Second-Generation Religious Cult Survivors Implications for Counselors

International Journal of Cultic Studies, Volume 8, 2017, pages 37-49

Second-Generation Religious Cult Survivors: Implications for Counselors

Cyndi H. Matthews

University of North Texas at Dallas, TX


First- and second-generation cult survivors experience psychological challenges in the process of leaving a cult and reintegrating into society. Second-generation cult survivors face additional challenges, such as the effects of a lifetime of abuse and neglect, attachment disorder, lack of education, continuing family-relationship challenges, and lack of external-world support. Scant attention has been paid in the literature to experiences of second-generation cult survivors. In this study, the experiences of 15 second-generation adult (SGA) former cult members were explored utilizing grounded theory. Results of this study hold promise for those counseling with SGAs in understanding their experiences and needs.

Key words: second generation cult survivors, cult recovery, counseling cult survivors

Mindy and Joan (pseudonyms) came to counseling with presenting problems of stress, anxiety, and depression due to school and family issues. It became apparent only after several sessions that their respective issues were more complex than the presenting problems, and successful therapeutic resolution would require beyond the typical eight-session treatment plan covered by insurance and involving teaching basic communication skills and relaxation techniques. After initially consulting with both clients, I discovered that these clients were second-generation adult (SGA) cult survivors. They were born and raised in and subsequently left religious cults several years previously. Both Mindy and Joan were experiencing aftereffects of years of manipulation, thought reform, abuse, attachment disorders, and isolation from the external world. These two clients experienced many fears and anxieties, including “What if my group was right?” What if I really am going to hell?,” along with feelings of inadequacy regarding work and financial issues, and being alone and scared moving into the outside world where everything was strange and unfamiliar.

A religious cult is defined as a life encompassing religious organization that seeks to control members’ choices, decisions, and lives (Singer, 2003; Zablocki, 1997). Researchers and counselors have found that cults have a high potential for manipulation, abuse, control, and exploitation of their members (Lalich & Tobias, 2006; Langone, 1993; Singer, 2003). Although religious cults differ in doctrine, many use the same techniques, thought-reform practices, and manipulation tactics, thus producing similar consequences (Lalich & Tobias, 2006). Tactics include controlling information and communication, espousing confession and purity of their members, controlling physical and social environments, creating a sense of powerlessness in members whereby they look to the group for support, manipulating rewards and punishments to promote group beliefs, and enforcing a closed system of logic from an authoritarian structure (Lifton, 1961; Singer, 2003).

The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) has estimated that more than 2,500,000 individuals in the United States and Canada have joined cultic groups over the past 30 to 40 years (McCabe, Goldberg, Langone, & DeVoe, 2007), and that there are more than 5,000 cultic groups operating in the United States of America and Canada that range from five members to millions in each group (Singer, 2003). McCabe et al. (2007) estimated that five percent of those who pass through cults stay long enough to have and raise children.

First-generation cult survivors, or individuals who join cults later in their lives, experience a variety of psychological and emotional challenges once they leave their groups and integrate into society. Challenges for first-generation survivors include feelings of betrayal, emptiness, depression, and anxiety; loss of trust; suicidal and destructive tendencies; and feelings of loss and grief (Almendros, Carrobles, & Rodríguez-Carballeira, 2007; Coates, 2010; Dahlen, 1997; Lalich & Tobias, 2006; Langone, 1994, 1996; Martin, 1993a, 1993b; Moyers, 1994; Singer, 2003).

Research has been sparse concerning those who were born and raised in cults, or SGAs. Researchers who focused on SGAs have discovered they were more likely to experience physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; neglect; attachment disorders; lack of education and marketable job skills; and lack of decision-making and socialization skills. SGAs were also more likely to suffer from anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, low self-esteem, and suicidal ideation (Furnari, 2005).

Researchers have found that more than one third of counselors will work with cult survivors some time during their therapeutic work, but they are ill-prepared to do so (Lottick, 2005). Most of the current literature addresses reasons first-generation cult survivors join and leave cultic groups and how to counsel these survivors (Furnari, 2005; Goldberg, 2006; Langone, 1996; McCabe et al., 2007). The purpose of this study was to address the void in the literature concerning individuals born and raised in religious cults, their experiences being raised in and leaving their respective groups, and the experiences they faced integrating into the outside world. The purpose for collecting SGAs’ experiences was to increase the understanding and competence of professional therapists and counselors when counseling with these individuals. This paper represents a synthesis of the published dissertation study I conducted (Matthews, 2012).


