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and the Treatment of Personality Change
in Victims of Captivity and Cults

Part 3 of 3

2. Treating the "Floater." Typically, a former member floats, or returns to a pseudo-identity state, as a result of a trigger that can be visual (e.g., seeing a book written by the cult leader), verbal, physical, gustatory, or even olfactory. To defuse the trigger, it must be identified and the cultic language or jargon associated with it examined. Words that are given unique or idiosyncratic meaning by the cult should be correctly redefined by showing the client the dictionary definition of the word. Sometimes merely concentrating on crossword puzzles and other word games may help a patient to diminish or prevent floating (Tobias, 1993).

The immediate or crisis treatment for floating involves orienting the patient sharply to present reality with respect to time, place, person, event, and self. It may be necessary to remind him repeatedly that he is no longer in the cult, to encourage him to engage in conversation, and to review facts that promote the experience of being himself in the here and now. Crisis treatment should also include a review of why he left the cult and the problems associated with it (e.g., exploitative or criminal behavior). Patients should be encouraged to make notes and list the reasons why they left the cult, along with the personal and social problems that ensued from their cult experience. If they cannot reach their clinicians when episodes of floating occur, they can review their notebooks until the floating stops or they receive help.

Generally, floating is diminished by a thorough and comprehensive exit counseling process. The more the former member learns about the cult, and the more he is helped to understand the negative impact the cult has had on him, the less likely he will be to experience episodes of floating. If these episodes persist, more rigorous methods -- similar to those employed in treatment of major dissociative disorders -- may be required.

3. Treating the "Survivor." People forced by manipulative cult leaders to engage in and/or experiences heinous acts often manifest symptoms of PTSD. Nightmares, intrusive thoughts or images, fearfulness, and various psychosomatic malfunctions are common reactions. However, the formation of a pseudo-identity is not necessarily associated with specific traumata, and the symptoms that cult members experience after they leave the cult may not be exactly those which meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Nevertheless, the cult experience itself, and the process of disengaging from the cult, inevitably involve some degree of trauma to the person. The picture of a concentration camp survivor may result. To promote a full recovery from the sequelae of cult membership, the therapist should help the former member to learn about the dynamics of cultic groups and to understand how individuals in such situations can be induced to behave in ways highly deviant from their previous patterns, or to fail to behave in ways that were previously characteristic. Therapy should focus on "detriggering" and "reframing" the traumatic incidents that continue to affect the former cult member via educative strategies, cognitive-behavioral techniques, memory work, and dynamically oriented psychotherapy, as indicated. >


During the course of therapy, the following issues must be addressed in treating the traumatized former cult member.

1. Formulate how the cultic trauma interacted with the unique aspects of the patient, pre-abuse factors must be evaluated including the patient's age, gender, personality, coping style, family of origin, and pre-cult personal history.

2. The specific nature of the cultic trauma must also be examined; including the following:

a. Did predisposing personality or situational factors render the cult member vulnerable to recruitment? It is important to note that most people who are recruited into cults were not seeking to become cult members, did not suffer from any significant psychosocial handicaps, and did not come from atypical family situations. Although it is important to explore the individual vulnerabilities of the patient to the recruitment process, it can also be helpful for former cult members to recognize that cult recruiters regularly play on a myriad of personal characteristics that are normal or even desirable in the general population, characteristics such as loyalty, honesty, idealism, and a trusting nature.

b. How was the cult member's pseudo-identity shaped by use of deception, guilt, coercion, conditioning techniques involving deliberate positive and negative reinforcement, group indoctrination, environmental manipulation, hypnotic methods, and other maneuvers to increase suggestibility or produce trance-like states?

c. How was the patient: affected psychologically by the "thought reform" elements in the cultic environment? Specific issues and symptoms that can be addressed include denial, fragmentation of the self, depression, anxiety, phobias, dissociation, dissociation triggers, and how these various mental mechanisms and symptoms are related to the cultic milieu.

d. How were specific traumatic incidents stored? Storage could be cognitive via the doctrinal framework, sensory via visual and auditory stimuli, or interpersonal in terms of automatized behaviors, action tendencies, or group-determined roles. Further, what is the means by which this patient's trauma-related stimuli trigger memories of painful, confusing, and guilt-producing cult experiences?

e. How can painful memories of the cult experience, and the eventual disillusionment, be defused? As with victims of other types of trauma, three basic assumptions have been violated or undermined with respect to ex-cult members' view of themselves and the world: "the belief in personal invulnerability, the perception of the world as meaningful, and the perception of oneself as positive" (Janoff-Bulman, 1985, p. 15). The clinician must facilitate the former member's task of recapturing or reframing positive attitudes about life, the self, the family, society, and the like.

The consequences of pre-cult abuse (if any) and the subsequent cultic abuse are treated initially by educating the former cult member with respect to the psychological manipulation techniques that were used to deceive or mislead him. In this way, he learns that he was not solely responsible for his misfortune. (Blaming the victim is ubiquitous; even victims do it.) Some former members may say, "I'm fine," and show extreme defensiveness about the group's flagrant abuses. Such denial must be confronted by educating them about the after effects of cultic abuse in a manner analogous to the early intervention work with victims of rape, physical abuse, and other types of interpersonal trauma.

