Hello! Welcome to the Quivering Daughters website. Please note that this site is no longer being updated with new material but I hope you find the archives helpful. God bless you.

Linkity - Links

I'm going to be realllllly scarce over the next several days / weeks ~ if you have time, please keep my editor and me in your prayers as we are getting down to the wire with Quivering Daughters. Thank you so much!!!

Here are a few articles that have deeply impressed me recently, and . . . 
. . . left me breathless. It was Raining.
  . . . left me thoughtful. Poison for my Marriage.
. . . revealed a father's discovery. Leaving a Path.
. . . reminded me what is the beginning of wisdom. The Cure of Fear: The Practice of the Present. 
. . . left me rejoicing in her dawning of grace. In Which I have an Epiphany.

What has impressed you lately?

The Cultic Family, Part III

In my last two articles (part one here) I addressed characteristics within a cultic family environment and some of the physiological effects they have on adult children. In this conclusion, I'd like to address some important features in light of our Christian faith.

It can be argued that some traits are necessary for godly families, such as separation from the world and the pursuit of holiness. As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the way, the truth, and the life. We confess our trespasses to one another, and pray for one another. (James 5:16) These views can certainly be pulled right out of cult criteria and appear to be forms of elitism, of  "us versus them," of confession and purity. Taking Lifton's characteristics and some of the spiritual abuse hallmarks noted in part one, let's look at Scripture and how it relates to faith and family.

Biblically Refuting Cultic Criteria
(click on links for Scriptural passages)

Milieu Control
The best way to understand milieu control is "total life micromanagement," although even that doesn't suggest the toxic levels present within high demand, closed groups. Biblically, we are to be self-controlled. This is actually one of the fruits of the Spirit. When a child receives the Holy Spirit through salvation, a parent should trust God with their child and appropriately give Him space to work and produce fruit. This doesn't mean that a parent won't still have influence, or even the "final word" in many cases. But God has provided the home as a safe place for a child to learn vital lessons about life and spirituality, but  when parents endeavor to control every aspect of life—physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually—they actually quench the Spirit by fulfilling the role of God in someone else's life. In this case, home becomes unsafe, and stumbling blocks occur. While there are times, of course, when controlling another person is necessary, such as legal restraint of criminals or those who intend to inflict harm on themselves or others, this only becomes necessary after they have ceased to control themselves.

Authoritarian Structure
Jesus preached humility. Through His life we have an example decidedly anti-authoritarian, whether we are wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, pastors, teachers, or government officials. He who is the eternal I AM "..made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." (Phil. 2:7,8) He did not come to be served, but to serve, to pour out His life. Godly leaders will pattern themselves after the One who knelt before His followers. "...having loved His own who were in the world," writes John, "He loved them to the end."

Image Conscious
Jesus concerned Himself with truth, not with the appearance of evil. He sat among sinners and even defended His actions. He wasn't afraid of associating with prostitutes, nor of allowing them to touch Him. And our perfect, holy Lord offers Himself as our example.

Suppresses Criticism
God is not afraid of questions. "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him." (James 1:5) (emphasis mine) He will not annihilate your soul for coming boldly to the throne. ‘Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.’ (Jer. 33:3) He remembers our frame, and can take our questions, our rages, our criticism, our doubts.

Our God is merciful. He is patient and suffers long. We make mistakes, but He still loves us. Shall we sin, that grace abounds? Certainly not, but as Paul reminds us, "For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me." And in Christ there is no condemnation. He is both our Priest and our sacrifice, who "always lives to make intercession" for us. He calls us to be holy, but He is the one who makes us holy.

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace..." (Heb. 13:8-9) In Christ we have stability. God does not change. "Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning." (James 1:16-17) This means we can trust Him. He has proven Himself faithful.

Mystical: Through manipulation, one seeks his own glory. God is not manipulative. While He is a jealous God and seeks His glory, He seeks it because He is true and knows that glory belongs to Him. The false humility we often encounter in ourselves and others is not truth. God recognizes the truth of who we are and the truth of who He is. And He is our Creator who loves us and freely gives us all things. "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" (Mt. 7:11) Sometimes this means that He operates supernaturally in our lives. Emotional: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He doesn't love us only when we behave, when we perform to standard. Not only do we love Him because He first loved us, but it is His goodness that leads us to repentance. He doesn't play with our hearts; He doesn't dangle a carrot before us. He didn't wait to see if we'd accept Him as Lord before He went to the cross. He did it; and "it is finished", He said.

