Why They Stay 2/2

Read part 1

Still image from "So You Want To Be a Cult Leader" student project

Crime and Punishment
Cults very often engage in criminal activity, from the welfare fraud and child marriage of Fundamentalist Mormons to the tax evasion and IRS break-in of Scientology, from the illegally purchased weapons of the Branch Davidians to the rampant child sex abuse of Jehovah’s Witness. Cults break the law. They cover up crimes of abuse and don’t pay taxes.

This means that a cult member may risk, or fear without real risk, legal punishment for crimes they committed on behalf of the cult. Combined with fear and ignorance of outsiders in general, this can lend itself to the Fallacy of Sunk Cost, also called the Gambler’s Fallacy. They’ve already put so much into this community, they can’t cope with it all being for naught.

Psychology of Abuse
A cult is a relationship style, a group dynamic, that is inherently abusive. Leadership abuses members, who in turn abuse each other. Men rule the home in many cults, and they may be encouraged to rule with an iron fist or unquestioned obedience. Parents in cults, no matter how loving, will be encouraged or required to abuse and neglect their children. Every member is an abuse victim, some since long before being recruited, some since birth.

Psychological consequences of abusive and maladaptive coping techniques are common among cult survivors. We have been taught to fear and hate the outside world, but also to fear and hate ourselves. We are masters of self-doubt. We may believe we deserve the abuse, or that it’s not really abuse at all. We may miss our leader when we go.

Cult Retribution
Some cults won’t let members leave. They will kidnap, imprison, or even kill someone before letting them go. Scientology requires members who want to leave to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, then tries to use those testimonies as blackmail.  Jim Jones sent armed men to shoot People’s Temple members who tried to leave Jonestown. When Carolyn Jessop tried to leave an FLDS compound with all seven of her children, the group used the family courts to try to force them back. 

How Outsiders Can Help
To address the practical needs members have, my favored solution of guaranteed minimum income helps, particularly if measures are put in place to prevent someone signing their benefits over to the cult, so that whenever they left they would be eligible for income while they adjusted. To facilitate getting legal documents, state vital statistics offices should have someone trained with helping cult survivors and other child abuse victims to get what they need.

For the oddity and psychological factors, we outsiders can help most by being kind and compassionate. Let them be weird and quirky, and don’t be the bullies they’ve heard we are. Prove their cult leader wrong by being safe and trustworthy; don’t prove them right by mocking an abuse victim who may need your help simply because they talk or dress funny.

I cannot stress enough the power of loving outsiders, of gentleness. Cult members have been told the cult is the only source of love they can have, and it is that desperate human need for love that so often seduces members in the first place. Love won’t make it worse, but it can make it better. Love cult members. Let them know it exists outside their group. Be a compelling reason to leave.

3 thoughts on “Why They Stay 2/2

  1. I understand the feeling that you’re different from everyone and need a special group to belong to. A home of sorts. When I first start going to Christian churches, I believed I’d found my home, mainly because I wanted it to be true. Wanted to believe the idea of the church being God’s sanctuary from “the world” which was bad. If I felt the world was bad before going to church, I felt it even more after I joined….except that after a while I began to feel sympathy for the world. I guess I no longer felt inferior to the world and misfit. I kind of felt the opposite and that caused me sorrow, thinking that all these people, including friends of mine were inferior and bad because they weren’t Christians.

    Another interesting point is that I briefly was a member of the “Local Church”, a church founded by Witness Lee and regarded by some as a cult. They are cult like in that they believe not only that they are a special group in the world, but they are a special group within a special group, so to speak. What was really interesting is that being in the group made me feel superior not only to “the world”, but to other churches and other Christians. And as before, I started to feel sorry for those other Christians I’d spent time with. While I liked the Witness Lee group to start with and felt maybe it could be my “home within a home”, I decided their views were too strange and felt more comfortable in a “normal” church. And from there of course I decided that I was happier being back in “the world” with all it’s diversity and I guess I’ve decided that there is no easy sanctuary from the world though sometimes, when the world is getting me down, I’m still tempted to treat church and religion as a sanctuary.


  2. All the stories about the Phelps clan kids that escaped all involve stories of the kindness of strangers if I recall (or help from fellow escapees)


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