Handbook for Family Members


 I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to address you today about issues for families with a loved one in a destructive sect/cult/extremist group/high demand group, or one on one relationship wherein the person experiences undue influence and coercive persuasion. I initially became interested in working with this population because of my interest in the Holocaust, and what factors would contribute to ordinary people committing atrocities under certain circumstances, including group pressure, who individually would not have chosen to do so under more usual and ordinary circumstances. In my early work, I conducted psychological research on group pressures which contributed to the expression of prejudiced statements against others. I learned that group pressure had a significant effect on influencing people to make prejudiced statements even when they did not really believe these statements.

As I progressed from being a student in counselling psychology to a credentialed counselling psychologist and psychotherapist, I decided to apply my clinical and counselling skills to helping individuals and families who had been affected by destructive cults. In 1983, when I was in the United States, I co-founded RETIRN, the Re-entry Therapy Information and Referral Network, a specialized private practice of mental health professionals designed to assist people who had been affected by undue influence and cults. In 2004, I relocated to the United Kingdom to live with my husband Professor Rod Dubrow-Marshall, a social psychologist who had been involved with researching cults, supervising and consulting on research about the psychology of cults, and serving on the FAIR Committee inEngland, and on the General Assembly of FECRIS as a FAIR representative. Rod and I co-founded RETIRN/UK in 2004, and in 2006, we moved to Wales, where RETIRN/UK is now headquartered. RETIRN is a correspondent member of FECRIS.

On a personal level, I have always been very emotionally moved by the dilemmas of families who found themselves thrust into what was typically previously unknown territory to them – a world of high demand, high pressured groups and cults with sophisticated techniques of influence which had significantly changed their loved ones’ personalities and behaviors once they had become involved. These families experienced enormous emotional pain and anguish, and suffered a great deal because of what was happening to their loved ones, who usually were becoming increasingly estranged from their families. I, as well as my colleagues in RETIRN, was motivated to try to help these families.

Although I had initially become involved in this work because of my research interests and not because of personal or familial involvement in a cult like group, I have not been untouched by this phenomenon in my personal life. Efforts have been made to recruit me into several cults, and I have friends and family members who have joined cults. Certainly, I have shared the seemingly universal experience of being deceived, exploited, and harmed by other people and groups.

The most poignant personal story I can share with you is to let you know about what happened with my father at one point in his later years, after he was diagnosed with a potentially critical illness and became vulnerable to undue influence. He developed a cult-like relationship with a group of people who did not believe in traditional medicine and who pressured him to adopt an extreme alternative life style purportedly to preserve his health. This life style was actually dangerous and began to undermine his health, and I pleaded with him to be rational about it, but he was unable to listen to me. I will never forget him saying to me, “I know that I am in a cult, Linda, and that you work with this, but please just leave me alone about it.” I tried to engage other family members to help me to persuade my father to reconsider his actions, but they were reluctant to get involved given how adamant my father was about his behaviour. Finally, I was able to have a lawyer contact the group, insisting that my father comply with a medical evaluation at the family’s wishes. At that point, the group, apparently fearing legal action against them, found my father to be a potential liability, and they threw him out of the group. My father found a more moderate group of people who used some alternative medicine techniques, his health improved, and my family had an improved relationship with him for his remaining years, for which I am very grateful. Of course, the action of my father’s cult in suddenly dismissing him from the group upon receipt of the lawyer’s letter after professing intense caring for him prior to this was typical of what we often see in cults – where the pseudo-intimacy and love bombing present in a group is just a technique to pressure people, and cannot stand up to the genuine caring of family members and friends. Also, my father’s remark to me illustrates the common problem that it is not just enough to announce to people that they are in a cult, as a way of helping them to exit, although many family members have thought that this alone would work.

As you can see, I understand on a deep personal level, that no one is immune to cults, either individually or as a family member. I feel privileged that family members have trusted me and my colleagues to help them when they have been affected by cults, and I have learned a great deal from the families with whom I have worked.

