Thursday, September 12, 2013

Joseph Szimhart ('sim-hart)

cult 101 from my perspective, but I hope it helps you.

some definitions

Cult. 1. A system of religious worship and ritual. 2. A religion or sect considered extremist or false. 3.a. Obsessive devotion to a person or principle; b. The object of such devotion. (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1994)
this site concentrates on the second and third definitions, we will not ignore the primary one as they all work to define one social activity. For more about cult and its meaning, see the section under Religion.

Brainwashing. Intensive, forcible indoctrination aimed at replacing a person's basic convictions with an alternative set of fixed beliefs. (The American Heritage Dictionary
This history of how we acquired this term brainwashing is study in itself. Briefly, writer Edward Hunter coined "brainwashing" in 1951 in an article about American prisoners of war who were forcibly indoctrinated by North Koreans. He derived it from the Chinese hsi nao, literally "wash brain" but properly translated as "thought reform." Thought reform for the larger, sacred cause of the group agenda was (is) a good thing in Communist China. And it was not always forcible or intense. As follow-up on the Korean prisoners of war showed, forcible "brainwashing" is not as effective as thought reform through systematic indoctrination based on rapport and psychological manipulation rather than physical force. The goal in both approaches is to "recruit" and take control of a person. Once the "gun" was removed from the heads of the brainwashed POW nearly all reverted to their previous personality and beliefs.

Thought Reform.& Not in my dictionaries. Robert J. Lifton defined this concept in his now classic study published in 1961, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism in which he described eight themes for it to be effective. His work was based partly on interviews he conducted with Chinese affected by communism. Margaret T. Singer, Ph.D., who recently passed away, defined six conditions for thought reform in her book Cults in Our Midst (1995). For a summary of both versions go to: Both of these authors observed that a charismatic leader with immoderate ideals is most effective in maintaining devotion through a high demand system. Steve Hassan , a student of both authors and mind control proposed in his book Releasing the Bonds& a 4 part model for a thought reform environment: Behavior, Information, Thought and Emotional controls. As John Marks concludes in his penetrating book The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control, brainwashing works most effectively when it mimics religious conversion, something that cannot be forced through imprisonment, drugs or physical torture.

Thought control 1. The practice by a totalitarian government as attempting (as by propaganda) to prevent subversive and other undesirable ideas from being received and competing in the minds of the people with the official ideology and policies. 2. The use of a group or institution of authoritarian techniques similar in nature and purpose to governmental thought control. (Webster's Third International Dictionary)

Mind Control. Also not in my dictionaries. However it is a popular expression that swings several ways: 1. I control of my own thoughts. 2. Someone or something is invading or controlling my thought processes. 3. Group influence determines how I control my thoughts. 4. I conform my thought to beliefs defined by a group or a guru.

The following helps put what we have covered so far into context:
Socially problematic cultic characteristics include combined behaviors such as:

1. Compliance with a group
2. Dependence on a leader
3. Avoiding dissent
4. Devaluing outsiders

(for more on these characteristics, see The Wrong Way Home by Arthur J. Deikman, 1990: Beacon Press). The more extreme these behaviors, the more potential for abuse in any group activity or relationship.
In general Cult activity refers to any devotional or ritualistic attention to a person, doctrine or object. Most religions have cult activity, or a cult, that is central to devotional activity.

Cult in perspective: Christianity in its various forms has the cult of devotion to Jesus Christ. (btw, I'm a practicing Catholic). Catholics have the cult of the Eucharist during which they receive the "body and blood" of Jesus. In ancient Judaism they had the cult of the Ark of the Covenant. Some Asian religions have the cult of ancestor worship. Vampires of legend practice the cult of drinking blood. Northwest Native Americans have the cult of totem animals. I have many books with cult in the title that do not focus on destructive groups, for example, The Japanese Cult of Tranquility by Karlfried Durckheim (1991), The Plato Cult by David Stove (1991), and Cult of the Cat by Patricia Dale-Green (1980). Labeling something a cult tells us little or nothing about the morality or ethics of the person or group that supports such cult activity. You must answer the question: What kind of cult are you talking about and what do they do?

If cult participants follow the four patterns suggested by Deikman above, they become vulnerable to thought reform and mind control.

Thought reform (see What is Thought Reform) occurs when the psychological environment of someone is manipulated to engineer and sustain a change in personality, goals, and attitudes that conform with a group agenda. Mind control occurs when the participant in a thought reform environment has internalized the suggestions and adopted the behaviors to the point where the recruit "polices" his or her thoughts and actions according to stated agendas. If there are hidden agendas the deception can undermine a group member's ability to question or criticize. If the group member is privy to the hidden agenda, the "secret" controls their loyalty and ability to communicate with outsiders who do not deserve to know secrets because they have not yet been initiated.

