Steve K. Dubrow-Eichel, Ph.D.
This special issue of the Cultic Studies Journal is, to our knowledge, the only professional, detailed analysis of deprogramming, a central source of controversy in cultic studies. The observer of the deprogramming, Dr. Steve Dubrow-Eichel, completed this study as part of his doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Dubrow-Eichel’s work illuminates this often misunderstood and sensationalized phenomenon. The CSJ presents his research to advance understanding of the behavior change processes that occur in deprogramming and cultic conversions.
Opinions expressed by the author and by participants in the deprogramming are their own individual opinions and do not reflect the views of the editor, the CSJ Editorial Advisory Board, or others associated with the American Family Foundation. We hope that this special issue will stimulate further analysis, research, and discussion.
Deprogramming: A Case Study
Part 1: Personal observations of the Group Process
Steve K. Dubrow-Eichel, Ph.D.
RETIRN – Re-Entry, Therapy, Information & Referral Network
This issue of the Cultic Studies Journal presents detailed impressions of the deprogramming of an International society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) devotee. The five-day-long successful deprogramming was observed and audiotaped. The deprogramming team consisted of three primary and two secondary deprogrammers. This deprogramming was a persuasive conversation and moral discourse in which the primary activities were asking for and receiving information (education), and self-disclosing (affiliation). It relied initially on the establishment of rapport and trust between the devotee and his deprogrammers, which subsequently permitted the devotee to consider discrepancies between IDKCON philosophy and actions without feeling threatened. Qualitatively, the deprogramming has distinct “formal” (cultist-focused) and “casual” (subgroup-focused) modes. To study the deprogramming process in greater detail and with enhanced objectivity, segments of the audiotapes representing the beginning, redecision (“snapping”), and ending stages of the deprogramming were subjected to content and process analyses; these results will be presented in a future article.
The process of deprogramming – the sometimes forced re-evaluation of cult beliefs and behaviors – has arguably been the single most controversial topic in the field of cultic studies. Media and even some academic and presumably more “respectable” presentations of deprogramming have ranged considerably (from the fanatically positive to the virulently negative) in their assessment of this activity.
The need to demystify this complex but fascinating process seemed obvious, and this study was, to my knowledge, the first systematic process study of deprogramming. The study involved observing and audiotaping a 5-day successful deprogramming of an International society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) devotee (“Ken”). In closely examining this single deprogramming, I wanted to pay particular attention to three processes: (a) the quality of the cult member’s participation in the deconversion process; (b) the quality and quantity of verbal interchange and information exchange between deprogrammer(s) and cult member; and (c) the perceived focus and motility of the cult member’s attention. The study also considered the relationship between these processes and consciousness.
Overview of the Organization of This Study
In this study, I qualitatively examined the deprogramming in its entirety. I then closely investigated the three most significant deprogramming events (the beginning of the deprogramming, the point at which the cultist renounced his cult membership, and the end of the deprogramming).
“Deprogramming” is a term applied broadly to activities and processes aimed at the deconversion of a member of one of the controversial new religions, pseudoreligions, or mass therapy “cults” (Clark, Langone, Schecter & Daly, 1981; Conway & Siegelman, 1978). Deprogramming is a controversial and often secretive activity; the first step (physical separation from the cult) is sometimes conducted without the cult member’s initial voluntary agreement. Coercive persuasion (“brainwashing” or “mind control”) is the justification for deconverson most often cited by deprogrammers, exit-counselors, and the families that hire them (Barker, 1984; Beckford, 1985; Bromley, Shupe, & Ventimiglia, 1983; Shupe & Bromley, 1980; Sullivan, 1984); “mind control techniques” appear most prominently in experts’ definitions of destructive cult characteristics (Cole & Dubrow-Eichel, 1985; Sullivan, 1984). According to many practitioners, ex-members and several researchers (Conway & Siegelman, 1978; Hassan, 1988; Patrick, 1976; Underwood & Underwood, 1979; Zeitlin, 1985), cultic brainwashing may involve the induction and maintenance of hypnotic or trance-like states of consciousness. Discussions with many deprogrammers and ex-members indicate that they view deprogramming as a predominantly cognitive-interpersonal process.
I began the process of systematically studying deprogramming by: (a) describing in detail the general social contexts and interactions I observed throughout one 5-day deprogramming (not the object of this study); (b) developing a Deprogramming Statements Checklist, a coding strategy and manual specifically designed to study deprogramming; and (c) analyzing in detail changes in verbal content (using the Deprogramming Statements Checklist) and cognitive processes (i.e., focus of attention, and quality of subjective experience) during the three most significant deprogramming events.
The results of my study are presented in two issues of the Cultic Studies Journal, (this special issue and a follow-up in a later issue).
In this issue, I first review the literature on cultic conversion, information processing, attention, consciousness, deprogramming, and interaction analysis. I attempt to integrate these seven research strands and relate them to the questions posed in my study. Next, I detail my observations and review the audiotapes of Ken’s deprogramming as a member of the Hare Krishnas. These observations provide a qualitative context for the presentation of quantitative data on verbal interaction, attention, and consciousness to be presented in the subsequent Cultic Studies Journalarticle.
Ken’s deconversion began as an “involuntary” deprogramming: His initial “snatch” involved a clear message that he was not free to leave the deprogrammers’ car. Soon thereafter, however, he agreed to participate in the deprogramming and stated that he would not try to leave; it can be argued that the deprogramming had then become voluntary. My study allowed for an initially involuntary process, but ultimately required the voluntary consent of the deprogrammee before I could collect and utilize data. I began my observations of Ken’s deprogramming after he had agreed to stay and listen to the deprogrammers’ information. In addition, I obtained Ken’s initial verbal consent to observe but later received a written release. This method was reviewed and approved by the Committee on Studies Involving Human Beings of the University of Pennsylvania.
Personal Experiences with Destructive Cults, “Mind Control,” and Deprogramming
Personal passions have often fueled and occasionally clouded both “sides” of the cult controversy. It is therefore imperative to explicate clearly how personal experiences have influenced the interpretation of information yielded from formal studies. Choosing to study a topic related to the psychology of destructive cultism was not a difficult decision for me. As a researcher, counselor, consultant, and psychologist I have been actively involved in this field since April, 1975.
My experiences as a Unification Church trainee. My involvement began as an undergraduate at Columbia University, when I became fascinated with the young members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (U.C.) who were on campus passionately recruiting for the U.C.’s college arm, the Collegiate Association for Research of Principle (CARP). Just prior to the beginning of the 1975 spring semester, I received approval to conduct independent research on the U.C. I voluntarily subjected myself to two months of “brown bag lectures” on Divine Principle (the Unification Church’s doctrine) followed by one week of intensive indoctrination (under the guise of a CARP “young leaders conference”) at the U.C.’s eastern seminary at Barrytown, NY.
Prior to going to Barrytown, I had familiarized myself somewhat with U.C. doctrine, which I opposed, and I was very aware of the Church’s extremist, right-wing, political views, which I loathed.
My experiences in Barrytown stunned me. After only two days, I found myself wavering and seriously doubting the integrity of beliefs, feelings, and self-perceptions that had been an integral part of my personality since I was thirteen. I had also become aware of an intense physiological agitation that I interpreted as extreme anxiety.
I felt I was on the verge of either capitulating to the radically alien set of beliefs and behaviors beings presented to me, or of having an anxiety attack (a “nervous breakdown”); nevertheless, I did neither. I credit my eventual departure from Barrytown to luck, and cigarettes (which were forbidden). Sneaking out of the large group sleeping quarters for men (the “brothers” dorm”) to smoke cigarettes, I encountered several other young men who were also breaking this rule. We began to talk, and to share our doubts. This form of communication was also forbidden (we were supposed to communicate only to our assigned “buddies,” all of whom were long-term Moonists). I became a part of a small group of five “renegades” who met secretly late at night (actually, early in the morning) to smoke cigarettes and debrief each other (although we did not label it as such back then). After two more days, our rebellion became overt and evident to our leaders when we refused to cooperate with the “buddy system,” and insisted on our right to limited periods of “free” conversation.
Nevertheless, I had initial difficulty leaving Barrytown. When I insisted on leaving at the end of my seven-day workshop, my “brothers” told me they would call a taxi to pick me up – but in fact they never called. I then insisted on making the call myself (there were no public phones), but when my taxi arrived my backpack was suddenly “lost.” I then became angry, and threatened to sue my workshop leader if I was detained any longer. My backpack suddenly “reappeared,” and immediately thereafter I left.
When I arrived back at Columbia, I was still agitated. I remained intermittently agitated and “spaced-out” for approximately one month. In retrospect I now believe I was experiencing, in mild form, many of the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and/or dissociative disorders and what many former cultists call post-cult “floating.”
Prior to and during my stay at Barrytown, I interviewed (with the local CARP’s approval) several U.C. members, employing a questionnaire and a structured interview drawn from my study of transactional analysis, especially the theory of “life scripts” (Berne, 1961; Steiner, 1971). I expected to find differences in “scripts” between Moonists and a small matched sample, with the Moonists having “scripts” similar to those of alcoholics. My findings gave limited support to this hypothesis, but my section on my experiences as a Barrytown trainee was considerably more provocative. In this section, I compared the processes I observed in Barrytown to the process of thought reform as described by Lifton (1961) and Schein (1961). I concluded that while in Barrytown I had been deceptively subjected to strong pressures to regress psychologically within a structured program of thought reform. The fact that the Moonists had failed to “brainwash” me was, in my opinion, due primarily to the breakdown in CARP’s buddy system that allowed the “renegades” to meet and engage in mutual debriefing. The debriefings allowed us to provide each other with feedback and mutual validation of shared experiences, thereby facilitating resistance to the U.C.’s demands to conform (Asch, 1956). For all but one of us, this was apparently enough to keep us out of the U.C. with our psychological functioning relatively intact.
Barrytown postscript. To my knowledge, none of the five “renegades” joined the U.C. One renegade, Charlie, whom I knew fairly well from small classes we both attended at Columbia, experienced a psychotic episode during the evening of our sixth day at Barrytown. I witnesses his psychotic break without comprehending what was transpiring. I found out much later than a few hours after my departure from Barrytown, he was encircled by approximately twelve Moonists who were able to persuade him to remain for the next “workshop.” (which was to last 21 days). Charlie was eventually expelled, however, when his psychosis worsened that same evening. He became so agitated that he ran through the halls of Barrytown tearing down posters of Sun Myung Moon or writing “Moon is the Antichrist” on them. Charlie left Barrytown to wander aimlessly in the Midwest for several months. Breaking his leg in the Grand Canyon eventually led to hospitalization, and consequent psychiatric treatment.
Of course, Charlie missed what remained of the spring semester of college, and he remained in a psychiatric hospital for part of that summer. I learned of his post-Barrytown experiences when he returned to college in the autumn of 1975.
Subsequent research and professional experience as a re-entry therapist. When I began graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, I continued my research into the psychology of destructive cults over the next two years (1976-1978). I interviewed approximately two dozen former cultists – some of whom had been deprogrammed (including Ted Patrick’s second case) and some who had left their groups unaided. I observed my first deprogramming (of a Scientologist) in 1979. In 1980, I began to be called into a limited number of deprogrammings as a psychological consultant, and to assist families who were struggling to understand what had happened to their adult children. At times, I was assisted by my wife, Linda Dubrow-Eichel.
In august, 1982, I met Roberta and Steven Eisenberg as we prepared to be interviewed on a local television talk show. At the time, Roberta was director of the Cult Clinic for Philadelphia’s Jewish Family Service; Steven, a former Krishna devotee, was a part-time student and deprogrammer. Soon thereafter, I also met a former member of the Divine Light Mission (Guru Maharah Hi’s group). Harry (not his real name) had been deprogrammed by Ted Patrick and was also working as a part-time deprogrammer and a master-level exit-counselor. We found our views and approaches to be very compatible, and agreed to remain in touch with each other.
In December 1982, I received my Pennsylvania license for the independent practice of psychology, and I immediately proposed to Roberta, Steven, Harry and my wife that we cooperate, engage in peer supervision, and share cases as an independent counseling “network.” In early 1983, RETIRN (the Re-Entry, Therapy, Information & Referral network) was formed. Although Harry has since left to work on his own, RETIRN continues to provide counseling, consulting, and educational services to individuals and families who have been adversely affected by destructive groups, including cults.
Between the years 1980 through the end of 1988, I conservatively estimate that I have directly counseled 100 cultists, former cultists and their families, and I have assisted or consulted on approximately 100 other cases. I have observed, participating in, or been called in to consult on approximately 20 deprogrammings and exit-counselings.
My experiences in Barrytown, as an interviewer/researcher and as a therapist for former cultists have contributed considerably to my formulations about the process of cult conversion and deconversion (deprogramming). Clinical experience continues to produce evidence that, for at least a great many individuals in a broad range of totalistic groups. Conversion to the cult’s beliefs and lifestyles involves varying degrees of deception and coercive persuasion.
Review of the Literature
The cult conversion debate: Coercive persuasion or free choice?
The ongoing debate over the nature of cult conversion is central to understanding deprogramming, for deprogrammers purport to undo the process of coerced conversion in destructive cults.
There are three viewpoints regarding the nature of cult conversion. On one side of the debate are social scientists and theologians who eschew the labels “cult” and “destructive cult” in favor of the term “new religion” (cf., Bromley and Shupe, 1983; Kilbourne and Richardson, 1984; Ungerleider & Wellisch, 1979a, 1979b). I term the proponents of this viewpoint “new religionists.” The new religionists believe that cults are unconventional and perhaps unrealistically utopian but nevertheless bona fide, and are at worst no more harmful than traditional religions and institutions. At best, new religions provide alternative socialization and meaning to young people who cannot find their niche in “traditional” lifestyles and religions and are similar in social processes and results to psychotherapy (Kilbourne and Richardson, 1984), or they improve psychological functioning (Ross, 1985; Wilson, 1985). This view holds that deprogramming is a misnomer at best (if cultists are not “programmed” to begin with, they cannot be “deprogrammed”) ad a violation of civil liberty at worst. The new religionists remind us that many “conventional” religions began as controversial sects that were persecuted relentlessly; attempts to control or curb the activities of new religions are therefore seen as violations of constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
On the opposite side of this debate is what critics (cf., Barker, 1984; Bromley and Richardson, 1983; Bromley and Shupe, 1983; Kilbourne, 1983; Kilbourne and Richardson, 1984) label the “anti-cult movement” or ACM view: Cultic conversion is induced without the participant’s informed consent. The ACM’s major concerns about cults include objections to the conversion process, and objections to cult activities (Dole & Dubrow-Eichel, 1985; Enroth, 1977; Rudin & Rudin, 1980; Zeitlin, 1985). In contrast to the new religionists, the anti-cultists view deprogramming and exit counseling as viable and effective interventions aimed at returning cultists to individual liberty.
There also appears to be a broad middle ground made up of some mental health professionals (e.g., Galanter, 1983; Kriegman & Solomon, 1985; Levine, 1984) and social scientists (e.g. Bakken, 1985; Galanti, 1984; Gordon, 1984) who find cults varying abhorrent and deceptive, but tend to reject reductionist “brainwashing” models of conversion. They may view participation in a cult as a sign of an underlying psychiatric disorder (e.g., Kriegman & Solomon, 1985; Spero, 1984), family dysfunction (e.g., Schwartz, 1983; Stipes, 1985), or a paradoxical attempt to achieve maturity and independence through ego surrender to an ultimate authority (e.g., Levine, 1984; Schwartz, 1983; Stipes, 1985). This group may acknowledge the deceptiveness and imperialistic qualities of cultic groups, but they usually believe the “evils” of deprogramming and other forms of social control that appear to diminish religious freedoms outweigh cultic misbehavior. I would also include in this broad middle ground (albeit more closely associated with the anti-cult view) those mental health professionals and social scientists who accept a view of cultic conversion as involving a complex and not completely understood interplay of personal, social-psychological and possibly dissociative forces. These individuals currently disassociate themselves from coerced or involuntary deprogramming, and they typically eschew a simplistic “brainwashing” explanation of cult conversion, talking instead of “undue influence,” “unethical communication” and “the systematic manipulation of social and psychological influence” (c.f., Cialdini, 1984; Clark, et. Al, 1981; Cunningham, 1984; Singer, 1982).
Models of Coercive Cult Conversion
There are three predominant but not exclusive models of coercive cult conversion. The first and perhaps most fully articulated “brainwashing” model was formulated by Lifton (1961). Lifton, a psychoanalytically-trained psychiatrist, developed his theory following extensive clinical interviews with Chinese and Western survivors of (and refugees from) the Red Chinese “reeducation” program that followed the Communist takeover of mainland china in 1949. His theory has its roots in the psychoanalytic concept of “ego psychology.” Nevertheless, I use the term “psychodynamic/social-psychological” to describe Lifton’s model, because of his emphasis on integrating the intrapsychic, social, and cultural contexts in which ego regression and thought reform occur.
Lifton: an Early Psychodynamic/Social-Psychological Model
Chapter 22 (pp. 419-437) of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (Lifton, 1961) summarizes Lifton’s eight major points about coercive persuasion, and defines the necessary conditions that must be met before a persuasion process can be termed coercive “brainwashing.” In summarizing this chapter, I will provide examples of how various cults, including the International society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, the Hare Krishnas), employ each technique.
Milieu control. “Milieu control” refers to a rigid structuring of the environment in which communication is regulated and access to information is strictly controlled. In my April, 1975 experiences at the Unification Church’s Barrytown seminary, there were no channels to outside information sources (e.g., television, radio, newspapers, etc.) and recruits were assigned to two “buddies” with the admonition that we were to ask them any and all questions.
In ISKCON, temple members are kept isolated and communication between devotees and especially with outside sources is restricted; Krishna devotees are taught that non-ISKCON information is maya (illusion) and non-ISKCON sources of information are “demons.”
Mystical manipulation. “Mystical manipulation” refers to the use of planned, or engineered, spontaneity; that is, thought reformers manipulate recruits in such a way as to make their behaviors appear spontaneous and internally-generated. In addition, cult institutions are given an aura of great mystery and divinity. In my experiences with the Unification Church (U.C.), for example, recruits were deliberately “love-bombed” and subjected to other forms of emotional intensity. They were kept awake long hours and food was devoid of protein and variety. The result was often a planned state of intense physiological arousal that was then ascribed to the recruit’s “spiritual nature” (i.e., predestination to be a Moonist).
In ISKCON, leaders (gurus), temples and statues of divinities are ascribed great mystical powers, as is the Hare Krishna chant. New devotees are also love-bombed. ISKCON leaders maintain an aura of great mystical purpose, and devotees who rise within ISKCON institutions are said to be “chosen” or “spiritually pure.” Gurus who rise to the status of Governing Board Council members can proclaim themselves to be “spiritual masters” with the power to engage in sin because anything they do is by definition “purified.”
The demand for purity. In totalistic systems, the world is sharply divided into the good and pure vs. the evil and unclean. Those outside the totalistic system are unenlightened and therefore less than “completely human.” Leaving the cult means complete damnation. Former ISKCON devotees have reported to me that leaving ISKCON is supposed to lower one’s spiritual status below that of the “spiritually ignorant” individual who has never been exposed to Krishna Consciousness. It is especially damning to taste and then reject spirituality. In the U.C., I was told that anyone outside the Church was “satanic” and less than human. ISKCON refers to the non0-ISKCON world as maya (illusion) and labels nonmembers “demons.”
The cult of confession. The demand for continuous confession is related to the process of mystical manipulation. The convert is repeatedly asked to confess his sins (real and imagined), and although he may be rewarded for each confession, the demand to confess does not subside. Thus, confession becomes mystified and made sacred in its own right. The goal of this confession is self-surrender, not relief from guilt. In practice, the cult of confession actually creates rather than alleviates guilt. In the U.C., both new recruits and old members were strongly encourages to divulge intensely personal information to a group of people who were essentially strangers. “Correct” confessions (e.g., past sexual relations, experimentation with drugs) were rewarded with short-lived sympathy and attention (and, in later stages of membership, more tangible rewards such as better work assignments) as long as they were accompanied with the “correct” affect (i.e., guilt, shame) and proclamations of loyalty to Sun Myung Moon. The next day, however, brought the same demands for confession. Group confessions in the U.C. were typically accompanied by crying, screaming, and other demonstrations of intense emotion that escalated to a nearly orgiastic climax.
In ISKCON, devotees are also exhorted to confess continuously their transgressions to their gurus. Ken, the cultist in my study, kept a lengthy journal specifically for this purpose.
The “sacred science.” Totalist systems proclaim their dogma to be the absolute, complete, and eternal truth, which in turn elevates the dogma to a sacred level. Any information that contradicts this absolute truth is therefore false by definition, and its source is misguided at best and an enemy at worst. Questioning the sacred doctrine is forbidden. In cults like the church of Scientology, anyone critical of official Scientology dogma is labeled a “suppressive person” who becomes “fair game” for officially-sanctioned harassment (Appel, 1983; Corydon & Hubbard, 1987). In ISKCON, the Prabhupada’s version of the Bhadavad Gita is considered the absolute and incontrovertible word of Krishna, the supreme deity. Any information contradicting the Gita is by definition false. An example: loyal devotees accept Prabhupada’s Gitas’s explanation that deities surround the earth, residing on invisible planets in the upper atmosphere, and that it is impossible for mortals (especially those without Krishna Consciousness) to travel beyond the level of these planets; therefore, the space programs sponsored by various nations are all elaborate shams. The lunar landings were secretly faked by filming them in the Arizona desert.
Loading the language. Lifton (1961, p. 429) noted that “the language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché.” In Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell (1954) foresaw the intimate connection between the manipulation of language and the control of thought. He described the gradual erosion of English into a hybrid language (“Newspeak”) devoid of variety, individual nuance and abstraction. In Orwell’s mythical totalistic state, the destruction of language would eventually, inevitably lead to the destruction of all free thought.
Destructive cults typically evolve an elaborate and idiosyncratic terminology that is used to answer quickly and simplistically any doubts, and terminate any troublesome questioning. In ISKCON, a variety of Hindu words are employed to denigrate nonmembers and their opinions, but the Hare Krishna chant is often reported to be the most effective method of thought-stopping (Conway & Siegelman, 1978). Devotees are taught that all doubts are caused by demons, and must be actively combated. They are then told that the hypnotic chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra is the only defense against falling into maya. Meanwhile, in both the U.C. and ISKCON, the complex causes of world problems and the multilevel nature of the individual’s personal difficulties are simplified into child-like battles between the forces of good (Moon and his allies in spirit world; Lord Krishna and his followers) and evil (Satan and his dupes; demons and maya).
Doctrine over person. As a corollary to the establishment of a “sacred science,” totalistic systems maintain that personal experience does not overrule the “facts” as explained by the doctrine. As a result, individual critical faculties, and even perception itself, are denied. As Lifton (1961, p. 431) explained: “the underlying assumption is that the doctrine – including its mythological elements – is ultimately more valid, true, and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience.” In my U.C. training, when a recruit began to fall asleep during a lecture, he was told that satanic “sleepy spirits” were pushing his eyelids shut, and that these spirits must be combated. The leader refused to accept the recruit’s suggestion that his drowsiness might be related to lack of sleep over the past several nights.
In ISKCON, devotees who had witnessed the excesses of a leading guru were repeatedly told that they must be under spiritual attack by demons, for surely a “pure spiritual devotee” could not engage in illicit drug use or sexual encounters (cf., Hubner & Gruso, 1988, pp. 204-264).
The dispensing of existence. According to Lifton (1961, p. 433), “the totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be recognized, and those who possess no such right.” In practice, this has led to an “ends justify the means” attitude among destructive cult leaders. Moonists are told that, since all wealth belongs to God (i.e., Sun Myung Moon) and all nonmembers are satanic, illegal fundraising techniques are merely a means of returning materials good to their rightful original owner (Edwards, 1979; Freed, 1980_. Similarly, ISKCON considers nonmembers “demons,” and instructs devotees that it is acceptable to express rages or frustrations against nonmembers. Violence, including murder, is sanctioned if it is done in Krishna’s name against a nonmember or fallen devotee (Hubner & Gruson, 1988). In ISKCON, illegal and fraudulent fund-raising activity is called “transcendental trickery” (Ruden & Rudin, 1980, p. 53).
Lifton’s Revised Model of Induced Evil: the process of “doubling”
Twenty-five years after the publication of his initial study of thought reform, Lifton’s manuscript on the psychology of healers-turned-killers appeared. In the Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Lifton (1986) attempted to explain the psychological mechanisms that allowed professional healers (physicians) to become professional accomplices to mass murder as they participated in the most efficient, professional killing apparatus known to Western civilization: the Nazi death camps. In the Forward to his book, Lifton (1986, pp. xi-xiii) did not associate this new study with his earlier work on the process of thought reform. Yet he subsequently incorporated many of these earlier concepts into this more general theoretical framework for understanding the psychology of induced evil facilitated by a totalistic system.
The background of the typical German physician in the 1920s bore some resemblance to that of the “typical” cultist: intelligent, well-educated, idealistic, hoping to find a place in history as a soldier in the ongoing was against ultimate and universal evils: disease, decay, and death. It is difficult to dispute the inverted morality behind the work of Dr. Josef Mengele. Whether the behavior of cultists and cult leaders implies a similarly inverted ethical system, however, is still very much in dispute. My belief is that cult behavior often invokes an inverted, antisocial ethical system that is antithetical to the self-systems and behaviors of most cultists prior to their membership. Therefore, the central questions involved in the study of Nazi doctors and members of destructive cults seem similar: how do otherwise intelligent, articulate, educated, and idealistic (young) people become fanatically devoted to a movement that (in the case of cultists, according to cult critics) is the very antithesis of the idealism and humanism that inspired its members in the first place?
Lifton (1986, pp. 418-465) postulated that this behavior was made possible by a “Faustian bargain” involving a “psychological principle” he termed “doubling.” Doubling involves a division of the self-system into two independently functioning wholes. The division initially occurs because, on some level, the Nazi physician must come to grips with the fact that his duties are in violation of his pre-Nazi self. The new behaviors being demanded and rewarded by the official (totalistic) regime are so radically different from the “old self” (which is intimately associated with the normal duties of a physician) that “normal” psychological defenses (e.g., repression, rationalization, compartmentalization) are insufficient to allow continued functioning. All the thoughts, beliefs, actions, feelings, and roles associated with the physician’s duties as a concentration camp doctor become organized into an independent self-system, a part-self that can successfully perform all the duties of the “whole” self within the milieu of the death camp.
The part-self acts as an entire self. An Auschwitz doctor could, through doubling, not only kill and contribute to killing but organize silently, on behalf of that evil project, an entire self-structure (or self process) encompassing virtually all aspects of his behavior. (Lifton, 1986, p. 418).
Lifton differentiated doubling from more traditional concepts of “split” consciousness (such as those found in dissociation or the borderline personality syndromes) and “split” psychological self-systems (i.e. multiple personalities). These processes are typically considered lifelong patterns that begin in early childhood, usually in response to a series of traumatic events and highly conflicted identifications that the young psyche cannot comprehend or integrate and remain intact or “whole.” Moreover, the dissociated or multiple personality’s “self-systems” are usually not consciously aware of each other, but rather operate independently. In doubling, however, the two “selves” are aware of each other, and yet the actions of the “evil” double have no moral consequence for the “healer” or non0evil self. Doubling does not occur in children even when they are faced with overwhelming trauma. It occurs in adults responding to an extreme but non incomprehensible situation (such as a totalistic regime). Moreover, there is an element of active participation in the adult who “doubles.”
Doubling is an active psychological process, a means of adaptation to extremity…The adaptation requires a dissolving of “psychic glue” as an alternative to a radical breakdown of the self. (p.422)…The disorder in the type of doubling I have described is more focused and temporary and occurs as part of a larger institutional structure which encourages or even demands it. (p. 423).
Lifton did not see doubling as psychopathological, but rather as a universal human potential that is neither inherently god nor evil, and can be found in both victim and victimizer. “Doubling is part of the universal potential for what William James called “the divided self’” (Lifton, 1986, p. 420). It is initially similar to the defense mechanism of compartmentalization, but it ultimately involves a far broader range of feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. Compartmentalization involves splitting off undesirable aspects of the self-system; doubling involves the development of two independent self-systems. Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism that typically involves a very circumscribed aspect of the psychic structure, employed for the duration of a stressor (as when an otherwise honest worker cheats without guilt on income taxes). Or it is a more general defensive style closely associated with an overall personality pattern that is not very amenable to change, even with intensive psychotherapy. Doubling, on the other hand, involves a massive psychic restructuring, yet it can be relatively temporary and relatively easily reversed. In and of itself, doubling is neither good nor bad.
In general terms, the adaptive potential for doubling is integral to the human psyche and can, at times, be lifesaving: for a soldier in combat, for instance; or for the victim of brutality such as an Auschwitz inmate, who must undergo a form of doubling in order to survive. But the “opposing self” can become dangerously unrestrained, as it did in the Nazi doctors. (Lifton, 1986, p. 420.)
Doubling may be the process that some cultists experience during and following their “conversions.” Deprogramming may be an “undoing” of doubling. Doubling also helps explain the behavior of some cult leaders, especially within those cults that, like ISKCON, have reputations for being especially violent and antisocial. In detailing the processes that facilitate doubling, Lifton (1986) employed some of the same terminology he originally introduced in Thought reform and the Psychology of Totalism (Lifton, 1961). Thus, doubling may provide an alternative conceptual framework for synthesizing what sometimes appears to be the “voluntary” nature of cult participation with the anecdotal evidence of covert social manipulation and sudden personality change. Lifton (1986, p. 330) himself alluded to the possible “comparison between violent contemporary cults..and the Nazi Auschwitz structure” in facilitating doubling among leaders and followers alike.
Doubling can explain the ease with which a formerly law0abiding college student can commit crimes: Following exposure to the thought-reform mechanisms of loading the language and dispensing of existence, the cult “double” can behave antisocially. Lifton (1986) found that nazi doctors avoided guilt not by eliminating conscience but by “transferring” it to the double – the “Auschwitz self” with an inverted criterion for “good” that included duty to the Nazi regime, “improving” concentration camp conditions, accelerating the efficient operation of crematoriums, etc.
The doubled self “does the dirty work” for the entire self by rendering that work “proper” and in that way protects the entire self from awareness of its own guilt…”(p.421)
In doubling, one part of the self “disavows” another part. What is repudiated is not reality itself…but the meaning of that reality. The Nazi doctor knew that he selected, but did not interpret selections as murder. One level of disavowal, then, was the Auschwitz self’s altering the meaning of murder; and on another, the repudiation by the original self of anything done by the Auschwitz self (p. 422).
