POST CULT PROBLEMS
Lorna Goldberg, MSW
For almost thirty years Bill and I have had the privilege of facilitating a support group for former cultists. Through this group and through our work as therapists we've had the opportunity to learn about a wide range of post-cult difficulties. We've also heard about the effective coping strategies that are used to deal with post-cult problems. Today I plan to discuss some of what I've learned.
The individuals we initially described in our article, “Group Work with Former Cultist,” generally came to our support group within two to three months of having left their cult. They often had through a deprogramming or exit counseling process, which enabled them to gain an understanding of the deceptive and controlling environment of the cult. However, although they did not have a desire to return, they continued to clearly reveal how their characters and attitudes had been influenced by their cult experience. For example, those who were from Eastern religious cults that focused on subservience to a spiritual leader kept their heads bowed, spoke with a sing-song cadence, and continued to struggle with their desire to be good and holy, while those who were in cults that emphasized sexuality as a lure for recruitment continued to relate to others in a seductive manner. These former cult members seemed to struggle with an attempt to integrate their cultic identity with their former selves. They initially described experiencing a sense of confusion, manifest in their continued automatic expression of the cult's attitudes and beliefs, alongside attitudes held by their pre-cult selves. They appeared to be having difficulty integrating the bizarre cultic world from which they had exited with the outside world – the world in which they had spent their youth and adolescence. In some ways, they appeared to be strangers to their own families and to their former selves; they showed symptoms that revealed their sense of depletion, disorientation, alienation, and identity confusion. Singer and Ofshe, in their article, “Thought Reform Programs and the Production of Psychiatric Casualties,”, noted that these individuals felt like immigrants entering a new culture, bringing with them beliefs from their cult life that conflicted with the norms of the larger society.” West defined the new cult personality as the “pseudopersonality.” Several authors, including West and Martin and Singer describe how in response to a step by step process whereby the cult leader gains increased control, the new cultic personality will be superimposed upon the original personality which, while not completely forgotten, will be enveloped within the shell of the new cultic personality. This new cultic identification can also be seen as a highly regressive one since it is part of the general regression that occurs in recruits to cults. It can be seen as cult-induced psychopathology.
Let me give you an example of a young woman I originally described in “Guidelines for Therapists.” In the early nineteen eighties I met with Janine who had left an Eastern meditation group one month prior to entering therapy. She had returned home suddenly after a heated dispute with one of the leaders. Her parents arranged for her to see me after she had gone through voluntary exit counseling with former members of her group. After five years of “doing service,” she became disillusioned with some of the deceptive practices of the leadership. Women, particularly, were exploited in this cult and, as an unmarried woman, her position was to be “in service” to the married couples. She was functioning as a servant. I pointed out the contradictions between the cult's words and actions. She did not join with the intention of becoming a servant. However, when she felt badly or complained about performing these tasks, she was made to feel guilty.
In her first therapy session with me, however, she expressed a concern about whether I would be “spiritual” enough to work with her. I responded that I wasn't sure if I was spiritual enough because I wasn't sure what she meant by the term. Thus began a long process of attempting to define, and thereby demystify, Janine's cult jargon and ideology. Initially, when she spoke with me, she often used amorphous language, speaking in such an abstract manner that it was difficult for me to follow her. The difficulty I was experiencing in understanding and concentrating on what she was saying helped me become aware of the diffuse and trance-inducing environment of her cult. Telling her of my difficulty in understanding her words helped to objectify her experience. The goal here was to help her become more aware of how she was remaining disconnected to those around her and to “ground” this young woman who seemed to float on air with language and reveal a demeanor that might lead me, her therapist, to float along with her. At the same time, Janine began to notice that continued use of cult jargon seemed to have an alienating effect on others in her post-cult life. This gave her a strong incentive to lessen its use. However, making the switch from cult jargon to language that is commonly used in the outside world was difficult for Janine. (I can appreciate that those who spent decades or were raised in cultic groups might feel that they are learning a new language when they leave the cult.)
