Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs
By Steven Hassan
Reviewed by William Goldberg
Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press. 2012.ISBN-10: 0967068819; ISBN 13: 978-0967068817 (paperback), $15.26 (Amazon.com); ASIN: B00IIB6KAM (Kindle edition), $9.95 (Amazon.com). 268 pages.
When families of a cult member ask me for help in dealing with their family member, we review many variables together. Among other factors, we look at the developmental history of the cult member, the family dynamics, and the cult member’s ability to admit that he or she has been wrong in the past. Then I explain what I think the appeal of the cult might be to this particular cultist, and I offer the family advice about how to deal with the situation. The families usually leave my office with an improved frame of mind because they are leaving with a strategy for how they are going to deal with an otherwise unfathomable situation.
In Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs, the update of his second book, Releasing the Bonds (2000), Steven Hassan provides his readers with a similar service, but he does so in a comprehensive publication that families can read and reread, parse and discuss, underline and study.
In this book, Hassan describes the phenomenon of cult involvement and details his approach to helping cult victims to leave. He also offers practical advice to individuals who wish to help a friend or family member. Hassan’s clear and comprehensible book offers a blueprint for families. Most importantly, readers will take away from this book a strategy for how they are going to deal with the cult situation.
Toward that end, Hassan demystifies the cult experience. He points out, for example, that the glassy-eyed, zombie-like look of many cult members is the result of sleep deprivation, not some supernatural frightening magic. He suggests replacing the terms mind control and brainwashing with the more descriptive, less sensationalized terms social influence and destructive influence. He recognizes that cultic influence is on the continuum of instances of influence that we all encounter every day.
Hassan explains his BITE model (Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, and Emotional control) by giving concrete, understandable examples of how this control is accomplished and how it is maintained in the cult member. He uses clear examples both from individuals whom he has met and from his personal history as a former member of the Unification Church.
He maintains that phobia induction is the single most powerful technique for keeping cult members dependent and obedient. He defines the term, explains the dynamics of its use, discusses how cult members are rendered receptive to phobia installation, and gives practical advice about how concerned family members can counter it.
Hassan calls his approach the Strategic Interactive Approach (SIA), which he explains in this book. He claims that SIA is different from exit counseling because of SIA’s emphasis on the process of change, and its emphasis on the identification of factors that can render individuals more vulnerable to destructive influences (e.g., family tension, unresolved sexual issues, preexisting phobias). Although I question whether Hassan’s emphasis on these factors is as unique as he claims (other effective, insightful exit counselors are also cognizant of these issues), Hassan has rendered the service of identifying and organizing the factors in written form. He emphasizes that each family constellation is unique and presents different combinations of issues and scenarios, and he explains how he would approach each combination.
Perhaps most importantly, Hassan offers good, practical advice to families who have loved ones in a cult. The advice he offers is the most useful and practical aspect of this book, and it is the reason the book is so valuable to family members of individuals in cults. Hassan is aware of the common mistakes that panicked family members often make when they are speaking to a cult member. Although there is no sure-fire script to offer them, Hassan gives good advice. He points out, for example, that the goal of the discussion with the cult member is to build rapport, which can then lead to further dialogue. The goal is not to score debating points. Outarguing a cult member with logic is of no value if it leads to a shutting down of the exchange. Hassan points out that the best approach to helping someone leave a cult is to make gradual, cumulative progress rather than look for a knockout punch.
Hassan offers other strategies for keeping a positive, productive dialogue flowing. He recommends, for example, that family members should not engage in a fruitless discussion of the group’s doctrine, but instead should shift the focus to the dynamics of other controlling people and groups. Family members can discuss the times they got caught up in a situation where they felt out of control (e.g., overeating, alcohol addiction, a controlling relationship).
Attacking the cult member’s beliefs and affiliations will likely elicit a negative response and a shutdown in communication. Finding common areas of agreement can enable family members to address the situation more subtly, with less likelihood of backlash. To that end, Hassan recommends that the family not demand that the cult member read a book or article, with the implication that the writing will enlighten the cultist. Instead, they should suggest reading a book or article together and discussing it together. Obviously, this common-sense approach is more likely to render the cultist amenable to a productive discussion.
Hassan points out other communication problems that impede a helpful dialogue. If one wants to appeal to the precult personality (which, in a previous book, Hassan called the John-John as opposed to the John-Cultist personality) it is wise to avoid using cult jargon and buzz words that trigger the cult-personality response. After each encounter with the cult member, he recommends that family members do an assessment to determine which exchanges yielded positive results and which were unproductive. Again, by offering this advice, Hassan helps families who feel helpless and bewildered to develop a strategy for dealing with an otherwise overwhelming situation.
Hassan recognizes that most, if not all, cult members harbor unconscious doubts about their cult membership, but they don’t allow those doubts to become conscious. They use thought-terminating clichés or self-hypnotic techniques to squelch these doubts. So he recommends questions that can force cult members to contemplate, even for a moment, the consequences of their cult membership. Hassan distinguishes between four types of people—thinkers, feelers, doers, and believers, and suggests questions one can ask of each of them.
This work includes some missteps. Some might question that Hassan is “America’s leading cult expert,” as the book’s cover claims. At times Hassan might seem overly simplistic. For example, he gives an example of one carefully timed question dispelling a parent’s personality issues. However, compared to the contribution that Hassan makes to afflicted families with this and his previous books, these flaws are minor.
Hassan is the most prolific of exit counselors or interventionists. He is on the cutting edge of cultic studies, and he writes with expertise and experience. I hope that he will continue to produce works such as Freedom of Mind, and that in future works he will address some of the questions that remain unanswered. For example, what methods other than the SIA have merit? Which cult members would not benefit from the SIA? What would be the intervention of choice for those individuals? The SIA requires a dialogue between the cult member and the family. How does he offer help to those families who do not have access to the cultist? Each of Hassan’s three books has expanded the field of information for practitioners and concerned family members. I look forward to learning from his next book.
International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 6, 2015