My name is Frances Peters, and I am a coach and counsellor based in the Netherlands. I call myself a second-generation cult survivor. It is twelve years since I left a cult.
It isn’t easy to explain the differences between first and second-generation survivors – that is, those who were born in a cult who left as adults – to someone who knows nothing about living in a cult, let alone the challenges of escaping from one.
As an ex-member, you have to communicate with people outside the cult – family members, new friends, work colleagues, even mental health professionals – who are not familiar with the aftermath of life in a cult. You’ll find that the majority of them have difficulty understanding how that aftermath – the healing process – works. How to explain to others what you can’t explain to yourself? Even first generation ex-members can find it difficult to understand the difference between their experience and that of a ‘born-in’ ex-member or ‘second-generation adult’.
Maybe someone told you, with the best intentions: ‘Come on. You have left now. Just move on with your life. Don’t let others decide for you anymore. Take your own responsibility and choose for yourself. Don’t be so lazy! It’s time to make choices!’
Make choices. Oh, my! Choices? You’ve already made the most significant choice of your life, by leaving the cult; or you were forced into the most significant change, when the cult abandoned you. The biggest change ever: we left, or were thrown out of, the cult. And with that departure came a tearing away from the relationships and the everyday practices that had formed your life and in which you were embedded. An ex-member is like a fish out of water: the whole physical and emotional environment has changed dramatically.
At every level of your life there is now a huge void. What to do? Often we are left feeling angry, confused, empty, brimming over with grief, lost, as helpless as an infant, all packaged together with feelings like relief, excitement and hope. And now we are told we have to make our own choices – including taking full responsibility – for exactly those things we were never allowed to choose for ourselves in the cult. It was not up to us to make the important decisions. Our limits were set by the authority within the cult, and we had to adapt to survive emotionally.
In the cult, we were limited to superficial choices: like choosing between a red and a blue skirt, though never choosing trousers instead of a skirt. Making choices even for important, personal life decisions was considered disobedient, arrogant and a rebellion against God and His spokesman. Even those trapped in the cult do not understand its dynamics, so they cannot explain it to others.
After I left the cult, I had to face my inability to cope with life’s challenges, my sense of inadequacy. As a cult member I felt secure and I knew what to do, but as soon as I had to fall back on myself, I felt weak. I found it hard to make decisions: I often looked to others – What do you want me to do? What would you do? – before I even dared to ask myself what I wanted or felt. I never had to make important decisions for myself from the moment I was born to my departure from the cult over forty years later.
I was totally out of touch with my intuition, my feelings and my needs. I couldn’t cope with normal, everyday situations, such as standing up for myself, or offering my own opinion. In social interactions, I felt like a scared child and I was ashamed of my childish responses.
Making important choices about my own life felt like being forced to run a marathon after sitting on the couch for years. And I was a middle-aged woman.
How did it get to this point in my life? What had happened to me?
I would like to share with you a metaphor that helped me understand my own struggle to cope with life’s challenges.
See this beautiful picture of a wild elephant:
Look at him: strong, confident, aware of who he is. Free in the wild, at ease in his home environment, conscious of his place in nature. He knows how to look after himself, understands his place in the herd, has hardly any enemies, has learned how to protect himself. You cannot fool an elephant, can you? Elephants are very smart. You cannot make this strong elephant forget who he is, can you? After all, elephants are the strongest of all land animals. Now, look at this elephant:
What is happening here? What do you see? An elephant with a mahout on her neck, telling her what to do, or else! If she disobeys, she will be jabbed with a sharpened elephant hook in her head, her mouth or her inner ear. She has chains around her strong legs and feet. She looks as if she is hardworking and willing, but the chains tell another story. It seems she has forgotten who she really is: a strong elephant, capable of pulling herself free from those chains and away from the control of the mahout. How did she sink to this level?
