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Diana, Leaving the Cult


Diana came to see me after her father rescued her from a cult-run boarding school. Her father and mother, young adults from middle-class families, became part of the New York counterculture of the late 1960s. They met a charismatic guru who was lecturing at a city bookstore, and they had become involved with an Eastern religious cult. Diana’s father had left the cult when Diana was 3 years old, but he continued to see Diana regularly until she left New York for Colorado with her mother within a year of her parents’ separation.

I routinely take a history from the parents prior to my meeting with the child. Unfortunately, in Diana’s situation, I was able to meet only with her father, and he had not lived with Diana for the past 4 years; so her historical information was limited. Historical information allows me to better understand the narrative information the child discloses in sessions, often through play. In speaking with me prior to my first session with Diana, her father disclosed that he believed that his former wife and their daughter were purposely sent by the cult leaders to Colorado in an effort to interfere with his relationship with his daughter since he was no longer a cult member. At that point in his life, once Diana had moved to Colorado, it was difficult for her father to afford to see her. He visited her only once prior to Diana’s entrance, at age 5, into a cult-run boarding school in a state many miles from both of her parents’ homes. After Diana was sent to the boarding school, Diana’s mother refused to tell her ex-husband of Diana’s whereabouts.[9]

Diana’s father began searching for his daughter and, eventually, found her at the school when she was 8 years old. One day, when she was walking outside the school facility, Diana’s father rescued her and returned her with him to Connecticut. Subsequently, he won custody of Diana in a court case. He reported that his wife had been present in court, but she appeared to be in a dissociative state and ill equipped to present a strong case for custody (she had a childlike and disorganized quality).
Therapy Sessions with Diana

Diana, a pretty child with long red hair and a serious demeanor, appeared to be somewhat anxious when I first met with her and her father. She sat in the waiting room with perfect posture and was dressed in a casual, but tidy manner. After inviting Diana and her father into my office, I asked her father to tell me why he had brought Diana to see me. I wanted Diana to have a clear understanding of the reason for therapy. Her father began to report how Diana had lived with him until she was 3 years of age, at which time he had left Diana’s mother’s group. He was able to continue to visit Diana until her mother suddenly moved with her to Colorado. When Diana was 5, the cult demanded that she leave mother to enter the cult-run boarding school. Because Diana’s father was aware of the strict and highly disciplined nature of the group, he was concerned about the severity of his daughter’s care at the school. He began hearing negative reports about the treatment of children in the schools from other members who had left the group. Therefore, he decided to rescue Diana and bring her to Connecticut. There was a custody battle with Diana’s mother, but since he was able to show that her mother was under the control of the group, he was given full custody. Now Diana’s father believed that it was important for Diana have a place to sort out all that had happened to her. She had been living in one kind of world, and, suddenly, she was living in a very different world. I watched as Diana solemnly listened to this with little affect.

Next, I asked Diana if she would mind if her Dad left us briefly to go into the waiting room adjacent to my office for a few minutes. In responding to her anxious facial expression, I reassured her that I would leave the door open, so that, at any time, she could check on her father. I added that, if this made her uncomfortable, her father could remain with her in my office. Diana, who was shyly eying my toys, agreed that he could leave.

After her Dad left, I indicated to Diana that we would be talking and playing together as a way of trying to help her deal with all that she had experienced. I told her that I knew she had been through some scary experiences and she had lived in many different places in her life. When such scary and upsetting experiences happen, children have strong feelings inside. When children are able to use their imaginations in play, it can help them feel better. I explained that we would be playing and talking in a way that would help her feel not so frightened. I added that she could select any of the toys in the room during our time together.

Diana immediately spotted a Barbie doll. She looked at me tentatively. I told her that she could play with the doll, if she wished. After Diana carefully picked up the doll, I asked her to tell me the doll’s name. She softly responded, “Princess Leia.” I asked her to tell me about Princess Leia, knowing that she probably recently had seen the movie Star Wars. She explained that Princess Leia was a beautiful princess who lived on a far-away planet. I picked up the Ken figure and softly said to Diana, “Can I play with you?” She nodded seriously. I asked her if she would name the male doll. She responded, “He’s Han Solo.” I asked if they were friends. She told me that they were: Han Solo had come to a far-away planet to rescue Princess Leia. The details of this rescue became more and more elaborate during our subsequent sessions together. Playing the role of Han Solo, I often would say something like “I know you don’t know me and you are scared, but I’ve been sent here to take you to a better place.” Initially, I was careful to address Diana’s feelings through the characters in our play.

