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Dysfunctional Families
A Framework for Cult Membership

By Mimi Wickliff

In the past several years there are some new "buzz" words in the field of counseling. Words like "compulsive-addictive" - "dysfunctional families", "codependency", and "cults", are difficult to define. For the purpose of this article, I will use simplified definitions to help show there are definite correlations between these words. A better understanding of their similarities will hopefully give some insight into ways to approach these problems and to help those attempting to recover and to find meaning in their lives.

It is my contention that not only are there similarities, but that a person coming from a dysfunctional family who is not in recovery is more apt to unconsciously seek out another "dysfunctional family" in the form of a destructive religious cult. Also, any recovery must include a new relationship with a Higher Power (which I will call God) which is grounded in a new awareness of who God is and how He wants to relate to us.


Let me start with some definitions: first, according to Anna Wilson Schaef (1986) in Co-Dependence, Misunderstood-Mistreated, "within the chemical dependency field, an addiction is broadly considered to be the compulsive need for any substance or process outside the person that becomes more important than sobriety - the state of functioning in a way that is clear, healthy, and normal for the human organism" (p.24).

A "dysfunctional family" is a family in which the natural characteristics of a child have been responded to by the primary caregivers in such a way as to distort those characteristics. Pia Melody (1989) lists those natural characteristics as being valuable, vulnerable, imperfect, dependent, and immature.

Furthermore she states that "children have three other qualities that make it possible for them to mature properly or to survive and cope in spite of remarkable abuse:

(1) children must be centered on themselves to develop internally; (2) they are full of boundless energy in order to do the very hard work of growing up; and (3) they are adaptable so that they can easily go through the maturation process that requires constant adjusting and change" (p.62).

In a dysfunctional family, these tools are used against the child, forcing the child to adopt survival traits In order to cope with the conflicting messages. Melody (1989) states, "The dysfunctional survival traits that their natural characteristics are warped into become the core symptoms of codependence when the children become adults" (p.76).

"Codependency" is a state of being in which a person has had to adapt to the surroundings in order to survive as a child. Their focus is outside of themselves and they discount who they are in an attempt to meet everyone else's needs.

For the sake of expediency, I have included Steven Ash's (1983) definition of a destructive cult at the end of this article. I will be using the primary characteristics of "authoritarian leadership" - "dependent membership" - "closed family system" and "dissociative states" in order to draw comparisons.

Relational Similarities

A definite similarity is visible in the relational aspect of both a cult and a dysfunctional family. In a destructive cult the relationship between the "authoritarian leader" and the "dependent member" is paramount. The totalitarian leader professes and usually believes that he actually knows the Truth and therefore, it is his responsibility to Impute this knowledge to his followers.

To insure their obedience he must control their behavior while keeping their idealism intact. In order to do this, the cult leader must have something that the followers want and this is "the Truth" which he believes has been given or shown to him by a divine authority. The cult follower comes seeking, either consciously or unconsciously, wanting to believe and receive this Truth. It may give him a purpose or a higher goal.

This idealistic view is necessary in order for the leader-follower relationship to happen and once it is established it is not easily broken. According to Deutsch (1989), "When belief in an idealized cult leader and his mission is met by disconfirming evidence, the anxiety that arises is frequently warded off by defenses among which denial is primary" (p.155). But what causes a person to so blindly accept someone else's direction and dictates?

Although there is no specific model of a typical cult member, there are characteristics that are common to most. They are young adults between the ages of 16 and 25 at a difficult time of life when many changes and transitions are taking place.

Some are idealistic with high hopes of improving the world, some are dissatisfied or bored and are rebelling, many are isolated loners who are probably lonely and all are seeking something. In their attempt to find meaning, these potential cult members are susceptible to answers that may eliminate their individuality and ability to rationally make choices for themselves. Into this picture comes the guru, the Messiah, the leader, and as the puzzle pieces comes together, the perfect dysfunctional fit is found.

In a dysfunctional family the relationship between the primary caregiver, who is usually a compulsive-addictive, and the other members is very similar. The "addict" becomes the designated patient and his actions, motives and desires become very powerful and take on an authority of their own.

The nature of addiction is very self-centered and as the addictive cycle progresses, the addict becomes more and more isolated and centered in his own needs, and the family becomes more and more focused on him. Invariably he abuses the people who are closest to him by this emotional abandonment, but one of the irrational aspects of a dysfunctional family is that the members rarely leave, even when abused. Their denial of reality seems to keep them locked in a joint sickness with the addict, a similar denial as the one found in the cult leader-follower relationship.

