Five Elements of Cult Counseling

by Allen Tate Wood


Cult counseling attempts to address the whole range of problems manifest in the victims of thought reform. The specific goal of the therapy is to assist the cult victim in establishing points of reference outside the closed polarized image of reality offered by his or her totalist system. Cult counseling, in my experience, consists of three basic elements: establishing rapport, describing points of reference outside the closed polarized image of reality of the cult, mourning/ reflecting and remembering the experience. For the purposes of this paper I shall treat the three elements as though they are distinct. In fact they do overlap. In the first two stages the counselor or deprogrammer, who is often an ex-cult member, is involved as a full partner in what may be an extremely intense interaction. The third stage may or may not involve the counselors and is one that will stretch out over weeks, months and years and may include parents, siblings, friends and ex-cult members.

Establishing Rapport

An essential skill for the cult counselor in his or her therapeutic repertoire is a command of the cult idiom, its doctrine, special language and buzzwords. Few cult members will entertain conversation with someone who is unversed in their doctrine. Faced with a counselor who can not move freely in the cult idiom and doctrine, cult members are likely to assume a posture characterized by remarks such as: "how can you presume to judge my group and its beliefs when you don't even know what we believe?" or "if you were really interested in me you would examine my beliefs thoroughly enough to make intelligent conversation, rather than hurling accusations on the basis of hearsay." It is important for the counselor to be explicit about who she or he is; about what he conceives his role to be; and to make clear exactly what the cult member can and can not expect from him. In assisting the cult member to step outside the siege mentality of the cult, the counselor may want to begin by indicating that the encounter is not a battle situation. It is not an occasion for attack or retreat, threats or retaliation. The meeting will not produce a victor and a vanquished. It can or it may result in a dialogue. Many cult members expect the non-cult world to strike them or attack them or in some manner invade them.

This often creates a barrier to free discussion. In order to circumvent this barrier the counselor should maintain a posture and inner attitude of defenselessness, non-retaliation and openness. When and if rapport is established the main phase of the counseling may proceed rapidly. This phase is characterized by the four points described below. However, members of groups which practice mind control often do not wish to be freed from the moral and psychological bondage in which they are entrapped. The serious ethical implications arising from this problem are discussed in part two of this essay.

Describing Points of Reference Outside the Polarized Image of Reality of the Cult

This main phase of the counseling can generally be divided into four components:

A.) First, a thorough going examination of the teaching of the group, it's doctrine, language and claims. Often cult members are inducted into a cult without really studying or learning the cult doctrine, since the method of presentation rarely allows for real reflection. It is important for the cult member to grasp the cult doctrines in their entirety, so that later the doctrine may be used as a standard of judgment with which to examine the behavior of the leader of the group and the members of the group as a whole. If the authors of the cult's doctrine claim that the doctrine is logical and scientific ( as do the authors of the "Divine Principle"- doctrine of the Unification Church- for example) it should be scanned for errors in logic, changes in the central hypotheses and lack of consistency with which definitions are maintained. Further if the cult's teaching is based on some preexisting scripture, all quotes from said scripture used as ballast should be checked against the original texts for distortions, omissions etc. As a coherent picture of the teaching emerges, the counselor and client enter into an examination of the social, political and psychological ramifications of these ideas. What are the likely results of the practice of this teaching, both to the individuals who try to put it into practice, and to the passive recipients of such practices? What is the likely social response to such a teaching?

B.) Next, a detailed exposition of the principles and practices of thought reform (as outlined by Lifton, 1963, and Milgram, 1969 and 1974. This should be coupled with an analysis of the cult member's initial contact with the cult group, its members and leaders, and an in depth reconstruction of the behavior of the cult members and leaders during training programs, workshops, retreats or encounter groups. Often this aspect of the counseling session sees the most dramatic response from the cult member. Here the mystery behind the cult's power is laid bare. The cult member may begin to get glimpses of the way in which psychological techniques, behavior modification, environmental control and an iron clad reinforcement schedule, together with the prospective cult member's psychological profile- high ideals and essential desire for goodness- were used to capture him or her. The net effect of the cult indoctrination is to produce a shift in consciousness, a shift in affect. Often this shift is accompanied by a "snapping moment"; a moment in which the cult's manipulative techniques bear fruit in the production of a "spiritual experience". This experience (the outcome of a tried and proven system) becomes, for the unwary initiate, existential proof of the existence of God, the supernatural confirmation of the truth of the teachings and an affidavit guaranteeing the character and motives of the leaders of the group.


