Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
See and hear Steven Hassan talk about the Strategic Interaction Approach in this video.
(From Chapter 3 of Steven Hassan’s Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves. FOM Press, 2000, Copyrighted, all rights reserved. Permission to use or reprint must be granted in writing.)
1. What is the goal?
The goal of the SIA is to help the loved one recover his full faculties; to restore the creative, interdependent adult who fully understands what has happened to him; who has digested and integrated the experience and is better and stronger from the experience.
2. Who is in control?
You are! In all ethical counseling, the locus of control remains within the client. Strategic Interaction models a non-authoritarian, flexible, and open process. When you engage a therapist, he is there to help as the expert on family systems. He is not there to assume control and make all the decisions. Likewise, a cult expert may provide information and advice, but will not give orders. Family and friends are empowered to understand the issues clearly. In this way, Strategic Interaction can be considered self-help. Each person contributes as best he can, creating a synergy that ensures the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.
3. Who is the client?
In the SIA, each person has issues that should be addressed. One focus is on the growth and development of healthy relationships within the family. The safe and nurturing environment created by the SIA offers many opportunities to heal old wounds. As an integral part of the family system, the cult member is automatically included in the process.
4. When is the best time to act?
The best time to act is now. Get active and get professional advice. It is always a good idea to prepare, and your case might require immediate intervention. Of course, counseling a cult member is particularly effective when a cult member is questioning his involvement, is disillusioned, or burned out — or simply wants to leave. Mini-interactions are designed to help the cult member question his situation, reality-test, and accept help from family and friends. The SIA is an ongoing process that makes each telephone call, letter, and visit more effective. Every time we interact with the cult member, questions are asked and answered, and information is gathered and delivered. Strategies are formulated, and opportunities to develop rapport and trust unfold. Positive experiences accumulate.
There might be a need for a formal three-day intervention. It is planned when we believe it will be successful. The time is right when we know that we have established trust and rapport with the cult member and we have information that indicates the conditions are right. Many times, mini-interactions may even make a formal intervention unnecessary.
5. Will our loved one be treated as an individual?
The Strategic Interaction is a customized approach that encourages everyone to develop positive, constructive patterns of communication. Family members, relatives and friends learn techniques to remove blocks and phobias. The goal is to restore the creative, flexible, interdependent adult. We want the cult member to understand what happened to him by helping him fully digest and integrate the cult experience. As the Strategic Interaction moves into the recovery phase, we want everyone to be stronger from the experience.
6. Does this approach integrate our loved one’s personality?
In my first book that I wrote in 1988, Combatting Cult Mind Control, I described only a “dual identity” model: the cult identity and the pre-cult identity. The Strategic Interaction Approach liberates and then integrates the parts of the pre-cult identity that were co-opted by the cult identity. In addition, we draw out the individual’s “authentic,” or higher, self and enlist its help to make new associations with the cult self. For example, we recognize that idealism is an integral part of our loved one’s authentic identity. By pointing out discrepancies between cult doctrine and hypocritical cult policies, the idealistic component of the cult identity can be encouraged to begin the questioning process. Eventually, the cult member becomes disillusioned with the group and feels motivated to walk out or ask for help.
The Strategic Interaction Approach provides in-depth counseling that promotes healing. By honoring the authentic self, the pre-cult self, and the core of the cult self, we help your loved one to integrate valuable parts of his identity into a healthy post-cult self.
7. Does the method include flexible strategies?
By taking an oppositional, “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach, deprogrammers and exit-counselors often unwittingly create a win-lose mentality. Strategic Interaction encourages adaptability and creativity by widening one’s experiential base, which results in a win-win environment. For instance, if family members have never meditated and their loved one is in a meditation cult, then I encourage them to experience meditation.
8. Is the method concerned with our loved one’s spiritual life?
With both deprogramming and exit-counseling, content reigns supreme. This approach can have hidden dangers. The ideological or spiritual perspective of the deprogrammer or exit-counselor could be anything from atheist, to agnostic, to orthodox Christian or Jew. I urge you to scrutinize the beliefs and affiliations of people who offer to rescue your loved one from a destructive cult. Many of these people will seek to impose their own ideological perspective. The ethical approach is to avoid imposing any ideological or theological viewpoint on a mind control subject.
The SIA allows for a spiritual orientation, but does not promote a rigid ideological viewpoint. I personally am Jewish and belong to Temple Beth Zion led by Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, co-author with William Novak, of The Big Book of Jewish Humor (Harper Collins, 1981 which promotes an inclusive approach to spirituality. The Temple’s web site is www.templebethzion.org. My starting point with a client is always the individual’s and family’s spiritual “roots”, if any. If the person is Catholic, I encourage them to rediscover their roots at the appropriate time. Likewise, if they are Protestant, Buddhist, or anything else, I would do the same. At the beginning of every Strategic Interaction, I have family members and friends fill out Background Information Forms. Often, I find that the cult member had a strong spiritual orientation before they were recruited into a religious cult. I encourage family and friends to support their loved one’s full recovery — spiritual as well as psychological.
