A bit of background……
Back in 2004 I was thoroughly miserable. Fortunately, none of the events in Dunn actually happened to me. I didn’t get embroiled in a psychotherapy cult. I just met someone who unintentionally made my life worse, and they knew someone who had.
And so the spark of an idea emerged. I wrote the first paragraph (which I have since abandoned), realised I didn’t actually know anything about psychotherapy cults, and went off to China for 6 months to get over the death of one of my dearest friends ever, and various unsuitable love interests. Neither worked, but I did have a great time in China and get lots of research on psychotherapy cults done.
After 9 years + of actual writing/rewriting/scrapping/sulking/starting again etc, my debut novel ‘Dunn’ is finally released as an ebook on amazon/google play/apple iBooks.
And more to follow 😁. There will be a paperback available on the matador-troubador website here next month too. So, now the hard work of trying to get people to read it begins.
But what are therapy cults?
I found out that various groups had lured people in to a cult-like ‘self-help’ and ‘pseudo-therapy’ scenarios over the years. Some of them were selling New Age ideas and treatments; some were pedalling methods for self-help; others counselling methods. I won’t name any groups, but if you look, you’ll find them mentioned all over the net.
As the name suggests, therapy cults are generally selling some kind of treatment, so they’re targeting vulnerable people.
Examples include New Age therapy cults that promise cures for terminal diseases, often claiming that mainstream medical practices are ineffective; and counselling and self-help groups that offer pseudo-psychological therapies they claim will help victims to be more confident/successful/happy/all of the above.
‘The Salvation Program’ in ‘Dunn’ is based on the latter.
How do they get followers to join and stay?
Cults seem to employ various methods of recruitment, including direct invitation; the use of leaflets and advertisements; direct street recruitment, and even advertisements in mainstream magazines/TV in the States.
Most of these crop up in ‘Dunn’.
My main character, Aidan Dunn, is invited to a ‘Salvation program’ recruitment meeting by Sophie Harris, who uses what Aidan perceives as their ‘burgeoning relationship’ to get him to join phase one.
Later in the story, Aidan uses leaflets and magazines along with a direct street approach, to successfully recruit to the program.
But why do recruits join and stay?
What these groups mostly seem to have in common, is the destruction of victims’ perceptions of themselves and their history. Key relationships often suffer as a result, be that with family and friends or mainstream medical practitioners. Either way, the victim becomes dependent on the cult as a result.
Thought reform and control
I read an old psychology book by Margaret Thaler Singer, called ‘Cults in our midst’ whilst I was in China, and most of the ‘thought reform’ processes that I have tried to capture in ‘Dunn’ are based on those described in that book.
The author, Margaret Thaler Singer, summarises the objectives of these types of cult in three succinct points, which I have paraphrased above, and outlines the basic method used to get victims in such a state of dependence as follows:
1) Subtle behavioural changes introduced and reinforced with peer pressure
At his first ‘Salvation program’ phase one meeting, my main character, Aidan Dunn, is lured into a chanting circle – something not in character – by an attractive girl and the feeling that he is an outsider.
All Aidan’s weekends are taken up with ‘Salvation program’ meetings and seminars, effectively controlling his social interactions. His only other contact is Sophie, who only wants to talk to him about the ‘Salvation program’.
3) Rewards and punishments are used to reinforce the cult’s ideology
This idea comes up again and again throughout ‘Dunn’, but perhaps the best example is that used on Jim by Mrs Tressel in an early chapter. She excludes him from ‘the circle of love’ when he won’t say that he is a failure and is rewarded with her attention when he capitulates.
4) Members rewarded for rejecting their old personality and life view, and punished for non-conforming
Aidan is rewarded by Stephanie for changing his memories of his childhood and punished with her disapproval when he resists. She subsequently coerced him into confronting his parents about his childhood, resulting in isolation from his parents (though, actually, in Aidan’s case, I think that may be a positive). At group seminars, members are also rewarded for sharing confessions about their past and punished with disapproval if they don’t. I explore this theme a lot in ‘Dunn’, because it’s so horrible!
I’ll stop there for fear of accidentally dropping spoilers in.
Needless to say, this was an interesting, if terrifying topic to write a novel about. I would be lying if I said it was an entirely enjoyable experience, as it lays bare just how horrible and manipulative humans can be too each other, and highlighted just how dark some of the creatures lurking in my brain actually are.. This, and the fact that I’m exceptionally cynical, is the main reason that the novel is darkly humourous. I wrote it whilst teaching full time (thank goodness I can now be part time); raising a child, and getting addicted to running to keep myself sane. I needed to keep it fun and lighten it up in places. Some of the characters are deliberately unpleasant (more about that in a post next week) and so writing about them was not always nice. I quite enjoyed giving them a hard time…. More on that next week