No Longer a World Savior
“Nothing on the outside seems as vital and grand as life was supposed to be in the cult. Members were told they were doing “world-class work.” Upon emerging, the ex-member looks at the jobs people do, and sees them as hopelessly small and without meaning compared to his or her work for a group that was purportedly saving souls or the world itself.”
Repairing The Soul
This article, slightly edited here, first appeared in CSNetwork Magazine, Spring 1996, pp. 30-33. Janja Lalich, Ph.D.
I was recruited into a cult in 1975 when I was 30 years old. The previous year I returned to the United States after having spent almost four years in exile abroad, where I lived the most serene life on an island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. If someone had told me that within a year I would be deeply involved and committed to a cult, I would have laughed derisively. Not me! I was too independent, too headstrong, a lover of fun and freedom.
But there I was, new to the San Francisco Bay Area and before long cleverly recruited into a group that preached Marxism and feminism and a passion for the working class.
I was told that we would be unlike all other groups on the left because we were led by women and because our leader was brilliant and from the working class. I was told that we would not follow the political line of any other country, but that we would create our own brand of Marxism, our own proletarian feminist revolution; we would not be rigid, dogmatic, sexist, and racist. We were new and different an elite force. We were going to make the world a better place for all people.
The reality, of course, was that our practical work had little if anything to do with working-class ideals or goals. Our leader was an incorrigible, uncontrollable megalomaniac; she was alcoholic, arbitrary, and almost always angry. Our organization, with the word democratic prominent in its name, was ultra-authoritarian, completely top down, with no real input or criticism sought or listened to. Our lives were made up of 18-hour days of busywork and denunciation sessions. Our world was harsh, barren, and unrewarding. We were committed and idealistic dreamers who were tricked into believing that such demanding conditions were necessary to transform ourselves into cadre fighters.
We were instructed that we were the “uninstructed” and that we must take all guidance from our leader who knew all. We were never to question any orders or in any way contradict or confront our leader. We were taught to dread and fear the outside world, which, we were told, would shun and punish us. In fact, the shunning and punishment was rampant within; but blinded by our own belief, commitment, and fatigue, in conjunction with the group’s behavior-control techniques, I and the others succumbed to the pressures and quickly learned to rationalize away any doubts or apprehensions.
I remained in that group 10 years.
Who Am I?
When I got out of the cult in early 1986, I had to begin life anew. I was a decade behind in everything. Both my parents had died, and I had lost touch with former friends. I had to play catch-up, so to speak, culturally, socially, economically, emotionally, and intellectually. But most important of all, I had to repair my soul. Who am I? How could I have committed the many unkind acts while in the group? Where do I belong now? What do I believe in now? Will I ever restore my faith in myself and in others?
These are the kinds of questions and dilemmas that troubled me. Over time, and most recently through my contact and work with former members of many types of cults, I’ve come to see that the single most uniform aspect of all cult experiences is that it touches, and usually damages, the soul, the psyche.
All cults, no matter their stripe, are a variation on a theme, for their common denominator is the use of coercive persuasion and behavior control without the knowledge of the person who is being manipulated. They manage this by targeting (and eventually attacking, disassembling, and reformulating according to the cult’s desired image) a person’s innermost self. They take away you and give you back a cult personality, a pseudo personality. They punish you when the old you turns up, and they reward the new you. Before you know it, you don’t know who you are or how you got there; you only know (or you are trained to believe) that you have to stay there. In a cult there is only one way cults are totalitarian, a yellow brick road to serve the leader’s whims and desires, be they power, sex, or money.
When I was in my cult, I so desperately wanted to believe that I had finally found the answer. Life in our society today can be difficult, confusing, daunting, disheartening, alarming, and frightening. Someone with a glib tongue and good line can sometimes appear to offer you a solution. In my case, I was drawn in by the proposed political solution to bring about social change. For someone else, the focus may be on health, diet, psychological awareness, the environment, the stars, a spirit being, or even becoming a more successful business person.
