Healing From Experiences With Unhealthy Spiritual Groups And Cults
Treatment Using Myths And Folk Tales
Leland E. Shields
F. Jeri Carter, Ph.D.
Over the years much has been written describing experiences of individuals in abusive and exploitive spiritual groups and approaches to the treatment of the issues they bring. Building upon the foundation of previous work, an approach to group treatment of this population is presented herein. Treatment of this population has the particular challenge of working constructively with individuals who have previously surrendered a disproportionate share of control to authority. The group treatment approach presented balances the delivery of information with a respectful use of authority. Folk tales and religious stories are used to catalyze reflection and discussion of the meaning of the client’s experiences for each individual. Cognitive information about the practices of unhealthy spiritual groups is offered as supportive written material in a non-didactic manner. In this way, structure is provided to initiate the group therapy process, while allowing the group members maximum autonomy in the group.
Unhealthy spiritual communities exist on a continuum from somewhat dysfunctional congregations of mainstream religions to what some may define as “cults.” (Further consideration of what may be included on this continuum is included below.) The terminology “unhealthy spiritual community” (USC) will be used in this paper instead of the more common word, “cult,” in order to represent that clients may seek assistance in healing from a broad range of spiritual or religious communities. The level of trauma experienced by an individual will also vary considerably based on the age, gender, developmental level, nature of the participation of the member, and the degree of dysfunction of the community. Treatment approaches must accommodate the level of trauma in a commensurate fashion. The approach presented below has been designed to address those having suffered moderate trauma due to their involvement in USCs. Clients involved in USCs as children who experienced neglect, physical and sexual abuse would be at higher risk for severe traumatization, and less likely to be appropriate for the group treatment described below without modifications to the methodology.
It has been suggested that exit counselors and therapists working with ex-members of cults be familiar with the specific communities of their clients (Hassan, 1990; Langone, 1993). While helpful for therapists, familiarity with the communities may be essential for exit counselors in providing material for critical reflection of the group in which the client was involved. Even when the client has already decided to leave the USC, counselor-provided information can still be helpful in assisting the healing of trauma. For example, many ex-members share feelings of guilt and shame due to their involvement in the groups (Singer, 1996). These feelings are often exacerbated by the accusatory questions and reactions of those around them curious to know how someone like “them” may have become involved in such a USC (Shaw, 1996). For these clients, basic information about sophisticated recruitment techniques used by some USCs may normalize their position and assist them in regaining their self-esteem. Factual information on this topic and others commonly relevant to many or all ex-members of USCs is helpful to clients as part of treatment.
When factual information is provided in a didactic format, however, the therapist would be taking the role of “teacher” and the client is once again relegated to being the “student.” While the effects of this dynamic can certainly be mitigated, they are potentially even more powerful in a group therapy setting. To circumvent this pitfall, the present method avoids any use of a lecture format. Instead, it is suggested that factual material be distributed as handouts at the end of group sessions. Topics for handout may include, 1) what defines a spiritual group as a “cult,” 2) who joins a cult? 3) techniques used by spiritual groups to recruit members, 4) what attracts people to USCs, what needs of an individual are fulfilled by participation in USCs? 5) techniques used by groups to control thought or limit critical thinking, 6) teachers, gurus, and spiritual leaders, 7) surrender of self in spiritual practice, 8) projection and the student-teacher relationship and 9) common psychological difficulties of ex-members of USCs.
Since the basis of the group therapy is nominally to explore and heal experiences in USCs, groups may benefit from some structure to establish the forum, particularly as they begin. The imposition of structure will again run the risk of establishing a hierarchical relationship that will be counterproductive to the group. As in the dissemination of factual information, structure can be provided as a suggestion, leaving the group itself room to choose the nature of its response. Folk tales and myths are by nature subjective and pregnant with potential for varied associations and perspectives. By offering stories to the group, topics relevant to issues central to the process of healing may be softly introduced.
Group treatment, utilizing both cognitive and mythic elements, is an extrapolation of means used by the authors in working with groups and individuals from various backgrounds, including those from USCs. The use of stories and myths is also an extrapolation of techniques pioneered by Jungian and Archetypal psychologists (Jung, Hull & Kerenyi, 1972; Estes, 1992; Hillman, 1983). Clinical tests of the techniques described herein are proceeding. The concepts are presented for clinicians to consider for adaptation to their own styles and client populations.
