We Disagree—Let’s Talk! Why Diversity and Dialogue Are Necessary, and How We Overcome Undermining Factors

ICSA Today, 10(1), 2019, 10-15

We Disagree—Let’s Talk! Why Diversity and Dialogue Are Necessary, and How We Overcome Undermining Factors

By Lorna Goldberg

Note: This article is based on Lorna Goldberg’s Plenary Address at the ICSA International Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 2018.

How does the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) reach our stated goal of welcoming “freedom of expression, freedom of mind, openness, and dialogue” (ICSA, 2013)? This stated goal, originally written in a message from the Directors to the membership 5 years ago, expresses a commitment to listening and responding to those with diverse points of view. This is a message that has value, not only for our organization, but also in the wider world. For ICSA, this goal means listening and responding with respect to those who have left a wide array of cults; to those who come from many different kinds of families within and outside a cult; to those who remain in cults; and to those who are professionals, including clinicians, researchers, attorneys, clergy, and journalists.

In their message, the Directors expressed a commitment to overcome and move beyond a polarization that had existed for years between ICSA members and those not in ICSA who held contrasting views of high-demand groups. Members of ICSA generally defined high-demand groups as “destructive cults” and emphasized harm to cult members; others, mainly sociologists, defined high-demand groups as “new religious movements” and generally focused on group practices as neutral social phenomena rather than focusing on the effect groups had on their members.

Also, in the early years of ICSA (formerly the American Family Foundation), the typical view in the wider culture, particularly expressed by mental health professionals, was that people joined cultic groups because of some weakness of character, or because of a wish to separate from troubled families. Early ICSA members fought back against this “blame the victim” approach. We believed that manipulative leaders with narcissistic agendas deceived people who were recruited into cults. Family members, such as myself, were relieved to learn about the cultic dynamics that were in large measure responsible for the otherwise inexplicable changes in our loved ones when they became cult recruits.

Over time, ICSA began to see the potential for cult recruitment in a more complex way. Individual and stage-of-life vulnerability, cult exploitation, and even other factors had their role; each factor might provide important information that could help to explain the cult phenomenon. Development of a more complex understanding helped move our organization to a more individualistic and less polarized view and led to an increased willingness to reach out to those with differing viewpoints.

In their message, which is available on the ICSA website, the Directors state the following:

…The benefits of dialogue are the converse of the negative effects of polarization:

·         Communication increases knowledge, broadens perspectives, and enhances one’s capacity to understand and appreciate the complex interpersonal dynamics of people who have left or are still in cultic groups, and it may help us better relate to those who have endured abuse.

·         When groups of helpers and researchers with different perspectives and foci have open boundaries, people belonging to those disciplines will feel less pressure to conform and, consequently, will feel freer to pursue new ideas or innovative approaches to treatment.

·         When one has regular contact with those holding differing views, one is more likely to recognize one’s opinions as opinions and not mistakenly treat them as facts. (iCSA, 2013)

I agree with this message, which has value, not only for our organization, but also in the world. I believe, in general, that conflict can be a healthy phenomenon, and that dealing with it can help each of us gain new insight into both others and ourselves. However, ICSA also believes in the free choice and safety of our members. Today I am talking about dialogue; I am not talking about subjecting yourself to a person whose goal is to manipulate or intimidate you. Nothing I will say today is meant to encourage you to permit yourself to be exploited or bullied. Although ICSA sees the value in being able to engage respectfully in dialogue with people who have different perspectives, we also recognize that some views or people attempt to violate the human rights and dignity of others. In these cases, it is a wise decision not to engage.

Unlike closed cultic groups, ICSA firmly is committed to freedom of thought and expression. ICSA conferences provide an open arena for people from different backgrounds with diverse perspectives. At our conferences, opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the view of ICSA or its Directors, staff, advisors, or supporters. Today we can celebrate the fact that attendees see the issue of psychological manipulation and abuse in cults in differing ways.

The philosophy articulated by its Directors means that being part of the ICSA community will involve disagreements about perceptions, beliefs, and goals, not only with people outside ICSA, but also with others within our organization. Over the years, the population of ICSA has dramatically changed, with those who have been born and raised in cults entering our network. At the same time, ICSA has welcomed increased numbers of family members from inside and outside of cults, mental health professionals, researchers, clergy, journalists, and attorneys. Each of these groups has emerged to articulate its own particular perspectives, beliefs, and goals.

How do we deal with this new reality? In today’s presentation, I will consider some factors that undermine dialogue, and I will suggest some ideas that might help us connect.

