For the 401 children removed from a West Texas polygamist compound earlier this week, life as they know it — where even laughter was forbidden — is about to change drastically.
Now the victims of what state authorities suspect is the largest child abuse case in the nation’s history, these children are likely to face a myriad of psychological issues, including extreme phobias, identity issues and problems obeying authority figures, according to several cult experts.
“On one level [the lives of these children] have been wonderful in the sense that you’re never alone and you have lots of family members constantly around you,” said Steven Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor and founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center. “But on the other hand, you’re not encouraged to think for yourself or have an imagination and learn and grow. You’re encouraged to conform and be a clone.”
The children and the 133 women taken from the compound once led by Warren Jeffs, who sits in prison after being convicted as an accomplice to rape, are being held in a nearby shelter. Texas authorities interviewing them are eager for any details about what life was like within the heavily restricted community.
Photographs of the children show some as young as infants and others ranging in age up to teenagers, many having spent their entire lives immersed in the cult.
Freedom of Mind Center
That means having grown up on a compound where the rules of childhood forbid the joys of normal child’s play like television and radio. Internet access was forbidden and iPods could only be used to listen to Jeffs’ sermons. Even laughter was banned at the compound.
These children are unlikely to respond well to the Texan authorities and will have a long road to recovery ahead of them.
“They’re going to need to realize that the world is a nice place and that they can sit in the sun and play on swings and that people will be kind to them and like them,” said Hassan, who is a former member of Sun Myung Moon’s cult. “And that women, particularly for members of this cult, matter and are not just baby machines.”
Cult Life Gives Children Irrational Fears, Experts Say
While other American children worry little about things more serious than their lunchtime snack or their afternoon play date, the children removed from Jeffs’ compound will likely suffer from terrifying phobias, Hassan told ABCNews.com.
“In the mind of someone who has a phobia, they can’t imagine [living outside the compound] will have a positive result,” said Hassan. “They’ll develop phobias of losing their salvation or burning in hell.”
“It can also be things like [fearing] they’ll be raped by the outsiders, or that the outsiders will beat and torture you or that you’ll get cancer or AIDS if you leave the compound,” said Hassan. “Some believe they’ll become drug addicts or will commit suicide if they leave.”
Releasing these phobias is key to recovery for cult members, but often proves difficult, even for those members relieved to be outside the compound’s walls, Hassan said.
“Beliefs are very, very powerful,” said Hassan, who added that he himself felt very confused and brainwashed after his time in the Moon organization. “So what’s really successful in helping people come out of cults is to meet former members who have their lives together and who are happy. That, in a sense, is a phobia cure.”
“[These children] are like people who have come from one culture into another, in some ways they’re similar to immigrants,” said Allen Tate Wood, another former member of Moon’s cult and now a public educator about cults. “Now they’re faced with a whole myriad of challenges to come to terms with in the larger world.”
While the Texas authorities hope to learn about the compound from the women and children, these individuals will likely take offense at authorities who, according to their religious doctrine, have not be authorized by God, said Wood.
“The ideology of the theology of the group is that their boss is ordained by God,” said Wood. “Initially it’s going to be very difficult for them to trust people.”
Like Addiction, Indoctrination Recovery is Long
“Inside extremist organizations the addiction is deliberately induced,” said Wood, who said the effect a cult has on an individual is similar to that of a drug or alcohol addiction. “When someone comes out, part of the process of healing and recovering is letting go of the addiction, and this case that means letting go of the theology, ideology of the group.”
“As long as they still believe, they’re still addicted,” added Wood.
And while both Hassan and Wood told ABCNews.com they’ve seen children born into cults live highly functional lives, many others do not.
Unfortunately, much as drug addicts suffer with symptoms of withdrawal and battle temptation, so do former cult members.
“People have flashbacks and sort of a depersonalization where the individual loses all sense of identity,” said Wood. “They don’t know how to make a decision because they’ve always referred it to a leader before.”
“People often do go back,” said Wood. “Some come all the way out and then they just fall back into them they don’t find the way to survive as free agents.”