Janja Lalich and Karla McLaren, Escaping Utopia: Growing Up in a Cult, Getting Out, and Starting Over. Routledge, 2018.
If ever there was clinching evidence that devoting oneself to a modern cult is essentially enslavement, this book is it. To befuddled, scarily bright-eyed converts, it might be willing enslavement – at least in the heady honeymoon period - but spare a thought for their children, growing up in a dystopia weirder than any sci-fi nightmare and as cruel as pretty much any brutal regime has ever inflicted on the young and vulnerable.
One of the true horrors of this situation, as made excruciatingly clear in this excellent book, is that getting free from a cult brings its own form of torture, for a fundamental principle of the enslavement is the brainwashing that makes the guilt at leaving often simply too difficult to overcome without extreme trauma. These ex-cult members, however, are made of stern stuff, and have dragged themselves free, albeit often with unimaginable emotional and spiritual suffering. They are all heroes.
This book presents the case histories of sixty-five people who grew up in thirty-nine different cults – many of them completely new to this reviewer - from a dozen countries. Their histories are intensely personal horror stories, but although we learn more about the machinations of abuse and negative group dynamics than perhaps we ever wanted to, there is much here about the triumph of the human spirit – and even handy advice on coping mechanisms. The authors’ own comments are never intrusive and always helpful – Lalich is a professor of sociology who specialises in extremist groups, and McLaren is a social science researcher who grew up in a New Age cult.
Of the dozens of cults described by their escapees here, they all share the imposition of a vicious discipline, designed to break the individual’s spirit and maintain unquestioning adherence to those in charge. Tiny children suffer terribly. This is Jessica, formerly a member of The Family:
"Any form of discipline is fine as long as it was done 'in love'. That really included some very over-the-top things. Kids were getting beaten black and blue, public spankings, nude public spankings. Putting kids in tiny closet rooms, and fasting them for like a month… I was on silence restriction for a total of two years… One time I was on silence for nine months! I could not say a word! …. A boy of seven or eight was put on a year of silence restriction…"
Matthew, an ex-member of the Twelve Tribes says: "…some of the kids were really starving… You had to clean the house [of] thirty or forty people, and you had to help with the dishes every single day for three meals…"
Tiny tots in most of the cults mentioned were put to work, and often received minimal education, which consisted of readings from the works of their leader, and precious little else.
Often parenting was communal – and therefore very hit-and-miss – with children growing up confused and desperate for love. That was not the worst of it, not by far. A young woman raised in the Living Word cult recalled: "The founder started telling people that they should be spanking their children starting a six months. And so my parents were very big on spankings". Her little brother, who suffered from something akin to Attention Deficit Disorder was hauled up in front of the assembly to be punished and shamed.
Elsewhere we read how a young girl’s asthma was seen as evidence of possession by evil spirits, and - in the middle of a very bad attack of asthmas – she was violently exorcised. Someone else’s mother had to soldier on through appalling migraines with only prayer to console her. Perhaps it goes without saying that outside medical attention is usually neither encouraged nor sought. The implications of that are, of course, sinister in the extreme. Without professional medical awareness, just how many cultists have died, quietly and anonymously over the years? How many instances of manslaughter through starvation or beatings have simply gone unrecorded? (That’s apart from the most infamous cults, such as Heaven’s Gate or the Solar Temple, with their mass suicides and murders. They do not feature in this book.)
The outside world is evil and must be shunned. Even when the cultists venture out, it is usually just to proselytise or make money for their Leader. Usually the members own nothing and live hand-to-mouth, working all hours for the benefit of the cult’s authorities. But if you really believe that even to question the status quo is a major crime against God’s own appointed one(s), you will simply continue to comply, exhausted in body and spirit though you are. Under it all, always, is the deadly toxin of brainwashing. Criticise and you are evil. Challenge and you might be expelled – and you are brainwashed to believe there can be nothing worse…
This admirable book not only charts the horror of growing up in a cult – including simply sacrificing one’s childhood years – but also offers the wisdom of those who escaped. Often the journey was monumentally traumatic, and freedom a double-edged sword, but they made it into new life.
One is made aware just how difficult leaving is, especially if life in a micro-managing cult is all you have ever known. One young woman, once out, found herself in the middle of banter with some young people her own age. She was astounded by their witticisms, actually asking if they made them up all by themselves? She had only ever said, or perhaps even thought, what was permitted.
This is a hugely important subject, and there is a vast reservoir of potential material, which is why I ask that the authors of this book forgive my hijacking this review. But I do have to declare a personal interest. For whereas an extreme schismatic version of Mormonism features in their pages, the more mainstream church, to which I was a convert in my teenage years, does not. I perfectly understand that the authors have clearly defined what they mean by ‘cult’, which is many things but perhaps the most characteristic is ‘self-sealing’ – closed to the world, which Mormonism as such is not. However, I still believe that Mormonism (or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) does require an urgent critique from outsiders. To say the very least.
To most people in the West, the Mormons might have eccentric beliefs that they are over-inclined to shove down non-believers’ throats, but basically they’re seen as law-abiding, affable, clean-living and very, very smiley. What could possibly be wrong with that in a world drowning in violence and angry, hollow consumerism? As it happens, quite a lot.
