The Last Draw—Cults and Creativity

Cultic Studies Review, Volume 9, Number 1, 2010, pages 1-52

The Last Draw—Cults and Creativity

Dana Wehle, L.C.S.W., M.F.A.

Cult Clinic, JBFCS

Psychoanalyst, New York City


Introducing this special issue of CSR on Cults and Creativity, in addition to the articles by fellow authors, I draw on current thinking on creativity from psychology, neuroscience, the socio-cultural science of creativity, psychoanalysis, and critical theory. Of particular interest to me is how symbol creation and use as characteristically human intersects with the dehumanization of cult members through cult leader suppression of symbolic expression of feeling and thought, thus creativity. I propose cult-recovery treatment as a form of rehumanization through emphasis on the emergence or reemergence of former members’ or SGAs’ subjective use of symbol and creativity. I introduce the concept of “joy stopping” as an elaboration of “thought and feeling stopping,” and suggest the postmodern concepts of “lack/gap” and “slippage of meaning” are salient for cultic studies. This introduction assumes that creativity is critical not only for personal well-being but also for the enhancement of society. It questions the individual and societal cost when creativity is a prime target of manipulation/control in cults.

Guest editing this special issue of CSR has provided a wonderful opportunity to continue my studies of cults and creativity. I am grateful to Michael Langone for suggesting the idea, and for supporting my qualitative survey on cults and creativity. I wish to thank Libbe Madsen, associate editor extraordinaire; Ashley Allen for efficiently collating and evaluating the survey responses; the survey respondents for generously helping create the first study of this kind and for granting permission to quote; Pat Ryan for technical assistance with the survey; the invited authors in this issue, whose insightful contributions—summarized below—culminate in this first interdisciplinary compilation on cults and creativity. I especially thank them for their patience in waiting for this issue to come to fruition during a difficult time in my life; and heartfelt thanks to the former members, SGAs, and family members of currently involved loved ones with whom I have worked clinically and who are my most valued and respected teachers.

I would like to share a bit about the creative journey that underlies this special issue. It began with the merging of my interest in creativity as a painter and as a psychoanalyst, my clinical work at the Cult Clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and privately in New York City, and my grounding in cult therapy working with Arnold Markowitz, the clinic’s founder and director, and Libbe Madsen, also in this context. I had the pleasure of inviting the authors who, drawing on professional and, for some, personal experience with cults, greatly deepened my inquiry into this mostly overlooked theme within cultic studies.[2] It is significant that this issue on cults and creativity dovetails with the work of the Phoenix Project and its founder Diana Pletts, who tirelessly encourages and organizes former members and SGAs to present their artwork and creative voices within ICSA’s supportive venues.

The survey and the journal articles start with the question “What do we mean by creativity?” Creativity is one of those terms that in some ways is obvious, but because of its complexity is beyond comprehensive definition. Allen notes that a frequent theme included as part of the definition in the survey responses is freedom: the freedom to express one’s self, the freedom to create, the freedom to create new ideas, the freedom to use one’s imagination. This view seems to reflect the words of social psychologist Morris Stein who, writing during the Cold War, states,

to be capable of [creative insights] the individual requires freedom—freedom to explore, freedom to be himself, freedom to entertain ideas no matter how wild and to express that which is within him without fear of censure or concern about evaluation. (Sawyer, 2006, p. 42)

Psychoanalyst Marion Milner (1987) describes the freedom to be absent-minded—a state hard to imagine in a harmful cult—as a requirement for creativity. In this issue, Steven Gelberg and others point to external and particularly internal freedom as necessary for creativity. Several other authors to some degree challenge this idea of freedom as essential. Boeri and Pressley note that within the confines of their oppressive cults, they experienced the birth of a “secret creative self,” while Melinda Haas discusses two composers who were famous before their severe confinements and continued to produce master works when confined. She notes that the composer Messiaen used his creativity to tolerate his captivity by the Nazis. I suggest that examining pre-cult experience of creativity will refine our assessment of the impact of cults on creativity in future studies.

Over the past years, I have blended my deep involvement with art and a keen interest as a clinician in the neo-Kleinian and postmodern study of creativity, in trauma studies in relation to cults, and more recently in the findings of the new science of creativity. Cult-recovery treatment that focuses on the emergence or reemergence of former members’ or SGAs’ creativity has been my central clinical concern.

I hope this issue will bring cultic studies to the awareness of the new science of creativity as an extreme context within which to explore creativity. This special issue reflects a sociocultural understanding of creativity, looking at the creativity of an individual within the context of the cultic environment. My interest is in “cults” and “creativity” as separate and interrelated fields of inquiry; it builds not only on cultic studies but also on the finding from the science of creativity that, because creativity is multifaceted, there is no one comprehensive tool to measure and define it. This finding is supported by neuroscience’s current belief that there is no section of the brain that determines creativity, nor have biologists identified a specific gene for creativity. Psychodynamic, behavioral, and cognitive approaches to psychology have always looked to the individual to define creativity, while the new science of creativity also includes the fields of sociology, history, and anthropology, thus broadening the inquiry.

I began my thinking about the suppression of creativity in cults within the context of my psychoanalytic training at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies Training Institute in New York City. My thoughts expanded in a chapter I contributed to Miguel Perlado’s (2007) Estudios Clinicos Sobre Sectas (Clinical Studies on Cults), and I thank him for that opportunity; they are now further developed in this introduction, as well as in my article in this issue. I have enjoyed seeing the positive effects of applying these ideas in my clinical work. It has been an honor to work closely with the associate editor Libbe Madsen and with the other contributors of this special issue, Miguel Perlado, Gillie Jenkinson, Colleen Russell, Melinda Haas, Karen Boeri and Karen Pressley, Joseph Szimhart, and Steven Gelberg. I value having worked with the authors who, drawing on professional and, for some, personal experience in cults, turn their attention to the individual, social, and cultural implications of our theme of cults and creativity.

My creative journey guest editing this issue began many years ago with my fascination with clinical examples Libbe Madsen, my professor at the time, drew from her work at the Cult Clinic and presented. “Did she say ‘cult clinic’?” I wondered as I listened attentively to her lectures. I am grateful that the clinic represents an environment where my own creativity as a cult therapist with psychoanalytic and trauma-studies background flourishes. Many years later, occupying Madsen’s position at the clinic after she retired across the country, I continue to benefit from her wisdom. Spending countless hours, we together reviewed, processed, and challenged the contributors, each of whom brought different roles, skills, and interests to the task. Such fluidity of roles would be impossible in a cult. Madsen’s unobtrusive support of my creative process represents one of her own finest forms of creativity: her attunement to the need for linking thoughts and sentences as invaluable not only in the development of coherent writing, but also symbolically, parallel to the work of creating order out of the chaos found in post-cult recovery. I cannot thank her enough.

And then came Ashley Allen, BSW student and SGA, pointed in the direction of the Cult Clinic by Janja Lalich and invited to volunteer by Arnold Markowitz. Her insightful contribution to the collation and evaluation of the survey on cults and creativity is rich in symbolic meaning. Bringing professional and personal interest to the work, she found that the results of the survey elicited a range of responses and raised many questions for further study. One respondent states that creativity is “a bridge between inner and outer experience,” reflecting a psychodynamic leaning that echoes my own. Respondents overwhelmingly feel creativity is suppressed in cults, perhaps because the bridge between internal and external has been to varying degrees blocked or severed. As one respondent summarizes, “the cult dealt with creativity, like all else, as basically about control and manipulation.” Contrast this statement with quotes that capture the essence of creativity. Writes psychologist Rollo May, “[e]very creative encounter is a new event; every time requires another assertion of courage. …. To encounter ‘the reality of experience’ is surely the basis for all creativity” (1975, p. 26); and poet T. S. Eliot, “[f]or the pattern is new in every moment, and every moment is a new and shocking valuation of all we have been” (1943, p. 26). One task of post-cult recovery is finding the courage to experience every moment as new, without fear of reprisal for noncompliance.

A very limited minority of survey respondents feel creativity is enhanced in cults. For example,

I was always interested in music, and the cult’s leaders (who were professional music teachers) encouraged me to learn as much as I could and to create music both as a composer and a saxophonist, to write and to make visual art. I was doing none of these things before joining.

I suggest that in future studies of cults and creativity, specific questions that address variations in available time, space, degree of isolation, and workload are considered as part of assessing the degree to which the individual’s cult experience involved suppression or enhancement of creativity.

Oxford Dictionaries define creativity as “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.” Thinking in terms of productivity, former members and SGAs might disdainfully say one of the few benefits of having been used as slaves in the cult is learning certain skills that make them potentially productive in mainstream society. These skills are sometimes described as “street smarts,” while others cited might be marketing, networking, public speaking, cooking, playing new musical instruments, and the like. The question is, at what cost might the individual gain these skills?

Recent creativity research by Howard Gruber (1974), based on detailed study of Darwin’s journals tracking his development of the theory of evolution, replaces the notion of the flash of creative insight with a view that sees creative products as resulting from long, complex, involved processes that incorporate networks of people and long periods of hard work, during which many independent but connected mini-insights take place (Sawyer, 2006, p. 50). Many former members and SGAs speak of various stretches of time during which such a process could take place, while always also noting that having to meet the leader’s agenda, not to mention the constant fear of interruption or redirection, at best compromised the experience.

A Note About the Cults and Creativity Survey

The survey results are drawn from a qualitative survey of a sample of roughly 175 ex-members and mental health professionals who, though not representative of the broader population of cultists, have considerable expertise or experience with cultic environments. These two subject populations—ex-members/SGAs and mental health professionals—approach the subject from the perspective of personal experience in the former and multiple clinical observations in the latter. Despite the methodological limitations of the survey and the sample, the agreement of the two populations does lend some support to the hypothesis that cult environments tend to suppress creativity. Analyses of the variations within the subject sample (e.g., some saw creativity as enhanced) and of subjects’ narrative responses help to illuminate various aspects of the topic. My psychodynamic analysis of cultic environments suggests that one would expect creativity to be suppressed. The responses of my subjects were consistent with this analysis. Because there is little or no empirical work in this area, ours hopefully will inspire further study.


This introduction to the special issue of CSR assumes that creativity is critical not only for personal well-being but also for the enhancement of society. It questions the individual and global cost when creativity is a prime target of manipulation and control in cults. May (1975) cogently states, “Creativity is ... involved in our every experience as we try to make meaning in our self-world relationship” (p. 134); further, “Creative courage is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which society can be built,” and “in creating new symbols the creative person ‘lives out of their imaginations’” (pp. 21, 22). The antithesis of this is found in cults, as per Robert J. Lifton (1961) who, in his seminal Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, states, “In cults, the leader systematically causes the member’s imagination to become dissociated from actual life experiences,” and it “may even tend to atrophy from disuse” (p. 430). I suggest that the concept “atrophying of imagination” might contribute to our understanding of other concepts regarding the impact of cults; namely, a) the symbolic death and rebirth of self in relation to totalist conversion processes (Stein, 2007, p. 40); b) “the dedicated adherent becom[ing] ‘a true believer’ in the sense of being a deployable agent for the group or leader” (Lalich, 2004b, p. 228); and c) “enter[ing] a social psychological state of being that [Lalich] calls the bounded choice: in essence, life outside the cult has become impossible to imagine” (p. 228).

For many former members and SGAs, there is a “last draw”—a moment or perhaps many, conscious and unconscious, whereby fear of the cult leader and the abuse, shunning, and expelling of the member from cult by the leader’s surrogates leads to self-renunciation of self-expression as part of the bounded choice. Alex Stein describes cultic experience as “a pattern … of praise/punishment, leniency and assault; build up your ego, then break it down in front of a group of people” (Stein, 2002, p. 304). It is possible to imagine that, during the honeymoon stages of the emotional roller coaster ride Stein describes, creativity might be enhanced or at least experienced as such. Haas in the issue states that technique alone can make a commodity, while true creation requires an intuitive leap into the unknown. It is interesting to consider the moments of possible enhancement of creativity that involve solely development of technique rather than true creation.

A moment of great revelation occurred during post-cult recovery treatment when a pre-cult award-winning artist with whom I work stated, after some years, that she was making things in the cult, not in her own creative process. Was the revelation that she was making commodities? In my view, the idea that what characterizes a cult is not the content of the beliefs but the practice of how people are treated parallels the notion that what makes something creative is not the product but the process. In this issue, Jenkinson’s distinction between cult-induced pseudo-creativity and true creativity perhaps dovetails with these suggestions of commodity versus creation, product versus process.

I am interested in exploring how the new recruit is baited with the concept of finding personal freedom in the cult, and then often brutally subjected to a switch that defies the humanistic values first professed. Associating creativity with freedom on various levels, I find that the fundamental psychological impact of cults on members is dehumanization through suppression of the freedom to subjectively symbolize experience. I see cult recovery as rehumanization through the emergence or reemergence of subjectively created symbolic expression. This issue is a monument to those who have been subjected to suppression of creativity and imagination in cults, and especially to those who still struggle with the insidious after-effects. It is also a celebration of the resilience of the creative spirit!

Since research focuses primarily on the artist, this introduction often addresses artistic creativity, although the results for the most part also apply to everyday creativity— where “the process is the product” (Sawyer, 2006, p. 296). I have organized the introduction according to key questions and concepts I developed in my exploration of cults and creativity as separate yet interrelated phenomena. These questions and concepts include the following:

What is meant by creativity?

What is the new science of creativity?

Why is the study of creativity significant?

Cult Recovery Model: Humanism, Dehumanization and Rehumanization.

“Joy Stopping” as an extension of “Thought and Feeling Stopping”

“Gap” and Combinatory Processes as integral to symbol formation.

Denial of loss, filling of gap, and vulnerability to impairment of symbol formation.

Multidisciplinary emphasis on emotion and cognition as intrinsic to creativity.

1. What Is Meant by Creativity?

I explore the concepts of cult and creativity in this introduction as two separate yet interrelated areas of study. This special issue of CSR helps introduce the field of cultic studies to the new science of creativity—a discipline that arose in the 1980s. Researchers in this new discipline have started asking the questions “How are you creative?” rather than “Are you creative?”; and “Where is creativity?” rather than “What is creativity?” Is motivation for creativity intrinsic or situational (Gardner, 1993, p. 37)? I suggest that an understanding of the vicissitudes of creativity within the extreme setting of the totalist environment of cults can greatly inform the science of creativity as it explores the individualist versus contextualist perspectives of creativity. This approach reflects a sociocultural view of creativity that considers equally the individual, the domain (particular areas of mastery with specific symbolic systems such as painting that include a history of innovators, of techniques, and of values), and the field (the judges within society’s institutions, such as museums, art institutes, and so on) that determines whether a domain will allow change within it. Why, for instance, was Cubism allowed to shift the domain of painting and the course of the history of art thereafter? Howard Gardner (1993, p. 9), creativity researcher and psychologist, extends Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (1993, p. 38) schema to illustrate the sociocultural understanding of the components of creativity—i.e., the individual, the domain, and the field (figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. Schema by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

(I suggest Cult occupies the position of Field in Figure 1.)

Figure 2. Schema by Howard Gardner

(I suggest Cult occupies the position of Other Persons as judges in Figure 2. Figures reproduced by Jeff Gherman.)

Figures Copyright © 757400400000 Howard Gardner. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

A sociocultural approach to understanding creativity looks at both the individual’s creativity in terms of talent, biography, personality, and brain function, among other factors, and at a broader societal context that includes “social factors like collaboration, networks of support, education, and cultural background” (Sawyer, 2006, p. 4). Writes Csikszentimihalyi (1996),

the point is not that external opportunities determine a person’s creativity. The claim is more modest, but still extremely important: No matter how gifted a person is, he or she has no chance to achieve anything creative unless the right conditions are provided by the field. … It is possible to single out seven major elements in the social milieu that help make creative contributions possible: training, expectations, resources, recognition, hope, opportunity, and reward. (p. 330)

He further states, “it is impossible to understand creativity without understanding how fields operate, how they decide whether something new should or should not be added to the domain” (1996, p. 330).

Cult, thought of as a symbolic system (Lalich, 2004), can be placed in the position of field in the creativity triangle since the cult leader as “field” attempts to control the creation and use of members’ symbolic expression. According to the postmodern thinking of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, “any culture may be looked upon as an ensemble of symbolic systems, in the front rank of which are to be found language, marriage laws, economic relations, art, science, and religion” (Laplanche and Pontalis, p. 440). Using the three-part schema, one might say that the domain—the particular symbolic system of an art form such as painting, in which the individual member is well trained, is co-opted by the particular symbolic system of the cult in its position as field. The individual’s creativity is then subject to this “self-sealing environment,” to use Lalich’s term. I situate psychodynamic, cognitive, and neuroscientific aspects of creativity within the individual pole of the schema, asking what impact the cultic system, field, has on those aspects explored within those fields.

I contextualize my thinking of cults as the field that professes higher purpose within Lalich’s (2004b) description of cults as symbolic systems in which transcendent belief represents a “symbol system provid[ing] a template for going beyond the ordinary everyday reality; offer[ing] grand solutions by means of authoritative concepts and persuasive imagery” (p. 232). Her discussion of the member’s devotion to the transcendent belief that will bring personal freedom reminds me of the common notion of the artist’s and creative person’s urgency for personal freedom and passionate encounter with experience. It suggests one reason cults might appeal to the artist in particular, especially when the cult uses the arts as proselytizing vehicles, unbeknownst to the new recruit.

The search for personal and universal freedom that finds a cult fully aligns with the humanistic and perhaps counterculture values of the 1960s. Singer (1995), describing this period, states,

...a new set of disturbances in U.S. culture welled up during the 1960s with the expansion of an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, massive upheavals over civil rights, and a profound crisis in values defined by unprecedented affluence on the one hand and potential thermonuclear holocaust on the other. These glaring contradictions aggravated an already disjointed society into an even more unsettled state. (p. 36)

She continues that the 1960s were “fertile ground for cults. … As the nation went through massive social and political changes … the social climate was ripe for cult leaders to appear” (p. 37).

In other parts of society, skeptical “critical theory” was developing within the antiauthoritarian movement of the 1960s; while in contrast, within the walls of cults, the cult leader was viewed as owner of knowledge and language, and author of all doctrine. Radical changes occurred within the domains of theater, such as in the drama of Pinter, Becket, and others; at the same time within cults, the domain of theater, among others, reflected the vision of the cult leader’s mission.

According to Sally Francis, former member of the Fourth Wall Repertory Company of the Sullivanians, early on during auditions, sketch artists performed cutting-edge material that caught the attention of Second City producers (2007, personal communication). At the coercive prompting of Joan Harvey, one of the leaders, members turned down this opportunity and instead remained with the theater that soon became a vehicle for repetitive, rhetorical material that Harvey controlled. By contrast, Russell, in this issue, cites that being given permission to explore and question within the context of an acting studio facilitated her departure from Eckankar, where she too suffered suppression of her creativity.

The potential severity of this control of creativity in cults is well expressed by one survey respondent, who writes,

Creativity wasn't suppressed... it was co-opted, harnessed, used, channeled... from an emotional level, I want to use the word “raped”…

In cults, when the leader tells people they are or are not creative (Aesthetic Realism is notorious for this), we must ask, “According to what and whose definition of creativity?”

