Psychotherapy with Former Cult Members

Psychotherapy with Former Cult Members

by Patrick O'Reilly
A specialist in cults discusses a real-life example of a former cult member's struggle to recover from his traumatic experiences within the group, and offers treatment advice for this unusual and challenging population.
Filed Under: Trauma/PTSD


Get Endless Inspiration and
Insight from Master Therapists,
Members-Only Content & More


Two years ago, I received a late-night telephone call from a man who would give me only his first name. Bill said that he’d recently moved to Oakland and had been referred to me by a cult awareness organization in Florida. I get calls like this a few times a year—sometimes a referral from the cult awareness network, occasionally from the internet, and once in a while from someone I’d already met with. Because I was working full time as a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the university, I told Bill that he’d likely be better served calling a county psychological association for a referral to a private practice psychologist. “I’ve done that already,” he replied irritably. In fact, he had already tried therapy with both a psychologist and an MFT, but neither seemed to understand what he’d gone through.
“They couldn’t tell me what happened.”
“They couldn’t tell me what happened.”

Relenting, I told Bill that I’d be happy to meet with him, and suggested a coffee shop in Berkeley. As with each of these referrals, I was curious to hear Bill’s story. Although I would not provide psychotherapy to him, I hoped to explain to him how cults operate. Once he understood the powerful techniques of persuasion that were used against him, perhaps at least some of the guilt and foolishness he might be feeling over his cultic involvement would decrease.

The next morning I arrived in the crowded coffee shop 15 minutes early. Bill was there already, sitting at a small corner table in the Phillies baseball cap he told me to look for. He was a tall, red-faced man in his mid-thirties, with the kind of physical build that suggested a retired athlete. I introduced myself and he nodded, his eyes tight.

As I sat down across from him, he launched right into his story. “It’s about a church I joined in college,” he began. “I think it’s a cult—I read up on cults, but I just don’t know. The group I belonged to doesn’t sound like any of those famous ones, like Heaven’s Gate or Jonestown, and it’s not big or anything. But it’s a bad place.” He shook his head, gaze focused on the Formica tabletop. “I’m kind of a loss as to what exactly happened,” he continued. “I’m not a stupid man. I’m not, really. And I just can’t seem to figure out what went wrong.”

Bill's Story

Though Bill’s story was unique to him, it followed a pattern I was familiar with. He had been raised in a devout Lutheran family. As a freshman in college and far from home, he had been approached one day in the quad by a woman named Sarah. “She was real pretty and so nice to be around. She told me she was a student and we talked about school and God—we were both Christians.” She ended up inviting him to a prayer meeting that night at her church. Grateful for the attention of an attractive woman when he was struggling to find new friends, he went along.

The prayer meeting was held in a storefront church a few blocks from the campus.
Bill began attending weekly services there, and was made to feel so welcome that within a month he was visiting the church daily.
Bill began attending weekly services there, and was made to feel so welcome that within a month he was visiting the church daily. There always seemed to people there, no manner when he dropped by, and they were always glad to visit with him. The pastor, Brother Jacob, was an inspiring teacher who seemed to know just about everything about Bill, “or it seemed to me then that he did! About my spiritual struggles and my loneliness, about my trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with my life and wondering if I was even a good man.”

By the end of his freshman year, Bill had dropped out of college to live with the group. “School just didn’t seem that important to me anymore,” he explained. “I was more concerned about the spiritual crisis in America.” As he became immersed in his new church family, he was persuaded that the Lutheran religion he’d been raised in was a false religion and that his only hope for salvation and peace of mind was with Brother Jacob’s church family.

Over the next several years, Brother Jacob’s small, insular spiritual group moved often, eventually settling in Sonoma County, California. By the time they arrived, they included over 40 members. The theology of the group, as espoused by Brother Jacob, gradually morphed into an amalgam of fundamentalist Christianity and nebulous New Age teachings. In his daily sermons, Brother Jacob reinforced the belief that he was a divinely appointed prophet chosen by God to usher in a universal spiritual awakening.

Despite Bill’s initial infatuation with her, he never became romantically involved with Sarah, the girl who introduced him to the church. Once he was firmly ensconced with the group, she distanced herself from him. Only belatedly did he learn that the other members considered her and Brother Jacob a married couple.

The church members were forbidden contact with family or past friends without Jacob’s explicit permission, and the church community did not have television or radio and did not subscribe to newspapers. Bill and the other congregants relied solely on Jacob for outside news. Five years after his recruitment into the church, Bill married a church member new to the group, and they had a daughter together, six years old at the time I met with Bill. Brother Jacob officiated at the wedding and no marriage license was filed.