Sometimes these secrets are so guarded that rejection of them or revealing them to undeserving hordes or undeserving persons is punishable. 2500 years ago the cult of Pythagoras is an example of the initiate sect that punished "traitors" with threat of death. Modern Mormonism, Scientology and Masonic movements have similar, guarded secrets. They would argue that it their right to keep secrets as they are "sacred." Many gangs that operate like cults institute such vows, and we can also find evidence in the history of the Mafia or Casa Nostra. Punishment can be overt as in harassment, lawsuit, assault or even homicide. It can also come in less tangible forms like the suggestion (phobia indoctrination) of returning karma, of hell, of mental and physical illness, of demon possession, of accident and other "deserved" misfortune.

In summary, the more intense or closed the influence/thought reform/brainwashing the more likely a person will suffer psychological closure, thus making of them a more effective or deployable agent of the group agenda. Exiting the cult thereafter has powerful implications as one's new identity, life investment and group relationships are a high price to pay for rejecting the group. Walking away ain't so easy.

Next we can learn from different disciplines.
Sociology and cult

Most basic courses in sociology offer only a brief mention of the cult problem. For example, in one "quick study" outline I have it states under Religion/Varieties: 3. Sects and Cults, a. Contrary to dominant society, b. Little formal training of leadership, often based on charismatic qualities of person, c. Members enter sect through adult conversions. Typically a course might spend one class or part of a class on cults and sects. Sociology does not use a medical approach, therefore it is not in the business of diagnosis and treatment. This does not mean that sociology ignores the harm some cults inflict, but it does tend to argue for the rights of minorities and marginal religion putting it at odds with anti-cult crusaders who seek to remedy harm. Nor is sociology bereft of information. On the contrary the controversial behaviors associated with closed cult systems are studied throughout sociology if by other names.

Consider these dozen papers among 46 included in Down to Earth Sociology, Eight Edition edited by James M. Henslin, 1995:          Life among violent people: "Doing Fieldwork Among the Yanomano"/ Napoleon A. Chagnon. Subtle conformance to internalized culture : "The Sounds of Silence" / Edward T. Hall, Mildred R. Hall. The power of groups: "If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You? Probably" / Philip Meyer (this is about the important Stanley Milgram experiments that demonstrate that you and I could easily have been obedient Nazis). Building a nourishing social structure: "Communal Life-Styles for the Elderly" / Arlie Hochschild. And under a section titled DEVIANCE AND SOCIAL CONTROL, Keeping people in their place: "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari" / Richard Borshay Lee. Effects of labels: "The Saints and the Roughnecks" / William Chambliss. The deviance of social control: "The Pathology of Imprisonment" / Philip G. Zimbardo (who is well known for his excellent contributions to understanding cult behaviors). Wealth and Power : "The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats" / G. William Domhoff. The final solution : "Genocide in Cambodia" / Eric Markusen. When cultures collide : "The Amazon's Savvy Indians" / Marlise Simons. Managing social change: "Social Change Among the Amish" / Jerry Savells. Struggling for identity: "Searching for Roots in a Changing World" / Richard Rodriguez.

Nowhere in Henslin's book is "cult" mentioned, yet the text is rich with information about varieties of group behavior, influence and its effect on persons. To understand cult behavior one can and should seek outside  books specifically about cults without ignoring the latter. In other words, do not merely rely on a Google search under "cult."

Debate over brainwashing as a legitimate social engineering phenomenon .

Best illustrated in Misunderstanding Cults edited by Benjamin Zablocki, Ph.D. (2001). For Zablocki's website go here . Read especially "brainwashing controversy" and  Methodological Fallacies in Anthony's Critique of Exit Cost Analysis re Dick Anthony, Ph.D. 

Religion and cult

Ah, here's the rub! Nowhere is cult more confused or stereotyped than when we associate it only with religious beliefs or mental health (see Psychiatry below). Consider the following five stereotypes: 1. A cult is anyone else's religion. 2. Anyone who believes differently than me is brainwashed. 3. Cult members practice witchcraft and Satanism, cast spells and work magic through demons. 4. Cult members must be crazy. 5. All religions are cults.

Here we will consider stereotype 1.A cult is anyone else's religion.

Stereotypes form when words or images convey simplistic conceptions or opinions. Words have a way of migrating into new meaning territory over time, from neutral and descriptive to pejorative and ugly, to parody or stereotype and to descriptive of something new or a neologism. Gay is an obvious example. Bad, cool, hip, the bomb, have all taken turns to mean appreciated, beautiful or I approve.

Symbols migrate in meaning also. What do you think when you see this?

