Family Responses to a Young Adult's Cult Membership and Return
Cultic Studies Journal, 1989, Volume 6, Number 1, pages 86-100
William and Lorna Goldberg
This article deals with the process of a young adult child's cult involvement and return from the family's perspective. Four overlapping stages characterize the responses of most families: ignorance or denial, recognition, exploration, and action. The family's emotional reactions while the cultist is in the cult as well as out of the cult are discussed as are treatment considerations. Also briefly discussed are situations involving adult children with parents in a cult and the effects of parents' cult membership on young children.
Several authors have discussed the experience of joining and leaving a cult from the perspective of the former cultist (Clark, 1976; Singer, 1979; Clark, Langone, Schecter, & Daly, 1981; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982). However, few authors (Kaslow & Schwartz, 1983; Schwartz, 1986, Ross & Langone, 1988) have focused on the family's reaction to the experience. This article will deal with the process of young adults' cult involvement and return from the family's perspective.
The authors are clinicians who have seen more than four hundred cult members, former cultists, and their families over a fourteen year period. These clinical contacts have led us to the conclusion that cultic involvement, similar to other crises (Caplan, 1964), is both a traumatic event and an opportunity for a healthy restructuring of the family's traditional modes of interacting.
Families' responses to a member's cult involvement appear to go through four stages, each of which has a different emotional pattern associated with it. The stages are: ignorance or denial, recognition, exploration, and action. It is important to note that these stages do not have rigid boundaries, and that, in some families, one or more of the stages are bypassed.
Ignorance or Denial
After a period of ignorance -- that is, a period when the family has no information concerning a member's cult involvement -- most families pass through a stage of denial prior to facing the conclusion that a member is, indeed, affiliated with a destructive cult. Only after this conclusion is fully recognized, accepted, and understood do families react, the reaction determining whether or not the family will take action, either subtle or dramatic, toward extricating its member from the cult.
Ignorance, the first stage of the family's reaction, and the denial stage that follows may last for several months or even years. A number of factors account for the family's delayed recognition and acceptance of the fact that a family member is involved with a cult.
Parents generally come to grips with the maturation and growing independence of their young adult children with a mixture of pride and sorrow. Healthy young adults value a sense of their own autonomy and attempt to develop their own vision of the world that is different from their parents' view. Blos points out that adolescents tend to use the defenses of intellectualization and asceticism.
. . . a tendency toward inner experience and toward self-discovery become noticeable (in adolescence); hence the religious experience. . . . We recognize that this development is a form of sublimation of the child's love for the idealized parent and a consequence of the final renunciation of early love objects. The feeling of "being in love," and a concern with philosophical, political, and social problems are typical of adolescence proper. The decisive break with childhood's way of life occurs in this phase; to the years of late adolescence is left the task of testing these new and momentous achievements, and building them into the continuance of a total life experience. (Blos, p. 72.)
Adolescents need to develop their own guidelines. They tend to interpret as interference and an attempt to control parental advice which a few years before would have been welcomed (or at least tolerated). Parents learn to squelch the natural desire to provide guidance during the separation process of adolescence, but this is offset by the feeling of relief most parents feel when their children are finally "launched."
Physical distance from the family, and the internal push to gain emotional distance and a new vision of life engender in the separating young adult a sense of loss of the familiar. A healthy desire for affiliation with something new that will replace the lost family creates greater vulnerability to the blandishments of cults. Physical distance also enhances the possibility that the family will be ignorant of what is occurring in the life of the young adult. Telephone calls and letters from a cult involved child might seem somewhat strange, but parents are likely to attribute this strangeness to more commonplace explanations. Healthy families have a natural desire to want to believe that all is well with their youngsters, particularly if the latter have coped successfully with previous developmental stages. Moreover, cults are adept at hiding their true names or goals from new recruits.
