From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Exit counseling)

Deprogramming is a controversial tactic that seeks to dissuade someone from "strongly held convictions"[1] such as religious beliefs. Deprogramming purports to assist a person who holds a particular belief system—of a kind considered harmful by those initiating the deprogramming—to change those beliefs and sever connections to the group associated with them.[2][3][4] Typically, people identifying themselves as deprogrammers are hired by a person's relatives, often parents of adult children. The subject of the deprogramming is usually forced to undergo the procedure, which might last days or weeks, against their will.

Methods and practices of deprogramming are varied but have often involved kidnapping and false imprisonment,[4][5] which have sometimes resulted in criminal convictions.[5][6][7] The practice has led to controversies over freedom of religion, civil rights, criminality and the use of violence.[8] Proponents of deprogramming present the practice as a necessary counter-measure to the systematic "brainwashing" procedures allegedly employed by religious groups, which they claim deprive the individual of their capacity for free choice.


In the United States in the early 1970s there was an increasing number of New Religious Movements. Ted Patrick, the "father of deprogramming", formed an organisation he called "The Citizens' Freedom Foundation" and began offering 'deprogramming' services to people who wanted to break a family member's connection to an NRM. Patrick's methods involved abduction, physical restraint, detention over days or weeks while maintaining a constant presence with the victim, food and sleep deprivation, prolonged verbal and emotional abuse, and desecration of the symbols of the victim's faith.[9][10]

Deprogrammers justified their actions by applying a theory of "brainwashing" to New Religious Movements.[11][12] Brainwashing theory denied the possibility of authentic spiritual choice for an NRM member, proposing instead that such individuals were subject to systematic mind control programs that overrode their capacity for independent volition.[13]: 56  Ted Patrick's theory of brainwashing was that individuals were hypnotized by brainwaves projected from a recruiter's eyes and fingertips, after which the state was maintained by constant indoctrination, a totalistic environment and self-hypnosis.[13]: 59  Most academic research, however, indicated that the reasons for people joining, remaining in, or leaving NRMs were complex, varied from group to group and individual to individual, and generally reflected the continued presence of a capacity for individual responsibility and choice.[13]: 43, 61 

The Citizens' Freedom Foundation, which later became known as the Cult Awareness Network, became the most prominent group in the emerging national anti-cult movement of the 1970s and 80s. The anti-cult movement lobbied for state and national legislative action to legitimize its activities, and although this had very limited success, the movement was nevertheless able to forge alliances with a number of governmental agencies. This was primarily on the back of its propagation of the brainwashing/mind control ideology, which succeeded in turning affiliation with NRMs into an issue of public—rather than private—concern, and gave a pseudo-legitimacy to the anti-cultists' more extreme claims and actions.

Although the CFF and CAN were in favour of deprogramming, they distanced themselves from the practice from the late 1970s onwards.[14] Despite this apparent repudiation, however, they continued the practice. CFF and CAN referred thousands of paying clients to activist members who kept lists of deprogrammers. The total number that occurred is unknown, but in 1980 Ted Patrick claimed to have been hired over 2000 times as a professional abductor.[15] Many other operators emerged both during and after the period in which he was active, many of them trained by him.[13]: 59  The practice of deprogramming was an integral part of the anti-cult ideology and economy, and was seen as an effective response to the demand emanating from people who wanted a family member extracted, but it also clashed with the need for anti-cult organizations to present themselves as 'educational' associations (the CFF, for example, received tax-exempt status as an educational trust). This, along with its tenuous legal and moral status, meant that deprogramming tended to be publicly disavowed, while its practice continued clandestinely.[16]

Use of violence[edit]

Deprogramming became a controversial practice due to the violent and illegal nature of some of its methods. Various academics have commented on the practice. Sociologist Anson D. Shupe and others wrote that deprogramming is comparable to exorcism in both methodology and manifestation.[17] Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies James T. Richardson described deprogramming as a "private, self-help process whereby participants in unpopular new religious movements (NRMs) were forcibly removed from the group, incarcerated, and put through radical resocialization processes that were supposed to result in their agreeing to leave the group."[18] Law professor Douglas Laycock, author of Religious Liberty: The Free Exercise Clause, wrote:

