Colin Feltham: Hi Gillie, and many thanks for your very interesting article on cults. You’ve mentioned your own experience in the Love of God Community (LOGC). Do you feel that this is finally, completely over for you in all its after-effects?

Gillie Jenkinson: The short answer is yes and no! The long answer is... what happened to me happened; it was highly abusive and I have chosen to work with those who suffered similar abuse and am researching the area, so I am never totally away from it and this keeps the ‘cult culture’ alive for me (which I want). I have found the more recent understanding of trauma and neuroscience hugely helpful in a very practical way, especially understanding how traumatic memory is laid down differently to ordinary memory and how things can be mainly healed but can be triggered (like stepping on a land mine). This view enables me to see myself as over it but I also know that if I am way out of my comfort zone then I am more vulnerable to triggers, like anyone.

I have learned a great deal from Janina Fisher, Pat Ogden and Margaret Wilkinson (among others) in their writings. I learned about using our ‘noticing brain’ and being curious about an emotional storm or trigger, rather than dissociating. So I have come to see ‘triggers’ as information about me and my experience, and have learned to think about triggers with curiosity rather than terror. This has helped me purposely work through them and see them as an opportunity to process more unresolved stuff. If it is a trigger that I am already aware of, as soon as I identify it, it quickly settles.

I also think triggers are information, in the countertransference, about my clients and their life experience, including the cult, and especially the cult if that is what we are working on. So, I ask myself why I am triggering in that particular way, with that particular memory, at that particular time with that particular client and get supervision straight away.

If I feel uncomfortable or distressed, I have learned to seek support from those who love, care for me and have my best interests at heart in order to work out the source of the discomfort. I ask myself, is it a trigger or is it that I need to deal with the situation I am in differently? I do not hide these ‘wobbles’ either from myself or others – I had years of doing that in the cult and am not prepared to be silenced or live in silence any longer! I have a wonderful family – husband and two beautiful daughters – friends I totally trust, colleagues, a wonderful supervisor and therapist who all know me and my work very well and they ground me and help me work out what is happening if I need it. Being told you are a terrible sinner/person for many years takes its toll and so having trusted, loving others in my life who believe the best of me is essential. I am passionately committed to supporting myself so I can support others and will always get help if I need it.

Colin: Given the wide definition of cults and cultish behaviour – from New Religious Movements, certain psychotherapies, some intense one-to-one relationships and even some internet communities – can we infer that there is a spectrum of cultish dynamics, that some cults are far worse than others, that some are wickedly intentional and others accidental and relatively harmless?

Gillie: Yes, I would agree with your summary of the situation and think that cults come under all those headings, as well as political. There is also a rise in internet cults, which are proving to be very harmful indeed for some people. I do think cults and cultish behaviour occur on a continuum and some have clearly been deadly, such as Jonestown, Guyana. Others that have been known as cults for decades are working to change their cultic practices while still maintaining the beliefs and practices.

Colin: You haven’t named other cults and I wonder if this is a deliberate omission. As we know, many have referred to some spiritual communities and personal transformation businesses as cults; some psychotherapies have been called cultish, some fundamentalist religion looks like having dangerous cultish features, and leaders of so-called ‘rogue states’ are sometimes referred to in cult terms. Do certain sensitivities, fears of lawsuits or reprisals, or whatever, put pressure on people not to name particular cults?

Gillie: Absolutely yes! There are a number of people who publicly name certain groups and some of them have been sued and at worst been made bankrupt. I am therefore very careful not to name groups publicly. When a former member of a group approaches me for post-cult counselling, what is important is their experience, not whether the group is generally known as a cult.

Colin: I wonder if it’s stretching things too much to ask whether gang behaviour is often cultish, and also whether epidemic tattooing has cultish qualities?

Gillie: Certainly gangs have cultish aspects to them and, although I have not studied the phenomenon specifically, I would say they probably are a ‘cult’, with peer pressure, bullying, a leader, rituals and thought reform. Perhaps one way of telling if something is a cult is by asking clients if the influence theory, and especially thought reform theory (this is explained in the journal article), fits and if it does perhaps one could say it is a cult.

But epidemic tattooing is new to me; I’ve never even heard of it!

Colin: You’ve mentioned psychotherapy cults and inevitably we might wonder to what extent love-bombing resembles unconditional acceptance, and to what extent confession, commitment, loaded language, financial investment and so on (all found in some therapies) underpin some therapy and make it dangerous. Any thoughts on this?

Gillie: We all know that some therapists are unethical and unscrupulous. Some mix counselling with spirituality but instead of remaining close to the ethical codes have the hubris to believe that they are above these codes and take the counselling relationship into another realm, literally and metaphorically.

Spirituality, in my opinion, is so often life-enhancing but it can also be lethal. I have worked with people who have been deeply harmed by unethical spiritual practitioners who mix spirituality with their counselling practice – this spiritual abuse seems to occur in so many different spiritual/religious settings. On the other hand, I often find clients who are spiritual work very well with the therapy process, as they are intuitive and flexible… so it goes both ways. I joined the Executive of APSCC (Association for Pastoral and Spiritual Care and Counselling) in order to address these issues. A Task and Finish Group has been set up to investigate spiritual abuse with a view to creating a product for BACP to advise therapists on working with these issues.

