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Martha Marcy May Marlene: An Echo of Therapy Myths?

November 26, 2011

Sean Durkin’s movie, Martha Marcy May Marlene (MMMM), has opened to great critical acclaim. As far as the acting (especially the brilliant performance by Elizabeth Olsen) and the movie as a work of art about human relationships is concerned, the critical acclaim is well deserved although at times, through no fault of the actors, motivation was unclear. For example, I really didn’t see a compelling motivation for Martha to join the commune, other than some vague sense that she had a need to belong. Contrary to this stereotype, while need to belong can be as powerful factor for some in getting involved in a cult, it is by far, not the only or even the main factor for everyone. The need to make a difference in the world, idealism, the cult offering solutions to problems, financial prosperity, or comfort for an emotional issue such as a loss, can all be compelling inducements getting involved in such a situation.  As someone who has had first-hand experience as well as counseling hundreds who have been in cults and known thousands, in my opinion, it fails when it comes to be a realistic depiction of the typical cult experience on many levels.

Caution: If you haven’t seen the movie, this review does contain some spoilers, such a a revelation of the ending.

The good news is that the movie is not claimed to be anything other than fiction, so at least we don’t have the same situation as we did with Sybil. The bad news is, that the movie is already being co-opted by at least one self-proclaimed cult “expert” as an accurate depiction of the psychological problems one experiences while leaving the cult, especially if they do not get “specialized” counseling from an “expert” who appears to be using it as a tool to bring more people into therapy with him by claiming, in essence, that the movie is an accurate depiction of so-called “walk aways” or “castaways” (I’ve always found those labels very demeaning although they were thankfully not used in the movie but are used by “experts” such as Hassan) from cults who do not get “expert” help from the enlightened “counseled outs”. Not so fast, Mr. Hassan.

Let us look at the actual evidence, rather than uncritically be scared into turning over ourselves over to self-proclaimed cult experts out of fear of meeting the same fate as Martha. Ex-cult members made that mistake once with the cult. Let’s not make it again with those of claim they are your only salvation from cults. Yes, of course there are some ex-cult members who do exhibit these kinds of severe symptoms after leaving cults, but I have to strongly question that this is typical. Based on the literature I have seen and my own familiarity with thousands who have left cults, Martha’s experience appears to be the exception rather than the rule. I also take exception to the condescending label of “walk away” fortunately not used in the movie, but used by “counseled out” people such as Steve Hassan and others, implying that because they were deprogrammed out, they have some kind of edge over people who walked out of cults. Evidence shows otherwise and in fact, even Hassan admits that a number of people have reported being severely traumatized by the deprogramming experience itself. Even when the intervention was voluntary, people who are counseled out often feel violated and deceived if their family members were not open with them in the beginning about the purpose of the intervention, deception that Hassan supports, especially in the cases where he recommends “covert” interventions where the person does not realize he or she is speaking to an exit counselor hired at great expense, by family members.

First of all, there is no evidence that people who walk away from cults (and the majority of cult members do leave that way) and do not seek out help are any more sympomatic than those who are counseled out or seek help from anti-cult “experts”. Some of the literature shows the opposite is the case. A study by Wright showed that people exposed to anti-cult narratives were more symptomatic and that cults are not nearly has harmful as sensationalized media stories and cult “experts” whose living depends on their treatment would have us believe. More recently, however, Carmen Alamendros and her colleagues did a study that compared people who had sought out help from anti-cult organizations to those who did not and found no difference in symptoms. While they didn’t help the symptoms, they also did not increase them, at least in the populations she studied. I need to put that qualifier onto any study on cults, since it is obviously impossible to obtain a random sample of ex-cult members. Alamendros’ study is an improvement, however, over earlier studies such as the one by Conway and Siegelman reported in their book, Snapping, which included only people who had been in contact with anti-cult organizations and complained of severe symptoms. Although this was never stated in MMMM, it is implied and Durkin overtly echoed this mythology in an interview where he stated his belief that “You don’t recover from things like this. It takes years and some people never recover.” On the contrary, the vast majority of ex-cult members can and do recover and most do it without going to a cult “expert”.

MMMM leaves the outcome open-ended and undetermined. It ends with her sister, who never even learned Martha was in a cult, taking her to some sort of undefined residential treatment facility because her symptoms were so severe that she was unable to live with the sister and husband any longer. Martha was having flashbacks to the extent she was unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Just to give an example of her over the top behavior, in one scene she crawls into bed with her sister and husband who are having sex! This was intended to be a dissociative episode, an unknowing reenactment of her former cult practices, which included open sex among members as Martha was unable to distinguish between her memories and reality. While it is normal for people who have been through any kind of intense experience to have “flashbacks” to memories of it and even, to an extent, re-experience emotions, most ex-cult members, even in the early stages, do know the difference and would not engage in such florid behavior that borders on psychosis (of course there are some who do and tragic instances of complete psychotic breaks in reality, for instance, Lisa McPherson, but these are the exception rather than the rule). Moreover, most ex-cultists are very well aware of how to behave in public around people who do not share the cult’s beliefs, especially since Martha was only with the group for two years, having gotten involved as an adult.

While such behavior might be more prevalent among people born and raised in cults, even with people in that population, not all are so out of touch. Yes, the first few weeks out of a cult can be a very confusing time, but most people get through that period and are not so impaired that they cannot function in society. Accounts such as Marc Headley’s Blown for Good, provide a more realistic account of what people, when they are long-term members of a cult’s inner circle, go through when they leave cults. Even though Marc and his wife, Claire were essentially raised in Scientology, their remarkable escape from the group, which included having to get past an electric fenced in compound, shows how well they were still able to think and concoct an elaborate escape plan, as well as function quite well in the outside world by successfully starting a business soon after leaving. Although emotionally, the experience was extremely difficult for them and I’m sure they spent much time confused and struggling to make sense of their experience, they were not out of touch with reality as Martha portrays and the anti-cult mythology would predict. Confusion and struggling to make sense of unusual experiences is part of the human condition, not a mental disorder.

This brings us to an even larger issue, which is the medicalization and pathologizing of human experience and suffering which brings to mind what Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel have called Therapism, the view that human beings are weak, frail creatures who need to be protected and saved by therapists (for example, Steve Hassan, warning female ex-cult members not to go to a movie theater and watch MMMM on a large screen). While rape victims, whether they are ex-cultists or not should be forewarned that there is a pretty graphic and disturbing rape scene in the movie and take that into consideration in deciding whether to see it, I see no reason to presume most female ex cult members are so fragile they cannot handle seeing MMMM. On the contrary, the type of cult portrayed is in many ways just the opposite of how cults such as Scientology operate (for example, the very open ended attitude the MMMM cult had about finding one’s role where in Scientology and most other cults, people are assigned jobs to do, usually with no or little regard what they would like to do).

I’m also puzzled at Sean Durkin’s choice to portray a 60s-style back-to-earth cult reminiscent of Charles Manson’s cult, when he stated in an interview that his impetus for making the movie was to make a modern movie about a cult, since there were none currently in existence and I thought his choice to not feature a religious cult was a smart one, so as to not get off onto a tangent of religious issues. That being said, these back-to-earth types of cults do still exist and may actually be making a comeback in the future, with the influences of Occupy Wall Street (not a cult itself but a fertile ground for cult recruiters to take advantage of) and Global Warming (also not a cult, but subject to misuse by cult leaders). Nevertheless, if he wanted to portray something current, why not portray a  new age or psychotherapy cult that operates in more subtle ways and has members who often will openly live within mainstream society yet still manage to live a mentally cloistered existence (e.g. something like James Arthur Ray’s seminars)? I respect his artistic right to make the choice he did, but I’m just curious about it, given his motivation for making this film.

In any case, not everyone needs a therapist to get through such experiences. While there are legitimate reasons to seek help and I would never want to discourage or think less of anyone from doing so, it is not necessarily the right choice for everyone. Personally, I was one who did seek therapy and found it helpful, first from a therapist who knew virtually nothing about cults and was not an “expert” and 12 years later, from someone who did have expertise in cults. I feel that contrary to Hassan’s claims that non-experts are a waste of time and may do harm, I feel I benefited from both in different ways. What I would not presume to do, however, is generalize that my own help-seeking behavior is right for everyone who has left a cult. Some people do perfectly well without any formal therapy.  Sometimes a strong system of support, just to help the person get back into the real world, even from people who know nothing about cults, can be very helpful. The highly judgmental attitude of Martha’s sister and her husband are not necessarily typical of family members who know nothing about cults.  Of all the families I  have counseled with cult involved loved ones, I have yet to come across any that were as insensitive as Martha’s sister was, although some did engage in some uninformed behavior (e.g. trying to get into an argument with the cult member about the cult’s doctrine). I was fortunate in that my own family did not behave in that way at all, although unlike Martha, I spoke very openly and frequently about my experience in Scientology with my family from the very beginning and always knew the difference between my memories and reality. The point is, that every case is different and while there are some common themes, I found the fictional Martha to not be typical of anything I have encountered, although I am aware of isolated cases that do bear similarities.

I share all this to illustrate that experience of former cult members varies greatly, which is why I cringed when I read Steve Hassan’s statement of intentions to show this movie to family members with loved ones involved in a cult. It might be a way to scare them into investing in post-cult therapy, but is it realistic? What comes to mind is an experience recounted by Steve Hassan. He reported that when he was a member of a cult, they were taken to see the movie, The Exorcist as a way to scare them into what would happen if they did not stay with the cult’s program. In all honesty, I have to wonder, how is his planned use of Martha Marcy May Marlene any different? This is what can happen if you don’t get your loved one (or yourself) therapy from a cult expert. Yes, I realize he probably would reply that the difference is that his manipulations are for a good purpose  encourage people to think for themselves, but isn’t that a contradiction? And do you really want Hassan (or anyone else, for that matter) define what is good for you and put yourself in their hands to be influenced by manipulative tactics? I write this review to offer a different perspective and although I have not put myself forth into the media to the extent Hassan has, I am just as qualified to have an opinion on this topic as he or any other cult “expert” is. Thankfully, both The Exorcist and Martha Marcy May Marlene are works of fiction that may be enjoyed as well-produced entertainment, but not confused with reality.

  1. Thanks for this Monica. I wanted to see this movie last week, but my schedule didn’t work out. I hope to see it this upcoming week or so.

    Your piece here prompted me to put into words some stuff I’ve been thinking about recently.

  2. Nice review. This film is definitely different in the way it tells its story and the story it’s trying to tell, and while that’s very much something to applaud, it just didn’t come together for me as well as it could have. Olsen and Hawkes were very good but overall, the film just didn’t do much for me as it did for others. Check out my review when you get the chance.

  3. I saw the film last night.

    I related to it not so much from my cult years, but from my psychedelic drug years; ie: the paranoia that can come with too many trips.

    The part that I related to from my cult years was when Martha left the farm. There is fear when leaving a group, whether any threat is real or perceived, the fear is very real.

    A couple years ago, a woman stayed in our home for seven weeks after leaving a yoga cult which she had grown up in and after leaving subsequent harmful relationships (including domestic violence). Watching Martha’s behavior mirrored the woman that stayed with us. It was a difficult 7 weeks.

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