Page D-6-THE NEWS. Frederick. Md., Friday. December 15, 1978

What is behind upsurge in cults?


(Editor's note; The murders and mass suicides at the People's Temple in Guyana have focused attention on two questions: Why does a person join a cult! And what is the aftermath of cult membership for those who have left such groups! These questions are the bass of "Coming Out of the Cults," the first psychological report on the present lira of former cult members. The report is the work of Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, a psychologist who has interviewed 300 current and former members of such cults as the Children of God, the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Krishna Consciousness Movement, the Divine Light Mission and the Church of Scientology. This Is the first article in a three part series by Dr. Singer excerpted with permission from the January 1979 issue of "Psychology Today.")

The recent upsurge of cults in the United States began in the late '60s and became a highly visible social phenomenon by the mid-'70s.

Many thousands of young adults - some say two or three million - have bad varying contacts with such groups, frequently leaving home, school, job, spouse and children to follow one or another of the most variegated array of gurus, messiahs and Pied Pipers to appear in a single generation.

By now, a number of adherents have left such groups. As they try to reestablish their lives in the mainstream of society, they are having a number of special - and, I believe, cult-related - psychological problems that say a good deal about what the cult experience can be like.

According to their own reports, many joined these groups during periods of depression and confusion, when they perhaps had a sense that life was meaningless. The cult promised - and for many provided -- a solution to the distress of the developmental crises that are frequent at this age.

Cults supply ready-made friendships and ready-made decisions about careers, dating, sex and marriage. They outline a clear "meaning of life." In return, they may demand total obedience to cult commands.

The cults maintain intense allegiance through their ideology as well as through social and psychological pressures and practices that, intentionally or not, amount to conditioning techniques that constrict attention, limit personal relationships and devalue reasoning.

Adherents and ex-members describe constant exhortation and training to arrive at exalted spiritual states, altered consciousness and automatic submission to directives.

There are long hours of prayer, chanting or meditation - in one Zen sect, 21 hours on 21 consecutive days several times a year - and lengthy repetitive lectures day' and night. The exclusion of family and other outside contacts, rigid moral judgments of the unconverted outside world and restriction of sexual behavior are all geared to increasing followers' commitment to the goals of the group and, in some cases, to its powerful leader.

Some former cult members were happy during their membership, gratified to submerge their troubled selves into a selfless whole. Converted to the ideals of the group, they welcomed the indoctrination procedures that bound them closer to it and gradually eliminated any conflicting ties or information.

Gradually, however, some grew disillusioned with cult life. Some 75 percent of the people attending our discussion groups, however, had left the cults not entirely on their own volition. but through legal conservatorships, a temporary power of supervision that courts in California and several other states grant to the family of an adult.

Many members of our groups tell us they were grateful for the intervention and had been hoping for rescue.

These people say they had felt themselves powerless to carry out their desire to leave because of psychological and social pressure from companions and officials inside. They often speak of a combination of guilt over defecting and fear of the cult's retaliation if they tried. In addition, they were uncertain over how they would manage in the outside world they had so long held in contempt.

Most of our group members had seen deprogrammers as they left their sects as part of their families' efforts to reorient them. But none cited experiences of the counter-brainwashing sort that some accounts of deprogramming have described and that the cults had warned them to be ready for.

Our group members said they met young ex-cultists much like themselves, of the cults' who described their own disaffection, prided political and economic information they had been unaware of about cult activities, and described the behavioral effects to be expected from the practices they had undergone.

Meanwhile, elective or not, the days away from the cult atmosphere gave the former members a chance to think, rest and see friends - and to collect perspective on their feelings. Some returned to cult life after the trial period at home, but many more elected to try to remake life on the outside.

But their readjustment was seldom painless.

(NEXT: Aftereffects)

DR MARGARET THALER SINGER is a specialist on cults with the Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco, and the Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley.