Reintegration of Exiting Cult Members With Their Families: A Brief ntervention Model
Diana Paulina, M.Ed.
Ronald W. White, L.D.
A salient characteristic of totalist groups is the alienation/estrangement of their members from outsiders, including members’ families. The family alienation can be exacerbated by family attempts to “rescue” the group member. A twelve-point model is introduced to help families of totalist group ex-members in the process of psychological reintegration.
It has been estimated that there are as many as 3,000 cults, or totalist groups, in the United States today with a combined membership of up to 3 million people. Lifton (1961) defines totalism as the tendency to view the world in terms of “all or nothing” alignments. Leaving a group with such a viewpoint is often a traumatic experience. This is true whether the involvement was as short as a few weeks, or as long as several years, and whether the decision to leave was instigated by the ex-member or by some level of intervention by the family.
In 1980 Unbound, Inc. was formed to help those leaving totalist groups re-enter mainstream society. Because our main referral sources are family support groups and exit counselors, 75% of our clientele have left their respective groups as a result of some form of family intervention, and over 90% of their families support their decision. Unbound combines traditional milieu therapy with a structured educational therapy involving a wide variety of lectures and discussion group topics relevant to both totalist group involvement and the re-entry process.
Several authors have discussed the need for family counseling with ex-members (Ash, 1983; Clark, Langone, Schecter, & Daly, 1981; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982; Schwartz & Kaslow, 1979; Singer, 1978). It was apparent from the onset that family counseling is crucial to the re-entry process. Both the involvement and the intervention have subjected the family to stresses that probably have not been addressed. In addition, the family can be a readily available support system providing the exiting member needed stability during the re-entry period.
In the process of counseling over 200 families, certain common issues surfaced repeatedly. All of these issues must be addressed before the natural process of reintegrating into the family system can be completed. To enable the families to confront the issues as they arise, a twelve-point checklist was developed (see Table 1).
At Unbound, geographic and job restraints generally limit the family’s available counseling time to a single weekend. For this reason our family reintegration is generally conducted in two two-to-six-hour sessions, on two consecutive days. Between sessions, there are assignments to be completed by all family members involved in the interaction. The entire process is most easily described in terms of the twelve-point checklist (See Table 1). It must be stressed that these subdivisions are not arbitrary, but rather have emerged in response to families’ needs. The order of presentation is important as well. However, counselors with more time available may wish to schedule a third or fourth session to avoid the “marathon bargaining” aspect of an absolute time limit.
Our methods do not follow a psychotherapeutic model for pathological families. Rather, they are a condensed, brief, intense effort to educate families facing the return of a totalist group member with whom we have worked. While some of the issues addressed are specific to totalist group involvement, many of these techniques can be adapted and generalized to use with families faced with the return of any absent or estranged family member.
It is important to note that this model was designed to be used on completion of the Unbound residential program. It presupposes that the ex-member has come to terms with his or her group involvement and is ready to resume or begin a job, education, or career. A fun explanation of the criteria indicative of any ex-member’s readiness to begin the reintegration process is beyond the scope of this paper. At the risk of oversimplification, those criteria are: (1) an understanding of the processes of thought reform; (2) an awareness of any logical fallacies contained in the group’s doctrine; and (3) a realization of personal unmet needs which made the group attractive, as well as some idea of how those needs could be legitimately met. At Unbound, family reintegration is done after the ex-member has spent from two to six weeks in the residential counseling program.
Twelve-Point Checklist of Procedures [Goals]
- Restoration of family history (obtain family history/communication patterns; reconnect family structure; allay “counseling” fears; identify other family issues)
- Other family issues (possible referrals)
- Education by ex-member (diminish “caretaker urge”; uncover involvement issues)
- Education by counselors (“unfreeze” communication patterns; focus on group process)
- Discussion of involvement and family intervention (allow all family members to share perspectives)
- Identification of positive and negative aspects (validate motives and behavior)
- Termination of family intervention (diminish “caretaker urge”; rite of passage for ex-member)
- Discussion of “fishbowl phenomenon” (allow family to share perspectives; diminish “caretaker urge”; practice family problem solving)
- Seal of approval (diminish “caretaker urge”; rite of passage for ex-member)
- Discussion of value lists (validate motives and behavior; allow family to share perspectives)
- Future planning (allow family to share perspectives; diminish “caretaker urge”; behavior contracts/problem solving)
- Termination (rite of passage for family)
Although we prefer to work with the entire family, sometimes logistics make this impossible. Nevertheless, substantial gain can be achieved in working with the ex-member and only one family member, provided that person is a parent or parent surrogate.
We believe that the manner in which a given family interacts is as important as, or perhaps more important than, the specific issues with which they deal. For this reason, a team approach is used. The team consists of at least two family counselors, preferably one male and one female. One or more staff counselors may be brought in for large families, or for training purposes. The team approach has a number of advantages: (1) it allows more information to be gleaned by freeing one counselor to observe the family while the other is interacting; (2) it promotes the level of counselor control necessary for any brief intervention; (3) it provides a broader base of counselor expertise; and (4) it moderates countertransference feelings. The counseling team spends considerable time between sessions integrating the various observations into a unified whole and analyzing certain stylistic features of family interaction. We can then more effectively deal with these patterns and aid families attempting to reincorporate a member who has been absent for some time.
As reported by ex-members, totalist groups often successfully alienate the member from the family. A number of techniques are used often in conjunction with one another, to create an “us-versus-them” mentality toward the family: examples include physical or geographic separation, redefinition of the word family itself, exaggeration of the negative aspects of the “biological family” dynamics, and appropriation of traditional family values.
For this reason, the first session is largely devoted to taking a family history, with a twist. Rather than each member providing information about himself or herself, the children answer questions about the parent and vice versa. The family members are assisted in reconnecting with feelings, memories, and values through questions such as: “Tell me a time you were proud of _____________.” “Name three strengths that you see in ______________.”
One of the benefits of these types of questions is that they show the family how much they do and do not know about one another. The families are told at the onset that correctly answering.50% of the questions is average. Children are surprised when they realize that they cannot answer questions about their parents as well as they can about their peers. Parents are surprised that the children remember stories about their grandparents that were told years ago. Whether or not the respective family members know more or less about each other than they thought, the myth that “I know exactly how you are going to react” is broken.
Another goal of this exercise is “humanizing” the family, particularly the parents. Initially, children tend to regard their parents as virtually omnipotent creatures arbitrarily imposing their will. But children later adopt an opposite view after discovering their parents have “feet of clay.” By asking such questions as “When did your father consider himself an adult?” the siblings are encouraged to look at their parents as people having the same uncertainties and problems they have. We are surprised at how many young people have never seen their parents err or cope with failure.
Many families come with one or two opposing, yet equally erroneous, viewpoints. Some expect to circle around the ex-member to analyze his or her behavior, and others to be told “what they did wrong” to predispose their child to “join a cult.” The format of the first session, being completely unexpected, dispels these expectations.
By asking some light-hearted questions, the counselors can ease some of the anxiety that the family had on hearing that they were to undergo counseling. Figuring out what the parents were like when they were young is fun. An almost game-like atmosphere is established. Spending equal amounts of time on each family member removes the ex-member from the spotlight, and emphasizes the fact that it is a group process. This also gives the counselors the chance to look for communication breakdowns, unspoken expectations, nonverbal communications, and other family issues. The light-hearted forum does not preclude asking some tough questions of everyone: “What does your mom think were the reasons for your group involvement?” “Have you ever seen them fall, or make a mistake?” “What do they see as the country’s worst problem today?”
The remainder of the first session is spent making and explaining three specific homework assignments: family education on thought reform by the ex-member, fisting values of family members, and writing behavioral contracts for self and other members of the family.
