Margaret Singer, the soft-spoken but hard-edged Berkeley psychologist and expert on brainwashing who studied and helped authorities and victims better understand the Peoples Temple, Branch Davidian, Unification Church and Symbionese Liberation Army cults, has died.
Professor Singer, 82, died Sunday after a long illness at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley.
“She’s one of a kind, the foremost authority on brainwashing in the entire world,” said lawyer Paul Morantz in an interview last year. Morantz led the effort against the Synanon cult in the 1970s. “She is a national treasure.”
She testified in the 1976 bank robbery trial of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and at the 1977 hearing for five young members of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church whose parents sought to have them “deprogrammed.”
On the witness stand or in the kitchen of her Berkeley hills home, where Professor Singer did much of her work, she was calm, authoritative, smart, unshakable, funny and unfailingly polite.
She interviewed more than 3,000 cult members, assisted in more than 200 court cases and also was a leading authority on schizophrenia and family therapy.
“I might look like a little old grandma, but I’m no pushover,” she told a reporter last year, just before tossing back another shot of Bushmills Irish whiskey, her libation of choice.
“My mom spent her whole life assisting other people — victims, parents or lawyers — and often for free,” said Sam Singer, a San Francisco publicist. “Nothing gave her greater joy than helping to get someone unscrewed up.”
She was occasionally threatened by cult leaders and their followers, and she never backed down. Professor Singer liked to tell how, at the age of 80, she frightened off a stalker who had been leaving menacing notes in her mailbox.
“I’ve got a 12-gauge shotgun up here, sonny, and you’d better get off my porch, or you’ll be sorry!” she hollered out the window. “And tell your handlers not to send you back!”
She was born in Denver, where her father was the chief engineer at the U. S. Mint. She received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Denver.
She began to study brainwashing in the 1950s at Walter Reed Institute of Research in Washington, D. C., where she interviewed U.S. soldiers who had been taken prisoner during the Korean War. She came to Berkeley in 1958 and found herself in a prime spot to study the cult scene of the 1960s and 1970s.
“I started hearing from families who had missing members, many of them young kids on our campus, and they all would describe the same sorts of things, ” she said. “A sudden change of personality, a new way of talking . . . and then they would disappear. And bingo, it was the same sort of thing as with the Korean War prisoners, the same sort of thought-reform and social controls. ”
“You find it again and again, any time people feel vulnerable,” she said.
“There are always sharpies around who want to hornswoggle people.”
She dispensed much of her advice over the phone, which always seemed to be ringing with anxious parents, victims or lawyers from around the world, all seeking advice. For decades, she also held court at a large table near the front door of Brennan’s bar and restaurant in West Berkeley, where she and her husband, Jerome, were Tuesday night regulars and where she would treat friends and admirers to corned beef, cabbage and multiple rounds of Irish coffee.
She was the author of “Cults in Our Midst,” the authoritative 1995 study on cults that she revised earlier this year with analysis of the connection between cults and terrorism. She was the winner of the Hofheimer Prize and the Dean Award from the American College of Psychiatrists and of achievement awards from the Mental Health Association of the United States and the American Family Therapy Association. She was a past president of the American Psychosomatic Society and a board member of the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute Review Board and the American Family Foundation.
She is survived by her husband of 48 years, Jerome, and by two children, Sam and Martha, all of Berkeley.
A funeral will be held at 1 p.m. on Monday at the McNary-Morgan, Engle and Jackson funeral home, 3630 Telegraph Ave, Oakland. Memorial donations may be sent to the American Family Foundation, P.O. Box 413005, Suite 313, Naples FL 34101-3005.
Chronicle staff writer Kevin Fagan contributed to this report.