March 7 by The Running Son
Traumatic Abuse in Cults: An Exploration of an Unfamiliar Social Problem
by Daniel Shaw, C.S.W
March 7 by The Running Son
Traumatic Abuse in Cults: An Exploration of an Unfamiliar Social Problem
by Daniel Shaw, C.S.W
| (This essay uses SYDA (Siddha Yoga) as an example of an abusive cult)Table of Contents
* What Is a Cult, and Why Do People Get Involved in Them?
* Thought Reform, or Mind Control
* Social Work Values vs. Cult Values
* Inner Emptiness and the Culture of Narcissism
* The Question of Pre-Existing and Induced Pathology: Blaming the Victim
* The Dominating Leader and the Submissive Follower
* Traumas Suffered by Cult Members
* Working With Cult Survivors
* Table I: Resource Organizations
When I began social work school, it had been just two years since I moved out of the spiritual community, the ashram, I had lived and worked in for more than 10 years. In those two post-ashram years, I did a good deal of soul searching, and concluded that my life experience had been good preparation for a career in social work. Nevertheless, I was taken aback when I began my field placement at a community mental health center. Many of the clients I was assigned described terrible histories of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in childhood, and in some cases were involved in ongoing abuse, either as perpetrators or victims. Many of these clients were struggling to recover from devastating addictions. Although my own life has been something of a bed of roses in comparison with the suffering these clients have known, I soon discovered I had a deeper connection to their experiences than I at first realized.
I had always portrayed my participation in Siddha Yoga (also known as SYDA), to myself and others, as an idealistic commitment to a noble spiritual path, dedicated to spiritual awakening and upliftment in the world. Just after school began, this identification was shattered when I learned of an incident concerning a friend of mine, a young woman just turned 21, who was sexually harassed in the ashram by one of its most powerful leaders. When she sought help from Gurumayi, the now 40 year old female Indian guru who is the head of the ashram, Gurumayi told the young woman that she had brought the harassment upon herself. She was treated with contempt and made to feel ashamed. Through her chief assistant, Gurumayi told the young woman, “don’t ever tell anyone about this, especially not your mother.” (The woman’s mother was a longtime devotee of SYDA, who had made substantial donations to the ashram over the years.) After two years of intense inner conflict, the young woman finally did tell her story. As a result, many others began to speak out, eventually contributing to an extensive expos‚ of SYDA in The New Yorker magazine (Harris, 1994). Published just two months after I started school, the article revealed a Pandora’s box of well documented abuses by the leaders of SYDA that had been going on for more than 20 years.
In the two years prior to the publication of the article, I had slowly and painfully begun to acknowledge to myself and others that there were aspects of SYDA and its leaders that I found unethical and disturbing. In particular, I had witnessed and personally experienced Gurumayi verbally and emotionally abusing devotees, using spies and hidden microphones to gather information, and publicly shaming and humiliating those with whom she was displeased.
My doubts about SYDA crystallized when I heard the story of the young woman I knew. In the phrase, “Don’t ever tell anyone about this, especially not your mother,” I heard a chilling echo of the voice of the incestuous father, the battering husband, the sexual harasser, the rapist. As Judith Herman says, in her seminal work entitled Trauma and Recovery (1992), “secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense” (p. 8). It was hearing these words, “Don’t ever tell,” that broke for me what Ernst Becker (1973) has called “the spell cast by persons — the nexus of unfreedom.” As I began to explore my experiences and those of others in connection with SYDA, I realized that because I had accepted the leader’s claims to perfection and enlightenment, I had been unable to recognize abuses in the ashram for what they were. My emerging insights, fostered by counseling and study, have been strongly linked to my work with clients. Their experiences helped to clarify my own, and understanding my experiences helped me to form deeper therapeutic bonds with them.
The purpose of this essay is to use
1. further social work knowledge and understanding of the traumatic impact of religious cults;
Cult experts estimate that there are about 5,000 cultic groups in the United States today and that about 10 to 20 million people have at some point in recent years been in one or more of such groups (Langone, 1993). The Cult Awareness Network reports that it receives about 18,000 inquiries a year (Tobias and Lalich, 1994). Michael Langone (1993), a psychologist who has worked with approximately 3,000 families of cult members, defines a cult as: a group or movement that, to a significant degree,
I would add to this definition that a religious cult is led by a person who claims to have reached human perfection or unity with the divine, and who claims therefore to be exempt from social or moral limitations or restrictions. Within this autocracy, the leader is not held to normative societal standards of conduct and is not subject to any system of checks and balances. Behavior that would in any other context be considered amoral, if not psychopathic, is idealized by devotees as indicative of the leader’s transcendent perfection and enlightenment.
The questions most often asked of former cult members, usually with incredulity, are “How did you get into something like this? And why did you stay so long?” The unspoken subtext seems to be, “How could someone like you end up in something like this? There must have been something wrong with you.” Certainly most former cult members were not seeking to be controlled, made dependent, exploited, or psychologically harmed when they first committed themselves to membership. One reason cults are so successful is that they have mastered the art of seduction, using techniques of undue influence (Cialdini, 1984). As Hochman (1990) notes, cults, by employing miracle, mystery, and authority, “promise salvation.
Instead of boredom — noble and sweeping goals. Instead of existential anxiety — structure and certainty. Instead of alienation — community. Instead of impotence — solidarity directed by all-knowing leaders” (p. 179). Cults prey upon idealistic seekers, offering answers to social problems and promising to promote bona fide social change.
Recruiting addresses the anxieties and loneliness of people experiencing personal problems, transition or crisis, by holding out the promise of transformative healing within the framework of a caring and understanding community (Tobias et al.). Cult recruiting often takes place in sophisticated settings, in the form of seminars featuring persuasive, well-credentialed speakers, such as successful professionals, respected academics or popular artists, writers and entertainers. Cults target members from middle-class backgrounds, often directly from college campuses, and the majority of members are of above average intelligence (Hassan, 1990; Kliger, 1994; Tobias et al., 1994).
In recruiting programs, speakers and members present various kinds of disinformation about cult leaders, including concealing their existence altogether. Otherwise, the leader may be represented as a humble, wise and loving teacher, when in reality he or she is a despot in possession of a substantial fortune, generated from member donations and (often illegal) business activities. The apparent leader may be only a figurehead, while the identity of the actual leader is concealed. False claims of ancient lineages may be made, or the leader is falsely said to be revered and renowned in his or her own country. Cult leaders rewrite and falsify their own biographies.
