Reflections on Post-Cult Recovery
On July 22-24, 1994
AFF conducted an "After the Cult" workshop at the St. Malo
Retreat Center in Estes Park, Colorado.
Carol Giambalvo, Nancy Miquelon, Hal Mansfield, Roseanne Henry,
and I organized the workshop and served as presenters, as did David
Clark and Bob Penny. It was
the first in the Denver area and was extremely well received by the
insightful and moving discussions inspired me to write down some of the
reflections inspired by the workshop.
I wish to share these with you.
As the workshop
participants made very clear, the subjective essence of the cult
experience is psychological abuse, and betrayal in particular.
Cults ostensibly offer to fulfill commonly experienced human
needs for understanding, certainty, and self-esteem.
They provide an absolutist triad of black-and-white answers to
life's problems, a refusal to entertain doubt about those answers, and a
promise of being superior to everyone outside the group.
Youth and individuals experiencing stress (which includes nearly
everyone at some point in their lives) are most likely to be attracted
to groups offering this triad. If
vulnerable persons encounter a sufficiently persuasive or seductive
cultic group at the right time in their lives, they may indeed join.
(I presume that there is a range of groups varying from mildly to
extremely persuasive and that people will differ in their susceptibility
to particular group "pitches.")
When they join, the members expect benevolence, respect, love,
help, etc. What they
receive is very different.
The reason is
twofold. First, the
absolutist triad is an illusion. It moves people away from reality and genuine human
connections. It is the
opposite of what one could call the adaptive triad:
a questioning mind possessed of a healthy measure of doubt
(discernment), tolerance of ambiguity (no black-and-white answers), and
a humble yet critical openness to the meaning systems of other people.
Thus, to the extent cults try to deliver the absolutist triad
(and they try very hard), they come into conflict with the inexorable
demands of the human condition.
The second reason
cults don't deliver the benevolent results they promise is their
tendency to manipulate and exploit their members (groups that aren't
manipulatively exploitative are not cults).
Cults employ subtle processes of thought reform (also called
coercive persuasion and mind control) to recruit members and to maintain
them in systems that exploit members' needs while promising to fulfill
those needs. Thought reform
is not all-powerful, as some sensationalized media accounts imply.
Nor do all groups employ it to the same extent.
But it can be remarkably successful in causing large numbers of
persons to spend years in social systems that are harmful and sometimes
extremely abusive. (1)
ultimately leave cults, or are ejected from their groups. (2)
Research suggests that members leave when they become
disenchanted with the group's inability to deliver on its promises,
become disillusioned with the hypocrisy or fraudulent practices of the
group's leadership, are separated from the group for a period of time,
or are able to discuss doubts and concerns with an intimate.
A majority appears to be troubled by the experience, while some
are devastated. (3) We can
only speculate on how many are troubled but unable to acknowledge or
recognize their pain.
The core of this
distress is the sense of having been abused by persons thought to be
benevolent, that is, of having been betrayed.
When they leave their groups many members feel "spiritually
raped," violated at the core of their beings.
As with physical rape, this violation is traumatic and, as with
rape, it severely damages the capacity to trust -- oneself, others, and
ex-cultists find themselves most in need of the illusory comfort of the
absolutist triad when they realize that they have been betrayed by those
promising this triad (that is why, perhaps, so many persons will join a
cultic group after leaving another).
If they have insight sufficient to resist the allure of the
absolutist triad, they will understandably feel empty, depressed,
guilty, and painfully unsure of what or who is real and trustworthy and
even how to discover what or who is real and trustworthy.
In the most extreme cases they are in a state of psychological
bankruptcy in which all feelings are tinged by the sourness of betrayal.
They must begin anew when they have nothing to grab hold of and
no idea about where to turn for help.
That so many do
indeed recover is a testament to their courage and enduring capacity to
love. Although some manage
to pull themselves together without substantial outside assistance, the
sharing at the after-the-cult workshops highlights the value of
knowledgeable support. The
ex-members who have made it out of psychological bankruptcy say to those
still suffering: "There
is a way out. You can trust
again. Hold my hand."
Instead of the absolutist triad of black-and-white answers,
certainty, and hollow superiority, they offer the adaptive triad of
discernment, tolerance, and humility.
Instead of giving abuse and humiliation, they give respect and
love. Instead of advocating
unrealistic standards that guarantee failure, they advocate and model a
humble, step-by-step approach to solving problems.
This step-by-step approach is the pathway out of distrust and
step on this pathway is often to reconnect to their pasts by reflecting
upon those times when they did trust in themselves and others.
