“The party is always right, even when it’s wrong”

– Democratic Workers Party slogan

ORIENTATION

Everybody knows what cults are

People who join cults are mentally unstable before they join and less educated than the general population. True or false? Cult members also define themselves as lonely. True or false? Most people who join cults are from the poor and working class. True or false? People are physically intimidated into joining a cult against their will. True or false? No matter how much your vocabulary changes once inside a cult, you can still control what and how you think. True or false? Cults draw certain kinds of criminal elements, who in a sense get what they deserve. Good people would not be drawn into such extreme circumstances. True or false? This last statement is a version of the “just world hypothesis”. The implication being that you, a good person, could never fall into a cult.

If you answered “true” to any of these questions, you might have fallen for the social media propaganda against cults. In fact, the overwhelming number of members of cults come from middle and upper middle-class backgrounds, are well-educated and have no serious psychological problems previous to joining the cult. Furthermore, people join cults voluntarily and they are lured into them by various social and psychological techniques which offer immediate gratification. In her book Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Singer says people have an initial resistance to thinking they could be “taken in,” without force.

Lastly, many people mistakenly think that thoughts and language can be neatly separated. This is mistaken.  No one can think independently of language. If you force people to not use certain words, and insist on people substituting new words, you can control their thinking process. As Orwell pointed out, when the state controls the vocabulary and strikes words from its dictionary, it narrows the thinking range that is possible. If you use the word “freedom” to express autonomous thinking, but the word “freedom” has now been labelled by a leftist political movement as “bourgeois individualism” you have a problem in using it. You cannot coin new words by yourself. There has to be a movement of people who agree to create a new word and circulate it among themselves. Cult members are slowly socialized by their leaders and lieutenants to change their vocabulary as they coin and circulate new words through forums, meetings and media events. Slowly the members find their own vocabulary changes accordingly.

How many kinds of cult are there?

There are at least three kinds of cults: spiritual, psychological and political.

All three have left-wing and right-wing variants. Jim Jones’ People’s Temple; Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate; Rajneesh’s Tantric yoga, as well Charles Manson’s “the Family” are all examples of left-wing spiritual cults.  Right-wing cults are Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, Kurt Saxon’s Christian Identity, James Wickstrom’s Posse Comitatus and James Butler’s Aryan Nation.

Examples of left-wing psychological cults Harvey Jackins’ Re-Evaluation Counseling along with Saul B. Newton’s Sullivan Institute. Right-wing psychology cults include L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology and Charles Dederich’s Synanon. Political cults on the left include Gerry Healy in Britain and the Democratic Workers Party in San Francisco. A great example of a right-wing political cult was Lyndon LaRouche’s National Caucus of Labor Committees.

For most of this article I will be speaking of cults in general. But when I get more specific about mechanisms of control, I will sometimes refer to the left-wing Democratic Workers Party. I refer to them not only because they are especially monstrous compared to other cults. I do so more because my readers are most likely to be interested in political cults rather than spiritual or psychological cults. Secondly, my readers are more likely to identify as left-wing rather than right-wing political people. I think this article will “hit home”, especially among Leninists. I am not suggesting or implying that all Leninist parties are cults.

What is a totalistic institution?

Defining a cult has more to do with how the organization is run, not the political, psychological or spiritual beliefs of the organization. Cults can be characterized as a type of “total institution” (Goffman). Others include mental hospitals, jails, army barracks, orphanages and religious institutions such as monasteries, convents or abbeys. In modern capitalist societies, people enter and leave many social institutions during the course of a day. Examples include a son or daughter of a family at home, a student at school, an employee at work, a member of the choir at church, a fan for a sports team and a member of the national guard on the weekends.  While all these groups have a broad similarity in economic ideology (being pro-capitalism), within each group the power dynamics between the authority and the members differ. Different institutions are organized tightly or loosely with high, medium or low expectations. Most importantly the individual in a pluralistic society, with membership in all these groups can compare and contrast social expectations of each group, develop their own ideas and synthesize the results using critical thinking.