Education by Ex-Member
Although parents and family members become familiar with the concept of thought reform in the process of deciding to intervene, they almost never have the depth of understanding that an ex-member has. The ex-member is instructed to explain thought reform, using any of several paradigms he or she has learned, using examples from his or her own experiences, both in the group and in society at large. Putting the ex-member in a teaching position helps him or her re-establish credibility in the eyes of the family and vice versa. Ex-members comment often that they didn’t think they could teach their parents, or even that their parents could still learn anything. Mark Twain’s quip that his father learned much while Twain was away at college becomes practical experience for the ex-member.
If there are fundamental disagreements on the issues of thought reform or totalism, it is probable they will surface while the ex-member is teaching, rather than in the counseling environment. These disagreements can be resolved once back in that environment.
A second assignment is for each person to list his or her values and those of other family members. Preceding the actual listing, we discuss with the family the nature of values, how they are formed, how they can change and be changed, and what actions demonstrate that a person in fact holds a particular value. Because knowing something about a person’s background, history, and experiences often enhances understanding of that person’s values, family members come to appreciate and understand their differences with regard to values. Counselors try to use concrete examples as much as possible, e.g., the value of “family” is demonstrated by the family members’ attendance.
The third assignment is the construction of behavioral contracts. Many family members have unverbalized expectations of one another. These often stem from an individual’s understanding of a particular “role” (mothers remember birthdays, dads don’t), from consistency of past behavior (dad always comes home from work at 5:00), or the belief that those who know us can read our minds (“you know I like you to remember my birthday”). Regardless of their origins, these expectations can easily lead to disappointment if they are not expressed. With this caveat, the family members are asked to generate at least one ‘wish’ for each member of the family. Again, it is important to keep the process even-handed and prevent other family members from “ganging up” on the ex-member.
The form used for this assignment serves as a pattern for future negotiations. (“______, I would like you to .’) The first blank represents an individual family member and the second blank must be behavior that is specific and measurable. “I would like you to be happy,” is an admirable sentiment, but it is neither behavior-specific nor measurable. “I would like you to phone me every Sunday,” is both specific and measurable and provides a basis for discussion and negotiation.
The first session closes with the counselors modeling a behavioral contract negotiation in which they fix the time of the next day’s meeting. The counselors try to model how to negotiate disagreements. For example, one counselor may suggest an early morning meeting time, and the other counter with a preference for an afternoon meeting.
At the beginning of the second session, the family is informed that there is a lot of work to do in a short period of time. The counselors get reports on the ex-member’s explanation of thought reform from all family members, as well as the ex-member’s assessment of how well the family learned the information. Their respective assessments can be checked by quizzing the family briefly on what they have learned. As mentioned earlier, disputes may have emerged outside of the counseling environment. Because such disagreements may be indicative of unresolved frictions (perhaps over the involvement itself), the counselors must take particular care to bring them to the surface, so they can be dealt with in the course of this session
Education By Counselors
The family is briefly instructed about communication, particularly how words can affect listeners. This education takes the form of some “rules” for the session. For example, a key rule is “talk to, not about.” During the first session, family members, as they answer questions, often talk to the counselors about one another. Because the issues to be dealt with the second day are more likely to reveal underlying family stresses, the family members are encouraged to talk to one another about these matters. This facilitates greater consciousness about the effects their statements have on one another.
Several “buzzwords” are introduced — chosen for their tendency to inhibit communication. A buzzword, for these purposes, is a word that carries with it meanings and implications in addition to its actual definition. Usually the extra meaning is in the form of the response the word engenders in its hearer. Family members’ becoming aware of these additional meanings sensitizes them to their own usage of these words and, consequently, makes them more likely to think before speaking. The first such word is “why,” a word which tends to put the person being questioned on the defensive. The point is emphasized by asking the family members several why questions – “Why are you sitting in chair?” These examples help demonstrate that the read meaning behind a why question is often a value statement or an insinuation that there is no good reason for the behavior, thus making the listener feel defensive.