The crux is that cult leaders are adept at convincing us that what they have to offer is special, real, unique, and forever and that we wouldn’t be able to survive apart from the cult. A person’s sense of belief is so dear, so deep, and so powerful; ultimately it is that belief that helps bind the person to the cult. It is the glue used by the cult to make the mind manipulations stick. It is our very core, our very belief in ourself and our commitment, it is our very faith in humankind and the world that is exploited and abused and turned against us by the cults.
Repairing the Soul
When a person finally breaks from a cultic relationship, it is the soul, then, that is most in need of repair. When you discover one day that your guru is a fraud, that the ” miracles” are no more than magic tricks, that the group’s victories and accomplishments are fabrications of an internal public relations system, that your holy teacher is breaking his avowed celibacy with every young disciple, that the group’s connections to people of import are nonexistent when awarenesses such as these come upon you, you are faced with what many have called a “spiritual rape.” Whether your cultic experience was religious or secular, the realization of such enormous loss and betrayal tends to cause considerable pain. As a result, afterwards, many people are prone to reject all forms of belief. In some cases, it may take years to overcome the disillusionment, and learn not only to trust in your inner self but also to believe in something again.
There is also a related difficulty: that persistent nagging feeling that you have made a mistake in leaving the groups perhaps the teachings are true and the leader is right; perhaps it is you who failed. Because cults are so clever at manipulating certain emotions and events in particular, wonder, awe, transcendence, and mystery (this is sometimes called “mystical manipulation”) and because of the human desire to believe, a former cult member may grasp at some way to go on believing even after leaving the group. For this reason, many people today go from one cult to another, or go in and out of the same cultic group or relationship (known as “cult hopping”). Since every person needs something to believe in a philosophy of life, a way of being, an organized religion, a political commitment, or a combination thereof sorting out these matters of belief tends to be a major area of adjustment after a cultic experience.
What to Believe in Now?
Since a cult involvement is often an ill-fated attempt to live out some form of personal belief, the process of figuring out what to believe in once you’ve left the cult may be facilitated by dissecting the cult’s ideological system. Do an evaluation of the group’s philosophy, attitudes, and worldview; define it for yourself in your own language, not the language of the cult. Then see how this holds up against the cult’s actual daily practice or what you now know about the group. For some, it might be useful to go back and research the spiritual or philosophical system that you were raised in or believed in prior to the cult involvement. Through this process you will be better able to assess what is real and what is not, what is useful and what is not, what is distortion and what is not. By having a basis for comparison, you will be able to question and explore areas of knowledge or belief that were no doubt systematically closed to you while in the cult. Most people who come out of a cultic experience shy away from organized religion or any kind of organized group for some time. I generally encourage people to take their time before choosing another religious affiliation or group involvement. As with any intimate relationship, trust is reciprocal and must be earned.
After a cult experience, when you wake up to face the deepest emptiness, the darkest hole, the sharpest scream of inner terror at the deception and betrayal you feel, I can only offer hope by saying that in confronting the loss, you will find the real you. And when your soul is healed, refreshed, and free of the nightmare bondage of cult lies and manipulations, the real you will find a new path, a valid path a path to freedom and wholeness.
Cults in Our Midst
Jossey-Bass Publishers San Franciso
By Margaret Thaler Singer (with Janja Lalich)
Leaving the Cult
I will explore a kind of peeling off of the outer layer of identity that was taken on while in the cult. The process is a matter of recovering one’s self and one’s value system, and of keeping whatever good was learned during cult days while discarding all the not-so-good.
Not all former cult members encounter all the problems listed on Table 12.1, nor do most have them in severe and extended form. Some individuals need only a few months to get themselves going again. After encountering some adjustment problems to life outside the cult, they make rather rapid and uneventful re-integrations into everyday life. Generally, however, it takes individuals anywhere from six to twenty-four months to get their lives functioning again at a level commensurate with their histories and talents. Even then, however, their functioning may not reflect what is still going on inside them. Many are still sorting out the conflicts and harms that grew out their cult experience long after two years have gone by. Each former member wrestles with a number of problems. Some need more time than others to resolve all the issues they face, and a few never get their lives going again.
