Bounded Choice, Lourdes Torres vs Doug Phillips lawsuit, Psychology of Totalism, Totalist Institution

Lourdes, Lifeboats, and Bounded Choice: Part IV (The Complicated Process of Exiting Totalist Groups)


Obstacles that Second Generation Adults like Lourdes Torres-Manteufel must overcome when exiting threatening, high demand situations and groups like Doug Phillips’ Vision Forum


Lourdes Pebbles

Part IV in a Series

Link to Part I

Link to Part II

Link to Part III

by Cindy Kunsman,


“When we leave, we actually don’t have what we need to survive outside.”

~ Jill Mytton

I once heard a story from India about an elephant that spent its life tethered to a stake that was driven deeply into the ground. He spent his whole life living only within the radius allowed by the tether. One day, the tether breaks, but the elephant never ventures out beyond the circle, even though he is no longer physically restricted. He stays within the familiar and never ventures out beyond the well-worn path, the radius of that which the elephant has always known. It’s really quite a sad story.

The concept of bounded choice parallels that of the story of the elephant. Though no physical restraints exist, people who believe that they have no choice find that forces more powerful than physical ones keep them bound to a predictable number of options. I told a counselor once that, despite having no tether anymore, I’d walked that same circle so many times that I’d surely turned it into a trench because of wear, making it even harder to get out of the habit. I hope that in explaining the reasons behind this process of the bounded choice of the Second Generation Adult (SGA) who grew up in a high-demand system, that the knowledge will serve as yet another lifeboat of validation that will help them move on to deeper healing.

Particular Constraints of the Totalist Environment, Especially for the Second Generation Adult

Once an individual becomes a part of a closed, totalistic system, several factors work to keep them entrenched in that system, powerfully tethered to the predictable radius that is acceptable to the group. Members appear to have a wealth of options, but like the elephant, they can’t walk away. The group dynamics and the withholding of information and knowledge drastically limit rational choice. Because of distorted and absent boundaries, personal choice actually becomes organizational choice which constrains the member to a predetermined set of “givens” that are determined by the group. It gives the illusion of freedom, but denies the power thereof.

In Chapter 3 of the recovery book, Take Back Your Life, Lalich and Tobias explain the additional pressures that children face from childhood into adulthood, all of which tend to keep them silent and powerless. I’ve listed only some of these pressures, personalizing them for those who grew up in the Quiverfull/Patriarchy Movement. To that list, I would add the lifelong physical consequences and the profound psychological toll associated with Developmental Trauma Disorder.

  • The group’s world and perspective may be all that they’ve ever known. (How does a child do something that they have never experienced and lack the skills to accomplish and perhaps even the vocabulary to describe these tasks?)
  • They fear the unsafe and evil outside world, both physically and in terms of ideas which are seen as more destructive. (See writings concerning young women in patriarchy.)
  • Restricted self-determination, particularly for daughters, at the discretion of the visionary patriarch of the family for whom they exist to serve until given in marriage to their own new male covering.
  • Unmarried girls are the de facto property of their parents, as the wife is considered the property of her husband.
  • Self-concept rooted in vilification, from the diabolical child concept of the Pearls to an aberrant, pessimistic view of total depravity in children *(particularly in females)*.
  • Because of the mandated submission and authority structure, children are also subject to the requirements of the leader who acts for God as His mouthpiece, superseding their own judgment and conscience. (Review Voddie Baucham’s material on “multigenerational faithfulness, especially this mp3 download about Baucham’s duty to do what neglectful parents will not; and summary One , Two, and Three.)
  • Exiting one’s authority structure results in punishment as God himself retaliates against them for their rebellion (which is qualified as witchcraft).
  • Children adopt a black/white, all good/all bad sense of understanding and lack the reasoning enjoyed by adults, often learning nothing else, as the same is demanded of their parents.
  • Children are taught blind obedience as opposed to critical thinking and the challenging of ideas from within their system (a punishable offense).
  • Unreasonable expectations which build anxious and dependent traits into a child’s developing character.
  • The pragmatic limitations of provisional and dependency needs.
  • The long-term emotional and psychological constraints experienced as a consequence of mandated enmeshment.
  • Medical neglect and untreated illness within some subgroups (As a random example, aside from the Luddite tendency in some groups to prefer health food store cures in place of traditional medicine, I recall a now deleted blog post of a patriarchy leader who bragged about saving money by taking her child to a vet.)


