TATTOOS: CONVICTS AND STREET GANGS

Japanese Yakuza

If you aren’t in a prison or a gang, who cares? More people than you might imagine! Think self-preservation and decision making—not to mention writing realistically.

  • Prison employees
  • Parole officers
  • Social workers
  • Police officers
  • Medical providers
  • Those new to the neighborhood/prison
  • Border patrol
  • Anyone living or travelling in Eastern Europe or Russia

Indeed, an extensive list of tattoos, with pictures and meanings, has been produced for the Canadian Border Patrol. It’s available online at publicintelligence.net (search tattoos and their meanings).

Another good source is corrections1.com.  

There is an abundance of on-line information about the meaning of prison tattoos, and it’s generally consistent. But keep in mind, there are varied meanings, and context is important.  One example here would be playing cards, typically found on the knuckles. In Russian prisons, the suit chosen have meanings. In other settings, this type of tattoo may indicate someone who likes to gamble, or who sees life as a gamble. (See below.)

The Nature of Prison Tattoos

Overall, prison tattoos tend to look dark and crude. Inmates tattoo each other using whatever equipment they can gather, such as staples, ballpoint pens, paper-clips, improvised needles, molten rubber, styrofoam, etc. 

Sometimes the “artist” will draw a picture on a wooden plank, place needles along the lines of the design, cover the needles with ink and stamp the whole tableau on the prisoner’s body. Another method is to slice the image onto the skin with a razor and daub the cut with indelible ink. When prisoners manage to get an electric shaver and a syringe with a needle, they can jury-rig a tattooing machine.

One of the least horrific photos I could find of an infected tattoo

Ink is hard to come by, so for dye, they can use pen ink. Also, they  can burn the heel of a shoe, and mix the ash with the prisoner’s urine – a practice superstitiously believed to reduce the chance of infection. Research has revealed a connection between tattoos and high rates of hepatitis C among prisoners.

Tattooing is typically slow and nearly always painful.  Conditions are inevitably far from sterile, so infections and complications are common.  Suffice it to say that what prison tattoos convey is important to the wearer.

Not All Tattoos are Voluntary

The most famous instance would be during the Holocaust when concentration camp inmates were tattooed with an identification number. Also see the section on gender below. Any tattoo that stigmatizes a prisoner, or invites abuse by other inmates, is likely to have been applied involuntarily.

White Supremacist Gang Tattoos 
  • KKK
  • Neo-Nazism
  • Arian Brotherhood (AB)
  • Family Affiliated Irish Mafia (FAIM)
  • Sacramaniac
  • Number tattoos
  • General white supremacist symbols
    • For example 1488 (or 14 or 88) found anywhere on the body identifies white supremacists/Nazi inmates.  There are a variety of tattoos associated with the Arian Brotherhood, important to identify, for they make up 1% of the prison population but commit 20% of inmate murders.
  • FAIM members sometimes wear a shamrock as well, signifying affiliation with the AB—but this is only allowed with permission of the AB
Russian Prison Tattoos

In the Soviet Union, particularly during Joseph Stalin’s time, non-political prisoners (thieves, murderers, arsonists, etc.) in the Gulag system were often given preferential treatment by prison guards. Tattoos told the guards as well as other prisoners how to treat a prisoner, including what labor assignments they got and whether to assign prisoners as enforcers. Eventually, non-political prisoners gained so much power within the Gulags that the Vor v Zakony (Thieves in Law) essentially ran many of the prison camps. Today, the Vory is one of the most powerful mafia organizations in the world. In many areas within the former Soviet Union, anyone with visible tattoos is assumed to be affiliated with the Vory or pretending to be.

  • Star
  • Manacles
  • Epaulette
  • Birds on horizon
  • Barbed wire
  • Symbol of the cross
  • Crowns and rings
  • Scarab beetle
  • Playing cards
  • Cat
  • A cat tattoo represents a thief.
    • One cat = the prisoner worked alone
    • Multiple cats = the prisoner was part of a gang of thieves
    • A cat tattoo (think stealthy as a cat) is considered good luck for a thief
    • If worn on the chest, it also signals a dangerous criminal who hates law enforcement 

Playing card suits carry specific meanings: spade represents a thief; clubs symbolize criminals in general, diamonds label stoolpigeons and informants – and was probably applied by force—and hearts imply that someone is looking for a romantic partner in the prison, which may also be forcibly applied.

The knife through the neck tattoo, in Russian prisons, means the bearer is a murderer—and proud of it. Much has been written about Russian prison tattoos. If interested, you can find information specific to Japan, Australia, France, Italy, etc.

Street/Prison Gang Tattoos

MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha)
  • Mara Salvatrucha 13
  • Black Guerrilla Family
  • Red Blood Dragon
  • Gangster Discipes
  • Santana
  • Mexican Mafia
  • Mexikanemi
  • Texas Syndicate
  • Almighty Latin King Nations
  • 18th Street Gang
  • Sureños
Crips
  • Norteños
  • Texas Chicano Brotherhood
  • Border Brothers
  • Hells Angels
  • Bloods
  • Crips
  • Indian Warrior
  • Laotian Boyz (LB)
Common Symbols
  • Tiger
  • Spider web
  • Tear drop
  • Three dots
  • Five dots
  • Angel of death
  • Clown faces/masks
  • Vida loca
  • Barbed wire
  • spiderweb, typically representing a lengthy incarceration, is commonly found on the elbow or neck. 
  • Teardrops can mean a lengthy prison sentence, that the wearer has committed murder, or that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and the tattooed one is seeking revenge.

According to corrections1.com, “One of the most widely recognized prison tattoos, the teardrop’s meaning varies geographically. In some places, the tattoo can mean a lengthy prison sentence, while in others it signifies that the wearer has committed murder. If the teardrop is just an outline, it can symbolize an attempted murder. It can also mean that one of the inmate’s friends was murdered and that they are seeking revenge. The teardrop has been popularized recently by rappers and other celebrities, but still remains a staple in prisons. Those who are newbies behind bars with a teardrop tattoo will make a lot of enemies, fast.”

Alternatively, Mental Floss says, “There are many stories about why a prisoner would have this tattoo, but the most common is that an unfilled teardrop might symbolize the death of a loved one, while an opaque one might show that the death has been avenged.

Three dots representing “my crazy life” (vida loca) refers to the gang lifestyle, but no particular gang; typically applied at the corner of the eye or between the thumb and index finger. Sometimes three dots, like three crosses, represents the holy trinity of Christianity. 

Five dots between the thumb and forefinger represents time done in prison. It’s found internationally. Located elsewhere on the body, this design may mean association with the People Nation gang.

A clock with no hands represents doing time and a lot of it. Ditto watch without hands or an hourglass.

Barbed wire tattoos are fairly common and many have no specific meaning. Sometimes each barb represents a year served in prison.  On the forehead, such tattoos typically mean serving a life sentence.

Laughing and crying clown faces/masks often means “Laugh now, cry later” attitude of the gang lifestyle.

Gender As a Factor in Prison/Gang Tattoos

Although there is much online discussion of convict tattoos in general, most of the images shown feature men. From this, with an overlay of gender stereotypes, one might conclude that tattoos among female inmates are rare.  But I found one research paper to the contrary.

“This study confirmed that there is a high frequency of tattoos among female offenders, but disproved the hypothesis that the frequency would be higher and more aggressive among violent offenders in comparison to non-violent offenders. Based on these findings, non-violent female offenders were more likely than violent female offenders to have a tattoo or tattoos, to have multiple tattoos, and to have aggressive or masculine tattoos. However, offenders convicted of violent crimes like robbery and assault or battery had the most visible tattoos, primarily located on the hands, face, fingers, and wrists.” 

(Sullivan, Megan, “Crimes Committed By Tattooed Female Offenders and the Significance of Body Art Content and Location” (2011). All Regis University Theses. 48 (.https://epublications.regis.edu/theses/483

I found no indication that the images and/or their meanings differ by gender. 

And according to Wikipedia, “Forced and enslaved prostitutes are often tattooed or branded with a mark of their owners. Women and girls being forced into prostitution against their will may have their boss’ name or gang symbol inked or branded with a hot iron on their skin. In some organizations involved with the trafficking of women and girls, like the mafias, nearly all prostitutes are marked. Some pimps and organizations use their name or well-known logo, while others use secret signs.  Some years ago, the branding mark was usually small, only recognized by other pimps, and sometimes hidden between the labia minora, but today some “owners” write their names in big letters all upon the body of the victim.”

Bottom line: Tattoos can carry a lot of meaning. When deciphering that meaning, tread carefully.

TATTOO!

Quick: what’s the first thing that came to mind?

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the 1963 film of the same name
Vladimir Franz, a candidate for the Czech Presidency in 2013

Last week, a woman said to me (approximately), “People  think permanent make-up is a new thing, but Cleopatra’s famous eyes were tattooed on. Soot was applied with knives.” I’d never heard such a thing, and I’ve actually been to Egypt. I always assumed her face was painted. As with anything that pricks my curiosity, I googled it. Lo and behold, it’s a much more complicated topic than I ever considered.

Bontoc Warrior with Chaklag Tattoos

Basically, any time an indelible design is created by inserting pigment under the epidermis, the result is a tattoo. Tattooing has been practiced in various cultures over centuries.

How Many Centuries? 

Ötzi the Iceman

As for bodily evidence of tattoos, for a long time the oldest known examples were Egyptian mummies, dated about 2000 BCE. However, Ötzi the Iceman, found on the Italian-Australian border in 1991, pushed that back. His mummified skin has at least 60 tattoos and was carbon dated a thousand years earlier, making him 5,200 years old.

This pre-Cucuteni figurine was made sometime between 4900 and 4750 BCE, with what look like evidence of cultural tattoos.

If one considers non-body evidence such as figurines and and paintings, then tattooing was practiced in Egypt in the Predynastic period, around 3100 BCE.

Tattooing Was Everywhere 

Moana was also the first Disney film to feature characters with tattoos!
Tätowierung Inuitfrau, an Inuit woman painted by Jens Peder Hart Hansen, circa 1654

The word tattoo started as the Polynesian word ta, meaning to strike. It evolved into the Tahitian word tatatau, meaning to mark something. As seen in the animated film Moana, these traditional tattoos were applied by means of rapidly striking a bamboo rod to drive an inked thorn into the skin.

A marriageable girl of the Koita people of Papua New Guinea, who had new tattoos added every year since she was five years old

In nearly every ancient culture, such as those in Greece and Rome to Native Americans, Japanese, sub-Saharan African, Australian Aboriginal, and Innuit, evidence has shown that tattooing was and most modern cultures tattoos were and are everywhere.

But Why Tattoo?

Preserved skin of a British military deserter, tattooed with a D
  • A cultic symbol dedicating the wearer to a specific god or belief
    • For example, Amunet was a priestess of the goddess Hathor.
  • As a brand signifying servitude/slavery/shame
    • For example adulterers marked with an A, T for thief, etc.
  • As a professional identification (e.g., prostitute, priestess)
  • As a permanent amulet seeking protection
    • Sailors having anchor tattoos or miners with lamps tattooed on their foreheads were trying to bring good luck.
    • The patterns of tattoos on Egyptian women’s abdomens and thighs seem to have been for fertility and for protection during pregnancy and childbirth. 
Japanese prostitute of the Kansei Era (circa 1888) painted by Tsukiok Yoshitoshi
  • Tattoos may have been a therapeutic tool, similar to acupuncture. 
    • The Ice Man had tattoos on his hands, lower back, and feet in areas that showed signs of stress damage.
  • As a declaration of group membership (think Marines, college fraternities, or Nazis)
  • As a visible means of intimidating the enemy (think Maori warriors) or showing bravery or success in battle
  • As a personal symbol of a meaningful event (e.g., birth of a child) or belief (sayings of Jesus or Buddha), or tribute to a beloved person
  • And, of course, as pure body art/decoration
  • Tattoos used by gang members and prisoners are often extraordinarily complex and will be covered in a separate blog post of their own.
    • The tattoos used by the Nazis in concentration camps were a form of branding, not in the same class as voluntary markings prisoners have chosen to put on their bodies for various reasons.
  • Tattoos to repair or restore
    • Today, plastic surgeons often work with tattoo artists to cover scars, burns, the effects of alopecia or vitiligo.
    • Many women get tattoos on their breasts after cancer surgery.
      • Along with her other artistic work, Amy Black (Pink Ink Fund) is a tattoo artist well known in the Richmond, VA area, for creating realistic-looking nipples or other art for women who have had cancer surgery. 

Permanent Make-Up, the Daughter of General Tattooing  

The goal is to look natural, or like externally applied makeup, enhancing colors on the face, lips, eyebrows, and eyelids. This type of tattooing (also known as cosmetic tattooing, dermapigmentation, micropigmentation) is also older than one might think.

Tattooed Eyebrows and Eyeliner

The first documented permanent makeup artist was Sutherland MacDonald, in the U.K. in 1902! His specialty was “all-year-round delicate pink complexion”—i.e., rouged cheeks. By the 1920s, it was popular in the U.S. The tattooist George Burchett wrote about beauty salons that tattooed women using vegetable dyes without their knowledge under the rise of “complexion treatment.” (Personally, I can only imagine that those women were willfully ignorant, given that tattooing is generally an uncomfortable procedure with visible aftereffects, such as temporary scabbing.) 

