ICSA Today, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2014, page 23
Point of View
In ICSA Today 5.1, you discussed how psychotherapists and though-reform consultants can help families of cult members and former members. How do exit counselors/interventionists convince people to leave cults?
First, I should point out that no one can make individuals leave a cult if they don’t want to leave. The task of the exit counselor is to point out the facts that are denied cult members and to help them to become more aware of facts that they have attempted to ignore. In successful exit counseling, the cult members are shown facts and explanations that they had never been exposed to or had recognized but had not allowed fully into consciousness. Once they have been introduced to the reality of their situation, however, they still have a decision to make. In my experience, most people chose freedom over the cult’s tyranny, but some prefer the certainty of the cult over that freedom. The exit counselor can only point out reality. The decision of whether or not to leave still resides with the cult members.
Sometimes, the exit counselors are not providing the cult members with new information. Instead, they are bringing to the cult members’ minds the uncertainties that they have not permitted themselves to consciously contemplate. Most cult members, particularly those who have spent long periods of time in cults, have doubts about whether they are doing the right thing by remaining in the cult. They often see the difference between the public face of the cult and the cult leader and the hidden, uglier side that is not presented to the public. They begin to see how the cult leader’s words and actions differ. For example, they may see a supposedly celibate guru sneaking young girls into his tent. They might have been secretly sent to buy meat for him despite the fact that he is supposedly a vegetarian. They might have seen the cult leader brutalize a cult member for a minor offense, such as not anticipating the leader’s whims, despite the leader’s claim to be compassionate and kind. They might recognize the discrepancy between members’ lifestyles and the lifestyle of the leader. When the members see these inconsistencies, they have learned to suppress them and to attempt to keep them from coming to their consciousness by rationalizing this behavior or using self-hypnotic techniques.
However, despite their best efforts, they cannot fully suppress the reality of cult life forever. Almost all of the former cult members whom I’ve met with secretly questioned whether the decision they made to join the cult was the wisest thing they could have done, and they sometimes thought about leaving.* Former members have told me that when these disturbing thoughts would come into their minds, they would suppress them or drive them away with thought-terminating clichés, chanting, meditations, or other distractions to keep them from focusing their minds on the doubts they were having.
One benefit of an exit-counseling intervention is that, during the process, these suppressed doubts are brought into members’ consciousness and confronted. It’s harder for cult members to deny the truth when a counselor is challenging their rationalizations, denials, and justifications.
Exit counselors might point out some of the near-universal truths about cults. For example, they might discuss the fact that, after an initial period of joyfulness when individuals first join the cult, it becomes harder and harder for them to recapture that state of ecstasy. After a short while, cult members fake it, not recognizing that everyone around them is faking it, as well. Sometimes they pretend to be listening closely to the long-winded pontifications by the cult leader. However, instead of listening, they might be entering into a state of altered consciousness. Cults often encourage hypnotic states, and individual members may think they are the only ones experiencing these occurrences. In the exit counseling, the counselors may bring these secret truths may into the open.
So exit counselors do not “convince people to leave cults.” Instead, they clear away the obstacles that prevent cult members from taking the steps that, on some level, they know they should take. Sometimes exit counselors provide cult members with information that they need in order to make an informed decision, and sometimes exit counselors bring to the cult members’ conscious minds the doubts that they have not permitted themselves to consider. At the same time, the most competent exit counselors are providing an environment of empathy and respect. This environment contrasts sharply with the environment of the cult and might provide cult members with the impetus to leave the cult.
*I should note that I have seen a skewed sampling of cult members. The people I’ve interviewed, for the most part, have been those who made the decision to leave the cult. It is conceivable that the individuals who have not left the cults do not have these doubts. I do not believe that is the case, but there is no way of measuring this possibility.