Margaret Thaler Singer, one of the world’s leading experts on cults and brainwashing – who served as an expert witness in numerous high-profile court cases, including testifying for the defense in the 1976 bank-robbery trial of kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst – has died. She was 82.
Singer, a clinical psychologist and former psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who also was known for her work on schizophrenia, died of pneumonia Sunday in a Berkeley hospital after a long illness.
Singer, who did groundbreaking research on the brainwashing of U.S. soldiers captured during the Korean War, often was sought out by lawyers as an expert witness and by the news media for comment in high-profile cases, including the People’s Temple and the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, the search for the Hillside Strangler in Los Angeles, and the Branch Davidian and Heaven’s Gate cults. Over the years, she interviewed more than 4,000 cult members, including Charles Manson and many of his followers.
Singer interviewed Hearst extensively after her capture in 1975. Kidnapped by the revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, Hearst eventually joined her captors and participated in an armed bank robbery.
Enlisted to determine whether Hearst had been brainwashed into delivering the group’s revolutionary ideology, Singer testified in a hearing outside the jury’s presence that she had studied Hearst’s speech patterns and concluded that on most of the seven tape recordings issued by the SLA, Hearst was reading statements written by her captors.
The judge, although expressing admiration for Singer’s work, agreed with the prosecutor’s argument that Singer’s conclusion should be kept from the jury because the study was “in a field that has never before been accepted as a subject upon which expert testimony can be given.”
The trial, which resulted in Hearst’s conviction, greatly boosted Singer’s stature as an expert in brainwashing.
She was born July 29, 1921, in Denver, where her father was the chief operating engineer at the U.S. Mint and her mother was a secretary to a federal judge.
Singer, who played cello in the Denver Civic Symphony while attending the University of Denver, received a bachelor’s degree in speech and a master’s degree in speech pathology and special education.
After earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1943, she worked for eight years in the department of psychiatry at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine.
In 1953, she began working as a psychologist for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., where she specialized in studying returned prisoners of the Korean War who had been brainwashed into denouncing the United States and embracing communism.
She did further research, with a heavy focus on schizophrenia, with the National Institute of Mental Health, the Air Force and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She moved to Berkeley in the late 1950s, becoming an adjunct professor at the university when her husband, Jerome R. Singer, joined the physics department faculty. She was a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley from 1964 to 1991.
Singer, who lectured around the world, received dozens of national honors for her work, including the Hofheimer Prize for Research in 1966 from the American College of Psychiatrists and the Stanley R. Dean Award for Research in Schizophrenia in 1976 from the American College of Psychiatrists.
Singer is survived by her husband; a son, Sam; a daughter, Martha; and five grandchildren.