The Identity of Cult Members in the Narrative Aspect

International Journal of Cultic Studies, Volume 1, 2010, pages 75-82.

The Identity of Cult Members in the Narrative Aspect

Dariusz Kuncewicz, Ph.D.

Institute of Clinical Psychology

Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities


This paper provides an explanation of the process by which a cult member’s identity is formed, employing the narrative psychology notional categories as a framework. The narrative paradigm is the theory that people interpret and make sense of their own experiences through the use of narrative schemes. Failure to construct a cohesive autobiographical narration may cause the person to borrow “a ready-made narrative plot” from a cult environment. As a result, some difficult life experiences are quickly incorporated into a logical, happy-ending story that is constructed on the basis of “liberation by the cult.” Psychic costs of external editions (i.e., not internal—not based on personal reflection or therapeutic process) of “texts about oneself” are significant and include limitation of the possibility of internal dialogue, rigidity in the interpretation of complex experiences, and the exclusion of experiences that contradict the leading “one-plot” story from autonarration.

The purpose of this article is to attempt to provide an explanation of the processes by which the cult member’s identity is formed, using the narrative psychology notional categories as a framework.

The Conception of Cult Identity

Among others, spectacular and proportionally stable changes in the psychic sphere of function are observed in cult members. In psychological literature, explanations of these kinds of changes appeal to the personality/identity cult patterns that co-exist with the original personality/identity, restraining its development and contributing to the appearance of psychopathological symptoms. E. G. Yeakley (1988) writes about “cloned personality,” Singer and Lalich (1994) about “pseudo-personality,” and Hassan (1998, 2000) about “dual identity”; West and Martin (1996) use the notion “pseudo-identity.” These authors emphasize the role of cultic milieu pressure that creates, strengthens, and supports a group personality/identity pattern among its members.

But West and Martin (1996) take their explanation a step further. They assert that a “pseudo-identity” can be created by prolonged environmental stress and/or life situations profoundly different from everyday situations. Psychic integration mechanisms are weakened, along with the activation of dissociation mechanisms, as a result of long-term stress or unusual life situations. This process enables adaptation to the cult’s environment by generating a “pseudo-identity,” which is maintained after leaving a group. According to the authors, a cult’s “pseudo-identity” develops analogously to the “Stockholm Syndrome”—an adaptable reaction (to an experience of physical or psychological violence) that is characterized by fascination with an aggressor and identification with his world.

It should be noted that West and Martin (1996) explain trauma as a possible consequence of a stay in a cult. Yet Rohmann (2000), in his Three-Step-Model assistance for former cult members, does not seem to share this view. He asserts that an experience in a cult does not have to be traumatic in its own right. Accordingly, it is possible to cope with the experience on an educational level (broadening the knowledge about the cult’s religious and philosophical context), as well as on a psychoeducational level (analyzing the experience of a person’s stay in a cult as a result of psychological means of influence). Rohmann believes that therapeutic interventions are reasonable primarily through addressing previous psychological problems that were “put on the shelf” during one’s stay in a cult—but reactivated once the individual has left it. So the thesis (in contrast to West and Martin’s thesis) asserting that a stay in a cult is not a reason for trauma, but rather a periodical antidote to trauma, is likely correct. Results of other studies of cult members, in which the members revealed (in a MMPI test) increased intensity of defensive attitudes toward their own difficulties, indirectly supports this assertion (Ungerlider & Wellish, 1979; Kuner, 1981; Ross, 1988). One of the essential elements of a periodical antidote to trauma is probably the cult’s ideology. According to Scheich (2002), acceptance of an extreme ideology isolates a person from various aspects of experiences and increases one’s tendency to use defensive mechanisms of suppression (see Lifton, 1961). So that a cult’s offer of a new “cult identity” can be attractive precisely because it enables isolation from difficult experiences that seem impossible to overcome at a certain stage of life.

In the next part of this elaboration, reasons will be put forth and the thesis will be broadened on the basis of the narrative identity conception.

