Touched: Disconfirming Pathogenic Beliefs of Thought Reform Through the Process of Acting

Cultic Studies Review, 9(1), 2010, 106-134

Touched: Disconfirming Pathogenic Beliefs of Thought Reform Through the Process of Acting

Colleen Russell, L.M.F.T., C.G.P.


Leaving a high-demand group or cult, once one becomes indoctrinated, involves a conscious and unconscious process of disconfirming inaccurate, self-limiting, and self-sabotaging beliefs that have been internalized as a result of thought reform. The author identifies these typical beliefs resulting from thought reform in her work with former members, some of which she also internalized from her involvement in a high-demand group and eventually disconfirmed. From the perspective of an integrative cognitive, relational, psychodynamic theory, the author compares her two-year intensive participation in a renowned acting school with the forced conformity of the high-demand group. She elaborates on how she was “touched” by a character from an Ingmar Bergman short story (1977), and how this identification and other significant life events provided her with “corrective emotional experiences” (Alexander and French, 1946). These reparative experiences gave her the freedom to pursue healthy developmental goals.

“Fascination” is not adequate to describe my preoccupation with the life of Karin, the main character in Ingmar Bergman’s short story “The Touch,” and her struggle to find herself. At 26, within months after I had stopped participating in any activities in Eckankar,[1] then known as “The Ancient Science of Soul Travel,” I was assigned to play Karin’s character in an intensive acting program at the Loft studio. Founded by esteemed acting teacher Peggy Feury, a former associate of Lee Strasberg, the Loft was my first experience of a life separate from Eckankar since I had been recruited seven years earlier. Our theater of life was tucked away behind a bland façade on La Brea Avenue, a main drag in Los Angeles, and coincidentally just a few blocks from the first Eckankar Center I had helped open in the early ‘70s in my roles as a “6th Initiate” and “Co-Worker with God.”

My conscious reason for initially distancing myself from the “Living Eck Master”[2] was to confirm that I could function with a “higher spiritual consciousness” in the world at large. I was also disturbed by the hypocrisy I had found in those around me, and I distrusted my own spiritual “unfoldment” that “higher initiates” like me were supposed to have achieved. Why did I and other members depend on the “Master” to define our reality when we had each supposedly reached an exalted state of consciousness (or so the “Master” said), greater than that of the Buddha or Jesus? Why did many of us continue to have serious difficulties with our partners? Why couldn’t my partner hold down a good job? Why was there controversy about the “master’s” successor? At the time, I didn’t know it would take eight more years (including the “7th Initiation”) for me to stop paying the yearly membership fee and formally terminate the association, when I had finally appraised that it was safe enough to do so. My fears were caused by threats of terrible misfortunes that would befall us should we leave “the true path of God” (Twitchell,[3] 1971a, p. 92.)

My two-year intensive involvement at the Loft acting studio under Peggy’s tutelage helped facilitate my leaving Eckankar. It became part of a largely unconscious plan of breaking through self-protective denial and rationalizations that severely inhibited my development and held me psychologically captive. Highly motivated to succeed in a life of autonomy and independence, I began a process of disconfirming inaccurate, self-limiting, and self-sabotaging beliefs internalized through thought reform. These essential changes occurred through “corrective emotional experience” (Alexander and French et al.,1946). They were crucial to recovering from traumatic experiences in Eckankar that I will further describe.

The paper addresses the dichotomy between the freedom offered by the creative process in acting vs. the forced conformity demanded by cults. In discussing Bergman’s story, I will include ideas from a Jungian perspective that deepened my understanding of “Karin” and later gave me insight into the deeper meaning of performing this role. Her life served to mirror some of the ways in which I was also consciously and unconsciously “touched,” ultimately furthering my cult recovery and integration of the cult experience.

I will also discuss how I rediscovered myself in real-life roles as my life progressed. These included a marriage that is still strong after 28 years, being mother to two sons, engaging in my own psychotherapy, and becoming a licensed psychotherapist. In all of these roles, I was establishing healthier life patterns through “corrective emotional experience.”

Lastly, using the theoretical perspective of Control-Mastery, a cognitive-relational-psychodynamic theory developed over the past 45+ years by Joseph Weiss, M.D.; Harold Sampson, Ph.D.; and the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group (Weiss, 1986, Silberschatz, 2005, Website: ), I will explore how I physically and psychologically separated from Eckankar. Control-Mastery theory comes from two concepts that have been extensively empirically validated: “control” refers to the observation that people exercise considerable control over their conscious and unconscious mental life (e.g., thoughts, feelings, defenses, wishes), and this control is regulated by unconscious appraisals of safety and danger. “Mastery” refers to the observation that people are highly motivated to master psychological conflicts and trauma (Silberschatz, 2005).

Control-Mastery theory posits that psychopathology is rooted in grim, inaccurate, self-limiting, and generally unconscious “pathogenic beliefs” that arrive from traumatic experiences, usually in childhood, but also in adolescence and adulthood. Guided by an “unconscious plan,” individuals work in life and psychotherapy to disconfirm these beliefs in three ways: through the acquisition of insight, interpersonal testing, and exposure to healthy attitudes and atmospheres that counter these pathogenic beliefs.

The Eckankar Experience

Pathogenic beliefs that I internalized were the result of the process of thought reform perpetrated on me by the “Living Eck[4] Master” and Eckankar, the organization he began.

