Apologetics Index

Why do some people return to a cult?

The following message — originally titled, “Towards A New Model Of ‘Cult Control'” — was posted to the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup, on Feb. 23, 2000. It is reproduced here by the kind permission of its author, the late Robert Vaughn Young.

(Preface: I am making this long post to ARS because I am stepping away from this work and I want to get it into the hands of people who study or are concerned with this issue. I do not know who has taken this view. It is merely my perspective and opinion and can certainly prompt debate, not to mention screams of horror from any cult. I just want it to be seriously considered by the professionals who deal with this. Others should be interviewed on it and the model developed and tested. Nor do I think it is the only model. I merely think it might help some who could not be helped before. I only ask that someone provide a copy of this to whoever might be interested in the issue of “cult control.”)

After I left Scientology in 1989 with 21 years in the cult, the hardest question people posed to me was why I stayed in it so long if I knew it was such an abusive system. I didn’t have an answer that satisfied me, let alone anyone else. I think I’ve come up with a reply and a model. It at least satisfies me today.

My own background and basic interests also demanded an answer to that question. I had a pursued and obtained a BA in philosophy (from what was then known as San Francisco State College) because of a strong interest in what we called philosophy of behavior/mind/psychology. (The choice often depended on the school, as well as the emphasis within the field.)

I was then accepted into the PhD program at the University of California at Davis. I picked them because they had a strong program in this new, growing field of study. (Twenty years later I discovered that the field of “cognitive science” had emerged with entire departments devoted to it and PhDs being granted at some universities. Cognitive Science is a blend of philosophy, psychology and some computer science, namely in the area of AI or artificial intelligence, which was exactly what I was looking for. AI was posing new philosophical problems but back in the late 1960s, departments had yet to integrate them as full subjects.)

It was this interest of mine that prompted me to read Hubbard. I was intrigued with elements of his philosophy, namely some of the epistemological and cosmological presentations. Scientology’s Dept 20/RTC and their attorneys (especially in my last deposition in Tampa a couple of weeks ago) can’t grasp this. When they ask why I got into Scientology, they make all sorts of assumptions, from “personal improvement” to my wanting to join a religion. No, I say, trying to explain, but it never sticks. For an “applied religious philosophy” they haven’t a clue what “philosophy” even means, let alone “religious philosophy.” (They think that a “religious philosophy” is a religion. Get a clue!) But then, Hubbard didn’t understand it either, as I finally came to learn.

Which brings it back to the issue of why I stayed. There was one incident that happened in 1988 that I kept as my litmus test. I knew if I could understand it, I could understand it all.

I was on the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) at “Golden Era Studios” at Gilman Hot Springs CA. (For the sake of brevity, let’s skip why I was there and the way it works and the like and just cut to the chase. Besides, it’s irrelevant to the point I’m making and I think I’ve written about it before.) My situation had deteriorated to the point that I was afraid I was either going to go crazy on the RPF or die so I escaped one night. They found me at a motel in nearby Hemet and wanted to talk. I said okay and the next thing I knew, I agreed to return to the “program” and to finish the RPF. I did and was on it another 5-6 months (total 16 months) before “graduating.”

Here is my litmus test. More than why did I stay in here, why did I return if I felt it was so abusive that I escaped? And here’s the kicker: they TALKED me back in. They didn’t lay a hand on me. By just talking with me, they convinced me to give up what I had planned for weeks and executed. They convinced me to go back to the very condition that I feared would kill me. Why did I do it?

And this must be remembered: I can look back (11 years after fleeing) and see that I was right to escape the RPF and wrong to return. So why did I return and then stay?

Here’s where the “mind control” advocates might argue their point. After all, isn’t this what “mind control” is all about where I was “controlled” to do something that was inherently against my will?

Or the “brainwashing” school might give their explanation from that perspective. After 21 years in the cult, they might say, I was “conditioned” and like some “Manchurian Candidate” or Pavlovian dog, someone merely rang some bell or pushed a button and I complied.

