a cache of usenet and other text files pertaining
to occult, mystical, and spiritual subjects.


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

[from ]

Subject: Traumatic Abuse in Cults: An Exploration of an Unfamiliar Social Problem
                        by Daniel Shaw, C.S.W.
    (This essay uses SYDA (Siddha Yoga) as an example of an abusive
                           May, 1996, Essay
     To join in a discussion of issues relating to leaving Siddha
                        Yoga, see the newsgroup most easily reached at
   Table of Contents
     * Introduction
     * What Is a Cult, and Why Do People Get Involved in Them?
     * Seduction
     * Thought Reform, or Mind Control
     * Social Work Values vs. Cult Values
     * Inner Emptiness and the Culture of Narcissism
     * The Question of Pre-Existing and Induced Pathology: Blaming
       the Victim
     * The Dominating Leader and the Submissive Follower
     * Traumas Suffered by Cult Members
     * Rape
     * Battering
     * Incest
     * Working With Cult Survivors
     * Conclusions
     * Table I: Resource Organizations
     * References
   When I began social work school, it had been just two years since
   I moved out of the spiritual community, the ashram, I had lived
   and worked in for more than 10 years. In those two post-ashram
   years, I did a good deal of soul searching, and concluded that my
   life experience had been good preparation for a career in social
   work. Nevertheless, I was taken aback when I began my field
   placement at a community mental health center. Many of the
   clients I was assigned described terrible histories of physical,
   sexual and emotional abuse in childhood, and in some cases were
   involved in ongoing abuse, either as perpetrators or victims.
   Many of these clients were struggling to recover from devastating
   addictions. Although my own life has been something of a bed of
   roses in comparison with the suffering these clients have known,
   I soon discovered I had a deeper connection to their experiences
   than I at first realized.
   I had always portrayed my participation in Siddha Yoga (also
   known as SYDA), to myself and others, as an idealistic commitment
   to a noble spiritual path, dedicated to spiritual awakening and
   upliftment in the world. Just after school began, this
   identification was shattered when I learned of an incident
   concerning a friend of mine, a young woman just turned 21, who
   was sexually harassed in the ashram by one of its most powerful
   leaders. When she sought help from Gurumayi, the now 40 year old
   female Indian guru who is the head of the ashram, Gurumayi told
   the young woman that she had brought the harassment upon herself.
   She was treated with contempt and made to feel ashamed. Through
   her chief assistant, Gurumayi told the young woman, "don't ever
   tell anyone about this, especially not your mother." (The woman's
   mother was a longtime devotee of SYDA, who had made substantial
   donations to the ashram over the years.) After two years of
   intense inner conflict, the young woman finally did tell her
   story. As a result, many others began to speak out, eventually
   contributing to an extensive expos‚ of SYDA in The New
   Yorker magazine (Harris, 1994). Published just two months after I
   started school, the article revealed a Pandora's box of well
   documented abuses by the leaders of SYDA that had been going on
   for more than 20 years.
   In the two years prior to the publication of the article, I had
   slowly and painfully begun to acknowledge to myself and others
   that there were aspects of SYDA and its leaders that I found
   unethical and disturbing. In particular, I had witnessed and
   personally experienced Gurumayi verbally and emotionally abusing
   devotees, using spies and hidden microphones to gather
   information, and publicly shaming and humiliating those with whom
   she was displeased.
   My doubts about SYDA crystallized when I heard the story of the
   young woman I knew. In the phrase, "Don't ever tell anyone about
   this, especially not your mother," I heard a chilling echo of the
   voice of the incestuous father, the battering husband, the sexual
   harasser, the rapist. As Judith Herman says, in her seminal work
   entitled Trauma and Recovery (1992), "secrecy and silence are the
   perpetrator's first line of defense" (p. 8). It was hearing these
   words, "Don't ever tell," that broke for me what Ernst Becker
   (1973) has called "the spell cast by persons -- the nexus of
   unfreedom." As I began to explore my experiences and those of
   others in connection with SYDA, I realized that because I had
   accepted the leader's claims to perfection and enlightenment, I
   had been unable to recognize abuses in the ashram for what they
   were. My emerging insights, fostered by counseling and study,
   have been strongly linked to my work with clients. Their
   experiences helped to clarify my own, and understanding my
   experiences helped me to form deeper therapeutic bonds with them.
   The purpose of this essay is to use
    1. my personal experience, both as a devotee of SYDA and now a
       former devotee,
    2. the social work and other social sciences literature on
       cults, and
    3. my field work experience of providing psychotherapeutic
       treatment to clients with backgrounds of trauma and abuse,
    1. further social work knowledge and understanding of the
       traumatic impact of religious cults;
    2. explore the commonalities between victims of cult abuse and
       other forms of abuse, such as rape, incest, and battering;
    3. attempt to understand aspects of our culture that have
       fostered a climate in which so many find themselves exposed
       to exploitative and abusive behaviors in cultic groups; and
    4. highlight the themes of my social work education that have
       been most relevant for me, in connection with my work with
       clients and my personal experience of abusive behaviors in
   What Is a Cult, and Why Do People Get Involved in Them?
   Cult experts estimate that there are about 5,000 cultic groups in
   the United States today and that about 10 to 20 million people
   have at some point in recent years been in one or more of such
   groups (Langone, 1993). The Cult Awareness Network reports that
   it receives about 18,000 inquiries a year (Tobias and Lalich,
   1994). Michael Langone (1993), a psychologist who has worked with
   approximately 3,000 families of cult members, defines a cult as:
   a group or movement that, to a significant degree,
    1. exhibits great or excessive devotion or dedication to some
       person, idea, or thing,
    2. uses a thought-reform program to persuade, control, and
       socialize members (i.e., to integrate them into the group's
       unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and
    3. systematically induces states of psychological dependency in
    4. exploits members to advance the leadership's goals, and
    5. causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the
       community (p. 5).
   I would add to this definition that a religious cult is led by a
   person who claims to have reached human perfection or unity with
   the divine, and who claims therefore to be exempt from social or
   moral limitations or restrictions. Within this autocracy, the
   leader is not held to normative societal standards of conduct and
   is not subject to any system of checks and balances. Behavior
   that would in any other context be considered amoral, if not
   psychopathic, is idealized by devotees as indicative of the
   leader's transcendent perfection and enlightenment.
   The questions most often asked of former cult members, usually
   with incredulity, are "How did you get into something like this?
   And why did you stay so long?" The unspoken subtext seems to be,
   "How could someone like you end up in something like this? There
   must have been something wrong with you." Certainly most former
   cult members were not seeking to be controlled, made dependent,
   exploited, or psychologically harmed when they first committed
   themselves to membership. One reason cults are so successful is
   that they have mastered the art of seduction, using techniques of
   undue influence (Cialdini, 1984). As Hochman (1990) notes, cults,
   by employing miracle, mystery, and authority, "promise salvation.
   Instead of boredom -- noble and sweeping goals. Instead of
   existential anxiety -- structure and certainty. Instead of
   alienation -- community. Instead of impotence -- solidarity
   directed by all-knowing leaders" (p. 179). Cults prey upon
   idealistic seekers, offering answers to social problems and
   promising to promote bona fide social change.
   Recruiting addresses the anxieties and loneliness of people
   experiencing personal problems, transition or crisis, by holding
   out the promise of transformative healing within the framework of
   a caring and understanding community (Tobias et al.). Cult
   recruiting often takes place in sophisticated settings, in the
   form of seminars featuring persuasive, well-credentialed
   speakers, such as successful professionals, respected academics
   or popular artists, writers and entertainers. Cults target
   members from middle-class backgrounds, often directly from
   college campuses, and the majority of members are of above
   average intelligence (Hassan, 1990; Kliger, 1994; Tobias et al.,
   In recruiting programs, speakers and members present various
   kinds of disinformation about cult leaders, including concealing
   their existence altogether. Otherwise, the leader may be
   represented as a humble, wise and loving teacher, when in reality
   he or she is a despot in possession of a substantial fortune,
   generated from member donations and (often illegal) business
   activities. The apparent leader may be only a figurehead, while
   the identity of the actual leader is concealed. False claims of
   ancient lineages may be made, or the leader is falsely said to be
   revered and renowned in his or her own country. Cult leaders
   rewrite and falsify their own biographies.
   Recruiting programs do not, for instance, inform participants
   about leaders of the group having criminal records, or a group's
   history of sexual abuse of members, or the group's involvement
   with illegal activities. Seduction in cult recruitment always
   involves strict control and falsification of information.
   Thought Reform, or Mind Control
   Thought reform, or mind control, is another important component
   in understanding why cults are so prevalent in our society. The
   psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1987) studied the methods used by
   the Chinese Communists during the Korean War to turn war
   prisoners into willing accomplices, and called these methods
   thought reform (see also Hinkle and Wolff, 1976; Schein, 1956;
   Singer, 1979).
