Creating A New Personality
All cults, no matter their stripe, are a variation on a theme, for their common denominator is the use of coercive persuasion and behaviour control without the knowledge of the person who is being manipulated. They manage this by targeting (and eventually attacking, disassembling, and reformulating according to the cult’s desired image) a person’s innermost self. They take away you and give you back a cult personality, a pseudo personality.
They punish you when the old you turns up, and they reward the new you. Before you know it, you don’t know who you are or how you got there; you only know (or you are trained to believe) that you have to stay there. In a cult there is only one way cults are totalitarian, a yellow brick road to serve the leader’s whims and desires, be they power, sex, or money.
When I was in my cult, I so desperately wanted to believe that I had finally found the answer. Life in our society today can be difficult, confusing, daunting, disheartening, alarming, and frightening. Someone with a glib tongue and good line can sometimes appear to offer you a solution. In my case, I was drawn in by the proposed political solution to bring about social change. For someone else, the focus may be on health, diet, psychological awareness, the environment, the stars, a spirit being, or even becoming a more successful business person.
The crux is that cult leaders are adept at convincing us that what they have to offer is special, real, unique, and forever and that we wouldn’t be able to survive apart from the cult. A person’s sense of belief is so dear, so deep, and so powerful; ultimately it is that belief that helps bind the person to the cult. It is the glue used by the cult to make the mind manipulations stick.
It is our very core, our very belief in ourself and our commitment, it is our very faith in humankind and the world that is exploited and abused and turned against us by the cults.
When a person finally breaks from a cultic relationship, it is the soul, then, that is most in need of repair.
When you discover one day that your guru is a fraud, that the ” miracles” are no more than magic tricks, that the group’s victories and accomplishments are fabrications of an internal public relations system, that your holy teacher is breaking his avowed celibacy with every young disciple, that the group’s connections to people of import are non existent when awareness’s such as these come upon you, you are faced with what many have called a “spiritual rape.”
Whether your cultic experience was religious or secular, the realization of such enormous loss and betrayal tends to cause considerable pain. As a result, afterwards, many people are prone to reject all forms of belief. In some cases, it may take years to overcome the disillusionment, and learn not only to trust in your inner self but also to believe in something again.
There is also a related difficulty: that persistent nagging feeling that you have made a mistake in leaving the groups perhaps the teachings are true and the leader is right; perhaps it is you who failed. Because cults are so clever at manipulating certain emotions and events in particular, wonder, awe, transcendence, and mystery (this is sometimes called “mystical manipulation”) and because of the human desire to believe, a former cult member may grasp at some way to go on believing even after leaving the group. For this reason, many people today go from one cult to another, or go in and out of the same cultic group or relationship (known as “cult hopping”).
Since every person needs something to believe in a philosophy of life, a way of being, an organized religion, a political commitment, or a combination thereof sorting out these matters of belief tends to be a major area of adjustment after a cultic experience.
What to Believe in Now?
Since a cult involvement is often an illfated attempt to live out some form of personal belief, the process of figuring out what to believe in once you’ve left the cult may be facilitated by dissecting the cult’s ideological system.
Do an evaluation of the group’s philosophy, attitudes, and worldview; define it for yourself in your own language, not the language of the cult. Then see how this holds up against the cult’s actual daily practice or what you now know about the group.
For some, it might be useful to go back and research the spiritual or philosophical system that you were raised in or believed in prior to the cult involvement. Through this process you will be better able to assess what is real and what is not, what is useful and what is not, what is distortion and what is not. By having a basis for comparison, you will be able to question and explore areas of knowledge or belief that were no doubt systematically closed to you while in the cult.
Most people who come out of a cultic experience shy away from organized religion or any kind of organized group for some time. I generally encourage people to take their time before choosing another religious affiliation or group involvement. As with any intimate relationship, trust is reciprocal and must be earned.
After a cult experience, when you wake up to face the deepest emptiness, the darkest hole, the sharpest scream of inner terror at the deception and betrayal you feel, I can only offer hope by saying that in confronting the loss, you will find the real you. And when your soul is healed, refreshed, and free of the nightmare bondage of cult lies and manipulations, the real you will find a new path, a valid path a path to freedom and wholeness.
(Janja Lalich is a cult information specialist and consultant in Alameda, CA. She is co-author with Margaret Singer of Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (JosseyBass, 1995). Ms. Lalich is also a member of advisory committees of AFF, publisher of The Cult Observer.)