Guidelines For Therapists

Lorna Goldberq, M.S.W., A.C.S.W.

RECENTLY A 25-YEAR-OLD WOMAN came to my office. At age 17, while in high school, she joined a Bible-based cult; she left the group seven years later. Her consultation with me occurred one year after her cult departure. She described how her high school boyfriend's family were, and continue to be, members of what appeared to be a fundamentalist Christian church. They were the ones who had encouraged her to be- come involved. At the time the young woman's parents were not unduly concerned about her involvement in the group, believing it was simply a church.

Over a period of time the church leader, a married man with four children, exerted more and more control over this young woman. Eventually he seduced her into a secretive sexual relationship, redefining the relationship as being “God's will.” The woman was 18 years old; the preacher was 60. After six years in the cult, her closest friend told her that the same minister had been secretly having a sexual relationship with her. Breaking the secrecy surrounding this leader's sexual improprieties (and the eventual discovery that he had been having sex with at least 12 other members) propelled this young woman and her friend to leave the cult. Upon leaving, the young woman was filled with self-loathing and shame. She sought out therapy with a woman who claimed to be an expert in the area of sexual abuse. After learning about her client's situation, the therapist told the young woman that it was clear that she was reenacting a sexually abusive situation from childhood. The therapist told her client that her father had, most likely, abused her When the former cultist was unable to recall such an incident, the therapist reassured her that she would remember it in time. She was placed in a group for incest survivors; during a group guided-imagery process, she remembered that she felt uncomfortable whenever her uncle bugged her. However, she remained unable to remember any sexual contact with her father. Although she could empathize with the feelings of the women who had experienced childhood sexual abuse she continued to have difficulty remembering abuse from her own childhood.

After several months of therapy she joined other members from her cult for an exit counseling session. During the exit counseling she learned how cult leaders manipulate recruits to do many things contrary to the recruits' own beliefs. The exit counselors told her that it was possible to be sexually abused by a cult leader without having been sexually abused in childhood.

As we can see from this example, cult life can have a traumatic impact on cult members. In working with a former cultist, a therapist who minimizes the cult experiences and sees all cult actions exclusively as indicative of experiences in early life and not, to a greater degree, due to the manipulations of the cult leader is further victimizing the former cultist. Of course some individuals have had traumatic experiences in their childhood, which are remembered or repressed prior to their cult involvement, while others who join cults are not traumatized by such an experience. However, therapists need to recognize the impact that cult life can have on former cultists and not make a priori judgments about cult involvement.


Former cultists who enter therapy show a wide variety of presenting problems. These problems have changed in some respects over the years. The former cultists that I began seeing as clients 16 years ago typically had been in the larger cults that were prevalent in the early 1970's. These ex-members had spent up to five years in these groups, had entered the cultic environment during late adolescence, and generally had left because of a deprogramming, usually arranged by family members.

In a study coauthored with William Goldberg (Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982), we described former cultists seen for counseling or therapy within two to three months of having left their cult as continuing to show the character traits and hold some of the attitudes of their cultic group. For example, those who were in Eastern religious cults that focused on subservience to a spiritual leader kept their heads bowed, spoke with a singsong cadence, and continued to struggle with their desire to be good and holy, while those who were in cults that emphasized sexuality as a lure for recruitment continued to relate to others in a seductive manner. Most of the former cultists seen at that time also showed what appeared to be diminished abilities in the areas of perception, decision making discrimination, judgment, and memory. It took time for them to collect their thoughts; speech was often colorless and halting. Former cultists who sought counseling within two months of leaving their cult were described as being in the first stage of a process that typically lasted about two years. Usually by the two-year marker the individual had integrated the cult experience and moved into the wider world, no longer primarily defining himself or herself as a former cultist.

