Lorna Goldberg, L.C.S.W.
Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies


How does the experience of spending years in an authoritarian system affect those who are trapped inside? In this paper, I will focus on how the authoritarian system can create what Erich Fromm has described as the “authoritarian conscience” (Fromm, E., 1947). and I will look at how that type of conscience contributes to the difficulties experienced by those who leave. However, before I discuss the developing conscience per se, I will explore the concept of trauma. I believe that those growing up in authoritarian systems are more at risk for trauma, because of this type of system's effect on parenting.


After World War II, Anna Freud studied how English children fared during the Blitz of London. Her studies revealed that those children who were sent to the countryside away from mothers, who were wishing to protect them, had more emotional difficulties than those who remained with their mothers and retreated to the Underground with them while London was bombed. Children need a safe place, but they more importantly need a consistent tie with a nurturing mother or caretaker (Freud, A., 1948).

In the authoritarian cultic group, the leader's authority and influence is paramount. Even in larger groups that allow parents to live with and have some degree of influence with their children, the cult ideology still can be used to influence and shape many of the child – rearing beliefs, often including the acceptance of physical or sexual abuse or parental separation or neglect. Dr. Bruce Perry described how the children of Waco were in a state of physical hyper arousal from a “constant fear of physical attacks and public humiliations that could result from the tiniest error, like spilling milk.” These children were routinely beaten by a wooden paddle or deprived of food for punishment. Girls were groomed to become “Brides of David” (Perry, B. and Szalavitz, M. 2006, p. 58).

However, the amount of deprivation or abuse experienced by each child is influenced not only by the cultic environment itself, but also by the child's individual temperament and how this affects each child's particular response, including the tendency to move away from or towards potentially helpful adults in childhood. Those children who were able to connect to adults outside the group were at a great advantage. In contrast to more insulated children, these children often had a better ability to gain emotional distance from the cult, because they were treated in a more positive way; and, as a result, were better able to critically assess the abuse or neglect in their environment. Along with this, they developed a self-protective “bullshit detector” which many SGAs, [whose needs were never seen as important,] lack (Gina Catena, Personal Communication). That is, SGAs often are used to primarily satisfying the adult's needs and ignore their own. However, some of these children might defend against the leader's abuse or neglect by using the defense of identification with the aggressor and show contempt for any display of weakness or for the usurped parent (who, after all, are not seen as the primary authority figures). In fact, in many groups, children are encouraged to serve as spies of their parents or other adults and loyalty only is directed to the leader.

In assessing the experience of each child, it is important to consider the personality of each caretaker and the impact of the emotional demands and stress of living in an authoritarian environment on the ability of each parent to empathize with the child. We can wonder if parents can be sensitive to their child's emotional life when they defend against their own feelings through endless thought-stopping techniques; i.e., meditation, chanting, decreeing or use of the group's cliches as a dictate for parental behavior. We become concerned about the degree of time the child is burdened by the need to perform cult rituals or service through proselytizing or labor instead of involvement in the normal play activities of childhood. We wonder about the neglect of the child when the parents are called elsewhere. We wonder about the effect of being in a constant state of alarm — feeling a threat from the outside world. We are concerned for children who grow up in a split world of good and evil, where even negative thought is seen as the devil's work and evil is displaced from the threatening and exploitive cult leader and externalized onto the outside world. We wonder about the effect of growing up in an environment with few choices, where most decisions are made for the child.

It seems clear that if parents are usurped and the emotional tie between parent and child is not developed and if parents are unable to nurture their own children, each child is at increased risk of abuse and neglect from environmental forces. Trauma has been described as “the experience of being made into an object, a thing: the victim of someone else's rage or nature's indifference, of one's own physical or psychological limitations. Along with the pain and fearů.comes an overwhelming and marginally bearable sense of helplessness, a realization that leaves a view of the self that is damaged or contaminated by the humiliation, pain and fear that the event imposed or a fragmented sense of self.” [Spiegel, D., Hunt, T., and Dondershine, H., p. 249.]