Defining Unhealthy Spiritual Groups and Cults
One definition of a cult is provided by Langone:
…a group or movement that, to a significant degree, (a) exhibits a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, (b) uses a thought reform program to persuade, control, and socialize members (i.e., integrate them into the group’s unique pattern of relationships, beliefs, values, and practices), (c) systematically induces states of psychological dependency in members, (d) exploits members to advance the leadership’s goals, and (e) causes psychological harm to members, their families, and the community. (1993, p. 5)
Alternatively, Singer (1996, p. 58) suggests a model of influence and persuasion that exists along a continuum starting with education on one end of the scale, and moving through advertising, propaganda, and indoctrination to Thought Reform on the other end of the scale. In this model, Thought Reform is defined as a system used by cults to destabilize an individual’s sense of self, get the individual to radically alter his or her world view to be that of the organization, and induce the individual to develop a dependency on the organization (Singer, 1996). This process is accomplished by the use of deception, controlling the individual’s environment and time, creating a sense of powerlessness, suppressing the individual’s old behaviors, instilling new behaviors, and presenting a new closed system with no tolerance for criticism or input (Singer, 1996). Any specific spiritual group may include methods of persuasion at various points along the continuum suggested above, and the types of persuasion used may vary with time and between congregations that are a part of the organization.
Similarly, different spiritual groups may use selected techniques from the methods of Thought Reform listed above, and use them to various degrees. An argument could be made that mainstream religions and Cognitive Behavioral psychologists use methods of thought control to a degree. Mainstream religions may also include some of the features defined as characteristics of cults as well. The presence of selected characteristics or less coercive indoctrination alone does not necessarily define a community as a cult. This leaves a subjective quality to the identification of unhealthy spiritual communities and cults.
As treatment practitioners (as opposed to policy developers), it is unnecessary for us to develop a rigid definition of USCs to impose upon organizations. Rather, information about cults’ characteristics, models of persuasion, and Thought Reform better serve us as stimuli with which to explore with our clients the nature and intensity of their perceptions of their communities. By providing information about experiences common to many ex-members of USCs, clients have an opportunity to reflect upon those characteristics meaningful to them.
Factual Information And Healing From USC Involvement
There is no doubt that the two thousand or more groups regarded as cults (Schwartz & Kaslow, 2001) with two to three million members (Bloch & Shor, 1989), and the possibly greater number of USCs encompass a breadth of styles and unique rituals. Clearly no pre-prepared handouts could capture the range of issues of importance to all groups. Still, many of the ex-members present questions and concerns around common issues (Hassan, 1990; Singer, 1996; Langone, 1993). By increasing their cognitive understanding of these issues, some ex-members are able to find perspectives with which they can better understand their involvement in USCs and often reduce their feelings of guilt and shame. The topics described below for inclusion as prepared handouts encompass some issues identified by others (Hassan, 1990; Singer, 1996; Langone, 1993) and some issues associated with the stories to be included in the group treatment approach. The intent of the handouts is to provide information, not answers, so that the clients may come to their own conclusions. Presentation of multiple viewpoints requiring their judgment will likely be at variance with their experience within USCs.
What Defines a Spiritual Group as a “Cult?”
Depending on their own stage in the healing process, many ex-members of USCs may wish to explore the ways in which their community provided an environment in which they were able to grow and other ways in which it contributed to trauma and was a barrier to their personal development. Not all clients will be ready to consider both positive and negative aspects of their experiences at any given time, though their emotions may be complex and include ambiguity. Exposure to descriptions of common features of cults may assist clients in reflecting on the negative aspects of their groups, help them to normalize their reactions, and affirm critical thoughts about the group that may have been long discouraged and suppressed during their group membership.
In addition to the definition of cults provided above (Langone, 1993), the use of more than one characterization may provide clients alternate perspectives and vocabularies for comparison. Carol Giambalvo has the following list of characteristics included on her website.
What Are Some Characteristics of a Cult?