Mrs. M Stevens Wagner, 1907

As with all matters of fashion, popularity varies over time. During the 1960s and 1970s, the popularity of tattoos took a sharp uptick. According to one article (the guardian.com) in 2016, a US poll revealed that 29% of people had a tattoo, up from 21% four years earlier. Of people born between 1982 and 2004, 47% have at least one.

General Considerations 

Whang-od Oggay is the last Mambabatok (master practitioner of the traditional Kalinga tattoo method) of the Butbut people of the Philippines.

Do multiple tattoos create a different impression from a single one? And if so, in what way? What difference does the reason for the tattoo make? What about the nature/content of the tattoo?

But Back to Cleopatra 

Retrato Femenino: Fresco of a woman believed to be Cleopatra from a villa in Roman Herculaneum, circa 1st Century CE

According to accepted academic evidence, in Egypt—unlike most cultures—only women were tattooed. The tattoos most often seemed related to fertility and childbirth, or identifying the woman as high ranking. However, I found nothing specific to Cleopatra’s face. Bummer.

Bottom Line

Permanent body decoration serves psychological and/or practical purposes for the tattooed one. In addition, body decorations send out a range of social signals—intentional or not. Think about it.

WHAT MODE OF TRANSPORTATION SAYS TO OTHER PEOPLE

Like other accouterments of our lives—housing, clothing, pets—how we get from Point A to Point B communicates to those around us—and not everyone draws the same conclusions! The following observations are some of the most common (or loudest) I’ve come across; different countries and time periods have had varied observations about modes of transportation. Like most stereotypes and public perceptions, the following are of varying degrees of truth.

As general background: when users have to decide which mode of transport to use (private car, public transport, cycling, walking, etc.) gender is often a more robust determinant than age or income!

Shank’s Mare (A.K.A. walking): the Oldest Mode 

If only we could see what was on the other side!
  • Seldom chosen as the primary or only way to get around
  • People on long pilgrimages (Hajj to Mecca, walking cross country to raise awareness for a cause, Gandhi’s march to the Sea)
  • Depending on other info, may indicate poverty or health awareness

Bicycle: Impressions Depend on Model, Condition, Etc.

Many cities in China have more bicycles than cars.

Bicycles, mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles are almost always two-wheeled vehicles driven and steered by one rider. The distinctions are, like almost everything else, varied around the world and prone to blurring. A bicycle is powered entirely by the rider pedaling; a moped has a small motor attached to assist with pedaling in especially difficult environments. Bicycles are relatively easily modified for people with physical limitations, compared to cars and motorcycles.

  • People are in the best mood when riding bicycles
  • Can be inexpensive or very expensive, depending on type of bicycle and riding gear
  • Environmentally friendly 
  • Difficult to park securely in many places
  • Primarily for physical fitness
    • In fact, the vast majority of regular bicyclists in the US ride for transportation as they cannot afford a car and do not have access to public transit
  • Limited passenger capacity
    • Not as limited as most in the U.S. assume.
    • In Copenhagen, “’Cargo-bike moms’ are gentrifying the Netherlands.”

Scooter Impressions

Scooters are powered entirely by an engine, with a foot well for the seated rider’s legs. Unlike a car, all engine controls are in the handles.

Ambulance scooter with a sidecar for patients
  • Easy to drive
  • Cheaper and slower than a motorcycle
  • No safer than motorcycles 
  • Popular on very rural country rides for teenagers
  • More popular abroad than in the U.S.
  • Easier to maneuver and store in crowded areas
  • Driving permit requirements are often different from those of a car or motorcycle
    • Many areas don’t require permits at all
    • Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others) are questioning whether scooters fall under the same laws forbidding women to drive

Motorcycle Rider Stereotypes

Motorcycles and scooters are very similar, but a motorcyclist sits astride the seat. The engine of a motorcycle is generally more powerful than that of a scooter.

Bessie Stringfield rode her motorcycle from one end of America to the other, and as a dispatch rider in World War II.
  • Violent
  • Gang members
  • Harley riders are elitist and only care about brand; Other riders are effeminate
  • Reckless behavior
    • Stunt hooligans on the road
    • Prone to road-rage
    • Have a death wish
      • Emergency Response personnel sometimes refer to motorcycle riders as “Organ Donors,” but that is more because of the lack of safety gear than specific behavior patterns
  • Car haters
  • Uneducated rednecks
  • All young riders prefer sports bikes
“Dykes on Bikes” motorcycle club at a Pride rally
  • Physically tough appearance
    • Men have long, unkempt beards
    • Tattoos are common
    • Women dress provocatively
    • Lots of black leather, chains, spikes, gang markings, etc.
    • Gear is chosen to look tough rather than for practicality
  • Many of these perceptions are based on Hell’s Angels and other “outlaw motorcycle clubs”

Multi-Passenger Public Transportation

Public transport is much safer than automobiles (the above photo is an exception).  For example, bus and rail travelers are 20 times less likely to die en route than drivers. Even if self-driving and safety technology could reduce car by 90%, fatalities per passenger mile would still be twice as high in private automobiles.

Dogs ride free, right?
  • World-wide, the largest share of public transportation users are women
  • Bus and train riders experience the most negative emotions
    • Bus: poor people who cannot afford a vehicle/gas;
      • homeless/mentally ill people seeking temporary shelter from the elements.
    • Subway: city-dweller
    • Train: long-distance commuters;
      • More common in Europe and Asia, where train systems are much more comprehensive
    • Plane: long-distance (business or pleasure) travelers of means

Individual Cars

Private automobiles are especially dangerous if they don’t obey the laws of gravity.
So happy! He knows he’s going to the park.
  • The second happiest people are car passengers, followed by car drivers
  • Carpoolers: cut down air pollution
    • Lessen expenses of gas/parking
  • Private chauffeur
    • Renting a limousine or similar
  • Driver alone: not sociality responsible
    • Selfish or ego-centric
  • Taxi/Lyft/Uber: short distance trips for those valuing convenience
    • People who cannot drive for whatever reason (inebriation, tourist, moving larger than normal cargo, etc.)
    • Consider the possible conflicts between traditional taxi services and Lyft or Uber style companies, or even the conflict between drivers and management within those companies
  • Car drivers are so common that to dig into assumptions, it’s necessary to get into make and model

Other

Other methods of transportation are more common outside the US. Extreme climates, different resources, and distance have made what we might see as extraordinary into the everyday.

Ferries are common in highly populated areas on the water.
  • Dog sled, snow mobile, cross-country skiing
  • Bush plane
  • Tuktuk, marsrhutka, or any other kind of informal minibus system run by individual drivers
  • Horseback or horse-drawn vehicle (or donkey, mule, camel, etc.)
  • Canoe or kayak
  • Hitch-hiking
  • Rickshaw

BOTTOM LINE for writers: consider your choice and the reason for it!

