Cults, Spiritual Abuse

Cults, Abusive groups or relationships, Spiritual abuse or manipulation , high-demand groups or relationships, Cultic relationships, Psychological abuse or manipulation, Thought reform
Spiritual or religious, political, psychotherapy, commercial
Cult - a group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea or thing and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it). These techniques are designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community (Tobias & Lalich, 1994, p.12).
Religious cults are often led by someone who claims unity with the divine or claims to have reached a state of perfection or enlightenment. Because of the leader’s self-proclaimed “divinity” he or she may claim exemption from expected cultural norms and ethics. In this context any behavior can be justified or explained, and, if members, or non-members, do not understand this, that is because they are viewing from an “unknowing” or “unenlightened” perspective, according to the leader(s) or group.
These three characteristics are often present:
· members are expected to be excessively zealous and unquestioning in their commitment to the identity and leadership of the group. Personal beliefs and values must be replaced with those of the group.
· members are manipulated & exploited and may give up their education, careers and families to work excessively long hours at group-directed tasks such as selling quotas of items, fund-raising, recruiting and proselytizing.
· harm or threat of harm may come to members, their families &/or society due to inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, psychological, physical or sexual abuse, sleep deprivation, criminal activities, etc. (Tobias & Lalich, 1994, p.13).
Per Margaret Singer (1995, p. 8-10)
· authoritarian in power structure
· totalitarian in their control of members’ behavior
· double sets of ethics (one for leader & another for members; one for those inside group, another for dealing with outsiders)
· leaders are self-appointed & claim to have a special mission in life
· leaders tend to be charismatic, determined & domineering
· leaders center the veneration of members upon themselves
· two purposes: recruiting & fund-raising
Mind Control/Thought Reform - a system of influences that disrupts an individual’s identity (beliefs, behavior, thinking and emotions) and replaces it with a new identity (Hassan 1990, p.7).
Individuals develop a pseudo personality (West, in Langone, 1993, p. 9) or a dissociative split, which allows them to “proclaim great happiness yet hide great suffering (Langone, 1993, p. 9).” Lifton calls this “doubling.” Positive and negative reinforcers are used to condition or mold behaviors. Exhibiting “appropriate” behaviors or attitudes insures survival.
Brainwashing is more overt than mind control or thought reform, in that when one is brainwashed or forced to comply with demands, one knows at the beginning that one is dealing with “the enemy” Hassan, 1990, p. 55). The process of thought reform is subtle and covert, and the reformers are seen as role models, leaders, friends or peers - therefore the one being manipulated is much more vulnerable.
Models of Mind Control
Robert J. Lifton’s eight criteria of mind control for creating “ideological totalism”:
1. milieu control - the control of communication within an environment; builds unhealthy boundaries
2. mystical manipulation or “planned spontaneity” - experiences which appear to be spontaneous but were orchestrated in order to demonstrate “divine authority”; this authority allows leader(s) to use any means toward a “higher end” or goal
3. the demand for purity - absolute separation of good & evil within self & environment
4. the cult of confession - 1:1 or group confession of past & present “sins” or behaviors that are often used to humiliate the confessor & create dependency upon leader for definition of goodness; surrender, total exposure ; no confidentiality
5. sacred science - the teaching as Ultimate Truth that allows for no questioning
6. loading of the language - use of terms, jargon that have group-specific meaning; phrases that will keep one in, or bring one back into, the cult mindset
7. doctrine over person - denial of self and self-perception
8. dispensing of existence - anyone not in the group or not embracing the “truth” is insignificant, not “saved” or “unconscious”; the outside world, or members who leave the group are rejected
Margaret Singer’s Criteria for Thought Reform (Singer, 1993, p. 63).
1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how she or he is being changed a step at a time.
2. Control the person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time.
3. Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.
4. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity.
5. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group’s ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors.
6. Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.
Deception Dependency and Dread (DDD) (Langone, 1993)
1. Convince the would-be members that the group/leader’s values & goals are the same as the seekers’ and therefore beneficial. Actual agenda or beliefs of group/leader are not disclosed.
2. Indebtedness to the group/leader grows as the individuals feel that the group is doing things for them. This deepens the commitment. In order to progress or advance one must follow the dictates of the group, or “surrender” to the group, which by now has procured a position of authority and defines what is “real, good and true.” One can only advance with the help of this group.
3. The individual dreads the loss of the group’s support or acceptance because such losses validate the individual’s flaws. By now the member is completely dependent on the group/leader and alienated from most, if not all, outside supports. Dissent and doubt are viewed as caused by inherent flaws in the individual, therefore the individual must always project a positive and happy demeanor. Phobia induction is used so that one believes that leaving the group will bring physical, spiritual and or psychological harm.
I. Possible Significant Issues for Children
· Lack of adequate medical care
· Lack of appropriate consistent caretaker
· Children trying to work on normal developmental tasks are labeled “possessed”, crazy, bad
· Parents are thought reformed to believe that normal human feelings for their children are not “spiritual”
· “The cult member, deprived of his or her adult selfhood, (in dependent state due to mind control, i.e. regressive state, more like that of a child) is prone toward abusive practices” (Markowitz p. 154). Power over children is often the only power these parents may have.
· Children cannot be first priority of the parents
· Expectations that children participate in rituals: meditation, sexual, fasting, early rising
· Lack of intellectual stimulus
· Isolation
· Physical punishment
· Neglect
· Emotional development - suppressed emotions
· Educational deficits

International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA)
Rosanne Henry, LPC (Denver)

Langone, Michael (Editor) (1993). Recovery From Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological
and Spiritual Abuse.  New York: Norton.
Lifton, Robert J. (1961). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. New York:
W.W. Norton.
Singer, Margaret Thaler and Lalich, Janja (1996). Cults In Our Midst: The Hidden Menace In
Our Everyday Lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Tobias, Madeleine Landau, & Lalich, Janja (1994). Captive Hearts Captive Minds: Freedom and
Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, Inc.

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