In totalistic institutions, sleeping, eating, working and playing all happen within a single organization, enacted within the same place, at the same time in the same way.  In pluralistic societies members enter into and leave a group of their own volition. In totalistic institutions members do not come and go as they please. Boundaries are strictly controlled.  Unlike in pluralistic societies, in totalistic institutions the authorities are a single centralized body, with very little feedback coming from the periphery to the core. In pluralistic societies, surveillance may be in place in certain settings, like in the military or in church, but there is no central setting from which family life, school life or work life is all watched from afar at the same time. In total institutions, besides centralized surveillance systems, there is a network of spying that goes on between members, breeding insecurity and paranoia. In totalistic institutions, everyone is treated bureaucratically in the same way, where sensitivity to the uniqueness of a person and situation is lost.

What is a cult?

Cults usually grow in a climate of political, economic or ecological instabilities in which the existing social order has been compromised. A cult is a spiritual, psychological or political institution which is hyper-critical of the existing spiritual, psychological and political institutions and wishes to overthrow them while often aspiring to create “heaven on earth”. Because cults are usually new and have not had years to socialize people the way organized religions have, they have to work quickly and use extreme measures to draw and hold people. Because a religious leader of a particular denomination is part of a large bureaucracy, that leader can be relatively dull while maintaining the following of his parishioners. But a cult cannot afford that.

Cults usually have at their head a charismatic leader with a grand philosophy who gives dramatic right and wrong answers to complex but deteriorating social situations. The leaders usually have lieutenants, ideologically committed members who have very good social psychological skills to keep the membership in line. Cults lack a democratic structure and the membership is kept passive and happy during the initial stages while being slowly terrified as membership continues into the later stages of the cult.

Characteristics of cults include:

  • Emerging out of a political, economic or ecological crisis;
  • Recruitment of young adults between 17 and 24 of middle-class and upper middle-class origins who are likely to be undergoing some developmental crisis in their personal lives;
  • An authoritarian, charismatic leader;
  • A revolutionary, dualistic ideology;
  • Possessing a social-psychological array of tools for luring in new members and sustaining their commitment;
  • A lack of mechanisms for critical feedback from the membership;
  • A small group of lieutenants to isolate and keep atomized the membership through spying so that no coherent opposition can form;
  • The development of rituals, myths and celebrations that allow the group to mark time;
  • Demonization of outside groups that are competition with the cult;
  • Rigid, terrorized boundaries that make it extremely difficult to leave.

STAGES OF CULTS

In their book, The Guru Papers, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad identify two stages of cults: the proselytizing stage and the apocalyptic paranoia stage.

In the proselytizing ascendant stage, the guru sees the possibility of realizing his ambitions. The group is touted as being at the cutting edge of new knowledge. Outsiders are welcomed although they are treated with a kind of benign superiority. In the ascendant phase, the guru rewards the enthusiasm of his followers and grants them positions which have opened up within the hierarchy. The tone of the community is celebratory. The guru is accessible to the public and is charming and playful. In terms of the recruitment this is the “honeymoon phase”. The focus is to expand the organization and the emphasis is on the present.

The apocalyptic, paranoiac, decadent phase is when the numbers of recruits have leveled off and explanations need to be found. The public is now seen as too stupid and blind to acknowledge the merits of the cult. In the declining stage the message becomes pessimistic, with a doomsday “I told you so” tone. Outsiders cease to be welcomed in a spirit of satisfying curiosity. Rather they are seen as enemies out to destroy the organization. Part of the descendent phase also involves the guru making more grandiose claims while promising to invoke occult power. The membership begins to have doubts.

Some find the courage to leave despite threats of violence, law suits, character destruction and loss of employment. Others hang on for fear of the costs of leaving. In the descendent phase recruits are expected to give far more than they receive in the way of time, energy and money. They are expected to work long hours recruiting, selling products and fundraising.  Because the organization is not growing, like most organizations this leads to squabbling for a diminishing set of resources. All too often the cult ends in scandal or tragedy.

