"Cult" generally refers to a social group identified by extreme devotion to religious, spiritual or philosophical beliefs or a common interest in a particular person, object or goal. The public is fascinated by cults, their aftermaths and their survivors. But what about those left behind by cult members?
Reddit user LilMissMuppet asked "Redditors who have lost a friend or family member to a cult, how did it happen?"
Here are first hand accounts of people who have dealt with cults and the toll they took.
I lost my entire family. On my father and mother's side. Almost the entirety of people I grew up with and knew. As if I was never born. Raised Jehovah's Witness.
Just because the "religion" is prominent in our society does not discount the fact that it is by definition a cult.
Weight Down Ministries
I lost an aunt and cousin to Weight Down Ministries. It's run by this woman named Gwen Shamblin. A real nut job. She lives in Franklin, Tennessee, in this huge mansion where she broadcasts live church webinars multiple times a week. People all over join in and host these "church gatherings" at their homes. They get you in by introducing it as a weight loss program. Simple. Lose the weight quick and easy and never gain it back. Eat what you want!! So you go wow this sounds great! Then they slowly introduce the Bible and she'll preach to you through online videos, then you get recruited to a church in someone's home near you where the service lasts for FOUR hours. So anyways, my cousin and aunt got sucked into this and now they moved away to live in Franklin, TN where they worship every breath this Gwen Shamblin woman takes. Everyone that joins ends up marrying someone else inside the cult. My cousins sister wasn't allowed in her wedding because she wasn't part of the cult.
Most people wouldn't consider Southern Baptist a cult, since it's pretty mainstream where we live, but the degree to which my father embraces it, and the amount of time, effort, and money he puts into it, I think it's reasonable to call it cult-like.
His parents raised him in it, but I remember as a very young kid that we didn't go to church as much as we would later. Once a week, and sometimes we'd miss a week and it wouldn't be a big deal.
He got back into it when his dad died, and then doubled down when his mom passed several years later. He started forcing us to go to church two, sometimes three times a week. Those losses had a profound effect on him and I guess he just really, really wants to buy into the idea that he'll see his parents again.
Can't really blame him for that, I guess, but it has put a considerable strain on my relationship with him. Especially lately, since he's made friends with this guy who is even more fundamentalist than my dad is, and he's been bringing this guy around the house.
This guy, there's no other way to say it, he's just straight up crazy. My dad is passionate about his beliefs; this guy is fanatical. The kind of person I'd be worried might blow up an abortion clinic or something. (I had a conversation with the guy shortly after the Vegas shootings, and he all but came out and said those people deserved to be shot for just going to a sinner's hellhole like Vegas.)
I was in what I personally deem as a cult. They had a ruse of being a very "hip" non-denominational Christian Church. You may know of them - the pastor wears jeans and high fashion button-up shirts, the band plays alternative christian rock, there's a coffee shop, etc. However, I think the church sort of morphed into that in the ...15 years I attended, to become more appealing. This church had helluva lot of layers - and as the kid of the associate pastor of the church (My dad was the right hand man of the main pastor), I pretty much knew all of the layers.
I had been going to this church since I was 4, and from that point forward my family had become extremely devout. We were there nearly every night of the week - bible studies, 3 sermons on Sunday, 1 sermon on Wednesday, worship practice, babysitting, events, list goes on an on. One summer, I couldn't have been older than 9, I spent every morning cleaning the church (still can't remember why I was required to clean the church so much...but it kept me there all the time) At 11, the church opened up a school - that literally was just a money sucker. When I say money sucker i mean $2,000 dollars per school year roughly (possibly more, later down the road), for you to learn and re-learn the same subjects, because once you got to a certain point in education, they'd make you re-do it, because there was no point in you learning anything else (you were just going to end up being a church pawn anyways!). We'd pledge to the christian flag, the bible, and american flag every morning & had hour long bible study lessons. We had to memorize so much scripture, and would be tested & re-tested on these scriptures we were supposed to know by heart EVERY Friday. If we got in trouble we sometimes would be assigned lines, which usually was also a scripture verse.
Anyway, this church bred loyalty - and anyone who left would suddenly have a seriously terrible rumor spread about them, to make it seem like whoever DID leave had some type of mental breakdown or they were a "wolf in sheep's clothing" the whole time. It was pretty messed up, because one minute I would have a friend I thought I would have for life, and the next minute their mom would suddenly leave and the rumor would be "oh she married a Muslim man and converted or that they were stealing money or just whatever they could come up with. This was always MOST unsettling when a church "great" would leave (people who had been there for 10+ years and were heavily involved in ministry.)
