Leaving The Cult: An Interview With Therapist John Knapp

by  —  July 2, 2008

John M. Knapp, LMSW (pictured below), is a therapist who specializes in counseling those who are recovering from “cultic abuse”.

Doug: A friend of mine forwarded me your website and I’m generally very skeptical of cult experts, but I was struck by the fact that you don’t seem to be promoting the idea, popular in the 80s and early 90s, that there is a Satanic New Age Underground working to overthrow American Judeo-Christian values.

John Knapp: No, I don’t. And I’m actually not that aware of that tendency in the eighties and nineties, though I came pretty late to the scene, so it’s possible that it was around. I have seen people who call themselves Christian counselors make somewhat similar kinds of assertions. But I’m not a Christian counselor, and I don’t feel that way.

So you don’t have much to say about the whole “Satanic Panic” scene?

No (laughs). Not really. I certainly don’t put any stock in it.

I imagine though, that there is some overlap with the conspiracy-mongers?

Conspiracy-mongers? What do you mean?

Such as the “Occult Expert” church groups—

No, actually, I make it very clear that I’m not a Christian, I don’t follow any kind of Christian beliefs. With the clients that I work with, I’m not concerned with what they believe. Everybody’s got their set of beliefs, and if they make them happy, that’s great. What [the client and I] do tend to focus on, when we get together, is any type of behavior they experienced that was abusive, or anything of that nature. And I try to be as objective about that as possible. It’s really not possible to define for another person what is “abusive”, but if a client is to come to me and say that they experienced abuse and trauma and there are things in their life that are not working for them right now, then I just accept them at face value and work with them.

But I got off track. Anyway, I don’t really hear from conspiracy people or Christian counselors.

You take people at their word that they are experiencing “abuse”, but “cult” is often an ambiguous and abused term. Have you set a clear definition of what a cult really is?

I think that’s really difficult. This is what I’m working with right now, and I’m not sure if it would stand up to the scrutiny of a really rigid, rational viewpoint, but it’s working for me so far and I always hope to change it if it doesn’t. This is the idea: I don’t focus on cults. I don’t have any lists of cults, I don’t say this one is, that one isn’t.  What I do focus on is cultic relationships, and those are fairly easy to define, I think. If you’re working with a high-demand group, and you end up seriously dysfunctional in any of the main core areas of life – such as finances, or friends, or intimacy, or things of that nature, and you’re experiencing dysfunction in your life, you probably had a cultic relationship. Now a lot of people – and we could talk about Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, whatever – in any group some people would have had a cultic relationship while others hadn’t. I work with the person on what they experienced and what their feelings are.

I actually think – and here I differ from some cult counselors – that spending too much time on dwelling or blaming the group that one was involved with is counter-productive, and tends to lead to a kind of victimization. And it’s very difficult to go from making yourself a victim to making changes in your life… So, what I say is, blame is largely about the past – who did what to whom, when, where, how many times – and what I focus on is responsibility, which is about the future: Who’s going to take responsibility for changing your life if you’re pain? And the answer always is, the client needs to take responsibility, and nobody can do it for them.

That’s what I’m trying to work with and, as I say, I think it’s an evolving work-in-progress.

Sure. But do you have any “normals” for what is a “cultic” relationship?

I gave it the best I could: If a person is working with a high-demand group, a group that’s asking a lot of their time or resources, or emotions, and they’re experiencing significant dysfunction in one of their core-areas of life – it seems to me that it’s a cultic relationship.

Okay. What I’m getting at is: What are the methods by which a group initiates a cultic-type relationship with people?

There are a lot of things that are talked about in the literature. To be honest, I listen to them, but I tend to take them more as metaphor than as something you could actually measure. There’s a discussion about the criteria for thought reform that Robert Jay Lifton came up with a couple of years ago. Largely what he talks about is different ways of controlling information that the person receives, their contact with the environment – there’s eight of them, but I’ll just give you a basic idea – as well as their beliefs about themselves and about the world. So, taken all together, these things tend to create a closed loop for people. They come into black-and-white thinking, they have difficulty relating to people outside their group. These things in turn, usually end up as some kind of dysfunction, some form of pain they’re feeling.

This would have been Lifton’s book on Chinese Communism?

