Raised in Cultic Groups

Cultic Studies Review, 5(1), 2006, 1-28

Raised in Cultic Groups: The Impact on the Development of Certain Aspects of Character

Lorna Goldberg, MSW

New Jersey Institute of Psychoanalysis


Although a number of articles and books have been written on the effects of cultic involvement on adult personalities (e.g., Lifton, 1961; Lalich, 2004; Conway and Siegelman, 1978; Hassan, 1988; West and Martin, 1994; Singer, 1995), little has been written on the impact of being raised in cults on the development of individuals’ character or personality style. In this article, I identify several common personality characteristics that I have seen in those individuals raised in cults, and I consider how the cult environment influences the formation of these particular characteristics.

Moore and Fine (1990) define character as

the enduring, patterned functioning of an individual. As perceived by others, it is the person’s habitual way of thinking, feeling, and acting. Understood psychodynamically, character is the person’s habitual mode of reconciling intrapsychic conflicts…. A person’s character is made up of an integrated constellation of character traits…. Character is most closely related to the concept of an individual’s defensive style. (pp. 37–38)

Chessick (1993) adds,

One’s personality or character must be understood as a “readout” displaying compromise formations made by the ego between the demands of the id, the superego, and external reality. So character traits are a mixture of drive derivatives, defenses, and superego components. They may be thought of as developing over time out of the attempt to resolve intrapsychic conflict. There is also a growing body of evidence that genetic and constitutional factors play an important role in supplying potentials that may or may not be used by each individual in the development of character traits. (p. 50)

In therapy I have found that it is important to uncover the unconscious fantasies that underlie these characterological ways of relating to others.  With the uncovering of the fantasy that is at the core of the character trait, the individual is able to begin to move away from being invested in continuing this behavior.  

In this paper, I will examine how the interplay between adolescent struggles and character traits are affected by cult involvement. I will present two case examples to illustrate some of these developmental struggles. The parents of my first case example became involved in a cult during my client’s childhood, while the parents of my second case example became involved when my client was a young adolescent. Others who are born or raised in cults might have different basic personality characteristics and might be affected in different, or additional, ways than those I have described in this paper. Therefore, although this paper emphasizes certain character traits, it is inevitable that some traits will not be included.

Influences on Personality Development

The child’s personality is shaped both by temperament[1] and the nature of the child’s experience of the parents or important objects in the child’s life.[2] The growing child develops certain personality characteristics that are reflected in character traits in this process. Moore and Fine (1990) state,

The parents serve as models for ego development and ego-ideal and superego formation through the processes of introjection and identification. How a person’s developing character is affected by his or her parents depends upon the stage of development at which crucial situations involving trauma and conflict arise. It also depends upon whether the child adopts the parents’ affirming or prohibiting attitudes and whether he or she seeks to be like or unlike the parents. (p. 38)


In attempting to understand how some character traits are influenced to unfold as they do, I also will look at the mechanism of identification. Some character traits appear to be identifications made with others. Identification is a “more mature level of internalization [that] involves greater object differentiation and the process is more selective of the traits internalized” (Moore and Fine, 1990).

In an attempt to explain certain transformations that occurred within the context of the parent-child relationship, Freud first used identification as a dynamic concept. In Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, Freud stated,

First, identification is the earliest expression of an emotional tie with an object; secondly, in a regressive way it becomes a substitute for a libidinal object-tie, as it were by means of the introjection of the object into the ego; and thirdly, it may arise with every new perception of a common quality shared with some other person who is not an object of the sexual instinct. The more important this common quality the more successful may this partial identification become and it may thus represent the beginning of a new tie. (pp. 107-108)

Imitative Learning

More recently, the field of neurobiology through its use of imaging studies of the brain has suggested an additional viewpoint on imitative learning. Imaging studies show that neurons in certain areas of the brain are stimulated when a growing child perceives the emotions of a parent. That is, by simply observing a parent’s emotional state, certain areas of the child’s brain are activated. These areas would usually be stimulated by the child directly if he or she were experiencing that emotion. Therefore, the discovery of the functions served by mirror neurons may suggest a human readiness to imitate the behaviors of a parental figure, and mirror neurons can be seen as building blocks used in the development of some identifications (Olds, 2006).

Identifications also might occur by making loss of a loved object more tolerable. For example, at bedtime, the child might sing to herself or her doll in the manner that her mother sang to her. In this way, she is diminishing the impact of the loss of mother’s availability and is learning to give herself comfort.

Identification with the Aggressor

Although identifications are usually associated with love, identifications also are made during experiences of danger. To lessen anxiety, some children or adults might interject characteristics of the anxiety-provoking object to cope with experiences of panic and helplessness. Anna Freud described this kind of identification as “identification with the aggressor” (A. Freud, 1936).  In this type of identification, the individual identifies with the object’s attitude by projecting danger onto the outside and away from the object. This is an intrapsychic reaction to a real threat or actual traumatic experience. Emch (1944) further theorizes that, in some cases, where one or both parents are “unknowable” because of unpredictable, violent, or chaotic behavior or prolonged absence, the child may imitate the most “salient” of the parents’ behaviors with the unconscious aim of gaining some predictability in a difficult life.

Zetzel summarizes, “Character formation … includes the whole range of solutions, adaptive or maladaptive, to recognized developmental challenges” (Zetzel, p. 153).