Recruiting programs do not, for instance, inform participants about leaders of the group having criminal records, or a group’s history of sexual abuse of members, or the group’s involvement with illegal activities. Seduction in cult recruitment always involves strict control and falsification of information.
Thought reform, or mind control, is another important component in understanding why cults are so prevalent in our society. The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1987) studied the methods used by the Chinese Communists during the Korean War to turn war prisoners into willing accomplices, and called these methods thought reform (see also Hinkle and Wolff, 1976; Schein, 1956; Singer, 1979).
Thought reform (also known as mind control) is the foundation on which cults are built. Lifton identified 8 phenomena that were present in the systems of “ideological totalism” that he studied, all of which can be found in cults: 1. Milieu control – control of communication within an environment. Maintained primarily by increasingly isolating members from non-members, this sets up what Lifton calls “personal closure.” One is constantly receiving reinforcement to suppress personal doubts and struggles about what is true or real;
While thought reform techniques were originally aimed at peripheral aspects of the self, such as political and social views, cults today aim at the core self, at a person’s central self-image (Singer et al.). The guru is perceived as a deity who is always divinely right, and the devotee lives to please and avoid displeasing the guru/god. In a totalitarian ideological system, the cult leader’s displeasure comes to mean for the member that his core self is unworthy, monstrously defective, and dispensable. The member has been conditioned to believe that loss of the leader’s “grace” is equivalent to loss of the self. As the member becomes more deeply involved, his anxiety about remaining a member in good standing increases. This anxiety is akin to the intense fear, helplessness, loss of control and threat of annihilation that Herman, in her discussion of psychological domination, describes as induced in victims of both terrorists and battering husbands.
The ultimate effect of these techniques is to convince the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile, and that her life depends upon winning his indulgence through absolute compliance. The goal of the perpetrator is to instill in his victim not only fear of death but also gratitude for being allowed to live (p. 77). Thus the victim comes to identify with the aggressor, accepting the aggression as purification, the absence of aggression as beneficence. More than just being between a rock and a hard place, this is a desperate and degraded position to find oneself in.
Herman’s motivation for writing Trauma and Recovery was to show the commonalities “between rape survivors and combat veterans, between battered women and political prisoners, between the survivors of vast concentration camps created by tyrants who rule nations, and the survivors of small, hidden concentration camps created by tyrants who rule their homes” (p. 3). Tyrants who rule religious cults subject members to similar violations.
In my first year of social work school, just a few months after breaking entirely with SYDA, I was asked to write a paper comparing a value system I had previously experienced to the social work value system I was currently exposed to. Social workers are taught early in their education the values of their profession: the clients’ right to self-determination, respect and dignity for all, the innate worth of a human being, respect for uniqueness, and the facilitation of the realization of potential (Woods and Hollis, 1990).
Religious cults are skillful in advertising the promotion of these values as the core of their philosophy. For example, SYDA’s chief slogans, repeated frequently in public talks and SYDA Foundation literature, are: “Honor, love, respect, worship your Self. God dwells within you, as you. See God in each other.” SYDA claims that its guru is “a self-realized master,” and that following the teachings of the master lead to one’s own self-realization. The bait of these messages is used to attract members.
Once membership is established, the messages are switched to ever-increasing demands for obedience, submission and dependence. The actual value system of a cult is often the antithesis of the system it advertises.
The following is excerpted from the paper I wrote in which I attempt to describe the value system of SYDA, especially in terms of values linked to the concept of strength versus weakness, and compare it to social work values:
In the culture of Gurumayi’s ashram, nothing was more important than the worship of and complete surrender to the guru. This is the essence of Siddha Yoga. The SYDA Foundation literature describes ad infinitum the proper ways to absorb oneself completely in the Siddha, the perfected master, and also describes the enlightenment, constant bliss and unity with the Absolute that are supposed to result (Muktananda, 1978). I became involved with SYDA at a point of transition in my life. I had several ecstatic meditation experiences early in my exposure to Siddha Yoga. Longing to belong and to be of service, I gradually increased my commitment, finally giving up everything I had and joining the ashram staff.
After a few years, I began to have more contact with Gurumayi. I began to move toward the “inner circle,” where everything started to be different from what it had been when I was still in the outer circles. Only in retrospect, since my break with Siddha Yoga, am I able to describe what this culture was like. At the time, I idealized everything about Gurumayi. We all found ingenious ways of making her perfect no matter what, and making her bizarre and cruel behavior “for our own good.”
In this culture, if you had a problem, you were “weak,” i.e., not devoted and pure enough. You could be kicked out if you had a problem. You could be dismissed, thrown out of meetings, or ridiculed and humiliated publicly, sometimes in front of small groups and at other times in front of thousands of people at large public programs. Worst of all, if you earned the guru’s displeasure, she might ignore you completely. That was worse than all the cruel and cutting remarks, which could at least be rationalized as pearls of wisdom meant to purify you. Being ignored meant that you were unworthy in the sight of God. If you had a problem, you could be spied on by roommates who would tell Gurumayi what you said and did. Or your room could be bugged with a hidden microphone. Or you could be left behind, not taken on Gurumayi’s lecture tours all over the world — not worthy of being included. You could even be told to go back out to the world and work.
You were “strong,” i.e., devoted and worthy, if you worked around the clock and never took a vacation or a day off. You were strong if you never needed anything. You were strong if you lived on a pittance and never needed more money. But you were really strong if you had lots of money and gave large amounts of it to the guru. You were strong if you were willing to insult and harass other people on behalf of the guru while protecting her from being detected as the instigator.
You were weak if you were tired, or had any feelings other than enthusiasm, happiness, and ardent devotion to the guru, asking nothing from her. Being depressed or exhausted was not just weak, it was considered selfish and an insult to Gurumayi. If you asked for help, you were weak. Not just weak, but worthy of contempt.
Entering the field of social work is for me a rejection of the values of the culture of Siddha Yoga. It is a return to life, to compassion for humanity and for myself. I know now that asking for help can be a sign of strength and courage; that problems should be handled with sensitivity and care; and that part of being strong is having real feelings without trying to deny them.
