cult recovery 101

Therapy with Ex-Cult Members

Margaret T. Singer, Ph.D.

The Love-Bombing Begins

Very few professionals have sufficient information about what leads persons into cults, particularly the recruitment procedures. Findings from extensive interviews with more than two hundred and fifty young adults who have been in various cults show that the larger and more prominent cults have extremely sophisticated recruitment methods that are taught to the street recruiters. For example, one of the cults trains their recruiters to get close enough to look at the line where the colored part of the eye touches the white of the eye: if the person has a jiggly outline, that is said to mean that the person is an open, warm, loving person who will come into the group easily; but, if they have a very sharp line, that means they are hard to get into and they should abandon them. If one can get close enough to do that type of an inspection, he is within eighteen inches of the person and into a zone of intimacy within which the other person‟s gaze can become quite fixed. They begin their love-bombing of the new recruit from that point onward. The influence process has begun.

Those of us who are in the professions have not yet understood enough of the various factors that lead individuals to be persuaded by these recruitment techniques. Most of us as professionals don‟t know the indoctrination programs of the specific cults well enough to know how to talk with the young people who are in or coming out of the cults. And, we need to understand the types of problems that cult members have prior to entering and upon leaving specific cults or cults in general.

From many reports of ex-cult members who have seen professionals while in a cult, while at home for brief periods from a cult, or after they have definitely left the cult and have sought help, the usual professional fails in almost monumental ways to give assistance to ex-cult members.

Why? The ex-cult members have had such very special things happen to them in the cults that in order to talk to a  counselor they have to educate the counselor. The professional often reacts to the recounting of the cult events as if the person telling the story was or is mentally ill or is fabricating a story.

Secondly, most of us as professionals do not know the highly specific contents of the cults that continue to prey upon the ex-cult members‟ minds; and, thus, we don‟t know how to open up discussions or sense what is happening within them. For example, one of the California state hospitals is not too far from one of the recruitment and indoctrination centers of one of the major cults. A young man had been in one of these cults and had become very depressed after two-and- one-half years in the cult. He began to wake up to what was going on. He called his family on the East Coast. His father answered the phone and told him he was a phony, that the group he was with had called long ago and said that their son had been killed in an auto accident; he did not recognize the voice of his son, and said, “No, our son is dead. He‟s gone.”

The son became even more depressed, tried to kill himself, and the cult abandoned him along a freeway. The local police picked him up and took him into the hospital. He got into the psychiatric service and it took him almost two months to convince the caretakers there of what had happened to him while he was in the particular cult. Finally, the ward psychiatrist saw a series of articles that one of the local newspapers was running on cults. When this information became available to support his story, the young man got a very different kind of attention.

Cosmic Truths and Clichés

This article will, at this point, explore a type of psychotherapy—individual but primarily group—that a colleague, Dr. Jesse Miller of the University of California at Berkeley, and I have been developing. Our work is based on individual psychotherapy in interviews with over two hundred and fifty young adults who have recently left various cults and revealed a number of common problems they faced on reentering the mainstream of society. Some of these issues will be elaborated on and a group counseling program will be described with suggested individual therapy  strategies, which we have developed to facilitate a successful resolution of this painful and difficult period of adjustment.

The cults pare down multidetermined reality into an oversimplified pastiche of cosmic truths and clinches that explain everything. What to believe in, what to think, and what to do with one‟s self in relation to the world have been made especially difficult tasks for certain young adults. The cults‟ supposedly sublime principles and ultimate states of awareness offer clearcut, black-and-white answers to young adults who are seeking relief from many age-appropriate developmental crises in a period of history characterized by philosophical relativism and rapid sociological and technical changes. The disillusions, revolutions, and upheavals in families, governments, and societies in recent years have seemingly made certain persons more vulnerable than others to the lure of the cults.

The Lure of Simplistic Answers

Very few of the cults are able to recruit lower-class young adults, either blacks or whites. Lower-class youths in the U.S., primarily, know that there are no free dinners and no free meals. They can recognize a street hustle. But, middle- class, upper-middle-class, and upper-class young adults have not had enough experience with the street hustlers in growing up and knowing how artful deceivers in the street can operate. Most of the cults try to reach middle-class and upper-class teenagers and young adults.

