Traumatic Abuse in Cults: Part I

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Posted by Postal Carrier on October 03, 2005 at 12:48:27

Posted with permission from
Cultic Studies Review Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003

Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective, by Daniel Shaw, C.S.W.
Psychoanalyst in Private Practice
New York City

Abstract: Using his own 10 year experience in Siddha Yoga under the leadership of Gurumayi, the author presents psychoanalytic conceptualizations of narcissism in an effort to develop a way of understanding cult leaders and their followers, and especially of traumatic abuse in cults from the follower's perspective. A psychoanalytically informed treatment approach for working with recovering cult followers is proposed, consisting of providing: 1) an understanding of the leader's extreme dependence on the follower's submission and psychological enslavement; 2) a clear and firm, detailed understanding of the leader's abusiveness; and 3) an exploration of normative and/or traumatic developmental issues for the follower, as part of a process of making sense of and giving meaning to the follower's experience.


When I began graduate school in social work in September of 1994, it had been just two years since I moved out of the spiritual community, the ashram, I had lived and worked in for more than 10 years, up until my 40th birthday. In those two post-ashram years, while still considering myself devoted to the guru and the spiritual path I had chosen, I did a good deal of soul searching, much of it through the process of psychotherapy. One of the uses I made of psychotherapy was to explore my career options, and I eventually chose to seek the necessary education and training to become a psychotherapist myself. In my first social work field placement, many of the clients I was assigned described terrible histories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in childhood, and in some cases were involved in ongoing abuse, either as perpetrators or victims. Many of these clients were struggling to recover from devastating addictions. Although my own life has been something of a bed of roses in comparison with the suffering these clients have known, I soon discovered I had a deeper connection to their experiences than I at first realized.

I had always portrayed my participation in Siddha Yoga (also known as SYDA), to myself and others, as an idealistic commitment to a noble spiritual path, dedicated to spiritual awakening and upliftment in the world. Just after school began, my perceptions were shattered when I learned of an incident concerning a friend of mine, a young woman just turned 21, who was sexually harassed in the ashram by one of its most powerful male leaders. When she sought help from Gurumayi, the now 48-year-old female Indian guru who is the head of the ashram, Gurumayi told the young woman, with contempt and disdain, that she had brought the harassment upon herself. Through her chief assistant, Gurumayi warned the young woman, "don't ever tell anyone about this, especially not your mother." The woman's mother, who had made substantial donations to the ashram over the years, was a long-time devotee of Gurumayi’s. After two years of intense inner conflict, the young woman finally did tell her story. As a result, many others began to speak out, eventually contributing to an extensive exposé of SYDA in The New Yorker magazine (Harris, 1994). Published just two months after I started graduate school, the article revealed a Pandora's box of well-documented abuses by the leaders of SYDA that had been going on for more than 20 years.

In the two years prior to the publication of the article, I had slowly and painfully begun to acknowledge to myself and others that there were aspects of SYDA and its leaders that I found unethical and disturbing. In particular, I had witnessed and personally experienced Gurumayi verbally and emotionally abusing her followers, publicly shaming and humiliating those with whom she was displeased in cruel and harsh ways. I had heard her tell lies and witnessed her deliberately deceiving others. I witnessed her condoning and encouraging illegal and unethical business and labor practices, such as smuggling gold and U.S. dollars in and out of India, and exploiting workers without providing adequate housing, food, health care, or social security. I was aware that for many years, Gurumayi, and her predecessor, Swami Muktananda, had been using spies, hidden cameras, and microphones to gather information about followers in the ashram. I had heard whispers that Muktananda, contrary to his claims of celibacy and renunciation, had extensive sexual relations with female followers, which he then lied about and which he attempted to cover up with threats of violence to those who sought to expose him. Later, after I exited Siddha Yoga in 1994, I came to recognize in Muktananda’s and Gurumayi’s behavior toward their followers the hallmarks of abuse: the use of power to seduce, coerce, belittle, humiliate, and intimidate others for the ultimate purpose of psychological enslavement and parasitic exploitation.

