I thank my husband for his profound sense of support, patience and love throughout this project. He has certainly paved his way into heaven.
I would like to thank Steven Hassan. He was always available and his suggestions at times provided pivotal links in the continuation of my work.
Cults have become a phenomenon in our world today. There are thousands of members in the United States alone. Ex-members exhibit symptoms of posttraumatic stress due to the use of mind control techniques which are used within the cults. 10 ex-members of cults were sought out through the internet to participate in a survey which was designed to assess whether ex-cult members suffer from symptoms of posttraumatic stress. The 4 page survey consisted of three parts; history, symptoms, and treatment. Age of involvement was usually early twenties and thirties. Subjects reported having a religious preference, several had close friends and most had up to 3 years of college education. The majority of subjects experienced a predominant loss prior to joining the cult. A few had traumatic experiences preceding membership. Subjects did not display posttraumatic stress disorder prior to joining a cult unless they had experienced a trauma. Ex-cult members clearly showed that dissociative symptoms are central to the cult experience. Almost all subjects sought multiple treatments for recovery. These included; psychotherapy, individual and group, medication, pastoral counseling and exit counseling.
|Table of Contents|
|Chapter 1 Introduction|
|Chapter 2 About Cults|
|Chapter 3 About Cult Members|
|Chapter 4 What Effect do Cults Have on Their Members|
|Chapter 5 Treatment|
|Chapter 6 Methodology|
|Chapter 7 Conclusion|
Cults have become like weeds in our world today. According to West (1993) there are about 2500 cults in the country currently. They are constantly sprouting and growing where they are not wanted. Cults operate using mind control. A cult may consist of any group of people who have a set of beliefs and rituals which are non-mainstream. They consist of exploitively manipulative groups which utilize thought reform programs (Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer & Ofshe, 1990) to subordinate members well-being to the goals of leaders (Langone, in press). Some members may eventually free themselves, but may exhibit symptoms of posttramatic stress disorder.
Cults are becoming an ever increasing phenomenon in our world. Hassan (1988) noted “Imagine if you will, business executives in three-piece suits sitting in hotel ballrooms for company-sponsored ‘awareness’ training, unable to get up to go to the bathroom. Housewives attending ‘psych-up rallies’ so they can recruit friends and neighbors into a pyramid sales organization. Hundreds of students gathering at an accredited university being told they can levitate and ‘fly’ through the air if they only meditate hard enough. High-school students practicing satanic rituals involving blood and urine directed by an older leader who claims he will be their personal power. Hundreds of people of every description paying huge sums to learn cosmic truths from a ‘channeled’ spirit” (p. 35).
The recent mass suicide of the 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate is another example of this phenomenon. This incident recently took place near Rancho Sante Fe, California. The group engaged in the mass suicide under the belief that they would join a UFO which was “hiding” behind the Hale-Bopp comet. This is an example of how a leader can use mind control to guide a person’s thoughts and behavior.
“It is estimated that there are now approximately three thousand destructive cults in the United States, involving as many as three million people” (Hassan, p. 36). Some of the groups that we should be concerned with are: The Unification Church (The Moonies); The Church of Scientology (Dianetics); The Way International; The Hare Krishnas (ISKCON), Transcendental Meditation (TM); Jehovah’s Witnesses; Chun Moo Quan (martial arts); U.S. Labor Party (LaRouche); SYDA Yoga; Re-Evaluation Co-Counseling; and Lifespring.
“The Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI-I) showed that the most popular age group attracted to cults was between the ages of 19 to 25″( Martin, Langone, Dole and Wiltrout, 1992, p. 224). This constituted 48% of the two groups of former cultists who were administered the MCMI. The next age group was the 26 to 35 year olds and they came to 31%. Children under the age of 14 and adults over the age of 36 were the least susceptible to cult coercion. It is interesting to note that Catholicism was the most prominent religious upbringing among these members. Protestant Liberal came in second. Could religion play a role in providing psychological strength and empowerment in resisting cults?
Cults are groups of people who do not have mainstream belief systems. This doesn’t sound so harmful, but when does a cult begin to become dangerous? Hassan (1988) explains that “essentially a destructive cult is a pyramid shaped authoritarian regime with a person or group of people that have dictatorial control. It uses deception in recruiting new members (e.g. people are NOT told up front what the group is, what the group actually believes and what will be expected of them if they become a member). It also uses mind control techniques to keep people dependent and obedient. Destructive cults try to “clone” people to become small versions of the cult leader, rather than respect people’s individuality, creativity and self-will.” Not all cults are dangerous. There are therapy cults, political cults, and business cults. A cult may consist of one person controlling another or a group that contains millions of people. Many destructive cults envelop religious, political and business enterprises.
Cults effect individuals and then insidiously permeate society. Cults are organized to utilize mind control. This is the main reason for concern. An individual recruited by a cult loses their individuality. Look at Hitler. He represents the extreme of how far a cult can take destructive thinking. As individuals are brought together they increase their power. Cult power is usually the installation of a single individual’s distorted thinking. This eventually seeps out into society through political, financial and medical institutions. The results can be all controlling. Reverend Sun Myung Moon, cult leader of the Moonies, is a good example of a leader using his recruits to permeate all of these kinds of institutions within the United States.
Mind control can cause an unnatural state in a human being and cause them to form a new identity or use defense mechanisms to protect themselves. The cult experience can turn into a traumatic event leading the member to become traumatized and develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTSD). It is these symptoms of PTSD that I am interested in. Is there a pre-cult psychopathology that predisposes individuals to develop these symptoms? Does an individual’s familial setting play a part in this development? Once we have explored these questions we are ready to look at the cult member who has exited the cult and is now besieged with PTSD symptoms. This area has been acknowledged in therapeutic circles, but I feel it needs to be looked at more thoroughly with an emphasis on the physiological impact and how it causes problems in the psychological evolution of an individual. Then with this knowledge, we need to look at treatment. What is the best approach to rehabilitation for the problems ex-cult members present?
PTSD symptoms most commonly observed in ex-cult members are anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, sleeplessness, violent outbursts, memory loss, vivid flashbacks and somataform disorder. “The sample from the MCMI-I of ex-cultists can be characterized as having abnormal levels of distress in several of the personality and clinical symptoms scales. Research strongly suggests that the level of post-cult distress is quite high”(Martin, Langone, Dole, & Wiltrout, 1992, p. 219). It is for this purpose that we focus our attention to posttraumatic stress disorder in ex-cult members. They do exhibit psychological disorders from their cult experience. What are they and how do we treat them?
What is a cult? Why do cults frighten people? There is good reason. Hassan (1988) says, “Destructive cults, [which is what we are interested in], are basically pyramid-shaped authoritarian regimes with a person or group of people that have a dictatorial control. A cult uses deception in recruiting new members [e.g. people are not told up front what the group is, what the group actually believes and what will be expected of them if they become members.] It also uses mind control techniques, to keep people dependent and obedient. Destructive cults try to “clone” people to become small versions of the cult leader, rather than respect a person’s individuality, creativity and self-will” (internet, 1997).
Many cults come out of religious movements. They are based on current ideals and sentiments. They have strong charismatic leadership. Some cults eventually become a sect or mainstream religion. The best known of these groups would be the Mormon Church or Scientology (Isser, 1991). When a cult is based on religion it can be difficult to identify for unorthodox methods which could be perceived as mind control. The Church of Scientology has become very popular in Hollywood with such stars as John Travolta and Tom Cruise as followers. It is hard to denounce an organization’s legitimacy with such famous followers.
