The Role of the Family

Excerpted from Recovery From Abusive Groups by Wendy Ford

The Role of the Family

A life is beautiful and ideal, or the reverse, only when we have taken into our consideration the social as well as the family relationship.

Havelock Ellis

The family is usually greatly relieved to have their loved one home. It's an adjustment for everyone. Months, often years, of anguish and fear are over. As in the return of the prodigal child, it is a time of great joy.

The group may have isolated the loved one in an unknown place where no contact is allowed. Some families continue indefinitely to send letters knowing the letters are screened by the group's leaders. Most families learn early not to send money, as it is usually turned over to the group. These families can often benefit from professional counseling to help them cope with their frustration and despair.

Those families whose member leaves the group can be a source of great support and encouragement. Through the ups and downs of recovery, the family can be there with love and understanding, to listen and empathize. Years of strained communication can melt away as new memories of love and laughter replace the years of frustration and anguish.


Here are a few pointers which can help families provide a nurturing environment that simultaneously encourages independence:

  • Recognize that recovery can take years. Some damage may be irreparable.

  • Understand, accept, and grieve your own lost time and lost experiences with loved ones.

  • Don't be confrontational. Give the loved one time to let go of his or her loyalty to the group and its leaders and to acknowledge the deception.

  • Do not try to overprotect or control the loved one. Learn to negotiate.

  • Forgive your loved one for the pain he caused you while in the cult, and tell him that you forgive him.

  • Encourage independent decision-making.

  • Recognize the loved one may need financial support during recovery, but that financial and emotional independence should be encouraged.

  • Accept and respect the accomplishments the loved one made while in the cult.

  • Understand the loved one's often intense aversion to authority figures.

Accept the Changes

It's hard when a friend or family member who was close to you now is physically and emotionally distant. He is alone with his pain and you can't reach him. It can help to realize that like a veteran returning from a war, he has been somewhere you have not been, exposed to horrors of a trauma you can only imagine. For all your years of experience, you have not been in his war. You did not lose the time, friends, and dreams that he lost. But you still lost something.

You lost your loved one the way he used to be. He is back, but he will never be who he was. Healing will mean integrating the pain he has known. This will change him. It should change you, too. You and your family can demonstrate your love by accepting the changes this experience has caused. This may mean letting go of what you wanted him to be.

Integration Takes Time

Some of those years included key developmental periods for both the loved one and the family. Events, which would have helped the family let go of the loved one and the loved one let go of the family, did not happen. Because of this, both family and loved one can be stunted or "on hold" developmentally in some key ways.

On the other hand, ex-cultists have been exposed to experiences that have matured them beyond their years, such as leadership responsibilities and sexual activity. The very reality of having been ideologically and psychologically raped has catapulted ex-cultists to a developmental space inconsistent with their years. This mismatch of years and experience takes very hard work to integrate into a unified whole. Let it take time.

Missed Events

Some ex-cultists, because of the constraints of the cult, missed critical life events with their families and friends, such as births, deaths, marriages, religious observances, and graduations. Even though ex-cultists are not fully responsible for not having attended these events, it helps to hear that they have been forgiven. Discuss it with them. Let them know you still love and respect them and that you understand it was the cult that kept them from sharing these key family events. They also need to forgive themselves. Both the families and ex-cultists need to grieve the loss of not having shared these events.

  • Nieces, Nephews, and Grandchildren

  • Many ex-cultists were married in the cult and had children. Whether or not one is under mind control, being in marriage and raising children is an accomplishment. These ex-cultists have their own families and responsibilities to those families. How they choose to handle those responsibilities during the trauma of exiting and recovery may or may not be to your liking. But your support is needed. You can be most effective as a sounding board:

  • Listening

  • Gently raising questions

  • Offering advice, if requested

  • Being supportive

Remember, ex-cultists need to learn to make their own decisions and to carry them out. Nieces, nephews, grandchildren will survive these difficult months and years better, if the extended family is supportive and non-argumentative.

Covered in Bruises

A visual aid that might help is to imagine your loved one covered with dark bruises. Remember, the pain is psychological and may not be visible on the outside, but the wounds can run very deep. Will it help to add pressure to these bruises or to step back and simply be there? As ex-cultists relearn how to use their badly bruised mental faculties and reconnect with long frozen emotions, will it help to do the tasks for them or to encourage and applaud them? You may not feel as if applause is much of a contribution, but it is!

Honor what they have accomplished while they were in the cult and give them space to work out their new challenges in their own way and in their own time. Recovery can take years.

Encourage Open Communication

The loved one won't talk, though, if the environment does not encourage open discussion. The ex-cultist is highly sensitized to being told what to do and how to think, even if it is done subtly. Demonstrate from the first moment the loved one is home that it's safe to talk here by listening.

Don't judge, don't interrupt, don't offer opinions or advice, unless it is asked for. Just listen.

Questions as Mental Exercise

When you ask the ex-cultist a question, do not interrupt the answer. Focusing on a question, formulating the answer, and articulating the answer while responding to your nonverbal or verbal ("ah," "um") cues may still be difficult for your loved one. Let the loved one exercise his mental skills by completing the process from beginning (your question) to end (stating his answer). If the loved one gets lost and stalls, help him by restating the question. The exercise of thinking can be as important as or more important than the answer.

Do ask questions about things you don't understand. If the loved one cannot explain it to your satisfaction, don't push. Give him time. Maybe offer to help him study that particular question.

As you interact in a nonthreatening and nurturing way, you are building a bridge for ex-cultists from the world they left behind to a new place. The stronger this bridge is to the new world, the easier the transition is away from the old one. You are competing with an illusion of total acceptance and total love. You have one thing the illusion doesn't have, though. You have integrity.

The preceding are excerpts from Recovery form Abusive Groups, by Wendy Ford (available from AFF's Electronic Bookstore).

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Recovery From Abusive Groups By Wendy Ford. "Ms. Ford has taken the trauma and despair of exiting from a destructive cult and offered gentleness and encouragement in a way only someone who's been there can. I highly recommend this handbook as a tool for those recovering from an experience of mind control." Nancy Miquelon, M.S.W., former National Director of FOCUS, an ex-member support network.

This book provides practical advice for former cult members and their families. Utilizing study questions, exercises, worksheets, and an abundance of common sense, Ms. Ford focuses specifically on what ex-members can do to negotiate their way through the challenging postcult recovery process.

This book provides concrete suggestions on such issues as:

  • Learning when and when not to talk about one's cult experience

  • Dealing with financial and work issues

  • Reconnecting to family and friends

  • Making new friends

  • "Floating"

  • Dating

  • Coping with Depression

  • Setting long-range goals

  • What families can do to help their loved one recover

  • Nutrition and Stress

  • Career planning