ICSA Today, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2016, 4-7
Dr. Paul Martin was the founder and Director of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center for 25 years, a psychologist, and a former member of a Bible-based cult. He was multitalented and multifaceted. He was a giant when he needed to be but could make himself small, empathic, kind, caring. He went out of his way to help those who were his friends and former members in need.
In this Paul Martin Lecture, I highlight two particular attributes Dr. Martin contributed to the cult-recovery field: being a good leader and being a wonderful counselor. I also reflect on the impact knowing him has had on my life and clinical counseling practice. I start with a brief history of my contact with Dr. Martin and Wellspring.
I left an abusive, Bible-based cult, The Love of God Community, Birmingham, England, in 1981 with Tony, whom I married 3 months later. We did not understand what a cult was and continued to “cult hop” for another 14 years.
When I finally left abusive church situations, in 1995, I started training as a pastoral counselor. I entered into personal counseling at that time and began to learn how to work with any sort of client. My final dissertation was entitled What Does a Pastoral Counsellor Need to Know About Cults and Ex-Cult Members in Order to Be an Effective Helper? At the end of the course, someone gave me a gift of money to contribute to my attendance at my first AFF (ICSA) conference. My adventure into the cultic-studies field began. I flew to Chicago. The conference was entitled “Jonestown 20 Years On: What Have We Learned?”
I heard Dr. Martin speak. He was angry. I couldn’t believe that someone was expressing strongly and passionately what I felt. His lack of fear was stunning for me because I was at that time afraid of saying what I thought—I had been constantly crushed within the cultic situations. He was also saying that he was angry that Christians seemed to think that the antidote to the cult experience was for people to convert to Christianity. As a Christian himself, he might have agreed with that view; but he was expressing something quite different. Having been on the other end of churches telling Tony and me that our healing would come through evangelizing for them (hard to imagine, isn’t it?), I was so relieved to hear Dr. Martin.
After the conference, I contacted Wellspring and asked whether they took interns. Following my counseling training, I knew that I needed to learn to work with former members. I knew doing so required more than my being a former member; in fact, I was aware of the dangers of conflating my experience with that of other former members; I knew that I needed to objectify my experience to fully meet others in their own story. Wellspring agreed to my internship, and I believe I was one of its first interns.
I went to Wellspring with my daughter, who was then 10, in August the following year, 1999. We had a wonderful adventure, staying for one whole month and living in the local town in a beautiful old B&B. I spent the days at the Norwegian-style lodge built by Dr. Martin and his wife, Barbara. The lodge was beautiful, as were the surroundings. The daughter of a member of the staff looked after my daughter.
Wellspring was located in the foothills of the Appalachians. The weather was hot and sunny; there were flowers on the deck and huge butterflies, and the Martins’ friendly dogs ran around adding to the warmth and homeliness of the experience. The clients generously allowed me to sit in on their 2-hour morning counseling sessions with Dr. Martin or Dr. Ron Burks. In the afternoons, I joined in on the psychoeducational workshops, run by Larry Pile. I learned from the Residential Coordinators, who stayed overnight, cooked meals, and supported the clients in many ways, including talking with them in the night if necessary. I also spoke to the office staff, who generously shared as much information as was ethically possible. On that trip, I learned the base of all I know about working with former members, and the outcome was that I adopted both the Wellspring thought-reform model and Dr. Martin as my mentor—with which, thankfully, he willingly complied!
In 2005, I completed a 4-year master’s degree in gestalt psychotherapy. My dissertation research was with eight former cult members, whom I asked, “What helps former cult members recover from an abusive cult experience?” I returned to Wellspring for 2 weeks in 2008, where I worked pro bono alongside Dr. Martin, who supervised me. Again I learned a great deal.
I realize in retrospect that Dr. Martin was already ill. I heard in the fall of 2008 that he was in the hospital with pneumonia, and later he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died, after a heroic battle, in August 2009. I was devastated. I had learned so much and been so encouraged by him that I was determined to continue the work. We even named the UK charity we set up EnCourage Survivors of Cults and Abuse because of the encouragement he always gave. To encourage means to hearten, cheer, uplift, inspire, motivate, embolden. The word speaks to giving courage to—all very necessary in the challenging work I (we) do with former members.
