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Book Forum: Religion and Philosophy   |    
Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion, 2nd ed.
ARMANDO FAVAZZA, M.D., M.P.H.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:1074-1075. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.6.1074
View Author and Article Information
Columbia, Mo.

By Marc Galanter. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999, 273 pp., $35.00.

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Cults was a good book when first published in 1989; the second edition is bigger and better despite the ugly cover and relatively small print. Marc Galanter, a professor at New York University, is the psychiatric expert on cults, and his is the best book on the topic. He neatly brings concepts to life with case histories, clear explanations of his research, and trenchant personal observations. His writing style is engaging, with just the right amount of informality.

Galanter describes cults as charismatic groups with as many as hundreds of thousands and as few as a dozen members. They are tightly cohesive, impute transcendent powers to their leaders or missions, strictly control members’ behavior, and exert a powerful influence that overrides individuals’ usual behavior. Examples of such zealous groups are the Divine Light Mission, the Unification Church, right-wing militias, Aum Shinrikyo, and, to a lesser extent, self-involvement groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and est.

A major force operating in cults is a merging of identity and decision-making functions that results in feelings of relatedness among members, a decline in psychological distress (especially among new members), and an enhanced sense of well-being. The closer people feel to group members, the greater the relief from neurotic distress. Conversely, if they disaffiliate from the groups a bit, they are prodded to return by the increased distress they are likely to feel. Another major operating force is shared beliefs that are established by a close-knit communications system in which acceptable views are encouraged and dissenting ones suppressed. Even an intense 2-day workshop exposure may result in surprisingly strong commitments by converts to the Unification Church.

Converts’ affiliation and sense of emotional well-being reinforce compliance and continued ties to the group. The sight of bald Hare Krisha members singing and dancing in the streets may seem silly and incomprehensible to an onlooker, but the participants consider their behavior quite normal because it has been adopted in association with a system of cultic beliefs in a tightly controlled social network. These beliefs and behaviors can be intensified by alterations in consciousness induced by meditation, drugs, isolation, fasting, prayer, and rhythmic music. A psychiatrist attending his third Divine Light Mission (Hare Krisha) meeting described his perception of a bright halo that suddenly emanated from the body of a young woman who was speaking about the guru’s mission: "She glowed as if she were a religious figure in a movie, and it gave her the appearance of holiness.…No one had told me to expect a light like this, and no one else seemed to see it.…I realized that something had happened to me that I couldn’t dismiss. The experience would somehow have to become a part of my understanding of the world around me" (p. 61). He decided to join the group. Galanter could not make a diagnosis. He heard similar stories and concludes that the phenomena are difficult to integrate into psychiatric models.

Charismatic groups focus on making converts not only to become larger and stronger but also because the process, when successful, confers legitimacy to the group’s ideology and consolidates the commitment of its long-standing members. Conversion demands a disruption of previous social ties and a change of world view. "The result may be psychiatric symptoms in people with no history of mental disorder or psychological instability" (p. 99). The groups carefully monitor members’ behavior, foster identification with group leaders, suppress individual autonomy and divisive points of view, and manipulate feedback. They also establish boundaries to isolate members from outsiders. Thus, the glazed, withdrawn look and the trance-like state seen in members may appear pathological, but they serve to reduce direct exchanges with hostile persons. The behavior is usually not present when group members interact with each other or with friendly observers.

Galanter examines alternative medicine and spiritual recovery movements, which often are embedded in an emotionally supportive structure that lends meaning to illness and recovery. "They are like charismatic groups in that they operate from a base of spiritual (or pseudoscientific) ideology, and may be fueled by the alterations in consciousness and sensations associated with pain, suffering, or addictive drugs" (p. 185). Although he admits that Melody Beattie’s books on codependency have helped many people reshape their troubled relationships, Galanter also notes that "codependency" is a term that could characterize almost anyone who has ever had a close relationship. He provides an illustrative anecdote about Marianne Williamson, a popular author, motivational speaker, and guru of love. She described an event when she had a serious sore throat and ordered a drink at a bar to salve the pain. She spoke to a flirtatious man who said that he could get her some erythromycin because he was a physician. "This is a miracle," she wrote, "I had prayed for healing."

I heartily recommend Cults to all my colleagues. It’s a nice respite from neuroreceptor binding charts and provides insights not only into group dynamics but also, by inference, into family functioning. The study of cults is not as exotic as it would seem. We all are enmeshed in social systems and confronted daily by demigods.

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