Survey Reveals Physicians' Experience with Cults
Edward Lottick, MD
In late June 1992, a stratified random sample of Pennsylvania physicians
(5,400) were mailed a two-page questionnaire asking about experience with
destructive cults, either personal, professional, or both. Professional
experience was defined as "with patients or their families," and personal
experience was defined as "with self, family, or friends." The survey
sample group was drawn from primary care physicians (family practice,
general practice, internal medicine, and pediatrics) and psychiatrists.
Surveys were returned by 1,396 participants, a 26 percent rate of return.
A number of the returned surveys (173) included personal observations and
In the survey, one of the respondents commented: "I hope you have the
courage to report both the incidence of cults and the significant numbers
of us who have not seen cults in our practices." To that person I would
say: thank you for raising that question, and thanks to the many others
who raised questions and important issues in their comments. This article
contains statistical data sorting physicians into "experience" and "no
experience groups," and also contains some conclusions about each group.
Many of you thought the survey was a good idea but a few questioned its
cost or its appropriateness. Because of these concerns, I feel I should
briefly explain my involvement and how the survey came about.
On May 11, 1990, Noah Antrim Lottick, our wonderful 24-year-old son,
committed suicide. A brief account of Noah's death was featured
prominently in the May 6, 1991, Time magazine article,
"Scientology-The Cult of Greed," and again in the October 1991 Readers
Digest article, "A Dangerous Cult Goes Mainstream." My wife and I
coperated with these magazines, whose circulation is over 100 million
readers worldwide, in an effort to alert others to potential dangers.
After these articles were published we began hearing from a number of
people who had been involved in cults or who had family members involved
in cults. We began to wonder just how common these problems are.
Although we had learned that our family's experience was not unique, we
could find very little hard data for providing a statistical model for our
society. And I began to wonder about other physicians' experiences.
On October 1991, I introduced a resolution to the Society House of
Delegates that the State Society conduct a survey regarding destructive
cults. The House of Delegates agreed and referred the resolution to the
Board of Trustees, who in turn assigned the survey to the Educational and
Scientific Trust. [Editor's note (in the original article): the Trust
developed and conducted the survey, and the results were tabulated and
interpreted by Dr. Lottick and consultants, Dr. Arthur Dole and Dr.
For the purpose of the survey, "destructive cult" was defined as, "a group
which violates the rights of its members, harms them through abusive
techniques of mind control, and distinguishes itself from a normal social
or religious group by subjecting its members to physical, mental, or
financial deprivation or deception to keep them in the group."
Of the 1,396 respondents to the survey, 21 percent (290) reported having
had personal, professional, or both personal and professional experiences
with cults as defined. Of the 21 percent of respondents who indicated
some experience, 36 percent felt they had adequate resources at hand to
deal with the experience, while the balance, 64 percent, felt that they
did not. The "at sea" group generally cited either lack of knowledge or
lack of access to an expert in this area.
The 16.8 percent of the respondents indicating only professional
experience included more psychiatrists than any other specialty, and they
more often responded that they had access to resources. Of respondents
indicating any experience, 47.9 percent were psychiatrists. Of primary
care respondents, 3.4 percent of general practitioners indicated having
experience, and other primary care respondents fell within a range of 13.1
to 17.3 percent having experience.
Turning to the 7.2 percent of respondents who indicated personal
experience, 70 percent (5 percent of all respondents) cited a friend or
acquaintance, while the remaining 30 percent (2.2 percent of all
respondents) cited family.
Despite the fact that respondents named 50 different groups, the largest
category of response was "cult name unknown," "not recalled," or "no name
available." According to further analysis, there was no significant
variation by respondent's sex, number of years in practice, or location.
The widespread geographical distribution of cult experiences would tend to
refute the comment of the respondent who said: "I practice in a fairly
affluent and stable community-middle class. I do not believe the cults
would impact such a community."
Sadly, I previously used similar reasoning to ignore cults during the many
years that my children were growing up. Living in a predominantly middle
class and family-oriented community with strong traditions and values, and
reasoning that all our children were well adjusted, career directed, and
successful in school, we felt there was no need to worry about cults. We
thought cults were something that affected the maladjusted fringe.
My wife and I have since come to understand that people don't join cults.
They are recruited from among the brightest and the best at those
transition times in their lives when they are most likely to be
vulnerable. We had not taken into account this active and very deceptive
recruiting, nor the cults' success in being accepted into the mainstream
of society. We now absolutely believe that no one is invulnerable. We
also conclude that one cult or another targets every type of community,
leaving no geographical location or segment of society immune.
There also is much evidence, including this survey, that cults, especially
larger cults, target the children of the relatively affluent and stable
For Physicians With No Experience
From my own personal experience, I have a message for the great majority
of physicians (79 percent or four-fifths) who have had neither personal
nor professional experience: you are in the position I was in before our
son's death. I feel compelled to suggest that you may need some
orientation to the topic so as not to be caught unaware. I think the
State Society, and perhaps our specialty societies, need to provide
information and education in this area.
We can no longer afford the luxury of thinking, "I probably will not be
touched; therefore, I can neglect this area." One-fifth of your
responding colleagues have been touched in one way or another, and 2.2
percent of all respondents have had family involved. It seems to me that
social pathology needs the same scrutiny as cancer or heart disease or any
other malady, and we need to be similarly aware so that we might take
Call for Suggestions and Ideas
I would appreciate your suggestions about the next step for Pennsylvania
physicians on this problem. Some options could include: a Society study
committee to provide research, reports, and updates; society-sponsored
seminars; and lists of resources and professionals in this area.
Because of the Society's survey, we are now more knowledgeable about how
cults affect the medical profession and our personal lives. My personal
thanks to the participants. I hope now that some results are known, we
can pursue suggestions from respondents and draw on the knowledge of the
additional people this report will reach.
I would be happy to hear from any of you at any time, but preferably
within the next month or two so we can develop some proposals for the
Board of Trustees and perhaps the 1993 House of Delegates. My address is:
Edward A. Lottick, MD, 789 Wyoming Avenue, Kingston, PA, 18704; (717)
This article first appeared in Cult Observer, Volume 10, Number 3,