Articles


Support Group For Former Cult Members

William Goldberg, LCSW, and Lorna Goldberg, LCSW

Introduction

In March 1982, we published an article on our support group for former cult members. In that article, we described the typical symptoms experienced by former members, a process which we awkwardly referred to as a “Post Mind Control Syndrome.” The purpose of this chapter is the following: To update our original article with the hindsight of another thirty-four years of experience in facilitating this group; to discuss changes that we have seen in the “typical” former cult member who attends our group; to revise some of the conclusions we reached in the first article; and to discuss some of the errors that we have made over the years.

All groups have the power to harm or to heal. All the former cult members who have attended our support group have believed group processes have harmed them. (Even one-to-one cults utilize group processes – in these cases, the group is a dyad.) The fact that groups are a powerful l force that can be used to help or to harm, of course, continues to be a factor in our work, and this fact is one of the main reasons why we find the support group to be such a useful means of helping former cult members.

We see our mission as helping foster a comfortable environment to allow all the participants the freedom to help one another.

Rationale For Starting Our Support Group

We began the group in 1977 because former cult members felt isolated in their recovery efforts. There were no chat rooms, Google searches, or list serves to join. There were few articles in the popular or professional press. When we wrote our original article, we knew of only one other former cult member support group.

Therefore, because of the isolation experienced by those who were leaving cults, we felt that it would be helpful for former cult members to have the experience of sharing their post-cut difficulties with others who were going through the same experience. We also believed that it would demystify the cult experience if group members could see that former cult members from different cults had experienced the same dynamics.

Changing Patterns Of Membership

In 1982, the typical member of our group was 18 to 22 years old, had been recruited into the cult from college or soon after that, had been deprogrammed by someone hired by their parents, and had been a member of one of four or five “big name” cults. Potential members were referred to our support group through word of mouth.

By the late 1980s, our group primarily consisted of older former cult members. Many of these members were in their thirties and forties, and many had walked away from cults years earlier. Those who left on their own often reported that they initially had not realized that the group they were part of might be considered a cult. They just knew that there was something wrong and that they no longer felt comfortable there. Some of them felt that leaving their cult rendered them unprotected from potential harm. Some believed they were inadequate or failures; they had withdrawn from their cult because they could not allow themselves to be as selfless, devoted, single-minded, or idealistic as those who remained. These beliefs, mostly stemming from cult suggestion, might leave them with a host of post-cult symptoms. This became a topic for exploration in the support group.

Those who left with the help of cult education were no longer leaving through a deprogramming process. Instead, they often voluntarily agreed to take part in an exit counseling or cult intervention process. (See Carol Giambalvo's chapter in this volume.) This process seemed to prevent the feelings of inadequacy or sense of failure that those who walked away often experienced. Instead, those who went to cult educators learned how they had been manipulated and deceived by the cult and how the cult had made them fearful of the consequences of leaving. Sometimes, support group members who benefited from a cult education recommended this process to those who walked away.

There was more information about cults available to the general population, and articles about cultic influence appeared in popular magazines as well as in professional journals. Many of our support group members had come across books in the library or bookstores and had begun to recognize that they had been in a cult. Although we continued to have support group members who had been members of the large, “big name” cults, we began seeing people who came from smaller cults, some of which had fewer than ten members. Some former cult members continued to be referred to our group through word of mouth. However, others read about the support group in the index of some of the books that were now available or were referred to us through organizations such as the authentic Cult Awareness Network or the American Family Foundation (which now is the International Cultic Studies Association).

Today, our group is more heterogeneous, with categories of group members that we would never have considered forty ago. Currently, the majority of our support group members have not been exit counseled. They have left their cults on their own (walkaways), after confirming their negative beliefs about the group on the Internet. Often, former members of a cult refer others. The support group members range in age from late teens to individuals in their seventies. Some are survivors of the Troubled Teen Industry, which we have learned has a great deal in common with other cultic groups. Some of the support group members had been part of “second-generation” cults — offshoots of the major cults we had seen forty years ago. We discovered that, sometimes, members of the original cults had reconfigured and renamed these cultic groups, but these new leaders would continue to engage in the earlier cult's practices. Many of our support group members are Second Generation Adults (SGAs), raised in the cult as children but subsequently left, either with or without their parents and siblings.

