ICSA: The First Forty Years

ICSA Today, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2019, 2-15

ICSA: The First Forty Years

Michael D. Langone

The Founding, Kay Barney and John (Jack) Clark: 1979–1981

International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) was founded as American Family Foundation (AFF) in 1979 by Mr. Kay H. Barney (right), an executive with an aerospace company, whose daughter had joined the Unification Church. Other grassroots organizations formed around the same time, one year after the Jonestown tragedy in which more than 900 men, women, and children were murdered or committed suicide in the jungle of Guyana. AFF was different from other organizations because it emphasized the importance of conducting scientific research and mobilizing professionals. From its inception, AFF published a bimonthly newspaper, The Advisor, to inform the nascent network about cult-related developments.

In 1978, Dr. John (Jack) Clark (1926–1999), Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Consulting Psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, published an article on cults in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article described his observations gleaned from working with parents and former members of cultic groups. Dr. Clark formed a team consisting of Dr. Michael Langone, Dr. Robert Schecter, and Rev. Roger Daly. Dr. Clark and his team joined AFF in 1980 and in 1981 obtained grant money that enabled AFF to establish offices in Weston, Massachusetts.

All the cult-related support organizations that came into existence in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were founded and run by parents concerned about young adult children who had joined cultic groups. Most of these parents employed or hoped to employ deprogrammers to rescue their children. Though most mental health professionals, including Dr. Clark and his team, kept their distance from deprogramming, some parents consulted professionals such as Dr. Clark for advice and support, or to help their child after she walked out of a group or left after an intervention.

Deprogramming typically involved kidnapping a cult member and subjecting him to several days of education in the hope that he would reevaluate a cult involvement. Deprogramming succeeded about 60% of the time (Langone, 1984). When lawsuits arose, deprogramming was typically justified by the choice of evils defense, which argued that extreme action was needed because of the dangers posed by cult affiliation. By the late 1980s, however, the choice of evils defense was nullified because (a) many intervention specialists, who called themselves exit counselors, helped people leave cultic groups without abductions and (b) research clearly indicated that a large majority of people left cults on their own (Langone, 1993).

Deprogramming in North America virtually disappeared from the field by the turn of the century.

In those pre-Internet days, most people seeking help contacted AFF by mail or phone. AFF was soon responding to several thousand information requests (mostly from families and former members) and providing background information to dozens and sometimes more than a hundred journalists annually. Mrs. Carol Turnbull (who died in 1999), a local volunteer from Weston, was instrumental in providing the AFF office with news clippings and an indispensable copy machine.

While staff handled the phone and mail inquiries, Dr. Clark’s team spoke to professional groups, schools, colleges, and civic groups. They also wrote some of the early documents in this field, including the monograph, Destructive Cult Conversion: Theory, Research, and Treatment (Clark, Langone, Schecter, and Daly, 1981), which was distributed widely through the growing cult-awareness movement.

The Guy Ford Era: 1981–1988

In 1981, Guy Ford (1922–2007) was Vice President of a large corporation in Boston. He had become interested in cults when his daughter, Wendy, joined The Way International. A “manager’s manager,” Guy recognized that the professionals of AFF needed to be organized. And he knew that if he didn’t do it, nobody would do it. So he did it.

Though he was never formally the President of AFF, Guy functioned in that capacity. His guiding hand kept AFF firmly anchored to reality during its crucial early years.

With the help of a special grant, Guy organized AFF’s first advisory board meeting—corporate style—at Dunfey’s on Cape Cod (now Cape Cod Resort and Conference Center) in the summer of 1981. Guy brought together about three dozen people, most of whom Jack Clark had met because of his speaking and writing. This was the first time so many experts in this emerging field had come together. Many met each other for the first time, not realizing what deep and long friendships would follow.