I never bought either model. As I tried to understand, I read some articles by “experts” on the subject of “cult control” but they just didn’t fit. It was like putting on an expensive but oversized coat that hung off the fingertips and draped across me like a double-breasted. Yeah, it was a “coat” and the “label” was impressive but…

I wondered if it was me. Maybe I resented the idea that I had been “brainwashed” or there was “mind control” and so that was why I didn’t like the theories. I found myself in an amusing situation where I was agreeing with the cult that the models didn’t work but there was still SOMEthing, some point of control. Why was I talked back into a situation that I detested and that I could look back on years later and agree, yes, something else was at work. There WAS some sort of “control” but “mind control”? It didn’t work.

It wasn’t until my first trip to Wellspring that I found the model that worked for me. It had nothing to do with them. It was some books that were on their shelves that I was reading in my spare time that let me realize the model that worked for me: the battered or abused woman. The idea didn’t take hold fully then. It took further reading (including some on the Web) some months later to bring it together.

Various “experts” can (and do) argue if “mind control” or “brainwashing” really exists or if we are just talking about various forms of “influence” that is found in everything from advertising to conversations. But they can’t argue with the fact that there are battered/abused women who stay in abusive situations and there are women who flee and when found by the husband are talked BACK into the very relationship they tried to escape and then it repeats.

Until a very few years ago, our society didn’t even ADMIT to these women, let alone try to help them or try to understand the phenomenon. Being the male-dominated society we are, it was even legal in many states for a husband to hit his wife, and may still be. If a woman went to the police, they simply called the husband. But now women are stepping forward and it isn’t easy. It is like being a rape victim and speaking out. It takes courage and it took some women to force this issue on our (American) male-dominated society and MAKE it an issue. That is why it is a new issue. It is not that it hasn’t existed. It has undoubtedly existed for as long as there have been men and women but – like civil rights and other issues – it took some “victims” FORCING the issue before anyone even admitted that it existed.

The first time I saw the parallel between my own experiences in the cult of Scientology and battered women was when I was reading “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds,” which is an excellent book. It was in the Intro or maybe the first chapter that they cited and quoted the singer Tina Turner who had been in an abusive relationship for something like 10 or 15 years. She remarked how being with Ike Turner was like being in a small cult. The remark jumped off the page at me. Given the success of Tina Turner as an entertainer, one is not prone to say she is a stupid woman but there she was in a marriage where she was beaten constantly and yet she stayed. When she finally escaped, as she tells her story, it was after a beating that left her head so swollen that she couldn’t put on a wig. She wrapped her head in a scarf and fled, taking no money or anything and finally got away from Ike Turner.

One wonders how often she has been asked since, “Tina, you’re such a talented woman, so intelligent, how could you stay with a man for 10/15 years who was beating you?” Maybe she has an answer in her autobiography. I don’t know. It is on my to-read list. But I know she was asked that question. Every woman who escapes a man who has been beating them must get that question and it is probably the hardest one in the world to answer. After all, it’s not that you don’t KNOW you’re getting beaten. And it didn’t happen just once. Nor twice. It happens week after week, month after month, year after year.

Nor are these women locked up. The husband goes off to work, for example, and she has a car. She gets in the car and she goes to the store, buys food, and brings it home, to the very place where she is being beaten and she makes dinner. She doesn’t keep driving. SHE COMES BACK. To what? More abuse.

There are also plenty of cases where the women DID escape, where they finally got up their courage and maybe grabbing the kids, they fled and the man managed to find them. Then, with no physical abuse, he TALKED HER BACK. And then when the abuse started again, she stayed. Some leave, but some stay.

When I began to see the parallel between my own experience and these women, I went back and re-read Lifton’s 10 or however many points that he makes for his model and I realized that it was based on studying prisoners of war! That was hardly a secret but when he and others were making their models of “mind control” or “brainwashing” or however you call it, battered women weren’t even a subject which, for me, was a telling difference. After all, what repatriated prisoner of war says he wants to go back? What prisoner of war was let out of their cell and allowed to go into the city to relax and then went back to the prison where they were abused and tortured? THAT, for me, is where the model breaks down and where the model of the abused or battered woman takes over.