Beginning in the 1970s, many parents responded to the initial conversion with "deprogramming." The essence of deprogramming was to physically abduct the convert, isolate him and physically restrain him, and barrage him with continuous arguments and attacks against his new religion, threatening to hold him forever until he agreed to leave it.[19]

Deprogrammers generally operated on the presumption that the people they were paid to extract from religious organizations were victims of mind control or brainwashing. Since the theory was that such individuals were incapable of rational thought, extreme measures were thought to be justified for their own good, up to and including the use of criminal violence. Ted Patrick was eventually tried and convicted of multiple felonies relating to kidnapping and false imprisonment of deprogramming subjects.[6]

Violence of one degree or another is common to all anecdotal accounts of deprogramming. There are numerous testimonies from people who describe being threatened with a gun, beaten, denied food and sleep, and sexually assaulted.[20] In these accounts the deprogramming usually begins with the victim being forced into a vehicle and taken to a place where they are isolated from everyone but their captors. Told that they would not be released until they renounce their beliefs, they are then subjected to days and sometimes weeks of verbal, emotional, psychological and/or physical pressure, until the demands of their abductors are satisfied.[21]

According to sociologist Eileen Barker, "one does not have to rely on the victims for stories of violence: Ted Patrick, one of the most notorious deprogrammers used by CAGs [cult-awareness groups] (who has spent several terms in prison for his exploits) openly boasts about some of the violence he employed." A number of other prominent members of "cult-awareness groups" have been convicted of violent crimes committed in the course of deprogrammings.[20]

Carol Giambalvo, who worked for the Cult Awareness Network in the 1980s (although she went on to advocate for "voluntary exit counseling" and "thought reform consultation") said that although abductions certainly occurred, the more common practice was to forcefully detain people in their own homes, or in a cabin or motel room. Giambalvo tells of "horror stories" of restraint, beatings, use of handcuffs and weapons, sexual abuse and even rape, although she claims that these were only used in the minority of cases and that deprogramming "helped to free many individuals".[22]

Rationale and effectiveness[edit]

Carol Giambalvo described the reasoning behind deprogramming thus:

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.[22]

Another associate of Ted Patrick, Sylvia Buford, identified five stages in the deprogramming which would, ideally, bring the subject to a recognition of their condition:

  1. Discrediting the authority figure
  2. Presenting contradictions - comparing the ideology with the reality; for example, "How can he preach love when he exploits people?"
  3. The breaking point, at which the subject begins to accept the deprogrammer's position and begins doubting the ideology
  4. Self-expression: the subject begins to voice criticisms and complaints against the cult.
  5. Identification and transference: the subject begins to identify with the deprogrammers, thinking as an opponent of the cult rather than as a member.[23]

According to Giambalvo and others, however, deprogramming frequently failed completely to achieve the desired outcome and often caused significant harm. While some advocates claimed a high success rate, studies show that natural attrition rates are actually higher than those achieved by deprogramming interventions.[24]

Professor of psychiatry Saul V. Levine suggests that it is doubtful that deprogramming helps many people and goes on to say that it actually causes harm to the victim by the very nature of deprogramming. For deprogramming to work, the victim must be convinced that they joined a religious group against their will. They then must renounce responsibility and accept that in some mysterious way that their minds were controlled. He argues that deprogramming destroys a person's identity and is likely to create permanent anxiety about freedom of choice and leave the deprogrammed subject dependent upon the guidance and advice of others.[25]

The Dialog Center International (DCI) a major Christian counter-cult organization founded in 1973 by a Danish professor of missiology and ecumenical theology, Johannes Aagaard, rejects deprogramming, believing that it is counterproductive, ineffective, and can harm the relationship between a cult member and concerned family members.[26]


