Thursday, August 24, 2006

For those leaving cults -- sane advice from a Chico State University professor


We don't hear much these days about the Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate or even Jim Jones. It's tempting to think that the cult movement has faded and that the world's attention is on more pressing matters -- like suicide bombers. But they are all of a piece, according to Chico State University Associate Professor of Sociology Janja Lalich.

In "Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships" ($19.50 in paperback from Bay Tree Publishing), Lalich and co-author Madeleine Tobias, a Vermont psychotherapist, make clear that modern day cults have not disappeared. "If there is less street recruiting today, it is because many cults now use professional associations, campus organizations, self-help seminars, and the Internet as recruitment tools" to entice the unwary.

Who gets sucked into a cult? "Although the public tends to think, wrongly, that only those who are stupid, weird, crazy and aimless get involved in cults, this is simply untrue. ... We know that many cult members went to the best schools in the country, have advanced academic or professional degrees and had successful careers and lives prior to their involvement in a cult or cultic abusive relationship. But at a vulnerable moment, and we all have plenty of those in our lives (a lost love, a lost job, rejection, a death in the family and so on), a person can fall under the influence of someone who appears to offer answers or a sense of direction."

For the authors, "a group or relationship earns the label 'cult' on the basis of its methods and behaviors -- not on the basis of its beliefs. Often those of us who criticize cults are accused of wanting to deny people their freedoms, religious or otherwise. But what we critique and oppose is precisely the repression and stripping away of individual freedoms that tends to occur in cults. It is not beliefs that we oppose, but the exploitative manipulation of people's faith, commitment, and trust."

Written for those coming out of cults, as well as for family members and professionals, "Take Back Your Life" deals with common characteristics of myriad cult types: Eastern, religious and New Age cults; political, racist and terrorist cults; psychotherapy, human potential, mass transformational cults; commercial, multi-marking cults; occult, satanic or black-magic cults; one-on-one family cults; and cults of personality. Chapters deal with the cult experience, the process of healing, stories of families and children in cults and therapeutic issues.

The book features riveting personal accounts from ex-cult members and offers a wide range of resources for the person who is trying to retrieve his or her "pre-cult" personality. Education looms large, for that can begin to break down the narrow black-and-white thinking cult members often display. Many cults redefine common terms or introduce special vocabulary making it difficult for members to make sense of the world outside of even their own inner aspirations.

The authors are also concerned about those in the education and helping professions who don't see the dangers posed by cults both to the individual and the larger community. Part of the purpose of the book is to make a credible case that any course of therapy needs to take into account a patient's cult associations.

"Take Back Your Life" is a book of hope, an excellent starting point for those thinking of exiting a cult and for those who are taking back their lives, one day at a time.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

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