Plenary Address: We Disagree-Letís Talk! Why Diversity and Dialogue are Necessary and How We Overcome Undermining Factors presented at International Cultic Studies Association Annual Conference, Philadelphia, July 5, 2018.

Lorna Goldberg, M.S.W.
New Jersey Institute of Psychoanalysis


How does the International Cultic Studies Association reach our stated goal of welcoming “freedom of expression, freedom of mind, openness, and dialogue”? This stated goal, originally written in a message from the directors to the membership five years ago, expresses a commitment to listening and responding to those with diverse points of view. This is a message that has value, not only for our organization, but also in the wider world.

For the International Cultic Studies Association, this means listening and responding with respect to those who have left a wide array of cults, to those who come from many different kinds of families within and outside a cult, to those who remain in cults, and to those who are professionals, including clinicians, researchers, attorneys, clergy and journalists.

In their message, the directors expressed a commitment to overcome and move beyond a polarization that had existed for years between ICSA members and those not in ICSA who held contrasting views of high-demand groups. Members of ICSA generally defined high demand groups as “destructive cults” and emphasized harm to cult members; others, mainly sociologists, defined high demand groups as “new religious movements” and generally focused on group practices as neutral social phenomena rather than on the effect groups had on their members.

Also, in the early years of ICSA (formerly the American Family Foundation), the typical view, particularly expressed by mental health professionals, was that people joined cultic groups because of some weakness in their own character or because they came from troubled families. Early ICSA members fought back against this “blame the victim” approach. We believed that manipulative leaders with narcissistic agendas deceived people who were recruited into cults. Family members, like myself, were relieved to learn about the cult dynamics that were in large measure responsible for the otherwise inexplicable changes in our loved ones when they became cult recruits.

Over time, ICSA began to see potential for cult recruitment in a more complex way. Both individual as well as stage of life vulnerability and cult manipulation, and other factors as well, had their role; each might provide important information helping to explain the cult phenomenon. A more complex understanding helped move our organization to a less polarized view and led to an increased willingness to reach out to those with differing viewpoints.

In their message, which can be found on the ICSA website, the directors state the following:

The benefits of dialogue are the converse of the negative effects of polarization:

  • Communication increases knowledge, broadens perspectives, and enhances oneís capacity to understand and appreciate the complex interpersonal dynamics of people who have left or are still in cultic groups, and it may help us better relate to those who have endured abuse.
  • When groups of helpers and researchers with different perspectives and foci have open boundaries, people belonging to those disciplines will feel less pressure to conform and, consequently, will feel freer to pursue new ideas or innovative approaches to treatment.
  • When one has regular contact with those holding differing views, one is more likely to recognize oneís opinions as opinions and not mistakenly treat them as facts.
  • When boundaries between helpers and researchers are open and characterized by much “cross-border traffic,” dubious groups or dubious individuals within groups cannot so easily exploit the situation.

I agree with this message, which has value, not only for our organization, but also in the wider world. I believe, in general, that conflict can be a healthy phenomenon and dealing with it can help each of us gain new insight into others as well as ourselves. However, ICSA also believes in the free choice and safety of our members. Today I am talking about dialogue, I am not talking about subjecting yourself to a person whose goal is to manipulate or intimidate you. Nothing I will say today is meant to encourage you to permit yourself to be exploited or bullied. Although, ICSA sees the value in being able to engage respectfully in dialogue with people who have different perspectives, we also recognize that some views or people attempt to violate the human rights and dignity of others. In these cases, it is a wise decision not to engage.

Unlike closed cult groups, ICSA firmly is committed to freedom of thought and expression. ICSA conferences provide an open arena for people from different backgrounds with diverse points of view. At our conferences, opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the view of ICSA or its directors, staff, advisors, or supporters. Today we can celebrate the fact that attendees see the issue of psychological manipulation and abuse in cults in differing ways.

The philosophy articulated by its directors means that being part of the ICSA community WILL involve disagreements and conflict over beliefs, and perceptions not only with people outside ICSA, but also within our organization. As the population of ICSA has changed with the growing group of SGAs/MGAs, this conflict has taken a new form. Where once there was conflict between members of ICSA and those outside the organization, in recent years there has been the potential for polarizing conflicts between different subgroups of ICSA, such as researchers and mental health professionals; between mental health professionals and former cult members; between first generation former cult members and those born or raised in cultic groups; and even between those whose parents were first generation, and those whose parents were themselves born or raised in cultic groups.

