Cults: A Natural Disaster--Looking at Cult Involvement Through a Trauma Lens

Rosen, Shelly
February 2014
International Journal of Cultic Studies;2014, Vol. 5, p12
Academic Journal
Recent advances in neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, and economics have highlighted the importance of social networks in human behavior. The author argues that the propensity for individuals to be drawn to nonkin groups is hard-wired and epigenetic. Narcissistic cult leaders are adept at creating cohesive groups attractive to those who are most drawn to nonkin groups--the altruists, idealists, and transcendence seekers. The slow process of indoctrination and social submission perpetrated by both narcissistic leaders and the cultic group dynamic is highly traumatizing to members and their children. Those drawn to cultic groups in adulthood are at risk for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who are born and raised in these groups are likely also to experience lags in the development of or dissociation from their own agency, identity, and core self-attributes, characteristic of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Longtime members who leave groups suffer the trauma of immigration. In addition, cult involvement is an under-recognized phenomena, and members are often labeled as pathological, which increases their shame, guilt, and isolation. The author contends that seeking group involvement with a charismatic leader is natural and human, and that cult involvement has the potential to induce profoundly painful and traumatic stress reactions. Rather than label cult involvement as aberrant, it is more humane to label it a natural disaster. Thus, cult involvement is akin to a hurricane or earthquake in its ubiquity in human history and its ability to shake people's nervous systems in profound ways. Finally, because of the betrayal trauma induced by the leader, cult involvement may be more traumatic than surviving what we traditionally label mass disasters. Working with former members involves understanding the severity of the trauma and the power of group dynamics. This paper highlights the special considerations necessary for professionals who work with former cult members. Best practices include stage-oriented treatment that emphasizes stabilization and psychoeducation.


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