Turning to the science of creativity to support the assertion that creativity is multifaceted and cannot be comprehensively defined, I list three salient findings (Treffinger, Young, Selby, & Shepardson, 2002) that are most relevant to my inquiry into the impact of cults on creativity: 1) “No one person possesses all the characteristics, nor does anyone display them all the time” (p. viii); 2) “No single assessment instrument or test provides evidence about all the possible meanings or elements associated with the construct of creativity” (p. xiii); and 3) “The definition you adopt will determine the factors or characteristics you consider to be essential to understanding” (p. viii). Creativity researchers argue that “any one indicator does not generalize across all domains of creative performance or accomplishment, nor does it assess all the elements of creativity” (p. 28). Further, no part of the brain, nor a distinct gene has been identified as a marker for creativity. Recently, The New York Times reported that scientists are trying for the first time to track neurology of the creative process in the brain by observing “biochemicals, electrical impulses, and regions”; and the closing statement by an MIT professor of cognitive neuroscience is “It seems that to be creative is to be something we don’t have a test for” (Cohen, 2010).

I stress these findings to underscore the presumptuousness of cult leaders defining who is and who is not creative. Further, we must recognize that in this issue and the recent cults and creativity study, the definition of creativity as freedom to imagine, feel, and express one’s internal world is reflective of a Western humanistic conception of creativity at this particular time in history and is not comprehensive. In any case, this precise definition is particularly relevant to cultic studies. When freedom is at stake, creativity is at stake.

Lifton writes: “...penetration by the psychological forces of the environment into the inner emotions of the individual person is perhaps the outstanding psychiatric fact of thought reform” (1961, p. 66). Speaking of two of his subjects in his study on POWs in China in the 1950s, upon which he based his theories about cults, he writes,

Each was reduced to something not fully human and yet not quite animal, no longer the adult and yet not quite the child; instead, an adult human was placed in the position of an infant or a subhuman animal, helplessly being manipulated by larger and stronger “adults” or “trainers.” Placed in this regressive stance, each felt himself deprived of the power, mastery, and selfhood of adult existence.

In both, an intense struggle began between the adult man and the child-animal which had been created, a struggle against regression and dehumanization. (p. 67)

Building upon Lifton’s description of thought reform in this extreme circumstance as a dehumanizing process, my thesis is that dehumanization occurs in cults by suppression of symbol formation to communicate subjective feeling, and therefore creativity. Lifton's identification of “the loading of language” as one criterion of mind control specifically speaks to the replacing of subjectively created symbolic language with what he describes as “thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis” (p. 429).

Particularly cogent to an understanding of loading the language as a vehicle for dehumanization in cults is that “man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal” (Burke, 1966, p. 16). Sawyer (2006), speaking from an anthropological perspective, states that

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin speculated on the evolution of art, suggesting that our sense of beauty is shared with other animals including birds and apes, and that music was the origin of human language. (p. 90)

Sawyer says that experts disagree about when, where, and how creative and symbolic thinking first occurred. People closely resembling modern humans appeared more than 130,000 years ago. Many cave paintings in Europe date back 20,000 years, but other creative objects were found from much earlier periods, and some claim that artifacts possessing esthetic qualities appeared as far back as 2,000,000 years. Whatever the historical truth, it is clear that artistic sensibilities have deep roots in human evolution.

Csikszentmihalyi (1996) discusses humans as having the particular sensory equipment to create symbols as a way to make sense of the world, linking this capacity to the development of domains. He states,

[T]he knowledge conveyed by symbols is bundled up in discrete domains— geometry, music, religion, legal systems, and so on. Each domain is made up of its own symbolic elements, its own rules, and generally has its own system of notation. ... The existence of domains is perhaps the best evidence of human creativity. (p. 37)

The notion of man as the symbol-using animal underlies a key premise of this introduction and my article in this issue—i.e., that cults often dehumanize members by impairing, suppressing, restricting members’ subjective creation of symbols.

Philosopher Susanne Langer, who has wide-ranging influence on the neo-Kleinian and postmodern orientations of psychoanalysis upon which I draw, expounded upon the salience of symbol use as intrinsically human. Her thinking draws on Sigmund Freud and Alfred Whitehead. The views of all three thinkers focus on the interdependence of thought and emotion for symbol formation and use as a feature of mental health. The fate of these mental processes in cults thus informs this discussion about the impact of cults on creativity.

I was interested to learn that the term creativity was associated with demonic possession in Greek and Roman times; and during the Christian Middle Ages it was thought that creativity was associated only with the divine, that only the divine creates. During the Renaissance it was believed that art production was all about reason. It is only since the Romantic Period 200 years ago that emotion and imagination have been of interest to the arts and humanities (Sawyer, 2006). It is interesting that across several fields—history of Western art and philosophy, humanistic and psychodynamic psychology, and neuroscience—emotion increasingly is becoming central in the study of the creative process.

Csikszentmihalyi (1996) notes that, “in cultures that are uniform and rigid, it takes a greater investment of attention to achieve new ways of thinking” (p. 9). Preoccupation with fear of being thrown out of the cult or otherwise distanced from receiving the leader’s love and approval often precludes the attention or state of uninterrupted concentration necessary for creativity. As one respondent said, “. . .the emotional energy of trying to live every day while in this group left little energy for or desire to be creative.”

Csikszentmihalyi (1996) eloquently argues for the significance of studying creativity, stating, “. . . the most important message we can learn from creative people is how to find purpose and enjoyment in the chaos of existence” (p. 20). Many people, particularly those self defined as creative, are drawn to cults precisely out of the desire to find purpose and enjoyment in the chaos of existence. Often it is not until post-cult recovery that a former member recognizes that their pre-cult internal and/or external experience of chaos is not solved but rather masked or even repeated within the cult. Russell in this issue observes how the pathogenic beliefs developed by an early trauma were reinforced while she was in a cult.

I now turn to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” to elucidate our theme of cults and creativity. His model looks at societal institutions to determine whether flow or creativity is promoted. He suggests that better training, higher expectations, more accurate recognition, a greater availability of opportunities, and stronger rewards are among the conditions that facilitate the production and assimilation of potentially useful new ideas. His research suggests to him that in addition to these factors, the experience of creativity as flow results from inward motivation as well as a perfect match between the challenge of a task and the individual’s level of skill (1993, pp 200-201). And, in a later book, (1996) Csikszentmihalyi writes, “If too few opportunities for curiosity are available, if too many obstacles are placed in the way of risk and exploration, the motivation to engage in creative behavior is easily extinguished” (p. 11).

Perlado’s (2004) [S1] description of cult involvement as an addiction relates to Csikszentmihalyi’s description of seeking flow as a potentially addictive high.

One might say that, as a species, we are addicted to flow. It is that condition that has enabled us to evolve to the point at which we are now, and it is why we may change into even more complex beings in the future. Ideally, we can derive such deeply satisfying experiences from the real challenges of everyday life, from work, from creative expression, from family relationships, and from friendship. If we can’t, then we will continue to invent substitutes such as chemicals or rituals that will project phantasms of flow onto our consciousness. Because, however, some of these substitutes can be very dangerous, it is worth considering.” (Csikszentmihalyi. 1993, pp. 198-9)

Csikszentmihalyi (1996) discusses the spontaneous passion of flow as an optimal experience that involves effortless concentration and enjoyment. He refers to the hard work that along with joy is intrinsic to creativity, and states, “creative individuals. . . show how joyful and interesting complex symbolic activity is” (p. 125). Some cults refer to themselves as “school” and their mission as “the work,” deceptively recruiting creatively motivated and hard-working students who seek the rigor of training and joy that leads to the experience of flow. Instead, the member often faces an imperfect match between challenge of task and skill level as well as an environment that discourages curiosity. According to Csikszentmihalyi, this leads to anxiety or boredom, the two emotional states that indicate an absence of flow and therefore a lack of well-being. (p. 111)

Addressing obstacles to flow, one survey respondent writes:

While a member of the church, my "artistic flow" decreased incredibly. Before joining I would write poetry and stories as well as produce drawings on a frequent basis. After joining, my inspiration nearly disappeared. I was able to direct this in some ways to my faith but it still took a toll.

In the following section, I discuss a key element of flow, “ecstasy,” within the context of various schools of thought that contribute to the individualistic aspects of understanding creativity. In section five I link the potentially addictive state of flow to what I call the compulsive passion in cults, which I contrast with the joy or spontaneous passion of flow and creativity.

2. Science of Creativity: Contextualist/Individualist Perspectives on Creativity

The contextualist view refers to the sociocultural schema that emerged out of the new science of creativity with the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Howard Gardner, Keith Sawyer, and others. According to Sawyer, “…[C]reativity … is a culturally and historically specific idea that changes from one country to another, and from one century to another” (2006, p. 36). He states earlier in his text, “I explain creativity by bringing together psychological studies of individuals, sociological studies of creating in groups, and anthropological studies of how people from different cultural and social backgrounds perceive and value creative products differently” (p. 4).

Using the individual/domain/field schema, Csikszentmihalyi (1996) provides an excellent analysis of creativity within a particular time in history by discussing Renaissance Florence. He writes,

Of course, the great works of Florentine art would never have been made just because the domain of classical art had been rediscovered, or because the rulers of the city had decided to make it beautiful. Without the individual artist the Renaissance could not have taken place. … At the same time, it must be recognized that without previous models and the support of the city, Brunelleschi [architect of the dome for the Duomo of Florence] and Ghiberti [sculptor of bronze doors for the Baptistery] could not have done what they did. And with the favorable conjunction of field and domain, if these two artists had not been born, some others would have stepped in their place and built the dome and the doors. It is because of this inseparable connection that creativity must, in the last analysis, be seen not as something happening within a person but in the relationships within a system. (p. 36)

My focus on the individualist view from a psychodynamic perspective as both a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst is embedded in a person-in-environment perspective that considers home and society essential components of the individual’s psychological development. I therefore align with the sociocultural approach and here present a detailed exploration of the various disciplines that contribute to my focus on the individualist view within the broader schema. These disciplines include humanistic psychology and the work of thinkers such as Rollo May, Carl Rogers, Morris Stein; research psychology and the work of researchers such as Graham Wallas, J. P. Guilford, Ellis Paul Torrance; psychoanalysis (thinking) and theorists such as Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, Wilfred Bion, Susan Deri, Hannah Segal, Eric Rayner, Jacques Lacan; and neuroscience and the work of Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux, which I explore below.

