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Cults in our Midst

Bits and pieces from the above mentioned book
By Margaret Thaler Singer (with Janja Lalich)

EducationAdvertising Propaganda Indoctrination Thought


Focus of body of knowledge

Many bodies of knowledge, based on scientific findings in various fields.

Body of knowledge concerns product, competitors, how to sell and influence via legal persuasion.

Body of knowledge centers on political persuasion of masses of people.

Body of knowledge is explicitly designed to inculcate organizational values.

Body of knowledge centers on changing people without their knowledge.

Direction & degree of exchange

Two way pupil-teacher exchange encouraged.

Exchange can occur, but communication generally one-sided.

Some exchange occurs, but communication generally one-sided.

Limited exchange occurs; communication is one-sided.

No exchange occurs, communication is one-sided.

Ability to change

Change occurs as science advances; as students & other scholars offer criticism; as students & citizens evaluate programs.

Change made by those who pay for it, based upon the success of ad programs; by consumer law; & in response to consumer complaints.

Change based on changing tides in world politics and on political need to promote the group, nation, or international organization.

Change made through formal channels, via written suggestions to higher-ups.

Change occurs rarely; organization remains fairly rigid; change occurs primarily to improve thought reform effectiveness.

Structure of persuasion

Uses teacher-pupil structure; logical thinking encouraged.

Uses an instructional mode to persuade consumer/buyer.

Takes authoritarian stance to persuade masses.

Takes authoritarian & hierarchical stance.

Takes authoritarian & hierarchical stance; no full awareness on part of learner.

Type of relationship

Instruction is time-limited; consensual.

Consumer/buyer can accept or ignore communication.

Learner support & engrossment expected.

Instruction is contractual; consensual.

Group attempts to retain people forever.


Is not deceptive.

Can be deceptive, selecting only positive views.

Can be deceptive; often exagerated.

Is not deceptive.

Is deceptive.

Breadth of learning

Focuses on learning to learn & learning about reality; broad goal is rounded knowledge for development of the individual.

Has a narrow goal of swaying opinion to promote and sell an idea, object, or program; another goal is to enhance seller & possibly buyer.

Targets large political masses to make them believe a specific view or circumstance is good.

Stress narrow learning for a specific goal; to become something or to train for performance of duties.

Individualized target; hidden agenda (you will be changed one step at a time to become deployable to serve leaders).


Respects differences.

Puts down competition.

Wants to lessen opposition.

Aware of Differences.

No respect for differences.


Instructional techniques.

Mild to heavy persuasion.

Overt persuasion; sometimes unethical.

Disciplinary techniques.

Improper and unethical techniques.

(Table found on pages 58 and 59 of chapter on Brainwashing and Thought Reform.)

The tactics of a thought-reform program are organized to:

  • Destabilize a person's sense of self,
  • Get the person to drastically reinterpret his or her life's history and radically alter his or her worldview and accept a new version of reality and causality,
  • Develop in the person a dependence on the organization, and thereby turn the person into a deployable agent of the organization.

Table 3.3. Criteria for Thought Reform.
Conditions (Singer)Themes (Lifton) Stages (Schein)
  1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place.
1. Unfreezing.
  1. Control the person's time and, if possible, physical environment.
  2. Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, and dependency.
  3. suppress much of the person's old behavior and attitudes.
  1. Milieu control.
  2. Loading the language.
  3. Demand for purity.
  4. Confession
  1. Instill new behavior and attitudes.
  1. Mystical manipulation.
  2. Doctrine over person.
2. Changing.
  1. put forth a closed system of logic; allow no real input or criticism.
  1. Sacred science
  2. Dispensing of existence.
  1. Refreezing.

(Table from page 63).

Excerpt from Chapter Six: Physiological Persuasion Techniques.

Meditation may not always be good for you

There are many kinds of meditation being promoted by various individuals, groups, and cults.

Like may cultic groups, meditation cults have varying degrees of membership and commitment, which become known to members only as time goes on. Those who sample only the beginning course may have little or no knowledge of what a long-term association may entail.

A number of persons in the United States have brought legal suits for damages allegedly suffered as a consequence of their participation in meditation programs. Settlements to the individuals were made by the organization offering the programs.

Meditation Casualties

The forgoing brief of the work of several researchers supports my observations based on interviewing or providing therapy to more than seventy persons who had meditated from four to seventeen years in various groups.

A few examples will illustrate these former members' range of impairments, some of which remain after many years out of the cultic group.

