Separating the ‘cult identity’ is relatively easy, if you know how. But, in the last couple of years, I’ve come to know several second-generation members, and they have no pre-cult identity. Often, they have been brought up in an environment of ‘no sympathy’, which can induce something like Asperger’s syndrome, where they simply do not know how to react emotionally.
Empathy is not a feature of cults. It is a learned skill, or at least a behaviour that needs to be nurtured to develop properly. Many second-generation members lack this advantage. They simply don’t know how to care. Thankfully, they can learn.
How should a second generation member go about recovering? First of all, it is necessary to separate from the cult – not just physically but psychologically. All too many people believe that they can simply walk away. Denial is always the first hurdle to overcome with any problem.
Cults ‘resocialise’ their members who learn to behave differently. It is necessary to unlearn those behaviours.
It is hard to admit that we were wrong. That we were taken in. That the cult we believed in from the very beginning was designed to make the leadership rich and powerful, and that it has actually been of little or no benefit to humanity. I was gullible. I was scammed. I gave my positive energy to an ultimately negative movement that has damaged hundreds of thousands of people. I was also very fortunate that I was never a live-in member, and suffered neither trauma nor humiliation. Most cult members are not so fortunate.
Once the denial is over, and we are willing to look at the chaos induced in our thinking and our behaviour, we have some chance of unpicking the conditioning. I have argued ceaselessly that this is done by examining the principles we were sold in depth.
Start a study group with other survivors to analyse the significant tenets of the cult. Let everyone in the group put forward their successes and failures trying to apply these ideas, and understand just how flimsy they are. Look at the contradictions in the doctrine and see how those contradictions paralyse freedom of thought and action. Study the various ideas about thought reform – starting with Lifton.
There is no need to abandon a principle if it seems to be worthwhile. We should also cherish anything positive that came to us through our involvement. Black and white thinking is cultic – rational thinking allows for shades of grey, including a proper assessment of benefits and harms caused by membership.
When a first generation member lets go, they often seem to regress to age twelve, because that is the age that any cult (including Consumerism) likes to keep its members. A twelve-year-old still believes that the parent is a hero and is still compliant to direction. Many former members shift into adolescent dissent when they leave a cult. So the message boards are full of furious, inconsiderate former members, determined to rebel against anyone who disagrees with their new fixed opinions.
Etienne de la Boétie said, ‘all would agree that, if we led our lives according to the ways intended by nature … we should be intuitively obedient to our parents; later we should adopt reason as our guide and become slaves to nobody.’ All too often, we become slaves to leaders, and do not adopt reason as our guide, but this is the necessity, if we are to mature into full adulthood.
First-generation members leave, and the men grow beards and smoke pot. They listen to the music of their adolescence and eat biscuits in bed. They have a brief honeymoon period where they regain adolescence, and then most of them grow up.
Second-generation members may have to discover adolescence, rather than return to it. They may not have had a care-giver of any sort during childhood, and they may have suffered severe abuse in groups like the Twelve Tribes or the Children of God. They may have difficulty forming relationships, because they have not been taught how. This leads to the province of attachment theory.
As cult members have often been phobically shielded from any development in the human sciences, it makes it especially difficult for them to consider well-established notions in psychology, and attachment is a very important one.
There are attachment therapists out there, but first of all it is a good idea to find out a little about how we attach. John Bowlby was the pioneer in this field, and his essays are still useful. The important message, however, is that attachment can be learned; that second-generation members can learn to love and learn to enjoy society. And those of us who have experienced cult membership are well-placed to help them.
Let me recommend just one book to all ex-members: Take Back Your Life is the best guidebook for recovery from cults that I have read. It was written by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, and everyone who has been involved in a cult should read it. In fact, everyone should read it, because we live in a society of overlapping cults, where we are surrounded by people who want to undermine our critical thinking by appealing to our emotions and selling us their products or their beliefs.
The good news is that it is possible to integrate cult experiences, after which we have something very valuable to contribute to society. At Open Minds, we love to hear from our readers about their successful recovery, so please send us your story.
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!