Cults and Psychological Abuse

My Experience in the Forum

James B. Endres

This article is taken from remarks -- considerably expanded -- that I delivered as a panel member at a discussion called "Cults and Psychological Abuse" on 30 October 1992 at Western Psychiatric Institute in Pittsburgh. The presentation was led by Dr. Paul Martin, an internationally recognized authority on cults and cult rehabilitation, and a former cult member himself.

Let me begin by thanking Western Psychiatric Institute for this opportunity to raise awareness within the mental health community about cult-related issues. Unfortunately, the mental health professionals that I have encountered -- with the exception of Dr. Martin -- have not had the information necessary to deal with the serious and growing problem of cults, mind control, and cult-related psychological issues, so this discussion is a welcome opportunity, and I am grateful to be able to participate.

One other opening remark: because I only have a few minutes, I can only give a broad outline of my experience, and some of the claims I make might seem to lack context or even sound unbelievable. "How did such a normal-looking person get brainwashed?" Please feel free to pin me down on any questions later.

I Was in a Cult

I was in a cult called the Forum -- formerly known as est -- that presents itself as a spiritually and psychologically neutral "human potential" seminar. The Forum is offered by a company called Werner Erhard and Associates, led by Werner Erhard -- real name Jack Rosenberg -- a shady self-made human potential guru with a criminal record. The scandal-plagued Hunger Project is another est/Forum spinoff. Other fronts include the Education Project, Transformational Technologies, and others.

Although it has been toned down over the years in response to bad press, the Forum is an extremely intense, sometimes abusive indoctrination session, comprising four days over two consecutive weekends, from nine in the morning to often past midnight, with one meal break all day. Afterwards, participants are pressured to enroll in weekly seminars and advanced courses, including the infamous "six-day" course that takes place at a secluded encampment in the woods of upstate New York. The Forum costs over six hundred dollars, the weekly seminars typically one hundred, and the six-day nearly two thousand. Even more "advanced" courses are available, costing thousands. Intense pressure is put on participants not only to continue to spend money on seminars, but to recruit friends and co-workers.

Besides being, substantively, little more than new-age pop-psychology mumbo jumbo, the Forum seminar itself is, from a mental health standpoint, reckless and destructive. Forum leaders employ confrontational and abusive tactics, group hypnosis, and regression exercises, all in a completely closed environment with participants that have not had enough food or sleep. The Forum leaders have no mental health training, except in the purposely destructive techniques taught to them by Erhard.

Moreover, for many of the participants, though certainly not all, 1) the Forum, 2) the advanced courses that come after it, and 3) the group of people associated with it constitute a cult environment. In my experience, the Forum was indeed a cult, closely following the model outlined by Dr. Martin. In fact, disregarding the particular nonsense that makes up its teachings, the dynamics of the people around the Forum are hard to distinguish from those of the rest of the long list of religious, political, commercial, or other cults.

How I Was Recruited

As for my personal experience, let me start at the beginning. I grew up in a small town and went to a mediocre rural high school, from which I graduated with highest honors. More than that, I had a very healthy and loving home life, lots of close friends, and a serious girlfriend. In short, a very close-knit support structure. All four of my grandparents were of different nationalities and faiths, so the only religion -- if I can call it that -- with which I was raised was a rationalistic, idealistic humanism. I had lots of self-esteem and no history of any mental problems.

At the age of fifteen I got a job doing computer programming work for a small high-technology company in Cleveland. There, I met another programmer, Mark, who was at the time a freshman at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Three years later, I was accepted to CMU and decided to attend. When I arrived at Carnegie Mellon, I, like many other freshmen, was in the middle of one of those "life changes" during which people are most susceptible to cult recruiting. Suddenly, I was in a new city with no friends, no strong support structure. I was living in an apartment off-campus so I wasn't plugged into the normal dorm-floor-centered social structure. The only person I knew in Pittsburgh was Mark, and I started hanging out with him and his friends, who, little did I know, were all involved with the Forum.

Around half a dozen CMU students who had done the Forum and some of the advanced courses had organized a kind of study/self-help workshop on campus. This was a "project" for the seminar in which they were currently enrolled, although they didn't reveal that fact to the participants -- or the administration, which had provided a room on campus for weekly meetings, among other resources and support.

