Our 28-year-old daughter has been in a cult for the past four years. She lives several states away from us, but close enough to visit if she wanted to. She hasn’t been home for a visit since she joined the group, and we haven’t had a prolonged conversation on this or any other matter since she joined. We used to be close with her.
In a few months, her younger brother is going to be married, and she is going to come home for the wedding. We feel that this may be the only opportunity for us to get to her to discuss her cult involvement. What should we say to her when she comes home? Would this be a good time to hire a professional exit counselor to speak to her?
Please understand that I can give only generic advice to you because I don’t know the specifics of how your family interacts and how honest you can be with your daughter without alienating her. Because you’ve been cut out from your daughter’s world, you can see this visit as an opportunity to learn more about what’s happening in her life. To that end, I would recommend that you focus on listening to her and asking her the questions you, as her parents, would be concerned about knowing. How is she spending her time? Who is she involved with? What are her plans for the future? Don’t assume that you know more than she does about her life. (I realize that you have a different perception of her group than she does, and that you may know some things that she doesn’t know; but she won’t be open to your ideas if she feels that you’re telling her what her experience has been). If you ask her questions, as opposed to telling her all that you know, she’s going to be more likely to engage you in a dialogue. If she’s defensive about your questions, you can remind her that you’re not telling her what to do, you just want to know how she is living her life. You are, after all, her parents; and, therefore, it’s natural for you to be interested in these answers.
Of course, each case is different. However, in general, I would suggest that you not adopt an openly hostile stance. Instead, you should be “mildly disapproving.” Let her know that you’re skeptical about whether this group is right for her, but don’t bring the dialogue to an end by fighting with her. Instead, focus on your concern that the group might be undermining her original goals.
It’s okay for you to express your concerns and questions about the group, but I would suggest adopting a “curious” stance. For example, you might want to ask her how she feels about abandoning her career, or college plans, or whatever pertains to her case. She’ll probably react defensively, but you should remind her that you’re not necessarily suggesting that she re-evaluate her plans; you’re just asking her how she feels.
I understand your desire to reach your daughter while she is home; but, in the long run, it’s probably more important for her to learn that she’s not going to have to be constantly defending herself when she visits you. I’m not suggesting that you avoid the subject, only that you not lead her to feel that every discussion with you will result in a confrontation. The more time she stays at home with you and the more relaxed she is with you, the greater the likelihood that she’ll feel free to express the doubts that virtually every cult member has, but works hard to defend against while in the cult.
If, on the other hand, she does expresses doubts or concerns about her group to you, you should definitely respond by acknowledging her concerns and agreeing that she has some legitimate questions. Talk to her as much about the group as she is willing. Remember to continue the discussion with open-ended questions that voice your own concerns. Depending on how open she is with you about her doubts, you may ask her if she would be willing to speak to someone who specializes in helping people resolve dilemmas like the one she’s expressing.
Finally, I want to comment on the fact that your daughter is coming home to attend her brother’s wedding. It’s important that you not lose sight of the fact that this is going to be his and his fiancée’s day. Don’t give him the feeling that you see his wedding primarily as an opportunity to accomplish your goal of getting his sister out of the cult. No one wants to feel that he or she is of secondary importance. I recommend that you let this be his day.
Even if you don’t make a lot of headway with your daughter’s involvement in the cult, if she has had a pleasant experience, you are building positive family memories and will have reminded her that there are people at home who love her unconditionally. It will be easier for her to remember that she has someplace to turn when she’s faced with the inevitable doubts and uncertainties that every cult member experiences.
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About the Author
William Goldberg, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., a psychoanalyst in private practice, has co-led a support group for ex-cult members with his wife, Lorna, for over 30 years. He retired in 2008 from his position as Program Supervisor for Rehabilitative Services for the Rockland County (NY) Department of Mental Health. He is presently an Adjunct Instructor in the Social Work Department of Dominican College.