   Thought reform (also known as mind control) is the foundation on
   which cults are built. Lifton identified 8 phenomena that were
   present in the systems of "ideological totalism" that he studied,
   all of which can be found in cults:
    1. Milieu control - control of communication within an
       environment. Maintained primarily by increasingly isolating
       members from non-members, this sets up what Lifton calls
       "personal closure." One is constantly receiving reinforcement
       to suppress personal doubts and struggles about what is true
       or real;
    2. Mystical manipulation, or planned spontaneity - a systematic
       process, covertly planned and managed by the group leader,
       whereby others come to invest him with omniscience,
       omnipotence, or divine authority. This gives rise to the
       embrace of an "ends justify the means" philosophy, since the
       behavior and directives ofthe leader are always and only
       interpreted as having a divine origin and purpose;
    3. Demand for purity - the call for a radical separation of pure
       and impure, of good and evil, within an environment and
       within oneself. This creates a world of guilt and shame in
       which devotees become obsessively preoccupied with hope of
       reward and fear of punishment;
    4. Cult of confession - linked to the demand for purity.
       Required confession sessions, ostensibly for the purpose of
       purification and spiritual evolution, manipulate the guilt
       and shame mechanisms of followers, expose them totally to the
       group, and deepen their sense of being owned by the group;
    5. Sacred science - a set of dogmatic principles which claim to
       be a science embodying the truth about human behavior and
       human psychology. These principles must never be questioned,
       and all experience must be filtered through them;
    6. Loading the language - reduction and distortion of complex
       concepts, thoughts, and feelings to simplistic clich‚s
       and slogans, which are used to still and limit mental
       processes of judgment and critical thinking;
    7. Doctrine over person - one is made to feel that doubts of the
       doctrine are a reflection of one's own inadequacies, defects,
       or sins. The dogma is truth, and one's subjective experience
       must be aligned with the dogma. To do otherwise is to risk
       exclusion from the group. Since the doctrine is created to
       serve the purposes of the sociopathic leader, followers must
       split off or dissociate parts of themselves, and jettison
       their own values, to justify actions or tenets of the leader
       which would otherwise be intolerable to them.
    8. Dispensing of existence - in the totalist vision of truth,
       one who disobeys, or deviates from the dogma, is false,
       deluded, or evil, and therefore instantly dispensable. The
       leaders are the judge of who is deviant, and can change their
       criteria at whim. Cults use the fear of banishment and
       shunning to control and contain members. To fear rejection by
       one's absolute ideal is tantamount to the profound dread of
       annihilation. (See also Singer and Ofshe, 1990; Tobias et al.
       For other theories of social control relevant to cults, see
       Festinger, 1964; Gramsci, 1973; Zimbardo, 1988.)
   While thought reform techniques were originally aimed at
   peripheral aspects of the self, such as political and social
   views, cults today aim at the core self, at a person's central
   self-image (Singer et al.). The guru is perceived as a deity who
   is always divinely right, and the devotee lives to please and
   avoid displeasing the guru/god. In a totalitarian ideological
   system, the cult leader's displeasure comes to mean for the
   member that his core self is unworthy, monstrously defective, and
   dispensable. The member has been conditioned to believe that loss
   of the leader's "grace" is equivalent to loss of the self. As the
   member becomes more deeply involved, his anxiety about remaining
   a member in good standing increases. This anxiety is akin to the
   intense fear, helplessness, loss of control and threat of
   annihilation that Herman, in her discussion of psychological
   domination, describes as induced in victims of both terrorists
   and battering husbands:
   The ultimate effect of these techniques is to convince the victim
   that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile,
   and that her life depends upon winning his indulgence through
   absolute compliance. The goal of the perpetrator is to instill in
   his victim not only fear of death but also gratitude for being
   allowed to live (p. 77). Thus the victim comes to identify with
   the aggressor, accepting the aggression as purification, the
   absence of aggression as beneficence. More than just being
   between a rock and a hard place, this is a desperate and degraded
   position to find oneself in.
   Herman's motivation for writing Trauma and Recovery was to show
   the commonalities "between rape survivors and combat veterans,
   between battered women and political prisoners, between the
   survivors of vast concentration camps created by tyrants who rule
   nations, and the survivors of small, hidden concentration camps
   created by tyrants who rule their homes" (p. 3). Tyrants who rule
   religious cults subject members to similar violations.
   Social Work Values vs. Cult Values
   In my first year of social work school, just a few months after
   breaking entirely with SYDA, I was asked to write a paper
   comparing a value system I had previously experienced to the
   social work value system I was currently exposed to. Social
   workers are taught early in their education the values of their
   profession: the clients' right to self-determination, respect and
   dignity for all, the innate worth of a human being, respect for
   uniqueness, and the facilitation of the realization of potential
   (Woods and Hollis, 1990).
   Religious cults are skillful in advertising the promotion of
   these values as the core of their philosophy. For example, SYDA's
   chief slogans, repeated frequently in public talks and SYDA
   Foundation literature, are: "Honor, love, respect, worship your
   Self. God dwells within you, as you. See God in each other." SYDA
   claims that its guru is "a self-realized master," and that
   following the teachings of the master lead to one's own
   self-realization. The bait of these messages is used to attract
   Once membership is established, the messages are switched to
   ever-increasing demands for obedience, submission and dependence.
   The actual value system of a cult is often the antithesis of the
   system it advertises.
   The following is excerpted from the paper I wrote in which I
   attempt to describe the value system of SYDA, especially in terms
   of values linked to the concept of strength versus weakness, and
   compare it to social work values:
   In the culture of Gurumayi's ashram, nothing was more important
   than the worship of and complete surrender to the guru. This is
   the essence of Siddha Yoga. The SYDA Foundation literature
   describes ad infinitum the proper ways to absorb oneself
   completely in the Siddha, the perfected master, and also
   describes the enlightenment, constant bliss and unity with the
   Absolute that are supposed to result (Muktananda, 1978). I became
   involved with SYDA at a point of transition in my life. I had
   several ecstatic meditation experiences early in my exposure to
   Siddha Yoga. Longing to belong and to be of service, I gradually
   increased my commitment, finally giving up everything I had and
   joining the ashram staff.
   After a few years, I began to have more contact with Gurumayi. I
   began to move toward the "inner circle," where everything started
   to be different from what it had been when I was still in the
   outer circles. Only in retrospect, since my break with Siddha
   Yoga, am I able to describe what this culture was like. At the
   time, I idealized everything about Gurumayi. We all found
   ingenious ways of making her perfect no matter what, and making
   her bizarre and cruel behavior "for our own good."
   In this culture, if you had a problem, you were "weak," i.e., not
   devoted and pure enough. You could be kicked out if you had a
   problem. You could be dismissed, thrown out of meetings, or
   ridiculed and humiliated publicly, sometimes in front of small
   groups and at other times in front of thousands of people at
   large public programs. Worst of all, if you earned the guru's
   displeasure, she might ignore you completely. That was worse than
   all the cruel and cutting remarks, which could at least be
   rationalized as pearls of wisdom meant to purify you. Being
   ignored meant that you were unworthy in the sight of God. If you
   had a problem, you could be spied on by roommates who would tell
   Gurumayi what you said and did. Or your room could be bugged with
   a hidden microphone. Or you could be left behind, not taken on
   Gurumayi's lecture tours all over the world - not worthy of being
   included. You could even be told to go back out to the world and
   You were "strong," i.e., devoted and worthy, if you worked around
   the clock and never took a vacation or a day off. You were strong
   if you never needed anything. You were strong if you lived on a
   pittance and never needed more money. But you were really strong
   if you had lots of money and gave large amounts of it to the
   guru. You were strong if you were willing to insult and harass
   other people on behalf of the guru while protecting her from
   being detected as the instigator.
   You were weak if you were tired, or had any feelings other than
   enthusiasm, happiness, and ardent devotion to the guru, asking
   nothing from her. Being depressed or exhausted was not just weak,
   it was considered selfish and an insult to Gurumayi. If you asked
   for help, you were weak. Not just weak, but worthy of contempt.
   Entering the field of social work is for me a rejection of the
   values of the culture of Siddha Yoga. It is a return to life, to
   compassion for humanity and for myself. I know now that asking
   for help can be a sign of strength and courage; that problems
   should be handled with sensitivity and care; and that part of
   being strong is having real feelings without trying to deny them.
   Recently, as I attempted to describe the cruelty I had
   experienced in the cult to another social worker, he replied,
   "was it cruelty, or just tough love?" Cults are totalitarian
   communities, and as the saying goes, "power tends to corrupt --
   and absolute power corrupts absolutely" (Acton, 1887). Tough love
   is hardly an appropriate description of the abuse of power that
   is pervasive in cults. The impetus to write on this subject now
   stems from several sources: the social work literature contains
   scant contributions on cults (Addis, Schulman-Miller and
   Lightman, 1984; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982), and my social work
   education has not included any discussion of this social problem.
   In addition, many social work and other mental health workers are
   themselves members of cultic groups. There is a need for
   consciousness raising on this issue.
   Some questions that need exploration in terms of working with
   cult members are:
    1. what are the traumas this population most commonly suffers,
    2. how do we understand the role of pre-existing pathology
       versus imposed pathology in working with cult victims, and
    3. what are the struggles in recovery this population and their
       families face as they leave the cult and re-enter the
   Social workers may also benefit from examining cults from a
   sociocultural perspective. What are the forces in our culture and
   society that allow such cults to flourish? While the memory of
   David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, the mass suicides of the
   Solar Temple of the Sun cult, and the plan of Shoko Asahara, of
   Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo, to create his own Armageddon, is still
   fresh in our minds, let us address this latter group of questions
   Inner Emptiness and the Culture of Narcissism
   Christopher Lasch (1979), in describing the "culture of
   narcissism," used the example of the writer Paul Zweig, a SYDA
   devotee, to illustrate his ideas about "the void within" that
   individuals in Western society have been struggling with in the
   post-WWII era. Prior to his involvement in SYDA, Zweig spoke of
   his growing "conviction, amounting to a faith, that my life was
   organized around a core of blandness which shed anonymity upon
   everything I touched"; of "the emotional hibernation which lasted
   until I was almost thirty"; of persisting "suspicion of personal
   emptiness which all my talking and my anxious attempts at charm
   surround and decorate, but don't penetrate or even come close
   to." When "the experience of inner emptiness, the frightening
   feeling that at some level of existence I'm nobody, that my
   identity has collapsed and no one's there" becomes overwhelming,
   Zweig encounters Swami Muktananda, or Baba (Father), the original
   founder of Siddha Yoga. From Baba, he learns to anesthetize his
   "mental busyness, . . ., obsessive thinking and . . . anxiety."
   Cushman (1990) notes that inner emptiness is expressed in many
   ways in our culture, such as low self-esteem (the absence of a
   sense of personal worth), values confusion (the absence of a
   sense of personal convictions), eating disorders (the compulsion
   to fill the emptiness with food, or to embody the emptiness by
   refusing food), drug abuse (the compulsion to fill the emptiness
   with chemically induced emotional experience of "receiving"
   something from the world). It may also take the form of an
   absence of personal meaning. This can manifest as a hunger for
   spiritual guidance, which sometimes takes the form of a wish to
   be filled up by the spirit of God, by religious "truth," or by
   the power and personality of a leader guru (p. 604).
   The hunger for spiritual guidance and religious truth is often
   what impels people to explore religious groups. Problems arise
   when the leaders of these groups proclaim themselves to be living
   embodiments of this truth. The danger of cults lies in the leap
   one must make, from embracing religious truth, to worshipping a
   person claiming to be this truth. The danger increases when this
   person promises salvation, redemption, or perfection, in exchange
   for money, goods and services. While religious teachers are as
   entitled as anyone else to earn a living by selling their
   teachings, the claim that a leader is a perfected master is a
   common denominator of destructive cults.
   Whether or not a particular person is perfect is something that
   can only be defended on a subjective basis -- "I experience you
   as perfect, therefore, you are perfect." For some, a perfect
   human being is a possibility; for others, a perfect human being
   can only be an oxymoron.
   Yet the myth of the perfect master can be so alluring, and the
   need so compelling. Cushman speaks of the "lifestyle solution"
   promoted by advertising, in which larger-than-life, glamorous
   "selfobjects" (Kohut, 1984) in the form of products to be
   acquired or incorporated, promise to magically transform the
   empty self. Perhaps this solution to the problem of the inner
   void -- acquisition of objects, worldly treasure -- is the
   inverse of the guru solution, which promises to fill the empty
   self with the spiritual treasure of a perfect, glamorous,
   larger-than-life guru. As Kohut has said, the pressure of inner
   emptiness can leave one especially vulnerable to "the seduction
   of an external force posing as an ego ideal" (Kohut, 1990, p.
   Today, gurus use the technology and psychology of advertising to
   provide ever more effective methods of seducing recruits. One of
   the most seductive ideas advertised in meditation-based cults is
   that "it is not necessary to be logical, rational, or even
   reasonable. The ultimately dominant criterion of what is good is
   a totally subjective feeling state. The goal of life becomes a
   good feeling, a never-ending high" (Garvey, 1993). This is not
   necessarily as selfish as it sounds. Loyal members of a cult
   believe that their leader has magically transformed their lives
   and relieved their suffering. On that basis, they will staunchly
   defend their leader even when his or her crimes are exposed. The
   "good feeling" of their initial conversion experience might
   consist of feeling "redeemed," "coming home at last," having been
   "lost, but now found," or being "saved." These intensely
   emotional experiences are attributed directly to the power and
   will of the leader. Groups such as SYDA skillfully control
   devotees' thought processes by suggesting repeatedly that they
   "trust their own experience." In this way, objectivity -- e.g.,
   any negative information about the leader -- is devalued. The
   guru, along with one's own subjective feeling state, is
   idealized. The bunker mentality response to any critical
   information about the group and its leaders then becomes: "that
   isn't my experience."
   There are strong reasons for this need to banish objectivity. If
   one believes that the guru's power has healed one's pain, then
   keeping the pain from returning means preserving the guru, at any
   cost. Indeed, the pain of life that has been magically erased by
   the guru will return if one rejects the guru. The pain will
   return, along with many other warded off emotions, and these will
   need to be experienced, felt, understood, worked through, and
   made meaningful, if real transformation, not magic, is to occur.
   This is part of the difficult process of self-development that
   the guru solution simply sweeps under the rug.
   The history of SYDA provides a good example of how far devotees
   will go to defend the person they perceive as their savior. In
   the early 80s, the Siddha Yoga community was shocked to learn
   that Muktananda, a monk in his late 60s and supposedly a lifelong
   celibate, had been secretly having sexual relations with western
   female devotees for at least ten years. While many women thought
   of themselves as willing participants, others felt coerced and
   traumatized by the experience. Often his victims were female
   children in their early teens. Many who were SYDA devotees at the
   time heard these allegations and ignored them, in spite of wide
   acknowledgment among those closest to Muktananda that they were
   true. When several devotees spoke out publicly about Muktananda's
   sexual abuses, two loyal devotees were dispatched by Muktananda
   to threaten these whistle-blowers with disfigurement and
   castration (Rodarmor, 1983). Nevertheless, to this day,
   Muktananda is worshipped by SYDA devotees as a deity.
   How can this kind of loyalty be understood? Under the influence
   of cult mind control, devotees must make the Guru, who has
   magically filled the inner void, exempt from all scrutiny and
   judgment. Devotees come to depend completely on the absolute
   perfection of the guru. Keeping the terror of emptiness and
   meaninglessness at bay, no matter how artificially, becomes so
   crucial to the devotee's survival, that he must deny truth, and
   sacrifice his pre-cult values and integrity, in order not to lose
   the all-providing, omnipotent, idealized guru. Long after the
   glow of the conversion experience fades, regardless of the
   exposes, the abuse and exploitation, many devotees maintain their
   unreasoning loyalty, because for them, it has become a matter of
   life or death.
   The Question of Pre-Existing and Induced Pathology: Blaming the
   If cults recruit members by baiting the traps of the culture of
   narcissism with promises of redemption and fulfillment, how do we
   understand the people who take the bait? What assumptions, if
   any, can we make about this population? In addressing these
   questions, it is necessary to confront two major themes:
    1. pre-existing pathology and induced pathology, and
    2. the question of blaming the victim.
   Theorists such as Fromm (1965), Becker (1973) and Berger (1967)
   havesought to understand the dynamics of dominance and
   submission, sadism and masochism, that are built into the human
   character and which are triggered in individuals and societies
   exposed to certain influences. Fromm, and later Becker, were
   moved to explore these human traits by the horror of Nazi
   Germany; Berger's interest was oriented to the history of
   religion. These ideas about man's vulnerability to certain
   "pathological" behaviors can be used to suggest that those who
   become cult victims are predisposed to submissive,
   sadomasochistic behavior.
   More recent theorists have been concerned with the phenomenon of
   blaming the victims of rape and battering for asking for, or
   failing to put a stop to, the abuse they have suffered (Herman;
   Kliger). McNew and Abell (1995) and Silver and Iacano (1986) use
   the term "sanctuary trauma" to describe how one who has already
   experienced severe trauma, such as rape, often experiences a
   secondary trauma in what was expected to be a supportive and
   protective environment, such as in a police station, a courtroom,
   or a therapist's office. Herman notes that "those who attempt to
   describe the atrocities that they have witnessed also risk their
   own credibility. To speak publicly about one's knowledge of
   atrocities is to invite the stigma that attaches to victims" (p.