Former members can gain a sense of perspective about their cultic involvement by learning about the manipulative teaching of their particular cult, the practices of their cult leader, and the group's ethical tenets and exploitative use of personal relationships. This can be accomplished by presenting didactic material on the techniques of thought reform used; showing the ex-member testimonials of other former cult members who have made a successful post-cult recovery; encouraging the ex-member to talk to or visit with other former members; providing general readings and other educational materials about cults; and examining how a cult, if it claims to be religious, actually deviates from the main traditions of the religion from which it presumably derived (e.g., Protestant Christianity), or how a psychotherapy cult departs from the accepted standards of care and ethics practiced by reputable mental health professionals.

The educational aspects of treatment are primarily part of the first of the three stages of recovery, which overlap with each other. The three stages of recovery can generally be assessed by the type of questions the ex-cultist asks. For example, when a therapist hears the following questions and statements, he will know that the former cult member is in the first phase of recovery: "Is the group really a cult?" "Maybe I could have tried harder.I'm so confused.Were my needs really being met in the group?I'm fine. The group had some problems, but it wasn't that bad.I know something is wrong; I just can't put my finger on it." The initial treatment goal for the patient who asks such questions is to finish the exiting process. This entails a thorough examination of the cultic milieu, the resultant trauma, and the various pre-abuse factors that may be relevant. In short, the clinician must educate the patient, as described above. Valuable insights may be gained at this stage by using instruments such as the MCMI and asking patients specific questions about the cult and why they left. High scores on the Dependency, Avoidant, Schizoid, Anxiety, and Dysthymia scales are typically associated with untreated former cultists. Defensive and guarded answers about the group may indicate that the patient is still processing or denying a well-documented history of abuse within the cult.

Once issues in the first stage of post-cult recovery are resolved, patients will begin to make comments along the following lines: "I miss my friends in the group.I feel like a fool.I want to get my things back from the cult.I don't know what to believe anymore about God, groups, religion, or friends.There are issues I never dealt with before joining.I want to learn all I can about cults.Will they try to come after me?I have lost all this time." Patients who express such thoughts are in the second stage of recovery. While the first stage corresponds to a focus on the past, comments made during the second stage of recovery reflect an ability to focus on the present, and to view the cult involvement as a past experience. At this point, the dissociative symptoms of floating are usually no longer evident. Likewise, the stunned and frozen affect of the post-traumatic first phase is often much diminished, although in some ex-members, contemplative dissociative states may linger and persist throughout the second and even the third stages of recovery.

Treatment issues at the second stage correspond more to those of traditional therapy. Permission to grieve is of utmost importance. Anger and rage at this stage can be intense. Agonized verbalizations such as "I feel as though I have been murdered" are not uncommon. In addition to grief work, patients are now able to examine how they were recruited. Because cults manipulate each person's strengths and weakness, it is important for the patient to realize fully how he was lured into involvement with the cult. At this stage, it is important for the ex-cultist to regain his ability to validate the pre-cult self and to learn in more detail how this self was suppressed and displaced by the pseudo-identity. Work on emotional expression and self-awareness of feeling states is essential because psychic numbing can still persist at this stage of treatment. Special exercises are necessary for patients who cannot yet normally experience emotions, or who are too guilt ridden to express rage or anger.

Stage three is more future oriented and optimistic than stage two. At this phase of treatment, patients ask questions pertinent to what they will do in the future regarding jobs, going back to school, finding careers, where they will live, whom they will date, and how they will rejoin their families. Treatment at this time is best oriented to career and guidance counseling. Family therapy, time and skills management training, and job and interview skills training may well be pursued at this juncture. Certain cult victims may require legal advice if criminal or civil charges against the cult are contemplated or pending.

Each stage of recovery can be marked not only by progressive insight but also by appropriate emotions. It is important for the clinician repeatedly to return to the source of emotional distress. For example, the early depression that a former member might feel for having "failed God," which accounts for why he is no longer in the group, is very different from the depression of a member who finally comes to the full realization that his trust fund was stolen by the cult leader or that his spouse became the cult leader's concubine. It is important for the clinician to analyze the nature of the conflicts and issues facing the patient, in addition to evaluating the patient's psychopathology, as treatment proceeds.

Natural strengths and assets can be discerned in the recovering cultist, and the clinician will be gratified to notice the accelerating momentum of improvement as he fosters the former cult member's progress from the early to the more advanced stages of recovery. In every way the clinician should strive to facilitate the recovery process and to help provide the appropriate resources, support, and tools needed by the patient along the path of recovery. Ultimately, if all goes well, the clinician who has facilitated the patient's recovery will be deeply gratified as the symptoms of the pseudo-identity syndrome progressively vanish, and the pre-cult self is restored, repaired, and returned to a more normal life.


1. The detached masculine pronoun is used throughout in the traditional convention to designate both sexes.


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