I had deeply suppressed my doubts about SYDA for many years, but they suddenly and dramatically crystallized when I heard the story of the young woman I knew. In the phrase, "Don't ever tell anyone about this, especially not your mother," I heard a chilling echo of the voice of the incestuous father, the battering husband, the sexual harasser, the rapist. As Judith Herman says, in her seminal work entitled Trauma and Recovery (1992), "secrecy and silence are the perpetrator's first line of defense" (p. 8). It was hearing these words, "Don't ever tell," that broke for me what Ernst Becker (1973) has called "the spell cast by persons -- the nexus of unfreedom." I recognized that, like many of my social work clients who were abused as children by their parents, I too had been subjected to abuse—by the person I called my guru.

In this paper I will: 1) present a psychoanalytic conceptualization of the psychopathology of the cult leader; 2) discuss ways that cult leaders manipulate, abuse, and exploit followers; and 3) present theories about individual relational and also broader cultural factors that influence the individual’s psychological organization in ways that may contribute to vulnerability to cult participation. I draw from various psychoanalytic schools, including object relations (both Kleinian and Middle School), interpersonal, self psychology, intersubjectivity and contemporary relational schools. As a former participant in a cult, and now an observer of cults working as a psychoanalytic therapist with former cult members, it is my hope that the psychoanalytic formulations I discuss here will be helpful to others concerned with understanding cult phenomena.

What Is a Cult, and Why Do People Get Involved in Them?

Cult experts estimate that there are several thousand cultic groups in the United States today and that at least four million people have at some point in recent years been in one or more of such groups (Langone, 1993, p. 29). The former Cult Awareness Network, before being taken over by the Church of Scientology in the late ‘90s, reported that it received about 18,000 inquiries a year (Tobias & Lalich, 1994). Those of us interested in the phenomenon of cults have attempted to define our terms in various ways (see, e.g., Langone, 1993, p. 5). In this paper, I am defining a cult largely on the basis of the personality of its leader. In my definition, a cult is a group that is led by a person who claims, explicitly or implicitly, to have reached human perfection; or, in the case of a religious cult, who claims unity with the divine; and therefore claims to be exempt from social or moral limitations or restrictions. In the language of psychoanalytic diagnostics, such people would be called pathological narcissists, with paranoid and megalomaniacal tendencies. Without the cult leader, there is no cult, and from my perspective, in order to understand cult followers, we must simultaneously seek to understand cult leaders. I will attempt to describe the interplay of psychological dynamics between leader and follower that can enable cult leaders to dominate and control followers, and enable cult followers to be seduced and manipulated into submission.

The questions most often asked of former cult members, usually with incredulity, are "How did you get into something like this? And why did you stay so long?" The unspoken subtext seems to be, "How could someone like you end up in something like this? There must have been something wrong with you." Certainly, people who join cults are not seeking to be controlled, made dependent, exploited, or psychologically harmed when they first commit themselves to membership. Cult members actually come to embrace and even glorify these kinds of mistreatment in part because their leaders, and their followers by proxy, have mastered the art of seduction, using techniques of undue influence (Cialdini, 1984). As Hochman (1990) notes, cults, by employing “miracle, mystery, and authority, promise salvation. Instead of boredom—noble and sweeping goals. Instead of existential anxiety—structure and certainty. Instead of alienation—community. Instead of impotence—solidarity directed by all-knowing leaders" (p. 179). Cults prey upon idealistic seekers, offering answers to social problems and promising to promote bona fide social change. Recruitment addresses the anxieties and loneliness of people experiencing personal problems, transition, or crisis by holding out the promise of transformative healing within the framework of a caring and understanding community (Tobias & Lalich, 1994). Cult recruitment often takes place in sophisticated settings, in the form of seminars featuring persuasive, well-credentialed speakers, such as successful professionals, respected academics, or popular artists, writers, and entertainers. Cults target members from middle-class backgrounds, often directly from college campuses, and the majority of members are of above average intelligence (Hassan, 1990; Kliger, 1994; Tobias & Lalich, 1994).

In recruitment programs, speakers and members present various kinds of misinformation about cult leaders, including concealing their existence altogether. Otherwise, the leader may be represented as a humble, wise and loving teacher, when in reality he or she may be a despot in possession of a substantial fortune, generated from member donations and (often illegal) business activities. The apparent leader may be only a figurehead, while the identity of the actual leader is concealed. False claims of ancient lineages may be made, or the leader is falsely said to be revered and renowned in his or her own country. Cult leaders rewrite and falsify their own biographies. Recruitment programs generally do not, for instance, inform participants about leaders of the group having criminal records, or a group's history of sexual abuse of members, or the group's involvement with illegal activities. Seduction in cult recruitment typically involves strict control and falsification of information.

