cult recovery 101

How can I get my kid out of a cult?

How can I get my kid out of a cult?

Families and friends of a cult-involved person tend to ask the second question. Former group members and others interested in cults tend to ask the former question. However, since the answer to the latter question requires an understanding of the answer to the former question, we will first explain why people leave cults and then focus on the special problem of families and friends.

We suggest that before proceeding you review our answers to the questions:

  • What is a cult?
  • Why do people join cults?
  • Why Leaving is Difficult
Cults typically invade the normal boundaries of those who join, intruding on most aspects of the members’ lives. Over time, cult members give up more and more control to the leadership.

The social and psychological controls that are associated with “brainwashing” become most conspicuous after a person has spent some time in a highly manipulative and controlling cult. That is why Professor Benjamin Zablocki associates brainwashing with what he calls “exit costs.” In other words, the brainwashing associated with high-control cultic groups isn’t so much related to how people enter groups, but rather to the difficulty they have in leaving.

Lifton has described in detail the characteristics of environments that can achieve a totalistic level of control over people.

In committing to a high-control group, persons undergo a conversion experience in which their fundamental assumptions about self and world change. This is a deeper and more extensive change than we see in people who are merely obedient. An authoritarian leader seeks only compliance. A cult leader, however, seeks compliance and identity change. Cult members must do more than obey. They must believe in the rightness of what they are told to do.

When the cultic dynamic reaches its consummation, cult members act on their own; orders from leaders are superfluous. The members not only accept and believe in the system. They make the system part of themselves and carry it with them wherever they go. Professor Rod Dubrow-Marshall says: “So when group members sell their newspapers, raise money, persuade people to come to their events, sell their house and give the money to the group, etc.—they do these things because it reinforces the group identity that has become such an important part of their self-identity.”

For somebody so bonded to a group, departure that requires a rejection of the group is a form of psychological self-mutilation, a very high exit cost, to use Zablocki’s term.


If the cost of exiting a cult is so high, why would people ever leave their groups? This is an important question to answer, for research indicates that most cult members do leave their groups, although the probability of leaving appears to decrease substantially after several years of membership.

First of all, groups vary tremendously on the dimension of control, and many are not so “heavy duty” that departure involves painfully high exit costs. Therefore, the question above will not apply to many cult members, although even in their less controlling situations, one must still ask, “Why leave?”

To answer our question, let us consider the field of forces impinging on cult members from their group and from the world outside the group. From both directions cult members may feel attractions and repulsions.

Attractions to the group may be positive. Examples include genuine friendships, a sense of purpose and belonging, a strong sense of superiority to those outside the group, and the comfort of blind obedience (in which one no longer has to deal with the stress of deciding).
Attractions may also be negative; that is, the person conforms to the group in order to avoid actual or anticipated pain. If, for example, leaders subject dissenting or doubting members to public humiliation, members will tend to comply, to stay close to the group, in order to avoid that punishment. Also, the group’s teachings may incline members to expect failure in and/or rejection by the outside world, should they leave the group. Sometimes these expectations include supernatural punishments (e.g., to spend eternity in hell). Moreover, to the extent members have made the group part of their own personality, rejecting the group would entail, as already noted, the pain of psychological self-mutilation, so members will hold fast to the group in order to avoid this psychic pain.

In the member’s mind, then, exiting the group will result in the loss of positive attractions and the addition of pain that could have been avoided by obeying leaders and remaining a loyal member. These are exit costs.

Other exit costs relate to repulsions from the outside world. These may consist of fears that the person has avoided by “leaving the world.” Examples include: fear of sexual intimacy, the expectation of failure in college, not measuring up to parental expectations, and the challenge of committing to a career. These too are exit costs, for the member must confront these fears if s/he leaves the group, which provides “noble” rationalizations for avoiding these fears in the mainstream world.

There are, however, exit benefits, and these may sometimes come to outweigh the exit costs.
One set of exit benefits includes attractions to the mainstream world, including emotional bonds, stifled interests, and the sense of freedom that the mainstream world may represent to cult members recoiling from the oppression of their demanding group life. Emotional bonds to loved ones and friends stay alive within the person, for they are at least partly autonomous of cognitive evaluations. However much the group’s ideology may denigrate the member’s “old life,” contacts with family and friends, may stimulate these emotional bonds and create an impulse—perhaps unconscious—to move toward the mainstream world.

Contacts with people outside the group may also rekindle old interests—artistic, intellectual, academic, career, sports—that were stifled or given up in order to meet the group’s demands. And the suffering a member experiences as a result of his/her attempts to conform to a demanding and sometimes punishing group environment may cause the outside world to look more and more attractive as a place of freedom. Paradoxically, then, the cumulative fears of what we earlier termed “negative attractions” may increase the strength of the outside world’s benefits.

This impulse to escape may be reinforced by repulsive forces within the cult. Examples include: doubts about beliefs, practices, and predictions of doom that do not come true; personality conflicts with other group members; boredom; exhaustion; and a growing awareness of the manipulative techniques employed to exploit the member.

The field of forces described above will vary greatly from individual to individual and will shift over time for each individual. Some may exit smoothly. But, at least in high control groups, many appear to leave with great difficulty. Indeed, one research study found that 42% of cult defectors left covertly (e.g., by sneaking out in the middle of the night). Indeed, it appears that for some cult members the pain of staying becomes so great that the pain of leaving constitutes relief.

It is no wonder, then, that research and clinical experience suggest that a large percentage of former cult members are in great distress when they leave their groups.

What does this mean for families and friends?

This analysis suggests that families and friends concerned about a loved one’s cult involvement should keep the following points in mind:

1.Families and friends can enhance their positive influence on a loved one by understanding the field of forces impinging on him/her and developing a strategy for altering the cost/benefit ratio of these forces.

2.Because the cult experience involves many complex interactions that change over time, simplistic assessments of a loved one’s situation and plans to change it are not likely to be helpful.

3.This complexity also means that persuading a loved one to leave a group is rarely easy.

4.It is often more realistic to set a goal of improving one’s relationship with the cult-involved loved one, rather than “getting him/her out” (which may, however, become a viable goal in the future).

We  has a variety of resources designed to help thoughtful families and friends understand and respond to the complexity of a loved one’s cult involvement.

However, because each case should be assessed individually, we can more effectively advise you on what resources to concentrate on, if we know a bit about your situation.

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