The great escape

Quitting a cult takes determination and expert help.

Brisbane Times, Australia/April 20, 2007
By Tim Elliott

The beginning the of the rest of Matthew Klein's life began one crisp morning in October 2001, on a street corner in a red light district of Winnipeg, Canada. That was the day he got thrown out of The Twelve Tribes, a fundamentalist Christian cult with about 3000 members worldwide. Klein, a chemical engineer from Sydney, had been with the group for two years, during which time he had surrendered all his money and submitted his wife and three small children to their control. Now, after a falling out, two cult members drove Klein and his three-year-old son, Bryson, to a hotel in one of the city's roughest neighbourhoods, gave him $100 and told him to get out.

"The hotel sold pornography on the front counter," Klein says. "They had signs warning people to double-lock their doors at night. It wasn't the kind of place you want to have a three-year-old boy."

Six years later, Klein, now 38, has finally got his life back. He has regained custody of his two other children, married again and rebuilt his career. But for years he was an emotional wreck, ridden with guilt, anxiety, anger and depression. "I tried everything," he says. "I saw psychologists, psychiatrists and several counsellors but they were mostly useless."

The only one who helped, Klein says, was Raphael Aron, head of a Melbourne group called Cult Counselling Australia. Aron is one of this country's few full-time exit-counsellors: therapists, psychologists, and in some cases church workers, who specialise in getting people out of cults. Aron, 52, studied psychology at Melbourne University in the 1970s and has been exit-counselling for more than 30 years. These days he sees about six clients at a time. "I could do more," he says. "There's certainly the demand. But it's heavy, intensive work."

Most of his clients are people distraught at the estrangement of a family member. "There are many distressing aspects to cults," Aron says, "the destruction of a person's personality and the fact that many cults deal with Armageddon, which is an inherently negative way to look at the world. But by far the most upsetting thing is the family breakdown, the way children are separated from parents and siblings."

The idea behind exit-counselling seems straightforward: that you reverse the psychological manipulation to which cults commonly subject their members. In practice it's more complex, not least because of its history.

Exit-counselling came out of what used to be known as deprogramming, a practice pioneered in America during the 1970s by a Chattanooga-born civil rights activist called Ted [Patrick]. [Patrick] became interested in cults after almost losing his son to the Children of God. Researching the field - he sometimes "joined" cults to understand their methodology - he determined a highly interventionist resocialisation strategy, often abducting cult-members and subjecting them to intense "reverse-brainwashing". He made front page news for his interstate car chases, eluding both state troopers and cult leaders, who dubbed him "Black Lightning" and accused him of being an agent of Satan.

Today's methods are more sophisticated. "What we do is totally voluntary," Aron says. "Cult members must come to the table of their own volition, otherwise the counselling won't work." Nevertheless, he says, "there's a fine balance between getting someone into a room and being dishonest."

Aron's work often involves many painstaking months of preparation, including initially, drawing up a psychological profile of the cult member with the help of a third party, usually a family member. "We then decide who will make initial contact with the cult member. Will it be the sister, brother or mother? It can't be me, because the cults know who I am and they hate me. The message they take to the cult member might be something like: 'Dad is worried about you.'"

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