nonfiction

Book Review: The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m fascinated by cults. Not just the cults themselves, though; I’m also fascinated by the mindset that it takes to join and stay in a cult: the beliefs and ties to reality that followers must suspend, the excuses they need to make, and the misbehavior that must be dismissed in order to continue to defend and remain within the group. What makes all that happen? What kind of perfect storm has to take place in order for a single person to convince themselves that this group above all others has it right, despite glaring evidence to the contrary? In the past few years, we’ve been able to watch- and still watch- this play out on a massive scale in real time, and when I learned about The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan (Free Press, 2019), I was interested. I’d heard interviews with Steve Hassan before on the topic of cults, and I had long before made the connection between the many, many cults I’ve read about and the behavior of Donald Trump’s most ardent followers. Onto my list it went.

Steve Hassan had once been a member of the Moonies, the colloquial name for members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. His family recognized early on that he had been pressured into a cult; it took him several years to leave (with the help of his family, who were not members; it’s obviously much, much harder for people raised in these movements to extract themselves), and he went on to become a mental health expert who specializes in treating people who leave high-control groups. He’s well aware now of the tactics that the Moonies and other groups use in order to pressure people to join and stay in their movements, and he recognized early on that Donald Trump and his entourage have engaged in all of the same tactics in order to build their own movement.

Step by step, Steve Hassan breaks down how Donald Trump engages in the same mind control techniques that cults use, using specific examples not just from Trump and his entourage, but showing how those same techniques played out in other high-control groups (such as NXIVM, Jonestown, Waco, etc). (And this isn’t mind control like in cartoons, where people’s eyes spin around; these are psychological tactics designed to manipulate how a person thinks, to break ties with a person’s prior life and beliefs and instill new, mostly fear-based beliefs that encourage the potential convert to join the group, because the group or the group’s leader alone can fix this. Sound familiar?). The parallels are disturbing.

I enjoyed a lot of the content here. Seeing the tactics used by various cults and the Trump campaign broken down step-by-step is definitely eerie, especially seeing it all in one place. Mr. Hassan isn’t the only one to notice this; the podcast Behind the Bastards has noted this in multiple episodes, and if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Cults on Parcast, you’ll recognize the same patterns of behavior and control over and over again, used throughout all the various groups. There’s no doubt that the Trump campaign used and continues to use these unfortunately effective tactics. They work, yes, but they work by manipulation and fear. If you can’t convince people of your message without manipulation and fear, your message isn’t worth propagating.

The book did get a little dry for me at times, and there were several instances where the text veered into speculation. “Many people believe…” “Some people think…” I didn’t care for that and felt that it weakened his argument. In a book that is making such big claims (claims which I think are unfortunately accurate), I want every claim to be backed up with hard evidence. There’s no room for conjecture when you’re penning nonfiction about a presidential administration that engaged in devastating acts, and God knows there’s enough hard material to base these claims on. The speculation turned me off quite a bit, and I felt that it lessened the effectiveness of the rest of the book. It also strayed into straight-up political discussion more than I expected; I was looking for more of hard look at the Trump administration’s cult-like tactics in engaging its followers and keeping them coming back for more despite this often not being in their best interests (something we’re still seeing today throughout this pandemic, though there are definitely signs that the monster he created is beyond his control, what with his encouraging his rallygoers to get vaccinated, only to have them boo him). While it did contain some of that, it wasn’t as much as I had expected when I put this book on my list.

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but not as in-depth of an examination as I had hoped for.

Visit Steve Hassan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir

Book Review: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

I’m not one to go out and read bestsellers and books that are super popular just because everyone else does. It’s usually pretty rare for me to run out and get something that was just published; I’m much more of a ‘comfortably wading through the backlist’ kind of a reader (a lot of this comes from reading off my TBR, but I’ve never been one to check the bestseller lists for new reading choices. End-of-the-year lists, however, are a massive weakness!). But sometimes I read things for a certain purpose, and occasionally those reads have a deadline to them- book clubs, for one, and author talks, like this one. Our local parent education group announced this past summer that Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (Mariner Books, 2019), would be appearing virtually with their program this year, and I was like “Nice! Guess this means I’ll have to read that book of hers that I’ve been seeing all over the place.” It always looked interesting, but again, my TBR beckoned. Her visit later this month, however, has forced my hand, and I picked up a copy from a library display of staff picks two weeks ago.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Lori’s boyfriend up and dumps her, stating that he doesn’t want to live with a kid for the next ten years (a major problem, since Lori’s son is only eight). This causes somewhat of an existential crisis for Lori, and as a therapist herself, she needs to get things figured out and get back on her feet, in an emotional sense. In between her own sessions with clients struggling with various things in their lives, from facing their own death, to the death of a child, and how to rebuild a life in the twilight years, Lori sits on Wendell’s couch and tries to make sense of what went wrong with her boyfriend.