For thousands of years in the Indian (Hindu) and Tibetan cultures it meant and still means good luck and prosperity . The symbol appears worldwide as decoration on ancient structures from Greece to China to Central America. It has many meanings, all positive and dynamic. Less than a century ago the Nazis appropriated it for its same dynamic attributes, but they also radicalized the swastika into an evil symbol in the eyes of the world, especially among Jews.

Cult has gone through a similar change. I have a Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary that I received in 1970, a mere 33 years ago. Compare this definition with the 1994 Heritage one above: cult [1970]: 1. formal religious veneration: worship. 2. a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also, its body of adherents. 3. a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator. 4. great and faddish devotion; also, its object or adherents. In the press journalists still use the term in several, appropriate ways: A celebrity has a cult following, a movie has reached cult status, the perpetrator appears to belong to a religious cult, or the Catholic Church approves the cult (veneration) of a new saint. Some scholars of religion who concentrate on the new religious movements came to hate the label.  By the early 1970s influential Evangelical Christians and some anti-cultists began to use the term liberally as a pejorative, alleging that a cult or deviant sect was either satanically influenced or utilized brainwashing techniques or both.

Specifically, The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin greatly impacted Christian thinking about new and different religious groups when it was first published in 1965 (many new editions to 2003). His standard for cult was a religious one that measured other religions by their adherence to his peculiar interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I say peculiar not because I think him way off-base in his apologetics, but because his standard works only for Evangelicals or Fundamentalists. These Christians feel threatened by the cults on a spiritual warfare basis and believe demons operate in their milieu. Many believe that the rise in cults heralds the end-times when Satan has his way with us. In any case, Martin's book catapulted cult into "c" word status. Critics of the new movements adopted the term. Labeling a group as a cult was tantamount to saying "they are evil."

Even more than Evangelicals, Jews were the other religious or cultural group to react heavily to the modern cult phenomena. By the early to mid 1970s Jewish groups set up cult clinics to help counsel families of or reeducate the comparatively high number of young Jews recruited into Bible-based and Eastern guru-based movements as well as controversial mass therapy groups. Their dedicated research and work continues to be fundamentally instrumental in educating not only their own people but in influencing sectarian and non-sectarian groups about the cult problem. Cult as a spurious or abusive devotional system now dominates public religious discourse obscuring the more appropriate academic use of the term.

Of course, the entire cult awareness movement including Evangelicals, Jews and secular organizations like the American Family Foundation all have matured over time and made adjustments and improvements without losing their original intent. Nevertheless, as the AFF website admits, we seem to be stuck with cult to define deviant, abusive or destructive groups that manipulate devotees. Much the same we are stuck with the deprogramming and brainwashing labels to the chagrin of nearly everyone in the field.
In sum, the religious approach to this area is more concerned with beliefs and doctrines than they are about deviant behaviors.

Psychiatry, mental illness and cult

Stereotype 2. Anyone who thinks differently than me is brainwashed . 

The absurdity of the 2 statement  should be obvious. I've been employed by an emergency psychiatric hospital (currently as a crisis intake caseworker) since 1998. Patients, especially those with acute symptoms of schizophrenia or mania have stated some version of #2 to me, but it usually comes out, "I'm not mentally ill, you are (or "the doctor is")" or, "All you are going to do is drug me and brainwash me with the way you want me to be." Cult members I've interviewed or exit counseled have their own versions: "How do you know you're not brainwashed by science, your schools, your government, your family or your religion? Yes, I'm brainwashed--I'm cleansed of all the lies I used to believe. I have a right to believe and think what I want. You have your way of looking at things and I have mine---both are true because everyone has their own truth."

Psychiatry is interested in maintaining mental health and in diagnosing and treating illness that adversely affects behavior and thought processes. Cult activity affects behavior and thought processes, and it often claims to improve spiritual as well as mental health. However, it presents increasingly adverse to outsiders when cult activity utilizes thought reform and authoritarianism, and when the probability of harm to insiders increases when authoritarianism reigns. So how can we tell the difference between unusual beliefs and delusions? Between unethical behavior and dharma, devotion or patriotism? I can tell you there is a difference, but it is not immediately apparent in all cases. Read on.

stereotype 3Cult members practice witchcraft and Satanism, cast spells and work magic through demons.

It is not unusual for cult experts to receive inquiries either from or about mentally ill people that confuse mind control, cult activity and even demon possession with an active mental illness. In my case, most of these odd inquiries are from or about people with paranoia, delusions, or hallucinations. I have worked with students or devotees of Satanism--demons and occult energy were never the core issue with them as the abuse they experienced was very real, not metaphysical. Some told stories of being deceived, illicit drug abuse, petty theft, and sexual assault. Most complained of narcissistic leaders and manipulation-- fairly typical stuff for ex-cult members. The intrusive metaphysical stuff and demons often disappear once the ex-member grasps and dispenses with the effects of phobia, magical thinking, suggestion, autosuggestion (hypnosis) and extraordinary stage magic. In other words, they lose naiveté through education.

