Differences Affecting Recovery
experience with a cult is different. Some may dabble with a meditation
technique but never get drawn into taking "advanced courses" or moving to
the ashram. Others may quickly give up all they have, including college,
career, possessions, home, or family, to do missionary work in a foreign
country or move into cult lodgings.
After a cult involvement, some people carry on with
their lives seemingly untouched; more typically, others may encounter a
variety of emotional problems and troubling psychological difficulties
ranging from inability to sleep, restlessness, and lack of direction to
panic attacks, memory loss, and depression. To varying degrees they may
feel guilty, ashamed, enraged, lost, confused, betrayed, paranoid, and in
a sort of fog.
Assessing the Damage
Why are some people so damaged by their cult experience
while others walk away seemingly unscathed? There are predisposing
personality factors and levels of vulnerability that may enhance a
person's continued vulnerability and susceptibility while in the group.
All these factors govern the impact of the cult experience on the
individual and the potential for subsequent damage. In assessing this
impact, three different stages of the cult experience � before, during,
and after � need to be examined.
Vulnerability factors before involvement include a
person's age, prior history of emotional problems, and certain personality
Length of time spent in the group
There is quite a difference in the impact a cult will
have on a person if she or he is a member for only a few weeks, as
compared to months or years. A related factor is the amount of exposure
to the indoctrination process and the various levels of control that exist
in the group.
Intensity and severity of the thought-reform program
The intensity and severity of cults' efforts at
conversion and control vary in different groups and in the same group at
different times. Members who are in a peripheral, "associate" status may
have very different experiences from those who are full-time, inner-core
Specific methods will also vary in their effect. An
intense training workshop over a week or weekend that includes sleep
deprivation, hypnosis, and self-exposure coupled with a high degree of
supervision and lack of privacy is likely to produce faster changes in a
participant than a group process using more subtle and long-term methods
Poor or inadequate medical treatments
A former cult member's physical condition and attitude
toward physical health may greatly impact post cult adjustments.
Loss of outside support
The availability of a network of family and friends and
the amount of outside support certainly will bear on a person's
reintegration after a cult involvement.
Skewed or nonexistent contact with family and former
friends tends to increase members' isolation and susceptibility to the
cult's worldview. The reestablishment of those contacts is important to
help offset the loss and loneliness the person will quite naturally feel.
Various factors can hasten healing and lessen post cult
difficulties at this stage. Many are related to the psycho-educational
process. Former cult members often spend years after leaving a cult in
relative isolation, not talking about or dealing with their cult
experiences. Shame and silence may increase the harm done by the group
and can prevent healing.
Understanding the dynamics of cult conversion is
essential to healing and making a solid transition to an integrated post
Engage in a professionally led exit counseling session.
Educate yourself about cults and thought-reform techniques.
Involve family members and old and new friends in reviewing and
evaluating your cult experience.
See a mental health professional or a pastoral counselor, preferably
someone who is familiar with or is willing to be educated about cults
and common post cult problems.
Attend a support group for former cult members.
The following sets of questions have proven helpful to
former cult members trying to make sense of their experience.
Reviewing your recruitment
What was going on in your life at the time you joined the group or met
the person who became your abusive partner?
How and where
were you approached?
What was your initial reaction to or feeling about the leader or group?
interested you in the group or leader?
How were you misled during recruitment?
What did the group or leader promise you? Did you ever get it?
What didn't they tell you that might have influenced you not to join had
Why did the group or leader want you?
Understanding the psychological manipulation used in your group
Which controlling techniques were used by your group or leader:
chanting, meditation, sleep deprivation, isolation, drugs, hypnosis,
criticism, fear. List each technique and how it served the group's
the most effective? the least effective?
technique are you still using that is hard to give up? Are you able to
see any effects on you when you practice these?
What are the group's beliefs and values? How did they come to be your
beliefs and values?
Examining your doubts
What are your doubts about the group or leader now?
Do you still believe the group or leader has all or some of the answers?
Are you still afraid to encounter your leader or group members on the
Do you ever think of going back? What is going on in your mind when this
Do you believe your group or leader has any supernatural or spiritual
power to harm you in any way?
Do you believe you are cursed by God for having left the group?
Excerpted from Captive Hearts, Captive Minds:
Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Madeleine
Tobias and Janja Lalich. 1994.
Reprinted with permission. Available through AFF�s Bookstore.