What’s so bad about growing up in a cult?

A few years ago someone commented on one of my social media posts, asking me to explain why I felt that growing up in a cult was such a bad thing. It was such a diminishing question that I felt my brain completely freeze up. The question mirrored much of the gaslighting that the Unification Church and other high demand groups & cults inflict upon their membership, telling them that things aren’t that bad, or that they should be grateful for their suffering.

Other cults employ similar gaslighting techniques, such as the below shared by the Instagram account “ Let’s Talk Cults.”

Essentially many of these phrases mean the same thing as “what was so bad about growing up in a cult.” And trauma survivors across the spectrum have probably heard variations on the phrase. So when confronted by a stranger on the internet with that question, the only response I could give in my triggered state was, “I suggest you educate yourself on cultic abuses before asking a question like that.”

Now that several years have passed, I wanted to take the time to answer the question more fully. And to be clear, I don’t think that it should be the survivor’s job to take on the emotional labor of educating the public about childhood trauma in cults. But this is an area that I’ve been diving into a lot lately, and so I wanted to write a post that other survivors could direct the curious public to, in case faced with a similarly impertinent question.

Let’s start by saying that to ask any survivor of a cult (whether first generation, second generation or multigenerational) what was so bad about their experience is akin to asking a domestic abuse survivor what was so bad about their relationship. As I’ve covered before, coercive control manifests similarly in cultic environments, trafficking environments, and in intimate partner violence. So if the thought of asking a battered woman what was so bad about her relationship makes you recoil, just know that the question resonates similarly to survivors of other coercive environments.

Terror tactics used in cultic systems

According to Alexandra Stein, author of “Terror Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems,” the grooming process to lure someone into a cultic group is also very similar to the grooming process seen with domestic violence. The victim may be subjected to “love bombing,” a process of inundating a person with adoration and attention, which can trick them into thinking they have found a safe space. But then the switch occurs, where the abuser begins to isolate the victim from their friends and family, and a person is then engulfed in a new, abusive system. Now, when someone is born into this abusive system, they are born within that isolation.

According to Stein that isolation within the abusive system paves the way for “terror” tactics to be utilized. This can range from the abuser threatening the victim, teaching them to fear the outside world, instilling the fear of an apocalyptic event, or causing the victim to walk on eggshells in fear of being criticized by the leader or the group.

Stein says, “I believe attachment theory provides a good theoretical approach for understanding brainwashing, and it holds that people run to a safe haven when they are afraid. If the group has been successful, the recruit, now having had fear instilled by the group, runs to the only safe haven available-the group itself.”

With children in the cultic system, I believe that there is another layer to this. Oftentimes parents are in the position of abuser, or allow for others within the cult abuse the children. In my case other adults and second generation members acted as abusers when my parents weren’t present. When children have been programmed with “terror” tactics from a young age, it means that they are that much more likely to run to the “safe haven” of the abusive parents/members and the cultic system.

The effects of terror

According to Stein, there are two major effects of running to the group for safety. The first is that it creates a trauma bond with the abusive parents and/or group. Stein classifies this as a disorganized attachment bond, and emphasizes that it is a difficult bond to break when a person is isolated from alternative havens of safety. This underscores many of the points I made in a previous post, “ Why didn’t you just leave?”

Another important point that Stein makes is that isolation doesn’t necessarily have to be physical. Even a cult that doesn’t keep its members on a secluded compound can still be considered isolationist, because they are secluding their members on an emotional and cognitive level. This is usually achieved by controlling personal relationships between cult members as well as limiting access to family members outside of the group, and by controlling access to information about the group. For example, growing up I was taught that my family members who were not in the Unification Church were evil, and that if I read material that criticized the Church I would be possessed by evil spirits.

Stein states that the second effect of running to the source of fear for safety is dissociation, because this technique doesn’t provide an actual escape from the threat. It instead causes a person to go into a kind of “freeze” mode. According to Stein:

“This explains why perfectly intelligent people can find themselves unable to rationally view a cult they are involved with. It is literally too frightening and disorganizing to do so. The lack of alternate information and true havens undermine a follower’s cognitive processes on matters regarding the group. The cult can now do the thinking for them-the essence of brainwashing.”

Now, again, most of Stein’s work focuses on the cult recruit. And, unfortunately, there is a dearth of information on the developmental consequences of being born or raised in this kind of terrorizing system.

As I discuss in my post Healing Through Art — Part Two: The Research, Leona Furnari, LSW, wrote a paper which outlines a number of issues that children raised in cults can suffer from. They include, but are not limited to:

These, however are development considerations. They do not cover the ongoing issues that cult life can have on second and multi generational adults.

However Cyndi H. Matthews published a study, Second-Generation Religious Cult Survivors: Implications for Counselors, in the International Journal of Cultic Studies. In it she found that while first- and second-generation cult survivors both experienced psychological challenges in leaving a cult and reintegrating into society, second generation adult cult survivors face additional challenges. Similar to Furnari’s paper, some of these challenges include the effects of a lifetime of abuse and neglect, attachment disorders, a lack of education, but Matthews also goes further to explore family-relationship challenges, and a lack of external-world support.

The following is excerpted from her study, the full text of which can be found in the link above.

Challenges childhood cult survivors face

In her study Matthews identifies 12 themes in participants’ experiences of growing up in a cult, deciding to leave, leaving, and living outside the cult:

1: Patriarchy and Gender Roles — many participants describe the subjugation of women and domination by men in their religious cults. In the Unification Church, we referred to man as “subject” and woman as “object.” This was illustrated in the theological text, The Divine Principle, as the “Four Position Foundation”

An example of a graph showing man in the “subject” position and women in the “object” position in Divine Principle teachings.

According to Matthews’ study, after leaving, however, almost all participants experienced marriage or relationship difficulties in terms of superior/subordinate relationships. They found they needed to redefine their roles in marriage, and most considered the possibility of ending marriages that were created in the cult. She further states that these and other subjugation and manipulation techniques may contribute to former members’ feelings of low self-esteem, powerlessness, and worthlessness.

“The Penitent Ones” by Jen Kiaba

2: Obedience to Authority — Throughout their time in the cult, participants were forced to unquestioningly submit to authority. Those who did question authority were subjected to humiliation, shaming, and possible abuse, such as being yelled at, shamed in public or private, called out from the pulpit, and even spanked in public. When leaving a cultic group, that training can stick with a second generation adult, making it difficult for them to stand up to authority figures or question them.

3: Decision Making — Similar to the demand of obedience to authority, all participants in the study discuss how decisions were made by the cult leaders, or in some cases, fathers in the community. Many participants mention that physical, emotional, or psychological abuse would follow if decisions made by the leader were not followed. Upon leaving their respective groups, survivors discuss having difficulties with with black and white or polarized thinking, magical thinking, and trying to find the one right answer to a problem or question. This can make it difficult to function independently and make decisions on their own once leaving the cult.

4: Group and Relationship Support — When a first generation member leaves a cult, they have the option to reunite with old friends and family. There is a “pre-cult identity” to return to. But according to Matthews, second generation survivors do not have those options. They are dealing with complete loss of friends, family and identity. They also often struggle with building new relationships and friendships in an outside world where they feel “judged” and “weird.” Because most cult survivors have not experienced healthy relationships, they also tend either not to trust at all or to trust too much in relationships, which can lead to additional negative experiences.

5: Relationship With Parents — In most cases, parents have full authority over their children in a cultic environment. Participants in the study discuss that fathers used anger and punishment to control, and mothers used guilt and shame to control their children. Overall, parents put children’s needs second to the cult.
Upon leaving, for parents who continued to communicate with their parents, conversations were generally guarded because the cult continued to come up in conversation and the participants would be invited back to church.

In many of the stories that I have heard coming out of the Unification Church, children’s needs were often categorized as “selfish” or “satanic,” leading to parents neglecting their children and teaching them that it wasn’t safe to express their needs. When I left, my mother often asked me to come to “forgiveness ceremonies” where for a large sum of money I could be reinstated back into good standing in the Church. She would also tell me that all of my struggles in assimilating to the outside world were because I had left, and that I “needed God in my life.”

6: Religiosity and Spirituality — study participants note that to be “spiritual” meant to be “religious” and obey all cult rules and regulations. The cult, after all, was posited as the only path into heaven or to achieve enlightenment. Yet oftentimes participants observe that the behavior of the leader was not in tandem with the doctrine, or the doctrine itself didn’t make sense to them.

Matthews notes that, today, most participants consider religiosity and spirituality as completely different entities, with spirituality meaning “connection with a higher power or nature”, and religiosity meaning “dedication to a specific religious denomination.” She said that most participants considered themselves to be spiritual but express a lack of trust toward any church organization.

7: Abuse — according to Matthews all discuss psychological/emotional, physical, spiritual, and sexual abuse they suffered in their respective cults. She states that all forms of abuse in a cult could be classified as spiritual abuse, because it was done in the name of a higher power or religious organization. Physical abuse took the form of hitting, spanking, isolation, and food and sleep deprivation. Emotional abuse was the most common form of abuse reported, such as calling people out, public or private rebuke, public humiliation, intimidation, and threats.

She also notes that some participants even talk about how they were manipulated into and participated in the abuse of disobedient or defiant members. They discuss the guilt and shame they experienced because of the abuse, and how they left because they could not tolerate inflicting abuse upon others. In the Unification Church we were expected to “report” on other’s behavior, and to either shame someone into better behavior or, essentially, shun them.

Upon leaving, almost all participants also experienced shunning and threats from their families and other cult members.

8: Outside Influences — Because these former cult members were separated from the outside world while in the cult, they saw outside influences such as work, school, and counseling as evil and to be avoided. When they left their respective groups, almost all participants report that they felt behind in education, finances, and employment. Because all their time had been spent working in the cult, they had not had the opportunity to advance their own skills and abilities. Many also report that they didn’t know how to spend their free time.

These final four themes are perhaps the most important in my view, and Matthews states that they were also interwoven into the prior eight themes.

“Let Me Look At You” by Jen Kiaba

9: Sense of Identity — While in the cult, members were taught how to be and act. Most participants report that they had two identities, one that was constructed in the cult and one secret self that was not known to the cult. Participants felt torn between their two identities. Once they left, many participants report feeling lost, confused, different, behind, and even somewhat childlike or naïve in relationship to others around them. Participants report that discovering their true personality was difficult but rewarding.

10: Emotional Consequences of Life in the Cult — While they were in the cult, participants report feeling judged by others, guilty about their decisions and thoughts, and angry as a result of manipulation, abuse, and control. Some individuals left because of their anger toward parents or leaders or both. They all experienced a wide variety of strong emotions, especially guilt and anger, while they were leaving. After leaving, participants report that they continue to deal with guilt, anger, shame, and depression.

To compound the difficulties, after leaving, second generation survivors have difficulties learning to trust and interact with “outside people,” after having been taught to distrust them their entire lives.

11: Fear and Courage — Cult leaders manipulated and controlled the group’s members by inducing fear in them through threats, shunning, humiliation, and abuse. These feelings of fear led to dread, hopelessness, and helplessness that continued to reappear for participants during and after leaving. In spite of their fear, all participants found the courage to leave.

12: Long Process of Change — For all participants, leaving took a lot of thought and reflection. All participants mention that they felt forever affected and damaged because of their cult experiences. [Previous studies] found that the effects of living in a cult last long beyond when one leaves. Participants in this study reiterate that change and healing were a lifetime process.

In their own words

With the above themes in mind, I wanted to hear from other second generation Unification Church survivors, and asked them to share their responses to the question: “What was so bad about growing up in a cult.” Here’s what some of them had to say:

  • Toxic altruism
  • You are not taught to think independently.
  • Secret identities and double lives.
  • You grow up never trusting yourself, then when you leave you don’t trust anyone else either.
  • Definitely a lot of shame a guilt
  • Feeling incapable of expressing oneself/connecting with others.
  • The biggest challenge has been trusting my ability to make sound decisions.
  • It taught me to hate myself because I couldn’t be the version of myself they wanted.
  • You turn into a program in that it robs you of your humanity (you turn into the walking dead).
  • It doesn’t allow people to be different, express themselves honestly and openly as unique individuals with unique experiences and ideas.
  • Cults instill the idea that if you don’t follow their teachings (that are the only and chosen way to live) there is consequences of pain, shame, eternal torture, they make people rely on the organization to feel a sense of value and purpose which is why it is hard to leave.
  • I lived in fear of myself, that my own needs would be against the church. I lived in heightened fear of negative emotions, experiences, ideas and people that didn’t understand the cults vision.
  • There was pressure to conform, follow and support and live to a standard. For those, and for myself, that were different in a variety of ways, it created a sense of self hate, self abandonment, disgust, confusion, frustration, anger, leading to self destructive behaviors, because I couldn’t bridge the gap between the expectations and who I was.

As we can see, many of the responses that I received fit into the themes covered in the study done by Matthews. But the ones that stuck out to me the most were the ones that talked about self-hatred. That’s something that resonated deeply with me, and along with the lack of self trust, is perhaps the thing that I find the most tragic. When you’re taught not to love or trust yourself, it allows space for any kind of abuser to step in and define your worth for you. I’m of the opinion that these things make the childhood cult survivor that much more susceptible to future abuses when they leave the group.

Hope for the future

Even with all of the difficulties stated above, there is hope for those of us who grew up in cults. According to Leona Furnari, MSW, LCSW and Rosanne Henry, MS, LPC, in their ISCA Today article Lessons Learned from [Second Generation Adults] about Recovery and Resiliency:

As yet, resiliency research specifically for [second generation cult survivors] has not been carried out. Resiliency research that has been done with children who face many risk factors similar to the factors children in cultic groups may face shows hopeful results. This resiliency research indicates that 70% to 75% of children who have experienced significant risk factors are able to survive and create positive lives for themselves. In addition, research in recent years on the plasticity of the human brain and its ability to generate new cells and neuro-networks with new learning and new experiences provides much hopefulness for the capacity to overcome developmental trauma.

Now, what does resiliency look like to you?

According to Funari and Henry, most of us who who were raised in high demand groups do not see ourselves as resilient. And yet the participants in their workshops had jobs; many were married; some were raising children; a few were in school. Still, because of how they were raised, many participants did not seem to recognize just how powerful they were. After all, that power was demonstrated in their ability to survive, walk away from everything they had ever known, and create a new life. Still, many participants understated both their survival and success.

Perhaps you too are prone to diminishing your success and resiliency.

In their workshop, Fenori and Henry asked participants to define their own resiliency on a continuum from vulnerability (less resiliency) to adaptability (more resiliency), with a discussion of what impacts the ones’ ability to be resilient. Participants came up with four categories of overlapping strengths that they used to define resiliency: 1) Social Competence, 2) Problem Solving, 3) Autonomy, and 4) Sense of Purpose.

Below is a table of the list of the strengths that participants used to define their resilience.:

Perhaps reviewing these qualities can help you see yourself in a new light: as stronger, more capable, and much more resilient than you ever thought. At least, I certainly hope it does.

Originally published at https://www.jenkiaba.com on April 22, 2021.

Artist, Educator, Childhood Cult Survivor