photo courtesy of Spike Robinson
Cults are often thought about as organizations with charismatic leaders who pull people in, strip them of all their worldly goods and autonomy, and implement mind control. However, many of these abusive methods can also be associated with domestic abuse, gangs and organized crime, and political extremism. Additionally, they can be seen in relational power abuse dynamics such as employee abuse, abuse by tutors, mentors, and coaches, and misconduct within various professions. Christian Szurko talks with us about these issues and how recognizing the pervasiveness of these methods informed and broadened his approach to abuses of relational power.
Szurko became involved in helping emerging members and ex-members of totalist groups in 1973 while still living in the USA. After moving to the UK in 1976 he continued to help ex-members and to develop his approach to extremist authoritarian sects and their methods, working alongside several existing organizations.
In 1984 Christian founded DialogCentre UK, which works to undo the harm caused by destructive belief systems. DialogCentre aims to educate the public about manipulative influence. They provide ex-members with a safe space to re-evaluate their beliefs and commitments, and to rediscover a healthy sense of autonomy leading to interdependence. DialogCentre became a charity in 2000.
Growing Intellectually, Freezing Emotionally
Szurko discusses his involvement in meditation and yoga during his adolescence and his movement through Hinduism into Zen and other things, all of which exposed him to various groups along the way. He recognized that while this involvement helped him grow intellectually as he was learning and studying, he became emotionally frozen, which necessitated leaving these groups. He became a Christian and in talking with people he knew in the groups he was in, he discovered they were having difficulties as well, but were experiencing confrontation and criticism from those they spoke with about it.
Szurko was able to bridge that gap, allowing them to talk with him in an open, honest way they could not previously do with others. This was the starting point of his work in the field. A work colleague spoke with him and he was able to help him, this began the journey of more and more people speaking with him until he realized he could help people. He discusses feeling as though someone else should be doing this work, but he was asked if he would be a counselor for people struggling in his church and for ex-members of cults, and his mission was born.
Szurko interned with a pastoral counselor who had specific guidelines around how to assist people. He also spoke with a psychologist, with whom he developed a symbiotic relationship wherein the psychologist was giving him advice and the benefit of his training and knowledge, while Szurko shared his experiences, which informed the psychologist on how to manage these issues.
He decided to move to the UK, thinking he could leave this work behind, but he encountered a situation at the University in Manchester involving a Unification Church group and he once again found himself in the trenches including conducting a parent support group and an ex-member support group. In 1982, he got involved with the Dialogcenter Denmark and was working with Dr Elizabeth Tylden, a UK psychiatrist who studied with William Sargent in her training days.
Recovery after getting out: The ignored component
Szurko talks about the emphasis being on getting people out of the groups, but the recovery component was somewhat ignored. He felt this was wrong and the psychiatrist he was working with suggested he focus on that aspect of the process. With her assistance, Szurko developed working practices to employ in this area. These include an adaptation of Creative Listening, a model developed by a mental health professional, Dr Rachel Pinney, in the 1980s.
As a Christian, Szurko knows there are concerns from people who don’t identify with a religion, are atheists, or are otherwise not connected to religion. Szurko emphasizes meeting people where they are, stating “The Christian part is about the rules I apply to myself. Not the rules I apply to other people. So anybody comes; I’ve had Jewish clients, I’ve had Hindu clients, Buddhist clients, atheist clients, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I treat them in the appropriate way.”
We talk about the importance of this, of being open to anyone with needs in this area, with the idea that if you’re called to do this work, a humble attitude and a learner’s mind are necessities. Even with ex-members of the same cult, there will be a plethora of experiences and the range of issues and problems can vary dramatically. Being able to manage that and assist is paramount to helping people through this.
Power and Abuse
Szurko discusses the range of situations he assisted with. In the 1970s and 1980s, he began seeing more shepherding groups wherein there is a pyramid structure of authority. A chief is at the top, an absolute authority, and everyone underneath him had power over those below them with everyone giving ultimate power to the chief shepherd. This structure was seen within family systems as well with the wife subject to the husband, and the children subject to the father through the mother.
This system was rife with abuses in various areas including financial and sexual. The belief that the person above you is all-knowing leads to an ability to ignore one’s conscience as they are told they will not be held responsible by God for their actions because their shepherd told them to do it. This shedding of personal responsibility can lead to horrendous abuses because responsibility is not the actor’s concern. It can also lead to an inability to make one’s own choices in many areas including what school to attend, what subject to study, and whom one should marry.
This inability to think for one’s self is seen in many contemporary situations including politics. In The Cult of Trump, I talk about how seeing someone as a total authoritarian, as the answer to all the problems, leads to catastrophic issues around the world. This wielding of absolute power and this undue influence on the populace of authoritarian political figures is a life-and-death situation.
Szurko talks about the primary concern among people at the beginning of his work being the Unification Church, Scientology, and the various Eastern meditation groups. Now, he sees more of an influence from divergences of Christian teaching such as prosperity teachers, self-help seminars, and the like. We also discuss radicalization and trafficking, two areas I’ve been interested in for the last 10 years particularly.
Radicalization via social media
We discuss social media and the ease of radicalization via its platforms. Szurko talks about how the internet can be a “substitute space for going to a meeting with a group, going to a place, or event.” The internet allows for covering one’s activities such that no one has to know you’re involved in a group as you don’t need to show up live for a meeting. Because of this, methodologies in combating mind control had to change. The surprise intervention was very difficult, which necessitated a move to coaching family members, friends, and ex-members on how to engage and respectfully ask questions. This is much more energy, financial, and time-sensitive, though it also provides for a much gentler exit, allowing for a platform of understanding, emotional, and social support for the exiting person. Empowering people to think for themselves and make their own decisions is key.
Szurko talks about his methods which include helping people understand what is going on inside another using an analogy of the mental maps we create for ourselves from infancy. Szurko states: “We don’t live in ‘raw’ reality. We live in an internal reality of a map we’re making.” He explains that people can get inside our heads and play with that map, which can create belief systems that are provably false but become part of our map.
With this new set of beliefs from the leader, our behaviors change and this leads to dangerous situations both in terms of how one is thinking and what one is doing. We discuss what Szurko calls a reality restriction, which is the leader’s restriction of reading materials, television, and movies, every source a person may use to get information. This restriction of reality shapes the way a person feels and thinks, both about themselves and others. They are receiving only what the leader wants them to receive. Mind control and undue influence are the components of changing that mental map.
Because of this mind control and reframing of reality, the leader doesn’t even have to be alive for this undue influence to continue. The belief systems are set and can go forth without the constant refrain from the authoritarian control of the leader.
Repairing the Damage
DialogCentre is working to change these instilled set beliefs by helping people look beyond the mask of the leader, assisting them in understanding there is a rational explanation for what happened to them. It’s also important to work with family dynamics, to be cognizant of the need to not just listen, but hear and understand what is being said, even if they don’t like it. Knowing that hearing and understanding doesn’t mean agreeing or liking it. Talking through what happened and how to repair that damage is the first step to lasting change.