In healthy enough development, the arousal of strong emotions experienced by the child is managed initially through the soothing, repairing response of the caretaker. With this as a model, the developing child is able to acknowledge the pain and gradually develops self-soothing mechanisms for dealing with strong emotions and painful experiences that arise and, thereby, also helps children modulate their physiologic arousal. In traumatic development, the upsurge of emotion is too intense or the soothing and repairing functions of the caretaker are not adequate, so that the ability to self-soothe might not develop and optimal brain development is at risk (Whitsett, 2006). We can consider that a child who is helpless to escape an overwhelming situation might use a whole variety of responses and defenses, including dissociation or retreating into a fantasy world in order to escape psychologically from the overwhelming pain. This frightening situation can impact on brain development, restricting cognitive abilities; i.e., problem-solving, planning, memory, and independent thought; as well as restrict one's affective capacities. That is, the developing child begins to find it difficult to feel and identify a whole range of emotions and often develops a tendency to act impulsively (reactively with strong emotion rather than with discrimination or self-reflection) or with automatic super-vigilance. Aftereffects include anxiety, depression, somatic difficulties, sleep and eating disturbances, and difficulty with developmental achievements and, possibly, the need to retreat into a fantasy world. In dissociation, the individual experiences a painful event as happening to a different self, the participating self seems estranged from the observing self. Typically, the experiencing self becomes distant and estranged at the same time that the observing self becomes acutely aware (Tillman, J., Nash, M., and Lerner, P., p. 401).

If the developing child dissociates, these painful cues are further not available to consciousness and this, too, impairs the capacity for self-defense and for self-management. We can consider the difficulty the child might have in experiencing anger in situations in which he or she are highly dependent on the abusing caregiver. The difficulty in feeling pain and anger and the resulting incapacity for self-defense leave the child even more helpless.

The need to defend against or dissociate the pain and anger as part of the sense of helplessness that comes with trauma, is what can sometimes make abused children appear passive. However, while abused children might have difficulty with self-defense, they can be very hard workers who are not at all passive in gratifying the needs of others and they quickly might come to the aid of other victimized individuals. Therefore, it is not conscious will per se that is unavailable to the individual, but that part of will or agency which is unconsciously linked to the earlier traumatic experiences. This often has to do with being overwhelmed, helpless and terrified in the context of a dependent attachment and feeling unable to learn how to handle these feelings (Howell, E., p. 432). Furthermore, as Whitsett points out, "Biological explanations can shed much light on the symptoms of re-experiencing and avoidance....portions remain unintegrated in implicit memory circuits.....dissociated material (sights, sounds, spells, etc.) acts as 'triggers' later on, flooding the survivor with emotions similar to those accompanying the original event. Conversely, triggers can induce dissociated states... [Whitsett, 2006, p. 365].”

In an abusive relationship, defensive reactions, particularly dissociation and identification with the aggressor, often lead to viewing oneself only through the abuser's eyes. Howell writes: “The shame of being so devalued, undervalued, and mistreated by a valued and needed significant other may be so great that the particulars of the overwhelmingly painful experience(s) are split-off, leaving intact the procedural relationship forms and modes, for instance, submissiveness or eagerness to please. The person is left with ‘feeling bad’ (and the behaviors that go with it), but not having the opportunity to examine the particular split-off aspects of experience, doesn't know why. Feeling bad (being injured and humiliated) is easily distorted into the perception of being “bad.” In this way, the child feels bad instead of injured. Recognition of having been injured requires, among other things the ability to feel angry on one's behalf” [Howell, E.F., p. 432].

In adolescence, with the potential for increased cognitive abilities, the biological responses of puberty, and the emergence of the supremacy of the peer group, some children begin to be flooded with angry and sexual feelings that were not experienced directly in latency and they begin to defy these powerful figures. However, because of their experiences with untrustworthy individuals in the past, rebellion might be their only way to prove their independence and it continues to be difficult for them to operate in their best interest. It might be necessary to rely on alcohol or drugs, food, sexual activity, obsessive compulsive behavior, or somatic symptoms to quell painful affects and post traumatic symptoms that arise.


