Changes I Have Seen in the 40 Years of AFF/ICSA

ICSA Today, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2019, 16-17

Changes I Have Seen in the 40 Years of AFF/ICSA

Marcia R. Rudin

At the ICSA conference in Philadelphia in July 2018, I was amazed as I contemplated the changes I have seen in my nearly forty years of involvement with the countercult movement and with AFF/ICSA.

When my husband, Rabbi A. James Rudin, and I published the first general book about cults, Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults, in 1980, the movement was in its infancy. A smattering of concerned parents throughout the country was just organizing what became the original Cult Awareness Network (CAN). I don’t remember how we connected with the new American Family Foundation (AFF). Perhaps someone heard about Prison or Paradise?... and contacted us. Or somehow we heard about Dr. John G. Clark, a psychiatrist in the Boston area who was exploring the topic of mind manipulation, and we contacted him. Jim and I attended the second AFF Advisory Board meeting in 1982. We went to the office in Boston and from there were driven to a Catholic retreat center in Weston, the actual meeting location kept secret from attendees because the previous year the Unification Church had found out about the meeting and had invaded it, and snapped and published unflattering photos.

Early AFF Advisory Board Meetings consisted of about thirty to forty people reporting on their individual, cult-related activities. Over time, these small meetings of invitees transitioned into conferences at other retreat centers that included workshops for former members and loved ones, and then turned into large annual conferences held every other year in Europe, and multiple workshops throughout the country for former members and affected loved ones.

In those early days, cult members were affluent, college-aged youngsters recruited off campuses or other young people in periods of transition in their lives (at least this is what we thought). The recruits seemed to be primarily white. The “loved ones” trying to rescue them were parents who, in order to get them out of groups, needed to be able to afford to pay for intervention specialists, or what in those days were called deprogrammers, which term at the time encompassed voluntary and involuntary (i.e., dependent upon an abduction). Later, the term exit counseling replaced voluntary deprogramming since, in popular usage, deprogramming implied abduction. So even if there were less affluent people and minorities affected by cults, we didn’t know about them because they probably couldn’t afford to get the necessary help, even if they knew how to obtain it.

Yes, in those years, few knew how to get the help they needed. Pre-Internet, if one was fortunate enough to find out about us, it was probably via radio or television programs. One woman told me she was listening to a radio program in her automobile and pulled over to the side of the road to jot down our telephone number on a scrap of paper! And the contact had to be via telephone or snail mail. At some point while I was on staff, I volunteered to answer the telephone—a decision I would later regret; so I received calls all day from desperate families and loved ones. This stressful activity (I was not trained, as a professional social worker would have been, to distance myself) caused me to resign after 10 years, unable to emotionally deal with the terrible stories I heard constantly.

Fortunately, at the same time I resigned in 1998, the new Internet was expanding. Soon people didn’t need to telephone or write us. By simply typing key words, they could easily access information and advice.

Over these 40 years, one of the most important changes I have observed is the composition of cult membership: Now about half the former members entering our network were born or raised in groups. Entire families—including adults (not necessarily elderly) and children born into and raised in groups—are involved, making the process of leaving and adjusting to the outside world much more difficult. In response to these changes, ICSA over time has adjusted its assistance offerings to aid these families and those born and raised in groups, not just young people who may have been in a group for only a few years Many ICSA workshops and conference sessions are restricted to the “born or raised,” who experience unique problems of recovery; numerous written and audiovisual resources also are aimed at these former members.

Throughout these years, ICSA has professionalized the help former members and loved ones receive. In the early days of the movement, parents of members, untrained former members, or perhaps well-intentioned but untrained (in this field) clergy and mental-health professionals provided assistance. Sometimes more harm than good was done. One of ICSA’s abiding goals has been to professionalize the general countercult network. Many former members have become mental health professionals, dedicating themselves to helping other former members. ICSA has also encouraged researchers from various fields to study the cult phenomenon, insisting on high standards for their contributions to ICSA publications.

And over the years, with ICSA’s support, exit counselors in our network have professionalized themselves by examining and improving their methods of intervention and by paying close attention to ethical issues in interventions. Actually—and this is another important change—the need for such interventions has apparently declined due to the improved communications skills those outside of the cult have developed with their cult member, thanks largely to improved advice and resources from ICSA. And more cult members appear to “walk away” from cults themselves, partly due, I believe, to availability of online information about the outside world and negative information about their group.

In addition, preventive education and general educational materials about cults, and access to those resources, have changed. I was hired in 1988 to provide programs to schools and universities. As founder and Director of the International Cult Education Program (ICEP), I wrote and produced three educational videotapes, devised a lesson plan for middle- and high-school students, did outreach to young people and college campuses, and appeared on many prominent national radio and television shows. I also networked with organizations such as the campus security guards and high-school and university counselors, sometimes traveling great distances at great expense to present at their conferences. But as time passed, there was no longer a need for me or anyone else to go into a classroom of 30 high-school or church-group students, or to travel and spend ICSA’s money to speak to other small groups. The information we had been transmitting that way with great difficulty was now quickly and easily available online. Utilizing the expansion of the Internet and other social networks, ICSA has tailored its ability to provide rapid personal assistance and provide helpful information and advice via its online resources, accessible through its excellent website. These advances have been aided by a growing volume of books, personal accounts from former members and published professional research and analyses that we can publicize easily and distribute widely.