PRE-CULT SOCIALIZATION

As we all know, when individuals are socialized within the first seventeen years of life, they are socialized by their families, their schools (including teachers and students), the various forms of media (tv, internet media), their religion, the state (propaganda to join the military) and their friends as well as by sports and music celebrities. All these forces are unified in presenting capitalism in a favorable light, but in other ways these socializing forces don’t agree. Broadly speaking, families, religion and the state appeal to the conservative forces of order and patriotism. Schools, mass media and entertainment celebrities are more liberal. As I said earlier, the diversity between these socializing influences allows the individual to develop thinking skills of comparing and contrasting which develops critical thinking.

But beginning in the teenage years, (and maybe even sooner) the individual begins to question these sources of influence. As early as ten or eleven, children are very aware that their parents are full of contradictions and are hardly infallible. By high school, some have developed Piaget’s formal operational thinking which helps them to critically evaluate religious claims about God and the afterlife. While in high school they may resent military recruiters in their schools. The problem with sports and music celebrities is that while they while they are held up as models, there is no feedback or dialogue which allows the individual to grow. By high school, one’s face-to-face friends may more likely to be the most solid socializing influence they have.

By the time the adolescent reaches seventeen, they have arrived at a developmental crisis. Do they continue on to college? Do they try to find full-time work? Do they join the military? Do they get married? It is here that cults might make their first appeal. Why now? Because developmentally, teenagers and young adults are in a fork in the roads of their lives. Additionally, the old forms of socialization have lost their stability and the teenager may be ripe for a new socialization process or a new group membership. If the individual decides to go to college, throughout the college years including graduation, they are suspectable to cult propaganda.

SOCIALIZATION INTO CULTS

The UC campus in Berkeley California stretches from south to north going from Bancroft Way at the south side to Hearst Ave. on the north side. There is a major walkway that begins at College and Bancroft and goes all the way to Hearst, cutting through the center of the campus. On both sides of the walkway there are tables with people stationed at them, inviting students to join clubs. Some of those clubs are front groups for cults. In addition, there are public bulletin boards advertising everything from movies, to offers for housing roommates, to free meditation classes.

The members of cults that are stationed at these tables are attractive, neatly dressed and extroverted. They are good social psychologists who can pick out a student that might be mildly depressed, lost or disorganized. These “hawkers” will call out to them, ask how they are doing and ask them if they’d like to hear a free talk and eat pizza afterwards. Once the person has come to the table, the hawkers will seize on anything the person says and respond in a very sympathetic way. They listen very carefully and keep the focus on the recruit. They are so engaging that they make an impression. Before the person leaves the table, they will be handed a flyer which appeals to nebulous conflicts like these:

  • Is it hard to make friends here at school?
  • Is college life harder than you thought it would be?
  • Is your romantic relationship lacking the things that you want?
  • If you have a job does it lack meaning?
  • Are you troubled about the state of the world, but feel powerless to do anything about it?

Then comes the pitch. “Come hear a talk by a celebrated expert in the field of psychology, religion or sociology on how to deal with all these problems in a meaningful way. Small group discussion afterward and free pizza. All are welcome.”

If the person attends the talk, there might be 50 people in the room, all of whom the recruit doesn’t know. What the recruit also doesn’t know is that 40 of those people are already in the cult. When any new people come into the room, the recruiters make sure they surround each new recruit and sit on either side of them and in back of them if possible. They engage the newbie, ask them questions about themselves before the talk even starts, and they make sure they compliment the newbie on their intelligence and insight. The leader giving the speech is usually an attractive, articulate, charming man with a sense of humor and a flair for the dramatic.

Once the leader makes their speech, the recruiters turn, and ask the newbie what they thought of the speech. They guide the newbie over to the table where there is pizza. The recruiters may hand them over to a new batch of recruiters who continue the discussion over pizza. Before the evening ends the recruits are told the time and place of the next meeting. Very causally they are asked for their email address “so we can keep you posted on up-and-coming events”.