As a therapist, Lori seems deeply insightful and is able to pinpoint just the right question to ask to make her clients think. As a client, she even recognizes her own problem patterns but can’t seem to step outside of them without Wendell’s help. She recounts her own journeys through life while describing those of her clients (no HIPAA violations here, though!), picking apart the intricacies of human behavior with wisdom, understanding, and deep sympathy. Every story in the book wraps up with a decently neat little bow- obviously not how therapy always works, both for the client and the therapist- but it makes for some satisfying reading and provides a deeper look into what great therapy can be and should entail.

This is really a lovely read with an awful lot of insight. Lori reminds us that suffering isn’t a competition; just because someone else has a problem that seems bigger doesn’t mean that yours is nothing or insignificant, and that’s something I think we all need a reminder of (especially thanks to the barrage of those gross social media memes that portray someone suffering from a terrible illness or a major loss, and then it says something like, “Your problems don’t seem so bad now, do they?” STOP THAT. Stop trying to make everyone compete in the Suffering Olympics). Her ability to connect with her clients is remarkable, especially with the client she refers to as John, an arrogant, self-centered narcissist who uses barbs and sarcasm to deflect from the grief and pain he’s been carrying around for years. It would be easy to write him off completely and immediately, but Lori keeps trying until she’s able to find the way to getting John to open up. I don’t know that I would have the patience.

This is a moving story, full of other moving stories. Heads up for a lot of references to death, including death of a child and its entailing grief, and death from terminal illness, and learning to let go. Thinking about all the painful stories therapists listen to makes me wonder how any of them do such an intense job, and how busy they’re all going to be listening to healthcare providers process the trauma they’ve endured throughout this pandemic. The academic community is going to be researching, writing, and developing new methods of trauma treatment for decades to come after this.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is both intense and gentle at the same time; it’s a memoir that reads like a novel, but you’ll also learn a lot about what it takes to become a therapist, and a few important lessons about human nature as well.

I’ve been through a few therapists myself in the past; the best one I ever had was also named Lori, and I still hear her voice in my head quite often, despite leaving her office for the last time in 2004. I looked her up after finishing this book, wondering what she was up to, only to find that she passed away in 2017 after a bout with leukemia. May her memory be for a blessing.

Visit Lori Gottlieb’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

It’s no great secret that women have been left out of a lot, if not most scientific research in the past, from behavioral studies to medicine- because why bother? They’re totally basically the same as men, right? Except wrong, and that has had serious, often deadly, consequences for women all around the world. I’ve read a few books on this topic in the past few years; Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong- and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini (Beacon Press, 2017) was the latest on my list. It’s a short book; what’s it’s not short on is science and information that’ll make you think.

For most of recorded scientific history, women have been left out of research and studies. There was no need to study them, (male) scientists thought, and the reasons were many: there was no difference between men and women, scientifically. Women could get pregnant and medications might harm the developing fetus, so better to leave them out and just assume the medication worked on them in the exact same way it did men (uh…sorry ‘bout that, dead women). Science already knew how women were different than men: they were passive, subservient, incapable of understanding difficult scientific concepts like men, and less intelligent, with their tinier lady brains…if you’re not screaming by now, check your pulse.

Angela Saini shines a light on the myriad ways that science has ignored women (and not just human women! Why bother studying the females in ANY species, amirite?!!??? *screams again*), and the new research- oftentimes spearheaded by the women who are beginning to engage in research in larger numbers than ever before. This new research isn’t without its detractors, often men who still cling to the juvenile idea that women are just weak, limp creatures incapable of engaging in more than cleaning and child raising and cooing over big strong men, but it’s shoving science in a direction that it should have gone ages ago.

I enjoyed this, but it’s pretty deeply scientific and not the most casual of reads- to be honest, it often read like listening to my biologist husband speak (which isn’t a bad thing!). It was a little bit of a slow read for me, both because I was busy getting stuff done around the house and because I kind of wanted to digest all the information thrown at me. While I knew from other reading that women have long been left out of medical trials and health-based research, I hadn’t really known that scientists hadn’t bothered studying the behavior of female chimpanzees, bonobos, even female birds were left out of the research for a puzzlingly long time, simply because scientists assumed, “Oh, they’re just out there mothering. They’re built for mothering, they just want one single mate to be strong providers with strong genes for their babies, and they’re no more complicated than that.” Shockingly, it turns out that lumping all female creatures into one ladyparts-means-THIS pile is incorrect (and you’re going to be so grossed out by how many dudes are offended by the fact that they got this wrong, and who straight-up seem to scoff at Ms. Saini for questioning them on this). There’s a lot on animal research in the second half of the book, which didn’t interest me quite as much as the medical research bits, but I’m glad I read it, so that I better understand the depths to which half the population has been ignored in all facets of science.

Interesting book, though infuriating to read in terms of subject and how arrogant male scientists have been throughout history.

Visit Angela Saini’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun

I’m right on the line between Gen X (mid 60s to early 80s) and Millennials (early 80s to early 00s), in what’s sometimes called The Oregon Trail generation. A lot from both generational descriptors applies to me, but I don’t fit in well with either group, so it’s kind of frustrating. But enough fits that I tend to pay attention when either generation is mentioned, especially the massive problems both face. That’s why I paid attention when my friend Sharon mentioned Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun (Grove Press, 2020). Onto my TBR it went, while I ruminated over the fact that I’m old enough to be having a midlife crisis. Hmph.

Gen X has had it hard, with a mountain of debt, sandwiched in between child care and elder care, grappling with the idea that because we as women can finally do everything (or, uh, most things *stares in President*), we should- until it turned out that we just had to do everything and do it all with no help or support. (Check out that email list for your kid’s class fundraisers or field trips- how many dads are in there? Yeah…) They come from a background of what my friend Alexis refers to as benign neglect- latchkey kids who were left on their own to figure things out, from how to make themselves a snack to how to deal with the emotional fallout from things like watching the Challenger explode, or their parents’ divorce. Some of this, explains Calhoun, may be the reason helicopter parenting has become so popular.

While Boomers broke down the barriers, they left Gen X women with all the options but with little support. Being able to have a career is amazing, and no one is complaining about having that choice, but childcare, housework, elder care, all the emotional labor, it’s all still left to the women to do, with fewer resources than men, who aren’t societally tasked with this kind of work. Women are still penalized for being parents in terms of salary and career projectory in a way that men are not. All of this has left Gen X women disillusioned, exhausted, and feeling like no matter how much they’ve done, they haven’t done enough.

This is a bit of a downer of a read, but if you’re a Gen X’er, you’ll feel seen. I was able to identify with some of it- the career stuff obviously doesn’t apply to me as a lifelong housewife, but the benign neglect that perhaps led to that being my only real option? Possibly. The focus on the middle to upper middle class led to the book feeling just a bit limited in scope. I would have appreciated hearing some of the struggles of women without college degrees, who are working several low-paid jobs and struggling to keep the lights on alongside the professionals who are worrying that the million dollars they have socked away for retirement won’t be enough (which is an absolutely valid worry, because this country doesn’t care well for its seniors and all signs point to this not getting better anytime soon). I also felt that she was a little dismissive of Millennials, who will likely have it even worse as they continue to age. Their attitude of, “Yeah, we’re screwed and we know it, thanks, guys!” is probably better, but that doesn’t change the realities of their situation. It’s cool, though, if it means Jeff Bezos is megasuperrich and can afford to pay to send himself to space. Totally cool. *eyeroll*

I did enjoy this. Ms. Calhoun has a sympathetic voice and immediately dives into the heart of the matter: feminism has been great to women, but society hasn’t made the necessary adjustments in order to fully admit them without some serious stress (and, once again, all signs point to nothing changing about this, other than certain people moaning about the low birth rate but then refusing to do anything to support families). Without support for the extra responsibilities that women carry along with their careers- children, taking care of elderly parents, that nasty second shift, the incidentals like the school bake sale and remembering to pick up coffee creamer and shoelaces- we’re doomed to feel like we can’t keep up, and that everything we’re doing is not and will never be enough. Lot of harsh reality in this book.

Visit Ada Calhoun’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick

Like many Americans, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life on the move. At age 40, I’ve lived in seven different towns; this February will mark six years in my current location, which is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere since life in my hometown my first eighteen years. And this is a good thing; I love it here. But I haven’t always loved the other places I lived in, and that’s why This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick (Viking, 2016) appealed to me so much. Could I have done better? Could I have learned to love the other places I lived? I wanted to know.

Like me, Melody Warnick has spent her adult life as a Mover, packing up every few years in search of a better place, a city that feels like Home with a capital H. Nothing ever felt quite right; happiness always lay beyond, in a different city- maybe one with a waterpark? A better arts festival? Maybe a city with more nature would do the trick. But after her husband accepted a job in Blacksburg, Virginia, and Melody’s first reaction upon arrival was, “Ugh…”, she began to wonder if she could train herself to love a place- if the problem wasn’t with all these cities, but with her avoidance of putting down roots.

Step by step, Ms. Warnick began to devise means of falling in love with her city- in order to love a place, you need to act like someone who loves it, and that means getting involved in a lot of different ways. Part memoir, part personal experiment, part how-to, Melody Warnick instructs a society not used to staying in place on how to enjoy- and maybe even love- the place you’re in, even if it’s not your forever home.

