Branch Davidians who emerge from Mount Carmel will need intensive therapy to lead normal lives, according to experts in the field of cult control.
Many are unlikely to welcome such help.
“Many won’t want counseling,” said Dr. J. Douglas Crowder, a forensic psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.
Along with experiencing “sensory overload” when they emerge from the tight control of the cult environment, the Davidians also will have to consider that “they have been wrong for a substantial period of time,” Crowder said.
The violent confrontation this week at Mount Carmel probably will polarize the Davidians, he said.
There will be peer pressure to conform with Vernon Howell’s leadership Crowder said. But some of his followers will begin to have doubts after the events of the last three days.
“This will separate the men fanatics from the boy fanatics,” said Crowder.
Even Davidians who face criminal charges after the standoff should have counseling, according to Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer.
“The whole group of them really needs help in understanding how it was that they followed this guy. . . how they were duped, why they did not leave at any point,” said Singer, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.
She is a clinical psychologist who studies intense indoctrination and has interviewed more than 3,000 former members of cults, she said.
After the standoff
Experts and former Branch Davidians interviewed Tuesday said Vernon Howell’s fanatical followers are likely to feel angry, depressed and confused after the standoff.
“They won’t just come out of this. You can’t just turn it on and off like a light switch,” said Ann, a Dallas volunteer at the Cult Awareness Network of North Texas, who did not want to be identified. “They certainly could be angry; their lifestyle is being impinged upon. They could be confused, certainly frightened.”
Elizabeth Baranyai, an Australian who with her husband, Marc Breault, left the Branch Davidian cult in 1989, said she experienced anger and depression.
“When I first came out, I had a lot of anger. I wondered how God could do this to me,” she said.
She eventually realized, she said, that she had “done it to myself.”
She eventually reconciled her religious beliefs. Baranyai said, and decided “I should be thankful to God for getting me out of this.”
Accepting responsibility for themselves is “the kind of pathway that the people who make a good adjustment come to see,” said Singer.
That process can take years.
People make that adjustment when they are provided with important information through “exit counseling,” she said.
The process, according to Singer, should include two elements:
- Understanding how the cult influence worked on them and how they were vulnerable.
- Access to information the “outside world” has about the cult that they didn’t know or that was distorted by Vernon Howell.
Singer and Crowder agreed help for former cult members can come from several sources.
Crowder said the Branch Davidians will need emotional support from mainstream religious leaders, mental health professionals and family and friends. They face a “slow redirection back to an ability to think for themselves and to express their own emotions,” he said.
People who successfully left the Branch Davidian cult before the standoff are most likely to be able to help. Many cult members came out of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Crowder noted that “People with similar religious values will be trusted more than others.”
Singer said professional exit counselors are usually former members of cults.
“It’s almost an apprenticeship program now,” she said. Many mental health professionals “do not understand the cult phenomenon at all.”
Marc Breault, once one of Howell’s chief aides, and Elizabeth Baranyai have helped deprogram other former members of the Davidians. They hope to raise money to come here from Australia to help the cult members caught up in this week’s standoff.
“When a person is deprogrammed, there is an initial euphoria. They’re free! When that wears out, they are depressed and angry,” Breault said.
He has spent the years since he left the cult trying to convince others to get out.
‘Go jump in the lake’
The best catharsis, he said, is eventually to “face Vernon again and tell him to go jump in the lake.”
How such counseling or deprogramming might become available to the Branch Davidians when the standoff ends is unclear.
Spokesman in Waco offices of the Mental Health Mental Retardation agency said Tuesday efforts now are focused on care and safety of the children who have been released from the compound.
Crowder, who is a consultant to the Secret Service, said he is not aware of any cases where law enforcement authorities pursued psychological assistance for cult members.
Singer, who helped deprogram members of the Jonestown cult, said deprogramming help is most often sought for cult members by attorneys preparing defenses to criminal charges.
Crowder said the legal issue of custody of the cult’s children could also force some members into therapy as a condition for regaining their children.
“The loss of basic relationships is one of the few things that can make people in cults examine their beliefs,” he said.