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Lancet Review of Combatting Cult Mind Control

Combatting Cult Mind Control, Steven Hassan. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press. 1988. Pp 226. $16.95. ISBN 0–892812435.

There is a new group of patients not yet encountered by most doctors — those who seek to overcome the baleful influences of organisations that penetrate the psyche and alter the identity. Newspaper accounts of the doings of such organisations — most horrifyingly the Jonestown mass suicide and massacre in Guyana ten years ago, but also court cases in which the Unification Church (the Moonies), the Scientologists, and Rajneesh Bhagwan invariably seem to be accused of tax evasion — have a somewhat unreal quality about them; it is difficult to believe that normal people can change into automata who reject their families, occupation, and former value systems in favour of cults headed by figures who in other settings would be ridiculous, pompous, and self-important non-entities. A common rationalisation is to conclude that only oddballs could be taken in by these cults.

Steven Hassan shows that this view is dangerously complacent. He is a former member of the Unification Church (headed by Sun Myung Moon) who escaped from its influence with some difficulty and used his experiences to develop the skills to help others. He calls himself and exit-counsellor (an unfortunate term because of its connotations with euthanasia) and his descriptions of the emotional intensity of this work are impressive. His thesis is that much of the influence of cults can be explained by Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory; if people change their behavior their thoughts and feelings will change to minimize the dissonance. Successful cults introduce rigid behaviour patterns reinforced by group pressure, which is most easily achieved by an authoritarian system with a single charismatic leader. A similar rigidity is then achieved in thinking and emotions, and this is reinforced by endless repetition of doctrine and dogma. Once an individual is introduced to a cult all routes are towards greater involvement, with escape anticipated by paranoid thinking — a position summarised as “nobody joins a cult; they just postpone a decision to leave”. Deprogramming is frustrating and lengthy, because it is so difficult to get beyond the parotings of loyalty that also entrap members, and repel doubt and self-criticism. Hassan gives a moving account of his own escape from the Moonies, only achieve after be broke his leg and was separated from them.

His book is well worth reading by professionals in mental health, particularly those involved with students, because early recognition and appropriate intervention depend on greater awareness of this menace. Cult and possession states are now recognised as a mental-state diagnosis among dissociati ve disorders and have many features in common with these. Hassan includes amongst them transcendental meditation, and some organised treatments that rely on hypnosis and the wilder psychotherapies are similar. Mind control is an emotive couplet, but it is not only a delusion in schizophrenia — it is a subtle fact in many people’s lives.

Peter Tyrer St. Charles Hospital,
London W10 GDZ