So…you’re the family member or friend of someone who has left a cult. You are thrilled beyond measure that your loved one has managed to get themselves out of a very toxic and abusive, not to mention dangerous, situation.
You are probably aware that the cult leader that your loved one was involved with is an emotionally and psychologically manipulative and abusive controller. You know that your loved one was coerced into the cult (no one joins a cult without being coerced) and that they stayed in that toxic, abusive, dangerous situation because they were taught to believe that if they left their life, their soul and possibly the fate of the world, was in jeopardy.
You know that cult leaders are bad dudes, even when they’re women. They are charismatic, controlling, authoritarian personalities who use and abuse people in the most horrific ways for their own self-serving purposes (to inflate their egos, their wealth and their sense of power and self).
And you’re probably very, very angry at the cult leader that your loved one was involved with. And rightly so. The cult leader has hijacked a portion of your loved one’s life, possibly turned your loved one against you, definitely tied their brain in knots with thought-reform techniques, and caused them trauma and suffering in ways you may never even be able to imagine.
The cult leader is a person who, if life were fair, should be hanged from a tree by his/her toenails and covered in honey and fire ants.
However…and this is a really BIG however…your number one strategy as the family member or friend of someone who has been in a cult is to NOT attack or malign the cult leader in any way when your loved one first returns to the real world.
Here’s why: There is a sense of loyalty that exists between cult members and their leader that lasts beyond the borders of the relationship. The easiest parallel I can draw (although it’s not perfect) is to imagine that you are getting divorced or are leaving a long-term relationship. (Not an abusive relationship, just a regular one that didn’t work out.) You have your reasons for ending the relationship, and even though you are doing so you probably still have feelings for the person you are breaking up with. You remember good times you had with them. You remember their positive qualities. You are probably still fond of them, and may even still love them to a certain extent.
Now imagine that your best friend begins verbally attacking your ex-spouse as soon as you’ve left the relationship. “I never liked your wife. I always thought she was crazy. She was such a bitch to you.” etc.
How would you feel? Defensive probably, right? We all grow out of that as we grow away from the relationship, but under certain circumstances, no matter what the relationship was like, we usually feel a bit defensive about it after we’ve left because it was a part of us. We defined ourselves for a period of time as being in that relationship. We need time and space and healing to take place in order to not feel quite as attached as we did when we were in the relationship.
Now, to get back to our cult scenario: An ex-cult member feels that kind of loyalty to the cult leader, times 50. Among other thought-reform dynamics that the cult leader has set up, one of the most prominent is that cult members are taught to feel that whatever is wrong in the world, or in their lives, or in the cult, is their fault. The cult leader is never at fault. The cult member has existed in a culture of extreme self-blame for as long as they were involved with the cult.
And so, even though they’ve left the cult, they will feel they have failed. The ex-cult member will feel they have let the cult leader down, let the other members of their group down, and possibly let the Divine down. Along with these feelings they will believe that the cult leader is not to blame for what transpired.
It is only with time and healing work that the ex-member will realize these things are not true.
Your ‘job’ as the ex-member’s loved one is to be loving and supportive, ask neutral (not blaming or probing) questions and, above all, offer unconditional love. Attacking the cult leader and blaming the ex-member for his/her involvement will not help your loved one to heal.
In Chapter Eight of his excellent book Combatting Cult Mind Control, Steve Hassan goes into detail about how family members and friends of ex-cult members can help their loved one, and how they can harm. If you have someone in your life who was formerly in a cult, I highly recommend reading this book, and especially Chapter Eight. Hassan talks about taking a “curious yet concerned” posture.
It won’t be easy. I know that. But it will be one of the most healing and loving things you can do for your loved one.
In short, take your anger about the cult leader elsewhere. Vent to friends or other family members or a therapist, by all means. I’m not asking you to not feel angry. But when talking to your loved one, please, please remember to be loving and supportive of them and their feelings, and completely neutral on the topic of the cult leader. A few years down the road, your loved one will be able to see that he/she was in a cult and at that time you can express the truth of whatever you’re feeling.
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