It is vital that the cult member be given the opportunity and the tools with which to distinguish between the cult doctrines and the behavior modification techniques used in the production of the snapping moment or peak experience. For many cult members these behaviorally and environmentally induced "spiritual experiences" are the bridge between a healthy, open and questioning attitude and a kind of regression into dependence , embeddedness and infantilism. These experiences, occurring often as they do within the highly charged, tightly controlled atmosphere of the cult indoctrination center, are not subjected to critical scrutiny. They are metabolized and socialized within the language and doctrine of the cult. They are the occasion for increased approval from the group. Phenomenologically speaking, they initiate the "divine history" of the individual, and they recapitulate and reinforce the history and mythology of the group. What is perceived as a flash of illumination and liberation becomes, in fact, the first step in a frog march toward moral slavery and psychological bondage. During this phase of the conversation the counselor wants to do everything in his or her power to help the cult member critically evaluate the variables at play in the cult training environment. To see through the cult psycho-technology is a kind of illumination in itself.

C.) The presentation of testimonies of ex-members, court records, depositions, audio and video tapes dealing with the activities of the group. These may include evidence of illegal and corrupt activities, suspect training methods, ill treatment of members and the experiences of ex-members and their families.

D.) In conjunction with a review of characteristics of the particular cult involved, the counselor should lead the discussion towards an examination of other totalitarian groups. A rudimentary perusal of the philosophy, activities, training methods, world view and psychology of other cult groups may allow the cult member to see that his own group is but one of the fish in the sea. Common characteristics often include: rigid orthodoxy, adversary worldview, exclusive claim to truth, sacrificial members, hierarchical social structure and divinely ordained leader.

Perception of the universality of components between cults may go a long way toward putting to rest, in the minds of the cult members, previously held convictions that their group, and that group alone, is privy to the absolute truth.

By this time, if dialogue has been established, the monolithic picture of reality promulgated by the cult may be breaking down in the mind of the cult member. Here it is often helpful for the counselor to encourage the cult member to review the main points of their discussion so far, with an eye to abstracting from the conversation some general statements about cult life versus his or her life in their family, school or community.

Once the cult member begins to volunteer information and contribute spontaneously to the discussion, this may signal a significant turning point in the session.

Remembering, Reflecting and Mourning

No attempt should be made to suppress or extinguish the cult member's memories or experiences in the cult. In fact these are their legacy. No matter that the cult recruiters and trainers may have lied, tricked and conspired to produce the "conversion" of the cult member, the fact remains that the cult member's perceptions and experiences are real. The attachments which were formed, the expectations that were awakened, the love that was shared, the suffering together for a common goal: these experiences form the psychological landscape of the cult member's world. It is in the framework of these "positive" experiences and feelings that the irrational, illegal and dangerous activities of the cult group are carried out. Reflecting on the cult experience is natural and healthy. This remembering can be likened to mourning the loss or death of a loved one. To put pressure on ex-members not to talk about or reflect on their experience is to inhibit their rehabilitation and to deprive them of their most powerful tools for digesting the cult experience. Family members can supply invaluable aid by assuming a receptive supportive, non-judgmental attitude and simply listening to cult members' accounts of their cult days. Conversations about their own cult are often pivotal points in the recent ex-cult member's recovery of balance and perspective. Some ex-members find it helpful to write down their experiences. Writing about, thinking about and discussing cult experiences are powerful strategies for metabolizing the cult experience and resuming the autonomous conduct of one's life.

Ethical Implications of Cult Counseling

Delgado (1977) discusses in depth the legal and moral issues which surround the question of bringing aid to members of groups which employ deception, social coercion and mind control in their recruitment and indoctrination procedures. Among the avenues of relief available to families who have lost a child to such a group are: " a variety of remedies, ranging from simple preventative requirements to procedures aimed at returning a victim to his former condition" (p.98) Once a family has recognized that their son or daughter is involved with a totalist group, it is faced with a bewildering array of decisions, issues and moral questions.

A family with a child in a destructive cult needs help. It needs help from other families who have already experienced the trials and tribulations which cult involvement inevitably brings. They need the counsel of former members of that particular cult in order to help them formulate strategies for freeing, or for merely communicating with their child.