“It got really bad after that,” Bill told me. “I didn’t have an education and mostly did construction work, odd and ends—grunt work like everybody else.” He turned his paychecks directly over to Brother Jacob.

“I started thinking that this was pretty bad—and my wife and I weren’t getting along so good. I just prayed harder. Jacob preached to us every night for hours, and God help any one of us who fell asleep while he was talking. Mostly I was just tired all the time.” Bill couldn’t sleep and started losing weight. It was about then, around six months before he phoned me, that Brother Jacob began the ordeal he called “confession and redemption.”

Brother Jacob would choose a member of the community to be criticized and belittled by the entire community for hours at a time, rationalizing this exercise as a way to rid the community of sin and temptation and put the sinner on a strong foothold to spiritual purity. It was at one of these group confessionals, when Bill was on “the hot seat,” that he finally “cracked up. My wife went after me, along with everybody else. Brother Jacobb egged her on until she ridiculed our sex life and made fun of my unspiritual, lustful attitudes and my shortcomings as a husband. Nobody there seemed to care how horrible that was for me. I was shamed in front of everybody.” At the end of that meeting, which seemed to go on for hours, Brother Jacob ordered Bill to maintain chastity until he’d worked through all his sins and worldly thoughts—until the spiritual welfare of the planet became his overwhelming desire. He was ordered to live in the garage until further notice.

"It was then that I realized I’d just wasted thirteen years of my life."
“It was then that I realized it was all like a really bad nightmare and I’d just wasted thirteen years of my life,” Bill told me. “I hadn’t spoken to my parents or brother in years, had no friends, and never finished school.” Bill was now working at two low-paying jobs and had hired an attorney to try to get custody of his six-year-old daughter, whose mother had remained in Jacob’s church. His attorney warned him to prepare for a long legal battle—he and his wife had never been legally married, and his wife disavowed his paternity of the child.

Cult Recruitment Tactics

Bill’s story illustrates perfectly the classic cultic recruitment and retention process. Margaret Singer, a preeminent 20th-century authority on cults, wrote in her definitive Cults in Our Midst about the six stages of cultic recruitment and retention.

1. Keep the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place.
 Bill was recruited as a college student, when he was most vulnerable. He was away from home, far from his social support system, emotionally insecure, and lonely. It’s likely that Sarah had spent days recruiting on the campus and had approached dozens of solitary students before finding Bill. When he initially became involved with Brother Jacob, Bill thought he was joining a Christian church with spiritual and ethical beliefs much like his own. He had no inkling that Sarah had been trolling for new members and that the initial stages of his involvement with the group were carefully orchestrated to reinforce the commonalities Bill felt with the cult members.
He had no inkling that the initial stages of his involvement were carefully orchestrated to reinforce the commonalities Bill felt with the cult members.

2. Control the person’s time and, if possible, physical environment.
 Once Bill actually moved in with Jacob’s group, his time was rigorously controlled as he worked multiple physically exhausting jobs. Bill relinquished his income to Jacob, had no meaningful emotional contact with anyone outside the church community, and was dependent on Jacob and the other congregants for shelter, emotional support, and food.

A cult could be in your own neighborhood and you might well not know it because the members have such superficial social interaction with nonmembers. If a cult member were to have outside interests, meaningful contact with friends and family outside of the cult, or personal interests not specifically tied to the cult, it would be a whole lot easier for him or her to just walk out when things got bad. Recruits are not allowed exposure to any people, situations or ideas that might help them look at the situation objectively; the consequence is that the ideas of the cult gradually replace independent thought.

3. Create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, and dependency.
One of the unbending tenets of cults is the “us versus them” mentality. Cult leaders justify this insularity in innumerable ways. In Bill’s case, Brother Jacob convinced his followers that his was a divinely directed spiritual path and that all other religions, Christian or otherwise, were either well meaning but false, or were diabolical. Citing the danger of “contamination,” Brother Jacob instructed his followers that to maintain their spiritual purity and avoid damnation, they needed to avoid as much as possible all contact with persons outside the community. To do otherwise would mean impeding God’s design for world spiritual harmony.

