Point of View
William Goldberg, MSW, LCSW
My husband and I are arguing about how we should deal with our son’s involvement in a high-demand group. Our son is a 19-year-old college student, and he’s been involved for about seven months with a group that we believe to be a cult. He attends meetings several times a week and spends all his free time with other members of the group. He has urged us to go to the meetings and pushes more than we’re comfortable with, but backs off when we ask him to stop. When he comes home for a visit, he doesn’t hang out with his high-school friends any more. We think this may be because they don’t want to hear him talk about the group (I overheard a conversation he had with his old girlfriend, and he got angry with her when she refused to go to one of the group’s retreats). We’ve spoken with some former members of this group, and we’ve gotten some information from the Internet that scares us. When we try to talk to our son about our concerns, he tells us that the former members are lying, and that the stories on the Internet are fabrications.
I would like to hire a professional exit counselor to talk to him because we can’t get through to him. My husband agrees with me that this is a harmful organization, but he feels that our son has a good head on his shoulders, and that he’ll come to his senses without our need to go through the expense of hiring someone. I agree that our son used to have good sense, but I feel that the longer he is involved with this group, the less likely he is to leave on his own. With each passing day, I feel more strongly that we should hire someone, but I can’t get my husband to agree. What’s your advice?
First, I suggest that you both acknowledge that no one has a crystal ball, and that either of you could be right. There are a few possible errors that you could make here. On the one hand, if your son would have left on his own anyway, and you hired someone to talk to him, the error would be that you did not need to go to the expense. On the other hand, if he was not about to leave on his own and you didn’t intervene, he would be stuck in a group that you believe is harmful to him.
The exit counselor, presumably, would give him information that he probably hasn’t heard about the group. If, after a dialogue with the exit counselor, your son decides that he wants to remain in the group, you will have gone through an exercise that did not lead to the outcome you hoped for, and he may be upset with you. Alternatively, if the additional information would have led to your son’s decision to leave, and you had not provided him with a means of getting that information, he would be stuck in the group, even though he would have left if he had known more. Sometimes individuals in a cult recognize on some level that there is something wrong with their involvement, but the dynamics of the group encourage suppression of that thought. Exit counseling can give them the “excuse” they need to do what they really want to do—leave.
I recommend that you and your husband have a frank, nonjudgmental discussion of the situation, and your feelings and beliefs about it. You can talk about each of the scenarios above and the consequences of action versus inaction under each scenario. Perhaps you can come up with a few eventualities that you could both agree would indicate that you have to take some action. For example, would your husband agree that your son is not likely to leave on his own if he hasn’t left in 3 months? Would he agree that you should intervene if your son plans to drop out of school or plans to move out of the country? Or perhaps you would agree that you don’t have to take action if your son were to stop attending the group’s meetings, or if he agreed to read material that was critical of the group and discuss that material with you. If the two of you can agree to a date or an occurrence that would make each of you change your mind, and if both of you can agree that this is a reasonable criterion, perhaps you can come to a consensus regarding when it would be proper to act. Then neither of you wins or loses the argument; instead, you’ve both agreed to a course of action that each of you can live with.