It's several years later now, and I'm in my late twenties and living in a different city; and although I came here to disappear, I've found myself instead. In the years I've spent trying to piece together the broken parts of my life, I've come to understand that I really was once a member of a cult -- a psychotherapy cult built around the two women I'm calling Mary and Margaret (their names, like all those in this article, including mine, have been changed). The story I'm about to tell is not about how psychotherapy ruined my life. It's true that bad therapy set me back, took years from my life and left me with more questions than answers. But it's also true that good therapy, with an ethical, honest, professional counselor, has helped me to get my life back. Maybe if you read my story, you'll know better than I once did how to tell the difference.
When I look back on my childhood, I think of myself as a weird little kid -- a lonely child, who never quite fit in at school and a confessor for my parents, each of whom confided too much to me about their troubled marriage. I spent most of my childhood in fear of my father's rage, trying to stay out of range of his outbursts. I hid my own emotions -- but when I moved away from my parents to go to college, all those bottled feelings of anger and terror began to emerge. I couldn't face them. I started drinking a lot. I stopped eating, and when I couldn't keep that up, I started bingeing and purging.
Then a friend told me about a therapy group she was in that I'll call The Group. It was run by two women counselors with apparently good credentials and a comfortable office in a sleepy suburb. A lot of their philosophy was based on the 12-step model of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, but what really appealed to me was their belief that therapy didn't have to be a five- or six-year commitment. When I met them, Mary and Margaret explained that they believed in accelerating the process by pushing patients to confront difficult issues almost continually, so that they could be "cured" in just two or three years. It seemed empowering to be able to take such control in solving my problems, so I called my parents and asked if they would pay for my therapy sessions. At first, my father said absolutely not. But my mom, who knew how much I was struggling, convinced him. Within a week, I started individual therapy with Mary (the clients were assigned individual sessions with either Mary or Margaret), as well as occasional evening group therapy classes on such topics as sexuality, love, family dynamics and relationships. The drive from my campus took more than an hour each way, but I was happy to do it. I felt like I was finally doing something good for myself.
Unleashing a lifetime of suppressed rage
Within a month, Mary said I was ready for my first "anger session." You've probably heard about how, for some people, hitting a pillow or screaming at a stand-in for your parents can be a way of releasing suppressed anger. Still, no textbook could have prepared me for what I saw that day. There were about 30 of us gathered in the office basement. The lights were down and the therapists started playing some slow music with sad lyrics that made many people start to cry. Then we broke into smaller "anger areas," where we sat in a circle. I sat with my back to the corner, thinking I'd be safer there. But then the man next to me grabbed an oversize wiffle bat at the center of the circle and started pounding a big pillow with a loud, persistent thwack! Thwack! Thwack! just a couple of feet from where I sat. He was a big man, maybe 6'3", and as he continued pounding, others in the circle shouted out to provoke him. Amid their deafening shouts, his rageful screams turned to mournful howls. Everyone in the room was screaming, shouting, crying -- so much raw energy that I could feel every heartbeat in my throat. I was horrified -- and yet, when it was my turn, I picked up the bat. I felt awkward at first, and so self-conscious I don't know if I even made a sound. Gradually, I overcame my discomfort -- so much so that, at the anger sessions I attended several times a year, I actually looked forward to the cathartic feeling of going out of control.
Since most of us were in group therapy together, everyone knew what everyone else's issues were. For instance, if you were overweight, someone in the group might shout out, "You're so fat no one could love you!" Or, if you were an incest survivor, one of the therapists might say, "You want to be Daddy's little whore?" The person in the center of the circle would get more enraged, more rattled, until often he or she would experience flashbacks -- memories of painful experiences that somehow felt real and present again.
We were fine -- society was sick
I never questioned whether this provoking of hopped-up emotion could actually be "good" for people, or whether it might be considered unethical, or even abusive. For one thing, I was really impressed by the other people in The Group. They were older than I was, smart, well educated and affluent. Most lived in expensive, old-money neighborhoods, and many had Ph. D.'s. I found it thrilling to be in discussions with people who were so articulate, so intelligent. If they thought this was okay, why shouldn't I?
Another reason I never questioned The Group's methods was that such questioning really wasn't tolerated. Mary and Margaret believed that our society and everyone in it were damaged and unhealthy. They believed that addiction was rampant, and that you could be addicted to everything from magazines to your own children. If you expressed any sort of discomfort with their methods or rules, Mary and Margaret said it was simply because you too, were a victim of our sick culture. So if you questioned the point of an "anger session" or challenged their rule against taking aspirin, Mary's and Margaret's response would be that you, too, were "in the disease." Having lived through an experience as intense as an anger session, and having bonded with these people in a way I never had with my own family, I simply couldn't risk alienating them. I had finally found a place where I felt accepted for who I was, rage and all. Going to therapy felt like I was finally coming home.
"Detaching" from Mom and Dad
Within three moths, the pace of the therapy sessions had accelerated. I was in a weekly class, a weekly individual session and a weekly support group, all while keeping a full schedule at school. As The Group's rules required, I stopped drinking caffeine, taking aspirin, eating sugar or using any other substance that might tamp down my true emotions. When friends worried that The Group was taking too much control of my life, I told them they were "in the disease." When Mary suggested that I was ready for the next stage -- "detaching" from my parents -- I was willing.
Mary and Margaret met with my parents and told them I could work through my issues more quickly if I cut off all contact with them for two years. My parents and I screamed and argued, but in a final, tearful conversation with my mother, I was able to convince her how much this mattered to me. I sent letters to my relatives that year in my Christmas cards, explaining why I wouldn't be seeing them anymore. When I look back, cutting them off so harshly is one of the mistakes I regret most.
Still I was making progress, and I was making friends in The Group. In anger sessions, I was experiencing many flashbacks. At first, these memories were the familiar ones from childhood, but emotionally charged -- as if I were experiencing all the rage and shame I should have felt as a kid watching my parents fight, or being yelled at for some small mistake. Mary and Margaret pushed us into confronting these buried issues with an almost relentless zeal.
The more memories we dredged up, the more praise we got, the more we were "progressing." What I didn't know then was that most therapists would never encourage this exhausting pace. Constantly coping with these issues -- on top of being a full-time student -- was wearing me down.
Bizarre "flashbacks" from the past
Two months after cutting off contact with my parents, I went to an intensive five-day workshop where I had the most awful flashback yet. The workshop was held at an old church camp. On the second or third day, I walked into the sanctuary, saw the altar and suddenly dropped to my knees. It was like a scene from a science-fiction movie where you're jolted into the past. I saw myself as a young girl, being sold to two men who abused me sexually in some sort of ritual. I sobbed violently for hours afterward. This horrifying memory felt real to me. And yet, no matter how bizarre my flashbacks were (or anyone else's -- many group members "remembered" being abused in satanic rituals), The Group never challenged or questioned them. If you didn't believe them, you were simply "in the disease." By examining my flashbacks with The Group, I came to believe that they were real, and that my parents were members of a satanic cult. I moved off-campus into an apartment with a fellow Group member to make it harder for my parents to find me. They were the enemy and I never wanted to see them again.
You might think this discovery would have uprooted me, but, in fact, I felt I'd found a better family. I thrived on the feeling of belonging I had in The Group. When I got a positive stroke from Mary and Margaret, I'd be flying. But if I made a complaint -- if I worried that I couldn't keep up with my classes and all the therapy groups they wanted me in, much less pay for them -- they would shun me and tell me I was "in the disease."
We all craved their approval so much that no demand they made seemed to burdensome or too silly. If Mary and Margaret told you that you were "addicted" to reading the newspaper and eating applies, then you would quit reading the newspaper and eating apples. If you had sexual thoughts about someone in The Group, you were supposed to tell that person in order to get the sexual feelings "out of the way" of your therapy. You had to get Mary's and Margaret's permission to begin a romantic relationship. Some married couples weren't even supposed to have sex unless Mary and Margaret approved it. Few of us objected. Most of us had cut off every relationship we had with the outside world. Mary and Margaret and The Group were all we had, and we'd do anything for them.