  • Blackout, lack of sensory filters, and anxiety attacks.
  • Fog and space
  • Altered states and memory difficulties
  • Loss of boundaries
  • Inappropriate and unrelated bursts of emotions
  • Muscle jerking
  • Long term emotional flatness
  • Seizures
  • Visual hallucinations

Is Meditation ever beneficial?

Meditation, in itself, is not good or bad. But when a venal person wants to sell you courses and persuade you to turn over your life to him, you must beware. If you end up a slave to a money-making power-seeking organization that pays no heed to the real difficulties you may experience as a result of certain practices, that is a bad use of those powerful practices.

Herbert Benson, author of the popular book, The Relaxation Response, says meditation doesn't have to be costly - and you don't need to buy a mantra. Just pick any word. During any meditation or relaxation experiences, if you fell any mental or physical discomfort, I recommend that you stop and consult a professional.

Chapter 7 : Psychological Persuasion Techniques

Trance and Hypnosis

When this method is used in a cultic environment, it becomes a form of psychological manipulation and coercion because the cult leader implants suggestions aimed at his own agenda while the person is in a vulnerable state.

Guided Imagery

A considerable number of different guided-imagery techniques are used by cult leaders and trainers to remove followers from their normal frames of reference.

Indirect Directives

Cult members often say to their families and friends, "No one orders me around. I choose to do what I do." Getting members to think that way is one of the manipulations mastered by cult leaders who have become skillful at getting acts carried out through indirection and implication. Accomplishing this task is easier when the member is in an altered state, fatigued, or otherwise anxious or under stress.

Peer Pressure and Modeling

We look around and see models, and we comport ourselves to be like them. Most cults train new members either overtly stated policies or by more implicit shaping, to act in ways desired by the group.

Peer pressure is an effective means to get people to fit their behavior to group norms. In cults, this works for new and old members alike, going far beyond what is generally seen in society at large. In an atmosphere that states or implies that there is only one way to be this is it, it is most important to have models around to imitate.

Emotional Manipulation

According to Cialdini, the majority of the thousands of different tactics that compliance professionals use fall into six categories, and each category is based on a psychological principle that directs human behavior. These six principles are:

  1. Consistency. We try to justify our earlier behavior.
  2. Reciprocity. If somebody gives us something, we try to repay in kind.
  3. Social Proof. We try to find out what other people think is correct.
  4. Authority. We have a deep-seated sense of duty to authority figures.
  5. Liking. We obey people we like.
  6. Scarcity. If we come to want something, we can be made to fear that if we wait it will be gone. The opportunity to get it may pass. We want to take it now - whatever is being offered, from an object to cosmic consciousness.

We can see how transformations occur when the six principles are skillfully put into play by cult leaders and cultic groups. For example:

  1. Consistency. If you have made a commitment to the group and then break it, you can be made to feel guilty.
  2. Reciprocity. If you accept the group's food and attention, you feel you should repay them.
  3. Social proof. If you look around in the group, you will see people behaving in particular ways. You imitate what you see and assume that such behavior is proper, good, and expected.
  4. Authority. If you tend to respect authority, and your cult leader claims superior knowledge, power, and special missions in life, you accept him as an authority.
  5. Liking. If you are the object of love bombing and other tactics that surround you, make you feel wanted and loved, and make you like the people in the group, you feel you ought to obey these people.
  6. Scarcity. If you are told that without the group you will miss out on living a life without stress; miss out on attaining cosmic awareness and bliss; miss out on changing the world instantly or gaining the ability to travel back in time; or miss out on whatever the group offers that is tailored to seem essential to you, you will feel you must buy in now.

Chapter 9: The threat of Imtimidation

(Cult apologists)


In 1989, the Religious News service carried a story that Dr. barker's book was funded by the Unification Church, saying that Barker "freely admits that the Unification Church paid all her expenses to attend 18 conferences in Europe, new York, the Caribbean, Korea, and South America. …One member of Parliament said, "Any academic who allow themselves to be manipulated to lend credence to a cult does harm to families all over the world."

INFORM, lost its U.K. government funding in 1993 after much criticism from churches, parents, and former cult members, and Barker resigned as the organization's director and chairperson.

They also shelter the cults by trying to discredit the reports of ex-members who try to tell the world what it was like to be in a cult. The apologists disparage these former members, calling them bitter apostates, disgruntled, defectors, disloyal, and turncoats.

David Bromley and Anson Shupe, sociologists. Cult apologists blame the victims and protect the villians. Like the mad kings of old, they shoot the messenger bearing bad news.

One of the most illogical positions taken by the apologists is their claim that only current cult members tell the truth. However, the findings of many researchers, as well as my own numerous interviews with former members, show that cult members are so dependent on the group while they are in it that they dare not tell the truth, dare not complain.

Many of the large international cults have nearly unlimited financial resources and the power to intimidate publishers, newspapers, television producers, academic researchers, professionals, and any of the public who may speak up about cults.

If cults and their sympathizers block publication of scientific studies about their groups the histories of their leaders, and fair comment from scholars, the cults become the arbiters of what the world hears about them. Without a free press, scientific publications, fair comment, and the ability to express opinions, all of us are at the mercy of cult leaders who would determine what we read, what we say, and what we think.

Former CAN president Patricia Ryan, the daughter of Congressman Leo J. Ryan who was assassinated at Jonestown, said, "The American courts were never meant to be used as a weapon available to those with money to destroy with frivolous legal actions anyone perceived as their enemy. Scientology has a long history of using the courts this way, and it has to stop if justice means anything in our courts today."

  • * * *

There are many frightening examples of cults' stark and widespread efforts at silencing and intimidating critics. Not only have researchers, journalists, authors, and ordinary citizens been intimidated, attacked, and sued, but cults have also attempted to frighten professionals away from the courts, waging concentrated attacks on professionals who have testified on behalf of ex-members. In the hope of stifling attorneys, physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers, child welfare evaluators, and any others who might aid cult victims in legal suits or child custody cases, certain cults have stooped to vicious ends and terror tactics.

Chapter 11: Leaving the Cult / Recovery

Why it's hard to leave.

  1. Deception in the recruitment process and throughout membership
  2. Debilitation, because of the hours, the degree if commitment, the psychological pressures, and the inner constriction and strife.
  3. Dependency, as a result of being cut off from the outside world in many ways
  4. Dread, because of beliefs instilled by the cult that a person who leaves will find no real life on the outside
  5. Desensitization, so that things that once have troubled them no longer do (for example, learning that money collected from fund-raising is supporting the leader's lavish lifestyle rather than the cause for which it was given, or seeing children badly abused or even killed.)

Psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric social workers dealing with cult members suggested behavioral changes they labeled the cult indoctrinee syndrome. These changes included:

  • Sudden, drastic alteration of the individual's value hierarchy, including abandonment of previous academic and career goals. These changes are sudden and catastrophic, rather than the gradual ones that result form maturation or education.
  • Reduction of cognitive flexibility and adaptability. The cult member substitutes stereotyped cult responses for her or his own.
  • Narrowing and blunting of affect. Love feelings are repressed. The cult member appears emotionally flatter and less vital than before.
  • Regression of behavior to childlike levels. The follower becomes dependent on the cult leader and accepts the leader's decisions uncritically.
  • Physical changes. These changes often include weight loss and deterioration in physical appearance and expression.
  • Possible pathological symptoms. Such symptoms can include altered states of consciousness.

Deprogramming - that is, providing members with information about the cult and showing them how their own decision-making power had been taken away from them.

Exit counseling identifies the educational process that takes place in efforts to get cult members to reevaluate their membership. In fact "deprogramming" is in many ways a more accurate description of the process, but since that word is now tinged with memories of the early snatchings and restraint, most people are reluctant to use it.

Mental Health Professionals and Clergy as Counselors.

Families who call upon these clergy or mental health professionals are almost always told some variant of "It's just a passing stage; he will outgrow it," or "There is nothing to be done; she is forty years old (or seventy)." Because in most cases these professionals don't recognize how intense influence, social pressure, and cult interactions affect cult members, they simply turn away or misdirect the family.

Exit Counseling Versus Therapy

From my interviews with many former cult members - some who have received exit counseling that participation in an exit counseling session is far better than ordinary psychiatric or psychological treatment, both for assisting people who are in cults to evaluate whether they want to stay in, and for helping those who have already left but are having trouble understanding and handling what went on during their cult days and the types of problems they are experiencing in the aftermath of their cult involvement.

* * *

From the very early days of my work with ex-cult members, I have noticed that those who have been deprogrammed or counseled out make the easiest, best, and quickest returns to normal life. Other professionals have found the same thing, which suggests that the education and information provided by exit counseling may be extremely valuable, helping those leaving cults to understand their own situation and feelings and to adapt to life in the regular world.

Chapter 12: Recovery; Coming out of the Pseudopersonality

Just as cults vary greatly, so do their members, their after-effects, and the duration of those effects. Yet those who help former cult members have seen certain patterns in the types of trauma, damage, and emotional and cognitive difficulties. This has been true for former members of a variety of cults and groups that use thought-reform processes.