Even before I realized how the plight of the abused woman paralleled my situation, I used to wonder how people from East Germany were able to cross into Berlin to shop and then would return. If conditions in East Berlin were as bad as we were being told in the West, how could they step into the West, see the difference, buy the things they didn’t have back home and then return? I don’t cite this as an exact parallel, but there is a similarity. Why would a person go BACK to a condition that is worse? I don’t think “mind control” or “brainwashing” fits that situation any more than it fits the abused woman or that it fit mine.

One day talking with someone about this new idea that I had, I mentioned the East German parallel and the person made an excellent point. “East Germany was their home,” she said. “People don’t easily leave their homes unless they have someplace better to go.”

And that nearly tied the two together for me, as well as back into my situation. Where can the abused woman go? Can she just take off for nowhere? I don’t know. I do know that when I escaped the RPF, I didn’t have anywhere to GO, which was why I went to a motel. (There was another reason but it is somewhat immaterial for this point.) When Stacy and I successfully fled in 1989, we were in the same bind. We didn’t have anyplace to GO. We knew that the cult had the names and addresses and phone numbers of every single family member and friend. If nothing else, our mail had been monitored and read for years and there is no doubt in my mind that the already-existing list was expanded from that monitoring. (Their excuse for opening and reading all mail that comes to staff at the org is to watch for billings to the org. It is a Hubbard policy. Staff are then pulled in and interrogated about mail considered suspicious.)

Knowing that they had such a list, we knew we could not go to any of those people so we just hit the road and drove. I had already been talked back in once. And there was one other time when I tried to escape and got as far as the gate and was talked back. So that was one thing I knew I had to avoid. I had to get enough space and time to get my own wits about me to fend off another attempt, if they could find us.

That is also why I believe cult members have to escape in secret: they are afraid they will be talked back in or convinced to stay. I know what that feels like.

After I began to apply the abused or battered woman model (for want of better words) to my own situation, I had an inadvertent and unintentional opportunity to test it and I will never forget the experience. I was back on Vashon Island, sometime in 1999, where I had been living. (For those who don’t know, Vashon is an island in Puget Sound.) Vashon is an incredibly unique community. When you live there, you are an “islander” and it grants you a number of unstated privileges. It took me a long time to realize what it reminded me of. It is what the Old West (in the US) used to be like. A person was accepted for who they said they were until they proved otherwise. You answered to the locals, not outsiders. That was how Vashon islanders lived.
There were two bars on the island, across the street from each other. One of them was where the “kids” and off-islanders hung out. It had a pool table and a big screen TV for watching games. The other was quiet, sedate and for the “old timers” who knew each other and everything that was happening on the island. Even if you were new on the island, by the time you visited, they knew you and more than you imagined. It was the sort of place where you could sit down, have a beer and catch up on the local gossip. Any visitors to the island looking for a place to hang out would stick their heads in and then leave and choose the one across the street, leaving us to our own rhythm. It was also a place where you could just sit and if you wanted to be alone, you were left alone. It was that sort of place.

One night I went in, getting the usual hi’s and nods and maybe a slap on the back or giving one in return. ‘Hey, where ya been!” someone asked. “Oh, hanging around,” I answered. Such a reply would be enough. If I wanted to say more, I would. No one would pry. I pulled up a bar stool, ordered a beer and sat watching ESPN. It was the only acceptable station because one could watch it with no sound, and it was kept at no sound so people could play the juke box if they wanted.

I was there relaxing for about 15 minutes when a woman sat down next to me. More out of reflex than anything else, I turned and looked and nodded and she nodded back. Then I went back to the TV to watch how the Mariners were doing. The barkeep said hi to her in a way that meant she was a local.

After a couple of minutes she spoke up. “You’re the one they’ve been picketing, aren’t you?”

I turned to her. She was sipping on her beer. She was maybe 45 and dressed as islanders dress. (Nine times out of ten, you can spot an off-islander by their attire.) She was clearly a local, although I didn’t recognize her. That was easy enough on this island. “Yeah,” I said.

“How’s it going? They still doing it?”

No, I said, it’s been quiet lately. She told me how she thought it was terrible, how they come onto the island like that. It’s not how islanders behave, she said. Yeah, I replied with a shrug. They just don’t get it.

“I saw you on the ‘Dateline’ show,” she said. I nodded as she remarked some more about it. Finally she asked the question. “So how long were you in Scientology?”

“About 21 years,” I said.

“Wow,” she said actually surprised. “If it really is as bad as I hear, how could you stay in it that long?”

There it was, that same question. Well, this time I had a new answer.

“I guess that’s like asking an abused women why she stayed in that relationship for so long when…”

She suddenly turned to me and raised her hands in front of her, one of those “halt” motions and said, “Say no more! I just ended an abusive marriage of 12 years. I know exactly what you are talking about.”

And right there, we became friends. We had something in common.

We exchanged a few more words on the subject of coming to one’s senses and then the entire subject was dropped. Neither of us were interested in it. We each understood the other fully and spent the next hour talking about the island, the Mariners and other pleasantries of life until she finally paid her bill and got off the stool, shook my hand, wished me well and said she’d tell her friends about us.

After she left and in the year since, I’ve thought about that conversation many times, how there was an instant connection by her, an immediate recognition. She never said how long it had been since she ended the marriage but it had probably been long enough to be asked the same question that she found herself asking me. But it was by an incredibly stroke of luck that the first person I said that to happened to be a women who escaped from an abusive relationship. It could have been someone who would have let me finish my statement and said, “You know, I’ve never understood that either,” but it wasn’t. It was a woman who said, say no more, I know exactly what you’re talking about. And she did. Our situations were entirely different but they were the same.

After that I realized that for the first time I had a model that I could use in the most difficult situations and the understanding would be based on that person’s grasp of the situation of the abused woman. With this model/analogy, I could go on the “Oprah” show and with that response she would get it, as would millions of women watching the show. Nothing else would be needed. There wouldn’t have to be arguments about “mind control” or “brainwashing” and if it really exists. Abused women exist and whatever keeps them there or brings them back, it happens. That fact cannot be denied.

Now that I’ve made my point, let me expand it. In my opinion, this model/analogy extends much further than the control of a cult. I think it can be found in jobs where the person feels trapped and wants to leave but can’t. There might be a difference that the “boss” may not try to talk them back, but I think this model/analogy goes farther than merely cults and abused women. That would be up to others to pursue. My point is that I’m not targeting Scientology. The model worked for me in my situation and I think it would help others who have had difficulty understanding the “control” they felt. It helped me because it lifted out of the subjects of “mind control” and “brainwashing” and told me that it was not exclusive to the cult. In turn, I understood – or at least sympathized – with the plight of the abused woman. I no longer wondered why they stayed or returned. I didn’t have an answer, but I was no longer puzzled.

At my last deposition in Tampa, there was a point where this came up. I don’t recall what it was but I was asked something that prompted me to say that I thought the abused woman syndrome was a good model for what I had experienced. Of course, there were the guffaws and laughs of severe denial from their part. It is to be expected from the abusers, isn’t it? No abusive husband admits to it and no abusive cult will either and for the same reasons.

Before closing, let me make a couple more points of parallel.

No abusive relationship starts that way. In fact, the chances are that if the guy had slapped her on the first date, there wouldn’t be a second one. No, the abusive relationship starts with sweetness. When I was reading about abusive relationships, that came up constantly, how the guy was so nice and sweet. No, the abuse is gradual. It starts with some criticism and when the woman accepts it, then there is a little bit more. When she accepts that, the man does more as he introduces CONTROL. If she protests, he backs off until he can reestablish the control. It is called a GRADIENT. (Ironically, Scientologists will be familiar with that word.) The woman comes to accept more and more and becomes convinced that it is something SHE is doing wrong. As it is increased, the sweetness tapers off until it is finally dangled in front of her like a carrot. Somewhere along the line, the physical abuse starts. If she breaks too hard, he is sweet and comforting and maybe even apologetic, bringing her back under control. That is the key. CONTROL. (Another word Scientologists know well. Hubbard even had his own definition for it and processing addressing control.) Then one day the beatings are regular and she loses her self-respect and dignity.

Let me draw another parallel to my own situation. I mentioned in one of my other posts to ARS that I am making with this one about the woman who asked me if there was anything anyone could have said to me to change my mind while I was in Scientology. No one had asked me that and I realized – and told her – that no, there was nothing anyone could have said.

That happens with the abused woman too. I read how they would later recount the advice of friends who kept telling them that their husband/lover was abusing them and that they should leave. I don’t recall any who said, you know, you’re right! I’m going to leave him! No, they explained the abuse! They would say – actually believing it, until they finally escaped – that he was really a nice guy, that he was misunderstood, that he was trying, that they would work things out, etc., etc., etc.

You know who usually changes the woman’s mind? The abuser. Those who flee – like Tina Turner – simply say one day, I’ve had enough, and escape. Some do it sooner. Some later. Until that moment, they rationalize their situation. Friends or family might be able to intervene but not in the hard core cases. In those instances, the abuser is the only one who can change the person’s mind.

Until then money and resources are also a factor. People stay in abusive situations because they have no money or anywhere else to go. Maybe if the abused woman had $100,000 in the bank she would have given him the finger and taken off long before. But what abuser would allow the woman to keep that money for herself? (I have yet to learn of a Sea Organization member who escaped with ample personal resources. The amount of money one has on joining – if any – is quickly discovered and one is convinced to spend it on the cult, thus effectively wiping out any resources.) These are the points that have to be researched to understand this phenomenon and to offer help.

Meanwhile you might ask, how can a person rationalize a beating? Good question indeed. If the plight of the abused women had been known longer than it has, maybe we would have a better understanding. Each woman will have her own answer but until we get a grasp of it the fact remains that it exists and there are some disturbing parallels between them and cult members. I wasn’t “abused” when I joined. It was like the “love bombing” found in another cult. Everything is wonderful and the future is bright and this is the place to be. Then one day, there is a little “correction.” If one balks, one is talked through it gently until it is grasped and one is willing to accept it. The next one is attached to that one. (“Remember how well we did last time when you were able to understand it and you had a win?”) And the next until one day you find yourself working 12 hours a day at hard labor, under guard, seven days a week, unable to talk to friends and family, your body racked in pain and undergoing constant interrogation to give up your “crimes” and you accept it as necessary for your own “rehabilitation.” And if you try to escape and they catch you, you can be talked back to the very same situation and you convince yourself that this is right as you haul the next load of rocks out in 110 degree heat and a blazing sun for $5 a week. It is all part of your “rehabilitation.”

No, when people asked me how I could stay for so long when I knew it was abusive, that’s a loaded question. I didn’t know it any more than the abused woman knew it. I kept telling myself that they really are okay, that it must be my fault, that it is being done to help me and things really will get better. I carried that attitude right into the RPF until one day I broke and decided to escape. Then they talked me back and I was convinced that it would get better. All they did was back up the gradient to where I would accept the control.

That is another place where I find that the “mind control/brainwashing” models break down. It is crucial in cult control that the person feel in control and in fact IS “in control.” One is always making the decision to stay. To that degree, it is “consensual.” But how “consensual” is the abused woman? Just because she has the freedom to drive to the store and back and no one is keeping her in chains, does that mean she is “consenting” to her situation? Can the husband argue that he isn’t “controlling” her because she has that freedom? Then what IS “consent”? That may be a legal quandary as much as a psychological one but I don’t think we are ready to walk away from the woman being beaten, saying she is “consenting to it,” are we?
Thanks to video cameras, we can watch shows like “Cops” where the police are called out to a real life “domestic disturbance.” If you have watched that show enough, you finally saw the all-to-familiar scene of the woman with a bloody nose who has clearly been beaten (the cops were called by neighbors hearing the fight) and is standing there explaining it all away, insisting that the police take no action. No, she’s fine, she says. No, it’s nothing. To the questions from the police about the bloody nose or the swelling around the eyes, she’ll say anything but the facts, that he was beating her. Do we need more evidence? There are the very people – the police – who can take him off to jail and end the abuse if she will simply speak up and she refuses while wiping the blood from her nose or pulling the torn clothing up around her shoulder and telling them that everything is okay. Of course, the police cannot legally intervene unless she complains and she will not.

Now let me make a harrowing admission. If the police had shown up that day when I was at the motel trying to escape, when the security guards were parked outside to make sure I didn’t disappear on them, and if the police had asked me if everything was okay or if I needed any help, do you know what I would have said and done? The same thing as that woman. No, it’s fine, I would have said. I’ll handle it. It stuns me to think it, let alone say it right now, but that is the truth. That is exactly what I would have done. And do you know why? Because I didn’t want to be in trouble with the cult. If you can figure that one out, give it to the experts.

That is why people who flee the cult – even into the arms of the authorities – can be talked back. They can no more say “help me” than the woman standing there with a bloody nose can tell the police. Give them a few days rest and time to get their wits about them and maybe they can. That is why those first few hours or days are crucial. The more time the person gets away from the person suppressing them, the more they recover their own sense of self. That, of course, infuriates the abuser, until he/they finally give up and look for their next victim. Meanwhile, some degree of control remains until the person finally sheds it.

And don’t think that all abused women are abused physically. The abuse might be merely verbal, with other controls like control of money, sleep, clothing, friends, beliefs, free time etc. (Gee, sound familiar?)

Now if one were interested in studying the “abused woman” syndrome, who would one study? This may sound like a ridiculous question but it goes to a point the cult is making.

First of all, one has to decide if such women exist. (This may sound like I’m contradicting myself but hang on.) How does one decide? The obvious answer would seem to be the stories of women themselves. But can we believe them? Maybe they are making it up. So let’s ignore them for the moment and go to marriages/relationships and ask the women, are you abused? Let’s ask the men, are you abusing this woman? What sort of answer will we get? Done in this way, we can conclusively “prove” that there are no abused women because all of the women – including the ones with the bloody noses – will deny it as will the men. Case closed. No woman is abused.

That is exactly what the cult is doing. They are saying that those who have left and claim abuse are “apostates” (one who has abandoned one’s belief or cause) and can’t be believed. (They even paid some “experts” to “conclude” this.) Meanwhile, they will suggest, all you have to do is ask Scientologists if they feel abused. In fact, you can even go into the RPF and ask and chances are (unless there is one rocky one who will be quickly stashed somewhere else) they will respond to the man and woman that they are not being abused. Case closed. No one is abused.

In other words, as long as we listen to someone who has abandoned a belief or a cause (from a marriage to a “religion”) cannot be believed.

And that is one of the reasons why abused women were not believed until just a few years ago. Think on that. Women have been abused for thousands of years and it wasn’t until a few years ago that it was even admitted that it happened and that something should be done about it. How many women went to the police and were turned away or were killed or destroyed before someone believed them? How many have simply fled and disappeared and are still too ashamed to talk, preferring to just live quiet lives where they can choose their own friends, have their own bank accounts, pick their own meals, select their own clothes, keep private diaries and not have to answer or explain themselves again? Can anyone imagine what a joy that is to a person whose life was controlled down to the point of what it was they could say or believe, where their very thoughts and opinions were monitored, that they can now forget it? How many women are out there? Compare that to how many go to the authorities or champion the cause of abused women and take it to the media and the courts. How many of THOSE are there? Three? Five? Ten? Should these “apostates” be believed?

How many ex-cult members are there? How many have of them have spoken out? Three? Five? Ten? Should these “apostates” be believed?

I think there are many, many reasons to draw a parallel between the two groups not only in their situation but in those who speak out and I hope that this might spark some interest within some professional circle. I’m no more an “expert” on sociological parallels than that woman with the bloody nose is an expert but we do have a level of understanding.

If you or a loved one are — of have been — involved with a cult and you need help, please see CultExperts.org.

The books listed there are a good starting point.

In addition, the cult experts listed are ones who are recognized and acknowledged by their peers in the field.

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Category: Cults, Domestic Violence
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First published (or major update) on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
Last updated on July 07, 2024.

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