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Cult Experience: Psychological Abuse, Distress, Personality Characteristics, and Changes in Personal Relationships Reported by Former Members of Church Universal and Triumphant
Cultic Studies Journal
Psychological Manipulation and Society
Vol. 15, No. 2, 1998
Do cultic groups, such as the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), differ from benign groups in their use of unethical means of persuasion, control, and exploitation? We investigated 61 former members
of CUT, evaluating their perceptions of the groups abusiveness, level of psychological distress, personality characteristics, and reported quality of close personal relationships. Respondents reported non-abusive pre-involvement perceptions of CUT, but post-involvement perceptions reflected high abusiveness. Many respondents reported a relatively high level of psychological distress, which was
reduced by strong spousal relationships during and after CUT involvement and which decreased after leaving CUT. Respondents scores on a personality questionnaire were mostly normal. Personal relationships tended to deteriorate during CUT involvement. These findings suggest that cult involvement may adversely affect members lives.
Some theorists (e.g., Langone, 1996; Lifton, 1987, 1991; Singer &
Lalich, 1995) have proposed that cults use a systematic program of psychological
manipulation to convince people to join cults and remain in them. These manipulations may
take a severe toll. Nevertheless, not all cults exercise the same level of abusiveness. If
one accepts that cults use deception in the
and indoctrination process (Andersen, 1985), one cannot rely on their self-portrayal or
any comparisons one may draw from such self-portrayals. Additionally, comparisons with
benign groups are useful, especially for educational purposes.
Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994) is the
first scientifically developed instrument designed to measure group abuse ascribed to
cultic environments. It is based on research by
Langones (1992) theoretical analysis of psychological abuse, and a review of the
clinical literature. Chambers et al. conducted a factor analysis of 112 descriptive items
to identify four distinct factors associated with cultic environments: Compliance,
and Anxious Dependency.
Adams (1993) administered the scale (which she called the cultism
scalethe scale had recently been derived and had not yet been named by Chambers
et al., 1994) to former members of the
Church of Christ (BCC) and former members of a mainstream campus-based
Christian Fellowship. Langone (1995) replicated Adams study, adding a group of
former Roman Catholics to expand the comparison. The results of both studies suggested a
definite split in the scoring pattern between the former members of the controversial BCC
and their mainstream comparison groups: BCC scores clearly fell into the abusive range,
but none of the other groups (although different from each other) approached that range.
Personality and Psychiatric Symptomatology
Langone (1996) concluded that cult members personality profiles
fall within the normal range. Walsh et al. (1995) found that although ex-cult members had
elevated scores on the neuroticism scale of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, their
scores approached normal as a function of time since leaving the cult.
(1988) gave the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to members of the BCC. He asked them to
respond to each item one time as they would have responded before their
second time as they perceived themselves at the time the study was conducted, and a third
time as they imagined themselves answering after five more years of discipling. Nearly all
respondents tended to change their psychological type scores across the three versions.
According to Yeakley, the direction in which these changes occurred was toward the
personality of the leader.
A common phenomenon among cult members, which is usually witnessed by
their families and friends but not widely recognized among clinicians, is what West and
Martin (1994) called pseudo-identity or altered persona. It appears to be a
dissociative coping response to extraordinary circumstances such as profound changes in an
individuals life, prolonged environmental stress, or both. The pseudo-identity,
which is induced, strengthened, and maintained by the cult environment, becomes
superimposed upon the original personality, which is suppressed while the individual
remains in the new stressful environment. Although a person who is removed from the cult
environment may abandon or snap out of the pseudo-identity and revert to his or her
original personality, this process does not usually happen without severe psychological
problems (Conway & Siegelman, 1995). The symptoms associated with the pseudo-identity
syndrome, which are usually triggered by environmental cues, are
depersonalization, derealization, emotional numbness, and floating, which is a
"switching back and forth between behaviors characteristic of the two separate
personalities" (West & Martin, 1994, p. 274). The restoration of the original
identity "usually requires treatment for the residual post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) which is the legacy of the stress that produced the pseudo-identity syndrome"
(West & Martin, 1994, p. 279).
Some additional commonly experienced
aftereffects of cult involvement are:
loneliness and a sense of alienation;
low self-esteem and low
difficulty explaining how they could
have joined such a group;
phobic-like constriction of social
fear of joining groups or making a
apprehension about their own idealism
and altruism (which the cult had manipulated);
distrust of professional services and
distrust of self in making good choices;
problems in reactivating a value system
by which to live;
guilt, shame, and self-blaming
excessive doubts, fears, and paranoia;
panic attacks (Langone, 1995; Singer,
1979; Singer & Lalich, 1995).
Perceptions of Cult Members and Ex-members
Singer (1978) and Clark (1979) first recognized that dissociative
defenses are a mechanism by which cult members (much like political captives and hostages)
adapt to the intense demands of the environment in which they find themselves. As we have
mentioned, the syndrome associated with this stressful adaptation has since been called pseudo-identity
(West & Martin, 1994). While members are under the groups psychological control
and are not in a state of questioning or rebellion, the pseudo-identity can appear to be
normal and well adjusted. However, if an event or outside influence is strong enough to
fracture the pseudo-identity, which until then has enveloped the original self, the
underlying pain and
harm become apparent. Langone (1995) insightfully remarked that the reason
why cult members generally do not return to the cult after the floodgates of recognition
and emotion have opened is "because the suffering they experience after leaving [the
cult] is more genuine than
the happiness they experienced while in it. A painful truth is better than a
pleasant lie. . . . If this analysis is correct, ex-members may indeed provide more
accurate information about cults than would current members" (pp. 8-9).
Former members, however, are often reluctant to participate in
scientific studies. Several factors may motivate this reluctance, such as fear of
retaliation from the cult, embarrassment at having been manipulated, ridicule from those
who lack understanding, and a need for closure. For this reason, the
the present study was designed with an awareness of these potential sensitivities.
Universal and Triumphant
Universal and Triumphant (CUT) is a
apocalyptic cult with roots in Theosophy and various splinters of the I AM Movement. Its
core belief is that a pantheon of Gods, Goddesses, Angels, and Ascended Masters
communicate via their messenger (Elisabeth Claire Prophet) to teach, prophesize,
reprimand, and direct devotees. Ascended Masters are considered enlightened heavenly
beings who have "graduated from earths schoolroom" by balancing their
karma, thereby having escaped the cycle of reincarnation. They are seen as exemplars and
teachers to assist their followers to do the same. Obedience to the dictates of these
heavenly beings is seen as a guaranteed path to the individuals ascension. Although
Prophet is still "inhabiting a physical body," years ago it was announced that
she has balanced all of her personal karma and voluntarily remains in embodiment. Her
mission is one of "balancing world-karma," of being the one and only mouthpiece
of God, and of being a guru and spiritual teacher in the flesh. Thus, her word and
position are beyond reproach, and her power over CUT members is absolute.
One of the major identifying practices used by CUT is that of
decreeing, which is also referred to as the "science of the spoken word." It is
a fast and repetitious form of chanting affirmations and commands in the name of the
individuals own Christ Self and by the authority of any divine being whose power the
individual seeks to invoke. Decreeing can last many hours each day, and it can be done in
solitude, in small groups, or in very large groups. It is seen as the all-powerful tool to
influence not only present and future events but also personal and global history,
including events from past incarnations. Experts on thought reform have noted that fast,
repetitive chanting, such as decreeing, may serve as a thought-stopping technique (Conway
& Siegelman, 1995; Hassan, 1988). In the context of
(1987, 1991) theory of ideological totalism, CUT not only qualifies as a
totalistic environment but also exemplifies all eight criteria identified by Lifton.
Many cults show elitism, a very strong "us-versus-them"
mentality (often underlying militant activities) and much secrecy surrounding their actual
practices and beliefs. For this reason, cults generally do not readily submit to
scientific investigation. CUT may seem to be an exception to this rule, because it
apparently welcomed scientific investigation in the form of an interdisciplinary study
(Lewis & Melton, 1994). The study painted a picture of a benign religious movement
that has been unjustly maligned and persecuted because of the publics xenophobia. A
close review of the study, however, may leave the informed reader wondering whether these
investigators were familiar with the dynamics of cults and the manipulative tactics used
by their leaders and well-trained devotees. Perhaps these researchers were naive in
believing what was orchestrated for them, thereby allowing themselves to be used as
unwitting tools of church propaganda. After elaborating on examples of groupthink (Janis,
1972), two members of the research team which studied CUT asserted that the overriding
problem was the studys lack of objectivity, which permeated every aspect of the data
collection process. For the most part, the scholars turned a blind eye to the
controversies surrounding the church because the real intent of the study was not to
investigate, but to exonerate (Balch & Langdon, 1998). Balch and Langdon also
explained that the study had been conducted hastily in an effort to defend CUT because it
had publicly been likened to a cult in
Texas. Thus, according to Balch and Langdon, the researchers saw their mission as one of
defending freedom of religion rather than investigating whether any of the myths they
sought to dispel were actually true.
For a selected group of former members of CUT, we investigated the
following four main questions:
- Perceived abusiveness and deception. To what extent
do former members of CUT perceive the group to be abusive (as measured by the Group Psychological Abuse
Scale), and how does this current perception compare to the understanding
they had at the time they first considered themselves members of the group? (If these two
are different, they may provide insight into the level of deception other researchers have
ascribed to cultic environments.) In addition, how do scale scores, obtained from a sample
of former CUT members, compare with previously investigated samples of ex-members from
- Psychological distress. What level of psychological distress (as measured by the
revised Symptom Checklist 90) do former CUT members report, and what factors are
correlated with these scores? Do people who experienced higher levels of psychological
distress rate the group as more abusive than those who experienced lower levels of
- Personalities of former CUT members. Do the personalities of former CUT members
differ from established norms (as measured by the revised Eysenck Personality
Questionnaire), and is there any indication that these scores may change over time?
- Changes in close personal relationships. To what
extent was the reported quality of close personal relationships, such as with ones
spouse, affected by involvement in CUT? This and other information was obtained on a
The present survey used several instruments: (a) two copies of the
Group Psychological Abuse
scale (Chambers et al., 1994); (b) the revised Symptom Checklist 90
(Derogatis, 1994); (c) the revised Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (Eysenck &
Eysenck, 1994); and (d) a 29-item background questionnaire, an adaptation and expansion of
a form used by Langone (1995) in a study investigating the BCC.
Group Psychological Abuse Scale. We
used the Group Psychological Abuse (GPA) scale to assess ex-members current and
pre-involvement (retrospective) perceptions of CUT. The two GPA copies were identical
except for the introductory paragraphs.
