Interview with Dr Martin Blinder

By Debra Van Neste and Lucie Vogel

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About Martin Blinder, MD

Having practiced Forensic Psychiatry and served as Expert Witness for Plaintiffs, Defense and as a court-appointed independent counsel since 1962, Dr. Blinder is noteworthy for the breadth and scope of his experience and ability to report in simple language his findings, diagnoses and professional opinion.

Serving as an expert witness to both Plaintiff and Defendant and as a court-appointed psychiatric examiner, Dr. Blinder has a long history of serving the court with his professional and insightful expert testimony and forensic psychiatric experience and opinions.

Dr. Blinder is the author of the textbook, Psychiatry in the Everyday Practice of Law (Thomson/West) currently in its’ 4th edition and in use in numerous University Law Depts. and Law Schools throughout the US.

Debra Van Neste: Dr Martin Blinder, I appreciate the opportunity for this talk on undue influence. This is for the layperson to understand. People are being taken in by those claiming to be cult experts and some families are charged enormous fees, as in tens of thousands of dollars, and even $30,000, and up. They pay this thinking they will be helped by only a medical professional. However, the situation in reality, is handled/assigned to a team of ex-cult members and non-medical professionals, almost like a team of deprogrammers arriving at your door.  The monies extracted from the family is divided within a large group of people and if there are no results there are no refunds.

Dr Martin Blinder: $30,000 I am in the wrong business! (laughs)

Debra Van Neste: I want to provide the right information for families and give away the right tools, with definitions and clear understanding, so, they can tell when they are talking with somebody claiming to be an expert, whether they are even using the right legal definitions and terms that would hold up in court. An example is those claiming to be experts that use the word “brainwashing” and “mind control”, From my knowledge, neither term is a legal definition, so what definition would you use? Would it be indoctrination?

Dr Martin Blinder: You’re right. Those are popular phrases, but they do have some meanings, but you and I are talking rather precisely about not loose popular terms but more or less psychological or scientific terms that are accepted in the community of experts. The brainwashing phrase that emerged started with William Sargant—by the way I studied under him many years ago in London. He worked with Americans who were captured by North Koreans and in two or three months of capture were saying wonderful things about their captors and negative things about American democracy.  The North Koreans were able to develop a way for people to “change their minds”. If you want some proof of undue influence you can try and imagine what it is was like in North Korea’s prison camps. American soldiers who were 18 or 19 years old, and now considered traitors, so Sargant studied these soldiers and wrote about their technique. What North Korea used to get them to change what they thought about themselves and what they believed and their country, this is where the brainwashing phrase came from, that became popular with the press. You come into the camp with one kind of brain and leave with another type, so brainwashing is not that far off.  I have no quarrel with that, but with cults, who arguably use techniques that are subtle versions of the kind of things that the North Koreans do, there are some significant differences and we will be getting to that, because it goes into the very heart of what distinguishes undue influence from mere influence.

Debra Van Neste: That was our next question!

Dr Martin Blinder: My mother decided to get in the stock market in her 60’s and 70’s in Nigerian oil companies, and in compromise I tried to persuade her they may not be above board. It was not my money but her money. I wanted to make sure that she always had enough money and not lose it. I was certainly trying to “influence” her.  Now in undue influence, the person doing the debating is doing it for their benefit. It’s not out in the open like it was with my mother. Undue influence is a subtle process where the other party is not being clear that they are doing it to make them do something or say something. The key to undue influence is that it is taking place beneath the surface. The consciousness of the person is the target. Cult leaders are very good, they will talk about the spiritual and being part of something, only wonderful things will happen, and they will say the more you give of yourself over to membership, the larger you will be. They have secret agendas to get to the individual and to hook onto their autonomy. The unconscious aspect is the key, because if you don’t know that the person you are talking with is setting out to influence or persuade you, your defenses are not up. There are individuals that within 5 minutes are vulnerable to undue influence.

Lucie Vogel: Often in a situation where undue influence is at play, there are both good and bad things happening within the experience. The bad things point to a pattern of undue influence while the good points to a pattern of reasonable behavior. How do you overcome your burden of proof to show your client was a victim of undue influence when the defense can show a lot of evidence of reasonable behavior, which would tend to disprove undue influence?

Dr Martin Blinder: Let’s simplify this. Let’s say there is a woman in an abusive relationship. That’s the subject. OJ Simpson is a gentleman Monday through Saturday. He only beats her up on Sunday. He takes her out to dinner every Wednesday.  That does not negate that he beats her up. You cannot sugar coat it. The “sugar” is part of the “undue”. Here are some things that I find are irrefutable in undue influence. The person that is being subjected to this is vulnerable. There are different ways that cult leaders can tell.  There are folks that come from abusive childhoods, their authority figures or parents were unkind to them, as such they have a battle and a need to remedy that. They never had their own parents and here comes a person who is a super-authority (cult) leader. They get support they never had as children, which of course comes at the price, of having to give up your autonomy. Other issues might be drugs, anxiety etc.

Debra Van Neste: Cults also deceptively recruit and anyone can be deceived. Cults are secretive, some people may think they are just going to some social outing and be love bombed. Wealthy people and educated people get involved with cults too, as with Scientology. These celebrities have independent lives yet the indoctrination is deep. It’s amazing how undue influence can be utilized.

Dr Martin Blinder: Intelligence is not the issue, it’s not some automatic immunity from psychological weakness. People can have a hunger to have somebody love you. People in Hollywood, the fact they are wealthy is no guarantee, they might have tremendous narcissistic needs. They might use the cult as a compensation for their type of isolation they deal with. Scientology uses them as their echo chamber.

Lucie Vogel: Is undue influence the best cause of action to use in seeking damages from a cult?

Dr Martin Blinder: I think it is the foundation for persuading a jury. There are two parts in litigation, one is action, appropriate action, two very different issues. Let’s say I rear ended your car, but your car is a truck and I have a Volkswagen. I am off the hook, even though I am wrong there is not any damage. Not much of a lawsuit. On the other hand, I am walking down a flight of stairs and you tap me on the shoulders and I fall down and smash my head and the damages are extraordinary.  The second is what injuries have they sustained?   Separate issues for liability.  But that’s not enough, you also have to show they have suffered as a consequence of the damages done to them. Unlawful and undue activity, you have to keep those things separate and yet have to address both of them. With cults you have to show that they did bad things.

Debra Van Neste: That was such a good example. Thank you for explaining the differences between consequences and liability. What would be some key elements in looking for a professional to help if a loved one is in a cult and do you take these cases? 

Dr Martin Blinder:  Yes, I do take these cases. Anyone can say “I am the number one expert”, but there has to be some foundation you want to be sure of. Transparency for professional fees and not being secretive. A medical license, a PhD in psychology is a good start. Anyone who charges exorbitant fees is a fraud.   

Debra Van Neste: Dr Blinder, what a pleasure to speak with you, thank you for the education and your time.

For more information on Dr Blinder, please visit his website.

Special Thanks to Lucie Vogel for providing insightful questions and editing.