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I’m convinced my friend has joined a cult. What can I do?

The question

My friend's boss recruited her into an "executive training" organization that I'm convinced is a cult. While I'm deeply worried for her, I'm not sure there's anything I can do to help. Any concerns I express about the group and her involvement with it are dismissed as naive and misinformed, and are taken as evidence of my pessimistic outlook on life, which is a flaw my friend thinks her cult can help me fix. I get the sense that nothing I say will change her mind, that she's been "programmed" to resist/deflect any criticism of the organization. Her company has become unbearable, as most of what she now has to say centres around how brilliant and compassionate the organization and its leaders are, and how much I could benefit from joining, how I'm wasting my life if I don't. Is there anything I can do? Or have I already lost her?

The answer

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You've come to the right advice columnist.

I actually have a fair amount of experience with cults. For a while, early on in my career, I thought I'd be a guy who mostly wrote about cults. At one point, posing as a schoolteacher, I even infiltrated a francophone, alien-worshiping, free-love cult called the Raelians, and spent what has to be the weirdest five days of my life at their annual clothing-optional "sensual meditation seminar" at a campground near Trois-Rivières, Que.

The magazine I was working for was pleased enough with the resulting piece they offered to make me their "cult guy." But when I pretended to be interested in joining a larger, possibly far less benign cult (the Raelians were cute and harmless by comparison), I was frightened by the energy and persistence of their response. Finally I thought: "Hmmm, I might not be cut out to be a write-about-cults guy after all." These guys could mess me up! But I was able to observe these organizations and their adherents up close and I have some thoughts.

There might not be a lot you can do, at the moment anyway, to deprogram your friend. You're right that these groups – let's call them "personal empowerment groups" (PEGs) because cult is a little pejorative, and I'm still a little frightened – arm their adherents with stock ripostes to the nay-sayers.

And don't forget these groups, with their affirmations and so forth, often produce tangible results in the lives of their recruits, which make them especially hard to argue with.

Take John Travolta. For a while, he was a footnote, an asterisk, the answer to a trivia question: Who played the character on seventies sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter whose catch-phrase was "Ba-ba-ba-ba-Babarino?" ("Uh, hmm, tough one: John Savage? Fred Savage?") Now he's landing his private jumbo jet on the private airstrip of his fabulous Florida estate. Personally, I think his career renaissance had more to do with Quentin Tarantino's rich sense of irony and personal pop-cultural saturation, but I'm sure Travolta gives the credit to his personal PEG, so try talking him into dropping out of that organization now.

If you care about your friend, you should not simply turn your back on her. Do a bit of research first. Some PEGs, as I say, are more benign than others (I know a lot of people, for example, who swear by the Hoffman Institute). Tailor your remarks to what you find out. If it's a relatively benign group, you might want to think about simply being supportive as she attempts to empower/improve herself through her affiliation with it. If it's not such a cute, cuddly group, if she has "drunk the Kool-Aid" of one with a slightly darker aura around it, proceed with great caution but I would also say persistence.

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There's not much you can do besides talk to her. But that's something! Pit your thoughts and philosophies and world views against hers (or her swami's or guru's).

As always when confronted with zealotry and fanaticism, humour and common sense are also great items to have in your tool kit. And patience. Just bear in mind that while whatever you say might not have any immediate, tangible effect, it could plant the seeds for a later conversion, or de-conversion, and she might find herself months or years down the road shaking her head and saying: "Whew, that was a weird phase I went through. What was I thinking?"

She may even wind up thanking you for being a staunch and stalwart friend through this part of her life, and for having enough faith in her old self to believe she would one day get it back.

What am I supposed to do now?

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