Isser and Ogontz (1991) point out that, “Cults may be perceived as a twentieth century phenomenon, their roots are based in the Western Christian experience. The cults of the 1960s and 70s were more communally oriented, such as the kibbutz movement in Israel. Today cults tend to be more narcissistic, quasi-therapeutic or Eastern-oriented. However, they still try to provide havens from the injustices or emotional scars of a fast-paced post-industrial society” (p. 110). We started to see in the 70s and 80s, cults using fraud and dishonest techniques in their recruiting. Some used extreme psychological pressure. Methods such as chanting, sleep deprivation, and separation from family were taken from earlier religious sects. “The imposition of humility and sometimes the use of public confession lowered self esteem and were especially effective in creating dependency” (Isser and Oguntz, p. 115).
Cult leaders are psychological manipulators who typically claim themselves as omnipotent messiahs. Isser and Ogontz ( 1991) emphasize that “Cults depend upon strong, charismatic leadership and their beliefs are syncretic combining a variety of current ideals and sentiments”(p. 104). Their belief systems are based in flattery, threats and guilt. Members are expected to give their total allegiance. A totalist cult is a theological system, developed with personal rituals and dogma, backed up by intensive fund-raising. Powerful coercive techniques are used such as isolation from friends and family, information control, and group pressure. The obedience and hierarchical structure serve as an adhesive for the group. There is an entire immersion into this alternate lifestyle which is based on the hopes, ambitions, and fears of their leader.
What are some modern day examples of what we have been discussing so far? West (1988) observed David Koresh in Waco, Texas. He illustrates, “Koresh was more a common man who knew the Bible than a religious leader. He did not live by religious criteria. His unethical treatment of his followers included sex with young girls and the wives of many of his followers, child abuse and mistreatment of people. This is not the conventional behavior of a spiritual being” (p. 3). Koresh definitely had his own agenda which he wanted people to follow.
The Moonies, founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, are connected to the Yakuza in Japan, which is an organized crime network. Hassan (1988) notes “The most important feature of it is the church’s position that Moon is the new messiah and that his mission is to establish a new “kingdom” on earth”(p.9). The Moonies believe that Christians are involved in Satanic forces with materialistic communism. This is of particular interest because Reverend Moon lives in extreme wealth while his followers live in deprived and abject poverty to support his cause. This again does not dictate the life of a spiritual man. Hassan (1988) further points out “The processes the moonies use to brainwash are identical to the processes used by the Communist Chinese in the 1950s” (p.9). Again, we see unorthodox methods used to initiate mind control of one’s followers.
A common characteristic of cults is the use of mind control. It is introduced and used on members gradually. There are four qualities that are specific to cult mind control that Hassan (1988) has identified. The first characteristic is that cults have strict rules of living. They may dictate how a member must dress, and what they may read or music they may listen to. They may not be allowed to have former relationships. The second is thought control. The member is taught to avoid having thoughts of personal reflection by using such techniques as mantras. Third is emotional control. The individual is made to feel guilty and full of shame for having any negative thoughts against the cult. A typical enforcement is to say that they are siding with the devil and not God by having these thoughts. The fourth aspect is information control. Incoming information through the media is frequently controlled. Incoming information may be only special material printed by the cult specifically for the members (Swartling and Swartling, 1992).
West and Martin (1988) purport that young and elderly people are prone to methods of affection and deception, such as love bombing. Love bombing is when the new recruit is surrounded by members who proclaim their feelings of love toward them and each other. For the person who is lonely or feels misunderstood, this is an attractive technique. These methods start out on a positive note but eventually become negative through mind control manipulation.
It is necessary to dissect and understand the stress that cults stimulate during their brainwashing techniques. It is this stress that leads to PTSD. West and Martin (1996) contend that under certain types of duress a person can be made to comply with those in power. It is under these types of stresses that a person can be made to act in a way that in uncharacteristic of their original identity. Thus they may be made to adopt behavior and beliefs that are not their own. “Brainwashing has come to mean intensive indoctrination in an attempt to induce someone to give up basic beliefs and attitudes and accept contrasting regimented ideas. The term is sometimes employed in a narrower sense, connoting forcible and prolonged procedures, including mental torture, and sometimes in a broader sense, as to persuade by propaganda”(West and Martin, p. 1). Brainwashing was originally founded for political indoctrination. It was used by Mao Tse-Tung and his followers to win over the Chinese people. It can be described as a vigorous effort to further communicate the misinterpretation of any information.
Today the word “brainwashing” has been replaced by “mind control.” West (1996) comments that this is now used to account for a cult’s domination and manipulation of their members. He says, “It is hard for people to understand how the followers of Jim Jones, L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, and Rajneesh, for example, are induced to do what they do, without involving the idea of mind control”(p.2). It might better be described by looking at it another way. Hassan (1988) adds, “Mind control is focused on the abuses of the mind. Some mind control techniques may be positive such as: prayer, meditation, hypnosis, visualization, ritual, altered breathing. These techniques can be used for positive benefit provided the locus of control remains with the individual” (internet, 1997, p. 1). He further points out that mind control is a system of influence that has the effect of changing a person’s identity. The new identity, in most cases, is one that the person would strongly object to if it were described to them before hand. “In a mind control environment, freedom of choice is the first thing one loses” (Hassan, p. 73). The cult leader’s philosophy determines the new identity of the member. This constitutes the member’s new reality.
O’Neill and Demos (1977) have likened the first step in the thought reform process to the creation of an identity crisis.
Historically, brainwashing was used to convert the Chinese to communism. It has come to mean intensive indoctrination (West, 1996). “The leader’s psychological control over the group members can be so powerful that the group essentially becomes a projection of the leader’s psyche. The dependency cult leaders induce may have serious consequences after leaving the cult as well as while in it” (Rosedale, 1993, p. 6). This phenomenon was even observed by Freud. Goldberg (1988) reports that “Freud described how groups have the power to induce a member to regress, conform and replace the member’s ego ideal with an identification with the leader”(p. 209).
Another example is the Koresh cult. “Former Koresh followers told bizarre tales of his mercurial temper, assaults, sleep deprivation and control of food and activities. He seemed to take pleasure in humiliating his followers, particularly if they questioned his teachings. He swore they faced eternal damnation if they strayed from his commands.” (Armageddon in Waco, 1993).
The many variations make it difficult to differentiate positive from negative cults. Jim Jones in Guyana, Charles Manson in California and Adolfo Constanzo in Matamoros satisfy the criteria for destructive cults, according to MacHovec (1992). People were hurt in these situations. However, he points out that Buddha, Socrates and Jesus also led groups that differed from mainstream beliefs, along with Gnostic Christians, Hassidic Jews and Sufi Moslems. Mormons and Quakers were viewed with suspicion for what seemed cult-like practices but were in time integrated into mainstream society. Isser and Ogontz (1991) point out that the earmarks of past and contemporary cults and fundamentalist sects were that they had common characteristics, whether they were manipulative, self-seeking, or idealist in purpose. The most common characteristic is that they have an absolute ideology that demands strict discipline and declines professional medical care.
Isser and Oguntz (1991) write, “Blacks found in cultic movements a source of comfort, assurance, and self expression. Native Americans found religious cults a useful way to confront the dominant culture, which denied them their lands and their traditional values” (p.111). Recruits today may find the cult atmosphere conducive to finally providing them with friends or relief from depression or drug addiction.
Today’s cult leaders are artful manipulators in persuasion and indoctrination. As Isser and Oguntz note (1991), “Leaders live in luxury while their members are given the most menial and demanding work, forced to live at poverty level. Even more frightening has been the violence that cult leaders have been able to promote either against themselves or the outside society” (p.116). The Jonestown massacre is an example of violence perpetrated against its own members as well as others; whereas Charles Manson and his cult murdered outsiders. There were also instances of terrorist violence by nominally social-political groups such as the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had cult-like aspects.