Although these individuals no longer wished to remain in the deceptive and controlling environment of the cult, they initially experienced a sense of confusion, manifest in their continued automatic expression of the cult's attitudes and beliefs. They had difficulty integrating the bizarre cultic world from which they had exited with the outside world-the world in which they had spent their youth and adolescence. They were strangers to their own families and to their former selves; they showed symptoms that revealed their sense of disorientation, alienation, and identity confusion. Singer and Ofshe (1990) note that these individuals feel like immigrants entering a new culture. However, they are actually reentering their own culture, bringing with them beliefs from their cult life that conflict with the norms of the larger society. Their pre-cult personality (or real self) struggles with the personality that was imposed by the cult. West (1992) labeled this the pseudo personality.

Case Example

Several years ago I interviewed a woman who had left an Eastern meditation group one month prior to entering therapy. She had returned home suddenly after a heated dispute with one of the leaders. Her parents arranged for her to see me after she had gone through a voluntary exit counseling. (For a description and discussion of exit counseling, see Section Two.) After five years of “doing service,” she became disillusioned with some of the deceptive practices of the leadership. In her first therapy session, however, she expressed a concern about whether I would be “spiritual” enough to work with her, a question that indicated she was continuing to hold onto her group's doctrine. I responded that I wasn't sure if I was spiritual enough because I wasn't sure what she meant by the term. “Thus began the long process of attempting to define, and thereby demystify, the former cultist's cult jargon and ideology.

The young woman often used amorphous language, speaking such an abstract manner that it was difficult to follow her. At the same time, the difficulty I experienced in concentrating on what she was saying helped me understand the diffuse and trance-inducing environment that she had been in. Telling her of my confusion in session helped her objectify her experience. To serve as someone who aids the client in relearning how to speak more concretely and clearly is a crucial therapeutic function. The goal here was to “ground” this young woman, who seemed to float on air with language and a demeanor that might lead me, her therapist, to float along with her.

Upon leaving her Eastern meditation group, she continued to dress in a “hippie” style, to practice yoga, and to maintain a vegetarian diet. These decisions were not challenged. In our sessions, however, we explored how yoga affected her, whether it was a regressive experience returning her to cultic thinking, or a progressive experience, providing her with more structure and a sense of well-being in her current life. Her cult had encouraged long periods of meditation. After her departure, she often found herself dissociating, automatically drifting into trance state. Once she began to link dissociation to yoga, she gave up the practice of yoga on her own.

Although she had attended college, she at first believed she was too much of an outsider and too “slow thinking” to succeed in a conventional job. She was an excellent typist but could only get temporary employment. She sensed that her behavior and dress were too offbeat for her to gain rapport with other workers. Sometimes she had trouble following complex directions and she had difficulty concentrating. Although she was a voracious reader prior to cult involvement, she found it difficult to read after leaving her group. She feared that she had lost some of her intelligence. In time, however, to her relief and mine, her cognitive and social abilities returned.


In contrast to those ex-members seen years ago, the majority of excultists seen in recent years do not initially present themselves dramatically different from the outside world. Their appearance is not as otherworldly as those who left cults in the 1970s. This difference results from several factors.

First, the majority of cults today are not as isolated from the outside world as were cults in the 1970s. Although the individual still enters into a new belief system when joining a cult, now a connection is often kept with the outside world. Typically believers continue working at their pre-cult jobs and more often tend to remain in contact with family and friends, even though this contact becomes more strained as the cult member's behavior, attitudes, and language begin to change.

Second, while in the late 1960s and 1970s there were more cults with an Eastern religious doctrine, today there are more Bible-based, new age, or psychotherapy cults. Therefore, on the surface at least cult members do not appear to be as otherworldly as their earlier counterparts.

Third, those who seek help today are more likely to have left a cult on their own (as opposed to leaving as a result of a deprogramming, which was more prevalent in the 1970s) and may not be seen for several months or even years after their departure. Therefore, the residual identifications with the cult and the cult leader have loosened.

However, some cultic identifications and attitudes do remain. For example, some former cult members describe having more critical attitudes toward themselves and others after leaving their cult. It seems that they have incorporated the harsh attitudes of their cult leaders. Some continue to believe that they have no personal worth now that they are separated from the group that claimed all responsibility for their accomplishments. One woman, for example, formerly an editor of her cult's newspaper, was doing simple clerical work several months after her cult departure. She was certain that all her editing skills were attached to the cult; she was terrified that she would fail at a more demanding job.

