An Apologetics Index research resource
Summary Review: Releasing The Bonds
Freedom of Mind Press
416 pages, includes resources, bibliography and index
Reviewed by Anton Hein, Publisher, Apologetics Index
In his foreword to Deborah Layton's story on life and death in Jim Jones' Peoples Temple, reporter Charles Krause notes:
Neither Debbie nor her mom was deranged. Nor were they unstable women abnormally susceptible to the appeal of a charismatic preacher/politician. People join cults unwittingly. Even reasonable, intelligent people can be fooled by demagogues, and too often, the deeper they become involved in one of these quasi-religious or quasi-political groups, the more difficult it may be to see the potential dangers. 
In the decades following the 1978 murder-suicide of Jones and 913 of his followers, Krause's observations have been confirmed over and over again. With great regularity, the media brings news of destructive cults and deceptive movements - ranging from the Heaven's Gate suicides to the murders committed by members of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, and from the unethical recruitment and retainment tactics of the International Churches of Christ, to the shenanigans of the litigious Church of Scientology. Countless additional stories never make the news. But most involve reasonable, intelligent people who found themselves recruited into a destructive relationship or group where they underwent radical, negative personality changes.
Deprogramming and Exit-Counseling
While many cult members eventually come to their senses and leave (so-called ''walkaways''), countless devotees remain caught up for years - forsaking relationships, education, careers, and, in some cases, even giving up their lives. Friends and relatives of cult members usually feel powerless when it comes to helping their loved ones. In the seventies, some turned to a procedure called ''deprogramming,'' an approach that often involved illegal kidnapping and forced detention during which the cult member was bombarded with information ostensibly designed to counter the cult's brainwashing efforts. Eventually, all but a few people denounced involuntary deprogramming as not only unethical and illegal, but also traumatic and often unsuccessful. Instead, they adopted a non-coercive and legal procedure called ''exit- or intervention counseling.''  This approach requires the cooperation of the cult member who, in an attempt at allaying the concerns of friends and family members, may agree to meet with them, talk with exit-counselors, and listen to former members. Though a huge improvement over deprogramming, this approach shares some of its drawbacks. For one thing, generally the emphasis is on giving information designed to expose and counter the cult's indoctrination process. Some cults specifically train members to expect and dismiss such information. More importantly, this approach usually does not take into account the unique circumstances and psychological reasons behind the counselee's cult involvement. In his new book, Releasing The Bonds, leading cult expert and licensed mental health counselor Steve Hassan explains:
Few people understand that cult indoctrination superimposes a new cult identity that suppresses and controls the individual's authentic identity. Relatives and friends think they are having a conversation with the person they have always known when, in fact, they are probably addressing the cult identity. In most traditional exit-counseling and deprogramming cases, the cult identity is submerged by left intact. The pre-cult identity assumes control, but the cult identity is not fully absorbed and integrated into the new post-cult self. Specialized knowledge and training are required to effectively promote healing. 
Strategic Interaction Approach
While there is no substitute for professional counseling, Releasing The Bonds goes a long way toward helping those affected by destructive mind control. That includes not only people recruited into manipulative relationships or groups, but their relatives and friends as well. In what may well turn out to be the definitive handbook on cult intervention, Hassan presents his ''Strategic Interaction Approach (SIA)'' - a non-coercive, highly effective counseling system refined over the twelve years since he wrote the best-seller, Combatting Cult Mind Control. This tried-and-true approach has none of the drawbacks of involuntary deprogramming or voluntary exit-counseling. Steve writes:
The Strategic Interaction Approach differs from the approach described in Combatting Cult Mind Control in several important ways, the most critical of which is the introduction of the three-part phobia intervention. In Chapter 10, you will learn how to use this step-by-step approach to help your loved one understand and overcome cult-implanted phobias. Until this is done, I have learned, interactions with a cult member are especially difficult and sometimes even counterproductive. The SIA also differs from exit counseling in its emphasis on the process of change, rather than pure content or information. The exit-counseling model was premised on the fact that the exit-counselor would have information that was difficult to obtain. All that has changed because, today, cult critics and former members of various cults are publishing information about cults and mind control on the World Wide Web. With the advent of the Internet, anyone with a computer and a modem can network with other families, obtain assistance from experts and former members, and locate information in a way that was not possible before. Because information about cults has become so accessible, we can spend more time developing a thorough understanding of the cult member, the group he belongs to, and the friends and family who care about him. Additionally, in the Strategic Interaction Approach we learn how to identify factors that make people more vulnerable to mind control, such as learning disorders, unresolved sexual issue, or pre-existing phobias that cults can take advantage of. We create a model of the parts of our loved one's authentic self that were cultivated for recruitment into the cult identity. Understanding these subpersonalities helps us relate to the cult identity and also helps us identify, and encourage, aspects of the cult self that are worthy of keeping. The focus of the SIA is on the growth of the entire family and support network, as well as on the cult member. Family members and friends work together as the Strategic Interaction Team. 
Many other books on cult issues are long on describing problems, and short on practical advice. Releasing The Bonds is different, in that that it is a step-by-step manual filled with sensible, useful information. The book also includes a resource section, listing various cults experts and organizations (ranging from the secular American Family Foundation (AFF) to the Christian Watchman Fellowship. In addition, there is an excellent bibliography, and a useful Index.