Many of the attendees at the 1981 advisory board meeting experienced their first brush with cult harassment. Somehow, the Unification Church, and perhaps a few other groups, learned about the meeting—and they were waiting for us. (Years later we discovered that they used to go through our trash to find out what we were planning.) An especially memorable incident involved Jack Clark, who had become a prime target because of his writings and public testimony and, of course, his academic and professional status. Two photographers from a “newspaper” approached him. One put his camera with flash attachment (cameras were bigger than books in those days!) inches from Jack’s face, while the other stood about six feet away, obviously hoping that he could catch Jack slugging the other photographer. Fortunately, Jack kept his cool and walked away.

After the meeting, the employers of many attendees received threatening letters saying that their employee was consorting with “antireligious bigots” and other such nonsense. (Among the “antireligious bigots” were priests, ministers, and rabbis!) Though his boss was sympathetic, Guy had to keep a low profile.

What is amazing is how few of the advisory board members were cowered by the intimidation tactics. Thus, despite the harassment, that first advisory board meeting was productive. With Guy conducting the orchestra, the group identified a four-pronged mission for AFF: research, education, assistance, and legal. The group also decided to meet annually, which it did for many years, though in the modest setting of retreat centers, rather than a corporate conference hotel.

One of the early participants in AFF’s advisory board meetings was Margaret T. Singer, PhD (1921–2003). Like Dr. Clark, Dr. Singer had been one of the first professionals to speak out in support of parents whose young-adult children had joined cults. In the 1980s, she was also involved as an expert in some of the seminal court cases of the day. Her success brought her much harassment from those who sought to discredit her. She was perhaps the most popular speaker in the emerging cult-education organizations because of her unrivaled capacity to explain psychological manipulation in plain English that all could understand.

In 1981, AFF received several large foundation grants, which came through contacts Jack Clark had made. Throughout the 1980s, fund-raising was a perpetual and sometimes unnerving challenge (“Two months till bankruptcy!” “Three months till bankruptcy.” “Wow! We won’t go bankrupt for six months!”); yet we somehow managed to survive. And as much as possible, we pursued the mission set forth at the first advisory board meeting.

In 1983, Drs. Clark and Langone contributed to a symposium sponsored by Section K (Social, Economic and Political Sciences) of the Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, entitled, “Scientific Research and New Religions” (Clark & Langone, 1985). This symposium was one of the few gatherings that brought together academicians and professionals from what was already viewed as the two “camps” of “pro” and “anti” cultists (see tongue-in-cheek essay, Langone, 1983). Communication between these two “camps” decreased markedly in the 1980s as members of both were hired as expert witnesses in the growing number of lawsuits against and by cultic groups. (See Langone, 2005, for a history of how the “two camps” changed over time.)

In 1984, AFF markedly advanced the quality of its publishing efforts by founding the Cult Observer and Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ). The Cult Observer, which succeeded The Advisor and focused on press accounts, was printed as a magazine, rather than a tabloid newspaper. CSJ filled the need for a multidisciplined, peer-reviewed journal that was open to critical perspectives on cultic issues.

One of CSJ’s early issues (Volume 2, Number 2—1985) illustrated well AFF’s continuing mission of bringing together diverse parties interested in cultic abuses. This special issue was entitled Cults, Evangelicals, and the Ethics of Social Influence. The issue arose from conversations AFF staff had had with the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which recognized that sometimes its lay evangelists, who were often young and inexperienced, lost their ethical bearings and became manipulative or abusive. The InterVarsity staff appreciated a point Dr. Clark often made in his talk, namely that in cults we witness an “impermissible experiment” on the changing of human personality, an experiment that is “impermissible” because unwritten ethical codes of human social influence are violated. InterVarsity’s vital contribution to this special issue was to organize a team of evangelical scholars to come up with an ethical code for the Christian evangelist. This special CSJ issue underlined one of AFF’s enduring themes; namely, that the concern about cults rests not on their creeds but on their deeds, on the unethical ways in which they seek to recruit, retain, and exploit members.

In 1985, AFF organized a landmark conference in conjunction with Dr. L. J. West (1925-1999), Director of the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles and the Johnson Foundation, which hosted the conference at its Wingspread campus in Racine, Wisconsin. This conference brought together approximately forty individuals, including representatives from England and Germany. Among the participants were mental health professionals, clergy, academicians, journalists, the president of the National PTA, attorneys, campus administrators, and the Head of the Private Office of Richard Cottrell, Member of the European Parliament from Bath, England.

