What’s Behind the Blowback You’ll Get When You Engage Cult Members

I started writing about cults in 2012 when a group I’d been recruited into more than a decade before began to implode, after the partner of one of the group’s leaders died of exposure in the Arizona desert.

In the ensuing nine years, I’ve weathered a broad spectrum of blowback from loyalists to the groups I’ve written about critically. The responses unfold over a spectrum of defences: from primitive-enraged to sophisticated-subtle. I believe most of the responses share the features and impulses listed below.

This is not a complete list, nor is it scientific. It’s based primarily on personal observation. Some researchers might disagree with some premises here, and I welcome feedback and objections. I’m including a bibliography of diverse resources below.

I’m not presenting this list to imply that people whose cult ties lead them to gaslight or abuse others are somehow more deserving of empathy than anyone else. None of the impulses described here excuse the behaviour. People who act out like this have work to do, but it may be hard for them to even develop the impulse to do it.

I’m presenting the list for informational purposes, so that if you wind up trying to speak reasonably to or call out the harms of a person enmeshed in a cult, it might be helpful to identify some of the baffling responses as they come.

If you have the spoons for it, you can help a friend or relative in a high-demand group simply by engaging with them as if they are a full and rich person with their own ideas and autonomy. The work of Alexandra Stein suggests that modelling secure attachment is key to healing. Steve Hassan’s work suggests that appealing to a person’s “pre-cult” self can be very effective.  A friend did that for me once with a letter. He helped free a part of me that had been locked up.

 

1. All group members are abuse victims, to varying degrees.

Dominance hierarchies exist within high-demand groups just as they do outside of them, so not everyone suffers the same. However, everyone recruited into a high-demand group has been deceived in one way or another. They have had their time, energy, and emotional faculties hijacked for a purpose that is not their own, and which is rarely clear to them.

Those who bear the brunt of the abuse in a high-demand group — women, children the poor, the super-earnest and altruistic — emerge with clear disabilities, up to and including CPTSD. But — absent real sociopathy — even those who enjoyed a certain amount of power within the group will carry with them guilt, moral injury, and the sensation of sunken costs. Criticism or resistance to the group may make these wounds sting and provoke intense defensive responses related to any sense of responsibility for the abuse they may carry.

They are caught in a bind: they are not responsible for having been deceived, and yet they are responsible for the power that deception allowed them to have over others. It is far easier to dismiss critical engagement or vilify whistleblowers than it is to engage in this deep moral complexity.

 

2. The voices of survivors are psychologically threatening to those who have not yet owned their survivorhood.

This idea comes from Theodora Wildcroft, and is described in more detail here, and on p. 42 of Practice and All is Coming:

Intuitively, we know that if we really listen to them, we might succumb to a kind of sickness marked by feelings of doubt, shame, and guilt. We know we’ll have to start asking questions about how the big picture is organized. We’ll have to bear out the possibility that everything we value is infected by everything we fear.So what we do to trauma survivors—even, sometimes, if we are survivors ourselves—is that we shut those voices down and quarantine them in an attempt to keep ourselves sterile and safe.

This begins to account for the reactions that go beyond silence and dismissal. Often survivors who speak up and whistleblowers are not just refuted. They are depicted with contempt, revulsion, and loathing.

The most basic form that this takes is through false psychiatric diagnoses. I’ve seen survivors labelled as mentally ill. It can get even more crude: I’ve had my physical appearance mocked, my face described as “creepy”, my intentions as predatory. This shocked me at first, until I understood through this contagion principle that whistleblowing quite literally reveals hidden cancer and rot, and disgust is a reasonable response.

There might be something else going on. Some of the survivors I know radiate a kind of awareness of the world and of their own vulnerability that is somatized through hypervigilant affect. They wear no masks in the world. I believe that sometimes the raw honesty of their presence shows the person who has not yet come to terms with their own survivorship what it would feel like to live without armour, and this is terrifying.

 

3. They love the group leader in a complex, intense, and painful way.

Many group members have been entrained to love the leader with a passion designed to overcome the fear they provoke, or to rationalize or erase the harm they commit. They might feel dependent on the leader’s gaze or attention, and desperate to stay in their good graces. Somewhere they are aware of the emotional and material capital they’ve given up to their commitment, and their ardour must measure up to that loss. In some cases their love mirrors what happens in the trauma-bonding of intimate partner abuse.

