The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Releasing The Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves
By Steven Hassan (Freedom of the Mind Press, Sommerville, MA 2000)

This book review is long overdue. Releasing the Bonds has become one of the books I've recommended the most to those with loved ones in unhealthy, abusive or cultic churches.

Hassan opens the book discussing the various types of mind control cults-- religious, political, therapy and commercial cults. He then goes into a discussion of how and why these groups work. Being a former member of the Moonie cult, he brings both personal and professional expertise into his analysis and discussion of the phenomenon. Throughout the book he discusses numerous case histories that shine light on the hidden practices and struggles within these groups. Equipped with this knowledge, the concerned friend or family member can work to educate themselves about the key beliefs of the specific group involved and build a healthier relationship with their loved one that allows for two-way, respectful communication.

In his previous book, Combatting Cult Mind Control, Hassan described how he went about doing interventions. In my examination of his description of interventions, it seemed to me that he was advocating quite a few of the things that the cults were doing in their recruitment techniques. Without going into a lot of detail about that here, such condescending, confrontational, "ambush-style" interventions could be quite hurtful and could easily backfire-- having the effect of strengthening the loved one's commitment to the group as well as harming the relationships between those involved. My anecdotal experiences show that such interventions often turn out that way. I expressed a desire to see a more respectful, rational approach.

In this book, Hassan abandons this older approach and instead presents a far healthier, more respectful and empowering approach, what he calls the Strategic Interaction Approach. This new approach is not based upon a single, near-magical "intervention event" but rather on building healthier relationships among the parties involved and recognizing both good and bad aspects of the group. This change reflects the growth of this field and a concern for healthier approaches by those involved.

Older rescue methods like deprogramming and exit counseling are inadequate because they attempt to persuade cult members to change their beliefs without first dealing with the phobias that paralyze them. In the Strategic Interaction Approach, we acknowledge the importance of phobias by learning to recognize and cure them before we engage our loved one on a rational, cognitive level (p. 235).

Examples of these phobias would include telling people that if they leave the church, they are going to hell, their marriage will fall apart or their children will grow up out of control. There are other factors that work to keep people in unhealthy or cultic churches that Hassan's new approach helps with as well. For example, the idea that the member has invested years of his life in something and leaving would seem to be throwing that investment away.

As one who was a part of a cultic church for more than twenty years, I can say that a person who has joined such a group made an adult decision to join it, and the group has its positive and its negatives of which they are well aware. To simply tell them they made a bad choice or that they were duped violates the good reasons behind why they made their choice to get involved. A concerned friend or family member must recognize and acknowledge the positives of their loved one's membership in the group and seek to understand why their loved one has joined it. Failure to recognize these things will be taken as a blatant lack of respect for them personally and will demonstrate that the confronting one really doesn't understand them. However, once a respectful relationship is cultivated and established, honest communications about the good and bad in the group can take place.

A remark in the foreword expresses the key truths behind this new approach:

I believe that real love is stronger than conditional love. The love that family members and close friends have for a person is much more powerful than any relationship within a mind control cult. Relationships in mind control groups are usually based upon the conditions of obedience and membership. Once the member passes the "honeymoon" phase and these conditions are made evident, friends and family have the potential for increasing a positive influence over time. Time is on their side because mind control is never one hundred percent, because the human spirit wants to be free, and because, ultimately, cults do not deliver what they promise (p. xxiv).

At the end of the book, Hassan discusses a new way of doing interventions. But these are based upon the groundwork of helping family relationships grow, learning to communicate more respectfully, and dealing with the phobias and other dynamics that are a part of the cult experience. In such a climate, presenting information as needed without applying pressure to simply leave the group allows the loved one to honestly evaluate the information and his experience with the group, and to make a free, informed decision.

... the goal during an intervention, as with mini-interactions, is not to force your loved one to leave the group but to provide information and perspectives that were not previously available to the cult member; to promote informed choice; and to enable him to re-evaluate his commitment and make his own decision. You should not attempt an intervention without guidance from a professional who will have the necessary skills, information and objectivity to guide the process safely and effectively (p. 299).

If you have a loved one in a group that is unhealthy, abusive or cultic-- this book is for you. Time is important; get it right away. Use what Hassan presents to guide you to improving your relationship with your loved one.

Copyright © 2007 John Engler. except as noted. All rights reserved.

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