“Our Daughter is in a Cult! What Can We Do?”

by John V Moore

(Because John and Barbara Moore lost two daughters and a grandson in the Jonestown tragedy, they have been asked by many people throughout the years about what they should do when a relative is involved in a new religious movement, that is, a cult. The couple has offered counseling and information to a variety of families and individuals in a variety of settings: religious, non-profit, business, and educational.)


“Our daughter is in a cult! What can we do?” Distraught parents have asked us this question many times since the death of two of our daughters and tiny grandson in Jonestown twenty years ago. Strangers and friends have turned to us with this same question. In responding to this question, I will write of “Kay” and “Paul” who are deeply involved in intense communal experiences. I will be writing only about adult children.

The heart of this essay focuses upon some questions which may facilitate dialogue. These questions address both the positive and negative characteristics of “cults.” The concluding section emphasizes the importance of discerning the phenomena of “cult” life which are also present in groups we would never call “cults.”

The parent or friend asking, “What can I do?” usually means “What can I do about Paul or Kay?” Parents and friends would ask the same question if Kay or Paul were in a bad marriage or were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Al Anon has helped us understand that there is little we can do about the problems of others. Adult children and friends are responsible for their own lives. To love them means to respect their freedom and responsibility to make their own decisions. While we cannot change them, we can deal with the way we relate to them. Furthermore, as distressed as we may be about Paul and Kay, we must go on living our own lives.

It is no wonder that people fear “cults” given the mass murder-suicides of Jonestown, the inferno in Waco which incinerated David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo’s assassinations and subway poisoning in Japan, and the suicides of Heaven’s Gate members. These groups have shaped the popular image of new religious movements, but the reality is different. For example, some years ago researchers studied members of the Hare Krishna community who shave their heads, beat drums and often chant in airports and on street corners. The researchers concluded that there were no discernible differences in the mental health of the Hare Krishna members from young adults in the population at large. There is reason to be concerned about some new religious movements, but fear of all of them is neither reasonable nor helpful. Furthermore, there are constructive and destructive forces at work in all groups whether religious or secular. What is called for is discernment, the capacity to recognize healthy and unhealthy forces at work in all groups.

If we want to be helpful to Kay and Paul, we must start by acknowledging our own feelings about “cults” which have been largely shaped by TV, newspapers and magazines. I have asked scores of audiences whether the world “cult” evokes within them positive, negative or neutral feelings. Rarely have more than one or two persons said that their feelings were either positive or neutral. “Cult” is a “four letter word,” a feeling word except when scholars use the term. They eschew using the word except when their audience understands what they mean by the term. They speak of “new religious movements” or “non-traditional religions,” or “unconventional religions.” None of these terms is satisfactory, but they don’t carry the pejorative quality of the word “cult.” I have never heard anyone describe his or her own group as a “cult.” Just the opposite is true, for members protest mightily that their communities are not “cults.”

If we want to understand Kay and Paul, we will reject the notion that all who join “cults” fit one profile. J. Gordon Melton, author of Handbook on Cults, said in an interview with USA Today. that there are no common traits among those who join “cults.” Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, formerly of Yale who has studied “cults,” writes: “There is need for psychiatric humility here. I think that it might be stressed that the whole cult phenomena is a social, psychological, spiritual and economic problem, and that the answer may not be psychiatric at all.” Arthur Deikman, a San Francisco psychiatrist wrote, in The Wrong Way Home, “I began to see that cults form and thrive not because people are crazy, but because people have two kinds of wishes. They want a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity, and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home.” The author concludes, however, that “cults” are the wrong way home.

It is essential to ignore the word “cult” if we are going to understand these groups and their members. Concerned relatives and friends have asked us “Is it a Cult?” Physicians bypass the labels of diseases which their patients use. Instead they ask, “What are your symptoms?” In the same way it is wise to ask, “What are the characteristics of the group?” For example, a woman talked with me for thirty minutes about the group in which her husband was involved. After she had asked several times “Is it a cult?” I said, “You have given me a good description of the group. Do you think that it is a healthy group?” Without hesitation she replied “Certainly not!” Characteristics, or phenomena, of groups are the issue, not whether outsiders call the group a “cult.” Most of us have a good sense of healthy and unhealthy, constructive and destructive group behavior. We just need confidence in our own judgments. Of course, it is strengthening to have our judgments corroborated by another.

There are various ways we can relate to children and friends who are in relationships or groups, which we consider harmful.