4. Suppress much of the person’s old behavior and attitudes.
In his groundbreaking book on “brainwashing” techniques used by Communist prison guards during the Korean War, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton points out that

“Whatever its setting, thought reform consists of two basic elements: confession, the exposure and renunciation of past and present ‘evil,’ and re-education, the remaking of a man in the Communist image. These elements are closely related and overlapping, since both bring into play a series of pressures and appeals—intellectual, emotional, and physical—aimed at social control and individual change.” (5, 1961)

This is certainly what happened to Bill. He had renounced his past beliefs and affiliations, but in this case the “confession and redemption” exercise that he participated in finally caused him to metaphorically snap. Years of hard physical labor, a failed marriage, and humiliation from his wife, Jacob, and the other cult members caused such emotional exhaustion that he fled the cult to try to recoup his sanity.

5. Instill new behavior and attitudes.
With cults, the goal is to take whatever sense of morality or personal identity the person originally had and replace it with the leader’s own vision. Cultic indoctrination is gradual and incremental, just like the mind control described by Dr. Lifton. Everything happens in small, sometimes seemingly inconsequential steps. Had Bill been told at the first service at Brother Jacob’s church that he would have to disavow his family, drop out of school, perform mind-numbing physical labor for years, accept Jacob as a prophet, and be subjected to continual emotional abuse, it is unlikely he would have attended a second service. Jacob and his followers, however, kept hidden the central precepts of Jacob’s message.

6. Put forth a closed sense of logic; allow no real input or criticism.
Brother Jacob continually reminded his congregation that to desert the group was tantamount to eternal damnation. Members of the community were taught that temptation was everywhere and could come from anyone and everyone not associated with Jacob. For hours each evening, Jacob lectured on theology, the evils of modern society, and the hypocrisy of organized religion. He warned his congregation that to lose sight of his message, even for a minute, would be tantamount to suicide.
Brother Jacob warned his congregation that to lose sight of his message, even for a minute, would be tantamount to suicide.
He urged them to report any doubts or negative thoughts to Jacob immediately, and to assist each other in remaining spiritually pure by informing Jacob of any concerns they felt about the purity and purpose of their fellow congregants. Bill tried his best to live up to these strict rules; in doing so, he came to unquestionably accept the belief that Jacob was a prophet appointed by God.

Exploiting Vulnerability

Despite decades of research on cults, there is no typical personality that is particularly susceptible to cult involvement. You can’t say, for instance, that cults recruit only timid, uneducated, or naïve people. But one thing that continually comes up is that most people who become involved with a cult are going through a vulnerable time in their lives. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the most typical recruits were young, which makes sense as there were thousands of young people adrift looking for a sense of direction and purpose.

Today, college campuses remain good recruiting spots with young students away from home for the first time, vulnerable and lonely. But life transitions make us vulnerable at any age, and a cult can present itself favorably as a support network during these times. You might think of a woman whose husband divorces her after a 30-year marriage—her identity and sense of purpose have been focused on her family and now the family is gone; or a single parent whose children go away to college; or someone who has had a catastrophic death in the family; or a 50-year-old man who just lost his job of 20 years. These people bring job skills and potential earning power to the group. The elderly have become particularly good recruits because they have assets. If they own their own homes, the homes are probably paid off, they have Social Security and pensions, and they have free time to devote to the cult. Cults need these recruits to ensure their financial and social sustainability.

During my predoctoral internship at a day treatment facility in the San Francisco Bay Area, I came to learn that one of my co-interns, doing her postdoctoral internship, had suffered a series of personal tragedies on the East Coast and had moved to California to start her life over. There had been a lapse of a few years before she felt organized enough to finish up her internship hours. One of the personal tragedies she was running away from was an abusive sexual relationship. She settled in Berkeley and, feeling the need for friendship and quiet reflection, she joined a free spiritual meditation group. At first they met twice a week, but gradually these meetings became more frequent and took up most of her free time. When I met her, the only people she really knew in California were the therapists at the day treatment center and her new friends in the meditation group.

The group was part of a national spiritual organization controlled by a self-described guru. I realized early on that she had joined a cult, but my attempts to talk to her about it failed. She had a stack of cards on her desk, each printed with a quote by her guru. When I tried to talk with her about my research on cults, she would pick up one of the cards and read its message to me. These messages were innocuous, cloying, vaguely spiritual sayings. She was doing something called a thought-stopping technique. Followers of charismatic leaders are often taught that when they are faced with adversity, doubt, or challenge, they’re to say a specific mantra or prayer or do some specific activity that will bring the cult and its leader to the front of their minds and drive doubt away.