So I finally hit a point where I decided to leave the church for good at 20-21. So I left, but I basically lost everyone on my way out. Everyone judged me about what happened. I know they spread rumors that my dad was stealing money, but that didn't concern me, because I realized, despite losing all of my friends, this life was already better.
Some of my old church friends had tried to scold me saying "you know better"...it made me sick. I see how much time & money they put into this church. Most of them are HEAVILY in debt, because that church made your wallet HURT. And There's always SOMETHING going that kept you there 5-6 days a week. AND they were so ISOLATED. I never noticed this until I left. but the church did the whole rumor bull, to keep you from talking to people "outside". It's sickening and depressing and a cult in my eyes.
I've lost a friend of mine to 'Ansarullah Bangla' an offshoot of ISIS in Bangladesh. It was back in 2014.
He was a computer science student but most importantly a poet. He is one of the most amiable persons I've ever met. We used to hang out a lot in our hometown since he was one of the few of same-aged friend I had back then. We were tremendous dreamers and very lazy workers.
Till this day, I just try to make sense of the murder and the aftermath. He, although was an atheist, never ever loud about his belief system since atheists are always shunned in our country. All of his very few blog posts are either poems or short stories. He was never active on social platforms too. If anyone knows his belief or disbelief they do by personal attachments. So when I learned about the murder I've never suspected the actual cause can be his belief system. Someone sold him, someone close. Maybe a friend from University. A facebook page of Ansarullah Bangla claimed that they killed him for 'practicing atheism in personal life'. They attacked him in his apartment, barred two of his friends, butchered him, stabbed him right into his skull, he died bleeding, instantly.
This death has given me some subtle ideas about death that was not present even a year before when my father died. I understood, life is not fair and anyone can kill you for no rhyme or reason and that is exactly why I have to shout out my ideas no matter what is the cost. Before that event, I was a pro-death nihilist and afterward a life-savoring nihilist.
Life goes on. Yet, he left a mourning girlfriend who still mourns, some friends who don't eat certain foods that are favorites of his. It's a death I can't get quite accustomed to.
My parents told me when I was younger that they knew (casually, not like best friends or anything) married couple that joined the People's Temple in the Bay Area.
They didn't go to Guyana. However, Jones had left some people behind to take care of the property. Approximately a year after the mass suicide the couple disappeared. Nobody knows if they decided that they wanted some grape Flavor-Aid too or if they were "disappeared" against their will.
Not exactly a cult, but my aunt became a born again Christian and joined this crazy fundamentalist church. Within a few months months she had married a man she met there and pulled her kids out of public school and enrolled them at the church's tiny private school. The church doesn't allow women to cut their hair so she quit her job as a hair stylist. She started wearing ankle length skirts and made my cousin do the same. My cousin wasn't allowed to wear normal clothes. When we went on our annual beach vacation, my cousin couldn't wear a bathing suit, she had to wear knee length board shorts and a tee shirt.
Joining that church completely changed my aunt's personality. She used to be a really cool person, she would take me and my cousins to do all kinds of fun stuff when we were kids. I remember her being my "fun aunt". She was also a talented painter and extremely creative. She doesn't paint at all now. She became completely submissive to her new husband, who is super manipulative and a compulsive liar. I don't think she's being physically abused, but she's not allowed to leave the house alone. She can only go places with her adult son or her husband. My mom tried to convince her to leave and now she is banned from talking to my mom on the phone unless her husband supervises the conversation. He works from home, so he is literally always around micro managing her life.
Joining that church also changed my cousin's life. She was probably about 12 or 13 when this all happened. She wasn't allowed to cut her hair and she was only allowed to wear full length skirts and long sleeves. They wouldn't let her see her old friends, she was only allowed to associate with people from church. We lived in different states, but we were extremely close and she used to come visit my family several times a year. Those trips stopped. I could only see her when we drove out to where they lived, and even then she wasn't allowed to be unsupervised with my mom (who was deemed a bad influence because she called my aunt and her husband out on their B.S.). It was really hard on my cousin.... She ended up legally emancipating herself at 16 and moving in with our grandparents. It was an ordeal.... The church "school" she had been going to was unaccredited and essentially useless, so she had to repeat a lot of high school online.
