Inside the cult controversies: Recovery from abusive groups
Joe Szimhart, 9/11/11
This controversial and colorful topic of cults provokes a wide array of opinion as well as confusion. I hope to clarify some things here. My qualifications in this field come from self-education and experience since 1980 as an educator and intervention specialist including more than 500 “exit counseling” cases on an international scale, as a media consultant, lecturer and writer as well as countless hours of volunteer time helping former cult members.
Almost all exit counselors (aka deprogrammers) since the 1970s have been former members of a cult. I am no exception. Most ex-members who have tried their hand at the exit business quit after a year or two and entered normal professions. My cult chapter began when I developed a deep interest as an artist in Theosophy sects (primarily Agni Yoga) in the 1970s. Many of the Modern artists and poets I studied were involved with the Theosophical Society (e.g. W Kandinsky, F Kupka, P Mondrian, W B Yeats). By 1979, out of perhaps too much curiosity, I was caught-up in a large, apocalyptic, puritanical New Age sect rooted in Theosophy. The effect of attending several conferences with 4,000 enthusiastic devotees inCalifornia changed me to the point that it ruined my first marriage. My wife of 6 years would have none of it: the changed attitudes and behaviors about music, sex, diet, politics, literature, history, spirituality, etc. After recognizing a host of conflicts a year after our divorce, I defected, or rather struggled away, on my own in 1980.
Recovery from that experience demanded an enormous amount of self-education with social, psychological and spiritual adjustment, but the years of healing taught me what so many other former cult members I met go through. My efforts and lectures drew attention from cult awareness groups, the media, deprogrammers and exit counselors. Subsequently, I chaired and lectured for a cult awareness and counseling group from 1985-1992 in New Mexico and began my international exit counseling career from there.
Exit counseling cases typically lasted several days to a week or more away from home. The business of exit counseling is very demanding on many levels, not a secure way to make a living, and requires a working knowledge of many hundreds of cultic groups, group behavior, influence techniques, social psychology, comparative religion and legal variations in different nations. Making public statements about controversial organizations can be risky. No organization backs exit counselors mainly because no insurance company will protect against liability (I stood trial successfully twice against charges by a large martial arts cult and a larger new age cult and was deposed by Church of Scientology and Ramtha School of Enlightenment, for example, all at my cost). My few colleagues and I regularly get inquires from graduate students who express keen interest in the field, but none have followed up after learning what it requires and the individual risk involved. As a result the field of exit counseling has shrunk to less than a handful of full time cult interventionists inAmericatoday.
My goal in this article is to briefly cover three areas:
Cults, properly defined, have been around since human beings devised devotional and sacrificial rites to influence and appease natural forces, powerful or fickle gods, special people or ancestors, and objects with magical power. Consider that ancient Greek and so-called pagan religion was in reality an extensive collection of non-exclusive cults directed at deities like the Sun (Helios), Zeus, Apollo, and Mithra. Sometime early in the 20th Century “cult” migrated out of its proper and neutral academic definition in popular jargon to indicate spurious, radical and possibly harmful groups with charismatic leaders of questionable character and motive. It is this popular definition of cult that I am dealing with in this article. A religious position ensued by mid-20th Century, primarily among Evangelical camps defining cult as any form of worship not in compliance with Evangelical interpretation of the Bible. Similar attitudes exist among Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists that view all outside their elite if constricted view as “infidels.” In other words, cults are “other” religions to a Fundamentalist. However, in my view and that of most of my colleagues in the cult intervention field, this is not a religious belief problem but it does involve questions regarding knowledge and how that influences conduct and governance.
The cult problem is more about behavior than belief. Harmful cult behavior is the problem, but what constitutes harm? Many scholars have proposed models and definitions. I will mention a few here that make sense to me and have proved highly useful in academic research.
Janja Lalich, PhD, a professor of sociology (and a personal friend) developed one of the more recent models called “Bounded Choice” which she presented as her dissertation and later published as a book by that title in 2004. The subtitle of her dissertation sums up the problem well: “The Fusion of Personal Freedom and Self-Renunciation in Two Transcendent Groups.” As a college graduate and Merit Scholar after 1967, Lalich ventured into the human rights field and soon joined the Democratic Workers Party headed by a charismatic woman with connections to national migrant workers organizations. After 11 years of service Lalich and others broke away from the DWP thus dissolving the small but potent organization, realizing a deep violation of personal freedom imposed by social and psychological forces that blinded her as to what was really going on. The leader, an unrecovered alcoholic, went into a rage when her followers defected and moved onto other things. As Lalich states, “I wanted to figure out what the heck happened to me.” She soon got involved, as I did in the 1980s, with cult awareness groups and with scholars in “brainwashing” theory including Dr Benjamin Zablocki (Rutgers), Dr Margaret T Singer (1921-2003), Dr L Jolyn West (1924-99), and Dr Robert Jay Lifton (b1926).