The Charismatic Leader’s Daunting DemandsCharismatic Leader:BC:normativity

Janja Lalich – who herself spent 11 years inside a radical, politically-based “closed system” – explains even more specifics in her book entitled Bounded Choice. She identifies comprehensive factors that bind an individual within a totalistic group, identifying four interlocking and interactional dimensions of the social structure” that create abounded reality and contribute to a state of personal closure for the individual participant” (pg. 261). An open system is a dynamic one that allows for choices, and personal closure results from the bounded reality of the static, rigid confines of Doug Phillips’ concept of “normativity.”

Charismatic Leader : Bounded ChoiceThose four dimensions of Bounded Choice include:

  • Charismatic Leadership.
  • Idealistic Belief System. 
  • Systems of Control.
  • Systems of Manipulation.

These can be further explored in this online summary. I believe that exploration of Charismatic Leadership explains much about why a young adult would concede to the pressures of their minister and an attorney like Doug Phillips of Vision Forum, whose practices depended on persuasion. This direct influence just intensifies the additional pressures and constraints associated with the SGA.

All idealistic, manipulative, and cultic groups center around a Charismatic Leader (Charismatic Authority) who develops a group of elite individuals that surround him or her (but it is more rarely a woman). These create an upper echelon or inner circle of leadership. When members receive individual acknowledgement from that “inner circle” or from the charismatic group leader personally, this greatly reinforces their own sense of pride and personal power, and a sense of personal elitism as well.

They experience love and Charismatic Authorityadmiration for the leadership as positive reinforcement, but there are also negative deterrents associated with the charismatic leadership. (Many people describe this dynamic as “Stockholm Syndrome,” but I find this inaccurate and misleading. One does not need to be exposed to terror to develop this affection, and the process is far more subtle and pedestrian/plebeian.)

But accompanying this love comes specific fear of leadership, fear of loss of status, fear of failure to meet the impossible group standard, fear of the power that the group holds over others in the group, etc. For those who depend upon the group for their basic human needs and lack the ability to provide for themselves, rejection results in fear for their very survival. 

The above list of fears reminds me of the compulsive tendencies of those who are “habituated into compliance” (i.e., conditioned, groomed) within an abusive relationship that sexual trauma and codependency expert Patrick Carnes notes in his book, The Betrayal Bond (view additional info/references here).  A recent on this blog also notes a composite list of the toll that an abusive relationship takes on the targeted person.

Relationship Patterns of Victims in Response to Those who Exploit Power (Carnes, pgs. 125-7)

    • Compulsive Helplessness
    • Compulsive Focus on the Abuser (Involves care taking/giving and enmeshment.)
    • Compulsive Self-Reliance
    • Compulsive Caregiving
    • Compulsive Care-Seeking
    • Compulsive Rejection
    • Compulsive Compliance
    • Compulsive Identification with Others
    • Compulsive Reality Distortion (Denial of abuse and wishful thinking.)
    • Compulsive Abuse Seeking (In other relationships or through self-destructive behavior.)


The Inadequacy of the Fear-Based Systems of Patriarchal Perfectionism that Demanded that “She was responsible to get the heck out!”

I don’t know the specifics of Lourdes’ life. I don’t know whether she received “good enough” parenting before encountering Phillips that would have given her more wherewithal to remove herself from the situation. She didn’t have Flip Wilson Disease (“the devil made her do it”), but she didn’t have a lifeboat – and she needed one. What she couldn’t manage then, she has endeavored to find now with the help of her family. I believe that her efforts to follow what she believes God requires of her now – to make right the past – should be lauded. 

Similarly, I don’t take pleasure in revealing the sad details of my own experience in this series, but like Lourdes, I believe that God has made a way and wanted me to share what I’ve been through, for such a time as this. We overcome wickedness by the Blood of the Lamb and through the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:10-11).

Lourdes ElopementWhat I do understand well is the pressure as a child, a young adult, and a middle-aged one that this kind of situation is not as black and white simple as some would like it to be. In talking with Julie Anne about this matter, she mentioned a word that comes up often with so many people when discussing Quiverfull/Patriarchy: MESSY. Life is messy, and Lourdes’ situation proves even more so.

