The Dark Underside-Cultic

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 10, Number 1, 1993, pages 33-44

The Dark Underside: Cultic Misappropriation of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis

David A. Halperin, M.D., F.A.P.A.

Mount Sinai School of Medicine

New York, New York


The history of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy is littered with cultic misappropriation of sound practice, technique, and theory. This article uses historical and contemporary examples to illustrate this species of misappropriation. It describes some of the issues that arise in working with individuals who were subjected to cultic “therapy” and who sought help to reintegrate themselves into the mainstream world. Further, this article discusses certain issues that arise in working with family members of those who were subjected to cultic therapy.

There has been an increasing interest in the early history of the psychoanalytic movement and the extent to which Freud's theoretical formulations are a reflection of his cultural context. Moreover, theoretical formulations such as libido theory now surface in cultic contexts that are at great remove from the work of mainstream mental health professionals.

This article examines the efforts of cultlike organizations to misappropriate psychoanalytic practice and theory in the service of eccentric, authoritarian, and coercive organizations. An examination of current practices also reminds us that within the history of modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis, maverick leaders, such as Wilhelm Reich, created an eclectic melange redolent of psychoanalysis, political radicalism, and occultism. Indeed, prominent psychoanalysts, such as Sandor Ferenczi, who stayed within the organizational framework of the psychoanalytic movement, advocated such practices as feeding patients by bottle to enable them to work through maternal deprivation.

Historical Perspectives

Freud's work reflected the practices of his time. He saw psychoanalytic work as proceeding within a medical framework. He saw the physician as bound by the limitation on contact with the patient, as detailed in the Hippocratic Oath. His metaphor for describing his practice was essentially surgical (contact between doctor and patient would “contaminate” the psychoanalytic field). Such an abstinent approach has limitations: It is not rapid. Inevitably it is expensive. And, above all, it is not magical. Despite the patient's wishes within the psychoanalytic context, the psychoanalyst remains a professional, not a magus. Thus, those who work with patients who are either impatient for change or who cannot tolerate their frustration within the framework of psychoanalytic abstinence have demanded the greatest change in treatment approaches.

It is in this area that the potential for cultic deformation of theory and practice has been the greatest. If the relationship between psychoanalyst and patient can provide a template for “more perfect” dyadic relationships, why should any limitations be placed on it at all? Should not psychoanalysis provide a template for a more perfect world? Why should psychoanalysis limit itself in Freud's dictum to "replacing neurotic anxiety with everyday discontent"? Should it not provide a vehicle for transformation of all relationships? And, finally, if the relationship between patient and past continues to "contaminate" efforts directed toward perfectibility, should not those older relationships be terminated? These issues arise in the consideration of cults that either have developed out of the psychoanalytic movement or employ quasi-therapeutic techniques as part of their efforts to recruit or control members. There are four broad categories of cults that utilize psychotherapeutic techniques: (1) neopsychoanalytic, (2) psychopolitical, (3) substance abuse, and (4) special illness.

Neopsychoanalytic Groups

There are a number of groups widely considered to be cult groups that present themselves in a "psychoanalytic" format or were founded by mental health professionals. Such groups have achieved notoriety in Los Angeles, Detroit, Kansas City, and New York. The Sullivanian Institute/Fourth Wall Theater, which was active in the New York metropolitan area until its recent dissolution, illustrates the theoretical positions and practices of this category of cultlike groups.

Saul Newton was a member of the Communist Party before World War II. He was with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain during the Spanish Civil War; but apparently he functioned primarily as a payroll clerk, not as a political commissar. He continued as a political activist during and after the war. In his position as bursar at the William Alanson White Institute (WAW)(the New York branch of the Washington School of Psychoanalysis associated with Harry Stack Sullivan), he dazzled members with his fictitious descriptions of his decisiveness and brutality as a political commissar during the Spanish Civil War. At the WAW, his work was purely administrative and he received no professional training. However, he formed a relationship with Jane Pearce, a training analyst there. Together they wrote a book, The Conditions of Human Growth (primarily authored by Pearce). The messianic flavor of this book is conveyed in the opening lines of the foreword:

We live in a dangerous world. The technical inventions of the twentieth century have hurled us into the necessity, in order to survive, of inventing hitherto unconceived social forms. Both the invention and the implementation of such forms depend on a capacity for flexibility, cooperation and rate of change in human personality never before crucial in the history of civilization.