Lalich’s Bounded Choice model compares her political cult experience with that of the Heaven’s Gate “UFO” cult led by Marshall Applewhite. Heaven’s Gate made headlines in 1997 when 39 members were found dead in California after a ritual suicide. Although Marshall Applewhite quietly co-led this cult under various other names (He and She; Bo and Peep; The Overcomers) for over 25 years, the final act is what people recall. Until that final act, most people and the press will generally ignore eccentric groups much as they ignore a homeless person with schizophrenia until that person defaces a national monument or kills a celebrity.
Drawing on Anthony Giddens’s (1984) theory of structuration, Herbert Simon’s (1955, 1956, 1976) theory of bounded rationality, and Robert Jay Lifton’s (1961) theory of personal closure, Lalich identifies four “organizational aspects” that contribute to harmful cult behavior:
Lalich says, “The result of this interactive dynamic is a “self-sealing system,” that is, a social system that is closed to disconfirming evidence and structured in such a way that everything reinforces the system. “Bounded choice” theory helps us understand the seemingly irrational behavior of the most dedicated adherents. The theory attempts to take into account individual choice within the context of an authoritarian, transcendent, closed group.”
Lalich taps Lifton’s “theory of personal closure” or the experience adherents have under thought reform systems with Totalist agendas. Dr Lifton’s 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A study of “brainwashing” in Communist China remains a seminal resource for anyone worldwide studying the cult/brainwashing phenomenon. Lifton identified eight “themes” that appear to create a climate of thought reform (hsi-nao in Chinese means ‘cleanse mind’ or ‘wash brain’ but properly translated means thought reform) to create a deployable agent for a sacred cause. These themes occur throughout military training, corporate behavior codes, and almost any exclusive group, club or gang formation to some degree, but Lifton is clear that the more “totalist” an agenda becomes, the more closure or bounded choice an individual will experience.
Lifton’s eight themes:
High-demand or totalist cult systems, according to Lifton and Lalich, create an elite atmosphere wherein loyal members can never do enough, know enough or be pure enough, thus setting up a continual feeling of shame and guilt that the managers can readily exploit.
Dr Kathleen Taylor (2006), a neuroscientist, wrote Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control using Lifton’s eight themes as a sociological structure to help explain her research on how our brains work when thinking creatively as opposed to unhealthy, inflexible “neuro-pathways” that develop under influence of cults and in abusive relationships. More importantly,Taylor offers a remedy to brainwashing by explaining how “stop and think” techniques primarily located in the pre-frontal cortex work to keep our brains healthy and our choices wise.
Dr Arthur Deikman (2003), a psychiatrist, expanding on his 1994 version of this book, defines cult behavior in Them and Us: Cult thinking and terrorist threat  according to four behaviors:
My four-part model of a harmful a cult was published several years ago:
Cults often begin after a leader or hero establishes a charismatic relationship with followers or fans. Most often this ends there, as in “She has a cult following” when we talk about a popular singer, writer, or actress. Sometimes this kind of hero worship escalates in academia for a philosopher or innovator in behavioral health. The Plato Cult by David Stone (1991) addresses the unrealistic adulation we have for famous philosophers. Now, do not jump to any conclusions from the title—Professor Stone is by no means dismissing Plato’s real value as a philosopher. What he does throughout in his series of essays is bring great philosophers down to earth:
“The case of Plato is not at all unique, merely extreme. In fact, all great philosophers attract a reverence which is far stronger and more widespread than that which, by any rational estimate, they are entitled to. The idolatry of Aristotle, for four hundred years after the revival of his philosophy in the twelfth century, is a stock example. But Kant, similarly, has enjoyed for two hundred years a reputation as a philosopher which is ridiculously exaggerated: as is the odour of Enlightenment-sanctity which surrounds his life. Hegel’s philosophy is now as much respected as it deserves to be despised, and even his most prosaic (not to say sordid) political adjustments are represented, in retrospect, as Absolute Spirit working itself out in history. And so on.”
In the same vein as Stone, Robert Lifton in his book The Protean Self (1993) offers an antidote to not only the sense of fragmentation we experience in the modern world but also the temptation we all have to accept soothing, totalist answers to deal with fragmentation. Lifton points to certain notable behavioral science theorists that create a charismatic relationship with their academic followers. Regarding 20th Century behavioral health theorists R.D.Laing, Jacques Lacan, Heinz Kohut, Lifton writes:
“Laing, Lacan, and Kohut experienced an irony in common: each took on a powerful charisma for an immediate group of followers, a process that inevitably “stops time,” imparts a form of magic to intellectual exchange, and thereby undermines the original exploratory impulse.”