Without an understanding of their cultic experience, those who leave cults on their own tend to be plagued by aftereffects longer than those who gain such an understanding, for example, because they have been exit counseled. This is particularly true for individuals who have spent most of their young adulthood in a cult. We are now seeing an increasing number of former cultists who have spent 10, 15, or even 20 years in a cult.

Case Example

One 36-year-old man did not enter therapy with me until five years after he had left the psychotherapy cult he had been in for 10 years. In the years following his departure from the group he had no idea that he had been in a cultic group nor that his experience had banned him until he came across Hassan's (1988) book, Combating Cult Mind Control. An intelligent man, he also appeared to be somewhat intense and moralistic. He was having difficulty settling on a career (he was working well below his potential) and was having problems developing intimate relationships. Three years after having left his cult, he was disturbed enough by these problems to have sought out therapy, which focused mainly on his current life and its relationship to early childhood experiences. He felt uncomfortable with his therapist, had concerns about being “controlled,” and terminated the therapy after a brief period. Thus, his first therapy experience touched on but did not explore his cultic involvement.

He consciously understood that it was in his best interest to have left his cult; yet he still believed that he had failed, thereby minimizing his cult experience. In our therapy sessions he realized that his sense of shame and feeling that he was a bad flawed person made him suppress his painful feelings about the group. He had held onto the belief that the group's doctrine was perfect, although he regarded the middle-management types who administered the “program” as manipulative and, therefore, flawed. Yet he continued to hold the cult leader-a more distant figure-in high esteem.

Due to his sense of being a failure for having left the group, he unconsciously undermined his ability to succeed in new projects. Because of his unconscious sense of feeling trapped in the cult, he feared new commitments. After some time in therapy he was able to begin to speak of the antisocial, even criminal, activities that he had engaged in while in the cult. He was extremely ashamed of this behavior, and it helped him to be reminded that these actions were put forth by his cult leader as having been in the service of the “greater good.” His distaste for these irregular activities and the group's attitude toward them in fact had eventually played into his decision to leave. At times during therapy, his highly moralistic demeanor led to feelings that the therapist was not “up to par”; this demeanor in fact was a reflection of his own feeling of worthlessness and served as a “cover” for, or characterological defense against, his feelings of shame.


In the cult, emotions are manipulated by others. When cultists leave the group, they continue to feel unable to control their affects. While some former cultists will appear lacking in affect, others will appeal to be overwhelmed by their emotions. For example, a man who left a mass therapy group not long before coming in for therapy felt anxious all the time. He appeared to be jumping out of his skin, expecting to be “nailed” by those he came in contact with. In his group, members were videotaped, then picked apart by the leader and other members.

In addition to anxiety, he suffered from periodic depression. The intensity of these feelings was not noticed prior to his cult involvement. This creative man was dissuaded from continuing his artistic profession and for some time found it hard to return to his career because of the cult-induced feeling that to pursue his art was “selfish,” and because he feared criticism from others. Ironically it was the promise of enhanced creative ability that lured him into participating in this cult's workshops in the first place. It was only after examining how the cult had manipulated him that this young man was able to begin to succeed in the art world.

Many former cultists, particularly those from new age, mass therapy, or other cults that violate their members' natural boundaries and defense mechanisms, describe feeling flooded with emotion all the time. Halperin (1992) notes that some former members initially appear to be in a manic state. Others, particularly those from religious groups, appear to suffer from symptoms related to depression. They describe feeling racked with guilt or shame; they believe that they no longer are “good” people and are now on the path to Hell. Ex-members of cults that required long periods of chanting, meditation, visualization, or other hypnotic techniques often appear detached from their emotions. They suffer from anxiety about entering into trance states involuntarily; as a result they have difficulty with concentration and other cognitive abilities. Those who experienced repeated verbal, physical, or sexual abuse often develop several of a cluster of symptoms (classified as post-traumatic stress syndrome), including flashbacks, nightmares, amnesia, phobias, anxiety, depression, emotional numbing, shame, guilt, self-loathing, and social withdrawal.