At this point the recruit might feel like they just had an extraordinary date. They feel charged up and eroticized by some of the recruiters and might feel that they want to return to see one or more of the recruiters again. By comparison, these evenings are much more powerful than the times spent with family, friends and certainly religious services. After a couple of weeks the newbie returns again and the same thing happens. Now, the newbie is going to these talks three out of every four Sunday evenings. Their roommates, family and friends might inquire about where they have been. The newbie is not sure how to describe it. They might say this a “psychology group”. Both friends and family are not impressed and ask more probing questions. The newbie starts to feel defensive and stops talking about it, but continues to attend. This experience dovetails with a talk the leader gives the following Sunday on the nature of crisis.

The leader discusses how crisis involves the prospect of transformation and in that transformation, you meet new people while you have to let go of people that might be holding you back. This gently suggests that the newbie’s friends and family might not understand the nature of social change that the cult is part of and they are not among the enlightened ones (unlike the people in the cult). They also make a prediction that in the future they can expect their friends, families, church or state might not appreciate this cult and that is the price to pay for group enlightenment. But in the long-run, they may come to understand.

MECHANISMS OF CONTROL

Ascendant phase

The first, ascendant proselytizing phase of the cult is characterized by the following rewards. First – in terms of beliefs, a promise of the transformation of the world along with simplistic answers to complex questions. The cult then gives a sense of mission and purpose along with a sense of superiority over the ignorant and unenlightened masses. In terms of behavior, there is massive positive reinforcement which includes “love-bombing”: a great deal of attention to the recruit and their problems, along with an immediate, intense connection with many people. There is a promise (and deliverance in some cases) of erotic adventures. A regular dose of altered states of consciousness is achieved through chanting, hypnotic techniques of dissociation, group dancing, vertigo and hyperventilation. Along with this, a new identity is given which is often accomplished through changes in clothing or hair. At the climax in her recruitment just before she joined the DWP, author and sociologist Janja Lalich says: “Eleanor, leaned over, her face almost touching mine, she looked me in the eyes and said, ‘isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for?’ That’s all it took. I asked for the application”.

Descendent phase

Geographical isolation and physical deterioration

For the most part cults begin in cities, but in some cases, for various reasons (cheap land, control of members) they move to more rural areas as in the case of Jim Jones and Rajneesh. Especially if they are isolated in a rural area, they may be cut off from alternative forms of media. At this point with or without the move, in the descendent phase, the honeymoon is over for cult members. They are expected to work long hours in various phases of organization and as a result, become sleep deprived. In the DWP militants signed into a log book for keeping track of time, as if they were punching in their time cards in a factory. The organization does not provide for medical or dental insurance and their body begins to feel the wear-and-tear. Cult members who are older and have established incomes are pressured to contribute financially on a regular basis.

Atomizing the individual

Within the organization, the lieutenants work especially hard to keep people atomized so members cannot compare notes or consider their problems in any kind of collective way. In fact, the Democratic Workers party had a rule called “no gossiping”. But what they really meant was no comparing notes between members. Notice how comparing notes, a natural thing that is done in groups, was demonized by associating it with something bad.

Controlling vocabulary

The cult member’s vocabulary is controlled by the leadership and any kind of criticism is pathologized with certain labels. For example, in the DWP, “bourgeois individualism,” “careerism”, “grandstanding”, “factionalism” and “liberal” were used as “curse words” to shut down articulation of problems. In spiritual circles “unenlightened” or “materialism” might serve similar purposes.

Attacking the self:

True confessions

There are a number of ways one’s identity can be broken down. One of the ways the DWP used that was a requirement to write one’s personal history from a class point of view. Then they would write all the privileges they gained as a result of their class location. Finally the recruit would have to present this in front of the whole group, exposing weaknesses to all.

