The Problem

Fact: Close to 300,000 Americans join abusive groups every year.

Fact: Close to 300,000 Americans leave abusive groups every year.

"I have gone to nine therapists and no one has understood me before I came here..."

"I knew I couldn't live up to God's expectations of me and so I just gave up."

"If only some of my counselors, even just one, understood."

"Who do I trust? How do I start again?"

"My family has completely cut me off. They think I am damaged goods."

"I don't fit in anywhere."

"The only ones I know will accept me are other former members, and they are as wounded as I am."

These quotes from former first and second generation members reveal the confusion, hurt, and frustration experienced upon leaving an abusive group. Groups of this nature exist in the guise of business organizations, therapy and self-help groups, special interest clubs, religious organizations, and even one-on-one relationships. Former members often suffer from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in addition to extreme culture shock, and finding themselves having to function in a society and culture that they no longer understand.

What is a cult?

The definition of a "cult" is elusive and controversial. Webster's dictionary defines a cult in several different ways:

  1. "A system of religious worship or ritual."
  2. "A quasi-religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices, or beliefs."

It is a group operating under the second definition above that can become totalistic, high-controlling, and abusive to its members.

Robert J. Lifton, in his seminal work on thought-reform, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, proposed the following eight characteristics of a high-control group.

  1. Milieu Control - Control of communication from without and within the group environment, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from the surrounding society. Includes other techniques to restrict members' contact with outside world and to be able to make critical, rational judgments about information: overwork, busyness, multiple lengthy meetings, etc.
  2. Mystical Manipulation - The claim of divine authority or spiritual advancement that allows the leader to reinterpret events as he or she wishes, or make prophecies or pronouncements at will, all for the purpose of controlling group members.
  3. Demand for Purity - The world is viewed as black and white and group members are constantly exhorted to strive for perfection. Consequently, guilt and shame are common and powerful control devices.
  4. The Cult of Confession - Serious (and often not so serious) sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed, either privately to a personal monitor or publicly to the group at large.
  5. The "Sacred Science" - The doctrine of the group is considered to be the ultimate TRUTH, beyond all questioning or disputing. The leader of the group is likewise above criticism as the spokesperson for God on earth.
  6. Loading the Language - The group develops a jargon in many ways unique to itself, often not understandable to outsiders. This jargon consists of numerous words and phrases which the members understand (or thinks they do), but which really act to dull one's ability to engage in critical thinking.
  7. Doctrine over Person - The personal experiences of the group members are subordinated to the "Truth" held by the group - apparently contrary experiences must be denied or re-interpreted to fit the doctrine of the group. The doctrine is always more important than the individual.
  8. Dispensing of Existence - The group arrogates to itself the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. Usually held non-literally, this means that those outside the group are unspiritual, worldly, satanic, "unconscious," or whatever, and that they must be converted to the ideas of the group or they will be lost. If they refuse to join the group, then they must be rejected by the group members, even if they are family members. In rare cases this concept gives the group the right to terminate the outsider's life.

Why does it matter?...Impact of Cults

More important than the exact definition, however, is the damage that is done to those in an abusive group. According to a study performed by Michael Langone, Ph.D., of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), some of the symptoms suffered by former members are (follow this link for a more detailed presentation of Langone's study):

• Anxiety, fear, and worry
• Feelings of anger toward the group leaders
• Mental confusion
• Vivid flashbacks to the group experience
• Low self-confidence
• Indecisiveness
• Difficulty concentrating
• Loneliness
• Compulsive need to talk about the group
• Despair, hopelessness, and helplessness
• Difficulty thinking critically
• Guilt about things done while in the group
• Troubled by thoughts that can't be gotten rid of
• "Floating" among very different states of mind
• Conflicts with loved ones & family
• A longing to restore certain aspects of group
• Sleeplessness
• Nightmares
• Difficulty finding suitable employment
• Fear of physical harm by the group
• Medical ills

In addition to these symptoms, former members often find themselves having difficulty functioning, much less thriving, within a society that has changed and evolved during time in the abusive group. If they are second generation it is like moving to another planet for them. Simple tasks like opening a bank account, going to a grocery store, or going to the doctor are overwhelming and confusing.

All of these issues add stress and anxiety to the daily routine of life for the former member. Without healing, basic needs such as employment, relationships, and physical and mental health remain elusive as the cult identity continues to operate under the surface.

The issues for second generation survivors are similar, yet different. Second generation cult survivors are those who were born and raised in a destructive, thought reform group. It was not their decision to be a part of such a dysfunctional environment. Sometimes, it was not their choice to leave.

Second generation survivors do not struggle with a cult identity, due to thought reform, in the same way that first generation survivors struggle. Their struggle is with any sense of identity coherence. Generally, they have experienced severe emotional, physical and sexual trauma. Issues of abandonment, adjustment and rage frequently plague second generation survivors. In addition, relational difficulties and life skill deficits are great concerns.

The Prognosis

If the former member does not receive counseling from someone who understands their experience in a thought reform environment, they will often find their self seeking something that mirrors the cult environment. If they do receive quality counseling in the areas of trauma recovery and thought reform, chances are good that they will be able to not only recover their pre-cult identity, but learn and grow from their experience in the group. In addition, relationships that were lost or destroyed because of the cult can be healed and rebuilt. While recovery is not easy, the prognosis is good for those who receive help.

For more information on resources for ex-members, please visit MeadowHaven's Resources page.