Book Review - Captive Hearts Captive Minds

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1993, Volume 10, Number  1, pages 86-90. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Other Abusive Relationships

Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich

Hunter House, Alameda, CA, 1994, 288 pages.

The subtitle of this outstanding book says it all: "Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Other Abusive Relationships." The purpose of the book is to aid the recovery process of former cult members. While doing so, the authors inform and educate family and friends of former cult members and helping professionals. For individuals who have been out of a cult for several years, this book is an affirmation of their own experiences and a measuring stick to see how far they have progressed.

In a 1988 Cultic Studies Journal review of Ronald Enroth's book The Lure of the Cults and New Religions, Fr. Walter Debold stated, with much insight, that "it would seem that there is a great deal that could be learned if we were able to monitor more effectively the recovery of ex-cultists. And we might minimize their anguish if we had a better understanding of their sufferings." Captive Hearts, Captive Minds goes a long way to help people to understand the suffering, struggles, triumphs, and joys of the recovery process.

In the introduction to their book, Tobias and Lalich clearly state their issue is with the methods and behavior of cults, not with beliefs. They define thought reform as "a coordinated program of coercive influence and behavior control"(citing the work of Singer and Ofshe). Emphasis is placed on the deception employed by cults during recruitment. The goals of the book, as stated by the authors, are twofold: to bring former cult members an understanding of cultic techniques and their potential aftereffects, and to provide an array of specific methods and aids that may help to restore lives. They have aptly met their goals.

Providing a well-rounded, professional approach to the major issues confronting former cult members, the book allows former cult members to see that their experience, and the trauma the reader may be experiencing, is shared by many. It is comforting to realize that one is not alone, that others understand and have been there. Also, it is important to note the similarity in the difficulties and emotions experienced during the recovery of individuals who have emerged from diverse cults with different ideologies or belief systems. Therefore, it cannot be the belief or ideology that is the cause of those difficulties, but the mind control environment.

Captive Hearts, Captive Minds contains three major sections: Part I defines the workings of cults, provides an understanding of the thought-reform process, and outlines the makeup of most cult leaders. Part II addresses the healing from the trauma of a cultic involvement. Part III gives 11 personal accounts of freedom and recovery from a cult experience, written by former cult members. The appendices include a handy checklist of cult characteristics, a listing of resource organizations, and recommended reading.

This book helps former cult members identify with the experiences of others, label and understand the trauma, and, thereby, gain the tools to begin the healing process. The emphasis on balance and moderation speaks to the tendency that former cult members have to be impatient with their own recovery process and to overreact to anything that is remotely similar to their cultic experience.

In chapter 1, "Understanding Cults and Cultic Relationships," the authors stress that the key to undoing the hold of mind control is understanding how mind control is used in cults and, specifically, in the individual reader's experience. Citing scholars in the field, they clearly define "cult," give a historical perspective, outline the categories of cults, and address the question, what is mind control? Dissociation is identified and defined as an altered state that may be experienced both during cult affiliation and in the wake of leaving a cult. The authors highlight the notion of "cultic relationships," giving powerful examples. They provide checklists to enable the reader to sort through his or her experience and more clearly understand what happened, including assessing the degree of destructive influence that may still be operating.

Chapter 2 addresses the effects of thought reform and cult conversion. The authors explore cult recruitment through Robert Cialdini's six principles of influence. They differentiate the recruitment process from the indoctrination process by presenting Michael Langone's "deception, dependency, and dread" syndrome. They discuss the commonly observed personality changes in cult members, citing West and Singer's list of exploitative elements used in indoctrination and their impact on developing the cult identity. The variables affecting damage to individuals are explored. These answer the question, why do some persons emerge seemingly unscathed, while others have major trauma and/or adjustment difficulties?

The chapter's conclusion places an emphasis on the fact that no one knowingly joins a cult. It is music to most former cult members' ears to learn that in joining the group they made the best decision possible, given the information the recruiters provided at the time. The value of information as an opposing force to mind control and undue influence techniques is that it presents an opportunity for the person to make a fully informed decision.

