Aug 16, 2016

Helping Families Cope with a Cult Member

Just Like the Watchtower
Interesting things that I learned at the 2016 ICSA Conference 
Lee Marsh
August 16, 2016
One of the most interesting things I learned at an ICSA conference this summer was that 80% of cult members leave between 5 to 7 years after they were recruited into the cult. This statistic was shared during Rachel Bernstein’s presentation.
While Rachel considers Watchtower a cult, I am not sure how this applies to most Jehovah’s Witnesses, because so many of them today are born-ins.  However, I do think this statistic may be applicable to young Witnesses who get baptized early and then decide to leave in their late teens.
But the statistic is interesting if indeed it applies to adults who join the Witnesses. For those who have no other family members involved in the Watchtower, this looks promising for non-believing family members, because there is a very good chance that the new Witness will leave within a few years without intervention.
Another interesting thing I learned at the ICSA conference was that some of the biggest concerns that non-cult members have about cult involvement by their loved ones are 1) the breakdown in communication 2) disturbing behavioral changes 3) disapproval on both sides; and 4) a feeling of being betrayed.
All cults, including Watchtower, have their own unique loaded language. As new members get more involved in the cult, communication with family members begins to break down. This is because the new cult members are trying to distance themselves from family who disapprove of their involvement. It’s also a function of the cult’s language, which takes over normal communication, as two different languages are now being spoken. The cult is changing the meaning of words making communication difficult.
Another issue is the changed behavior of the now cult member. A person who was a substance abuser before getting involved in a cult begins to clean up their act and spend many hours preaching or going to meetings. What is interesting about this is that families get used to having an alcoholic in the home. A lot of time and attention is focused on the person’s “problem”. So they are often stymied at the changes and don’t know how to deal with them even though they may be happy on one level. What can happen is that the new behaviors, lack of communication and breakdown of family relationships become the center of attention and may drive the family to seek professional help.
Sadly, the professionals that many families find, are too often unaware of the issues of cult involvement and may suggest a “wait and see” attitude, thinking that this is a phase the person will soon tire of or that the changes are positive and the family should be happy.
Conversely, some professionals may try to focus the family’s attention on how to get the person to leave the cult. Unfortunately, in most cases too little attention is paid on the dynamics of the particular cult, and how they unduly influence and socially control their members.
A mandate for all professionals is to “do no harm” to their clients. When counseling family members, the relationship with the cult member is far more important than what they believe. So it is wise for the professional or therapist to do what they can to maintain and protect the relationship, as that is more effective than confronting a person – not the cult member)on specific cult beliefs or the changes the person has made.
Professionals should avoid attacking the cult group’s leader, as the leader cannot be the sole person the new member is connected to.  
If the family does choose to try to rescue their loved one out of the cult, there are some important things to remember. They are:
  • Whatever information you present to them must be relevant. Never attack the cult group. If you must attack, demonstrate the point using other cult groups.
  • If you present information without understanding it, then it could have a negative impact on your relationship with a family member.
  • Understanding the information and the situation takes time and effort. You can’t just superficially research “the group”. Do your research.
  • It is important to assess the emotional and psychological needs of the person you are trying to help.
  • Ask yourself, “Why are they in the group? What needs are being fulfilled that they were not getting elsewhere?”
  • Create a safe family environment for the person to return to.
Issues for a therapist and professionals to be informed about include:
  • The many methods of undue Influence and psychological manipulation
  • Relationships
  • The attraction to the leader and their methods to attract people
  • The beliefs or theology of the cult
  • The health of your family member. Has joining helped them to stop self-injurious behaviors like smoking, drinking and/or drugs? Is their health being compromised by lack of nutrition or sleep or lack of medical care?
  • Was joining the group a response to previous abuse either in the family or outside of it?
  • Is there an apparent element of salvation or safety within the group?
Each group is different and they change and evolve over time. People will respond differently to the group based on their personal needs for joining and staying. And not all groups are harmful.
When working with family members these are important points to make with them:
  • Focus on places and issues where you can agree and not on arguing your point of view
  • Acknowledge that you have a bias or prejudice and then find common ground
  • Beware of your “need to be right”. It cannot over-shadow the need to be happy. The need to be right might wind up pushing the person back into the group longer
Like dance partners, if you step too close, they will have to back up. But if you take a step back and away from attacking them, they hopefully will step forward, closer to you.
I would like to thank not only Rachel Bernstein, but Joseph Kelly and Patrick Ryan for their good advice, which I have tried to share, in this blog post, from their presentation, Workshop for Families: A Collaborative Approach to Addressing a Loved One’s Cult-Related Involvement at the ICSA Conference 2016 in Dallas, Texas.

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