Table 12.1. Major Areas of Post-cult Adjustment
Makes living arrangements. Arranges financial support.
Copes with difficulties created by distrust of professional services: medical, dental, & mental health professionals and educators.
Arranges medical & dental care.
Examines nutrition & eating habits.
Gets Psychological examination, if needed.
Makes career & educational plans, & gets vocational counseling, if needed.
Explains the years in the cult.
Structures daily life.
Copes with difficulties created by distrust of professional services: medical, dental, & mental health professionals & educators.
Has feelings of loss.
Feels guilt & regret.
Lacks self-esteem & self-confidence; exhibits self-blaming attitudes & excessive doubts.
Has panic attacks.
Experiences relaxation-induced anxiety (RIA) & tics.
Separates from family & friends still in the cult.
Exhibits fear of the group.
Feels generalized paranoia & fear of the world.
Is overly dependent for age; submissive, suggestible.
Worries over reality of past lives; must sort out true past from one engendered by the cult.
Experiences blurring of mental acuity.
Has difficulty concentrating.
Has memory loss.
Cannot recall what was just read or heard.
Must stop using cult language.
Has sense of losing track of time.
Experiences floating, slipping into altered states.
Has poor & unreliable sense of judgment.
Hears what others say uncritically & passively.
Has recurring bizarre mental contents from the cult: for example, waking dreams, orange fog.
Has pervasive sense of alienation.
Needs to reconnect with family & friends.
Needs to make new friends.
Distrusts own ability to make good choices.
Has phobic-like constriction of social contacts; mistrusts/distrusts others.
Is confused about sexuality & sexual identity & roles.
Faces dealing with marital, family/parental & child custody issues.
Fears making a commitment to another person.
Feels unable to make & express opinions.
Overextends self to make up for lost time; is unable to say no.
Has sense of being watched all the time – the fishbowl effect.
Is embarrassed & uncertain how or when to tell others about cult experience; fears rejection.
Has hypercritical attitude toward others & society.
Needs to overcome aversions ingrained by the cult.
Has condemning attitude toward normal human foibles & is harsh towards self & others; still judges by cult standards.
Lacks satisfaction with the world & self; feels emptiness at no longer being a world saver.
Is unable to be kind to or supportive of others.
Fears joining any group or being active.
Feels loss of sense of being elite.
Needs to reactivate own belief system & moral code/values & sort them out from the ones adopted in the cult.
Leftover Cult Language
A prime hurdle for former cult members is to overcome speaking and thinking in the cult’s special language. As we have seen, each group has its own jargon, usually based on applying new and idiosyncratic meanings to regular words and phrases. The jargon creates a sense of elite ness, solidarity, and belonging among those in the in-group; at the same time, it cuts people off from easy conversation with outsiders. This is true even in the live-out cults, whose members work at outside jobs but put in most of their free time with the cult; during that time with the cult, they speak the group jargon. In certain groups, the loaded language is more centrally encompassing than in others and thus harder to shed afterward. That is, supplies new terms for practically everything and thereby controls more of the members’ thinking.
Communication with others is naturally hindered as long as former members continue to use cult terminology. They don’t make sense when they speak to others, and sometimes they can’t make sense out of their own internal thoughts.
Explaining Time Spent in the Cult
Most people think that cult members are a breed apart and that they must be an odd, dumb, and even crazy bunch. Thus former cult members need to prepare themselves to deal with the most frequent responses relatives, old friends, and new acquaintances make when they learn that the person was in a cult. They are likely to come forth with some version of “But you seem like such a nice person, so bright. How come you were in a cult? Were you really in a cult? You couldn’t have been – only weirdos join cults.”
Application forms for jobs, higher education, and professional schools will ask for an accounting of one’s past education and time.
There have been no specific studies of this issue, but I have been told by many former cult members how embarrassed they are to tell prospective employers they were in a cult. They know how a blame-the-victim attitude colors the way they will be regarded. People learn to deal creatively with all these issues as they reenter society, network with other former members, and get experience in making friends, applying for jobs, and telling their stories when they feel safe and comfortable doing so.
