Twenty-Five Years Observing Cults An American Perspective

Cultic Studies Review Vol. 1, No. 1 (2002)

Twenty-Five Years Observing Cults: An American Perspective

Marcia R. Rudin


Marcia R. Rudin, describes changes she has witnessed in the cult scene during the 25 years in which she has been involved in the field. Among other changes she notes that cultic groups appear to have become much more varied, attract more diverse memberships, and in many cases are international in scope. Deprogramming has been supplanted by voluntary interventions and the vast majority of former group members seeking help leave their groups without an intervention and at a much later age than was the case 20 years ago. Helping organizations and individuals have also changed. Many more resources are available and more nuanced conceptual models are followed. Despite the progress, much work remains.

After ten years as Director of the International Cult Education program for the American Family Foundation (AFF) and twenty-five years of overall involvement with the cult phenomenon, I left my position with AFF. It has been helpful for me to reflect on my observations of cults and the cult scene over these twenty years, including the counter-cult movement. I would like to share these reflections on changes I have observed. Obviously, my comments bear on what I have experienced, not necessarily on the complete objective reality. In the early years, in particular, self-selection factors may have inclined some and not others to contact our organization. Moreover, I speak in generalizations and realize full well that there will probably be exceptions to every generalization I make. I trust the reader will keep this in mind as well.

Here are my thoughts:

  1. Cults have mainstreamed themselves and are appealing to a wider, mainstream population. In 1980, about three years after I became involved in this issue, my husband and I published Prison or Paradise: The New Religious Cults, one of the first books about cults. As reflected in the title of our book, we thought about cults at that time primarily as "religious" or "spiritual" groups.

This is no longer true: many cultic groups today are not religious or spiritual in nature. They are also large group-awareness trainings, psychotherapy, business, political, and "New Age" groups. Hence, cults appeal not only to the young "counter-culture" seekers of the 1960s and 70s, but to older, affluent, established, "normal" people as well. Rather than promising spiritual salvation or ultimate meaning they skillfully market themselves to a new clientele by offering sure financial success, happiness, social success, or self-fulfillment. Members come from every ethnic and religious background and include adults, middle-aged, elderly, and children. Entire families join or develop within a group, and children are born into and raised within them. (As time goes by, more and more of the ex-cult members to whom AFF has given recovery help have grown up in their group; also, many who come to AFF recovery workshops are older people who have been in their group for many years.)

  1. Because cults are attracting "mainstream" people of every age, the problems cults cause have become more complex. I answered the "hot line" for AFF for nearly ten years. The kinds of situations I heard about in these heart-breaking calls have changed from the earlier typical scenario of middle-aged parents worried about their college-aged children to every kind of family situation: middle-aged or elderly spouses and lovers being driven apart; young adults or middle-aged people worried about their middle-aged or elderly parents; grandparents longing to see their grandchildren in a cult; parents seeking custody of children from a spouse still in a group; stepparents drawn into the conflicts, etc.

As the family and life-situations in these mainstreamed groups have grown more complex, so too the problems encountered in recovering from the cult involvement have become more complex. Twenty years ago, a college student in a group for one or two years could recover quickly and get on with his/her life; today's ex-member might be in his/her forties, fifties, or even sixties with no one to go back to, no career to resume, and no financial resources.

  1. The economic and racial backgrounds of cult members have changed: when I first started out in the field, most situations involved white, middle-class to wealthy young people cult recruiters often targeted to obtain their affluent parents' money. Throughout the years we have witnessed a gradual transition to the recruitment of the less affluent and less-educated. Recruitment of members of minority groups has increased.

  2. Over the years, it appears that a greater number of people are walking away from groups instead of being assisted by an intervention. Indeed, it now appears (and research backs up this observation) that well over 90% of former group members leave on their own. (This may have always been the case, but helping organizations were then more likely to see those who left through an intervention.)

  3. In situations where a cult member does need an intervention to leave the group, voluntary exit counselings have clearly replaced involuntary "deprogrammings" as the intervention of choice.

  4. We used to think that cults were only a problem in the United States. In these twenty years we have learned that they are a problem throughout the world, including Eastern Europe and, with the breakdown of the Communist political system, the former Soviet Union. Not only have Western cults gone to the East to recruit, but indigenous groups have sprung up there as well, some of them coming to the West.

  5. Some cults now have political agendas on both the left and the right. So, in some cases cults are not just a matter of estrangement between families and loved ones and the pain that they can cause, but are also perceived as being a serious threat to pluralism and democracy throughout the world.

Though efforts to engage the U.S. government about the cult phenomenon -- especially to their law-breaking and human rights violations -- have not advanced in my twenty years of involvement in this issue, governments throughout the rest of the world, especially in South America, Germany, Israel, and Russia, have become active, sometimes to a degree that causes some cult critics to become concerned about the possible abridgment of religious and other freedoms.

Just as the cult scene has changed in my twenty years of involvement in this issue, so too has the response of resource organizations such as AFF.

  1. The number of concerned individuals and resource organizations has grown.

  2. These organizations have outreached their message of mind manipulation to professionals beyond the cult field directly, such as those working in the fields of medicine, domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse, etc.

  3. There has been a growth in information services provided by these individuals and organizations to keep up with the mushrooming demand for information and assistance. This demand has greatly increased not only because of the growth in the number of cultic groups and the number of people affected, but also because of the capacities of e-mail and the Internet, which have enabled those needing information and help (including the media) to find and to communicate with these resource organizations much more easily than in the past.

  4. Due to a widening of perspective about the complexity of cultic issues, there has been a gradual change in the kind of information dispensed by resource organizations. The information has become more factually reliable. Resource organizations such as AFF have developed a more balanced view of the cultic phenomenon. This includes a re-thinking of the "brainwashing" model of recruitment and pressure into a more nuanced analysis of mind manipulation and totalistic milieu dynamics. I believe this more balanced and sophisticated perspective has resulted in better communication between cult members and their families and loved ones. This better communication increases the possibility that a cult member will walk out voluntarily from a group, or at least helps to make the ongoing cult involvement more tolerable for the family and loved ones.

  5. Over the years there has been an increase in professionalism of the assistance given to cult-impacted families and loved ones. As more mental health professionals have been trained and as more ex-cult members and affected families and loved ones have gone into mental health fields -- often as a result of their personal involvement with the cult issue -- the quality of information and counseling has improved. Communications skills of the cult-affected families or loved ones in particular have improved.

  6. More expertise in the cult field has been taken over by ex-cult members themselves rather than outside professionals, as was true in the past. This has helped to improve counseling and communication because of the first-person experience of the helping professionals.

  7. Educational efforts for young people are increasing throughout the world.

  8. The cult-education organizations and the counter-cult movement have become internationalized, in part because of the Internet. Individuals and groups have sprung up throughout the world and are networking in an organized manner with each other. Experts are traveling widely. Major books are being translated and circulated throughout the world. Training of mental health professionals in this field is increasing throughout the world. Scholars, mental health professionals, and legislators are visiting other countries to learn about cult issues. Several international meetings and conferences have taken place in the last ten years. European groups have formed a confederation, FECRIS.

While cult-education organizations have improved their services, there is still much to be done. The cult scene has grown far more complex in the last twenty years. Our responses to destructive groups must also become more sophisticated and complex, if we are to help loved ones and families deal with their situations and help ex-members recover from their devastating experiences.

This bio should be moved to a Web profile and a hyperlink formed.

Marcia Rudin, M.A has been an expert on destructive cults for twenty years, Ms. Rudin was, until her retirement in 1999, the Founding Director of the International Cult Education Program, a preventive-education outreach of the American Family Foundation. She writes widely about cults and psychological manipulation and lectures on these topics throughout the U.S. and Canada. Ms. Rudin is co-author with Rabbis A. James Rudin and Hirshel Jaffe of Why Me? Why Anyone?, published by St. Martins Press in 1986 and reissued by Jason Aronson, Inc. in 1994, and, with Rabbi Rudin, of Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults, published by Fortress Press in 1980. She wrote and is Associate Producer of the International Cult Education Program videotape Cults: Saying No Under Pressure and is the writer and producer of the videotape After the Cult: Recovering Together. She is the editor of and a contributor to the anthology, Cults on Campus: Continuing Challenge, an International Cult Education Program book published by the American Family Foundation in 1991, author of the International Cult Education Program lesson plan for middle and high school students, Too Good to be True: Resisting Cults and Psychological Manipulation, and was editor of the International Cult Education Program newsletter Young People and Cults.