The general crisis of young adulthood usually centers around career, sex, marriage, what values to hold, to develop, where and how to live, and how to make friends. The common pressures of the late teens and early twenties have been exacerbated by current social influences; that offer a lure of simplistic answers that some cannot refuse. For the young adult who is in a mild to moderate depressed period due to what we might term being in between things—such as in between high school and college, in between jobs, in between romances, in between living home and on his or her own—the cults offer seemingly instant solutions to these issues. In addition, cults offer certain pseudo-philosophical, spiritual, and psychological dimensions to the life of these persons.

Cults supply their members with ready-made friends and ready-made decisions about career, dating, sex and marriage, and the “meaning of life”. In return, they demand total obedience, which they maintain through various programs of coercive persuasion. In addition to providing these ready-made answers, this period in history may make certain quests more prominent in the lives of young adults: the loose social structures, the feelings of alienation, and the promise of what turning inward may bring to modern man.

After leaving the cult with a full course of indoctrination, the young adult requires a great deal of information, support, and assistance. He or she must first be deprogrammed or meet reentry counselors, a process which generally takes from a few hours to one to three days. Although lurid details of deprogramming atrocities have been popularly supplied by cults to the press, the process is nothing more than an intense period of information giving.

The reentry counselors are usually former cult members who have a full knowledge of the specific cult‟s principles and procedures and can discuss their logical inconsistencies. They explain how the indoctrination methods work and what was done from a social and psychological point of view to get the members to join and stay; and, they explain how and what the cult members did to make the members afraid and guilty when thinking of leaving.

The Pressure of Meeting Money Quotas

After this reentry counseling, a period of approximately one month for rehabilitation and rest seems essential. Some persons, however, need much longer. Most cult members are debilitated from being on a low-protein diet and from long hours of work with little sleep extending over many months or years. These young adults on the streets have quotas given to them by the cults. Usually they are told they cannot come in at the end of the day until they have raised $150 or more; and, they usually have to stay on the streets eighteen to twenty hours in most cities to raise their quotas.

I have interviewed many young adults who have earned more than $1,000 a day for long periods. Some who have recently returned from Canada and Alaska—where the press  and TV has not paid much attention to cult solicitors—report their average turn-in was $1,500 a day.

One of the major cults claims to have a 30,000 membership, which researchers cut down to approximately 7,000 based on various news reports. From this the following may be figured: if they were to have only 1,000 of these young adults out on the street with a minimum $50-a-day quota, they would bring in $50,000 a day. They are on the streets 365 days a year, so this one cult is roughly picking up $18 million a year (and with the $150-a-day quota, $54 million a year).

It takes from eight to eighteen months for a young adult, after leaving a cult, to re-create a sense of personal competence and to feel comfortable in making decisions and getting his life going again at the level that he once functioned on when first entering into the cult.

Thought and Conversational Inefficiencies

It is often during this period that many ex-cult members seek individual or group counseling. I am not going to get into the specific types of mental problems these young adults describe, but they report and demonstrate remarkable mental inefficiencies in their thought and conversational processes, some responding in simplistic and immature ways. Ex-cult members report having trouble putting into words the inefficiencies they experience in their mental processes. Most of the cults have long periods of indoctrination, meditations, chanting, and lectures during which the members have to sit for hours on end; some of the cults have their own training manuals, which help ensure that the language of trance induction is powerfully and carefully used in the indoctrination lectures. Others enforce prolonged “empty mind” states. These take their toll.

For example, a former graduate student, who had been in a cult for several years returned to his university after leaving the cult. He visited a former professor who wrote on the blackboard as he talked. The professor turned to the ex- cultist asking him to “outline his ideas about returning to school,” meaning to briefly present his plans. The student walked to the board, took the chalk, and simply drew a circle around the professor‟s words. He reported that he suddenly  realized his childlike obedience and literalness at that moment when he literally had drawn a line around the outside of the professor‟s ideas when asked to outlines ideas. He used this to illustrate to us the kinds of mental lapses he was seeing in himself some four or five months after coming out.

Although there is no simplistic explanation of how the cults work, I would like to touch upon the types of problems that we take up in our group therapy. This group therapy only involves people who are completely out of the cults. It is offered free for those unable to pay; or, if they are employed, we have a sliding scale, each person paying from 25 cents to several dollars per session. Participation is voluntary, and it is through word of mouth among ex-cult members; they hear of us and join our groups.

Introductions at our first meetings usually range from the presentation by a severely depressed young woman of nothing more than her first name, to five minute descriptions of past, present, and future yearnings of group members. Members who do not experience deprogramming or work with reentry counselors and who were under cult control for several years tend to give self-descriptions that drift in and out of cosmic issues. The co-therapists allowed members full freedom to present themselves in whatever manner and for however long they wish, up to about four or five minutes.

