History of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center

ICSA Today, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2012, 2-7

History of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center

Barbara Martin

Like the growth of an oak, the Albany, Ohio-based Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center has matured over time since it began in 1986 with the purpose of providing help to those affected by cults and other coercive and unhealthy relationships. Wellspring just celebrated 25 years of service as one of the few residential facilities in the nation that specifically treats victims of cults, domestic abuse, and other coercive situations. Join me in retracing the journey of Wellspring’s growth and its significant contributions to the cultic studies field.

The Seeds of Wellspring’s Beginning

Wellspring began in Paul’s (Dr. Paul Martin’s) and my hearts and lives following our 8-year experience of living in a community as part of a campus ministry in Kansas City, which began in the early 1970s. We had joined a Christian group that set up churches on more than 20 college campuses; this group emphasized living out New Testament principles and engaging in large outreaches to students. Over time, the main leader of the radical Christian movement began to be more manipulative and controlling, and to teach off-balance tenets, so we left.

Not finding much emotional or spiritual help from support personnel for our confused and disillusioned state, we sought to open a treatment facility to help others who had gone through similar experiences and their aftereffects. Paul completed his PhD in Counseling Psychology in 1983 from the University of Pittsburgh. We had moved to Ohio, where we began building our own house. We also had secured 19 acres of woods with a small house on it, where we began our work of rehabilitating lives with only the financial and emotional support of family, and professional support from some of the early exit counselors in the cult-awareness field.

The Early Growth of the Wellspring Sapling

Wellspring was “planted” In 1986 when one other rehab center, Unbound, was operating with the purpose of offering encouragement to individuals who had recently received exit counseling, and it was doing so with good results. But Paul wanted to open a facility with a more professional, psychological-counseling emphasis, and one that provided more in-depth analyses of the spiritual teachings that had originally “hooked” individuals in their respective groups, so that their recovery could be more multifaceted. When Wellspring began, Paul was the CEO and counselor; I served as a workshop leader and handled phone inquiries; Paul’s brother Steve led other workshops that addressed the spiritual teachings and also served as a temporary residence coordinator. By 1988, Larry Pile joined the staff as another much-needed workshop leader and cult expert. Soon, we had to hire more residence coordinators to cook, clean, and serve as overnight support aides to help with the ever-growing number of people referred to Wellspring. We desperately needed more space.

I can remember standing in a pasture near a wooded area on the land, along with a few other staff, saying, “This is where the lodge needs to be.” It was the perfect spot. The exciting realization of that time came when the Wellspring lodge was completed in 1992, and to this day it continues to accommodate those who come for help.

The lodge faces into the Appalachian woods. It houses nine people at capacity, and more than 700 educational DVDs about religious, political, and psychotherapy cults as well as topics of mind manipulation and coercive techniques. Although funds have been lean through the years, and Wellspring has never received government or significant foundational funding for additional buildings, upgrades, or recreational amenities, the lodge has proven to be a warm, nurturing, and safe place for wounded individuals to begin to bring their lives back to wholeness. By 1997 and 1998, the one-story office building had received a second story and thus more room for files, supportive educational materials, a large conference room, an additional kitchenette, and two extra counseling/office rooms.

We obtained accreditation from the Joint Commission on Accreditation (JCA) during the ‘90s, following a scrupulous survey of our facility and professional practices. (At the time, Wellspring was the only facility of its kind in the world; with nothing for comparison, the Commission found it hard to assess our program.) Wellspring received top scores from the JCA for its outcomes studies that tracked individuals once they left the program, and for its means of measuring continued psychological wellness. We eventually let our JCA membership lapse because of the high financial dues to belong to the “club” (and we knew we were providing a good service, with or without the credentials).

As our client load increased, we added more mental-health counselors, with names including Pat Balke, Jim Witten, Ron Burks, Tiffanie Hawkins, Laura Weber, Jeff Bryson, and Donna Adams, to assist Paul with the counseling responsibilities. Each contributed significantly to helping hurting individuals find help and hope during their stay.

The Trunk: The Program and the Wellspring Model

Our rehab program was the first of its kind to include 2 hours of individual, professional counseling each day, the administration of a battery of psychological tests to aid in recovery issues (and later, in research), and more than twenty workshop topics to choose from for daily educational sessions. Hours of group interaction with other clients also aided in the learning experience. The group teaching on “Robert Lifton’s Eight Characteristics of Thought Reform,” a lecture that Paul and other therapists began giving, often has been a highlight to participants in the 2-week program.

Based on his reading of Lifton’s book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, our personal cultic experience of spiritual and psychological manipulation, and processing hundreds of ex-members’ stories through their time in counseling here, Paul developed a “systems model” of how thought reform or “mind control” worked in individuals. Although he revised the model graphically through the years, Paul presented his model around the world at various conferences, two major psychiatric clinics in the United States (Cleveland Clinic and Western Psychiatric Clinic, Pittsburgh), and in numerous court cases. He also shared this model with thousands of ex-members who were seeking a cognitive framework for understanding how they slowly had been conditioned to think and do things they would never have imagined themselves doing.

