CULTS and KIDS
A Study of Coercion
Robert W. Dellinger
"There's always a pretty good number of self-appointed pied
pipers, self-appointed messianic people, self-appointed gurus in any
society who say to the confused masses: 'Follow me! I have a simple
solution for the complex problems of life.' But if the social
structure has not broken down, very few people will follow them," says
Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist and a professor at the
University of California's medical school in San Francisco and in the
Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkley.
Singer has talked to more than 500 cultist and ex-cult members, and
has worked individually and in group therapy with more than 200 people
who have come out of cults.
Cults are not new. When Eastern and Western cultures collided
during the last days of the Roman Empire, a number of apocalyptic
movements appeared. After the French Revolution in 1789, France
witnessed a tremendous rise in the number of cults. Cultic groups did
not arrive on the scene in England until the 18th century, during the
Industrial Revolution. And the United States had to wait until its
citizens pushed west before these assemblies proliferated. But many
social observers believe that the recent growth of cults in this
country, which began in the late 1960's and became really visible in
the mid-1970's, has been something special.
Singer estimates that three million young adults between the ages
of 18 and 25 are affiliated with these movements. There are at least
250 different cults, she says, and, depending on the definition you
use, as many as 2,500 cults can be identified. According to Singer,
these groups fall into ten classes: neo-Christian-based cults; Hindu-
and eastern-based groups; occult, satanic, and witchcraft movements;
spiritualistic-based groups; Zen-based assemblies; race-based cults;
flying saucer-based cliques; psychological movements; political cults;
and communal- living groups.
"It's important to note that all cults are not religious in their
content," Singer points out. "Some of them were communal living
arrangements at first. Synanon was started to help drug addicts, and
Scientology began as a new psychology and evolved into a religious
body. The contents of witchcraft and occult groups, psychological
movements, neo-Christian organizations and Hindu groups vary; but most
of these movements have become religions because of the wonderful
protection that the First Amendment and the many state tax laws give
to religious entities. By using the term religion, the new cults try
to blend themselves in and appear as if they are no different from
'institutionalized' religions. The point we're all trying to make is:
'Yes, they are different - at a social and political and informational
and power level!'"
Singer says that today's cults are usually led by charismatic
males who center the love, devotion, and allegiance of the members on
themselves. Rabbis, ministers, priests, and other "legitimate"
religious leaders, on the other hand, keep the veneration of adherents
focused on God, abstract principles, and group purposes.
"At the time they arise, cults try to tell people that they're
innovative and exclusive because part of their appeal is to say that
they're all-millennium," she explains. "Doomsday cults say that the
end of the world is coming in one way or another - the A-bomb, etc. -
and that if you join brand X cult you'll be part of the elite who
survive and take over and lead the new order. But they usually turn
out to be pseudo-revolutionary in their actual practices. While these
cults and cult-like groups are saying they are the new way, they are
really far more restrictive than any of the life-styles in the
"Cults have only two basic purposes: recruiting new members and
fund raising. Cults may claim to make real social contributions, but,
in reality, these remain mere claims or minimal gestures."
According to Singer, cults tend to have a double set of ethics.
The "love bombing" that the Moonies (members of Reverend Sun Myung
Moon's Unification Church) are famous for, the personality test that
Scientologists give, and the unconditional acceptance that almost all
of these groups show toward potential members, she claims, are totally
contrived. "If I apply to be a Catholic, the priest will spell out in
utter detail the church's doctrine and practices by making me take
religious instructions," she says. "If I go off to be an
Episcopalian, a Baptist, a Seventh-Day Adventist, a Jew - any of the
'institutionalized' religions - they want full-capacity informed
consent. Whereas, the cults start with duplicity and deception."
"These groups are able to attract people who don't really know
that it's totally staged. And then, after they get in, these young
men and women are unaware of what the methods - the social and
psychological manipulative tools that are applied to them - are going
to do to their thinking and how they are going to be separated off
from their families and from their past lives and their past religions
and past consciousness."
HOW CULTS WORK .....