The H. Family reported that when their son first told them that he had joined an organization whose purpose was to herald a new age of peace and to fight communism, they assumed that he would grow tired of this phase of his life as he had grown tired of others. The family characteristically reacted to his announcement with irony and humor, telling him to telephone them after he had saved the world.
Some families may be so involved in a family trauma such as the effects of divorce, death, or physical or emotional illness, that they have difficulty paying attention to the signals indicating that something is wrong. In general, families which are not caught up in family difficulties can more easily recognize, at the outset, that something is wrong in the cult recruit's life than can those that are expending psychic energy on more obvious problems.
Families initially are unaware of what their child goes through when he/she joins a cultic organization. As the authors have noted in a previous article (Goldberg & Goldberg, 1988), when one joins a cult, the original family and parts of the self that reflect that family come under attack. Ofshe and Singer have described how cults, in contrast to other manipulative groups, attack the most basic characteristics of the self (Ofshe & Singer, 1986). Family and individual problems are exaggerated. A variety of psychologically sophisticated and deceptive techniques, including indirect hypnosis, are used to induce the new recruit to incorporate the cult's view of the world and to identify with the leader's personality, thus giving the cult control over him or her. These techniques so overwhelm the recruit that critical faculties and a sense of self are lost.
To protect one's self in the midst of confusion, reality is reorganized through identification with the aggressor -- the cult leader. Freud described how groups have the power to induce a member to regress, conform, and replace the member's ego ideal with an identification with the leader (Freud, 1931). More recently, Conway and Seigelman (1978) and Ofshe and Singer (1986) described refined techniques used by today's cults to destroy the cultist's previous sense of self in a more extreme and dangerous way.
Once the denied stage is passed, the family recognizes the profound and disturbing changes in the cult member's basic personality. Old interests and ambitions have been abandoned; conversations have become stilted or have been replaced by the cult member's relentless proselytizing. The continuity of the family is disrupted and parents and siblings, even in situations where there is contact with the cultist, feel a profound sense of loss. That which was loved and unique about the family member has been lost, identification with the group leader's personality having taken over so much of the recruit's character. The cultist's new identification is a sad and frightening experience for family members who feel they can no longer connect with the young adult. It is as if there were a stranger in their midst.
As the authors have previously noted (Goldberg & Goldberg, 1988), one's character is built, in part, on identifications that are formed early in life with parents and other significant figures and by developing those traits that are valued by these significant figures.
When identification with a deviant group supersedes previous identifications -- those that formed the personality -- it is as if one's history has been erased. The family's natural response to this change is that of sadness and fear.
The A. Family did not become alarmed by their daughter's cult involvement until she announced that she would miss the annual Christmas reunion. This large and geographically extended family's tradition was to reunite once a year at their cabin in the mountains. Their daughter told them that Christmas is a pagan holiday and that she had no intention of celebrating it. When the family pointed out that they were anxious to see her, she told them that she would pray for them.
Once the family recognizes that a potentially destructive situation exists, it moves to the next stage of response -- the stage of exploration. The family begins to discuss its situation with friends, relatives, and professionals. Sometimes families feel too much guilt or shame to move on to this stage, which entails bringing the family's problems into the open. This reticence is often either caused by the parents' mistaken belief that they are responsible for the situation or by the parents' characterological manner of keeping family secrets. Unfortunately, when some families contact professionals who have no knowledge about the techniques used by cults, they are often automatically informed that they are being overprotective and that their young adult is merely experiencing a normal stage of rebellion (Levine, 1984). This judgmental attitude is counterproductive for the family and the cultist, since it confirms the family's sense of guilt and immobilizes them at the point where they should be energized. It is also, in our experience and that of others, most likely not the case (Ross & Langone, 1988). Usually, quite the reverse has taken place. The young adult is not becoming independent, but has been induced by the cult to become passive, dependent, and childlike -- a regressive and destructive situation.
Discussions with individuals who are knowledgeable about cults often help the family recognize that the situation is more dangerous than first acknowledged. At times, a speaker's or author's characterization of the group as a destructive cult can shock the family into learning more about the group and into speaking to former members of that group.
At this point, public service organizations such as the American Family Foundation and the Cult Awareness Network are particularly helpful because they can provide background literature and informative materials. They can also help the inquiring family make connections with individuals who have more information on a particular organization. Articles on the group and the experiences of others in the group in question provide good background information from which the family can assess the cultist's experience.
A clinician with knowledge of cults can now help the family place the information it has gathered in perspective and begin to consider how they might deal with the situation (Singer, 1986). Obviously, each individual's experience in any group is unique, as is his or her way of responding to pressures. Although the authors see a strong identification with the leader in cultists, they also note that some pre-cult personality characteristics survive, to a greater or lesser degree. (This depends on the degree of autonomy allowed as well as on different aspects of the cultist's previous personality. However, even healthy young adults are dramatically influenced by this experience.) The clinician who automatically assumes that only cultic manipulation is operant in every case without assessing the family constellation, the pre-cult personality, the possibility of psychopathology, and the degree to which cult membership is ego-syntonic is as guilty of narrow, judgmental thinking as the professional who sees only these factors operating.
Clinicians can also help the family differentiate between those factors that are significant in determining if the group is a destructive one (e.g., former members' testimony that fears of leaving the group were instilled in them) and those factors that are less significant (e.g., the fact that someone has labeled the group a "cult").
Clinicians can also assess the dynamics of the family and the personalities of each family member, as well as the cultist's relationship with each of them. There is no single therapeutic approach in responding to families and cultists; the therapist must devise a strategy that respects the family's style and appreciates each cultist's unique situation.
Clinicians can be helpful during this stage by explaining the genesis of the changes that the family members sense in the cultist and demystifying the experience for them. Families cannot mobilize to take necessary action as long as they are confused, depressed, and self-blaming. By explaining the phenomena of cult recruitment and membership, clinicians free the family to take whatever action it deems appropriate.
Even when all the evidence points to the conclusion that the group the family member is involved with is a destructive cult, some families or family members continue to rely heavily on the defense mechanism of denial. There are many reasons families deny that someone is at risk. As mentioned previously, some families are already traumatized by circumstances that leave then drained them of the cognitive resources and energy necessary to assess and judge the complex situation of cult membership. Indeed, their trauma may be associated with the cult member's vulnerability to joining the cult.
In other families, denial may be a long-standing mechanism for dealing -- or not dealing -- with stress. Sometimes families perceive taking a stand against a family member and his or her behavior as too risky emotionally. This is particularly true of cultists who were always seen as independent and mature, or even parentified by family members. It may be difficult to believe that an idealistic young adult could get involved in something that was not a good cause, particularly when he describes the group in such positive terms. Furthermore, it is painful for families to face the possibility of danger, and often there is a need to minimize the risk.
Former cultists who have left groups on their own, without family support, often report that they are angry with their families for leaving them in a destructive situation for years without intervening in any way. The clinician's role in this situation is to empathize with their feelings, but also to help these individuals explore the possibility that the family may have been ignorant of the destructive nature of their groups and to understand the defensive denial, family trauma, depression, or other dynamics that may have been operating in their families.
The Family's Emotional Reaction
The large majority of families seen by the authors experience four predominant emotions once they recognize that a family member is involved in a destructive organization: guilt, anger, anxiety, and sadness. The extent to which each of these emotions is felt and the family's (or family member's) characteristic reaction to the emotion comprise each family's (or family's member's) characteristic reaction to the crisis of cult involvement. It should be noted that there may not be unanimity in each family's responses. In fact, different emotional reactions from various family members can intensify the stress felt by all family members as they react to this situation.
Parents usually feel guilty. Every parent can find some reason for self-blame. After raising a child to young adulthood, it is easy to find many instances when one was either insensitive, unaware, and uninvolved, or overly sensitive, over-protective, and intrusive. Destructive organizations capitalize upon these natural and unavoidable occurrences by inducing the member to assign more weight and frequency to them than they may deserve. Cults cannot change history, but they can reinterpret it. The natural, unavoidable mistakes every parent makes are reinterpreted into heinous, unforgivable crimes by individuals seeking to drive a wedge between family members.