How can someone catch an elephant in the first place? They are so much stronger than humans, so what makes elephants prepared to submit to men? How elephants are caught is another story, a heartbreaking one, if you ask me, and I will not elaborate much here. I will, however, emphasize a few striking facts, which are comparable to the process of cultic indoctrination:
1. Unequal levels: It all starts with the hunters abusing the unequal information-level. Hunters have their own agenda and take advantage of the fact that the elephants are not aware of their plans. The elephants are insecure in these unusual circumstances. It is very confusing to them. Confusion is a tool: it is a way of overcoming both greater strength and greater intelligence. The hunters abuse normal needs and weaknesses. The hunted elephants don’t understand what the hunters want, so they fall back on their instincts.
2. Buddy system: Once captured, wild elephants are roped up to elephants that have already submitted (this sounds familiar to any cult survivor – Lifton’s ‘milieu control’). The physical strength of the elephants is now used by their capturers to confuse and control the new-comers. The wild elephant sees the tame one and thinks: She is here. She is fine. I probably don’t need to panic.
3. Invisible ties: In the wild, little calves walk alongside the mothers. They don’t need a physical rope to be controlled. They will follow the mother or a trusted auntie without question.
The next step: How do the captors break down an elephant? The strongest weapon they use is fear: fear of pain, hunger and thirst. It is a power struggle. The ones who break her down, first create fear through pain, and then offer the solution to take away that pain. The result is confusion: are they torturers or rescuers?
Look at this photo: Painful to look at, isn’t it? After being caught and roped, they are separated from each other to break them down. Each leg will be strapped to a tree. In short, they are taught that the only way to avoid pain – in all shapes and forms – is to submit immediately to their oppressors. They will learn, through rewards and punishments, that the mahout is to be feared and loved, if they are to survive.
The older the elephant is, the harder it is to break her down – logic dictates the younger the better.
After breaking her down, they will bring her to an Elephant Training School, where she will learn to obey orders. This will take months, using a mixture of rewards and punishments.
The combination of fear and pleasure is confusing: enjoying a good bath, as long as she obeys; a wonderful meal, as long as she obeys; but a painful jab if she hesitates.
Accepting the situation, without rebelling, is a way to survive and a way to have pleasurable moments, in relief from the exhausting work and the absolute lack of freedom.
After the elephants come to terms with the situation, they will have both good and bad moments. They have to work hard and are always chained, but they will be cared for. They will be fed and nurtured – so that they will submit and work relentlessly. But as soon as they rebel against the mahout, they will be punished. The fear, alongside their growing dependency, will keep them in check.
The conviction that they cannot escape is very powerful. The fear of what will happen if they rebel in the camp is a powerful tool, once it’s installed in the mind. It paralyzes normal thinking. Psychologists call this ‘learned helplessness’.
It’s all in the state of mind.
Imagine these captive elephants trapped in these confined circumstances for years, even decades.
So what happens if these elephants are freed, or break away from the control of the mahout? What will happen to these traumatized elephants? How will they be able to re-adjust to the wild and feel free again? The Elephant Nature Camp is a place where they look after these elephants – here are two of their survivors.
Now, the adult elephant, born and raised in the wild, has a memory of its own former ‘world’ and identity and will eventually remember what it felt like to be a wild elephant, and it will be able to take care of itself. It is scarred, but independent.
In contrast, the elephant that was born and raised in the log camp, has no pre-camp memories and no idea what a wild, independent elephant should be doing to take care of itself, or even what it feels like to be a wild, independent elephant. The camp was its home; its earliest memories are connected to that place. The little ones grew up chained, both visibly and psychologically attached to their mahout. How can they survive outside the camp? The elephant is used to obeying orders – and the fear of the viciously sharp elephant-hook if it does not.
Although from the outside, she looks like a big, strong, elephant and is physically much more powerful than any human, she doesn’t realise how strong she is. She believes she has to wait for new orders. Someone who has no knowledge of her background would easily mistake her for a ‘regular’ adult elephant, but, in the beginning, she won’t know what to do, how to react or to socialize. She may not have realised her real elephant-self yet. She may be convinced she’s completely dependent on humans to fulfill her needs; as long as these convictions enslave her, she will neither be free, nor capable of finding her own selfhood.
