In Memoriam: Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer
November 23, 2003, witnessed the passing of Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, editorial board member of The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, founding member of the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health, and Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. Margaret, who died following a lengthy illness, was 82.
In this era of clichés, the word “giant” is bandied about all too frequently. But Margaret was a genuine giant. She made enormous contributions to the psychological understanding of cults, including the Unification Church, Heaven’s Gate, and the Branch Davidians; and cult therapies, including Synanon and Scientology. Her still-controversial writings on “brainwashing” (a phenomenon she first encountered in the 1950s while interviewing Korean War Veterans at Walter Reed Army Research Institute) helped to clarify the coercive processes that can lead psychologically normal individuals to embrace irrational belief systems.
Margaret was a familiar face in courts of law. She testified on behalf of the defense in 1974 in the Patty Hearst trial, maintaining that Hearst was coerced by her captors. She even interviewed Charles Manson. Margaret also played a prominent role in the trial of Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi, whom she concluded had faked symptoms of multiple personality disorder to escape responsibility for the brutal murders of several women in Los Angeles. In a PBS Frontline documentary titled “The Mind of a Murderer,” Margaret argued that Bianchi was actually a psychopath and she concluded the documentary by suggesting famously, “He may simply be evil.”
Margaret also made important scientific contributions to our understanding of fringe psychotherapies. Her 1995 book Crazy Therapies (Jossey-Bass), coauthored with Janja Lalich, critically examined a broad spectrum of unsubstantiated and controversial treatments, including rebirthing, recovered memory methods, facilitated communication, thought field therapy, and neural organization technique. This book also offered valuable tips to mental health consumers for avoiding dangerous treatments. Singer and Abraham Nievod’s chapter, “New Age Therapies,” in our (Lilienfeld, Lynn, & Lohr) 2003 book, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology (Guilford), provided a penetrating analysis of various strange therapies, including satanic ritual abuse therapy, rebirthing and reparenting therapy, and evil entities therapy, and traced their sociological and historical roots. This chapter should be mandatory reading for all mental health students and professionals.
I was fortunate to have met Margaret once (she appeared on a panel on pseudoscientific therapies I organized at the 2001 American Psychological Association conference in San Francisco) and to have corresponded with her on numerous occasions. Margaret was warm, generous, opinionated, spunky, brilliant, and wickedly funny. She was also exceptionally courageous and refused to be intimidated by recurring threats from leaders and members of cult groups. A year before her death, she told a reporter, “I might look like a little old grandma, but I’m no pushover.”
Margaret will be sorely missed by all of us at The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, but her remarkable intellectual influence will live on. We dedicate this issue of The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice in her honor.
Scott O. Lilienfeld