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Book Review - Cults Too Good to be True

Book Review

Livia Bardin, M.S.W.

Therapist, Clinical Social Worker

Washington, D.C.

Cults:  Too Good to be True

Raphael Aron, Cult Counseling Australia. HarperCollins, Australia, 1999

Raphael Aron, the director of an organization called Cult Counseling Australia, has written a useful survey intended for the general reader. Cults includes a thoughtful discussion of what a cult is, descriptions of various kinds of cults, an explanation of mind control, detailed and illuminating sections on exit counseling, and basic information about recovery.

Cults draws heavily on its author’s 25 years of experience as a counselor of families and individuals with cult-related problems. Mr. Aron makes abundant and effective use of anecdotes and case studies to illustrate his points. In his exposition of Lifton’s famous eight characteristics of cults, for instance, Mr. Aron first describes each characteristic in simple English. Then, for each, he appends a case example of that characteristic in a particular group. His description of types of cultic groups is also rich with specific examples ranging from “management training schemes” to Eastern meditation to Bible groups to a one-on-one case involving a “clairvoyant.” This skillful use of stories helps the reader to understand complex concepts and remember important information.

Mr. Aron brings to bear the differing perspectives of families, current members, and ex-members. He details experiences with children, adults, mentally healthy people and mentally ill people. On such controversial subjects as Satanism and recovered memory, the author presents both sides of the issue without drawing a conclusion.

The sections on mind control and exit counseling are, with one major reservation, the highlight of this book. First, the reservation:  The author is too optimistic when he asserts, “[R]egardless of the outcome, the exit counseling process is bound to create long-term positive change within the dynamics of the family.” This may be, as he states, his own experience and that of others, but it is not consistent with my experience. Families in great distress too often consult me after a failed exit counseling. And I know of families where failed exit counselings have resulted in severe strains on marriages or other close relationships. True, these tend to be families that have not engaged in the preparatory counseling the author describes, but it is important for him to note that distinction.

The author also states that, “Even if the intervention does not go ahead, the process by which it has been discussed and resolved can be worthwhile.” Again, my experience is that too often nothing gets resolved when a family decides against intervention. Those who wanted intervention and those who did not simply add this to the history of conflict, to resurface in future conflicts along with other grievances.

In making these claims of efficacy, I think that Mr. Aron is talking about a select group of families with the emotional, intellectual, and financial resources to engage in a difficult process, one that requires them to make changes in themselves as well as helping others to change. These families do exist, of course, and working with them is thoroughly rewarding. Yet there are many other families for whom it is a triumph and a major change merely to realize that scolding and reproving the cult member is counter-productive. Assertions about the value of exit counseling should apply to everyone in need of help, not just a particularly qualified group.

That said, the sections on exit counseling will be helpful in other ways to all who want to know more about the subject. Mr. Aron devotes almost 100 pages of the 238-page book to a detailed discussion of exit counseling. Topics include a discussion of mind control, preparation for exit counseling, what happens during an exit counseling, why exit counselings may fail, when exit counseling is appropriate, and when it is not. There are both success stories and the opposite, including examples of breaches of confidentiality and carelessness. Mr. Aron advocates keeping the intervention planning within a very small group, if possible. He underlines his point with some telling anecdotes of interventions defeated through indiscretions of one kind and another. He also illustrates the importance of creative planning through a moving story of a successful exit counseling in which no family member was presentthe key figure was a friend of the cult member. Anyone who reads these sections will emerge with a better understanding of the process and the elements needed for success.

The author concludes with a call for government help, advocating among other measures “a system of checks and balances whereby these groups are required to conform to a code of ethics under a regulatory board which can oversee their operation.” How such a system is to be contrived, let alone implemented, he does not venture to suggest. Other suggestions, such as more attention to expert testimony on issues like mind control and the deliberate alienation of a child from one parent by another on ideological grounds, seem more doable.

The Australian orientation of Cults does not detract from, but rather enhances, its usefulness by highlighting the commonalities of the cult phenomenon across international borders and diverse cultures. Although this might not be the first book one would recommend to the beginner, Mr. Aron’s work is certainly helpful supplementary reading for those who want to improve their understanding of the subject.