The Art of Hoping: A Mother’s Story
My son, Edward, is in a cult. He has been in a cult for 30 years. He may never come out. And if he does, I could very well be dead before it happens.
My story is a sad one. But it is not without hope. I write in order to help other parents with children in cults better understand what has happened to them, what they can do for their loved ones, and what they can do to keep hope alive. Hope is not something that is handed to us, like a Mother’s Day gift. Hope is something we have to work at, sometimes at great emotional cost. There is no formula for keeping hope alive. Sustaining hope is an art, not a science. It requires a sensitive and courageous heart, as well as a discerning intellect.
Talking about hope as an art is painful for me because my son was an artist, and a rather successful artist before his group leader told him that art was “on a lower plane.” I’ve been told that some experts think that there is a preponderance of artistically gifted people in cults, perhaps because the artistically gifted are more likely to have idealistic aspirations, and more likely to feel out of place in the workaday world. I do not know whether or not that is so. But I do know, based upon the many years I have spent thinking about this problem, that those who join cults are sensitive, intelligent, and honorable people, not the “crazies” that far too many people think they are.
My story dramatically illustrates this point. It shows that joining a cult is more a function of bad luck, of a vulnerable person being in the wrong place at the wrong time, than of personal or family deficiency. I did not always feel this way. There were certainly times when my insides cried out, “what did I do wrong,” even though on the outside I may have been silent and numb. I’ve had my share of guilt and second-guessing. But I want to stress to those of you who are experiencing these self-recriminations that they are pointless and counterproductive. If your child is in a cult, it’s mainly because of what the cult does to him or her, not what you have done. Surely, you’re not the perfect parent, and neither am I. But our imperfections aren’t the reason that our loved ones throw their lives away in service to a megalomaniacal leader who puts him or herself forward as some kind of saint or god or super-therapist or messianic political figure. When you understand how cults really work, when you understand how manipulation and exploitation pervade them, you will treat yourself more gently, although your anger toward the group leader may grow considerably.
Listen to my story. Although it is not a “worst-case scenario,” such as the stories of those whose children die in cults, it is, I am sad to say, representative of what far too many parents face. I hope to gain strength to keep my hope alive as I write. I hope that you gain strength as you read.
You may have noticed that I write anonymously. I do so (and I change names and many other details of my story) because, however helpless I may feel at this moment, I hang on to the hope that my son will someday leave his group. My son has castigated me for my cult education activities, which I pursue because I feel morally obligated to act. But I have never publicly talked about him on a personal level. I’m afraid that if I did, I would add salt to the wound in our relationship and decrease the probability of his coming out. Therefore, I alter details, as in a docudrama. But I do not alter the gist of the story.
I grew up in the South before the Second World War. I was one of those Southerners who hated segregation and, although I didn’t get active in civil rights until the 1950s, I think that my son imbibed much of my idealism while he was growing up.
After the War my husband, Norm, who had been in the Navy in the South Pacific, was stationed in California. Edward was among the first of the baby-boomers and was born shortly before my husband left the service. We stayed in California, where Norm worked as a salesman for a few years. In 1950 we bought a small ranch and moved out to the country. We loved that ranch and were very happy.
Edward was a quiet, sensitive boy who loved the animals on the ranch. I always thought he had a talent for drawing, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. But when he started school, his first-grade teacher told me that he was exceptionally gifted and urged me to try to get him private lessons. I found a capable and dedicated art teacher about an hour’s drive from our ranch, and I took Edward for lessons once a week for a number of years.
He was a natural and needed no prodding. I kept him supplied with material; his teacher taught him the tricks of the trade, so to speak, and his inborn talent kept him drawing and drawing and drawing.
He was a happy child. He did very well in school. He played sports. And, although he wasn’t a social butterfly, he had a circle of friends with whom he played and laughed and kept secrets from mom and dad. During my darker moments, I sometimes questioned whether or not I had pushed him when he was young, as do many parents of gifted children. When, however, I looked back objectively and when I talked to others, I had to conclude that I didn’t push him. Certainly, I was proud of him and took delight in his achievements. But I didn’t drive him forward. I didn’t have to. To him drawing was as natural as play. He loved it.
