Counselor fights for freedom of cult victims ‘one mind at a time’

For almost two decades, a small clinic in rural Albany has been quietly helping people from all over the world break their dependence on brainwashing cults.

While the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center goes about its business with little local fanfare, its work has earned attention from major media, including “CBS 48 Hours,” “NBC Nightly News,” “The Montel Williams Show” and the Chicago Tribune.

Its founder, Dr. Paul Martin, has provided expert testimony on cult involvement in numerous trials, including that of Lee Boyd Malvo, who was convicted of two counts of capital murder last December for his involvement in a 2002 spree of sniper killings in the Washington, D.C. area with John Allen Muhammad.

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In a talk to the Athens Rotary Monday, Martin said that while other therapists may deal with a cult survivor here and there, his clinic is the world’s only facility that deals exclusively with this problem.

“This is really all we do,” said Martin. “It’s our specialty.” Now entering its 19th year of existence, he said, Wellspring has treated nearly 800 residential patients, and consulted with thousands of others, as well as doing “extensive research” on the topic of cults.

Martin said the work of Wellspring “has to do with tyranny and freedom.” He cited a famous comment by Thomas Jefferson, who “declared eternal hostility against all forms of tyranny over the minds of men.” This idea, he said, is “really what it’s all about” for those who work at Wellspring.

The staff at Wellspring, including Martin, know first-hand about the madness of cults, as many of them are cult survivors. Chief operating officer John B. Wick, for example, broke off his connection with a Protestant Christian cult in the 1980s, just days before he was scheduled to wed a woman he hardly knew, in a marriage arranged by the group.

Martin himself, though the son of an evangelical Christian preacher, fell prey to a cult himself. After he escaped its influence, he earned a doctorate in counselor education, and dedicated his life to helping others overcome cult dependency — though he’s still a devout Christian.

As Wellspring enters its 19th year, Martin said, he sees more and more evidence of cults, ranging in orientation from Christian to New Age to business. “We see the silent masses of the soul snatchers,” he related. “We see an uncanny sameness in the techniques used by these tyrants.”

It’s not only religious gurus who use the mind-controlling practices of cults, according to Martin. They’re also practiced by people who ensnare and abduct children over the Internet, abusive partners in domestic relationships, divorced parents who poison a child’s mind against the other parent, and people like John Allen Muhammad, who dominate a younger confederate in a “master-and-student” relationship.

For example, Martin said, Wellspring has treated a young girl who was sexually abused by a pedophile, the father of a friend. This case had a cultic aspect, he said, because before the girl was physically exploited, “her mind fell prey to this man.”

Likewise in cases of “parent alienation syndrome,” he said, one divorced parent abducts a child from the other, then brainwashes the child to despise the second parent.

“All of these tell the story,” Martin said. “And we’ve carefully listened, over the last 18, 19 years, to these dynamics of control.” By learning how a cultic leader controls others, he said, Wellspring has been able to develop techniques to help people leave cult involvement behind, and stay resistant to future entrapment.

“We help the person regain their former sense of identity,” he said.

Martin stressed that anyone can be seduced by a cult. “What is the average cult victim like?” he asked. “He’s an average person. He’s not some disturbed, dim-witted, psychologically deviant person that falls prey to these people.”

However, he noted, it does seem that many of the people who need Wellspring’s help come from the financially destitute. “They’re the new poor, the new homeless,” he said. For this reason, he added, Wellspring must depend on “charitable hearts” to be able to continue its work.

“Ultimately, the battles are going to be won by freeing one mind at a time,” he declared.

He noted that at the time Wellspring was founded, and before, some parents who had seen a child enter a cult resorted to hiring “deprogrammers,” who would essentially kidnap the cult member and try to brainwash him or her out of cult dependency. “In the early days… that’s most often how it was done,” he said.

Martin argued, however, that trying to replace one set of “programming” with another doesn’t help the cult victim. “We have worked with kids that have been… deprogrammed,” he said. “And they’re out of the cult, physically out, but they’re not yet healthy.”

In answering audience questions, Martin said about half the cult victims he sees come from Bible-based religious cults. The next largest group comes from what he called “New Age” cults, whose belief systems are all over the map. A small portion comes from business-type cults, which feature a manically intense focus on profit making, he said.

Martin said he doesn’t apply the term “cult” casually, but reserves it for groups that virtually anyone would identify as abusive of their members. He calls a group a cult, he said, “when it is just unequivocal… by anyone’s standards.”

In figuring out if a group you are attracted to is a cult, he said, you might do worse than to apply the old adage for assessing investments — if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Or in human terms, if someone promises total love and acceptance from joining a group, be on your guard.

“How many people are getting lured by the simple human need for friendship?” he wondered.

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