Overview: Support Groups

ICSA Today, Volume 9, Number 2, 2018, pages 6-7

The following overview was originally published in Cult Recovery: A Clinician’s Guide to Working With Former Members and Families (2017, pp. 261–262), edited by Lorna Golderg, William Goldberg, Rosanne Henry, and Michael Langone (published by the International Cultic Studies Association).

Overview: Support Groups

By William Goldberg

Group dynamics are powerful, and history has shown that they can be used to harm or to heal. Human beings are social animals and, historically, have consistently formed themselves into groups. Group behavior tends to be contagious (LeBon, as discussed in Freud, 1921/1986, pp. 72–81). Experimental psychologists and sociologists have time and again proven that the whole of the group is greater than the sum of the individual group members, and that people in a group tend to act differently than they would act as isolated individuals (Asch, 1952; Festinger, 1956). Cult leaders are aware of this fact, and they use both the power of the group and the idealization of the cult leader (Freud, 1921) to infantilize and disempower their victims. They establish the norm that only sycophantic, child-like behavior is tolerated within the cult, and the cult group is used to monitor and regulate that behavior. All cults use group dynamics to control their members.

Of course, group dynamics that were used to induce cult members to relinquish their autonomy can also be used to help former cult members to regain their autonomy. Groups are a particularly valuable method of helping former members because groups give them the opportunity to relate to others who have been through similar experiences, and to dispel the sense that only the members of their cult were experiencing the mystical singularity that they felt while they were in the cult. Everything that happened to the former members happened to other people in other cults, but they had different words for it.

Two of the major tasks that former cult members must accomplish are regaining a sense of mastery over their environment and a sense of trust in their own instincts. A nurturing group can help them to feel more comfortable in assuming a mature, independent, and self-directing stance, and it can help them to trust others again. In a nurturing group, the group facilitators encourage the members to grow by, in turn, helping and being helped by one another.

In this section, we examine the use of groups in the healing process for former cult members, and we present two recovery models: a secular support group, described by Lorna Goldberg and myself, and a faith-based support group, described by Patrick Knapp.

The group that Lorna and I lead uses an open-ended discussion model. Although we do not discourage discussions of spirituality and faith, ours is a secular group, and we do not emphasize any creed. There is no set agenda. The role of the group leaders is to encourage the group to go in its own direction; this direction changes from month to month depending upon the makeup of the group, how many people are attending, and which topics are uppermost in the members’ minds that particular month. Our group is, in most instances, limited to former cult members; although on occasion, with the group members’ permission, we have opened the group to significant others.

The independent, faith-based support and recovery groups that Patrick and Heidi Knapp cofacilitate, in contrast, place more emphasis on covering a set agenda. The group leaders present a curriculum with built-in flexibility and, if the members of the group request it and can benefit from it, they will focus on biblical passages and how scripture was distorted by the members’ cults. The support-group members contract for a 12-week period. The facilitators suggest reading material and homework. The Knapps’ groups serve two cohorts of clientele: (a) former members and (b) friends and family members of current or former members.

Characteristics that are common to both approaches are a respect for the dignity of each group member, recognition that there is no single path to recovery, and an appreciation of the fact that the other group members who are struggling with similar issues or who have struggled in the past with these issues can offer invaluable comfort and hope to the other members of the group.


Asch, Solomon E. (1952). Social psychology (pp. 450–501). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Festinger, Leon, Riecken, H. W., & Schacter, S. (1956) When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Freud, S. (1986). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 18, pp. 67–134). London, UK; New York, NY: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1921.)

About the Author

William Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA, is a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst with more than forty years’ experience working with former cult members. He and his wife, Lorna, colead a support group for former cult members. This group has been meeting for more than thirty-five years and is the oldest group of its kind in the world. In 2007, Bill retired from the Rockland County, New York Department of Mental Health, where he directed several programs and clinics. He is presently an adjunct professor in the social work and social science departments of Dominican College, and he is on the faculty of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies. Bill is a frequent speaker at ICSA conferences, and he and Lorna have been the recipients of the Authentic CAN Hall of Fame Award and the Leo J. Ryan Award. In 2010, Bill was the recipient of ICSA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.