Psychological and Emotional Difficulties
With their daily focus of ritual, work, worship, and community, cults provide members with tasks and purpose. When these members leave, a sense of meaningless surfaces. Leaving the cult means losing friends, a mission of life, and direction. Former members also soon realize that they have lost their innocence. They entered the cult full of reverential amazement and with wide-eyed naivet only to discover that they had been deceived and betrayed. As a result, they may be pervaded with a feeling of mourning.
Former members have a variety of other losses to contend with. They often speak of their regret for the lost years during which they wandered off the main paths of everyday life. They regret being out of step and behind their peers in career and life pursuits. They feel the loss of a solid sense of self-esteem and self-confidence as they come to realize that they were used to or that they surrendered their autonomy.
Fear of Retribution
Some groups have specific derogatory labels for persons who criticize the cult, and they train their members to avoid or harass these stated “enemies.” For such reasons, fear and anxiety are high in many former cult members from a variety of groups – and not without justification, although it appears that most cults soon turn their energies to recruiting new members. Nevertheless, even after the initial fear of retaliation has passed, ex-members worry about how to handle the inevitable chance street meetings with cult members, expecting these members to try to stir up the ex-members’ feelings of guilt over leaving and to condemn their present life.
Some cults inculcate their followers with notions that they will get sick, fall from grace, lose energy or somehow suffer if they leave. Former members may worry indefinitely about their cult leader’s dire predictions of the horrible events that will befall them and their families. Because they have been so well trained, former cult members may continue to see this possible fate as something they may bring on themselves by having left the group, given up on their faith, and betrayed the cause.
Fear of Self
Yet another kind of fear exists – a more inwardly focused fear that comes from believing that if you leave, you will be doomed to live a life of un-enlightenment, will never be psychologically whole, never spiritually fulfilled, never healthy or able to live in peace.
Some cults inculcate their followers with notions that they contain hidden selves or hidden loads of stress that may erupt at any moment and destroy or at least severely damage them. Former members may worry indefinitely about their inner “ticking bomb” or the cult leader’s dire predictions of the horrible events that will befall them and their families. Because they have been so well trained, former cult members may continue to see this possible fate as something they may bring on themselves by having left the group, given up on their faith, and betrayed the cause.
Often at the root of the fear is the memory of old humiliations administered for stepping out of line. A woman who had been in a cult for more than five years said: “Some of the older members might still be able to get to me and crush my spirit like they did when I became depressed and couldn’t go out and fund raise or recruit. I was unable to eat or sleep. I was weak and ineffectual. They called me and the leader screamed at me: ‘You’re too rebellious. I am going to break your spirit. You are too strong-willed.’ They made me crawl at their feet. I still freak out when I think about how close they drove me to suicide that day; for a long time afterward, all I could do was help with cooking. I can hardly remember the details – it was a nightmare.”
It is crucial to analyze and work through such fears objectively. The former member needs to learn that the cult does not hold magical powers over him or her.
Many former members experience panic attacks, defined as discrete periods of intense fear or discomfort in which any four of the following symptoms develop abruptly and reach a peak within about ten minutes:
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath or a feeling of smothering
Feeling of choking
Chest pain or discomfort
Nausea or abdominal distress
Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint
Feelings of de-realization (surroundings don’t seem real)
Depersonalization experiences (feeling detached, as though looking at oneself as an object)
Fear of losing control or going crazy; fear of dying
Numbness, tingling, and hot and cold flashes
Panic attacks and other panic disorders are commonly experienced by people coming out of the emotional arousal cultic groups which tend to focus on stimulating fear and guilt.
Leaving group practices can cause members’ mental skills to falter and become inefficient. Many ex-members experience difficulty concentrating, an inability to focus and maintain attention, and impaired memory, especially short-term memory. It is reassuring for them to know that these aftereffects will pass. General explanations of what they are going through will help them.
