UC-Berkely Psychology Professor Did Research On Brainwashing
Margaret Singer, the world-renowned professor emeritus of psychology at UC-Berkeley who demystified cults through groundbreaking research on brainwashing and testified at trials against the Unification Church and the Symbionese Liberation Army, died Sunday at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley. She was 82.
A soft-spoken woman and brilliant researcher, Mrs. Singer interviewed more than 3,000 cult members and testified at more than 200 trials, including the 1976 bank robbery trial of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who had been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. The group was a radical band formed in Berkeley during the Vietnam era that abducted the 19-year-old heiress, calling her “a prisoner of war” before she was persuaded to join them in their crimes.
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Mrs. Singer also took the stand on behalf of the parents of five members of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The parents alleged their children had been brainwashed by church teachings.
Richard Ofshe, a professor of social psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, a self-described “sidekick” of Mrs. Singer’s, said she was a dream to work with — unless you were a lawyer cross-examining her in court.
“She was like a little old lady with steel tips in her tennies,” Ofshe said. “I saw attorneys break into tears trying to cross-examine her. It’s hard to beat on a little old lady who was a lot smarter than they were.”
The only child of an Irish Catholic family, Mrs. Singer was born in 1923 in Denver, where her father was the chief engineer at the U.S. Mint. Mrs. Singer received a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Denver.
Her fascination with mind-control techniques began in 1952 when she took a post at the Walter Reed Institute of Research in Washington, D.C. There, she interviewed U.S. soldiers who had been forced to make treasonous statements while they were prisoners during the Korean War.
Mrs. Singer’s interest in cults grew when she arrived in Berkeley in 1957. It was an ideal location to study the blossoming New Age cult scene of the 1960s and 1970s where Hare Krishnas and the Unification Church were actively soliciting members around the campus.
In a 2001 Mercury News interview about her groundbreaking research on cult leadership and indoctrinating tactics, Mrs. Singer said, “People are basically lonely. They want to join something. The more mysterious it is, the more inviting and intriguing.” She noted cults often recruit members by using flattery, offering friendship, respect, and pretending to trade secrets.
More recently, Mrs. Singer co-wrote “Cults in Our Midst,” a 1995 study on cults that she revised earlier this year with analysis of the connection between cults and terrorism. She won the Hofheimer Prize and the Dean Award from the American College of Psychiatrists.
David Clark, an American Family Foundation associate who has worked with cult-affected families, said that despite her fame, Mrs. Singer would routinely console families whose children had been in cults over the years.
“She understood their plight and realized what a lonely place these families are in because they went through conventional avenues of lawyers and clergy and didn’t get more support,” Clark said.
Brenda Daeges, who lives in Bellevue, Neb., was one of those frequent callers.
“I was a mess when I met Margaret,” said Daeges, a former member of the Apostles of Infinite Love cult who met Mrs. Singer at a conference. “I tried to get her to help my family. She would let me call her collect. I don’t know how many times she saved me.”
Her son, Sam Singer, president of Singer and Associates, a San Francisco consulting firm, said his mother was never deterred by those who sought to stop her. There were numerous break-in attempts at her rambling Berkeley home. Singer said his mother would deter prowlers by threatening to shoot trespassers with a 12-gauge shotgun — even though she didn’t own one.
“She was always extremely cautious because there’s a lot of people who tried to hurt her,” Singer said. “She always stood up for what she believed in.”
Born: July 29, 1923, in Denver
Died: Nov. 23, 2003, in Berkeley
Survived by: Her husband of 48 years, Jerome, and by her children, Sam and Martha, all of Berkeley.
Services: Will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at the McNary-Morgan, Engle and Jackson funeral home in Oakland.
Memorial: Donations may be sent to the American Family Foundation, Box 413005, Suite 313, Naples, Fla., 34101.
Mercury News Staff Writer Sarah Lubman contributed to this report.
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