In a sense, cults create a transcendent experience that “stops time” for the follower who feels the aura of a final answer to life’s questions. Thereby, “the original exploratory impulse” that got them there freezes. All that remains is to deflect criticism and doubt and to stay in orbit around the perceived savior or guru. The more constricted the orbit, the more potential for harm due to abslute devotion to the controversial person, idea, or object.
In summary, there is no scientifically established or legally accepted definition of harmful cult mind control or brainwashing in the United States. Established law does acknowledge undue influence, fraud, harassment, terroristic threat, and other factors that contribute to brainwashing or mind control, also known as coercive persuasion, gaslighting, and thought reform. A number of American, British and Australian scholars have been contentiously arguing over the validity of thought reform theory since the 1970s. Existing religions and eccentric social clubs are wary of established legal parameters regarding aggressive recruitment and conversion techniques. Official positions regarding cults vary from nation to nation with Germany, Israel, Russia and France having perhaps the most rigorous national safeguards against harmful cult activity for obvious reasons stemming from a variety of totalist movements that devastated Europe and Asia in the 20th Century.
Remedies and recovery
Recovery is the best revenge!
Most people, as I did, leave spurious, radical and possibly harmful groups with charismatic leaders of questionable character and motive on their own. Some studies estimate that 80% of new recruits to high demand, spurious groups tend to defect within the first few years. Cult life can be very demanding. Think of a modified boot camp that never ends! The high demands can also be quite subtle yet deeply psychological. A loyal cult member can maintain a mainstream job with an apparently seamless co-existence in society. Think of the men one year before they piloted airplanes into the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Many cult members defect out of shame and not because they see anything wrong with the group; rather, they feel inadequate for the demanding, holy, or total task. Others, realizing how deeply they were duped, go through stages of anger, grief and retaliation all at once and not in any sequence, as I did. I was lecturing against the group soon after I defected. Most however choose not to retaliate recognizing the toll this might take on emotional and psychological recovery, not to mention personal risk. Some of my colleagues and I have been defamed, harassed, picketed and sued by cult groups. For example, I was asked to present papers twice (1996, 97) at annual meetings of the Association for Sociology of Religion. Scientology operatives that attended my presentation, demanded I not be permitted to speak, a demand never before experienced by theASR. In 1992, an IRSagent informed me that a martial arts cult, whose leader John C. Kim went to jail as a result of my work exiting several high ranking members, had a “hit” out on me. That group also sued me for “slander.” The judge in Houston threw it out but it cost me and others named—lawyers do not come cheap!
Concerned family members and close friends of cult members often consider intervention, not willing to just stand by and watch someone they love potentially waste relationships, money, and time on something so controversial and offensive to them. The intervention “industry” began in recent history during the 1970s after new mass therapies like “est”, Jesus movements like the Children of God and Peoples Temple, Eastern movements led by gurus and Zen masters from India, Japan and Korea, and channeling cults led by people who “spoke” as gods and angels mushroomed as if out of nowhere in Europe and America. By some counts, more than 3,000 new cultic groups existed inAmericaby the late 1970s. Although many of these groups have imploded, faded away, or been absorbed into mainstream after de-radicalization, new ones are always appearing. The cult problem may have changed due to a new era of Internet and social mobility, but the cult problem has not gone away by any stretch of the imagination.
Deprogramming was coined around 1974 by Ted Patrick and others who would often but not always resort to kidnapping or house arrest to “rescue” someone from a purported cult. Judges throughout the United States might sign restraining orders or involuntary commitment papers (LS-302 in Pennsylvania) to temporarily detain cult members for deprogramming, but this legal practice was challenged by Katz v. Superior Court , 73 Cal. App. 3rd 952 (1977). The decision effectively ended all court orders for deprogramming adults in America. Thereafter, anyone who participated in any way in coercive detainment of an adult for exit counseling would always risk a criminal charge and trial. Statistically, close to half of all coercive interventions failed, so legal retaliation was a strong possibility. Some of my colleagues and I took these risks in some cases until the early 1990s. I stood trial once in Idaho for an expensive month two years after a failed, coercively initiated intervention, but was acquitted of all charges. Coercive or illegal deprogramming effectively ended in the vUnited States 20 years ago.
The legal intervention, sometimes called non-coercive exit counseling, developed throughout the past four decades with various approaches. The typical cult intervention differs from intervention with addicts in various ways. The goal of intervention with an addict is to convince the person to sign in for treatment as soon as possible. The treatment facility or therapist is responsible for evaluation and educational factors that support recovery. Family interventions with addicts fail or succeed within a few hours if that.