Just as neglectful and abusive relationships can produce the dissociative response or other ways of defending against powerful emotions as a reaction to trauma, so can good relationships have a positive effect. Change can occur through a relationship with an honest, kind (not pitying, but respectful), and empathic person who does not deny, minimize, or react with anger towards the individual's painful emotions. The most powerful asset in overcoming psychological trauma seems to be the continued availability of a helpful and trustworthy relationship. However, making such a situation possible sometimes requires an individual to be willing to feel that he or she deserves to continue this kind of relationship.

Internalizing external abuse, severe losses, emotional deprivation and other traumatic experiences can result in a self-destructive internal force, causing feelings of guilt and worthlessness. I believe that working towards softening these harsh attitudes is one of the essential requirements of therapy with second generation former cult members. These harsh attitudes of the conscience can include the following: punitive judgments against oneself and others, tormenting and unrelenting thoughts, hating and sadistic behavior that can be turned against oneself and others, suffering, and self-destructive behavior. Some might enter into a kind of reverie where they retreat from painful experiences or even potentially pleasurable experiences with others into a world of these thoughts. However, these hurtful thoughts might be triggered by the smallest of slights, as well as harsh criticism. They can be triggered by an expectation of finding these slights in each new situation. They can be triggered by failure to meet one's own impossibly high standards. After leaving the authoritarian world of the cult, there usually needs to be the development of a more realistic and accepting view of oneself and others – one that recognizes and values one's accomplishments; and, at the same time, acknowledges the need to still develop in some areas.

As you know, Freud labeled the conscience as the superego. Freud's paper, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), addressed how the leader or the central person of a group functions as the superego of the group. In cultic groups, the charismatic leader typically is seen as extraordinary, all-powerful, and as an ideal being. In a group that is cultic, the leader usually tends to be authoritarian and punishing and the group members take in his or her harsh, punishing attitudes. However, because he or she claims to be such an extraordinary being, the cult leader does not have to live by the same standards and restrictions that govern members' behavior.

In the world outside the cult, parents usually are in the role of authority to the developing child. Early in life, the “good enough parent” (Winnicott, D., p. 8) responds to the baby's cries with milk, soothing, and/or engages with the baby in play. A client of mine reported that her cult leader told her that if she responded to her babies cries, she would spoil her child. After leaving the cult, she was flooded with guilt about her neglect.

After the needs of the baby are responded to by the parents, in the second year of life and beyond there normally is a clash between the child's wishes and the parents' prohibitions and demands. This frustration usually leads to anger shown by the child towards those individuals. However, often in cults, where children's needs might be frustrated, but they might learn that a display of aggression is forbidden (except by the leaders), outward expression of anger is continually inhibited. When anger is inhibited, where does it go? It can be turned back against oneself further reinforcing the harsh conscience that develops in the cult. Turning anger onto oneself also can set the stage for a tendency for self- destructive behavior shown later in life, including substance abuse or other forms of addictive and suicidal behaviors. Van der Kolk reports that “trauma can be repeated on behavioral, emotional, physiologic, and neuroendocrinologic levels. Repetition on these different levels causes a large variety of individual and social suffering. Anger directed against the self or others is always a central problem....and this is itself a repetitive re-enactment of real events from the past. (van der Kolk, 1989, p. 404)

Normally, two and three year olds begin to reveal their conflicts about being controlled by parents through negativity and the power struggles of the toileting experience. How is this difficult stage of development handled in the cult? Can the cult leader tolerate a defiant child? Can cult parents feel comfortable accepting this normal behavior or do parents need to show that they can control their child?

Later, those children who are separated from parents sometimes reveal their anxieties through many symptoms, including sleep disturbances and bed wetting. A child who, at five, was sent away to a cult-run school would be woken up to launder her sheets if she wet her bed at night. Bed-wetting can be seen as a regression that might indicate a desire for parental attention and care, but this child was punished for such yearning.

