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Cultic Studies Journal

The Cult Experience: An Overview

Psychological Manipulation and Society

Cultic Studies Journal
Psychological Manipulation and Society

Vol. 11, No. 1,  1994

The Cult Experience: An Overview of Cults, Their Traditions and Why People Join Them
John J. Collins. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL, 1991, 133 pages.
Reviewer: Louis Jolyon West

John Collins describes his books as an introduction to the major related topics and an attempt to explain why people join cults. He offers a few definitions of the word cult but then proceeds throughout the book to describe a wide variety of religious sects, utopian societies, tribal groups, and the like that he considers representative of the diversity available in the "supermarket of cults" (p. 110). However, his own definition demonstrates the bias of his perspective. According to Collins, "Cults are small, new, innovative, and marginal religious groups based on a charismatic founder/leader who, based on some special supernatural knowledge and/or experience, is capable of helping followers deal with their individual and/or societal dissatisfactions" (p. 104).

This definition certainly does not apply to the religious organizations that Collins believes typify the cult experience in the United States (e.g., the Church of Scientology, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness [Hare Krishnas], and the Divine Light Mission) or to the other well-known cults such as the Unification Church, the Children of God, the Church Universal and Triumphant, Rajneesh, or the Peoples Temple. Collins cites only selected anthropological and sociological literature. Meanwhile he discounts or ignores the findings of many other scholars, ex-cultists, investigative journalists, law enforcement agencies, and legislative inquiries, all of which have documented harmful exploitation and control occurring in such cults. For example, with respect to Scientology, Collins quotes only a few very tolerant sources (the most recent from 1976) and ignores major expos�s such as L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman? (B. Corydon & L. R. Hubbard, Jr.; Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1987), Bare-faced Messiah (R. Miller; London: Michael Joseph, 1987), and A Piece of Blue Sky (J. Atack; Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1990).

Collins also ignores the vast and relevant literature on hypnosis and suggestibility, on coercive persuasion and thought reform, and on the symptoms of dissociation and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently observed in former cult members. Collins considers brainwashing to be merely a rationale for deprogrammed ex-members to account for how "silly and naive" they were to join the cult. Thus, rather than hold the cult responsible for its depredations, he blames those victims—ex-members—who become anticult activists for their fervor, in contrast to the noninvolved former cult members who "simply drop out of their cults" (p. 45).

Collins's book suffers from other serious flaws. He minimizes the role of deception in recruitment by cults, the manipulative techniques used to ensnare and hold new members, and the venal motives of so many cult leaders and their lieutenants. He fails to address the psychological problems of members who have been harmfully exploited and the trauma involved in coming out of a cult. He ignores the medical literature on PTSD and dissociative disorder seen in cult refugees. Finally, by discrediting the claims of cult victims and ignoring the past 40 years of work on coercive persuasion, thought reform, and the psychology of totalism, Collins lends legitimacy to destructive cults as they continue in their greedy and ruthless pursuit.

Louis Jolyon West
Professor of Psychiatry
Neuropsychiatric Institute
University of California, Los Angeles

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