A Few Things I’ve Learned and Some People I’ve Learned From
I first discovered the world of cults when my younger brother became involved in a cultic group in the early 1970s. My husband Bill and I were young social workers at that time. At first, we weren’t particularly alarmed when we discovered that my brother joined what appeared to be a communal group in California. We were naïve and idealistic—and we believed that he was levelheaded enough to leave the group if he felt there was anything wrong with his experience. We knew that he had met a young woman on the UC Berkeley campus while he was traveling between terms. However, when he eventually returned home for a visit, we were shocked by the drastic changes in his appearance, values, and interests.
No one seemed able to explain how a young man of 19 who previously wore long hair, flannel shirts, jeans, and work boots had transformed into a person with a crew cut and an ill-fitting second-hand suit. Even more alarming to us than his outer appearance was the dramatic transformation of his personality. Although he still spoke English, his words and phrases were unnatural and confusing.
This brother was a stranger. Instead of discussing his previously held passions—civil rights, ending the Vietnamese War, love of rock music—he was actively supporting a pro-war President Nixon and proselytizing about his newfound religion. Bill and I found it impossible to make a personal connection with the young man we loved and with whom I had shared a childhood. My alarm and despair at the striking changes in my brother’s appearance and personality began a continuing education that has become the most important aspect of my professional life.
What I Learned From My Brother’s Entrance Into a Cult
What have I learned from my brother’s entrance into a cult? I’ve learned that, at a time in their lives in which they are open to new ideas, in transition, or feeling more vulnerable than at other times, innocent people can fall prey to controlling and manipulative groups. My friend and colleague Shelly Rosen has labeled involvement in a cult as similar to involvement in a natural disaster. Viewing their cultic participation in this way helps former members to better accept the notion that their becoming involved is not indicative of some pathology on their part.
During my brother’s 5 and one-half years in the cult, Bill and I had the gratifying and humbling experience of giving birth to a child, and I became aware of how loving parents can only try their best to give their children a positive childhood. In contrast to our freedom to parent as best we could, I began to learn that the children of first-generation recruits, similar to children who experience natural disasters, could be the most vulnerable cult members of all. Early on in my career, when I was working with an 8-year-old child whose father had rescued her from an abusive, cult-run boarding school, I began to see how cult leaders who need to make all a group’s childrearing decisions often prevent potentially loving parents in the cult from giving their children the love and protection they require.
While I was in social-work school, I read about how Anna Freud researched the impact of the Blitz on the children of London in 1940. The children who remained in London and received reassurance and support from their mothers fared better than those who were sent away to the countryside to be safe. Children in cults, who often are separated from their parents, are more at risk than noncult children for being neglected and/or abused. As a result of such treatment, too many of these children incorporate the attitude that they are unworthy of care and love, which has a devastating consequence on their lives. However, those who have the courage to leave often show the determination and resilience to eventually understand that what happened to them was not because of their own inadequacies.
About the time that my brother was rescued from the cult, I began my postgraduate education to become a psychoanalyst. I already had begun therapy to deal with my sense of loss. From my therapist, I learned to benignly investigate behavior and always treat clients with respect. I also learned that if the therapist helps clients to verbalize previously unacknowledged or disavowed fantasies or thoughts, individuals are better able to gain access to and rectify potentially undermining unconscious beliefs. We all carry around these beliefs or assumptions about the true meaning of events and about the people who enter our lives. Sometimes we’re wrong. We often base our beliefs on the way that we experienced interactions with others in the past.
Therapy centers on helping clients become better aware of the limiting effect of their assumptions and opens up the possibility to them of other ways to interpret events or view interactions. To gain access to their beliefs, I not only listen to clients’ words and the stories they are telling, but also comment on their nonverbal cues such as a body movement or other actions they take. For instance, I might notice and remark on how a client’s body stiffens after I’ve said something, or I might explore what it means when a client “forgets” a session. I’ll also wonder about the timing of the onset of physical symptoms clients might be experiencing for which no medical cause is found. To engage clients’ critical thinking, it also is useful for me to question them about the terms they use in sessions because cults usually have redefined the meaning of everyday words. By discovering their cultic definitions, I gain insight into their worldviews as former cult members.