This call for action (the first edition appeared in 1963) met with ready acceptance in the millennial atmosphere so characteristic of the sixties. During this era, a sense of constraint and/or therapeutic abstinence (so characteristic of Freud's skepticism toward any transformational change in society) was experienced as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. Of particular appeal was the cry for using “therapeutic” means as a way of transforming humanity to avoid impending nuclear Armageddon.

Newton and Pearce seceded from WAW. In relatively short order, Newton (Pearce soon dissociated herself) established a highly structured setting (the Sullivanian Institute) in which members "that is, patients and therapists" were encouraged to live communally. Initially, members could continue to pursue outside professional, social, and sexual lives; but over time, their focus became the Sullivanian Institute.

In the early seventies, patients were discouraged from having any contact with their parents, who were portrayed as being actively destructive. Indeed, Sullivanian therapy consisted primarily of focusing on any possible parental gaffes or mistakes, using them as examples of parental "destructiveness." Parents, irrespective of their actual attitudes, were seen as being representative of the evil, imperialistic, capitalistic world. (Ironically, many of the members were referred by their parents to the Sullivanian Institute because of the parents' leftist ideology.) Since the goal of therapy became transformation, patients and therapists were encouraged to have social contact; thus, sexual contact was frequent. Through it all, Saul Newton, regarded as a fusion of Lenin and Freud, was believed to be creating a new order.

Since the family was perceived as the fundamental enemy, individuals were discouraged from forming monogamous relationships (members commonly scheduled liaisons with other members on a nightly basis). Paradoxically, within a group that considered itself to be an incorporation of a new world, members were discouraged from having children--indeed, permissions were required from the individual's therapist and Saul Newton. Children were assigned to the most "suitable" parents, and those children who remained with their biological parents were, to a large extent, reared apart.

Nongroup parents who wanted to have contact with their adult children in the group were called "destructive." Should parents attempt to contact their children, the children would write back a letter in which the parents were informed by the children that they would refuse any further attempts at contact (except in the context of frequent fund-raising drives). As part of their treatment, members were encouraged to visit with their family once (in the company of another member) to repossess any childhood documents, photographs, and other memorabilia, and to record an interview in which the person's growth and development was described.

The membership of the group included a large number of college graduates and professionals, including mental health professionals. The latter would not discuss their allegiance to the Sullivanian Institute with their patients, although patients were encouraged to contact that institution.

The Sullivanian Institute first came to the attention of the broader public in 1975, known as the "far-out Sullivanians." In the climate of that period, many people tolerated both the Sullivanians' intensity and their political pretensions. After the onset of AIDS, members were encouraged (decreed) to eliminate outside social and sexual contact. The group's notoriety magnified after the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. Fearful of atomic war, the group purchased a fleet of buses, kept in constant readiness to flee New York in the event of atomic attack. Members were required to carry beepers so they could be notified when to flee. Convinced that New York City was in danger of radiation poisoning, the leadership ordered members to flee to Florida. A number of them protested and were summarily discharged from the group. Some members became sufficiently anxious after their expulsion that they required hospitalization. The staff of the Bellevue Hospital Emergency Room were initially hard-pressed to accept as factual the bizarre story related by individuals who were otherwise functional, well-educated, and articulate. At this point, let us consider the therapeutic issues raised in working with members of this group and their families.

