Changes: The Psychology and Psychotherapy Journal
Volume 3 # 1, 1984

Destructive cults a view from the inside

By Guy Fielding and Sue Llewelyn

Many writers have pointed out in recent years that in this avowed­ly secular age there are many examples of small religious groups which may appear to fill the need for spiritual guidance evidently not met by the tradi­tional churches. It has been estimated that in 1976, ‘...three million young Americans had joined the one thousand religious cults active in the United States’ (Conway and Siegelman, 1978; p12). A number of such groups are flourishing in the UK at present, some of which (for example, the Moonies, the Hare Krishna Movement, the Way In­ternational and Scientology) are seen by observers to be considerably more than they claim to be. Newspapers describe the apparent horror of cults which snatch children from their parents and brainwash them into mindless automata. There have been a number of court cases in both the USA and the UK in which claims of brainwashing and mind-control by various cults, and charges of illegal kidnapping and violence by de-programmers are ex­changed in an atmosphere of intrigue and mystery (Bromley and Shupe, 1979).

Yet relatively little is known about the experience of being a member of such groups, nor of the mechanism of con­version and of disillusionment with the group’s ideology. Of particular interest to psychologists and psychotherapists is the question of the way in which some individuals are attracted to and become immersed in such groups, while others do not. Conversion phenomena are usually discussed in terms of ‘brain­washing’ (cf Lifton, 1961), a term which merely re-describes the problem, but doesn’t satisfactorily explain anything. Perhaps of more interest to psychologists and mental health specialists are the possible similarities between the techniques used by the cults and group therapies (and also by some ‘pop’ personal psychologies). Do the techniques used by these cults in fact bear any relationship to some of the activities carried out within our own professions? And if they do, what implications does this have for our own practice? In this article, we are concerned with three major and separate issues. First, are the techniques of recruitment and membership maintenance used by the cults and by group therapy similar or even identical? Second, what are the ef­fects upon the cult member’s cognitive system, affective state and psychological health? Third, if the techniques used by the cults are so powerful, why and how do people leave the cults, even with the aid of de-programmers and what happens to them psychologically when they do? In order to explore some of these questions, we contacted two ex­ members of probably the most notorious of the cult groups, the Unification Church (the Moonies), and asked them about their experiences of recruitment to, participation in, and finally, disengagement from the cult.

Allen Tate Wood is a warm, energetic young American who as a student had been involved in the US Peace Move­ment, and who in the sixties had been active in the presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy. He was ac­customed to public speaking and became involved with the Moonies in the early days. These two factors account, he believes, for his rapid rise to a high position in the Moonie hierarchy, as the ‘One World Crusade Commander’ for the state of Maryland. Jane Williams, a quiet-spoken and thoughtful young English woman, now Allen’s wife, graduated in 1979 in social psychology at the University of Sussex. They now work as cult counselors and freelance journalists, touring the UK and USA talking about their experience of the Unification Church.

We asked Jane how and when she had become involved with the Moonies.

‘It was in 1979, when I was in San Francisco, traveling around, and I ac­cepted an invitation to spend a few days on a farm. This was described to me as a small semi-professional collective, known as the Creative Community Pro­ject. When I got there, each day was organized into group meetings, games of volleyball and group hikes. I never had any time to myself; even if I had to go to the bathroom, a ‘sister’ accompanied me to keep watch over me. I wasn’t keen when religion was introduced, because I was agnostic and I wasn’t really in­terested in finding God. But the over­whelming thing was that they were such nice, friendly people, and so sincere, and I didn’t want to upset them, so I went along with what they were doing. At the end of two days, they had presented a view of the world as a very evil place, and themselves as being a young idealistic group who were going to solve all the world’s problems.

This gesture of recruitment, with the cult offering deceptive security to a vulnerable individual, is a familiar one. The potential recruit is not only physically vulnerable, but also, and primarily, psychologically vulnerable. Allen Wood explains: ‘The target ages are 18 to 25. People in that age group are leaving home, finishing school or college, going off to University or jobs. They are experienc­ing life changes and are thus more open. The cult recruitment method dovetails with the breaking away from parents, so when parents try to discuss the cult with their child, it is interpreted as in­terference, against which the child legitimately wants to struggle’. Of course, as he notes, ‘in reality, the child simply swaps one form of dependence for another, far deadlier one...’ It has frequently been noted that the young cult recruit is at a transitional stage in their personal history; as in Jane’s case, the young person is literal­ly traveling with no particular place to go, surrounded by few of the normally available supports from family and friends. The new recruit is often facing a number of personal and external in- securities; Galanter (1982) has pointed out that psychological distress is a fre­quent antecedent to conversion to a sect. Levin and Zegans (1974) have remark­ed that, “the emergence of religious af­filiations and fantasies among many of our adolescent and young adult patients may represent their attempt to fashion a meaningful identity and consistent personal code of moral behavior in a changing culture of uncertain values’ (p73). Joining the group seems to have, at least in the short term, a positive ef­fect on the psychological state of the in­dividual, as conflicts are resolved by ap­pealing to a higher authority. Both per­sonal and universal questions are answered by complete faith in the wisdom of the cult, enshrined in the per­sonality of its absolute leader. The world is seen as a bad place and the cult as uni­que and absolutely good, having a preordained leader as the savior of all that is valuable and moral. Allen observes that this simplistic separation of the world into two parts, one good and the other evil, is basic to the Moonie philosophy. He suggests that this split­ting is coupled with a process of psychological regression, which ac­counts, at least in part, for the success of the Moonie recruitment process.