Most former cultists suffer from a strong sense of loneliness. They were constantly surrounded by others in the cult and induced to identify with the leader. Cultic friendships usually are conditional, based on the individual's loyalty to the cult. For some afterward in therapy there is a discovery that part of the cult's appeal was to escape from a sense of loneliness that developed in early childhood and adolescence. In any case, a group of former cultists is a helpful adjunct to individual therapy for those who are feeling lonely or isolated from others who had similar experiences.

Coupled with loneliness are feelings of sadness and grief—sensing a loss of a life that promised total fulfillment. Former cultists are mourning the loss of a period in their lives that appeared to fulfill their idealism. Sadness is a healthy reaction to loss. Former cultists need to come to terms with how their normal idealism and perhaps youthful grandiosity were exploited and destroyed by the cult. For some the sadness focuses on the years of missed possibilities while in the cult for example, not having had the opportunity to enter into a satisfying relationship, to have children, or to acquire career skills. After a time there is often an expression of intense anger at the cult leader and/or a desire to act against the cult. Social or legal action is usually seen as a progressive step. Rather than directing anger primarily at the self, the former cultist is now taking constructive actions against the manipulators or, through education, is preventing others from getting ensnared.

Anxiety is commonly experienced by former cultists. One woman told me, “The hardest thing for me to face is the feeling that I am no longer protected from the forces of the outside world.” It is difficult to face a world without the magical powers of the cult leader and the protective mechanisms of decreeing, chanting, meditation, and so forth. Once away from the cult, however, the former cultist no longer needs to feel the conditioned anxiety that all can be taken away from the individual at any time based on the predilections of the cult leader. Ex-members sometimes fear their fragility upon leaving the group. This is not only because of the symptoms they are experiencing but also because family members or friends treat them as if they were made of porcelain and will easily break. It is important for ex-members to see that if they have survived their cult experience, they have survived the most difficult part. Now they can begin to recover.



All those recruited by cultic groups are not necessarily living under mind-control influences. Conversely some individuals are involved in very controlling relationships that might not appear to be cults. It has become clear to me that what is important in terms of therapeutic intervention is not whether a person has left a group that fits within the definitional boundaries of a cult, but whether that individual reacted to involvement in that group in a particular way, as described in this chapter. That is, the issue is not the group itself but a particular reaction of the individual to the group's pressures while in the group and to the experience of leaving that group. Sirkin and Wynne (1990) describe the cultic relationship as similar to a folie & deux. Upon ascertaining if a particular client indeed was in a high-demand situation and in fact had been controlled within that situation, it is important that the therapist “normalize” post-cult symptoms and emotions. Ex-cultists need to know that their reactions usually are related to cultic suggestions, practices, and manipulations, and to their actual separation from the cult. After helping former cultists understand that separation from their cult may normally induce a variety of symptoms and emotions, the clinician should, begin to focus on how these symptoms might be related to several factors. Factors to be considered include the individual's experience in the cult, the nature of the cult, the duration and intensity of involvement, the type of departure from the cult, and the degree of emotional support and understanding received after departure. For example, somatic complaints might be related to the cult's suggestion that a person's body will rot or the person will contract a severe illness upon leaving the group. Fear of accidents, death, or negative life circumstances might have to do with cultic suggestions and a general fearfulness of disaster now that the cult's supposed protection no longer exists in the former member's life. And as mentioned previously, for some, it is quite painful to consider getting through life without protection. A homosexual man, for example, was lured into a cult by the leader's promise that by following her practices he would be safe from AIDS.

Many former cultists suffer from sexual difficulties after having been forced to practice celibacy for many years or after having been sexually manipulated or abused within the cult. This makes it difficult to trust new relationships. Ex-cultists usually feel awkward in social situations; to their alarm they often find themselves behaving in the manner deemed “proper” by their cult. This behavior, however, usually contrasts sharply with their pre-cult behavior and post-cult values.


