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Obituaries

Margaret Singer, 82; Expert on Brainwashing, Cults Testified at 1976 Trial of Patricia Hearst

November 28, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Margaret Thaler Singer, one of the world's leading experts on cults and brainwashing who served as an expert witness in numerous high-profile court cases, including testifying for the defense in the 1976 bank robbery trial of kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, has died. She was 82.

Singer, a clinical psychologist and former professor of psychology at UC Berkeley who also was known for her work on schizophrenia, died of pneumonia Sunday in a Berkeley hospital after a long illness.

Singer, who did ground-breaking research on the brainwashing of American soldiers captured during the Korean War, often was sought out by lawyers as an expert witness and by the news media for comment in high-profile cases, including the People's Temple and the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, the search for the Hillside Strangler in Los Angeles, and the Branch Davidian and Heaven's Gate cults.

Over the years, she interviewed more than 4,000 current and former cult members, including Charles Manson and many of his followers.

Singer interviewed Hearst extensively after her capture in 1975. Kidnapped by the revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, Hearst eventually joined her captors and participated in an armed bank robbery.

Enlisted to determine whether Hearst had been brainwashed into delivering the group's revolutionary ideology, Singer testified in a hearing outside the jury's presence that she had studied Hearst's speech patterns -- along with those of SLA members -- and concluded that on most of the seven tape recordings issued by the SLA, Hearst was reading statements written by her captors.

But the judge, though expressing admiration for her work, agreed with the prosecutor's arguments that Singer's conclusion should be kept from the jury because the study was "in a field that has never before been accepted as a subject upon which expert testimony can be given."

The trial, which resulted in Hearst's conviction, greatly boosted Singer's stature as an expert in brainwashing.

In the scientific community, however, she was even more famous for her work in schizophrenia and family therapy, said Daniel Goldstine, chief psychologist of the Berkeley Therapy Institute.

"She was a remarkable person -- the only genius I ever met in our business," Goldstine told The Times this week. "There are simply very few people anywhere who had the clinical skills that she had -- period. In addition, she was a world-class researcher.

"She was twice nominated for a Nobel Prize for her work in schizophrenia. That work revealed that the best indicator of the disordered mind was the schizophrenic's odd and peculiar use of language."

Until she was hospitalized five months ago, Singer continued fielding dozens of calls a day from fellow scholars, psychiatrists and cult victims and their relatives seeking her advice.

Singer wrote, with Janja Lalich, "Cults in Our Midst" (1995), which is considered a landmark in the field, and "Crazy Therapies" (1996), which deals with the negative and harmful impacts of New Age psychiatric therapies.

"Margaret Thaler Singer stands alone in her extraordinary knowledge of the psychology of cults," Robert J. Lifton, a City University of New York psychology professor and a pioneer in the study of Nazi and Chinese thought reform, wrote in the foreword to "Cults in Our Midst."

But not everyone agreed with her views on the subject, and Singer paid a price for her work. Cult "operatives" dug through her trash, went through her mail, picketed her lectures and sent her death threats. They also hacked into her computer countless times, once released dozens of live rats in her house, and frequently left dead rats on her doorstep with threatening notes.

But Singer remained undeterred.

About two years ago, after a week of finding cryptic notes in her mailbox and hearing the sound of footsteps on the front porch of her rambling house in Berkeley about 2 a.m. every night, she had had enough.

As recounted in a profile of Singer in the San Francisco Chronicle last year, the frail but still feisty 80-year-old leaned out of her second-floor bedroom window and yelled: "I've got a 12-gauge shotgun up here with a spray pattern that'll put a 3-foot hole in you, sonny, and you'd better get off my porch or you'll be sorry! And tell your handlers not to send you back!"

The intruder never returned.

Singer was known for being unfailingly polite and plain-spoken, and with her gray-streaked brown hair, oversized glasses and penchant for wearing old-fashioned lacy dresses, brooches and sensible shoes, she projected a grandmotherly image.

"She looks just like the little old lady from Pasadena -- until she speaks. Then she just grows in stature, and you see how incredibly smart she is. And tough," lawyer Paul Morantz told the Chronicle, whose reporter likened her to "velvet-covered steel."

She was born July 29, 1921, in Denver, where her father was the chief operating engineer at the U.S. Mint and her mother was a secretary to a federal judge.

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