Not all former cult members encounter all the problems listed
in Table 12.1, nor do most have them in severe and extended form.
Some individuals need only a few months to get themselves going
again. After encountering some adjustment problems to life outside
the cult, they make rather rapid and uneventful reintegrations
into everyday life. Generally, however, it takes individuals
anywhere from six to twenty-four months to get their lives functioning
again at a level commensurate with their histories and talents.
Even then, however, that functioning may not reflect what is
still going on inside them. Many are still sorting out the conflicts
and harms that grew out of their cult experience long after two
years have gone by.
Each former member wrestles with a number of the problems. Some
need more time than others to resolve all the issues they face,
and a few never get their lives going again.
Most of the practical issues faced by former cult members, such
as where to live, how to earn a living, and nutritional and medical
concerns are nearly universal concerns and need little explanation.
Many former cult members, while in their cults, took in more per
day fund-raising on the streets than they will ever be able to
earn on any job.
After such experiences, it can be difficult to figure out how
to recoup resources or make an honest living, not to mention coping
with the guilt many former members feel at having taken part in
such deceptions. These cult experiences may make it necessary
for former members to contact career counseling or mental health
Cult doctrine preaches that if they only follow certain instructions,
they will never be ill, never feel blue, and will save the planet,
attain nirvana, and become spiritually or politically perfect.
Meanwhile cult chores and practices keep them tired, worn down,
and often ill. But they have to hide these conditions and keep
smiling and working.
When it comes to education, many cults teach that members should
"get out of the mind," stop thinking, and get into the
heart or the everyday work of the cult. Some leaders preach that
we are born with "natural knowing" that has been impaired
by school, parents, and society, and that followers should reject
"old thinking" and live by the dictates of the leader.
Afterward, former cult members of almost any age and background
need some sort of education or training to update knowledge and
skills and to expand their training.
After years of neglecting their minds and their health, former
cult members feel odd and possibly even guilty about their concern
with illness, health issues, and their psychological states after
leaving the group They soon realize, however, that their education
stopped when they joined the cult, that they have neglected their
health, and that they are in emotional turmoil. Yet they have
been turned against the very support systems they now need. As
they struggle to sort out their personal views about education,
medicine, and mental health care, often they may need urging and
explanations about what happened int he cult to create their negative
feelings and attitudes.
Application forms for jobs, higher education, and professional
schools will ask for an accounting of one's past education and
There have been no specific studies of this issue, but I have
been told by many former cult members how embarrassed they are
to tell prospective employers they were in a cult. They know
how a blame-the-victim attitude colors the way they will be regarded.
People learn to deal creatively with all these issues as they
reenter society, network with other former members, and get experience
in making friends, applying for jobs, and telling their stories
when they feel safe and comfortable doing so.
Former members have a variety of other losses to contend with.
They often speak of their regret for the lost years during which
they wandered off the main paths of everyday life. They regret
being out of step and behind their peers in career and life pursuits.
They feel the loss of a solid sense of self-esteen and self-confidence
as they come to realize that they were used to or that they surrendered
Former members may also feel extreme and unwarranted guilt over
almost anything they thought or did, fears of all kinds of things,
and intense doubt every time they try to make a decision. As
they unearth the stark reality of the deception and dishonesty
of cult life, many ex-members also feel great remorse over their
action and frequently worry about how to right the wrongs they
did. They can overcome such guilt only by accepting what they
did and forgiving themselves, making amends with others where
Panic attacks and other panic disorders are commonly experienced
by people coming out of the emotional arousal cultic groups which
tend to focus on stimulating fear and guilt.
Some former members fear that zealous current members will harm
them or their families to show the leader how devoted the current
Some groups have specific derogatory labels for persons who criticize
the cult, and they train their members to avoid or harass these
stated "enemies." For such reasons, fear and anxiety
are high in many former cult members from a variety of groups
- and not without justification, although it appears that most
cults soon turn their energies to recruiting new members rather
than prolonging efforts to harass defectors. Nevertheless, even
after the initial fear of retaliation has passed, ex-members worry
about how to handle the inevitable chance street meetings with
cult members, expecting these members to try to stir up the ex-members'
feelings of guilt over leaving and to condemn their present life.
