Deprogramming refers to actions that attempt to force a person to abandon allegiance to a religious, political, economic, or social group. Methods and practices typically involve violent kidnapping and coercion. Similar actions, when done without force, are called "exit counseling".
Deprogramming is often commissioned by relatives of the follower, often parents of adult children, and is taken against his/her will, which has led to controversies over freedom of religion and civil rights.
The validity and legality of involuntary deprogramming has been attacked by members of new religious movements (NRM), by the ACLU, and by professor Eileen Barker and other scholars. Their common argument asserts that it is dangerous and illegal to kidnap someone from any organization in which they voluntarily participate. Barker further argues that if the involuntary deprogramming fails then it will only widen the rift between the member of the NRM and his or her family.
While detractors of the practice focus on the sometimes illegal and violent activities by untrained and unlicensed practitioners, supporters of deprogramming portray the practice as an antidote to deceptive religious conversion practices by what they consider to be cults, such as mind control, brainwashing, thought reform, or coercive persuasion. They describe it as a last resort for families who feel that their loved ones have been taken away from them.
While during the 1970s and 1980s deprogramming was the main technique used to convert members of a faith, if not the only available, in later years other types of interventions followed, such as exit counseling, that are less traumatic for the follower and don't use any coercion.
Sometimes the word deprogramming is used in a wider sense, to mean the freeing of someone (often oneself) from any previously uncritically assimilated idea.
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 assert that the most essential part of freeing the mind of the person is to convince him that he had been under control.
In practice, the vast majority of the time spent during deprogramming sessions is the marshaling of evidence attempting to prove that the cult deceived and manipulated the recruit into joining. If a person accepts this premise, the remainder of the process flows from that.
Psychologist Steve Dubrow-Eichel did a study and analysis of the deprogramming of an ISKCON member which he accompanied and taped to a great part (with voluntary consent of all participants). The deprogramming observed by Dubrow-Eichel did not stress emotion, but information and analysis of alleged contradictions between words and deeds of the ISKCON leaders.
Dubrow-Eichel also found in published deprogramming accounts, besides a lot of variations, a number of common factors:
Ted Patrick, one of the pioneers of deprogramming, used a confrontational method:
A number of criminal proceedings against Patrick and other practitioners have resulted in felony convictions for kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment.
Patrick described details of some of his violent, forcible abductions in his book Let Our Children Go! (E. P. Dutton, 1976, page 96)
"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 (Stoner, C., & Parke, J. (1977). All God's children: The cult experience - salvation or slavery? Radrior, PA: Chilton ):
Deprogramming has often been associated with kidnapping, which has in some cases been part of the procedure. The percentage stated of cases involving kidnapping varies considerably, depending on the source. Joseph Szimhart, a former deprogrammer, says "until 1992, in a low percentage of my cases, included situations in which families elected to confine and sometimes abduct a 'cultist' to a deprogramming." (Kent & Szimhart, 2002). Former deprogrammer Rick Ross states that 90% of his deprogrammings since 1982 had been voluntary , other figures talk about 30% of the cases including kidnapping.
The deprogramming accounts vary a lot regarding the use of force, with the most dramatic accounts coming from deprogrammees who returned to the group.
Steven Hassan in his book Releasing the Bonds spoke decidedly against coercive deprogramming methods using force or threats.
The deprogramming case observed by Dubrow-Eichel did not include any violence.
In Colombrito vs. Kelly, the Court accepted the definition of deprogramming by J. Le Moult published in 1978 in the Fordham Law Review:
Exit counselor Carol Giambalvo writes in From Deprogramming to Thought Reform Consultation
Since the success of the deprogramming determined the legality of the endeavor (successful=converted member from his/her beliefs, or unsuccessful=traumatized kidnap victim), progressively extreme measures were taken.
Although the first group targeted was The Children of God, the term "deprogramming" applies most narrowly to a number of small, nominally Christian or Hindu sects using what Roy Masters terms "the Hindu-style, concentration-type meditation," whether or not the organization calls it meditation. Hundreds of meditation techniques were cataloged by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in The Book of Secrets, and hundreds of others were not. Whether a sect admits or denies it, concentration-type meditation creates a hypnotic milieu. For this reason, some Buddhists prohibit talking near a person who is meditating, lest he become hypnotized. In the communal groups, or "cults," using these methods, a member committing what George Orwell called "facecrime" (1984) would be encouraged to meditate or "pray" to eliminate the visibly negative emotion. Eventually the convert would do this automatically, "jamming" any thought that produced discomfort. Part of Patrick's technique was to persuade the deprogramming subject to stop his constant "praying" or "meditating" so that he would be able to think and to evaluate what he had been told.
Public support for deprogramming hinges on the degree to which people agree or disagree with the mind control model. In the United States, from the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s mind control 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.
