Cult Involvement: Suggestions for Concerned Parents and Professionals
Michael Langone, PhD
CSJ Vol.2. No. 1 (1985)
Cult Involvement: Suggestions for Concerned Parents and Professionals
Michael D. Langone, PhD
Parents with a child in a cult, or professionals charged with helping such parents, are confronted with a difficult problem. The following require consideration and are discussed in this paper: 1) ethical issues, 2) collecting valid information and utilizing resources, 3) effective communication, 4) parental modeling of constructive behaviors, 5) cult-related education, and 6) devising appropriate and ethical helping strategies, when such are warranted.
Parents (and sometimes other relatives) troubled about a family member’s cult involvement are frequently fearful and frustrated. They are sometimes not sure if their concern is warranted. They worry about the adverse effects cult involvement appears to have on their child, e.g., interruption of school, distancing from family, loss of independence, diminished critical thinking, and financial exploitation. Yet they often feel helpless about doing anything constructive. So often their well-intentioned attempts to help either don’t work or only make the situation worse.
Parents in such a predicament have four alternatives. First, they can tolerate their child’s cult involvement, “biting the bullet” and hoping that somehow things will turn out alright. Second, they can try to Ignore or deny the situation, sometimes going so far as to disown the child. Third, they can attempt an involuntary deprogramming, which is risky and expensive, but, to some, alluringly appealing in its apparent simplicity and relative immediacy. Lastly, they can try to help their child voluntarily reevaluate his cult involvement. This paper offers -suggestions on how parents can pursue the latter course of action. In places it is addressed to parents, but it is aimed at professionals as well.
Parents attempting to help their child voluntarily reevaluate his cult involvement face an apparent ethical dilemma. On the one hand, they may condemn the cult for using deceptively manipulative techniques of persuasion and control on members. On the other hand, they may not be able to avoid at least a mild, partial use of such techniques in order to facilitate a voluntary reevaluation of cult involvement.
This dilemma is more apparent than real because the ethical propriety of techniques of persuasion and control depends upon the magnitude of deception and manipulation, the goals of the interaction, and the context in which it takes place. These three variables differ significantly in cultic and parent-child relationships. Figure 1, which presents a two dimensional classification of social influence processes, may shed some light on this issue.
A Two-Dimensional Classification of Social Influence Processes
Inspiration Personal Development
The vertical dimension of Figure 1 represents a continuum of methods of influence. On one end is total honesty and respect; on the other end is extreme manipulation (i.e., the regular use of tactics such as extensive control of information, deception, group pressure, denigration of critical thinking, induction of guilt and anxiety which can only be relieved through conformity, physical and/or psychological debilitation, and the induction of trance-like states).
The horizontal dimension represents a goal continuum. The goal of the interaction can vary from completely person-centered (i.e., aiming to help the influences achieve his goals or needs) to completely group-centered (i.e., aiming to induce the influences to forswear his personal goals or needs for those of the influencer).
The intersection of these two continua forms four quadrants, which are labeled in the figure. In the self-development quadrant, the influencer uses open, respectful methods to fulfill the goals or needs of the influences. In the caretaker quadrant, manipulative methods are used to fulfill the goals or needs of the influences. In the inspiration quadrant, open, respectful methods are used to induce the influences to sacrifice personal goals or needs for those targeted by the influencer. And in the exploitation quadrant, manipulative methods are used to persuade the influences to fulfill the influencer’s goals or needs.
In our society, ethical influence Is usually confined to the self-development and inspiration quadrants, in which typical. influencers might be psychotherapists and clergy, respectively. Caretaker and exploitative relationships, however, are sometimes appropriate. Using manipulative, behavior-modification methods to treat the mentally retarded, for example, is often an acceptable caretaker mode of influence. Exploitative relationships may sometimes be acceptable (e.g., undercover police work), but usually are, at best, merely tolerated (e.g., shady sales practices), sometimes within legally defined boundaries (e.g., consumer protection laws).
In the caretaker and exploitation quadrants, one finds cultic relationships, which, according to Margaret Singer, are “those relationships in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him or her for almost all major life decisions, and inculcates in these followers a belief that he or she has some special talent, gift, or knowledge” (Singer, in press). Hence, if one enters into an inappropriate caretaker relationship (e.g., a therapist with a relatively well functioning client) or an exploitative relationship and exacerbates one’s ethical transgression by carrying the relationship to a point where one is running another’s life, one has established a cultic relationship. Although in extreme cases, existing laws permit some redress, our society, for the most part, tolerates such relationships in the interest of preserving freedom. (There have, however, been unsuccessful attempts to extend state regulation in this area, e.g., a conservatorship bill in the state of New Jersey, c.f., Jersey conservatorship bill draws support, criticism, The Advisor, April/May 1983).
Because of our society’s toleration of such cultic relationships, cultists’ parents will often feel much anger and frustration. They are angry because they see their child being exploited; they are frustrated because they feel helpless to do anything about it.
Whether or not society should pass legislation extending state regulation over cultic relationships is not a concern of this paper (see Delgado, 1984, Luckstead & Martel, 1982 and Robbins, Shepherd, & McBride, in press, for discussions of legal issues). The paper attempts, instead, to offer suggestions on how parents can respond constructively, given the existing legal and ethical context.
This legal/ethical context bears on the parents’ actions, as well as their evaluation of the cult’s behavior toward their child. Involuntary deprogramming, for example, poses serious legal risks (as well as ethical questions), regardless of how justified it may seem to parents who consider it. In addition, one would have to question the ethical propriety of parents’ resorting to manipulative techniques of influence merely to alleviate their own anxiety, e.g., because their child’s behavior embarrasses them. Although less dubious, the establishment of a caretaker relationship with an adult child would also tend to arouse suspicion, even though it may. sometimes be appropriate.
The suggestions made in this paper tend to fall in the self-development quadrant in that the parents’ behavior would tend to be open, respectful, and concerned with the child’s well-being. A sense of manipulativeness may enter the relationship, but this is usually because an appropriate resolution of the conflict between parent and child demands selfcontrol and deliberation on the parents’ part. They may, for example, sometimes find it necessary to have hidden agendas. The level of manipulativeness they may need to employ, however, is relatively low. Furthermore, assuming that their child is, in fact, the victim of a cultic relationship, a moderate caretaker mode is justified because a) the cultist’s autonomy and judgment have been diminished, b) the cultist is harmed by the cultic relationship, and c) a person’s family traditionally has more ethical latitude in social influence processes involving him than do persons from outside the family.
In conclusion, if they want to maintain their ethical bearings, parents should continually monitor the ethical propriety of their actions. They should avoid using manipulative techniques of influence In order merely to fulfill their goals or needs. And they should make sure that a caretaker mode of relating is called for before resorting to manipulative methods aimed at fulfilling goals and needs of their child.
Promoting Voluntary Reevaluation
Some workers in this field use the terms “voluntary deprogramming” or “exit counseling” to describe the helping process I describe. I prefer the term “reevaluation counseling!’ because it is not “loaded,” as are the other two. Parents or helping professionals who want to Initiate a process of voluntary deprogramming or exit counseling assume, in the first case, that the cultist is “programmed” or, in the second case, that he should necessarily “exit” from the cult. Sometimes these assumptions may be warranted, e.g., when the person is obviously troubled because of practices in a group known to be destructive. But frequently this is not the case. More and more individuals caught up in cultic relationships belong to lesser known groups or to groups that are not clearly destructive, at least not to all members. Furthermore, the high level of negative news coverage concerning cults inclines some parents to deem a group destructive simply because it appears unorthodox.
Therefore, I believe one more easily maintains his ethical bearings if he remains open to the possibility that the individual in question may not be a victim of a cultic relationship. Assuming plausible reasons for concern about one’s child, a parent’s goal should be to help the child make a voluntary, informed reevaluation of his group involvement, i.e., to find out whether the concern is warranted and whether the child in question shares that concern after coming to understand it. Consequently, obtaining valid information is a critical aspect of any attempt to help a convert voluntarily reevaluate his involvement in a possibly cultic group.