Janine continued to bring other aspects of her cult world with her into her post-cult life. That is, she continued to dress in a “hippie” style, to practice meditation, and to maintain a vegetarian diet. Some of these cult features were not challenged by me. In our sessions, however, we explored how the continued practice of meditation affected her, looking at whether it was a regressive experience, returning her to cultic thinking, or a progressive experience, providing her with more structure and a sense of well-being in her current life. After her departure, she described finding herself dissociating, i.e., automatically drifting into a trance state. She felt that she could lose periods of time and was becoming unproductive. She would find herself mesmerized in front of the television. By trance states, I mean dissociation, depersonalization, and derealization. According to Lyn and Rhue in Dissociation, “dissociation has come to represent different types of phenomena and constructs, from altered experiences of detachment from the self or the surroundings, to a lack of integration between various mental processes, to a defense mechanism, which functions to ward off ongoing anxiety or pain.” (p. 27) According to Moore and Fine in Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, “In depersonalization one's perception of oneself splits into a detached, observing self and a participating or experiencing self, together with a feeling of self-estrangement or unreality about the latter [that is, a feeling of estrangement with the experiencing self].... Derealization is an experience involving a feeling that the external world is unreal and strange, no longer like it used to be. Ones surroundings may appear flat, two-dimensional, colorless, drab, and without emotional significance. Usually derealization occurs in association with depersonalization — both [can be used to ward] off anxiety by a denying fantasy, namely, that the situation is unreal. Depersonalization involves withdrawal of cathexis from the self, while in derealization the cathexis is with drawn from objects, resulting in the feeling of estrangement of the world.” (pp.52, 55)
All of us have moments of dissociation. However, certain practices (meditation, speaking in tongues, chanting, decreeing, guided imagery, breathing, etc) appear to have induced former members to involuntarily enter altered states of consciousness. Even after leaving the group, this response might occur under stress. When it happens, it can impair one's concentration, attention, memory and coping skills. Once Janine began to link dissociation to her practice of meditation, she gave up her practice on her own. In this way, my client was similar to many individuals who leave cults who continue practices such as use of decreeing, chanting and so forth that induce trance. Because Janine also found herself going into trance during unstructured periods or when experiencing stress, we focused on how she could provide some structure to her life and how she could recognize trigger situations.
Although Janine attended college prior to her cult involvement, she initially was reluctant to return to school, since she was experiencing cognitive difficulties. Although she had been a voracious reader prior to the cult, it was difficult to concentrate while reading or when people gave her complex directions. She feared she had lost some of her intelligence. She worked to increase her reading periods, began reading the newspaper daily, made lists to help her establish a regular routine and avoided long periods in front of the television. In time her cognitive abilities increased to pre-cult level and Janine was able to begin taking college courses. However, this continued to be fraught with anxiety, because Janine felt she was “nothing” without her cult leader. Looking at how this was suggested to her in the cult and looking at her pre-cult accomplishments helped.
Janine also feared that she had become an “oddball.” Not only did she speak differently from others, but she feared that she often missed social cues, that she appeared more childish than her contemporaries. She was unsure of how to act with men after having cult proscribed relationships which would appear strange to men (that is, too subservient) in her outside world. (After many years of celibacy, sexual manipulation, or abuse in the cult, relationships can create anxiety for former cultists.)
Janine also had become very passive, looking to others to guide her with decision-making, because doubts about the leader's beliefs and independent thinking had been discouraged in the cult. Additionally, she believed that she had made a terrible mistake by joining her group and feared other mistakes. Because of her uncertainty, she also feared being “controlled” by others, including me. As we focused on these concerns, she was able to begin to figure out how to overcome them.
In contrast to the ex-members seen years ago, the majority of ex-cultists seen in recent years do not initially present themselves as dramatically different from the outside world. Their appearance is not as otherworldly as those who left cults twenty five years ago. The majority of cults today are not as isolated from the outside world. While twenty or thirty years ago these were more cults with an Eastern religious doctrine, today there are more Bible-based or psychotherapy type cults. Therefore, on the surface, at least, members do not appear to be as otherworldly as their earlier counterparts. Also, those who seek help today are more likely to have left a cult on their own (in contrast to leaving as a result of a deprogramming) and we might not see them until several months or even years after their departure. Therefore, the residual identifications with the cult and the cult leader might have loosened and/or there is an increased integration of their pre-cult and post-cult personalities.
However, some cultic identifications (that is, identifications with the cult leader's doctrine and suggestions) do remain. For example, some former cult members describe having more critical attitudes toward themselves and others after leaving their cult. It appears that some have incorporated the harsh attitudes of their cult leader. Some continue to feel shame, believing that the cult doctrine is perfect and somehow they are flawed because they could not apply it successfully. Cult leaders often are continued to be held onto in high esteem. There often is the fear that if they totally give up their belief system they will be damned to some version of Hell. They feel anxious — believing that they are no longer protected by the magical powers of the cult leader. They often are ashamed of their sexual, aggressive, or anti-social behavior while in the cult. While in the cult, these behaviors were re-interpreted as actions for the greater good. Without the leader's rationalizations, former members feel remorseful and ashamed. They fear telling anyone about this. Former cultists can become involved in self-destructive behavior such as excessive drinking, taking drugs, shoplifting promiscuous sex, etc. not only because this has been suggested to them by the leader; but, also, because they are filled with self-hatred that has been implanted during their years in the cult. There is an impulse to externalize an inner feeling of badness. There also seems to be a push to return to who they were prior to their cult involvement and, in doing so, rebel against all the restrictions that had been placed on them while in the group. There is a need to make up for lost time and, also, often a difficulty in knowing what they truly desire. Some of this behavior seems to be reflective of a feeling that they have little control over their lives and they can only feel independent by rebelling against all that the cult stood for. It's not uncommon for former cultists to think of the cult leader during sex or constantly feel enraged by a cult leader who takes up too much of their energy or thought life. They might feel anxious all the time.
