cult recovery 101


Master of the Cultiverse: Patrick Ryan on Transcendental Meditation

Master of the Cultiverse: Patrick Ryan on Transcendental Meditation

Patrick Ryan is a graduate of Maharishi International University. He has been a cult intervention specialist since 1984. He’s the co-founder of TM-EX, the organization of ex-members of Transcendental Meditation, established ICSA’s online resource (1995-2013), and has presented 50 programs about hypnosis, inner-experience, trance-induction techniques, communicating with cult members, conversion, cult intervention, exit counseling, intervention.

Deprogramming: A Case Study Part II: Conversation Analysis

Steve K. Dubrow-Eichel, Ph.D. RETIRN Philadelphia Abstract This article continues the examination of a successful deprogramming of an International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) devotee (cultist) described in Cultic Studies Journal Special Issue Vol. 6, No. 2. The deprogramming was observed and audiotaped. A sample consisting of 1,938 speech fragments…

How can I get my kid out of a cult?

Families and friends of a cult-involved person tend to ask the second question. Former group members and others interested in cults tend to ask the former question. However, since the answer to the latter question requires an understanding of the answer to the former question, we will first explain why people leave cults and then focus on the special problem of families and friends.

We suggest that before proceeding you review our answers to the questions:

  • What is a cult?
  • Why do people join cults?
  • Why Leaving is Difficult
Cults typically invade the normal boundaries of those who join, intruding on most aspects of the members’ lives. Over time, cult members give up more and more control to the leadership.

The social and psychological controls that are associated with “brainwashing” become most conspicuous after a person has spent some time in a highly manipulative and controlling cult. That is why Professor Benjamin Zablocki associates brainwashing with what he calls “exit costs.” In other words, the brainwashing associated with high-control cultic groups isn’t so much related to how people enter groups, but rather to the difficulty they have in leaving.

Lifton has described in detail the characteristics of environments that can achieve a totalistic level of control over people.

In committing to a high-control group, persons undergo a conversion experience in which their fundamental assumptions about self and world change. This is a deeper and more extensive change than we see in people who are merely obedient. An authoritarian leader seeks only compliance. A cult leader, however, seeks compliance and identity change. Cult members must do more than obey. They must believe in the rightness of what they are told to do.

When the cultic dynamic reaches its consummation, cult members act on their own; orders from leaders are superfluous. The members not only accept and believe in the system. They make the system part of themselves and carry it with them wherever they go. Professor Rod Dubrow-Marshall says: “So when group members sell their newspapers, raise money, persuade people to come to their events, sell their house and give the money to the group, etc.—they do these things because it reinforces the group identity that has become such an important part of their self-identity.”

For somebody so bonded to a group, departure that requires a rejection of the group is a form of psychological self-mutilation, a very high exit cost, to use Zablocki’s term.


If the cost of exiting a cult is so high, why would people ever leave their groups? This is an important question to answer, for research indicates that most cult members do leave their groups, although the probability of leaving appears to decrease substantially after several years of membership.

First of all, groups vary tremendously on the dimension of control, and many are not so “heavy duty” that departure involves painfully high exit costs. Therefore, the question above will not apply to many cult members, although even in their less controlling situations, one must still ask, “Why leave?”

To answer our question, let us consider the field of forces impinging on cult members from their group and from the world outside the group. From both directions cult members may feel attractions and repulsions.

Attractions to the group may be positive. Examples include genuine friendships, a sense of purpose and belonging, a strong sense of superiority to those outside the group, and the comfort of blind obedience (in which one no longer has to deal with the stress of deciding).
Attractions may also be negative; that is, the person conforms to the group in order to avoid actual or anticipated pain. If, for example, leaders subject dissenting or doubting members to public humiliation, members will tend to comply, to stay close to the group, in order to avoid that punishment. Also, the group’s teachings may incline members to expect failure in and/or rejection by the outside world, should they leave the group. Sometimes these expectations include supernatural punishments (e.g., to spend eternity in hell). Moreover, to the extent members have made the group part of their own personality, rejecting the group would entail, as already noted, the pain of psychological self-mutilation, so members will hold fast to the group in order to avoid this psychic pain.

In the member’s mind, then, exiting the group will result in the loss of positive attractions and the addition of pain that could have been avoided by obeying leaders and remaining a loyal member. These are exit costs.

Other exit costs relate to repulsions from the outside world. These may consist of fears that the person has avoided by “leaving the world.” Examples include: fear of sexual intimacy, the expectation of failure in college, not measuring up to parental expectations, and the challenge of committing to a career. These too are exit costs, for the member must confront these fears if s/he leaves the group, which provides “noble” rationalizations for avoiding these fears in the mainstream world.

