ICSA Today 2020 Vol. 11 No. 3, pg. 16-17 Book Review - Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart
The New Press, 2019. ISBN-13: 978-1-62097-499-5; $17.00 (hardcover). 240 pages.
By 1982, a few years before I entered the ranks of cult interventionists commonly known as deprogrammers, Lifton’s Chapter 22 had become a required guide in most anticult circles for determining what was or was not a destructive cult. In fact, I noted that some interventionists were treating Chapter 22 with cult-like reverence, as if it were scripture!
Chapter 22 is included in Losing Reality…, which is a compendium of the work of this remarkable psychiatrist whose ideas have helped many thousands, if not millions, in their understanding of and recovery from constricting cultic experiences and totalist organizations. Lifton’s ideas about brainwashing and thought reform have also met with criticism as not being scientific enough or not endorsed widely by the social-science community. Chapter 22 contains what Lifton calls “the eight deadly sins” (Lifton 2019, Ch. 3) of totalism. The chapter appeared in 1961 in Lifton’s first major publication, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. The enduring eight themes in Chapter 22 are featured as the social-psychological matrix for both Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, by neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor (2004), and in one of the first popular manuals published by a cult interventionist, Combatting Cult Mind Control, by Steve Hassan (1988).
Lifton agrees that his use of cult and reality defy easy definition because both terms remain flexible for good reason: The subjective self with its intimate experience needs to be considered along with testable reality. Cult as a pejorative term must be limited when used to indicate destructive, deceptive, or bizarre human social activity. Lifton defines the term, therefore, in its use for misplaced devotional behavior and spurious groups, with
three criteria: first, a shift in worship from broad spiritual ideas to the person of a charismatic guru; second, the active pursuit of a thought reform-like process that frequently stresses some kind of merger with the guru; and third, extensive exploitation from above (by guru and leading disciples)—whether economic, sexual, or psychological—of the idealism of ordinary followers from below. (Lifton, 2019, pp. 4–5)
Reality always contains … two contracting dimensions—the changeable/constructed reality that strongly influences our worldview, and the immediate/factual reality on which so much of our everyday lives depend. (Lifton, 2019, p. 8)
Losing Reality… covers far more than Chapter 22; but as I read through it (twice since I purchased the book last year), I found aspects of the eight themes in every part and chapter. In three parts, the book represents Lifton’s writings on “Thought Reform and Cultism,” “World-Ending Threats,” and “Regaining Reality,” with new essays in italics introducing excerpts from already-published works. Part One reflects on the development and use of thought reform in Communist China. Insights into Mao Zedong’s early heroism, ascent to power, and characterological decay into “psychism, into one-sided focus upon intra-psychic purity at the expense of extra-psychic reality” (Lifton, 2019, p. 58) brought home to me why so many cult leaders become moral monsters in the end. The idealized, ascetic Mao presented to his devotees was in reality one of the richest men in China, had attractive women brought to him for sexual pleasure every night, spread venereal diseases to them, “and was frequently depressed and addicted to sleeping pills” (Lifton, 2019, p. 38).
Part Two concentrates on Aum Shinrikyō, the apocalyptic cult surrounding Japanese mystic Shōkō Asahara from 1984 to 1995; an excerpt from The Nazi Doctors by Lifton (1986); an analysis of Trumpism, with excerpts from several articles including “The Assault on Reality” that appeared in Dissent in 2018, and “Nuclear and Climate Threats” excerpted from The Climate Swerve by Lifton, released in 2017. Aum Shinrikyō gained notoriety in 1995 when members released sarin nerve gas on five subway trains in Tokyo. Eleven passengers were killed, and thousands injured. Their motivation was to save humanity by starting an Armageddon that would purge the planet while leaving the cult to rule. (Charles Manson had a similar, clumsy, apocalyptic plan that included murder, but decades earlier, in America.) With The Nazi Doctors, Lifton developed his psychological concept of “doubling” that occurs in people who carefully rationalize their vicious behaviors as good for a higher cause into which they have been indoctrinated. Earlier in Losing Reality…, in another form of doubling, we find the Communist Red Guard asserting, “So long as it is revolutionary, no action is a crime” (Lifton, 2019, p. 35).