Deprogrammers have sometimes operated with overt or tacit support of law enforcement and judicial officials.[27][28] Richardson sees government involvement in deprogramming as existing on a continuum from implicit approval to active involvement. In the United States, where there are First Amendment protections for religious groups, government officials and agencies frequently "turned a blind eye" to the activities of deprogrammers. In China, Government agencies have at times promoted activities resembling deprogramming to enforce official views of "correct" beliefs and behaviors, for example in the suppression of the Falun Gong movement.[18] This can involve "vigorous, even violent, efforts to dissuade people from participating in groups deemed unacceptable to the government" and have been "given legal sanction by the passage of laws that make illegal the activities or even the beliefs of the unpopular movement or group being targeted".[18]

In the United States—in New York, Kansas, Nebraska, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon and Texas—lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to legalize involuntary deprogramming, either through a deprogramming bill or conservatorship legislation. In New York, two bills were actually passed by the legislature (in 1980 and 1981), but both were vetoed by Governor Hugh Carey because of their violation of religious and other constitutional freedoms. In other states the bills failed to pass the legislature.[29]

Controversy and related issues[edit]

In the United States, from the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s mind control was a widely accepted theory in public opinion, and the vast majority of newspaper and magazine accounts of deprogrammings assumed that recruits' relatives were well justified to seek conservatorships and to hire deprogrammers.[30]

One disturbing aspect from a civil rights point of view, was that people hiring deprogrammers would use deception or other ethically questionable methods—including kidnapping—to get their relative into deprogrammers' hands, without allowing them any recourse to a lawyer or psychiatrist of their own choosing. Previously, there would be a sanity hearing first, and only then a commitment to an asylum or involuntary therapy. But with deprogramming, judges routinely granted parents legal authority over their adult children without a hearing.[31]

Critics contend that deprogramming and exit counseling begin with a false premise.[32][33] Lawyers for some groups who have lost members due to deprogramming, as well as some civil liberties advocates, sociologists and psychologists, argue that it is not the religious groups but rather the deprogrammers who are the ones who deceive and manipulate people.[33][34][35][36]

During the 1990s, deprogrammer Rick Ross was sued by Jason Scott, a former member of a Pentecostal group called the Life Tabernacle Church, after an unsuccessful deprogramming attempt. In 1995, the jury awarded Scott US$875,000 in compensatory damages and US$2,500,000 in punitive damages against Ross, which were later settled for US$5,000 and 200 hours of services. More significantly, the jury also found that the leading anti-cult group known as the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was a co-conspirator in the crime and fined CAN around US$1,000,000 in punitive damages, forcing the group into bankruptcy.[37][38] This case is often seen as effectively closing the door on the practice of involuntary deprogramming in the United States.[9]

Referral and kickback system[edit]

Anti-cult groups play a central role in maintaining the underground network of communications, referrals, transportation, and housing necessary for continued deprogramming.[39]

The Cult Awareness Network operated a referral scheme (NARDEC) in which they would refer people to deprogrammers in return for a "kickback" in the form of a donation or as a commission.[40] Deprogrammers such as Rick Alan Ross, Steven Hassan and Carol Giambalvo were among the CAN-referred deprogrammers.[39]

Historical examples[edit]

Year Subject Group Description Deprogrammer
1974 Kathy Crampton[41] Love Family The abduction and deprogramming were televised across the United States; shortly after what was thought to be a 'successful' deprogramming, she went back to the group. Deprogrammer charged with kidnapping but acquitted. Ted Patrick
1980 Susan Wirth, a 35-year-old teacher living in San Francisco Coalition to Fight the Death Penalty; African People's Solidarity Committee; anti-nuclear[30] Taken off the street and shoved into a van by 4 kidnappers, at the instigation of her parents.[30][42] The parents paid US$27,000 for the deprogramming, which included being gagged, handcuffed to a bed for two weeks, denied food and water and repeatedly threatened.[43] Despite the ordeal Wirth remained committed to her causes and spoke out against deprogramming, but declined to press legal charges against her parents.[44] Ted Patrick
1980 Roberta McElfish, a 26-year-old Tucson waitress.[7] Wesley Thomas Family Abducted off the street by relatives who thought she had joined a cult, McElfish managed to escape before a deprogramming was administered.[45] Deprogrammer convicted of conspiracy, kidnapping, and false imprisonment; sentenced to one year in prison and fined US$5,000.[46] Ted Patrick
1981 Stephanie Riethmiller, who lived in Ohio lesbian relationship Kidnapped by deprogrammers hired by her parents; she was allegedly held against her will and repeatedly raped. Filed civil charges against her parents and the deprogrammers, which were dismissed in a trial that generated some controversy in the media.[30][47][48]
1981 Thomas Ward Unification Church Held captive for 35 days and subjected to physical and psychological abuse by deprogrammers and family members. In Ward's civil action the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal civil rights laws protect against religious discrimination. The judgement contradicted the (then common) "parental immunity" principle in such cases.[31]
1990 Elma Miller, an Amish woman liberal sect Deprogrammers hired by her husband to return her to him and the Amish church. Criminal charges of conspiracy were filed against the husband, brother, and two others but were later dropped on her request to the prosecuting attorney.[49][50] Ted Patrick
1990s Jason Scott Pentecostalist group called the Life Tabernacle Church (part of United Pentecostal Church International) Unsuccessful deprogramming. Scott became a former member and sued.[51] The jury awarded Scott US$875,000 in compensatory damages and US$1,000,000 in punitive damages against the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), and US$2,500,000 against Ross (later settled for US$5,000 and 200 hours of services "as an expert consultant and intervention specialist").[51] Rick Ross

Exit counseling[edit]

Proponents of "Exit counseling" distinguish it from coercive forms of deprogramming. The fundamental difference is that involuntary deprogramming involves forced confinement of the individual whereas in exit counseling they are free to leave at any time. The absence of physical coercion is thought to increase the likelihood of establishing a rapport and of not alienating, enraging or terrifying the subject. Exit counsellors are typically brought in during a "family Intervention", where they explain their role and seek to change the subject's attitude to their religious group through reasoning and persuasion.[52]

Langone, writing in 1993, estimated that deprogramming costs typically rise to at least US$10,000, compared to exit counseling which typically costs US$2,000 to US$4,000, although cases requiring extensive research of little-known groups can cost much more. Deprogramming, especially when it fails, also entails considerable legal risk and psychological risk (for example, a permanent alienation of the subject from their family). In exit counseling, these psychological and legal risks are reduced. Although deprogrammers prepare family members (other than the subject) for the process, exit counselors tend to work with such family members directly, expecting those requesting the intervention to contribute to the process. Exit counseling requires that families establish a reasonable and respectful level of communication with their loved one before the program itself can begin. Because deprogramming relies on coercion (which is illegal except in the case of conservatorship and is generally viewed as unethical) deprogrammers' critiques of the religious organization tend to be less credible to the subject than the arguments of exit counselors.[53]