When families approach RETIRN, they may feel all alone and alienated from other people. Often, they have never known anyone else who has been involved in a cult. They may never have heard of the group or abusive individuals with whom their loved one has become involved. It may be a well known group, but it may be an obscure group, or the group may have changed names and locations many times, as Heaven’s Gate did. Recently, I learned that a family member of a person who had become involved with The Family of God did not trust me because of my activities with the American Family Foundation, now renamed the International Cultic Studies Association, fearing that the American Family Foundation was just another name for The Family of God, given that they had changed names in the past.

Families may feel too embarrassed or ashamed to tell other people about what has happened, such as work colleagues, friends, neighbours, or other extended family members. This is part of the reason why family members may believe that they have never known a family affected by cults when they actually do, because the other families have not been open in talking about it. It is completely understandable that families would be hesitant to talk about their problems with cults, as they are the first ones to be blamed for their loved one’s involvement by people uneducated about cults. This only increases the pain faced by these families. Cult apologists have tended to blame individual mental health factors and troubled families for a person’s involvement with a destructive group. To blame dysfunctional families for vulnerability to cult involvement is to deny the extent and scope of the problem and to misattribute causal factors.

Even without prodding from others, families often make the mistake of blaming themselves for cultic involvement, in a similar way that people search their souls to explain other painful phenomena, such as why did their loved one develop cancer or heart disease, go through a divorce, or have a miscarriage. Should they have done more? Should they have done less? Should they have done something differently? If only they had said something earlier – if only they had said something specific – if only they were more religious or wealthy or educated – any of these thoughts can cross a family member’s mind. In the past, mothers were blamed for their children becoming schizophrenic, and there was even a name for this – the “schizophrogenic mother.” Now, the complicated etiological factors that account for the development of schizophrenia are better appreciated, including physical and genetic factors over which there is no control. But I still hear people who would speak of a “cultogenic” mother or father, and this is very harmful, misguided, and shaming.

Therefore, a very important issue for families is proper psycho-education about the psychology of cult recruitment, including the specifics of the cult with which their loved one is involved, and the importance of bad luck – being in the wrong place at the wrong time – as a factor that leads to cult involvement. Not all psychotherapists are able to provide this type of service to their clients because they have not been trained in understanding the social psychological forces that lead normal people to join destructive groups. In fact, psychotherapists are not immune from these groups, and I knew of an entire counselling program that was recruited into a harmful, pseudo-therapeutic cult, and I knew of a university counselling centre counsellor, who was involved in a psychotherapy cult, and recruited his university clients into it. Support groups for families of cultists, such as the Family Support Group in London, often bring in qualified professionals to speak to families, and serve to defuse the shame that individual families feel by giving them the opportunity to meet other families similarly affected, and to normalize their experience. There are many such groups who provide these services, including FAIR in England, the International Cultic Studies Association which is headquartered in the USA, and FECRIS and its correspondent organizations.

The internet has had a significant impact on the availability of information about cults in general and specific groups. The organizations which I have mentioned publish reliable information, and in some ways it is much easier for families to learn about the cult problem within the privacy of their own homes. The cults have their own websites, and it is often very useful to see what they are saying about themselves. However, there is also misinformation about cults on the internet, and it is important to verify information obtained there with other sources and to not accept everything at face value.