A barrage of harassing letters, and also picketers, accompanied this conference. Some material accused us of plotting a “final solution,” an allegation that was especially galling to the Jewish participants at the conference.

Guy continued to remain active in AFF well into the 1990s. Though Herb Rosedale became the leader of AFF in 1988, Guy continued his vital behind-the-scenes role. He ran advisory board meetings and contributed substantially to the always-challenging fund-raising efforts of the organization. He continued to be the steady hand that prevented AFF’s intellects from deviating too far from reality.

The Herb Rosedale Era: 1988–2003

Herb Rosedale (1932–2003), a successful New York corporate attorney, first became involved in cult issues in the late 1970s, when he assisted citizens concerned about the Unification Church’s (“the Moonies”) attempt to buy a large property in Chappaqua, New York. This was the first of innumerable pro bono services that benefited thousands of people during his lifetime. He spent countless hours over the years advising families, former group members, clergy, helping professionals, and others, sometimes going to his office on weekends to meet with people. During the 1980s, Herb’s ability and dedication to the cause of AFF became more and more apparent at annual advisory board meetings, and he was asked to become President in 1988.

When Herb died on November 4, 2003, emails kept appearing in the AFF inbox from people expressing their gratitude to him. These emails, which kept coming for more than a month, were so numerous that we put together a special Rosedale Memorial Collection (2003), the first 26 pages of which were the spontaneous tributes of people touched by him. Over the years, Herb must have given several million dollars of pro bono assistance to the people who sought his help. His impact on AFF cannot be overestimated.

The closing paragraph of Michael Langone’s eulogy in the memorial collection summarizes how Herb’s character affected AFF:

Herb has left a permanent imprint on AFF. The fundamental mission of the organization reflects his good will: to help people hurt by cultic groups. Our fundamental methods reflect his pursuit of truth: we study the phenomenon scientifically and professionally to help people, to the degree we are able, with truth and not illusion. And our governing attitude reflects, I hope, his courage: We must remain open to dialogue, to learning, to change, and we must be strong enough to stand against those who hurt people with lies while standing up for those whom lies have savaged. (Rosedale Memorial Collection, 2003)

All the cult educational organizations had been founded by concerned parents, who during the 1980s were focused on “getting people out.” Herb was not stuck in that box. He recognized that the future of the movement lay with former members, more and more of whom were walking away from cultic groups and entering the AFF network. These former members were not “kids.” They were adults who wanted to help others affected by or potentially affected by the exploitative manipulation that had caused them so much pain.

Because of this perspective, AFF in 1990 formally founded Project Recovery, which reflected AFF’s increasing focus on former members. Project Recovery was organized around task forces focused on research and assistance. The following major achievements of AFF in the 1990s all arose from the task forces of Project Recovery:

Research Studies

  • Dr. Edward Lottick (1935–2015) surveyed 1,396 primary-care physicians in Pennsylvania, under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. Among other findings, this study reported that 2.2% of subjects said that either they or an immediate family member had been involved in a cultic group. Pennsylvania Medicine (Lottick, February, 1993) published the results of Dr. Lottick’s survey. This study, combined with other research data, suggests that approximately 1%, or about two to three million Americans, have had cultic involvements. Since other research suggests that people stay in their groups an average of about six years, we estimate that at least several tens of thousands of individuals enter and leave cultic groups each year.

  • In 1990, Dr. Michael Langone surveyed 308 former group members from 101 different groups. The Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA), the first measure of “cultishness,” was derived from these subjects’ responses to a segment of the questionnaire (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994).

  • Dr. Langone and Dr. William Chambers conducted another survey of 108 former members to evaluate how they related to different terms, and they discovered that former members prefer terms such as psychological abuse or spiritual abuse to cult, brainwashing, or mind control (Langone & Chambers, 1991).

