Excerpted from “Coming Out of the Cults,” Psychology Today, January, 1979
Coming Out of the Cults
Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.
Most ex-cult members we have seen struggle at one time or another with some or all of the following difficulties and problems. Not all have all of these problems, nor do most have them in severe and extended form.
Depression. With their 24-hour regime of ritual, work, worship, and community, the cults provide members with tasks and purpose. When members leave, a sense of meaninglessness often reappears. They must also deal with family and personal issues left unresolved at the time of conversion.
But former members have a variety of new losses to contend with. They often speak of their regret for the lost years and feel a loss of innocence and self-esteem if they come to believe that they were used, or that they wrongly surrendered their autonomy.
Loneliness. Leaving a cult also means leaving many friends, a brotherhood with common interests, the intimacy of sharing a very significant experience, and having to look for new friends in an uncomprehending or suspicious world.
Indecisiveness. Some groups prescribe virtually every activity: what and when to eat, wear, and do during the day and night, showering, defecating procedures, and sleep positions. The loss of a way of life in which everything is planned often creates a “future void” in which they must plan and execute all their tomorrows on their own. Certain individuals cannot put together any organized plan for taking care of themselves, whether problems involve a job, school, or social life. Some have to be urged to buy alarm clocks and notebooks in order to get up, get going, and plan their days.
Slipping into Altered States. Recruits are caught up in a round of long, repetitive lectures couched in hypnotic metaphors and exalted ideas, hours of chanting while half-awake, attention-focusing songs and games, and meditating. Several groups send their members to bed wearing headsets that pipe sermons into their ears as they sleep, after hours of listening to tapes of the leader’s exhortations while awake. These are all practices that tend to produce states of altered consciousness, exaltation, and suggestibility.
When they leave the cult, many members find that a variety of conditions—stress and conflict, a depressive low, certain significant words or ideas—can trigger a return to the trancelike state they knew in cult days. They report that they fall into the familiar, unshakable lethargy, and seem to hear bits of exhortations from cult speakers. These episodes of “floating”—like the flashbacks of drug users—are most frequent immediately after leaving the group, but can still occur weeks or months later.
Blurring of Mental Acuity. Most cult veterans report—and their families confirm—subtle cognitive inefficiencies and changes that take some time to pass. Many former cult members have to take simple jobs until they regain former levels of competence.
Fear of the Cult. Most of the groups work hard to prevent defections: some ex-members cite warnings of heavenly damnation for themselves, their ancestors, and their children. Since many cult veterans retain some residual belief in the cult doctrines, this alone can be a horrifying burden.
When members do leave, efforts to get them back reportedly range from moderate harassment to incidents involving the use of force. Many ex-members and their families secure unlisted phone numbers; some move away from known addresses; some even take assumed names in distant places.
Fear may be most acute for former members who have left a spouse or children behind in the cults that recruited couples and families. Any effort to make contact risks breaking the link completely. Often painful legal actions ensue over child custody or conservatorship between ex- and continuing adherents.
The Fishbowl Effect. A special problem is the constant watchfulness of family and friends, who are on the alert for any signs that the difficulties of real life will send the person back. Mild dissociation, deep preoccupations, temporary altered states of consciousness, and any positive talk about cult days can cause alarm in a former member’s family. Often the ex-member senses it, but neither side knows how to open up discussion.
New acquaintances and old friends can also trigger an ex-cult member’s feelings that people are staring, wondering why he/she joined such a group.
The Agonies of Explaining. Why one joined is difficult to tell anyone who is unfamiliar with cults. One has to describe the subtleties and power of the recruitment procedures and how one was indoctrinated. Most difficult of all is to try to explain why a person is unable simply to walk away from a cult, for that entails being able to give a long and sophisticated explanation of social and psychological coercion, influence, and control procedures.
Guilt. According to our informants, significant parts of cult activity are based on deception, particularly fund-raising and recruitment. The dishonesty is rationalized as being for the greater good of the cult or the person recruited. As they take up their personal consciences again, many ex-members feel great remorse over the lies they have told, and they frequently worry over how to right the wrongs they did.
Perplexities about Altruism. Many of these people want to find ways to put their altruism and energy back to work without becoming a pawn in another manipulative group. They wonder how they can properly select among the myriad contending organizations—social, religious, philanthropic, service-oriented, psychological—and remain their own boss.
Elite No More. “They get you to believing that they alone know how to save the world,” recalled one member. “You think you are in the vanguard of history . . . As the chosen, you are above the law . . . ” Clearly one of the more poignant comedowns of postgroup life is the end of feeling a chosen person, a member of an elite.