Recently, as I attempted to describe the cruelty I had experienced in the cult to another social worker, he replied, “was it cruelty, or just tough love?” Cults are totalitarian communities, and as the saying goes, “power tends to corrupt — and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Acton, 1887). Tough love is hardly an appropriate description of the abuse of power that is pervasive in cults. The impetus to write on this subject now stems from several sources: the social work literature contains scant contributions on cults (Addis, Schulman-Miller and Lightman, 1984; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982), and my social work education has not included any discussion of this social problem. In addition, many social work and other mental health workers are themselves members of cultic groups. There is a need for consciousness raising on this issue.
Some questions that need exploration in terms of working with cult members are:
Social workers may also benefit from examining cults from a sociocultural perspective. What are the forces in our culture and society that allow such cults to flourish? While the memory of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, the mass suicides of the Solar Temple of the Sun cult, and the plan of Shoko Asahara, of Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo, to create his own Armageddon, is still fresh in our minds, let us address this latter group of questions
Christopher Lasch (1979), in describing the “culture of narcissism,” used the example of the writer Paul Zweig, a SYDA devotee, to illustrate his ideas about “the void within” that individuals in Western society have been struggling with in the post-WWII era. Prior to his involvement in SYDA, Zweig spoke of his growing “conviction, amounting to a faith, that my life was organized around a core of blandness which shed anonymity upon everything I touched”; of “the emotional hibernation which lasted until I was almost thirty”; of persisting “suspicion of personal emptiness which all my talking and my anxious attempts at charm surround and decorate, but don’t penetrate or even come close to.” When “the experience of inner emptiness, the frightening feeling that at some level of existence I’m nobody, that my identity has collapsed and no one’s there” becomes overwhelming, Zweig encounters Swami Muktananda, or Baba (Father), the original founder of Siddha Yoga. From Baba, he learns to anesthetize his “mental busyness, . . ., obsessive thinking and . . . anxiety.”
Cushman (1990) notes that inner emptiness is expressed in many ways in our culture, such as low self-esteem (the absence of a sense of personal worth), values confusion (the absence of a sense of personal convictions), eating disorders (the compulsion to fill the emptiness with food, or to embody the emptiness by refusing food), drug abuse (the compulsion to fill the emptiness with chemically induced emotional experience of “receiving” something from the world). It may also take the form of an absence of personal meaning. This can manifest as a hunger for spiritual guidance, which sometimes takes the form of a wish to be filled up by the spirit of God, by religious “truth,” or by the power and personality of a leader guru (p. 604).
The hunger for spiritual guidance and religious truth is often what impels people to explore religious groups. Problems arise when the leaders of these groups proclaim themselves to be living embodiments of this truth. The danger of cults lies in the leap one must make, from embracing religious truth, to worshipping a person claiming to be this truth. The danger increases when this person promises salvation, redemption, or perfection, in exchange for money, goods and services. While religious teachers are as entitled as anyone else to earn a living by selling their teachings, the claim that a leader is a perfected master is a common denominator of destructive cults.
Whether or not a particular person is perfect is something that can only be defended on a subjective basis — “I experience you as perfect, therefore, you are perfect.” For some, a perfect human being is a possibility; for others, a perfect human being can only be an oxymoron.
Yet the myth of the perfect master can be so alluring, and the need so compelling. Cushman speaks of the “lifestyle solution” promoted by advertising, in which larger-than-life, glamorous “self-objects” (Kohut, 1984) in the form of products to be acquired or incorporated, promise to magically transform the empty self. Perhaps this solution to the problem of the inner void — acquisition of objects, worldly treasure — is the inverse of the guru solution, which promises to fill the empty self with the spiritual treasure of a perfect, glamorous, larger-than-life guru. As Kohut has said, the pressure of inner emptiness can leave one especially vulnerable to “the seduction of an external force posing as an ego ideal” (Kohut, 1990, p. 122).
Today, gurus use the technology and psychology of advertising to provide ever more effective methods of seducing recruits. One of the most seductive ideas advertised in meditation-based cults is that “it is not necessary to be logical, rational, or even reasonable. The ultimately dominant criterion of what is good is a totally subjective feeling state. The goal of life becomes a good feeling, a never-ending high” (Garvey, 1993). This is not necessarily as selfish as it sounds. Loyal members of a cult believe that their leader has magically transformed their lives and relieved their suffering. On that basis, they will staunchly defend their leader even when his or her crimes are exposed. The “good feeling” of their initial conversion experience might consist of feeling “redeemed,” “coming home at last,” having been “lost, but now found,” or being “saved.” These intensely emotional experiences are attributed directly to the power and will of the leader. Groups such as SYDA skillfully control devotees’ thought processes by suggesting repeatedly that they “trust their own experience.” In this way, objectivity — e.g., any negative information about the leader — is devalued. The guru, along with one’s own subjective feeling state, is idealized. The bunker mentality response to any critical information about the group and its leaders then becomes: “that isn’t my experience.”
There are strong reasons for this need to banish objectivity. If one believes that the guru’s power has healed one’s pain, then keeping the pain from returning means preserving the guru, at any cost. Indeed, the pain of life that has been magically erased by the guru will return if one rejects the guru. The pain will return, along with many other warded off emotions, and these will need to be experienced, felt, understood, worked through, and made meaningful, if real transformation, not magic, is to occur. This is part of the difficult process of self-development that the guru solution simply sweeps under the rug.
The history of SYDA provides a good example of how far devotees will go to defend the person they perceive as their savior. In the early 80s, the Siddha Yoga community was shocked to learn that Muktananda, a monk in his late 60s and supposedly a lifelong celibate, had been secretly having sexual relations with western female devotees for at least ten years. While many women thought of themselves as willing participants, others felt coerced and traumatized by the experience. Often his victims were female children in their early teens. Many who were SYDA devotees at the time heard these allegations and ignored them, in spite of wide acknowledgment among those closest to Muktananda that they were true. When several devotees spoke out publicly about Muktananda’s sexual abuses, two loyal devotees were dispatched by Muktananda to threaten these whistle-blowers with disfigurement and castration (Rodarmor, 1983). Nevertheless, to this day, Muktananda is worshipped by SYDA devotees as a deity.
