My parents are in a cult. What should I do?
January 7, 2017 10:48 PM   Subscribe

My parents are deeply involved in a cult-like religious group that I believe to be exploitative in nature. It seems to be getting worse. What sort of actions can and should I take?

Currently they're both retired and volunteering for this religious group full-time. They believe in very literal terms that this man is a buddha reincarnate, and that he is pretty much omniscient and has holy powers. I'm worried about the amount of time they're devoting, and that the rigidly hierarchical nature of the organization is potentially endangering for them.

It's hard - this seems to be a genuine community for them, and they find purpose and meaning through the work that they're doing there. But I'm concerned for several reasons:

- Lately they've been entrusting more and more of their health in pseudoscientific alternative medicine; it seems like a lot of advice and testimonial is coming from other members of the group. Most recently they have been buying this by the case, and refusing to seek conventional treatments for some pretty serious medical issues. They claim that they have evidence that these alternative treatments work, having observed them working for other group members.

- They have skills and assets that are known and valuable to this organization - they're both very well educated and have significant financial means. This, coupled with the fundamentally imbalanced power dynamics within the organization, have me worried that they will be further exploited. They've already purchased artwork for tens of thousands of dollars, which I'm OK writing off as a frivolous purchase I don't agree with. But I'm wondering how worried I should be about something more catastrophic or severe.

- I think they're neglecting other aspects of their life, and some of their responsibilities. At this point this is pretty much their life, and they've abandoned their other social circles. They're still responsible for raising two of my younger siblings, one who is in high school and the other who is in preschool. I'm worried that they're not getting the support and attention that they need.

I and others in my family have confronted them many times in the past, and the responses have always been very defensive or non-communicative. When they first started getting involved I tried to keep an open mind and support them, but I don't feel comfortable doing that any more. I've never tried to convince them out of their religious beliefs - I don't think it would be a productive or even a realistic goal. I have confronted them about the validity of their medical beliefs, since it distresses me deeply - a couple of months ago I confronted them very directly about their health and left the conversation in tears. At this point I think they are shutting out other friends and family members and I'm worried that they are communicating less with us about their activities and health for fear of judgment and criticism.

- What's a realistic goal to have in terms of changing my parents' behavior?
- How worried should I be about something catastrophic happening?
- Should I try to take action against this organization? e.g. reach out to publications or lawmakers in the area to try and raise the visibility of the issue?
- Are there groups or resources for relatives of cult members out there? Or literature that might be helpful?
- In general would you have any advice for this situation? I feel pretty helpless.

Thanks! (and hello at last from a longtime reader)
posted by contrapuntal to Human Relations (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Should I try to take action against this organization? e.g. reach out to publications or lawmakers in the area to try and raise the visibility of the issue?

This doesn’t seem like a bad idea at all, given that the organization seems to have used obscurity to get itself a veneer of authority (awards, etc.) from state actors. Doing so could at a minimum help your officials from falling into that trap.

I am no expert on getting people to leave cults - however, I can say that in doing a lit search you might also want to look for “new religious movements”, since it’s less of a “judgmental” term while also quite adequately describing Jim Jones’s church, Aum Shinrikyo, and the group your parents have joined. That should hopefully connect you to more academic writing on the topic.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:47 PM on January 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Lots of wiser people will be along soon, but I wondered if you had come across cultwatch?
posted by Augenblick at 11:49 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do you have a relationship with your younger siblings? It seems like it would help if you were in touch with at least the high-schooler without your parents as an intermediary. If you live near enough, I would definitely try and visit regularly - it might backfire to actively criticize your parents to them, but if you try and make sure they trust you then they might come to you if they get worried.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:21 AM on January 8, 2017 [9 favorites]

In case anyone was wondering about what exactly that health supplement is, it is salt and water that costs $75 for 64 ounces.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:46 AM on January 8, 2017 [11 favorites]

Some advice here.
(Thanks @Augenblick)
posted by lungtaworld at 5:12 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

The medical stuff sounds pretty worrying, though not necessarily any worse than Christian Scientists. Are your parents continuing to provide proper medical care for your two younger siblings?

For an independent evaluation of how dangerous this cult is (compared to, say, mainline Christian churches), consider working through the Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:04 AM on January 8, 2017

Plenty of wise people are going to have very good advice on the cult aspect of this, but from a childcare perspective: you can and should consider putting aside small amounts of money into a separate savings account should you be forced to take custody of and raise your significantly younger sibling. Talk to your older sibling who is on the cusp of adulthood and let him or her know that they can stay with you if they need a break, no judgement.

Get an hour with a child welfare lawyer to make sure you understand your options, for peace of mind, should you be in a position to need to fight for custody of your siblings. You will sleep better at night.
posted by juniperesque at 9:34 AM on January 8, 2017 [7 favorites]

Getting people out of cults is so hard, it often seems to work like addiction, in that they have to come to the point where they want to stop it themselves. One recommendation: read as many books and memoirs as you can by and about people that have escaped cults. One theme I've noticed is that direct confrontation often makes the cult member pull in the opposite direction, just get angry, shut down. But a lot of cults operate by trying to heavily restrict outside information. It you can just keep putting the information out there, giving them access to it (like, on a quick scan of the article, this guy being wanted in China) along with any other factual information that disproves his claims, eventually the inconsistencies start to add up and get through to people. But often this takes years, and for circumstances to be pretty bad.

Another thought is, have your parents always been religious? Are they buddhists, were they before? Maybe a legitimate religious authority could help get through to them. Or maybe you might be able to somehow get them (trick them) to read/watch material about other cults, and they might make some connections... There are a number of groups and resources out there for families of cult members, I can't specifically recommend any, but do want to say some cults (Scientology) actually run fake anti-cult sites to recruit members and promote disinformation. And on a quick google, some of the first sites that come up very quickly start trying to sell things. So be sure to vet any sources.
posted by catatethebird at 1:47 PM on January 8, 2017

At this point this is pretty much their life, and they've abandoned their other social circles.

If it were me, this is where I'd start: not trying to do any cult related pushback, but just trying to get your parents even occasionally involved in basically anything else. If you or a friend or family member can do this alternative activity with them, all the better. But if the cult's the only thing that feels like it fulfills their sense of purpose in life, they're going to need something to fill that void if they ever leave.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:10 PM on January 8, 2017

Do they have to SELL that ASEA shit as part of their contribution to the "community"?
posted by tristeza at 8:24 PM on January 8, 2017

I wonder, do you have a family lawyer? The kind that takes care of everyone's wills? IF so, maybe you'd want to give them a call and express some of your concerns. It's possible one of the steps to come is that the cult will expect them to change the beneficiaries of their will, or other investments such as retirement accounts or real estate, so their assets go to the cult. A heads-up might be smart, assuming you know who they consult.
posted by Miko at 8:59 PM on January 8, 2017

The ASEA is an obvious pyramid scheme. Who's selling it to them?
posted by xammerboy at 10:54 AM on January 9, 2017

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