I am often approached by concerned family members of adult cult members who need help. I work with the family by coaching them to use my Strategic Interactive Approach. This involves teaching them how to employ an ethical influence campaign based on compassion, and designed to help the cult member question the group’s leader, doctrine, and policies. If all goes well, the approach works and the cult member “wakes up.” As that happens, they are surrounded by loving people who are educated about all the key issues and ready to help them move on with their life. Family and informed friends offer support and he or she has no reason to even speak to any former cult associates.
However, this is not always the case.
Oftentimes, people “wake up” on their own. Whether they are helped by reading a book, influenced by former members, or because the group treated them unfairly and they grew disillusioned, many come out of cults without an educated (trained) support system and no experienced counselor to help.
When this happens, there is usually a huge “exit cost.” Some of these people have lived for years or lifetimes under cult influence. This often means, parents, siblings, friends, and others are left behind, programmed in the cult. It happens quite often that strong natural bonds are strained and broken when they leave.
Most cults have policies that limit or forbid contact with former members. Defectors are seen as a threat to the group and labeled with names like “apostates” or “suppressive persons.” They are painted as “mentally diseased” and unfit for association. Shunning often follows and the person leaving the cult is cut off from those on the inside.
So often, the black and white mentality imbedded into the minds of those who are influenced by cults can be carried on inside a person even after leaving a cult. Even though they have left, many continue to believe the cult programming, and essentially continue following the policies of the group even after leaving. Because they know about the punishment of estrangement that is placed on those who leave, many former members resign themselves to having lost their family forever.
Through my years of work, I have discovered that this simply does not have to be the case.
When it comes to communication with loved ones inside cults, a loving, strategic approach works. In my book Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs, I discuss ways to appeal to the “authentic self” that reside inside of everyone–even those born into high-control cults. With proper support, and in some cases therapy, those who have left cults can get to a point where they feel empowered to rebuild relationships and save their loved ones from the mind control that they themselves have managed to escape.
I recently watched a heart-breaking video circulating on YouTube. This video shows a 93-year-old grandmother pleading with her granddaughter to pay her a visit before she loses her eyesight and ultimately dies.
Because of a disagreement with Watchtower doctrine, this grandmother left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a result, she was shunned and lost contact with family, including her beloved granddaughter.
While this video is indeed heartbreaking, it does demonstrate an easy way to reach those on the inside: real heartfelt communication.
By keeping the hope that the “authentic self” of cult members can be reached, and remembering that they truly are under undue influence a number of former cult members have found creative love-based ways to show they care. In addition to videos like this, many have chosen to continue or resume sending letters and photos to their family members still inside cults. They invite them to events, and even set up password protected web pages designed to facilitate communication should their dear ones ever want to reach out.
Just recently, a couple in California erected a billboard near the Scientology headquarters with a simple message: “To My Loved One in Scientology, Call Me.” Even though the couple disagrees with Scientology’s teachings, this billboard contains no criticism, and no accusations. Aimed at their children, this basic request for conversation shows a loving openness and willingness to speak.
By adopting a belief that our loved ones want to be free from mind-control (just as we once did) we can reach out and set ourselves up as loving allies in the quest for freedom of mind. Instead of directly confronting current members with criticisms of the group that cause cognitive dissonance, I encourage using opportunities to communicate as a way to focus on fostering good feelings.
As long as it is wise (and safe) to do so, I often counsel clients to attend weddings and other family events of cult members–even those with conditions attached. Though it can be painful, it does prove to those inside that there is true unconditional love and that family does still matter. This open willingness to cooperate stands in stark contrast to the cult and its leaders who make demands for obedience. Sometimes simply being present is enough to spark independent thought and trigger positive feelings of the authentic self.
We must remember too that it’s never too late for someone to have a change of understanding and leave a cult. The grandmother in this video was an active member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for 50 years before she decided to leave. After dedicating his life and serving as part of Watchtower’s governing body Raymond Franz, another former Jehovah’s Witness, also left the group after 60 years. These examples, and so many more, prove to us that there is no expiration date and no time limit for the authentic self to realize the truth and break free.
I urge you to consider a message of love when dealing with those who are still under cult mind control. Though it may require strength to approach them, our true loved ones deserve to know that we care and are there to help them if they decide to leave.