The heterogeneity of the members has enhanced the support group. Those who are attending their first meeting benefit from the experience of more longstanding members. Also, first and second-generation former members have been able to increase their empathy for each other by participation in the same support group. We have watched some touching interactions, such as when a second-generation member comforted a guilt-ridden first-generation parent by saying, “You thought you were doing what was best for your child.” Members who have attended many meetings act as mentors to newer group members. Some individuals return to later meetings and report how they were helped by the group in a particular decision or to gain a particular understanding.

The Facilitator's Approach

From the beginning, we decided that our group was to become a support group rather than a therapy group. We focused on support because we wanted to be an approachable resource for former cult members. We felt it was our mission to reduce the anxiety felt by new members and rely on members to gain strength from helping one another. A therapy group would require a commitment to attend a certain number of meetings and this would be an obstacle for former cult members who might be commitment wary. We decided to leave attendance in the group open so that they would have the option to attend as many or as few meetings as they saw fit. It also was our desire to respect each individual's defenses and character styles in our group. Those who wished to explore how their personality dynamics undermined their life could find that approach within the context of individual therapy.

In keeping with a supportive approach, our group is informal in style, and the focus is psycho-educational, emphasizing shared learning. Much of the group's time is spent problem-solving, as members contribute their outlook on problems raised in the group by other members. (The style of the facilitators and our group format will be explained in a later section of this chapter.) We do not examine group processes to explore the underlying meaning of behaviors displayed in the group as we would in a therapy group. When problematic conflicts arise, we deal with the group members involved outside the group. We do not use the group to analyze any of the participant's behaviors and interactions. Instead, the group is utilized to provide information and support to those who are dealing with post-cult life. The group enhances critical thinking in that all members weigh in on a problem presented from various points of view. We emphasize the stance that there is no one correct answer; instead, people will find the answer that works most effectively for them. We find that encouraging members to share their thoughts and experiences helps all members better understand themselves and that members feel strengthened by providing help to others.

Our group does not use cult-related material, movies, or television shows to stimulate discussion, although materials might be suggested to help solve a problem presented by a member. We do not begin the group with a suggested topic. Topics are open-ended and it will be decided by those in attendance to choose the topics for that particular group meeting.

The support group meets every month and is held in our living room rather than in our offices. We believe that having the group take place in a home environment is beneficial in that it provides a warmer setting for the group. In the early years of the group, we met at a different group member's home each month. We found that this was too fragmented and confusing for group participants. Therefore, we find it to be better to select one consistent venue for the meetings.

The formal support group meets for two and a half hours. Snacks are provided for all, and we provide a simple meal for those who have traveled long distances. Members usually remain for about 30 minutes after each meeting to chat with one another, and we encourage members to contact one another between group meetings.

Referrals And Screening

At present we receive referrals for the group from other group members and therapists. At conferences, former cult members have the opportunity to meet us and, if they live in the New York Metropolitan area or are planning a trip to New York, they are welcome to attend a group meeting. We also are contacted by individuals who have learned of our support group from books and articles or through the Internet and our website.

Those potential members who have not previously been screened are asked to meet with one of us for an intake screening. There is a sliding scale fee for this intake, but there is no charge for the group. The intake, which typically lasts for approximately one and a half hours, helps the potential participants understand the group's nature. The screening also helps us assess whether the group would be the best vehicle to help the former cultist. It provides us with the opportunity to suggest readings and activities that might help that particular individual's recovery process. We have found that if an individual attending the support group is ambivalent about whether or not to leave the cult, the other participants will focus on clarifying cult involvement for that individual. As helpful as this discussion may be for the cult member, it prevents the group from accomplishing its purpose—to discuss post-cult issues. We want to keep the focus of the support group on issues that arise after the former cult member has decided to leave.

