June 22, 2024
Presentation at Survivors of Institutional Abuse Convention

Presentation at Survivors of Institutional Abuse Convention

Re-forming the Self:
The Impact and Consequences of Institutional Abuse[1]

Janja Lalich, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology and Former Cult Member
California State University, Chico
Email: drlalich@sbcglobal.net
Website: www.cultresearch.org

            Thank you. First of all, I’d like to extend a big thank you to Jodi Hobbs for inviting to me to this very special convention, and also a special note of appreciation to Marcus Chatfield. Marcus and I have been emailing for some months now about his research and we spoke once on the phone. He is putting a yeoman’s effort (“yeoman,” a naval term, seems appropriate here on the Queen Mary) – into trying to sort out the historical and social-psychological antecedents to the experience of institutional abuse. And, well, it’s Marcus who told Jodi about me and so he is probably the primary cause for me being here.

            I have presented at many meetings and conferences, various gatherings and seminars, but I must say that I am most honored and thrilled to be at this gathering — for those of you who suffered through months and years at teen boot camps, extreme survivalist programs, and various unorthodox rehabs, schools, and reformatories are the true heroes here. Many of you most likely don’t know me or aren’t familiar with my work, but my area of specialty is cults, controversial groups, terrorist indoctrination, and other situations of undue influence. I call them “self-sealing systems” – these groups or families or churches or programs or organizations that engage in what some have called “thought reform” or “coercive persuasion” — and what most of us are familiar with colloquially as “brainwashing.”

            I came to this work as a result of personal experience. I was in a cult – a political cult – for about 10½ years in the 1970s and 80s. We thought we were going to change the world, and bring about social revolution. We modeled ourselves after WWII Resistance fighters and more specifically after communist organizations around the world. Believe it or not, China’s Chairman Mao, the man behind brutal campaigns against his own civilians, and the mass murder and starvation of millions of Chinese, was our hero. Needless to say, the organization I was in, the Democratic Workers Party, was a rather abusive group, with lots of sitting in a circle and subjecting some poor comrade to hours of harsh criticism, long hours of work, typically from 5am until well after midnight at various tasks, some meant just to keep us busy, others with perhaps actual political import, 7 days a week, year after year. Lots of rules and punishments, demotions and public humiliation – all in the name of our cause and our great leader. When I got out, at age 41, I spent some time healing – a lot of time, actually, and did a lot of reading and self-directed study, trying to make sense out of what had happened to me and my friends. I know that during those years in the cult, I became someone other than I wanted to be – or ever was before. And through that self-education, I realized I had been in a cult and I then learned everything I could about cults and thought reform and various instances of extreme behavior modification.

            But back to the subject at hand: brainwashing, thought reform, invasive modes of resocialization. These change processes are intrusive methods, rituals, exercises, techniques, practices aimed at an extreme resocialization of the individual, the aim of which is to get the subject to adopt a new worldview, a new outlook on life and a new perspective on the self. Some resocialization programs may be sanctioned by society, for example, military indoctrination to create a soldier, an unthinking killing machine. This is presumably done for the safety of a nation and its people. Other sanctioned institutional resocializations may include cloistered monks, nuns or priests who willingly undergo removal and separation from the larger society in order to live out a spiritual or religious vow.  Mental hospitals (formerly called insane asylums) are another site for a kind of resocialization to occur, which I suppose we as a society tend to condone, although they also can be places potentially rife with abuse and the use of techniques once thought acceptable, now deemed inhumane – such as cold baths, shock treatment, and so on.

            There is much that I now know and understand about the social psychology of thought reform and its historical foundations, about how it’s carried out, how and why it works – after all, I had the great “honor” of being trained to be one of the main brainwashers in the cult I was in — and I have studied these processes in depth for the past quarter century (gosh, that makes me feel old). But I have to say, that from everything I have read and heard about what you all, you survivors of institutional abuse, have experienced – it simply falls in a category of its own – it is sheer torture. Now torture – the physical kind – is not typically part of a brainwashing program, although certainly not unheard of. But what many of you and others endured was of a kind and with such intensity, brutality, and persistence that it puts your experiences in a realm of their own. Not that I’m trying to make you feel special – ha ha – but really what I’m trying to point out is the severity and enormity of what you experienced, which then has a huge impact on your recovery, your re-establishing your sense of self.