Character Integration

Character typically continues to be shaped until the end of adolescence. One of the chief goals of adolescence is “character synthesis” (Gitelson, 1948) or characterological consolidation. That is, in late adolescence, the young person typically has a stronger sense of a coherent identity structure. Behavior and attitudes become more routinized and predictable. Because personality seems to erect its main characterological acquisitions during adolescence, the significance of this stage of development for future adjustment is crucial (Giovacchini, 1973).

Cult-Influence on Adolescent Psychological Development

When discussing the individual who enters a cult in late adolescence or in adulthood, many authors have described the pseudo-personality of the cultist and the fact that the cult leader becomes a new object for identification. West has written, “Individuals subjected to [prolonged stress] may adapt through dissociation by generating an altered persona, or pseudo-identity” (West, 1994).  Citing Anna Freud, West notes that this pattern can be seen as “identification with the aggressor.” West and Martin explain how this “personality was superimposed upon the original which, while not completely forgotten, was enveloped within the shell of the pseudo-identity” (West and Martin, 1994).

In contrast to the first-generation cult member, the child who is born or raised in a cult has neither the previous personality nor a cohesively formed personality on which the new cultic personality is imposed. Aside from inherent temperament, basic character becomes affected and shaped by the child’s reaction to the cult experience. The cult personality is not superimposed, but becomes an aspect of the original personality.

In the cult, the charismatic leader is seen as extraordinary, all-powerful, and as an ideal being. The role of the parent often is usurped by the cult leader. Previously, I have written about the ways in which the cult leader interferes with parental authority over children (Goldberg, 2003). Rebellious, or even questioning, behavior typically is dealt with harshly, and this response serves as an example to all the cult members, especially children. Therefore, to lessen anxiety while in the cult, the growing child (to survive) often learns to be passive in response to the harsh, controlling nature of the cult leader.

The leader is used first to externalize, and later also to internalize some superego functions. That is, the developing child copes by taking in the cult leader’s prohibitions and severe attitudes, and this incorporation continues to shape the growing child’s superego functions. As a result of this adaptation, the child may adopt a submissive, masochistic attitude as a response to the leader’s authority and, therefore, develop an internal experience of being insignificant or bad. This process might lead to the internalization of a harsh, critical conscience and a tendency toward self-blame. For example, Muster writes, “Teachers and gurus told children [growing up in ISKON] that abuse was their karma because they must have hurt children in a past life and … that to oppose the abuse would only bring more bad karma” (Muster, p. 11, 2004).

When those who have been raised in cults leave that world in young adulthood, they have to enter an entirely new sociocultural environment—a wider world with new expectations and rules. These former cult members[3] usually have tremendous difficulty with that adjustment. I have worked with several individuals who told me that entrance into the world outside the cult is complicated by the fact that their cultic upbringing has left them deprived of many coping skills to adapt to that task. They have difficulty adjusting to the problems that the external world presents and difficulty dealing with a variety of situations that others would find to be commonplace.

The lack of mastery of these coping skills is exacerbated by the former cult member’s impoverished sense of identity, poor self-esteem, and fear of the outside world. The blurring of boundaries between the leader and the members and the need for idealization of the narcissistic leader have led them to a feeling that they are nothing without him or her. They believe that they need others to guide them. Furthermore, cult members are constantly exploited and shamed. (Shaw, 2003) This treatment leads many into believing they are failures because of their lack of success in the cult. This is true even if they left as a result of their recognition of cult hypocrisy or felt proud of their ability to leave a destructive environment. They may expect to fail in the outside world and go to some form of hell because they have left the perceived protection and path to holiness offered by the cult. As a result of cult suggestion as well as displacement of feelings from the cultic world onto the wider world, they see the world outside the cult as a dangerous place (Markowitz and Halperin, 1984).

Case Study: Tim

I will now discuss the situation of Tim, whose case illustrates many of these themes. Tim is a 38-year-old man who has been seeing me for seven years. He began therapy about five years after he left his cult, and his presenting problems indicated difficulty dealing with periods of intense depression and anxiety. He was unable to take pleasure in his life.

Tim’s parents joined a Bible-based cult when he was about three years old, and he was raised in his family’s home in the Midwest until he was 13. Although his parents continued to live in the family home, their life was controlled by cult edicts, and Tim was sent to religious schools within the community.

This large cultic group has a charismatic, living leader who establishes doctrine and demands obedience to himself. The rules of this church were harsh, and Tim was disciplined severely by both parents. Tim suspects that harsh treatment was consistent with his parent’s previous value system. He also believes, however, that their frustrations with the high demands of the cult intensified their poor treatment of him. He believes that their first allegiance always was to the cult.

Tim views his mother as more malignant than his father and has memories of her waiting until his father arrived home to “tattle” on Tim. Tim believes this was done, in part, to deflect his father’s anger from his mother because of her negligence in finishing her household tasks. Actually, Tim was required to help his mother with many of these household tasks, and he often would fail to live up to her high and demanding expectations. In response to his mother’s prodding, his father, exhausted from a long day at work, would typically explode at Tim and severely beat him with a strap.