Another buzzword is “but.” Again, a quick demonstration such as: “Mom, I really like you, but….” is helpful. It is suggested that “and” can often replace “but” as a conjunction. An example: “I really like you, but you smoke cigarettes” evokes a somewhat different response from “I really like you, and the fact that you smoke cigarettes is a problem.”
Part of the parental role is to teach children “right from wrong.” Statements such as ”you should not steal” illustrate the process of instilling values in young children. As the child matures and internalizes these basic values, the parents’ role changes from authoritarian to advisory. With this introduction, it is then pointed out that the next buzzword, “should,” can be guilt-inducing, particularly when it comes from a loved one. We suggest that it be replaced with an honest statement of the value it reflects. For example: “you should live close to your parents” is probably more honestly stated as “I feel more secure when you are nearby.” Many of us have internalized the use of should, resulting in self-induced feelings of guilt. “I should do the laundry today” can be a self-punishing internalization of a parent saying “you should do laundry today.” Replacing should with a definitive verb like “will” or “won’t” can help alleviate guilt feelings and can also help define whose value was being acted on in that situation (e.g., Mother always did laundry when there was one full basket as opposed to two.). The final effect of “should” is limiting choice. It forces a choice between “will” or “won’t,” when in fact it may be more productive to question the externally imposed value underlying the “should.” For example, doing the laundry does not have to be a scheduled activity.
Next, the fallacy of labeling behavior or individuals is discussed briefly. For example: when we observe someone not paying attention to our conversation, a common reaction is to label him or her, e.g., “You’re rude!” An alternative is suggested: “When you (look out the window while I’m speaking), I feel (threatened, confused, neglected … ).” The counselors’ imposition of rules on the family’s process of communication forces the family members to pay more attention to that process.
Discussion of Involvement and Family Intervention
The families with whom Unbound works have, to some extent, intervened in the group member’s life. This intervention can be as limited as the family’s having asked the member to talk to a counselor, or as extreme as having hired security teams to restrain the group member while presenting information he or she was not allowed access to while involved with the group. Such an intervention is rare in the normal process of growing up: generally, parents slowly give children freedom and responsibility as the children are capable of dealing with it. In a cult situation, however, families often feel compelled to reinitiate a controlling parental role. The “caretaker urge” an understandably cause feelings of anger and/or guilt in the group member, who is now anxious to get on with his or her life (Clark et al., 1981; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982; Singer, 1978). It can also cause anxiety in the parents, who never thought they would have to assume such control of their adult child’s life. Family members also tend to feel confused and uncertain about the degree of difficulty and necessary recovery time associated with various kinds of interventions. Some families have heard that an ex-member’s judgment or emotions will not be trustworthy for some fixed time period, ranging from several months to several years. The ex-member may fear that the intervention will expand into an attempt by the family to redirect his or her life. These problems are especially conspicuous in deprogramming cases.
What must be ascertained first is whether the ex-member had completed the individuation process before involvement with the group, or whether the involvement was a part of that individuation. In the latter case, care must be taken to preserve that individuation — the counselors strive to make the reintegration a rite of passage to adulthood. If individuation had been established prior to group involvement, then the task is one of rekindling and reestablishing relationships that had existed in the past.
A full family discussion of the intervention usually demands a discussion of the group involvement itself. The ex-member’s impressions of the involvement are generally very different from those of the rest of the family. The family begins the discussion of their impressions of the involvement by answering questions such as “How did you find out about the involvement?” “When did you begin to feel the group was totalist?” Behavior-specific answers are demanded. Responses such as “they seemed brainwashed” and other generalities are not sufficient if the parents are to preserve their integrity. How the family made the decision to intervene is then discussed. It is essential for the ex-member to understand that the family members felt they had concrete grounds for their concerns and were acting in the best way they could, given their level of understanding at the time.
Everyone will have a unique view of the intervention, its causes, and other antecedent events. By discussing all of those views openly in an egalitarian atmosphere, each person is afforded the respect and understanding he or she deserves. No view is given precedence or greater approval but rather an attempt is made to gain greater understanding of one another.