Criticism and self-criticism

Once the true confessions are in place the cult member is treated to endless rounds of criticism and self-criticism. Once individual vocabulary is controlled and they have confessed their past privileges it is relatively easy for members to monitor each other by pointing out how current mistakes might be connected to their “middle-class” past.

Internalization of the party voice

When neither the leader or their fellow members were available the individual was controlled by their internalized “party voice”. When by themselves and in need of making a decision, they were to ask themselves “what would your older member say?”

At this point, they are in so deeply that they have burned their bridges with their families, friends, workers and no longer have a perspective of what’s happening to them. At the same time, it begins to dawn on them that maybe they should consider getting out.

WHY DO PEOPLE STAY AND REMAIN COMPLICIT IN THEIR OWN OPPRESSION?

At this point, the reader might say what is wrong with these cult members? These were once hypercritical people who questioned everything? Where is that spirit now? Why don’t they just run away? There are at least nine very good reasons why people stay.

Attachment to the new belief

Cult members have worked very hard to desocialize themselves from previous beliefs. They have worked hard to acquire and internalize new beliefs and the prospect of having to give them up with no belief system to call their own is extremely painful.

Cognitive dissonance

Research has shown that once people commit to something publicly, through actions, speaking or writing about it, they are much more likely to stay with their commitment. Without understanding this, to an outsider, cult members’ behavior seems crazy. What cult members are doing is unconsciously changing their beliefs to justify the increasingly irrational behavior of the leader during the cult’s descendent phase. They don’t see their beliefs as having changed because there is no one in the community to point that out, including many people who don’t want to see it because they are in the same boat.

Entrapment

Just as in personal romances, once you put time, effort and resources into a relationship, you acquire a stake in it and are reluctant to give it up. Buying furniture together, a house, pooling finances, having children all become obstacles to throwing in the towel even if you are unhappy. So too in cults, the members have put in long hours of work, they have seen some success, they probably contributed financially, and they just don’t want to come up empty-handed. In addition, cult members then face the start-up costs of investing in a whole other institution and life. The thinking goes – “maybe it is better to wait it out. After all, things may change for the better.”

Peer pressure

Contrary to what most people think, peer pressure is far more powerful than even the commands of authority figures. Soldiers have reported having endured horrible times, not because they were obedient to the authorities, but out of loyalty to their comrades. Members of cults have gone through ordeals that might not be as intense as the ordeals soldiers go through in eight weeks of boot-camp, but the ordeal lasts much longer. In both cases feelings of extreme loyalty are produced in soldiers and cult members. They don’t want to let their comrades down.

In addition, because cults count doctors, lawyers, social workers with advanced degrees among their numbers their presence makes it more difficult to leave for the less professional cult member to leave. In order to do that those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy would have to consider that these highly trained professionals have been duped themselves. How could they all be wrong?

Exhaustion from overwork allows little time for self-reflection or objectivity

In the descendent phase of cults, rank-and-file members are working fourteen-hour days, sometimes more. After several weeks and months of sleep deprivation, medical and dental negligence, internal group meetings and public displays of solidarity for public consumption, cult members are exhausted.  There no vacations, no hobbies, no musical concerts nor ball games.  Who has the time to reflect on where you have been and where you are going?

Burned bridges separate the members from their past

When you join the military, you come back to a civilian life that is intact when your four years are up. If you join a convent and then realize after a few years later it is not for you, your family and friends are still there. Because cults are extremist groups, it became necessary to cut off family, friends, workmates and church in order to become a member. For a departing cult member, there is anger, confusion, hurt, revenge and shunning waiting for them on the outside. The prospect of making amends is daunting. In addition, you cannot so easily recover who you once were. You may always be a stranger to your former groups. Even so basic a thing as changing your name back or growing your hair out takes a great deal of courage. The prospect of having no friends on the outside is enough to keep you in.

Being ridiculed and called names by cult members is very painful

If you consider wanting to leave and state your reasons to others, you may receive a vicious reaction because you might be bringing up the self-doubts of other members they would rather not face. You can expect to be called a spy, traitor, materialist, bourgeois or less evolved. These are the very words used to denounce those outside the cult. Now you are one of the enemies, an infiltrator. You’ve watched this happen to others who tried to leave and now it is happening to you.