This is absolutely the book I wish someone had handed me before my first big move at 18. I don’t know that it would have made *all* the difference- not where we lived in Tennessee, I’m sure. That town was lovely, the area had so much to do, and I made some wonderful friends, but the city itself is very much run by a Good Ol’ Boys club that terrorizes even lifelong residents; if your vision of what the city could be doesn’t match theirs, you’re no one, and they’ll not only let you know, they’ll let everyone else know, too. It’s hard to love a place like that. But the other places I’ve lived? Ms. Warnick’s book makes me realize I could have and should have done better.

Get involved, Ms. Warnick urged (advice that may not be all that possible right now, or that may not be safe; one of the reasons it took me so long to read this book- over a week!- was that it was just hard. Hard to read about all the things that aren’t possible to do right now, all the things we’re missing out on to keep ourselves and our families safe, all the things that won’t be possible for the foreseeable future…), and she offers suggestion after suggestion of the many possibilities to take part in the running of or enjoyment of your city- from the largest to the smallest, from tiny towns, to your neighborhood or block in a massive city. Putting down roots and feeling attached to a place takes work, and if this isn’t something that comes naturally to you, this book is a road map to falling in love with the place you live in.

I’d been trying to implement some of her suggestions pre-pandemic, and I’ll continue on with new inspiration whenever life resumes as normal (not anytime soon, so it’s a good thing I’m patient and have a plethora of available reading material to wait this out…). Despite my struggles reading it during this pandemic, This Is Where You Belong is chock-full of great advice and should be issued to anyone who packs up a moving truck and heads off in search of happiness in a new city. This is the book that will help you find it.

Do you love where you live? Have you tried? What’s worked for you?

Visit Melody Warnick’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Broken Faith: Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr

Cults! Cults, cults, cults! This is probably my longest-running fascination. I put in for Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr (Hanover Square Press, 2020) on NetGalley but was rejected (no biggie; you win some, you lose some!), but it went onto my TBR anyway. I hadn’t heard of Word of Faith Fellowship before, so immediately I was deeply intrigued and neeeeeeeeeeeeeeded to know more!

Journalist Mitch Weiss has written a stunning exposé on the Word of Faith Fellowship, a church out of Spindale, North Carolina, that consumes every last moment of its members’ lives. You can’t just show up for a church service; you have to be invited (that alone should tip people off). WOFF is run by Jane Whaley, a charismatic, power-hungry woman who seeks to control the lives of her church members and live high on the hog on their tithes, while they struggle to give more and more. Church tactics include screaming in the faces of and beating members, even infants and small children, to release all the demons that plague them, tying them to chairs, locking them away for months at a time in what amounts to prisons on the church property, stealing members’ children, and making it nearly impossible for members to leave.

What’s worse is the local government is fully involved in protecting the church and has, for decades, turned a blind eye to the abuse of the children in the cult. Members have tried for years to get justice for the many, many ways the cult has wronged them, only to be given the runaround by the police and the local court system. Hopefully with the publication of this book, more people will be aware of the shocking manipulations of this cult and the way it controls its members and the county it’s located in.

This is an absolutely shocking book. Mitch Weiss interviewed over 100 former church members to construct this narrative, as well as seeking out court documents, including a 300+ page document that had never before been released prior to his research. Despite damning evidence of the abuse of the members children (including sexual abuse- the mentions are brief, but they’re in here, so be alert if this is a difficult subject for you to read about), the county opted to tie the hands of social services and leave the children there to be further abused. I’m not going to lie; reading this is chilling. It’s yet another account of how cheap life is here in the United States and how little the lives of everyday people matter. The odds are stacked against us all, and if you’ve got money, you’re free to do as much harm as you want to anyone you want, because money is power.

Multiple times, Weiss and Mohr illustrate, usually through the words of authorities, how difficult it is for former cult members to receive justice: cults keep such tight control over their members that when they do manage to escape, they’re often ill-prepared to live in the outside world, plagued with anxiety and PTSD, and they end up homeless and addicted to various substances as a means of coping- rending them, in the eyes of legal authorities and juries, unreliable as witnesses. And thus cults such as WOFF are allowed to carry on their dangerous, abusive tactics. Members of the church have been convicted of various forms of fraud on the church’s behalf (including unemployment fraud and mail fraud), but Jane Whaley has never been brought up on charges herself.

If reading about cults interests you, you won’t want to miss this. Jane Whaley and her sycophants are dangerous and I’m glad the floodlights are being turned onto the church. I hope this helps its victims receive justice and that more people are sympathetic to what they’ve suffered at the hands of this evil, evil institution.

Follow Mitch Weiss on Twitter here.