Many children in cults experience strict behavior and physical abuse from their parents, according to anecdotal reports from former cultists and those who have written about this topic (Singer, 1995; Markowitz and Halperin, 1984; Langone & Eisenberg, 1993; Siskind, 2001). Children are seen as extensions and reflections of their parents, and parents are pressured to control their children. Because the parental tie to the cult leader needs to become stronger than the tie to their children, breaking the will of the children becomes acceptable and, sometimes, obligatory (Goldberg, 2003).

Children raised in cults often grow up feeling hated and hateful because of this harsh treatment. They usually have experienced little help with regulating the strong affects that are stimulated by the cultic environment, particularly anxiety, anger, and grief. To survive, they often have had to suppress their emotions. Sometimes, as in the case of Tim, they appear to be out of touch. This might indicate that some degree of dissociation exists. However, overwhelming feelings periodically break through. Rather insignificant incidents often trigger emotions that have been displaced from their original source.

Tim’s mother would at times act kind and loving toward him in front of other people. However, when Tim and his mother were home alone, she would either ignore him or yell at him for not living up to her high expectations. The only time that she was pleasant was during the family dinner hour, which was observed as an important ritual with prayer and food. He has no memory of her showing an authentically caring (or empathic) attitude toward him. Tim took solace in food as the only sign of love that his mother showed. He also learned that people can be deceptive, acting one way in public and another way in private.

Tim’s father, although irascible and explosive, showed Tim occasional positive attention when they worked on household projects together. However, his mother always complained about the quality of the workmanship. Tim felt that his father was unable to stand up to his mother and that he displaced his frustration with her onto Tim. Although his parents wished to present a perfect marriage to others in the community, Tim did not see real affection between them and clearly believed that their frustrations with each other and the demands of the cult were taken out on him.

Move to Foreign-Based Monastery

When Tim was 13, he was sent by his parents to another country, to a cult-affiliated monastic community in which approximately one hundred members resided. This group centered on the restoration of the medieval church. More strongly affiliated male cult members lived monastic lives and engaged in elaborate medieval rituals. At the monastery, Tim’s days were highly structured, with long periods of church services and mind-numbing rituals. He was bombarded with tapes and videos of his leader, all of which were in a foreign language.

Although Tim had been anxious about this dramatic change in his life, he felt relieved about leaving his abusive home. His parents had told him that they were sending him away to escape the evils of the American school system. He feels, however, that his parents’ primary purpose in sending him to the community was to prove their loyalty to the cult and to impress the leaders. Again, Tim’s needs were not considered, and presently he feels that he was exploited.

When Tim entered the monastery his world dramatically changed. When he was a small child, he had been determined to be the first to learn to dive into the pool, despite his fears. Now he felt that, to survive, he had to dive into the rules of the monastery and leave childhood behind. In addition to his need to learn a foreign language, Tim had to adjust to a whole set of new rituals. Fortunately, as an appealing young American, Tim was seen as a “pet” and was befriended by some of the men. But the men who befriended Tim eventually were sent on other missions or to a hospital for “re-socialization,” which meant that powerful psychiatric drugs were used to control them. He feels that he was always losing people who were kind or important to him.

This fear of loss has appeared again later, in his relationships in his present life. For example, when his mother-in-law died, he believed that this was just another indication that he would lose everyone he loved.

There were few teenagers in this monastic center, so Tim was deprived of a peer group. This deprivation has had a lasting impact on his life, and he finds it quite difficult to make friends with peers in his present life. He feels different from others and continues to experience himself as a 13-year-old among men. [This behavior contrasts with second-generation cultists who developed strong relationships with their peer group because of the unavailability of their parents (Kent, 2004).]

Tim told me that he lobbied the higher-ups to permit him to work in the kitchen because that would relieve him from having to engage in some of the cult rituals and he could eat the best food. Most importantly, this work would allow him to have contact with women—the hired kitchen staff. In therapy, Tim recalled that this association was reminiscent of his early experiences with his mother’s prayer group. In both situations, the women would treat him kindly and shower him with treats. He developed a way of endearing himself to these women in an attempt to gain some positive attention. It seems that from a young age, Tim’s characteristic manner of dealing with life was to reach out for a caring maternal presence, and he was able to find substitute mothers.

Tim’s pleasure in food and spending time with the women was his guilty secret, which was never disclosed while he was a cult member. In therapy, Tim also recalled a memory of watching a beautiful woman as she walked on the street near the monastery. Thinking of her from time to time gave him a secret pleasure.

Return to the United States

After Tim had spent six years in the monastery, the cult leader ordered him to return to America to proselytize, ostensibly because the cult leader felt that Tim was avoiding the more intense levels of personal sacrifice. Leaving the monastery and going to the United States was a step down for him. He felt ashamed about his failure to live up to the impossible ideals of the cult and guilty that he had avoided some of these rituals of personal sacrifice.

To support himself in the United States, Tim began working as a security guard. At his job, he met the woman almost twenty years his senior who later became his wife. His talks with her, his growing interest in her, and her reactions to his harsh experiences allowed him to consider that he was a member of a destructive group. Eventually, he was able to leave the group, but he continued to feel anxious and guilty about having left. After several years outside the group, he discovered our support group and came to me for therapy.

Therapist’s Perspective

When I initially met with Tim, I found him to be an intelligent, but emotionally constricted, individual. He reported the facts of his background of abuse, neglect, and restriction in a detached way, as if he were describing someone else’s experience. He found his work to be unsatisfying; and I felt that, although he had little formal schooling, he was working well below his abilities. He was rather isolated. His social life consisted of activities with his wife and, occasionally, with her family members. He had no contact with his own family and had difficulty making friends.