Fear for your life

The wealthier cults such as scientology or the Moonies play hardball. They will threaten you with lawsuits, loss of employment, character assassination and death. Members of the DWP “goon squads” would break into the homes of former members, beat them up put them on a plane with a one-way ticket and no money. Margaret Sanger, in her book Cults in Our Midst depicts some of the things done to her. They stuffed her mailbox with a dead rat every week while she was testifying in court against a cult. Rats were put in the ducts of her house, so she was treated to a house full of screaming rats upon returning home.  She needed an armed guard to be taken to and from the courthouse. She was kept on the witness stand for 12 ½ days by cult lawyers cross-examining her. Her office was broken into and files stolen. Her school lectures were disrupted regularly.

Guilt and embarrassment over having participated in the group to begin with

A cult member begins to have inklings that some of the things their cult did were pretty horrible and that they were complicit in it. it takes time to understand and be compassionate with yourself as to how you could be so naïve as to have joined and why you stayed. If you stay in the cult your complicity in what was enacted can be put off or rationalized.

CHARACTERISTICS OF PSYCHOPATHOLOGICAL LEADERS

There is a reason why I have held off describing to you the pathological characteristics of the leaders of cults. The reason is because of what I alluded to in my article Revolutionary Group DynamicsIn evaluating negative experiences in groups, people have a tendency to a) blame the leaders, or b) pathologize the intelligence or mental health of the followers. What I wanted to do here is draw attention to why the majority of cult members put up with the abuse, stayed in the cult and were complicit in what the cults did without thinking their intelligence or sanity has been insulted. My point is that these members would have been complicit regardless of the psychological health of the leaders. Now that we have gone through the reason why most members were complicit, we can turn to the leaders.

In their book Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, Janja Lalich and Madeline Tobias claim that most cult leaders can be diagnosed as sociopaths, narcissists or borderline personalities. Here are fifteen of their characteristics:

Glibness and superficial charm

Cult leaders are captivating storytellers and exude self-confidence.

Conning and maneuvering

Cult leaders are good at psychological maneuvering and do this almost as second nature, and maybe even unconsciously. The leader divides the world into suckers, sinners and himself. He is very perceptive and good at sizing people up. Cult leaders have an innate ability to attract followers who have the skills and contacts that the leaders lack.

Grandiose sense of self

He enjoys tremendous feelings of entitlement. He must always be the center of attention and cannot tolerate yielding the spotlight.

Pathological lying

Sociopaths lie coolly and easily. It is almost impossible for them to be consistently truthful. Leaders tend to create a complex belief system often about their own powers and abilities which they themselves get caught up in believing. They are rarely original thinkers and are more likely to be plagiarists and seldom credit the true originators of their ideas. They are talented at passing lie detector tests.

Lack of remorse, shame or guilt

They do not have friends. They have accomplices and victims and accomplices frequently end up as victims. For sociopaths, the ends always justify the means. In fact, they might not even separate ends and means in their own minds.

Shallow emotions

While sociopaths may display outbursts of emotions, these are more often than not responses calculated to obtain a certain advantage. They rarely reveal a range of emotions or a depth of emotions over time. The cult leader can witness or order acts of utter brutality without experiencing a shred of emotion. They are callous and lack empathy.

Incapacity for love

Love requires revealing strengths and weaknesses and it means trusting another person over time. The sociopath does not have the attention span, the depth or the capacity to self-reflect on any of this.

Sensation seeking

Temperamentally, the sociopath is drawn to dangerous, thrill seeking behavior. He takes foolish risks and expects others to do the same. Robberies and shoot-outs with the authorities are par for the course (Jim Jones, David Koresh).

Impulsivity and lack of behavioral control

The cult leader has temper tantrums and fits of rage which the lieutenants are in charge of stage-managing. This behavior is a well-kept secret. If leaked, the behavior of the leader is collectively rationalized away by the followers as the work of his enemies.