Rachel Bernstein recently provided a very accessible run-down of the trauma bond. I’ll post it at the bottom.

If you engage with someone who is enmeshed in a high-demand group and has developed insecure attachments to the leader(s), it will be very hard to avoid implying that they are trauma-bonded, and this can be incredibly shameful.

In the process, you’ll also be shedding light on the unconscious but persistent sense of betrayal that they feel in relation to the “good” leader who is actually hurting them and others. By pointing out betrayal, you will be cast as the betrayer. (See the resources from Freyd below.)

Also: be aware of the vicious calculus at play. Karen Rain has pointed out that the lengths to which some Ashtanga people have gone to vilify me mirrors the love they have expressed for Jois.

 

4. They believe their community loves and protects them, but they also doubt it. You are externalizing those doubts.

Everything the person feels about the leader they may feel about their fellow members. However, the web is intricate and the textures are subtle. If they’ve been in the group for years they have spent a long time finding the right niche of safety-that-isn’t-quite-safety. They have friends who are not primarily friends and family members who are not primarily family members: in both cases allegiance to the group trumps all.

As an outsider to that group, you are making an intervention in the voice of someone the group already vilifies. Of course you cannot understand them, of course you are out to destroy their vision. The number of people who have accused me to trying or wanting to destroy their communities is astonishing, until I realized that that defence is proof of the fragile insularity of the group.

The paradox of being in a group like this is that you are isolated within it. Alexandra Stein says it this way:

Contrary to the stereotype of cult life, followers are isolated not only from the outside world, but in this airless pressing together they are also isolated from each other within the group. They cannot share doubts, complaints about the group or any attempt to attribute their distress to the actions of the group. At the same time as this isolation from other people – either within or outside of the group – is occurring, there is also a deep loneliness and isolation from the self. The time pressures, sleep deprivation and the erasure of the individual mean there is never any opportunity for solitude – that creative and restful state where contemplation, thinking and the space in which changes of mind might occur can take place. As there is no space between people, neither is there any internal space allowed within each person, for their own autonomous thought and feeling. Thus there is a triple isolation: from the outside world, from others in the group and from one’s own self.

Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems (loc 1835)

The cult member is also aware at some level that they will be punished for leaving. This accounts for the “dread” famously articulated by Langone and others. As the person who stands outside of the cult and seems to offer you a pathway to leaving, you may become the very embodiment of that dread.

 

5. They might have cognitive injuries.

If the group’s practices have involved repetitive actions or rituals that have contributed to what we could call a dissociative reflex, it can be really hard for a group member to stay on point and think clearly. The suppression of discursive (let alone critical) thinking is actually a feature of many group ritual instructions. I’ve heard many reports of people leaving high-demand groups with substantial cognitive deficits. In my own case I couldn’t concentrate for long enough to write a coherent sentence, on account of the meditation and mantra practices I had been given.

So if you’re communicating with a group member and it seems that they can’t think straight, follow an argument through, or hold a stable definition of a term — hold space for the possibility that they simply can’t.

If the repetitive ritual involves physical labour or pain, this can be another obstruction to cognition. The person in chronic pain or who is dependent upon daily endorphin-release rhythms to feel not-miserable may simply not have the stamina for complex cognitive or psychological consideration.

 

6. They may feel existentially dependent upon the group ideology.

If the group’s belief system is totalizing and transcendent, and if it has been ritually embedded for long enough, it can begin to feel like the member’s own voice or sense of self. Everything leads back to the message, which is repeated over and over again.

Questions are disruptions of that message, but more importantly, questions disrupt the self-soothing rhythm of how that message is internally recited. Many group members report a feeling of deep anxiety when the internalized message is opened up to questioning. It can feel as though the basis of the person’s life is being attacked. So don’t underestimate the power and danger of saying something as simple as: “Do you really believe that?”

Another aspect: if they were recruited through totalizing promises, it might feel as though deconstruction of those promises feels totalizing. This accounts for how often cult analysts are called “bullies” by group members. It’s upside down. The analysis is calling out bullying.

 

7. The financial benefits of group membership may be as invisible as other forms of privilege.

The group member whose social and financial status is the product of the group’s hierarchy of harm will resist seeing that just as strongly as any consumer will resist seeing the harm of consumerism. If you point out that their relative comfort or safety in the group is dependent on any kind of “I-Got-Mine-ism“, you’ll face the same blowback that POC activists face when calling out white privilege, or women face when calling out male privilege. At the root here may be some deep strain of fragility that simply cannot turn the guilt of having benefited from the suffering of others into an active justice plan.

 

8. Because the criticism of the group feels like it is attacking the group member’s self and sense of authenticity, they will call you a fraud.

Classic projection. People engage in ad hominem all the time in this world. But in this discourse the flip to  ad-hom is so instantaneous it should raise big red flags. Key things to notice: as soon as the response has migrated into ad hominem, you won’t be talking about the data anymore. You won’t be quoted directly. You’ll be defending irrelevant things like your religious commitments or daily habits. One person said that they could tell I was a carnivore from my writing and therefore I was mistaken about everything.

A particular sore spot in this theme is around educational attainments. Almost every single charismatic leader I’ve written about has falsified his educational background or source of lineage authority. The follower of someone like that is in a precarious position with regard to legitimacy. Legitimacy therefore becomes a fixation. Ad hominem arguments begin to merge with arguments from authority.

 

9. Please add your own observations in the comments.

 


Rachel Bernstein on the “trauma bond”:

[In the trauma bond] you become connected to the person who is abusing you or traumatizing you, or stressing you out in a way that people outside the relationship might not understand necessarily. Usually it goes like this: that you’re with someone who was abusive, let’s say, who is selfish or narcissistic. And they need to take this power away from you and make you feel small and make you feel afraid of disappointing them and not getting things done perfectly. And they get very punitive towards you. But then they are intermittently kind and giving funny, forgiving, emotionally generous and soft, and it’s like intermittent gratification. It draws you in into something that is called a trauma bond, where you want that sweetness and that break from the mistreatment to continue as long as it can.

So you learn that you can control it by shifting your behavior a bit and pleasing that person as best you can. So the sweetness and the break lasts for a longer time. But that really in the back of your mind, you know, it’s not gonna last forever and that the abuse is probably gonna come back and then there’ll be a break from it again. And you’ll know what you need to do in order to try to keep that good feeling going and continue getting that break that you need. But the cycle just continues. And then if the abuse comes back, you might feel you deserve it because you just had the recent experience of this person being kind to you. And if a kind person is angry with you, you can more easily feel like it’s your fault. Children learn to appease someone who puts them under overwhelming stress or abuse because they have to. If that person or those people are their only caretakers and they don’t have anywhere else to go or any other adults in their lives who they really know yet and can rely on, they are stuck.

— from “One More Thing” at the end of Betrayal and Power w/ Nitai Joseph, former Hare Krishna – S4E5.


Selected Bibliography:

Ainsworth, Mary D. Salter. Patterns of Attachment: a Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Routledge, 2015.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Penguin Classics, 2017.

Farhi, Donna. Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship. Rodmell Press, 2006.

Freyd, Jennifer J. Betrayal Trauma: the Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Harvard University Press, 1998.

Freyd, Jennifer J., and Pamela Birrell. Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Arent Being Fooled. Wiley, 2013.

Hassan, Steven. Combating Cult Mind Control: the #1 Best-Selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults. Freedom of Mind Press, 2016.

Kramer, Joel, and Diana Alstad. The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. North Atlantic Books/Frog, 1993.

Lalich, Janja, and Madeleine Landau. Tobias. Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships. Bay Tree Pub., 2006.

Lalich, Janja. Escaping Utopia: Growing up in a Cult, Getting out, and Starting Over. Routledge, 2018.

Langone, Michael D. Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. W.W. Norton, 1995.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: a Study of “Brainwashing” in China.W.W. Norton, 1961.

Miller, Alice, et al. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002.

Oakes, Len. Prophetic Charisma: the Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities. Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Shaw, Daniel. Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.

Stein, Alexandra. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Stern, Daniel N. The Motherhood Constellation: a Unified View of Parent-Infant Psychotherapy. BasicBooks, 2005.

9 Comments

  • This is all inspiring and insightful. Thank you for your courage.

    I’m thinking about places of worship: awe-inspiring art and architecture in the service of religion and the orientation of “the faithful” within. Pick any religion! The mega-church takes its architectural inspiration from rock concerts in sports facilities.

