Deprogramming: An Analysis of Parental Questionnaires

Cultic Studies Journal, 1984, Volume 1, Number 1, pages 63-68

Deprogramming: An Analysis of Parental Questionnaires

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.


In order to systematically collect data pertinent to the decision-making deliberations of parents troubled by the cult involvement of a son or daughter, a questionnaire was printed in The Advisor, a periodical read by several thousand people, most of whom are disturbed by aspects of the cult phenomenon. Ninety-four parents responded, providing a variety of data on children who had become involved in cults. One of the more significant findings was that in 37% of forced deprogrammings, the convert returned to the cult, at least temporarily. Since a high percentage of converts leave cults voluntarily and since many converts can be induced to reevaluate their cult involvement voluntarily, it is concluded that deprogramming is but one of several helping options and should not be viewed as the “cure” for cult involvement.


Cults, which have existed throughout history, thrive during periods of social transition. The most recent such period began with the turbulent 1960’s, a time when intellectuals and young people challenged many traditional social values and institutions. Initially, much of the cultic activity was related to radical political movements (e.g., the Symbionese Liberation Army) or the drug subculture. By the early 1970’s, however, many cultic religious groups came into being or significantly enlarged their membership.

Although most of these groups received little public attention, a few became the focus of considerable controversy. Most notable among these were the Unification Church (the Moonies), the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna), Scientology, The Way International, and the Children of God. These groups tended to proselytize among white, middle-class, educated young people, many of whose parents began to criticize cults publicly.

These parents reported that their children had undergone radical and sometimes very rapid personality changes that resulted from brainwashing (mind-control, thought reform, and coercive persuasion are related terms used to describe the process), as described in the work of Korean POW researchers (Lifton, 1961; Schein, 1961). As more parents spoke out (joined by increasing numbers of disaffected ex-members of cultic groups), an informal network began to develop and numerous citizen groups came into being, most of which later became affiliates of a national umbrella organization, the Citizens Freedom Foundation.

Initially, very few mental health professionals or clergy participated in this growing network. Most professionals tended to subscribe to then popular stereotypes that only disturbed youths from disturbed families would join cults. For this reason, parents were rarely able to obtain satisfactory professional help. Many, consequently, resorted to desperate measures, such as abducting their children and forcing them to listen (usually with the help of ex-members of cults) to “the other side of the story.” The term, “deprogramming,” became associated with this procedure, for brainwashed converts were perceived as being programmed to believe whatever their leaders wanted.

As time passed, a handful of professionals began to recognize that “mother wasn’t always to blame,” that cult conversion often did result from very powerful persuasive techniques, and that cults often did exploit and harm converts (Singer, 1978; Clark, 1979). Citizen groups, meanwhile, succeeded in convincing legislators to conduct hearings on cults (Final report on the activities of the Children of God, Note 2; Information meeting on the cult phenomenon in the United States, Note 3; Massachusetts State Senate, Note 6; New York State Assembly, Note 7; Subcommittee on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations, Note 8).

This stereotype – especially when used to justify forced deprogramming or restrictive legislative proposals (Aronin, 1982; Delgado, 1977, 1982) – did not go unchallenged. Cults themselves began to organize (sometimes using front groups) in order to marshal public opinion against deprogramming. In addition, a number of scholars began to criticize what they terms “the anti-cult movement” (Bromley & Shupe, 1981; Robbins, 1979-80; Robbins & Anthony, 1980).

The gist of “anti-anti-cult” arguments is a) cults are not all like the Moonies – they are very diverse; b) most converts leave voluntarily – even from the more controversial groups; therefore, c) converts are not brain-washed; and d) attacking cults is a threat to religious freedom.

Unfortunately, points © and (d) in this argument are wrongly presented as logical conclusions derived from points (a) and (b). this error – which even cult critics tend not to see – has contributed to a needless and destructive polarization of opinion (Langone, 1983b). Undiscriminating “pro-cultists” often seem to deny or denigrate harm associated with new religions, because they reject the brainwashing explanation and the solutions (i.e., deprogramming, restrictive legislation) commonly associated with it. Cult critics, on the other hand, tend to deny that cults vary greatly and that many (or most) converts leave cults voluntarily – either because the critics have not inspected the data supplied by their opponents, or because they categorically reject that data as biased, or because they mistakenly buy into the faulty logic of the “pre-cultists,” recoiling from accepting the premises because they reject the conclusions.

