and the Treatment of Personality Change
in Victims of Captivity and Cults
Part 2 of 3
Towards the end of his teen years, Danny became interested in religion
and eventually joined a sect (by our definition a totalist cult) that was
an offshoot of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day
Saints (LDS). His parents grew concerned about the personality change
they saw in their son. Danny's father made several trips to the town
where the cult was located and talked to pastors, police officers, and
the FBI. They assured him that his son was merely going through a "phase"
and that he would soon grow weary of the group and return home. However,
far more ominous events transpired. The cult leader, Jeffrey Lundgren,
declared that God had told him that members of a certain family within
the group must be judged. "Judgment" meant that blood must be shed. Danny
participated in Lundgren's murder of the victimized family. He assisted
the Lundgrens in killing the two parents and all three daughters, aged 7,
13, and 15. The family members were lured one by one into a barn, bound
and gagged, and then taken to a large hole that had been dug in the barn
floor, where Lundgren shot them with a .45 automatic pistol and buried
the bodies. Lundgren, his family, and his followers then moved westward.
Eventually they were apprehended in California, returned to Ohio, and
tried for murder.
In subsequent interviews, Danny appeared calm and unperturbed.
There was no evidence of a personality disorder, except for the
appearance of high dependency elevations and high normal elevations on
the narcissistic and antisocial scales of the Millon Clinical Multiaxial
Inventory (MCMI). All other tests and repeated clinical interviews showed
no evidence of emotional distress or thought disorder.
At first Danny denied that he had had anything to do with the murder of
the family. But when he was asked about the judgment of God, he admitted
that he had served as God's instrument in executing His judgment. While
confessing, Danny showed no apparent remorse. In fact, there was a
wooden, matter-of-fact quality in his admission and in his entire
At the sentencing hearing, Danny's father appealed without success for
professional help for his son to break the spell that Lundgren had
seemingly cast over him. As one reporter observed, "the younger Kraft
(Danny) only smirked and appeared indifferent as Lake County Common Pleas
Judge James W. Jackson listened to experienceses in the second day of the
ex-cult member's sentencing hearing" (McGillivray, 1990, p. 2). His
defense lawyer, Elmer Giuliani, argued, "He (Lundgren) has divided this
young man from what he was at one time to what you see today. He divided
this man's mind from a free thinker to a mirror image [of Lundgren]"
(McGillivray, 1990, p. 2).
Other than Lundgren's wife and son, Danny is the only person who was
convicted who is apparently still under the control of Lundgren. The
zealous beliefs of the other cultists eventually faded, and they now
perceive Jeffrey Lundgren as anything but a prophet of God. It remains to
be seen whether Danny's fairly classical case of pseudo-identity will
yield to treatment (if any can be provided in prison) or to the passage
Sometimes the pseudo-identity becomes destabilized. Such destabilization
can occur when internal defense mechanisms break down; when changes in
the group occur that cannot be explained or tolerated by the member; when
information is received from outside sources that is dissonant with
currently held beliefs, or otherwise anxiety provoking; when gradual
fatigue and strain occur after a period of arduous work on behalf of the
cult, perhaps with concomitant threats of punishment for poor
performance; or when the cult member is traumatized by such events as
humiliation by a superior. Destabilization may also be seen when a cult
member experiences a sense of failure or impending doom for not being
able to meet the group's demands or otherwise satisfactorily to conform.
The three clinical pictures described below may be seen in recent
converts who experience destabilization to the point that they drop out
before a more fixed pseudo-identity is formed. They may also be seen
after a pseudo-identity is formed but is subsequently destabilized, even
after departure from the cult.
1. The "Floater." Nothing distresses parents and loved ones
more than experiencesing a recovering, former cult member begin to "float."
Floating is a dissociative phenomenon that is best described as a sudden
switch back to the pseudo-identity, a regression which is most commonly
triggered by certain sights, sounds, touches, smells, or tastes in
everyday life that were ubiquitous and salient stimuli in the cultic
milieu. Characteristically, floating occurs in cult members who have left
the group of their own accord, have received incomplete counseling, or
are still in the beginning phases of counseling. A former member who
floats after phoning a cult member may, as a result, even return to the
Jennifer, a college graduate, had served as a teacher overseas for 7
years with a well-respected religious organization. She then returned to
the United States and joined a different church. Gradually, she and
others of the congregation became entranced by their charismatic pastor.
