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Book Review - Them and Us Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat

Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat

Arthur J. Deikman, M.D.

Bay Tree Publishing (Berkeley, CA), 2003

$17.95 pbk, 206 pages, includes Notes and Index

Reviewed by Janja Lalich, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, California State University, Chico

Them and Us is an important book that shatters the still-prevalent myth that cult members are those “other” people, “weirdos out there,” and “certainly not me.” Arthur Deikman is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and also the author of The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy (Beacon Press, 1982). Them and Us is an expanded version of his earlier work, The Wrong Way Home, first published in 1990. This updated edition includes not only an insightful foreword by Doris Lessing, but also a provocative discussion of issues facing us since the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, in which the author ties together facets of cult phenomena and cult psychology, and shows how they have an impact on people (officials, terrorists, and citizens alike) on both sides of the present-day “holy war.”

Overall Deikman’s position is that cult thinking resides in all of us simply because of the elemental human desire for parental protection. As a psychiatrist, he sees this fundamental vulnerability as the opening through which cult thinking can take hold. Therefore, in his work of assessing relationships, situations, groups, organizations, he starts not with the question, “Is this group a cult?”; but rather his focus is on “How much cult behavior is taking place?” (p. 2). For him, it’s a given, as normal as mother, home, and apple pie. This is a useful approach in that it helps to demystify the usually muddled view of the rather ordinary (albeit concerted and directed) social-psychological techniques of influence and control used by cults.

“Hugh” and “Clara” are the subjects of chapter 2, which relates their story as they evolve from unsuspecting recruits to devoted believers in a philosophical, quai-therapeutic, quasi-spiritual group called “Life Force.” The couple remained members of the group for nearly a decade. Readers have an opportunity to see how these everyday influences in a cult context can be used to comfort and assuage followers, as well as manipulate and control them, all while fostering group conformity and obedience to the leader. Deikman deftly illustrates how easily a person can succumb to these pressures, often without realizing the consequences for oneself or one’s relationships with others.

But Deikman’s real purpose is to expose how “cult behavior … operates unnoticed in everyday life” (p. 3). His intent is to raise readers’ awareness of the ordinariness and the pervasiveness of this tendency, which he sees as a very real threat to our capacity to free ourselves from “the childhood world of vertical relationships and gain an eye-level perspective” (p. 3), or what he sometimes calls a “sense of realism.” To be clear, Deikman is not saying that everyone is going to join a cult (although he surely believes that everyone is susceptible to a cult’s call). What he is saying is that the type of rigid and condemnatory thinking found in cults can be found throughout “normal” society, in “ordinary social, government, business, and professional groupings” (p. 2), in sum, in us all. Deikman identifies four principal cult behaviors that comprise his analytical framework: (1) dependence on a leader, (2) compliance with the group, (3) avoiding dissent, and (4) devaluing the outsider. He devotes a chapter to each of these behaviors and strengthens his argument with examples from the government, the military, large corporations, the media, psychiatry and psychology, and religion. The effect is powerful, as the author succeeds in illustrating that cult thinking and behavior is not something apart from us, but is integral to our essence, our way of being, and therefore endemic to our very way of life.

So how do we escape cult thinking? Deikman offers some useful guidelines for recognizing the patterns of defensiveness, accusation, self-deception, and self-righteousness that he believes put one squarely on the path to cult behavior. By becoming more aware of how such one-sidedness (or the close-mindedness of black-and-white thinking) is detrimental to reason and a more realistic view of the world, readers will potentially avoid falling into Us-versus-Them thinking and thereby avoid perpetuating cult behavior. In this time of political polarization, increasing fundamentalism, and widespread tendencies toward hasty and harsh judgments of “others” – whether nonconformists, suspect foreigners, disaffected allies, or domestic protestors and critics – Deikman’s advice to think for ourselves, and to foster dissent, is a useful prescription for what ails us.

A book about cults becomes all the more fascinating – and useful – when we learn how these charismatic, and often coercive, groups in our midst are far from “strange,” but instead have characteristics that interconnect quite deeply with mainstream issues and concerns. The final chapter, “The Terrorist Threat,” makes such links and brings home once again the significance of our study of cults. As Doris Lessing writes in the Foreword, “Terrorists are highly trained ruthless groups waiting in the United States and the countries of Europe to murder, poison and destroy. Let us catch them, if we can. In order to understand them we must learn the laws that govern cults and brainwashing” (p. xv). This book is surely one step in that direction. Perhaps you read Deikman’s The Wrong Way Home ten years ago or more. Don’t let that deter you from this new edition. Them and Us is well worth reading; it is incisive, extremely useful, and ultimately forward-looking. Clear and well-written, it is also a good basic book for high school or college courses in psychology, social psychology, American history, American culture, and current events.

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