Therefore, the intake interview is to attempt to screen out present cult members. However, intakes are not foolproof. Despite our best efforts, on occasion, members of cults have infiltrated our support group. For example, one couple, for example, acted as agent provocateurs and they attempted to trap us into encouraging other support group members to sue their cult. We resisted that attempt, believing that it was not our role to encourage or to discourage lawsuits. After attending a few meetings, the couple left the support group. At a later date, we learned of this deception from someone who had been a member of the couple's cult at the time of their attendance in our support group. She stated that the cult had sent them to spy on us and to gather ammunition to attack us for harboring animus against the cult. At another time, a current member from a different cult was sent to record our meetings secretly. After attending several meetings, he told us that hearing the stories from other members had deeply affected him and generated self-reflection. He subsequently decided to leave his cult.

Criteria For Suppoert Group Membership

Most former cult members are appropriate referrals for our group. However, we have found that a few people are not appropriate. As mentioned previously, we do not include members who continue to have major doubts about their decision to leave their cult. We also do not include those individuals who are highly aggressive or would be unable to work collaboratively in the group context.

However, we welcome members who are struggling with a variety of symptoms. Post-cult symptoms result from multiple factors. Differing pre-cult temperaments and a wide range of life events, as well as different cult experiences, impact former cult members.

For example, we have had members of the group who were actively struggling with reality and needed the group for stabilization. In those situations, we focus on cult-induced pathology that can occur when individuals are encouraged to have delusions and hallucinations. We also consider that some individuals might have more fragile boundaries between reality and fantasy before cult involvement. In these cases, we recommend a psychiatric evaluation.

Some members of the group may have spent time in a psychiatric hospital. Former members often leave their groups in a state that might indicate a severe mental illness. Sadly, many mental health professionals have misdiagnosed these individuals. However, many of these individuals can be stabilized by cult education and, thereby, understand the destabilizing forces that can occur during cult membership. Some of our members have been on psychotropic medication. Members have discussed the benefits and drawbacks of their experiences with medication.

We have other members who tend to feel anxious and/or become avoidant of engaging in new relationships after their cult involvement. Many of them have been able to rely on the group for friendship and socialization. These members have gained the confidence to reach out to individuals outside the group after becoming helpful and respected participants in the group.

Some group members have reported on past experiences with substance abuse and various addictive behaviors. Most have dealt with depression and anxiety, and many have experienced a range of post-traumatic symptoms. Support group members have felt relieved to know that other participants will accept them and their difficulties. As with other types of support groups, older members have described their initial difficulties and how, over the years, their lives have shown improvement. The group generally tends to be optimistic about the future, and this outlook also reflects our tone as facilitators.

We do not exclude spouses and siblings if a member requests to bring them to the group. Usually, members bring family members when they wish to have these individuals gain a sense of their cult experience or when they are apprehensive of attending on their own. However, we have excluded parents. In an early meeting, when a member requested to have her mother attend, we told her we had to receive the group's permission. The members assented, but her mother's presence had a chilling effect on the freedom of dialogue in the group. Despite requests we have received, we do not permit the media, researchers, or interested professionals to attend the group. Our members have to feel that the group exists for former cult members helping one another and for no other purpose.

Role Of Facilitators

At the beginning of each meeting, one of us (WG) states the group's purpose and the importance of confidentiality. We then ask the group members to introduce themselves, name the cult they left, and mention any issues with which they are presently struggling. Giving everyone a chance to speak usually breaks the ice and sets the stage for the back and forth discussion among group members that follows. We attempt to ensure that everyone who wishes to have a chance to speak has the opportunity to do so. At times, the facilitators need to help amplify the contribution of some participants and shorten the length of speaking time for others.

