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STAINED book cover

Sarah, a teen with a port-wine stain and body image issues, is abducted, and must find a way to rescue herself.

“Powerful. I raced through it, wanting to know if Sarah would find a way to escape both her captor and her self-doubts. A real nail-biter!“
- April Henry, NY Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die

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What is Programming? Why Do Cults Use it? - A closer look at programming within organized ritual abuse

by Cheryl Rainfield, 2004

Warning: The contents of this article may be triggering. If you’re a survivor, you may want to read it gradually at different times or with a supportive friend or partner. It also might be a good idea to make sure that you are in a safe space while you read this, and for some time afterwards. You might want to remind yourself of a safe place inside you that parts can go if they need to. It’s a healing and nurturing thing to respect your limits and boundaries, and what you can hear, for now.

I speak here from my own experience as a survivor of organized, formal ritual abuse. Some of this information may not fit for you. Keep what fits and discard the rest.

What is Programming?

Programming is the use of focussed mind control and torture used to instill and reinforce precise messages and/or specific learned responses by organized cults. It is a deliberate, calculated, and extreme form of manipulation and control. In organized ritual abuse, programming is usually integrated into the extreme torture and abuse that begins at birth or at an early age (usually before age five or six), when a child is both more vulnerable and more likely to dissociate. In this way, cults can use the child's natural tendency towards dissociation to encourage multiplicity or splitting, and can more easily control the child. Because dissociation and multiplicity are often encouraged and used during programming, the programs and messages go deeply into the unconscious, to effect survivors without their conscious awareness—until a survivor later begins to heal, to hear what is going on inside, and to recognize programming for what it is.

Programming messages are repeated over and over as the child is being tortured and in the brief moments of relief, to ensure that the messages go in deeply, are not forgotten, and will be associated with extreme pain and terror. They make the child believe that to not know or obey the message is to instantly bring more torture. Often the torture does not stop until the cult is assured that the survivor (or the personalities of her that are out at the time) can not only recite on command her new set of messages, but also that she has taken those messages in on a deep, core level of her psyche. Frequently, the survivor has to create new personalities to withstand the torture, or is forced to accept names and/or roles for personalities that the cult deliberately create or splinter during the programming.

Cults often assault as many of the survivor's senses as possible at one time, to disorient the survivor and break down her barriers to the programming message; to create a learned trigger or cue; and to ensure that those messages go in on as many levels as possible. This makes the messages harder to fight against or to change. Cults attempt to overwhelm a victim's sense of smell; taste; body sensation; hearing; sight; familiarity; emotion; and intellect, and often associate specific triggers for each sense to specific programs or groups of programs.

Both physical and emotional torture are used in programming; emotional torture, in addition to the physical, ensures that the message goes in deeper, and creates an emotional response when programming is later triggered. An example of emotional torture is convincing the child that she is responsible for the death of someone she loves, and that she will continue to have this effect on people throughout her life if she gets close to them or tries to tell them anything.

Along with the use of emotional and physical torture during programming, cults often administer drugs to the child to increase the child's sense of disorientation; to increase dissociation and encourage splitting; to make it harder for the survivor or main personality to later remember what happened; and to keep the child under control. Drugs may also be used to convince the child that a particular event that was enacted out during programming really occurred. For instance, if a cult is trying to convince a child that she is dead, using a drug that temporarily paralyses the child's body and makes her unable to move may convince a young child or parts of her that she really is dead—especially if other props are used. Even without drugs, the child may believe she actually died, since she is in a traumatised state; is still young, has imagination, and does not fully understand everything around her; and she, or parts of her, may wish she was dead and didn't have to live with the pain any more.

Programming can vary in its effectiveness, depending on how skilled or knowledgeable the cult members were who created the programming; how much a survivor internally fights back during the programming (and whether or not this is observed by the cult); whether or not a survivor is aware of the programming inside her; and whether or not personalities listen to each other. The amount of programming a survivor has, and the level of its complexity or sophistication, will also depend on a survivor's particular abuse experience. Ritual abuse survivors who endured more formal ritual abuse at the hands of organized cults will have many more programs, and more sophisticated programs, than survivors who endured ritual abuse at the hands of less organized, informal cults will. Each survivor's experience of programming will be unique, though there are usually commonalities among experiences.