Since she wasn’t open to my concerns about the group she’d joined, I stopped mentioning them. I figured that if she ever did decide to leave the group, she would know that she could talk to me. The other therapists avoided her. They found her smugness, her meditating during breaks, the photo of her guru on her desk, and the little aphorism cards irritating and troubling.

When her postdoctoral internship was completed and my predoctoral internship was finishing up, she and I had the opportunity to receive funding to start a small drop-in clinic for runaway teenagers. For the first time in the 15 months I’d known her, I met with her outside the clinic. She refused to meet either at my home or at hers, so we arranged to convene at a picnic spot in a Berkeley park. When we met, she was flustered and nervous; she revealed that the local leader of her spiritual group had told her she shouldn’t trust me. We were writing out the rough draft of our proposal when it started raining. She suggested that, after all, it was okay to meet at her apartment.

We hadn’t been at her apartment three minutes when her local spiritual leader phoned and informed her that he was holding an emergency mandatory meeting for the entire group. So much for that; I left. The next Monday, she left me a voicemail message stating that she had no interest in running a clinic with me. A month later, this woman who had a Ph.D. in clinical psychology was working at the cult’s San Francisco restaurant 12 hours a day, five days a week for $280 a month, while living in a group home owned by the cult.
There was no way the group she belonged to was going to let her act independently.
There was no way the group she belonged to was going to let her act independently. She was too valuable to them. At the restaurant, they could watch over her.

Treating Former Cult Members: Common Issues

Very few of those who briefly become involved with a cult will stay. As a PhD candidate I studied a small cult for my dissertation. Along with 18 other people, I attended a free introductory psychic healing offered by a local group. Six of us signed up and paid for a psychic healing class. When I finally stopped attending the group’s services eight months later, only one other person from the original 19 was still involved with the group.

But the damage done once someone decides to break away can vary tremendously, and the challenges of providing to psychotherapy to ex-cult members can be daunting. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for former members, and there’s no reliable data I am aware of that indicates success rates using any specific psychotherapeutic tool. Each client brings his or her own personal issues to the therapy session, which will vary depending on variables such as duration of involvement, age, educational background, and whether sexual abuse was part of the cult’s practices. Along with collaboratively developing a treatment plan that is unique to that client and which most clearly addresses the client’s pain and sense of loss, the most reasonable and helpful psychotherapy for a former cult member will involve education, patience, and case management when it’s needed.

Although I wasn’t in a position to offer psychotherapy to Bill when he contacted me, I will use his case as an example to highlight many of the issues to consider when providing psychotherapy to a person who has left a cult. When Bill exited the cult, he was 33 years old. He had dropped out of college in his sophomore year and worked as a construction laborer. He had acquired no job skills that could pay him much above the minimum wage, and now faced the daunting tasks of supporting himself, paying child support, and somehow earning enough money to finance what looked to be an expensive child custody legal battle. He was estranged from his biological family and had no friends outside of the cult.

Social Services Referrals

It is important that the therapist learn the specifics of Bill’s current living situation. Bill has met with two psychotherapists already and psychotherapy is not cheap; he may have paid a third or more of his weekly income for each visit, and clearly he can’t do that indefinitely. It’s quite possible, too, that Jacob placed little priority on his followers’ physical health; it may have been years since Bill visited a medical doctor or dentist. As a first step in the psychotherapeutic process, it may be necessary to assist Bill with basic case management services. Bill said that he’s working at two low-paying jobs, but does his income disqualify him from food stamps or Medi-Cal eligibility? And where is Bill living? He may be staying in a homeless shelter or in his car. In order to be helpful to Bill, the psychotherapist needs to know the answers to these questions and be prepared to refer him to county agencies that can assist him.

Assessing Risk of PTSD, Depression, and Other Diagnoses

For years, Bill was subjected to ongoing emotional abuse from Jacob. The consequences of that abuse, coupled with his current poverty and the dissolution of his marriage and loss of meaningful contact with his daughter, is likely causing overwhelming psychological pain. He may be experiencing difficulty sleeping and have an accompanying high startle response. Christian symbolism might remind him of Jacob’s theology. Even driving by a church with the congregation mingling outside could trigger unpleasant memories. His self-esteem was still forming when he met Jacob, and will almost certainly be low; he’s without friends and lives in poverty. All of these factors put him at risk for depression. It was already noted that Bill is quite thin. Does he have an appetite? It’s understandable that he may be feeling guilt about having abandoned the only friends and family he has known in the past decade, but is the guilt overwhelming? Does he do anything at all that gives him pleasure, or does he spend all of his time working and worrying?

