Psychotherapy With Ex-Cultists: Four Case Studies and Commentary
Cultic Studies Journal, 1988, Volume 5, Number 2, pages 193-210
William and Lorna Goldberg
Psychotherapy of ex-cult members presents special problems for mental health professionals. Although most cultists appear to be within the normal range psychologically, many of those who seek psychotherapy after leaving a cult have histories of psychopathology that antedate the cult experience. Mental health professionals who work with these individuals should be sensitive to the impact powerful cult environments can have on presenting symptomatology and on the course of therapy. Presenting symptomatology is often exacerbated by factors within the cult experience. Therapeutic success requires an examination of the cult experience so as to integrate it into clients' understanding of themselves. Themes and issues commonly observed in many cult members prior to, during, and after cult involvement are examined in four sample cases.
As therapists who have worked with a large number of former cult members, the authors have noted recurrent themes which are common to individuals who have had the experience of cult membership and subsequent reintegration into society. This paper will illustrate some of these themes by referring to four case studies. Three of the four cases were originally presented to the joint regional conference of the Cult Awareness Network and the American Family Foundation in Sturbridge, Massachusetts in April 1987.
These cases have been chosen for inclusion in this paper because they illustrate some common issues of cult members and former cult members. The case illustrations are, naturally, skewed by the fact that only four individuals have been profiled and all of them have sought out therapy. It would be a mistake, therefore, to conclude that all cultists and former cultists share all of these issues. It should also be noted that names and other identifying characteristics of these individuals have been changed in order to protect their privacy.
Jim joined a new age cult at the age of twenty, while he was attending a college near his home. Although he was bright, he had drifted through school and was feeling uncertain about his future. After high school, he decided to join the Navy. He had an idealized picture of life in the service, believing that he would be able to travel all over the world and have exciting adventures. The reality of Navy life, however, was very different. He experienced overwhelming loneliness and felt unable to connect with other recruits. Furthermore, because he placed high in the initial testing, he was channeled into an area which required that he work harder than ever before. He became very anxious about his ability to measure up to the requirements. After a brief period of time, in a panic, he managed to leave the Navy on a legal technicality.
Jim describes having felt shame, embarrassment, and self-hatred about his perception of having “failed” in his first separation from home. Upon returning to his parents' house, he enrolled in a local college, feeling "there was nothing better to do.” After a few months at school, he met Kathy, who was thirty years old at the time. She belonged to a new age group, which was located near the college. Because of his intense and immediate attraction to her and his strong desire to please her, he became involved in the group. She made him feel important and this enabled him to “forget” the bad feelings he had been experiencing since he had left the Navy.
Jim's role in the cult was similar to his role in his own large family. His father was a distant figure to him, working hard to build financial security for his family of six children. He often spent weeks away from home on business trips. Jim's mother was overwhelmed and generally felt overburdened by the need to care for her large family. Jim, the next to last child, formed a close bond with his brother, who was one year younger. They spent their youth getting into trouble together (to their mother's despair). In retrospect, Jim believes that this was his way of getting her attention. Jim's earliest memory is of traveling down the street with his little red wagon when he was three years old. Suddenly his mother appeared, extremely upset, because he had traveled so many blocks from home. He has later memories of getting into all kinds of trouble with his younger brother, from lighting matches in their bedroom to playing hooky from school. He believes that he was always traveling too far and getting in over his head, and there was no one there to stop him or protect him. He viewed his parents as having high standards for their children, but he always felt at a loss about how to attain those standards. At times, when he was small, he felt protected by his older sister, who often would show a special interest in him. Kathy, ten years older, initially reminded him of this caring older sister. In his adolescence, he was heavily involved in pot smoking, along with other drug experimentation. After high school and prior to the Navy, he went with two friends to Europe for the summer. While there, he got into a potentially dangerous situation with drug dealers, after attempting to purchase pot. This 'scare' shortened his trip by several weeks.
In the cult, Jim formed a close bond with Kathy, and often attempted to get her to secretly ally with him against the leader's authority. This was reminiscent of his behavior with his brother. Jim was seen as the 'bad boy' of the group. His most satisfying days were when he and Kathy were placed in charge of a food catering business owned and managed by the group. For the first time in his life, he felt competent and able to complete the task at hand. After about one year, however, the leader requested that Jim and Kathy leave the business to develop a new center for the group in a neighboring state.