Parents have six primary sources of information to help them determine whether or not their child is the victim of a cultic relationship and to understand the nature of that relationship. (1) readings, including publications of the group in question, as well as articles and books written about the group; (2) cult-watcher organizations and individuals, e.g., the Citizens Freedom Foundation, and professionals knowledgeable about cults; (3) ex-members of the group in question; (4) current members of the group in question; (5) their own observations of the group and their child; and (6) their child.
Parents should consider and evaluate information from all of these sources. Each has Its strong and weak points. Although publications produced by the group in question may be self serving, they may, nonetheless, help parents better understand what their child believes and may prepare them to discuss those beliefs at the appropriate time. Outside written analyses of the group can be very valuable if they are not biased or sensational. Cult-watcher organizations and individuals sometimes have information that has not made its way into the public arena, although they do have a tendency to collect mainly critical information and, therefore, may not present a rounded picture of the group in question. Ex-members, not all of whom are categorically critical of their groups, frequently have a uniquely valuable understanding of the group. Conversations with current members can be useful, not only because of the information they provide, but also because talking with them gives parents an opportunity to study the group’s communication methods and other practices. These kinds of parental observations should be supplemented by analysis of their child’s behavior, especially behavior that seems out of character. And lastly, parents should never underestimate the value of information that their own child can provide.
Unfortunately, once parents do become concerned, their emotions often get in the way of communicating with their child or taking advantage of other information sources. For this reason, learning how to communicate effectively and to deal with emotions are the first challenges most cultists’ parents confront.
For parents whose child may be a victim of a cultic relationship, effective communication demands four types of skills: (1) listening, (2) saying what one means; (3) controlling emotions, and (4) thinking of methods to overcome communication barriers.
Listening. Most people don’t realize that listening is a still. They mistakenly believe that listening merely means not interrupting, or hearing what another says. But effective listening entails much more than that. It also involves understanding unspoken or garbled messages, clarifying messages received from the other person, empathizing with the emotional aura surrounding many messages, and helping the other person express himself more accurately and completely. The message Intended often differs from the message received.
Consider an example. A child comes home and enthusiastically tells his father that the Divine Light Mission group he Is associating with is teaching him to hear divine music by sticking his fingers in his ears. fits father may listen calmly to the story, refrain from interrupting, and be able to repeat everything word for word. However, as soon as his son finishes, father snaps, “All you’re hearing is the blood rushing through your ears!”
Although the father’s explanation may be correct, his listening skills need improvement. He ignored the emotional aura surrounding his child’s report. His son is excited about this group. Perhaps he has been lonely and now feels accepted. Perhaps their talk of divine music and other spiritual matters makes him feel special, or gives him a good excuse for avoiding life challenges that are causing him difficulty. Moreover, the father’s response probably would elicit a defensive reaction in his child (“He’s calling me stupid again!”), thereby closing off further communication rather than facilitating it.
The father should have put aside his scientific critique and concentrated on bringing out the unarticulated thoughts and emotions that energized his son’s brief lecture on divine music. Father might merely have said, “You seem pretty excited about this group.” Such a statement would have communicated, “I hear and respect the emotion that motivated you to tell me about divine music. Tell me more.” At an appropriate time, father might have added something like, “Have you considered other explanations for your experience?” Through a kind of Socratic dialogue, father might then have helped his son realize that the sound in his ears need not necessarily be divine music. If the group could be wrong about that claim, it could be wrong about others.
By expressing a nonthreatening interest, father could have created an opportunity to collect information about the group and his son’s relationship to It, as well as to offer opinions that, coming in a respectful context, would be more likely to be greeted with openness and respect. This is not manipulative. It is, instead, what good listening is all about. A good listener doesn’t leap to conclusions. He listens much more than he lectures.
Saying what one means. Parents should not only strive to understand what their child is trying to communicate (implicitly and explicitly); they should also endeavor to ensure that their child understands what they are trying to communicate. They should not assume that because they have spoken, their child has understood.