Currently marketed as the “Religion of the Light and Sound of God,” Eckankar is, in my experience, an “Eastern”/“New Age” high-demand organization with cultic characteristics. One of the most cogent definitions of a cult appears on the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) Website (

“An ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment” (Rutgers sociologist Benjamin Zablocki). Charisma refers to a spiritual power or personal quality that gives leaders considerable influence or authority over large numbers of people. Hence, a cult is characterized by an ideology, strong demands issuing from that ideology, and powerful processes of social-psychological influence to induce group members to meet those demands. This high-demand, leader-centered social climate places such groups at risk of exploiting and injuring members, although they may remain benign, if leadership doesn't abuse its power.[International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) Website: Retrieved July 28, 2007].

In my experience, Eckankar exerted disproportionate influence on members’ basic beliefs. Those who have not experienced the consequences of thought reform will find it hard to understand how anyone could believe such dire warnings of the “Living Eck Master” (Twitchell, 1971a) as the following:

But once the chela[5] has become a member of the inner circle, he cannot resign… Those few have found that spiritual decay sets in immediately, affecting the health, material life, and spiritual life, and brings death more swiftly. (p.197; 166 in older editions)

This inaccurate, self-limiting, and self-sabotaging belief took hold deep within my psyche, a result of thought reform.

I’m delighted to say I proved Twitchell wrong!

Robert J. Lifton conceptualizes the process of thought reform in his seminal book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, (Lifton, 1961). He enumerates eight “psychological themes” or methods used to change people’s basic beliefs without their being aware of the process. I recommend that the reader further study the following themes that I will simply name here: milieu control; mystical manipulation; the demand for purity; a cult of confession; a sacred science; loading the language; doctrine over person; and dispensing of existence.

My observation is that in some cases, pathogenic beliefs formed through family of origin experience, and reinforced in high-demand groups or cults, contribute to people’s vulnerability to recruitment and indoctrination. I’ve identified the following typical pathogenic beliefs resulting from thought reform in my work with former members, some of which I also internalized and eventually disconfirmed from my experience in Eckankar:

Normal developmental goals such as separation and individuation will harm others and oneself;

The cult leader has absolute knowledge, insight, or spiritual power, indisputable and essential for survival;

One’s essential identity is defined by the cult leader, usually in terms of lifelong, symbiotic ties with him/her;

One’s personal history prior to recruitment is insignificant;

One’s previous perception of reality is false, misguided, or an “illusion”; the leader’s is “true”;

Anger is a “negative” emotion and will wound or destroy self or others;

Thoughts, feelings, and beliefs must be compartmentalized into “higher”/“lower,” “good”/ “bad” categories, as defined by the cult leader;

The mind is negative, and it is only the cult leader who is free of the deception of the “mind powers”;

The cult is the central organizing factor in one’s life;

Something disastrous will occur should one leave the cult;

Leaving the cult is an act of betrayal and disloyalty to the leader and therefore, self;

Pursuing goals independent of those espoused by the cult, sometimes including academic or professional goals, will result in dire consequences or “losing one’s self”;

The “true” personal needs of the cult leader and the follower are merged—one and the same—and one must put aside any other needs for the “good of the whole”;

Chanting, contemplating, or praying, or “by-passing the mind,” are primary ways to solve problems;

Anyone outside the cult, including family and friends, is unenlightened, “less than,” negative, or inferior to “the chosen ones”;

“Bad karma” in this life (or those preceding it), or one’s “negative” thoughts are the direct cause of current situations that result in suffering.

How did I get involved in a process that so fundamentally shifted my perception of reality? As an impressionable 19-year-old, I was approached by a man selling massage chairs at a Japanese exhibition. Although he didn’t sell me the chair, he eventually sold me on Eckankar. In a revealing double entendre, he asked with a sly grin, “Can I turn you on?,” while flipping the switch on the chair. My immediate impression was that this man was both odd and needy, perhaps even somewhat dangerous. I disregarded my impulse to walk away, partly because I was curious and partly because of my instinct to take care of others in need. He used this opportunity to promote a new spiritual movement seeking “enlightened” new members. Spiritual values were important to me, and the possibility of belonging to a community that focused on these values seemed an answer to what I was seeking. I began reading the literature.

My indoctrination had begun. It continued through his introduction of books on Eckankar and hours of discussion on the subject. I was intrigued by many aspects of the “teaching,” but also extremely skeptical. Some of the ideas seemed like science fiction. After spending several days and sleepless nights learning about the organization, I had an unusual and frightening auditory hallucination of a voice saying, “You are dying.” My recruiter and the Eckankar literature eventually convinced me that the hallucination was the death of my “lower self,” which I was transcending now that I was on the path to developing my “higher self.” By now I was becoming a true believer, in a process that has been described as “snapping.” (Conway, F., Siegelman, J. 1978). I have since realized that the voice I heard was a warning signaled by my unconscious/conscious appraisal of the dangers ahead.

Thirteen years my senior, the recruiter eventually became my husband, in a marriage that lasted seven years. During that time, we served as designated leaders of Eckankar in Southern California, and nearly all of our activities and socializing were organized around Eckankar events. As unpaid volunteers (with the exception of my short-term employment as a secretary), we started and maintained the first Eckankar Center, taught classes, led discussion groups, and held introductory lectures. I co-directed the first youth seminar, and founded and edited a newsletter. I genuinely believed I was a “co-worker with God,” doing what I came to believe was the most important job in the world. As a “higher initiate,” it was my duty to meet others with a “soul to soul” perspective, connecting with the healthy, wise, powerful, part of themselves that transcended race, gender, religion, socio-economic class, sexual preference, and circumstance. It was my mission to bring souls to the “master.”

I now understand that I was used as a tool to serve the leader’s need for increased membership and therefore increased income. I was in a community that valued spirituality over materialism with double standards. As “co-workers,” most of us lived very modestly, giving whatever we could to support the leader’s lifestyle.

