Group therapy goes awry in one community and shows how vulnerable we all can be to cult mentality
Portrait of a Psychotherapy Cult
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Marybeth F. Ayella
Sensational media coverage of groups like Heaven's Gate, the People's Temple, and Synanon is tinged with the suggestion that only crazy, lonely, or gullible people join cults. Cults attract people on the fringe of society, people already on the edge. Contrary to this public perception, Marybeth Ayella reveals how anyone seeking personal change in an intense community setting is susceptible to the lure of group influence. The book begins with the candid story of how one keen skeptic was recruited by Moonies in the 1970s- the author herself.
Ayella's personal experience fueled her interest in studying the cult phenomenon. This book focuses on her analysis of one community in southern California, The Center for Feeling Therapy, which opened in 1971 as an offshoot of Arthur Janov's Primal Scream approach. The group attracted mostly middle-class, college-educated clients interested in change through intense sessions led by licensed therapists. At the time of the Center's collapse in 1980, there were three hundred individuals living in the therapeutic community and another six hundred outpatients.
Through interviews with twenty-one former patients, the author develops a picture of the positive changes they sought, the pressures of group living, and the allegations of abuse against therapists. Many patients contended that they were beaten, made to strip before the group and to engage in forced sex, forced to have abortions and give up children, and coerced to donate money and to work in business affiliated with the Center.
The close of the Center brought yet more trauma to the patients as they struggled to readjust to mainstream life. Ayella recounts the stories of these individuals, again and again returning to the question of how personal identity is formed and the power of social influences. This book is a key to understanding how "normal" people wind up in cults.
Marybeth F. Ayella teaches Sociology at St. Joseph's University.