Deprogramming is an attempt to force a person to abandon allegiance to a religious, political, economic, or social group. The person in question is may be taken against his/her will, which has led to controversies over freedom of religion, kidnapping, and civil rights, as well as the violence which is sometimes involved. Deprogramming is often commissioned by relatives, including parents of adult offspring, who object to someone’s membership in an organization or group.

It was started in the 1970s in the United States by Ted Patrick (widely considered to be the ‘father of deprogramming’). In addition to the ethics and legality, the efficacy of deprogramming has been questioned by scholars, as well as by members of the Christian countercult movement. Similar actions, when done without force, are called ‘exit counseling.’ Sometimes the word deprogramming is used in a wider (and/or ironic or humorous sense), to mean the freeing of someone (often oneself) from any previously uncritically assimilated idea.

Steven Hassan, a former deprogrammer, wrote: ‘In the early 1970s, Ted Patrick—a man with plenty of street smarts but, at the time, no formal training in counseling—believed that members of his family were being brainwashed by David Berg, the leader of a group called the Family International, now known as ‘The Family.’ Patrick was determined to take action. He reasoned that since cults use indoctrination methods that ‘program’ beliefs through hypnosis, repetition, and behavior modification techniques, he would reverse the process. He called the new procedure ‘deprogramming.”

Deprogramming is essentially a content-oriented persuasion approach that sometimes involves abduction and typically involves forced detention. The actual deprogramming takes place when it is deemed possible to ‘pick up’ the cult member, and when it is convenient for the deprogrammer. Typically, the cult member is driven to a secret location and guarded 24 hours a day, often with no privacy, even in the bathroom. Windows are sometimes nailed shut to prevent escape. The deprogramming continues for days, and sometimes weeks, until the cult member snaps out of the cult’s mind control (or successfully pretends to do so). Law professor Douglas Laycock, author of ‘Religious Liberty: The free exercise,’ wrote: ‘Beginning in the 1970s, many parents responded to the initial conversion with ‘deprogramming.’ The essence of deprogramming was to physically abduct the convert, isolate him and physically restrain him, and barrage him with continuous arguments and attacks against his new religion, threatening to hold him forever until he agreed to leave it.’ Legal scholar Dean M. Kelley called deprogramming ‘protracted spiritual gang-rape.’

There has never been any standard deprogramming procedure and the descriptions vary greatly. There are many anecdotal reports and studies involving interviews of former deprogrammees. Deprogrammers generally operate on the assumption that the people they are paid to extract from religious organizations are victims of mind control (or brainwashing). Books written by deprogrammers and exit counselors say that the most essential part of freeing the mind of a person is to convince them that they had been under control. Ted Patrick used a confrontational method: ‘When you deprogram people, you force them to think…But I keep them off balance and this forces them to begin questioning, to open their minds. When the mind gets to a certain point, they can see through all the lies that they’ve been programmed to believe. They realize that they’ve been duped and they come out of it. Their minds start working again.’ A number of criminal proceedings against Patrick have resulted in felony convictions for kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment. Patrick described details of some of his abductions in his book ‘Let Our Children Go!’ (1976): ‘Wes had taken up a position facing the car, with his hands on the roof and his legs spread-eagled. There was no way to let him inside while he was braced like that. I had to make a quick decision. I reached down between Wes’s legs, grabbed him by the crotch and squeezed—hard. He let out a howl, and doubled up, grabbing for his groin with both hands. Then I hit, shoving him headfirst into the back seat of the car and piling in on top of him.’

Sylvia Buford, an associate of Ted Patrick who has assisted him on many deprogrammings, described five stages of deprogramming: Discredit the figure of authority (the cult leader); Present contradictions (ideology versus reality, e.g. how can he preach love when he exploits people?); The breaking point (reality begins to take precedence over ideology); Self-expression (the subject begins to open up and voice gripes against the cult); and Identification and transference (the subject begins to identify with the deprogrammers, starts to think of him- or herself as an opponent of the cult rather than a member of it).

In regards to the use of physical intimidation or force, Sociologist Eileen Barker wrote in ‘Watching for Violence’: ‘Although deprogramming has become less violent in the course of time … Numerous testimonies by those who were subjected to a deprogramming describe how they were threatened with a gun, beaten, denied sleep and food and/or sexually assaulted. But one does not have to rely on the victims for stories of violence: Ted Patrick, one of the most notorious deprogrammers used by CAGs [Certificates Of Advanced Graduate Study] (who has spent several terms in prison for his exploits) openly boasts about some of the violence he employed; in November 1987, Cyril Vosper, a Committee member of the British cult-awareness group, FAIR, was convicted in Munich of ‘causing bodily harm’ in the course of one of his many deprogramming attempts; and a number of similar convictions are on record for prominent members of CAGs elsewhere.’

In ‘Colombrito vs. Kelly,’ the Court accepted the definition of deprogramming by J. Le Moult published in 1978 in the ‘Fordham Law Review’: ‘Deprogrammers are people who, at the request of a parent or other close relative, will have a member of a religious sect seized, then hold him against his will and subject him to mental, emotional, and even physical pressures until he renounces his religious beliefs. Deprogrammers usually work for a fee, which may easily run as high as $25,000. The deprogramming process begins with abduction. Often strong men muscle the subject into a car and take him to a place where he is cut from everyone but his captors. He may be held against his will for upward of three weeks. Frequently, however, the initial deprogramming only last a few days. The subject’s sleep is limited and he is told that he will not be released until his beliefs meet his captors’ approval. Members of the deprogramming group, as well as members of the family, come into the room where the victim is held and barrage him with questions and denunciations until he recants his newly found religion “

Exit counselor Carol Giambalvo writes in ‘From Deprogramming to Thought Reform Consultation’: ‘It was believed that the hold of the brainwashing over the cognitive processes of a cult member needed to be broken – or ‘snapped’ as some termed it – by means that would shock or frighten the cultist into thinking again. For that reason in some cases cult leader’s pictures were burned or there were highly confrontational interactions between deprogrammers and cultist. What was often sought was an emotional response to the information, the shock, the fear, and the confrontation. There are horror stories – promoted most vehemently by the cults themselves – about restraint, beatings, and even rape. And we have to admit that we have met former members who have related to us their deprogramming experience – several of handcuffs, weapons wielded, and sexual abuse. But thankfully, these are in the minority – and in our minds, never justified. Nevertheless, deprogramming helped to free many individuals held captive to destructive cults at a time when other alternatives did not seem viable.’

Others take a less favorable view of deprogramming. Alan W. Gomes (chairman of the department of theology at Biola University, an evangelical Christian school) in his 2009 book ‘Unmasking the Cults’ reports: ‘While advocates of the deprogramming position have claimed high rates of success, studies show that natural attrition rates actually are higher than the success rate achieved through deprogramming. The Dialog Center International (DCI) is a major Christian counter-cult organization founded in 1973 by a Danish professor of missiology (the study of missionary work) and ecumenical theology. Professor of psychiatry Saul Levine suggests that it is doubtful that deprogramming helps many people and goes on to say that it actually causes harm to the victim by very nature of the deprogramming. For deprogramming to work, the victim must be convinced that they joined a religious group against their will. They then must renounce responsibility and accept that in some mysterious way that their minds were controlled. It is Levine’s professional opinion that once deprogrammed, a person would never be certain that they were really doing what they want. He states that deprogramming destroys a person’s identity and is likely to create permanent anxiety about freedom of choice and leave the deprogrammed subject dependent upon the guidance and advice of others. ‘Fundamentally deprogramming denies choice and creates dependency. It robs people of their sense of responsibility. Instead of encouraging people to accept that they made a mistake, it encourages people to deny their actions and blame others.’

In the United States, from the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s the concept of ‘mind control’ (‘brainwashing’) was widely accepted, and the vast majority of newspaper and magazine accounts of deprogrammings assumed that recruits’ relatives were well justified to seek conservatorships and to hire deprogrammers. It took nearly 20 years for public opinion to shift. One aspect that gradually became disturbing from a civil rights point of view, was that relatives would use deception, or legal dealings or even kidnapping to get the recruit into deprogrammers’ hands, without allowing the person any recourse to a lawyer or psychiatrist of their own choosing. Previously, there would be a sanity hearing first, and only then a commitment to an asylum or involuntary therapy. But with deprogramming, judges routinely granted parents legal authority over their adult children without a hearing. One of main objections raised to deprogramming (as well as to exit counseling) is the contention that they begin with a false premise. Lawyers for some groups who have lost members due to deprogramming, as well as some civil libertarians, sociologists and psychologists, argue that it is not the religious groups but rather the deprogrammers who are the ones who deceive and manipulate people. David Bromley and Anson Shupe wrote: ‘Deprogrammers are like the American colonials who persecuted ‘witches’: a confession, drawn up before the suspect was brought in for torturing and based on the judges’ fantasies about witchcraft, was signed under duress and then treated as justification for the torture.’

Some of these adult children began suing their parents or deprogrammers. Since that time, involuntary deprogramming has been virtually unknown in the United States. Also, in the mid-1980s, psychologist Margaret Singer (an expert ‘mind control’) stopped being accepted as an expert witness. The American Civil Liberties Union published a statement in 1977 which said: ‘ACLU opposes the use of mental incompetency proceedings, temporary conservatorship, or denial of government protection as a method of depriving people of the free exercise of religion, at least with respect to people who have reached the age of majority. Mode of religious proselytizing or persuasion for a continued adherence that do not employ physical coercion or threat of same are protected by the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment against action of state laws or by state officials. The claim of free exercise may not be overcome by the contention that ‘brainwashing’ or ‘mind control’ has been used, in the absence of evidence that the above standards have been violated.’

Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church (many of whose members were targets of deprogramming) issued this statement in 1983: ‘The methods involved in ‘deprogramming’ are like those used in Communist concentration camps. Using parents and relatives to entrap members, ‘deprogrammers’ commit grown adults to mental hospitals with the supposed ‘illness’ of holding of a minority religious belief. Other typical deprogramming techniques include kidnapping, illegal detention, violence, psychological harassment, sleep deprivation, inducement to use alcohol and drugs, sexual seduction, and rape. By such threats, harassment and manipulation professional ‘deprogrammers’ force members to renounce their faith. Many people are injured physically and psychologically because of this criminal activity.’

During the 1990s, deprogrammer Rick Ross was sued by Jason Scott, a former member of a Pentecostal group called the Life Tabernacle Church, after an unsuccessful deprogramming attempt. In 1995, the jury awarded Scott $875,000 in compensatory damages and $2,500,000 in punitive damages against Ross (he later settled for $5,000 and 200 hours of services ‘as an expert consultant and intervention specialist’). More significantly, the jury also found that the leading anti-cult group known as the Cult Awareness Network was a co-conspirator in the crime and fined CAN $1,000,000 in punitive damages, forcing the group into bankruptcy. This case is often seen as effectively closing the door on the practice of involuntary deprogramming in the United States. Noted people who have undergone deprogramming include Kathy Crampton, abducted from the Love Family hippie commune; Susan Wirth, a 35 year old teacher living in San Francisco, kidnapped by her parents to be deprogramed from her leftist political views and activities; Stephanie Riethmiller, kidnapped by her parents to remove her from a lesbian relationship; and Elma Miller, an Amish woman who had joined a liberal sect.

Steve Hassan, author of the book ‘Combating Cult Mind Control,’ states that he took part in a number of deprogrammings in the late 1970s, and has spoken out against them since 1980. However, he concedes that deprogrammings can be kept as last resort if all other attempts fail. He is one of the major proponents of exit counseling as a form of intervention therapy, and he refers to his method as ‘strategic intervention therapy.’ Deprogramming and exit counseling, sometimes seen as one and the same, are distinct approaches to helping a person to leave a cult. Some people blur the distinctions on purpose: some practitioners do so to avoid criticism; some opponents do so to intensify criticism. Proponents of the distinction, however, state that deprogramming entails coercion and confinement. In exit counseling the cult member is free to leave at any time. Deprogramming typically costs $10,000 or more, mainly because of the expense of a security team. Exit counseling typically costs $2,000 to $4,000, including expenses, for a three-to-five day intervention, although cases requiring extensive research of little-known groups can cost much more. Deprogramming, especially when it fails, entails considerable legal and psychological risk (for example, a permanent alienation of the cultist from his or her family). The psychological and legal risks in exit counseling are much smaller. Although deprogrammers prepare families for the process, exit counselors tend to work more closely with families and expect them to contribute more to the process; that is, exit counseling requires that families establish a reasonable and respectful level of communication with their loved one before the exit counseling proper can begin.

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