DEPROGRAMMING . The term deprogramming has been used since the 1970s to refer to a range of behaviors, all of which are aimed at convincing members of so-called new religious movements (NRMs) to leave such groups and return to more mainstream social and religious lifestyles. Such groups might be "cultic," that is, communal and with high-demand authoritarian leadership, or they may simply hold unconventional beliefs and rituals. Definitions of cult have been extremely variable and inclusive, and the term has been used to refer to groups ranging from Old Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses to members of the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, the Seventh-day Adventist–derived Branch Davidians, and even Pentecostals.
Deprogramming is regarded by its advocates as a "liberating" process that frees NRM members from a presumed hypnotic state of involuntary servitude or "mind control" that has been previously "programmed" into them. Deprogramming (as a term and practice) began in 1971 as the ad hoc vigilante response of one man, Theodore (Ted) Roosevelt Patrick Jr., to the intense missionizing activities of the Children of God, a fundamentalist Christian sect that was later renamed The Family. Patrick was a civil rights activist and Special Representative for Community Relations under California governor Ronald Reagan. According to Patrick's autobiographical Let Our Children Go! (1976), his teenage son and nephew met several missionaries of the Children of God and returned home noticeably and "mysteriously" disoriented. Patrick attended a meeting of the group and, by his account, found himself powerfully drawn to surrender his rationality and free will. Patrick claimed that he was contacted within a single week by fifty-two families who complained that their children had been similarly affected by the Children of God. Patrick developed a rough explanation of the "programming" (or conditioning) performed by that group. At the time, he had no knowledge of the post–Korean War coercive influence/brainwashing literature developed by U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) propagandists and psychologists.
The style of intervention that Patrick developed to "rescue" young persons from NRMs included sudden forcible abduction of a NRM member, detainment for days or longer in secured locations, the demeaning of the NRM, constant argumentation, and a barrage of verbal assaults on the integrity, sincerity, values, and activities of the religion and its leaders, all frequently interspersed with biblically based references. Patrick and other deprogrammers never claimed to be proselytizing their own personal credos—a claim that is contradicted by the sworn depositions and testimonies of some deprogrammees—but rather to simply "free minds" so that NRM members could once again think for themselves.
Noncoercive deprogramming attempts also occurred, as when a parent or clergyperson—by telephone, mail, or face-to-face—tried to create doubts or second thoughts in the mind of a young "cult" member who, in the absence of more than moral or emotional persuasion (i.e., without forcible restraint or violence), decided to leave the new faith. However, the coercive form of deprogramming caught public attention and became the object of opposition by such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union.
By the fall of 1971, Patrick had resigned his state position to devote himself full-time to mostly coercive deprogrammings. By early 1972 he was actively pursuing such interventions nationwide against a variety of NRMs, and he inspired a cottage industry of imitators, some of whom had been his apprentices. These deprogrammers represented a variety of backgrounds, from private investigators, insurance salesmen, and used-car salesmen to attorneys, degreed psychologists, and convicted felons.
The heyday of deprogramming occurred at the same time that some highly visible new religions were in apparent expansion. One source of deprogrammers' clientele was a subculture of relatives of previous NRM members who referred subjects to Patrick and other deprogrammers. Other sources included several anticult or counter-NRM organizations, such as the Citizens Freedom Foundation and its successor, the Cult Awareness Network (CAN).
There are few reliable estimates of how many deprogrammings took place. In the late 1980s sociologist David G. Bromley used a triangulation of media reports and internal organizational documents to track down almost four hundred attempted deprogrammings of members of the Unification Church. Bromley found that most of the successful deprogrammings were performed on persons either newly affiliating with the church or just beginning the process of disaffiliating, which suggests that the deprogrammers' faith in the efficacy of their techniques was overblown. Nevertheless, Bromley concluded that "the practice of forcibly separating individuals from religious groups for the purpose of inducing them to renounce their memberships is unprecedented in American religious history" (1988, p. 203).
Deprogrammings in Decline
By the late 1980s deprogrammers were seeking to shed Patrick's legacy of kidnapping and forcible confinement of deprogrammees, and they tried to upgrade their image to that of mental health therapists, or "exit counselors." Meeting at annual CAN conferences over a period of several years, they struggled to craft a code of ethics and to work out details, including a sliding scale of counseling fees that differentiated between academically trained and nondegreed practitioners. However, the resulting code of ethics focused mainly on the abuses of some deprogrammers who took drugs during deprogrammings and had sex with their captive clients, indicative of the unregulated "profession" that deprogramming had become.