From the beginning the therapist joins the former cultist in a psycho-educational process. According to Singer (1991), “Therapy cannot begin until education ends.” The therapist and the ex-cultist first must have knowledge about cult recruitment and control processes, particularly the specific methods used by the former cultist's group. In order to further analyze this process, the therapist needs to help the former cultist explore his or her vulnerability to recruitment-a vulnerability that we all have under certain circumstances, unless we are informed about mind-control techniques and can identify those techniques as they are being used by the recruiting group.

Exploring Vulnerabilities to the Recruitment Process

Vulnerability to cult recruitment is particularly high during transitional periods. Those who entered cultic groups in late adolescence should be helped to see the degree to which their involvement parallels the developmental process. In adolescence there is a push for separation. Healthy late adolescents value a sense of their own autonomy and attempt to develop a vision of the world that is different from their parents' view. Offer and Offer state that “The establishment of a self separate from the parents is one of the major tasks of young adulthood. The young adult must disengage himself from parental domination” (1975, p. 167). Erikson (1950) defines the consolidation of identity as the life crisis of adolescence. Even though adolescents have made numerous identifications with their parents throughout their early life, they are pressured by cultic groups to give up these identifications and to replace them with the group's values. The clinician should help the former cultist see how he or she was pressured to make these new identifications, which met the group's needs rather than his or her own.

An ex-member told me, for example, that when she informed her group that she was planning to attend graduate school in clinical psychology she was told that she was "copping out on her responsibility to God" by thinking only of her own needs. The leaders encouraged her to be a counselor to the youth group; as a result, she placed her career on hold during her four years of cult membership. Therapy involves reworking pre-cult, cult, and post-cult values to help the individual gain a better integrated and more autonomous sense of self. Now that this woman has left the cult, she plans to fulfill her career goal.

Working with Adolescents

During late adolescence vulnerability to cult recruitment can be intensified because of the individual's physical distance from the family, perhaps on a college campus or while traveling during a vacation period. Many cults recruit on or near college campuses or at youth hostels or transportation centers. Separation from home might increase an adolescent's feelings of anxiety and sense of loss. Living in a college dorm can increase an individual's concern about his or her sexuality and anxiety about how to deal with increased personal and sexual freedom. Additionally there are specific personality dynamics of adolescents that make them vulnerable to cults. Anna Freud (1966) describes how the defenses of intellectualization and asceticism are often utilized in adolescence. Blos (1962) notes a tendency toward inner experience and self-discovery-the religious experience. Adolescents tend to be idealistic, and cults hold out the promise of the fulfillment of idealistic dreams. William Goldberg and 1 (1988) noted that adolescents who seem particularly vulnerable to cults are those who have high expectations for themselves and are ready to see the best in others. This characteristic might play into their faith in the cult's idealistic words and a tendency to ignore the disparity between the group's words and actions. The demand for perfection might be related to growing up in families where high standards of performance were set by one or both parents. Vulnerable individuals may feel that they could not measure up to these expectations on their own. The cult promised a way to achieve a high standard or a means to escape from some minor or major disappointments in themselves or others.

By looking at the vulnerability of all adolescents, the former cultist is helped to feel less embarrassed and weak-minded. What happened to him or her could have happened to anybody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ex-members tend to believe that this bad event (that is, joining the cult) happened because of something they lacked. They often feel ashamed of, and responsible for, the events in their lives-a vestige of the childhood magical thinking that is also part of the belief system of many cults. Former cultists need to understand that even if they were initially attracted to the structured and communal environment, if they had known that they were being deceived and manipulated by a variety of highly sophisticated techniques orchestrated by a sociopathic leader, they would not have joined.

Working with Adults

There are other vulnerability factors not related to late adolescence. Those who joined cults may have had a desire for a sense of community, acceptance, or increased skills at a time in their lives when they were experiencing loneliness or anxiety about the future. They may have been vulnerable because of a loss or fear of loss. This may be related to internal factors such as a disappointment in themselves causing a loss of self-esteem, or external factors such as divorce, physical illness, death, change in physical location of their residence, or a change in employment that caused a disruption in their life. They may have been vulnerable because of pressure to take a training workshop run by a cult in connection with their job. Some individuals joined cults as a restitutive attempt to deal with chronic depression or various character disorders. Others joined as a way of fending off ensuing psychotic behavior, which rarely works because nonproductive members are usually thrown out since cults demand a high level of functioning and effectiveness at fund-raising, recruitment, and other cult-directed work. Those with antisocial tendencies often use what they have learned in one cult to form a new group in which they can control others. (Although over the years former cultists have given me numerous anecdotal accounts of sociopathic cult leaders or members, I have not seen antisocial ex-members in my practice.)


Cults often deceive new recruits about requirements, the doctrine, and the sponsorship of the group itself. Rarely does the initiate understand that he or she will be induced to become involved in a regressive, totalistic environment. Doctrine is given in a piecemeal fashion so that initially members see only the most universally acceptable ideas and practices. Thus the initiate is not making an informed choice when he or she joins a cult.

Certainly understanding the powerful effect of group processes is not new. In 1895 LeBon (1972) emphasized the power of suggestion and contagion in groups. Freud elaborated on this theme by noting that an individual “liability to affect becomes extraordinarily intensified, while his intellectual ability is markedly reduced” (1921, p. 20) when he participates in a group. Freud also referred to the tendency of groups to temporarily or permanently suspend feelings of hostility toward members and to use the mechanisms of identification and reaction formation to further defend against hostile feelings. He also noted that group leaders are seen by members as a new ego ideal and this further encourages the identification process with the leader.

Modern-day cultic groups have incorporated sophisticated manipulative techniques that capitalize on the normal group tendencies previously described. Of she and Singer (1986) have noted that destructive cults have further refined programs of coercive influence that have been employed by the communists in the former Soviet Union and China. Cult techniques have now gone beyond political “thought reform” to focus on central (intrapsychic) rather than peripheral (political) aspects of an individual's self. The cults of today use techniques to break through and change an individual's coping strategies and defense mechanisms.

According to former members, in order for cults to gain new adherents, they use sensory bombardment through such tactics as prolonged lectures, sleep deprivation, environmental control, and love bombing. They encourage the breaking of ties with the recruit's usual sources of information and support, such as family and friends. Recruitment is most effective when the group is able to completely monopolize the member's time. Cults induce recruits to be caught up in hypnotic emotionality rather than the intellect through stirring songs, chants, and confessional guilt-inducing sessions. All of this can serve to bring on a dissociative state, that is, an altered state of increased suggestibility. To protect oneself in the midst of confusion, loss of former ties, induced guilt, and dissociation, the recruit tends to reorganize reality through a new defensive system in which identification with the aggressor (the cult leader) predominates.

Although the recruit experiences the positive effect of belonging to a community in which there is unanimity of thinking, the pressure for such unanimity precludes any type of critical assessment of this coercive experience and precludes the retention of a sense of the pre-cult self. The recruit is unable to differentiate his or her thoughts and feelings from those of the group, as boundaries between the individual and others in the cult have merged. Ex-cultists report that at this point they experienced a sense of peace, a euphoric feeling. The cults attribute this to a mystical or religious experience. Many cult members, in fact, describe the fantasy of merging with their leader a fantasy often suggested by the leader. This fantasy further induces the recruit to serve the wishes of the leader, who is presumed to know the recruit's every thought. The leader is now imagined to be carried inside the recruit's own body-as a new foreign superego. Some groups induce depersonalization in their pressure on members to have out-of-body experiences. One woman, for example, was encouraged to transport herself to other planets. After leaving the cult, she continued to be plagued by out-of-body experiences until she was able to identify how depersonalization was induced in her cult and the triggers that re-induced these experiences after she left the group.

Although cults hold out the promise of solving pre-cult difficulties for some, after an initial period of excitement and relief, most former cult members describe in retrospect feeling that the promise was only the “hook” and that their need for personal growth was in fact suppressed or overridden by the needs of the group. Members are often encouraged to work for the group full-time. Cults encourage passivity by teaching members to follow their leader without question. Those who attempt to act independently are humiliated by the leader and treated as object lessons for the others.