I undertook a qualitative, constructivist, grounded-theory approach, with the goal of identifying lived experiences (Creswell, 2007) and underlying meanings (Mertens, 2005) of individuals born in, raised, and leaving religious cult. Currently, no theory exists to explain the experiences of SGA cult members; thus, grounded theory provided a method for discovering and conceptualizing frameworks, themes, categories, and theory emerging from the data (Charmaz, 1983; Glaser, 1965). A constructivist researcher seeks to establish meaning from participants, realizing the impossibility of researcher neutrality, and constructs data based on the interacting realities of both participant and researcher (Charmaz, 2003). A constructivist, grounded-theory researcher seeks to determine how study participants construct and see themselves within their world (Black, 2009; Chamarz, 2008).

Researcher positionality can influence the data gathered and analyzed. I took both an emic, or first-hand, lived-experience view, and an etic, or outsider view of the research environment (Eppley, 2006). I spent 43 years living inside a cultic group, being privy to the manipulation and thought-control techniques utilized by a cultic group. As an outsider who left more than ten years ago, I am no longer aware of or part of cultic life. Eppley (2006) described other individuals who have taken both an emic and etic view of being both in and outside of the Amish community and regarded the success of these researchers based on their fluidity in positionality, in that they were able to flow back and forth from being both understanding insiders and disengaged outsiders.


I utilized purposeful and snowball sampling (Mertens, 2005) in bringing together SGA former cult members as participants in this study. Participants were 18 years of age or older and met the definition of a cult as defined by Singer (2003). I gathered 15 former cult members from referrals from therapists, ICSA, and cult-support groups. All participants, when notified of the study by the referrals, contacted me to let me know of their interest in the study. Thirteen participants representing eight different cults came from Bible-based cults, with two coming from Eastern-origin religious cults. All participants described themselves as Caucasian, and they lived in the United States of America or Canada; there were 14 females and one male

(n = 15), and they ranged in age from 18 to 56 years. All had been out of their cults from 2 years to 16 years. Four participants reported growing up in a closed community or compound, and 11 reported growing up in an open community.


Individuals who were interested in participating completed a consent-to-participate form and a screening questionnaire to determine their viability for this study. The definition of cult in the screening questionnaire was based on Singer’s definition (Singer, 2003) and specified a religious cult. To be classified as a cult, (a) the organization must be life-encompassing; (b) there is a God-appointed leader the group proclaims to have supernal powers; (c) members must devote time, energy, and devotion to their leader and group; (d) members are expected to lose contact with or be separate from the outside world; (e) cult members are taught they are part of a special or elite group; (f) members experience emotional, physical, or social harm or a combination of these in the group; and (g) each member is expected to spend time daily with other group members. The screening questionnaire also included demographic data such as age, gender, ethnicity, name of the group, how long the members had been out, and whether or not they made the decision to leave themselves. Fifteen individuals met the criteria and participated in the study.

Once they completed the screening questionnaire, participants participated in 2- hour interviews with me to address their experiences of being in, leaving, and being outside of their respective cults (See Appendix for interview questions). I conducted follow-up interviews with all participants, which lasted up to 1 hour each. Once the first round of data analysis was complete, I contacted and interviewed all participants again regarding their perceptions and reactions to emergent themes. All participant interviews were tape recorded and conducted either in person or via Internet video depending on availability of the participant. I also maintained field notes in a journal, making note of any strong emotions or reactions by either participants or myself (Spradley, 1980).