Reading Freud, I learned how individuals transfer onto the therapist feelings they originally experienced with people important in their early childhood. I particularly learned about how, through transference, leaders of groups could have the power to change the superego (conscience) of group members.1 Cult leaders have a great deal of influence, in part because the recruits begin to experience them as parental figures. By focusing with all my clients on transference reactions, I learn about their early life experiences. Transference tells the story more clearly than the remembered story each tells. In working with former cult members, I began to understand that I also might become a stand-in for a more recent powerful figure from the past, the cult leader. Former cult members might play out an aspect of their relationship with the cult leader with their spouses, with bosses at work, or with me in sessions. It is important for me as therapist to explore these interactions and help the clients see them as a repetition of the past—sometimes the cult past. I also encourage clients to talk about their feelings of how they experience me without my “collapsing” or “retaliating” to use Winnicott’s words.2 I would add, “without my inflating” to Winnicott’s list. This is a way for clients to begin to explore the transference by seeing the difference between my response and their transference expectation.
Both my own therapist and all the experts I initially met in the cult-related world served as positive figures for me. They were encouraging models, and we need those models in adulthood as well as when we are young. In adulthood, they can help repair punitive and restrictive experiences of childhood and reinforce good ones. They also can help us move in positive new directions.
In my psychoanalytic training, I also learned to better understand my clients through my own countertransference reactions—that is, the feelings that were stirred up inside me during therapy sessions. As part of this process, I began to discover my own characteristic tendencies as a therapist. For example, as a new therapist, I had a tendency to want to rescue not only my brother, but also my clients. In my own therapy, I was able to understand the genesis and meaning of this tendency and, hence, resolve the repetitive, often undermining behavior. Although I am relieved that my brother was rescued from a cult, in time I learned that, for clients to grow, they needed to rescue themselves. Being rescued is undermining to clients and short-circuits their ability to think things through for themselves in their own time; they gain a sense of accomplishment from providing their own answers. Rescuing also reinforces the belief that someone else can give them “the answer,” or that someone even might have the answer to give.
Sometimes, I may be induced to feel what any therapist might feel. For example, if clients are reporting in a detached manner on a hurtful life event, I might begin to feel the sadness or anger that they have defended themselves against. Cautiously, when the time seems right, I might suggest that, even though my clients need to protect themselves from the pain of this experience, a part of them might want me to experience it. In this way, I can help clients understand how they might defend against their painful emotions by projecting those feelings into others.
In recent years, more information has become available about trauma and dissociation, and this has been helpful to my work. Members of cultic groups often have learned to dissociate—that is, disconnect. It is the therapist’s role to serve as a bridge to those dissociated feelings, sometimes in response to a client’s manner of talking and sometimes in response to somatic behavior, such as the display of a distant look.
Sometimes, the dissociative response is an aftereffect of the hypnotic techniques the cult used. However, especially for those who have dealt with cultic or childhood abuse, I believe that we can understand the dissociative response as a way of protecting themselves in the face of trauma. It is helpful for the therapist to identify and delineate each of these types of dissociative responses. The therapist can play a crucial role in recognizing the client’s disorientation, confirming the significance of an experience that the client has dissociated or devalued.
Some former cult members often wonder whether their personal experience deserves so much attention, whether it happened as they remember it. This questioning can serve as a defensive function, keeping the pain of their experience at bay, continuing to foster the dissociation. The questioning also might be an aftereffect of cultic pressure to deny their true feelings. Without validation, these individuals frequently experience confusion and doubt about the significance of the experience. One example of the value of validation is when it allows a former cult member to acknowledge that for her to receive “wisdom” or “the knowledge seed” through the cult leader’s ejaculation of sperm actually was sexual abuse.
