by Michael D. Langone, Ph. D.
On July 22-24, 1994, AFF conducted an “After the Cult” workshop at the St.Malo Retreat Center in Estes Park, Colorado. Carol Giambalvo, Nancy Miquelon, Hal Mansfield, Roseann Henry, and I organized the workshop and served as presenters, as did David Clark. It was the first in the Denver area and was extremely well received by the participants. The insightful and moving discussions inspired me to write down some of the reflections inspired by the workshop. I wish to share these with you.
As the workshop participants made very clear, the subjective essence of the cult experience is psychological abuse, and betrayal in particular. Cults ostensibly offer to fulfill commonly experienced human needs for understanding, certainty, and self-esteem. They provide an absolutist triad of black-and-white answers to life’s problems, a refusal to entertain doubts about those answers, and a promise of being superior to everyone outside the group. Youth and individuals experiencing stress (which includes nearly everyone at some point in their lives) are most likely to be attracted to groups offering this triad. If vulnerable persons encounter a sufficiently persuasive or seductive cultic group at the right time in their lives, they may indeed join, (I presume that there is a range of groups varying from mildly to extremely persuasive and that people will differ in their susceptibility to particular group >pitches’.) When they join, the members expect benevolence, respect, love, help, etc. What they receive is very different.
The reason is twofold. First, the absolutist triad is an illusion. It moves people away from reality and genuine human connections. It is the opposite of what one could call the adaptive triad: a questioning mind possessed of a healthy measure of doubt (discernment), tolerance of ambiguity (no black-and-white answers), and a humble yet critical openness to the meaning systems of other people. Thus, to the extent cults try to deliver the absolutist triad (and they try very hard), they come into conflict with the inexorable demands of the human condition.
The second reason cults don’t deliver the benevolent results they promise is their tendency to manipulate and exploit their members (groups that aren’t manipulatively exploitative are not cults). Cults employ subtle processes of thought reform (also called coercive persuasion and mind control) to recruit members and to maintain them in systems that exploit members’ needs while promising to fulfill those needs. Thought reform is not all-powerful, as some sensationalized media imply. Nor do all groups employ it to the same extent. But it can be remarkably successful in causing large numbers of persons to spend years in social systems that are harmful and sometimes extremely abusive.
Most persons ultimately leave cults or are ejected from their groups. Research suggests that members leave when they become disenchanted with the group’s inability to deliver on its promises, become disillusioned with the hypocrisy or fraudulent practices of the group’s leadership, are separated from the group for a period of time, or are able to discuss doubts and concerns with an intimate. A majority appears to be troubled by the experience, while some are devastated. We can only speculate on how many are troubled but unable to acknowledge or recognize their own pain.
The core of this distress is the sense of having been abused by persons thought to be benevolent, that is, of having been betrayed. When they leave their groups many members feel ‘spiritually raped,’ violated at the core of their beings. With physical rape, it severely damages the capacity to trust — oneself, others, and God. Ironically, ex-cult members find themselves most in need of the illusory comfort of the absolutist triad when they realize that they have been betrayed by those promising this triad (that is why, perhaps, so many persons will join a cultic group after leaving another.) If they have insight sufficient to resist the lure of the absolutist triad, they will understandably feel empty, depressed, guilty, and painfully unsure of what or who is real and trustworthy and even how to discover what or who is real and trustworthy. In the most extreme cases, they are in a state of psychological bankruptcy in which all feelings are tinged by the sourness of betrayal. They must begin anew when they have nothing to grab hold of and no idea about where to turn for help.
That so many do indeed recover is a testament to their courage and enduring capacity to love. Although some manage to pull themselves together without substantial outside assistance, the sharing at the after-the-cult workshops highlights the value of knowledgeable support. The ex-members who have made it out of psychological bankruptcy say to those still suffering: “There is a way out. You can trust again. Hold my hand.” Instead of the absolutist triad of black-and-white answers, they offer the adaptive triad of discernment, tolerance, and humility. Instead of giving abuse and humiliation, they give respect and love. Instead of advocating unrealistic standards that guarantee failure, they advocate and model a humble, step-by-step approach to solving problems. This step-by-step approach is the pathway out of distrust and paralyzing doubt.