A nurturing parent accepts the harsh judgment –“Mommy, I hate you! You're the meanest mommy in the world!” knowing that this simply is an expression of the child's frustration. However, if this expression of anger is not accepted or severely punished, the child might turn her or his anger inward onto the self. For example, several years ago I worked with a four year old child who would bite her hand when she felt angry with me. I told her that she probably felt like biting my hand instead of hers and she laughed with delight, indicating that I was giving expression to her misdirected anger. She enjoyed my expression of what she was feeling. Over time, in sessions, this child became freer to test out her anger with me.

When a child needs to turn angry feelings inward, feelings of guilt and shame might be intensified. The self is diminished by anger directed towards it and away from the target of the anger. Shame can be experienced, because of the discrepancy between the actual self-image and the standard of perfection that is held in the cult. For example, in the cult, a child often is induced to believe that angry feelings experienced are proof of an evil nature. Where there is shame there is usually a shaming person who uses obvious or subtle forms of shaming. The whole experience becomes internalized so that, after a while, there is no need for there to be an actual shamer to be present for the child or adult to feel internal shame. Those who were shamed learn to defend, cover up, and hide the shame (Schecter, D., 371). Furthermore, as mentioned previously, in the cult, if the child is experiencing the trauma of early abuse or deprivation, there is a need to defend against the anger and pain of the experience in order to continue to feel attached to the caretaker. Therefore, this response has consequences for many developmental capacities; e.g.., time management (as the individual moves into a dissociation, a reverie state or fantasy world), self-image, and a sense of agency. That is, how much can the child be an actor to change his or her life circumstances if unable to identify and assert his or her needs?

The child is left with feelings of badness that have to be hidden from others at all costs in order to survive. Where do these bad feeling go? For some, badness resides in self-abuse. The developing child in the authoritarian environment of the cult often copes with this bleak reality by taking in the cult leader's prohibitions and severe attitudes. As a response to the leader's absolute authority, the child often develops an internal experience of being insignificant or bad. For example, in focusing on children growing up in ISKON, Nori Muster writes, “Teachers and gurus told children that abuse was their karma because they must have hurt children in a past life and.....that to oppose the abuse would only bring more bad karma (Muster, Nori, Authoritarian Culture and Child Abuse in ISKON, CSR, 3:l, p. 11). By blaming the child, the irrational authority gives a negative connotation to the child's anger, thus creating feelings of guilt. This is another way that anger can then be turned against the self in form of symptoms and self-destructive behavior.

I work with several individuals who were placed in a substance abuse rehabilitation cult during adolescence. Some of them were simply siblings of those who had been identified as substance abusers. Particularly for those who come from groups in which they were constantly attacked and placed on some form of the “Hot Seat,” I see how this treatment can result in a repetition of this traumatic experience through intense anxiety that drives performance to unrealistic standards that cannot be met or can initially, for some, only be quelled by the self-medication of alcohol or drugs. Individuals leave these groups with unrelenting self-punishing thoughts that, initially, only can be softened through insight and, sometimes initially, antidepressants.

For some, I have seen a duality of personality, looking good on the outside and doing “bad” things in secret. These individuals often feel self-hatred and shame about the desire to do some of the activities that they had been restricted from doing while in the cult and this has the effect of creating more shame. Upon leaving the cult, there often is a desire to engage in sexual activities, or drug or alcohol use. Although there is a need to experience the wider world, these activities not only fulfill an expectation that they are going to some form of Hell, but also can serve as an attempt to continue to protect them from intense anger and pain that was defended against while in the traumatic environment of the cult. The need to experience vivid emotions and excitement and even dangerously defiant rebellious behavior, also may derive from the compulsion to re-experience the hyper-aroused state of earlier traumas (van der Kolk, 2006).


If a therapist or a friend is simply curious and open to examining all of the meanings of this behavior, rather than being judgmental, the former cultist is able to begin to heal this split and become a more authentic person. The former cult member becomes better able to put words and emotions to his or her story if the therapist begins by questioning, “Why do you think you had sex? What are the feelings that you are trying to cope with?” If the therapist helps the former cult member to take in and reflect on the meaning of behavior with a nonjudgmental rather than punishing stance, the he or she can begin to develop this attitude for him or herself. The therapist is a potential person with whom to examine one's thoughts and rework one's old difficulties.

