1984 and Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Although these two books are fiction, they still have the power to give newly emerging survivors of totalist undue influence an early imagery and vocabulary to express their experiences of being controlled and manipulated. They also provide insight into the ways that ideas, even good and worthy ideas, can be used as leverage against an individual’s conscience and understanding, creating a sense of helplessness in the face even of terrible wrong-doing. Read together or separately, these books can help ex-members to make a transition from feeling guilt when they read ordinary literature, to discovering or rediscovering reading as a source of pleasure and recreation.
Age of Propaganda: the Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion, by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson. This book describes the manipulation of public opinion, backed up by with examples of the tricks used to sell ideas and products, from breakfast cereal to Greenpeace and the War on Terror.
The Anatomy of Illusion, by Thomas W. and Jacqueline L. Keiser. Short, sweet and to the point for a book that covers so much ground so clearly. Anatomy of Illusion looks at the history of the techniques that make up classical brainwashing, and against that backdrop it examines the evolution of other, non-brainwashing techniques which they class as “destructive persuasion”. The book ends with a look at the legal ramifications of destructive persuasion.
Combating Cult Mind Control, by Steven Hassan. This best-selling classic is a page-turning account of Steven’s own time in the Moonies and offers various examples of membership in other totalist cult groups (including my time in Scientology). The 2015 edition brings the stories up to date and explains Steven’s seminal BITE model, which analyses involvement in terms of control of Behavior, Information, Thought and Emotion.
Crazy Therapies: what are they? do they work?, by Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich. Few people have addressed the subject of fringe therapies as a kind of manipulation and deception, and this is among the best, maybe the very best, account. It is not an easy topic, given the willingness of some fringe therapists to sue anyone who suggests that their shiny box or magic water or mystical hand-passes might have no scientific basis whatever. This book manages to look at the evidence while avoiding the crass mockery and sneering the topic so often evokes, which makes it more likely to be read by those who most need to know what it says.
Cults in Our Midst, by Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich. This is an in-depth detailed analysis of the various models of cult involvement, which explores the eight-point model of thought reform proposed by Robert Jay Lifton, who wrote the foreword to the revised and updated edition.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan. Written by the ebullient scientist who shared his love of astronomy through the series Cosmos, this book is a conversation with a fine mind about human nature and our propensity to comply and accept nonsense rather than questioning. Here, Sagan also shares his most helpful baloney detection kit. As the Washington Post’s reviewer said, this is a ‘wonder-saturated’ book.
Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and The New Global Terrorism,by Robert Jay Lifton. This book is a terrifying account of the attempt to murder millions of people by a totalist cult that still has sway in Japan and Russia.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay. Although published 1841, this book is still leads the field when it comes to the bizarre and crazy activities that beset humanity with such regularity. It is by turns amusing and amazing.
Influence: Science and Practice (earlier editions published as Influence: the new psychology of modern persuasion), by Robert Cialdini. This is the essential classic on the subject of manipulation. First published in 1984, Professor Cialdini has meticulously updated his highly accessible text every few years. Cialdini describes the natural patterns of influence under six headings: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity. This book is helpful for people who are expressing curiosity about some of the mechanisms employed to use a recruit’s own mind and social awareness against him or her. It moves beyond the idea that “all cults recruit by using harsh methods of intimidating or over-powering recruits” which occasionally still rears its head. This makes it possible to understand and address issues of how and why the recruitment process is so effective even on people who believe they’d “never get sucked into a cult”.
Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do is Wrong, by Ira Chaleff. This was Jon Atack’s book of the year for 2015. In it, Ira manages to cut through the psychobabble and give us a straightforward and potentially life-changing view of obedience. His title was inspired by the training given to guide dogs, which must be able to refuse a command if it will lead their owner into difficulty. Eminent psychologist Philip Zimbardo says in the introduction, ‘Reading this remarkable book has given me new hope for the prospect of humanity finally learning the overdue lessons needed to cope effectively with the many urgent challenges of our times.’