Cult involvement is a problem. It is a problem for the child in the cult and it is a problem for child's parents and siblings. But it need not become a tragedy. After proper counsel, thoroughgoing education and exhaustive examination of the resources available, a family may choose to intervene in the life of their child in the cult in order to give their child the opportunity to regain control of his mind and critical faculties. This intervention may take one of several forms: a series of counseling sessions with an informed member of the helping professions (psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or cleric); an interview or series of interviews with articulate ex-members of the cult.

These first two forms of intervention presuppose the free assent of the cult member. However, in the case of many members of destructive cults, the cult member is not capable of making the decision to critically evaluate either his involvement in the group or the group's activities and aims.

In many destructive cults the goal of training and indoctrination is to destroy the individual's capacity for independent thought and moral judgment, since the active exercise of these faculties would be likely to prevent the initiate from making a complete commitment to the cult.

The family is faced with a moral problem. Remaining in the cult, the child is often living in a condition of de facto involuntary servitude. The child is the virtual tool of the cult leaders. An extremely important consideration is the fact the child's life and activities in the cult are not carried out in a moral vacuum. While remaining in the cult, the child usually participates in recruiting other innocent, unwary young people and in other activities such as charities fraud (illegal fund raising). These facts often weigh heavily in the thinking of those parents who have employed either of the first two forms of intervention without apparent success. A third path remains open, counseling with restraint or "deprogramming". This generally consists of the components described earlier in this article, with the significant difference that the cult member is not allowed to leave the counseling environment until the parents and counselors are satisfied that the cult member has seriously considered the information presented by the counselors.

In the end, of course, there is no foolproof method of delivering someone from a destructive cult. Any of the three avenues described here may work. On the other hand, none of them may have much apparent success. The critical factor is the assent of the cult member, whether it is an open counseling session or one in which the cult member is restricted for a time. If the cult member absolutely and categorically refuses dialogue, and can maintain this position throughout the session, he will in all likelihood remain in the cult. In all of the three remedies proposed the cult member is invited into a dialogue to examine information which he or she has not been allowed to see in the cult. If the cult member can for a short while suspend disbelief in his or her parents and the counselor(s) and re-entertain an open, questioning posture with respect to the cult, it is possible if not probable that he will see through what has been done to him and come all the way out of the cult.

A General Misreading of the Facts

To interpret cult involvement as a developmental phase, an aspect of growing up or an intra-psychic strategy for dealing with the problems of adjustment which surround the passage from adolescence to adulthood represents, in general, a misreading of the facts. It fails to take into account the tactics, strategies and overall goals of the cult. Specifically it represents a failure to confront the indisputable fact that deliberate deception, social coercion and psychological manipulation form the backbone of the cult's recruiting and indoctrinating procedures. The successfully socialized cult member has entered a world in which submission to authority, blind obedience and conformity have supplanted such "outmoded" notions of character development as the development of self-reliance, the capacity for critical thinking and the need for openness and compassion in human relationships. Any character development that takes place inside cult groups employing mind control techniques in their indoctrination procedures and in the maintenance of cult normative behaviors , is fortuitous. It occurs in spite of, not as a result of, cult practice. For those families who have a child in a destructive cult there are a host of perspectives, attitudes, postures and strategies which may variously be assumed or employed in an attempt to come to terms with the painful facts. I can not help but formulate the problem in its general terms as a question of love. The family can see that something is wrong. The cult group says the family is evil. The cult accuses the family and anyone with authority outside the cult. It says: " your love is no good, it does not serve. You do not have the right to love your children". Emotional tension is heightened when children join with their cult mentors to echo the accusation of parents and families. I believe that to act to save their children from the thralldom of destructive cults is the right of parents. It is an expression of their love. It can represent, in the deepest sense, a reaffirmation of a husband's and a wife's commitment to each other and to their children. It is a test of their love. To fight for the life of one's child in the face of the systematic accusation of a destructive cult is one of the tasks of this age.


1. Lifton, R.J.(1963) " Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism."

2. Milgram, S. (1969, 1974) "Obedience to Authority."

3. Richard Delgado, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington; Delgado, R.(1977) " Religious Totalism: gentle and ungentle persuasion under the first amendment" in S. California Law Review, Nov. 1977(pp.1-98)