            I have found both from my own experience as a former cult member and from years of studying and working in this field and meeting with and speaking with literally hundreds of former members of closed groups that the process of leaving the group and then putting one’s life (and also one’s mind) together can be – and often is – a very troubled time, fraught with anxiety, indecision, anger, worry, fear, either too little or too much sleep, confusion, guilt, loneliness, the inability to think straight, flashbacks, shame, depression, suicidal thoughts, identity crises, loss of memory, and so on – in other words, a wild ride on an emotional roller coaster. Having been held in what sociologist Erving Goffman called “a total institution” in his 1961 book, Asylums, is not an experience easily overcome. As Goffman wrote, “These are forcing houses for changing persons; each is a natural experiment on what can be done to the self” (1961, p. 12).

            Despite all the debates about nature versus nurture, in the end, social scientists have come to understand that the “self” is a social construction that arises out of social experience. And our sense of self is something that we as individuals establish and affirm as we make our way through life, hopefully, without too much undue influence from others, but certainly not without influential factors. Finding the right balance between those “external” factors and our “internal” self is a lot of what life is about. Now in your case, you’ve had a phase in your life overwhelmed with undue influence – of the most negative and harmful kind. Your journey was unexpectedly and brutally interrupted and disrupted by forces outside yourself, by forces that claimed to have your best interests in mind, but proved themselves otherwise.

            But one way or another, you got out. So there you are – out in the world, facing the thrill and the fears of constructing a new life for yourself, and, also, a new self, a new identity. Now hopefully, you are able to do this construction of the self free of the constraints of a closed and close-minded system. It’s what I sometimes call the social construction of freedom. But that act, or that process, is not always so easy, is it? Despite how overjoyed we might be at finally having gotten out of the harsh, cruel, controlling environment. As agonizing as it was being in the abusive institution, you may find or have found that leaving and being out in the world can also be agonizing. Some of you are no doubt wondering why your parents or loved ones sent you there. Or you may be wondering why you didn’t get yourself out of the place sooner. Or you may be thinking, asking yourself, “How could I ever have bought into all that nonsense? How could I have been so stupid?”

            Ultimately, as a self-reflexive person – which you must be or you wouldn’t even be here at this convention – you have surely tried or perhaps are still trying to make sense of what all that was about. What was going on in that group setting? How did it affect you as an individual? How might it still be affecting you? Why did you do the things you did? Participate in activities while there that you now think are reprehensible? Believe the things you did? Asking oneself such questions, trying to make sense of it all, is the personal quest many former cult members and others who have experienced similar traumas embark on. I hope that what I present here today will help you put it in perspective.

            Unlike some cult members, when you look at your experiences in a closed, high-control institution, I don’t think we can say you were there because you liked it or it was easier or you wanted to be there, although perhaps some of you got something good out of it. Remember, the fact that you got something good out of it – if you did – doesn’t mean that there weren’t also bad and harmful actions taken against you. But as with most things in life, we don’t want to rush to simplistic explanations for this is an incredibly complex phenomenon.

            I imagine each of you is in a very different place with regard to this subject – some perhaps fresh out, others who’ve been dealing with related issues for some time, still others just coming to terms with how the experience affected you, some taking a more intellectual approach, others beginning to tell your stories, some becoming activists to work to eliminate these places from our society. I hope what I have to say has some relevance for all of you.

            What I think we’re talking about here are complex social organizations that are structured in a specific way so as to institutionalize and routinize social controls and social influences that are aimed at bringing about certain results — results that the leaders of these outfits want. As a sociologist, I believe firmly that social interaction forms human conduct. So, I don’t think we can fully understand and move on from our experiences, reactions, and behaviors in totalistic groups (or abusive institutions) without examining the structure, the social interactions, and then our own role within that context.

            So let me begin with my version of what that structure was. It includes four interlocking organizational aspects:

  1. the authority figure, often a charismatic authority figure – although charisma is possibly less relevant in this situation, although the leader has to be a good-enough salesman and self-assured enough to be able to sell the program to unsuspecting parents, school officials, insurance companies, and so on.
  2. the belief system, which I see as a transcendent belief system, meaning that you are required to go through a personal transformation to attain acceptance
  3. a system of control, and
  4. a system of influence

            Charismatic Authority: The purpose of the first aspect, authority, is to provide leadership and direction. The leader’s goal is to be accepted as the legitimate authority on all things. This is accomplished by privilege, secretiveness, inaccessibility, power, and command, and the hoped-for effect is that the members, or subjects, will identify with the leader(s) and the group’s goal.

