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Home arrow Psychological Issues arrow Deprogramming and Exit-Counseling - Are They For Christians?

Deprogramming and Exit-Counseling - Are They For Christians?

by Randall Watters

You are sitting in a hotel room, thinking that you would like to be anywhere else in the world but where you are. Sitting next to you is your mother, the strain of the last three days evident by the lines in her face. Your 27 yearold brother is here, not by choice, but as part of a threeday session designed (as far as he sees it) to challenge his faith in the Watchtower organization.

...The first day he was confident, assertive and even arrogant in defense of his faith. Today he is no longer sure what to think about the organization of over four million people who follow the teachings of an elite Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses in New York City.

Due to fatigue from sitting for several days, a stranger in his thirties is asking some pointed questions of the young man, waiting for an answer. Rather than putting the words in his mouth, he is willing to wait in silence, sometimes for five minutes or more, for the young man to answer the questions of his own accord. You want to tell him what to say so badly that you are ready to scream. Why can't he see? Your mother will not help him to answer either he is on his own.

Was the young man kidnaped? Is he being held against his will?

No, he is undergoing what is commonly called an intervention, cousin to the more sensational scenario of deprogramming.

Deprogramming gained notoriety back in the seventies through such figures as Ted Patrick, a short and stocky black man who set out to probe the underground world of religious cults in order to free young people who were caught up in the clutches of deceptive organizations. Formerly appointed as head of community relations for San Diego and Imperial counties in California by Governor Ronald Reagan, Patrick became concerned when his son Michael had a brush with a band of teenagers involved in an evangelistic group called the Children of God. Curious, Patrick sought them out, seeking to infiltrate their group just to see what they were all about. He discovered an intense indoctrination program designed to wear down the natural defenses of young people (and middle-aged ones like himself!) through constant bombardment with propaganda, lack of sleep, and sensual stimulation coupled with reading Bible verses. Unexpectedly, Patrick himself began to feel he was losing grip on reality, as if he was drawn into a hypnotist's spell.

After escaping the group, Patrick began an investigation into religious cults that led him into a new kind of rescue work known as deprogramming. Known by cults as "black lightning" for his no-nonsense approach, he was seen as a savior by parents and their deprogrammed children, but as the devil incarnate by the Moonies, Children of God, Hare Krishnas, etc.

Ted Patrick was only one of dozens of others who entered the field of deprogramming, who were likely exmembers of cults themselves. Due to the need to often abduct cult victims in order to get them away from the group long enough to talk to them, they occasionally spent time in jail if the deprogramming was unsuccessful and if the cult victim pressed charges (by the cult's insistence). In the case of minors, however, the police often assisted in the abduction, under the direction of the victim's parents.

Exit Counseling

While deprogramming still exists on a small scale, a more desirable approach is being utilized in recent years, as explained by Steven Hassan in Combatting Cult Mind Control. Steven is himself a former highranking official in the Unification Church (Moonies). He was deprogrammed after he fell asleep from exhaustion and crashed while driving a fund-raising van. His Jewish mother had prayed for God to break his leg, and that is exactly what happened, giving the family an occasion to hire deprogrammers. The session was successful, and Steve is now one of the more vocal of a new breed of men and women known as exit-counselors. Is this merely a more polished title for a deprogrammer, or is there a difference?

Deprogramming generally involves abduction or isolation from the cult. Recently on the TV program 48 Hours a deprogrammer, Rick Ross from Arizona, flew to Alaska to help extricate a young man from the clutches of a local fundamentalist church that was purported to use mind control techniques on their members. The young man was abducted by the family and taken to a hotel room where he was subject to questioning and discussion for several days. While the young man ended up leaving the group, some viewers felt that deprogramming is itself a form of mind control, used in reverse to get a person out of an aberrant group.

Margaret T. Singer, Professor of Psychology at U.C. Berkeley and an expert in the field of cult mind control, explained that this is not the case.