After 10 or 15 years of this, 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 stopped being accepted as an expert witness after the APA declined to endorse the DIMPAC report. See also Brainwashing controversy in new religious movements.
Deprogrammers claim that the voluntary participation is due to mind control, a controversial theory that a person's thought processes can be changed by outside forces. They justify this intervention or therapy as necessary to bring the person out from under the influence of the group's mind control. The existence of mind control is widely disputed. Modern behavorist psychology, however, can do much to explain the ability of external forces to control actions even if it has studied little regarding the internal thought processes associated with them (although relational framing and other theoretical constructs hedge into such territory). Present-day psychological principles suggest that traditional deprogramming approaches would almost certainly be inferior to other forms of intervention. Even supposing mind control is possible, it would be extremely difficult to prove to a legal standard that any individual person's mind has been controlled. In light of the legal and psychological issues, less intrusive and more patient-oriented interventions will likely replace this practice completely.
Involuntary deprogramming has fallen into disfavor because of its controversial aspects. A number of prominent anti-cult groups and persons have distanced themselves from the practice, noting that a less intrusive form of intervention called exit counseling has been shown to be more effective, less harmful, and less likely to lead to legal action. Some organizations, such as the Church of Scientology, insist that the practice is still commonplace, and they often make statements that their critics and opponents are deprogrammers.
The American Civil Liberties Union published a statement in 1977 in which they position deprogramming as a violation of constitutional freedoms:
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.
In the 1980s in the United States, namely in New York (Deprogramming Bill, 1981), Kansas (Deprogramming Bill, 1982), and Nebraska (conservatorship legislation for 1985), lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to legalize involuntary deprogramming.
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, Rick Ross, a noted cult intervention advocate who took part in a number of deprogramming sessions, was sued by Jason Scott, a former member of a group called the Life Tabernacle Church, after an attempt at intervention after an abduction was unsuccessful. The jury awarded Scott $875,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000,000 in punitive damages against the Cult Awareness Network, and $2,500,000 against Ross, which were later settled for $5,000 and 200 hours of services "as an expert consultant and intervention specialist" (Scott vs. Ross, Workman, Simpson, Cult Awareness Network). The judgment was used to force CAN into bankruptcy, and its name and assets were purchased by a representative of the Church of Scientology, which had been frequently criticized by CAN, shortly afterwards. This case was seen as effectively closing the door on the practice of involuntary deprogramming.
Ted Patrick was found guilty of kidnapping Roberta McElfish, a 25-year old woman of Tucson, Ariz., in order to deprogram her in 1980 from a group known as the Wesley Thomas Family. The handful of cases in which Patrick lost involved jurisdictions in which his Common Law "defense of necessity" argument was not recognized by the court, or in which the court prevented the defense from informing the jury that Patrick had been hired by the subject's parents.
In the case of Kathy Crampton, whose abduction and deprogramming were televised nationally, she went back to the Love Family group several days after the apparently successful deprogramming. Patrick was charged for kidnapping, but he was acquitted with the reasoning: :"[w]here parents are, as here, of the reasonable and intelligent belief that they were not physically capable of recapturing their daughter from existing, imminent danger, then the defense of necessity transfers or transposes to the constituted agent, the person who acts upon their belief under such conditions. Here that agent is the Defendant [Ted Patrick] '' ((District Court of the United States 1974: 79; New York Times 1974).
According to Kathy's mother, Henrietta, the Love Family bestowed "virtue names" on senior members. The leader, Paul Erdman, was "Love Israel." Others had names like "Strength" or "Honesty Israel," but only "Love" had a name which could equate to "God." New members who participated in the "sacramental" use of LSD in Erdman's presence invariably learned that "Love is greater than equal to God," and that they had to give him all of their money and possessions. When Henrietta asked her daughter whether she could say that Love might not be God, she reported that "the muscles stood out on her neck, she broke out in a sweat and she said that she could not say that." Henrietta described an earlier visit to her daughter in Seattle in which Kathy, a former high school song girl, came to the door with her face covered with pus from a scabies infection. Love prohibited members from seeing physicians or optometrists. Henrietta contacted the Health Department and other officials, pressuring them to quarantine the commune, and Love eventually changed his policy. With her new war cry of "the man who did this to my daughter is going to pay," Henrietta sought out Ted Patrick and joined his Volunteer Parents of America group. Shortly, unimpressed by Patrick's control of his group, she became one of the four founders of the new Citizens Freedom Foundation, (CFF), which was eventually absorbed by the old CAN.
Steve Hassan, author of the book Combatting 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. Hassan states that he has not participated in any deprogrammings since then, even though page 114 of Combatting, Hassan states 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."
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 (e.g., 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. Because they rely on coercion, which is illegal except in the case of conservatorship and is generally viewed as unethical, deprogrammers' critiques of the unethical practices of cults will tend to have less credibility with cult members than the critiques of exit counselors.