Once Jim and Kathy moved to the new location, their troubles began. Without the structure of the group and the leader's authority to be united in allegiance to and secret disobedience against, Jim's relationship with Kathy began to fall apart. Jim began to feel burdened with the responsibility to make a living for Kathy and himself, as well as the need to recruit new members for the group. When the leader asked him to sell cosmetics, he decided that to do so would be too humiliating. He always sensed that the leader attempted to '”emasculate” the male followers in order to appear all the more powerful and desirable to the women. However, this was the last straw. AU of Jim's rage and doubts about the group were mobilized in this humiliating request. This allowed Jim to precipitously leave the cult.
Jim convinced Kathy to return with him to his hometown, where they rented an apartment and where he found employment as a salesman. His relationship with Kathy became increasingly problematic. The group no longer took care of him. He felt anxious about his ability to meet his job requirements and resentful that he was expected to care for her as well as himself. Kathy, who felt guilty and depressed about leaving the cult, blamed Jim. This led to stormy fights. After a few months, they decided to break up, and, quickly after this, Kathy met and married another man.
At this point Jim sought out therapy. Initially, he was very depressed and angry at being so quickly replaced. He yearned for his former girlfriend and thought about her all the time. He was not interested in dating anyone else. He felt “used” and cast aside.
Therapy initially focused on helping Jim distinguish his real relationship with Kathy from the idealized relationship affected by his group experience. His idealized memories were centered around working with her to create a better world through their allegiance to the group. Actually, when they left the group, their relationship quickly fell apart. They were no longer taken care of and he had to earn a living and deal with anxieties about supporting himself and his girlfriend. He began to feel that he was unable to meet her demands and would escape from her by smoking pot, a pattern of behavior he had resorted to prior to his cult involvement. This would upset her, and she would demand that he stop. Kathy was no longer unconsciously seen as the brother who would join him in disobedience to his mother. With therapy, Jim began to see how, once out of the cult, he began to unconsciously experience Kathy as his mother. Whenever Jim felt his mother was making demands on him, he would refuse to be “controlled” by her and misbehave behind her back. Furthermore, after their departure from the group, Jim and Kathy were having to confront each other's personalities full force. As their own unique pre-cult characters re-emerged, they discovered that they no longer had common values and goals.
In therapy, Jim has looked at his strong desire to be taken care of, which stems from his doubt about his ability to manage on his own. This led to his involvement with the Navy, his girlfriend, and the cult. Over time, he has begun to feel that he can rely on his own resources and succeed on his own. He has spent almost four successful years enrolled at a university near his home, testing out different courses in connection with future careers. He recently was accepted into a graduate program at his university, in part, because of his hard work, which resulted in good grades. But he was also accepted because his active participation at school gained the recognition and support of several professors in his Field of study. He slowly has begun dating, after staying away from women completely for about one year. He is cautious about an 'instantaneous," passionate relationship, feeling now that it might be more important to get to know someone and build a relationship.
Jim initially felt he did not miss the group, only Kathy. In time, however, he began to understand that his yearning for her might have been so intense, because it was easier for him to deal with missing her than the group. (Initially, he was still feeling angry at the leader and did not want to “admit” any positive feelings for the cult.) However, after a period of time in therapy, Jim spoke of missing the cult's sense of unity and the feeling of being taken care of. Additionally, he has come to see how the group influenced him in subtle ways. For example, he was encouraged to participate in minor criminal behavior that would have been against his moral code had he not been a part of the cult. In the beginning of treatment, Jim focused upon feeling “used” by his girlfriend. Later, he began to see how he was used by the cult and how the leader encouraged his girlfriend to use him. He also came to see how his opportunities were limited in the group. He had to do what was in the best interests of the group --- selling cosmetics --- rather that what was best for Jim. The leader, contemptuously, would diminish the other men in the group by giving them traditionally feminine jobs, whereas only the women could reach positions of authority.
