I often find it hard to believe that this year marks my 45th anniversary of freedom from the insidious cult indoctrination of the Moonies. For the 40th anniversary of my deprogramming, I wrote a blog to thank the people directly responsible for the intervention that liberated me. As I reflect, there have been many people who have played significant roles in my recovery. Now I wish to acknowledge two extraordinary people–Bill and Lorna Goldberg. After a cult awareness meeting we all attended in Westchester, New York, we met in the parking lot. I was still on crutches from the near-fatal Moonie van crash I had in 1976 due to sleep deprivation. (This accident led to my deprogramming.)
The Goldbergs are experienced social workers and psychoanalysts. They began one of the first support groups for cult survivors in the United States. It is now the longest-running one in existence. Their life’s work helping free people from cult indoctrination began 50 years ago when the Moonies recruited Lorna’s brother. Lorna and Bill recall how the sudden and severe changes in her brother’s ideas and behaviors were the first clues that something was very wrong. Before encountering the Moonies, her brother was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, had long hair and torn denim jeans, played guitar, and participated in protests against the Vietnam War.
Once in the Moon cult, Lorna’s brother espoused very conservative ideals, dressed in a suit and tie, and became a Nixon supporter overnight. (This mirrored the radical personality change I demonstrated when I got recruited into the cult). Lorna’s family decided to pursue deprogramming. In the 1970s, this method of rescuing someone from cult mind control was done forcefully, against the will of the cult member, and often involved actual abduction. At that time, however, it was the only option to help. Lorna’s father belonged to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The family wholeheartedly supported the idea of free will, so pursuing this type of intervention was a very difficult decision for them. But they realized their loved one had already had his free will taken away, and they needed to do whatever they had to do to save him. This was the same for my family when they decided to intervene with me.
Understanding Mind Control and Development of Appropriate Deprogramming
Fifty years ago, the study of cult mind control and brainwashing was in its infancy. Lorna and Bill both agree they were fortunate to learn from the first generation of knowledgeable people in the field. Two of the most prominent figures of that time were Robert Lifton MD and Margaret Singer, PhD, who had researched the techniques used by Chinese Communists to brainwash soldiers who served in the Korean War. Lifton wrote Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism and identified eight criteria used by authoritarian regimes and cults. Singer later published Cults in Our Midst with the help of Janja Lalich.
The general approach of therapists at that time was based on Freudian protocols, and the process included an intensive investigation into a person’s early life experiences. It was also common to ascribe symptoms to some internal factors rather than recognizing destructive outside influences as the driving force. Margaret Singer and others who understood the damaging effects of mind control taught a different approach, one that the Goldbergs found to be more effective for working with former cult members.
In this approach, dealing with the cult experience first is critical—people who have just escaped from cult control experience similar emotions but need a specialized approach. They have feelings of embarrassment, shame, and loss—loss of time with family, loss of peers in the cult itself, and shame for being part of seducing others into the cult and having been deceived. One critical aspect of helping cult members to regain their authentic selves is emphasizing psychoeducation, as well as, self-compassion.
Understanding how cults recruit and control can help free people from feeling that their vulnerabilities were the cause of their response to cult recruitment. All human beings are vulnerable, and this is not a weakness. Authoritarian cults and malignant narcissists are experts in manipulating vulnerable and trusting individuals.
Effective Therapy and Preventive Psychotherapy
Cult members who are on the journey of reclaiming their authentic selves need compassionate and effective therapists to help them.
- Ideally, a therapist will be experienced working with cult members. If not, they should at least have some basic knowledge and the willingness to learn even more to help their clients. It is up to the therapist to learn. There are books, videos, trainings, and it always makes sense to get supervision for a client issue until one develops competency.
- An effective therapist is a good listener who can hear the client’s story and then draw some conclusions rather than making preconceived assumptions.
- While familiarity with cults is vital, a therapist should also have a broad background in psychotherapy. There may be some symptoms to be addressed that are not directly related to the cult experience. A therapist needs to be prepared to recognize potential subtle differences and address the symptom appropriately.
General psychotherapy and education about mind control and undue influence should be a priority for everyone. The advent of the internet and the proliferation of social media sites has created an easy way for cults and authoritarian political leaders to influence and recruit adherents.
Working With Clients Born in a Cult
Around 20 years ago, both the Goldbergs and I began to see more clients who had been born into a cult. These people are often referred to as “second-generation” survivors. Many of these clients have C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). As members of the cult, the parents of these children were loyal to the cult leader. They usually would follow the leader’s directives in the way children should be raised. Most typically, these directives did not consider the developmental needs of children and consisted of harsh discipline and often extreme corporal punishment. Some children were separated from their families and sent to cult compounds in other countries. Adult staff at these schools were seldom trained teachers and certainly did not know how to properly deal with the emotional needs of the children.
In order to escape the overwhelming pain of their early traumatic experiences, these children often would dissociate and become “good little soldiers to survive the overwhelming sense of abandonment.” Working with such clients involves more than just “talk therapy.” In-depth psychoeducation to identify triggers and help with emotional regulation when dealing with overwhelming anxiety are effective additional approaches.
The understanding of cult mind control and effective treatment modalities have come a long way over the past 50 years. Pioneers, like the Goldbergs, deserve recognition and our profound thanks. We now see many more former cult members, like me, who have become mental health professionals who wish to help others. However, we still have a long way to go in dealing with the impact of social media, the proliferation of authoritarian politicians, and the prevalence of conspiracy theories. It’s crucial not to lose hope because there are ways to combat this trend and, if enough of us band together, we can do it.