By Paul R. Martin, Ph. D.
We commonly think of cults as bizarre, abusive and extreme groups. Many
examples come to mind -- Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, The Order of the Solar
Temple, Aum Shinrikyo. However, we typically learn about such cults only
after something has gone tragically wrong. With Jonestown, there were the
suicides of over 900 members. The Aum cult gassed the Tokyo subways.
Thirty-nine members of Heaven's Gate committed suicide.
But the cult problem is far larger than the few headlines that capture
the attention of the nation. Many cults remain unknown, even to experts,
until there is a tragedy. The true picture of the cult problem lies below
surface, like an iceberg, able to wreak Titanic-sized damage.
How far-reaching is this cult activity? Most experts agree there are between 2,000 and 10,000 known cultic groups with a total adherence of roughly 5 to 10 million followers. The cult problem is at least as large as schizophrenia or AIDS. The chances of a child joining a cult are about equal to those of getting chicken pox, or about 90 times more likely than contracting measles or mumps. Yet, with tragic costs to our public policy and health, virtually nothing is being done about the problem. Clinicians trying to treat former cultists are often baffled and misunderstood by their peers. Is it any wonder? How much training has any of us had in treating ex-cultists? If cults are a significant problem, why isn't more being done?
It is a serious error to define a cult merely by its sometimes tragic
aftermath. Those who have passed by and those who join do not see the teachings
about suicide, nerve gas attacks, stockpiling arms, sexual excesses and
violence; instead the recruit and passer-by see what Jeannie Mills saw
when she joined the People's Temple: "You meet the friendliest people you
have ever know, who introduce you to the most loving group of
people you have ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate and understanding person you have ever met, and then you learn that the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true…"
Jeannie has captured for us the essence of why people join -- for friends,love,
inspiration, caring, compassion and a cause that thrills the heart and
inspires the soul. People don't "join" cults! They "join" these groups
because they seek to affiliate with people who care and love. Yet, this exterior come-on is the tip of the iceberg.
Cults, then, present for us a tragic paradox. On the outside they appear
as the most loving, caring and creative groups around the world. But once
the cult is finished with the follower and he or she looks back honestly
carefully, this person sees evil and darkness that can't be readily comprehended or easily described to someone who wasn't there. In essence, the former member has struck an iceberg and the "unsinkable" trust -- in the world, oneself and others -- is overwhelmed and begins to sink. For the former cultist, life, self, the world and meaning are all shattered.
Clinically, the problems of former cultists present in a plethora of
symptoms and a variety of diagnostic categories. However, many will not
tell the therapist, or even recognize themselves, that they were cult victims.
Therapists must carefully assess for these possibilities. Frequently, former members are depressed, dissociated and broken. Such people are afraid to extend beyond the reaches of very constricted safe zones. To trust again is a task that seems insurmountable for some. It is the task of the therapist to assist them in their attempts at reaching out once again and taking tiny steps towards believing again. The goal is clear -- help the ex-cultist to regain his or her pre-cult sense of identity or, if raised in a cult, to find an identity crushed but not extinguished by the cult. With proper psychological nurturing, those raised in cults can germinate the seeds of
their personality that lay dormant while in the cult. This is a challenging task for the therapist, but progress can be made.
Successful therapy begins by assisting the client to see that wounds
can be healed and that the pain was not inflicted by some omnipotent power,
but simply by a skillful engineer of processes known throughout history
produce radical and lasting behavior change. Unless he or she can somehow disempower the abuser, the former member will feel unable to recover from the injuries.
Some former members act at an unconscious level as though they have been commanded not to recover -- they still fear the power of the cult leader's damning accusations and threats, even though they deny the group. Therapists then must demystify the process of how cults work. They must show that the cult leader is merely an Oz-like little man operating with smoke and mirrors, and largely empty threats.
In brief, there is a similar pattern in all cults. This thought reform
pattern consists of:
* Conformity -- The cultic belief system invalidates the person's self
and indoctrinates him or her to conform to cult dogma.
* Authoritarian leadership --Exclusive and elitist truth held in an autocratic, no-questions-asked manner.
* Mystical practices -- Mystical and trance states are used to justify the group's exclusive hold on truth and to reduce critical-thinking ability by basing truth on feelings, experiences and subjective non-verifiable altered
* Dispensing of existence -- The cult claims exclusivity on who has the right to exist. In rare cases, this may be literal, by killing the critic or dissident member. Usually, however, it means reducing former members, non-members and critics to the status of objects or "non-persons." Hence, the only real authentic humans are those in good standing in the group.
* Tight organizational boundaries and strong rewards and punishments are in place to strictly control most aspects of human behavior. Typically, a person's thoughts, life and practices are constantly checked against the"pure" doctrine of the group. Contrary thoughts and behaviors are quickly identified and eradicated.
