#66 Staying, Leaving, and Recidivism


Sociological Cults: Staying, Leaving, and Recidivism

“Why do members stay in sociological cults despite the abuse heaped upon them?” is question often asked by non-members. A usual follow-up question is, “Why/how did you leave the group?”

There is a third, more disturbing question, rarely asked, which is, “Why do group members leave and then return?”  For recidivism is rarely addressed or discussed in most forums. But it occurs frequently according[1] to the late Robert Vaughn Young a former Scientologist and cult expert.


Defining a Sociological Cult

It might be helpful to differentiate between the terms authoritarian group and sociological cult. In my blog I sometimes use these terms interchangeably, and this, frankly, was a mistake on my part. In an authoritarian group the leader seeks only compliance. While a sociological group leader seeks compliance through identity/personality change.[2]

In her book “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds” Janya Lalich lays out four interlocking aspects of a sociological cult[3]; these aspects are [quoted from her work]:

  • Charismatic Authority– the emotional bond between a leader and the followers. This bond lends legitimacy to the leadership and justifies and reinforces the follower’s response to their actions and goals.
  • Transcendent Belief System– the overarching ideology that binds the group members together and keeps an individual’s behavior within the group’s rules and norms. Transcendent means that it offers a total (totalist view) of the past, present and future; including a narrowly defined path to salvation. Most importantly is that the group/leadership specifies the exact methodology for personal transformation required to travel on this path and to be accepted as a group member. This belief provides meaning and purpose through a moral imperative. The effect is that the member feels connection to a much larger goal whilst pursuing salvation. The goal is complete identification of the member with the belief system.
  • System of Control– an acknowledged network of mechanisms that guide the operations of the group. It includes the overt rules and procedures that guide and control member’s behavior. This system provides structure with the goal of enforcing sanctions and punishment. Its goal is to ensure obedience and compliance.
  • Systems of Influence– The network of social influences that resides in all relationships. The interactions within the group, and the culture that results, teaches members to adopt their patterns of thinking, their thoughts, and their actions to the Transcendent Belief System. Peer pressure and the wish to get along with the group has the effect of producing conformity, denunciation of any non-conformists, and just importantly, self-renunciation by the member.

Members, as well as leaders, have roles to play within the group, as discussed in my post entitled “#40 Hierarchy and Subjugation Within MCM.” According to the ISCA website[4] , “…a member’s goal is to pit oneself against an impossible ideal and to continually criticize oneself for failing to achieve this goal. Meanwhile the leader’s goal is perfect while the members who will strive for this impossible goal fail.”

Of course praise accrues to the leadership for their devotion to this perfect cause, and any failure is strictly due to member’s shortcomings. Dr. Lalich states that when, “This process works- leaders and members are locked into a ‘bounded reality’- that is a self-sealing social system in which every aspect and activity, no matter what the outcome, reconfirms the validity of the system.[5]

Within MCM, and other sociological cults, this means that critical thinking skills are derided and belittled, as is any non-confirming information. In fact rejection of non-confirming information is equal to acceptance of the group’s Transcendent Belief. In my own story this played out as my friends tried to dissuade me with articles that exposed the true nature of MCM.  Yet I rejected these articles because of the non-confirming,not in spite of the non-confirming, information they contained.

The result of all this is that members, having internalized the belief system, and the social norms of the group, usually don’t have to be told what to do. In fact, they know precisely what needs to be done, and must be thought, in order to be accepted by the group. No one had to tell me to reject the article that my friend Sheila thrust in my face when she made a last ditch effort to get me out of MCM. MCM’s social norms and Transcendent Belief System, that I had accepted, made sure that I would reject these articles without any direct guidance from MCM!

Thus the member will stay within the bounds of the group’s allowed choices (Lalich uses the term“bounded reality”[6] to describe this state). The member has merged their thinking with that of the group, and the leadership, and can no longer imagine life outside the group. Lalich writes that, “The cult member is constrained by both external (real or imagined) and internalized sanctions. At this point, whatever choices remain are “bounded” ones. They are choices, yes, but not free ones. Essentially, given the context, they become choices of life or death—figuratively and, in some cases, literally[7].”

As I stated in the blog my decision to join a MCM was a free-will decision. This does not mean that the group did not entice the me to join.

They did, however, get me to stay through coercion. These interlocking forces, described by Dr. Lalich, put powerful pressure on members to stay in the group and also to get members to encourage other members to stay and conform. Thus almost every member of a sociological cult is both a victim and victimizer.

None of this absolves leadership from blame and a heavy burden of guilt . Far from it. For leadership of these groups bear the responsibility for setting up the culture and mechanisms of control, regardless of their intentions.

I see those defending MCM, and other sociological cults, compare membership in the groups to signing up to join the Marines. In fact MCM sold membership  as being part of God’s Green Berets. But the analogy is a false one. The ISCA, on their website, destroys this argument[8]. The Marines do not bait and switch, the Marines teach skills that are useful after exiting the Corp; cults like MCM not so much. The Marines do not cut off contact with family and friends. The Marines are upfront about what the goals of the group are and how members will be treated they join. The Marines pay a salary and give benefits to Corp members. The Marines have a functioning judicial system that can reprimand or remove an abusive leader. After a term of a duty a Marine can leave with an honorable discharge and support relationships with those inside, and outside, the Corps. The Marines have restraints on what an officer can and can not do in their role. MCM had none of these restraints and certainly did not make their nature clear up front.


Recidivism: nowhere to go!

With that as background let’s explore why some sociological cult members return to the group after leaving, join a new sociological group, or, as in the case of some former MCM pastors, start a new sociological group.

Steve Hassan uses the experience of Korean War prisoners to explain cultic brainwashing, why members stay in a group, and why members experience distress after leaving. Although I have learned much from Steve’s work I feel this explanation is inadequate. For how many Korean War prisoners of War wanted to return to North Korea after arriving back into the U.S.? Rather I prefer the explanation of of Robert Vaughn[9] who uses the analogy of a battered, or abused, woman to explain why people fail to leave a sociological cult, or leave and then return.

There are many studies that show that abused spouses (usually women) will not only stay with an abuser, but will actually defend them[10]  . When the relationship between the couple starts it is probably a good bet that the abuser did not slap his future wife on their first or second date. Chances are he was very nice and charming. In fact, he probably loved bombed her and only gradually, perhaps, the abuse started. Slowly the abuser belittles any action or thought that does not line up with his expectations. Any deviation from these expectations, by the abused spouse, results in swift punishment, whether in the actions or words. However when the spouse is in lockstep with the abuser’s wishes everything is chocolates and roses.

As the abuse mounts (as it always does) why doesn’t the spouse leave? More to the point, when the police are summoned to a scene of domestic violence why doe the abused spouse defend the abuser? Simply put the reason is that the abused spouse has nowhere to go. As documented on the website breakthesilence.com abusive spouses gradually cut their spouse off from any outside support such as family. The abuse mounts as contact with this support system wanes. Eventually the abusive spouse has nowhere to go, or, has been convinced this is the case. Lest you think that this applies to poor and uneducated women; think again! Tina Turner, the pop star multi-million dollar diva, put up with abuse from Ike Turner for years for this very reason. She did not think she could make it without Ike. Ike, her husband, verbally and physically abused her, cut her off from her family and exercised total control over her life for years. Tina would leave Ike and then return again and again[11] despite the abuse. Tina returned because, in her view ,she had no where else to go or turn. This despite the fact that she was a multimillionaire. She was totally convinced that only Ike could keep her career going, only Ike could manager her money, only Ike could manager her bookings. That she would lose what little she had if she left Ike.

Thus it is with members of sociological groups.

Members have convinced themselves that only the group can give the answer, the path, and the total solution for their lives. The“world”is a scary place and outside the cocoon of the group they might fail or be lost (literally and metaphysically). This, I think, is the explanation of why members find leaving a group so difficult and why members return after leaving. It also explains why about 10% of sociological cult members, after a group explodes, will join another abusive group.  I also believe it is why some ex-group Pastors (see Kip McKean and some ex-MCM pastors) start a new sociological cult after the original group blows up. They simply think they have nowhere else to go and nothing else to give to the world.


