Cult Recovery: A Clinician's Guide to Working With Former Members and Families


Michael D. Langone

A cult experience is an unusually potent environmental factor that can alter identity, induce religious conversion, or cause individuals to reject valued families and life goals. It is necessary to understand the interpersonal dynamics of such environments to help those who may be adversely affected by them, including members of cults, former members, and families concerned about a loved one’s involvement. The purpose of this volume is to elucidate the current clinical state of the art in this area.

Working With Families

William Goldberg

This chapter provides guidelines for a mental health interview when a family asks for help in dealing with a member who has joined a cult. Included are therapeutic responses to common situations. Suggestions are given as to who should attend the interview and which tasks should be accomplished. The first phase of the interview consists of a discussion of the psycho-bio-social history of the family member. This discussion provides information that will be relevant during the remainder of the interview. The most significant factors to be assessed in this initial phase are delineated. In the second phase of the interview, the clinician should provide a psycho-educational explanation of the factors that are likely to have influenced the individual’s involvement in the cult, as a means of explaining and de-mystifying the dynamics of cultism to the family. The third phase of the interview should be a discussion of options for the family to help them decide how to deal with the situation. The final phase of the interview should be a discussion of ways to dialogue with a cult member that are more likely to produce a thoughtful consideration of the pros and cons of cult involvement.  Keywords: cult, family of cultist, help for cult member, family assessment

Conflict Resolution for Families in Distress

Patricia Millar and Cristina Caparesi

One topic of perennial concern in the cultic-studies field is how to help people leave groups that are potentially harmful. From deprogramming in the 1970s—which involved physical confinement and sometimes force—to the exit counseling that persists today, the process of influencing a person to abandon a group affiliation is controversial. In this chapter, we suggest a different way of looking at the problem of group involvement—one that assumes mutual influence among parties and does not hold exiting the group as a primary objective. We propose that when people are able to recognize each other’s point of view and engage productively from an empowered and empowering stance, relationships can be transformed in the context of shared goals.

Exit Counseling

Carol Giambalvo

This chapter presents the process of leaving a cultic group or relationship and dealing with its after-effects. The term “counseling” is described as discussion and processing information concerning the methods the group used to produce the effects of gaining loyalty and compliance. This psycho-education is imperative for the understanding of cult-affected individuals, to confirm their decision to leave and aid their recovery. The timing of this education can be after a person leaves the group or through varying types of intervention.

Cults: A Natural Disaster—Looking at Cult Involvement Through a Trauma Lens

Shelly Rosen

This chapter presents the evolutionary underpinnings of cultic group involvement and the prevalence of narcissistic leaders. These groups and their leaders can traumatize members through guilt, shame, and manipulation, ultimately betraying the needs of individuals in the group. Those who get drawn into groups as adults are at high risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and those who are raised in high demand groups are at risk for Complex Traumatic Stress disorders. The chapter reviews stage oriented trauma informed psychotherapy, with special considerations for former members of cultic groups.

Counseling Former Cultists: The Brief Intermittent Developmental Therapy (BIDT) Approach

Steve K. D. Eichel

Effective therapists are far more similar to than they are different from each other (Ackerman & Hilsenroth, 2003; Prochaska & Norcross, 1983; Sundland & Barker, 1962), yet many who have worked with cult-affected clients believe specialized knowledge and experience are necessary to be effective (Dubrow-Eichel, 2001; Singer, 1978; 1995; Sirkin, 1990; Venter, 1999). I have previously described my own theoretical orientation when working with high-demand-group/high-demand-relationships (HDG/HDRs) cult clients as brief intermittent developmental therapy (BIDT) within a transtheoretical framework that emphasizes individual choice and self-efficacy and motivational enhancement (Dubrow-Eichel, 2001, 2002). The developmental processes I concern myself with involve age-appropriate ego functions, including autonomy, decision making, identity, and affect and impulse regulation. These ego functions, especially autonomy and decision-making, are particularly targeted by HDG/HDRs and hence are typically in greatest need of repair. In this chapter I also describe how the stages-of-change model and motivational enhancement therapy (MET) fit into BIDT, including some of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors a therapist might expect as a former member navigates the Contemplation through Maintenance stages. The BIDT approach may not be the most effective approach with those current/former members of HDGs in ongoing and even life-threatening situations that impair daily functioning and need a more intensive, uninterrupted form of treatment.