The Fruit of Changed Lives

Wellspring has produced much fruit to savor, but none as great as bringing healing to thousands of lives through its treatment program over the past 25 years. Clients have come from a variety of groups: spiritual communes, destructive psychotherapy groups or relationships, Neo-Nazi movements, polygamist communities, New Age groups, Hindu and Buddhist sects, bizarre Armageddon conclaves, abusive extremes within the Charismatic to Catholic to Jewish and Islamic groups, and more. Some previously have regularly eaten garbage from dumpsters, some have been housed in rooms they couldn’t leave for years due to the leader’s insistence, and some have showed impaired cognitive skills after years of meditating in an Eastern religion. We have served those who arrived very depressed, or even delusional, and many who have come sexually abused, either by mystics claiming celibacy, for by religious leaders whose coercive words claimed this was God’s will.

A funny story developed one day when a newly hired business manager came to her first weekly staff meeting. Liz, our client advocate at the time, was reviewing the potential clients coming our way. She said something akin to

Well, we have one person who wants to come who is a former wife of God, a second one who was God’s mistress, a third candidate whose leader believed he was from Arcturus, and a fourth… Well, this lady is too psychotic, so we can’t really help her!

The new staff person relayed this story later at our staff Christmas party, saying she wondered what on earth she was getting into! The entire staff was in stitches about the crazy life we were leading – although loving it at the same time, too.

Yes, in the balance, others who have come to Wellspring were in groups that are generally viewed as positive in the larger context, but in their subgroup had been misled by aberrant doctrines manufactured and manipulated by their respective leaders. They came wanting to sort out what was good and what was off-base about these groups. A multitude of thank-you notes and comments have come through the years, but some of the following examples express our clients’ gratitude:

I had a plan of ending my life for good then Debbie the admissions counselor at WS called and talked to me—finally somebody understood! I felt at this point…that I needed to give my life another try. While at WS the idea of committing suicide completely left my mind. I was able to change my whole perspective on life. Now I work 38-40 ours a week and am doing well. I want to live!

Wellspring gave me the ability to see that my personality was still the healthy person I am becoming today if it were not for WS initially turning me around. When friends ask me about my spiritual abuse, I always point them to you good folks. You are WONDERFUL! You are changing lives. In my case, you saved my life!

...I feel truly blessed to have met all of you; know that each of you have played a special role in my life—and I will never forget that. Once again thank you for a very fulfilling two weeks and thank you for helping someone to realize that life is a beautiful gift, especially when a captive mind has found her freedom.

I really appreciate all your help. I have faith in you, Dr. Martin. Thank you for being real.

Wellspring’s Research Branch

Findings about psychological abuse that have emanated from Wellspring’s research via its client base have been foundational and significant to the field of cultic studies. In 1992, Paul joined with Dr. Michael Langone to conduct the first study of its kind entitled “Post-Cult Symptoms As Measured by the MCMI Before and After Residential Treatment,” published in the Cultic Studies Journal. The research showed that the Wellspring treatment program ameliorated the significant psychopathology evident when individuals first arrived, compared to when they left the 2-week program, and then again when they were retested 6 months later. The short-term treatment significantly reduced symptoms such as dependency and anxiety. In 1996, Martin, Aronoff, Zelikovsky, Malinoski, and Lynn conducted follow-up research and found that Wellspring clients experienced a variety of psychiatric symptoms after they left their groups—symptoms such as depression, dissociation, dependency, and self-defeating thoughts, as well as post-traumatic stress symptoms; but they remediated those symptoms via our rehabilitation program. Aronoff and Malinoski, MA and PhD candidates at Ohio University (OU), produced dissertations with similar findings. Master’s-degree student L. Orchowski showed the high incidence of early violence and sexual abuse in ex-members. Two former mental-health counselors at Wellspring, Burks and Adams, both wrote their dissertations at OU using our client data for all of their findings. Dr. Rod Dubrow-Marshall of the United Kingdom and Dr. Carmen Alemendros of Spain both have profited from analyzing the Wellspring database for their research questions and subsequently extending their theories of cult identity and abuse, thus broadening the cultic studies field with their scholarship. This branch of the ever-growing oak continues to flourish.

More Branches and Twigs

Others in the academic and cleric community, let alone the general public, have not always understood the cult phenomena. “What is a cult?” “Is mind control a valid theory, or do other theories explain it better?” “How does one distinguish a cult from a new religious movement behaviorally?” “What are the characteristics of a thought-reform program?” “Do coercive systems really produce psychological symptomatology, or are people’s issues a result of their own dysfunction?”“Can a therapist’s interventions actually change cognitive constructs?” ”How are typical cult members alike or different from terrorists?” These and many other questions have floated amongst ex-members, social scientists, and professionals in the cultic studies network; and the Wellspring staff have taught on these topics at conferences and churches, via newspaper and media interviews, and through published articles and books:

Paul aided Dr. Louis J. West of UCLA Medical Center in the publication of their well-received chapter entitled “Pseudo-Identity and the Treatment of Personality Change in Victims of Captivity” in the book Dissociation: Clinical and Theoretical Perspectives (Lynn and Rhue, 1994).