Our Black and White World

As a psychoanalyst, my perspective is that unconscious as well as conscious factors always are at play in our interactions with others, and that some of these factors can undermine dialogue. For example, when I was asked to give this plenary address, I became aware of a certain degree of anxiety about your reaction to my presentation. I allowed myself to consider what might be underlying my anxiety. I began to understand that I imagined you would have a critical reaction. To comfort myself, I challenged my black-and-white emotional thinking with self-reflection gained from years of my own therapy, and from the use of self-analysis, which has been a central tool in my work as a therapist. Moving from an emotional to a self-reflective state allowed me to calm down as I had the following thoughts: First, even if many of you respond critically, I am pretty good about accepting criticism today, in contrast to situations in my early life; so it was unlikely that I would be crushed by your reaction. Second, although some of you might take issue with some of my ideas, others might have a positive reaction to some of what I say. Third, my self-esteem would increase if I took the uncomfortable action of presenting rather than declining to speak. These thoughts moved me from emotion to self-reflection and helped me shift from viewing myself as the potential victim of your crushing reaction to a more balanced and, hopefully, realistic view.

In light of this, I began to consider Jessica Benjamin’s concept of “the third.”[1] Benjamin suggested that too often we divide our emotional world between feeling like the victim who is done to or the victimizer who is the doer; we are stuck in right/wrong, dominant/submissive, binary thinking. We see this kind of thinking today in world leaders who negotiate as if everything is a zero-sum game. Their attitude is “If you win, I lose”; “the only way I go up is if others go down.” Benjamin believes that instead, by using self-reflection and “uncertainty, humility, and compassion that form the basis of a democratic or egalitarian view of psychoanalytic process” (Benjamin, p. 34), we can move toward empathy for other and the possibility for mutual understanding. This allows us to claim an equal place within our relationships with others. Instead of a divided way of viewing the world, we can approach situations in such a way that everyone has the possibility of gaining something from the experience.

I just talked about my anxiety when I first considered giving this plenary address. In psychoanalytic terms, I was experiencing a transference expectation in making an assumption about the audience’s reaction. That is, instead of looking at all possible outcomes, my sense of reality became limited by my expectation that you would react in a manner similar to reactions I had experienced in my early life.

Transference is a core concept of psychoanalysis (Freud, S., 1940). It means that, unconsciously, we transfer attitudes and expectations developed in the past into our present life and relationships. A psychoanalytic approach focuses on transference and how we might distort our present relationships based upon how we viewed relationships in the past. Often, these expectations are developed in childhood when our thinking tends to be black and white, lacking the nuance and subtlety we gain as we mature. But transference expectations can also form as a result of important relationships made later in life, particularly in traumatic relationships. Transference also can lead us to the possibility of mishearing and misunderstanding each other, and this misperception can undermine successful communication. This happens because our past constantly reshapes how we view our present.

Many former cult members may have an expectation, both conscious and unconscious, that new relationships will repeat the victim/victimizer dynamics that occurred in the cult. However, as you can see by my example, you don’t have to be a former cult member to have these particular expectations. Although some individuals here, including myself, never were in a cult, we are all are vulnerable, as anxious humans, to regress into the black-and-white thinking of childhood that cults intensify.

With transference expectations, we can make assumptions and fill in the gaps in what we know about who people are and what they are thinking. Doing this limits our ability to see others in a more complex, human, and realistic way. When we idealize or de-idealize others, we are not seeing the real person before us, an individual with strengths and flaws. Likewise, with transference expectations, we limit our ability to see ourselves in a more complex and realistic way. When we contrast ourselves to an idealized cult leader, therapist, or others, we tend to magnify our own shortcomings. Conversely, when we need to protect ourselves, we can become suspicious and expect nothing but bad from others. When we see others and ourselves in a more balanced manner, we can acknowledge the flaws without losing sight of the strengths.

How do we move from a reactive and defensive response that incorporates the black-and-white expectation that either we will be treated badly by a powerful other or we will be speaking with an idiot or an arrogant jerk? How do we handle powerful emotions, such as dread or anger, that might have originated in our early life or in the cult, or both, and replace these emotions with a response of thoughtful curiosity?

Benjamin has suggested that, when we encounter people with different and even opposing views from ours, we need to move from our defensive and, at times, paranoid, all-knowing position to one of uncertainty that accepts our vulnerability and, therefore, holds out the possibility that we might be mistaken (Benjamin, 2004, p. 32). Doing this will allow us to negotiate our differences and connect. 

In other words, if we pause, take a breath, and give ourselves the time to consider that we might be having a transference expectation (such as in a readiness to see ourselves as victims), we can begin to see alternative ways of looking at a situation. This recognition might allow us to feel less avoidant or hopeless about a potential interaction.