9. How will we learn the content issues?
The family members, relatives, and friends must understand the seriousness, scope and depth of the cult experience. I want them to become familiar enough with the material to be capable of articulating information about mind control, their loved one’s group, and other cults. This may seem like a daunting task, but the step-by-step, goal-oriented approach we take will make the work more manageable. After they have been adequately prepared, family members and friends can begin to attend cult lectures and read cult literature. These activities demonstrate that they are “open-minded,” and help to encourage rapport and trust.
Before any discussions about the belief system, indoctrination, or the leader, we deal with the cult member’s phobias about leaving the group. Otherwise, your loved one will be under a great deal of unnecessary emotional stress.
10. How does the SIA handle recovery issues?
Deprogramming is over as soon as the person is out of the group. People are often left without trained people to follow-up. Consequently, family and friends are typically not prepared to know how to act as a support system. After an exit-counseling, former members may try to provide some support.
Cults use fear and guilt to program their members to believe that their lives are worthless outside of the group. It is hard to imagine the pain these buried psychic land mines cause when the person manages to leave. Cult experiences and indoctrination have to be worked through during an essential soul-searching recovery period, which usually takes months and sometimes years.
If the person participated in distasteful behavior — if they recruited people, were raped, became a prostitute, or stole money — it is helpful that they get ongoing counseling. Otherwise, they will spend the rest of their lives traumatized by what happened to them, or feeling guilty for what they did while a member of the group.
During the recovery period, your loved one needs to learn how to use recovery techniques in order to visualize and work with his cult identity to reclaim personal history, power, and integrity. He must acknowledge that he was doing the best he could at the time with the information that was available to him.
The SIA provides a long-term recovery process for both the cult member and members of the family. Everyone is traumatized by the cult involvement, even those who are not directly involved. Feelings get hurt. Belief systems are assaulted or shifted. People lose sleep. They get depressed. Anger, frustration, and resentment are repressed. Each person who has been involved in the traumatic experience of having a loved one in a destructive cult needs support on psychological and emotional levels.
The heightened sense of urgency that arises when a loved one joins a destructive cult provides the catalyst for truly remarkable growth, change and development. Family members, relatives, siblings and friends are willing to work hard on their own issues for the sake of their loved one. They are willing to make commitments that seem impossible under less trying circumstances. Their rewards are the many positive changes that take place as a result of working together to bring back a family member or friend lost to a cult.
Even in those circumstances where an individual does not immediately decide to leave the cult, there is basis for hope. Many key issues will have been communicated, especially those dealing with phobias, information control, and the broader issues of cult mind control. The gentleness of the repeated mini-interactions will help the relationship to become more honest, caring and compassionate setting the foundation for future interactions.
11. How effective is the Strategic Interaction Approach?
The Strategic Interaction Approach has an excellent record of helping people leave destructive groups. Each case is different and presents new challenges. Every set of family resources is unique. The Strategic Interaction Approach draws its strength from love, commitment, and flexibility. It provides encouragement, momentum, and practical knowledge.
Even when your loved one participates for only three days and decides to return to the group (which rarely happens), the seeds have already been planted. In such cases, the cult member usually walks out at a later date. When a cult member wants to leave the group, he should know that his family and friends will open their arms with love and support.
Since SIA is therapy, and therefore cannot be compared with making cookies or some other kind of rote operation, it is impossible to use meaningful statistics, since every situation is unique. Be wary of non-licensed, untrained individuals who quote high success rates. Consumer beware!
12. What is the therapist’s role?
A Strategic Interaction Therapist, by definition, is a cult expert and mental health professional. Over the years, I have shared my approach with several individuals, taking them with me on cases and training them in SIA. I hope to encourage more people to learn my approach and plan to offer more training seminars and subsequent supervision. Former cult members with counseling training make ideal candidates for SIA training. During the SIA, the role of a therapist is to facilitate communication between the cult member and the Team by encouraging growth within each person. Although it is possible to empower a cult member to leave without the help of a formally trained counselor, I recommend that you contact a professional counselor to discuss your situation and plan an approach.
(From Chapter 3 of Steven Hassan’s Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves. FOM Press, 2000, Copyrighted, all rights reserved. Permission to use or reprint must be granted in writing. Edited in February, 2002 by Steven Hassan.)
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