The happy news is that my cousin finished high school, went to college, and now she's happily married to a great guy. Shes totally normal and super cool. My aunt is still in the church, but honestly now that my cousin is free from all that, I don't care. I kind of hate her for what she put her daughter through. It definitely really hurts my mom though. She was super close to my aunt their entire lives, until she joined this church. Now they have basically no relationship. Their phone calls and visits are supervised by her husband. All she ever wants to talk to my mom about is converting her and saving us from going to hell, even though my mom is a Christian and goes to a normal church every Sunday. It's really sad, I feel bad for my mom. Especially since their other sister passed away suddenly a couple years ago, my mom has been pretty lonely. She tells me sometimes she feels like she's lost both her sisters.
I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness and grew up with most of my family being a part of the religion. When I was 10, my mother left the church and then was disfellowshipped (shunned) for having my sister out of wedlock. I was told that I could not associate with her after I became an adult, and that started me on the path to leaving this "Christian" group. I later on, at age 23, after not attending church for close to five years, also was disfellowshipped for having a child while single. This meant that everyone in my family besides my mother and half-sister could no longer talk to me. My father, stepmother, stepbrother, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends.... all of them gone. It can be emotionally devastating. My mother took her own life exactly two years ago today. I have a beautiful son, incredibly supportive and loving husband, and a new family that has helped to start healing those wounds. If anyone who is going through a similar situation ever needs a listening ear, there is a huge community (including myself) out there who can aid in the healing process.
My older brother joined a cult. He had a huge drinking problem most of his life, and drug problems in high school. He joined the Coast Guard after high school, but he was getting into trouble at work, coming in hungover all the time, not really caring about his job. One of his superiors, despite the trouble at work, really cared about him and wanted to help him. He recommended that my bro start going to church. So he did and it really turned things around for the better. My family and I were all so proud of him, he was really happy for the first time in a long time.
And then it just progressed from there, what first seemed helpful started to get out of control. The cult that he's in he found online. Obviously they don't outright say they're a cult, my bro saw it as an online community that supported his religion, made him feel like he had others to talk to. At first we just thought he was taking this whole religion thing too seriously, but then he went AWOL for one of their meet ups/functions. He ended up getting discharged from the military and then he began calling my parents less and less. He moved to the city where the cult is based out of and got some job using connections from the church. Him and I were still close and we called/emailed a few times a week. Starting before his discharge from the CG, in just about every conversation he would bring up doomsday, punishment, and hell. Eventually he began telling me that God told him that he can't change me, and that unless I decide to accept Jesus as my savior, he could no longer contact me.
We haven't talked in years, I was the last one he cut off. He still talks to our biological dad once every few months. My brother told my dad that God spoke to him through prayer and told him he's still got a chance to save my dad. I honestly think he's just too afraid to completely let go of his old life and entire family, and that's why he still keeps contact with my dad. He gets updates on me through him, but I've come to terms with the possibility of never seeing my brother again.
After his discharge from the military, he met a girl from the cult and they have three lovely children. Seriously, they are ADORABLE! My dad sends me pics. While I don't agree with his beliefs and being cut out of his life hurt a lot.. I am happy that he's content and he found somewhere he feels he belongs.... he seems like a great father.
I don't know if it was an actual cult, but after my cousin did a legit "teach in Asia" program she decided she was in love with Buddhism and joined a temple in Thailand (haven't gotten to the cult stuff, bear with me) whatever that meant. Then after a couple of months there she went to India. About six months there and she decided to come home.
But she was still in love with the temple life, so she joined a group in the US working with Tibetan monks? She was always a little loose on the details. Then one day she up and leaves everything behind to study Tibetan (language) somewhere in Vermont and then before we know it, they have sent her back to India.
The group in Vermont is the shady part, because my cousin was advised not to talk about who they were, where they were, or how it all worked. She was completely out of touch by modern means for six months, and only sent some letters with no return address and a very robotic format of "it is so wonderful here! Everything is beautiful" etc etc.
Then about two months after she had been in India she leaves the group and contacts us to say everything is okay, but she is staying in India. Because she met a boy. Who does happen to be a Tibetan refugee, so there is that!
Anyway, they got married, came to the us once they could get him a passport (took about two years) and now they are happily living in the US. She still won't talk about what happened, though her husband has let slip that something shady was going on, he also won't say what.