Thus, the Krishna devotee can commit fraud and “transcendental trickery” and his cult-self will not feel guilty because the nature of “right” and “wrong” has been redefined. In fact, doubling explains the irony of the cultist who feels guilty for not carrying out the cult leader’s insistence on committing crimes.
Among the psychological themes central to doubling in nazi doctors – and by extension, I believe, to cultism – were (Lifton, 1986, pp. 439-475): (a) Deadly Logic and Sacred Science – the ethos of reason that, given the “fact” that Jews were disease agents that polluted the Aryan race, demanded eradication as the only “logical” solution; (b) nature’s Engine – the individual doctor was merely a “tool” in a cosmically ordained and ultimately “natural” order of life; (c) the vision of Total Cure – the Nazis were motivated by a vision of ultimate evil to their country, perpetrated by a demonic race; (d) the Dispensing of Existence; (e) the Quest for Transcendence – “part of the cure is the experience of transcendence…in that experience of ecstasy, one may be ready to kill, or at least to sanction killing…Hitler became an agent of this transcendence…”the will of the Fuhrer” [became] a “cosmic law” because his message of revitalization could invoke the experience of transcendence and place that experience within a structure of thought and a program of action” (p.474); (f) the Continuous “High State” – romantic nationalism “combined with specific Nazi ideological omnipotence to contribute to a sense of being those particular “children of the gods” who had the right to kill, in a spirit described by one as “If you will not be my brother, your head will be dropped off your shoulders” …that pattern was exemplified by the “oath-bound community” entered into by SS members” (p.475).
Social-psychological models of conversion range from those that attempt an integration with other models of coercive persuasion (e.g., Cialdini, 1984; Galanti, 1984; Singer, 1982; Zimbardo, Ebbesen & Maslach, 1977) to those that deny coercive persuasion (e.g., Balch, 1980; Bromley & Shupe, 1979; Kim, 1979).
Balch (1980) studies a millennial UFO cult (admittedly not meeting the criteria of a destructive cult) and suggested that role-taking theory provided a parsimonious explanation for the behavior of cultists. He concluded that “when people join a religious cult they first change their behavior by adopting a new role .. the boundless faith of the true believer usually develops only after lengthy involvement in the cult’s day-to-day activities” (p.143).
In contrast, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues (Zimbardo, Ebbesen & Maslach, 1977, pp. 1840185) place their social-psychological explanation of conversion alongside the other models, seeking an integrated model of what they termed “persuasive conversion.” In delineating the “Principles of Persuasive Conversion” they noted that cultists are “submerged in the group and encouraged toward deindividuated actions and feelings…the individual is made to feel the group’s power, which he or she can share in.” Recruits are told to listen uncritically with a “nonevaluative vulnerable mind-set of acceptance” to repetitious lectures and other “information inputs” while “attractive, similar peers model sincerity, happiness, vitality and the unconditional acceptance of the cult’s ideas.” Attitude and behavior change is aided by “potent social reinforcers” that “are dispensed freely.” These reinforcers include “smiles, approval, acceptance, praise, physical contact, and apparent love.” Non acceptable behaviors on a recruit’s part, however, “elicit an immediate uniform reaction from all members of the group; they are all saddened, never angered, by deviant acts or thoughts.” Cult indoctrination centers typically mimic a “guest-host [i.e., cult member – cult recruit] role relationship,” and guilt – a powerful behavior modifier – results when the recruit upsets his or her “host.”
Information Processing Models
Chris Edwards (1982), a former Unification Church member who has written both about his own experiences as a Moonist and about cult conversion in general, stated that conversion is accomplished through manipulation of information. The cult, as a group, presents a unified set of interactions between group and initiates (the group “persona”). On a more microscopic level, the cult controls or attempts to control all environmental inputs, especially the flow of information (Edwards, 1982). Edwards described the techniques employed by successful cult recruiters, which begin with the recruiter’s soliciting self-disclosures from the initiate (and providing self-disclosures of his or her own) in order to establish rapport. The recruiter’s own self-disclosures may not always be true; to facilitate rapport, for example, he or she may claim an interest in country-western music that is not really there. Once an invitation to a cult function has been accepted and the initiate is secured in a milieu engineered by the cult, the cult trainers proceed to manipulate the initiate’s attention, increasing suggestibility and inducing the initiate to modify or dismantle former methods of information processing (which are labeled “satanic” or “demonic”). Hassan (1988, p. 65) also emphasized the role of information control and attention, or “compartmentalized” information, as he termed it:
Information is the fuel we use to keep our minds working properly… People are trapped in destructive cults because they are not only denied access to critical information but also lack the properly functioning internal mechanisms to process it. Such information control has a dramatic and devastating impact (p.65).
Following their interviews with a number of former cultists, deprogrammers, and neuroscientists, Conway and Siegelman (1978) hypothesized that cult conversion is the result of the calculated manipulation of information, leading to information overload. They offered considerable anecdotal evidence that cults enhance vulnerability to information overload through the manipulation of the new recruit’s milieu: e.g., sudden dietary changes involving decreased protein; lack of sleep; isolation and removal to locations devoid of familiar reference points; constant affective and hence physiological stimulation; and programmed, child-like social interactions. Made vulnerable, recruits are then subjected to a constant bombardment of radical ideas and beliefs. They are allowed no time to reflect, or to check any of this new information against reality. The neurobiological drive to integrate and make sense of these new experiences and information pushes the recruit to a crisis that can only be resolved by a sudden, uncritical acceptance of the new belief system. The recruit then undergoes a sudden personality change: HE OR SHE “SNAPS.”
Based in part on their finding that cultists who underwent deprogramming were rehabilitated faster than those who walked out of cults without the information provided by deprogrammers, Conway and Siegelman (1982) suggested that cults may have created a new form of mental illness: “information disease.”
Altered State and Hypnosis/metacognition Models
In reading the accounts of a number of deprogrammed cultists (cf. Patrick & Dulack, 1976; Conway and Siegelman, 1978; Stoner and Parke, 1977; Underwood and Underwood, 1979; Freed, 1980), I was struck by their consistent descriptions of the processes of conversion and subsequent immersion in their respective cults. They described a sense of “other-worldliness,” marked by focused attention, distorted perceptions, stereotyped affects, and reduced critical judgment. These factors led Clark and his associates (Clark et al., 1981) Goldberg and Goldberg (1982) and other investigators (cf. Enroth, 1977; Conway and Siegelman, 1978) to hypothesize that, within a context of social/milieu control and group pressure, cult involvement induces a “trance-like” altered state of consciousness, similar in many ways to hypnosis, characterized by heightened suggestibility, a narrowed focus of awareness, increased dependency and enhanced role-taking.
Zeitlin (1985) likened the cult conversion process to the information-distorting and attention-manipulation employed for therapeutic means in hypnotherapy. He described the recruiter-initiate relationship as one that involves “hypnotic communication patterns” and “structured encounters which are intended to generate certain prescribed sequences of experiences” in the initiate, including “response attentiveness” (pp. 380-381).
Clark, et. al. (1981) also conceptualized cult conversion and membership maintenance as due, in part, to hypnotic-like phenomena:
As acculturation proceeds…trance induction frequently becomes a formalized and valued practice, brought on by chanting…meditation, or activities such as speaking in tongues (p.55). Although, as in the conversion phase, trance states continue to strengthen group attachments and to enhance the absorption of information, their primary purpose in the acculturation process apparently is to combat doubt, skepticism, and external criticisms (p.56).
Many initial cult interaction sequences tend to involve regression to child-like states, according to cult critics. Edwards (1982), in his depictions of Unification Church training, suggested that there is a change in the initiate’s level or quality of experiencing that is associated with the changes in role (to that of a “child”) and attentional processes:
Over the course of the weekend, the group leader directs childlike behavior encouraging initiates to sing children’s songs, play children’s games, eat children’s snacks and voice simplistic statements about peace and love. A group leader might be heard encouraging her members to “melt together like peanut butter and jelly” to be closer together. “…characteristics of adult behavior including detachment, establishment of context, individual decision-making, or individual interpretation are discourages by group leaders…” (pp. 35-36)
The emphasis on ritualistic meditation and/or prayer, especially as a means of counteracting cult-opposed influences, beliefs, and impulses, has contributed to the perception that cults teach hypnotic “thought-stopping” techniques. In writing about consciousness, Ornstein (1972) stated that meditation techniques are aimed at dismantling cognitive “model-building processes”:
We easily adapt to almost any new input. A new technology, a new person, a change in our immediate environment, quickly become an integral part of our lives, part of our model of the external world. This model-building process is specifically what is to be dismantled by the practice of meditation…the esoteric traditions thus speak of developing a consciousness that allows every stimulus to enter into consciousness, devoid of normal input selection, model-building, and category systems (p.151).
Cult critics have argues that, when combined with milieu control and group pressure, meditative activities increase suggestibility; as a result, incoming information is not subjected to “normal categorization.” Thus, the new information is accepted less critically. Meditation and other hypnotic-like techniques employed by cults induce a receding of the “generalized reality-orientation” (Shor, 1959) that, according to many former members, results in a schism in thought processes akin to Hilgard’s (1977) concept of divided consciousness.
Becoming a Hare Krishna Devotee
The process of becoming a hare Krishna devotee (cf., Conway & Siegelman, 1978, pp. 137-139; Stoner & Parke, 1977, p. 18) typically begins in one of two ways: (a) A potential recruit has an encounter with a current devotee; or (b) an alienated or disgruntled “searcher” purposely seeks out ISKCON based on his or her reading or hearing about meditation and/or the Krishnas, or based on a previous (positive) encounter with a devotee.
Either way, the potential recruit will usually be invited to a “vegetarian feast” (usually at the local ISKCON temple) which becomes the recruit’s first encounter with the organized Krishna community and leadership. There, the recruit is subjected to “love-bombing” (in which he or she is the focus of intense attention and instant affection, is made to feel extremely special, spiritually predestined and “chosen,” and is catered to like a young child). Prior to the dinner, the recruit witnesses and may be pressured to participate in ecstatic ceremonies devoted to ISKCON deities. And, or course, the recruit is urged to chant repeatedly the famous Hare Krishna mantra (“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”).
With one foot in the door, the recruit is encouraged to continue chanting, with the explanation that the true benefits of the mantra can only be obtained if the individual becomes spiritually pure. Spiritual purity, they are told, can only be obtained by studying the Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu holy scripture) as interpreted by ISKCON’s founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who ISKCON believes was the reincarnation of Lord Krishna himself. Of course, only by becoming a member of ISKCON can one receive this spiritual education.
After commencing a formal study of Krishna doctrine, the recruit – now a “lay member” of ISKCON – is eventually pressured to make a formal and total commitment to Krishna. This process, called “initiation,” involves: donating all material possessions to Krishna (i.e., to ISKCON), formally adopting Krishna dietary and lifestyle regulations, shaving the head (for males) leaving only a ponytail (the sika) in the back of the head, renunciation of maya (outside “demonic” influences and sinful behaviors), living full-time in a Krishna temple or other approved dwelling, vows of celibacy and sobriety, assignment to a personal guru (who becomes one’s spiritual master”) and adoption of an ISKCON (Hindu) name.
Full-time members (“initiates”) lead a highly regimented and ascetic life in which a typical day is spent chanting the Krishna mantra (often for as long as seven hours each day), fund-raising (Sankirtan), witnessing, and serving one’s guru or temple president. Ironically, many initiates (including Ken, the deprogrammee in my study) never complete their study of the Gita, which helped lure them into full-time membership status to begin with.
Indoctrination, thought reform and coercion within ISKCON are accomplished by constant chanting, which has the dual effect of inducing a hypnotic-like state and interfering with any competing thoughts (“thought-stopping”), almost total milieu control, mystical manipulations, and skillful use of guilt. According to Conway and Siegelman (1978, p.137), of all the major cults, ISKCON seems best at promoting the hardest and clearest “snaps.”
Consciousness, Information Processing, and Deprogramming
Feldman (1985, 1986) utilized information processing theory to account for the cognitive change modalities and intervention strategies of both the cognitive-behavioral and Ericksonian schools of psychotherapy. Both schools of therapy, Feldman argued, concentrate on changing cognitive maps or schema as the building blocks of behavior change; the difference, he contended, is that cognitive-behavior therapy focuses on “conscious” thoughts and processes while Ericksonian therapy, with its emphasis on hypnosis and trance utilization, focuses more on “unconscious” or “preconscious” processes. In line with Neisser’s and Erdelyi’s (1974) conceptualizations of attention and information capacity, Feldman proposed that attention is active and that information is processed on both conscious and preconscious levels simultaneously *i.e., parallel processing), with feedback between both systems. Cognitive maps or schemata that more generally guide attention are both maintained and modified in this process, but not necessarily consciously.
Both Zeitlin (1980, 1985) and Hassan (1988) have emphasized unconscious and preconscious as well as conscious information processes in the conversion and deconversion of cultists, in part because they both received training in Ericksonian hypnotherapy and Bandler and Grinter’s (1975) expansion of Erickson’s work, neurolinguistic programming. Hassan believes that “the mind needs frames of reference in order to structure reality. Change the frame of reference, and the information coming in will be interpreted in a different way.” During cult conversion, the age-regressed, “child-like” recruit is placed in a “situation where his senses are overloaded with noncoherent information, and the mind [goes] “numb’” (Hassan, 1988, p. 47). This process, Hassan wrote, if both conscious and overt, and unconscious and covert.
Information Processing, “Snapping,” and Deprogramming
Most deprogrammers I interviewed agreed that deprogrammings and exit counselings can generally be classified by (1) the amount of time it takes for the cultist to deconvert and reintegrate back into society, and (2) the presence or lack thereof of an identifiable “snapping” phase.
“Snapping” is a term first popularized by Conway and Siegelman (1978). It purports to denote a phase in brainwashing marked by pronounced information overload, when an individual experiences a sudden and extensive change in world-view that results in a sudden personality change. Snapping has also come to denote the time period of moment during a deprogramming when, as Steven Hassan (1988) describes it, the cultist has “the indescribable experience of [the] mind opening up, as if a light switch had been thrown” (p.29). Often, the snap is actually preceded by “minisnaps” – periods throughout the middle phase of a deprogramming when the cultist, if even for a few brief moments, is able to entertain criticisms, doubts, or positive associations with personal history. For former Moonist Hassan, the first of these minisnaps occurred on the second day of his own deprogramming, as his father was driving him to see his mother:
My father turned around from the driver’s seat and started to cry…
This is crazy,” he pleaded. “Tell me, what would you do, if your son, your only son, went away for a weekend workshop and all of [a] sudden disappeared, dropped out of college, quit work, and got involved with such a controversial organization?” That was the first time since I had joined ]the Unification Church] that – for even a moment – I allowed myself to think from his perspective. (Hassan, 1988, pp. 27-28)
This is crazy,” he pleaded. “Tell me, what would you do, if your son, your only son, went away for a weekend workshop and all of [a] sudden disappeared, dropped out of college, quit work, and got involved with such a controversial organization?” That was the first time since I had joined ]the Unification Church] that – for even a moment – I allowed myself to think from his perspective. (Hassan, 1988, pp. 27-28)
Occasionally, there is no single, identifiable snapping episode, but the cultist instead makes a gradual and lengthy transition from cult mindset to renunciation over a period of weeks or even months. This form of deconversion has been observed more frequently with prolonged, less pressured exit counseling as opposed to time-intensive deprogrammings.
In Hassan’s experiences as a deprogrammer and exit counselor, the process of deconversion is centered around providing the cultist with missing information. The primary problem is getting the cultist to attend to and seriously consider that information. The nine keys to getting the cultist to reevaluate the cult, he claims, involve: (1) building rapport and trust, (2) using goal-oriented communications marked by “an agenda to influence others,” (3) developing models of identity (understanding the cultists’ pre-cult and cultic personalities, as well as the “typical” cultist’s personality), (4) getting the person in touch with his pre-cult identity, (5) getting the cult member to look at reality from many different perspectives (e.g., consider alternative hypotheses), (6) side-step the thought-stopping process by giving information in an indirect way (e.g., Ericksonian indirect suggestion), (7) visualize [to the cultist] a happy future outside the cult to undo phobia indoctrination, and (9) offer the cult member concrete definitions of mind control and characteristics of a destructive cult (Hassan, 1988, pp. 148-170).
The process of deprogramming, as Clark et. al. (1981), p. 63) describe it, involves a “sometimes forced reawakening of the convert’s old personality and an evaluation of his cult experience.” The activity itself seems to vary somewhat, but usually involves three steps: First, the cult member is physically separated (voluntarily or involuntarily) from the cult milieu, and then is engaged in an intense discussion that may last from one to several days. Finally, the member undergoes “rehabilitation.” Rehabilitation can involve spending several weeks at a “rehab” center located away from the site of the deprogramming, and/or ongoing mental health counseling. When conducted at a formal rehab center, this final step often occurs in the company of other recently deprogrammed cult members, and is roughly analogous to being placed in a psychiatric half-way house or day-treatment center for substance abusers. It is at the rehab center that the former cult member begins to reorient for his or her return to “normal” life (Kim.\, 1979). To avoid confusion, I will use the term “deprogramming” re refer only to the second step of the above process (the intense discussion). In keeping with my intent to describe deprogramming from the point of view of its participants, I will (where appropriate) employ the terminology most frequently employed by deprogrammers and their clients. Therefore, I will use the terms “snatch” or “rescue” to denote the initial involuntary separation of the cultist from his or her cultic milieu. (The issue of whether deprogrammers are in reality kidnapping their clients during a “snatch” is considered in a later section of this chapter.) Finally, I will refer to the third and last stage as the “rehab.”
Most researchers consider Ted Patrick (cf. Patrick, 1976) to have been the first “deprogrammer,” and the first to conceptualize the process of joining and exiting a destructive cult. Patrick believed that individuals were converted through “on-the-spot hypnosis,” and that deprogramming worked by facilitating a process in which the cultist comes out of an extended trance-state. The methods Patrick employed have been generally regarded as highly confrontational. In describing his style, Patrick seemed to rely heavily on cognitive restructuring, especially the use of questioning (Conway and Siegelman, 1978):
When you deprogram people, you force them to think…the only thing I do is shoot them challenging questions…I shoot them the right questions, and they get frustrated when they can’t answer (pp. 65-66)…I start challenging every statement the person makes…pushing it with questions…and when I hit on that one certain point that strikes home, I push it…I stay with that question…I keep pushing and pushing…(p.68)
Streiker (1984), in summarizing Patrick’s approach, stated that “the key element in the reversal of brainwashing is the skillful use of interrogation, asking the cult victim questions which he or she cannot answer on the basis of the cult-formatted programming” (p.155). By “repetitious questioning and quotations from literature to arouse doubts about the cult in the individual” (Schwartz and Kaslow, 1982), deprogrammers force a “re-opening [of] the subject’s mind” to new information input (p. 20). The presentation of new information serves to “debunk what the cult stand for, using logic and reason to counter the irrational beliefs which have been instilled” by the cult (p.24).
Sylvia Buford, an associate of Patrick who has assisted him on many deprogrammings, described the five stages of deprogramming:
1. Discredit the figure of authority: the cult leader
2. Present contradictions (ideology vs. reality): “How can he preach love when he exploits people?” is an example.
3. The breaking point: When a subject begins to listen to the deprogrammer; when reality begins to take precedence over ideology.
4. Self-expression: When the subject begins to open up and to voice some of his own gripes against the cult.
5. Identification and transference: when the subject begins to identify with the deprogrammers, starts to think of himself as an opponent of the cult rather than a member of it. (Stoner and Parke, 1977, p.231).
Rudin and Rudin (1980) also described deprogramming as a process that “consists of asking probing questions to shake the cult member’s beliefs and then confronting him with the duplicity and contradictions of the cult’s doctrines” (p.122). Randy Heller (1982), author of a deprogramming manual, echoed this emphasis on the cognitive realm in deconverting cultists; he called deprogramming a “communication process that can be best described by one work – dialectics” (p. 54). Deprogramming “is not used to pronounce truth” [i.e., the deprogrammer’s truth] but is used instead “to seek fallacy…It causes a person to think” (p. 131). Heller distinguished between the deprogramming “event” (which may or may not include “snatching”) and the deprogramming “process,” which he defined as “a type of dialogue” (p. 131) and “a verbal form of communication that uses conversation, non-directive counseling, journalistic presentation, dialectics, and cognitive therapy” (p.99). During a deprogramming, the parties involved may talk about many things, including “topics of sports, current events, old memories, or the things that people talk about in everyday conversation” (p. 129).
Kevin Garvey, a well-known, full-time deprogrammer and exit-counselor described deconversion (Garvey, 1988) as a four-step process that, for the cultist, begins with (1) hostility, then moves toward (2) questioning and (3) volunteering of information, and ends with (4) making connections. In Garvey’s view, once the exit-counselor or deprogrammer has won the cultist’s respect (if not his or her trust), the conversation moves past initial hostility into a period of prolonged, mutual questioning. Progress at this point can be seen when the cultist begins to engage in “secondary questioning,” when one question leads to several more questions. Soon thereafter, the cultist begins to volunteer information, which according to Garvey involves the “cultist sharing his own information that confirms and connects to the exit counselor’s information.” Finally, the cultist begins to make connections between the various materials and facts that have been presented, and active analyzing is present; on an emotional level, this leads to “great excitement.” Garvey’s approach emphasizes the cognitive and information-processing aspects of deprogramming, and acknowledges the emotionally-charged experience of making personally meaningful connections; he believes it is at this point that the cultist has broken the “tape loop” of cult dogma.
Ross and Langone (1988) defined deprogramming as the process of “providing information and emotional support intended to generate questions, doubts, and critical thinking about the cult” (p.65). The cultist and the deprogrammers, according to psychiatrist john Clark and his associates (Clark et al., 1981), “spend several intense days discussing the cult’s doctrines and practices, especially its coercively manipulative methods of bringing about and maintaining conversion to the cult’s way.” Again, cognitive change and intervention are emphasized: “The goal of deprogramming is to put the convert back in touch with his pre-cult beliefs, values, and goals, and to help him re-establish the capacity to think independently and critically…” (Clark et al, 1981, p.63). To produce this change, deprogrammers resort to a “more directive procedure than is usually considered acceptable” by most mental health professionals (Clark et al., 1981, p.64)
In contrast to Patrick’s confrontational approach, former full-time deprogrammer Galen Kelly described deprogramming to sociologist Willa Apel (1983) as “evolutionary.” Deprogrammers, he stated, must focus on building rapport in order to “overcome the initial hostility and fear on the part of the [cultist]” and “elicit his cooperation and rapport.” While establishing rapport, deprogrammers “impart factual information” that can be broken down into three categories: general information about cults, information about the “science of mind control,” and theology (Appel, 1983, p. 149). In the second phase of the deprogramming, the cultist is taken to visit various mental health experts and clergy who “explain the nature of mind control and psychological manipulation used by cults,” and “reveal the flaws in cult teachings and the discrepancies between the cult theology” and the spiritual sources “from which cult theologies claim to derive.” The third phase of Kelly’s deprogrammings involved a member of the deprogramming team returning home with the cultist “to help smooth the difficulty of returning to the family” (p.151).
In a sociological study of deprogramming, Kim (1979) conducted a series of interviews with 17 subjects who had been deprogrammed, with additional information gathered through participant observations of the rehabilitation process following the deprogramming. Kim defined a belief system alteration process as requiring a “plausibility structure” consisting of “credible views of reality..through which a legitimating apparatus..is provided” (Kim, 1979, p. 199). In deprogrammings, the plausibility structure, Kim found, consisted of a strongly held conviction that the cult member’s beliefs and actions are the result of mind control; the belief system is therefore the target of deprogramming. The process of deprogramming, according to Kim, involved coercive persuasion as described by Schein (1961). The cult member is initially subjected to a period of “unfreezing” in which external forces are manipulated in a manner that renders the cult member’s existing equilibrium unstable. Once accomplished, the next step is “changing,” in which a new set of information and modes is provided to give the cult member “a direction of change toward new equilibrium” (e.g., her new interpretation of her cult experience) is rewarded and socially supported in order to facilitate its integration into the rest of the personality.
Kim’s sociological analysis of deprogramming/rehabilitation merits careful consideration. Barker (1984), in her critical review of the literature on deprogrammed and nondeprogrammed former Moonists, provided additional support for this thesis. Deprogrammees may indeed be subjected to “unfreezing.” On the other hand, deprogrammers have argued that the desired change involves a reawakening of the pre-cult personality. As Heller (1982) has stated, deprogramming as a dialectical process seeks to refute current beliefs rather than inject new ones. The deprogrammers I spoke with uniformly stated that they did not seek to be models for the cult member, nor did they wish the cult member to adopt their personal belief systems. As deprogrammer Curt Miller stated during my study: “I don’t believe in vegetarianism, but I’m not out to make [the cultist] eat meat.”
Current anecdotal evidence suggests that both views may hold some validity; while the cult member may not be exhorted to adopt the deprogrammer’s comprehensive cosmology, or his/her personality or behavior patterns, the acceptance of the deprogrammers’ plausibility structure0 the belief that cults employ mind control – is often a major goal of deprogramming. Many cultists, upon renouncing their cult allegiances, do in fact become deprogrammers themselves, illustrative of Buford’s state of “identification and transference.” Typically, these former cultists assist in deprogrammings temporarily, at least in part out of a feeling similar to “survivor guilt.” As Barbara Dole once stated, “I sometimes feel like I want to get out as many people as I recruited into [the cult].” One the other hand, Paul Engel, former National Chairman of FOCUS, a network of former cultists affiliated with the Cult Awareness network (CAN), has remarked on the broad diversity of activities, life-styles, and careers eventually adopted by deprogrammed cult members, and there appears to be considerable diversity among deprogrammers in their intervention strategies (Garvey, 1988; Hassan, 1988; Ross & Langone, 1988).
Deprogramming and “Exit Counseling.”
Kidnapping. The Assistant Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union echoed the feelings of many researchers when he stated that “deprogramming is a fancy word for a variety of kidnapping” (LaMarche, 1982). Delgado (1977) took issue with this stance. He argued that kidnapping is a legal term that is usually interpreted to mean the forceful holding of a person for the purpose of securing a ransom. Programmers do sometimes hold their clients, at least initially, against their will. They are paid for their efforts, but this payment does not constitute a ransom. Deprogrammers are not paid to deliver cultists to parents or, following payment of a ransom, to cults. Rather, they are paid to deliver a service: The attempted deconversion of the cultist. Whether or not the provision of this service involves picking up and holding the cultist against his will is an ancillary issue that may only be indirectly related to the service change, if it is related at all. Whether or not a deprogramming meets the legal criteria for kidnapping, there seems to be little denial that it can involve confining an individual despite his expressed wishes to leave, sometimes for weeks.
The deprogrammer’s claim of cultic mind control is central to the question of kidnapping or involuntary confinement because it bears directly on the “choice of evils” defense used by deprogrammers and their employers (the cultist’s family) who have been prosecuted following an unsuccessful deprogramming. The “choice of evils” defense is based on the argument that the actions of family members, and the deprogrammers they employ, are justified because the involuntary confinement of their loved one is “less evil” than the choice of leaving a loved one in a destructive cult that utilizes mind control. Litigation relevant to the issue of mind control has yielded contradictory decisions. Prior to 1978, Shepherd (1985) stated that the reality of mind control has never been substantiated in court. However, Rosedale (1986) notes that the Minnesota Supreme Court later decided that (in Peterson v. Sorlien) “the conduct of new religious groups may well have impaired the plaintiffs volitional capacity,” thereby giving credence to the mind control argument.
In one significant trial involving deprogrammers charged with kidnapping, a Denver jury found deprogrammers Robert Brandyberry and Dennis Whalen “not guilty” of kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping. The case was brought in district court by the Denver District Attorney on behalf of Unification Church member Christina Adolfsson. According to defendants’ attorney Ford Greene (himself a former deprogrammer), the jury decided that during the attempted deprogramming “ordinary notions of intelligence and morality were not as bad as what had happened to Adolfsson with the Unification Church … by attempting to deprogram Adolfsson, [the deprogrammers] were trying to save her from a greater harm by a destructive cult” (Brandyberry and Whalen Not Guilty,” 1988).
Voluntary (exit-counseling) vs. involuntary Reprogramming. Despite some confusion, the voluntary/involuntary, overt/covert nature of the initial phase of the deconversion event appears to be the single most important characteristic differentiating exit counseling from deprogramming.
Deprogramming began as an involuntary process, in part because voluntary methods were not known or believed to be effective (Hassan, 1988), and in part because early deprogrammers largely consisted of Ted Patrick’s deprogrammees or those who followed and believed in Patrick’s theory and style of deprogramming. After the initial flurry of successful deprogrammings began to take their toll on cult membership, however, many cults began to fight back. Following a “failed” deprogramming (one in which the cultist either escaped the deprogramming or returned to the group afterward), these organizations would support or even encourage returning members to file civil and criminal actions against their deprogrammers and the family members who hired them. Around the same time, a growing number of deprogrammers, Steven Hassan figuring prominently among them, began to grow wary of the ethical as well as legal dangers presented by “involuntaries” (as deprogrammings involving a snatch came to be known). Several of these deprogrammers began to refuse involuntaries. Still other deprogrammers, having completed college and graduate school and entered formal mental health professions (e.g., Paul Engel), wanted to continue deprogramming, yet felt obligated to obey legal regulations and ethical codes that eschewed anything that even appeared coercive or deceptive. At first, they described themselves as deprogrammers who only performed ”voluntaries.” To distinguish themselves still further from the deprogramming teams still engaged in snatches, these deprogrammers began to call themselves “exit-counselors.” Eventually, the twin catalysts of increased knowledge/skill and concern over lawsuits produced a dramatic increase in exit-counselings and the waning of coerced deprogramming.
In practice, however, some deconversions may begin as unannounced, involuntary deprogrammings and then rapidly develop into voluntary exit counselings when the cultist responds with surprising cooperation (or even relief!) and seems very ready to consider the deprogrammers’ information. Conversely, some exit counselings can take place in secluded areas (e.g., remote woodland cabins) that are very difficult to leave; these deconversions border on involuntary deprogrammings. Thus, the distinction between exit counseling and deprogramming can be blurred. What seems clear is that the days of forceably grabbing young adults off the streets to sequester them clandestinely in motel rooms have almost disappeared. As of this writing, coerced deprogrammings are rare events.
Deprogramming’s Essential Characteristics
The process of deconversion can subsume a wide range and variety of activities. In the published deprogramming accounts I reviewed, however, there were consistent themes that appeared to define the essential characteristics of this process (cf., Conway & Siegelman, 1978; Edwards, 1979; Enroth, 1977; Freed, 1980; Hassan, 1988; Heller, 1982; Patrick, 1976; Streiker, 1984; Underwood & Underwood, 1979; Zeidin, 1980). These included: some form of physical removal from the cultic milieu; establishing a personal relationship that involves self-disclosure and encourages reestablishing links with pre-cult personal history; disputing cult information and imparting new information; interference with cult-supported attentional patterns (i.e., cultic “self-hypnosis”); and anticipating an overt or covert sign that the cultist has renounced his or her allegiance (“snapping”).
