Traumatic Abuse in Cults: An Exploration of an Unfamiliar Social Problem by Daniel Shaw, C.S.W |

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March 7 by The Running Son

Traumatic Abuse in Cults: An Exploration of an Unfamiliar Social Problem

Hakuin's Daruma

by Daniel Shaw, C.S.W
original source

 (This essay uses SYDA (Siddha Yoga) as an example of an abusive cult)Table of Contents
* Introduction
* What Is a Cult, and Why Do People Get Involved in Them?
* Seduction
* 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
* Rape
* Battering
* Incest
* Working With Cult Survivors
* Conclusions
* Table I: Resource Organizations
* References


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. my personal experience, both as a devotee of SYDA and now a former devotee,
2. the social work and other social sciences literature on cults, and
3. my field work experience of providing psychotherapeutic treatment to clients with backgrounds of trauma and abuse, to:

1. further social work knowledge and understanding of the traumatic impact of religious cults;
2. explore the commonalities between victims of cult abuse and other forms of abuse, such as rape, incest, and battering;
3. attempt to understand aspects of our culture that have fostered a climate in which so many find themselves exposed to exploitative and abusive behaviors in cultic groups; and
4. highlight the themes of my social work education that have been most relevant for me, in connection with my work with clients and my personal experience of abusive behaviors in cults.

What Is a Cult, and Why Do People Get Involved in Them?

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,
1. exhibits great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing,
2. uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, and socialize members (i.e., to integrate them into the group’s unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and
3. systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members,
4. exploits members to advance the leadership’s goals, and
5. causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community (p. 5).

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

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;
2. Mystical manipulation, or planned spontaneity – a systematic  process, covertly planned and managed by the group leader,  whereby others come to invest him with omniscience,  omnipotence, or divine authority. This gives rise to the  embrace of an “ends justify the means” philosophy, since the  behavior and directives of the leader are always and only  interpreted as having a divine origin and purpose;
3. Demand for purity – the call for a radical separation of pure  and impure, of good and evil, within an environment and  within oneself. This creates a world of guilt and shame in  which devotees become obsessively preoccupied with hope of  reward and fear of punishment;
4. Cult of confession – linked to the demand for purity.  Required confession sessions, ostensibly for the purpose of  purification and spiritual evolution, manipulate the guilt  and shame mechanisms of followers, expose them totally to the  group, and deepen their sense of being owned by the group;  5. Sacred science – a set of dogmatic principles which claim to  be a science embodying the truth about human behavior and  human psychology. These principles must never be questioned,  and all experience must be filtered through them;
6. Loading the language – reduction and distortion of complex  concepts, thoughts, and feelings to simplistic clichés  and slogans, which are used to still and limit mental  processes of judgment and critical thinking;
7. Doctrine over person – one is made to feel that doubts of the  doctrine are a reflection of one’s own inadequacies, defects,  or sins. The dogma is truth, and one’s subjective experience  must be aligned with the dogma. To do otherwise is to risk  exclusion from the group. Since the doctrine is created to  serve the purposes of the sociopathic leader, followers must  split off or dissociate parts of themselves, and jettison  their own values, to justify actions or tenets of the leader  which would otherwise be intolerable to them.
8. Dispensing of existence – in the totalistic vision of truth,  one who disobeys, or deviates from the dogma, is false,  deluded, or evil, and therefore instantly dispensable. The  leaders are the judge of who is deviant, and can change their  criteria at whim. Cults use the fear of banishment and  shunning to control and contain members. To fear rejection by  one’s absolute ideal is tantamount to the profound dread of  annihilation. (See also Singer and Ofshe, 1990; Tobias et al.  For other theories of social control relevant to cults, see  Festinger, 1964; Gramsci, 1973; Zimbardo, 1988.)

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.

Social Work Values vs. Cult Values

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:
1. what are the traumas this population most commonly suffers,
2. how do we understand the role of pre-existing pathology versus imposed pathology in working with cult victims, and
3. what are the struggles in recovery this population and their families face as they leave the cult and re-enter the community?

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

 Inner Emptiness and the Culture of Narcissism

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.

The Question of Pre-Existing and Induced Pathology: Blaming the Victim

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:
1. pre-existing pathology and induced pathology, and
2. the question of blaming the victim.

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.).

 The Dominating Leader and the Submissive Follower

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.

 Traumas Suffered by Cult Members

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.

 Working With Cult Survivors

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:
1. the disarming of internalized mind-control mechanisms, and  education about deception and abuse in the cult (this step is  often accomplished in exit counseling, a specialized,  non-coercive, short-term educational intervention  specifically geared to cult issues);
2. becoming free of fears of being harmed by the cult leaders or  members. Specific fears could include: physical or verbal  assault; release of confidential and potentially embarrassing  information; or “divine retribution” in the form of accidents  or misfortunes. Because of indoctrination, these fears are  often intense at first, and can reach the point of panic  anxiety;
3. management of post-traumatic stress symptoms, particularly  “floating,” a dissociative state experienced in connection  with damage from excessive meditation, chanting, mantra  repetition, etc.;
4. grief work in relation to loss and betrayal;
5. issues related to sexual abuse which may have taken place in the cult;
6. health issues and medical care, including diet, which has often been protein-deficient;
7. aid in restoring financial stability and planning for the future, including vocational or educational planning;
8. issues related to sexuality;
9. restoring trust in relationships and managing intimacy, in the context of friends and family;
10. restoring self-esteem;
11. finding meaning in the experience; addressing spirituality, values and beliefs.

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:
1. create a coherent narrative, linked with feeling, from the memory of the trauma; and
2. reestablish important relationships.

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:
1. the stage of self-doubt, confusion, and depression,
2. the reemergence of the pre-cult personality, often accompanied by actions aimed at exposure of the group, and
3. the stage of integration, which includes the ability to accept positive aspects of the cult experience along with the negative, and which is marked by a resumption of goal-oriented activities geared toward productivity and self-fulfillment.

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.

 Table 1: Resource Organizations


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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RFB editor Jim Aldrich, Joshua Tree CA 2013

RunningSon aka Jim Aldrich, Joshua Tree CA 2013 | This site is dedicated with the deepest gratitude to Dr. Cláudio Naranjo, whose writings gave me life.

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