Book Review - Cult Alert
This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 2000, Volume 17, pages 211-213. 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 - "Cult" Alert: A Practical Handbook for Saving Families
"What do you do when someone you love joins a group you think you hate?" This sentence is written in bold, red letters on the back jacket cover of this "handbook." "First," it states, "Calm down!" Second: "Read this practical handbook based on thousands of calls to the Cult Awareness Network national hotline (800-556-3055). Third: "Apply it!" Written mainly by Nancy O'Meara, a "Scientologist for 25 years since age 19," the book summarizes a generic sampling of "successful" consultations with no falsifiable attributions. For the past two years, O'Meara has "volunteered" to answer e-mails and calls at this CANTM information center in the Los Angeles area. In contrast to its predecessor, the Chicago based CAN, this new version suggests a more open, accepting approach to "cult" problems in a spirit of recognizing the pluralism and diversity allowed by law in this nation.
The booklet is divided into three sections: what to do, what not to do, and special categories. The third section includes brief comments about teens in cults, the "brainwashing hoax," diversity in religion, and how to judge and not judge a group. The text ends in a spirit that encourages the reader to be open and accepting of new ways of belief.
The first section contains advice familiar to most cult information volunteers of any persuasion: calm down, collect information, and stay in communication without using a lot of negative words. But there are peculiar assumptions. One is that the cultist even wants to talk to the family; another is that everyone overreacts when someone they know joins a strange group. The book claims that really bad groups are rare, and that there are no victims (p. 36), merely people who choose differently. On page 18, the author suggests that a person who can maintain a supportive communication with a member, despite disagreeing with the beliefs of the group, is "a rare diamond." Page 21 offers general advice on how to fix communication once it breaks down, for example, asking an intermediary or friend to help. Common sense suggestions for gathering information include visiting the group, reading group literature and websites, and talking to scholars who have studied the group.
"Do Not" advice takes up more than half of the booklet. To summarize: The media is not a good source as it concentrates on the sensational. Never pay anyone called an exit counselor ("mercenary haranguer" on page 56), and by all means stay away from illegal, brutal deprogrammers [though they are rare these days]. "Free" help is available by calling the hotline. Do not read books by ex-members as most are biased and cannot be accurate. Do not listen to those religionists who preach against the theology of groups they do not like.
Brainwashing and thought reform theory is said to be a hoax. Pages 89 to 90 targets psychiatry and "most psychology" as anti-religion and pro-drug: "Possibly there are members of the psychiatric clique that come from a place of deep spirituality. Please let us know if you find one." The book suggests that one find a counselor who "has spiritual grounding," but does not offer a clear definition of what that means.
Only two scholars are mentioned, David Bromley and Anson Shupe, in reference to a satire "latched onto by the media" about a sect called TNEVNOC (p. 47). Bromley and Shupe invented a group that "pried" females away from their families, compelled them to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the dead leader, and even marry that dead leader. If you have not noticed, the group is convent spelled backwards. This is one example of the crude effort to demean "anti-cultists" in "Cult" Alert.
The book is a crude addition to the cult awareness literature. Over 100 cartoons illustrate the text. 108 are male figures as compared to only 8 female. Almost all of them appear derivative of simple cartoon styles from the late 1930s and early 40s. The 800 number is printed in large type around twelve times throughout the book. The book's parting advice is that it is "okay to judge" these groups, but "judge them by the results they produce." Yet the very next sentence asks: "Do they promote peace and goodwill?" As if promotion equals results.
The book offers no specific leads, no bibliography, no counselors or resources other than its own contact information via e-mail or phone. No address is listed. If you contact this "CAN," you may be asked to give out your name and address and information about the group that concerns you. Do that with caution, and ask yourself: Do they really give out "free" lunches?
Cult Information Specialist and Consultant
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 17, 2000