Not everyone who is exposed to thought-reform processes is successfully manipulated, however; nor does everyone respond with major reactive symptoms. An evaluation of what a person may experience after belonging to a cult requires study of the group's particular practices, social and psychological pressures, and conditions. Nevertheless, groups using thought-reform processes can be usefully classed into two main categories: those that primarily use dissociative techniques and those that primarily use emotional arousal techniques. Each category produces characteristic negative psychological effects.

Former members of groups relying mainly on the use of dissociative techniques - meditation, trance states, guided imagery, past-lives regression, and hyperventilation - have tended to exhibit these aftereffects:

  • Relaxation-induced anxiety and tics
  • Panic attacks
  • Cognitive inefficiencies
  • Dissociative states
  • Recurring bizarre content (such as orange fog)
  • Worry over the reality of "past lives"

Eastern based cults and New Age groups doing past-lives work and channeling fall into this first category.

Former members of groups using primarily intense aversive emotional arousal techniques - guilt and fear induction, strict discipline and punishments, excessive criticism and blame - have tended to experience these aftereffects:

  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Self-blaming attitudes
  • Fears and paranoia
  • Excessive doubts
  • Panic attacks

Bible-based, political, racial, occult, and psychotherapy cults typically fit into this category.

However, although cults tend to focus on one category or the other, they often use a multitude of techniques and do not restrict them selves to one or the other of these major groupings. For example, the large group awareness training programs and some psychotherapy cults use both kinds of techniques. Moreover, a group relying heavily on meditation, trance, and dissociative techniques is also likely to include elements of intense emotional arousal devices, and the reverse is also true. Some of the most intense emotional arousal responses can be produced by guided imagery, speaking in toungues, and other trance-inducing procedures. Thus it is important not to regard this heuristic division too rigidly, since the techniques readily overlap and can produce a range of responses.

Some aftereffects may be experienced by former members regardless of the kind of cult they were in. These general aftereffects are:

  • Depression and a sense of alienation
  • Loneliness
  • Low self-esteem and low self-confidence
  • Phobic like constriction of social contacts
  • Fear of joining groups or making a commitment
  • Distrust of professional services
  • Distrust of self in making good choices
  • Problems in reactivating a value system to live by

Recovering from Cult Aftereffects

Once out of a cult, former cult members, although now free, face the challenge of reentering the society they once rejected. The array of necessary adjustments can be summed up as coming out of the pseudopersonality, or as other have termed it, dropping the synthetic identity or reuniting with the split-off old self. An additional helpful way to view the many problems faced by former cult members is to cluster them into five major areas of adjustment: practical, psychological-emotional, cognitive, social-personal, and philosophical-attitudinal. Former cult members must:

  • Address practical issues related to daily living
  • Face Psychological and emotional stirrings that can cause intense agonies for a while
  • Deal with cognitive inefficiencies
  • Develop a new social network and repair old personal relationships, if possible
  • Examine the philosophical and attitudinal adopted during cult days

It is through dealing with all these areas that the former cult member gains insight into his or her experience and, over time, sheds the cult pseudopersonality.

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.

Table 12.1. Major Areas of Postcult Adjustment
PracticalPsychological-Emotional CognitiveSocial-Personal Philosophical-Attitudinal
Makes living arrangements. Arranges financial support.

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.

Feels depressed.

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 indecisiveness.

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.

Feels loneliness.

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.

Not all former cult members encounter all the problems listed in 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 reintegrations 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, that functioning may not reflect what is still going on inside them. Many are still sorting out the conflicts and harms that grew out of their cult experience long after two years have gone by.

Each former member wrestles with a number of the problems. Some need more time than others to resolve all the issues they face, and a few never get their lives going again.

Practical Issues.

Most of the practical issues faced by former cult members, such as where to live, how to earn a living, and nutritional and medical concerns are nearly universal concerns and need little explanation.


Unfamiliar with handling personal money, unaware of how to earn money legitimately, or full of resentment at having turned over family fortunes or money earned to their former cult.

Many former cult members, while in their cults, took in more per day fund-raising on the streets than they will ever be able to earn on any job.

After such experiences, it can be difficult to figure out how to recoup resources or make an honest living, not to mention coping with the guilt many former members feel at having taken part in such deceptions. These cult experiences may make it necessary for former members to contact career counseling or mental health services.