This theme became more and more elaborated during our time together. I eventually discovered about life on the faraway planet, and this information helped me gain an understanding of the impact on Diana of the trauma of her previous life, and how this contrasted with her present life with her Dad. On this far-away planet, Princess Leia got up at sunrise every day for chanting and morning prayers. She had a tight schedule of lessons and kitchen and laundry work. I would comment, “It was difficult on that planet for Princess Leia, but she also might miss some things of her life there.”

It seemed to me that Diana’s life was so discontinuous. I felt that it was important to help Diana carry over one experience to the next, rather than to cut off her feelings of loss. I sensed that, transferentially, she had a strong need to please me as well as her father as she begin to reveal her old life as “bad” and her new life as “good.” She was so compliant. I felt that Diana had figured out how to be the perfect client, and she seemed to do her best to please me.

I told her that I did not want her to feel that she had to please her father and me by cutting off other feelings, such as bad feelings about her present life and good feelings about her old life. I emphasized how children have both good and bad feelings about their experiences. Over time, I also indicated to Diana that children often believed that, in order to survive in a new place, they would have to cut off feelings, especially good ones from the past, as well as bad feelings about their present lives. (I was thinking of how painful it must have been for Diana to leave her mother to go to the boarding school.)

Diana seemed to look forward to our weekly sessions, in which she quickly entered into play. The constrained and fearful Diana became more relaxed in play. In an early session, Diana told me that Princess Leia was awakened in the middle of the night if she wet her bed. Since she wet her bed almost every night, she rarely had much sleep. Princess Leia had to launder the sheets and make her bed before returning to sleep. Then she had to get up again at dawn for chanting and morning prayers. If Princess Leia was bad, she was locked in a closet, which was a very scary place. Princess Leia chanted in order not to feel so scared and alone. Learning this was how I began to consider the possibility of Diana’s abusive treatment in the cult. Diana would tell me this without emotion. I would respond with emotion, talking about how scary it was for a child to be locked in a closet, or how tired Princess Leia must be from so little sleep. I also commented that chanting must have made Princess Leia feel comforted when she felt so scared. It seemed that chanting might have been a dissociative response Diana used to protect herself from being overwhelmed by her traumatic experiences.

As I mentioned previously, thirty years later, I have a deeper understanding of the need to consider that play (similar to early memory) might not accurately depict every detail of the past. However, play indicates the meaning that the child makes of his or her experiences. Today I also am more informed by recent understandings about dissociation; and with that knowledge, I might have explored more fully this area of Diana’s cultic life. Also, in reviewing this case, I now wonder whether the chanting was Diana’s way of comforting herself by performing a role that her mother might have played for her. This might have been an opportunity to help Diana connect to feelings related to the loss of her mother. However, at that time, my initial countertransference reaction was more focused on my distress about the discovery of so much cult abuse, so that it was difficult for me to fully appreciate Diana’s efforts toward survival within that abuse and her continued attachment to her mother. Her efforts certainly were an indicator of Diana’s resilience. At the time, I was mainly concerned about Diana’s adjustment to her world with her father.

Nevertheless, I also was aware of feeling the sadness about her separation from her mother. Leaving her mother at the age of 5 and entering the harsh boarding school had been traumatic for Diana, who reacted to this trauma by becoming highly defended against sad and anxious feelings through some of the strategies and defense mechanisms I have described in this paper. She also regressed and developed the symptom of bed-wetting. Although there was pressure on her to handle all of this, she was after all just a little girl. Fortunately, it seemed that Diana experienced her first 3 years of life with two caring parents. She spent 2 more years with her gentle mother, who, unfortunately, had become subservient to the demands of her cult leaders and acceded to giving her child to the cult-run boarding school. During the play sessions, I told Diana that it is not unusual for children like Princess Leia to wet their beds when they are sad, scared, and angry about being in a scary new place without their mothers or fathers. Diana solemnly nodded her head.

I also learned about Princess Leia’s resilience in coping with this situation. Princess Leia had a lovely singing voice, and she was a graceful dancer. Because of these abilities and the value placed on singing (chanting) and dancing in this group, she often performed at different ceremonies. In our sessions together, when I asked her to show me how Princess Leia sang and danced, Diana seemed to enjoy this demonstration.

