Understanding Those Caught In Cults
by John Edmiston
A good Christian couple find that their young and intelligent son or daughter no longer listens to them and is caught up in a group that raises deep concerns within them. They are "no longer themselves" and when the wrong theology or poor morals of the group are pointed out the parents are called "agents of Satan". Finally their son or daughter leaves them and joins the group full-time. Their child seems lost to them forever.
This article will look at what happens to people who join cults and why they join. It will also help you develop some coping strategies.. A cult is a mind-control trap. The person entering the cult did not want to enter a trap. They are deceived people. They thought they were entering something wonderful but they in fact have entered something very destructive. Their emotions, thoughts, access to information and behavior are often tightly controlled through isolation from others, a very prescriptive lifestyle, indoctrination and emotional game-playing of a very sinister kind. A very full analysis of cult mind control techniques can be found in Steve Hassan's invaluable book "Combating Cult Mind Control".
If you have relative or friend in a destructive cult you may be wondering about how they have changed and how they are "no longer themselves". This is because the indoctrination process used by cults produces a second personality, one that Steve Hassan calls John-cult, the real personality "John-John" is still there but is suppressed. Accessing the real self is the key to helping your loved one leave a cult. Here are some pointers to help you understand what you are dealing with.
1. The person you know is "still there" but a second "cult personality" has been superimposed over the top of it. The "cult personality" has an enormous need to conform in order to receive approval from the group and/or its leader.
2. "Cult personalities" are cheap imitations and look plastic. For instance the whole group may use the same cliches, wear similar clothes, smile the same way, laugh the same way and have the same intensity about them. Normal churches are a mixture of sad and happy, grumpy and kind, extrovert and introvert and so on. Cults destroy this natural diversity. They replace it with an artificial and manageable persona.
3. The superimposed cult personality is not very robust outside the group. The "real personality" has enormous energy and wants to reassert itself. Its like keeping a spring down - you need force. This is why cults manipulate people. If the person can be lovingly re-united with old friends and family , sometimes for as little as 3 days then the real self gets "fresh air" and will resurface. This however may not be easy to manage. Also deep and fearful suggestions are planted so that the person may truly believe that their life is of little or no value outside of the group.
4. The super-imposed personality has its foundations in unmet emotional needs for affection and approval and frequently has a very limited critical or reflective ability outside of cult dogma. Direct confrontations based on reason, therefore, probably will not work if the "cult personality" is the one you are dealing with.
5. The ‘real self' who is your best ally has been badly hurt by the coercive and freedom denying manipulations of the cult. The "real self" is thus almost hyper-sensitive to manipulation. But it will probably be deeply gratified by true and genuine love.
6. While the cult personality largely falls apart after they come out of the group it still will have extraordinary power in some areas. People frequently feel they are "outside God's will" or "unsaved" or "no longer part of God's plan for this generation". They often feel they have made a huge compromise by leaving the cult and that life from now on is essentially trivial and meaningless. This is because the cult has planted these suggestions deep in their subconscious as part of the indoctrination process (cult good-world evil) and these suggestions may take years to be erased. However if the techniques of mind-control are carefully explained and good counseling offered then people will often see these thoughts and feelings for what they are . This will enable them to resist going back to the cult as a source of meaning.
Now you understand this you may be asking "How can I get him/her out?". That question takes a lot longer to answer than I can ethically put in this article. The process has so many variables that you really need to sit down with someone specializing in cults, or a good minister and work things through. There are four absolutely fundamental things I ask people to do.
A. Create a welcoming environment. Do not be angry or confrontational. People change in response to love not anger. In the story about the wind and the sun trying to get a man's coat off the harder the wind blew the tighter the man held his coat whereas the sun just smiled and shone and soon the coat was gone. The cult personality is like that coat. Your anger will cause it to be wrapped around the person even more tightly and you will probably just be labeled as "agents of the Devil". Your love will cause the cult personality to have little or no reason to be there. The emotional needs they long for will have been met and the coat will drop away. Step two is part of creating a welcoming atmosphere - get help with your family dynamics.
B. I advise families with a member in a cult to try at least three sessions of family therapy with a good counselor if they can afford it. This accomplishes a few purposes. Firstly it helps the family face any conflicts they may have with the member in the cult. Secondly it helps them understand how groups work and gives them a basic knowledge of group dynamics. Thirdly, if successful, it makes home a more comfortable place for the person to return to. It will generally do no harm and potentially can do much good.
C. Get as much information about the group, how it operates, its indoctrination techniques, its leadership etc that you can. Talk to former members. This is important as it will give you a good idea how cult members are programmed to react and which approaches will work best. Do some research in Scripture about the beliefs the cult holds so that you can show from the Word of God that their beliefs are erroneous and that the group takes verses out of context etc. To help someone leave a cult both the head and the heart need to be spoken to.
D. Form a prayer group of say six people to specifically pray for your loved one. Try to meet each week and pray for the following: (a) That the deception may be broken and that the person may spot the inconsistencies, lies and selfishness that exist at the core of every cult. That the spiritual forces of darkness may be bound and broken. That the manipulations may lose their power over the person.(b) That the person may remember the good times and good conditions they had at home. (c) That their may arise a deep dissatisfaction with the cult and a great desire to leave the group. (d) That they may be given the courage to act and that God would sovereignly arrange some good opportunities for them to leave. (E) For physical, emotional and spiritual protection for you as you tackle this very real evil. God can reach people through their spirit and even through dreams when we cannot communicate with them. He can arrange circumstances when all we feel is frustration. He is LORD!
The next thing you have to do is some very specific research. Here are 20 questions that will help you understand yourself, why your loved one entered the cult, the group itself and help anyone helping you to get them out. The answers to these questions can serve as a basis for further action and prayer.
Emotions and Relationships
1. What stresses was he/she going through in the two years prior to joining the cult? Death of a loved one, divorce, relocations, work stresses, illness, legal involvements etc
2. Was he /she generally a happy and successful person? Were loneliness or depression a problem?
3. Could the person often be easily duped in "tricks" at home? Were they very gullible and trusting? How strong are the critical faculties of the real self? Are the critical faculties unevenly distributed e.g. are they very logical and sharp intellectually but emotionally vulnerable and prone to forming unwise relationships?
4. Did they seek to escape reality through day-dreaming, drug-use, fantasies, alcohol, promiscuity or other behaviors? If so - why was reality so bad for them? Were they bullied or abused in any way?
5. Were they happy at home? Were they constantly feuding with siblings or parents? Did they express love for their family? Were they sure/unsure of the families love for them?
The Cult Itself
6. Did they enter the cult suddenly or gradually over a period of time? How long did it take?
7. What were the first changes you noticed?
8. How did things develop from there? Write out a detailed sequence of events as you perceived them. Compare this with the sequence of events as seen by other friends and family. Collate as much information as you can.
9. Which of the following mind control techniques do you sense/know are being used?
- Control of access to information - restricted access to media such as TV, newspapers.
- Control over behavior - very prescriptive lifestyle. Happiness through performance.
- Emotional manipulation - approval followed by disapproval etc. Fear and guilt.
- Indoctrination with a rigid belief structure. False teaching.
- Painting life outside the group as evil, fearful or demonic.
- Abuse of authority. Person cannot do even small things without asking a superior.
- Chanting, hyper-ventilation, hypnosis, long work hours, starvation, sleep deprivation.
- Is the person being humiliated, used sexually, or abased in other ways.?
- Are finances being tightly controlled? Is the person expected to "give all"?
- Elitism - is the person being made to feel part of an elite group?
- Group will over individual will - who has the final say?
- Modeling the leader - do they all look the same?
- Strict control of marriage, sexual practices, diet & food.
- Experiences (rather than character qualities) made the basis of status in the group. Visions, dreams etc the basis of spiritual authority and prestige. This makes it incumbent on the member to "have" these experiences.
10. Would the real person (John-John ) object to how he is now being treated? If so, what would annoy him most? This may become an important part of your communication strategy.
Getting Them Back Home
11. Are you looking after yourself properly and strengthening your resource base? Or are you "thrashing around" depleting yourself worrying about "the cult"? Are other family members being neglected? Don't make this crisis your whole life. He/she is going to be attracted out of the cult by your happy, functional and welcoming lifestyle. Work hard on being happy, healthy and functional. Prepare yourself and your family for constructive action-taking.12. Can the police, tax department or other authorities be called in to investigate this cult? Would the media be interested? Start with your LOCAL papers not "60 minutes'. A local paper will be more likely to pick it up and to devote real time and energy to the story. Local papers are read by bigger concerns and wire networks. It is surprising what can happen when you start small and let God take it from there.13.How much can you afford , realistically, to spend on your campaign and how will it best be used? Draw up a "cult campaign budget" and ask God to provide the funds. Include counseling fees, travel, books, phone calls, accommodation in some cases - whatever you think will be needed.14. Do you know any former members of the cult? Would they be willing to help you get your loved one out? What do they have to say about conditions inside the cult?15. What sort of family occasion would be most likely to attract them to visit home again? Is there any honest way they could be away from the cult for three days while they were spoken to by counselors, family, friends and a good pastor?
The Follow-Up Period (up to two years)
16. Have you developed basic skills in listening? Many places offer six week courses in listening skills or basic counseling. The ability to reflectively listen so that you can quickly build rapport and understanding is a critical skill . During the first few hours of contact they are frequently very nervous about what you might have to say about the cult. You need to be able to skillfully build communication bridges.17. Do you notice the person in the cult reacting strangely when certain trigger words are used or music is played? For instance a former "Moonie" may think of the cults founder the Rev Moon every time the word "moon" is used in normal contexts, or modern pop songs or beach sound used during indoctrination may have powerful impulses and associations. The way out is to help the person build new associations that are more constructive or pleasant. Teach them to think of something pleasant when they hear the music or trigger word. Most good psychologists will be able to help them get over this cult flashback experience known as "floating".18. Do they have nightmares? Guilt? Emotional problems? Counseling may be called for if this is the case.19. Can they read as well as before? What is their concentration and memory like? This may take some time to be restored.20. Is there a group that can help them make it back into the real world and a more normal life? A mainstream church? A support group for ex-cult members? Good friends?
As you can see there is a fair bit of work involved. Its now up to you. Seek out all the help you can. Read the other articles in GlobalChristians.Org on cults - you can find them indexed on the "Articles On Cults" index page. For other sites on cults see the links below.
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This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at email@example.com.