One copy asked respondents to respond according to "your current
understanding of CUT," whereas the other requested that they respond according to
"the way you would have responded when you first joined the group." To control
for order effects, half of the surveys were sent out with the post-involvement version to
be filled out before the pre-involvement (retrospective) one, and the other half of the
surveys had the two versions stapled together in reverse order. The instructional
paragraphs to both versions requested that responses reflect respondents personal
experiences and observations. The GPA scale consists of 28 items, 7 on each of four
factors (subscales), which identify Compliance, Exploitation,
and Anxious Dependency as specific dimensions of group psychological abuse. Scores on the
Compliance subscale reflect beliefs about the degree to which an individual must accede to
group norms (e.g., "Members must abide by the groups guidelines regarding
dating and intimate relationships"). Scores on the Exploitation subscale reflect
beliefs about the degree to which a cult manipulates, abuses, and uses people (e.g.,
"The group advocates or implies that breaking the law is okay if it serves the
interests of the group"). Scores on the Mind Control subscale reflect beliefs about
the degree to which the cult leadership uses deceptive and manipulative means to sustain
membership (e.g., "People who stay in the group do so because they are deceived and
manipulated"). Scores on the Anxious Dependency subscale reflect beliefs about the
degree to which members depend in an absolute and possibly also anxious way on the group
(e.g., "Members believe that to leave the group would be death or eternal damnation
for themselves or their families"). On each item, respondents rated the target group
on a 5-point Likert scale from 1 (not at all characteristic) to 5 (very
characteristic). Thus, the range for each subscale is 7-35, and the range for the
overall (composite) score is 28-140. Scores above the midpoint (21 for each subscale, 84
for the composite) indicate that the respondent rated the group as being abusive (Langone,
1994). Previously obtained Cronbachs alpha (reliability) coefficients for the GPA
ranged from .70 to .81 on the four subscales (Chambers et al., 1994).
Symptom Checklist 90, Revised. The
Symptom Checklist 90, Revised (SCL-90-R), a multidimensional self-report inventory widely
used in psychiatric screening to measure psychological distress levels, offers four
normative scoring versions for both males and females. The norms have been established for
psychiatric inpatients, psychiatric outpatients, nonpatient adults, and nonpatient
adolescents. The present study used nonpatient adult norms. A total of 90 items measure
the severity of symptoms on nine distinct dimensions: (a) somatization, (b)
obsession-compulsion, (c) interpersonal sensitivity, (d) depression, (e) anxiety, (f)
hostility, (g) phobic anxiety, (h) paranoid ideation, and (i) psychoticism. The instrument
includes seven additional items that are reflected only in the three global scores: the
Global Severity Index, the Positive Symptom Distress Index, and the Positive Symptom
Total. Their inclusion is based on their clinical significance. The function of the global
measures is to express the level or depth of psychological distress in a single score.
Because the SCL-90-R is used to screen various non-psychiatric
populations (e.g., Derogatis & DellaPietra, 1994; Derogatis & Lazarus, 1994), an
operational definition of what constitutes a positive case seems appropriate and helpful.
Derogatis (1994) defined caseness by an operational rule which states that the
individual is considered a positive risk if the person has a Global Severity Index score
on the nonpatient norm greater than or equal to a standardized score of 63 (or scores 63
or above on two primary dimensions). Previously obtained Cronbachs alpha
coefficients for the SCL-90-R ranged from .77 to .90 on the various symptom dimensions and
from .83 to .90 for test-retest coefficients (Derogatis, Rickels, & Rock, 1976;
Horowitz, Rosenberg, Baer, Ureno, & Villasenor, 1988). Criterion validity studies, in
particular with MMPI scales, showed high convergent validity and peak correlations on
eight of the nine scales of the SCL-90 (Derogatis et al., 1976).
Eysenck Personality Questionnaire Revised.
The Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, Revised (EPQ-R) is a self-report instrument that
uses 73 items to determine the strengths of three dimensions of personality: psychoticism
or "tough-mindedness," neuroticism or "emotionality," and
extroversion. A fourth subscale, the Lie scale, uses 21 additional items to measure
dissimulation or social desirability. Norms for the EPQ-R have been established for
American males and females (see Results section). Previously obtained Cronbachs
alpha coefficients for the subscales range from .66 to .86 (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1994).
Background Questionnaire (personal
information and reported quality of personal relationships). Background Questionnaire (personal
information and reported quality of personal relationships). The background
questionnaire asked respondents for such information as year of birth, marital status,
religious background, level of involvement, and so on. Respondents were also asked to
report about perceived benefits of the group, as well as about factors that influenced
their decision to leave. The background questionnaire also contained 12 items on which
respondents were asked to report the quality of personal relationships with parents,
spouse, and one other significant individual such as a friend, sibling, or other relative
(referred to as other) before, during, and after CUT
involvement. For example, one item asked respondents to "indicate the quality . . .
of your relationship with your father BEFORE you were in the group." The relationship
rating scale ranged from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent).
From a mailing list for a newsletter that is primarily sent to former
members and some families of current members, 90 former members of CUT were identified.
The survey materials were sent to all of them. In order not to violate peoples trust
by revealing their names and addresses, the investigator never had access to the mailing
list. Instead, the newsletters editor affixed address labels to the sealed and
stamped envelopes and delivered them to the post office. Survey materials were also sent
to 6 former members who had not been aware of the newsletter, but who heard of the study
by word of mouth and requested a copy of the survey materials.