The workshop introduced Forum ways of thinking in an academic context. Forum-style methods of control were introduced under the guise of "support." By the time I attended a Forum recruitment session, I had already been indoctrinated enough that it seemed natural to put down five hundred dollars and just do it. Others in that recruitment session were put under intense pressure, but I, and other students who were in the workshop, didn't have to be. Many of us from that workshop were recruited into the Forum in the spring of 1989. I was eighteen.

I did the Forum that summer, right here in Pittsburgh. During that time and afterwards I was abused and violated by the leaders and other members of the group, and I have many painful memories. The goal, from the leaders' point of view, is to break the participants down so that they can build them back up, partially, with what amounts to a new personality. They do this mostly through generating cognitive dissonance and convincing people that they are worthless; this latter goal is achieved through, among other ways, confession. I saw tearful adults telling a roomful of seventy strangers about childhood sexual abuse, incidents where they were almost murdered -- or almost murdered a loved one, all manner of deepest, darkest secrets and fears. I confessed -- standing in front of everyone and talking into a microphone -- all manner of my own dark secrets. I remember crying uncontrollably. And I remember the ecstasy I felt and saw on others' faces when, after we had hit the bottom, the leader gave us the answer to the end of our miseries: surrender to the ideas and authority of the Forum.

When I returned to Painesville and thought things over, however, I began to realize that I had been sold a bill of goods. The entire experience had left a bad taste in my mouth, and I just decided to forget about it and get on with my life. But there was one problem: I had agreed to move in with Mark and another guy, Jonathan, who was even more deeply involved with the Forum.

I was worried that they would pressure me to return to "the work," as they call it, but figured I could take care of myself. But within a few weeks of living with them, I was persuaded to come back into the fold. Soon I was enrolled in a seminar.

My schoolwork was suffering, and I was depressed. Mark, Jonathan, and I ate, drank and slept the Forum. We didn't speak English; we spoke Forum jargon. All the instruments of control had been in place for months now, and Mark and Jonathan new exactly how to push all the buttons.


In a few months I came to the dim realization that something was really wrong. After a lot of anguish, I decided that I was going to quit the seminar I was enrolled in and have nothing to do with the Forum anymore. It was an extremely difficult and painful decision, but I felt better after resolving to do it.

I have never been put under the kind of pressure I endured when I tried to leave the group. Both roommates pressured me intensely. The seminar leader called me twice a day, wouldn't let me get off the phone, and made me feel like dirt. She left me in tears more than once. I was terribly depressed. After a few days, I caved in. I went back to the seminar.

I must tell you that it is quite painful for me to remember the public confession of apostasy that followed, or the hollow shower of love that it was rewarded with. But I was back -- this time, I thought, for good.

At that moment, I was Winston in the last paragraph of Nineteen Eighty-four.

Only a couple weeks later, something amazing happened. A TA of mine, Fritz Knabe, gave a talk on campus about his experiences in a cult. Fritz had been in Lifespring, essentially a sister group of the

Forum, had been through exit counseling, and was now trying to help educate people on the dangers of cults. I read an article in the student newspaper about the talk and was stunned. Here was a guy that I knew and trusted, who had been involved with something exactly like what I was in! All my doubts and fears had been confirmed in black and white. I rushed to his office, and told him my concerns. "The Forum is a destructive cult," I will never forget him saying, "and you have to get out." But, Fritz, I live with two guys even deeper in than me! "Then you have to move out of that apartment."

Two nights later, I snuck my stuff out of the apartment and hastily moved into a dorm room that another friend had pulled strings to get me. I just walked away from what had become the overriding force in my life. And I went bonkers. My eighteen-year winning streak came to a crashing halt. It was April, 1990.

I had some idea of what had happened to me. Fritz was no exit counselor, but he could tell me some things about what they had really done in the Forum. Enough to make me feel extremely betrayed and violated, but not enough to help me heal.

I stayed up all night, staying awake as long as I could so that I could put off the nightmares. I slept all day with the shades pulled down, locked in my room. I couldn't go outside the room during the day. What if I saw someone from the Forum? There were literally dozens of students, faculty and staff at CMU at the time who had been involved; some were classmates, some were co-workers; even one of the therapists at the student counseling center had done the Forum. I remember feeling so scared, so confused, so violated, so horrible about myself and what had happened to me that I just lied in bed, twitching.

