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Fright without solution?

Dr Alexandra Stein watches BBC Two's 'The Cult Next Door'.

30 January 2017

Time and again we hear vivid accounts of the trauma of those held captive in cultic situations. Once again, this week, I watched another of these: a poignant series of interviews with survivors of a tiny London-based cult led by Aravindan Balakrishnan supposedly devoted to the revolution and the unlikely scenario of eventual liberation by Mao’s communist forces. Of the handful of women who were held captive by him in a flat in Brixton, two died and one was born and raised – for 30 years – in this impossible environment.

Although a moving programme, The Cult Next Door, like so many others, had little to offer in helping the viewer understand how such things can happen. Yet it is not beyond our understanding. These situations are extreme versions of the same dynamics that we know as Stockholm Syndrome or that we see in cases of controlling domestic violence (as has been recently addressed by the 2015 law criminalising coercive control). This law is as good a place as any to start understanding this phenomenon which consists of: ‘a purposeful pattern of behaviour which takes place over time in order for one individual to exert power, control or coercion over another’. This law limits criminalisation of this behaviour to that which occurs in an intimate or family relationship. However I argue that in any cult, the cult becomes the intimate or family relationship and that therefore this law should also apply to criminalising the extreme levels of control we see in these groups.

As noted in the programme, any normal family ties were broken – between those inside and outside of the cult, and within the cult. In particular, and most moving, Katie Morgan-Davies, who was born in it, was prevented from knowing that Balakrishnan and Sian Davies, another member, were her parents. As a baby she was not allowed to be cuddled, except by the leader. As one former captive said, ‘Bonds were not encouraged with Katie’. And in general there was, as in so many cults, an edict not to be attached to family.

Meanwhile Balakrishnan exerted complete control over every aspect of life and punished the women with beatings and threats, warning them against escape with dire curses of what would happen to them in the outside world.

In my own analysis which I detail in my new book, Terror, Love and Brainwashing, I draw on John Bowlby’s attachment theory and Mary Main’s extension of this, by using the lens of disorganised attachment to clarify the behaviours of the psychopathic leaders who create these oppressive systems and the effects on those within them.

Put simply this states that a situation of ‘fright without solution’ is set up in these groups. All previous ties with family and friends are broken off, then the now-isolated follower is engulfed within the cult through a variety of means (endless meetings, prayers, work, chanting, meditation, study, etc.) and, finally, the cult leader creates a chronic sense of threat – of the outside world, an apocalyptic future, of potential punishment, of one’s inner sin, failure, or badness. Having removed all of a follower’s previous ‘safe havens’ to whom they might turn when fearful, the cult leader presents themselves or the cult as proxy, as the only remaining safe haven.

But turning for comfort to the source of fear is maladaptive – it creates 'fright without solution' rather than calming the feelings of fear. There are two effects from this. First is the tendency to remain seeking comfort from the fear-arousing figure (in the absence of any other) and thus bonding to that figure – what we can call a trauma or disorganized bond. Second, 'fright without solution' or chronic trauma can result in dissociation – a cognitive freeze state - regarding the frightening situation. This means the person literally cannot think about their condition.

These effects are powerful and disabling. It is critical for therapists and other professionals to learn about and to understand this in order to help victims. Without appropriate help the disorganised bond and the frozen cognitive state in regard to the group can last for many years even after leaving. It is a state of complex post-traumatic stress – also well-documented in Judith Herman’s classic 1992 book Trauma and Recovery.

Programmes such as The Cult Next Door are valuable as case studies, but I continue to hope that future programmes add some analysis – without this we risk becoming voyeurs to terrible human suffering rather than increasing public awareness and knowledge in order to prevent future tragedies.

- Watch the programme now
Reviewed by Dr Alexandra Stein (Birkbeck, University of London), whose new book is Terror, Love and Brainwashing. She is also author of Inside Out, her 2002 ‘Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult’.