Singer, Margaret Thaler 1921–2003
SINGER, Margaret Thaler 1921–2003
PERSONAL: Born July 29, 1921, in Denver, CO; died of complications from pneumonia November 23, 2003, in Berkeley, CA; married Jerome R. Singer (a physics professor), 1955; children: Sam, Martha. Education: Denver University, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., 1943.
CAREER: University of Colorado School of Medicine, psychiatry department, 1944–52; Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Washington, DC, psychologist, 1953–57; University of California, Berkeley, adjunct professor of psychology, 1958–91, professor emeritus, 1991–2003. Researched schizophrenia at National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Air Force, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology; taught at University of Rochester and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Board member, Kaiser Foundation Research Institute Review Board, and American Family Foundation.
MEMBER: American Psychosomatic Society (president, 1972–73).
AWARDS, HONORS: Hofheimer Prize for Research, 1966, and Stanley R. Dean Award for Research, 1976, both from American College of Psychiatrists; two-time nominee, Nobel Prize; received awards from American Psychiatric Association, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Association, and Mental Health Association of the United States.
(With Janja Lalich) Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives, foreword by Robert Jay Lifton, Jossey-Bass Publishers (San Francisco, CA), 1995, revised edition, 2003.
(With Janja Lalich) "Crazy" Therapies: What Are They?, Do They Work?, illustrated by Jim Coughenour, Jossey-Bass Publishers (San Francisco, CA), 1996.
Contributor to numerous professional journals and popular periodicals.
SIDELIGHTS: A trained clinical psychologist, Margaret Thaler Singer became one of the world's foremost experts on cults and brainwashing, authoring more than one hundred articles and interviewing about 4,000 former cult members. As Ivan Oransky stated in the Lancet, "Singer was, for almost fifty years, a champion of people who had been kidnapped, brainwashed, or worse by cults and other groups." She also authored two books on the subject with Janja Lalich, a former cult member. Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives is considered "a landmark in the field," according to Los Angeles Times contributor Dennis McLellan, while "Crazy" Therapies: What Are They?, Do They Work? "deals with the negative and harmful impacts of New Age psychiatric therapies," as McLellan explained.
Singer's work in brainwashing began in 1953 when she went to work at Walter Reed Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., interviewing soldiers who had been prisoners of war in Korea and had undergone psychological and physical manipulation that left many with an aversion to their own country. Singer studied the techniques employed by the North Koreans in this brainwashing and indoctrination. When she and her physics professor husband moved to California, Singer found herself coincidentally placed in what was fast becoming the capital of cultism. Increasingly she was consulted by parents whose children suddenly disappeared, swallowed up by some religious cult or another. Working as adjunct psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Singer began investigating the world of religious cults and their use of brainwashing techniques. Although her research into schizophrenia and its affects on speech patterns is the work for which her professional peers knew her best, Singer became known to the general public for her role as an expert witness in high-profile trials such as that of Patty Hearst as well as various legal cases such as those involving the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon. She was also a regular media consultant on incidents such as the mass suicides at the People's Temple in Guyana in 1978, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, and the Heaven's Gate cult deaths. She also interviewed Charles Manson, whose cult followers had murdered Sharon Tate and others in 1969.
Singer drew on such experiences in Cults in Our Midst, a "well-researched, enlightening introduction to a serious subject," as Mary Carroll noted in a Booklist review. From her copious research and interviews of former cult members, Singer explored the nature of cults and how they operate. Her book also explains these groups' threat to society as a whole and details methods by which reluctant members can escape such cults. A Publishers Weekly reviewer described Cults in Our Midst as "an instructive report on the cult phenomena." In 2003, shortly before her death, Singer updated Cults in Our Midst, extending her analysis to show the connection between terrorism and cults.
In "Crazy" Therapies, again written with Lalich, Singer took on the host of treatments advocated by New Age therapists, from aroma therapy to chakra and aura readings, searches into past lives, alien-abduction therapy, and rebirthing, among many others. In an article for Harvard Mental Health Letter, coauthors Singer and Lalich wrote: "These practitioners purport to bring about such results as inner-child healing, clear frequencies, programming release, finding one's missing self, rebalancing the body's energies, personal empowerment, planetary healing, and alignment of fluid intelligence systems…. These methods are not just ineffective, misleading, and therefore a waste of time. Often they are actively abusive and damaging. Clients become accustomed to magical thinking that makes them look for instant solutions to daily problems."
Singer's work earned her numerous enemies among cults, whose members were known to leave dead rats on her doorstep, threatening letters in her mailbox, and hack into her computer. Undeterred, Singer continued her work right up to the time of her death, her most recent projects involving con artists and the frauds they perpetrate on senior citizens such as herself.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 15, 1995, Mary Carroll, review of Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives, p. 1456.
Harvard Mental Health Letter, December, 1997, Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich, "Crazy" Therapies: What Are They?, Do They Work?, p. 5.
NCAHF Newsletter, November-December, 1992, "Cultologists Sue Social Science Associations," p. 2.
Publishers Weekly, March 6, 1995, review of Cults in Our Midst, p. 49.
Family Process, March, 2004, p. 5.
Guardian (Manchester, England), December 2, 2003, p. 29.
Lancet, January 31, 2004, p. 403.
Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2003, p. B16.
New York Times, December 7, 2003, p. A56.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 2003, p. A19.