Deprogrammings became all but extinct by the late 1990s for several reasons. First, there were some spectacularly bungled attempts, as when deprogrammers abducted the wrong person or allowed targeted persons to escape. In addition, the deprogrammings frequently did not work; it was relatively easy for deprogrammees to pretend to be deconverted ex-members ready to rejoin mainstream society, and then, when the counseling was supposedly finished, to bolt back to the NRM group. Few families could afford repeated deprogramming attempts since the practitioners began to charge upwards of $30,000.
Second, there were mounting legal costs for unsuccessful deprogrammers in criminal and civil proceedings. Several high-profile deprogrammers, including Patrick and private investigator Galen Kelly, served time in prison as judges became more aware of the religious liberties implications of deprogramming, as well as its status as an unrecognized, ersatz therapy. Coercive deprogramming and its questionable brainwashing assumptions were also aggressively criticized by civil liberties advocates, behavioral science scholars, and NRM spokespersons. Such criticism eventually tainted anticult "rescue" heroics with an odious reputation.
With the collapse of the CAN in 1996 due to bankruptcy as a result of civil suits brought against it (mostly by members of the Church of Scientology), deprogrammers, who now called themselves "thought reform" counselors or consultants, lacked a national referral conduit and either had to establish internet websites or gain footholds in local church community networks. However, the single legal case that finally brought an end to the CAN was Scott v. Ross (1995), a civil suit brought by Jason Scott, a United Pentecostal adult whose mother hired an "exit counselor" named Rick Ross to deprogram her three sons from a church of which she disapproved. After Scott's two brothers were successfully deprogrammed, Scott was violently abducted, physically abused, and forcibly detained at a remote Washington State location for almost a week.
The jury was clear in its decision to award damages to Scott ($875,000 in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages in the amount of $1,000,000; against CAN; $2,500,000 against Rick Ross; and $25,000 each against Ross's two accomplices). The CAN's primary activity in this and other operations was to provide the public and the media with false or inflammatory opinion in the guise of "information" about unconventional religions. The jury's decision, under the definitions provided in Washington law, was that CAN was an organized hate campaign. In a curt note to the defendants, who appealed the verdict, U.S. district court judge John C. Coughenour concluded:
Finally, the court notes each of the defendants' seeming incapability of appreciating the maliciousness of their conduct towards Mr. Scott. Rather, throughout the entire course of this litigation, they have attempted to portray themselves as victims of Mr. Scott's counsel's alleged agenda. Thus, the large award given by the jury against both CAN and Mr. Ross seems reasonably necessary to enforce the jury's determination on the oppressiveness of the defendants' actions and deter similar conduct in the future (Scott v. Ross, 1995).
The final death knell for deprogramming was shrinking public and official concern over many NRMs, some of which (such as the Unification Church) accommodated to the larger society and became, therefore, less visible, while others simply disappeared. In a time of war and fear of foreign terrorism, which characterized most of the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, NRMs in North America were not a major source of disquiet, and the market for interventions dramatically declined.
Bromley, David G. "Deprogrammings as a Mode of Exit from New Religious Movements: The Case of the Unification Church." In Falling from the Faith: Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy, edited by David G. Bromley, pp. 185–204. Beverly Hills, Calif., 1988.
Bromley, David G., and Anson D. Shupe Jr. Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare. Boston, 1981.
Jason Scott, Plaintiff, v. Rick Ross et al., Defendants. Case no. C94–00796, November 29, 1995. Remarks of U.S. district court judge John C. Coughenour, pp. 8, 14. Seattle, Wash.
Patrick, Ted, with Tom Dulack. Let Our Children Go! New York, 1976.
Richardson, James T. "A Social Psychological Critique of 'Brainwashing' Claims about Recruitment to New Religions." In The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America, edited by David G. Bromley and Jeffrey K. Hadden, pp. 75–97, vol. 2, part B. Greenwich, Conn., 1993.
Shupe, Anson D., Jr., and David G. Bromley. The New Vigilantes: Deprogrammers, Anti-Cultists, and the New Religions. Beverly Hills, Calif., 1980.
Shupe, Anson, Susan E. Darnell, and Kendrick Moxon. "The Cult Awareness Network and the Anticult Movement: Implications for NRMs in America." In New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, edited by Derek H. Davis and Barry Hankins, pp. 21–43. Waco, Tex., 2002.
Wright, Stuart A., and Helen Rose Ebaugh. "Leaving New Religions." In The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America, edited by David G. Bromley and Jeffrey K. Hadden, pp. 117–158, vol. 2, part B. Greenwich, Conn., 1993.
Anson Shupe (2005)