Next in Part Two, we come to “Donald Trump…a special kind of cultist” who is “in no way totalistic—his beliefs can be remarkably fluid—nor is he the leader of a sealed-off cultic community” (Lifton, 2019, p. 152). Lifton’s basic insight here has more to do with Trump’s “solipsistic reality” than with his purported MAGA (Make American Great Again) cult following. By solipsistic, Lifton refers to Trump’s tendency to believe or appear to believe his every utterance, while being incapable of authentic apology for mistakes. His solipsism makes him “the most bizarre and persistent would-be owner of reality” (Lifton, 2019, p. 153). And last in Part Two, Dr. Lifton examines “The Apocalyptic Twins: Nuclear and Climate Threats,” wherein both can act as ominous if real metaphors that can end life as we know it on our planet. Both threats have transcendent themes defined by what Lifton calls “high priests” in both science and religion. In this scheme, the definition owns the reality whether or not the definition is fact and evidence-based. As a result, insecure people can be motivated by any number of clever and inspired but paranoid Chicken Littles who announce with certainty that the sky is falling.
Part Three is more hopeful and contains a remedy for cultism and naïve or dangerous certainties that can lead to psychological and social closure. Lifton favors what he calls a protean ability and approach to maneuver beyond the constricting values and behaviors that we find in cultism. Proteus as the Greek god of the sea symbolized the fluid adaptability of the human organism, that same adaptability that cult leaders readily exploit. He acknowledges that life experience can be mystifying and confusing; thus, people tend to project or find plausible realities in religion, philosophy, and politics to lessen uncertainty. This coping mechanism limits reality, as in a religion, and has social benefits up to a point. The protean self remains to whatever degree in the human capacity to recover from behavior that devolves into suffocating cultism.
Losing Reality… is a small book—a quick read for anyone familiar with Lifton—yet packed with a large agenda: Be aware that our psychological and social freedoms are under constant assault, but be comforted when our democratic systems and pragmatic application of reason are yet available. It is up to us in our protean natures to make needed changes while retaining what is good. That is never an easy task. Much blood and ink have been spilled over what people call reality and how to define it. In the end, Lifton mentions historian Richard Hofstader, who wrote about “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in 1967. Hofstader has become one of my favorite authors lately with his keen insights into the American political soul and why that soul continues to fall into deep divisions while at the same time finds ways to overcome its schisms, even if it takes bloodshed. Lifton naturally, as an intellectual, falls into what Hofstader calls “the liberal” side of this debate; thus his distaste and urgent deconstruction of Donald Trump’s selfish style and effect on the American psyche. Trump is both savior and demon as a cult icon who has no cult, per se, but has certainly generated cults of devotion to either loving or hating him. When the gray areas relent in the American psyche, the struggle for a clearer solution rises. Therein lies the hope for our “capacity for openness and truth-telling” (Lifton, 2019, p. 192) to mend the present and pave the way for a better future.
I am reminded of another, once-favorite author of mine, Mircea Eliade, a Romanian scholar who headed the new history department of religious studies at the University of Chicago for many years before he died in 1986. Eliade was in the Traditionalist camp and right wing in personal values, but he was nevertheless a font of reliable information about world religions and their histories. In Eliade’s collection of essays, Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions (1976), he asserts presciently that “Many of these cults and sects will undergo radical transformations or will decline or disappear, probably to be replaced by other groups” (p. 63). Most new cults, Eliade says, thrive on a “hope for renovatio,” or renewal, by typically revolting against the established traditions with members who are “almost completely ignorant” of the traditions they are revolted by (Eliade, p. 63). This insight may explain to some degree the swelling of support for someone such as Trump, whose more devoted followers tend to stereotype the liberal while ignoring America’s valuable progressive spirit. Lifton urges us to use our collective and private reason to not be ignorant, to not accept solipsism, and to support “truth-telling” movements in media and politics to sustain a healthier reality. Again, Lifton’s book reminds us that this is no easy task. As T. S. Eliot once quipped in his poem Burnt Norton, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
Eliade, M. (1976). Occultism, witchcraft, and cultural fashions: Essays in comparative religion. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Eliot, T. S. (1943). “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets (first of four poems in this collection). New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, & Co.
Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his 2-year devotion to a New Age sect. He worked professionally as an intervention specialist from 1986 through 1998. He continues to assist people with cult-related problems including consultations via phone and Internet. In 2016 he received an ICSA Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas. Since 1998, he has worked for an emergency psychiatric hospital as a crisis caseworker. He maintains an art studio and exhibits professionally. His novel, Mushroom Satori: The cult diary was published in 2013.