Here, StopBadTherapy.com publishes a retractor's letter to Steven Hassan, the author of Combatting Cult Mind Control. This letter is a StopBadTherapy.com exclusive, never before published elsewhere!
A Retractor's Letter to Steven Hassan
May 4, 1999
Dear Mr. Hassan:
I read your book, Combatting Cult Mind Control, this past weekend. I enjoyed it very much. I was curious to see how AA compared to being a cult. I have since concluded that in my own case, I have nothing to worry about. I had an experience several years ago that I would like to share with you. Remember the recovery movement in the late 80’s, where so many people “remembered” sexual abuse from childhood, many going on to “remember” cult ritual abuse as well, and even thought they had Multiple Personality Disorder? Well, I was one of those people.
I started attending ISA (Incest Survivors Anonymous, out of Long Beach, CA, which in my area eventually affiliated with Survivors of Incest Anonymous, out of Baltimore), in December, 1988. I stopped going to those meetings regularly in 1992. During that time, I saw several therapists. There was one in particular whose group I attended from January to March of 1990. She had a really bad reputation for being abusive, but the inside track from her clients, which myself and others later began referring to as “disciples”, was that if you saw her, you got through your “stuff” and got better really fast.
She was very sexist, with a feminist agenda. Not that I am against being a feminist. But her way was the “Truth”, and those who did not agree with her were in “Offender Reality”. Even though I was badly abused by my dad, I had a very close relationship with a younger brother as I grew up. I have had good male friends all my life. I thought it was wrong to insist that sexual abuse was something that men historically did to women to keep them down. I had also known many women who could be quite abusive, a babysitter, teachers, and my mother. From a previous experience I had with Phil Arms’ Church and Worship Center, I was able to see the “us v. them” mentality, and was able to recognize that I was being taught to hate.
According to this therapist, if one was “still” angry at one’s mother, it was because one had not yet “progressed” enough in their recovery to see that the blame and therefore one’s rage and hatred should be focused on one’s father, instead. This kind of person was “doing the same things that men did”, was not a good feminist, and could not be trusted.
Child molesters were referred to as “Offenders” and “Perpetrators”, fairly enough. But anyone who did not agree with the therapist’s view of reality in any given situation was in “Offender Reality” or was “being an Offender”. Or Perpetrator. The implication seemed to be that if the “Offender” was not jolted out of her wrong thinking, she could progress even to molesting a child, because that is what offenders do. Not to mention “reabusing” everyone else in the group first. I did not witness physical abuse, but as far as the things that could be said to someone…how far would a person have to go in order to be considered “inappropriate” in dealing with a potential child molester? It got pretty brutal.
I have a very calm demeanor and don’t cry easily. A lot of women said they were afraid to trust me because I didn’t “have feelings”. I assure you, though, I had them inside even though they may not have shown much. I began to believe that no one could tell what I was thinking as long as I didn’t say anything. (However, when I was able to go back to work, I was constantly surprised when someone “read my mind”, by noticing the expression on my face.) Women, like myself, who tended to get angry rather than cry when hurt were labeled “Ragers”. Once, after I had expressed some hurt feelings calmly to the group, I received a lecture from the therapist. She concluded, “And you are sitting over there, ….very… quietly… raging”. The group was silent, like frightened children.
Confronting others was a big part of therapy. It was done using emotionally laden clichés and always with the idea that the person had “reabused” the person doing the confrontation, and sometimes the entire group. This particular therapist, (who many of us saw for group and individual therapy), when hearing of a personality conflict between two SIA members, would go so far as to write the confrontation letter to the other person. The client was then to go home, copy down the letter in her own handwriting, and send it. Was I ever dumb enough to do that? I hate to tell you. But I think my lack of social skills at the time helped save me from getting more involved than I was.
A woman in our group experienced great distress over some advice she received. She had an eighteen year-old daughter, still living at home, who was also seeing this same therapist. The daughter wanted to go away for a weekend with her boyfriend. The mother didn’t want her to go. The therapist advised the mother to forbid it, and the daughter to go! The therapist talked about this openly as she advised the mother in front of us during group. She said this was necessary so the mother and daughter could both “work on their stuff”.