How do we deal with this reality? In todayís presentation, I will consider some factors that undermine dialogue and I will suggest some ideas that might help us connect.

Our Black and White World

As a psychoanalyst, my perspective is that unconscious as well as conscious factors always are at play in our interactions with others and that these factors can undermine dialogue. For example, when I was asked to give this plenary address, I became aware of a certain degree of anxiety about your reaction to my presentation. I allowed myself to consider what might be underlying my anxiety. I began to understand that I imagined you would have a critical reaction. To comfort myself, I challenged my black and white emotional thinking with self-reflection gained from years of my own therapy and from the use self-analysis that has been a central tool in my work as a therapist. Moving from an emotional to a self-reflective state allowed me to calm down as I had the following thoughts: First, even if many of you respond critically, in contrast to situations in my early life, today I am pretty good about accepting criticism, so it was unlikely that I would be crushed by your reaction. Second, although some of you might take issue with some of my ideas, others might have a positive reaction to some of what I say. Third, my self-esteem would increase if I took the uncomfortable action of presenting rather than declining to speak. These thoughts moved me from emotion to self-reflection and helped me shift from viewing myself as the potential victim of your crushing reaction to a more balanced and, hopefully, realistic view.

In light of this, I began to consider Jessica Benjaminís concept of the “Third.” Benjamin suggests that too often we divide our emotional world between feeling like the victim who is done to or the victimizer who is the doer; we are stuck in right/wrong, dominant/submissive, binary thinking. We see this kind of thinking today in world leaders who negotiate as if everything is a zero sum game: their attitude is, if you win, I lose; the only way I go up is if others go down. Benjamin believes that instead, by using self-reflection, we can claim an equal place within our relationships with others. Instead of a divided way of viewing the world, we can approach situations in such a way that everyone has the possibility of gaining something from the experience (Benjamin, 2004).

Earlier, I talked about my anxiety when I first considered giving this plenary address. In psychoanalytic terms, in making an assumption about the audienceís reaction, I was experiencing a transference expectation. That is, instead of looking at all possible outcomes, my sense of reality became limited by my expectation that you would react in a manner similar to reactions I experienced in my early life.

Transference is a core concept of psychoanalysis. It means that unconsciously, we transfer attitudes and expectations developed in the past into our present life and relationships. A psychoanalytic approach focuses upon transference and centers upon how we might distort our present relationships based upon how we viewed relationships in the past Often these expectations are developed in childhood when our thinking tends to be black and white, lacking the nuance and subtlety we gain as we mature. But transference expectations can also form as a result of important relationships made later in life, particularly in traumatic relationships. Transference also can lead us to possibly mishearing and misunderstanding each other and this misperception can undermine successful communication. This happens because our pasts constantly reshape how we view our present.

Former cult members may have an expectation, both conscious and unconscious, that new relationships will repeat the victim/victimizer dynamics that occurred in the cult. However, as you can see by my example, you donít have to be a former cult member to have these particular expectations. While some individuals here, including myself, never were in a cult, as anxious humans, we are all are vulnerable to regress into the black and white thinking of childhood that cults intensify.

With transference expectations, we can make assumptions and fill in the gaps in what we know about who people are and what they are thinking. This limits our ability to see others in a more complex, human, and realistic way. When we idealize or de-idealize others we are not seeing the real person before us, an individual with strengths and flaws. When we contrast ourselves to an idealized cult leader, therapist or others, we magnify our own shortcomings. Conversely, when we need to protect ourselves, we can become suspicious and expect nothing but bad from others. When we see others and ourselves in a more balanced manner, we can acknowledge our flaws without losing sight of our strengths.

How do we move from a reactive and defensive response that incorporates the black and white expectation that either we will treated badly by a powerful other or we will be speaking with an idiot or an arrogant jerk? How do we handle powerful emotions, such as dread or anger, that might have originated in our early life or in the cult or both and replace these emotions with a response of thoughtful curiosity?

