Book Review of “Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse”

Michael Langone, Executive Director of the American Family Foundation (AFF) has done a skillful job of organizing and editing contributions from 22 experts on cults. Recovery from Cults is packed with current wisdom about helping cult victims. The book includes informative sections on understanding mind control, experiences of leaving cults, guidelines for facilitating recovery, and special issues such as child abuse and teen Satanism. I recommend it especially to researchers, mental health specialists, and clergy. Ex-cult members and their families will find particularly helpful the chapters on mind control, exit counseling, rehabilitation, psychotherapy, and guidelines for the postcult period.

Recovery from Cults, which originated from AFF study groups, is an important and heartening milestone in the development of the anticult movement from its infancy to maturity. Over the past 20 years this movement has gone beyond the rather simplistic theory of “brainwashing” in explaining cult recruitment and entrapment. As represented here by the contributions of Singer, Langone, and Zimbardo and Andersen, cult behaviors can be better understood in terms of current theory and research in social psychology, clinical psychology, and psychiatry. Thus destructive groups misuse social persuasion and are often led by sociopaths.

Riveting, if grim, personal accounts and case examples of how individuals are systematically cut off from outside influences, denigrated for expressions of independent thinking, and reduced to psychological dependency are coupled with detailed guidelines for helping professionals working with ex-cult members at various stages of recovery and in a wide range of settings.

In contrast to the days when ex-cult members were dismissed as late adolescent rebels or diagnosed as pathological by mental health specialists, now there is a multidisciplinary core of professionals with expertise in helping former members. Sharing their clinical experiences in the book are a diverse team of experts, representatives of professional psychology (Singer, Langone, Martin), social work (Lorna and William Goldberg, Markowitz), psychiatry (Halperin), nursing (Galanti, Kelley) education (Eisenberg), and counseling (Dowhower, Tobias, Tucker). In short, as the cult member leaves the group, information, rehabilitation, support, psychotherapy, and hospitalization are available as needed. John Clark, the eminent psychiatrist to whom this book is dedicated, is no longer almost alone in providing mental health services. And, in sharp contrast to the days when lawyers tended to avoid cult-related litigation, a group of lawyers with experience in cult cases is represented here by Herbert Rosedale.

With the sunshine of negative publicity, the loss of key lawsuits, the conviction of cult leaders for criminal acts from murder to sexual abuse to fraud, and the outrages of Waco and Jonestown, cults too have changed. For instance, as described by Galanti, the Unification Church no longer always hides its identity when recruiting in this country. As noted by the Goldbergs, cult victims today tend to be older and from diverse groups. Satanism (Tucker), ritual child abuse (Kelley), political cults (Lalich), and New Age groups (Garvey) have attracted attention while Bible-based (Trahan) and Eastern meditation (Ryan) groups continue to exert mind control.

The approach to helping former members has also changed. As described in chapters by former members and exit counselors, each group has a distinct language and modus operandi to control its victims; and helpers need to know the specifics about each group. For the most part, illegal kidnapping and confrontational deprogramming have been replaced by voluntary exit counseling. David Clark, Kevin Garvey, and Carol and Noel Giambalvo stress the voluntary and ethical character of their work with cult members. Ex-members are still an essential part of the helping team. Otherwise traditional mental health interventions may be insufficient. Some exit counselors now have professional qualifications in mental health.

The thorough index and comprehensive references for each chapter will be helpful to scholars and those who want to do further reading or study. Although case histories and personal reports give flesh to the terrible damage associated with cult experiences, the tone of each chapter tends to be serious, and assertions of opinion are documented with relevant research and theory. For the most part, fair-mindedness and objectivity prevail over the temptation to sensationalize or to express outrage. For example, in the chapters he authored, Langone is evenhanded but critical in countering the arguments of cult apologists and procultists.

I have just a few criticisms. As mentioned by Giambalvo and colleagues, consultation is a better term than exit counseling to describe the interaction with a specialist when the member is still in the group and has not requested help. I am uncomfortable when such consultants, associated with the anticult movement and retained by concerned parents, present themselves as impartial counselors. Once the cult member has left the group and has sought assistance about personal issues, then the process becomes counseling. A second flaw: As is almost unavoidable in edited books, the chapters vary somewhat in quality and occasionally duplicate one another.

If I have a major discontent with Recovery from Cults, it is with what is not included here. I encourage Langone and his team to publish another volume. Among appealing topics: successful prevention programs; case histories of ex-cult members years after the experience; cults in court—wins and losses and their consequences; how to respond to the violent and suicidal group; illustrations (from tape recordings) of the distinctive processes of exit consultation; rehabilitation and psychotherapy; how to choose an effective helper; how highly visible destructive groups manipulate celebrities, academics, big business, the church, and the military; and ethical principles for helpers.

In sum, this fascinating text at once replaces popular myths about cults (and the types of people who become members) with hard facts, and provides invaluable guidelines for clergy, therapists, support group leaders, and others looking for ways to facilitate recovery from the effects of involvement with totalist cults.

Congratulations to Langone and his coauthors on a major contribution which belongs on the bookshelves of CSJ readers and all those interested in cults.

Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., ABBP Emeritus Professor of Education University of Pennsylvania

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