Questions for Family Members

I think my son might be getting involved with a cult. What can I do?

The most important factor in this area of family life, as in other areas, is communication. If you can still have a frank dialogue with your son, ask him about the group. What are their beliefs? Who is the leader? Do they have any other names? How are people who choose to leave the group looked upon? You want to gather as much information as you can.

Your stance should be one of active parental concern, but not one of alarm. If you react with alarm, your son will be likely to feel that you're over-reacting to a benign, wonderful organization and he will dismiss your concerns out of hand. You want to ask the kinds of questions you want your him to be asking.

In most cases, it's better not to use the word cult even if you suspect that this group may be a cult. The term can be hard to define and you may get bogged down in a useless definitional discussion. What's important is not whether one defines this group as a cult; but whether this group will, in the long run, be helpful or harmful to your son.

Contact us or the AFF, the Leo J. Ryan Foundation, CultInfo, the Cult Information Service, or one of the regional groups or individuals that can give you advice. Don't be apologetic to your son about wanting to gather objective information about the group. You're role modeling the actions that he should be taking.

My daughter has joined a cultic group. What do I do now?

The first thing you should do is to speak to your daughter about your concerns. Tell her that you've done some research on the group and that you know some things that you feel she needs to know. Ask her if she would be willing to speak to someone who has been in the group or who has information about the group. If she refuses to speak to anyone about the group, tell her that this refusal upsets you because one of the characteristics of a destructive group is that the members are discouraged or forbidden from speaking to any outsider about the group. A legitimate group encourages its members to hear all points of view. She tells you that this group is legitimate, but she's acting as if it were a cult. That's confusing to you.

If she accuses you of trying to control her life, point out the many times that you disagreed with a decision that she made, but accepted her choice. All you're asking is that she receives information and knowledge to help her to make an informed choice. The choice is still hers.

Again, the major factor here is communication. Tell her that even though you disagree about the organization, you can live with that. The possibility that you can't live with is if she is no longer dialoguing with you. You want to make sure the lines of communication remain open. As long as you're talking, you have some insight into her reactions and input into her decisions. You want to make sure the lines of communication remain open.

Again, contacting us or one of the other people or organizations knowledgeable in this area will be helpful to you. We can help you to plan a strategy of intervention in the situation and we'll talk to you about the best way to help your daughter make an informed decision about her continued membership in the group.

My son has been a member of a cult for several years. His sister is angry at him and every time I try to get her to try to talk him out of the cult she says that she wants nothing to do with him. How can I get her to understand about mind control?

Parents sometimes make the error of focusing all their attention on the child who is in the cult and neglecting the needs of the children who did not join the cult. After all, the reasoning goes, the children who didn't join the cult are doing okay, while the one who joined the cult is the one in need of help. The non-cult sibling may feel neglected and angry. You would be wise, in this circumstance, to use this as an opportunity to look at the amount of attention you've been paying to your daughter. Perhaps she feels that your concern over your son's situation has led to your ignoring her and her accomplishments or problems.

Aside from the sibling rivalry your daughter might feel, she has other reasons to be angry with her brother. She might feel hurt and rejected by him. She might be reacting to the distress she sees that her brother has caused you. She might not understand the concept of mind control and the possibility that her brother is under the influence of others.

Ask her what she thinks you should do and how she feels she'll be able to contribute. If she feels that her needs and opinions aren't being neglected or taken for granted, she might be able to help you to deal with her brother's situation.

Questions About Cult Issues

I am having difficulty explaining my cult experience to family and friends, because I feel embarrassed. How can I deal with this problem?

It is important that you view your joining the cult in the context of the information which you had at the time, not in terms of the information that is available to you now. If you initially had not been deceived and had known about the manipulative techniques used by your group, you would have chosen not to join. Remember, no one chooses to join a cult!

For the most part, the reasons that led you to join your group were good ones. Should you feel embarrassed for wanting to belong to a community of friends? Should you feel embarrassed for wanting a better world or wanting to find a way to fulfill your spiritual needs? Should you feel embarrassed for wanting to better yourself or find a way to get help for your problems? If you review your reasons for joining, it will remind you that you could have just as easily joined a legitimate group rather than a group that turned out to be a cult.

Your cult took your good qualities, i.e., sincerity, loyalty, trust, commitment, and used them to better gain control over you through their manipulative techniques. Since you were honest, it was difficult for you to believe that your leader was a charlatan. All of us make mistakes in life and regret many of the actions we have taken. However, public mistakes can be more embarrassing to us. Hopefully, those around us can understand that we all have human limitations, which is different from your cult's need for perfection. Perhaps your sense of embarrassment stems from the harsh and judgmental attitude that was so prevalent in your cult. Cult members learn to blame themselves for all problems and you might be continuing the need for self-blame. You showed a great deal of courage in leaving your group. Many people continue to stubbornly cling to a discredited idea or person even after having been shown that they were in error. You have something to offer those around you. You have an understanding of mind control and the manipulative techniques used by cults. You are an expert in that you have experienced these techniques first-hand. Unfortunately, you might meet some people who need to distance themselves from the possibility of having painful experiences. Therefore, they tend to blame the victims of bad experiences. It might be difficult for some people to accept the concept of mind control just as they would have difficulty feeling that somebody who was raped was not “asking for it.” If you find that you can not help certain people to see the harm that cults can do to unsuspecting people, you might as well save your energy for more satisfying activities. It is not necessarily your "mission" to educate them if they refuse to understand your experience.

In the cult, you were induced not to trust your own judgment of different situations. Now that you are free, you can begin to trust yourself again. Don't let the critical attitudes of others define you as they did in the cult. Find supportive people in your life and spend some time having fun with them.

Some of my friends remain in the cult. What can I say to them that might help them to leave?

It is natural for those who have left a cult to wish that they could help friends who remain under the group's influence to leave. The cult might have been your only friendship network for many years. Many former members feel remorse for having recruited others into a totalitarian environment and wish to undo the harm that their friends have experienced. Before you rush to help others leave, please take care of yourself. It might be difficult to acknowledge that your needs come first right now, because cult ideology is based on sacrificing your needs and putting the cult leader's needs first.. You were made to feel selfish if you desired to fulfill your own desires. Therefore, you were robbed of your individual identity.

Remember, if you are not coming from a position of clarity and strength, it will be hard for you to convince your friends of the necessity of leaving. You have to protect yourself from becoming vulnerable to the cult once again. Cult members use emotionality not rationality and your positive feelings towards your friend might be manipulated to pressure you to return. Protect yourself from being emotionally exploited as a result of speaking with your friend. In contrast to being manipulated, you might have to withstand being snubbed or berated by former friends. Cult ideology is based on black and white conditional love. Those that have left usually are shunned and members often are pressured to have no contact with them. It might be too painful for you to handle such an encounter.

If you have recently left, rather than speaking directly to your friend, you might explain the situation to your friend's family. This might be the best way to help your friend to leave. Family members might have the greatest stake in rescuing their loved one. They know what your friend was like prior to the cult experience and this can be quite useful for planning an intervention. However, you will be a crucial member of any plan and the family will need to know your understanding of your friend's current life and functioning, as well as your knowledge of the cult.

However, if you do feel strong enough to approach your friend, we will offer some suggestions: First, it is particularly important to act in a way that will bring the doubts that all cult members have into his or her conscious awareness. Rather than challenging your friend's experience, focus on your own. Explain how you came to see the hypocrisy of the leadership. Focus on the techniques that you had to use to suppress your doubts and how you came to realize that your doubts were healthy responses to duplicitous behavior. Second, if your friend denies having doubts, remind him or her that you are speaking of your own experience. Hopefully, it will become hard for your friend to keep ignoring the truth. Third, prior to meeting with your friend, it might be helpful to think of responses to all possible objections that could be raised. You can begin your conversation with your your friend's position. Explain the concept of Lifton's “thought-terminating clichés” and give all the rationalizations you would have used prior to leaving. Fourth, attempt to establish a dialogue with your friend, a forum in which the two of you can have an open discussion of ideas. It is important to contrast this with the cult's attempts to establish a closed system in which ideas only stem from the leader and recruits are unable to question. If your friend dismisses you, have him or her consider that this is an example of the closed system of cults in which those who leave are apostates and those who were never in the cult don't know the true meaning of the group. Fifth, recognize that your friend might be unwilling to speak with you because you threaten his need to believe that someone could leave and remain a good person. If you are a good person who is successful in life, this flies in the face of cult ideology that states that all who leave must suffer horrible consequences and must be demonized. Sixth, end your conversation with your desire to be available to speak with him or her any time in the future. Some of what you have expressed might have affected your friend even if he or she seems adamant about remaining in the cult. Your friend might consider speaking with you again in the future.