Some cults inculcate their followers with notions that they contain
hidden selves or hidden loads of stress that may erupt at any
moment and destroy or at least severely damage them. Former members
may worry indefinitely about their inner "ticking bomb"
or the cult leader's dire predictions of the horrible events that
will befall them and their families. Because they have been so
well trained, former cult members may continue to see this possible
fate as something they may bring on themselves by having left
the group, given up on their faith, and betrayed the cause.
Often at the root of the fear is the memory of old humiliations
administered for stepping out of line. A woman who had been in
a cult for more than five years said: "Some of the older
members might still be able to get to me and crush my spirit like
they did when I became depressed and couldn't go out and fund
raise or recruit. I was unable to eat or sleep. I was weak and
ineffectual. They called me and the leader screamed at me: 'You're
too rebellious. I am going to break your spirit. You are too
strong-willed.' They made me crawl at their feet. I still freak
out when I think about how close they drove me to suicide that
day; for a long time afterward, all I could do was help with cooking.
I can hardly remember the details - it was a nightmare."
It is crucial to analyze and work through such fears objectively.
The former member needs to learn that the cult does not hold
magical powers over him or her.
When I am consulted on such cases, although I cannot make a diagnosis
without seeing the person, I urge the therapists to listen, learn
more, and see what happens when they allow a client to go over
the details of cult life. As was described in Chapter Six and
Seven, many of these phenomena are products of the odd, repetitive
training that goes on in cults, and they generally go away with
simple listening and helping the patient see how the behavior
became conditioned. To diagnose these occurrences as a true hallucination
or a sign of major mental disturbance can cause even more damage
to the person that he or she has already suffered.
While a few cult members may actually have become psychotic in
the cult, more typically, seemingly psychotic behavior is a result
of cult conditioning. For example, someone once asked me during
a consultation if I saw the Devil sitting across the room where
he pointed. I looked over, told him no, and asked if he did.
We then talked about the sources of this idea and when it first
happened. From that discussion, we learned that the cult leader
often used the phrase, "I see the Devil beside you."
He would say it to those being chastised or use it to convey
that a person was not trustworthy but "of the Devil."
When I commented to the man that maybe he wasn't able to fully
trust me yet and that it was sensible to go slowly in trusting
anyone, he was relieved. Further discussion revealed that he
was not hallucinating (and never had), but he had been conditioned
by his cult leader to associate feelings of distrust with ideas
of the Devil.
So some odd event s may well be leftovers from cult days. All
such symptoms need to be checked out carefully, with warmth and
Most of us who work with people soon after they emerge from cultic
groups note that a lack of humor is almost universal until they
have been away from the group for some time. In cults, people
do not laugh, joke, and think at the multiple levels that other
people ordinarily do and that allow them to grasp the incongruities
central to much humor.
Many former members are also unable to comprehend what they read
for some time. Many are forgetful, fail to meet deadlines, lose
jobs because of inefficiency, and miss appointments. Some become
very literal in their thinking. They've been so obedient and
nonreflective that, like "Jack" in the following example,
they are now highly concrete and literal in the ways they deal
with what they hear, see or read.
Communication with others is naturally hindered as long as former
members continue to use cult terminology. They don't make sense
when they speak to others, and sometimes they can't make sense
out of their own internal thoughts.
A pseudo-memory is a fictitious experience induced in a
person's memory, either by design or inadvertently, through the
user of guided imagery, hypnosis (ranging from light to deep trance
states), and direct and indirect suggestions. During the trance
state, or even without trance via carefully constructed suggestions,
individuals can be led to construct scenes in their minds. They
experience these fabricated, or confabulated, images as vividly
as, or even more vividly than, real-life memories, even though
the events never happened and are products of the interaction
between a manipulative operator and a dependent subject.
Cult members may be trained to have specific visualizations and
then be praised and rewarded and feel self-fulfilled when they
achieve the goal.