In early sessions, I found Tim to be likeable but naïve, despite all that he had experienced. He displayed little understanding about the world outside the cult. Although he was more than 30 years old, he presented himself as an endearing young teenager. In these early sessions, I believe that Tim initially related to me transferentially, as he had related to the benign friends of his mother and the kitchen staff at the monastery. He used our early sessions to talk about his uncertainty about how to deal with many situations of daily life. In early sessions, Tim primarily focused on all that he wanted to cognitively learn rather than on all that he wanted to emotionally experience.

As mentioned previously, I have found in my clinical work that individuals who have left cults are not trained in the general social skills that other children learn in school and through their families and friends. Learning to cope with a diverse community was confusing to Tim. He felt ill equipped to deal with the outside world, and he often looked to me to provide him with the “answer” about how to handle different situations. As I began to feel uncomfortable about his emerging reliance on me, I reflected with him on how he seemed to be expecting me to be the new authority in his life. I added that I felt that I would not be helpful to him if I fell into that role. I told him that we could talk about alternative ways of handing different situations, but he was going to have to figure out the best answer for himself. At times, Tim expressed annoyance with me for not giving him “the answer.” He often said, “You know what to do. I wish you would just tell me.” Although I could empathize with his sense of frustration, I told him that he was capable of thinking things out for himself. At times, I would also suggest that he use the support group, other cult members, or clergy to focus on matters with which he was having difficulty.

It is common for those who have been in cultic groups to initially engage in an idealizing transference, viewing the therapist as an all-knowing expert on every matter (Goldberg, 1993). Some former cultists initially present themselves as helpless and vulnerable people who need the therapist’s supposed omnipotent wisdom. As I have noted previously (Goldberg, 1993), it is important not to play into this idealization by assuming the role of expert or rescuer, and/or by violating therapeutic boundaries. In the cult, members were encouraged to be passive, and idealization was encouraged past childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. Cult members were treated as children and discouraged from feeling as if they were competent. In therapy, I encourage former members to find solutions and take actions on their own behalf. Breaking through the passive orientation to life enhances their sense of self.

However, despite this initial passive presentation, I have found former cultists to be quite resourceful in numerous ways. Tim figured out how to survive in a foreign country. He escaped the more rigorous rituals and spent time in the kitchen where he was able to eat well and gain maternal attention from the kitchen staff. He pretended to be asleep or got involved in an activity away from the monastery as a way to avoid having to join proselytizing campaigns. He traveled to other countries on his own. Although Tim was floundering in the world outside the cult, he and I began to appreciate all the successful ways that he had coped in the past. Instead of identifying himself as a lost soul, he began to appreciate his strengths and develop his own answers.

Tim’s emotional reactions were re-enacted with individuals from his present life many years after he originally had experienced childhood trauma. [Freud noted that, instead of remembering, unconscious mental assumptions and experiences with important early relationships would be repeated in the transference (Freud, 1914).] In early sessions, Tim focused on situations in which he seemed to transfer feelings and behaviors that he first had experienced with his mother and the cult leaders to his wife. As I have noted previously, the marital relationship, in all circumstances, provides a place in which the internal conflicts of each partner can be externalized and expressed to the partner in one’s interactions (Goldberg, 2003). Initially, Tim’s wife had been seen as a lifeline, a rescuer, who had given him the opportunity to begin his life outside the cult. Later, she often was seen as the powerful, punishing parent—an overbearing woman with ceaseless demands for perfection.

Spouses, and also therapists who deal with those who have been raised in abusive situations, typically are either experienced as punishing or protecting individuals. This is part of the power that former cultists believe they have. For now, Tim has expressed that he sees me as a kind friend. Also, when I help him better deal with his emotions, he might experience me as protecting. However, it has been important for me to help Tim talk about how he feels when I do not give him “the answer.” Tim experiences me as punishing at those times. As I further explore this issue with him, I continue to point out that only he has “the answer” for him.

One day, Tim came into a session and began telling me how his wife had asked him to do tasks around the house over the week-end. He felt that he had to comply with her wishes, but he resented doing so. In response to this situation, I saw my role with Tim as two-fold. First, I would help him to reflect on his characteristic response—passivity—in the face of her request. Therefore, I first pointed out that although Tim seemed to resent all the tasks his wife requested, he always seemed to comply automatically. He said that he never realized that he had a choice. This was the beginning of our examination of how his passivity, learned from early childhood and reinforced by the cult, was playing out in his marriage and might lead Tim to secretly rebel against her in some way.

Second, I asked him to think of, and I later suggested, some additional ways he might deal with the demands of his wife or others. As we reflected on this, it became clear to Tim that he could negotiate a middle ground, he could simply refuse, or he could tell his wife to do the chores. He did not have to passively comply. Over time, Tim began to see that his wife was not quite as unreasonable as he had seen her to be in the past. She was not as rigid as his cult leader and parents had been.

Asserting himself with his wife and others was a difficult change for Tim. However, as he became more assertive, he became less depressed and more hopeful about life and his ability to influence others; and he experienced some control over his life. This change in behavior also helped him become less dependent.