Gary Scharff, once a religious studies major at Princeton
University, was recruited by the Unification Church in 1972. After
finishing his junior year, Scharff says he started feeling cynical
about the merits of learning theology from a textbook. Deciding that
he needed some time to sort things out, he went home to Louisville,
Kentucky, and got a job in a tool factory. It was there that the
Moonies recruited him.
"I just met a couple of people from their bus team and was very
intrigued by them," he explains. "I had never heard of 'cult' or
'brainwashing' at that point. I had a mixed reaction. First, I felt
somewhat amused by the literature they gave me, which seemed to be
fairly childish and juvenile. They were proposing to answer the
profound questions of life in a series of three or four lectures, and
here I had spent three years trying to understand the questions. But
then, on the other hand, there was this really powerful devotion and
commitment in the young woman who handed me the literature and struck
up a conversation with me."
Scharff knew that she must be from a fringe religious group, but
he thought it would be interesting to try to understand what real
belief was like without an intellectual foundation. Gradually, he got
more and more emotionally involved with members of the group. After
eight months, he moved into the Unification Church's local center.
Still, Scharff had no intention of signing up for life. He just
wanted to share their faith with them for a while. But soon he was
asked to attend a 100-day leadership training program near New York
City. Church officials assured him and his parents that he would be
back in Louisville in a couple of months. The camp, which operated on
a rigid schedule, was physically, emotionally, and mentally
overpowering. Scharff felt that he never had enough food to eat or
hours to sleep.
"We spent most of the time just sitting listening to lectures,"
he recalls. "You would have this being-at-the-edge-of-consciousness
kind of awareness - the same feeling you have at three o'clock in the
afternoon on the day after you've pulled an all-nighter. There's a
shell that's just kind of surrounding you, and you don't feel alert.
You feel like anything could happen, and it would take you longer to
react to it and to even understand what it was. So there's kind of an
undertone of fearfulness that accompanies all your actions."
Scharff describes the experience as a combination of affection
and deception. The love and concern made him less suspicious of his
mentors; the dishonesty and manipulation isolated him from his family
and friends and, eventually, from himself.
"There's something continuously going on, from early in the
morning until late at night," he explains. "Even in those situations
where you're just moving from one location to another in the camp,
there's somebody on either side of you. Your attention is constantly
drawn towards things outside you, and so you're not in the kind of
mental posture to turn inward and reflect. You never get a chance to
talk to yourself because there's always somebody else talking to you.
And that becomes a very serious problem because so many ideas are
unloaded on you."
"Ultimately, you become so fatigued and your emotions become so
strongly accentuated that they really kind of set off to the side any
kind of rational thinking process. You become an absorber of feelings
and attitudes and behavior patterns rather than an alert adult
responding to a community that is offering something which you can
take or leave. You really become committed more by default than by
The isolation, intellectual bombardment, and emotional
fluctuation worked their spell on 21-year-old Gary Scharff. After 90
days of training, he was made director of the Pennsylvania Unification
Church. During his four years in the "Movement," he also was national
director of CARP (the Collegiate Association for the Research of
Principle, a recruitment arm of the Unification Church) and assistant
director of planning and development for a proposed system of
Unification Church seminaries. He gave the initial three-day workshop
for people recruited in New York City and did some public relations
The experience still frightens him when he looks back, even
though he has been out of the group for four years. "I went into that
thing kind of emotionally involved but nonetheless an open-minded and
alert student of religion," he muses, "and I came out of it a very
fanatical, highly focused, totally submissive servant of Sun Myung
The first step in "processing" cult recruits away from their past
lives, according to Margaret Singer, is separating them from their
families and friends. "Many of the groups refer to themselves as 'the
family' in one way or the other and emphasize 'We are your new family
now!'" she explains. "Several of the groups tell members, eventually,
that their parents are 'satanic. ' Another group calls them 'potential
trouble sources.' One of the groups refers to all non-members,
including parents, as the 'wog world.' In quite a few of the groups,
they say your parents are only your physical parents."