Without acknowledgment, the client runs the risk of playing out undermining or painful experiences again and again. Freud defined this pattern as the repetition compulsion.3 That is, if we can’t acknowledge powerful experiences in our lives, we tend to repeat them with new participants, and thus we might be undermining our present relationships. The psychoanalytic therapist is working to bring all these aspects into the room with the patient, where she can think about, understand, and work through them.
When we began a support group for former cult members, Bill and I learned about the loneliness and sense of loss and alienation many individuals experience after they leave the intense cult-group experience. We learned how relieving and comforting it was to finally find an accepting community who shared aspects of their unique experience and understood how this had changed them. However, while there were commonalities, the group also became a place where diverse opinions were welcome and people were free to come and go. Sitting with former cult members each month gave us tremendous insight into the numerous ways in which they need to make adjustments to postcult life. We also learned how to be most helpful to former members by listening to the wisdom former members offer to one another.
In the early years, I discovered that mental-health professionals frequently failed to show empathy for cult members. Although today there is more awareness of cult dynamics and an appreciation of trauma’s powerful impact on personality at any stage of life, these concepts were not as available 40 years ago. Both the public at large and most mental-health professionals tended to blame the victim, viewing former cultists as emotionally disturbed. This view was based upon cult members’ strange behaviors or strange notions, their dissociative reactions, or the wide array of emotional difficulties that they struggled with when they came into clinicians’ offices after they had left the cult.
It would be many years before we began to understand that former cultists could be suffering from a wide variety of aftereffects, sometimes including symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, we had no understanding that, as part of the mind-control process, they were induced to believe their cult leader’s bizarre ideas, and that they would continue to carry most of those ideas with them when they left. As Steve Hassan has pointed out, former cult members likely were dealing with numerous fears after the phobia induction from the cult.4 That is, they believed both the cult leader’s message that they would suffer from negative consequences if they left the protection of the cult, and the cultic view that the outside world was a dangerous place.
I realized that my psychoanalytic training was not enough for me to fully understand the cult world. Although I was learning many tools to help clients grow, I knew that, to work with former cult members and their families, I had to educate myself at cult-related conferences. There, I had the opportunity to listen to remarkable pioneers such as John Clark, Robert Lifton, Margaret Singer, and Louis Jolyon West.
I learned from Dr. John (Jack) Clark that a clinician in the office who carefully listens to families without making strong presumptions is able to consider new possibilities for the meaning of their behaviors. Clark didn’t align with the many mental-health professionals who dismissed alarmed families like mine, telling them they were having trouble letting their children separate. Instead, he listened carefully to the families’ descriptions of behavioral changes in their loved ones and was open to investigating different possibilities for how these changes had occurred. Instead of relying on preconceived theories, Jack Clark was open and willing to learn from his patients. To let my clients teach me the theory was the most valuable lesson that I could learn as a new clinician.
Hippocrates observed, “It’s more important to know what sort of person has a disease than what disease a person has.” I’ve learned that, although former cult members might have gone through similar processes, each experience is unique. Based on their own personalities, members of the same cult can have quite different experiences, and can become controlled by different beliefs and dismissive of other beliefs. It’s important for therapists not to categorize too quickly.
When I first met Jack Clark and Margaret Singer, they treated me with compassion and respect; they helped me to learn about the processes that had changed my brother. Singer, along with West and Lifton, had investigated and testified about techniques the North Koreans used against American soldiers in wartime. These clinicians discovered that, whereas prisoners of war were frightened by physical coercion, the cultic groups emerging in the United States in the late 1960s were using thought-reform programs that were more “sophisticated, subtle, and insidious” (Singer, personal communication) to create a psychological bond that could be more powerful than the program the POWs had experienced.