Families seeking help often speak of long-forgotten slips and errors they may have made years before which have been cited by their children as examples of supposed parental wickedness. Indeed, some parents have even been accused of acts which they deny ever having committed.
The P. family reported that their son, who was in a therapy cult, "discovered" through hypnosis that he had been sexually abused by his mother and older sister. The incredulous family denied that any such behavior ever took place; but their son refused to listen to their denials and cut all communication ties with them, saying that he could not speak to such monsters.
It is important for the clinician to help the parents view these accusations as part of a campaign to discredit them in their children's eyes and not as valid and representative examples of their performance as parents. For some, joining a cult is related to a need for a new idealized family because of the hurt experienced in their own families. However, the experience of the authors and others who have worked directly with former cultists, suggests that for the majority of those who have joined cults, joining is related more to warding off a temporary sense of loneliness due to an age-appropriate separation from a family that was "good enough" (Winicott, 1965), although not perfect, i.e., an average family (Clark, 1976; Singer 1979).
Families or family members who accept the blame for the cultist's actions (i.e., those in which guilt is the dominant emotion) appear to be quite depressed and often obsess about the cult member with a sense of futility. These families often have difficulty dealing with angry feelings and attack themselves rather than the "lost" cult member. It is helpful for the clinician to show family members that these obsessions may be related to anger at the cultist for rejecting the family. Next, it is important to help family members understand the cult's manipulative techniques, so they are less likely to feel intentionally abandoned by the cult member. This allows them to begin to externalize the previously self-directed anger towards the cult, a more acceptable and realistic target. Recognizing the destructive techniques used by these groups can begin the process of releasing some of the anger that had been unacceptable up to that point.
Some families are more in touch with feelings of anger than guilt, and initially direct their anger at the cultist for getting involved in a destructive group. Other families use anger as a defense to protect themselves from facing guilt or feelings of loss. Once these families gain a richer understanding of the manipulative techniques that cults employ, their anger moves from the cultist to a more appropriate target: the group leader or the group itself. The families often have little trouble adopting a plan of action aimed at dislodging the cult member from the group, although they may move too quickly to arrange an exit counseling that may be too dramatic and deceptive. As with the depressed family, this reaction often has more to do with long- established family patterns of dealing with crises than with the dynamics of the present situation.ÿ_ÿ_In assessing an individual's involvement in a group, it is important to consider first whether he might be questioning membership and may, therefore, be receptive to a low-key exit counseling approach rather than a more dramatic intervention. Former cultists often feel that they would have been responsive to such an approach and chastise their parents for moving too quickly to arrange a more dramatic intervention. Former cultists often feel that they were not the passive, unquestioning "robots" that their families were led to believe they were and that they may have left the cult on their own even without intervention. Of course, sometimes these explanations are a face-saving way for the former cultist to defend against feelings of shame and guilt for having become involved in the cult in the first place.
Susan, while living at home, had become involved in a new age cult. She had some doubts about the group; however, she found the members to be friendly and her involvement improved her social life. Her parents and best friend, alarmed about her cult involvement, secretly arranged an exit-counseling with a former member of the cult. Initially, Susan was annoyed at the deception, finding it insulting. She believed that if her family had told her directly of their concerns and arranged for her to meet with someone, she would have done so. In therapy, she came to see how this behavior was related to her family's long-standing pattern of not communicating about problems directly.