Data Analysis

As noted, I utilized the grounded-theory concept of constant comparative analysis in gathering, evaluating, and analyzing data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Charmaz (2003, 2008) encouraged researchers participating in constructivist grounded theory to evaluate the data in terms of credibility, originality, resonance, and usefulness. I addressed credibility, or the ability to support claimed findings (Mertens, 2010) through peer and expert review, persistent and prolonged engagement with the participants, member-checking, triangulation of the data, integration of discrepant or negative data, and an audit trail (Charmaz, 2008; Guba & Lincoln, 1989). Peer and expert reviewers, who were aware of my positionality, were engaged in the process of reviewing data, ensuring that actual meaning instead of my meaning was incorporated throughout. I used member-checking to confirm the accuracy of the analysis (Mertens, 2005). I solicited participant’s feedback regarding the themes and theory, and then integrated the feedback into the final presentation of data. I incorporated triangulation, or comparison of data with literature and expert opinion. I recognized discrepant data throughout the process, and an audit trail, including all recordings, transcripts, and coded data, was securely stored. I achieved originality in grounded theory (Charmaz, 2008) by expanding and deepening the theory about SGA cult survivors. Initial contact, screening questionnaires, initial interviews, follow-up interviews, and member-checking achieved prolonged engagement (Charmaz, 2008). The study reflects usefulness (Charmaz, 2008) in expanding the field of knowledge that counselors can use in counseling with SGA cult survivors.

Results and Discussion

The data analysis described above yielded 12 themes in all, with the first eight themes being based on material the participants discussed, and the final four being overarching themes that were implicitly interwoven throughout participants’ responses. I discuss each theme in the following sections, including how the theme played into participants’ experiences of being in the cult, deciding to leave, leaving, and living outside the cult.

Theme 1: Patriarchy and Gender Roles

Not all cults utilize patriarchy and rigid gender roles as a means of control and structure. Some researchers have noted that religious cults tend to follow a patriarchal structure in both church and home (Boeri, 2002; Jacobs, 1991; Lalich & Tobias, 2006). Similar to those observations, all participants in this study experienced patriarchal cults that utilized rigid gender roles as a method of control in both family and church. Participants described the subjugation of women and domination by men in their religious cults. Several participants chose to leave their groups because they were not happy with the rigid gender roles or patriarchy.

One participant described being pulled over by male members of her community for being too loud, unladylike, or strongly opinionated. The one male participant discussed how he was taught to humiliate other members if they were not obeying church leaders, or to call out wives if they were not submitting themselves to their husbands. One participant stated, “I got married, we had kids, and we had four kids. I was the perfect wife, mother, homemaker … You’re going to become dependent. And not question it … And I wasn’t happy.” Another stated, “What made me leave was that he told me I wasn’t allowed to have any kind of career or work. My job was to have his babies.” Several participants discussed how they chose to leave because they were not happy in the gender-restricted role, and how they were not happy in what the cult allowed for women.

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.

Counselors can work with clients by assessing patriarchy and gender roles their clients experienced in the cult and help educate their clients regarding manipulation and control techniques of the cult. The counseling relationship itself can serve as an example of egalitarian roles, and as a way of assessing power dynamics in relationships. Subjugation and manipulation techniques utilized in the cult may have contributed to former members’ feelings of low self-esteem, powerlessness, and worthlessness (Dahlen, 1997).

Theme 2: Obedience to Authority

Throughout their time in the cult, participants were forced to unquestioningly submit to authority. Cultic groups foster “dependency by focusing on submission and obedience to those in authority” (McCabe et al., 2007, p. 1). One participant explained how she was taught from birth that the leader was the only one who spoke for God and had final say over activities, doctrines, and daily living. Another related, “The will of God was dictated to you by the leader… He alone had the authority to forgive people of their sins.” 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. One former member described how a cult leader came up and started yelling at her in front of a crowd of people, saying, “‘You’re a horrible little girl.’ I had no idea what he was talking about. That was normal.” Another participant related,

I didn’t know what I was submitting and obeying to because I never saw behind the scenes. It’s kind of like Wizard of Oz. That’s what I tell people. My experience was like Wizard of Oz. Not until you get behind the curtain do you really know what’s happening. And the minute that I saw what was really happening [chuckles], “No, this is not what I signed up for.”

Some participants left because they did not agree with the authority figures or the means they used to control. Participants related that today they have difficulty trusting authority figures. For most, if someone in authority tells them to do something, their initial reaction is to rebel.

Counselors can help clients do an analysis of power in relationships, such as client/counselor relationships, marriage relationships, and boss/employee relationships. Counselors can help clients strengthen their personal thoughts and beliefs by teaching assertiveness skills and the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness, increasing their client’s power and ability to say “no,” and strengthening their clients’ ability to rationally weigh an authority figure’s words to them (Singh & Salazar, 2010).