There are, however, exit benefits, and these may sometimes come to outweigh the exit costs.
One set of exit benefits includes attractions to the mainstream world, including emotional bonds, stifled interests, and the sense of freedom that the mainstream world may represent to cult members recoiling from the oppression of their demanding group life. Emotional bonds to loved ones and friends stay alive within the person, for they are at least partly autonomous of cognitive evaluations. However much the group’s ideology may denigrate the member’s “old life,” contacts with family and friends, may stimulate these emotional bonds and create an impulse—perhaps unconscious—to move toward the mainstream world.

Contacts with people outside the group may also rekindle old interests—artistic, intellectual, academic, career, sports—that were stifled or given up in order to meet the group’s demands. And the suffering a member experiences as a result of his/her attempts to conform to a demanding and sometimes punishing group environment may cause the outside world to look more and more attractive as a place of freedom. Paradoxically, then, the cumulative fears of what we earlier termed “negative attractions” may increase the strength of the outside world’s benefits.

This impulse to escape may be reinforced by repulsive forces within the cult. Examples include: doubts about beliefs, practices, and predictions of doom that do not come true; personality conflicts with other group members; boredom; exhaustion; and a growing awareness of the manipulative techniques employed to exploit the member.

The field of forces described above will vary greatly from individual to individual and will shift over time for each individual. Some may exit smoothly. But, at least in high control groups, many appear to leave with great difficulty. Indeed, one research study found that 42% of cult defectors left covertly (e.g., by sneaking out in the middle of the night). Indeed, it appears that for some cult members the pain of staying becomes so great that the pain of leaving constitutes relief.

It is no wonder, then, that research and clinical experience suggest that a large percentage of former cult members are in great distress when they leave their groups.

What does this mean for families and friends?

This analysis suggests that families and friends concerned about a loved one’s cult involvement should keep the following points in mind:

1.Families and friends can enhance their positive influence on a loved one by understanding the field of forces impinging on him/her and developing a strategy for altering the cost/benefit ratio of these forces.

2.Because the cult experience involves many complex interactions that change over time, simplistic assessments of a loved one’s situation and plans to change it are not likely to be helpful.

3.This complexity also means that persuading a loved one to leave a group is rarely easy.

4.It is often more realistic to set a goal of improving one’s relationship with the cult-involved loved one, rather than “getting him/her out” (which may, however, become a viable goal in the future).

We  has a variety of resources designed to help thoughtful families and friends understand and respond to the complexity of a loved one’s cult involvement.

However, because each case should be assessed individually, we can more effectively advise you on what resources to concentrate on, if we know a bit about your situation.

Ethical Standards for Thought Reform Consultants

Cult Intervention, deprogramming, exit counseling RATIONALE (History of cult interventions, deprogramming, exit counseling) Thought reform includes the use of highly manipulative methods and processes such as undue social and psychological influence, behavioral modification techniques, disguised hypnosis and trance induction, and other physiological and psychological influence techniques. These techniques are used in…

Religious Conflict Resolution: A Model for Families

Patrick L. Ryan and Michael D. Langone, Ph.D. Research suggests that in the West hundreds of thousands of individuals join and leave cultic groups each year.  Research studies also suggest that at least a sizeable minority of those who join cultic groups are adversely affected.  The families of these group…

