Parental Responses

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 3, Number 2, 1986, pages 190-203

Parental Responses to Their Children's Cult Membership

Lita Linzer Schwartz, Ph.D.

Pennsylvania State University

Ogontz Campus


Most of the literature published on today's “new religious movements,” or "cults,” has paid scant attention to the parents of cult members. The author's surveys of parents of ex-cult members, together with published accounts and the perceptions of professionals in the field, reveal parents' initial emotional reactions to their children's cult involvement and the actions they subsequently took -- deprogramming, court-ordered guardianship, exit counseling, law suits, and family therapy. The author concludes with advice about how parents can more effectively deal with the experience.

Although very little has been written about the effects of cult involvement on them the parents and families of cult members are deeply affected by the experience. Indeed, they can be seen as “hidden victims” of the pervasive cult movement of the past two decades. They are so “hidden,” in fact, that relatively few researchers have considered their plight at all (Beckford, 1978a, 1978b; Kaslow & Schwartz, 1983; Schwartz, 1982; Zerin, 1983).

When a young adult becomes a member of a totalistic group such as a cult, the resulting changes in the individual's perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior clearly affect other family members, especially the parents. Some react slowly to their child's new affiliation because they are unaware of the type of group involved. In other cases, the reaction is quick and belligerent, fueled by feelings of anger, guilt, and/or shame. Still other parents accept the cult involvement with equanimity, believing that whatever their child does is his or her choice and responsibility. Much of the parents reaction depends, of course, on the long-term parent-child relationship, the parents' personalities, the antecedents to the youth's cult commitment, and the type of advice the parents receive from extra- familial sources.

This paper will examine the cult phenomenon from the family's perspective, as revealed in survey data collected by the author and a colleague in 1979 and 1982, published accounts of cultists' parents, and commentaries by professionals. After reporting on demographic data, the paper will focus on parents' immediate reactions to the experience and the strategies they employed to cope with it. A final section of the paper offers suggestions on how parents can more effectively deal with the experience.

The surveys which provided the data reported on here were conducted in order to delineate: 1) the initial impact on parents of a child’s involvement; 2) their immediate and long-term responses to it; 3) how they resolved the problem; and 4) the condition of the family in the post-cult period.

Demographic Data

The two surveys of parents of ex-cult members revealed that the initial parental responses to their child's cult involvement included anxiety, worry, fear, confusion, shock, disbelief, helplessness, sadness, panic, and terror. Only one parent (of 58 in the 1982 survey) cited no reaction; one felt that the youth would “outgrow” the affiliation; and one had a positive reaction. Various other terms used by the parents were: numbed, rejected, opposed, skeptical, disappointed, angry, disapproving, devastated, guilty, damned mad, stunned, ashamed. Two felt an immediate need to help their children, although they were unsure at first about how to do that. In general, it might be said that the parents were baffled by their children's new affiliation. This was particularly true for cases that began in the early 1970's, when there was little public awareness of cults in this country.

In the 1979 pilot study (Kaslow & Schwartz, 1983), and the 1982 study being reported here, the respondents (15 in 1979; 58 in 1982) were all biological parents of the ex-cult members. All of the families were intact except for three led by widows and one by a divorcee. The parents, like their sons and daughters, were well-educated, with most having attended or graduated from college, and many having advanced or professional degrees.

Very few parents reported any involvement with drugs. Those who used alcohol might be termed social drinkers, and less than 20% had ever had psychotherapy. In short, they appeared to be typical of the middle and upper-middle class population except for their lower rate of divorce (although the lower divorce rate does not automatically indicate an absence of familial tensions). These data contrast to the 11% divorce rate in Sullivan's sample; he reported parental separation or divorce as “helping to explain involvement” of a child in a cult (Sullivan, 1984, pp. 96-97). On the other hand, Levine asserted that “reviews of all the statistics that have been gathered about radical departures. [joining cults] indicate that the divorce rate in the joiners' families is considerably below the national rate" (Levine, 1984, p. 29).

Parental Reactions

In those instances where the youth had disappeared or left home as part of the new commitment, the parents, when they finally saw the youth again, were shocked by transformations in appearance and personality, “and grief-stricken at being deserted and replaced by the new cult family” (Kaslow & Schwartz, 1983). Indeed, about one-eighth of respondent parents first became aware of their child's affiliation because of changes in personality. (Almost 40% of the parents, however, had been initially informed by the cult member that he or she had decided to be part of The Way International, the Unification Church, or similar group.) Yet, even when the youth continued to live at home, parents were dismayed by changes in diet belief systems, growing intolerance of others, and reduced effectiveness in academic work or job performance.