Cognitive Dissonance
God is Truth. Mixed messages lead to confusion, and God is not the author of confusion but of peace. We can trust the One who cannot lie, who will not deceive us. Sometimes we experience the natural consequences of our actions, and even then, God can use them for good.  When there is something we do not understand, we can come boldly unto His throne, and He will  teach us.

Separatism, or Demand for Purity
Separation from the world, purity, and God's command to "Be holy, for I am holy" are key tenets within many families and churches—both healthy ones, and cultic ones. It is important to recognize that separation, or to be "set apart", means sanctification—something done by God. "But know that the LORD has set apart for Himself him who is godly; The LORD will hear when I call to Him." (Ps. 4:3, also: John 17:17, Eph. 5:26-27, 2 Thess. 2:13, Heb. 13:12) He is the one who justifies us, who makes us holy, and saves us, and not we ourselves. 

Cultic environments reek of secrecy and lack of trust, but note the difference with Jesus:
"No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you." (John 15:15) Love rejoices in the truth. In a trusting environment—a godly environment, for God is safe and trustworthy—we can confess our trespasses and find non-shaming encouragement, support, and comfort.

Loading the Language
As we worship the Lord, we might have intimate language, like that between lovers or friends, but in context of a closed group, special, inner language serves to feed elitism. As we are called to evangelize, what good is it if we cannot speak in a way others understand? Even within our own culture—and for some, this is limited to family—we are called to be missionaries. We have a unique example through the experience of Paul in Acts 17: Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you..." Through Paul's entire dialogue, we see that: he met them on their level—intellectually and culturally equipped to relate to them; he reasoned with them with their own language: that of philosopher; he involved himself in community and their daily life; he made himself visible, willing, and available; he was observant and relevant;  he engaged the culture where he found himself, even able to quote a poet of their own—all without sinning, without being snared by the world.

Sacred Science
The Truth of God is absolute, but it is available for all who call upon the name of the Lord. It isn't limited to gender or role. Many cultic families and groups teach that wives and daughters can only hear from God through their husbands or fathers, but consider the woman who approached Jesus herself: But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:33-35) We are all responsible for seeking both the knowledge of God and the voice of God. Look at another verse that uses the words 'fear and trembling': Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;  for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13) This is not exclusive ~ this means to anyone, man, woman, child, slave, free, Jew, Greek, Gentile . . .

Doctrine over person
While cultic groups, familial or otherwise, elevate doctrine above individuals, Jesus came to challenge this by His very existence on earth. Jesus shows us person over doctrine, valuing souls, hearts and bodies above religious practice. "And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day." The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?” (Luke 13:11-15) The Way came to die for people, not for a way of life. The Truth came to serve people, with humility, not to be served. The Life came to pour out His own so that people, not doctrine, would have it for eternity.

Dispensing of existence
Jesus did not reject anyone. Even the Pharisees, whom He loudly and often corrected, were loved.  While hanging on the cross, He pleaded with God to forgive those who crucified Him, "for they know not what they do." To reject those who do not prescribe to group ideology, especially in the name of God, counters Christ's example of sacrificial love. Communicating  that others are "dead to me", as some proclaim, or that others are less than, or don't matter, denies the gospel—especially when they are members of one's family.


"Cultic" is a distasteful, loaded, even offensive term for many. In our context, in it's basic form, it describes a culture that utilizes non-Christlike means of getting something—even something good and godly—while trying to change, manipulate, control, or coerce someone else Those who perpetuate this generally mean well, want only the best for their families, and don't realize what happens until it seems too late. But it is never too late. God is great and can restore the years. Even if a lack of faith has led parents to take desperate steps, God can strengthen and restore it.

Recovering from a cultic environment takes time and continually searching for truth and wisdom. But anyone can do this. We do not have to be naturally strong, naturally good Christians, naturally perfect. Sometimes we need professional assistance. We need those who can help us, support us, pray for us, encourage us, listen to us repeat the same thing over and over until it is spent. It can be hard, for over the course of life it will involve pain, anger, grief, and forgiveness. But Jesus said that "difficult is the way that leads to life." Yet He also says "...I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In cases when one has a pre-cult identity, trying to remember the past is only a step towards healing—but it is a step of faith and will help you find the right path. Those who do not have this can find their identity in Christ, who Himself is the Way, Truth, and Life. Because healing is a journey, and if it is taken with Christ, the soul will find rest.

The Cultic Family, Part II

Continued from Part I  *Note: This article is sensitive in nature and potentially controversial. Please pray before contemplating the material I've provided because it could be triggering, offensive, or even painful to read. Please note that I am not a health professional. The following resource is not a substitute for medical or psychological advice; please use discernment while reading and following any links.

