Author Presentation by Carol Giambalvo
Early on, according to what some “old-timers” have told us, groups such as the Children of God allowed parental access — even visits to the group — until a number of parents were successful at convincing their adult children to leave the group. Then the Groups began severely restricting parental access.
In the mid-1970s parents began reporting their adult children’s involvement in new religious (and some non-religious) groups that many call cults. They reported rapid personality changes and concerns that their loved ones were dropping out of school, shunning previous friends and family and devoting themselves full time to working for these strange new groups to which they pledged their total allegiance. Many parents concluded that their children had been brainwashed.
Parents were doing what they could to rescue their children from what were perceived as dangerous situations. Through trial and error, the controversial process of deprogramming developed. In the 1970s it became the preferred means of rescuing a cult member, as to many it was perceived as the only way a cult member could leave a cult. As we witness today, this is a misperception as thousands of cult members walk away from cults annually. In fact, in very unofficial polls taken at conferences and AFF recovery workshops, the majority of people attending are walkaways. But at the time, families based their decisions on the prevailing information. And a good part of that decision was based on the fact that in some groups, members were zealously protected from parents, often having their names changed and moved from location to location.
We must add here that not all deprogrammings were “rescue and hold” situations. There were some where the group member was free to leave at any time and there were some where ex-members sought voluntary deprogramming.
But for our purpose today, and in our thinking, we will use the term deprogramming to mean an involuntary situation, exit counseling to mean a voluntary situation, and thought reform consultation to mean an entirely different approach and we will seek to explain the differences and the history.
Media coverage — even to some extent today — hyped the drastic deprogramming approach and further spread the concept that it was parents’ best, if not only, option.
Deprogramming was controversial because it involved forcing a group member to listen to people relate information not available in the cults. Some state legislatures passed conservatorship legislation to legalize the process, one of which was vetoed by the governor. Later the opposition to deprogramming and the recognition of the effectiveness of less restrictive alternatives grew.
In deprogramming, group members were sometimes abducted from the street; although more commonly they were simply prevented from leaving their homes or a vacation cabin or motel. Deprogramming often succeeded in extricating the family member from the cult; nevertheless it failed more often than many realized and sometimes lawsuits were filed against parents and deprogrammers. In a few cases arrests and prosecution resulted.
The actual process of a deprogramming, as we see it, differs a great deal from voluntary exit counseling. Some of the ideas about cults and brainwashing prevalent at the time contributed to that process. 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. There are horror stories — promoted most vehemently by the cults themselves — about restraint, beatings, and even rape. And we have to admit that we have met former members who have related to us their deprogramming experience — several of handcuffs, weapons wielded and sexual abuse. But thankfully, these are in the minority — and in our minds, never justified. Nevertheless, deprogramming helped to free many individuals held captive to destructive cults at a time when other alternatives did not seem viable.
Gradually, not only did the understanding of the process of thought reform grow, but the voluntary approach of exit counseling proved to be effective — and less risky psychologically as well as legally. A few individuals committed themselves to doing exit counseling and refused to do “involuntaries.”
Even within the exit counseling field, further branching off has occurred. Some tend to be technique-oriented and/or advance a particular religious perspective. Others are information oriented. They introduce themselves as individuals with important information. Although they may have a preference regarding how the group member chooses to respond to that information, they take pains to avoid manipulating the group member.
One model for the process is described in the book Exit Counseling: A Family Intervention. The primary difference in exit counseling is its voluntary nature but there are other differences as well. Much more emphasis is placed on assessment, using a pre-intervention interview and information form that enables the exit counselor to determine the concerns specific to the family and the group member and to weed out interventions wanted by families for an agenda not appropriate to the undertaking of a serious intervention in an individual’s life; for example, Johnny is about to marry someone in the group of a different race or culture or Johnny isn’t attending xyz church any longer. These examples, by the way, are few and far between. For the majority of the time we see responsible families seeking help for legitimate concerns. We need, however, to be careful that we are not placing those concerns there or exaggerating them. There are some situations where an intervention is not possible under the present conditions, for example the family has no access to the group member. Some families are referred to knowledgeable mental health professionals for some work prior to planning an intervention. Emphasis is placed on family communications with the group member and education about the specific group, what it teaches, what thought reform is and how it works, and the recovery process.
The process itself differs from deprogramming, in our opinion, because it is a much more respectful approach, it is non-confrontational, the exit counselors have to prove their credibility, there is much more interaction with the information and it seeks a primary cognitive rather than a primary emotional response. Very seldom is a visible “snapping” moment seen — but a gradual increase in interest, interaction, and feedback with the information — often accompanied with an increase of interest in and interaction with the family.
Let me also say here that exit counselors realize that an intervention is only the first step. If the person decides to leave the group there is a long road to recovery, that can take leaps and bounds if the individual is afforded the opportunity to attend Wellspring, but they need much more emotional, psychological and cognitive support and if there is no system set up for that support, it may be unethical to do an intervention.
Thought Reform Consultation
In the 1980s many attempts were made by individuals doing interventions to get together to find ways to improve our profession and ourselves. But a difficulty arose in the definition of exit counseling and deprogramming. Some helping organizations at the time contributed to that confusion by maintaining a position that there were voluntary and involuntary exit counseling and voluntary and involuntary deprogramming. As a result, without the ability to establish a clear-cut definition, at those meetings people who called themselves exit counselors but were doing involuntary deprogramming could not be excluded and our work to establish ethical guidelines and a more professional approach spun its wheels, so to speak. A group of individuals who had committed themselves to voluntary interventions only began to meet regularly to share ideas and information and to develop Ethical Standards. We formed an organization of Thought Reform Consultants and eventually published our Ethical Standards. Those Ethical Standards were patterned after the Ethical Codes or Standards of the following organizations:
American Association for Marriage & Family Therapy
National Association of Social Workers
Standards for the Private Practice of Clinical Social Work
American Psychiatric Association
National Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors
We worked diligently to combine those standards with some uniquely necessary to our profession. And we owe our gratitude to the following advisors for their professional support and encouragement:
Margaret Singer, Ph. D.
Michael Langone, Ph. D.
Herbert Rosedale, Esq.
David Bardin, Esq. and Livia Bardin, M.S.W.
Bill Goldberg, M.S.W. & Lorna Goldberg, M.S.W.
Paul Martin, Ph. D.
Thought reform consultation involves much, much more family preparation. It is necessary for a 2-3 day, sometimes more, formal family preparation involving all members of the family team and all thought reform consultant team members. This formal preparation accomplishes the following:
The family team experiences how they work together under pressure and how the thought reform consultants work together
Enables the thought reform consulting team to observe how the family works together under pressure and who may or may not be appropriate for major roles in the intervention
Improves family communication with the group member
Enables the family to understand the culture of the group, its teachings and how thought reform techniques impact the group member
Prepares the family for how to communicate in the intervention and what practical arrangements should be made
Emphasizes the recovery process and their responsibility in it
Emphasizes the seriousness of an intervention and all its repercussions
Facilitates the family in making a fully informed decision about doing an intervention
Thought reform consultation involves even more assessment, as you see — and places much more responsibility on the family. They realize that a team is not just going to come in and perform some magical process and things will forever be okay.
In both exit counseling and thought reform consulting, the purpose of the intervention is not to get someone out of a cult. While that may be a desired outcome, the purpose is to give the group member the information that enables them to make a fully informed choice.