Is Someone You Love a Cult Member?

Is someone you love a cult member?

Each of the following writers is an intelligent, analytical thinker—and each has been one in his/her earlier years: Steven Hassan was involved with the Moonies; Janja Lalich and Alexandra Stein, in separate instances, attached themselves to political movements later exposed as cults. All three are now experts on cult control.

I. Steven Hassan‘s 1989 Combating Cult Mind Control has been one of the most widely touted books about cults. Every cult member is subjected to forms of mind control:

Mind control is the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes. It is neither magical nor mystical, but a process that involves a set of basic social psychological principles. Conformity, compliance, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, guilt and fear arousal, modeling and identification are some of the staple social influence ingredients well studied in psychological experiments and field studies…

In Hassan’s more recent (2012) Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs he “provides an up-to-the-minute guide to the reality of ‘undue influence’—the preferred term for mind control—in the post 9/11 era.” As defined on his website, “Undue influence is any act of persuasion that overcomes the free will and judgment of another person.  People can be unduly influenced by deception, flattery, trickery, coercion, hypnosis, and other techniques…”

II. Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships (2006) by Janja Lalich.

Malia Wollan, New York Times Magazine, recently reported Lalich’s advice regarding “How to Get Someone Out of a Cult.” Excerpts about connecting with a cult member:

‘Do everything you can to stay in touch,’ says Janja Lalich, a sociology professor and consultant who studies cults and coercive influence and control…

Don’t try to forcibly remove someone, even if you’re gravely concerned…Today’s preferred method is ‘exit counseling,’ and it requires persuasion by therapists, lawyers, friends and family members.

Try to get one-on-one time, and if you do, don’t use it to harp. Instead, ask questions and make sure you’ve already collected anti-cult evidence like news articles or memoirs…

Give some thought to working with a team of friends or family to set up a good-cop, bad-cop dynamic in which one of you is more forceful and another is warmer and more willing to listen. Make sure the inductee knows there is a safe and nonjudgmental place to come home to…

III. Alexandra Stein is the author of Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems (2016).   

Former cult member Stein explains cult leadership (Aeon):

Not all leaders want to get rich, gain sexual favours, or grab political power. But all want utter control over others. Money, sex, free labour or loyal combatants are all fringe benefits, and certainly most leaders take advantage of these, some in a big way. But absolute control over their relationships is the key.

These leaders rule over isolating, steeply hierarchical and closed structures, some with front groups serving as transmission belts to the outside world. This isolating structure is the second characteristic of a totalist group. As the organisation grows, it develops concentric, onion-like layers with the leader in the centre providing the driving movement. There might be several layers – from the leader, to the lieutenants, to the elite inner circle, to other varying levels of membership, down to mere fellow-travellers or sympathisers.

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