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Book Review - The Anatomy of Illusion

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1988, Volume 5., Number 2, pages 256-257. 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 - The Anatomy of Illusion: Religious Cults and Destructive Persuasion.

Thomas W. Keiser and Jacqueline L. Keiser. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers, 1987, 144 pages. 

This book is an important contribution to the field of cultic studies. Written for the interested layman or professional, the book clearly reviews some of the psychological theories relevant to cult involvement.

In Chapter One, the Keisers state their position straightforwardly. They do not pretend to be unbiased; they believe that many religious cults have the potential to harm recruits. Building on this premise, Chapters Two, Three, and Four discuss the psychological theories relevant to cult recruitment. The authors present these theories clearly so that even those without a psychological background can understand them. At times, however, the references are spotty; anyone wishing to go back to original sources to follow their arguments would have difficulty. This is significant because the authors' conclusions are sometimes unsubstantiated and impressionistic: For example, "those who experience the most serious after-affects {sic} of cult affiliation are the ones who have abused not one but a variety of substances prior to or during their involvement." (p. 38)
Their review of the brainwashing literature is most clear and succinct. They compellingly argue that cults do not use "brainwashing" or "coercive persuasion" as those terms are commonly understood. They suggest the term "destructive persuasion" to characterize the process by which recruits become involved in cults. More specifically, "participation in destructive groups is achieved through belief and attitude change resulting from need manipulation and strategic information control. The resulting form of influence, "destructive persuasion," undermines adaptation because it is based on systematically contrived illusions" (pp. 41-42).
One apparent goal of this book is to de-mystify the conversion process, that is, to explain it in the light of normal psychological processes such as attitude change and cognitive belief systems. Although the authors allude to the important role that need manipulation plays in the converson process, there is little discussion of what these needs may be. Some attention to the presence of psychopathology would have been useful, even if only to rule it out as an important factor.
In Chapter Five the authors present five principles of attitude and belief change as they pertain to cults. While this section is interesting, it is difficult to see how their principles could or should be used either by the clinician, the social scientist, or even by legal authorities. More discussion about how to apply these principles in the context of working with cult victims or for legislative purposes would have been welcome.
The final chapter, "Religion, Illusion and the Law" is an excellent summary of the legal aspects of cult involvement. Although somewhat out of place in a book dealing with psychological concepts up to that point, it is nevertheless a useful review of the literature. Ultimately, the Keisers seem to value adaptation, or the ability to adjust to life's circumstances based on new information. They argue persuasively, from both a psychological and legal standpoint, that cults may impede adaptation by manipulating needs and controlling access to information. They are to be commended for distilling complex issues down to clearly presented ideas that will inform anyone interested in cults.

Mark Sirkin, Ph.D., University of Rochester Medical Center

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1986