Going off the deep end
About a year after I'd experienced my first horrifying flashback, the rapid-fire pace of these sex-abuse memories started to slow down. My therapists told me it was because I was holding onto something deep and buried -- and they began suggesting possibilities. I would kneel in the center of the group circle and begin hitting the pillow. "How do you feel?" the therapists would ask. "Angry," I'd respond. "Who's there with you?" they'd ask. "I don't know," I'd say. Soon they would offer examples -- "Is it your uncle? What is he doing to you?" -- and a hazy picture would form in my mind. These flashbacks had such a dark tone, and I began to "remember" scenes of abuse and terror at the hands of my parents and family friends. The process felt very different from the way I had dredged up memories before. Now, rather than having a memory that helped me understand my real feelings, I was having a feeling and then trying to match it to a "memory" -- trying to figure out something that might not even be there. It was sort of like watching a scary movie and not knowing what's going to pop out of the corner until someone says "a guy with a knife" -- then your imagination takes you there. Unlike my earlier memories, which were clear and chronological, these were murky. Even so, I really believed what my therapists told me: that this was a technique for getting at deeper issues and that it would help me get better.
When the two-year detachment period my parents had promised was up, they contacted Mary and Margaret and demanded to see me, to know where I was living. At this point, my progress in therapy was slowing down because I refused to confront a very troubling flashback that Mary and Margaret were convinced was the key to my getting better. At a group session one night, Mary and Margaret demanded that I "go into" this flashback, so I lay on the floor and started flailing my arms and legs, a tantrum technique we sometimes used to take us into a trance-like state. I kicked and screamed so much that I seemed to lose touch with my body. I fell into a catatonic state in which I couldn't speak or respond. The ambulance came for me five hours later, at 2:00 A.M. and that morning I woke up in a hospital psychiatric ward. The resident psychiatrist tied to understand what had brought me there, but I called Mary and Margaret, who warned me to be careful about what I said, because other mental-health professionals might be "in the disease," too. I was hospitalized for five weeks.
Forced to live a brand-new life in the underground
I thought Mary and Margaret wanted me to get better, but now I believe they wanted me out of the way I was volatile and fragile, my parents were calling constantly and, I later learned, my parents' lawyer had hired a private detective to find me. My crisis had attracted too much attention. The police wanted to know what sort of therapeutic practice had sent me to the ER in the middle of the night. I guess I had become a liability. So Mary and Margaret told me to leave town, and a member of The Group came to my house (I'd just been released from the hospital) with $3,000 in cash so I could escape the satanic cult they said was pursuing me. I believed I was in danger. More important, I knew that if I didn't follow their instructions, I'd never be allowed to come back. I did what they asked.
The first weeks of my exile were a blur. I stayed with a Christian family who were part of an underground network to help satanic-cult survivors. At Mary's insistence, I legally changed my name, had a nose job, changed my hair color, got colored contact lenses and bought new clothes in a completely different style. I even changed the way I walked. I was alone in a place where everything was different -- the air, the time zone, the people -- and where I had no roots, no friends, no one to talk to. When I looked in the mirror, I had no idea who I was.
Before I left, Mary and Margaret had encouraged me to continue with my therapy through an organization that helped survivors of satanic cults. (At the time, it never occurred to me that it was, in fact, therapy that had brought me to this point.) When I went to see my very patient new therapist, she must have known immediately that the treatment I'd received with The Group was unethical. Yet she knew that challenging my fierce loyalty to them would send me out the door. I came to her office one night with a letter I'd just gotten from Mary and Margaret. I was too scared to read it alone. It was shattering. They wrote that they knew I'd gone back to the satanic cult, that I was a sick person who would never be allowed back into The Group, that the belongings I'd asked to have sent to me had been destroyed in a basement flood. I sobbed when I read it. I felt completely alone. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, but instead walked out to the top floor of the parking structure and climbed over the railing. I had done everything they asked, and yet they would never take me back. I had felt suicidal before, but I had never some as close as this. My therapist found me as I was contemplating my leap and said, "Don't do this now in front of me." She told me that she cared about me and didn't want to lose me. It was the right thing to say, because even though I had only known her a short time, I didn't want to hurt her by hurting myself. Together, we went back inside. That night was a turning point for me. Although part of me still hoped that I could one day win Mary's and Margaret's approval again, I had finally started to understand that I had to live life for myself.