Families require accurate information in order to begin to understand the situation and to begin to prepare for an intervention, if this is appropriate. In addition to the need for up to date information on specific groups, I would stress the need for psycho-education on the psychology of sect recruitment, undue influence, and coercive persuasion to help families to understand what their loved one has experienced, as well as to shed insight on their own emotional experiences. It is important to defuse anger toward the cultist by cultivating an understanding of how the groups manipulate their followers, thereby allowing the anger to be targeted more appropriately toward the group. It is important to know that intelligence, education, economic standing, and profession do not make anyone immune to cults, and that it is not stupidity which leads people to join or to stay. The diversity of membership in Heaven’s Gate was a good example of this, and showed how it was possible to manipulate a large variety of people, educated and uneducated, to sacrifice their lives. This is an important dynamic to understand in these times where we must address the problem of terrorist acts, including suicide bombers – where it can be productive to understand the group bonding, manipulation of feelings, loss of individuality, feeling superior to others, offering a supposed higher purpose to one’s life, opportunity to make an impact for a higher good, and achieve entry to a perfect after-life as a way of understanding how terrorists are recruited and groomed into committing atrocious acts.

I have talked about the problem with blaming families unfairly for cultic involvement, but another issue for families is the polar opposite – and that is to deny individual mental health factors and family problems that may be occurring, and which may have influenced the person’s recruitment, length of time in staying in the group, extent of involvement, and difficulties in exiting the group. This is a complicated thing to explain, and I think it is important to view what I am saying here in the context of the unfair blame which I previously discussed. But let me be clear – to not look at family problems is also a mistake. When families come to me for help, I use my skills as a psychotherapist and psychologist to assess family problems that may be complicating the cult involvement and which may impede the person’s ability to leave the group. Cults affect a large variety of families with various strengths and weaknesses, and I believe that it is important to look at each individual in a cult and their families on a case by case basis, and to honestly address family problems where they are present, within a supportive context, which I am able to provide within a psychotherapeutic context, but which others might be able to provide in a different way, without scapegoating families or shaming them for single-handedly having created the problem.

Please allow me to give you a few examples of addressing areas of dysfunctionality within a family in order to help the family to deal with the cult problem. A common problem is that families do not always agree on what to do, whether to do anything, or how concerned to be. Is the group in question really a cult? Some of the groups are not well known, and it is difficult to determine. Sometimes the group is a cult, but the family member has only a limited or fringe involvement with the group, that does not really constitute a full cultic involvement. This type of person would need a different type of intervention and exit strategy than cult members who have devoted their entire lives to the cult – living with the group, donating all their money to the group, worshipping the cult leader, feeling superior to all those outside the group, etc. Sometimes the group is high pressured in some ways, yet not a true cult, but the person involved has obsessive qualities and so has developed a cult like relationship with a group that typically does not require such devotion and allegiance, and this type of person would need special care in planning an intervention, and furthermore, might be more vulnerable than others to joining another high demand group shortly after exiting this group. It can be very helpful to family members to have an outside consultant, such as a psychotherapist, exit counsellor, or thought reform consultant who is trained in this area, to listen to them and to provide more objective feedback in terms of assessing the problem and considering various possible interventions.

There are a host of other conflicts and marital issues may diminish the chances for a successful intervention. I am working with a family where the parents are divorced and can be described as hating each other. So far, I have been unsuccessful in bringing the parents together to a counselling session and coming up with a unified plan. So for now, I am working with one of the parents and we are limited in not being able to count on the other parent to be communicating and intervening in a way that would be supportive to any plans for communication and intervention that we devise to help the child to exit the cult. In another instance, I was able to facilitate communication between previously warring parents and grandparents specifically around the issue of helping their loved one to exit an abusive religiously orientated one on one relationship. The two generations were barely speaking to one another before the intervention because of some long-held resentments and misunderstandings, and the shared experience of being concerned about the individual family member unfortunately did nothing to help heal these deep seated family wounds. But the family was able to come together and take supportive actions and intervene with the family member, who did ultimately exit the cultic relationship. This was a very unique counselling intervention with many tense moments and challenges for me. To this day, the two generations struggle to have any type of amicable relationship at all, and the grandchild who left the cult usually splits holiday celebrations to be with each family separately.

