I'm an online writer, handyman, traveler and former Caribbean live-aboard sailor who now lives in Austin, TX.
What Is a Cult?
I've now had relatives on both my and my wife's side of the family that ended up in cults. It's really not as uncommon as you might think. There are millions of others like me that know what it feels like to lose family members to the spell of a charismatic leader, or to an idea which begins to consume them.
One definition of a cult is: "A religion or sect, generally considered to be extremist or false, under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader for whom members exhibit fixed, even religious, veneration."
History is filled with leaders such as Adolf Hitler and others who've been able to inspire "cult like" behavior in their followers. Their followers will often believe nearly anything that the leader tells them is true, and will go to any length to prove their devotion to that leader.
As we have seen with recent online movements such as QAnon, a cult may also form around a specific conspiracy theory that has been created online by multiple individuals, who loosely collaborate to create the identity of the imagined leader. This imaginary leader is given amazing powers of insight and prophecy, and remains beyond the reach of anyone who would question their authority. This is a particularly dangerous new phenomenon, and can make de-programming even harder than if individuals had been following a real person, who might eventually be exposed and fall from grace.
Cult members often will see their leader, their movement and even themselves as persecuted by "evil outside forces", and will see anyone who tries to get them to stop listening to the cult leader as the enemy.
While not all cults are dangerous, some, such as the one started by Rev. Jim Jones in Guyana, can became deadly when their members either began to harm themselves or harm others outside of the cult as they tried to defend their leader at any cost.
We've seen cult-like behavior in recent events, such as the attack on our Capitol, and this has caused many people to become worried about family members that may have gone too far in their level of devotion to a particular leader or cause.
There are generally levels of belief within any cult, with the most loyal and devoted members often doing the leaders' bidding, while others at the periphery may only offer their support. Knowing what level of belief in the the cult your loved one is currently subscribing to can be helpful when trying to develop a plan of action.
If you believe that your loved one has taken their devotion to any particular cult to the level at which they could commit violence, acts of terrorism, or may pose an immediate danger to anyone, including themselves, please contact the appropriate local, state or federal authorities to intercede. Do not try and do so yourself.
How To Help Family Who Are in a Cult
1. Do Not Use the Word "Cult" in Front of Them
According to the organization CultWatch, it's best not to use the word "cult" towards those who you believe are in one. The cult itself knows that it will be perceived as such, and has already indoctrinated members to go into defense mode if that word is ever used against their members. Some cults may even joke about this word, to further reinforce the belief that when it is levied against their members it's simply a ridiculous reaction of people who "don't understand the movement".
1. Don't Let Them Shut Your Out of Their Life
The most important thing to focus on is keeping lines of communication open and not give the person an excuse to shut you out of their life.
2. Do Your Research and Educate Family and Friends
It's also important to do some research and learn as much about cults as you can. Share this information with other family members so that they understand what has happened to the person that you're trying to help.
Also, reach out to persons who are no longer in the cult for their input on how to deal with family who are still under the leader's spell. Being able to talk to people who left the cult can also help to give you hope that your loved one will someday do the same.
It's a good idea to ask indirect questions and try not to directly call out the ideas of the cult. If you ask simple questions, such as "how has uncle Joe responded to prayer only after quitting his eye medication? Is his vision getting better or worse?"
If you begin slowly to get them to answer small questions about the movement that they believe in, you may be able to get them to see that it is not perfect and hopefully progress from that point.
3. Spend Time With Them
Finally, as hard as it may be, try to spend more time with the person that you think is in a cult. Try to draw them back into your family by talking about other family members. Bring up family members in conversation so that you can draw their thoughts in that direction and away from topics that keep them thinking about the cult. Conversations such as; "Uncle Gene is in the nursing home now, he's been asking about you" can sometimes be helpful. Try to talk about shared experiences, such as asking questions like; "remember that fishing trip we went on when we were kids?".
If you can keep dialog open with conversation about things that aren't somehow relatable back to the cult they're in, you may be able to make some progress. If your loved one is spending much of their time online and in communication with whatever movement they've been drawn into, try to get them out of the house as often as you can.
