Anyone who watches carefully when talking with committed cult members will notice the occasional identity shift. One minute, the eyes glitter with a fanatical shine and the next the glitter is gone and the eyes seem normal again. A member’s skin can turn from grey to pink in a moment. Gestures become less forced. The eyes smile, along with the lips, in a natural or duchenne smile. These physiological changes are unmistakably evident.

It is possible to bring about these changes simply by reminding the person of life before the cult: family photographs, memories of school days, their first kiss. Anything which sends the mind back before the cult identity was formed.

What do I mean be the ‘cult identity? We form a personality from the many strands of identity. We have many identities, none of them distinct or separate personalities (multiple personality disorder is a very different matter).

We behave differently in different circumstances. We speak and act differently if talking to our parents, our siblings, our children, the boss or employees, to friends, to strangers or to a pet. We use different words and gestures. We may speak more or less politely. We may use uncouth language with friends or co-workers that we would not use with our grandmothers.

Identity is also affected by mood. If annoyed or satisfied, angry or sad, our communication will also change, but we still have a different way of expressing that mood to different people. These identities are the x and y axes of personality. They shift in the kaleidoscope of everyday life to form the continuum of the self.

A cult group imposes a single identity onto the personality, and that parasitic identity commandeers the self. Rules are established for behaviour and mood. This pseudo-identity will follow a strict set of behaviours towards superiors and inferiors within the cult, and, quite usually, restrict all behaviour towards non-members into a narrow range. Non-members are seen as inferior, while members form different strata in the hierarchy of the cult.

This synthetic, induced pseudo-identity will keep all other identities in check. It is pinned in place by thought-stopping clichés, such as ‘make it go right’ or ‘for the good of the cause’. This points towards one of the most scary aspects of fanaticism, which is called ‘doubling.’

Long ago, when I often spoke to committed members, I sometimes found myself talking to two quite distinct people. One would be hard, ‘on purpose’, and determined to wreck my life in any way possible, but then a baffled twelve-year old would emerge, and tell me that he could not survive in the hostile world outside the cult. It is hard to convince an indoctrinated believer that life in the real world is much easier than life in a cult. But institutionalization of self is one of the many problems that a former cult member will have to cope with.

Editor's Note: The following is the first part of a three-part series, adapted from a blog originally published at Tony Ortega’s Underground Bunker. Here is part two.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about an experience in a cult or coercive group  or relationship that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


Series NavigationDoubling, or the Self Divided, Part 2