There is a wide variation among the different types of cults. West and Martin (1996) report, “In about 25% of cases, cults are found to have perpetrated sexual and physical coercion and other abuse, including the inculcation of fear, terror, or dread” (p.139). However, as long as an individual may freely choose to join a cult, understand the group-s doctrine, and may leave without harassment, this is not considered a mind-controlling cult.
The purpose of this paper is to gather information to prove that cults have a grave effect psychologically on people who have participated in them. “Expanded credibility has been given to the “brainwashing” or “coercive-persuasion” model by psychiatrists and mental health professionals who argue that involvement in non-traditional religions stems from manipulative psychological practices inducing ego destruction and overstimulation of the nervous system, resulting in a loss of rational decision making capacities and even a loss of free will (Clark et al., 1981 cited in Wright, 1991, p. 123).
The most impressive statistical information on post-cult symptoms before and after residential treatment was gathered by Martin et al. (1992) in the Millon Clinical Multiaxal Inventory (MCMI). “Two groups of former cultists were administered the MCMI and other psychological tests in order to assess the nature and magnitude of post-cult psychological problems. One group consisted of 13 former cultists who attended an educational conference on cults. The other group was made up of 111 former cultists who attended a residential treatment center (Martin, Langone, Dole, & Wiltrout, 1992). According to the MCMI, 48% of cult members had been between the ages of 19 to 25 years old when they joined. 35% had been between the ages of 26 to 35. I found it interesting that 26% were Protestant Liberals and 28% were Catholic. Do these religions cause their followers to go elsewhere for answers? 59% had three years of college. This dispels the myth that cult members are uneducated and don’t know any better. 44% had sought exit counseling and 25% had just walked away from the cults. It could be hypothesized that it is harder to just walk away and more people seek help to break their connection to the cults. Maron and Braverman (1988) also found that cult members were generally from middle class families, were recruited between the ages of 18 through 30, and attended college with a B average.
There has been speculation as to whether certain personality traits lead individuals to be drawn to cults. According to Margaret Singer (1987), “Just about anyone can join a cult. However, often it happens during a time of vulnerability in the person’s life” (Swartling and Swartling, p. 87). “The group often represents a solution to the conflicts aroused by society’s demands for autonomy” (Maron and Braverman, 1988, p. 35). These may be the reasons a person joins a cult, but it is through elaborate recruitment techniques that the cult is made attractive to the individual. West and Martin (1996) confirm that “The neophyte cultist enters it voluntarily”(p. 130).
Serious cult members often come from families that are dysfunctional and have difficulties in maintaining intimate relationships. Goldberg and Goldberg (1988) did a study on 4 youngsters who had been cult members. Each youth had idealistic and unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. This is typical of adolescents. Each came from a family where the parents had such high expectations of their children they, the children, felt like it was impossible for them to live up to the standards. “The cultic groups promised them a way to achieve a high standard or a vehicle by which they could escape disappointment in themselves. The groups held out the promise that they could fulfill idealistic dreams and feel loved and important. None of them thought he or she was joining a cult” (Goldberg and Goldberg, 1988, p. 206).
Studies by Levine (1981) show that alienation, demoralization, and low self-esteem made individuals responsive to groups which claim salvation and answers to life’s problems. West and Martin (1996) further point out that, “It is because life change makes people vulnerable that cults purposely recruit these kind of people” (p. 12).
Do cult members suffer from pre-cult psychopathology? Martin, Langone, Dole and Wiltrout state “Post-cult distress may at least in part reflect pre-cult psychopathology”(p.221). “Studies indicate that approximately one third of former cultists had counseling before joining the cult. It is certainly possible that cult joiners tend to be somewhat more troubled psychologically than non-joiners (Galanter, et al., 1979; and Knight 1986). Although most individuals seem to be within a normal range psychologically, many have histories of seeking psychotherapy prior to their cult experience (Goldberg and Goldberg, 1988, p.193). Goldberg and Goldberg (1988) state, ” Prior to cult involvement each of them was experiencing a period of increased vulnerability” (p.205). They go on to say,
This information points to the major reason individuals join a cult is to overcome some character defect installed in their unconscious during early childhood.
Strange or unorthodox beliefs can contribute to mental disorders and in extreme cases to violence. This has been reported in some clinical literature according to MacHovec (1992). He adds, “Fascination with myth, symbolism, and fantasy can be a normal variant as Freud and Jung reported and which figures prominently in transpersonal and New Age methodologies” (p. 34). Cults tend to support this type of behavior.
Throughout history individuals have been predisposed to cult-like behavior by social, cultural and political factors (MacHovec, 1992). He further points out that World War II is a good example of this. Nazism rose from a personality cult to a national ideology. Some people would rather believe in the absurdity or degradation than deal with the horror of aloneness.
What are the familial factors contributing to the cult personality? Earlier it was mentioned that cult members do come from dysfunctional families on occasion. But this is not necessarily the norm. Well adjusted youth are just as vulnerable to mind control cults (West & Martin, 1996). Maron and Braverman (1988) did extensive research on the family environment as a factor in vulnerability to cult involvement. They found “the familial factor is not important in cult involvement and that members are typically recruited within twelve months of experiencing: death of a close friend or relative; broken romantic relationships; loss of a job; frustration in finding a job; failure at school; extensive travel in the USA or overseas; and an abrupt personality change” (p. 23).
Cult members come from those who have relatively non-exciting lives. Maron and Braverman (1988) state they have fewer close relationships, fewer romantic involvements, less alcohol use and less religious training. Tests reveal that there are no significant differences in familial enmeshment, intellectual orientation or religious emphasis. There is no particular family type associated with having a child in a cult. This concludes my research on what is involved in the make-up of a cult and cult member.
Many ex-cult members suffer from posttraumatic stress syndrome. To understand how they develop this problem we must understand what PTSD is. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM-IV) describes the characteristic symptoms of PTSD as follows:
One of the most direct observations of trauma’s make-up was made by van der Kolk et al. (1996) who point out that “What constitutes a trauma is highly personal and depends on pre-existing mental schemata” (p. 304). Psychic trauma occurs when a sudden overwhelming blow or series of blows hits a person emotionally from an outside force. It is important to note that trauma happens from external forces but are quickly incorporated internally. An individual will not feel totally traumatized unless they feel utterly helpless when the trauma happens (Terr, 1990).
The DSM-IV states the traumatic episode can be continually re-experienced in many ways. It is not unusual for the person to have flashbacks which come in the form of recurrent and intrusive recollections of the event or to have nightmares where the incident is continually replayed. The individual may undergo dissociative states that last from a few seconds to several hours or even days. The event is relived during that period. Certain events may trigger psychological distress such as particular music, an odor, weather, or even an anniversary of the event (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).
A person will repeatedly go out of their way to avoid stimuli associated with the trauma. This can be seen in the person avoiding feelings, conversation, and thoughts in connection with the trauma. They may even avoid certain people, activities, or situations which may trigger memories. “This avoidance of reminders may include amnesia for an important aspect of the traumatic event. Diminished responsiveness to the external world, referred to as “psychic numbing” or “emotional anesthesia,” usually begins soon after the event” (DSM-IV, p. 425). The person may express a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities, or a lack of emotions. They also may show a foreshortened sense of the future.
The DSM-IV describes individuals with PTSD having hyper-sensitivity to stimuli which they may not have experienced prior to the trauma. They may have problems with sleeping due to nightmares, hypervigilance, and an exaggerated startle response. They may experience an inability to concentrate or complete tasks and difficulty with outbursts of anger. It is also not unusual for the person to develop a phobic avoidance to situations that resemble the original trauma. This can lead to difficulty in interpersonal relationships which can lead to marital conflicts, divorce, or loss of a job (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).
The DSM-IV goes on to explain that there are other associated features and disorders that are related to PTSD.
