From the April 17, 2003 issue of Inside Chico State Magazine
When NPR’s Morning Edition and Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor, along with radio stations and newspapers, needed an expert to comment on the dramatic return of Salt Lake City kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart and her possible “brainwashing,” they turned to California State University, Chico sociology professor Janja Lalich.
An expert on cultic behavior and charismatic leaders, Lalich asserted that Smart may have bonded with her captors because of indoctrination daily to their reality, until she forgot the reality of her normal life. Such indoctrination may explain why she denied her true identity when confronted by police and why she did not try to escape.
Calling brainwashing a “misunderstood concept,” Lalich prefers the term “bounded choice,” one she coined for the way a “true believer” is constrained (or “bounded”) in terms of choices available, making choices which may seem extreme or crazy to outsiders but are understandable within that environment.
Lalich has been consulted on many other high-profile cult news stories, including Heaven’s Gate, the San Diego UFO-based suicide cult; John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban fighter; and the cloning controversy of the Raelians, another UFO cult. These groups each meet Lalich’s definition of a cult: charismatic leader, total commitment on the part of followers, and an overarching ideology.
Lalich’s decision to specialize in the study of cultic groups and relationships was prompted by an 11-year experience as a member of a radical political cult, the Democratic Workers Party (DWP). “I wanted to figure out what the heck happened to me,” she said.
Like many cult members, Lalich joined at a “transition moment.” For her, it was returning to the United States after living in Spain, but such moments come after graduation or a death in the family, when the person is new in town, or when there is a war. “I’m sure political cults are doing well right now,” she declared.
Lalich left the DWP in 1986, when its membership voted to dissolve the group while its charismatic leader was out of the country. After a year of working to rebuild her life, she started Community Resources on Influence and Control, a research and resource center providing information and education to the public and to individuals and families who have had experience with cults. Eventually she entered Fielding Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, where she earned a doctorate in sociology.
Recognized as an expert on cults, Lalich is co-author of Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (Jossey-Bass, 1995); “Crazy” Therapies: What Are They? Do They Work? (Jossey-Bass, 1996); and Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships (Hunter House, 1994).
She is currently finishing a book, Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, to be published in 2004. It is based on a comparative study of the Heaven’s Gate cult and the DWP political cult. Her publisher, University of California Press, describes it as a “book for the intelligent reader,” and Lalich thinks it will be of interest to the general public, not just to academia.
The book was written with the support of grants from the Dean’s Strategic Performance Funds at CSU, Chico and the first Elizabeth Douvan Postdoctoral Development Award from the Fielding Graduate Institute.
At CSU, Chico since 2001, Lalich teaches sociology of the family, sociology of work, and women’s studies. In the family sociology class, she includes a segment on cults as an alternative to the family. The students are fascinated by it, she said, especially as it relates to social influence, interaction, and peer pressure. In 2003–2004 she will teach Social Movements, a course that has been dormant for some time.
The whole issue of cults is controversial. Lalich said that some sociologists of religion feel they are fighting for freedom of religion. “They think cult is an easy label to slap on groups you don’t like,” Lalich said, but she maintains that religion is the wrong paradigm. “This is a social-psychological phenomenon that is important for us to understand. Its characteristics and consequences warrant further study.”
About her personal experience with cults, Lalich said, “I learned a lot, but I’d rather have learned it another way.”