From Margaret Singer I learned that “Therapy cannot begin until education ends” (personal communication). This means that therapy with former cult members and their families is a psychoeducational process. The most therapeutic part can be cult education, which can clarify what often has been a confusing, mystifying, and overwhelming experience. Furthermore, Margaret helped me understand how it is possible and important to deliver complex ideas in plainspoken language. Sometimes I’ll look at a sentence filled with psychoanalytic jargon and think, “How would Margaret say this?”
From Robert Lifton I learned about a variety of mind-control techniques that groups use, and I learned about the power of influence (1961). I also learned about the psychoanalyst’s need to look at the individual in the context of the larger society. Along with Singer and West, Lifton studied American prisoners of war. On his own, Lifton studied everything from Nazi doctors, to the effect of the Hiroshima bomb on survivors, to members of the Aum Shinryko cult.
Appreciating Lifton’s message led me to read Erich Fromm, particularly Man for Himself, Fromm’s study of the totalitarian conscience. This book helped me understand how those who are born, raised, or brought into totalitarian societies develop a harsh conscience; I began to feel that helping former cult members develop a more humane and compassionate conscience needed to be central to my work. I began to consider that the therapist’s conscience could serve as a new and more loving model for former members. I learned from my psychoanalytic training that understanding the meaning behind the clients’ actions is more important than to quickly judge those actions. However, while I attempt to understand how we can see mind-control techniques as influencing cult members’ antisocial or callous acts, I also find myself morally repelled by the cult leaders’ actions, and containing my reactions is often difficult. For the most part, my moral outrage seems helpful to those clients who have difficulty objectifying the cult leader’s harm and tend to blame themselves for the harmful behavior, as they had learned to do in the cult. However, at times, blaming themselves for the abusive behavior of others is extension of their early childhood thinking. At times, I have been horrified at the terrible circumstances my clients have endured. Even so, I continue to encourage them to explore their experiences. I’ve often relied on my own therapy to work out my feelings of horror, because my clients need me to be open to hearing their story.
Dr. Louis Jolyon (“Jolly”) West, along with Clark, Singer, and Lifton, viewed this field as central to the study of human rights. In fact, West previously had worked to promote civil rights in the United States and South Africa. From West, I learned about hypnosis and how sleep deprivation leads to personality change. He explained how prolonged, chronic loss of sleep, combined with an experience of increased dependency on one’s “captors,” ultimately leads to personality changes.
Later, Jolly West and Paul Martin wrote about how we can use the concept of identification with the aggressor to understand the transformation of personalities that occurs in cults (1998). I’ve seen how cult members are influenced to take on both the leader’s attitudes and view of the world. Also, through identification with the aggressor, they often will take on the leader’s contemptuous view of all recruits. As a result of this attitude, they often begin to harbor feelings of shame and self-loathing. However, as a psychoanalyst, I generally need to explore what character traits the cult leader influenced and what areas remain untouched.
More recently, my understanding of cult influence has been enhanced by Janya Lalich’s consideration of this progression as a two-person process. Lalich has demonstrated that former cult members, through “bounded choice,” participate in their own mind control (2004). That is, cult leaders demand proof of loyalty, and cult recruits believe that by renouncing previously held views (which now have become devalued) they are attaining the path to purity. Shaw has been helpful in describing the cult leader of this relational system as a traumatizing narcissist (2014).
From all of the pioneers in the cultic field, I have learned about compassion, courage, and basic decency. Clark, Singer, Lifton, and West all were attacked by the cults, and they continued to persevere in the face of, sometimes, vicious treatment. Furthermore, when I first met all of them, I was the heartbroken and confused sister of a cult member, and each one of them reached out to help me. Jack and Margaret were there from the beginning. Jolly was in the audience the first time Bill and I presented information about our support group. At the end of my presentation, Jolly gave me a smile and an encouraging “thumbs up.” I can only tell you that gesture meant the world to a young person who was dealing with tremendous anxiety about public speaking and was filled with doubts as she presented her work professionally for the first time. My brother was able to spend time with Margaret Singer and Robert Lifton after his cult departure, and I believe those interactions helped in his recovery.