Although there are exceptions to the rule, there is a huge difference between growing up in a cult, and entering and leaving a cult as an adult, who has came to the cult with a developed individual identity. Remembering who you are is very different to having to figure out who you are. Different, not necessarily better or worse: just very different!
After leaving, you need time and effort to find your own authentic self and your personal identity. It is a real journey from the state of ‘learned helplessness’ to making independent decisions, fully aware of who you are.
For second-generation survivors of cults connecting to their authentic self can be a real challenge. It is overwhelming to become fully aware of the strength of their own intuition, feelings, needs and choices. This is a first connection, not a re-connection, because personal identity has been subsumed in the cult from the birth. It is almost impossible for a second-generation member to imagine an identity outside the confines of the cult. There will also be the guilt, phobia and aversion implanted by the cult – all of which must be overcome.
As I’ve said before: after I left the cult, I was confronted with my own inadequacy and the inability to cope with life’s challenges. I looked like an adult, so people expected me to behave like one. Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to be responsible for myself and be strong, but I had to learn the basics from someone who was patient enough to show me. To challenge myself, I needed feedback, insight, and new ideas to fill in the gaps left as I shed cult indoctrination.
Like a former slave-elephant, that has to learn from scratch how to deal with the reality of the wild-elephant world, I had to learn how to make my own choices and how to be an adult human being and join the greater society.
To be able to do that I had to move past my shame and fear, and admit I was a middle-aged woman who, at certain moments, acted like a child. Accepting myself and my emotional handicaps was a vital part of my healing process. I read everything I could lay my hands on about cults, about identity, self-worth, starting over again, and the experiences of other former members. I watched the few people I trusted closely, and asked tons of questions.
Then, it was time to confront myself with new knowledge, new situations, new people: time to strengthen my confidence. I had to learn on a practical level that I can rely on myself, that I am strong enough to live my own life and make my own choices. Making mistakes was part of my plan. My sense of humour also helped me to cope.
Hopefully this metaphor will help second-generation members to better understand their experiences. If you are a family member or mental health professional, it may help you to understand a little bit better what someone who is born and raised in a cult has to go through.
Second-generation members may act strangely and even seem anti-social. It can be very hard to move from a fixed to a free society. Many outsiders will find the learned helplessness and extreme insecurity irritating. Understanding the after-effects of cult life on members’ attitudes and personal development, is crucial for successfully supporting a second-generation survivor. It helps us to gain more confidence in ourselves and our ability to make up our own mind and our own choices.
We are only free to choose if we feel free to choose.
It helps to understand how you came to this point in your life. Support yourself as you would support anyone else in the same situation. You deserve to be loved, understood and supported. The better you understand your own situation, the better you will be able to translate your feeling for others to understand, too.
Try to ask, or learn how to ask, and let someone you trust explain things to you, even what seems obvious to them. Ask those around to be patient, and thank them when they are. Let someone friendly show you how things are done. We can be strong individuals, in a healthy connection with ourselves and others, once we learn who we are: separate, independent personalities, who can choose for ourselves.
Although this group stays together, all of the individuals that compose it remain free.
By nature, we humans love to be a part of a group. We all need support and understanding at certain times. There is nothing wrong with that. Being part of a group can of itself be a good thing. But, in the meanwhile remember who you are: an individual human being, who can and will look after yourself, making your own choices. We should all find the time and space to do just that.
Let us be proud of ourselves. We have come this far, and there is so much more to discover.
Enjoy, or learn to enjoy, your freedom, and help others to do the same!
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about being a second-generation survivor that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
A few references:
Take Back Your Life, Jana Lalich and Madeline Tobias
Emotional Blackmail: when the people in your life use fear, obligation and guilt to manipulate you, Susan Forward, PhD
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen
Learned Optimism: how to change your mind and your life, Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD