Book Review - Breaking Their Will

ICSA Today, 3,(1), 2012, 19-20

Book Review - Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment

Janet Heimlich

Review by Marcia Rudin

At the beginning of her book, Janet Heimlich tells us she has chosen to use the term maltreatment instead of abuse because the word maltreatment includes both abuse and neglect. She explains that in “crafting child abuse laws, most states break down child maltreatment into at least four categories: physical abuse, psychological (emotional) maltreatment, sexual abuse, and neglect”[1] (p. 28).

She follows this breakdown in her presentation, explaining how each category is manifested in a religious context. Although she claims there are no statistics kept under her terminology of religious child maltreatment, Heimlich provides convincing evidence for its extensive existence in mainstream religions as well as what we term cults and other extremist religious ideologies. Her extensive discussion raises the larger question of whether religion does more harm than good, whether an intense religious upbringing can harm children more than it can benefit them.

Heimlich explains she does not like to use the term cult, and she doesn’t use it often in the book. But she does say we all can learn from examining child maltreatment in cults. At one point she does go into detail, showing knowledge of cult literature and experts. She prefers to use the term authoritarian environment, pointing out that authoritarianism and fear go hand in hand. In asking the difference between “healthy faith”and “dangerous faith,”she urges us to ask

whether children are living in a religious authoritarian environment, due to the way such cultures affect parents. In more tolerant climates, parents are allowed the necessary autonomy to make their own decisions about child rearing, whereas in religious authoritarian cultures, mothers and fathers tend to follow prescribed norms that are often not designed to meet children’s individual needs. (p. 20)

Heimlich maintains that religious child maltreatment is worse than general child abuse because its victims believe such treatment is divinely sanctioned. They believe they are being punished for their sins, or because they are not good enough or perfect. As do ex-cult members, victims suffer a painful spiritual loss when assessing their experiences.

In her extremely organized and clearly written book, Ms. Heimlich’s chapters and sections include, among others,

Chapter 1: What Is Religious Child Maltreatment?

Chapter 2: A Country in Denial

Chapter 3: When Religion Becomes Harmful

Chapter 4: Child Maltreatment and the Bible

Part 1: The Pain of Chastisement— Religious Child Physical Abuse

Part 2: Harm Without Hitting— Religious Child Emotional Abuse

Part 3: Violating a Sacred Trust— Religious Child Sexual Abuse

Part 4: Sin of Denial—Religious Child Medical Neglect

Chapter 20: Sorting Out the Demons of Child Ritual Abuse

Chapter 21: Is Male or Female Circumcision Religious Child Maltreatment?

Chapter 22: Train Up the Church and Everybody Else

Chapter 22 offers her positive suggestions for correcting this tragic state of affairs.

Heimlich claims that the term religious child maltreatment did not exist before she began writing her book, at least not when she tried to Google it. She argues that this lack indicates how little is known or talked about regarding the potential of religion to harm children, a topic most people— especially in our very religious America—do not like to talk about. However, there are thousands of Internet entries dealing with this topic if one searches using different terminology.

Although Heimlich’s book is extensive and provides a helpful overview of the topic, she tends to ignore other published research in the field, such as the work of Dr. Rita Swan, a former Christian Scientist who founded Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) after allowing her toddler son to die in 1977 because the church forbade her to seek medical treatment. Heimlich lists several of Swan’s publications in her bibliography, such as the important article “Child Fatalities from Religion-Motivated Medical Neglect,” coauthored with Dr. Seth Asser and published in Pediatrics in 1998; however, in my opinion, she should have focused more on Swan’s important published research and pioneering activism in her chapters on child medical neglect.

Also, I would like to know more about Ms. Heimlich. There is no biography included. We know she is a journalist. In full disclosure, she wants the reader to know she once worked as a freelance reporter for Monitor Radio, associated with the Christian Science Church, which she mentions several times in regard to medical neglect. She also wants the reader to know she is Jewish but received little upbringing in her religious tradition.

In addition, as a Jew, I resent her inclusion of male circumcision as possible religious child abuse. I believe it is now sort of “politically correct”to criticize circumcision. Or else just another slam at Muslims. Since we Jews have survived and thrived against all odds for these thousands of years, I doubt circumcision, a sign of our covenant with God, could be that physically abusive or harmful.

However, Heimlich’s book is thoroughly researched and her findings well documented. She meticulously defines her terms throughout, starting at the beginning with the word maltreatment. She provides detailed and prolific footnotes and an extensive bibliography, drawing from academic research as well as more popular literature. I can verify that her resources regarding treatment of children in cults are current and based on our best experts. I was impressed that she even quotes Kenneth Wooden’s 1980 book Children of Jonestown. I thought I was one of the very few people who knew about or had read that heartbreaking account when I gave the first speech about children in cults (later published in the Cultic Studies Journal) to a Cult Awareness Network (CAN) conference (the old, real CAN conference) in the early ‘80s.

Also, Heimlich does not provide an index, which weakens the value of the book for reference purposes.

In spite of these drawbacks, mental health professionals, parents, and all others concerned about children, as well as those concerned about cults, should read this shocking and often horrifying book.

[1] US Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Maltreatment 2009 (Washington, DC: Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau, 2010), xii,

Marcia Rudin, MA, has studied, written about, and spoken on cults for 23 years. Ms. Rudin was, until her retirement in 1997, the Founding Director of the International Cult Education Program, a preventive-education outreach of the American Family Foundation (former name of ICSA). She has written widely on many subjects. Her contributions to the cultic studies field include Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults (coauthor, Rabbi A. James Rudin); associate producer of the ICSA videotape Cults: Saying No Under Pressure; writer and producer of the videotape After the Cult: Recovering Together; editor of and a contributor to the anthology Cults on Campus: Continuing Challenge; developer of the ICSA lesson plan for middle- and migh-school students, Too Good to Be True: Resisting Cults and Psychological Manipulation. She is a former Assistant Professor of Religion at William Paterson College.