By Rick Ross
After first clearly establishing through obvious "warning signs" that someone is involved with a potentially unsafe group/leader and/or destructive cult--most families will attempt to intervene personally--some may seek professional help and undertake a more formal structured intervention. Others may find intervention too difficult.
When someone you know becomes involved in a destructive cult there is one rule, which is consistently
applicable to any cult situation--don't act hastily or panic. It is unwise to offer any response without first
educating yourself--by specifically researching the group/leader in question, the general subject of
cults and carefully considering what response best suits your individual situation. After this process of education you will better understand your options and can develop a practical strategy.
Remember once you respond--you may have to live with the results of that response for some time.
In any contact with a cult member it is vitally important to remain (at least visibly) calm. It is also important, whenever possible, to discuss the situation with other family members and/or those intimately concerned. Any strategy or planned response is best approached when everyone concerned is acting together in concert and fully informed. It may also be helpful to seek a second opinion from someone objective who is not personally involved, but ideally is knowledgeable about cults--such as a family therapist/counselor, clergy person or specialist regarding cults.
There are numerous books you can read regarding cults, influence and coercive persuasion techniques. Perhaps the top four are: "Cults in Our Midst" by Margaret Singer, "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism" by Robert Jay Lifton, "Influence" by Robert Cialdini and "Snapping" by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. Also, you might try to find specific books and/or news articles about the cult, group and/or leader you are concerned about. It is vitally important to be aware of the facts available and receive up to date information. The Internet (see links) and your local library may be meaningful resources.
When educating yourself about cults and their techniques of control it is important to recognize that there is also misleading information distributed and promoted. That is, the cults themselves may have front organizations or groups that pose as neutral resources. Likewise, some cults have sponsored/funded academics or others who may apologize (see "Cult Apologists"?) for their behavior and/or attack their critics.
It is important to research the background of your sources carefully for specific information about their history--concerning their positions on the subject of cults. Some apologists may even insist that there is no such thing as a "cult" and that this is a derogatory term used by "religious bigots"--such cult apologists typically prefer the term "new religious movements" or "NRMs."
You should also consult with knowledgeable mental health professionals, educators and clergy about your concerns. But remember, only talk with those who agree to keep contact with you, your comments and concerns confidential. Their commitment to confidentiality and discretion is very important. Any leak back to the cult member and/or the cult itself would likely have negative and often punitive consequences (e.g. bad feelings and resentment, which might result in strained communication).
There are helping organizations within the United States and around the world that can offer meaningful resources. But again, such organizations should be carefully scrutinized (i.e. there are controversial "cult awareness" groups, which have drawn critical concern--see CAN). You should know an organization's history and its position on the issues before sharing any personal information about your situation. The Internet can be a useful tool to check almost any organization's background and history.
Many cults have troubled histories, which may include criminal conduct. Former members and/or other concerned parties may have sued them. A trip to the courthouse in the area where the group's primary headquarters is may reveal meaningful information. In some situations it may prove helpful to hire a private detective and dig deeper, but such specialized help can be expensive--be sure to clearly define both your objectives and the costs involved before proceeding.
Whenever family and friends are concerned about someone in a cult--communication with the cult member is vitally important and should be ongoing. Hopefully, the group and its leaders will allow that communication and not interfere with any existing relationships. Most often when family and friends are not visibly hostile and remain at least seemingly passive--communication will be allowed.
Communication is absolutely essential for the following two primary reasons:
Communication thus often enables you to effectively penetrate the cult's control over a member's environment and his or her information. And also most importantly their thoughts and emotional life.
Whenever you talk to a cult member you should always try to stay positive. Find subjects of mutual interest and attempt to maintain and/or build upon your rapport. Be friendly, reasonable and look for areas of possible agreement. Don't be confrontive, punitive, combative and/or argumentative. Don't denounce the group, its leader(s) and/or beliefs and practices. But this does not mean that you should be deliberately misleading or phony. Don't give false information and/or act obviously out of character.
Never use the word "cult" to describe the group or terms like "brainwashed" and "mind control."
- First, to demonstrate continuing love and commitment, which should remain intact regardless of cult involvement.
- Second, because by communicating you can offer the cult member a link to the outside world, more accurate feedback and an outside frame of reference.