Sociologists Bromley and Shupe (1980) attribute such negative parental reactions to three factors: a) the threat that cult membership poses to the family's goal of preparing sons and daughters for participation in the economic order; b) the challenge of cult membership to the authority structure of the family; and c) in some cults, the leader's appropriation of parental roles. Quoting the New Testament, Thomas Robbins even appears to justify this separation of a child from his or her family on the grounds that such things happen in the formation of messianic movements, a tradition which cults presumably follow (Robbins, 1985, pp. 361-363). There seems to be no recognition by these sociologists -- or most other sociologists who have written on the subject -- that there is an affectionate relationship developed within the family from infancy onward, and that it is the repudiation of this relationship that so pains and angers the parents. Indeed, Anthony and Robbins state that some parents are guilty of an “hysterical overreaction” to cult membership (198 1, p. 272).

It is true that part of the task of parenting is to prepare children for independent adulthood, and that this includes vocational training. But Bromley and Shupe perceive this aspect of parenting in materialistic terms and primarily as an economic investment. Few parents surveyed would agree with that perception, however. Nor does the affection and responsibility that parents have, even for their adult children, stem, as many sociologists would have it, primarily from the supposed authoritarian structure of the family. Rather, parents perceived the usurpation of the family of origin by the cult leaders as adding insult to the injury of separation.

Furthermore, the substitute family of the cult retards, rather than facilitates, adolescent development.

... the cult simply replaces the old family with a new one: fellow devotees are considered brothers and sisters, and the cult leader is often referred to as mother or father. The new family does not provide the adolescent with tools to renegotiate family power structure ... Instead, it prescribes an authoritarian environment in which the adolescent depends on the leader in a manner similar to that of a small child” (Ross, 1984, p. 26).

Published parental reactions illustrate the results of the survey in more specific terms. Warren Adler, an author, was in England when his wife called to say that their son had become involved with Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. A friend had invited the young man to dinner and then to a weekend at Booneville, the communal farm. He remained at the farm for two weeks before letting anyone know where he was. Warren Adler recalls his reaction:

The Moonies? I was groggy. I dimly saw Moon's pudgy face as it appeared in posters pasted up all over Washington, D.C., where we lived. I thought of stories of lost children, kidnapping, a bizarre cult, empty smiles. Was it Moon who said that God had put Nixon in the White House? Moon was something that happened to other people (1978, p. 23).

A quite different initial reaction occurred in the Hershell family. Their daughter was an idealist who had been with them in Haiti to help provide eye care in a clinic there. In the spring of her first year in college, she met some other idealists and shortly thereafter moved to the Unification Center to live with her new friends. She wrote her parents a long letter expressing her love for everyone and faith that the move was going to help her become a better person.

Our first impulse was to ignore the letter, but after rereading it, certain things did not ring clear . . . We thought that her intelligence would help her realize her mistakes and she would get over it. But the more we read the letter, the more we became aware of a different flavor from her previous ones, but could not pinpoint the reasons. Too, we had not heard of a Unification Center, and after investigation, realized it was part of the Unification Church, of which we knew nothing (Hershell & Hershell. 1981, p. 132).

A third parent to write about cult involvement from his unique perspective was Steve Allen, the multi-talented entertainer and author. In 1971, he received a letter from his son Brian saying that he had joined the Church of Armageddon (also known as The Love Family).

To all of us who loved Brian ... the letter came as a bombshell. We were hurt and stunned ... We did not know what to think. Questions flooded our minds. Who was (the leader] Love Israel? What was the Church of Armageddon? What experience had led Brian to such a dramatic and unexpected decision? Most of all, why? Why -- especially in light of the love we knew he felt for us all, stated twice in the letter -- why had he chosen to tam his back on us, his family, his old friends in Los Angeles and, in a sense, the entire outside world? (Allen, 1982, p. 4).

In addition to seeking a rational explanation for seemingly irrational behavior, Allen wrote that he neither could nor would intrude on his son's privacy. “He was an adult. He had a right to live his own life. So we hoped for the best. And worried. And wondered. I knew one thing: I did not want to lose my son” (Allen, 1982, p. 4).

The Adlers, too, had asked, “Why?” They concluded that they had been too indifferent to their son David, that they had been “unloving, self-centered, selfish, overprotective, indulgent parents” (Adler, 1978, p. 26). Allen commented that Brian seemed to lack the “mysterious inner ballast"[1] that helps one find an identity, but at the same time blamed himself for Brian's actions. He felt guilty over his divorce from Brian's mother and for having spent too little time with his sons. He also blamed his own emotional difficulties. The Hershells, similarly, questioned their role in their daughter Jean's development Like many other parents, they

finally realized that it was not what we had done or not done, so we could stop beating ourselves! It was a combination of many factors: it was circumstances, it was timing, it was the approach, it was the deception, the "love-bombing,” the interplay [of these factors]. In short it was the vulnerability of any and all young people. At any given time, any of them could be ripe to be entrapped (Hershell & Hershell 198 1, p. 133).