Nancy was a 35-year-old computer programmer. She had received a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from an Ivy League university and had joined the Sullivanian Institute on the recommendation of her therapist. She had entered treatment after the termination of a long-term relationship with a male friend. After 10 years in the Sullivanians, she had covertly formed a monogamous relationship with a fellow member, a physician. She became pregnant and, for medical insurance reasons, married the child's father. However, the couple did not reside together, and the child lived separately from both parents in a creche maintained by the group. Nancy wanted to see her child with appropriate frequency (the infant was 6 months old). Her "therapist" at the Institute told her that her desire to have contact with her daughter was "destructive" and summarily forbade her from seeing her child for three months. Nancy appealed to the child's father (her husband) for support. He sided with the therapist's decision. At that point, Nancy decided to kidnap her daughter out of this environment. She succeeded in her desperate plan and during the subsequent legal process was vindicated. Ultimately, her actions caused her husband to reconsider his position, and he also left the group. Moreover, in the publicity attendant to this incident, a group, PACT (Patients Against Cult Therapy), formed and eventually led to the enfeeblement of the Sullivanians.

Nancy was seen in psychiatric consultation primarily in the context of being the respondent in a custody suit. Of particular importance was her sense that she was the object of hatred of a group whose presence was pervasive. During her membership, she had accepted the group's claims of omnipotence and was fearful that she might be pursued by the group (there was some reality here, as the group was known to have harassed dissident members and ex-members). On a more profound level, she was forced to deal with the depression following her separation from the group, which had been her total social and sexual context for 10 years. Moreover, she had totally alienated herself from her family (she had not attended her father's funeral and in written contact with her family had falsely accused them of abusive behavior). It was difficult for Nancy to accept the possibility that a psychiatrist was not a manipulative demon. She was forced to reexamine an ideology and a status (she had regarded herself as a member of an elite vanguard) that was difficult for her to repudiate in entirety. Indeed, as with other ex-members of the group, her attempts to hold onto a view of the omnipotent leader as a benevolent figure were both touching and depressing.

Nonetheless, over a relatively brief period of consultation, her former strengths began to reassert themselves. Her status as a mother defending her child enhanced her self-esteem and provided new social options. As noted above, she reconciled with the child's father, and both are leading mainstream lives.

Another therapeutic issue was presented in work with the mother of two long-term members of the Sullivanian Institute.

Deborah is a lively, extremely likable woman in her late 50s, whose daughters both joined the Sullivanians while in college. Her second daughter was depressed and was referred by her college counseling service to a Sullivanian therapist. Deborah, a mental health professional, was initially loathe to interfere with her daughter's therapy. However, when she began to realize that her daughter's alienation from the family owed more to the therapy than to any issues based in reality, Deborah attempted to persuade her daughter to leave treatment. The daughter's response was to move into the Sullivanian commune. She was also able to persuade her older sister to join her in this battle against "destructive" parents. Deborah had almost no contact with her children for the next 18 years. On one occasion, her younger daughter visited her to collect her childhood objects. Another time, the older daughter called her on a fund-raising mission, apparently oblivious to the fact that she had not spoken to her mother in 15 years. When PACT was formed, Deborah became an activist within the organization despite her fears that this action might further embitter her children.

Treatment of Deborah focused on issues related to the loss of her children. Although informed that she was a grandmother, she had never seen her grandchildren. Her children had not attended their father's funeral. In a very real sense, she felt that she was a failure as a parent, that on some level the Sullivanians' description of her was valid. Parents who are so totally rejected by their children experience this as the loss/death of a child and often obsess over their responsibility for this impasse.