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: MONEY

I have to work very hard not to spend all my money (and time) one books.

Money, money, money! It touches nearly every aspect of a person’s/character’s life—and deserves conscious decision making.

Does owning an entire city count as filthy rich?

How much money?  These are not scientific or economic terms, rather, the sorts of terms people use to describe themselves and/or others. The actual dollar amounts associated with the descriptors may vary. What would you/your character say? Point of information: people tend to make finer distinctions closest to where they peg themselves, lumping the extremes into bigger chunks.

Being penniless isn’t so bad when there are open barrels of food everywhere.
  • Penniless
  • Poverty stricken
  • Poor
  • Lower middle class
  • Middle class
  • Upper middle class
  • Well off
  • Rich
  • Filthy rich

*I’ve also seen income level defined by preferred fast food options. The scale ranges from Going to AA Meetings for Coffee, through Taco Bell and Chipotle, all the way up to Whatever the Private Chef Makes.

Social attitudes toward shopkeepers often depends on the quality of merchandise.

Source(s) of income: Note that respect for various sources of income varies widely. This often translates into treating people differently.

Musicians playing in a bar are often treated differently from musicians playing in a symphony hall, though their incomes are often almost identical.
  • Begging or panhandling
  • Gambling
  • Theft of various sorts, with or without another source
  • Illegal activities
  • SSI disability
  • Medicare/Medicaid 
  • Hourly wage
  • Entertainment, anything from a classical pianist to an exotic dancer
  • By the job/ piecework
  • Having multiple jobs
  • Salary
  • Salary plus bonuses
  • Stocks/bonds, dividends/interest
  • Trust funds
  • Family loans/gifts

Stability/predictability/security of income: Obviously, stability has implications for mental health and life stress. Money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly makes achieving stability somewhat easier.

Some people value experience and travel more than money, making a living on the road, feeling the wind in their fur… er… hair.
Assassins are generally exempt from income and property taxes, though sales tax may still apply.

Thoughts on taxes: This could be the modern IRS, but the same questions could just as easily be applied to citizens providing magic spells or Zygloxans giving helium globules to the Grand Tyrant on Planet YT-3H81.

  • Taking fewer payroll deductions than allowed in order to assure a tax refund vs. planning to owe and have the use of the money in the meantime
  • Being willing to pay taxes or looking for ways to avoid paying them
  • Finding quasi-legal or outright illegal methods to get out of paying taxes
  • Carefully accounting for every expenditure or estimating
  • Moral objections to the use of taxes (such as Thoreau)

Attitude toward money: Not necessarily related to amount of income.

Making everything at home is a way to save money and ensure quality.
  • Always more where that came from
  • Easy come, easy go
  • Best to save for a rainy day/unexpected expense
  • Sacrifice now for a secure retirement/college tuition/whatever
  • Always live below your means
  • Clips coupons and shops sales
  • Shop resale/garage sales/etc.
  • Buy quality, not quantity
  • Budget every penny and then figure out which bills will have to remain unpaid

Money by comparison: Source(s), level, etc., of income, especially compared to family and friends.

Relationships can get really complicated if your friends sell you off for scientific experiments.
  • Similar
  • Comparable
  • Much above
  • Much below
  • Changed over your/your character’s lifetime
  • Income disparity causing conflict

Where the money goes:

  • Religious tithes
  • Charitable contributions
  • Necessities only
  • Whatever strikes one’s fancy
  • Luxuries, with or without guilt
  • Whatever is most visible to elicit praise, admiration, or envy from others
  • Hobbies (what?)
  • Supporting family or friends who need a hand
  • Pets
  • Back into a business
  • Stocks/bonds
  • Sponsoring people on social media as indirect advertisement
Partying with demons is surprisingly expensive.

How money is handled:

If these characters offer a loan, running away is probably the best response.
  • Cash only
  • Charge everything possible
  • Pay by debit card whenever possible
  • Pay bills as soon as one arrives
  • Have bills paid by bank debit
  • Pay at the last minute, sometimes incurring late fees
  • Tip lavishly or stingily?
  • Bank account
  • Checking account
  • Savings account
  • Needing to take payday or title loans
  • If having to choose food, rent/mortgage, utilities, gas/transportation, which?

Bottom Line: What other ways is money a lynchpin in the life of you / your character?

No matter how carefully one budgets and saves, it can all be taken away at any time when a horde of dragons comes by.

NOM DE GUERRE AND OTHER PSEUDONYMS

Ioseb “Soso” Dzhugashvili is better known by the name he used as a Bolshevik, “Steel.” The Russian translation is Josef Stalin.
Montbars the Exterminator was the nom de guerre of Daniel Montbars, a French buccaneer.

Nom de guerre is French for “war name.”  

In 1716 France, a war name was mandatory, and in some ways was functionally similar to a dog tag for soldiers today. Soldiers were identified by their first name, family name, and war name. The war name was typically either the hometown or a particular physical or character trait. Examples would be Jean Louis of Paris, or Pierre Renaut the Red Haired One.

Some famous noms de guerre were chosen deliberately to the warlike, violent, or intimidating characteristics of the bearer. Pirates Captain Blackbeard and Montbard the Exterminator are examples of this.

Sometimes the alias replaced the family name.

Simone Segouin used the nom de guerre Nicole Minet when fighting Nazi occupation of France.
Ernesto Guevara was better known to his comrades as “el Che” or Che Guevara.

During Word War II, noms de guerre were adopted by the French Resistance for security, and to protect family members from the enemy.  Today mercenaries, resistance fighters, terrorists, and guerrillas adopt war names for the same reason.

Nom de plume has retained its specific meaning of a writing name that differs from a given name. Over time, the usage of nom de guerre became much more general, such that in ordinary French today, it’s a generic descriptor, like pseudonym.

By now, soldiers and writers are a small minority of people who take different or additional names.  And their reasons for doing so offer great plot points!

Members of a royal family often adopt a public name when they marry or assume the throne. Queen Noor of Jordan was born Lisa Najeeb Halaby.
  • Taking or keeping a professional name different from the family name
  • Personal identity
    • Wanting a less or more ethnic name
    • To fit gender identification
    • Simple dislike of one’s current name: too common, too outlandish, too juvenile, too likely to be embarrassing if mispronounced or misspelled, etc.
  • Marriage
    • Changing a name after divorce
    • Husband taking wife’s name
    • A couple choosing to combine parts of their names or hyphenate the two last names to make a new family name
    • Partners sharing a surname
  • Changing a child’s surname to mother’s, father’s, or adoptive parents’ name
  • Religious reasons
  • Criminal history or association
  • To be more or less closely associated with a famous (or infamous) relative
  • Political reasons
  • Entering witness protection program
Sith Lords took new names upon completing their training, either given by their masters or chosen by the Force. Anakin Skywalker is better known by his Sith title: Darth Vader.

