Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Book Review: Leaving the Witness by Amber Scorah

One of the review quotes on the cover of this amazingly written, disturbing, enthralling, absolutely brilliant work (I could barely put it down) was “part Orwellian groupthink expose.” Although it is also a tragedy and a suspenseful account of preaching in a Communist country that forbid foreigners from doing just that, for purposes of this blog, I will focus on the groupthink part. I am currently in the midst of editing a book on groupthink in science, and clearly my model of self destructive behavior sees it as a sacrifice to one’s kin group rather than as a selfish act (Selfish self-destructiveness? Only if all such people had the IQ of a kumquat).

The book tells the story of growing up in a cult, in which people were strongly discouraged from talking to anyone or looking at any source of information that might call into question its belief system. Going to college was forbidden. People went to meetings several times a week where the idea that Armageddon was about to happen at any minute was constantly presented, along with the idea that only the true believers would be saved. 

People who broke the rules or questioned orthodoxy were “disfellowshipped.” This meant that they were completely shunned by all family and friends, although they were allowed to sit in the back of the meeting halls, unacknowledged, to be further indoctrinated with the propaganda in hope that eventually they would be accepted back into the fold— after a couple of years of this treatment.

Scorah recounts going to China to surreptitiously preach the cult’s gospel. Once there, she found that there were many fewer group members around than she had been used to, and she credits that fact with how she came to be exposed to other ways of understanding the universe. This in turn led her to start questioning the group’s theology and its claim to have a monopoly on the one true religion. She had to have an above-ground job, and took one working on a podcast about China. One listener began writing to her and helped her to see how badly she had been indoctrinated.

As she started to engage in critical thinking, her entire family then acted as if she did not exist (with one major exception — her sister. Might the sister now be serving in the role of switchboard?). There has been no contact with them.

But was this the whole story? I think not. One has to ask the question: why would the author be the one person who was able to start questioning the groupthink—even with the realistic fear of being exiled hanging over her head— when the vast majority of her fellow preachers in China did not fall into this trap? Although it’s impossible to prove on the basis of what is written about a family in a book, the author’s description of her family certainly leads one to suspect the usual culprit in such scenarios: family dynamics and shared intrapsychic conflict with ambivalence.

In fact, her family was not monolithic in its beliefs in the cult, although they professed to be. Neither of her parents went to meetings more than yearly, and would not explain to the maternal grandmother— who was not born into the cult—why that was. Scorah’s father was an alcoholic and her parents eventually divorced, both huge no-no’s in the cult.  The grandmother also seemed to take great joy in providing the “benefits” of the cult to the author when Scorah was growing up. 

Together this all sounds like there was strong ambivalence about the cult’s beliefs within the family, with her parents acting it out. They may have given up their daughter—who received very little attention from them according to her own descriptions—to the grandmother as a gift, in order so that she could make up for grandma's failure to properly indoctrinate the mother.

Furthermore, grandma’s favorite child, the mother’s brother – I repeat, grandma’s favorite child—left the fold and then proved the folly in doing so by getting into drugs. The family predicted that he would eventually end up in jail, and of course this is exactly what came to pass! This sound exactly like the dynamics I write about in describing the role of the black sheep.

So perhaps (and I really think it’s nearly certain) the author had picked up on the family ambivalence over the cult and its rules. This may have been why she had been attracted to preaching in a far away, forbidding place all along, where she would no long be subject to constant drumming in her ear about the group’s orthodoxy.

Another interesting aspect of groupthink that the author writes about - with the most elegant descriptions of it that I’ve ever read -  is existential groundlessness. This is the tremendously aversive feeling one gets when one breaks the rules or questions the mythology of one’s kin group or social group:

“But if I didn’t believe, my life would be over. I was paralyzed, because there was no answer to this problem. The stakes are too high to do anything.” (p. 171).

“This world was the only one I had ever been a part of, and I didn’t know who I was without it.” (p. 200).

“Nothing was as I had thought it was. And there was nowhere to go back to; I couldn’t, because it was a dream, it was all a story, all of my life was made up, and I had awoken to this concrete.”

That last quote illustrates yet something else about groupthink in the modern world: willful blindness. Throughout the book Scorah strongly implies that until her awakening she truly believed, without question or doubt, every nonsensical myth that was taught to her by her cult. But later in the book she implies that this was not really the complete truth. For example, on p. 231, she lets on that a part of her knew the gig: “We policed ourselves to sustain our nirvana. We shared a willful blindness disguised as innocence and purity…but it takes a great deal of mental effort to hide from what one sees, whether that effort is subconscious or purposeful…That once I decided to believe, I believed, no matter what doubts came…I had been in ‘the truth’ because I was afraid of the truth.”

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