There is quite a difference working with the mentally ill and the average cult member in exit counseling. Mentally ill people do not reality test very well when assessing information that sheds light on their group, doctrines or leader's history. A delusional person may pathologically  hold onto conspiracy theories, false beliefs and use thought stopping or blocking ideation to resist discursive dialogue. A common phobia among these types is that some agency secretly imbedded a "mind control chip" into their skull or another body part. In one case, I talked a mentally ill  man I knew well [15 year earlier he was my roommate in college] out of using a steak knife to dig the "government chip" out of his forehead--he already had a nasty laceration from a butter knife he used the day before. Schizophrenic types can invent elaborate schemes that can seem intelligently contrived--I have pages and pages of email from one such young man who thought a cult in the government was trying to control and kill him. Nothing I could say to encourage him to get help worked, so I eventually gave up. They are not merely stubborn.

The key to understanding this confusion psychiatry calls reality testing. To quote from one of the very best layman's guides to the Diagnostic Systems Manual-IV, Your Mental Health by doctors Allen Frances and Michael First (1998): "A fundamental aspect of normal mental functioning is the ability to distinguish between thoughts and perceptions that originate within our minds versus the stimuli that come from the outside world. This ongoing process is called "reality testing." Most of us maintain a fairly strong grasp on reality, except when we dream at night or if we take a psychedelic drug. In contrast, someone suffering from psychosis has lost the ability to distinguish fact from fantasy, reality from imagination, and internal fears from actual threats" (303). In common jargon we say the person must be mad, crazy, out of their mind or psycho.

Stereotype 4. Cult members must be crazy.

Cult members almost never are crazy, nor have they broken with reality in a pathological way. Cults led by grandiose, paranoid or narcissistic leaders tend to abandon, reject or dismiss mentally ill cult members. I've been to many mental hospitals over the years to try to exit counsel rejected cult members who continue to believe and infuse the cult jargon into other disordered thoughts. The successful cult member is one who can live in an intense world of overvalued, even bizarre rituals and ideas (my leader communicates with the dead, angels or flying saucer masters, and he can levitate and I will too someday), yet reality test fairly well in careers, chores and day to day affairs. Unsuccessful cult members either leave on their own (most do) because they either cannot live with the high demands (give me all your money and reject your family and their values), or they research and methodically apply doubt to (reality test) the doctrine, the leader's history, and the group's effectiveness. The rejected are either too intense or disobedient for the fringe sect to tolerate. Remember, most cults hold a high if misguided or bizarre standard of behavior and thought, often resulting in a closed system with "black and white" dominating their palettes. Destructive cult leaders tend to blame the victim-- they say members get crazy when they refuse to obey the doctrine or they practice the rituals improperly.

Cult leaders often have what psychiatry calls Axis II disorders or personality disorders with anti-social personality and narcissism on top of the list, in my view (I refer to the group therapy work of W. R. Bion). Common to these leaders are mood disorders or swings, but they rarely reach pathological criteria so they are not ill in a clinical sense (Axis I disorders). In a word they are charismatic types whether they present as extroverts with hypo manic features or introverts with schizoid (withdrawn or paranoid) features. They tend to either be strong managers or have influence over authoritarian managers who run the group and protect, even help isolate the leader (In the relatively small Emin group, most members or cells have never met the leader).

Psychiatry has basically ignored the cult phenomenon as it falls under other academic disciplines, primarily Social Psychology. This is not to say that some psychiatrists have not had valuable things to say. Louis Jolyn West, M.D. comes to mind immediately. He was a fascinating, brilliant man who I got to know personally, one who the Scientology group regarded as a most evil force--that group hates psychiatry with a passion.   
Skeptics and cult  

Stereotype 5. All religions are cults 

Although cynical atheists might make such a commentthe careful skeptic will find the statement ludicrous. Equally ludicrous is to say all cults are religions. Cultists who direct devotional activity toward politicians, entertainers, a sport, a totem animal, a scientific principle, a rock or an idea do not regard the object of their devotion as the universal Source or high God. As we stated above, most religions include a cult activity if not many, but that does not define them as only a cult. Most established religions are organizations that include a variety of social dynamics: democratic elections, schools that also teach secular subjects that comply with cultural standards, accommodations for the handicapped, etc. In other words, these established groups may be parochial, but their participation in the cultural milieu is not all that eccentric, elitist or abusive.

Skeptical societies and research by scientists regarding paranormal claims and events are valuable resources for exit counselors who deconstruct cult activity for their clients. Cult leaders commonly make outlandish claims or appear to have paranormal powers like telepathy, bi-location, spirit contact, mental healing, teleportation, and so on. Saddam Hussein, the deposed Iraqi dictator, reportedly has a magical stone imbedded in his shoulder, and his devotees believe this keeps him from getting killed. This ridiculous amulet has a powerful grip on believers' behavior.

True skepticism is an equal opportunity reaper, thus all religions with miraculous claims are under that microscope. Sophisticated religions, like the Catholic Church, no longer ignore or suppress science but work with it. This does not mean that the Church is always happy with what science delivers or exposes. It is important in our age to distinguish the aesthetics of religion from scientifically plausible reality. Catholics agree that there is no evidence to test that a wafer of bread changes into the body and blood of Christ during a mass. It is an article of faith.

Cults often refuse to acknowledge good science. Without providing evidence today's Raelian movement out of Canada has publicly claimed to have cloned human beings, for example. No independent science reviewer has ever seen these babies let alone examined the evidence. On the negative claim side, some groups assert that all the moon landings were hoaxes contrived by the governments as landing on the moon is impossible.
For a book list and more basic information, go to:

Exit Counseling, as non-coercive intervention

definition controversy:

Intervention with a member of an abusive cult or relationship appears in many forms and approaches, especially with the recent rise in cultic movements since 1965. This is a relatively new field in social psychology and therapeutic education with no formal training or license available yet. Complicating the issue is definition: Diagnosis comes before remedy and little has been established in psychiatry or social psychology formally to address the problem--and this apparently is a worldwide neglect. Why? I attempt to answer in cult101 . So definition is unfortunately relative to the perception and intent of the intervener, but I will nevertheless offer my perceptions based on over 25 years of experience and study in this arena.

In this site we will call intervention with a person in an abusive cult or relationship exit counseling because we would not attempt intervention if we did not expect them to exit the activity You may be familiar with the more popular label, deprogramming . Less likely you will have heard of thought reform consultation , a late expression for a model designed in the mid 1990s by a group of exit counselors who created an ethical code or standard for the cult intervention profession. The standard upholds the right of the client (cult member) to leave the intervention at any time, to be treated with dignity, and it eschews physical coercion and verbal abuse. Go to Ethical Standards for more information. Strategic Interaction Approach is another non-coercive if idiosyncratic intervention model developed by a leading exit counselor, one you can access at . 

One old deprogramming approach sometimes included coercive tactics like kidnapping and false imprisonment. You can go to my essays about deprogramming stereotypes in media to learn more about how and why the coercive intervention model is etched in the public mind (Cynical hint: It sells movies, television shows and magazines). This model assumed that anyone in a cult was somehow brainwashed or put through a thought reform program. It assumed that the cult member walked around in trance, as if hypnotized. And it assumed that only radical remedies would work to "snap" a person out of this trance to augment the goal of the intervention. The goal was to educate about mind control, influence techniques, false religion and the true history of the cult and its leader. The assumptions may have been crude as sometimes were the intervention methods, but the brainwashing/deprogramming model was not completely wrong. In any case, due to personal ethics and the threat of criminal charges, interventionists turned to and refined existing non-coercive approaches.

why me?

In my case, I began in 1980 to help people with cult problems on an informal basis and inadvertently many of them broke ranks with their group as a result. From 1986 through 1991 I entered the world of exit counselors and deprogrammers. My career during that time included both coercive and non-coercive cases. Since 1991 I work only according to the standards mentioned above. In 1998 I resolved to work as an exit counselor on a part time basis only. I mention this because there is little in the way of cult interventions that I have not experienced or studied. I stopped counting in the mid 1990s after I had encountered around 300 individuals to discuss their cult involvement at the request of some concerned party, intervention team or family member This does not include countless persons I've advised and interviewed in person, by phone and through email.     


Interventions occur after a concerned party has determined that:
  • Someone they love is involved in a deceptive, manipulative or otherwise abusive relationship.
  • This relationship has certain characteristics of a closed system or "cult" activity.
  • The person they love would want to be away from the controversial influence if they had new information about the group, the leader/manager, and the influence techniques that might be undermining his or her critical awareness.
  • An expert with exit counseling experience is available.

The TRC helps the client understand hidden agendas of the leader or group as well as how the group manipulates intelligence, emotions, behaviors, and information (see Hassan, 1988). The TRC does this, not by attacking the group in question, but by explaining how abusive thought reform systems operate, and by giving examples of groups that use these abusive techniques. The TRC also helps the client to dispell phobias induced during group participation. Often these phobias (irrational fear of occult powers, demons, sickness, accident, insanity, or other personal, social, or environmental catastrophe) linger even though the member has broken with the group in question. Real threats of harm can be countered by real actions like police protection, personal vigilance, or prosecution.