The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo. Here we find the details of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment along with some of the many other ground-breaking experiments carried out by this eminent psychologist. Summing up a lifetime of remarkable work, Zimbardo gives a thorough account of the state of ‘situational’ psychology, showing that much of our activity is determined by external circumstances. Zimbardo launched the Heroic Imagination Project, which will likely be his most important legacy.
On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, by Norman Dixon. This work extends Mackay’s observations into the often unbelievable folly of human conflict, pointing out that until our education system actually teaches children to think, we need to improve on our critical thinking skills.
Phantoms in the Brain, by V.S. Ramachandran. A delightful account of the quirks and vagaries of the human brain, and a preferred text among the many fine books written by specialists.
Prisoners of Hate, by Aaron Beck. Written by the M.D. who originated cognitive therapy, this book shows how individual psychological difficulties turn to social conflict and war.
The Science of Social Influence: Advances and Future Progress, edited byAnthony Pratkanis. This thorough exploration of influence is hard to beat. Pratkanis opens this collection of expert essays with a description of 125 specific tactics used by manipulators.
Scientology: the cult of greed, by Jon Atack. In so many ways, Scientology is a master illustration of extremism, authoritarianism and sectarianism. This makes it ideal as a way to help emerging members hold up a mirror to the abuses in their own sect in a less threatening way. This book is easily and quickly read, useful for stimulating discussion.
Sex in the Forbidden Zone: when men in power – therapists, doctors, clergy, teachers, and others – betray women’s trust, by Peter Rutter. A must-read book! It doesn’t matter if the reader has experienced or witnessed sexual abuse. Rutter examines and makes clear the way the maxim “power tends to corrupt” can be particularly devastating in a power relationship. In groups where sexual abuse was a feature, this clarity allows the reader to recognize it even though they had previously not done so. In groups where sexual abuse was not a feature, Rutter’s analysis often becomes an incisive metaphor that reveals the mechanisms behind other kinds of abuse.
Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma, by Ronnie Janoff-Bulman. This is a fine general text on recovery, which shares approaches to the relief of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Subliminal: the New Unconscious and What it Teaches Us, by Leonard Mlodinow. There can be no understanding of influence without an understanding of that most complex of organs, the human brain. Many brain scientists are also competent authors, but Jon Atack recommends Mlodinow as a starting point. Mlodinov is a professor of physics and Stephen Hawking’s co-author of choice. He has also written scripts for Star Trek: the Next Generation, so can explain complex phenomena through easily assimilated stories and analogies. Mlodinov makes an important distinction between the Jekyll and Hyde view of the unconscious that still lurks in our culture. He puts aside Freudian notions of a dangerous half-wit id in favor of a mass of new research that shows that we are mostly guided through the world by our unconscious – and generally helpful – selves.
Take Back Your Life, by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias. A detailed and practical handbook on what it means to be recruited and indoctrinated into a totalistic group and on the most important aspects of leaving and healing. One of the delights of the book is the short but effective chapter entitled, “Abusive Relationships and Family Cults”. The book’s emphasis on examining the therapeutic issues relating to recovery from abuse makes it vital reading for victims of totalist manipulation and their families and friends. This which is one of the best handbooks for recovering former members, with a broader application for anyone who has escaped abuse.
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China is fundamental to the understanding of manipulation, by Robert Jay Lifton. One of the classic texts on the practices which gave us the term “brainwashing”. In it Lifton lays out how the Communist Chinese performed brainwashing and how it affected those who experienced it. Lifton, who has made a tremendous contribution to our understanding through his many books, studied survivors of China’s thought reform program and analyzed the methods used, and so created his seminal eight-point guide that has been adopted by many in the counter-cult field. We now have destructive persuasion, undue influence, and control, both coercive and non-coercive, but Lifton’s fundamental analysis of how these newer developments work still holds good.
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence-From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, byJudith Herman. This is a highly relevant guide on the subject of recovering from coercive situations.