The summer after I left the dangerous group, I read a ton of books on the dynamics of spiritual manipulation within Christian cults. Books are a great way of finding one’s way back to reality. Through them I was able to get a better sense of the nightmare in which I had been living for the last three to four years of my life. And when tragedy struck at the end of that year, I wasn’t wholly unprepared to deal with it.
Tonight I wanted to share some of my favorite resources on spiritually abusive groups. Some of these are fictional and some are not. Stories are invaluable to a right understanding of cults because it’s so hard to grasp conceptually how these groups function unless you can see it laid out.
My first exposure to the subtle power of mind control was a chilling twenty-minute movie that I had to watch for a Gifted & Talented class in the fifth grade. The entire book can be read in under half an hour and takes place within a single classroom where a group of grade school students discover that America has been taken over and their teacher is being sent away to be re-educated. By the end of the story, each of them has also been re-educated, although it happens so subtly that none of them recognizes it.
This is the notorious true story of a history lesson that got way out of hand. In 1967 in Palo Alto, California, high school history teacher Ron Jones was struggling to explain to his students why so many ordinary Germans followed the Nazis. He finally hit upon the idea of starting his own movement, called “The Third Wave.” Within three days it had taken over the school.
The story has been made into two movies, one American and one German. The American version is on Youtube.
I ran across this book in a university library the month I was asked to leave the group. Julia Duin was the Religion editor of the Washington Times and for a while a member of a charismatic church in Houston, Texas with a dark and shadowy past. As she started interviewing old and former members, she uncovered a story of a zealous group of young people swept away in the fervor of a Holy Spirit revival. But the authoritarian rule of one man threatened to undo all that they fought for, creating an abusive discipleship system that shattered marriages and ruined the faith of dozens.
A classic work of popular psychology, this is an indispensable examination of what Peck calls the phenomenon of evil people, those who are chronically narcissistic, predatory, and abusive. What makes them “people of the lie” is that to all outward appearances these are genuine, kind-hearted men and women who are the pillars of their civic and religious communities. Yet their inability to empathize with others makes them the perpetrators of unthinkable cruelties. They will never admit to being wrong, and they use their reputation as a shield to evade being exposed for what they truly are.
Recommended by psychologist Diane Langberg in a lecture on narcissists and the systems they breed, this novel uses the structure of a fictional love triangle between a poet, a young woman, and a Nazi officer in the days leading up to the Second World War to examine the untold story of how Hitler used religion to seduce Christian Germany.
Easily the most academic book on this list, this is nevertheless an invaluable look at the dangers of the heresy of millenarianism throughout history. Put simply, millenarianism is the radical idea that an elite group of people is going to take over the leadership of the earth after a period of global catastrophe. (It’s the devastation wrought by this idea that Marius was lamenting in his song at the end of Les Mis). The Puritans, Nazis, and Soviet communists were all millenarians. Voegelin exposes why this ideology is so persistent, and so dangerous.
Along the same lines, this book by renowned psychiatrist Robert Lifton (inventor of the famous eight warning signs of mind control) examines the dangers of millenarianism in the twenty-first century through the prism of Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult that released sarin gas in the subways of Tokyo. According to Lifton, groups that begin by believing that a violent event must precede a new world will eventually be inspired to create that new world through violence.
Investigative journalist Jon Krakauer (author of Into the Wild) explores a similar idea in this sobering true story of two fundamentalist Mormons who murdered their sister-in-law and her children because God told them to do it. Krakauer argues that in a religion based on divine revelation from heaven, anything is permissible because no one can argue that God isn’t speaking to you directly. And lest you think this only applies to Mormons, keep in mind that the book was recommended to me by someone on Twitter who noted the eerie parallels to my own prayer group.
Published by Zondervan, this window into the dynamics of abusive religious environments written by a former cult member brings clarity to the question of whether or not one is suffering from spiritual abuse. At the end of the book she offers a six-page checklist. Dangerous leaders shield themselves from accountability while using mind control, guilt, fear, and the language of Christianity to imprison their followers.
One of the best biographies I’ve ever read, I devoured this book during the summer after I left the group and before my friend’s death. The parallels to the prayer group and what ultimately developed in the jungles of Guyana were engrossing and eerie, and it makes me wonder what might have happened if our leader had persisted in his vision to lead a whole group of people overseas into the Middle East.
And one more:
Okay, so while this book technically isn’t out yet, it is available for pre-order. And from the bits that I’ve read, and the early reviews of others who have read the entire book, it’s going to be fabulous. Elizabeth Esther was raised in an end-times cult and slowly had to find her way back to sanity (which in her case included becoming a writer and Catholic). I can’t wait to read it!