By addressing the psychopathology of cult leaders and the power dynamics they employ, the last chapter in Part I answers the question, why would anyone do this to me? Besides providing an outline of specific characteristics of manipulative cult leaders, based on the classic studies of the psychopath, the authors give a timely case example of David Koresh. The chapter ends with a list of questions readers can ask themselves about the characteristics of their former leader.

The chapters in Part II concern the healing process. Chapter 4, "Taking Back Your Mind," addresses the process of leaving the group and taking back possession of the self, and the body. It explains different ways people leave groups and defines the differences between two modes of intervention: deprogramming and exit counseling. Leaving the cult bodily is not all there is to it: One still needs to leave the cult cognitively. The remainder of the chapter explores in detail the cognitive postcult difficulties experienced by many former cult members. These include indecisiveness, unloading the language, dissociative states (including techniques for beginning to control the same), triggers (with a worksheet designed to help disarm triggers), memory loss, obsessional thoughts, and black-and-white thinking.

Once we've gotten the body back and have begun to get the mind to use its critical thinking skills again, we then must deal with the subject of the next chapter: coping with emotional issues. The authors explore the role of emotions in life in contrast to the role of emotions in cults.  Then, the emotions experienced by emerging former cult members are discussed in detail. With illustrative case examples, they address denial, grief, a sense of loss of time, loss of innocence, loss of idealism, loss of spirituality, loss of meaning in life, loss of family and/or loved ones, loss of pride and self-esteem. The chapter also details important issues (such as depression, feeling used, feeling like a failure, and feelings of guilt and shame), giving helpful suggestions, guidelines, and questions for protecting oneself, testing reality, dealing with anger appropriately, and working through self-blame and shame.

In chapter 6, "Facing the Challenges of the Future," the authors examine issues related to health, interpersonal relationships, belief, and career, giving suggestions to help deal with each. Many former cult members experience "the fishbowl effect," feeling that the uninformed "world out there" is looking askance at them, including family members. The authors address this feeling and offer guidelines on how to reconnect with estranged friends and family and restructure relationships with those left behind in the cult, should that be desirable or necessary.

The aftereffects of extreme abuse, both sexual and physical, is the topic of chapter 7. Suggestions are given for healing the pain, with references to books and seeking professional help. The section on children in cults explores the effects of repeated trauma and abuse of the young.

Chapter 8 discusses actions that help recovery. In the area of self-help, one needs to educate oneself, begin to express oneself (via a journal, art, music, movement, speaking, and so forth), and find a personal support system. In the area of professional help, the authors suggest the reader consider individual exit counseling, pastoral counseling, and psychological counseling. One of these options does not necessarily eliminate the desire or need for the others, but all can work in conjunction to address the needs of former cult members. Taking action includes exploring options that may help to turn a negative and destructive experience into a positive and strengthening one (for example, legal remedies, possible proactive anti-cult work, or simply "getting on with your life").

Chapter 9 is aimed at the helping professional. It clarifies treatment issues, assessment, potential therapeutic errors, and common postcult psychiatric disorders. It also includes a discussion of treatment of a client currently involved in a cult or cultic relationship, a suggested framework for therapy, case studies, and issues of posttraumatic stress disorder. It concludes with a list of resources available to professionals. This chapter offers a professional approach to educate and inform therapists and counselors to better help clients with a cultic experience.

The climax of the book, Part III, consists of an extremely helpful resource: well-written personal accounts by former cult members reflecting on their recovery process. If there is a weakness in this powerful section, it is that it lacks an account by a former member of a Bible-based, discipling/shepherding group. However, the diversity of the accounts overshadows this weakness, giving readers a strong point of identification and the hope (based on reality) that one day they will write their own account of their recovery.

Generally, this is an extremely helpful book, both in its educational approach to understanding postcult difficulties in the recovery process, and in its emotional impact, lending positive identification and hope to former cult members. Tobias and Lalich have approached this sensitive subject with a great amount of loving concern, while arming former members with the tools for their recovery: information, guidelines, suggestions, resources, and understanding. I highly recommend the book to all: former cultists, family, friends, clergy and other professionals.

Carol Giambalvo

Flagler Beach, Florida

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1993