Book Review: Escaping Utopia

November 23, 2017

Book Review: Escaping Utopia

Reviewer: David Sandeman

Escaping Utopia is based on the real-life accounts of 65 ‘cult children’—people who grew up in cults, and subsequently escaped. The authors, Janja Lalich and Karla McLaren (themselves both ex-cult members) define cults as:

a group or a relationship that stifles individuality and critical thinking, requires intense commitment and obedience to a person and/or an ideology, and restricts or eliminates personal autonomy in favour of the cult’s worldview and the leader’s wants or needs. (p5)

They emphasise that cults are not necessarily religious. They may be as small as one family, and could be a sporting organisation, a self-help club, a quasi-religious new-age group or even a corporation. No two cults are identical, and organisations may start off as mainstream, yet over time drift towards becoming a cult. Members live in a tightly controlled universe, where most aspects of life are regulated. Personal boundaries and individual identity are stripped, and the fear of banishment is ever present.

Cults become all-exclusive and sealed off. The outside world becomes increasingly frightening and misunderstood. The cult may discourage or outright forbid meaningful friendships or family relationships with non-members, making escape increasingly difficult. The apparent irrationality displayed by cult members is explained by reference to ‘bounded choice’, where members are given ‘freedom’ to make choices, but these are effectively determined by prior indoctrination about the way the world is, and the options seen as available.

People who leave, having grown up in a cult, are unprepared for the outside world. Many have only rudimentary education and no computer skills, and have never had to apply for a job, prepare a resumé or open a bank account. Simple tasks like visiting a doctor or renting an apartment seem insurmountable obstacles. Resources such as professional counsellors with specific expertise in cults are needed. Most of those interviewed found connecting with former cult members to be a great help. The transition to the outside world may take decades, and for some, the scars never heal.

I come to this topic armed with some personal experience. I was born and raised in a conservative house church organisation in Australia. I still have a sibling who is a member, who I have seen only a couple of times in the past 40 years. My parents were banished from the group in 1979 because of a flippant remark my mother had made years earlier about a world leader. We were completely cut off from dear friends, family and grandparents. I never saw my grandparents again—a sadness that was almost too hard to bear as a fifteen-year-old and still results in raw emotion. My parents were loving, but for a few years our relationship at home was quite fractured as they still believed their organisation to be God’s only true and right church (typical cult type thinking) and consequently they did their utmost to be ‘restored to fellowship’. Within three months of my parents being banished I had become convinced the group was a cult and I never wanted to return. So, my parents and I were pulling hard in opposite directions.

I had been indoctrinated into believing the church group I grew up in was the only right church. Other Christians (whilst they existed) were worldly and not separated from the world. Signs of worldliness included television, radio, pre-recorded music, holidays, visiting the beach, visiting the theatre or cinema, and so on. Life was incredibly controlled. There was barely a waking minute that was not regulated. In 1981, I met a young Baptist pastor and his wife. They had absolutely no experience of cults yet had a God-given wisdom beyond their years. They gently led me to the Bible and taught me to look to God for the answers to my questions. In time they befriended my parents, despite what initially seemed like insurmountable obstacles. Each time we were to visit their home, their television was moved to a back room to avoid offence. There were numerous small acts of generosity on their part as they lovingly led me to the riches, freedom and love of Christ.

I am forever grateful that I came to understand the gospel as a 12-year-old, three years before my parents were banished. Many others who have escaped have struggled to adjust and have consequently gone on to dysfunctional lives and relationships.

We need to be prepared as Christians to serve and support those entrapped or escaping a cult. We need to be aware of unhealthy aspects of church life that could drift towards cult-like characteristics. Awareness of what constitutes a cult can also help prevent loved ones from being entrapped. Finally, we need to be ready to support and guide cult members towards the liberating message of Jesus Christ. This will take time and wisdom, depending upon the nature of the cult the person has left or is in the process of leaving. Escaped cult members are lonely and mistrusting. They need space and friendship in careful balance. Reading this book will help us understand and be prepared.

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