I suspect that Diana’s ability to sing and dance allowed her to tap into and develop a glimmer of her creative self and some small sense of pride and worth in the traumatic situation of the cult-run boarding school. Over time, Diana began to sing songs she was picking up from the latest pop groups and to show me new dance steps as she moved from her cultic-style performing to become more immersed in her present world. Diana’s ability to perform clearly was valued in the cult; and, while some aspects of her personality were restricted, this aspect was rewarded.

Diana’s cult influence also appeared in her pictures, which revealed an Asian Indian influence. However, over time, her pictures also began to reflect the wider culture of her New York world. [See attached pictures.]

In time, I asked about Princess Leia’s parents. Diana explained that Princess Leia’s mother was told that she had to send her away. I commented that it must have been sad and frightening for Princess Leia to leave her mother, who sounded like a kind woman. Diana responded that she loved her mother, but that the kingdom believed that she must be educated at school in order to gain a true understanding of her guru’s teachings.

She was so unhappy at her school. Some of the teachers were so mean. However, Han Solo rescued Princess Leia and brought her to a new planet. The new planet was better than the old one, but it was a confusing place. The people spoke a different language, and Princess Leia had to learn it from Han Solo. They had different ways of doing things, and there was lots of ice cream and candy.

Diana’s father initially had placed her in private school to help her deal with the transition to the outside world. Her education in the cult was limited, and she needed time to catch up to the other children. Fortunately, Diana was an intelligent girl who was a quick learner. She was able to achieve grade level after a year. Diana was extremely cooperative with the teachers—anxious to please. However, she ran into difficulties with the other children. Her father reported that teachers told him that Diana was quite judgmental, and that she could be a little tattletale. Diana also displayed an elitist or superior demeanor, which became evident in therapy sessions as she became more comfortable with me.

One day, with contempt in her voice, Diana was telling me about the misbehavior of one of the boys in her class. She informed me that she never would act that way. I listened to her, and my countertransference reaction was to feel put off by her. It was clear to me that this cult-appropriate behavior could be irritating in her present school environment.[10] Instead of agreeing with her as she expected and siding with the defensive nature of this behavior, I responded by empathizing with the boy by saying, “Sometimes children don’t feel like following the rules.” She looked at me with suspicion and surprise. I imagined that in her cult there was little empathy for disruptive children, and I suspected that she was rewarded for displaying this tattletale behavior. And, in this way, she also was identifying with the aggressors (the punishing leaders) who punished children for acting too playfully and mischievously. In the cult, children had masochistically submitted to the leaders, and disruptive or “childish” behavior was not tolerated. Children were not recognized as separate individuals with their own desires and impulses. Although she did not respond to me on that day, I believed that this statement might begin to allow Diana to test out her negative feelings. [Previously, I have explored the cultic influence on certain aspects of character in adolescence (Goldberg, 2006).]

I also knew that Diana was continuing to wet her bed at night. I had recommended that her father get her a nightlight and some stuffed animals to keep her company. I also suggested that he not make a big deal about the bed wetting, but instead simply change her bed in the morning. Therefore, Diana’s father was not responding to her symptom in the expected sadistic, shame-inducing manner of the cult. He was tolerating and respecting her struggle.

I suspected that the bedwetting was a symptom of the continued anxiety (and also anger) that Diana probably was experiencing in her present situation. Although I found her to be precocious in her ability to care for herself, I viewed the bedwetting as an expression of her need to be a child, and as an indirect expression of her need for care. In a subsequent session, I decided to help Diana address these painful feelings as a way to master them more effectively: I told Diana that, at her previous school, children seemed to be punished harshly when rules weren’t followed. When children needed to be perfect, they worried about making mistakes and getting into trouble. Sometimes when they worried, they developed behaviors that showed their worry. Some children might get tummy aches; while others might push their feelings deep down and act like they had no feelings. Some children would have trouble eating; others, like Diana, would wet their beds. Wetting her bed was Diana’s way of showing that she was scared, sad, and angry, at having to live there. The school acted as if she should be able to care for herself and she needed to protect herself from these normal feelings. However, maybe bed-wetting was Diana’s way of saying she was only a child. Now, although she acted like a very good girl, wetting the bed also might be her way of telling us how scared she sometimes feels in her new life with her Daddy. Although Diana did not respond at that moment, soon after this, her nighttime bed-wetting stopped. [11]