A small sample of well-known people who changed their names. If you don’t know why these people changed names, the info is available on line.

Emilio Estevez deliberately did not share his father’s nom de guerre because, as he said, he “didn’t want to ride into the business as ‘Martin Sheen’s son’.”
Harpo Marx had two name changes. Born Adolph, he changed his first name to to Arthur avoid anti-German in childhood; “Harpo” was bestowed as a nickname by a friend.

Many modern surnames have similar origins, derived from occupations, geographic origins, political or religious affiliations, or personal characteristics. Consider some of the most common family names in the world today.

Malcolm X also adopted a new name twice. He changed his surname from Little to X to signify the loss of his African heritage; after going on pilgrimage to Mecca, he took the Muslim name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.
  • Wang (the most common, registered surname in the world) is the Chinese word for “king,” and there are historical records of several families adopting this surname for various reasons.
    • During intra-family arguments, descendants of a disgraced former royal often changed their family name to remind people of their origins.
    • Local custom sometimes meant that the family of whoever was in power at the time all be addressed as “Wang.”
    • Conquerors, usurpers, and invaders might change their family name to “Wang” as a way to validate their claims to the throne after the fact.
    • Entirely unrelated to their Chinese name-sharers, Scandinavian and Germanic families with the surname Wang are more likely to have been associated with a grassy meadow (vangr in Old Norse) or their presumably distinctive cheeks (wangl in Middle German).
  • Singh, the Sanskrit word for “lion” or “hero,” was used by Guru Gobind Singh (born Gobind Rai) to replace family names among all male Sikhs as a way of eliminating the caste system and demonstrating community equality.
  • Nguyễn was a powerful Vietnamese royal dynasty, and many families adopted the name to ally with the rulers.
  • Ahmed means “the highly praised one” and was one of the names of the Prophet Muhammed listed in the Quran. It was adopted by many families originally as a sign of religious devotion or of descending from the Prophet.
  • Devi is both the Sanskrit word for goddess and the mother goddess in the Hindu faith. Many women, especially in rural areas today, adopt Devi as a surname when they marry.
Silent film star Rudolph Valentino was born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella. He changed it when he came to the US in 1913.
  • Many of the most common surnames in the US are the result of emancipation, immigration, or assimilation.
    • Former slaves were often assigned a surname shortly after Emancipation. This was often the name of a former owner, but it might also be a trade, a defining characteristic, a local landmark, a parent’s first name, or any other surname chosen by the individual. According to the 2000 Census, 90% of Americans with the surname Washington are of African descent.
    • Immigrants coming through Ellis Island and Angel Island did not (as myth would have us believe) have their names changed by confused or lazy immigration officials. However, it was not uncommon for recent immigrants to the US to change their surname to one that was easier to spell with the English alphabet or to one less likely to attract anti-immigrant biases.
    • Changing surnames was a means of removing identity and forcing assimilation of people already living in America before Europeans. People were assigned names, often at random, as part of the effort to break up nations and outlaw traditional identification.

Bottom line: Names carry a ton of meaning!

This Thing Called Love

Did you celebrate Galentine’s Day this year? February 13th has been set aside for celebrating your gal pals. Friendship is an incredibly important part of a healthy support group, and it so often gets overlooked in the media.

Similarly, family relationships (blood or otherwise) are necessary for having a healthy mental support structure. Fiction tends to minimize these relationships unless they fall into specific tropes: controlling or absent parents, in-laws causing friction, siblings held up as an example (positive or negative), eccentric aunts and uncles, siblings in competition for resources.

The updated Frozen, with cameos from Cinderella and The Blue Fairy

One of the most popular films that breaks this custom is Disney’s Frozen. The relationship between sisters is stronger than that with any potential romantic interests. Ultimately (spoilet alert), the power of True Love’s Kiss comes from a sister rather than a convenient prince.

By itself, “love” is another of those weasel words—like rose, dog, snow, beautiful—words that can mean so many different things that it communicates very little. This is clear in the dictionary definition of love.

  • noun
    • noun: love
    • plural noun: loves
  • An intense feeling of deep affection.
    • “Babies fill parents with feelings of love.”
  • verb
    • verb: love
    • 3rd person present: loves
      • past tense: loved
      • past participle: loved
      • gerund or present participle: loving
  • Feel deep affection for (someone).
    • “He loved his sister dearly”

So, in English at least, the meaning of the word must be established by modifying words or phrases, or inferred from context. 

Types of Love

Not so for the Greeks. Some of these are more familiar than others, for example, Eros. Particularly at this time of year, the “love” that is celebrated with flowers, cards, and gifts is almost exclusively Eros.

Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio Canova
  • Eros — Romantic Love—illustrates sexual attraction, physical desire, and a lack of control.  It is powerful, passionate, and can fade quickly. Relationships built solely on Eros love tend to be short-lived. 
  • Ludus — Playful Love—is defined by flirtatiousness, seduction, and sex without commitment. The focal point of this love is on the experience rather than attraction or feelings.  Ludus is evident in the beginning of a relationship and includes elements of play, teasing, and excitement.
Owning a country has often been cited by relationship experts as the glue that holds a marriage together.
  • Pragma — Enduring Love—is evident in couples who have been together for a long time.  This type of love continues to develop throughout the years and portrays synchronization and balance. This type of love can only survive with constant maintenance and nurturance. 
The Robber and His Child by Karl Friedrich Lessing
  • Storge —Love of the Child—describes the unconditional love that (ideally) parents have for their children. It is defined by unconditional approval, acceptance, and sacrifice.  It helps a child to develop through attachment, encouragement, and security.
Grandparents often add cookies to storge!
    • When it is between friends, this type of love is sometimes referred to as phyllia.
    • Aristotle defined phyllia in Rhetoric as “wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one’s own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him.”(1380b36–1381a2)
No one can ever match the selfless love of a dog
  • Agape — Selfless Love—Agape love is representative of universal love.  Greek philosophers felt that this is the type of love that people feel for other humans, for nature, and for a higher power.  This love can be most easily expressed through meditation, nature, intuition, and spirituality. Agape love can be used interchangeably for charity and care for others.
  • Philautia — Self Love—is linked with confidence and self-worth and is necessary for a sense of purpose and fitting in.  Philautia can be unhealthy and linked to narcissistic behaviors and arrogance, or can be healthy in the sense that we love ourselves before we learn how to love others. Greek philosophers believed that true happiness could only be achieved when one had unconditional love for themselves.  
The myth of Narcissus and Echo illustrates unhealthy extremes of philautia and mania
  • Mania — Obsessive Love—Stalking behaviors, co-dependency, extreme jealousy, and violence are all symptoms of Mania. Clearly, this is the most dangerous type of love.