The family must realize this was a unique situation, in order that the ex-member can resume life without looking over his or her shoulder in fear of another intervention. This is done by asking the family directly, “Under what circumstances would you intervene again?” Several “worst case” scenarios are offered and discussed. The counselors emphasize the fact that totalist group involvement may constitute a unique justification for an extreme intervention. That is not to say that the family win no longer be observant and caring. The goal of the intervention was to provide the ex-member with information. That goal has been accomplished and the family now has more constructive ways to exchange their observations, express their concerns, and demonstrate their feelings.
Further, the ex-member is asked: “When are you going to let them off the hook?” and “If you were in their shoes, what would you have done?” It is likely that residual resentment will cause unnecessary stress later on. Dealing openly with these issues serves to refocus everyone’s thinking toward problem-solving, i.e., exploring a wider range of alternatives and openly negotiating agreements.
Identification of Positive and Negative Aspects
The family must come to understand that the ex-member wasn’t merely “hoodwinked” into the group by a sinister character taking advantage of some special vulnerability. The causes of involvement are much more complex (Clark et al., 1981). The involvement taught the ex-member much about himself or herself and living in general. We stress that there are positive aspects to having been a member of a totalist group. Group membership, for example, demonstrates an ability to make a deep commitment to an ideal. In short, the common family view that the time spent in the group was a total loss is challenged and replaced by a more optimistic view. To encourage mutual understanding, the parents are asked to list three positive effects of the involvement (not the intervention) and the ex-member is asked to list three negative effects of the involvement.
The substantial financial costs of deprogramming or exit counseling are often sensitive issues. Does the family expect to be reimbursed? Will they accept the money if the ex-member has a need to repay the costs? Does this expenditure represent a greater love for the ex-member than for other offspring? How much is a mind worth? How much is this education worth? With a recitation of questions like these, a number of perspectives are exposed and examined with a view toward open, verbal agreements. It is expected that the family will resolve this particular issue at a later date.
Termination of Family Intervention
Finally, the family’s intervention is formally terminated. This is often done by having the family physically gather up imaginary “control” and hand that back to the ex-member. After the symbolic termination of the family’s intervention, we focus on issues that can tend to impede the process of turning control over to the ex-member.
Discussion of “Fishbowl” Phenomenon
Ex-members often report a feeling of being under public scrutiny. The common stereotype of a totalist group member is that he or she is somehow socially or psychologically maladjusted. In addition, many persons feel that group involvement has left the ex-member vulnerable to social pressure, and that he or she must be protected from such pressure (Clark et al., 1981; Singer, 1978). This caretaker urge is a logical extension of a blame-the-victim mentality. We explain to the family that the urge reflects a “just world” theory — to protect oneself from the potential of victimization, the onus of blame is placed on the victim (Lerner, 1970). Here, that blame takes the form of assuming that the ex-member has a unique vulnerability to totalist involvement.
The idea that family dynamics are responsible for the ex-member’s “vulnerability” is almost as prevalent as the notion of vulnerability itself, even among professionals. When these two notions are juxtaposed for the family, they will willingly “jump into” the fishbowl with the ex-member, and lend their support in dealing with the issue. The family is asked to identify those who are aware of the ex-member’s involvement, and to explore strategies for dealing with these people. This enables the family to practice problem-solving skills as a group.
A comparison can be made between the ex-member and someone who is suffering from a physical handicap. Most people are naturally curious about the handicap, yet fear of embarrassing the handicapped person or themselves often keeps them from even looking at it, let alone asking about it. With this in mind, it is suggested to the ex-member that initiating a discussion of the group involvement may be the best way to deal with the issue. Once the ice has been broken, others can discuss the matter and question freely without fear of hurting the ex-member. Through discussion, the ex-member can dispel their misconceptions.
