I LOST MY SON TO A ONE-ON-ONE CULTIC RELATIONSHIP.
It was September 1999 when I lost my only son. A mother’s worst nightmare, they say. But my son didn’t die, and I didn’t lose him to drugs or a mental illness. So why does a loving, caring, family-oriented young man suddenly shun his entire family and cut ties with all his friends?
I am a registered psychologist with a doctorate, but my qualifications and counselling experience haven’t helped me at all as I’ve tried to understand my senseless loss. Ten years later, my grief is still unresolved, and most days my husband watches helplessly as I cry for my son and three precious grandchildren, who I’ve never been allowed to see. This is what happened.
His new girlfriend seemed so nice
It was his 23rd birthday and we invited his new girlfriend to join us at his favourite restaurant. I was drawn to her immediately; captivated by our similarities. She had a degree in psychology and we shared the same birthday. She said she loved photographing flowers, as I did. And her favourite colour was also green! I was pleased that he had found a nice girlfriend; yet he still seemed vulnerable following the recent breakup of a three year relationship.
Secrecy and deception
Two months later, we discovered that they had secretly booked a wedding venue. We were stunned as a few weeks earlier he said that she “wasn’t the girl” for him and he planned to break up with her. He also told me he was attracted to another girl. Confused, and concerned with the secrecy, we pleaded with him to wait a while longer before marrying. Eventually, he agreed and said they had cancelled the venue. But we learned that this was a lie.
It was so out-of-character for my son to be secretive and deceitful.
Uncharacteristic personality and behaviour changes
Then we began to notice other changes in his personality and behaviour. He became judgmental, his thinking was black-and-white and his great sense of humour was almost non-existent. My bright, warm, loving son was also becoming distant from us. He and his girlfriend were spending hours in his bedroom having what they called “bible studies”.
She began to cite selective, out-of-context quotes from the bible such as 1 Corinthians 7:9 “… it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” She also said that when they were married I’d never be able to see my son without her being present and if I had anything to tell him, I also had to tell her. “We will be one flesh,” she said. My son echoed her words.
His physical appearance also changed and his eyes seemed expressionless. Within weeks my beloved son had become a stranger with no care or compassion for those he once loved.
Withdrawal, then cut-off, from family and friends
They became engaged and he abruptly left home. Grief-stricken, I knew that I was rapidly losing my son. He seemed to be withdrawing more and more and some of his behaviour was disturbingly uncharacteristic, even quite bizarre. He refused to come to our house and if we went to his, he would slam the door in our faces alleging we were “invading their privacy.” He stopped answering his phone and if we saw him in the street, he would run away.
They were still attending the church where my son had been an active member for many years. So we approached a young minister for help. He tried to arrange mediation, but they refused to mediate. Soon, several members of the ministry team began noticing startling changes in my son’s attitude and behaviour. Then, to everyone’s surprise, they abruptly cut all ties with the church, claiming the ministers were not supportive of his girlfriend. They even cut off the minister who was to marry them! Everyone was baffled.
They began attending a small, fundamentalist, community church.
We weren’t invited to their wedding because we couldn’t say the words “we rejoiced in the union.” It was apparent that endeavouring to mend our relationship was not good enough! When the big day came, my daughter, husband, a friend and I went to the church and sat up the back like uninvited spectators. Everyone ignored us.
Following the wedding my son cut contact with everyone else from his past including his best man and groomsman (his friend since kindergarten).
A new identity
It seemed like my son had died but I didn’t know how. I was experiencing a death without a funeral. In hindsight, I realise that when this girl entered his life her agenda was to change him, to mould a new identity, to take him from us. And she has; he has walked out on the first 23 years of his life.
Within months he had become totally estranged from his immediate and extended family, his church and ministers, university colleagues, and all of his friends. He started to talk and behave like she did. In fact, he began to say and do things that he formerly loathed. He even looked different. Every facet of his life had changed: his clothes, his hairstyle, his likes and dislikes. He was unable to think and act independently. It seemed that this girl obsessively controlled his whole life. She had robbed my son of his very being and he hadn’t even noticed. In fact, he had willingly gone along thinking it was all his idea!
So how can a person’s personality, behaviour and belief system change so radically and rapidly? Some people say that he must be weak. But we know he was just caught at a vulnerable time in his life.
Is my son in a one-on-one cultic relationship?
A friend, who had known my son for many years, thought he was behaving as if he was in a cult. In my ignorance, I had always thought of cults as large groups with charismatic leaders and members who were prepared to mass suicide – like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate. I knew he wasn’t involved in such a group but my friend’s comment set us off on a journey into an unknown world. We quickly contacted cult “experts” in Australia and overseas. We read books and started to gain knowledge. In time we even joined a cult support group - CIFS.
Responding to my plea for help, American cult expert, Carol Giambalvo commenced her e-mail: “The situation with your son sounds very dire – my heart goes out to you.” She then suggested that he may be in a one-on-one cultic relationship, which Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias describe in their book Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships as “a deliberately manipulative and exploitative intimate relationship between two persons, often involving deception.” (p73)
In his book Releasing the Bonds, cult expert Steven Hassan states that one-on-one cultic relationships follow the same destructive mind control techniques as larger cults. And what is particularly mystifying is that a person under mind control can spend time away from the controller, even work a nine-to-five job, and yet still be unable to think and act independently.
It was unimaginable to think that this could have happened to my son. But after months of delving into this complex area and talking to several other cult experts we began to suspect that he is probably in a one-on-one cultic relationship. The deception, lies and distortion of his past; the secrecy and isolation; the changes in his appearance; the shunning of family and friends; his refusal to answer letters or phone calls; his need to report to her for instruction are all key factors of cultic involvement.
How did she take over my son’s mind?
By using guilt, fear, humiliation, reward and punishment or whatever, could this girl have psychologically manipulated my son to believe that his past was bad for him and his present good for him? While isolating him, enforcing secrecy, and using deception and mind control techniques, had she gained control of my son’s identity? As bizarre as it sounds, it seemed that she had taken over my son’s mind.
I felt utterly bewildered.
That was until my husband and I joined CIFS and met other parents who had lost sons and daughters to large cults, family cults and one-on-one cultic relationships. We found that no matter what the size of the cult, the parent’s experiences were strikingly similar. In fact, the experiences of other mothers I’ve met with adult children in cultic relationships have been so similar to mine that one would think we were all following the same script! However, this type of relationship is not widely understood and acknowledged.
Adherence to new belief system
Over time I have preferred to believe that my son is in an abusive relationship in which the same manipulative and controlling techniques as those used by cults have been employed to dominate him in order to elicit obedience and dependency. I also believe that he adheres to “an enforced new belief system” to justify his cruel behaviour and actions.
He has told me that I am no longer his mother and he doesn’t love me. He has never allowed me to see, or have any contact with, my three grandchildren. Instead, he and his wife have used their children as “weapons” to punish us for not obeying their demands. Like many parents dealing with an adult child in a cult, I have had to fight a vexatious Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) taken out against me to prevent me from having any contact with my grandchildren.
It is of particular concern that the church they are presently attending, which purports to be “mainstream”, is supporting and promoting the splitting of our family and we have been shunned by people in authority at this church and its school.
Although I have no idea what the future holds, I do know that a mother’s love is unconditional and I can’t give up.
And so I continue to live in hope!
For anyone who has had a similar loss or wants to learn more:
* Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, Bay Tree Publishing, 2006. (This book is a revised and updated version of Captive Hearts, Captive Minds.)
* Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves by Steven Hassan, Freedom of Mind Press, 2000.
For help and support:
* Visit www.cifs.org.au for information and contact details.
This page is about groups, organisations or movements, which may have been called "cults" and/or "cult-like" in some way, shape or form.
But not all groups called either "cults" or "cult-like" are harmful.
Instead, they may be benign and generally defined as simply people intensely devoted to a person, place or thing.
An account from one person must be read as that; ideas could have been taken out of context or have been misunderstood.
Also, practices may change over time, or between one centre and another.
CIFS encourages readers to research widely before forming an opinion.
Information from one single source would need to be judged against other sources and one's own personal experience.
Therefore, the discussion or mention of a group, organisation or person on this page is not necessarily meant pejoratively.