The Floating Phenomenon

Following introductions, a list of shared problems, which the leaders have drawn from contact with hundreds of ex-cult members as well as from people while they were in the cult, are outlined for discussion. Presentation of these issues by leaders who are familiar with post-cult experiences essentially focuses the group because many former cult members still do what is called in the trade, “float.” They float off before your eyes into diffuse and altered states of consciousness and have difficulty in expressing practical needs concretely. The cult life generally includes incessant repetition of long lectures. These lectures are formally similar to hypnotic trance inductions and are filled with various forms of direct, indirect, and metaphoric suggestions meant to influence the attitudes and behaviors of cult members.

Members who have heard these lectures literally hundreds of times, and who have been working up to twenty hours without sleep, report they often drift into trancelike and semiconscious states during the times they hear these various lectures in the cults. Their unconscious minds listen to the meaning of the lectures over and over again as part of their conscious minds drift comfortably off into a fantasy world.

Upon leaving the cult, young adults often report they have terrible difficulty concentrating, and that they spontaneously drift into these trancelike states. It is helpful to them if this drifting or floating is called to their attention so that they can learn conscious controls, which will reinstate the focusing of their own attention voluntarily. It is much easier to observe floating in two-person interactions rather than in groups where a certain amount of wandering attention is always found. Although most of our group members were rehabilitated past the times of experiencing long periods of floating, several of them nevertheless had great difficulty editing streams of associative material from their comments.

With individuals who begin to drift or float, group leaders will often gently call attention to the topic under discussion to refocus the group. Former cult members may still have great difficulty in criticizing others and appearing negative. Thus, they will associate and float out rather than interrupt, as other young adult discussion groups would do to return the discussion to its original topic. Individual members will privately complain of others who monopolize or float too much during discussions.

Other issues the group usually covers include the following:

  • Various kinds of loneliness;
  • Problems in making decisions on one‟s own;
  • Types of depression and guilt;
  • Problems of slipping into altered stats of consciousness; and
  • The problem of wishing to talk about certain positive aspects of the cult experience.

When the young adult tries to tell family or friends anything positive that had happened to them while they were in the cult, they experience a great deal of pressure. Relatives and friends become afraid they are about to defect and go back into the cult; and yet, in our group, we permit and go into considerable discussion of what some of the positive things were. Primarily, the positive factor was that they had tremendous feelings of affection and love for a few specific individuals in the cult.

They have problems in telling anyone who has not been in a cult why they went in without revealing their entire private lives. They have a hyper awareness of being let down by others and by the sinfulness of people outside of the cult. They want to find a way to put their altruism to work again without feeling duped and used by groups they may join.

The Fishbowl Effect

They return to unfinished personal and family issues—to work, job and school problems—with which they were wrestling at the time of entry.

Another issue concerns spouses and friends who are still in the cult. They ex-cult young adult usually wishes to help such people have the opportunity to have time to think over whether they want to stay in or not. What to do and say when contacted or when they are on the street and meet individuals who are still in the cult also raises problems for the young adult.

How does the ex-cultist deal with the constant watchfulness of friends and family who are on the alert for any signs of recidivism by the former cult member? We talk about this in the group as the fishbowl effect, because many people who come out of cults have the feeling they are in a fishbowl and everyone is staring at them: their family looking for signs of them running away to the cult, or trying to protect them from cult recruitment; or, young adults of their own age staring at them and wondering why they joined a cult.


These individuals have much anger toward the cult for having used and controlled them. They have anger and concern over lost years and opportunities. They have a fear  of the future and anxieties about what will happen if they don‟t get their lives going at the level that they would like.

They all eventually have to deal with the problem of what happens when you stop being god. For, while they were in the cult, almost all were told that they are the select, elite group. Also, these young adults have to fact the fact that few of us earn $1,000 or more a day. When the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old person, who has been taking in a thousand dollars a day, comes out of the cult and looks at his mom, dad, and professors, he realizes that type of earnings is not possible for most people in the everyday world. They therefore wonder what to do when they are no longer among a group who has been the elite and who is taking in that type of money.

This whole cult phenomena, from a psychological, sociological, historical, and theological point of view is fascinating. Although it is not one to be easily explained, I urge you to get interested in, from a psychiatric and psychological standpoint, investigating what these phenomena are that are being seen in the current cults.

This article was originally published in Journal of the National Association of Private Psychiatric Hospitals, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer 1978.