  • Dr. Paul Martin (1946–2009) and his colleagues at the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center (a residential treatment center for former group members) analyzed data Wellspring had collected on 124 clients. CSJ published a report on this research in 1992 (Martin, Langone, Dole, & Wiltrout, 1992). The data, which came from established psychological instruments, clearly showed the effectiveness of Wellspring’s 2-week standard program.

  • In 1995, Boston University named Dr. Michael Langone the 1995 Albert Danielsen Visiting Scholar. In this capacity, he conducted a research study that compared former members/graduates of a cultic group and two mainstream religious groups on (a) members’ perceptions of group abusiveness, and (b) psychological distress. This study’s design was a direct result of the research planning meetings conducted at Wellspring (Malinoski, Langone, & Lynn, 1999).

Meetings and Conferences

  • In 1992, AFF conducted its first weekend workshop for former group members at the Stony Point Retreat Center, Stony Point, New York. At least one weekend workshop has been held every year since, and
    1-day, former-member workshops are typically held prior to the annual conference.

  • In 1992, in Arlington, Virginia, AFF conducted a conference, Cult Victims and Their Families: Therapeutic Issues.

  • In 1995, AFF conducted a joint conference with Denver Seminary, Recovery from Cults: A Pastoral/Psychological Dialogue.

  • In 1996, AFF, in conjunction with Iona College’s pastoral and family counseling department, conducted a conference, Recovery From Cults and Other Abusive Groups: Psychological and Spiritual Dimensions.

  • Project Recovery’s research component led to an important, 3-day research planning meeting, which was organized by Dr. Langone and hosted by Dr. Martin and his staff at Wellspring in 1994. A follow-up meeting was held a year later.

Books and Publications

  • In 1993, Norton Professional Books published AFF’s Recovery From Cults, edited by Dr. Michael Langone, a book that the Behavioral Science Book Service chose as an alternate selection. This edited book consisted of chapters written by members of the Project Recovery study groups.

  • In 1993, AFF published Wendy Ford’s book, Recovery From Abusive Groups, which provides practical guidelines for individuals struggling with postgroup adjustment issues.

  • In 1994, AFF, with the Cult Awareness Network and the Cult Hot Line and Clinic of the New York Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services, funded and received a special report: Cults in American Society: A Legal Analysis of Undue Influence, Fraud and Misrepresentation. This report reflected AFF’s desire to support legal research with practical implications for former group members (Hominek, 1995).

  • In 1996, AFF published The Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the International Churches of Christ (second edition published in 1998). Edited by AFF’s Carol Giambalvo and Herbert Rosedale, this book provided historical background, personal accounts, and analytical chapters on the group about which AFF had received more inquiries than any other during the 1990s.

Though during this era AFF’s focus shifted to former members, the organization continued to address the needs of families. Cults: What Parents Should Know, published in 1988, was written by a former group member, Joan Carol Ross, and counselor Dr. Michael Langone. This book addressed issues of assessment, defining the problem, communication, planning, and dealing with postcult difficulties. In 1992, AFF published the first edition of Carol Giambalvo’s Exit Counseling: A Family Intervention. This book complemented Cults: What Parents Should Know by providing practical details and advice for families considering an exit counseling. The book’s publication was a landmark event in the supplanting of deprogramming by noncoercive exit counseling approaches. A revised, second edition of this book was published in 1996 (Giambalvo, 1996). And in 1996, Livia Bardin, MSW, led AFF’s first workshop for families (these have been held nearly every year since in conjunction with the annual conference). In 2000, Livia completed a book based on her workshops, Coping with Cult Involvement: A Handbook for Families and Friends (Bardin, 2000). This book helps families achieve a level of understanding far deeper than that provided by other written resources.

A major initiative during this era was to pay attention not just to recovery, but also to education about cults and cultic dynamics. In 1987, AFF initiated a preventive educational program, the International Cult Education Program (ICEP). ICEP’s goals were to develop educational resources for the general public, young people, educators, and clergy; to encourage educational programs for youth; and to provide support and guidance to those conducting such programs. Founded and directed by Marcia Rudin (left) until her retirement in 1998, ICEP produced two videotapes, Cults: Saying “No” Under Pressure and After the Cult: Recovering Together; a book, Cultism on Campus: Commentaries and Guidelines for College and University Administrators (revised in 1996 under the title Cults on Campus: Continuing Challenge); a lesson plan; a collection of pseudoscience fact sheets; four educational flyers; and the semiannual newsletter, Young People and Cults. ICEP made hundreds of contacts with press, TV, and radio media, and gave many lectures to the general public, universities, and other organizations. Funding cuts prevented AFF from maintaining ICEP as a distinct program, although its functions continue to the extent resources permit.

That many people held AFF’s educational activities in high esteem became evident in June 1995, when Herbert Rosedale was asked to deliver a commencement address to the graduating class of the State University of New York’s Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome, “Promises and Illusions” (Rosedale, 1994).

AFF’s website was first posted on the Internet in 1995. Launched initially through the volunteer efforts of Patrick Ryan (right), the site received high ratings and some awards by both Internet and health-ratings sites. The site has changed and grown considerably over the years to include, among other resources, an e-library of more than twenty thousand articles. Today, the Internet is ICSA’s primary communication venue.

AFF/ICSA has organized conferences since its founding. The organization did not begin annual conferences until 1999, when the conference was held at the University of Minnesota. In 2005, the annual conference was held for the first time outside the USA at the Autonomous University of Madrid. Since then, the annual conference has alternated between North America and Europe (see ICSA’s events archive, available online at https://www.icsahome.com/events/eventsarchive).

The Board of Directors Era: 2004–Present

Herb Rosedale died in November 2003. In December 2003, two other AFF directors—also pioneers in the cult awareness movement—died: Dr. David Halperin and Dr. Margaret Singer.

Michael Langone, AFF’s Executive Director, realized that no individual could step into Herb Rosedale’s shoes, so it was vital that the organization put together an active Board of Directors that would guide the organization into the future. Discussions with key people in the AFF network made clear that the Board must consist of individuals with a deep understanding of the issues and a capacity to work cooperatively.

In 2004, Alan Scheflin, Professor of Law at Santa Clara University Law School, was elected the first President of the new Board.

One of the first challenges the new Board undertook was the question of changing the name of AFF—American Family Foundation. In 1979, this was a reasonable name for the organization. By 2004, however, the organization was mainly focused on former cult members, not parents, and had become international in its reach. Moreover, the AFF name had taken on a right-wing political connotation in the minds of many.

Several dozen people carefully deliberated for several months. Because AFF had become international in scope and was a growing and coordinated network of interested individuals, and since research, or study, formed the bedrock of AFF’s helping and educational endeavors, the current name seemed to fit: International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA).

Since Herb Rosedale’s death, four persons have been elected to the ICSA presidency: Alan Scheflin, Phil Elberg, Lorna Goldberg, and Steve Eichel, the current President. The changes in leadership have occurred without rancor, as have changes in the Board. Though Board members do not always agree, they disagree respectfully and, after rational discussion, have been able to attain a consensus, or at least a lack of opposition, on all decisions.

The new Board quickly realized that the children born into cults in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were leaving cults in large numbers when they reached adulthood. The term second-generation adult (SGA) was first used to describe people born or raised in cultic groups. The Board also realized, as a result of ICSA’s former-member workshops, which had included increasing numbers of SGAs, that the SGA population had some needs that differed from those who had joined groups as adults. Hence, in 2006, ICSA began weekend workshops focusing on the distinct issues faced by people born or raised in cultic groups or relationships. In recent years, ICSA has recognized that there is actually a significant population of multigenerational families, with not only children but parents and sometimes grandparents themselves born or raised in their groups.

The born-or-raised subgroup has become an increasingly important part of the ICSA network. Twenty four percent of the attendees at the 2018 annual conference in Philadelphia, for example, were from the born-or-raised population. (Fifty-eight percent of attendees were former members, with 41% of those being born or raised in a group.) Attendees at the 2019 annual conference in Manchester, UK, showed even larger percentages. Sixty-eight percent were former members; 54% of these former members had been born or raised in groups.

