Book Review - Escaping Utopia

ICSA Today, 10, (2), 2019, 20

Escaping Utopia

By Janja Lalich and Karla McLaren

Reviewed by Wm. Kent Burtner

Published in ICSA Today 10.2

Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, New York, NY. 2018. ISBN-10: 1138239747; ISBN-13: 978-1138239746 (paperback). $29.00 (; hardcover, 108.65; Kindle, $27.55). 182 pages.

In researching and writing Escaping Utopia, Janja Lalich and Karla McLaren have given us a rich resource for understanding, helping, and supporting people who were raised as children in the high-demand groups we generally refer to as cults. This book depicts the devastating experiences of adult children of cults while at the same time it offers hope and optimism for the future of people who one would think had everything going against them.

Lalich offers up the theoretical framework she calls bounded choices, showing us how it is possible to put a normally functioning person into a life situation from which it is virtually impossible to escape. She identifies that a charismatic (and narcissistic) leader joined with a transcendent belief system are lures that pique the imagination of a potential recruit. Then she clearly explains how a set of psychological and social-influence control techniques, named systems of control and systems of influence, can give a potential recruit the feeling of having made a choice to belong to the group, but at the same time, make it almost impossible for the individual to exert himself over against the tight controls of the group.

The book is based on detailed, structured interviews with 65 former members of cults who as children were raised in them. Their parents joined the groups, but the now-adult children had no choice about becoming part of the totalistic systems in which they were raised. Yet these 65 left their groups on their own, without the assistance of intervention. They are a testament to the fact that there is no perfect system of social control; yet they left behind many family members and friends who continue to live under the sway of powerful control systems. They are resilient individuals, whose resilience Lalich and McLaren explore in detail.

This book will be beneficial for several groups of people: Individuals who are questioning whether to leave a group will find the several checklists in the bounded-choice sections of the book very helpful in clarifying the nature of their particular group’s behaviors. Helping professionals will find new doors opened through which they might assist adult children raised in cults (it is both Lalich’s and this writer’s opinion that people in the helping professions are woefully undereducated about this topic). General readers will find a compassion for a marginalized group in our society.

Lalich and McLaren have included very helpful appendices with further reading, online resources, and points of reflection about high-control groups.

My only critique for this otherwise extraordinarily valuable book is that the authors did not deal explicitly with the issue of spiritual recovery from a high-demand group, although the wisdom implicit in their book will certainly be helpful. It is true, as the authors indicate, that one can construct a cult with any kind of transcendent belief system: It need not be about a religious topic at all. But because so many cults have religious themes as their belief system, people are abused spiritually by these groups.

Some individuals, following their departure from a cult, do not feel any need to pursue spiritual concerns. But those who choose to do so need help finding an authentic path. Here, guidance needs to be particularly sensitive, for the temptation of counselors is to initiate someone on a path similar to their own, which could result in the former members making another choice that was not their own. Because of the delicate and sensitive nature of this quest, perhaps that issue is best left for another time, but it is one that needs to be addressed with the thoroughness that Lalich and McLaren have given in the present instance.

About the Author

Wm. Kent Burtner, MDiv, MA, has consulted in various capacities with more than a thousand individuals or families about the cult affiliations of their loved ones and concerning their adjusting to life after leaving a cult or other high-control group; he also has assisted in interventions. Kent served as a Roman Catholic priest of the Dominican Order for 20 years, resigning from the priesthood in 1994. He subsequently served as a program manager for an interfaith social-services agency (including as director of the agency’s Cult Resource Center), a public-information officer for a local county public-health department, and a parish business manager. A published author of a book, periodical articles, and an audio series, Kent has also lectured extensively in the United States, and in Canada and Spain, making more than 130 major presentations. In 1983, he received the Leo J. Ryan Award from the Cult Awareness Network for his work educating the public about cults and thought-reform programs. Kent makes his home in Portland, Oregon and as a pastoral counselor continues in his concern for individuals and families adversely affected by cults and other high-control groups. Email:; phone: (503) 475-3429.