The Psychopathology of the Cult Leader

Thought reform, or mind control, is another important component of my conceptualization of the seductive power of cults, although it is not a psychoanalytic concept. The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1987) studied the methods used by the Chinese Communists during the Korean War to turn war prisoners into willing accomplices, and called these methods thought reform (see also Hinkle & Wolff, 1976; Schein, 1956; Singer, 1979). Thought reform techniques are readily found in use in any cult, yet it is my belief, based on my own exposure to and study of various cults, that many cult leaders are not necessarily students of thought reform techniques. One might argue that meditation and chanting, for example, are techniques specifically designed to control others, and they can be. But they are also ancient traditional spiritual practices. Cult leaders who require their followers to perform mind-numbing, trance-inducing practices may do so while fully believing that such practices are for the greatest possible good of the follower. In religious philosophies that emphasize detachment and transcendence, for instance, trance states are highly valued as avenues toward these spiritual goals. Such religious “surrender”—to a sense of one’s wholeness, one’s connectedness to life, to a loving and creative spirit both within and without—is not necessarily the same experience as submission to the domination, control, and exploitation of a particular group and/or leader. The urge to surrender, as understood by Ghent (1990), a leading theorist of contemporary relational psychoanalysis, can be a move toward inner freedom, and does not necessarily lead to submission, or enslavement.

Cult leaders, however, practice forms of control, such as intimidation and humiliation, which demand submission. In Ghent’s view, masochistic submission is a perversion of surrender. Cult leaders often use the idea of surrender as bait, and then switch to a demand for submission. Nevertheless, in so doing, they may not actually be practicing mind control in any conscious way. They may simply be behaving in ways typical of pathological narcissists, people whose personalities are characterized by paranoia and megalomania—characteristics, by the way, that are readily attributable to one of the modern masters of thought reform techniques, the totalitarian dictator known as Chairman Mao. Totalitarian dictators study and invent thought reform techniques, but many cult leaders may simply be exhibiting characteristic behaviors of the pathological narcissist, with the attendant paranoia and mania typical of this personality disorder. Thought reform is the systematic application of techniques of domination, enslavement, and control, which can be quite similar to the naturally occurring behaviors of other abusers, like batterers, rapists, incest perpetrators, in all of whom can be seen the behaviors of pathological narcissism.

I base my formulation of the psychology of the cult leader in part on the daily close contact I had with Swami Chidvilasananda (Gurumayi) of Siddha Yoga between 1985 and 1992. I also support my hypotheses with information gained from extensive work with psychotherapy clients who have described their cult leaders’ behavior in detail, as well as on my extensive reading of biographical accounts of other leaders of cults.[1]

I propose, following the profile of the pathological narcissist delineated by Rosenfeld (1971), a leading figure of the contemporary Kleinian school in London, and similar formulations from the American self psychological perspective of Kohut (1976), that the cult leader profoundly depends on the fanatic devotion of the follower. This dependency is deeply shameful to the cult leader, because, based on traumatic aspects of her own developmental history, any dependency has come to mean despicable weakness and humiliation to her. Developmental trauma in those who in later life can be termed pathological narcissists typically consists of being raised, by parents or other caregivers, under extreme domination and control, accompanied by repeated experiences of being shamed and humiliated. The pathological narcissist identifies with this aggression and comes to despise his own normative dependency, to be contemptuous of dependence, which is equated to weakness. Manically defending against deprivation and humiliation, he comes to believe that he needs no one, that he can trust only himself, that those who depend on others are weak and contemptible. Thus the cult leader, largely unconsciously, compensates for his inability to trust and depend on others, and defends against the intense shame he feels connected to need and dependency, by attaining control over his followers, first through seductive promises of unconditional love and acceptance, and then through intimidation, shaming, and belittling. This serves to induce the loathsome dependency in the follower, and the cult leader thus contrives to disavow his own dependency, felt as loathsome and shameful. By psychologically seducing, and then battering the follower into being the shameful dependent one, the cult leader maintains his superior position and can boast delusionally of being totally liberated from all petty, mundane attachments. These processes of subjugating others, and inducing in others what one loathes and seeks to deny in oneself are extreme forms of manic defense against the shame of dependency.