Parents may not clearly express their intended meaning. In the example cited above, father may intend to draw out his son’s feelings and explore the emotional aura the son’s statement. If, however, father says “Why do you like this group so much?” instead of, “You seem pretty excited about this group,” he may fail to achieve his objective, because his son may mistakenly infer that the “why” question really means, “How the hell can a supposedly intelligent person like such a weird group?” The message intended is not the message received.
Parents may also obscure their intended message with tangential issues, which can sometimes be destructive to the communication process. Father, for example, might say, “You seem pretty excited about that group, just like Jeff (older brother) when he joined the fraternity.” Jeff’s having joined a fraternity is irrelevant to drawing out the son’s feelings. It may, in fact, be destructive, e.g., because the DLM son thinks that joining a fraternity is dumb and resents his father’s comparison.
Parents may neutralize their intended message by nonverbally communicating a message that contradicts the verbal message. Thus, father may say, “You seem pretty excited about that group,” while he taps his fingers on the table, a signal which the entire family interprets as, “I’m angry.” The DLM son may interpret these contradictory messages as saying, “I challenge you to justify your excitement about that group.” The son may then prepare to do battle, rather than communicate.
Obviously, these illustrations are simplified. Communicating effectively is much more difficult than most people realize. Therefore, parents experiencing conflict with a child should be open to studying the communication process, either by reading or by getting professional help, e.g., participation in communication workshops and/or family counseling.
Controlling emotions. It is a truism that life would riot be worth living without emotion. But sometimes emotion can get in the way, especially in conflict situations.
Lisa has been attending weekly meetings of a group that worships an Indian guru. lier mother reads a magazine article about cult leader, Baghwan Sri Rajneesh, an Indian guru who advocates free love. Knowing nothing about Indian gurus, mother assumes that a guru is a guru is a guru.
Images of a promiscuous, pregnant daughter begin to dance about in her mind.
Her heart palpitates, her hands shake, “Oh my god! Lisa’s in a cult!”
Mother spends the afternoon worrying about Lisa, imagining all kinds of catastrophic scenarios. Lisa comes home for supper, mentally exhausted by a difficult organic chemistry exam in the pre-med program in which she is enrolled. Unknown to mother, Lisa hasn’t thought about the guru (who advocates chastity) for days, doesn’t find him appealing, and is even losing interest in the fellow who brought her to the meetings in the first place. Lisa is more concerned about getting into medical school. Mother, who has always been a “nervous” type, mows down Lisa with a volley of accusations and demands that she stop attending the meetings.
Now, let’s assume that Lisa is not easily ruffled, sincerely loves her mother, and has good insight into the communication process. Lisa may sigh, think to herself, “What in the world has gotten into mother now?” and, in an attempt to understand mother’s garbled message, say, “Mom, tell me what’s upsetting you.” Thanks to Lisa’s patience and understanding, mom, after letting it all out, comes to realize that Lisa is in no danger. False alarm, no great harm done.
Now suppose that Lisa is insecure and resentful about having to live at home. Her reaction to mother’s barrage would probably be much different. A fight would erupt. Lisa would tell mother not to try to run her life. Mother would interpret Lisa’s emotionalism and irrationality as a sure sign that she is in a cult and brainwashed. Mother’s fear and Lisa’s resentment would grow. False alarm, much harm done.
Consider another example. Rhonda belongs to an obscure shepherding group that is clearly a destructive cult. Her shepherd took all her money and ordered her to drop out of school, cut off communications with her friends, and not see her parents. Through an acquaintance, she receives news that her younger sister, Sandy, has Hodgkins disease. Rhonda disobeys her shepherd and comes home to visit, terrified that God will punish her for this transgression. Mother in this case is not a “nervous” type. She is cool, calm, and collected. Father, on the other hand, “can’t control his temper.” As soon as Rhonda walks through the door, he starts: “You’re uncaring. You’re a hypocrite. How can you act like this toward us. Your sister needs you and you waste your time obeying that goddamn tyrant.” Lisa’s fear mounts. “The devil is in this household.” She hurries back to her shepherd, grateful for the punishment he inflicts on her. Meanwhile, mother, realizing that father’s emotion blew a golden opportunity, loses her temper. Mother and father fight. Sandy gets depressed. Rhonda continues to submit to her shepherd.
