This paper is a proposal to apply an addictions model for change as described in the book Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward to cult intervention and recovery. There is little formal consensus among my peers in the cult intervention field as to how to assess whether or when to proceed with an intervention. Consultants have developed their own models for a variety of reasons that include individual training, experience, skill sets, and goals. It is not the purpose of this paper to discuss the value or relevance of any one cult intervention model. My proposal is, rather, to utilize one of the most effective approaches in the addictions field to create a parallel model for stages of exiting from a harmful cult.1 We will keep in mind that the exit and recovery process from addictions and harmful cults is most often self-generated, but it is sometimes stimulated by agents of intervention and supported by professional helpers. This paper will indicate how that parallel model might work during a cult intervention as well as in self-generated recovery from a harmful cult.
If you have ever tried to change the mind and behavior of a person in a harmful relationship or with a bad habit, you know that interventions of that sort are never pleasant and always awkward. People generally and often vehemently resist giving up their drug, gambling, sex, or eating habits and the lifestyles that go with them. Interventions often fail, so why even bother? The answer has something to do with an outcome that will benefit the person who chooses to change. A beneficial outcome from intervention requires change agents or coaches who are willing and able to supply information and evidence necessary for reasonable choice while encouraging communication and discursive thought.
A cult-intervention change agent, also known as a thought-reform consultant, an exit counselor, or, more notoriously, a deprogrammed, meets the same force of resistance to change that addiction counselors might with drug-dependent clients. In one form or another, I have worked in the field of cult intervention since 1980 after I broke away from a large New Age sect. For the past twelve years, I have also worked in a psychiatric emergency hospital as a crisis caseworker and one year at a half-way recovery house for addicts as a primary therapist. I have noted that most people who quit bad habits and relationships do so without formal intervention, and the same holds true for people who break away from harmful cults. But breaking away is no simple event. It is, rather, a process or struggle that occurs in stages.
For decades, James Prochaska and others studied the change process that people with addictions and bad habits go through to arrive at the last or “termination” stage. They also studied why struggling addicts fail: “There is no variable that relates as directly to treatment success as the stage of change” (Prochaska, 2002, p. 97). This 1994 landmark book, Changing for Good, has become an industry standard in the recovery-from-addictions field. Nine change processes (Prochaska, 2002, p. 33) augment the six stages. These processes in brief outline are as follows:
Briefly stated, the six stages, with related processes in bold, and my commentary regarding harmful cult affiliation, are
Before I get further into my proposal, let me dismiss one objection to cult intervention I heard more than fifteen years ago from a noted sociologist. He argued that people in cults have a right to not be better off. Well, of course, people have a right to belong to any group; and people have a right to be addicted to cigarettes and alcohol, and to be obese; and every scholar has a right to be an enabler. Charles Manson has a right to a cult following. This paper is not about questioning the right of anyone to be a cult member. It is about the duty we have to the persons who may or would choose to be better off if they had a clearer grasp of the situation they were in and the means to change their minds and life. This same principle of duty to another applies to interventions with people with addictions and bad habits or in harmful relationships. “Enabling continues when the helper fears that any challenge to the precontemplator’s problem behavior will risk a break in the relationship. If the problem is ever to be resolved, however, it will be because the helper dares to intervene” (Prochaska, 2002, p. 97).
Do we dare to intervene? That is the question. Mini interventions took place on my behalf when I was involved with Church Universal and Triumphant. My first wife both argued with and enabled me, even suggested I see a priest, but finally divorced me in 1979 within a year of my involvement, when it seemed to her that I was stuck in a precontemplation stage. One of my friends handed me a critical book printed in 1940, and I read it despite its bad vibes; but it would take another year for the contents to sink in, during the determination stage. Despite my dedicated exterior, I struggled in the contemplation stage for most of my less than two years of cult devotion. That is not unusual, and it is why most members of harmful cults defect within a year or so. They cannot sustain or skip the precontemplation stage of total devotion and loyalty. In other words, most new recruits to cults are aware of controversy and strangeness, remain suspicious of some beliefs and rituals, and sustain a belief that that they will know when to leave. One definition of a cult member is someone who continues to delay the day he or she will defect.
Like former addicts, ex-cult members tend to change for good, for the most part on their own. If they succeed, they will pass through something like the six stages mentioned above. But many seek help because the struggle can be overwhelming. For the helper, understanding and assessing level of need is crucial. In the addictions treatment field, there are several evaluation instruments that assist a clinician to assess the level of need for a client. A clinician typically encounters a client in the action stage after the addict has either self-prepared (determined) to change or has been convinced to do so after intervention by family or the courts.