Often our first impulse is to try to persuade by argument to break off the relationship. Arguing with Paul or Kay is usually as successful as trying to convince deeply committed Catholics or Lutherans, Muslims or Jews to abandon their communities. I will not suggest that parents and friends repress their feelings and thoughts for the sake of harmony; but rather that they try to express these in ways that will keep the dialog going. It is important that we clearly communicate our concerns and perspectives. Our daughters knew exactly what disturbed us about their leader and group, for we affirmed what we could and were critical of what we could not affirm.

Twenty years ago deprogrammers claimed success for their method of rescuing individuals from “cults.” Deprogramming was based upon the assumption that the leaders exercised “mind control” and that they “brainwashed” members. Deprogrammers believed that if they could control the environment and stimuli long enough they could erase what the “cult” had programmed. Once they had deprogrammed the member, they re-programmed or replanted the family’s values. Most often the family would take the “cult” member to a motel where the deprogrammer took the lead in reasoning, arguing and pleading with the member to forsake the group. Some subjects of deprogramming later charged that threats and violence had been used. Melton said that the effectiveness of deprogramming diminishes over time, and that it is rarely effective with individuals who have been members for more than two years.

My basic problem with deprogramming, in addition to its use of coercion, is that it employs the same methods as those used by the “cults,” which is to control the environment and stimuli for the purpose of manipulating Kay and Paul. Deprogramming leaves individuals just as vulnerable to external pressure as before. A more hopeful and more difficult alternative is to nurture inner strength in Paul and Kay, which will help them stand on their own feet against external pressures from whatever source.

Professionally direct “intervention,” as is now done with individuals who are addicted to drugs or alcohol might offer some possibilities. Since several deprogrammers were convicted of kidnapping and holding persons against their will, “Exit counselors,” as they are now called, are careful to avoid coercion. They probably see themselves as directors of “intervention.” I am uneasy with exit counselors, because I suspect that some of the characteristics of deprogramming have carried over into their work.

The Appeal of Religious Alternatives

Years ago Martin Marty, a church historian, suggested in a Christian Century article ten or twelve questions, which parents and friends could ask of individuals who were in “cults.” This approach appealed to my wife and me, so we have used it ever since in talking with family members and friends. It has its limitations, for it is built upon the possibility of communication. It is essential that parents and friends keep avenues of communication open from their side. If messages are blocked or if Paul and Kay do not respond, it is still important to continue writing.

Because the appeal of new religious movements is so powerful, the starting point is to ask Kay or Paul, what is there about this group that attracts you? Help me to understand its appeal for you. There is no point in asking the question unless the questioner really wants to understand Paul and Kay, who will measure the sincerity of the question by the way the questioner listens to their responses. Careful listening communicates respect for Kay and Paul and what they regard as important. The primary intent of asking questions, such as the following, is not to evoke an immediate response although it is gratifying whenever genuine dialogue occurs. Asking these questions can be an invitation to Kay and Paul to reflect upon issues that you regard as important. It is like sowing seeds, or a little like Jesus’ parables which call upon the listener to create the response. Some will fall upon hard clay, but hopefully others will fall between cracks into fertile soil. These will germinate in the minds of Kay and Paul, and some may bear fruit. Even if Kay and Paul do not leave their communities, they can be changed by the presence of these seeds. This happens all the time to many Jews and Protestants and Catholics who reflect upon understandings and perspectives that are different from their own. Remember, Paul and Kay are on their journeys just as all of us are.

My wife and I met weekly for six months with three young adults who had left intense communal experiences. Their re-entry into society had produced profound culture shock. An Indian teacher came to the United States to create a religious community which was rooted in the Sikh tradition but bore the guru’s unique stamp. Mark and his wife and two small children had lived in the commune for eight years when Mark decided to leave. The court gave him custody of the children. While Mark lived in the community he worked as an engineer for a large firm where he was always making important decisions. When he left the commune, he was overwhelmed with the little decisions he had to make every day especially as a parent. Mark had two regrets about leaving the community. First, separation from his wife was painful and difficult. Second, he said “John, my deepest regret is that I will never again know the deep spiritual experiences which I knew when I was with our teacher in the community.”

Mark was not unusual. Countless men and women say exactly the same thing. The question must be asked “Why now? Why are these groups attracting so many now?” Their enormous appeal reveals that many feel that there is something lacking in our culture or which they have not found in their faith traditions. Men and women of all ages are sensing that there must be more to life than the superficial and ephemeral values our culture cherishes. They are seeking a deeper, more satisfying way of life. Twenty-five years ago Jacob Needleman, a scholar of new religious movements, wrote that many of these groups offer methodologies rather than, or in addition to, belief systems. These methodologies vary from Zen and other varieties of Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic and Christian disciplines to the auditing technique of Scientology, and “How to” seminars and books.

Almost all of these groups have charismatic leaders or teachers. What is charisma to some turns others off. However parents and siblings may feel about the group leader, Paul and Kay have been drawn by his or her charisma.

Many new religious movements offer life in community. In our culture, which is so obsessed with individualism and competition, and where individuals are lost in a mass society and bureaucracy, countless women and men hunger for genuine community. Small communities incorporate the values of a common life, which also have that TV Cheers quality “Where everyone knows my name.” The offer of community is especially attractive to those who have recently left home, or feel alone in dealing with separation experiences.

Some groups appeal to idealistic adults. Peoples Temple drew members for a variety of reasons including its commitment to social justice and its utopian vision. Some religious orders and other covenant communities attract those who want to serve the poor and work for a more just society.

The vitality and enthusiasm of members of the group may attract Kay and Paul. The “high” experiences in the community make ordinary living seem dull. Some know ecstatic moments. Recruits listen to the testimonies of members who speak persuasively out of their own personal experiences.

Membership in these groups requires disciplined commitment whether it is the discipline of meditation or tithing or giving all of one’s possession to the group, or by obedience to superiors and living in harmony with the rules of the group. The community supports members in their efforts to live by their common discipline, and sanctions them for their failure to do so. If Kay and Paul are weary of “If it feels good, do it.” or “Do your own thing.” or the indifference of friends, they could find this appealing.

Many experience self-fulfillment in ways they never had previously. This may focus either upon the self, or forgetfulness of self in pursuit of something worthy beyond the self.

Some of these groups offer young men and women opportunities for leadership that are open in business or commerce to more mature individuals.

There are groups which offer A Way without claiming their Way to be the Only Way which is appealing to those who have been turned off by their experience with groups that believe that they alone had the truth. On the other hand, Martin Marty warned of those groups which claim to have “The Big Answer.” There are old and new religious movements which promise absolute certainty. In this time of accelerating rate of change maximum security and unquestioning certainty appeal to many.

Questions to Ask

Here are the kinds of questions parents and friends many choose to ask of Kay or Paul. Timing, as Ecclesiastes and Shakespeare knew, is crucial. Just as there is a season for planting there are appropriate and even decisive moments, to ask particular questions.

Kay and Paul, has belonging to your new community separated you from good friends? If it has, what are the gains and losses for you?

Some new religious movements demand that members cut all ties with families and friends. Jim Jones justified this separating using Jesus’ words “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). It is a perfect verse for leaders who demand absolute loyalty.

Does your community recognize and respect the journey you have been on all of these years? Does it affirm and build upon the values of your family and faith tradition?

There are communities and faith traditions which offer new and difference experiences and disciplines to people like Kay and Paul, but they also honor their faith journeys that have brought them to the present. On the other hand, some groups pride themselves upon their newness, claiming that it supersedes all previous experience. I always felt that Jones cut himself off from his roots and tried to persuade his followers to do the same. He acted as though the struggle for peace and justice began with himself and others in his generation. In contrast the strength and power of men and women like the Berrigans and Dorothy Day came from their rootedness in a tradition which extended down twenty-five hundred years to the Prophets.

Describe the leadership style in your community. How are decisions affecting the group made? By the leader? By the leadership cadre? By the rank-and-file members?

New and energetic movements, whether religious or secular, cohere around charismatic leaders who draw power unto themselves. Those who are attracted to the charismatic leader not only admire and praise the leader but defer to her or him. This deference gives the leader enormous power to control the movement and the members. Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer, writes about the critical role charismatic and fanatical leaders play in social change. On the other hand, charismatic leadership creates dependence in followers which works against the democratic process.

Would you describe your leader as authoritarian? Is power hierarchical in your community? To whom is the leader accountable?

Power in armies, businesses and some religious institutions is hierarchical in structure. Authority flows from the top down. Sun Moon, the charismatic leader of The Unification Church makes the decisions including arranging marriages of members. For centuries men and women entering religious orders have vowed to be obedient to their superiors and the rules of the order. Some years ago a former member of a large Protestant church told me that it was clear to everyone in her church who is in charge and who is subservient in every relationship. Children are subservient to parents, wives to their husbands, women to men, members to the elders, the elders to the pastor, and the pastor to God. When the pastor made it clear that women could not serve on the governing board, she protested and pointed out that other churches in the denomination did have women in these leadership positions. The pastor was unmoved. I wasn’t surprised, for I had heard members of that church talking about their pastor in the same deferential way, even using the same language, as members of Peoples Temple talked about Jim Jones. When a charismatic leader is not constrained by tradition or rules, his or her use of power is always in danger of being arbitrary.