The pattern of how cults work is amazingly similar -- be it based on religious, new age, political, psychotherapy or human potential. The unique aspects of how ex-cult followers interacted and responded to the cultic milieu must be carefully teased-out by hours of careful listening and processing. The former adherent must be able to retell his or her story to recreate meaning.
At some point in this process, once the client has understood what has
happened, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) may be useful.
EMDR should not be attempted until the client understands the nature of
the abuse. Otherwise, there may be unexplored and unchallenged assumptions:
"I should have been stronger, more assertive, more discerning, more intelligent.
Then it would not have happened." Further, many former members are treated
by "blame-the-victim" therapists. Unwittingly,therapists may convey to
the cultist that he or she was attracted to the cult because of a dysfunctional
family of origin. Careful research has debunked this myth, yet too many
therapists are quick to assume that cult
affiliation is somehow related to family of origin. The trend regarding families of origin is that there is no trend. Consequently, going over the process of thought reform and how cults work is an essential first step in
treating the former cultist.
Other steps are also essential in treatment. Besides the dissociation
from sexual and/or physical abuse, other dissociative symptoms must be identified. "Floating" is a type of dissociation where environmental triggers can reactivate the cultic personality. Clinicians have seen ardent
critics of a cult become triggered and within minutes begin to defend the cult and view the therapist as an enemy. They may even want to return to the cult. It is crucial to sharply ground the client as to time, place and
person. Therapists must assist the client in preparing a list of internalizing, personalized and rational reasons why the group was unhealthy and abusive. This list can be regularly rehearsed and recalled when the clinician is not present and the client is "floating." Contemplative dissociation can also be seen in former members. Although strictly out of the cultic mind set, these former members easily and inadvertently fall into trance or altered states that were frequently and intensively practiced while in the cult. Again, sharp grounding is necessary and a regular schedule of physical exercise (jogging) and cognitive exercises (reading) is
Giving the former cult member permission to grieve is necessary. It
is also essential to help the cult defector reestablish ties to friends,
family, and career and educational goals. Often the therapist must take
to see that the former members receives the proper medical care. For many, the rigors of cult life are debilitating and physical-health rehabilitation is needed. Consequently, referring the ex-cultist to a physician is
recommended for health-related aspects of recovery.
Final thoughts and implications
Few therapists have received formal training regarding the diagnosis
and treatment of cult victims. It is possible to overlook or misdiagnose
cult affiliation because mental health professionals need more specific
in this area. One step would be to write to your professional organization and request that more training and continuing education credits be offered regarding cultic traumas. Begin to read up on the cult problem. Write your congressman and demand more funds be set aside for the proper research,education and treatment of cult survivors. Harm by cults is one of the last frontiers in mental health, and it has been largely ignored. The status of the cult issue today is where the issue of battered women was 40 years ago.With time and cooperation, we can (and should) establish a voice and a platform for the cult victim, who now has very few advocates.
Although it is a daunting task, the successful treatment of former cultists is a rich and rare reward. To see a person who once was lost, disillusioned and lifeless regain hope, recovery self and truly enjoy life again is beyond a price.
Warning Signs for Cult Activity
Change is the most obvious sign -- change in behavior, like when a child
becomes addicted to drugs, although drug activity is surprisingly uncommon
in cults. Changes also occur in the individual's lifestyle, level of stress,
dating behavior, job performance, relationship with friends and general demeanor. These changes will be different from the normal changes one would expect, and will seem unusual or out of place. The majority of individuals get recruited when they leave home for college. College-age kids tend to be naïve, and they are in the process of finding affiliations and "fitting in."Rise of Cult Activity As the millennium draws near, cult activity will increase for a couple of reasons: Many different religious traditions, including Jewish literature and Christian literature, predict millennial events such as the coming of the Messiah, the end of the world, the age of Aquarius, and the apocalypse. However, the broader sociological reasons are actually more powerful here --cults are filling gaps of our crumbling society.
More and more people find life overly complex and emotionally overwhelming. They are looking for simple answers, security, family and someone to lead them. Ironically, cults often seem to present the clearest answer.
Resources and Websites
Paul R. Martin, "Facilitating Recovery," in Michael Langone (ed.), "Recovery
from Cults." New York: W. W. Norton & Co., (1994)
Paul R. Martin, "Cult-Proofing Your Kids." Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Publishing House, (1993)
Margaret Thaler Singer with Janja Lalich, "Cults In Our Midst" San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, (1995).
Louis J. West and Paul R. Martin, "Pseudo-Identity and the Treatment
Personality Change in Victims of Captivity and Cults," in Steven Jay Lynn
and Judith W. Rhue (eds.), "Dissociation," New York: Guilford Publications,
Paul R. Martin is the director of Wellspring Retreat & Resource
Albany, Ohio, which offers a professional program of outpatient and
residential counseling for ex-cult members.