            Transcendent Belief System: The purpose of the belief system is to provide a worldview, whose specific goal is to offer meaning and purpose through a moral imperative. The doctrine is inviolable and comes down from on high. The desired effect is the internalization of the belief system, which is to represent, in a sense, “freedom,” in the sense of being connected to the greater goal and aspiring toward a sort of salvation. This transcendent belief system upholds the dangerous philosophy of “the end justifies the means.”

            System of Control: The purpose of the third aspect, the system of control, is to provide organizational structure and hierarchy. Rigid boundaries define inaccessible space and topics closed to discussion or inquiry. The specific goal is to put forth a behavioral system and a disciplinary code by means of rules, regulations, and a system of sanctions and punishments. The hoped-for effect is compliance, and better still, blind obedience.

            System of Influence: The purpose of the final aspect, the system of influence, is to provide a confining social network of acceptable social interaction, and a group culture. Internalized norms, all-pervasive modeling, and constant monitoring serve to rule out inappropriate questioning and behavior norms and a code of conduct which members are expected to live by is the specific goal. That is accomplished by various methods of peer and leadership influence and modeling. The desired effect is conformity, or the self-renunciation required in order to remain on good terms in the group and one day attain the professed goal. Which I suppose is “freedom”

            I call this the fusion of freedom and self-renunciation. That may sound all high and mighty, but soon one realizes that there can be no freedom when one has renounced or denied the self.

            All of these four parts fit together like a 3-dimensional puzzle. Everything seems to fit in this scheme, and very little happens by chance. Even external events are interpreted to coincide with the institution’s worldview – your life before you were admitted, your family and your role in your family, your schooling, your friends and acquaintances, your various life adventures and experiences. It’s all reframed to fit the schema of this new overarching system that envelops you.

            For you, as the inmate, as the member, the goal was to perfect yourself against an impossible ideal, and to criticize yourself – and others – for failing to do so all along the way.

            For the leader, the goal is to perfect a body of subjects, of followers, of acolytes, who would continually struggle for the impossible ideal, and laud the leaders and the institution all along the way.

            When this process works, the fusion happens – and here I identify four more aspects, or phases: a bounded reality, the self-sealing system, personal closure, and a state of mind that I call bounded choice (Lalich, 2004).

            This is how it works: you become locked into a bounded reality, created by the self-sealing system in which every aspect and every activity reconfirms and validates, not you, but the system. There is no place in such a system for what social psychologist Edgar Schein (who in 1961 wrote Coercive Persuasion, his research on Korean War prisoners of war) called “disconfirming information.” Nothing is allowed in that will challenge the system. The flow of information – in and out – is totally controlled. Not only in and out of the system, but in and out of you, of your mind.

            In this situation, what occurs is something called “personal closure”—an idea first introduced by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1959, 1968) and expanded upon by psychiatrist Dr. Robert Jay Lifton (1969). (If you’re a reader, Erikson wrote some very useful books on identity and youth and the life cycle. And Lifton, of course, did the seminal work on brainwashing, which he called thought reform, first studying people in Chinese reeducation camps and cadre training schools, but then continued his work in the study of modern-day cults.) So, personal closure is a particular state of mind that is akin to a psychological trap.

            Functioning within the group setting requires a commitment that demands single-mindedness, a style of thinking characterized by dogmatism and rigidity, and there can be no identity outside the context of the group. Because of the power that the authoritative leaders have over their subjects’ lives, the threat of disapproval and punishment take over one’s psyche. Along with this comes a paranoia that focuses on the system you are in, but also raises the specter of the “evil” outside world.

            Feeling duty-bound and obligated, members find themselves participating in or witnessing activities that in other times may have violated a personal code of ethics. But now, the leader or leaders are the only moral arbiters. Through repetition, ritual, and other activities, this process desensitizes members to behavior previously considered unthinkable or objectionable. The longer a person remains in this setting, the more “invested” you are, in a sense, and all the more complicit perhaps with group actions, behaviors, and requirements. (This is where later the guilt and shame come in.) At this stage, life outside the group seems less and less available as an option.

            And finally, by means of the processes of identification and internalization, you feel yourself enveloped within the group and at the mercy of the leader. You are likely to still be experiencing dissonance and confusion, even though you may be conveying a sense of agreement. All this time, you have had access to fewer and fewer outside sources of information, and, therefore, little capacity for any reality checks outside the bounds of the system. Additionally, you begin to feel completely separated from any sort of pre-group identity. After a time, you cannot imagine life outside the group. Here the process has come full circle – to the state of personal closure.

