by Joy Ralph

Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil on Mormon Mind Control is Luna Lindsey’s autobiographical exegesis, not of losing her religion, but of gaining a more profound understanding of herself and her beliefs. The ultimate result is withdrawal of her membership in the religion in which she’d been raised and the forging of an outlook on life at odds with the fears and restrictions she suffered. She reveals her story and examines the various levels of coercion she experienced with candor and a heartfelt desire to help other people in similar struggles. By providing an analysis of her experiences and categorizing the psycho-social techniques involved, she provides a key to identifying what goes into making the process of reconciling beliefs and behavior so difficult.

Religious identification is not particularly central to my own adult sense of self, beyond an eclectic and largely private practice of “spirituality.” The same cannot be said of my formative years. Like Lindsey, I was raised as a member of the lengthily named Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, nicknamed LDS or simply “the Mormons.” My parents were devout, “active” Mormons; as a result so was I, during the confines of my youth. Had I thought to challenge the path laid out for me, it would have been a case of “my (parents’) house, my (parents’) rules” but their religion was my entire milieu. It governed all the choices and the content of our daily lives. It was what I knew, outside of what I learned from reading a retrospectively astounding breadth and number of books. As I gained education and experience in my teenage years, I began to be able to articulate the differences between what I was told I believed with what I actually thought. Once given the opportunity, I removed myself to environs where I felt more comfortable emotionally, ethically, spiritually, and materially, though I still interact with Mormon relatives on both sides of my family.

I have ended up a semi-agnostic and decidedly irreverent pagan-leaning animist; if pressed for a check-box I’m most likely to respond with “none,” thus inadvertently tarring myself with punditry’s religious (non)flavor-of-the-month. Acceptably ill-fitting, “none” ultimately results in the minimum fuss and explanation. It is certainly true that I lack any organized affiliation beyond my ministerial credential from the Universal Life Church, which I obtained to officiate at weddings.

Thus I describe myself as ethnically Mormon because, despite my non-belief, the belief of others surrounding me had a significant impact on my life. My childhood lifestyle was LDS, and my behaviors and actions were governed by what that dictated. My parent’s social lives were entirely church-related; their funerals and burials were according to Mormon customs. My youth was saturated with and circumscribed by those same customs, regardless of what I believed. After school activities, acceptable friends, and my vision of the life I could expect as an adult woman all stemmed from what my parents believed was in line with the teachings of the church.

As it happens, I remain relatively ignorant of the adult rites and doctrines of the LDS church, at least those practiced privately. I was exceedingly well-educated at the simplified level of instruction and preparation designed for the youth. However, I stopped attending when I was 17 years old, so I have no first-hand knowledge of the things adult members of the church are expected to do and believe. While I was certainly told a great deal about what I could expect, I have to imagine the same sort of gap exists between preparatory education and actual lived experience that reveal themselves in any other area of adult life.

I found Lindsey’s Recovering Agency to be both useful and revelatory. I suspect it might be even more so to someone leaving the church after the experiences of a fully participant adult member. Rites and sacraments I never partook of, oaths I was not yet required to take, and a level of discussion regarding doctrines or beliefs of which children and youth are given a more elementary version probably made it easier for me to strike out on my own. I definitely found Lindsey’s experiences and her analysis of leaving as an adult member (with access to the adult ceremonies and privileges that temple attendance allowed) very familiar in feeling. She brings a logical and incisive mind to bear on the processes involved in encouraging people to remain members of the institution in spite of misgivings or personal differences.

Lindsey has structured her analysis in three parts. She discusses the background of both the book and her choice to write it in Part 1: In the Beginning. She highlights some of the ways human cognition and our sociobiological tendencies as group-living primates can make it easier to focus on certain patterns of perception (reinforced by our emotions) in Part 2: The Science of Believing. Finally, she surveys and discusses a considerable list of psychological techniques in Part 3: Thought Reform Methods. The second two parts form an excellent reference for writers (or those interested in human behavior) on the mechanics of group dynamics and shared thinking patterns, dissecting how membership becomes self-reinforcing and how well-intentioned shared conventions can develop into practices harmful to the individuals involved.

Many of these retention techniques are common methods of social interaction practiced by different groups when seeking new members or policing the behavior of current ones. Other techniques are more apropos to religious or other high-demand groups where members are expected to make the group the focus of their lives. In all of these cases Lindsay is reasoned and non-polemic in her approach; she is transparent about her background and possible biases, while willingly taking an unflinching look at her expectations and past behaviors.

As a result of reading Recovering Agency, I learned illuminating things about the self amid social constructs like religion. Lindsey relates her personal experiences from a psychological and sociological perspective as she outlines common group-reinforcement methods and techniques. While her primary focus is the LDS church she supplements her research with material developed from studying a number of high-demand or cult-like groups.

So many of the techniques are amplifications of natural human tendencies that it becomes easier to forgive the abusers, at least until recalling how they continue to perpetuate the conditions which keep them in control.

While the label of cult can be emotionally fraught and liable to be counterproductive to plain discussion, Lindsay navigates the complexities of the matter with an evenhanded approach that focuses on comparing the processes and their results in the various situations without resorting to name-calling or vindictiveness. No one is excoriated or demonized, but where particular methods have negative consequences either in general or as used, the harm is unflinchingly exposed. It becomes very clear how much of the damage is caused by overzealous insistence on conformity and over-identification with the approval of the group and those in positions of power for evaluation of self-worth and self-esteem. So many of the techniques are amplifications of natural human tendencies that it becomes easier to forgive the abusers, at least until recalling how they continue to perpetuate the conditions which keep them in control. This is a natural human tendency but over time, more and more people suffer and the measures become less and less justifiable. Lindsey makes special emphasis that the book is written from a position of compassion rather than one of anger or hatred. She writes in the hope that if the group ideal truly is the perfection of humankind, surely it must be brought about with less suffering and despair.

Those looking for an expose of LDS/Mormon atrocities will be disappointed. The book is clear about the harmful results of each technique identified but the discussion revolves around countering and repairing the damage. This again is where it becomes an excellent resource for writers whose world-building includes any type of religious hegemony. Characters who find themselves in conflict with their personal culture or belief systems will sound more authentic when written with a knowledge of certain aspects of how at least one group actually operates. The tone of the work is encouraging to those with questions or issues of belief, and in that sense is definitely a self-help book as well as a scholarly work. I found it to be enlightening and well-crafted, and would recommend it to those in recovery from or simply interested in the dynamics of high-demand or cult-like groups. It’s worthwhile reading if you have ever wondered how people can believe the incredible range of things they profess to do.

Recovering Agency acquaints the reader with the circumstances surrounding the psychological ethos of LDS belief and allows them to draw their own conclusions as to potential healthiness or damage in consequence. Personally, I was able at last to put a name and description to things I had witnessed or experienced that were troubling but for reasons why I had only a vague idea that something seemed awry. The relief and power of being able to name something troubling for identification and discussion are immense. Lindsey’s book is a potentially life-altering tool for anyone who finds themselves estranged from any group or social situation with intense requirements and demands.

Joy Ralph grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Having spent most of her life along the I-5 corridor, she is reviewing works from authors with a connection to the region. She tweets as @cithra.