Initially in therapy, Jim related to his therapist in a passive manner. The therapist pointed out that Jim wished for him to take charge and make his decisions for him. In part, he wanted therapy to provide the structure that he both yearned for and resented. The therapist told him that taking charge would allow Jim to feel justified in feeling resentful and rebellious. Jim had left an environment (the cult) where someone's making decisions for him diminished his ability to have confidence in himself. As Jim was able to talk out his struggles in therapy, he slowly began to feel more successful in formulating a direction to his life and had less need for others to provide for him. He is learning how to talk over decisions with others rather than impulsively running into new situations or relying completely on someone else's judgment. With schooling and dating, Jim has begun to test things out before making major commitments. However, he also is aware of a certain amount of concern about any commitment, fearing he might make a mistake. He has recently recognized that everyone makes mistakes. When he errs, he does not feel as flooded with shame, embarrassment, and self-hatred as in the past.
Kathy left a new age cult at age thirty-two after having been a member for five years. Kathy is the eldest of four sisters. Her father is an alcoholic who, although kind and loving when not drinking, would become verbally abusive to the family when drunk. During his drinking bouts, he would often miss work and family functions. Kathy remembers feeling angry with her father but states that her mother would not permit her to express this anger. Instead, she was supposed to be overly solicitous and subservient to her father, modeling her mother's behavior. Kathy's mother, a homemaker, would rationalize and justify her husband's actions and Kathy was led to feel that it was her responsibility to change her father's moods and actions by her behavior. Kathy recalls her mother's yelling at her when Kathy would express annoyance at the father. Her mother would criticize her for her supposed insensitivity to the father's needs and to how hard he worked for the family. Thus, Kathy developed an unrealistic view of her own importance and her responsibility and ability to change her environment.
Kathy saw herself as the favored child and felt a responsibility to five up to her parents' expectations of her. For example, an incident occurred in her senior year of high school, when her parents discovered her in bed with a boy friend. Kathy recalls vividly the look of disappointment on her father's face and feeling that she had betrayed him. Kathy believed that this incident wiped out all the good feelings that her father had for her. Her father did not speak to her for a month, and she believed that au her years of being a “good girl” had been erased. This theme of having to be flawless to gain love continued into her adult life, along with her unconscious need to rebel against this role.
Soon after graduating from college, Kathy was introduced to a new age cult by a high school friend who was involved with the cult. This was a political/philosophical cult which saw its members as the forerunners of a New Age in which mankind will reach levels of consciousness and spirituality which are not now possible. The appeal of the cult to Kathy was that by following the dictates of the leader, she believed she could attain the level of perfection which she demanded of herself. She also hoped that the cult would help her to control her rebelliousness, of which she was consciously ashamed.
Within the cult, Kathy reenacted some of her earlier feelings and experiences. For example, she had to subjugate herself to a father figure who demanded perfection from her and who was unpredictable in his rewards and punishments. Kathy reports feeling unable to please the cult leader and inadequate because she was not able to anticipate his whims and desires. Because she was so easily intimidated and so quick to accept blame, Kathy was often singled out for public criticism by the cult leader.
She worked as a night cleaner for a large company. Under the direction of the cult leader she, would sneak into the copy room after everyone else had left and copy his writings. She does not remember feeling that these actions were wrong. She was led to believe that members of this group could lie to or steal from non-members since they were the elite and could not be held accountable by the unenlightened.
The major factor acting against Kathy's full involvement in the group was her relationship with Jim, her boyfriend, whose case was discussed earlier. He was never as fully involved in the cult as she was, and would often encourage her to rebel against the leader, which satisfied her unconscious anger at the cult leader (authority figure) and need to “ruin” this relationship.
The precipitating factor which led to Kathy's reevaluation of her cult membership was her departure from the cult and her close friend, Sarah. With Jim's encouragement, Kathy surreptitiously contacted her parents and told them that she wanted to visit with them, an activity which had been prohibited by the cult leader. Her parents arranged for Kathy and Jim to see a therapist in the hope that she would reevaluate her membership in the group, which she eventually did.
