Book Review: Freedom of Mind

dThis week I finished reading Steve Hassan’s latest book, published in 2012, entitled “Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs“. I found this book to be highly relevant and surprisingly comforting. Steve presents so many ideas and thoughts that describe what I’ve been going through before, during and after my commitment to University Bible Fellowship. I find solace in the fact that a cult expert who joined and exited a Korean-based religious group confirms that my recovery is real and on track. Steve writes in the opening pages: “In the Moonies, where Koreans are considered the master race, we sang Korean folk songs, ate kimchi [Korean pickled cabbage], and bowed or removed our shoes before entering a group center.” (pg. 28) “In the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I know a woman who was excommunicated because she sent a birthday card to a nonmember.” (pg 29) “In a legitimate church, if your mother is sick or injured, you go to the minister or pastor and say, “My mother is ill. I’m going to visit her in the hospital. Please say a prayer for her.” In a Bible cult, you are expected to humbly approach the leader or sub-leader and ask, “May I have permission to visit my mother?” (In the Moonies, when leaders didn’t want members to get emotionally involved with their families, we were told to “leave the dead to bury the dead.” All outsiders were considered spiritually dead. (pg.30)

Overview of the book’s content

This book reads quickly and does not go into depth in regard to analyzing various conditions or behaviors. Instead, the book is more of a how-to manual for people not in a controlling group. The book gives much advice on how to interact, communicate and intervene with someone who is committed to a controlling group. The book contains many invaluable lists and references to the work of Lifton and Singer, as ways to discern whether someone is in a harmful controlling group.

Steve shares from his own experience of joining the Moon Unification organization as a 19 year old and then later exiting from that group. Steve also shares stories from his wealth of exit counseling, giving readers a glimpse into real situations. Steve doesn’t pull any punches in this book and gets right in to teaching you how to get someone to leave a cult group. Steve improves on his prior methods and revamps his approach, noting the epic failures of the deprogramming methods of the 1970’s and 1980’s in America.

Steve dispells any notion that cults target weakminded people, and shares much advice using this premise:

“Many people have a hard time believing that bright, talented people–often educated, and from good homes–could fall under the control of a cult. They fail to realize that cults intentionally recruit smart people who will work tirelessly for the cause. Many of the former cult members I have met are exceptionally bright and well educated. They have active imaginations and creative minds. They have a capacity to focus their attention and concentrate. Most are idealistic and socially conscious. They want to make a positive contribution to the world.”- Highlight on Page 74 | Loc. 1906-10

Basic beliefs

Steve shares some basic beliefs that should resonate with anyone, and form the basis of his strategic approach to cults and controlling groups.

1. The human spirit cannot be changed or destroyed fully.

“Relationships in cults tend to be conditional, based on obedience and subservience. However, once the member passes the honeymoon phase and their servitude becomes evident even to themselves, friends and family have the potential for an ever-increasing positive influence. Time is on their side because destructive influence is never 100 percent.” – Highlight on Page 3 | Loc. 458-59

2. Noble promises and claims cannot be delivered.

“The human spirit needs to be free, and ultimately, cults do not deliver what they promise.” – Highlight on Page 3 | Loc. 458-59

“They claimed to be a community of young people struggling to overcome cultural barriers. This type of recruiting is insidious because members often speak and act with the greatest sincerity, having been subjected to the same techniques they use to recruit others.” – Highlight on Page 13 | Loc. 701-5

3. Real, unconditional love is stronger than conditional love.

“Real love is stronger than conditional love The fact that you are willing to help and are seeking professional advice means there is reason to hope The member will realize that your love is unconditional, while the cult’s ‘love’ depends on their meeting expectations and goals.” – Highlight on Page 13 | Loc. 706-8

4. Mind control is a real, discernable phenomena and not magical

“Social psychologist Robert Cialdini, in his groundbreaking book, Influence [15] , extracted six universal principles of influence—those that are so powerful that they generate desirable change in the widest range of circumstances.” – Highlight on Page 20 | Loc. 831-32

Origination of the term “brainwashing”

I was fascinated to read about Steve’s discovery that the Moonies used the same tactics Korean war generals used on prisoners of war.