If they can also watch, record, and review their progress, and
especially if they hold on to loving, understanding hands, ex-members
can over time come to believe in the predictability of their
self-respect (i.e., the tendency to treat oneself as deserving of
kindness instead of guilty recriminations) and competence (including
their imperfect capacity to judge what is real and good) -- they will
come to trust themselves.
Increased trust in
oneself makes it easier to trust others because the latter requires
discernment, and discernment presupposes confidence in (trust in) one's
own cognitive competence. But
developing trust in others is also vital to increasing trust in oneself,
for the affirmation of respected others is the most effective antidote
to the sometimes crippling self-doubt ex-cultists often experience.
That is why many ex-members need to lean on others (e.g., family)
for a period before they can begin to show signs of independence.
Developing trust in
others may be viewed metaphorically as developing a well-differentiated
array of concentric circles representing the varying levels of closeness
into which a discerning self allows others.
These circles express the psychological boundaries that
distinguish a person from others. In a cult these boundaries are dissolved as the individual is
pressured to identify with and merge into the group persona.
Once out of the cult, ex-cultists must learn not only how to
reestablish boundaries, but how to reestablish (or for some people,
establish for the first time) appropriate boundaries.
Who should be allowed into the inner circle?
Who into the mid-range? Who
should be kept at the periphery? Who
should be excluded? These
decisions require discernment and the courage to experiment in a social
world that, though not nearly as abusive as the cult, contains abuse as
well as respect and love. Having the help of caring and knowledgeable people who model
discernment and courage and offer understanding and a helping hand can
be invaluable to ex-cultists hesitatingly trying to reach out to others.
in God can be even more difficult than reestablishing trust in oneself
and others. (The following
reflections may not apply to those persons who feel no need for a
relationship with God, for example, because they do not believe in God
or are agnostic. However,
at AFF workshops many, if not most, ex-cultists consider spiritual
issues to be the most pressing of all.)
First of all, God is often associated with religion, and most
ex-members who have approached clergy or religious institutions for help
have been deeply disappointed. Secondly,
ex-cultists have had a compelling personal experience of evil, and they
angrily ask how a loving God could have permitted their spiritual rape
while they sought Him so fervently.
Religions do not convincingly answer the problem of evil, of
which the ex-cultist's experience is a special case, mainly because the
explanations they offer tend to presume a faith in the God whose
existence the experience of evil calls into question. The explanations may satisfy believers, but they offer little
consolation to those whose contact with evil has left them doubting
frequently feel abandoned by God or turn away from Him when they most
need Him. Their tendency is
to place their suffering before the "God who might be there"
and say: "If you
exist, and if you are indeed a loving and merciful God, you'll
understand why I cannot trust you now.
I have been savaged by lies, and more than anything I need truth,
even if only one crumb at a time. As
much as I would like to believe and trust in you, I will not allow
myself to be deceived again. So
please give me time. If you
can't respect this, then you don't exist."
It appears that as their trust in themselves and others increases
most ex-cultists eventually reconcile with God, although nearly half,
according to a survey I conducted, still tend not to identify with any
Those ex-cultists who
do not lose their faith in God have a divine hand to hold during their
struggle to rebuild trust in themselves and others.
The "God who is there" is there for the psychologically
bankrupt as well as the psychologically affluent.
Thus, ex-members tortured by free-falling self-doubt can humbly
turn to God and pray for the courage and discernment to reach out to
those whom they hope genuinely care without strings attached.
A bit of trust in God
can lead to a bit of trust in oneself, which in turn can lead to a bit
of trust in others. But the growth of trust is not unidirectional.
Trust, whether in God, oneself, or others, breeds further trust
-- provided that the ex-cultist has the courage and wisdom to move one
step at a time and the good fortune to move toward people who behave
respectfully and with understanding.
That first, vital spark of courage must come from the mysterious
depths of the ex-cultist's soul. But
after that first, lonely courageous step, caring, knowledgeable others
can give the encouragement that motivates ex-cultists to quicken their
pace and move forward more and more confidently.
For a description of thought reform and the psychiatric
casualties associated with it, see Margaret T. Singer and Richard Ofshe
(April, 1990), Thought reform programs and the production of psychiatric
casualties, Psychiatric Annals, 20, 188-193.
Ejecting dissident members is one of the methods used to keep the
less rebellious in line -- see Jerry MacDonald (1988), "Reject the
wicked man" -- Coercive persuasion and deviance production:
A study of conflict management, Cultic Studies Journal, 5(1),
For a summary of the scientific evidence pertinent to these
points, see Michael Langone (Ed.) (1993), Recovery from cults, New York:
I am deeply grateful
to all of the participants at the St. Malo "After the Cult"
workshop. Their eloquent
testimonies, questions, and affirmations of what is good in life were
enlightening and moving. I
wish them my very best.
Michael D. Langone,
Executive Director, AFF