The members of the family in an attempt to keep the family stable, adopt roles, thereby negating their own individuality and autonomy. For the purposes of this article, the individual roles and their functions will not be discussed, but it should be noted that each member's focus has now become the addict and the necessity of keeping the dysfunctional family going presents itself as a trap.

They may have intense feelings of shame, fear, anger and pain in their relationship with the addict, but because of the compulsion to please and care for the addict, they are unable to express their own honest feelings. Codependents become "professional" people-pleasers as adults because they have learned how to adapt and wear the "masks" that were demanded in their family for survival. This characteristic of not being in touch with a real self makes them vulnerable to any authority figure, be it a parent or a cult leader.

Closed System

Another major characteristic of a destructive cult is that it is a "closed system." This means that the cult itself professes exclusivity and absolutism and establishes its own psychological boundary within which it claims to be unique. There is little respect for the outside world which is, in fact, lost and misled and doesn't understand, according to the cult.

Contact with the outside world is highly controlled and any criticism by the non-cult community is viewed through pseudo-paranoid eyes with compassion and a sense of pity. They are the lost souls, but we (the cult) have the answer.

Ironically, within the cult, there are no individual boundaries at all. The members believe and behave in the same way. They give up their own ability to think and act and are willing to have someone else tell them who they are and how to behave. But why? Again we look at the dysfunctional family, the root system from which this potential cult member has come.

When talking about a closed system, we're actually discussing boundaries. Pia Melody (1989) gives a description of boundaries in Facing Codependence. "Boundary systems are invisible and symbolic 'fences' that have three purposes: (1) to keep people from corning into our space and abusing us, (2) to keep us from going into the space of

others and abusing them and (3) to give each of us a way to embody our sense of who we are" (p.11).

As I mentioned earlier, the addicted or dysfunctional family is a closed system in which the "secrets" are kept. All the members have adapted their roles in order to keep a perfect picture for the outside world to see; but inside the family things are very different. There is chaos, confusion, dishonesty and an intense fear of abandonment and loneliness. From Pia's definition, we can see that boundaries are positive, but there are two extremes. An intact, flexible boundary system allows us to have intimacy in our lives when we choose but to protect ourselves against various kinds of abuse.

People in a dysfunctional family usually have various kinds of boundary impairment and are either not protected enough or are overly protected. Children usually model the boundaries that their parents exemplify and in a dysfunctional family these boundaries may have been impaired in four ways: (1) no boundaries, (2) damaged boundaries, (3) walls instead of boundaries, and (4) fluctuating back and forth from walls to no boundaries (Melody p.13).

With no boundaries, damaged boundaries, or fluctuating boundaries, enmeshment is bound to occur and an honest sense of identity is lost. According to Schaef (1986). "Codependents literally do not know where they end and others begin" (p.44). This similarity to the clone-like membership in a cult is striking.

Steven Ash (1983) partly defines a destructive cult as a system that maintains a "dissociative state." This is a psychological disorder in which the patient, or in this case, the cult member, looses pieces of himself. The DSM 111(1980) defines a dissociative disorder as "a sudden, temporary alteration in the normally integrative functions of consciousness, identity, or motor behavior" (p.253).

Families of cult members often report that their son or daughter act much unlike themselves. Letters to their families, when they are allowed to contact them, are often confusing and include extreme examples of changes in personality and behavior. The inability to think for themselves and the total surrender of money and possessions have been very frightening examples of how cult members have given up their identity. Intellectually, emotionally and physically cult members surrender to a new identity and are subject to the powerful whims of the leader and the group's doctrines.

But were these same members prepared for this abandonment of self in their dysfunctional families where their own authentic identity was denied, ridiculed, and attacked, forcing them to become an adapted self?

One of the core symptoms of codependency according to Pia Melody (1989) is difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem. "A healthy self esteem is the internal experience of one's own preciousness and value as a person" (p.7). But a codependent growing up in a dysfunctional family seems to have either low self-esteem or its opposite, grandiosity.

Low self-esteem occurs because they have received either verbal or non-verbal messages from the parents that they are "less-than." Codependents who are suffering from grandiosity have been given the message that they are actually superior to others, a cover-up for the addiction in the family, and has been taught to find fault with others, thereby becoming judgmental and critical.

If codependents do have any esteem it is mirrored by other people; Schaef (1986) calls it "external referencing" and claims it "as the most central characteristic of the addictive process that is exhibited in the disease of codependency" (p.44). When codependents intrinsic value comes from what others tell them about themselves they are very vulnerable to "mind control" and the other forms of manipulation that are common in a cult.

