For Many Trapped in Religious "Cults," Steve Hassan Keeps Hope Alive

Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs. By Steven Hassan. Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press, 2012. 242 pp.

Author and mental health counselor Steve Hassan has made hundreds of television appearances in recent years to spread the alarm about the dangerous growth of "cults" in America. A former top lieutenant to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon -- the charismatic founder of the Unification Church, the fanatical South Korean religious group known popularly as the "Moonies" -- he clearly knows the perils of such groups from the inside. In Freedom of Mind, his fourth book, he presents an updated version of his practical handbook published in 2000 on how family members can approach and successfully "rescue" their loved ones from the clutches of groups that nurture extreme emotional and psychological dependency among their members to the point where many are prepared to do anything -- even commit mass suicide -- to fulfill their leaders' mission.

But his latest book is much more than a rehash of Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves. In the intervening years, Hassan has worked with hundreds of families -- scoring numerous successes, but sometimes encountering disappointments, including threats of lawsuits -- and he's gone to school on his experiences and kept abreast of the latest academic research. Here he offers a more subtle theory of how cults recruit and maintain themselves as well as more sophisticated strategies and techniques that families and counselors can use to convince those unwittingly trapped inside cults to leave.

Hassan categorically rejects the once-popular theory of "deprogramming" - which he himself advocated and practiced in his early years - that seems to legitimize the efforts of families to seize their loved ones forcibly - and illegally -- to prevent them from associating with a cult. As he notes, even when such coercive "exit" strategies have worked, they have often left former cult members in a state of fear and trauma just as deep as the one induced by cult membership. In fact, rescued this way, it may take years before ex-members shed their lingering associations with the cult and trust their ability to think and act independently, Hassan argues.

Hassan acknowledges that under extreme circumstances, recourse to such measures may still be necessary. However, the bulk of the book is devoted to detailing a more patient and sophisticated method that he calls the "strategic interactive approach," which relies on slowly re-establishing rapport between loved ones and cult members over time, and wherever possible, taking advantage of spaces that may open up to interact with cult members on neutral turf, away from the constantly probing eyes and ears of other cult members.

In one fascinating case he cites, a family invites a cult member home to help convince her alcoholic father to seek treatment. She does and after her father completes treatment, he asks his daughter to reciprocate by seeking help for her addiction to her cult. It works. Sometimes the results are fairly rapid, but just as often, family members and friends need to take time and care to engage in protracted dialogue to sow doubt about the integrity of the cult and its impact on their loved one. In contrast to past approaches, the idea is to reinforce the decision-making integrity and autonomy of the cult member. If he or she once "chose" the cult, he or she can freely "choose" to leave it -- but only once its destructive influence is fully exposed, and alternate support is available.

Hassan's approach is also striking for placing as much emphasis on first engaging the affected family in a form of group therapy so that it can ease the trauma, phobias, and emotional pain it has suffered and steel itself to sustain future interactions with its loved one -- as well as formal "interventions" -- in the most productive way possible. As Hassan notes, many families lack the emotional resources to address these issues on their own and, like the case cited above, there may be preexisting family issues -- from substance addiction to sexual abuse -- that help explain why a loved one found a cult environment more safe and supportive (at least initially).

Hassan's work is not without controversy. Hassan himself acknowledges, for example, that what separates a "destructive" from what he calls a "benign" cult -- or religious sect -- is not always apparent. Some people join groups with a charismatic messianic leader with unquestioned supreme authority in which there is heavy peer pressure to conform. However, the cult members are not necessarily subjected to emotional abuse, bullying, physical threats, or other forms of behavioral control including excessive group "service," sleep deprivation and various forms of hypnosis -- often disguised as "meditation" or "psychic channeling" -- that allow leaders to exert undue influence over the minds of their members.

Still, looks can be deceiving, Hassan argues. In some cults, members maintain their own residences and work regular jobs but their entire life is still devoted to building up and serving the cult, often at the expense of their own health or financial welfare. Hassan tries to walk a fine line in these matters. His web site contains a compendium of groups that others have referred to as cults or suspected cults. Others sometimes disagree with his designations. For example, in the global yoga movement, which has long featured cults, both supremely destructive and relatively benign, controversy in recent years has swirled around groups like Dahn Yoga, SYDA Yoga, Anusara Yoga, Geshe Michael Roach, and MISA. Hassan lists Dahn and SYDA, largely because of published exposés, but does not list the others. In the end, if there is a continuum of "cultishness," it's not always easy to determine when a group that is merely esoteric and wacky -- to outsiders at least -- crosses the line and becomes "destructive," especially if no illegal activity or broader negative impact is apparent.

There are many myths about cults, Hassan notes. For example, many observers assume that cult members are typically lost or runaway youth and that those seeking to rescue them are their parents. Not so, he says. Many cult members are older parents themselves and quite often, it's their children or siblings who are anxious to reclaim them. In addition, there's the persistent myth that those with higher incomes and more education are less susceptible to cult recruitment than poorer, less educated individuals. In fact, intellectuals, including middle class college students, are often a prime recruiting demographic, in part, because they are fascinated by esoteric ideologies but also because they may have access to financial resources that cults hope to secure. In fact, many cult members do end up donating their life savings, or in the case of Dahn Yoga, turning over their student loans or maxing out their parents' credit cards to help support group activities

Hassan ends his book with a "call to action," asking that mental health professionals and lawyers educate themselves about cults and that the news media "step up" and help serve as "citizen watchdogs," reporting on cults in their early stages rather than sensationalizing incidents like the mass suicides of the People's Temple in Jonestown in 1979, David Koresh's Branch Davidian movement in Waco, Texas in 1993, and the Heaven's Gate UFO cult in San Diego, CA in 1997. These represent the extreme case of relatively small groups that ended up fulfilling their own "end of the world" doomsday prophecies. Hassan says they're only the tip of the iceberg. Daily, tens of thousands of captive Americans are living under the radar of public detection and it's critical to reach them before their cult group enters the danger zone.

Thanks, in part, to his steadfast efforts -- and proven methods -- there's hope that someone will.