Coming face to face with the cult leaders in court
A few years later, I sat in the conference room of a lawyer's office. Across from me were Mary and Margaret, surrounded by their own lawyers. This had become a fairly common setting for them -- I was one of more than a dozen ex-Group members suing the two therapists for malpractice. It had taken me a long time to come to this decision.
I had slowly reestablished contact with some of my friends who had left The Group. They told me they had come to believe that The Group was actually a cult. They gave me a book that contained a checklist of cult characteristics. A cult, it said, is a group that holds to a black-and-white doctrine of good and evil; that treats questions about its doctrine as a reflection of the skeptic's imperfection; that encourages members to feel part of an elite group whose leaders are seen as perfect. The book also described how cults pressure their members into cutting off contact with family and friends, and how cult leaders encourage members to shun those who questions the leaders' authority. My heart stopped when I read that description -- I didn't want it to fit The Group, but it did.
When I finally decided to sue, I couldn't wait to face Mary and Margaret and tell them how they'd hurt me. But there was also a part of me that wanted to apologize for having brought them there. I still longed for the sense of community and belonging I'd felt in The Group. The emotions we had experienced together were so intense that I had felt bonded with these people for life, as though we were survivors of a plane crash.
When I started my testimony, however, I gained strength as I told the truth about what had happened to me -- and watched Mary and Margaret lie. They said they had never encouraged me to detach myself from my parents. They said they'd never encouraged or believed any of my flashbacks. They said they'd never told me to flee and change my identity. They said they had never controlled people's diets, or their sex lives, or called us abusive names like "slut" and "cult whore." While they denied the charges and gave their own version of the events, I had to endure the indignity of having all thirteen of my personal diaries -- now exhibits for the defense -- photocopied and passed around to lawyers on the other side. I had to listen as a room full of strangers dissected the details of my therapy, my home life, my pre-Group sex life, with the aim of proving my innate instability. At some points, Mary and Margaret rolled their eyes and laughed at my testimony. But finally, on the morning my case was set to go to trial, their side offered a settlement. I was relieved that I didn't have to testify in court. Though some of their clients reported Mary and Margaret to the state licensing board, resulting in the suspension of their licenses, the last I heard, they were still carrying on with their practice and The Group.
Moving toward a life more ordinary
Two years after the lawsuit, my life is returning to normal. I've completed the two college classes I'd left unfinished and earned my degree. I'm going to massage-therapy school this year, and am enrolled as a graduate student in psychology. I'm sure that seems an odd career choice, but I feel that helping people in an ethical way can be my path toward feeling whole again. When I look back, I know that I was especially vulnerable to The Group: I had zero self-esteem and felt connected to nothing. Finding a place where I felt I belonged was the biggest fulfillment I could imagine. I think that, under the right circumstances, almost anyone could fall prey to a group that promised help, understanding and belonging during a difficult time. What makes me saddest about my experience is that if I had found a good, ethical therapist when I first needed help, I could have saved myself years of pain and confusion. I'm still working through the pain of my experience with Mary and Margaret. But I know that the life I lead from now on is the one that really counts.
Five Signs of a Toxic Therapist
Psychotherapy cults like the one in this story are, thankfully, rare. But it's still possible to find yourself with a toxic therapist who's more intent on shrinking your self-esteem (and wallet) than on minimizing your problems. Thomas Nagy, Ph. D., assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, offers these five warning signs to help you make sure you don't become the next victim of a sick doctor.