03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When A Loved One Joins A Cult

Q: I am going to visit my 37-year-old son for the New Year. But, I don't want to! You would understand how I feel when I tell you that he has taken up with a group of religious zealots. He thinks of his new friends as merely good people who believe in Christ and the goodness of the world. I think of them as a cult.

My son is single. He has never had a serious relationship. He lives with another "cult" couple in a run-down community where the other cult members also live. My son wants me to stay with him and the couple when I visit. I don't mind going to church with him or being a part of daily prayer meetings, but the thought of staying in that decrepit house is making me nuts. But if I tell him how I feel, he'll say I am rejecting him and his lifestyle.

I just don't get it. Why is he involved with this group? He is finally finishing medical school, after many false starts. Earlier, his behavior had been all over the place--periods of depression and lethargy and then bursts of wild, even dangerous activity. Now he says he knows what he wants and is proud to be learning how to help people, both as a religious Christian and as a doctor.

My husband died when my son was fourteen. He was a college professor. His step-father came into his life only a year later. He was a doctor. The two of them were very close and my son was quite upset when his step-father fell ill and died. My son was then 30.

The last bit of information I want to give you is that at his Bar Mitzvah, I was the typical Jewish mother. I believed that my son was the answer to the world's needs. He was smart, handsome, kind and charismatic.

Naturally, I have always worried that my son may have been distressed when his Dad died and when I remarried so quickly. But he and his step-father got along so well that I relaxed a bit. Did I do anything wrong to make him like this? What do I say to him about my upcoming visit?

A: Boy, do I understand the Jewish mother bit. I am also the mother of a messiah. And I have just become a grandmother yet again, a boy. I watch my daughter holding her second-born with immense pride and love and, in heart-bursting moments, allow my 4-year old granddaughter to nestle her new brother in her lap. A Jewish prince has entered the world. You can look it up.

But having said that, and having made my own announcement, let's look at your complex -- yet understandable -- dilemma.

There is a lot going on here. We need to pull out and separate the various threads. First, let's deal with your issues. A lot of mothers, and incidentally not just Jewish ones, have a tendency to hold onto the belief that they are fully and solely responsible for what happens in their children's lives and for their children's happiness. If there are bumps in the road, they believe they can smooth them out. Well, guess what! No one is that powerful. Make a little room for God or, if you will, luck. Also, make some room for genes and what is formed at birth - the innate personality styles that have an effect on life. One of the hardest things for a mother to do is to simply let go and watch lovingly while your child becomes an adult and makes his own choices. Of course you can be supportive, but probably the best gift you can offer your child is permission to live their own lives.

At the same time, what you permit your child you can permit yourself. You have your own needs and your own personality style. In other words--and to answer one of your questions - you absolutely do not have to stay with him! Your son is no longer a child. Nonetheless, you still have to present your wishes in a way that is not judgmental of his life-style. Instead, you are merely outlining your own preferences -how you like to live. Make it a matter of creature comforts and not theology.

My guess is that somehow when you talk to your son you communicate your disappointments with him -- that he is not what you had hoped for. This is your problem, not his.

As for your son, he has his own problems. One of them is arrested development. He sounds like he is stuck in adolescence. He is undoubtedly seeking structure and guidance, but he is doing so in a way that he knows rebels against everything you have stood for. Is he just setting up a way to separate from you and to declare his adulthood? Or is he so internally chaotic and in such pain that he needs clear rigidity and structure to tell him how to live and think? I think both of these interpretations are true.

Following the first interpretation, your son's actions are an unambiguous declaration of independence. But if he was truly learning kindness and acceptance -those wonderful Christian virtues -- he would be sensitive and aware of your needs. In his case, developing his own identity requires a dramatic split from you. Accept his new identity but, for God's sake, hold on to your own.

Your son's experiences with illness and loss have understandably affected him. Having lost a father and a step-ather makes what we call a "complicated mourning" -- one trauma followed by another. Aside from your son's religious commitment and the undoubted importance of his newfound beliefs, this is also his way of containing his enduring pain. He is allowing others to set his daily routines so he can construct an adult identity by defying you and identifying with his doctor stepfather.

We can have compassion for your son. We can interpret and understand the dynamics of his behavior. But we still need to move past analysis, accept you and your son as separate adults, and construct a new relationship for the future. A new year approaches, and new beginnings for us all -- for you and your son and for my daughter and my new grandson, Leo Pinhas!!!!

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