We did not ask survey recipients for their names or other information
that would have violated their anonymity. To obtain their approximate ages, we asked them
their birth year. Respondents were informed that by completing and returning the forms,
they consented to have their responses included in the study.
A total of 61 individuals returned questionnaires that were useable for
statistical analysis. The response rate (63.5%) is unusually high for survey research,
which may be partially attributable to the fact that survey recipients were encouraged to
pass on the materials to other former members if they themselves did not wish to respond.
(We excluded one questionnaire because more than 50% of the items on each instrument were
unanswered.) Of the 61 returned surveys, 60 included both GPA forms, 58 included the
EPQ-R, 55 included the SCL-90-R, and 60 included the background questionnaire.
A total of 35 (57.4%) of the respondents were female, and 26 (42.6%)
were male. In addition, 57 (93.4%) respondents were White, 2 (3.3%) were Black, and 2
(3.3%) were of mixed ethnicity.
Respondents religious upbringing was as follows: 31.1% Roman
Catholic, 24.6% Protestant liberal, 16.4% Protestant fundamental, 9.8% CUT, 3.3% Jewish,
1.6% Mormon, and 1.6%
Age (other than CUT). An overwhelming 80.3% reported having no specific
religious affiliation at the time the study was conducted, 8.2% identified themselves as
being Roman Catholic, 6.6% as fundamental Protestant, and 4.9% as liberal Protestant.
The median annual household income was $50,000. The mean number of
years of education was 15, and 87% had completed at least one year of higher education.
The age of respondents ranged from 18 to 79 years, with a mean of 45.1
(SE = 1.4). Age at the time of joining CUT ranged from 0 (born into the group) to 58
years, with a mean of 25.7 (SE = 1.4). Nearly 60% had joined between the ages of 18 and
The length of time respondents reported having spent in CUT ranged from
1.8 to 22.2 years, with a mean of 11.4 (SE = 0.7). The level of involvement varied widely,
ranging from "Keeper
of the Flame," which may be considered the lowest level of affiliation
or commitment, to attending the leader and her family as their personal staff. The length
of time between exiting CUT and completing the survey ranged from 0.6 to 20.0 years, with
a mean of 7.8 (SE = 0.7).
Four individuals (6.6%) reported that they had received outpatient
counseling before their involvement with CUT. Three (4.9%) reported that they had received
counseling during their involvement. A total of 21 (34.4%) reported that they received
counseling after leaving the group, and 38 (62.3%) reported that they had never received
any counseling. (Percentages add up to more than 100% because some individuals had
received therapy during more than one of these periods.)
Thirty-eight (62.3%) respondents were involved in a formal or informal
support group or network at some time since their exit. Most comments relating to that
involvement affirmed the benefits of receiving validation that come from sharing with
those who understand the effects of cult involvement and the benefits of reducing their
Thirty-five respondents (57.4%) rated the overall CUT experience as
very harmful, 16 (26.2%) as harmful, 4 (6.6%) as neutral, 3 (4.9%) as mildly beneficial,
and another 3 (4.9%) as very beneficial. Several individuals falling into the latter two
categories qualified their responses by stating that they had learned to recognize abuse
for what it was, learned that they had the right and power not to subject themselves to it
any longer, or both.
A total of 36 respondents (59.0%) reported that CUT doctrine had
made it very difficult for them to leave, 8(13.1%) rated it as difficult, 3 (4.9%) as
mildly difficult, 2 (3.3%) were not sure, and 12 (19.7%) reported no difficulties with
respect to leaving the group. A total of 32 respondents (52.5%) reported that group
pressure was a very difficult force to counter in their leaving process, 10 (16.4%) found
it difficult, 6 (9.8%) mildly difficult, and 11 (18.0%) reported no difficulty related to
Pre- and Post-involvement Perceptions of Abuse.
Table 1 shows the mean and standard error for each subscale, as well as
for the composite score, on both versions of the GPA. It also shows corresponding alpha
coefficients. In Table 1 and hereafter, the GPA filled out retrospectively, responding as
if at the time of joining CUT (pre-involvement), is referred to as GPA1, and the
GPA responding as
to current perceptions of abuse (post-involvement) is referred to as GPA2.
Paired-sample t tests revealed that compared to the GPA1,
reported abusiveness was greater on each of the GPA2 subscales, as well as on the
composite score, all t(59) > 12.2, p < .001.
Comparison of GPA ratings for CUT and BCC.
With only means and standard deviations of previous studies available
for statistical analysis, a comparison of the GPA2 (post-involvement) ratings of former
CUT members with those of former BCC members was conducted using one-sample t tests
for each of the subscale means, as well as the composite mean. The means assumed according
to the null hypothesis for these t tests were those from Langones (1995)
investigation of the BCC. Although Langone published the means from two separate samples
of BCC ex-members, we used the higher values to make a more conservative comparison. As
shown in Table 1, GPA2 means were higher than the corresponding BCC means on each
subscale, as well as on the Composite, all t (60) > 7.7, p < .001. A
comparison with other groups investigated by Langone was unnecessary, because their mean
scores were significantly lower than those for
A comparison using the means of the original GPA study (Chambers et al., 1994) was also
significant for each subscale rating and the composite rating, all t > 6.48, p
Evidence of discriminant validity for the GPA scale comes from the
nonsignificant correlations between the lie scale of the EPQ-R and GPA1 and GPA2 Composite
scores, both p > .05.