Without an understanding of their cult experience, those who leave on their own tend to be plagued by aftereffects longer than those who gain such an understanding. This is particularly true for individuals who have spent a long period of time in the cult. Because of the guilt, shame, and magical thinking induced by the cult, they often continue to live narrow lives, unable to fulfill their potential in work and unable to play and feel the simple pleasures of life. Former cultists need to know their reactions are related to cultic suggestions, practices, exploitations, and manipulations. For example, somatic complaints might be related to the cult's suggestion that a person's body will rot or that the person will contract a severe illness if he or she leaves the group. Fear of accidents, death or negative life circumstance might also have to do with cultic suggestion and a general fearfulness of disaster now that the cult's supposed protection no longer exists in the former member's life.
In the cult, emotions are manipulated by others. When cultists leave the group, they continue to feel unable to control or feel their emotions. That is, while some former members will appear to be lacking in affect, others will easily feel overwhelmed. We've noticed this, particularly, in those who were from mass therapy groups, where members are subjected to highly confrontational techniques that violated their protective defenses against affect. In these cults boundaries and individual defense mechanisms are invaded and some members appear to be flooded with their emotions, often leaving them in a manic state. Others, particularly those from Bible-based groups, appear to suffer from symptoms related to depression. They describe feeling that they are no longer “good” people and fear they are on the path to Hell. They have a need to punish themselves and sometimes feel suicidal. Those who experienced repeated verbal, physical, or sexual abuse often develop several of a cluster of symptoms (classified as post-traumatic stress syndrome), including flashbacks, nightmares, guilt, self-loathing, and social withdrawal.
Most former cultists suffer from a strong sense of loneliness. They were constantly surrounded by others in the cult and induced to identify with the leader. Cult members become aware of the positive effect of belonging to a single-minded community. However, the pressure for uniformity is also a regressive influence, precluding any type of critical assessment of this coercive and highly suggestive experience. Recruits are actively discouraged from differentiating their own thoughts and feelings from those of the group. By punishing any expression of doubt and rewarding compliance, the leader induces cult members to become more and more dependent on receiving his approval through obedient behavior. In this way, ego functions that interfere with group functions are attacked and diminished. It often is difficult for former members to assess their own feelings or beliefs once they leave the cult. Furthermore, when former cultists leave the highly orchestrated environment of the cult, they often appear to be passive. All this direction takes a toll on their cognitive abilities, particularly on decision-making and sense of agency, as well as on their post-cult relationships. Unanimity of opinion is hard to capture outside of the cult and former cultists often long for that peak experience of being joined with a group in a common cause. However, euphoric experience is fleeting and cultic friendships usually are conditional, based on the individual's loyalty to the group. After the cult, it might be difficult to disagree with others, fearing abandonment; or, for some, it might be difficult to agree, fearing that they will be controlled. It is hard to trust new people who enter their lives. Some might have been attracted to the cult because they could escape from a sense of loneliness that developed in childhood, adolescence, or during a vulnerable period prior to their cult involvement. In any case, a support group for former cult members is a helpful way to lessen the feeling of being lonely and different from others in their world. Some turn to new relationships to fill the void that is created after cult departure.
Coupled with loneliness are feelings of sadness and grief – sensing a loss of a life that promised total fulfillment. Former cultists often are mourning the loss of a period in their lives that appeared to fulfill their idealism. Sadness is a healthy reaction to loss. It often is helpful for former cult members to see how their youthful idealism was exploited by the cult. For some, sadness is linked with missed opportunities to enter a satisfying relationship, have a family, or acquire career skills. However, many former members do eventually return to school, find enriching employment or enter into satisfying relationships. But it can take time to gain the confidence and skill to do so; and particularly those who spent twenty or thirty years in their groups tend to feel far behind their contemporaries in the outside world.
After a time there is often an expression of anger at the cult leader and/or the desire to act against the cult. Getting in touch with long-term exploitation often leads to anger. Social or legal action, at times, can be seen as a progressive step. Rather than directing anger at the self, the former cultist is now taking constructive actions against the manipulators, or through education, is preventing others from getting ensnared. However, sometimes too much energy remains invested in the cult. This energy can keep the former cultist from progressing in his or her post-cult life.
Since the early 1990s, we have notice and worked with an increasing number of individuals who have left cultic groups after two or three decades of membership. Many of these individuals are married with children. Married former cultists have to deal with the typical post-cult difficulties previously described. However, former cultists who are married also have to deal with their marital and parent-child relationships and, consequently with their cult-influenced reactions to their spouses and their children. Their children have the formidable task of having to deal with the neglect and/or abuse stemming from their cult experience' and, also they have to acclimate to an entirely new life outside the cult.
As noted in “Reflections on Marriage and Children after the Cult,” cult leader usually interfere with the couple's ability to form an intimate relationship and to parent their own children. Parents are induced to feel that time with children is expendable, that they must keep focused on the “grander” mission of the cult. Therefore, parents may be separated from their children and spend long periods of time involved in cult activities. Children might be placed in dormitories or sent away to cult-related boarding schools. Often members who are in charge of those schools have no training in child education and no understanding of the emotional needs of children.
Parents often are made to feel selfish if they acknowledge special feeling or desire to have time with their children. In one cult, members were told that parents always have murderous feelings toward their children and, therefore, children must be raised by members who were not related to them. In another cult members were told that parents pollute their young, so all parenting decisions must be left to the cult. These suggestions are an effective way to separate the members from their own children, as well as from their parents who are outside the cult.
The children of cult members often are not allowed to behave like children in the cult. Upon leaving the cult, parents begin to allow themselves to empathize and respond their children. However, former cultists often experience difficulty taking a parental role after they leave the cult. Sometimes this difficulty is related to the fact that they had been treated as children and acted as siblings to their children, because the cult leader was the parent for all of them. Parents also may have difficulty assuming authority as a result of their guilt about having neglected and/or abused their children while in the cult. This guilt can lead to their having difficulty setting limits with their children. Other parents continue to hold onto the punitive or sexually stimulating practices of the cult. Spouses can come to have different child rearing attitudes and this can cause conflict.
The child who is born or raised in a cult does not have the previous personality or a cohesively formed personality on which the new cultic personality is imposed. Aside from inherent temperament, basic character becomes impacted and shaped by the cult experience. The cult personality is not superimposed, but becomes as aspect of the original personality. When those who have been raised in cults leave that world, they have to enter an entirely new socio-cultural environment – a wider world with new expectations and rules. Although younger children, particularly those who exit with parents, typically show some degree of resilience and an ability to adapt well to the outer world, former cult members who are young adults, especially young adults on their own, usually have tremendous difficulty with adjustment. Entrance into the world outside the cult is complicated by the fact that their cultic upbringing has left them deprived of many coping skills to adapt to the task. However, we have been impressed with the resilience and strength that these individuals have shown.
Working with former cultists has been one of the most satisfying aspects of my life. One of the main reasons for this is that behind these cult-induced symptoms and difficulties are decent, idealistic, and usually basically strong individuals. Actually I believe that the stronger former members are able to face what they've experienced without shelving this and moving on. It is painful to look at this experience and it requires courage and an ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. I've given you a list of problems but the good news is that these are normal reactions to separation from a cult. For the most part, if armed with information and support, former cultists do amazingly well. One of the benefits of our support group is to see how different the cult member who has been out two years is from the cult member who came out three weeks ago. It is important to remember that in leaving a cult, the former cult member is beginning the process of discovering his or her “true self” and beginning the process of living up to his or her true potential.
- Goldberg, L. & Goldberg, W. (1982). Group work with former cultists. Social Work, 27, 165-170.
- Goldberg, L. (1994). Guidelines for therapists. In M. Langone (Ed.) Recovery from Cults. New York: Norton & Co.
- Goldberg, L. (2003). Reflections on Marriage and Children after the Cult. Cultic Studies Review, 2, 1, 9-29.
- Lynn, S. J. & Rhue, J. (Eds). Dissociation. New York: Guilford Press.
- Moore, B. and Fine, B. (1990). Psychoanalytic Terms & Concepts. New Haven: The American Psychoanalytic Association and Yale University Press.
- West, L. J. and Martin, P. (1994). Pseudo-identity and treatment of personality change in Victims of captivity and cults. In S. J. Lynn & J. Rhue (Eds.) Dissociation. New York: Guilford Press.
This material originally was presented at the ICSA Conference at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid on July 14, 2005.