Updated: Jan 11
When you read those words, you probably think: "yeah, we're talking about cults!"
Well... sort of?
We're actually talking about cult deprogramming - one of cult intervention's worst chapters (to date at least). It's a practice that had two distinct sides with very different outcomes.
This article will discuss some of the highlights of cult deprogramming's history, introduce the underlying principles, and end on where cult recovery stands today.
Also, a note. This post is not meant to be an academic installment to cult recovery - there's plenty of that. Citations and sources will be added as available, and readers are encouraged to reach out with any corrections, materials, or sources they feel can improve this writing.
Trigger warnings: Abuse, kidnapping
A Good "Deprogramming" Story
Kent Burtner was sitting in the office of his Eugene, Oregon campus ministry when the phone rang.
A young lady who we'll call Stacey (her name has been changed to preserve anonymity) was on the other end. She was curious about a group that Kent had encountered during his time living in the busier city of Oakland, CA. Today we call this group the Unification Church, but back then they were spreading like wildfire and were known more informally as the "Moonies".
Stacey had been an active anti-Unification protestor at her local university when a clever member presented a challenge: "How can you say bad things about us when you've never actually experienced what we have to offer?" Feeling somewhat hypocritical (fallacious or not), young Stacey agreed to travel to Seattle for a 48-hour weekend retreat to learn more. She was calling Kent to let him know that should she decide to not return home, he was authorized to come retrieve her. She also left him a letter to that effect.
Thankfully this story has a good ending. Stacey decided after her 48 hours she wanted to stay, but a persistent veteran of cult intervention was on the other end of her lifeline. When she called Kent to let him know she planned to stay, he talked her into discussing the decision with him - in person - at his office back in Eugene, in return, he would give her letter back. Reluctantly, she agreed, and upon meeting with Kent, a former member of Unification, and her parents she was convinced to give the group some room. After further reflection, she never went back.
This is a story of deprogramming as it should be - a model of loving conversation that has morphed into today's practice of cult intervention/exit counseling.
The unfortunate reality is that for a period of time, the story above was an exception and not the rule.
What is Deprogramming?
Deprogramming is a coercive practice that involves the utilization of high-confrontation methods in an effort to share (or even force) information upon cult-involved individuals to elicit an emotional response. Recipients may participate either voluntarily or involuntarily.
In their heyday (the 1970s & 1980s) cult deprogrammers were self-proclaimed “professionals” that an individual could hire. Services promised intensive counter-brainwashing, aimed to cut the individual's ties with other members, and remove them from the cultic group.
Targets of this practice have been subjected to numerous (and often dubious) methods to reduce the effects of "brainwashing" - sometimes while held against their will. This left many individuals with traumatic wounds and disrupted families on a systemic level.
Extreme examples of "deprogramming" according to its victims include:
Reports of stalking
Being unwillingly forced into vans
Being tied down or handcuffed
Subjected to intensive questioning
Burning of group educational materials, photos, or paraphernalia
Highly charged lectures to "debunk" group ideas
While modern deprogrammers have toned down their approach and no longer participate in many of the abuses above, the reliance on heightened confrontation remains.
It's estimated by thought reform consultants who lived through the deprogramming era that such practices saw a roughly 30-50% success rate - although this figure is not based on scientific study or detailed analysis.
Regardless of efficacy, it is not a path that ethical thought reform professionals recommend for those concerned about a loved one's group involvement.
It could be said that a number of people were removed from high-control environments as a result of this practice, but these ends do not justify the means.
The practice is universally condemned by modern cult exit counselors and mental health professionals.
Family members are encouraged to avoid anyone calling themselves a deprogrammer. Causing additional trauma to coercion-involved individuals does more harm than good in almost every arena.
In addition, when someone is under such extreme duress, there's not much preventing them from lying to get out of the situation - even if the fear of further reprisal intimidates them. The practice was often unsuccessful for this reason, and even became a point of further manipulation once groups learned of the practice. You'd be surprised how convincing the message of "outsiders will try to kidnap you because they're afraid of what we teach" is.
There's also the matter of legality. Numerous cult deprogrammers were successfully sued by their targets. A few were found guilty of the crimes discussed above and served time in prison.
Numerous former cult members have shared their stories regarding the practice of deprogramming, and we encourage readers to seek them out at their best discretion.
Cult Intervention - A Better Alternative For Cult Members
Cultic groups don't operate in a vacuum.
More often than not, they're a response to society at large - a reactionary motion against larger forces. Cult leaders often prey on current events to display their insights, generate trust, and build an in-group mentality.
While this is an overly simplistic explanation of the multitudes of forces that create destructive cults, it nonetheless sets the scene.
When individuals choose to join one of these groups, their personal motivations are diverse. In some situations, these motivations are as reactionary as the groups they join - though not always.
It follows that how someone approaches group members and why they engage in a relationship are far more important than what is said.
To return to Kent Burtner's story - his life is a picture of non-coercive intervention and cult education efforts. He enjoys retirement today, but after 40+ years he still counsels former cultists and volunteers his time through organizations like SAFE.
The key aspect of his and Stacey's story is the careful emotional connection. When approaching a cult member about their group involvement, one of the greatest pitfalls is heightened emotion. Kent's approach with this young lady was the antithesis.
How did he engage? He came with calm, accepting communication and a willingness to listen.
Why did he engage? Because she trusted him to have her best interests at heart.
Let's understand why that approach can work.
Ex-cult members struggle with re-entering a society that fails to understand them at a basic level. First-generation former members are often subjected to a good deal of ridicule for joining in the first place. For second or multi-generation former members, it's akin to waking up and finding that half of your reality was based on an anxious, persistent dream. Neither group is entirely confident of which direction is "up".
Now - imagine someone in a group who is doubting their involvement. They must either choose to silently accept ridicule from society and/or reject everything and everyone they know and love. Either way, you are destined to feel foolish, misunderstood, and small.
What would anyone choose in such a situation?
To make things worse, many former cult members find themselves pressured by multiple heightened emotions coming from all directions. Family members may aggressively want them to leave, while current members may be pressuring them into further involvement.
If intimate partners are involved (whether themselves group members or not), the picture further complicates.
If there are questions of gender or sexual identity, the picture further complicates.
If there are issues involving criminal activity, the picture further complicates.
The list goes on and on.
The reality is that life exists on the other side of the emotion-packed decision to leave cultic groups. Helping individuals find that life and remove the enduring impact of these emotional decisions is the role of cult intervention. There are as many ways to intercede in a cult as there are cult members.
Cult members have left their groups in the past, and will leave in the future. Resources (sparing though they be) exist. If one is lucky, they can even find a support group in their area, or perhaps online. The destructive group and its undue influence can be left in the past.
People Leave Cults
Cult survivors have enough problems when deconstructing their involvement. Adding charged emotions or coercive intervention to the picture rarely helps.
Mental health professionals and our society at large are still struggling with how to handle destructive cults and undue influence. Whether you're looking deeper at problems of group sexual abuse, or taking a broader view of spiritual abuse as a whole - cult trauma is real, and it's deep.
Ex members who are seeking help are everywhere, and the field is growing thanks to improved access to information. Whatever your situation, we'll leave you with this:
Cult recovery is a process, not a promise. You're not alone.