The Effectiveness of Deprogramming
Among deprogrammers, reported effectiveness rates vary from 75% to 85%. Former deprogrammer Galen Kelly reported an 85% success rate (Appel, 1983, p. 151n). Garvey (1988) estimated that in his experience as an exit- counselor, he has achieved an effectiveness rate of approximately 75-80%.
Studies of the effectiveness of deprogramming have suffered from small and possibly biased sample sizes. Nevertheless, the few studies that do exist have reported very similar effectiveness rates. In a preliminary study, Langone (1982) reported that, of 29 forced deprogrammings, parents of cultists from a variety of groups reported 16 successes (for an overall success rate of 59%). A later expansion of this study (Langone, 1984) revealed that, of 62 deprogrammings, 39 were immediately successful (63% effectiveness). Of the 23 “failures,” 6 later left their cults, so a very liberal interpretation of deprogramming effectiveness might yield a rating of 73%. My colleagues and I obtained similar results (Dubrow-EicheL Dubrow-EicheL & Eisenberg, 1984): 10 of 15 (67%) exit-counselings and/or deprogrammings were successful. These results compare favorably with rates of psychotherapy efficacy (Garfield, 198 1). Both studies suggested that the effectiveness rates estimated by deprogrammers themselves may be somewhat overly optimistic, although none of the above studies attempted to control for deprogrammer factors, such as experience level as a deprogrammer or formal training in mental health counseling.
In 1981, Conway and Siegeirnan (1982) surveyed over 400 former cult members from 48 different groups. Their respondents ranged in age from mid-teens to mid-fifties, with 21 being the mean. Length of time as a cultist ranged from 3 days to 12 years, with 34 months being the mean. Fifty-one percent were male. Forty-six percent were Protestant 26% Catholic, 21% Jewish and 7% atheist or “other.” Seventy-one percent of their subjects underwent deprogramming. Of these, 40% had been forcefully abducted (kidnapped).
Conway and Siegelman found the vast majority of their sample had been celibate, and that sexual exploitation by leaders was minimal. Physical punishment (e.g., beatings, bondage, food deprivation, cold showers) was reported by about 20% of the respondents. This sample reported spending three to seven hours each day practicing some form of autohypnotic ritual. An additional 20 to 30 hours per week were reportedly spent in other cult- related rituals and/or lectures; thus, a total of 40 to 70 hours per week (55 hours was the mean) were spent in some form of devotional activity that could be labeled “thought stopping.” In addition, 52% of Conway and Siegehnan’s sample reported post-cult symptoms of “floating” (spontaneous trance-like states), 40% reported recurring nightmares about their groups, 35% reported “being unable to break [culticl mental rhythms of chanting, meditation or speaking in tongues” (Conway & Siegelman, 1982, p. 90), and 21% experienced some memory loss. Conway and Siegeman found a direct correlation between the amount of time spent per week in cult ritual and indoctrination and the number of long-term adverse effects:
Our findings appear to confirm that the psychological trauma cults inflict upon their members is directly related to the amount of time spent in indoctrination and mind control rituals. Perhaps most startling of all was a second finding … [that] most of the damage appears to be done in the first few months [of cult membership]. (Conway & Siegelman, 1982, p. 90)
In my experience as therapist for former cultists, I have seen a distinct difference between my deprogrammed and nondeprogrammed clients. Although both demonstrated ambivalence toward their cult experiences, the nondeprogrammed clients seemed more confused about their ambivalence, and were generally in much greater internal conflict. They generally had greater difficulty resolving family conflicts. As opposed to their deprogrammed counterparts, they generally demonstrated greater vulnerability to other forms of unethical social influence: they tended to be more easily attracted to other manipulative groups, became more readily involved in physically and/or psychologically abusive romantic relationships, and were more likely to lm vulnerable to sales and marketing frauds. They also reported more “floating- like” symptoms than did deprogrammed clients, but had more difficult) recognizing and labeling these states. In the Conway and Siegelman study, deprogrammed former cultists also appeared to make a more rapid transition to improved psychological functioning than did their nondeprogrammed counterparts:
In almost every case, those who were deprogrammed recovered more quickly and experienced fewer long-time effects than those who were not. Deprogrammees needed an average 10 months’ less rehabilitation time than non-deprogrammees (14 months instead of 24 months) and reported, on the average, less than half the long- term effects. (Conway & Siegelman, 1982, p. 92)
In a review of her clinical cases involving former cultists, Singer (1979, p 75) found that “many members of our groups tell us they were grateful for the intervention and had been hoping for [a deprogramming]” (a view that at one point was also expressed by Ken, the cultist in my study):
These people say that they had felt themselves powerless to carry out their desire to leave because of psychological and social pressures from companions and officials inside. They often speak of a combination of guilt over defecting and fear of the cults retaliation – excommunication – if the) tried (Singer, 1979, p. 75).
Singer admitted that the majority of her therapy clients had beer deprogrammed from their cults, or immediately following a voluntary exit She did not address the possible bias implied by Us skewed clinical sample.
Studies of Voluntary Defectors and Research Critical of Deprogramming as an Effective Intervention
Several researchers take strong issue with claims of deprogramming effectiveness, and they dispute the existence of a relationship between cull involvement, “mind control” and “post-cult syndromes” (and, by logical extension, deprogramming). Shupe and Bromley (1980) and Solomon (1981) have noted that most cult “atrocity tales” have come from former cultists who have undergone deprogramming. Kilbourne (1983) and Lewis (1986) have suggested that post-cult reports of mind control and cult-induced psychological damage can be attributed to socialization during the deprogramming process, as opposed to accurate reports of experiences during cult membership.
Wright (1984) has criticized Conway and Siegelman (1982) and Skonovd (1981) for presenting data on former cultists without distinguishing between the responses of voluntary defectors and deprogramming. He presented data on 45 voluntary defectors from cults, obtained from in-depth interviews Subjects were obtained through use of the “snowballing” technique (respondents were solicited through use of posters and newspaper ads in several Northeast universities). They represented three well-known cults: Unification Church, ISKCON and Children of God/Family of Love. Wright admitted that the snowballing sampling technique had several disadvantages chief among them the inability to estimate sampling error.
When asked to assess their post-cult attitudes and reactions, Wright’s (1984′ subjects chose between “Indifferent,” “Angry,” “Duped/brainwashed” and “Wiser for the experience.” Wright found that most (67%) felt “Wiser for the experience” with only 9% and 7% feeling “Duped/brainwashed” or “Angry,” respectively. Nondeprogrammed subjects generally left their cults for one o: four reasons: (a) there was a breakdown in the member’s isolation from the outside world; (b) the member became involved in a dyadic relationship in violation of the communal context; (c) perceived lack of success in achieving the cults stated goal of world transformation; and (d) inconsistencies between the ideals of the cult and its actions.
Narrative responses suggested that defectors “often indicated a sustained affection or appreciation for certain aspects of group involvement particularly with regard to the development and maintenance of close interpersonal relationships within the movement (Wright, 1984, p. 178) Wright noted the qualitative differences between subjects who might have responded identically to some of his questions:
For a few, however, this same mode of response (“wiser for the experience” was a way of saying that they had been able to salvage some positive thing out of something essentially seen as negative. Without question, the, perceived their choice, in retrospect, as a mistake. Yet, they could see some redeeming value in their involvement with the movement.
However, even allowing for the variation of responses within the category “wiser for the experience,” what is readily demonstrated in these data is the almost complete absence of brainwashing accusations. (Wright, 1984, p 178)
Wright (1984, pp. 178-179) stated that “accounts by voluntary defectors are generally characterized by greater tolerance and flexibility in arriving at an understanding of one’s previous involvements” which he contrasted with the presumably “less tolerant attitudes of their deprogrammed counterparts. In interpreting his data Wright concluded that “91% of the sample felt their participation was entirely voluntary and specifically avoided the language an, rhetoric of brainwashing.” In his conclusion, Wright compared the stages c voluntary cult defection to those often experienced by divorcing couples.
Beckford (1985) also attempted to describe voluntary defectors (disengagers), from a cult (the Unification Church) and distinguish them from deprogramees. His research drew from two kinds of sources. First, he conducted extensive interviews with 26 ex-members, 13 of their close relatives, 35 parents of active U.C. members, 26 anticult activists, and an unspecified number of journalists and “official policy makers.” Second, he analyzed written and personal documents drawn from anticult publications ex-member autobiographies, journalistic accounts, legal transcripts and research studies. Beckford’s sample (both human subjects and written materials) was drawn primarily from Great Britain, with additional subject and information coming from the Federal Republic of Germany, France Japan, and the U.S.A. Despite the geographic difference from U.S.-base( research, Beckford found surprising similarities in demographics between hi non-American subjects and their American counterparts.
Like Wright, Beckford found less antagonism and greater ambivalence among voluntary defectors, although he hesitated to give these subjects positively biased labels such as “more tolerant” or “less rigid.” Like Levine (1984) Beckford also found the rate of disengagement among Moonists to be fairly high, with approximately 75% of recruits in Great Britain leaving the U.S. within one year of joining; he labeled this “the “revolving door” syndrome” (Beckford, 1985, p. 151).
In contrast to most models of religious defection, Beckford found that U.C ex-members did not leave because of cognitive conflicts (e.g., changes in belief systems). Instead, they tended to leave because of material (e.g. uncomfortable living conditions, poor diet, exhaustion constant demand to fund-raise), social (e.g., emotional cruelty, rigid leadership, resentment of the discrepancies between the lifestyles of leaders and the rank-and-file), and psychological (e.g., fear, guilt, constant belittling and demands to subjugate concerns. Although most of the defectors reported long-term conflicts and doubts (which were usually actively suppressed), the decision finally to leave was generally made on the spur of the moment, following a chance conversation, the experience of an unaccustomed freedom, a bout of homesickness, etc. A few of Beckford’s informants were expelled for being “too lazy,” insubordinate, or disruptive. Beckford’s report of U.C. response to defectors matched my own experience: “One was either a member in good standing or a defector … the vast majority [of defectors] sank immediately into oblivion from the movements point of view” (Beckford, 1985, p. 159).
Beckford reported a variety of psychological stress symptoms among hi defector subjects, including confusion, shame, guilt, frustration, boredom and extreme listlessness that often lasted six months or longer. Immediately following their leave-taking “it was not uncommon for them to sleep for more than twelve hours for several consecutive nights” (Beckford, 1985, pp. 162-163). These factors, among others, led Beckford to conclude that U.C. defectors differed significantly from leave-takers from traditional, but nevertheless demanding religious orders (e.g., nuns, priests and ranks):
The fact that ex-nuns, ex-priests and ex-Moonies all share the experience of abandoning “high commitment roles” should not be allowed to conceal the sharp differences between their respective experiences in other, possibly more important, respects. (Beckford, 1985, p. 168)
Most of Beckford’s (1985) nondeprogrammed subjects also described “floating” symptoms. He concluded that “nearly all informants were troubled after leaving the U.C. by recurrent nightmares and [other] psychic phenomena that included “hallucinations … and out-of-body experiences” (p. 164). Spiritual or paranormal experiences that had initially caused an emotional “high” had, toward the end of their U.C. membership and lingering after defection, become unpleasant and frightening. These defectors felt “burned out:”
An intriguing feature of the psychic experiences reported by ex- Moonies after disengagement is that so many of them related to frightening or threatening themes … The persistence of unpleasant and frightening experiences with the spirit world may have been an important deterrent from participation in other religious activities after leaving the U.C. Ex-Moonies reported no inclination to join another religious group … (Beckford, 1985, p. 166)
Largely because of the preponderance of psychological stress symptoms reported by his subjects, Beckford appeared to reject Wright’s (1984) comparison of cult defection to the process of divorce.
Ex-members’ accounts of the process of separating from the U.C. actually mention few indications of serious or lasting damage; but they do make it clear that the process was more confusing and indecisive than is usually acknowledged… If divorce and attempted suicide can be described as “unscheduled role passage,” becoming an ex-Moonie is a considerably more bewildering experience… (Beckford, 1985, p. 172)
Although he did not condone deprogramming, Beckford’s conclusions did not seem inconsistent with those of Conway and Siegelman (1982). His use of intensive, personal interviews may have permitted him greater depth of analysis than was accomplished by Wright.
A Caveat for All Cult-related Research
Psychological research on human subjects utilizing self-report measure., generally assumes that subjects are answering honestly and accurately, to the best of their abilities. There is evidence that this may not always be the cast (cf., Selltiz, Wrightsman, & Cook, 1976, pp. 300-308). My experience with cultists and former cultists suggests that both intentional and unintentional (e.g., manipulated) dishonesty may occur more often in cult research than in other types of social and psychological study. For example: as a Unification Church remit, I was both overtly and subtly encouraged to exaggerate my “sins” (my sexual experience and experimentation with drugs) Several of my clients have reported instances in which they misled interviewers and researchers by exaggerating claims of pre-cult dysfunction and conflict while minimizing their cult-related difficulties. This ongoing negativistic revision of personal history in response to the “cult of confession” (as discussed by Lifton, 1961) has prompted me to use the term “revisionist psychohistory” to describe this process to clients and other professionals (Dubrow-Eichel, Dubrow-Eichel, Eisenberg, Eisenberg, & Schoenberg, 1983; Dubrow-Eichel, 1988). In this study, there is a point at which the cultist, Ken, admits to lying about his involvement in illegal: ISKCON activities. Finally, I have spoken to at least two former cultist who reported that, while active cultists, they were told by cult leaders to respond dishonestly to a college newspaper classified ad that sought “former cult members” for a sociology research study.
Deprogramee: Ken Butler. At the time of the deprogramming, Ken (all names, except the author’s, are pseudonyms), from a white middle-class Jewish background, was 22 years old. He is an only child. His parents were divorced, and were not on friendly terms. Ken’s relationship with his father and mother had a long history of conflict but there was no history of a behavior disorder significant enough to incur interventions from school, community, or law enforcement officials. Ken graduated from a well-regarded high school located in the far-northeast section of Philadelphia. His grades were above-average. He had completed one year of college prior to joining ISKCON as a full-time member (he was initially approached by an ISKCON recruiter while he was still at college). Ken was open to the recruiter in part because he had an interest in Eastern religions and philosophies, and had read about Hinduism while he was in high school.
Prior to becoming involved with ISKCON, Ken experimented on a limited basis with marijuana and LSD. He did not habitually use any legal or illegal drugs or narcotics. Ken was involved in several relatively short-lived heterosexual relationships, and one significant relationship, but intimacy had been a source of internal conflict for several years. Prior to his deprogramming, Ken had been a full-Ono Krishna devotee for three years.
Deprogrammer (team leader): Curt Miller. Curt the leader of the deprogramming team was one of only a handful of remaining full-time deprogrammers. At the time of the deprogramming, all the deprogrammers were in their early thirties, and were white, from middle-class backgrounds Curt was from a Midwest Protestant background, and was a high school graduate. He was considered to be extremely handsome with a charismatic personality. In 1984, Curt was married with no children (he later divorced).
As a teenager, Curt was rebellious and a risk-taker. He experimented with and abused narcotics. His personal experience with cults consisted of full time attendance in what he described as a totalistic, cult-like drug rehabilitation program.
Deprogrammer: Sandy. Sandy, also a high school graduate from a Midwest Protestant background, had, along with his wife, belonged to a small Bible-e-entered Christian cult. In 1984, he was living in Arizona with his wife and two sons.
Deprogrammer: Greg Stern. Greg was a native Philadelphian, from a middle-class Jewish background. At the time of the deprogramming, Greg had completed three years of undergraduate education at a private liberal arts college. He was formerly an ISKCON devotee. Prior to his involvement with ISKCON, Greg was a full-time member of a band that performed both original music and the works of other popular “light” rock-and-roll composers. The band had some limited success with an original single, and were on a national tour at the time of Greg’s conversion to Hare Krishna.
Deprogrammer: Dara. Dara was also from the Philadelphia area, from; Catholic background, with some college education at a private liberal art college. She was also formerly an ISKCON devotee.
Deprogrammer: Brian. Brian came from the East Coast, with an unknown religious background. He was a college graduate and was at the time of the deprogramming working on his Ph.D. in communications from a large urban university.
Participant-observer: Steve Dubrow-Eichel. At the time of the study, I was a licensed and practicing psychologist with a M.S. degree in psychological services from the University of Pennsylvania. I come from a New York City, Jewish background. I attended Columbia University as an undergraduate. My parents, both of whom survived the Nazi Holocaust, are from German, working-class backgrounds. My mother completed the equivalent of high school; my father the equivalent of junior high school For the past twenty-three years they have owned and operated a large retail bakery business located in Somerville, New Jersey. Their background a survivors of one of the most heinous totalitarian regimes in history had deeply affected me, and no doubt influenced my strong feelings toward totalistic systems.
As explained in the first chapter, I have had consider-able experience as researcher and counselor in the field of destructive cults. Part of this experience involved participating in a Unification Church indoctrination course in 1975.
Looking for a Subject
Plans to observe and tape the Ken Butler deprogramming began in August 1983, when I first met Greg Stern, a former ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) devotee who was himself deprogrammed in 198 by a deprogramming team led by Curt Miller. Since then, Greg had worked on several deprogramming cases. I talked to Greg and his wife Bobbi about my dissertation plans and my need to observe and tape a deprogramming from beginning to end. They responded positively to my plans and stated their willingness to help. The matter did not come up again until October 1983 when Greg called to tell me that he would be consulting on a deprogramming and he would ask Curt, who was again the team leader, if I might observe. A few days later, the deprogramming began. This case did not seem to be; “typical” one. Nevertheless, observing this deprogramming gave me the opportunity to meet Curt and his team (who would be good future contacts) In addition, the team was concerned about the cultist (“Barry”), who seemed to be demonstrating psychotic symptoms, and they wanted input from a mental health professional. This deprogramming did in fact turn out to be highly atypical; the cultist did appear to be psychotic, and once this was established, the formal deprogramming ended and the deprogramming team tried to convince the cultist’s parents of the need for psychiatric hospitalization. I maintained copious notes on what happened, which contributed to the formulation of hypotheses regarding deprogrammer (if no cultist) behavior.
In January 1984, at a meeting of the local chapter of the Citizens Freedom Foundation (CFF), a national cult awareness network, I initially met Risa Butler. Risa talked briefly about her son, who was in ISKCON, and about what could be done. Deprogramming was not mentioned by anyone at this time. In February, I met Risa again, at a workshop I was conducting. She recognized me, and after the workshop, she spoke with me for a few minutes Risa was considering a deprogramming. I told her about my study, and I asked her if she would contact me should she decide to go through with the deprogramming.
Finding a Subject
About two months later, in early April, I heard from Bobbi and Greg Stern that Curt Miller would be coming into Philadelphia soon to conduct a Krishna deprogramming. I called Risa to ask her if this deprogramming involved her son. She acknowledged that she was thinking about a deprogramming, but would not give me any more information; Curt’s standard instruction to parents is to avoid divulging any information to anyone over the phone. On the weekend of April 13-15, Bobbi and I attended a Regional CFF conference. Curt was there, primarily to keep in touch with referral sources. He had just returned from a deprogramming in Arizona. We had lunch together and discussed this most recent case, as well as the October 1983 case involving Barry, the apparently psychotic Krishna. I reminded Curt of my need for a “typical” deprogramming. He informed me that he would be working for Risa starting that Monday or Tuesday. He agreed to allow me to conduct my study, and asked me to allow him to make the arrangements with Risa and the family at whose house the deprogramming would be held.
I was able to find out where Curt was staying from Greg, who was planning to assist on the case, and I called him that Monday evening, April 16. I detected a combination of covert hesitation with overt readiness to be of assistance in Curt’s voice. He gave me the address of the deprogramming site (a home located in a Philadelphia suburb), and slightly incorrect directions to their house. The house where the deprogramming was to take place was owned by “Robert and Ellen Epstein,” an anti-cult activist couple whose oldest son had himself been deprogrammed out of ISKCON. I could not recall having met them before. Curt then explained that he would call me to let me know when I could come to the house.
Curt called early Tuesday afternoon (April 17, 1984) to give me a brief rundown of the “snatch” plans. Ken was to be “picked up” at around 4:00 p.m., so I should plan to be at the Epsteins’ house at 5:00 p.m. When I asked to be present during the “pick-up”, Curt explained that the car’s limited seating along with the very precariousness of this event precluded my presence. Curt then told me what time to arrive, and I accepted it without further questioning. I then asked Curt if he would consider doing the taping himself until such time as I could be in the same room as Ken, and Curt said he would do ft if he could.
The First Day:
Arriving. I left my house at 4:30 p.m. to drive to the deprogramming. The deprogramming was to take place at a house located in lower Bucks county, a 20-minute drive from my own house. I felt relieved about this location; if I needed any supplies or support, I could get away during the night or some other quiet time and pick them up. As I drove, I felt anxious, excited and apprehensive. I had a very good idea of the planning, time, and money that went into this event. “What if the deprogramming doesn’t work? What if the cultist does not agree to being audiotaped? What if something goes wrong, and (the worst scenario) the police somehow become involved?”
These and other questions raced through my mind as I drove. I felt alone and insecure, yet very excited. I thought about how exotic and risky deprogrammings are, or seem. My nervousness increased as I pulled into their development and cautiously approached their street- I scanned the street for any signs of “unusual” activity.
I was expecting to see something a little unusual, and I did. There was a slightly greater number of cars parked near the Epsteins’ house than near their neighbors’. I correctly guessed that Ken and the pickup team had already arrived. I parked my own car half a block away from the Epsteins’ house. After gathering all my material and making certain I had everything I needed, I walked slowly to the front door and rang the bell. After a short while, a face peered though the small door window; it was George, a “security” person I had met 6 months ago. He recognized me, and let me in. After exchanging greetings, I walked into the kitchen. Present were: Ellen and Robert Epstein and their son, Daniel, Risa (Ken’s mother), Curt, George and Jim. Ellen seemed surprised to see me. Curt hadn’t notified her that I was coming. Later, I was able to better clarify my purpose for being there. I next said hello to Curt and Risa, and I thanked Risa for allowing me to be present. I introduced myself to Jim, whom I had never met before. He was the newest member of Curt’s security team, and this was to be his first deprogramming. I was then told that Ken was already upstairs, talking to Sandy.
Risa returned to her chore of washing some glasses and then preparing that evening’s dinner. Her quick, jerky movements and hyperalertness suggested tension and anxiety. After brief introductions Daniel and his father returned to their discussion of how and when Daniel would get back to Vermont where he worked and went to college. I asked Curt for a brief account of the pickup-
The pickup. Curt explained that Ken was picked up at his aunts house. His visit there having been preplanned. They pulled up their rented car as he walked out onto the street. Ken’s mother was with them. Ken was twice asked to get into the car. He refused both times. Curt, Sandy, and the security men then got out and, upon seeing the four, Ken entered the car. The drive to the Epsteins’ house was relatively uneventful. Risa later stated that she thought her son seemed nervous and frightened, yet somehow relieved. Ken himself later reported having mixed feelings, including relief, about the “snatch.” Curt and Sandy both noted that Ken seemed frightened, but that he was talkative, a good sign. They stated that Ken vacillated between rage and insisting he had doubts about ISKCON anyway and was already voluntarily (but temporarily) considering moving out of the Temple. Therefore, the deprogramming was unnecessary. Ken asked if he could terminate the deprogramming by eating meat or having sex with a woman:, vegetarianism and celibacy are of paramount importance to the Krishnas. He then reminded his mother of his planned missionary trip to Puerto Rico and demanded to be taken to the airport so he could leave right away.
As they approached the Epsteins’ house, Ken was told that he was being taken to a friend of his mother, located in a Philadelphia suburb. The destination surprised him. He expected to be taken to Ohio, erroneously believing that all deprogrammings were done at an Ohio rehab. Curt and Sandy explained that the deprogramming would give him the opportunity to study what the Krishnas “were really all about” without interference from the Krishnas. He could examine documents that might have been withheld from him, and he could re-evaluate the meaning of his belief system and whether or not the Krishnas really practiced what they preached. There would be opportunities to share experiences with former Krishnas as well as with former members of other cults. They would take a close look at ISKCON’s doctrine as well as at other material, and they would watch some videotape: and listen to some audiotapes. Ken would be able to sleep and eat when and as much as he wanted. When he asked how long the deprogramming would last, Ken was told that if, after a week, he was still convinced that ISKCON was the true religion, he could go back to his Krishna temple. (This is in sharp variance with other reports of what is said at the early phase of -. deprogramming. Other deprogrammers have been quoted as saying “it will take as long as it takes.”) Sandy later explained to me that by being told what to expect, and then actually having these expectations fulfilled, the cultist discovers that the deprogrammers can be trusted to keep their word. Curt echoed these statements by noting that he is as honest as possible with his clients. Lying or providing false expectations can “blow the whole thing,” he stated.
Beginnings. I asked about the current status of the deprogramming, and Curt told me that Ken was talking, which he interpreted as a good sign. He stated that Ken had agreed to stay and listen to the deprogrammers for at least the day, which seemed to imply that Ken was now a voluntary participant in the deprogramming. Curt noted that Ken was freely expressing a few “pockets” of compartmentalized doubts about ISKCON, but until Curt knew Ken better, it would be difficult to tell if these doubts were genuine or if they were just attempts to “fake it” and obtain an early release. Noting that he had not been successfully “fooled” in his last 50 cases, Curt felt confident “I just let them go on, and if they’re faking, they eventually trip over their own lies.”
When I asked, Curt informed me that he did not think it would be a good idea for me to go upstairs yet; Ken might feel overwhelmed. He agreed, however, to take my tape recorder upstairs and tape for me. I set the recorder up, and Curt went upstairs.
At this point, Brian, who had been sitting security outside the bedroom being used as the main deprogramming room (hereafter referred to as (“Ken’s room”), came down. We had just met a few days ago, at the Northeast regional CFF conference. Since I did not know that he was going to be working on this case, I was pleasantly surprised to see him. After saying hello and explaining that he was just working security, Brian expressed his opinion that, at this point, Ken might be trying to “con” the deprogrammers. Brian then went back upstairs, to his “post.”
As I awaited permission to meet Ken, I talked with Daniel Epstein about his experiences in ISKCON. Risa and Ellen were busy preparing a large dinner. Preparing food was to be a central activity for the two, especially Risa. She told me later that it was the only way she could maintain control of her anxiety in the situation. To feed the Epstein family (or parts of it, anyway– I rarely saw the family all together), the deprogrammers, the security team, and any visitors, the meals were large, and they took around two hours to prepare, with another hour to two hours for cleaning up. A wide variety of food was typically served, usually with one main meat dish, bread(s), several varieties of vegetables and fruits, and several desserts.
Maintaining this much food on hand was no simple task. In the washroom bags of groceries were placed on the floor, on the dishwasher, on a couch, or whatever else was handy. In the refrigerator them the team kept milk, juice, and usually one or two six-packs of beer. There was usually a bag or two of purely “junk” food. pretzels mostly, but Twinkies, cookies, Devil Dogs (box-size), and other cake goods as well. This refrigerator seemed “reserved” for the team alone. The kitchen refrigerator was where the “serious” food and the Epstein family’s groceries were kept. Thus, breakfast usually came out of both refrigerators (since various team members woke and ate at various times, while the Epsteins came and went separately in general), while dinners usually cane out of the kitchen refrigerator. Risa and Ellen seemed to do most of the grocery shopping. Through occasional trips to convenience stores, Curt or Sandy resupplied the “junk” food, minor provisions (e.g., juice or milk), cigarettes, and beer.
Gaining access. That first night, Risa, Ellen and Daniel Epstein and I had a light dinner consisting of salad, bread, and cheese; the deprogrammers and security men came down later for some plates of food which they then brought back upstairs. I still remained downstairs. Daniel and I continued to talk until his father was ready to take him to the airport. At about 7:00 p.m., Greg Stem arrived, and, after politely stating that he had already eaten dinner, went right upstairs. I went upstairs with extra tapes, to check on the status of the audiotaping. The door to Ken’s room was slightly ajar, so I peeked in to see what he looked like. Ken was thin and serious-looking, and he was wearing a cap that concealed his nearly clean-shaven head and his sika (the ponytail-like lock of hair on the back of a male devotee’s head that is symbolic of being initiated into the Krishnas). I still felt somewhat tense, and very much the “outsider.” As for Ken, I was told that he still had not eaten anything since the morning.
What I saw on my left was a small, square room. Ken was seated on the bed, on my left, toward the end. Curt, Greg, and Sandy were also there. Greg was seated on the floor near a plant stand, with his back leaned against the wall. Curt also sat on the floor, somewhat close to the bed while Sandy sat on the floor, against the left wall, perpendicular to Greg. Brian sat outside the room, reading a book, near the stairway to the ground floor. Curt did not seem to be taping yet. As I waited to be invited to enter Ken’s room, I continued to listen to the ongoing conversation. I could discern most of what was being said. Curt was talking. He had a looseleaf book open to the middle, and he was reading from an enclosed article to Ken. A copy of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu/Krishna holy book, was also opened up, on the floor. Pages in the looseleaf and the “Gita” were outlined in pen and in yellow highlighter. Ken seemed to be interacting in a cooperative and even pleasant, although distant manner. He gently asked questions, clearly debating with Curt. Ken did not seem to be relating Curt’s information to his own experience; he only used third person pronouns. But he continued to question Curt, primarily about the validity of the latter’s sources of information. Ken soon became somewhat louder and more confrontational. Curt tried to answer most of Ken’s questions, avoiding some of the more detailed questions, such as where commas appeared in a quote. Curt seemed very patient with these questions, approaching impatience only once, when he remarked to Ken that “you’re so caught up in this…” As Curt continued to talk, Ken seemed to be taken off-guard by the sheer quantity and critical nature of information Curt was relaying. Curt was pointing out that that Krishnas claim that they are purer than other religions, yet they are involved in a number of illegal activities, such as gun-running and drug smuggling Ken seemed to be listening, but he continued to answer in the third person with a low voice but fast pace: “Well, Krishna says…” Later, Curt would explain to me that this was his first somewhat mild, confrontation. Prior to that point, the talk had been gentle, focused primarily on listening to Ken’s travelog: what temples he had visited, whom he had met, etc.