Some cults specialize in creating purely fictional identities
through emphasizing how bad the member's past was, as discussed
in Chapter Seven. Cults that focus on past-lives regression and
getting members to think they are communicating with entities
from past lives build into their followers rather firm and puzzling
revisions of history. In such cults, long-term members lead newer
members through processes in which they are encouraged to locate
events and imagine experiences and past lives that date back millions
of years. In all these cases, the revised personal history becomes
part of the pseudo-identity the cult member adopts during cult
Cults have been leading followers to create revised histories
for some years now. Members have been made to gradually accuse
parents and family and separate from them, then they are repeatedly
rewarded for these actions and statements. This practice leaves
many former members deeply conflicted.
Many times, former cult members will have written hateful, accusatory
letters - the so-called disconnect letters - to parents and relatives
at the direction of the cult after they were led to believe that
their parents acted in accordance with the fabrications concocted
during history revision. Within the cult milieu, these "mystical
manipulations" are very believable.
Eventually former cult members realize that their life history
was distorted and manipulated by cult practices, and they will
want to sort out the truth from fabrication. They will desire
to reconnect with what was real and rid themselves of nagging
guilt and anxiety and distorted self-image engendered by the cult.
Dissociation is a normal mental response to anxiety. A momentary
anxiety arises when internal or external cues (trigger)
set off a memory, a related idea, or a state of feeling that has
anxiety attached to it. This brief anxiety experience alerts
the mind to split off - that is, the mind stops paying attention
to the surrounding reality of the moment. The person becomes
absorbed and immersed in some other mental picture, idea, or feeling.
This dissociation occurs unexpectedly and unintentionally and
it is this dissociation that can be experienced as a floating
Most of the time the floating is described by former cult members
as "how I felt while in the group." Sometimes the feeling
is one of nostalgia for some aspect of the cult. Sometimes it
is a feeling of fear that the person should go back to the cult.
Most of the time, people describe it as being suspended between
the two worlds of present life and the past cult life.
Triggers, flashbacks, and floating are part of the normal repertoire
of the human mind, but usually people experience them as brief,
infrequent episodes. Because certain cult practices tend to produce
hypnotic states and are used extensively for prolonged periods,
people emerge with years of practice in how to dissociate. What
are transient, brief mental moments for the ordinary person become
practiced and reinforced behaviors for cult members. The moments
of dissociation become intensified, prolonged, and disruptive
experiences; they prevent sustained reflective thinking, concentration,
and the ability to plan ahead.
Because these dissociative responses are overlearned, they become
distracting, immobilizing habits. They often occur when a person
has to shift from one task to the next. It's as though the choice
of what to do next sets off the act of spacing out. In the cult,
that moment of what to do next was stressful: you had to make
a decision knowing that all decisions had to be "right"
and that you could get into trouble if your decision was wrong.
This experience is perhaps the source of the apparent conditioning
that causes decision making to trigger a dissociation.
Consequently, great difficulty in making decisions is common among
ex-members. At times they do not know what to do, say, or think.
It is as though they suddenly become dependent and childlike,
looking for direction. In the cult, they followed a predetermined
path of obedience. Now they find themselves fearful, feeling
stupid and guilty, and not knowing what to do. The newly found
independent decision making process becomes riddled with fears
and anxieties - all ripe moments for floating.
Floating episodes occur more frequently when someone is tired
or ill, at the end of the day, on long highway drives, or doing
highly repetitive tasks - that is, when the person feels weary
and unfocused but must also think. A period of dissociation and
a puzzled moment of wondering, What just happened to my thoughts
and feelings? Will arrive at such times. It helps if former members
can learn to recognize those vulnerable moments in their lives
for the conditioned responses that they are.
For this reason, former cult members often feel like immigrants
or refugees entering a foreign culture. In most cases, however,
they are actually reentering their own former culture, bringing
along a series of cult experiences and beliefs that may conflict
with the norms and expectations of society in general. Unlike
the immigrant confronting novel situations, the person coming
out of a cult is confronting the society she or he once rejected.
Gradually former members need to start making friends, dating,
and having a social life, as well as either working for a living
or returning to college or both. It's important to give them enough
time to make this adjustment and to catch up. It doesn't have
to be a great deal of time but enough so that they can pull themselves
together in various ways before attempting complicated mental,
social, and business enterprises.
