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Coming Out Of The Cults

By Margaret Singer


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Coming out of the cults

[...continued from...] The cults these people belonged to maintain intense allegiance through the arguments of their ideology, and through social and psychological pressures and practices that, intentionally or not, amount to condition ing techniques that constrict attention, limit personal relationships, and devalue reasoning.

Adherents and ex-members describe constant exhortation and training to arrive at exalted spiritual states, altered consciousness, and automatic submission to directives; there are long hours of prayer, chanting, or meditation (in one Zen sect, 21 hours on 21 consecutive days several times a year), and lengthy repetitive lectures day and night.

The exclusion of family and other outside contacts, rigid moral judgments of the unconverted outside world, and restriction of sexual behavior are all geared to increasing followers' commitment to the goals of the group and in some cases to its powerful leader. Some former cult members were happy during their membership, gratified to submerge their troubled selves into a selfless whole. Converted to the ideals of the group, they welcomed the indoctrination procedures that bound them closer to it and gradually eliminated any conflicting ties or information.

Gradually, however, some of the members of our groups grew disillusioned with cult life, found them selves incapable of submitting to the cult's demands, or grew bitter about discrepancies they perceived between cult words and practices. Several of these people had left on their own or with the help of family or friends who had gotten word of their restlessness and picked them up at their request from locations outside cult headquarters. Some 75 percent of the people attending our discussion groups, however, had left the cults not entirely on their own volition but through legal conservatorships, a temporary power of supervision that courts in California and several other states grant to the family of an adult. The grounds for granting such power are in flux (see box on page 81 ), but under such orders, a person can be temporarily removed from a cult. Some cults resist strenuously, some times moving members out of state; others acquiesce.

Many members of our groups tell us they were grateful for the intervention and had been hoping for rescue. These people say that they had felt themselves powerless to carry out their desire to leave because of psychological and social pressures from companions and officials inside. They often speak of a combination of guilt over defecting and fear of the cult's retaliation -- excommunication -- if they tried. In addition, they were uncertain over how they would manage in the outside world that they had for so long held in contempt.

Most of our group members had seen deprogrammers as they left their sects, as part of their families' effort to reorient them. But none in our groups cited experiences of the counterbrainwashing sort that some accounts of deprogramming have de scribed and that the cults had warned them to be ready for. (Several ex members of one group reported they had been instructed in a method for slashing their wrists safely, to evade pressure by "satanic" deprogrammers -- an instruction that alerted them to the possibility that the cult's declarations of love might have some not-so-loving aspects.)

Instead, our group members said they met young ex-cultists like themselves, who described their own disaffection, provided political and economic information they had been unaware of about cult activities, and described the behavioral effects to be expected from the practices they had undergone. Meanwhile, elective or not, the days away from the cult atmosphere gave the former members a chance to think, rest, and see friends -- and to collect perspective on their feelings. Some persons return to cult life after the period at home, but many more elect to try to remake life on the outside.


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About This Page:

• Subject: Coming Out Of The Cults, by Margaret Thaler Singer
• First posted in Apologetics Index: Jun. 3, 1997
• Last Updated, in CultFAQ.org: Feb. 15, 2005
• Copyright: Psychology Today
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