I had this friend growing up and we were the best of friends. Our summers were spent sleeping in my parents camper, swimming, jumping on her trampoline. We would ride our bikes around town and did everything together.
Growing up my parents always sent me to church, Sunday school and bible camp. She never went to church and would kinda make fun of me for not being allowed to have Saturday sleepovers. She had a lot of doubt but I didn't really care. She was my friend and if she didn't believe in God then whatever, who cares, let's watch Blossom!
Then her mom got sick. They kept her illness very private but it became obvious. She lost a ton of weight, stopped working and slept a lot. Around this time my friend's family joined a church. It was called New Life Church.
My best friend got super into this church and she would invite me to their youth group and it seemed ok. We would eat chicken burgers and and watch sister act 2. One day she asked me if I wanted to have a saturday sleepover and attend Sunday service with her family. My parents were ok with it because they assumed it was like normal church.
It was no normal church. It was a new wave Christian church and their minister was a faith healer. I mean people speaking in tongues and he would perform healing ceremonies. People would come up to him and he would use his palm to smack them on their foreheads and they would shake on the ground. He told people that he could use God's power to heal cancer.
It was scary and the people attending fully believed that this man could save them. On the way home from the service my best friend's mom asked me what I thought. I was honest and said it was weird and nothing like my church. She asked if I would go back and I said it wasn't the right fit for me.
After that my best friend was not allowed to hang out with me. If her mom saw her talking to me around town she would yell at her. My best friend told me that it was because her mom said I didn't have a pure Christian heart.
Her parents ended up putting her in the church's private school for a few years and by the time she came back we were in high school and she was far gone.
Her mom died when we were about 19. Her dad left the church but she did not. She met her husband and they have 2 adorable children but she is in so deep.
I miss my best friend and I am sad that church took advantage of them and gave her mom false hope.
So I got out when I was 20-21. And by got out I mean was demonized and disowned by my mother. Who then married the cult leader after he divorced his wife "for having an affair". Cult leader's wife was my ex-step-grandmother (long story, my mom's not great at picking men). But she's still in it now and won't talk to me, though she did try to make me see the error of my ways a couple months back (I'm in my early 30s now). Apparently the cult leader is dying of cancer to the mouth, which is incredibly appropriate.
Anyway, once he dies I'm hoping to be able to slowly talk sense into her again.
A friend of mine told he how she lost her friend to Scientology. It was more or less because they were residents of Hollywood and would walk down Hollywood blvd every day to go school. They'd pass the recruiting center every single day and pay no mind, but one day her friend decided to go in. She said after high school, her friend dissociated with her after realizing she wasn't going to convince her to join.
Does losing someone to an Multi Level Marketing cult count?
Not only lost a friendship, but had to unfollow all their posts. I can't answer their calls, texts, or messages because it's all about me "being on their life changing team" and "supplementing my income" even though my spouse and I both own our businesses, love our jobs, and don't need supplemented income.
If you're reading this and in an MLM think about the friendships you have had with people for many years. Don't throw it away for the small chance you will actually make good money.
I had a similar experience with a high school acquaintance selling Mary Kay; she reached out to a handful of us inviting us to a "girls night in at her house" and admitted she wanted to show us some Mary Kay samples but no pressure to buy. I felt bad cause I knew through the grapevine and she and her husband were struggling financially, so I figured I'd go and maybe get a lotion.
We follow the GPS instructions and it straight up leads us to a warehouse where about 20 Mary Kay consultants and 10 of their higher-ups are waving women inside, and casually blocking all the exits. Each consultant had invited 5-10 people, and if you tried to leave, one of the higher-up ladies would corner you, while another blocked the exit, and give the spiel about how if you didn't want to order anything today you could just host your own party another day - just give them the date and time. I said I wasn't interested 5 or 6 times before I just caved and bought the cheapest thing available.
The really crappy part is that they know full well that they've put you in a situation you can't get out of without being incredibly rude and confrontational (in front of a couple hundred witnesses) and that most people would rather avoid a scene like that. I blocked her on social media and never talked to her again.
My step aunt, uncle, and their daughter are Scientologists. My step uncle had a drug problem when he was younger and Scientology said they could help him. Surprisingly enough they did and he got clean but he got roped in. He and his family work for them now. His daughter works on the cruise ship they have. They seem pretty normal but they occasionally send us DVDs to try and convert us. Also when my rather wealthy Grandpa died they wanted to take some of his possessions to sell to Scientology.
