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.
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.”
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Patrick O'ReillyPatrick 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.
Excellent article. Much of your description of Bill's experiences and challenges to recovery remind me of my son, who is currently deeply stuck in a cultic relationship with an older woman. Now my son, who never was abnormally money-driven, tries to black-mail us emotionally and literally, he takes money for education and keeps for other purposes. All proposed resolution with us is monetary. This cherished son and brother claims now that we emotionally abused him, though before were all so close, and he thought we were good parents. I wish I knew how to help free him. This article, at least, contains rare insight. I do wish you would consider the problem of cultic relationships, in another article. Thank you.
Eve Hendricks
A very Good and interesting article about cults. Thanks for sharing this with us. It sounds like Brother Jacob got carried away; that group did not read what the Holy Bible says. Thanks for sharing; Jesus Christ Bless! :)
Joseph Chance Watkins
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CE credits: 1
Learning objectives:

  • Describe the strategies of attraction and retention universal to cults
  • Understand psychological and practical challenges common to individuals recovering from cult involvement
  • Learn about important therapeutic interventions with former cult members
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