   It is easy, but erroneous, to assume that only certain kinds of
   people are predisposed to join cults. When noted cult-expert Joe
   Szimhart speaks to audiences about cults and is asked what kind
   of people join them, he points to the audience and says, "People
   like you" (Szimhart, personal conversation). In studies conducted
   by Langone (1993), in which cult members are given a battery of
   standard psychological tests, he found that the percentage of
   cult members who were diagnosable was only slightly higher than
   the 20% of the general population commonly considered
   diagnosable, suggesting that the cult population is not
   necessarily markedly different from the norm. Langone asserts,
   along with Martin and Hassan, that mind control techniques are
   effective with all kinds of people, regardless of the previous
   existence or non-existence of any kind of psychopathology.
   The literature on working with former cult members stresses, for
   the most part, that the pathology induced by the cult itself must
   be acknowledged, and the former member must be helped with the
   array of problems resulting from this induced pathology, before
   any pre-existing, underlying pathology is assumed or explored
   (Addis et al.; Clifford, 1994; Giambalvo, 1993; Goldberg, 1993;
   Goldberg et al., 1982; Goldberg, 1993; Halperin, 1990; Hassan,
   1990; Kliger, 1994; Langone, 1993; Langone and Chambers, 1991;
   Martin, 1993; Martin and Langone, 1992; Morse and Morse, 1987;
   Tobias, 1993). To do otherwise, for these authors, invalidates
   the reality of the client, constituting a stigmatizing message
   from the worker that the victims' traumatic experience has more
   to do with their psychopathology than with the violations
   perpetrated by the group.
   I strongly agree that cult victims can be unfairly stigmatized or
   pathologized. However, I suggest that workers risk creating a
   false dichotomy when we polarize the issues of pre-existing
   pathology and induced pathology in cult victims; and further,
   that framing the issue in terms of pathology is, from the outset,
   counter-productive. All human beings struggle with dependency,
   with separation and individuation, and with conflicts over active
   and passive wishes and fears. These are universal developmental
   issues. As Herman points out, referring to Erikson's (1980) life
   cycle stages, "trauma forces the survivor to relive all her
   earlier struggles over autonomy, initiative, competence,
   identity, and intimacy." Once a person is exposed to a thought
   reform program and the traumatic violations that ensue,
   developmental crises will be restimulated, whether they were
   adequately resolved previously or not. The concept of "blaming
   the victim" is misused, and unfair to the client, if it
   encourages workers to overlook pre-existing factors which may
   have contributed to the client's victimization.
   Victims can and should be helped with both the induced and
   pre-existing aspects of their problem, at the appropriate points
   in treatment (Addis et al.; Clifford; Giambalvo; Goldberg, L.;
   Goldberg et al.; Goldberg, W.; Hassan; Morse and Morse; Tobias et

   The Dominating Leader and the Submissive Follower
   In the interest, then, of better understanding the dynamics that
   may lead some people to stay in cults, I wish to present certain
   ideas about the human propensity to exploit and be exploited. As
   the world watched the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930's and
   40's, a literature developed during and after the Holocaust which
   attempted to come to grips with, among other things, how
   virtually an entire nation of people, the Germans, could be
   persuaded to give up their morals, values, autonomy and
   integrity, by one man, a charismatic megalomaniac named Adolf
   Hitler. Many authors have attempted to find explanations for this
   inexplicable horror. The ideas of Erich Fromm on this subject, as
   presented in his book Escape From Freedom, are particularly
   relevant here. (Also see Becker (1973), especially the chapter
   entitled "The Spell Cast by Persons -The Nexus of Unfreedom"; and
   Berger (1967), particularly the chapter entitled "The Problem of
   Fromm examines the relationship of human development processes to
   social, religious, economic and political forces in the
   environment. He notes that the process of individuation frees a
   child to "develop and express its own individual self unhampered
   by those ties which were limiting to it. But the child also
   becomes more free from a world which gave it security and
   reassurance" (p. 46). Fromm continues:
     If the economic, social and political conditions on which the
     whole process of human individuation depends, do not offer a
     basis for the realization of individuality.. ., while at the
     same time people have lost those ties which gave them
     security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then
     becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks
     meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape
     from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of
     relationship to man and the world which promises relief from
     uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom
     (p. 52) (italics mine).
   Fromm is describing, writing in 1941, the predicament of a life
   which lacks meaning and direction, in a society which offers too
   many dead-end destinations. This is where Paul Zweig found
   himself - adrift in the culture of narcissism that Lasch
   described twenty-five years later.
   While Fromm speaks of the securing ties that are lost in the
   process of becoming separate, there are those who would argue
   that many children in the early stages of development possess
   little more than false security, at best. Alice Miller, in The
   Drama of the Gifted Child (1981), suggests that the development
   of the true self, the goal of separation and individuation, is
   thwarted when parents need and use their children to fulfill
   their own egoistic wishes. Parents can train children to
   experience their natural needs, feelings, and attempts at
   self-expression, as destructive and shameful. Such children learn
   to hide or suppress these unaccepted parts of themselves, and to
   develop a false self which accommodates the needs of the parents
   -- in essence, an act of self-annihilation (Winnicott, 1960).
   While the developmental conflict between attachment and
   separation invariably elicits feelings of isolation and
   powerlessness, these feelings may be especially exacerbated when
   the child's drive to separate is threatening to a needy and
   narcissistically vulnerable parent, or thwarted by neglectful or
   sadistic parents. Miller sees the problem of the child who
   becomes a prisoner of the narcissistic parent as a pervasive
   cultural phenomenon of our time.
   Fromm attributes fear of separation to alienating and isolating
   forces in society which have arisen gradually over centuries.
   Miller sees this fear arising in the nursery, from the ways we
   misunderstand and misuse our children. Whether we prefer the
   macrocosmic or the microcosmic view, in attempting to understand
   the problem of fear of separation and freedom, I believe these
   perspectives are complementary, and both are useful and
   For the person who is tormented with anxiety about separation,
   Fromm considers masochism to be one of the primary mechanisms of
   escape from this torment. When the parental and/or social
   environment cannot provide the security required for the
   separation effort, then adopting the masochistic stance of
   feeling small and helpless, or overwhelmed by pain and agony, can
   be a way of avoiding and protecting oneself from having to fight
   what would only be a losing battle. Between self-annihilation,
   which provides a kind of control, and unsupported separation and
   independence, which feels out of control, self-annihilation may
   seem like the less terrifying of two evils.
   However, annihilation of self is only one side of the attempt to
   overcome unbearable feelings of powerlessness. Fromm points out
   an alternative which bears more directly on the subject of cults:
     The other side is the attempt to become a part of a bigger and
     more powerful whole outside of oneself, to submerge and
     participate in. This power can be a person, an institution,
     God, the nation, conscience, or a psychic compulsion. By
     becoming part of a power which is felt as unshakably strong,
     eternal, and glamorous, one participates in its strength and
     glory. One surrenders one's own self and renounces all
     strength and pride connected with it, one loses one's
     integrity as an individual and surrenders freedom; but one
     gains a new security and a new pride in the participation in
     the power in which one submerges. One gains also security
     against the torture of doubt (p. 177) (italics mine).
   Fromm calls the power one submerges oneself in the "magic
   helper." When one feels helpless and hopeless to express and
   realize one's individual potential, dependence on a magic helper
   provides a solution which shifts the emphasis off the self, which
   is experienced as empty and worthless, to the magic helper. The
   magic helper, in our fantasy, has all the answers, can take care
   of everything, and loves and accepts us perfectly, thereby
   confirming and validating our existence. Merging with the magic
   helper banishes emptiness, loneliness and anxiety -- and magic
   security is established. Then separation, individuation, and its
   accompanying terrors can be averted altogether. One can join a
   cult and effect a kind of separation from one's family and
   background -- but the actual task of individuation is not
   undertaken. The pseudo-separation attempt degenerates into a
   regression to deeper levels of dependence and enmeshment.
   In the relationship to the magic helper, "the question is then no
   longer how to live oneself, but how to manipulate 'him' in order
   not to lose him and how to make him do what one wants, even to
   make him responsible for what one is responsible oneself" (Fromm,
   p. 199). Paradoxically, obedience and goodness are among the most
   common methods used to attempt to manipulate and control the
   magic helper. Yet the enslavement to the magic helper that is
   then experienced is resented and creates conflict. This conflict
   must be repressed in order not to lose the magic helper.
   Additionally, people who pose as magic helpers eventually and
   inevitably demonstrate their imperfection, if not their complete
   fraudulence. Thus, the underlying anxiety about the authenticity
   of the magic helper, or about losing him through not being
   worthy, constantly threatens the security sought for in the
   relationship. This is a real double bind. As Berger notes, "the
   masochistic attitude is inherently predestined to failure,
   because the self cannot be annihilated this side of death and
   because the other can only be absolutized in illusion" (p. 56).
   (See footnote *)
   (* Kliger, in her study of devotees of a leader named "Guru",
   demonstrates that it is precisely this conflict in the devotees
   that results in the high degree of somatization she found among
   them. Unhappiness and dissatisfaction amongst members was
   considered by Guru to be hostile, a threat to the community. Guru
   demanded that devotees show a happy face at all times, claiming
   that their unhappy faces made him physically and psychically ill.
   (This is also what Gurumayi teaches her SYDA staff.) Because the
   devotees were stigmatized by Guru for any expression of
   dissatisfaction, devotees suppressed these feelings, which then
   emerged through somatization. Physical illness was more
   acceptable to Guru, because he saw himself as a healer and could
   use a devotee's illness to demonstrate his power. If his healing
   efforts failed, however, the devotee's illness was deemed a
   manifestation of their resistance, proving that they were hostile
   to Guru's mission. Punishment by shunning followed, which led
   either to the devotee's further submission, or to their
   excommunication (Kliger, pp. 232-233).)
   When the magic helper is a drug such as heroin, the annihilation
   of the self may culminate in the death of the body. If it is
   food, the self is concealed in obesity, or enslaved to anorexia
   and bulimia. When the magic helper is an idealized but
   traumatizing parent who is ambivalently both hated and totally
   depended on, annihilation of the self manifests as the inability
   to separate and individuate.
   When the magic helper is a guru, the annihilation of the self is
   the loss of one's own voice, personal values, and integrity.
   Again, SYDA provides useful material in support of this point. In
   SYDA philosophy, the "ego" is devalued as something small and
   selfish that must be surrendered to the guru, to be magically
   transformed into pure awareness of the transcendent "inner Self,"
   which is one with the guru and with God. The sense of "doership",
   taking credit for or enjoying the fruits of one's own actions, is
   in particular a sure sign of "wrong understanding." The right
   understanding is that whatever the guru says or does is a direct
   expression of God's will, and that everything good flows from the
   magic grace of the guru. By surrendering the ego and the sense of
   doership to the guru, the sins of pride and selfishness are
   supposedly expiated. Practically, this means that experiencing
   oneself as a center of agency and initiative, as a creative
   person capable of taking pleasure in the use of one's own talents
   and skills, should be a source of shame -- because nothing
   belongs to oneself, it all belongs to and comes from the guru. On
   the other hand, one must always be ready to confess and take
   credit for one's sins and transgressions -- which in this system,
   are the sole property of the small, impure, selfish ego.
   When the mists of these tortuous obfuscations are cleared, one
   has really only discovered a pseudo-moralistic rationale for
   self-annihilation. The person posing as the magic guru is
   revealed as an opportunistic entrepreneur, one who has learned
   how to profit well from the variety of influences, in our inner
   and outer worlds, which have caused us to feel afraid of freedom.
   Traumas Suffered by Cult Members
   When cult members finally leave the cult and seek help, they have
   been exhausted by their long struggle to maintain the illusion of
   a perfect master, and the concomitant deterioration of their
   self-esteem. Many clinical workers are unfamiliar with the
   particular issues likely to be present in this population.
   Knowledge of the impact of more familiar abuses such as rape,
   incest and battering can be extremely helpful in working with
   cult members. Cult trauma entails violation, by the idolized and
   deified leader, of the cult member's core sense of self. Rape,
   incest and battering, often perpetrated by a trusted adult or
   significant other, are also extreme violations and disruptions of
   the self (Bell, J., 1995; Blake-White and Kline, 1985;
   Chairamonte, J. (1992); Ellenson, G., 1989; Graziano, R., 1992;
   Langley, M., 1982; Marton, F., 1988; McNew et al.; Patten, Gatz,
   Jones, and Thomas, 1989). The following clinical material
   compares aspects of some of these generally more familiar
   violations with examples of cult violations.
   Rape. A client I have been seeing for the last two years, Ms. R.,
   was the victim of severe emotional abuse from her mother.
   Although this example does not involve an actual rape, the
   principles involved are similar and useful for the purposes of
   this discussion.
   Ms. R. is an intelligent 40 year old woman from a middle class
   background who is extremely phobic, obsessive and subject to
   panic anxiety. Although she successfully maintains a menial job,
   she feels she is earning far below her potential and is
   profoundly isolated and dissatisfied, without fulfilling work or
   intimate relationships. She traces many of her difficulties to
   her traumatic upbringing. Ms. R.'s mother was a disturbed woman
   who was dependent on a variety of tranquilizers and barbiturates.
   Nevertheless, as a child, Ms. R. saw her mother as an idealized
   figure, vested with magical omnipotence. Ms. R. lived in terror
   of her mother's demands for perfection, and her unpredictable
   outbursts of rage. Nothing she did was considered good enough,
   and she was made to feel that any form of self-expression was
   destructive. She learned that only her mother's needs mattered,
   and she experienced her own needs and feelings as shameful.
   Ms. R. describes her experience of the cruel, contemptuous words
   and looks of her mother, spit out at her with rage and
   penetrating her to the core, leaving her feeling ever more alone
   and ashamed, by using the metaphor of rape. Her mother's
   rape-like verbal abuse has frozen Ms. R. in terror and
   helplessness, and rendered her unable to separate or form a
   stable sense of identity. She has cut off all contact with her
   mother, saying that to reconcile with her would be like "getting
   in bed with my own rapist." Yet she has internalized this
   punitive mother and lives in constant fear of the people in her
   world. In her transference to them, they are all potential
   "psychic rapists."
   The pattern of cruelty of Ms. R.'s mother is remarkably similar
   to the behavior of cult leaders. Herman states that "violation
   is, in fact, a synonym for rape. The purpose of the rapist is to
   terrorize, dominate, and humiliate his victim, to render her
   utterly helpless" (p. 58). In cults, victims are made helpless,
   like rape victims, when they are repeatedly confronted and forced
   to confess sins and transgressions. This phenomenon is sometimes
   called "being on the hot seat." The hot seat confrontation, in
   which accusatory words are hurled by group leaders like knives,
   with the purpose of penetrating and wounding the core of the
   devotee's self, is a violent, painful invasion of self-boundaries
   disguised as "purification," for the good of the member. The
   member is usually accused of behaving in some way which
   demonstrates a lack of faith in or loyalty to the leader. This
   alleged lack in the member is portrayed as a monstrous and
   contemptible defect or transgression. In the midst of this
   assault, which is often ongoing over an extended period, the cult
   member on the hot seat must attempt to feel and express remorse
   as well as appreciation of the leader's efforts to purify him.
   Often, leaders who employ hot seat confrontations press the
   victims' peers into service, inviting them to join in the
   assault. This creates a situation not unlike a gang rape. These
   confrontations may end with the ultimate humiliation --
   excommunication, the equivalent for the member of psychic
   annihilation; or else with the member's complete submission and
   confession, leading to his rehabilitation as a member in good
   standing. In either case, former cultists in therapeutic
   treatment invariably describe their experience of abuse in the
   cult as "spiritual rape" (Tobias et al.) Like a violent rapist
   threatening his victim with death if she does not submit, in
   confrontation/confession episodes, the guru has the devotee in
   his or her power.
   Battering. Battering comprises a cycle of violent assaults by one
   domestic partner against the other, followed by a period of
   reconciliation, which is then followed by an escalation phase and
   a return to the violence. Herman notes that battering may also
   include being taken by surprise, trapped, or exposed to the point
   of exhaustion. The victim of battering comes to live in a state
   of helplessness and terror.
   Ms. R., described above, experienced her mother's unpredictable
   outbursts of rage and cruelty, sometimes accompanied with slaps,
   but often just comprising words and looks, as battering. She
   stated in session that she began feeling crazy at a very early
   age, when her mother would direct prolonged fits of rage toward
   her, then suddenly disappear into her room. She would emerge
   hours later as though nothing had happened, offering to read Ms.
   R. a bedtime story. Ms. R. described another group of memories,
   in which she was expected to do all the house cleaning on
   Saturdays before she would be allowed to go outside and play. But
   because her mother slept until early afternoon, and she was not
   allowed to make noise that would wake her, the cleaning would not
   be done until dinner, by which time the other children had gone
   home and it would be too late to go outside. Ms. R. hated her
   mother for trapping and isolating her in this way.
   Yet when Ms. R.'s mother played the piano and asked her daughter
   to sing,et, when Ms. R. took great pride in her ability to elicit
   her mother's approval and pleasure -- rare and precious gifts
   that she treasured. But the approval meant so much to Ms. R.,
   that each time she lost it, she would be overwhelmed with grief,
   rage, and self-blame. The unpredictable shifts Ms. R. experienced
   between being the object of her mother's rage and derision at one
   moment, and of her engulfing and overstimulating affection at
   another, were desperately confusing. At age 8, Ms. R. began
   engaging in compulsive hand washing rituals. Although these
   rituals ceased long ago, Ms. R. remains imprisoned and paralyzed
   by her doubts and fears about herself.