            Personal closure is not meant in the sense of completion, which is one use of the term. We talk, for example, about getting closure on something. But here we are talking about personal closure, about boundaries around the self. Lifton’s usage refers to the closing in of the self in a kind of self-sealed inner world. Lifton described it as a “disruption of balance between the self and the outside world” (1969, p. 421): “Here, the individual encounters a profound threat to his personal autonomy. He is deprived of the combination of external information and inner reflection which anyone requires to test the realities of his environment and to maintain a measure of identity separate from it. Instead, he is called upon to make an absolute polarization of the real (the prevailing ideology) and the unreal (everything else).”

            The personal closure that is the culmination of cultic life (or in your case, institutional life) is profoundly confining because the individual is closed to both the outside world (in your case, physically as well since you were confined) and his or her own inner life. Personal closure involves all aspects of your life. It’s about everything, all of your life, all of you.

            It is also much vaster than our understanding of the normal processes of conformity because of the depth and extent of the internalization and identification. The quality of the belief change in these groups actually shifts a person’s value structure – either temporarily or permanently.

            Within that context, all choices become institutional choices, and those choices are made by the leader, for no one else is qualified or has the authority to do so. Personal choices, should they even arise at all, are now formulated and constrained by the self-sealing framework and style of consideration, which always puts the institution first. Thus, your choices become “bounded choices” – hampered and confined by the constriction, not just of the system (which certainly has a role), but more importantly and more potently, by the constriction of your own thought patterns – which, once more, always put the institution first.

            So, what do we have here?

            The boundaries of knowledge have been shut tight and reinforced in 3 specific ways: through the process of resocialization, through the use of ideology, and through social control and influence. The goal of resocialization is the restructured personality, and this reconstruction often revolves around one aim: “to get the individual to identify with the socializing agent” (Coleman, 1990, p. 295) — in this case, whichever institution you happen to have been placed in. In Goffman’s writing on total institutions, he describes a process that he calls the “mortification of the self “– the process whereby the individual is stripped of all support and what was familiar to him before. “Upon entrance…” he writes, “he [is subjected to] a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, profanations of self. His self is systematically…mortified” (Goffman, 1961, p. 14). Self-mortification, role dispossession, curtailment of the self, obedience tests, will-breaking contests, physical indignities, forced confessions, all serve to create anxiety, loss of autonomy, and loss of sense of safety. You know the drill. I don’t have to tell you. You’ve been there. Such an assault upon the self is the crux of behavior modification, of thought reform.

            I cite these various researchers and professionals, not to bore you with academic references, but to help you understand that there are social scientists who have studied this phenomenon, who have criticized it, have pointed out the dangers and devastating effects. There is actually a long history of institutional abuse in its many forms – and you too are now experts in the subject.

            The desired effect from the institution’s point of view is a new self whose actions are dictated by the will or purpose of the actor or leader he has identified with. This is why people obey even when they are not around the group – It is then that will, the internalized will of the other, of the system, that generates one’s own internal sanctions for future actions. Bounded choice is constrained, then, by both external and internalized sanctions – real or imagined.

            Voila – you’ve been brainwashed.

            And now for that burning question: How do I undo it?

            Let me say first, for those of you who may be in pain, who may think the mental confusion and personal anguish will never end – I know it sounds trite, but it’s true that TIME HEALS ALL WOUNDS. So let time be your ally. And please take comfort in knowing that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have gone this road before – and THERE IS LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL.

            But you can cut down the time and you can shorten the tunnel, for one, by doing what you are doing this weekend, coming together with others who have experienced the same kind of trauma as you have and engaging in what I call psycho-education.

            But as to the question: how do I undo it? Well, I don’t believe that there is only one answer to that question – in fact, I no longer think there’s one answer to hardly any question, except maybe “what does 1 plus 1 equal?” One of the paradoxical consequences of living outside a cult or a closed system like you were in (and, by the way, from what I can tell, many of the behavioral modification programs that we’re here to discuss or you have experience with, that were and still are in existence qualify as a cult) – so one of the paradoxical consequences of living outside a closed system is that life gets more complex and a person is no longer satisfied with simplistic answers.

            There are two fundamental axioms to remember in dealing with some of the aftereffects: (1) we are socialized to respond to and respect authority figures, and (2) we are social animals who respond very much to peer pressure. Keeping that in mind may help ease some of the guilt and shame.

            When I work one on one with former cult members, there are several things I ask them to do that usually help, and that involves deconstructing the system to gain a full understanding of what was at play. And of course to recognize that because of what Lifton calls “milieu control” – control of information, of social contact, of outside realities – you were playing with less than a full deck. So in addition to the controlled environment along with the physical and psychological abuse, you were subjected to constant berating, badgering, exhaustion, malnutrition, various deprivations, all the while living in a depraved setting. So if you “bought into any of it,” if you succumbed in any way, don’t beat yourself up. What else could you have done? Give yourself a break. It’s time to take the pressure off. The keys to recovery are balance and moderation, both of which were quite likely absent in the program you were in.

            At the beginning of this presentation I mentioned some of the typical aftereffects: anxiety, indecision, worry, fear, either too little or too much sleep, confusion, guilt, loneliness, flashbacks, shame, obsessive thoughts, depression, suicidal thoughts, identity crises, loss of memory, panic attacks, anger, and so on. If you are experiencing any of these, that’s normal. Some of the other more common effects are:

  1. Cognitive deficits – trouble concentrating, an inability to think straight, things that may hinder you at school or at work.
  2. Experiencing low self-esteem, self-doubt, questioning yourself all the time.
  3. Feeling that you have regressed to a childlike state. Remember, you were in a situation that enforced a state of dependency and loss of autonomy. When I got out of my group at age 41, I always say I felt like a stupid 15-year-old and a very tired 80-year-old at the same time.
  4. Sometimes feeling frozen with fear, unable to act or make a decision.
  5. Wanting revenge. Not knowing what to do with all your anger.

Anger is a normal reaction to the hurts and assaults you experienced. Anger is an appropriate response to abuse and exploitation. Some say that feeling angry is one of the first signs of recovery. Just as fear is the backbone of institutional control, anger can be the fuel of recovery. It fortifies your sense of what is right by condemning the wrong that was done to you. It gives you the energy and will to get through the ordeal of getting your life back together. Suppression of anger while in the institution more than likely contributed to depression and a sense of helplessness. Now the reverse is possible. But bear in mind that anger can also be a double-edged sword, especially if turned inward, toward the self or outward toward the wrong targets, innocent others, which can lead to increased isolation. One outlet for many people has been poetry or writing to release the anger. Or writing letters that never get sent to former leaders. Don’t act on it willy-nilly. There is a big difference between thinking, feeling, and acting out.

            I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t diagnose you, but most people coming out of such situations do get diagnosed with PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. That means the emotional roller coaster may go on for some time; you may step off and have smooth times for a while, and then the roller coaster comes by and swoops you up again. That too is normal. The most important and effective thing you can do is find those aids that work for you. This process may or may not include professional therapy. The healing or recovery process varies for each of us, with ebbs and flows of progress, great insight, and profound confusion at times.

            I don’t like to tout my own book, but Take Back Your Life (Lalich & Tobias, 2006), which was written specifically to help folks recover from similar traumatic experiences, has proven so helpful for many, many people. My coauthor and I were compelled to write the book because more often than not, people coming out of cults and extremist environments have difficulty finding practical information. I, too, experiences that obstacle back in 1986 when I got out. I seemed to encounter one roadblock after another when I searched for useful information or helping professionals who were knowledgeable about this type of trauma.

And there are other good books out there as well. Another book I recommend is The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren (2010).

            Dealing with your emotions may be one of the biggest areas of concern. Typically as we grow up, through life’s various experiences, ups and downs, we learn the skills needed to handle and cope with a variety of situations. But you were likely removed from life just at the time when most folks are experiencing life, learning to sort through the challenges and acquire those skills. You were in an environment where your emotions were manipulated and controlled. So now you have to face that developmental task, and it may at times seem just too daunting. You may not even be able to sort out one emotion from another, or what is an appropriate or inappropriate response. So again, get some useful aids (such as the two books I just mentioned or a therapist or a trusted friend), and start to identify and distinguish between your various responses and reactions. How is anger different from fear, from frustration? How is sadness different from loneliness? How do you react when you are anxious? What sets it off? What can you do to avoid those situations or approach them differently? Keep a journal or a log. Start making sense of it. But it is important to find a comfortable pace for your healing process. In the beginning, in particular, your mind and body may simply need a rest. Allow yourself that.

             If you are having triggers and flashbacks, there are little tricks and exercises in the book to help you through those. A trigger can induce a dissociated state accompanied by a flood of memories. Sensory triggers area probably the most common: sights, physical sensations, sounds, smells, tastes. These triggers are reminders of specific experiences or people and are unique to each person. They may bring back the ambiance of the place, or engender specific emotional states, or even physical sensations. You’re not going crazy when these occur, although you may feel like it. The process of becoming immune to triggers begins when you become aware of what triggers you. Get rid of institutional souvenirs; keep a log; stay healthy. Research indicates that triggering happens most frequently when you are anxious, stressed, fatigued, or ill; and secondarily, when you’re distracted, lonely or uncertain. This very gathering may set off lots of triggers for many of you, just because we are talking about these things.

            And ask other survivors what works for them. But beware: don’t compare yourself to them or judge yourself by someone else’s progress. That’s never helpful. You are a unique human being with your own journey.

Recovering from such a traumatic experience will not end the moment you leave the abusive situation. Nor will it end after the first few weeks or months away from the group. On the contrary, depending on your circumstances, aspects of that experience may require some attention for the rest of your life.

            In an earlier book that I co-wrote with psychologist Dr. Margaret Singer, we outlined 5 major areas of post-cult adjustment (Singer & Lalich, 1995). These likely will relevant to you as well. The five categories are practical, psychological-emotional, cognitive, social-personal and philosophical-attitudinal. I have a handout available that outlines these and some of the typical issues likely to come up in each area.

            You may sometimes feel that it’s all one big mush and that it seems impossible to get a handle on – that’s why I feel the deconstruction of the experience is so important. Some people have found it very helpful to recreate their time in the group. Try to chart out what happened, when and why. Now it may seem counterintuitive to relive, but the better you understand intellectually what happened to you, the better you will be able to handle it emotionally. You can chart out your experiences and perhaps leave a column on the right where you can jot in notes or reminders that will help you get a grasp on what happened.

            If there was a specific ideology or belief system put forth by the institution, their philosophy of practice, the underpinnings of why they say they do what they do. Take that apart as well. See if it has any medical or psychological roots that are valid; debunk it, so that it no longer has any hold on you. And perhaps there may have been some good elements – this way you can sort those out, and not have to throw out the good with the bad.

            These exercises may not be easy to do. You may not want to do them all in one sitting. You may not want to do them if you’re feeling particularly vulnerable or shaky. You may want to do it with someone else, a trusted friend, someone else who was in the same or similar program.

            Learn to take things on a little at a time. Not every issue or aftereffect is going to be resolved at the same time. Perhaps make a list of the things that trouble you most, then prioritize it, and work on things systematically. Or if you reach a block, go back to your list and pick out some other area to work on. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Not everything needs to be settled today. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.

            If you no longer trust, feel you don’t know how to have healthy relationships, there’s a section on that in the book as well. Engaging in healthy and trusting relationships after such a traumatic and invasive experience as you have endured is one of life’s big challenges afterwards. But it’s important to take on this challenge so you can create a solid and trustworthy social network around you.

            Establish a support system for yourself. Choose your friends wisely. Don’t associate with people who bring you down. Don’t think you have to tell everyone you encounter what you went through. There is often a tendency to say too much too soon, with family, on the job, or with new acquaintances. That’s left over from the time in the system when you were allowed to have no boundaries at all. You now can re-establish your personal space, guard it well. Trust you gut, your instinctual reactions, when you feel invaded or as though you’re losing your balance or perspective. The bottom line is that you get to decide what feels safe and what you feel prepared to discuss or explain.

            If you’re having trouble sleeping, remember the old remedies. Drink some warm milk. Play soft music. Go outside and get cold and then jump back in bed. That is supposed to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and slow your heart rate so you will fall asleep.

Also, you may want to seek out an ethical cognitive therapist – no tricks, no gimmicks, no New Age nonsense. Just good old talk therapy. I realize tht many of you may be hesitant to open up to any mental health professional after what you’ve been through and the way you were betrayed, but there are some good therapists out there who can help. There’s a checklist in the book for evaluating a good therapist.

            I’m not a big pill pusher, but there are some very good medications available now for anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. You don’t have to suffer as much as you might be. Remember, you probably got used to suffering while you were confined, perhaps you became desensitized to that kind of personal pain, or you think you should just suck it up and take it. That’s a bankrupt philosophy. If there is medication you can take for a time that will relieve some of your pain and allow you to function more effectively, consider it. Talk with your doctor or therapist about it. You probably don’t have to be on it forever, but it can be a wonderful short-term solution to getting through the really rough spots.