Triangular Theory of Love

What is the Triangular Theory of Love? As with so much of human behavior and emotion, psychologists have studied love.

Renowned psychologist Robert J Sternbergat Yale University,first put forward his Triangular Theory of Love in 1985. 

The three main components that Sternberg says lie at the heart of most human relationships are passion, commitment, and intimacy. These are the three simplest forms of love – passion alone brings infatuation, intimacy alone equals liking, and commitment alone means empty love. Depending on how these three combine, they form the seven types of the thing we call love. 

The triangular part of the theory comes from the fact that you can combine any two of these components to form more complex types of love – each combination forming a different side of a triangle. Combining passion and intimacy for instance, makes romantic love. Intimacy plus commitment yields companionate love, while fatuous love comes when commitment meets passion.

Sisterly love falls somewhere between love and irritation.

And then there’s consummate love, which is the combination of all three components. It’s often seen as the ideal form of love, for by mixing the fire of passion, the comfort of intimacy, and the security of commitment, you can form a healthy, happy, lasting romantic relationship. It’s important to note that this triangle doesn’t have to be an equilateral shape (indeed, the three components are rarely present in equal measures.)  

Friendship is often more committed than dating and more intimate than marriage.

Even consulate love may not last forever – one of the caveats of the Triangular Theory of Love is that relationships can move from one point to another over time – but it is something that can be worked towards, or that you can work to recover. And it’s worth working for – consummate love is a special type of bliss; the kind of connection that sees people continue to adore each other long into a partnership. 

Bottom line: Love is not a unitary emotion. The first association with the word “love” by itself likely to be Eros. But consider the strength of other forms of love.

And then there are dumpster fire relationships…

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: DOG OR CAT?

Cats and dogs have notoriously different needs and characteristics, but either can be good models for characters. 

The first large dogs appeared in Russia about 15,000 years ago. There were smaller dogs in Western Europe at about the same time, and other wolves were domesticated in China a little later. Modern dogs are mostly a mixture of all three types.  Worldwide, there are 360 recognized breeds, not counting those being created but not yet recognized.

There are 40 recognized cat breeds.  Domesticated cats have been around since 3600 B.C., 2000 years before Egypt’s pharaohs.

Question: Is your character from an old/first family? A pillar of society? A mix of different cultures and upbringings? 

Athleticism

Speed: On average, cats run 50 kph and dogs run 32 kph.  In other words, house cats can run at a speed of 30 miles per hour.

Flexibility: Cats have free-floating bones (clavicles) which allows them to move more freely, making them more flexible.  Cats are able to get through any openings they can get their heads through.

Appetite: Dogs win hands-down in eating contests, sometime gorging a whole meal in just a couple of bites; cats tend to eat more gracefully, and slowly.  (FYI, this is because cats cannot move their jaws horizontally; they can only  open and close.)

Agility: Unlike dogs, cats are able to jump (up to six times its length) and climb, which aids them in hunting and makes it easier to flee from danger. Their sharp, retractable claws provide a distinct advantage when it comes to catching prey and defending themselves from bigger predators. Because of this, cats have no need to work together to care for themselves. It also makes them territorial. 

Balance: Most female cats prefer using their right paw, while males are more likely to be “left-pawed”.

Lifespan: Cats live 25% longer than dogs (15 vs. 12 years).

Question: Are your characters’ strengths and/or weaknesses more cat-like or more dog-like?

Brain Power

Memory: Research under controlled laboratory conditions have demonstrated that both dogs and cats exhibit what’s called episodic memory—i.e., their brains make possible the conscious recollection of events as they were previously experienced. It’s a rare trait in animals.

Cats have a longer-term memory than dogs, especially when they learn by actually doing rather than simply seeing.

Training: Dogs are generally the easier of the two to train. A dog’s pack mentality makes him ready to follow a leader and makes him generally more obedient by nature.  You can teach an old dog new tricks. Although eager puppies soak up information (just like human children), dogs can learn at any age (also like humans).

Cats can be trained, but not as thoroughly as dogs. It requires a lot of patience and consistent practice to get past their willful nature. With cats, it’s best to focus training on establishing boundaries.

A cat’s cerebral cortex (the part of the brain in charge of cognitive information processing) has 300 million neurons. That’s almost double a dog’s.

Emotion: A cat’s brain is 90% more similar to a human’s than to a dog’s. Cats and humans have nearly identical sections of the brain that control emotion.

Dogs don’t feel guilty. They might look guilty at having done something wrong, it’s just their reaction to being reprimanded. Over the millennia, dogs have evolved to mimic human facial expressions to ingratiate themselves and get more treats. However, dogs do feel intense affection for their favorite people. Researchers demonstrated that dogs’ heart rates increase when their owners speak to them or call their name.

Dreaming: Both cats and dogs dream, as evidenced by brainwave patterns similar to humans.

Questions: Is your character more a pack animal or a loner? What are his/her strongest brain functions?

Character/ Personality

Pack or Solitary: Dogs are hardwired with pack instinct that generally makes them social, friendly, and all too happy to belong to a group. Dogs instinctively go wherever their pack goes, which makes them more readily accepting of new experiences, such as travel or moving. Dogs are good followers.

By contrast, with the exception of lions, most cats in the wild are solitary nocturnal hunters. Cats have no need to work together to thrive.  As solitary animals, they are okay alone all day.  Their independence may make them seem aloof.  Cats can be content as long as they have the essentials.  They do enjoy social interaction, though.

Stimulation: Cats would do much better in COVID lockdown or other confinement than dogs!

Dogs need lots of stimulation, fresh air and regular exercise.  Dogs enjoy days out and traveling.  Dogs often tend to be more expensive to care for than a cat (food, toys, accessories, grooming, etc.).

Schedule: Dogs are diurnal; cats are nocturnal and like to roam the house at night. Cats sleep 70% of the times.

Question: what is hard-wired in your character?

Communication

Body Language: A cat’s whiskers pointed forward is a sign of inquiry or curiosity; pointed back is a sign of fright/not wanting whatever is coming its way.

The way a dog wags its tail can tell you its mood. It’s suggested a wag to the right means happy and to the left means frightened. Low wags indicate they’re insecure.

Within a pack, dogs communicate almost entirely through body language. Much of this body language can be copied by humans to communicate with dogs, including eye contact, head position, torso angle, and invading or conceding personal space.

Vocalization: Dogs are able to understand 200 words, the same number as a two-year-old human.

Cats make more than 100 different sounds whereas dogs make around 10. The basenji is the only breed of dog that can’t bark. However, they can yodel!

One study indicated that hungry cats ‘meow’ in the same frequency as a crying baby, hitting the human brain right in the obnoxious evolutionary hindbrain (especially in the middle of the night).