“The term brainwashing was coined in 1951 by journalist Edward Hunter from the Chinese hsi nao (wash brain), to describe the process by which Americans captured in the Korean War could reverse their allegiance and confess to fictional war crimes. In the 1950s, military psychologists and psychiatrists Margaret Singer, Robert Jay Lifton, Louis West and Edgar Schein began to research a phenomenon they called thought reform, in order to devise ways to protect soldiers in the future.” – Highlight on Page 22 | Loc. 858-63

Methods of control

Steve describes in some detail what methods cults use to control. The book shares many details about Steve’s B.I.T.E. model, and how he developed the model.

“A group that changes names, insists on a dress code, lives on an isolated compound, and cuts off all contact with outsiders is likely to be very dangerous.” – Highlight on Page 33 | Loc. 1059-62

“Cults manipulate the elements that form an individual’s identity including beliefs, values, and relationships. From a mental-health perspective, the cult diverts elements of an individual’s psyche into another personality. The cult member comes to exhibit symptoms of dissociative disorder as defined in the DSMIV, the diagnostic manual for the American Psychiatric Association.”- Highlight on Page 34 | Loc. 1070-72

“A common method for shaping a cult identity is to pair a new member with an older member. The spiritual child is instructed to imitate the spiritual parent in every way.” – Highlight on Page 34 | Loc. 1075-85

Rebirthing your identity

One of the striking thoughts that hit home with me was Steve’s descriptions of breaking and re-freezing your self identity. He describes the common cult process of birthing a new identity, different from your authenctic self.

“After I left the Moonies, I found Edgar Schein’s book, Coercive Persuasion, where he described the process using Kurt Lewin’s model of thought reform: [28] · Unfreezing: breaking a person down · Changing: indoctrination · Refreezing: reinforcing the new identity.” – Highlight on Page 36 | Loc. 1111-12

Yeakley study on identity change

An amazing study that I want to read more about is a social experiment by Dr. Flavil Yeakley, regarding how people’s identities can be temporarily modified through indoctrination.

“This aspect of indoctrination was demonstrated by Dr. Flavil Yeakley, a respected psychologist and member of the mainline Church of Christ, who administered the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Inventory Test to 800 members of The Boston Church of Christ, a cult group led by Kip McKean.”

“When Yeakley correlated the data, he found that members varied widely in their personality types before they joined the group. (In statistical terms, they exhibited a normal distribution of personality types.) In the second test, members were moving towards one personality type, which matched the projected personality of the cult leader.”

“The third test showed an almost universal move toward the projected leader’s personality type.”

“As a comparison, Yeakley administered the test to members of Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches and mainline Churches of Christ. There was no personality change before, during, or after they joined their churches. Yeakley published the results of this study in his book, The Discipling Dilemma.”

“Although a healthy individual will grow and mature over time, his basic personality doesn’t change. Changes in personality type may indicate unhealthy social pressure. The results of Yeakley’s study shows that cults create this kind of pressure. It also verified for me the existence of a cult identity that binds the authentic self like a straitjacket.” – Highlight on Page 37 | Loc. 1137-39

Phobia triggers

Steve goes into significant detail explaining how phobias are used by cults to keep members “in” the group. Cult leaders will spin tales of tragedy and woe for people who leave or even think of leaving. He describes a common theme among the cults groups he has encountered– the groups use fear to “re-age” a person back to a child, before they developed critical thinking abilities. He describes how all kinds of fears, especially a person’s natural fears from his/her pre-cult life, are used as bonding agents.

Steve claims that it is these phobia triggers and not any kind of doctrine, that keep members enslaved. Steve notes that many cult members disagree with their group’s doctrine, having discovered early on after the “honeymoon”, that the cult group’s teachings are flawed. Yet they don’t leave due to fears, most or all of which are unfounded.