   Similar conditions exist for cult members. They are frequently
   expected to work 12 to 18 hour days, 7 days a week, with little
   or no time off. This keeps them constantly isolated within the
   system, vulnerable and exhausted. During a period where SYDA
   members were being allowed a weekly day off, Gurumayi learned
   that a staff member had spent an afternoon at a movie. She
   promptly informed all staff that they would no longer be allowed
   any days off or holidays. Gurumayi's own fondness for rented
   videos and satellite television is one of her many well-guarded
   secrets. But even if it were common knowledge, the devotee's
   mission is to hold their guru exempt from human standards of
   fairness, logic or ethical conduct. They must maintain and defend
   their belief in her perfection, or face the catastrophic collapse
   of the belief structure that upholds them. Similarly, the
   battered child must blame herself for her parents' irrational
   behavior, or risk losing the parents she depends on.
   On the other hand, Gurumayi makes lavish displays of generosity
   to certain members, usually timed before or after the member
   would be put on the hot seat. Which of her inner circle is "in"
   and which is "out" is a constant source of gossip among her
   staff, who are anxious to be properly aligned for or against
   those who are in or out of favor. One's status fluctuates
   constantly and unpredictably. When cult members are repeatedly
   insulted and humiliated by the guru for no understandable reason;
   and the guru then makes a show of forgiving them, heaping praise
   and attention on them; and when this cycle is repeated
   continuously, without warning or reason, then the victim
   experiences fear, desperation to comply, and helplessness -- just
   as Ms. R did, and as the battered wife does. The guru does not
   necessarily need to use physical violence, as the batterer does,
   to keep devotees in line -- although many gurus, like those in
   SYDA, do employ corporeal punishments. Because one's core sense
   of self is placed completely in the power of the guru, emotional
   and psychic wounds from the guru's cruel and contemptuous remarks
   and behavior are experienced as devastatingly painful blows. When
   these alternate with praise and ostentatious displays of
   kindness, one is both made to feel crazy and made to feel more
   Incest. Another client, Ms. B., was molested by older male
   relatives on two occasions in her childhood. Then from the age of
   13-16, she was subjected to sexualizing behavior from her father.
   When she was sixteen, her father raped her and had sexual
   intercourse with her regularly for the next 3 years. Ms. B. went
   on to become a crack addict and a prostitute, and is now in
   Ms. B. is attractive and intelligent. She is childlike in many
   ways, including her thumb-sucking in bed before she falls asleep.
   She is also flirtatious, in the manner of a child seeking
   approval and attention. But of course she is in an adult body.
   Her original childhood needs for mirroring affirmation were met
   with sexualization. Now, all of Ms. B.'s needs are
   counterphobically translated into the need for sexual
   When I first saw Ms. B., she was going home from her
   rehabilitation facility on weekends, and reported enjoying being
   with her family. When I asked if she had any discomfort about
   being with her father, she would report she had none. I was
   struck at these times and many others at how devoid Ms. B. was of
   affective responses to her intact memories of years of incest.
   Although feelings about her father were dissociated, I discovered
   that she was reenacting the incest at her facility. Ms.
   B.revealed that she was involved in several secret sexual
   liaisons which violated the house rules. She was in constant
   torment over her fear of being discovered and dismissed from the
   program. At the same time she conspired relentlessly to maintain
   the secret affairs and protect the men involved from exposure.
   Her lovers made it clear to her that if they were exposed, she
   would be to blame for their downfall. She was experiencing
   desperate confusion and anxiety in the reenactments, while
   feeling nothing about her father, the original perpetrator. It
   has not been easy to help Ms. B. see how these relationships
   reenact her history of incest. Ms. B.'s father had succeeded in
   manipulating her so that she felt responsible for arousing him.
   She was afraid to expose him for fear of being despised by her
   mother, who never noticed that anything was wrong. She also
   didn't want to hurt her mother and see her fall apart, or destroy
   her parents' marriage and lose the only home she knew. Crack
   proved to be an effective relief from the desperate confusion Ms.
   B. experienced -- until it brought her to prostitution,
   degradation and near death.
   When Ms. B. finally confronted her parents and told the truth
   some months ago, her father did not deny what had happened, as
   she had feared. Rather, he took the opportunity when her mother
   was out of earshot to tell Ms. B. "if only you had said no." Her
   mother also calls her now, crying, complaining of the destruction
   of her marriage. It appears that neither parent was or is as
   concerned about the destruction of their daughter as about
   maintaining their status quo.
   Cults are also incestuous and resemble incestuous families. Like
   the incest victim, cult victims have been deceived and exploited,
   persuaded to obey and maintain secrecy, by a trusted and
   idealized parental/authority figure. Members may be keeping
   secrets about the sexual abuse of others, or about their own
   molestation. In SYDA, the previous guru was called "Baba," which
   means father, and his successor is known as "Gurumayi," which
   means Guru Mother. Muktananda had sexual intercourse with many of
   the young women who adored him as a divine father. Gurumayi, who
   succeeded Muktananda as the head of SYDA, was fully aware that
   many young women were seduced or raped in her ashram by other
   male authority figures there. Her response has been to protect
   the perpetrators and blame the girls and young women, commanding
   them to keep the secret. Blake-White states that because the
   incest perpetrator is a trusted parent, the victim can be
   ambivalent and confused about her own feelings to the point that
   she may doubt her own reality.
   Because cult members are being violated by their idolized guru
   (or the guru is protecting their violators), they may suffer a
   similar confusion of reality. This is demonstrated in SYDA, for
   example, where many parents accepted the sexual abuse of their
   daughters by Muktananda as a gift of divine grace, and devotees
   who knew of his sexual activities ignored or rationalized them as
   having a divine purpose.
   In addition to issues of sexual abuse, other kinds of secrets
   that cult members may be asked to keep include illegal practices
   such as money laundering, violence toward group enemies, use of
   illegal weapons, smuggling, and so on. Members who attempt to
   speak out against abuses in the cult may be discredited,
   intimidated, or shamed into believing that their own inner
   corruption is being projected. Similarly, the incest victim is
   told that she provoked her own mistreatment. Loyal members make
   every effort to manipulate the guilt mechanisms of those who
   criticize the group, with logic-twisting comments such as, "these
   destructive things you say are hurting people's spiritual
   progress." Similarly, the incest victim is told that revealing
   the secret will destroy the family.
   When cult members emerge from confusion, and become aware of
   having been deceived and betrayed, their rage and despair may be
   enormous. Yet cult members also struggle with issues of loyalty
   to the perpetrator, and many remain emotionally crippled by
   confusion and self-doubt. Like Ms. B. repeatedly reenacting her
   trauma, many cultists become disillusioned in one cult only to
   join another. Many feel an irresistible pull to return to the
   original cult in which they were abused.
   Working With Cult Survivors
   It should not be surprising that cult survivors, having suffered
   traumatic violations such as those described above, often present
   with a very broad range of problems. While it is not within the
   scope of this paper to review in detail current theories of work
   with this population, I will briefly present some of the major
   points on the subject. Both Giambalvo and Tobias provide detailed
   information on their own work with cult members (also see Hassan;
   Langone, 1993). They break down the problem areas for cult
   survivors that workers should be aware of as follows:
    1. the disarming of internalized mind-control mechanisms, and
       education about deception and abuse in the cult (this step is
       often accomplished in exit counseling, a specialized,
       non-coercive, short-term educational intervention
       specifically geared to cult issues);
    2. becoming free of fears of being harmed by the cult leaders or
       members. Specific fears could include: physical or verbal
       assault; release of confidential and potentially embarrassing
       information; or "divine retribution" in the form of accidents
       or misfortunes. Because of indoctrination, these fears are
       often intense at first, and can reach the point of panic
    3. management of post-traumatic stress symptoms, particularly
       "floating," a dissociative state experienced in connection
       with damage from excessive meditation, chanting, mantra
       repetition, etc.;
    4. grief work in relation to loss and betrayal;
    5. issues related to sexual abuse which may have taken place in
       the cult;
    6. health issues and medical care, including diet, which has
       often been protein-deficient;
    7. aid in restoring financial stability and planning for the
       future, including vocational or educational planning;
    8. issues related to sexuality;
    9. restoring trust in relationships and managing intimacy, in
       the context of friends and family;
   10. restoring self-esteem;
   11. finding meaning in the experience; addressing spirituality,
       values and beliefs.
   While the above list is fairly comprehensive, there are crucial
   aspects of recovery from trauma that Herman (p. 213) emphasizes
   that should not be overlooked when working with cult victims.
   These include helping the client to:
    1. create a coherent narrative, linked with feeling, from the
       memory of the trauma;and
    2. reestablish important relationships.
