DILEMMAS : When caring turns into controlling, back off

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This week's problem: When Val's drug-addict sister - a single parent with a six-year-old daughter - attempted suicide, the family found her a therapist. Things looked up, until she became hooked by a pseudo- religious cult. Although apparently happy, she's handed over money and threatens to give up her job to work for them. The therapist feels the cult is another addiction; Val wonders whether she should try to brainwash her back to normal. And what of the niece?

Show me an addict in the family and I'll show you a busybody who can't keep their hands off them. Oh yes, all the advising and helping is done in the name of love, but there's a moment when caring turns into controlling - and I think Val's behaviour is heading that way.

It's one thing to guide an addict towards a treatment centre, but another to employ someone to brainwash your sister just because she's taken a fancy to a passing cult. OK, she's given money to them, but it's her money, and if the cult makes her happy, why not? After all, thousands of people give money to therapists every week in an attempt to bring greater insight and resulting happiness into their lives, and no one objects to that.

The truth is that although huge numbers of people join cults for short periods, the vast majority leave when they find the regenerative effects wearing off, or when they have got enough out of them. If cults are full of brainwashers, then they're pretty hopeless at their jobs. Cults aren't peopled by James Bond baddies who want to grab people's minds and rule the world. The believers only want to give to someone else what they've found helpful to themselves.

It's true that cults can appeal to addictive personalities. But which would Val prefer? Someone bright-eyed with a shiny smile banging on about engrams or Hare Krishna - or someone with ashen skin, no energy, injecting herself to death? Val should remember that while these groups might be a complete dead-end, snare and delusion for one person, they might be a lifesaver for someone else. And there are cultish traits in all kinds of groups we find perfectly acceptable, from the Church of England to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Val's sister has found in this group something she's been unable to find in her life in other areas, from her therapist or her family. True, it may turn out to be an empty promise, but only Val's sister can find out whether it suits her or not long-term.

Val should keep an open mind, keep the lines of communication open, and, if she really cares, find out as much as she can about the group in question. She can do this by sending an sae to INFORM (Information On New Religious Movements) at Houghton Street, London, WC2A 2AE, asking for information on the relevant group.

She doesn't have to say it's great. But condemning the group or getting in a team of brainwashers to race in like the cavalry will only drive her sister - and her daughter - further into the cult's arms, not further away from them.

The resigned sibling

My sister - one of life's more vulnerable and lonely souls - was once involved in a cultish church movement. Having grown up with a clutch of Christian beliefs which went in and out of favour, she then got involved with Hare Krishna. It all seemed pretty exciting to me at the time. Not many people had a sister who could float while draped in willowy orange, while everyone else wore black. In time, she left all that behind and I thought no more of it. But then, years later, a church group got hold of her and, though they were ostensibly Christian, eroded her beliefs. But she got comfort from the group dynamics and liked the sense of belonging and the social events provided.

In my mind, it was a question of whether to wrest her away from what was a dangerous and fraudulent set-up, or to stand back and let her get on with something that was making her less unhappy. I chose to back away, as she also did, eventually, from this cultish group.

Anon, Devon

The cool customer

My sister took her own life when she was 39, leaving behind a six-year-old son. Despite our sense of grief and loss, we realised that although she had a drinking problem she was responsible for her own destiny. We couldn't have kept a constant vigil over her, despite a previous unsuccessful suicide attempt.

What is most important is for Val to leave the door open to her sister and to ensure that she knows her family is supportive but non-judgmental. She should also keep in constant touch with her niece and include her in all the family activities.

A reader, Highgate, London

The positive adviser

Keep in mind that there are now two personalities working within your sister: the old personality, which is being suppressed by the new cult identity. If you watch carefully you will see when the cult identity is in control, the eyes are glazed, jargon will be used and there is a know-it-all (extremely irritating!) attitude. The old self will flip back now and again and you will notice familiar mannerisms and attitudes. When communicating with the old self be positive, talk about good things in the past and do not talk about your sister's past failures.

In your letter you described your sister as "something of a depressive", and the phrase "after we got her into treatment" indicates that you might always have been helping her in the past. Perhaps a re-examination of your own attitudes might show you that you patronised her, made her feel put down.

Perhaps if you make a conscious effort to communicate as one equal human being to another, admitting to some of your own inadequacies, you might help her to feel as if she has something to contribute to her natural family. Cults often represent themselves as replacement families who are more considerate and kind than families in the outside world. Perhaps your sister feels needed and useful in her new environment, but you could show her that her own family needs her as well.

Karen Littlewood


N E X T W E E K ' S D I L E M M A

Dear Virginia,

I have children of two and three and a part-time job three days a week. My mother-in-law comes and babysits when I'm at work. The problem is that I'm tired when I get back and just want to flop, and my mother- in-law expects me to make tea and conversation, while the kids are pestering me for all kinds of things. When I go into the kitchen, I find everything in different places, and she sometimes pops in with some kind "suggestion" that drives me mad. She seems to imply my kitchen is dirty, which it isn't. Sometimes she even makes supper for us and leaves it, when I've already bought something else. My husband thinks I should be grateful, but I'm starting to think I'd be happier with a paid baby-minder instead. On top of this we have to have lunch with her every other Sunday, and my husband rings her at least twice a week. Everything she says has an edge to it. For instance, last week she said: "I do like your hair - so much nicer than how it used to be." And she'll tell my children to turn off the telly when I come in, saying: "Mummy wants peace and quiet." When I say I don't mind the TV, she just turns it off. Or she'll say to them: "Don't say what, say pardon", which I think sounds awful. It's all those little things that build up. What can I do?

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate.

Please send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, The Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with readers, let me know.