Then, when a significant number of us began to “remember” Satanic cult abuse, women who had previously been referred to as “Offenders”, were now “Cult Active”, as opposed to the “good” ones who cried and then went along with whatever the therapist or the group said. I can’t describe to you the fear I felt of others, and the shame when I realized that the same was most likely being said of me. My mind did not, however, proceed to put two and two together at that time, unfortunately. My absolute greatest fear was of my daughter and I being kidnapped by a Satanic cult, tortured to death, and both of us going to Hell. I had a horrifying mental image of her and myself trapped in some terrible underground place, awaiting future punishment, with her saying “What are we going to do now, Mommy?”, and me being too full of despair and hopelessness to even answer her. I think that came from the earlier church experience, thanks to what your book said about implanted phobias. I thought about it and remembered that the lady I “counseled” with at Phil Arms’ church in 1988 told me even though it doesn’t say so anywhere in the Bible, she believed that when a person went to Hell, their children went with them. How can people be happy when they believe such horrendous things?
There were scapegoats, who were basically women who wouldn’t “get with it” in their thinking. This was group therapy, where one was supposed to be able to reveal her most vulnerable feelings in a “safe” environment. It was supposed to be where we were going to get the love and nurturing we had not received as children. And it appeared to be like that for a chosen few. The scapegoats were confronted angrily and often, and eventually told take their “Offender Energy” and leave. Then a new scapegoat would be selected. Phil’s Church, (as it is commonly called by members and ex-members), worked that way. I have worked for a few companies that operate this way as well, and am very curious about this form of human behavior. I have been the scapegoat more than once. By the way, years after I left, I encountered a distraught therapist at an ACA, (Adult Children of Alcoholics), meeting. She said her boss was confronting her because the boss claimed to be able to see “the Offender” in her eyes.
I myself walked out of the group, but I am sorry to say that it did not end my involvement with SIA. I later did Ericksonian hypnosis for over two years with a psychologist who had received his Ph.D from Notre Dame. He was supposed to be an expert in MPD and one of the best therapists in my city. I began to have “memories” of being taken to underground caverns as a child and being led in a group by guides with torches. Every nook and cranny in the cavern had supposedly been filled with snakes not indigenous to the area, to discourage people from wandering around or trying to leave by themselves. As I wrote these things down, there was no doubt in my mind that these “memories” were not true. I thought, “Well, at least I can write fiction.” I asked him what to do if you are sure the particular “memories” you are getting never happened. Despite the fact that I could not believe the information that was pouring into my mind - and I still don’t see how any therapist could have implanted all that - I still believed that the “real” memories were somewhere in my subconscious. The reason I believed that so emphatically was that I had similar “symptoms” with regard to my day-to-day functioning of short-term memory and concentration as women who were “remembering” European Satanic rituals. And I was accused more than once by different therapists of being “resistant” and refusing to tell “what really happened”.
Regarding the obviously false memories, Dr. ND said it didn’t matter, that it was all treated the same way. He did not seem to take into consideration that I was terrified of my family, and even the thought of talking to my mother or dad on the phone was enough to induce a panic attack. Could you imagine attending a holiday celebration with people if you have even the slightest suspicion they could be sadistic killers? Although there were no faces I recognized in my “memories”, the conventional wisdom in SIA was that if one did “good work” and stayed with it, one’s subconscious would eventually supply the faces of the family members responsible. As I did not know who in my family would have exposed me to such horrors, I was afraid of everybody. Years later, when I visited my mother for the first time after deciding that the ritual abuse probably never happened, I still had a moment of real fear when riding with her in her car. She had elected to take a short-cut through a wooded area. I thought maybe “the cult” was waiting out in the woods to sacrifice me.