Even in high school, Edward was basically a happy adolescent. He was always on the honor roll. He won every art contest in which he participated. He had a small circle of friends and, although quiet, he wasn’t morose or cold, as troubled adolescents sometimes are. He was, however, shy with girls and didn’t date. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but in hindsight I wonder if his shyness made him feel inadequate in his relations with people, especially in comparison to the other areas of life in virtually all of which he excelled.
Edward got a scholarship to a prestigious art school in California and went off to college in 1963. He shared an apartment with another boy and continued to excel in his studies. We wrote regularly, talked on the phone from time to time, and Norm and I visited him two or three times a year while he was at school. We had a wonderful relationship. If at the time anybody had told me that my son would join a cult, I would have said, “you’re nuts!”
When Edward was in high school I began to get active in the civil rights movement in California. When he went off to college and I had more time, I got a job with a civil rights organization and started my own career. I didn’t worry about Edward; he was doing great so far as I could see. I concentrated on my own work.
Edward met a girl in college, another art student, and almost married her. But their relationship didn’t work out. I surmised from our conversations that he didn’t think she was serious enough about her art and didn’t appreciate culture and the life of the mind the way Edward did.
After graduating with high honors, Edward moved to San Francisco and, while working odd jobs to pay the rent, started to sell his paintings. Although it was a struggle at first, he began to get noticed. He had his first private exhibition a couple of years after graduation, and continued to have exhibitions periodically into the 1980s. He truly had a bright future in art.
During this time, a year or two after he moved to San Francisco, Edward met Michelle, who played with a local rock band. I met Michelle about six months after she and Edward first met. They were already talking about getting married. I must say that I liked Michelle. She was pleasant and respectful and seemed sincerely to care a great deal for my son, as he did for her.
Once again, I focused on my own work. Why not? My son’s life was on track. He had a bright future in a profession that he loved. He was about to get married to a lovely girl. He loved his parents and his parents loved him. It was an American success story.
What I didn’t know at that time and wouldn’t know for several years is that Michelle’s bandleader was a follower of an eastern guru; let’s call him “Guru OM.” Guru Om, I later found out, ran a so-called spiritual school in the mountains of Northern California. Like so many others (I now know, after having studied cults), he had supposedly discovered a set of esoteric techniques that constituted the fast track to enlightenment. He made a lot of money and accumulated a lot of narcissistic gratification by having his devotees, who received nothing but minimal food and a mattress on a floor, teach these secret techniques to a stream of recruits who kept paying more and more to climb the pyramid to enlightenment.
At the bottom of this pyramid scheme (which is a common structure for many cults) “students” were encouraged to work in the outside world so that they could earn and save the money needed to climb the enlightenment pyramid. But those who moved up the pyramid would discover that their work in the outside world was "on a lower plane” and that they were now ready to come into the guru’s “inner courtyard.” Those in the “inner courtyard” studied rarefied esoteric techniques of meditation and devotion. They also taught those coming in at the lower end of the pyramid. Coincidentally, the money they brought into the guru as teachers, especially given that they worked virtually for nothing, more than compensated the guru for the money he lost from their having abandoned their careers on “the lower plane.” The devotees bought into the illusion of spiritual ascent; the guru bought whatever he wanted.
Shortly after they got married, and maybe even before, Edward and Michelle, with the urging of Michelle’s bandleader, began taking courses with Guru Om’s organization. They had a child, Kristen, in 1974. When Kristen was born, they had been involved with Guru Om for several years, but I never knew. Even had I known, I probably wouldn’t have become alarmed, for I’ve always thought of myself as a tolerant and open-minded person. I undoubtedly would have respected their choice to pursue eastern spirituality, even if it puzzled me.
Although it was a bit of a drive to San Francisco, Norm and I visited more often after our grandchild was born. Our visits were typical grandparent visits. We exchanged news about people we knew, took Kristen out, went out to dinner together, and visited tourist spots in San Francisco.
The first time their involvement with Guru Om ever entered our awareness was in the late 70s or early 80s, when Edward asked for a loan to take a course in Northern California. I thought it was an art course, but sometime later one of Edward’s friends, with whom I’d had a chance encounter, casually told me that the course was in eastern spirituality. I was somewhat surprised, but didn’t panic or become concerned; it simply seemed odd to me, for it was out of character for Edward, who had never been very religious. I never even connected Jonestown and Guru Om in my mind. Like so many people, I viewed Jonestown as a monstrous aberration that couldn’t possibly relate to the lives of ordinary people. I did not realize that Jonestown merely represented an extreme example of the types of psychological abuse to which hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people are subjected each day. I would have understood the late Rabbi Maurice Davis’s statements that “the path of anti-Semitism leads to Auschwitz” and “the path of segregation leads to lynchings.” But I unfortunately would not have understood the other part of Rabbi Davis’s statement: “the path of cults leads to Jonestown.”
I began to get concerned sometime in the mid-80s, when Edward and Michelle separated and Edward moved to the guru’s center in Northern California. They shared custody and sent Kristen to schools run by their group. We maintained a good relationship with all of them, but no longer had the optimism of a few years earlier. I read some of the early popular books on cults, which helped me better understand the danger my son and his family were in, but they really didn’t provide me much direction on what to do.
My alarm bell began ringing loudly in 1986 when we visited Edward at the guru’s center. That is when we discovered that he had given up his art and was working full-time for the guru. I cannot describe the emptiness in my heart when Edward, who had loved art practically since he was in diapers, said to me, “Oh, that [his painting] isn’t important; it’s on a lower plane. What I’m doing now is really important.”
When that short visit ended, we were despondent. We learned that he had thrown away a promising, rewarding, and noble career. And we learned that he had packed away dozens of his beautiful paintings in a garage, as though they were old clothes. When I expressed my dismay at this, he simply said, “Do what you want with them.” So, we packed them up and took them home, where they remain today as painful reminders of what my son once was and could have been. Often, I think that my pain must be like that of parents of talented adult children who suffer terrible injuries in an accident and must give up careers that they love. But in some respects I think that my pain is even worse, because the change in my son results not from an accident of nature, but from the deliberate machinations of a person or persons who really care nothing for him, while pretending that they love him. My sadness is poisoned by an irrepressible anger, indignation, and discouragement. I know of many other parents who share these debilitating emotions.
In 1990 an expose of Guru Om was published in a major newspaper. This article confirmed all of my fears. It clearly explained the crass and unscrupulous commercial motives behind the veneer of spirituality that the guru’s organization cultivated so cleverly. Books published in the early 90s helped me better understand the psychological techniques of influence and control such organizations use to hold onto and exploit their members. I realized that the process is much more subtle than the lurid accounts of “brainwashing” popularized by some earlier books.
I tried for a few years to increase my constructive influence over my son. I followed the common advice of trying to enhance communication and rapport by writing letters, telephoning, and visiting without getting confrontational. I tried to reconnect him to people and memories from his past. I tried everything I could think of to try to get him to come home and hopefully become trusting enough to talk to former members of his group. But he was in too deep. Suggestions that worked for others didn’t work for me. Even when my husband died, Edward was barely moved. He dismissed his father’s death as merely the end of one of thousands of incarnations. No big deal. Nothing to grieve about. Perhaps more than anything, his reaction to Norm’s death made me realize just how far he had moved away from me and the life he formerly led.
As my awareness and understanding grew, so did my resolve to do something to fight this evil. I focused on preventive education because it is vital that young people know how to recognize and resist a cultic recruitment. I spoke in high schools, churches, and synagogues. I gave books and other resources to teachers and libraries. I showed young people AFF’s video, “Cults: Saying NO Under Pressure.” I gave out educational materials in colleges.
When my son found out about my educational activities, he became very angry. Bad publicity was cutting into the guru’s profit margin, so he began to rail against the “anti-cult movement.” Apparently, we were on such a low plane of existence and were so threatened by the sublime spirituality of the guru and his devotees that we were obsessed with destroying them. Of course, this is nonsense. But demonizing one’s opponents is part of the modus operandi of all totalitarian organizations. Indeed, my son wrote me a brief letter about five years ago in which he said that my activities threatened his spiritual progress and that my refusal to stop these activities compels him to break off all communication. We have not seen each other since this letter. Such letters are not uncommon and are received by families with loved ones in all kinds of groups.
Cults, then, try to put families in a no-win situation. If we feign approval or stifle our critical thoughts, we may now and then be given the bone of a visit. If we confront them with our critical observations, they demonize us and pull our loved one away. Of course, the way out of this dilemma is to fight subtlety with greater subtlety. Families must learn how to assess their situations thoroughly, how to communicate assertively without being confrontational, and they must learn how to strategize. Today’s thought reform consultants, or exit counselors, and cult-aware mental health professionals understand so much more than 15 or even 10 years ago. And as their understanding is written down and made available through videotapes and workshops more and more families will benefit from their expertise.
I hope that progress continues to be made in this area and that others pick up the torch and fight the evils perpetrated by cults. My age is catching up with me, so I no longer have the energy to “hit the pavement.” And I have long-since realized that nothing I can do has much chance of persuading my son to leave his group. But I refuse to lose hope. I try, as much as my faculties enable me, to keep up with events in this field. And I keep reminding myself that this evil affects many people, not just my son and me. It affects my granddaughter, for example, who was educated by my son’s cult. It affects all the other devotees trapped in the same evil system as my son. It affects all the potential recruits who come of age every year. And it affects all of you.
When I remember how many of us are affected, I realize that my hope has many objects. I hope that my granddaughter will one day leave. Indeed, there are signs that she, like many children raised in cults, is rebelling against the system in which she grew up and is reaching toward the outside world. I hope that young people will continue to be warned about cults and psychological manipulation by teachers and clergy – and you. I hope that more mental health professionals and clergy will learn about cults and how to help families and former members. I hope that cult researchers will develop more practical materials for families and former members, so that more people can learn how to fight subtlety with greater subtlety. I hope that more workshops and conferences for families and former members will take place so that more and more people can make the personal connections that are so vital to fully understanding this field.
These are not vain hopes! These are hopes that will be realized. You and others who will come along in years to come will bring these hopes to fruition. Of this I am sure. The fall of the Soviet Union shows that lies, even when they have the power of the state behind them, cannot survive indefinitely. Truth doesn’t go away.
But what about my son? My hope concerning my son resides not in what I know, but in what I don’t know. All that I know about his group and his relationship to the group leads me to the conclusion that he will never come out. But I also know from my work in this field that every day long-term cult members walk out of their groups – sneak out in many cases. Virtually every AFF ex-member workshop, for example, has at least one person who had been in a group for 20 years or more. Most of these long-term members leave without their family’s pursuing an intervention. They leave because they are burned out by the work demands. They leave because the weight of inconsistency, contradiction, and hypocrisy becomes more than they can bear. They leave because they are pressured to abuse their children, a command to which they are finally able to say “no.” They leave because they begin to question or dissent and are thrown out of the group. They leave because the leader dies and the group falls apart. They leave because the leader’s repeated false predictions about the future become too hard to rationalize away. They leave for a myriad of reasons that have nothing to do with what their families do or say. Indeed, their families often don’t have a clue about what is going on. One day their loved one is in; another day he or she is out.
I hope that I live long enough to see my son leave his group, or at least to see my granddaughter renounce the group. But even if I don’t, my hope will outlive my breath. I know that my son is still there, buried underneath the rubble that the cult has convinced him is spiritual superiority. He can be awakened. I have seen it happen to others. So I will not stop hoping.