FLAGLER BEACH — Carol Giambalvo looks like a typical, active 61-year-old grandmother.
But when the phone rings in her Flagler Beach mobile home, the caller is likely to be a terrified parent, a therapist asking for advice, or a former cult member desperate for help in readjusting to society.
While she’s not a psychologist, Giambalvo describes herself as a self-trained “thought-reform consultant.” And although heart surgery in 1999 ended her days of traveling cross-country to lead interventions to extricate members from cults, she remains a leading force in the controversial anti-cult movement.
Giambalvo advocates for ethical standards for professionals working to free people from cults. Abductions and forced de-programmings were never her style.
“The ends don’t justify the means,” says Giambalvo, who’s been involved in more than 200 successful voluntary interventions from 1984-99.
Laura Weber believes Giambalvo saved her life.
“If it wasn’t for Carol, I would never have realized I was in prison,” says Weber, who, as a college student in the early 1990s, became enmeshed in a fundamentalist religious group that controlled every aspect of her life.
For Weber, now a mental health counselor at a rehabilitation treatment facility in Ohio, becoming indoctrinated was a gradual process. She says she was drawn in through what she calls “love balming”– people in the group offering support and affection during a vulnerable time in her life, as well as outright manipulation.
Giambalvo said people “absolutely do not join cults. What they join is something that looks wonderful, that gives them a feeling of belonging and a purpose in life.”
Weber said she was trained by a cult member who “knew what was best for me in God’s eyes” and told her to drop out of college, break up with her boyfriend, work in a low-level job to earn money for the group, and recruit other members.
Weber’s parents hired Giambalvo, who joined the family during a vacation in Canada. With the help of a mainstream clergyman, she spent several days talking to the reluctant young woman about the cult and theology.
“At first I hated her,” Weber said. “I hated my parents.”
Weber changed her mind that weekend and returned to school to earn a master’s degree in counseling. She still turns to Giambalvo for ongoing support.
The typical cult victim, Giambalvo said, “is you and me.”
Giambalvo and her husband, a retired elementary school counselor, were once members of what she considers a controlling, New Age self-improvement group that used manipulative and mind-controlling methods. Extricating themselves, she said, was difficult. When her stepdaughter ended up in a mental institution after joining a group that practiced mind control, Giambalvo began devoting her energies to helping others free themselves from such groups.
These days, “we try not to use the c-word” in describing groups that use mind control, Giambalvo said.
“We don’t care what they believe,” she said. “It’s their actions and behavior.”
In scholarly circles, the term “cult” is considered judgmental and misleading. They are now called “new religious movements.”
Giambalvo said dangerous groups are typically headed by charismatic leaders who require members to subjugate their personalities and cut off ties to those outside the group — which puts the members in greater danger.
The group formerly known as Children of God reportedly practiced sexual abuse of children. Last month in Arizona, a young man who was reared in the group made headlines after murdering a former nanny and then committing suicide.
Other groups — such as the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana; the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; and Heaven’s Gate in San Diego — became widely known after large numbers of followers died in confrontations with police or by taking their own lives.
“When a group feels it’s being threatened, that’s when they do very drastic things,” Giambalvo says.
David Bromley, a professor of religion at Virginia Commonwealth University who has done extensive research on cults, said that of at least 2,500 religious groups in the United States, only about 25 are “extreme and downright dangerous and nefarious.”
Fighting cults can present a different kind of danger: compromising human rights. Freedom of religion and freedom of choice means adults may decide for themselves what groups they want to join, Bromley says, even if their choices seem bizarre to others.
He opposes what he calls “coercive deprogramming.”
“But most people who are regarded as legitimate intervention specialists don’t use coercive methods,” he said. “And I’ve never been particularly critical of people discussing important choices.”
Talking about choice is what Giambalvo does.
Psychologist Michael Langone, executive director of the Bonita Springs-based International Cultic Studies Association (formerly American Family Foundation), considers her among the best and most ethical in her field because of her “educational-oriented approach.”
Giambalvo works for the association, via telephone and computer, and also serves on its board of directors.
She said people who end up in cults do make a choice when they first become involved — “but it’s not an informed choice.”
“No one becomes part of a group thinking that they’ll be harmed,” she said. “Our purpose is to show people the information they didn’t have access to when they joined.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Although cult members join of their own volition, they are often manipulated by leaders to accept new beliefs and practices. A similar psychological conversion is known as the Stockholm Syndrome in which kidnap victims or hostages become sympathetic to their captor’s cause.
• In 1973, a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden turned into a six-day hostage drama. As the siege ended, many of the hostages protected their captors to ensure they were not injured by police when leaving the bank.
• American psychiatrist Frank Ochberg coined the label Stockholm Syndrome.
• One of the most infamous cases of the Stockholm Syndrome is that of heiress Patty Hearst who was kidnapped by a radical political group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. Hearst took an assumed name and even assisted in a series of bank robberies while being held captive.
SOURCES: Washington Post, News York Times, Agence France Presse, U.S. News & World Report
— Compiled by News Researcher Megan Gallup