Cultic Studies Journal, 1991, Volume 8, Number 1, pages 134-150
Outreach to Ex-Cult Members: The Question of Terminology
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
American Family Foundation
William V. Chambers
University of South Florida, PhD
Organizations such as the American Family Foundation (AFF) and the Cult Awareness Network (CAN -- originally called the Citizens Freedom Foundation) came into being in the late 1970s in order to respond to the needs of individuals and families troubled about involvement with groups that appeared to use high-pressure tactics to recruit and retain members. Such groups were often called cults because a) most at this time were religious and b) the term "cult" typically referred to new, marginal religious movements that were not connected to mainstream religions, as were sects for example (Nelson, 1968). The families and individuals disturbed by cult involvements began to organize and form organizations such as AFF and CAN because traditional helping sources, mental health professionals and clergy in particular, dismissed or misunderstood their concerns
Affected individuals and families saw similarities between the tactics they had observed in the groups causing concern and those observed by students of Korean War POWs. The terms "brainwashing" (Hunter, 1953), "coercive persuasion" (Schein, 1961), "thought reform" (Lifton, 1961), and the more popular "mind control" were used to describe and explain the disturbing phenomena. The process of deprogramming, in which a cultist's family hired former cult members to physically restrain the cultist and force him or her to listen to information not available in the cult (Dubrow-Eichel, 1989), was a frequently employed method for helping family members in cults (in recent years "forced" deprogramming has been largely replaced by voluntary deprogramming, now called "exit counseling").
The controversy over deprogramming became bitter as cult propagandists and sympathetic academicians (Bromley & Richardson, 1983), on the one hand, and affected persons and academicians and professionals sympathetic to the other side (Delgado, 1978; Langone & Clark, 1985) argued about whether cults or deprogrammers more severely curtailed civil rights. A change in terminology quickly resulted from this debate. Academicians sympathetic to cults stopped using the term "cult" (see Robbins, 1969 for an early article in which the term "cult" was used), which they felt had acquired a pejorative connotation, and began to use the more neutral "new religious movement" (NRM).
Cult critics rejected "new religious movement" because it seemed to give undeserved respectability to noxious groups and because even during the early days it was apparent that not all controversial groups were religious. Galanter's (1982) "charismatic group," although neutral and applicable to nonreligious groups, is vague (was Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics a "charismatic group"?) and, like NRM, often perceived as euphemistic.
Many professionals felt uncomfortable with "cult" because not all "cults" employed the high pressure tactics that fueled the controversy (e.g., the Meher Baba group described by Robbins, 1969). Shapiro (1977) coined the term "destructive cult" in order to distinguish that subset of groups that was harmful from that subset which was not. Shapiro's distinction, however, was not consistently employed by workers in the field. The adjective "destructive" was often omitted, and "cult" and "destructive cult" in practice became interchangeable.
Many cult critics, especially those associated with the American Family Foundation, attempted to downplay the categorization of the "group" and stress the "processes" that harmed people. In a booklet for the layman (Langone, 1982), for example, the author purposely did not discuss specific groups in order to encourage readers to avoid "cataloguing" groups into "bad" and "acceptable" and to look instead at how the social influence processes in a particular group affected a particular individual.
This booklet also introduced the term "unethical social influence," which, it was hoped, might replace "cult," "brainwashing," "coercive persuasion," etc. Around the same time, Margaret Singer (Singer, 1982) proposed "systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence" (SMPSI). Although fellow professionals saw the advantages of such terms, they did not strike a chord among the parents and ex-cultists we and our colleagues were trying to help. Thus, many of us found ourselves employing a variety of terms to describe the same phenomenon, adjusting the terminology to suit the group to which we were trying to communicate.
By 1988 it became clear that despite their shortcomings we were stuck with "cult," "mind control," and their brethren. Too large a body of popular and professional literature had been produced, and these terms were implanted in the public mind. In 1988 the 1982 booklet, which had been entitled "Destructive Cultism: Questions and Answers," was revised. The new booklet, acknowledging popular usage, was called "Cults: Questions and Answers" (Langone, 1988).
During the past few years, however, the terminology we have so grudgingly come to accept has been challenged by a new development. As cult educational organizations have matured and endured, more and more people have become aware of their services. In recent years substantial numbers of people who left cultic groups without a family-inspired intervention have turned to such organizations for help. Some of these people have simply left the group for whatever reason. These have come to be called "walk-aways." Others, who have been ejected from the group, have come to be called "cast-aways." Based on the reports of those who do contact cult educational organizations, it appears that many, and probably most, walk-aways and cast-aways not only do not relate to terms such as "cult," but indeed find them offensive.
