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Book Review - Combatting Cult Mind Control

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1989, Volume 6, Number 1, pages 101. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Reviews - Combatting Cult Mind Control.

Steven Hassan.  Park Street Press, Rochester, VT, 1988, 200 pages, $16.95 Hardcover. 

Steve Hassan -- ex-member activist and deprogramming team member, now a counseling psychology graduate, sought after speaker, and exit counselor -- has written a book that must be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to help a friend or relative leave a cult.

Combatting Mind Control is a distillation of the author's experience, a decade of work with a variety of cults and as varied a group of cult members and families as one finds in the American middle class. The book provides a jargon-free explanation of the nature and effects of mind control and -- for those willing to put in a great deal of work -- a serviceable set of guidelines, with real-life examples, of how to stimulate voluntary re-evaluation of cult allegiances.

Without suggesting any deficiencies in the author's explanation of cult conversion techniques, or of the associated psychological processes, which are well presented, the best and most original parts of the book are concerned with the "keys" to "unlocking cult mind control" and the ways in which friends and families can develop a comprehensive plan to bring these to bear.

The first key is to build rapport and trust. Sample dialogues are supplied to suggest how this can be done. The second key is to employ "goal-oriented communications." This means not simply "being oneself" when interacting with the cult member, but rather always keeping in mind the goal of getting the member to disengage from the group. In order to do this, one must employ the next key, which consists of creating "models of identity." These are clear conceptions of different aspects of the cult member's personality: the pre-cult aspect, with which friends and relatives are familiar; the aspect which reflects the typical, stereotyped member of the cult in question; and the aspect which seems to combine the individual's own basic personality with the cult overlay. The aim in creating these models is to be able to discern and speak to the "real identity" so that keys four and five can be deployed: getting the member in touch with his pre-cult personality, and then inducing him to look at things from many different perspectives, set new goals, and realize that it is possible to leave. The sample dialogues, which exemplify how this ought to be done, sound a little unnatural, but their didactic tone has the virtue of making the author's points clearer. Hassan's advice here on how to be indirect, and avoid the phobic barriers to communication "programmed" by the cult, are valuable.

The goal, in any case, is to enhance the member's personal growth, to give him positive reasons beyond his parents' or friends' wishes that he leave the group. Some may shrink from the apparent manipulation needed to effect a voluntary departure, but the devices Hassan suggests are really no more than loving, if systematized, ways to communicate and stimulate independent reflection.

Potential "users" of Combatting Cult Mind Control have no illusions about the difficulty of doing the kinds of things Hassan suggests. Exit counseling by families, even with professional help, requires great concentration, fortitude, and personal stability; even then, although Hassan does not perhaps say enough about this, it may fail.

If Combatting Cult Mind Control has other defects, they are also of omission rather than commission. While we can agree wholeheartedly with Hassan that on balance "people don't join cults, cults recruit people," are not "push" factors, such as the preexisting family dynamics, about which he says little, important to understand for effective counseling? Nor does Hassan deal adequately in the post-cult rehabilitation period with the former member's pre-cult personality problems -- which not uncommonly arise in acute form once the cult's bonds are broken. But this last point is perhaps not so important in a book whose solid core and really great contribution to counseling is to show the way to millions desperate to help loved ones leave destructive cults.

Robert E. Schecter, Ph.D.

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1989

Editor, Cult Observer