At intake, the therapist should do a Mental Status Exam and perhaps use other assessment measures such as the Beck Depression Inventory screening to determine Bill’s level of concentration, document his physical appearance and affect, and determine whether Bill is experiencing depressive symptoms. The results of these screenings will indicate whether formal psychological testing is advisable. In eliciting his life story from Bill and the diagnoses based on the initial screening and psychological testing, the therapist can then formulate a treatment plan that prioritizes Bill’s problems and the diagnoses determined by the psychological testing.

While it is common for ex-cultists to experience posttraumatic stress disorder, not all of them will, any more than will all soldiers who experience combat. Depression and anxiety are very frequently found in persons who have left a cult, but it is an error to automatically assume that all former cult members suffer from these dysfunctions. Shame, low self-esteem, and anger, however, are nearly always present.

In these cases especially, journal keeping can become an important adjunct to therapy. Bill should be encouraged to keep a daily journal as a way to document his feelings and reactions to stressors. If, for example, he feels a surge of anxiety when driving past a church or seeing a parent and child, Bill and the therapist can collaboratively develop coping strategies to lessen the chances of Bill reacting adversely to such stimuli. He should also be encouraged to write down his feelings about his future and the impediments he sees as preventing him from more fully taking advantage of his intellect and ambition. Journaling will allow the therapist to better understand Bill’s dilemma as Bill views it.

Life Decisions

As an adult, all of Bill’s meaningful life decisions had been made by Jacob; Bill had no say in his education and employment and had limited say in his own marriage. Now all decisions are his. After viewing what he sees as a waste of 13 years of his life, he may feel either like he needs to make up for lost time and immediately “jump back into” the life he put on hold when he was 19 years old, or, conversely, believe it’s too late for him to make the needed changes in his life.

Although Bill is in his thirties, emotionally in many ways he is still an adolescent. While with Jacob, he’d learned to suppress doubt; now he is likely overwhelmed by doubt. Does he fear that if his decision to leave Jacob was the wrong decision, he will be damned? Does he believe that he has offended God?

In addition to focusing on Bill’s immediate psychological dysfunction, the therapist should also assist him in realizing what his long-term goals are, something that was never addressed while he was with Jacob. At some point, he may want to look beyond remaining a laborer. The therapist can assist Bill in expressing his interests and hopes for the future. Because Bill’s self-esteem is almost certainly poor, he may be timorous in talking about what he would like to do; he may feel that he is not smart or worthy enough. The therapist can help Bill past his timidity and low self-regard. Bill is an intelligent man and there are a myriad of options available to him; finding the confidence to speak to his therapist about his goals will be of great emotional benefit.

Social Reintegration

Because of the cult practice of social isolation, Bill will now almost certainly feel alienated from just about everybody. He’s left the only people he’d known for over a decade, and he has no one to replace them. As a result of his isolation as well as the cult’s “us-versus-them” mentality, he may view people with distrust, fearing that they’ll take advantage of him. Because he was also taught to harshly judge “outsiders” who did not conform to the cult’s standards of conduct, he may need help developing a less judgmental and more open approach when interacting with other people as a way to more fully re-integrate himself into society.

Finding a way to fit into a mainstream that he has spent nearly his entire adult life viewing with suspicion and judgment will be difficult. What will he talk about with people he meets at work?
How can he explain his involvement with the group without provoking ridicule and disbelief? If he chooses not to talk about his cult membership, what will he say he’s been doing for the last 13 years?
How can he explain his involvement with the group without provoking ridicule and disbelief? If he chooses not to talk about his cult membership, what will he say he’s been doing for the last 13 years?

For these reasons, group psychotherapy is often useful when working with former cult members. For Bill, group therapy would allow him to hone his social skills, which have been dormant for over a decade; he may not even know how to speak to people in a friendly, unassuming manner. Additionally, receiving feedback from the other group members will assist Bill in thinking about his experiences in the cult from a different standpoint. Good group therapy creates a safe environment Bill for to learn socially appropriate ways to assert himself. By interacting with peers in the group, Bill will learn coping skills and reframing strategies, and improve his ability to speak about his experiences and hopes for the future. Group therapy will also assist him in realizing that he is not metaphorically alone, that the turmoil he is experiencing is not unique.