As mentioned previously, we see our role as helping to foster a comfortable environment and to allow all participants the freedom to help one another. When a member cuts off another member or begins to act in a potentially conflictual manner, we intervene. However, at times, we have found ourselves pulled into the group action. For example, when a middle management former cult member attended a meeting with several lower-level members of her cult, she was verbally attacked by one of the former members. Although another former member of her cult had a milder response to the mid-level leader and said that she saw the situation differently, the higher-level person was quite shaken from being confronted by the first lower-level person. Both of the facilitators were pulled into the action as it was occurring and neither of us initially came to the former leader's defense. At the time, we both were feeling impressed with the lower-level member's ability to speak out about the abuse that had occurred to her in the cult — some of it at the hands of this individual. The neglect of our responsibility to provide a safe environment for all members was a case of countertransference triumphing over good therapeutic judgment. After the interaction occurred, we emphasized how many former members found them pulled into behavior in the cult that they regretted after leaving the cult. When the meeting ended, one of us reached out to apologize to the former mid-level leader. However, this woman declined to attend future meetings, believing that we had not protected her. Although it might have been a transforming moment for this mid-level member to apologize to the lower-level member, she had a right not to be ready to do so. Since that time, the facilitators have checked in with one another about any countertransference reactions, including protectiveness, biases, or negative feelings towards any members. This practice has been useful because it has allowed us to better address our potential countertransference responses.

If some of the members begin to treat us too deferentially, we address this behavior. We do not want to dominate the support group. We our role as taking a back seat in the discussion — only adding information when it appears that it would progress the problem-solving ability of the group. At times, we are self-revealing if we believe it will progress the group discussion or lessen the self-punishing attitudes of the members. For example, we briefly might focus upon mistakes we have made or how others have scammed us. We wish to emphasize the belief that to be human is to be fallible. Within the group, our personalities are pretty much the same as in everyday life. Therefore, there might be times when we disagree with each other, and we believe that it is important for the group to see this behavior.

As we move to the end of our meeting time, we check in with all members to see if everyone has had an opportunity to speak. After that, we end the meeting by passing out material on different cult-related activities and hand out our calendar of meeting dates for the coming year. We do not publish dates of future meetings on our website because we do not want people to appear at our door who have not been invited to attend.

Observations Of How Our Support Group Has Evolved

Early on, we established the policy that there is no obligation to attend meetings because we believed that not requiring group attendance would contrast with the cult environment's pressures. Even though the membership varies from month to month, the group members carry over group norms from one meeting to the next. Over the years, we have had as many as thirty members and as few as one member arriving for the group. Typically, group attendance is between eight and sixteen members. Some participants attend almost every meeting and others attend only one or two and do not return. Some attend when they visit the New York area when there is something in particular with which they are struggling or when they are bringing new former members from their cult. Some people attend one or two meetings before they feel comfortable speaking. Some of the older group participants adopt more of a helping role. However, from time to time, older group members continue to share their present struggles. We see our role as informing the group that life outside the cult will always have better periods and more challenging times; how do we deal with these situations as they present themselves.

Participants sometimes will use the group to play out their conflicts. For example, one guilt-ridden former member attempted to have the group condemn her for her son's neglect while she was in the cult. When the group responded to her story with empathy, she angrily yelled, “YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND,” and quickly left the astonished group. It was helpful for the group to look at this as an example of how former cult members can continue to be flooded with tremendous guilt after leaving the cult environment.

When former members of the same cult attend a meeting, transference reactions or unfinished business play out in front of the group. For example, at one meeting, a highly regarded mid-level former member joined the group while visiting New York. Another former member from the same cult had known this individual while in the cult. The lower-level former member treated the higher-level former member in a deferential manner. Sometimes, support group members will experience other members as siblings, children, or parental figures. If the transference seems to be interfering with a realistic appraisal of the other person, one of us will point out this fact. It is not healthy for anyone in the group to be unduly idealized or denigrated. We see our role as reality enhancing.