Over a period of time Deborah was able to see that her daughter was a victim of deceptive recruiting which capitalized on her too-ready acquiescence to a New Left philosophy. (A comparable situation has been portrayed movingly in the film Running on Empty.) Ultimately, Deborah was sufficiently comfortable with herself to be able to testify in the previously mentioned custody proceeding. During the course of this, Deborah's oldest daughter (and mother of her grandchildren) contacted her to "blackmail" her into not testifying, using contact with her grandchildren as a lure. The sense of deprivation, depression, and anticipation that this provoked cannot be easily appreciated. Nonetheless, Deborah was able to maneuver her way into beginning to form a relationship with her granddaughters. It should be noted that her younger daughter recently left the group and attributes their reconciliation, in part, to her mother's steadfastness. But a reconciliation after so many years is in itself difficult. Deborah has required continuing therapeutic support to avoid adopting a judgmental stance toward a daughter who was as much victim as victimizer.

Comparable issues have more recently developed in a one-on-one context. There has been recent interest in the area of incest and child abuse. A number of notable figures have declared their separation from their parents for alleged abuse. While it is impossible to prejudge individual cases, it has been this psychiatrist's experience that ideas of childhood abuse may sometimes be propagated by unlicensed counselors without professional training and inculcated in vulnerable and dependent patients. Manipulative counselors may encourage vulnerable clients to sever all contact with their parents to enhance dependency on the therapist. The recent formation of groups such as the False Memory Syndrome Foundation indicates that this issue will remain controversial and that psychiatrists should exercise due caution in considering scenarios of abuse in which there is some reason to doubt the report, for example, because hypnosis "uncovered" memories repressed for decades.

Psychopolitical Groups

There are two groups broadly alleged to utilize quasi-therapeutic practices in the service of cult indoctrination and retention of members: the New Alliance Party/Institute for Social Therapy and Research (NAP) and the Lyndon LaRouche organization. Both groups were originally radical Marxist groups formed in the late sixties. In both cases the leaders claim a special, perceptive vision of history, indicating that the goal of treatment is the individual's induction into the group's political struggles. While both groups profess the goal of radical change, their enemies appear to be those groups working for social reform. In the case of NAP, the "guru" is Dr. Fred Newman (a historian of science) who has welded a tightly organized cadre whose devotion to him is ensured in weekly group-therapy sessions. Individuals who have attended these meetings have reported that their goal is the humiliation of potential deviants and the inculcation of absolute loyalty. New members are typically recruited when the group or one of its many front organizations offers a socially oriented type of therapy. But the recruit soon learns that the therapy is considered to be incomplete unless the individual leaves all other activities to join the political struggle--as defined by NAP.

The LaRouche organization is alleged to operate on a similar basis, although it does not overtly advertise as a therapy facility. The potential for exploitation exists in both groups, as the following illustrates:

Ronald, the heir of a wealthy family, had been unsuccessful at a variety of activities, particularly in the area of investment. His father is a successful investment banker, and Ronald had long considered himself to be his father's successor. One day, returning from a disappointing visit to Chicago, Ronald was accosted in the New York airport by members of a LaRouche front organization. He gave them his name and address, and they proceeded to bombard him with calls. Calls came in the early morning on the pretext of an impending world emergency that required his immediate financial and personal participation. Ultimately, he joined the organization and attempted to donate large sums of money to support the LaRouche causes. His family sought legal protection to prevent him from donating his large fortune to the LaRouche organization. The family's request was legally upheld, and a conservator was appointed. Ronald currently has some contact with his family and is supported by a handsome monthly allowance from his estate, which is controlled by the conservator.

Some aspects of this case bear examination. Ronald was extremely competitive with his father, but unsuccessfully so. The LaRouche organization propounds a bizarre philosophy with a pseudoeconomic focus and anti-aristocratic bias. For a son unsuccessfully competing with a wealthy, highly successful, upper-class father, such a philosophy can provide convenient rationalizations for carrying on the competition in arenas that place the father at a disadvantage. Moreover, because of Ronald's status, he was given the role of historical researcher by the LaRouche organization. Finally, when the family opposed his seemingly self-destructive donations and established a structure in which his legitimate financial needs could be met while preventing him from destroying his estate, this provided the structure needed by this young man with a weak sense of identity. This is not to suggest that cult affiliation is therapeutic; rather that people may find the structure of authoritarian organizations attractive. The distant contact Ronald maintains with his family appears to enable him to have the facade of independence without acknowledging his profound sense of dependency.