The DSM-IV relates, “There may be increased risk of Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Social Phobia, Specific Phobia, Major Depressive Disorder, Somatization Disorder, and Substance-Related Disorders” (American Psychiatric Association, p. 425). It is’t known as to what extent these disorders precede or follow PTSD.
How an individual copes with external forces is a major issue for the individual who develops PTSD. Van der Kolk et al. (1996) contend that coping can be divided into two categories. The first can be termed as problem focused coping, in which the individual channels resources to solve the stress and creates more problems. The second, can be termed emotion-focused coping, in which an attempt to ease the threat is made through intrapsychic forces such as the use of denial. Problem focused may appear to be the superior of the two on the surface. Van der Kolk et al. (1996) continue to observe, “It is associated with lower rates of PTSD in combat soldiers. However, different styles of coping can be useful under different conditions. Although being assertive often helps people escape from danger, it may be dangerous when a person is being tortured, when a child is being physically or sexually abused , or when a person is a witness to violence. In such cases, passive coping is not maladaptive; sometimes “spacing out” and disengaging can help people survive” (p. 304).
Processing is effected in three different ways by people who have PTSD. First, they over interpret the stimuli as recreations of the original trauma. Second, they suffer from hyperarousal and have difficulty distinguishing what is relevant and what is not. Third, they continue to use dissociation to deal with the original trauma and new intrusions (van der Kolk et al., 1996).
It was first pointed out by Abram Kardiner (1941) that people with PTSD have narrow attention focus. They are constantly on the look out for the return of the trauma whether they know it or not. This hyperarousal creates a vicious cycle: state dependent memory retrieval causes increased access to traumatic memories and involuntary intrusions of the trauma. This may lead in turn to even more arousal (van der Kolk et al., 1996).
People with PTSD have trouble attending to neutral or pleasurable stimuli. McFarlane, Weber, and Clark (1993) found that they need to use more effort in responding to everyday ordinary experience. This issue of trying to focus on what really matters amplifies the role of the trauma in the patients? lives. Their inattention prevents them from getting pleasure out of what is happening in the here and now, and interferes with building specific skills and mastery of emotions. They are frequently overwhelmed by emotions but do not understand where they come from. Because of this inability to identify what they are feeling, it is difficult for them to do anything about it (Krystal, 1978, van der Kolk & Ducey, 1989).
West and Martin (1996) claim that the conditions of coercive indoctrination are likely to be experienced as psychologically traumatic because they are outside of the normal range of events and thus provide an environment for PTSD to occur. “There are other subtle forms of trauma which may happen in the cult such as complete disruption of life circumstances, being cut off from usual channels of communication and orientation, being bombarded by strange or unusual stimuli” (p. 7). They further comment that “psychopathologists have concluded that cult situations produce PTSD in which dissociative defense mechanisms are used. Symptoms produced can be trance states, depersonalization, partial amnesia, feelings of unreality, emotional numbness or an altered sense of identity” (p. 8). Van der Kolk et al. (1996) state that the critical issue in PTSD is that the stimuli that cause people to overreact may not be conditioned enough; a variety of triggers not directly related to the traumatic experience may come to precipitate extreme reactions such as floating, chanting, or a glassy-eyed response. Emotions become reminders to people with PTSD of their helplessness and inability to have control over their life. As a result, emotions become triggers to their traumatic memories.
Dissociation is focused on in this paper because it is my observation that it is a major component in the cult member’s experience. Van der Kolk et al. (1996) observe that dissociation is a way of organizing information. It refers to a compartmentalization of experience. “Elements of a trauma are not integrated into a unitary whole or an integrated sense of self. Instead these traumatic memories are characteristically stored separately from other memories, in discrete personality states” (p. 306). Many victims experience depersonalization, out-of-body experiences, bewilderment, confusion, disorientation, altered pain perception, altered body image, tunnel vision and immediate dissociative experiences (Marmar et al., 1994b; Marmar, Weiss, & Metzler, in press-a; Weiss, Marmar, et al., 1995).
Martin et al. (1992) illustrate that clinical observers, beginning with Clark (1979) and Singer (1978), appear to be correct in their contention that dissociative defenses help cultists adapt to the contradictory and intense demands of the cult environment as long as members are not rebelling against the group’s psychological controls. Their outward demeanor can appear to be normal much as a person with Multiple Personality Disorder [ aka Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)] can appear to be normal. However, this normal appearing personality, as West (1992) maintains, is a pseudopersonality. “When cultists leave their group, the flood gates open up and they suffer. But they don’t generally return to the cult because the suffering they experience after leaving the cult is more genuine than the “happiness” they experience while in it” (Martin et al. p. 240).
Van der Kolk et al. (1996) assert that DID is not the only condition where a high amount of dissociation may occur. High levels of trauma and dissociation have been found in Borderline Personality Disorder (e.g. Herman et al., 1989; Ogata et al., 1990); somatization Disorder (Saxe et al., 1994); major depression; and PTSD (Bremmer et al., 1992, 1993; Spiegal et al., 1988); as well as in patients with dissociative disorders themselves (Bernstein & Putman, 1986; Boon & Drayer, 1993; Saxe et al., 1993). Prospectively, dissociation is a predictor both of self-mutilation and of suicide attempts (van der Kolk, Perry, & Herman, 1991).
Van der Kolk et al. (1996) suggest “That the type of person associated with peritraumatic dissociation are younger people with less work experience, more vulnerable personality structures, greater reliance on the external world for a sense of security, and greater use of maladaptive coping strategies” (p. 314). He continues to state that younger ages tend to give rise to greater symptomology in PTSD. “This in part can be understood as the result of a developmental fixation at earlier stages of psychological maturation” (p. 318). Terr (1990) contends that the main difference between childhood fears and the mundane fears of trauma can be seen in the passion and long-lastingness with which posttraumatic fears of the mundane are held. She reports, “Fear of the mundane may express itself as fear of the dark, a fear of strangers, fear of being alone, fear of playmates? fathers” (p.46).
“More recently, Herman et al. found that among patients with Borderline Personality Disorder, a history of abuse in childhood was associated with higher scores on the Dissociative Experiences Scale. Thus dissociative phenomena are mobilized by trauma and are intrinsic to the symptomalogy of PTSD” (Spiegel and Cardena, p. 41). Not all cult members have histories of child abuse but children introduced to Satanism and ritual abuse certainly may possess characteristics of dissociation.
When a person is a victim of trauma, such as in a cult experience, the person is left with an extreme and unpleasant view of oneself as degraded, humiliated or cowardly. This view can be dragged along with the individual throughout their lifetime. It is this worst view of self that tends to become dominant and seems to the victim like the real truth underlying a facade of normality (Spiegel and Cardena, 1990).
The MCMI and clinical reports (Ash, 1985; Clark, 1979; Singer, 1979) and Galanter’s (1983) research strongly suggest that the level of post-cult distress is quite high. This causes Langone to comment:
The undeniable conclusion seems to be that the cults do not necessarily provide the nirvana experience they claim to offer (Martin et al., 1992).
Now that we have looked at the make-up of PTSD, we can look at the psychological problems the cult member may develop. The sample from the MCMI-I of ex-cultists can be characterized as having abnormal levels of distress in several of the personality and clinical symptoms scales. We may see such symptoms as “anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, sleeplessness, violent outbursts, memory loss, vivid flashbacks, somataform and dysthymia. Research strongly suggests that the level of post-cult distress is quite high” (Martin et al., p. 239).