Therapy with Kathy lasted for two years and focused upon her pattern of first subjugating herself to men, then feeling anger at them for demanding that she live up to their original impression of her. Once she felt the anger, she would begin to rebel against them. This behavior was first addressed in sessions with her therapist as he began to focus on Kathy's compliant behavior with him. She was able to link this to the pattern she had originally established with her father. Also, in therapy, she was able to focus on her demand that she always be perfect and her tendency to see all her actions as having cosmic significance. For a year and a half after leaving the cult, Kathy was plagued by dreams in which the cult leader raped or publicly humiliated her. Shortly before the nightmares ended, she dreamt that she had stood up to the cult leader and exposed him before the other members of the group. She began to see the unconscious sexual wish to be humiliated by men, a repetition of her relationship with her father. With this, Kathy became determined to relate to men in a more realistic, less self-destructive manner, in which she could hold onto her own self and stand up for her own needs from the beginning, rather than giving over her self to those with whom she maintained a relationship. By talking things out in therapy, Kathy for the first time began to discover more clearly who she was and what she truly wanted from life.
Several months after leaving the cult, Kathy broke off her relationship with Jim. Without the group, Jim began to be experienced less as a peer and more as a father figure, particularly due to his pot smoking, which was alarming to her. A year later, Kathy married a man whom she had met subsequent to leaving the cult. She terminated therapy shortly before the birth of her son.
Donna left a Bible cult after six years of involvement. When she began therapy three years ago, she was feeling lost and unhappy about having to return to her family’s home. She was unsure of who she was and what direction she wanted for her life.
Donna had been raised in an upper middle class family. Her father, a businessman, came to the United States from Europe as a young adult. He married a woman who had come to New York from the mid-west. Donna believes that they married because both of them were lonely. Donna has one brother, who is five years older than she. She describes her father as the authority in the home who always felt that he knew what was best for everyone and made all the decisions whether or not the rest of the family agreed. He treated her mother as if she were one of the children. In late adolescence, Donna began to realize that her mother's “spacey” and childish behavior was a result not only of her interactions with Donna's father, but of her alcoholism as well.
Donna had an unhappy childhood. She had few friends, and was often scapegoated by the other children. In looking at this in therapy, she believes that she just did not know how to fit in with other children. She was always out of step, dressing differently and responding in the wrong way. She feels that this behavior was similar to the way her mother behaved. It was also caused by her mother's being too out of touch to give her the information she needed to be similar to the other children. At other times she would act too bossy, identifying with her father. She also sees how she would try too hard to please the teachers, which would turn off the other kids. In high school she began to alienate her teachers by coming to school late, handing in assignments late or not at all, or by being argumentative in class. Donna feels that she was indirectly attempting to show someone how unhappy she was. She was also revealing her contradictory pattern of either being very compliant or extremely rebellious.
Donna was excited about going away to college, believing that this would be a place to make a new start. However, she began to alienate her friends at school and ended up feeling lonely once more. It was at this point that she considered joining the Bible group. They were friendly to her.
Shortly after joining the cult, Donna dropped out of school and became involved in the group full-time. Her early period in the group was satisfying. She made friends for the first time in her life. The doctrine was secondary. Over the years, however, she was given more and more responsibility. She became the authoritarian her father had been in her own family. This style of leadership was resented by those under her and, at times, was disapproved of by the leaders. She began to feet more and more alienated and depressed. She took an overdose of aspirin, then called the leader for help. Donna was brought to a local hospital. When she recovered, she was relieved of most of her responsibilities. She believes that she took the overdose because she was feeling overwhelmed and she simply wanted less responsibility on her shoulders. It was soon after this incident that she was deprogrammed from the group.
For a long time, Donna was angry about the deprogramming. Although she did not desire to return to the group, she resented her father's attitude that he knew what was best for her. She felt that the idea of “mind control” let her family off the hook. She believes that she willingly joined the group because of the friendships it offered her. More recently, however, she has focused on how little the group met her needs as time went by. She has come to question the doctrine and even spent one session expressing how “phony” she thought speaking in tongues was. Although Donna became angry with her therapist when she suggested that it was unfortunate that Donna had to resort to a suicide attempt to feel less burdened in the cult (rather than talk out her feelings with the leaders), her therapist caught a fleeting smile that partially belied her defense of the group.
