People to Know

People to Know: Dr. Alexandra Stein

Alexandra Stein, Ph.D., is "a writer and educator specializing in the social psychology of ideological extremism and other dangerous social relationships. She is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. Stein offers prevention education programs and materials to help people understand how to identify and protect themselves from recruitment to cultic or extremist groups. She also studies and teaches about positive social relationships: 'small d' democracy, inclusivity and healthy social and personal networks that can oppose these dangerous relationships." [1]

We are big fans of Dr. Stein's work and believe that she will do much to help us understand the linkages between several fields, including those of terrorism, cults and domestic violence. She has a mastery of the concept of coercive control and aims to make an impact on the UK policy. Stein urges for a public health approach to combatting coercive control and would be a helpful collaborator for anyone working to develop a prevention agenda for the United States.

We plan to highlight more of her work in the future, but we would like to highlight two areas of special note: her doctoral work comparing highly political groups that are extremist and non-extremist, and most especially her contributions to the area of group attachment.

Stein's doctoral work on groups compared the Green Party to the Newman Tendency, "a group based in New York City, active in third-party politics, and run by Fred Newman, a former university lecturer." [2] The Newman Tendency and the Green Party are both highly political and ideological groups, but the Green Party does not ask as much of its members as the Newman Tendency. Throughout her work, she highlights the psychological and emotional differences between the two. It's an important distinction for people to understand, as experts agree it is not the ideology that makes an abusive group or cult, but rather, the abusive methods and power and control utilized by group leaders against followers.

What Stein contributes to attachment theory, as it applies to cultic control, is of extreme importance to the field of domestic violence, and of particular interest for developing an understanding of the full impact of coercive control on victims. Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby, explains how "how human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat," [3] by drawing on a schema developed in early childhood modeled after their relationship to their primary caregiver. That primary relationship then serves as a model for handling stress in future relationships.

In her book, Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems, Stein argues that attachment theory is not just applicable to relationships between individuals, but between individuals and groups. Further, Stein asserts that the attachment style one has developed (even healthy attachments) can be hijacked by these types of group and turned into a "fearful attachment" (as she posits "fear + isolation = control"). For those familiar with attachment theory, one of the most often cited theories of interpersonal relations, this kind of addition is a significant one, largely beyond the scope of just this field.

If you're interested in Dr. Stein's work on attachment theory, you should check out her book and watch this great interview where she discusses it in depth.

Dr. Stein's work is important across multiple fields and can do much to help us better understand the psychological impacts of coercive control. You can find out more about her and follow her work at her website, on twitter and on our People to Know page. We will continue to highlight her work as it applies to the concept of coercive control.

[2] Stein, A. (2012). Terror and Love: A Study of Brainwashing. Anthropology Now4(2), 32-41.
[3] Waters, Corcoran & Anafarta 2005, pp. 80–84.

Person to Know: Evan Stark

Dr. Evan Stark is a recognized expert in the domestic violence (DV)/intimate partner violence (IPV) field and author of Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. His work on coercive control represents "one of the most important books ever written about domestic violence and one that should be widely read by advocates, policymakers, and academics". [1] 

We have already highlighted Evan Stark's concept of coercive control, as well as its importance, but for a better understanding, we STRONGLY encourage readers interested in the subject to read the entire Coercive Control book. In this work, Stark delves into the intricacies of patriarchal control, explaining how as women’s liberation progressed, institutional (public) control of women, becoming more socially unacceptable, transformed into dominance over women within their homes, decentralized and hidden from the public eye.

Stark's work also acknowledges the many who came before him and laid the groundwork for his coining the term coercive control. Because the dynamics of coercive control mirror dynamics found in some other abusive contexts, including religious cults and prisoners of war (POWs), he discusses the work of former POW Robert Jay Lifton and the critical works of Judith Herman (who we have highlighted already on our blog) and Lenore Walker on complex PTSD.

The work of Lifton, Herman, and Walker are foundational to an understanding of coercive control, but Evan Stark's efforts have changed the way advocates understand the experiences of victims and create policy to better protect them. His ideas became the basis of domestic violence policy in the United Kingdom. Now UK policy recognizes a broader interpretation of abuse, which they have termed “controlling and coercive behavior”. The authors here hope that this will eventually inspire policy in the United States that could strengthen policies such as stalking laws and impact how abusers are sentenced.

Written by Chelsea Brass

[1] Domestic Violence Report in Stark, E. (2009). Coercive control: The entrapment of women in personal life. Oxford University Press. Back cover.

Person to Know: Judith Herman

It would be impossible to do this work without recognizing the importance of Judith Herman. We’ve already included her on our People to Know page, but the reality is that you need to know much, much more about her than we could fit into that small space.

Judith Herman, M.D., is a professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School and the author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, which was published in 1992. Trauma and Recovery was groundbreaking and is still considered one of the most important explorations of complex trauma and recovery in the field of psychiatry. The book explores the horrors of extreme trauma across multiple contexts, from child abuse and domestic violence to political terror and cults, exposing the common experiences and impacts to survivors. Far before Evan Stark outlined the concept of coercive control, Herman’s work explained the impacts of subjugation and terror, recognizing the central role power and control play in both the reign of an abuser and the recovery of a victim.

Herman drew an important distinction between the impacts of and recovery process related to acute trauma (a one-time event) and complex (repeated, extended) trauma. Her exploration of complex trauma also recognized the commonalities between “the tyranny of private life” experienced by women and those held captive as prisoners of war. [1]  She unflinchingly embraced a feminist theoretical approach to understanding power and control, recognizing the complexity of how victims experience terror, disconnection, and captivity, as well as power and control’s function in our society, including its important role in structuring the political and social systems that govern us (and create law and policy that guides protection for victims).

Herman’s exploration of trauma is eye-opening and certainly resonates with survivors of complex trauma, but her work on recovery provides hope for a way forward. Herman spends equal time exploring the recovery process, offering important insights into how survivors can heal and the people in their lives and communities can best support them. Herman presents three fundamental stages of recovery: establishing safety, reconstructing the trauma story, and restoring the connect between survivors and their community. [2] She also recognizes the important role power and control play in the recovery process as well, stressing that each phase of recovery must be survivor-led and a process that empowers and provides agency to the victim. Most importantly, Herman explores all of these stages through the lens of relationships, recognizing that because trauma shatters a survivor’s “sense of self”, “that sense can be rebuilt only as it was built initially, in connection with others.” [3]

To this day, Judith Herman continues to research and write about trauma. Her work is foundational and Trauma and Recovery is absolutely essential reading for those who want to understand how trauma impacts people and “how we heal and are healed.” [4] It is most certainly an academic exploration of the topic, but is valuable even to those who are not in the field of psychiatry. We hope you’ll check her work out!

Written by Abigail Hazlett

[1] Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence--from domestic abuse to political terror. Hachette UK. p. 28
[2] p. 3
[3] p. 61
[4] back cover