DARVO refers to a reaction perpetrators of wrong doing may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior.Dr . Jennifer J. Freyd
DARVO is a useful tool to determine whether you might be dealing with a personality disordered individual such as a narcissist or psychopath. Since the majority of cults are led by such people, DARVO also becomes another useful tool to determine whether you might be in a cult, by applying it to the leader.
DARVO stands for Denial, Attack, and Reversing Victim and Offender. It works like this:
- Denial – The narcissist will claim they never said or did that
- Attack – If you have evidence or an argument, they will bypass that and directly attack you. This can be very exhausting or even frightening, but the narcissist loves doing it so they will usually win. Most people will back off after two or three attacks, because it wears them down. The narcissist however, gets a high off all this and it will make them feel better. The narcissist can weaponize things you have told them in confidence. They can create a sense of menace without directly threatening you.
- Reversing Victim and Offender – After attacking you, the narcissist will reverse the victim and offender roles. They paint themselves as the victim and you as the attacker or problem. They may claim this is a witch hunt and everyone is out to get them, or that they are being persecuted. They may also make veiled threats about revealing the “truth” about you, now the offender, to the public. This is the gaslighting main event designed to put you on the defensive. Once you go on the defensive, they have you trapped.
Below are two examples of DARVO in action from the cult I recently left. The first involved the cult leader actively meddling in and destroying a marriage by manipulating the wife into divorcing her husband, and then vilifying the husband afterwards when he spoke out and confronted the leader about it. The second occurred during a mass exodus from the cult where some people spoke out against the leader. Many of those departing or in the process of departing called out the leader for changes in doctrine, splitting apart families, or abusing people in various ways.
A man in the congregation courted a woman, also in the congregation, and they were married by the cult leader in a public ceremony. Shortly thereafter, the leader and his wife took aside the woman and manipulated her into divorcing the man because he would not submit to and obey the leader. They did this without the presence or knowledge of her new husband. When the husband discovered what was going on, he approached the religious leader in the manner specified in the bible, endorsed by the leader himself (Matthew 18:15-17). First alone one-on-one, but the leader denied any involvement despite evidence to the contrary. Then in the company of several other congregation members, which the leader also deflected. Finally, he addressed the entire congregation. The cult leader responded with a clear example of DARVO.
The leader denied manipulating or even speaking to the man’s wife about divorce, even though the husband had ample evidence to the contrary. He stated that the idea for the divorce came entirely from the woman and that he had actually advised to the contrary.
The leader then stated that the woman divorced him because he was a bad husband who would not follow God or the bible. He falsely painted the husband as a man of questionable character who regularly violated biblical commands, although he could not provide any evidence of this except for one very minor issue that the husband had already addressed long ago. He inflated this minor issue into something ludicrously huge, even though many congregation members had been “forgiven” repeatedly for violating it. The leader did not address any of the issues the husband brought up when addressing the entire congregation. Instead, he personally attacked the man, calling him a rebel and unwilling to submit to godly authority (i.e., the cult leader’s authority). He then threw him out of the congregation and banned him from setting foot on the cult property again.
The cult leader then stated he was just a humble servant of God who was being falsely accused of meddling in and destroying a marriage. He indicated that he was forced to remove the husband from the congregation for the best interests of the people in it. He said that the husband had left him no choice, by refusing to talk about it to resolve things (even though the husband had made repeated efforts to discuss this with the leader). He told others that he had tried his very best to reconcile with the husband, but that the man was just too prideful and vindictive to consider it. He then accused the husband of slandering and maliciously gossiping against both him and the congregation.
Less than a year after the meddling incident, many people began leaving the cult for various reasons ranging from doctrinal changes to outright abuse. Some of them were vocal about it and confronted the leader to account for his abuse or enabling abuse from others. Others called into question possible abuse of children within the group. One man asked the leader to provide credentials substantiating who and what he claimed to be. Some legitimate religious leaders from different groups questioned the leader’s scholarship, doctrine and methods. They invited him to debate publicly with them. In a nutshell, the cult leader had kicked over an ant’s nest of various people whom he had hurt, offended, or maligned in some manner.
The cult leader denied any fault or responsibility for the people leaving. He also stated that all his doctrinal teachings were sound and that both those departing and the legitimate religious leaders questioning them were either misinformed or personally vindictive. He further stated that there was no abuse of any kind occurring within the group.
Once again, the leader did not address one single question or allegation. Instead, he attacked those speaking out as “rebelling against God.” He responded to the man asking for credentials that he should in turn provide his own credentials, ludicrous because the man asking was not claiming to be a religious scholar or leader, and therefore needed no credentials. He vilified the legitimate religious leaders questioning him by calling them anti-Semitic and stating that they were the ones who were teaching falsely. He underscored this attack by attempting to personally ridicule them and any sources they cited, often for the most flimsy or nonsensical reasons. He falsely claimed questionable sources or statements by them that they never used or made. He even mobilized cult members into attacking and intimidating people challenging him, while claiming they were acting on their own. Some of the more aggressive cult members called or visited people in an attempt to intimidate them into either returning or remaining quiet.
The leader smoothly segued into victim mode by further exploiting the anti-Semitic fiction. He loudly proclaimed all the people questioning him and calling him out to be anti-Semitic persecutors against the righteous followers of God (i.e.., him and the cult). Never mind that some of the people calling him out were themselves Semitic (Jewish) and he was not. He then claimed to be very open minded and humble, willing to discuss whatever was on the congregation’s mind and try to find a compromise with which everyone could agree. [However, during that discussion, he had the first man who raised an objection thrown out of the meeting and banned from the property.] Finally, he proclaimed that God had purged all those who had left or he had thrown out to refine the congregation into a pure and righteous group who continued to be unjustly targeted for following God.
You cannot make up this stuff. The leader of the group, which I and others left, glaringly and blatantly meets these criteria, yet still people continue to follow and defend him.
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.Proverbs 28:13