The eight authors in this issue vary in their emphasis on an individualist versus contextualist view of creativity. They approach the theme from different combinations of psychological, sociological, communications, art historical, and philosophical perspectives.

Miguel Perlado is a psychoanalyst who used a multifamily approach for an exit intervention with the families of both members and leader of a music cult. In his paper, he creatively links cult dynamics with the clinical concept of folie a deux. He presents an extensive literature review of the concept of folie and demonstrates its usefulness in understanding the reciprocity of influence between leader and followers. Perlado writes, “…a group that formed to create music with an emphasis on spontaneity paradoxically developed into a cult-like group that undermined and controlled the members’ creativity.” The individual musicians began studying with this teacher because he spoke of musical innovations such as novel rhythms. In time, the teacher who became the cult leader controlled the lives of the members by inflicting ongoing physical, sexual, and emotional punishment. Perlado’s discussion of the importance of two chance encounters as part of the creative unfolding of the exit intervention reflects the recurring theme of tolerating uncertainty as a key criterion of creativity.

Dana Wehle draws on neo-Kleinian and postmodern psychoanalytic theory to discuss her primary concern—i.e., the individual’s capacity for symbol creation and use as characteristically human and intrinsic to creativity. From the neo-Kleinian school, she draws on Segal, Bion, Winnicott, Milner, Grotstein, and others for whom emphases on the emergence of subjective meaning through symbol creation and use, processes of intermediation between internal and external realities, and development of a creative relation to the world are central. She discusses two potential forms of unconscious communication involving empathy—total and trial projective identification—the first of which leads to loss of boundaries that allows for domination and submission, and the second of which can be used to inform one about another’s experience while maintaining autonomy. From the postmodern school, Wehle draws on Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and others, emphasizing postmodern psychoanalysis’ focus on broader culture and how the power of language controls the individual, social relations, and society. Building on values such as the relativity of meaning, an appreciation of uncertainty, and “the presence of the absence” discussed in particular by Lacan, she discusses the music cult exited by Perlado by applying four hypotheses she developed regarding the degree to which the following criteria of creativity are met or impinged upon in open versus cultic environments: 1) mourning of loss, 2) tolerance of lack/unfilling of gap, 3) tolerance of opposition, and 4) tolerance of uncertainty.

Gillie Jenkinson, a psychotherapist and former cult member, draws on the psychological theories of Winnicott, Perls, and Rogers, and on Lifton’s eight criteria of mind control to examine the way her own creativity was suppressed while in The Love of God Community. She poetically writes that the member’s “creativity was hijacked for the purposes of the group.” She refers to the singing, dancing, and beautiful needlework done by cult members as products of cult-induced pseudo-creativity, in service to the needs of the group, while they often suffered physical and emotional punishment used to exercise control over individual members. Jenkinson notes that recovery from the cult experience means reconnecting with the pre-cult personality and developing a post-cult identity, and presents examples of her clinical work, including use of dreams and sand tray painting, to help her clients access true creativity and begin to heal and move forward in their lives. She goes on to say that the “bounded choice” the cult member makes, reflected in part by the development of cult-induced pseudo-creativity, may only be determined by each individual from the perspective of post-cult recovery.

Colleen Russell is a psychotherapist and former cult member whose creatively written case study makes palpable the nuances of how an environment can be either suppressive or conducive to the unfolding of creativity. She draws on her personal experience of creativity being suppressed while she was involved with Eckancar to present her belief that "corrective emotional experiences"—a concept first posited by Franz Alexander and Thomas Morton French that became a central element in Control-Mastery theory—are critical for recovery. In addition to personal therapy, her own self-discovery was enhanced while she was participating in an intensive acting studio, particularly in her applying ideas from a Jungian perspective to her performance in Ingmar Bergman’s short story “The Touch.” She writes that the safe community of the acting studio, in contrast to the repressive environment of Eckankar, allowed a creative process of character study that enabled her to disconfirm the internalized pathogenic beliefs and, she writes, “helped me reconnect with myself and heal from trauma.”

Melinda Haas, a Jungian analyst, addresses how contemporary Western culture limits creativity and increases vulnerability to the appeal of cults. She identifies a one-sidedness in Western culture in which the rational and logical are privileged. People today yearn for both spiritual expansiveness and its contrast of containment, and they often turn to groups they later discover to be cults. Haas suggests that it may be the creative person who is more deprived of finding what she needs in the culture and is thus more inclined to seek answers that might lead to cults. She notes that these and other individual “cult seekers” are themselves caught in this one-sidedness and asks how to move the culture and society to more wholeness. Haas presents two examples of composers (Ludwig van Beethoven and Olivier Messiaen) for whom confinement did not restrict their previously established connection to the Jungian concept of “psyche,” and who were therefore still able to compose. Distinguishing between Jung’s concepts of “ego” vs. “psyche,” Haas writes,

Gustav Mahler once wrote, “The symphony is the world. It must contain everything within it” (Greenberg, 2001). He is telling us about psyche. Our definition reminds us that psyche contains everything, including ego. Surely one cannot produce a “creation” without using ego functions. Where would the artist be without technique; without tools, instruments, rules, rights and wrongs; without relying on what he or she knows? But if the creator stops there, the result will be a commodity, an ego product that has not been allowed to make the intuitive leap into the unknown.

Thus, for both Beethoven and Messiaen, intimate relationship with their own self-identities provided a degree of protection from the destructive impact of their confining or controlling conditions and even propelled greater creativity.

Miriam Boeri, a sociologist, and Karen Pressley, a graduate student in professional writing, and both former cult members, use concepts from the fields of sociology and communication to examine the ways that cults suppress the natural human inclination to make meaning—i.e., to create. They give examples from their own experience of harsh punishment from leadership directly related to creative endeavors. Pressley was demoted by the leader, Miscavige, from prominent art-related positions within Scientology, while Boeri’s writing of a children’s book while a member of Children of God became the theme of one of David Berg’s very critical “Mo letters.” Their theoretical view begins with the symbolic interactionist perspective that a sense of self develops in a social context. This context is shaped by power dynamics that offer more or less freedom of thought, with cults considered total institutions and located at the more controlling end of the continuum. The power hierarchies of cults deprive members of sovereignty over their creative selves, as described in the authors’ Hegemonic Communication Model and illustrated by two figures in their article. Both Boeri in The Children of God and Pressley in Scientology were initially controlled by these hierarchies, but over time managed the creative solution of developing what the authors call a “secret creative self” that eventually enabled their departures. For each, the process of recovery was based on reclaiming self-sovereignty and, further, led to increased resilience in the face of power demands and increased confidence in her creativity.

Joseph Szimhart, an exit counselor, painter, and former cult member, presents his view of the aesthetic impulse as an effort to make meaning and to make special, and thus as intrinsically related to the spiritual. He shares the view of Ellen Dissanayake that the aesthetic impulse is an evolutionary given, part of an impulse to survive. Developing his own art work, Szimhart followed a number of artists, particularly Nicholas Roerich, in pursuing the teachings of Theosophy, including Blavatsky, a connection that led him to Elizabeth Prophet and Church Universal and Triumphant. He examines his own intense personality change through the process of embracing a path, recognizing its restrictions, and finding a way out, illustrated by colorful examples. While in these groups, he was told what paint colors he could and could not use; and he had great fear, guilt, and shame if he disobeyed. He writes, “We make a transcendental idea or experience special by surrounding it with myth, ritual, and devotion. The form and activity it takes is the cult or religion. To me, this is similar to a creative impulse that must risk manifestation in form to succeed or fail—to be realized, to mean something, to live or die." He notes the irony that “Aha!” moments were part of both his conversion process into the cult and also of his recovery when, triggered by a color, he was able to make new connections outside the cult perspective.

Steven Gelberg, photographer, student of theology, and former cult member, begins with the belief that for any action to be creative requires that the creator be relatively free, externally and particularly internally. Using as an example his seventeen years with ISKCON, the Hare Krishna movement, he contrasts the ways a cult member’s freedom is ostensibly supported but in reality is controlled. He believes most basically that artistic creation is an expression of the personal, of the individual’s own experience, while a cult demands creation in service to the higher purpose of the group. The truly creative act comes from the authentic self, from focusing on what is unique within. An independent person is free to enjoy the beauty and majesty of the temporal world, for example, while the cult member must avoid sensory gratification in favor of what is deemed valuable by the leader. Growing disillusionment led to Gelberg’s departure from ISKCON, at which point he celebrated his discovery of the value and pleasure of uncertainty. He studied theology, and then, wanting a more bodily involvement with the physical world, moved on to photography, which became a means of personal healing. His article includes a personal credo of photography that reclaims for him both the perception and expression of his authentic self.

At this juncture I present four examples of Individualist perspectives. They are Psychodynamic/Psychoanalytic, Psychological Creativity Stage Models, Neuroscientific, and Cognitive. [3]


Lifton (1961) writes,

The ethos of psychoanalysis and of its derived psychotherapies is in direct opposition to that of totalism. Indeed, its painstaking and sympathetic investigations of single human minds place it within the direct tradition of those Western intellectual currents which historically have done most to counter totalism: humanism, individualism, and free scientific inquiry. (p. 446)

As opposed to classical psychoanalysis, contemporary psychoanalysis fully situates itself in a person-in-environment framework, and the unconscious is viewed not only as a site of repression, but as the source of generative and ongoing creativity experienced in the form of dreams, fantasies, slips of the tongue, metaphor, metonymy, and so on. Reflecting this view, Joseph Newirth (2003) discusses changes in "the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious, from a view of the unconscious as [only] a center of pathological relatedness to a view of the unconscious as a developing structure that is a source of creativity, strength, and energy” (p. xviii). In contemporary approaches, interpretation of symbols is no longer attached to set meaning related to repression of sexual and aggressive drives. Creativity researchers from other disciplines within psychology today incorporate the concept of the unconscious within the stage of creativity they call “incubation,” to be further discussed here within the context of psychological models of creativity. This is important to our discussion of cults and creativity because it is this unrepressed unconscious—the source of creativity—that becomes suppressed in cults. In fact, cult leaders often proclaim that they are the source of all creativity.