In his work, Man for Himself (1947), Erich Fromm contrasted the authoritarian and humanistic conscience. According to Fromm, the authoritarian conscience is the voice of an external authority that becomes internalized by the developing child (p. 143). A good conscience is seen as one that would please the authority and a guilty conscience is a conscience that would displease (p.150). The authoritarian conscience, typically developed in a cult, focuses on admiration of the authority and is fearful of punishment and rejection on the authority's part. The primary offenses in the authoritarian society are rebellion against the authority, criticism and disobedience. Children who grow up in authoritarian environments sometimes believe that the only way to be independent is to be rebellious. However, I believe that being compelled to be against is no freer than to be for. The need to always be against can be hurtful in one's life after the cult. Freedom comes from the ability to critically assess each new situation and the freedom to make choices on how to respond. In contrast to rebellion, as mentioned previously, the anger that is felt by the child, because of the pressure to submit often is turned back against the self. For some children, anxiety about losing the group's approval and affection can create a lack of basic sense of security and induce the child to feel more dependent on the group to compensate for that loss.

Furthermore, those raised in cultic groups, particularly those raised communally, rarely have experienced a place of their own – on the outside and on the inside. Even more problematic than sharing living space (which relates to no privacy on the outside), is the fact that self-reflection or empathy with others was not encouraged in the group, (which relates to space to reflect on the inside). For many, days might have been filled with cult rituals and chores and there might have been little encouragement towards self-direction. For numerous children who were raised separately from their parents or with abusing parents, night time fears, nightmares, and “accidents,” were common and often experienced with shame. As mentioned previously, children typically were punished for behavior that often might have been a natural reaction to the sense of abandonment or the abuse that they were experiencing. It was not unusual for children to feel that they were to blame when these understandable reactions occurred. All of this might have left them with difficulty in getting in touch with and asking to have their genuine needs met.

I worked with a child who was rescued at eight by her father from a cult school that she entered at five. While in the cult, when she was disobedient, she was locked in a small closet. She learned to survive and gain some degree of better treatment through her ability to perform – she danced and sang at cult rituals. When she left the cult, she believed that she would only be loved by her ability to perform and please others.

In contrast to the cult environment that creates the harsh conscience, I feel that it is essential to help former cult members see that there can be alternative ways of looking at experiences. When an individual leaves an authoritarian group, he or she might not expect others in the new environment to be compassionate, encouraging or protecting. Fromm's humanistic conscience is a conscience that is comforting and understanding, and has the capacity to forgive and make reparations. It seems that with the development of the humanistic conscience, the individual also can believe in the right to a good life and expect that he or she has the right to be treated well and by others in relationships.

In therapy, there may be attempts on my client's part to keep me as an all knowing authority figure or to devalue me and rebel against me. Those were the two options in the cult and they often are replayed with me and others after cult departure. Those who were treated sadistically might attempt to pull me into a relationship where I will criticize them or will be put down by them. When I sense this is occurring, I point it out to my clients. It is important for individuals to have a place to examine and modify sadomasochistic patterns of relating to others — where they discover how they feel, by examining their relationship with me and with others in their present life as well as by linking these relationships to the past. In this way, the former cult member gains better conscious control over patterns that tend to be played out unconsciously. There inevitably might be a need to experience me as a sadistically coercive, abandoning, and/ or narcissistic individual. There sometimes is the fear that I wish them to become dependent on me and that will mean that I will exploit them. If I do not give them all of the answers, they may feel that I am deliberately holding out on them. They also might have conflict over a desire to be assertive, aggressive, or even sadistic to me. In my counter transference reactions to all this, I have to watch out for my feelings of being hurt or angry at being misunderstood, guilty about not giving more, angry at feeling rejected or diminished, or smug or too “knowing” when I am being idealized. Humor, the play of therapy, is crucial and I always try not to take myself too seriously.