Swartling and Swartling (1992) point out that “severe and long term psychiatric problems have been recognized in former students of the Word Of Life Bible School. Almost half of the 43 individuals interviewed had experienced psychosis-like symptoms, and one out of 4 had attempted suicide. Anxiety, feelings of guilt, and emotional disorders were common” (p. 78). They continue to endorse that the intense influence of the doctrine and the leadership can lead to long term psychological deficiencies. “Deterioration after joining the Word of Life was reported at 85%” (Swartling & Swartling, p. 81). In 60% of cases from the World of Life, parents noticed marked differences in their children’s appearance after joining the cult. “Body posture became tense, with a frozen facial expression and eyes that were staring or had an absent or evasive look” (Swartling & Swartling, p. 83).
Terr (1990) illustrates the fact that psychic numbing is a characteristic that can become a debilitating flaw. A person who lives their life beyond expression with a blunted affect presents a scary picture to the outside world. One parent, Antonio Longo, after observing this change in affect said, “When they kill the mind, kill the soul, it’s impossible to prove. But if you are a parent you know what he was like before he went in and what he was like after he came out” (The Cult Observer, 1996).
The results of the 43 individuals from the Word of Life Bible School who Swartling and Swartling (1992) interviewed were as follows:
Anxiety, especially panic attacks 93%
Nightmares, sleeping disorders 86%
Fear of losing one’s sanity 77%
Feeling of emptiness 88%
Difficulty handling emotions 91%
Difficulty concentrating 75%
Feeling of loss of identity 60%
Difficulty handling decisions 74%
Feelings of guilt 93%
Difficulties with social contacts 72%
Psychosomatic symptoms 63%
Attempted suicide 23%
Suicidal thoughts 63% (p. 82).
In comparison, the MCMI-I showed a percentage of subjects with a base-rate of 75 or higher for pre and post-treatment as follows:
Dependent-Submissive 58.2% 28.4%
Histrionic-gregarious 32.8% 43.3%
Narcissistic 16.4% 31.3%
Anxiety 52.2% 26.9%
Dysthymia 47.8% 25.4% (p. 235).
The former cultists in the MCMI-I study clearly experienced clinical levels of distress. That the focus group, which consisted of 13 former cultists in a conference, scored at a comparable levels to 111 former cultists who attended a residential treatment center, may have important implications for the treatment of ex-cultists (Martin et al. 1992). “This population of ex-cultists is as distressed as some psychiatric inpatients. Abused were no more distressed than others, possibly due to dissociation” (Martin et al., p. 238).
Otis (1985) examined 2,000 members of Transcendental Meditation (TM) in 1971. “There was a consistent pattern of adverse effects including anxiety, confusion, frustration and depression” (Rosedale, p. 7). These symptoms are similar to previous studies which were just mentioned. The Institute for Youth and Society (1980) in Bensheim, Germany, reported that TM members tended to be withdrawn from their families, isolated in social relations, depressed, tired and exhibited a variety of physical problems, such as headaches and menstrual disorders (Rosedale, 1993).
Galanter, who studied 66 former Moonies, found that “36% of the respondents indicated the emergence of serious emotional problems at some time after leaving the church; 24% had sought out professional help for emotional problems after leaving; and 3% had been hospitalized for such problems during this interval” (Rosedale, p. 7).
It has been touched upon already, but it needs to be clarified in that it has been observed that a particular indoctrination syndrome takes place in cult members. The characteristics for this are a change of personality, emotional desensitizing, and physical changes in posture and appearance which have already been identified in a mask-like happy facial expression, along with an absent, evasive, or staring look. Some people can become so adept at presenting an unaffected face and depressive thoughts that it is hard to accurately assess them in a medical appointment (Swartling and Swartling, 1992).
Martin et al. (1992) purport that it is the MCMI study that supports the clinical observations indicating that powerful cultic environments distort personality ( or, as West says, create pseudopersonalities) and induce dependency. “It supports the view that dissociative processes are central to the cult experience ” (p. 219). It goes on to explain that,
Floating is a term that is used quite frequently in relation to cult members. It is a sudden switch from the normal identity to the pseudoidentity. It can be triggered by certain sights, sounds, touches, smells, or tastes in everyday life that were ubiquitous and salient stimuli in the cultic milieu (West and Martin, 1996). “Characteristically, floating occurs in cult members who have left the group of their own accord, have received incomplete counseling, or are still in the beginning phases of counseling” (West and Martin, p.136). This altered state can be triggered by stress, depression, or ideas associated with the cult, producing an extreme narrowing and intensification of the phenomenological field of conscious attention (Galper, 1982, p. 146). Ross and Langone (1988) report that when ex-members are “floating, [they] often feel as though they never left the cult; afterwards, many wonder which of the two selves is real” (Wright, pp. 120-21).
Hassan (1988) does a good job of explaining the difference between an individual’s personality when he switches between personalities. He describes John, the cultist, as talking in a robot-like manner or like a tape recording of a cult lecture. His speech will be at an inappropriate pitch, posture will typically be more rigid, and facial muscles will be tighter. His eyes will appear glassy, cold, or glazed, and he will often seem to stare through people.
John, the normal personality, will speak with a greater range of emotion. He is able to express his feelings more freely. “He will be more spontaneous and may even show a sense of humor. His posture and musculature will appear to be looser and warmer. Eye contact will be more natural” (Hassan, p. 73).
Phobias are a typical symptom which present themselves in the cult member’s makeup. Hassan (1988) says “Phobias are an intense fear reaction to someone or something” (p. 45). He continues to explain that they form a negative cycle which is made up of worrisome thoughts, negative internal images, and feelings of dread and being out of control. Cult members are systematically programmed with phobias so they will be in terrible fear of leaving the cult. They are enslaved by this mind control technique in thinking that there is no other way for them to grow–spiritually, intellectually, or emotionally (Hassan, 1988).
Dietary changes and problems are not an uncommon issue with cult members. Hassan (1998) explains that drastic weight shifts can occur. The majority of people lose weights in destructive cults, but there are some who become significantly overweight. The main issue is that what people eat, their attitude toward food, and how they eat all contribute to a person’s sense of self.
The cult member’s sense of self is drastically affected by the cult experience. It was Shapiro (1977) who considered “destructive cultism” of sufficient potential to warrant a separate diagnostic category. “He cited behavioral and personality changes, loss of personal identity, estrangement from family, disinterest in society or school activities, mental control, and overdependency as typical sequelae to cult involvement” (MacHovec, 1992, p. 35).
The DSM-IV has recently developed a category which mentions victims of cults. The DSM-IV states:
DSM-IV diagnostic criteria and classification should be routinely used for cult related disorders to ensure consistency, to satisfy established standards, and avoid clinician, personal or religious bias.
The point thus far is that cults affect the member traumatically. They may be so affected that they may use draconian defense mechanisms. A superb example of this is the cult member resorting to using a pseudo-identity. West et al. (1996) contend, “The distortion or alteration of a person’s identity and the appearance of a new and different persona remains one of the most interesting manifestations of dissociation”(p.126). They continue to add,
They continue to assert that the new pseudo-identity, initially formed as a role played in response to stressful circumstances, is a different personality of sorts. This personality is superimposed upon the original which, while not completely forgotten, is enveloped within the shell of the pseudo-identity. Cases of pseudo-identity in cult victims are often very clear cut, classic examples of a person transforming into a different identity in response to a contrived situational force (West et al, 1996). When the member leaves the cult there can be a breakdown in internal defense of the pseudo-identity. This destabilized state may produce one or more of three clinical pictures: the “floater,” the “contemplator,” and the “survivor.”
The contemplator uses dissociated trance-like symptoms which cult members often employ such as chanting, meditating or speaking in tongues. The survivor uses dissociative mechanisms which are frequently used by traumatized individuals. “Herman (1992) notes that victims of incest, rape, terrorism, concentration camps, and cults share common responses to trauma which may include feeling disconnected or detached from their selves or their surroundings: depersonalization, derealization, psychophysiological hyperarousal, intrusive memories of the trauma, and/or emotional and behavioral constriction” (West et al., p. 138). Hassan (1988) points out that the floater responds to a stimulus that triggers the conditioning process. They then are experiencing flashbacks of the cult mindset. The individual might respond by saying, “I knew what I was doing but was not in control of it” (Spiegal and Cardena, p. 40).