In fact, the cult leader does not escape dependency. Instead, he (and also, in many cases, she) comes to depend on his followers to worship and adore him, to reflect his narcissistic delusion of perfection to him as does the mirror to the Evil Queen in the tale of Snow White. One of the ways in which this perversion of dependency is often enacted can be observed when the cult leader claims that because he needs nothing, he is entitled to everything. Thus, cult leaders claiming to be pure and perfect, without any need or attachment, use manic defenses to rationalize and justify their dependence on extravagant and grandiose trappings such as thrones, fleets of Rolls Royces, and the trust funds of their wealthy followers.

For the cult leader, his ability to induce total dependence in followers serves to sustain and enhance a desperately needed delusion of perfect, omnipotent control. With many cult leaders, (e.g., Shoko Asahara [Lifton, 1999]), the dissolution of their delusion of omnipotence exposes an underlying core of psychosis. Sustaining a delusion of omnipotence and perfection is, for the cult leader, a manic effort to ward off psychic fragmentation. Again it is useful to consider that this kind of pathological narcissism and defensive mania is often seen in persons whose childhood development was controlled by extremely dominating, often sadistic caregivers or whose developmental years were characterized by traumatic experiences of intense humiliation. Cult leaders then create elaborate rationalizations for their abusive systems, while unconsciously patterning those systems from the templates of their own experiences of being abused.

Cult leaders succeed in dominating their followers because they have mastered the cruel art of exploiting universal human dependency and attachment needs in others. The lengthy period of dependency in human development, the power that parents have, as God-like figures, to literally give life and sustain the lives of their children, leaves each human being with the memory, however distant or unconscious, of total dependency. Cult leaders tap into and re-activate this piece of the human psyche. Followers are encouraged to become regressed and infantilized, to believe that their life depends on pleasing the cult leader. Cult leaders depend on their ability to attract people, often at critically vulnerable points in their lives, who are confused, hungry, dissatisfied, searching. With such people, cult leaders typically find numerous ways to undermine their followers’ independence and their capacity to think critically.

In a religious cult, the leader is perceived as a deity who is always divinely right, and the devotee, always on the verge of being sinfully wrong, comes to live for the sole purpose of pleasing and avoiding displeasing the guru/god. The leader's displeasure comes to mean for the member that he is unworthy, monstrously defective, and, therefore, dispensable. The member has been conditioned to believe that loss of the leader's "grace" is equivalent to loss of any value, goodness, or rightness of the self. As the member becomes more deeply involved, his anxiety about remaining a member in good standing increases. This anxiety is akin to the intense fear, helplessness, loss of control and threat of annihilation that Herman, in her discussion of psychological domination, describes as induced in victims of both terrorists and battering husbands:

"The ultimate effect of these techniques is to convince the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile, and that her life depends upon winning his indulgence through absolute compliance. The goal of the perpetrator is to instill in his victim not only fear of death but also gratitude for being allowed to live" [Herman, 1992, p. 77].

Extending this formulation to cult leaders and followers, the cult leader can be understood as needing to disavow her dependency and expel her dread of psychic dissolution, which she succeeds in doing insofar as she is able to induce that dependency and fear in the follower. The bliss that cult members often display masks their terror of losing the leader’s interest in them, which is equivalent for the follower to “a fate worse than death.”

Herman's motivation for writing Trauma and Recovery was to show the commonalities "between rape survivors and combat veterans, between battered women and political prisoners, between the survivors of vast concentration camps created by tyrants who rule nations, and the survivors of small, hidden concentration camps created by tyrants who rule their homes" (Herman, 1992, p. 3). Tyrants who rule religious cults subject members to similar violations.

To recapitulate, from a psychoanalytic perspective, the cult leader unconsciously experiences his dependency needs as so deeply shameful that a delusion of omnipotence is developed to ward off the toxic shame. It is urgent to the pathological narcissist, who knows unconsciously that he is susceptible to extreme mortification (the sense of “death” by shame), that this delusion of omnipotence be sustained. Manic defenses help sustain the delusion, but in addition, followers must be seduced and controlled so that the loathsome dependence can be externalized, located in others and thereby made controllable. The leader can then express his unconscious self-loathing through his “compassion” (often thinly disguised contempt) for his followers’ weakness. Manically proclaiming his own perfection, the leader creates a program of “purification” for the follower. By enlisting the follower to hold the shame that he projects and evacuates from his own psyche, the cult leader rids himself of all shame, becoming, in effect, “shameless.” He defines his shamelessness as enlightenment, liberation, or self-actualization. It becomes important to the cult leader, for the maintenance of his state of shamelessness on which his psychic equilibrium depends, that there be no competition, that he alone, and no one else in the group, feels shameless. So while apparently inviting others to attain his state of perfection (shamelessness) by following him, the cult leader is actually constantly involved in inducing shame in his followers, thereby maintaining his dominance and control. I have called this sadomasochistic danse macabre the “dark side of enlightenment” (see Shaw, 2000).

