Memory Loss, Dissociation and Euphoric Recall in Cults

Several months ago I was listening to an episode of the Falling Out Podcast, in which the host, Elgen Strait, interviews people who grew up in and left the Unification Church. In this particular episode he was talking to Donna, who had gone to the same church boarding school I did, but had been kicked out the year before I arrived. At one point, Donna says that she had to do research on the school and look back at records and announcements to make sure that her bad memories weren’t some sort of fever dream.

Her words stopped me in my tracks.

Memory Loss and Dissociation

Sometimes I, too, struggle to recall things from my childhood in the cult. There are long blanks in my memory. When I do excavate memories, I have to sit with them for a long time and ask, “did I hallucinate that experience?”

These days, I’ve been talking to a lot of survivors, many of whom are actively sharing their stories online. But the theme of doubting our experiences is something that seems to come up again and again. I began to wonder why that is.

Could it be that many of us blocked out memories simply to survive?

When I refer back to Dr. Alexandra Stein’s writing about attachment models in cults, that seems to make sense. In a 2018 interview with the Daily Mail she said,

“The aim [of cults] is to isolate you and trap you in that isolation. They create chronic stress, which causes trauma. Trauma leads to dissociation, a state in which you cannot think about your own feelings. In that gap, the cult can insert its ideology and tell you what you are feeling.”

Dissociation is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as an experience of mental detachment, or disconnection between the mind and body, an unconscious coping mechanism that typically develops in response to trauma. When it’s at its most severe, the person dissociating could experience amnesia, loss of identity, and an inability to recognize themselves or their surroundings.

Sharon K. Farber Ph.D., writes in a Psychology Today article that:

Cults start seducing people with love-bombing, paying a great deal of attention to and being very affectionate with potential recruits, a very effective way of connecting with someone who is feeling lonely and isolated. Then they assault and overwhelm their senses by using various techniques to induce a dissociated state, an altered state of consciousness, a trance state, in which mind and body are disconnected from each other.

These techniques include sleep and food deprivation, drumming, chanting, lecturing on and on for hours, flashing lights, spinning around in circles, all of which assault the senses and break down a person’s ability to think. The cult uses mind control to fill the dissociated mind with their beliefs and magical thinking. A moment comes when the mind shuts down and seems to snap from this assault to the nervous system.

According to the University of Washington’s Harborview Abuse and Trauma Center, everyone occasionally has times of daydreaming or mind wandering, which is normal. But sometimes dissociation is used as a coping mechanism either during trauma, or later on when thinking about or being reminded of the trauma. They say it manifests as:

What’s interesting to me is that the Unification Church definitely practiced techniques to get people into that dissociative state, and yet we were actively discouraged from “spacing out.” Now, growing up I had no idea what dissociation was, but looking back I now think that many of us in the Church used it as a coping mechanism. Stein and Farber discuss induced dissociation as a cult technique to insert cult ideology, whereas the University of Washington discusses it as a coping mechanism.

So I have to wonder if the kind of dissociation that was encouraged in the Church was the kind that was induced during chanting/singing, lectures, group exercises, punishments, etc. where they could then posit more ideology, versus the kind that might have been used as that protective coping mechanism.

Then when you layer in how cults train members in thought-stopping techniques to keep doubts from entering their consciousness (in the Unification Church we sometimes chanted phrases like “out Satan,” or “absolute love, absolute faith, absolute obedience”), it’s no wonder that so many of our memories are buried, or feel surreal when we recall them.

Abuse Amnesia

On the other side of the coin are people who feel as though the only memories that they have access to are positive ones. I’ve heard accounts of this both from people who are still in the Unification Church, as well as those who have left. It’s the latter group that really interest me, because many of them recognize that there are abusive practices in the Church, while still struggling to grapple with their own memories.

Ren, an activist in the ex-Unification Church second generation community, told me that, up until recently, she had thought that being a part of the Oceania Leadership Team had been an amazing opportunity to travel the world. (OLT is an outgrowth of the Special Task Force labor trafficking program in the Unification Church, which you can read a little bit more about on my old blog Summer of Cheesecake.) This, despite the fact that she had been living in a van, fundraising upwards of 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and sometimes had to beg for money for meals. She said, “Up until a few years ago I thought I was so blessed to have all of those experiences. Like, don’t complain, you travelled the world.”

Another ex-second generation told me, “[I have memory loss] from workshops I attended. Sometimes it’s hard to fully realize that the UC is abusive because we have a non-violent image.”

Someone else wrote to say, “I couldn’t understand that neglect is abuse; I thought I’d had a lovely childhood.”