As noted earlier, a pioneer in the study of symbol formation and a great influence on the neo-Kleinian school of psychoanalysis, philosopher Suzanne Langer (1942), built upon early 20th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, sharing his belief that “philosophy is based not on reason alone, but one that includes ... ‘feeling.’ ...not simply affect...” but “...the total capacity of the human organism to experience his or her world” (Whitehead, in May, 1975/1994, p. 134). This emphasis on emotion is a recent addition to the history of Western philosophy. Langer (1942) also drew on Freud, stating,

The great contribution of Freud to the philosophy of mind has been the realization that human behavior is not only a food-getting strategy, but is also a language; that every move is at the same time a gesture. Symbolization is both an end and an instrument. (p. 26)

Langer develops Freud’s belief in “the fundamentally symbolic function of the mind” (p. 51) and writes, “the power of using symbol makes [man] lord of the earth” (p. 26).

Describing Langer’s work, Eric Rayner (1995) states that she has had a far-reaching influence on psychoanalytic thinking with her views that symbol formation differentiates humans from animals, and that art is a symbol of feeling. She categorizes language into two forms: discursive and presentational, whereby “she makes it plain that psychoanalytic symbols are essentially presentational. … [and] presentational symbolism, and metaphor in particular, is the central verbal means of communicating affects” (p. 17).

Rycroft (1968), drawing on Langer states, “the various ‘impractical’ apparently unbiological activities of man, such as religion, magic, art, dreaming, and symptom-formation … arise from a basic human need to symbolize and communicate, and are really languages” (p. 61). Thinking about the rituals in cults within this context underscores the harm done when “the human need to symbolize and communicate” is so methodically compromised.

Describing presentational symbolism, Langer (1942) states that “outside of the rational domain is the inexpressible realm of feeling, of formless desires and satisfactions, immediate experience, forever incognito and incommunicado,” and this is what therapy seeks to help the patient formulate and/or experience (p. 86).

Winnicott, who has written vastly about “transitional objects” and other aspects of symbol formation and use, offers a clear understanding of the task of symbolic processing when he states (1971), “the individual is engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated” (p. 2). Similarly, psychoanalyst Susan Deri (1984) notes that “since the specifically human mode of communication is symbolic, symbolization is the central issue in human psychology” (p. 61). I believe that since feelings are both dictated and minimized in cults, understanding the importance of symbol formation and its mechanisms based on Langer and other theorists cited offers much to post-cult recovery.

Deri, in the Kleinian psychodynamic tradition, sees the capacity for symbol formation and use as integral to well-being; she states,

symbols both link the person to the environment and provide the basis for communication with the self. It is through symbols that we become in touch with ourselves. (p. 29)

Further, neo-Kleinian Wilfred Bion states, “the mind is an instrument for thinking about emotional experiences" (in Meltzer and Harris, 1988, p. 7), and further suggests, “when the [symbol-forming] linking function between subject and environment is severed, when the environment fails to contain the subject’s unmanageable and powerful emotions, one effect is that the impulse of curiosity on which all learning depends” is disturbed (Bion, 1950). Former members/SGAs often say that it was easier to stop thinking for themselves than to face their cult-induced pervasive fears as built upon pre-cult personality. In terms of how this plays out in cults, Conway and Siegelman quote Patrick, who states, “Thinking to a cult member is like being stabbed in the heart with a dagger. It's very painful because they've been told that the mind is Satan and thinking is the machinery of the Devil" (p. 60).

Newirth (2003) reflects both neo-Kleinian and postmodern thinking with which I fully align my views. He states,

“Th[is] model of the person as subject reflects a postmodern focus on language, the ambiguity of meaning, the existence of multiple realities, issues of political and personal power, and the pervasive impact of culture in defining psychic and material reality. … A critical element in the views of the person as a subject, and one that defines the postmodern perspective, is an emphasis on language as a means of creating meaning and reality and as a powerful tool influencing and controlling the other’s experience of self and reality. … The Kleinian approach does not focus on the discovery and clarification of past or present experience, but rather on the development of symbolic experience that leads to the development of a new psychological entity, the person as a subject. Ogden (1992) captures this important element in the Kleinian view of the psychoanalytic process when he says that ‘analysis is not simply a method of uncovering the hidden; it is more importantly a process of creating an analytic subject who had not previously existed.’ (pp. 37-38, 41)

There is an overlap with respect to emphasis on emotions and self-realization between psychoanalysis and humanism. May states, “There are now Rorschach responses, for example, that indicate that people can more accurately observe precisely when they are emotionally involved—that is, reason works better when emotions are present…” (p. 49). And he sees the “[c]reative process [as] represent[ing] the highest degree of emotional health, as an act of self-actualization” (p. 40). Similarly, Rycroft states, “Psychoanalysis interprets human behavior in terms of the self that experiences it … and regards th[at] self as a psychobiological entity which is always striving for self-realization and self-fulfillment” (1966, p. 20). This idea links to the discussion below about the prominent place emotion now holds within neuroscientific research on creativity.

Lalich (2004b) describes Lifton’s concept of “personal closure” by stating,

the person turns inward, refusing to look at or consider other ideas, beliefs, or options. The personal closure that is the culmination of cultic life is profoundly confining because the individual is closed to both the outside world and her or his own inner life. (p. 243)

Within the individual component of the sociocultural schema, “inner life” is part of the emotional realm that is addressed by psychodynamic, neuroscientific, and, more recently, cognitive approaches to creativity.

Psychological Creativity Stage Models

According to Csikszentmihalyi (2006),

Most problems are already formulated; everybody knows what is to be done and only the solution is missing. … But there are also situations in which nobody has asked the question yet, nobody even knows that there is a problem. In this case the creative person identifies both the problem and the solution. (p. 95)

Building on this view, Sawyer notes that problem solving is equated with convergent thinking and problem finding with divergent thinking, and that most creativity researchers view both aspects as intrinsic to creativity (p. 73). For problem finding, formulating good questions is a primary way that creativity is manifest. Because questioning is forbidden in cults, I suggest that divergent problem finding is greatly challenged. A recent Newsweek article discusses the work of creativity researcher Mark Runco, stating, “the inability to conceive of alternative approaches [via divergent thinking] … leads to despair”; he considers the “alternation between divergent and convergent thinking” as intrinsic to “original and useful ideas, the very definition of creativity” (Bronson and Merryman, 2010).

In this section, I examine psychological creativity stage models to consider which might support creative functioning in a cult, and which stages might present potential obstacles. Particularly relevant to our theme are those stages of creativity that describe combinatory processes since cultic thinking, language, and practice are characterized by rigidity and lack of flow. A section is fully devoted to combinatory processes below.

A key cognitive capability is combining disparate elements to create meaning, such as through metaphor or analogy. Wallas’ (1926) four-step model of the creative process, is considered a standard and includes preparation (“detecting a problem and gathering data”), incubation (“stepping away from the problem for a period of time”), illumination (“a new idea or solution emerges, often unexpectedly”), and verification (“the new idea or solution is examined or tested”) (Treffinger, et al., 2002, p. 34). I will discuss the stages relevant to potential stifling of feeling and thought in cults. When applying these concepts about creativity to cults, it is important to remember that ongoing research from the 1950s to the present continues to conclude that 1) the definition of creativity is multifaceted and cannot be comprehensively measured; 2) some areas of creativity such as marketing or business are easier to quantitatively study than others such as poetry or dance; 3) cults vary in general according to severity of harm inflicted and specifically regarding creativity; and 4) individual differences regarding creativity, including pre-cult experience and self-identity, exist within the cultic environment.

Wallas’ stages are elaborated upon as follows:

Preparation—becoming immersed in problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 79).

Regarding preparation, Sawyer notes that “without first learning what’s already been done, a person doesn’t have the raw material to create with” (2006, p. 59). In cults, access to information and knowledge is controlled. A member who was a student of a particular artistic domain before the cult may come with such background, but the cult leader might at any time require this member to work in a domain she knows nothing about.

Incubation—ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 79).

States Sawyer (2006) “…[M]ost creativity researchers (cognitive and social psychologists) think that the incubation stage is guided in some way by conceptual structures, by association networks, or by unconscious processes of evaluation” (p. 94). It is this stage that represents the mental capability of combining and recombining to form symbols as communicators of feeling, per Langer and the others. One must only think of the best poets, and our own flashes of humor and poetic thought, to value this aspect of our brain functioning.

Sawyer (2006, pp. 60-61) quotes William James in describing the unconscious experience of the Incubation stage:

Instead of thoughts or concrete things patiently following one another ... we have the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another ... the most unheard-of combinations of elements, the subtlest associations of analogy. In a word, we seem suddenly introduced into a seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.

This drama tends to flatten in cults, although perhaps at times there is a vacillation between the exuberance of the creative moment and opposing forces that attempt to stop it. Rayner, from a psychodynamic point of view states, “[thinking] is a complex dynamic system” that involves “dynamic combinatorial activity” (1995, p. 13). Deri (1984) states, “This rearrangement of old elements into new gestalts is the essence of all productive, creative thinking” (p. 36).

Sawyer (2006) continues, “creativity results when the individual somehow combines these existing elements and generates some new combination” (p. 59). In the incubation stage in Wallas’ model, the generating ideas stage in the NRCG/T model, and perhaps the operations stage in the Characteristics, Operations, Context, and Outcomes (COCO) model, there is consistent emphasis on the need for fluidity, for the presence of uncertainty and chance that is within a coordinated flow. These factors, as I have said, are necessary for spontaneous passion, play, creativity, flow.

In the cult, generating a new combination might be possible only within the inconsistent and unpredictable limitations set by the leader. Amy Siskind describes the panicked reaction of the Sullivanians to Three Mile Island, with predictions of nuclear devastation and germ warfare triggering a deepening of their paranoia (Shaw, 2006). It is easy to imagine that, within this context, the degree of attention necessary for flow is lacking as survival needs preclude a rich incubation period that allows for creative transformation and unconscious combinatory processes leading to innovation.