Mentalization Attachment Approach to Cult Recovery

Rosanne Henry

This chapter describes a developmental and relational framework that may better prepare clinicians to help those harmed by destructive cults heal from the systematic interference of their abilities to mentalize and attach in cult settings. By focusing on resuming interrupted psychosocial development and improving the security of important attachment relationships therapists are more directly addressing the lasting consequences of cult exploitation and abuse. The author presents Bowlby’s attachment theory along with the evolution of the concept of mentalization and how the undermining of these capacities is ubiquitous in cult environments. This chapter also explains how the psychopathology of the leader predicts the developmental level of mentalization imbedded in the cult and how this impacts recruits’ abilities to mentalize (understand one’s own mental state and the difference between inner and outer realities) and attach to others. Using Bowlby’s framework of therapeutic tasks the author illustrates how to begin the process of restoring the survivor’s ability to mentalize and to have more successful relationships.

EMDR—Overview and Application With First- and Second-Generation Former Group Members

Leona Furnari

Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) is a well-researched psychotherapeutic treatment approach used to treat and resolve impacts from trauma. The Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model (Shapiro 2001) is the framework within which EMDR is grounded. AIP suggests that psychologically one naturally moves toward healing after a trauma. At times this body/mind healing process may become interrupted and EMDR helps re-start this healing process and assists the individual to access a more resilient state. EMDR integrates components from various treatment models, including psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, somatic, and exposure therapies. Bilateral visual, auditory, or tactile stimulation is paired with standardized protocols during the treatment. The efficacy of EMDR is supported by many controlled studies and is used in clinical settings around the world, as well as in the aftermath of natural or human-caused disasters. This chapter includes an overview of the 8-phase, 3-pronged treatment model and information on some of the research conducted thus far. It gives clinical case examples of using EMDR effectively with first and second generation (SGA) former cult members or victims of spiritual abuse. The cases discuss single-incident traumatic events, as well as complex, longer-term, relational trauma.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) for Former Members of High-Demand Groups

Madeleine Tobias

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is a manualized cognitive-behavioral treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related problems. It was developed by Resick and Schnicke initially for the treatment of rape victims and then modified for use by the Veterans Administration for treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in combat veterans. It has been applied to a variety of populations including refugees and now former members of destructive cults. CPT consists of 12 individual (one-on-one) therapy sessions. Each session lasts 50-60 minutes. It combines a cognitive approach with desensitization sessions and can be utilized in individual and group therapy. In group therapy, desensitization (sessions 4 and 5), are done in individual therapy. This chapter describes the content of CPT, with examples, of the 12 sessions.

A Modern Psychodynamic Approach With First-Generation Former Cult Members

Doni Whitsett

In this chapter the author discusses psychotherapy with 1st generation cult survivors utilizing a modern psychodynamic perspective. This perspective is pluralistic in that it includes concepts from a broad range of theories such as Freudian psychoanalysis, object relations, attachment, and affect regulation theories. The author argues for a new model of therapy that requires the clinician to move skillfully between two poles – (1) helping the client build a present life and (2) working through the past traumatic experiences of the cult. She illustrates this model with a double helix graphic which emphasizes the dynamic process of the therapy. As the “active ingredient” in the therapeutic process the therapeutic relationship has a special place in this graphic, as it does in therapy. Case examples are used throughout to illustrate concepts, and strategies for intervention are suggested.

The Role of Self-Care in Cult Recovery: Issues for Practitioners, Members, and Former Members of Cultic Groups and Their Families

Linda Dubrow-Marshall and Rod Dubrow-Marshall

Despite the emphasis amongst mental health practitioners on self-care (Norcross and Barnett, 2008), including as a requirement for ethical practice (as enshrined in professional ethical codes for example BACP, 2016, APA 2010), less attention has been paid to the issue of self-care in cult recovery. This chapter will examine the benefits of self-care for former members of cults or undue influence environments and for mental health practitioners involved in cult recovery work. It will set out the unique challenges that present with survivors of abusive groups and relationships and the ways in which mental health practitioners can appropriately respond to these. The importance of self-care for families of current or former members of cults and abusive groups is also explored, along with the lack of self-care that is evident amongst certain cult like groups and the strategies for self-care that can be deployed by former first- and second-generation members and by their families and loved ones. A ‘SWIMMER’ (Self-care With Information Management, Moderation, Empathy, and Resources) model is outlined which draws on research on the psychological effects of abusive cults and relationships (e.g., Dubrow-Marshall & Martin, 2005) and which suggests approaches to building self-care and a healthy identity for all involved in cult recovery work and as the antithesis of the undue influence and lack of positive personal self-regard that is commonly present in high demand or cult like groups.