The new Board also solidified ICSA’s international dimension, holding ICSA’s first annual conference outside the United States at the Autonomous University of Madrid in 2005. Annual conferences have been held in Europe every other year since then: Brussels (2007), Geneva (2009), Barcelona (2011), Trieste (2013), Stockholm (2015), Bordeaux (2017), and Manchester, UK (2019). Info-Cult/Info-Secte in Montreal, directed by Mike Kropveld, who has been involved since AFF’s early years, has been a vital partner in international outreach during the past few decades and also cosponsors all annual conferences.

The annual conference has been the conference to attend in the cultic-studies field for many years, with from 200 to 250 people attending each conference. Because not all interested persons can make the annual conference, the Board also has scheduled regional events and a special assistance-focused conference in Santa Fe in odd years since 2013. In coming years, the Board plans to address the geographical dispersal of the ICSA network by holding more virtual events, including some that would give CE units to mental health professionals.

In 2006, Diana Pletts organized ICSA’s first Phoenix Project exhibit of art and literary works at the annual conference in Denver. Through the Phoenix Project, ICSA affirmed the proposition that art can capture or reveal subtleties that elude analytic writing and can serve a therapeutic function for the artists. ICSA is currently developing a special website that will be devoted solely to artistic and literary expressions of cult experience and recovery.

In 2010, the Board decided to split Cultic Studies Review (CSR) into two periodicals. International Journal of Cultic Studies a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal, and ICSA Today, a full-color magazine aimed at the educated layperson, with articles, book reviews, personal narratives, news, and art and literary works. The latter reflects the importance ICSA has attached to artistic expression since the first Phoenix Project exhibit of 2006.

The Board underscored ICSA’s emphasis on dialogue, which Herb Rosedale had championed, by collaborating on an article published in ICSA Today in 2013: “Dialogue and Cultic Studies: Why Dialogue Benefits the Cultic Studies Field.”

An important ICSA goal that emerged from the emphasis on former members and recovery issues is to expand the network of knowledgeable mental health professionals so that ultimately there will be at least one such professional in every major metropolitan area in the United States and, ideally, other countries. Related to this goal is the need to provide training and supervision for interested mental health professionals.

To further this objective, the ICSA Mental Health Committee began work on a book project at its 2013 Santa Fe conference, where professionals presented on topics that would eventually become book chapters. In 2017, a 499-page book was published—Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working With Former Members and Families.

The Board also worked to increase the membership level of ICSA and the number of members who volunteered time and expertise to conferences, workshops, publications, committees, and other endeavors. Mental health outreach was part of the membership expansion effort, in part because Edward Lottick’s survey of Pennsylvania psychologists (2008) indicated that about 50% had had experience treating former cult members and 13% had had personal experience with cults, with a quarter of those (about 3.5% of the total) having been in a cult.

Another ICSA survey (Dowhower, 2013) collected data from 224 respondents. Forty-two percent of former members sought help from mainline religious organizations. Thirty-two persons (40%) found these services not at all helpful. This survey suggested that churches and other religious organizations are important gatekeepers because former cult members seek help from them. But the survey also suggested that religious organizations are not effective at helping these victims. Hence, the Board has encouraged the development of the Spiritual Safe Haven Network and the website, SpiritualAbuseResources.com, as an outreach mechanism to religious organizations.

The Board has also encouraged the continued development of ICSA websites, including outreach through social media and the posting of videos (mostly from conferences) on ICSA’s YouTube channel. The ICSA E-Newsletter helps members keep abreast of what other members are doing.

In recent years, the Board of Directors founded an advisory council, which offers feedback on issues confronting ICSA, helps facilitate communication with ICSA’s wider membership and constituencies, and, importantly, provides a pool of people for future leadership. ICSA has arrived at a point of maturity and relevance that suggests even greater growth and impact in future years. We are both proud of this growth, and aware that strategic planning is necessary to preserve and expand our achievements.

