I was inspired to write to you after reading a response you gave to someone a few months ago regarding “crazy aunts.” I have one of those, and I have no idea how to deal with her.
My aunt is a lonely, childless woman who went through a nasty divorce before I was born. Her ex-husband was an abusive alcoholic, so she has some emotional baggage. About a decade ago she discovered this man named John de Ruiter.
This guy is a nut. Ostensibly he’s a philosopher, or a spiritual guru of some kind. In reality he’s a cult leader. People come from around the world to Edmonton (of all places) just to hear him speak little pearls of wisdom one sentence at a time. One of his favourite go-to responses is apparently “do what is good.” Clearly it’s not the substance of his talks that draws a crowd. He also has this charisma, and that is where his power over his followers really comes from. His meetings all begin with a period of “sifting,” where he will make deep, penetrating eye contact with everyone in the room without saying a word. This can go on for as long as an hour. His followers (my aunt included) promise that this is the most powerful and transformative experience that one can have. The congregation will then approach a mic and ask him questions, to which he responds with his spiritual pseudo-wisdom which is apparently beamed to him by none other than Jesus. Also, according to his followers, he visits people in their dreams, transforms into different shapes, and just might be the second coming of Christ.
I won’t even get in to how he used his power of revelation to justify sleeping with two blonde sisters from the Canadian volleyball team that were half the age of his wife (he invited his wife into his harem but she politely declined and asked for a divorce).
The bottom line is my aunt is not wealthy and is not the most emotionally stable person. This man is exploiting her and many like her around the world, and seems to be making a fairly comfortable living doing so. He has stolen my aunt from her family because she can’t make time for family gatherings around the regular schedule of meetings she must attend with her guru. That said, he’s not saying anything directly harmful (largely because he’s not saying anything intelligible), and she seems to find comfort in it. My mother (a devout catholic) is very concerned about the well being of her sister. I am as well. I think this man is dangerous, but I must also respect her freedom of religion. How do I handle this?
I think there’s not much you can do beyond gently and respectfully expressing your feelings to your aunt, but there are ways you can do that to make it more helpful. I’ll talk more about that at the end.
She has survived ten years of involvement with de Ruiter without going broke, hijacking a plane or drinking cyanide in Kool-aid. She seems to find comfort in the gibberish that he s-l-o-w-l-y babbles, and in the long staring sessions when he can’t think of anything unintelligible enough to say.
While you say that she’s “not the most emotionally stable person” I didn’t read anything in your letter that indicates that she has a diagnosable mental disorder, or is legally insane, or is in danger of harming herself or others.
Big or small, old or new, all religions sell what many people want: Spooks and magic. The spooks are any supernatural entities, from gods down to ghosts. The magic is any special powers or abilities that the spooks can do, and any special powers or abilities that the spooks can give to special people. These range from miracles down to mind reading.
Charismatic shamans like de Ruiter offer spooks and magic with the added attraction of the exotic, the esoteric, and the eccentric.
For some people who have had lives filled with pain and disappointment, the lure of special people with special abilities can be irresistible. Even if they themselves don’t feel special, listening to people who claim to be special, and who imply that others can be special too feels very good.
Your aunt spends more time at the meetings than with the family. Even if you and your mother try your best to help her feel welcome and comfortable, she might just not be getting her most pressing emotional needs fulfilled with the family. She goes wherever she finds what she needs.
de Ruiter’s style is to be vague and incoherent, with broad platitudes and banal, feel-good clichés. People who really want that stuff to be profound insight will fill in the blanks with their own meaning. That meaning might actually be pretty wise stuff, because they’re tapping into their own wisdom. They just would rather think it’s coming from de Ruiter, because the special person myth is so attractive.
Your aunt may be doing this. She may be drawing upon her own ability to make her life meaningful, or simply to find happiness within herself, and then attributing it to the shaman’s spooks and magic. He allows people to make their assumptions about his special abilities, but he’s really just a living placebo. We skeptics would probably dismiss him as a fraud, but if a person accepts a placebo as genuine, the placebo effect can be very strong.
I don’t know enough about de Ruiter to categorically say that he’s dangerous or harmless to your aunt. The difference could be more about how strongly individuals respond to him than something he actually does. As I said, ten years have not produced anything very alarming in your aunt, going by your letter. She’s probably giving money to his “College of Integrated Philosophy” that from a skeptic’s viewpoint would be better used for her welfare, but unless she is bankrupt, that’s her prerogative.
Concerned, I think you should clarify within yourself what is most important to you in this situation. Is your main desire that she get away from his influence, or that you and your family can enjoy more of her company? I think that when you talk to her, if you focus on your suspicion about him, she’ll become defensive. If you emphasize your own feelings about her, that you simply miss her, she may be more responsive.
When the subject of de Ruiter comes up, take the stance of being curious about him and the place, rather than distrustful. You’ll get more information, and you can continue to be watchful to see if your aunt begins to do things that are seriously detrimental. Otherwise, just try to make your family time with her as attractive to her as you can. Accept your “crazy aunt” as she is, someone who may believe in spooks and magic, but who nevertheless seems to be able to take care of herself.