"Cult apologist" offers explanations about Elizabeth Smart

CultNews.com/March 20, 2003
By Rick Ross

Another "cult apologist" has surfaced through the news coverage of Elizabeth Smart.

Nancy Ammerman of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research previously has spoken about the Branch Davidians.

In 1993 Ammerman claimed within a published report that the FBI was negligent because they didn't listen to her fellow apologists James Tabor and Phillip Arnold. Both men have been recommended as "religious resources" by the Church of Scientology, which has often been called a "cult."

Ammerman's work regarding the Davidian standoff was lauded by Scientology through a full-page article within its own "Freedom Magazine." And she has admitted that "various political and lobbying groups" influenced her view of that cult tragedy.

The professor's report about the FBI was later included in a book titled "Armageddon in Waco," which also contains the work of scholars historically associated with and/or supported by groups called "cults."

Ammerman observed that "If [Elizabeth Smart] was a devout religious person, and [her captor] wanted to play on those religious sentiments, it's plausible, just plausible, that she could have understood this to be some sort of religious experience," reports the Palm Beach Post.

Is a violent kidnapping, rape and imprisonment now somehow to be categorized within the realm of "religious experience"?

Here it seems Ammerman is avoiding the "B" word ("brainwashing"), in an attempt to offer some sort of alternative "religious" explanation.

But isn't there a more obvious and plausible understanding, which is more consistent with the established facts?

Elizabeth was initially isolated for months. This began when the 14-year-old girl was first held in a boarded up hole at a relatively remote campsite. This is not unlike what happened to cult kidnap victim Patty Hearst in 1974, when she was first confined within a closet by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Elizabeth like Hearst was brutally raped, terrorized and effectively cut off from the outside world. This made Mitchell's process of coercive persuasion not only possible, but also enabled its eventual success. Mitchell then simply solidified his undue influence.

Elizabeth became "Augustine." And though she had numerous opportunities to escape and/or identify herself to authorities, she did not do so. Instead, for months "Augustine" passively followed her captors, Mitchell and/or Barzee.

Her actions cannot simply be explained away by her "religious experience," or written off as just the effects of trauma and the "Stockholm Syndrome."

Ammerman also said, "I suppose he also could have played off of a child's desire to be obedient to an adult."

This is a common sense observation almost anyone might make about adult authority.

But attempting to explain Mitchell's undue influence over the child by linking it to her religious background sounds a bit like "victim bashing."

Such a conclusion seemingly supposes that if Elizabeth and/or her family were not Mormons, Mitchell an excommunicated Mormon, might not have been so successful.

However, Mitchell's bizarre religious "Manifesto," an odd hodge-podge of beliefs taken from many sources, has little meaningful similarity to the Mormon Church Elizabeth attended.

Mitchell may have claimed to be a "prophet," but Elizabeth must have known through her religious training, that the only prophets accepted by Mormons are those that are acknowledged by their church.

Accordingly, despite Mitchell's claims, only the current church president could be seen by Elizabeth as a living prophet today.

In actuality Elizabeth's "religious experience" can be seen more readily as an obstacle for Mitchell to overcome, rather than a common premise or bond that empowered him.

Again, Patty Hearst like Elizabeth Smart had no apparent common bond with her captors. Hearst was not a campus radical and/or left wing political activist. And the Hearst family were conservative and Republican.

But Patricia Hearst nevertheless, due to the process she was subjected to through her confinement, isolation and treatment, succumbed to her captors and became "Tania," a revolutionary Marxist.

A cursory review of other cult victims in groups like Jim Jones' Peoples Temple, Solar Temple, Aum of Japan and "Heaven's Gate," demonstrates a diversity of backgrounds and frequently that personal histories are not in harmony with the cult's beliefs.

Any attempt to simplistically categorize cult victims seems more like denial than serious examination.

Such claims as, their common "religious" background and/or religious devotion, made the victim vulnerable, appears to surmise that this somehow can't be done effectively or as easily to secular or less devout people.

And let's not forget that Elizabeth was abducted not recruited.

Research indicates that almost anyone may succumb to the extreme environmental control and pressures imposed by someone like Mitchell, and almost certainly a 14-year-old child held prisoner.

Perhaps rather than engaging in specious and/or simplistic explanations, Ammerman should have explored the unique circumstances, but common characteristics that define destructive cult indoctrination, often described as "thought reform."


Copyright © 2003 Rick Ross.

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