A Psychiatrist Looks at Cults & Their Victims
by Peter A. Olsson
Cindy (not her real name) was nineteen and a sophomore at college when her parents sought consultation with me. She had decided to stay on her college campus in a distant city, telling her parents that this would allow her to finish a term paper and save the airfare for some new clothes. Her parents were pleased by this decision. During her freshman year Cindy had episodes of intense homesickness, wrote several lengthy, lonely-sounding letters home each week, and called home weekly asking for letters and calls from her older siblings. By the second semester the homesickness attacks were less frequent, she had made a couple of new friends, was making As and Bs, and had gotten a part-time job at the student union. Her older brother had commented, “The little kid is growing up at last.”
Her parents grew mildly concerned when they heard nothing from Cindy during spring break. Finally they spoke to a suite-mate who told them she was worried because Cindy had joined a group called “the Family.” She had been going to nightly lectures and weekend group retreats. Her suite-mate said, “Cindy has lost weight and acts real spacey sometimes. I hear that ‘the Family’ says that to associate with your family and their church is ‘like eating your own vomit!’ That’s weird.”
Cindy refused to talk to her parents on the phone, telling her suite-mate to tell her parents that she was really independent now and was very happy with her new projects. Her parents grew very concerned when they learned that Cindy had quit her job at the student union, had moved into a “free dorm” owned by “the Family,” and had dropped to Cs and Ds in her grades the next semester. She was apparently working at “the Family’s” recycling center and was gone every weekend. During rare phone contacts with Cindy—when her cult dorm counselor would let her talk to her parents—Cindy sounded tired, detached, aloof, vaguely hostile, and inappropriately cheery—“in a surface way.” She wrote a terse letter to her parents telling them that she was staying at school for the summer.
When I heard this, I advised Cindy’s father to visit her immediately. What he found was alarming. She had lost twenty pounds and had a peculiar detached but smiling facial expression. She stared at her dad’s forehead, talked about “universal Christian love sources,” and spoke with pride about being selected to cook and baby-sit for “the Family’s” leader. Cindy’s father was never permitted to be alone with her at the “Family” dorm. There were always “counselors” around, and a boyfriend had been specially chosen for her by the leader. Cindy and her cult friends frequently chanted, sang “Family songs,” and danced or rocked rhythmically back and forth.
When Cindy’s father called the cult’s office, he was informed that they had no board, no CEO, no bishop, no records, and only a “spiritual leadership.” He was told that as an outsider, he should have no concerns about his daughter, who had freely chosen to join their group. Cindy’s former roommate told her dad that she had heard from another student that Cindy and others went to group confessions where they confessed “sins of the flesh,” sang, danced, and participated in group trances until the early morning hours. Cindy and her boyfriend slept on mats at the cult office so they would be able to do cult work whenever needed. When her father confronted Cindy, she told him, “We are only flesh relations now—not family any more.”
Cindy’s cult-chosen boyfriend called her father a “suppressive” and asked him to leave their “family home.” Cindy refused to go home with her father, and a young cult attorney advised her father not to interfere with her civil rights. He returned home a shaken man. We had an emergency family session where Cindy’s older brother came up with a plan. Her mother called her and lied. She told Cindy that her beloved grandmother was very ill and wanted to see her. At first Cindy refused, but she changed her mind when told that Grandma was near death.
When Cindy’s flight arrived at the hometown airport, a large group of high-school and church friends were there with her family to greet her. Her boyfriend and a “counselor,” who had flown in with her, were told they were not welcome to this homecoming party. Cindy cried and her boyfriend protested, but confronted with the large number of supporters, he retreated to a phone to call the distant cult leaders.
Cindy was naturally angry and confused when she found out that we had tricked her. At my recommendation, there were at least three friends or family members with her at all times for the first three months after her return home. We had two family sessions weekly for the first two months, and I saw Cindy twice weekly for individual therapy. With my support, the family was able to listen in great detail to the astounding story of Cindy’s indoctrination into “the Family” without attacking her or the cult that she had loved and idealized.