Education and Health Care

The role of professional services, in particular medicine and psychology, is important in postcult adaptation. Some cults put down modern medicine and psychiatry and psychology, along with education in general.

Cult doctrine preaches that if they only follow certain instructions, they will never be ill, never feel blue, and will save the planet, attain nirvana, and become spiritually or politically perfect. Meanwhile cult chores and practices keep them tired, worn down, and often ill. But they have to hide these conditions and keep smiling and working.

When it comes to education, many cults teach that members should "get out of the mind," stop thinking, and get into the heart or the everyday work of the cult. Some leaders preach that we are born with "natural knowing" that has been impaired by school, parents, and society, and that followers should reject "old thinking" and live by the dictates of the leader. Afterward, former cult members of almost any age and background need some sort of education or training to update knowledge and skills and to expand their training.

After years of neglecting their minds and their health, former cult members feel odd and possibly even guilty about their concern with illness, health issues, and their psychological states after leaving the group They soon realize, however, that their education stopped when they joined the cult, that they have neglected their health, and that they are in emotional turmoil. Yet they have been turned against the very support systems they now need. As they struggle to sort out their personal views about education, medicine, and mental health care, often they may need urging and explanations about what happened int he cult to create their negative feelings and attitudes.

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 twenty-four-hour regimes 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 naivete 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-esteen and self-confidence as they come to realize that they were used to or that they surrendered their autonomy.

Guilt and Shame.

Former cult members experience an overdose of guile and shame. In the cult, most were obligated to enlist new members and to collect money in less than honest ways. They feel guilty about their treatment of parents, brothers and sisters, and friends' about having lied, having committed acts of violence, or having carried out illegal activities at the bidding of the cult leader. They feel guilty about having tricked others into supporting the cult in some way, and about those they recruited who are still int he cult or who never would have joined otherwise.

Former members may also feel extreme and unwarranted guilt over almost anything they thought or did, fears of all kinds of things, and intense doubt every time they try to make a decision. As they unearth the stark reality of the deception and dishonesty of cult life, many ex-members also feel great remorse over their action and frequently worry about how to right the wrongs they did. They can overcome such guilt only by accepting what they did and forgiving themselves, making amends with others where possible.

Panic Attacks.

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:

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • 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 derealization (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.

Fear of Retribution.

Fear of the cult is long lasting, especially if the group has a tendency toward violence. Many cult leaders threaten the lives of potential defectors.

Some former members fear that zealous current members will harm them or their families to show the leader how devoted the current members are.

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 rather than prolonging efforts to harass defectors. 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.

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 unenlightenment, 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.

Conflicts over those Left Behind.

Fear and anxiety may be most acute for former members who have left a spouse or children in the cult. Any effort to make contact risks breaking any remaining link to those left behind. Often painful legal actions ensue over child custody or conservatorships, fought out between the one who leaves and the spouse who remains loyal to the cult.

Lack of Understanding in the Outside World.

A problem related to the fear and anxieties that former cult members experience is that often they find it difficult to get others, even helping professionals, to understand what they are going through. Some psychiatrists and psychologists who have ex-members as clients think that they are psychotic, brain damaged, or malingering when they report seeing fog or hearing the voice of Thor, their old leader in another life, or being unable to hold down a job.

When I am consulted on such cases, although I cannot make a diagnosis without seeing the person, I urge the therapists to listen, learn more, and see what happens when they allow a client to go over the details of cult life. As was described in Chapter Six and Seven, many of these phenomena are products of the odd, repetitive training that goes on in cults, and they generally go away with simple listening and helping the patient see how the behavior became conditioned. To diagnose these occurrences as a true hallucination or a sign of major mental disturbance can cause even more damage to the person that he or she has already suffered.

While a few cult members may actually have become psychotic in the cult, more typically, seemingly psychotic behavior is a result of cult conditioning. For example, someone once asked me during a consultation if I saw the Devil sitting across the room where he pointed. I looked over, told him no, and asked if he did. We then talked about the sources of this idea and when it first happened. From that discussion, we learned that the cult leader often used the phrase, "I see the Devil beside you." He would say it to those being chastised or use it to convey that a person was not trustworthy but "of the Devil." When I commented to the man that maybe he wasn't able to fully trust me yet and that it was sensible to go slowly in trusting anyone, he was relieved. Further discussion revealed that he was not hallucinating (and never had), but he had been conditioned by his cult leader to associate feelings of distrust with ideas of the Devil.

So some odd event s may well be leftovers from cult days. All such symptoms need to be checked out carefully, with warmth and compassion.

Cognitive Inefficiencies.

Cult practices can cause members' mental skills to falter and become inefficient. Since all cult members learn that reflective thought gets them in trouble, it's no wonder that they emerge with some mental constrictions. 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.

Most of us who work with people soon after they emerge from cultic groups note that a lack of humor is almost universal until they have been away from the group for some time. In cults, people do not laugh, joke, and think at the multiple levels that other people ordinarily do and that allow them to grasp the incongruities central to much humor.

Many former members are also unable to comprehend what they read for some time. Many are forgetful, fail to meet deadlines, lose jobs because of inefficiency, and miss appointments. Some become very literal in their thinking. They've been so obedient and nonreflective that, like "Jack" in the following example, they are now highly concrete and literal in the ways they deal with what they hear, see or read.

Uncritical Passivity.

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.

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 eliteness, 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.

Memory Loss and Altered Memories.

The distorted personal history gradually built up in the cult is not quickly removed. Perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than in the recent controversy over "recovered" memories of child abuse and other highly painful events. Stories of false memory syndrome, or as researchers in hypnosis have called them decades, pseudo-memories, are frequently in the news.

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.

Some cults specialize in creating purely fictional identities through emphasizing how bad the member's past was, as discussed in Chapter Seven. Cults that focus on past-lives regression and getting members to think they are communicating with entities from past lives build into their followers rather firm and puzzling revisions of history. In such cults, long-term members lead newer members through processes in which they are encouraged to locate events and imagine experiences and past lives that date back millions of years. In all these cases, the revised personal history becomes part of the pseudo-identity the cult member adopts during cult life.

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.

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 cult 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. 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 overlearned, 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 a dissociation.

Consequently, great difficulty in making decisions is common among ex-members. At times they do not know what to do, say, or think. It is as though they suddenly become dependent and childlike, looking for direction. In the cult, they followed a predetermined path of obedience. Now they find themselves fearful, feeling stupid and guilty, and not knowing what to do. The newly found independent decision making process becomes riddled with fears and anxieties - all ripe moments for floating.

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 precult past as well as the postcult 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 ostricized. Also, there is no hope of retaining cult friendships because cult members have been trained to hate 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.

Dating and Sexuality.

Some people try to make up for lost time through binges of dating, drinking, and sexual adventures. However, this behavior often produces overwhelming guilt and shame when former members contrast the cult's prohibitions to their new freedom. It also can lead to some uncomfortable, regrettable experiences.

Other simply panic and avoid dating altogether.

Often people were struggling with issues of sexuality, dating and marriage before they joined a cult, and the cult artificially alleviated such struggles by restricting sexual contact and pairing, ostensibly to keep the members targeted on doing the "work of the master." Even marriage and parenthood, if permitted, are subject to cult rules. Sexuality in cults is almost always monitored or controlled in some way. Pairing off with another means you may care more for that person than for the leader or group mission. So cult leaders develop ways to ensure that allegiance goes to the top, not sideways in pair bonding. Another result of this control of sexuality is that cult friendships become sexually neutral and nonthreatening; rules that permit only brotherly and sisterly love can take a heavy burden off a conflicted young adult.

In some instances, highly charged interpersonal manipulations performed in the cult have long-lasting consequences. "Jennifer" said she was often chastised by a prestigious female cult member for "showing lustful thoughts toward the brothers. She would have me lie face down of the floor. She would lie on top of me and message me to drive Satan out. Soon, she began accusing me of being a lesbian!" After leaving the cult, Jennifer felt convinced about her sexual preferences.

Some groups promote a level of membership made up of renunciates, individuals who are akin to monks in the Far East. Some of these men and women do not engage in heterosexual lives when they leave the group, nor are they homosexual. The cult has so affected their outlook that they simply avoid issues of sexuality.

Orgiastic cults enforce sexuality rather than celibacy, and this too affects departing individuals. Describing her cult leader, one woman said, "He uses orgies to break down our inhibitions. If a person didn't feel comfortable in group sex, he said it indicated a psychological hang-up that had to be stripped away because it prevented us from all from melding and unifying." A few cults practice child-to-child and adult-to-adult sexual encounters and forms of prostitution or sexual slavery, sometimes combined with neo-Christian philosophy. There are also a few aberrant Mormon-based cults that practices polygamy. In some of the guru-based cults, the guru teaches and demands celibacy but has sexual liaisons with male or female members.

Upon leaving groups with unusual sexual practices, ex-members often are hesitant to talk about their experiences lest the listener be critical of them for participating. This is a case where good therapeutic counseling - or the sympathetic ear of a trusted friend - may be beneficial.

Marital Issues.

When one partner of a married pair is recruited into 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 plans to escape 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.

A number of groups arrange member's marriages. The most publicized are the mass weddings in Moon's Unification Church, such as one in which 5,150 members were united in a group ceremony. Smaller groups do the same on a reduced scale. Legal consultation is needed for those who leave a spouse and/or children back in the cult or who simply no longer wish to remain married to a partner they didn't choose.


Former cult members find themselves feeling phobic in many social situations. They tend to withdraw and to stay away from crowds and gatherings of more than several people. Feeling badly ripped off by the cult experience, they don't trust their own judgment, and they don't trust other people. Additionally, they lack self-esteem and self-confidence; they feel incompetent, clumsy, and undesirable as a consequence of their cult training.

Former members' inability to trust is one of their most frequent and vivid problems. Not only do they realize that they trusted too much, but also they often end up blaming themselves for ever joining the cult and for feeling inadequate about their decision-making abilities and judgment.

The "Fishbowl" Effect.

A special problem for cult veterans is the constant watchfulness of family and friends, who are on the alert for any signs that the difficulties of real life may send the former member back to the cult. Mild dissociation, deep preoccupations, mood swings, and positive talk about the cult tend to cause alarm in a former member's family. Both new acquaintances and old friends can also trigger a former member's feeling that people are staring, wondering why he or she joined a cult. Often nether the ex-member nor family and friends know how to open up a discussion of this topic. The best advice I can give for dealing with this if for ex-members to focus on the reality of their surroundings and details of the current conversation until the sense of being under scrutiny gradually fades.

Former members sometimes want to talk to people about positive aspects of the cult experience. Besides acknowledging the seriousness of having made a commitment, the sense of purpose and accomplishment, and the simplicity of life in the old regime, they generally want to discuss a few warm friendships or romances, as well as their unique travels, experiences, or personal insights. Yet they commonly feel that others, especially family, want to hear only the negative.

Former members need to talk about their experiences as they wish, explaining to those around them that this doesn't mean they're running back to the cult. Part of shedding the cult's black-and-white thinking is learning to see all sides of an issue, and that learning will apply or the way the cult experience is seen as well.

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 recruitment phenomenon.

Philosophical and Attitudinal Issues.

Most cults claim their members are the elite of the world, even though individual members may be treated subserviently and degraded. 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.

Aversions and loathing are taught by many cults, sometimes in subtle forms. Ex-members of various cults talk about how they must struggle to not fuss at women in pants suits, not rage at relatives who eat meat, and not scoff at mainstream political or social advances. They may find themselves clinging to cult ways, such as wanting to wear dark, dingy clothes to avoid looking like a "harlot," wanting to be on the side of righteousness in their thinking, wanting never to spend money, show closeness, or have fun.

Some are taught prejudice toward certain races, religions, ethnic groups, or social classes, or even something as simple as people who wear clothing of the "wrong" color. While in the group, members are praised for sounding off about these pet hates of the leader. Out of the cult now, the person wants desperately to stop spewing hatred.

Teenagers raised in such groups need considerable training in how to live in a multethnic, multicultural, multiracial world with ecumencial practices. Never instructed in how to live in a democratic world, they learned to exist in a fascist one, where followers echo the leader's values. One teenager and his parents came to me for help because the boy had attended only cult schools. Now out of the cult, he spouted the venom of the cult leader and was being beaten and ostracized by others at school; he was terribly confused. He sobbed as he told me, "I told the class what the leader taught us - that the Pope and the United States Postal Service were part of a Communist conspiracy - and everybody laughed at me and said, 'There goes crazy ["Joey"] again.' After school they beat me up and say they will get me." Through the school principle and teacher, we worked out an educational program for him and eventually he and his parents instructed the class about cults, showed educational films on cults, and discussed how to avoid getting recruited.

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 perfection and condemn members for not being perfect, and cult members spend years trying to live up to the ideal of perfection, always failing because the standards are beyond human capabilities. 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.

No Longer a World Saver.

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.

Helpful Tasks for Individuals Leaving Cults.

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 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.

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 become 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, "bliss ninny," "space cadet"): 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.

Some cults even have their own terms, such as restimulation, which they use to predict the recurrence of these episodes (both while in the cult and later). This, of course, sets members up to expect what does occur once in a while. The cult that uses this particular term also imbues the involuntary state with the implication that "you can't help it because it's in your wiring." This frightens members, who then carry this notion with them when they leave. Myths such as this cause former members to become very anxious when the dissociative episodes occur.

Remember, there are no mysterious, mechanical, out-of-our-control events. No cult and no person has the power or skill to implant such things in the minds of their members or to cause these episodes to happen after members leave. There is no scientific evidence, no valid clinical observation that such a possibility exists.

Individuals newly emerging from a cult can almost expect and need not be alarmed by periods of seeming to lose track of time or where they are. It's normal for them to think often about various experiences from cult days and sometimes feel as they felt back in the cult. During exit counseling, families should be told that floating is likely to occur for a time after the cult member leaves the group. They are advised to ex-member to talk about and deal with these episodes.

Floating does not mean you want to return to the cult. As described earlier, floating is most likely to happen when you are stressed, anxious, uncertain, lonely, distracted, fatigued, or ill. Once you recognize when these episodes may occur, you can prepare for them. Then the event will be less distressing when it happens. Realizing that floating is a dissociative moment will help. Once you understand that you are merely temporarily psychologically disengaging, you won't think that your memory is shot or that you are losing your mind. You can say to yourself, "I'm not damaged for life. This is just a momentary dissociation. I can pick up where I was. It's just a thought, just a memory. I don't have to act on it."

Here are some helpful Antidotes:

  • Keep a written log of the happenings so that you can talk about them and come to understand what happens. Write down the simple word, event, voice, sound, smell, motion, expression, or memory; that is, trace back and recall what set you off so that you can begin to comprehend what occurred. Why that thing? Why that moment? What was the state you were in?
  • Divert yourself when you are about to fall into a dissociative state. Sometimes a friend or co-worker will notice that you are beginning to space out, and she or he may offer companionship or listening time or divert you into an activity. You can also create your own activities that you set into motion when you recognize a trigger or start to float. Turn to the radio, listen to the news, call someone on the phone, write in your journal, play with the dog.
  • Suppress the feeling. You do not have to act on it, you do not have to let the cult-related feeling overwhelm you. Push it away and go on to something else. Later, at a more appropriate moment, you may want to talk with someone about the situation.
  • Learn to minimize the frightening leftovers from cult days. You might be flooded with feelings, but say to yourself, "I'm not going crazy. I'm just a little anxious." Focus on the present, on today, on getting your life back together.
  • If you do fall into a dissociative state, bring yourself back with a scenery change. Pinch yourself. Rub your hand. Do something that will provide sensory input and break the feeling of being in limbo. Focus your eyes on something directly in front of you.

All these techniques will help break up the floods of emotion and emotional memories that come in at you. Taking a down-to-earth and aggressive stance against triggers and floating will propel you to take great leaps forward in your recovery.

Combating Aversions.

Former cult members remain rigid in their attitudes for some time. This rigidity is a remnant of the cult's moral relativism, which provided reasons to hate and condemn. It takes much constant personal monitoring of your attitudes to change these ingrained reactions. It is necessary to make a conscious effort to understand human frailties. Reactivating a personal sense of values and good standards without being maniacally condemning of everyday human failures and foibles in yourself or others is a needed step in recovery.

Learning to Trust Again.

Regaining your sense of trust will grow partly out of the gradual awakening of your ability to tolerate thinking about and discussing the abuse and betrayal you experienced. Members' massive anger over injustices and abuses is kept hidden in the cult. This anger surfaces in ex-members, along with anger over the dishonesty and deceptions that had to be ignored or the facts that weren't known until the individuals left the group.

Trust is difficult to reestablish. Regaining trust is sometimes easier for those who have the chance to speak with exit-counselors, to spend some time at a rehabilitation center (see Chapter Eleven), or to engage in psychotherapy after leaving the cult.

One of the most poignant aftereffects of cult life is the distrust of the self. Many people start blaming themselves, asking, "Why ever did I join?" Part of exit-counseling and the subsequent psychoeducational work is helping former cult members analyze their involvement. As they recognize the deceptive, step-at-a-time influence program that led them into the group, they will be less hard on themselves. They will be able to forgive themselves and carry on with life.

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 reeducation 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.

Watch out! That can be the last train stop on the way to hell on earth.

I want to applaud all of those who keep on wanting to try to do good, and to be good to their families, friends, and humankind. I applaud them for springing back after the betrayal of a spiritual abuser, a psychological exploiter, or a political fraud and for not allowing a fascistic pseudo-guru to keep on controlling them. I applaud those who speak out and believe that we all need to continue trying to prevent these abusers from taking over more of the world. Truly, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and the ability to recover from defeats, scams and harassment.

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.





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