Theme 3: Decision Making

Related to obedience to authority, all participants discussed how all decisions were made by the cult leaders, or in some cases, fathers in the community. Cult members and family members were not allowed to question the authority or decisions of leaders. One participant stated, “All decisions were made by the leader—guilt, shame, and shunning occurred if you hadn’t accepted him as your leader or accepted his decisions.” Another stated, “The leader taught that he alone understood the mind of God; his church members needed only to get the mind of God by listening to and obeying the leader.” Another shared, “I just did what I was told. I followed directions and I was submissive.” Many participants mentioned that physical, emotional, or psychological abuse would follow if decisions made by the leader were not followed.

Some participants left because they were tired of obeying and blindly following leader decisions. Once they left, participants experienced difficulty with black and white or polarized thinking, magical thinking, and trying to find the one right answer to a problem or question. One individual mentioned, “I had to rethink every single decision to see if it fit or whether it was ‘cult think.’” Similarly, Boeri (2002) noted that individuals born and raised in a cult had very little experience with decision making and were entirely dependent on the leaders in the cult. Combined with very little employment training or education, many former members can find it extremely difficult to function independently and make decisions on their own once leaving the cult.

Counselors can teach SGA clients about mind control and how it impacted their thinking. Lifton’s criteria for mind control (1961) can be discussed in terms of how cult leaders manipulated and controlled members’ thoughts. Counselors can also teach goal-setting and decision-making skills by practicing with small goals and decisions. Because mistakes are often punished in cults, helping clients learn from mistakes would be useful in teaching self-acceptance. Discussing grey areas in decision making would also help clients move away from polarized or black and white thinking. Empowering clients to make decisions on their own could strengthen former members in their ability to move forward toward independence (Singh & Salazar, 2010; Toporek, Lewis, & Crether, 2009).

Theme 4: Group and Relationship Support

In a cult, all relationship support comes from the group because members are isolated from the outside world. Cult leaders utilize isolation as a means of control and to ensure members’ loyalty and fidelity (Lalich & Tobias, 2006; Singer, 2003). Likewise, for participants in this study, all relationship support came from within the cult because they had no outside ties or means of connecting with the outside world or persons. For those raised in a compound, homeschooling was the norm, and going outside the compound was allowed only under direct supervision. Those living in the outside world were taught to “Be in the world but not of the world.” Because of the isolation, most participants dated, courted, and married within the group, thus solidifying the isolation of the cult structure. Several participants stated, “Outside influences and associations were bad,” “The cult is where safety is and where God is,” and “Be with us [the cult] and be separate from the world.”

During the leaving process, almost all participants had been shunned or ostracized by other cult members. One participant stated, “Every person that I had ever known in my entire life were [sic] not allowed to speak to me at all, even a greeting. I had to start over socially.” Another conveyed, “Because I grew up in [the cult] I lost everything.” Today, many participants discuss how they are continuing to deal with the loss of family and friends, loss of their personal history, and feelings of being judged by others outside of the cult because of their cult background. They have found they neither belonged in or belong outside of the cult.

Moyers (1994) found that first-generation cult survivors had the option to reunite and reconnect with family and friends. SGA survivors do not have that option and are dealing with complete loss of friends and family, and are struggling 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 and tend either not to trust at all or to trust too much in relationships, counselors can help these clients explore relationships and healthy boundaries (Lalich & Tobias, 2006). Counselors can also encourage SGAs to find social and emotional support groups to help them process their cult experiences and form new, healthy relationships (Goldberg, 1993). Participants in the study who were actively involved in cult-support groups reported that the groups helped them not to feel alone, normalized their experiences, and helped them navigate the outside world.

Theme 5: Relationship With Parents

For participants in this study, because of the patriarchal structure of the family and cult, parents had full authority over their children in the cult. With rigid gender roles, fathers were authority figures and mothers were nurturers. Significantly, participants noted 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. One participant stated, “My mom put me as the second priority. They would say explicitly, ‘It’s awesome that you’re so submissive to us—making our path to God our first priority in life.’”

Leaving parents behind in the cult was emotionally straining for participants. One participant stated,

What made it difficult to leave was family pressure. Knowing all the stress and drama it was going to create on both sides. And both my parents and in-laws felt they had the authority to tell us what to do.

