This material is a summary of personal conversations with three exit-counsellors. It is a FAQ in that it answers a question that myself and many openly anti-cult people are frequently asked: "I am worried about a work colleague/friend/parent/child who is showing interest/deeply involved in an organisation which I think is a cult. What can I do?" Some of the advice here is relevant to dissuading someone who is just becoming involved. Some of it is relevant if you know someone who is deeply involved. Mostly, the focus is on gentle dissuasion: when someone is involved very deeply with a cult, there is no substitute for an experienced exit-counsellor.
This document contains an overview of one of the ways of getting somebody out of a cult. It has a (highly condensed) list of useful addresses and resources. Appendix I is the Cult Awareness Network's list of Do's and Don't's and appendix II briefly addresses the use of the World Wide Web in exit counselling.
Many, many thanks go to all the people whose work has made this document possible.
Cult involvement is perhaps best seen as similar to an addictive drug. On the one hand, it can provide ecstatic highs, feelings of well-being or boosts in confidence. On the other, it can lead to a total dependence, so that it is focused on at the expense of one's family, friends, job, or health. Like drug addicts, cult members can end up giving all their money to fund their search for the next peak experience. If they get very deeply involved, they can, in effect, give up their moral and intellectual judgements in favour of a blind acceptance of what the cult dictates.
The fact that there are good *and* bad points is of paramount importance. Conversations between a cult member and an anxious parent are usually a frustrating stalemate: The cult member refuses to consider the bad points of the cult and the parent will not accept that there are good points.
Don't get into a panic. Some of the anti-cult material that is available is very alarming, but remember that the scarier stuff is more newsworthy. People like myself who compile anti-cult information look for the most striking facts, just like anyone else who provides news or information. This is not to be confused with sensationalisation, which is when one makes insignificant facts seem unnecessarily alarming. Because a claim is made that certain members of the cult have done X, don't assume that such things are commonplace.
Parents or friends occasionally resort to kidnapping in order to get the member out of the cult. However desperate things may seem, do not try this at any cost. It is illegal, counter-productive and completely against the spirit of individual freedom. What you are trying to do is to restore your friend's independence, not to put them under a new set of pressures.
If you do not know anything about the cult, you will make no headway at all. Many cult belief-systems strongly emphasise the distinction between those "inside" who have the "sacred knowledge" and those "outside" who do not understand how good the cult is. People who criticise the cult without first learning anything about what it offers simply reinforce this view.
Your local library, the cult itself and of course the Internet are places you can search for information. If you find a World Wide Web page dealing with your particular cult, it is often worth e-mailing the author, who may have information or documents that they have not yet put on the Web. Read the cult's own information as well as critical books or articles. Find out what it was that attracted your friend to the movement.
The teachings of the cult may seem very bizarre. That isn't a bad thing in itself: remember that most religious or philosophical doctrines seem bizarre to people who first hear about them. The more important issues are whether the cult has your friend's welfare at heart, or whether he or she would still choose to be in the cult if making an informed, uncoerced choice.
If the teachings of the cult are obviously illogical or unethical, you may wonder how your friend could possibly fall for such a group. Remember that your friend is more likely to be persuaded by how they feel than by the words on the page. The cult creates an environment in which no-one expresses a dissenting opinion and in which people are made to feel very welcome in return for accepting the cult's teachings and social order. Some cults treat dissenting thoughts or criticism as crimes. In short, social pressure is being used against your friend. People are much more susceptible to social pressure than they realise.
It is extremely useful if you can talk to an ex-member of the cult. You can often find such people by watching Usenet groups, reading Web-pages or perhaps by inquiring in your own neighbourhood. The best you, as an outsider, can do is to express your concern to the cult member and give them some gentle dissuasion. Proper exit-counselling can only be done by someone with a deep experience of the cult.
It will be useful to get other people on your side. Talk to other people who care about the cult member: friends, work colleagues or family. Again, don't just create a panic: tell them that, while your friend of course has a right to his or her own life, you are concerned that he or she is being manipulated by people who have no real interest in his or her welfare. Show them some of the documents that you have found in the library or printed out from the Internet.
Together with these other people, you can set down what you know about the cult victim and ask yourselves why it is that he or she joined the cult. It may help if you go through Steve Hassan's questionnaire, which is on the Web at http://www.shassan.com/consultation.html
Many cults pressurise their members into handing over large amounts of money, usually in an escalating series of payments. Members can get into terrible debts this way and they often get the money from their families. You can restrict the financial loss by shutting off joint accounts or trust funds that you both have access to, and by warning people not to loan money to them. It also restricts your friend's cult involvement. He or she will become a lot less valuable to the cult if it becomes known that he or she does not have much money to turn over. If she or he begs, don't send money to "help"; send necessities like food and clothing instead.
You may feel like going up to your friend and ridiculing them for being so stupid as to fall for what is, to you, an obvious scam. This is entirely the wrong attitude. It's really just another use of social pressure. The cult member is being taught to see you as an enemy: careless actions on your part can easily reinforce this.
Make it absolutely 100% clear to your friend that you do not hate them for what they are doing. Perhaps you hate the cult, or you hate people who have lied to your friend, but you are only discussing the cult out of concern for their welfare. (If you do hate your friend for what they're doing, stop and think again: you're looking at the situation the wrong way).
Remember that you are trying to get them to make a free choice between an independent life and life in the cult. It may be that troubles at home, in their personal life or their career helped to make the independent life look less attractive. (Of course, such things are never major factors: people join cults because they are *recruited*). You may have to face up to, and rectify, some problems at home. Remind your friend that there is a supporting environment waiting for them if they want to leave the cult.
Among the many different beliefs that the cult member will have taken on, some will have higher priority than others. For example, the belief in the infallibility of the cult leader may be sacrosanct, while the belief that the money is being put to good use is something about which the cult member may have real doubts. Hence you have to choose carefully which aspects of the belief system you are going to discuss. For example, it would be pointless to start by discussing the cult leader. This is one of the ways in which the advice from ex-members is useful.
Arrange to meet your friend, in a place, preferably a family home, where they feel comfortable. It has to be a private place, and somewhere where you have your documents and a video player to hand. Make sure they know that they are not under any pressure to stay but that you want to spend some time listening to each other's concerns.
Get your friend to talk about their life in the cult. They will start off by telling you how much it has transformed their life for the better. Although you'll be tempted to interrupt them or challenge them, *don't*. Just listen to what they have to say. By making them describe the cult in their own words, you are encouraging them to think for themselves about what they have done. Follow this up by asking what the teachings of the cult are, or how their life now compares with life before they joined the cult. What they say to you is very important: it is the key to understanding why they joined the cult.
Don't dispute the successes: if you were trying to persuade someone to come off drugs, you wouldn't tell them that the drug doesn't generate a high, would you? Instead you would try to draw their attention to how their life has been affected by the drug and how their habit wasn't worth the money or the danger. This is the same approach that one should use in the cult situation.
Remember that your friend has been told that there is only one trustworthy authority -the cult hierarchy. Because of this, you cannot expect to say to them "You're in a cult," and have them respond, "Yes, you're right: what a jerk I've been." What you can do is to pave the way for them to *discover for themselves* that they are in a cult. When they are suitably talkative, you can suggest that you watch a video. Video documentaries on mind control, hypnosis or on other cults are useful at this stage: anti-cult groups will tell you how to get hold of these. [a video list will be included in a future version of this FAQ]
For the moment, you are not discussing your friend's cult; just showing them what you mean by a "cult". Most people are completely unaware of the power of social pressure and of psychological coercion. The better your understanding of coercive tactics, the less effective they are on you, so it's essential to give your friend some understanding before they can recognise what has happened to them.
Your friend will not immediately make the connection between what they learn about mind control and what is happening in their own lives. However, if you have made it this far, you have at least sown some vital seeds of doubt. You have laid the groud for the important step of getting your friend to look at some negative material about their own cult.
They may be confidently asserting that they are not in a cult, in which case you can invite them to look through some critical material ("Let's criticise the critical material!"). It is best to start with well-known sources, such as video documentaries or mainstream press articles. You, of course, have on hand some documents or further articles with which to back up the claims in the article or video. Remember that the facts are on your side; the point of the exercise is to allow your friend to look at the facts with an open mind, not to tell them off.
Some general questions you might focus on are:
If you have created the right conditions and persuaded your friend to rationally discuss the cult they are involved in, it may be that they realise how they have been manipulated. There is still a recovery process to go through, whose length will depend on the severity of their cult involvement.
People with a deep involvement will have to get used to being able to choose when to sleep or eat. They will have to get used to not having their decisions made for them. They will be suddenly free from the pressure to "produce", and from the the fear of failure. They will have to get used to ordinary language and social protocols. The world will seem quite alien to them for a while, in a way which outsiders cannot understand. They will need plenty of time to think things through, and to talk about what has happened to them.
The emphasis should still be on letting your friend find things out for him- or her-self. Remember that you are dealing with someone who has been made very suggestible and vulnerable. If you convey to them that they are in for years of psychological ill-effects, the act of telling them might contribute to the syndrome. The answer then, is not to tell your friend how they should be feeling, but to let them recover at their own pace.
The best explanation of cult mind control that the present writer has seen is Bob Penny's "Social Control in Scientology" which is available at the following Web sites:
Downloaded from the website of the now-defunct Cult Awareness Network, (see the CAN Memorial Page at http://www.icon.fi/~marina/can/
With the advent of hypertext databases of cult material on the world-wide web, there is the possibility that some exit counselling could be done by sitting the cult member at a computer and inviting them to peruse documents at their own pace. The problem with traditional exit counselling is that it is done by a few known people: cults can teach their members to fear and distrust those people. When hypertext is involved, the cult member, rather than the counsellor, is choosing the order and the rate at which they are exposed to negative information.
Each critic's web-page has a different focus. Many are created with the intention of "immunising" people against future involvement, and might not be suitable for people who have already been drawn into the cult. First-hand accounts of life in the cult make a good starting point, because these are likely to have the most credibility to your friend. It is always an advantage to have paper copies of the important documents and articles on hand.
It is too early to say how effective this method will be, but I am aware of a few cases of cult members exit-counselling themselves by reading anti-cult web pages, and of many other cases in which the web played an important part in helping someone out of a cult.