The Conception of Narrative Identity

The interest of narrations in psychology has increased dynamically since the early 1990s. At its base is a belief that humans have an inborn motivation to understand reality and give sense to their experiences, and that they do so by spontaneously organizing the experiences into mental narrative schemes. Furthermore, creating narrative schemes enables one to give sense to subsequent experiences and produce new motivations. Feedback occurs between the process of giving sense to experiences and the creation of narrative schemes.

Narrative schemes have a universal structure: 1) a character with a certain intention; 2) other characters who take part in the events surrounding the realization of a main character’s intention; 3) obstacles in the way of the realization of intentions; and 4) overcoming (or failure to overcome) the obstacles (Trzebiński 2002). Narrative identity placed within structures of autobiographical memory is the central narrative structure. According to McAdams (1994), narrative identity is an “internalized and developed life story or a personal myth that unites a reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated or expected future into a narrative configuration to provide feelings of unity, continuity, and aim” (McAdams, 1994, p. 746–747). It is worth noting that a myth does not have to be true about its own theme. Above all, the myth performs an integrating role by giving defined meanings to personal experiences.

It is possible to observe restraint of natural motivation in the process of giving sense to one’s experiences in the early stages of dealing with trauma. Traumatic experiences are recorded as fragmentary pictures, words, and feelings that are not accessible to systematic insight or reflection. Only the function of story creating, which means separating particular episodes and reformulating them into a linear narrative structure, gradually decreases the burdensome psychic tension associated with trauma. Narrative structuralizing of traumatic experiences has a therapeutic character and is used in psychotherapy (Harber & Penebaker 1992; Stemplewska-Żakowicz 2002).

Narrative organization of traumatic experiences usually takes place in natural environments with family and friends. For example, common remembrance of the loss of a close person (for some time after his death) remains a painful experience in the working memory for a long time and therefore creates more opportunities for its narrative organization (see Larsen, Hemenover, Morris, & Cacioppo, 2002). Support of people close to the individual is not always possible, and the skills needed to take advantage of this support are not always sufficient. In these cases, psychotherapeutic help could be useful.

Constructing Narrative Identity in a Cult

The previously proposed thesis asserts that a cult’s environment with its extreme ideology also creates opportunities for one to deal with difficult life experiences. But it seems that narrative organization of traumatic experiences in a cult environment proceeds differently than it does in a family environment or with psychotherapeutic support.

Initialization: The Process of Giving Meanings

Persons recruited into a cult suddenly realize that their difficult current experiences are a part of “God’s Plan” and that these experiences are results of the fact that they “have not followed the right path” or that these experiences “are simply not important in the face of the approaching of the end of the world.” Thanks to the cult’s ideology, members’ traumatic experiences obtain particular meaning and sense and eventually can be understood. Ex-cult members, as well as families of associated cult members, defined this phenomenon as “a key-experience which opens a totally new vision of the world” (Kuncewicz, Opolska & Wasiak, 2000).

Conway and Siegelman (1979, 1982) treat such experiences as a psychic disorder, which they call “information disease” (or snapping). They believe that constant information overload and/or excessively strong experiences can create many new nervous connections in the cerebral cortex, which may manifest themselves as so-called “sudden changes of personality.”

It should be noted that the development and integration of neuron webs, particularly between affection and cognitive webs, is also a key mechanism in the psychotherapeutic process (Cozolino 2004). A patient in the course of the therapeutic process also experiences strong emotions, and, with the help of the therapist, attempts to express these through words, going through “key experiences” (e.g., in psychoanalytic psychotherapy so-called “insight”), a process that enables the patient’s understanding, giving sense to traumatic experiences and developing new personality aspects. In this case, it is important to ask the question “What determines whether qualitatively similar processes of giving meanings to a person’s experiences are therapeutic or disordered?”

Composing a Personal Story

It is likely that the very course of the composition process is decisive as to the disordered or therapeutic role of the cognitive structuring of experiences. The cult environment, in contrast to the psychotherapeutic one, provides prepared “external” patterns for narrative elaboration of difficult experiences. The cult’s ideological patterns prove highly complementary to the specific experiences of some people (see: Kuncewicz, 2002), like “an appropriate key fits an appropriate lock” (see Rohmann, 2000).

