Reclaiming Life Stories After Cult Immersion
The role of stories in bringing meaning to a person’s life is a powerful force, whether or not a person is in a cult. In this paper, I explore how stories continue to impact a person after he has left a cult. I examine ways leave-takers can reclaim authorship of their life stories. I undertake this exploration from the viewpoint of narrative therapy, a postmodern approach to story that emphasizes how the interpretations a person gives to his life stories involve choice and cocreation. Which life stories are emphasized and which are neglected should ultimately be up to the storyteller. A leave-taker’s neglected life stories have usually been overpowered by dominant cult stories, and reclaiming these less dominant stories—especially ones that emphasize his initiative—is an essential aspect to his being able to successfully live his life after cult immersion. This success will also depend on the listening skills of the audience, and the creation of safe environments in which the individual’s reauthoring can be done free of manipulation. If such environments can be created, a person can begin the process of rebuilding his identity separate from the one he was required to adopt when he was in a cult. Rebuilding identity, however, requires him to understand that identity must be discovered rather than adopted.
A wiser person than I once said that “the shortest distance between any two people is a story.” As a narrative therapist,1 I recognize the truth in this statement. Stories do two very important things: they help a person create meaning in his life, and they give that person a sense of belonging to a group. Erik Erickson was the first of many social scientists to highlight the foundational importance of these two factors to a person’s sense of identity.
I also recognize the power of story from another platform: that of being a former cult member.2 Former cult members know better than most people the power of story. Why? Because anyone who has been in a cult has experienced the extraordinary pressure to unquestioningly adopt the values, myths, and behaviors embedded in the stories cult leaders tell their followers: heroic stories about cult figures, past and present; creation stories, prophecy stories, and stories that explain the secrets to the universe according to the organization’s ideology. The meaning associated with these stories becomes the meaning provided to, not discovered by, cult members. Alternative interpretations of such stories—or exposure to contradictory stories—are never explored inside cults, except in carefully controlled ways designed to reinforce the organization’s overall ideological perspective,3 to further imbed a cult member’s sense of belonging to his new “family,” or both. Another way of saying this is that a cult’s unidirectional imposition and content control of stories short-circuits the possibility of the cocreation of stories: a process that happens when stories are told and listened to freely and creatively, with no hidden desire by either party to advance an ideology or exercise power.
Thirty-eight years on, I still recall the singularity of focus that accompanied stories told during my cult experience: a singularity that, when combined with the cult’s utopian aspirations, community-service efforts, and the positive impact I experienced using its spiritual tools (meditation, moral codes, dietary control, yoga), meant that these tales did in fact give me both the meaning and belonging I craved. The stories “slotted in” perfectly with the culture building constantly being done by cult leaders. I joined other members in magnifying what I saw as the prophetic quality of these stories by infusing them with emotion: inspiration, hope, and anger at what was seen as wrong with the world outside the cult. By doing so, I was succumbing to what social psychologist Peter Watson named as confirmation bias: a person’s propensity to seek out and interpret evidence in ways that confirm what he already thinks. Confirmation bias allows a person to weaken his cognitive dissonance4 and thus hasten his efforts to embrace a new belief system. The weaker my cognitive dissonance became, the easier it was for me to be motivated5 to do the work of the cult.
Ongoing cognitive dissonance is an emotional challenge anyone in a cult faces. When, for example, the explanation of his life’s purpose as defined by the cult stories a person is hearing differs widely from the purpose he imagined pursuing when he is consolidating all the precult stories he grew up with—the ones provided by parents, friends, institutions, and others—he must find a way to discard the latter and embrace the former. After all, each set of stories lays claim to the same life. Should a person later leave his cult, he faces the same dilemma in reverse. How can he reclaim his life stories when he has just invested so much time and energy in altering or denying them in order to deepen his involvement with the cult?
The combination of my cult experience and my training as a narrative therapist means I approach this question guided by narrative principles:
Every human being is multistoried.
The meaning a person attributes to his life is organized through his narratives, or stories. Language is the primary tool every person uses to construct those narratives.
When a person’s narratives don’t match his lived experience, he runs into problems.
Because there are no absolute truths to any story, a person can reauthor his narratives. This is best done in an environment when narratives are listened to reflexively—i.e., where the impact of the storyteller’s personality, the surrounding culture, and his audience are all taken into account as the story is articulated, listened to, and deconstructed.
Being listened to in this way assists a person to identify stories that may be contradicting his lived experience, paving the way for reauthoring the stories usually told about an event.
