Cultic Studies Journal
In Our Midst
Manipulation and Society
Cultic Studies Journal
Psychological Manipulation and Society
Vol. 12, No. 2, 1995
in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives
- By: Margaret Thaler Singer
with Janja Lalich,
Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 1995, 381 pages.
Reviewer: Rev. Walter
The publication of a book must, inevitably, be a matter of
gratification for the author. In this case, the publication of Cults in Our Midst
will also be a source of gratification for all those who have long admired the wisdom and
dedication that Dr. Margaret Singer has brought to the cult-awareness effort. "Margaret Singer stands
alone in her extraordinary knowledge of the psychology of cults"those are the
opening words of the books Foreword, contributed by Robert Jay Lifton. And that Foreword
is "must reading" for anyone who finds himself or herself in need of guidance
about the cult phenomenon; it is a precious enrichment of this fine book.
Among her acknowledgments, the author expresses gratitude
to "the more than three thousand cult victims who shared their stories, their pain
and their healing with me, helping me to learn about cults and the harm they have brought
upon so many." Implicit here is the humble admission that even a well-trained
psychologist can continue to grow in her understanding of this complex problem which
bedevils the existence of contemporary humankind.
After working for some years at the University of Colorado
School of Medicine, Singer went to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she had
the opportunity to counsel victims of thought reform
among the recovered prisoners from the Korean War. Since then, Singer has also
assisted the survivors and affected families of the tragedies at Jonestown
She has made countless appearances as an expert witness in court cases concerned with
manipulation or "brainwashing."
Cults in Our Midst is not a book about
weird people who join crazy groups. Its about how all of us, at various times, can
fall into vulnerable states during which another person can wield more influence over us.
Alluding to Big Brother of Orwells 1984, Singer says:
"Instead of one Big Brother, we see herds of Big Brothers in the world today."
And she notes that they promise intellectual, spiritual, political, and self-actualizing
utopias. "Eventually these groups subject their followers to mind-numbing treatments
that block critical and evaluative thinking and subjugate independent choice in a context
of a strictly enforced hierarchy." In the Introduction, Singer observes: "Legend
has it that all cult leaders are charismatic. In reality charisma is less important than
the skills of persuasion and the ability to manipulate others. In order to start a group,
a leader has to have ways of convincing others to follow him or her, and such leaders tend
not to relinquish control."
The first chapter presents some definitions and
characteristics of cults. The reader is reminded of the variety of cults and the ways in
which people are recruited. The author notes in a chapter on the history of cults that
cult leaders are opportunists who read the signs of the times and the ever-changing
cultures, and then adapt their pitch to whatever will appeal at any given moment.
The chapter on "The Process of
Brainwashing, Psychological Coercion, and Thought Reform"
is excellent. It is as complete as can be found anywhere. Charts and diagrams are added to
make the process understandable for all. The insights of Robert Lifton and Edgar Schein
are reported along with Singers own contribution. She warns that the methods of
attacking the self push people to the brink of madness and even, in some cases, over the
"Recruiting New Members" is a chapter filled with
many concrete examples which make for interesting reading and, at the same time,
demonstrate the manipulative methods used by many cults. The chapters that follow
illustrate first psychological, then physiological persuasion techniques used by a variety
of groups. A section on the invasion of the workplace and the development of New Age training
programs provides the caution that "certain training programs use the same types of
intense influence techniques that are identified with cults." An employee in just
about any corporation might be aware of the potential for getting involved (or being urged
to get involved) in some well-organized systems of indoctrination. At the same time, many
readersyoung and old alikewill benefit from Singers observation that
"Lack of informed consent, the use of hidden agendas, and the use of various forms of
coercion characterize the criticisms of both cults and modern-day training programs among
those who have experienced them."
The books final section addresses the question,
"How can we help survivors to escape and recover?" It offers prudent advice made
possible by the authors years of experience with the cruel effects of thought
reform. The reader is reminded, among other things, of the incalculable damage to the
personalities of children raised under the control of such groups. At the conclusion of a
recent conference this reviewer was approached by a twenty-year-old who quietly said,
"Until I was eighteen I grew up in a cult." The resulting struggle out of
confusion for such a person must be beyond our imaginations. Perhaps the liberation of the
mind will prove to be a lifelong project for many. And how malicious must be the hearts of
those who sow such confusion!
in Our Midst is up-to-date with its concluding note on the Order
of the Solar Temple, a European-based group notable for the shocking deaths
of 53 of its members in Canada and Switzerland: "We hope that such occurrences do not
happen, but if they do, let us not call these deaths suicides. Lets view
them for what they are: the sad, lonely, dreadful ending of life for people who trusted
too much, followed too long, and could not get away from a self-serving and murderous
This book is to be recommended to professionals and
laypeople alike. It is an excellent contribution to the growing literature concerned with
the "cult problem." In reviewing it there is a natural tendency to emphasize the
work of the primary author, Margaret Thaler Singer. That emphasis may be accounted for
partly by the fact that she is very well known and partly by the fact that it is
impossible to tell where her contribution leaves off and that of her coauthor Janja Lalich begins. But, however
self-effacing Ms. Lalich may be, one can be sure that with her experience and editorial
skills, she deserves much of the credit for this so well-organized material. The book is a
credit to them both, and a boon for the rest of us.
- Religious Studies Department
Seton Hall University
South Orange, New Jersey