I basically stopped going to classes and seeing all but a few friends. Thankfully, I had been involved with the campus newspaper and had other friends, some kind of social context and support network outside the Forum.

I dropped three classes, limped to the end of the semester and went home for the summer. Earlier that year I had been selected by CMU to be an exchange student to Keio University in Tokyo. So in the summer of 1990 I flew to Japan, hoping that I had left my cult-related problems behind me. And for a few months, I did really well, if only because I was spending all my cognitive energy just trying to survive, to assimilate my new environment and learn Japanese. School wasn't too hard, and my host family was great.

Coping in Japan

But after maybe half a year there, I began having problems again. School in Japan -- and Japanese society in general -- is an extremely rigid institution. There are cherished truths which are not questioned. It is considered impolite, in fact, to even raise one's hand during lecture, let alone do something that resembles contradicting the teacher. Which I often did, notably on details of wartime historical fact and so forth. I took flak for this attitude, which would have been bad enough had I been healthy, but given my extreme sensitivity to authority, control, and deceit, it was unbearable. Japanese teachers have essentially one word of advice, no matter what the problem; personal, academic, or otherwise: ganbatte, basically, work harder. Here I was, I felt, back in a cult all over again. The whole country was a cult! I became extremely depressed. I couldn't sleep. I basically stopped going to class. At this point, I resolved to get help, exit counseling, when I returned to the US.

Counseling Fails, Rehabiliation Works

I came back in the summer of 1991, and returned to CMU. Almost immediately, things began to go very badly. For the first time since I had gotten out of the cult, I had to face the pressures of life at CMU, and I couldn't handle it. Much of the mechanisms for dealing with life -- organization and self-discipline -- had been co-opted by Forum conditioning. And I had thrown the baby out with the bath water. I knew that I had to get help to put the pieces of my life back together.

First, I tried "conventional" therapy. As I've implied, I had rather negative experiences with "conventional" therapists, and since I feel the topic is so relevant to you here today I would like to go into a little detail.

I decided against a potential therapist after only a brief discussion, and spent one session with another. But the pattern was the same for both. It went something like this.

-- What's bothering you?

"I was in a cult."

Blank stare.

"I was in a cult called the Forum and got out about eighteen months ago."


"Uh, since then I've been bonkers: depressed, confused, unable to concentrate, no self-esteem; the textbook list of symptoms. I've read a bit about this; are you familiar with cults and mind control? Lifton's model?"

-- Well, to be honest, no.

"All right, okay, are you willing to work with me on this? Would you be willing to educate yourself about this issue in order to help me?"

-- Yes, of course. But we'll fit that approach into a more conventional model. I think we need to concentrate on your early life.

"No, no, no, you must not understand. I know why I'm bonkers. Having been in a cult is why I'm bonkers. I wasn't bonkers before I was in the cult; they did all sorts of bad stuff to me in the cult; and that's how come I'm bonkers. Since I got out I've had problems that I only vaguely understand, and I need somebody's help to understand what they did to me, what is causing the current problems, and what I can do to feel better."

-- Yes, but I think we should look at your childhood, and your family, and your experience in Japan, and blah, blah, blah.

"No, that stuff is irrelevant. The cult experience is central to my problems, and it would be a waste of time to talk about anything else."

-- Well, that's all the time we have this week. I'll see you next Monday and we can talk more about it.

That approach failed because neither therapist knew about my particular problems. So, at Fritz' encouragement, I attended a Cult Awareness Network meeting where Dr. Martin spoke, and was able to talk to him briefly about my problems. From this encounter I was convinced that I needed exit counseling. I arranged for exit counseling followed by rehabilitation at Wellspring. That was December of 1991.

So there's a happy ending: Within a month after rehab I had a good job with a software development firm here in Pittsburgh and was responsible for the development of a major product. I slept well. I made new friends. I began reading again, voluminously. I regained my self-esteem. I am no longer depressed. This summer I spent two months hiking from Pittsburgh to Fort Wayne with a high-school friend.