Psychiatric Symptomatology of
Ex-CUT Members (SCL-90-R).
We assessed the reported psychiatric symptomatology of ex-members by
calculating two measures derived from responses to the SCL-90-R. The overall severity of
reported psychiatric symptomatology was assessed by the typically used measure, the Global
Severity Index (GSI). To assess the breadth of elevated scales in addition to their
overall severity, we also created another variable, the number of high scores. It
is the number of SCL-90-R subscales on which an individual scored a standardized value of
63 or above. Numerical values for this variable ranged from 0-9 (9 subscales). We then
investigated correlations between these two measures and other measures concerning
pre-involvement, involvement, and post-involvement periods (see Table 2). We also created
multiple regression models to determine whether any other variable predicted the severity
of psychiatric symptomatology.
Mean Scores on GPA1 and GPA2, along with BCC Data
Note. Scores above the midpoint
(21 for each subscale, 84 for the composite) indicate that the respondent rated the group
in the abusive range. Standard error (SE) of each mean is shown in parentheses. BCC data
are from Langone (1995), who did not provide alpha coefficients. All means in the same row
differ at p < .001.
an = 60. bn = 15
Responses to the SCL-90-R revealed that
27 (49.1%) of the respondents met Derogatiss (1994) definition of caseness or
positive risk. Thus, nearly half of the respondents reported clinically relevant
psychiatric symptomatology. Responses were internally consistent: Cronbachs alpha
coefficients for the nine subscales of the SCL-90-R ranged from .75 to .95, and for the
entire instrument (all 90 items) alpha was .97.
Group Psychological Abuse Ratings.
As shown in Table 2, there was no significant relationship between
either pre-involvement (GPA1) or post-involvement (GPA2) ratings of psychological abuse
and either measure of psychiatric symptomatology. Thus, respondents who perceived CUT as
most abusive were not necessarily those who reported the greatest psychiatric symptoms.
Duration of Involvement and Post-involvement Periods.
Although the GSI was not significantly correlated with time in
was negatively correlated with time out of CUT. However, the number of high scores was
positively correlated with time in CUT and negatively correlated with time out of CUT.
Thus, reported psychiatric symptoms tended to increase with the length of time during
which a person was a member of CUT and to decrease with the length of time since the
person had become an ex-member of CUT.
Relationship with Spouse.
The GSI was not significantly correlated with the reported quality of
the relationship with ones spouse before CUT involvement, but it was negatively
correlated with the reported quality during and after CUT involvement. Similarly, the
number of high scores was not significantly correlated with the quality of the
relationship with ones spouse before CUT involvement, but it was negatively
correlated during and after CUT involvement. In other words, respondents who reported
better relationships with a spouse during and after CUT involvement tended to report less
severe psychiatric symptoms. No other relationship category was significantly correlated
with either the GSI or the number of high scores.
Correlations between Measures of Psychiatric Symptomatology (SCL-90-R) and Other
Global Severity Index (GSI)
Number of High Scores
Group Psychological Abuse Ratings
Duration of Involvement and Post-Involvement Periods
Time in CUT
Time out of CUT
of Relationship with Spouse
*p < .05. ***p <
Multiple Regression Models.
When the GSI was used as the dependent variable in a multiple stepwise
regression model, time out of
CUT and quality
of the relationship with spouse during CUT were significant predictors, p < .001
and p < .017, respectively. Neither time in CUT nor the relationship with
ones spouse after CUT entered into the model. The overall R2 = .46
was significant, F(2, 40) = 13.49, p < .001, and the standardized
regression coefficients (b s) were -.55 for time out of CUT and
-.33 for relationship with spouse during CUT. A second multiple regression model was
constructed to predict the number of high scores. An initial stepwise multiple regression
also revealed that both time out of CUT and the reported quality of the relationship with
ones spouse after CUT involvement were significant predictor variables, p =
.005 and .011, respectively. Neither time in CUT nor the relationship with ones
spouse during involvement with CUT entered into the model. Next, each other variable was
combined with time out of CUT, using a simultaneous entry procedure, in order to determine
whether any increased the proportion of variance explained (R2). Again,
only the quality of the relationship with ones spouse after CUT and time out of CUT
were significant predictors. The overall R2 = .45 was significant, F(2,
40) = 14.67, p < .001, and the standardized regression coefficients (b s) were -.40 for relationship with spouse after CUT and -.39 for
time out of CUT. In short, these analyses both show that respondents who reported a
relatively good relationship with their spouse after CUT involvement and who had left CUT
a relatively long time ago tended to report fewer psychiatric symptoms.
Comparisons of Ex-Members Personalities with Established Norms (EPQ-R).
Responses to the EPQ-R showed good internal consistency: Alpha
coefficients for the four subscales ranged from .67 to .89. One-sample t tests were
used to compare respondents mean score with the normative mean on each of the
subscales (as provided in the manual for the EPQ-R; Eysenck & Eysenck, 1994). As shown
in Table 3, neither male nor female ex-CUT members differed from the norm on the
Psychoticism scale or on the Neuroticism scale. Scores on the Extroversion scale, however,
were significantly lower than the norm for females and marginally lower for males. On the
Lie (dissimulation) scale, there was no significant difference for females. For males, the
difference was significant: Male respondents scored lower (exhibited less dissimulation)
than the norm.
For present purposes, we treated the 95% confidence interval around the
normative subscale means for the EPQ-R (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1994) as the range of
scores that is considered normal. If this sample as a whole falls within the normal range,
on each subscale no more than three individuals (5%) should have scores outside this
range. On the Psychoticism scale, only one male and one female scored above the normal
range. On the Neuroticism scale, one male scored above the normal range. On the Lie
(dissimulation) scale, one male scored above the normal range. On the Extroversion scale,
three males and seven females scored below the normal range; this collectively represents
17% of the sample. Thus, more than the expected 5% of individuals scored outside the
normal range. In particular, these ten scores all reveal abnormal introversion.
Comparison of Former CUT Members Personalities with Established Norms (EPQ-R)
|Females||4.64 (0.46)a||4.61 (0.52)a|
|Males||6.00 (0.74)a||5.72 (0.64)a|
|Females||11.45 (1.25)a||13.66 (0.96)a|
|Males||9.04 (1.38)a||10.55 (1.09)a|
|Males||12.84 (1.01)a||14.90 (0.95)b|
|Females||7.54 (0.63)a||7.62 (0.68)a|
|Males||4.48 (0.74)a||6.22 (0.76)b|
Note. Standard error of each mean
is shown in parentheses. Means in the same row that do not share subscripts differ at p
< .05. For former CUT members, n = 33 females and 25 males.
The correlation between
extroversion and time out of CUT was positive, r = .31, p = .019.
Neuroticism and time out of CUT were negatively correlated, r = -.55, p <
.001. The correlation between neuroticism and extroversion was also negative, r =
-.62, p < .001. Extroversion was negatively correlated with dissimulation, r
= -.33, p < .016. There were negative correlations between dissimulation and
measures of psychological distress on the SCL-90-R for both the GSI, r = -.41, p
= .002, and the number of high scores, r = -.35, p = .009.
Changes in the Reported Quality of Relationships Before, During, and After CUT
|Mother||2.71 (0.17)b||51||2.72 (0.19)a||51||4.17 (0.13)c||48|
|Father||3.57 (0.17)b||49||2.42 (0.20)a||45||4.05 (0.11)c||40|
|Spouse||4.05 (0.22)b||21||2.51 (0.24)a||37||3.50 (0.26)c||44|
|Other||4.47 (0.12)c||49||2.43 (0.21)a||48||3.71 (0.25)b||48|
Note. Ratings were made on 5-point
scales (1 = poor, 5 = excellent). Standard error of each mean is shown in
parentheses. (Different ns in each column reflect such factors as deaths of
parents, divorces, and remarriages; see text.) Means in the same row that do not share
subscripts differ at p < .05.
Reported Quality of
Table 4 shows the mean reported quality of personal relationships
before, during, and after CUT involvement. Paired-sample t tests across all
relationships revealed higher ratings before than during CUT involvement. In addition, all
after ratings were higher than corresponding during ratings. For spouse
relationships, ratings were higher before and after than during CUT
involvement, and for other relationships, ratings were higher before than after;
during ratings were the worst. In short, the reported quality of all relationships
was consistently worse during CUT involvement.
This study investigated a sample not examined by previous research:
former members of CUT. It used the first, and as yet only, objective measure designed to
assess the level of group abusiveness, the
Scale (Chambers et al., 1994). A novel use of the instrument made it possible to measure
reported discrepancies between initial and post-involvement perceptions of abusiveness,
thereby assessing the extent to which individuals interpretation of events may have
changed or to what extent misrepresentation on the part of the group may have influenced
their perceptions. Although the study used no comparison groupsa design feature that
may be regarded as a weaknesswhenever it was appropriate and possible, we made use
of established normative values and comparative data from previous research to evaluate
the findings. They clarify the major four research questions posed earlier.
Perceived Abusiveness and Deception
No previous study using the GPA scale has found mean values for the
composite score and each subscale score that were as high as those found here. The
difference between the overall GPA means for another cultic group, the BCC (Langone,
1995), and the CUT sample exceeded two standard deviations. The overall GPA mean in the
initial study (110.7), which surveyed former members of 101 different cults, was only 2.2
points higher than the mean score of the BCC sample (Langone, 1995). The present findings
suggest that among groups perceived as abusive by their former members, CUT is at the high
end of reported abusiveness. Even if sampling bias is taken into account and one assumes
that the mean score of former members who do not subscribe to the newsletter were two
standard deviations below that of subscribers, ex-CUT members GPA means would be
similar to those obtained from former members of other allegedly cultic groups.
A comparison of retrospective GPA scores reflecting ex-members
recollections of their perceptions when they first joined the group with their
post-involvement perceptions revealed profound differences (see Table 1). Several studies
have investigated retrospection biases (Marcus, 1986; for a review, see Dawes, 1988).
These studies argue that recollections of past beliefs are biased toward current beliefs.
The large discrepancies between retrospective perceptions and current perceptions of
former CUT members suggest that any such bias did not eliminate the differences found
here. The perceptions these ex-members remember having had at the time they joined CUT
match the image CUT tries to portray, which is clearly a nonabusive one. Respondents
current perceptions reflect a highly abusive environment. If a retrospection bias toward
current views operated in this study, the retrospective scores were conservative. If we
had been able to measure abusiveness while respondents were actually joining CUT, the
reported abusiveness might have been even lower. Other studies suggest that peoples
investment (e.g., in time, money, or emotion) in something biases them to exaggerate the
differences between pre- and post-involvement if there is an unconscious desire to justify
the investment by viewing the change as a positive one. In the present study, the
change in perception was negative. Thus, given the conditions and findings of this
particular study, neither of these conclusions offers an adequate explanation.
