From Deprogramming to Thought Reform
Early on, according
to what some "old-timers" have told us, groups such as the
Children of God allowed parental access -- even visits to the group --
until a number of parents were successful at convincing their adult
children to leave the group. Then the Groups began severely restricting
In the mid-1970s
parents began reporting their adult children's involvement in new
religious (and some non-religious) groups that many call cults. They
reported rapid personality changes and concerns that their loved ones
were dropping out of school, shunning previous friends and family and
devoting themselves full time to working for these strange new groups to
which they pledged their total allegiance. Many parents concluded that
their children had been brainwashed.
Parents were doing
what they could to rescue their children from what were perceived as
dangerous situations. Through trial and error, the controversial process
of deprogramming developed. In the 1970s it became the preferred means
of rescuing a cult member, as to many it was perceived as the only way a
cult member could leave a cult. As we witness today, this is a
misperception as thousands of cult members walk away from cults
annually. In fact, in very unofficial polls taken at conferences and AFF
recovery workshops, the majority of people attending are walkaways. But
at the time, families based their decisions on the prevailing
information. And a good part of that decision was based on the fact that
in some groups, members were zealously protected from parents, often
having their names changed and moved from location to location.
We must add here that
not all deprogrammings were "rescue and hold" situations.
There were some where the group member was free to leave at any time and
there were some where ex-members sought voluntary deprogramming.
for our purpose today, and in our thinking, we will use the term
deprogramming to mean an involuntary situation, exit counseling to mean
a voluntary situation, and thought reform consultation to mean an
entirely different approach and we will seek to explain the differences
and the history.
coverage -- even to some extent today -- hyped the drastic deprogramming
approach and further spread the concept that it was parents' best, if
not only, option.
was controversial because it involved forcing a group member to listen
to people relate information not available in the cults. Some state
conservatorship legislation to legalize the process, one of which was
vetoed by the governor. Later the opposition to deprogramming and the
recognition of the effectiveness of less restrictive alternatives grew.
deprogramming, group members were sometimes abducted from the street;
although more commonly they were simply prevented from leaving their
homes or a vacation cabin or motel. Deprogramming often succeeded in
extricating the family member from the cult; nevertheless it failed more
often than many realized and sometimes lawsuits were filed against
parents and deprogrammers. In a few cases arrests and prosecution
The actual process of
a deprogramming, as we see it, differs a great deal from voluntary exit
counseling. Some of the ideas about cults and brainwashing prevalent at
the time contributed to that process. 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.
not only did the understanding of the process of thought reform grow,
but the voluntary approach of exit counseling proved to be effective --
and less risky psychologically as well as legally. A few individuals
committed themselves to doing exit counseling and refused to do "involuntaries."
within the exit counseling field, further branching off has occurred.
Some tend to be technique-oriented and/or advance a particular religious
perspective. Others are information oriented. They introduce themselves
as individuals with important information. Although they may have a
preference regarding how the group member chooses to respond to that
information, they take pains to avoid manipulating the group member.
model for the process is described in the book Exit
Counseling: A Family Intervention. The primary difference in exit
counseling is its voluntary nature but there are other differences as
well. Much more emphasis is placed on assessment, using a
pre-intervention interview and information form that enables the exit
counselor to determine the concerns specific to the family and the group
member and to weed out interventions wanted by families for an agenda
not appropriate to the undertaking of a serious intervention in an
individual's life; for example, Johnny is about to marry someone in the
group of a different race or culture or Johnny isn't attending xyz
church any longer. These examples, by the way, are few and far between.
For the majority of the time we see responsible families seeking help
for legitimate concerns. We need, however, to be careful that we are not
placing those concerns there or exaggerating them. There are some
situations where an intervention is not possible under the present
conditions, for example the family has no
access to the group member. Some families are referred to knowledgeable
mental health professionals for some work prior to planning an
intervention. Emphasis is placed on family communications with the group
member and education about the specific group, what it teaches, what
thought reform is and how it works, and the recovery process.
The process itself
differs from deprogramming, in our opinion, because it is a much more
respectful approach, it is non-confrontational, the exit counselors have
to prove their credibility, there is much more interaction
with the information and it seeks a primary
cognitive rather than a primary emotional response. Very seldom
is a visible "snapping"
moment seen -- but a gradual increase in interest, interaction, and
feedback with the information -- often accompanied with an increase of
interest in and interaction with the family.
Let me also say here
that exit counselors realize that an intervention is only the first
step. If the person decides to leave the group there is a long road to
recovery, that can take leaps and bounds if the individual is afforded
the opportunity to attend Wellspring, but they need much more emotional,
psychological and cognitive support and if there is no system set up for
that support, it may be
unethical to do an intervention.
In the 1980s many
attempts were made by individuals doing interventions to get together to
find ways to improve our profession and ourselves. But a difficulty
arose in the definition of exit counseling and deprogramming. Some
helping organizations at the time contributed to that confusion by
maintaining a position that there were voluntary and involuntary exit
counseling and voluntary and involuntary deprogramming. As a result,
without the ability to establish a clear-cut definition, at those
meetings people who called themselves exit counselors but were doing
involuntary deprogramming could not be excluded and our work to
establish ethical guidelines and a more professional approach spun its
wheels, so to speak. A group of individuals who had committed themselves
to voluntary interventions only began to meet regularly to share ideas
and information and to develop Ethical Standards. We formed an
organization of Thought Reform Consultants and eventually published our
Ethical Standards. Those Ethical Standards were patterned after the
Ethical Codes or Standards of the following organizations:
Association for Marriage & Family Therapy
Association of Social Workers
for the Private Practice of Clinical Social Work
Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors
We worked diligently
to combine those standards with some uniquely necessary to our
profession. And we owe our gratitude to the following advisors for their
professional support and encouragement:
Singer, Ph. D.
Langone, Ph. D.
Bardin, Esq. and Livia Bardin, M.S.W.
Goldberg, M.S.W. & Lorna Goldberg, M.S.W.
Martin, Ph. D.
reform consultation involves much, much more family preparation. It
is necessary for a 2-3 day, sometimes more, formal family
preparation involving all members of the family team and all thought
reform consultant team members. This formal preparation accomplishes
family team experiences how they work together under pressure and
how the thought reform consultants work together
the thought reform consulting team to observe how the family works
together under pressure and who may or may not be appropriate for
major roles in the intervention
family communication with the group member
the family to understand the culture of the group, its teachings and
how thought reform techniques impact the group member
the family for how to communicate in the intervention and what
practical arrangements should be made
the recovery process and their responsibility in it
the seriousness of an intervention and all its repercussions
the family in making a fully informed decision about doing an
Thought reform consultation
involves even more assessment, as you see -- and places much more
responsibility on the family. They realize that a team is not just going
to come in and perform some magical process and things will forever be
In both exit
counseling and thought reform consulting, the purpose of the
intervention is not
to get someone out of a cult. While that may be a desired outcome, the purpose
is to give the group member the information that enables them to make a
fully informed choice.