The parents, in each case, upon seeing their child for the first time since his or her cult involvements commented on the feeling of distance between them as well as changes in physical appearance, deference to more senior members of the group, and a certain rigidity of expression.

Parental Actions

Getting Information

The parents' initial knowledge about cult groups varied, depending upon when in the past decade or so their child was recruited into such a group. For those who became involved before 1975 or 1976, there was little information available in the popular press. These parents tended to turn to their clergymen, or social welfare agencies, or attorneys, most of whom had as little knowledge as the parents. A few turned to the media for help, provoking some journalistic investigations (Landes, 1976; Stoner & Parke, 1977; Warshaw, 1979). Most parents went to public libraries to seek information, or somehow tapped into the growing network of parents with cult-involved children. The latter route was often a devious one through 'a friend of a friend' who knew someone else whose child was or had been in a cult. In the 1982 survey group, only two parents immediately sought a deprogrammer and ten took no action at all. A few tried to persuade their children of the error they had made in accepting the ways of new friends so uncritically and precipitously, but reported that they were unsuccessful.

Making Contact

During the period of the young person's cult affiliation, almost all of the parents initiated some contact with their child, most often by phone, although this did not necessarily continue on a regular basis. (Continuing communication, non- hortatory in tone, is recommended by most experts in the field, incidentally, as essential for any defection from the cult and for reconciliation with the family to occur. See Langone, 1985.)

For those living away from home, occasional visits initiated by the parents were usually permitted, but only after the initial indoctrination phase of membership had been completed. Typical of visits to a cult residence was the Adlers' first attempt to see David at the Moonie camp:

We moved to a variety of spots in the camp but were always surrounded by Moonies. Finally, David, following their lead, insisted we come into one of the cabins. We did so reluctantly and were seated in a semicircle around him (Adler, 1978, p. 27).

Eventually the Adlers saw their son alone for half an hour, and were able to schedule another meeting with him for the next day at the Moonie residence in San Francisco. In like manner, Steve Allen spent much of his first visit with Brian in the company of Serious Israel, one of the senior members of the Love Family. In the case of a young woman recruited by the Hare Krishnas in mid-1976, the parents described their visit nine days after their daughter's call as “devastating.”

Frances' parents reasoned, pleaded, cajoled, ordered, shouted, cried - and got nowhere. The only time the Ruftys glimpsed the Frances they had known occurred when their daughter inquired, “Aren't you going to kiss me good-bye?” It was, Mrs. Rufty declares, “awful" (Post, 1978, p. 6).

Whether or not visits took place, most parents set about to “redeem” their child in some way. Of the 49 ex-cult members in the 1979 and 1982 surveys, 31 left as a result of involuntary deprogramming or deprogramming preceded by conservatorship power granted by a court. Only six defected voluntarily. In the remaining cases, the means of leaving the cult was through persuasion (often by another ex-cult member working with the parents or through deprogramming not clearly associated with either involuntary removal or conservatorship.

Deprogramming, and the attempt to use conservatorship statutes to retrieve children from cults, have evoked much controversy, especially concerning the civil rights of cult members.


In conservatorship proceedings, “parents have alleged that their adult children are incompetent to manage their own affairs as a result of being under ‘mind control’ exercised by cult leaders” (Schwartz & Zemel, 1980, p. 304). Although conservatorship and guardianship powers have been more typically granted historically to families of elderly persons, in recent years they have been extended in some jurisdictions to parents of cult members. Once obtained, the court-sanctioned period of control is often used by parents to attempt to deprogram their offspring. The ability of parents to get conservatorships and guardianships, however, has varied widely from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Attempts by legislators in several states -- California, Illinois, and New York, for example -- to draft special conservatorship laws to deal with cult involvement, have all foundered, largely over constitutional objections: the adult cult member's civil rights and the rights of religious groups to recruit and indoctrinate have generally carried more weight than the state's interest in preventing deception and fraud or maintaining family stability.

Involuntary Deprogramming

Involuntary deprogramming, which frequently involves coerced removal from the group, has sometimes been judged a criminal offense. Despite this, it appears that no family members involved in such activity have been imprisoned, although some have been put on probation. Non-family members associated with the abduction have received jail sentences, but usually light ones. “Deprogrammers prosecuted for kidnapping or false imprisonment have relied on the necessity defense, which has traditionally exculpated defendants who violated a law in order to avoid a greater evil than the law was designed to prevent” (Aronin, 1982, pp. 272-273). Critical to such a defense, whether the alleged offense was committed by family members or not, is demonstrating that “the harm likely to be avoided clearly outweighed the harm likely to be caused” (Aronin, 1982, p. 282). A second defense has been that the removal occurred under duress -- for example, fear that a family member was at risk of death or serious injury (Aronin, 1982, p. 288). Some parents have viewed emotional distress or “mind manipulation” as indicative of such serious injury.

The parents who deprogrammed their children, whether successfully or not, saw this highly controversial process as an undoing of what they perceived as cult “programming.” (For other observers, “Deprogramming consists of seizing a person, isolating him from his normal contacts, and barraging him with accusations, arguments, and threats until he breaks and renounces his religious affiliation” [Worthing, 1977, p. 101). Relatively few deprogrammers in our study acted as harshly as Worthing's definition suggests, however, and some parents turned, with some success, to “re-entry counseling," counseling without coercion often provided in association with former cult members. Offering “much the same information as given in deprogramming sessions, the counseling is undertaken on a voluntary basis and does not involve round-the-clock intervention associated with involuntary deprogramming efforts” (Schwartz, 1985, p. 6; See Dubrow-EicheL Dubrow-Eichel & Eisenberg, 1984).

A third path parents have taken toward “rescuing” their children is to file lawsuits against cults on such grounds as alienation of affection, false imprisonment, misrepresentation, or fraud. Most of these suits have not been successful and some which might provide precedents helpful to parents are still involved in lengthy appeal processes. In Schuppin v. Unification Church (1977), the parents alleged that the church used mind control to alienate their daughters affections. The claim was held to be unfounded. Similarly, a false imprisonment charge by parents against the Hare Krishna group, in People v. Murphy (1975), was rejected by the court because, “although the use of ‘mind control’ for the purposes of controlling and/or converting an individual may be viewed as a moral crime by much of society, it is not a legal crime” (Schwartz & Zemel, 1980, 304). The parents in Katz v. Superior Court (1977) sought to recover their children on the grounds that recruiters for the Unification Church misrepresented the facts when approaching and indoctrinating their children. (The young people, still in the church, testified against their parents, saying that they had full prior knowledge of the commitments to be made.) The plaintiffs lost, partly because the actionable charge of deception was not proved.

Few ex-cult members, who might institute suits on firmer grounds than their parents, have done so. Their feelings, and their parents' feelings, of fear, shame, guilt, a desire to put the cult experience behind diem, and the recognition that a suit would cost much money and cause great emotional turmoil, have generally precluded such action. The results of ex-members' suits have been disappointing to them, as well as to their parents, who have almost always been closely involved and supportive. Separate juries in 1979 and 1985 awarded large damages to ex-Scientologist Julie Titchbourne, saying that the group defrauded her by failing to fulfill promises that membership would improve her life (Cult Observer, June 1985, 1-2). Similarly, a California jury several years ago awarded a young woman once involved with the Hare Krishna group $32 minion dollars in damages, although the verdict against the Krishnas probably stemmed from the fact that the young woman was a minor at the time the offenses were committed (The Advisor, August/September 1983, 1, 5). More recently, juries have made large awards to a former Scientologist (Cult Observer, September 1986, 1-2) and a former follower of the Church Universal and Triumphant (Cult Observer, May/June 1986, 1, 23), both of whom alleged that membership caused severe psychological damage. All of these decisions favorable to the involved families have, however, been either reversed on appeal dismissed on technical grounds, or have involved the victorious plaintiffs in an appeal process that has, thus far, denied them the jury awards. On the other hand, the Church of Scientology has recently made out of court settlements with a number of former members and critics (Cult Observer, October 1986, 1). In another recent case of note, finally, a California court found that claims of fraud, deception, and misrepresentation against the Unification Church made by three ex-members did not apply to the group's proselytizing (Cult Observer, May/June 1986, 1-2).

More painful for parents than being involved in these usually unrewarding suits against cults is being sued by their own cult-member children. In one such case, a ten-year member of the Divine Light Mission, after being Abducted and subjected to deprogramming on three separate occasions, sued her parents for their actions. A Colorado judge enjoined them from seeking to "rescue” their daughter (author's private case files). Other cases instituted by cult members against their parents have led in some instances to the parents paying fines or damages for their actions, or to legal settlements -- before a definitive decision on the merits of the case -- at significant cost to them. In some cases, the charges have been dropped and the parents and children have gone their separate ways. To summarize, no national precedents seem yet to have been set in court cases fought over issues peculiar either to cult recruitment or to involuntary removal from cults.

The Family After the Fact

Apart from direct action of some kind, parents with cult-involved children have created a number of self-help and referral organizations which seek to make up for the failure of established institutions to deal with the problem. Prominent among these are the Cult Awareness Network, a loose affiliation of local parent groups providing support and education, and the American Family Foundation, a parent-inspired organization staffed by professionals who conduct research and educational programs. These groups have propagated the notion that therapy and counseling are useful for the cult-involved individual's family, and many parents have turned to professional and semiprofessional sources as part of their reaction to cultism.

There are two major goals in therapy with families of cult members. One is to preserve the family unit and the other is to prepare the family for a harmonious reconciliation with the absent child. It is not a function of the therapist to aid in abduction and deprogramming. The therapists aim must be to help the parents cope with and handle the crisis.

The therapists initial task is to deal with the varied emotions that distraught parents bring to the therapists office and to provide support during the grieving process. Next, the therapist should provide knowledgeable answers to the many questions the parents may have about cults. This information should include the fact that abduction of an adult child, even by parents, may be a crime. Referral to the parent network for additional guidance and support is appropriate even while therapy continues.

What else can the therapist do to help the troubled family? Reassurance should be given that the blame for the cult involvement is not all theirs, and that neither one of them is totally divorced from responsibility for it (Schwartz, 1982). However, as part of the preparation for the future, the parents should explore with the therapist those factors in the family situation which may have contributed to their child's vulnerability. The parents should also consider aspects of the family's relationships that might be improved. Although the marriages of the parents surveyed were intact, there may well be underlying tensions in the relationship to which the child is sensitive, rendering him or her more vulnerable to cult involvement. Parents should also be urged to maintain an affectionate and non-critical kind of communication with their cult-involved child if they hope to become reconciled.

If and when the young adult returns to the family, some conjoint family therapy is recommended to discuss everyone's feelings at different points of the cult episode. The therapist must be alert to keep the discussion tactful rather than confrontational. In par6cular, the parents must be helped to see themselves as their child views them if needed changes in attitude and behavior are to occur.

Return to the Cult

There have been many cases in which the return to the family never occurs or is temporary, whether because of ineffective deprogramming, continuing vulnerability of the young adult to the appeals of cult peers, or simply because cult life seems more desirable than life in the larger society. Langone concluded, after studying parental questionnaires collected in his study, that “Some converts may leave [the cult] if properly counseled, but will not leave if forcibly deprogrammed (because anger at their parents' manipulations will induce them to stay in the group) (Langone, 1984, 75). Particular cult members may choose to return to the cult, or never to leave it, in order to gain relief from worldly pressures, to maintain status in the cult hierarchy, or because they sincerely believe in the theology or practices of the group.

Parents in Langone's study for the American Family Foundation (1984), responding to a question which asked why deprogrammiing had failed, in some cases blamed the ineffectiveness of deprogramrners and/or insufficient physical security during the process. Pan of one response provided a more profound key, however “The deprogramming left her [the cult member] with nothing to hang on to . . . “

One mother, urging preventive education in the high school curriculum wrote:

My husband and I have spent thousands of dollars in fruitless efforts to free our daughter's mind. We have consulted lawyers, put pressure on the cult and engaged psychologists. Last year we put our daughter through a seven-day psychological marathon that failed completely. Our failures have been devastating to us -- financially and psychologically (Willis, 1983, 502).

For the parents, as Willis has indicated, there is a renewed sense of failure and grief if they have attempted a rescue and failed. Supportive therapy is again indicated. If there are younger children, they need to be protected from the in-cult sibling should he or she attempt to recruit them. The children at home may also need support for their self-esteem. It is important to maintain the family as a unit and to attend to the younger children rather than to neglect them in favor of the primary crisis.


1. This is similar to the conclusion reached by the author after surveying ex-cult members and those who had not responded to “invitations” by cult recruiters. One major point of difference between the two groups was the presence or absence of an “inner locus of control.”


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* * * *

This article is an updated revision of a paper presented originally to the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association in Anaheim, CA, in August 1983.

Lita Linzer Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Psychology at the Pennsylvania State University, Ogontz Campus, and the author of numerous articles and papers on religious cults, including: Charismatic Leadership: A Case in Point, with Natalie Isser, concerning the 19th Century proselytizing of the French clergyman Theodore Ratisbonne (Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1986, 57-77.)