“A phobia is a persistent, irrational fear. All phobias are triggered by a cue that initiates a closed cycle of fearful images, thoughts, and feelings. The cue can be an internal or external stimulus, such as a thought, image, word, smell, taste, feeling, or behavior. This stimulus causes the phobic individual to generate negative images, often subconsciously, and sometimes to imagine impending doom. During a phobic reaction, the body’s automatic physiological ( fight-or-flight) survival response is activated. This panic response causes a number of physiological symptoms, including a racing heart, shortness of breath, dry mouth, cold hands and sometimes nausea. The most common coping mechanism is to avoid the provoking stimulus.” – Highlight on Page 151 | Loc. 3715-18

“In the Moonies, we would often be robbed of precious sleep so that we could drive to the Moon estate early in the morning. We would sing holy songs and pray for hours–individually, then in unison–before listening to a speech by Moon. That way, our minds were more spiritually open (cult lingo for receptive). In reality, we were in a trance, and certainly not thinking analytically or critically.” – Highlight on Page 156 | Loc. 3913-15

Re-discovering your “self”

The most relevant part of the book to me was Steve’s thoughts on re-discovering and connecting with my prior authentic self, the core self of my identity that remains my entire life. He describes how cult members adopt numerous “sub identities”.

“Though my idealism may have made me vulnerable to recruitment, it was that same idealism that motivated me to eventually leave the group when I realized that Moon and the leaders lied, cheated, stole, and enslaved the members.” – Highlight on Page 116 | Loc. 2905-7

“After I left the group, the sub-personalities that formed the core of my Moonie identity needed to be recognized, liberated, and integrated into my post-cult identity. I needed to find healthy alternatives for my religious/spiritual being. My warrior/soldier became engaged in combat with cult destructive influence.” – Highlight on Page 116 | Loc. 2921-23

Value of former members

Steve repeatedly mentions the value of talking about a group with former members, who have little to gain and much to be lost by speaking out.

“Talking with former cult members is one of the best ways to understand cult beliefs and destructive influence. Ex-members will often be the most reliable source of information, and may be willing to help you plan and carry out the Strategic Interaction. I suggest that you meet and interview at least a dozen former members: some from your loved one’s cult, and some from other groups. Pay special attention to those who have received counseling and have digested and integrated their cult experience. Ask them hypothetical questions: “What would happen if we took this approach?” They are a valuable resource.”- Highlight on Page 105 | Loc. 2645-48

Yet Steve is not naive and describes how cult defenders try to devalue the roles of former members.

“Cult leaders may use stories about defectors to reinforce phobias: (Do you remember Alice M? She left the group last month and we just got word that she hung herself. See what happens when you leave the protection of the Almighty?)” – Highlight on Page 156 | Loc. 3931-36

Will you read this book?

My question to our readers here is simple. Will you read this book? Perhaps your friends or family members are already reading such books?


  1. Reading this book re-surfaced all kinds of memories which I had suppressed.

    Specifically I now vividly recall two events:

    1) During one leader’s bible study in Toledo ubf, we were all discussing deprogrammers. This topic came up becuase we had heard about a deprogramming event someplace in ubf. No one knew the details however (or didn’t share the details). For several hours after the study, we discussed how we would each react if someone approached us to deprogram us. I remember visualizing being locked a room, and envisioned how I would remain absolutely silent and confess my “faith in Jesus” and life-long dedication to ubf no matter what any deprogrammer said.

    2) The July 2003 regional ubf conference held at Wheaton College in Illinois. I attended a lecture in the Billy Graham hall. MV/RW then gave us the strangest announcements ever. He said some former members, who might not be mentally well, were waiting outside the hall to talk to us. He said no one could leave, but that we all had to wait in the hall and leave all together as one group. We were instructed to leave in a single file line, holding our bibles and program binders over our heads, and to run all together. We were told to not speak to them at all. Even then however, I was rebellious :) I walked by myself and did not hold my bible over my head. I even started talking to one of the former members until someone ran over and intercepted them.

