Rutgers sociologist Benjamin Zablocki defines a cult as “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment.” According to Zablocki, cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members in part because members’ adulation of charismatic leaders contributes to their becoming corrupted by the power they seek and are accorded.
A conspicuous upsurge in cultic activity occurred in the 1960s and has continued to the present. Usually, cultic group recruitment focuses on young people, although many older persons and even entire families are also recruited. Most cult members ultimately leave their groups, but a substantial minority remains long enough to bear children, who spend their childhood and adolescence in the group. Many such children were born in the 1970’s and 1980’s and are now leaving the groups in which they were raised. Commonly called “second generation” former members or SGAs (second generation adults), increasing numbers of these individuals are seeking psychological, educational, and social assistance. A recently completed dissertation that investigated this population concluded:
In the samples studied in this thesis, second generation former members were found to have experienced significantly more psychological maltreatment and physical victimisation in childhood compared to those not raised in sects. The second generation also had significantly higher levels of psychological distress after leaving their sect than those not raised in a sect. (Kendall, 2006)
Cultic groups foster unhealthy forms of dependency by focusing on submission and obedience to those in authority. Research studies, most notably the work of Dr. Paul Martin and associates (Martin et al., 1992), demonstrate that psychologically abusive groups tend to create a state of anxious dependency in their members. Such a state maximizes the leadership’s capacity to control members in a variety of ways. The leadership’s subtle manipulations and/or forceful demands are reinforced by a system of rewards or punishments that always are changing, sometimes with different reactions to the same “offense.” This constant need to serve the leadership in the face of changing doctrine prevents members from becoming complacent and fosters a sense of anxious dependency. Hence, they are always trying to please while never feeling that they measure up.
Such a state of affairs can have serious consequences for children. Children are raised in an environment in which dire threats (for example: the “devil”), and regular criticism of their failings make them feel insecure, self-hating, and dependent upon leadership for whatever intermittent reinforcement leadership provides. Such an environment is the opposite of what the psychological community would recommend for the rearing of children.
A second detrimental consequence of such psychologically abusive environments results from the tendency for leadership to treat parents as “middle management” with regard to their own children. Parents are seduced and/or pressured into relinquishing primary responsibility for making decisions that impinge upon their children’s welfare. Cult parents are made to feel that they are being “selfish” when they have a normal desire for a special, loving, or exclusive relationship with their children, and their belief in the leader’s worldview leaves them unable to nurture and protect their own offspring. Thus, educational decisions, disciplinary measures, medical decisions, etc., will frequently issue from the group’s leader, directly or indirectly. If the leader does not value children or subscribes to a belief in corporal punishment, severe harm can be inflicted upon the children. A growing body of research indicates that early childhood trauma can adversely alter brain development and place such children at high risk of being severely troubled adults.
The “black or white” attitudes of cultic groups place children in a position of either submitting totally or risking severe psychological, and sometimes physical, punishment. Neither of these options—suppression of natural tendencies to test limits and assert individuality vs. exposure to possibly severe and persistent punishments—is conducive to the growth of self-esteem and a secure sense of belonging to a caring community.
Internalization of “black or white” attitudes is reinforced by the closed logical systems of such groups. Belief systems are usually so structured that leadership is always right. If a group advocates meditation or prayer to cure physical ills and a member who meditates or prays remains sick, then leadership draws the conclusion that the member is not meditating or praying enough, or not doing it correctly. Children raised in such environments cannot develop confidence in themselves, or their immediate environment, because they can be criticized even when they obey; for they are obeying irrational belief systems that often have negative consequences in the real world. But because the belief system by definition is unassailable, the child will always be “wrong.”
It is almost self-evident that groups that are isolationist, subjectivist, and logically closed will hinder children’s attempts to learn the interpersonal, intellectual, and practical skills that mainstream society puts so much effort into teaching children. If reason is denigrated because reason threatens the irrational beliefs of leadership, a child’s capacity to reason will be stunted. If the outside world is viewed as evil, a child’s opportunity to interact with a variety of people and to learn practical skills in the world will be restricted.
The adoption of “black or white” attitudes, anxious dependency, a closed system of logic, and the isolationism of psychologically abusive groups lead to rigidity, not flexibility. Moreover, the tendency to demonize those who disagree or disobey will come into conflict with normal developmental changes, such as teenagers’ tendency to test limits by breaking rules. Parents of adolescents must learn to let go of their control as their children learn to behave independently and responsibly. In addition, parents must be flexible; otherwise their children will have much difficulty in learning the skills required to be a responsible and self-sufficient adult. The rigidity of psychologically abusive environments make the teenage years, a developmental challenge for flexible and understanding parents in the mainstream world, even more stressful for cult-member parents and their offspring. Adolescents who are raised in cults and who test out new behaviors and attempt to openly or, more likely, secretly act against the group’s doctrine experience themselves as evil.
Problems of Second-Generation Ex-members
Growing up in abusive authoritarian environments leaves SGAs with a difficult set of cognitive, emotional, social, and educational problems impairing their ability to become independently functioning adults. They may lack the educational and social skills required to succeed in the work world. Their repeated experiences with interpersonal manipulation and control cause them to fear and distrust other people; hence, in addition to leaving family and/or friends behind in the cult, they often lack new friendship networks, to lean on in difficult times. SGAs frequently suffer from low self-esteem and depression, which further interfere with their ability to cope with life’s challenges.