How can this kind of loyalty be understood? Under the influence of cult mind control, devotees must make the Guru, who has magically filled the inner void, exempt from all scrutiny and judgment. Devotees come to depend completely on the absolute perfection of the guru. Keeping the terror of emptiness and meaninglessness at bay, no matter how artificially, becomes so crucial to the devotee’s survival, that he must deny truth, and sacrifice his pre-cult values and integrity, in order not to lose the all-providing, omnipotent, idealized guru. Long after the glow of the conversion experience fades, regardless of the exposes, the abuse and exploitation, many devotees maintain their unreasoning loyalty, because for them, it has become a matter of life or death.
If cults recruit members by baiting the traps of the culture of narcissism with promises of redemption and fulfillment, how do we understand the people who take the bait? What assumptions, if any, can we make about this population? In addressing these questions, it is necessary to confront two major themes:
Theorists such as Fromm (1965), Becker (1973) and Berger (1967) Have sought to understand the dynamics of dominance and submission, sadism and masochism, that are built into the human character and which are triggered in individuals and societies exposed to certain influences. Fromm, and later Becker, were moved to explore these human traits by the horror of Nazi Germany; Berger’s interest was oriented to the history of religion. These ideas about man’s vulnerability to certain “pathological” behaviors can be used to suggest that those who become cult victims are predisposed to submissive, sadomasochistic behavior.
More recent theorists have been concerned with the phenomenon of blaming the victims of rape and battering for asking for, or failing to put a stop to, the abuse they have suffered (Herman; Kliger). McNew and Abell (1995) and Silver and Iacano (1986) use the term “sanctuary trauma” to describe how one who has already experienced severe trauma, such as rape, often experiences a secondary trauma in what was expected to be a supportive and protective environment, such as in a police station, a courtroom, or a therapist’s office. Herman notes that “those who attempt to describe the atrocities that they have witnessed also risk their own credibility. To speak publicly about one’s knowledge of atrocities is to invite the stigma that attaches to victims” (p. 2).
It is easy, but erroneous, to assume that only certain kinds of people are predisposed to join cults. When noted cult-expert Joe Szimhart speaks to audiences about cults and is asked what kind of people join them, he points to the audience and says, “People like you” (Szimhart, personal conversation). In studies conducted by Langone (1993), in which cult members are given a battery of standard psychological tests, he found that the percentage of cult members who were diagnosable was only slightly higher than the 20% of the general population commonly considered diagnosable, suggesting that the cult population is not necessarily markedly different from the norm. Langone asserts, along with Martin and Hassan, that mind control techniques are effective with all kinds of people, regardless of the previous existence or non-existence of any kind of psychopathology.
The literature on working with former cult members stresses, for the most part, that the pathology induced by the cult itself must be acknowledged, and the former member must be helped with the array of problems resulting from this induced pathology, before any pre-existing, underlying pathology is assumed or explored (Addis et al.; Clifford, 1994; Giambalvo, 1993; Goldberg, 1993; Goldberg et al., 1982; Goldberg, 1993; Halperin, 1990; Hassan, 1990; Kliger, 1994; Langone, 1993; Langone and Chambers, 1991; Martin, 1993; Martin and Langone, 1992; Morse and Morse, 1987; Tobias, 1993). To do otherwise, for these authors, invalidates the reality of the client, constituting a stigmatizing message from the worker that the victims’ traumatic experience has more to do with their psychopathology than with the violations perpetrated by the group.
I strongly agree that cult victims can be unfairly stigmatized or pathologized. However, I suggest that workers risk creating a false dichotomy when we polarize the issues of pre-existing pathology and induced pathology in cult victims; and further, that framing the issue in terms of pathology is, from the outset, counter-productive. All human beings struggle with dependency, with separation and individuation, and with conflicts over active and passive wishes and fears. These are universal developmental issues. As Herman points out, referring to Erikson’s (1980) life cycle stages, “trauma forces the survivor to relive all her earlier struggles over autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy.” Once a person is exposed to a thought reform program and the traumatic violations that ensue, developmental crises will be re-stimulated, whether they were adequately resolved previously or not. The concept of “blaming the victim” is misused, and unfair to the client, if it encourages workers to overlook pre-existing factors which may have contributed to the client’s victimization.
Victims can and should be helped with both the induced and pre-existing aspects of their problem, at the appropriate points in treatment (Addis et al.; Clifford; Giambalvo; Goldberg, L.; Goldberg et al.; Goldberg, W.; Hassan; Morse and Morse; Tobias et al.).
In the interest, then, of better understanding the dynamics that may lead some people to stay in cults, I wish to present certain ideas about the human propensity to exploit and be exploited. As the world watched the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930’s and 40’s, a literature developed during and after the Holocaust which attempted to come to grips with, among other things, how virtually an entire nation of people, the Germans, could be persuaded to give up their morals, values, autonomy and integrity, by one man, a charismatic megalomaniac named Adolf Hitler. Many authors have attempted to find explanations for this inexplicable horror. The ideas of Erich Fromm on this subject, as presented in his book Escape From Freedom, are particularly relevant here. (Also see Becker (1973), especially the chapter entitled “The Spell Cast by Persons -The Nexus of Unfreedom”; and Berger (1967), particularly the chapter entitled “The Problem of Theodicy.”)
Fromm examines the relationship of human development processes to social, religious, economic and political forces in the environment. He notes that the process of individuation frees a child to “develop and express its own individual self unhampered by those ties which were limiting to it. But the child also becomes more free from a world which gave it security and reassurance” (p. 46). Fromm continues:
If the economic, social and political conditions on which the whole process of human individuation depends, do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality.. ., while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom (p. 52) (italics mine).
Fromm is describing, writing in 1941, the predicament of a life which lacks meaning and direction, in a society which offers too many dead-end destinations. This is where Paul Zweig found himself – adrift in the culture of narcissism that Lasch described twenty-five years later.
While Fromm speaks of the securing ties that are lost in the process of becoming separate, there are those who would argue that many children in the early stages of development possess little more than false security, at best. Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child (1981), suggests that the development of the true self, the goal of separation and individuation, is thwarted when parents need and use their children to fulfill their own egoistic wishes. Parents can train children to experience their natural needs, feelings, and attempts at self-expression, as destructive and shameful. Such children learn to hide or suppress these unaccepted parts of themselves, and to develop a false self which accommodates the needs of the parents — in essence, an act of self-annihilation (Winnicott, 1960). While the developmental conflict between attachment and separation invariably elicits feelings of isolation and powerlessness, these feelings may be especially exacerbated when the child’s drive to separate is threatening to a needy and narcissistically vulnerable parent, or thwarted by neglectful or sadistic parents. Miller sees the problem of the child who becomes a prisoner of the narcissistic parent as a pervasive cultural phenomenon of our time.
Fromm attributes fear of separation to alienating and isolating forces in society which have arisen gradually over centuries. Miller sees this fear arising in the nursery, from the ways we misunderstand and misuse our children. Whether we prefer the macrocosmic or the microcosmic view, in attempting to understand the problem of fear of separation and freedom, I believe these perspectives are complementary, and both are useful and necessary.
For the person who is tormented with anxiety about separation, Fromm considers masochism to be one of the primary mechanisms of escape from this torment. When the parental and/or social environment cannot provide the security required for the separation effort, then adopting the masochistic stance of feeling small and helpless, or overwhelmed by pain and agony, can be a way of avoiding and protecting oneself from having to fight what would only be a losing battle. Between self-annihilation, which provides a kind of control, and unsupported separation and independence, which feels out of control, self-annihilation may seem like the less terrifying of two evils.
However, annihilation of self is only one side of the attempt to overcome unbearable feelings of powerlessness. Fromm points out an alternative which bears more directly on the subject of cults:
The other side is the attempt to become a part of a bigger and more powerful whole outside of oneself, to submerge and participate in. This power can be a person, an institution, God, the nation, conscience, or a psychic compulsion. By becoming part of a power which is felt as unshakably strong, eternal, and glamorous, one participates in its strength and glory. One surrenders one’s own self and renounces all strength and pride connected with it, one loses one’s integrity as an individual and surrenders freedom; but one gains a new security and a new pride in the participation in the power in which one submerges. One gains also security against the torture of doubt (p. 177) (italics mine).
Fromm calls the power one submerges oneself in the “magic helper.” When one feels helpless and hopeless to express and realize one’s individual potential, dependence on a magic helper provides a solution which shifts the emphasis off the self, which is experienced as empty and worthless, to the magic helper. The magic helper, in our fantasy, has all the answers, can take care of everything, and loves and accepts us perfectly, thereby confirming and validating our existence. Merging with the magic helper banishes emptiness, loneliness and anxiety — and magic security is established. Then separation, individuation, and its accompanying terrors can be averted altogether. One can join a cult and effect a kind of separation from one’s family and background — but the actual task of individuation is not undertaken. The pseudo-separation attempt degenerates into a regression to deeper levels of dependence and enmeshment.
In the relationship to the magic helper, “the question is then no longer how to live oneself, but how to manipulate ‘him’ in order not to lose him and how to make him do what one wants, even to make him responsible for what one is responsible oneself” (Fromm, p. 199). Paradoxically, obedience and goodness are among the most common methods used to attempt to manipulate and control the magic helper. Yet the enslavement to the magic helper that is then experienced is resented and creates conflict. This conflict must be repressed in order not to lose the magic helper. Additionally, people who pose as magic helpers eventually and inevitably demonstrate their imperfection, if not their complete fraudulence. Thus, the underlying anxiety about the authenticity of the magic helper, or about losing him through not being worthy, constantly threatens the security sought for in the relationship. This is a real double bind. As Berger notes, “the masochistic attitude is inherently predestined to failure, because the self cannot be annihilated this side of death and because the other can only be absolutized in illusion” (p. 56). (See footnote *)
(* Kliger, in her study of devotees of a leader named “Guru”, demonstrates that it is precisely this conflict in the devotees that results in the high degree of somatization she found among them. Unhappiness and dissatisfaction amongst members was considered by Guru to be hostile, a threat to the community. Guru demanded that devotees show a happy face at all times, claiming that their unhappy faces made him physically and psychically ill. (This is also what Gurumayi teaches her SYDA staff.) Because the devotees were stigmatized by Guru for any expression of dissatisfaction, devotees suppressed these feelings, which then emerged through somatization. Physical illness was more acceptable to Guru, because he saw himself as a healer and could use a devotee’s illness to demonstrate his power. If his healing efforts failed, however, the devotee’s illness was deemed a manifestation of their resistance, proving that they were hostile to Guru’s mission. Punishment by shunning followed, which led either to the devotee’s further submission, or to their excommunication (Kliger, pp. 232-233).)
When the magic helper is a drug such as heroin, the annihilation of the self may culminate in the death of the body. If it is food, the self is concealed in obesity, or enslaved to anorexia and bulimia. When the magic helper is an idealized but traumatizing parent who is ambivalently both hated and totally depended on, annihilation of the self manifests as the inability to separate and individuate.
When the magic helper is a guru, the annihilation of the self is the loss of one’s own voice, personal values, and integrity. Again, SYDA provides useful material in support of this point. In SYDA philosophy, the “ego” is devalued as something small and selfish that must be surrendered to the guru, to be magically transformed into pure awareness of the transcendent “inner Self,” which is one with the guru and with God. The sense of “doership”, taking credit for or enjoying the fruits of one’s own actions, is in particular a sure sign of “wrong understanding.” The right understanding is that whatever the guru says or does is a direct expression of God’s will, and that everything good flows from the magic grace of the guru. By surrendering the ego and the sense of doership to the guru, the sins of pride and selfishness are supposedly expiated. Practically, this means that experiencing oneself as a center of agency and initiative, as a creative person capable of taking pleasure in the use of one’s own talents and skills, should be a source of shame — because nothing belongs to oneself, it all belongs to and comes from the guru. On the other hand, one must always be ready to confess and take credit for one’s sins and transgressions — which in this system, are the sole property of the small, impure, selfish ego.
When the mists of these tortuous obfuscations are cleared, one has really only discovered a pseudo-moralistic rationale for self-annihilation. The person posing as the magic guru is revealed as an opportunistic entrepreneur, one who has learned how to profit well from the variety of influences, in our inner and outer worlds, which have caused us to feel afraid of freedom.
When cult members finally leave the cult and seek help, they have been exhausted by their long struggle to maintain the illusion of a perfect master, and the concomitant deterioration of their self-esteem. Many clinical workers are unfamiliar with the particular issues likely to be present in this population. Knowledge of the impact of more familiar abuses such as rape, incest and battering can be extremely helpful in working with cult members. Cult trauma entails violation, by the idolized and deified leader, of the cult member’s core sense of self. Rape, incest and battering, often perpetrated by a trusted adult or significant other, are also extreme violations and disruptions of the self (Bell, J., 1995; Blake-White and Kline, 1985; Chairamonte, J. (1992); Ellenson, G., 1989; Graziano, R., 1992; Langley, M., 1982; Marton, F., 1988; McNew et al.; Patten, Gatz, Jones, and Thomas, 1989). The following clinical material compares aspects of some of these generally more familiar violations with examples of cult violations.
Rape. A client I have been seeing for the last two years, Ms. R., was the victim of severe emotional abuse from her mother. Although this example does not involve an actual rape, the principles involved are similar and useful for the purposes of this discussion.
Ms. R. is an intelligent 40 year old woman from a middle class background who is extremely phobic, obsessive and subject to panic anxiety. Although she successfully maintains a menial job, she feels she is earning far below her potential and is profoundly isolated and dissatisfied, without fulfilling work or intimate relationships. She traces many of her difficulties to her traumatic upbringing. Ms. R.’s mother was a disturbed woman who was dependent on a variety of tranquilizers and barbiturates. Nevertheless, as a child, Ms. R. saw her mother as an idealized figure, vested with magical omnipotence. Ms. R. lived in terror of her mother’s demands for perfection, and her unpredictable outbursts of rage. Nothing she did was considered good enough, and she was made to feel that any form of self-expression was destructive. She learned that only her mother’s needs mattered, and she experienced her own needs and feelings as shameful.
Ms. R. describes her experience of the cruel, contemptuous words and looks of her mother, spit out at her with rage and penetrating her to the core, leaving her feeling ever more alone and ashamed, by using the metaphor of rape. Her mother’s rape-like verbal abuse has frozen Ms. R. in terror and helplessness, and rendered her unable to separate or form a stable sense of identity. She has cut off all contact with her mother, saying that to reconcile with her would be like “getting in bed with my own rapist.” Yet she has internalized this punitive mother and lives in constant fear of the people in her world. In her transference to them, they are all potential “psychic rapists.”
The pattern of cruelty of Ms. R.’s mother is remarkably similar to the behavior of cult leaders. Herman states that “violation is, in fact, a synonym for rape. The purpose of the rapist is to terrorize, dominate, and humiliate his victim, to render her utterly helpless” (p. 58). In cults, victims are made helpless, like rape victims, when they are repeatedly confronted and forced to confess sins and transgressions. This phenomenon is sometimes called “being on the hot seat.” The hot seat confrontation, in which accusatory words are hurled by group leaders like knives, with the purpose of penetrating and wounding the core of the devotee’s self, is a violent, painful invasion of self-boundaries disguised as “purification,” for the good of the member. The member is usually accused of behaving in some way which demonstrates a lack of faith in or loyalty to the leader. This alleged lack in the member is portrayed as a monstrous and contemptible defect or transgression. In the midst of this assault, which is often ongoing over an extended period, the cult member on the hot seat must attempt to feel and express remorse as well as appreciation of the leader’s efforts to purify him. Often, leaders who employ hot seat confrontations press the victims’ peers into service, inviting them to join in the assault. This creates a situation not unlike a gang rape. These confrontations may end with the ultimate humiliation — excommunication, the equivalent for the member of psychic annihilation; or else with the member’s complete submission and confession, leading to his rehabilitation as a member in good standing. In either case, former cultists in therapeutic treatment invariably describe their experience of abuse in the cult as “spiritual rape” (Tobias et al.) Like a violent rapist threatening his victim with death if she does not submit, in confrontation/confession episodes, the guru has the devotee in his or her power.
Battering. Battering comprises a cycle of violent assaults by one domestic partner against the other, followed by a period of reconciliation, which is then followed by an escalation phase and a return to the violence. Herman notes that battering may also include being taken by surprise, trapped, or exposed to the point of exhaustion. The victim of battering comes to live in a state of helplessness and terror.
Ms. R., described above, experienced her mother’s unpredictable outbursts of rage and cruelty, sometimes accompanied with slaps, but often just comprising words and looks, as battering. She stated in session that she began feeling crazy at a very early age, when her mother would direct prolonged fits of rage toward her, then suddenly disappear into her room. She would emerge hours later as though nothing had happened, offering to read Ms. R. a bedtime story. Ms. R. described another group of memories, in which she was expected to do all the house cleaning on Saturdays before she would be allowed to go outside and play. But because her mother slept until early afternoon, and she was not allowed to make noise that would wake her, the cleaning would not be done until dinner, by which time the other children had gone home and it would be too late to go outside. Ms. R. hated her mother for trapping and isolating her in this way.
Yet when Ms. R.’s mother played the piano and asked her daughter to sing, etc, when Ms. R. took great pride in her ability to elicit her mother’s approval and pleasure — rare and precious gifts that she treasured. But the approval meant so much to Ms. R., that each time she lost it, she would be overwhelmed with grief, rage, and self-blame. The unpredictable shifts Ms. R. experienced between being the object of her mother’s rage and derision at one moment, and of her engulfing and over-stimulating affection at another, were desperately confusing. At age 8, Ms. R. began engaging in compulsive hand washing rituals. Although these rituals ceased long ago, Ms. R. remains imprisoned and paralyzed by her doubts and fears about herself.
Similar conditions exist for cult members. They are frequently expected to work 12 to 18 hour days, 7 days a week, with little or no time off. This keeps them constantly isolated within the system, vulnerable and exhausted. During a period where SYDA members were being allowed a weekly day off, Gurumayi learned that a staff member had spent an afternoon at a movie. She promptly informed all staff that they would no longer be allowed any days off or holidays. Gurumayi’s own fondness for rented videos and satellite television is one of her many well-guarded secrets. But even if it were common knowledge, the devotee’s mission is to hold their guru exempt from human standards of fairness, logic or ethical conduct. They must maintain and defend their belief in her perfection, or face the catastrophic collapse of the belief structure that upholds them. Similarly, the battered child must blame herself for her parents’ irrational behavior, or risk losing the parents she depends on.
On the other hand, Gurumayi makes lavish displays of generosity to certain members, usually timed before or after the member would be put on the hot seat. Which of her inner circle is “in” and which is “out” is a constant source of gossip among her staff, who are anxious to be properly aligned for or against those who are in or out of favor. One’s status fluctuates constantly and unpredictably. When cult members are repeatedly insulted and humiliated by the guru for no understandable reason; and the guru then makes a show of forgiving them, heaping praise and attention on them; and when this cycle is repeated continuously, without warning or reason, then the victim experiences fear, desperation to comply, and helplessness — just as Ms. R did, and as the battered wife does. The guru does not necessarily need to use physical violence, as the batterer does, to keep devotees in line — although many gurus, like those in SYDA, do employ corporeal punishments. Because one’s core sense of self is placed completely in the power of the guru, emotional and psychic wounds from the guru’s cruel and contemptuous remarks and behavior are experienced as devastatingly painful blows. When these alternate with praise and ostentatious displays of kindness, one is both made to feel crazy and made to feel more dependent.
Incest. Another client, Ms. B., was molested by older male relatives on two occasions in her childhood. Then from the age of 13-16, she was subjected to sexualizing behavior from her father. When she was sixteen, her father raped her and had sexual intercourse with her regularly for the next 3 years. Ms. B. went on to become a crack addict and a prostitute, and is now in rehabilitation.
Ms. B. is attractive and intelligent. She is childlike in many ways, including her thumb-sucking in bed before she falls asleep. She is also flirtatious, in the manner of a child seeking approval and attention. But of course she is in an adult body. Her original childhood needs for mirroring affirmation were met with sexualization. Now, all of Ms. B.’s needs are counterphobically translated into the need for sexual gratification.
When I first saw Ms. B., she was going home from her rehabilitation facility on weekends, and reported enjoying being with her family. When I asked if she had any discomfort about being with her father, she would report she had none. I was struck at these times and many others at how devoid Ms. B. was of affective responses to her intact memories of years of incest. Although feelings about her father were dissociated, I discovered that she was reenacting the incest at her facility. Ms. B. revealed that she was involved in several secret sexual liaisons which violated the house rules. She was in constant torment over her fear of being discovered and dismissed from the program. At the same time she conspired relentlessly to maintain the secret affairs and protect the men involved from exposure. Her lovers made it clear to her that if they were exposed, she would be to blame for their downfall. She was experiencing desperate confusion and anxiety in the reenactments, while feeling nothing about her father, the original perpetrator. It has not been easy to help Ms. B. see how these relationships reenact her history of incest. Ms. B.’s father had succeeded in manipulating her so that she felt responsible for arousing him. She was afraid to expose him for fear of being despised by her mother, who never noticed that anything was wrong. She also didn’t want to hurt her mother and see her fall apart, or destroy her parents’ marriage and lose the only home she knew. Crack proved to be an effective relief from the desperate confusion Ms. B. experienced — until it brought her to prostitution, degradation and near death.
When Ms. B. finally confronted her parents and told the truth some months ago, her father did not deny what had happened, as she had feared. Rather, he took the opportunity when her mother was out of earshot to tell Ms. B. “if only you had said no.” Her mother also calls her now, crying, complaining of the destruction of her marriage. It appears that neither parent was or is as concerned about the destruction of their daughter as about maintaining their status quo.
Cults are also incestuous and resemble incestuous families. Like the incest victim, cult victims have been deceived and exploited, persuaded to obey and maintain secrecy, by a trusted and idealized parental/authority figure. Members may be keeping secrets about the sexual abuse of others, or about their own molestation. In SYDA, the previous guru was called “Baba,” which means father, and his successor is known as “Gurumayi,” which means Guru Mother. Muktananda had sexual intercourse with many of the young women who adored him as a divine father. Gurumayi, who succeeded Muktananda as the head of SYDA, was fully aware that many young women were seduced or raped in her ashram by other male authority figures there. Her response has been to protect the perpetrators and blame the girls and young women, commanding them to keep the secret. Blake-White states that because the incest perpetrator is a trusted parent, the victim can be ambivalent and confused about her own feelings to the point that she may doubt her own reality.
Because cult members are being violated by their idolized guru (or the guru is protecting their violators), they may suffer a similar confusion of reality. This is demonstrated in SYDA, for example, where many parents accepted the sexual abuse of their daughters by Muktananda as a gift of divine grace, and devotees who knew of his sexual activities ignored or rationalized them as having a divine purpose.
In addition to issues of sexual abuse, other kinds of secrets that cult members may be asked to keep include illegal practices such as money laundering, violence toward group enemies, use of illegal weapons, smuggling, and so on. Members who attempt to speak out against abuses in the cult may be discredited, intimidated, or shamed into believing that their own inner corruption is being projected. Similarly, the incest victim is told that she provoked her own mistreatment. Loyal members make every effort to manipulate the guilt mechanisms of those who criticize the group, with logic-twisting comments such as, “these destructive things you say are hurting people’s spiritual progress.” Similarly, the incest victim is told that revealing the secret will destroy the family.
When cult members emerge from confusion, and become aware of having been deceived and betrayed, their rage and despair may be enormous. Yet cult members also struggle with issues of loyalty to the perpetrator, and many remain emotionally crippled by confusion and self-doubt. Like Ms. B. repeatedly reenacting her trauma, many cultists become disillusioned in one cult only to join another. Many feel an irresistible pull to return to the original cult in which they were abused.
It should not be surprising that cult survivors, having suffered traumatic violations such as those described above, often present with a very broad range of problems. While it is not within the scope of this paper to review in detail current theories of work with this population, I will briefly present some of the major points on the subject. Both Giambalvo and Tobias provide detailed information on their own work with cult members (also see Hassan; Langone, 1993). They break down the problem areas for cult survivors that workers should be aware of as follows:
While the above list is fairly comprehensive, there are crucial aspects of recovery from trauma that Herman (p. 213) emphasizes that should not be overlooked when working with cult victims. These include helping the client to:
The latter point is particularly relevant for cult members who may be faced with extreme isolation because they became estranged from all but other cult members. Restoring pre-cult significant relationships, especially family relationships, can help provide desperately needed support for the survivor. Steve Hassan, a leading exit counselor of cult members and their families, considers family therapy to be an essential element in recovery from cults. Before intervening with a cult member, Hassan works with the member’s family to address the systemic problems of communication and relating that may have contributed to the alienation of the member. He then assists the family and the cult member with the complex process of reconnecting. In addition, families of cult members often suffer terrible anguish and confusion over the plight of the member.
They, too, often seek counseling to attempt to cope with the disruption the cult has caused in their lives. The Cult Clinics in New York and Los Angeles, maintained by Jewish family service agencies, use individual, couples and group modalities to help families with members who have become involved in cults.
Cult survivors may benefit enormously from group work. Lorna and William Goldberg (Goldberg et al.) are social workers who have run an ongoing support group for cult survivors for more than 15 years, in which former members offer mutual aid to each other as they readjust to society. The Goldbergs see three stages in recovery that they help group members to identify and work through:
The Goldbergs find that members who work through these three stages in the support group are often interested in continuing in individual psychotherapy, as a means of better understanding the dynamics that led them to be vulnerable to cult participation.
Individual, group and family therapy may all be helpful modes of intervention with cult survivors. Ultimately, the most helpful aspect of treatment for the survivor is an empathic worker who has knowledge and understanding of issues pertaining to cults. Aside from information available in the literature on the subject (see the References section), various organizations exist which serve as information, treatment and resource centers about cults. A list of some of these organizations is included at the end of this paper (see Table 1).
The general public has had a good deal of media exposure in recent years to child abuse, domestic violence, rape and incest issues. Cult issues, on the other hand, are generally only reported when the cult stockpiles arms or nerve gas, or involves members in mass homicides or suicides. These extreme cults provide the media with sensational stories, and the public perception of cults tends to be limited to this type of group. Yet these groups are the exception, not the rule. Far more prevalent are the cults that do not have arsenals, or take suicide pacts, or attempt to take over the world. These less overtly dangerous groups may appear benign, or eccentric but harmless. Unfortunately, they are rarely if ever harmless. Cults form around paranoid, sociopathic leaders who gain power, and often great wealth, through control and exploitation of members, whether it be one follower or hundreds of thousands (Hochman; Tobias). These leaders call themselves gurus, priests, teachers, trainers, or therapists. Murder and suicide may or may not take place, but violations similar in essence to battering, rape and incest do. These traumatic violations are murders of the soul, secret, invisible murders that never make the headlines.
I recently assisted in an exit counseling, an intervention requested by a man in his early 40s who wished to extricate his wife from the cult they had become involved in, which was also the cult I had been in. The intervention was educational and entirely voluntary, with the exit counselor speaking from his extensive knowledge of cults in general, while I offered specific information about my own experience of SYDA. While the husband had been persuaded of the cult’s fraudulence prior to the intervention, the wife struggled painfully to integrate the information she was hearing with the ecstatic epiphanies she had experienced in the group. Toward the end of the intervention, as she began to accept the facts about the group, she said, with great emotion, “I have longed so all my life for a personal, intimate, experience of a loving God; where am I going to find that now?” In this poignant moment, it was apparent that the woman’s family of origin, and her marriage, had not been contexts in which she had been able to experience loving intimacy in ways that were fulfilling enough. Unmoved by and dissatisfied with the more traditional faith she had been brought up in, she had placed her hopes of finding this elusive love in the magic helpers of the New Age. If it is painfully difficult to feel that one is truly loved for who one truly is, one may long for a magical, flawless love — a love that can instill the conviction, once and for all, that one is indeed worthy of being loved.
Many clients I have seen have also experienced terrible disappointments and impediments in their attempts to love and feel loved, to trust, and to feel fulfilled. They have experienced betrayal and exploitation at the hands of parents they idealized. They had to sacrifice themselves to meet the narcissistic requirements of those whom they depended on. Some never received the necessary mirroring for a sense of self even to develop; or they came to define themselves as unlovable and unwanted. Their search for acceptance and love has been, above all else, lonely.
For Kohut (1984), the hallmark of therapeutic cure is the client’s sense of security derived from his newfound ability to elicit empathic resonance from his human surroundings; or in other words, the ability to feel sustained and nurtured by different forms of human connectedness. For some, the inability to even imagine this connectedness leads to addiction, compulsiveness, isolation and despair. For others, the search for connectedness leads to enslavement to a guru figure, a magic helper.
As a social worker, my use of self has been deeply affected by my experience and understanding of cult abuse. Many of the clients I have seen in the last two years who come for treatment have reached the end of their rope. They have depended on magic helpers — drugs, sex, food, and many others — to the point where they feel themselves on the brink of self-annihilation. They want to find a way out of their enslavement, but the alternative freedom is unfathomable. They want assurance to know that if they relinquish the magic, and find themselves faced with the terror of meaninglessness and aloneness, their pain will not be endless and unendurable.
Among the many tasks I might have in helping these clients, an essential task I perceive is to be with them — to help them to feel less alone, as they find the courage to live through the pain of what they have not dared to face. If I can help them feel less alone, then, gradually, I can try to help them make sense of their suffering. This is the step in recovery from trauma that Herman refers to when she says, “finally, the person has reconstructed a coherent system of meaning and belief that encompasses the story of the trauma” (p. 213).
As I have struggled to construct a coherent system of meaning and belief about my own traumatic experience in a religious cult, my social work education and field work have provided me with a sustaining connection to the knowledge and values of a profession which I embrace and feel embraced by. It is my hope that what I have learned may be of help to others.
American Family Foundation (AFF) Director: Michael D. Langone P.O. Box 2265 Bonita Springs, FL 33959 (212) 249-7693
The Cult Clinic, c/o The Jewish Board of Children and Family Services, 120 W. 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, (212) 632-4640
Counseling Services Cult Clinic and Hotline Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services Director: Arnold Marcowitz, MSW 120 W. 57th St. New York, NY 10019 (212) 632-4640
Cult Clinic Jewish Family Service 6505 Wilshire Blvd., 6th Floor Los Angeles, CA 90048 (213) 852-1234
Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center Director: Paul R. Martin P.O. Box 67 Albany, OH 45710 (614) 698-6277
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