A self psychological approach to the cult phenomenon
Clinical Social Work Journal. Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter 1992.
Doni P. Whitsett, Ph.D.
"It is important to note here that people do not seek out cults." Whitsett writes. We are going through life transitions. We are feeling shaky and looking for social support and self support.
""Cushman has eloquently shown how the cult (in guise of offering normal human support) first induces "pathology" and then purports to cure it. Through various indoctrination techniques particularly an assault on the cultural frame of recruits, which includes their values, belief system, codes of behavior, and language, the cult induces a narcissistic crisis
(psychologese for a wounding assault on the victim's core sense of self)
The self, thus besieged, fragments and looks for selfobjects
(something/someone to hang onto so as to regroup and stablize We do this from year ONE when as tiny kids, we wake from a nightmare and cry out for our parents. Or run to the nearest parent when spooked by a scary situation. This is deep in who we are as human beings, no matter how intelligent and well educated we later become. This is as instinctive as when someone who is drowning gasps for air and clings to the nearest rope)
The charismatic leader and group step in and offer the warmth and reassurance, self confidence, and definitive answers necessary to soothe and cohese the fragmenting self (of the marked recruit). Yet, after the transferance is seductively developed, fragmentationoccurs once again as the result of a cult induced narcissistic injury.
(What Whitsett calles 'fragmentation of self' laypersons call freakout or self doubt/self crisis-Corboy)
Whitsett describes how unlike true therapy, the toxic cult therapistand assistants in an un named therapy cult turned the emotional support on and off - turning it off right when the victim showed signs of growing strength and autonomy
-- which a true therapist would have validated, and thus enabled her to outgrow the process and leave.
In genuine parenting and real therapy we are validated and supported when we make progress. True parents and genuine therapists are pleased when we grow more and more independant and become less reliant on them for support (Corboy)
But here below in the un-named therapy cult described by Whitsett, the very growth promised by the cult at time of recruitment was, contrary to the recruitment promises, punished, not validated. This left the subject/victim disoriented, and all the more dependant and self shaming. Then in collapse, and self blame she'd be validated -- all this doing the opposite of therapy, making her more dependent on the ones twitching the strings and doing this pseudo therapy.
A young, divorced mother had been told over and over for the first year of her life in the cult that she was a bad mother. At first she did not believe this, because she had been raising the children on her own, was very attached to them, and seemed to be doing fine, except for a persistent depression due to the divorce.
'In the cult, she forced a strong, idealizing transferance to her therapist who would with draw the narcissistic supplies (validation) whenever she did not conform.
"With each narcissistic wound she became more and more fragile and fragmented, reacting with narcissistic rage, (Corboy note - she was panicking, feeling adrift, exactly as a small child does when overwhelmed with shame and rejected by a lbeloved parent), reacting with rage, throwing things, hitting her head yelling, punching windows.
"The therapist would then point to her irrational behavior (which the cult therapist had instigated in the first place-Corboy) as evidence of her "insanity" and her "inability to take care of herself, much lest her children."
"Emotionally exhausted and confused, she sent the children to live with their father for their own protection from her.
(Corboy note. Whitsett, the author of this article does not say so, but by sending her children away, this poor lady was left all the more dependant on the leader and the cult. And, her children would have competed with the leader for her full loyalty. In her memoir Sorcerer's Apprentice: My Life With Carlos Castaneda,
Amy Wallace tells how she was pressured to show commitment to the group by giving away her two beloved cats. )
"The cult validated her for her selflessness and concern for the children as long as they were gone.
"HOwever, whenever they would come to visit, she would be "busted" for not acting 'right' with them, for being phony, for not being a good mother.
"She would once again doubt her own experience of herself with the girls and see herself through the eyes of the cult.
"When she accepted their view, she was validated, when she resisted that view, she was emotionally abandoned.
"The recurring cycle of trauma-mirroring(validation)-trauma resulted in a fragmented self."
The entire cycle is repeated again, with cult leaders and other members calming the victim. Thus a cyclic process of vulnerability is established, whereby members search and find soothing followed by repeated injury
Now..lets look at Whitsett's analyses of how people bound with group mates.
Recruits are "
often people who have felt different as children, alien in some way. Or are just lonely due to being in a strange place, leaving home, bereaved, etc.
"The cult is often the first experience recruits have of "feeling like other people..these are people who feel a sense of differentness yet, like everyone else yearn for a sense of sameness.
'(I'd say tie to humanity, kinship, brotherhood, sisterhood, a sense of 'tribe' or 'family'--corboy)
Whitsett describes the group bonding process - which becomes important when the charismatic leader is less available.
While certain factors make people vulnerable to entering cults, other factors help keep them there. The development of a strong twinship transferance (that sense of finding one's "soul mate/s or one's "other half" -- Corboy) is one major contributing factor in maintaining people in restrictive groups. While the mirror and idealizing transferance explain, to a large degree, teh strong ties to the leader, the twinship transferance contributes a great deal to understanding the strong (one could call them 'magical- corboy) ties to the group.
"It particularly explains attachments in those cults where members have minimal direct contact with the idealized leader.
"The twinship transferance underlies the often expressed sentiment among former cult members that only other people who have come out of cults can truly understand their experience, a feeling akin to being "war buddies."
Whitsett, page 368