I was relieved then to see Curt take my tape recorder out and quickly ask Ken if the conversation could be taped. I was not able to hear Ken’s response (he often spoke with barely audible volume), but apparently it was affirmative, as Curt then placed the recorder near where he was seated, in plain view of Ken. Despite Ken’s apparent permission to record the conversation, I later noticed Curt trying to be inconspicuous about the tape recorder by holding it semi-concealed in his hands, behind his back.
Returning again to some of ISKCON’s illegal activities, Curt overtly asked Ken to relate this information to his own experience. Ken responded by accusing Curt and Greg of working as deprogrammers for money. Greg nondefensively responded to the Krishna doctrine underlying this criticism: ISKCON makes it seem like everyone is a materialist, out “to be a master and not a slave,” yet Ken would realize that his deprogrammers wanted to serve him. ISKCON criticizes nonmembers for being “mudhas who work like an ass” (thinking only of how to work for money), yet Krishna devotees are more money-conscious than any other people he ever met. Ken, so accustomed to the potential recruits defensive posturing about materialism (a defensiveness that leads naturally into the well-rehearsed Krishna “rap”). seemed caught off-guard by Greg, and he tentatively agreed. “I kind of noticed that myself.” As Greg and Ken continued to discuss this points, Greg’s conversational style slowly shifted away from self-disclosure toward increased questioning of Ken. It seemed as though Greg had taken a mutual, equal conversation and gently turned it into one in which he more clearly led and paced it. As Greg gave information, Ken responded with doctrine. Greg retorted with additional questions, and a few admonitions to consider other points of view. Often, Greg couched these confrontations in a tone of voice that conveyed a safe, respectful humor. Ken responded to the humor in Greg’s confrontation with renewed self-disclosure.
It was now 9:20 p.m., and Ken still hadn’t eaten anything since prior to the 11 snatch.” The deprogrammers asked him again if he was hungry. Ken asked if there were any nuts or fruits available, and Curt went downstairs to ask Risa to prepare some. The discussion had become low-key again. Greg Stern was talking a lot, in low tones and at a slow tempo. He was pointing out how contradictory many of the Krishna admonitions were – how, for example, the constant warning not to think about sex made it almost impossible to think of anything but sex. Ken laughed at this, and commented that some of the Krishna women “in those tight saris” looked pretty good. He then remarked almost too nonchalantly that “I’ve been in the temple so long, I want to get a piece.” There was a strained, driven quality to his voice as he made those statements, it was as though he were making statements to be smart or rebellious (while really, deep down, he still felt sex was “dirty”). Or perhaps Ken hoped to trick the deprogrammers into showing their “true, corrupt” intentions. While I continued to listen outside the room, Brian (who was also listening) explained that Ken’s statements sounded false: “He’s trying to con his way out.”
At this point, Curt returned upstairs but decided to have a cigarette before re- entering Ken’s room (he never smoked in front of Ken, “to show respect” fox Ken’s beliefs). The cigarette break afforded me the chance to ask him how he thought it was going. He shrugged. “He’s definitely talking, that’s a certain sign of some progress. And he knows the organization has some problems, but ifs too early to tell. He could be faking. You know, we’ll just continue and see.” Curt intuited that I had been standing just outside the door for some time. “Wait till I come back, and then you can go in.”
My entrance. Curt went back downstairs, and returned a few minutes later with a cup of tea or coffee. Greg and Ken were still talking. Curt told me to wait a bit more, then he re-entered the room and asked Ken to disclose any experiences he might have had related to ISKCON’s illegal activities. Curt’s timing seemed to be right. Ken asked Curt to turn the tape recorder off and according to Curt’s later report, began telling the deprogrammers about some illegal activities he witnessed and did not want recorded on tape. The tape recorder was turned off. Curt then came out again, and told me I could go in. The recorder was turned back on. I nervously said hello and Curt introduced me by name, but he said nothing about what I was doing there. Ken asked me where I was from and if I had been a Krishna. I said “no” to having been a Krishna, and stated that I had undergone Moonist training, and that I was there to observe what was happening. He looked puzzled, but then told me that he had met a number of Moonists and was very impressed with them Curt hesitated to tell Ken why I was present, and instead made a joke about my presence and about my Moonist training. I gave Ken a brief statement of my purpose, and I told him that I was a student in psychology.
Curt interrupted us, looking somewhat perturbed and perhaps annoyed. I was not aware of my own excitement and anxiety at the time, but the fact that I talked more than I wanted suggested that I was very nervous. Soon, however I calmed down and felt a need to back off and stop talking. Curt then steered the direction of the conversation back to the Krishnas. I thought about how Curt can convey a sense of client-centeredness while maintaining a fairly close grip on the direction and focus of the proceedings. I was later told that veering away from the topic could be counterproductive, and might help the cultist to avoid dealing with the important matter at hand.
At 9:34, Greg Stern began to tell a story about one of the gurus he and Kei knew, who drank quite a bit of alcohol. He drank to the point where it became “public” knowledge among other devotees and the guru had to come up with an explanation for his behavior. “He said it was “stomach medicine”,” Greg noted, with amazed and nervous chuckles from Ken. I was impressed with how much talking was going on. It was almost as though Ken enjoyed the attention, the time to just sit and shoot the breeze. He had no trouble commenting on what was being said, and he seemed fairly connected. Yet there was a stiffness throughout these early discussions. Ken barely moved, and his voice carried little variation in affect At this point (10:31) Curt began to pick up where he had left off. He talked at length now, with only occasional comments from Ken. Ken often seemed to be staring off into the distance, silent and unresponsive. I wondered if he was chanting. At 10:40, Ken broke his silence. He began to state that everything was okay, that he figured the deprogramming was Krishna’s will. Curt exited the room again (to give a report to Ken’s mother, I later discovered).
Early contradictions. The conversation continued, with Ken beginning to back away from his previous (unrecorded) self-disclosure by disputing Greg’s experiences with his own different experiences. The deprogrammer listened, and questioned Ken when he contradicted himself, or challenged him when he cited doctrine. Curt began pointing out differences between Ken’s stated beliefs and actual ISKCON beliefs. Ken stated that (in his opinion) it can still be spiritual even if he does not totally follow ISKCON rules. Our disputed ” notion by quoting from “Back to Godhead” and an ISKCON speech (“Ten Offenses”): not totally following the guru means death. “If one has faith in the guru, if it is nighttime but the guru says it is day, you will see the sun shining.” This seemed to bother Ken. “Where, where is that book?” he anxiously asked. In the course of the deprogramming, I found Curl using this tactic quite a lot- The message is subtle but clear. He knows more about ISKCON than the cultist does, and he is the expert – make the cultist aware of the real ISKCON.
Curt’s quote seemed to agitate Km causing him to try hard to dispute this information. First, Ken challenged that the guru quoted in “Ten Offenses” later turned out to be a “bogus” guru. Curt countered by pointing out that it was the “Perfect Master,” A.C. Bhaktivedanta, Swami Prabhupada (the now deceased founder of ISKCON), who directly instructed the guru to make this statement to disciples. Moreover, if Prabhupada picked a “bogus” guru to instruct disciples, then what does this say about Prabhupada, the “Perfect Master? This line of reasoning seemed to get Ken even more upset. “Was Prabhupada personally present when this was stated?” Curt and Sandy responded with an “orienting” statement “Listen! Listen closely!” [Sandy): “Listen to what he [Curt and/or Prabhupada] says!” When Ken finally appeared to back down, Curt pushed further by making a process comment. “Did you see what you just did? … Because you [heard what I said] as a potentially threatening statement that indicated some blind obedience…you didn’t deal with the statement that was being made. You tried to undermine the validity of the individual making it.”
The demand to think. Curt’s utilization of a logical argumentative approach (characterized primarily by questioning and giving information) to ISKCON doctrine continued: he next noted that one version of the Gita claims there are 32 gurus, while another says 33. How can both be true? It there is one flaw, then it is not perfection. As Ken seemed to consider this reasoning anxiously, Curt began to reassure him that nothing bad will happen to him for questioning ISKCON doctrine. “I don’t think you will [get punished] because I know a number of people who have left.”
Mother. At 11: 15, Ken requested time to talk to his mother. Curt went out again to get Risa, and the two returned. Risa entered the room, and sat on the bed, about 1-1/2 feet to Ken’s left. As they talked, we all filed out of the room to afford them some privacy. Curt and Greg commented that they were very pleased that Ken and Risa were talking; this was a highly positive sign. Curt took out my recorder when Risa entered the room and I felt it would be awkward to request otherwise. Ken and Risa’s conversation began at 11:28. Although I was not privy to their conversation, I later found out that Ken was sharing some doubts with his mother. He said he wasn’t sure whether or not he would go to Puerto Rico now (he was on his way there prior to the pickup, on Krishna business). He stated that he might still go, but he wasn’t sure. Later, Curt explained that when the “one week time frame was given. the additional two to four weeks at Rehab were deliberately left out so as “not to overwhelm the guy.” Thus, Ken was still considering going to Puerto Rico “next week, when this is over.” This was another good sign according to Curt. “He’s beginning to accept that this will take some time.” Ken explained that he was angry at her at first (during the pick-up), that he wanted to punch her, but that then he began to realize “this wasn’t so bad.” Risa listened mostly, although when he made the statements about being angry and wanting to punch her, she hugged him. When she spoke, it was generally so quietly that I could not catch any of what she was saying;. She appeared to be explaining that she only did this because she loved him. Ken told her than he stopped being angry, however, once he began to realize that “this wasn’t so bad.” After talking to his mother, Ken, Curt and Greg returned to Ken’s room (I remained just outside the room) and began to discuss the origins of Indian culture with Brian, who had waited in the room while Ken and Risa were standing outside it, talking. Brian began to point out that linguistic research has shown that Latin and Sanskrit have their roots in a third common language, and that Sanskrit did not give birth to Latin as is claimed by Prabhupada.
The First Day: Late Evening
Curt’s analysis. At this point, Greg’s wife, Bobbi Stern, entered the mom. She introduced herself very briefly and after Ken said hello, she sat down. It was now about 12:15 am. Ken was asked if he was tired and wanted to call it quits for the night. He said he was tired, but that he wanted to continue. Greg began to ask Ken some more about his experiences, while relating some more of his own. Curt stepped out. I was still seated by the steps just outside the open door of Ken’s room. Curt began to give me his impressions of what was going on at this point. He stated that Ken didn’t want to go to sleep because “he’s all fired up” and “he wants to express himself .. he wants to talk to somebody. He’s starting to understand where we’re coming from, “ and may even be identifying a little with his adversaries. At this point, Curt said, Ken wants a free forum to express doubts that have been suppressed, and he “can’t stop now.” And so the need to talk is stronger than the need for sleep. “This is the first time in a long time that he has felt free to express himself. All the other times he’s felt too guilty.” Curt noted that Ken might be entering the stage when many cultists “snap.” The snapping point is usually preceded by a strong drive to talk (“hyper-talk”). “Ifs a good sign,” he said.
Ken debates, then relates. Inside Ken’s room, Sandy and Ken discussed India. Ken began defending India as a spiritual and progressive country, while Sandy, Brian, and Curt (who had just re-entered the room) pointed out that conditions are as bad as ever there. After about 10 minutes or so, Brian and Sandy shifted the conversation toward a discussion of how cult recruiting and sales techniques are similar. Sandy suggested similarities between Ken’s experiences in ISKCON and his own experience in a Bible cult. Curt read an article in which ISKCON criticized the Berkeley (California) temple (led by guru Hansadutta) for various excesses, including possession of guns. Curt criticized ISKCON’s belated acknowledgment of the Berkeley temple’s excesses. “This is scapegoating. Once the cops busted this temple, all of a sudden all of ISKCON is quick to denounce this temple as an aberration.” Ken defended ISKCON. Yes this is despicable, but ISKCON itself is to be commended for its official disapproval of these excesses. Responding to Curt’s confrontation of his unquestioning acceptance of the “official” ISKCON line, Ken admitted that to question the official line is equal to blasphemy. Curt thanked him for being honest about it, adding that “you know, what you’re stressing to us now … is the very same thing everybody thinks about. Everybody feels it, everybody.” Ken hesitantly admitted to occasional “blasphemy,” as Greg and Curt attempted to reframe his self- condemnation. They noted how human it is to have critical thoughts about bad practices, and they pointed out how this is true for all cultists, in all cults. Ken agreed, but continued to ague that critical thinking is a sign of imperfection, of the need to spiritually purify the Self. Curt then read a testimonial (entitled “Letter of Appreciation and Apology to my Deprogrammers”) from Mary, another Krishna he deprogrammed. Mary described how she was instructed by ISKCON to resist the deprogramming. Resistance consisted of going along with the deprogrammers until you can get free by: (a) defeating them with logic, (b) leaving the deprogramming site, (c) if steps (a) and (b) fail, cut the deprogrammers’ tongues, and/or (d) kill them and/or yourself. Ken began to relate his feelings about his own current predicament. At first he was very upset, and even now he felt afraid, but maybe this was for the best. He admitted that he was “so wound up on Ham Krishna,” but that he had always had doubts. Curt reminded Ken not to “bullshit” him, yet on the other hand he seemed to acknowledge Ken’s disclosure by reminding him that “to be human” is to doubt, and that doubting isn’t the same as indulging in all your senses (i.e., the two are not the same, as ISKCON says). The conversation digressed from that point, as Curt first talked briefly about his history of drug abuse, and then participated with Ken and the deprogrammers in an equally brief discussion about some movies. This conversation was highlighted by Greg’s Jack Nicholson imitation. Curt put an end to the side conversations by remarking “Uh, we’re trying to get it to look like a deprogramming is going on in here.” The conversation refocused on criticizing ISKCON doctrine, but with lots of humor interlaced. Curt asked Ken what he had mad in the papers about Mary, whose involvement with and exit from ISKCON achieved considerable notoriety. Ken replied that she did not sound very intelligent. Greg returned with a challenge to ISKCON’s denigration of women. “Just like any other woman eh?” Curt continued to read Mary’s account of her deprogramming as Ken questioned parts he had difficulty following. He did not seem to be criticizing, but rather was just trying to follow the story. Bobbi asked Ken how he first learned that Mary was “rescued.” Ken laughed at Bobbi’s choice of terms. “I never heard it called that before.”
An early “confession.” Ken began to discuss how he would go out to buy newspapers for his guru and would read some of them himself, even though this was against ISKCON rules. This was only one of Ken’s supposed transgressions. Ken disclosed more, including a story of how he cheated someone out of money. Greg asked; “Is that something you would have done before you got involved?” This question, and the many similar ones that would soon follow, seemed to draw Ken into recalling and comparing his past identity to his Krishna persona. When Ken responded negatively, Greg continued: “So that’s something you picked up from hanging around Krishnas… how to con, to cheat. There was a moment of silence as Ken pondered this information, his fare screwed up in some conflict. Sandy, reacting perhaps to Ken’s struggle to assimilate this information, talked about the dangers of chanting. “It can be damaging to the thought processes.” He then noted the similarity between speaking in tongues and chanting (both can be used as a “mind block”) as he attempted to explain the research on sensory deprivation and the physiological need for stimulation.
The deprogrammers then began pointing out Prabhupada’s moral inconsistencies. Prabhupada stated that it is not cheating to lie when fund-raising, as long as the fund-raiser does not keep the money for himself–if he keeps the money, then it is cheating. Ken responded again by citing doctrine. Greg confronted him on ISKCON’s use of “transcendental trickery” during their food distribution campaigns. Krishnas would collect money, then use only part of it to buy old food. On the one hand it is spiritually and morally acceptable to trick people to get their message through, yet “…before, we were talking about spirituality as including total honesty…” At this point Bobbi Stem, who had been silent for some time, began supporting her husband’s disclosures with similar tales from ex-Krishna clients. In a move that seemed partly designed to authenticate his ex-Krishna .credentials,” Greg then gave Ken a sample of what he labeled his fund- raising “rap.”
Ken’s retreat. When the deprogrammers seemed finished, Ken refuted then in an involved and personal way, by denying that he had done any transcendental trickery. “I never lied .. whatever I said was always true.” Greg: “OK, maybe you didn’t but you were representing an organization that…” Ken finished the thought “…whose members did.”
Curt then added his heaviest confrontation to date. ISKCON leaders engage in transcendental trickery, and whether or not Ken did it is not the issue. The (ISKCON) movement does it, and Ken’s denial is “God damn lying through your teeth … and you’re covering their ass … you’re trying to minimize that deception … yeah, and I’m pissed because you sit there and you act so innocent when you know damn well that that’s what’s happening in the movement. If you want to associate yourself with a movement that’s deceptive at its core, yeah, that’s your choice. But don’t try to claim that its some type of higher spiritual understanding.” Silence hung heavy in the room, and Ken looked shocked and caught off guard. The silence was at last broken by Curt “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to get heavy with you but I just get upset because.. Ken tried to complete Curt’s thought: “It’s part of your job.” Curt denied it “No, it’s not part of my job; it’s my true feelings, I get upset…”
Ken seemed to back down a little. Curt listened intently as the cultist admitted that the Krishnas do believe the ends justify the means, the ends are spiritual but the means often are not. Ken: The goal is to make people God-conscious, but the means are not.” Curt “Exactly, and I don’t know if you, before you got involved in this movement, prescribed [sic] to that [ends justifying means argument], because you’re making a big assumption…that what you’ve got is of God! What if it isn’t? … One of the main ways to test if something is of God is by the fruits that it bears.. Truth is truth, man, and it shouldn’t have to be propagated by deception.”
Curt attacked ISKCON’s justification for using “transcendental trickery.” Because we are so caught up in maya (the “world of illusion”), the Krishna., believe we often have to be tricked into seeing the truth. This is the same logic used by other cults to justify their acts of deception.
Detour and analysis. With the introduction of the ISKCON concept of maya, the conversation moved in a new direction. It was about 12:45 am.. and Sandy, who had left the room for a smoke, returned and began to disclose more of his experiences as a member of a shepherding (Christian) cult. Ken just listened. Sandy’s group was very different from the Krishnas. It was a small conclave led by a charismatic lay-preacher named David Stone, who exercised considerable direct control over his followers. It did not have the rigid hierarchy that ISKCON has, nor the membership or the extensive organization. Of course, the philosophies were also quite different. Ken said little at this point other than to ask Sandy a few questions about David Stone and to point out the differences between the Stone group and the Krishnas. He did not seem to be relating to Sandy’s comparison. Ken and Brian next began to discuss the nature of explanations for events and experiences. Brian noted how explanations for phenomena are temporary; we use the best explanations we have until a better one comes along. At one point in Western history, for example, some events seemed best explained by postulating the presence of ghosts: “The explanations might have sufficed at the time, but better explanations were discovered, and they didn’t have to rely on ghosts to explain things.” Ken talked about how science is often inexact too. The conversation was now clearly characterized by the imparting of objective information. Ken was also beginning to actively dispute information critical of ISKCON. Greg’s rate of questioning seemed to increase in direct relation to Ken’s active use of ISKCON doctrine to defend his beliefs. In general, most of the conversation seemed to emanate from the deprogrammers, while most of what Ken was saying came in bursts.
The role of fear. In all totalistic movements, the deprogrammers said, fear plays a big role in the need to control people. This important point seemed to get lost, however, in a round of abstract political theory. The conversation seemed almost to lack a center. Greg apparently sensed this, and he refocused the conversation on the role fear plays in ISKCON doctrine. He described how controlling his senses and impulses without chanting is not a problem for him– “I don’t have to fight to control myself, and I also don’t carry around a fear that something’s going to happen to me in my next life…or in this life.” He was living proof of the invalidity of doctrine-induced fears that “if you leave all of that accrued karmic reaction, stuff will catch up with you.” Ken sat and appeared to be listening. To me, he seemed, on many occasions, to be agreeing with what Greg said, but these “pockets” of agreement did not yet seem to generalize into a skeptical attitude. Greg’s thoughts may have moved along a similar path, as he continued to challenge Ken. First, he confronted Ken on Prabhupada’s statement that the sun is closer to the earth than the moon. “Do you believe that?” he asked with his head cocked and thrust forward toward Ken. Ken backed away, angry. “When you get right down to it, I don’t care” what Prabhupada said about the sun being closer to the earth than the moon: “It doesn’t matter.” Greg would not allow Ken to get the upper hand, yet he did not respond in like anger. ” I think the point is that you’re accepting Prabhupada at one point and then at another point it doesn’t matter.”
Sudden progress-. An admission. Sandy, Curt, and Bobbi began to talk once more with Ken about sankirtan, and this time Ken’s response was different. He now admitted (to the deprogrammers or to himself.?) to the use of “transcendental trickery.” He began to relate some of his own experiences, raising money in trailer parks and from cars. Ken’s conning involved the fraudulent selling of “Indian” paintings to art galleries; at one point, he was even arrested by police. I sat there shocked by Ken’s revelations, coming so soon after he denied any personal wrongdoing during fund-raising. Curt’s response surprised me even more; he looked sharply at Ken and speculated aloud to the other deprogrammers: “I wonder if he’s giving us one [a con job] now?” Ken laughed nervously. “No, I’m serious.” Curt sat back. “Well, you’ve got to understand our position, we’ve got to think that way… You guys have been taught how to lie … and be good at it. …You feel justified.” Apparently, Curt had also been somewhat surprised by Ken’s disclosure. What followed was still more interesting to me. Curt’s confrontation, rather than interfering with developing rapport resulted in a prolonged period of continued self-disclosure from both Ken and Curt. Curt continued to explain the limitations of the deprogrammers, especially as they are influenced by a cultist who is lying. Curt was confronting the issue of honesty head on. By lying, Ken was first and foremost being dishonest with himself, and being dishonest with the deprogrammers was not the main point: “We can’t deprogram you, you do that yourself, all we can do is provide you with some reference points and support.. You have to be honest with yourself.’ Ken recalled to Curt that when Krishnas get caught stealing or lying, they call it religious persecution. Curt continued to plead his case for honesty. He and Ken talked about how difficult it is to leave on one’s own. It’s done, Curt noted, but it’s tough because the best way to sort through everything is to express it, to test it out against what other people say. They then discussed a lawsuit against ISKCON in California, and how ISKCON shifted assets out of that state and cried poverty in order to avoid paying the $32 million judgment against them. They discussed the power struggles between various gurus. Curt asked Ken to point out one absolute leader in history who had had absolute power and was not corrupted by it. Ken, of course, could not. They then talked about Ted Patrick, his good and his bad points. Curt contrasted Patrick’s style with his own: “He [Patrick] worked on people’s emotions… he didn’t approach it from an informational standpoint [as does Curt].,
Returning to the power struggles within ISKCON, Curt commented on how the rivalries between gurus got started, how when Prabhupada appointed these .pure disciples’ they had trouble getting respect from fellow gurus, because their fellow gurus all knew about each others’ sins and weaknesses (e.g., using coffee and other intoxicants, using profanity, etc.). Ken initially defended the strange Krishna notion that as one becomes spiritually “purer, one is able to indulge in more “sins” because the sin cannot touch and undo the pure devotee. “Some things the disciples can’t do (the gurus can],” he said. Curt’s response was nonchalant. “Well, yeah, there’s a double-standard. Ken: “Yeah, I kind of picked up on that, too.” Ken then talked about some of the homosexual improprieties he had witnessed, which he spontaneously interpreted as running away from sexual identity issues.
Request to stop chanting: The first day ends. Curt, Brian, and Ken talked for almost two hours more, reviewing some of what had been said already, and going over more material from Curt’s looseleaf book. At about 1:39 a.m., the need for sleep seemed too strong to deny any longer, and the deprogrammers stated they would need to go to bed. Before leaving, Curt made his first direct suggestion to Ken. “I wanted to suggest something,. don’t expect you to necessarily go along with it, but why don’t you give no chanting [in the morning) a shot. I’ll give you a reason in the morning why. While you’re here, give it a shot.” Curt then reminded Ken of Mary’s statements that chanting “shuts down the primary and opens up the secondary thought processes.” Ken said he would consider it.
It seemed like Ken could continue forever. When he finally announced his own intention to go to sleep, I went back downstairs. Risa was still up, dressed in a nightgown and robe. Apparently, she was going to sleep over. I had not even thought about where I would sleep, and I did not bring a change of clothes. I decided, however, to sleep over as well. Risa and I went downstairs into the basement. The basement was large, consisting of three open areas that, together, constituted a “U” shape. It was filled with old furniture, games (e.g., ping-pong), posters and old stereo equipment. To the right a mattress and beddings had been laid out; this was where Risa slept. Around the bend to the left were an old chair, two inexpensive couches, a coffee table and a large trunk all the way to the left. Behind this trunk was a box spring with a mattress and some beddings on it. I decided to try the box spring out. The two couches would later serve as bedding for one or the other security men. I went over and talked to Risa a bit. She was worried and hopeful at the same time, and she shared these feelings. She told me she did not know how she would be able to get to sleep; she felt very agitated. I could sense how strongly she felt about the deprogramming, how much hope she placed in it. I felt pulled to express confidence in Curt and in the whole process. We said good-night and I went over to my “bed.”
The Second Day: Morning
Sandy and Ken alone. I had great difficulty sleeping that first night, in part because of my own excitement and in part because the basement was very musty and I have a mild allergy to mold in the air. I slept somewhat fitfully, waking up every half hour or so. I tried the couches, and slept for about one more hour. When I awoke, George was asleep in the couch across from me. I fell back asleep, but continued to awake repeatedly. Shortly after sunrise, I gave up and walked back upstairs. It was almost 7:00 a.m. I went into the den and spent the next hour organizing my notes, and putting number stickers on yesterday’s tapes. The Epsteins bid me hello and good-by in rapid succession as they came downstairs on their way out to their respective jobs.
I then went upstairs to check on everyone else. It was toward the end of Jim’s shift and he was seated at the top of the stairs, reading a Western novel. After whispering hello, Jim told me it had been a quiet, uneventful night. I asked him if I could get him anything downstairs, and he asked for coffee. I poured cups for us both and went back upstairs. Jim explained to me that the security men took turns, working in four-hour shifts, sitting guard on the second floor spot just outside Ken’s room. Sandy was sleeping on the floor of Ken’s room in his sleeping bag. Curt and Brian were sleeping in Beth’s room. Beth in turn slept in what used to be Daniel’s room. Beth’s bedroom was bigger, and thus was ceded to the deprogrammers. At 8:34 a.m. Ken woke up. Sandy must have been sleeping lightly, as he woke up immediately after Ken. I walked into the room. Ken was seated up on his bed, in his now “usual” spot, and he and Sandy were talking about whether senses are good or bad, and the irony of an overemphasis on “bad” sensation Sandy: “If I tell you, “don’t think about elephants,” what do you think of? … Cults have to get you into a position where you no longer look back or your past experience to make a judgment.” He continued, “My past experiences before I got involved with the movement came from an impure nature … [according to the cult] … so the only reference or framework. I have that is dependable is the framework from within the guru, the doctrine he gave. So I have to try to get everything lined up with that doctrine.” In contrast to the previous evening, Ken now seemed to relate to Sandy”., recounting of his own cult experiences. Ken began relating more of his own experience, concentrating on the role of guilt. Sandy underscored how that philosophy is different from the practice, using examples. Ken replied with personal examples of how he suppressed his doubts. Ken and Sandy talked at length.
Until now, Sandy had yielded to Curt’s expertise in critiquing ISKCON. This morning, however, his own knowledge of the Krishnas became more obvious as he related his experiences in his shepherding cult to some of what Ken had disclosed, as well as to stories from other former Krishnas. Ken appeared a bit uncomfortable now. Sandy asked him what was wrong. As it turned out Ken wanted to use the bathroom. Sandy said, “Of course, go ahead,” and Ken went to the bathroom next to his room, while Sandy waited and listened carefully right outside the door. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Ken had not gotten up to chant his rounds, and was not starting to do so now. Today, however, nobody would comment on this change in Ken’s behavior.
When Ken returned, he and Sandy continued talking. It was now 10:00 am., and with the exception of Jim, Sandy, Ken, and myself, everyone else remained asleep. Sandy began to confront Ken a little; he seemed to be trying to push an overt denouncement of Prabhupada. Ken would not give in so easily, and he met Sandy’s criticisms of the cuIt’s doctrines with a stance of “this is what Prabhupada says, now you disprove it.” The two entered into a long discussion of the historical accuracy of the Bible, and the talk remained very cordial and low-key. From biblical accuracy, Ken and Sandy veered off into a discussion of eclipses, and how the Krishnas try to explain this in view of their belief that the sun is closer to the earth than the moon. Ken had great difficulty understanding this, so Sandy had him use his fist to block the light from a light bulb in order to demonstrate the principle of eclipses. They discussed Krishna belief that the moon generates its own light, as opposed to reflecting the sun. I was surprised when Ken defended this strange belief. “Some people believe that (the sun is closer].” Sandy seemed less unsettled, and he responded with a question. “Yeah, but does that [belief] make it real?” “As real as the Christian concept of heaven and hell,” Ken answered, continuing his defense. Sandy ignored this counterattack, and returned to his argument that the moon, contrary to Krishna belief, is not inhabited. Sandy: “This is different, there is lots of proof. Men have walked on the moon.” Ken cited Krishna doctrine: the lunar landing was a hoax. filmed in the Arizona desert. Now Sandy’s voice grew loud. He lives in the Arizona desert and it does not at all resemble themoon’s surface. He also noted that the U.S. was not the only country with a space program–proof of space travel is continuously confirmed by other countries, too. In fact, Sandy then stated, other nations have a space program. Ken spontaneously added “Including [Hindu] India!” Sandy grew excited by Ken’s contributions “Right! Including India! They sent up some… communications satellites.. they sent up an astronaut, with the Russians.” But then, as fast as he had contributed to Sandy’s attack, Ken backtracked: the Indian space program might still be a hoax, he quickly added. After all, Indian gurus had not confirmed the Indian space program. Rather, the Indian space program might be an illusion concocted by Indian politicians, who while claiming to be Hindu, are just as corrupt as Western politicians. Sandy responded softly, but with vehemence. Truth in a court of law is established by admitting evidence. Now, Ken seemed to have an answer to all of Sandy’s criticisms, and he reminded Sandy that courts of law can be subject to jury tampering. Sandy did not retreat. Instead, he reminded Ken that there are scores if not hundred, of companies, organizations, and agencies that are out to fight and disprove what official government information says. “Somebody’s gonna find out if it’s a hoax,” he insisted.