Steven Hassan, a proponent of exit counseling and author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, states that he took part in a number of deprogrammings in the late 1970s, but has been critical of them since 1980.[54] Hassan states that he has not participated in any deprogrammings since then, although he says that forced intervention should be kept as a last resort if all non-coercive "strategies to influence the cult member" fail.[55]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Definition of DEPROGRAM". Retrieved 2022-09-17.
  2. ^ Melton, J. Gordon (1999). New Religious Movements. New York: Routledge. p. 218. ISBN 0-415-20049-0.
  3. ^ Shupe, Anson (2005). Encyclopedia of religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, 2291–3. Vol. 4. 2nd ed. Macmillan Reference, USA.
  4. ^ a b Neal, Lynn S. (2012). "Deprogramming". Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United States. Edited by Bill J. Leonard and Jill Y. Crainshaw. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO.
  5. ^ a b "Notes: Cults, Deprogrammers, and the Necessity Defense". Michigan Law Review. 80 (2): 271–311. December 1981. doi:10.2307/1288050. JSTOR 1288050 – via JSTOR.
  6. ^ a b Hunter, Howard O.; Price, Polly J. (2001). "Regulation of religious proselytism in the United States". Brigham Young University Law Review. 2001 (2).
  7. ^ a b "Ted Patrick Convicted of Seizing Woman Said to Have Joined Cult; Escaped From Abductors". The New York Times. August 30, 1980.
  8. ^ Ikemoto, Keiko; Nakamura, Masakazu (2004). "Forced deprogramming from a religion and mental health: A case report of PTSD". International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. 27 (2): 147–155. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2004.01.005. PMID 15063639.
  9. ^ a b McAllister, Shawn (1999). "Holy Wars: Involuntary Deprogramming as a Weapon Against Cults". Thurgood Marshall Law Review 24 (2): 359–85
  10. ^ LeMoult, John (1978-01-01). "Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects". Fordham Law Review. 46 (4): 599.
  11. ^ Chryssides, George (1999). Exploring New Religions. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 346–348. ISBN 0-8264-5959-5.
  12. ^ Chryssides, George D.; Zeller, Benjamin E. (eds.) (2014). The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements. Bloomsbury Companions. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  13. ^ a b c d Bromley, David G. (2006). "Affiliation and Disaffiliation Careers in New Religious movements". In Gallagher, Eugene V.; Ashcraft, W. Michael (eds.). Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America : Volume 1 : History and Controversies. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0275987132. OL 10289608M.
  14. ^ Clarke, P. and R.M.H.F.P. Clarke. 2004. Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements: Taylor & Francis.
  15. ^ "Religion: Cultnaper". Time. Time USA. Retrieved 24 October 2023.
  16. ^ Lewis, James R. (2004). The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements. Oxford University Press. p. 191.
  17. ^ Shupe, Anson D.; Spielmann, Roger; Stigall, Sam (July 1977). "Deprogramming: The New Exorcism". American Behavioral Scientist. 20 (6): 941–956. doi:10.1177/000276427702000609. S2CID 220680074.
  18. ^ a b c Richardson, James T. (2011). "Deprogramming: from private self-help to governmental organized repression". Crime, Law and Social Change. 55 (4): 321–336. doi:10.1007/s10611-011-9286-5. S2CID 145343864.
  19. ^ Laycock, Douglas (2011). Religious Liberty, Volume 2: The Free Exercise Clause. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 746. ISBN 978-0-8028-6522-9.
  20. ^ a b Barker, Eileen (2002). "Watching for Violence: A Comparative Analysis of the Roles of Five Types of Cult-Watching Groups". In Cults, Religion, and Violence, edited by David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton, 123–48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  21. ^ LeMoult, John E. (1978). "Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects". Fordham Law Review. 46 (4): 599–640.
  22. ^ a b Giambalvo, Carol (1998). "From Deprogramming to Thought Reform Consultation". International Cultic Studies Association. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  23. ^ Stoner, Carroll; Parke, Jo Anne (1977). All Gods Children: The Cult Experience – Salvation or Slavery?. Radnor, PA: Chilton.