‘The Moonie system is a system of submission, so it awakens regressive tendencies in the individual. The recruit is in a social system, which rewards him for regression, so the manifestation of dependence goes along with being lov­ed. The young Moonie can experience a surrendering of his or her critical faculties, and decision-making powers, as a kind of movement towards God. It feels very good, to be going back down again into childhood’.

It appears that the adult respon­sibilities of decision-making and thought are not only under attack from the cult, but are willingly surrendered by the recruit. It is the surrender, which Allen sees as the core of the destructive ele­ment in cult membership. Through it, the integrity of the personality and the capacity for moral discrimination is relinquished and eventually destroyed. Allen sees other features as being characteristic of the destructive cult. ‘I think you can use the term destruc­tive cult to describe any social system which has an absolute ideology, which claims that it is the truth. It’s not a sym­bol or an image; it’s the literal, total, absolute Truth. Generally, the cult will have a leader who is the fountainhead of the ideology, and a hierarchical social structure, in which development and progression is based on a rigid chain of command and obedience. There is usually an adversary stance towards the rest of the world, so that members of the cult are God’s good and true people, who are leading mankind into the future, while everybody else is in the Satanic world where the truth is being contaminated. The successfully socialized cult member has entered a Never-Never land in which absolute obedience has replaced the functions of the in­telligence, the imagination and the conscience’.

But how is all of this achieved? We asked Jane to tell us more about her experiences.

‘After two days at the Farm, as I didn’t have any fixed plans, I decided to stay for an Advanced Workshop that the others had been describing in glow­ing terms. At the end of that week, I gave up my job, cancelled my air ticket back to the UK and knew I was going to stay forever. I think it was because of the people themselves; they were so friendly. All of the time they were exer­ting peer pressure over me, without me being aware of it. I was away from everything that I knew, and surround­ed by people who all seemed to have the same beliefs as I had, although actually their sole aim was to recruit me’.

It seems that the new recruit is systematically seduced into acceptance of the group’s ideology by a combina­tion of skillfully managed group discus­sions and individual reinforcement. Anyone familiar with Asch’s study of conformity to group decisions should not be too surprised to learn how the new recruits come to doubt their own in-dependent judgments and to accept the (apparently spontaneous, but in reality, manipulated) unanimous opinions of the people around them. These effects are maximized by the characteristics of the other group members who are deliberately chosen to be similar to, and attractive to, the potential recruit. They are trained to administer a system of rewards and punishments which is reminiscent of a token economy, and which ensures compliance to the group’s views. Obedience to authority is also rewarded, and deviance punished. But did Jane recall having had any doubts at all about her decision to join, or about the ideology?

‘Oh yes. But doubts are seen to come from Satan, so I would punish myself. I would chant, or put myself on a con­dition, which meant that I’d promise to pray a certain amount of time each day, or to fast, or I might put myself on a cold shower condition for, say, seven minutes a day for 21 days. The more fasting and chanting you did, the more peope admired you, and the stronger and more spiritual you felt’.Whether consciously or not. the Moonie recruiters seem to have a clear grasp of the power of attribution (and misattribution), and of the effects of cognitive dissonance!

In their comprehensive but rather journalistic study of a wide range of religious and therapeutic cults in the USA. Conway and Siegelman (1978) refer to the process of conversion and subsequent automaton-like behaviour of recruits as ‘snapping’. By this they mean a sudden personality change, resulting from the suspension of the person’s response as an individual, and often brought about in the name of mystical transcendence. The individual has an experience of oceanic unity, often induced by fasting, chanting and a tremendous emphasis on the group. An important aspect of this, in their view, is the suspension of critical thought, and a distrust of the power or value of the rational, critical mind. Thinking, as opposed to feeling or ‘experiencing’, is wrong. As they comment, ‘there is nothing quite so impenetrable as a human mind snapped shut with bliss’ (p62). Conway and Siegelman consider that cults are effective because they initially use very efficient techniques of persuasion and then destroy the ability of people to think, doubt, ask questions and formulate alternatives. (Of course, it is not only in the religious cults that thinking is seen as a bad thing; in at least some ‘bodywork’ and encounter groups, thinking is seen to get in the way of true experience and ‘growth’.)

Interestingly, the process of questioning and criticism is seen by many exmembers as the way out of the cult mentality. Both Allen and Jane have experience of counselling cult members, and we asked Alien what this involves.‘The first thing is a critical analysis of the ideology, and an examination of the hypotheses of the cult’s theology, to see if the ideas hold up. The job of the cult counsellor is to provide the conditions within which the cult member can begin to undo for him or herself what was done, and to help him or her step out of the closed, polarised view of the world that the cult has provided. The next step is for the cult member to meet ex-members of other cults.’

Jane herself was ‘kidnapped’ by her parents and then ‘deprogrammed’. She remembers: ‘For the first two days I resisted; I chanted non-stop to myself "Glory to Heaven. Peace on Earth and No matter what they say, I’m going back". Eventually I started to listen, and then to think about what they were saying. Had I got away from the counsellors after two days. when I was still chanting. I’m sure I would have sued them and my parents.’

During her rehabilitation Jane met and talked with a number of other excult members. She was struck by the fact that although she and the others being. rehabilitated had all believed in completely different ideologies, the techniques used to recruit them were all very similar, and that they had all believed that they had the Absolute Truth. As in the case of the Three Christs of Ypsilanti, this discovery was obviously rather challenging! What happens to the ex-cult member once they have left the group? For Jane the most difficult thing was making decisions again. She remembers: ‘1 hadn’t had to make any decisions of any kind for almost a year. Even shopping was difficult for me; choosing things like a hair slide was impossible, because I didn’t know whether I wanted a red one or a green one, or whether I wanted one at all’.

Galanter (1983), in his study of dropouts from the Moonies, reported that 36°lo have serious emotional pro­blems after leaving. Paranoia, depres­sion and dissociative phenomena may occur, although these symptoms often abate with time. Other writers, such as Maleson (1981), have observed that for some recruits at least, the cult seems to provide a valuable defense against underlying pathology, as well as being for others a supportive haven in an otherwise hostile and competitive world. Maleson notes that ‘many report relief from prior anxiety, depression, aliena­tion, and addictive behaviors, as well as improvements in interpersonal relationships’ (p262). Presumably, therefore, their problems should in­crease after leaving the cult.

What place is there then for individual psychotherapy or counseling in the rehabilitation of the ex-cult member? Allen believes that this can only be limited:

‘It is difficult for the therapist to ad­dress the cult member’s problems unless the therapist masters the cult’s ideology and idiom. A cult member will be unable to listen to a therapist unless the therapist speaks the cult’s language. Yet anything from the cult world can trig­ger the conceptual and emotional world of the cult. The person on the way out of the cult may ‘float’ for awhile, and during this time is very susceptible to slipping back’.

Allen and Jane do not describe their years with Mr Moon in positive terms. We asked Allen what significance he felt the cult phenomenon had for the pyschological community.

‘To me, it is the rising up, both in the individual and in society, of one image, which crushes and punctures all other social constructions or images. It drains them and uses their blood and vitality to fuel itself. It’s a kind of spiritual vampirism. Historically, I think the phenomenon of the religious cult is a regression signalled by social disintegra­tion. Whenever there is social disintegra­tion, people turn towards absolutes, and in the cult the individual has certainty’.

What about the implications of this for those of us who work as therapists? In our own sphere, there are a number of examples of ‘cults’ which, although perhaps not as all-embracing as the Unification Church, nevertheless share some of its manifestations. Temerlin and Temerlin (1982) recently published a paper describing their observations of five teachers of psychotherapy (two clinical psychologists, and three psychoanalysts, all currently working in private practice in the USA) who they felt had established ‘psychotherapy cults’. All these teachers failed to main­tain professional boundaries, in that they treated friends, lovers, students and employees, having brought them together in cohesive, psychologically incestuous groups of which they were the leaders. Financial and sexual exploitation of ‘patients’ was common, and group pressure was used to ensure that any questioning led to feelings of guilt. A wish to terminate therapy was seen as disloyalty, or avoidance of closeness, and referral elsewhere was discouraged. The group of ‘patients’ typically became isolated and self-perpetuating. Obvious­ly, this is an extreme, but how many of those features occur in our own therapeutic places of work? To what extent do we use the same techniques of persuasion in group therapy as those used by the cults?

The growth of cult groups clearly signals the fact that some psychological or social need is not being met elsewhere in society. Because of the hazy nature of the boundaries between therapy, per­sonal growth, the search for spiritual meaning in life, and religion, these are issues which should concern all therapists. Jane and Allen have emerg­ed unscathed from their years with the Moonies. But the movement is growing, and of course, even nearer to home, the influence of groups such as Est and the Rajneesh is increasing. Not all aspects of these movements are destructive, and certainly not all movements are the same. But the one aspect that seems to distinguish the destructive cult from the sincere quest for self-discovery and spiritual truth, is whether or not the ‘recruit’ or patient is still allowed to think, doubt, and ask questions. Significantly, none of these groups encourage this.


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Temerlin, M.K. and Temerlin, J.W., (1982).
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Jane Williams and Allen Tate Wood,
Two ex-members of the Unification Church