Benjamin suggests that when we encounter people with different and even opposing views from ours, “we [need to] recognize our own participation” in this conflict and this will allow us to negotiate our differences and to connect. In other words, if we pause, taking a breath, and give ourselves the time to consider that we might be having a transference expectation (such as in a readiness to see ourselves as victims), we can begin to see alternative ways of looking at a situation. This recognition might allow us to feel less avoidant or hopeless about a potential interaction.

We can view self-reflection as a process that provides us with the mental space for thinking things through. I can use my own self-reflection and internal conversation as a stepping-stone to figure out how I can best see the situation more realistically to converse with others without being defensive. After years of personal therapy, I sometimes can take this step. However, I often slip and stay immersed in emotion.

I know that Iím not the only one who struggles with this issue. This step into thinking might be particularly difficult for those who have been involved in past relationships where asserting a contradictory viewpoint was dangerous and could lead to punishment or shaming. Whether it was through a tyrannical parent, a manipulative partner, or a narcissistic cult leader, many people have learned that the only way to survive was through dissociation or other forms of defense against prohibited thoughts. This might make it difficult to gain conscious awareness of transference expectations of punishment or shame. It can be hard for all of us to move from a world where only one person can be right into a world of ambiguity where there can be a myriad of “rights.”

Even if it can be risky, I believe that when we attempt to understand those who are different from us, we have the possibility of expanding our sense of reality. In many circumstances, we can gain from showing flexibility of thinking and empathy; we donít have to fear subjugating our identity to others or becoming stuck in their viewpoint. Rigidly held views undermine the possibility for a richer understanding of the world.

Weíre Family and Group Oriented

Our desire to be part of a group has aided our survival and has been adaptive for different species and for the human race. The danger is that we are apt to experience positive feelings about the groups to which we belong and less positive feelings about those groups to which we donít. We tend to see our own groups as superior to others. Cult leaders prey upon these emotions to cement loyalty to the cult.

Our sense of vulnerability can cause us to identify more powerfully with our own group. When there is trouble between groups, in order to feel safe, we tend to retreat to our own. While entrenched in our groups, we might be more apt to see members of other groups in stereotypical ways instead of seeing them as individuals. Stereotyping works in a similar way to transference; we react to someone based on expectations we have developed in the past.

In marital therapy, sometimes, when one partner in a relationship lacks understanding of the other, it is important to identify how a diverse culture might be influencing the behavior and meanings of each of the partnersí experiences to increase the coupleís awareness of some of the roadblocks in their interaction. De-pathologizing behaviors by seeing their connection to past experiences can reduce shame in one partner while increasing understanding in the other (It is vital in this process to avoid applying cultural stereotypes to either partner. Even when one partner is behaving in ways that might be considered “typical” of his culture, it is important to understand the particular ways in which he has internalized certain aspect of the culture and how this internalization is influencing his behavior and his experience of others.

The directorsí dialogue message of 2015 addresses the human tendency to stereotype as a hindrance to listening to a person with a divergent viewpoint. They write Stereotyping can provide a short-term comfort, for it requires less thought than analyses that recognize the complex dynamics of cultic phenomena. But stereotyping inevitably leads to polarization, which reinforces stereotyping...More useful than labels are questions followed by good-faith discussion. “What does he say?” is a more fruitful question than “In what category does she belong?”

If we simply view groups as a central indicator of identity, we can form conclusions about an individual that might be mistaken. I will describe myself as an example of this. I joined ICSA (formerly the American Family Foundation) because I am the older sister of a former cult member. I am a Jewish clinical social worker, who also is a psychoanalyst. I live in New Jersey and I am a member of the Democratic Party. My identity has been shaped to some degree by all of these groups and I suspect that those of you who donít know me may form instant positive or negative impressions about me based upon what you have just heard. We might be ready to dismiss the inside of a person and base our impressions upon outer criteria, but this can provide us with a false understanding of others.

I would say more important than any of these outward descriptions is my character, the person who I am on the inside. It might tell you more about me if you know that as a young child I spoke with a lisp and, in part, because of reactions to this, I became a shy child. This is connected to my anxiety today about public speaking. I spent my childhood immersed in books and I reached out to those books that resonated within me. Reading and loving all the Nancy Drew books allowed a shy girl to imagine what it would feel like to be an adolescent who bravely plowed ahead to solve all sorts of mysteries with her friends. Mysteries taught me problem-solving and sparked my natural curiosity and wonder about the mysteries of the human mind. Reading The Diary of Anne Frank showed me how close relationships and even a relationship with a diary can help a teenager get through terrifying times. Books allowed me to consider new ways of being and dealing with the world before the need to test this out with others. Literature provided me with a way to identify with others from different backgrounds, nations, ethnicities, and centuries.