Initially, Donna questioned whether she should return to college. Her feelings about the matter were related to a need not to do what her parents desired. Her therapist helped Donna see that she operated on the principle that if she didn't oppose her parents, she would continue to he strongly influenced by them. Recognizing this dynamic helped Donna decide to return to college. At present, she is planning to move into an apartment of her own. She believes that she will be able to feel less angry with her parents when she no longer is living with them and financially dependent on them. Anger and as little interaction with her parents as possible keep Donna's fragile and emerging identity intact. This has been painful for her parents, however. She has told them that she knows that her relationship with them will improve when she lives away from home and is no longer financially dependent upon them. Even though her mother stopped drinking while Donna was in the cult, Donna generally refuses to allow her mother into her life, believing that she is incompetent, and that this behavior will have a deleterious effect on her, i.e., that she also might become incompetent. One touching exception to this occurred after her grandmother's funeral when Donna and her mother were able to mourn together and share tender feelings towards her grandmother. Donna also continues to fear that her father will take over completely. More recently, Donna is coming to understand that some of her anger and fear is connected with the cult--that feelings towards the cult are being displaced onto her family. However, she continues to strive for an integrated sense of identity.
In therapy, Donna often tries to pick fights with her therapist. As this has been explored, Donna has seen that she feels most comfortable when she ran take a different stand from the other person. This protects her from being too easily influenced by her therapist. She particularly likes knowing that she and her therapist have a different impression of her cult. Although, at times, she can acknowledge that her cult experience was destructive, she generally likes to see her therapist as one of those anti-cult people who sees everything as mind control. Although this is not true, it is important for Donna to feel that although her therapist sees things in a different way from her, her therapist is not going to try to push her into a different point of view, nor will she be upset or hurt by Donna's anger. The therapist can tolerate Donna's different feelings, something the cult (the therapist reminds her) and her parents (she reminds the therapist) cannot. Donna also likes to test out being rebellious with her therapist. For instance, she generally comes a few minutes late for sessions. Once she arrived one-half hour late, very upset, saying, “I meant to be only fifteen minutes late, but I hit a traffic jam.” She and her therapist were both able to laugh at her determination to be in therapy, but on her own terms.
Susan is a twenty-three year old woman who had been a member of a Bible cult for five years. She left the cult two years ago, after her mother arranged for an exit counseling. After a period of two months at a rehabilitation center for former cult victims, she returned to her mother's home and began seeing a therapist weekly.
Susan has twin sisters, one year younger than she. Her most vivid early memories revolve around feelings of helplessness while hearing her parents fight. When she was nine years old, she was told that her parents were going to be divorced. She does not recall having any feelings for the remainder of her childhood.
Susan continued to live with her mother and saw her father sporadically while she was growing up. She remembers his disappointing her and her sisters by not showing up for scheduled visits. When Susan was eleven years old, her father remarried and she rarely saw him after that.
Susan's father stopped paying child support and alimony around this time, despite a court order. Her mother complained bitterly about his abandoning the family, but did not press the matter in court. Instead, she held two jobs to provide for her family. Susan's most vivid memory of her attitude towards her mother was that she (Susan) should not upset her mother or be angry at her, since she worked so hard to hold the family together.
Susan's relationships with her sisters was strained. The two of them were close, and they excluded her. The twins resembled their mother both physically and temperamentally. Like their mother, they were outgoing and friendly. Susan, on the other hand, resembled her father both physically and temperamentally, as she was quiet and introspective. Susan felt like an outsider in her own family.
In high school, Susan became involved with a fundamentalist church and began attending services there while the rest of her family continued to attend services at a mainline Protestant church. When she graduated from high school Susan, through her church, heard of an organization which helped emotionally disturbed teenagers find God. The organization had a residential center for emotionally disturbed girls. Susan, wishing to devote her life to helping others, applied for an unpaid position as a dormitory counselor.
