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Introduction to the Monograph


International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 5, 2014, 3.

Introduction to the Monograph

Carmen Almendros, Dianne Casoni, Rod Dubrow-Marshall

IJCS Editors



This special issue of the International Journal of Cultic Studies (IJCS) emerged from a conference with the title, Making Sense of Post-Cult Trauma and the Relational System of the Traumatizing Narcissist, organized jointly by the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and the National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP). The conference took place on October 13, 2012. Daniel Shaw, LCSW, organized the conference and put together this collection.

As the editors of the IJCS, we are pleased that this special edition of the journal has come to pass, and we are profoundly grateful to the authors and reviewers for their work, and for their dedication and professionalism in producing this volume.

This collection of articles shines a revealing light on the phenomenon and the experiences of people in groups that exhibit undue influence or harmful cultic influence. The articles also pay particular attention to the specific characteristics of the cult leader—a topic which, by its very focus and definition, has been hard to study empirically, and about which it has been perhaps too easy for us to presuppose from a distance that abusive leaders are “crazy” or sociopathic. Some leaders may indeed have those characteristics; but the articles in this collection tell a much more nuanced and detailed story, and they demonstrate the power and richness of idiographic data. In doing so, the pieces reveal common characteristics of narcissism; they also disclose the traumatic effects on individuals and their families of such leadership and the group dynamics commonly bound up with those leaders.

The personal accounts that you will read are honest and at times harrowing in their detail, but they all reveal important insights into the relational influence and binds into which followers of extremist groups get caught. Whether people are drawn to leaders with spiritual or psychotherapeutic prowess or indeed a combination of the two, it seems that the dream of a better life and world, and the lure of a leader who can take you there, are sometimes irresistible to those who yearn for better experiences and ways of living. The articles in this collection reveal the myths about and the exploitation of such hopeful dreams, and the post-traumatic effects on those who become agents of narcissistic leaders whose aims are less altruistically idealistic and more internally driven psychically. As Robert J Lifton has described it, these are tales of individuals’ “dispensing of existence” into the psychic vortex of the leader; yet simultaneously the accounts demonstrate the long, hard path back of those same individuals to the rediscovery of authentic existence and relationships, and the hope that yet emerges from the ashes of the narcissist’s fire.

We believe that these accounts and the prescient and insightful theoretical analyses that accompany them make a significant contribution to our understanding of the psychological and psychodynamic processes at work in harmful cultic groups. This analysis renders human again those leaders self-defined as superhuman or messianic deities and deconstructs that which they intend to be undeconstructable. Brought back to real life with its pain of everyday existence, yet released from the double binds of psychic slavery, the authors of this collection vividly show how narcissistic cult leaders are merely flawed human beings who harm others, whose tricks and lies we can lay bare, and whose corruption we can combat.

Introduction to Traumatic Narcissism Issue

Daniel Shaw

Psychoanalyst, Private Practice, New York City and Nyack, NY; Faculty and Clinical Supervisor, The National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP)


For many years, I have sought to bring the subject of trauma and abuse in cults to the attention of the professional mental-health community. My own affiliation has long been with The National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP), where I was trained in psychoanalysis, and where I currently teach and supervise psychoanalytic trainees. In the past few years, I have been developing a psychoanalytic conceptualization of the cult leader/follower relationship, and I began to see an opportunity. I proposed a program, Post-Cult Trauma and the Relational System of the Traumatizing Narcissist, to Michael Langone, which he green-lighted; but I didn’t have an available venue in New York City, where I work. I approached the NIP, who it turned out was happy to cosponsor the program with ICSA. The NIP graciously provided its conference space and many of the amenities we needed to make the program work.

The program was well attended, with both former cultists and mental-health professionals in the audience. Structuring the program to have both a psychological theoretical component and an experiential component, I asked Shelly Rosen to lend her vast expertise in trauma theory to the program, and I was lucky that she consented. Between my work on traumatic narcissism, which represents an effort to form a psychological profile of the cult leader, and Shelly’s understanding of postcult trauma, I felt we had a good, solid, theoretical foundation. For illustration of the theoretical ideas, I asked Ann Stamler, William Yenner, and Amy Siskind to share with the audience their personal experiences of being in the groups they eventually thought of as cultic, and fortunately, they too willingly agreed. Chris Carlson provided a brief introduction to and moderated the program. The resulting program offered both clinical theory and compelling personal stories.

It is my hope that readers who find this material and this format compelling will consider using this program as a model for presenting the issue of cults to mental-health workers in their own communities. The mental-health profession can play a meaningful role in being a resource for those suffering from postcult trauma only to the extent that the professionals are well-informed. It is my hope that these collected papers can be a beginning contribution to the goal of widely educating and informing mental-health professionals throughout the world.

Introduction to the Conference

Chris Carlson

The title of this conference is Making Sense of Post-Cult Trauma and the Relational System of the Traumatizing Narcissist. Today, October 13, 2012, is the first collaboration of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and the National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP), which generously provided the meeting space for this conference at its Manhattan facility in New York City.

Founded in 1979, ICSA’s mission is to apply research and professional perspectives on cultic groups to educate the public and help those who have been harmed (see www.icsahome.com/). NIP offers affordable, high-quality and in-depth psychoanalysis, couples therapy, psychological testing, and other services by more than 70 skilled therapists who are available to provide a variety of treatment orientations (see http://www.nipinst.org/nip/).

Having been involved with a group that I refer to as a cult, and then having left it, I have done extensive educational outreach on this issue. I currently practice as a hospital-based licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Regarding this topic, I cofacilitate with Dan Shaw, one of today’s presenters, a monthly meeting sponsored by ICSA that is open to the public in New York City.

The term cult may conjure strong images of extremism, including perhaps mass suicide or weddings. It may also elicit judgmental attitudes toward those involved—in particular, the members. After all, how could we not wonder why people would allow themselves to get caught up in something like that? There must be something wrong with them. One of the comments shared among the many who have gone through such an experience and come through it is that nobody goes looking to sign up for a cult to interfere with one’s free will. This principle is key to our understanding the cultic phenomenon. The groups or individuals involved in such organizations don’t explain the truth of the situation to newcomers, who enter an unfamiliar, multidimensional experience that is orchestrated to lead to subjugation by undue influence. There also are those who are raised in such an environment and go through childhood under extreme circumstances that require a careful recovery process once they are no longer in the situation.

A common theme reported by people who have left such groups and have sought help from mental-health professionals is that they face a striking lack of understanding from those in these professions about the dynamic process under discussion here today. The mental-health profession overall has not yet been oriented to address the complex relational dynamics we find in cults or high-demand groups, and the potential for one to experience trauma within such groups. We hope that this conference will increase awareness of the unique features to be found in these environments, which have affected many thousands of participants, and their families, friends, and the communities in which the members live.

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 5, 2014