Are you becoming more dependent upon the leader and the group?

Are Kay and Paul showing signs of becoming more dependent upon their leader? There is an old saying “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” I understand this to mean that a pastor or teacher or leader is called to set people free to be on their life journeys. If Kay and Paul are becoming more dependent upon their leader, it is important for them to ask whether that relationship is empowering.

If the leader of your community makes the decisions, and the community is hierarchical in organization, why does this appeal to you? What limitations are placed upon your freedom? Are you free to come and go alone? Do you feel that the leaders are trying to control and manipulate members?

Control of individuals and community life by the leader, or leadership elite, is inimical to individual freedom. Jones organized Peoples Temple in a way that maximized his control over the community and its members. The group’s “Catharsis” sessions were used to elicit confessions, to punish and to force obedience. Today “shepherding” is a popular form of church organization that can nurture and guide spiritual growth, but it is perverted when it is used to control others. Some groups will not permit members to leave the community unless another member accompanies them. A big brother or sister is always watching. For better and for worse peer support and peer sanctions are integral to tight knit communities.

Are members free to leave the group?

To leave some groups is treason, and those who leave are called “defectors” who have betrayed the movement. Some leaders intimidate members to keep them from leaving. Other groups harass defectors long after their departure. I believe that it was the loyalty of members to each other even more than loyalty to Jones that impelled them to drink the lethal potion.

Does your group have secrets about its beliefs and life in the community?

Community hostility toward some new religious movements is a reality. On the other hand, secrecy can beget paranoia. Peoples Temple had real enemies, but it also had secrets it wanted to keep from the world. The people constantly felt threatened by a great conspiracy. Jones used this fear to sustain the members’ loyalty to him.

Can anyone criticize what the leader does or says? Are members encouraged to express their views and judgments? Do members ever laugh at their leader and at themselves? Could a member draw a cartoon of the leader and the movement?

Cartoons are taken for granted in a free society while in a totalitarian society jokes and cartoons about the leadership are punishable offenses. Individuals and groups who take themselves with utter seriousness lose perspective. On the other hand, those who can look at themselves and their work in the context of a larger world are able to laugh at themselves. Such a perspective casts a dark shadow over their claim of absolute truth and the goodness of their cause.

What is the intensity level of the group? Are you involved in long sessions? Do these sessions give you a high? Do you often feel exhausted?

Membership in a group is not as significant as the intensity of involvement. Those who invest themselves wholeheartedly in the community will receive both the benefits and liabilities of such involvement. Many established churches today boast that they have activities for members every night of the week. This provides opportunities for deeper involvement, but it also minimizes members’ relationships outside of the church. In a different time and culture John Calvin said that the church doors should be closed after service on Sunday and not opened until worship on the following Sunday. The hyperactive church obviously values life within the church community more than involvement in the world. Calvin, on the other hand, believed that Christians were called to live and act in the world.

Would you describe your group as idealistic? Does it hold a utopian vision of the future?

There were many utopian communities in the United States in the nineteenth century. Marxist communists, with their vision of a classless society, have been the pre-eminent utopians of this century. The Sixties spawned secular and religious utopian movements. Failing to create a more just society in the United States, Jim Jones and his followers migrated to the jungle of Guyana hoping to create utopia there. Stephan Jones, Jim’s son, described his friends in Jonestown as “visionaries.” Nevertheless, history has been harsh on utopian communities.

Are you embracing attitudes and accepting practices which a year or two ago, you would have rejected? Are you compromising your convictions?

During the Vietnam War we talked about the escalation of terror. Our nation took one little step after another until we found ourselves waging war in a way we could not have imagined at the outset. Compromises and cutting ethical corners have a way of multiplying. Few stand against their peers whether in a gang or sorority, church or club, business associates or friends.

These questions are suggestive only. Parents and friends will express their concern in their own questions.