"They even structure families within the cult if families are
inducted into the group. The People's Temple did this. Jim Jones
broke up families. He would send the children of Mr. and Mrs. A to
live with Mr. and Mrs. B and C. If married couples go in, they, too,
tend to be broken up - because these are very upwardly centered
groups, and the cult leaders have found that it works best if they
prevent lateral allegiances and pairings and keep all the veneration
and affiliations directed upwards."
Because most cults suppress and monitor phone calls, visitors,
and letters, Singer says that they are often able to convince new
members that their parents have abandoned them.
Next, according to Singer, these groups try to get the neophytes
to focus on past deviant behavior - drug use, sexual misdeeds,
psychological hangups, poor social relationships. The mechanism is
often some kind of group confession or encounter session, and the
result is often recruits who now see their past as something evil. By
controlling and reinterpreting all information from the outside world,
keeping members busy marketing and proselytizing, using thought-
stopping cliches and a closed system of logic, squelching all
resistance and negativity, and reinforcing only group-desired
behavior, cults resocialize vulnerable individuals.
"After they've been in a long enough time, the groups try to
convey to the new members that they won't be able to return to the
outside," Singer explains. "One of the major cults says, 'Returning
from here to the world will be like eating your own vomit!' The new
members are both afraid to leave the group because of personal failure
and afraid that the group may come after them and bring them back.
Most are relatively debilitated from long hours of cult work every
day, and, eventually, they get to feeling very bad because they start
to become aware of the deception that was practiced upon them to get
them in. But by then, they have been in so long that they have almost
no easy life to return to. So the choice usually is to stay."
"What I'm trying to paint is a picture of many, many pathways to
social and psychological manipulation, to restricting reflective
thinking, to restricting secondary associations, and to keeping the
person highly focused on the leader while they're in these groups."
The Unification Church is not alone when it comes to using
deception and mental maneuvers to recruit and keep members, according
to Singer and others. Although the followers of Lord Krishna, the
Hare Krishnas, reserve their hard sell for the selling of their
literature and incense, they can be heavy proselytizers whenever a
possible recruit comes by. Critics (most noticeably Flo Conway and
Jim Siegelman, authors of the book "Snapping") claim that the constant
chanting of their mystical incantation or mantra invokes an
unquestioning mental state. Others contend that a horrendous work
schedule plus a no-meat, no-eggs, no-fish, low protein diet keep
members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in a
constantly repressed condition.
The Divine Light Mission is supported by the sale of converts'
possessions and gifts, and by the tithing of "preemies" (i.e.,
devotees). Counter-cultists say that the meditative "knowledge"
techniques practiced by its congregation are consciousness-altering
methods that harm a susceptible mind. At the heart of DLM philosophy,
in fact, is the idea that rational thought prevents human beings from
reaching God. Some former members have claimed that they were
brainwashed by being bombarded with the group's doctrine. Others have
reported such cognitive disturbances as memory loss and an inability
to read without "trancing out" - going into a meditative state.
Margaret Singer believes that the Church of Scientology, the
Children of God, The Way International, the Tony and Susan Alamo
Christian Foundation, the Love Israel family, and the Body of Christ
all rely on coercive conversion methods. Others have also suggested
that many "Me Generation" movements, such as LifeSpring, TM, and EST,
can influence an individual's thought processes.
Father Kent Burtner, a Dominican priest who counsels former cult
members and their parents, believes that the best way to view all of
these groups is to place them on a continuum that runs from positive
support of the person to mind destructiveness through the use of
deception and abusive behavior modification techniques. "When you get
to Moon and his Booneville, California, training camp, there is no
question about the subterfuge and trickery going on there," he says.
"But when you look at some of these fringe 'human potential' groups,
then you get into this really fuzzy zone. Within this gray area,
there may be a case and time where an individual's freedom is totally
betrayed and another case where an individual's freedom, given
slightly different circumstances, is not. You really have to judge it
on a case by case basis."