Exit Counseling: A Practioner's View, by Joe Szimhart

What has come to be called "exit counseling" grew out of formalized attempts to talk someone out of their devotion to a controversial group, ritual, person or lifestyle. While interventions are not new (e.g., both St.Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi met with parental intervention to stop them from their religious paths) the relative explosion of new religious movements, experimental mass therapies, and cult activity since the 1960s has been met with new social resistance. People who knew and loved someone under the influence of such groups noted disturbing personality changes, as if the person were under a spell or "programmed." They noted that the person had been wrongly informed and manipulated to change personality or to conform to a group will.

Attempts to reverse cultic influence came to be known as "deprogramming" by the mid 1970s. At first, interventions were non-coercive, meaning that cultists were not held against their will. As this approach often failed, many families opted to abduct or place the cultist "under house arrest" to get them to listen to ex-members and unlicensed specialists who came to be known as deprogrammers. Deprogramming often worked very well, but when it did not expensive legal reprisals could ensue. Cultists sometimes reported abusive treatment by deprogrammers. These stories were (and are) naturally exaggerated by cult managers to better control members who might visit their families and meet a deprogrammer (see Propaganda ). In any case, many deprogrammers would not tolerate coercion during interventions and they wanted to reduce the trauma of intervention to both the family and deprogramee.

To distinguish the non-coercive approaches, some specialists adopted the label of "exit counselor" by the mid 1980s. This approach emphasizes education and dialogue about the true history and nature of the group and compares it with similar groups. It also addresses the nature of thought reform, mind control, and influence techniques like hypnosis. Some exit counselors incorporate family therapy into their sessions. Some do not consider their profession to be counseling and call themselves "thought reform consultants" or "cult information specialists." I prefer the latter designation and I see myself more as an educator and communicator.

Most of the exit counselors I know were "cult" members at one time. Some of them specialize in exiting members from the group they left. Others, like myself ( I had been a member of the Church Universal and Triumphant from 1979-80) have exited people from dozens of different groups.

When I work with an assistant, it is often an ex-member of the group in question but just as often it could be with another exit counselor. The team approach seems to work best in most cases. The intervention team usually includes two to four concerned family members and two exit counselors. There are no hard rules as to numbers but one on one sessions are unusual because at least one concerned party must be present to arrange for and introduce the exit counselor.

Successful interventions can last from several hours to more than a week, the norm being three to four days of "marathon" (6 to 14 hour) discussions. In exit counseling the length of each session is controlled by the "cultist." I do not relish long days of dialogue but when the person I am counseling wants to go on, I do. I have often seen the veil of deceit lift from a cultist who then "uncorks," like one awakened from a dream, and then pours out the questions one after the other for hours on end. When that happens it is not appropriate to say relax now, mate -- we can talk about it in the morning! If an intervention is successful, exit counselors may suggest follow-up therapists, ex-members to call, books to read, and rehab facilities if needed. The recovery period depends on the person. Research suggests that persons who have had appropriate exit counseling do far better, quicker than "walk-aways" who go it alone. See Snapping Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman (1995).

The downside of my field of cult specialists is that we are not licensed as such, nor are we regulated save by reputation. Some unscrupulous deprogrammers and specialists may have taken advantage of vulnerable families. Some may have taken on cases when they cannot handle the information adequately and resort to emotional attacks to try to "break" a cultist. Harsh tactics almost always backfire. The cultist can fake deconversion long enough to end an intervention, and then return to the group even months later. I have experienced this in past years. Since 1992 I no longer work with families who would coerce the cultist in any way although I had on occasion prior to 1992. I subscribe to Ethical Standards for Thought Reform Consultants that emphasize legality and respect (see "Ethics..." in Cultic Studies Journal , Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996). In any case, the choice to leave a group has to be reasonable and free to last and not solely emotional or religious. The choice needs to be grounded in a reality the cultist can begin to trust and use for the rest of his or her life no matter what spiritual path he or she chooses.

My advice to anyone seeking the services of an exit counselor is to interview several and check their reputations as thoroughly as you can. Interventions can be very expensive depending on whom you hire, but be wary of free helpers too. If someone you know is truly under a form of mind control, just having a session with a minister or therapist will rarely bear much fruit, unless, of course, they are trained in the dynamics of group influence and can handle the information about the group beliefs in depth. Experienced exit counselors cannot guarantee success in any case -- my impression is that 50 to 75% of their cases work out well. I have exited hundreds of people since the early 1980s and my success rate is in that range also. The keys to success are in the adequate preparation of the family and realistic projections.
Cultwatch Editorial Note: 

Joe Szimhart is a man of the highest ethics whose work is the antithesis of coercive persuasion and fanaticism. Joe has visited Australia, on a number of occasions, as an exit counsellor and is exceptionally well respected in his field. 

