Wellspring: Helping ex-cult members shed guilt and embrace freedom

29 Dec 2001

Helping ex-cult members shed guilt and embrace freedom

Cleveland Plain Dealer, 12/23/01

Michael Sangiacomo Plain Dealer Reporter

Albany, Ohio

- Unlike most businessmen, Ron Burks does not want to see his customers again.

To him, success means someone who "leaves here, goes on with his life and forgets all about us and the reason he came here."

Burks is a counselor at Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center, the country's only halfway house for ex-cult members.

It's a place where people go to lick their psychological and spiritual wounds, and try to figure out what drove them into a cult in the first place.

Despite Burks' wishes, the clients do remember.

They call, write and make donations.

A few even return as teachers and therapists.

Since the center opened in 1986, more than 600 people have taken the cure, which averages two weeks.

Wellspring officials said fewer than 1 percent of those people rejoined a cult, another way to measure success.

The groups in question would argue that they are not cults but instead new religions that face unjustified criticism.

That's why one of the first things Wellspring counselors teach clients is how to recognize a cult and the mind-controlling techniques used to lure new members and keep them.

The first attribute of a cult is that it isolates its members from family and friends, limiting or even forbidding contact with people in the outsideworld.Thecult members follow a charismatic leader who claims to have a direct pipeline to God or some other universal force. His word is not to be challenged.

Other examples of mind control within cults include a distrust of the outside world.

The cult leaders encourage members to confess their more heinous sins or shortcomings, which can be used for leverage at a later time.

Also, cult members use jargon or manufactured language to confound nonmembers and increase the sense of dependency on other members of the group as part of the mind-control efforts, Burks said.

Another indication that a group is a cult is if the members must surrender large sums of money, labor for free or very little compensation and have their social, educational or sexual activities controlled.

Vital tool

The director of the Leo J. Ryan Education Foundation, a national group which studies cults, said that Wellspring is an important and unique tool for helping cult members return to a normal life.

"A woman called me not too long ago and was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from a Florida cult she left three years ago. She could not get it out of her head," said Priscilla Coates, director of the Ryan organization. "I got her in touch with Wellspring and she went there. She recently called and said that she can cope after spending two weeks at Wellspring."

In order to get help, people m u s t f irst leave a cult of their own accord. The Wellspring staff is not in the business of liberating people from cults. They wait on the other side once a person has a moment of epiph any, what they call the aha! mo ment.

Wellspring founder Paul Mar tin and his wife wanted their cen ter to be a place former cult mem bers could relax and work through their cult experiences. The clients also get help from staffers who understand cults, often through firsthand experience.

The Martins left "The Blitz," the nickname for the a Bible-based Christian group called The Great Commission, after joining it while students at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, Mo. in the 1970s. When they left, the couple found they had no place to go for help or consolation.

They worked their way through the trauma and, years later, opened Wellspring in southeastern Ohio, in the rolling hills of Meigs County. The mission of the Martins was to give cult victims the support they never had.

Real people

There were three guests at the Wellspring chalet on a brisk day last month. One young woman was a former member of the trendy Kabbalah Centre group, which combines new age thought with ancient Hebrew mysticism and includes high profile members like Madonna.

Another guest was a young woman who didn't speak much. She was fresh from a group called The Twelve Tribes, which preaches, among other things, that journalists and lawyers are filthy and unjust and not to be trusted.

The third client was a man who recently left an undisclosed cult that employed mind control. He also was suspicious of journalists.

For the next two weeks, and even longer for the former Twelve Tribes sect member, the three learned about mind-control techniques and how their lives and freedoms were co-opted in the name of religion. They spent two hours a day in private therapy and met as a group in workshops and other therapy sessions. Most importantly, they learned that they had something that was in short supply in the cults - freedom.

During one workshop session, during which teachers were demonstrating subtle coercion, one client walked out saying, "I'm sorry, I just can't listen to this." The teacher said such a reaction was common. The student later said the lesson brought up too many bad memories.

"Control is a very important part of people's lives," said Liz Shaw, the "cult survivor advocate" at Wellspring. "We want the people who come here to know that they are in control. They can do whatever they want, leave whenever they want. We encourage them to go into town and see a movie, go shopping, walk through the woods."

Shaw said that some new clients are nervous when they first arrive. Some are so accustomed to having others run their lives that freedom is a little scary.

"They are fragile, fearful, the walking wounded," Shaw said. "We have to reassure them that we're only here to help."

Burks said people who come to them are emotionally, physically and psychologically shattered.

"We treat people recovering from trauma inflicted by someone else's selfishness," Burks said. "Yet they often blame themselves, since no one physically forced them to join a cult. These are the kinds of hurt that time alone will not heal."

He said it's hard for them to accept that they were duped. They had lived a very structured life, comforted by the belief that God himself was the architect.

When they realize it was all a sham, they are devastated.

"We pick up the pieces," he said. "They've made the big choice to leave. We help them move on."

Feeling triumphant

Shaw told her favorite success story of a woman who left an ultraconservative religious cult that demanded its female members wear head coverings and long dresses at all times.

"By the time she left here, she was wearing makeup and a red miniskirt and feeling good about herself," Shaw said.

Sometimes it all hits close to home. Shaw knows what its like to crawl out of a well of fear and confusion.

The office where she talks to incoming clients was once her bedroom, back when she came to Wellspring looking for help.

She was a straight-A college student, an accomplished folk musician who had a television show on PBS called "The Great American Music Company." She said she "gave her life and career" to a cult group.

Wellspring's services are not free; a basic two-week course costs $5,000. Wellspring employs a woman to work full time to help prospective clients pay for the course.

As expected, Wellspring is not popular with cults.

"They say that we hide in the mountains and that the people are held in a windowless building," said staffer Shane Mercer, waving his arms at the wall of windows in the large, comfortably furnished lodge.

And if you think that people who join cults are all gullible, weak-willed, dull-witted people looking for a father figure, the staff says you are wrong. Anyone can be conned into joining a cult. The 1997 U.S. Census reported more than 10 million people belong to about 3,000 destructive cults in the United States.

"We've had doctors, lawyers, sharp businessmen, people from all walks of life," said Shaw. "People don't realize how insidious cults can be."

One thing for sure, they don't recruit poor people.

"They recruit people with money," Shaw said. "You can't get anything from a homeless person."

For further information on Wellspring call 1-740-698-6277; or send e-mail to paul@wellspringretreat.org.

Contact Michael Sangiacomo at:

msangiacomo@plaind.com, 216-999-4890



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