Over these 40 years, ICSA has cultivated scholars in Europe and the Far East, and our movement expanded into a worldwide network. This expansion is one reason the name was changed from American Family Foundation to International Cultic Studies Association.

Another important change, due primarily to the wisdom and foresight of AFF/ICSA president Herbert L. Rosedale and executive director Michael Langone, is the transformation of our relationships with cultic groups. Because Herb welcomed cult members sent to harass us at our conferences and urged them to leave the hotel lobby and actually attend sessions (he even sometimes invited them to participate in formal conference programs), it became more difficult for them to look upon us as “The Evil Enemy.” Today it is not unusual to find current cult members attending and participating in our conferences. I believe this change underlines the fact that we have always reflected a nuanced view of cults. The organization’s lay leadership also has changed. Originally, parents of former members guided us. Then, although he had no personal cult involvement himself, Herb Rosedale served as president for 15 years until his death in 2003. A brilliant attorney, he kept us out of legal trouble (in contrast, the original CAN was driven into bankruptcy in the 1990s by a spate of lawsuits). Herb frequently journeyed into his Manhattan law firm office on nights and weekends to meet with cult-affected families or former members. He provided them with emotional support and guidance, and sometimes, free legal services. Now, outstanding psychologist Dr. Steve K.D. Eichel leads ICSA, with a Board of Directors and Advisory Board of qualified helping professionals and academicians. And, as the result of better recovery help for former members—or at least those former members who have been able to contact us and manage a good outcome, an important change in ICSA is the increasing participation by former members, including the born-or-raised, in our organizational and decision-making structure.

My daughters aged 12 and 10 at the time, who stayed with friends in Boston while Jim and I attended our first AFF Advisory Board Meeting in 1982, are now middle-aged women wearing bifocals. I am nearing 80, and I realize the 2018 Philadelphia conference might be my last. I am sad because even though I welcome the way ICSA has adapted its operations to changing needs and methods of communication, I sort of miss “the good old days.” And I really miss those giant personalities such as Drs. Margaret Singer, John G. Clark, Louis Jolyon West, and Paul Martin; Herb Rosedale; Professor Arthur Dole; and others prominent in the movement who have died or for other reasons ceased working in the field. They were all dear friends and colleagues with whom I shared many moments of love and laughter even as we pursued our grim mission.

However, I am also happy and proud when I think of the advances we have made in the important movement I helped to shape.

About the Author

Marcia R. Rudin received a joint MA Degree in Religion from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, specializing in Philosophy of Religion. She studied for a PhD in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. She taught at William Paterson College in New Jersey.

Ms. Rudin is the author of two novels, Hear My Voice, and Flower Toward the Sun. She is coauthor with Rabbis A. James Rudin and Hirshel Jaffe of Why Me? Why Anyone? (1986, St. Martin’s Press; 1994, Jason Aronson, Inc.), and with Rabbi Rudin of Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults (1980, Fortress Press). She edited and contributed to the anthology Cults on Campus: Continuing Challenge (1991, 1996, International Cult Education Program [ICEP]).

She has published articles and book reviews about destructive cults, women rabbis, black Jews, genetic engineering, Nazi war criminals, Holocaust refugees, and Jewish feminism at, and in The New York Times; The New York Daily News; The Congressional Quarterly Researcher; Encyclopedia Judaica; Present Tense; Fifty Plus; Worldview; The New Leader; Catholic Digest; Our Town; Religious Education; P.S.: The Intelligent Guide to Jewish Affairs; The New York University Review of Law and Social Change; PTA Today; National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Bulletin; Campus Law Enforcement Journal; Dialogue; The Antigonish Review; Keeping Posted; The Cult Observer; The Advisor; Cultic Studies Journal; and Boston University Alumni Magazine.

She has written widely about cults and psychological manipulation, appeared at conferences and panel discussions, and lectured throughout the United States, and in Canada and Poland. She has been cited as a cult expert in such publications as The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Enquirer, The Los Angeles Times, Modern Maturity, The Chicago Sun Times, The Portland Oregonian, The Austin-American Statesman, and Woman’s Day. She has also been interviewed on many TV and radio programs.

Between 1987 and 1997, Ms. Rudin directed ICEP; wrote and helped produce ICEP’s Cults: Saying No Under Pressure, featuring Charlton Heston; wrote and produced After the Cult: Recovering Together; edited and produced Blessed Child: An Interview with Donna Collins (videos); edited ICEP’s newsletter and authored its lesson plan for secondary students.