Communal Abuse and Cults

Communal abuse is a type of abuse that is exerted, in part, by victims (survivors) upon each other in the course of aspiring for something good within a intentional community. Community abuse is almost always masterminded by a leader, and one hallmark of an abusive community is leader-on-member personal abuse. This abusive proclivity comes largely from the psychopathic qualities of the leader, which pre-date and usually explain the formation of the group. However, the availability of a large quantity of 'de-selfed,' vulnerable victims is explained by the overall workings of the abusive community. In effect, it perpetuates survivor-on-survivor abuse.

Abusive communities are often called cults. A consensus definition of "cult" has been hard to reach in our society, because there exist separatist or isolationist communities, that, while very different from the mainstream, are not abusive. Attempts have been made to define cults by aspects of high demands, total commitment, or unusual beliefs. High demands and insistence on total commitment can be part of cult technique but also part of excellence, such as in the Navy Seals. Defining cults by the beliefs held has been tricky, because freedom of belief is part of individual integrity. Poorly implemented attempts to define or identify cults in the end helps those communities that are abusive, by sowing doubt.

Better discriminative criteria are needed. This page instead defines communal abuse by the systematic traits that weaken all common members' cognitive and self-protective functions. These traits have been in evidence in diverse groups, such as Stalin's Soviet Union, multi-level marketing schemes, some religious sects, 'utopian' intentional communities, some non-profits, and some psychotherapy movements.

Abusive communities exist on a spectrum as far as controllingness goes. It seems useful to think in terms of two tiers of such communities: a tier of fervent communities that are formed around a sincere belief but devolve into abusive practices, and manipulated communities, that combine a psychopathic leader and strong conditioning against self-protection. Many communities are manipulated from the beginning, but it is possible for a fervent community to 'cross-over' into a manipulated community as the leader functions in an accountability vacuum and moves into more extreme abuse.

Communal abuse has a unclear, perhaps limited overlap with intimate partner violence. Both do entail the misuse of human attachment needs. Also, there is a type of damage in common, that of 'de-selfing', so some understanding is perhaps useful for survivors of domestic abuse as well as survivors of communal abuse.

The Fundamental Vulnerability

No belief, simple, profound, or bizarre, by itself, is able to keep a large number of people cohesively together through abusive experiences. Rather such communities misuse normal attachment behavior. With rare exception, people feel insecure because they do not feel unconditionally acceptable. This leads to trying to find and fulfill the conditions of achieving unconditional acceptance. This of course is a contradiction but it is a common situation. Abusive communities promise unconditional acceptance, (often in the form of realizing some perfected state or afterlife outcome in which one is so manifestly good one cannot be rejected). Then life in that community becomes one condition after another. Members are often led to believe they have unconditional acceptance and that what is asked is to be an expression of gratitude but the truth comes out when they fail or try to decline.

Also cults falsely promise certainty and perfectibility. Neither actually exists in this world. However, it is very human to seek them, with perhaps greater fervor if one has had early relational trauma (which is immensely common)

It is a myth that members of an abusive community are mentally or emotionally troubled upon joining. Actually such individuals are usually rejected because their sensitivity would lead them to exhibit distress publicly from the maltreatment . What is wanted are individuals that are able to hide their suffering from themselves and others.

The First Threshold

The first threshold of abuse in communities seems to be the disallowance of any balance point between the needs of the group and the needs of the individual. This is not to say the individual is encouraged to prioritize the group needs way above his or her own, but rather it is not allowed to even think in these terms. That is, the self doesn't exist. This is the ultimate negation of the self. This is loss of autonomy. This sets the stage for the exploitation of members.

The Second Threshold

The second threshold of abuse is blind obedience Doing whatever the leadership asks is either held as the highest virtue, or the strongest sign of virtue. This is not reasonable deference in the service of discipline or formation, it is unquestioning obedience. It is not fidelity to a principle or a cause but to a person. Humans generally find it easier to be loyal to a person than to an idea, this is attachment behavior. Abusive communities always identify compliance or surrender as the greatest good.

Obedience becomes a powerful tool for manipulation, because anything, even harmful acts, or acts contrary to putative beliefs, can be made 'good' by making them the subject of obedience to the leadership. This is how people trying to be good can be made to do bad things. The reason many countries compile lists of cults is because a large number of very obedient people always poses a potential security risk. This is loss of integrity. This sets the stage for the exploitation of others by the members.


Conditioning is modifying behavior by linking desired responses to events that would not elicit those responses spontaneously. In abusive communities the desired response is always compliance. Conditioning starts by pairing something that normally would elicit compliance, like a gift, with something that would not necessarily elicit compliance like a difficult demand. After a time, a difficult demand tends to bring out compliance by itself. Conditioning decays if not renewed but in a controlled setting renewal becomes part of the routine.

Other Common Elements of Communal Control

Tactics and Traits of a Cult Leader

What is of the greatest interest in understanding manipulated communities is "how he or she does it." That is, how does a leader that clearly from the outside does not provide good guidance or example manage to attract and retain devoted, even worshipful followers. Some of the traits below make the cult possible, others are made possible by the cult's existence. There often is no clear distinction to be made between the two. Unlike a legitimate spiritual tradition, many cults fall apart after the leaders death because his or her machinations were necessary to keep it going.

Cognitive Abuse and Thought Control

Apart from the tactics of leadership, the cultish qualities of an abusive community are evidenced by cognitive abuse, in which the critical thinking and self-determination abilities of members are weakened and manipulated. Cognitive abuse is very different than addressing skepticism or even defending orthodoxy. In a non-abusive community debate or at least questioning is encouraged-in an abusive community debate and questioning is rendered impossible.

Robert Jay Lifton has famously developed the concept of 'Thought Reform', in which he describes eight main ways The result is an inability to detect falsity and exploitation, which often persists even after exiting the community. These eight ways are adapted below to emphasize the abusive aspects for the survivor.

Janja Lalich has added a unique aspect of cognitive abuse:

Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman have added a concept of induced brain dysfunction they call snapping, which is perhaps an element of what is popularly called brainwashing:

Also some traditional spiritual practices can be applied in excess to disable cognition:


Finally, what is often the most conspicuous element has to be considered:

Exploitative Strategies

Benefits Real and Illusory

Retention Strategies

Crisis in Leaving