Often formal cults do not torture just one program into a survivor, or even a few. They torture in hundreds of programs, and over the years they repeat the programming or create variations of the programming, and the particular abuse scenario associated with the programming, to further reinforce the messages. Torturing in so many programs can keep a survivor from being able to think or respond from her own self, or to see through the programming. If a survivor is caught up in responding to programming without even realizing that's what she's doing, she has little or no time to fight back. And the more programs there are, the harder it is to sort them all out or focus on just one. Cults also often link programs together, so that when one program is cued off it can trigger another one, most especially if any cult "rules" are being broken (such as trying to look at the actual program, or speaking out about the abuse). This can keep a survivor caught in cult thinking for hours, weeks, or months at a time.

Why do cults use programming? Ultimately, cults use programming to control their victims and to keep the cult functioning smoothly. Programming can be an effective means for cults to control survivors, especially while a survivor is regularly being tortured and exposed to further programming.

Programming often enables cults to control a survivor in everyday time (split-off time where family life appears to be normal, and abuse is not remembered or occurring in the moment), without the survivor or other people being aware that this is happening. A cult member just has to cue a survivor to trigger specific programming, and the survivor unaware of her programming will often quite quickly respond the way that she was programmed to. For instance, if a cult member wants to keep a survivor from talking, all he/she has to do is put his/her finger vertically over the centre of his/her lips, or horizontally across his/her lips, in full view of the survivor. The survivor will often respond without even knowing that she is doing so. No one around her will have noticed that anything has occurred, except that perhaps the survivor has become more subdued. This allows cults to keep their network hidden, and at the same time invisibly control their victims.

Many of the cues for core programs such as to silence oneself, to go back to the cult, or to hurt oneself, use common body language, phrases, or music, and this constant exposure to cues reinforces or sets off those core programs even more. There are also specific programs to thwart survivors in their efforts to heal, and to ensure that members bring a percentage of money back to the cult. As a result, cults see programming as an efficient way to control cult membership, without using a lot of money, people power, or time. By using common body language, phrases, and songs as cues, very little effort has to be used to trigger programming in a survivor, once the work of torturing the programming into each survivor is complete.

Programming is a way for cults to instantly reinforce cult messages outside of a cult context or abuse (as well as a way to trigger certain behaviors before or during abuse). A program can take the survivor back to the original feelings, threats, and messages that she received while being tortured with that particular programmed message. It's a quick and easy way to retraumatize survivors, and to keep them silent.

Cult members use programming to, among other things: obtain information from a survivor about her own personality system and vulnerabilities, or those of another survivor she's been instructed to watch; interfere with the healing process of many survivors at once; trigger a switch in personalities; increase dissociation; break through resistance a survivor might have against doing a particular cult job; keep the people with power, in power (white, rich, male cult members at the very top of the pinnacle of cults); keep survivors from questioning cult rules; and keep survivors from escaping, fighting back, or thinking and feeling deeply about their abuse experiences.

But programming does not mean that the cult has ultimate control over a survivor. Survivors have immense inner strength, and fight back in different ways. And most survivors try to resist programming on some level or another. In my opinion, the most effective way to minimize the effects of programming is to recognize existing programming and to work on it. Once a survivor starts to become aware of her programming, and works on it, the programming loses some of its intensity and effectiveness.

Programming is not some kind of magic that exerts ultimate control. It is a form of mind control that survivors have been taught to live and breathe throughout their abuse, through torture and repeated threats to their lives. Cults cannot control every thought, action, or personality inside a survivor, nor can they completely control the total sum of every personality. They're not that powerful. No one is.

Programming can feel pretty all-encompassing at times---but it doesn't have to stay that way. Programming can be worked with, and it's effects can be changed. It just takes time, awareness, and the desire to work on it. But it can be done. And that is something that must frighten cults. Because survivors have a core of strength and courage and a desire to heal that cults cannot touch. So in healing, in recognizing and working on programming, survivors are stronger than the cult. I wish each of you much healing.

If you liked this article, you may also want to read my article on working with programming.

©Cheryl Rainfield, 2004

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