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Book Review - Cults in our Midst

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1995, Volume 12, Number 2, pages 195-197. 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 in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives.

Margaret Thaler Singer with Janja Lalich. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 1995, 381 pages.

The publication of a book must, inevitably, be a matter of gratification for the author. In this case, the publication of Cults in Our Midst will also be a source of gratification for all those who have long admired the wisdom and dedication that Dr. Margaret Singer has brought to the cult-awareness effort. "Margaret Singer stands alone in her extraordinary knowledge of the psychology of cults"--those are the opening words of the book's Foreword, contributed by Robert Jay Lifton. And that Foreword is "must reading" for anyone who finds himself or herself in need of guidance about the cult phenomenon; it is a precious enrichment of this fine book.

Among her acknowledgments, the author expresses gratitude to "the more than three thousand cult victims who shared their stories, their pain and their healing with me, helping me to learn about cults and the harm they have brought upon so many." Implicit here is the humble admission that even a well-trained psychologist can continue to grow in her understanding of this complex problem which bedevils the existence of contemporary humankind.

After working for some years at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Singer went to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she had the opportunity to counsel victims of thought reform among the recovered prisoners from the Korean War. Since then, Singer has also assisted the survivors and affected families of the tragedies at Jonestown and Waco. She has made countless appearances as an expert witness in court cases concerned with manipulation or "brainwashing."

Cults in Our Midst is not a book about weird people who join crazy groups. It's about how all of us, at various times, can fall into vulnerable states during which another person can wield more influence over us. Alluding to Big Brother of Orwell's 1984, Singer says: "Instead of one Big Brother, we see herds of Big Brothers in the world today." And she notes that they promise intellectual, spiritual, political, and self-actualizing utopias. "Eventually these groups subject their followers to mind-numbing treatments that block critical and evaluative thinking and subjugate independent choice in a context of a strictly enforced hierarchy." In the Introduction, Singer observes: "Legend has it that all cult leaders are charismatic. In reality charisma is less important than the skills of persuasion and the ability to manipulate others. In order to start a group, a leader has to have ways of convincing others to follow him or her, and such leaders tend not to relinquish control."

The first chapter presents some definitions and characteristics of cults. The reader is reminded of the variety of cults and the ways in which people are recruited. The author notes in a chapter on the history of cults that cult leaders are opportunists who read the signs of the times and the ever-changing cultures, and then adapt their pitch to whatever will appeal at any given moment.

The chapter on "The Process of Brainwashing, Psychological Coercion, and Thought Reform" is excellent. It is as complete as can be found anywhere. Charts and diagrams are added to make the process understandable for all. The insights of Robert Lifton and Edgar Schein are reported along with Singer's own contribution. She warns that the methods of attacking the self push people to the brink of madness and even, in some cases, over the edge.

"Recruiting New Members" is a chapter filled with many concrete examples which make for interesting reading and, at the same time, demonstrate the manipulative methods used by many cults. The chapters that follow illustrate first psychological, then physiological persuasion techniques used by a variety of groups. A section on the invasion of the workplace and the development of New Age training programs provides the caution that "certain training programs use the same types of intense influence techniques that are identified with cults." An employee in just about any corporation might be aware of the potential for getting involved (or being urged to get involved) in some well-organized systems of indoctrination. At the same time, many readers--young and old alike--will benefit from Singer's observation that "Lack of informed consent, the use of hidden agendas, and the use of various forms of coercion characterize the criticisms of both cults and modern-day training programs among those who have experienced them."

The book's final section addresses the question, "How can we help survivors to escape and recover?" It offers prudent advice made possible by the authors' years of experience with the cruel effects of thought reform. The reader is reminded, among other things, of the incalculable damage to the personalities of children raised under the control of such groups. At the conclusion of a recent conference this reviewer was approached by a twenty-year-old who quietly said, "Until I was eighteen I grew up in a cult." The resulting struggle out of confusion for such a person must be beyond our imaginations. Perhaps the liberation of the mind will prove to be a lifelong project for many. And how malicious must be the hearts of those who sow such confusion!

Cults in Our Midst is up-to-date with its concluding note on the Order of the Solar Temple, a European-based group notable for the shocking deaths of 53 of its members in Canada and Switzerland: "We hope that such occurrences do not happen, but if they do, let us not call these deaths 'suicides.' Let's view them for what they are: the sad, lonely, dreadful ending of life for people who trusted too much, followed too long, and could not get away from a self-serving and murderous leader."

This book is to be recommended to professionals and laypeople alike. It is an excellent contribution to the growing literature concerned with the "cult problem." In reviewing it there is a natural tendency to emphasize the work of the primary author, Margaret Thaler Singer. That emphasis may be accounted for partly by the fact that she is very well known and partly by the fact that it is impossible to tell where her contribution leaves off and that of her coauthor Janja Lalich begins. But, however self-effacing Ms. Lalich may be, one can be sure that with her experience and editorial skills, she deserves much of the credit for this so well-organized material. The book is a credit to them both, and a boon for the rest of us.

Rev. Walter Debold

Religious Studies Department

Seton Hall University

South Orange, New Jersey

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1995