At her individual sessions she alternated between rage at me and awe of me. I helped her see this transference reaction towards me as a reflection of her true feelings towards guru Smith of “the Family.” Soon she was able to tell me how much I resembled him. Brother Smith had a red beard like mine. He was gentle, persuasive, charismatic, and had detailed knowledge of the Bible. Cindy’s clergyman was included in several sessions and was very helpful in the process of her therapy because he could calmly confront Smith’s distortions of Christian theology. Cindy required antidepressant medication for the first nine months of therapy.
Two years later, after twice-weekly therapy and monthly family sessions, Cindy was able to grieve her loss of the gratifying balm of cult membership. She still would occasionally “trance-out” and hear the cult hymns and mantras and feel the rhythmic dances. On one occasion toward the end of the first year, her cult boyfriend and Brother Smith called when she was home alone. She almost agreed to return to them as they applied guilt and shame tactics. Brother Smith told her that she had psychologically traumatized the children in her class at “the Family’s” school by leaving so abruptly.
The Exploitative-Destructive Cult
A cult is a nontraditional religious group or sect, regarded as spurious by the cultural majority, and in which there is excessive devotion to some person, idea, or thing. All cults offer (1) glib and confident answers to the meaning of life, (2) instant comradeship and a rapid sense of group-mediated self-worth, and (3) an emotion-based type of indoctrination or conversion, used to recruit and retain members (such as “love-bombing”).
Exploitative-destructive cults evolve and espouse doctrines, practices, and behaviors that are uncritically based on their leader’s whims, idiosyncratic revelations, or extensions of his personal psychological problems. They seek to supplant, devalue, distort, or attack traditional religious, family, or community values, concentrating much of their effort on recruiting new members and controlling the financial, social, familial, and sexual lives of their members, “for their own good.”
These cults promote isolation from the ferment of ideas abounding in the broader society and culture. They actively seek to alienate all their members from their families, communities, and churches of origin. In fact, the cult group often seeks to identify itself as a member’s new and, by charismatic implication, “superior family.” In exploitative cults, fund-raising is a high priority. First Amendment protection and tax-exempt status unintentionally aid and abet destructive cults.
Experts estimate that there are approximately 2,700 cults in America, involving perhaps three million young people between 18 and 25 (Singer) and almost as many older adults. Many of these groups are odd but benign. I estimate that there are about a hundred cults that have the potential for a malignant shift that could lead to a Jonestown or Waco. Destructive cult leaders are not harmless religious idealists who love and want to help people. They are spiritual parasites and predators with major personality problems, requiring followers to co-author grandiose dreams and schemes. They employ, by intuition or calculation, powerful mind-control and recruitment techniques.
In the early years of my study of cults, I assumed that a person lured into a cult must have severe personality weaknesses, problems, or mental illness. My research and clinical work with cult victims as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst over the past 21 years, however, has led me to conclude that nearly anyone can be vulnerable to cult recruitment during certain life circumstances. The 918 dead cult members at Jonestown, 90 at Waco, 39 at Heaven’s Gate in Rancho Santa Fe, and 69 via the Solar Temples in Switzerland and Canada are evidence of the ghastly extremes of apocalyptic cults. I am convinced that the majority of these cult victims were intelligent, idealistic people, and not mentally ill.
Cult Victims & Methods
Margaret Singer, who spent over 20 years studying and writing about cult victims, has described people vulnerable to a cult as “in-betweeners”: in-between high school and college, for example, or job-searching after high school, between divorce and a remarriage, between semesters at college when a trip home cannot be afforded, or between jobs—times when insecurity or discouragement can prevail and the need for acceptance runs high.
Cults specifically target people in these times of stress or normal life passages. Many young people have some ideals and a need to have their lives count for something beyond mere acquisition of material things. The need to affiliate with a group that has a good cause and ideals is common for teens and young adults. Cindy initially experienced “the Family” cult as her own new and special affiliation away from dependency on her mom and dad.
