17 Oct 2007

Conquering coercion: Wellspring Retreat helps former cult members recover

The Post Online - Ohio
October 17, 2007

Amanda Wilcosky / Staff Writer

Paul Martin was a doctoral student in the ’70s when a traveling “rock band” in a Volkswagen took control of his life.

Dropping out of school, Martin spent more than seven years in what he called a “Jesus freak hippie commune.” Only later did he realize it was a cult.

“I never thought I was in a cult,” he said. “I thought I was in a bad group. Other people got involved with cults, but not me.”

Martin finally left after becoming critical of the practices and enduring psychological abuse from the leader. Years later, research about thought reform and brainwashing by Robert Lifton helped him to realize the nature of the group.

In 1986, after earning a Ph.D. in counseling, Martin founded the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, a nonprofit organization in the hills of Albany, Ohio. Wellspring is the only residential facility in the world that treats people who have been in cults or abusive relationships, said Donna Adams, Wellspring’s clinical director.

A new type of treatment

When it was time to form a treatment model for clients, Martin looked to Lifton’s work.

“That’s what we’ve done here over the last 22 years, is applied this thought reform model to how we treat people — and it’s worked,” he said. He added that tests conducted directly after treatment and again six months later have shown significant improvements in client depression and anxiety levels.

The Wellspring model describes to individuals how they were recruited and how group dynamics kept them from thinking independently, Martin said.

One concept introduced to clients is the law of reciprocity. This occurs when a person is drawn into a group through a series of favors and then feels indebted to it, Martin said.

Also included in the model is the idea that cults present a sacred science, claiming “ ‘we have the truth, no one else has the truth,’ which almost defines a cult in and of itself,” he said.

Another cult technique described by Adams is the use of loaded language, phrases that are easily memorized to keep members brainwashed.

“Anytime somebody has any kind of critical thought or criticism of the group, these little phrases serve as a means of shutting down your critical thinking,” she said.

Client care and research

Each year, Wellspring treats clients from all over the world, including the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia, according to Guidestar.org, a database that provides information about nonprofit organizations.

“We see just about everything — New Age, Eastern, Western, eclectic, Bible-oriented, business cults, political cults and one-on-one, domestic violence situations,” Martin said. Women who have been abused see the facility’s Web site feel that their situation is very much like cult coercion and come for treatment, he added.

Martin believes that a lack of freedom is the defining characteristic of a cult.

“When you think that something is controlling most of your life, it’s not a religion, it’s not a belief system anymore — it’s tyranny,” he said.

Wellspring staff does not perform cult interventions. Instead, clients come to the center only after leaving their group, often waiting 3 to 5 years, Adams said. She added that many have tried some sort of counseling before coming to Wellspring.

Most of Wellspring’s clients complete a two-week program while staying on site in a scenic lodge, complete with a library, art and music workshops and outdoor hiking trails.

Wellspring is funded through nominal fees for services, grants and private donations from supporters, according to Guidestar.org. Approximately 70 percent of clients who are in need of services are unable to pay, according to the site. A Victim’s Assistance Program, which underwrites treatment for those who are eligible, was established in 1993.

To investigate what initially attracts individuals to coercive groups, Wellspring staff and graduate students from the Ohio University psychology department transcribed more than 500 client questionnaires collected from 1995-2006.

The researchers found several trends that influenced membership, including the charisma of the leader; a search for salvation; being born into the group; a sense of family; and a transitional period.

In June, OU doctoral student Lindsay Orchowski presented the findings at the International Cultic Studies Association Conference in Brussels, Belgium.

“To learn that there are students in college and in grad school who are affected by coercive relationships and groups really startled me because we always think, ‘it can never happen to me,’ ” Orchowski said.

College coercion

According to the Athens Police Department, cult-related crimes and activity have not been a problem in recent history, but coercive groups can be a concern for college students.

“The main thing that draws people into these situations in college is transition,” Martin said, adding that freshman and senior year are the most vulnerable times for recruitment.

Orchowski is the co-founder of the Counselor-in-Residence program, a walk-in service located in Jefferson Hall. She urged any student who feels that he or she has been manipulated by a group or individual to talk to a friend, family member or counselor.

Martin, Adams and Orchowski agreed that those who become involved with cults or abusive groups do not have a predisposed weakness and should not be stigmatized.

“I don’t care how strong one’s personality is. These techniques, I really believe, have the capacity to overwhelm even the strongest individual,” Martin said.

He also believes that the public is uninformed about the impact of cults and coercive groups.

“They’re just completely unaware that this affects at least 1-2 percent of the population, comparatively much larger than your typical childhood diseases,” he said.


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