Mrs. F. was upset because her daughter, who had been counseled from a cult in a dramatic intervention two years earlier, still maintained that she would have recognized the cult's destructive nature and left on her own if she had been given enough time. Mrs. F.'s need was to be reassured that she had done the right thing by intervening in her daughter's life. Her daughter's need was to maintain her sense of herself as an intelligent, discerning woman. Mrs. F. came to recognize that insisting upon her daughter's endorsement of her actions was counterproductive and was, in part, based on her own ambivalence about her intervention. Instead, she asked her daughter whether she would acknowledge that given the information Mrs. F. had at the time, it was understandable for her to have intervened. Mrs. F.'s daughter said that she could understand the reasons for Mrs. F.'s actions, and Mrs. F. was satisfied with this response.
Anxiety is another emotion experienced by families during this stage. Again, this emotion was already a predominant one in many families, particularly in those which have a tendency to see the world in terms of its dangers rather than its opportunities. Nevertheless, many families express realistic concerns for the cultist's health and safety. They worry about the effects of poor nutrition and fatigue. They are concerned that the cult member will be induced to enter into activities with deleterious health and legal consequences.
The authors have previously noted the sadness that families experience when a member is in a cult. Families can lose both an emotional and physical connection with the cult member. Sometimes, this loss includes the cult member's spouse and children, particularly if the cult leader forbids parents from visiting.
At times, particularly when a family member has been in a cult for a long period of time, some family members center their own lives around that individual and his/her plight. These family members may become obsessed with the cultist and neglect their own, their spouse's, and their other children's needs. These individuals must be helped to recognize the feelings of neglect and resentment which may be felt by spouses and other children. Similarly, the spouses and children must be helped to recognize their feelings as natural under the circumstances rather than as examples of selfishness or insensitivity. A clinician can be useful at this point to help the family recognize the need for balancing concern for the cultist with the development of a rich life full of interests and activities which have nothing to do with cults.
Mr. E. entered therapy because of the distress he was experiencing due to his son's involvement with a Bible cult. Since his son was married with two children and living in a distant state, Mr. E. believed there was nothing he could do to change the situation and felt impotent. His obsession with this adult child had alienated his two younger children and he was suffering from marital difficulties. In therapy, he came to understand how his self-torments were really his way of tormenting his son in fantasy and also how his obsessions were his way of keeping a tie to his son. However, in reality, this behavior was quite destructive to him and his family. In time, Mr. E. was able to become more directly involved with his son. He began to visit him during vacation periods and voiced his concerns about the group directly to his son at these times, as well as in letters and on the telephone. As Mr. E. felt more connected with his son in reality, his feelings of loss and impotence diminished and he was able to let go of his destructive obsessions.
We now turn to the emotions that are felt by families when the young adult leaves the cult. In particular, we would like to discuss the feelings of anxiety, anger, and joy.
As mentioned earlier, anxiety is often related to fears about the effect the cult experience may have had on the individual involved. Even families that tend not to be overprotective initially seem to walk on egg shells around the former cultist (Goldberg & Goldberg 1982). The family is usually fearful that the former cultist will be pulled back into the cult and they are constantly vigilant for signs that the individual is planning to return. Some fear that if they could lose him/her once, it could happen again unless they stand guard. Their fears are exacerbated by stories they have heard about former members who were manipulated back to the cult. At times there is an exaggerated fear of the "hypnotic hold" which the cult can supposedly exert over former members.
Mrs. K. called the authors in a state of panic. Her son, who had been counseled from a cult two weeks earlier, was moving back home with Mrs. K. While packing up his apartment with Mrs. K.'s help, he had encountered a current member of the cult. Despite his mother's protestations, the son sat down to talk.
The most important task for former cult members at this point is to regain a sense of mastery over their life -- to feel that they can make independent decisions that will not prove to be as disastrous as the one to enter the cult turned out to be. The message families should give former cultists is that they were temporarily sidetracked, but are back on the road to independence now. When the family hovers over the former cultist and imply through their actions that ex-members will be helpless when confronted by the powerful cult, they may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. A more helpful message is to remind the former cultists that the cult has only as much power over anyone as that person is willing to give it.
