Book Examines Lives of Children in Sectarian Groups

(Karen Frost is an author and journalist who lives in North Carolina. She specializes in the intersection of visual media and minority representation. She holds an MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for Languages and Cultures of Asia. Additional chapter notes on this book may be found here.

(The following is a review of Ces enfants oubliés – Grandir dans une communauté sectaire, by Lorraine Derocher, Montreal: Les Éditions de l’Homme (2022).)

Ces Enfants Oubliés (These Forgotten Children) is a quietly powerful look at the experiences and lessons learned from former child members of sectarian groups (an umbrella term that can include, but is not limited to cults). It is intended to help a wide audience – including current group members, social services providers, former members, and law enforcement officers, among others – understand this often opaque subject and think through better ways to integrate these individuals into society once they’ve left their groups. While the book mentions many sectarian groups – including Peoples Temple – on the way to helping readers understand the conditions and circumstances of children growing up in these groups, few details are provided about them. This is because the book is not about the groups’ individual beliefs and what makes them unique, but rather what makes them similar. Thus, while Peoples Temple may not appear to have much in common with groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, there are similarities in how children experience life within them that transcend any belief system or religious lineage. It is from these commonalities that we can draw an understanding that can then be applied to anyone leaving these groups.

Narratively, Ces Enfants Oubliés weaves together anecdotes from former child members with summations by author Lorraine Derocher that illuminate and explain the meaning of these experiences to readers who may be less familiar with the academic study of sectarian movements. Derocher’s writing is characterized by her compassion and respect for the members of sectarian groups and those who have left them. Even when discussing the small percentage of groups that evolve to become totalitarian (she classifies Peoples Temple as such), she seeks to avoid blaming the members for their beliefs or vilifying their actions, even as she highlights the psychological harm these beliefs can cause to children. While she respects the right of adults to decide who and what to believe, she emphasizes that their children are often put into situations in which they experience emotional distress and even physical abuse as a result of those decisions.

Jordan Vilchez and Stephan Jones represent Derocher’s primary interlocutors about Peoples Temple. Readers seeking to learn more about their particular experiences in the group or thoughts about its history will be disappointed, however. Their short testimonials, the language handpicked by Derocher to support broader points, center on their emotional experiences with the group – Jones’ initial anger at his father, Vilchez’ eventual growth from understanding her past, and their eventual decisions to develop compassion toward the situation. Ces Enfants Oubliés is, after all, focused on emotions and socio-psychological consequences, not so much the events that caused them. The only time Derocher notably singles out Peoples Temple is in the course of discussing the abuse of authority in totalitarian groups, highlighting that many times these leaders are narcissists like Jim Jones, or when acknowledging Jonestown’s tragic fate.

Derocher’s primary goal is the transmission of information. The point of the book, she reminds readers repeatedly, is to be a conduit for messages from former child sectarian group members. These can be to parents, to family, to teachers, or even to social workers. Sometimes, these messages are to themselves or their peers. In speaking with former sectarian group members, Derocher found that many of them gravitate toward networking with other former members or else to write about their experiences, both as a form of therapy and as a way of maintaining a connection with others who share their background. The Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple website and The Jonestown Report are singled out with admiration as a place for survivors to express emotions and contextualize their experiences.

Ultimately, TCes Enfants Oubliés meets its goal of compassionately sharing the lessons learned by children raised in sectarian communities without becoming mired in the ideology and histories of these communities, or the isolationist, often paranoid elements which characterize some of them. If the book could be improved in any way, it would only be the appending of the source material that Derocher used – notably the letters from these members – so that the readers of Ces Enfants Oubliés could have the full experience of hearing firsthand from her sources.