Several factors appear to account for this phenomenon. First, ex-cultists, like the public at large, tend to subscribe to the popular misconception that "cults" are deviant, "weird" groups for "weird" people. (The recent spate of media reports on Satanism has reinforced this misconception.) Because their group, their friends in the group, and they themselves are not "weird," their group is not a cult. Second, even when ex-members become aware of the ideas of those who see unethical manipulation as central to cult conversion, they do not automatically see their group in this light. For example, a former cult member, who now provides psychological services to ex-cult members, told the senior author that he had been out of his group for two years before he realized it was a cult, even though he had read material such as Lifton (1961). Reevaluating years of deception is not easy. Third, not all cults are highly manipulative or destructive. Some groups are only mildly so and will not comfortably wear the label "cult." And lastly, the typical cult victim has been indoctrinated to believe that the group is always right and he or she, when dissenting, is always wrong. Many, therefore, stumble out of their groups feeling guilty and inadequate. They try to figure out what is wrong with themselves and frequently do not even consider the possibility that their problems may in large part have been caused by the group, rather than caused by their inability to live up to the group's standards.
The tendency of walk-aways and cast-aways to turn a deaf ear to the terminology traditionally used by cult educational organizations poses a problem for those engaged in outreach to this population, a sizeable minority and possibly majority of whom have psychological problems (Galanter, 1983). These people will not avail themselves of help if helpers do not use terms that catch the ex-members' attention. In order to shed light on this problem a brief questionnaire was designed to measure ex-cultists' opinions about various terms.
A one-page questionnaire was mailed to 204 former cultists who had previously completed a 19-page questionnaire currently being analyzed. The questionnaire inquired into how subjects left the groups with which they were affiliated, the names of the groups, and whether or not in retrospect the subject would consider the group a cult. The questionnaire then listed 20 terms which the subject was asked to rate and rank. Specifically, the questionnaire said, "Keeping in mind the full range of groups people leave, please rate how well walk-aways who are unfamiliar with 'counter-cult' literature would relate to the following terms. Use the following rating scale....1 = will relate very well to the term, 2 = will relate to the term, 3 = uncertain/not sure, 4 = will not relate to the term, and 5 = will not relate to the term at all." Subjects were further asked: "Again keeping in mind the full range of groups, please rank the above terms. Give that term which you believe walk-aways will most readily relate to a ranking of '1' and mark '1' to the right of the term. Mark '2' to the right of your second choice, and so on until you have ranked them from 1 to 20."
Subjects were not asked their own ratings or rankings for it was believed that their ratings and rankings would reflect education they had obtained since leaving their groups. Subjects were also asked to suggest other terms that they believed walk-aways might respond to. Results were tabulated and subjected to a principal components analysis.
One-hundred-eight subjects had submitted questionnaires when the results were tabulated (several more arrived after tabulation). Of these subjects, 71 were walk-aways, 10 had been involuntarily deprogrammed, 10 had been exit counseled, and 17 had left through "other" means -- usually they were ejected.
Nearly all subjects (N = 100; 93%) considered their group in retrospect to be a cult. The groups from which subjects came are listed in Table 1 (3 subjects did not list group names).
Average ratings and ranking of the listed terms for all subjects are presented in Table 2.
Inspection of Table 2 reveals that a) subjects did not ringingly endorse any term, b) there was general agreement between ratings and rankings and c) the terms traditionally employed by cult educational organizations did not fare as well as innovative terms, such as "psychological abuse/trauma/manipulation" "trust abuse," and "spiritual abuse/trauma." Respondents on average were uncertain about "cult," "brainwashing," and "totalist groups."Subjects in this study were much more varied with respect to group than in previous studies. In Conway, Siegelman, Carmichael, & Coggins (1986), for example, 76% of the subjects (representing 48 groups) came from five groups: Unification Church (44%), Divine Light Mission (11%), Scientology (10%), The Way International (6%), and Hare Krishna (5%). The largest number from any one group in this study was 14 (13%) -- from Scientology. We believe that these sample differences reflect changes in the population of ex-cultists seeking assistance, including the increase in walk-aways. Seventy-three percent of Conway et al.'s sample were deprogrammed subjects, whereas 66% of this study's sample consisted of walk-aways.
