4 out of 4 stars
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The Cult Next Door: A Manhattan Memoir by Elizabeth R. Burchard is the harrowing real-life account of a woman’s 20-year descent into cult madness and her eventual path to freedom. This was an excellent read, although I had to take frequent breaks because the subject matter is so upsetting.
Elizabeth joins the cult in her late teens along with her mom. Of course, none of the members are aware they are in a cult; instead, they think they idolize their “stress-reduction therapist” out of their own free will. Elizabeth shows the chronological progression of sexual grooming, manipulation, and indoctrination she was subjected to over the years. We witness the guru’s true insanity along with the methodical abuse of his victims. Finally, we see Elizabeth’s slow extrication process as she reclaims her power.
I liked most how Elizabeth exposes the slow escalation of social control with which cult leaders ensnare their victims in a web of hypocrisy, manipulation, and total psychological ascendancy. We see the lack of boundaries, the bullying, and the financial extortion. We learn how gurus defraud their victims without leaving a paper trail and thus are impossible to prosecute. I was particularly fascinated to see a cultist leave after a single visit by her parents to a “stress-reduction” session. Having her parents with her during “therapy” was enough to open her eyes to the absurdity of the situation and she managed to slowly untangle herself from the cult. Similarly, Elizabeth’s separation from the cult was brought about by a new friendship which over the years helped her to see the abuse and lying for what it was. This really drives home the point that gurus prey on emotionally weak and forlorn people, and that a support system of loving peers is instrumental in freeing cult victims.
The only minor complaint I have is about the book's somewhat uneven delivery. Halfway into the book, we have a new narrator (the book’s second author, Judith L. Carlone) and the chapters start alternating between Elizabeth’s point of view and the other narrator’s. However, both points of view are written in such similar voices that I often had to go back to the chapter beginning to see who was narrating. Additionally, toward the end, Elizabeth’s chapters seem to be a series of short diary entries, whereas the first half of the book was made of classic narrative chapters.
The book was clearly professionally edited and is a must-read for anybody except children. The (non-graphic) sexual abuse, small amount of profanity, and dark subject matter wouldn’t make this book suitable for children below teenage years, but I highly recommend it to everybody else. The very small amount of editing mistakes and the uneven delivery are not enough to knock off a star for me, so I rate this a 4 out of 4. Whether or not you know someone in a cult, it is imperative to know about psychological manipulation techniques. The wisdom gleaned from this book can be applied to any situation involving gaslighting and dishonest people, and recognizing the signs is key to not becoming a victim yourself.
The Cult Next Door
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