Releasing The Bonds is a must-read book not only for those with a friend or relative caught up in a destructive cult or relationship, but also for anyone interested in cult-related issues. In clear, precise language, Steve deals with concerns ranging from religious beliefs to religious freedom. The chapter describing destructive mind control alone is worth the price of the book. Referring to psychologist Leon Festinger's ''cognitive dissonance theory,'' Hassan explains:
There are three components to Festinger's theory -- control of behavior, control of thoughts, and control of emotions. Each component can be affected by the other two. It is by manipulating these three elements that cults gain control over a person's identity. Through my experience working with former cult members, I have identified a fourth component that is equally important -- control of information. When you control the information that a person is allowed to receive, you limit his capacity for independent thought. These four factors, which can be more easily remembered as BITE (Behavior, Information, Thoughts, and Emotions), will serve as the foundation for your understanding of mind control. 
Equally valuable is the chapter ''Unlocking Phobias'':
Phobia indoctrination is the single most powerful technique used by cults to make members dependent and obedient. I have encountered innumerable individuals who had long ago stopped believing in the leader and the doctrine of the group, but were unable to walk away from the group. They were psychologically frozen with indoctrinated fears, which often functioned unconsciously. 
A friend of mine who had been involved in an abusive church said this kind of fear was precisely why it took him three full years before he finally ''rebelled'' and was kicked out of the group.
I have myself been caught up in manipulative ''Christian'' organizations where I encountered abusive ''pastors'' and leaders - a situation all too common within the church. That is one of the reasons why along with my interest in cult-issues, I specifically focus on the problems associated with ''spiritual abuse'' within the Christian community. Having read Releasing The Bonds three times now, I firmly believe it should be required reading for all people in positions of authority, both within and without the church. This will serve a two-fold purpose: not only will it help leaders understand the unique problems faced by former cult members in their congregations, but it will also help them recognize and avert potentially manipulative practices in their dealings with others. It goes without saying that I think Hassan's insights - shared with obvious passion and compassion - will help anyone protect him- or herself from involvement or re-involvement in unhealthy relationships and movements.
Telling It Like It Is
What I also appreciate about this book is that Steve Hassan is not afraid to name names. For example, in addressing how to distinguish information from disinformation, he alerts readers to the fact that the so-called ''Cult Awareness Network'' is now operated by the Church of Scientology.  (CAN has effectively been turned into a hate group that continues the Church of Scientology practice of character assassination as a way of dealing with its critics). He also identifies cult sympathizers like J. Gordon Melton, ''who has a history of defending controversial groups.''  Says Hassan:
Cult defenders confuse the public by promoting a primitive, robotic conception of mind control. They also proffer an erroneous picture of the viewpoints of both cult critics and ex-members. A popular argument among cults defenders is that the testimony of former members, or ''apostates,'' should not be considered reliable, because such people may have been prejudiced by their departure from the group. According to Melton, ''hostile ex-members invariably shade the truth. They invariably blow out of proportion minor incidents and turn them into major headaches.'' [*] Ironically, cult defenders appear to ignore the possibility that the testimony of cult members and leaders might be partisan. 
Incredibly, cultists and cult defenders often claim that those who criticize cults are ''anti-religious'' or ''oppose religious freedom.''  Of course , such accusations are baseless. Indeed, in his introduction to Releasing The Bonds, Steve writes:
One of my chief motivations in exposing the destructive and deceptive practices of mind control cults is my high regard for religious freedom. I believe that everyone has the right to believe, and the right to not believe, whatever they choose. As a member of the Jewish faith, I believe in a God that created us with free will and the freedom to choose. I am also especially aware of how often minority groups have been persecuted for their beliefs, or for merely being different. As a matter of principle, I am opposed to censorship or banning any group. Indeed, I celebrate diversity. I also believe that no legitimate groups should fear an honest critique of its practices. 
Hassan's sensitivity toward, and understanding of, other people's beliefs shows throughout the book. Too, Hassan practices what he preaches. He writes:
I am not a Christian and don't consider myself to be a Bible expert, although I have considerable experience helping people trapped in Bible-oriented cults. As I mentioned earlier, I have developed a close friendship with a mainstream minister, Bob Pardon, and his colleague Judy Barba, of the New England Institute of Religious Research. They are able to share the depth of their knowledge and personal faith with me, the Team, and ultimately, the cult member. Some cult members find it easier to talk with a believer like Bob or Judy before meeting with me. Others, who have been programmed to fear ''Christians'' might find it easier to relate to me. 
Incidentally, Bob and Judy, highly respected by secular anticult- and Christian countercult experts are ''SIA trained.''
Only The Beginning
I'm quite sure that this is not the last book from Steve's hand. While he writes that he considers ''Think globally, act locally'' to be an inspiring motto, it is also clear that he thinks big as well. In his conclusion to Releasing The Bonds, titled, ''We All Must Help!'' Hassan encourages people to get involved. For example, he suggests citizens set up local activist groups, urges governments to establish consumer protection agencies and to investigate cult lobbies, and challenges mental health professionals to commit to more research regarding all aspects of cult mind control. He shows what religious institutions, legal professionals and the media can do to help educate and protect the public. Best of all, throughout the book, he shows what you can do. At the very least, keep this in mind: as a former cult members himself, Steve says,
I will never forget the simple gift of a cold drink on a hot day from a stranger as I sold flowers on a New York City street. By treating me with compassion, he helped to undo the Moonie-programmed belief that the ''outside'' world was evil. We should never pass up an opportunity to reach out to a cult member, whether he may be someone we know or a stranger. It could help open the door to his freedom. Order Your Copy