James wrote that pure religion, pure and undefiled, involved two tasks. As Christians, we are to visit the widows and the fatherless in their affliction (notable among those whom Jesus described as the “least of these”). We are also to somehow manage to keep ourselves unspotted from the world. We are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world with the frustrations that the Apostle Paul struggled with himself and wrote about in Romans chapter 7 when we fail to accomplish that to which we aspire. We are messy people, and we all fail all the time at both the care that we should show to others in need and in keeping ourselves unmarred by the world we live in – though we aspire out of love to be perfect … or, at least we should aspire out of love, not fear of reprisal.

I believe that Quiverfull/Patriarchy fears “contamination” as I’ve heard Kevin Swanson put it. Its followers focus on the process of remaining pure, as if they can somehow keep their souls pure through their own efforts. But that purity comes from the work of the Holy Spirit and the Word in us, not through our striving or even through cleaning up our behavior and thoughts. It comes from inside of us and manifests as it changes us outwardly. And that is an ocean away from a cavalier attitude towards sin. 

But in the striving and fear while avoiding contamination, patriarchy throws the least of these away while taking care of themselves. They lay a band-aid on a cancer, cover it in gingham and bows, and stamp it with “Biblical” superlatives to avoid the mess. And it is sad, for I also desire to emulate and live pure religion, too. I am spotted well enough now and am completely dependent upon the grace of God to purge me and make me clean.

The messy may need not apply at the establishment of patriarchy, but He who came to seek and save the lost doesn’t mind messiness a bit. He is the True Lifeboat – the Prince of Life who is intimately familiar with our pain and is moved with compassion for us. He became MESS for us – sin – and did what the Law could not do for us or in us, so that we might live in Him, fulfilling the righteous requirement of the Law by following His Spirit.

He who calmed the storm and walked on the water rescues us when sorrows like sea billows roll. May all hearts find Him, and may the bondage of the condemnation of the Law be put back under the water where it belongs. It was buried with Him in baptism. May we all rise up to walk in the newness of His unbounded, abundant life, and maybe even get out of the boat to walk on the water with Him.

 Excerpt from Bounded Choice by Lalich:

“Generally, we need to better understand present-day manifestations of … totalistic systems and their effects on our society. Although the two groups discussed in this book may be regarded as extreme and unusual, in fact, the people in them were in many ways no different from everyday citizens. They were by no means crazy or suffering from psychological maladies – at least not when they joined. Nor were they evil, ill-intentioned, or stupid. 

“For the most part, they were just people who had a deep desire for a better life and found a way to act on it that they thought was right for them. Unfortunately, their idealism was betrayed by the very systems in which they participated, the very structures they worked so hard to uphold” (pgs. 260-1).

*      *      

A big thank you to commenter “BeenThereDoneThat” here at SSB for sharing this inspiring video of hope and encouragement!  This is the perfect complement to this discussion, pointing the way out of the false confines of our perceptions!

*      *      

A final note:  Those who struggle with finding justice on the journey of forgiveness may benefit from reading here.  I wrote everything I’ve learned about forgiveness and about the often hard journey on the way to forgiveness, quoting and pointing to the best sources I’ve found thus far.  One of the most painful things to hear when struggling in pain involves the false accusations that getting out of harm’s way and caring for self amount to unforgiveness and bitterness — so often thrown at victims in their brokenness.

 *      *      *      *      * 

GOD BLESS BRAD, that Futurist Guy who did the bulk of the tedious work and Dr. Barb Orlowski, for editing all of these posts that were so personal for me.  Especially with the first item in the series, I struggled to write because of the emotions I found myself sorting out.  Brad’s impressive grasp of several related topics in addition to that of spiritual abuse made the experience a pleasure.  Because of the nature of the subject, I found him to be an excellent “mirror” which allowed me to see myself reflected back through his editing.  Bad therapists make for distorted and occluded images when they make the therapeutic process about themselves, letting that compete with the needs of the client.  I found Brad’s compassionate and inquisitive comments to be quite therapeutic.