Leaving is a final door slam: the past is behind, and the exiting
cult member is heading forward - but alone - toward an uncharted
future in which the former member has to start all over at creating
a friendship network.
Others simply panic and avoid dating altogether.
Often people were struggling with issues of sexuality, dating
and marriage before they joined a cult, and the cult artificially
alleviated such struggles by restricting sexual contact and pairing,
ostensibly to keep the members targeted on doing the "work
of the master." Even marriage and parenthood, if permitted,
are subject to cult rules. Sexuality in cults is almost always
monitored or controlled in some way. Pairing off with another
means you may care more for that person than for the leader or
group mission. So cult leaders develop ways to ensure that allegiance
goes to the top, not sideways in pair bonding. Another result
of this control of sexuality is that cult friendships become sexually
neutral and nonthreatening; rules that permit only brotherly and
sisterly love can take a heavy burden off a conflicted young adult.
In some instances, highly charged interpersonal manipulations
performed in the cult have long-lasting consequences. "Jennifer"
said she was often chastised by a prestigious female cult member
for "showing lustful thoughts toward the brothers. She would
have me lie face down of the floor. She would lie on top of me
and message me to drive Satan out. Soon, she began accusing me
of being a lesbian!" After leaving the cult, Jennifer felt
convinced about her sexual preferences.
Some groups promote a level of membership made up of renunciates,
individuals who are akin to monks in the Far East. Some of these
men and women do not engage in heterosexual lives when they leave
the group, nor are they homosexual. The cult has so affected
their outlook that they simply avoid issues of sexuality.
Orgiastic cults enforce sexuality rather than celibacy, and this
too affects departing individuals. Describing her cult leader,
one woman said, "He uses orgies to break down our inhibitions.
If a person didn't feel comfortable in group sex, he said it
indicated a psychological hang-up that had to be stripped away
because it prevented us from all from melding and unifying."
A few cults practice child-to-child and adult-to-adult sexual
encounters and forms of prostitution or sexual slavery, sometimes
combined with neo-Christian philosophy. There are also a few
aberrant Mormon-based cults that practices polygamy. In some
of the guru-based cults, the guru teaches and demands celibacy
but has sexual liaisons with male or female members.
Upon leaving groups with unusual sexual practices, ex-members
often are hesitant to talk about their experiences lest the listener
be critical of them for participating. This is a case where good
therapeutic counseling - or the sympathetic ear of a trusted friend
- may be beneficial.
If both partners have joined the cult, they do not feel able to
talk with one another about plans to escape the cult because loyalty
to the leader supersedes marital obligations. Therefore one partner
might leave without letting the other know, rather than run the
risk of being stopped because the other had told the leadership.
A number of marriages break up because the ones who leave are
crushed when they realize that love and marital loyalty are nothing
compared to their partner's fear and duty to the cult and that
the partner has chosen loyalty to the cult leader over loyalty
to the spouse.
A number of groups arrange member's marriages. The most publicized
are the mass weddings in Moon's Unification Church, such as one
in which 5,150 members were united in a group ceremony. Smaller
groups do the same on a reduced scale. Legal consultation is
needed for those who leave a spouse and/or children back in the
cult or who simply no longer wish to remain married to a partner
they didn't choose.
Former members' inability to trust is one of their most frequent
and vivid problems. Not only do they realize that they trusted
too much, but also they often end up blaming themselves for ever
joining the cult and for feeling inadequate about their decision-making
abilities and judgment.
Former members sometimes want to talk to people about positive
aspects of the cult experience. Besides acknowledging the seriousness
of having made a commitment, the sense of purpose and accomplishment,
and the simplicity of life in the old regime, they generally want
to discuss a few warm friendships or romances, as well as their
unique travels, experiences, or personal insights. Yet they commonly
feel that others, especially family, want to hear only the negative.
Former members need to talk about their experiences as they wish,
explaining to those around them that this doesn't mean they're
running back to the cult. Part of shedding the cult's black-and-white
thinking is learning to see all sides of an issue, and that learning
will apply or the way the cult experience is seen as well.