The Question of Pre-Existing and Induced Pathology: Blaming the Victim

As a psychoanalytically informed psychotherapist, I seek to identify what kinds of ideas about the psychological organization of former cult members might be useful to consider when seeking to help this population recover from traumatic cult experiences. Are there any generalizable common denominators in terms of psychological organization and/or life circumstances that can be useful in understanding how best to help this population? In addressing these questions, it is necessary to confront two major themes: 1) pre-existing pathology and induced pathology, and 2) the question of blaming the victim.

Theorists such as Fromm (1965), Becker (1973) and Berger (1967) have sought to understand the dynamics of dominance and submission, sadism and masochism, that are built into the human character and which are triggered in individuals and societies exposed to certain influences. Fromm, and later Becker, were moved to explore these human traits by the horror of Nazi Germany; Berger's interest was oriented to the history of religion. These ideas about man's vulnerability to certain "pathological" behaviors can be used to suggest that those who become cult victims are predisposed to submissive, sadomasochistic behavior.

More recent theorists have been concerned with the phenomenon of blaming the victims of rape and battering for asking for, or failing to put a stop to, the abuse they have suffered (Herman, 1992; Kliger, 1994). McNew & Abell (1995) and Silver & Iacano (1986) use the term "sanctuary trauma" to describe how one who has already experienced severe trauma, such as rape, often experiences a secondary trauma in what was expected to be a supportive and protective environment, such as in a police station, a courtroom, or a therapist's office. Herman (1992) notes that "those who attempt to describe the atrocities that they have witnessed also risk their own credibility. To speak publicly about one's knowledge of atrocities is to invite the stigma that attaches to victims" (p. 2).

The literature on working with former cult members stresses, for the most part, that the pathology induced by the cult itself must be acknowledged, and the former member must be helped with the array of problems resulting from this induced pathology, before any pre-existing, underlying pathology is assumed or explored (Addis, Schulman-Miller, & Lightman, 1984; Clifford, 1994; Giambalvo, 1993; Goldberg, 1993; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982; Halperin, 1983; Hassan, 1990; Kliger, 1994; Langone, 1993; Langone & Chambers, 1991; Martin, 1993; Martin, Langone, Dole, & Wiltrout, 1992; Tobias, 1993). To do otherwise, for these authors, invalidates the reality of the client, constituting a stigmatizing message from the therapist that the victims' traumatic experience has more to do with their psychopathology than with the violations perpetrated by the group.

I strongly agree that cult victims can be inappropriately stigmatized or pathologized. However, I suggest that clinicians risk creating a false dichotomy when we polarize the issues of pre-existing pathology and induced pathology in cult victims. On the one hand, anyone who has ever struggled with dependency, with separation and individuation, and with conflicts over active and passive wishes and fears—in other words, any human being—can be vulnerable to seduction into a cult. These struggles are universal developmental issues, not evidence of psychiatric illness, and all human beings are potentially vulnerable to regression to dependency, to the sense of smallness in the face of a great power, as in childhood (Deikman, 1991). On the other hand, the concept of "blaming the victim" is misused, and unfair to the client, if it encourages clinicians to overlook pre-existing factors which may have contributed to the client's cult victimization. As a former SYDA member once said to me, “they were selling, and we were buying.” A person with a history of developmental trauma would have quite different reasons for “buying” into a cult than would someone who, for example, joined because he was born to parents who raised him in the cult. In recovery, the latter person will be concerned with quite different issues, such as resentment of his parents, grief about loss of education and social opportunities, for example, than the person whose history of developmental trauma is what led him to embrace cult membership in the first place.

Herman (1992) notes that "trauma forces the survivor to relive all her earlier struggles over autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy" (p. 52). Individuals leaving cults will be faced with the need to rework these developmental tasks, and many other tasks related to coming out of isolation. If these struggles were particularly difficult or traumatic for the individual prior to cult participation, there is a good chance that they will become significantly problematic during the recovery process and will need to be carefully worked through.

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