In the FAIR news Issue 1 (2005) I published an article on emotions related to destructive sect involvement for former cultists, based on more than two decades of experience as a psychologist working in a specialty clinical practice, RETIRN, the Re-entry Information and Referral Network, (www.retirn.com). In this article, I will share my observations about the emotional life of family members and friends of people who have been involved in a high demand group/sect/cult/extremist group/abusive one on one relationship, or who otherwise have been subjected to undue influence and coercive persuasion.
My years of experience in helping families have led me to develop tremendous compassion toward family members who had suffered abandonment and loss in losing some or all contact with their loved ones, and admiration for their courage in trying to intervene to help their loved one to exit the group. Family members mourned the loss of expressed potential in the cult members who often abandoned personal educational and employment achievements in order to devote themselves to the cult, while the cult members had been positively reinforced for prioritizing group goals over personal goals. Family members who were slow to recognize the seriousness of the problem or who minimized the extent of the cult member’s involvement later felt anguish and despair, especially if later interventions were unsuccessful in helping their loved one to exit the group.
An important consideration for former cultists and their families is that in re-establishing a sense of personal identity, the ex-member might not return to the former cult personality, but might develop in new and unanticipated ways. These might not always be what family members had hoped for! For example, people whose appearance had changed in order to conform with group demands might not return to the earlier appearance and might still look unfamiliar or strange to their loved ones. Former cultists do not always return to former educational and career goals. Religious and spiritual ideas might differ from both the person’s upbringing and from the cultic experience, as a variety of viewpoints may be explored and considered. Another important consideration is that it is normal and to be expected that the former cultist might continue to have positive regard for some aspects of their cult experience, including beliefs or ideas, people (which could even include the cult leader to whom loyalty is still felt), and practices. In all these regards, patience, understanding, and careful listening are all very important qualities which family members may exhibit toward their loved one, creating an environment for optimum personal and family growth, including an integration of the cultic experience.
Counselling and psychotherapy can be helpful to families at various points of their loved one’s involvement in a cult. It can help them to learn about cult involvement, reduce feelings of shame and guilt, resolve conflicts between various family members, and help families to consider and develop a unified plan of intervention for their loved one during their time of involvement. Family counselling can help families to readjust after a person exits a group and can offer support for the myriad of complex emotions which may arise.
LINDA JAYNE DUBROW-MARSHALL, Ph.D