cult recovery 101


Cult Formation

Cult Formation
Robert J. Lifton, M.D.
John Jay College
      Cults represent one aspect of a worldwide epidemic of ideological totalism, or fundamentalism.  They tend to be associated with a charismatic leader, thought reform, and exploitation of members.  Among the methods of thought reform commonly used by cults are milieu control, mystical manipulation, the demand for purity, a cult of confession, sacred science, loading the language, doctrine over person, and dispensing of existence.  The current historical context of dislocation from organizing symbolic structures, decaying belief systems concerning religion, authority, marriage, family, and death, and a “protean style” of continuous psychological experimentation with the self is conducive to the growth of cults.  The use of coercion, as in certain forms of “deprogramming,” to deal with the restrictions of individual liberty associated with cults is inconsistent with the civil rights tradition.  Yet legal intervention may be indicated when specific laws are broken.
Two main concerns should inform our moral and psychological perspective on cults: the dangers of ideological totalism, or what I would also call fundamentalism; and the need to protect civil liberties. There is now a worldwide epidemic of totalism and fundamentalism in forms that are political, religious, or both.  Fundamentalism is a particular danger in this age of nuclear weapons, because it often includes a theology of Armageddon — a final battle between good and evil.  I have studied Chinese thought reform in the 1950s as well as related practices in McCarthyite American politics and in certain training and educational programs.  I have also examined these issues in work with Vietnam veterans, who often movingly rejected war-related totalism; and more recently in a study of the psychology of Nazi doctors.
Certain psychological themes which recur in these various historical contexts also arise in the study of cults.  Cults can be identified by three characteristics:  1) a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power; 2) a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform; 3) economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
Milieu Control
The first method characteristically used by ideological totalism is milieu control: the control of all communication within a given environment.  In such an environment individual autonomy becomes a threat to the group.  There is an attempt to manage an individual’s inner communication.  Milieu control is maintained and expressed by intense group process, continuous psychological pressure, and isolation by geographical distance, unavailability of transportation, or even physical restraint.  Often the group creates an increasingly intense sequence of events, such as seminars, lectures and encounters, which makes leaving extremely difficult, both physically and psychologically.  Intense milieu control can contribute to a dramatic change of identity which I call “doubling”: the formation of a second self which lives side by side with the former one, often for a considerable time.  When the milieu control is lifted, elements of the earlier self may be reasserted.
Creating a Pawn
A second characteristic of totalistic environments is mystical manipulation or planned spontaneity.  This is a systematic process through which the leadership can create in cult members what I call the psychology of the pawn.  The process is managed so that it appears to arise spontaneously; to its objects it rarely feels like manipulation.  Religious techniques such as fasting, chanting, and limited sleep are used.  Manipulation may take on a special intense quality in a cult for which a particular “chosen” human being is the only source of salvation.  The person of the leader may attract members to the cult, but can also be a source of disillusionment.  If members of the Unification Church, for example, come to believe that Sun Myung Moon, its founder, is associated with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, they may lose their faith.
Mystical manipulation may also legitimate deception of outsiders, as in the “heavenly deception” of the Unification Church and analogous practices in other cult environments.  Anyone who has not seen the light and therefore lives in the realm of evil can be justifiably deceived for a higher purpose.  For instance, collectors of funds may be advised to deny their affiliation with a cult that has a dubious public reputation.
                          Purity and Confession
Two other features of totalism are a demand for purity and a cult of confession.  The demand for purity is a call for radical separation of good and evil within the environment and within oneself.  Purification is a continuing process, often institutionalized in the cult of confession, which enforces conformity through guilt and shame evoked by mutual criticism and self-criticism in small groups.
Confessions contain varying mixtures of revelation and concealment.  As Albert Camus observed, “Authors of confessions write especially to avoid confession, to tell nothing of what they know.”  Young cult members confessing the sins of their pre-cultic lives may leave out ideas and feelings that they are not aware of or reluctant to discuss, including a continuing identification with their prior existence.  Repetitious confession, especially in required meetings, often expresses arrogance in the name of humility.  As Camus wrote:  “I practice the profession of penitence, to be able to end up as a judge,” and, “The more I accuse
myself, the more I have a right to judge you.”
Three further aspects of ideological totalism are “sacred science,” “loading of the language,” and the principle of “doctrine over person.”  Sacred science is important because a claim of being scientific is often needed to gain plausibility and influence in the modern age.  The Unification Church is one example of a contemporary tendency to combine dogmatic religious principles with a claim to special scientific knowledge of human behavior and psychology.  The term “loading the language” refers to literalism and a tendency to deify words or images. A simplified, cliche-ridden language can exert enormous psychological force, reducing every issue in a complicated life to a single set of slogans that are said to embody the truth as a totality.  The principle of “doctrine over person” is invoked when cult members sense a conflict between what they are experiencing and what dogma says they should experience.  The internalized message of the totalistic environment is that one must negate that personal experience on behalf of the truth of the dogma.  Contradictions become associated with guilt; doubt indicates one’s own deficiency or evil.
Perhaps the most significant characteristic of totalistic movements is what I call “dispensing of existence.”  Those who have not seen the light and embraced the truth are wedded to evil, tainted, and therefore in some
sense, usually metaphorical, lack the right to exist.  That is one reason why a cult member threatened with being cast into outer darkness may experience a fear of extinction or collapse.  Under particularly malignant conditions, the dispensing of existence is taken literally; in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and elsewhere, people were put to death for alleged doctrinal shortcomings.  In the People’s Temple mass suicide-murder in Guyana, a cult leader presided over the literal dispensing of existence by means of a suicidal mystique he himself had made a central theme in the group’s ideology.  The totalistic impulse to draw a sharp line between those who have the right to live and those who do not is especially dangerous in the nuclear age.
Historical Context
Totalism should always be considered within a specific historical context.  A significant feature of contemporary life is the historical (or psychohistorical) dislocation resulting from a loss of the symbolic structures that organize ritual transitions in the life cycle, and a decay of belief systems concerning religion, authority, marriage, family, and death.  One function of cults is to provide a group initiation rite for the transition to early adult life, and the formation of an adult identity outside the family.  Cult members have good reasons for seeing attempts by the larger culture to make such provisions as hypocritical or confused.
In providing substitute symbols for young people, cults are both radical and reactionary.  They are radical because they suggest rude questions about middle-class family life and American political and religious values in general.  They are reactionary because they revive pre-modern structures of authority and sometimes establish fascist patterns of internal organization.  Furthermore, in their assault on autonomy and self-definition, some cults reject a liberating historical process that has evolved with great struggle and pain in the West since the Renaissance.  (Cults must be considered individually in making such judgments.)  Historical dislocation is one source of what I call the “protean style.”  This involves a continuous psychological experimentation with the self, a capacity for endorsing contradictory ideas at the same time, and a tendency to change one’s ideas, companions, and way of life with relative ease.  Cults embody a contrary “restricted style,” a flight from experimentation and the confusion of a protean world.  These contraries are related; groups and individuals can embrace a protean and a restricted style in turn.  For instance, the so-called hippie ethos of the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced by the present so-called Yuppie preoccupation with safe jobs and comfortable incomes.  For some people, experimentation with a cult is part of the protean search.
The imagery of extinction derived from the contemporary threat of nuclear war influences patterns of totalism and fundamentalism throughout the world.  Nuclear war threatens human continuity itself and impairs the symbols of immortality.  Cults seize upon this threat to provide immortalizing principles of their own.  The cult environment supplies a continuous opportunity for the experience of transcendence — a mode of symbolic immortality generally suppressed in advanced industrial society.
Role of Psychology
Cults raise serious psychological concerns, and there is a place for psychologists and psychiatrists in understanding and treating cult members.  But our powers as mental health professionals are limited, so we should exercise restraint.  When helping a young person confused about a cult situation, it is important to maintain a personal therapeutic contract so that one is not working for the cult or for the parents.  Totalism begets totalism.  What is called deprogramming includes a continuum from intense dialogue on the one hand to physical coercion and kidnaping, with thought-reform-like techniques, on the other.  My own position, which I have repeatedly conveyed to parents and others who consult me, is to oppose coercion at either end of the cult process.  Cults are primarily a social and cultural rather than a psychiatric or legal problem.  But psychological professionals can make important contributions to the public education crucial for dealing with the problem.  With greater knowledge about them, people are less susceptible to deception, and for that reason some cults have been finding it more difficult to recruit members.
Yet painful moral dilemmas remain.  When laws are violated through fraud or specific harm to recruits, legal intervention is clearly indicated.  But what about situations in which behavior is virtually automatized, language reduced to rote and cliche, yet the cult member expresses a certain satisfaction or even happiness?  We must continue to seek ways to encourage a social commitment to individual autonomy and avoid coercion and violence.
Except for the abstract, which was written by this journal’s editor, this article first appeared in the February 1991 issue of The Harvard Mental Health Letter.  It is reprinted with permission from The Harvard Mental
Health Letter, 74 Fenwood Road, Boston, MA  02115.