Yeah. That’s one of the reasons I take it as metaphor. It’s just not accurate. It was actually his book on the people who came back from North Korea where they were supposedly “brain-washed”, and so forth. That’s not what happened to most of us in cults – I suppose there may be some people for whom that happened to. What actually happens is we go in with kind of a more intimate relationship in mind – we’re looking for something, whether its spirituality, whatever… [we say]You appear to be an expert. Not only am I going to invite you into my mind, but I’m going to make it a very comfortable place for you to be, because I believe you’ve got something to offer me.  That’s very different from what happened in North Korea.  There, they knew who the enemy was, and they resisted.  We didn’t resist.  Quite the opposite.

But would you still consider it “brainwashing”?

Brainwashing? Again, it’s just not a term I relate to. I can think of it in terms of a metaphor, that something takes place… what I will say is that people create in their minds some form of closed loop where all the answers are resident with the group leader or the group tradition. Almost always it’s a case where they associate, fairly close to exclusively only with other members of the group. They look for their information only from the group – this kind of thing, so it’s a closed system. Whether it’s “brainwashing” or forcing from the outside, I’m much hazier on to be perfectly honest. And for my work it’s not that important

And you experienced this yourself with Transcendental Meditation?

Yeah, I had a cultic relationship with TM, no question about it…

And how did that work? How did you come to recognize it as a cult, how did you come to leave –?

How did I come to leave? Well, I was in for 23 years, and it’s kind of interesting. On the one hand, the longer [you are involved with a group] the more rigid your belief could become, but for many people the initial enthusiasm and so forth that you have that really leads to that kind of high-intensity relationship, you know, just wanes. That’s part of human nature. So, in many cases, people who had been in for a long, long time, just generally tend to have a more relaxed relationship with the group – so that happened with me. But there was another aspect: I married somebody who was not involved with the group, and part of my group experience was that I was asked to lie about a number of items. And living every day with someone and having to lie to them was extremely difficult. You know, it caused what you could call a cognitive dissonance. It really caused a bifurcation in my mind. It was really difficult to live with. And I’d also gotten very far away from my family, which is not uncommon for people who are in these kinds of relationships. As my mother was getting older I wanted to re-establish my ties with her and the family. These kinds of things led me to begin questioning my relationship. I didn’t think of my group as a cult at that time, but what I did do is start searching on the internet – this was back in ’95, so this was after the Mosaic revolution, and there were websites to look at – I became fairly radicalized by that, reading what other people’s experiences were, and thoughts, and so forth. I was also involved in internet groups, news groups, and at that time they were just huge flame wars, and I found that just raising various questions about the group caused me to be the recipient of extraordinary painful language, and so-forth. So that kind of hastened my leaving. Other people have very different stories, but that’s mine…

So you were harassed by them?

Oh, yeah.

Have you ever been harassed by other cults for providing therapy to one of their former members?

Well, it depends on how you describe “harass”. I was harassed in the sense that people wrote nasty notes to me. Nobody ever threatened my life. Nobody threatened to sue me, or anything of that nature.

It was difficult for me, because I had believed so strongly in this group [TM]. My spiritual and emotional life was really bound up completely with this group, so when they turned on me it was very confusing and very difficult for me…

Now, as to other groups… I’m trying to think. I was once paid a visit by a Scientology private investigator. But he didn’t harass. I felt kind of intimidated just by the nature of who he was, I suppose –

Because he came to your house, right?

He came to my house, knocked on my door, told me who he was, invited me down to meet with some of the Scientology elders. So I was pretty shaken up, but I wouldn’t call it harassment. I’ve been very lucky in that regard.

You were in Transcendental Meditation, and I saw on your website that you consider trance & meditation addictive and possibly dangerous –

For some people. I’m very careful to say that. I think that for the vast majority of people they have a great experience with their meditation, but for some people, they do experience problems, and almost always it’s people who are deeply involved in meditating hours and hours a day. So I think it’s not so much the meditation that is dangerous, I think it’s the overindulgence of it that is.

Is it the meditation or meditation as a group activity?

Well, that’s kind of difficult to pull apart to be perfectly honest.

To me it’s a new idea, meditation being addictive or dangerous. I think of meditation as a very private experience. I can’t imagine a group of people getting together and meditating, or using it to drive home dogmatic ideas.