Family members often report a feeling of “walking on eggs,” a fear that the wrong question or comment will send the ex-member into a panic, or cause him or her to want to return to the group. By raising these issues, we provide a forum for the family members to discuss their feelings and to ask some of the “hard” questions they really want answered. Our experience has been that the fears are generally unwarranted and that the ex-member is quite capable of answering questions about his or her group involvement, or of telling the family the question is one that he or she is not willing to deal with yet.
Some family members may wish to keep the entire episode private. Others may wish to “go public,” perhaps to educate or counsel, or simply because they are proud of having dealt with a difficult situation. Open discussion of all perspectives helps each member understand the many sides to this issue.
Seal of Approval
This part of the reintegration may be unique to Unbound, or to cases where the counselor has been working with the ex-member and is ready to terminate. For Unbound clients, there is a short commencement exercise, complete with the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” highlighting the experience as a unique rite of passage. The family is asked to stand, and the ex-member is ceremoniously awarded an Unbound T-shirt, a “seal of approval” that the client has an understanding of his experience as well as the persuasive techniques used by the society at large.
Discussion of Values
A comparison of the “value lists” the family members were asked to generate is now made. Family members’ names are written on a blackboard, and their corresponding values are listed in columns beneath. Parents are frequently surprised to learn that many of the values they tried to instill in their children are, in fact, still intact. Ex-members are equally surprised to learn that their values parallel those of their parents. Cases where values differ significantly provide another opportunity for the family to confront a potentially stressful situation as a group.
Central to family reintegration is discussion of what family members can expect from one another in the immediate future. If the ex-member can demonstrate systematic planning for the future, the family members feel more at ease in relinquishing the control they had asserted — the caretaker urge is further allayed. The expectations list assigned the previous day is now discussed. The general format of the expectations is “________, I would like you to .” This sentence stem is put on the board, and one by one, each family member is asked to fill in the blanks for another family member. One of the counselors writes these expectations on the board, and edits to keep such expectation behavior specific. If cursory editing is not possible, e.g., “I would like you to be happy,” the actual behavior expected must be elicited. Generally, only one or two “wishes” from each family member’s list are discussed to model the contracting process. The family is instructed to finish the lists on their own.
The brief intervention is then terminated. As a rite of passage for the family, the ex-member is introduced to the family, and vice versa, taking care to emphasize the change from caretaker/dependent to a more peer-like relationship. The final “prescription” is hugs or handshakes all around.
Ash, S.M., (1983). Cult-induced psychopathology: A critical review of presuppositions, conversion, clinical picture, and treatment. La Mirada, CA: Biola University.
Clark, J.G., Jr, Langone, M.D., Schecter, R, E., Daly, R.C.B., (1981). Destructive Cult Conversion: Theory, Research, and Treatment. Weston, MA, American Family Foundation.
Goldberg, L. & Goldberg, W. (1982). Group work with former cultists, Social Work, 27(2), 165-170.
Lerner, M. J. (1970). The desire for justice and reaction to victims. In Macaulie, J., and Berkowitz, L. (Eds), Altruism and Helping Behavior. New York: Academic Press.
Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. New York: Norton.
Markowitz, A. (1983). The role of family therapy in the treatment of symptoms associated with cult affiliation. In D. Halperin (Ed.), Psychodynamic Perspectives on Religion, Sect and Cult. Boston: John Wright PSG Publishing.
Schwartz, L. L., & Kaslow, F. W. (1979). Religious cults, the individual and the family. Journal of Marital and Family Counseling, 5(2), 15-26.
Singer, M. T. (1978). Therapy with ex-cult members. Journal of the National Association of Private Psychiatric Hospitals, 9(4), 14-18.
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Kevin Crawley is a member of the American Family Foundation’s Victim Assistance Committee. With Diana Paulina, he co-founded and co-directed Unbound. Financial constraints, unfortunately, forced the closing of Unbound while this paper was in the process of publication.
Diane Paulina, M.Ed. is a teacher at an alternative school in Iowa City and is working on her doctorate in Post-Secondary Education at the University of Iowa.
Ron White, L.D. is currently a practicing attorney and resident curmudgeon in New Paltz, New York.