Memory Loss and Altered Memories
The distorted personal history gradually built up in the cult is not quickly removed. A pseudo-memory is a fictitious experience induced in a person’s memory, either by design or inadvertently, through the user of guided imagery, hypnosis (ranging from light to deep trance states), and direct and indirect suggestions. During the trance state, or even without trance via carefully constructed suggestions, individuals can be led to construct scenes in their minds. They experience these fabricated, or confabulated, images as vividly as, or even more vividly than, real-life memories, even though the events never happened and are products of the interaction between a manipulative operator and a dependent subject.
Cult members may be trained to have specific visualizations and then be praised and rewarded and feel self-fulfilled when they achieve the goal.
Cults have been leading followers to create revised histories for some years now. Members have been made to gradually accuse parents and family and separate from them, then they are repeatedly rewarded for these actions and statements. This practice leaves many former members deeply conflicted.
Many times, former cult members will have written hateful, accusatory letters – the so-called disconnect letters – to parents and relatives at the direction of the cult after they were led to believe that their parents acted in accordance with the fabrications concocted during history revision. Within the cult milieu, these “mystical manipulations” are very believable.
Eventually former cult members realize that their life history was distorted and manipulated by cult practices, and they will want to sort out the truth from fabrication. They will desire to reconnect with what was real and rid themselves of nagging guilt and anxiety and distorted self-image engendered by the cult.
Many former members find themselves accepting almost everything they hear, just as they were trained to do. They cannot listen and judge; they listen and obey. As a result, simple remarks by friends, family, dates, and co-workers are taken as commands, even though the person may not feel like doing the task or dislikes whatever it is.
Triggers, Flashbacks and Floating
A number of cult practices tend to produce varying degrees of trance states, disrupt normal reflective thought, and interrupt a person’s general reality orientation (GRO). After practicing or participating in certain exercises and activities for years, some of these undesirable habits become ingrained. Both while in the cult and after leaving, a number of persons involuntarily enter dissociative states and have difficulty maintaining reflective thinking and concentration. Time goes by without their being aware of it. During these periods, they have certain kinds of memories and slip into altered states of consciousness, which they sometimes call flashbacks or floating. But these are, in fact, forms of dissociation.
Dissociation is a normal mental response to anxiety. A momentary anxiety arises when internal or external cues (trigger) set off a memory, a related idea, or a state of feeling that has anxiety attached to it. This brief anxiety experience alerts the mind to split off – that is, the mind stops paying attention to the surrounding reality of the moment. The person becomes absorbed and immersed in some other mental picture, idea, or feeling. This dissociation occurs unexpectedly and unintentionally and it is this dissociation that can be experienced as a floating effect.
Most of the time the floating is described by former cult members as “how I felt while in the group.” Sometimes the feeling is one of nostalgia for some aspect of the cult. Sometimes it is a feeling of fear that the person should go back to the cult. Most of the time, people describe it as being suspended between the two worlds of present life and the past cult life.
Triggers, flashbacks, and floating are part of the normal repertoire of the human mind, but usually people experience them as brief, infrequent episodes. Because certain repeated practices tend to produce hypnotic states and are used extensively for prolonged periods, people emerge with years of practice in how to dissociate. What are transient, brief mental moments for the ordinary person become practiced and reinforced behaviors for cult members. If the moments of dissociation become intensified, prolonged, and disruptive experiences; they prevent sustained reflective thinking, concentration, and the ability to plan ahead.
Because these dissociative responses are over learned, they become distracting, immobilizing habits. They often occur when a person has to shift from one task to the next. It’s as though the choice of what to do next sets off the act of spacing out. In the cult, that moment of what to do next was stressful: you had to make a decision knowing that all decisions had to be “right” and that you could get into trouble if your decision was wrong. This experience is perhaps the source of the apparent conditioning that causes decision making to trigger dissociation.
Floating episodes occur more frequently when someone is tired or ill, at the end of the day, on long highway drives, or doing highly repetitive tasks – that is, when the person feels weary and unfocused but must also think. A period of dissociation and a puzzled moment of wondering, What just happened to my thoughts and feelings? Will arrive at such times. It helps if former members can learn to recognize those vulnerable moments in their lives for the conditioned responses that they are.