Authoritarian in their power structure
Totalitarian in their control of the behavior of their members
Uses thought reform techniques
Isolation of members (physical and/or psychological isolation) from society
Uses deception in recruiting and/or fundraising
Promotes dependence of the members on the group
Totalitarian in their world view
Uses mind-altering techniques (chanting, meditation, hypnosis, and various forms of repetitive actions) to stop normal critical thinking
Appear exclusive and innovative
A charismatic or messianic leader who is self-appointed and has a special mission in life
Controls the flow of information
Instills a fear of leaving the group. (Giambalvo, 2000) t would also be important to stress that no list of characteristics provides an absolute definition. An individual may feel betrayed or traumatized by participation in a community that has a subset of these characteristics or invokes these characteristics to a greater or lesser degree. After surviving the extremes of a concentration camp, Viktor Frankl said, “…suffering completely fills the human soul and consciousness, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative” (1963, p. 70). Our clients need not discount the severity of their USC involvement due to comparison with any external factors.
Who Joins a Cult?
At one time, it was believed that cult members tended to be middle-class young adults, rejecting materialism or feeling otherwise dissatisfied or unfulfilled by the mainstream options around them (Schwartz & Kaslow, 1979). It has also been said that individuals are more vulnerable to cults when they are in periods of life transitions due to changes in relationships, jobs, or moving (Whitsett, 1992). More recently, there have been indications that cults have extended their recruiting to additional groups including the elderly and business executives (Schwartz & Kaslow, 2001). A credible perspective in the literature indicates that, while there are factors that increase vulnerability, anyone can be at risk due to the sophisticated techniques employed by cults (Singer, 1996). Singer reported that two-thirds of cult members are from normal functioning families demonstrating age-appropriate behavior when they joined the cult; only five to six percent had major psychological difficulties (1996, p. 17).
In presenting information to clients about those who join cults, positive factors may also be included. For clients who perceive only self-critical reasons for their USC participation, an affirmation that their motivations for self-improvement, perceptions of a spiritual calling, and goals of improving society may be healthy and admirable qualities. Assisting clients in finding nourishing and constructive expressions of these positive qualities enable the same qualities to be drawn upon in the healing process.
Techniques Used by Spiritual Groups to Recruit Members
There are abundant resources to confirm that cults use sophisticated and deceptive techniques to recruit members (Singer, 1996; Shaw, 1996; Hassan, 1990; Langone, 1996; refocus, 1998; Giambalvo, 2000; Schwartz & Kaslow, 2001). Many of these same sources state that anyone can be recruited in a cult (Singer, 1996; Shaw, 1996; Langone, 1993). For USCs that may be less intentionally coercive in their approach, the inducements and deceptions may be present but subtle; the sense of betrayal can still be traumatic (Cope, 1999). One possible approach to a handout on this topic would be to summarize one of the autobiographical accounts of a healthy individual’s recruitment into a cult (Hassan, 1990; Cope, 1999). Another would be to list the techniques used by USCs in recruitment (Singer, 1996; Shaw, 1996; Hassan, 1990; Langone, 1996; refocus, 1998; Giambalvo, 2000; Schwartz & Kaslow, 2001).
What Attracts People to USCs? How Can the Underlying Needs be Satisfied in Healthy Ways?
This handout must be carefully prepared so that it does not appear to accuse the client of weakness that led to his or her involvement. Instead, the intent is to assist the client in identifying his or her own needs that motivated their original participation or delayed their departure. By bringing awareness to these needs, the client may be able to find alternate means of addressing the needs that still exist, and by doing so, he or she will increase enjoyment of life. These needs and motivations may include:
· Need for community
· Need for structure or comfort
· Belief in something pure
· Participation cleanses personal impurity
· Escape from a factor or factors in worldly life
· Coercion and fear
· Powerlessness, feeling dissociated, lack or suspension of critical thought·
Children may have little choice or understanding of having a choice
Other, more ephemeral, motivations may also be included. Many who join USCs have some degree of spiritual seeking. For those in groups with idealized leaders, the object of spiritual seeking is made concrete in the embodiment of the teacher. The desire for this intimate relationship with spirituality, God, or a representative of God is not new or necessarily pathological. In Psalms (42:2) David said, “As the heart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: When shall I come and appear before God?” Another passionate example of the desire for the experience of God can be found in the writings of Rumi from the Islamic tradition, “Either you see the Beloved or you lose your head!” (Rumi, p. 11). Many see the desire to see the face of God as a blessing and path to health.
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