Deprogramming is the process of removing a person thought to be under "mind control" from a religious or other community and influencing him or her to abandon allegiance to the group. It is normally commissioned by concerned relatives of the follower, often parents of adult children and involves forcible abduction. Historically, it usually involved confining the person against his or her will without prior psychological evaluation. This led to controversies over freedom of religion and civil rights in the United States, Europe, and Japan in the late twentieth century.
Supporters of deprogramming portray the practice as an antidote to supposedly coercive religious conversion practices by "cults." They describe it as a desperate but necessary resort for families who feel that their loved ones have been taken away from them and may be in serious danger. The courts in democratic countries where deprogramming occurred have generally ruled that it constitutes a serious crime, involving both kidnapping and a violation of the victim's right to freedom of religion and association.
While during the 1970s and 1980s, deprogramming was a common technique, in later years—especially after deprogrammers found themselves liable to criminal charges and expensive civil suits—other types of non-forcible interventions, such as "exit counseling," followed that do not involve kidnapping and forcible confinement.
Forcible deprogramming has virtually disappeared in western countries, but it is still reported occasionally in Japan and countries of the former Soviet bloc. A widespread state-sponsored, often extremely violent deprogramming campaign is in progress in China against members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
While the term "deprogramming" first came into use in the 1970s, the phenomenon of parents and relatives taking desperate measures to influence a convert to renounce a new faith dates back to ancient times. However, it should be noted that proponents of deprogramming make a distinction between this practice and its precursors. (Deprogrammers argue that they are not opposed to religious conversion per se, but only to the techniques of "cults" that engage in "mind control." In this view, adherents to religions and other groups considered as "cults" have not willingly submitted themselves to a spiritual discipline but have been brainwashed by techniques of "coercive persuasion," requiring a drastic intervention.)
In the New Testament, the mother and brothers of Jesus of Nazareth were so concerned about Jesus' preaching that they believed him to be insane: "When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, 'He is out of his mind'" (Mark 3:21). This prompted Jesus to disassociate himself from his family, saying: "Who are my mother and my brothers?… Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3:33-34).
The history of western religion contains many examples of people being forced to renounce a new-found faith. The Apostle Paul, before becoming a Christian, reportedly worked as an agent of the Jewish high priest to forcibly remove new Christians from their communities and bring them to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2). The parents of St. Francis of Assisi went to the civil authorities to force him to recant his decision to give away his possessions and devote himself to "Lady Poverty." The Spanish Inquisition resorted to torture and death threats in order to influence heretics to leave their new faiths and return to the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation witnessed numerous families being divided as members opted for opposing versions of Christianity. Even in the New World, known for its religious freedom, Baptists were whipped in an effort to repress their "heresy" in Massachusetts, and Quakers were sometimes executed if they refused to recant their views.
The American and French revolutions contained guarantees of freedom of religion. However, in practice, citizens who opted for new or unpopular faiths were not necessarily protected if family members decided to force them back to more traditional ways. In the early nineteenth century, a wave of fear over the Masonic "conspiracy" resulted in numerous cases of Masons being pressured into publicly denouncing their brethren under threats of both social and physical punishments. In the later nineteenth century, members of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and other new religions were vulnerable to agents of their relatives who sometimes forcibly removed them from their communities against their will. In the U.S., Supreme Court decisions gradually upheld the constitutional right of adults to choose a new religion even over their parents' objections, and the right to choose one's own religion also gained greater acceptance in the western democracies. After the end of World War II, this right was guaranteed in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief… (Article 18).
With religious freedom firmly established in most western countries, parents wishing to force their adult children back into traditional faiths and lifestyles were left with no legal means. Deprogramming would emerge in the early 1970s, as a remedy for this perceived problem, complete with a theory of "mind control" or "brainwashing" that sought, ultimately unsuccessfully, to bypass religious freedom issues.