Helping First-Generation Parents and Second-Generation Children Heal the Impact of Cult Harm

Lorna Goldberg

The author focuses upon the unique post-cult relationship of first-generation parents and their second-generation children. First-generation parents often leave the cult environment with guilty feelings about having harmed their children as a result of their cult membership. While in the cult, the cult leader became the parent of all the members, establishing the rules and dictating childrearing practices. This resulted in undermining the empathic tie between parents and their children. Additionally, parents were involved in spending long hours proselytizing, fundraising, or work responsibilities. Without parental protection, their children commonly were vulnerable to cult abuse or neglect. When parents leave the cult environment, there is likely to be a breach in the parents’ relationship with their second-generation adult children, who may hold their parents responsible for their painful cult past. In this chapter, the author describes her therapeutic interventions with this population of first-generation and second-generation former members. A central goal is to help parents and their adult children gain an improved relationship that includes the capacity for empathy.

Support Group for Former Cult Members

William Goldberg and Lorna Goldberg

The authors update their 1982 article on their support group for former cult members. This article describes changes in the group since it was started, forty years ago. Topics covered include the following: Benefits of a group Approach, Criteria for support group membership, Intake/Screening interview, Role of the facilitators, Differences between a support group and a therapy group, Support group themes, Observations on how the support group has evolved, and Mistakes made by the facilitators. The typical group member has changed from forty years ago, as have their needs. In the past, group members were more likely to feel unique. Today the internet, chat rooms, Google searches and the publication of many articles and books on cults has led to less of a feeling of isolation. The typical group member today is older, more likely to come from a smaller group, more likely to have left their group years ago, and more likely to have left the group on their own, without intervention, than the typical group member in 1976. This article discusses these changes and how our therapeutic approaches have been modified for this different population. Keywords: post-cult therapy, group, support group, facilitating group work

An Independent Faith-Based Approach to Support and Recovery Groups for Those Affected by Harmful Religious Environments

Patrick J. Knapp

Many clinicians are, understandably, challenged when a client presents significant and multidimensional difficulties as a result of a harmful religious environment. For the client, these difficulties commonly include psychological and relational problems, and also harmful spiritual beliefs that make recovery from religious abuse particularly challenging. In this chapter, I describe an independent faith-based approach that provides a well-informed, supportive community that can help members deal with psychological and relational problems, and also spiritual needs. I contend that a helpful recovery group provides three essentials: (a) respect, (b) support, and (c) psycho-social education. My experience has also informed me of the significant benefits that an independent faith-based approach can offer former members for better understanding the concepts of grace, forgiveness, love, and justice they previously have not considered. I suggest a concise outline for how such groups can be formed, and I provide two illustrative case studies. I offer encouragement regarding further research and development of theory and practical application.

The Colorado Model Recovery Workshop

Nancy Miquelon; Carol Giambalvo

This chapter provides clinicians with a glimpse into the application and experience of the Colorado Workshop Model for those people who have left a destructive cult, whether or not they are in therapy. The workshop was designed to give former members the psycho-education necessary for their recovery process. The chapter includes descriptions of the components of the workshop and how the model has evolved with input from participants and facilitators. The chapter also includes anecdotes and overall responses from participants and how this experience furthered their recovery. For those former members in therapy, it is extremely helpful to further their recovery in that the workshop offers a group experience with others who have had similar cultic experiences, a place to relate their own story, a safe place to express themselves, and an understanding of their own experience in order to loosen their self-blame.

The Wellspring Program

Donna Adams-Weiss, Ron Burks, Greg Sammons, and Lois Svoboda

Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center was founded in 1986 by Paul and Barbara Martin, who were former members of a Bible-based cultic group. As a psychologist Paul realized that an emphasis on doctrine in Christian circles was impeding the recovery of many former members. Building on the seminal work of psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, Paul developed a structured, two-week residential program of psychological and educational interventions, the effectiveness of which was supported by pre-post psychological testing with hundreds of clients. This chapter describes the Wellspring treatment model, its effects, and outpatient modifications of the program necessitated by the closing of the residential lodge, which occurred after Paul’s death in 2009.

Relational PsychoEducational Intensive: Time Away for Post Cult Counselling

Gillie Jenkinson

This chapter describes the Time Away for Post Cult Counselling model (TA-PCC) for counselling former cult members. TA-PCC is a fluid and flexible, relational, psychoeducational, model which can delivered in an intensive format, of two, two hour sessions in a day, over the duration of a week, or longer; or more regular extended weekly sessions (e.g. two hours). It can be followed up with Skype or telephone counselling; Key areas addressed in TA-PCC are explicated in this chapter, using the metaphor of undoing the psychological processes, or areas, that were laid down in the cult - likened to metaphorical pieces of a jigsaw. This unlayering is achieved by discussing the ‘pieces’ with the client, helping them to understand and make sense of their experience. This exploration is based on the premise that in the cult the member developed a cult-pseudo personality which overlays the authentic self. The key areas that facilitate this unlayering include understanding: how the cult-pseudo personality developed; thought-reform; influence; the psychopathology of the cult leader; the difference between anger and rage; and the implications of trauma and triggers, amongst others. The author introduces several clinical case studies to illustrate the processes involved in TA-PCC, demonstrating how a counsellor can work flexibly with the psychoeducational areas, in a relational manner, in order that the reader can emulate the approach.

Residential Treatment Modality for Cult Trauma Survivors

Robert Pardon and Judy Pardon

This chapter presents the MeadowHaven Model of residential treatment. This model represents a long-term approach; up to one year, that is milieu driven as well as therapeutic. There is a long and extensive application process to ensure that the program is appropriate for each individual. It is a comprehensive approach with both individual and group components that encompass and adapt the three phases of Judith Herman’s “Trauma and Recovery” model: Resting and Safety, Remembering and Mourning, and Reconnecting. This long-term approach incorporates understanding thought reform, neurobiology of trauma, various assessments, self-esteem and self-care strategies, etc., tailored to the individual needs of the resident. MeadowHaven works with the most severely traumatized survivors of primarily Bible based groups and believes that such a holistic approach to healing must, at some point in the healing process, encompass examining the belief system that was used to enslave and abuse them.

The Relational System of the Traumatizing Narcissist

Daniel Shaw

Daniel Shaw presents a way of understanding the traumatic impact of narcissism as it is engendered developmentally, and as it is enacted relationally. Focusing on the dynamics of narcissism in interpersonal relations, Shaw describes the relational system of what he terms the 'traumatizing narcissist' as a system of subjugation – the objectification of one person in a relationship as the means of enforcing the dominance of the subjectivity of the other. Shaw illustrates the workings of this relational system of subjugation in the relationship of cult leaders and their followers, paying particular attention to a theory of the psychology of the cult leader which is based on a new way of understanding pathological narcissism. The traumatizing narcissist cult leader must have dependent, subjugated followers in order to disavow his own dependency. By reinforcing the sense of shame, inferiority and need in his followers, the traumatizing narcissist cult leader creates a system of subjugation. This understanding of the dynamics of the relationship of cult leader and follower offers new insight that will be helpful in understanding and treating those who have been traumatically abused in cults.

How to Approach Cultic Studies Research

Lois Kendall

Cultic studies research may at times be controversial and produce contradictory results. Understanding and interpreting research are important themes in this chapter, where the authors focus is two pronged. Firstly, she discusses the reasons that clinicians should be aware of and read the psychological research which is relevant to this field, For example, she looks at how research may be helpful to the work of clinicians by strengthening confidence in, or challenging clinical observations. Secondly, the author considers what a clinician might look out for when reading research and how best to interpret the research findings they do read about.

What the Research Tells Clinicians About Current and Former Cultic Group Members

Lois Kendall

The author in this chapter seeks to summarize some of the existing psychological research studies in this field. She embraces a particular focus on the findings from unpublished PhD’s and brings research findings together to answer key questions that may be relevant to clinicians work in this field. These include, but are not limited to the questions below:

ICSA Bibliography: Papers Related to Clinical Work With Families and Former Group Members

Kristine Langone

This bibliography lists resources relevant to the clinical treatment of people adversely affected by involvement in high-demand or cultic groups, including former group members, concerned family members, and those born or raised in groups. Selected general resources on research, trauma, and other topics, as well as historically significant documents, have also been included, if deemed relevant to clinicians working in this field. Many of these articles can be found on ICSA’s website ( To make this bibliography as comprehensive as possible, please send suggested additions that are directly pertinent to clinical treatment to This is NOT a general cultic studies bibliography. The online version of this bibliography will be updated periodically.