Social and Personal Relations
A majority of former cult members experience varying degrees of anomie, or alienation, for some period of time. This sense of alienation and confusion results from the loss and then the reawakening of previous norms, ideals, and goals. It is exacerbated as the individual tries to integrate three cultures: the culture he or she lived in before joining the cultic group, the culture of the group itself, and the culture of the general society encountered now that the person is out of the group. The theories learned and held to so strongly in the cult need to be reconciled with the person’s pre-cult past as well as the post cult present. In a sense, the former member is asking, Who am I? In the midst of three sets of competing value systems.
For this reason, former cult members often feel like immigrants or refugees entering a foreign culture. In most cases, however, they are actually reentering their own former culture, bringing along a series of cult experiences and beliefs that may conflict with the norms and expectations of society in general. Unlike the immigrant confronting novel situations, the person coming out of a cult is confronting the society she or he once rejected.
Building a New Social Network
Many friends, a fellowship with common interests, and the intimacy of sharing a significant experience are all left behind when members walk away from a cult. A cult is a world of its own. Leaving such an all-encompassing experience means having to look for new friends in what you were taught is an uncomprehending or suspicious world. Moreover, a prominent characteristic of cult members, particularly in those who were in a cult for a long time, is a developmental lag in their social and experiential lives.
Gradually former members need to start making friends, dating, and having a social life, as well as either working for a living or returning to college or both. It’s important to give them enough time to make this adjustment and to catch up. It doesn’t have to be a great deal of time but enough so that they can pull themselves together in various ways before attempting complicated mental, social, and business enterprises.
Upon leaving the group, a person usually discovers that the group practices shown toward outsiders are now turned on him or her – that is, he or she is scorned and ostracized. Also, there is no hope of retaining cult friendships because cult members have been trained, outright or subtly, to shun defectors, and because members may try to pull the former member back in. In addition, the former member may not easily resume relationships with former friends and family because of the harsh way these relationships were most likely broken off when he or she joined the cult.
Leaving is a final door slam: the past is behind, and the exiting cult member is heading forward – but alone – toward an uncharted future in which the former member has to start all over at creating a friendship network.
When one partner of a married pair is involved in a cult, pressure is put on that person to get the partner to join. If the partner doesn’t, most of the time the cult, in effect, breaks up the marriage. Leaders give talks about how sinful, how suppressive, how negative the partner is, and the combination of keeping members busy with cult work while denigrating nonmember partners wrecks many marriages.
If both partners have joined the cult, they do not feel able to talk with one another about thoughts of leaving the cult because loyalty to the leader supersedes marital obligations. Therefore one partner might leave without letting the other know, rather than run the risk of being stopped because the other had told the leadership. A number of marriages break up because the ones who leave are crushed when they realize that love and marital loyalty are nothing compared to their partner’s fear and duty to the cult and that the partner has chosen loyalty to the cult leader over loyalty to the spouse.
Fear of Commitment
Many people coming out of cults want to find ways to put their altruism and energy back to work without becoming pawns in another manipulative group. Some fear they have become “groupies” defenseless against entanglements with controlling organization or people. They feel a need for affiliations, yet wonder how to select properly among the myriad contending organizations – social, religious, philanthropic, service, and political – choosing a group in which they can continue to be their own bosses.
For a period of time, most will experience this reluctance to join any type of group or to make a commitment to another person or an activity or life plan. They will fear going back to their old church, old club, or old college; they will avoid social activities and volunteer organizations.
This may, in fact, be a healthy reaction. Those of us helping ex-cult members advise caution about joining any new group and suggest, instead, purely social, work, or school-related activities, at least for the time being, until the person is more fully distanced from the cult experience and better understands the programming phenomenon.
Philosophical and Attitudinal Issues
Most cults claim their members are the elite of the world, even though individual members may be treated subserviently. While in the cult, members identify with this claim and display moral disdain toward others. They internalize the group’s value system and its sense of moral pretentiousness, intellectual superiority, and condescension toward the outside world. In the cult, members get points for showing moral disdain for nonmembers and for members who faltered of left the group.