Two participants described leaving with their parents and immediate family members as less stressful than for those who left parents behind in the cult. “We all talked about leaving together. We made the decision to leave together.” Another stated, “My mother chose to leave with us partly because of the abuse being inflicted upon her children.” As Markowitz and Halperin (1984) described, parents in cults are often put in the role of middle management in that they are expected to carry out the instructions of cult leaders even if these instructions go against their parenting instincts. The loyalty of parents is often measured in the cult by how well they carry out the edicts of the leaders, especially in terms of discipline tactics with their children.

For participants who continued to communicate with their parents after leaving, conversations were generally guarded because the cult continued to come up in conversation and the participants would be invited back to church. One participant stated, “My dad said he was going to go to hell because of me leaving the [cult]. I know the bottom line—he wants me to come back.” Some chose to move away from their parents and lie about their activity in the cult, to smooth the transition. One stated, “We lived near my parents. They were involved in every aspect of our life. So finally, we just moved. I wasn’t strong enough to lock them out. I needed distance.” Most often, if the parents did know about the participants leaving, the father would cut off all ties with the child who left, regardless of age. The relationship with the mother was often confusing because conversations were secretive from the father. As a result, participants continued to feel anger toward their fathers and feel confused about their relationships with their mothers. As one participant stated, “I just had to lower my expectations with my relationship with my dad—it’s not going to be a Hallmark card … the church is the only thing that matters to him.” Even after participants left their respective cults, parents continued to put the cult first and their children second.

Counselors need to understand that clients are working through both past abuse and family-of-origin issues. Often the cult and the family are intertwined and are difficult to separate. Counselors can help clients cope with anger, pain, and the grief of leaving parents behind, and also negotiate new parental relationships. Boeri and Boeri (2009) noted that cult survivors leaving their parents in the cult may never come to terms with their parents’ cult involvement. Counselors can help clients work through residual anger, grief, and resentment of children toward parents who choose the cult over them.

Theme 6: Religiosity and Spirituality

While in the cult, participants considered both spirituality and religiosity as synonymous terms. To be spiritual meant to be religious and obey all cult rules and regulations. One participant stated, “It was more about how early did you get up? How much time did you spend in the word?” and another stated, “It was all about the rules instead of a relationship with Christ.” The cult was considered the only way to heaven, nirvana, or enlightenment, and the organization of the cult was considered perfect. One participant stated, “We were taught that no other church had the right message.” Some left their cult because they questioned the doctrine or the behavior of the leaders when the behavior was not in tandem with the doctrine. Some were able to find outside sources, books, Internet blogs, chats, and groups that provided support and information for them to leave. One participant stated that, once the Internet information had been found, “I read and read and read. I read websites. I was pretty addicted to several of the [anticult] websites.” Another related, “I started to find holes in the doctrine that I couldn’t fix in my brain to make this religion still be true. There were long-standing issues like racism and polygamy. It just didn’t make sense.” Several participants questioned their relationship with God while they were leaving, afraid that it would mean they had been cut off from God.

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. Most participants agreed with the statement from one participant that

I consider myself spiritual. I believe in a Creator, Being, or Nature, but I don’t call it God. I find in religion that men get in the way, religion is about men. Spirituality is about the Creator, being a holistic person.

Almost all participants discussed a lack of trust toward any church organization. Only two had gone back to any kind of church attendance, and that was after they had extensively checked out the religious organization, its clergy, and its members.

Counselors can help clients normalize their spiritual and religious anger and confusion after the have left a cult (Boeri, 2002; Moyers, 1994). Educating clients regarding cult thought reform and manipulation can help clients see through tactics used to control spiritual/religious life. Counselors can encourage spiritual growth and questioning, and encourage SGAs to ask questions of religious leaders before they join religious congregations. SGAs do not have the option to return to religious roots as first-generation cult survivors do (Lalich & Tobias, 2006). Study participants tended to be skeptical of and distrustful toward religious organizations, searching for a new religious home, and finding new spiritual practices that did not include religious organizations. Counselors would need to look at their own religious biases and not pathologize clients who find their spiritual path leading toward scientific exploration and atheism or other nontraditional forms of spirituality (D’Andrea & Sprenger, 2007).