Assessing the Influence of Mind-control Techniques

In the initial stages of therapy it is particularly important to assess the influence that mind-control techniques continue to have on the individual's behavior and thoughts. The cult's persuasive techniques, for example, continue to have an impact to the extent that there is a belief that every thought and action has cosmic significance, that individuals create their own reality, that there is overwhelming guilt or fear when entertaining thoughts considered negative by the group, and that there is a need to employ what Lifton (1961, p. 29) refers to as the “thought-terminating clich6” when confronted with information that does not fit into a simplistic black-and-white view of reality. This all indicates that the individual views the locus of control as stemming from the cult rather than from the self.


Former cultists need to be told when their emotional state is a natural reaction to separation from a cult. Since they were coerced to restructure their personalities in order to conform to cultic attitudes and behavior, they tend to feel completely depleted upon leaving that environment. Their task is to begin to deal with not being tightly orchestrated by others. This orchestration, plus the pressure to conform to the cult's view and ignore their emotions, leads cult members to a passive and robotic existence. When they don't know what they feel, they find themselves going through the motions at the request of others.

In one cult, for example, a woman was told that whatever she felt, the opposite was the truth, which was her cult leader's way of controlling individuals and putting them into a disoriented state. The woman was hospitalized after she was mauled by a dangerous bull, which she ignored, believing that what she was seeing was a friendly cow. The help that she received during her hospitalization led to her cult departure.

Why Not Silence?

Although silence with other types of clients can promote the development of the client's fantasies about the therapist and allows the transference to evolve, silence can be particularly anxiety provoking for a former cultist. He or she might be at a loss about how to fill such a vacuum after years of automatically responding to a structured life. A silent therapist can unduly burden some former cultists or can become a blank screen for the projection of paranoid ideation that was induced by the cult. Such projection can lead to premature termination of therapy. Solomon (1988) points out that silence also is contraindicated for those prone to dissociation. Lack of structure can induce trance.

Common Reactions to the Therapist

Many former cultists initially fear being manipulated and controlled by the therapist in the same manner that they were manipulated by the cult leader. Therapists should not jump to the conclusion that they are seeing a paranoid character trait or that this paranoia is the result of the individual's experience of early childhood relationships. In former cultists such behavior more often is a displacement of feelings that were induced by the cult experience. Having a concern about being manipulated following cult involvement in fact can be a healthy sign of increased skepticism. (Most cultists tended to be too trusting prior to their cult experience.) Furthermore, former cultists are struggling with their cult-induced passivity and they initially might not be in touch with what they actually think. Therefore, they correctly sense that they can be easily influenced by others.

Some former cultists tend to idealize their therapists, especially in the early stages of therapy. Again this can be a way of filling the vacuum created by cult departure. It is vital that the therapist not play into this idealization by assuming the role of rescuer and violating therapeutic boundaries. Therapists should be seen as co-workers in the self-discovery process, not as gurus. The former cultist should be a participating member in a team of equals. The therapeutic rules and process need to be clearly explained to show that nothing magical occurs, that the therapist has no special powers but does have human limits. It is helpful to remind former cultists to put their thoughts into words, because the therapist is unable to read minds. Equally important is to help former cultists see that the therapist has human flaws and makes mistakes. In fact, when it seems appropriate, I often laugh at my mistakes. This seems to help former cultists deal more effectively with their unusually harsh attitudes toward themselves, those self-critical attitudes that may have been exacerbated or even instilled by their cult.

In contrast to former cultists who idealize or want to please the therapist, some relate in an angry, devaluing manner. They will zero in on every character flaw and mistake made by the therapist. It is important to face this anger with equanimity. However, the therapist should not allow herself to be abused, thereby repeating her client's cult experience. Several authors, including Deutsch and Miller (1983) and Halperin (1990), have focused on how some cultists have had a preexisting difficulty with tolerating anger or with assertion. Former cultists need to know that they will not be punished for displaying anger. Anger may also serve to protect former cultists from their fear of being unduly influenced by the therapist. Additionally perhaps, for some, there may be a need to displace anger from the cult leader onto the therapist, who is seen as a less powerful and vengeful figure.

