Livia Bardin, M.S.W.
Therapist, Clinical Social Worker
I left a Bible-based cult almost a year ago. My entire family (parents and four siblings) are still there, and believe I am living in rebellion against God because I left the “only true church.” What is the best way to tell them the truth about their group, when they twist everything I say, and use it against me? It took me three years to come to the realization that I needed to leave. Will it just take them time, also, even though they react so violently against everything I say?
Before you can tell your family the truth about the group, they must be ready to hear it. And they must feel safe enough to risk talking about it to you. Remember how threatening the outside world looks from inside a cult! When you were in the group, how did members feel about people who left? How would you have felt – and reacted — if someone told you it was a cult?
Be mindful of your own experiences as you set about this ambitious project. As a former member, you have unusual advantages and disadvantages: You know the group very well. You know its beliefs and practices. You know its language. You know its leaders. And you know firsthand what is wrong. On the other hand, as a fallen-away adherent, you are an object of fear and pity to those still in the group: pity because you are now “lost,” “fallen,” or otherwise damned; fear lest you infect them with your “heresies.”
It’s noteworthy that you are in communication with the family. Stay in touch. Try to reassure them. Avoid topics that trigger their violent, thought-stopping defenses. Keep communications simple and non-threatening: “I love you,” and “I will always be here for you,” are two important things for them to know. Focus on achieving a relationship where one or more family members will eventually feel able to ask you for your version (as opposed to the group’s version) of why you left.
Think about the individual members of the family, rather than the family as a whole. Whom were you especially close to? Has anyone indicated dissatisfaction with some aspect of the group? Suffered a negative experience or major frustration because of the group? Is there anyone who is less enthusiastic about the group than the others? Is there someone whose leadership others tend to follow? Who gains the most out of belonging? Who gains the least? Concentrating on one person at a time will help you plan an approach tailored to each individual’s needs, wants, and emotional connection to you and increase your chance of success.
It’s also important to examine your own relationship to the group. You may be out of the group, but the group may not be entirely “out” of you. You may still have highly-charged emotions, such as anger about your experience, shame about things you did while in the group, or even guilt about having left (Elitist feelings die hard.). Strong emotions will show when you begin talking to your family and may impair your ability to stay calm and persuasive. Furthermore, the family may sense these feelings and distance themselves from you.
It will help if the family sees that you are happy and succeeding in your life outside the group. As a Bible group, they may consider that your punishment is ordained and lies in the future, but as people, they will note your personal, and especially your spiritual, growth and development in your new life.
Use your knowledge of your own experience to craft an approach that steers you around the pitfalls. You might want to work with a thought reform consultant or other expert. Be patient and persevere. Don’t set yourself up for defeat with unrealistic expectations. Do what you can. You can’t do more than that.
I wish to express my appreciation to Rev. John Dillon, Ph.D., Ronald Loomis, and Frank MacHovec, Ph.D. for their thoughtful comments concerning an earlier draft of this column.