We can view self-reflection as a process that provides us with the mental space for thinking things through. I can use my own self-reflection and internal conversation as a stepping-stone to figure out how I can best see the situation more realistically, to converse with others with curiosity without being defensive. After years of personal therapy, I sometimes can take this step. However, I often slip and stay immersed in emotion.

I know that I’m not the only one who struggles with this issue. This step into thinking might be particularly difficult for those who have been involved in past relationships in which asserting a contradictory viewpoint was dangerous and could lead to punishment or shaming. Whether it was through a tyrannical parent, a manipulative partner, or a narcissistic cult leader, many people have learned that the only way to survive was through dissociation or other forms of defense against prohibited thoughts. Such an experience might make it difficult for those individuals to gain conscious awareness of transference expectations of punishment or shame. It can be hard for all of us to move from a world in which only one person can be right into a world of ambiguity in which there can be a myriad of “rights.”

Even if attempting to understand those who are different from us can be risky, I believe that when we make the effort, we have the possibility of expanding our sense of reality. In many circumstances, we can gain from showing flexibility of thinking and empathy; we don’t have to fear subjugating our identity to others (self-reflective surrender is not the same as subjugation) or becoming stuck in their viewpoint. Rigidly held views undermine the possibility for a richer understanding of the world.

We’re Family and Group Oriented

The desire to be part of a group has aided the survival of and has been adaptive for both different species and the human race. The danger is that we are apt to experience positive feelings about the groups to which we belong and less positive feelings about those groups to which we don’t. We tend to see our own groups as superior to others. To cement loyalty to the cult, its leaders prey upon these emotions.

Our sense of vulnerability can cause us to identify more powerfully with our own group. When there is trouble between groups, we tend to retreat to our own group to feel safe. While entrenched in our groups, we might be more apt to see members of other groups in stereotypical ways instead of seeing them as individuals. Stereotyping works in a way similar to transference: We react to someone based on expectations we have developed in the past.

In marital therapy, when one partner in a relationship lacks understanding of the other, sometimes it is important to identify how diverse cultures might be influencing the behavior and meanings of each partners’ experiences. This process will increase the couple’s awareness of some of the roadblocks in their interaction. Depathologizing behaviors by seeing their connection to past experiences can reduce shame in one partner while increasing understanding in the other. It is vital in this process to avoid applying cultural stereotypes to either partner. For instance, even when one partner is behaving in ways that might be considered typical of his culture, it is important to understand the particular ways in which he has internalized certain aspects of the culture, and how this internalization is influencing his behavior and his experience of others.

The Directors’ dialogue message of 2015 addresses the human tendency to stereotype as a hindrance to listening to a person with a divergent viewpoint:

Stereotyping can provide a short-term comfort, for it requires less thought than analyses that recognize the complex dynamics of cultic phenomena. But stereotyping inevitably leads to polarization, which reinforces stereotyping.... More useful than labels are questions followed by good-faith discussion. “What does he say?” is a more fruitful question than “In what category does she belong?” (ICSA, 2013)

If we simply view groups as a central indicator of identity, we can form conclusions about an individual that might be mistaken. I will describe myself as an example of this. I joined ICSA because I am the older sister of a former cult member. I am a Jewish clinical social worker and also a psychoanalyst. I live in New Jersey, and I am a member of the Democratic Party. My identity has been shaped to some degree by all of these groups, and I suspect that those of you who don’t know me may form instant positive or negative impressions about me based upon what you have just heard. We might be ready to dismiss the inside of a person and base our impressions upon outer criteria, but doing this can provide us with a false understanding of others.

I would say that more important than any of these outward descriptions is my character, the person who I am on the inside. It might tell you more about me if you know that as a young child I spoke with a lisp; and in part because of reactions to this, I became a shy child. This experience is connected to my anxiety today about public speaking. I spent my childhood immersed in books, and I reached out to those books that resonated within me. Reading and loving all the Nancy Drew books allowed me as a shy girl to imagine what it would feel like to be an adolescent who bravely plowed ahead to solve all sorts of mysteries with my friends. Mysteries taught me problem-solving and sparked my natural curiosity and wonder about the mysteries of the human mind. Later, The Diary of Anne Frank provided me with an example of how ongoing family relationships, and even a relationship with a diary, can lessen the trauma of a terrifying world.

After having made friends with different people in literature, I have been allowed through ICSA to make friends with people living throughout the United States and throughout the world. This opportunity has been one of the many benefits of ICSA for me. Although we might look different on the outside and speak different languages, we share many common values and interests. Having friends from a variety of cultures, religions, and ethnicities (and even some Republicans) has broadened my perspective in a way that would have been lost if I simply had made friendships from my own demographic. Encountering diversity has allowed me to see myself within others.

