Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults

Article excerpt

Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults. By Janja Lalich. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. xxiv + 329, illustrations, notes, appendix, acknowledgments, index. $21.95 paper)

Reflexive research is tricky business. In doing it, we can no longer disconnect our experiences, beliefs and ideas from our work, and the days of perfect objectivity (if such ever existed) are gone. Still, many of us shy away from subjective research, worrying about providing a balanced analysis-well, at least I do. A review of Janja Lalich's book about charismatic cults, Bounded Choice, brings this question to the forefront, not so much in a discussion of reflexive research in itself as in the author's use of her own experience as part of her research. To facilitate her discussion of the functionings of charismatic cults, Lalich presents two case studies: Heaven's Gate, whose members committed mass suicide in 1997, and the Democratic Worker's Party (DWP), a radical political group of the 1970s and 1980s, of which Lalich was herself a member for almost a decade during its heyday. Today a professor of sociology, she writes about cults and recovery, approaching the present work from two vantage points: that of a former cult member, and that of someone now trained to analyze her former life as a cult member.

I have often wondered why people give their lives over to, and persist in, cults even as these cults-leaders and led-grow increasingly irrational. In taking us through the histories of both Heaven's Gate and the DWP from inception to destruction, Lalich provides plenty of insights to satisfy this curiosity. She deftly presents the two groups' histories and a general analysis of the psychological and sociological means by which a person or couple can persuade numbers of people to do their bidding, even when doing so contradicts members' morals or common sense. She also reconstructs for today's readers a social context of alienation that was pervasive during the 1970s and 1980s on the West Coast, where so many people sought out cults. Such groups appeared to offer answers, an opportunity to belong-even, in the case of the DWP, to do social good.

Lalich has developed a theory to explain how rational people become caught up in cults and can remain within their sphere even though doing so is unreasonable and potentially unsafe. …