IPT Book Reviews

Title: Cults in Our Midst  Positive Review Positive Review
Author: Margaret Singer with Janja Lalich
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995

Jossey-Bass Publishers
350 Sansome St., 5th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104
(415) 433-1740
$25.00 (c)

This book combines the experience of a clinical psychologist/emeritus professor (Singer) with that of an ex-cult member (Lalich).  It is both well written and easy to read.  Singer has interviewed thousands of individuals exiting from cults, and the book contains many illustrations drawn from these interviews.  She provides a broad definition of cults and includes cultic relationships within this purview.  She is less interested in what to label the problem than in educating people about the process by which fraudulent leaders can rob a person of the capacity for critical thinking and other freedoms.  Singer is adamant on the point that anyone can become a victim of coercive persuasion, especially when depressed and between affiliations.

A group need not be large in order to be identified as a cult the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) that kidnapped Patricia Hearst is a case in point.  The ideological themes preached by cult leaders range from religion, psychotherapy, and health fads to outer-space phenomenon.  Although some cults stand out as obviously strange, others maintain a veneer of normalcy, as in the case of certain work motivation seminars that serve as fronts for cults.  It is not the ideological theme that makes a group a cult but its structure and practices.  Cults and cultic relationships are authoritarian in structure.  Masterminded by the leader, cults engage in deceptive practices that incrementally persuade people to join, cut ties with loved ones, and give up their assets.  Although the book makes only passing reference to "false memory syndrome," it contains much of interest to people concerned about cultic relationship between repressed memory therapists and their clients.  People who have undergone this form of therapy will recognize the techniques of physical and psychological persuasion that cults use.

A key message of this book is embodied in its subtitle, "hidden menace in our everyday lives."  Most of us think of cults as a phenomenon "out there" that we can avoid by simply not seeking them out.  According to Singer, however, cults by their very nature engage in active but camouflaged recruitment efforts that prevent the recruit from being fully informed as to the nature of the group and what membership really entails.  For example, most people would not knowingly agree to participate in the abuse of their own and other people's children, yet cults routinely abuse the children under their control with some combination of neglect, psychological maltreatment, physical and/or sexual abuse.

Psychological and physical intimidation are used with adult members as well so that it is very hard to leave once the inductee discovers the truth about the group.  People exiting cults often have no money and no place to go.  They may need help with psychological and legal problems.  Unfortunately, mental health professionals and attorneys who try to help former members may find themselves mercilessly harassed by an unscrupulous cult seeking to retain control over its members.  Singer remains an optimist despite the intense harassment to which she herself is routinely subjected.  For those exiting cults and those interested in helping them, the final chapters on leaving the cult and recovering from the cult experience are invaluable.

Reviewed by Deirdre Conway Rand, Marin Psychological Services, Mill Valley, California.

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