Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Life after Centrepoint: Accounts of Adult Adjustment after Childhood Spent at an Experimental Community

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Life after Centrepoint: Accounts of Adult Adjustment after Childhood Spent at an Experimental Community

Article excerpt

This study explores how former child members of a controversial community, in which child sexual abuse and drug use are known to have occurred, account for the effects of this on their adult lives. The narrative accounts of 29 participants were analysed to identify key areas of psychological adjustment they described after leaving the New Zealand community known as Centrepoint. Participants' accounts highlighted challenges in negotiating the initial transition, family relationships, friendships and intimate relationships, livelihoods, stigma and changing belief systems. Themes within participants' accounts reflect disadvantage and suffering as a result of growing up at Centrepoint as well as some advantages, also attributed to this environment. While this research shows that there may be some significant adjustments to be made after childhood spent in such communities, it also cautions against a polarized perspective which focuses exclusively on either positive or negative consequences of this kind of experience.

Since the 1970's the psychological impact of alternative communities, known popularly as 'cults', have been the subject of considerable discussion and debate (Aronoff, Lynn & Malinoski, 2000). Much of the existing research, however, has focused on those who had joined these groups as adults and less is known about the consequences of this lifestyle for those who grew up in these environments. This paper explores how the former children of the controversial New Zealand community, Centrepoint, account for their adjustment to adult life outside of it.

As Freckelton (1998) notes, there are differences of opinion on almost all aspects of alternative communities, including the terminology used to describe them. Those who use the label of 'cult' generally see these communities as exercising a malevolent control over their members and as intrinsically harmful (Langone, 1993). But recent researchers have challenged assumptions that these communities are necessarily problematic and choose to use the term 'New Religious Movements' (NRMs) for groups with shared sets of beliefs (Beckford, 2003) or 'intentional communities' which specifically refer to residential groups who hold a shared set of values (Sargisson & Sargent, 1994). We preferred to use the more neutral term 'community' in our research in order to respect participants' potential sensitivities around these labels.

Not surprisingly the clinical and research literature on the psychological effects of cults/NRMs reflects the diverse perspectives suggested by the different terms. The research on 'cults' has noted significant psychological difficulties in former members including symptoms such as anxiety, anger, low self confidence, flashbacks, depression, guilt, dissociation, passivity, psychosis as well as a unique experience of confusion that has been described as 'floating' (Conway & Siegelman, 1995; Martin, 1993; Singer & Ofshe, 1990; Singer & Lalich, 1995). These psychological

difficulties are described as being the consequence of manipulation, loss of control and other forms of maltreatment that occur in cults (Langone, 1993; Singer & Lalich, 1995). While adverse experiences in cults are thought to have negative impacts on former members' adjustment, some researchers have suggested that giving up a strong investment in a community may also be a significant source of distress (Lewis, 1987). Based on a review of clinical reports and the empirical research in this area Aronoff, Lynn and Malinoski (2000) concluded that cult membership is linked to adjustment difficulties although they acknowledged that it was not clear whether difficulties could be attributed to the cult itself or were a product of leaving it.

In contrast, others have highlighted some of the potentially positive consequences of what they generally call NRMs (Anthony & Robbins, 2004). Richardson (1995) argues, on the basis of a review of the research, that there is no evidence to suggest that members of these groups have more mental health problems than others and that there are likely to be psychological benefits that continue even after a member leaves. …

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