I’m grateful, and I’m glad to have him, Barb, and Julie Anne with me on this new stretch in my journey.  I’m amazed at the timing and the way everything came together, as I’ve been preparing information on these topics for some time, but I haven’t written about them.  Moved by Lourdes Torres-Manteufel’s courage and Katie Botkin’s wise words, I find myself grateful to them as well for giving me the perfect framework to put these things all together in a way that I pray will be very helpful and meaningful to many.

We, being many, are one body in Christ, 

and every one members one of another.

Romans 12:5


29 thoughts on “Lourdes, Lifeboats, and Bounded Choice: Part IV (The Complicated Process of Exiting Totalist Groups)”

  1. Cindy, Do you have any idea how much of this stuff like bounded choice, cult tactics, etc are taken into consideration in a court of law? Can it be used as evidence of wrong doing?

    I know that just in my experience with abuse victims and their custody battles they have that sociopathy and narcissism have rarely been acknowledged by the courts. The courts tended to treat the sociopath as a rational human being. In fact, the bolder they were the more they got by with it.


  2. In court, these matters fall under the term of “undue influence,” and that term is often brought up in discussions with the psychologists who give expert testimony in these kinds of cases. For at time, Janja Lalich pushed to change the language of cultic influence to “undue influence” which I sometimes also use, depending on the discussion.

    I was very pleased to see the term “total institution” in Lourdes’ petition to the court, as it seems to suggest that the attorney consulted this body of literature pertaining to high demand groups. I’d love to know if they’re using an appropriate expert witness to advance this. If they’re not, I have plenty that I can recommend.


  3. Cindy, I have been in direct contact with Gibbs III and one of the attorneys who works for him. I’d be happy to pass along any information you have.


  4. This must be the week for elephant stories, and I found this one to be quite timely. Ryan Stollar wrote one last week. Last night, Nancy Bicknell posted this on Facebook — a woman and her sons who have been horrible, horrible experiences in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement.

    I could not help but think of the SGA as I watched this baby elephant struggle to get out of an empty well. I hope that all of this information here gives a generation of disenfranchised homeschooled adults the hope that it is possible to break the tethers that bind, but there are people out there to help them get out of the traps. Often, the parent cannot do it because of their own baggage and the trappings that we do not always see.

    I even found the long distance that the baby elephant had to travel to be pretty prophetic, too. That’s why it’s important that parents who have been alienated from their kids through some of this ideology that comes along with homeschooling need to work at being “safe persons” for their SGAs.


  5. Cindy
    I do not often comment but since reading your posts here I have to say “rock on”!!
    Your wisdom is valuable and necessary. I went on your blog way before I found SSB and found it to be so helpful in my journey out of religiosity. Thankfully I have never experienced abuse ( not at all meaning to make myself proud of that, just thankful and humbled) but was on the cusp of it in certain systems growing up and within my adulthood. I find it hard to respond here because I have not gone through the abuses others have had; but, I do sympathize and hold dearly that we are all the creation of the Creator and He has given us freedom to think and do for ourselves. I will fight for that fiercely. I do understand the value of each person and we MUST uphold that, even if it means being scorned, ridiculed or persecuted. You do so well at this as does Julie Anne and many others here. It has given me the courage and inspiration in my own life to confront those who will trample on those who are vulnerable. I am growing and thanks to you and others led by the Spirit- yes! I do see the Spirit using these avenues to do great and mighty things for Him! Why? Because in His Word the MOST important of ANY law, which really there is only ONE law that is for the Believer to follow, is love Him and his creation – Man. Any self-serving methods of man are to be shunned and run out of the assembly of Gods family!


  6. “It has given me the courage and inspiration in my own life to confront those who will trample on those who are vulnerable. I am growing and thanks to you and others led by the Spirit- yes! ”

    Thank you. Those who have been abused really need folks to do this when they are too weak and scared to stand up for themselves.