Ex-members’ first step on this pathway is often to reconnect to their pasts by reflecting upon those times when they did trust themselves and others. If they can also watch, record, and review their progress, and especially if they hold on to loving, understanding hands, ex-members can, over time, come to believe in the predictability of their self-respect (i.e., the tendency to treat oneself as deserving of kindness instead of guilty recriminations) and competence (including their imperfect capacity to judge what is real and good) — they will come to trust themselves. Increased trust in oneself makes it easier to trust others because the latter requires discernment, and discernment presupposes confidence in (trust in) one’s own cognitive competence. But developing trust in others is also vital to increasing trust in oneself, for the affirmation of respected others is the most effective antidote to the sometimes crippling self-doubt ex-cult members often experience. That is why many ex-members need to lean on others (e.g., family) for a period before they can begin to show signs of independence.
Developing trust in others may be viewed metaphorically as developing a well-differentiated array of concentric circles representing the varying levels of closeness into which a discerning self allows others. These circles express the psychological boundaries that distinguish a person from others. In a cult, these boundaries are dissolved as the individual is pressured to identify with and merge into the group persona. Once out of the cult, ex-cult members must learn not only how to reestablish boundaries, but how to reestablish (or for some people, establish for the first time) appropriate boundaries. Who should be allowed into the inner circle? Who into the mid-range? Who should be kept at the periphery? Who should be excluded? These decisions require discernment and the courage to experiment in a social world that, though not nearly as abusive as the cult, contains abuse as well as respect and love. Having the help of caring and knowledgeable people who model discernment and courage and offer understanding and a helping hand can be invaluable to ex-cult members hesitatingly trying to reach out to others.
Reestablishing trust in God can be even more difficult than reestablishing it in oneself and others. (The following reflections may not apply to those persons who feel no need for a relationship with God, for example, because they do not believe in God or are agnostic. However, at AFF workshops many, if not most, ex-members consider spiritual issues to be the most pressing of all.) First of all, God is often associated with religion, and most ex-members who have approached clergy or religious institutions for help have been deeply disappointed. Secondly, ex-cult members have had a compelling personal experience of evil, and they angrily ask how a loving God could have permitted their spiritual rape while they sought Him so fervently. Religions do not convincingly answer the problem of evil, of which the ex-cult member’s experience is a special case, mainly because the explanations they offer tend to presume a faith in the God whose existence the experience of evil calls into question. The explanations may satisfy believers, but they offer little consolation to those whose contact with evil has left them doubting God’s existence.
Thus, ex-cult members frequently feel abandoned by God or turn away from Him when they most need Him. Their tendency is to place their suffering before the “God who might be there” and say: “If you exist, and if you are indeed a loving and merciful God, you’ll understand why I cannot trust you now. I have been savaged by lies, and more than anything I need truth, even if only one crumb at a time. As much as I would like to believe and trust in you, I will not allow myself to be deceived again. So please give me time. If you can’t respect this, then you don’t exist.” It appears that as their trust in themselves and others increases, most ex-cult members eventually reconcile with God, although nearly half, according to a survey I conducted, still tend not to identify with any religious denomination.
Those ex-cult members who do not lose their faith in God have a divine hand to hold during their struggle to rebuild trust in themselves and others. The “God who is there” is there for the psychologically bankrupt as well as the psychologically affluent. Thus, ex-members tortured by free-falling self-doubt can humbly turn to God and pray for the courage and discernment to reach out to those whom they hope genuinely care without strings attached.
A bit of trust in God can lead to a bit of trust in oneself, which in turn can lead to a bit of trust in others. But the growth of trust is not unidirectional. Trust, whether in God, oneself or others, breeds further trust — provided that the ex-cult member has the courage and wisdom to move one step at a time and the good fortune to move toward people who behave respectfully and with understanding. That first, vital spark of courage must come from the mysterious depths of the ex-cult member’s soul. But after that first, lonely courageous step, caring, knowledgeable others can give the encouragement that motivates ex-cult members to quicken their pace and move forward more and more confidently.