Dallas Former Member Support Group
ICSA Today, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2018, 8-9
Dallas Former-Member Support Group
By Doug Duncan
My wife, Wendy, and I have been cofacilitating a monthly support group for former cult members for about nine years. We style this as a peer support group because, although we are both mental health professionals (I am a counselor and Wendy is a social worker), we are both former cult members ourselves. We do not charge anyone to participate—the group is free. Of course, we have a responsibility as professionals to be mindful of anyone who may be in crisis, and to respond appropriately should the need arise. Moreover, we screen everyone carefully before inviting them to the group so that the participants can all be safe. The general rule is that the group is for former members only, though there have been a few times when, with the group’s prior permission, we have allowed family members to participate.
The group meets for 2 hours, once a month. We meet in a space that is generously provided by the local Episcopal Church to which Wendy and I belong. There are times when we will start the group off with some psychoeducation (normally focused on something such as one of Robert Lifton’s eight criteria for thought reform), but that is mostly to prime the pump for discussion. We believe that the most helpful role of the group is to provide space for people to tell their stories and receive support and feedback from others who have been through similar experiences and who will not judge them.
We have a list of group guidelines that we read aloud any time a new is member in attendance. These are the standard guidelines about confidentiality that one would expect. We also explain that we are not a “confessions” group and remind everyone to keep their boundaries. We are aware that many people come from environments where they were required to share every detail of their lives and even their thoughts, and we try to show them by word and deed how that is neither necessary nor healthy. Therefore, we emphasize everyone’s right not to share anything that makes them uncomfortable, and we stress to the group the importance of not prying and not pressuring people to reveal something they do not wish to discuss.
Also, since most of our members come out of cultic, Bible-based groups, we emphasize that our group is not a Bible study and that is not appropriate to preach to people or try to foist religious views on them. The group is to respect where each member happens to be on life’s journey. We seek to uphold each person’s autonomy and the right to work out for oneself what one believes. The point of the group is to uphold each member’s dignity and worth as a unique person—dignity and worth that has been trampled on by the narcissistic leaders and abusive cults the members have been entangled with in their pasts.
Nevertheless, I would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that, even with this stated purpose, our group does have a little bit of a Christian flavor to it. I can think of at least three reasons this is so, and there are probably others.
First, and probably most important, Wendy and I remain Christians ourselves. To be sure, the type of Christianity we practice today is light years away from what we were involved in as cult members; nevertheless, we are members in good standing of a mainstream, denominational Christian church. While we do not go out of our way to make a point of this, neither do we hide it. Finding a healthy way to “do church” has been a part of our journey, and it is a theme in our story of healing and redemption. Although many, probably most, people coming out of destructive Bible-based groups do not find their way back to a healthy involvement in church, it can be helpful for those who do. It certainly has been so in our case. As members come to know us, they inevitably see us in the context of our own history and path out of a cult.
Second, the people who have come to our group are overwhelmingly refugees from Christian cults. Lately we have had some folks from Eastern groups and from Scientology, but over time it has been mostly folks fleeing Bible groups. People from such groups are often still quite focused on figuring out what the Bible really means, and how their group could have gotten it all so confused. It is common for such people to want to continue believing in Jesus Christ, and they are often wrestling with the proof texts and twisted Scriptures their group used to control them. That is something that Wendy and I can help with. Although we do not preach or even teach the Bible in our groups, we feel comfortable offering people alternative ways to interpret the Scriptures—especially if there is a particular “clobber verse” they are getting hung up on. Again, we do not want to foist our viewpoint on anyone; we just help them understand that the narrow and legalistic reading of the Scriptures that was practiced by their group does not fully exhaust the topic. We see this as one way of rekindling their ability to think critically.
Third, there is the undeniable fact that Wendy and I started and continue to facilitate the support group as an expression of our faith. Indeed, we think of it as our ministry—a word that means “service.” We believe that Christ calls us to a life of service, and this is one of the ways that Wendy and I try to answer that call. To be sure, this is something different than other types of ministry such as apologetics or evangelism; but it is a ministry, nonetheless. I see it in the context of what Jesus said in describing his own ministry in Luke 4:18:
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free… (New Revised Standard Version)
Although we do not claim any anointing to do this work, it certainly involves proclaiming release to the captives (of cultic thought systems), recovery of sight to the blind (metaphorically), and helping the oppressed as they learn to go free. Although we do not really talk about our work as an expression of faith, that informs the milieu of the group.
That said, I should also acknowledge that Wendy and I derive great benefit ourselves from the group, in terms of both joy and fulfillment. One reason for this is the simple pleasure of meeting and coming to know so many wonderful people. We have had people from all walks of life, young and old, attend our groups, and each one of them has had something unique to contribute.
Moreover, there is a profound joy in seeing people who are often really struggling when they first come around slowly but steadily put their lives back together. Although we do not try to solve their problems for them, and we encourage them to seek appropriate help when they have issues outside the scope of the group, our consistent feedback from the members is that the group is very helpful to them. With the support and encouragement of others in the group, we have seen members regain confidence in themselves and begin to make positive changes. People have gone back to school, ended unhealthy relationships, embarked on new careers, and reconnected with their noncult-involved families and friends. It is a joyful thing for Wendy and me when we see folks making choices for growth and self-improvement.
Although the group can be intense, we also take the time to socialize and wind down a bit by going out to eat afterward. There is a neighborhood Italian restaurant nearby that usually lets us have a room all to ourselves. Doing this provides a great opportunity for all of us to get to know one another and decompress. I think this time is therapeutic for many of the members who may have been entangled in environments that could be characterized as ascetic. The experience shows them that there is nothing wrong (or un-Christian) with going out to eat and enjoying good food and the company of friends.
One thing has become abundantly clear to us as we have continued to hold this group, and that is that there are not enough support groups around. We have people who regularly drive up from Houston (more than 200 miles away) to attend our group, and we have had people come from Austin, Waco, and other places just as far away. Moreover, we have had people call us from cities all over the United States looking for something such as our group in their area. Unfortunately, we often have to tell them that we are not aware of any groups in their area. In our opinion, there should be a group like this in every major city in the country.
What I would like to tell others is that establishing such a support group is very doable if you have the time and the motivation, and it can very rewarding. Wendy and I would be happy to talk to anyone thinking about starting their own support group, and share any of what we have learned along the way. If you would like to contact us, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Doug Duncan, MS, LPC, was a member of an aberrant religious group for more than twenty years. After defying the cult leader and marrying Wendy, they eventually left the cult and Doug began the task of rebuilding his life. He enrolled in a master’s program in counseling and earned a degree and license to practice therapy. After working on their cult-recovery issues by reading all the available cult literature, attending conferences, and becoming involved with ICSA, Doug and Wendy started a ministry to increase the awareness and understanding of cults. They are frequent presenters at churches, civic groups, and conferences, and also facilitators of a support group for former members of cults and high-demand groups. Additionally, Doug offers individual counseling to former members.