The cult member experiences profound changes in their psyche from experiencing the trauma of cult involvement. It therefore is not unexpected to learn that contemporary research on the biology of PTSD confirms that there are persistent and profound alterations in stress hormone secretion in people with PTSD. These findings have serious implications for understanding the nature of the disorder and for designing appropriate treatment” (van der Kolk, 1996, p. 217). Van der Kolk, known for his research in traumatic stress, points out that in 1941, Abram Kardiner introduced the notion that PTSD symptoms came across in severe hypervigilance to the environment and this display was the result of a physioneurosis. Lindemann followed by producing information that explained the trauma response as being complex, with symptoms of hyperamnesia, hyperactivity to stimuli and traumatic reexperience coexisting with psychic numbing, avoidance, and amnesia (van der Kolk, 1996). These symptoms are seen in the ex-cult members’ behavior.
It is important to acknowledge what is occurring within the physiological processes in the cult member to understand the total phenomenon. According to van der Kolk (1996):
Van der Kolk continues to produce evidence about the physical transformation from trauma. He points to Kolb’s (1987) statement that, “excessive stimulation of the central nervous system at the time of the trauma may result in permanent neuronal changes that have a negative effect on learning habituation and stimulus discrimination”(p. 217).
What we are aiming at here is the body’s response to coping with the extra energy needed to deal with high stress situations such as trauma. This is referred to as the body’s “fight or flight system.” According to van der Kolk (1996),
Seratonin modulates the Norepinephrine responsiveness and arousal (Depue & Spoonts 1986; Gerson and Baldessarini, 1980). Symptoms of hyperirritability and hyperexcitability can be observed when seratonin has been used up. This brings us back to the same symptoms being seen in ex-cult members. Van der Kolk (1996) explains that seratonin can be highly affected by environmental changes. Environmental changes are very much a part of the cult encounter. He emphasizes, “Stress induced serotonin dysfunction may lead to impaired functioning of the behavioral inhibition system, this may be related to various behavioral problems seen in PTSD including impulsivity, aggressive outbursts, compulsive reenactment of trauma related behavior patterns, and a seeming inability to learn from past mistakes” (p. 224). Therefore constant exposure to stress alters how an organism deals with its environment on a day to day basis. Van der Kolk (1996) goes on to explain that a healthy person receives a surge of energy from the hormonal release in a stressful situation, but the person with PTSD is in a constant state of release which causes them to experience desensitization (cited in Axelrod and Reisine, 1984). “People with PTSD have the capability to consistently and inappropriately activate the biological stress response with any sort of stimuli reminiscent of the original trauma” (van der Kolk, p. 224). Thus we have the knowledge as to what constitutes the behavior of PTSD in cult members. With this knowledge we need to construct the best form of treatment for the person trying to recover from the effects of cult membership.
It has been said that “it may take years to recuperate” (Swartling & Swartling, 1992, p. 86). Martin et al. (1992) stress that successful treatment can undo the effects of that negative occurrence. The ex-cultist needs treatment to counteract the dissociation they experience (Martin et al., 1992). “Clients’ awareness of what happened to them is restricted because they lack a conceptual framework that can adequately attach meaning to their experiences” (Martin et al., p. 243). Wellspring Retreat, run by Paul and Barbara Martin, is a private farm house in Ohio which is being converted to a rehabilitation facility. This center educates the individual as to how the mind control was done to them. This prevents victims from blaming themselves. This treatment is similar to treating victims of trauma or sexual abuse. “Former cultists must come to understand not only what was done to them, but how it was done, and why it was wrong” (Martin et al., p. 243). Martin et al. continue to assert, “as ex-cultists come to understand the mechanisms operating in the cultic environment, they become more capable of effectively grieving the loss of friends, time, career pursuits, idealism, and other aspirations that were lost as a result in spending time in a cult” (p. 244).
West and Martin (1996) point out treatment can be difficult and is much more education-oriented than many other therapies. However, it progresses throughout some fairly predictable phases.
3. Pastoral counseling.
4. Psychiatric treatment for mental illness, including medication to manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic disorders, etc., and perhaps the use of hypnosis or narcosynthesis for resistant dissociation symptoms.
5. Individual psychotherapy.
6. Group psychotherapy.
7. Exit counseling.
8. Family therapy.
9. Educational guidance and counseling.
10. Legal consultation (West & Martin, p. 141).
Van der Kolk (1996) emphasizes that the treatment for trauma needs to focus on self-regulation and on re-building. “The ex-cult member might find themselves needing to adopt a new religious framework or return to their old belief system to recapture dissociated parts of themselves, understand the cult experience, cope with present challenges and tie all these issues together” (Martin et al, p. 244). The prime goal of treatment is to facilitate the patients? gaining control over the transitions in their dissociated mental states. This will permit a retreat from terror and a gradual integration.
Regularity is an important component of the recovery process. Since dissociation involves the loss of continuous sense of time, the clinician needs to pay particular attention in scheduling regular appointments and routines. Because fatigue and stress probably exacerbate dissociative episodes, establishing regular sleep-wake cycle, activity, rest and mealtimes schedules is important as well (van der Kolk, 1996).
The symptoms resulting from dissociation in contemplative cult practices may continue to plague the client long after treatment has been underway, according to Martin and West, 1996. Contemplative symptoms may take shape in the form of inability to concentrate, relaxation-induced anxiety, and dissociative phenomena such as automatic lapsing into meditation, chanting, or trance-like states. “Ryan (1993) found that one of the most effective methods to remedy “spacing out” is physical exercises. Other helpful techniques include identifying aspects of the environment that create stimulus by setting a timer and thereby gradually prolonging reading time, and learning to counter magical thinking through a specific series of reality checks” (West & Martin, 1996).
Occasionally hospitalization may be required. Some adolescents may become increasingly self destructive without the inpatient structure, which helps to stabilize them, provides resolution from crisis and provides an opportunity to change. Outpatient therapy is usually required afterwards to deal with issues the person had prior to their cult experience, according to Clark (1994).
There is a delicate balance for the ex-cult member attending therapy. It is between the realization of personal autonomy and reliance on support from others. Without the overdependency on the cult, the member may transfer that dependency to others or go back to the group (MacHovec, 1992). The goal of the treatment, contends Martin et al. (1992), is to relieve the individual of their cult-induced psychopathology and restore their original personality. They need to examine pre-abuse factors, along with looking at the environmental stress that is unique to the thought reform system, so that they may help the victim to understand that their behavior is a response to a stressful and traumatic condition.
There is frequent mention of treating the “floater” in response to cult exiting. West and Martin (1996) point out,
The next type of individual treated in exit counseling is the “survivor.” Survivors, according to West and Martin (1996), show symptoms of PTSD, such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts or images, fearfulness, and various pyschosomatic malfunctions as a result of having witnessed or been forced to perform heinous acts by manipulative cult leaders. “Therapy should focus on detriggering and reframing the traumatic incidents that continue to affect the former cult member via educative strategies, cognitive behavioral techniques, memory work, and dynamically oriented psychotherapy” (p. 144).
Contact with ex-members is invaluable and is often regarded as essential for return to normal life according to Swartling and Swartling, (1992). West and Martin (1996) also confirm that post-cult recovery can be supported by testimonials from other ex-members. Educational material which shows the client how the cult may deviate from reputable religion or mental health practices is also advised. “Valuable insights may be gained at this stage by using instruments such as the MCMI. High scores on the Dependency, Avoidant, Schizoid, Anxiety and Dysthimia are typically associated with untreated former cultists” (West & Martin, p. 147).
