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Review: Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems

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Review: Alexandra Stein, Terror, Love and Brainwashing (Routledge, 2016)

Terror, Love and Brainwashing is an accessible exploration of the ways in which authoritarian leaders recruit, indoctrinate, and manipulate ‘normal people’. Stein’s work stresses that there is no single established profile of a person who might be more susceptible to these systems of control, and thus dispelling and challenging myths which surround cults and totalitarian movements. Stein writes from a perspective grounded in social and developmental psychology, and much of the book is built on an interpretation of attachment theory – giving particular attention to the centrality of disorganised-attachment in the maintenance and perpetuation of cult-like structures. Terror, Love and Brainwashing is deliberately presented as an accessible guide regardless of the reader’s educational background.

One can often feel apprehensive when picking up a book on such a topic, perhaps fearing that this will be a ‘tell all’ quasi-pornographic experience, read like a VICE expose. However, this work manages to balance accessibility and relatability with a keen attention to rigorous academic analysis – rather than fetishizing the pop-cultural mystique of the cult, as far too many Jonestown podcasts have done, Stein methodically deconstructs and dissects the topic. Stein’s own experience as a cult survivor formerly involved with The O, a Maoist political group that developed from radicalism associated with the 1970s food cooperative movement, lends an empathetic and non-judgemental tone to the text which is punctuated with the lived experiences of others who have been involved in a range of cult-like systems. The inclusion of survivor-led narratives in academic discourse on exploitation and control is refreshing, and a lesson from which many other writers could benefit.

A range of extreme movements are considered, spanning White Supremacist activity, Marxist revolutionaries, dissident political groups, and religious fundamentalism across a spectrum of denominations and belief systems.  This broad selection of case studies helps to deconstruct the idea that one culture or movement has a monopoly on totalitarianism and contributes to the narrative pf a phenomenon which can be identified across cultures, societies, and political alignments.

Whilst Stein’s work focuses on situations which might be considered extreme, there are lessons throughout Terror, Love and Brainwashing which can apply across a range of organisations and movements – whether in supposedly positive progressive groups, family dynamics, or personal relationships.  The idea of an organisation which drains the participant of energy, identity, and security whilst rationalising these abusive processes against their lofty ideological goals is, sadly, relatable for so many. For me, one of the most identifiable passages was a description of how supposedly supportive and empathetic groups can ultimately move from comradeship and compassion to coercion and exploitation. In this case Stein gives the example of the Newman Tendency, a postmodern Marxist movement which depended on forms of group and individual therapy as a method for recruitment, indoctrination, alienation and control, presenting itself as a healing and supportive space whilst ultimately destroying the lives of those with whom it came into contact.

Stine’s work is refreshing, relevant, and engrossing – whilst it may not make for the best bedtime story, Terror, Love and Brainwashing is well worth reading. Whether you are coming to the topic from a peculiar fascination with extreme movements, a desire to understand the radical organisations that continue to dominate newspaper headlines,  or even to understand your own run-ins with such groups, there is something here for everyone.


Alexandra Stein’s Terror, Love and Brainwashing is available at Ark Books now.

Image: Chicago KKK Rally 1920 United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Simon's background is in American history and postcolonial studies. He wrote his dissertation on pirates, the extreme-Right, and the weaponization of historical memory. He now studies migration and displacement at Copenhagen University. Favourite topics: Eastern European and Antipodean literatures, zine making, modernism, and sentimental trash.

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