Video Review: 

What is a Cult

Cultic Studies Journal, 1994, Volume 11, Number 2, pages 230-233

Video Reviews - What Is a Cult? And How Does It Work? 

Margaret Singer. 1994, 58 minutes; After the Cult: Recovering Together. AFF Project Recovery & the International Cult Education Project. 1994, 25 minutes.[1]*

Reviewed by Janja Lalich, PhD

I can't think of anything I would have wanted more when I got out of my cult nine years ago than some expert videos to look at that would have helped me understand my experience and tackle the agony and ecstasy of putting my life back together. Today, we can add two new videos to the increasing number of excellent resources available in our field.

Aside from their instructive and insightful content, these videos are especially useful for a variety of reasons. In our fastpaced, highly technological world, watching videos has become an easy way to learn. It's something a family can do together. It's something a busy professional can find time for. And, perhaps most important, for former cult members who may be having difficulty reading or concentrating, watching a video can be less stressful and allow information to be more accessible.

What Is a Cult? And How Does It Work? is a basic educational video that has the capacity to speak to and reach a vast audience. It's practically impossible to list all the contributions clinical psychologist and worldrenowned cult expert Margaret Singer has made to our understanding of cults and their methods of influence and control. Having put together this video is simply one more way in which she is making widely available her vast knowledge of the subject. The 58 minutes whiz by as Singer explains with clarity, wit, and downtoearth descriptions some of the fundamentals about cults and how they operate.

Singer begins by discussing definitions and qualities of cults and cult leaders. She presents a picture of what's wrong with cults, how many there are, and how many people are currently involved or have been involved over the past decades. From the beginning, she makes it clear that anyone may become susceptible to a cult recruiter's pitch, and that contrary to popular belief, there are more cults and more types of cults than ever before.

Particularly useful is her explanation of thought reform (sometimes called brainwashing). She does an excellent job of demystifying a concept that has been misconstrued and misunderstood. She uses everyday language to describe thought reform, not as a rigid, onetime zap to the brain with a gun at your head to get you to comply, but as a subtle set of coercive influence techniques that are used over time in a coordinated way to get you to change your thinking, your attitudes, and your behavior. The smiling, softsell technique has always been more effective, Singer tells us, than the menacing Big Brother approach.

In the remainder of the video, Singer describes the cults' strategies, tactics, and techniques to recruit, control, and keep their followers. This information is presented in concise blocks formulated around her analysis of the six conditions for a thoughtreform environment: (1) deception, (2) destabilization, (3) dependency and dread, (4) disconnection, (5) development of the cult pseudopersonality, and (6) denial and dedication. Each of these is explained in detail, with flash cards, vivid examples, and thorough explorations of how each stage is set up and exploited by the cult leader and group members. How cult leaders use trance techniques, spy networks, guilt induction, peer pressure, induced anxiety and fear states, denigration and humiliation, reframing of experiences, revision of members' personal history, and a vast array of thoughtstopping techniques becomes much more understandable after we've listened to Singer's new video.  (By the way, her second video on cult aftereffects and recovery is now also available.)

The video ends with some practical suggestions for how we as a society can deal with cults. And despite the rather grim nature of this topic, thanks to the wealth of information that is imparted so clearly and so succinctly, the viewer is left with a more positive spirit. After all, in knowledge there is power. Buy this video and give it to your school, your library, your lawyer, your pastor, your professional club, your therapist or counselor.

The second video, After the Cult: Recovering Together, focuses on recovering from the impact of a cult experience. It is produced by AFF, a nonprofit research and educational organization, and narrated by William Goldberg, a New Jersey therapist who has worked with former cult members for more than 18 years.

The value of this video is its personal tone, sensitivity, and positive approach to the issue. Two typical responses to coming out of a cult are shame and not wanting to tell others that you were in a cult, and fear and confusion about starting over. Often you feel as though you're going crazy, at times overwhelmed by the rush of thoughts and emotions and decisions that need to be made. Most helpful in facing the challenge of getting on with life is knowing that you are not alone. A video like this can go a long way toward bringing a sense of comfort and security to former members across the country who can see and hear others who've been through a similar experience and have faced some of the same dilemmas. "You're not alone" and "it's not your fault" are probably the most important messages of cult recovery and this new video.

In a casual setting, 10 former members from different types of cults talk candidly about their experiences, how they got recruited, and how they were affected. A couple who had been in a cult for 35 years talk about the sexual abuse that went on, including being told by their leader that he was "marrying" their 14yearold daughter. We listen to a man who grew up in a cult explain how he's just beginning to grapple with who he is and what he likes, in contrast to who he had been for 20 years and what he'd been forced to like. Other women and men of varying ages and backgrounds tell us what their cult experiences meant to them and how they're coping with life now.

Because of the range of issues covered in the video, former members will be able to learn a great deal about their own recovery process. By hearing others, they can make their own connections and relate it to their own experiences. For example, identifying factors that caused you to be vulnerable to cult recruitment; recognizing reactions to "triggers" and how to control the impact of those cult reminders on your life today; confronting problems such as difficulty reading or concentrating, having fear or panic attacks, feeling uncomfortable in social situations or making friends, and dealing with unresolved spiritual or belief issues all those challenges become more manageable as you hear how others handled them and you begin to participate fully in life once again.

Also coming to understand that "there is no magic formula to recovery," as Bill Goldberg says in the opening of the video, is an important part of the process. The differences and variety in people and their experiences are what shapes the individualized responses to the consequences and aftereffects of a cult involvement. Reclaiming and rebuilding your life after leaving a cult is an extremely personal journey. Each person must go at his or her own pace. What's needed are determination and patience. And certainly what helps are thoughtful and caring aids such as this video.

After the Cult: Recovering Together comes with a handy resource guide that lists related publications, information packets, and both national and international cultawareness organizations. This video will also be beneficial to families, friends, clergy, and health and mental health professionals who are interested in learning more about cultrecovery issues.

Janja Lalich

Cult Information Specialist

Alameda, California