For a period of time, most will experience this reluctance to
join any type of group or to make a commitment to another person
or an activity or life plan. They will fear going back to their
old church, old club, or old college; they will avoid social activities
and volunteer organizations.
This may, in fact, be a healthy reaction. Those of us helping
ex-cult members advise caution about joining any new group and
suggest, instead, purely social, work, or school-related activities,
at least for the time being, until the person is more fully distanced
from the cult experience and better understands the recruitment
Some are taught prejudice toward certain races, religions, ethnic
groups, or social classes, or even something as simple as people
who wear clothing of the "wrong" color. While in the
group, members are praised for sounding off about these pet hates
of the leader. Out of the cult now, the person wants desperately
to stop spewing hatred.
Teenagers raised in such groups need considerable training in
how to live in a multethnic, multicultural, multiracial world
with ecumencial practices. Never instructed in how to live in
a democratic world, they learned to exist in a fascist one, where
followers echo the leader's values. One teenager and his parents
came to me for help because the boy had attended only cult schools.
Now out of the cult, he spouted the venom of the cult leader
and was being beaten and ostracized by others at school; he was
terribly confused. He sobbed as he told me, "I told the
class what the leader taught us - that the Pope and the United
States Postal Service were part of a Communist conspiracy - and
everybody laughed at me and said, 'There goes crazy ["Joey"]
again.' After school they beat me up and say they will get me."
Through the school principle and teacher, we worked out an educational
program for him and eventually he and his parents instructed the
class about cults, showed educational films on cults, and discussed
how to avoid getting recruited.
To newly emerged ex-cult members, people on the outside do not
seem dedicated or hardworking enough. They appear lazy and uncaring
about the world. Cults preach perfection and condemn members
for not being perfect, and cult members spend years trying to
live up to the ideal of perfection, always failing because the
standards are beyond human capabilities. Conditioned by their
cult's condemnation of the beliefs and conduct of outsiders, former
members tend to remain hypercritical of much ordinary human behavior.
While in the cult, members not only learned to be harsh to those
under them who were not perfect, but were sometimes punished for
the shortcomings of others as well their own. Upon entering the
general society, some former members continue to be punitive,
critical, confrontational taskmasters. The simple human errors
and forgetfulness of others can bring an ex-cult member to look
down on them. Cults organized around paramilitary, political,
and psychological themes tend to teach some of the harshest and
most confrontational practices.
Be alert to the possibility of dissociation and try to find activities
that will break the rhythm of monotonous work, so they will not
fall into cult habits and periods of floating. These early insights
also cued me to start looking more precisely at some of the effects
on people of the highly repetitive activities typically found
in cults and the power of thought-reform processes.
"Don't worry," I say. "It eventually all goes
away." And it does. It's a matter of time, plus learning
to label what you are experiencing and hearing some good explanations
for what's happening to you, including your physiological reactions
and the up-and-down process of recovery.
Recovery is a psycho-educational process - the more you learn
about the cult and what to expect afterward, the quicker your
healing process and integration into a new life outside the cult.
Reversing the loss of mental acuity takes time and effort - you
may want to try reading again, going back to activities that interested
you before you joined the cult, or taking some relatively less
demanding evening classes for a start. Making lists and keeping
a notebook are two of the most useful and most popular remedies
for cognitive difficulties. You can make detailed plans of everything
you need to do and everything you want to do, day by day. Then
you follow you plan, checking off items as you go along, so you
can see your progress.
When passive behavior or troublesome indecisiveness comes up,
it can be helpful to dissect the cult's motives and injunctions
against questioning doctrines or directives. This will shed light
on the effects of your having lived for months or years in a situation
that encouraged acquiescence, and also help you think on your
own once again and voice opinions. During this process, the cult
and its power become demystifies as you realize that leadership's
orders were meant primarily to reinforce the closed, controlled
cult environment and keep tabs on members.
Three types of remembrances are experienced by ex-cult members
during floating episodes:
Often former cult members don't distinguish among remembrances
from cult life. But learning to recognize and identify the types
just described is helpful in the process of getting rid of them
for good. It demystifies your cultic experience and the power
you think it holds over you. You will no longer feel you are
at the mercy of some strange phenomenon that you cannot control.
