The Soul After A Cult
was recruited into a cult in 1975 when I was 30 years old. The previous
year I returned to the United States after having spent almost four
years in exile abroad, where I lived the most serene life on an island
in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. If someone had told me that
within a year I would be deeply involved and committed to a cult, I
would have laughed derisively. Not me! I was too independent, too
headstrong, a lover of fun and freedom.
there I was, new to the San Francisco Bay Area and before long cleverly
recruited into a group that preached Marxism and feminism and a passion
for the working class.
was told that we would be unlike all other groups on the left because we
were led by women and because our leader was brilliant and from the
working class. I was told that we would not follow the political line of
any other country, but that we would create our own brand of Marxism,
our own proletarian feminist revolution; we would not be rigid,
dogmatic, sexist, and racist. We were new and different an elite force.
We were going to make the world a better place for all people.
reality, of course, was that our practical work had little if anything
to do with working-class ideals or goals. Our leader was an
incorrigible, uncontrollable megalomaniac; she was alcoholic, arbitrary,
and almost always angry. Our organization, with the word democratic
prominent in its name, was ultra-authoritarian, completely top down,
with no real input or criticism sought or listened to. Our lives were
made up of 18-hour days of busywork and denunciation sessions. Our world
was harsh, barren, and unrewarding. We were committed and idealistic
dreamers who were tricked into believing that such demanding conditions
were necessary to transform ourselves into cadre fighters. We were
instructed that we were the "uninstructed� and that we must take
all guidance from our leader who knew all. We were never to question any
orders or in any way contradict or confront our leader. We were taught
to dread and fear the outside world, which, we were told, would shun and
punish us. In fact, the shunning and punishment was rampant within; but
blinded by our own belief, commitment, and fatigue, in conjunction with
the group's behavior-control techniques, I and the others succumbed to
the pressures and quickly learned to rationalize away any doubts or
remained in that group 10 years.
Who Am I?
I got out of the cult in early 1986, I had to begin life anew. I was a
decade behind in everything. Both my parents had died, and I had lost
touch with former friends. I had to play catch-up, so to speak,
culturally, socially, economically, emotionally, and intellectually. But
most important of all, I had to repair my soul. Who am I? How could I
have committed the many unkind acts while in the group? Where do I
belong now? What do I believe in now? Will I ever restore my faith in
myself and in others? These are the kinds of questions and dilemmas that
troubled me. Over time, and most recently through my contact and work
with former members of many types of cults, I've come to see that the
single most uniform aspect of all cult experiences is that it touches,
and usually damages, the soul, the psyche.
Creating A New Personality
cults, no matter their stripe, are a variation on a theme, for their
common denominator is the use of coercive persuasion and behavior
control without the knowledge of the person who is being manipulated.
They manage this by targeting (and eventually attacking, disassembling,
and reformulating according to the cult's desired image) a person's
innermost self. They take away you and give you back a cult personality,
a pseudo personality. They punish you when the old you turns up, and
they reward the new you. Before you know it, you don't know who you are
or how you got there; you only know (or you are trained to believe) that
you have to stay there. In a cult there is only one way cults are
totalitarian, a yellow brick road to serve the leader's whims and
desires, be they power, sex, or money.
I was in my cult, I so desperately wanted to believe that I had finally
found the answer. Life in our society today can be difficult, confusing,
daunting, disheartening, alarming, and frightening. Someone with a glib
tongue and good line can sometimes appear to offer you a solution. In my
case, I was drawn in by the proposed political solution to bring about
social change. For someone else, the focus may be on health, diet,
psychological awareness, the environment, the stars, a spirit being, or
even becoming a more successful business person. The crux is that cult
leaders are adept at convincing us that what they have to offer is
special, real, unique, and forever and that we wouldn't be able to
survive apart from the cult. A person's sense of belief is so dear, so
deep, and so powerful; ultimately it is that belief that helps bind the
person to the cult. It is the glue used by the cult to make the mind
manipulations stick. It is our very core, our very belief in ourself and
our commitment, it is our very faith in humankind and the world that is
exploited and abused and turned against us by the cults.
Repairing the Soul
a person finally breaks from a cultic relationship, it is the soul,
then, that is most in need of repair. When you discover one day that
your guru is a fraud, that the " miracles� are no more than magic
tricks, that the group's victories and accomplishments are fabrications
of an internal public relations system, that your holy teacher is
breaking his avowed celibacy with every young disciple, that the group's
connections to people of import are nonexistent when awarenesses such as
these come upon you, you are faced with what many have called a
"spiritual rape.� Whether your cultic experience was religious or
secular, the realization of such enormous loss and betrayal tends to
cause considerable pain. As a result, afterwards, many people are prone
to reject all forms of belief. In some cases, it may take years to
overcome the disillusionment, and learn not only to trust in your inner
self but also to believe in something again.
is also a related difficulty: that persistent nagging feeling that you
have made a mistake in leaving the groups perhaps the teachings are true
and the leader is right; perhaps it is you who failed. Because cults are
so clever at manipulating certain emotions and events in particular,
wonder, awe, transcendence, and mystery (this is sometimes called
"mystical manipulation") and because of the human desire to
believe, a former cult member may grasp at some way to go on believing
even after leaving the group. For this reason, many people today go from
one cult to another, or go in and out of the same cultic group or
relationship (known as "cult hopping"). Since every person
needs something to believe in a philosophy of life, a way of being, an
organized religion, a political commitment, or a combination thereof
sorting out these matters of belief tends to be a major area of
adjustment after a cultic experience.
What to Believe in Now?
a cult involvement is often an ill-fated attempt to live out some form
of personal belief, the process of figuring out what to believe in once
you've left the cult may be facilitated by dissecting the cult's
ideological system. Do an evaluation of the group's philosophy,
attitudes, and worldview; define it for yourself in your own language,
not the language of the cult. Then see how this holds up against the
cult's actual daily practice or what you now know about the group. For
some, it might be useful to go back and research the spiritual or
philosophical system that you were raised in or believed in prior to the
cult involvement. Through this process you will be better able to assess
what is real and what is not, what is useful and what is not, what is
distortion and what is not. By having a basis for comparison, you will
be able to question and explore areas of knowledge or belief that were
no doubt systematically closed to you while in the cult. Most people who
come out of a cultic experience shy away from organized religion or any
kind of organized group for some time. I generally encourage people to
take their time before choosing another religious affiliation or group
involvement. As with any intimate relationship, trust is reciprocal and
must be earned.
a cult experience, when you wake up to face the deepest emptiness, the
darkest hole, the sharpest scream of inner terror at the deception and
betrayal you feel, I can only offer hope by saying that in confronting
the loss, you will find the real you. And when your soul is healed,
refreshed, and free of the nightmare bondage of cult lies and
manipulations, the real you will find a new path, a valid path a path to
freedom and wholeness.
Lalich is a cult information specialist and consultant in Alameda, CA.
She is co-author with Margaret Singer of Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden
Menace in Our Everyday Lives (Jossey-Bass, 1995).
Ms. Lalich is also a member of advisory committees of AFF,
publisher of The Cult Observer.
article, slightly edited here, first appeared in CSNetwork Magazine, Spring 1996, pp.