Another example of a relevant family problem would be where one parent blames the other for the child’s cult involvement. Intense anger feelings from one spouse toward the other would tend to impede any joint intervention with the child. Another problem is when parents are very fearful of any type of confrontation for fear of losing contact forever with the cultist, or when one parent feels this way and the other parent is all too eager for a forceful confrontation, which can backfire. A fruitful approach is to try to unify the family members or other concerned people who are close to the cultist before executing an intervention to help the person to exit the group or cult-like relationship. As with any type of intervention, it is extremely helpful to help a family to evaluate the risks of various actions versus the risk of doing nothing at all. Thus, the family who takes no action for fear that any confrontation will lead to complete estrangement from the family member, may be undertaking an even greater risk by doing nothing as the cult member’s behaviours become increasingly disturbed or dangerous. I must admit that I have had to support many families who were in pain because they had waited too long to intervene, having hoped that it was just a phase, or having waited to have learned about the group.

Some families make the mistake of wanting to act too quickly, or thinking that they can just say something magical and the person will “snap out of it.” Some family members are obsessed, watching their every word, fearful of missing a single opportunity. As it is commonly recommended to caregivers to strike a balance between the care they give to others and self-care, it is important for families to strike a balance too in terms of the resources that they devote to helping their loved one to exit a cult and finding time, energy, and money for other pursuits. So, strange as it may sound, there are times when it is just important for the family to take a break, and maybe try to take a peaceful holiday somewhere or undertake other activities which may renew their own strengths, spirituality, or ties with other people. Another problem is balancing the needs of other siblings who may be facing ordinary developmental problems, and who may resent the attention and resources that their parents are devoting to the one child with the unusual problem of being in a cult.

People exit cultic groups in many different ways. Some just walk away without any intervention. Some exit a group very gradually. Some do appear to just snap out of it. What we know from working with people who have exited groups is that is very common for people to always have some doubts even while they are in the group. The cults are aware of this, and often teach specific techniques for their group members to practice when they are feeling doubts. These may be mind-numbing techniques, such as chanting or confessing and feeling shamed by doing so. If the cults use mind-numbing techniques, then it is important for the family members to use “mind-opening” techniques, communicating in ways that help the person to restore their critical faculties and to develop independent thinking and evaluation. It can be very helpful to remind people of earlier experiences in their lives, which they may miss because the group involvement does not allow for earlier relationships, interests, career pursuits, etc. Photos can be helpful. Too many photos may be too obvious or overwhelming. Timing and pacing of certain communications by family members is crucial, and it is helpful for them to get guidance on these matters, as their own impatience, fears, or reticence may all interfere with effective interventions. But it is helpful to assume that no matter how adamant the cultist may appear to be, there will be some moments when the person is experiencing doubts, and if this can be tapped into in a supportive way, the person’s doubts may build and become an exit strategy.

It is important to assess individual problems prior to the cult or exacerbated by the cult which may affect cult involvement or the process of leaving the cult. These can include pre-existing mental health problems, which usually are less serious in nature than full-blown psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Some people will experience a psychotic break while in the group because of the pressures that they are under, and some people will have joined a cult at a time when perhaps they were about to have a psychotic break anyway. So there are difficult diagnostic issues and people will have different needs for mental health counselling and psychotherapy when they exit the group. Drug addiction may also be a factor, and some group members will have suffered physical, emotional, sexual, and even financial and spiritual abuse.

Family members may think that their problems are over when the cultist exits the group, but as I have just mentioned, there may be many difficult issues for families even at that juncture. Former cultists frequently experience despair, anxiety, phobic reactions, shame, guilt (especially over issues like recruiting others into the cult or having missed important family events, even funerals), anger, grief, and other difficult and intense emotions. They may face difficult identity issues, and their normal developmental paths may have been delayed as previous education, careers, and interpersonal relationships have most likely been disrupted. There are many ordinary problems to address when the person leaves the group, as well as the special issues of trying to understand what happened to them and what they can gain from their experiences and prevent future cultic involvements.

