3 out of 4 stars
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The Cult Next Door by Elizabeth R Burchard, LSW and Judith L Carlone tells the true story of Elizabeth’s (Liz’s) time spent under the spell of a charismatic cult leader, and the experience of her hard-earned escape. Liz’s tale is cautionary, as it reveals that her experience isn’t relegated to the unintelligent or the weak. It shines a light on the advantages that cunning and manipulative individuals may take on the vulnerable. With the help of close friend, Judith, Elizabeth journeys through understanding, acceptance, regret, anger and a host of other emotions as she struggles to take back the life and control she didn’t realize had been taken from her for nearly twenty years. Liz’s story is ultimately of strength, faith and redemption.
This book is not for the faint of heart. The first half of this book is exceptionally challenging to read, and I had to limit myself to reading this in increments because of the disturbing nature of the material. Much like watching the babysitter in a horror movie run up the stairs rather than out of the house, I watched helplessly as Liz is continually manipulated into worse and worse traumas. I cringed as I read about the physical and emotional requirements that the cult leader, George Sharkman, insists are necessary for “boundary breaking”. And I shuddered when I came to obvious truths about his behavior that Liz was years away from realizing.
The turning point comes almost precisely 50% of the way through the book, when Liz meets Judith, a “Group” outsider, who delicately and lovingly points out the hypocrisy and lunacy of what is going on. I cheered for her and Liz as they work together to extricate the vestiges of Liz’s damaged life from George, his family, and the Group.
It’s easy to judge, at first, how a person might become the victim of a cult. I admit to my own preconceptions of the traits such an individual might possess. But The Cult Next Door breaks most of those stereotypes with its writing and its narrator. The book is quite well written, with no discernible typographical or grammatical errors, and an unforgiving, driving prose that reveals that Liz is neither unintelligent, nor without goals. She is at a point in her life, at the start of the book, where she is struggling to define herself. Just about everyone has been in that frame of mind at some point in their lives, bringing the terrifying truth that, through a combination of bad luck and vulnerability, this could happen to anyone.
In the end, I give this book 3 out of 4 stars for strong writing, intelligent storytelling, and unforgiving truth. I find Liz to be strong, honest and vulnerable, and I can feel every emotion that she does viscerally, which is what I liked most about this book. In contrast, what I disliked the most was that, as much as I rooted for Liz, she is, in the end, an unreliable narrator. Her experiences are hers alone, and while they are no doubt terrifying and difficult, the unbiased reader must acknowledge, as even Liz does, that somewhere there is another side to the story. Reading Liz’s story left me completely uninterested in finding it.
Fans of Driving with Dead People, by Monica Halloway, will find this a fascinating read. Readers interested by the inner workings of cults, readers who enjoy true stories of overcoming insurmountable odds, and readers who want stories about the strength of female bonds, should consider reading this book. Those triggered by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and readers who are looking for a “feel good” read may want to steer clear, as heavy and disturbing topics are both implicitly and explicitly discussed.
The Cult Next Door
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