Moving On: Dealing With Family Members Who Have Caused Us Harm
ICSA Today, 9(3), 2018, 16-22
Moving On: Dealing With Family Members Who Have Caused Us Harm
Lorna Goldberg and Ann Stamler
This article is based on a presentation by Lorna Goldberg at ICSA’s annual Workshop for Those Born/Raised in Cultic Groups in Chester, Connecticut, in which she discusses each year the very difficult question of how we who were born or raised in cultic groups feel today about the people who caused us harm as we were growing up, especially our families. Her presentation has two goals: one is to identify the issues we face; the other is to suggest how we might address those issues. She does not offer answers; she offers a framework we can use to find what works for us.
In 2018, I joined Lorna at the workshop to offer illustrations from my life of some of the concepts and issues she discussed. My mother had died just 6 months before the workshop, and the opportunity to reflect on her life and my relationship with her, with the help of Lorna’s insights, was a welcome gift. Ann Stamler, Associate Editor, ICSA Today.
Part 1: The Role of Intention (by Lorna Goldberg)
After leaving the cultic group into which you were born or raised, you may have profound anger, resentment, sadness, and confusion about the people who hurt you, and about the people who allowed you to be hurt. How can you cope most effectively with what you feel today?
Some parents have left the group and realize how much harm they caused you; some parents leave but cannot acknowledge they harmed you; some remain in the group. What, if anything, do you owe your parents after you leave the group?
Whether or not your parents are still in the cult, whether or not they recognize that they hurt you, whether or not they apologize, ultimately it will be your decision to figure out how you intend to deal with the hurt and anger about how you were mistreated for so many years of your life. What do you owe yourself?
The cult’s belief in perfection is unreal; people are not black or white, even the people who hurt you. If one’s view of the world includes only absoluteness rather than toleration for ambiguities, complexities, and human frailties, that is problematic. No one answer is right for everyone, and there may be more than one answer for each of you. You might respond differently based upon the combination of your own, individual personality and your particular experience.
What Was Your Parents’ Intention?
It is important to ask yourself the following questions about your parents’ intention in involving you in the cultic situation:
What was the intention of my parents in bringing me into a cultic environment? Did they enter the group as a way of escaping from the difficulties of their precult lives? Did they enter the group with altruistic motives or the desire for a spiritual life? Were they enduring a crisis in their lives, or was it a time of crisis in the world?
Did the cult leader exploit my parents’ naiveté?
Did my parents use practices in the cult to justify attitudes they already had? Or did they have difficulty dealing with the fact that I was being neglected or abused? Were they dissociated themselves—that is, enthralled by the cult leader and out of touch with reality? Or did they throw me under the bus or callously accept my pain in order to curry favor with the cult leader?
Knowing the truth of your own story is central to your well-being. It also is important to attempt to understand the truth of your parents’ story.
If you consider both intention and the limited abilities of all human beings, you might begin to change the unrealistic desire for perfection in human relationships and become more tolerant of others and yourself, including your parents when possible, for not fulfilling all that you might have hoped.
In understanding intention, you are gaining a better sense of the realistic limits of all human beings, including yourself. Doing this means letting go of the idea that you can or should demand perfection, no matter what the cost.
Understanding intention also gives you the perspective to give up the idea of being defined by those who violate your boundaries (such as might occur with narcissistic and/or highly dependent and demanding parents). Understanding their exploitive intentions will help you to feel less obligated to please them. If you can stop allowing yourself to be defined by others, you can begin to act in your own self-interest and establish firmer boundaries.
You have a right to feel angry because of your correct belief that your parents failed you and you were cheated out of the possibility of a healthy childhood. However, sadly, you never can change your past.
Sometimes you may feel angry with your parents but not with the cult leader because it may be less frightening to confront a parent than the powerful leader. Even after leaving the cult, many former members continue to believe (perhaps unconsciously) that the cult leader has extraordinary powers, and they fear that to feel angry with the leader will lead to punishment in this world or in the next. Also, a failure to be angry with the leader might be an extension of the destructive dynamic from the cult—that is, always keeping anger and blame away from the leader and displacing it onto others.
Although cult leaders rarely apologize, parents who have left the cult sometimes will apologize for their treatment of their children. Some of you might hold on to intense anger beyond what seems reasonable, even after those who have hurt you have apologized. Of course, it is necessary to receive a heartfelt apology that shows remorse rather than one that is glib and unfeeling. A heartfelt acknowledgement by the person who has harmed you can be an important step toward your recovery from trauma. Receiving an apology validates the fact that the hurt you experienced really did happen. Apologies by those who caused you harm allow you to take charge in deciding whether or not you wish to forgive.
It might be important to understand all that is gained by continuing to hold onto the intensity of anger you might feel over time:
Do I need to hold onto intense anger to protect myself from mourning the loss of a childhood or a relationship with my parents that wasn’t controlled by a cult leader? Experiencing anger can be less painful than experiencing sadness.
Is it important to hold onto anger as a way of protecting myself against getting close to or becoming controlled by others in the present?
After the cult, your sense of identity in a new world can be fragile, and anger and suspicion might serve to protect you against becoming overly influenced by others. Anger might protect you from being disappointed, hurt, or having to face the possibility of the pain of loss in a new relationship. Relationships are risky. However, ultimately, if you are unable to let go of intense anger, you may be prevented from establishing a loving relationship and enjoying your life.
Might I be holding onto my anger because (consciously or unconsciously) I believe that letting go of my rage would mean that I am forgiving others for their harm to me?
Letting go of intense anger does not mean that you are not remembering abuse or neglect. You always will remember; but if you can, try to find ways to move away from the intensity of your emotions to improve the quality of your life today, for your own good.
Your parents failed in many ways: They might have failed to protect you from being harmed by cult abuse or neglect. They might have failed to respond with encouragement and pride when you displayed emerging personal abilities, or to show empathy when you needed help. They might have stood as bystanders disconnected from you and under the leader’s spell when you needed more from them. You may feel they did not want to see your pain.
Some parents did not have adequate parenting themselves, which might have contributed to their difficulty in knowing how to adequately parent you. This knowledge is not necessarily a reason to excuse your parents, but it might provide a context for understanding them.
How conflicted were my parents when they submitted to the demands of the cult leader? And what do my parents feel now? Are they distraught and heartbroken now about how I was treated in the cult? Or do they continue to hold onto the belief that my cult treatment was for my own good? Are they such true believers that they are unable and unwilling to see how they harmed me?
Your responses to these questions can make a difference in your ability to process and determine how you will deal with your parents. Some parents may be so overwhelmed with guilt that it is too painful for them to acknowledge and face the enormity of the harm they inflicted upon their children. This is not a reason to excuse them, but again it might help you better understand them.
You Can Change Only Yourself, in the Present
You have a right to feel angry and saddened. Your past has affected you, and you might feel continued hurt, resentment, and a desire for restitution. It is human to have those feelings.
It also is human and sometimes even helpful to have a desire for revenge. Wanting revenge allows you to turn the tables, and this response may help you to feel less as if you are a passive victim. Revenge can give you a sense of mastery and enhanced self-esteem. Allowing yourself to feel and fantasize a wish for revenge on your cult leader or those who abused you may be a positive step, particularly if you could not allow yourselves to feel anger in the cult.
Unfortunately, some individuals cannot even enjoy fantasizing about revenge. They might continue to blame themselves rather than the true culprits. However, to blame and want revenge might be a step in the direction of healing. Those who have been exploited by others might be prone to forgive attacks and hurts too easily. They do not permit themselves to register anger at their victimizers; instead, they tend to minimize or deny their anger altogether and are inclined to turn the other cheek. They are too ready to try to forgive and forget. I believe that true healing must involve coming to terms with the depth of one’s feelings about the extent of the other person’s offense. At the same time, there are crimes so horrible that forgiveness may not be possible.
Further questions that are important to ask yourself include these:
Can I have all these feelings along with an acceptance that I can change only myself in the present?
Can I free myself from continual rumination and allow myself eventually to move on for my own sake?
What do I owe myself?
When is “long enough,” and when is the time to move away for the good of my present life?
In cases in which suffering has been great, there have been few (if any) positive experiences, and you must avoid further contact with those from the past to avoid further harm to yourself, the most realistic result you can achieve might be to make sure you are in a safe place to live your own life. You can then work to understand that continued intense rage and resentment might prevent you from moving on.
Am I spending too much time focused upon anger toward those from the past, without resolution?
This hating can become self-punishing and self-destructive if it consumes you and interferes with experiencing pleasure in your present life. Continual rage can indicate that your cult still has a hold on you and you are too attached to the leader and/or your parents. This lack of resolution and ongoing attachment can interfere with your ability to love yourself or others in the present.
In time, can I free myself from continual rumination and allow myself to move on—again, for my own sake?
To improve your life, you might consider participation in therapy, where you can learn the multiple meanings of your anger and acquire different strategies to help you gain more control over this powerful emotion.
You cannot change your past. But by increasing your understanding of that past and allowing for all the complex emotions that you begin to feel after you leave the cult, you might, in time, be able to change the way you live your life today.
Part 2: Understanding Intention (by Ann Stamler)
My parents were both children of immigrant families. They were artists who left their homes in a New York suburb to pursue their art in Greenwich Village. They met each other and began studying with Eli Siegel, a poet and philosopher in the Village, as the United States was becoming engaged in the Second World War. In fact, my father was on a troop carrier off Normandy waiting to land in the Allied invasion that helped end the war when I was born. He did not meet me till I was about a year and a half old.
In the years after World War II, my parents were part of an American era called the “period of adjustment,” when soldiers returned from war to wives and children they barely knew and tried to pick up lives in a postwar world. Some of my early memories are of listening from my bedroom late at night as my parents called Siegel on the telephone to mediate the fierce arguments the two of them had that almost tore our family apart.
Siegel’s basic philosophy, which he called Aesthetic Realism (AR), was that art contained the answers to life problems. In personal sessions he talked about how what made a poem or painting beautiful could help people understand their families and also world events. I think his teaching offered my parents a sense of rationality and hope in a frightening and tumultuous time in the world and their own lives. Siegel was not yet, as far as I know, the demanding narcissist he later became, claiming that he had discovered the Truth sought by man throughout history. As he moved in that direction, my parents were caught up by their early commitment and their sense of indebtedness to him, which I think blinded them to his growing irrationality.
As I grew up, my mother led efforts to promote Siegel’s philosophy. She started an art gallery near Greenwich Village with exhibitions illustrating Siegel’s theory of beauty and public readings of his work. At one point, she had an exhibition of her own paintings in the gallery. The New York art critics praised her paintings, but belittled Siegel; they basically said she was better than Siegel’s philosophy, and that she needed to detach herself from him in order to get ahead. She realized she had to make a choice between promoting Siegel and advancing her career as an artist. She chose to be loyal to Siegel. To me she seemed noble and courageous. I admired her, almost to the point of worship.
Yet, even though my mother was such an outspoken supporter, Siegel treated her in ways I could not understand. He would criticize her scathingly in front of other students. He once made her read a statement in public about all the ways she had failed him. He even told her that her efforts in his behalf were motivated by guilt. When she wanted to start the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, which she actually did, and which still exits, he told her it was a substitute for showing her gratitude to him.
What confused me was that she seemed to accept his harshness as if it were deserved. She seemed to have an underlying sense that she was inferior. Whenever she spoke about her childhood, she chose sad incidents that reflected on her family as suffering. She did grow up during the Depression, and her family struggled—but they owned their home, her father worked, and her two younger sisters who faced the same adversity had a much more positive attitude to life.
To some extent I internalized Siegel’s attitudes and excoriated my mother for being ungrateful to him. But I also felt, though I could never say this, that she was horribly mistreated—after all, she had done more than almost anyone else in his behalf.
At times when Siegel was criticizing me most fiercely, and I was miserable, I could tell that my mother struggled between agreeing with him and wanting to protect me. I actually sometimes had a sense that she was more sympathetic to me than supportive of him.
During the years just before and after Siegel died, I began to recognize that people around me, even those I had grown up alongside, were acting more and more like a cult. There were meetings about how to protect our school and its beliefs from a hostile press. People attending public readings of Siegel’s work were often screened before they could come through the door. We assumed anyone who criticized Siegel was really driven by envy of his greatness and wanting to destroy it. Control over our everyday lives, our work, our families, where we lived, and whom we talked to was absolute.
I sometimes shared with my mother my feeling that people were acting irrationally, and she agreed with me. She was a skeptical woman, some would say cynical; sharp and savvy in business; and I knew she was often exasperated by how people’s praise of Siegel seemed unmoored from any critical thought.
During those years, two women Siegel had praised rose in the ranks to pretty much take over management of the group and the Foundation. They were forcing my mother out as director of the Foundation and editor of Siegel’s books. She and I together were pariahs because we did not jump on the bandwagon of the new leaders. They put us both through hell. But as beaten as she was, my mother held on to the belief that Siegel had understood her as an artist, and that she therefore owed her life to him.
There was an AR term for people who had misgivings. It was called “having two stories,” which meant, in AR-speak, we were grateful for what we were learning from Siegel, but we were ashamed to receive such great wisdom from someone without credentials and degrees that would reflect well on us. There was no such thing as valid criticism of the philosophy or its teacher; if you knew it, you saw its greatness. Either we were grateful, or we wanted to “kill our gratitude.” We were constantly exhorted to “make up our minds.”
A few days after I left my letter of resignation at the Foundation and was not answering the phone in my apartment, I heard my mother on my answering machine say to my father, “I’ve had two stories for so long that now that I have one, she doesn’t believe me.”
My parents had told me that, if I left, they would treat me as any other person who left; and they did exactly that. They cut off communication. A few months later, my mother shipped me a carton of belongings I had stored in their loft. When I met her on the street, shortly before I married, I put my arms around her and said how glad I was to see her. She stiffened like a board and walked away. Some years later she shipped me a box filled with all the photos she had of me.
In the first years after I walked away, as I was building a very different (and successful) life, I continued to believe that though she had to toe the line outwardly, inwardly my mother recognized the difference between the group’s world and the real world. We had agreed so explicitly on how cultish the group had become. I also thought the deep bond we had had for more than 40 years, including those final years of terrible shared pain, had to still be alive.
At the same time, I knew how her mind would work defending the philosophy because, for so many years, my mind had worked exactly the same way. I had had the same internal mindset. She would hear anything I might say through her filter: not what I said, but a version of what I said that justified her predetermined answer. I knew all the logic. Though I did write her some letters in which I talked about my life now, and the harm I felt had been done, I did not try hard to persuade her because it could not work.
My parents were very close. Part of their bond was that they were both artists, and they respected each other’s art. Also, though they had difficult years and fights that almost drove them apart, they stood together to defend their beliefs against their own families and an art community hostile to Siegel and his philosophy.
My mother was deeply tied to my father; she was also deeply tied to me. My father and I had a subtle but definite tug of war over my mother’s loyalty. This is certainly not unique to a cult-engaged family. But when I left, my mother had to make a choice, and given all they had been through together, I am not surprised she chose my father. He gave her an anchor in the only life she had known for 45 years.
As the years went on, after she spent 50, 60, 70 years in the movement, and then after my father died, I knew it would be almost impossible for her to leave it. I know how much my mind has had to change and is still changing after decades in a normal life. As she reached her 90s, she woke every day knowing realistically she might die tomorrow. Even if she wanted to, she didn’t have the time or space to build a new life.
One day last October, a cousin called me to tell me that, early that morning, my mother had died. She had remained active, walking from her Soho loft to the Foundation to give classes, and was, according to relatives, as sharp at 97 as they or I.
I had been thinking about this day for many years. I thought it would be incredibly difficult. I did not know what I would feel. I kept watching for some kind of notice to be published by the group, if not in The New York Times, at least on their website. My mother had been a pioneer, a leader, a teacher, a supporter for longer than most of them were alive. I began thinking about posting something myself: What would I say? A few weeks later, I posted a notice on Facebook that said, in part,
A woman of great natural compassion, integrity, courage and wisdom, my mother spent 75 years of her long life, until the day she died, promoting the ideas of Aesthetic Realism, and trying to prove herself worthy of its leader….
In her devotion to Siegel and his ideas she sacrificed her own ambitions, her ties to family, critical recognition as an artist during her lifetime. He was relentless demanding more from her, and she was tireless trying to give it to him.
I have missed her for many years. Though she caused pain to her parents, her sisters, me, I understand that she thought she was being true to something beautiful. I once thought that way too.
I will never forgive those who caused my mother to stifle her natural warmth and live in a prison of the mind. She is free of that now. May history be kinder to her than she was to herself. She deserved more.
Trying to understand what motivated my mother’s choices and decisions has definitely helped me act in my own self-interest and establish firmer boundaries that are healthy for my life. But while I accept the difficulty posed by her history and the length of time she was involved, I still find it hard to accept that she would renounce the bond we shared for all those years. In the time since I left, did she really lose any sense, however buried, of the outside world? How much did she struggle between her attachment to me and her devotion to Siegel? Did she really think, as she wrote me once, that I was a traitor, like Brutus, who killed Julius Caesar, or like Benedict Arnold, who betrayed his country during the Revolutionary War? As I retain sympathy for her, am I blinding myself to meanness and denying a natural, angry feeling about that?
A few weeks after my mother died, I received a thick envelope in the mail. It contained a copy of her will, which her estate attorney sent me as her next of kin.
On the first page of the will, my mother wrote,
My late husband … and I … are not including our daughter … in our wills because she betrayed the education which benefitted her life, … besmirched it and its founder, with deliberate malice spreading lies. I say this because I must say what is in my heart, and be true to the ethics which have given my life its meaning.
I was shocked and stung. She put this in her will? It was as if she was shaking her finger at me from the grave. Then, as the language sank in, stilted, archaic, taken straight from AR jargon, I laughed, and the anger went away.
My mother succeeded in having the last word by talking to me when I could not respond. But why was this necessary? Was she sincere? Or was she trying to convince herself? Or both? Should I be angry with a woman who chose a false god over a true child? Or should I sympathize with a woman who could not resolve her own conflicting passions?
I don’t know the answers to these questions—perhaps it is yes to all of them. I continue to explore.
Aktar, S. (2002). “Forgiveness: Origins, dynamics, Psychopathology, and technical relevance. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 71(2), 175–212.
Luskin, F. (2002). Forgive for good: A proven prescription for health and happiness. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
About the Authors
Lorna Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA, board member and past president of ICSA, is a psychoanalyst in private practice and Director at the Institute of Psychoanalytic Studies. In 1976, she and her husband, William Goldberg, began facilitating a support group for former cult members that continues to meet monthly in their home in Englewood, New Jersey. Lorna and Bill received the Hall of Fame Award from the authentic Cult Awareness Network in 1989 and the Leo J. Ryan Award from the Leo J. Ryan Foundation in 1999. In 2009, Lorna received the Margaret T. Singer Award from ICSA. Along with Rosanne Henry, she cochaired ICSA’s Mental Health Committee from 2003 to 2008. Lorna has published numerous articles about her therapeutic work with former cult members in professional journals, including, most recently, Goldberg, L., (2012), “Influence of a Charismatic Antisocial Cult Leader: Psychotherapy With an Ex-Cultist Prosecuted for Criminal Behavior,” International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 2, 15–24; and Goldberg, L., (2011), “Diana, Leaving the Cult: Play Therapy in Childhood and Talk Therapy in Adolescence,” International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 2, 33–43. She also wrote the chapter “Guidelines for Therapists” in the book Recovery from Cults (1993), edited by Michael Langone. She cowrote with Bill Goldberg the chapter “Psychotherapy With Targeted Parents” in the book Working With Alienated Children and Families (2013), edited by Amy J. L. Baker and S. Richard Sauber. Most recently Lorna co-edited (along with William Goldberg, Rosanne Henry, and Michael Langone) Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working With Former Members and Families (2017).
Ann Stamler, MA, MPhil, graduated from Brooklyn College summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1965, and earned graduate degrees in Latin from Columbia University. She was in the Aesthetic Realism movement from birth until she left at age 41, in 1985. In 1987 she married Joseph Stamler, whom she had first met in Aesthetic Realism. From 1985 to 2006 she was a senior executive of a nonprofit agency in New York that worked with the labor movements in the U.S. and Israel. She has served on the boards of various civic and cultural organizations. In 2007 she was elected to the legislative body of her town in Connecticut, a position she held until 2013. In 2014 she received ICSA’s Margaret T. Singer Award. She is Associate Editor of ICSA Today.