One Australian who left a group after a voluntary exit counselling [sic] with Joe has written: "An opportunity to change, like the one offered to me, does not come around very often; but deep down I knew it for the chance that it was. I held my breath and grasped the nettle. It stung like crazy, that tiger's tail, but I hung on - with just a little help from friends - and managed to reclaim my life. I'm just glad to be here, alive and well; and I hope that my experience will help somebody else, sometime. " [By a former member of Extra Terrestrial Earth Mission]

Propaganda If you explore the web for information about cult awareness groups, exit counselors or deprogrammers you will most likely find propaganda against them all. For example, typing my name (szimhart) into a search engine might bring you to the “CAN Reform Group”under . If that is your only exposure to me or anyone else it attempts to discredit, you may be sorely duped. You also may run across theFreedom Magazine published by Scientology to discredit its critics. For an open discussion of the controversy surrounding Scientology find alt.religion.scientology , or go to Marina's Manor: Scientology . Propaganda, like advertising, has a strange effect on people who absorb it uninformed: They tend to believe some of it if it “seems” credible. The spin doctors in our political machines use these same techniques to confuse and bend public opinion. They do it because it works, because most, even “skeptical” persons do not critically examine information that forms their opinions. Different people view controversial issues from differing perspectives. It pays to look at a few perspectives before coming to a position if not a conclusion about anything. CAN used to stand for a legitimate citizens advocacy group called the Cult Awareness Network. Since July of 1996 CAN was dissolved due to a successful Scientology supported lawsuit (the only successful one of 50 against CAN brought by the church that L. Ron Hubbard built). But Scientology managed to “purchase” the CAN logo and phone number (312 267-777) before the young man, Jason Scott, who Scientology “helped” to sue CAN and a deprogrammer, fired his Scientology lawyer, Ken Moxon. For more about the pseudoCAN event read The Washington Post December 1, 1996 “Anti-Cult Group Dismembered As Former Foes Buy Its Assets.” Also go to . The Jason Scott reversal is very interesting because he has hired a new law firm, one that has successfully sued Scientology in the past (see Phoenix New Times 12/24/96 “What’s $2.995 Million Between Former Enemies? Stunning settlement frees cult deprogrammer Rick Ross from almost all of $3 Million judgment). But, remember, if you call “CAN” now at the end of 1996, you probably get “Scientology.” Supporters of the old-CAN may be reorganizing under new names. ( CULTinfo had its first national conference in February, 1990 in Connecticut. It is also called: Leo J. Ryan Educational Foundation . PO Box 1180, Bridgeport, CT 06601. ph: 203-338-9776). For another opinion about my trial in Idaho over a failed deprogramming you can read about the case and my response at Professor Michael Nielsen's website: I was acquitted by a jury of all charges in 1993. To better understand how propaganda works check out Age of Propaganda by Pratkanis & Aronson, 1992 (W.H. Freeman) 


Joseph P. Szimhart - Consultant

Cult Information Articles by Joe Szimhart 

Book Reviews:


N.B.The following links are cult/sect information sites and resources--I may or may not endorse them, but please read my comments.
AFF  {Next conference at Orlando, FL on June 13-15, 2002]
American Family Foundation is a secular, not-for-profit, tax-exempt research center and educational organization founded in 1979.
AFF's mission is to study psychological manipulation and cultic groups, to educate the public and professionals, and to assist those who have been adversely affected by a cult experience. Publishes the Cultic Studies Journal .AFF's Comprehensive Links Page
Over 150 links to resources and groups.

Cult Hotline & Clinic -
120 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019 -
 (212) 632-4640
The Cult Hotline & Clinic is a program of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, one of the nation's largest and most respected nonprofit mental health and social service agencies. JBFCS serves over 65,000 New Yorkers annually from all religious, ethnic, and economic backgrounds through a comprehensive range of 185 community-based programs, residential facilities, and day-treatment centers.

Recovery and retreat center for cult and abuse victims:
a fully accredited, residential treatment center.
Wellspring - Paul Martin, PhD Director
P. O. Box 67, Albany, Ohio 45710
(740) 698-6277

Cult Information and exit counseling

Carol Giambalvo author of Exit Counseling: A Family Intervention, and co-author of The Boston Movement.

  Steve Hassan  < >
[author of Releasing the Bonds; Combatting Cult Mind Control]
General information about intervention and controversial group influence by one of the leading authorities on exit counseling and the "cult" problem..

Rick Ross  < >  This website offers extensive information about many new religious movements and cults. Rick Ross is an experienced exit counselor  and lecturer. Good resource for research and news articles on groups.