The Definitional Ambiguity of “Cult” and ICSA’s Mission

(This essay is a follow-up to “On Using the Term Cult.”)
A central component of ICSA’s mission is to study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in cultic and other groups.  Different people, however, attach different and usually imprecise meanings to the term “cult” (On Using the Term Cult).  Those who have sought information from ICSA have – properly or improperly –used “cult” to refer to a wide variety of phenomena, including, but not limited to:
  • Groups – religious, political, psychological, commercial – in which the leader(s) appear(s) to exert undue influence over followers, usually to the leader’s(s’) benefit.
  • Fanatical religious and political groups, regardless of whether or not leaders exert a high level of psychological control.
  • Terrorist organizations, such as Bin Laden’s group, which induce some members to commit horrific acts of violence.
  • Religious groups deemed heretical or socially deviant by the person attaching the “cult” label.
  • Any unorthodox religious group – benign or destructive.
  • Covert hypnotic inductions.
  • Communes that may be physically isolated and socially unorthodox.
  • Groups (religious, New Age, psychotherapeutic, “healing,”) that advocate beliefs in a transcendent order or actions that may occur through mechanisms inconsistent with the laws of physics.
  • Any group embraced by a family member whose parents, spouses, or other relatives conclude – correctly or incorrectly – that the group is destructive to the involved family member.
  • Organizations that employ high-pressure sales and/or recruitment tactics.
  • Authoritarian social groups in which members exhibit a high level of conformity and compliance to the expectations and demands of leaders.
  • Extremist organizations that advocate violence, racial separation, bigotry, or overthrow of the government.
  • Familial or dyadic relationships in which one member exerts an unusually high and apparently harmful influence over the other member(s), e.g., certain forms of dysfunctional families or battered women’s syndrome.
The majority of those persons who attach the “cult” label to these phenomena share a disapproval of the group or organization they label. That is why some people have dismissed the term “cult” as a meaningless epithet hurled at a group one doesn’t like. Although this position may appeal to one’s cynical side, it ignores the reality that many common concepts are fuzzy. Lists of diverse phenomena could also be drawn up for terms such as “child abuse,” “neurotic,” “right wing,” “left wing,” “learning disabled,” “sexy,” “ugly,” “beautiful,” etc. We don’t banish these fuzzy terms from our vocabularies because, contrary to the cynic’s claim, most people most of the time use these fuzzy terms with enough precision to be meaningful and understood by others. 
Nevertheless, fuzzy terms leave much to be desired.  Hence, scientists often make up new terms, i.e., jargon, to avoid the imprecision of “natural” language.  Even within the scientific disciplines that propagate jargon, however, disputes may simmer for years about how to define properly a term in common use.  About twenty years ago, for example, sociologists of religion abandoned the term “cult” in favor of “new religious movement”; yet they still debate the meaning and merits of “new religious movement.” Thus, even within scientific disciplines terminology is rarely as precise as scientists wish. 
We have, then, three choices with regards to fuzzy terms:
  1. We can pretend that a particular term, e.g., “cult,” is more precise than it actually is, thereby inviting misapplication of the concept to which the term refers.
  2. We can so narrowly define the term that it becomes useless in a practical sense.
  3. We can strive for a practical level of precision while acknowledging the unavoidable ambiguity in our terminology. 
ICSA has chosen the latter course (On Using the Term Cult).  We acknowledge the term’s ambiguity, but we also recognize that, for better or for worse, “cult” is the term that our inquirers, particularly on Internet searches, are most predisposed to use. Although we try to focus the meaning of the term, we must, nonetheless, also try to respond constructively to the wide spectrum of phenomena that our inquirers collectively associate with “cult,” however misguided their linguistic usage may sometimes be. 
Generally speaking (though certainly not always), the phenomena to which they attach the term “cult” constitute a “conceptual family.” The members of this family are distinct, and it is inappropriate to give all of them the same “name,” e.g., “cult.” Yet they do have a family resemblance resting on the inquirer’s perception that the group exhibits one or more of these characteristics:
  1. It treats people as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of the leader(s).
  2. It believes that and behaves as though the group’s supposedly noble ends justify means that most people deem unethical.
  3. It harms some persons involved with or affected by the group. 
Although some individuals may associate any one of these characteristics with the concept “cult,” frequently other terms may be more appropriate descriptors. That is why our mission sidebar lists “psychological manipulation, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, brainwashing, mind control, thought reform, abusive churches, extremism, totalistic groups, authoritarian groups…exit counseling, recovery, and practical suggestions for families, individuals” as areas for which we provide information.  And that is why central components of our mission (see About ICSA) are “to study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in cultic and other groups…to help individuals and families adversely affected by psychologically manipulative groups and to protect society against the harmful implications of group-related manipulation and abuse.” 
On the other hand, not everybody who contacts us is troubled.  Some are merely curious.  Others are looking for information on a group that is not harmful. Others seek information on helping techniques.  And still others want to teach young people how to recognize and resist the lure of spurious philosophies and manipulative groups.  That is why our mission sidebar also says that we provide information on “new religious movements, alternative and mainstream religions, group dynamics…and practical suggestions for…helping professionals, clergy, journalists, researchers, students, educators, and others interested in these topics.”
Given the wide range of phenomena that we study and the wide range of individuals and organizations we try to assist, we emphasize that our having information on or researching a particular group does NOT imply that it is a “cult” or even that it is harmful.  We do NOT maintain a list of “cults” or “bad groups,” and we have no intention of compiling such a list.  We do, however, provide information on and conceptual tools for analyzing diverse groups that inquirers may – correctly or incorrectly – associate with cults and other groups within its conceptual family.
As you explore this Web site, we hope that you will keep in mind the issues discussed in this essay.  We also hope that in your own endeavors you apply the term “cult” judiciously and with an acute awareness of its ambiguity and limitations.