  7. Cindy, Thank you for your post. It is a shame that our society values autonomy and independent thought so much, that we are blinded to the fact that we are more vulnerable than we recognize. Therefore it is easier to blame the victim with the illusion of, ” I (or my child) would never be manipulated by someone else”. Thinking that you are impervious to abusive or negative influences only makes you more vulnerable and less vigilant.
    I love to see how gracious everyone is “behind the scenes” at SSB. I know ya’ll are working towards the same goal, but it is easy for people to become competitive and jealous of another’s success. JA is so gracious and supportive of Cindy and I can see Cindy has total respect for JA. How many pastor’s are able to “share the spotlight ” with others??? I will bite my tongue and not name names! I admire how you don’t let ego get in the way of the task at hand. Maybe you guys could start a class on, “My Ministry Does Not Diminish Your Ministry”, or “Being a Snarky Asshole about a More Popular Pastor is Not Biblical” 🙂 Thanks for all you do!


  8. Cindy, I get chills thinking about what it might take to bring a jury up to speed on what it has taken me years to figure out.


  9. @Lydia, “Cindy, I get chills thinking about what it might take to bring a jury up to speed on what it has taken me years to figure out.”

    Because of some learning style aspects of how I’m “wired,” I think in pictures. For what it’s worth, I’ve wondered if “word pictures” and images would help a jury get it quickly. For instance, the whole image of the elephant being tethered for years, and then not roaming even when supposedly free to do so, is pretty powerful.

    Or, because the Plaintiff’s Petition deals with total institution and patriarchy, etc., the image of the multiple “umbrellas of authority” might help understand how an unmarried young woman living with her parents is almost at the absolute bottom of the pyramid in the patriarchy system; girls who are minors are about the only other category even lower.

    Or, like in investigative procedural TV shows, have a bulletin board with photos of the main people/movements listed, and strings to show how each interconnects with the other for book endorsements, speaking engagements, who’s on whose boards of directors, and yadda-yadda.

    There may be ways visually to *show* what it means to complement descriptions that *tell* what it means. And I wouldn’t be surprised but that good old common sense could lead jurors to see through the visionary facades for the control and “undue influence” lurking everywhere in this interlocking directly of organizations and the total institution their philosophies and theologies create.


  10. I can’t adequately express how healing the whole experience here at SSB has been for me. Julie Anne and all of you have been so good and gracious, and it’s an honor to be welcomed to contribute here. I am in humble awe. Thank you.


  11. Cindy and Julie Anne, I have been mostly a lurker here (multiple times every day!) but I just have to say how much I appreciate both of you. Cindy, your research has helped me understand so much about how and why I bought into the old discipleship/shepherding movement of a generation ago, and then how I was bamboozled by the extremist views of some in the homeschooling movement. Thanks to both of you. The SSB online community is a real source of encouragement and healing for those of us who are still in the exit process. I pray that Lourdes and her husband will find real grace and freedom as they step out of the lifeboat and find solid ground.


  12. My parents became devotees of Bill Gothard’s teachings when I was in my adolescence. The pastor showed the seminars on tape at church, and I was dragged to one when my folks were convinced I was on the wrong path. I’m 59 now, I was diagnosed with PTSD & bipolar several years ago. I realize that my mental illness began during the Gothard part of my life. Thankfully the scandal in the 70s stopped his influence in church and at home. But the rigid thinking, the black and white way of living, was destructive. Thank God I was never home schooled or put into private Christian school, as were my younger siblings. We all carry quite a bit of pain. This really helps me to understand the why of where I ended up.


  13. Wow. I am genuinely touched by both Meg and Sheila’s comments. In fact, the waterworks started spontaneously without warning and I hate it when there is no Kleenex handy 🙂

    I’m so thankful for the work that Cindy has done. She has gone through her own trials I have so greatly appreciated her vulnerability and her educational expertise on these topics. When I first started blogging, I had Cindy’s blog on my sidebar because there is so much information there pertaining to spiritual abuse and recovery, high-controlling abuse systems, etc.

    It is so helpful to get this kind of feedback – – that the information provided here is helping in some meaningful way. It makes the pain we went through have some redeeming value in helping others. What a blessing (and I know that sounds Christianese, but I can’t find another word – lol). Thank you, both!


  14. Thank you, Cindy!
    this is a post to treasure.

    and for me the sweetest part was the end where you thanked Brad, Barb Orlowski, Julie Anne and the inspiration of Katy Botkin and Lourdes.