Nearly all interventions with cult members take place by surprise after extensive preparation by the consultant(s) with concerned persons. The preparation of families can last one to three days prior to actual intervention which may occur immediately. Most occur weeks to many months down the road. Access to the cult member can be a major problem as most have already had ugly arguments with spouses or family, thus the topic is avoided. In most cases, easy access and communication have already been cut off by the time I am contacted.
The ideal intervention begins with the client away from the group or person of influence in a comfortable setting that will allow for many hours to several days of conversation and discussion. In my experience and that of my colleagues during interventions of this type, 10 to 16 hour days were typical. Marathon discussions included educational video, extensive documentation and interaction with ex-members in person or over the phone. Family members or concerned adult friends were always present.
Exit counselors rarely work one on one during intervention for a variety of reasons including liability and support for meals, errands etc. Obviously, the client (cult member) can end the discussions at any time. Exit counselors will leave the premises if the client no longer wants to interact. The family however may continue to try to persuade the client to re-engage the exit counselor, thus re-starting the meeting. Sometimes interventions can stall for hours or even days before realizing a successful exit of the person from the cult. Due to the educational content shared during exit counseling, recovery begins during the process. Recovery means that “stop and think” parts of the brain have been re-engaged regarding ingrained beliefs, charismatic attachments, and constricted behaviors. Although most of the following factors are addressed during intervention, re-socialization after a cult experience depends on many factors including finances, mental health, employment, relocation, children, medical condition, cult induced phobias, etc. Because cultic groups vary widely in formation, purpose and number, and individual experience varies among members of the same group, there is no set recovery plan that works for everyone. Nevertheless, Take Back Your Life: Recovering from cults and abusive relationships seems to have enough solid information to remain useful for most any former cult member.
Several, small post-cult rehab centers exist in the United States. Many have come and gone since the late 1970s. Wellspring Retreat in Albany, Ohio has the most enduring program with perhaps the most significant research in the field. The Wellspring model has influenced a host of similar efforts in other nations. Most of these centers are poorly funded with insurance covering little if anything. The vast majority of former cult members are not only devastated emotionally immediately after such an experience, but tend to have little financial support. Most are mature adults in age between 25 and 45. Many are “second generation adults” or SGAs that have special recovery problems as they never had a life outside the cult. Therapist Colleen Russell works with SGAs in her practice. Carol Giambalvo has long hosted former member workshops, including special sessions for SGAs on a regional basis in connection with the International Cultic Studies Association.
In the Middle East, Indonesia, United Kingdom, Singapore, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq moderate Muslim clerics have used an exit counseling technique to re-socialize Islamist radicals and terrorists. This is a fascinating phenomenon with highly successful results. It depends wholly on what one young Egyptian student said after 9/11 when asked, “What will it take to defeat extremists?” He answered with one word: “Education.” Exit counseling is primarily an educational process that uses principles of healthy skepticism, civility, verifiable facts from history, group dynamics, and choice theory. The tough part is getting it started without excessive or illegal coercion. In most cases of Islamist radicals and terrorists, the person is already incarcerated, so “classes” are readily arranged.
But the old controversy remains: Civil libertarians will claim that these “prisoners” are being coerced to renounce their religious beliefs, thus violating civil rights. To me this is tantamount to arguing it is wrong to re-educate an engineer who designs high rise buildings with flawed techniques for building a foundation. In the very least, that engineer must be stopped from contributing to another high rise structure if he does not accept re-education.
There is a lot I have not covered that qualifies as a cultic abuse relationship. I have had clients for exit counseling from all of the following that may appear not to be cultic yet falls under the parameter of undue influence and psychological coercion: One-on-one dominance through folie à deux, spousal abuse or battered women’s syndrome, crime syndicates, boot camps for recovery from addictions, and gang formation to name a few. I will not overwhelm the reader with too many references, but here are some websites that you may find useful:
Prochaska, JO; Norcross, JC; DiClemente, CC (1995) Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward
 http://www.agniyoga.org/ (around 3 million people inRussia today adhere to Agni Yoga. Notable US members: Alan Arkin, the American actor and Henry Wallace, Sect. of Agriculture under the F D Roosevelt)
 Founded in 1958 by Mark Prophet (real name; died 1973) the Summit Lighthouse changed its name to Church Universal and Triumphant under the dynamic leadership of Mark Prophet’s second wife, Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939-2007). Today it primarily goes by Summit Lighthouse again.
 David Stone. The Plato Cult: And other philosophical follies (Basil Blackwell, Inc.,1991)
 IBID xii
 http://www.ucm.es/info/unisci/revistas/UNISCI DP 21 - ROHAN.pdf; http://www.cultnews.com/?cat=18