The support group provides an opportunity for a new supportive community. This is particularly important for those who have been shunned by cult members or stigmatized by people who denigrate others who have had cult experiences. It is helpful to hear how others have coped with similar difficulties.

Participants often discover that individuals from other types of cults have the same emotional experiences, fantasies, doubts, and fears. This discovery serves to normalize the post-cult experience. New friendships can develop when former cult members might feel isolated and lonely after losing the cult community.

Support Group Themes

Some of the topics that typically are addressed at group meetings include the following:

  1. Dealing with the aftereffects of cult membership, particularly feelings of shame about having made a "mistake"
  2. Fears of meeting a member of the cult on the street or being contacted by the cult by phone or email
  3. Concerns about discussing cult history with others or about the right time for this to be addressed
  4. Dealing with the cult years when applying to school or for a job
  5. Concerns about issues related to spirituality and pre-cult religious beliefs
  6. Handling harassment from cult members
  7. Dealing with family members
  8. Dealing with dating and love relationships
  9. Dealing with powerful emotions of anxiety, anger, or depression
  10. Dealing with cult-related dreams
  11. Deciding whether or not to take psychotropic medication
  12. Learning assertive behavior, i.e., to say "no"
  13. Dealing with feelings about not having accomplished as much as peers from childhood or the work world
  14. Dealing with distractions and spacing out (dissociation)
  15. Dealing with sexual feelings
  16. Dealing with post-cult symptoms, including phobias, hallucinations, delusions, and nightmares
  17. Dealing with the aftereffects of sexual and physical abuse
  18. Dealing with those who are seen as having power over the former cultist, e.g., bosses
  19. Making friends and handling friendship difficulties
  20. Defining the following words: mind control, dissociation, hypnosis, and suggestion, idealization, narcissist, antisocial personality, mood disorder, and personality disorder, trauma
  21. Feeling unable to trust one's instincts
  22. Dealing with family members
  23. Dealing with feelings about therapy, therapists, and the mental health community
  24. Dealing with feelings about charismatic individuals, e.g., promoters of new age, spiritual, therapeutic, or political ideas that are seen on television or in everyday life

Support Group As An Adjunct To Therapy

Most of those who attend our support group do not meet with either of us for individual therapy; and some former cult members who see us in individual therapy do not wish to attend the group. At times, a support group member will request to begin therapy with one of us. We are usually willing to do so. However, many of our group members come from New York City and see therapists within the city. It is beneficial to see how those who have shown growth in individual therapy tend to take a more therapeutic role with their peers in the support group.

It has helped to the group members to have a clearer understanding of all the open alternatives to them for the recovery process. Support group members usually talk freely with one another about their experience of therapy. They have spoken about the benefits and the negative aspects of seeing a therapist for individual therapy. They also speak about the benefits and the negative aspects of taking various psychotropic medications. Some have attended ICSA's recovery workshops and have recommended workshops to others in the support group. Many attend the ICSA education meetings in New York. Most have attended some of the annual ICSA international conferences. Some have recommended cult education counselors for post-cult help.

We emphasize that there are many roads to cult recovery and that cult members can choose the road that is best for them. In contrast to the single path of the cult, we emphasize the need for each individual to choose his or her own approach. We understand that the support group can be helpful to former cult members. However, we see the group as one service alongside many other therapeutic interventions. We understand that, for some, the idea of joining any group will be uncomfortable. We respect that feeling and suggest other therapeutic modalities that may be more suitable for those former cult members who would rather not join a group.

Bibliography

Goldberg, L. and Goldberg, W. (1982). Group work with former cultists. Social Work, 27:2.

Singer, M. (1979). Coming out of the cults, Psychology Today, January 1979.

This is an earlier version of our chapter in Goldberg, L., Goldberg, W., Henry, Rosanne, Langone, M. (Ed.). (2017). Cult Recovery: A Clinician's Guide. Bonita Springs: International Cultic Studies Association.