Janja Lalich is one of the world’s foremost experts on cults and cultic behavior.
Before she realized she’d bought into a cult, rather than a progressive social movement, she had spent a decade in the feminist, political organization the Democratic Workers Party. Prominent in San Francisco politics in the 1970s, the DWP was reported on by the mainstream media, which exposed it as a cult even as members dismissed the criticism as part of a mudslinging conspiracy to undermine their goals. “Everyone knew we were a cult except us,” Lalich said.
Out of the group since 1985, Lalich knows her experiences–and choices–may sound weird.
But the Chico State University sociology professor has been able to work through them and build a career as one of the world’s top experts on cults and cultic behavior.
A young-looking 59, Lalich, with her close-cropped hair and stylish-casual dress, appears every bit the progressive college professor.
If there’s a preconception about what a former cult member looks like–maybe haunted eyes, or a nervous manner–Lalich immediately puts them to rest.
She’s confident and easy-going, talking about her surreal experiences in a cheerily decorated, knickknack- and book-filled living room in a Chico neighborhood that couldn’t be more average. Her rambunctious dog barks when the doorbell rings out a melodic tune. It’s UPS, dropping off a stack of fliers to promote her latest book, Bounded Choice.
In one corner, Lalich has recently framed some of her own artwork from the early 1970s, oil pastels–the only possessions she’d hidden from the cult when ordered to burn “anything that could reveal something” about her.
She said when her former life comes up in professional or social situations, people are surprised, even rude.
“When people get out of these groups, they’re often ashamed to talk about their experiences. They think people are going to say, ‘Oh, you were stupid enough to do that? How can you be so stupid?’ ” Lalich said. “That happens all the time; people will say that to me. And I’m like, ‘Hello?’ There’s a lot of stigma attached.”
Lalich hopes that, through her work, she can help erase some of that stigma and get people to better understand what leads followers of the likes of Charles Manson, Jim Jones and David Koresh to do things that no one outside a cult can imagine a rational person doing.
Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults was released last week by University of California Press and is poised to become a guide for everyone from frustrated families of cult members to scholars interested in her new theory.
Michael Langone, executive director of the American Family Foundation (AFF), [since renamed: International Cultic Studies Association] a Florida-based clearing house for information on cults and psychological manipulation, called Lalich “a major figure in the field” and said her book is eagerly anticipated in cultic-studies circles.
In the book, Lalich hypothesizes that, rather than the long-held, simplistic idea that cult members are “brainwashed” into submission, they actually make conscious choices that seem reasonable in the context of the environment they are in.
“The typical response is that these are crazy, weak people who like to be led around by the nose, people who’ve got nothing better to do, people who are lost, and that’s not the profile at all,” Lalich said. “[People say], ‘Oh, that could never happen to me. I’m smarter, I’m more savvy, I’m more this, I’m more that.’ I’ve worked with incredibly intelligent people who’ve gotten involved in these groups. The profile, if there is one, is people from good families, generally with good educations who don’t have pre-existing psychological problems. They’re idealistic, curious, looking for a way to help make a better world.”
– Source: The power of cults, Chico News and Review, USA, Aug. 12, 2004
Janja Lalich, Ph.D.
California State University, Chico
Chico, CA 95929-0445
Heaven’s Gate, a secretive group of celibate “monks” awaiting pickup by a UFO, captured intense public attention in 1997 when its members committed collective suicide. As a way of understanding such perplexing events, many have seen those who join cults as needy, lost souls, unable to think for themselves. This book, a compelling look at the cult phenomenon written for a wide audience, dispels such simple formulations by explaining how normal, intelligent people can give up years of their lives–and sometimes their very lives–to groups and beliefs that appear bizarre and irrational. Looking closely at Heaven’s Gate and at the Democratic Workers Party, a radical political group of the 1970s and 1980s, Janja Lalich gives us a rare insider’s look at these two cults and advances a new theoretical framework that will reshape our understanding of those who join such groups.
Take Back Your Life: recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships Read Excerpts Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias.
Tobias and Lalich spent a combined total of 24 years in “restrictive groups” (i.e., cults), and both are currently involved in providing post-cult counseling and therapy. Their first collaboration, this book succeeds as an ambitious, comprehensive explanation of the cult experience and works well on several levels. Its stated focal intent is to encourage and assist those former cultists struggling to readjust to the “real world.” Powered by the authors’ experience, compassion, and intellect, it capably provides such support. In addition, however, Tobias and Lalich’s systematic analysis of the shared characteristics of cults and cult leaders, along with extensive first-person accounts by former cultists, will educate those readers with a purely intellectual interest in the allure, power, and structure of cults.