Lacking the educational and social skills required to make a good living, combined with a lack of confidence, emotional stability, and social support, SGAs have little they can leverage in order to obtain the professional assistance required to break out of a circular problem.
To assess the scope of this problem would require epidemiological studies that society has thus far not been willing to fund. However, there are a handful of research studies that permit us to make a rough estimate of the magnitude of the problem.
From his review of this research, Langone (Langone, Internet) conservatively estimates prevalence as follows:
Assuming a lifetime incidence of 2,500,000 people having belonged to cultic groups, a “lifetime” period of 30 years, and an average length of stay of six years, Langone roughly estimates that approximately 500,000 people belong to cultic groups at any one time and approximately 85,000 go in and out of cultic groups each year.
The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) Workshop for Second Generation (SGA) ex-members was established to address the special difficulties experienced by this group and to aid in their post-cult recovery. Since many in this population lived in rather primitive and/or harsh surroundings while in their groups, often lacking privacy and facing not only neglect, but abusive treatment; we believed that the setting of the workshop was central to the recovery process. For this reason we chose a rural retreat center with a serene wooded atmosphere and comfortable private rooms.
The workshop begins prior to dinnertime on Friday afternoon and ends on Sunday at 2:30 pm. Initially, participants are welcomed to the workshop and told what to expect over the course of the week-end. Questions are encouraged and answered. It is emphasized that each program will begin with a presentation that will serve as “food for thought” during the ample time for reflection, reaction, and discussion that follows. Some participants arrive at the workshop with a mixture of trepidation and suspicion (along with hopefulness) about what will occur. The introduction emphasizes the importance of getting feedback from them all along the way. The facilitators emphasize that, although we might have some information to offer, we are here to learn from them about their experiences.
Friday evening, the first program focuses on the topic of “Critical Thinking.” Since participants have left environments in which critical thinking was discouraged, the presenter’s goal is to help participants recognize the value of a healthy skeptical attitude towards information they are given. As with all the sessions to follow, the presenter gives numerous anecdotes and concrete examples of the different ways that particular situations might be handled. Further group discussion enables the participants to observe how they were conditioned to be hyper-vigilant and to give answers to the leaders that reinforced the leaders’ agendas.
On the second day of the workshop, the program begins with two sessions by therapists who also are second generation former cultists. The topics are on “The Second Generation’s Culture of Submission and Hidden Rebellion with High Demand Groups” and “Dealing with Culture Shock” of entering the wider world after having been raised in a cultic group. As with all of the presentations, the purpose of these topics is to help participants identify the issues with which they have been struggling. After lunch, the topics include: “Evaluating Family Systems: What is Healthy? What Behavior is Abusive?”, “What is Your Own Experience?,” “Child/Adolescent Development: What is Normal?”, and “The Impact on Development in a High Demand Group.” Finally, the concept of “Resiliency” is presented in order to focus on the development of strengths in these former cult members.
After dinner there is free time, including a social hour with an optional magic show and later games. A night of fun allows the participants to “let off steam” after a day of emotionally laden topics. (All of the programs are optional. If participants wish to leave a particular session, they always are free to do so. Since the participants were born into or raised in groups that were authoritarian organizations, it is important to emphasize that they have choices throughout the weekend.)
On Sunday the focus is on “The Harsh Conscience of Second Generation Former Cult Members” and “Relationships with Family Members and Others.” Along with gaining more awareness of punitive attitudes towards themselves and others, former cultists are offered the alternative of a more compassionate, forgiving way of relating. These presentations are followed by a Wrap-Up and Feedback Session after lunch.
In entering the wider world after growing up in a cultic group, second generation former cultists often feel themselves to be immigrants in a new land. However, they usually have not arrived in this new land with other members from their original country. They usually are alone, often with limited educational, vocational, and social skills. The purpose of this weekend is to offer fellowship and the knowledge that they are not alone in experiencing their alienation from the wider world. Although the doctrine of all of their groups is different, the manipulations, exploitation, and deprivations are similar. To understand that the participants are not unique, to begin to develop a common bond with others, and to identify those experiences that continue to undermine their happiness and success in the wider world is a truly therapeutic and transforming experience. Many of the participants have continued to keep in touch with others through a listserv that was developed after the workshop and, for some, by seeing others at ICSA Conferences.
One survivor was on the brink of suicide when she attended the SGA workshop last Spring. At the SGA workshop, she found a community of hope and information. She found professionals who guided her and peers who understood her. She found that she was not the only Second Generation Adult out there who had been stripped of her innocence and denied a proper childhood. She found a reason to live.
There are twenty eight others who attended the workshop who also found comfort and strength to face their pain and begin to heal their wounds. Several attendees had lost siblings to suicide; several had tried to commit suicide themselves. There are thousands, literally thousands, of Second Generation Adults out there who are struggling; struggling to find their identities and their true communities.
“The harvest is great,” Jesus said, “and the laborers are few.” The SGA workshop provides help for a handful of lucky cult survivors. It’s not enough, but it is a start.
Kendall, Lois (2006). A Psychological Exploration into the Effects of Former Membership of ‘Extremist Authoritarian Sects. A dissertation submitted to Brunel University, Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College; Department of Psychology, United Kingdom.
Langone, Michael. (Internet). Prevalence.
Martin, Paul, Michael D. Langone, Arthur A. Dole, Jeffrey Wiltrout. (1992). Post-Cult Symptoms as Measured by the MCMI Before and After Residential Treatment. Cultic Studies Journal, 9(2), 219-250.