    1 Peter 2:4-6
    Come to Jesus Christ. He is the living stone that people have rejected, but which God has chosen and highly honored. And now you are living stones that are being used to build a spiritual house. You are also a group of holy priests, and with the help of Jesus Christ you will offer sacrifices that please God. It is just as God says in the Scriptures,

    “Look! I am placing in Zion
    a choice and precious
    No one who has faith
    in that one
    will be disappointed.”


  15. Brad, Great points! You are so right, with limited time/attention we must use word pics and illustrations like Cindy did with the elephant to communicate bounded choice.

    I have seen where “graphic” books are becoming very popular. One of my favorite historical narratives was turned into a graphic book for the sake a new generation who is not that familiar with the depression. The book is the Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes and it was excellent and quite instructive as a regular book. The graphic idea is a way to cut through the ingrained thinking from culture, cliches were were taught, etc.

    That might be the idea for a book on spiritual abuse! It is very hard to wrap ones head around the concept and how it works in practice.


  16. It did it again! It just reverted back after I went in a changed it. I just went in and changed it again so we will see. Seems wordpress has the “memory” of an elephant

    Mod note: I changed it for ya – love the elephant reference – lol ~ja


  17. @lydiasellerofpurple … did you know that a sort of image-driven guide to the systems of spiritual abuse and recovery is exactly what I’ve been working on lately, as a subset of a larger curriculum on personal and social transformation? To talk about a trajectory of transformation, we have to understand what it is that we have come out of, and what we must avoid going toward. So … metaphors are an excellent medium in which to work, combining text and images, conceptual and concrete. Hoping to have an extract done soon on the nine harmful roles I see being played in the abuse perpetrator’s support network – counteracted by nine redemptive roles in the abuse survivor’s support system. Should be intriguing to see how people respond. Sometimes stories, metaphors, art illustrations, and photos capture the emotional essence and impact far better than can words alone.


  18. Meg and Sheila and Barbara,

    Again, I am just overwhelmed and grateful. It’s so rare that I’m at a loss for many words…;)


  19. Brad, I am so glad you are using all those communication tools for your project. My career was in training so I was always using metaphors, illustrations, experiential learning, visuals, etc to drive the point home. But my pea brain never mapped that to a graphic book!

    Now, “the avoid going toward” is the harder part. Once you really understand the dynamics of totalist thinking you start to see it in quite a few places. But having the tools to deal with it are important. especially from being manipulated.


  20. Most of what you have described here just as much applies to the state and government schools as to a homeschooling or religious group. Don’t all human societies have ethics and control systems like this to a certain degree?


  21. I’m getting ready to head out of town, Ken, but let me quickly note that the difference between a government school and this high demand, authoritarian homeschooling is that when you leave the school, you can do what you want. Spiritually abusive groups demand 100% compliance 100% of the time with no time off. It requires an inner conversion, not just outward conformity. It is a type of hegemony.

    It is the same with the military. They are authoritarian in style, and when you are on duty, you belong to the system. When you’re on leave, you can choose to do what you want and dress the way that you want (without doing anything illegal, of course). That is not the case with a high demand religious group. You have to give your whole self over to the system or suffer ostracizing or loss of personhood. If you don’t fit the mold, you’re cursed not only by the system, but by God. That’s very different from a healthy religious group and very different from a public/government school.


  22. Let me add, that there are certainly forces, powers, and individuals who would like and who do work to make religious systems or any ideologically minded group coercive. We wrestle not against flesh and blood as Christians, but against principalities and powers… But God gives us each a choice, and so long as it lasts, so does our Constitution in the US. But there are no choices for children who grow up in a high demand group. When you leave, you are cursed. Phillips himself is known for this. I’ve experienced it myself when I left my own high demand, spiritually abusive church and was told that I would get cancer and die. (I was not under any kind of censure or in any bad standing with the church. It was just the will of the elders that I remain there — while they excused and covered up domestic abuse.) That’s not a healthy religious group.

    Ideology is a tricky thing, but at least when a student leaves the grounds of the school, they are free to think as they please. I pray that this lasts as a freedom for us in the US.


  23. Just to note, not all home schooling families are into Phillips and the like and lots of home schoolers go onto college, choose their own spouses and live their own lives and are not under bondage to the abusive religious system that has been created by these false leaders.


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