Cult Awareness: What Is A Destructive Group?

In Wendy Ford Wolfberg's 1993 classic handbook Recovery from Abusive Groups, a vast amount of ground is covered regarding how to recover from the damage done to a person involved in a destructive cult in a very straightforward yet eloquently buffered manner.

This book is a must-read for anyone recently out from under the omnipresent influences of the Church of Scientology, who is at the stage of coming to terms with the ruin brought about by pursuing their religious beliefs and the harm done to their psyche by coercive tactics. The author is a former cult member herself, and the material is presented in the form of a courseware style guide that maps out a path to fully healing oneself from the trauma of abuse. She does this by providing a set of constructive exercises combined with a recipe for recovery with three main ingredients: Time, Discipline, and Courage.

Mrs. Wolfberg's text is readily available online in a professional PDF format from the FREE ICSA Archives (via shared googledocs), and is partially featured on her website at You can also purchase a hard copy from ICSA (aka American Family Foundation) Bookstore, although that area of ICSA's snazzy new website appears to be somewhat under construction as of this post.

Under the Introduction section of Wendy's book, she features the following information to answer the important question: What is a Destructive Group?   This material was reprinted from a Cult Awareness Network (CAN) brochure that was widely distributed prior to Scientology's hostile take over of the organization that helped so many people escape and recover from destructive cults.

Marks of a Destructive Group

The marks of a destructive group are as follows:

1.  Mind Control (undue influence): manipulation by use of coercive persuasion or behavior modification techniques without informed consent.

2.  Charismatic Leadership: claiming divinity or special knowledge and demanding unquestioning obedience with power and privilege. Leadership may consist of one individual or a small core of leaders.

3.  Deception: recruiting and fundraising with hidden objectives and without full disclosure of the use of mind controlling techniques [group psychology]; use of "front groups."

4.  Exclusivity: secretiveness or vagueness by followers regarding activities and beliefs.

5.  Alienation: separation from family, friends, and society, a change in values and substitution of the cult as the new "family," evidence of subtle or abrupt personality changes.

6.  Exploitation: can be financial, physical, or psychological; pressure to give money, to spend a great deal on courses or give excessively to special projects and to engage in inappropriate sexual activities, even child abuse.

7.  Totalitarian Worldview (we/they syndrome): effecting dependence, promoting goals of the group over the individual and approving unethical behavior while claiming goodness.

Techniques of a Destructive Group

The techniques of a destructive group are as follows:

1.  Group Pressure and "Love-Bombing" discourages doubts and reinforces the need to belong through use of child-like games, singing, hugging, touching, or flattery.

2.  Isolation/Separation causes an inability or lack of desire to verify the reality of information provided by the group.

3.  Thought-Stopping Techniques introduce recruits to meditating, chanting, and repetitious activities which, when used excessively, induce a state of high suggestibility.

4.  Fear and Guilt induced by eliciting confessions to produce intimacy and to reveal fears an secrets, by creating emotional vulnerability through overt and, covert threats, and by alternating punishment and reward.

5.  Sleep Deprivation encouraged under the guise of spiritual exercises, necessary training, or urgent projects.

6.  Inadequate Nutrition sometimes disguised as a special diet to improve health or advance spirituality, or as rituals requiring fasting.

7.  Sensory Overload forces acceptance of complex new doctrines, goals, and definitions to replace old values by expecting recruit to assimilate masses of information quickly with little opportunity for critical examination.

Not all of these techniques need to be present simultaneously for a mind control environment to be operative.

Harmful Effects of a Destructive Group

The harmful effects of a destructive group may include:

1.  Loss of free will and control over one's life.

2.  Development of dependency and return to child-like behavior.

3.  Loss of spontaneity or sense of humor.

4.  Inability to form intimate friendships outside the cult or enjoy flexible relationships.

5.  Physical deterioration and abuse.

6.  Psychological deterioration (including hallucinations, anxiety, paranoia, disorientation, and dissociation).

7.  Involuntary, de facto servitude or exploitation.

Not all of these harmful effects will be experienced by everyone who has a destructive group experience.

For additional insights on Recovery from Abusive Groups by Wendy Ford Wolfberg, checkout the ICSA book review from Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1993.

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1 comment:

  1. Good work!
    As an ex-scientologist I experienced pretty much all of these. I'm soooo happy to be free!