Some researchers, however, argue for a middle ground (Langone & Clark, in press-a). they acknowledge that initial impressions of cults were based on biased samples and that cults show considerable variation. They also recognize that the voluntary departure rate from even controversial cults is relatively high, a fact that an early study noted (Eden, Note 1). They do not, however, conclude that the brainwashing model is totally without foundation or that remedial action concerning cults is unnecessary or dangerous.

This point of view emphasizes counseling (Clark & Langone, in press-b; Galper, 1982; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982; Langone, 1983b; Maleson, 1981; singer, 1978; Spero, 1982; Clark, Langone, Schecter & Daly, 1981) and preventive education (JCRC, 1976; Langone, 1982a; Swope, 1980; Willis, 1983), rather than deprogramming and restrictive legislation. Counseling and preventive education are justified, not because cults are “evil,” but because they sometimes harm people.

Such harm is possible – indeed likely – because, as much social psychological research demonstrates, individuals can be manipulated to behave in ways that seem incongruous with their past behavior patterns (Brown, 1963; Zimbardo, Ebbesen, & Maslach, 1977). And since history certainly shows no lack of leaders willing to manipulate and exploit their followers, it is not surprising that cults sometimes harm their members.

This harm may be physical (e.g., child abuse), economic (e.g., persuading a convert to turn all of his earnings over to the cult leader), or psychological (e.g., persuading a convert to renounce his family and personal career goals). These harms generally occur when the needs of the leader or group take precedence over those of the individual and when deceptively manipulative techniques are used to ensure the subservience of the individual to the group’s leaders.

Sometimes harm may occur in a relatively benign group because the cult’s belief system is highly subjective and anti-rational (or at best, a-rational). In these cases, the harm reflects not so much an exploitive relationship, but rather one characterized by misconceptions, distortions, or incompetence. The potential for this kind of harm is recognized even by some gurus, who warn, for instance, about the dangers of meditating without proper guidance (Akhilananda, 1965; Ananda, 1960; Nikhilananda, 1946; Vivekananda, 1955).

Although such harms can occur in mainline groups, most such groups, have built-in safeguards against the development and proliferation of exploitive and other harmful relationships. Most cults, on the other had, have no safeguards – sometimes simply because the cults are too new to have developed them and sometimes because the cult leaders do no want them.

The prevalence of such harm has not been assessed scientifically. Although a few studies have systematically examined the question of harm (Conway & Siegelman, 1982; Galanter & Buckley, 1978; Galanter, Rabkin, Rabkin & Deutsch, 1979; Ross, 1983; Ungerleider & Wellisch, 1979), methodological deficiencies (including the possibility of motivated distortion and/or deception by subjects and the lack of representative samples) render their generally negative conclusions dubious (Clark et al., 1981). Much clinical evidence (Clark, 1979; Clark et al., 1981; Galper, 1982; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982; Maleson, 1981; Singer, 1978, 1979; Spero, 1982; West & Singer, 1982), on the other hand, suggests that the prevalence of harm is substantial, although not necessarily normative or the same from group to group.

Thus, it appears that the cult phenomenon is more complex than either the “pro-cult” or

anti-cult” stereotypes indicate. Cults are not merely new and different; nor are they merely evil and threatening. Rather, they are groups of individuals who – sometimes because of naïve zeal, sometimes because of planned manipulation – are in serious danger of developing exploitive and other harmful relationships with one another.

Purpose of this Study

When parents of cultists accept this more complex view of cults, they reject simplistic solutions. They cannot tell themselves: “It’s only a phase he’s going through,” or “She’s in a cult, so we must have her deprogrammed.” Rather, they must seek information in order to determine whether or not their alarm is valid and, should it be warranted, which of many options they should pursue in order to help their son or daughter.

Although a number of articles address clinical issues pertaining to cult-related problems (Clark & Langone, in press; Clark et al., 1981; Galper, 1982; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982; Langone, 1983b; Maleson, 1981; Singer, 1978; Spero, 1982), surprisingly little advice for parents has been published (Heller, 1982; Langone, 1982b; Schecter, Langone& Clark, in press). Furthermore, the few advisory publications that exist are based almost completely on impressionistic data.

In order to at least partly rectify this deficiency, the author printed a questionnaire in the American Family Foundation’s newspaper, The Advisor, a bi-monthly reporting on news relating to cults. Unlike other questionnaires that have examined matters at best tangentially related to parental decision-making, this questionnaire attempted to systematically collect data pertinent to a distraught parent’s deliberations. Because of its prominence, deprogramming received special attention. The questionnaire’s results, discussed below, may help parents and counseling professionals make more informed decisions regarding what to do about a family member’s cult involvement.


The questionnaire was printed in The Advisor in the spring and summer of 1982. An estimated 1500 parents of cultists receive The Advisor.

Ninety-four parents completed and mailed in the questionnaire. Responses were tabulated manually. Because the sample is obviously unrepresentative of the population of cultists’ parents, generalizations should be treated as at best suggestive.


The questionnaire consists of two types of questions: those asking for a narrative response (e.g., “Please describe your child’s state of mind in the first few months after leaving the cult”); and those asking for yes/no answers or numbers. Responses to all legible narrative responses are provided in the appendix of a longer version of this paper 9available from the American Family Foundation for a $5 contribution). Non-narrative responses are summarized in Table 1.

Non-narrative Responses

Of the 94 parents who responded to this questionnaire, 72 (77%) had children in five major groups: Unification Church (UC), Hare Krishna (ISKCON), The Way, Scientology, and Divine Light Mission (DLM). Only 22 (23%) had children in other, lesser known groups.

Males predominated over females 63% to 37%. Although this sex ratio did not hold for ISKCON, The Way, and especially Scientology, the small numbers in these groups may – but do not necessarily – mean that the differences could be due to chance factors.

The children of 69% of the respondents were no longer in a cult. These ex-members had spent an average of 28.3 months in a cult, whereas the 31% still in a group had been members an average of 81.9 months. 20.7 years was the average age at joining the group.

With regard to the question, “Did your child ever quit the cult and then return?,” 15% of the sample’s children had left and returned to the cult (so far as parents knew), nearly all having done this only once. It is not clear how many of these returns were associated with failed deprogrammings.

On the 62 (68%) converts who were forcibly (i.e., abducted) deprogrammed, 23 (37% of those deprogrammed) returned to the cult. Of these 23, 6 later left the cult voluntarily, while 17 remained in the group. Deprogramming required an average of 8.5 days. Ten of the 62 deprogrammings (16%) resulted in lawsuits. (This percentage seems much higher than informal reports suggest and should not be treated as representative.).

Twenty-two (23%) of the converts left the group voluntarily, 6 (27% of voluntary leavers) after a failed deprogramming. It is interesting to note that none of the 11 DLM members and only 1 (10%) of the ISKCON members in this sample left voluntarily.

Table I

Summary of Results

Despite the relatively high rate of deprogramming failures (37%), only 7 parents (12% of 54 people who responded to this question) felt that deprogramming was more harmful than leaving the person in the cult.

With regard to rehabilitation, 57% of the respondents employed rehab and 82% felt that rehab was useful.

Narrative Responses

It is difficult to summarize – or even select highlights – from the many diverse narrative responses of the respondents. Therefore, the reader is encouraged to peruse the full range of responses listed in the Appendix of the longer report available from the American Family Foundation.

If yes (to 9), why do you think the deprogramming failed?

Most parents attributed a failed deprogramming to deficiencies of the deprogrammers, whether in regard to security or sensitivity to psychiatric issues. One respondent, however, noted that the “the deprogramming left her with nothing to hang on to,” while another commented that “It should have been a united family effort!”

Do you think the deprogramming caused more harm than would have been caused by leaving the child in the cult? If yes, why?

Even though 37% of deprogrammings did not result in the persons leaving the cult, only 12% of those responding to this question answered “yes.” Most supported this response by noting a major deterioration in their relationship with their child. One person commented that her son’s resistance to the deprogramming led to his being treated like a “hero” by the cult.

If your child left for reasons other than forced deprogramming, what, in your opinion, led him/her to leave the group?

