How to get a friend out of a cult
January 31, 2007 8:07 AM   Subscribe

I have a friend who has gotten involved in Avatar, and I want to disengage her from it. She first got involved about 9 months ago; at the time, I knew nothing about Avatar but was instantly suspicious. The more I've learned, the less I like it.

She's taken at least three of their courses—these courses are, naturally, very expensive, and she doesn't have a lot of money to throw around. She's actually put what had been her primary source of income on the back-burner and begun teaching these Avatar classes, if I understand correctly.

I don't have direct contact with the rest of her social circle, though I could probably find ways to reach them. Her friendship is important to me, so I don't want to just give up on her. I'm not sure how to broach this with her in a way that will express the gravity of my misgivings without alienating her, or (more importantly) pry her loose. I'm pretty sure she intuits my misgivings, so she'll tell me "I'll be out of town for an Avatar course," but will say very little more than that about it to me.
posted by adamrice to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly? If she don't wanna leave, no amount of logical explanations on your part are going to pry her loose. Just looking at it, it seems like a self help MLM scheme... and from my previous experience with MLM believers in the past, nothing you can do will make them believe that what they're doing is silly. The best thing you can do is try to stick around until it all falls apart, and not lend them any money for it.
posted by antifuse at 8:29 AM on January 31, 2007

Be careful; cults teach a strong feeling of xenophobia, especially against critics.

All I can suggest is to find former avatar devotees online and find out some inside information about their mindset at the time and any verbal pitfalls you might fall into when confronting her about it.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 8:36 AM on January 31, 2007

"I'll be out of town for an Avatar course," but will say very little more than that about it to me.

Based on the wiki link you gave, she may feel she's not allowed to say anymore. Sounds like Avatar take their IP pretty seriously. Not surprising since they seem to be some sort of Church of Scientology splinter group.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:37 AM on January 31, 2007

Virulent memes like this can rarely be rationalized away. Your friend is going to have to want to leave the program.

I've had friends get involved in things like this, and I know how heartbreaking it can be to watch a friend become entirely submerged in a cult, but really, there's very little you can do.
posted by bshort at 8:44 AM on January 31, 2007

I had a friend who was involved with Landmark Forums, which sounds similar to Avatar. He explained to me that after the first weekend, he had payed the (rather exhorbitant) sum for the second weekend. However, he was persuaded by another of his friends who had left Landmark after a number of years to ask for his deposit back.

I'm being careful not to slander Landmark Forums or Avatar. My point is that if she has any friends who used Avatar but are now "clean", this is the time for them to speak up about their experiences. She can look at you as "an outsider" who doesn't know anything and is full of distrust and cynicism, but it's hard to discount the advice of people who are "insiders".
posted by muddgirl at 9:07 AM on January 31, 2007

I have a similar problem with a friend and Landmark. Thing is, if they want to stay in, then stay in they will. These organizations have so many pre-fab answers to all the questions friends and families of adherents throw out there. If you confront your friend, you will notice that she already has responses for you. They have come from Avatar, she has been briefed. One thing you can do is find damning articles and blogs online and send them saying, "Hey, have you seen this? I'm a little worried..." Whatever you do, don't go to her events or celebrate them or the milestones in anyway. These people are like addicts. Do NOT enable them. But do understand that until they want to be done, they're in. For a long, long while. Good luck.
posted by sneakin at 9:07 AM on January 31, 2007

Remind her that all religions have some positive things to teach and she should "diversify" while on this path of enlightenment.
posted by wfc123 at 9:08 AM on January 31, 2007

There are some sites critical of Avatar linked from that Wikipedia page, which you've probably explored, but here's another.
posted by staggernation at 9:44 AM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Is she having trouble meeting her other financial obligations in order to pay for these courses? Is the participation in the group affecting her life in a negative way? Is she missing work or school because of the Avatar courses?
posted by Dave Faris at 11:03 AM on January 31, 2007

I have the same questions as Dave Faris. If this is just a question of how she spends her time and money, I don't see the big impetus to deprogram her. If this is a question of what she believes, again, what is your motivation to change it?

In any case, I think what I'm suggesting is that you better understand what it all means to her whether you then proceed to try to get her out of it or not. It's one thing to dismiss the group out of hand as a cult, MLM, scientology faction, etc.

It's not so simple a matter to brush aside whatever she's getting out of it. I'd seriously suggest you spend some time finding that out if you want your point of view on things to be at all credible to her.

She may not be able to say much because of IP concerns, but it does sound like she is respecting your beliefs by keeping you out of it. She could certainly be recruiting you, at least.
posted by scarabic at 11:14 AM on January 31, 2007

My ex-girlfriend did Landmark. I freaked on her and showed her all these websites that criticized Landmark (which did absolutely no-good), but I finally relented. I even did an intro course with her to undermine her allegations that "if you had never been to a meeting, how do you know how bad it is". It was an excruciating evening.

I'm all for personal growth but what really got under my skin is the aggressive, aggressive marketing, especially while you're in an altered state of consciousness after spending 3 days in a controlled environment. In a much more productive conversation, I voiced my concerns and I asked her to be on the lookout for the marketing ploys -- I don't know about Avalon, but Landmark *is* a corporation -- and to especially pay attention to how they treat her if she wants to scale back her involvement.

I don't know if that conversation ended up helping at all, but I let the whole thing go, and after about a month or two, she stopped being involved.

That said, some people value the community they get from massive support groups like that, and never want to leave. I think sneakin is absolutely right about addiction; most of the people I know involved in Landmark have addictive personalities or have suffered from some personal trauma. Like AA, Landmark gives you an instant community and support.

But you don't have to pay for AA.
posted by dentata at 11:19 AM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, I am so sorry to hear this. I deal with new religious movements every day and there are good ones and bad ones. The good ones just ask that you pick up litter on Sundays (Karmacists) and there are others who need your money and your life to move further (ugh...too many to name without a lawyer present).

You really need to be patient, let your friend know you care for them deeply and be willing to share with them everything that is going on.

People join into new faiths because of two scenarios: 1. They have lost a family member or close friend; 2. They have enough money to 'take a look around'.

Consider what the cause of your friend's sudden conversion is then learn about how that change has affected them personally. Be willing to help without showing alarm. You need to show your friend that you are OK with their being part of a new religious movement but that if they have anything they want to share, they are free to do so.

If you are religious, which I am guessing that you are, then you might offer to attend their practice if they are willing to attend to yours. You can make a day out of each, and learn the power of interfaith dialogue. If you are willing to enter an environment you see as hostile and say "I agree with..." and "I don't agree with..." and "I want to know about..." then you are showing your friend that you are really for them and them alone. And that's the best thing a friend can be.
posted by parmanparman at 11:47 AM on January 31, 2007

Response by poster: Dave Faris: did you read my question?
"Is she having trouble meeting her other financial obligations" Her living situation was very straitened even before this, sometimes barely having enough money to put food on the table, even despite an extremely frugal lifestyle that most of us would consider one step away from homelessness (as far as I know, she has never hit up anyone for money though). Paying thousands to attend these classes couldn't help.

"Is the participation in the group affecting her life in a negative way?" I consider being a dupe of a cult to be negative, so I'm going to say Yes.

"Is she missing work or school because of the Avatar courses?" As I mentioned in the OP, she's put what had been her main source of income on the back burner.

parmanparman: I am anything but religious—borderline anti-religious. There's been no event in my friend's life that I know of that would have prompted her to get into this, and in fact, it seems out of character. She previously got into (and as far as I know is still involved in) another "alternative" religion, but nothing cultish, and that didn't bother me.
posted by adamrice at 12:53 PM on January 31, 2007

Well, look. I personally think that managing my own life is complicated enough. I don't presume I can manage someone else's.

If they are happy doing what they're doing; if what they're doing isn't physically harming them; if they can pay their way without resorting to begging or stealing, then who am I to judge it?

I completely understand your pain in watching her do what you have decided is a destructive behavior, and that you have decided you cannot continue. You've been told several times here that changing the behavior of someone who doesn't want to be changed is pretty much impossible.

I have experienced the pain and destruction resulting from one person inflicting their will on another person who did not want to be changed. The circumstances were different, but I suspect the result will be the same. That is, regret. Regret that they naively believed that their way was better than their victim's own judgment, and that the relationship was destroyed beyond repair. And in the end, the victim continued to do what they wanted to do, and they simply shut out the concerned soul who tried inflicting their will on them.

But you're obviously beyond the point of being rational about it. Good luck. I hope it ends better for you.
posted by Dave Faris at 1:32 PM on January 31, 2007

Personal anecdote:

I had a couple of friends get involved in Landmark. They were close friends and listening to their crazy psychobabble drove me nuts. I finally told them simply not to talk about it to me again. They have stopped using the psychobabble and have stopped mentioning meetings for at least a year, so I assume they are no longer participating.

One went on to get deeply involved in nutrition, exploring fasting and then taking an Integrative Nutrition course in New York.

The other went back to her old life, bartending and continuing her slow but steady path to graduating from college.


I think this is just a way to make her feel fulfilled and appreciated. If you find a substitute that will not drain her pockets, it may help her to move on. Getting involved in community service groups is a good start - maybe you can find one that she might be interested in and ask if she'll join with you. Free way to make her feel like she's got some purpose in her life other than Avatar. For the "finding greater meaning in life", maybe there's someone in the social circle who's in a book club, and can invite her to go to meetings to discuss themes from the books, or she can go to a yoga class or meditation with someone. If these options are cheap and she gets praise from a group for doing them, as well as an opportunity to explore who she is as a person and discuss things of meaning, she may eventually decide that these are enough and she doesn't need to pay for Avatar anymore.
posted by lorrer at 1:32 PM on January 31, 2007

On reflection, I've decided I was unfair to say that you are beyond the point of being rational. I don't really know that, and so for that, I apologize and retract the accusation.
posted by Dave Faris at 2:26 PM on January 31, 2007

While I can certainly sympathize with you for having a friend pursue a group that will possibly take advantage of her, it really isn't your job to "fix" her--even if it's having a bad affect on her finances. Lord knows I've had friends who made decisions that had painful consequences, but that's how they learned and grew.

I know you want to help her avoid a mistake that you see coming, but in the end the only way she'll learn to avoid that mistake for herself is by having to deal with the consequences of her decisions. In the meantime, if you can't watch her do this to herself then either set boundaries where you don't want to share in that part of her life or make yourself less available while she's pursuing this. That's pretty much all you can reasonably do.
posted by Kimberly at 3:48 PM on January 31, 2007

I consider being a dupe of a cult to be negative, so I'm going to say Yes.

That's negative to YOU, not negative to HER. Is she happier since having joined? Is she getting out more? Financially, if she's teaching the courses now (as you think), do you know for a fact that it's actually making her less money than she was making at her "real" job? Is she going into debt to take the courses? These are the things that would be *actual* negative effects on her life... "Being a dupe of a cult" isn't actually a negative effect on her life, though.
posted by antifuse at 3:32 AM on February 1, 2007

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