Helping others understand Eckankar seemed to arise from a spiritual intent, but I had unconsciously colluded with the leader’s narcissistic, megalomaniac strivings. During group interactions, I emulated the behavior of new recruits and older members. This behavior seemed very satisfying at the time, but it was in reality better described as “love bombing,” an exchange of affection (verbally and through smiles) that failed to express genuine intimacy or connection to others. (Loomis, R. 1999). It led to a shared narcissistic glow and inflated sense of self, set up by the leader’s claims that we were the “chosen people.” (Twitchell, 1971b, p. 117). I loved the sound and calming effect of chanting, but this practice put members into a trance state that reinforced the perception of the leader as “divine,” discouraged critical thinking, and was presented as a primary way to solve problems when other coping skills were far more adaptive. I was encouraged by the title of Twitchell’s book, In My Soul, I Am Free, then stunned by his warnings of danger if I failed to follow his path. As “free” began to appear more like “enslaved,” I had more difficulty in making personal decisions and was less certain of my personal rights. Inconsistent, contradictory statements that George Orwell describes as doublespeak/doublethink (1949) were frequently issued by the “master.” Shadowy, sinister aspects of Eckankar collided with kernels of truth. The ideology dominated our thought, including concepts similar to Rhadasoami, Hindu and Buddhist philosophies which we earnestly explored. During the ‘70s when many people my age were abusing drugs and alcohol, I abstained from all of them, taking my vows as a “higher initiate” seriously. Eventually, my experiences helped to educate me about the power of social groups, and ways members are manipulated and exploited by corrupt, authoritarian leaders. Going into the darkness of the organization and emerging from it provided me with insight about aspects of the psyche that are acted out in groups.

My first step in the process of leaving Eckankar was to divorce my husband. I had come to realize that, in most ways, our marriage was unhealthy and unsustainable. I yearned to experience something better in the world outside.

The Loft

My involvement with the Loft acting studio and with others in the film industry literally saved my life, unraveling a giant spider’s web of deceit that had encapsulated my soul, its prey.

Peggy Feury and her husband Bill Traylor founded the Loft studio in 1973 and were both involved in teaching there. The studio was small, about 2,000 square feet, and included a stage, several rows of seats from which to observe the action, black walls and ceiling, a few stage lights, and a collection of minimal props that we could each augment with our personal belongings, or arrange according to our need. Ten to fifteen of us were involved in the intensive workshop, meeting for hours four or five days a week. I was referred there by Jennifer Schull, a casting director whom I had met through an agent. She encouraged me to get involved with Peggy. If I was serious about acting, she said, this was the place to go.

The first time I had walked into the minimally lit theater of the Loft and took my place alongside the others in the “audience” section, I was excited and amazed that I had accomplished simply being there—a student actor in one of the most highly regarded acting studios in the country! I was making my own connections as a single adult, after divorcing the man who recruited me into Eckankar. I was proud that I was taking care of myself—working out, eating healthy foods, keeping myself lean and fit. I enjoyed living in my own apartment.

Surrounding myself with strongly self-motivated people supported my exit strategy. I benefited by direct work with Hollywood actors, directors, and producers, some of whom had already achieved prominence and others who were unknown then but would become household names. These hard-working, talented, and bright people exposed me to the subjective experience of creativity, at a time when the cult leader demanded the subordination of our individuality. In addition to improvisations and sensory exercises, we analyzed and performed works by playwrights and novelists, including Harold Pinter, Anton Chekhov, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Jean Anouilh, Tom Stoppard, Irwin Shaw, Ingmar Bergman, Doris Lessing, and Edward Albee.

The study of Karin in The Touch involved getting to know her complexities: her emotions, thoughts, what she says, what she doesn’t say; her current situation, manner, movement, family, background, community, socio-economic status, interests, relationships, stated and unstated needs and goals, dreams, aspects of her inner life, and so on. It also required an empathic connection with the character, putting oneself in her place, thinking and feeling as she does and embodying her character: Have I had a life experience—trauma, loss, accomplishment, and so on—similar to hers? How did I feel? How was I affected? Absent such particular trauma, can I empathically relate through other trauma of my own? How would I be affected if this were to happen to me? Such “character study” involved pondering the character and her relationships, asking “why,” or “where did this motivation come from?” What precedes the speech? What thoughts exist between the spoken words? Is there an unspoken message in the subtext? What is the logical intent of the writer, to be gleaned from all the information within the story? Does the character resemble any person in my life that I know, including myself? If so, can I imitate and modify that behavior and see if it fits the character? I might research a topic the writer brings up… perhaps the history or geography of the place of action; or a book, philosophy, or current event to which the character refers.

I loved the freedom and spontaneity of the process, and the relationship with the actor with whom I was working. The locus of control was within me and it was acknowledged that I could succeed. Rehearsing was challenging and rewarding… Peggy encouraged us to do so in any situation—whether it be walking on the streets of Beverly Hills or alongside the ocean, having a luscious salad at the Old World restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, setting up our scene at the Loft late at night (we all had keys), or meeting at each others’ homes. Different places brought out unexpected discoveries that supported not only the character work but our understanding of ourselves, a process enjoyable and exciting, also difficult and painful at times.

Performance of the part was the culmination of all the work and study that had gone before to embody the character in the here-and-now. I worked with whatever I confronted without an option to leave. It was incredibly rewarding, challenging, and exciting.

In sensory work, we created our own space on stage, alone for an hour, with the rest of the actors and Peggy looking on. Our intent was to take ourselves back to a room from our childhood, placing available props where they belonged: our bed, table, chair, any imagined object. By concentrating, we could “see,” “feel,” “smell,” “hear” a special doll, parent, or event and stay with it, following it wherever it took us and re-living it through these sense memories.

Another example involved about eight of us sitting on stage for at least 20 minutes, imagining we were sitting in the sun, aware of whatever thoughts or feelings emerged. On a cold winter morning, I remember first experiencing the sensation of being cold; then, through focus, I felt warmer and more relaxed. After a time, the heat began to feel uncomfortable, so I shifted in my seat and finally removed a jacket. Then a pleasurable memory emerged, but I became bored and irritated with the heat! It required getting up and moving around to find some “shade” or relief, but there was no escape from or avoidance of the situation until Peggy said to end. This sensory work contrasted with the “spiritual exercises” in Eckankar in significant ways. For example, Eckankar’s exercises were deemed successful only if our subjective experience conformed to how the “master” described it should be, and if our goal was to transcend the illusion of the physical world. The sensory work at the Loft challenged us to work through any situation we encountered, spontaneously responding with idiosyncratic thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Our focus was here-and-now, on stage, authentically relating to ourselves and others with the specific goal of doing the best work we could.

We could use these experiences in adapting to the life of the character we portrayed through becoming more comfortable with and trusting of our instincts, imagination, intuition, and thought on stage.

We were caught up in the excitement and wonder of possibilities, given permission to explore, to question, to acknowledge and accept our sensuality and sexuality, to take time in the process of discovery… to discuss the writer’s intent and logical progression of his work. My inner experience was never invalidated. This was a drastic departure from what I had become accustomed to in Eckankar, where I had been programmed to think, feel, and act like others who had “found their way.” Our leader stressed that if we dissented or, worse, left “the path,” something disastrous would occur. This became internalized as a pathogenic belief.

Not long after I began studying at the Loft. I was the recipient of the kind of “break” that every actor dreams about. Jennifer Schull invited me to audition for a small part in a major film, California Suite, written by Neil Simon, produced by Ray Stark, and directed by Herb Ross. Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, and Walter Matthau were among the lead actors. When Ross saw me in the waiting room, he said excitedly that I looked exactly like a more prominent character, a prostitute, who would be playing some important scenes with Matthau. He invited me to audition in front of him, and, of course, I agreed.

At the audition in Ross’s office, I froze, a painful but classic example of compliance to pathogenic beliefs, and the crescendo of unconscious danger that occurs when one pushes the envelope beyond one’s current capacity. I find that with pathogenic beliefs, there is always a dynamic equilibrium spectrum between extreme compliance on one end, and active working to disconfirm on the other. I was mortified to find that I was blocking myself from the acting I knew I was capable of. Afterward, Jennifer asked me how it went, and I gave her the bad news. She empathized with me, saying that people are often intimidated by Herb, and, with his consent, another audition was scheduled. Again, I froze, and the opportunity was forever lost. Eventually I was given a smaller part. Extremely discouraged, I didn’t give up, knowing that the course upon which I had embarked was critical to my survival.

Playing the prostitute convincingly, with body language, habits, world view, and so on defied the edicts that had been drilled into my psyche as an Eckankar “higher initiate.” As I review the literature, I find it’s still somewhat difficult to acknowledge how I and others in the organization, many of whom had advanced college degrees, were so manipulated through the process of thought reform. As an example of the many efforts to keep members under his control, Twitchell (1970) wrote:

Since the Mahanta is the Master of the secret teachings, truth learned from any other source is of little or no value... Only the living ECK Master is capable enough to give truth as it is to the chela. Unless he is under the ECK Master then his gathering of truth has little value. He is unable to establish any link with the Godhead and, more importantly, is unable to find a way to discover truth for himself. The Master is the link between the chela and the Godhead, for he is the living Word Itself.

(p. 126)

In acting, through scene and sensory work and character study, I actively challenged these pathogenic beliefs (consciously and unconsciously) and began to disconfirm them in a highly personalized and integrative creative process. This included using body, mind, and soul; connecting to past sense memories and current emotions; and tolerating ambiguity.

Training at the Loft supported my unconscious plan to disconfirm pathogenic beliefs, reclaim myself, heal from trauma, and develop through a process of integration that included: current and past life experiences, strengths and weakness, physical comfort and discomfort, despair and joy, love and hate. Its philosophy was to be always open to new possibilities and embrace polarities.

Control-Mastery Theory

Years later, in my private practice, I came upon an integrated cognitive, psychodynamic, relational theory that I instinctively felt was useful and applicable to cult survivors. The name “Control-Mastery” comes from two concepts that have been extensively empirically validated: “control” refers to the observation that people exercise considerable control over their conscious and unconscious mental life (e.g., thoughts, feelings, defenses, wishes), and this control is regulated by unconscious appraisals of safety and danger. “Mastery” refers to the observation that people are highly motivated to master psychological conflicts and trauma (Silberschatz, 2005).

An important component of Control-Mastery theory, the “corrective emotional experience,” is a concept first articulated by Franz Alexander, graduate of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, with Thomas French and other collaborators of the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis. Their proposal was that only a corrective experience, supplied by the transference relationship with the therapist, by new experiences in life, or by both, can lead to real change. “The patient, in order to be helped, must undergo a corrective emotional experience suitable to repair the traumatic influence of previous experiences” (Alexander and French et al.,1946, p.66).

For me, work at the acting studio provided corrective emotional experience in a safe, transitional community, one far healthier than the repressive environment of Eckankar. My involvement in the creative process of character study, sensory work, on-stage experience, and relations with fellow actors and others within the film industry was transformative. Disconfirming pathogenic beliefs was supported by the above-mentioned tasks, as well as healthy identification with those who were dedicated to improving their craft and those who had already gained considerable success in the field. I acquired insight from vicarious and interpersonal learning that included observing others, giving as well as receiving feedback, participating in the training activities, and receiving coaching from our teacher. I tested for safety or danger in taking risks and self-revealing, observing whether this behavior was met with either negative criticism and personal devaluing, or support in becoming a better actress and a more mature and aware adult.

Those of us who have been subjected to thought reform in high-demand groups or cults may experience trauma broadly defined by Control-Mastery theory as any situation that a) overwhelms a person with anxiety or fear, or b) leads a person to believe an important developmental goal must be relinquished in order to avoid the danger of hurting or being hurt by significant others (Silberschatz, G. 2005). Trauma may be of two types: sudden (shock), or recurrent and persistent (strain). An example of a sudden traumatic event is the unexpected death of a loved one. Recurrent and persistent trauma could be subjection to abusive authoritarian rule in families, groups, or countries.

Further, Control-Mastery posits that people get involved in relationships that might be destructive because of compliance with pathogenic beliefs acquired from sudden or recurrent and persistent trauma (Silberschatz, 2005, p. 6).

Our understanding of trauma and its consequences is significantly expanded with Judith Herman’s compassionate, significant contribution to the field. She developed the diagnostic category of complex post traumatic stress disorder that we survivors of high-demand groups or relationships may experience. Herman asserts that trauma is “an affliction of the powerless” (Herman, 1992, p. 33), and that it overwhelms ordinary human adaptations to life. According to Control-Mastery theory, people develop inaccurate, self-limiting, and self-sabotaging beliefs, or “pathogenic beliefs” from traumatic experiences that are extremely frightening and constricting because they suggest that the pursuit of an important developmental goal is fraught with danger (Weiss 1986). Those subjected to thought reform typically internalize such inaccurate beliefs. These are powerful structures that have affective and cognitive components (Silberschatz & Sampson, 1991).

Traumatic experiences can produce unconscious guilt, stemming from inaccurate beliefs. Weiss (1986) emphasizes two types of guilt: separation and survivor guilt. “Separation guilt may develop in a child who wishes to become more independent of a parent but who infers that were he to do so, he would hurt the parent” (p.49). Survivor guilt, a term originally used by Modell (1971) to describe guilt brought about by those whose parents or siblings died, has broadened to include guilt of those who assume they have fared better than parents or siblings. “Survivor guilt, too, is based on a belief. It is a person’s belief that by acquiring more of the good things of life than his parents or siblings, he has betrayed them” (Weiss, p.52).

From my own experiences as a child and adolescent, I developed both survivor guilt and separation guilt. Children have an inaccurate view of causality and tend to blame themselves for family trauma. Guilt can arise in children who believe that they are responsible for parental mistreatment, that their behavior has been hurtful to their parents and siblings (Silberschatz, 2005). Unconscious guilt might generally lead us to believe that we don’t deserve satisfying, fulfilling lives, and lead us to settle for much less.

In my family of origin, I experienced strain trauma from years of being cast in the untenable role of taking care of my mother, who suffered from depression and prescription drug addiction. Her needs came first, and she often told me that I was the reason she was still living. At 15, I experienced shock trauma, a result of her death at 36 from a prescription drug overdose immediately after an argument over the pills I had hidden from her, at her request, and that she was now demanding. Four years later, I was recruited into Eckankar, an environment that placed severe restrictions on my development and autonomy. In retrospect, on an unconscious level, I believe that my indoctrination there reinforced pathogenic beliefs acquired through the trauma of my mother’s death: that I was responsible for it because of my anger toward her, and that my normal developmental strivings had harmed her. Eckankar’s prohibition of anger, and the assertion that it was a “negative,” potentially lethal emotion, provided me with a defense against my fear of anger and a means by which to atone for my “imaginary crime.”[6] In Eckankar, my needs were subordinate to the leader’s. Such pathogenic beliefs predisposed me, a new recruit, to excessive self-sacrifice for an idealized cult leader. Some developmental tasks remained on hold until after I left.

In contrast, people are highly motivated to help others, often at the expense of their own well-being, sacrificing themselves for largely unconscious altruistic reasons (O’Connor, 1996). Care-giving and empathy are closely related to altruism, which is widely accepted as universal, adaptive behavior. Cults and other abusive relationships exploit one’s healthy altruism and the need to belong by demanding greater degrees of self-sacrificing actions that ultimately become maladaptive.

Bergman and Jung

Opening the first page of Bergman’s short story, the beginning of the process of preparing to play the role of Karin, was revelatory for me. It involved the work of character study that encompassed critical thinking, assessing current perceptions, searching for understanding and insight, and scanning for related memories that contained cognitive and emotional components.

Peggy directed us to read renowned actor and director Stanislavski’s book, An Actor Prepares (1978). He comments on the creative process of acting to which we aspired:

Aside from the fact that it opens up avenues for inspiration, living the part helps the artist to carry out one of his main objectives. His job is not to present merely the external life of his character. He must fit his own human qualities to the life of this other person, and pour into it all of his own soul. The fundamental aim of our art is the creation of this inner life of a human spirit, and its expression in an artistic form.

This process includes qualities that are essential to “creativity”: spontaneity, originality, risk-taking, imagination, synthesizing a new form, intuition, playing, considering various scenarios.

The story of Karin begins during an extremely crucial phase in her life, with the death of her mother. For obvious reasons, it resonated with me. At the hospital to visit her mother, Karin is in a “long, dark corridor of the ward, with doors on either side, the ceiling lights are already on—it is an autumn afternoon” (Bergman, 1976, p. 1). This image represents the nature of contact with the unconscious when the individuation process is reinforced. The unconscious is often symbolized by corridors, labyrinths, or mazes. That the “lights are already on” symbolizes the emergence of consciousness. Not only is this corridor an expression of the unconscious, but it is also a symbol of transcendence. According to Jung, this speaks to an individual’s need for liberation from any state of being that is too immature, too fixed or final. As examples, self-limiting states can develop when a woman becomes overly identified with a parent, develops self-limiting beliefs from family of origin experiences, or through thought reform in cults. In any case, liberation is necessary for individuation or psychic growth. Jung’s concept of individuation is described by Jungian scholar/psychoanalyst Marie-Louise von Franz (1964):

Our dream life creates a meandering pattern in which strands or tendencies become visible, then vanish, then return again. If one watches this meandering design over a long period of time, one can observe a sort of hidden regulating or directing tendency at work, creating a slow, imperceptible process of psychic growth—the process of individuation…. Gradually, a wider and more mature personality emerges, and by degrees becomes effective and even visible to others. (p.161)

The symbol of individuation is found in the art forms of the mandala, a Sanskrit word meaning “circle” and denoting “wholeness.”

Karin briefly observes the body of her mother, itself an archetype of the Virgin Mary, to which Bergman assigns special importance throughout the screenplay. This archetype symbolizes purity, nurturing, exalted love, and fertility. As Karin leaves the hospital room, a nurse places her mother’s wedding rings in her hand: “They are the worse for wear and badly scratched,” writes Bergman. (p. 10). Karin has been “touched” by the symbol of the wedding vow, yet this symbol has become tarnished. Bergman gives us a momentary insight into a major conflict that will soon occur.

Karin steps into a dark cloakroom and “is standing there with her face turned to the protective darkness, weeping to herself at the unutterable sense of loss.” A man suddenly intrudes, asking Karin if he can help. “No,” she replies. The man personifies what Jung calls the shadow, the shadow or dark side of the human psyche, representing unknown or little-known attributes and qualities of the ego. The shadow part of oneself is usually concerned with those qualities and impulses one denies in oneself but can see in others. It can be one’s friend or enemy (Jung, 1971). “Just as the ego contains unfavorable and destructive attitudes so the shadow has good qualities—normal instincts and creative impulses” (Henderson, 1964, p. 118). Karin will agree to have an affair with him, the first in a marriage of 16 years, which she says is “most unusually happy.” Bergman’s deliberate introduction at this point of “David” is indicative of a catastrophic change occurring in Karin’s psyche, precipitated by her mother’s death.

Bergman gives us a powerful symbol—her garden—to indicate characteristics of Karin’s psyche. David is now in her home, invited by her husband, Andreas, a surgeon:

‘The garden is our pride and joy,’ says Karin in her best English to David. ‘We’re both very fond of flowers, trees and shrubs,’ Andreas adds, putting his arms around his wife’s shoulders. Andreas continues, ‘We work in the garden every spare minute.’ (Bergman, p. 11)

In one of the few direct criticisms of Karin by her husband (later in the story), he says, “She hates any form of decision” (Bergman, p. 39). As a wife and mother of two adolescents, Karin and her family are stressed by the tasks of adolescent separation-individuation, by which everyone is affected. Up until now, she has maintained a secluded, protected, and routine life with her husband and children. Andreas makes the important decisions, while Karin keeps the household running smoothly. Then she suffers the loss of her mother, and into her “Garden of Eden,” as restricted and limiting to consciousness as it might be, comes David. Unsettling and chaotic forces come into play from within and without.

C.G. Jung (1976) writes directly to this problem:

Whoever protects himself against what is new and strange and regresses to the past falls into the same neurotic condition as the man who identifies himself with the new and runs away from the past. (p.10)

According to Jung, trust in nature and reliance on instinct are characteristics of a childlike stage of consciousness. I believe cults appeal to a natural desire to remain in this stage, and then place severe limitations on one’s ability to grow out of it.

I was beginning to see the connection between Karin’s relationship with her husband and garden and my experience in my former marriage and Eckankar. I was becoming more conscious of the infantilization that psychologically surrendering to the self-professed “Godman” and living with my then husband entailed. I was gaining liberation from the repression of anger and other emotions that became split off and compartmentalized in Eckankar because the leadership considered them “negative.” During my “inactive status” and after my divorce, I began to take more risks by making more conscious decisions, accepting more aspects of myself, expressing more emotions, becoming more assertive, and taking charge of my life.

Bergman uses vivid imagery to disclose Karin’s traumatic confrontation with David in a scene that is pivotal to the story (Bergman, 1977):

So she does go after all, very upset and without really wanting to. When they meet she is anxious and cold. The room has not been aired and stinks of stale cigarette smoke. He is unshaven and only half-dressed, and reeks of liquor and nocturnal terrors. He throws his arms around her and pulls her coat off. She resists feebly, saying she has no time to stay. He mumbles something she doesn’t catch; it sounds like a word of abuse. There is a short struggle beside the unmade bed, he forces her down and starts tearing her clothes off. Pale with rage and humiliation, Karin tells him to stop it, she’ll undress herself. She pulls off her pantyhose and brief, drags her skirt up, lies down on the bed, and opens her legs. He climbs on top of her and thrusts into her without kissing her or embracing her. She keeps her eyes shut tight and lets him get on with it. He moans faintly and frantically; he is tense and unfeeling. She opens her eyes and looks at him. His face is sallow with hatred, and black rings have sunk in deep under his eyes. “Don’t look at me, for Christ’s sake,” he mutters in a thick voice, laying his right hand over her face. Then he says some words in a foreign language. It sounds frightening. His mouth opens and the lips are drawn aside, baring the teeth; his body contracts violently and out of his throat comes a sound which is either a sob or a smothered scream of pain. Then they lie silent and remote, their clothes and the bedclothes in a heap, their bodies heavy with disgust and loneliness. The morning light is harsh and gray outside the big window with its torn curtains. (p.22)

Karin doesn’t enter willingly into this brutal, repugnant sexual experience with David anymore than normal people intend to join a cult. I’ve found that misunderstandings exist in conceptualizing sexual rape, which reminds me of what is referred to as “spiritual rape” in cults. As described in their book, Take Back Your Life (Lalich and Tobias, 2006), significant power imbalances exist (often unknown to the victims) in abusive relationships wherein the dominant partner controls, manipulates, and exploits the subordinate one.