The second stage of recovery consists of the individual living in the present and viewing the cult involvement as a part of their past history. Dissociative symptoms, such as floating, diminish partly or altogether. The stunned and frozen effect of PTSD has often dissipated sufficiently. “Permission to grieve at this time is of utmost importance. Anger and rage at this stage can be intense” (West & Martin, p. 148). Stage three of recovery centers on the future of the client. They are looking at career objectives, relationships, school, and where they will live (West & Martin, 1996).
The most current treatment for ex-cult members, reports Hassan (1997), is that of hypnosis. Hypnosis is associated with the treatment of PTSD for two reasons. First is the similarity between hypnotic phenomena and the symptoms of PTSD. Second reason is the utility of hypnosis as a tool in treatment, as acknowledged by Spiegel & Cardena (1990). They continue to state that people with PTSD have higher than normal hypnotizability scores. “New uses of hypnosis in the psychotherapy of PTSD victims involve coupling access to the dissociated traumatic memories with positive restructuring of those memories. Several tests for hypnotizability such as the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale showed that patients with PTSD had significantly high scores. The reason attributed to this was due to the fact that hypnotic procedures involve the induction of dissociation”(Spiegel & Cardena, 1990, p. 39). This is a familiar symptom used by ex-cult members. Three components are involved: absorption, dissociation, and suggestibility.
Speigel and Cardena (1990) emphasize that hypnosis is an important technique in the treatment of PTSD. Because of the easy access to the hypnotic state by these individuals, it is quite feasible for them to use hypnosis during the course their psychotherapy. “All hypnosis is actually self-hypnosis and thus it is useful to teach patients from the outset how to enter and control their hypnotic state” (Speigel & Cardena, p. 40). The use of hypnosis can be viewed as a grief work for the cult member in which the task is to acknowledge, bear, and put into perspective painful life events, making them more acceptable to conscious awareness.
The purpose of the methodology section is to research the effects of membership to a cult. Do ex-members experience symptoms of PTSD? A survey was developed which focused on specifics about the individual when they were involved in the cult. The second part of the survey focuses on PTSD symptoms. The third part inquires as to whether they had sought treatment and specifically what kind. The focus was to find a correllation between ex-cult members and PTSD symptoms and what sort of treatment they may seek.
The survey was four pages long. The first part focused on the individual and specific points of information that tend to be prominent about the person when they join a cult. These points of interest became evident in the process of gathering research. They included age when joining a cult, religious preference at the time, number of years of education at the time. How many close friends did the individual have? How long did they belong to a cult?
Information about the cult joined was inquired about. What was the name of the cult? What type was it; religious, political, pyschotherapeutic/educational, commercial or other.
Cult members typically have had a major loss in their lives. This loss does not necessarily constitute PTSD but it can cause the person to search for a group to give them meaning or solace to their life. Questions were asked to find out if the person might have had this type of experience such as the loss of a job, relationship or death of a parent. This led into questions as to whether the individual had indeed experienced a traumatic prior to joining the event such as a rape, accident or disaster. Next the person was asked if they had ever experienced or witnessed an event or events that may have threatened their (or others) lives and physical integrity. Did this involve intense fear, helplessness or horror?
The second part of the survey emphasized symptoms of PTSD. Questions were formulated by symptoms listed in the DSM-IV. Each question asked if the individual had experienced a particular symptom before they had joined a cult or after they had joined the cult. The respondent could check off “yes” or “no” to any one of these answers in spaces provided after each question.
The symptoms that were of interest to this study were concerned with such issues as to whether the individual had experienced distressing recollections, nightmares or flashbacks? Did they have anxiety attacks or hyperarousal? Did they make attempts to avoid thoughts of the traumatic event(s) or avoid activities that might arouse recollections of it? Did they have trouble recalling important aspects of their cult involvement? Was there a loss of interest in activities? Did the individual feel detached or numb? Were there any problems with insomnia or angry outbursts? Is the person unable to think about their future? Do they startle easily? Lastly, had they had these symptoms for a duration longer than a month?
The third and last part of the survey examines what type of treatment the individual might have had before they had joined the cult and after they had joined the cult. Had they sought medical care? Did they have vocational rehabilitation, pastoral counseling, psychiatric treatment or exit counseling? Did they take individual psychotherapy or group therapy? And had they taken medication?
There were forty-three questions in all. Respondents could take as much time to answer the survey as they needed because it was sent to their home. However, this could be answered in a ten minute period of time if needed. The subject matter could easily bring stress to the respondent. Thus the questions were made as simple as possible.
Thirty-six surveys were originally sent out to twelve agencies who dealt with cult awareness. The names of these agencies were found in Steven Hassan’s book, “Combatting Cult Mind Control.” No one responded to the this mailing. The next method of approach was to find ex-members through the internet. I then explained the purpose of the survey to the individual via e-mail and asked if they would be willing to answer the survey. If they were willing, they gave me their address. I then sent them the survey with a self-stamped envelope. There were 10 responses in all.
All 10 subjects experienced membership in a cult. The mean reported at age at the onset of involvement was 21.5 years, with a range of 1 to 45. 6 out of 10 respondents (60%) had a religious preference. Denominations mentioned were Catholic, pagan independence, Congregationist, yoga, self-realization fellowship and Ecumerical/Evangelical. The mean of close friends that these individuals had was 3.2, the range was 0 to 7.
The duration of involvement mean was reported at 8.95 years. The range was 8 months to 25 years. The cults which subjects were members of were listed as: Sidda Yoga, EST, The Hunger Project, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Moon Organization, Word of Life, Ananda Church of Christ, The Family, Boston Church of Christ, and The Way International. These cults were described as: political, psychotherapeutic/education, regligious, commercial and other. 8 (80%) were described as religious in structure. Four of these cults were located in New York. Other cult locations were: India, Boston, California, Hawaii, Arizona and Ohio.
Individuals frequently experience having a major loss in their life prior to joining a cult. 7 (70%) reported having a loss prior to involvement. They were characterized as: going to college; trying to cut off family and friends, spousal problems, death of a friend, divorce of parents; mother an alcoholic\depressed; father moved away, father was an alcoholic, incest survivor, mother joined cult and took children, divorce, abusive marriage, and loss of career as an actor. The types of loss are quite expansive but divorce is mentioned twice (29%) and an alcoholic parent is mentioned three times (43%).
Subjects were asked if they had a traumatic experience prior to joining the cult such as a rape, disaster or accident. 4 (40%) said they had. One person was born into the cult and another said they had a traumatic childhood; someone they were dating tried to kill them; they had a broken engagement and then were in a relationship with an an abusive spouse. One individual was molested at age 7, and raped at age 13. Another individual loss considerable weight due to raw food fanaticism; his parents were having problems with the Father’s alcoholism during this period of time.
The second part of the survey focused on PTSD symptomology. Symptoms of PTSD were taken from the DSM-IV. In some cases, a description of the symptom was given to describe what it meant. Subjects were then asked if they had experienced any of the following symptoms before and after they had joined a cult.