Unlike most of the women I associated with, I did not have chronological memories of Satanic rituals. I had constant nightmares at night, horrifying, disjointed mental images during the day, and severe depression. I was encouraged to write, and thoughts would flow until I was exhausted. There were no costumes and few identifying symbols in a lot of the “memories”. Many of atrocities seemed to have been committed during the day by white, middle class people such as I had grown up with, while dressed in their street clothes. I had no trouble classifying the evil things I thought I remembered as Satanism. The first therapist I wrote about had said that the rituals performed at the highest levels of the KKK, Masons, and Satanists were all the same, anyway. During that time, I was worn out and barely able to function. My short-term memory and concentration were almost non-existent. It was years before I could hold a professional job again. The dreams were so bad that it seemed like no matter how much progress I made during a given day, I still had to start over from scratch every single morning. That really has only gone away in about the last year.
It also seemed that those of us who thought we remembered Satanic abuse had a lot more trouble getting along with others and were much more prone to being scapegoated in groups than those who remembered only sexual abuse. It also got to where we could pick each other out quite quickly at SIA meetings, and exchange knowing glances. We obviously had similar personality traits, even though I don’t know that I could describe what they were. (Upon further thought, it seems that more of us had very angry mothers as well as fathers, and more of us were Christians, at least in general terms. )
The Cult Survivor meetings were held at a secret time and location. You had to be referred and screened to attend. At the CSA meetings, which occurred in the first therapist’s office, we would sit on the couches and in the floor. Every time a new person walked in late, everyone would get scared. Then we would have to go around the room again and everyone would identify herself as a cult survivor. The stories we told were horrific. I remember looking out the window on a truly beautiful day, and idly wondering why I hadn’t noticed before how pretty it was and why I could take no joy in it. I was so depressed.
The more I talked about what I thought and how I felt, the worse I got. I felt like a failure because I wasn’t getting better. The professional advice I got was that I had yet to get to the really traumatic memories. What monsters my parents must have been! I couldn’t believe the “memories” and felt deeply ashamed as I suspected I was making up disgusting things that were hard for even paid professionals to hear. I believe now that since I had been convinced that I would have to “remember” incidences of abuse to get better, and I desperately wanted my life to improve, my subconscious mind cooperated with me. Not that I wasn’t really abused in many ways, (verbally, physically and sexually). But I no longer believe that my parents are Satanists, KKK, Voodoo priests or Nazis. I suspected all those things at one time or another.
I did not attend my aunt and uncle’s 50th anniversary celebration because I suspected it could be a “call-back.”. I had heard at SIA meetings, (the more influential members reported their therapist’s teachings at our meetings as truth), that invitations to family reunions, holiday celebrations, even family emergencies were all “call-backs”, premeditated stimuli meant to trigger a programmed response to return to “the cult”. “The cult” to me and several others was a world-wide Satanic organization that more people than not were involved in. Since we did not know exactly who belonged, we suspected everybody. The fear when we thought we might be betrayed or might have been overheard was overwhelming.
Amazingly enough, the worse things got for me, the more Dr. ND congratulated me for doing “good work”. Any question of my course of therapy during that time, such as I got fired from my job, I lost it and screamed at my daughter for no good reason, I have no friends, I’m having a really hard time paying my bills, I don’t know that I can afford to keep coming back was met with, “But you are doing really good work, you need to keep it up.” Go figure. I also asked Dr. ND why we were doing catharsis therapy since it had been used in the 70’s with Vietnam Veterans, but then was judged ineffective. He looked surprised and said, “I guess they decided it works after all.” I finally said, “Things are worse for me than they’ve ever been…What do we do now?” He said we wait for a break-though. I eventually gave up and stopped going.
I have enclosed a copy of a letter published on page 12 of the 10/95 issue of Many Voices, which I read religiously for years, because an especially poignant letter from an anonymous woman stated exactly how I felt in 1992. I was divorced, barely keeping a job, eventually used government assistance, and was unable to be a parent to my daughter. Thank God, she survived my incompetence and is fine now. She will be twenty this year.