Becca, who is also an activist in the ex-Unification Church second generation community said, “I repressed a lot of bad stuff. Even while I was doing therapy, I had a hard time describing what the problem was. Even now I’m remembering bad encounters and terrible things while or after I listen to an episode of an ex-Moonie podcast or read a post on Instagram. I wonder if I buried those memories deep in my unconscious because I knew they still hurt me.”

I especially relate to the last person’s experience. Just as I experienced while listening to Donna’s episode on Falling Out, the more I hear or read other ex-second generation’s stories, the more either my own memories resurface, or I am reminded that my memories were not just hallucinations. Growing up we were taught to doubt ourselves, our realities and our perspectives so that the Church could posit its own. But the more we hear each other’s stories, the more it seems that we verify and validate each other’s experiences.

Sharie Stines, PsyD, posited in a post on Goodtherapy.com that victims of ongoing abuse can suffer from abuse amnesia. She says, “It occurs when a person has been abused-physically, verbally, sexually, or emotionally-and in a matter of minutes, hours, or days, it’s as if the occurrence of abuse never happened. The victim and the perpetrator carry on as if the incident never happened.”

She describes the changes in brain chemistry during the abuse cycle, saying that during the abuse, stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released. During the abandonment phase, the brain releases dopamine which motivates the person to search for relief in the object of desire-the abuser. This syncs perfectly with Dr. Alexandra Stein’s writings on attachment theory in cults, and how running to the abuser or the cult creates a trauma bond. (I explore some of her writing more in depth in the posts, “ Why Didn’t You Just Leave?” and “ What’s So Bad About Growing Up in a Cult? “) Then, according to Sharie Stines, homeostasis sets in and the abusive relationship has become a system, with abuse amnesia as an essential component of this balance.

She goes on to say that,

“Once the abusive partner comes back and stops actively abusing, the brain releases oxytocin and opioids, which have a calming effect. The stress hormones are diminished and the feelings of relief caused by the positive chemicals reinforce the victim’s ability to forget the bad and hold on to the good.

The pattern continues-minimize the bad, focus on the good. Forget the pain. Remember the positive.”

Euphoric Recall

Then, the other day, I was being interviewed by someone who asked me to talk about good memories in my family of origin and in the cult. It was an honest and seemingly harmless question on the surface. And I certainly have some safe memories that I was happy to share. But the question also alarmed me for several reasons.

The first is that, as I’ve shared before, experiencing cultic abuse is similar to experiencing domestic abuse/intimate partner violence. Dr. Janja Lalich said, in an interview on Change The Narrative with JD Fuller,that “I believe abusive relationships have so many of the same characteristics [as cults] and people coming out of them have very similar issues to to deal with in recovery.” This, she said, is because abusers in relationships and cult leaders use a narcissistic strategy, and interlocking mechanisms of influence and control to continue manipulating the victim or keep one in the group. (I explore more of her model of these interlocking mechanisms in the post “ The Illusion of Choice.”)

So, with that in mind, it makes me concerned that asking a cult survivor to share happy memories of their time in a cult, or within a cultic family, can be like asking a domestic violence survivor to share happy memories of times with their abuser.

It’s not that these happy times don’t exist. In fact, they are part of the cycle of abuse that keeps the victim stuck. According to Dr. Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, “it’s very common for people in relationships with narcissists to get really lost in the love-bombing memories.” She goes on to say that in those relationships, it’s very common for love bombing to fuel something called euphoric recall. Durvasula says euphoric recall is “exactly what it sounds like; it’s remembering the good stuff, remembering the euphoric stuff.”

Like the psychological term “ rosy retrospection,” euphoric recall is the tendency of people to remember past experiences in a positive light, while overlooking negative experiences. It is generally discussed in dependency and substance abuse terms, and if you Google it, most of the results will be for addiction treatment programs.

According to Durvasula, as far as narcissistic relationships go, “euphoric recall is your enemy. It makes the rumination worse and make you doubt yourself; and at this point now you’re gaslighting yourself.” The process keeps the victim trapped in a dangerous environment because they tend to doubt their own reality or downplay the abuse.

So is asking a cult survivor about their happy memories essentially asking them to engage in potential euphoric recall? I think so, and worry that it can potentially trigger them back into the state of doubting their own intuition around an abusive experience. Whether we realize it or not, when we ask the victim to share their happy memories we are potentially asking them to share stories of the cycle of their abuse and gaslighting.

Does this mean that there were no good experiences growing up in a cult? No. But I think that we need to be careful asking survivors to engage in rosy retrospection, or euphoric recall, because it can be potentially detrimental in the healing process, or trigger them back into the state of doubting their own intuition around an abusive experience.

Originally published at https://www.jenkiaba.com on May 11, 2021.

Artist, Educator, Childhood Cult Survivor

Artist, Educator, Childhood Cult Survivor