When I first met Dr Betty Tylden, many years ago, I was pleased to find that she had arrived at a similar model of totalist cult involvement to my own. For me, joining a cult is like the infatuation of love: everything the cult does is wonderful and seen through rose-tinted glasses.
There is a honeymoon period after joining that settles into something like a marriage. Cult survivors often go through a period of contempt that is similar to the emotional experience of divorce. They feel betrayed and let down, and they want everyone to know!
Marriage guidance counsellors observe that perception can change over time. At first, the new partner is seen as ‘spontaneous’. Later on the same behaviour will be seen as ‘impetuous’. In the same way, other initially attractive traits become irritating. On leaving a totalist cult there can be a confusing period of reintegration as the survivor gradually realises that the promises of membership were never met. Only unpleasant aspects of the group are remembered. Later, the survivor may well miss the camaraderie of the group and have to deal with conflicting notions. This is healthy.
As my colleague Dr Yuval Laor points out, the member’s relationship to the cult itself is more like a parent-child relationship, with the member as the parent and the cult and its beliefs as the child. Any criticism of a child will affront the parent. Any criticism of a cult will affront the believer. Neither is open to evidence. Anyone who blunders into discussion without understanding this will likely make the relationship with the totalist cult member worse.
While the totalist relationship begins as an infatuation, it usually develops into worship for the leader, who is seen as a perfect parent – Sun Myung Moon took on the role as ‘True Father’. Cult members are often like uncritical eleven-year-olds who simply parrot the views of the parent.
The final relationship is that of the defector. This will often have the bitterness of a divorce, but there is another dynamic at play. One of the important developments in the field of psychotherapy is the Dynamic Maturational Model (DMM) which works with the failure of individuals to mature. DMM can help parents to become parents. Leaving a totalist cult means putting aside the eleven-year-old persona inculcated by the cult. As that clock starts to run again for hard-core members once they leave, there will likely be some adolescent behaviour: a little necessary and positive growing up. The fury that explodes on ex-member groups tells this particular story.
We live in a society that promotes youthful appearances and youthful behaviour. Advertisers want us to belong to their particular cult – whether commercial or political – the last thing they want is for us to grow up. But I think it’s time.