"I personally see entering the cult and the deprogramming as quite separate psychological phenomena. Getting into the cult consists of the cult recruiter getting the new initiate to stop the thought processes, to think only in cult terms and concepts, to stop thinking about their past and to give them a [narrow] frame of thought... The deprogramming process is more a freeing up of the person to once again use their mind and to reflect and think and reason and to trust their own experiences." --from a 1979 TV show, Thy Will Be Done.

While most of us recoil at the idea of using any "strongarm" tactics on a loved one, some (usually parents of children involved in extremist cults) feel that the cult is so dangerous as to warrant abduction and possible arrest. But more than likely the idea of an "intervention" (an event involving exit-counseling) is more appealing, as no force or deception is involved. How does an intervention proceed? Who is qualified to be an exit-counselor?

An intervention begins with a phone call. A relative or friend of the cultist consults with an exit-counselor. A case evaluation form is mailed to be completed, describing the history of the person's cult involvement, how the family member has reacted to it and what attempts have been made to talk the victim out of their involvement, etc. The case is reviewed by the exit-counselor. Tactics and fees are discussed (fees often amount to several thousand dollars when travel expenses, etc. are taken into consideration). If agreeable to both parties, an initial plan of action is prepared, either overt or covert. An overt plan involves using a direct approach, typically a three-day session with the cultist. For those who are unlikely to agree to overt counseling and discussion, a covert plan is discussed. which often includes a lot of preparatory work, such as arranging circumstantial encounters by the cultist with various former cult members (usually ex-members of other religious groups) who just happen to "bump into" the cultist. These encounters would include sharing a little of their testimony with the cult member, hoping to plant some seeds of critical thought relevant to the cultist's own involvement. Such encounters may be made at bus stops, in the store, at work or even at home, as when "strangers" may be asked to dinner by other family members. The concept is simple: A JW (for instance) does not feel threatened by talking to a former Moonie, but when Moonie mind control techniques are discussed, the JW may begin to sense the frightening similarities between organizations (like his) that, although varying widely in doctrine, are otherwise quite similar in mind control techniques.1

When sufficient groundwork has been laid for the covert intervention, the exit-counselor is brought in together with an ex-member of the cult.

An intervention typically lasts 3 to 5 days. It is scheduled for a time when the cult member will be accessible, and when the family or concerned friends will be available for at least three days. The location will usually be a hotel room or any place where distractions will not hinder the conversation. The family informs the cult member on the morning of the first day that they have been concerned that perhaps he has not been fully informed about the organization with which he is involved. The family wants the assurance that he is fully knowledgeable from more than just one perspective. If the cultist afterwards wished to remain in the organization, they explain, that is his decision. They will not force him to leave; they just want to make sure he is doing the right thing. This type of approach, while limiting the counselor, gives the following advantages to the cult member:

  • The cultist has more control, and can walk out at any time
  • The cult organization or its leaders will not be vilified
  • The counselor is non-aggressive and non-argumentative
  • The family will be present but are instructed not to criticize him
  • The counselor encourages self-expression and the questioning process


The Confrontation

The family informs the cult member of the intervention on the morning it is to begin, to avoid development of excessive paranoia. It also allows him no time to consult with his leaders, who will always seek to talk him out of it. He is informed of the great trouble and expense the family has gone through just to set this up in order to make sure he is doing the right thing. No one wants to appear narrow-minded or foolish for refusing just to talk with an outsider about it, so a lot rests on the social graces of the member. Most do not want to see their family go through a great deal of trouble and expense for their benefit, and then to turn them down, especially if concerned friends that they love are present. Besides, the member is generally confident that he can defend himself, as long as intimidation is not used. He may even see it as an opportunity to bolster his own faith and prove to his family that he knows best, and is not a victim of mind control!

The First Day

The exitcounselor is careful to support his client, rather than to tear him down. He is not accused of being "brainwashed" or stupid, neither of which is true.

Furthermore, victims of cults are not characteristically less intelligent than other people. If anything they are often the "cream of the crop," so to speak--the young, the intelligent, the idealistic, yet all too often naive ones. They are likely recruited during a transition time in their life, when they are more vulnerable to outside coercion and manipulation.