Why Breaking Away Is So Difficult

Professor Benjamin Zablocki associates group indoctrination with high exit costs.[12] The four interlocking aspects of these groups described by Lalich above, are not so influential in getting a person into a group, in other words. But they do explain the difficulty members have in leaving. This also, as I stated above, is why abused wives have so much trouble leaving their husbands. Zablocki writes, “… [for] somebody so bonded to a group, [the] departure that requires a rejection of the group is a form of psychological self-mutilation.”

So joining a such a group involves a different mechanism than leaving. The answer to why people join a sociological cult, of course, is that the attractions are positive for them.

The positives are what prospective members use to convince themselves to join the group. Manipulative tactics such as love bombing play a role, but the member makes that free will choice and convinces themselves that the cult’s mission is worthy and that the cult will meet their needs.

Leaving, though, is less a matter of a free-will choice. Members are under duress because of these factors.

One major factor is the sunk investment  problem (one has to be willing to say that the years in the group were wasted!). This factor explains not only why leaving is so difficult but why some former members defend defunct cults that caused so much human misery. Understandably, these ex-members simply cannot bear to face the idea that they wasted a large part of their lives in a destructive cause.

Of course other exit costs include lost friendships, family, sense of mission, and, sometimes, income. In addition, if the member is completely indoctrinated, leaving means rejecting part of one’s own personality, since group membership requires abdication of one’s sense of self and absorption of the group’s mission as the reason for being. This is what Zablocki meant by the term psychological self-mutilation.

Other exit costs include trying to make it outside of the cocoon of the group (especially if the member has no useful skills or education apart from special group skills) and the loss of the special mission that gave meaning to their lives. It can even simply be the loss of income if one is employed by the cult or is employed by a cult member or business.

One common cause of depression for former cult members that they are no longer part of a special universe saving mission. That may be the biggest factor that keeps members from leaving regardless of their doubts about the tactics. “The Mission is good,” they think, “but we just need to adjust the tactics.”

On the other side there are exit benefits, like I described in my story. Gradually these exit benefits may begin to outweigh the very high exit costs. These exit benefits might include resolving long-term doubts about the group, growing awareness of abuse and manipulation, and chronic poverty. The ICSA estimates that a large minority of former cult members experience great psychological distress when they leave such a group. This distress may last for years, and the advice of the ICSA is that ex-members experiencing such distress seek professional help[13].

[1] Vaughn.Robert. “Towards A New Model Of ‘Cult Control.” alt.religion.scientologynewsgroup.com http://www.alt.religion.scientologyscientology.com. Accessed  January 12, 2010

[2] Hassan Steve, “Combatting Mind Control” (1989). The University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC

[3] Lalich J., Tobias M., “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds” (1994). Hunter House. New York, NY  

[4] “FAQS.” International Cultic Studies Association.com. http://www.icsahome.com/elibrary/faqs. Accessed September 2017

[5] Lalich Janya, “Bounded Choice” (2004). University of California Press. Oakland CA

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] International Cultic Studies Association.com. http://www.icsahome.com/elibrary/faqs. Accessed September 2017. The Marine analogy is taken almost verbatim from the ICSA website.

[9] Vaughn.Robert. “Towards A New Model Of ‘Cult Control.” alt.religion.scientologynewsgroup.com http://www.alt.religion.scientologyscientology.com. Accessed  January 12, 2010

[10] Break the silence.com.  http://www.breakthesilencedv.org/beat-that-seven-times-statistic/.  Accessed September 2017

[11] Winfery, Oprah. “Oprah Talks to Tina”. http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/oprahs-interview-with-tina-turner. Accessed September 2017

[12] Zablocki, Benjamin. “The Joyful Community” (1971). Pelican Books, New York, NY.

[13] International Cultic Studies Association.com. http://www.icsahome.com/elibrary/faqs. Accessed September 2017



2 thoughts on “#66 Staying, Leaving, and Recidivism”

  1. “In an authoritarian group the leader seeks only compliance. While a sociological group leader seeks compliance through identity/personality change.”

    “It is not enough for you to obey Big Brother, 6079 Smith W. You must LOVE Big Brother.”
    — Comrade O’Brian, Inner Party, Airstrip One, Oceania, Nineteen Eighty-Four

    1. Hi HUG
      One of the books that Mike Caulk recommended I read, when we first reconnected in the late 1980’s after he pulled his church out of MCM was “1984”. That is a super quote. The other book was that I found of immense value was “Animal Farm.”

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