Book Review - Take Back Your Life Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships

Cultic Studies Review, 5, (1), 2006

Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships

Janja Lalich, Ph.D.

Madeleine Tobias

Bay Tree Publishing, Berkeley, CA, 2006.  ISBN-10: 0-978-0-97200021-5-8; ISBN-13: 978-9720021-5-8. Paperback, 372 pages, $19.50.

Reviewed by Doni Whitsett, Ph.D.

Whenever I’ve been asked to recommend reading to former members, families, or mental health professionals, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships was invariably at the top of my list. I can now feel comfortable replacing it with this revised and re-titled edition. Twelve years have passed since Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias first published Captive Hearts. Destined to become a classic, it was at that time one of only a handful of reputable works available on the subject as the cult field itself struggled towards professionalism and academic legitimacy. Now, twelve years later, Take Back Your Life reflects the progress toward those goals. Designed for both the lay public (particularly former cult members) as well as for mental health professionals and academics alike, this edition expands and deepens our understanding of the complex nature of the cult phenomenon.

The book is divided into four parts: The Cult Experience, The Healing Process, Families and Children in Cults, and Therapeutic Concerns. It includes new information on important themes—dissociation, PTSD, child abuse, etc.—reflecting the maturity of the field of trauma and its potentially devastating aftermath. Updated to include events that have transpired since the first edition, the book includes a description of, among other events, the Heaven’s Gate suicides, the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin gas attack, and the murder-suicide of Children of God ex-member Ricky Rodriguez. There is an entire chapter devoted to children born or raised in a cult, expanding the earlier version. Dr. Lalich’s own theoretical model, known as bounded choice, is a nice addition as well. Other topics which had also been peripherally mentioned in the first edition are discussed at length in this new one, e.g. one-on-one cults, child abuse in cults, with new personal accounts that meaningfully illustrate the theoretical material. Alexandra Stein’s story of recovery—what helped in each stage and what didn’t help—should be of particular interest to therapists.

However, although some neurobiological findings have been included from the work of Bruce Perry, the more extensive information currently available regarding neglect and abuse is somewhat limited. Thus, if any critique can be made about the book, perhaps it is this omission. The authors flirt with addressing insights from the burgeoning field of neurobiology but do not actually discuss them.  For example, on page 37 they mention Kathleen Taylor’s (2004) tome on Brainwashing but shy away from discussing any pertinent insights. Perhaps the reason for this deficit lies in the purpose for which the book was intended, i.e. as a healing tool for the former cult members rather than as an academic delight. Nevertheless, in my own work as a clinician I have discovered that presenting selective neurobiological findings to clients is often an extremely powerful way of helping them understand a dimension of their cultic experience as it highlights the changes and effects at a cellular level.

Shelly Rosen’s chapter on Therapeutic Concerns is informative and insightful. It carries the take-home message of empowerment and collaboration between client (former member) and therapist in contrast to the hierarchy of the cult structure. Ms. Rosen exhorts the therapist to be a new model of authority, someone who is competent yet shows his/her human limitations, in contrast to the cult leader’s grandiosity. Her therapeutic intervention of helping the client distinguish between his/her personal responsibility versus the influence of the social context is an important one. Limited space obviously constrained Ms. Rosen from discussing all the interventions that have been found to be helpful. For instance, the psychoeducational aspect might have been mentioned.  Psychoeducation often includes helping the client develop a timeline showing how she or he was recruited into the group and came to take on its beliefs and practices, including a new, cult-induced self-definition. Additionally, Ms. Rosen’s interpretation of the phrase “being in therapy” as signifying passivity, a lack of agency, is somewhat arguable. Nevertheless, there are excellent suggestions for clinicians, a nice addition to the book.

Take Back Your Life is impressive in its comprehensiveness and  there is something in it for everyone—personal accounts by former members, concrete guidelines and tools for recovery, a useful review of various models of cult dynamics (Part 1). It should take its place among other important works on the bookshelves of all who are interested in understanding the cult phenomenon, be it former cult members struggling to make sense of their experiences, the people who love them, and/or the professionals who treat them. Understanding how people can be lured into an abusive social system and kept there ostensibly not only with their consent but with their collusion is a complex, multi-layered task that Lalich and Tobias have helped to simplify. Take Back Your Life will go a long way in assisting people to recover, recoup, and reconstruct their lives to make them their own.