Group-Think

The parents’ statement and question “Our daughter is in a cult! What can we do?” relates to the situation of all of us. A prophet of Israel knew that as we focus upon one danger we can easily be blinded sided by another destructive force. Amos warned the people of fleeing for safety by running away from a bear only to run directly into the open arms of a lion (Amos 5: 18-20). It is a serious mistake to think that “cults” are totally different from other groups. If we focus only on “cults,” we will be ill equipped to deal with “cult-like” characteristics which are present in other groups. The phenomena, or characteristics, of “cults” can be seen in the world of business, education, the media, the human potential movement, as well as in the sphere of religion. Ten years ago a reporter asked me to define what I meant by “cult.” I mentioned a charismatic leader, high morale, members spending an inordinate amount of time with each other, young adults given responsibilities which they would not be given at their age in most business organizations, intense peer support and pressure, and members who left were regarded as defectors, and so forth. He commented “You have just described a new organization I worked for and my reasons for leaving.”

We accept as necessary in the military and police characteristics which we regard as negative in “cults,” because the military and police serve a larger social function. Eric Hoffer was convinced that even fanaticism has its place. His book The True Believer was critical of fanaticism, but concluded that zealots and fanatics played an indispensable role in mass movements in changing society as in the French and American revolutions. We could add Woman’s Suffrage, the Abolitionist and the Civil Rights Movements. He ends his book with a quotation from J.S.B. Haldane who said that fanaticism is one of our really important social inventions. While acknowledging the sometimes positive social role of fanaticism, we dare not forget the devastation wrought by the fanaticism of Hitler and the Nazis, Stalin and the Communists, Pol Pot, and the genocide of others in our day.

Fanaticism aside, there are other characteristics of “cults” that are present in all sorts of socially acceptable groups. Amway, Tupperware and many other merchandising organizations are not “cults,” but they do have some of the characteristics of religious organizations. Amway’s mass gatherings have the same intensity as the old revival meetings. In the contemporary scene motivational speakers play the role of evangelists. A friend who sold Tupperware told me that the first time she went to a sales meeting she thought that she was at a revival. One salesperson after another rose eagerly to give testimonials. She felt that at any moment the supervisor would lead the congregation in singing: “Praise Tupperware from whom all blessings flow.”

Bill chose to join a religious order. During his high school years he could receive family visitors once a month and visit home once a year. When he was in college no home visits were allowed. He was required to turn over any gifts from family, friends or others to his religious superior. Unconditional and unquestioned obedience to the superior was required at all times. This does not sound too different from some new religious movements, yet church and society saw Bill as following his calling. Within religious orders tradition serves as a keel holding the community steady. Those in authority are subject to the rules of the order. “Cults” have no keel and their leaders are not constrained by the rules of the organization.

George and his wife chose voluntary poverty when they committed themselves to the organizing efforts of a labor union. All of the leadership lived together in a community where food, lodging and necessities were provided. They were always ready to move to a new location at a moment’s notice. The group endured violence and lived under its constant threat. There were endless meetings and retreats designed to deepen the resolve of members and motivate their actions. Living as the workers lived, the charismatic leader inspired the workers by his commitment, courage and sacrifice.

We accept even if we cannot understand the commitment and sacrifice of members of religious orders. We understand commitment and sacrifices to make money or to serve when the nation calls, but we don’t understand the total commitment of individuals to new religious movements. In an interview with a Sojourners’ reporter Robert Coles, writer and Harvard psychiatrist, told of a nine or ten year old boy who grew up in a wealthy family. He took seriously, too seriously for his family, the teachings of Jesus which he learned in the local Presbyterian church. At school he upset his teachers and other students by quoting Jesus’ words about how difficult it would be for rich people to enter the realm of God, and how the poor would inherit the earth. His parents and teachers came to feel that he was obsessed with Jesus’ ethics. The parents sought advice from a pediatrician who referred the boy to a psychiatrist. He judged the boy to be too literal minded and advised the family to stop taking him to church. The reporter asked “And did they help him?” Dr. Coles replied “Well, they did ‘help’ him, and he lost a lot of these Christian pre-occupations and became another American entrepreneur.” The interviewer observed “Perhaps, it’s a good thing they didn’t have psychotherapy in Saint Francis’ time.” Dr. Coles responded “That’s right! Psychiatry for St. Francis, for Saint Paul, psychiatry for Jesus himself! But that’s the Christian dilemma.”

There is no assurance for the parents and friends of Kay and Paul, or the parents of the boy who took Jesus’ teachings seriously that what they say or don’t say, or what they do or don’t do will produce the outcome they desire. Nevertheless, consequences inevitably will follow their action or inaction. Life offers “No guarantees! No refunds! No exchanges!” Moreover, we must always work with the given. When faced with such situations, the best we can do is to respect those whom we love, act with wisdom, and trust them as they continue on their journeys.

Last modified on January 12th, 2017.
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