In my work as a cult information consultant, I assist clients with recovery, education, and support resources. Clients at many stages of recovery approach me and my peers. Some are in the contemplation stage and may or may not follow up. Others are determined to take action based on information they have absorbed and decisions they have made to leave the group; but they continue to struggle with countering triggers, resolving doubts, finding valid information, and establishing social identity. And others have undiagnosed, co-occurring mood disorders or mental dysfunctions. The cult-recovery field is tiny compared to the massive recovery-from-addictions arena—this is less to do with need than with public awareness, in my opinion. In any case, an instrument such as the addiction field’s PCPC3 that determines level of care would be a valuable asset for therapists and consultants who work with former cult members.
Cult interventions most often occur with folks in the precontemplation stage and succeed when the contemplation stage surfaces and morphs quickly into that of preparation, or rationally examining evidence that supports reasons to leave the group. The successful intervention produces the beginning of the action stage, with the individual’s realization that it is time to move on. Post-intervention recovery stages reside in action and maintenance. The termination stage appears after a few years in most ex-cult members, who both no longer seek services for recovery and no longer exhibit harmful cult behaviors, such as naïve submission to deceit and manipulation. However, as with many former addicts, ex-members, including adults who were raised in cults, may require a lifetime of maintenance to deal with the residual effects of harm.
I believe a thorough reading of Changing for Good can assist both those recovering from harmful cult affiliations and helpers who offer therapy or intervention. In my work as an intervention consultant, the distinctions between the precontemplation and contemplation stages have been especially helpful when I am assessing the probability of intervention success. The distinctions can be complex. For example, even very devoted cult members rarely grasp all the teachings or manage to submit to all the demands in a manipulative organization. Ambivalence about the value of the demands or accuracy of cult claims creates periodic urges to defect. A successful cult member is one who suppresses the urges with rationalizations or circular thinking. That is what I call cult-induced mind control. Using mind control, cult members easily disguise ambivalence when they are confronting critics or trying to recruit new members. During a successful intervention, doubts and questions surface readily in the precontemplative client, as new information and evidence stimulates discursive thought. If an intervention agent cannot tap the ambivalence to draw out contemplation, the intervention will most likely fail.
In conclusion, I wish to point out that an intervention consultant takes nothing away from a cult member. Concerned persons often ask, “What will you replace the cult with?” This is tantamount to asking, “What drug will I recommend instead of heroin?” Methadone maintenance, which is at least legal, does nothing to end substance dependence and the harm it can do. The consultant offers the possibility and the means for a “change for good” and a better life. The consultant offers steps toward termination of harm resulting from cult participation. Certainly there will be costs: Investments, cult relationships, and time spent might be lost forever. Harmful cults, like harmful substances, can harm people. The interventionist cannot take away the harm done. With support in the action and maintenance stages, however, a former member can heal and recover or produce a meaningful life and flourish.
1. “Cult” throughout this paper refers to a harmful and/or controversial organization that resists or ignores moderating influences. For a definitive description of Cult: Totalist Type, see http://www.icsahome.com/infoserv_articles/langone_michael_term_cult.htm
2. I recorded the outline of nine processes from Prochaska (2002, p. 33) with minor additions in italics.
3. The Pennsylvania Client Placement Criteria assesses for four levels of care: 1:A. Outpatient and 1:B. Intensive Outpatient; 2. A. Partial Hospitalization and 2:B. Halfway House; 3:A. Medically Monitored Detox, 3:B. Medically Monitored Short-Term Residential, and 3:C. Medically Monitored Long-Term Residential; 4:A. Medically Managed Inpatient Detox and 4:B. Medically Managed Inpatient Residential.
Pennsylvania Client Placement Criteria (for adults). Accessed online at http://www.dpw.state.pa.us/Resources/Documents/Pdf/BhPsr/PSRCoAppdxTC.pdf
Prochaska, James O.; Norcross, John C.; DiClemente, Carlo C. (2002). Changing for good: A revolutionary six-stage program for overcoming bad habits and moving your life positively forward. New York: Quill.
Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his two-year devotion to a New Age sect called Church Universal and Triumphant. He began to work professionally as an intervention specialist and exit counselor in 1986. Since 1998 he has worked in the crisis department of a psychiatric emergency hospital in Pennsylvania. He continues to assist families with interventions and former members in recovery, including consultations via phone and internet. email@example.com