  • This is brilliant. I would add a further and very unpleasant dimension. That some of the people abusing others in high demand groups had already centred on sex offending in their lives, or on other forms of abuse or sadism which they fed on. These people have sensed the lack of respect and boundaries in high demand groups and purposefully embedded themselves so they could continue to offend, even more easily than before. So whistleblowers are directly threatening to such offenders, who will fight tooth and nail to destroy the whistleblower so as not to be exposed, or lose their hunting ground. This is not restricted to the highest leaders, and these types can even become very threatening and violent. Another reason whistleblowers and survivors are incredibly brave people.

  • Another aspect that you touch on and I would emphasize, is that by acknowledging the abuse in their high demand group, members may be called on to also deal with abuses in their family of origin, or other early experiences. That can feel overwhelming, and members who have been in denial about that too, will work hard to avoid the pain of acknowledging all of it, suddenly. This is why people won’t read Andrea Dworkin for example, for as she said, once you acknowledge the onslaught of suffering and pain due to sexism or other oppressions, your life is forever altered. People sense that and won’t go there, and will fight not to go there.

  • A yoga teacher that I trained with and worked for for 3 years has somewhat of a cult following. They train hundreds of students as yoga teachers and yoga therapists each year, and he has written several books. I broke away from my association with their institute over 6 years ago because I noticed a pattern of me always feeling worse about myself after my interactions and classes with him. There was a recent #metoo post about this teacher (just this past week), and I think this may end up in a larger news sphere soon. It wasn’t until this brave woman posted her story that I could place my finger on exactly what was going on for me while I was there. There was a power dynamic that felt unhealthy. Our first assignment in our teacher training was to write a personal essay on the events in our lives that led us to want to pursue the yoga teacher training. As you can imagine, this was when many of the students, including myself, shared very painful and personal stories from our lives. This man held onto those stories from his students, and used the personal details as ways to point out our weaknesses and then give us ways to overcome them using yogic techniques. As part of his teaching style, he would teach us a yoga philosophy or concept, then we would have to share our personal thoughts, questions, or experiences with that yoga concept. When we shared, he always asked questions to help us to go further and deeper and come to develop more awareness. But in doing so, it did not always have the outcome I think he was trying for (or maybe this was part of his manipulation?), but would often lead the student to doubt themselves and in turn feel bad about themself, at least this was my experience. Occasionally he would praise the student for their self-knowledge, and it would always feel so good when he did. For the most part his teaching technique left me in a constant state of questioning myself, my motives, my thoughts, my way of conducting myself…ect. I was on an obsessive mission to better myself when I was there and felt like until the teacher approved of me, my work was not done. I recall one class where one of the students was sharing about how she was grieving both her mother that was on hospice and her mother-in-law that was on hospice at the same time. She was deep in a state of grief and crying while sharing. This teacher looked at her and said to her very matter of factly, “So you have a fear of death and dying.” I was appalled by his lack of compassion in that moment. I know he was trying to hone in onto some yoga philosophy, but it was inappropriate timing, and I think the look of shock on her face did inform him enough to retract and say “never mind” and then go in a different direction with the class. I left the studio and quit my teaching job there soon after this experience. There are more memories coming up, like the time he asked my friend what she was doing differently because her chest looked bigger, the time he made a chummy comment to a fellow male teacher about my t-shirt, and the stories he would tell about the women who used to wear revealing outfits in his yoga class and be in the first row and how it was “obvious they were pursuing his attention”. Ugh, it gives me all of the creeps. I am writing this and able to identify the stories, pieces and the feelings I had at my time there, and that is only because this whistleblower came forward. I feel a rush of healing coming over me because of her bravery. Time will tell what happens, but I sadly anticipate that many people will side with this man and stay committed to him. I am feeling concerned for the emotional safety and well-being of the whistleblower.

  • OK, here’s another one that can occur when discussing one’s former cult community online: concern trolling. Members of the community who are still in good standing will point out that you are expressing a certain level of psychological attachment and obsession with the former Master – that if you were truly free of the situation, you would just drop the subject and have no interest in discussing it all. But since you are talking about it (and usually negatively and repeatedly), that you are suffering from “negative attachment” and you are really now a member of an “anti-cult” cult, thereby making an implied argument against some kind of perceived “superiority”. This is a really devious approach and couldn’t be more ridiculous in fact, but it’s a form of the old “the best defense is a strong offense” saw…

      • No problems with what you have written but to add another dimension, one perhaps more forgiving than your general tone:

        A friend of mine who left our group years ago and now runs successful meditation seminars throughout his country based on the same sitting meditation practices he learned but without any of the later esoteric elements nor any attempt to create a group or organisation, only regular weekend or week-long sesshin-like sessions showed me a short Youtube of his participants after a week-long program. Most were between the ages of 18 and 35 (because this one was a youth program with previous attendees returning if they so liked), and many of them offered feedback in the video.

        All of them, without exception, talked about the same dynamic, even though that dynamic is deliberately not taught during the sesshins, namely how delighted they were to have made new friends, how they felt part of a real community, or a new family. This was very important to them and clearly a large feature of the experience even though there was no attempt to create this type of community feeling.

        Basically, that happens when people do things together (and especially when they are younger people). They bond. The create relationships. And without needing to be told to do it, or being guided into it by a leader, or making any sort of commitment either to the group or to a charismatic leader. It just happens. This impulse to create a sense of community and family – or sangha – based around shared experience (the clarity and openness engendered by basic sitting practice) – is both natural and healthy.

        And yet it also poses the basis of what can later develop into a cult dynamic.

        So I guess I’m taking issue, a little, with the oft-implied premise that a cult arises mainly because of charismatic, manipulative leaders taking advantage of gullible, weak people in search of therapy or whatever. Pam’s point about predators seeking out groups where it is easier for them to catch prey is well taken and no doubt right, but this is true of many group situations. Perhaps some groups are clearly more exploitative and cultish than others and that is something worth examining carefully, albeit not as easy to do as one might think. But it is important to remember that the initial impulse to create groups, to share a common bond, to enjoy a sense of comraderie, even family, is both natural, healthy and indeed inevitable even though that same sense of mutual connection is the basis for what can become an unhealthy cult later on.

        In other words, any cult is a mutual creation of both leaders and followers, of a community, a community created by natural tendencies we humans have to enjoy fellowship, love, support, work, purpose and so forth.

        This is another reason, I suspect, why disentangling from such a situation, is so very difficult, painful and confusing. It’s not a black and white situation. For anyone involved, leaders or followers, insiders or outsiders.

  • “Intuitively, we know that if we really listen to them, we might succumb to a kind of sickness marked by feelings of doubt, shame, and guilt.”

    In both groups I was part of, doubt was an evil force that would get you if you let it. Doubt in Buddhism was the ultimate of the 5 hindrances, and if you found yourself in doubt of the teaching then it meant you’d already gone through desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, and restlessness and remorse. If you ended up at doubt, having passed through all these stages without applying the antidote, oh what a wretched student! What bad karma must you have brought yourself! What wrong action and thought must you be engaging in!

    In another group, doubt was a part of mental formation and therefore immediately suspect. Casual mention of the devil and his attempts to lead you into temptation were thrown around.

    So, with that background, I couldn’t really relate to Stein’s quote here. I didn’t feel any intuitive sense that I had to suppress my conscience (which I think is what she’s implying). I believed doubt came from either a lack of skillfulness or from being poisoned, and I felt afraid that I would fall back into old ways of thinking if I let such ideas in. It was a test, and the right response was to go deeper into the group.

  • To whom it may concern: when I was a kid, I was caught smoking pot at school and to make a long story short, my parents were persuaded to place me in a behavior-modification program for “troubled teens.” The name is this program was DAYTOP, and DAYTOP’s philosophy is predicated upon a philosophy called “tough love” or “total personal responsibility.” The “total personal responsibility” philosophy says that whatever bad things happen to you in life are ultimately your own fault: that you have nobody to blame for your troubles, except yourself. I drank deeply of this sociopathic mentality and lived my life by it for many years, up until about ten years ago. I was in intensive residential treatment for PTSD and I started to see what DAYTOP had done in totally erasing my boundaries. I was like a zero with the rim rubbed out for YEARS. I was stuck in a cycle of intense guilt and self-blame for YEARS, over this “total personal responsibility” crap. That’s why I have a very hard time now, with the part of ISKCON doctrine that says pretty much the same thing, only in ISKCON we have a concept of karma; we say that we are suffering reactions in this life, for things we did in former lives. Never blame the agent of your karma, they say. Therefore, everybody is getting everything they deserve. In DAYTOP, the karmic explanation was absent and they just taught you that whatever bad things happen to you, are your fault. In ISKCON, they teach the same thing, but explain it in terms of karma. I have a VERY hard time accepting this, and adopting that mentality. I believe in karma, but I don’t believe that I deserve bullshit when bullshit comes to me. Nobody deserves to be abused, and I have been abused in ISKCON.

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