Despite this new ability to assert himself, on occasion Tim continued to be flooded with anger and resentment at his wife. Together we attempted to sort out how much of this anger had to do with her. In describing his strong reactions to anything she asked him to do, Tim began to get a sense that his reaction was not simply in response to her requests. Sorting this out and talking about the first and earliest sources of his anger, as well as his emerging ability to assert himself in new situations, helped him to defuse the intensity of his reactions as well as his sense of powerlessness in life.

As with many of those with whom I have worked who have been raised in cults, Tim had been poorly educated and was working well below his abilities. He began to focus on his difficulty dealing with one of his bosses. He believed that he was being exploited, and initially he felt that he was unable to change his situation. As we sorted out which of his reactions were based on realistic appraisals of his boss, he began to observe that some of these reactions might be coming from the past. This helped Tim negotiate with his boss more successfully. Eventually, he left the company and developed his own business.

Although Tim worked hard in his new business, it initially was difficult for him to feel that he had a right to charge a fair fee for his services. As we explored this reluctance, he connected this to guilty feelings: He had no right to make a good living and become successful. He believed that those attitudes were selfish and materialistic. He should serve others. Tim perceived these attitudes as originating in the cult. However, upon reflection, he began to discuss the cult’s hypocrisy. Members were supposed to be self-sacrificing, while leaders lived lavishly. In contrast to the black and white extremes of cult life, we explored ways in which he could serve both others’ needs and his own in his post-cult life. Furthermore, I pointed out that perhaps his need not to charge the proper rate for his services was helping him to continue to feel exploited, rather than letting him feel better about life and the people in it. These were masochistic and paranoid attitudes from the cult, which he continued to harbor.

In time, Tim began to consider that to be paid for doing a good job did not mean that he was exploiting others; subsequently, he began to feel less used by others in life. However, in further examination of these attitudes, he also believed that in some way he did not deserve a successful life. As with many former members of cults, he was left with a residue of guilt about leaving a group that might have been the path of God. Therefore, he began to see how his tendency to have negative feelings about his life served his need to punish himself. Tim began letting go of the sadomasochistic conflicts that had permeated his entire life.

I have found that former members often have a need to play out their guilt by unconsciously undermining their lives after the cult. Although Tim chose to leave his group, he continued to experience the threat of eternal damnation. Examination of post-cult guilt can help former cultists discover its origin and can lead to their ability to abandon it. However, as with many former cult members who have felt betrayed by religion, Tim has chosen a secular life.

In looking at childhood pictures of Tim, I see a sweet and gentle child, and his memories corroborate this image. He was probably born with a gentle temperament. Additionally, Tim appears to have trouble utilizing aggression, not only because this behavior was so discouraged in his environment, but also because he fears being explosive, as his father was. In attempting to keep his aggressive feelings in check, he has learned to defend against them in a variety of ways. Anger might be displaced. For example, he might have intense reactions to other drivers while he is driving his car. He also suffers from a variety of somatic reactions to stress. These reactions might indicate that he learned to turn anger against the self. We have explored these somatic reactions as a way of attempting to understand their genesis and to offer Tim some relief.

Nevertheless, Tim’s learned passivity created problems for his post-cult relationships. Tim was more fortunate than some former members who get involved in relationships with rather domineering and/or controlling partners (Goldberg, 2003).

In these cases, there might at first be an attraction to those who can structure their lives in the manner in which their cult leader did. There is a tendency to continue the sadomasochistic behavior that was intensified in the cult. This can be familiar and libidinally gratifying. However, as the former members spend more time in the outside world and become less dependent and passive, they have less need to rely so totally on their partners. At this point, they might begin to want more freedom to decide things for themselves. They might wish to feel more pleasure in life despite the fact that this desire for pleasure was defined as “selfishness” in the cult. This newfound freedom can have a negative impact on their post-cult relationships. Unless their partners have the flexibility to change, the relationships can become problematic. Sometimes noncult partners might see all the problems they are experiencing with their partners as stemming from the cult. If these partners cannot consider that some of the problems might stem from other sources, the relationship will continue to have difficulties.

Case Study: Sue

I began to see Sue when she was 28 years old. Sue was a pretty young woman who initially appeared somewhat intense and proper. She described herself as depressed. However, over time I became aware of her intelligence and delightful sense of humor, which at times allowed her to laugh at her intensity.

Sue had moved to New York City after college in an attempt to broaden her life. She was working for a health organization, but she was feeling little satisfaction from her job. She had friends but felt disconnected from them. She was unable to become involved in a long-term romantic relationship. She was taking no pleasure in her life and believed that this was connected to her involvement in a cult.

Sue had been 14 years old, entering her first year of high school, when a manipulative, charismatic leader took over her parents’ mainline church.[4] Subsequent to this takeover, the church became a more controlling and conservative place. It was now required that she go to Bible study classes after school rather than participate in extracurricular activities (i.e., baton twirling) or simply hang out with friends. When she did spend time on noncult activities or with friends, her commitment to God was harshly questioned. Dating boys was not allowed. People outside the church were seen as “worldly and hypocritical.” Sue started to believe that she had to be the perfect representative of the cult: Her father was depending on her.

