Is the Family System a Cult?

Several years ago I wrote an essay and made a two-part video describing the family system as a cult. The idea for these came to me during my process of breaking away from my own family of origin, when it dawned on me that what I was going through bore an uncanny resemblance to stories I had heard from people leaving conventionally-defined cults. I have since heard similar stories from others who have broken away from their families of origin: stories of being defamed, belittled, manipulated, pathologized, scapegoated, and shunned.

Over the years I have thought more about my idea of the family system as a cult. In line with that, I wish to test the idea from a different angle, and a more critical one, by seeing if the family system fits the Cult Information Centre’s definition of a cult. According to them, a cult is “a group having all of the following five characteristics”:

1. “[The group] uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members.”

My commentary:  In the family system, the group’s members are the family’s children. Children are not given choice to decide which family they join — that is, into which family they are “recruited” — so in that sense they are coerced. And they definitely are psychologically indoctrinated to become part of the family system: this is known as childrearing. They take on the language, culture, norms, and dress of the family, and often the family’s religion and private pathologies too. And legally they are required to stay with their parents, at least for the first decade or so, if not more. And often, psychologically, it is even harder for them to leave, because the more their parents neglect them the fewer independent emotional resources they usually have — and the more dependent they remain. It is not a coincidence that many of the most abused, dominated, and broken children never leave home at all.

2. “[The group] forms an elitist totalitarian society.”

My commentary:  As much as many parents say that they give their children great degrees of decision-making power in the family, let’s be honest: the parents are still in charge. And in many cases parents don’t even pretend to give children decision-making power. In short, parents make the rules and the decisions. In fact, parents have more power over their children than just about any human can possibly have over another, and it’s all legal. They are dictators — though, granted, some are more benevolent than others. Even my parents had their very good qualities, for which I am thankful. Meanwhile, are all families by nature elitist? Certainly some don’t look very elite. However, this is a matter of perspective, and in order to properly study cultish nature we must assess a group from within its walls, not just from beyond them. From what I have observed, families, even very troubled, socially ostracized, or stigmatized ones, are elitist. Parents, to the degree that they have not resolved their childhood traumas, are insecure and fragile and feel powerless deep inside themselves, and they compensate for this by positioning themselves as gods in the eyes of their children. This is not very hard to do, because children, especially when young, are extremely needy and psychologically malleable. And to the degree that their needs are not being met, they essentially have Stockholm syndrome. As the result they have little choice, at least in their early years, but to see their parents as the greatest beings of all time. American holiday cards and t-shirts even state this explicitly, with their messages of “Greatest Mom Ever” and “World’s Best Dad.” And at some level the parents believe this, because it makes them feel special, that is, elite. That’s why so many broken, failed people love to have children.

3. “[The group’s] founder/leader is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma.”

My commentary:  To the degree that parents have not resolved their childhood traumas, they are all these things. They are looking for others to love and worship them in the way their own parents of childhood never properly did, and the easiest way to make this happen, especially if the people are not very charismatic compared with other adults, is to get their needy, dependent children to do this. This is why so many people prefer their children to their spouses: it’s so much easier to control a child than an adult. Compared to a young child, every adult is a bigshot, every adult is brilliant, every adult is charismatic, every adult is a guru. Meanwhile, in our society, parents are less accountable in their relationships with their children than is almost anyone in any other type of human relationship. If parents tried half the things they did with their kids with any adult they’d be locked up.

4. “[The group] believes ‘the end justifies the means’ in order to solicit funds/recruit people.”

My commentary:  Basically, parents have the power to do whatever they want to control and mold their kids — that is, to recruit them. This is especially true of their young kids. And the more screwed up the parents are the more Machiavellian they behave — and often the less they even realize it. This is normal. They can beat and manipulate their kids, psychologically twist them into a ball, use the silent treatment, withhold love, terrorize or cow them with religion, bully them, put them down, shame them, tease them, punish them, sexualize them, whatever. Next, as far as soliciting funds go, this rarely applies to parents in their relationship with young children, unless we consider that parents, to the degree that they still have unresolved childhood needs, feed off the spirit of their children. This is the fund that keeps giving. Their children give them life, purpose, meaning, even daily structure. They live through their children. And their children never asked for this—and generally can’t even acknowledge it without incurring great risk. Meanwhile, many parents actually do raise their children with an obligation to grow up and go forth into the world and make enough money to financially support the parents in their later years. Whole cultures think this way, in fact. Children, to many, are the ultimate financial investment.

5. “[The group’s] wealth does not benefit its members or society.”

My commentary:  To the degree that parents take advantage of their children, and from what I have observed this degree is far greater than our conventional world recognizes, their children suffer a lifetime of consequences. These children grow up into adults who manifest the ways in which they were once misused. Just look at the damage that abused, neglected, manipulated, and hurt children come to perpetrate on themselves and on society — and later on their own children, if they have any. Our mental institutions and jails are full of adults who are really just hurt, unresolved, familially-abused children. Our wars are started by grown-up hurt children with political power and fought by grown-up hurt children following orders and seeking belonging. Our economies are ravished by grown-up hurt children who hoard more than they need and take advantage of others. And our whole hurt species is a collective hurt child that is breeding out of control, decimating everything in its path, and ultimately on track to destroy itself.

Conclusion: So in short, yes, by my reckoning the family system is a cult, to the degree, that is, that the parents have not healed their own wounds of childhood. Sadly, this is a process which most parents have barely begun. And because they indoctrinate their children at a younger age and in a more intimate manner than any other cult—that is, starting right at birth—I feel comfortable stating that the family system is the primary cult, and the underpinning of all other cults that later come to be. Meanwhile, I wish to close with one final idea. I find it noteworthy that before I started breaking away from my family it never crossed my mind that they were a cult. I think this is indicative of one other aspect of cults: that many people in cults do not even realize they are in them. In fact, many deny it most adamantly—perhaps in the same adamant way that so many people, despite great evidence to the contrary, insist that their childhoods were excellent and their parents were wonderful.