I have learned that former cultists often have an ideal of perfection that is impossible to achieve. The cult also made them feel that they are special, extraordinary individuals, who must live their lives in extraordinary ways. Feeling special and extraordinary can be a burden and a trap. As mentioned previously the affect of shame arises when an individual perceives himself (or believes himself to have been perceived by others) as having failed to live up to ideal standards that he or she accepts. When falling short of the ideal self, an individual can feel weak, inferior, humiliated, and expect to be condemned and/or ridiculed. There is always a comparison between the actual self and the ideal self. It is difficult for many former cultists to feel good about small, everyday pleasures of life and small accomplishments. They feel the pressure to accomplish great things.

A form of guilt that I've seen operating in some former cultists is survivor guilt (Modell, 1971). This is based on the idea that one's freedom is somehow damaging to others. How can the former cult member have a happy life while others are suffering? It is important to begin to question, “Is your suffering alleviating the suffering of others? Or is doing well in life the best revenge for years in an authoritarian system?” Some cannot live their lives without experiencing dread and doom. Emotions that come from the past don't have to predict the future.

In therapy I also find it to be important to focus on and uncover the conscious and/or unconscious feelings of evilness that developed in the cult environment. For example, I have found it useful to explore harsh attitudes towards oneself and ask the former cult member whether he or she would have had such a harsh attitude towards the child that he or she once was. If the former cult member can begin to soften his or her way of evaluating him or herself, life can become much more satisfying. Therefore, I believe that for change to occur in therapy with a former cult member, it is necessary for the client to develop a more compassionate way of looking at oneself and others. This results in more positive relationships, because the individual can have a good-enough relationship even in the presence of ambivalent feelings. There can be the ability to accept and forgive limitations and the mistakes that are made.

In an attempt to look more “normal” to the outside world, the former cultist might be painfully aware of feeling so different and this might create distance from others in present life. Hopefully, the growing acceptance that develops over time allows the former cultist not to shamefully split off a part of herself or himself by remaining unaware, secretive, or by cutting off his or her history. Sometimes, recovery workshops, support groups, and informational conferences can aid in allowing the former cult member to feel less alone with these shameful feelings. Despite these formidable challenges, I have been amazed at the resiliency and growth shown by former cult members who work so hard to begin to face, understand, and accept themselves and their pasts; and, thereby, give themselves an opportunity for a better life and more positive relationships in the present and the future.


  • Freud, A. (1948). Instinctual Drives and Their Bearing on Human Behavior in Freud, A. (1968). The Writings of Anna Freud, Vol. IV, 1945-1956. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.
  • Freud, S. (1921). Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego. Standard Edition, 18, 65-143.
  • Fromm, E. (1947). Man For Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston. Reprint, New York: Henry Holt and Company 1990.
  • Howell, E. (1996). Dissociation in Masochism and Psychopathic Sadism. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 32:427-453.
  • Modell, A. H. (1971). The Origin of Certain Forms of Pre-Oedipal guilt and the implications for a Psychoanalytic Theory of Affects. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 52:337-346.
  • Muster, N. (2004). Authoritarian Culture and Child Abuse in ISKON, Cultic Studies Review, 3:1, 1-27.
  • Perry, B.and Szalavitz, M. (2006). The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog. New York: Basic Books.
  • Schecter, D.E. (1979). The Loving and Persecuting Superego. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 15:361-378.
  • Spiegel, D., Hunt, T., and Dondershine, H. (1988). Dissociation and Hypnotizability in PTSD in Horowitz, Mardi, Ed. (1999). Essential Papers on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. New York: New York University Press.
  • Tillman, J., Nash, M., Lerner, P. (1994). Does Trauma Cause Dissociative Pathology? Lynn, S.J. and Rhue, J.W. (Ed.) Dissociation. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Van der Kolk, B. (1989). The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma, Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12:2.
  • Whitsett, D. (2006). The Psychobiology of Trauma and Child Maltreatment, Cultic Studies Review, 5:3.
  • Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, Part 2.

An earlier version of this paper originally was presented at the panel, “The Authoritarian Grind,” at the International Cultic Studies Association Conference in Brussels, Belgium on June 30, 2007.