Perfect Children

Growing Up on the Religious Fringe

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Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2015.
     272 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780199827800.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Perfect Children: Growing Up on the Religious Fringe. By Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist. Oxford University Press, 2015. 262 Pages. $99.00

This is a ground-breaking study in an important, emerging area in the sociology of new religions: a study of the children born into these movements. British sociologist Amanda Twist explores a range of issues related to sectarian socialization of children by focusing on five large, controversial NRMs: Scientology, the Bruderhof, The Family International, ISKCON, and the Unification Church. Twist describes some of the radical alternative child-rearing methods that developed in these communities, and how children were often distanced from their parents and disciplined to conform to the utopian or millenarian expectations of the founder and their spiritual leaders.

As a long-term staff member and current Deputy Director of INFORM (Information on Religious Movements) at the London School of Economics, the author shows remarkable success in negotiating research access in a sensitive area. This study is based on around fifty interviews with current and former second-generation members, parents, teachers, and spiritual leaders—and other sources, including online discussion forums for apostates.

Twist offers five mini-histories of how each charismatic community has responded to the growing presence of children in its social midst, and experimented with different strategies to inspire, “convert,” and integrate its young critics and rebellious teens (who did not necessarily evince the same loyalty and enthusiasm as the first generation of converts). These stories make fascinating reading in themselves, as the author recounts in rich detail the various ways in which defamilialization, neglect, and abuse became institutionalized and religiously rationalized in these movements. The author’s objective, value-free approach to describing cases of cruelty to children, ranging from exorcisms to sexual molestation, to harsh beatings, to emotional and medical neglect and shunning, makes these stories all the more compelling.

Twist’s approach to this volatile topic is dynamic, comprehensive, and nuanced as she explores the complex behavioral and social changes that result from intergenerational power struggles, from leaders’ attempts to balance the needs of the biological family versus the spiritual, fictive family, and from the tension between sectarian groups and the larger society. Her analysis moves from focusing on how sectarian groups mold their children to how the children in turn, on coming of age, often exert a dramatic impact on the group, forcing it to sacrifice some of its radical religious practices in order to accommodate its children.

The author concludes with a comparative analysis of the experiences of youth who choose to stay as opposed to youth who choose, or are forced, to leave. Perhaps the most interesting result of this research discovery is the finding of a consistent pattern in these groups: different attitudes towards the first wave of second-generation defectors and the second. Whereas the first rebels were treated harshly and branded as “baddies,” by the time their younger brothers and sisters reached puberty, these groups had developed more flexible and humane strategies for dealing with their youthful dissenters and facilitating their departures.  

This study offers a useful bridge across a puzzling chasm: the cognitive gap between the utopian literature of NRMs (that describe “perfect” families and children) and the dystopian, distorted atrocity tales found in “anticult” literature and the memoires of angry apostates. It provides models and insights that are relevant to understanding issues related to youth in more mainstream religions and in sectarian or immigrant communities as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susan J. Palmer is Affiliate Professor in the Religion Department at Concordia University and Research Associate at McGill University.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist is Deputy Director of INFORM (Information on Religious Movements) at the London School of Economics.

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