Substance Abuse Groups

Individuals with substance abuse problems are poor candidates for insight-oriented psychotherapy, which entails abstinence and frustration.

Observers have noted a propensity for groups dealing with substance abuse to undergo a cultic evolution. In a very real sense, individuals with substance abuse problems may see themselves as requiring a strengthening of will, something available only by reinforcing their defective sense of self through the implantation of energy from a suprahuman figure. Moreover, the demands that substance abusers make on therapists are so great that the therapists themselves may be more than willing to rely on the gnosis of a suprahuman charismatic figure. The following is illustrative:

Nicholas was a social worker in the substance abuse field. The head of his outpatient clinic repeatedly propounded that he alone understood how to work with addicts. He portrayed the outside world as being unsympathetic and ignorant of the gnosis which was his alone. He encouraged Nicholas and other members of his staff to socialize together and to limit their contact with the outside professional world. His suspicion of the outside world was so strong that he encouraged his staff (including Nicholas) to treat each other and/or their families. Despite these isolating pressures, Nicholas entered treatment because of a severe and continuing depression.

During the initial course of treatment, it became apparent that a major source of Nicholas's depression was his boss/guru's constant putting down of the efforts of his staff. Nicholas was repeatedly criticized for his activities (although his boss referred his child to Nicholas for treatment). As outside treatment progressed, Nicholas was encouraged to separate from his "mentor" and find a position outside this particular clinic. Each step toward separation evoked depression as he saw himself terminating an admittedly destructive relationship, which included all of his social and vocational life. Ultimately, he functioned on an independent basis, although expecting the therapist to criticize him for every deviation from the norm. His guru had lived up to his needs for a particularly self-punishing superego, a common type of relationship found among substance abusers. Providing gentle reality-oriented therapy has been extremely helpful.

Special Illness Groups

Physical diseases such as AIDS have manifold emotional consequences. Groups or individuals purporting to help victims of such fatal diseases may utilize psychotherapeutic modalities to ensnare the vulnerable individual in cultlike activity. The case of James is illustrative:

James is a homosexual who has had a number of partners who are HIV-positive or who have AIDS. He attributes his good fortune to his reliance on his therapist. He states that his therapist feels that the viral theory of AIDS is a myth and that emotional health is the key to avoiding this dread disease. He sees his therapist with a frequency he can ill afford. In addition, he proofreads and critiques the books his therapist writes, and in other ways relates to him as an editor rather than a patient. Over time, he has met some of his therapist's other patients, who have the same regard for the therapist.

Because of the powerlessness inherent in terminal illness, it is capable of eliciting the same fears and dependency as substance abuse. It is doubtful that James's equanimity is the primary cause of his good fortune (although it cannot be excluded as having some responsibility). Exploitation in this case is limited to modest financial demands. The use of patients in a vocational capacity to serve therapists points to an increasing translucency in the relationship, with the thinning of patient-doctor boundaries.


This article has a secondary agenda, which is to encourage professional organizations to protect the vulnerable from those who would misappropriate our profession. The Sullivanian Institute, for example, operated for many years without professional outcry. Today, other groups and individuals flourish. Admittedly, it is a fearful thing to confront the litigious and the sometimes paranoid or grandiose. But if professional organizations do not do so, the public and the organizations' members are the ultimate losers.


David A. Halperin, M.D., Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is a fellow of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and the American Group Psychotherapy Association. He maintains a private practice in Manhattan, is a consulting psychiatrist to the Custody Panel of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, and is director of Group Psychotherapy at Roosevelt Hospital. Dr. Halperin has lectured extensively and his publications include the edited volume, Psychodynamic Perspectives on Religion, Sect, and Cult.