After having made friends with many different people in literature, ICSA has allowed me to make friends with many different people living throughout the United States and throughout the world. This has been one of the many benefits of ICSA. Although we might look different on the outside and speak different languages, we share many common values and interests. Having friends from many different cultures, religions, and ethnicities (even some Republicans) has broadened my perspective in a way that would have been lost if I simply made friendships from my own demographic. Encountering diversity has allowed me to see myself within the “other.”

I believe that the ICSA community offers the opposite of ethnocentrism. While this is a time of increasing ethnocentrism in the world, we might consider that, instead of using cultural differences simply as a tool to dehumanize and claim superiority over others, exploration of cultural differences can be a starting point for gaining insight into our own biases and inner beliefs.

An Example of Dialogue Between Subgroups

As many of you know, my husband Bill and I have facilitated a support group for former cult members at our home for over 40 years. In the last years, our support group members have included many people born or raised in cultic groups, as well as former cultists who became parents in the cult. Initially, transference attitudes initiated strong unspoken emotions between these two subgroups. Two of the cult parents, who expected to be blamed by the other group members for cult treatment of children, described feelings of shame, guilt, despair, and regret for harm to their children while in the cult.

Those born or raised in cults, who previously had the transference expectation that the cult parents would minimize cult harm, instead began to feel empathy for the cult parents. This discussion helped former cult member parents deal with feelings of shame and former members born in cults deal with feelings of anger.

Things arenít always the way we perceive them to be. It takes time to understand another person and we have to resist thinking that we “know” when we actually are in the process of learning. I need to remind myself that, if I say, “Sheís a typical mental health professional, researcher, attorney, or cleric, I am dehumanizing and stereotyping the person before me even if I say it with affection. If I theorize about a cult person or situation too quickly, I am using a shorthand method and may be missing the boat. Theories may make us feel more comfortable by giving us the feeling that we “know,” but they do a disservice to the person with whom we are interacting. As a therapist, I believe that my clients should bring me to the theory rather than the other way around. In other words, we should not let our expectations shape our reality.

Why Are We Talking Now?

So, why are dialogue and diversity necessary? In the days ahead, we will each be interacting with individuals who may have vastly different backgrounds and possibly even views that are opposed to our own. I would say, based on my decades in this organization, that the people you meet here, no matter how different they seem, can all actually be seen to some extent as heroes for their tremendous achievements: They are first generation former cult members who were courageous enough to leave despite hearing frightening stories of the outside world and despite having to face the painful fact that they have given years to a false messiah. They are second and multigenerational former cult members who, despite the need to adapt to a whole new culture, bravely left the only world they had ever known. They are families who are intrepid in finding different ways to keep contact with those in the cult and, thus, assuring their loved ones that they will have a caring home on the outside. They are mental health professionals who, often for a low fee, have made it possible for former cult members to tell their story. They are attorneys, who have fought for former cult membersí rights. They are researchers who have provided us with good science and who have written eloquently about the dynamics of these groups and the aftereffects of cult life. They are clergy who have helped former cult members deconstruct how cult scripture has twisted mainstream Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or Islamic belief. They are journalists who have told the stories of those who have been harmed. They may be some sociologists or even representatives of cultic groups who have come here openly, taking the courageous step of entering these halls filled with people who generally might be opposed to them or their views.

The ICSA Directors write:
Dialogue is... premised on humility. If I deem myself to be imperfect, value truth, and have a set of beliefs, then I ought to be open to discussion with those who do not share those beliefs. I cannot correct myself if I do not allow myself to be challenged.

We need diversity and dialogue because, as intelligent or educated or experienced as we may be, we donít know everything. We need to recognize our vulnerabilities and our blind spots. We will only be able to hear one another if we move past our assumptions and our self-righteousness. Instead, we need to be humble, remembering that we all are equals deserving respect. Letís remember that the person who might have just said something that appears to be offensive or ridiculous might be opening a door into a new way of seeing the world.


  • Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 73(1):5-46.
  • Freud, S. (1912). The Dynamics of Transference. S.E., XII, 97-108.