Sunday, February 03, 2008

Betrayal Trauma: A New Model for Transcendental Meditation Abuse?

I have been reflecting lately on both the extreme denial that active cult members exhibit and the extreme reaction former members experience after leaving their cult. Margaret Singer, PhD, believed former cult member's reactions were largely grief based. More recently, Colleen Russell, LMFT has developed phases of loss and grief that cult members experience.

I think these models capture only part of the truth, because like most current academic models of cult involvement, they are based on the thought reform or "brainwashing" model. While I can readily see the characteristics of thought reform present in most cults, I've come to believe it doesn't capture the intensity of cult experience fully. Robert J. Lifton developed the model after his work with American veterans "brainwashed" in North Korea. But unlike brainwashed soldiers who knew who their enemy was and fought being brainwashed, we as cult members eagerly sought the "knowledge" or "truth" our cults dished out. We invited them into our minds, made them comfortable, and begged for more. The co-option of our rational thought processes was therefore all the more swift and complete than brainwashed soldiers.

Lately I have been exploring the concept of "betrayal trauma," a concept introduced by Jennifer J. Freyd, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, in 1991. Psychological trauma is severe and enduring damage to the mind and brain that occurs due to a traumatic event, traditionally defined as an experienced or witnessed threat to life or sexual integrity. Most of us have heard of trauma in relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, experienced by war veterans or rape victims. Since the '90s, the definition of trauma has been expanded to include betrayal trauma. Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or institutions we depend on for survival, such as parents or churches, violate us in some way. Examples of betrayal trauma are childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

It was Carl Jung who long ago postulated the concept of God as a personified parent-figure. It's my hypothesis that the guru, cult leader, or cult organization functions as a parent-figure for deeply involved members. If this is true, when we come to suspect that the guru has betrayed us — whether rightly or wrongly — we may come to experience betrayal trauma as if abused by a parent. The primary initial effect of this betrayal may be denial — in which we are faced with facts too painful to accept, so we reject them violently, insisting they are false even despite overwhelming evidence. When cult members do come to accept they have been betrayed, the results may be overwhelming grief and rage — and dissociative phenomena such as amnesia, "spacing out," depersonalization, and pseudo-personality (similar to multiple personality).

Betrayal trauma theory posits that there is a social utility in remaining unaware of abuse when the perpetrator is a caregiver (Freyd, 1994, 1996). The theory draws on studies of social contracts ... to explain why and how humans are excellent at detecting betrayals; however, Freyd argues that under some circumstances detecting betrayals may be counter-productive to survival. Specifically, in cases where a victim is dependent on a caregiver, survival may require that she/he remain unaware of the betrayal. In the case of childhood sexual abuse, a child who is aware that her/his parent is being abusive may withdraw from the relationship (e.g., emotionally or in terms of proximity). For a child who depends on a caregiver for basic survival, withdrawing may actually be at odds with ultimate survival goals, particularly when the caregiver responds to withdrawal by further reducing caregiving or increasing violence. In such cases, the child's survival would be better ensured by being blind to the betrayal and isolating the knowledge of the event, thus remaining engaged with the caregiver.
Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting childhood abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

I suspect that both the denial of those who remain cult members and those who come to believe they were betrayed by the guru are examples of betrayal trauma — even though they may occur well outside of childhood. Particularly suggestive are the symptoms of dissociation that both sufferers of betrayal trauma and cult veterans experience.

In my experience, many, if not most, psychotherapists not experienced with cults don't get cult abuse trauma and brush it aside. My clients may have felt judged, ridiculed, or ignored by the conventional therapists they approached for help in the past.

Psychotherapists at first resisted the PTSD concept because their training led them to believe primary trauma could only come from childhood. This is one reason that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder took some while to be accepted by the mental health community — adults were not supposed to experience trauma. Eventually they came around to the idea that a "life-threatening" or sexual attack could cause lasting trauma — lasting for decades — much like childhood trauma. (Note that many survivors of cults did in fact endure physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that causes PTSD.) But mental health professionals have remained conservative about accepting cult abuse trauma. I think this is a mistake. Many of my clients report that their cult years were much more formative than the family or religion they were brought up in.

The treatment for dissociative disorders is well-established. There is hope — and success — when you work with a counselor experienced with cult abuse trauma.

John M. Knapp, LMSW

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