During the time in my life that letter reminds me of, 1992, I did not know how harmful the therapy and the way I had learned to think were to me. I was deeply envious of people who seemed to have success and happiness, and outright resentful of people who seemed to have loving families. I thought I was ruined for life by the abuse from my past, and thought that there was something wrong with me that the therapy didn’t work. It seemed to work for other people, the “elite” of SIA, (yes, we had cliques even there). You would not believe the utter hell some “survivors” will put themselves through in order to be a good client for their therapist. I guess having a basically defiant, self-centered nature saved my life. I shudder to think what my life would have become if I had been more of a people-pleaser. Having the typical alcoholic personality is not all bad!
I longed for the days when I had been blissfully ignorant of “the cult”. I functioned better in my day-to-day life even for most of my drinking days better than I did after I had the recovered memories. I resented people for not helping, then I began to realize that no one knew the answer for me. I decided that there probably wasn’t one. I stopped therapy with Dr. ND in 1992, and also stopped going to SIA regularly. I remember reading Pat Conroy’s book, The Lords of Discipline that year. I took comfort in that someone else seemed to understand betrayal on a comparable level as I felt I had experienced in my life.
Then in 9/93 I attended an AA meeting on a whim. A man whose history of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse sounded worse than mine told his story. He didn’t sugarcoat the abuse, but he didn’t mince words on what kind of person he became as an adult, either. And he had his life back. I started going to AA regularly. No one I met where I attended meetings had ever met a “survivor” of SRA, so I stopped talking about it. I decided to put that part of my life on hold until I could get my life turned around. Taking action on my present day problems took all the time and energy I had, anyway. I was losing my daughter, that was the bottom line. And this time I was not willing to just let it happen and say it was an aftereffect of the abuse. As hard as those early days of sobriety were, I remember them as a happy time. It was the beginning of hope.
I had previously discussed AA with the psychiatrist I began to see in 1990, in conjunction with Dr. ND, right after my divorce. I thought it was time to get to the bottom of what was wrong with me. There was no question that I had abused alcohol in the past, although I wasn’t presently drinking. But those people in AA just didn’t seem to “understand” that those of us who had been abused were not to blame for our behavior. And I was suspicious of the levity of the meetings. How could people actually say the bad things they had done were their own fault, and yet be so cheerful? I did not want to admit responsibility for my life. It hurt too much. But, they also reported success in their jobs and that their families were coming around. I had previously been told by the first therapist I referred to that people in AA were still “in denial”. It would be years before they dealt with their “real” issues. My recovery was much more advanced. I felt a bit superior for “remembering” so much sooner than they would. Still, I was jealous of what they had. My doctor agreed with me that AA was probably a good thing for some people, but he doubted that it would be applicable to someone with “my level” of abuse. He also prescribed Klonopin and told me it was not addictive. I think he has a good heart and truly wants to help people. I hope he has learned since then. I don’t really think the mental health community in my city intended to do the harm that they did. And I know that I did not mean to harm the people I undoubtedly influenced. I think it was just a case of the blind leading the blind. One respected doctor or therapist would state something as fact, then all the other therapists and their clients would repeat it, without anyone, (including myself), ever really insisting, “How do you know that?”
In about 4/95 I was writing a letter to someone and wanted to include some copies of Many Voices. I hadn’t looked at my old issues in a while, and it took quite a bit of re-reading to locate the information I wanted. In the course of my re-reading, I saw how I had made up all of my “alters” from the things I had read, and could not understand how I had not been aware of that at the time. How could I read something and decide I had an “alter” named so-&-so, too, and not realize what was happening? Part of it was doing as I was told by mental health professionals. I had been asked to map or chart my “system” in therapy. I had been assured that if I did as I was told, my life would get better. And, I was so lonely at the time and had always felt so excluded, I desperately wanted to belong to something. That was the beginning of the end of me being MPD. My mother and I resumed contact by 10/95.
I used to be extremely resentful about the lost husband, lost time, lost career that I didn’t even dare dream would ever be restored, and the suffering my daughter and I went though. Then I ran across a woman I went to meetings with in the late 80’s. This woman had attended college on full scholarship when she was young. Some years later, she was laid off from her management position. She suspected it was because of her lack of social skills. She decided to use her retirement money to get therapy and see what was wrong with her. By the time I met her originally, she hadn’t worked in over a year. Now, her retirement long gone, she barely scratches out a living with part-time work and is so emotionally sensitive that she has very few friends. She seems terribly unhappy, although I must say she tries very, very hard to get better. She is a highly intelligent person. I think she has just been given the wrong instructions. I wouldn't go so far as to say she is wrong about having been abused. Only she knows the truth about that. But I think her therapist would have done better to give her a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People. Now, her life has been virtually ruined.
I realized that I am indeed one of the lucky ones. I have my life back, my career back, and my daughter and I are very close. My mother and I are not quite as close, but we get along. She visits often, and helped me buy my first new car. My brother has been reluctant to talk to me. A few weeks ago, I was visiting at my mother’s, and he called. I decided it was time. I got on the phone and started telling him about my life now. I felt a little foolish later being that pushy. I hoped it hadn’t made his mind up for once and all that I was crazy. My mother told me later that he said he really enjoyed talking to me. It made me very happy.
I can’t help but wonder how many people there are out there like the woman in Many Voices, unemployable with no hope of a future, and no way to provide a future for their children. I know from personal experience that the police don’t really listen to a poor, single mother when her teenager is out of control, the way they would listen if she was still married and it was her successful husband asking them to please help keep certain people away from the kid. I had intended to write a book, but the jobs I have had in recent years have all been very busy and stressful. I may still write it. I think it is much more constructive to write a book than sue.
I also ran into a guy recently that I went to coed SIA meetings with in 1992. (The reason I am able to run across the same people repeatedly is because I sporadically attend AA meetings, which I have to stress, is NOT the same as SIA. It involves taking responsibility for one’s actions and making amends to those harmed. And the reward? Seeing that I can live life on life’s terms, even though I was abused as a child. Being normal. Being a victim is so overrated! It’s really not that rewarding.) He is paranoid, seething with resentment, and living in his car. I have taken him out to eat on a few occasions and given him books that were very helpful to me, and asked some of the guys I know to take an interest in him. I would really like to see him get his life back, just as I got mine back. I don’t know what else I can do for him, though. It reminds me of when I constantly complained about how the world had treated me. I always had a natural tendency toward resentment and bitterness. Then, I was told by those who were supposed to be experts that it was the right way to feel, and think, and that by dwelling on these feelings I would get better. “The only way out is through it” is a bunch of crap! It makes me really angry to see that when one takes what we were taught back then and applies it to one’s life, one winds up living in one’s car. I was also briefly homeless, although I never dared sleep in my car. The abuse we did suffer as children was bad enough. Therapy for it shouldn’t have made our adult lives even worse than childhood.
I would love to do volunteer work as I am able. For a long time I was afraid of what my new friends would think if they knew about that part of my life. My closest friends and my family do know, and almost without exception they have strongly encouraged me to put it behind me and “stop talking about that weird shit”. Except for my daughter. She lived through it with me, and she is not willing to be silent about the devastation she has seen either. I know those who advise me to never tell anyone else and move on mean well. But I have recently decided that as I am one of the lucky ones, I don’t have a right not to give back. Please let me know how I can help. And I probably still need exit counseling as well. I would prefer a referral to a peer group as opposed to a therapist.
Thank you so much for your time, and for writing your book.
StopBadTherapy.com has withheld this retractor's name in order to preserve her privacy and that of her family. This letter is a slightly-edited version of the original she sent to Steven Hassan. She has added two paragraphs of additional information and removed identifying details about some of the individuals mentioned. Also, the Many Voices letter has not been included as StopBadTherapy.com would need permission to reprint the letter. StopBadTherapy.com congratulates this retractor and all others who have the courage and strength to stand up and warn others about the harmful therapy that has needlessly ruined so many innocent people's lives.