She wasn't permanently lost, but my aunt joined the Children of God in the 70s. She was down in Texas doing student teaching and one day her roommate called my grandparents to say she hadn't seen her in a couple days and was pretty sure some people took her to Mexico.
My grandparents immediately drove down to Mexico, hired a cult deprogrammer, and rented a house near the cult compound. They basically blew as much money as they could afford, but never saw her before they had to give up and go back home.
A little while later, my aunt called home to tell her parents she was getting married. They told her to wait until spring break and they would come down for the wedding, but she said she couldn't. A few months after that, she brought her new husband to the US to meet the family.
They're still married today and I basically just learned about the whole thing like 6 months ago.
Here in central Ohio, we have a cult called Xenos. They market themselves as a Christian home church group. In reality, you will be pressured into moving into a home where you share a room with others of the same gender in order to prevent premarital sex and masturbation.
You will be forced to shun all non-xenos friends and family you have. It's pretty baffling how people keep falling for it. I lost a friend to it years ago. Haven't heard from her since. I saw her at the store once a few years ago and she refused to even acknowledge my existence.
Two of my college housemates went out one evening to buy cigarettes, and came back converted to Scientology. One eventually got out of it, but it took years. The other, I have no idea.
It was like a horror movie about pod people taking them over.
The worst part about Scientology to me is the time you lose by involving yourself in it. Members can spend 18 hours of their day being "audited." Children are separated from their parents for months at a time, essentially erasing the familial relationships. It seems that the children learn to never trust anyone, or be loyal to anything other than their "religion." They're told that it's their responsibility as a Scientologist to rat out anyone who says something that even slightly opposes the church's beliefs. If someone reports you to the church, you're required to go through the "auditing" process for hours and hours at a time, at your own expense. It's BONKERS.
A family friend of mine was a prominent young chess player (a grandmaster --- not a grandmaster, an international master with a GM norm) who, at a stressful crossroads in life, basically had a nervous breakdown at a tournament in Budapest and went outside and somehow came into contact with a cult. He's been there for a few years, within a couple weeks he withdrew all the money from his bank account and asked his family to not contact him. Apparently they later were allowed to and he spoke broken English and was more comfortable in a Hungarian language. I'm pretty sure that when they talked to him it was in person in Budapest in a public space with a translator/caretaker with him. They said that he seemed more comfortable in Hungarian, he didn't seem to remember American slang that he used to use, and generally body language and all just didn't seem like himself.
...one of the smartest guys I knew.
I had two cousins who went to Jonestown. I was born 2 years after their deaths, so everything I know is a kind of family lore. They were my Dad's best friends, and he rarely talked about them, but my mom was pretty open about it. The following is me paraphrasing what my mom has told me about them getting involved in the People's Temple.
They joined in San Francisco. It began as a utopian community, which followed the teachings of Christ. They gave literally everything they had away. Blankets, food, whatever the group had, they would give away. At the time, communes were common, so what they were doing, moving in with a bunch of like-minded people, didn't seem that odd. To their family, it seemed like an idealistic hippy community.
Then they started asking for money. Always under the guise of feeding the poor, or something like that. It didn't begin with asking for money because Jim was the second coming. Their parents sent all the money they had, but my cousins just kept asking for more. Eventually this was how he isolated his members from their family. If the family kept giving money, then the members could keep in touch. If the money dried up, the family was blamed, the members were cut off from contacting them.
My parents were living in Seal Beach at the time. My mom says the first time they noticed the cousins seemed a bit strange was when they cousins were on a mission trip with Jones. I believe he was preaching at the Crystal Cathedral, and he brought a bus of his followers down. It rained. Like one of these rare downpours in SoCal. The bus didn't have a windshield, so everyone was just getting soaked. So Jones walked up to the front of the bus, held out his hands and spoke, "Storm, stop!" And the rained stopped.
So that was the story my cousins told my parents that was the first sign my cousins had been brainwashed. I asked my mom what her response was, and she said, "we just laughed. It was so ridiculous. We had no idea what was coming, no one had heard of a cult."
By the time they left for Jonestown, my dad says he knew he'd never see them again, but at the same time he was shocked when it happened. We have letters from their time in the church all the way up to in Jonestown, so you can read their progression into brainwashing.
In the end, Nancy freely took the Kool aid, Ronnie was injected with cyanide. Their deaths have been ever present in my family.