For a person who joins a cult, this “key” possesses great power for giving meaning to traumatic experience fragments and thereby for decreasing suffering. It is difficult, for this reason, to abandon the rigid ideology of the cult’s system (which does not include complex human nature) even when it turns out to be completely incompatible with other previously constructed self-narrations, family narrations, or social-cultural narrations. Perhaps a cult member who is not willing to forfeit the benefits of the ideological composing on of his most difficult personal experiences is forced to make desperate attempts at “re-composing” the remaining stories about his life in accordance with the same cultic pattern. Unfortunately, “cultic re-composing” of the elements of the remaining life stories is held on a strictly intellectual level that is abstracted from experience.

Finally, the cult’s ideology performs a disintegrative rather than integrative function. Although it enables quick narrative “snapping” of the defined traumatic experience fragment, and thereby constructs a cohesive story of one’s life, it also restricts access to a large conglomerate of other experiences that are in contradiction to the binding doctrine—e.g., to warm feelings toward family members outside the cult.

The price of composing an extremely ideological life story is its narrowing into a one-plot story. Autobiographical stories presented by cult members usually concentrate on one central theme: “liberation by the cult” (Kuncewicz, 1999). The stories are often composed according to the following scheme: 1) “I searched for the sense of life/close relations/

something important” (the main character’s intention); 2) “Neither the world nor my relatives understood me/

both the world and my relatives rejected me” (complications, negative participation of characters beyond the cult’s environment); 3) “I have found the truth in the group/God/true friends—I am happy” (positive solution and positive characters within the cult’s environment).

Inner Dialogues

According to the “dialogical self” conception, different self-narrative plots create so-called “I” positions (Hermans & Kempen, 1993; Hermans, 1999) or subpersonalities (Rowan, 1990), which are defined perspectives of understanding, feeling, and activity. A collection of all possessed subpersonalities (representing different life-story plots) defines a person’s identity. The so-called “internal democracy” or inner dialogues between subpersonalities determine strong identity and psychic health. The conduction of inner dialogues enables the integration of many, sometimes contradictory plots into one, “multi-plot” self-narration.

In contrast, lack of dialogue between subpersonalities (lack of questions or answers, agreement or disagreement, negotiation, or reference to each other) is evidence of pathology and disintegration of identity. Limitation in the range of one’s conducting inner dialogues makes it difficult to incorporate different life plots into one narrative whole. A relatively cohesive conception of oneself is maintained then by a domination (dictatorship) of an individual “one-plot” self-narration. It seems that a totalitarian cult environment that offers ideological “ready-made matrices” for composing complex experiences definitely imposes inner dialogue limitations on its followers. That environment therefore favors identity fragmentation, which makes it difficult for an individual to integrate the coexisting dominant “cult identity” and the latent “pre-cult identity” (see Hassan, 1988, 2000) because of the different editorial origin (external versus internal composing) —see figure 1 on the following page.


Holly scripture dictates that we should approach to Highest Lord through guru. My guru, to whom I bow with respect, opened my eyes. I’ve understood that neither material attachment to people (including father) nor worldly knowledge (including medicine) can give me happiness. Nothing that is of the Earth can satisfy me. I’ve taken up studies at the spiritual university.

S1: story about a family expedition to mountains

S2: story about starting medical studies


My father had never met his father. It was difficult for him to be a father to me. But one day, we had a chance to spend some time in the mountains. I sprained my ankle on the most difficult route. My father dressed me and carried all the way to the nearest shelter. We had never been so close. That was the first time I thought about being a doctor.

S3: story composed on the basis of the experience of the father’s leaving

Implications for Research and Practice

I have indicated three psychological occurrences that contribute to shaping the identities of cult members: 1) giving sense to traumatic experiences; 2) “external” composing of one’s personal life story; and 3) limiting of possibilities for conducting inner dialogues.

These occurrences are not exclusively characteristic of a cult environment. Giving sense to traumatic experiences also seems to be a specific occurrence in the context of psychotherapy and close relationship support. Personal “external” editing of life stories often occurs in any extremely ideological system. According to Hermans and Kempen (1993), failures to conduct internal dialogues develop in the context of improper socialization training. Constructing a cult member’s identity is probably based on these three nonspecific phenomena.

