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Coming Out Of The Cults

By Margaret Singer

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Coming out of the cults

Clinical research has identified specific cult-related emotional problems with which ex-members must cope during their reentry into society. Among them: indecisiveness, uncritical passivity--and fear of the cult itself.

The recent upsurge of cults in the United States began in the late 60s and became a highly visible social phenomenon by the mid-70s. Many thousands of young adults--some say two to three million--have had vary ing contacts with such groups, frequently leaving home, school, job, and spouses and children to follow one or another of the most variegated array of gurus, messiahs, and Pied Pipers to appear in a single generation. By now, a number of adherents have left such groups, for a variety of reasons, and as they try to reestablish their lives in the mainstream of society, they are having a number of special -- and I believe cult-related -- psychological problems that say a good deal about what experience in some of these groups can be like.

The term "cult" is always one of individual judgment. It has been variously applied to groups involved in beliefs and practices just off the beat of traditional religions; to groups making exploratory excursions into non-Western philosophical practices; and to groups involving intense relationships between followers and a powerful idea or leader. The people have studied, however, come from groups in the last, narrow band of the spectrum: groups such as the Children of G{od, the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the Krishna Consciousness movement, the Divine Light Mission, and the Church of Scientology. I have not had occasion to meet with members of the People's Temple founded by the late Reverend Jim Jones, who prac ticed what he preached about being prepared to commit murder and suicide, if necessary, in defense of the faith.

Over the past two years, about 100 persons have taken part in discussion groups that I have organized with my fellow psychologist, Jesse Miller of the University of California, Berke ley. The young people who have taken part are generally from middle- and upper-middle-class families, aver age 23 years of age, and usually have two or more years of college. Though a few followed some of the smaller evangelical leaders or commune movements, most belonged to a half- dozen of the largest, most highly structured, and best known of the groups.

Our sessions are devoted to discussion and education: we neither engage in the intense badgering reportedly carried on by some much-publicized "deprogrammers," nor do we provide group psychotherapy. We expected to learn from the participants in the groups, and to relieve some of their distress by offering a setting for mutual support. We also hoped to help by explaining something of what we know about the processes the members had been exposed to, and particularly what is known of the mechanisms for behavior change that seem to have affected the capacity of ex-cultists to adjust to life after cultism. My own background includes the study of coercive per suasion, the techniques of so-called "brain-washing"; Dr. Miller is interested in trance-induction methods.

It might be argued that the various cult groups bear resemblances to certain fervent sectors of long-established and respected religious traditions, as well as to utopian communities of the past. Clearly, the groups are far from uniform, and what goes on in one may or may not go on in another. Still, when in the course of research on young adults and their families over the last four years, I interviewed nearly 300 people who were in or who had come out of such cults, I was struck by similarities in their accounts. For example, the groups' recruitment and indoctrination procedures seemed to involve highly sophisticated techniques for inducing behavioral change.

I also came to understand the need of many ex-cult members for help in adjusting to life on the outside.

According to their own reports, many participants joined these religious cults during periods of depression and confusion, when they had a sense that life was meaningless. The cult had promised--and for many had provided--a solution to the distress of the developmental crises that are frequent at this age. Cults supply ready-made friendships and ready made decisions about careers, dating, sex, and marriage, and they outline a clear "meaning of life." In return, they may demand total obedience to cult commands.

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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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