The group she joined emphasizes subjugation. Just as Man must be subjugated to God, so must the flock be subjugated to the pastor, who was known as Father. Susan worked fifteen hours a day, seven days a week and was responsible for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of fourteen adolescent girls. Susan woke them, fed them, cleaned after them, made sure they did their homework, and put them to bed at night. If any of her charges broke the rules (a frequent occurrence with these troubled girls) it was she who was admonished. At times, the girls would gang up on her and, later, in therapy, she was able to express the painful feelings of being an outsider once again. She received a day off every two weeks, but as often as not would spend the day babysitting for Father's children or helping his wife with her shopping. At the time, she denied that she had feelings of being exploited and covered over these feelings by rationalizing that her work was for God and had to be arduous.
Therapy with Susan focused upon helping her recognize her feelings and strengthening her shattered self-image. Her experience within the cult was so loathsome that, unlike most former cultists, she has never expressed regret for leaving nor yearned for any aspects of her life within the cult.
Uncovering feelings has been a long and painful process for Susan. To deal with the Painful experiences of cult life, Susan had relied on the same defenses that she had used during her parents' divorce --- cutting off her feelings, and, at times, her memory of particularly difficult events. For the first year of therapy, Susan would often begin the session by telling her therapist about a humiliating or degrading cult experience which she had previously repressed and only now remembered. She would express incredulity at the callousness of the cult leaders or at her own willingness to be treated so cruelly. As painful as they were, each of these episodes seemed to free Susan a bit more from her emotional difficulties, particularly from her flat emotional affect. Her therapist responded empathically, but also reminded her of the passivity induced by her cult experience. He would focus on her tendency to blame herself rather than the cult leader. This tendency toward self-blame bad been exacerbated by her cult experience.
In time, Susan began to experience anger at the cult leaders. This would then get discharged against her mother, who was a more convenient and less threatening target. In addition, Susan's tendency to withdraw led her to act in an uncaring, self-absorbed manner towards her family. For example, she would sit at the dinner table without speaking or would answer questions in monosyllables. Her mother would react to Susan's anger and self-absorption in an overly solicitous and patronizing manner instead of demanding that Susan act differently. This acceptance of unreasonable behavior (through reaction formation) was the same stance that Susan had adopted in the cult and had now come to despise. The more accepting her mother was of her unreasonable behavior, the more furious Susan would become and the more unreasonable her behavior would be. Family sessions helped Susan's mother to see that understanding the genesis of the behavior did not mean that it had to be accepted without protest. These sessions also helped Susan to see that she was, in reality, acting out feelings with her mother which were often displaced from her cult leaders.
Susan continues to see her therapist weekly. She has gained enough self-confidence to permit her to hold a succession of three jobs of increasing importance and responsibility. She continues to uncover new memories about life within the cult, although these painful revelations are less frequent than they had been. Susan's mother has remarried and is moving on with her own life. This, along with Susan's insight from therapy that she always has felt that she must not create a problem for her mother, has helped to lessen Susan's initial guilt, stemming from her belief that she had caused a painful disruption in her mother's life by getting involved in a cult. Susan now has a boyfriend and has recently begun taking classes at a local college.
Themes Prior to Cult Involvement
In this section the authors will discuss the themes which these individuals were dealing with prior to cult involvement. Each of them was experiencing a period of increased vulnerability. Jim was feeling shame at his failure to succeed in the Navy. He found Kathy's seductive proselytizing appealing, as she helped him “forget” his bad feelings. Kathy's demand for perfection was leading her to feel disappointed with college, which was not stimulating to her. She was, therefore, willing to check out her friend's “discussion” group. Donna's loneliness, following her hope that things would be different in college, made a Bible study group with friendly people appealing to her. Susan's desire to help troubled adolescents and to feel that she was an integral part of a group attracted her to the group she joined.
All four young persons had idealistic unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. To some degree these feelings are typical of many late adolescents. These four, however, came from families where standards of performance were set at a high level by one or both of their parents, and they all were left with the feeling that they could not measure up to these expectations. The cultic groups promised them a way to achieve a high standard (good works for Susan and intellectual stimulation for Kathy) or a vehicle through which they could escape disappointment in themselves (an unsuccessful Navy experience for Jim and difficulty making friends in Donna's case). The groups held out the promise that they could fulfill idealistic dreams and feel loved and important. None of them, however, thought he or she was joining a cult.
