4 out of 4 stars
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When I chose to review this book, I was expecting a story about some strange organization with weird people and beliefs and rituals - in short, people who were nothing like anyone I ever knew - they couldn't be because, after all, they were in a cult! The Cult Next Door: A Manhattan Memoir by Elizabeth R. Burchard and Judith L. Carlone is an autobiographical account which reveals the chilling truth that cults are not as far removed from everyday life as one might hope and people who join cults are not abnormal or weird.
The foreword to the book sets the tone for the story and does warn the reader that most myths connected to the word "cult" are in fact untrue. Elizabeth, an educated, intelligent woman - valedictorian and graduate of Swarthmore College - gets introduced to George Sharkman, a stress reduction therapist and New Age guru, by her mother Rachel. A confident, charismatic and compelling personality, George Sharkman claimed to know the mantra for channeling positivity and energy to better one's life. Using a mishmash of theories borrowed from metaphysics and the various New Age ideas of the time, he gave it his own twist with a biofeedback machine and had the personality to sell his ideas to people and attract followers.
Elizabeth gets drawn to the ideas and the positivity of the man and becomes a follower. In the initial days, when the Group first started, Sharkman was broke and had no office. Elizabeth's mother lets him use a room in their flat as a clinic. They even invite a few of their friends to attend sessions and many of these people stayed on as Sharkman's followers for many years. And thus began the " Cult Next Door".
While on the surface it seemed that the followers were going to George Sharkman for therapy, in truth, they were being slowly and increasingly manipulated into handing over their lives and their fortunes to Sharkman. He took advantage of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and used just the right tactics of reward and punishment into ensuring that his followers would remain dependent on him. No one took a decision without consulting George and friendship with members outside cult followers was strongly discouraged. As the years went by, George Sharkman became more narcissistic, more demanding and his ideas got more bizarre. But, by then, the group members had already been trusting George with their daily lives and decisions for far too long to recognize the madness and walk out. Sharkman grew richer every year while more than a few of his devotees were so broke that they were rationing their monthly groceries - but it never occurred to them to cut back on their hours with George or leave him.
Every once in a while somebody would question George and his ideas, but the manipulation and combined pressure from George and the other cult members ensured that very few eventually did leave. This book tells the story of Elizabeth's long and frightening struggle to break free from this vicious nest of domination and mind control. The constant battle between Elizabeth's inner self and the person George was programming her to be, took its toll on her health and happiness. The self-doubt and the need to completely re-orient oneself with a world outside George's clinic was a long and painful journey. Elizabeth was lucky she met Judith, who proved to be a friend, anchor, and lifeline who ensured that Elizabeth won her battle and managed to break free.
This book was an eye-opener into the world of cults. The realization that most people who joined the cult did so because they needed help with common disorders like depression and loneliness which could have been easily treated if they had found the right therapist, was very sobering! At the end, when Elizabeth cries for the loss of 20 years of her life to someone like Sharkman, my heart goes out to her.
As this is an autobiographical story, I have nothing in way of criticism of the book - Elizabeth tells the story of her life as she lived it! I thought the book was very well written and almost has the feel of a suspense thriller. The portions written by Judith give a wonderful third-person perspective into the workings of a cult. I give The Cult Next door: A Manhattan Memoir 4 out of 4 stars and recommend it as an amazing tale of courage and determination and the victory of the essential good in a human being over any efforts to subdue or dominate somebody's mind and spirit!
The Cult Next Door
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