Early behavior problems with juvenile delinquency

As teenagers, sociopaths frequently have a history of behavioral problems and run-ins with juvenile authorities. They often get by academically, taking advantage of other students or even teachers. They often have a history or theft, arson, and cruelty to others.

Scapegoating

They rarely accept blame for their failures or mistakes. Scapegoating is common. The blaming may follow a ritualized procedure such as a trial, gestalt “hot seat denunciations”, or in the case of leftist cults, criticism and self-criticism.

Promiscuous sexual behavior and infidelity

Multiple relationships and marriages, rape and sexual acting out are common. At the same time, they are stringent about the sexual behavior of followers, insisting on celibacy.

Erratic work history of fits and starts

The sociopathic cult leader tends to move around a lot, making countless efforts at starting over as they seek out fertile new ground to exploit. One day they may be a rock musician, the next a messiah; one day a door-to-door salesman the next the founder of a self-rejuvenation program.

A materialistic lifestyle

The leaders of cults often present their movement as opposed to the decadence, shallowness and preoccupation with commodities of the dominant order. But in practice, these leaders often justify having these same luxuries for themselves. The leaders of cults often have many cars, houses, boats, planes, properties while they thunder against their followers who have the least in the way of material comforts.

Criminal or entrepreneurial versatility

Cult leaders change their image and that of the group as needed to avoid prosecution and litigation. They resurface later with a new name and a new front group, as Werner Erhard has done.

AFTERMATH FOR CULT MEMBERS

People who manage to make their way out of cults are a mess and are badly in need of social support. Deprograming, exit counseling and strategic interaction approach are three ways to help ex-cult members get on their feet.  According to Lalich and Tobias, there are five areas that are badly in need of attention.

  • Practical, everyday living
  • Emotional volatility
  • Cognitive inefficiencies
  • Lack of social networks and being socio-culturally out of touch
  • Theoretical instability

Practical, everyday living

Shell-shocked ex-cult members have lost their sense of how to manage everyday life. For example, people have to find work, while having to explain large gaps in their employment history which could span five to ten years or more. The work they did under the banner of the cult cannot be used as a reference. This would involve making up fake organizations to cover up their involvement, while claiming the skills they learned in the cult. Emotionally, the last thing ex-cult members need is more deception. If they are lucky enough to find a job, they have to learn to manage their money and set up a budget. If the ex-cult member is older this may mean relearning old skills. In the case of a young cult member this may involve learning new skills from scratch.

Something as simple as finding an apartment to live in can be overwhelming for someone who hasn’t done this in years. The rise in the cost of monthly rents over the last 15-20 years will come as a great shock. As mentioned earlier, cults typically do not provide medical and dental care. Since cult leaders rarely pay attention to such mundane things, the ex-cult member may badly need a physical check-up, blood tests and dental work at the same time they are trying to investigate a medical and dental plan while probably knowing nothing about how to proceed.  While cults often fetishize eating particular kinds of food (being vegetarian), the diet of cult members is often not well-balanced, especially during the later stages of cult work when the cult member is asked to work long hours. In addition, the times members eat is likely to be erratic because of the flurry of activity that is always going on. Lastly, matters of daily routines may be hard to set up as cults have their members constantly on the run and doing new things. DWP members were often asked to stop a project on a dime, and then throw themselves into a new one. Having a regular time and place to take walks, visit friends, and listen to music after dinner have to be established.

Emotional volatility

Ex-cult members may suffer from PTSD, insomnia, and frequent bouts of dissociation, including an inability to concentrate because of triggers or flashbacks. They are likely to feel depressed after a loss of group support and may feel a loss of self-confidence because their support systems are suddenly gone. There is real fear of cult retribution whether they have reason to be concerned or not. They also may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of taking legal action over child custody or conservatorship. It is no accident that members of cults lose their sense of humor. Humor tends to reveal the relativity of situations. It adds a comparative perspective that is dangerous in cults that want everyone to think in an absolute rather than a relative manor. Cults tend to be dead serious, and humor relieves that and gives members a break which is not to be encouraged.

