Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 11, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
Aaron and the rest of us moved Ashley out of her parents’ house. This is his perspective.
It’s hard when someone you care about is stuck in an abusive environment. It’s worse when you feel like you could and should be helping them to get out of said abusive environment.
Unfortunately, that’s often not up to you.
Fundamentalist cults use brainwashing techniques to make people think there is no way out. Effectively, they remove their members’ autonomy and consent.
When you’re trying to get someone out of a cult, the temptation is to pressure them into it – after all, they’re stuck there, right? They need your help to get out!
Doing that will only make things worse. You’re emulating the same techniques as the cult, which means your “convincing” is only going to last as long as you’re around. It also destroys trust – how can someone who has been abused using brainwashing and consent-destroying abuse trust someone who uses the same techniques?
And before the cries of “But we’re doing it for their own good!” begin, the cult leaders say the exact same thing. They’re just trying to save the person’s soul, after all.
So what are we to do? It’s the hardest thing – you have to let the person make their own decision.
As people, we tend to think our decisions are just a little bit better than anyone else’s – after all, we don’t let our judgement get clouded, amirite? But for someone to successfully get out of a cult, and stay out, they have to know their support system isn’t just more of the same brainwashing, only from the other side.
We’re talking about informed consent here. So let your friend know you’re there for them. Let them know what options are available. The cult tells them no one outside the cult will help them; you need to show them that’s a lie. The cult tells them they’re all alone outside the cult – show them they’re not.
Notice it’s show them, not tell them. Cults love to change the meanings of words: It’s not abuse, it’s “discipline” because we “love” you. You aren’t a “captive”, we’re holding you here out of “love.” There has to be action with this, and it has to be action that is diametrically opposed to the actions of the cult.
It’s difficult – you’ll be stuck just waiting sometimes, feeling like you can’t do anything for your friend. And yes, sometimes people will choose the cult, and choose the abuse. But if those helping them are taking away their consent, how are we any different than the people currently oppressing them? We have to be different, as different as it is possible to be. Otherwise they’ll be exchanging one oppression for another.
There’s a caveat, though: If there is physical or sexual abuse happening, especially if the person in question is under 18, absolutely call the authorities (Child Protective Services or the police). That may cause them to lose trust in you for a time – but it’s better than them dying from the abuse.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that everything will work out, that everyone chooses to leave abusive and manipulative situations. It’s just not true. Sometimes, the person chooses the cult. And that sucks. But sometimes people shake off the manipulation, the brainwashing, and the abuse. And that is the reward.
Aaron K. Collett blogs at aaronkcollett.wordpress.com. He graduated from UCCS with a bachelor’s in communication in fall 2014, and he was a reporter and opinion editor at the campus newspaper, The Scribe.
Thank you so much for this article. It’s hard to remember to be gentle with people who’ve grown up in a controlling system, but you’ve written some very good advice!