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Overview: Families, Cults, and Related Groups

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Families usually seek information from us because they have a loved one involved in what they think might be a cult or related group that concerns them. (Sometimes an entire family has been in a group or the loved one is out of the group. In these cases, our Former Group Members study guide will also be applicable.)

Although getting information on the group in question has utility, it is usually at least as important to understand the processes that underlie group involvements. This and other study guides are designed to provide you with useful background information.

In this overview we want to call your attention to a number of points that we believe families with an involved loved one should keep in mind. We recommend that you read this overview first. Specific articles and other resources are listed to the right, including important definitional essays. 

As you continue to explore this field, please keep the following in mind: 

  • Don’t jump to conclusions and don’t succumb to the allure of simple answers. Do not rely upon popular accounts of “cults,” although these can sometimes provide useful background information. If you want to be informed, you must read a lot more than a handful of newspaper or magazine articles. You should talk to a variety of people with relevant knowledge. And you must think things through carefully. 
  • When you talk to other families who have had a cult involvement, learn from them, but do not overlook the uniqueness of your own situation and don’t let their confidence or fervor cause you to overgeneralize from their cases to yours. Each case of group involvement is a unique interaction of a complex personality and a complex environment. 
  • Ask yourself this central question: “Let’s assume that your loved one is not in a “cult”; what if any behaviors would trouble you?” If nothing troubles you, then you might consider reexamining your assumption that the group is or might be a harmful group and take a closer look at your own motivation (maybe you merely disapprove of your loved one’s leaving the family’s religion, for example). If you do identify troubling behaviors, then try to determine if these behaviors are at least in part a function of what goes on in the group. This approach enables you to focus on harmful psychological influences without getting bogged down in a debate about whether the group is or is not a “cult.” Groups are very different; most large groups exhibit differences among their various local organizations; and people respond differently to similar environments. Tagging a label on the group is secondary to determining whether or not psychologically manipulative or abusive practices are harming your loved one. 
  • Keep in mind that a group member’s behavior is a function of his/her unique personality and identity and what goes on in the group. Do not make the mistake of assuming that your loved one is a helpless pawn. Cultic environments can be powerful, but they are not all-powerful. 
  • We advise that you not let other people talk you into believing that cultic groups are so powerful that your loved one will only leave if he/she is deprogrammed, with “deprogramming” referring to a process involving physical restraint or coercion (distinguished from “exit counseling,” “thought reform consultation,” or a “strategic interaction approach,” in which the group member is always free to leave). Thirty-five years ago, when information in this field was very limited, deprogramming may have seemed to be a reasonable option to some families. Indeed, the New York State legislature passed a conservatorship bill (twice vetoed by the governor) that essentially would have legalized deprogramming. Today, deprogramming is fortunately quite rare, in part because of the legal risks it entails, but mainly because helping resources are much better informed and able to help families investigate other options. Moreover, the evidence suggests that deprogramming, even disregarding the compelling ethical and legal arguments against the process, is less effective than interventions that don’t involve restraint. Such interventions, however, demand much more preparation on the part of the family. So some families today may be tempted to try to find a “deprogrammer” because they mistakenly think it is the easy way out. We advise against this course of action. You may find yourself alienated from your loved one and involved in a costly lawsuit. 
  • Because the majority of group members, even those in very controlling groups, eventually leave their groups, a concerned family’s primary role is often to facilitate a departure that may eventually happen anyway. In many cases families seeking expert consultation may be able to help their loved one a great deal without attempting an exit counseling or other kind of intervention. Sometimes families can pursue a conflict resolution strategy that makes for an improved relationship with their loved one, even if he or she does not leave the group. Since there is no way of reliably predicting who will eventually leave a group and who won’t, we always respect a family’s fear that their loved one either may never come out of a cultic situation or may be gravely damaged if the family does nothing. Nevertheless, taking the time to assess a situation thoroughly is often more fruitful than acting hastily. 
  • Even though there may be times when families may feel justifiably helpless, their situation is rarely hopeless. So many factors influence a person’s relationship to a group that even those of us who have worked in this field for years regularly encounter pleasant surprises. So don’t give up hope. Beneficial changes in your loved one may occur because of events that have nothing to do with your actions (e.g., a growing disillusionment with the group; an accumulation of small grievances against leaders; dissension within the group). Some group members achieve enough independence from their group to maintain or reestablish a respectful and loving relationship with their family, even though they may remain group members. Remember, people are different and will respond in different ways to the same group environment, which itself can change over time. 
  • Take advantage of the many resources that are now available for families, including those available through ICSA.  We especially recommend that you purchase, through our online bookstore, Coping with Cult Involvement by social worker Livia Bardin (also available on this site as a free e-book). This handbook helps families carefully assess their situation and organize their thinking. It is an indispensable tool. A useful general introduction to the cult phenomenon is Take Back Your Life by Janja Lalich, Ph.D. and Madeleine Tobias. Our collection of profiles of people who have spoken at our conferences or published in our periodicals includes a number of helping professionals. We advise people seeking professional consultation to investigate options to make sure that they feel comfortable with a particular person. Sometimes state psychological, medical, or professional associations maintain referral lists for the public. Even though few professionals have much expertise with cultic groups, many can be helpful, particularly if they have worked with family systems or abused populations and if they are willing to learn about cult-related issues. Our study guide for mental health professionals may interest such therapists. Families requiring assistance from legal professionals or private investigators may find it helpful to consult our legal study guidechild custody collection
Although our capacity to give individualized responses to inquiries is limited, we do what we can and, when appropriate and feasible, refer inquirers to people who may be able to give additional assistance. The ICSA network includes experienced helping professionals.

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1 239 514 3081 mail@icsamail.com