A Film That Helps Us Understand Why Pearl Becomes Appealing: How do parents get caught up in extreme practices?

A Film That Helps Us Understand Why Pearl Becomes Appealing: How do parents get caught up in extreme practices? January 26, 2015
Image from Cindy Kunsman - Under Much Grace
Image from Cindy Kunsman – Under Much Grace

by Cindy Kunsman cross posted from her blog Under Much Grace

A few years ago, I attended a professional conference that dealt with addiction which featured John Bradshaw as one of the speakers. I didn’t like his old PBS series on codependency and families, but in recent years, I’ve found his lectures and books enlightening. He points out well, much like Alice Miller does, that corporal punishment in particular destroys critical thinking and makes a person ripe for manipulation. In a talk, much of which referred back to his own history of abuse, he ended up mentioningFocus on the Family and Richard Fugate as examples of ideologues who recommend abusive practices in their books. I approached him after the lecture and told him that his examples paled in comparison to that of Michael Pearl. Just because of Bradshaw’s facial expression when I told him about Lydia Schatz, I ended up surrounded by a crowd of professionals, primarily social workers and licensed counselors. When I told them about the loyal following Pearl garners, they looked at me in disbelief. I told them that apart from either a cult model (which most of them understood as only only the inadequate and antiquated “Stockholm Syndrome”) or apart from what is often like the habituation within domestic abuse relationships, you cannot fully understand the phenomena.


In the discussion of the recent trail of Larry and Carri Williams, I again hear the same kinds of questions. “What motivates an otherwise parent to go to such dangerous extremes with their children?” “How does this happen?”

I’ve provided a series of longer answers to this question as the Schatz Family prepared for their possible trial before pleading guilty to charges concerning their adopted daughters, Lydia and Zariah. Michael Pearl equates deviation from his discipline system with sending a child right into hell, language we also heard in the Williams’ Trial. In addition to this emotional and spiritual blackmail, we also have to consider other factors. Social proof and the Appeal of Authority profoundly influence us as well, as the Milgram Study elucidated well. Bandura also noted that moral disengagement then ensues as a result of these influences – something that happens when people tell themselves that their personal actions are cancelled out by their motives in combination with their duty to some principle or ideal which can include obedience to authority. Pearl facilitates moral disengagement when he defines babies (and wives) as tyrants who are at willful war in an attempt to dominate their parents as opposed to a simple responding to discomfort and pleasure. Revisit and read more about these influences in depth in the series here called Why Good People Make Dangerous Choices

Recently, I again watched the film called Join Us that follows people who left a high demand, Bible-based religious group through the initial phases of their spiritual abuse recovery. You can learn much more about the film HERE, and I will embed as many video trailers as I can find, though several more appear on the site. (They even offer a “cult test” that you can take yourself.) The family seeks counsel at Wellspring, the first fully accredited facility for people who exit high demand groups and cultic relationship, and much of this kind of footage is included in the film. It provides another glimpse into what it is like to be in and then leave a high demand or cultic group, as well as what the recovery process tends to be like. The film also features some interviews with the group leader.

Of interest concerning this topic, however, is the discussion of the aggressive corporal punishment that the group taught and that members used against their children while they were in the fishbowl of their church group. (Note that the group did not reference Michael Pearl, though it is notable that excessive corporal punishment is often used in high demand groups, particularly Christian ones. Refer to two groups HERE and HERE, examples of other Bible-based groups that appear on this site.) It is heart wrenching to watch parents talk about this aspect of their cult experience, for though it troubled them to use these abusive techniques, they believed that it was their best if not their only option at the time. I felt terrible grief for one mother when I recently re-watched the film. The woman featured in the film is asked how many times she may have beaten her child, and she struggles to think about it, let alone convey this accurately. The parents talk openly about the remorse that they felt and about their hopes that their younger children will not remember what happened to them because the families stopped the practice.

Trailer for “Join Us”

For those who ponder and question why events like this ever take place, Join Us gives you another small window into this facet of the experience of membership in a high demand group. Though parents are fully responsible for their actions and any harm that my come to their children, it is also essential to consider the recruitment process and why parents become locked into practices that they’d have never chosen for their family, apart from the influence of a dynamic leader and a flawed ideology that promised them safety if not purity and perfection.

You can rent the film from Netflix through the mail, stream a rental or buy it through iTunes, or you can purchase a copy of it on Amazon orthrough the filmmaker.

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Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.

Read everything by Cindy Kunsman!

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  • Julia Childress

    Beating children has been a part of fundamentalist Christianity for at least a couple of centuries. For those who take the Bible literally, “whoever spares the rod hates their children” (Proverbs 13:24) is strong stuff. My husband and I were raised in the same Southern Baptist Church. While my parents used the rod very sparingly, my in-laws (now in their nineties) beat their children with swtches and belts and regularly sent them to bed without supper for minor infractions. My husband has told me that his father would literally be in tears during the beatings, and he would say “I hate doing this, but it’s what the Lord requires”. I think that the Pearls and other punishment cultists are a reaction against the liberal parenting of the last 30-40 years, when we came to understand that children are not just small adults. It’s tragic that other fundamentalist leaders who have to know that these methods are barbaric are too cowardly to speak out openly against Pearl, et al.

  • Nea

    Wait, you can either argue that whipping children goes back centuries (it does) or that it’s a reaction to Dr. Spock et al (who is mentioned directly by either Dobson or Pearl) but my brain goes ping at arguing both simultaneously.

    While Pearl/Dobson et al may mention more liberal parenting, what they also say is, essentially, “Well, *I* was spanked and *I* turned out just fine.” Pearl goes into the long “time-tested tradition” of child abuse as well; don’t blame him, blame history!

    Except history is chock full of blameworthy things. And actual science shows that child beating doesn’t work.

    The story about your husband’s father intrigues, though. Pearl says much the same thing, telling mothers that they are “too tender” and must “harden their hearts” et al. The parental instinct is one of the strongest in nature, certainly in human nature. Any cultist who can warp that to their own ends can pretty much assume that their hold over their audience is complete and do the rest of the things cults do – demand obedience, vilify alternatives, and count all that lovely money rolling in.

  • Julia Childress

    My apologies for lack of clarity – in an effort to keep it brief, I left out some things. Re: the seeming conflict in my statements. Beating children in the name of faith has been going on in America for centuries. As we became more enlightened in the mid to late 20th century (courtesy of Spock and other influences), the church moved away from it. We have more recently been experiencing a resurgence of Christian fundamentalism and with that comes the resurgence of corporal punishment and other traditions from the “good old days” like courting, women not working outside the home, etc. Until around the 1960’s “Beating the devil” out of kids used to be pretty main stream [as both Dobson and Pearl probably experienced personally], and many parents felt that they would be derelict in their duty as Christian parents if they spared the rod. Corporal punishment is both cruel and ineffective. But what Pearl has done is use it to extinguish not just bad behavior (which would have been his parents’ motivation), but also to extinguish natural curiosity and independence, which for the most part is an odious invention of the modern Christian fundamentalist movement. Thank you for your comments. My husband and I were greatly harmed by Christian fundamentalism (though we are still Christians, just more liberal), and I am happy to be able to discuss it with informed commenters on this forum.