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Anthony Storr

Feet of Clay

A study of gurus

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Anthony Storr was an eclectic psychiatrist whose wide range of interests allowed him to see both the good and the bad points of many of the figures he writes about here, including Jung and Freud. Among the other gurus he considers are Gurdjieff, Steiner, and Rajneesh.

The book begins by discussing two gurus who were obviously psychotic, Jim Jones and David Koresh, both of whom were responsible for mass suicides or possibly murders. Some of the others also became seriously disturbed or psychotic later in life, notably Rajneesh. But others, including Steiner, for whom Storr seems to have had a certain amount of sympathy, were sane by the standard that Storr applies. All of them preached delusions, but Storr finds that belief in delusions is not in itself a sign of insanity; most human beings harbour some delusions.

If there is one lesson I have learned from writing this book, it is that one should never judge a person to be insane or even unreliable just because he holds bizarre beliefs. Most people in the world subscribe to belief systems for which there is no evidence and which do not stand up to critical evaluation. The diagnosis of insanity must include an assessment of the individual's social behaviour and relationships with other human beings.

Although gurus vary widely, they have certain characteristics in common. They believe they have been granted a special insight into truth which is of universal application. They tend to have had isolated childhoods. They frequently undergo a time of psychological stress or breakdown following which they receive their revelation. They are intolerant of criticism and expel anyone who disagrees with them.

Danger signs which suggest that a guru should be avoided include the making of important decisions about converts' lives, especially their money, dress, personal possessions and sexual partners. Leaders who claim divine authority or movements which pursue a single goal in a single-minded manner are also to be distrusted. Movements that regard their members as an elite, or cut themselves off geographically or socially, are beginning to show signs of paranoia.

Storr makes an interesting connection between the guru's discovery of truth following a period of stress and the creative process in both science and art, in which he distinguishes several stages. Typically, a period of intense concentration is succeeded by a fallow period of unconscious reflection, which may also be a time of depression. This in turn is followed by the discovery of the new insight, which may be almost instantaneous and accompanied by a brief ecstatic state. The new insight then has to be tested for validity, since after all it may turn out to be worthless. (The last stage often seems to be what is missing in the case of the guru's illumination.) This scheme is the same as that used by Marghanita Laski in her important study Ecstasy, which is a valuable counterpart to Storr's book.

The psychology of gurus is fascinating but so is that of their followers, which Storr also considers. The psychoanalytic idea of "transference" is probably relevant, and Storr relates this to neoteny -- the theory that humans are, in a sense, immature apes, both physically and emotionally. Our ability to learn throughout life is connected with this trait, which also makes us vulnerable to leaders who are self-confident and authoritative and can assume the parental role in our minds. Because this vulnerability is an inbult human characteristic Storr thinks that anyone, including himself, could be taken in by a guru given the right circumstances. And although he concedes that some of the gurus he considers have done more good than harm, he nevertheless counsels wariness in how we approach them.

All authorities, whether political or spiritual, should be distrusted, and extremely authoritarian characters who divide the world into "us" and "them", who preach that there is only one way forward, or who believe that they are surrounded by enemies, are particularly to be avoided. It is not necessary to be dogmatic to be effective. The charisma of certainty is a snare which entraps the child who is latent in all of us.

%T Feet of Clay
%S A study of gurus
%A Storr, Anthony
%I HarperCollins
%C London
%D 1996
%G ISBN 000-255563-8
%P xvii + 254pp
%K psychology
%O illustrated

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