Some cults even have their own terms, such as restimulation,
which they use to predict the recurrence of these episodes (both
while in the cult and later). This, of course, sets members up
to expect what does occur once in a while. The cult that uses
this particular term also imbues the involuntary state with the
implication that "you can't help it because it's in your
wiring." This frightens members, who then carry this notion
with them when they leave. Myths such as this cause former members
to become very anxious when the dissociative episodes occur.
Remember, there are no mysterious, mechanical, out-of-our-control
events. No cult and no person has the power or skill to implant
such things in the minds of their members or to cause these episodes
to happen after members leave. There is no scientific evidence,
no valid clinical observation that such a possibility exists.
Individuals newly emerging from a cult can almost expect and need
not be alarmed by periods of seeming to lose track of time or
where they are. It's normal for them to think often about various
experiences from cult days and sometimes feel as they felt back
in the cult. During exit counseling, families should be told
that floating is likely to occur for a time after the cult member
leaves the group. They are advised to ex-member to talk about
and deal with these episodes.
Floating does not mean you want to return to the cult. As described
earlier, floating is most likely to happen when you are stressed,
anxious, uncertain, lonely, distracted, fatigued, or ill. Once
you recognize when these episodes may occur, you can prepare for
them. Then the event will be less distressing when it happens.
Realizing that floating is a dissociative moment will help.
Once you understand that you are merely temporarily psychologically
disengaging, you won't think that your memory is shot or that
you are losing your mind. You can say to yourself, "I'm
not damaged for life. This is just a momentary dissociation.
I can pick up where I was. It's just a thought, just a memory.
I don't have to act on it."
Here are some helpful Antidotes:
All these techniques will help break up the floods of emotion
and emotional memories that come in at you. Taking a down-to-earth
and aggressive stance against triggers and floating will propel
you to take great leaps forward in your recovery.
Trust is difficult to reestablish. Regaining trust is sometimes
easier for those who have the chance to speak with exit-counselors,
to spend some time at a rehabilitation center (see Chapter Eleven),
or to engage in psychotherapy after leaving the cult.
One of the most poignant aftereffects of cult life is the distrust
of the self. Many people start blaming themselves, asking, "Why
ever did I join?" Part of exit-counseling and the subsequent
psychoeducational work is helping former cult members analyze
their involvement. As they recognize the deceptive, step-at-a-time
influence program that led them into the group, they will be less
hard on themselves. They will be able to forgive themselves and
carry on with life.
Many ex-members describe struggling along, feeling they are wasting
time by being nice to fellow employees or watering flowers for
a neighbor or visiting a sick aunt. They don't allow themselves
to feel any satisfaction, since they are still judging by the
"It is all right to enjoy once more. It is all right to
be kind to one person at a time. In fact, it is impossible to
do whatever 'save the world' means. Such abstract goals are just
that - abstract - and keep you from living and doing good day
The discussion in this chapter does not cover the conflicts, turmoils
and disturbing aftereffects that ex-cult members have struggled
with. But it should help the reader begin to understand the breadth
of the recovery from cult conditioning and cult experiences that
Coming out of the cult pseudo-personality is about reeducation
and growth. Self-help through reading can be invaluable for those
who live far from knowledgeable resources such as exit-counselors,
cult information specialists, former member support groups, and
mental health professionals.
Watch out! That can be the last train stop on the way to hell
I want to applaud all of those who keep on wanting to try to do
good, and to be good to their families, friends, and humankind.
I applaud them for springing back after the betrayal of a spiritual
abuser, a psychological exploiter, or a political fraud and for
not allowing a fascistic pseudo-guru to keep on controlling them.
I applaud those who speak out and believe that we all need to
continue trying to prevent these abusers from taking over more
of the world. Truly, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,
and the ability to recover from defeats, scams and harassment.
A free mind is a wonderful thing. Free minds have discovered
the advances of medicine, science, and technology; have created
great works of art, literature, and music; and have devised our
rules of ethics and the laws of civilized lands. Tyrants who
take over our thinking and enforce political, psychological, or
spiritual "correctness" by taking away our freedom,
especially the freedom of our minds, are the menace of today,
tomorrow, and all eternity.