As a result of Dr. Martin’s death and the lack of funding for a residential center in the United Kingdom, I started to deliver a form of counseling that I named Post-Cult CounsellingHVC. I added to the regular counseling model a retreat component, which I called Time Away in the Peak District (Peak District is the national park where I live). Instead of clients staying in a lodge, they stay locally in a B&B, hotel, or holiday cottage. The clients visit me for varying lengths of time—2 weeks, a weekend a few times a year—whatever suits their budget and my time. This counseling model has proved a popular approach to counseling former members, and the feedback has been positive. Wellspring sold the lodge following Dr. Martin’s death, and it now offers a similar model of counseling in Athens, Ohio.
In 2012, I embarked on a doctoral research program at the University of Nottingham and have continued my investigation into what postcult life is like, and what helps former members. This qualitative study uses an inductive, constructivist, grounded-theory methodology (Charmaz, 2014) to investigate former cult members’ understanding of what helped them recover and of their life postcult, as recorded during unstructured interviews. I recruited a specialist convenience sample of 30 participants (18 women and 12 men) through advertisement or their status as attendees at a specialist conference, and by snowballing.
We hear a great deal in the cultic-studies field about leaders who abuse, and former members report that the leader is often a key component in the abuse that occurs in a cult. I would like to raise the vital issue of how we recognize a good leader, and suggest we need to learn whom to trust in order that we can heal and grow. Dr. Martin was a good leader for me—not perfect, but an exceptional example of a good leader.
Dr. Martin was focused, determined, and a fierce fighter for others. He spoke up for the voiceless and those damaged by cults. Certain groups constantly harassed him (one group hired a helicopter to find Wellspring, and then harassed him with lawyers’ letters and in person—Wellspring had to install gates to protect the staff and clients). He served as an expert witness in some high-profile legal cases, including terrorist cases. He could definitely show his teeth, but he was also gentle and understanding. It is helpful for former members to realize there are such things as genuine, caring people who are good leaders, as Dr. Martin was.
When they leave their cults, former members have to humanize their cult leaders, seeing them for what they are, and doing this can result in grief and rage: grief at the loss of their love of the leaders, and rage at the abuse and the discovery that the leaders were not the gods they were purported to be. Feelings of loss of hope and ideals can result, quickly followed by feelings of shame and humiliation at having believed such lies.
In his book Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus (1996), psychiatrist Anthony Storr reflects on leadership. He notes that it is understandable that people surrender to a “god” or abstract guiding principle that is seductive and sometimes valuable. He warns that the kinds of leaders that should be avoided
Storr notes that it may be easier to point to those who should be avoided than to recommend reliable mentors, although I don’t think doing this is easier for former members; they are often confused by the leadership issue and therefore may miss out on those who will be beneficial for them and are trustworthy. Storr points out that the best teachers of adults
When looking for a good leader, look for people with these qualities. If you need guidance, then look for someone who will listen and not preach at you, who will encourage you to look inward in order that you get in touch with what you want to do, and who affirms your thinking and beliefs as a unique individual.
Dr. Paul Martin exhibited all of these attributes, in my opinion. I think mentors are a great gift to us, and after his death, I sought further mentors to turn to because there is a great pool of people in ICSA. I particularly chose Bill and Lorna Goldberg, who thankfully also responded kindly to my approach! These relationships have been of untold value to me and have enriched my life beyond words. As I look back over the rushing years, I am so glad I had the wisdom to take that first step of finding a good mentor and leader in my life, Dr. Martin.
Another challenge that former cult members struggle with is finding a “good enough” counselor. Cults often use abusive counseling practices to control their members, which makes finding a trustworthy counselor harder for them. And if someone has been a member of a psychotherapy cult or has received counseling within the cult, then that challenge is greatly increased.