Right, right. That’s certainly part of it. But you should know that in the West, we’re fairly new to meditation. You know, it was first introduced here around the turn of the 19th Century. A little over a hundred years it’s been here in any kind of form. In India, they have somewhat different views: meditation can be dangerous… Talk about various things, like the Kundalini experience that can be confusing, can be hurtful, can be physically damaging. It’s taught so very differently there for the most part. The Guru-Disciple relationship is very close, the Guru has regular contact with you, and he typically has a relatively small number of followers, so he can keep up with what’s going on with them. So if something happens, like dissociation, or some of the other things, he can kind of adjust your practice. Here, that’s not happening. People like the Maharishi are mass-movement leaders, and they really produce a mass-produced product. It just so happens, as with so many things, that different people respond differently. The other thing is, just keep in mind, a little bit of salt adds flavour to your food, and is in fact necessary for life… a whole lot of salt can kill you. And that’s kind of what’s going on with the meditation, I think. A little bit of it is good, it’s relaxing, and there may be spiritual benefits to it, but that I can’t attest to. But doing it for hours and hours every day probably isn’t so great for a lot of people.

You’ve had patients yourself who have had problems with this?

Clients. Yes. Lots of them… Lots of them. I did what I would call “lay counseling” for a number of years. I left [TM] in ’95, I began being a cult activist almost right away. I probably talked with 1500 or so people during that time. In 2000 I went back to school for my social work degree, my degree in therapy. I didn’t get the degree until 2005. So I didn’t turn pro until 2005, so when we’re talking about clients, we’re talking about some hundreds of clients, but not thousands. I would say that among those, probably two-thirds are TM people, because that’s where I’m known. Of those, my best estimate is that 10 to 20 percent of them have had those kinds of effects that appear to be from the meditation.

I was interested, on your website you mention “multi-level marketing cults”, and I was wondering if they differ significantly in method from the religious cults?

They emphasize different things. Certainly, the teachings are very different. But they use a lot of the same techniques. Almost every group that I’m aware of has some type of method for inducing dissociation, but dissociation can be induced by so many things. Obviously, meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, these types of things, these trance-like activities can cause that. You don’t typically see that in any multi-level marketing cult, but you do frequently see group criticism, shaming, that kind of thing. That can also cause dissociation. Basically, dissociation is a response by the mind to anything that’s overwhelming. So, a young child being raped, or anything of that nature, they respond with dissociation at the time. Frequently it will become part of their mental make up because they want to repress those memories, they are so painful. Any overwhelming stress can cause dissociation. In that respect, all these groups seem to have that in common: some form of dissociation-inducing technique. There are other things they have in common, too. Something Lifton called Doctrine Over Person, which is basically, if the method isn’t working for you, there is something wrong with you, there’s nothing wrong with the method – which is kind of an obvious logical fallacy. I’d have to run down all the various techniques. In the end, they have more in common than not, if looked at from a significantly abstract level.

So the clients you run into have pretty much the same symptoms when they come from a multi-level marketing cult?

Yes. But I don’t want you to think that all groups are the same, or that all level of damage is the same. Every group’s different, every individual’s different. I would say the groups exist on a spectrum from fairly benign to really destructive. For instance, my group, TM, I would say that on a scale of 1 to 10 it was a 5 or a 6. Scientology, 7 or 8. The really, really destructive ones you typically don’t hear about. They’re very small groups. They don’t show up on anybody’s radar, they’re not in the media. There are a lot of small Christian communities that might have 50 to 100 members, or less, where really, really terrible things happen, but you don’t hear about it. Those are the ones I put at the far end of the scale.

The ones that can better isolate themselves.

Yeah, absolutely. You hear about rape – when I say terrible stuff, I mean really terrible stuff – beatings, things like that. Things that anybody would recognize as being abusive.

Do you find that the psychological trauma due to cult involvement is different for those reared in a cult as children?

Oh, yeah. Very different for those who were reared. You may have seen it on the website, and if I’m repeating myself just stop me, but the basic idea is that when I’m working with someone who, like me, joined at 18, or later on in adult life, the main task is to try to reconnect them with their pre-cult self. So you work on trying to connect them to things they used to like to do, people they used know, hobbies, concerns, interests, passions, whatever. That tends to make it possible for them to reconstruct a personality that’s functional in the world. You can’t do that for somebody that was brought up in a cult. There is no pre-cult self. It’s much more challenging for them, and obviously much more challenging for me.

But do they generally have the same symptoms?

Yes and no. A lot of the young people I work with, or people who were young when they were in the cult, had the general kind of teenage rebellion against the group that you might imagine that anybody might have, so there was some kind of protection against a lot of the group practices. I’m working with a guy now who’s out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he feels he had a cultic relationship – I’m not here to judge the group, but he feels he did – and he left at 18. The problems he had were less of dissociation because he hadn’t been doing the group practices for a very long time. His problems are more of social skills, knowing how to relate with people who have very different beliefs, trusting people, intimacy issues, sexual dysfunction, those kinds of things. So it is somewhat different. Some of them do experience dissociation as well, but if I had to generalize, I’d say it’s less.

Is there a general way in which you can describe the therapy you give – you already touched on it, you try to reconnect them with their pre-cult selves – is there a basic…

Yeah, I can give you an outline of what I do. This changes from individual to individual and group to group, but this is the basic idea. What I do is focus on brief therapy. I don’t believe the therapeutic relationship should be a long-term one. What I do is in, say, the first four or five sessions, we kind of go over the characteristics of a cult, and I don’t directly attack their group. I might use another group as an example. There’s a book I use called Take Back Your Life that has a lot of discussion of this kind of stuff, and we look at the kinds of things that happen in other groups, and let them decide for themselves whether it happened in their group or not. So we go through that period. After that, we spend four or five sessions with very, very specific what they call cognitive or cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. These are things like what to do when you dissociate, how can you get control of dissociation, learning how to mingle with other people. You know, very basic things. I work a lot with what are called cognitive distortions in cognitive therapy. And these are kind of dysfunctional ways of looking at the world. People [from cults] tend to have very black/white thinking, they tend to do what they call “mindreading”. In other words, assuming to know the motivations or thoughts of another individual without actually asking them. That kind of thing. There are lots of cognitive distortions, but I work with a basic list of ten. What I do with them in cognitive therapy is look at thoughts or situations that are causing distress and we try to understand if part of the distress is caused by the way they’re thinking about it. Looking at the situation negatively, or if they’re using one of these cognitive distortions, we challenge that. Not that I try to replace their thinking, but what I hope will happen in doing this process is that they’ll get kind of a balanced way of looking at things. They hold in their mind multiple thoughts at once. You know, that something is evil, or not good, but at the same time there are parts of it that are good. So the goal here is to kind of integrate their thinking. Anyway, I do that for about four or five sessions. For a lot of people that’s all they need. For some people, they need less. For some people who are experiencing serious dysfunction, and possibly personality disorders, or other things, we might have a longer term relationship. But, always what I try to do, even from the very beginning is – and I outline what we call “termination” – and from the beginning our goal is to end the relationship… I’m kind of rambling, I hope some of this is good…

It’s great. Just one more question. I’m wondering what an outsider can do for friends who they feel are in a cultic relationship, or if they should do anything at all when somebody’s in an organization of their own free will?

Yeah, right. It’s really, really, really difficult. A lot of the things that people might think to do are terribly counter-productive. This is a place where I do disagree with a lot of cult counselors and what they call cult interventionists or exit counselors. There’s a kind of industry of working with people with families and holding what they call an “intervention”, which is a day or series of days in which you sit down with a cult member and challenge directly their beliefs, and try to teach them negative things about their group, and all that kind of stuff. Basically, what I’ve seen happen is that this works for a short period of time, but it just doesn’t seem to stick. It didn’t for me. I was in and out of my group three times before I finally left. The intervention had short-term effects, but it didn’t have long-term effects. So anyway, that kind of direct approach just seems to engage somebody’s defenses. A loved one going to them and just saying, “Look! What are you doing –?” You know, isn’t going to do anything. So what I recommend people to do is certainly if they’re adults, is just let the person know you love them, you’ll always love them, that you are concerned about the group they’re in, and that you’ll always be there to talk to them about it, if they’d like to talk. And after that, back off. And, really, only say it once. Because just the act of saying “I love you” over, and over, and over again, can engage defenses. You let people know this, and then you back off. You let them know perhaps that there are people that they could talk to, but in my experience, the people who successfully leave groups have already begun the process themselves. You know, there’s that really old chestnut, it’s a joke about psychotherapy: How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb? You ever hear this one?


Just one. But the lightbulb’s really got to want to change… And it’s the same thing here.

Thank you very much for chatting with me…

Marked as: Abnormal SociologyBelief Systems  —  1 comment   (RSS)

1 Comment so far
  1. mkblack July 31, 2008 7:04 am

    Very interesting interview. He seems like he’s on the right track as far as therapists go. What’s ironic is that I’ve seen therapy that has been taken to the cult level. Therapists who know all the new hip therapy techniques and speak in buzz words to the point of needing a translator. How do you recover from that? Go to a therapist because you went to a therapist? I’m one who’s always been very skeptical of therapy and psychology because of the number of quacks and charlatans out there. But this guys seems to have his shit together.

    BTW: therapist also spells the rapist.

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