  24. ^ Gomes, Alan W. (1995). Unmasking the Cults. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. ISBN 9780310704416.
  25. ^ Levine, Saul V. (1979). "The Role of Psychiatry in the Phenomenon of Cults". Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 24 (7): 593–603. doi:10.1177/070674377902400703. PMID 519625. S2CID 27997894.
  26. ^ Chryssides, Exploring New Religions, 353–54.
  27. ^ Bromley, David; Melton, J. Gordon (2002). Cults, Religion, and Violence. West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  28. ^ Richardson, James T. (October 1991). "Reflexivity and objectivity in the study of controversial new religions". Religion. 21 (4): 305–18. doi:10.1016/0048-721X(91)90034-N.
  29. ^ Robbins, Thomas; Sheperd, William C.; McBride, James (1985). Cults, Culture, and the Law: Perspectives on New Religious Movements. Chico, California: Scholars Press. pp. 17, 108–110.
  30. ^ a b c d Rusher, William A. (28 May 1983). "Deprogramming A Disgrace To Free Society". Gadsden Times. p. A4. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  31. ^ a b Hyer, Marjorie. "Court Rules Rights Laws Protect Against Religious Discrimination". The Washington Post. Retrieved 3 October 2023.
  32. ^ Bromley, David G.; Shupe, Anson D. (1981). Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 198–204. ISBN 0807032565.
  33. ^ a b Robbins, Thomas; Anthony, Dick (February 1982). "Deprogramming, Brainwashing and the Medicalization of Deviant Religious Groups". Social Problems. 29 (3): 283–97. doi:10.2307/800160. JSTOR 800160 – via JSTOR.
  34. ^ Anthony, Dick; Robbins, Thomas (Winter 1992). "Law, social science and the "brainwashing" exception to the first amendment". Behavioral Sciences and the Law. 10 (1): 5–29. doi:10.1002/bsl.2370100103.
  35. ^ Coleman, Lee (1984). "New Religions and the Myth of Mind Control". American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 54 (2): 322–5. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.1984.tb01499.x. PMID 6731597.
  36. ^ Blau, Eleanor (1977-02-06). "A.C.L.U. AIDE WARNS ON SEIZING CULTISTS". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  37. ^ Chryssides, Exploring New Religions, 348.
  38. ^ "Cult Awareness Network bankrupt". Christian Century. 14–21 August 1996. p. 777.
  39. ^ a b Davis, Derek H.; Hankins, Barry (2003). New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
  40. ^ Shupe, Anson; Darnell, Susan E. (2006). Agents of Discord: Deprogramming, Pseudo-Science, and the American Anticult Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  41. ^ "Ted Patrick Freed in Coast Abduction". New York Times. 1974-12-12.
  42. ^ "Daughter kidnapped over politics". Beaver County Times. Associated Press. July 2, 1980. p. A-13. Retrieved November 14, 2013.
  43. ^ Postpage, Stephen Garrard (1993). Inquiries in Bioethics. New York: Georgetown University Press. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-87840-538-1
  44. ^ "Feared kidnapped, she reconciles with mother", Merced Sun-Star, July 29, 1980.
  45. ^ "Cult Deprogrammer Is Found Guilty," Toledo Blade, 30 August 1980.
  46. ^ "Ted Patrick is sentenced in seizure of cult member". The New York Times. 1980-09-27.
  47. ^ Comstock, Gard David (1995). Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-231-07331-8.
  48. ^ "'Deprogrammed' Woman Files Suit". Gadsden Times. December 10, 1981. p. 1. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  49. ^ "Amish Woman Charges Deprogramming", Pittsburgh Press, November 30, 1990.
  50. ^ "Amish Woman Asks Prosecutor to Drop Charges on Kidnapping", Madison Courier. December 8, 1990.
  51. ^ a b Shupe and Darnell, Agents of Discord, 180–4.
  52. ^ Langone, Michael D. (1995). Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. New York: W. W. Norton. pp. 166, 171–4. ISBN 9780393313215.
  53. ^ Langone, Michael D. and Paul R. Martin (1993). "Deprogramming, Exit Counseling, and Ethics - Clarifying the Confusion". Retrieved 2019-04-07.
  54. ^ Hassan, Steven Alan. "Refuting the Disinformation Attacks Put Forth by Destructive Cults and their Agents". Freedom of Mind Center. Archived from the original on 2006-12-12. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  55. ^ Hassan, Steven (1988). Combatting Cult Mind Control. Vermont: Park Street Press. p. 114.