Mormons believe that you get to live in the Celestial Kingdom after death with your entire family, which at least to those who enjoy happy families, is surely an outcome almost literally to die for. However… you have to pay. Yep, hard cash. Of course it’s never put like that, and Mormons don’t think in those terms, but they should. This is how it works: you can only be ‘sealed’ to your family in special Temple rituals (actually stolen from those of Freemasonry, but that’s another story). But you are only allowed to set foot in the Temple if you pass an interview with your local bishop, one of his standard questions being your compliance with the payment of ten percent of your income to the church as regular tithing. If you don’t pay it (and they will check), you don’t get to do the Temple ritual - therefore after death you will never see your family again.
Surely this is an even more egregious form of spiritual blackmail than the old Catholic indulgences, which allowed you to forgo a certain number of years in Purgatory if you paid the clergy. (Indulgences were such a scandal way back in the 15th and 16th centuries that they, along with other instances of Catholic corruption, outraged one Martin Luther so much he created Protestantism.)
Tithing is essentially compulsory: without paying it you’re not a good Mormon and the Lord will not bless you. Very poor members are repeatedly told that tithing is top priority, even before feeding their families or paying the rent. Starving for the Lord is perhaps rare, but it’s possible. Certainly very real hardship is suffered by a great many Mormons the world over, especially as families are encouraged to be large. (Exactly where the tithing goes, and who ultimately benefits from it, is a hot topic among ‘Ex-Mos’, though perhaps one can guess the general consensus.)
The Temple interview is fraught with other, more immediate dangers. The Bishop is empowered to ask individuals, some as young as seven or eight, about sexual thoughts and practices such as masturbation. And he is always alone with the child. There are no chaperones. There are no background checks on the bishop and they are not required to attend any course on appropriate behaviour. Women, too, are compelled to answer questions on their sexual behaviour, often in excruciating detail. (‘Show me where you touch yourself,’ being one far-too-common demand.) Perhaps it goes without saying that the bishops are always men, this being a proudly sexist organisation.
Little wonder that these interviews are now the subject of a massive scandal, especially among those who have escaped this particular cult with sickening stories of sexual abuse.
Then there’s the whole question of the exponential rise in suicides among young men (and some young women) in the ‘Mormon state’ of Utah. In fact, Salt Lake City is the suicide capital of the US for men in their early 20s, almost always because they are gay. This is a rabidly homophobic organisation – the famous Mormon smiley welcome is emphatically reserved for heterosexuals.
In the 60s a close friend of mine in the church, whose homosexual feelings were emerging, made the error of asking our local bishop for advice. "Get out and never pollute my office again!" was the immediate response. "Even prayer and fasting will never put this right. You are evil through and through!" Yes, that was a very long time ago and, you’d think, attitudes have changed. Not in Mormonism, although perhaps the language used today is less obviously inflammatory. Not long ago one of the Church’s Authorities declared that it would be wrong even to entertain a gay man in your home and that they should not be encouraged to come anywhere near your family. Many Mormons simply ostracise their gay sons, brothers, nephews, or – it is not unknown – their own fathers.
There’s been much talk of the Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘shunning’ those who fall below the standards expected of them, even members of their own family, but Mormons do it all the time. The only difference is that it’s an official practice in the former case and more insidious in the latter. But Mormon shunning is just as real, and just as psychologically damaging, especially to those who have only ever known a Mormon community.
Then there is the chillingly-named ‘Court of Love’, where those who have committed some kind of anti-Mormon sin are expected to be denounced by a forum drawn from the priesthood (all Mormon men are priests). ‘Courts of Love’ can be very nasty: indeed George Orwell would only too easily recognise the jarring disconnect between name and function. Many escapees from the cult simply refuse to turn up. Declarations that they do not recognise the authority of these courts absolutely shock the Mormon authorities, but of course the latter can do nothing about it, certainly outside of Utah. It’s a small triumph, perhaps, for the former member, but a real one.
And if we’re defining ‘cult’ by terrifying and cruel practices in groups shut off from the world, just where does that leave the Catholic Church, after the emergence of the ‘Magdalene laundry’ scandal in Ireland and elsewhere? Thousands of girls over the decades were literally imprisoned in convents – often their families believed they were dead – and forced to slave in laundries for the profit of the Church. They were starved, beaten, tortured and sexually abused, often by their Father Confessors. If they tried to report what the priest had done to them, they were deemed insane and spent the rest of their lives in mental institutions. And just to underline the reality of this horror, UNICEF officially declared the Magdalene Laundry system to be categorised as ‘modern slavery’.
So while the cults featured in the book more than deserve the exposure as evil, abusive groups, sometimes it does seem that the definition of cult in the wider world might need an overhaul. Usually the bigger and richer the cult, and the longer it is been around, the less it is accountable for its crimes against humanity. And once a cult becomes a religion, as with mainstream Mormonism, there’s even less of an impetus to question its abuses.
This extremely well-written and necessary book is, however, a good start, and will give hope – and practical advice - to those who are on their own journey to freedom. And once again, I salute the many heroic former cult members who got out and started over, both in these pages and out there in the world. You’re amazing. -- Lynn Picknett.