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Thursday, July 8, 2010

T3 - Post-Cult Trauma

This week's Therapeutic Thought is from Julia M. Reffner, who commented on my post Pick My Brain without Having to Write In ... "I would love to see something about cults and the lasting emotional effects on those who leave them."

One of the things to be aware of that might help when talking about cult involvement is how similar cultic abuse is to domestic abuse. Since I just finished up a series on domestic violence, that will already give you a head start into figuring out the lasting effects of abuse in general.

Just as an aside, a person doesn't set out to be in a repressive cult, just like no one decides, "Hey, I think I'll marry an abuser." It's not on someone's to-do list. But there are people who might be more susceptible to cults. According to psychologist Dr. Paul Martin, there are three types:

1) Seekers of God looking for a worthy cause or way to serve

2) Lonely or depressed who find a caring community in the group

3) Idolizers of the charisma of the leader or excitement of the movement

Post-Cult Trauma is characterized by a variety of symptoms, depending on the person and type cult they were involved with. Dr. Margaret Singer, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, did extensive research with thousands of former cult members, and she observed intense depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, loneliness, inability to concentrate, confusion, sleep disorders, guilt, loss of identity, suicidal ideation, somatic complaints and over-dependence in a significant number of them. Some even had acute psychosis, meaning they were in need of serious psychiatric care.

As with anything ending that you have invested a part of yourself in, a person leaving (or being forced to exit) a cult will feel conflicting emotions. There are two sides to every coin. People can develop friendships and a sense of belonging in a cult, just as they can have a sense of purpose inherit in the group's mission or ideals. I'm not trying to glamorize a cult, but a person leaving a cult will experience grief over these losses...and that's normal and shouldn't be denied them.

Cults often entrench their members, many times resulting to brainwashing. Upon breaking away the cult, the person will find themselves isolated from others who understood the cult's brand of brainwash (for lack of better terms). They might still adhere to their cultish beliefs and be scared that they might lose their salvation, be cursed/condemned, incur God's wrath, or be susceptible to evil spirits now that they are no longer "protected" by the cult.

An interesting note is that cult members sometimes assume a pseudo-identity in a cult, perhaps taking on a different name or even personality. Occasionally, after exiting the cult, they might slip back into that pseudo-identity, a term called floating. I just ran across this in my research, so I'd google this if you want more information, but it's similar to dissociating.

On the other hand, some people who used to be in cults look at their breaking away as a freedom from oppression. They might have different symptoms, like guilt at what all they did in the cult when they were brainwashed, either to themselves or to someone else.

Other symptoms of post-cult trauma are: flashbacks to cult life--even including actual chanting, being triggered by cultic language used innocently by someone else, etc., simplistic black-white thinking, sexual conflicts, confusion about right v. wrong, spontaneous crying, difficulty holding down a job/managing time, panic disproportionate to one's circumstances, fear of going insane, dread of running into cult members by mistake, hostile reactions toward either the cult of criticizers of the cult, Stockholm Syndrome, and excessive rigidity about even minor rules.

These symptoms can last a couple of months for most people, and usually subside after being reintroduced to mainstream routines and everyday life outside the cult. In a small number of cases, symptoms continue...but I don't have a percentage for you. If you find one, drop me a comment.

Thanks for the question, Julia. It's not too late for you to get your question in if you've got one percolating!

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Julia M. Reffner said...


Thanks so much. This is both fascinating and very helpful and now I am definitely going to look for more information on the Margaret Singer surveys. The women I have talked with have mentioned struggles over the practical things as well. Hard to imagine the trauma something simple like starting a bank account could be. Thanks so much, Jeannie!

Shannon said...

Wow, I think this is one of your best and most insightful posts yet! A very interesting, and creepy, area to research. You must come across some strange things whenever you're researching the answers to these questions.

Anonymous said...

It's a fascinating subject for fiction: throw in some "manchurian candidate" stuff. I dated/lived with a woman who was a former member of frederick lenz's "computer cult". I recognize the name change, personality change stuff. I also had a friend who joined a cult for awhile "lightening amen" - both of these people were from wealthy families.

there is more truth than many of us are comfortable with in frank zappa's famous;" the only difference between a religion and a cult is the amount of real estate they own."

i read a thesis last year that was a comparison of the assembly of god with the ordo templi orientis: 2 groups you would think couldn't be further apart, yet shared many similarities.

blablabla said...

Thank you for this blog. I was in a cult of sorts (Australia) more like an ism going by current research. A closed acupuncture/art/psychological questioning group, with all characteristics of a cult.

Just dropping you a line to say that my daughter, who was born and raised there till the age of 11...and is now 32.

She is one of the supposed minority, who cannot get past it & her life goes around in circles most of the time. Being one of the most picked on, severely chastised, beaten, spat on...all sorts of dreadful abuse....she is only just now going to counselling. Could not do it until now.

She has no career, has taken a lot of drugs. Now finally off them...and is the sweetest natured person now I have gotten to know her after all these years. We are very close and she has not cut me off, rather we continue to help and support each other when it not too painful for us to bear.

We are basically still traumatised, me because of what I did and didnt do back then...& her for obvious reasons.

Trying very hard now to bring things down to a dull roar...the group still exists...with a handful left there. I have currently started a tirade come blog on my Facebook page.......focussing entirely on cults ptsd from cults and generally making some noise. Thanks for this website...jilly

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.