What is significant about these movements, according to Father
Burtner, are the psychological techniques that have been used to
convert and control followers. "I don't care whether it's someone
leading a Catholic charismatic prayer group or if it's Sun Myung Moon
- whether they're into a 'socially acceptable' form of spirituality of
not - if they start using methods that deprive individuals of their
ability to make a free choice, they're acting in a tremendously
destructive way towards the person," he says. "And that, to me, is an
WHO JOINS AND WHY .....
If these groups are so harmful, why would anybody enter one? In
studying cults, social scientists have come up with a number of
reasons to explain their popularity with today's youth and young
adults. A disillusionment with the scientific community, the
military, big business and labor, schools and colleges, government,
family relationships, and religions - every aspect of our
materialistic society - has made many human potential movements and
cults appealing. A longing for moral authority and a sense of purpose
has also led people into the waiting arms of assemblies with simple
answers to life's most puzzling problems.
"It's not just a pathologigal people who join the cults," says
Margaret Singer. "There is no one type of person who becomes involved
with the cults. Rather, all of us at various times are more
vulnerable than at other times. Almost anyone who is in a period of
loneliness is in a vulnerable period in which he or she might get
taken in by the flattery and deceptive lures that cults use to recruit
new members. I've found that the people who've gotten involved with
cults have tended to be somewhat depressed. The cults picked them up
between high school and college, between romances, between college and
their first job, between marriage and when they were divorced. But
they were in between a major anchoring point and affiliation."
Gary Scharff says that being a member of the Unification Church
gave him a strong feeling of commitment and sacrifice, of
subordinating himself to the higher goal of saving the world. "That
was a very, very powerful incentive," he confides. "It was very
rewarding. I felt I was really putting my life on the line, living by
what I believed. It's a feeling of really being devoted and having,
in a sense, cast your fate into the lap of God."
But probably more than any other factor, the need for love and
friendship steers young people who are making the difficult transition
from late adolescence to adulthood into cults. At the heart of their
appeal is the promise of uncomplicated warmth and acceptance. Being a
member of one of these "communities of love" means being a part of
what some have called the ultimate in-group. "If you comply and focus
your thinking outward, do not dissent, stop thinking of your past
family and your past work," says Singer, "you will get lots of payoffs
because you have joined an elite group. And one way or another in
this elite group, you're going to become a perfect human being."
"The attraction in the majority of cases has involved normal,
healthy kids going through temporary depressions," explains Jean
Merritt, a psychiatric social worker who has been counseling former
cult members and their families since 1973. "They have been caused by
the typical things that cause depressions in that age group: conflicts
with parents, boyfriend or girlfriend; problems in school; the loss of
a relative or a friend through death or divorce. A fair number of the
kids who have been approached by Moonies, let's say, when they were
feeling good laughed it off, knowing exactly that this was probably a
cult. They were not the least bit interested. Then they were
approached again when they weren't feeling so strong, and off they
According to Merritt, cults usually go after single, white,
middle-class and upper-middle-class young people who have been taught
to be open to innovative ideas and to try new experiences. They are
often intelligent young men and women who are extremely idealistic and
altruistic. She says that some cults today are also actively
recruiting lower and working-class inner-city youths. But beyond
that, Merritt believes there is no typical cult member. Young and old
alike who are at loose ends are easy prey to the cults' flattery and
PREVENTIVE GUIDANCE .....
Margaret Singer believes in the importance of early education.
"If parents would get their kids to be a little more streetwise," she
says, "that's the main thing. There are no free lunches."
Singer believes that fathers and mothers should become more
knowledgeable about the major cults so they can answer their
children's questions. But even more important, she feels that parents
need to listen and hear the feelings, concerns and fears of their sons
and daughters. "You must be the one who helps a young man or woman
find answers to his or her questions," she says. "If you don't, a
cultist may lure him or her off with false promises that there is one
solution to everything."
Just as parents should talk to their kids about drug abuse, Jean
Merritt says they also need to inform them about cults. In giving
lectures around the country, she has discovered that high school
students are terribly naive about the whole subject of cults. Even
teen-agers who know that it's bad news to get messed up with these
groups, don't know why. And Merritt insists that these people are
just as vulnerable as their unaware peers because they're likely to
pass it off as just another thing, like marijuana, that Dad and Mom
will get hysterical about.
GETTING PEOPLE OUT .....
"If your child has only been involved in a group a very short
time and still hasn't left home, there are certain ways that you can
respond to their questions," says Henrietta Crampton, secretary of
Citizens Freedom Foundation, a parents' counter-cult network with
affiliates in many states. "You can find out which cult your child is
involved with and who the leader is. You can call a local chapter of
CFF or maybe talk to an ex-cult member. But get the specifics. Then
you can present these facts to your child and get him or her to
understand. If you know early enough, you can stop it."
The hardest thing for fathers and mothers who have lost a child
to a cult to swallow is their own guilt. Most are ashamed. Many see
themselves as failures. But because the cults recruit mainly from the
ranks of the idealistic and committed, the loss of their child is, in
fact, a kind of horrible personal compliment.
Once a son or daughter has taken off with the group, most
professionals believe that the sooner the parents start trying to make
contact, trying to keep the lines of communication open, and trying to
lure the child out, the better. "So often parents think it's
something like Hula Hoop - it's just a passing fad," says Margaret
Singer. "They don't know how really tight the psychological and
social pressures will come to bear upon their child."
Singer, Father Burtner, and Merritt believe that parents must
keep in mind that cults see the world through polarized glasses:
everybody inside is good and everybody outside is demonic or, at
least, influenced by Satan. aIf parents tip their hand too early by
coming out openly against the group, the recruit will often go
underground and may not be seen again for years. To counter this, the
three counselors tell parents to keep lots of "love messages" going to
Parents who have had their children drawn into cults have three
basic options. By keeping communications going, they can try to get
their son or daughter to talk with a former member or local cult
authority. Sometimes this third party, by providing critical
information about the group, can break the cult's hold. Although many
cult watchers say this approach rarely works, the Jewish Community
Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, a counter-cult
organization, recently reported that "hundreds of young people have
been convinced to leave the various cults as a result of discussions
with concerned and knowledgeable individuals. These discussions were
entered into voluntarily by the cult members, usually at the urging of
Some parents go to the courts when their children refuse to
listen to the "other side." There are two connected legal remedies:
conservatorship-guardianship and a writ of habeas corpus. Through
conservatorships-guardianships, a state places an adult in the
temporary custody of another adult. Although state laws differ about
the grounds on which these legal orders may be granted, the most
common reasons include being harmful to oneself and others, physical
infirmity, or mental incompetence. But civil libertarians argue that
it's an unconstitutional form of legal kidnaping, and many magistrates
are reluctant to issue these orders. If a judge decides that the
cultist does need a conservator-guardian, a writ of habeas corpus is
then issued to gain custody of the person. Most conservator-guardian
decrees specify a time period in which medical and mental health
evaluation and treatment must take place. At the end of these days or
weeks, the judge reviews the case.
The last alternative, the forcible abduction and restraint of the
cult victim, is illegal. And although some judges have been
sympathetic to parents who take this course of action, these
kidnapings have been prosecuted at every level of the criminal justice
system. Ted Patrick, the well-known San Diego deprogrammer, has been
jailed many times for conspiring to forcibly remove a member from a
cult. Others have been fined. Many contemporary deprogrammers will
only talk to cultists who either come to them voluntarily or through a
Whether a person leaves a group voluntarily, through a court
order, or by being illegally kidnaped, many counter-cult authorities
believe the recruit must be deprogrammed. "They don't get their heads
on straight unless they have a chance to talk to somebody who's been
through their experience, who knows what's going on inside of them
emotionally," says Neil Maxwell, a San Francisco pharmacist who has
done some 50 deprogrammings and who is willing to do more. "I think
it's a fantastic process. It's very similar to surgery to correct a
condition that can't be corrected in any other way. It's not a harsh
confrontation process but rather a kindly exchange of information."
Father Burtner agrees that even when members choose to leave
cults, they still need to have the opportunity to sort things out.