From the earliest days of the organization, leaders of AFF/ICSA realized that the unethical influence they had observed in cultic groups occurred in other areas of life, and that the organization’s work had relevance to other areas. Over the years, AFF/ICSA has published articles relating cultic dynamics to domestic violence, gangs, terrorism, sex trafficking, and spiritual abuse. ICSA has also organized special conferences designed to illuminate the commonalities in such fields. We have expanded our understanding of cultic groups and dynamics to include one-on-one relationships.

In 2017, a law on coercive control in the United Kingdom underscored the need to elucidate and illuminate the common dynamics observed in cults, domestic violence, and other influence situations. Director Rod Dubrow-Marshall’s plenary talk at the 2018 annual conference was entitled “The Spectrum of Coercive Control.” In this talk, he elaborates upon the connections between cultic dynamics and other areas of coercion, manipulation, and abuse. In future years, ICSA will surely engage in more deliberate and vigorous outreach and dialogue with experts from these other areas, providing a growing resource for researchers, mental health professionals, families and people who have experienced cultic involvement in any of its many forms.


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Rudin, M. (Ed.) (1996). Cults on campus: Continuing challenge (revised ed.). Weston, MA: American Family Foundation. Available online at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7gQLq25IOjMTzJKNzN1UHlvY2s/view?usp=sharing

About the Author

Michael D. Langone, PhD, received a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1979. Since 1981 he has been Executive Director of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). He was the founding editor of Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ); the editor of CSJ’s successor, Cultic Studies Review; and editor of Recovery From Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (an alternate of the Behavioral Science Book Service). He is coauthor of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know. Dr. Langone, ICSA Today’s Editor-in-Chief, has been the chief designer and coordinator of ICSA’s international conferences. In 1995, he was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University. He has authored numerous articles in professional journals and books and has spoken widely to dozens of lay and professional groups, various university audiences, and numerous radio and television stations. In 2017, he was coeditor of ICSA’s book Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working With Former Members and Families.

Quotations From Seminal Works

Elite No More. ‘They get you to believing that they alone know how to save the world,’ recalled one member. ‘You think you are in the vanguard of history.... You have been called out of the anonymous masses to assist the messiah ... As the chosen, you are above the law... They have arrived at the humbling and exalting conclusion that they are more valuable to God, to history, and to the future than other people are.’ Clearly one of the more poignant comedowns of postgroup life is the end of feeling a chosen person, a member of an elite.” [From Singer, Margaret T. (Jan. 1979). “Coming out of the cults,” Psychology Today, 12, p. 82.]

“Cults of various sorts have been useful to society as change agents. In such roles, as antagonists to the status quo, they may very well serve as a leavening in a stagnant culture. There is no question of their right to stand against other opinions, nor, as Delgado persuasively argues, should there be any question of the right of others to stand against them. It is through this kind of confrontation that change may be negotiated safely. But in groups organized in the ways I have been describing, there is an inherent danger, from their techniques and from their doctrines of deviancy, that they can become destructive for the sake of destruction or intolerant beyond the capacity to negotiate. At that stage they are willing to injure other human beings without scruple. This is already happening, and it must not be condoned by the medical profession.” [From Clark, John G. (1979). “Cults,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 242, p. 281.]

“The following definition is provided to specify our focus of concern on totalist cults. Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.” [From West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986). “Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers,” Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1), p. 87.]

“Wellspring’s approach to treating the dissociation begins therapy by reconstructing the client’s experiences in terms of a systems model of thought reform. Typically, clients’ awareness of what happened to them is restricted because they lack a conceptual framework that can adequately attach meaning to their experiences. In this regard, Wellspring’s treatment, at least in the beginning phases, is similar to certain methods of treating victims of trauma or sexual abuse. In treating trauma and abuse, the nature of the experience must be explained in order to prevent victims from blaming themselves. Similarly, former cultists are able to free themselves of the cult-imposed tendency to blame their own inadequacy for personal problems and to recognize the role of forces within the cult environment. As Langone (1992) argues, behind such treatment lies an unavoidable ethical dimension. In order to regain their former level of psychological well-being, which includes their sense of right and wrong, former cultists must come to understand not only what was done to them and how it was done but also why it was wrong. To ignore this ethical dimension is to ignore one of the central elements of self (Ofshe & Singer, 1986) that cults assault and that is dissociated from consciousness.” [From Martin, P. R., Langone, M. D., Dole, A. A., & Wiltrout, J. (1992). “Post-cult symptoms as measured by the MCMI before and after residential treatment,” Cultic Studies Journal, 9(2), p. 243.]

