What to do if your loved one enters a sect

by Alexander Leonidovich Dvorkin
Ph.D., M. Div. Chairman of the Department of Sectology of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Institute, Chief Editor of the Prozreniye (recovery of sight) magazine

Above all, keep the peace. Yes, your family has gone through a painful ordeal, but nothing irreparable has occurred. The majority of people who've gotten into sects leave them sooner or later. How quickly your loved one leaves, however, and in what shape he will be in when he does, depends in large part on you and on the other members of his family.

Be prepared for a long-term effort. If your loved one cannot be helped in the first several weeks after having been initially introduced to the sect, his return to non-sect life will take an effort by the entire family over the course of at least several months, if not years. As a result, each person should know well how to conduct himself.

After the original "recognition," do not try to dissuade your loved one; that will only make your relationship worse. You've certainly already realized that attempts to explain the absurdity of the sect's dogma to your loved one are useless, and that chiding his behavior will lead only to scandal and strained relations. You should know that totalitarian sects, as a rule, are interested in dividing the new initiate from his non-sectarian environment: then all information he gets will come from the sect, and his circle of acquaintances will stop there too. Such a state of affairs creates the ideal conditions for controlling the initiate’s consciousness. In order to provoke a split, sectarian "teachers" declare in advance that the new victim used to be, let's say, "possessed by the devil" or was too attached to "this evil world". These “teachers” go on to warn that his former acquaintances will do everything possible to remove the new convert from “the path of salvation”, abandon the newly found 'true family'," renounce liberating knowledge”, etc. So your emotional reaction will only play into the hands of the sect and serve as one more confirmation of the truth of his new belief.

But you should not pretend that you've changed your mind and now like the changes that are happening with your loved one. This will either reinforce his devotion to the sect, or he will spot your lie and will ultimately lose any trust he had in you. Talk over the following proposal with him: you will not criticize his "group" (the word "sect", of course, will upset your loved one, so it's better to try to avoid it); he will not engage in propaganda at home, nor try to convince other family members to join. What you can do, however, is gently turn the attention of your loved one to the obvious contradictions in his conduct and statements; yet don’t force him to explain them. Your objective is simply to distract him from the sect.

To build a strategy of conduct, it should be understood that at this point your loved one is psychologically dependent upon his group.  The connection to his own personality has been suppressed and been replaced with a script of sectarian behavioral, emotional, and intellectual indoctrination. Your mission, then, becomes preserving even a minimal contact with his suppressed, original personality. Regard him with patience and sympathy, remembering that all people go through temporary personality difficulties. But in no case should you give him money - this would be the same as giving a drug addict money for drugs. Any money that he receives will immediately pass to the sect.

Try to direct yourself to a constructive solution to the problem. Be pleasant and frank in dialogue. Show by your conduct that you recognize that your loved one is really on a quest, that he's made a choice, rightly or wrongly, and that now your path is a different one from his. Plan to accentuate more warmth and affection than rational support in talks with your loved one. Try in general to bring up moments in his past life when he was happy. Remember joyful episodes of your former life when you were aware of being a single family, when you went somewhere together, the things you were involved with together, the plans and dreams that you had with each other. Of course you don't need to do this artificially. Operate intuitively, being flexible in love and compassion. And in time with any luck you'll see how the original familiar personality of your loved one shines through the detached "zombified" robot he's turned into.

This sort of tactic has two goals. The first is to maintain an emotional "thread of Ariadne," by which, in the event of a crisis in the internal relations of the group or a reevaluation of his part in the sect, he can find his way out of its psychological labyrinth. Secondly, he will perceive you not as an enemy, nor as a target of recruitment. This may assist you in convincing your loved one to meet with specialists (especially those psychologists or well-informed sectologists that are familiar with the teachings of his particular sect), or to have family consultations. As a rule people who have been attracted to totalitarian sects suffer from emotional problems (especially of the sort that can arise in times of psychological duress). Help for the victim often begins with the discovery and removal of the source of these problems, which is often the job of a psychologist.

Understanding the essence of the psychology of totalitarian sectarianism is possible for those familiar with Steven Hassan's book, "Releasing the Bonds" (2000). Besides that, it's worth reading a series published by the "Journal of Practical Psychology" (Moscow) at the end of the '90s. Numbers 1-2 of "Sdvoenniy" magazine of 2000 are entirely dedicated to this theme. One can get initial information on the web pages of psychologist Evgenie Volkov. The link to those can be found on the pages of the Center of St. Irenaeus of Lyon (http://iriney.vinchi.ru). Learn the content of these publications, since consultation of the victim with a psychologist presumes, to great measure, possession of the theory of freedom from psychological manipulation by one of his family members. It's best if the entire family participates in the process of helping the person. For that, though, everything needs to be organized correctly, once again this should be by a specialist in psychology.

Study the dictionary of "your" sect and its doctrine so that you understand well what your loved one is talking about. Get in contact with those who've had the same misfortune happen to them, and also with former members of totalitarian sects, responsible government officials, journalists, employees of law enforcement agencies and lawyers. Besides that, you should collect all the information about the sect that you can; but don't let him know about that so as not to irritate him. Copy and write down everything you can, assemble an archive and a library. Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to maintain a daily or weekly diary. Any alternative to the sectarian information might be of use in intervention. Critical information should not be dished out a little at a time; it won't have more effect that way.

Ideally, the process of convincing a member to exit a totalitarian sect will involve many people. First, the participation of a psychologist, a family member working with him, and also a sectologist (or "specialist in the facts") would be ideal, as well as any former members of the sect. Their task is to check the critical thinking of the sectarian and to put him in a position of choice –though this time it will be informed, i.e., free. Second, the relatives and friends of the victim, together with the psychologist, should help the psychologist lift the victim's psychological dependence on the sect, and show him true love and sympathy, instead of a sect surrogate. Get in touch with an Orthodox catechist or a clergyman, if that is desirable, who offers (but not imposes) an actual religious worldview alternative.

The majority of people who've left a totalitarian sect require psychological rehabilitation. The thing is that a person who leaves a totalitarian sect still has the same emotional (now neglected) problem that the sectarian recruiter took advantage of. Besides that, many of them leave the cult with what is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In these cases, help for him will come only from a professional psychologist who is well versed in this area.

Spiritual rehabilitation for victims of totalitarian sectarianism includes work with a priest-confessor, and emotional support from the community of the faithful. Gradually a person can learn about personal contact with God (the ability to do this outside of the sect is usually denied by its leaders), and has the possibility of getting familiar with the great and inexhaustible source of church tradition. This is an achievable goal, if when leaving a sect, the ex-member cuts himself off from his former sectarian acquaintances, and helps specialists in their efforts to reduce the sect’s strength.

It's impossible to forget about the social rehabilitation of former members of totalitarian sects, who often find themselves on the fringes of society without a place to live and without work, having lost their former skills and unable to live an independent life. Basically, it becomes necessary to help a person start to live in society all over again. Bear in mind that sometimes this can't be managed without a lawyer or a social worker.

Don't despair. Pray for your loved one in the sect. Let St. Monica the Just be an example for you. She was the mother of blessed Augustine, the bishop of Hippo. This Orthodox bishop - the greatest theologian in the West - lived in the 5th century and until his conversion to Christianity he was in the Manichean sect for many years. All those years his mother did not stop praying for him to God; and his mother's prayers were answered.

Ten Questions for importunate strangers, or Guidelines for those who do not want to be recruited.




Our visitors also read the following:


active³ 5.4 · IPS κατασκευή E-shop · Disclaimer