From Esoteric Tradition to Pseudo-Science Today: Eric Wynants file 
scholars and articles that critique occultism, Theosophism and fringe science

Nova Religio-Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions
Religious Studies: good scholar site on many religions
The Roberts Parents Group: 
Website maintained by parents of members of Jim Roberts, aka Brother Evangelist, a small nomadic Christian sect, aka "the garbage eaters " or "Bretheren."  I have consulted as an exit counselor for this group since its inception.

Klanwatch 400 Washington Ave, Montgomery, AL 36104 (205)-264-0286.
FACTNET: Good source for information online on controversial cult activity, cult experts, Scientology, etc.
SIMPOS : Netherlands foundation on many sects: Adi Da, Brahma Kumaris, Aetherius, etc.

Re-FOCUS: Good resource for ex-members of destructive groups

Trancenet Page: critical of Transcendental Meditation, The Way International, Rama and many more groups.
Christian Resources:
Dialog Center , Denmark
Spiritual Counterfeits Project , Berkeley, CA
Skeptic Magazine
Skeptic Magazine on Scientology
Skeptical Inquirer/CSICOP
Fringes of Reason (weird groups & skepticsim)
James Randi Home Page

Cult related literature

Suggested Reading

Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Madeleine Tobias and Janja Lalich (1994, Hunter House) 

"Crazy" Therapies: What Are They? Do They Work? by Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich (1996, Jossey-Bass) 

Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Influence in Our Everyday Lives by Margaret Thaler Singer with Janja Lalich (1995, Jossey-Bass) 

Exit Counseling: A Family Intervention by Carol Giambalvo (1995, AFF

Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse, edited by Michael D. Langone (1993, Norton) 

The Wrong Way Home by Arthur J. Deikman (1990, Beacon) Deikman's spin on cult behavior in America is worth a look. 

How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age by Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn, 1995. 

Why God Won't Go Away:Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D'Aquili, M.D., and Vince Rause, 2002. 

Magic or Medicine?: An Investigation of Healing and Healers by Dr. Robert Buckman & Karl Sabbagh (Prometheus, 1995) 

The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad (1993, North Atlantic Books) 

Influence: The New Psychology of Modern Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini (1984, Quill) 

Dangerous Persuaders: An expose of gurus, personal development courses and cults, and how they operate in Australia by Louise Samways (Penguin, 1994) 

When God Becomes a Drug: Breaking the Chains of Religious Addiction and Abuse by Fr.Lee Booth (1991): uses addiction model and "12 Step" recovery. 

Psychic Dictatorship in America by Gerald Bryan (1940). Original expose of I AM Activity, 'parent' group to CUT. 

A Piece of Blue Sky: Scientology, Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard Exposed by Jon Atack (1990, Lyle Stuart) 

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert J. Lifton (1989, University of North Carolina Press) 

TM and Cult Mania by M.A. Persinger, N.J. Carrey, & L.A. Suess (1980, Christopher)
Understanding the New Age by Russell Chandler (1993, Zondervan). A mix of skeptical and Christian criticisms. 

When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World by L. Festinger, H.W. Riecken, & S. Schachter (1956, Harper) 

Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon by Peter Washington (Schocken Books, 1995). Informative expose of the western guru tradition: Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, JG Bennett, R Steiner and others. 

Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East by Gita Mehta (Vintage, 1994) highly recommended
The Fringes of Reason, edited by Ted Schultz (A Whole Earth Catalogue: Harmony Books 1989)

The Mother of God by Luna Tarlo (Plover, 1997) expose of Andrew Cohen.
Skeptical Inquirer (All volumes) 

Age of Propaganda: Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion by Pratkanis & Aronson
My Father's Guru: A Journey through Spirituality and Disillusion by Jeffrey M. Masson (Addison Wesley, 1993). Author grew up with charlatan Paul Brunton as his household guru. 

Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties by Jay Courtney Fikes (Vic., Canada: Millenia Press, 1993). Excellent insights into Castaneda's shallow theatre of shamanism by a true anthropologist 

Amazing Grace by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead Books, 1998). Thoughtful essays for struggling Christians who want to understand the Gospel walk outside of cult-think. 

A River Sutra by Gita Mehta (Nan A. Talese, 1993) By the author of Karma Cola. In this beautiful story, Mehta captures an essence of Hindu holiness, esp in the "Naga Baba" character. 

Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797 by Stafford Poole, C.M. (U of Arizona, 1996). With the glut of Marian visions today, this insightful study shows how cultures can create miracles out of "whole cloth," so to speak. 

Invasion From Mars by Hadley Cantril (Harper Torchbooks, 1966 (original, 1940). 

"A Study in the Psychology of Panic" is the subtitle of this look into the Orson Wells infamous "Martian Invasion" broadcast, Hallowe'en night, 1938, when many committed suicide and thousands panicked.

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