Over time, Jennifer began to believe ideas and to practice behaviors that
previously would have been unthinkable to her. Despite her previous
fundamentalist Christian beliefs regarding ethics and morality, Jennifer
repeatedly engaged in illicit sexual activity with her cultic pastor, who
told her that it would make her "more spiritual." No amount of persuasion
by friends and family could convince her that the group or its teachings
and practices were unhealthy. She eventually agreed to seek counseling,
but only to convince her parents and friends that the cult was in fact
healthy and that their fears were unfounded.
2. The "Contemplator." Dissociated trance-like symptoms are
often seen in members of cults or sects in which contemplative exercises
are practiced, such as chanting or meditation. "Speaking in tongues" may
also produce this effect.
Initially Jennifer presented a rather robotic picture to the therapist.
Her affect was flat and her speech was mechanical, as were her bodily
movements. She exhibited clinical signs of dependency, anxiety, and
depression. After many daily sessions, one day the therapist said
something that shifted Jennifer away from her pseudo-identity. In the
following session her affect and bodily movements were no longer stilted,
and she began to express some of the doubt and pain that were appropriate
to the reality of her experiences in the cult. In short, the "old
Jennifer" began to re-emerge. The change was dramatic. Needless to say,
Jennifer's parents were much encouraged.
A few days later in a group therapy session another patient said
something critical about Jennifer's cult leader. The therapist watched
Jennifer's eyes loose their focus. She stared off into space. Suddenly
the pseudo-identity was back. Criticism of the leader apparently served
as a trigger for her automatically to recite the programming that she had
received in the group: that is, to defend the leader against all
criticism. Subsequently Jennifer required 5 to 6 hours of continuous
discussion during which the therapist reviewed with her the cult leader's
abusive and unethical behavior. With this cognitive exercise, Jennifer's
frozen affect began to thaw again. She has since remained free from the
cult, is now married with one child, and works as a school teacher.
Sabrina was a member of a martial arts cult for a number of years.
Her parents became concerned about progressive behavioral and personality
changes, together with her gradual estrangement from the family.
Eventually Sabrina sought counseling when she began to experience
significantly distressing symptoms. She was found to be suffering from a
major depressive episode, with predisposing passive dependent and
schizoid personality characteristics. Her therapist noted that sometimes
Sabrina would begin to stare, her eyes would become unfocused, and she
would become unaware of her surroundings. The therapist would literally
have to call out her name several times in order for Sabrina to reorient
herself as to time, place, person, and event. With Sabrina, there were no
apparent cues or triggers for these trance-like states. When she entered
these states she would find herself automatically engaging in some of the
activities that had been a part of her martial arts training. Over the
course of several weeks of therapy, Sabrina's episodes of contemplative
dissociation diminished in frequency. In time, they disappeared entirely.
3. The "Survivor." Certain dissociative symptoms are
frequently evident in persons who have survived severely traumatic
events. Herman (1992) notes that victims of incest, rape, terrorism,
concentration camps, and cults share common responses to trauma, which
may include feeling disconnected or detached from their selves or their
surroundings (depersonalization, derealization), psychophysiological
hyperarousal, intrusive memories of the trauma, and/or emotional and
Sabrina was fortunate. In some cases, contemplative dissociation
is very resistant to modification. Former cult members who have practiced
chanting and meditation for hours a day over a period of many
years may require special rehabilitation or extensive therapeutic
measures (see "General Treatment Issues," below).
Our clinical experiences with former cultists confirm that they may
develop symptoms similar to those seen in victims of imprisonment,
torture, terrorism, incest, physical abuse, or rape. In about 25% of our
cases, cults are found to have perpetrated sexual and physical coercion
and other abuse, including the inculcation of fear, terror, or dread.
Further, cults are seen to exploit group dynamics for social control, and
to employ specific techniques to induce altered states of consciousness.
It is interesting to note that one study of former cultists (Martin,
Langone, Dole, & Wiltrout, 1992) revealed no significant differences in
the MCMI between those who had been subjected to sexual and/or physical
abuse, and those who did not report an abuse history. While usually the
case, apparently neither brutal treatment nor confinement is necessary to
produce the survivor type of clinical picture, as is illustrated in the
Charles was a graduate of a large state university. His parents enjoyed a
solid marriage. His father was an anesthesiologist. Charles had joined a
Bible study group while at the university and after graduation he, along
with many of the group's members, moved to be closer to the leader of the
group. These Bible study members found themselves part of a small, cultic
rural compound that advocated white supremacy, militancy, and a belief in
demons as the source of virtually every personal problem. The leader
advocated a series of extreme measures to rid the cultists of their
demons. These measures included long and arduous fasts, beatings,
physical threats of death, prolonged verbal abuse, isolation, public
confession, and almost constant shaming and humiliation. Charles was
subjected to all of these methods to exorcise his demons. His parents,
fearing that he might be dying from the fasts, contacted local police and
had their son seen by a counselor. Charles was later referred for more
extensive counseling in a residential setting.
At first appearance Charles was gaunt, his eyes were sunken, and he
stared into space incessantly. He was listless and passive, resembling
a Holocaust survivor. Although Charles was no longer in the cult, he had
apparently come to believe that he was indeed hopeless, wicked and
demonized. Clinically, Charles suffered from a depressive illness with
obsessive compulsive features. He also met the criteria for the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,
fourth edition (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994) diagnosis
of Acute Stress Disorder and Brief Reactive Dissociative Disorder. His
dissociative symptoms included trance-like states, derealization,
depersonalization, and psychic numbing: "I feel nothing; I feel dead." In
addition, Charles experienced fear, intrusive recollections or
flashbacks, hopelessness, and despair. Charles received daily intensive
psychotherapy for more than 5 weeks. He was also prescribed fluoxetine,
an antidepressive medication. By the time Charles left the treatment
center he had gained weight and was no longer depersonalized, numb, or
feeling a sense of despair. He continued in outpatient therapy for nearly
year. Currently, he is performing very well as a graduate student and was
GENERAL TREATMENT ISSUES
Misunderstandings about cult victims and their treatment abound (Martin,
1983; Singer & Addis, 1992). Perhaps the most disturbing myth is that
only troubled individuals or those from dysfunctional homes join cults,
while well-adjusted youth are immune. Although several well-designed
studies and numerous clinical reports have refuted this idea, it
stubbornly persists (Wright & Piper, 1986; Maron, l988). Another common
misconception about cults is that their dangers are either greatly
exaggerated or are nothing more than fictitious concoctions by
over-controlling, neurotic, or ignorant parents; by misinformed religious
(or anti-religious) bigots; or by unscrupulous therapists bent on
terrifying families, traumatizing followers of "new religions" through
brutal deprogramming sessions, and collecting enormous fees (Bromley &
Shupe, 1981; Bromley & Richardson, 1983; Barker, 1984; Robbins, 1988).
Objective therapists will reject such viewpoints (often promulgated by
nonclinicians if not armchair philosophers) and will prefer to trust the
evidence of their own information as obtained from experienced
colleagues, patients, family members and other reliable informants. Such
therapists will quickly perceive that the cultic situation impinges upon
the particularities of each member's personality and behavioral history
to produce a resulting constellation of symptoms, or even to precipitate
a serious psychiatric illness.
Some specific methods used in treating cult victims have been described
in a number of recent books and articles (Martin, 1989; Martin, Langone,
Dole & Wiltrout, 1992; Martin, 1993a; Martin, 1993b). These publications
note that proper treatment can be difficult, that it is more
education-oriented than many other therapies, and that it progresses
through several fairly predictable phases. Following is a brief summary
of some of the salient features of these treatment methods.
The goal of treating a former cultist is to relieve the patient's
cult-induced psychopathology and thus to restore his pre-cult
personality. This can be a daunting task. The difficult and necessary
challenge of all therapy with former cult members is to carefully
restructure the patient's unhealthy responses to the stressful demands
made by the cult on the patient's previous sense of identity, including
values, mood, thought and behavior. The therapist must also clearly
define the patient's dissociative symptoms, so that treatment can be
oriented toward the particular type of psychopathology that is present.
For example, dissociation caused by meditative practices may require a
different approach than dissociation secondary to physical trauma.
Moreover, more than one dissociative symptom may be manifest in the same
patient, either simultaneously or sequentially. Different types of
dissociation must be identified clearly and treated appropriately for the
best therapeutic results.
Classic pseudo-identity cases require treatment very much like that
employed by most therapists who treat patients coming out of cults.
Generally treatment of cult victims contains several elements. Some or
all of the following may be required:
- . Medical care for illness, often related to malnutrition,
neglect of chronic disorders such as diabetes or peptic ulcer, and
neglect of preventive health measures such as inoculations, proper
diet, regular exercise, and the like.
- Psychiatric treatment for mental illness, including medication to
manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic disorder, etc., and
perhaps the use of special methods such as hypnosis or narco-synthesis
for resistant dissociative symptoms.
- Individual psychotherapy.
- Group psychotherapy.
- Exit counseling.
- Family therapy.
- Educational guidance and counseling.
- Vocational rehabilitation and training.
- Special referrals for pastoral counseling if indicated (e.g., when
recovering patient seeks affiliation with a legitimate religious
group, or wishes to return to his original family church).
- Legal consultation, if needed, to help the patient put his affairs
back in proper order if -- as often happens -- they have been much
neglected, disrupted, or exploited during the period of cult membership.
Legal action, including both punishment of offenders and recovery of
damages by the victim, can be very therapeutic in many cases.
Patients showing clinical pictures of the subtypes described above may
require special treatment strategies. Suggestions about these include the
1. Treating the "Contemplator." Dissociative and other
symptoms resulting from contemplative cult practices may continue to be
problematic in treatment long after other symptoms have improved.
Contemplative symptoms can include inability to concentrate,
relaxation-induced anxiety, and dissociative phenomena such as automatic
lapsing into meditation, chanting, or trance-like states. Ryan (1993)
found that one of the most effective methods to remedy "spacing out" is
physical exercise. Exercise may also help to alleviate other
contemplative symptoms, such as lack of awareness of bodily sensations,
muscle tension, fatigue, and the association of these with emotional
dysfunction or distress. Other helpful techniques include identifying
aspects of the environment that create stimulus overload, slowly building
up reading stamina by setting a timer and thereby gradually prolonging
reading time, and learning to counter magical thinking through a specific
series of reality checks.
Dissociation has been viewed as a phenomenon that is associated with
subcortical areas of the brain (West, 1967; Putnam, 1989). To a certain,
though lesser, degree the cognitive processing problems ex-cultists
experience resemble difficulties encountered by some head trauma or
stroke patients. Therefore, as with patients who have known neural
lesions, selected cult victims may benefit from the employment of
structured linguistic remediation. Some patients report that such
methods, which focus on memory, concentration, and linguistic encoding
and decoding, are very helpful in reducing various types of dissociation.
Specific exercises include (1) reading several paragraphs aloud to the
patient and asking him to restate the ideas expressed in the passage, (2)
asking questions pertinent to the sequence of the content read to the
patient, (3) asking the patient to analyze the story or to repeat it, and
(4) inviting the patient to respond to sentences that require an
expression of opinion relevant to the content. The clinician should note
the latency of responses, the need for clarification of the task or
topic, the patient's memory for details, problems in his ability to focus
and concentrate on the task, and deficits in expressive verbal skills.
Since altered states may result from a narrowed focus of attention and a
limiting or restricting of external stimuli (as occurs in many cultic
environments), awareness training in the visual, auditory, and aesthetic
modes can be helpful. For example, by encouraging clients to name all the
different sounds they hear in 30 seconds, and then all the colors and
shapes they see in a room, the therapist reinforces awareness of sensory
stimuli that a dissociative state may have diminished or even (in the
case of a trance) abolished.
Various mnemonic devices for remembering the details needed to engage in
everyday activities can be taught to a former member so that he can
better recall, for example, the five or six items he recently purchased
at the grocery store. Daily readings of newspapers, magazines, or short
stories can be useful as well, particularly when the patient interrupts
the activity at regular intervals to check his recall ability and his
awareness of the present environmental situation.
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