I believe that the ICSA community offers the opposite of ethnocentrism. Although this is a time of increasing ethnocentrism in the world, we might consider that, instead of using cultural differences simply as a tool to dehumanize and claim superiority over others, exploring these differences can be a starting point for gaining insight into our own biases and inner beliefs.

An Example of Dialogue Between Subgroups 

As many of you know, my husband Bill and I have facilitated a support group for former cult members at our home for more than 40 years. Over the years, our support-group members have included many people born or raised in cultic groups, and also former cultists who became parents while they were in the cult. Initially, transference attitudes initiated strong, unspoken emotions between these two subgroups. Two of the cult parents who expected to be blamed by the other group members for cult treatment of their children described feelings of shame, guilt, despair, and regret for harm to their children while they were in the cult. Those born or raised in cults who previously had the transference expectation that the cult parents would minimize cult harm instead began to feel empathy for the cult parents. This discussion helped both former cult-member parents deal with feelings of shame and former members born in cults deal with feelings of anger.

Things aren’t always the way we perceive them to be. It takes time to understand another person, and we have to resist thinking that we “know” them, when we actually are in the process of learning. I need to remind myself that if I say, “She’s a typical…” whatever—mental health professional, researcher, attorney, or cleric, I am dehumanizing and stereotyping the person before me, even if I say it with affection. If I theorize about a cult-related person or situation too quickly, I am using a shorthand method and may be missing the boat. Theories may make us feel more comfortable by giving us the feeling that we know the person or situation, but they do a disservice to the person with whom we are interacting. As a therapist, I believe that my clients should bring me to the theory rather than the other way around. In other words, we should not let our expectations shape our reality.

Why Are We Talking Now?

So, why are dialogue and diversity necessary? In the days ahead, we each will be interacting with individuals who may have vastly different backgrounds and possibly even views that are opposed to our own. I would say, based on my decades in this organization, that the people you meet here, no matter how different they seem, can all actually be seen to some extent as heroes for their tremendous achievements: They are first-generation former cult members who were courageous enough to leave despite hearing frightening stories of the outside world, and despite having to face the painful fact that they have given years to a false messiah. They are second-generation and multigenerational former cult members who, despite the need to adapt to a whole new culture, bravely left the only world they had ever known. They are families who are intrepid in finding different ways to keep contact with those in the cult, and thus assuring their loved ones that they will have a caring home on the outside. They are mental health professionals who, often for a low fee, have made it possible for former cult members to tell their story. They are attorneys who have fought for former cult members’ rights. They are researchers who have provided us with good science, and who have written eloquently about the dynamics of these groups and the aftereffects of cult life. They are clergy who have helped former cult members deconstruct how cult scripture has twisted mainstream Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist belief. They are journalists who have told the stories of those who have been harmed. They may be sociologists, or they may even be representatives of cultic groups who have come here openly, taking the courageous step of entering these halls filled with people who generally might be opposed to them or their views.

The ICSA Directors wrote that

Dialogue is... premised on humility. If I deem myself to be imperfect, value truth, and have a set of beliefs, then I ought to be open to discussion with those who do not share those beliefs. I cannot correct myself if I do not allow myself to be challenged. (ICSA, 2013)

We need diversity and dialogue because, as intelligent or educated or experienced as we may be, we don’t know everything. We need to recognize our vulnerabilities and our blind spots. We will only be able to hear one another if we move past our assumptions and our self-righteousness. Instead, we need to be humble, remembering that we all are equals who deserve respect. Let’s remember that the person who might have just said something that appears to be offensive or ridiculous might be opening a door into a new and enriched way of seeing the world.


Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond doer and done to: An intersubjective view of thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 73(1), 5–46.

Freud, S. (1940). An outline of psychoanalysis. Standard edition, 23, 141–207. London, England: Hogarth Press. 

ICSA Board of Directors. (2013). Dialogue and cultic studies: Why dialogue benefits the cultic studies field—A message from the Directors of ICSA. ICSA Today, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 2–3. Available online at https://www.icsahome.com/elibrary/articles/dialogue-and-cultic-studies-icsa-board-it-4-3; https://www.icsahome.com/aboutus/benefitsofdialogue

About the Author

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)

[1] According to Benjamin, “…the third is that to which we surrender, and thirdness is the intersubjective mental space that facilitates or results from surrender. In my thinking, the term surrender refers to a certain letting go of the self, and thus also implies the recognition to take in the other’s point of view or reality. Thus, surrender refers us to recognition—being able to sustain connectedness to the other's mind while accepting his separateness and difference. Surrender implies freedom from any intent to control or coerce.” (Benjamin, 2004, p.8).