            Find what works for you – and work on it. Do what you can when it feels right, and if it seems like too much, like you don’t want to think about it another minute, then don’t. Trust your gut; follow your instincts. You can now. It does get better. The pain and the bad memories, the nightmares, the panic attacks will recede into the background.

            And never forget, you were strong enough to survive a most horrific ordeal. You are surely strong enough to succeed now.


Coleman, J. (1990). Foundations of social theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Erikson, E. H. (1959/1980). Identity and the life cycle. New York Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and          other inmates. New York: Anchor Books.

Lalich, J. (2004.) Bounded choice; True believers and charismatic cults. Berkeley:            University of California Press.

Lalich, J., & Tobias, M. (2006). Take back your life: Recovering from cults and abusive     relationships. Berkeley, CA: Bay Tree

Lifton, R. J. (1969). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: Norton.

McLaren, K. (2010). The language of emotions: What your feelings are trying to tell you. Louisville, CO: Sounds True.

Schein, E. H. (1961/1971). Coercive persuasion: A socio-psychological analysis of the    “brainwashing” of American civilian prisoners by the Chinese Communists. New          York: Norton.

Singer, M. T., & Lalich, J. (1995). Cults in our midst: The hidden menace in our      everyday lives.: San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Major Areas of Post-Cult Adjustment


Makes living arrangements.

Arranges financial support.

Arranges medical & dental care.

Examines nutrition & eating habits.

Gets psychological examination, if needed.

Makes career & education plans, & gets vocational counseling, if needed.

Explains the years in the cult/abusive institution.

Structures daily life.

Copes with difficulties created by distrust of professional services: medical, dental, & mental health professionals, & educators.

Feels depressed.

Has feelings of loss.

Feels guilt & regret.

Lacks self-esteem & self-confidence; exhibits self-blaming attitudes & excessive doubts.

Has panic attacks.

Experiences relaxation-induced anxiety (RIA) & tics.

Separation from family & friends.

Exhibits fear of the group & others in general, especially authority figures.

Feels generalized paranoia & fear of the world.

Is overly dependent for age; submissive, suggestible.

Worries over realness of “past lives”; must sort out true past from one engendered by the cult/institution.

Is hypersensitive to sound, touch.

Experiences indecisiveness.

Experiences blurring of mental acuity.

Has difficulty concentrating.

Has memory loss.

Cannot recall what just read or heard.

Must stop using group language/lingo.

Has sense of losing track of time.

Experiences floating, slipping into altered states.

Has poor & unreliable sense of judgment.

Hears what others say uncritically & passively. Or may be hypercritical

Has recurring bizarre mental content from the experience: for example, waking dreams, fog-like states.

Has pervasive sense of alienation.

Needs to reconnect with family & friends.

Needs to make new friends.

Distrusts own ability to make good choices.

Has phobic-like con­striction of social contacts; mistrusts, distrusts others.

Feels loneliness.

Is confused about sexuality & sexual identity & roles.

Faces dealing with marital, family, parental, & child custody issues.

Fears making a commitment to another person.

Feels unable to make & express opinions.

Overextends self to make up for lost time; is unable to say no.

Has sense of being watched all the time (the fishbowl effect).

Is embarrassed & uncertain how or when to tell others about the experience; fears rejection.

Has hypercritical attitude toward others & society.

Needs to overcome aversions ingrained by the cult/institution.

Has condemning attitude toward normal human foibles & is harsh toward self & others; still judges by cult/institutional standards.

Lacks satisfaction with the world & self; feels emptiness at no longer being a world saver or on a mission.

Is unable to be kind to or supportive of others.

Fears joining any group or being active.

Feels loss of sense of being part of an elite group.

Needs to reactivate own belief system & moral code/values & sort out from ones adopted in the cult/institution.


From Cults in Our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer with Janja Lalich. Copyright © 1995.

[1] Copyright © 2012 by Janja Lalich. Presented at the SIA Convention, February 25, 2012, Long Beach, CA.


Dr. Janja Lalich

Janja Lalich, Ph.D. is a researcher, author, and educator specializing in cults and extremist groups, with a particular focus on charismatic relationships, political and other social movements, ideology and social control, and issues of gender and sexuality.