Research Implications

It may be worth initiating empirical verification of the theses presented by retrospectively ascertaining whether cult members experienced trauma to a greater extent prior to membership than noncult members. Secondly, it would be necessary to examine whether individuals who joined cults had secure conditions for narrative elaboration of traumatic experiences. According to Pennebaker and Susman (1988), such conditions facilitate the possibility of confiding in or relating difficult experiences to loved ones and trusted people. It can be expected that people who join cults have fewer such opportunities and are as a result more susceptible to cult recruiters who present themselves to be kind and are eager to patiently hear out their potential followers. A useful tool for examining both the subjective trauma of various early-life experiences (to age 17) and the possibility of vocalizing these experiences may be the Childhood Traumatic Events Scale.

Further verification of the specific “narration-creative” role of a cult environment may be based on the analysis of written texts of current cult members—for example, through the use of the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) program (Pennebaker, Booth, & Francis, 2007). In accordance with the hypothesis of the “internal” type of life auto-narration, the testimony of the so-called “spiritual change” of current cult members should be more saturated in the ideological rhetoric of the cult environment than in the testimonies of those who have converted to extra-cultic religious groups. Furthermore, in accordance with the hypothesis of limited inner dialogue, it may be supposed that auto-narrations of cult members will contain fewer affective and less positively affective references to universal extra-cultic aspirations (i.e., relational, educational, professional).

Practical Implications

A narrative conception of one’s identity broadens the perspectives for understanding the emergence of a cultic pseudo-identity and brings with it a crucial psychotherapeutic implication. The narrative notion presented here enables a better understanding of why some ex-cult members harbor maladaptive cult convictions that significantly inhibit social reintegration for many years after they have left the cult. If these convictions are not consequences of trauma, but rather serve to maintain an “improvised solution,” they likely constitute a personal value that is extremely difficult to undermine. In such cases, psychotherapeutic work with ex-cult members in the initial stages should focus on the deconstruction of key internalized cult convictions rather than on attempts to undermine these convictions rationally.

Deconstruction of cult convictions that are highly-resistant to change (and shaped on the basis of powerful experiences in an ideological context) is reliant on the identification of the most difficult pre-cult experiences and unrealized aspirations, together with the complementary ideology of the cult. Some cult ideas may be especially attractive precisely because they seem to function ideally as “positive solutions” to previously unresolved personal problems. From here, the explanation of the psychic connection to the cult is appropriate, not in the category of the long-lasting psycho-manipulative effects, but rather in the category of “clinging to one’s own life-saving decisions.” This type of transformation seems to be therapeutically useful because it develops a sense of control, responsibility for one’s choices, and the hope for a renewed ability to shape one’s life (see Grencavage and Norcross, 1990).

Sifting through the maladaptive cult convictions of personal motives related to the cult also produces favorable conditions for the undertaking of renewed attempts at solving personal problems (see Rohmann, 2000). A secure therapeutic framework allows for the tackling of one’s problems without the necessity of “cutting off” the important, deep-rooted aspects of one’s self that are incompatible with the ideology of the cult. Having proceeded through the deconstructive stage, one may undertake further therapeutic work either with the aid of specific procedures of narrative therapy directed at broadening and strengthening inner dialogues (see Watkins, 1999; McLeod, 1997; Parker, 1999), or in a standard way, depending on the theoretical orientation of the therapist.


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About the Author

Dariusz Kuncewicz, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Clinical Psychology of the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities (Poland). In the period from 1995 to 2003 he engaged in counseling of individuals and families who had been affected by sects and other manipulative groups. In 2000 he was involved in preparing a government report on cults in Poland. Dr. Kuncewicz is the author of several publications, including the book Controversial Religious Movements—Psychological Aspects of Membership (2005) and the article “Personality and Membership in New Religious Movements” (2005). The author is particularly interested in experimental research of clinical phenomena, conducting family and individual therapy in private practice, and (among other things) conducting a Psychology of Cults seminar for students.

To contact the author:

Address: Dariusz Kuncewicz, 20-122 Lublin, ul. Furmańska 3/7/10a

Telephone/fax: +48 81 532 26 68, mobile: 506 146 783; e-mail: