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Book Review - Cults and Personality

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1992, Volume 09, Number 2, pages 262-263. 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 Review - Cults and Personality. 

F. J. MacHovec. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL, 1989, 195 pages.

Dr. MacHovec, a licensed clinical psychologist who has treated ex-cult members and survivors of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) for the past three decades, has studied a variety of religions, rituals, and practices. The resulting cross-cultural perspective provides an interesting background for his discussion of cult personalities and experiences.

Initially, MacHovec distinguishes criminal, harmful or destructive, and constructive cults on the one hand, and religious/psychotherapeutic, political, and faddist cults on the other, giving definitions and examples of each. He also ties the practices of cults throughout history to current practices. The characteristics of harmful cults that he lists and defines (pp. 24_) are those on which there is substantial agreement among professionals. (However, in distinguishing between traditional religions and contemporary cults [pp. 30"31], he adapted a table from Schwartz & Kaslow [1982, The Cult Phenomenon: Historical, Sociological, and Familial Factors Contributing to Their Development and Appeal. New York: Haworth Press] which was omitted from the extensive reference list.)

In examining the "personality" aspect of the title, MacHovec discusses personalities of both the cult leaders and recruits/members. He suggests that our high-speed, high-tech life-style leads too many people to relax or suspend critical judgment, making them more vulnerable to charismatic and/or exploitative figures.

MacHovec draws on the work of traditional psychological theorists as well as that of sociologists and others to delineate the ways in which harmful cults "during recruitment and indoctrination" manipulate human needs. The omission, however, of the perspective of such sociologists as Brock Kilbourne and Thomas Robbins keeps the presentation from being as balanced as some readers might prefer. In addition, the author summarizes the Vatican and Jewish responses to cult activity. The strength of MacHovec's book lies in the manner in which he integrates the material from his multiple sources, both ancient and modern.

MacHovec examined not only those groups that we normally consider cults but also satanic cults, witchcraft, and Afro-Caribbean cultlike religions. These, too, respond to human needs for belief systems, ritual, and "magical" solutions. His presentations of the ways in which these responses hurt cult members and group followers, and of the therapeutic and deprogramming techniques used to reorient and restrengthen ex-cult members, also utilize a good breadth of sources (although the omission of Saul Levine's [1984, Radical Departures. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich] work is surprising here). Noteworthy also is his discussion of child and animal abuse, which is supplemented in the Appendix by a model animal-protection act. Sources of additional information on cults are also provided in the Appendix.

Overall, Cults and Personality is a good source of information for those who would try to understand how people can apparently be so susceptible to cult recruitment. It would also be helpful to those professionals called in as counselors or therapists after someone leaves a cult, or to beginning researchers who want an organized introduction and a good reference list from which to begin their work. One "small" point is omitted here, however, as it seems to be generally in what ways does the ex-member explain the time spent in the cult, especially when it was months or years, to a potential employer"

Lita Linzer Schwartz, Ph.D.

Professor of Educational Psychology

Penn State Ogontz

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1992