If false recollections are not a likely cause of the discrepancies
between the two sets of scores, one might conclude that CUT misrepresents itself and
deceives its prospective and current members. Support for this interpretation comes from
the finding that the greatest discrepancy between pre- and post-involvement was on the
subscale, and the next greatest was on the Compliance subscale. These two subscales also
showed the highest post-involvement means, and each of them was near the highest possible
score (35) on the subscale.
Another possible interpretation for the discrepancies between GPA1 and
GPA2 is that individuals changed their interpretation of reality when they first came in
contact with CUT and then again when they left it. While a person is still in a cultic
group and subscribes to the groups interpretation of reality, he or she may not
perceive abusive actions or attitudes as abusive. Instead, a person may interpret what
outsiders might consider being abuse as a need to atone for past transgressions or
deserving chastisement for imperfections. In CUT terms, this is an individuals karma,
and "bad karma" may stem from past deeds of a previous or several
previous embodiments. This belief allows the leader to interpret current events, including
being abused, by attributing them to a past of which the follower may have no knowledge
and which may be impossible to verify. Additionally, if one subscribes to the belief that
"God chastises those most whom he (or she) loves most," abuse may be interpreted
as a privilege of "the chosen." A belief that a followers devotion or
unquestioning commitment must be tested so that his or her spiritual attainment may be
assessed also provides a formidable tool to change the meaning of events. Clinicians who
are familiar with issues of domestic abuse may find interesting parallels between what is
referred to as mystical manipulation (Lifton, 1987, 1991) in a cult context and the
mind games with which victims of domestic abuse are manipulated.
The high discrepancies between GPA1 and GPA2 may also be attributable
to individuals changes in the interpretation of events that took place during the
conversion process, throughout involvement, and since exiting CUT, as well as
misrepresentations on the part of CUT. These explanations may be two sides of the same
coin. To an outsider, a reinterpretation of reality may appear to be deceptive (and not
necessarily abusive), but to the new recruit and long-term follower it may be a
"higher form of knowledge." Former members who have shed their pseudoidentity
(West & Martin, 1994), however, are not merely outsiders. Their personal experiences
may cause them to view the former interpretation of their realities as deceptive and
abusive. They may often prefer even stronger terms, such as spiritual betrayal.
The evidence of discriminant validity with respect to the GPA scores
strengthens the credibility of these findings. Moreover, we found no relationship between
the extent to which respondents ratings reflected group abusiveness (both current
and retrospective perceptions) and the extent to which they portrayed themselves in a
socially desirable light. Additionally, the samples low-to-average scores on the
lie, or social desirability, scale suggest that their responses were not influenced by
motives to misrepresent the abusiveness.
A large percentage of former CUT members (almost 50% of the
respondents) reported experiencing such high levels of psychological distress as to be
categorized as positive risks (Derogatis, 1994). However, only 6.6% of the respondents had
received psychotherapy or counseling prior to their involvement in CUT. This low
percentage may partly be attributable to the relatively young age at which many of them
joined (57.4% joined before the age of 25 and 72.1% before the age of 30).
Although the percentage of ex-members experiencing such high levels of
psychological distress to qualify as a psychiatric risk is large, as time away from CUT
increased, distress levels decreased. Time out of CUT explained a significant proportion
of the variability in both regression models (one using Global Severity Index scores as
dependent variable, the other using the number of subscales on which an individual had
scored 63 or above). Two additional variables that had significant predictive value in one
or the other of the two regression models were the quality of spousal relationship during
and after CUT involvement. Individuals who reported a higher quality of relationship with
their spouse after exiting CUT also reported lower levels of psychological distress than
those who had poor spousal relationships. The same is true for the quality of spousal
relationship during CUT involvement. This is not surprising if one considers that a
relationship which can be maintained at a qualitatively high level while the spouses
undergo high levels of environmental stress may be a source of strength for the partners.
This will reduce the overall stressfulness of the experience and the
inflicted. Although time in CUT was excluded from the multiple regression model, it was
positively correlated with psychological distress. This suggests that there is a positive
relationship between the time an individual spent in CUT and the psychological problems
Most theorists think that people who are in pain (psychologically or
otherwise) try to attribute that pain to an outside source, which then leads to an unfair
negative evaluation of that source. What if those not in pain share the negative
evaluations? Nearly half of the present respondents met the criteria for being a positive
risk. Some reported high levels of psychological distress, but others were virtually
symptom-free. The lowest individual post-involvement GPA rating given to CUT in this
study, however, was 109. According to Langone (1995), ratings suggestive of
non-abusiveness range from 28 to 84. Moreover, there was no relationship between the
reported level of psychological distress and respondents perceptions of group
There was a negative relationship between reported psychological
distress and the extent to which respondents portrayed themselves in a socially desirable
light: Those who reported higher levels were less inclined to answer according to what is
considered socially desirable. Respondents who scored relatively high on the lie scale may
have underreported psychological distress, perhaps because they did not want to be seen as
Personalities of Former CUT
The present evidence suggests that former members of CUT do not differ
from the norm on the psychoticism and neuroticism dimensions. Females did not differ from
the norm in their desire to be socially acceptable (as measured by the lie scale of the
EPQ-R), but males appeared to be less concerned with their social desirability than one
expects of males in the general population. This may be a reaction to the manipulation
they experienced during their involvement in CUT. If these scores are, however,
representative of a condition present before cult involvement, they may reflect a stronger
than average desire for honest self-evaluation. This desire, in turn, may have contributed
to the vulnerability of these individuals to manipulation. Honest people often assume
honesty in others. If either or both of these proposed explanations are valid, it is
unclear why females in this sample did not differ from the norm. Is it possible that
females in general feel more pressure in this society to represent themselves in a more
socially desirable light?