Question: Does your character communicate (send and/or receive) better with verbal, non-verbal, or paraverbal skills?

Sensitivity

Smell: A dog’s sense of smell is up to 100,000 times more than humans.  Bloodhounds are able to trace scents that are over 300 hours old.

Vision: Cats see more colors than dogs do.  Dogs see primarily on a blue and yellow scale; they can’t tell the difference between green and red.  Visual acuity is better for dogs, but cats see better in the dark.

Cats’ whiskers help them detect motion changes.

Hearing: Cats can hear almost a full octave higher than dogs (sounds as high as 64 kHz), and both can hear in the ultrasonic level.  Hearing is the strongest of a cat’s senses. 

The ability of a cat to find its way home is called “psi-travelling.” Experts think cats either use the angle of the sunlight to find their way or that cats have magnetized cells in their brains that act as compasses.

Question: Which of your characters’ senses are most highly developed? Did that come naturally? Was it/them honed on purpose?

Bottom line: Considering your characters’ physical and psychological traits will contribute to a richer, more compelling character.

GLOBAL BELLY LAUGH DAY

Join The Belly Laugh Bounce Around the World:  on January 24 at 1:24 p.m. local time, smile, throw your arms in the air and laugh out loud.

Suggestions for acts and activities can be found at bellylaughday.com
Why bother? Because laughter is good for your physical and mental health! 

According to the Mayo Clinic:
When it comes to relieving stress, more giggles and guffaws are just what the doctor ordered. Here’s why.  

[NB: I’ve changed some formatting and left out some bits, but you can fill those in by going to the Mayo Clinic website.]

Short Term

A good laugh has great short-term effects.  When you start to laugh, it doesn’t just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body.

  • Stimulate many organs. 
    • Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.
  • Activate and relieve your stress response. 
    • A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response, and it can increase and then decrease your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.
  • Soothe tension. 
    • Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.

Long Term

Laughter isn’t just a quick pick-me-up, though. It’s also good for you over the long term.

  • Improve your immune system. 
    • Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity.
    • By contrast, positive thoughts can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.
  • Relieve pain. 
    • Laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.
  • Increase personal satisfaction. 
    • Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations.
    • It helps you connect with other people.
  • Improve your mood. 
    • Many people experience depression, sometimes due to chronic illnesses. Laughter can help lessen your depression and anxiety and may make you feel happier.

How’s Your Sense of Humor?

  • Ask the professionals.
    • Find a few things that make you chuckle, such as photos, greeting cards or comic strips, and hang them up at home or in your office.
    • Keep funny movies, books, magazines or comedy videos on hand for when you need an added humor boost.
    • Look online at joke websites.
    • Go to a comedy club.
  • Find a way to laugh about your own situations and watch your stress begin to fade away.
    • Even if it feels forced at first, practice laughing. It does your body good.
    • Consider trying laughter yoga: people practice laughter as a group. Laughter is forced at first, but soon turns spontaneous.
  • Share a laugh. 
    • Make it a habit to spend time with friends who make you laugh.
    • And then return the favor by sharing funny stories or jokes with those around you.
  • Knock, knock. 
    • Browse through your local bookstore or library’s selection of joke books and add a few jokes to your list that you can share with friends.
    • Retelling jokes or anecdotes that are stale or dated could be a good indicator of a character’s age or social awkwardness.
  • Know what isn’t funny. 
    • Don’t laugh at the expense of others.
    • Some forms of humor aren’t appropriate.
    • Use your best judgment to discern a good joke from a bad or hurtful one.
    • A hurtful sense of humor might indicate a character’s villainous nature before any deliberately villainous acts.

Go ahead and give it a try. Turn the corners of your mouth up into a smile and then give a laugh, even if it feels a little forced. Once you’ve had your chuckle, take stock of how you’re feeling. Are your muscles a little less tense? Do you feel more relaxed or buoyant? That’s the natural wonder of laughing at work.

Dr. Lee Berk and Dr. Stanley Tan (Loma Linda University) have found the following physical health benefits:

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces stress hormone levels
  • Works your abdominal muscles
  • Improves cardiac health
  • Boosts T-cells
  • Triggers the release of endorphins
  • Produces a general sense of well-being

Humana.com adds the following:

  • Relieves pain
  • Burns calories
  • Increases blood flow

Still not convinced?  Go online and read for yourself!

And while you are at it, better know your laughter!  There are as many words for laughter as there are for types of laughter. Consider the positive and negative connotations of the following: 

  • Guffaw
  • Giggle
  • Snigger
  • Chuckle
  • Chortle
  • Titter
  • Howl
  • Roar
  • Snicker
  • Cackle
  • Shriek
  • Snort

Bottom line: When it comes to laughter, too much of a good thing is still a good thing!

WHAT’S A CAR FOR, ANYWAY?

Parking in front of a fire hydrant is illegal, and this is why. If they need to, firefighters will smash in a car’s windows to attach their hoses effectively. In addition to smashed windows, broken glass, and water all over the car, the driver will also get a ticket.
If you’re reading the driving manual while driving the cab, it may be too late.

I don’t know whether I’m on a roll or in a rut. Having considered the variety of bed activities people indulge in, I was primed to notice what’s going on on the road. The other day, I stopped at a traffic light and saw a woman in the car next to mine was putting on mascara and eyeliner. So here we go!

Besides driving and riding. . .

Please note: Some of these are much better done while riding than while driving! (Or not being done at all…)

Deliberately driving your car into the path of a drunk driver to prevent it running over pedestrians.
  • Catch up on email
  • Brush or floss teeth
  • Needlework, especially knitting
  • Play travel games, such as “I spy…” or rhyming
    • Usually involves at least one child
Drive along scenic or historic routes
Sleep, with or without snoring and drooling
  • Meditate or pray
  • Eat, sometimes an entire meal
  • Drink
  • Read
    • eReader or physical book
    • Listen to audiobook
  • Listen to music
    • Learn music
  • Talk on the phone
  • Text
  • Update social media
  • Apply or fix makeup
  • Comb/style hair
Actively seek death
  • Argue
  • Get a man to really talk
    • Research has established that men driving, eyes straight ahead, are more likely to engage in sustained and/or intimate conversation
  • Translate vanity plates into words
  • Watch videos
  • Work on laptop
  • Catch up on the news
  • Save money on insurance by driving safely
  • Urinate in a bottle
    • Not easily accomplished for females
Hang feet out the window
  • Change glasses
    • Put in contact lenses
  • Change masks
  • Pick nose
  • Trim nose hair
  • Groom fingernails
    • File
    • Glue
    • Polish
    • Clip or polish toenails
  • Prop one or both feet on dashboard
  • Smoke or vape
    • (In many states, it is now illegal to smoke near hospitals or with a child in the car)
Shave
  • Change clothes
  • Steer with knees or forearms
  • Get a massage Some car seats are made for it now
  • Pick up hitch-hikers
  • Suffer road rage
    • Honk the horn
    • Flip someone the bird
    • Turn headlights on/off
  • Take pictures
  • Practice a foreign language
  • Crying or weeping
  • Sing along with the music in your head
  • Ask “Are we there yet?” every thirty seconds

Bottom line: can you spell distracted driving?