The variety of answers to this question would probably astound those who subscribe to the extreme brainwashing stereotype. According to parents, some converts left because they became aware of deception, manipulation, or broken promises. Some tired of menial work or rebelled against peer pressure. Some, who had been subjected to a failed deprogramming, were apparently moved by their parents’ desperation and later returned home voluntarily. And some left because personal hardships or abuse apparently induced them to reconsider their cult involvement.

If yes (to 18), was rehab, on the whole, a useful and successful experience? Why or why not?

The overwhelming majority of respondents praised rehab because it provided their children with emotional support, education about cults, an opportunity to talk to members of other cults which used similar persuasive techniques, and encouragement to make it in the mainline world. The few negative comments dealt with internal staff problems that detracted from the rehab’s effectiveness.

Based upon your experiences, what do you think parents can do to influence a child to reconsider his/her cult involvement?

Responses to this question can be placed in several categories. First, those who feel helpless: there is nothing parents can do. Second, those who see deprogramming as the answer- the earlier the better. Third, those who emphasize the importance of maintaining communication, building trust, and challenging the convert respectfully and at the proper time. And fourth, those who feel that the best course of action is to educate young people before they become involved with cults.

Please describe your child’s state of mind in the first few months after leaving the cult.

Responses to this question tended to be consistent with clinical descriptions of post-cult experience (Clark, 1979; Singer, 1979). Ex0members were described as confused, lacking in self-esteem, ashamed, distrustful, depressed, guilty, indecisive, unable to concentrate, in a state of floating (snapping back to cultic states of mind), emotionally volatile, angry at the cult, fearful of reprisals, psychologically regressed, and – in some cases – in a state of nervous breakdown. A few ex-members, however, did not appear to have had much difficulty in adjusting.

In your opinion, what kinds of help do ex-cult members need?

This question also received many comments. The most common response was that ex-members need much love, understanding, patience, and encouragement from family and friends. Many also felt that talking to ex-members, attending a rehabilitation facility, or receiving professional counseling were important. A few mentioned the need for religious guidance or help in obtaining meaningful employment.

What kinds of help do parents and siblings of cult members need?

The majority of the many people responding to this question stressed the family’s need for education, support groups, and counseling. Several also advocated the need to educate helping professionals and legislators.


The most serious methodological problem of empirical studies of the cult phenomenon is obtaining representative subject samples from which one can make reasonably confident generalizations. Those who study cult members directly (particularly members of the more controversial cults) have difficulty ensuring that volunteer subjects are representative or that subjects’ responses (which are often retrospective) are not distorted, or even fabricated. In a similar vein, those who study ex-members or cultists’ parents cannot easily demonstrate that their retrospective reporting is accurate or that they are similar to (and representative of) the wider population of cultists.

This study shares these methodological limitations with other studies. Its subject sample is a self-selected group from readers of The Advisor, most of whom find aspects of the cult phenomenon troubling. The very high rate of deprogrammings resulting in lawsuits (16%) indicates that parents involved in lawsuits were more likely to complete the questionnaire than those not involved in lawsuits. (As unreliable as impressions can be, it seems very clear to this author that 16% is an overestimate of the number of deprogrammings that result in lawsuits.) the other 84% of respondents, however, may be reasonably representative of The Advisor readership of concerned parents, although there is no way to be sure.

Despite these sampling limitations, the data from this study are useful simply because there is so little systematically collected data in this field. Until large-scale surveys are performed, we must use the available data, although we should treat our inferences as tentative. With this caveat in mind, let us examine some of the findings of this study.

Age and Sex

The converts described in this study were rather young (mean age of joining a cult = 20.7 years) and predominantly male (63%). These findings are consistent with other studies that investigated age (Conway & Siegelman, 1982; Kelly, Note 4; Wright, in press) and sex (Eden, Note 1; Galanter et al., 1970; Kelly, Note 4; Ross, 1983; Wright, in press), although Conway and Siegelman (1982) found males and females to be roughly equal in number (51% male), while Galanter et al. (1979) and Ross (1983) found their samples of Unification Church and Hare Krishna members, respectively, to have an average age of 25 years. Perhaps Galanter et al.’s and Ross’s samples were older because cult members are more likely to leave cults (whether voluntarily as in Wright’s sample or via deprogramming) while they are still relatively young, thus resulting in lower average ages in ex-member samples.