We can view a story about an event as a map that extends through time. But a person’s internal maps always miss bits of territory. Reauthoring allows invisible story lines to surface and be considered by the storyteller so he can pay attention to them if he chooses to do so.
No one can live without story, even if he wanted to do so. Even in the rational, empirical pursuit that characterizes science, stories are critical.6 We’re not ostriches or caterpillars, living our lives without reflection. We agonize over why we’re here, where we belong, what we’re meant to do. Such questions are never very far from the surface; with a little help we can access them. That access is more difficult for a person leaving a cult because the leave-taker has just exited an environment of distorted power relations and structural inequality—an environment where even a question such as “Who has the storytelling rights for an individual, the storyteller or the powers-that-be?”7 becomes an issue. Additionally, the experience of being deceived and betrayed—combined with the exhaustion and confusion that results from sometimes spending years in demeaning, abusive circumstances—makes the expectation of functioning normally in the world again immensely challenging. Despite this challenge, a person will never stop using stories to create meaning and seek out belonging.
While it is true that there are countless ways to interpret a person’s life events,8 when somebody leaves a cult he is most likely enmeshed in what narrative therapy cofounder Michael White has described as the “problem-saturated” narrative.9 Will the person be capable of discovering different viewpoints of the stories he has lived through? Viewpoints embedded in actual events and with their own plotlines, but that have probably never had the supportive context necessary to allow those plotlines to thicken?
The reauthoring of a narrative enables a person to put emphasis on aligning his stories with his lived experience, and then infusing those stories with meaning he has discovered. These preferred stories are not false accounts of a person’s life; rather, they are stories that have become invisible to the person when he has placed other stories in the foreground of his awareness. As mentioned earlier, he has most likely done this to reduce cognitive dissonance, although it may also have happened that he did not even notice a particular version of an event in his life that he now is discovering as a result of being listened to reflexively. The purpose of discovering such invisible stories is to allow a more nuanced perspective of what has happened to him—before, after, and during his involvement in a cult—to be discovered. Reauthoring is the process of a person looking back at neglected story lines in his life with an open mind, articulating them to a nonmanipulative audience, and rediscovering themes, values, and preferences for living that he may have disregarded previously.
Doing this successfully will depend largely upon who the audience is; it is the storyteller’s audience who provides him with the mirror he needs to allow different emotions to emerge and attach themselves to story content. If, for example, a person who has joined a cult and then left it after years of involvement considers himself to be unable to stand up for himself, that viewpoint can change if he recovers a story from his precult life that demonstrates initiative and independent thinking. Such a story might come from the audience of a sibling or friend acting as a reflexive listener, someone who can remind him of events he may have forgotten.
Reflexive listening is critically important to a person emerging from a cult experience because it addresses this question: Can someone listen to a leave-taker’s experience without judgment, and without attempting to steer him toward another belief system? Doing so increases the possibility that the storyteller will become curious about his own life and want to explore its possibilities. Research done by Lerner and Teflock10 makes a distinction between such exploratory thought (an evenhanded consideration of alternative perspectives) and confirmatory thought (a one-sided attempt to rationalize a particular perspective). They point out that a person is more likely to engage in the former if
his audience holds him accountable for what he says;
the views of his audience are unknown; and
the audience is well informed and interested in accuracy.
When it comes to people who have left a cult, a little open-hearted compassion doesn’t do any harm either. Can the leave-taker find such listeners? What he needs most in reclaiming his life stories are people who ask skillful questions that support his efforts to view and explore his life more broadly, not just within the confines of his cultic experience. This resource will serve as quite a contrast to the fact that when the person’s stories were “listened to” by authorities inside the cult, the likelihood is that none of Lerner and Teflock’s conditions were met.
The fact that stories can steer a person either toward self-discovery or toward acting against his own interest points out the double-edged-sword quality of stories. A person’s desire for belonging makes him vulnerable to influence, including the influence that comes when the way he tells his stories seeks to please cult leaders. Once outside the cult, a person is still likely to seek to please his audience—even if that audience no longer requires compliance from him. But if the audiences he speaks to meet the criteria mentioned above, the storyteller can choose different meanings. He can see other aspects of himself that may have been neglected in tired, oft-repeated versions of the same story. In doing so, he opens up the possibility of reauthoring his life stories. Then he can navigate toward a meaning that actually coincides with what he wants and how he wishes to live.