Impressions. My own impression was that Ken may have regressed somewhat overnight He seemed a bit distant. Of Course, he had not gotten much sleep, and it seemed clear to me (and perhaps to Ken as well) that Curt and Greg were the “primary” deprogrammers, while Sandy was “secondary. Ken and Sandy also seemed to have more trouble relating to each other, or so it seemed to me. This impression was later confirmed in my analysis of conversational styles. Their backgrounds were so different. Finally, Ken did not seem to be responding directly to other people’s personal experiences. He usually reacted judgmentally, and he seemed incapable or unwilling to take on their perspective. On the other hand, he did relate indirectly to the experiences of others. He seemed occasionally to use other personal experiences as a starting point for expressing (and possibly reevaluating) his own experiences; that is, when told a story, he often responded with a story of his own. So there was some communication. Still, in general he argued a lot, and he often seemed to be making few solid connections. If he could see corruption in one temple, for example, he could not express how that corruption in that temple might be a symptom of a larger “disease.” It was as though that information did not generalize. It did not, to use a cybernetic and holographic metaphor, influence any other “circuits.” Ken was occasionally expressing his own doubts, however, and every now and then he seemed to have a spontaneous burst of deductive reasoning. When Sandy or Curt interpreted these doubts as Ken’s rational side rather than his demonic side, Ken verbally accepted this interpretation while on a deeper level he balked. He just seemed not to process what was being said. Ken’s own doubts seemed compartmentalized and unintegrated, although he seemed to feel positively about expressing them.
There were times when Ken seemed to be parroting, almost parodying, the standard Krishna line, as though he were doing his duty but could somehow see how absurd the lines were. At these times, he would make a Krishna statement but would chuckle. Perhaps by defending Krishna beliefs, Ken was testing them against reality. He seemed to be giving the deprogrammer,, ammunition. In this sense, Ken was very involved in the deprogramming process. The alternative, to me, was silence, which deprogrammers often referred to as “stonewalling” (when a deprogrammer is left to rattle off the cult’s beliefs, along with the refutations, in near-soliloquy). Clearly, this seemed less desirable than a cultist who was talking, defending, arguing – and involved.
Science. As the talk continued, Sandy steered Ken into another discussion of what constitutes science. He reiterated that the independent replication of discoveries was a central validating process. As Ken again cited ISKCON doctrine, Sandy laughed, and confronted Ken a bit. “Oh sure, it’s like I have the truth, and if you don’t believe me, just ask me.” His point: Ken cannot use Vedic scripture to prove the validity of Vedic scripture. The conversation turned to how reality is constructed, and how independently replicates observations serve as the foundation of reality. “That’s what science is,” Sandy repeated. To illustrate how theories are constructed and modified Sandy discussed the validation of the theory of gravity. We drop objects and observe them fall. Ken seemed interested now: “What about helium balloons?” Sandy used Ken’s question, along with airplanes, to illustrate how theories are broadened and modified, how they withstand the test of time and how theories eventually become facts, or “laws.” I found this discussion to be intellectual and unemotional. Brian later explained this strategy, however, when he talked to me about Ken’s processing style, and how he engaged in the logical fallacy of making everyone “prove the negative.” To illustrate, if John claims to Jack that the moon is made of green cheese, normal logic would place the burden on John to prove his unorthodox (and in this example spurious) belief. When forced to prove the negative, however, Jack’s burden is to prove that the moon is not made of green cheese. Moreover, if Jack proved his point yesterday, he must now prove it for today. If our definition of reality were dependent in this manner on proving every deviant belief to be false, independent consensual reality would be constantly challenged to defend itself, and would in effect cease to exist.
There were times when it seemed as though Ken was uncomfortable with my silent observation. On occasion, he seemed to want my active involvement; he would directly ask me questions. Whereas Ken’s solicitations of my involvement seemed to bother Curt, Sandy did not seem at all concerned. In this instance, Ken asked me “as a psychologist doing research about the scientific method, and I answered with a reworded definition that was essentially identical to the one offered by Sandy. As the discussion broadened to include the issue of how science interfaces with religion, Ken disclosed his (ISKCON’s) belief that all scientists are atheists. Therefore, science and the scientific method are not to be trusted.
Brian’s entrance. At 10:35 am., Brian entered the room and I left to get washed up from my restless night before. With Brian’s entrance, the conversation moved back onto Krishna practices, corruption, and contradiction. Ken seemed to pick up where he left off last night. “I can see where there’s been a lot of cheating, a lot of bogus stuff .. which has led me to doubt. His voice remained low, with an edge of what sounded, on tape, like shame and remorse. Sandy seemed to pick up on Ken’s feeling: “You see, doubt creates guilt if you’re not willing to consider that there may be some validity to the doubt. Rather than stay with Ken’s feeling, however, Sandy steered the conversation toward the topic of chanting, and how chanting has not led to spiritual perfection and cannot possibly lead to spiritual perfection. It is the wrong tool for an impossible task- “No matter how hard I try, I will not be able to change a tire with a screwdriver.” Chanting is central to Krishna philosophy and practice, and this frontal attack seemed to spark renewed defensiveness from Ken; he defended ISKCON vehemently, even while acknowledging “some” problems and discrepancies between what is said, preached, and done. Again, the amount of integration on Ken’s part still seemed limited. Sandy would not let Ken’s defense go unanswered. The reality of the situation is that there was a promise that if you (obeyed the gurus and chanted], then [spiritual perfection] will be accomplished…” Ken quickly responded.- “In time, gradually, in time. Sandy pushed still harder “Yeah, but how much time do they need? How many gurus have to fall? How much imperfection does one need to see before he stands back and says “there’s something wrong here!”?”
The conversation remained centered on the issue of whether doubts are valid indications of problems or of lack of faith. Sandy recounted the many former Krishnas who reported having had doubts while in ISKCON; Ken was not an aberration. Sandy and Brian’s general tone seemed both parental and yet listening. At about I 1:00 am., I returned to Ken’s bedroom. Ken and Brian were finishing a conversation, and I watched as Sandy listened and affirmed Ken, in what seemed to be a very client-centered stance. At one point, for example, Ken mentioned that he felt he didn’t have any individuality before ISKCON, as well as in ISKCON. Sandy, in reply, both mirrored and interpreted.- “The very thing you left [lack of individuality] turned out to be what you got” Ken then talked about the anguish and frustration of never being able to “achieve this perfection … What do I have to do to get it?” Sandy responded with humor, “You become a vegetable!” [everyone laughed] Returning to the issue of guilt-inducement (and perhaps sensing the risk Ken was taking by expressing some of his doubts), Sandy then pointed out that when doubts are experienced, the message in ISKCON (as in all cults) is “there’s nothing wrong with the doctrine, there’s something wrong with you … It always comes back on you … Ifs never the leaderships fault, or the doctrine’s fault, its always our fault.” Sandy became angry. “As much as I wanted the truth, as much as you wanted the truth, what was the reality of the situation? It’s on a dangle … they dangle that carrot [promised perfection- out in front of your face to keep you walking … [they want you to] keep chasing it, keep chasing it, keep chasing it. You’re continually trying to get that [perfection].” In a strange twisting of Sandy’s words (a “twisting” that would occur on numerous occasions throughout the deprogramming) Ken linked Sandy’s insight to one expressed by the founder of ISKCON: “That’swhat Prabhupada said about materialists” [i.e., the material world has you chasing after the unattainable, after nonsense]. Sandy, overtly missing Ken’s strange link but perhaps responding to it on an emotional level, seemed to grow impatient: “Yeah, well, test those realities, brother! Test those realities! Put those things to the test!” Ken then stated he agreed with Sandy and then in another interesting and unexpected statement seemed to predict the eventual successful outcome of the deprogramming. He became frightened and spontaneously asked not to be expected to sue ISKCON or be called to testify against ISKCON. At the time, I felt that Ken might have sensed the tide turning, but was fearful because he believed (in accordance with ISKCON propaganda about deprogramming) that ex-cultists must testify against the objects of their prior allegiance, like brainwashed POWs in the Korean War. Sandy seemed to interpret Ken’s statement somewhat differently, responding to a typical underlying fear. He reassured Ken that the issue of lawsuits and testifying was irrelevant to the task at hand. The goal was to get on with life. Sandy must have hit a responsive chord, because the talk then grew very subdued, and Ken seemed greatly calmed.
ISKCON, Nazism, and violence. With Ken calmed down, the discussion focused on the background of ISKCON. Brian paralleled ISKCON’s history to the rise of nazism When the Nazi Party gained power, it became even more evil and corrupt than it was while out of power. I at first thought Brian was taking a risk by drawing this dramatic comparison. Much to my surprise, Ken instead confirmed Brian’s statements by recalling the ISKCON founder’s words: “Prabhupada said the day will come … when the Hare Krishna movement is such a big influence in the world that you can walk up to somebody and say “do you believe in Krishna? and if the guy says ,no’ then “bang!”, you can blow the guy’s head off.” Ken’s revelation was accepted matter-of-factly. Additional parallels were discussed. The Nazi movement, when in power, should not have surprised anyone; their behavior was exactly as they themselves predicted when nobody took them seriously (e.g., concentration camps). The book Nineteen Eighty-four (Orwell, 1954) predicted Lifton’s (1961) concept of “loading the language” with such ironies as the Ministry of Peace being in charge of war, the Ministry of Truth being in charge of lying, and the Ministry of Love being in charge of terror. The point: We should take cults and other totalitarian movements seriously when they predict that wars and political terror will follow their ascent to power. Sandy: “Somewhere down the line they [cults] all say we’re the elite … we’re gonna wipe everyone else out.” Sandy’s statement seemed to confront Ken on a personal, individual level, and this was more than he could tolerate. He defended his beliefs and his behaviors by noting that ISKCON’s predictions of violence and genocide were not related to his “relationship with God.” But Sandy would not accept this rationalization and he confronted Ken’s apparent lack of integration. “Is your relationship with God superior to that of Prabhupada’s?… If so, maybe Prabhupada was mistaken [and] should be bowing down to you.”
Just then, at II:19 a.m., Greg Stern arrived. He had gone home the night before at about 1:00 am. Greg started off by asking Ken how he felt, how he had slept and if he had learned anything from the night before. Ken’s .regression” must have been very noticeable (and expected), because Greg quickly expressed this observation to Ken. When Ken acknowledged that he was having trouble remembering last night’s material, or discussions, Greg commented on how he had also had trouble keeping track of information from moment to moment and day to day during his own deprogramming. In this way, Greg did not confront Ken directly on his “regression,” yet delivered a subtle message in which Ken’s internal cognitions (in defense of ISKCON) were reframed as a “regression (as opposed to being considered a return to a viewpoint that had equal validity to the views of the deprogrammers, for example). Ken seemed to understand ” underlying message, and perhaps the way the message was suggested in an indirect way helped Ken to consider it without getting defensive or feeling guilty. His overt reaction clearly suggested that he identified with Greg’s self-disclosure.
The conversation now turned to Krishnas using guns and armaments. Ken argued that people would not object to a farmer having a shotgun to protect his farm. Sandy and Greg countered with the fact that the Krishnas have been found with grenade launchers and M-16 military rifles, hardly the average .self-defense” weapons. I noted that the conversation had quickly become dominated about equally by Ken and the deprogrammers, in contrast to most of the conversation the day before. Ken now seemed to be very active, although much of his speech was concerned with defending ISKCON. This increased level of activity would generally be sustained throughout the middle portion of the deprogramming, and I was able to quantify it in my analysis of the “snapping” period.
Much of Ken’s attitude toward ISKCON this late morning and early afternoon seemed to vacillate between acceptance of and even involvement in the deprogrammers’ criticisms, and defense of ISKCON. At times, Ken would talk clearly and cogently about some of the contradictions he had found, using terms like “I used to think like that.” Soon thereafter, however, he would again be strongly defending the ISKCON movement and doctrine. Throughout these vacillations, Ken did not show overt signs of emotional struggle or conflict Yet he seemed to be in great cognitive, if not emotional turmoil.
As the discussion of ISKCON’s arm caches continued, Greg remarked that the concept of a peaceful God just does not seem to be consistent with Krishna practice. Ken for the first time admitted that he had seen rifles in New York and New Jersey temples. Prior to this conversation, Ken remained silent when the topic of ISKCON armaments was brought up (and by his silence, he seemed to be denying their existence). Nonetheless, Ken again tried to justify the possession of guns, by asking what should be done when property is invaded. Sandy responded with mixed humor and anger: “[You] call the police! That’s what everyone else does.” Greg and Ken then talked about ex-Krishna vigilantes who have attacked ISKCON, sometimes with physical violence (e.g., Greg Bryant). Although Greg acknowledged the existence of a very small number of ex-Krishnas with violent tendencies, the underlying point was somehow not lost on Ken. One or two vigilante actions do not justify the vast ISKCON arms caches, and in fact these caches existed long before the “vigilante threat.” Ken finally admitted his doubts about the guns, and about the fact that these arms are not registered, as required by law: That’s a point I actually was quite embarrassed about. As soon as this was said, however, Ken returned to defending ISKCON, repeating that the guns were for defensive purposes only. Brian, who had been listening to the dialog between Greg and Ken, responded with a confrontation of ISKCON’s true intent. He noted that the reason ISKCON does not legally register their guns is because they cannot register automatic weapons, which are illegal for civilians to possess. Ken seemed surprised. “Automatic weapons are definitely illegal, huh?” Sandy quickly directed Ken to the logical conclusion, that in fact the ISKCON armaments are for offensive, not defensive, purposes: “It’s not just that they are illegal, it’s why they are illegal … That’s where the government draws the line … between self-defense and protection and aggression … [An M-16 is) an offensive weapon.” Moreover, isn’t it odd that a movement that talks so much about peace and the sanctity of life has so many guns, and that it would care more about the lives of animals than about people. Ken became subdued: “Well, that is pretty sad. I gotta agree with you. There’s no argument there.” Without either seeming to agree or disagree, Ken reported that the Krishnas “justify their use of weapons, even if obtained illegally, because it’s [the attacks on ISKCON] religious persecution.” Sandy seemed to press on: “Exactly!, It’s OK! Anything done in God’s name is just and moral.”
More progress. This time Ken did not retreat from his critical stance. He instead repeated that these were doubts he had had for a long time. Sandy repeated an earlier point of his, perhaps again in an attempt to prevent an onset of guilt that might interfere with Ken’s ability to accept fully the conclusion of the armaments discussion. “Well, the truth is, there are very few [Krishnas] who don’t have doubts. Most are just afraid to express [them].” Ken grew pensive, and then began to talk about his relationship to his guru, which was followed by a more general discussion of how cults are set up so that gurus or spiritual masters are seen as “God’s delegated authority, and to go against God’s delegated authority is sin.”
Twisting around a typical cultic question and demand to underscore his criticism, Sandy asked, “Is there anything that a devotee wouldn’t do that a spiritual master asked him to?” Ken gave the typical, required answer, but clearly as an extension of Sandy’s critique: “When a guru tells you to jump, you jump, he tells you to dance, you dance.” Sandy continued. “He says “jump”, you say “how high?”.’ “If a guru tells you something to do, you listen to what he says,” Ken replied. Sandy: “As if it were coming from God.” Ken: “Yeah.”
In my notes, I commented that the conversation seemed to remain equally dominated by deprogrammers and cultist. Sandy continued with his questioning: “Can a spiritual master make a mistake?” Ken: “I don’t think so.” Greg now jumped in, with force: “No! It says so right here [picks up an ISKCON book].” Sandy: “Did Prabhupada make a mistake when he picked the Council of 12 [gurus]?” The point here was that he clearly had picked corrupt gurus (e.g., Hansadutta, who had given devotees LSD and liberally used the drug himself). Sandy again provided the logical conclusion: “He made a mistake, so how can he be a pure devotee?”
At this point, Ken was clearly expressing his doubts, and he now seemed comfortable expressing the contradictions inherent to the ISKCON movement. Although he had not “regressed” or retreated to being as defensive as he had appeared earlier that morning, he now seemed to cling to his desire to chant the Hare Krishna mantra: “I was happier chanting Hare Krishna on my own, before I became a devotee,” he stated, sadly shaking his head. On the surface, Ken may have been vying to separate this centralmost ISKCON practice from the now-acknowledged corruption of the ISKCON movement, but the deprogrammers were steadfast in their belief that the Krishna chant was/is central to ISKCON’s technology of mind control, and would at the least feed into any ongoing guilt and ambivalence Ken might have about leaving the group. For the deprogramming to be a success, Ken would have to give up chanting as well as his devotee status.
Ken turned to revealing in greater detail how he first became a devotee. Ken now seemed to be talking more than half of the time. He talked of his recruitment in terms of entrapment. “At this point, the string was already knotted and I was being pulled toward the temple.” Sandy nodded as he heard these familiar words. That’s what we often hear “I never decided to join, I just wound up in it.” Ken: “Yeah, just like I never planned to go to Boston (to be initiated].” Ken’s attention shifted again. He asked Brian about what ISKCON told him regarding the sexual education of children in Sweden. Ken: “Is it true children are taught how to have sex?” This may have been one of the first times that Ken spontaneously asked a deprogrammer to validate or invalidate information about something not directly related to ISKCON in order to test it against reality. Toward noon, Ken seemed to be talking about 60 to 70% of the time.
The Second Day: Afternoon
At around 12:00 noon, Curt entered Ken’s room for the first time this second day. Again, there were preliminary greetings and questions about Ken’s needs: How is Ken feeling, is he hungry (stilll “no”), is there anything he needs to feel more comfortable?
At this point the Epsteins’ neighbor began to mow the lawn, which, I found out later, would make it completely impossible to understand large segments of the tapes over the next 2 hours. During this time, Greg, Curt, Brian, and Ken went over some very fine points in the Gita; they compared some of the Gita’s claims to known historical fact and common sense. Curt pointed out that Lord Krishna supposedly had the power to destroy entire cities with a thought, and elsewhere the Gita states that to engage in such destruction would be a form of saving souls. Yet if Krishna had both the power and the justification for ruling the world, why did he in fact not rule the world? Something, therefore must be false: Either the Gita is mistaken in claiming that destruction in the name of saving souls is justified, or Krishna did not really have the power the Gita claims he had. Either way, the Gita had less than the “complete” truth.
The idea of judging a religion “by its fruits” is a common deprogramming tactic, borrowed liberally from a Biblical admonition. The discussion became concerned with the living conditions in India. Ken initiated this train of thought by comparing ISKCON theology to Buddhism and other -religions. Curt then asked him about the “fruits” of the cultures in which these religions flourish, especially India, which is quite impoverished. Ken countered by arguing that Indians are more satisfied spiritually. How can this statement be proven (or disproven)? Curt did not rise to this challenge yet, but instead began discussing the revisionist-historical belief that the climate of the area may have been responsible for the rise of the passive Hindu and Buddhist religions, which may have in turn fed into these cultures’ lack of progress. Curt, “Look at the end result of these religions. “India is a good example of what we’d have to look forward to” if ISKCON took over. Curt’s argument seemed centered around the following: according to the Krishnas, India is the most spiritually advanced country in the world (universe). The Krishnas claim that spiritual purity and advancement will result in physical health. Yet, as Curt noted, a high degree of spirituality certainly does not seem to be correlated with healthy bodies and a long life in India, which has one of the highest infant mortality rates and shortest life expectancies in the world. ISKCON, of course, says that chanting Hare Krishna and being spiritual will assure physical health. Curt’s reliance on logical thinking was clearly in evidence. Ken, however, continued to defend and support India and Hinduism in general.
Ken’s Attention. Curt seemed to think it would be helpful for Ken to hear an example of someone who defected from a totalistic system, so he began to read a testimonial from a Russian defector. Curt read, and summarized what he considered the most important points. “He’s starting to question. Instead of always bringing it back on himself, which the philosophy [Communism] demands. He’s starting to question, “well maybe there’s something wrong with the system.” “ In Russia [as in ISKCON, by implication], Curt noted, .you’re not supposed to openly question … because the State is held as infallible.” Ken then related how, if he lived in Russia, he probably would wind up exiled to Siberia. Curt continued reading the testimonial, stopping periodically to note how Russian totalism is both similar and dissimilar from ISKCON. While listening to the defector’s story, Ken was tangentially reminded of an ex-Krishna’s testimonial and he began to ask critical questions about him. After briefly defending the ex-Krishna, Curt reminded Ken that they had to get more focused. The conversation had tended to move from topic to topic, which seemed to result in Ken’s flitting from one thought to another. Ken remarked that he was not “staying put” (on topic) because he was interested in what the deprogrammers have to say. “But,” Curt responded, half apologetically and with humor, “we’re cramping your style.” Ken agreed, adding that “flitting” tended to be his style. “You take me for what it (sic] is, you know.” Curt: “There’s no tricks up our sleeves, man … nobody’s bullshitting you, I’m just telling you what you’re doing.”
Curt’s comment, and Ken’s reply, were fascinating to me, as they both addressed my interest in attentional motility. Furthermore, I had predicted that just the opposite would happen: that motility would increase, not decrease, with time.
Curt noted to Ken that much of what they had been talking about he has experienced himself or heard before from others. The talk then moved on briefly to some of the unethical deprogrammings (e.g., reports of sex) Ken had heard about and commented on previously. Curt claimed that his own policy was to never have sex with deprogrammees “during or after the deprogramming or 6 months down the road.” At this point I noted another pattern: when Curt talked, Ken mostly listened, and now Curt and the other deprogrammers seemed to account for over half of the conversation. Although Ken was not as verbally active at this time, when he did talk, I noticed what seemed to be an increase in the amount of self-disclosure. As Ken self-disclosed, Greg seemed to be conveying an attitude of close and intense listening, responding with what appeared to be a high degree of empathy.
The conversation returned again to justifying the need for security measures. Deprogrammers have to take precautions, Curt noted, because “nobody ever announces they are going to escape.” In making this statement, there seemed to be no trace of anger or condemnation in Curt’s voice, which in turn seemed to prompt Ken to confess that despite his promise to the contrary, he too had made some plans to escape. To my surprise, everyone laughed good- naturedly at this disclosure, perhaps because it had confirmed their initial suspicions. The laughter also seemed to relieve tension. The deprogramming was, to some degree, a cat-and-mouse game and now everyone could acknowledge it. When the laughter died down, however, the talk grew more serious again, as it returned to the Krishna gun caches. Curt read an official ISKCON statement that “it is against the official policy of the ISKCON to keep any stockpiles of guns or any munitions”. Ken had trouble hearing this statement and made Curt read the policy statement four times. Curt did not stop with this statement, however. As was his style, when he saw a “chink” in Ken’s cognitive armor, he overwhelmed it with information. He continued with several other news reports of gun possession, and then told Ken about Dara Coy’s own experience.
Impressions. I have discovered that there comes a point in many deprogrammings when relatively secret internal documents and books are shared and examined. The timing is important because the cultist must be open to the information, and yet unperturbed at this point by how the material was obtained (generally, it is spirited away from the cults leadership). Thus, much of this material is “saved” for the right time. Most but not all veteran Krishnas have heard this material but they see it and/or understand it only through Krishna eyes, Curt told me. In a deprogramming, Curt waits until the outer “armor shell” has been pierced, and then he reintroduces this material to the deprogrammee, hoping that the latter will be able to look at the material from a fresher perspective.
One such example: the Krishna book “Sell Books, Sell Books, Sell Books.” There are only about 1,000 copies of this book, and it is impossible to obtain it outside the upper echelons of the movement. Ken and Curt examined it with great care. In it, a Krishna guru spells out just how important it is to “sell” books in order to raise money for ISKCON. He spells out in writing how to engage in transcendental trickery,” how raising money is all-important, and how ISKCON goals justify illegal activities. Next, everyone read carefully Prabhupada’s own writings that predicted how ISKCON would use guns if necessary to kill off those they could not convert. In this manner, the discussion centered once again on pointing out the contradictions between reality and what is promised by ISKCON.
Introducing Lifton: Process, confrontation and push. If there is a ” standard” deprogramming sequence, the first part would be summarized in this manner-. (a) establish rapport (b) illuminate discrepancies between cult persona/doctrine and cult reality/practice; (c) cultist becomes puzzled by how she was “conned” into denying discrepancies; (d) explain the denial of discrepancies and acceptance of “cons” as the inevitable result of brainwashing; (e) formal declaration of exiting (“the snap”). In Ken’s deprogramming, the discrepancies were being accepted by the cultist, and now he began to wonder aloud how, if so much of the Krishna doctrine was false, he could have come to believe so strongly in it. Curt took this question as his cue to introduce Lifton’s (1961) theory of thought reform or “brainwashing” (again, I was told later that the presentation of this material must be properly “timed”).
The neighbor continued to mow his lawn. I grew frustrated and impatient with this interference. Brian and Greg left the room for lunch at about 1:30, which left Curt, Sandy, and Ken (and me) in the room. On the way out, Greg asked Ken what he wanted to eat, and he returned shortly with some fruit and nuts, which Ken ate very spartanly, as he had done the previous night.
Curt began to go over Chapter 22 from Lifton’s (1961) work on thought reform, and although Ken seemed to be trying to listen, he also seemed to be having trouble understanding the material. It took only a few minutes for Curt to recognize Ken’s difficulty. He suggested that Ken try to get some more sleep, and Ken said, yes, he would like to nap. I noted to myself that Ken still seemed to be avoiding chanting his rounds. But Ken remained driven by his many questions, and so the deprogramming continued. Ken began to ask questions about the process of deprogramming itself. It was now 1:39 p.m. Curt was explaining again how long the deprogramming would last. Curt was still wondering if Ken was trying to con them. I listened in disbelief as Curt raised this concern. Yet he mentioned it with complete nonchalance as though he had rehearsed and repeated this line hundreds of times before, and it now carried no personally insulting connotations. Reminding Curt that he always had doubts about ISKCON,
Ken repeated his hope that the deprogramming would be over soon. Despite the ‘”progress” Ken had demonstrated, Curt remained skeptical even of Ken’s “doubts”: “I have to tell you this, though, and don’t take it personally. But I’m sitting back thinking “this is all coming out very spontaneous and everything else” but at the same time, me being in the position that I’m in, I’m always sitting back watching for somebody bullshitting. Because I’ve been conned by the best of them or tried to be conned by the best of them. And I don’t want that to take away from what you’ve been sharing, but in the back of my mind that possibility’s there and I have to look for it” For Curt, Ken may have opened up and agreed too readily with too much of what they were saying, and he never stopped wondering if Ken was trying to “con” him. Ken asked Curt what he meant by “B-Sing.” Curt replied that he was referring to not being honest about what Ken was feeling or experiencing; he reminded Ken that when the deprogramming first started, the only thing he wanted was for Ken “to deal with this information honestly … to have an honest dialogue.” Curt then related stories about other deprogrammees who had attempted to con him. “People have become very expert at lying.” To this, Sandy added: “They also give you training in lying.” Ken looked troubled. Curt explained his intent: “I’m not [bringing this up] because I’m interested in catching you lying. I’m interested in you as one person to another .. I want you to get the full benefit of this without you in the back of your mind negating all of it.” Seeing that his words were not causing agitation in Ken, Curt backed off a bit: “I don’t think you are…” As if to gain Ken’s sympathy, Curt then went on to explain further why he was so suspicious: “And I don’t like to be the heavy, but somebody’s got to be in that position.”
Ken hesitated, then backed off his own impatience by asking if the deprogramming might be over, after 6 days. I was surprised that Curt did not challenge Ken on why he picked this number. (Did Ken still hope to go to Puerto Rico?) Apparently, however, Curt now felt reassured of Ken’s sincerity. So he answered Ken, “Six days is an entirely reasonable period of time,” but if Ken is conning him, then they will have to start all over again, and on the whole, he will take as long as necessary. Curt once again tried to soothe Ken: “I always want to believe the person … but we have been talking about a mentality that has been developed in the Krishna organization” that makes lying and other actions justified. “The will to believe is very intense.” Ken repeated his desire to at least get out of the house for a brief time. Curt responded with empathy: “I can understand that, everyone gets a little cabin fever. We don’t have to stay inside this room” Then Curt told Ken that they would go downstairs to watch a video, and might even go outside a bit tomorrow. But Curt demanded more trust: “First we have to develop some type of feeling for you … I’m laying all my cards on the table … I won’t bullshit you, I’ll tell you [if and when I do or do not trust you).” Curt then went on to state that he was now beginning to like Ken. “But I’ve also … been taken” [by people I have liked]. It’s been a long, long time since I have been [taken] and I’d like to keep that track record” intact. “Don’t take it personally, Ken … It’s just the kind of thing that happens [referring to the ability to con] to people who have been through indoctrination. And yeah, I take a lot of pride in the fact that, hey, we need to be here, for your sake. Fact is, when [we are finished] whether you either leave [ISKCOM or go back, my life goes on. And I’m going to do OK. But I know if you walk out of here … half-way through this, ifs going to be … difficult for you. You’ll have a lot more difficulty with life than necessary.” Curt must have seemed sincere to Ken, as he replied with what seemed and sounded like an honest appraisal of his current stand on continuing with ISKCON: “I’m not sure.” Curt: “If you’re on the fence, and I’m not even talking about the Krishna organization… there’s going to be a lot of fear … there will be moments when you (float]. A lot of these issues will come up … these are all things we need to deal with… I’m not going to beat you over the head until you see things my way … I’m not going to baby-sit you for the next several months.” Curt then went on to explain that he wanted to “set [Ken] off in the right direction;” he would get him in touch with other sources of support for leaving. Ken seemed genuinely thankful. “I appreciate that.”
Emotion and the push: An analysis. This brief but intense conversation seemed to have the affective ups and downs, twists and turns, of an emotional roller coaster. Curt did not appear to be purposely manipulative, yet the underlying message to Ken, now that Ken appeared to be concerned with Curt’s opinion of him seemed to be: “Try harder, really work at breaking your ISKCON bonds, and I will accept you.” And the result of this conversation seemed to be increased compliance on Ken’s part.
On an overt level if Ken took personal offense, he certainly did not show it in any way I could detect Curt seemed very, very invested in Ken at this point in bringing up the issue of possibly conning the deprogrammers, Curt certainly appeared vulnerable and open. He seemed to be leveling with Ken, yet not in a punitive or condescending way. And Ken seemed to respond to the emotional as well as the intellectual content of Curt’s message. He replied that he did not feel put down by the deprogrammers, although he often felt put down by his fellow Krishnas. I noted to myself that his mother had told us that Ken’s father (Risa and Ken’s father are divorced) tended to put Ken down a lot – that the elder often called his son a “dummy.”
The mood between deprogrammer and cultist had by this point become intensely personal, and Curt began to share, in greater detail, some of his own experiences leaving a totalistic drug rehab center. “The last thing I want to do is…rip the rug out from under you and then say “now you’re on your own.” … Maybe we can become friends.” Curt described how he had gotten close to and remained in touch and even socialized with many of his former deprogrammees, including Greg Stern. Curt: “I’m not gonna just sit here and say I’m gonna be your friend”… [deprogramming means sharing yourself] as you share information.”
I found this exchange fascinating. Curt may have been trying to enhance Ken’s transference as a “reward” for Ken’s “good behavior.” Or the transference may have deepened as Ken’s doubts grew and developed, and as personal information was concurrently revealed. Curt also seemed to be using the deepening relationship as his justification for wanting Ken to stay as long as necessary, on a voluntary basis.