The word "deprogramming" was coined by Ted Patrick, a Democratic community activist who became concerned about the danger of "cults" after the Children of God attempted to recruit his son in San Diego, California in 1971. Patrick infiltrated the group and came to see them, and virtually all new religious movements as a serious threat. Although he had no training as a psychologist, Patrick concluded that "cult" members were literally incapable of exercising their freedom of will, because their minds had been systematically controlled by their leaders. "Thinking to a cult member is like being stabbed in the heart with a dagger," said Patrick. "It's very painful because they've been told that the mind is Satan and thinking is the machinery of the Devil."
Patrick had soon made a career of kidnapping and "deprogramming" members of such groups as Hare Krishna (Formal name: International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON)), Scientology, the Children of God, the Unification Church, and others. A nationwide network was soon spawned involving deprogrammers, private detectives, abduction teams, guards to prevent "deprogrammees" from escaping their "rescuers," and anti-cult groups that educated the public against "cults" and simultaneously referred frightened parents to deprogrammers.
Patrick described details of some of his forcible abductions in his book, Let Our Children Go!
"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 get him inside while he was braced like that. I had to make a quick decision. I reached down between Wes' 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."
While nearly all deprogrammings involved abductions and forcible confinement (influencing a person to leave a group without forcibly removing or confining them is normally known as "exit counseling," while deprogramming generally includes the practice of taking a person from the group and confining them against their will), not all deprogrammers ascribed to Patrick's brand of physical intimidation and scare tactics. On the other hand, as the demand for deprogrammers increased during the "cult scare" of the 1970s, deprogrammers widened their scope and offered the services not only to relatives of members of new religions, but also to parents who objected to their adult children joining left-wing political groups, Pentecostal Christian churches, lesbian organizations, Hasidic Jewish movements, and even the Roman Catholic Church.
With the general public and mass media in that late 1970s swept up in a "cult scare," courts at first ruled inconsistently on the fundamental issues. The American Psychological Association launched a task force to examine the question of "brainwashing" by religious groups, and some state legislatures attemted to pass law legalizing deprgromming.
Especially in its early stages, police sometimes sided with deprogrammers and refused to help adult citizens being held against their will by their relatives. Although this practice was eventually stopped in the U.S. and Europe, the phenomenon was still reported occurring in Japan in the early 2000s. (Former deprogrammers continue to work closely with police when possible, as evidenced by Rick Ross' acting as an adviser to the FBI during the Branch Davidian siege of 1993 in Waco, Texas, which ultimately resulted in the deaths of 79 Branch Davidians.)
Worse still, several judges in the United States cooperated with parents and anti-cult groups in issuing conservatorships, granting relatives custody over adult "cult" members on the grounds that, even though no court officer or psychologist had interviewed the person, he or she was judged to be mentally incompetent. Police in such cases were legally required to cooperate with deprogrammers. A number of state-sanctioned legal deprogrammings took place under this procedure until higher courts made it clear that such practices violated the civil rights of those who had chosen new faiths.
Meanwhile, several criminal proceedings against Ted Patrick resulted in felony convictions for kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment. Other deprogrammers likewise found themselves in trouble with law. However, throughout the 1970s and 80s, many thousands of young adults had joined new religions, and after the Jonestown tragedy of 1978, the "cult scare" among American and Euopean parents continued to create a strong market for deprogrammers. Ex-cult members who had themselves been deprogrammed, such as ex-Unificationist Steven Hassan, sometimes became deprogrammers themselves.
Attempts to change state laws to legalize deprogramming in the the U.S. have not succeeded. New York was the first state to propose a deprogramming bill in 1981. It passed based both houses of the legislature but was vetoed by then-Governor Hugh Carey. Similar attempts to legalize deprogramming also met with failure in Kansas, New Jersey, Nebraska, and Maryland. Opposing this legislation was a widespread coalition of civil rights and mainstream religious groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. National Association of Churches.
Even after deprogramming's demise in the U.S. and Western Europe, a wave of interest in new religions in the former Soviet bloc in the early 1990s, resulted in deprogramming experiencing a revival in some Eastern European countries. Also, in Japan, hundreds of adherents of new religions, especially members of the Unification Church, faced deprogramming attempts during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Legal rulings in both Japan and Eastern Europe have generally gone against deprogramming, although occasional cases of forced abduction and confinement of "sect" members are still reported.
European anti-sect organizations have succeeded in criminalizing "mental coercion" by "sect" leaders in several countries, although actual deprogramming cases remain rare. On the other hand, a widespread government-sponsored deprogramming campaign currently exists in China, aimed primarily at members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. The Chinese government has acknowledged its cooperation with "International Anti-Cult organizations" and has forced thousands of Falun Gong members into "rehabilitation camps." Finally, it should be mentioned that forced "de-conversion" of former Muslims who joined other faiths is legal in some Muslim countries, where conversion from Islam is banned.
While there is no "standard" deprogramming procedure, the general procedure involves:
Sylvia Buford, an associate of Ted Patrick who assisted him on many deprogrammings, described five stages of deprogramming (Stoner 1979):
Opponents of deprogramming point out that the actions of deprogrammers constitute a much more extreme form of so-called "mind control" than anything practiced by "cult" groups. Moreover, virtually no cases have been produced involving new religious groups actually holding a person against his or her will, as is the case with deprogramming.
Beyond the basic question of forcible confinement, reports of more egregious forms of violence during the deprogramming process were widespread. British sociologist Eileen Barker wrote:
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.
Exit counselor Carol Giambalvo admitted:
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.
While distinctions can be made between "forcible" and "voluntary" deprogramming, American courts accepted as fact that deprogramming—in that it forcibly confines a person against his or her will—involves violence against the deprogrammee, as well as false imprisonment, and even kidnapping. In the landmark Colombrito vs. Kelly case, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court accepted the definition of deprogramming offered by J. Le Moult and 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.
Courts also ruled that not only the deprogrammers themselves, but also the parents of adult members of new religions, could be criminally and civilly liable in deprogramming cases if they had hired an agent who carried out a crime in an effort to force an adult to renounce his or her chosen faith. The theory that the adherents of new religions were "brainwashed" was rejected as a basis for justifying forcible confinement and deprogramming.
By the mid-1980s, deprogrammers were on the defensive in the courts. A major blow against the practice was struck in 1987, when the American Psychological Association refused to endorse the findings of pro-deprogramming psychologist Margaret Singer in a report the APA itself had commissioned her to create. From 1990 on, American courts consistently rejected Singer and other "mind-control" theorists, finding that such theories were not part of accepted mainline science.
During the 1990s, deprogrammer Rick Ross was sued by Jason Scott, a former member of a Pentacostal group called the Life Tabernacle Church, after an unsuccessful deprogramming attempt. In 1995, the jury awarded Scott $875,000 in compensatory damages and and $2,500,000 in punitive damages against Ross, which were later settled for $5,000 and 200 hours of services. 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.
A number of prominent anti-cult groups and persons have distanced themselves from the practice of forcible deprogramming, noting that less intrusive forms of intervention have been shown to be more effective, less harmful, and less likely to lead to legal action. Former deprogrammers, some of whom had already begun using less violent techniques to persuade "cult" members to leave their groups in the late 1970s and 1980s, adopted terms such as "exit counseling" and "thought control reform" to describe non-coercive means of accomplishing the goal that deprogramming had originally tried to accomplish. Exit counseling rejects force, dealing only with clients who willingly agree to speak to the counselor.
Proponents of new religious movements, as well people who value religious freedom and tolerance, sometimes oppose exit counseling. Some exit counselors, they argue, cooperate with "clients" who have previously been held against their will and then enter the scene after others have done the "dirty work" for them. Exit counselors, such as former deprogrammer Steven Hassan, affirm that they refuse to deal with clients under such circumstances. Another objection to exit counseling is that, even though it does not involve force, it targets members of religious minorities and, like deprogramming, presumes a person to be "brainwashed" simply because he or she belongs to an unpopular religious group. Critics of exit counseling also argue that "mind control" is an exaggerated and misleading term describing religious discipline, and that mental manipulation is not a primary factor in choosing a religious affiliation.
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