Why They Stay 1/2

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Still image from a student video project on the mechanisms of cults

I’ve written a lot over the past month about individuals who join cults and why they do. They’re lonely, addicted, and unloved, mourning a death or adjusting to a major life change. They need human kindness. Or, like me, they were born into a cult their parents joined. Today I want to discuss the reasons people stay in cults, and the ways we can do to make leaving easier for them.

Practical Lack
This is a category of barriers to leaving a cult. They are largely outcomes intended by cult leadership specifically to keep members. Children born into cults may not have birth certificates, social security numbers, or any record of public school education. They may not have basic reading skills. As minors, they may not be aware of their rights, or may not be able to access them.

Members who are recruited as adults may have given their homes or cars to the group, or they may work endless hours for the church without fair compensation. They may have surrendered their license or ID, credit cards and checkbook to leadership. Leaving a cult with financial stability is the exception.

Lack of Opportunity
In particularly high control cults where members live communally, members may never have privacy or opportunity to flee. The compound might be physically isolated or armed guards might patrol the exits. It may not be physically possible to make their escape.

Challenges With Outsiders
After years in a cult, many members adopt group oddities. They over share, stand too close, wear last century’s fashions, and use cult speak outsiders don’t comprehend. Some of this is the natural outcome of living in a closed social system, interacting only with the same few people, but it is often intended to make cult members stand out and have a harder time fitting in. And of course, many members were already socially unpopular outsiders before the cult.

In addition, cults teach members to fear the outside world as monstrous and deadly. Asking villainous strangers you fear to save you from your closest friends and family is nearly impossible to do. It’s like turning the bogeyman to protect you from your parents; it might actually be safer but it doesn’t feel that way.

Attachment To Insiders
Once someone has come to recognize their community as unhealthy and destructive, they may not want to leave loved ones behind. Many, many adults leaving cults have been forced to divorce a spouse they deeply loved to do so. Leaving together is less possible in certain cults. In Scientology for example, couples are encouraged to report each other for “suppressive thoughts” so discussing doubts or plans to leave is incredibly risky.

Parents trying to raise their children in cults are at greater risk of kidnapping by a non relative than other parents. Children may be kept in separate housing from their parents, or be married off to another cult member at a young age. There may be an abundance of children a hesitant cult member feels unable to raise on their own. Leadership may threaten parents with kidnapping or eternal damnation.

(Continue to part 2)

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