Born July 29, 1921, in Denver, CO; died of pneumonia, November 23, 2003, in Berkeley, CA. Psychologist and college professor. Clinical psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer was a leading expert on cults and their peculiar hold on members for three decades before her death in 2003. The Berkeley, California, researcher sought to raise public awareness about the dangers of such groups as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and the Church of Scientology. She warned that groups that engage in coercive behavior to obtain and keep members were more pervasive a threat than commonly believed. "The public takes care of their fear by thinking only crazies and stupid people wind up in cults," an article by Lancet writer Ivan Oransky quoted her as saying. "I've interviewed more than 4,000 ex-cult members. There's no one type of person who is vulnerable."
Singer was a native of Denver, Colorado, where her father was the chief engineer at the city's U.S. Mint. Born in 1921, she was an accomplished cellist as a young woman, and played with the Denver Civic Symphony during her years at the University of Denver. After earning an undergraduate degree in speech, she received a master's in speech pathology, and went on to finish a doctorate in clinical psychology in 1943. She first worked in the psychiatry department of the University of Colorado School of Medicine for eight years before joining the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C.
At the highly regarded Army hospital, Singer was fascinated by the U.S. soldiers who had been captured by North Koreans or Chinese during the Korean War. When they were released, some returned with a vitriolic aversion to America. Singer began conducting research into the techniques used to cause such change, which she continued after taking an adjunct professorship at the University of California at Berkeley in 1958. She was also a trained family therapist.
In the 1960s, the Berkeley campus and nearby Bay Area was a hotbed of political activism and counterculture, but the movement drew unsavory types as well. Singer began to hear from parents whose children had suddenly disappeared, and connected the phenomenon to a rise in nontraditional, quasi-religious groups that were gaining ground on the fringes of hippie culture. "A sudden change of personality, a new way of talking and then they would disappear," Singer recalled in a San Francisco Chronicle interview with Steve Rubenstein. One of the first targets in her fight against cults was Synanon, a California group that gained a measure of fame in the 1960s for its work as a substance-abuse rehabilitation facility. She also began to investigate the practices of the Unification Church, which had attracted record numbers of idealistic young people in the 1970s.
Singer first entered the limelight when she testified at the 1976 trial of California newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who had been kidnapped by a leftist political group called the Symbionese Liberation Army and then took part in a bank heist caught on film. Singer delivered expert testimony on how brainwashing techniques involving isolation and the threat of physical harm could lead anyone to adopt a value system that was at odds with long-held beliefs. The judge presiding over the case, however, disqualified her testimony on the basis that cult psychology was too new a field for someone to qualify as an expert.
Singer went on to conduct further research on cults such as the People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, and the Californian group Heaven's Gate, each of which dissolved in tragic, headline-grabbing mass deaths. She wrote dozens of articles that appeared in professional journals, as well as the books Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives, and Crazy Therapies, which warned of the cultish aspects of some New Age behavioral fads.
Later in life, Singer also conducted research on scam artists who preyed on the elderly. It was her own advancing age of 75 that spurred her to do so. "I am a good example of a tough old bird who wants to help the other old birds see to it their roofs and swings and cages don't get stolen," the Lancet obituary quoted her as saying. One of the last major legal actions she took part in involved a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into wrongdoing at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) agency. She testified at the 1996 Houston, Texas, proceedings, and asserted that the confessions of the 13 defendants had been coerced. They had been taken to a mysterious warehouse, for example, warned about the danger of asking for a lawyer, and told that only by informing on others could they avoid trouble for themselves. "It is my opinion that psychological techniques were used on these NASA 13 that are forbidden in the ordinary legal world we live in and are forbidden in the Geneva Convention and the terms of international warfare," Houston Chronicle journalist Eric Hanson quoted Singer as saying.
Singer was the target of periodic threats and harassment. Interviewed by a newspaper in 2002, she recounted an episode in which someone was leaving threatening letters in her mailbox in the middle of the night. Singer stayed up late, and when the culprit returned to leave another, she confronted him from a window. "I've got a shotgun up here with a spray pattern that'll put a three-foot hole in you, sonny," a writer for London's Guardian newspaper, Christopher Reed, quoted her as telling the man. "So you'd better get off my porch or you'll be sorry! And tell your handlers not to send you back." The threats stopped.
In addition to her high-profile work on cults, Singer was also an authority on schizophrenia, and was nominated twice for a Nobel Prize for her research. With her physics-professor husband, Jerome, she held a regular Tuesday-night table at a Berkeley restaurant. She died of pneumonia on November 23, 2003, at the age of 82. She is survived by her husband, a son, and a daughter. "My mom spent her whole life assisting other people—victims, parents, or lawyers—and often for free," her son, Sam Singer, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Nothing gave her greater joy than helping to get someone unscrewed up."
Guardian (London), December 2, 2003.
Houston Chronicle, December 20, 1996.
Lancet, January 31, 2004.
Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2003.
New York Times, December 7, 2003.
Publishers Weekly, March 6, 1995.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 2003.
Washington Post, December 1, 2003.