Therapists (of any sort) who claim to be able to make you better in a certain number of sessions (or at all) are always suspect, in my mind. These therapists get away with it because those who are abused by them are afraid to speak out and report them. This brings us into the area of ethics and the reasons why we have a code and are accredited etc. Of course they are not fail-safe but they are better than nothing.

As to whether it is love bombing or not... I think that it depends on the marketing and whether the therapist is honest about their services, has integrity, is genuine and practices ethically. Love bombing is a little different, probably because it often occurs in a public space, where cult members are recruiting and usually offer you a huge ‘favour’ eg salvation, happiness, enlightenment etc. Jeannie Mills, a former member of Jonestown who was murdered after escaping the group alive, said: ‘When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you’ve ever encountered and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate and understanding person you’ve ever met, and then you learn that the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true – it probably is too good to be true! Don’t give up your education, your hopes and ambitions to follow a rainbow.’ (From a Cult Information Centre leaflet, London)

Colin: One of the insidious attractions of cults is that they appear to come out of the blue – you meet someone at a vulnerable time, they seem understanding and hold out special hope. How can individuals be alerted to such unexpected dangers?

Gillie: I think that if people get over the myth that ‘it could never happen to me or my family’ and educate themselves about cults by reading the literature, such as Take Back Your Life and others, then they will be a good deal safer. Having said that, it is not always easy to know if something is going to be harmful, so another thing people can do is check out the group/therapist/training course/spirituality with accrediting bodies: INFORM, which holds a database of groups that people have had problems with; the Cult Information Centre, or the International Cultic Studies Association, whose membership is truly international (including many European countries, US, South America, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand) so groups anywhere in this small world can be checked out.

Colin: Post-cult counselling is a specialism, or at least it may take a particularly well-informed counsellor to provide it. To what extent do you think good help for cultic experiences is a hit-or-miss business?

Gillie: Former members have told me that their experience of therapy is hit or miss. Because we are trained to look at developmental issues, we may overlook the most important issue that person is dealing with – adjusting to life outside the cult, understanding it and healing from the experience. My Master’s research highlighted that therapists who gave information and resources were the most helpful, as were those who took the trouble to understand what a cult is and then helped clients to challenge the negative beliefs and introjects. I try and mix these two in the post-cult counselling I offer – and I offer myself in relationship, so the therapeutic relationship is established (which has been shown to be the most effective factor in any therapy) and give them a choice of information that together we feel will be most helpful. I help them reflect on and critique this information for themselves. Another thing I bring to former members is the ability to distinguish what is probably from the cult and what may be pre-cult – this is where my own experience is very useful. Obviously those who were born into a cult have nothing pre-cult to fall back on and often need practical advice, help to understand and normalise feelings and support to adjust to life outside the cult (this is perhaps nearer to coaching), alongside developmental, relational psychotherapy.

Colin: When you write about cult induction as being like rape and psychological and physical abuse, it flags up the possibility that perpetrators of cults should perhaps be treated criminally. Are there any such safeguards anywhere, or any plans in this direction?

Gillie: There are no specific safeguards other than the laws on sexual assault, kidnap and so forth – which have been used against some cult leaders. There was a recent case, a spiritual healer in North London who called himself Mohan Singh and was jailed for rape and sexual assault on women who joined his group.

That there is no law against cults in the UK is very frustrating and especially to those of us who have been affected by cults. Freedom of religion is sacrosanct but can be a cloak for abuse. So this is a huge hot potato!

Many whose lives have been affected, including parents who have lost contact with their children, would like to see something else put in place. The Family Survival Trust is campaigning to get the law changed and they also support families.

In France there is a law against using mind control (see p205 of this paper) but the UK Government is reluctant to engage with this issue and leaves it to INFORM, which is controversial as many see INFORM as cult apologists. Having said that, they do act if the law is broken and were involved in the Mohan Singh case, where they supported former members of his group to come forward as witnesses.

Colin: The beliefs ‘People will think me stupid’ and ‘It’s my fault’ seem very powerful, and on the face of it suitable for CBT. Do you share that view?

Gillie: Yes I do – but, and it is a big but, I think that the CBT therapist needs to have knowledge of cults and how the dynamics work because that will make them more effective. It is dangerous for any therapeutic approach to assume it will work for everyone and that special training for certain client groups is not required.

Colin: You mention the cult survivor’s ‘return to critical thinking’. Given that most of us arguably belong to one large, loose ‘cult’ or another (as broadly defined in religious, political or cultural terms), does this mean that rational, critical thinking might be commended over uncritical faith?

Gillie: Yes, and how about critical thinking in a faith? I find that genuinely open and wise people of faith do encourage critical thinking. Lack of critical thinking could be a clear warning sign of an organisation with possible malign influence that is potentially dangerous. We all need to be able to critique and then walk away if necessary – if we can’t, we may be in deep trouble.

Colin: Given the recent wave of books by some ex-cult members and the release of the film The Master, is there perhaps some growing awareness of cult dangers?

Gillie: Yes, possibly. I notice that when I mention my research, people quickly tell me about their friend or family member who was in a cult or that they have had an experience they identify as a cult experience.

Another film that really cleverly and subtly describes the horrors of a cult experience and the after affects is Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene. I haven’t seen The Master yet.

Colin: Thanks very much, Gillie.