Her father, who was an elder in the church, and her mother, who resentfully followed her husband’s lead, focused less on Sue and more on the demands of the minister. Subsequently, Sue felt emotionally abandoned by her parents at this difficult stage of life.[5] She learned to hide her own resentments because to protest turned her into a bad person in the group’s eyes. She learned to look like a perfect adolescent but secretly rebelled by smoking cigarettes when she was alone. She learned to play two roles: the perfect, committed cult teenager and the typical, fun-loving, high-school adolescent. Within the cult world, Sue was ashamed of her teenage attitudes and her continuing desire to have a normal teenage life. However, when she was with her girlfriends at school, she attempted to hide her newly learned condemning cultic attitudes so she would not lose her friends and would be able to survive the high-school years. Despite her attempts to hide this “double life,” her friends saw a change. She seemed more emotionally distant. At times, she found she was setting herself up as an “example” to her friends, and she suspected that she had become somewhat self-righteous. She reflected in therapy about how her personality lost its sparkle. She felt that she became colorless, and that she was playing a role.

In Sue’s words,

I can picture it all so clearly: when this caving in of sorts first happened. Going into the summer before my freshman year of high school, I remember so well that feeling of being hopeful and excited and unhesitant about life. I had worked really hard on my baton routine that spring and practiced all the time for majorette tryouts. I was so determined and focused. I wore this yellow and white terry cloth shorts set to the try-out. I was ecstatic when I learned that I made it as an incoming freshman. I felt really proud and complete and hopeful.

I’ve felt proud about some things since that time, but it’s never been that same kind of clean pride. In the cult, it was a shameful pride. After the cult, it was basically muddied and regretful pride over my sporadic accomplishments. For many years, I felt no pride at all. Over the past two years, it’s been a catching-up pride. All of this has left me feeling incomplete.

I remember the minister coming to my house to visit my Dad that summer. He was friendly and interested in me. Later my Dad told me that he was impressed with me: my enthusiasm, my spunk, my brightness. I remember feeling flattered. Who wouldn’t be? Thinking back on it, it all looks so different. I see him as a dirty, pimp-like man who saw a pretty little girl and liked what he saw, showered me with gifts and attention, and then turned around and raped me. Then he sent me out on the streets to work for him and turned his attention to someone else.

But that’s not how it seemed that day. I was still my own person then—completely. It took a little while for me to get the big picture that my life wasn’t mine anymore. But once I did, there was a big change on the inside that went along with what must have looked like a small change on the outside.

With the minister’s visit to her home, Sue moved from seeing her parents as the authorities in her life to seeing the minister and later the group’s teen leaders in that role. This experience can be seen as similar to the experience of first-generation cultists. That is, as mentioned previously, the pseudo-personality of the cult is superimposed on the original personality. However, in early adolescence, the original personality is not fully formed. The cult is co-opting a normal unfolding of adolescence, an important stage of development.

In early adolescence, a decathexis from familiar love objects (parents) normally occurs, with a consequent search for new objects. Typically, the normal course of this shift occurs from the parents, to the self, to homosexual objects (girlfriends), and finally, to new heterosexual objects (boyfriends) (Blos, 1962).

Blos states:

Friendships, crushes, fantasy life, intellectual interests, athletic activities, and preoccupation with grooming, in general, all protect the girl against precocious—that is, defensive heterosexual activity. However, the girl’s ultimate safeguard for her normal passage through this phase is the emotional availability of the parent, particularly the mother or a mother substitute.” (Blos, p. 87, 1962)

Prior to the cult, Sue certainly appeared to be the typical adolescent, close to her girlfriends and interested in school activities. However, as her father began to be controlled by the cult leader and her mother followed, she lost a vital connection to her parents and their values. This connection was sharply truncated, which did not allow her to separate in the gradual way of most adolescents. Her minister and cult teen group leaders strove to replace her parents. They impinged upon her relationship with girlfriends. Although Sue continued to be involved with friends, her new attitudes adopted from the cult, as well as the time demands of the cult, created a distance in her friendships and from her former self.

In adolescence proper, the shift typically moves from girlfriends toward heterosexual objects. Because of the strict codes of the cult, Sue was pressured to turn away from potential boyfriends. At one point during high school, when she was considering leaving the group despite her father’s presumed disappointment, an ascendant male teen leader “befriended” her and, exploiting her budding sexuality, seductively convinced her to stay. Therefore, her first sexual experiences were manipulative and predatory.

Anna Freud discusses how the trait of negativism emerges in adolescence (A. Freud, 1936). This trait allows adolescents to begin to separate from parental attitudes. In contrast to their outward compliance, Sue secretly rebelled, whereas Tim attempted to circumvent some of the rituals, proselytizing, and more difficult work at the monastery. Sue attempted to have a secret counter-life with high-school friends in which she smoked in private and talked about boys with her friends. However, because the harsh attitudes of the cult eventually became internalized, Sue, like Tim, felt tremendous conflict (guilt and a sense of shame) about their rebellious attitudes.

Blos writes that it is the task of the late adolescent to arrive at a “final settlement” that he or she subjectively feels to be “my way of life.” The question of “Who am I?” begins to fade. At the stage of late adolescence there should be “clarity of purpose and awareness of the self…. This is me” (Blos, p. 128, 1962).