Numbers of Subjects, By Group
Alive Polarity Fellowship 1
Aquarian Church of Universal Service 1
Bawa Muheyaddeen Fellowship 1
Boston Church of Christ Movement 7
Bethel Christian Center 1
Bible Speaks 2
Blue Mountain Center of Meditation 1
Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit 1
Campus Crusade 1
Church of Today/Le Pavillon 1
Children of God 2
Community Bible Church 1
Covenant Players 1
Church Universal and Triumphant 5
Dayton New Covenant Church 1
Democratic Workers Party 2
Direct Centering 1
Divine Light Mission 1
Emissaries of Divine Light 4
Family Ark 1
Hare Krishna 3
Kashi Ranch 1
Living Water Christian Fellowship 1
Love Family 1
Mt Hope Foundation 1
New Early Christian Church 1
Nichiren Shoshu (NSA) 1
Opus Dei 1
People of Hope 2
People of Praise 1
People's Temple 1
School of Metaphysics 1
Seed, The 1
Spiritual Walk, The 1
Transcendental Meditation 3
Unification Church 3
University Bible Fellowship 1
Warren Truth Fellowship 1
Way International 4
Worldwide Church of God 5
Zion Bible Fellowship 1
No name/not clear 4
Note: A group's being listed here should not be interpreted as a definitive statement as to its cultic nature. These results reflect the opinions of subjects only.
Average Ratings and Rankings of descriptive terms in Ascending Order (N=108) _____________________________________________________
psychological trauma 2.22 trust abuse 7.81
psychological abuse 2.36 psychological trauma 7.96
spiritual trauma 2.28 psychological abuse 8.09
psych. Manipulation 2.31 spiritual trauma 8.33
spiritual abuse 2.38 psych. manipulation 8.49
trust abuse 2.38 spiritual abuse 8.78
mind manipulation 2.39 mind manipulation 8.92
high demand groups 2.43 high intensity groups 9.31
relationship maniplt. 2.49 high demand groups 9.32
relationship abuse 2.56 relationship abuse 9.60
high intensity groups 2.58 relationshipmaniplt. 10.01
coercive persuasion 2.61 mind control 10.76
charismatic groups 2.64 coercive persuasion 10.82
mind control 2.81 charismatic groups 11.32
mind-game victims 2.88 mind-game victims 11.73
exploitative persuasion 3.08 exploitative persuasion 12.75
manipulated conversion 3.10 brainwashing 12.79
brainwashing 3.17 cult 13.03
totalist groups 3.19 manipul’d conversions 13.35
cult 3.19 totalist groups 13.72
Note: Ratings were based on the following:
1 = will relate very well to the term
2 = will relate to the term
3 = uncertain/not sure
4 = will not relate to the term
5 = will not relate to the term at all
In order to determine if there was an unusually high number of "3" ratings ("uncertain/not sure"), all ratings for all subjects were totaled. Table 3 summarizes these data.
Summary of Ratings for All Subjects and All Questions
Rating Frequency Percent
1. Will relate very
well to the term 440 26.4
2. Will relate to the term 645 29.9
3. Uncertain/not sure 495 22.9
4. Will not relate to the
term 397 18.4
5. Will not relate to the
term at all 182 8.4
Total 2160 100.0
Note: Each subject was asked to rate 20 terms in response to the question of how well walk-aways would relate to each term.
Given an average rating of all terms across all subjects of 2.65, this distribution indicates that ratings of "3" were not over-represented. Table 3 suggests that about half the ratings were favorable
Term Factor Loadings Factor 1 Factor 2 Factor 3 Factor 4 Factor 5
Mind Control .87 .05 .09 .17 .03
Cult .85 .05 .15 .05 .00
Brainwashing .81 .02 -.13 .05 .14
Psych. Manipulation .54 .30 .01 .39 .22
Relationship Maniplt. -.04 .77 .14 .23 .02
Mind Game Victims .40 .72 .01 -.11 .07
Relationship abuse -.14 .71 .07 .06 .33
Mind Manipulation .47 .54 .04 .36 -.09
Manipulated Conversion .26 .49 .45 .03 .13
Totalistic Group .13 .12 .80 .23 -.08
High Demand Group -.12 .18 .78 -.12 .29
High Intensity Group -.18 .21 .72 .09 .20
Charismatic Group .18 -.12 .45 -.18 -.23
Psychological Trauma .27 .24 -.07 .79 .13
Spiritual Trauma -.01 -.06 .09 .72 .43
Coercive Persuasion .19 .27 .48 .56 .01
Spiritual Abuse .11 .05 .10 .17 .85
Psychological Abuse .34 .29 -.09 .44 .60
Trust Abuse .06 .47 .19 .09 .58
A principal components analysis was conducted in order to ascertain the structure of the ratings. Results indicated the presence of five components with eigenvalues greater than 1. Varimax rotation suggested the following factors: Mind Control, Social Manipulation, Group Intensity, Trauma, and Abuse (see Table 4).
In order to determine the extent to which acceptability ratings differed across the factors, the 20 terms were partitioned into subsets corresponding to the factors. The average rating or "total score" for each factor was calculated for each subject. For example, the total score for subject one on the Mind Control factor consisted of the average of his or her ratings on the terms mind control, cult, brainwashing, and psychological manipulation. This procedure was used instead of factor scores because available computer programs did not supply non-normalized factor scores.
The mean acceptability ratings across all subjects were: Mind Control 2.86, Social Manipulation 2.75, Group Intensity 2.71, Trauma 2.37, and Abuse 2.33. Analysis of variance disclosed significant differences (F=7.32, df=4, 535, P<.0001) among the means. The Duncan procedure delineated two groupings: (Abuse and Trauma) vs. (Mind Control, Social Manipulation, and Group Intensity). No other groupings were revealed.
Among the terms suggested by subjects were: destructive cult, spiritual disillusionment, information disease, guilt inducement, total commitment, cultic, cult-like, thought reform, mental abuse, authoritarian groups, hierarchical groups, manipulative groups, psychologically manipulative groups, totalitarian groups, psychological rape, headship/submission groups, fear-inducing groups, religious abuse, religiously exploitative, group think, enforced lifestyle, emotional abuse, authority abuse, confidence game, high pressure groups, Bible/Scripture abusers, disciple/discipling abusers, predatory spirituality, con games, manipulative religions, cultic trauma group, cultic abuse victim, false religions, dysfunctional organizations, professional deceptionists, closed intense groups, spiritual blackmail, emotional blackmail, double-message groups, elitist groups, enmeshment, mind rape, and religious addiction.
The terms and comments in the question asking for other terms were generally consistent with the terms that received the highest ratings/rankings. Manipulation is a common underlying theme throughout the list. There was, however, some disagreement about the advisability of using the word "victim." Some subjects obviously liked terms implying victimization, e.g., "psychological abuse," "mind rape." Others thought "victim" was negative:
[a word] that implies they have been taken advantage of (their consent) but not one that refers to them as victims which in my opinion keeps them in the "cycle of abuse."
I think most walk-aways are quite defensive at first. "Victim" is a very harsh concept.
Several expressed frustration over the question of terminology:
I can't figure out if you are assuming the walk-away knows he was in a cult. It took months of therapy before I could even begin to look at the possibility I had been manipulated. These terms are premature.
This question is nearly an impossible one for me to answer because I think that the terms listed are all poor ones to use for people who are just beginning to "think" after coming out of a group that uses "mind control." I have seen someone who was questioning "the church" who literally threw the Bible help book on the floor and stormed out of the room because she read the definition of the term "cult."
The frustration expressed by several subjects is not foreign to those who help ex-cultists and their families. Explaining the subtlety and complexity of the unethical social influence observed in cults is difficult enough when one has a person's attention and plenty of time, such as in an exit counseling. It is perhaps impossible to capture the essence of the phenomenon in one term. Nevertheless, those of us engaged in counseling, consultation, and education must attempt to communicate with our audiences, however imperfect that communication may be. In academia, where one's words may be printed in a specialized journal actually read by no more than several dozen colleagues, it is relatively easy to establish a consensus regarding terminology. When, however, one is attempting to communicate with thousands of people, for whom this subject is not a "specialty," the matter becomes a bit more slippery.
The results of this study testify to the difficulty of achieving consensus regarding terminology. The results also suggest that no term will suffice for all people and all situations. Some people will respond to "cult"; others will be highly offended. Some may respond to "psychological abuse"; others may rebel against any term containing "abuse." Some may respond to "spiritual trauma"; others may see their experience as neither spiritual nor traumatic.
The factor analysis was particularly revealing. On the whole, subjects perceive Trauma and Abuse as more acceptable than Mind Control, Social Manipulation, and Group Intensity. The contrast between these two groups of factors may reflect a higher-order dimension of effects versus processes. Trauma and abuse may represent the phenomenological effects of processes that are generally misunderstood or repressed by cult walk-aways. The processes of Mind Control, Social Manipulation, and Group Intensity, on the other hand, may serve as abstract explanations that help parents understand the changes they have observed in their children. Thus, during the years in which parents constituted the largest category of help seekers, the second group of terms was most acceptable. But now that walk-aways are seeking help in greater numbers, the first group of terms becomes attractive to more people. In short, walk-aways may tend to relate to terms that describe what they actually experienced (i.e., trauma and abuse), while parents and "educated" ex-cultists (i.e., those who were exit counseled or deprogrammed) may tend to relate to terms that explain what the cultists experienced (i.e., mind control).