Challenges in Reconnecting with Family

Bill has had no contact with his biological family in over a decade. It is not uncommon for cult leaders to persuade followers to borrow money from their families, most often by promising to use the money to return home or return to school. If this happened with Bill, the therapist should know about it; it might make reconciliation more difficult, and the shame of having stolen from his family may be a contributing factor to Bill’s emotional problems. Reconciling with his family could both decrease Bill’s isolation and ease some his guilt. His parents might not know that Bill has left the cult; they might not even know he has a daughter, and learning of a grandchild could make reconnecting with his family easier.

The therapist will also want to explore Bill’s current disenfranchisement from his family and his reasons for avoiding contact with them. Bill can be encouraged to talk to the therapist about the worse-case scenarios he envisions might happen if he attempts reconciliation. Rejection? Anger? Legal action to recover unpaid debts? If Bill is prepared to reach out to his family, the therapist can offer to meet with them together, to act as a sort of referee and to explain to Bill and his family the forces that were put into play by Jacob that led to Bill’s recruitment into the cult. It could be healing for the family to learn about tools of undue influence used on Bill, and understand that Bill’s cultic involvement was not due to Bill’s upbringing, but were rather a result of Jacob using remarkably successful tools of persuasion on a particularly vulnerable young man.

Managing Self-Blame with Psychoeducation

Persons who leave cults, or any abusive relationships for that matter, very often feel foolish and angry for having been so badly manipulated. It’s important that Bill knows that the techniques used against him by Jacob were not Bill’s fault. It wasn’t weakness on Bill’s part that caused him to join Jacob’s cult; rather, it was his innocence and Jacob’s pathology that were ultimately responsible. There is a genuine sense of empowerment when a former cult member understands the tools of manipulation that were used against him or her. While bitterness and anger may linger, the former cultist no longer feels somehow defective. This goes a long way in eliminating feelings of low self-worth.

Follow-up: A Slow Recovery

Over the next several months, I heard from Bill occasionally. At his suggestion, about a year later, I met with him again at the same coffee shop. This time he was more relaxed but still maintained a reserved, moderately nervous affect. He told me that although he had met with three more psychotherapists, he’d been unable to find one he believed understood his experience well enough to be able to help him. He mentioned that he’d joined a psychotherapy group a month earlier and felt that he was receiving support from the other members of the group, who do not see him as weak or foolish. He was hopeful that the group therapy would work out.

He still worked in construction and paid monthly child support. The courts had determined that he was the biological father of his daughter, and he’d been granted visitation privileges with her, which his ex-wife was contesting through an attorney hired by Jacob. In response to my question, he said that he still considered himself a Christian but, despite attending several churches, had not found one where he felt he belonged. He added that he still had difficult mentally separating Christian theology from Jacob and what Jacob had done to him. Bill remained quite bitter over having lost so much of his life to the cult.

I hope Bill’s story makes clear that ex-cult members are a traumatized segment of the population that needs more therapists who are educated about and sensitive to their particular experiences. Patience is a necessity in doing this work, but it is often helpful to remember that while these individuals suffered extreme measures of manipulation, their susceptibility to such influence is not surprising, or even necessarily difficult to understand. As Dr. Margaret Singer was fond of saying, anybody is capable of cultic recruitment if approached at the right time—a time when they are most vulnerable.
Anybody is capable of cultic recruitment if approached at the right time—a time when they are most vulnerable.
That was certainly the case with Bill; he was young and naïve with minimal life experience, and he was lonely and cut off from his family. Jacob used an attractive woman as the initial bait and then played into Bill’s isolation, Christian beliefs, doubts about his direction in life, and his yearnings to be part of a community of friends who shared his principles.

Lifton, R. (1961). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
Singer, M. and Lalich, J. (1995). Cults In Our Midst. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.


© 2011,, LLC.
Order CE Test
$15.00 or 1.00 CE Point

CE points are a great way to save if you need multiple CEUs. Get up to 45% discount when you buy packages of 10, 20 or 40 points. Your CE points will be redeemed automatically at checkout. Get CE packages here.

Earn 1.00 Credits
Buy Now

*Not approved for CE by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)

CE Test
Patrick O'Reilly Patrick O’Reilly, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in California and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. He was the postdoctoral intern of the late Dr. Margaret Singer, author of Cults In Our Midst. Dr. O’Reilly wrote his Master thesis on cults and actually joined a cult to obtain the data for his doctoral dissertation.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the strategies of attraction and retention universal to cults
  • Describe the challenges common to individuals recovering from cult involvement
  • Plan therapeutic interventions with former cult members

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here