Book Review - Coping with Cult Involvement

Book Review: Coping with Cult Involvement: A Handbook for Families and Friends

By Livia Bardin, M.S.W.

Published by: American Family Foundation, Bonita Springs, Florida. 2000

Reviewed by Doni Whitsett, PhD

Livia Bardin’s “handbook” is a welcome and much-needed practical guide for helping not only families and friends but professionals working in this arena to evaluate the nature of a “suspicious” group and the effects of it on their loved ones. The book’s stated goals - “to help [people] gain perspective on such situations, conduct a systematic evaluation, assess realistically what, if anything, [they] can or should do about it…” (P. i) - are clearly met. The information is solidly grounded in the cult literature developed over the past twenty years and is expressed in easy-to-understand, non-jargon language. The author acknowledges the difficult task families and friends have in sorting out the various pieces of the puzzle, and validates the intense emotions aroused by cult involvement, which often results in impulsive actions and angry outbursts. Nevertheless, the author exhorts the reader to stay calm, assess the situation, and make a well-thought out plan.  Ms. Bardin has developed several forms to assist in this assessment and strategic planning.  These tools are invaluable in helping families and friends make sense out of their own observations.

An important point Ms. Bardin makes is that assessment is dynamic. People and situations do not remain static, they move towards change. Thus, evaluations should be made periodically in order to take advantage of times in the life of the cult and the individual when she/he might be more vulnerable and available for a family intervention.

In chapter one, Ms. Bardin gives an overview of Basic Strategies – increase knowledge, stay connected, build trust, and take advantage of opportunities. Immediately, an overwhelmed reader will begin to feel less helpless – aha! “there IS something I can do.” It may not be the “storm-the-compound” strategy that a distraught parent had in mind, but even the most emotional reader cannot help but recognize the wisdom of these guidelines.

In chapters two through five, the reader is given information and forms with which to evaluate (1) personality changes observed in the member and (2) the nature of the group itself. Perhaps one of the most important points Ms. Bardin highlights is the difference between age-appropriate personality and situational changes on the one hand (e.g., leaving home, living with a group of friends, making a decision to change careers) vs. changes made as the result of undue influence. As the author states, “…a child’s casting off the family values and beliefs may be legitimate, no matter how painful.” Therefore, she exhorts the reader to be as specific and objective as possible when describing the changes observed in order to interpret these changes accurately. She also encourages a balanced view of groups.  A group’s being incongruent with the family value system or “odd” or otherwise unusual does not make it an abusive cult, and not everything that someone experiences in a cult is negative or harmful.

If I had any concerns in reading the book, it would be that it may assume a level of maturity many people find hard to achieve. Families and friends are asked to contain often intense emotions surrounding their own values and needs when dealing with their cult-involved loved one. While this request may be problematic for many people, I think it is nevertheless important to ask of the reader that he/she aim for this level of neutrality and containment. By clearly identifying the kinds of actions that have been found to be most effective in easing someone out of a cult, the author holds out the hope that change is possible as is meeting the emotional challenge that may be required for success. Families and friends will necessarily have to question how committed they are willing to be to this (often long-term) process if it means having to make some changes themselves.

For example, in chapter 7 (Communication), Ms. Bardin provides excellent responses to the many provocative statements frequently hurled at well-intentioned parents: “You’re Satanic,” “You’re not my real parents,” etc. She offers possible answers that give the parent time to collect himself, to think before she reacts, e.g., “I need some time to think about this before we go on. I’ll call you back later” (P. 54). In addition, a form titled “Listening and Responding” is provided for readers to fill out, another effective tool in helping people rehearse (and perhaps memorize) the kinds of responses most people “wish” they had had the presence of mind to say in the moment. Such planned and rehearsed responses are crucial, because when we are emotional our ability to think and reason is compromised, a point the author makes very astutely.

The handbook also provides practical information on planning a strategy for intervention, if the assessment reveals that the loved one is indeed in an abusive group. Pertinent legal information is also noted, as well as the various options, and myths, regarding exit counseling. In coming to some decision regarding the best plan to make, Ms. Bardin delineates six stages of cult involvement:  the fringe member, recruit, honeymooner, veteran, habituated member, and castaway.  She also discusses what might be done (and should not be done) within each stage. Reminding the reader that “It’s tough to convince any human being to change,” she emphasizes that “Persuading someone to disengage from a cult means getting him [or her] to abandon a major commitment to which he [or she] has dedicated his [or her] life” (P. 43). The outsider is often hard-pressed to understand the sense of loss, grief, depression, and loneliness that often accompany leaving an abusive group. To help in this understanding Ms. Bardin educates the reader about the various factors that make people vulnerable to cult involvement initially, as well as factors that maintain the attachment and why it is so hard to leave. She states, “To lose a group is to lose a world.” (P. 48).

In sum, I found this handbook to be an extremely useful tool in assisting people to evaluate potential cult involvement and appropriate strategies for dealing with a cult involvement. I would highly recommend it not only for the lay public but for therapists, lawyers, and other professionals who might want and need to gain a more comprehensive perspective on a particular situation.

Reviewed by:

Doni Whitsett, Ph.D.

School of Social Work

University of Southern California