A n authoritarian, performance-based family who trains through coercion ~ such as withholding love, affection, acceptance, or approval to manipulate behavior ~ creates an environment that can't help but keep household members at a heightened state of stress. A demanding or fear-based atmosphere requires constant adrenaline for survival mode, keeping one  perpetually "on edge" through fight-or-flight syndrome. For some, the effects of chronic stress remain dormant for years and flare up without warning. When compounded over a lifetime with little to no relief, this overworks the adrenal glands, rendering adults exhausted without any logical reason why.

Adrenal Fatigue and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
(Source) The psychiatric definition of "trauma" is "an event outside normal human experience." Trauma generally leaves you feeling powerless, helpless, paralyzed. It tends to be sudden and overwhelming; it "owns" you. You cannot think clearly during and after a severe trauma; at the same time, you are forced to focus your consciousness in an attempt to deal. Some instances of prolonged trauma:
  • physical or sexual abuse as a child or spouse
  • war
  • life in a prison camp
  • life as a refugee
  • hostage situations
  • life in a concentration camp
  • life in some religious cults 
Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress
 1. A history of subjection to totalitarian control over a prolonged period (months to years). Examples include hostages, prisoners of war, concentration-camp survivors, and survivors of some religious cults. Examples also include those subjected to totalitarian systems in sexual and domestic life, including survivors of domestic battering, childhood physical or sexual abuse, and organized sexual exploitation.
       2. Alterations in affect regulation, including:
              * persistent dysphoria
              * chronic suicidal preoccupation
              * self-injury
              * explosive or extremely inhibited anger (may alternate)
              * compulsive or extremely inhibited sexuality (may alternate)
       3. Alterations in consciousness, including:
              * amnesia or hypermnesia for traumatic events
              * transient dissociative episodes
              * depersonalization/derealization
              * reliving experiences, either in the form of intrusive post-traumatic stress disorder        symptoms or in the form of ruminative preoccupation
       4. Alterations in self-perception, including:
              * sense of helplessness or paralysis of initiative
              * shame, guilt, and self-blame
              * sense of defilement or stigma
              * sense of complete difference from others (may include sense of specialness, utter aloneness, belief no other person can understand, or nonhuman identity)
       5. Alterations in perception of perpetrator, including:
              * preoccupation with relationship with perpetrator (includes preoccupation with revenge)
              * unrealistic attribution of total power to perpetrator (caution: victim's assessment of power realities may be more realistic than clinician's)
              * idealization or paradoxical gratitude
              * sense of special or supernatural relationship
              * acceptance of belief system or rationalizations of perpetrator
       6. Alterations in relations with others, including:
              * isolation and withdrawal
              * disruption in intimate relationships
              * repeated search for rescuer (may alternate with isolation and withdrawal)
              * persistent distrust
              * repeated failures of self-protection
       7. Alterations in systems of meaning:
              * loss of sustaining faith
              * sense of hopelessness and despair
The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders states that: 
In chronic stress, the organ systems of the body do not have the opportunity to return fully to normal levels. Different organs become under- or overactivated on a long-term basis. In time, these abnormal levels of activity can damage an organ or organ system. 
Many Second Generation Adults report physiological symptoms that, at the very least, are confusing, and in other ways, absolutely debilitating. Conditions might appear when there is no previous family medical history. This is an area that medicine would be wise to study; currently, while these findings are gathered from  generally non-scientific sources, with what we know about stress and its effects on  the body, the correlations are staggering. SGAs have reported chronic, persistent:

  • Problems with motivation, self-care, or a sense of futility
  • Repetitive or compulsive behaviors associated with anxiety
  • Any behaviors that cause harm to the body, thinking about wanting to die, or suicide attempts 
  • Allergies and asthma
  • Immune system problems (fevers, frequent infections, lymph node enlargement, chronic sore throat)
  • Tightness, heaviness, or pain in the throat or chest
  • Heart rate irregularities
  • Chemical or food sensitivities
  • Skin inflammation (both intermittent and chronic)
  • Hormonal problems including thyroid disorders and adrenal fatigue
  • Reproductive problems including Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome 
  • Issues with weight or appetite (high or low)
  • Digestion problems, ulcers, stomach pain, or nausea
  • Lower bowel pain, diarrhea, or irritable bowel
  • Headaches, migraines or sensitivity to light and sound
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or problems with balance
  • Fatigue, lack of muscle strength, or muscle pain
  • Neck or back stiffness or pain
  • Joint stiffness or pain
  • Sleep disturbances
The purpose of sharing this list is not to diagnose or suggest that an authoritarian environment always causes these disorders. Awareness, however, is important, especially if you or someone you know struggles with something that has no rational explanation, and where treatment has been ineffective. Please consider these symptoms that are shared in overwhelming proportions by others from this lifestyle, and seek wisdom from God. He will guide you as you seek healing and truth about your body, about your past.

Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part
You will make me to know wisdom. Psalm 51:6

When Jesus said, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" He described the experience of someone on the truly narrow way. This doesn't mean that we won't have the practical daily work of life, of relationships, of fighting against sin, and of healing. But  our Leader is gentle and lowly in heart. What a contrast to authoritarians, who trouble souls and lay heavy burdens and impossible yokes on our backs. While it may be stressful to correlate such conditions with the context of  a beloved family, remember that facing truth is the first step towards healing. Facing truth does not betray or suggest lack of honor or love; rather, it acknowledges a willingness to let God enter hidden, painful places. Walking with God through the symptoms you experience as an adult might lead  to dark and ugly roots ~ but the Healer's light paves the way for healing and for life.

In Part 3, we will look at cultic criteria in light of Christianity.

© 2010 Hillary McFarland
Partially adapted from Quivering Daughters ~ Hope and Healing for the Daughters of Patriarchy, available summer 2010. 
For further reading:
Born or Raised in High-Demand Groups: Developmental Considerations, Leona Furnari, L.C.S.W.
Strengths & Challenges of People Born or Raised in a Cult

The Cultic Family, Part I

*Note: This article is sensitive in nature and potentially controversial. Please pray before contemplating the material I've provided because it could be triggering, offensive, or even painful to read. Please note that I am not a health professional. The following resource is not a substitute for medical or psychological advice; please use discernment while reading and following any links.

L ife in an authoritarian environment causes many  women to experience severe emotional and spiritual stumbling blocks. Some of these include shame, fear, self-condemnation, difficulty trusting those in authority, knowing God, and understanding truth. Issues of the heart and spirit have been addressed at length, but of less renown are some of the physical effects caused by prolonged periods of extreme control. And in the context of a deeply religious family, when one is born and raised in such a milieu, the ramifications on flesh can be especially destructive.

Within high-demand groups, like cults, for instance, members often have what's known as a "pre-cult identity". Recovery requires  that one reconnects with the person they were prior to group involvement. In other words, remembering life before the cult enables ex-members to reestablish life on their own and heal from cultic abuse. SGAs ~ Second Generation Adults ~ are those from totalitarian groups who do not have a pre-cult identity to fall back on to aid recovery. Because those from cultic groups and adult children from authoritarian families have such similar living environments ~ physically, psychologically, and emotionally ~ we will look at both in this article.

The Family Cult
'Cult' is a loaded term. For mainstream society, it is equated with images of mass-suicide, freakish decorum, and weird sex, satanic, or religious rituals highly propagated by the cinematic experience. While all of these are indicative of cultish behavior, not all cults participate in extremely bizarre or physically destructive antics.

Traditional cults can be religious, political, or commercial in nature and meet definite criteria. Standards recognized by mental health professionals and experts around the world include:
  • Authoritarian control of members, including psychological, financial, behavioral, lifestyle, etc.
  • Totalitarian, pyramid system of power (top down)
  • Thought reform and mind altering techniques
  • Co-dependence on the group and its leader
  • Deceptive, manipulative tactics of recruitment and fund-raising
  • Increased isolation of members from family, friends, society, and the world
  • Use of fear to retain, control, and manipulate members
  • Charismatic, dynamic, or attractive leader, generally self-appointed
  • Zero tolerance for questioning or criticizing the group or its leader
  • Exclusivity, secrecy
For every cult leader, thought reform and mind control are indispensable tools for achieving and maintaining a vestige of authority and dominion. Universally accepted as an authoritative resource, Robert Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism lists eight distinctives of totalitarian cults.
  • Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
  • Mystical Manipulation. There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.
  • Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
  • Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members' "sins," "attitudes," and "faults" are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
  • Sacred Science. The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
  • Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clich├ęs, which serve to alter members' thought processes to conform to the group's way of thinking.
  • Doctrine over person. Member's personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
  • Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group's ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.
Cult expert Stephen Hassan developed an extensive analysis of mind control termed the BITE Method. Please review this excellent resource, for his work clearly encapsulates the daily reality experienced by those within aberrant groups.

What are the differences between a traditional cult and the family cult?
Definition of a Family Cult:

A family cult is a high demand family group which operates by incorporating authoritarian control, thought reform, and other cult means with spiritual abuse and emotional abuse. While physical, sexual, and intellectual abuse also feature quite prominently in many family cults, they need not always be present to qualify as such.
Of a more sinister and potentially destructive nature than the traditionally understood cult is the one-on-one, relationship, or family cult. Due to bonds one is born into, family cults differ from others physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. Even one-on-one relationships, like marriage or employee / employer encounter unique dynamics which form through legal or sexual union. I have outlined some of these differences below:

Biological / Physical differences between family and non-family cults

Although nearly every cultic group considers itself a family of its own, it is one thing to call someone your father, sister, mother, brother—and another to actually be connected biologically. The repercussions are staggering. As children, we have very specific needs designed to be met through a healthy, functional family system. Anytime dysfunction occurs, even within "normal" families, we sustain harm to our personhood—the degree of damage in direct correlation to the scope of dysfunction. This, compounded by the complex integration of thought reform, totalitarianism, and authoritarian control, subjects cult-reared children seeking amelioration to overwhelming hardship.

For a child, lack of informed consent to such a life in the beginning—and lack of pre-cult identity—complicates healing while multiplying confusion, helplessness, and other injurious disorders. Those born and raised within a cultic environment find that the ramifications of an anomalous family pose exhaustive challenges to survival, exit, and recovery. In addition, those who leave traditional cults often find relatives who accept them "home" with open arms, supporting recovery, and assisting in practical matters of daily life while the ex-cult member gets back on their feet. Those who leave a family cult essentially become cut off from their very own blood. If they lived in isolation, supportive or understanding friends may be rare, and the individual experiences extreme difficulty establishing autonomy, seeking recovery, and reconciling what feels like utter betrayal or even covert incest, akin to soul or spiritual rape.

Emotional and Intellectual differences (also: Domestic violence: emotional, domestic violence: intellectual )

Many disillusioned employees, friends, and lovers relate stories of too-good-to-be-true situations turning into abusive nightmares when damaging, controlling traits emerge from the dominant partner—usually the one with assumed authority. In addition to the harmful elements of toxic bonds, a victim finds recovery challenged by issues of guilt, shame, low self-esteem and self-hatred for unwittingly entering such relationships in the first place.

Not that these things don't occur within traditional cult models, but the psychological effects of family abuse exponentially increases damage. Intellectual abusethe systematic, prolonged degradation or criticism of another's thoughts, ideas, mind, and intellect—is especially devastating within the dependent or codependent relationship cultivated by a high-demand group. The same applies to emotional abusean environment which promotes continual shaming, criticism, or neglect of wants, needs, desires, feelings, and emotions—by a dominant partner, father, husband or figure(s) of authority. Whereas we may experience these things from others in the world, to grow up in an environment promoting abuse of heart and mind is especially challenging. When the one place where you should be safe and nurtured is in reality cruel, dangerous and toxic, members experience the full impact of dysfunction. Internalized, this can create numerous maladies, ranging from depression and PTSD to chronic fatigue, immune, and hormonal disorders, to name a few. The rejection of personhood by one's own blood is a debilitating yet all-too-common reality of family cults.

Motivational differences

Traditional cult leaders are conventionally motivated by lust for wealth and power. Through exhaustive loyalty, relentless fund-raising, working, and essentially begging for money, followers demonstrate undying devotion to either the person or the cause they represent. Many ask, what could be the motivation for a family or one-on-one cult leader? What does he or she hope to gain?

Relationship-based cult leaders are driven by power, yes, but equally so by vision, ideology, or personality. While narcissism is a likely underlying factor of every leader, many cultists have a kind of righteous disdain for wealth or other worldly desires. These cults have deeper, arguably more detrimental ambitions. Some pursue poverty and asceticism, decrying the very thing that compels the stereotypical model. For families, matters of control, unworldliness, and extremist beliefs prove more important even than one's own children, thus demonstrating doctrine over person, rejection, and / or abandonment in a most excruciating way.


Most family cults are religious in framework. They rely heavily on extremist or fundamentalist dogma to determine lifestyle, behavior, and belief. While doctrine isn't necessarily what makes a family or any group a cult—behavior does—spiritual abuse will always be present within the religious cultic family.

What is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse is the damaging, harmful behavior which results from, or is affected by, spiritual belief. While most commonly associated with the practices of fundamentalist religious groups, similar effects can occur within non-religious families as well. Ideology stemming from deep-seated, life-governed convictions (i.e., vegetarianism, atheism, etc.) can have the same spiritual effects as those of a religious nature.

David Henke of Watchman Fellowship outlines what he believes are five essentials of spiritual abuse:
1) Authoritarian
The most distinctive characteristic of a spiritually abusive religious system, or leader, is the over-emphasis on authority. Because a group claims to have been established by God Himself the leaders in this system claim the right to command their followers.
This authority supposedly comes from the position they occupy. In Matthew 23:1-2 Jesus said the Scribes and Pharisees "sit in Moses' seat," a position of spiritual authority. Many names are used but in the abusive system this is a position of power, not moral authority. The assumption is that God operates among His people through a hierarchy, or "chain of command." In this abusive system unconditional submission is often called a "covering," or "umbrella of protection" which will provide some spiritual blessing to those who fully submit. Followers may be told that God will bless their submission even if the headship is wrong. It is not their place to judge or correct the leadership - God will see to that.
2) Image Conscious
The abusive religious system is scrupulous to maintain an image of righteousness. The organization's history is often misrepresented in the effort to demonstrate the organization's special relationship to God. The mistaken judgments and character flaws of its leaders are denied or covered up in order to validate their authority. Impossibly high legalistic standards of thought and behavior may be imposed on the members. Their failure to live up to these standards is a constant reminder of the follower's inferiority to his leaders, and the necessity of submission to them. Abusive religion is, at heart, legalism.
Abusive religion is also paranoid. Because the truth about the abusive religious system would be quickly rejected if recognized, outsiders are shown only a positive image of the group. This is rationalized by assuming that the religion would not be understood by "worldly" people; therefore they have no right to know. This attitude leads to members being secretive about some doctrines and the inner policies and procedures of the group. Leaders, especially, will keep secrets from their members. This secrecy is rooted in a basic distrust of others because the belief system is false and can not stand scrutiny.
3) Suppresses Criticism
Because the religious system is not based on the truth it cannot allow questions, dissent, or open discussions about issues. The person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue he raised. The truth about any issue is settled and handed down from the top of the hierarchy. Questioning anything is considered a challenge to authority. Thinking for oneself is suppressed by pointing out that it leads to doubts. This is portrayed as unbelief in God and His anointed leaders. Thus the follower controls his own thoughts by fear of doubting God.
4) Perfectionistic
A most natural assumption is that a person does not get something for nothing. Apart from the express declarations of salvation by grace through faith God has given in the scriptures, it would be natural to think that one must earn salvation, or at least work to keep it. Thus, in abusive religions all blessings come through performance of spiritual requirements. Failure is strongly condemned so there is only one alternative, perfection. So long as he thinks he is succeeding in his observation of the rules, the follower typically exhibits pride, elitism, and arrogance. However, when reality and failure eventually set in, the result is the person experiences spiritual burnout, or even shipwreck of his faith. Those who fail in their efforts are labeled as apostates, weak, or some other such term so that they can be discarded by the system.
5) Unbalanced
Abusive religions must distinguish themselves from all other religions so they can claim to be distinctive and therefore special to God. This is usually done by majoring on minor issues such as prophecy, carrying biblical law to extremes, or using strange methods of biblical interpretation. The imbalanced spiritual hobby-horse thus produced represents unique knowledge or practices which seem to validate the group's claim to special status with God.
What is Emotional Abuse?

Steve Hein from Eqi.org writes:
Abuse is any behavior that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt, coercion, manipulation etc. Emotional abuse is any kind of abuse that is emotional rather than physical in nature. It can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics, such as repeated disapproval or even the refusal to ever be pleased.

Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim's self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of "guidance," "teaching", or "advice," the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting that physical ones. In fact there is research to this effect. With emotional abuse, the insults, insinuations, criticism and accusations slowly eat away at the victim's self-esteem until she is incapable of judging the situation realistically. She has become so beaten down emotionally that she blames herself for the abuse. Her self-esteem is so low that she clings to the abuser.

Emotional abuse victims can become so convinced that they are worthless that they believe that no one else could want them. They stay in abusive situations because they believe they have nowhere else to go. Their ultimate fear is being all alone.
Defining Abuse

The following is taken from the website of the United States Department of Justice.
Domestic violence can be defined as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.
Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.
Physical Abuse: Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair-pulling, biting, etc. Physical abuse also includes denying a partner medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use.

Sexual Abuse: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence has occurred, or treating one in a sexually demeaning manner.

Emotional Abuse: Undermining an individual's sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one's abilities, name-calling, or damaging one's relationship with his or her children.

Economic Abuse: Making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding one's access to money, or forbidding one's attendance at school or employment.

Psychological Abuse: Causing fear by intimidation; threatening physical harm to self, partner, children, or partner's family or friends; destruction of pets and property; and forcing isolation from family, friends, or school and/or work.
The Characteristics of Religious Family Cults

Using Lifton's criteria for a totalitarian environment with Henke's traits of spiritual abuse, I would like to identify and examine the earmarks of a cultic, fundamentalist family and any significant variants. While my emphasis is parental versus offspring, many of these will also apply to one-on-one relationships such as husband and wife, boss and employee, teacher and student, or any other personal liaison featuring exploited levels of hierarchy and / or abuse of authority.

  • Authoritarian Structure—The abuse of authority, with or without accountability. Matricentric or patricentric families—mother-centered or father-centered—are by nature authoritarian as the behavior, decisions, or ideology of offspring, including those in adulthood who remain at home, are dictated and controlled. This places god-like superiority on the parent and promotes a fear or performance-based environment.
  • Image Conscious—The appearance of evil clause, proof-texted from a verse in the King James Bible which states, "Abstain from all appearance of evil"  is effective for behavior control by placing heavy emphasis on "our witness", "what people will think" and "how things look"—to the extent of revering image or reputation over truth or what is real. Many fundamentalist families who do not wish to be identified as "of the world" go to great lengths to be "different" or "peculiar".
  • Suppresses Criticism—Those who parent according to cultic models do not tolerate query of belief, doctrine, or personal lifestyle choices. Purporting the name of God and personal interpretation of Biblical passages is sufficient to quell critique, for this "stops thought" by appealing to something greater and effectively squelches protest or examination. Those who continue are labeled rebellious, disobedient, strong-willed, disorderly, unruly, wayward, worldly, anti-authority, or ungodly. In some cases, the removal of the "rebellious one" is deemed an appropriate measure for the "protection" of other family members.
  • Perfectionistic—Impossibly high standards are established for even very young children. Demands for instant obedience followed by harsh or punitive measures for those who fall short, exhaustive expectations, and striving for perfection are daily disciplines. Insistence on law and rulership establishes a shame-based environment of condemnation, failure, and unworthiness for those who do not measure up.
  • Imbalanced—As humans make mistakes in life, it is natural to see dysfunction from time to time as one learns, adapts, adjusts, and relates to others. What makes a high-demand group different is the imbalance. A cultic family gravitates towards extremes. All or nothing and black-and-white thinking dominate reality; for instance, a demand for perfection without equal measures of grace. Exact interpretations of Biblical text, particularly of more obscure passages, for example, a literalistic view of Scripture which binds Gentiles to Mosaic Law. Legalism; judgment without mercy. Rigid standards to determine another's commitment to God, salvation, growth.
  • ManipulationMystical: The "authority covering"  is upheld as a protective spiritual talisman against evil befalling daughters. Emotional: Performance-based relationships offer reward for "correct" behavior through praise, approval, love. Negative reinforcement of shame, guilt, fear, confusion, and criticism are used to emotionally punish those in the wrong.
  • Cognitive Dissonance—When conduct does not match the words, creating confusion. The "subtle message". A mother might say, "We don't expect you to be perfect. Just do your best," and then withhold approval or validation, conveying disappointment, shame, and the message that "You aren't worthy of me. You aren't good enough." Most parents will not say things directly but though manipulative tactics communicate praise or shame to get the performance they desire.
  • Bounded Choice, or Deception—Attempting to control the outcome of a situation using spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, or physically manipulative tactics. Letting others believe they are making a decision, when in reality maneuvering their options to limit, and therefore ensure or predict, the result. 
  • Separatism or Demand for Purity—"We must be separate from the world and those who believe differently than us." "We fellowship with like-minded families." The impure are taught that to remain unrepentant or degenerate according to a given interpretation results in sickness or other disorders, up to or including death, exclusion from family, dis-fellowship from God, and hell. Some families home school, have distinctive style of dress and adornment, conduct home church meetings or home fellowships, live in secluded or agrarian areas, refrain from using banks or checking accounts, birth children at home, decline birth certificates, social security numbers and driver's licenses, choose to prevent children from association with neighborhood or public-schooled kids, decline modern conveniences, and adopt an ascetic lifestyle.
  • Confession—Sharing and transparency, lack of boundaries, and exposing secrets are present in virtually every dysfunctional, cultic family. Siblings are encouraged—whether directly or through positive reinforcement—to keep mom and dad updated on activities, feelings, ideas, and any drama that may unfold. Extended criticism sessions, whether private or in front of family members, serve two purposes: to keep everyone on their toes, and to control behavior through the "hot seat" experience. "Sinning" children are used as an example to others. Confession is supported by an appeal to Biblical humility, the admission of sins, and has a hypnotic, dissociative effect whereby "correct" doctrine can be submitted to the wayward child.
  • Loading the Language—Cultic parents utilize phrases familiar to family members which are effective for controlling the thinking, activities, and choices made by their children. Within the fundamentalist family, key Biblical words such as "walking in the flesh" "of the world" "rebellion is as witchcraft" and others are examples of effective terminology which checks the thoughts and behavior of offspring, often through an appeal to the emotional nature. What child, adult or not, wants to be thought of as walking in the flesh? Therefore, behavior is altered to reflect what the dominant parent deems to be true.
  • Sacred Science—Rigidly dogmatic, fundamentalist families have little to no accountability and claim to have found the truth—the only version, even within their professed faith. Often the father claims to hear from God on behalf of his family and relays it to his children. Beliefs are qualified by calling such "the Biblical way" or the "godly way", based on personal interpretation. Those who do not subscribe to the same way of thinking are considered worldly, serving the flesh, and in some cases, unsaved. In the instances where these words are not uttered directly, judgmental attitudes and subtle messages imply superiority. Elitism is common.
  • Doctrine over person (or, "doctrine before daughter")—Personhood—being; worth and value as a human, including rights, thoughts—is subject to reigning ideology. Rules over relationship. Law over grace. Spoken or subtle, the message teaches that "You don't matter unless you conform to our beliefs." Or in other cases, "We won't accept or support you if you do not share our convictions."  There is often more concern for submission to authority and to family values than for the individuals themselves.
  • Dispensing of existence—Children who do not conform to the cultic family dynamic are labeled, shunned, and treated as though they do not exist or are of little value. Love, affection, attention or approval are withdrawn until change becomes evident. Those, particularly daughters, who leave the family in a manner deemed worldly (i.e., not for reasons of marriage, etc) are considered worldly, wicked, fallen, apostate, rebellious and are often directly or indirectly held up as "what not to do" or "what not to be" to children left at home. 
  • Fear—"Good versus evil", "us versus them". The cultic family is compelled by fear and controlled by fear. The motivations which drive parents to adopt this way of life are based on fear of the world, fear of apocalypse, fear of rebellious children, fear of government, fear of mistakes.
  • Totalist Control—Fear-based, authoritarian families by nature must maintain absolute power over offspring and are most widely recognized by exhaustive levels of control involving every element of life. Informational—books, media, newspapers, music are sharply censored. Financial—older children who work are often expected to contribute to household expenses. Thought—religious belief, worldview, ideas. Behavioral—what is acceptable or not is communicated through performance-based manipulation. Emotional—Ironically, appealing to emotions, such as using guilt to motivate or shame to change, cultic parents convey the message regarding when, if, and which emotions are acceptable. "You shouldn't feel angry. Pray about your anger." Fear, guilt, and shame are the most common emotions used to coerce change. Physical—Choice and behavior, often including marriage, work, schooling, living arrangements, diet, discipline, daily activities, if, how, and when to get a driver's license, what type of church to attend, etc.
  • Codependency, enmeshment—Within a fundamentalist family cult, autonomy is the enemy, for if one begins to think and reason independently, the entire family dynamic is threatened. (Hence the quick use of labels—"rebellious", "worldly"—as a thought-stopping, controlling mechanism.) Cultivating codependency is an effective way to at least challenge the onset of autonomous behavior; in addition, language such as "always""never" and others allude to extremes and reinforce codependency. Some refer to this as covert or emotional incest—the use of a child by a parent or sibling to meet psychological, emotional, non-sexual, or religious adult needs.
  • Lack of boundaries—As a result of codependency or enmeshment, lack of emotional and physical boundaries occurs. Within an unhealthy family, where individualism is discouraged and privacy is little to non-existent, the lines which determine "this is where you stop, and I begin" become blurred and erased. Members essentially spill into one another while confusion, dysfunction, and toxicity increase.
Some of the characteristics I've listed can be argued as responsible parental behavior. It is important to note that family cults, more often than not, comprise numerous offspring, based on Militant Fecundity or the Quiverfull concept; many of whom are adults still living at home. Certainly it is not my contention to state that adult children should not, for religious reasons, remain at home, but the misuse of authority, totalist control, thought reform, and all abuses are destructive, regardless of one's age, personality, theology, gender, or position.

Also, while not every feature will apply to each cultic family, those born and raised within any authoritarian, high-demand environment will experience challenges similar to those of a more extreme nature.

**In Part II we will continue with a look at the ways such an environment affects the physical body.
© 2010 Hillary McFarland