Aversions and Hypercritical Attitudes
To newly emerged ex-cult members, people on the outside do not seem dedicated or hardworking enough. They appear lazy and uncaring about the world. Cults preach their own type of perfection and condemn members for not being there, and cult members spend years trying to live up to the ideal of perfection, always failing because the standards are always beyond them. Conditioned by their cult’s condemnation of the beliefs and conduct of outsiders, former members tend to remain hypercritical of much ordinary human behavior.
While in the cult, members not only learned to be harsh to those under them who were not perfect, but were sometimes punished for the shortcomings of others as well their own. Upon entering the general society, some former members continue to be punitive, critical, confrontational taskmasters. The simple human errors and forgetfulness of others can bring an ex-cult member to look down on them. Cults organized around paramilitary, political, and psychological themes tend to teach some of the harshest and most confrontational practices
Helpful Tasks for Individuals Leaving Groups
Knowing that others before you have experienced many of the symptoms you may now be experiencing as a former member is a great source of comfort and relief for many. Rather than thinking that you’re hopeless or going crazy, you can educate yourself so that you will see that the experiences you are going through are recognizable consequences of having been in a cult.
Be alert to the possibility of dissociation and try to find activities that will break the rhythm of monotonous work, so they will not fall into cult habits and periods of floating. These early insights also cued me to start looking more precisely at some of the effects on people of the highly repetitive activities typically found in cults and the power of thought-reform processes.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “It eventually all goes away.” And it does. It’s a matter of time, plus learning to label what you are experiencing and hearing some good explanations for what’s happening to you, including your physiological reactions and the up-and-down process of recovery.
Recovery is a psycho-educational process – the more you learn about the cult and what to expect afterward, the quicker your healing process and integration into a new life outside the cult.
Past Lives and Altered Histories
In sorting out past lives from real-life experiences or recapturing your true history and family connections, part of the recovery work is to remember and review life experiences before you joined the cult and to compare them with the specific attitudes and contents inculcated by the cult. Working actively to ascertain what was real before, during and after cult life, and thinking over how to reestablish family connections is crucial work for most former members.
Cognitive Inefficiencies Cont’d
I often recommend to ex-members with the kinds of cognitive inefficiencies described earlier that they take time out and give themselves a break, and that they not enroll immediately in college or graduate school, because their reading retention, ability to sit, and capacity to recall and reflect will get better in a few months. To attempt high-level functioning in a demanding and competitive situation like graduate school may create undue stress.
Reversing the loss of mental acuity takes time and effort – you may want to try reading again, going back to activities that interested you before you joined the cult, or taking some relatively less demanding evening classes for a start. Making lists and keeping a notebook are two of the most useful and most popular remedies for cognitive difficulties. You can make detailed plans of everything you need to do and everything you want to do, day by day. Then you follow you plan, checking off items as you go along, so you can see your progress.
When passive behavior or troublesome indecisiveness comes up, it can be helpful to dissect the cult’s motives and injunctions against questioning doctrines or directives. This will shed light on the effects of your having lived for months or years in a situation that encouraged acquiescence, and also help you think on your own once again and voice opinions. During this process, the cult and its power demystifies as you realize that leadership’s orders were meant primarily to reinforce the closed, controlled cult environment and keep tabs on members.
How to Stop Floating
Behaviorally orientated educational techniques are the best methods of counteracting and dealing with floating episodes. The triggers are just associations and memories, and only that. They are not arcane implants put in your mind by others; they do not reflect uncontrollable suggestions. Floating is simply getting stuck for a few minutes, or sometimes hours, in a familiar, detached, and conflicted state, such as you experienced while in the cult.
Three types of remembrances are experienced by ex-cult members during floating episodes:
Contents from the cult days; jargon, dogma, practices, songs, rituals, certain clothing.
Feeling states that were vivid and frequent during the time in the group: gnawing inner doubt, inadequacy, unmitigated fear, unending hidden tension.
Strange wordless states, sometimes given denigrating labels by the cult (for example, “ungrounded” “analysis paralysis”): referred to as floating, involuntary meditation, and wavy states by former members.