Cindy described to me how, when the cult recruiters first approached her, she had just broken up with a boyfriend. She was far from home and felt lonely between semesters. Having just finished work, she was standing alone, looking at the bulletin board at the student union. Several cult members approached her and pointed out the notice for their “philosophy discussion group” that evening. They all expressed an active, effusive interest in her and aggressively urged her to attend their meeting. Cindy observed,
She told me that once she began attending meetings of “the Family” regularly, there was a subtle but progressive shift in approach to her by the cult. She was encouraged, expected really, to “use my creativity” on a recruitment team to get new members. She was expected to help others find “our special, loving Family.” Fortunately for Cindy, she had the help of a truly loving, tenacious, and assertive family at home. She also had psychotherapy that was informed about destructive cults.
In addition to the “love-bombing” described above, exploitative cults use four basic processes, described by Singer, to indoctrinate, control, and retain members. These aim to accomplish (1) resocialization, (2) reparenting, (3) behavior reconstruction, and (4) self-reconstruction.
The cult encourages active separation from one’s family, community, and church of origin. Mail and phone calls from family and friends are discouraged or actually prevented. TV or print media are withheld or tightly censored or reinterpreted by the leaders. Parents are designated as “only flesh relationships” or “suppressives.”
The cult leadership reconstitutes families, controls pairings, and dictates sexual practices. Group confessions are held, and rigid, repetitive clichés and rules propounded in a context of sleep deprivation and rhythmic music and chanting. The cult leadership typically controls housing, meals, vocational activity, and even bathroom breaks during lengthy cult lectures. Cult recruiters are taught the aggressive use of the eyes and staring. Staring two inches behind a potential recruit’s eyes or forehead while smiling at him and talking cult dogma has hypnotic impact.
Unlike religious education or maturational experiences, these tactics result over time in profound mental changes. Cult mind-games result in reduced cognitive capacity and flexibility, and in the blunting and constricting of emotions, leading eventually to regressive, childlike dependency. This uncritical passivity can in turn lead to psychopathological symptoms such as hallucinations, illusions, and severe psychological detachment or dissociation. Weight loss is common, and a falsely bright facial expression is really a mask for depression or dissociation. These changes in mental status can last 12–18 months after leaving a cult. Cindy’s father was shocked when he first saw his beloved daughter in this state.
The psychotherapist is often idealized and depended upon early in therapy, but the competent practitioner helps the patient gain confidence in and dependence upon himself, where cult leaders would exploit this attitude for their own essentially selfish purposes.
The Cult Leader
Every destructive cult leader I have studied fits at least eight of the nine criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as defined in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (IV) of the American Psychiatric Association. NPD is “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early childhood.” In addition, the leaders all fit noted psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg’s criteria for malignant narcissism: (1) paranoid tendencies with brief psychotic episodes, (2) chronic destructiveness or suicidal behavior, (3) major dishonesty (psychopathy), and (4) malignant grandiosity with overt sadistic efforts to triumph over all authority.
Destructive cult leaders have typically experienced harsh disappointment with their parents due to experiences of neglect, abandonment, and shame or humiliation during their childhoods. As the years go by, these future cult leaders suffer dark epiphany experiences in mid-life that magnify and extend their memories of childhood empathy-starvation and particularly of shame and humiliation. Listen to Jim Jones preaching to his adoring followers one year before the Jonestown group suicide:
Beneath the outward confidence and swagger of these leaders is a profound, inner, unconscious sense of shame, humiliation, narcissistic rage, and fear of aloneness. Destructive rage is ready to surface whenever their progressively fragile narcissism is threatened or punctured. Thus, the cult family honeymoon is eventually over and the formerly abused, neglected and abandoned leader now becomes the all-powerful abuser, neglecter, and abandoner. Jim Jones turned suddenly and malevolently on his adoring flock with these retrospectively chilling words, in the Guyana jungle one year before their mass suicide:
Apparently unaware of the implication of these strange, third-person-oriented comments, Jones’s followers cheer. His scorn and abusive loathing of his followers escalates as he says:
Then as a finale to that night’s sermon, Jones’s scorn and abuse of his followers crescendos with these words:
Like most malignant cult leaders, Jones gradually came to perceive and proclaim himself as God. Branch Davidian leader David Koresh proclaimed himself as Christ the Messiah as he moved his cult towards group death by fiery inferno. Jones chose poisoned Kool-Aid for his followers’ deaths. Such destructive cult leaders have a bizarre sense of triumph over their personal failures as the group suicide behavior reaches a climax. The leader believes he will not die, and especially not alone.
