Working with people in cults or who have escaped them requires empathy, compassion, and knowledge to help free them from indoctrination. Rachel Bernstein has all those and more, which she’s used for the last 30 years in her work in cult intervention and re-acclimation.
Bernstein is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) from Los Angeles, California. She serves on the advisory board of the International Cultic Studies Association and has worked with the Department of Justice, providing support to cult victims who testify against their perpetrators. Bernstein and her father have known and worked together for decades now.
She appeared (as do I) in the documentary SEDUCED: Inside the NXIVM cult and the Netflix series Unwell in addition to many media appearances over the years. She is the host of IndoctriNation: A weekly podcast covering cults, manipulators, and protecting yourself from systems of control, where she has interviewed hundreds of cult survivors, journalists, and experts. Her webinar lecture for cult survivors entitled “Living In Freedom” is available at Rachelbernsteintherapy.com.
We discuss the need to bring civility back to the social discourse because that can help us understand each other and the issues affecting us all. Bernstein discusses needing less of a torches and pitchfork mentality and more common sense in the approach we take to the issues defining our world, so we have less polarization and more productivity in moving forward.
We discussed Transcendental Meditation (TM) and the negative experiences some had with it, including Gina Catena, who was raised in it, and talked about the abuse of children within that environment. I shared Gina’s story in the updated Combating Cult Mind Control edition.
Switching Off the Soul
We talk about the difficulties of seeing our loved ones in cults and the changes they undergo, making them almost unrecognizable to the person we know. It’s as if the lights that brighten their soul are turned off, but when they come out of the cult, the lights come back on. We discuss how scary it is to know that the connectedness with the self can dissolve when someone is in a cult environment. There is something very dark about the people we share space with on the planet being willing to freely abuse their power for their personal gain or, worse, their entertainment.
Bernstein discusses her background being raised in an activist home where she was taught that if something matters to you, you do something about it, you say something about it. Bernstein and I talk about the Nazi rallies and how there is not much difference between those and the cult events, such as the Scientology rallies. Bernstein remarks There is a lot that can work people up and “make them disconnected from their own conscience.” We talk about how kids are taken to church events in the mountains, and their understanding is they are going on a weekend away but cannot answer questions about the organization’s name, whether their parents know they’re going, and so forth. It’s easy to draw people in with little information given. People are inherently trusting and sometimes do not ask the questions they need to be asking.
Bernstein talks about seeing this play out repeatedly in various situations in her life, telling the story of working at the now-closed Cult Clinic at the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. Her first client was a Scientologist who climbed out of a window in one of the buildings. She was on the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) and was “scared out of her mind.” At that time, Bernstein didn’t know much about Scientology, and the woman explained it to her. She asked Bernstein if she was going to put electrodes on her because that was something she had been told would happen by the cult.
What are you going to do?
She tells us about the various things she did to help the woman feel comfortable, including keeping the door open as many former cult members are held against their will. Bernstein tells the story of her father being harassed by cult groups, including three groups that called her home in the middle of the night. She remembers being shaken by this and asking her father what he was going to do. His reply was, “I’m going to go back to sleep and not let the bullies win. What are you going to do? And there was something so calm about that.” Bernstein remembers those words from her father when her current work brings the bullies out.
We talk about the burnout among therapists who take the most traumatized clients, which cult members often are. It’s vitally important to balance this work with time to recharge and work with people who are not cult members to balance intense and less intense clients.
Bernstein talks about remembering to check in with herself and asking others to check on her as well when she might not be remembering how difficult, scary, or intense something is to hear about on her podcast. She’s heard the stories and worked with them for years, but other people don’t have that lens and may hear it for the first time, which can be traumatic.
There are Answers
We talk about the belief that some people hold about the issues presented, not having answers when they do because, as Bernstein states, “…if it hasn’t been offered before, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” She talks about the reassurance she gains from her podcast guests, the professionals doing this work, and the people who have lived experiences of being in cults and getting out. She feels reassured knowing there are people working on these issues and hopefully making inroads. We talk about a support group she facilitates and seeing attendees finally relax in an environment where other people get it, they understand. No one needs to explain themselves or be concerned about being dismissed or misunderstood.
We discuss the importance of vetting group members, and Bernstein tells us stories of cult members trying to infiltrate the support groups and how she managed that. We talk about group dynamics and issues within groups, including the fear people have of attending, being late, and being chastised for it. Bernstein talks with us about questions from group members, such as ensuring confidentiality and how that isn’t possible within a group setting as we can ask/require it, but that doesn’t mean people will do it, so understanding that is helpful for group members to discern what they want to share.
We talk about the different approaches to healing and helping former victims. There is sometimes a belief that therapists must be former cult members to help those who are, but this isn’t the case. A high degree of empathy, compassion, and listening skills are necessary, but a lived experience as a cult member is not. Bernstein adds humility is also necessary because we can’t assume we understand someone’s experience. We need to know that going into the interaction. Instead, we can be a resource in helping them understand their experiences and working out what that means for them going forward.
Department of (In)Justice?
Bernstein talks about her work with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and our goals to change the laws around undue influence and its consequences. She shares the discussion on her podcast with Carol Merchasin, an attorney focusing on spiritual abuse cases, and her own experiences working in this field of law.
Bernstein talks about a case she had with the DOJ. She was contacted through the Victims Assistance Program to assist a woman who had been in La Luz del Mundo, a group that was sex trafficking young girls and women. They were indoctrinated at ages 8, 9, and 10 years old. As young women 18-20 years old, they are trying to rebuild their lives to understand what happened to them. Bernstein counseled them, and many opened up to her immediately but were still cautious because their families didn’t know they were speaking to a therapist.
Unfortunately, about five months before the court date of the cult leader, Naasón Joaquín García, the DOJ cut off funding. The survivors were left with no resources except very old therapy contacts given to them, many of whom were out of business or had no background in cults. Bernstein decided to continue working with them for free. García was ultimately sentenced to 16 years and eight months in prison, a pittance of time given all the trauma he inflicted on these women.
We talk about the difficulties within the law regarding child victims of sex crimes within cults. They don’t understand what happened to them sometimes well into what we consider adulthood, but given that the frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until around 26, we need to change the statute of limitations for bringing suits against people perpetuating these crimes.
Exiting the Cult, Entering the Field
We discuss the importance of entering the field of undue influence and working toward bettering society for survivors. There is a huge need within the psychology field for people who understand cults and mind control techniques, who can work with people who have survived these horrific situations and help them find their way back to a free life. There is much work to be done, and everyone can play a role, whether that is a therapist, funding the organizations working with survivors, or spreading the word about these organizations. We all have a part to play in freeing people from undue influence.
Rachel Bernstein, LMFT, MSEd website
IndoctriNation cited in the New York Times: 6 Podcasts About Cults and Their Enduring Sinister Attraction