Of course, former cultists often have unexpressed doubts about their ability to make independent decisions and may project those doubts onto the family. As mentioned previously, one's sense of self has been attacked in a dramatic manner, and former cultists need time to re-establish their own identity. Former cultists are exquisitely sensitive to parental pressures and may respond to mild suggestions with the extravagant anger which is usually seen in much younger adolescents. This anger is often a displacement from anger that cannot be directed at cult leaders. As previously mentioned, some former cultists deal with these feelings by insisting that they would have left the cult on their own if given enough time.
Sometimes families are afraid that the cult will retaliate as a result of the ex-cultist's departure. In some cases, there is reason to be afraid, particularly if the former cultist knows secrets which the cult would not like to become public. However, in most cases this fear is another manifestation of a free-floating anxiety stemming from the family's ambivalence over their decision to intervene in the child's life. In particular, intervening dramatically is a difficult action for most families to take, even if they believe that this is the only way they will dislodge their child from a destructive situation.
After a few months, family members are generally ready to go on with their own lives. They are relieved that this painful chapter in the life of the family is finally over. They may be impatient for the former cultist to get on with his/her life, because they feel guilty about moving on themselves if the former cultist cannot do the same. However, it may take the former cult member longer to go on. Often, families prod the former cultists to make decisions which they are not ready to make. Former cultists respond to this pressure by feeling that the family is attempting to control them. It is important for former cultists to feel that they are once again in control of their lives, even if they exercise their decision-making capacity by temporarily postponing decision-making.
Families often experience anger toward returning members, because, for example, they cannot help blaming them for behavior that was orchestrated by the cult. While in the cult the cult-involved person may have missed important family events and did not share times of joy and grief with their families. At other times, the family's anger manifests in indirect ways, for example, in overly solicitous behavior toward the former cultist. It is advisable for the clinician to help the family acknowledge their feelings and air them as a step towards their resolution.
Lastly, we should mention the joy which families feel upon reunion with the former cultists. This joy is re-experienced again and again as the families see former cultists begin to lose some of their identification with the cult leader and develop into unique individuals who are free again to take part in family life as much as they desire.
Parents in Cults
We would now like to turn to a family situation which is becoming increasingly problematic. Growing numbers of adult children are discovering that their parents have been seduced by a cult. The common problems experienced by families who face a member's cult involvement are compounded by the victim's age, physical and emotional condition, the necessity of involving siblings and other relatives in the decision-making process, and the required familial role reversal.
Another situation is the effect a parent's or parents' cult membership has on children who are still in the process of growing. Sometimes this situation leads to the entire family's participation in the cult or to divisiveness and divorce. In either case, just as cult involvement interferes with the individual's ability to separate his/her own needs from those of the cult, it often impedes the parent's ability to respond to the needs of the children (Markowitz and Halperin, 1984).
Cult membership and subsequent leave-taking, then, affect not only the individual involved but other family members as well. Ross and Langone point out that, ". . . it is not only ex-cultists who must adapt, endure, and overcome. Parents, too, are acutely sensitive to the ups and downs of reentry . . . . They need to vent frustrations and fears; to confess feelings of guilt and excitement, to spend time away from their child, to seek support, encouragement, and sometimes professional assistance" (Ross & Langone, 1988). In order to fully understand and appreciate cult involvement, it is necessary to view membership in the context of the individual's life and to recognize the impact that cult involvement has on the rest of the family. We view this situation as a crisis for the family. However, with assistance, family members are able to develop a deeper understanding of themselves and improved ways of communicating with one another.
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Lorna Goldberg, M.S.W. and William Goldberg, M.S.W. are therapists in private practice in River Edge, New Jersey. Mrs. Goldberg also is a supervisor and instructor at the New Jersey Institute, Teaneck, New Jersey. Mr. Goldberg is the Program Supervisor for Rehabilitative Services of Rockland County Community Mental Health Center, Pomona, New York. He also is a doctoral student in clinical social work at Adelphi University. The Goldbergs co-lead a monthly support group for former cultists that has met for fourteen years.