Mdia reporters too numerous to mention interviewed Paul through the years. In brief, reporters from Tokyo Broadcasting System in Japan interviewed him, he spoke at the Stockholm Institute of Psychology and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Maryland; and he was featured with staff in a 48 Hours TV documentary on the Waco tragedy, which featured Wellspring clients at the time.

Paul presented at the Ohio Psychological Association, as well as in more than 35 talks at AFF/ICSA conferences.

Dr. Burks lectured in four cities in Japan on the cult problem following the Aum Shinrikyo tragedy, and Paul educated members of the intelligence community, as it related to their concern regarding terrorism, on how cults recruit and the psychological effects of control that is dominant in closed, totalistic systems.

Many of the Wellspring staff were flown to Sweden for two different cult rehabilitations through Swedish officials there.

Staffers Larry Pile, Steve Martin, and Liz Shaw also have given talks and written articles that appeared in various publications always with the aim to educate others about the problem in our society.

Paul wrote the book Cult-Proofing Your Kids in Wellspring’s early history; Ron Burks and his wife Vicky wrote Damaged Disciples, and more recently, Steve Martin published his book The Heresy of Mind Control.

We established a clinical internship program for counselors to spend from 4 weeks to 6 weeks at our facility to learn how to treat cult victims more effectively.

Paul was a great interviewee and always had some colorful way to communicate his thoughts that became a sound bite. In a typical interview, he was once quoted as saying, “We see the silent masses of sour snatchers. We see an uncanny sameness in the techniques used by tyrants…. Ultimately, the battles are going to be won, freeing one mind at a time.” And so the masses continue to be educated.

Knotty Legal Battles

The many individuals treated at Wellspring and Paul’s expertise in being able to defend the cause led to his involvement in “fighting the fight” in the courts, on behalf of many victims. The large client list and resultant research findings poised him to testify effectively in more than 30 court cases in his career, elevating the role of thought reform in cult litigation. He served in cases against J. Z. Knight aka Ramtha, the New Age “entity”; various New Age cults; custody battles between parents (one in the cult and one out of the cult); some 10-erson cults and some 1,00-member groups; some Christian sects; and some cult-related murder cases. His most prestigious expert-witness testimonies occurred in the Lee Boyd Malvo case and the Washington, DC sniper shootings in 2002; and then in 2006 when he was hired to help in the case of the notorious terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, who was connected to the 9/11 terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center in New York. Although Paul never lived long enough to see Tony Alamo jailed for his abusive of children in his church compound, he and our staff also played a strong role in seeing to it that the victims testified against Alamo. One young man sits now in prison, instead of being put to death, over a case in which Paul testified regarding the role that brainwashing/undue influence played in the Jeffrey Lundgren cult members in northeastern Ohio.

If I could summarize every story of a life touched through Wellspring and Paul’s work, the pages would never end. Although Paul died in 2009, Wellspring continues to open its doors to those who need help. Greg Sammons, once the lodge manager and now a licensed counselor, heads up the counseling and, along with Dr. Bjornstad, the Board president, manages the program. The lodge has been updated some and the grounds have been improved, and attempts are being made to increase funding so that our Victim’s Assistance funds can be increased. But now with the ever-growing MeadowHaven in Lakeview, Massachusetts, Wellspring is no longer the only tree in the forest. And ICSA itself also has implemented workshops/group counseling for ex-members through its weekend workshops and conferences, so finally other rehabilitative choices are possible.

But Wellspring will always serve as a pioneer in professionalizing the counseling of cult victims, in developing a systems model of how thought reform works in a life, and in bringing a base of cult research and experience into cult litigation cases. The sacrifice of a few has brought freedom of mind to many, many lives.

And so the oak grew … and continues to grow.

About the Author

Barbara Martin, MA, received her degree from the University of Kansas Medical Center. She and her husband, Dr. Paul Martin, were members of Great Commission International, once a cultic church operating on campuses across the nation that now, thankfully, has returned to balance. She and Paul left that group when she became an Assistant Professor of Speech Communication at Geneva College in Pennsylvania, where she received tenure. They then moved to Ohio to begin Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, where she did a variety of administrative tasks, served clients, and led workshops on topics including depression and anxiety, addiction, forgiveness and bitterness, and codependency issues. She has lectured at conferences and speaking engagements on cultic thinking, dissociation, hidden abuses (the famous “What’s Behind Door Number One?” talk, and, recently, the 25-year history of Wellspring, among other topics. Currently, she serves as a licensed speech-language pathologist.