The remaining stages of Wallas’ (1926) model of creativity are

Illumination/Insight—“[T]he ‘Aha!’ moment when the puzzle starts to fall together” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 80). Sawyer (2006) adds, “A creative insight is never 100% original. What makes an insight novel is the way that these existing ideas are put together” (p. 67).

Verification/Evaluation—“deciding whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing” (1996, p. 80). Sawyer adds, “the creator usually experiences a continued cycle of mini-insights and revisions while elaborating the insight into a finished product” (p. 70).

Another model that draws on Wallas is created by NRCG/T (Treffinger, et al., 2002). It is significant that the fourth stage of this model includes emotions as part of its stage theory.

Generating ideas—combining

Digging deeper

Openness and courage to explore ideas

Listening to one’s inner voice

The “generating ideas” stage of the NRCG/T model and Wallas’ incubating are very significant because this is where we can find impairment in creativity in cults. This stage includes cognitive characteristics commonly referred to as divergent thinking “...involv[ing] the development of a large number of possibilities, many arrived at as the result of shifts in one’s perception and thinking, and adding details and expanding ideas as the process continues” (Treffinger et al., 2002, p. 45).

Sawyer (2006) states, that “of all of the mental processes studied by cognitive psychologists, the ones thought to be most relevant to creativity are conceptual combination, metaphor, and analogy” (p. 65); in other words, what Guilford identified as the “divergent processes” (p. 44). It’s creative to combine two concepts to make a single new one. … Sawyer notes that “the generative processes produce ideas, filtering processes select among these ideas, and exploratory processes expand on the potential of each idea,” as well as “information retrieval, association, and combination…” (p. 65).

The “listening to one’s inner voice” category—particularly relevant to our discussion—includes “traits that involve a personal understanding of who you are, a vision of where you want to go, and a commitment to do whatever it takes to get there”. This category includes “awareness of creativeness, … self-direction, internal locus of control, introspective, freedom from stereotyping, concentration, energy, and work ethic” (Treffinger, et al., 2002, p. 8). The COCO model (Characteristics, Operations, Context, and Outcomes) is similar to the sociocultural approach of Csikszentmihalyi that looks at individual, domain, and field. Proposed by Treffinger (1988, 1991), the COCO model suggests that “creative productivity arises from the dynamic interactions among the four essential components”:

Characteristics include the personal characteristics of the creative individual.

Operations involve the strategies and techniques people employ to generate and analyze ideas, solve problems, make decisions, and manage their thinking.

Context includes the culture, the climate, the situational dynamics such as communication and collaboration, and the physical environment in which one is operating.

Outcomes are the products and ideas that result from people's efforts.

Creative productivity is best described as a dynamic, complex system, in which all four components are interdependent. These components can either facilitate or inhibit one's expression of creativity in observable ways within any domain of human effort.” (Treffinger, et al., 2002, p. x)

Significant to this model and the NRCG/T model is the incorporation of a person’s history, as suggested by researcher Amabile (1983). Because the cult denies the member any attachment to pre-cult life, the notion of personal history disappears. I suggest therefore that cult recovery treatment consider pre-cult as well as cult and post-cult experience in assessing the impact of cults on the creativity of a particular individual.


Neuroscience has recently joined psychoanalysis in viewing emotion as central to an understanding of creativity. Cognitive neuroscientist and neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his seminal book Descartes’ Error (1994), writes, “…the reasoning system evolved as an extension of the automatic emotional system” (p. xi). He came up with a concept called “the somatic-marker mechanism” that a reviewer of his book The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion, and the Making of Consciousness (1999), Bruce G. Charlton, M.D., describes “is the way in which cognitive representations of the external world interact with cognitive representations of the internal worlds—where perceptions interact with emotions” (2000, pp. 99-101). Charlton continues,

Damasio has suggested that while the senses of vision, hearing, touch, taste smell function by nerve activation patterns that correspond to the state of the external world; emotions are nerve activations patterns that correspond to the state of the internal world.

The highly influential philosopher Langer (1942) many decades earlier discusses perception as both a selective and a condensing process. She writes, “The material furnished by the senses is constantly wrought into symbols, which are our elementary ideas” (1942, p. 42); “[t]he human brain is constantly carrying on a process of symbolic transformation of the experiential data that come to it” (p. 47); and “as far as thought is concerned, and at all levels of thought, mental life is a symbolic process” (p. 27). Damasio (1994) writes, “brain systems that are jointly engaged in emotion and decision-making are generally involved in the management of social cognition and behavior” (p. xiii). In his 2005 preface to Descartes’ Error, he writes about a hope he had when it was first written that “a two-way bridge could be established between neurobiology and the humanities, thus providing the way for a better understanding of human conflict and for a more comprehensive account of creativity” (p. xiv). He qualifies, “the intent is not to reduce ethics or esthetics to brain circuitry but rather to explore the threads that interconnect neurobiology to culture” (p. xiv). I believe the study of cults and creativity is enhanced by considering brain science’s recent focus on the interface between body, emotion, cognition, and creativity. I wonder about the neurological effect of fear and induced phobia (Hassan, 1988, p. 65) on creativity within “the social psychological state of the bounded choice.” Lalich (2004b) states,

…the believer becomes a true believer at the service of a charismatic leader or ideology. In such a context, in relation to personal power and individual decision making, [my emphasis] that person’s options are severely limited as the devotee lives in a narrow realm of constraint and control, of dedication and duty. (p. 238)

Neuroscience studies the interdependence of emotion and thought for decision-making as a component of creativity. The study of cults and creativity in this regard might advance Damasio’s hope of bridging neurobiology and culture. I question how the leader’s manipulation of cult members’ emotion and decision-making affects their “management of social cognition and behavior” on a neural level.

According to online book reviewer James Hitt (2000), neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux (1996) studies the fear system of the brain and identified the amygdala as “mediat[ing] between the stimulus and the fearful bodily reaction. …The amygdala prepares a person’s body; heart rate increases, stress hormones are released, blood pressure rises, and attention is focused. The body is geared for freezing, fleeing, or fighting.”

Jenkinson in this issue writes of the fear in the Love of God Community:

…[I]n time the creative arts were used as a vehicle of torture for the music group and later the whole community, pushing them to perform more and more perfectly and punishing and admonishing them if they did not. The punishments evolved from verbal chastisement, threats of damnation in hell and God’s punishment and rebuking sessions, through to beatings with a hairbrush, progressing to beatings with a bamboo cane.… It was clear that the group had failed, and an atmosphere of fear very quickly spread from the music group to the rest of the community, generating a period of dread and dependency.

Charlton, explaining Damasio’s thinking that emotions are brain representations of body states, notes, “If we experience a state of fear, then our brains will record this body state in nerve cell activation patterns obtained from neural and hormonal feedback, and this information may then be used to adapt behavior appropriately” (2000, pp. 99-101). In Descartes’ Error, Damasio (1994) discusses Gardner’s (1983) concept of “social intelligence” and suggests a link between decision-making, which relies on both emotion and reason, and “social intelligence,” and connects good decision-making with survival (p. 169). I question how neuroscienctific language might be applied to what Hassan describes as “thought stopping” and what he also infers is “feeling stopping” with his words, “[e]motional control, the third part of mind control, attempts to manipulate and narrow the range of a person’s feelings” (1988, pp. 62–63). I question how loaded language, such as “we are not our feelings,” often heard in the Gurdjieff group, for instance, might neurologically affect the member’s decision making processes, and therefore creativity.

Damasio (1964), in his hope of bridging neurobiology with culture, concludes, “[t]o understand in a satisfactory manner the brain that fabricates human mind and human behavior, it is necessary to take into account its social and cultural context” (p. 260). In a later book (2001), he states that creativity “cannot be reduced simply to the neural circuitry of an adult brain and even less to the genes behind our brains” (cited in Sawyer, 2006, p. 83).

As discussed above, the sociocultural view represented by the Science of Creativity aligns with this multidisciplinary understanding. Gardner (2001) writes, “you could know every bit of neurocircuitry in somebody’s head, and you still would not know whether or not that person was creative (p. 130). Sawyer further notes,

[a]ll of the evidence suggests that creativity is not coded in our genes. And decades of study have found no evidence that creativity is localized to any specific brain region; in fact, all of the evidence suggests that creativity is a whole-brain function, drawing on many diverse areas of the brain in a complex systemic fashion.… To explain creativity, we need to look to the higher levels of explanation offered by psychology, sociology, and history… (p. 95)

Damasio (1994), emphasizing both progress and limitations within neuroscience as a vehicle for understanding the functioning of the mind and creativity, views scientific results as “provisional approximations.” He writes, “But skepticism about the current reach of science, especially as it concerns the mind, does not imply diminished enthusiasm for the attempt to improve provisional approximations” (p. xxii). The study of cults and creativity has much to gain from neuroscientific studies that explore links among the body, emotion, thought, decision-making, and creativity, all prime targets of psychological manipulation in cults.

Cognitive Psychology

We might better understand the common refrain by former cult members and SGAs, “I could no longer think or feel for myself,” when we consider Harvard education researcher Ron Ritchart’s (1998) statement, “[i]f we are serious about promoting good thinking, we have to pay attention to the role of emotions. … they always precede” (p. 11). Current cognitive research is taking another look at Aaron Beck’s (2008) and cognitive psychology’s belief that cognition controls emotion. Reflecting on this, Damasio (2005 preface to 1994) notes the historic “neglect of emotion as a research topic” and states, “[b]ehaviorism, the cognitive revolution and computational neuroscience did not reduce this neglect in any appreciable way” (p. x). In an informative Internet blog David Johnson (2008) provides an overview of some efforts made within cognitive psychology to recognize the interplay between emotion and thought. Promoting expansion of this view, he asks in his title, “Is there a place for emotion in cognitive theory?” and summarizes, “[e]motion can provide a linking concept between the body and the mind, between neurophysiology and cognitive psychology.”

3. Why Is the Study of Creativity Significant?

Addressing creativity within oppressive societies, May (1975) discusses the courage to doubt as integral to the courage to create. Although creativity was a focus of psychodynamic study since Freud, it was first researched within the field of psychology in the United States by J. P. Guilford in the 1950s, and in the 1960s by Ellis Paul Torrence within the context of the cold war. Competition with the Soviet Union motivated our government to fund the research of creativity, having an impact on educational curriculum and testing, among other outcomes. In 1954, humanist psychologist Carl Rogers warned that “[w]ithin the context of the high-stakes game during the nuclear arms race “international annihilation will be the price we pay for a lack of creativity” (in Sawyer, 2006, p. 41). Sawyer (2006) notes that “… Like Carl Rogers and Morris Stein, [other] creativity researchers believed they were defending freedom and helping to save the world from nuclear annihilation” (p. 43).

Summarizing creativity as an intrinsic part of being, and integrating individualist and contextualist perspectives on creativity, Csikszentmihalyi, states that “a joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe” (1990, p. xi). The popularity of his ideas is exemplified in the following excerpt, included in an online summary of his thinking posted by University of Southern California Human Resources. It says,

According to Csikszentmihalyi, people focus their life activities in accordance with two powerful motivations. One is the ability to enjoy being creative for the sake of exploration and invention which has over generations enhanced human society’s ability to survive in an unpredictable world. The other is to derive pleasure from comfort and relaxation which allows us to rejuvenate ourselves and to recover our energy in order to maintain overall health and well-being. A balance of these two motivations can lead to enhanced creativity. (Enhance Your Wellbeing Through Creativity)

And with a global sense of urgency, Bronson and Merriman’s Newsweek article cited earlier states that if creativity is ignored,

The potential consequences are sweeping. The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the no. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others. (Bronson and Merryman, 2010)

The message of this and other recent articles (Cohen, 2010) is that creativity in the United States has been declining continually since the 1990s. With society’s urgent need to understand what enhances creativity, I suggest that the articles in this special issue contribute not only to the field of cultic studies, but also to the new field of the science of creativity.

4. Cult Recovery Model: Humanism, Dehumanization, and Rehumanization

Freedom to imagine, to think, to feel, and to be self-defined are fundamental humanistic values that underlie the view of creativity commonly noted by survey respondents and authors. I find that the fundamental psychological impact of cults on members is dehumanization through suppression of creativity and imagination, and more specifically through suppression of the freedom to subjectively symbolize and express experience. As noted above, this view builds on the concept that man is by nature the symbol-using animal. Further building upon Lifton’s description of thought reform in extreme circumstance as a dehumanizing process (p. 67), I see cult recovery treatment as one that focuses on rehumanization through the encouragement of spontaneous symbol creation to reclaim the joy of creating subjective meaning in the form of humor, play, metaphor, analogy, and so on, and in turn to enhance self-esteem and the potential to contribute to society.

In my clinical work with former cult members and SGAs, I propose that rehumanization through encouragement of subject creation of meaning through fluidity of symbol formation be a central focus of treatment. It is heartwarming to witness over time in these individuals the emergence of metaphor out of near catatonic depression, the writing in journals after this very activity became a major trigger post-cult as the result of cult requirements, and the slow building upon pre-cult relationship to creativity.

I submit that observing and studying an individual’s attitudes about creativity, both at his joining and leaving a cult, in relation to the leader’s stated and implied beliefs about creativity yields an important layer in unpacking the complexities of psychological manipulation in cults.

5. “Joy Stopping” As an Extension of “Thought and Feeling Stopping”

A sense of ecstasy is a key characteristics of “flow,” and therefore creativity. Csikszentmihalyi speaks of a sense of ecstasy as an experience outside of everyday reality. Concepts about ecstasy in relation to creativity from other disciplines that predate his concept of flow extend the discussion to include the one who appreciates an aesthetic encounter, in addition to the one who creates.

Art Historian Bernard Berenson (1948) describes the joy and ecstasy that accompanies viewing artwork. He writes,

...the aim is that flitting instant, so brief as to be almost timeless, when the spectator is at one with the work of art he is looking at, or with actuality of any kind that the spectator himself sees in terms of art, as form and color. He ceases to be his ordinary self, and the picture or building, statue, landscape, or aesthetic actuality is no longer outside himself. The two become one entity; time and space are abolished and the spectator is possessed by one awareness. When he recovers workaday consciousness, it is as if he had been initiated into illuminating, exalting, formative mysteries. (p. 93)

Psychoanalyst and pediatrician D. W. Winnicott differentiates between compulsive passion, which I associate with that often found in cults, and spontaneous passion, which is represented by the flow state. I link Winnicott’s

“compulsive passion” to Lifton (1961), who states that “imposed peak experiences—as contrasted with those more freely and privately arrived at by great religious leaders and mystics—are essentially experiences of personal closure” (p. 436). Winnicott’s (1971) concept that spontaneous passion accompanies creativity aligns with creativity researcher Gruber (1974). As noted above, he suggests creativity may occur as a methodical building up of insights in steady and small increments rather than as one sudden flash of genius. Steady and spontaneous passion and creativity contrasts with compulsive passion, which Winnicott (1936) associates with the play of traumatized children that involves repetitive, predictable, and often frenzied gestures that lack the joy of “flow.” I wonder how the pre-cult member’s or new cult recruit’s experience of spontaneous passion as artist or otherwise becomes a compulsive passion as cult entrenchment deepens. I see this as a central element of the bait-and-switch operation in cults.

May (1994) writes,

...[creativity] may have a religious quality with artists. This is why many artists feel that something holy is going on when they paint that there is something in the act of creativity which is like a religious revelation. (p. 69)

Many of these statements that support the notion of a joyous, ecstatic, religious experience related to creativity speak to cult violation of members’ aesthetic and spiritual self-expression by the phenomenon Lifton named Mystical Manipulation. He states,

ideological totalists do not pursue this approach solely for the purpose of maintaining a sense of power over others. Rather they are impelled by a special kind of mystique. Included in this mystique is a sense of ‘higher purpose,’ … Whatever [the group member’s] response—whether he is cheerful in the face of being manipulated, deeply resentful, or feels a combination of both—he has been deprived of the opportunity to exercise his capacities for self-expression and independent action. (pp. 422, 423)

The fundamental impact of psychological manipulation of members in cults is dehumanization through the suppression of symbol formation, creativity, and imagination. This occurs through coercive enforcement of what Lifton refers to as “thought terminating clichés” (p. 429). He states,

For an individual person, the effect of the language of ideological totalism can be summed up in one word: constriction. He is, so to speak, linguistically deprived; and since language is so central to all human experience, his capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely narrowed. (p. 430)

Hassan (1988) refers to the use of “thought-stopping techniques” in cults. He states, “Thought-stopping is the most direct way to short-circuit a person’s ability to test reality,” and “… when thought is controlled, feelings and behaviors are controlled as well” (p. 63). I must note here that I have not found the term feeling stopping in the literature, although it is inferred, as per Hassan’s statement. I find “feeling stopping” to be a convenient and important extension of the term thought stopping, and one I have heard in dialogue, although apparently not documented. Neuroscience supports psychodynamic thinking that psychological trauma impairs the link between thought/emotion and symbol formation/creativity; and I suggest that thought and feeling stopping might contribute to such impairment in cults. Building on this, I suggest that “joy stopping” occurs when members learn to avoid or shut down the joy that would, under nonoppressive circumstances, accompany the optimal experience and flow of subjectively expressed creativity. While symbols are vehicles to joyfully bridge disparate elements of thought and feeling as a way to create subjective meaning, undue psychological stress is often characterized by impairment to symbol formation, accompanied by black-and-white thinking and often fear, dread, and isolation. Some joy stopping in cults is obvious, as when communal house leaders use cult doctrine to induce in children spiritually based fear about playing and enjoying themselves. To avoid beatings or harsh reprimands, the children, and in fact individuals of all ages might utilize joy stopping to suppress individual desire to symbolically express themselves through play, music, art or in any form that asserts autonomy.

The role of fear comes up quite often, because if inclination to create is accompanied by fear, cognitive dissonance arises and the need to resolve the dissonance ensues. Joy stopping might be one way to solve the intolerable conflict.

6. Gap and Combinatory Processes in Symbolic Functioning

It is quite significant that all the major creativity-stage models include a stage that involves the combining and recombining of elements. Wallas refers to this as the incubation stage, NCRG/T as the generating-ideas stage, and the COCO models as the operations stage. Postmodern thinking suggests that besides thinking and feeling, psychic space for sliding thoughts and feelings—referred to as gap—is intrinsic to symbol formation as a combining process that allows for the generation of meaning. Unfilled psychic space/gap is necessary for the fluid combining and recombining of thoughts, feelings, and so on into symbolic representations. Tolerance of uncertainty is necessary to avoid addictive solutions, such as cult involvement, to the common human quest for absolute truth. Einstein states, “combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought” (Hadamard, 1945, p.142, as cited in Sawyer, p. 62). I suggest that denial of loss and intolerance of the unknown in cults enables the suppression of symbol formation and the psychic play necessary for creativity.

My cult-recovery treatment approach—drawing on psychodynamic and postmodern thinking—encourages the reemergence of fluid and original symbol formation and use in language (verbal and nonverbal) through maintenance of the abstract idea of gap. This gap allows for sliding within the symbolic systems of language, social relations, and society. In language, sliding allows for creation of metaphor, analogy, and other forms of combining processes directed toward communication; in social relations sliding allows for mutuality and the fluid reversal of roles when appropriate; and within society sliding patterns within social systems allow for a check on the type of hegemonic power dynamic within society that Boeri and Pressley discuss in this issue. With an awareness of the suppression of creativity in cults, I propose that an essential ingredient of cult recovery is the development of a new relationship to the concept and experience of “lack.” Because the implication in cults, and in fact in our culture as well, is that “lack” suggests failure, replacing this idea with a deep valuing of unfilled psychic gap can support the movement and fluidity intrinsic to creative processing.

Personal closure can be seen in the closure of gap when cult member language is used more as a reactive “sign” than a symbol of thought and feeling. Communication through symbolic language requires room to slide, to take form, and to re-form. This is the basis of great poetry, humor, dreams, fantasies, and such. “Sign” is a response to something without first conceptualizing it, such as a response to a green light. When members have come to the point of not thinking or feeling for themselves and instead use “loaded language,” this may be seen as the use of sign rather than symbolic expression of experience and emotions. Cult recovery treatment from a neo-Kleinian and postmodern perspective involves encouragement of symbolic thinking as vehicle to express emotion and thought. A short clinical vignette illustrates slippage within the gaps of language that allows for creation of metaphor to capture emotion otherwise hard to articulate. Such subjective creation of meaning, while always specific to the individual, is a goal of post-cult recovery.

A: Guess you noticed that I didn’t name the topic directly today.

P: Yes I did, and I so appreciate it. [very sad pause] Guess I still need to be dancing around it.

A: [pause] But at least you are on the dance floor.

P: [surprised, she looks up, nods, and smiles]

A: What’s it like for you there?

P: Just you and me standing around, I guess. Guess I could ask you if you want to dance.

A. [I nod and smile] We are dancing. It’s a formal dance.

P: I know. We’re getting there. It’s just so hard. I just don’t feel like talking about it today. Is that okay?

One way to understand how lack or gap in language manifests is by looking at Lifton’s “loaded language,” thought-terminating clichés. Jacques Derrida offers a useful way to understand the opposite of this in free-flowing language, such as with the spontaneous use of puns. He states:

…meaning “slips” in the act of transmission. Words contain within themselves traces of other meanings than their assumed primary one. It would probably be better to talk of a field of meaning rather than a precise one-to-one correspondence between word and meaning. (as cited in Sim and Van Loon, p. 89)

In viewing language and the creation of meaning through this lens, the cult leader’s attempt to halt that slippage of meaning by allowing only loaded language can be conceptualized as the leader filling the gap within the cult member’s psyche—the gap so essential for feeling, thinking, symbol formation, and, thus, creativity.

Critical theory represents an approach to cultural criticism that is characterized by beliefs in multiple interpretation as well as in the illusory nature of totality without gap. This philosophical stance, with its emphasis on uncertainty and the unknown, has much to offer cultic studies, and in particular to recovery from the harmful effects of the totalism of cults. Drawing on this thinking as well as Lalich’s concept of “transcendent belief,” I see the cult as declaring a grand narrative, in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s words (as cited in Belsey, 2002, p. 99), while marginalizing the creative expression of “little” narratives. A wonderful introduction to poststructuralism by Catherine Belsey (2002) asks “how far we should let the existing language impose limits on what it is possible to think” (p. 4). She references Lewis Carroll’s “Humpty Dumpty” and the question of meaning. Says Humpty Dumpty to Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less” (Belsey, p. 1). Loaded language by definition imposes what it is possible to think and who is to be in control.

7. Denial of Loss, Filling of Gap, and Vulnerability to Impairment of Symbolic Functioning in Cults

In psychodynamic thinking, symbols are thought to arise out of recognition of absence, based on the notion that the mind needs to imagine only that which is not present. For instance, the child’s earliest utterances help regulate her anxiety of absence by symbolically representing the mother whom the child cannot see as “mama.” Throughout life, symbolizing loss is considered an important aspect of mourning. Thought and feeling stopping in cults might be a conscious or unconscious response to indoctrination that coercively imposes denial of loss. Former members often agonize about having complied with the leader’s command to not be present during family medical crises or a parent’s funeral. They come to question how it was possible that their sense of loss was replaced by recommitment to the leader and to the “work.” Such denial of loss might emerge as either a defense again fear of cult leader rejection if pre-cult life is in any way valued, and/or as an indication that the cult member is a “true believer.” The net effect is that members to some degree dissociate their own feelings and thoughts about loss.

Denial of loss and related suppression of symbol formation are psychodynamic concepts that assume two levels of reality: unconscious and conscious. People sometimes ask what psychodynamics or psychoanalysis mean. This approach to understanding the human psyche is steeped in and primarily about how we unconsciously create symbols to communicate. In the cult, the leader’s message is that there is nothing before the cult. There are no parents, no family, no people going through crises, dying, having strokes. In turn, there is to be no mourning of loss by the cult member. Within psychodynamic thinking, which centers on that part of human processing that creates and uses symbols, symbol formation arises out of acknowledgement or mourning of absence or loss. When one physically has something, the mind has no need to evoke an image of it. By not imaging that which is absent, by not symbolizing the parents and other loved ones who are outside of the cult, the member or SGA more successfully achieves full compliance and devotion. It is extremely significant that loss, both pre-cult and while one is in the cult, is denied in compliance with the indoctrination process. Because symbol formation and use are primary aspects of creativity, it follows that if symbol formation is vulnerable to impairment in cults as a result of “thought and feeling stopping” about loss, creativity, in turn, is likely to be suppressed. A key component of creativity via fluid symbol creation is joy. In this way, joy is also stopped as a subjective and authentic experience.

8. Multidisciplinary Emphasis on Emotion—Emotion/Thought/Symbol/Creativity

Equating emotion and creativity must be understood within the context of the history of Western philosophy and art in the past 200 years. Emotion as a focus of interest in other fields also traditionally has been marginal. Writes James Hitt, Ph.D., one reviewer of LeDoux’s The Emotional Brain, “The study of the emotions has been relatively neglected by neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers, but recently the tide has been turning” (Hitt, 2000).

Underscoring the interrelatedness of thought and emotion before this tide turned, May (1994) refers to there being “data in Rorschach responses … that indicate that people can more accurately observe precisely when they are emotionally involved—that is, reason works better when emotions are present...” (p. 49). The tamping down of emotions in cults in turn leads toward a diminishment of critical thinking and the power of reasoning. I present a brief historic overview of the role of emotion in Western art and philosophy.

As noted above, beliefs about creativity have changed over the history of Western art. Emotion as part of subjective experience is relatively new to an art historical and/or philosophical concept of creativity. Recent commentary about Benedetto Croce in the early twentieth century, based on content in Hofstadter and Kuhns’ collection (1964), Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, notes that “because of feeling, an image can become an intuition,” and that Croce identifies intuition with expression: “With this achievement art becomes a symbol of feeling” (p. 556).

The commentary continues,

…Not the idea, but the feeling, is what confers upon art the airy lightness of the symbol... He thus sets the outlook of most twentieth-century philosophies of art which replace the concept of beauty with that of expression, or identify beauty, as Croce does, with expression. (p. 555)

Croce describes art as a “lyrical intuition.” Suzanne Langer further developed this idea that “art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling” (Hofstadter and Kuhns, 1964, p. 556).

This special issue of CSR, The Last Draw—Cults and Creativity, explores both opportunities and restrictions of human creativity against the backdrop of cults. The introduction and articles witness the pain and loss suffered by individuals who have experienced suppression of creativity within cults, and also the resilience of the creative spirit, particularly in post-cult recovery. The recent recognition by neuroscience and cognitive psychology of the importance of emotion in creativity gives renewed validity to the emphasis in psychodynamic psychology on the essential human process of subjective creation of meaning that relies on and also fosters a sense of freedom. It is my hope that this special issue will bring cultic studies to the awareness of the new science of creativity, to which it offers an extreme context within which to explore individualist and contextualist perspectives of creativity. The suppression of creativity pervasive within cults represents a huge and painful cost not only to members, SGAs, families, and friends of those involved, but also to society, which holds freedom as its highest value. Writes May, “[c]reativity requires courage under the least extensive oppressive of situations—this courage is of the internal sort” (1975, p. 20). We can support this courage. Alexandra Stein, sociologist, author, and former member, writes (2001),

Our efforts are important. They are important in helping people identify coercive psychological manipulation and in preventing the loss of life, and the loss of “years of life” that many have suffered. We can help to educate children and youth to become what Lessing describes as “people who think about what is going on in the world, who try to assimilate information about our history, about how we behave and function—people who advance humanity as a whole.” (closing comment)

And in her autobiography (2002), Stein expresses the yearning for this courage and for the freedom to pursue it: “I am trying to fly—I am in flux—I need continual change, to flow, to fly, using my wings, as a bird, to wave or float in the air” (p. 367).


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Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2010, Page

[1] To Daniel Gensler and Jill Pliskin I extend deep thanks for support of my creativity, personal and professional growth, and so much that cannot be named; to Michael Civin deep thanks for introducing me to Jacques Lacan and for helping me develop my psychoanalytic thinking about the suppression of creativity in relation to cults. I dedicate this introduction to Hana Wehle, whose dance with creativity intoxicates still; to Kurt Wehle, whose music forever plays; to Susan Wehle, with whom I share a sacred lifetime of joy and creativity; to Tamar Friedner, whose creative flame burns strongly on; and to Mary Francis Collins, who inspires hope like none else.

[2] My reading of Alex Stein’s Inside Out some years ago first inspired my inquiry into cults and creativity. Stein’s direct and poetic discussion of her journey with creativity during her cult-involved years is invaluable.

[3]This discussion of cults and creativity in part draws upon models of creativity from neuroscience and psychology. Since my own theoretical grounding is not in these disciplines but rather in the fields of art and psychoanalysis, I at times rely upon secondary sources to explain how the neuroscience and psychology models contribute to the study of cults and creativity. The same applies to the section on critical theory.

About the Author

Dana Wehle, L.C.S.W., M.F.A., is a certified psychoanalyst in private practice in NYC and administrative supervisor at the Cult Clinic of JBFCS. She received her psychoanalytic training at NIP-TI, and has presented on cults on Internet webcasts, at Rutgers, the William Alanson White, ICSA and elsewhere. Her interest in the impact of cults on creativity builds upon her background as a classically trained painter, and on intensive clinical work with former members, SGAs, and families. It has led to creation of a survey, publication, and guest editing of this issue. (