Exit counseling -- and rehabilitation as practiced by Dr. Martin -- is not a miracle cure. In fact, I want to stress that I am not trying to plug Dr. Martin's brand of therapy -- in fact, no one would be more happy than me to see other Dr. Martins with some methodological and philosophical and geographic diversity; in short, choices. The sad truth is that someone who needs cult-specific therapy has no choice but to go to Dr. Martin.

So exit counseling is not a miracle cure. But in my case, my recovery was practically immediate, because in my case the problem was my cult experience in the Forum -- not a dysfunctional family, not an Oedipal complex, not congenital neurochemical imbalances -- a very specific, isolated set of events that responded extremely well to specific treatment. Just understanding what had happened to me was crucial, and ultimately sufficient, to my recovery. Just knowing that others from all walks of life -- but more importantly, others just like me -- had been through the same experience and had survived, often under worse circumstances, was a huge help. Basically, that's all exit counseling is: helping people understand the workings of the dynamics in which they were prisoner. Which is why it is so crucial that "mainstream" mental health professionals be educated about those dynamics.


All of the following are sources of huge amounts of valuable information. If you are interested in info on a specific group, request its file from CAN; please include $5.00 to cover reproduction and postage expenses. Dr. Martin focusses on treatment/rehabilitation issues.

Dr. Paul Martin
Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center
PO Box 67
Albany OH 45710
Cult Awareness Network (CAN) National Office
2421 West Pratt Blvd
Suite 1173
Chicago IL 60645
FOCUS (former cult-members' support group)
2567 Columbus Ave
Oceanside NJ 11572

Also, check out the following books. Lifton takes a theoretical approach, based on his research of victims of Chinese brainwashing after World War Two. Hassan gives a good overview of the issues, and a startling personal account. The recent Self article is a good overview, in this case of the "human potential" or "self-help" cults.


Footnote 1. Please direct all correspondence in care of this magazine, or to

Footnote 2. The public's most recent glimpse into Erhard's life came in a 1991 60 Minutes piece detailing, among other things, his abuse of his wife and children and proclamation -- to his inner circle -- "I am God." (I do not interperet such a statement as a religous one; rather, Erhard was overtly referring to his need for total domination.)

Footnote 3. When Erhard divorced one of his wives in the early eighties, she won the rights to a percentage the profits "from est"; therefore, Erhard changed the name to the Forum. Meanwhile, a name change was a good excuse to lower the intensity of the seminars and extremism of other activities.

Footnote 4. See Lifton, especially his eight criteria for mind control. Martin will provide information to anyone who is interested, including the materials/notes from this presentation. (See references, below.)

Footnote 5. Martin, the Cult Awareness Network, and other authorities define "cult" in terms of destructive recruitment and retention tactics and group dynamics, not ideology or theology. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, the late L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology, Jim Jones' People's Temple, and the now-infamous David Koresh's Branch Davidian are, obviously, examples of religious cults. Lyndon LaRouche's organization, and segments of this country's white supremacy movement are cults. Amway and other similar sales organizations have cultic aspects; some former members and analysts claim that Amway is a cult. In their own category are the "self-help" cults -- "white collar cults" (see February 1993 Self) -- including the Forum, John Hanley's Lifespring, John-Roger's (Life 101 and other recent best-sellers) Insight, and Anthony Robbins' (Awaken the Giant Within and other recent popular books) organization, and countless others with smaller audiences.

All of these examples follow Lifton's model (to varying degrees -- the less totalistic ones less so); each, again disregarding its particular (stated) worldviews, have more institutional/psychological similarities than differences. And these boundaries are fuzzy -- Moon's organization, which has literally hundreds of front groups and publishes the ultra-right Washington Times newspaper (Reagan publicly called it his favorite) and daughter publications, has a notorious political agenda.

Footnote 6. "Deprogramming" is now called "exit counseling", in an effort to distance it from the bad publicity -- often outright lies -- supplied by the cults about it. Exit counseling is always voluntary -- no one is ever forced into it. Some cults physically remove members from society, and families have been forced literally to kidnap their loved ones in order to simply gain access. But these (rare) "involuntary interventions" have nothing to do with the process of exit counseling.