Such out-of-control parental anger and fear can cause much damage during all phases of cult involvement. What can parents do? They can view emotional responses as learned behavior, rather than mysterious, invasive forces. They can then try to modify their characteristic emotional responses in the same way that other learned behaviors can be modified. First, they can identify the types of situations in which disturbing emotions may arise. This is easier said than done, for we are of ten much less aware of our emotions than we think. How many times have we seen or been involved in this situation: Spouse A grumbles. Spouse B says, “What are you mad about?” Spouse A screams, “I’m not mad!” Spouse A, who is obviously angry, is either lying or unaware.
It is difficult to increase awareness of your emotional reactions simply through will power. Generally, the awareness grows most readily through systematic practice. At first, it is easier to try the retrospective approach. Keep a diary in which you can describe and analyze emotional situations. What was the context? Your thoughts? Your feelings? Very often, there is a one-to-one correspondence between thoughts and feelings: if you interpret a situation as threatening (psychologically or physically), you will feel anxiety; if you interpret an event as a loss or as a defeat, you will feel sadness; if you interpret an event as an assault on your values, you will feel anger. Clearly, if your appraisal of a situation is incorrect (e.g., Lisa’s mother), you will experience inappropriate and sometimes destructive emotions. Hence, in writing your diary, keep asking the questions: “Was my appraisal of the situation correct? What alternative appraisals could I have considered?”
As you become more aware of past emotion-inducing situations, you become better able to predict future ones. You can then prepare for such situations by mentally rehearsing alternate ways of dealing with them. If, for instance, you tend to “catastrophize,” you may repeatedly challenge the dire thoughts that are likely to enter your mind. If you usually criticize your child’s cult and thereby initiate a quarrel, you might mentally rehearse other possible responses. You might make a list of other things you can talk about, so that you and your child can have a pleasant visit.
Such anticipatory rehearsal can help you identify and practice constructive responses to emotion-inducing situations. But often the real thing is a lot harder to master. Consequently, you should use cues to Increase the likelihood of your remembering constructive responses. Dieters, for example, will sometimes put a picture of a pig on their refrigerator! That is a cue. Cultists’ parents may prominently display a family picture to remind them that their main concern is the family, not “winning arguments.” Sometimes spouses can act as cues for one another, agreeing beforehand on signals that will communicate, “shut up” or “cool it” or what have you.
Gradually, through the use of systematic introspection, mental rehearsal of constructive responses,, and cues you can modify disruptive emotional responses. If you are also collecting valid information and communicating effectively with your child, you will be in a much better position to help him .make an informed reevaluation of his cult involvement.
Overcoming communication barriers. Sometimes, even when parents have a rapport with their child and possess good communication skills, communication is difficult because circumstances or the cult interfere. If, for example, your child lives in a cult residence, he may not be given messages. Or he may be kept so busy working that he never has “time” for you. Or he may be indoctrinated to believe that you are “of the devil” and should be avoided. Sometimes, in fact, he may be sent away with no notice of where he has gone. And in some groups, he may hear lurid stories about parents who had their child abducted and deprogrammed.
In considering these barriers, it is important not to let your frustration and anger impair your judgment., No matter how unfair the barrier may seem to you, it Is real, and it must be dealt with. A “cut-your-losses” attitude can often be helpful. Such an attitude acknowledges the barrier’s reality and induces you to focus on what you can do to diminish harm, rather than set things right. In other words, don’t lose your cool. Make the best of a bad situation.