Doing this, as well as engaging in friendly, neutral conversations, and modeling appropriate behavior, can help draw your loved one back toward a more realistic worldview.
Don't give up and don't lose hope. There are many others who have been where you now stand. Take heart in knowing that many cults eventually "fizzle out" and don't end as dramatically as the one started by Reverend Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana.
I found Steven Hassan's book "Combatting Cult Mind Control" helpful in understanding some of my own family who were in a cult. Another book by the same author, called "Freedom of Mind" is also a good resource for family members.
The Stages of Cult Breakup
As have seen with other cults, such as "Heaven's Gate", the cult may begin to fall apart after a predicted event failed to occur. In the case of Heaven's Gate, members believed that on March 26, 1997 they could escape earth by attaching their souls to the comet Hale Bopp, which was at that time closest to earth. Thirty nine men and women committed mass suicide at their leader, Marshall Applewhite's direction. As tragic as this was, there were some who believed in the teachings of the cult, but who did not choose to ultimately follow the orders of their leader.
Followers of the Q-Anon cult believed that a "day of reckoning" was going to come, and on that day, "their president" was going to declare martial law and have all of the opposition executed, as they were supposedly guilty of the most horrible crimes against children. There were enough followers of this bizarre cult to make them a significant part of the rioting crowd that attacked our Capitol.
This is a dangerous cult, yet not all of those who believe much of the cult's teachings would go so far as to attack our seat of government and try and kill our elected leaders.
According to organizations that study cult behavior, such as CultWatch, there is often a separation of levels of belief after a "prophecy" fails to come true. Some members will double down on the cult and will simply claim that the date was a miscalculation, and that the real date would soon come. These people will generally not leave the cult as a result of an unfulfilled prophecy.
The second group may simply lose interest, move on to another preoccupation, and no longer actively believe the cult's teachings, although they may maintain some sympathy for cult goals.
At the breakup of the cult, a third group may try to seek out another belief system or organization, one which can achieve the same goals as they had hoped for, without the same dogma. It is these members that keep people in the FBI up late at night, along with their concerned family members.
At this moment, there are a number of far-right hate groups who are actively trying to "redpill" or convert these members to their cause, which may be even more hate filled and radicalized than QAnon. Make sure that you pay attention to the warning signs, such as seeing your family member starting to wear clothing with extremist symbols or imagery or spending large amounts of time on new conspiracy websites or social media platforms favored by cult members.
If your loved one falls into this last category of post-cult members, please try and get them the help that they need, before they do harm either to themselves or others. However, make sure that you do not make a situation worse by over-reacting, especially in the case of children, who may just be trying to provoke a reaction with their activity.
My Own Experience With Family Who Joined Cults
In the 1980s, some of my wife's family, who live in Costa Rica, began to follow an extremist Christian religious sect which shunned all Western medicine. It was considered evil to visit doctors, take medications or receive vaccinations for diseases like polio. Numerous relatives who joined the movement became ill with various diseases which were easily treatable, such as diabetes, yet refused to get treatment because of orders from the cult leader.
Several went blind from glaucoma (easily treatable), while others died after organ failure caused by complications from diabetes. In every case where a family member from outside the religious sect tried to help them, they were rebuked. "Common sense" logic no longer worked on them, they had become lost to the cult.
On my own side of the family, a cousin in California left college to follow the religious leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and help build a utopia in rural Oregon. My cousin gave up his scholarship, left his fiancé behind, and dedicated his whole life to the leader for nearly two years, before leaving the group in disillusionment.
None of the people that I mentioned here were "simple minded" or "weak". Several of them were highly educated and were respected members of their professions including law, health care and education.
What they all had in common was that they became susceptible to manipulation by a powerful personality in which they placed entirely too much faith and trust.
- CULTWATCH - How to help friends and family
- EnCourage - Resources
EnCourage was set up in order to offer support to those who have left a cult, abusive group, one on one cult or been spiritually abused (called former members). This includes first generation (joined or recruited) and second/third generation.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2021 Nolen Hart