According to cult experts, former members of cults show a distinctive psychological syndrome which is attributable to psychologically deleterious practices in cults. This is called cult withdrawal syndrome. Based on testimonies of former members of the Mujahedin Khalq, most of them suffer from such a syndrome. Arash recently spoke out about his nightmares twenty years after defection from the Cult of Rajavi, the MEK.
Carol Giambalvo is an exit counselor who worked with Cult Awareness Network and chaired on the Cult Awareness Network’s national board of directors. In an article on post-cult problems, she argues that former members are vulnerable to psychological problems unless they get appropriate aids. She categorizes ex-members of cults in three group: Those who had interventions, those who left on their own, or walkaways, those who were expelled, or castaways.
Giambalvo emphasizes that walkaways and castaways need the most help in understanding their recovery process. “Former members who were cast out of a cult are especially vulnerable; often they feel inadequate, guilty, and angry,” she writes. “Most cults respond to any criticism of the cult itself by turning the criticism around on the individual member. Whenever something is wrong, it’s not the leadership or the organization, it’s the individual. Thus, when someone is told to leave a cult, that person carries a double load of guilt and shame. Sometimes walkaways also carry a sense of inadequacy.”
In his interview with Siamak Nader, another ex-member of the MEK, Arash speaks of the psychological torture he endured in the MEK’s solitary confinement, Interrogation sessions and brainwashing meetings during his six years of membership. He recalls that after each of these suppressive attitudes by his commanders he would ask them if they were satisfied with him, if they were convinced that he was a trustworthy member. However, oppressions made him leave the cult immediately after the US invasion to Iraq and the disarmament of the MEK by the US military. Today, near 20 years after leaving the Cult of Rajavi he says, “whenever I see a table and a few chairs around it I recall the brainwashing meetings.”
Meetings in the Cult of Rajavi are titled with different phrases like, Current Operation, Weekly Cleansing, Pot, Beit etc. They are examples of coercive manipulation and brainwashing system that defines characteristics of a cult.
According to Giambalvo the most helpful tool for recovering ex-cult members is learning what mind control is and how it was used by their specific cult. “Understanding that there are residual effects from a mind control environment and that these effects are often transitory in nature helps diffuse the anxiety,” she asserts. “Walkaways and castaways, feel relieved when they learn that, given the situation, what they are experiencing is normal and that the effects will not last forever.” This is what we notice in the testimonies of Arash and other defectors of Rajavi’s cult of personality. He admits that he was brainwashed by the Cult of Rajavi and he was not allowed to live by his own free will.
The cult exit counselor suggests another effective tool for deprogramming former members of the cults: supportive groups. “When former members live in an area where there is an active support group meeting, it is often helpful for them to participate,” she writes. “Support group meetings provide a safe place for ex-members to discuss concerns with others who are dealing with similar issues. In this environment, no one will look at them like they have two heads.”
During the interview with Arash, Siamak Naderi recalls a midnight of four years ago when Arash called him from his home and opened up about his nightmares. A large number of former MEK members have their own support groups across the world. That of former child soldiers of the group appeared in Club House last year. A large number of former child soldiers shared their heartbreaking experiences of membership in the MEK revealing horrific facts on child rights abuses in the MEK.
The Association for the Support of Iranians Living in Albania (ASILA) is perhaps the most organized and effective support group to aid defectors of the Cult of Rajavi in Albania get deradicalized. ASILA has been founded by several former members of the group together with a few Albanian human rights activists. It has managed to build a supportive atmosphere in which people feel like being in a family.
By Mazda Parsi