Former cultists do not necessarily return to their pre-cult personality, and sensitivity to this by family members and acceptance of the person’s individual path in reintegrating into their former life can be enhanced by setting realistic expectations. Former members are not always grateful to their families for the expense, time, energy, and other resources which they have expended to help them to exit. They may appear cold and indifferent, when they are basically confused. It is common to experience some dissociation in thought and feeling following a cult experience, and psychotherapy can help with these problems. It is important for family members to understand that the person might have derived some positive experiences or insights from their cult involvement, and to provide an opportunity for these feelings to be expressed, so I encourage openness on the part of families to hearing their family member’s full experience. This is similar to accepting that a person might still have some positive feelings toward a former spouse or partner or have some good memories of what turned out to be a bad relationship or marriage.

There are several good books and articles which make suggestions for family members, and I am happy to recommend the following:

Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves by Steven Hassan. Especially helpful are his sections on goal-oriented communication, communication strategies, and promoting freedom of mind, which is the name of his website. I am grateful to Steven Hassan for explicating the presence of cult induced phobias in cult members, where the group impresses upon the person that to leave the group is to subject them to death, insanity, or other horrible outcomes. It is very helpful to understand this phenomenon in planning interventions because it makes us mindful of just how hard it may be to leave a group. This runs contrary to popular thought which misunderstands why people would stay in a destructive group and which blames personal factors, rather than group-based factors, for the person remaining in the group. Steven Hassan has developed a Strategic Interaction Approach, which is goal oriented.

Coping with Cult Involvement: A Handbook for Families and Friends by Livia Bardin.

Especially helpful are her sections on communicating with cult members, including sending important messages, using the private language, and listening and responding, and developing a strategic plan. She also has suggestions for helping to find a missing person, a particularly tragic circumstance which sometimes occurs in cults.

Family Interventions for Cult-Affected Loved Ones by Carol Giambalvo.

Especially helpful are her descriptions of possible scenarios for presenting the intervention plan to the cult member, something which families tend to worry about a lot, and her sections on what to do when the person decides to return to the cult after an intervention. Additionally, she includes Ethical Standards for Thought Reform Consultants, which many exit counsellors have agreed to. This is important because whereas licensed and credentialed mental health professionals would normally be held accountable to an ethical code, exit counsellors would generally do so voluntarily, and not all of them do.

I would like to conclude my remarks by commenting on another model of psychotherapy which I have found helpful in my work with families, and this is a model of harm reduction, which has been developed by psychologists for psychotherapeutic work with people with addiction issues. This model was developed because clients would sometimes drop out of treatment when told that there was only one way to recover from their addictions and this was to adopt complete abstinence from the abusive substance. For example, some alcoholics and drug abusers cannot contemplate never having a drink or using their drug of choice again. They may feel alienated by self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, who may say this is the only way. A harm reduction model attempts to meet the person at their level of motivation, increase motivation for behavioral change in the long run, but immediately attempt to reduce the harmful effects of the addiction. For example, people who drink daily might be encouraged to drink only on weekends, enabling them to keep a job, or people who drink and drive might at least be able to make the change to not drive after drinking, a change which could save their lives as well as others. I believe that this model can be applied to helping cultists and their families. For example, if you cannot get the person to completely exit the group, you might be able to minimize some of the harm that is being caused by creatively working toward some behavioural changes. These could include keeping communication with the cultist, perhaps helping them to participate in certain normal family activities while still being in the cult, exploring whether they might be able to continue with their education or career while still being in the cult, and other such measures. It could include helping the person to abstain from physical abuse of children, when it is encouraged by the group, without confronting other beliefs of the cult.

Effective interventions with cult members require a great deal of thoughtfulness, deliberation, education, and consultation. Families with a loved one in a cult or otherwise highly manipulative relationship or group face many painful emotions, and face many of these alone. Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on family issues with you today. I would now like to open the floor to questions and comments.

Linda Dubrow-Marshall, Ph.D., MBACP