Robert J. Lifton, M.D. is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  His most recent book, written with Erik
Markuson, is The Genocidal Mentality:  Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat (New York:  Basic Books, 1990).
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 1991

How Can Cults Harm People?

There are a wide variety of cults. Different people respond differently to the same environment. Therefore, not all people who have been in cults are harmed by the experience. But some, perhaps a majority, are harmed. Part of ICSA’s mission is to help these people, so our focus here is on this subgroup of cult members.

The testimonies of the thousands of people who have sought help after a cult experience suggests that the core of their subjective experience is a sense of abuse and betrayal. The group promised them something wonderful, but ultimately they received disillusionment and pain.

As noted in our answer to the question, “Why do people leave cults,” exiting a cult can involve much pain and suffering, in part because the group environment is so demanding and in part because the group becomes a part of the person’s identity.

Departure, then, is a form of psychic trauma. Indeed, many former cult members have been diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
However, even for those who don’t reach the level of PTSD, the pain can be severe. Among the problems ex-cult members have reported are (adapted from Giambalvo):

  • Sense of purposelessness, of being disconnected.
  • Depression.
  • Grieving for other group members, for a sense of loss in their life.
  • Guilt.
  • Anger.
  • Alienation.
  • Isolation.
  • Distrust.
  • Fear of going crazy.
  • Fear that what the cult said would happen to them if they left actually might happen.
  • Tendency to think in terms of black and white.
  • Tendency to spiritualize everything.
  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Embarrassment
  • Employment and/or career problems.
  • Dissociation.
  • Floating/flashbacks.
  • Nightmares.
  • Family conflicts.
  • Dependency issues.
  • Sexual problems.
  • Spiritual issues.
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Re-emergence of pre-cult emotional or psychological issues.
  • Impatience with the recovery process.

Even with professional help, it is not uncommon for ex-members to require one or two years to work through their problems and re-establish an identity and sense of purpose apart from their group.