Many former cultists may decide to see the therapist only for short-term goal-oriented therapy. For obvious reasons, these individuals are sensitive to and resentful of pressure to remain in treatment. Therapists should consider working with these clients on a goal-oriented periodic basis if that seems desirable and potentially more productive. Former cultists need to know that they can leave therapy with positivefeelings on both sides and be welcomed back at a later date.

On the other hand, Dubrow-Eichel and Dubrow-Eichel (1988) describe the tendency of some former cultists to expect therapy to be the “quick fix” that was promised by the cult. Although it is useful to focus on specific goals, the therapist must clearly state that there will be no quick, dramatic transformation. The therapist cannot make promises of cure: only cult leaders do that. Therapy requires hard work on the part of the client and the therapist; if all goes well, in time, the former cultist will have a clearer understanding of his or her experience.

Focusing on the Positive

Former cultists have survived a major crisis in their lives and have learned a great deal from this experience. Not all cult-induced behaviors are negative. Some former cultists express that they can be proud of having pushed themselves to the limit for their goals. Others state that they became more outgoing and self-confident as a result of the proselytizing demanded by the group. Many learned valuable skills, which can be used in post-cult life; this is generally true for those who worked in cult-owned businesses. Generally cultists are induced to credit the cult with the responsibility for all their achievements. It is therefore helpful to remind former members that they, not the “magic” of the cult, were responsible for their successes.


The primary therapeutic goals are to help former cultists gain an understanding of their cult experiences and of themselves. By inducing regression, suppression, identification with the aggressor, and numerous other defensive strategies in their members, cults often intensify the dependency feelings and uncertainty of childhood. Because a cult member is trained to no longer trust his or her inner emotions, which have been reinterpreted by the cult as indicators of the individual's “selfishness,” the cultist finds it necessary to constantly check with the leader for a sense of what behavior and which attitudes are correct. In the cult, correct behavior is rewarded and incorrect behavior is punished.

Initially, the therapist is providing information to help the former cultist gain a better comprehension of how mind-control processes at work in the cult tended to obliterate the members' sense of self. Along with this, the therapist is providing a safe environment for the former cultist to tap into what he or she truly feels, particularly in remembering the cult experience. The toleration of a wider range of shared memories, emotions, and spontaneous responses in proportion to the situation at hand is the therapeutic goal For example, individuals need not be “up” all the time, as was necessary in the cult. Yet it is important to combat the ex-member's cult-induced passivity by encouraging the expression of spontaneous reactions and autonomous behavior so that former cultists can begin to make independent life decisions and manage more successfully the tasks of work, school, and relationships.


A therapist who sees only family life experiences as the genesis of the difficulties experienced by ex-cultists is not dealing with the precipitating, more recent traumatic event in the individual's life that has led to the presenting difficulties. Although cults of the late 1980s and early 1990s appear different from cults of the 1960s and 1970s, the differences are merely superficial. For the most part, former cultists today are struggling with the same post-cult reactions as did ex-members of earlier years. Cults use a variety of manipulative techniques that superimpose new identifications and values on individuals. These cult-induced identifications and values clash with pre-cult and post-cult beliefs.

Although they have left their cults, ex-member clients initially enter therapy with many cult-induced behaviors, emotions, and beliefs, which the therapist and client must begin to identify. Therefore, the therapist needs to utilize a psychoeducational approach, initially giving information about the cult's manipulative techniques to explain how this has influenced post-cult behaviors, emotional reactions, and beliefs, while at the same time creating a safe environment for the expression of memories and spontaneous reactions. Although the therapist needs to take an active role in the therapeutic process, it is necessary that the former cultist be a participating member in a team of equals. This contrasts sharply with the cultic relationship in which the leader is seen as godlike and the cultist is denigrated and seen as having little of value to contribute.


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