Reclaiming life stories after cult immersion is also made difficult by the fact that damage to the identity of a leave-taker is frequently the outcome of his experience inside the cult (identity as I am referring to it here is inclusive of a person’s physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual universe). That damage often translates into an inability on the part of the leave-taker to recognize that identity is not static. Whatever identity he has adopted in order to embrace cult life can be changed. But reauthoring his stories in order to rebuild his identity is a delicate process: His postcult confusion may make him reluctant to access the vulnerability he needs to explore neglected story lines, particularly if any trauma he’s experiencing after his cult experience is making him emotionally raw or numb to emotions altogether. Confusion may also make him feel ill-equipped to place trust in any audience. He needs to do so if he is to reauthor his identity; and skilled exit counselors, relatives, and friends who understand this can provide him with much-needed opportunities to engage in this process. But other acquaintances, new and old, may not do so. This inconsistency requires the leave-taker to choose with care the audiences he speaks his story to. It means he needs to use his critical thinking to discriminate whom he talks to about what so that whatever injuries remain after his cult experience don’t capsize his efforts to discover a postcult identity.
Once a person recognizes that his identity is not static, the next step is to realize that discovering identity is quite different from adopting identity. It is usually the case that the cognitive dissonance a person has experienced while inside a cult has been habitually reduced by his adopting the identity that supports the cult’s objectives and ideology. Once outside the cult, however, the risk associated with discovering identity is usually quite intimidating because it requires the person to “hang in there” in the face of new dissonance—what is life about now? Instead of trying to dissipate that dissonance by immediately adopting someone else’s perspective, the storyteller must be encouraged to hold his discomfort at bay for a time to allow for opportunities to explore alternative stories. He has to trust that if he is listened to well enough, he can find stories whose meanings match his lived experience. Doing so enables him to recapture his capacity for discovering identity, and for reauthoring his life.
If this process seems too tall a task for someone who has just left an environment where beliefs and meaning are tightly controlled and monitored, it’s important to remember that every person engages in the process of discovering identity early in his life: even people born into cults. As very young children we are all faced with the challenge of separating from our parents and claiming our identity. Even if that process was a clumsy, incomplete, or traumatic one for a cult survivor, it was nonetheless a process that he has engaged in before. A skilled listener will, through questions that deconstruct a person’s problem-saturated narratives and resurface invisible story lines, support that person to find stories where he may have noticed what his natural gifts are, or when he felt passionate conviction about something, or when he contradicted scripts others had for him and followed his own heart. We all have these sorts of stories. If the leave-taker’s parents/caregivers were skilled in keeping a respectful contact with him during his first efforts at identity formation,11 he will be more likely to take the risks necessary to reauthor his life narratives once he leaves a cult.
Once the leave-taker embraces the task of reauthoring, his quest to reclaim invisible life narratives will eventually take him to questions about what his life means now, and where he belongs now. He needs to put himself in the position of reauthoring his stories in a way that is more aligned with his hopes, aspirations, and dreams. That alignment is made easier if he recognizes that he should NOT engage in an effort to replace the dominant stories he believed in during his years in the cult. He should instead simply give those dominant stories less space, focusing instead on bringing forward neglected story lines. He should seek ways to allow the “plot to thicken” in these discovered new stories, a task made much easier when the stories are told to supportive audiences capable of exploring those landscapes with him.
Giving less space to dominant story lines from one’s cult history, however, is not simply a matter of ignoring it and jumping elsewhere. The task is more challenging than that: It is a task that requires a person to first deconstruct his problem-saturated narratives. This is where a therapist is particularly helpful. A therapist capable of listening to the stories of a former cult member in a nonmanipulative way provides “scaffolding” between the critical but neglected events in a person’s life via the questions he asks: questions that bit by bit allow a person to comprehend the decisions he made that led to his cult involvement, how he managed his life while there, and his decision to leave. Facing these matters with assistance is what allows him to deconstruct those events, which in turn creates the necessary space to then focus on alternative stories if he wishes to do so. Aligning with alternative stories that can be understood outside of the perspective of dominant narratives that have lodged themselves in a person’s psyche requires ongoing effort, and those dominant narratives may continue to convince him for some time that there’s only one way to see what has happened.
Skillful deconstruction of cult experience brings a person back to his possibilities. How does it do that? It reveals, eventually, whatever it was that a person was seeking when he joined a cult in the first place. His initial involvement probably had some connection to a curious side of his nature: an awareness about the sort of life he wanted to live, and the initiative he was taking to pursue that life. If his postcult conversations can lead a former cult member to recognizing that initiative, he is likely to recall more and more stories of times when he operated outside of problem-saturated narratives. This can be a powerful impetus to him in reclaiming meaning and becoming the primary author of the chapters of his life yet to come.