Although individual variation may be considerable, it should be kept in mind that the spread of mean acceptability ratings, even though statistically significant, was relatively small. Thus, none of the terms should be perceived as necessarily unacceptable at the individual level. The results merely suggest nomothetic dimensions worthy of further study. The meaningfulness of the factor loadings do, however, offer strong support for the coherence of the ratings. The ratings probably do reflect meaningful constructions that have been little affected by random or systematic measurement errors. As such, the factor analysis represents a significant step in the empirical exploration of the cult experience.
Given these conclusions, what do those of us in the trenches do? We should keep three concepts in mind: individuality, variety, and audience.
Our communications will, for the most part, be directed at eight audiences: (1) family members seeking help; (2) cultists who are willing to talk about their group involvement; (3) former cultists requiring assistance in adapting to post-cult life; (4) the general public; (5) youth; (6) former cultists who are unaware of helping resources; (7) professionals; and (8) academicians. Each audience has different needs and backgrounds. Professionals and academicians, for example, may expect more precision in terminology and an explicit connection to prior professional or scholarly work.
As this study of the ex-cult member audience demonstrated, even within a particular audience there will be different preferences. Some think "victim" is a harsh word; some think it is on the mark. Therefore, a program of education directed at any particular audience ought to deliberately and intelligently use a variety of terms -- but in a coherent, meaningful way. Thus, one outreach effort may formulate the message in terms of "psychological abuse," while another formulates the message in terms of "spiritual trauma." Newspaper and magazine articles and talk show appearances are fleeting opportunities to get the attention of an audience one wishes to educate. To talk about "spiritual trauma" when addressing the readers of Christianity Today and "psychological abuse" when addressing the readers of Psychology Today is not necessarily inconsistent (provided one's message variants are conceptually integrated and not deceptive or otherwise manipulative); it is merely a sign of respect and concern for one's audience. (See Litfin, 1982 for an interesting discussion of the ethics of persuasion.)
Sometimes the use of multiple terms may be appropriate in order to emphasize that there is no agreement on the most appropriate label for the phenomena under study. A recently developed draft questionnaire, for example, states:
This brief survey will inquire into your experience -- personal and professional -- with cultic and related groups that use highly manipulative psychological techniques of persuasion and control to exploit members. Such groups may be religious, psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial. A variety of have been applied to these groups and their psychologically manipulative processes, including: "thought reform," "coercive persuasion," "brainwashing," "mind control," "charismatic groups," "spiritually abusive groups," "high demand groups," "new religious movements," and "cult." Groups that cause the most concern tend to be leader-centered, highly manipulative, exploitative, and totalistic (i.e., they dictate in great detail how members should think, act, and feel).
Variety may be desirable -- most of the time. But sometimes it may be counterproductive. Each situation should be examined individually. With professional audiences, for example, an endless variety of terms is counterproductive, for the function of the professional community is to advance clarity and understanding. A variety of terms and concepts can be temporarily useful only when a weeding mechanism separates the wheat from the chaff.
In order to contribute to the development of such a weeding mechanism, we would like to recommend particular terms for particular purposes. Doing this, however, would be premature. This study demonstrates two important points: (1) the terms we have traditionally used in this field are inappropriate for many people in many situations; (2) people affected by cults (and we strongly suspect the same would be true of professionals working in the field) disagree considerably about preferred terminology. Our recommending specific terms at this time might be an exercise in arrogance.
We are willing to recommend, however, that the American Family Foundation organize a study group on terminology. This study group should examine this study's findings, convene meetings to discuss the pros and cons of various terms for different audiences, and publish a set of recommendations to be reviewed by professionals and lay activists.
Most cult educational organizations are now more than ten years old. In the early years, they mainly helped families with children in cults. As time passed, public and preventive education occupied more and more time. In recent years, as evidenced by AFF's "Project Recovery" (a multi-year program to improve the quality and quantity of services for ex-cultists), more and more attention has been paid to the needs of cult walk-aways. The activities of cult educational organizations have changed dramatically over the years. Perhaps these organizations should now consider adjusting their terminology.
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The authors wish to thank Dr. Arthur Dole of the University of Pennsylvania for his extensive and valuable comments and suggestions and Carol Giambalvo and Nancy Miquelon, leaders of FOCUS, an ex-cultist support group, for their assistance in gaining access to subjects.
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., Editor of the Cultic Studies Journal, is the Executive Director of the American Family Foundation and coauthor of Cults: What parents should know and Satanism and occult-related violence.
William V. Chambers, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida. His specialty areas include Personal Construct Theory and psychometrics.
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1991