Instead of clarity of purpose and a sense of a cohesive self, Sue experienced a split identity at this stage of life. As the minister became more exploitive, her father began to see the hypocrisy of the group and his doubts increased. When she was 21, Sue’s father decided to leave the cult. Although Sue questions whether or not this gave her “permission” to leave, she did begin to feel that the potential for going to Hell upon leaving the church could not be worse than the hell she was experiencing as a member.

After leaving the cult, Sue initially felt relief about no longer having to adhere to such a strict doctrine. However, for several post-cult years, she continued to struggle with attempting to separate from cult experiences and attitudes that seemed to limit her life. Instead of a consolidation at the end of adolescence, Sue experienced a split life.        

After a year in therapy, Sue decided to enter graduate school in journalism in an attempt to recapture some of what she had lost.

“When I started therapy,” she wrote to me,

I felt like I had lost so much time. And I wanted so much to understand what had happened. And I wanted to get a career and a relationship. And I wanted to get better. I wanted to get better so badly, I did what I could to get myself into a position where I could start accomplishing something. I wanted to feel good about myself and feel whole. But I don’t feel whole. Because I’m still trying to pretend like this didn’t happen.

It’s exactly like it was in high school. I reveal my secret to people I feel safe revealing it to. I rushed through therapy because it was what I needed to do to get through graduate school. And I was hard on myself because I wanted to be OK. I needed to exorcise my grief. But, in doing so, it’s all been in this frenzy to catch up and right a wrong. And now I’m beginning to understand so clearly that I’ll never ever change what happened to me and that this is not the way I’m going to get better. And I’m not going to feel complete this way. Because the only thing I could ever do is try to make my life normal on the outside only: trying to keep it going. To say, “Hey, I’m in this thing, this is happening but I’m still like you guys.” But you know what? I wasn’t. And I’m not. I still have that split.

Sue describes the emotions that often are experienced by those raised in cults. Members are induced to use the splitting defense to see the cult world as all good and the outside world as evil. Markowitz and Halperin point out that splitting further occurs because cultists are induced to split off and isolate old affects (which are part of their earlier experiences). Doing this promotes a strong separation between old ties [and attitudes] and the cult (Markowitz and Halperin, 1984). Although this splitting process usually is applied to first-generation cultists, if it occurs early in adolescence, it can have a greater impact on the personality (which still is in development). Sue, like Tim, attempted to look “normal” on the outside, but they were painfully aware of feeling so different, and this created distance from others in their lives. Splitting off their past left each of them vulnerable to periods of depression and anxiety. Integration of the past into the present has allowed each of them to feel more acceptance of who they are, more in control of their actions. This integration also results in their having more energy to participate in life. Both Tim and Sue also revealed a split superego or conscience. They each struggled with following their own instincts to survive rather than strictly adhering to the moral code of the cult. Going against the rules left them feeling guilty and ashamed.

The following is an example of how Sue began to integrate her life: After about six months of therapy, she confided in me that she has a secret life that she shares with no one, not even her closest friends: She goes to bars and clubs with a separate, younger group of friends and picks up guys. This sexual side of her contrasts sharply with her prim and proper image. As we began to explore this, Sue saw that the need to have a secret life originated when she was 14 and entered the cult. It was her way of rebelling against the restrictions of the cult and of holding onto her former independent self. This behavior was also Sue’s attempt to do some of the activities that she had been restricted from doing while she was in the cult.

As we discussed Sue’s feelings after these incidents, however, she began to see how they were risky and might serve her need to punish herself. They also served to fuel her self-hatred. I pointed out that this secret life seemed to keep her from figuring out how to begin to have a more meaningful relationship with a man. As we examined all of this together, Sue began to explore the minister’s and teen leader’s sexual exploitation of her and how it has made her feel like a prostitute. As she began to share more of her secret life with me, she became angrier at her minister. Soon she began to recognize that all men don’t just want sex and that all men don’t desire to exploit others. As this need to act out unconsciously was made more conscious, Sue had less of a need to engage in this risky, self-destructive behavior. She was more motivated to meet men without continually splitting her behavior in two—bad or good girl.

I have seen this duality of personality, looking good on the outside and doing “bad” things in secret, in many of the former cultists with whom I have worked. Because of the need to project a perfect image, adolescents in cults begin to develop an underground or secret life in order to rebel or continue to hold onto a sense of self—that is, liveliness. Those who have been raised in cults also desire to experience all those activities that had been forbidden to them while in the cult. They often feel that they were robbed of a normal childhood, and they often engage in childish or adolescent activities. However, since they presently are adults, they often feel ashamed of these desires. As trust builds in the therapeutic relationship, former members are able to begin to examine this secret, split-off life. If the therapist is simply curious and open to examining this, rather than being judgmental (the transference expectation), the individual is able to begin to heal this split and become a more authentic person.

At one point, in therapy, Sue wrote to me,

When I was a teenager I used to feel so trapped and hopeless: the object of my minister’s disapproval for not having panned out as a teen leader. I felt so hopeless all the time living in between. So I used to complain about all the homework I had to do, all the time I had to spend evangelizing and attending “teen” functions and how tired I was. These were all valid complaints and justifiable for a normal teenager. But it always left me more frustrated than if I didn’t say anything at all, because I would just be “rebuked” for my bad attitude and independent and selfish spirit. But, also, it was so frustrating, because I was only complaining about the symptoms of what I was really sad about. What I really wanted to do was shout and scream and cry for help about my doubts, the fact that I desperately wanted a boyfriend and to feel attractive, that I wanted to go to parties and share secrets and not be an outsider: That I wanted to grow into someone individual. That I was so, so desperately scared of becoming lost: becoming just a woman of God. But there was no one to tell these things to—except my journal. So I kept talking about symptoms over and over again—hoping someone would catch on. But that never happened. I think that my bouts of depression were a cry for someone to help me understand.

