Ask Richard: My Aunt is Enthralled by a Cult Guru January 1, 2010

Ask Richard: My Aunt is Enthralled by a Cult Guru

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?

Concerned Nephew

Dear Concerned,

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.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jason

    Pics of sisters on the volleyball team?

  • ungullible

    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.

    I generally agree with Richard’s response – that you should pick your battles and perhaps not be overly concerned. But if you are going to gently try to loosen this cult’s grip in your Aunt, then the above quote might be the best angle. Ask her what she finds so profound in his starings and vague quips. Listen attentively to her answers. Point out where any wisdom in her answers significantly goes beyond what was actually said, and then ask how she was able to get from A to B? Suggest gently and lovingly that you think this wisdom is coming from her, and that she is perhaps wiser than she is giving herself credit for. You can’t force her decision, but perhaps you can help plant the seeds that help her see for herself that she really doesn’t need this guru.

  • littlejohn

    I want this guy to tell me tomorrow’s winning lottery number. I’ll cheerfully split the winnings with him.

  • The Other Tom

    Respecting someone’s freedom of religion doesn’t mean approving of their choice of religion. Concerned Nephew should remember that respecting his aunt’s freedom of religion does not preclude him telling her he thinks her guru is a fraud.

    There are other things that could be said to her that don’t directly relate to it at all, such as:
    “Gee, Auntie, I notice you spend all of your time attending to your religion lately and we never get to see you. It makes us feel that you don’t love us any more and have abandoned us in favor of your guru.”

    “Auntie, I understand you enjoy your religion and that you feel you get a lot out of it. I would just like to ask you to please pay attention to your financial resources, and make sure that any charitible giving you do is appropriately small such that as you get older you will not find yourself financially short because of having given too much money away in the past.”

  • Jim

    Odd. I live in Edmonton and I have never heard of this clown. Not missing much, I’ll wager.

  • David

    Buy yourself a copy of ‘Releasing The Bonds’ by Steven Hassan, and read it before negatively commenting on the cult to your aunt.

    I feel that Richard’s answer, while containing some good points, may not fully appreciate the potential danger of such groups. All the best.

  • Ceasing using the word “cult” may help focus the issue. The term has little meaning and has many negative connotations that are not necessarily true. I believe that all religions are false and can only offer platitudes and good feelings, but unless there is some specific actions being taken by this particular one it shouldn’t be treated differently. You wouldn’t get a Catholic to leave their faith by telling them you think the Pope is a fraud, and it sounds like your aunt is more enthralled with this man than most Catholics are with the Pope.

  • Bill Green

    As far as I can tell the only difference between a cult and a religion is that one has enough members and/or political influence to be accepted by the country or countries in which it operates and the other does not.

    Most income generated by religions (more than 80% and no taxes) regardless of the wonderful things they claim to do with it is retained within the organisation for the immediate and direct benefit of the organisation. Buildings, heating, lighting, salaries etc. Very little goes to charitable activities other than training and indoctrinating the next generation of money givers and money collectors.

  • Joel Hamilton

    The sad thing here is that no one writing on this page has never met John nor have they been to one of his meetings. I am really disappointed with Richard’s response since he isn’t talking from what he actually knows since he has had no connection with John. I have been going to meetings for over 10 years and I have not seen one leak in John’s teachings. I grew up in a tough area of town where you simply didn’t trust anyone. From the moment I first went to John’s meetings and he said something to the effect of that ‘One is a fool if he believes anyone or anything that he actually doesn’t know the Truth of in the deepest part of his heart,’ I knew he was a wise individual that was telling the Truth. John doesn’t ask people for money or use magic or hypnosis. He simply tells the Truth. A Truth that would take down anyones self-deluded beliefs. People that attack John are afraid that they might have to give up their self-created illusions. No one attacks Eckhart Tolle, who speaks of similar things but on a much more basic level than John,why, because he was on Oprah. God forbid you should stray from mainstream. Find out for yourselves. Read what John says on his website, in his book, anywhere you find him. Listen with a sharp mind, eagle eyes, but with the heart of a lamb and you’ll know for yourselves whatever Truth you are prepared to let in. John talks of higher consciousness, Real Meaning, human evolution. He is a deeply sincere, gentle, humble and quiet man. He lets people that don’t have money come to see him for free. He drives a twenty year old vehicle. He deeply loves his children. These are not the actions of a strange individual but rather of a kind, caring, lovely man. I only hope that I can be half the man that he is.

  • Truth?

    The man is a fraud. He has molested children, and is involved in a relationship with two sisters. He is the next Jim Jones. Every cult ends the same way…. people die, or take their own lives. Are people really that ignorant to believe that this man actually has a bit of wisdom? Listen to his speeches. If you can tell me the meaning behind one of them, please tell me. I have listened to the same two minute and nine second video over and over, and still have no idea what he is talking about. He is a crook, and and con-man. Nobody wants to see another Jonestown… so please be careful!
    As far as John De Ruter is concerned…. GO TO HELL!!

  • Tim K

    The “substance” of John’s utterances, pointless and vague as they are, are irrelevant. Read up on him at Rick Ross’s site for a good overview of his background and analysis of his garbage by qualified academics (such as Sociologist Steven Kent).

  • Jaime

    I am not a follower of John but have heard a couple of his tapes and most of the stuff he says is about detaching one from ones self or identity. I believe that what he is talking about awakening is that when we are detached from our identities therein lies an unbiased truthful self (identities that are described by our past). This is not a new discovery, it would equate to becoming completely objective. 
    Also, if you read between the lines and really become objective listen to what he is saying and not the neurotic people looking for help are. I think that is the main misconception here.  

    Religion is only dangerous when a neurotic person becomes righteous and acts on what he/she believes to be knowing of a false truth. True freedom is when the walls come down and I think it is Richard who is trying to keep them from being torn down. To be worried about his aunt is to identify(make real) a fear. The opposite I suggest would be to lose your identity and with it that fear. I suspect there is some gold there for you Richard. 

    I just noticed, too that this website is driven my another religion, what can you know. Spend your time letting go of your baggage and not feeding the fire of worry. 

    “Be what you know instead of teaching what you think you know.” – Jaime Weise

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