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Radical Departures: Desperate Detours to Growing Up - Roy Wallis

by Saul Levine (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984). Reviewed by Roy Wallis, professor of sociology at The Queen’s University of Belfast.

Books on new religious movements (n.r.m.s) come in all shapes and sizes. They range from the eulogistic, the believer’s account, the hagiography, to the equally committed opposition of the spurned parent, the disillusioned deconvert, or the religious opponent who sees the new religions as heretical and satanic. Sociological accounts tend, in general, to be left-of-center on this continuum. Most sociologists who study n.r.m.s have fairly close contact with the »lived experienced« of the groups concerned, and they come to know individual members as friends, equals, or supplicants for their time and information. Psychologists and psychiatrists are more typically right-of-center. They view this subject matter in the form of models of normal psychological functioning; they often see n.r.m. membership as pathological, in need of remedy. They frequently regard n.r.m.s as sources of aberration, and their interaction with n.r.m. members is often as professionals providing a service to the member or a parent. Therefore, they frequently believe they know the answer already and can offer it to members or parents, rather than being mere seekers after knowledge.

Saul Levine, a child psychiatrist, is something of an exception. He certainly lies left-of-center in his non-condemnatory stance. He is prepared to see the n.r.m.s as sometimes performing a useful role in enabling young people to release the bonds of over-confining family relations (although whether it is right that this is the main motive for joining is another matter). He has engaged closely with members and their families, striving to reconstruct the nature of the relationships that preceded the »radical departure,« to trace them through the period of involvement, and to show the way the particular form of such relationships might help or hinder subsequent return.

All this is well and good. Levine seems to be commenting from a background of close observation without prior judgment as to whether what he will find is a good thing or a bad thing. He tells us that he has

thoroughly studied a total of fifteen radical groups... [and] I have only somewhat less complete knowledge of another ten. Total members [number of] interviewed is over 800 (p. 13).

This is very impressive. Over the same 15 years that Dr. Levine has been engaged in such study, I can claim to have studied thoroughly perhaps only four or five groups. And this begins to create a nagging doubt. Just how thorough has Dr. Levine’s study been? Certain remarks give one pause.

… they all got down on their knees and prayed together to Jesus and to their spiritual leader, the Reverend David »Moses« Berg, whom they lovingly called »Uncle Mo« (p. 60).

Now, I have studied the Children of God (COG) for about ten years, and I have visited many of their homes and colonies in my time, reading most of their literature and interviewing a great many members and former members. I do not believe there is any ground for claiming that the Children of God pray to Mo; indeed, since Mo is only God’s prophet, the notion is somewhat absurd. Moreover, no one has ever called Berg »Uncle Mo.« He has been called Uncle David, Moses David, Father David, and Mo, but never, to my knowledge, »Uncle Mo.«

Additionally, Levine thinks ISKCON adopts its style of shaved heads and saffron robes from Buddhist monks (p. 73), and that Bhagwan has been referred to as »Yogi Bahgwan [sic]« (p. 86). (Acharya, yes; Bhagwan Rajneesh, yes; Yogi Bahgwan, or even Yogi Bhagwan, no!) Moreover, Levine believes the Process and the Foundation Church (which he does not realize, apparently, have developed one from the other) could have been substitutes for COG in that they »would equally well have echoed the Methodist Sunday School« of one convert’s childhood. One really rather wonders how thoroughly Levine has studied the Process/Foundation Church for him to reach this conclusion.

He suggests that COG’s »happy hookers« found their prostitution »justified by the odd logic that stamping out sin was what all right-thinking people should be doing« (p. 89). This is frankly nonsense. COG have never employed so absurd a legitimization. Levine thinks the leader of groups of this kind »is always a man« (p. 94), ignoring Elizabeth Clare Prophet. He believes legal charges of »fraud and misrepresentation« were leveled against Mo (p. 94), which is not true as far as I am aware. He thinks Divine Light Mission premies might accuse their parents of being »sinners« (p. 127), a notion quite alien to them; that COG members »bliss« their fellows with love (p. 139), an expression I have never come across among them (»love ‘em up« is the term they employ); and that COG prostitutes and escorts do »not charge money« (p. 172). This must all lead to a certain amount of skepticism about the accuracy of the rest of what he says.

This skepticism is compounded by two other aspects of Levine’s book. First, there are some puzzling statistics and quasi-statistical conclusions. Joiners had, compared with their contemporaries, »unusually close relationships with their parents« (p. 61). Of those who spend an evening with a radical group,

about one in four of those who visit have either chosen to join on the spot or accepted a second assignation (p. 66).

Since Levine has data only on joiners, how can he arrive at this conclusion? He claims that

For any 1,000 youngsters who are approached, the figures show that only one becomes a committed member who stays longer than half a year (p. 68).

But whose figures show this? Levine does not offer any data on youngsters who are approached., and there is no reason to believe he has any; nor, as far as i know, does anyone else.

Eileen Barker’s study of the Moonies comes closer than anything else I know to providing data of this sort, but that only relates to the Moonies. So what on earth is Levine’s conclusion based upon? The suspicion is that he has made these data up (or »guesstimated« them), along with various other statistical claims sprinkled throughout the work. This suspicion is enhanced rather than subdued by his treatment of the case histories involved. Levine does not present actual case histories. He fictionalizes, amalgamating »from scores of young people whose leavetakings and returns I have become familiar with« (p. vii). The fictionalizing at times takes the upper hand.

Until the phone rang in the Marquette home the Monday of Suzanne’s radical departure, everything had been as usual. Peter Marquette had hurried through two cups of coffee... Barbara Marquette was finishing some correspondence and paying bills... Her mind had just wandered to the prospect of perhaps baking something special to welcome her daughter... 105).

This all reads persuasively, of course, or at least as persuasively as soap opera. Anyone who knows Peter Marquette had hurried through two cups of coffee must know an awful lot about the subject matter. Yet, the minute we think about it, we know that Levine is making this up. It’s good copy. It makes the book more readable. But it isn’t true.

And so the problem is posed: How can we trust Levine’s account of

all this when he makes so many mistakes, when he employs very dubious statistics without attribution or support, and when he admits to making up the case histories, homogenizing who knows what range of evidential background and diversity of experience?

Of course, any social scientific study must homogenize a variety of information to present the statistical modal or average, or the typical case. We have, at the end of the day, to trust the competence and integrity of the researcher. But that trust must begin to be fatally undermined when the researcher makes many simple mistakes, and when he has admitted to fictionalizing the stories he tells. Where does the fact end and the fiction begin? Despite the plausibility of the general account, as a serious study of the new religions (or of »radical departures,« as Levine calls them, including one transition to a terrorist group and another from Reform to Orthodox Judaism), this book must be viewed as unfortunately, but fatally, flawed.