Tuesday, February 19, 2008
OK you internet fiends, time to unglue your eyes from your monitor and read an actual print book. Alexandra Stein’s Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult is recommended for anyone who has a serious interest in political extremism or cults in general. Stein is a red diaper baby, raised by Communist activists. She drifted into the San Francisco leftist scene in the 1970’s, integrating herself into what was left of the radical underground there. Eventually, she came into contact with a mysterious group called simply the O. The O promised a strict system of internal discipline designed to turn its members into committed Maoist revolutionaries. Impressed with the group’s seemingly high levels of organization and purpose, Stein moved to Minneapolis to immerse herself completely in the O’s teachings. Separated from her family and friends, she soon came to depend on the group for her social as well as political needs. The rest of the book describes Stein’s journey from loyal member to questioning apostate, and her eventual separation from the group. The O was unusual in that it was a cult based on political rather than religious principals, and its leader was not particularly charismatic. (In fact, Stein did not so much as know the identity of the group’s leader until she was already in the process of leaving. Stein suggests that this leader, Theo Smith, may have been able to exert such control over his followers in part due to the fact that they were all white persons while he was an African-American man. The O may have been, to some extent, an extreme example of the power of white guilt.) The book does not only describe the inner workings of the cult, but also delves into Stein’s personal experience, allowing the reader to understand how an intelligent and perceptive young woman could come to surrender herself to a political organization so completely. These personal observations are what make the book such a pleasure to read, and what gives it such value to those studying the psychology of political extremism.