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Book Review - Deprogrammed (film review)


International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 9, 2018, pages 73-75
Deprogrammed

By Mia Donovan

Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart


Eye Steel Film, Canada: Documentary film. 2015. 1 hr. 25 min. Available on Netflix or to rent from Amazon.com ($1.99).

In 2011, someone posted this on a religion chat group: “What ever happened to deprogrammer Ted Patrick?” (see http://ask.metafilter.com/
192171/What-ever-happened-to-deprogrammer-Ted-Patrick). The writer Snapdragon had read Let Our Children Go, by Ted Patrick and Tom Dulak (1976) and Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, by Flo Conway and Jim Siegalman (1978). Snapdragon noted there had been no news in 20 years about Patrick. One response to Snapdragon’s note indicated that cults were no longer big news, and that the Children of God sex-for-Jesus cult, one of the big five or six new religions targeted by Patrick in the 1970s, had morphed into a smaller, tamer version restyled as The Family.

Mia Donovan’s documentary film Deprogrammed goes a long way to answer Snapdragon’s query (which is not in the film). Donovan offers intimate insights into the origins of and controversies surrounding deprogramming, Ted Patrick style, which often involved abduction of the cult member and indecorous debate about cultic beliefs and leaders.

Patrick, 88 this year, began his cult intervention career in 1971 in San Diego. He inadvertently initiated a shadowy industry of interventionists and also several anticult organizations. The latter found in Patrick’s approach something concrete to do about thousands if not millions of mostly young-adult seekers suddenly taken in by controversial new religions and unmoderated self-help movements. Simply put, families could kidnap a cult member and hire deprogrammers, hopefully to break the spell of the cult, and thus cure the problem.

The solution was not that easy, of course, and Donovan’s careful film makes that very clear. Coercive deprogrammers operated in America and abroad for perhaps two decades—Patrick attempted one of his last kidnap-style interventions in the early 1990s. The majority of his attempts occurred between 1971 and 1980. Donovan’s interest in this topic is personal. One of her main subjects in the film is her stepbrother, Matthew Robinson, who was one of Patrick’s last, if ill-advised interventions. It failed, and at the time of the filming, Matthew was yet embittered by the interaction with Patrick around 1993.

By way of disclosure, I have had some skin in this deprogramming game. I stood trial in Idaho for one month in 1993 for criminal charges of allegedly abducting a cult member. I was acquitted. My formal intervention career began in 1985. That was when I first agreed to assist two seasoned deprogrammers in an intervention. That intervention was semicoercive. There was no security save a husband and his parents—and the 30-degrees-below-zero weather in Minnesota at the time. We stayed indoors. The wife, age 31, had become immersed in a large New Age sect, one that I had been devoted to for more than a year, until I defected in 1980. So I was the token former member there to explain why I defected. My reputation grew. Subsequently, I got caught up in the intervention business and made most of my living as a cult interventionist from 1986 through 1998.

In the movie, Donovan concentrates on several individuals who encountered Patrick decades ago as subjects of deprogramming. We hear from them, both currently and on archival news videos with Patrick confronting them.

Patrick regularly used the curious news media to get his message out. One subject in the film was in the Unification Church or Moonies; another followed Swami Rudrananda, or “Rudi,” who was of an American heritage; and another was in the Christ Family, led by Lightning Amen. The last man, now elderly, is yet a believer, still living on the dwindled group’s communal grounds since the leader’s death.

After Patrick freed the son of Sondra Sachs from the Hare Krishna movement in 1973, Sachs became his secretary. Sachs appears in the film to tell her story.

We also meet Flow Conway and Jim Siegalman, mentioned previously, the researchers who met with Patrick and dozens of former members. As revealed in this film, Conway and Siegalman utilized subjects of Patrick’s interventions for much of the data in their 1978 book Snapping. Snapping may have been science deficient, but it did address a very real problem that no journalist had tackled to that date. The problem, “information disease,” was a phrase the authors coined to indicate the content of mind in converts influenced by deceptive, controversial movements.

To relate terms such as snapping and information disease in the anticult context, consider Richard Dawkins, the famed atheist, who in 1976 coined meme (imitated idea), which reinforces the possibility of information disease. Memes, per Dawkins, can “go viral” using an evolutionary or biological model; so flawed, dangerous, or “diseased” memes can go viral. This is another way of saying that cult members participate in a shared delusion.

Patrick noted this phenomenon of shared delusion as evidence in his nephew and his friends, who were nearly recruited by a local Jesus cult and then Patrick infiltrated that cult in 1971. Within days, he said he felt his mind giving in to the ideas of the cult, despite the fact that he felt armored against it going in. Patrick called it hypnotism or a spell. He was not far off, though his grasp of cognitive function lacked sophistication.

Patrick sorely lacked training or education about social influence. His limitations led to his often-abusive tactics to “break” someone of a cult “spell,” and that got him into legal trouble often. Conway and Siegalman called this sudden change process snapping, pointing to that moment when someone snaps into or out of a powerful conversion.

The film brings out deprogramming controversy when it portrays Patrick as a kind of crusader with good intentions, if not the best of techniques. Social scientists viewed Patrick’s cure as more harmful than the disease. The film exposes that the worse Patrick could paint the cults, the more heroic he could appear. Nevertheless, he had a direct hand in freeing many hundreds of cult members from cult memes, or information disease.

I first met and spoke with Ted Patrick late in his career, in the early 1990s, at a national cult-awareness conference that had, years before, moved to reject all forms of coercive intervention or deprogramming. Not everyone attending these conferences agreed, especially the old guard of Patrick supporters who felt that deprogramming was necessary to truly “unbrainwash” a cult member.

In the film, we learn that Patrick grew up with Black-church, Protestant values and also a recognition that the Black churches had their share of bad cult leaders such as Father Divine and Billy Sunday. Patrick reveals his myopic vision of cult history when he affirms that, as a Black man, he already knew of this cult phenomenon that had lately (around 1970) hit White America. The film does not bring out why Patrick had a string of successful deprogrammings in midcareer.

People I knew who worked with Patrick were all former members that Patrick would employ for relatively low fees to assist on cases. At his peak, Patrick had many cases going on simultaneously or overlapping, so he tended to show up days into an interaction with a captive cult member. Often, by that time, the former members had done their job well; but Patrick would come in, interact with the now former member for a day or less, take credit for the success, and collect the lion’s share of the fees. Patrick thus created a business model, a machine that made him famous and that many came to believe was the only way to free brainwashed people.

One of my peers in this intervention business, Rick Ross, appeared in the film to address the evolution of Patrick’s model into the noncoercive exit-counseling approach. The latter approach allowed the targeted cult member to refuse to talk and to leave the intervention at any time. Ross claimed that Patrick laid the foundation for what later became the noncoercive model. Other peers were consulted for the film, including David Clark and Steve Hassan, who appear only in credits at the end.

I was not among those consulted, but had I been, I would argue that the so-called exit-counseling model existed long before some deprogrammers, including Patrick and Galen Kelly (not mentioned in the film) employed kidnapping in the early 1970s. Exit counseling is little more than offering information to a cult member that can help the member make a decision to stay or leave. The process can take hours or days of voluntary discussion.

For instance, uncounted thousands in the late sixties entered and defected from cults, either on their own or through contact with former members, concerned families, and ministers. Barker (1984) found that the vast majority of Unification Church converts (Moonies) left the organization without any formal intervention within one or two years of joining. Others might take several years, even decades, before they defect. Some die as believers. Being under a spell or brainwashed is never a fixed state—that is not how the human brain works. Of course, there are exceptions, with some people stubbornly holding onto a conversion no matter what. The clear majority of my many hundreds of interventions over the years were done through an educational model and without coercion. That model was uniquely defined by Steve Hassan with the publication of Combatting Cult Mind Control (1988), but I was already convincing cult members to defect at the end of 1980 without coercion, and I was not using any published model. I did not know who Ted Patrick was at the time.

The purpose of this film was quite simple. It concentrated on the legacy of Ted Patrick. As I mentioned previously, the filmmaker’s stepbrother Matthew was the spark that brought Donovan into this project. She had not seen him in 20 years, until she learned of her father hiring Patrick in the mid-1990s to deprogram Matthew out of what appeared to be a devotion to Satanism. As a youth, Matthew, a heavily tattooed man who employs the F-word liberally, was troubled, rebellious, into heavy-metal music, and most likely suffered from social anxiety and other disorders that were never properly diagnosed or treated. As we learn in the film, Matthew’s allusions to Satan were more for effect than devotion (there was no cult), so Patrick’s kidnap technique was totally misguided and essentially failed after 8 days of verbal and emotional assault on the young rebel. If we believe Matthew decades later, the intervention may have done only harm.

In sum, the film was much better than I envisioned it might be. It captures a unique era of the so-called cult wars when America was more concerned over bourgeoning new religious movements and therapies. The movements have not all gone away, and new, radical ones continue to emerge. If nothing else, Ted Patrick helped to bring attention to a serious problem, despite his not coming up with the best or legal solutions. The film reminds us that the problem is complex, as any solution also might be. The film captures a unique aspect in the history of social reaction to radical new movements, but it falls short in not describing an educational model for cult intervention.


Reference

Barker, E. (1984). The making of a Moonie. New York, NY: Basil Blackwell.


About the Reviewer

Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980 and began to work professionally as an intervention specialist and exit counselor in 1986. Since 1998 he has worked in the crisis department of a psychiatric emergency hospital in Pennsylvania. He continues to assist families with interventions and former members in recovery. In 2016 he received an ICSA Lifetime Achievement Award.