Several writers have noted how diaries have helped the adolescent gain access to inner life (Dalsimer, 1967; Blos, 1962). Journal writing seemed to be the way that Sue kept in touch with her secret, inner thoughts. As with Anne Frank, Sue’s diary became her best confidant. Anne relied on her diary, because she was deprived of friendships when her family went into hiding. Sue was placed in a situation in which she could not be candid with her friends, with her family, nor with individuals from the cult. Sue’s journal also allowed her to keep in touch with the shifting roles she was forced to play. Perhaps the absence of a normal life and the ability to feel totally involved with friends and boyfriends sharpened her sensitivity to her inner life, and her need to write in a journal to feel more stabilized. The comfort of the journal has led to and continues with Sue’s chosen career of journalism.[6]

One day, Sue was very distraught as she entered my office. She had forgotten to take care of something at work that resulted in a missed deadline. She relentlessly kept berating herself. I told her that we weren’t angels walking on earth, and we are bound to make mistakes in our lives. My reaction surprised her. Later, she again was surprised when her supervisor did not condemn her for her mistake. In the cult, she had been taught that she was a sinner who must constantly repent and ask for forgiveness.  But the paradox is that the goal in the cult is perfection: to be angels on earth. The cult left her with an anxious feeling that she could never catch up to perfection. As Sue felt less of a need to project a perfect image, her anxiety decreased. And as Sue’s superego became less harsh and uncompromising, she became less depressed. With less anxiety and depression, she became less involved in a whole range of potentially self-destructive behaviors to discharge her anxiety. And she became more able to feel pleasure in life.


I believe these cases illustrate how cult life can have an impact upon and influence character development and particularly adolescent development. Although each of these individuals came into their cult environments with a pre-existing temperament, the cultic environments influenced each of their characters in harmful ways. In the authoritarian world of the cult, a conscience often is developed based on the need to please the cult leader. Initiative is discouraged because it might put the follower at risk. Therefore, passivity is enhanced. The followers also typically take in the harsh attitudes of the cult leader and attempt to meet a standard of perfection. However, concurrently, they sometimes develop a secret rebellious life.

Nevertheless, these cases also reveal how those raised in cults can thrive once they have the opportunity to live richer and fuller lives. I am amazed by the perseverance these individuals and other former members have shown to improve their lives. Their demanding cult environments have encouraged them to be conscientious and hardworking individuals, and this pattern is reflected in the way they approach therapy. The cult leader has used the demand for perfection as a vehicle for exploiting members. It is important for them to become aware of how impossible and self-destructive the wish to attain perfection can be. The goal is to appreciate the hardworking aspects of their characters, but to lessen the anxiety and self-reproach attached to the need to do well. Therapy with these individuals needs to focus on helping them incorporate a more compassionate and loving attitude toward themselves. Accomplishing this task also will enhance their relationships with others. As they soften the harshness of their attitudes, they can begin to integrate the split-off parts of themselves that often lead to self-destructive behavior and depression.


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Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2006, Page


 Temperament refers to the child’s basic genetic endowment that underlies personality. Moore and Fine define it as the “constitutionally determined affectomotor and cognitive tendencies” (Moore and Fine, p. 141, 1990).

[2] Schore notes that the experience of a negative early relationship can lead to a limited ability to regulate the frequency, intensity, and duration of primitive negative states—i.e., rage, shame, and terror (Schore, 1994).

[3] I wish to be sensitive to the negative emotional reactions that second-generation individuals might have to the term “cult members.” It is important to remember that these second-generation individuals were placed in cults via their parents, and they had no choice in that decision. I believe that, in part, their feelings about this fact are reflected in a desire to be seen as different from, and distinguished from, first-generation former cultists.

[4]4 In contrast to Sue, many second-generation cultists whom I have gotten to know begin leaving their cults, sometimes without their families, during their adolescence or in their twenties.

[5] When parents join cults, they often begin dissociating from their authentic selves and become very involved in cult activities. Particularly if the parents were more nurturing prior to the cult, the child experiences this new cultic behavior as a tremendous loss. This also can be experienced by those children who are raised in fairly nurturing families before they are sent off to cult schools or separate living quarters for children.

[6] This contrasts with many who are born and raised in cults who would fear writing their negative thoughts in a diary because of fear of the harsh consequences if their thoughts were discovered.


The author is grateful to William Goldberg for his wise critique of this paper and Joel Bernstein for his contribution to my understanding of the importance of character analysis.

About the Author

Lorna Goldberg, M.S.W., L. C. S. W., is a psychoanalyst in private practice with children, adolescents, and adults. She has co-led a support group for ex-cult members with her husband, William, for over 25 years. She is on the Board of Directors of ICSA/ICSA and is Dean of Faculty, Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies, Teaneck, New Jersey. She has written extensively for social work and ICSA publications. (Lorna@blgoldberg.com)