'Most of us could get duped': Georgia experts on cultic abuse and the road to recovery

Savannah Morning News

By Nikolai Mather

Following last month's FBI raid, former members of Georgia-based House of Prayer Christian churches revealed alleged cult-like behavior they said they witnessed while a part of the church.

Religious extremism experts throughout Georgia offered their insights about the manipulations and control that can occur at the hands of various organized groups, not just religious outfits, and why many can become so devoted to them.

Former followers told the USA Today Network that House of Prayer subjected its congregations to emotional and financial abuse, including aggressive tithing and inappropriate influence over their personal finances. Members who were veterans or active duty military spoke of being pressured to use GI Bill funding to attend the church's unaccredited seminary. Former members also spoke of routine humiliation, isolation and coercion.

To Erika Van Meir, a therapist who treated former cult members in Decatur, Georgia, and now lives in Alabama, said it is all too easy for abusive organizations to deceive people.

“It is a mistake to judge them or assume that only a certain type of person would join a group,” she said. “Under the right circumstances, I believe most of us could get duped and join something that we thought was in line with our beliefs, but turns out to be something more sinister.”

What is a cult?

Scholars have a lot of different definitions for cults.

Jeff Patterson, a graduate student at the University of Georgia’s Department of Sociology in Athens, Georgia, who is studying religious and political extremism, holds that cults are groups dedicated to the study of a particular belief system, usually without a clear leadership or doctrine.  

These groups, he said, are not always abusive. To Patterson, cultic abuse stems from an uneven power dynamic, which can also occur in established churches and secular groups.

“So take that high profile case recently of child abuse within the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church isn't a cult, but you do find those abusive behaviors due to the structure that allows them,” he said.

Van Meir agrees with that assessment.  

“It’s about a very problematic group structure, typically with one very controlling person at the top, and it typically claims to have the formula to how people should live,” she said. “Often there is black and white thinking, inside jargon and language that becomes very loaded, and a tendency to see anyone on the outside as the enemy.”

Dr. Jackie Johnson, a former self-described cult member and a cult recovery specialist based in Savannah, also noted that cultic abuse can take place in any setting.  

“A book club can be a cult. An equestrian center can be a cult,” she said.

The characteristics which set it apart can often seem benign: The group may be intent on meeting new members, it might see itself as very tightknit, or maybe its members just seem very zealous about their beliefs. But to Johnson, these groups and the abuse within them amounts to social crisis.

“If a group can manage to control our most primal urges, like our sex lives and our sexual identity and shunning your own children, it can really do anything else to you,” she said.

Who joins cults?

Often, experts say, the people most susceptible to cultic abuse are simply looking for belonging. Sometimes there is a major life change: a move, a new job or the death of a loved one. People experiencing isolation or loneliness are more prone to joining, especially with the promise of a loving community.

“It is often during times of transition when people are most apt to get involved with something of this nature,” said Van Meir. 

Former House of Prayer followers claimed to USA Today Network journalists in previous reports that the church specifically targeted military service members, setting up seminaries near six different military bases throughout the United States. Patterson thinks those allegations square with recruiting tactics typical of cults.

“It certainly fits the pattern when you think about it,” said Patterson. “People in the military, especially if they're living on base, likely aren't living close to or with family. They may not have a lot of other social ties outside of the group.”

For many, the realization for what they truly are involved in comes too late.

“No one really wakes up and says, ‘I want to join a cult today,’” said Van Meir. “And often by the time they realize there are issues, they have gotten so in over their heads that there is a ton at stake in leaving.”

The road to recovery
It is profoundly difficult for members to leave a cult.  

“Despite all of the terrible things they endured, there usually was something positive that attracted them in the first place,” said Van Meir. “There are relationships, memories and the feeling of being part of something they thought was making the world better.”

Johnson agrees. After many failed attempts, she left an abusive cult for good when she was 52. Though she had a background in therapy, she found that few of her peers understood cultic abuse.

It was through her own research that she found the International Cultic Studies Association, a network for scholars and survivors of cultic abuse. Through ICSA, she was able to connect with other survivors and better understand the road to recovery – for her patients and herself.

Still, it’s a hard path. Survivors often arrive with little familiarity with the outside world. They often struggle with setting healthy boundaries and establishing an identity outside of the cult. Processing their abuse – emotional, financial, sexual, and so on – can be debilitating.

“[Patients] come into therapy with a lot of shame, because they don't understand how this group has manipulated them and exploited them,” she said. “They feel stupid. ‘How could I have fallen for this? How could I have done this?’”

Though there is wider public interest in cultic abuse, she finds herself frustrated by the persistent misconceptions about cults. Johnson believes we could do with less sensationalism and more education on abuse.  

“Cult involvement is a public safety issue," she said. "It absolutely traumatizes people and impedes on their health in all domains of life."

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