Paul Morantz, author (along with Hal Lancaster) of Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults, has led an intriguing life. A lawyer by trade, early on in his career, he became the go-to man when it came to litigation against cults and abusive, insular groups. This led to an attempt on his life by Synanon members, via a rattlesnake (de-rattled for stealthiness) placed in his mailbox.
Among the groups Morantz litigated against were the aforementioned Synanon (whom I had never heard of before I listened to the Let’s Talk About Sects podcast a few weeks ago; if you’re interested in cults, sects, and insular groups, this is a fabulous podcast. Synanon then showed up in this book, and, thumbing through the book I picked up from the library yesterday, it’s mentioned in there as well. Funny how that happens), the Center for Feeling Therapy, the Unification Church (more commonly referred to as the Moonies), Rajneeshpuram (another one I’d never heard of), Scientology, the creepy, rapey preacher-psychotherapist John Gottuso, and he was the lawyer for a father whose son had been kidnapped by (and was later murdered at) Jonestown . He helped to turn the tide for Patty Hearst‘s appeal, had a brief fling with a woman who practiced Nichiren Shoshu, and exchanged emails with members of Anonymous. His career has been jam-packed with death threats and forays into the depths of groups who engage in brainwashing as a primary tactic in order to entice people to join. A movie about his life definitely wouldn’t lack for drama.
I struggled a little reading this book, and I’m not certain as to why. The material is certainly fascinating, but something about the writing style just didn’t appeal to me. The end chapter edges into a slippery slope argument about some ACA legislation in regards to those boogeyman death panels that never materialized (I mean, more than they already exist in insurance companies that deny treatments), and which seemed a little out of place for the book in general- I feel like a better editor would have cleaned a lot of that up. Part of the blame might also be on me; it’s a difficult time of year to try to focus on a heavier read, so it may be that my brain just wasn’t cooperating like I wanted it to.
While reading through this book’s explanation of brainwashing techniques, its history, and how it’s used by these groups in order to control their members, I was struck by how similar some of the tactics are that I’ve seen used by multi-level marketing companies (and there’s even a bit in this Wikipedia article about how the use of cult-like tactics by MLM companies is a common complaint against them, so I’m not alone in thinking this). The constant scripted social media posts (chock-full of emoticons throughout!), the monthly or yearly conventions where the sellers are pushed harder to achieve the goals the organization has taught them to have (goals which will, of course, benefit the top of the organization more than they benefit the individual sellers), it fits right in with what Morantz writes about in this book. Yikes.
This is a worthy read if you’re into cults and insular groups, and I’ll be waiting for that movie about Mr. Morantz’s life!