Book Review - The Heresy of Mind Control

ICSA Today, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2019, 20-21

Book Review: The Heresy of Mind Control

By Stephen Martin 

ACW Press: Nashville, TN. 2007, 2009, 2012, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-1-934668-18-4. (paperback). 170 pages. $17.50 (single copy; $12.50; two or more copies. e-book also available. Order online via

Reviewed By Diana Pletts 

Just suppose the church you unwittingly joined when you moved to a new location, and which seemed so loving, so giving, and so great in so many respects, turned out to be the People’s Temple with leader “Jim Jones who led over 900 of his followers into a mass suicide murder” (p. 11). Or that, following college, “You find a new group that welcomes you with open arms. They really care for people. The leader of this group has fascinating Bible studies” (p. 11). But this leader turns out to David Koresh, over eighty of whose Branch Davidian followers died in a fire at the church compound. With these chilling opening scenarios, Stephen Martin introduces his book The Heresy of Mind Control: Recognizing Con Artists, Tyrants, and Spiritual Abusers in Leadership to show how easy it can be to get involved with a cultic group, and to expose the deception and brainwashing that draws people in.

Stephen Martin was a cofounder of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Athens, Ohio in 1986, along with his brother, Dr. Paul Martin, and Paul’s wife, Barbara Martin. Paul directed the cult and spiritual-abuse rehabilitation center until his death in 2009. In this book, The Heresy of Mind Control…, Stephen uses his experience as a workshop leader at Wellspring and his Master of Divinity ministerial credentials to provide a scriptural overview of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton's eight psychological themes (Lifton, 1961/1989), which Wellspring used to assist former cult members in understanding their past cult involvement. Combining the Lifton criteria with scriptural supporting evidence, Stephen has provided a useful primer for former cult members, especially those who have exited from aberrant Christian or Bible-based groups, and also for counselors and pastors seeking to assist them. The book's intent, however, is for all who have been harmed by authoritarian control. Although it has been a decade since its release, this comprehensive book on the Lifton psychological themes remains timely and is well worth a read.

Each of the eight chapters is based on one of the eight criteria for mind control found in Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China (Lifton, 1961/1989). Not only are the themes presented through a scriptural lens, but alternate descriptions are provided in the chapter headings to deliver clear and concise definitions, such as “Thinking Inside the Box,” the title for Chapter 1, on Lifton’s milieu control; “Vocal Self-Degradation” for Chapter 4, on Lifton’s cult of confession; and “The Elitists” for Chapter 8, on Lifton’s theme of dispensing of existence.

Each chapter contains both a summary and a paraphrase of Lifton’s definition of the psychological theme, and explanatory examples of the theme in the lives of former cult members. Further, Stephen breaks down Bible verses that are often used in the control and manipulation of cult members and explains them in context, expounding upon, as well, those verses descriptive of cult leaders and their malicious deeds.

In each chapter, the various aspects of that particular psychological theme are separated by subheadings that more easily and completely describe each characteristic. The chapter Illusion to Disillusion, about Lifton’s mystical manipulation theme, for example, has subheadings of Visions and Revelations, [Fictitious] Stories, Euphoria-Inducing Techniques, and Misguided Devotion, among others.

Illustrations from cult life fill out these subsections, enabling former members to relate their own experiences to the various Lifton themes. In the chapter on mystical manipulation (Chapter Two), for example, Steve demonstrates that a “high” occurs when “The leader induces a false sense of euphoria through certain stimuli in the group, such as certain breathing exercises, hypnotic or semi-hypnotic techniques, [or] forms of trance-inducing meditation or chanting” (p. 33). This high is then explained to the group by the leader in a way suitable for the group, such as a declaration that it is “from God,” or the font of “positive energies” (p. 33).

In addition to amplifying Lifton’s psychological themes of mind control by way of scripture, Stephen also provides solutions to cult-induced problems, again using the Bible. It’s good to know that the same thing that may have been used to bring about the pain can then be used to bring healing from it. As Mary Alice Chranalogar, whose book Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free From Churches That Abuse (1997) Stephen helped edit, notes in her Acknowledgments that “Christ’s message is sometimes abused as a device to gain personal power over others.” Stephen looks to provide solutions that break that power and set former cult members free from their psychological harms. In the Restoring Self-Esteem subsection of “Vocal Self-Degradation” (Chapter Four), for example, he provides the hopeful verse, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 [New International Version]).

Rounding out the book are appendices regarding various topics that former members of aberrant Bible groups often struggle with, such as “What is Faith?”; “Pros and Cons of an Accountability Partner”;  and “Comments on Visions.” Illustrations depicting various aspects of mind control are provided by Stephen’s nephew and son of his brother Paul, Tim Martin. Tim’s illustrations help clarify some concepts that are sometimes difficult to comprehend.

As someone who was “in the church” for almost twenty years before my husband and I became aware of the likelihood that my former group had been a cult, and who struggled in my attempt to speak to pastors about it, I grasp how useful this book would have been to my pastors to help them understand the workings of cult systems, and how cultic groups compare to scripture. Following my group experience, I had wondered if my group, The Path, had been a cult. But not knowing the definition and unfortunately asking the wrong person, I had to let that question slide, as do many other former members, until I went to

Wellspring for exit counseling after almost twenty years.

Because former members may not themselves be aware of their cult involvement, perhaps calling it, as I did, “an ‘off’ group,” it may be up to a pastor to discern, from church members’ actions and words, the possibility of their having been cult affiliated. 

Those of us who were in cults often have little awareness that cult defines the group we were in, or know where to go for help, or to whom to speak after we leave. We try talking to people, but they don’t understand; or pastors ask, “Can’t you just forgive them?” (as happened with me), not comprehending the strength of the bondage and the intensity of our pain and the control we experienced.

I wish this book had been available for me, and for my pastors, back when I was struggling. That it is available for pastors and counselors today is a boon. The Heresy of Mind Control… would be a great assist for all pastors affiliated with SafeHaven, and for those trying to help former members in their churches. 

Full disclosure: I am a Wellspring alum, and I owe a debt of gratitude to Wellspring and the Martin family for their assistance in my recovery.

About the Reviewer

Diana Pletts, MA, has directed and coordinated The Phoenix Project, an exhibit of former-cult-member art and literary works, at 10 ICSA conferences since 2006. This project of artistic works created by former members provides a time and space for cult survivors to present their cult- and recovery-related artwork, and to tell their own stories in their own ways. Diana is working to regain and work out her own artistic vision, which she abandoned in 1975 when she left her BFA film program and became a member of The Path, an end-times group. Diana went to Wellspring for postcult counseling help in 1999, and then returned to college to complete her cult-interrupted undergraduate degree, obtaining a BA in philosophy. She also earned a master's degree in communication, writing a cult-education information campaign as a thesis project. Diana was the Arts and Literary Editor of ICSA Today for 7 years and was awarded ICSA’s Margaret Singer Award in 2015. She has worked as a writer and adjunct college professor and is busy today taking courses toward an undergraduate BFA in the visual arts. Diana has four adult children and lives in Maryland with her husband Denny.