Faculty cult expert helps explain Smart case

The Orion / California State University Chico, Mar. 26, 2003
Devin Davis, News Editor

Elizabeth Smart is home safe. But as Professor Janja Lalich knows from her own experience, the hard part isn’t over.

Elizabeth Smart, a 15-year-old Utah girl, was abducted from her bedroom June 5. She was rescued by police March 12.

Lalich, an assistant professor in the sociology department at Chico State University and cult expert, was interviewed by several news sources in the last two weeks regarding the Elizabeth Smart case. Those organizations included The Salt Lake Tribune, The Chicago Tribune and The O’Reilly Factor, a talk show on the FOX News Network.

Lalich said people don’t understand why Smart didn’t just run away, but the reason is essentially mind control.

“When you get caught in that reality, you start to adopt that reality,” Lalich said. “Obviously (those caught in a cult) don’t have the same freedom of choice we do out in the real world.”

Self-proclaimed prophet Brian David Mitchell, who called himself Emmanuel, and his wife Wanda Eileen Barzee, were charged March 18 with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated burglary in the June 5 abduction. They also received charges of aggravated burglary and attempted aggravated kidnapping for allegedly attempting to kidnap Smart’s cousin last July.

Lalich believes the road to recovery will be a difficult one for Smart.

“I think when somebody goes through an experience like that it’s very traumatizing and hard to process,” Lalich said. “The hardest thing in terms of recovery is to not blame yourself.”

Lalich garnered much of her knowledge of cults through participation and research. She was in a cult for more than 10 years and after leaving the cult, she began The Center for Research on Influence and Control and the Cult Recovery and Information Center.

But Lalich’s experience with cults was not like most people assume. She was a member of a radical left-wing political group that called itself many things over the years. She generally identifies it as The Democratic Workers Party.

Although she planned an escape, she was able to leave without using her plan.

“It was kind of all imploding on itself in the end,” Lalich said. “The inner circle were all at the breaking point.”

It was when the leader of the group left for a week the group saw its demise.

“The whole group came together and voted out the leader and dissolved the group,” she said.

After leaving the group, Lalich said she found herself in limbo and it took her a full year before she was able to begin to rebuild her life.

During her time in the cult, both her parents had died. She was no longer in contact with her friends from before. While a member of the cult, she had seen her mother just twice. She said vacations weren’t really an option for members.

It was because of these experiences that she began her research center and eventually went back to school where she began work on her master’s degree.

She focused her thesis on cults.

“Personal experience is how sociologists often get interested in a particular field,” she said.

Having already spent some time working on the Heaven’s Gate case, Lalich decided to compare her experience to the experience of those in Heaven’s Gate, a cult that focused on extra terrestrials. She was surprised by the results.

“Though it was a new age UFO group and mine was a hard line left-wing group, there were more similarities than you might expect,” she said.

Today Lalich is focusing on teaching. When she accepted a position at Chico State, she closed down her research center. She said she might consider opening one up in Chico once she gets settled.

“I really always loved teaching. The cult work is very interesting but can be very draining,” she said. “You see a certain amount of abuse and exploitation.”

As for Elizabeth Smart, Lalich believes her chances for a full recovery are quite good.

“I think the positive thing for her is her age,” Lalich said. “Young people tend to bounce back quickly.”

And Lalich would like to help.

“I don’t want (the Smart family) to think I’m selling my services, but I would like for (Elizabeth) to have a copy of my first book on recovery,” she said. “The important thing for her now is to feel safe.”

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday March 26, 2003.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.