"We've had kids who have left groups quite on their own, went home,
and then later, for some mysterious reason, went back to the cult," he
says. "Maybe they got left alone too long in the cult, and their
reflective processes began to work again. Then they panicked and fled
the group. But if that person doesn't get some good help, he or she
will still suffer from the residual effects of their experience, for
example, knee-jerk reactions to coercive circumstances. Another
reason a person might leave a group is that he or she overdoses on
guilt. The cult must make recruits surrender their guilt to the
group, which, in turn, enables the group to control them. But at the
same time, the group must maintain positive reinforcement - 'good
strokes' - for without these, the person is going to feel unworthy of
remaining within the group."
Although Father Burtner knows that some self styled
"deprogrammers" have tried to shock cultists out of their present
mental state with violence, he does not believe that shouting and
screaming, sleep deprivation, and sensory overload are the essence of
the controversial procedure. After conducting 16 deprogrammings, 14
of which have been successful, Father Burtner is sure that emotional
or physical strong-arm methods do not work because these tactics
simply reinforce the person's paranoia. "Deprogramming," he explains,
"is a counseling process whereby a cult victim is given the
opportunity to see a broad perspective on his or her group; to see
more fully the implications of membership; to learn the rudiments of
abusive behavior modification techniques and the thought-reform
process; to examine the values, tenets, and practices of the group; to
examine his or her own thoughts and feelings so that the person re-
evaluates the affiliation and makes a free personal choice."
According to Father Burtner, cults put up a wall between a
person's own ideas and emotions and his or her reflections on these
things. The cultist is stripped of any spontaneous reactions. The
group wants to control all communication that an individual has with
the innermost self - to direct what, and even whether, a person may
think and feel. "So in the deprogramming, you've got to reach through
that wall and help them experience their own thoughts and their own
feelings," he says. "There are a lot of ways to go about doing that.
Some deprogrammers are very attuned to people's emotional wavelengths
and can help them pick up on these things, especially, with the help
of parents and friends who know what's real and what's not in a
particular person. Other deprogrammers prefer to go at it by means of
a rational discussion about the cult's activities, hoping that as they
do it the individual will show them some areas of anxiety. Once
they've got hold of that, then they can help the person bring to the
surface what's really going on underneath."
Gary Scharff was deprogrammed in Kansas by Joe Alexander, a
professional anti-cultist. After four days of talking and reading,
Scharff realized that he could not take people's freedom away in the
name of God. "I felt very, very much in solitude in having to make up
my own mind in a way that was as honest as I could possibly do," he
says. "It was a painful choice internally, even though I was treated
respectfully and lovingly from the outside."
RE-ENTERING SOCIETY .....
Even when parents are able to get their son or daughter away from
a cult, their problems are not over. The former member faces a number
of hurdles in adjusting to life on the outside. "These people have a
lot of guilt over some of the practices in fund raising, over the fact
that they recruited a lot of people who are still back in the cult,"
says Singer. "I've interviewed people who have left two or three
small children and a spouse back in the cult and are feeling very
confused about whether they should go back and try to get them out.
They also often feel very guilty about having censored mail and phone
calls, and having diverted friends and family of cult members in the
Overwhelming moods of depression and loneliness also often arise.
Former members realize and regret the fact that they are out of step
both in the job and social worlds. Some feel abused by their cult
experience. Because most cults restrict all physical contact and
pairing, many ex-members also have intimacy and sexual-growth
difficulties. And leaving a cult means leaving behind loved ones -
comrades who have shared a special experience with you. Former
members must quickly find new friends in a world that they have been
led to believe is hostile.
Because they are used to having every activity spelled out for
them, former cultists often feel that they cannot make it on their
own. "I find myself in some of our group therapy sessions saying to
certain people: 'Now you must buy an alarm clock and a tablet and
pencil in order to start getting your life structured, And you must
start writing down the list of things that you have to be in charge
of,'" says Singer. "Sometimes these have been 26 to 46-year-old
adults who have been in these groups and who need this type of
restructuring and encouragement to start doing all of these tiny
decision-making things that we all do."
"Floating," the slipping back into the cult-altered state of
consciousness, is another after-effect. Like the flashbacks of drug
users, this trance-like condition where the person empties his mind
can be set off by stress, conflict, and depression or simply by
certain words and images. Some ex-members who experience these
episodes feel like they are going crazy. Others believe that the cult
they belonged to must be the real thing and that God is calling them
back to it. Additional consequences, according to some clinicians,
include a temporary decrease in mental sharpness, a fear of the cult,
which is sometimes based on reality, and extreme suggestibility.
Singer describes one more problem encountered by cult veterans -
the "fishbowl effect." The family and friends of the ex-member are
always on the alert for any sign that the person is thinking about
going back to the group. As a result, any positive talk about the
cult or its members sends the family into panic. "Parents have to
accept the fact that although the cult itself was sort of bad, there
were a lot of good kids in it," Singer explains. "They have to let
the kid talk about some of the positive things - the warm friendships
or even romances and the sense that group-living taught them to
connect more openly and warmly to other people than they could before
their cult days."
Singer believes it is very important for parents to be aware of
the special emotional problems that former cult members must deal with
during their re-entry into society. Most people need at least 30
days, she says. On the average, it takes from 8 to 18 months for ex-
cultists to get back to their full level of functioning.
Ideally, rehabilitation has several aspects. First of all, it is
a period for dealing with "floating." Second, the professional
counselor, who is an authority on cultic groups, explains to the
individual how he or she was manipulated. Finally, the counselor
helps the person integrate the group experience into present needs and
People who join cults, says Father Burtner, have a lot of normal
developmental problems - conflicts with parents and resolutions about
themselves that are typical for their age group and need to be
resolved but are not. "When they go into a cult, it's like taking
those things and putting them into an icebox," he explains. "Then you
take them out of the cult, and you take the block of ice out of the
freezer. And it starts to melt, and these problems start to thaw out
and then need to be dealt with."
But ex-cult members often report that they could not find anyone
in the mental health field who would help them sort out their troubled
feelings, fears, and beliefs. "So few professionals know anything
about what happens to these people," says Singer. "So many
psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers feel that the cults
are a passing fad. But they're much more sophisticated and organized
than that. Secondly, there's a tendency for professionals to say
there's a pathology - some sort of abnormal condition - in the youth,
or that there's a psychopathology in the parents, and that if the
parents weren't peculiar people the children would never join cults.
There's this blaming of the victim and the victim's parents. We see
this same blaming-the-victim done in rape cases."
Gary Scharff does not believe he had a difficult readjustment.
Most important, he had to re-learn how to make decisions for himself.
But it took quite a while before Scharff's most serious side effect
went away. "I've always been a thoughtful and reflective kind of
person," he says. "And I felt proud of my ability to follow a thought
and concentrate very carefully on it. When I came out of the
movement, I found that there were times when I would be thinking about
something and all of a sudden it would just sort of go 'bing!' right
in front of my face. I would completely forget - not just lose a
train of thought, but just forget - everything that I had been
thinking about. I felt like I was left stranded without knowing what
was going on in my mind. It was a very frustrating feeling. And it
wasn't until another year and a half that I felt like I was able to
really keep control of my attention span."
Margaret Singer, Jean Merritt, and Father Kent Burtner together
have counseled hundreds of former cultists like Gary Scharff. But the
three agree that there are other victims - the fathers, mothers, and
brothers and sisters of cult members. "The most important thing for
the family to remember is that there are people out there who are
willing to help," says Henrietta Crampton of CFF. "These parents
NOTE: This file reproduced by permission from a booklet distributed by
Citizens Freedom Foundation. This booklet, which also contains an
extensive bibliography and a nationwide list of hot lines, is
available for fifty cents (single quantity postpaid) from:
Citizens Freedom Foundation
P.O. Box 266
McFarland, WI 53558
Keyed-in and edited by D. Moore, Computers For Christ #11
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