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American Journal of Psychiatry 147:7 July 1990 Review by Louis Jolyon West, M.D.

The following review by Louis Jolyon West, M.D.

Combatting Cult Mind Control, by Steven Hassan, Rochester, Vt., Park Street Press, 1988, 226 pp., $16.95.

Steven Hassan is a nationally certified counselor and licensed mental health counselor, (not a counseling psychologist as erroneously published in 1990) with now 35 years of experience working with former members of various cults, especially the Unification Church. (This correction made in 2004 at the request of Scientology officials*). He has written a readable overview of the methods used by such organizations to recruit and indoctrinate new members. He also describes techniques that can help individuals break away from cultic influences. His book is based on personal experiences, first as a recruit, then as a member and recruiter for the Unification Church, then as a breakaway or renegade from it, and finally as a ‘exit-counselor” for other refugees from cults. In the last capacity Hassan has helped hundreds of people to leave cults. He has also reviewed the literature on the techniques of mind control, coercive persuasion, thought reform, and the like. The result is this book, which provides a useful collection of information and sound practical advice about cult-related issues in contemporary life in the United States.

In the first two chapters Hassan introduces us to himself, a former member of the Unification Church who is now a practitioner of exit counseling. He defines exit counseling as an intervention less extreme than deprogramming and describes a typical undertaking of this type. Destructive cults are typified, with particular reference to the Unification Church, and the techniques they use to attract and maintain membership are described. In recounting his experiences in the Unification Church and after his departure from it, Hassan spells out the process whereby he learned about mind control and his gradual return to normal life. These experiences led to his decision to become a professional helper of other cult victims.

On the basis of his personal experience, plus information derived from thousands of clients and other veterans of the cult wars, Hassan describes four major types of cults (religious, political, psychotherapy-educational, and commercial), the methods used by each to recruit and control members, and certain universal themes of cult activity. In explaining the mechanism of social control used by these groups, he summarizes some basic principles of social psychology, behavior modification techniques, and the now famous experiments in group dynamics by Asch and Milgram. Hassan also refers to t he writings of Hunter, Lifton, and Schein in distinguishing mind control, which he considers to involve hypnotic processes combined with group dynamics, from brainwashing, which he defines as employing real or threatened physical abuse.

The elements of mind control are seen as similar to the three components of behavior modification outlined in Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory (control of behavior, control of thoughts, and control of emotions). To these, Hassan adds a fourth element regularly used by destructive cults: co ntrol of information. Case reports of several individuals whose experiences in different cults characterize the variety and similarities of the cult experience are given. Although my own terminological preferences and theoretical formulation with respect to cults are different from Hassan’s, our understanding of the power and potential harmfulness of the forces involved are not dissimilar.

In the remainder of the book, Hassan offers advice based on principles of consumer education to help individuals distinguish between benign organizations and destructive cults. He advises people who have been approached by a recruiter to ask many searching questions about the group’s leadership, m embership, and doctrine. To help friends or relatives rescue a loved one from a cult, he provides a guide to exit counseling and the keys to successful interventions illustrated by case histories. Whether people leave cults because of such interventions or because they have been expelled or have left voluntarily, Hassan believes they need help in recovering from the cult’s control. Some require only information and support; other should obtain therapy. Many find it necessary to seek protection from legal, interpersonal, and sometimes even violent harassment by the rejected cults.

In the appendix, Hassan provides a list of resource organizations capable of helping to meet these needs. He calls for the appropriation of federal funds for research on destructive cults and treatment of their victims. Finally, with a view toward prevention, he advocates extensive public educati on on the dangers of cults, and he calls for school courses on the psychological principles of mind control and the protective technique of critical thinking.

One is impressed by Hassan’s candor in describing his experiences both within the Unification Church and after his departure from it, especially his work as an exit counselor. Beyond its value as an illuminating personal account, this book is an informative and practical guide to cult-related issu es. It is recommended both to lay persons who wish to become better informed on this topic and to professionals in health-related fields, clergy, attorneys, judges, and others whose responsibilities bring them into contact with cults, their members, and the families whose lives are affected.

Los Angeles, Calif.


*After I read the published review, I spoke to Dr. West and told him that I was not a counseling psychologist. “To me, you are!” was his reply. At the time of this review, I was not yet licensed as a counselor. Nevertheless, I have been in the unique position of training and supervising psychiatrists and psychologists around the world in cult related issues. Dr. West was a former military intelligence expert and was Director of UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. He was an outspoken critic of destructive mind control cults and in particular Scientology. Despite Scientology harassment, he continue to speak the truth about them until he passed away in 1999. May He Rest in Peace. For more on Dr. West, go to, In Memoriam.