  2. Thanks, Brain. This statement stuck me and pained me: “Relationships in cults tend to be conditional, based on obedience and subservience.” It was and is very painful for me to observe and notice when anyone is treated differently (invariably less warmly and more suspiciously) toward anyone who is perceived to be “not obedient or subservient” as they were before. It is very very sad when the communication from the leaders are that “unquestioning non-critical thinkers” are what is desired and expected of their members.

    • Ben in one part where he discusses the “unfreezing/refreezing” of identity, Steve mentions he felt like a clone of Sun Myung Moon. But he doesn’t delve into the group-think phenomena that we are all familiar with. Steve seems more concerned with helping one person to leave that with addressing group-level issues or attempting to change the organization in any way.

  3. The other interesting observation Hassan mentioned is that most people in cult-like groups tend to all “be the same,” with almost everyone having the same personality disposition. I would assume that anyone who is not like that becomes marginalized, shamed, or treated with condescension until they conform to the expectations of the group, or are forced out.

    Did Hassan ever use the word “clones” in his book?

    • I replied to your comment above Ben. Steve does use the word “clone” but only once.

  4. Joe Schafer

    “Although a healthy individual will grow and mature over time, his basic personality doesn’t change.”

    Yes, that is true.

    When members apparently alter their personalities to resemble their shepherds and leaders, they become disconnected from their true selves. It is a sign of real trauma. The effects of this are serious.

    • Joe, as I just mentioned, Steve doesn’t go into the group-think or corporate level of issues. He doesn’t seem to care if people all become the same (but he does say that is a problem). Steve seems more concerned with the fact that people are not their authentic selves in such groups. So even if everyone is different from each other, the real unhealthy element is the fact that they’ve put on a mask and are trying to adopt a different identity than their authentic self. The difficulty I face, and Steve mentions, is going about rebuilding my post-cult self and re-connecting with my pre-cult self. Part of my “warrior” blogging has helped me do just that.

  5. Ben, didn’t you send out something like the Myers-Briggs personality survey to ubf/ex-ubf people? I would love for someone to do this and to objectively analyze such things.

    And I think you are correct, in that those who don’t conform are “marginalized, shamed, or treated with condescension until they conform to the expectations of the group, or are forced out.” But again Steve’s book here doesn’t really discuss the mass conformity that we find in ubf. I think perhaps the conformity problems are part of the Korean cultural layer of problems. And such cultural issues seem ok to Steve (based just on this book). In other words, Steve’s book shows respect for different cultures and ways of doing ministry.

  6. As I read more about the Moon Unification organization, I see more and more parallels to ubf. It’s not surprising to note that some of my family members referred to my wife and I as “the Moonies”.

  7. forestsfailyou

    We had a guest pastor this last weekend. He recalled a story of him being asked to be Samuel Lee’s secretary. He said “How could I say no? He is my bible teacher.”

    I have seen similar behavior in my martial arts group, which is of Brazilian origin. Disrespect to a teacher or mestre can lead to exile from the group, and the expectation is that you do what your teacher tells you because they have imparted to you a great gift. One time I drove 2 hours to St. Louis and then back to Springfield at 3 am only to drive mestre back to St. Louis to catch a plane and got home around 6 to have class at 8am. Is my martial arts group a cult? I don’t think so, but they share similar traits. People are renamed for example. New members are doted on to keep them coming, and obedience is expected from older members. At some point there is an expectation that you will teach. At one point I planned a trip to Brazil to do capoeira, but my mestre told me not to go without him. I obeyed and my mother was beside herself.
    “How could you let someone tell you what to do like that.”
    “Because he is my mestre. That is the only reason I need.”