“Family intervention specialists knowledgeable about cults and mind control have inherited the label ‘exit counselors’ from the network of individuals and organizations providing information on cults. The term exit counselor originally came into favor in order to distinguish voluntary interventions with cult members from ‘deprogramming,’ which was associated with physical restraint ... Exit counseling, however, does not adequately describe most voluntary interventions today. Counseling often connotes a systematic attempt to help clients change their behavior. Most exit counselors, on the other hand, focus on sharing information rather than changing behavior, although clients may change their behavior as a result of the information they receive.... Exit counseling is a family-intervention process in which the family of a cult member, along with the cult member, participate in educational sessions. The family has as much responsibility to be educated about the issues of thought reform and cult involvement as does the exit counseling team.” [From Giambalvo, C. (1992). Exit counseling: A family intervention (p. ix). Bonita Springs, FL: American Family Foundation.]

“In many instances the legal system comes up short of being just. It is hobbled by the economic cost of enforcing legal rights. It is limited by the effort required to cut through the use of myth and the perversion of language common to totalistic groups.... [Nevertheless] The legal system provides some aid to those in the process of recovery and disengagement from totalistic groups. It does not provide emotional satisfaction in redressing a wrong, nor does it adequately compensate for harm done. However, over a period of time it has enabled people who left totalistic groups to at least partly pull themselves out of the morass that they have entered into, to readjust their family relationships, to complete their severance, and to impose upon the totalistic groups a degree of accountability previously unknown. In this, the system has performed a useful function, provided its limitations are acknowledged and understood. As we move forward, I hope that the law will continue to address the wrongs that have occurred and that it will be an instrument of private redress and a vehicle for the reformation of behavior through accountability.” [From Rosedale, H. L. (1993). “Legal considerations: Regaining independence and initiative.” In M. D. Langone (Ed.), Recovery from cults: Help for victims of psychological and spiritual abuse (pp. 392–393). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.]

“In contrast to the first-generation cult member, the child who is born or raised in a cult has neither the previous personality nor a cohesively formed personality on which the new cultic personality is imposed. Aside from inherent temperament, basic character becomes affected and shaped by the child’s reaction to the cult experience. The cult personality is not superimposed, but becomes an aspect of the original personality.” [From Goldberg, L. (2006). “Raised in cultic groups: The impact on the development of certain aspects of character,” Cultic Studies Review, 5(1), p. 5]

“In the cult, the charismatic leader is seen as extraordinary, all-powerful, and as an ideal being. The role of the parent often is usurped by the cult leader. ... the child may adopt a submissive, masochistic attitude as a response to the leader’s authority and, therefore, develop an internal experience of being insignificant or bad. This process might lead to the internalization of a harsh, critical conscience and a tendency toward self-blame....” [From Goldberg, L. (2006). “Raised in cultic groups: The impact on the development of certain aspects of character,” Cultic Studies Review, 5(1), p. 5–6]

“When those who have been raised in cults leave that world in young adulthood, they have to enter an entirely new sociocultural environment—a wider world with new expectations and rules. These former cult members … usually have tremendous difficulty with that adjustment. I have worked with several individuals who told me that entrance into the world outside the cult is complicated by the fact that their cultic upbringing has left them deprived of many coping skills to adapt to that task. They have difficulty adjusting to the problems that the external world presents and difficulty dealing with a variety of situations that others would find to be commonplace.” [From Goldberg, L. (2006). “Raised in cultic groups: The impact on the development of certain aspects of character,” Cultic Studies Review, 5(1), p. 6.]