Extroversion was the only personality dimension on which both males and
females differed from the norm, although the difference was slightly greater for females
than males. If one takes into account the intense alienation from the outside world former
cultists experienced during their involvement and the fact that many, upon their exit,
think they were betrayed by the thought reform program to which they were subjected, it
makes sense that they became more introverted. The significant positive correlation
between extroversion and years out of CUT suggests that with increased time away from the
cult environment, extroversion scores approach the norm.
Although the samples neuroticism scores did not significantly
differ from established norms, there was a significant negative correlation between
neuroticism and time since leaving CUT: Respondents who were out longer scored lower on
Changes in Close Personal Relationships
The ratings respondents gave to the quality of their close
relationships reveal a clear pattern across all relationship categories. The rated quality
of relationships was consistently lowest during CUT involvement. A comparison of before
and after ratings showed higher ratings for the quality of post-CUT parental
relationships. This was not the case for spouse relationships, which were about the same
before and after CUT, nor for other relationships, which were worse after than before CUT.
Based on additional comments that respondents made on the survey, it appears that some
individuals had rated their relationships with friends who had joined the group with them
or someone they had met during their involvement. In either case, these relationships may,
as a result of their exit, be strained at best and non-existent at worst. This may be the
reason why the post-involvement mean for the category other is lower than the
Several respondents commented that divorces were related to their cult
involvement. Some indicated that they were completely cut off from their former spouse and
therefore did not give a post-involvement rating for the spouse category. Others
who remarried since their exit rated their current marriage. Thus, the relatively high
mean for post-cult ratings of spousal relationships appears to be partly attributable to
post-CUT marriages. Unfortunately, we did not ask respondents to indicate the year they
divorced. This prevented an exact determination of how many marriage dissolutions might
have been related to CUT involvement, which marriages dissolved prior to CUT involvement,
and which dissolved considerably later.
Respondents ratings of the quality of their relationship with a
spouse after CUT involvement probably reflect the relationship with the individuals
current spouse (whether or not the individual refers to the same spouse in each time
period). As far as having used the variable as a predictor for one of the regression
models, when the marriage was entered into seems less of an issue than whether or not a
good relationship with ones spouse after cult involvement is likely to contribute to
a decrease in psychological distress.
Questions, and Suggestions for Future Research
One weakness of the present study was the sample itself, because the
majority of the respondents were recipients of a newsletter primarily sent to former CUT
members. In this newsletter, grievances about the group and its leadership are freely
expressed. Additionally, each issue of the newsletter includes a list of recommended
publications about CUT as well as more general cult educational materials. Thus, the
samples representativeness of ex-members may be questioned. Sixty-one individuals
represent a small proportion of the hundreds who have left CUT during the 29 years since
it was founded. The majority of those who participated in the study had been exposed to
the newsletters anti-CUT and anti-cult stance. Although this is a legitimate
concern, a lack of understanding about cult-related issues does not necessarily mean that
peoples perceptions are more valid. Put differently, more information and education,
which is generally regarded as an advantage in discovering the truth, may be a desirable
quality in respondents. The present sample offered just that. Additionally, one cannot
assume that former members who may not be aware of the newsletter or fear being on its
mailing list perceive the group as any less abusive. Representativeness with regard to the
level of past group involvement and commitment to the group, as well as the time spent in
the group, was remarkably good.
As with most surveys, it is impossible to ascertain what distinguishes
respondents from non-respondents. Are non-respondents likely to be more or less distressed
than those who participated in the study? Do they hold more or less favorable views of
CUT? These questions remain unanswered. Also, research that focuses on children who have
left cults is virtually nonexistent. The development of instruments and methodologies that
permit such investigation without causing additional harm should be among the goals for
Nevertheless, this study illustrates a useful way to obtain such
important evidence on the impact of cultic groups (cf. Yeakley, 1988). It also sheds light
on a number of questions about one cultic group, CUT, and some of its former members. We
found that at the time the ex-members joined CUT, they did not consider it an abusive
group, but after they had left, they considered it very abusive. Although their
personalities were generally quite normal and remain so, the reported quality of their
close personal relationships deteriorated during their membership in CUT. This evidence
contributes to the larger body of research on cults and their impact on the lives of those
who were once affiliated with them. Considering the large number of cultic groups that are
currently active, similar studies investigating other groups are critically needed.
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We are sincerely grateful to the individuals who responded to the
mailing, as well as to Peter Arnone, who mailed the surveys to recipients of the Focus newsletter.
We thank Arthur A. Dole,
Michael D. Langone,
Wesley C. Lynch, Charles A. Pierce, and Kath Williams for their comments on a draft of
this manuscript and Bruce Bacon for his encouragement and support.
Contact with Author
received her M.S. in applied psychology at Montana State University and is currently a
graduate student at the Fielding Institute.
Richard A. Block,
Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Montana State University.