Dr. Martin really cared. As I said, he could be a giant publicly and in court, but he placed himself on the same level as his clients. He was both professional and human, maintaining boundaries but not hiding behind masks. He could also be challenging to clients, in consideration of their own interests.
It is helpful for former members to hear other former-member stories. Dr. Martin was a former cult member and would often self-disclose about that experience. I observed that this approach was very helpful in reducing shame and humiliation for his clients, and his knowing what they had been through increased their trust in him.
Self-disclosure refers to behaviors “either verbal or nonverbal that reveal personal information about therapists themselves to their clients” (Constantine & Kwan, 2003). While some self-disclosure is unavoidable (such as a therapist’s pregnancy, size of house, or public disclosure at conferences), it needs to be done carefully and not burden the client or blur professional boundaries. Research conducted by Carew (2009) in the United Kingdom suggests that disclosures are more likely to be experienced as helpful, and refusal to disclose may be felt as unhelpful. For counselors, self-disclosure, along with demonstrating an understanding of the cult experience, are helpful to the therapeutic relationship. Dr. Martin exemplified this type of relational counseling; he served the client’s needs rather than his own.
As a good counselor, Dr. Martin would rehabilitate rather than debilitate the client. He discussed client goals, recognizing that the client should set these goals at the start of the treatment program. He also recognized that the counseling should promote healthy relationships and independence, and be psychologically enabling. This approach enhanced and encouraged client’s questioning and decision making. Dr. Martin was professionally accountable to an outside body for his work at Wellspring, and was open about his qualifications (Crowley & Jenkinson, 2009). He could also be gently and firmly challenging and did not let others abuse him. One way his approach differed from traditional counseling was that he would often intervene practically by referring clients at Wellspring to a lawyer or doctor if necessary.
I was privileged to know Dr. Paul Martin. My memories of the last evening I spent with him and his lovely wife Barbara in 2008 are still clear. I had dinner with them at their home and then walked through their beautiful garden, which comprised huge shrubs and tall grass and wildflowers, with a path mowed through, down to the pond near his brother’s house. It was hot and the lightning bugs were dancing, their lights fading in and out, magic (a delight to me because we do not have lightning bugs in the United Kingdom). As we walked, he said he would “die with his boots on.” I said, “Well, don’t die soon.” But he did, and his death has left a huge gap in many people’s lives. But he achieved so much in his life, counseling thousands of former members. And his legacy lives on in his writings, his research, and in those of us who loved him, learned from him, remember him, and pass on our learning to others who want to know.
Thank you for affording me the privilege and honor of delivering the Paul Martin Lecture; this is the highest honor you, ICSA, could award me.
Carew, L. (2009). Does theoretical background influence therapists’ attitudes to therapist self-disclosure? A qualitative study. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 9(4), 266–272.
Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory (2nd ed.). London, England: Sage.
Constantine, M., & Kwan, K. (2003). Cross-cultural considerations of therapist self-disclosure. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 59(5), 581–588. hopevalleycounselling.com
Crowley, N., & Jenkinson, G. (2009). Pathological spirituality. In C. Cook, A. Powell, & A. Sims (Eds.), Spirituality and psychiatry (pp. 254–272). London, England, RPsych Publications.
Storr, A. (1996). Feet of clay: A study of gurus. London, England: Harper Collins.
Gillie Jenkinson, MA, specializes in working with spiritual and cultic abuse, offering psychotherapy, postcult counseling, training, supervision, and consultancy. She facilitates a small group for former cult members in Grindleford, United Kingdom, which meets every 2 months. She is an international speaker and a published author, including coauthor of chapter 13, Pathological Spirituality, in Spirituality and Psychiatry, RPsych Publications, 2009. Ms. Jenkinson began work on a PhD at the University of Nottingham, England, in the fall of 2012. Her research question is entitled “What helps former cult members recover from an abusive cult experience?” She is the Mental Health Editor for ICSA Today. To contact Ms. Jenkinson, email email@example.com or visit hopevalleycounselling.com