Book Review - Bounded Choice True Believers and Charismatic Cults

Cultic Studies Review, 4,(1), 2005, 65-69

Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults

Janja Lalich, Ph.D.

Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004. ISBN 0-520-23194-5 (cloth), $55.00; ISBN 9-520-24018-9 (paperback), $21.95

Reviewed by J. Anna Looney, Ph.D.

University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey – Family Medicine Research Division, Somerset, NJ 08873

Janja Lalich, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico. Her research and writing have focused on cults and controversial groups, with a specialization in charismatic authority, power relations, ideology, and social control, as well as issues related to gender and sexuality. Among her other publications, Dr. Lalich has coauthored “Crazy” Therapies: What Are They? Do They Work? (Jossey-Bass, 1996); Cults in Our Midst (Jossey-Bass, 1995); and Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships (Hunter House, 1994). She served as the guest editor of a special issue of Cultic Studies Journal (vol. 14, no. 1, 1997) entitled Women Under the Influence: A Study of Women’s Lives in Totalist Groups.

Lalich’s latest book, Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, provides a needed and important bridge between autobiographical accounts written by former cult members and research-oriented analyses of cultic groups written by scholars. As an ex-member of the Democratic Workers Party (DWP), Lalich describes her personal experience as one of the inner circle of a radical political cult. After leaving the group in 1986, and through advanced work in the discipline of sociology, Lalich gained both the distance and academic tools she needed to examine the process by which a young idealist is transformed into a true believer, willing to sacrifice everything for the cause. The author uses a scholarly account of her own experience of the rise and fall of the DWP and an in-depth examination of Heaven’s Gate, the New Age cult that grabbed public attention in March 1997 with its collective suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Lalich identifies the common elements in the evolution of these cults to develop a theoretical framework she calls “bounded choice.”

Lalich examines the complex processes of conversion and commitment, which she describes as “inextricably intertwined in the cult context while also intersecting with other relevant social phenomena, such as charisma, ideological control, and social-psychological influence” (p. 15). Charismatic commitment, as defined in her theory, refers to an ongoing process that increases devotion while eroding the devotee’s sense of self. Lalich identifies four structural dimensions of cultic groups: charismatic authority, a transcendent belief system, systems of control, and systems of influence. She then shows how these factors interact to create a self-sealing system that holds the true believer within the group.

With this new theory, Lalich has made an important contribution to our understanding of cultic groups. She has skillfully woven together a conceptual analysis of cult commitment with empirical evidence to support her assertions. She has addressed her main research question—How is an idealistic devotee transformed into a true believer so committed that everything else, even as far as life itself, becomes insignificant?—with an insider’s knowledge and a scholar’s critical eye.

Carefully examining the histories of the two groups and the patterns of individual response to charisma, Lalich answers social critics who characterize cult members as weak-willed, lazy, and ill-informed. On the contrary, Lalich argues that Heaven’s Gate and the DWP attracted people who were “giving and idealistic, hardworking and loyal, trustworthy and loving” (p. 261). She finds that cult members are generally attracted by a moral imperative articulated by a leader they perceive to be both strong and wise. Participating in their own personal transformation for a worthy cause is a rational choice for deeply devoted believers, she asserts. These individuals challenge the status quo by their willingness to take action to make the world a better place.

While some scholars have concentrated on individual deficits or vulnerabilities in trying to explain cult affiliation, others have focused on the pernicious strategies employed by charismatic leaders to attract and retain followers. Lalich goes farther by focusing on the interactive aspects of the charismatic relationship. She contends that seekers are attracted emotionally and intellectually to the group by a combination of factors that arise from the leader and his or her ideas, goals, and promises. What sets Lalich’s book apart from other scholarly treatments of new religious movements is her understanding of the complex interaction that begins with initial attraction and continues throughout affiliation. One of the book’s many strengths lies in Lalich’s explanation of the transformative process whereby a cult member becomes a true believer (or deployable agent) of the charismatic leader. The interaction between the individual and the charismatic system is the key to understanding bounded choice theory. The believer responds to the intellectual and emotional pull of the group with commitment that is renewed through ongoing interaction, and in the process develops a new self. The leader’s vision of the path to salvation has transformational power.

In the introduction, Lalich reviews high-profile cults that have attracted both popular attention and scholarly study. Lalich points out that affiliation with a charismatic leader is not as strange or pernicious as one might imagine from press reports about certain notorious groups. An estimated two million Americans have joined cults in the past several decades, and many of them are educated seekers striving to make the world a better place and holding great hope for the future.

Part One of the book reviews the formative principles, sociocultural environment, and spiritual influences of the Heaven’s Gate cult. Lalich shows how Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite formed a complementary partnership that shaped a transcendent vision of the “Next Level” beyond this world. As Ti and Do, Nettles and Applewhite saw themselves as the messengers of salvation and eternal life for their followers. The path to salvation led from this planet to the stars. Committed members separated themselves from the world, cut ties with family and friends, minimized their individualistic and human parts, and ultimately ended their lives in collective suicide in Mach 1997. Lalich points out that the conformity to group norms that so shocked outsiders when news of the Heaven’s Gate suicides hit the press is not so foreign, after all; conformity to the pushes and pulls of one’s immediate society is, in fact, frighteningly normal (p. 89).

In Part Two, Lalich devotes four chapters to explicating the founding, growth, and demise of the Democratic Workers Party, a Marxist-Leninist political cult under the leadership of Marlene Dixon. From its radical feminist beginnings in 1974, the DWP evolved into a sealed, tightly disciplined system created to bring about social justice for the American working class. Predicting revolution, Dixon drove her followers to work urgently for socialist principles as the means of salvation for the working class. The struggle to overthrow the present capitalist system was the individual responsibility of DWP members who were required to surrender their identities, possessions, ties, and any ambitions outside of those instilled by Dixon. Descriptions of the atmosphere of criticism/self-criticism and the harsh treatment meted out to “erring” party members are particularly powerful. The final confrontation between Dixon and representatives of her inner circle is chilling in its intensity.

Lalich does an outstanding job analyzing the evolution of DWP and its final collapse under Dixon’s violent and capricious leadership. Once a trusted insider herself, Lalich provides a tremendously informative description of the evolution and demise of a political cult. Not surprisingly, the description of Heaven’s Gate comes across as less powerful, yet Lalich’s perspective on this group goes well beyond the familiar facts. She offers an extensive analysis of the cult’s materials (including the farewell videotape) and interviews with former members.

The theoretical material in Part Three of this book is extremely valuable for its clear, careful linking of concepts. The root cause of cultic groups, Lalich claims, arises from the leader's charisma:

Without the leader, there would be no draw, no call, no promise of an ideal. And without devotees responding to that call, there would be no group, no set of coordinated activities, and no followers granting the leader the authority to rule (p. 226).

Building on earlier primary work by Weber, Lofland, Stark, Kanter, Giddens, Simon, Zablocki and Lifton, Lalich offers us another set of analytical tools for understanding cult commitment. Her insights into the internal cognitive processes of the believers and the dimensions of a self-sealing system go far beyond the usual catalog of the group’s activities or defensive explanations of religious freedom. Bounded Choice is compelling and informative reading, highly recommended for scholars and interested readers of all kinds.