Since I’ve been involved with ICSA, I’ve learned from Dr. Michael Langone. He has been a model of organization, tirelessness, good judgment, and patience. Through Michael, I’ve come to recognize the importance of research. Research substantiates our clinical work. Additionally, Michael has always been there, encouraging Bill and me to write about our clinical work. This support has pushed us to better appraise and sharpen our skills and search for the links between our clinical experience, research, and previous theory in the field. Michael tends to remain in the background, encouraging others to move forward and get the credit when he often has suggested a topic, done the groundwork, and worked on the final editing of a project. Furthermore, Michael has the flexibility to simultaneously look at the larger picture and take care of every small detail.
How My Time in This Field Has Changed Me
My time in this field over these 40 years has changed me in fundamental ways. In the beginning of this work, I often had nightmares after a session with a client who had endured particularly grim circumstances. Sometimes, I feel that I’ve seen too much of the evil side of human nature. However, I’ve benefitted from and appreciated the help and support of my husband, my therapist, my colleagues, particularly those who work side by side with me at the recovery workshops and friends I’ve met at ICSA conferences. I can say that I’ve also seen the best of human nature, not only in the compassion these clinicians have demonstrated, but also in the resilient behavior of former cult members who have rigorously worked to improve their lives.
I’m relieved that my brother has been in my life over these past 38 years to share the ups and downs of family life. He has been free to become a well-rounded person. He now is married with two sons and a good job. He continues to be troubled by the conflicts in the world, he engages in service to others, and he still has a passion for music. (Not too long ago, we shared a magical New Jersey experience at a Bruce Springsteen concert.) We rarely talk about his cult life. However, last year, he telephoned me after seeing The Master to let me know that the hypnotic techniques shown in that film reminded him of his cult experience. We spent time discussing the parallels and the chilling aftereffect of this film. Later in that phone call, we returned to our typical subjects—children, politics, and upcoming events. Although the cult experience will always be with us, my brother and I have learned that it’s important to create balance in our lives. There’s always a need for pleasurable times with loved family members and friends. I feel fortunate that my brother now is able to be a central part of that pleasure.
 S. Freud (1921), p. 126.
 D. W. Winnicott (1971), p. 91–92.
 S. Freud (1914), p. 53.
 Steven Hassan (1988), p. 64–65.
Freud, S. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. In James Strachey (Ed.), Complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (SE 18, pp. 65–144).
Fromm, Erich (1947). Man for himself. New York, NY: Henry Holt.
Hassan, Steven. (1988). Combatting cult mind control. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
Lalich, Janya. (2004). Bounded choice. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Lifton, R. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York, NY: Norton Library.
Shaw, D. (2014). Traumatic narcissism. New York, NY: Routledge.
West, L. J., & Martin, P. (1998). Pseudo-identity and the treatment of personality change in victims of captivity and cults. In S. J. Lynn and J. Rhue (Eds.), Dissociation (pp. 268–288). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and reality. London, England: Tavistock Press.
Lorna Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA, Board member (2003 to present) and past president (2008 to 2012) of ICSA, is a psychoanalyst in private practice and Dean of Faculty at the Institute of Psychoanalytic Studies. In 1976, she and her husband, William Goldberg, began facilitating a support group for former cult members that continues to meet monthly in their home in Englewood, New Jersey. Lorna and Bill received the Hall of Fame Award from the authentic Cult Awareness Network in 1989 and the Leo J. Ryan Award from the Leo J. Ryan Foundation in 1999. In 2009, Lorna received the Margaret T. Singer Award from ICSA. Along with Rosanne Henry, she co-chaired ICSA’s Mental Health Committee from 2003 to 2008. Lorna continues to publish numerous articles about her therapeutic work with former cult members in professional journals. She has authored a book chapter on guidelines for therapists and co-authored with Bill a chapter on psychotherapy with targeted parents.