Symptom Before Joining a Cult After Joining a Cult
Distressing recollections 3 (30%) 9 (90%)
Nightmares 7 (70%) 9 (90%)
Flashbacks 1 (10%) 7 (70%)
Anxiety/panic attacks 2 (20%) 9 (90%)
Hyperarousal 1 (10%) 8 (80%)
Avoid memories w/cult 2 (20%) 8 (80%)
Avoid people, places and
things associated w/cult 2 (20%) 8 (80%)
Recollection of cult aspects 1 (10%) 5 (50%)
Loss of interest 0 (0%) 7 (70%)
Feel detached from others 4 (40%) 7 (70%)
Numbness 3 (30%) 7 (70%)
Unable to think of the future 3 (30%) 5 (50%)
Insomnia 2 (20%) 5 (50%)
Irritability/outbursts of anger 2 (20%) 7 (70%)
Difficulty concentrating 1 (10%) 7 (70%)
Startle easily 3 (30%) 4 (40%)
Duration of symptoms is
more than one month 2 (20%) 7 (70%)
Symptoms cause distress 1 (10%) 5 (50%)
The last part of the survey concentrated on what type of treatment the subject had sought prior to joining a cult and after joining a cult.
Treatment Before Joining a Cult After Joining a Cult
Medical care for illness 4 (40%) 8 (80%)
Vocational rehabilitation 2 (20%) 5 (50%)
Pastoral counseling 3 (30%) 7 (70%)
Psychiatric treatment 2 (20%) 8 (80%)
Medication 1 (10%) 6 (60%)
Individual psychotherapy 2 (20%) 7 (70%)
Group psychotherapy 0 (0%) 8 (80%)
Exit counseling 0 (0%) 4 (40%)
The information collected through the survey confirmed much of the data revealed in the research. One of the facts confirmed was that cult members have a relatively high degree of education. The mean number of years of education was 16. Most of the respondents had a religious preference. They were not necessarily loners, they had an average of about 3 to 4 close friends. The analysis identified that individuals tend to enter cults between the ages of 19 to 25. This correlated with the research data. All but one of the cults mentioned had a religious foundation.
It has been observed that a major factor contributing to a person joining a cult is having experienced a major loss in their life prior to involvement. The loss reported by this group of subjects was highly significant. It indicated a powerful pressure point to membership. Divorce, alcoholism of a parent, and incest were mentioned more than once.
Cults are a very real phenomenon in the United States today. Thousands of people have become involved with these movements. The tragedy is that thousands are negatively affected by their membership. The effects from mind control are so serious that individuals may develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result.
Destructive cults are basically pyramid shaped authoritarian regimes with a person or group that has dictatorial control. Cult leaders depend upon charismatic leadership. They claim to be omnipotent messiahs so they may use psychological manipulation and deception in recruiting new members. Individuals are not told up front what the group is or what will be expected of them if they become members. A hierarchical structure serves as the adhesive for the cult. The cult’s lifestyle is based on hopes, ambitions and fears of their leader.
Mind control techniques are used to keep members dependent and obedient. It is the mind control which is the main factor in wreaking havoc with an individual’s natural sense of self. This is done by strict rules of living and control of thoughts, emotions and information. The individual’s personality is changed to a pseudopersonality thus causing the individual to enter a fight or flight position. This type of control ultimately does not feel right. It causes fear and eventually trauma. How you may ask. Belief systems in the cult are based on flattery, threats and guilt in the beginning. Eventually the person is living a lifestyle they did not bargain for. This might include abuse, sexual promiscuity, humiliation, lack of sleep and food due to recruiting for long hours at a time, and solicitation of funds selling trinkets on the street. Isolation from family and friends. The human being senses that this total control of one’s freedom is an unnatural and fearful state.
The collective profile of cultists, from the survey, appear to correlate significantly with research alluded to earlier. 50% of subjects became involved with a cult between the ages of 19 to 29. 90% of the subjects became involved with cults that were religious in nature. The fact that people are susceptible to cult recruitment when they have had a significant loss in their life was well confirmed. Trauma followed closely with issues of incest or alcoholic parents being raised several times.
40% of the respondents met the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-IV for posttraumatic stress. All of the former cultists had experienced various symptoms of PTSD. All but one respondent experienced: distressing recollections, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety/panic attacks and hyperarousal. Again, all but one ex-member persistently avoided stimuli by using dissociative mechanisms. Subjects made an enormous effort to avoid activities, thoughts and feelings which would be reminiscent of their cult activities. 70% felt a feeling of estrangement or detachment from others. After leaving the cult individuals had a marked disinterest and desire to participate in significant activities.
Persistent symptoms of arousal in reference to cult membership continued to be an issue for ex-members. They may have insomnia, hyperarousal or vigilance, poor concentration, irritability or outburst of anger. 70% of the respondents experienced these symptoms for longer than one month. 60% felt these symptoms caused significant distress or impairment in their life.
Why would an individual subject themselves to a cult’s directive tactics. Cults promise a vehicle to escape disappointment from one’s self and life. They offer love and the hope of fulfilling idealistic dreams. Some people even join to overcome some character defect installed during childhood. Some people don’t have any choice. They are born into it. Their entire life structure, everything and everyone they know, is based within the cult. Losing this support system is unfathomable in some cases.
The effect cults may have on members are so severe that they can lead to the individual developing PTSD. Characteristics are defined in the DSM-IV. What constitutes a trauma is highly personal and depends on pre-existing schemata. Psychic trauma occurs when a sudden overwhelming blow or series of blows hits a person. Trauma happens externally but is incorporated internally quickly. The person feels utterly helpless. They cope by creating problems, denial, spacing out, and disengaging. Conditions of coercive indoctrination are likely to be experienced as psychologically traumatic because they are out of the normal range of events and provide an environment for PTSD to occur. Dissociation is the main component of PTSD for the cult member.
The survey data confirms the research which states that former cultists clearly experience levels of distress. The most common symptoms are: emotional volatility, dissociation, depression, fear of retribution, loneliness, guilt, inability to concentrate, indecisiveness, family conflicts, fatigue, spiritual void and career confusion. Phobias are a typical symptom. Dietary changes and problems are not uncommon.
Physically people with PTSD release a stress hormone called cortisol. The fight or flight response is like a furnace in the body which turns on the release of cortisol. Trauma throws a wrench into this furnace disabling it and forcing it to continually release the cortisol. This dysfunction is what causes the PTSD symptoms we see in the cult member. Van der Kolk (1996) states, “Excessive stimulation of the central nervous system at the time of trauma may result in permanent neuronal changes that have a negative effect on learning and habituation and stimulus discrimination.” The person with PTSD is in a constant state of release which causes them to experience desensitization.
Thus, the individual exiting a cult needs treatment not only for grief processing and education but for relief of PTSD as well. Leaving a cult constitutes a loss. Grief comes from losing one’s entire support system; friends, family, even a job. The individual needs to establish new support systems. Education is a vital part of treatment. The ex-member needs to understand how mind control was used on them, how it is not healthy and how freedom of choice is an important part of one’s life process. Lastly, dealing with the effects of PTSD is possibly one of the most challenging aspects of recovery. Helping an individual deactivate the effects of disassociation takes time and patience, not only on the part of the clinician, but the patient as well.
Many people just walk away from the cult but the research shows that most seek out help for their recovery process in the form of therapy. Medical treatment may be necessary for illness. Vocational rehabilitation and training is helpful, if not necessary, for the many ex-members who were employed within the cult. Pastoral counseling works to help the individual refocus their spiritual beliefs. Many have found that medication in the form of anti-depressants have been beneficial to their recovery. Individual and group therapy are the most sought after forms of treatment. In some cases, legal consultation is necessary. Exit counseling is used but is still in the process of being developed. Usually it is the person’s family who seeks an exit counselor. Family counseling is another aspect which is much needed but not fully developed at this point in time.
It cannot be stated enough that cults are a very real phenomenon in our world today. Their effects are devastating. Cult membership can produce symptoms of PTSD in an individual. Treatment in the form of psychotherapy can be most helpful to the recovery of ex-members. There are thousands of people who have stories of trying to recover from this experience. As clinicians, we need to gain knowledge and experience so we can be of help to these individuals who are in such desperate need of our help.
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