  8. forestsfailyou

    Last October we had a batizado (it means baptism…this sounds more cult like by the minute). A batizado is where new members become capoeiristas and older members get new ranks. It resembles the bible conferences. They are planned months in advance and usually at the same time. Many times new members will have their way payed for by an older student. You are held in high regard if you invite many new members (but not in a korean honor sense)
    Last November there was a batiazdo in Flordia. Mestre asked me to come and as I mentioned I could not say no.” So I drove 18 hours to get there, went to a workshop, slept in a car over night, went to the batizado, then drove 18 straight hours back to make sws. My pastor had told me not to go. I told him (pardon the language) I was a grown ass man and could make my own decisions. He was pleased I made it back. If UBF is a cult, my marital arts group is a much stricter cult to be sure.

  9. Hi forests,

    Because I have had discussions with you outside this forum, I know the martial arts group you speak of. And yes, it is strikingly similar to ubf ideology groups. And both groups bear remarkable similarities to the cults Steve discussed in his book. Neither ubf nor your martial arts group are labeled as cults in Steve’s book, but both groups suffer from the cult label.

    The question of whether to applythe cult label isn’t really helpful. We can find arguments and experiences both ways. What matters is your self identity. Are you able to think critically? Can you make your own decisions that contradict the group’s decisions? Do you have to ask permission for basic life choices, such as visiting parents or non-members? Have you reached out to at least 12 former members of each group?

    In regard to ubf, you’ve experienced the “typical ubf” (usually run by 1st generation) and the “reformed ubf” (usually with high 2nd gen involvement) versions, since you have been involved with 2 ubf chapters.

    Have you visited Ben in Westloop and experienced “redeemed ubf”?

  10. Forests, my primary thought and response is that your martial arts group does not represent the triune God, but churches are supposed to.

  11. forestsfailyou

    I have not been to Chicago. The drive is about 5 hours and a lot of gas money. I will be there for a wedding (a non ubf person) in June so maybe I will go then, or possibly for spring break.

  12. Forests, you are welcome anytime. While preparing my sermon on Deuteronomy 7-8 on Testings, I came up with this statement, which I just posted on Facebook:

    “Because God loves us, he oftentimes tests us out of his love for us. But no man should presume to be like God, or to be in the place of God, to test another fellow human being, and claiming or implying that such a test is from God, when it is clearly from a man, whoever that man may be.”

  13. “your martial arts group does not represent the triune God, but churches are supposed to”

    Exactly, Ben. There are at least two big differences:

    1) That martial arts group certainly has well-known and well-defined rules and code of conduct. If you join the group, you know what it’s about. Whereas in UBF, you learn their rules and their claim to power only slowly in the same pace as your are indoctrinated. In the beginning, they just invite you to “read the Bible together”. Only step by step, you learn that your Bible teacher is reall your “shepherd” and spiritual master (not because his knowledge or capabilities, but just because he claims to have authority from God), and you learn the more secret unspoken rules like “marriage by faith”. This is the element of deception that is common to all cults. Life in a monastary or martial arts group may be regulated, too, but the rules here are well-defined and well-known beforehand, you know what you get involved with.

    2) The martial arts group does not claim to determine your eternal fate, or being a mediator between you and God or giving your life an eternal and exclusive meaning. In a group like UBF, if you are shunned or rebuked or expelled, this has a spiritual and eternal dimension. Leaving UBF is like leaving God and is like losing the meaning of life and salvation. Not obeying Samuel Lee could evoke the wrath of God and get you crippled or killed in an accident and on top of that lose eternal life (this is what Samuel Lee preached, and this is why I consider him a cult leader). The martial arts group does not claim to define and provide your universal meaning and purpose of life. They cannot tell you to do something “absolutely” as UBF is doing, because they do not claim to be mediators between you and the holy God who must be obeyed “absolutely” as UBF leaders say.

    But clearly this also means that, as soon as your martial arts groups starts to comprise deceptive elements and claim absolute, spiritual truth that determines your fate, it will become close to being a cult, too. And yes, there are martial arts groups which resemble cults very much (see also