Karin’s traumatic incident, preceded by the death of her mother, leaves her in a wounded state that, according to Jungian interpretation, sets her on a course of adult individuation. Through the tension of opposite forces, she is touched by David’s “nocturnal terrors,” foreign to her sunny garden. Karin is manipulated by David as I, an impressionable 19-year-old, was manipulated by a high-demand group. We were each “touched” by chaotic forces in which we temporarily lost ourselves, until finally we found our way.

Loss or a fear of loss increases one’s vulnerability to cult recruitment (Goldberg, 1988, P. 242). Langone lists other possible factors:

dependency (the desire to belong; lack of self-confidence);

unassertiveness (inability to say no or express criticism or doubt);

gullibility (impaired capacity to question critically what one is told, observes, thinks, etc.);

low tolerance for ambiguity (need for absolute answers, impatience to obtain answers);

cultural disillusionment (alienation, dissatisfaction with status quo);

naive idealism;

desire for spiritual meaning; and

ignorance of the ways in which groups can manipulate individuals. (Langone, Questions and Answers, Retrieved July 28, 2007. International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) Website:

It appears that Karin and I (in young adulthood) shared some of these characteristics.

Karin becomes entrenched in an abusive relationship with David, sacrificing and betraying herself to please him, in a process similar to that of an abusive relationship with the cult leader. She’s smoking cigarettes and drinking excessively, trying to numb her painful feelings. She rationalizes, denies, and blames herself for David’s abusive behavior. She’s leading a split life, alienated from previous values, lying to her husband, lying to herself, feeling guilty and ashamed. She doesn’t recognize herself, and neither do her husband and children.

Karin meets with David and responds to his accusation that she’s been drinking a lot:

“Yes, I have,” Karin says, nodding many times. “I think I’m a bit tipsy. I’m a little tipsy. I really am squiffy. Come and take me now. I’m in rather a hurry. At least give me a kiss and say you forgive me.” She embraces him and kisses him. He strikes her across the face. She stumbles to one side; the blow has caught her hard on the cheek and mouth. Tears of rage, amazement, and humiliation spring to her eyes. David seizes a chair and hurls it along the floor; it ends up broken in a corner.

“No one has ever struck me,” Karin says after a while. “I’ve never been hit in all my life...”

“...Get out,” he says coldly. “Go to hell. Go home to your blasted paragon...”

But his impotent rage isn’t spent yet. “I’m tired of you, I’m glad it’s all over. I’m bored and fed up, do you hear?”

Karin stops, turns around, looks at him. “Poor David,” she says in a different tone of voice. “Poor David and poor Karin. What a hard time we’re going to have...” (p.28)

After a while:

They are back in the darkening room. They are back in each other, in tenderness and intimacy and forgiveness, but also in a secret despair which aches deep down in their innermost communion. (p.29)

Bergman brings us face to face with the vulnerability of the victim and the cruelty of the perpetrator. The story also illustrates the difficulty in ending such a relationship. And just because one walks away doesn’t mean the pathogenic beliefs from the trauma are disconfirmed. The process of leaving abusive relationships or groups can take years. I had a plan to first become “inactive,” followed by the intensive acting experience and other adaptive experiences in my life. It took me eight years to finally terminate my membership with Eckankar.

After she has left David, Karin reflects on her experience when her daughter asks, “Were you going to clear out and leave us and live with that David?”

“…I don’t know what to say,” she answers. “I never thought of you and Anders and Daddy. I didn’t think at all (emphasis added).” (P. 53)

At the end of the story, David tries one last time to convince Karin to stay with him. Karin says:

“I don’t care about security anymore… I don’t bother about it because I know there isn’t any security except what you create from inside yourself….” She has nothing more to say. “Goodbye, David. You must let me go now. There’s no point in this. We’ve nothing more to talk about… No one has done me so much harm as you. No one has done me so much good. All the same, I’m not coming with you, David…” (p.56)

Real-Life Roles

My office in Mill Valley, California is also the place I’ve called “home” for the past 22 years. In a lovely village where the Miwok Native Americans once lived, it’s nestled close to the magnificent Redwood trees, covering the valleys and ridges of Mt. Tamalpais and within 10 miles of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco. As I write, dense fog slowly drifts over the top of the ridge densely carpeted with ancient Redwoods; and across the deep, narrow valley, a vibrant contrast of white and green against the soft bluish twilight. This view is at once inspiring, mysterious and timeless… one that imparts reverence and wonder.

I am grateful to my loving husband with whom I’ve had a more fulfilling life than I ever imagined possible. Our relationship has helped us each grow individually, and together we have formed a genuinely intimate partnership, one in which we can truly be ourselves. In our marriage, disconfirmation of pathogenic beliefs included the three avenues described earlier, as the following examples illustrate:

Acquisition of insight evolved through a collision and meshing of our cultural worlds, including personal values; family of origin roles and rules; my spiritual beliefs; and his atheism, which led to many thought-provoking and spirited discussions. On issues in which we were highly polarized, we have become more integrated in our perspectives. For example, my spiritual beliefs aren’t associated with an organization; my husband now considers himself an agnostic.

We were champions of interpersonal testing. In the first decade of our relationship, especially, we sought to know whether asserting ourselves would lead to abandonment or rejection. Our strong strivings and determination to resolve difficult issues related to our love for each other and our commitment to individual adult development.

Regarding exposure to attitudes and atmospheres that counter the pathogenic beliefs, we had mutual respect and strove to maintain a relationship based on equal power, with no one dominating the other. We worked on creating a home, establishing our careers, starting our family, and connecting with our community.

I am also dedicated to helping others as I have been helped by those who appeared at significant times in my life. One of these is JoAnn, a psychotherapist with whom I worked while I was on inactive status and after I had terminated my membership. She was a major reparative influence who supported my autonomy and development; helped me trust and value myself, heal from trauma, understand the origin and nature of my challenges, and learn the skills (especially those related to critical thinking) essential for reconnecting to society-at-large. About six years after I had become inactive in Eckankar and had left the acting studio, JoAnn was the first person to say to me, “I think Eckankar might be a cult.”

My initial reaction was shock, disbelief, and laughter. Even though years had passed since I had become inactive, I hadn’t yet become educated about high-demand groups or cults, researched the literature, or made such a connection with Eckankar.

JoAnn’s intervention led to a major corrective emotional experience in therapy, as she passed tests related to protecting my self-interests, expressing criticism of Eckankar, defying and surviving covert and overt rules that such statements would lead to cosmic punishment, validating my instincts, and acting in a collaborative, not authoritarian way throughout our work together. When I revealed to JoAnn some aspects of the supposedly “secret teaching” in Eckankar’s monthly written discourses, I was filled with fear and guilt that interfered with my ability to express myself. I was also aware of mildly dissociating or “spacing out.” As we explored what was occurring, I realized I was violating one of the “spiritual laws” in revealing this information and in criticizing the “Living Eck Master.” I later learned I was again challenging deeply-held pathogenic beliefs that basically something terrible would happen if I exposed Eckankar’s ideology. Instead, I was to learn more about the deep and enduring nature of thought reform from my own personal experience, in a safe environment with someone I trusted. In my opinion, covert and overt rules of Eckankar paralleled an addictive family system’s three primary rules for children in such families: “don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel” (Black, 1987, p. 24). It became impossible to freely function in these basic ways while conforming to the ideology of the leader.

I learned about the beneficial aspects of healthy groups from respected members of the Northern California Group Psychotherapy Society, who informed me through experiential and didactic training of a variety of approaches to and dynamics of healthy group life. I discovered the power of groups to promote healing and change through corrective emotional experience, including factors such as instilling hope, interpersonal learning, educating, acquisition of insight, sense of belonging, mutual support, and universality. I learned about the interrelated and interconnected aspects of systems—group, family, political. And finally, I became educated about the role of the ethical group leader, knowledge that has been invaluable in my private practice.

The corrective emotional experiences in therapy, at the Loft Studio, and in other situations were necessary for undoing the damaging influences of a high-demand organization in which the charismatic leader is idealized and viewed as the only living person capable of guiding and protecting each member on the spiritual path. The overly simplistic world view such a leader espouses is “right”; whatever members believed prior to recruitment is “wrong.” As a member, one’s entire existence is structured around skewed perceptions of reality that largely disregard and devalue one’s personal history.


Participation as a serious acting student at the Loft was transformative. It guided me down a path that ultimately helped me reconnect with myself and heal from trauma. It encouraged critical thinking and facilitated genuine, intimate connection with others. I found meaning, a sense of belonging, discovery from within, and encouragement from a community that valued my uniqueness. My awakening did not come through the impositions of an authoritarian leader. I found more “truth” in the acting process than in my role as “Co-Worker with God,” and I built upon this with subsequent therapy experience and a healthy new marriage. Like Karin, I continue to create a life of my own.

In The Touch, Bergman leaves us with a final symbol of Karin’s emergence as an individual in pursuit of an independent goal. After she leaves David, “Awkwardly, she picks up the Italian textbooks she has dropped.” (p. 56)


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

[1] Eckankar, Religion of the Light and Sound of God, Website: (Retrieved July 28, 2007.)

[2] According to Eckankar’s ideology, its leader acts as the “inner master” and “outer master.” “If living, he is a manifestation of the spiritual power… Outwardly he is limited by his own embodiment of flesh, but inwardly he is free to do anything or be anywhere, even in many places at the same time.” Twitchell (1971), The Spiritual Notebook, from 9th printing, 1982, p. 80.

[3]iii Paul Twitchell, self-proclaimed as The Mahanta, the Living ECK© Master from a long line of ECK masters, is also regarded as “one of the greatest plagiarists of the 20th century” by David C. Lane, professor of philosophy and sociology, and author of The Making of a Spiritual Movement: The Untold Story of Paul Twitchell and Eckankar, Appendix One, 1978.

[4]iv Curiously, ECK©, meaning the “divine essence” (Twitchell, 1971), was copyrighted by Eckankar. I believe that Twitchell referred to “Eck” in ways related to what George Orwell termed “doublespeak/doublethink,” wherein a person is able to believe contrary ideas or facts at the same time and to forget that he or she is consciously doing it. In addition to the above meaning, on the same page he states, “What we are is a part of the cosmic force called the ECK… It is the essence of God… It is that part of Him that we know as Light and Sound.” On the next page he defines ECK as “The science of Total Awareness that grows out of the experiences of Soul Travel.”

[5] “Chela” means “student of spiritual teaching.”


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About the Author

Colleen Russell, L.M.F.T., C.G.P., specializes in cult or high-demand group education and recovery in addition to providing general psychotherapy in her San Francisco Bay Area office and by phone. She is also a former member of a high-demand group and facilitates a Cult Recovery Support Group. Her Website is