Repairing The Soul After A Cult
by Janja Lalich
I was recruited into a cult in 1975 when I was 30 years old. The previous year I returned to the United States after having spent almost four years in exile abroad, where I lived the most serene
life on an island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. If someone had told me that within a year I would be deeply involved and committed to a cult, I would have laughed derisively. Not me! I was too
independent, too headstrong, a lover of fun and freedom.
But there I was, new to the San Francisco Bay Area and before long cleverly recruited into a group that preached Marxism and feminism and a
passion for the working class.
I was told that we would be unlike all other groups on the left because we were led by women and because our leader was brilliant and from the working class. I was told
that we would not follow the political line of any other country, but that we would create our own brand of Marxism, our own proletarian feminist revolution; we would not be rigid, dogmatic, sexist, racist.
We were new and different -- an elite force. We were going to make the world a better place for all people.
The reality, of course, was that our practical work had little if anything to do with
working class ideals or goals. Our leader was an incorrigible, uncontrollable megalomaniac; she was alcoholic, arbitrary, and almost always angry. Our organization, with the word democratic prominent in its
name, was ultra-authoritarian, completely top down, with no real input or criticism sought or listened to. Our lives were made up of 18-hour days of busywork and denunciation sessions. Our world was harsh,
barren, and unrewarding. We were committed and idealistic dreamers who were tricked into believing that such demanding conditions were necessary to transform ourselves into cadre fighters. We were instructed
that we were the uninstructed and that we must take all guidance from our leader who knew all. We were never to question any orders or in any way contradict or confront our leader. We were taught to dread
and fear the outside world which, we were told, would shun and punish us. In fact, the shunning and punishment was rampant within; but blinded by our own belief, commitment, and fatigue, in conjunction with
the group's behavior-control techniques, I and the others succumbed to the pressures and quickly learned to rationalize away any doubts or apprehensions. I remained in that group 10 years.
Who Am I?
When I got out of the cult in early 1986, I had to begin life anew. I was a decade behind in everything. Both my parents had died, and I had lost touch with former friends. I had to play catch-up, so
to speak, culturally, socially, economically, emotionally, and intellectually. But most important of all, I had to repair my soul. Who am I? How could I have committed the many unkind acts while in the
group? Where do I belong now? What do I believe in now? Will I ever restore my faith in myself and in others? These are the kinds of questions and dilemmas that troubled me. Over time, and most recently
through my contact and work with former members of many types of cults, I've come to see that the single most uniform aspect of all cult experiences is that it touches, and usually damages, the soul, the
Creating A New Personality
All cults, no matter their stripe, are a variation on a theme, for their common denominator is the use of coercive persuasion and behavior control without the
knowledge of the person who is being manipulated. They manage this by targeting (and eventually attacking, disassembling, and reformulating according to the cult's desired image) a person's innermost self.
They take away you and give you back a cult personality, a pseudo personality. They punish you when the old you turns up, and they reward the new you. Before you know it, you don't know who you are or how
you got there; you only know (or you are trained to believe) that you have to stay there. In a cult there is only one way -- cults are totalitarian, a yellow brick road to serve the leaders whims and
desires, be they power, sex, or money.
When I was in my cult, I so desperately wanted to believe that I had finally found the answer.
Life in our society today can be difficult, confusing,
daunting, disheartening, alarming, and frightening. Someone with a glib tongue and good line can sometimes appear to offer you a solution. In my case, I was drawn in by the proposed political solution -- to
bring about social change. For someone else, the focus may be on health, diet, psychological awareness, the environment, the stars, a spirit being, or even becoming a more successful business person.
The crux is that cult leaders are adept at convincing us that what they have to offer is special, real, unique, and forever -- and that we wouldn't be able to survive apart from the cult. A person's sense of
belief is so dear, so deep, and so powerful; ultimately it is that belief that helps bind the person to the cult. It is the glue used by the cult to make the mind manipulations stick. It is our very core,
our very belief in ourself and our commitment, it is our very faith in humankind and the world that is exploited and abused and turned against us by the cults.
Repairing the Soul
When a person
finally breaks from a cultic relationship, it is the soul, then, that is most in need of repair. When you discover one day that your guru is a fraud, that the miracles are no more than magic tricks, that the
group's victories and accomplishments are fabrications of an internal public relations system, that your holy teacher is breaking his avowed celibacy with every young disciple, that the group's connections
to people of import are nonexistent -- when awareness such as these come upon you, you are faced with what many have called a spiritual rape. Whether your cultic experience was religious or secular, the
realization of such enormous loss and betrayal tends to cause considerable pain. As a result, afterwards, many people are prone to reject all forms of belief. In some cases, it may take years to overcome the
disillusionment, and learn not only to trust in your inner self but also to believe in something again. There is also a related difficulty: that persistent nagging feeling that you have made a mistake
in leaving the groups --perhaps the teachings are true and the leader is right; perhaps it is you who failed. Because cults are so clever at manipulating certain emotions and events--in particular, wonder,
awe, transcendence, and mystery (this is sometimes called mystical manipulation) -- and because of the human desire to believe, a former cult member may grasp at some way to go on believing even after
leaving the group. For this reason, many people today go from one cult to another, or go in and out of the same cultic group or relationship (known as cult hopping). Since every person needs something to
believe in --a philosophy of life, a way of being, an organized religion, a political commitment, or a combination thereof --sorting out these matters of belief tends to be a major area of adjustment after a
What to Believe in Now?
Since a cult involvement is often an ill-fated attempt to live out some form of personal belief, the process of figuring out what to believe in once
you've left the cult may be facilitated by dissecting the cult's ideological system. Do an evaluation of the group's philosophy, attitudes, and worldview; define it for yourself in your own language, not the
language of the cult. Then see how this holds up against the cult's actual daily practice or what you now know about the group. For some, it might be useful to go back and research the spiritual or
philosophical system that you were raised in or believed in prior to the cult involvement. Through this process you will be better able to assess what is real and what is not, what is useful and what is not,
what is distortion and what is not. By having a basis for comparison, you will be able to question and explore areas of knowledge or belief that were no doubt systematically closed to you while in the cult.
Most people who come out of a cultic experience shy away from organized religion or any kind of organized group for some time. I generally encourage people to take their time before choosing another
religious affiliation or group involvement. As with any intimate relationship, trust is reciprocal and must be earned.
After a cult experience, when you wake up to face the deepest emptiness, the
darkest hole, the sharpest scream of inner terror at the deception and betrayal you feel, I can only offer hope by saying that in confronting the loss, you will find the real you. And when your soul is
healed, refreshed, and free of the nightmare bondage of cult lies and manipulations, the real you will find a new path, a valid path--a path to freedom and wholeness.
Janja Lalich is a cult
information specialist and consultant in Alameda, CA. She is co-author with Margaret Singer of Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (Jossey-Bass, 1995). Ms. Lalich is also a member of
advisory committees of AFF, publisher of The Cult Observer.
This article, slightly edited here, first appeared in CSNetwork Magazine, Spring 1996, pp.30-33.