   The latter point is particularly relevant for cult members who
   may be faced with extreme isolation because they became estranged
   from all but other cult members. Restoring pre-cult significant
   relationships, especially family relationships, can help provide
   desperately needed support for the survivor. Steve Hassan, a
   leading exit counselor of cult members and their families,
   considers family therapy to be an essential element in recovery
   from cults. Before intervening with a cult member, Hassan works
   with the member's family to address the systemic problems of
   communication and relating that may have contributed to the
   alienation of the member. He then assists the family and the cult
   member with the complex process of reconnecting. In addition,
   families of cult members often suffer terrible anguish and
   confusion over the plight of the member.
   They, too, often seek counseling to attempt to cope with the
   disruption the cult has caused in their lives. The Cult Clinics
   in New York and Los Angeles, maintained by Jewish family service
   agencies, use individual, couples and group modalities to help
   families with members who have become involved in cults.
   Cult survivors may benefit enormously from group work. Lorna and
   William Goldberg (Goldberg et al.) are social workers who have
   run an ongoing support group for cult survivors for more than 15
   years, in which former members offer mutual aid to each other as
   they readjust to society. The Goldbergs see three stages in
   recovery that they help group members to identify and work
    1. the stage of self-doubt, confusion, and depression,
    2. the reemergence of the pre-cult personality, often
       accompanied by actions aimed at exposure of the group, and
    3. the stage ofintegration, which includes the ability to accept
       positive aspects of the cult experience along with the
       negative, and which is marked by a resumption of
       goal-oriented activities geared toward productivity and
   The Goldbergs find that members who work through these three
   stages in the support group are often interested in continuing in
   individual psychotherapy, as a means of better understanding the
   dynamics that led them to be vulnerable to cult participation.
   Individual, group and family therapy may all be helpful modes of
   intervention with cult survivors. Ultimately, the most helpful
   aspect of treatment for the survivor is an empathic worker who
   has knowledge and understanding of issues pertaining to cults.
   Aside from information available in the literature on the subject
   (see the References section), various organizations exist which
   serve as information, treatment and resource centers about cults.
   A list of some of these organizations is included at the end of
   this paper (see Table 1).
   The general public has had a good deal of media exposure in
   recent years to child abuse, domestic violence, rape and incest
   issues. Cult issues, on the other hand, are generally only
   reported when the cult stockpiles arms or nerve gas, or involves
   members in mass homicides or suicides. These extreme cults
   provide the media with sensational stories, and the public
   perception of cults tends to be limited to this type of group.
   Yet these groups are the exception, not the rule. Far more
   prevalent are the cults that do not have arsenals, or take
   suicide pacts, or attempt to take over the world. These less
   overtly dangerous groups may appear benign, or eccentric but
   harmless. Unfortunately, they are rarely if ever harmless. Cults
   form around paranoid, sociopathic leaders who gain power, and
   often great wealth, through control and exploitation of members,
   whether it be one follower or hundreds of thousands (Hochman;
   Tobias). These leaders call themselves gurus, priests, teachers,
   trainers, or therapists. Murder and suicide may or may not take
   place, but violations similar in essence to battering, rape and
   incest do. These traumatic violations are murders of the soul,
   secret, invisible murders that never make the headlines.
   I recently assisted in an exit counseling, an intervention
   requested by a man in his early 40s who wished to extricate his
   wife from the cult they had become involved in, which was also
   the cult I had been in. The intervention was educational and
   entirely voluntary, with the exit counselor speaking from his
   extensive knowledge of cults in general, while I offered specific
   information about my own experience of SYDA. While the husband
   had been persuaded of the cult's fraudulence prior to the
   intervention, the wife struggled painfully to integrate the
   information she was hearing with the ecstatic epiphanies she had
   experienced in the group. Toward the end of the intervention, as
   she began to accept the facts about the group, she said, with
   great emotion, "I have longed so all my life for a personal,
   intimate, experience of a loving God; where am I going to find
   that now?" In this poignant moment, it was apparent that the
   woman's family of origin, and her marriage, had not been contexts
   in which she had been able to experience loving intimacy in ways
   that were fulfilling enough. Unmoved by and dissatisfied with the
   more traditional faith she had been brought up in, she had placed
   her hopes of finding this elusive love in the magic helpers of
   the New Age. If it is painfully difficult to feel that one is
   truly loved for who one truly is, one may long for a magical,
   flawless love -- a love that can instill the conviction, once and
   for all, that one is indeed worthy of being loved.
   Many clients I have seen have also experienced terrible
   disappointments and impediments in their attempts to love and
   feel loved, to trust, and to feel fulfilled. They have
   experienced betrayal and exploitation at the hands of parents
   they idealized. They had to sacrifice themselves to meet the
   narcissistic requirements of those whom they depended on. Some
   never received the necessary mirroring for a sense of self even
   to develop; or they came to define themselves as unlovable and
   unwanted. Their search for acceptance and love has been, above
   all else, lonely.
   For Kohut (1984), the hallmark of therapeutic cure is the
   client's sense of security derived from his newfound ability to
   elicit empathic resonance from his human surroundings; or in
   other words, the ability to feel sustained and nurtured by
   different forms of human connectedness. For some, the inability
   to even imagine this connectedness leads to addiction,
   compulsiveness, isolation and despair. For others, the search for
   connectedness leads to enslavement to a guru figure, a magic
   As a social worker, my use of self has been deeply affected by my
   experience and understanding of cult abuse. Many of the clients I
   have seen in the last two years who come for treatment have
   reached the end of their rope. They have depended on magic
   helpers -- drugs, sex, food, and many others -- to the point
   where they feel themselves on the brink of self-annihilation.
   They want to find a way out of their enslavement, but the
   alternative freedom is unfathomable. They want assurance to know
   that if they relinquish the magic, and find themselves faced with
   the terror of meaninglessness and aloneness, their pain will not
   be endless and unendurable.
   Among the many tasks I might have in helping these clients, an
   essential task I perceive is to be with them -- to help them to
   feel less alone, as they find the courage to live through the
   pain of what they have not dared to face. If I can help them feel
   less alone, then, gradually, I can try to help them make sense of
   their suffering. This is the step in recovery from trauma that
   Herman refers to when she says, "finally, the person has
   reconstructed a coherent system of meaning and belief that
   encompasses the story of the trauma" (p. 213).
   As I have struggled to construct a coherent system of meaning and
   belief about my own traumatic experience in a religious cult, my
   social work education and field work have provided me with a
   sustaining connection to the knowledge and values of a profession
   which I embrace and feel embraced by. It is my hope that what I
   have learned may be of help to others.
   Email, press HERE for Website.
   Table 1: Resource Organizations
   American Family Foundation (AFF) Director: Michael D. Langone
   P.O. Box 2265 Bonita Springs, FL 33959 (212) 249-7693
   The Cult Clinic, c/o The Jewish Board of Children and Family
   Services, 120 W. 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, (212) 632-4640
   Counseling Services Cult Clinic and Hotline Jewish Board of
   Family and Children's Services Director: Arnold Marcowitz, MSW
   120 W. 57th St. New York, NY 10019 (212) 632-4640
   Cult Clinic Jewish Family Service 6505 Wilshire Blvd., 6th Floor
   Los Angeles, CA 90048 (213) 852-1234
   Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center Director: Paul R. Martin
   P.O. Box 67 Albany, OH 45710 (614) 698-6277
   Acton, L. (1887). Letter to Bishop Mandell-Creighton. In
   Bartlett, J. (1980).
   Familiar Quotations. Boston: Little Brown and Company.
   Addis, M., Schulman-Miller, J., Lightman, M. (1984). The cult
   clinic helps families in crisis. Social Casework, (65)9, pp.
   Becker, E. (1973). Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press.
   Bell, J. (1995). Traumatic event debriefing: service delivery
   designs and the role of social work. Social Work, (40)1, pp.
   Berger, P. (1967). The Sacred Canopy. New York: Doubleday.
   Blake-White, J. and Kline, C. (1985). Treating the dissociative
   process in adult victims of childhood incest. Social Casework,
   (66)7, pp. 394-402.
   Chiaramonte, J. (1992). And the war goes on. Social Work, (37)5,
   pp. 469-70.
   Cialdini, R. (1984). Influence: The New Psychology of Modern
   Persuasion. New York: Quill.
   Clifford, M. (1994). Social work treatment with children,
   adolescents, and families exposed to religious and satanic cults.
   Social Work in Health Care, (20)2, pp. 35-55.
   Cushman, P. (1990). Why the self is empty: toward a historically
   situated psychology. American Psychologist, (45)5, pp. 599-611.
   Ellenson, G. (1989). Horror, rage, and defenses in the symptoms
   of female sexual abuse survivors. Social Casework, (70)10, pp.
   Erikson, E. (1980). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: W.W.