At my encouragement, while I was seeing Diana during this period, her father had contacted her maternal grandmother, who was living nearby, and Diana had begun visiting her. After about six months, Diana’s mother came for a visit and stayed with her mother. A visit between Diana and her mother was arranged. Diana expressed her fear that her mother would return her to the cult-run boarding school. Although both Diana and her father were apprehensive about this visit, we were able to determine a way that he and Diana would feel safe and reassured that she would not be returned to the group. Diana’s visit with her mother had a positive effect. She was reassured that her mother still loved her, even though she found her mother to be rather childlike and remote. These behaviors appeared to be a reflection and result of the regression and dissociation induced by the cult. Diana and I talked about the demands of cult life and how this had changed her mother. (It seemed that adults often acted like children, but children were expected to act like adults.) I encouraged Diana’s father to describe her mother’s personality prior to the cult. At the same time, Diana was hearing childhood stories about her mother during her visits with her maternal grandmother.

To lose her child to the outside world must have been painful for Diana’s mother. In my work with former cult members, I have seen too many parents in cults who were discouraged from developing a potentially loving relationship with their children. Even if children remain in the home, parents are induced to follow the directives of the cult (Goldberg, 2003).

Diana continued in therapy until she had successfully made the transition to public school and had begun to relate to her father and me in a manner that was more typical of a child of 11. Over time, she appeared less precocious and more relaxed. There seemed to be a softening of her harsh conscience (superego) and her need to be so self-reliant. She left therapy with the understanding that she was able to return in the future if there were issues that she wished to discuss.[12] Diana’s therapy gave her a relationship with a caring adult who attempted to help her understand her past and her defenses against the painful emotions experienced. This gave Diana the freedom to begin to respond to others in a more genuine manner.
Return to Therapy in Adolescence

When Diana was 14, her father contacted me again.[13] He had remarried, and Diana was miserable with her stepmother. Diana and he had agreed that it would be helpful for me to become involved to help them deal with this situation. When I first met with Diana again, she had changed dramatically. At 14, she was a typical pretty adolescent, wearing jeans and makeup. In contrast to her overly compliant behavior in latency, Diana had developed into a rather oppositional adolescent at home, although she continued to work hard in school and make friends. It became clear that, although she might have some realistic complaints (e.g., her stepmother was less permissive and somewhat more rigid than her father), the intensity of Diana’s anger indicated that she might be additionally transferring some of her anger from her father, mother, and cult onto her stepmother, a convenient target. I also suspected that, during the first period of therapy, there had been more of a focus on Diana’s predominant affects of anxiety and sadness rather than on angry and sexual feelings, which were more apparent with the onset of adolescence.

Diana saw her stepmother as “ruining her life.” Furthermore, by remarrying, Diana’s “Han Solo” had dashed her Oedipal[14] fantasies of having her father to herself. (In reviewing this case, I also suspect that the superior attitude Diana showed in latency might not have been connected only with cult behavior. Her sense of superiority also might have been connected with her powerful fantasy that she was a princess who was rescued by Han Solo. Thirty years later, I have a deeper appreciation of how character often is a reflection of inner fantasy life.)

In meeting with Diana in adolescence, it became clear to me that Diana felt replaced by a mother figure. Her parents had parted when she was 3 years old, so we had not touched on these issues in our previous therapy. Additionally, the safety she had established with her father had been threatened. I suspected that, ultimately, coming to terms with this stimulating (reflected in anger and sexuality), as well as painful and anxiety-producing situation would help Diana move toward a relationship of her own in the future.

I examined all of this in therapy with Diana. It was difficult for her to give up her central role with her father. She continued to see the worst in her stepmother. Although Diana’s grandmother had served as a mother substitute, her grandmother had not taken a central role with her father. With Diana’s permission, I held sessions with her father and stepmother to help them gain a better understanding of some of Diana’s feelings, and to help them with parenting issues.

Over time, Diana was able to consider the array of feelings that might play into her intense dislike of her stepmother. In time, Diana revealed some memories and early maternal, nurturing feelings experienced with her mother. Diana was able to share with me her concern about losing her father as she had lost her mother. I helped her focus on how so many early losses had made her painfully aware of the potential for abandonment. Naturally, she was sensitive to the emotional loss of her father when he brought her stepmother into his life. Furthermore, I felt that it would be important for her to consider that she was not being disloyal to her mother if she allowed a relationship with her stepmother. However, Diana continued her litany of complaints. I saw how the either-or quality of adolescence became joined with the punishing attitude of the cult, and I addressed this with her. Later in therapy, I also attempted to help Diana empathize with her stepmother, who had, no doubt, made some mistakes, but who seemed sincere in her attempt to make things better with Diana. Defending against pain through a harsh attitude toward others and a tendency toward lack of empathy seemed to be the defensive legacies from her cult involvement. However, I was aware that her lack of empathy also had to do with her being 14 and the narcissism inherent in that age group.

As we explored all of these emotions, Diana to some degree was able to grieve the loss of her own mother’s ability to mother her. Having a new mother in the house made Diana painfully aware of all her own mother had been unable to give her, and Diana also was fighting her dependency needs. She was able to feel anger, but also, in time, face her mother’s limitations that were in large measure a result of her mother’s cult involvement. The cult had robbed her mother of the ability to parent by sending Diana away and undermining her mother’s sense of parental authority. When she visited with her mother, Diana described to me her feeling that they were more like sisters than mother and daughter. She and I again focused on how cults foster regression in the members, treating them like children and giving all parental authority to the cult leader. Furthermore, we focused on how her mother was “brainwashed” to see the world in a completely different way from how Diana had come to see it. As Diana and I worked together, she seemed able to develop more empathy for her mother, as well as for her stepmother.

It also seemed that the entrance of her stepmother into the home had stimulated Diana’s sexual feelings. Diana was replaced as Han Solo’s Princess Leia. This situation was painful to Diana. However, in letting go of her father, she was better able to move into the world of boys. She soon began to focus on her social life and the boys at her school, and sessions often became filled with boy talk.

I was pleased to see that Diana, in general, was getting along well with peers, was doing well academically, and had gotten into a high school for the performing arts. She was continuing to utilize natural abilities that had been enhanced while she was at the cult-run boarding school. For the most part, these abilities were a positive link to her cultic environment. However, I also became aware of how these abilities might feed into a narcissistic aspect of her character. That is, Diana could be an actress and, at times, seemed as if she was giving a performance. I was amazed at how far her character had come from being that soft-spoken, controlled, but superior-acting child. Now I found her to be rather dramatic and spirited. This part of her character seemed to be an integration of her cultic performing self, her own natural temperament, and her stage of development—adolescence. However, it seemed that Diana’s performing aspect had been overvalued in the cult, while other aspects had been undervalued. In the first stage of treatment, she had been performing as the perfect child. In adolescence, she came across in an overly dramatic way.

My work with adolescents had informed me that many young adolescent girls tend to be rather dramatic as they react to the vicissitudes of the emotions stirred up after puberty. However, without a loss of appreciation for her dramatic abilities and stage of development, it also was important an important task of therapy to help Diana deal with others in a more authentic manner. As in the earlier period of therapy, I continued to show empathy for others in Diana’s life as well as for Diana. In time, this approach promoted her ability to empathize with others.

Diana’s therapy allowed her to better deal with both the difficulties she experienced with the past and with her everyday life. She was able to work through some of her traumatic experiences through play. Along with re-experiencing early trauma, Diana was able to acknowledge her emotions instead of defend against her pain through regressive behavior, emotional numbing, identification with the aggressor, and narcissistic defenses. A fuller range of authentic emotion ultimately allowed Diana to become more compassionate toward others.

It appeared that she experienced the impact of the abuse again when Diana reached adolescence. Returning to therapy allowed her to revisit feelings that had not been fully addressed previously. The adolescent’s increased cognitive abilities and decreased need for the defenses of latency allows her to re-examine old experiences in new ways.

Diana’s prognosis was hopeful. There were several factors in her favor. She had spent her early years with two caring parents. She was biologically endowed with intelligence, and she was an appealing child who, despite the loss of her mother and the harsh disciplinary practices at the school, was able to succeed in her studies, and gracefully dance and chant. These abilities led to better treatment in the cult and a better self-image. Her father rescued her from the cult. Diana initially experienced this rescue as another scary event, but it gave her the opportunity to escape from a potentially increasingly abusive environment and, ultimately, to gain access to a freer way of life.

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