Voluntary Departure Rates

Thirty-four percent of subjects who left the cult did so voluntarily (9% after a failed deprogramming). This finding is consistent with Eden (Note 1), one-third of whose sample of ex-Moonies had left voluntarily, and with Conway and Siegelman (1982), 39% of whose sample of ex-members left without deprogramming (21% left after voluntarily going through a deprogramming; 40% after a deprogramming preceded by abduction). Other studies (Barker, in press) suggest that the true voluntary departure rate (including ex-members who do not come in contact with the concerned citizens network) may be even higher.

Deprogramming Failure Rate

To my knowledge, this study is the first to systematically collect data pertaining to deprogramming failure rates. The finding that 37% of deprogrammings resulted in the convert returning to the cult may seem high to advocates of deprogramming. However, other data suggest that it may be more or less valid. An informal tabulation of known deprogrammings in Montreal (Kropveld, Note 5) found that 8 of 23 deprogrammings (35%) resulted in the convert’s returning to the cult, a finding very close to that of this study. Even some advocates of deprogramming admit to failure rates on the order of 20% 0 25% (although some deprogrammers reportedly are much more successful than others). Hence, it seems reasonable to conclude that, on the average, one-fourth to one-third of forced deprogrammings result in the convert’s returning to the cult.

It should be kept in mind that these data reflect only an association between a designated procedure (deprogramming) and an outcome of leaving a cult). The data do not necessarily reflect a causal relationship. Hence, deprogramming successes need not necessarily be due to the deprogramming itself. Some, for instance, may be more a function of reawakening family feelings or fortuitous time (i.e., “snatching” someone when he/she is on the verge of coming out voluntarily anyway).


Parents and helping professionals should note that there are a number of ways to view a convert’s potential departure from a cult.

  1. Some converts may never leave – with or without forced deprogramming. (Sometimes this may be unfortunate because the convert’s cult affiliation is harmful. Sometimes, on the other hand, staying in a cult may be beneficial.)

  2. Some converts may leave only if they are forcibly deprogrammed. (Again, this option may or may not be acceptable, depending upon its harmfulness/benefit to the convert. If course, if one, in principle, categorically opposes deprogramming, one would consider it always unacceptable.)

  3. Some converts may leave if they are properly counseled or if they are deprogrammed (the latter being, perhaps, faster, but riskier and more expensive).

  4. Some converts may leave if properly counseled, but will not leave if forcibly deprogrammed (because anger at their parents’ manipulations will induce them to stay in the group).

  5. Some converts may leave voluntarily, even with no formal intervention.

Unfortunately, there is no easy, reliable way of determining in which of these groups a given person will fall. However, the data of this study suggest that a high percentage of cultists leave without forced deprogramming, that many deprogrammings fail, and that a number of deprogrammings end in lawsuits. Furthermore, it seems reasonable to assume that many who would respond favorably to deprogramming would also respond favorably to voluntary methods of reevaluation. Therefore, parents should deliberate very carefully before deciding to have their child forcibly deprogrammed. There are other options for helping a family member harmed by cult involvement (see Ross, Langone, Clark, & Daly, in press, for concrete guidelines).

Reference Notes

  1. Eden, E. The Unification Church: A study of structure and conversion. Unpublished manuscript.

  2. Final report on the activities of the children of God. Report submitted to Louis J. Lefkowitz, Attorney General of the State of New York, 1974.

  3. Information meeting on the cult phenomenon in the United States (transcript). Senator Robert Dole, chairman. Washington, D.C., February 5, 1977.

  4. Kelly, G. Statistical analysis of personality profiles prior to a cult involvement. Report submitted to the National Institute of Mental Health.

  5. Kropveld, M. Personal communication.

  6. Massachusetts State Senate. Public hearing on solicitation utilized by religious and charitable groups (transcript). Senator John G. King, Chairman. March 21, 1979.

  7. New York State Assembly. Public hearing on treatment of children by cults (transcript). Assemblyman Howard Lasher, Chairman. August 9-10, 1979.

  8. Subcommittee on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives. Investigation of Korean-American relations (transcript). Representative Donald Fraser, Chairman. October 31, 1978.


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Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., Editor of the Cultic Studies Journal, is Director of Research for the American Family Foundation, in which capacity he studies and writes about the cult phenomenon. A licensed psychologist, he also counsels families and individuals troubled by cult involvements.