Theme 7: Abuse

All participants discussed psychological/

emotional, physical, spiritual, and sexual abuse they suffered in their respective cults. One participant stated, “It became this fear-based religion; if you didn’t do what was right you were going to be punished.” 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 (Johnson & VanVonderen, 1991). 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. “I was yelled at; I was put on the spot in front of everybody; I was silenced for a week, berated, and then told, it was ‘because we love you.’”

Some participants even talked about how they were manipulated into and participated in the abuse of disobedient or defiant members. They discussed the guilt and shame they experienced because of the abuse, and how they left because they could not tolerate inflicting abuse upon others. “With the leader’s approval, I would take initiative to verbally attack anyone in the church who was not following the program … He intentionally used me to reprimand members of my own family.”

Several participants discussed how they had to leave because they were so angry, depressed, and even physically ill because of the abuse. One spoke of her meetings with doctors regarding her physical illness and how together they made the connection that cult abuse was causing the physical illness. One participant reported, “I was scared all the time. I had never had nightmares before [a particular abusive incident]. I had problems sleeping and my thoughts were racing too much.”

During the leaving period, almost all participants suffered some sort of abuse from the other cult members, including threats, shunning, being cut off from family members physically and financially, and so on. As one participant stated, “Everybody turns their back on you and they can’t talk to you. You are dead.” Today, participants report that they still deal with depression, anger, guilt, shame, PTSD, and some physical symptoms, and they still feel vulnerable to the abuse of others in terms of trust and lack of trust in relationships. One stated, “I don’t think I am going to feel whole ever again. It is rooted in me.” Participants who were parents expressed concern regarding disciplining their own children and tended to lean toward leniency in discipline because they did not want to inflict harm or damage upon their children. “I have a son who[m] I am very permissive with. I can’t tolerate the thought of anyone hitting him. It worries me that I am so permissive.”

Counselors can assess for past abuse and trauma of former cult members and help unravel threats and curses from current members as they occur. They can explore with SGAs their own guilt and personal shame about past abuses toward others in the cult, putting those abuses in the context of thought reform and manipulation. Counselors can also explore discipline techniques and effective parent education.

Theme 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. Many were homeschooled to keep their education in compliance with cult teachings. One participant reported, “People of the world—they were bad associations that would lead to bad habits. You were not to associate with those people.” If participants did participate in outside organizations, they were chastened to be “in the world but not of the world”: “If you were part of the world you were going to be destroyed. … Outside-world individuals were seen as acquaintances and inside people were seen as friends.” In all instances, participants were expected to donate all time, energy, and money to the cult. One explained, “My whole life was the church.” Schooling itself was often discouraged because it was a negative influence, as one person stated: “You need to get out of college—you have everything in life from your parents”; and another was told, “Jesus could come at any moment and it is a waste of time to educate yourself.”

Several participants found that, when they did seek outside educational and counseling experiences, they found new ways of thinking, doing, and being. Several explained how classes started them thinking about things they had not considered before and strengthened them in their resolve to leave. Almost all reported 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. “I kind of feel like I’m from another age sometimes. Like I’m from another time. Out of time. And that will never change”; and “There were a lot of gaps and a lot of things that I knew nothing about, but it wasn’t going to stop me.” Also, because all of their time was spent in the cult, most participants reported that they did not know how to spend free time.

Counseling for SGAs can include a psychoeducational piece that incorporates financial discussions, living arrangements, and long-term educational and career plans. Counselors can provide resources and information to help clients empower themselves as they integrate into society. ICSA provides resources and support groups at for SGAs to learn skills related to integrating into the outside world.

Theme 9: Sense of Identity

Of the 12 themes that resulted from my data analysis of participant responses, the final four serve to unify those responses. As noted previously, these overarching themes were implicitly interwoven throughout the various responses.

While in the cult, members were taught how to be and act. Their cult personalities, or pseudopersonalities (West & Martin, 1994) were formed in the cult as a result of the cult socialization and teachings. “I had built my entire way of thinking about being [a cult member]. And, like, that’s how I defined myself.” Most participants reported 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. One stated, “I got the message that it’s not okay to be who you are or do anything that is not outlined socially. … I always felt they were trying to guilt and shame you … You have to do this or be this to support the cult.” While coming out of the cult, one participant remembered,

I had to find and recognize an inner voice. At first I ignored it in the cult. I wasn’t allowed to and I couldn’t follow my gut. I am trying to learn to recognize it now. I feel it in my gut.