PSYCHOLOGY OF CULTS

Cults are nothing new. Indeed, if asked to name a cult, you could probably name a few. In ancient Greece and Rome, a cult was simply the care owed to a deity, the rituals carried out at a shrine or temple. A mystery cult was a religious group that celebrated a minor god or goddess or a lesser-known aspect of a deity’s history. The word “cult” has different connotations today.

Janja Lalich, Ph.D., professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, is a big gun in cult research.  Her website, Cult Research, provides extensive information about the mental mechanics involved in cults. She has also included resources for recognizing signs of a cult and how to help others who may have been impacted by a cult.

Modern Cults

There have been too many cults to count throughout history, but the vast majority have been small and soon forgotten. A post on Insider.com listed the six most notorious cults in history. (These cults have been extensively discussed and researched by people who were kind enough to share their findings online.) 

  • The (Charles) Manson Family famously murdered seven people over the course of two nights. Their stated intention was to start a race war. The Manson Family was formed in the late 60s.
  • Members of Heaven’s Gate were told that their leader was the reincarnation of Jesus, that God was an alien, and that the end of the world was near. In 1997, 39 members died after ingesting barbiturates and putting plastic bags over their heads. It is the largest mass suicide on US soil.
  • The Children of God was founded in 1968 as a system of communal living under the strict teachings of preacher David Berg. Multiple former members have testified that the church used prostitution as a recruitment tool and engaged in widespread child trafficking and sexual abuse. The organization later rebranded to The Family of Love International, and it is still active online.
  • Jim Jones founded The People’s Temple in Indianapolis in 1955 but moved the band to Guyana, and called the place Jonestown, in 1977. Reports of member abuse followed the group from place to place. In 1978, Jones instructed all of his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. More than 900 people died. This is the origin of the slang expression “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” meaning a person who believes in a possibly doomed or dangerous idea.

From the Wikipedia entry on cults:

“In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religiousspiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal. This sense of the term is controversial, having divergent definitions both in popular culture and academia, and has also been an ongoing source of contention among scholars across several fields of study.  The word ‘cult’ is usually considered pejorative.”

Cults are attractive because they promote a feeling of comfort, and because they satisfy the human desire for absolute answers.

Characteristics Common to Cult Leaders 

Lists of characteristics vary in inclusiveness and contain both personality and behavioral characteristics.

Personality
  • Narcissism shows up on every list
  • Charisma is an essential quality
  • Personal proclivities that shape what’s expected of group members
  • Need for control/maintain power imbalance
  • Psychopath
  • Often delusional, believing their own teachings 
Behavior
  • Offer tantalizing promises
  • Be unpredictable (reactions, appearances, next demands)
  • Organize “love bombs” for new recruits
  • Promote an us vs. them mentality, feelings of superiority
  • Isolate members from family, former friends
  • Public humiliation of established members
  • Demand detailed acknowledgment of individual fears and mistakes
  • Repeat various lies and distortions till members can’t recognize reality
  • Promote paranoia: a group, family or government is out to get members
  • Encourage members to spy on each other

Writing in Psychology Today in 2012, Joe Navarro, M.A., presented his personal list of 50 clues to identifying cult leaders.  Listed below are several of his items.

  • A grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve
  • Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance
  • Demands blind, unquestioned obedience
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement or power
    • Expects to be treated as special at all times
    • Expects to be able to bend rules and break laws without repercussion
  • Arrogant and haughty
  • Hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others
    • Is highly dependent on tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments
    • When criticized, lashes out with rage
    • Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy”
  • Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly; often reacts with rage
  • Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy
    • Habitually puts down others as inferior
  • Ignores the needs of others, including biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs
  • Frequently boastful of accomplishments
  • Needs to be the center of attention 
    • The word “I” dominates his conversations
  • Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated, or exploited for personal gain
  • Is deeply offended by signs of boredom, being ignored, or being slighted
  • Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong, nor does he apologize
  • Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems
  • Works the least but demands the most
  • Sees self as “unstoppable” and perhaps has even said so

Characteristics Common to Cult Members

  • Female: world-wide, 70% of cult members are women
    • Explanations for this vary
  • Generally average sorts of people. No trends in location, income, etc.
  • Suffer low self-esteem, making them especially susceptible to love bomb (compliments, etc.)
  • Many have rejected standard religions
  • Intelligent
  • From sheltered environments
  • Blame others for their failures
  • Strive for perfectionistic goals
  • Often have no idea they are in a cult!

Characteristics Common to Religious Cults 

  • It opposes critical thinking
  • Isolates members and punishes them for leaving
  • Emphasizes special doctrines outside accepted scriptures
  • Seeking inappropriate loyalty to leaders
  • Devalues the family unit
  • Crossing boundaries of behavior (especially sexual) set in accepted religious texts
  • Separation from the main religious structure

Common Recruiting Tactics 

  • Target people who are stressed, emotionally vulnerable, have tenuous or no family connections, or are living in adverse socioeconomic conditions.
  • People who were neglected or abused as children may be easily recruited because they crave the validation denied them in their childhood
  • High school and new college students are good targets for cult recruitment since they’re still forming their identity and (in the case of college students) have recently been separated from their families
    • One old (1980) study of 1000 high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area found that 54% reported at least one recruitment attempt by a cult member, and 40% reported 3 to 5 contacts
  • I can only imagine that the rise of various social media platforms would have exploded those numbers.

Damage to Cult Members 

Various research has established that former cult members suffer long-term negative effects. Dr. John G Clark, Jr, of Harvard University works with former cult members and their families identifies the following 

  • Increased irritability
  • Loss of libido or altered sexual interest
  • Ritualism
  • Compulsive attention to detail
  • Mystical states
  • Humorlessness
  • Heightened paranoia

Because these are symptoms similar to temporal lobe epilepsy, it’s reasonable to assume that membership in a cult is a brain-changing experience. 

Bottom line: There is much we can and should learn about cults—possibly in our lives, certainly in the world around us. Many of these qualities and behaviors are present to some degree in people who aren’t actual cult leaders or members. Still, they provide fodder for compatible/consistent constellations of attitudes and behaviors. Think character creation!

Hot Fuzz, in addition to being a great movie, provides an example of two cults working against each other and destroying individuals in the way.