If a cult member confronts you with their beliefs and demands a response, defer such an exchange by simply saying--"I have my own beliefs, but I would be willing to look at some literature, books or materials from your perspective." If they are persistent and confrontive you might say, "I would rather not discuss this now--let's talk about something else. I don't want to argue." And "I am just so glad to have this time with you--let's make our time together pleasant."
Frequent contact is very important if at all possible. This may include phone calls, letters and/or personal visits, but don't be a pest. That is, reasonably respect that person's space and schedule. You should probably coordinate any communication efforts with other family members and perhaps the cult member's old friends--encouraging them to visit and call regularly too.
It is crucial to keep cult members informed of any change of address, phone numbers and contact numbers for family and important old friends. Cult members should be kept up to date about family news and/or situations. This might include information about someone that is sick or hospitalized, births, deaths, weddings, graduations, engagements, etc. And they should always be sent invitations/announcements of such events. Always remember to call if there is a family emergency. And make it clear that all collect calls will be accepted. Of course, this may be very difficult with some cult groups due to their restrictions and/or rules regarding communication with members.
Don't forget the cult member's birthday, any special anniversaries and/or holidays. Send gifts, cards and/or commemorative keepsakes, but never send money. All these considerations serve as important reminders, not only of family and old friends, but also of pleasant memories related to the cult member's former life.
Create a file about the group, which includes any material you have gathered (e.g. articles, court document, reports and any published literature from the group), correspondences and copies of whatever you may have written or sent (i.e. to the group and/or group member). Some families keep a detailed journal or diary. They often find this helpful for future reference (to remember the history and context of events).
Some cult groups control and at times censor their member's mail. It is also not uncommon for communication to be distorted through such a filtering process. It is very helpful to have an objective and clear record of any communications (e.g. letters, cards, what gifts were sent).
People in cults often develop a distinct new cult identity or personality. This personality will be consistent with the qualities valued by the group and its leader(s) and correspond rigidly to its doctrine.
Flavil Yeakley, author of the book "The Discipling Dilemma" researched the effects of cultic influence upon individual personality traits. What he found was a cloning phenomenon. That is, members mirroring certain personality traits that corresponded to a preferred prototype, which was very similar to the group's leader. What can be seen from Yeakley's research and other examinations of cult members--is that a new identity is often developed and shaped through their influence. This new personality is often not consistent with the member's previous character and may seem like mimicry of other members.
The process of breaking down and then reshaping thoughts and emotions is best understood by reading Robert Lifton's seminal book "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism." In Chapter 22 he details the cataloguing of thoughts and feelings through the preeminence of "Doctrine Over Person" and the group's "Demand for Purity". Lifton also describes how people within such a thought reform process frequently strip themselves, in an act of symbolic self-surrender, through a dynamic he calls the "Cult of Confession". Typically, through such a thought reform process--cults can break down individual personalities and then shape and mold new ones.
It is very important to recognize this process through which destructive cults can falsify and/or submerge an existing personality. And how they then can superimpose upon the member their own preferred personality traits. Awareness of this process will better prepare you to cope with a loved one who may develop a personality you don't readily recognize. That cult personality may exhibit traits, which are otherwise often confusing and at times may even appear obnoxious. But by recognizing the origin and controlling forces behind such behavior you can learn to be more sensitive, patient, tolerant and understanding.
The realization that you often may not be dealing with someone's genuine personality can enable family and friends to more easily avoid angry responses, unproductive emotional outbursts and confrontations. For example, a cult member may be hypercritical, offer harsh judgements and/or act needlessly punitive or petty. In contrast at times cult members may also seem emotionally flat and/or insensitive. These traits should be seen as an expression of the cult's preferred personality, which they have been taught to imitate.
You must become sensitive to this cult personality and also well acquainted with the group's beliefs, demands and practices to avoid needless confrontation. For example--if the cult member's group has a rigid diet, clothing requirements and/or prohibitions against certain activities (e.g. watching television, reading newspapers) --don't offend them. Your insensitivity about such issues may stimulate unreasonable fears set in place through their indoctrination. This may subsequently shut down a conversation or communication in general.
You must also be sensitive to certain terms, phrases or words (taught within the group) and avoid them. This is what Lifton calls "Loaded Language" or "thought terminating cliches." In some supposedly "bible based" groups such expressions as "the world," "unbelievers," even "love" may be twisted and loaded with special significance. It is important to learn this language (perhaps through articles about the group, books and/or the group's own materials) and be sensitive to its use and implications.
Whenever talking with a cult member it is often meaningful to ask open ended and thought provoking questions, but always without being accusatory or argumentative. For example, ask questions about the future such as, "What are your plans for the next few years"? "Where do you see yourself in five years--what will you be doing then"? Such questions may spark some spontaneous consideration and/or critical thinking. The cult member might consider their role in the group, sense of security, doubts and the future. You might talk about education plans, medical care or even retirement. But again, you must be sensitive to their "loaded language" and the unreasonable fears they may have (e.g. group denunciations concerning education or medicine). You must limit any conversation and comments within such parameters.
When unreasonable fears come up try to put them into a more objective frame of reference by giving accurate feedback such as, "Do you really think that's a serious concern"? And "Why"? Always allow the cult member to answer completely and listen courteously. Be a good listener and don't interrupt or in any way belittle or ridicule their responses.
Again, remember that you may be dealing largely with a cult personality. Be aware that what you think and/or feel is reasonable, rational and logical may not be considered so in the cult.
Ask general questions about their daily life such as--"What did you do this week"? And just simple questions like "How are things going"? It is meaningful to demonstrate some genuine interest in the group, its daily life and activities. Don't ask pointed questions that sound accusatory and again--never use the word "cult" in any conversation.
Encourage family members and old friends to also have conversations with the cult member too. Be sure everyone is aware of the limitations and guidelines for that communication as previously outlined.
Generally, the more communication there is with people outside of the group--the better.
In any conversation with a cult member it is crucial to connect in some way with their past--specifically, before their involvement with the group. In this way you can, in a non-threatening way, often stimulate their submerged and genuine personality. You can do this by recalling memories of happy times spent with family and friends, accomplishments at school, even old romantic interests--without offending the group's sensibilities and/or breaking their rules (e.g. celibacy, banned holidays, prohibited activities). Working within such a framework is often difficult, but it is important to demonstrate to the cult member through passive conversation that his or her past life did have value, happiness and meaning.
Never be aggressive, punitive or try to induce guilt feelings through conversation--the group may turn this around and use it as an indictment of both you and your intentions. Assume that anything you say to the cult member will be repeated to leaders and/or others in the group and scrutinized. Again, don't provide the group and its leaders with ammunition to discredit you. Always do your best to be truthful, positive and consistent. And make every effort to fulfill any commitments.
Being a good listener will also enable you to gather information about the group, its practices, living conditions and whatever jargon they may use. Take notes whenever possible concerning any conversation (e.g. list key words and phrases they use frequently, note their special rules, practices and/or diet). Many cult groups are so small and obscure that there is little if any information readily available about them. Your notes may prove to be an invaluable future resource.
Only the most extreme groups discourage any expression of emotion or endearment. In most groups there is no prohibition against sincere feelings. With this in mind it's important to include in any conversation words of love and regard. You should say, "I love you" and "It's always good to hear from you" or "I miss you."
Life is often hard in a destructive cult and is very important for members to know they have family and friends on the outside who care. And that these people are there to provide loving support. If a cult member considers leaving the group--this may become a vitally important and pivotal point.
Visiting and making personal contact with cult members is important. Make it a point to visit as often as possible. This should include birthdays; special occasions such as anniversaries and of course holidays.
Most cult members don't live in isolated compounds and personally visiting is often relatively easy to do. Of course if you have been argumentative, hostile and accusatory historically--it may take some time to turn the temperature down and resume normal conversation and/or visits. If you want to visit and/or communicate with a cult member--it is vitally important not to anger cult leaders whom then may become punitive (e.g. they may block visits and further communication).
Visiting cult members away from the group is always preferable. This could be at a private residence or accomplished by inviting them out for a meal. Always be courteous. This may include patiently listening to descriptions of group activities and projects. But don't confuse courtesy with feigned feelings. That is, falsely expressing support for the group and/or its activities. Be polite, attentive and if you have nothing positive to say--simply offer no comment.
Remember--every action and comment will be viewed through the lens of the group and often scrutinized virtually with a microscope. Be very careful concerning your behavior on this basis. When in doubt about how to act and/or react-- don't do anything.
Again, during a visit focus on positive things such as happy memories and/or something good that recently occurred. Try to draw out the submerged personality through a sense of humor and/or the rapport you may have historically established before that person's cult involvement. Bring photos of old friends and family. And encourage others to make personal visits too. Such visits may be the only meaningful personal contact the cult member has outside the group.
The cult member should treat you with courtesy too. If you are not treated respectfully feel free to say, "You know I am doing the best I can to understand you and be respectful, I would appreciate it if you would please treat me with the same consideration." And if during a visit you feel pressured or confronted say, "I really don't want to discuss anything that might lead to a disagreement--please let's try to make this a nice visit." And again it's almost always appropriate to say; "I love you." And/or "It's really good to see you."
If you are invited to cult activities such as religious services or programs you should be careful. It may be appropriate to attend the group's open public services to demonstrate a reasonable attitude, but it would be unwise to participate in training sessions or intensive group programs typically designed for indoctrination. Such a session or program might become volatile, provocative and possibly lead to problems and/or a confrontation.
There may come a time when a cult member expresses doubts about the group, its leaders and/or practices. It is important to understand that this may only be a transitory time of questioning, which may pass. It is therefore strategically meaningful not to comment too readily about how bad the group is or that you "always knew that leader was bad" and/or "wrong." If later they decide, often through the group and/or leader's influence, that their doubts were wrong and you did comment negatively about the group/leader-- it is likely that they will discuss this with other members and possibly group leaders. Subsequently, this may complicate future contact and communication.
You should be circumspect and careful when you comment about a member's doubts. Essentially, the best initial response is to be a good listener and take no position. Instead you might say, "That's interesting." or "I didn't know you felt that way." If there are repeated doubts and misgivings about the group expressed through further conversations and visits you might begin to consider other more assertive responses.
Eventually as doubts are repeated and perhaps expressed more deeply your most measured response may be to share information (e.g. factual documentation specifically about the group, books about cults and persuasion techniques). But be careful--you should carefully qualify sharing such material by stating, "Some people shared this information with me about the group/leader--would you like to see it"? Or, "Someone once suggested I read these books on the subject of influence and persuasion within groups--you might find this helpful"? Don't be aggressive; allow enough space for the cult member's comfort and personal reflection. If your offer of help is rejected simply respond, "That's OK-- the information is here if you want it."
At times it is much easier for cult members to recognize what is wrong with other groups than their own. In this sense it may be better to offer material and books that do not name their group, but rather others with similar problems and practices. Again, allow every consideration for the cult member to sort through such issues. If you sense this is a unique and crucial opportunity you might consider involving a knowledgeable professional. This could be a family counselor, clergy person, cult specialist or possibly a former cult member. It is important that the professional or person you choose to help is not overtly confrontational and/or aggressive. Make a careful choice--you should pick someone who is sensitive to cult issues and reasonably experienced.
Most cult members will eventually walk away from their respective groups. Sadly, this may take place after years of exploitation and personally destructive involvement. Specifically, they may have experienced psychological, emotional and at times financial and physical damage.
It is vitally important to express your unconditional love. Never say, "I told you so" or act in a punitive way or guilt-inducing manner.
Don't make this your opportunity to attack the group and its members. Instead, remember that even a destructive cult experience may not have been totally negative. The member's time within the group may have resulted in some positive changes and realizations such as increased sensitivity, spirituality or the end of some self-destructive behavior (e.g. illegal drug use, drinking). Avoid sweeping generalizations/statements about the group and/or his or her group experience. Again, be a good listener and always be as positive as possible.
This may again be a time to seek qualified and knowledgeable professional help.
There are common problems experienced by most former cult members during their recovery period. It is important to recognize that these problems are commonly shared by a majority of ex-members and not to become alarmed or panic. This may include depression, nightmares, anxiety attacks, excessive shame and/or guilt and seemingly unreasonable fears about the future.
Former cult members may at times feel like they are either back in the group, or wish that they were. Such a sensation may be prompted by something that occurs, which is reminiscent of their group experiences or practices. Some people call this "floating." But this does not necessarily happen to every former cult member.
Former members may also take some time to redevelop their critical thinking skills and initiate independent decision-making. Likewise, their ability to tolerate ambiguity may return slowly. Don't expect some instant overnight transformation. And don't pressure them hoping to speed up the recovery process Typically, the longer a person has been in a destructive cult--the longer they may take to recover. Also, recovery may depend upon their degree of personal involvement and/or the level of destructiveness and control within that particular group.
Members in most destructive cults are taught some form of "learned dependency." They are also frequently persuaded that individual autonomy and/or independent decision making are negative or even "sinful." Be understanding and patient. Remember these two important points at all times:
- Don't be critical of spirituality, idealism and/or greater awareness. The stated goals and ideals of the group may have been laudable--despite its behavior.
- Don't try to convince or convert a former cult member about your personal beliefs. Respect their process of recovery and personal discovery. They will make their own choices in their own time and may require a rest from church, religion, and even awareness groups for awhile.
There are rehabilitation facilities specifically designed to help recovering cult members.
Recovering cult members, not unlike others in some form of recovery, can benefit from support groups. There may be a support group for former cult members in your area. Or, you may find resources through the Internet and/or books on the subject of cults. Support groups can help former members through shared experiences, insights and varied perspectives. Former members are likely to feel less alone through their involvement with a support group. They may also realize that many other people have a similar history and often struggle with same related recovery issues and problems. But don't pressure an ex-member to attend a support group--simply offer the information and encourage them.
Just as former members may need support--the families and friends of cult members may also find this helpful. Don't hesitate to find your own support group. For example, there are often specific groups for the parents of cult members. Dealing with a cult situation can be exhausting and emotionally draining--a support group may help you to cope more easily with your circumstances and make you feel less isolated.
When dealing with the issue of cult involvement you may find it meaningful to network with others in similar situations, knowledgeable professionals and/or former cult members. Many people find they need such support not only to sustain themselves emotionally (often for years), but also because such networking may be helpful for gathering information and keeping current and informed about a group.
If you participate in a support group and/or network with others and someone you know is actively cult involved-- don't tell that cult member. Cult members may perceive such involvement as threatening and/or negative and this may affect your relationship with them and future communication. Be sure that any person or group you contact regarding your concerns is reliable and credible.
Some concerned parents, family members and friends become anti-cult activists. That is, they may become involved in publicly exposing a cult and/or cults in general--such as working with the media, law enforcement, public officials and/or protection services to monitor a group and its activities. This often may produce positive results by protecting the public and/or cult members (e.g. children in the group). And this may give personally involved and motivated activists a sense of "doing something" and a feeling of empowerment--in what might otherwise seem to be a powerless situation.
But there are possible consequences to such anti-cult activism, which need to be carefully weighed. The cult may become punitive and cut off any personal contact with members and/or communication. Carefully consider your priorities and the status of your situation. What do you have to lose? It isn't wrong for a family or concerned friends to feel personal considerations outweigh the need for public education and greater awareness. But in some situations cults are so extreme (e.g. allowing little if any meaningful contact or communication) family and friends may feel they have nothing to lose.
Many of those concerned about a loved one in a cult also struggle with considerations regarding law enforcement and accountability. That is, certain cult activities and/or practices may be illegal, potentially unsafe and/or dangerous. Under such circumstances those concerned often feel torn between informing the proper authorities and fears that if they do--the cult will be punitive (regarding their relationship with a cult member and/or perhaps even punishing that member personally). Their specific concerns about a cult group may include child abuse or neglect, fraud, tax violations, substandard living conditions and/or such dangerous things as the stockpiling and/or possession of illegal weapons.
Sadly, there are no easy answers. Reporting such situations may lead to an end of communication with a loved one or perhaps their arrest. On the other hand such action might also lead to the moderation of the group's behavior, increased safety and/or accountability/supervision. It might also cause the deterioration of the group itself and subsequently its control over members. These are complex and tough decisions that must be made carefully. Anyone considering such action should consult with professionals such as a trusted physician and/or their attorney. It is unwise and needlessly risky to make such a crucial decision alone in a vacuum.
The families and friends of cult members often suffer in relative silence for years--waiting for a loved love to leave a destructive group is a painful process based upon love, patience and most of all hope.
If you have any further questions--feel free to contact me personally. See the contact information below on this page.
Copyright © Rick Ross
The Ross Institute