The intervention will consist almost entirely of dialogue and questions, as the exit-counselor attempts to get the cult member to think through the reasons why he became involved in the organization, and whether or not there were sound reasons for doing so without having made a full investigation of the group. The conviction of the exit-counselor is that once the member is aware of the logical flaws in his belief structure and his allegiance, as well as the emotional factors binding him to the cult, he will not feel comfortable remaining in the organization.

Videotapes about other religious, political, or psychological mind control groups are viewed often. As the member hears the testimony of other people who believed that they alone had the truth, who were following God's chosen prophet and were in the only true organization on earth, he will experience internal dissonance. The exit-counselor is careful not to overstress the cult member. He will pace his client, to avoid alienation.

After observing the testimony of ex-members of other groups, questions are asked about whether or not those interviewed appeared to be "abnormal" people or whether they were normal people who just happened to be deceived. "How did they feel about their organization and/or leader?" "What were their motives for getting involved?" and "Why did they finally get out?" are common questions asked by the exit-counselor. Eventually the member may come to see that in spite of superficial differences in doctrine or appearance, most cults use the same techniques of mind control, fear and guilt to retain their members. All too often he will see evidence of this in his own organization simultaneously, and may be questioned about that as well by the exit-counselor.

The Second Day

This day may include taking a closer look at the member's organization and leadership. Rather than using character assassination, the history of the leader and organization are examined quite objectively, using their own literature and other historical sources, and perhaps any good journalism on the subject (newspaper or magazine articles, books, film documentaries, etc.). The exit-counselor allows the member to challenge the validity of the critical evidence, and is already prepared to further demonstrate the truthfulness of what has been said (they carry a large briefcase!). Careful not to be dogmatic, the exit-counselor or the attendant ex-member of the organization allow the member full expression, yet calmly challenging the reasons given by the member for not believing what is being presented. The subject matter is not changed until the matter at hand is resolved to some extent, nor does the counselor allow the member to divert the discussion to avoid facing the facts.

Sometimes by the end of the second day, the cult member may be showing signs of doubt in his organization, making statements such as, "Well, if I were to leave..." This is a sign that the intervention is successful thus far.

The Third Day

This day might center on a discussion of what the member may feel is right and wrong according to his conscience. If all is going well, curiosity develops and the member will have questions. If he is in a Bible-based cult (such as Jehovah's Witnesses), then the Bible is discussed. This is where the expertise of the former cult member who has been present is useful. Often he/she is a Christian, and has had extensive background in Biblical interpretation and Bible history. He may present Christianity as a historical religion, with doctrines that are to be understood in their original historical context, not according to some modern-day prophet. It is explained that interpretation is no mystery, nor is it exclusive to a chosen few. The exit-counselor also points out that there is life outside of the organization, and the ex-member present is proof of that; he is living a happy and fulfilled life.

By the end of the third day, enough information will have been discussed and enough dialogue will have ensued that the member will recognize many errors in his own perception of the organization. He is now asked what he is going to do about it. Can he conscientiously remain in the organization, when he has not been told the truth or has discovered blatant lies or other embarrassing matters? Could he honestly evangelize others into the organization, knowing that it is at least partially a lie? Such pointed questions often produce a decision to separate from the group, at least for a time. An absolute commitment to leave may not be necessary, as long as proper followup is done. The member has already drawn his conclusions, he just needs some time to collect his thoughts. He is asked to stay away from the cult for a while, which will help him to clear his thoughts. If the member has made it through the three days or so, he will not likely return to the organization except in attempt to enlighten others of what he has learned.

The Follow-Up

It is necessary to follow up for several reasons:

  • The emotional ties in the organization (friends) are still very strong at this stage
  • Loneliness and disillusionment are strong factors causing a desire to go back to the cult
  • Lingering doubts about their new decision remain for awhile
  • Confusion and disorientation about the future haunts them

Follow-up should consist of ongoing contact with the exit-counselor as well as the ex-member, to answer questions, provide moral support and an understanding ear, and to encourage him to face the rest of his life as a new challenge. Activities can be arranged to lessen the stress incurred during the intervention, such as sports and recreation, and time with the family. It is important that he associates with normal people. Eventually, he should be encouraged to share his testimony, an effective therapy in itself. Let him know that he is not alone; introduce him to a support group. Recovery takes time as well, and the family or friends should be instructed not to rush the recovery. Any emotional or psychological problems that pre-existed his cult involvement often have to be dealt with as well, perhaps through counseling.

Healing of the ex-cultist is an ongoing process, and sometimes takes many years. But they are years well spent when it involves someone we truly love!

What Can I Do?

Many may want to explore the option of exit-counseling for a loved one who is involved in a cult, even in the case of Jehovah's Witnesses. They may have tried almost everything including years of prayer, but without success. While prayer is to be continued, there is more you can do. What can help you to learn more about this?

Read as many books on the subject as you can (such as Combatting Cult Mind Control). Read books by former cult members of various groups.7 Attend seminars by organizations such as the Cult Awareness Network and local ministries to cults. You can't be over-prepared!

The cost of an intervention is more reason not to rush into such a decision, though most exit-counselors work on a sliding scale for hardship cases. But even if you do not choose this route, there are several sound principles we can learn from exit-counselors and their experience:

Don't assume that cultists are objective enough to discuss the Bible's doctrines or "truth" with you. They are victims of mind control and phobia indoctrination. Playing a game of "checkers" with selected scriptures is not only useless but counter-productive to reaching them (2 Tim. 2:14).

Don't challenge them or attack them, as this will only raise their defenses and render your efforts useless in most cases.

You are there, not to tell them that they are wrong and are to accept something else as truth, but you are to help them understand the principles of mind control, to reevaluate their decision to join the group, and to gain discernment so they can make more educated choices.

Any interest in the Bible will be readily apparent. This can be channeled towards a historical approach to Biblical interpretation. Christianity can then be contrasted with its counterfeits.

Take a curious yet concerned posture. Let them know you want to understand what they believe and why they believe it.

Demons and Deprogramming

Many in the Christian churches believe that cults are victims of satanic oppression or even possession. Some will automatically think that "all "cultists are demon-possessed, and that using any "psychological" technique on them is a waste of time; they should instead have the demons cast out! Yet by and large this has not proven to be true among the approximately one hundred ministries to cults that we network with. Furthermore, attempting to "cast out demons" will most often prevent the cultist from ever talking to you again, or at least taking you seriously!

The Bible does not tell us that all people who believe false doctrines are demon-possessed. It does warn of "doctrines of demons" (1 Tim. 4:1), meaning ideas and concepts invented and propagated by fallen angels. But note that the false ideas are in the "mind," and one has to deal with the "mind" to get the false ideas out! These demons operate primarily through deception, not physical force or bodily restraint. They lie to the person, closing the mind. You, in contrast, are praying that God will open their mind, and grant them clear thoughts.

Grant Them Free Choice

Not all those who get into the cults are really interested in serving God. Some may have joined for selfish reasons, for friends, or for power. One may discover during exit-counseling that they are not interested in God or the Bible, but just want to think clearly once more. This should be respected. The Lord Jesus Christ does not want to "twist anyone's arm" who is not so inclined. The work of the Holy Spirit in the earth today is to convict and draw persons to Christ (John 16:8-11). If we speak to them of the Bible and there is no response, then we can assume the Holy Spirit has not been drawing them, and we need not "preach" to them.

Even for those who are interested in the Bible, it is of utmost importance that they be given some space to think for themselves. How confusing it is to be told you are wrong, and then simultaneously presented with "another" version of truth, especially when you haven't even yet mastered how to discern what" is" truth! This approach may drive them away from the Bible (or at least you!) for good. Prayer and patience is your most effective resource. From our experience, the average Jehovah's Witness who leaves takes from one to five years or more to recover, and you can't rush the process!