Cognitive inefficiencies

While a great deal of critical thinking in relation to society is common among cult members when they first join, critical thinking is not rewarded or is tightly structured once inside the cult. Weighing the pros and cons of occupations, schools, choice of partner is not something that is practiced in cults. This results in ex-cult members being either indecisive when they get out or making rash decisions. Because they may have difficulty concentrating, they may not be able to think analytically about the causes or consequences of things. They may suffer from memory loss or they may have to overcome false memories they may have been propagandized to believe when inside the cult.

Often times, cults disrupt education and cult members are not likely to continue their education once inside the cult. Spiritual cults may tell the member they have a “natural way of knowing” which will not do much for them in searching for work or in being an active political person. A major challenge they must undertake is detoxifying their vocabulary from cult either-or thinking. As Orwell pointed out, if you control a person’s vocabulary you control their thinking. So, the ex-cult member needs to expand their vocabulary to re-introduce neutral language, use ambiguous terminology and to use metaphors. One of the major problems in cult thinking is taking everything literally.

Lack of social networks and being socio-culturally out of touch

One of the best things exit counseling or the strategic interaction approach can do is give ex-cult members an immediate support system, no questions asked. It is rare that an ex-cult member who has burned bridges with their families is going to have the welcome mat rolled out when they come knocking. It takes time to process hurt feelings, anger and confusion. These connections could take months to restore or even years, depending how long they have been away. The ex-cult member’s friends may have moved away, gotten married become sick and may be in no position to resume a relationship even if they wanted to.

Making new friends is extremely difficult. How do you account for being in a cult for eight years? Why would someone want to be friends with someone with such an intense background? Are ex-cult members dangerous people? In addition, ex-cult members have a mistrust of others as a result of being in a cult. They may be paranoid and afraid they are being watched by others, the “fishbowl effect”. Since cults usually blur boundaries between work and free time, friendship and sex, the ex-cult members are likely to have enmeshed boundaries when they try to make new friends.

Theoretical instability

Lastly, cults inspire people by claiming they are building a new world, and cult members have roles in that transformation. Compared to that, ex-cult members are likely to feel they have chosen an unenlightened, boring life. It is easy to understand why ex-cult members who have not had exit counseling might jump into a new cult.

Whether the ex-cult member has been involved in a spiritual, psychological or political cult, the ex-member needs to find a new grounding within that field. If a member has been in a spiritual cult of transcendental meditation does this mean they must give up Hindu or Buddhist religion completely? Can you practice these religions in a non-cult like way? If you have been in a psychological cult based on the work of social psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan, does that mean you no longer can study his work? Lastly if you have been in Leninist political cult, does that mean you have to renounce Lenin completely? Probably the answer to these questions depends on how badly you’ve been burned. The worse you’ve been burned the more extreme your reaction will be. If you haven’t been burned too badly, you might be able to be more dialectical and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

CONCLUSION

Cults arose in Yankeedom beginning in the 1970s and I’ve covered their continuance into the late 1990s under conditions of ecological, economic and political decline. Cults find their audience among educated, idealistic middle-class and upper-middle class people who are rightfully hypercritical of the existing order and who are attracted to a vision of a radical transformation based on greater equality, justice, peace and love. They do not know they are members of a cult until they are at least partially integrated into the organization and then they are caught between the world they once knew and the world they hope to create. They are initially lured into the organization through the implementation of sophisticated social-psychological techniques and they then become complicit in the cult’s reproduction of these techniques over time if they remain. If members leave, they face a great number of the psychological problems as I’ve described in the last section. Fortunately, there are now well-organized institutions that are specifically designed to help ex-cult members reintegrate back into the existing order.

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his four books: From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World Co-Authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present and Lucifer’s Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia WA.

Originally published in Planning Beyond Capitalism


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