In Combating Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan (1988), he says "Since mind control depends on creating a new identity within the individual, cult doctrine always requires that a person distrust his own self" (p.79). And since the codependent has little sense of who that "self" is, he is the perfect subject for the zealous indoctrination into a cult.

It seems obvious that a codependent coming out of a dysfunctional family is a prime candidate for cult membership. They willingly accept a God-like leader and discount their own individual self; are trained to keep the secrets of the "family" and to ward off outsiders and vulnerable to the thought reform and manipulation of the cult group. These patterns are familiar to the codependent. Although they might be seeking something quite different than their dysfunctional family, their chances of responding to the familiar, (another dysfunctional family) the cult, are great. So, how can this recycling of codependent addiction be stopped?

Recovery Process

I will not spend a lot of time on the various recovery tools for a dysfunctional family; but it is the belief of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous that the 12-step recovery program is the answer.

Anne Schaef (1986) agrees, "In order to become sober and maintain sobriety, a person has to make major changes in her or his attitudes, beliefs, behavior, thinking, and practice. This is not only true for the alcoholic or addict; it is also necessary for the codependent, the relationship addict, the food addict, and all other addicts" (p.26). The first three steps of A.A. (1976) are the foundation for many recovery programs: (1) "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol- that our lives had become unmanageable, (2) Came to believe that a Power Greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, (3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him" (p.59).

Perhaps from the viewpoint of the mental health, chemical dependency, or family systems fields these steps are enough. Certainly the combined 12 steps have helped thousands of men and women out of an addictive system into a healthy way of living, but if we mistakenly substitute a Higher Power for our authoritative leader or dysfunctional parent, the codependent must beware of the potential to simply set up another form of "dysfunctional family" system.

Certainly, for many of us from dysfunctional families, the transfer of roles from "father"' to "Father" is not an easy one. We may once again discount ourselves and take on the people-pleasing, performance "mask" of the dysfunctional family, only this time our focus is on God. As a codependent, I contend that only when we see our Higher Power, God, as a supportive rather than a suppressive Father, are we able to be whole, responsible, fallible and precious children, the selves we were originally created to be.

And, is it perhaps possible that similar recovery process that puts choices, responsibilities and consequences back into the proper hands of the individual rather than in the hands of a totalitarian, domineering cult leader, might be an effective tool for recovery from cult involvement? It is my hope that more see the similarities between a dysfunctional family and destructive religious cult, recognizing the logical progression from one to the other.

Knowing the success that recovery programs including Alcoholics Anonymous have had, we as Christians can take information and undergird it with the powerful, healing, supportive love of Jesus Christ and His grace to help people become whole, healthy, and free.

Author: Mimi Wickliff has MA. in counseling from Denver Seminary.

Cult Induced Psychopathology

Ash, Steven. (1963). Cult Induced Psychopathology.

A sociological definition of a destructive religious cult.

1. A totalitarian closed system

  a. An authoritarian leader (2 out of 3 necessary)

    (1) Charismatic, divine Inspiration
    (2) Absolute authority
    (3) Sole judge of members behavior

  b. Childlike, emotional dependence (3 out of 5 necessary)

    (1) Prohibition of questioning or discussion of critical analysis and independent thinking
    (2) Rigid code of ethics
    (3) Control over members lives
    (4) Control of personal finances and possessions
    (5) Double standard of ethic.

  c. Closed family system (3 out of 5 necessary)

    (1) Exclusivity of truth
    (2) Absolutism
    (3) Pseudo-paranoid
    (4) Contact with family controlled
    (5) Member rarely left alone

2. Thought reform and brainwashing

  a. Dissociative state (3 out of 5 necessary)

    (1) Control of information
    (2) Emotional over-stimulation
    (3) Physical debilitation
    (4) Not thinking tactics
    (5) Religious mystical rituals

  b. Selective group reinforcement and punishment; i.e. the systematic application of behavioral conditioning techniques (deliberate and otherwise) using the rewards and punishments of peer, or authoritarian pressure to promote compliance (to closed system of practices and doctrines).

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light


Alcoholics Anonymous (1976). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
American Psychiatric Association. (1980). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Hassan, Steve (1988). Combating Cult Mind Control.
Melody. Pia. (1989). Facing Codependence.
Schaef, Anna Wilson. (1986). Co-Dependence Misunderstood-Mistreated.

The above article originally appeared in The Shield newsletter in 1989.
It was posted on this Web site February 1998.

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