Themes Within the Cult
Although their cults held out the promise of solving pre-cult problems, after an initial period of excitement and relief, all four discovered that the promise was only an illusion and that their problems actually worsened in the group. Jim's initial excitement about his relationship with Kathy began to crumble in time, particularly when they no longer were held together by a common purpose. Also, he found that instead of escaping from a shameful experience, he was constantly humiliated by the cult leader. Kathy was also humiliated. Instead of being appreciated for her quick mind, she was humbled for her “arrogance.” Donna was given the weight of more and more responsibility without guidance. Therefore, she felt isolated in her role as leader and cut off from the group that professed love and friendship. Susan was excluded by the adolescents and the cult's hierarchy in a more extreme manner than she had experienced in her family.
All four discovered that their own needs for personal growth and development were suppressed or overridden by the needs of the group. Jim, Kathy, and Donna were encouraged to drop out of college. Jim later was told to sell cosmetics. Kathy cleaned offices. Donna went from one unsatisfying job to another just to earn a living, while devoting all of her free time to the group. Susan was made to feel that it was selfish of her to request time off to be with her family. Some eventually believed that they were flawed because of their inability to meet the group's needs. Susan believed that she was selfish. Donna's inability to be a successful leader led her to hate herself (and, unconsciously, the group) enough to attempt suicide, viewing this as the only way out.
The groups influenced them to do things that were against their natural predilections or moral code. Jim and Kathy, for example, believed that it was ethical to steal because the leader attributed high purpose to minor criminal behavior.
Consistent with the widely reported observation that cults encourage passivity, all four individuals were told that they must follow the leader without question. All regressed as their leaders fostered child-like behavior. They learned to suppress their natural emotions. Upon leaving their groups, they continued to have difficulty identifying their true feelings, particularly when these feelings were at odds with others. They also initially appeared to be younger than their chronological ages (cf. Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982).
All were made to feel that they could not survive on their own resources, and that only association with their groups kept them from being dismal failures. Jim and Kathy were encouraged to believe that their catering business succeeded only because they were following their leader's path. It had nothing to do with their own abilities. Donna feared that she would be friendless and was told she was loved by the group, although the group leaders' actions were callous and exploitative. Susan was told that her work was her “calling” and that it would be sinful to abandon it.
As these individuals dealt with having left their cults, common themes emerged. Initially, as is common with former cultists, none of them exhibited a great deal of anger towards the cult. Instead, anger was displaced onto family (Donna and Susan) or other significant relationships (Jim and Kathy). For example, although none of them initially expressed rage toward their cults, each was exquisitely sensitive to being “controlled” or manipulated by others. As is most common with former cultists, Donna, Susan, and Jim found it difficult to trust others. Kathy reacted to her sense of loss by quickly entering into a new relationship.
All four revealed problems with identity or sense of self. After being invaded by their cults and manipulated to change their ideology and behavior, they felt uncertain about who they were. Therefore, they initially protected themselves through defensive maneuvers, e.g., Donna's use of anger and Susan's use of silence. Former cultists need time and respect to be able to slowly build a new sense of who they are and to discover which path they wish to follow. They fear making mistakes, especially as they begin to deal with the embarrassment and guilt associated with their cult involvement and its impact on others. Kathy's guilt about leaving led to feelings of depression.
At times, they yearned for the cult, particularly the sense of community it provided. Donna had to again deal with feelings of loneliness, and Kathy had to deal with feelings about not achieving a higher purpose.
Former cultists often experience nightmares. Kathy dreamed that the cult leader was either raping or humiliating her. This was a repetition and reworking of the trauma of the cult experience, which served to exacerbate her earlier conflicts. Susan experienced frequent nightmares as she uncovered more memories of her degradation in the cult.
