Letter to a Woman who Lost Her Friend to a Cult
I printed out your letter and made some notes, which I'll review here. First, it sounds like you have strong roots with this friend, having known her all through school. That's a lot of roots! Especially for our day and age.
You say she may have been involved for a few years and that her parents and family are also involved. That's very intense. Also, that you just found out about it last weekend. Also, that you're interested in resources. Here is my cult resources webpage and book collection: https://surrealist.org/links/cults.html
I tell my own story in my book, Betrayal of the Spirit*, and the book shows how my father helped me when I was in the group. He was looking out for me on behalf of the rest of the family. It worked out for me, and having him stay in contact with me ultimately helped me leave. He was my father, so he had a big investment in me. Not everybody can extend themselves to even their own children, let alone a friend. It takes a lot of emotional energy, as my book explains. Getting someone out of a cult is one of the hardest things a person can try to do.
Decide how much you can invest in helping your friend - be honest with yourself. Yes, this is an old friend, but you have a life and if you turn her into a "project," you could end up wasting a lot of time, raising a lot of ire and possibly endangering yourself. Here's why: when someone is inducted into a cult, they are told to believe that anyone outside the cult is fallen and in need of help. They believe that the only way to salvation is to join the cult. Therefore, your friend will - out of love - try to get you to join. If you resist, your friend may abandon you. In other words, be on your guard. If you choose to remain friends with her, be aware that you cannot depend on her for reciprocal, unconditional friendship, because her friendship depends on you approving of the cult. If you start to depend on her for friendship, you could be fooled into joining (those cults are very sticky). Cults are hungry for new members. They program their members to make new members and that may be all she can give you as long as she remains.
My advice is to keep your 10-foot pole at hand. Relate to her as much as you can without getting sucked in. Stay in her life as a friend, but you must show her that life on the "outside" is just fine for you and that you can be a rock of stability to remind her that she was a good person before joining. The cults tell members that they were no good, unsaved, etc., before joining, and that the outside world is "bad." Remind her of the person she was before joining. If she starts to preach to you or talk too much about the cult, tell her that it makes you uncomfortable and that you just want to be with her and not be preached to. On the other hand, if she wants to talk about how she feels about the cult, then it's a good time to listen. Just don't allow the cult to dominate your relationship. People who join cults need to have a connection with the outside and with what they were before they joined. This is what my father provided for me and you'll see that when you read my book.
As for talking it up with other mutual friends. My advice is to let the muddy waters settle. Stirring it up will only bring out more problems. Better to not focus on it too much or start a debate about it with outside people, especially her old friends. Decide if you want to be friends with her and then treat her as you would any other friend who has a flaw or defect. If you can accept it, that precludes gossiping or trying to conspire with others to talk about it, because that will only make her resentful. If her other old friends want to get involved, let them do it on their own terms.
You ask what makes a cult a "dangerous" cult. Basically, if the group has bad attitudes of "us and them" and if they have a charismatic leader who is off his rocker, and if they seem to "kidnap" their converts, making them cut off all ties with non-believers, then it's a dangerous cult. You ask what danger she may face in the cult. The worst thing I experienced was a loss of self, loss of my real personality. I did a lot of things I regret because of my fanaticism to follow the teachings. Other dangers include becoming involved in criminal activity (anything for the cause) or being abused. Sometimes they arrange marriages between innocent women and abusive cultish men. Also, if she has money, she's in danger of losing it to the cult. Financial abuses, criminal activity, emotional, physical and sexual abuse are also common in cults.
You say that she and her family seem happy and that the only symbols of her involvement are a necklace and a book. Also, you ask if they can believe in the group discreetly so that it does not ruin their lives. Yes, that's entirely possible. Many people get in and out of cults with little emotional or financial damage. But usually, those are the people who had their antennas up and were aware of what was taking place, and were careful to keep a comfortable distance. For example, if someone has a pile of money and they are wary of losing it, then they may be more conscious about not giving it to the cult. It's the naive people who get burned.
But again, try to avoid making her and her whole family your own personal "project." You clearly state that "It seems like an impossible task to make all of them understand and leave the cult." Yes, it is impossible! You would only wear yourself out and possibly put yourself in danger. Cults sometimes start wars with their critics. Also you say that if you criticize her involvement "she would probably never talk to me." That's also correct.
Anyway, you need to get centered within yourself and decide how much energy you can put into this. If you put too little, then the cult gobbles up your friends even more because they have lost one more friend from the "real" part of their lives; if you put too much energy into it, you become codependent and vulnerable to cult abuse as a backlash of trying to "help." You need to strike a balance. Reading former member stories may help, and there are many books on the subject by experts. Also, investigate the links on that page to cult information sites* where you look up more information about the group.
If you have any follow-up questions, please feel free to write back again. Take care of yourself. It is traumatic to see a friend kidnapped into something unhealthy. You lose a bit of yourself, almost as if the person died.