Apocalyptic cults have a unique group myth or special “in-group” secret woven into their day-to-day existence. The leader repeatedly and boldly articulates the noble and increasingly valued fantasy of dying together for “the Cause.” The group death event is the powerful, special, “ace-in-the-hole” of cult group life and group identity. Group suicide or homicide becomes a dramatic protest or battle against external injustice or evil. Group death is not a sudden, impulsive command from the leader at a time of crisis. It is woven into ongoing lectures by the leadership and is often portrayed as a departure together to a heaven or better spiritual place.
Group death gives the leader and cult group a special, exciting, mysterious, and defining collective myth. It becomes a source of heroism and cohesion as the group “courageously” co-authors its endgame or departure. Heaven’s Gate cult members left sophisticated videotaped messages for their families and friends.
In a subtle way the leader holds the lure of group death over the heads of his followers to magnify his power. His followers find excitement in their social-spiritual journey with their leader. As apocalyptic group-time goes on, the apocalyptic group-self develops a dramatic life of its own, a reverberating, symbiotic, codependent circuitry between leader and led that allows for extreme behavior without full existential responsibility for group decisions and action.
In 1982 I interviewed a 79-year-old woman who survived the Jonestown apocalypse in Guyana. She had gone back to her tent just before Jones’s last death sermon because she had felt very tired. She slept through the group suicide and woke up next morning in a village of corpses. She looked me in the eye and said, “Doctor Olsson—they left me behind!”
Prevention & Treatment
The best inoculation against cults lies in the hard psychological work required in building good communication in one’s marriage and family. I am convinced that parents who wish to protect their children from destructive cults must pay a prior cost by devoting quality time to them. By this I do not mean time spent promoting activities meant to enhance the reputation or the social or psychological well-being of the parent, but the development of the identity, self-esteem, realistic self-confidence, and moral life of the child. If we parents don’t give this to our children, a recruiter may well “love-bomb” them into his cult at a crucial, in-between time in their lives.
Work at building close friendships and being a good friend. Family friends are particularly valuable for an “in-betweener.” Young people separating from the normal dependence on their moms and dads are often willing to listen to “Uncle” Bill while ignoring or tuning out their parents. If a friend’s son or daughter is home for the summer or between semesters, or between relationships, take him out to lunch and listen.
Invest time and money in church and community activities and projects. If you attend church or synagogue, take an active part as a family in its activities. We all hunger for healthy affiliations to help provide meaning in our lives. Beware of, and actively challenge any person who engages quickly, that is, takes extraordinary, aggressive, and spiritual interest in you or those for whom you recognize a responsibility. Be especially alert for those who seek extensive personal information without sharing their own or without speaking about their motives.
Treatment of a person captured by a cult is difficult. (“Deprogrammers” often provide a treatment worse than the disease.) Work tenaciously to keep the continuity of your relationship with a cult member. Keep sending letters, news clippings from home papers, and pictures of home and family. Encourage friends and relatives of the cult victim to do the same. Consult with trusted friends and with lawyers, clergy, and therapists who have knowledge and experience of cults. Go to cult speeches, sermons, and buildings. Take an interest in the cult’s ideas and ask rigorous but respectful questions. Actively inquire about literature and policies of the group. Ask about their financial records and policies.
If a family member departs from a cult, give him active love and support. Obtain individual and family therapy. Make sure the therapist is well informed about the post-traumatic effects of cult practices and mind-altering techniques. Knowledge and vigilance in these matters may not only save a life, but a soul.
Reston, James, Jr., Our Father Who Art in Hell: The Life and Death of Jim Jones (New York Times Books, 1981; re-issued by iUniverse.com, Inc., 2000).
Singer, Margaret Thaler, Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995).
Peter A. Olsson is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough, New Hampshire. A professor of clinical psychiatry, he has published professional articles on individual and group therapy, psychodrama, destructive cults, and terrorism.
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