether motivated by delusion or downright evil intent–desires and conspires to take advantage of others?
Talking openly about such issues is never easy, especially when one has been the object of such humiliation, manipulation, and in some cases excessively dangerous behavior. Public understanding is lacking, at best, and is blaming and deprecatory, at worst. And professional comprehension, or even a serious tackling of this topic, has not fared much better. Yet, open discourse is the only way as a society we can learn of these harsh realities and begin perhaps to do something about them.
In the preface to a new edition of her seminal study, In a Different Voice, psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote that women speaking out is part of “the ongoing historical process of changing the voice of the world by bringing women’s voices into the open, thus starting a new conversation” (1993, p. xxvii). For that reason, I salute the women who, upon invitation, contributed to this special issue. Whether writing as professionals with some experience in this area or as survivors of some form of authoritarian abuse or power imbalance, these authors have honored all women who have been entrapped, hindered, traumatized, and harmed by a perpetrator of psychological manipulation and control. Women’s voices coming together to bring new perspectives, a broad understanding, renewed hope, and eventually change–that was my dream in putting together this special volume. I thank my colleagues here for making my dream come true.
We don’t pretend to have “the answer”; rather, with these essays, our hope is to begin a discussion (or many discussions) on a topic much in need of airing, where both public and professional scrutiny has been lacking for far too long. So, let the stories be told, the data gathered, the conclusions drawn, the questions asked and re-asked. Let’s do it for the women, the children, the men, each other, and the world.
Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against our will: Men, women and rape. New York: Simon & Schuster.Gilligan, C. (1993). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development (Originally published in 1982). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.