Often former cult members don’t distinguish among remembrances from cult life. But learning to recognize and identify the types just described is helpful in the process of getting rid of them for good. It demystifies your cultic experience and the power you think it holds over you. You will no longer feel you are at the mercy of some strange phenomenon that you cannot control.
Regaining a Sense of Satisfaction
Most of us get a sense of satisfaction from doing life’s little tasks well. Many ex-members describe struggling along, feeling they are wasting time by being nice to fellow employees or watering flowers for a neighbor or visiting a sick aunt. They don’t allow themselves to feel any satisfaction, since they are still judging by the cult’s standards.
“It is all right to enjoy once more. It is all right to be kind to one person at a time. In fact, it is impossible to do whatever ‘save the world’ means. Such abstract goals are just that – abstract – and keep you from living and doing good day by day.
The discussion in this chapter does not cover the conflicts, turmoils and disturbing aftereffects that ex-cult members have struggled with. But it should help the reader begin to understand the breadth of the recovery from cult conditioning and cult experiences that must occur.
Coming out of the cult pseudo-personality is about re-education and growth. Self-help through reading can be invaluable for those who live far from knowledgeable resources such as exit-counselors, cult information specialists, former member support groups, and mental health professionals.
There is Life after the Cult
From working with so many former cult members, I have a new picture of the railroad station and the tracks. I think people standing alongside the railroad tracks, hucksters, pied pipers, scam artists, and self-avowed saviors of the world hop off the trains and display their enticing wares, trying to get as many as possible of the people at the stations to hop on board and go with them into the vision of perfection.
A free mind is a wonderful thing. Free minds have discovered the advances of medicine, science, and technology; have created great works of art, literature, and music; and have devised our rules of ethics and the laws of civilized lands. Tyrants who take over our thinking and enforce political, psychological, or spiritual “correctness” by taking away our freedom, especially the freedom of our minds, are the menace of today, tomorrow, and all eternity.
According to their own reports, many participants joined these religious cults during periods of depression and confusion, when they had a sense that life was meaningless. The cult had promised — and for many had provided — a solution to the distress of the developmental crises that are frequent at this age. Cults supply ready-made friendships and outline a clear “meaning of life.” In return, they may demand total obedience to cult rules.
The cults these people belonged to maintain intense allegiance through the arguments of their ideology, and through social and psychological pressures and practices that, intentionally or not, amount to conditioning techniques that constrict attention, limit personal relationships, and devalue reasoning. Adherents and ex-members describe constant exhortation and training to arrive at exalted spiritual states, altered consciousness, and automatic submission to directives.
The exclusion of family and other outside contacts and rigid judgments of the unconverted outside world are geared to increasing followers’ commitment to the goals of the group and in some cases to its powerful leader. Some former cult members were happy during their membership, gratified to submerge their troubled selves into a selfless whole. Converted to the ideals of the group, they welcomed the indoctrination procedures that bound them closer to it and gradually eliminated any conflicting ties or information.
Gradually, however, some of the members of our groups grew disillusioned with cult life, found themselves incapable of submitting to the cult’s demands, or grew bitter about discrepancies they perceived between cult words and practices. Several of these people had left on their own or with the help of family or friends.
Some said that they had felt themselves powerless to carry out their desire to leave because of psychological and social pressures from companions and officials inside. They often speak of a combination of guilt over defecting and fear of the cult’s retaliation — excommunication — if they tried. Leaving any restricted community can pose problems — leaving the Army for civilian life is hard, too, of course.
Examine “The True Believer Syndrome”
Those who believe, truly believe.
Researcher and Harvard Professor Richard McNally noted the “power of emotional belief” within his presentation before the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
McNally said, “if you genuinely believe you’ve been traumatized and recall these memories, you’ll show the same psycho-physiologic emotional reactions as people who really have been traumatized.”
Likewise, millions of true believers around the world follow cult leaders that claim some supernatural power, but actually rely upon the same “emotional power” McNally has identified.
Groups like this often feed upon confrontation and claims of “persecution”, which bind members together and keep them dependent.
This is certainly a “common recipe” within most cults.