Cults: Why Don’t They Just Leave?

Journalist Kelly McCarty wrote an article for GMA discussing India Oxenberg’s journey into and out of NXIVM.

India, the daughter of Hollywood actress Catherine Oxenberg, joined what she thought was a self-help group at the age of 19.

As her time with the group went on, Allison Mack introduced Oxenberg to a secret society within the organization. India was forced to provide “collateral” to ensure her silence and compliance in the form of nude photographs. In this way the young woman’s freedom to choose was taken from her and replaced with fear of emotional blackmail.

“So I did not have the option to say no. Saying no meant hurting my family or hurting my friends. And I wasn’t gonna do that.”

India Oxenberg remained in NXIVM for seven long years being raped and sexually abused without realizing what was being done to her.

Catherine fought to try and reason with her daughter and free her from the group with no success. India was in too deep, was too indoctrinated and manipulated to hear her mother’s pleas.

Never Ins ask the universal question; “why would anyone fall for the insanity of a cult?”

The short answer to this is that the process of psychological, emotional and physical abuse through manipulation, coercion and denial of free will is so slow and subtle one never sees it happening. At some point along the way, one is trapped with no idea that it happened. By this time neither do they realize that they’ve lost the ability for independent, objective thought.

This process leads to the next logical question; “why don’t people just leave?”

Because they don’t believe they need to.

“Getting somebody out of a cult is very different than a drug intervention, for instance, because their critical thinking has been taken away,” Catherine Oxenberg told GMA. “And so the process of working with a cult defector is to reawaken and reignite their critical thinking.”

How does one go about reawakening someone’s critical thinking when the person has no idea their ability to clearly reason is compromised?

As India says, “you can’t force somebody to see the truth. They have to want it.”

How does anyone begin the process of freeing a loved one from a cult when their mind has been so thoroughly manipulated? Anyone attempting to reason with a Scientologist on social media for example is met with hostile resistance and an almost immediate block. It doesn’t matter how reasonable the argument may seem, if the cult member refuses to listen, what can one do?

Chris Shelton, proprietor of the Critical Thinking website and YouTube channel and author of the excellent book Scientology: A to Xenu offered some thoughts on how to approach such a difficult challenge.

“You have to go slow and find opportunities to gently point up inconsistencies or illogic, but mostly to just be there for the person as a real human being versus the fake humanity/compassion that cults offer.”

Scientology and other cults work from the beginning to isolate their members from the outside world. An “us verses them” mentality is taught with the idea that the cult is superior and “up against” the evil public. Working through the ingrained belief that the group is the real family, showing the member the reality of the world beyond the walls is a huge first step.

Just as in India Oxenberg’s case, she believed she was in a supportive, self help environment surrounded by people who cared about her. The beginnings of a cult experience are full of family feeling, support and love bombing. Eventually however the cracks in the gilt begin to show. Shelton describes the inevitable first doubt stage; “eventually the leader or someone in the group (if it’s a larger one) will shower down some kind of trouble or form of emotional/psychological or even physical abuse and the member will have a negative reaction. From that point forward, it’s a game of keeping the cult member appeased or somehow to rationalize the abuse so the member accepts and even agrees with what is happening. However, eventually the cult pushes the person too far in some way, or does something that cannot be excused or forgiven and that is when the real doubts enter in, or the person is able to even make a break right then because the offense was too much for them on a moral or psychological level.”

Even though a member may break and run, the real work is only just beginning at this stage.

Catherine Oxenberg was advised by a deprogrammer to handle India gently using a specific way of questioning designed to help her daughter begin to think clearly once again. Chris Shelton also stresses the need for a gentle approach, “It requires endless amounts of patience and caring and love, which is why family and friends find it so taxing.”

The key to helping someone shake off the mental fog from living in a cult is patience and a consistent soft approach.

Like so many former cult members, India carries with her the emotional and spiritual scars left by the violation of her mind and soul. She offers hope to others however in her message that there can be healing after the escape.

It just takes time and patience.

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