A Review of Bonnie Zieman’s Cracking the Cult Code for Therapists: What Every Cult Victim Wants Their Therapist to Know

If, twenty years ago, my sister and her therapist had read Cracking the Cult Code, she could very well be alive today. Had I read this book in 1992, I might have been able to guide my sister Marilyn in her recovery process. So this is much more than a must-read book for mental health counselors: reading this book could save lives.

My sister and I were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses. While I broke away from the cult when I was twenty, Marilyn was not as fortunate. She “woke up” in her early forties, but she was unaware of the baggage—induced phobias, guilt and shame, learned helplessness, etc.—that she carried.

She paid the ultimate price for it, when she was murdered in 1998, by her third abusive husband. I believe it happened because, due to her cult indoctrination, Marilyn was not ready to live in a world outside of the cult that was foreign and frightening to her.

Unfortunately, even today most mental-health counselors do not fully understand the psychological issues in play for people leaving a cult-like group, particularly “born-ins” like Marilyn and me. I believe this book will help to change that.

As Bonnie states in her book: “The problem is—and the reason for this book—there are very few therapist who really understand the dynamics and dangers of cults, and the debilitating after-effects of having been caught up in one.”

I am certain that therapists and friends/family of ex-cult members will especially like Bonnie Zieman’s focus throughout the book: what therapists will be treating, and not how they will treat it. Cults are best identified by their behaviors, such as repression, coercive controls, rigid schedules and petty rules, rather than their beliefs.

cracking the cult code coverI am also pretty sure that Marilyn would have posted on her refrigerator this quote from Madeleine Tobias, one of many thought-provoking quotes found in Bonnie’s book: “More often than not, leaving a cult environment requires an adjustment period, not only to reintegrate into ‘normal’ society, but also to put the pieces of yourself back together in a way that makes sense to you.

“When you first leave a cult situation, you may not recognize yourself. You may not know how to identify the problems you are about to face. You may not have the slightest idea who you want to be. The question we often ask children, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ suddenly takes on a new meaning for adult ex-cult members.”

If Marilyn had read this book, she would have finally understood that people who leave cults have been traumatized by deception, thought-control and betrayal. That once she was out, it might be a long journey, and she’d need help from a therapist who had cracked the cult code. Only then, at least for Marilyn, could she have reclaimed her suppressed identity and built a new self-directed life.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Bonnie’s book? Do you have a story about finding the right therapist that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!