From the Publisher
The authors of The Cult Next Door make an extraordinary contribution to the literature on cultism and mind control. Elizabeth Burchard's story offers insight into her vulnerability, her manipulation into the world of the cult, the techniques used by the cult leader to control her, and the ways that Judy Carlone helped her to leave. By suggesting these insights, this book helps to dispel some of the common myths of cult membership.
The first myth is that individuals who are involved in cults are less bright than most people. Elizabeth Burchard is clearly an intelligent person. She is a class valedictorian, a graduate of Swarthmore, and a successful businesswoman. Her involvement with George Sharkman and his group was not caused by her lack of intelligence, but by the manipulation of a malevolent man who took advantage of her at a time of vulnerability in her life.
The second myth that this book helps to invalidate is the belief that individuals who join cults are always seekers by nature who look for someone to guide them. Although, in truth, the portrait she paints of her mother may suggest that the mother was looking for such a guru, Elizabeth was not. She was looking for relief from depression and overeating complaints that are not uncommon. Had she found a legitimate therapist to help her to overcome these problems, chances are that she would moved on with her life. Unfortunately she was introduced to George Sharkman, a cruel madman, who portrayed himself as a professional and who took advantage of her vulnerability.
A legitimate helping professional helps his or her patients to recognize that they have the power within themselves to overcome their issues. The therapist helps the patients to develop and use their own resources. An unscrupulous or cultist therapist (or, in this case, pseudo-therapist) indicates that only he or she has the key to help the patient and attempts to make the patient feel less strong, less able and less independent. The beginning place is the same an individual who is in some kind of pain and who is looking for relief from that pain. It was Elizabeth's misfortune not her wish or her personality flaw that she encountered an individual who would use her desire to better herself against her and who would use manipulative techniques and interpretations to keep her dependent.
Another myth that the general public believes about cult members is that most of them join a cult because the cult's bizarre belief system somehow makes sense to the cultist. Elizabeth Burchard is not a person who accepts irrational beliefs without question. The reader of this book will recognize that she often questioned, and sometimes challenged, the outlandish beliefs promulgated in her cult. That fact may cause some readers to wonder why Elizabeth stayed in the cult, even though she recognized the invalidity of some of the doctrines. One of this book's virtues is that it honestly portrays the simultaneous repulsion and appeal of the cult.
In fact, most cult members do not adopt the belief system of the cult because it makes sense to them. Instead, they adopt it because the group seems to have something they want a sense of belonging, a certainty, a feeling of sameness of purpose. The cult leader's manipulation is aimed only partially at convincing the cult member to adopt a new belief system. Even more significantly, the manipulation is aimed at convincing them not to trust their instincts and their own knowledge. Sharkman refers to the "old" (i.e. healthy, reality-based) way of thinking as "The Program." He interprets his followers' aversion to stealing, sense of loyalty to family or desire to decide for themselves with whom they wish to be intimate, as examples of their old, outmoded way of thinking. This tactic of denigrating pre-cult logical thinking is universal among cult leaders and is a necessary step in the process of destroying the cult member's sense of integrity and autonomy. Elizabeth never fully accepted the absurdities that Sharkman tried to get her to adopt. However, he was able to convince her to suspend her logic and beliefs just enough to accept the possibility that his world view may have merit. Once she accepted that possibility, she was able to rationalize her continued involvement with the guru.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly to anyone who has a loved one in a cult, it is enlightening to examine the way that Judy Carlone coaxed Elizabeth out of the cult. The myth involved here is that simply by identifying the absurdity of the cult's beliefs and doctrines, the cult member will be persuaded to leave. The mistake made by many parents of cult members is simply to confront the cultist with facts: "This is a cult You've been manipulated You're being harmed by your membership." Pointing out the validity of these facts, by itself, is rarely enough to bring about the self-examination necessary for a cult member to leave. Usually, a more efficacious approach is the patient watchful waiting adopted by Judy. If she had pointed out every inconsistency and absurdity each time she recognized them, Elizabeth may have been scared off early in the relationship. Instead, Judy focused upon building her relationship with Elizabeth. Then, by asking well-timed questions and pointing out discrepancies in the doctrine, Judy helped Elizabeth to bring to consciousness the doubts and contradictions that Elizabeth had recognized, but had taught herself to ignore. There is a lesson in Judy's patience for individuals who have lost a loved one to a cult.
This book is valuable for the honesty of its authors and for the insights it inspires, as well as for the story itself. It is a fascinating account of an individual's journey into an exploitive cult and the friendship that helped her, eventually, to find within herself the courage to leave.
William Goldberg, ACSW, May 2005