Once they left, many participants reported feeling lost, confused, different, behind, and even somewhat childlike or naïve in relationship to others around them. Participants reported that discovering their true personality was difficult but rewarding. “It was sort of a personality disintegration thing that went on,” one participant described. “So if I’m not [a cult member], what am I?” Another stated, “I am all about self-discovery and self-awareness now. It is a big process. I realized that I was muted in my childhood.” All participants affirmed that even though finding out who they were was difficult, they were glad they had the opportunity to figure out their personality outside of the cult. One participant stated, “The fake person is gone. I am real now.”

Counselors can help break down the personalities of the cult with their clients, and can encourage the exploration of authentic client personalities, formerly the secret selves. Exploring parts or beliefs of cult life that clients agreed with and disagreed with can be a starting point in terms of defining who they are. For example, one SGA described a love for science and how science was discouraged in the cult, and also how the SGA appreciated love of family in the cult. Ultimately this individual came to identify as someone who appreciated scientific reasoning and a deep love for family. SGAs can expect confusion, depression, and feelings of alienation throughout self-exploration as they try to untangle who they are versus who the cult persona was (Lalich & Tobias, 2006).

Theme 10: Emotional Consequences of Life in the Cult

While they were in the cult, participants reported 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. One participant talked about how she was “called out and judged all the time while in the cult,” and how “leaders would fixate on her behavior.” Today, participants report that they continue to deal with guilt, anger, shame, and depression. One participant related, "I was pissed and I still am. They owe me an apology! I did nothing wrong! I feel wronged by them. They don’t know how to treat people.” Another stated, “I constantly feel guilty over a lot of things.”

Cult members are taught to distrust individuals outside their cult. Thus, it can be terrifying for SGAs to interact with people they have been taught to distrust all their lives (Goldberg 2006; McCabe et al., 2007). Counselors can assess for, explore, and help explain to these clients their feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and depression, and help them work through these emotions. Counselors can also assist clients in becoming more self-accepting and less self-critical of these emotions. Processing and deconstructing cult techniques and ramifications of growing up in a cult can be advantageous for clients (Boeri, 2002). Working through and validating grief and loss is essential when one is working with SGAs because they experience loneliness after leaving their cult. Even though the individuals in this study were from different cults, they were relieved to know that their emotional experiences were similar to other SGAs. Validating feelings of anger, loneliness, and guilt can help SGAs feel less abnormal and strange.

Theme 11: Fear and Courage

Cult leaders manipulated and controlled the group’s members by inducing fear in them through threats, shunning, humiliation, and abuse. “I was afraid that I could lose my salvation at any time,” one SGA stated. Fear is often the “backbone of cultic control: fear of those outside the group; fear of failure, ridicule, and violence in the group; or fear of spiritual failure or the disintegration of your belief system” (Lalich & Tobias, 2006, p. 141). 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 by relating to and discussing leaving with someone else in the cult. “It was so scary,” stated one participant, “but I had a friend who left with me; we moved to a new city together.” One participant described,

It takes a lot of courage to leave and make something of your life. You have to have the courage to fight against your family and to face a world you have been taught is scary and evil. I had the fear of being judged by the cult members and also by the people in the world. I was afraid of shunning, like when they shunned Simba in The Lion King. He was disgraced—and it did happen to me.

Today the SGAs continue to face their demons as a result of unresolved issues from their respective cults. As one stated, “I still have to face demons in my closet that arise today. It’s scary to stand up to people. I have to face people.” Many have found healing through the courage to speak out for others as a way of healing.

Exploring fear tactics used in cults when individuals leave may be necessary for counselors and their clients. Discussing fears and phobias client has, and figuring out whether or not the fears are valid may also be paramount. Reminding SGAs of the courage they had to actually leave their cult may be helpful to them in facing new challenges. One participant stated, “I never realized I had courage until I saw the results of this study. It made me realize that it took a lot of courage for me to leave and change my life.”