That awareness will sometimes include a recognition that the dominant cultural narratives he was involved in during his precult life (family, school, community) did not provide the opportunities he was seeking to fully claim his identity and pursue the life he wanted. If a person cannot find ways to pursue what’s most important to him in the circumstances in which he finds himself, it makes sense he will consider the idea of joining a spiritual or religious organization, cultic or mainstream. Maybe he’ll find his answers there. The media, a former cult member’s family, and his friendship circle can sometimes dismiss a person’s motivations for joining that organization in the first place. In doing so, they ignore the fact that doing so usually involves a healthy impulse toward self-knowledge. If that impulse can be reclaimed after he departs a cult, it provides a connecting thread for the leave-taker between various chapters of his life.
Creating circumstances in which a person who has left a cult can now freely explore the stories that have shaped his life in ways that support his agency in directing where that life will go in the future remains at the core of this task. There are no shortcuts to learning how to discover identity, particularly when you’ve had it handed to you with faulty reassurances over an extended period of time. It is always a task characterized by fits and starts, with the person occasionally securing bits of self-knowledge through trial, error, and feedback; and maybe glimpsing worlds bigger than the personality, which, if he can manage it, can be integrated on his own and in nonmanipulative relationships in which respectful contact is the norm.
There is, of course, no final version of anyone’s stories. That is what makes life so interesting. Anyone who has been in a cult and then found a way to leave it is still capable of shaping his life story himself, and of continuing to do so throughout the course of his life. He doesn’t have to turn to outside authorities to accomplish this, although this may not be clear at first. He can instead seek out and find people who don’t have ulterior motives, and whose concern for him opens up the space needed for him to explore possibilities. This takes time, but it also takes discrimination—about the audience, and about how a person spends his time after his leave-taking. If he can find ways to undertake this task using the guidelines mentioned in this paper, he may be surprised at the new chapters he can write in his postcult life.
 Narrative therapy is a postmodern therapy that originated in New Zealand and Australia, initially through the efforts of David Epston and Michael White.
 My experiences in the Ananda Marga cult in the mid-1970s are detailed in my book Quiet Horizon: Releasing Ideology and Embracing Self-Knowledge.
 Robert Jay Lifton’s (p. 419–437) concepts of milieu control, doctrine over person, and language loading explain in detail the way stories—and information generally—are distorted for maximum persuasive power in totalitarian environments.
 Leon Festinger, who first coined the term cognitive dissonance, described it this way: “The holding of two or more inconsistent cognitions arouses a state of cognitive dissonance, which is experienced as uncomfortable tension. This tension has drive-like qualities and must be reduced.”
 Psychiatrist Chris Nowakowski points out that strong emotional investments guide behavior more powerfully than weak ones.
 When a scientist employs the experimental method, he begins by proposing a hypothesis that seeks to explain why something behaves as it does. A hypothesis is nothing other than a story. It’s a story in which the ending is predicted based on past observations combined with reasoning. What differentiates a hypothesis from the stories told in cults, however, is the willingness of the scientist to have his story change if experiments yield data indicating that his hypothesis is incorrect. A good scientist is a good storyteller; he’s just not a dogmatic storyteller. He utilizes rather than abandons his critical thinking, experiments, puts together a story about how things work, presents his findings, and then exposes those findings to the viewpoints of others.
 There are many good starting points to learn more about the relationship between power and story: American anthropologists Clifford Gertz, Barbara Myerhoff, and Victor Turner; psychologists Jerome Bruner and Ken Gergen; French philosopher Michel Foucault, and Australian narrative therapist Michael White.
 For those interested in film, Kurosawa’s Rashomon illustrates this point beautifully.
 White, 1988.
 Lerner/Tetlock, 2003.
 This is problematic for many SGAs (second-generation adults born into a cult) because their early efforts at self-discovery are more likely to be filtered by their parents through the cult’s ideological prism.
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About the Author
Greg Jemsek, MA, is a narrative therapist, author, educator, and group facilitator. His work in three different countries over the course of the past 38 years includes the publication of Quiet Horizon: Releasing Ideology and Embracing Self-Knowledge, an award-winning book using Greg’s own involvement working at world headquarters in a 1970’s cult as the foundation for deconstructing psychological, narrative, and transpersonal dimensions of the cult experience. firstname.lastname@example.org