Many people have had their relationships with loved ones affected by their involvement with a cultic group. Some members personalities can appear changed within days of recruitment. Some cut off contact with outsiders or non-believers altogether. Some family members and friends give up making contact with their loved one when it is not reciprocated.
‘I remember thinking that I might have lost you for good. You were distant and it was difficult to connect with you. The way you were talking about spending most of your time there worried me, and it seemed like there was nothing I could say to change that, so I stopped trying.’A friend of mine, reflecting on what it was like to lose me to the NKT
What not to say
Things that are unhelpful to say (as they tend to make people feel attacked and defensive) include:
- You’re in a cult
- You’re brainwashed
- I would have known better
- I wouldn’t have got drawn in/stayed that long
- What did you expect?
- How did you not see the warning signs?
When in a state of fervor with Kelsang Gyatso and his teachings, people become hypersensitive to any criticism of the group and it’s practices. Cult members have rarely read about thought reform and do not know that they are being deceived. They usually haven’t read other Buddhist texts and don’t know that they are reading a highly sectarian form of Buddhism (although many Buddhist groups have cultic aspects).
Most professionals who have worked with ex members state that the member must be allowed to reach their own ‘aha’ moment and this can never be through force. You can ask them open ended curious questions about their involvement, how they feel and their well-being. However trying to warn the member about the group is sadly very rarely effective, in the same way that warning someone about an abusive partner does not work. For more information on ‘unhelpful help’ click here.
What to do then?
- Talk to the person about positive memories, experiences, shared interests
- Keep the lines of communication open, you never know when the person could start to experience doubts, leave or get kicked out
- Educate yourself on thought reform and coercive control
- Try to be as non-judgemental as possible
- If the person discloses what sounds like abuse, show empathy and validate their perception of the experience as abuse. They are likely to doubt their intuition and perception
- If the person wishes to leave and you are able to support them in finding a safe space, this may help them feel more able to take this step
- Be aware that according to Anders (2019b) ex-members of so called ‘Buddhist’ groups often report that they needed immediate help upon leaving. Many survivors report suicidality shortly before or after leaving and are at risk of homelessness due to economic abuse and exploitation
- You could talk about the mechanisms other similar groups use to deceive and control people, without directly criticising the NKT. Cults operate in surprisingly similar ways and many ex members report that learning about other groups helped them to accept their group is in fact a cult
- Using the word ‘recruited’ instead of ‘joined’ can be less shaming
For The Open Minds Foundation’s advice on helping a loved one leave an abusive situation click here.
A relevant video discussion between former Scientologist Chris Shelton and Christian Szurko (spiritual abuse recovery specialist and Dr Michelle Haslam’s mentor) is below.
A relevant video by Jon Atack, ex-scientologist is below:
You may benefit from counselling as losing a loved one in this way is like a bereavement. Talking to others with similar experiences can be helpful. Self-care is also crucial.
ICSA provide information for family members here. A handbook and further information on coping can be downloaded on the page.