Theme 12: Long Process of Change

For all participants, leaving took a lot of thought and reflection. As one woman stated, “It was really hard leaving. I felt like I was falling for about 8 months, like Alice in Wonderland.” They all continue to face issues today, and all mentioned that they felt forever affected and damaged because of their cult experiences: “There’s lots of hard drive in there. And sometimes I have to isolate that. And then I have to evaluate it based on what is really the deal.” Counselors can help normalize the long process of change and help SGAs continue to explore triggers and coding hardwired in their brains by the cult. Moyers (1994) found that the effects of living in a cult last long beyond when one leaves. Participants in this study reiterated that change and healing were a lifetime process.

Counselors can help empower their clients by reinforcing client resilience and skill development, and helping them process the years of damage and mind control unloaded on them in the cult. Counselors can help remind clients of the coping strategies they utilized to survive while in the cult. Their secret selves helped them find ways to survive in the cult. Despite all of the pressure and subjugation they experienced in their former cult, their true selves took root and helped them leave and start new lives. Books, articles, and support groups can help through this process. Books written for cult survivors such as Take Back Your Life (Lalich & Tobias, 2006), Releasing the Bonds (Hassan, 2000), and Recovery From Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (Langone, 1994) can be extremely helpful in the recovery process. ICSA also provides resources and links to conferences, workshops, and websites for counselors and cult survivors alike.


As with all qualitative research, transferability of the results is up to the individual reader, and not all themes directly transfer to all SGAs. Participants represented eight different cults, and their time out of the cult ranged from 2 to 16 years. Each participant’s cult and postcult experience may be different based on the different cults and the participant’s length of time outside of the cult. However, Lalich and Tobias (2006) found cults are very similar in techniques and practices; thus, consequences may be similar to former members. Also, all participants identified themselves as white/Caucasian, with 14 participants being female and one male. Experiences may be very different for ethnic minorities and for males and females. Also, several participants had been in therapy, while others had not. Because the interviews were in the form of self-reports, some participants may have had more self-awareness than others.

Recommendations for Future Research

More research on SGA cult survivors is needed, especially in terms of healthy/unhealthy attachment and also in terms of trauma. Experiences of ethnic minorities, males, and lesbian, gay, and transgender individuals also needs to be explored, along with subsequent issues. Other areas include parenting styles of former SGAs and marital relationships of those born and raised in cults. There also is much to explore and research in terms of helping SGAs and counselors understand the cult experience and resultant issues.


Individuals born and raised in religious cults often deal with a number of issues beyond those of first-generation cult survivors. Those SGAs who leave often experience a lifetime of consequences based on their treatment in the group. SGAs experience depression, anger, suicidal thoughts, trauma, neglect, and the results of prolonged abuse. Former members are often behind in job and education skills, and they often lack decision=making skills and trust in authority figures. SGAs struggle with trusting others in relationships, experiencing loneliness, and being cut off from former friends and family. Cult personalities and secret selves are formed in the cult. Former-member SGAs spend their time trying to figure out who they are separate from the cult doctrines, practices, and structures.

Information from this constructivist grounded theory can provide information for SGAs and help them move into and feel empowered in the outside world. This information can provide a foundation for continued discussion between counselors, researchers, and SGAs in continuing to meet the needs of SGA religious cult survivors.


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Interview Questions


  1. What do I need to know about your experience in the group to help me understand you?

Deciding to Leave:

  1. Tell me about your decision to leave the group. What kinds of concerns led to your final decision to leave?

Leaving the Group:

  1. Describe to me the process you went through in leaving the group.

  2. What kinds of issues made it difficult for you to leave?

  3. What made it easier for you to leave the group?

Life Outside the Group:

  1. Tell me what it has been like for you integrating into life outside of the group.

  2. What kinds of things did you struggle with initially?

Life Today:

  1. What do you continue to struggle with as a result of your former group life?

  2. Tell me what you miss about your former group life.

  3. Tell me what you don’t miss about your former group life.


What else would you like me to know about being in the group, leaving the group, or integrating into life outside the group?

About the Author

Cyndi H. Matthews, PhD, LPC-S, NCC is an experienced counseling clinician working in private practice and as a Counselor Educator at the University of North Texas–Dallas. Her passion for social justice and advocacy is exemplified in her counseling practice and current research, both of which focus on effective counseling interventions for marginalized populations, such as cult survivors, domestic-violence survivors, and LGBT populations. Based on her scholarship and clinical expertise, she has researched and developed theory for counseling with former second-generation-adult (SGA) cult-recovery survivors. Website: Email: