Families Helping Families
ICSA Today, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2018, 10-12
Families Helping Families
Editor’s Note: Names and situational details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
My son’s involvement in a cult of one began with me. Some years ago, I consulted with a gypsy. I was young, I wanted the magic, and more than anything I wanted to know my future.
As Anastasia, the gypsy, tilted her head of thick, salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into a tight bun that failed to fight her unruly curls, I stared into her brown eyes that were fierce and yet kind at the same time. Sitting in the living room of her railroad apartment, looking at all her knickknacks, doing my best to get comfortable on the gold velvet couch that was covered with plastic while her two sons smiled at me with the same brown eyes, I felt excited because I had entered their world. As she popped open a red can of Coca-Cola with her large hands, I noticed her gold rings. There was a photo on her wall of a famous actress who starred in a cult classic in which her attire throughout was her bra and slip. Anastasia’s daughter-in-law came in holding an infant girl with jet-black hair and said, glancing at the photo, “She always gives Mama lots of jewelry because of all Mama does for her.” The baby, with her doe eyes and white skin, would one day become my son’s love.
Anastasia told me I was going to meet a man whose sign was Scorpio and whose name would begin with the letter M. She told me I would love his accent. Indeed, 3 weeks later I met Mark, a Scorpio who came from London. I was hooked, and the story became legend in my home. Our son heard it growing up; looking back at it now, my husband Mark and I now realize just how deeply he was impressed.
I had been tricked. Psychic 101 tells us the most common letters in the English language for a first name are J and M, the most common Zodiac sign is Scorpio, and all American women love a British accent.
A few years later, when Anastasia died, I attended her funeral, and people threw cans of Coca-Cola, dollars, some jewelry, and other things she would like into her casket. I looked for the opal ring I had given to her, the one she had told me was cursed, but it wasn’t on her fingers.
Yes, the little baby with the black hair, doe-like brown eyes, and porcelain skin grew up. And at the age of 18, when my son saw her, he fell in love with her delicate beauty. I had moved on with my life but periodically would attend barbecues and a random gypsy birthday celebration. My son fell into their web, drawn in by the now almost-20-year-old granddaughter of Anastasia. He became their link to the outside world; computer literate and cultured, he became their aide, chauffer, and adopted son. He played guitar for the patrons of the fortune-telling business, collecting jewelry and money they willingly handed over to remove curses.
I began living with the harsh reality that Anastasia’s granddaughter had complete control over my son. He had become entangled in this band of gypsies who all heeded their new matriarch, Anastasia’s daughter-in-law. He had run off, dropped out of college, and cut off all family and friends. Anastasia’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter had skillfully unraveled all that which bound our son to his family. He was lured in. Stolen. Gone. I needed support. The pain was unbearable, and the ache in my heart for what was once there was replaced with a hollow feeling that did not stop.
Parents who have lost a child to cult involvement, and family members who have had their spouses, siblings, or even parents recruited into groups are often isolated, lonely, and in need of the friendship and support of others in similar situations. The problem is finding these friends of circumstance, and once found, creating a safe place to bond, share information, and talk about events in their lives. The Internet—more specifically, Facebook’s world of secret groups, provides a supportive, economical, and most importantly, consistent environment.
Looking for support, I joined a secret, online support group for parents of estranged children. The group was not specific to cult involvement, but the emotions of the members were similar: feelings of loneliness, extreme sadness, frustration exemplified by the common discussions of families being cut off, letters not read, texts not answered, and the empty chair on holidays. Yet I found this group not quite satisfying.
One day, a woman in the group posted about her daughter-in-law, who had taken her son away from her. She ranted angrily about this evil woman and mentioned “that stupid religion of hers, Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Bells rang, a light turned on, and I realized, “I am not alone here after all with a cult problem.” Indeed, there were others, and I could connect. Little did I know that the initial private message I sent her would lead to the formation of friendships and a second online support group, specific to families who have loved ones in cults, that has lasted almost three years now!
The group, still nameless at the time, soon became a haven where resources were shared: books to read, exit counselors to reach out to, and therapists to contact. The never-ending challenge of families dealing with manipulative gurus, narcissists bent on subjugating others for their own needs, was our common denominator. From the large estrangement group, members with cultic issues soon joined and were followed by others from ICSA meetings and conferences, including patients recommended by cult therapists and friends of members.
The name of the group, Dear Demeter, became apparent because it was clearly about family members who would never give up in their quest to find and free their loved ones. We were all like the Greek goddess Demeter whose daughter Persephone had been whisked away by the god of Hades, the Greek underworld. Demeter scoured the earth until she found her daughter and brought her back. In our group, some family members were lost in locations unknown, and all appeared lost in their minds; each family member had someone caring and concerned for them. Dear Demeter became the unique support that I and others had been searching for all these years.
Our Dear Demeter group also is secret; that is, no one can join unless invited. It cannot be found through any kind of online search. It provides a place where we can communicate with the safety and comfort of anonymity.
Our group consists of people who have lost their loved ones to cultic involvement. That is our one commonality; otherwise, we are a very diverse group. We are of all ages and live in different parts of the world, from Europe to the East Coast of the United States including Maine, New York, and Florida. We have members in Illinois, in Colorado, and in California from the San Francisco area down to Orange County. In Canada, we have members in Vancouver and Toronto. Members can share the craziest things loved ones are involved in. In one person’s daughter’s group, all of the members are getting Lasik surgery so that when Armageddon arrives they will be able to see and help the world.
We started Dear Demeter in April of 2015. A month later, we started our video conference calls and since then have rarely missed a week. I elaborate on the weekly conference calls because they are our lifeline. We use Zoom video conference calling because at this time it works efficiently. We love the muting feature, especially when dogs start barking or someone’s spouse starts practicing his horn. We have guest speakers, and with their permission we are able to record the calls so members who were absent can listen. These guest speakers range from former members to parents of former members, cult therapists, private investigators, and ICSA leadership. Our loved ones are involved in religious and political groups, groups led by online podcasters, and one-on-one relationships. They are involved with psychics and healers, an equestrian group, a controlling spouse, a satanic Mormon cult, and a vegan group. Some of our loved ones like to “cult hop.”
The Facebook page offers participants the flexibility of checking social media or joining the video conference calls. Friendships have formed; we drive and fly to meet one another.
Each weekly meeting is moderated by a different member of the group. The moderator runs the call, making sure no one person speaks for too long. Human nature being what it is, there is often a tendency to digress, so the moderator also ensures that comments are pertinent to the subject being discussed. The calls are held during the week; but for those who work, we are starting a monthly weekend call. If need be, we will increase that to more than once a month. We are fluid and go with changes.
We share resources such as films and broadcast programs to watch, webinars to attend, magazine articles and books to read, cultic websites to look out for, and sites created to combat cults. We have a list of therapists, exit counselors, national and international private investigators, attorneys, and treatment facilities for after-cult involvement. All of this information is found in files that can easily be accessed on our page.
We have had discussions about positivity. We use empowering words such as accepting, mindful, loving, nonjudgmental, and energized. For example, we deliberately have used the phrase “I am remembering” instead of “I am missing” when we get pangs and start thinking about our kids and disrupted families. The words I am missing are triggering and disempowering for us. We discuss loneliness, shame, chaos, guilt, and helplessness and try to reframe our thinking. Naturally, this is not easy, and we are growing together from the challenge.
ICSA conferences are full of information, therapists are helpful, and exit counselors are brave and encouraging. However, there is an awful lot of time in between. We all needed more, and our group has become the “more.” We are sharing how we work through this article, to encourage others to form their own groups of support. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
Our stories are what bring us together. Here are a few of them:
Bertha married a sweet man who was in a small, independent, Bible-based group. He left it for a while then later rejoined. Bertha was worried because there had been reports of sexual misconduct in the group, but when she tried to discuss the reports, her husband refused to consider them. He said the leader was so enlightened that jealous former members were just trying to bring him and their movement down.
Bertha says members of the group check up on her husband every day to make sure he is praying and following the group’s moral code. They believe that is the only way for them to be happy, that if they pray hard enough they will get whatever they pray for. Prayers need to be aloud at certain hours of each day; Bertha’s husband will even go outdoors so he can pray aloud without disturbing people in neighboring apartments.
Bertha’s husband has had health problems, which led to early retirement, resulting in financial strain on the family. He has talked about going back to work but spends more time praying than looking for a job.
Bertha says of our group,
I appreciate the care and support from Dear Demeter and having a place to go to with people who understand. I was naive when I married. My heart remains broken, but I am no longer wishing for my husband to change. Only I can change and take the steps that I need to move forward in my life. I am ready to be happy and stop spending my life waiting for things to get better for my family and me.
Karen says the best thing that ever happened to her was “my daughter Kelly. She had so much self-confidence, was smart, athletic, and kind.” Karen trusted Kelley’s judgment, since she had seen Kelly make the right choices so many times. Then, when the family had to move to a different city with a poor school system, Karen began to homeschool her daughter, and Kelly seemed a little lost and unhappy.
Kelly joined a group on the Internet, and her character began to change. She became secretive, and after about a year, started making incredible accusations of abuse and neglect against her parents.
When she was about to enter high school, Kelly left home to join a community abroad run by the group. She emailed her parents saying she would have nothing to do with them ever again. America’s laws made going after her impossible. Karen cried every day and wondered if life was worth living if her beloved daughter thought such horrible things. That’s when Karen started learning about cults. The experts and other mothers who were going through the same horrible thing she was going through became her lifeline.
Karen urges others to do their research if they seek professional help. One person she consulted was not trained or educated about cults, and he actually said he wished he had had this cult at his age so he could have dumped his parents!
Then, one day, 2 years after she last talked to Kelly, Karen learned that her daughter had left the group. The trauma of the cult experience had left her severely depressed, and she was having trouble functioning but didn’t think her parents would ever talk to her again.
Now that our daughter is home, slowly things are getting better. It has not been easy. She badly needs education about what has happened to her. At least she is home for the moment and I know she is alive.
I would like to suggest to a loved one of a cult member the importance of experts, former members, and seeking the support of others who are suffering as you are. At least for me, I know I couldn’t have made it through without them.
Ginny believes that she fell victim to a couple running a ranch with horseback-riding lessons. Her son started riding lessons at a young age at their school. Ginny and her husband noticed that their son’s behavior was changing and that the owners were demanding he stay at the ranch often. Ginny and her husband confronted the couple often and came to believe that they were lied to about what was actually happening.
Their son was tired and his grades dropped. Once he turned 18, without any warning he went to live with the couple. He became involved in running the ranch for very little pay and spent his life savings on supporting himself and on riding lessons. He wrote letters to his family about the hard life he had led at home, which was completely fabricated.
Desperate, the parents went to two therapists who were helpful but didn't have training in the psychological influence and control tactics associated with cultic dynamics. The interventions they attempted backfired, causing their son to be even more angry and estranged. They hired a private investigator and discovered that there were other young people who had left the ranch and had similar stories. According to these other young people, the ranch’s owners would even manipulate their students to get into fights with their parents and record the fights. Then the couple would listen to the recordings and coach the students on how to manipulate their parents even more. Ginny and her husband became depressed and isolated. When she hadn't talked to her son for close to a year, she came across ICSA and asked if they knew of any group specifically for parents and was led to Dear Demeter.
Dear Demeter was able to recommend a therapist trained in the dynamics of high-demand, high-control groups, and Ginny is now seeing her son every 2 weeks for a visit. It's a long haul, and the journey isn't even close to over; but there is no way, as she expresses, “I could have gotten this far without the support and advice from my friends in Dear Demeter.”
Sarah was Dawn’s firstborn and “the love of my husband’s and my life.” As she grew older, she had difficulty making and maintaining relationships but seemed to find acceptance at her church. After graduating from college, she had difficulty finding work and so could not move out of her family home. Though she sought counseling and was prescribed medication for anxiety, she was unable to overcome her fear of social relationships.
Sarah joined a religious group in a large city near her home and soon
moved out of our home to live closer to the church. We had no idea what a cult was, but when she told us she was being baptized into the group and would be changing her name, and didn’t want us to attend the ceremony, the red flags started to fly. Communication started to wane. We received stiffly worded letters attacking our parenting skills and blaming us for all her difficulties in life.
It has been years since Dawn and her husband have seen their daughter. She says,
Our self-run support group, Dear Demeter, has been a blessing because it is a forum for me to talk and share my feelings with others in the same situation, share professional resources, and gather insights. The blessing in disguise is that I have made some friendships that will be lifelong ones.