It should be noted that despite the radical ideological changes which these individuals underwent, some basic aspects of their character remained consistent throughout their pre-cult, cult, and post-cult involvements. Those were aspects of behavior that had been repeated since early childhood, although the earliest memories and fantasies at the genesis of this behavior had been repressed. Since this is unconscious behavior, it is quite resistant to change. Freud noted that only in making this unconscious behavior conscious during the treatment process could one begin the process of change (Freud, 1914). Although the cults appeared to offer a solution to these unconscious difficulties, and although initially these individuals experienced some relief, the old attitudes and ways of behaving began to reemerge. Susan continued to see herself as an outsider who was not accepted by her younger "sisters." Donna, who had felt isolated and alienated from her friends, found herself to be isolated and alienated within the cult. Jim continued to play out his 'bad boy' persona even within the cult. Kathy found herself trying to five up to and simultaneously undermine the perfection which was demanded from an unpredictable father figure.
A major reason each of these individuals was unconsciously attracted to their groups was the desire to overcome a troubling character trait or affect. Each of them felt that membership in the group would offer relief. Each of them felt initially that these issues would be overcome simply through their involvement with the group.
Although unconscious traits are resistant to change, those aspects of character and belief system which are directly attacked by the cult (verbally or nonverbally) can change dramatically because they no longer are motivated by unconscious beliefs. One's character is built, in part, on identifications that are formed early in life with parents and other significant figures, and by developing those traits that are valued by these significant figures. According to Freud, “Identification is...the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person” (Freud, 1921, p. 105). When identification with aspects of a deviant group supersedes previous identifications -- those that formed the personality -- it is as if aspects of one's history have been erased. Donna, Jim, and Kathy were induced to believe that formal schooling had no value, a view which contrasted sharply with previously held attitudes. Susan was induced to believe that her service to her group was more important than her tie to her family. The cult's attitudes were harsh and demanding (to a much greater degree than the attitudes of their parents), and this attitude continued to affect all of these individuals, even upon leaving their cults. Ofshe and Singer have described how cults, in contrast to other manipulative groups, attack the most basic characteristics of the self (Ofshe & Singer, 1986). Individual problems are exaggerated. This was true in all of the cases in this paper. A variety of psychologically sophisticated and deceptive techniques, including hypnosis among others, are used to induce the new recruit to incorporate the cult's view of the world and to identify with the leader's personality, thus giving the cult control over him or her. Donna, for example, was induced to speak in tongues. These techniques can so overwhelm some recruits that critical faculties and a sense of one's pre-cult self can be lost. Hence, all of these individuals found themselves placing the needs of the cult and the leader's sense of reality above their own.
To protect one's self in the midst of confusion, reality is reorganized through identification with the cult leader. Freud described how groups have the power to induce a member to regress, conform, and replace the member's ego ideal with an identification with the leader (Freud, 1921). This was particularly true for Donna and Susan, who were discouraged from intimate relationships with others. Jim's and Kathy's bond to each other resulted in their having less investment in their leader. More recently, Conway and Siegelman (1978) and Ofshe and Singer (1986) described the refined techniques today's cults use to destroy the cultist's precious former sense of self in a more extreme and dangerous way.
In therapy, each of these former cultists discovered that, although his or her belief system and parts of his or her character began to conform to the cult, they concurrently were unconsciously playing out the same roles, conflicts, and struggles they thought they would be overcoming. It was only subsequent to their leaving their groups, when they stopped looking to the outside to find solutions to their problems and began to struggle with finding answers within themselves, that they began to make progress in overcoming these difficulties.
Conway, F., & Siegelman, J. (1978). Snapping. New York: Delta.
Freud, S. (1914). Further recommendations on the technique of psychoanalysis. S.E., 12,145-156.
Freud, S. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. S.E., 18, 67-146.
Goldberg, L., & Goldberg, W. (1982). Group work with former cultists. Social Work; 27,165-170.
Ofshe, R., & Singer, M. (1986). Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reform techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 3-24.
Lorna Goldberg, M.S.W. and William Goldberg, M.S.W. are therapists in private practice in River Edge, New Jersey. Mrs. Goldberg also is a supervisor and instructor at the New Jersey Institute, Teaneck, New Jersey. Mr. Goldberg is the Program Supervisor for Rehabilitative Services of Rockland County Community Mental Health Center, Pomona, New York. He also is a doctoral student in clinical social work at Adelphi University. The Goldbergs co-lead a monthly support group for former cultists that has met for fourteen years.