Helping Families Cope with a Cult Member


Just Like the Watchtower
Interesting things that I learned at the 2016 ICSA Conference
By Lee Marsh on August 16, 2016

One of the most interesting things I learned at an ICSA conference this summer was that 80% of cult members leave between 5 to 7 years after they were recruited into the cult. This statistic was shared during Rachel Bernstein’s presentation.

While Rachel considers Watchtower a cult, I am not sure how this applies to most Jehovah’s Witnesses, because so many of them today are born-ins.  However, I do think this statistic may be applicable to young Witnesses who get baptized early and then decide to leave in their late teens.

But the statistic is interesting if indeed it applies to adults who join the Witnesses. For those who have no other family members involved in the Watchtower, this looks promising for non-believing family members, because there is a very good chance that the new Witness will leave within a few years without intervention.

Another interesting thing I learned at the ICSA conference was that some of the biggest concerns that non-cult members have about cult involvement by their loved ones are 1) the breakdown in communication 2) disturbing behavioral changes 3) disapproval on both sides; and 4) a feeling of being betrayed.

All cults, including Watchtower, have their own unique loaded language. As new members get more involved in the cult, communication with family members begins to break down. This is because the new cult members are trying to distance themselves from family who disapprove of their involvement. It’s also a function of the cult’s language, which takes over normal communication, as two different languages are now being spoken. The cult is changing the meaning of words making communication difficult.

Another issue is the changed behavior of the now cult member. A person who was a substance abuser before getting involved in a cult begins to clean up their act and spend many hours preaching or going to meetings. What is interesting about this is that families get used to having an alcoholic in the home. A lot of time and attention is focused on the person’s “problem”. So they are often stymied at the changes and don’t know how to deal with them even though they may be happy on one level. What can happen is that the new behaviors, lack of communication and breakdown of family relationships become the center of attention and may drive the family to seek professional help.

Sadly, the professionals that many families find, are too often unaware of the issues of cult involvement and may suggest a “wait and see” attitude, thinking that this is a phase the person will soon tire of or that the changes are positive and the family should be happy.

Conversely, some professionals may try to focus the family’s attention on how to get the person to leave the cult. Unfortunately, in most cases too little attention is paid on the dynamics of the particular cult, and how they unduly influence and socially control their members.

A mandate for all professionals is to “do no harm” to their clients. When counseling family members, the relationship with the cult member is far more important than what they believe. So it is wise for the professional or therapist to do what they can to maintain and protect the relationship, as that is more effective than confronting a person – not the cult member)on specific cult beliefs or the changes the person has made.

Professionals should avoid attacking the cult group’s leader, as the leader cannot be the sole person the new member is connected to.  

If the family does choose to try to rescue their loved one out of the cult, there are some important things to remember. They are:

  • Whatever information you present to them must be relevant. Never attack the cult group. If you must attack, demonstrate the point using other cult groups.
  • If you present information without understanding it, then it could have a negative impact on your relationship with a family member.
  • Understanding the information and the situation takes time and effort. You can’t just superficially research “the group”. Do your research.
  • It is important to assess the emotional and psychological needs of the person you are trying to help.
  • Ask yourself, “Why are they in the group? What needs are being fulfilled that they were not getting elsewhere?”
  • Create a safe family environment for the person to return to.

Issues for a therapist and professionals to be informed about include:

  • The many methods of undue Influence and psychological manipulation
  • Relationships
  • The attraction to the leader and their methods to attract people
  • The beliefs or theology of the cult
  • The health of your family member. Has joining helped them to stop self-injurious behaviors like smoking, drinking and/or drugs? Is their health being compromised by lack of nutrition or sleep or lack of medical care?
  • Was joining the group a response to previous abuse either in the family or outside of it?
  • Is there an apparent element of salvation or safety within the group?

Each group is different and they change and evolve over time. People will respond differently to the group based on their personal needs for joining and staying. And not all groups are harmful.

When working with family members these are important points to make with them:

  • Focus on places and issues where you can agree and not on arguing your point of view
  • Acknowledge that you have a bias or prejudice and then find common ground
  • Beware of your “need to be right”. It cannot over-shadow the need to be happy. The need to be right might wind up pushing the person back into the group longer

Like dance partners, if you step too close, they will have to back up. But if you take a step back and away from attacking them, they hopefully will step forward, closer to you.

I would like to thank not only Rachel Bernstein, but Joseph Kelly and Patrick Ryan for their good advice, which I have tried to share, in this blog post, from their presentation, Workshop for Families: A Collaborative Approach to Addressing a Loved One’s Cult-Related Involvement at the ICSA Conference 2016 in Dallas, Texas.


Special Needs for Second Generation Ex-Cult Members


By Lee Marsh on July 20, 2016

One of the highlights of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference that I attended in July 2016 was Lorna Goldberg’s presentation about the unique needs of second generation ex-cult members, which includes ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. The title of her talk was Some Considerations Working with Former Cult Members.

Lorna was quick to remind her audience that in the ex-cult member community there is a growing awareness about the special needs of second generation ex-cultists (SGAs) – those who were born in or raised in a cult compared to first-generation former cultists (FGAs) – those who joined.

She told us that in both cases, the high-control group injects the cult personality into the mind of the individual, forcing the authentic personality into the background. But for SGAs, this means the true self never has an opportunity to develop. Then after leaving the cult, born-ins often have a much more difficult time adjusting to life outside the cult, as there is no formed true self to latch onto. They have to start from scratch, figuring out who they are.

I personally suspect that born-ins who lead a double life might have a head start on this. So far, I haven’t read or heard anything about it, although Richard Kelly has said that he believes his double life as a child helped him find his authentic identity soon after he left.

Goldberg also stated that those who fail to examine the impact of undue influence on their lives very often have a more difficult time adjusting to post-cult life, as the cult is so integral to the character of the born-ins’ personality. That is why therapists need to be aware that they might be speaking to the cult personae and not the true personality, when a client defends the cult experience or leader(s).

The goal of meaningful therapy is to help the person shift the locus or center of control from the cult to the client, giving the client greater autonomy. The goal is so they can develop their decision-making skills, because as cult members they made few decisions on their own.

Sadly, those who fail to get therapy often repeat the past unconsciously. They may go back to the cult, get involved in a different cult, high control group, or in an abusive or controlling relationship. This was definitely true for me.

After leaving the cult, I became involved in an emotionally abusive relationship. I also tried going back to the cult, as I wanted to be reinstated. Fortunately, the elder was so abusive to me, I lasted only one meeting and only that long because I didn’t want anyone to see me get up and storm out.

Goldberg made an interesting parallel of SGAs and immigrants from totalitarian countries, because those kinds of immigrants need practical education to help them adjust to their new world. They also need help with dissociative behaviors, especially when there is a history of abuse. They also need to recognize triggers to anxiety, panic and depression when they experience flashbacks, as abuse interferes with and exacerbates dissociation.

For some, medication, at least on a temporarily basis, may help. That is why a general physical or thorough evaluation may be needed, due to the cult’s demand for perfection, as ex- member often experience a lot of shame talking about their problems or when confessing that they were once part of a cult.

I could see that in myself. So immediately after leaving the Witnesses, I threw myself into a college educational experience. I didn’t want to think about the Witnesses. I was moving on with my life.

Later as a therapist, I knew the mistake that many abuse survivors make when they finally leave abusive families. They get involved right away in yet another abusive relationship. I know that was true for me, and more than once.

The dynamics of abuse are the same, whether it is in a relationship with one person, your family, your community, a high-demand religion or another high-control group. It’s all about control and depriving you of your basic human rights, including the right to think for yourself.

Going to the University gave me the tools to think for myself. But looking back, I did not then believe that I had that right, as I did not trust myself, knowing I was making the same mistakes over and over again. Therapy would have helped me realize the error in my thinking and to learn: If I wanted to take control of my life, I had to believe I had the right to do so!

Lorna Goldberg

Lorna Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA, Board member and past president of ICSA, is a psychoanalyst in private practice and Dean of Faculty at the Institute of Psychoanalytic Studies. In 1976, she and her husband, William Goldberg, began facilitating a support group for former cult members that continues to meet on a monthly basis in their home in Englewood, New Jersey. Lorna has published numerous articles about her therapeutic work with former cult members in professional journals


Also see: Impact on Children of Being Born Into/Raised in a Cultic Group by Ashley Allen

What Do Violent Extremism and Watchtower Have in Common?


One of the most competent educators on violent extremism in the world today is Sweden’s Robert Örell. He is definitely receiving well-deserved attention for not only what he knows, but how he is helping to reclaim the lives of thousands of victims of hate groups and radicalization.

Robert was recently asked to deliver an 18-minute TED talk on violent extremism and how hate groups influence their victims. It is a must-watch watch video, which you can access at:

After watching and listening to Robert’s engaging expose several times on how hate mongers and violent extremist groups persuade victims and members, I was struck with the parallelism of Watchtower’s brand of unethical persuasion.

For starters, people who join Watchtower and violent extremist groups are looking for a community, where they can feel a sense of belonging and have meaning to their lives; both groups claiming exclusivity to the truth.

Both groups do very well at disconnecting their members from family, friends, society and themselves.

The victims are introduced to a higher cause.

Both groups influence their victims and members with black-and-white thinking;

Everything is defined by the group as either good or bad;

Us against them;

They learn to speak the language of the group;

Members are given the feeling they are superior to other people and groups;

A moral superiority complex is constantly reinforced;

They associate only with members of the group;

Non-members are inferior and constantly de-humanized; and

They have no problem violating the basic human rights of non-members.

But don’t take my word for it. I would encourage you to watch and listen to Robert to see and hear for yourself.

Robert lives in Sweden, and has been very active for the last 15 years with EXIT Fryshuset. You can access his group at: EXIT excels at helping people escape from violent extremist groups that unduly influence their members.

Robert was also featured in a New York Times article, which you can access at:

Another interesting article about Robert and his life as a Neo Nazi can be found at:



Karpman’s Drama Triangle


One of the tools I have found very helpful for people exiting a cult who want peace of mind and to find their authentic identity is Karpman’s Drama Triangle.

The Triangle can help people understand their relationship with a spouse, an ex-spouse, a boss, employees, friends, parents, children, neighbors and their church leaders.

In fact, I just shared the Drama Triangle with my local, Ottawa, Canada, ex-JW Meet-Up group to see if they could find uses for it in their lives, and it turned into a lively positive conversation.

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The Ethics of Evangelism

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

InHungarianButtonWhen I was a Jehovah’s Witness, I thought evangelism or preaching was bad if it was not Watchtower-based. For many years as an ex-JW, I was convinced that any kind of religious proselytizing was nothing more than unethical persuasion.

So I was intrigued, while at a 2012 ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) conference, in Montreal, Canada, by a session addressing the pros and cons of evangelism. I attended the one-hour meeting facilitated by a retired college professor, Elmer Thiessen, and his insights proved to be a real eye-opener for me.

What was particularly impressive was Thiessen’s list of Fifteen Criteria that one could use to determine the ethics of a church group’s proselytizing methods.

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Claiming Your Repressed Authentic Identity


By Richard E. Kelly

Finding and claiming one’s repressed authentic identity will not be easy for most adults who were raised as children by Jehovah’s Witness parents. First, there’s familial undue influence—close family members trying to reshape the child’s personality—and then there’s the non-familial cult-like identity being imposed upon children by Watchtower’s “new personality” policies and apocalyptic beliefs.

However, it can be done and Bonnie Zieman’s memoir, Fading Out of the JW Cult, makes a strong case for how it can happen. But what makes her story so special is that the protagonist is an experienced psychotherapist. While sharing her story, she explains the psychological manipulation at play in trying to shape her personality.

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Does Watchtower Psychologically Manipulate Jehovah’s Witnesses?


By Richard E. Kelly

InHungarianButtonIn Robert Jay Lifton’s groundbreaking book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Lifton describes the eight methods of control that unethical pseudo-religious groups use to psychologically manipulate the minds of their members.

InGermanButtonIn 1961, Lifton used the words thought reform to describe psychological manipulation, while today most people prefer to use the words mind control, undue influence or brainwashing.

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Watchtower’s Shunning Policy

Eating with the family...

Eating with the family…

By Rick Gonzalez

This is a picture of my dad eating a meal. He had just made lunch for me, but couldn’t eat it with me. I had to eat it at another table with my then four-year-old son while he sat there looking away from me.InFrenchButton-2

Why? Because that’s what the Watch Tower Society tells him to do.InSpanishButton-4

I posted this picture October 26, 2013 on a Facebook forum. InGermanButtonThe first response was, “Don’t know what to say. This boggles the mind; mind-control

religion at its very worst!”

Minutes later a flood of comments and “Likes” followed, reminding me that a good picture can easily replace a thousand words.

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