Some companies and organizations that employ door-to-door sales tactics are known for their cult-like practices (e.g., Amway, traveling magazine sales, and Jehovah's Witnesses). An unusual psychiatric report included this religious brainwashing element in presenting the case of a 47 year old Japanese housewife who felt possessed by God after a visit by a door-to-door salesman (Saitoh et al., 1996):
In Japan, psychiatry has generally regarded the possessive state as symptomatic of religion- related mental disorders. ... Recently, there has been a proliferation of direct sales enterprises that incite anxiety in prospective customers in order to sell their products. Due to the prevalence of door-to-door peddling of items such as amulets and talismans to ward off curses and misfortune, the term ‘door-to-door sales’ has come to have a religious connotation.
Recently, we treated a case of possessive state accompanied with suicidal tendencies which are thought to have developed in connection with door-to-door sales. Religious factors and elements of brainwashing were seen both in the conditions that promoted the possessive state and in the state itself.
The patient grew up on a family farm in the Tokyo area. She was described as laconic, withdrawn, quiet, unsocial and nervous.
When the patient was 47 years old, a male she described as a ‘salesperson type’ came to her home in May. He read her palm and asked for her husband’s family name and birth date. When she gave him this information he predicted that some misfortune would befall her husband. The patient’s husband had fallen in an accident a few days earlier, and she became extremely anxious. The man then said, ‘I have a talisman, a lucky name chop (family seal) which will protect your husband from misfortune’. Although she was hesitant at first, she finally agreed... When she paid for the chop the man recommended that she go to a certain room in a hotel in Saitama prefecture for a more in-depth palm reading ... where she was one of 20 women who received a lecture on subjects such as lineage, marriage, health and happiness.
Approximately 1 week later, again at the salesman’s advice, she went to a rented room in a building in Tokyo where she received a scroll called a prayer book. At the same time she was urged to buy a sculpture which was called a ‘Fortune Tree’. Two days later she went to her bank with the salesman and a woman whom she did not know and paid the ¥5,400 000. The patient went to this room twice a month during June, July and August. The room was divided by a partition and she was shown biblical videotapes. In September, she complained of an inability to sleep, and stated, ‘I can hear God’s voice. He possesses me and is controlling my bodily movements’. Thereafter, she episodically gave orders to her family in an uninflected monotone, making unrealistic assertions such as, ‘Don’t eat that or you will die’ and ‘Don’t go out or you won’t come back’. In mid-September, she filed a complaint that she had been deceived into buying the ‘Fortune Tree’ at an exorbitant price.
Shortly thereafter, she was taken to a private mental hospital and treated with the antipsychotic drug haloperidol. Two weeks later, she was able to recount her ordeal:
... ‘I felt like God had taken over my body. I was ordered by Him to do this or do that. Even if I wasn’t talking, my mouth just moved on its own. I didn’t go so far as to be One with God, but it was almost like that. That’s why I gave orders to my husband and child as though I were God’. The patient showed no subsequent objective signs of abnormality, and was released 2 months after admission.
The authors discussed her case in terms of the DSM-IV diagnosis, Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, along with depressive symptoms and somatic complaints. Her attendance at the video lectures was described as a form of brainwashing. More specifically, her condition would fall under the category of Dissociative Trance Disorder (possession trance), a disturbance in consciousness or identity with a culturally specific element:
Dissociative trance involves narrowing of awareness of immediate surroundings or stereotyped behaviors or movements that are experienced as being beyond one's control. Possession trance involves replacement of the customary sense of personal identity by a new identity, attributed to the influence of a spirit, power, deity, or other person and associated with stereotyped involuntary movements or amnesia...
This case is rare not only because of its association with a business practice, but also because possession is usually seen in more isolated communities with traditional belief systems, quite unlike contemporary Tokyo.
Possession Trance Disorder in DSM-5
Satoh S, Obata S, Seno E, Okada T, Morita N, Saito T, Yoshikawa M, & Yamagami A (1996). A case of possessive state with onset influenced by 'door-to-door' sales. Psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, 50 (6), 313-6. PMID: 9014228
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