Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems (Paperback) book cover

Terror, Love and Brainwashing

Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems

By Alexandra Stein

© 2017 – Routledge

236 pages

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About the Book

Written by a cult survivor and renowned expert on cults and totalitarianism, Terror, Love and Brainwashing draws on the author’s 25 years of study and research to explain how almost anyone, given the right set of circumstances, can be radically manipulated to engage in otherwise incomprehensible and often dangerous acts.

Illustrated with compelling stories from a range of cults and totalitarian systems, from religious to political to commercial, the book defines and analyses the common and identifiable traits that underlie almost all these groups. It focuses on how charismatic, authoritarian leaders control their followers’ attachment relationships via manipulative social structures and ideologies so that, emotionally and cognitively isolated, they become unable to act in their own survival interests. Using the evolutionary theory of attachment to demonstrate the psychological impact of these environments, and incorporating the latest neuroscientific findings, Stein illustrates how the combined dynamic of terror and ‘love’ works to break down people’s ability to think and behave rationally. From small local cults to global players like ISIS and North Korea, the impact of these movements is widespread and growing.

This important book offers clarity and a unique perspective on the dynamics of these systems of control, and concludes with guidance to foster greater awareness and prevention. It will be essential reading for mental health professionals in the field, as well as policy makers, legal professionals, cult survivors, and their families, as well as anyone with an interest in these disturbing groups. Students of social and developmental psychology will also find it fascinating.


'Alexandra Stein combines deep knowledge of cultic groups from Jehovah's Witnesses to ISIS with wide-ranging research and a rich trove of interviews. This wise and informed book will interest the specialist and the general reader.' Charles B. Strozier, lead author and editor, The Fundamentalist Mindset, and author Apocalypse: On The Psychology of Fundamentalism in America

'A brilliant and much-needed book, grounded in original research and the classic literature in the field, along with plentiful real-life stories to exemplify the main points. Stein informs readers how leaders dominate, how the mechanics of recruitment work, and how the manipulations of indoctrination succeed in creating blindly devoted followers. While indicating that we are all vulnerable, societal solutions are offered. Perfect for classes in sociology, social psychology, psychology, and political science. This book couldn't be more timely!' Janja Lalich, Professor Emerita of Sociology and author of Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults

'A truly remarkable book. Drawing on attachment theory and research, Stein provides penetrating insights into how and why cults—from Jonestown to ISIS gain such control over the minds and behavior of members. It is essential reading for all seeking to understand contemporary threats of "totalist" systems of all kinds.' L. Alan Sroufe, Professor Emeritus, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota and as author of the award winning book, The Development of the Person.

'In Terror, Love and Brainwashing, Alex adds a new and straightforward approach to understanding the profound effect of manipulative processes. This is a rich and rewarding text. It can take even the bravest and cleverest people years to leave, and years more to escape the behavioral conditioning of a totalist group. This book will help to speed that process for many people.' Jon Atack, Open Minds Foundation

Table of Contents

Introduction 1. The Overthrow of the Rulers of the Mind 2. Fear: It’s Screamingly Obvious 3. Recruitment: The Accidental Extremist 4. Totalist Indoctrination: Isolation In a Crowded Place 5. Family and Friends: Not as Close as Chairman Mao 6. The Will of the Fuehrer is the Party’s Law: Totalist Leaders and the Structures They Create 7. Secrets and Lies: Ideology and Language in Totalist Systems 8. From the Inside Out 9. Deployable, but not Manchurian: It’s a Human Thing 10. The Flute Player: What Should an Open Society Do? Acknowledgements. Appendix A The Group Attachment Interview. Appendix B Eye-Level versus Abusive, Authoritarian Relationships.

About the Author

Alexandra Stein is a social psychologist who lectures and writes on cults and totalitarianism. Formerly, she was an associate lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, UK and has also taught at the University of Minnesota, US and the University of Westminster, UK. As a young woman she was a member of a political cult, an experience she described in her first book, Inside Out.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
POLITICAL SCIENCE / Political Freedom & Security / Terrorism
POLITICAL SCIENCE / Political Ideologies / Fascism & Totalitarianism
PSYCHOLOGY / Applied Psychology
PSYCHOLOGY / Psychotherapy / Counseling
PSYCHOLOGY / Social Psychology
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / General