Cult Culture and the 12 Steps - Page 2

By Maia Szalavitz 08/27/12

A small but significant number of 12-step groups—from AA to addiction treatment centers—turn into dangerous cults. How can working the program take a wrong turn?

KIDS's Virgil Miller Newton photo via

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Steps 6 and 7: And these principles add an even more poisonous element: when imposed by force, humility becomes humiliation and defects of character become weak spots to attack. Public humiliation and emotional barrages aimed at humbling people can be traumatizing. When employed explicitly to break someone, such attempts to “remove” a person’s “shortcomings” makes him or her even more vulnerable to the leaders’ influence.

Step 11: While they may seem utterly harmless, prayer and meditation sadly further aid this type of coercion: For one, forced meditation can exacerbate conditions like depression. While voluntary meditation is liberating, coercive isolation in imposed silence is known to quite literally drive people crazy. The repetition of prayer can also be used to create trancelike states.

Step 12: Topping off the process is the demand to “carry the message” to others. Social psychology research shows that trying to convert other people to your perspective is only rarely successful in attracting followers— but it is incredibly good at convincing the person doing the proselytizing that their own cause is correct. Even when people are made to argue a side with which they disagree, studies show that with enough repetition they often come to believe what they’re saying.

One further ingredient makes this stew even more toxic. It is an inconvenient truth that in the addicted population, people with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and outright psychopathy are over-represented. These people enjoy wielding power over others and quickly learn to use the hierarchy and the emotional attacks to their advantage. The most charismatic rise to the top and become the leadership, often being assigned to run new branches of the program or leaving to open dangerous programs of their own.

This problem even occurred in the US government's Lexington, Kentucky, narcotics farm, which was the first federal attempt to provide addiction treatment. When it modeled one of its programs on Synanon in the 1970s, the "inmates running the asylum" who were made staffers got so out-of-control in their abuses of power—including sexual abuse—that the administration had to call in the FBI and abandon the program.

This destructive pattern has recurred with grim frequency. The Elan School—notorious for its violence, such as putting teen residents who disagreed with the leaders in a simulated boxing ring with fresh opponents until they surrendered—was founded by a graduate of Daytop in its early days of intensive confrontation.

Elan was open from 1970 to 2011 and, in cult-like fashion, created true believers who attacked critics relentlessly and tried to hide dangerous practices rather than improving them as a legitimate healthcare facility would.

The steps provide an unfortunate guide for unethical people who want to control others via coercive tactics.

Florida-based Straight Inc., which operated from 1976 to 1993, forced youths to restrain one another on the floor without bathroom breaks until they wet or soiled themselves, gagged them with Kotex and practiced other intense humiliation. The chain of rehabs repeatedly ignored attempts by regulators to reform its practices and tried to conceal them from authorities. It claims to have “treated” 50,000 teens and also left behind many supporters who are so fervent in their belief that the program was right that they cut family members who disagreed out of their lives forever.

Straight led to New Jersey’s KIDS, which was founded in 1984 by its national clinical director, Virgil Miller Newton. It was at least as brutal. When KIDS finally lost its Medicaid funding in 1998, staff actually went underground and secretly continued the “treatment” (including beatings, restraint, sleep and food deprivation) without a license until at least 2001. Following its leader in seeing itself as above the law, it met every criteria necessary to define a cult.

Uncovering a pattern of 12-step therapeutic communities that evolved into cults and caused grave damage to participants is in no way to imply that 12-step programs themselves—or every rehab that requires working the steps—are cults. But the evidence shows that the steps provide an unfortunate guide for unethical people who want to control others via coercive tactics.

Forcing these spiritual principles that were designed to be voluntary on unwilling people in recovery always carries the risk of descending into cultish behavior. Research demonstrates that such coercion can backfire, worsening addiction and that kinder, gentler methods that respect self-determination are more effective.

If someone chooses to climb Mount Everest and face dauntingly cold temperatures, sleep and food limitations, isolation and painful levels of exertion under low oxygen conditions, the challenge—although dangerous—can be an occasion for personal growth. Forcing someone to endure that situation, in contrast, is not only a form of torture but as likely to produce trauma as to lead to enlightenment.

That some people find meaning in triumphing over great suffering does not mean that deliberately causing pain is therapeutic or acceptable. The addiction field needs some humility of its own. It must recognize that voluntary actions and forced ones have an entirely different psychology. Even the physiology of being out of control is different from that of being on top: studies show that the same degree and kind of stress can either damage your immune system or have no effect at all, depending on whether you feel in control.

The 12 steps truly are for people who want them, not for those who we limited humans (who are assuredly not higher powers) believe need them—unless your goal is to start a cult. In that case, study up!

Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at The Fix. She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010). She broke the story of abuse of teens at rehabs nationwide in her book, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006).

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Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist working at the intersection of brain, culture and behavior.  She has reported for Time magazine online, and is the co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. You can find her on Linkedin and  Twitter.