Treat the communication barrier as a problem to be solved, preferably, if possible, with the participation of your child. Define clearly what the problem is, e.g., “We leave messages and don’t hear from you for weeks.” Analyze the factors contributing to the problem, e.g., messages are not reliably taken, or, your child says he is so busy he forgets to call. Ask your child what possible solutions he can think of. Then offer some of your own, e.g., you call him at work, you buy a non-removable message pad and pencil for the residence (which, if messages are purposely not given to him, will demonstrate this fact to him). By problem-solving with your child, you not only increase the likelihood of coming up with a solution, but you also increase the likelihood of his realizing, or not being able to rationalize, the cult’s interfering with your communications, should such interference occur.
Lastly, parents should try to appreciate their child’s perspective, no matter how manipulated he may seem to them. To him, his perceptions are true.
Very often, one of the most troublesome perceptions interfering with communication is the fear of an involuntary deprogramming. As parents stereotype cults, cults stereotype parents. Furthermore, especially in a destructive group, negative stereotyping of parents and others in the “outside world” magnifies group cohesiveness by generating a we-they mentality.
Parents should try to “respond,” not “react” to this we-they mentality and the deprogramming fears which It frequently engenders. Treat it as a communication barrier, a problem to be solved. If parents have a reasonable level of rapport with their child, it rarely hurts to ask bluntly, “Are you seeing us less because you are afraid of deprogramming?” If the child answers yes, you can tell him that you’re not planning a deprogramming. If he seems skeptical, ask him for suggestions on what you can do to reassure him. Perhaps you can meet more often on “neutral” ground, e.g., a restaurant. If you are thereby able to overcome a fear of deprogramming, you will most likely improve your rapport with your child and increase the likelihood that he will agree to hear the other side of the story by speaking voluntarily with critics of the group. In other words, if you agree to assuage his fears, he may later reciprocate by talking to a third party in order to assuage your fears about his welfare.
Thus far, I have discussed procedures for collecting information and building trust through effective communicating. In attempting to accomplish these goals, you should keep in mind that you are a model for your child. If in your communications with your child you show a willingness to admit error, your child becomes more likely to own up to his mistakes and misconceptions. In the communication process, you will also have an opportunity to model a willingness to negotiate and compromise. In so doing, you are showing your capacity to change, which will make it easier for your child to change. Very often, people expect “the other guy” to change first. This strategy may work if the other person does in fact change first. But if he too is waiting for the other person to change first, nobody will change. It is important, therefore, to abide by what behavior therapist Richard Stuart (1980) calls, “the change-first principle.” In a conflict relationship, each party should take responsibility for initiating change in himself, rather than waiting for the other person to change. This is especially important in a cult situation, because the child, if he is an adolescent or young adult, is not likely to think of or pay heed to the change-first principle. The parent must act first. In so doing, the parent models flexibility, openness, and rationality, all of which are essential to a cultist’s voluntarily reevaluating a cult involvement.
When parents establish a trusting relationship with a child in a cult, he is more likely to be willing to examine information that is critical of the group to which he belongs or that raises questions about his relationship to the group. Books, articles, videotapes, and conversations with ex-cultists or professionals can all be very helpful in getting the cultist to listen to “the other side of the story, and/or take a closer look at the motivations and consequences of his cult affiliation.
Unfortunately, considering information critical of the cult will not necessarily in and of itself bring about a sincere reevaluation. The credibility a convert attributes to such information can vary. Therefore, timing is a crucial factor in attempts to educate a cultist. If, for example, a child is just flirting with a cultic group or has not yet had time to internalize its beliefs and practices, he is much more likely to believe critical information. If, however, the cultist is acculturated (i.e., he has internalized the cult’s belief system and practices), he is much more likely not to attribute credibility to non-cult sources of information. In this case, even if a growing trust in his parents renders him willing to expose himself to critical information, the child may not be moved by that information. Parents faced by such circumstances should try to understand the child’s perspective, rather than interpret his skepticism as a betrayal of the trust they have worked so hard to build. He simply no longer sees the world as they do, or as he once did. Parents will probably find it more productive to be patient and to discuss with their child how people come to attribute credibility to information sources. This may get him thinking on a different track, so to speak, and may in time make him more inclined to believe non-cult sources of information.
Figure 2 illustrates the field of forces impinging on a cult convert. By understanding and helping their child understand this field of forces, parents can more effectively persuade their child to reevaluate a harmful, or potentially harmful, cult involvement.
Parents concerned that their child belongs to a destructive group tend to focus their attention on the manipulative practices of the group (in Figure 2, cult environment, manipulative pull arrow). Although it is important to do this, parents should not a) assume that the manipulative pull is the same in all groups (emphasis on specific manipulative factors, e.g., isolation, may vary greatly) and b) ignore other factors that may influence their child’s behavior, feelings, and thoughts.
The Field of Forces Impinging on a Cult Convert
If, for instance, the convert lacks confidence in his capacity to “make it” in the mainstream world (mainstream world, repulsion arrow) and is sincerely attached to fellow cultists, becoming aware of the cult’s manipulations could thrust him into a quandary: fear and resentment if he stays in the cult; fear, a sense of loss, and second-guessing if he leaves.
Focusing solely on manipulation can be counter productive for other reasons as well. First of all, the group in question may not be all that manipulative. In such cases, belaboring the manipulation theme may undermine the parents’ credibility and may blind them and the convert to the real reasons for his affiliation. Secondly, the convert may be afraid to confront the reality of cultic manipulations, but may be willing to discuss other factors affecting his behavior. And thirdly, even if an awareness of cultic manipulations leads to a convert’s departure from the group, he may, after leaving, find himself very troubled and lacking the support of his parents, who are not aware of and have not helped him become aware of the other factors affecting his condition. Consequently, as much as possible, parents should help their child understand all the factors depicted in Figure 2.
An often neglected factor, and one that is relatively easy to explore once trust and communication are high, is repulsion from the cult environment (cult environment, repulsion arrow). If your child is willing to discuss his doubts, resentments, fears, and other misgivings about the cult, be careful not to unintentionally discourage him. Cultivate a “listening” posture by letting him lead, asking questions in a gentle, encouraging manner, and resisting the temptation to lecture him, or worse, berate him by saying something such as “I told you so (you dummy.” If he is troubled, if he trusts you, and if you are patient, you may be surprised by how much comes out.
Also surprising to many parents, but in a negative sense, is the extent to which their child may sincerely like certain aspects of the cult (cult environment, appeal arrow). Vocational opportunities, friendships, meditation, living in a calm, non-rat-race environment, and other features of the cult may all have a genuine appeal, even if they are tainted by negative features, such as deception, group pressure, etc. Acknowledging these positive features, however, is not a “defeat.” It may, on the contrary, be a “victory.” Your credibility can be enhanced. If your child sees you as more credible, he will be more likely to pay heed to your critical opinions, acknowledging the positive doesn’t necessarily mean that the benefits in question don’t have a high price or that they couldn’t be obtained outside the cult. Helping your child understand this may enable him to recognize alternate ways of conducting his life. I know, for example, of former Hare Krishnas who have continued to meditate and adhere to a vegetarian diet after leaving the Krishnas. They rejected the cult’s authoritarianism may all have a genuine appeal, even if they are tainted by negative features, such as deception, and behavioral peculiarities, but retained that which they found beneficial. And they did this without rejecting their families, college, a normal career, etc.
The cultist’s confidence in his capacity to cope with the mainstream world and his ability to recognize and resist manipulation may all be affected by the strengths and weaknesses of his personality, his attitudes/values, his perceptions of the mainstream world, his coping style, and his psycho-developmental history (middle box in Figure 2). Although the majority of cultists appear to be relatively normal, approximately one-third to one-half report having experienced serious psychological difficulties prior to joining their cult (c.f., Ash, 1985). If parents are not sensitive to such pre-cult difficulties (because, for instance, they interpret their child’s psychological problems as a blow to their self-esteem), they may seriously impede the helping process (as may deprogrammers who do not recognize psychopathology in cultists with whom they work).
Therefore, it is important that parents try to understand what has gone on and is going on “inside” their child (a task that is not made easier by a history of parent-child conflict). Did/does he have developmental problems, e.g., fear of dating, vocational confusion? Did he set such high and rigid standards (possibly in emulation of his parents) that pre-cult life became like a guitar string tightened to the point of “snapping”? Is he characteristically unassertive, unable to say “no,” especially to people who seem nice? Did he show a naive idealism or a cynical disillusionment with the world, either of which could open him up to utopian movements? Was he prone to more than normal depressions? Did/does he lack self-esteem? Did/does he tend to withdraw from difficulties, rather than attempt to master them?
Such questions can be multiplied a hundred-fold (see Langone, 1983, for a report on a questionnaire inquiring into such matters). Although only a few questions may be pertinent in any one case, those few may be extremely important for parents seeking to help a child voluntarily reevaluate his cult involvement. Studying their child’s psychological makeup enhances not only understanding of the cult’s appeal, manipulative pull, and repulsion, but also of the mainstream world’s appeal, manipulative pull, and repulsion. Parents with a child in a destructive cult can easily overlook those things in the world that appeal to him (e.g., family get-togethers, hiking with friends, shopping), can grossly underestimate his fears about the world (e.g., establishing himself in a career, finding a mate, making friends, establishing independence), and, as noted earlier, can be tempted to use the same unethical manipulations they criticize in the cult. (It should be noted that parental manipulations are not usually as successful as the cult’s manipulations. The latter has more experience in the manipulation game and doesn’t run head-on into separation-individuation issues which, even under normal conditions, makes the relationship of parent and adult child a sensitive one.)
If parents have a good understanding of the field of forces affecting their child and if they have sufficient rapport and communication skills, they will be in a good position to help their child understand the many factors affecting his behavior, feelings, and thoughts. By making him more aware, they make him more free, in a psychological sense. Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura says that “freedom is determined by the number of options available to people and the right to exercise them. The more behavioral alternatives and social prerogatives people have, the greater is their freedom of action” (Bandura, 1974, p. 815).
In trying to persuade their child to voluntarily reevaluate his cult involvement, parents are attempting to ensure that their child is as free as he realistically could be. The convert who sees limited alternatives because of cultic manipulations or personal fears is not truly free, even though he may make what are subjectively free “choices.” His situation is analogous to a person wearing blinders and strapped to a wall such that he cannot turn his head. This person may see three windows in front of him and may be able to “choose” to look through any one of them. But his inability to move his head and the restricted field of vision resulting from the blinders render him unaware of six other windows in the room. These windows do not exist for him. But they exist for unhampered observers (his parents). By taking off the person’s blinders and releasing him from the wall straps, these observers enable the person to choose from nine windows instead of three. The subjective feeling of “choice” may be the same, but the “choice” is much richer. If the unfettered individual decides to look through the same window he “chose” while strapped to the wall, he at least has made an informed decision. If he decides to look through one of the windows he had previously been unable to see, he has made not only an informed decision, but, for him, a better decision as well.
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Langone, M. D. (1983). Family cult questionnaire: Guidelines for professionals. Weston, M A: American Family Foundation, 31 pp. Lucksted, 0. D., & Martel, D. F. (April, May, June 1982). Cults: A conflict between religious liberty and involuntary servitude? FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
Robbins, T., Shepherd, W., & McBride, J. (Eds.) (in press). Cults, culture and the law. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.
Singer, M. T. (in press7. Consultation with families of cultists. In L. C. Wynne, T. Weber, & S..McDaniel (Eds.), The family therapist as consultant. Guilford press.
Stuart, R. B. (1980). Helping couples change: A social learning approach to marital therapy. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
This article was based on a talk given to the Cult Clinic of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles on June 16, 1983. Appreciation is owed to Judith Schulman-Miller, MSW, former Coordinator of the Cult Clinic, and to Meyer Lightman, MSW, for making that talk possible, and to an anonymous typist, who transcribed the presentation and, thereby, facilitated the preparation of this article.
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D. is Editor of the Cultic Studies Journal and Director of Research for the American Family Foundation. A Licensed Psychologist, Dr. Langone has counseled approximately 100 cultists and family members of cultists and has published a number of articles on the subject.