   Norton & Co., Inc.
   Festinger, L., Riecken, H., and Schachter, S., (1964). When
   Prophecy Fails. New York: Harper and Row.
   Fromm, E. (1965). Escape from Freedom. New York: Avon.
   Garvey, K. (1993). The importance of information in preparing for
   exit counselling: a case study. In Langone, M. (Ed.) (1993).
   Recovery From Cults. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
   Giambalvo, C. (1993). Post-cult problems: an exit counselor's
   perspective. In Langone, M. (Ed.) (1993). Recovery From Cults.
   New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
   Goldberg, L. (1993). Guidelines for therapists. In Langone, M.
   (Ed.) (1993).
   Recovery From Cults. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
   Goldberg, L. & Goldberg, W. (1982). Group work with former
   cultists. Social Work, (27)2.
   Goldberg, W. (1993). Guidelines for support groups. In Langone,
   M. (Ed.) (1993).
   Recovery From Cults. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
   Gramsci, A. Letters From Prison. New York: The Noonday Press.
   Graziano, R. (1992). Treating women incest survivors: a bridge
   between "cumulative trauma" and "post-traumatic stress." Social
   Work in Health Care, (17)1, pp. 69-85.
   Halperin, D. (Ed.) (1983). Psychodynamic Perspectives on
   Religion, Sect and Cult. New York: John Wright.
   Harris, L. (1994). O Guru, Guru, Guru. The New Yorker, Nov. 14,
   1994, pp. 92- 109.
   Hassan, S. (1990). Combatting Cult Mind Control. Rochester, VT:
   Park Street Press
   Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
   Hinkle, I. and Wolff, H. (1976). Communist interrogation and
   Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry. (76), pp. 115-74.
   Hochman, J. (1990). Miracle, mystery and authority: the triangle
   of cult indoctrination. Psychiatric Annals, (20)4, pp. 179-187.
   Kliger, R. (1994). Somatization: social control and illness
   production in a religious cult. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry,
   (18)2, pp. 215-245.
   Kohut, H. (1969). On leadership. In Ornstein, Ed. (1990). The
   Search for the Self,
   Vol. 3. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, Inc.
   _________. (1984). How does Analysis Cure? Chicago: The
   University of Chicago Press.
   Langley, M. (1982). Post-traumatic stress disorders among Vietnam
   combat veterans. Social Casework, (63)10, pp. 593-98.
   Langone, M.D. (Ed.) (1993). Recovery From Cults. New York: W.W.
   Norton & Company.
   Langone, M., Chambers, W. (1991). Outreach to ex-cult members:
   the question of terminology. Cultic Studies Journal, (8)2, pp.
   Lasch, C. (1979). The Culture of Narcissism. New York: W.W.
   Norton & Company.
   Lifton, R.J. (1987). The Future of Immortality and Other Essays
   for a Nuclear Age. New York: Basic Books.
   Martin, P. (1993). Post-cult recovery: assessment and
   rehabilitation. In Langone, M. (Ed.) (1993). Recovery From Cults.
   New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
   Martin, P., Langone, M. (1992). Post-cult symptoms as measured by
   the MCMI before and after residential treatment. Cultic Studies
   Journal, (9)2, pp. 219-250.
   Marton, F. (1988). Defenses: invincible and vincible. Clinical
   Social Work Journal, (16)2, pp. 143-55.
   McNew, J. and Abell, N. (1995). Posttraumatic stress
   symptomatology: similarities and differences between Vietnam
   veterans and adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Social
   Work, (40)1, pp. 115-126.
   Morse, E. & Morse, J. (1987). Toward a theory of therapy with
   cultic victims. American Journal of Psychotherapy, (41)4.
   Muktananda, Swami (1978). The Play of Consciousness. San
   Francisco: Harper and Row.
   Patten, S. Gatz, Y., Jones, B., and Thomas, D. (1989).
   Posttraumatic stress disorder and the treatment of sexual abuse.
   Social Work, (34)3, pp. 197-203.
   Rodarmor, W. (1983). The secret life of Swami Muktananda.
   CoEvolution Quarterly, Winter, 1983.
   Schein, E. (1956). The indoctrination program for prisoners of
   war. Psychiatry, (19), pp. 148-172.
   Silver, S. and Iacano, C. (1986). Symptom groups and family
   patterns of Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
   In C.R. Figley (Ed.), Trauma and its Wake, (Vol. 2, pp. 78-96).
   New York: Brunner/Mazel.
   Singer, S. (1979). Coming out of the cults. Psychology Today,
   (12), pp. 72-82.
   Singer, M. and Ofshe, R. (1986). Attacks on peripheral versus
   central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming
   techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, (3)1, pp. 3-24.
   _______________________. (1990). Thought reform programs and the
   production of psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annals, (20),4,
   pp. 188-193.
   Tobias, M. (1993). In Langone, M. (Ed.), (1993). Recovery from
   Cults. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
   Tobias, M. and Lalich, J. (1994). Captive Hears, Captive Minds:
   Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships.
   Alameda, CA: Hunter House.
   Winnicott, D. (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false
   self. In Winnicott, D. (1965). The Maturational Processes and the
   Facilitating Environment. Madison, CT: International Universities
   Press, Inc.
   Woods, M. and Hollis, F. (1990). Casework: A Psychosocial Theory.
   New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
   Zimbardo, P. (1988). Psychology and Life. Illinois: Scott,
   Foresman and Co.
   Zweig, P. (1976). Three Journeys: An Automythology. New York:
   Basic Books.

The Arcane Archive is copyright by the authors cited.
Send comments to the Arcane Archivist:

Did you like what you read here? Find it useful?
Then please click on the Paypal Secure Server logo and make a small
donation to the site maintainer for the creation and upkeep of this site.

The ARCANE ARCHIVE is a large domain,
organized into a number of sub-directories,
each dealing with a different branch of
religion, mysticism, occultism, or esoteric knowledge.
Here are the major ARCANE ARCHIVE directories you can visit:
interdisciplinary: geometry, natural proportion, ratio, archaeoastronomy
mysticism: enlightenment, self-realization, trance, meditation, consciousness
occultism: divination, hermeticism, amulets, sigils, magick, witchcraft, spells
religion: buddhism, christianity, hinduism, islam, judaism, taoism, wicca, voodoo
societies and fraternal orders: freemasonry, golden dawn, rosicrucians, etc.


There are thousands of web pages at the ARCANE ARCHIVE. You can use ATOMZ.COM
to search for a single word (like witchcraft, hoodoo, pagan, or magic) or an
exact phrase (like Kwan Yin, golden ratio, or book of shadows):

Search For:
Match:  Any word All words Exact phrase


Southern Spirits: 19th and 20th century accounts of hoodoo, including slave narratives & interviews
Hoodoo in Theory and Practice by cat yronwode: an introduction to African-American rootwork
Lucky W Amulet Archive by cat yronwode: an online museum of worldwide talismans and charms
Sacred Sex: essays and articles on tantra yoga, neo-tantra, karezza, sex magic, and sex worship
Sacred Landscape: essays and articles on archaeoastronomy, sacred architecture, and sacred geometry
Lucky Mojo Forum: practitioners answer queries on conjure; sponsored by the Lucky Mojo Curio Co.
Herb Magic: illustrated descriptions of magic herbs with free spells, recipes, and an ordering option
Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers: ethical diviners and hoodoo spell-casters
Freemasonry for Women by cat yronwode: a history of mixed-gender Freemasonic lodges
Missionary Independent Spiritual Church: spirit-led, inter-faith, the Smallest Church in the World
Satan Service Org: an archive presenting the theory, practice, and history of Satanism and Satanists
Gospel of Satan: the story of Jesus and the angels, from the perspective of the God of this World
Lucky Mojo Usenet FAQ Archive: FAQs and REFs for occult and magical usenet newsgroups
Candles and Curios: essays and articles on traditional African American conjure and folk magic
Aleister Crowley Text Archive: a multitude of texts by an early 20th century ceremonial occultist
Spiritual Spells: lessons in folk magic and spell casting from an eclectic Wiccan perspective
The Mystic Tea Room: divination by reading tea-leaves, with a museum of antique fortune telling cups
Yronwode Institution for the Preservation and Popularization of Indigenous Ethnomagicology
Yronwode Home: personal pages of catherine yronwode and nagasiva yronwode, magical archivists
Lucky Mojo Magic Spells Archives: love spells, money spells, luck spells, protection spells, etc.
      Free Love Spell Archive: love spells, attraction spells, sex magick, romance spells, and lust spells
      Free Money Spell Archive: money spells, prosperity spells, and wealth spells for job and business
      Free Protection Spell Archive: protection spells against witchcraft, jinxes, hexes, and the evil eye
      Free Gambling Luck Spell Archive: lucky gambling spells for the lottery, casinos, and races