Dear Prudence

I Think My Sister’s in a Cult

I want to try to keep her tethered to reality, but she’s pushing me away.

Evangelical church with hands praying.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ehrlif/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

For the past two semesters, I feel like my sister has been drawn into a cult. She has been going to an evangelical church that is heavily influencing her thinking. Our family is very religious, my dad is a pastor, but this church is more intense. I’ve been slowly distancing myself from my family in general these last few years after realizing how abusive they’ve been toward me and others. While I still believe in God, I no longer share their faith system. I haven’t told them about this, but they don’t really ask about my beliefs or even seem to care. My parents treated all of us with shame and neglect, but I believe my sister received the brunt of it when I moved out. She recently told me about an eating disorder she had developed. My sister came to my mom with signs of depression and anxiety her first year in college, and my mom insisted that she needed to get more involved in her church. So she did.

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Now my sister is very involved in trying to convert people on campus, and pretty much all her friendships and free time are dedicated to this cause. She doesn’t have any friends outside of the church, she doesn’t care about her classes, and she is financially invested in her church, which seems to think the number of conversions a member presides over is the mark of a good Christian. Now she’s going on an expensive summer trip with this church. The structure here seems very much like a cult. Each time I try to ask how she’s doing, she seems incredibly anxious. She’ll tell me about her latest conversion attempt and doesn’t seem able to talk about anything besides church.

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She also has some growing disdain for me for distancing myself from my parents and seems to take that personally. I asked for some “space” from my parents’ endless texts and calls, and she said that family shouldn’t ask for space. She’s young, and I am worried about how impressionable she is from my parents’ abuse. I don’t want there to be distance between me and her, because I want someone near her that’s tethered to reality. What can I do to help her? How can I be there for her? Should I bring up my concerns to her?

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—Sister in a Cult

I want you to first prioritize your own health and safety as you attempt to get distance from your dysfunctional and often-abusive family. This may sound cold, although it’s not intended to be—there’s a real limit to how much you can help your sister if her idea of family is people you’re not allowed to ask for “space” from. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve help, just that you might not be able to provide her with that without sacrificing your own well-being, at which point you won’t be much help to either her or yourself. That you’d worry about your sister’s susceptibility is only natural. But you’re also quite vulnerable here, and if you’re having a difficult time even contemplating the possibility of distance between you and your sister, if the idea of not constantly serving as her “tether” to reality makes you feel as though you’re abandoning her, you might not be in the right position to act as that tether.

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That doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally bring up your concerns or respectfully disagree with her. But you can’t single-handedly deprogram her from a way of thinking that’s rewarded by her entire social milieu, from her parents to her fellow parishioners to her new pastors. Try to encourage conversation about something other than church, ask open-ended questions when you see an opportunity to complicate one of her more strongly held beliefs, and focus on your own recovery from your damaging family of origin. That doesn’t mean consigning your sister to a life of evangelical zeal and untreated disordered eating, but it does mean acknowledging that she has to be willing to consider changing before any meaningful change can take place.

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Dear Prudence,

I’m an adult temporarily living with my parents due to unemployment. My mom is emotionally immature and volatile, mostly toward my dad. She seems to really hate the life she’s living and uses him as a target for all of her negative emotions. Maybe she has reason to be angry at him that I’m unaware of, but being consistently furious at him for walking in the door, or just offering advice, seems extreme. This is exhausting, and I’m trying to leave ASAP. But I also feel like a coward for not sticking up for him when she’s slamming things, snapping at him, and making rude remarks, particularly because it’s night and day from how she talks to me. He seems to brush it off or avoid her as much as he can, especially by working incredibly long hours. I constantly have to tell her I won’t talk about their relationship when she tries to badmouth him to me, but I also can’t stand how she treats him. Can I say anything to her about this behavior in the moment? Urge my dad privately to leave her? I’m sad for them both and so done.

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—Stuck in the Middle

I’m glad that you’re planning to move out as soon as possible, as I agree that’s the best way to cultivate any kind of emotional distance from a relationship dynamic you have such a limited ability to affect. But while it’s crucial to remain aware of the limits of your ability to influence your parents’ choices, that doesn’t mean you have to keep your mouth entirely shut, either. Telling your mother that the way she speaks to your father is cruel and demoralizing, and that from now on you’re going to intervene when she slams doors or snaps at him, is entirely within your rights as someone who has to live with them. While you may not be the intended target of her gibes, you’re certainly affected by them. That doesn’t mean you’re going to single-handedly solve this dynamic, but there’s already so much open hostility and discomfort throughout the day that I think it might come as something of a surprising relief to start acknowledging and objecting to it yourself.

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As for privately encouraging your father to leave, I think you should tread cautiously, even if you think it would be better for him. I’d suggest asking him how he feels about this and leave it at that—at best you can encourage him to speak to his own friends or a therapist about the bigger picture, but I don’t think you should volunteer your services as a sounding board as to whether he should stay married to your mother, if only because that’s an awful lot of pressure to put on you. As you say, whether or not your mother has serious reasons for being angry with your father is less important than whether her strategy for dealing with her anger is a healthy, appropriate, loving one—and the answer there is a pretty clear-cut “no.”

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Dear Prudence,

Over the past few years, I’ve gone from being an out and open trans woman to a semi-closeted genderfluid person. I don’t care to come out to my parents again, as they only barely came to terms with my being trans after five years of arguments and awkwardness. Extended family can wait, and the friends I actually value already know one way or another. The problem is that I want to come out to my younger brother. He’s 15 and in freshman year, and he’s positively the sweetest teenage boy I’ve ever met. This past year, he’s gotten really into music, even releasing his own music (in the alternative genre) and collaborating with me and some of his friends (I do vocals and write for orchestra). He’s genuinely a wonderful kid, and I spend more time with him than anyone else at family gatherings.

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He still lives with my conservative parents, and I do not (I’m 22). I want him to know because as we hang out more as the pandemic wanes, inevitably he’ll be with me when I’m having a more masculine day, or I won’t be thinking and offer to provide masculine vocals for one of his songs, and I don’t want him to find out incidentally and feel betrayed. I’ve already had to come out to him once as a woman, but I don’t even know if he knows anyone nonbinary. How do I come out to him while preserving a delicate balance with my family? What do I do if one of the most important people in my life responds with hate, bigotry, or keeping his distance? I had already grown apart from my parents when that trouble happened, so I don’t know how to cope with rejection from someone that close.

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—Coming Out Again

You have reason to hope that your brother’s reaction to your original coming out has very little in common with your parents’ resistance, negotiation, and forced forgetfulness. To that end, you can treat this as something closer to a casual update than a brand-new, full-scale coming out: “I know we talked when I came out as a trans woman five years ago, but some of that’s changed, and I’m more gender-fluid these days. I’m happy to talk about that more with you if you have any questions.” He doesn’t sound like the type to consider himself “betrayed” if you ever offer to sing male vocals, although I can certainly understand your hesitation, given your parents’ hostile attempts to litigate your identity.

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On the other hand, if you’re worried that your brother has been influenced by your parents’ transphobia and that he’ll react badly or that your parents will use this new disclosure as an excuse to keep the two of you apart, you can certainly decide to postpone this conversation until he’s a little older. You’re the best judge of how he’ll react, and you should proceed (or not) with whichever approach you feel is most comfortable.

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