The conversation now returned to Lifton. After some discussion, Curt realized that Ken was having some difficulty concentrating. He reminded Ken that he should get some more sleep. Ken agreed. He thanked Curt, Curt left the room and by 1:57 p.m., Ken had fallen asleep. He slept until 5:07 p.m. that afternoon. I left the room along with Curt, and went downstairs to make some notes and relax a bit. Curt and Sandy left shortly thereafter to run some errands.
After Ken’s nap. Ken awoke from his nap sounding refreshed and even vibrant. Greg entered the room, and he and Ken began talking about the former’s first days as an ISKCON initiate. Ken digressed briefly, talking about Chuck Norris’s Martial Arts lifestyle. The conversation was low-key and personal. As the two compared stories about temple life (Ken even confirmed some rumors Greg had heard), Bobbi entered the room with some vegetables in tomato sauce. Ken had begun to eat when I came in. Greg continued to share anecdotes from his own experiences.
Curt then brought in a testimonial tape from a former Krishna, “John.” John had a British accent, and as Curt set up the tape, Greg clowned around with an excellent imitation of John Lennon. At this point I noted that Ken and the deprogrammers seemed to be participating in the conversation about equally. Ken then talked about his impressions of the founder of transcendental meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Greg replied with some of the recent allegations and controversies surrounding the Maharishi. The pattern of following a digression with a redirection of Ken’s attention back onto ISKCON had by now been firmly established. After briefly discussing the Mahesh Yogi’s transgressions, Greg refocused the conversation by tying the Maharishi’s contradictions to those of ISKCON’s founder. He related Hansadutta’s stories of Prabhupada’s fits of anger, even though Prabhupada always preached against anger. Greg then described an encounter with Prabhupada in which Prabhupada demonstrated that he knew nothing about the young devotee: “He didn’t even know my name.” Yet ISKCON philosophy states the pure devotee (Prabhupada) knows everything. As Greg and Ken talked, Curt continued to work on setting up the tape. Although Ken seemed to be thinking and considering, he still clung to his desire to remain a devotee, stating that he would no longer attend a Krishna temple or socialize with the Krishnas, but that he still believed in the validity of the philosophy and would practice Hare Krishna theology independently, on his own.
At this point, Curt called everyone’s attention to the fact that the tape was finally ready, and he began to play it. The tape proved to be a recitation of a long list of ISKCON philosophical fallacies. First John assailed ISKCON’s negative view of democracy (which, according to the Krishnas, is “mob rule”). John then talked about ISKCON’s astronomy, which has numerous fallacies. The sun, for example, is said to be only 18,000 miles away while the moon is over 1 million miles away; eclipses, then, are caused by spirit planets blocking out the sun. ISKCON also claims that it is impossible to get past the atmosphere and therefore the space program is a sham. I found it difficult to comprehend the amount of distortion that would be necessary to accept these beliefs as fact, and I wondered aloud about how ISKCON explained satellite TV and weather reports, phone links, the space shuttle, etc. Due to his isolation in ISKCON, Ken knew nothing about the shuttle. We then returned to the tape as John described how ISKCON preached that a nuclear war was inevitable, and that following this war, ISKCON would take over and kill anyone not chanting Hare Krishna.
As Curt played the tape, he often stopped it to underscore or comment on John’s remarks. Ken was amazed, because he had heard the same stories (e.g., about Krishnas surviving nuclear explosions, or killing non-Krishnas), and this shared experience seemed to greatly underscore the validity of John’s criticisms. Discussion then moved to Prabhupada’s comments on Hitler (that Hitler was bad only because he failed). At this point Sandy and Brian came back upstairs and rejoined the conversation. After listening briefly, they compared the growth of ISKCON to the historical course of Nazism and Communism. Curt then returned to John’s testimony. John was now delineating guru Jayatirtha’s inappropriate behavior: his experimentation with LSD, and his sexual exploits.
Self-disclosures and laughter. John’s criticisms of Jayatirtha made Ken grimace. The direct criticism of a guru chipped away at Ken’s own suppressed conflicts with his guru or spiritual master. It secretly angered Ken when his guru would reply to statements implying criticism or discontent with “I’m a disciple of Prabhupada. I am your spiritual superior. You should not speak to me like this.” Ken talked about how he hated his guru’s argument for not dealing with “negativity.” He noted with distaste how Krishna doctrine states that when a devotee has a conflict with his spiritual superior, the devotee is supposed to take the blame, feel guilty, and ask for forgiveness. Ken recalled how “going to the beach myself was so pleasurable for him, and how ISKCON constantly criticized him for actually enjoying an activity about which he was supposed to feel guilty. With these statements, Ken seemed to reach a new depth in his reevaluation of his experiences in ISKCON. These comments constituted considerable self- disclosure for a devotee. Greg seemed to be listening intensely, while Curt occasionally interjected comments on how Ken’s statements were illustrative of totalism. Ken seemed to be relating a lot of suppressed feelings and conflicts at this point, and in retrospect this conversation seemed to predict the “snap” that would follow shortly.
Greg responded to Ken’s self-disclosures with more about his own similar experiences. He noted that he was considered an especially good devotee, with a reputation for working hard, yet he would return to the temple each day feeling anguished. Then he would spot a devotee who did little or no work “for Krishna” that day, yet seemed happier. Greg would wonder just who had attained spiritual bliss. Again using walks along the beach as an example, Ken commented on how he generally felt most at peace “on the days I was most in maya,” when he was violating ISKCON miles. Greg seemed to take this admission as a sign that it was time to ask a most difficult question: Did Ken keep his celibacy vows? Hesitantly, Ken admitted that after 6 months, he masturbated. The difficulty Ken had with this admission was evident in his strained voice and his downward stare. Interestingly, the deprogrammers took Ken’s admission lightly, perhaps worried that allowing Ken to stay with intense affect might cause a resurgence of his Krishna defense mechanism. They reassured him, explaining wet dreams to him in a factual yet jolting way. “It [sperm] comes out of your ears, eventually!” Spontaneous jokes related to masturbation and wet dreams continued briefly, which did in fact seem to lift a considerable amount of tension. Ken noted that when he did masturbate after 6 months, his ejaculate looked strange (“It [looked] coagulated.”), just as ISKCON said it would. Sandy replied that it probably looked strange because Ken felt so guilty. Ken agreed: “And also because it had been so long since I released it.” Curt concurred: “Oh hell yeah, man, you’re gonna blow out the side of a building!” Lots of laughter followed, and still laughing a little, Ken answered Curt. “When I finally did fall down [i.e., masturbated] after all that time, after all that build-up, it felt pretty good!” Greg validated Ken’s feeling: “you bet!” The need to use humor to circumvent Ken’s defenses was never so obvious as when, following the laughter, Ken suddenly became embarrassed, commenting anxiously that “this is all down on tape.” The deprogrammers seemed about to remind him they can shut off the tape when Ken noted, “It’s all right, it’s all human.”
Second day: Evening
Challenge. The talk now became serious again, as Sandy reminded Ken that wet dreams are “a natural bodily function.” Ken: “Yeah, it’s instinct” Curt picked up the subtle, underlying doctrinaire thinking: “No, not instinct, because [in ISKCONI that has a negative connotation. It’s a natural bodily function, which means to go against that is to go against nature.” Brian challenged the ISKCON view that sex is only for procreation. Why are humans not subject to “heat” cycles during ovulation, and why do sterile people still have a sex drive? Curt, however, made a process comment- Did Ken realize that even when expressing his doubts and conflicts, he tended to express himself using Krishna terminology and concepts? Ken replied defensively, that he was doing this to question it [the philosophy]. Curt did not accept this explanation on face value, however. He then pushed the limits of Ken’s tolerance for anti-ISKCON statements by making his strongest statement of distaste yet “If that’s spirituality, then God help me, I hope I never attain it.” He further challenged Ken. “How has ISKCON benefited mankind?” Curt confronted Ken on the value of ISKCON’s book distributions, and then attacked the food distribution program (i.e., free feasts at temples) “which are for public relations purposes” only. Displaying an ISKCON graph depicting how fund-raising money is used, Curt attacked each line item one by one: vocational training (“There is none”), drug rehabilitation (“There are no drug rehab centers”), 65% of the money to book distribution, etc. “Where is the money that was used to build the Palace of Gold .. there is nothing here [that indicates] how much is invested in real estate, or businesses [restaurants]…” Curt then read a number of articles and internal memoranda [confidential material distributed only to temple presidents] that indicated the food distribution and other programs are used for “PR programs.” Ken was attentive, and he did not let the issues implied by Curt’s possession of secret memoranda slip by him: how was this confidential material obtained? (It was taken by former devotees.) Curt returned to the memoranda, which described how ISKCON distributed free food to the needy in Bengal. Following this widely publicized initial demonstration of charity (which did not cost ISKCON a cent as all the food had been donated to ISKCON to begin with), the Krishnas received thousands of dollars in donations to continue the food distribution, but this money was kept instead. Curt: “So ISKCON made money on the deal!” Ken seemed to agree with Curt’s criticism, and he reported similar incidents in which ISKCON used good public relations to cover up deceptions.
At this point, the deprogrammers returned to John’s tape and to the story of Jayatirtha. The tape was constantly interrupted. Ken was at this point relating a lot of his experiences, and the deprogramming seemed to be going fast. The bulk of John’s tape was devoted to how long the gurus knew about Jayatirtha’s corruption, yet refused to remove him because of his popularity (despite or perhaps because of the fact that he was so “fallen”). As John talked, Ken used what he knew to flesh out some of the latter’s story. The tape was stopped, and the deprogrammers along with Ken discussed how going to India is supposed to be a purifying experience, yet many Krishnas returned from these pilgrimages feeling and looking much worse physically. Curt then asked Ken if he had ever read any version of the Gita other than the official ISKCON version (“related by Prabhupada). Ken stated that he was aware that five other versions existed, but he had not read any of them. Curt looked intensely into Ken’s eyes: “Prabhupada’s [Bhagavad Gita] As It Is is all purport..that’s all it is, it’s all interpretation.” Curt then referred to a comparative study on the various versions of the Oita written by a former devotee. Curt quoted at length from the report’s author: “My purpose in writing this paper is to get you to look at Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita from another perspective, to show how Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita is different, and to get to the root of these inconsistencies.” Ken listened, fascinated, then questioned the background of the author. In a stroke of great fortune, the author turned out to be a former devotee with whom Ken had cursory familiarity; somehow, this fact made the author (and the author’s opinions) more real, more valid for Ken.
Revelation. Curt continued to read; Ken continued to listen. When Curt got to a section in which Prabhupada’s Gita states that the true master’s spiritual home “is not illuminated by the sun or moon, nor by electricity…” he stopped. Again looking intensely at Ken, Curt spoke softly: “…the word “electricity” did not exist in 400 B.C., nor did electricity [as a force known to mankind] itself exist at that time.” Curt had inadvertently triggered a long-suppressed doubt in Ken, and the cultist became almost manic in his response: “I thought about that! I … I often wondered about that myself. How could the saints have used that language … if the Gita’s written 5,000 years ago, how would they write about electricity? It didn’t exist!” This single confirmation of an apparently pivotal doubt, coming when it did, seemed to be a last straw for Ken. He now had proof that his spiritual master had taken liberties with the holy text upon which the entire Hare Krishna movement was based. Totalistic thought systems are based on the premise that their truth is the only truth, and the entire truth. It is an “all or nothing” mentality, with room for not even one error. Under the right circumstances, proof of even one such mistake can crumble the entire edifice of the belief system like tumbling dominoes.
Curt drove the point home: “You see, that’s Prabhupada puttin’ in ,electricity”.” Even Greg became incredulous (he had not heard of this inconsistency): “You’re kidding.” With a sarcastic sneer he added.- “There’s a Sanskrit word for “electricity”?” Curt reread the quote, as both Greg and Sandy broke up with laughter. Greg asked if any of the other versions of the Gita contained a Sanskrit word translated as “electricity;” they did not. Brian added that the word “Electricity” did not have a Sanskrit or Bengali counterpart Greg remained incredulous: “I can’t believe it! Nobody ever caught that before!” Ken, still reeling from the intellectual impact of the “electricity revelation,” then recalled another suppressed discrepancy: he had heard a story about Prabhupada’s conflict with his father. It seemed Prabhupada’s father had suggested that the guru take a homely wife in the hope that this would make his future vow of chastity an easier one to follow. Prabhupada balked at this notion, as he preferred a highly attractive woman for his wife, this from a spiritual master who later condemned feminine beauty and sensuality as demonic! Or, as Ken noted, ‘[if] Prabhupada’s a pure devotee, why was he so eager and ready to marry this … beautiful woman? It was her beauty [and not her “spirituality”] that attracted him!” As the deprogrammers laughed, Curt excitedly replied. “Hey, there you go! You’re thinking now, Jackson!” Ken’s smile stretched from ear to ear “It’s something, a thought that I never actually, I never confronted the questions in my mind because that would appear as a blasphemy… [I was caught in] a Catch 22, you know?”
Second Day: The Snap
Ken decides to leave ISKCON. It was at this point that Ken, in another gush of excited speech, made his first verbal declaration to leave ISKCON for good. “I’ve already made my decision. I’m finished with this…” But now he wanted more: “I’d like to just go on … for the purpose of study … I just want to see this [material], to study it..” Curt was thrilled “Oh, well yeah, I think you need to! We’ve got so much here!”
By now, what had started as an “involuntary” or “coerced” deprogramming had developed into a voluntary situation, in which Ken no longer fought that information or the individuals wielding it, but rather sought it out on his own. Ken was there because he wanted to be there, and would remain because he wanted to remain, because he wanted to consider the new information the deprogrammers had available.
As Ken began reading some of the material Curt had in his notebook, he talked sporadically about other gurus both he and Greg knew. Eventually the conversation returned to guru Jayatirtha, with Greg and Ken being the primary speakers. The level and quality of the self-disclosures appeared to be relatively high. As I listened to Ken, I was struck with how connected to his experiences he seemed at this juncture. Ken seemed to be reacting on a“gut” and not merely an intellectual level to contradictions and deceptions in ISKCON. Although the content of Ken’s speech (largely self-disclosures was not very different from other points in the deprogramming, the quality seemed changed. The difference seemed to be that he revealed himself with greater feeling. This heightened level of affect seemed to be the bridge connecting Ken’s thinking (his intellectual realization of ISKCOI, falsehoods) to his actual behavior (devotee religious practices). Meanwhile, I wondered what Ken would do further to “officially” repudiate ISKCON. The climax came in an unexpectedly low-key manner, and took me by surprise. Following some joking surrounding a devotee who was mistakenly given a Hindu name that translated to “stool,” Greg nonchalantly reminded Ken of his sika. “There’s something sticking out the back of your head.” With an equally nonchalant manner, Ken asked Greg: “You want to cut it oft?” “I would be honored,” the deprogrammer replied. It was only as Greg cut away at Ken’s sika that the reality of this event seemed to sink in. Ken’s speech became intense and pressed, and he sounded both nervous and excited.
Ken’s new distaste for ISKCON was strong enough to prompt him to declare that he would like to “go out” and “preach against ISKCON.” Greg noted that dinner time had been reached some time ago, and the topic of conversation shifted to a discussion of what to eat. While still unwilling to eat meat, Ken did agree to eat vegetarian spaghetti with onion and garlic sauce. Garlic is forbidden by ISKCON. Bobbi went downstairs with Ken’s dinner order.
As we waited for dinner, the discussion returned to Transcendental Meditation and its cult-like aspects. While discussing how chanting induces hypnosis, Ken again displayed his apparently renewed ability to think and associate quickly: “It’s not what you chant it’s the chanting itself” that was destructive. This realization seemed to demonstrate Ken’s renewed ability to extrapolate. As dinner was prepared downstairs, the deprogrammers and Ken began to discuss what life after leaving ISKCON might be like, with particular emphasis paid to inoculating against floating and feelings of loneliness.
Late dinner. Bobbi returned shortly with dinner, and soon all were filling their plates. The discussion continued as we ate. Ken talked about not wanting to get into another organized religion. The deprogrammers seemed to understand Ken’s consternation, reminding him that he would be free to make his own decision and that he should be patient with himself. Ken began reminiscing about New York City’s San Genaro festival. The discussion turned to a consideration of morals and ethics: what love entails, and the basis of ethical systems. I noticed how Ken began to demonstrate increased interest in his deprogrammers as people (a sign of increased identification?). He began to ask Curt some questions about his personal history. At one point Ken asked Curt what he considered himself to be, professionally. Curt responded. a “Reality-inducing therapist” or “re-evaluation counselor.” He had some objections to the term “exit counselor,” however, because “exit counselor implies that the [cultist) will exit.”
Curt’s statement troubled me; he was not being entirely honest. It was Greg, however, who spoke what I thought He challenged Curt. Of course, they did want the cultist to exit These comments led Curt, Greg, and Ken to discuss some of the processes involved in deprogramming. Ken seemed to be racing a bit. He commented on almost anything that was said. As he talked, Greg and Sandy pointed out some of the subtle Krishna-influenced terminology and verbal patterns he was using (e.g., using the phrase “like that”, which is used by a lot of Krishnas). The talk then turned to guilt, (when it is valid, when it is not) and how it is often used by cults as part of “mystical manipulation.” Sandy, who often seemed able to reduce complex concepts into easily-understood “down home” examples, defined good guilt as “[what you feel] when you feel guilty for sleeping with someone other than your wife.” Bad guilt, on the other hand, is “[what you feel] when you feel guilty for sleeping with your wife” (i.e., for having sex).
The conversation at this point seemed to have a real flow, a give-and-take, to it. Ken appeared to carry at least half of this conversation. Greg asked Ken how he felt. Ken replied, “I feel the same way I’ve been feeling for some time now. I just haven’t been able to come out [and admit it to myself … It feels like liberation.” Greg-. “That’s how I felt, too… [and ironically that feeling of liberation was what I was hankering for in ISKCON.” Ken then talked about how he had been waiting “for the Karmic reactions to happen,” for something bad, “for a leg to be broken,” during the deprogramming, “but nothing [bad] has happened to me … I feel relieved, [especially] compared to the suppression I felt in the ashram” The deprogrammers used the feeling of anxiety as one example of how ISKCON manipulates feelings, and in the process, Ken underwent some reinterpretation of his past feelings (e.g., when he felt anxious in ISKCON, it wasn’t due to “falling spiritually,” it was due to suppressing feelings). They discussed Ken’s feelings about other people while in ISKCON: “I wrote them all off .. [everyone] was just a karmi, a meat-eater.” Again, the intensity of these discussions was muted at times by liberal doses of humor.
Second Day: Late Evening
More laughter. As Ken got more involved with admitting the things he did not like as a Krishna (in a detailed fashion), Greg began to encourage him to talk about some of his plans for the immediate future. Ken continued to claim he wanted to go to Puerto Rico. Veering off the topic, he then talked about an incident that led to his being jaded for illegal fund-raising. I recalled how Ken had just yesterday insisted that he never did anything illegal in ISKCON! Ken and Greg then talked briefly about meditation again, and about a devotee who had been convicted of being a confidence man. This devotee is now famous for being an excellent ISKCON fundraiser. They talked about some of the stranger ISKCON practices, including chewing the tissue that a guru blows his nose in, and drinking the water a guru uses to rinse his mouth. Again, there was much laughter, and Greg contributed to the humor by telling a story about Prabhupada demanding a special toilet seat. By this point, Curt who had intended to play a tape from the cult “Students of Light,” had to give up on this idea due to all the cutting up that was going on.
With the conversation remaining on a fairly humorous level, Ken talked about doing sankirtan in the New York City subways, and the ways in which devotees tried to get around the doctrine. He described how some devotees would hunt for thrown out food to be brought back to the temple. One devotee (the one who had sold the book to Ken’s mother) went so far as to eat food off the floor of a subway train. Curt “And they call [non-Krishnas] animals!” Curt’s gibe met with much laughter. Ken seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, and even commented on this. “I’ll tell you, I’m having a better time now than I ever did as a Krishna.” He then went on to relate how it always seemed that the devotees most in demand for companionship (sankirtan etc.) were the ones who were least spiritually advanced. Sandy tried to answer the implied question. “That’s because they were the ones who were most human.” Curt and Ken discussed how Ken was able to maintain his humor, rebelliousness, and his sensibility even while a devotee. In so doing, Curt paid Ken a compliment: “That’s probably why you are in as good shape as you are.” On his part, however, Ken noted that it was difficult, that he always felt guilty.
Amidst a resurgence of laughter, there followed more discussion of the constant demand to chant in order not to question, in order to avoid the “mental platform” in order to avoid thinking. Ken then related another absurd ISKCON notion. He had read an explanation for why there were so many bird droppings on Prabhupada’s grave: The spiritual entities of the birds were paying homage to their “spiritual master.” Ken laughed uproariously then, almost sounding drunk. Were tears hidden in his laughter? Ken related between guffaws, “And the devotees would try to [read the patterns of the droppings] as though they were reading tea leaves, trying to get some esoteric meaning from them.” Curt replied, “that story is so exemplary of [cult mentality) … You think the guru is sooo spiritual: He can make profound stuff out of bird shit” Ken laughed. “And I thought “wow”, I must be pretty stupid and not spiritually advanced, because I couldn’t figure out what was [so meaningful] … I guess I wasn’t spiritually developed enough…” Sandy and Greg followed Ken fairly closely, laughing with him although not with the same emotional intensity. To me, it seemed as though Ken had now totally opened up, and was being overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of what had just happened (i.e., cutting his sika, etc.).
Questioning theology and authority. Most deprogrammers consider renunciation of the cult leader to be the “real” test of whether or not acultist has “snapped.” Ken clearly seemed to have passed this test. When everyone had finished laughing, the talk because subdued and serious as they discussed Prabhupada’s first years in the U.S., and ISKCON’s disdain for marriage and family. They are part of maya. Deprogrammers and deprogrammee then returned to debunking ISKCON theology. Ken and Sandy were now the primary talkers. Much or most of the talking was by Ken. Sandy listened and commented, and mostly seemed to mirror (empathize with) Ken. Brian reentered the conversation at this point, by telling stories that debunked parapsychology. He reminded Ken: “Things that we didn’t understand 100 years ago we understand now … most things have logical explanations.” Ken talked about some of his experiences that he found difficult to explain. It seemed like he wanted the deprogrammers to offer alternative/logical explanations. In response, Sandy talked about some of the manipulations performed by his cult leader, David Stone. He and Ken discussed the problems inherent when “God, the spokesman for God, and the words the spokesman write … are all seen as one and the same thing.” Brian added stories about the manipulation tactics practiced by some evangelists. The conversation continued to involve considerable self-disclosing. Ken recalled the conflict he felt when he heard that Prabhupada had said anyone claiming to be God is a “dog, a rascal and a deceiver.” This pronouncement contradicted a later statement that devotees should accept Prabhupada as “good as God.” In confirmation, Curt read an interview with Prabhupada in the Back to Godhead. The interviewer notes that Prabhupada has said he is not a god, yet devotees seem to treat him like a god. Prabhupada answered, “yes, that is their duty … [the spiritual master] should be respected as much as God.” The interviewer then questioned Prabhupada’s personal wealth. Prabhupada replied that his wealth “teaches the disciples how to treat the spiritual masters as good as God.” Ken seemed fascinated by these passages, which appeared in official ISKCON publications, and were therefore incontestably valid as official doctrine. Curt then explained that he had waited to show these passages to Ken because they are normally saved for the time when a Krishna vehemently denies that Prabhupada ever claimed to be like God. Fortunately, Ken was never that closed-minded. Ken related other contradictions in the doctrine he had noticed. The conversation seemed to remain equally divided between deprogrammer and deprogrammee.
It was getting late, and Curt was beginning to look tired. Ken, however, seemed wide awake, and eager for more information. Together with Curt, Ken browsed at will through the deprogrammers large loose leaf binder filled with ISKCON-related material. One by one, he picked out other contradictions. One Krishna piece, for example, stated that ISKCON was a “new religion,” unrelated to any present or past religion; another piece reminded devotee to be certain to present ISKCON as part of the Hindu religion, in order to further public acceptance. As Ken continued to read, Curt began to have difficulty hiding his own exhaustion, and in between yawns he warned Ken not to misinterpret his tiredness. He was thrilled that Ken was thinking again, and was so thirsty for more information. He complimented Ken for being so enthusiastic. “You have really been a joy. I mean that. It’s been a joy sitting here and talking with you.” Ken laughed, embarrassed. Curt gently admonished him: “It’s OK to take a compliment.” Curt then noted that most cults make members feel guilty about real compliments, and he and Ken talked about the difference between false and sincere compliments.
Returning to some of Curt’s other material, the conversation moved toward broader issues of obedience to authority (e.g., Milgram’s experiments, and the Holocaust). Curt explained that by discussing other totalistic movements Ken could get a framework “in which to fit your experiences.” The next several days would be spent reviewing material on other totalitarian movements. They talked about how Milgram’s experiments taught humility; people think they will not obey, then they do. Ken related how, years ago, he wanted to go on a pilgrimage and a friend asked him if he was going to become a Krishna. Ken replied, “Hell no, what do you think I am, crazy?” Ken seemed to be expressing more and more of his pre-cult memories and experiences, remembering what he thought of ISKCON prior to becoming involved. Keeping in mind the time (past midnight), Curt concentrated on giving Ken a “quick tour” through the loose leaf binder, so that he could read it himself, later. As they skimmed through the material, Ken would ask about something he didn’t understand while in the Krishnas. Curt would then show him where in the loose leaf he could find some material on that issue. The conversation still seemed to be about equally divided between deprogrammer and deprogrammee, although Ken occasionally appeared to dominate the conversation.
After about half an hour, Curt reminded Ken that “with all this information coming in, you need to rest. Ken nodded a cursory agreement, then digressed into talking about some of the strange behaviors he had witnessed among gurus. Ken asked about the owners of the house they were using. Curt told him that Daniel the Epsteins’ son, was deprogrammed by Curt the weekend before he was to be initiated. Ken wanted to know more, but Curt told him he would have to check with Daniel to make sure he approved releasing any more information. Changing the topic, Curt and Ken compared notes on some of the places they have both visited. The conversation was casual and friendly, and Ken seemed to be identifying with Curt. Turning his attention to one of the security men, Ken remarked.- “You’re pretty quiet there, Len. Not much to say. Just guarding the fortress, huh?” Len was the least experienced member of Curt’s team and with his jeans, boots, cowboy hat and wrangler-style handlebar moustache, he came across as the least intellectual and cosmopolitan of the men. Curt countered, “there’s too many people sticking their two cents’-worth in anyway.”
Ken and Risa. At this point, Ken’s mother entered the room. Sandy had sneaked down to invite her up. As she stood by the door, Ken and Curt talked about possibly stepping outside tomorrow. Curt was clearly feeling more trusting of Ken now: “I’m starting to feel real comfortable with the whole situation.” Ken asked his mother if she remembered when Ken brought that devotee home and she bought the book. He asked her what her impression of him was, and she confirmed his own once-suppressed belief that this guy was “wacko” and “wigged out.” He was the boy who had eaten off the floor of the subway. Ken often seemed to need to hear his new-found reality confirmed in this manner. Ken talked with his mother for a while, expressing some of his long-dormant doubts. He told heir “I’m convinced [I should leave], you know … I kind of convinced myself.” Ken noted then that he had been in conflict, that in part he had wanted to leave for some time, “but I couldn’t do it” [until now]. Risa Butler replied that she would look forward to seeing her son’s hair grow back.
As mother and son became reacquainted, Curt reached over and, perhaps out of respect for the intimate quality of ft reunion, turned off my tape recorder. Ken became silent and then tearful as he thanked his mother for having initiated the deprogramming. He talked about being deceived, about feeling guilty, and he apologized profusely. Risa hugged Ken, and accepted his comments and apologies with tears in her eyes as well. Regaining a sense of my presence during this intimate scene, I quietly made my exit. Back downstairs in the den, I busied myself cataloging tapes and writing notes. It was just after 1:00 am. I felt exhausted and emotionally drained. Curt and Sandy discussed plans to head for a nearby bar “to blow off a little.” Shortly thereafter, Risa came back downstairs. Ken had finally decided to go to sleep. Risa looked tired but extremely happy.
The memory of how uncomfortable my previous nights sleep had been was rekindled by my second attempt at sleep in the Epsteins’ basement, and at about 3:00 a.m., I got up and drove to my house. I slept the rest of the night, dreamless and spent, at home.
The Third Day: Morning
I arrived back at the Epstein house shortly after 8:30 a.m. It took some time for Len to open the door. He was the only deprogramming team member awake. The Epsteins were in the kitchen, finishing breakfast. We exchanged brief words. They were aware of the “breakthrough” last night, although they did not know the details. Len went back upstairs to his “post.” I offered to make some coffee and bring it up to him.
With everyone asleep, there was little for me to do. I took my coffee into the den, and reviewed and re-reviewed my notes. At around 9:30 a.m., Risa came upstairs. I offered her some coffee, and we talked as she cleaned up from the day before. Her excitement had almost kept her from sleeping last night. Just after 10:00 a.m., Len came downstairs to report that Ken was awake, and had gone into the bathroom to shower and shave. He had slept about seven and a half hours (the longest in years). Risa began cooking eggs for brunch. Next, Curt came downstairs, still looking somewhat unrested; I found out later that he and Sandy had stayed out past 3:00 am. Curt and Risa began talking about the progress Ken had made, and what topics would be covered over the next few days. Risa expressed her concern that Ken might be “faking it,” although her worry did not seem genuine. Curt told her he was certain that Ken was not “puttin’ me on.”
Ken, Greg, and Brian. At about 10:45, Ken reappeared, showered and shaved and looking well-rested and clean. He joined Curt and his mother in the kitchen, and Curt and Risa began to eat brunch. Ken declined brunch, saying he was not yet hungry. Ken was still very excited about the connections he was making, and he began to casually recount with amazement and relish, some detailed but now absurd aspects of ISKCON doctrine. I remained in the den, not willing to intrude on their conversation just yet, but I could hear Ken pointing out contradictions to Risa. In the background, I could hear typical kitchen noises: water running, silverware clinking, and dishes were being washed as Risa cleaned up from brunch. At 11:21 am., Greg arrived. Ken still had not eaten.
Rather than eat, Ken began to recount to Greg some additional contradictions he found in the theology. I discovered that he had remained up until 2:30 a.m, studying Curt’s notes and materials. Some of these thoughts were not new; while a member, Ken had suppressed them. Greg related that he had suppressed similar thoughts when he was in ISKCON. Ken then mentioned that he had some dreams last night. Curt, noting the import Ken appeared to be. assigning to his dreams, began to warn against interpreting dreams as though they were messages from the spiritual world telling him to go back to ISKCON. A general discussion of the interpretation of dreams ensued. In the background, Ken’s mother began whisking eggs (to make more scrambled eggs), and I went into the kitchen to see if I could help. As I took over some of the food preparation, Risa began to clean pots and pans. She listened to her son, yet her activity level made it clear that she could not devote undivided attention to him. She later told me that she had considerable difficulty listening to ISKCON philosophy, even when it was criticized; it upset her too much.
The conversation remained focused on cult issues. Brian came downstairs, and began comparing ISKCON doctrine with Moonist doctrine. I interrupted the conversation to ask if Ken would object to some of the deprogrammers eating bacon in front of him. Ken replied that it would not bother him, despite the fact that “bacon is full of chemicals.”
The conversation became focused on Ken’s pre-cult past, with Greg and Ken comparing high school memories, and led naturally to a discussion of how they got involved in ISKCON, and their family backgrounds. Greg noted that their “high schools were rivals…” The talk here was casual, and took place in the kitchen, with people drifting in and out of the conversation with Ken. Curt noted the anti-Krishna lyrics in “I Am the Walrus.” Greg then led several people into spontaneously singing this song. Curt broke in and asked who wanted to eat eggs. Most of the ongoing conversation with Ken was between Ken and Greg. Curt did most of the talking with Ken’s mother, about the cooking. The spontaneous singing of the Beatles song led Ken into a reverie as he related some of the fun he had in ISKCON, when he was allowed to sing and dance. Sandy subtly redirected Ken’s yearnings, by asking him about his taste in music prior to ISKCON. Ken liked folk and classical rock (“like Judy Collins, Renaissance”), and the Grateful Dead. Greg talked about some of the great music festivals and concerts of the early and mid Seventies. They also discussed the spiritual influences in some rock groups (e.g., Mahavishnu Orchestra). Ken’s mother drifted in and out of the conversation as she began to serve brunch. As everyone was seated, the talk grew more orderly and more clearly focused again on Ken. At this point, I noticed a distinct difference in the nature of the conversation. Previously, all the deprogrammers were focused on Ken, with occasional “lapses” into smaller, concurrent and independent conversations. Now, one or two people usually talked with Ken while other people talked among themselves, with occasional “lapses” into the prior “Ken-focused” mode. As the speakers split off into separate dyads and triads, the talk more closely resembled casual or .normal” conversation (Allen & Guy, 1974).
I busied myself with helping prepare food, and serving. Curt asked Ken about the last non-Krishna book he mad. it turned out that Ken had not read a non-Krishna book in years. Ken talked about how he felt guilty when he (often) thought about non-ISKCON material With Brian, they discussed how the Moonist indoctrination proms (with the Divine Principle) never left any time to check references to the Bible. In cults, logic is reversed. The normal process of logic is to gather information and then to come to a conclusion. [In cults] what happens is [they coerce you to] come to a conclusion first, and then, if you have the time, you can look up the information that will back up that conclusion.” Meanwhile, Moonist doctrine distorts history, and chanting and prayer is used to stop any doubts. Ken noted that in ISKCON, authorities give themselves the authority to appoint themselves the authority [i.e., as Sandy put it, “if you don’t believe me, just ask me”].
Ken, Greg, and Curt decided to eat poolside. As I walked past the den where Brian was sitting, he asked if I wanted his thoughts on the process of deprogramming. I agreed readily. In a few minutes, Curt came in and, overhearing Brian’s conversation, decided to contribute some of his own thoughts. About 45 minutes later, Ken and Greg returned; it had become somewhat windy and cold outside. Ken and Brian began talking generally about religious criticism, literature, and history (e.g., the history of monotheism in Egypt). As I listened, I thought about what Brian was doing in light of his thoughts on the deprogramming process. The goal here appeared to be to expose Ken to the idea that there is a great deal of breadth and depth in religious thought and history. The two engaged in a prolonged discussion of the birth of Christianity, and the “psychohistory” of some famous religious leaders, including Christ. At this point, and appearing somewhat frustrated, Ken expressed his wish to avoid all organized religion now. Sandy came into the conversation with a brief story about a Moonist who, while taking a break during her deprogramming, accidentally turned on Saturday Night Live and heard an anti-Moon skit. This sparked Ken’s renewed interest (in general, almost any discussion involving females grabbed his attention). The discussion quickly gravitated toward ISKCON views of women, sex, and “animal desires” in general. As in the past, talk about sex and impulses resulted in joking. But for Curt and Sandy, humor was usually a means to an end, or a temporary tension-breaker. Almost as quickly as the joking began, they returned to a more serious discussion of various religions’ views of intimacy, sex, and love.
New interpretations. As they talked, I noted what appeared to be another shift in the quality of Ken’s conversation; he seemed to be doing a lot of independent thinking now. He began to reinterpret detailed aspects of the ISKCON philosophy, while considering the possibility that the philosophy might have “negative” meaning. He began to wonder aloud about the possibility that translations of Hindu scripture might not always be accurate, while literal translations might not make sense. Brian pointed out, for example, that if one literally translated an Eskimo’s speech, the English-speaking listener would rapidly grow confused, as Eskimos always refer to themselves in the third person.
As a process, most of the conversation this morning and early afternoon seemed more overtly geared toward pending Ken with alternative hypotheses and explanations, and different perspectives on information he already seemed to possess. The theme that unified these discussions was not to “positively” persuade toward a theology, but rather to give additional reasons for negating Krishna theology.
From this standpoint, Ken and Brian discussed difficulties inherent in cross- cultural translations, and “noise” in communication systems in general. They talked about communication with children, and about the different kinds of relationships between parents and children. Moving away from communication and toward relationship issues, they then talked about what kinds of relationships are characterized by domination and control. The conversation remained fairly equally divided between deprogrammer(s) and deprogrammee. Greg then discussed the relationships of some gurus and devotees with their wives and other devotees, critiquing them for being based on disproportionate amounts of power. Greg talked about how, when a devotee gets physically ill it is because he is not spiritually advanced, but when Prabhupada had a toothache, it was because the devotees were not doing all they spiritually could. Sandy then asked how a Hindu country like India, with strict dictates regarding celibacy, has one third of the world’s population.
The deprogramming team again talked at length about ISKCON (and other religions’) myths about masturbation (e.g., ISKCON said you would die, or lose intelligence; Curt’s Catholic teachers said he would go blind). Laughing, Sandy noted to Ken, “What difference does all this make if [according to ISKCON] you’re not your body, anyway?” Ken agreed, laughing. Curt, Sandy, and Ken continued to talk at length about the various guilts and feelings Ken had about sex while in ISKCON. Ken was told to chant as a means of suppressing his sexual feelings. He recalled a time, when he spent all day cleaning the temple for a visit by Gurupada, and when Gurupada arrived, the guru sat down and closed his eyes to chant..and then promptly fell asleep.
Family relationships. All of a sudden, Curt stopped Ken’s train of thought. He asked Ken what all this information and what his new thoughts told him about the philosophy. He seemed to be trying to catch Ken off guard, to “test” him somehow. Ken responded, “It sucks.” Curt nodded his head and following through asked. “What are the biggest questions [about the philosophy) you have, or want to discuss?” Ken replied by stating his desire to know more about how the philosophy affected the child-rearing and the family system. Right now, he noted, he didn’t have much of an opinion on this topic. Curt asked him what he thought he was deprived of while in ISKCON. Ken quickly listed his primary deprivations: no heterosexual relationships, privacy, or independence. Sandy, recalling a question Ken had asked the day before, contrasted this with military service, which does allow the above. Ken then pointed out that the total subservience, lack of self- expression, and denigration of the Self were what he disliked most about ISKCON. At this point Curt asked Ken what were the things he missed most from his father. As Ken looked at him with surprise, Curt explained that Ken’s mother had previously revealed that Mr. Butler was extremely critical of Ken. Still surprised, Ken admitted this to be true. The conversation grew very subdued, and very serious. Ken noted with obvious disagreement that his father did not perceive himself to be very critical. Curt: “Yes, and there are many devotees and gurus who are very sincere” but that doesn’t help with the effect it has on the individual receiving the “good intentions” of sincere people. “What matters is how you receive it.” At first, I thought Curt was merely associating Ken’s relationship with his guru to that with his father for dramatic effect and the hope that this critique would be emotionally “imprinted” on Ken.
I was wrong. Curt asked Ken to consider what kind of damaging effect all this criticism may have had on him as a child. The underlying suggestion now seemed to be that Ken consider how his relationship with his father might have contributed to his vulnerability to a highly patriarchal, Eastern cult. Intent listening gave way to sudden admission: “I had a lousy childhood.” I was impressed by the lack of embarrassment in Ken’s voice; Curt’s timing seemed to be nearly perfect.
Curt revealed a little more of himself in return. “I had a drug problem and there was a reason behind that – I had an OK childhood, but from age 14 on, I was a mess.” He noted hopefully that his long history of trouble did not prevent him from changing. Remembering Ken’s previous question regarding child-rearing in ISKCON, Curt returned to the guru kula (group childcare and elementary education) system, noting how negatively all that criticism would affect the children.
Curt and Ken continued to discuss the formation of low self-esteem in children, and how a highly critical and denigrating environment creates poor self-esteem. Ken noted how, as a devotee, he envied Krishna children for being able to “get on a spiritual plane so early” in life. Ken seemed agitated here: he talked in a low-key voice, and he looked very absorbed and attentive yet “on edge.” I wondered if memories of his own background and unhappy childhood were affecting him. Ken veered the conversation away from this topic and back to some of his humorous experiences with other devotees and gurus. Curt responded to Ken’s hesitancy (resistance?), and brought the conversation back to child-raising. Ken asked him to estimate how much love, support and attention a child needs. Curt responded, “Just think of how much you need and double it.”
Ken’s interest in ISKCON child-rearing practices seemed to remind Curt of his videotape on guru kulas (an investigative report from Texas). He retrieved the videotape from a suitcase, but before playing the tape, he warned Ken about “floating.” “Now this may have some bit of an adverse effect on you watching this. What I mean by that is, a lot of times when somebody is at this stage of a deprogramming, seeing the devotees, hearing the chanting… may induce what is commonly referred to as a floating state. If that happens, don’t worry about it, we can talk about it.” As he set up the tape, Curt described the rationale behind the guru kulas, in the context of how the Krishnas manipulate people: They take an the problems in our society, which do exist and then they magnify them 10 times, and then they ascribe them to everybody. So everybody [outside of ISKCONI is unhappy.” Curt then became philosophical: “if life didn’t have its ups and downs (you wouldn’t appreciate the ups].” Ironically, Ken reminded Curt he was often unhappy in the Krishnas.
The third day: Afternoon
Guru kulas on videotape. Curt began the videotape. The documentary first outlined the history of the guru kulas, their physical plant and underlying philosophy. Then, a devotee stated to the interviewer that the movement would flourish and do good for America “if we are not criticized too much.” Curt paused the tape and reacted strongly: “Where do they come from asking not to be criticized? The President himself wouldn’t make that statement.” Curt continued to play the videotape. Krishna children at the guru kula were interviewed, and they spoke about how they were forbidden to write to their parents, how gifts that were sent to them were never received. Even the little children received two cold showers a day to drive away sexual desires. In the school, there were no outside learning materials (history books, newspapers, radios, etc.). The teachers were by state standards unqualified to teach. At one point, a Krishna teacher admitted that, although they do spank the children, they do not use sticks as had been claimed by several former devotees. But when the interviewer asked a number of children how they are hit, they all answered “with a stick.” The Krishnas also denied ever having a parasite problem. A state health official however, reported numerous cases of ringworm, head lice, and other body parasites. The announcer talked about how the children at the guru kula only saw their parents two or three times a year. Several children were then asked if they wanted to go bark to their mothers. They all said “no.” When they were asked why not, they all gave the same answer, “because the spiritual master told me not to.” Although their words were clearly rehearsed, their pained facial reactions were not.
At this point, the tape was stopped. Ken was fighting back tears. Curt asked Ken if he had ever visited a guru kula or seen this documentary before. Ken replied “no.” But, head hung low, he then added, “I relate to this.”
Despite Curt’s concern that he might “float,” Ken did not retreat back into “Krishna consciousness.” In fact, he became greatly upset by the obvious emotional pain and longing the Krishna children were experiencing. Whether or not Curt planned it, the connection for Ken was there. The guru kula videotape affected Ken deeply. With lowered voice and a very serious tone, Ken made his feelings clear- “I was psychologically abused.” I was unsure whether Ken was commenting on his experiences in ISKCON, or as an unhappy child. In the meanwhile, Curt drew Ken’s attention back to the fear in the children’s faces.
The videotape of the guru kula was continued. The differences in quality of education were pointed out. Since, according to ISKCON, girls are born with less native intelligence, they require less education. Ken continued to look somewhat distraught, but from a distance. He told Curt that watching this was upsetting him yet he wanted to see more. Curt replayed the interviews with the motherless children. Everyone listened quietly until Curt again stopped the tape in order to quote from Krishna doctrine: “We must develop detachment from all such illusions” (referring to parents). Curt then explained that ISKCON must remove all outside supports, so that the only place left for the devotee to turn is to ISKCON. Totalistic groups deprecate the “outside” world in order to make their own noxious milieu appear superior by comparison. He compared this process to the child who must belittle others to make himself feel “big.” Ken’s anger grew as Curt talked, and he stated with fervor that he wanted to fight against cults. Sandy settled him down, however. He told him there are ways to express one’s anti-cult sentiments (without becoming the “anti-cult cult”) but that everyone is an individual, and “the reality is, all you can do is reach out” to convince cultists and the general public of the dangers of cultism. Curt and Greg then began to set up a videotape of two local talk shows. The first one was an interview with Daniel Epstein, the second was the show on which I met Greg Stern. Greg told Ken what to watch out for in our show: the lay member who said she was Jewish when in fact she was a Krishna, and the fund-raising the Krishnas did in the studio lobby, in full view of the “No Soliciting” signs. They then began to talk about “rehab” (Unbound, the Iowa rehabilitation center for recently deprogrammed cultists). Curt explained rehab, and tried to answer Ken’s questions. He then stated very matter-of- factly that whether Ken went to rehab or not would be his choice. Greg, however, felt strongly about rehab. “Without it,” he said, “I don’t think I would have made a nice smooth transition back into society.” Curt continued with a fairly detailed description of rehab (the workshops offered, the books available), emphasizing the voluntary nature of Unbound. “They won’t take you if you don’t go voluntary. There are no guards looking over your shoulder.” Curt then noted that there were other options, not just formal rehab, and that they would eventually discuss those other options in greater detail. Curt not, for example, that a former Krishna whom Ken knew in the New York temple was now in school studying to be a nurse. She would be available for continued support. As Curt continued to give a detailed description of rehab and its programs, the conversation became decidedly lopsided (the deprogrammers were doing most of the talking) for the first time in many hours. They then returned to the videotape of Daniel.
Daniel and the mothers. In the videotape, the Krishna representative criticized Daniel for joining ISKCON “for the wrong reasons.” Greg, briefly interrupting the tape, recalled that a female devotee he had never met once told the press that he left because he could not maintain his vow of celibacy, a falsehood that really infuriated him. At this point, Daniel’s mother (Ellen Epstein) came home from work. She had never met Ken, and they exchanged greetings. Ken joked that the Epsteins’ “lovely home” was a far cry from “the wood cabin in the woods I was expecting.” Smiling, Ellen told Ken how, four years ago, she had promised Ken’s mother use of the Epstein house for Ken’s deprogramming. Ellen’s comment seemed to awe Ken. The amount of patience and preparation that went into his deprogramming (I remember thinking it was like saving for college tuition.) did not seem lost on Ken. Turning to his mother, he exclaimed: “Wow, you must have been saving your pennies!” Risa replied quickly: “You better believe it…That’s why I don’t have a color TV.” Still awed, Ken shook his head in disbelief. “That’s why you didn’t go on vacations, huh?” There was a brief pause as Ken considered this new information, and then he quickly quipped. “You should have just gone out and done sankirtan for a couple of days” (to raise enough funds for the deprogramming). Uproarious laughter flowed throughout the kitchen and den. Ken then returned to the tape, which played uninterrupted from this point to its end.
The videotape seemed more a time filler than a genuine informational tool. Ken appeared to be resting as he casually watched it, with his feet propped up on the coffee table. The reprieve was short-lived. Following the tape, the deprogrammers and Ken got into a discussion about who will eventually wind up taking over ISKCON now that Prabhupada is dead. In so doing, they likened ISKCON to the Mafia after a godfather has died. They discussed some of the stories about cults smuggling large amounts of drugs and money into and out of the country. At around this point, Daniel Epstein walked in, very unobtrusively, followed by Daniel’s younger brother Raymond shortly thereafter. By now, Ken had returned to talking at least 50% of the time, as he continued to relate more of his personal experiences. But the conversation had split into two, with Ken talking to Sandy and Daniel about sankirtan and fund-raising in general (in various organizations), while Greg talked to Curt, Risa, and me. Sandy listened as Ken continued to compare ISKCON to the Mafia. Daniel, who had primarily been listening, asked Ken and Sandy .where are you guys [in the deprogramming process]?” Ken explained that he had been talking about proselytizing for ISKCON, how he got involved, and how he became convinced that he should leave ISKCON. Also, Greg added, they had been and would continue talking about mind control. Curt tried to refocus the conversation. He kiddingly asked Greg where he wanted to go next [in the deprogramming], then quickly retracted the question. Curt did not want anyone to mistake his joke for a serious question: “I was only kidding, I was acting like Greg was in charge.” Greg belched loudly, going along with the charade: “It is true; what can I say?” Everyone laughed. But the talk broke down again into two separate, simultaneous conversations, with Ken continuing to talk exclusively with Daniel. Greg mentioned TV evangelists, and Ken was entreated to join this conversation. Mockingly, Ken wondered aloud if the “A.C.” in Prabhupada’s name stood for “Anti-Christ.” Curt was involved in setting up a videotape of Greg and me on the Maury Povich show. When this was done, Curt called for quiet.
Comment. I found the brief acknowledgement of the power struggle between Greg and Curt to be noteworthy. Throughout the deprogramming, power and control were underlying, covert issues. In part this conflict was quite ordinary. Power and control are issues all task-oriented groups must resolve, covertly or overtly (Cartwright and Zander, 1968). But deprogramming is a highly specialized small-group process. In this deprogramming, as with most there was a previously designated deprogramming “team leader” (Curt). But it is impossible to predict beforehand which deprogrammer will be most able to establish rapport with the cultist, or which deprogrammer will have the best “handle” on the situation. Moreover, degree of rapport can change, with interpersonal .closeness’ shifting between various dyads or triads. In this deprogramming, Greg and Ken seemed to be in close rapport, as had been expected and hoped for. But Curt was the most omnipresent deprogrammer, and this constancy in and of itself also seemed to have an impact on the amount of “bonding” between deprogrammer and deprogrammee. Curt exerted a relatively flexible yet ultimately unyielding control over Ken’s deprogramming. He could and did yield his control here and there, but it was always clearly temporary, and at Curt’s discretion. Remarks similar to the quip made in relation to Greg, typically couched in humor, appeared to serve as process markers and inhibitors. They de-energized covert shifts in control, and seemed to set the other deprogrammers “in their place” without forcing to the surface any underlying hostility.
Back on track. The conversation between deprogrammers and deprogrammee continued to move in various, unfocused directions. Ken and Sandy talked again about how cult leaders claim their own physical illnesses (and even deaths) are the result of taking into their “spiritual and physical beings” the sins or evils of others. Then they discussed ISKCON’s involvement with gun smuggling. With the inclusion of Daniel’s brother Raymond m the conversation, the talk digressed into a machismo-dominated discussion of a new, smaller, and more powerful Uzi machine gun. Meanwhile, on the videotape (in between the two talk shows), a comedy skit on psychics caught our attention and made everyone laugh again. The amount of joining around had definitely increased by the third day, causing even Ken to call attention to it “Come on, are we just here for fun or are we gonna deprogram me?..l want to get into the [material].” Curt, acting on Ken’s cue, more strongly exerted his dominance. Telling everyone to be quiet with merely a glance, he asked, “You want to get into deprogramming?” Ken replied in the affirmative. Curt half kiddingly, passed the deprogrammee. “You sure?” Ken grew assertive. “Yeah. I want to listen to my tape of Vishnupada defending Jayatirtha.” Following a brief discussion of where the tape was located [Ken was not sure he had it with him.), Curt asked Ken if he could borrow all the material Ken brought with him, except his journal. Curt’s collection of ISKCON material was somewhat legendary in deprogramming circles; he had collected it over the years from devotees he successfully deprogrammed. Ken, however, balked. “No… you’re not even my guru, man!” Everyone laughed, and even Curt had to reply, “You mean Ihaven’t been elevated to guru status yet?” Curt’s non-defensive response brought another round of laughter. Ken and Curt then began to go through Ken’s backpack, as Ken explained its contents. Ken happened upon his journal and he stopped to read some of his writing to Curt. The material was devotional to his guru and ISKCON, and I was surprised that Ken read it and laughed without sounding embarrassed. It seemed to me that Ken had already begun to compartmentalize and disown his Krishna recent past. Would this defensive posture facilitate or impede the process of eventual integration? Ken then offered to give Curt some of his personal papers, but Curt refused, instead recommending that Ken keep them so that he could refer to them in the future to gain further insight into his thinking while a devotee. Ken insisted, however, and they compromised. Ken would keep the papers and give Xerox copies to Curt. Ken then read more from his journal. Everyone focused on Ken with great interest in his writing, Ken expressed some of his doubts, but the intense guilt he felt was very evident and all his doubts were ascribed to maya. He repeatedly begged for purification, and reported feeling better after being purified by his guru. Nothing, however, seemed to help absolve Ken’s considerable guilt over his occasional “lusty” thoughts and sexual impulses.
Ken continued to read from his journal, reviewing his thinking of just a few days ago. He occasionally stopped to comment on his thinking to Curt and Sandy. Some of his doubts were years old. Nobody commented on this, but I was struck by how Ken could have had such strong doubts and remained in the movement for so long. After about 20 minutes, Curt asked Ken to wait until Dara came before reading the rest. Curt then asked Ken when he wanted to go to Iowa (for rehab). Ken replied either Saturday or Sunday. He was hesitant, however, because “there is so much I want to go over [here] and I don’t want to [leave prematurely.] Curt explained that the deprogramming situation was a sheltered one and they did not want him to get too caught up in it. It would soon be time to move on, even though Ken might be a little shaky. If Ken was not ready by Sunday, they would wait. Rather than return to the tape with the Maury Povich show on it, Curt then decided to switch to a different videotape, a documentary entitled “Thy Will Be Done,” that focused on the Jonestown People’s Temple massacre in particular and cults in general.
The Third Day: Evening
Video marathon. The third day of the deprogramming turned into a video marathon. Following “Thy Will Be Done,” the deprogramming moved briefly back upstairs, then returned to the den for “Ticket to Heaven,” an hour-and-a-half movie based on one ex-member’s experiences with the Unification Church. Ken and Sandy began talking about how Unification Church indoctrination compared with ISKCON methods. I found it excruciatingly difficult to remain silent and distant during both the movie and the discussion that followed, as “Ticket to Heaven” came so close to describing exactly my own experiences as a Unification Church trainee. By now I felt personally invested in Ken’s renewed freedom and I had difficulty containing my own excitement as an observer of this drama. When Ken finally asked questions about my experiences, I answered him emotionally and at length.
Late evening. The discussion inspired by “Ticket to Heaven” was moved into the kitchen when, shortly after 9:00 p.m., we were called for dinner.
Ken continued to eat somewhat spartanly, while his mother doted over him and encouraged him to eat as much as he wanted from the array of vegetarian and nonvegetarian foods on the table. As we ate, Ken continued to relate his personal experiences to those of the characters in “Ticket to Heaven.” To me, he seemed to be expressing at least as many differences as similarities. Dinner lasted 20 minutes. After dinner, we went back into the den to watch more videotapes, beginning with the “Hairy Kishkahs,” a comic sendup of ISKCON that appeared on the “Thicke of the Night late-night variety show. Ken only found this to be moderately interesting. I did not think it was all that funny myself. At around 11:00 p.m., Sandy ran his copy of “The Wave,” a critically acclaimed anti-fascist documentary I had heard about, but never viewed. I was genuinely excited about having the opportunity to see this tape, which was based on a true story about a social studies teacher who, as a lesson in “living history,” inspired a fascist youth movement called “the Wave” in his high school. The students were easily caught up in the movement and in fact a number of them were in reality emotionally damaged by this experience. The final scene took place at a large school rally in which the teacher revealed to hundreds of eagerly waiting, impassioned teenagers the identity, on newsreel, of the Wave’s “national leader: Adolf Hitler. Ken was moved by this documentary, much as he was by the earlier tape on the Texas guru kulas. “The Wave” was followed almost immediately at around midnight by a documentary on the rise of the Nazi SS. It seemed that the deprogrammers were trying to draw parallels between ISKCON and fascism. The point: violence is the inevitable outcome of totalitarianism. Following the SS film Sandy and Curt played a documentary entitled “Armies of the Right,” which chronicled the growth of paramilitary far-right organizations (e.g., the Minutemen) in Bible-belt America. Ken lustily devoured granola as he watched, apparently fascinated. Finally, shortly after 1:45 am., Sandy and Curt announced that everyone ought to get some sleep. This time even Ken was exhausted. Just before 2:00 a.m. Ken went upstairs to bed. Sandy and Curt discussed briefly which bars might be open, and they left shortly thereafter. I was asleep, on the couch in the den (along with Brian), by the time they returned.
The Fourth Day: Morning
I awoke at around 9:30 a.m. It was Friday, and the sun blazed in through the large glass windows. The Epsteins had already left for work. Raymond Epstein was in the kitchen with Sandy, talking. the smell of fresh coffee permeated the air. Brian was also awake, in a chair not far from the couch that served as my bed. A Ph.D. candidate in Communications, Brian was the most academically-oriented deprogrammer on Curt’s team and because I was genuinely interested in his familiarity with the philosophy of science and formal logic, I served as a welcome audience for his lengthy discourses. During lulls in the deprogramming, he often talked to me about books and articles he found illuminating and especially relevant to deprogramming.
When I appeared to be fully awake that morning, Brian immediately began talking to me about a book he had recently read, People in Quandaries, byWendell Johnson.
At about 10:45 am., Ken came downstairs. He asked if there were any videotapes that were funny or at least lighter than the three emotionally draining ones we viewed last night. Sandy pulled out one of Jerry Lewis’ later movies, “Cracking Up.” Shortly before noon, Greg Stern arrived. He sat down to watch the end of “Cracking Up.” Following the movie, Ken told Greg he was still interested in seeing the Maury Povich show in which Greg and I were interviewed. Forty-five minutes later, Brian’s wife Stephanie, pregnant with their first child, came in to visit. Stephanie, who was a former Moonist, became interested in my own experiences and activities, including my doctoral thesis. We talked for almost an hour.
Another video tape was put on, and as Ken watched “The Moore Report” I reflected in my notebook. The amount of information being fed to Ken seemed overwhelming to me. I wondered to myself about the similarities between this process and the “information overload” used by cults to manipulate attitude change. But the purpose seemed to be to give reference points and information in response to Ken’s constant questioning, and his ongoing success at putting new information together and relating it to his personal experiences. The deprogrammers were feeding Ken information as quickly as he could take it in. As for information overload, the only difference between this process and cult “brainwashing” seemed to be content rather than process: First, Ken seemed to possess a ravenous “information hunger.” Secondly, cults employ misinformation whereas the deprogrammers seemed to be using “truth.” Ken seemed to need a constant sounding board for his ideas and an ongoing source of validation as he made more and more connections.
Fourth Day: Afternoon
The discussion sparked by “The Moore Report”s” investigations of various cults lasted for almost two hours. Ken, who despite the deprogrammers’ best efforts had not as yet gotten much more sleep than he was used to in ISKCON, finally seemed to be growing tired. The deprogrammers suggested a nap, and this time Ken readily agreed.
Ken’s attempt to nap ultimately failed. He complained of being too restless. “My mind is racing… there’s just so much that I want to know.” The deprogrammers put the VCR back into action. We watched and discussed Greg Stern’s appearance, opposite ISKCON devotees and apologists, on several other talk shows. As the Krishnas sidestepped questions and occasionally lied, Ken actively pointed out what was going on, or what the Krishnas might have been thinking.
Ken challenges the deprogrammers. It was almost 5:30 p.m. At this point, Brian and Stephanie came back in, and began to discuss Rehab with Ken. Brian’s wife talked at length about her own experiences in Iowa. Throughout the deprogramming, Ken pointed out discrepancies between his own experiences and the experiences of other former devotees, as related by Greg or the other deprogrammers. Once they no longer believed Ken to be hiding his true feelings from them, the deprogrammers generally listened to Ken’s disagreements without defensively trying to talk him out of them. Now, apparently in response to the underlying suggestion that he attend Rehab, Ken began to criticize some of the anti-ISKCON material he had seen over the past few days. He noted that different temples have different standards, and that cold showers are not required in all the temples. As for himself, he had taken cold showers his first year as a devotee, but then when he “fell back into maya” he started taking warm showers. Ken still used ISKCON terms to describe some of his behaviors and experiences. I began wondering if Ken was “backsliding” here. Ken did almost all of the talking now; on the “other side” Brian’s wife was doing most of the conversing. In the middle of this sometimes heated debate, the phone rang, and I went out to the kitchen with Greg. Curt, Greg, and I discussed Ken’s progress as the debate in the den continued- Ken’s conversation was a mixture of self-disclosing and citing doctrine. Ken asked Stephanie about her experiences in the Unification Church. Stephanie described her experiences in Rehab in glowing terms, emphasizing the relaxed atmosphere and the degree of autonomy there.
The deprogrammers respond. As Ken showed increasing interest in the Moonist doctrine and how it compared with ISKCON’s theology, Brian began to note some of the differences in the two cults’ views of women. Although both denigrate women, in the Moonists, women can be aggressive and can be elevated within their own ranks until they have a lot of power. Theologically, this is because the “spiritual family” concept in Moon thought is strong, and the pure mother has an important, if subservient, role within the family. In ISKCON, women have only a subservient role. Their status is even more inferior than that of Moonist women. At this point, Sandy reentered the conversation. Curt and Ken talked in greater detail about Jayatirtha’s expulsion from ISKCON. Curt noted that, although ISKCON did finally remove Jayatirtha, it was not in response to corruption but rather in response to the adverse publicity and embarrassment being caused by Jayatirtha. Curt then read a litany of criminal charges (taken from newspaper) against Krishnas, and a few articles in which justice officials noted that convictions are difficult to obtain because ISKCON moves the accused Krishnas out of the law enforcement agency’s jurisdiction, or they change their names, malting them difficult to track. He implied that ISKCON was guilty of far more crimes than the conviction rates of its members actually indicate. After reading the long list Curt seemed to challenge Ken.
But these are all coincidences, huh?’ In a confrontational tone that surprised me, Curt then told Ken that he could have been an unknowing accomplice to drug smuggling, if he had gone to India. Ken noted that he was supposed to go to India in the near future. Curt then told Ken about a local devotee who was arrested for smuggling drugs in typewriters. On her was a letter from her temple describing how to pack the typewriter so that they would not be detected (although drugs were not mentioned, the letter did say “make sure it is camouflaged”). Curt asked Ken if he would have questioned a direct order to bring in something from India without going through customs. Ken replied in the negative; he would not have questioned it. Ken looked awed. He wondered why he had never heard these tales while inside ISKCON. Curt explained that the information was closed, and the relatively low-level devotees were not involved in planning such escapades.
Analysis of the challenge. At this point in the process it seemed that Curt was content to allow the other deprogrammers to do much of the actual talking, while he watched over them and made sure nothing got out of hand. Following the second day, the deprogramming had become somewhat more relaxed and informal with an emphasis on video and audiotapes. When Curt overheard Ken criticizing some of the anti-ISKCON material, he decided it was time to challenge the deprogrammee with what he thought really mattered, ISKCON’s criminal behavior and disregard for both the individual’s and society’s mores. The underlying message: whether or not Ken was coerced into taking cold showers was a trivial point. The possibility of Ken’s backsliding, however, was not a trivial point, and this was not lost on Curt.
There was an additional issue that concerned Curt, and added to his vigilant stance with Ken. Ken had often violated ISKCON rules, and ISKCON to a degree tolerated this deviant behavior. Among deprogrammers, ISKCON had a reputation for being one of the most rigid cults, with a strict set of rules that, for initiated members, were very difficult to violate without feeling tremendous guilt. Although Curt did not possess formal psychiatric diagnostic skills, he knew that Ken’s rebelliousness in ISKCON might be a sign, not of strong individualism, but of possible anti-social tendencies. This meant that Ken could be more difficult to “completely” deprogram than the “average” Krishna devotee. This also meant that Curt would have to work extra hard to ensure there would be no backsliding. (Curt seemed to be correct- A year after his own deprogramming, Ken would assist another deprogrammer on a number of Krishna deprogrammings; his deprogramming team leader would tell me that it sometimes seemed they were deprogramming Ken all over again in addition to their actual deprogrammee.)
Fourth Day: Evening
The deprogrammers push. Curt continued to remind Ken of ISKCON’s pattern of anti-social behavior. He read from a Krishna flier describing ISKCON as a “contemporary movement. ..this is not a religion.” On the television talk shows we had been watching, however, the ISKCON spokesman consistently referred to the Hare Krishna movement as “an age-old religion,” thereby branding its critics anti-religious or anti-Hindu. Ken, wanting to know the title and origin of the flier, asked Curt “what is that called?” Curt responded harshly: “It’s called saying whatever you want to fit the situation… They are [such liars]!” Brian joined in, confronting ISKCON astronomy and mathematics, noting that if Hindu cosmology is so accurate and Western cosmology is a sham, then why is navigation based on Greek mathematics mid cosmology? Why did the Romans colonize Europe and then Europeans colonize North America. Why didn’t India do it? This argument was too abstract and somewhat lost on Ken. There were two conversations going on again. Brian was talking with Ken, while Curt talked with Sandy. Both conversations were focused on debunking ISKCON doctrine, although Brian presented Ken with abstract arguments and logic, trying to explain how science processes, and how theories become facts. Ken cited ISKCON doctrine on the big bang theory of the creation of the universe: “if you throw a stick of dynamite into the kitchen, will order or chaos result from the explosion?” Brian tried to address “standard” ISKCON criticism of post – Einsteinian astrophysics, but Ken was unable to follow him.
As Ken continued to discuss cosmology and theology with Brian, the talk became the most abstract since the deprogramming began. (Brian later realized he wasn’t getting through, and began listening and commenting rather than trying to explain.) Meanwhile, Curt was engaged in an intense discussion with Sandy and Greg of what they needed to cover in Lifton. Curt then went into the kitchen; Greg joined in with Brian and Ken. They discussed various notions of the “soul.” Because apparently Ken’s only knowledge of these matters was what he had learned in ISKCON, he cited primarily doctrine. Brian cut in, and began to explain the process of reality testing. He launched into an example. If ISKCON says that if you don’t change your children will be demonic, we must first define “demonic.” Such behaviors as lying and cheating might be indications of demonic possession. Then, observe the children of both Krishna and non-Krishna parents. Is there a correlation between non-demonic behavior and chanting? If not, we must try a different theory. One theory might be that certain kinds of child-rearing, regardless of whether or not parents are chanting Hare Krishna, result in “misbehaving” children. If that theory is a better predictor of child behavior, then that theory must be closer to “the truth.” While he did not seem to follow all of Brian’s line of reasoning, Ken did finally relate to this abstraction. He expounded on Brian’s example by discussing how in ISKCON, it was accepted as fact that when one encountered bratty Krishna children, it meant that their parents had not been chanting their rounds. If the parents were chanting their rounds, then they weren’t doing it with enough commitment.
Dinner and a return to videotapes. It was getting late. Stephanie interrupted the deprogramming to ask if Ken wanted some pizza; he asked for mushroom pizza. As they waited for the pies, Greg and Ken discussed the absurdities inherent in a belief in reincarnation. I noticed that when Brian talked, Ken rarely said anything. Now, with Greg back in the discussion, the conversation seemed to return to its more equitable equilibrium.
Stephanie and Risa returned to the kitchen to cook and clean. Sandy rejoined the conversation, and the discussion returned to more general religious questions (e.g., the nature of God). Sandy continued to keep the conversation relatively humorous and light. This was clearly his style and a large part of his skill at building rapport. Ken ate his mushroom pizza, and seemed to really enjoy it. Mushrooms are considered aphrodisiacs by ISKCON, and thus are forbidden. He commented on how long it had been since he had eaten mushrooms. Curt talked briefly about hallucinogenic mushrooms. By that time, everyone was eating, and the conversation remained centered on ISKCON, but was fairly light and peppered with jokes. Greg half-kiddingly asked Ken what his method of purification would be, now that he would not be chanting Hare Krishna. Ken: “Oh, toga parties. The big bong and the big dong.” Greg did not laugh at this (I felt it constituted a form of ‘gallows humor), although he acknowledged it “Oh, that kind of purification.” Curt noted that it was probably time to think about getting some sleep. Sandy mockingly read some advertisements for a variety of Krishna and other Eastern religious artifacts, with promises that they would do all kinds of magical things. Ken and Greg talked about Krishna recipes named after gurus, and made jokes about these. Ken then reached for some of Cures copies of Back to Godhead, and began to poke fun at some of the articles and picture captions. Curt returned and announced he was going to play the rest of “The Moore Report” He wanted Ken to see the interview with Conway and Siegelman, the authors of Snapping.
“The Moore Report” continued with interviews of former cultists, and of Robert Lifton. There was very little discussion as the tape played, with the exception of a few comments (typically agreeing with what was said) here and there. When the narrator discussed the use of fear, Ken commented on his own experiences with fear in ISKCON. Following “The Moore Report” there was another brief documentary that also involved a section on Rehab, including an interview with Curt. Ken watched that part closely.
As the videotape came to an end, Ken talked about trying to get some sleep. Everyone agreed this would be a good idea. For some time, Ken and the deprogrammers vied to discuss The Moore Repot but it was clear that Ken was becoming exhausted. Finally, Curt half-kiddingly ordered Ken to get to bed. Ken complied.
Running errands. Curt and Sandy used this time to take stock of their supplies. Generally, the deprogrammers took stock of food supplies at some point every day. One of the deprogrammers was then designated to do the food shopping. The deprogrammers ate well but not expensively. Food money was included in the overall deprogramming bill. This evening, the overall food supply was in good shape, but the deprogrammers were short on beer, Twinkies, and cigarettes. Curt figured these items (with the exception of the beer) could be easily obtained at a convenience store like Seven-Eleven or Wawa. Along with Sandy and Brian, we headed out.
The trip to Wawa ended up taking two hours. It became an outing, a brief reprieve from being indoors and under constant pressure to perform all the time. Brian made some phone calls. Curt shopped not only for food but for greeting cards. Sandy looked at magazines. After making the purchases, we sat down on a curb and made small talk. We then left the store, and Curt drove to the Krispos’ house. Curt had deprogrammed the Krispo daughter about a year ago. I waited in the car as Curt visited. Although I knew this family (they had been referred to Curt through my counseling practice, the Re-Entry Therapy, Information and Referral Network) I was not invited in for the visit and I did not ask to be so. This kind of “social call” seems to be a fairly common practice among deprogrammers, who rely heavily on word-of- mouth referrals and other social contacts in the extensive, informal anti-cult “network” of affected families. In addition, deprogramming is so personal, intense, and emotional (and expensive), that many times families and deprogrammers seem to become fast and long-term friends.
Casual conversation and my struggle with overinvolvement. Following the visit with the Krispo family, we headed back to the Epstein house. Everyone else had gone to sleep. We unpacked our grocery bags and put the beer, soda, and milk in the refrigerator, and the packaged goods (Twinkies, pretzels, potato chips) in the laundry room. Beers were cracked open, and everyone seemed to relax. By now I felt totally and overly involved with the deprogramming process and the deprogrammers. As Curt and Sandy drank and smoked, I felt an indescribable urge to join in. So I grabbed a beer and bummed a cigarette, and I too smoked and drank. While drinking was not foreign to me, I had given up smoking 9 months ago. “is was a relapse for me, yet it also felt so good. I lost a significant amount of professional distance that evening. I knew it as it happened, but I didn’t seem to care. Finally, the deprogrammers decided to head back outside, to a bar. As usual this jaunt was strictly limited to Curt and Sandy. I felt somewhat panicked by my own apparent loss of control (i.e., my smoking), so I was glad that Curt and Sandy in effect gave me an easy opportunity to leave the Epsteins and return to my own house. I got into my car and drove home.
The Fifth Day: Morning
Sandy explains deprogramming. I arrived back at the Epstein house at around 9:00 am. It was a beautiful mild Spring day. I was let into the house by George, the security man. Soon afterward, Beth Epstein came downstairs for breakfast before leaving for her weekend job. Beth always looked annoyed the few times I saw her. In general, she seemed to feel put out and inconvenienced by this invasion of people. She did not interact very much with the team, and she usually just seemed to be trying to carry on with her life as though nothing interfered. Beth and George were the only two people awake. I listened to Beth chat and then complain about her job and friends while we both drank coffee, until she left shortly after 10 am.
Everyone else remained asleep, so I went into the den to work on my notes and read some articles Brian had lent me. Just before noon, Sandy came down. Ken was still asleep, and would sleep until shortly after noon, his longest sustained period of sleep since the deprogramming began. As I reviewed my notes, Sandy asked what I thought of what I had observed thus far. We set up some chairs out on the pool patio, and this question led into a long discussion of Sandy’s view of the deprogramming process.
According to Sandy, the first task of the deprogramming is to disarm the leader, followed closely by a critical review of the discrepancies between the group’s public image and how it really behaves “behind closed dom.” Then, the deprogrammers debunk the scripture; they point out the discrepancies between the group’s doctrine and its actions. On an involuntary deprogramming, the literature on thought reform material then follows. On a voluntary deprogramming (also generally known as an “exit-counseling”), one must be more careful. The deprogrammers must debunk the doctrine, and show the contradictions in what the leader says, but they don’t directly attack the leader “Work with the fallacy. You don’t attack the leader so much as you do some of the things he may have said that are out of context (i.e., that the leader used out of context] or historically inaccurate. And then give them the thought reform, and then tear the leader apart on a voluntary [deprogramming].” I asked why the leader is treated more delicately on a voluntary. Sandy replied, “Because [when] you get in a voluntary situation, most of these guys are really looked into the leader, they think they’re almost deities, you know, idols. You start tearing them apart (too early) and that’s going to close them off from receiving anything else.” Of course, “it depends an the leader.” To some extent, the cultist will let you know what he or she can listen to first.
Sandy went on to tell how they let the involuntary deprogrammee know what is going to happen: “We tell them [that] what we want to do is address the philosophy, we want to address the leadership, the foundation of it, and then we want to go into the thought reform process to give [them) the framework to put all ” stuff together.” Most often, this is told to the cultist on the way to the deprogramming site. Sandy explained. “Yeah, we’re up front about things, there’s no use in hiding anything.” I noted that this might give cultists a way to map their progress, which could be dangerous (for the deprogrammers) if the cultist is trying to “fake” it. Sandy responded, “They’re not thinking much along those lines … Most of them are just pretty scared, and we’re just trying to let them know that there is a schedule, there is a progression that we kind of go at .. and we demystify it. They’re scared, [they believe] the demons have them now.”
Sandy and Curt tell the cultist he or she will meet ex-members who will share their experiences, and Sandy will share his experiences in his group. There will be few surprises. “During the transfer, basically we just want to keep them calm. I tell them that “if what we have is darkness and you have light, then there’s no amount of darkness that is going to overcome the light. So there’s nothing to worry about. “You’re the only one who has nothing to lose. Your parents are taking the chance of never seeing you again [if] you go underground, change your name, leave the country. We’re taking the chance of having criminal … charges thrown at us. Along with your parents, who are taking that chance too. You’re the only one with nothing to lose. Either your faith’s going to be strong, or you’re going to we that this isn’t the place for you to be.” I asked Sandy if this little speech did actually calm the cultists down a lot. Sandy said they varied, but that it does “give them something to think about.” He then usually adds something like, “Look, you can put any truth to the test, and if there’s truth to it then it will pass the test. Truth always stands.” Deprogramming uses to its advantage the cultist’s belief that his or her group has the absolute truth. Sandy explained. “It wouldn’t be a cult if it didn’t have the absolute truth. That’s just understood. They know they have the absolute truth, we know they think they have the absolute truth.” What gets through to then,, Sandy continued, is when, after a while, a deprogrammer begins to use the cults jargon. “Then they know you know your stuff.”
Some deprogrammers wait to bring in ex-members, but Curt and Sandy bring them in as soon as possible, because only the ex-member can “spot the party rap right away. We try to bring in an ex-member right away; (we usually use] two deprogrammers and one ex-member [right from the start” Some deprogrammers hold off on the ex-member, figuring that the cultist will immediately discount the ex-member because he “saw the truth” and left anyway (making him even more evil). Sandy stated that he had not found that to be the case. Bringing in Dara toward the end of the deprogramming, however, is by plan. Ken has seen women in a very circumscribed way these past four years, and Dara would be a strong contradiction of that view. Confronting Ken with a woman like Dara too early might have threatened him or made him defensive.
Ken awakens. At this point Ken awakened, and he was greeted happily by Sandy as he opened the glass door and came out onto the pool’s patio. At precisely the same time, Greg came out poolside. Being outside in the warm, blustery weather, I had not heard him arrive. Sandy, Greg and Ken made themselves comfortable on the pool furniture, and then all three began discussing Lifton, picking up where they had left off the night before. As Sandy read from Lifton, he asked Ken to come up with ISKCON examples to illustrate what Lifton wrote. As a result, the conversation remained at least50-50.
Fifth Day: Afternoon and Evening
Dara arrives. At around 12:30 p.m., Dara Coy arrived. Dara introduced herself and launched right into a series of questions for Ken. She began detailing her criticisms of ISKCON theology. The deprogramming had taken some turns toward the less serious yesterday. Dara was a fresh deprogrammer and she seemed anxious to do her job. Ken, however, had not yet “agreed” to get serious again, and so he responded to some of Dara’s questions with kidding and jokes. At one point, he replied to a question with “Ah, there’s a little bit of a demon in me.” Sandy, perhaps taking his cues from Dara, confronted Ken without his typical joking style on how subtle the Krishna brainwashing had been, how all-pervasive. It even pervaded Ken’s jokes. Sandy caustically noted to Ken that he was continuing to use Krishna terminology, even in his anti-Krishna jokes.
Ken, while briefly acknowledging Sandy’s criticism, talked instead about how he would at times complain to his guru that he felt he was being robbed of his individuality. His guru would respond by admonishing him and demanding repentance. Although he still maintained a critical attitude toward ISKCON, with Dara Ken often seemed to be defending Krishna ideology, and I wondered if Ken was “backsliding” (to use the deprogrammers’ term) once again. At one point Ken again referred to the human body as “consisting of blood, pus, bile, and stool,” something he had not done for the past three days. Although he quickly added “[I know there is more to the body than that,” it was clear from Dara and Sandy’s reaction that they were uncertain whether or not Ken still literally believed the ISKCON view of the human body. Soon after this comment Ken again referred to women as being more “lusty” than men, another ISKCON “throwback.”
Dara asked Ken about the nature of “pure devotional service” – if even ISKCON admits that it is very rarely attained, then just how attainable is it? And exactly what is it? This seemed related to Lifton’s concept of the “demand for purity” in totalistic systems. In addition, if the gurus are supposed to have “pure devotional service,” then how do we explain the excesses and amoral behavior of Jayatirtha or Kirtanananda? Ken noted that, according to ISKCON, once you become a pure devotee, then all your actions transcend the usual rules and regulations. Dara countered. “then how do you explain Jayatirtha being kicked out” of ISKCON? Ken agreed with Dara’s point. He went on to talk about how he sometimes “was waiting and waiting” and hoping “that Vishnupada would fall down so that I could justifiably leave the movement.” Ken reminded the deprogrammers of his tape in which Vishnupada defends Jayatirtha, putting the guilt for Jayatirtha’s fall on the devotees. The three discussed this manipulation of guilt; Ken was incredulous once again: “I find it hard to believe I was caught up in this.” Dara, Greg, and Ken then talked about the process of reentry. Dara noted that for her it was gradual. For example, she did not eat meat until 6 months later. Greg, however, noted that he had asked for a hamburger right away. There was some kidding of Greg for having been “ravenous” for meat afterwards. I noted to myself how subtly both possibilities were thus presented to Ken.
Ken predicted that re-entry would be more gradual for him. His prediction would later come true. He reflected on his eating patterns during the deprogramming. On the first day, he ate only fruit; on the second day he ate spaghetti with onion and garlic; on the third day he ate bread even though “it was made by karmis.” Greg asked Ken if the onions and garlic acted as an aphrodisiac, the way ISKCON had predicted. Ken laughed, “No,” and he admitted how good last nights mushroom pizza had tasted. They talked about vegetarianism. Greg reported a claim by some researchers that the amount of nutrition one gets from a vegetarian diet is in part dependent on the culture. If you are accustomed to a vegetarian diet, you can get the nutrition. If these diets are not customary, your body will take some time to get used to the switch from meat to vegetables.
I wrote in my notes that the talk continued to seem balanced somewhat evenly between deprogrammer and deprogrammee. They talked about ISKCON’s demand for obedience, and the child-like reinforcers that are used (e.g., gurus giving out cookies to “good” devotees, or the threat that Krishna will “kick you” if you misbehave).
Dara’s style: My impressions 1. With Dara’s arrival, the deprogramming had taken a somewhat different emotional tone. While Curt, Sandy, and Greg had been confrontational at times, they never became personally confrontational. Ken was now more clearly “bonded” with the deprogrammers (including, if only by association, Dara), so he was probably more sensitive to disapproving remarks. Dara continued to confront Ken when he responded to questions with Krishna terminology, even if he was critical of ISKCON. She interpreted Ken’s use of ISKCON terminology as vestiges of brainwashing. Interestingly, Greg (who in some ways was emotionally closest to Ken) joined in the confrontation, reminding Ken of how he had only the night before used the Krishna term “agitawd” to describe sexual arousal Ken became defensive again, denying that his use of Krishna terminology indicated lingering brainwashing. He felt expunged of any signs or symptoms of mind control. Changing the topic, Ken talked about how ISKCON kept him from getting close to people. “Even if they were really nice, I would think they were in maya … I would have to keep my distance. Yet there are a lot of devotees in the movement that I can’t stand.” They discussed how ISKCON “understanding” was superficial. A devotee might mimic empathy, “It’s OK, I understand. You were just overcome by the mode of passion.” Ken noted how this was not real understanding at all.
Dara and Ken. The discourse returned to how historical facts and current realities do not confirm ISKCON doctrine and predictions. Ken gave examples of instances in which his questions about history were viewed negatively by his superiors. Once, for example, he asked his teachers how today’s primitive culture of India could have developed from the advanced Hindu-based civilization of 5,000 years ago. Dara interrupted Ken’s story: “They must have hated you for asking questions like that. What a great question!” Ken continued. They answered by telling him to stop being on a mental platform. He was told to “stop trying to challenge” his guru. Dara talked about the ISKCON belief that Christ went to India and came under the influence of Krishnas, which is supposed to explain Christ’s status as a pure devotee (on par with Prabhupada). Critics of ISKCON believe the elevation of Christ to “pure devotee” status is merely a convenience to make the Hare Krishna movement more palatable to Western, Christian culture. ISKCON uses the “Aquarian Gospel” to support this contention. However, Dara quoted a passage from the “Aquarian Gospel” in which Christ is supposed to have called Krishna worshippers “bodies [people] without spirit .. temples without altars.” The discussion of the notion that Christ was a pure devotee led to a consideration of Krishna history in general. For example, devotees are taught that people were once 18 feet tall, yet no 18 foot tall skeletons have ever been found. They read passages from books on Indian history that contradicted what the Gita states. The deprogrammers seemed to be underscoring the message that the Gita cannot be taken literally. Dara began to point out additional discrepancies between Prabhupaba’s Gita and other translations. The one that seemed to get the most reaction from Ken was a passage in the ISKCON. Gita that states Krishna will come down and annihilate shown; the other Gitas say he will take away their sins. That this discrepancy bothered Ken the most made sense to me. He had consistently been most disturbed either by indications of the potentially violent nature of ISKCON or their violation of Ken’s own basic feelings about parent-child bonding. At this point, Ken underscored that he now considered the philosophy to be bogus. For the first time, Ken asked Dara a personal question: How did she feel as a woman in ISKCON?
Dara’s personal disclosures gave way to a more general discussion of male-female issues in ISKCON. Ken then described how he would get more agitated (again, he used the Krishna term for sexual arousal) by devotees in saris than girls in bikinis when he would do sankirtan at Jones Reach. Curt, who had apparently made his first appearance in the Epstein kitchen shortly after noon, came outside briefly to say hello and listen in on some of the conversation. He interposed himself into the talk by confronting Ken on his continued use of the word “agitated” when he meant “aroused.” Again, Ken did not know what to do with this confrontation. I believe the intention of these continuing confrontations was to demonstrate the subtlety and pervasiveness of ISKCON programming, but Ken continued to feel personally berated. The conversation then veered toward gossip as Dara shared stories about a few corrupt upper-level devotees and brahmacaris they both knew. They then talked about sanitation in ISKCON. At this point, Ken was employing ISKCON doctrine, which he spontaneously critiqued as he cited it. The talk remained fairly equally divided between Ken and the others.
Reviewing Lifton. Curt got up to head back into the house, signaling a temporary rescission of control. Sandy, who had been silent for some time, came back into the conversation and veered it back toward a discussion of Lifton. “The talk became highly technical at this point. For example, Dara explained Lifton’s concept of “constriction of language” by pointing out that the Krishnas categorize all emotions and doubts as part of “Maya” (the material world, which is demonic). Everything is collapsed this way. The answer to Maya is always the same: chant Hare Krishna. She charted this out: how the internal experience of emotions (fear, doubt, anger, lust, jealousy, spite) normally leads to a variety of possible external actions (e.g., run or confront seek answers, express or suppress an affect). In the Krishnas, however, everything is collapsed. Emotions and doubts are replaced by the internal experience of being in maya, which in turn collapses all external actions (responses) to only one possibility, chanting.
As the team went through Lifton, Ken seemed to return to the mannerisms and thought-patterns I saw after the “snap” on the second day. He related how the big moment for him was hearing Greg Stern blaspheme Prabhupada (the team, especially Sandy following the “snap”, tended to refer to Prabhupada as “Papa Fraud”) and discovering that Greg did not “die on the spot.” Until then, he said, he could express some of his doubts about the philosophy and even criticize some of the gurus, but he could not renounce “the Number One man” or “the whole rotten belief system” as he put it. The demand for purity seemed present in all the cults, Ken noted. Dara talked at length about life in communist China, based on reports from a Chinese student friend of hers. The talked about how everything in ISKCON seems geared toward getting money. Ken described the “Christmas [fund-raising] Marathon” in which devotees were told to eschew several devotional services in order to capitalize on the traditional “giving” season. Ken obviously was not the most submissive, yielding devotee; another conflict he had suppressed while in ISKCON was the constant focus on spiritual shortcomings, not spiritual progress. Ken struggled with his tendency to “see the glass as half-full” while ISKCON “saw the glass as half-empty.” Ken’s insight was related to Lifton’s theory on the demand for purity. The general tone of the conversation continued to vacillate between serious talk (usually involving self-disclosure) and humorous mocking of the ISKCON movement and its doctrine.
Dara’s style.- My impressions II. Dara’s style with Ken remained very attentive, even vigilant, and confrontational. I wondered if she was really that much more confrontational than the other deprogrammers, or if the discomfort I perceived in Ken was due to the fact that Dara was an assertive woman. I also wondered if, to some extent, Ken’s intermittent defensiveness was in part an oppositional reaction to Dara’s feminine (and assertive) presence. Ken had demonstrated overt discomfort with women, and his conflicted and patriarchal view of women was known to the deprogrammers. And to at least some degree Ken’s conflict with women seemed to have existed prior to his involvement with ISKCON. Dara’s presence might have made Ken’s conflicts more salient; I had been told by Sandy that this was part of the deprogrammers’ intent. Now Dara noticed that Ken looked cold, and she asked him if he was comfortable, but I was not sure if it was the weather that made Ken appear uncomfortable. Then Dara noticed Ken glancing at his watch, and she wondered aloud about that (was Ken growing impatient with her?). Were both Dara and Ken being overly defensive now, or had Dara intuited a real unspoken need in Ken? Covertly, Ken responded nervously, as though Dara had indeed been reacting to some sense of impatience on his part but overtly he simply noted that he was hungry (he had not eaten yet.). I volunteered to make him a mushroom pizza, and left for the kitchen.
Returning to Lifton. Risa must have awakened a short while before, and she was as usual busying herself in the kitchen. Curt, Sandy, and Ken then returned to reading and discussing Lifton’s theories; they still had not completed the section on the demand for purity. The discussion moved bark to the issue of floating. Sandy talked about the power of belief (e.g., voodoo deaths), which sparked brief discussions of superstition and the relationship between hypnosis and chanting. The conversation appeared to concentrate on explaining some of the specific aspects of Ken’s indoctrination and experiences while in ISKCON. As they returned to Lifton and a discussion of the manipulation of guilt, the talk seemed to become dominated by the deprogrammers. Sandy and Dara continued to challenge Ken’s emotional constriction, and his continued employment of Krishna terminology. Dara disclosed how she was now able to appreciate variety and beauty, because she was no longer automatically classifying the world on a “closeness to Krishna” continuum. She was no longer concerned with the “spirits of trees”, for example; she just experienced the tree’s beauty. Dara and Sandy then asked Ken how he would prove the existence of spirits in nonmaterial objects and animals, and how he might establish the existence of reincarnation.
I came back out, mushroom pizza in hand. Ken devoured the pizza in just a few big bites, remarking how famished he was, and then immediately requested another. I went back to the kitchen and returned shortly with another pizza.
Ken, Greg, Sandy and Dara continued studying Lifton. Curt and Risa had left to find an open bank, in order to take care of the final payment of the deprogramming fee. Payment was in cash and Curt in turn had to reimburse the other members of the deprogramming team. Curt suggested that he accompany Risa after she expressed concern about carrying that large an amount of cash by herself. Before he left, I overheard him in the kitchen, talking to Risa and Brian about completing plans for rehab in Iowa. The deprogramming was clearly winding down, coming to a conclusion. As the afternoon drew to a close it became colder and windier outside. There was talk of going back indoors, but everyone seemed hesitant.
Curt confronts me. At about 5:00 p.m., the Epsteins began to arrive home, and the deprogramming began to move back upstairs. As we started cleaning the poolside up, Mrs. Epstein called out to me to come in. My wife and daughter had arrived with some release form I had forgotten to bring back the last time I went home. I began to busy myself collecting signatures on the forms and taking care of other necessary paperwork On the television, the Epstein kids, the security team, and my family were watching “Superman” on a cable movie network. Curt returned briefly, and then left. When he returned at around 6:00 p.m he pulled me aside and complained to me about some of my behavior (both real and imagined). I felt hurt and puzzled. Some of Curt’s complaints seemed unwarranted and confused. He suggested that I pay Risa for the extra food that was consumed as a result of my “unplanned presence.” He noted to me that the deprogramming was finished and that early the next morning, he and Ken would be flying to Iowa.
I asked him what was going on between us. He replied that he wanted me to leave, and cited two specific examples of my objectionable behavior. One of these transgressions was real. At one point during the past two days, I advised Beth to avoid being around Ken when she was dressed in highly revealing shorts. It was not my place to make such a suggestion, and Beth had apparently complained about it to her parents, who then complained to Curt. However, I was unjustly blamed for a mishap that occurred the day before. Someone had apparently placed a bottle of soda in the Epsteins’ freezer in order to chill it quickly, and then forgotten about it. Of course, it eventually exploded in the freezer and made quite a mess. I briefly objected to this latter example, but then quickly surmised that I would get nowhere defending myself with Curt. He wanted me out. I felt rather stuck. I wanted to stay until the very end, although I also figured the additional information I would obtain for my study would be negligible. I mentioned my concern about leaving early to Curt but by this point his mind was made up. I asked if I could finish out the day, and he agreed that I could stay until the evening. My wife and daughter left, and I went upstairs to present and explain the forms my wife had brought over. I then returned downstairs just after 6:00 p.m. to join everyone for dinner. I gave Risa some money to cover my end of the food bill. Dinner was informal, with the conversation focused on the trip to Iowa early next morning. At 7:30, I said my farewells and left.
In the years since Ken Butler’s deprogramming, I have learned the following about the participants:
Curt Miller continues to work as one of a small number of highly experienced, full-time deprogrammers. His hectic and unpredictable work schedule has resulted in several deep disappointments in his personal life.
Sandy no longer works with Curt, and appears to have left the deprogramming field altogether to concentrate on raising his family.
For several years, Dara continued to work as a university secretary with occasional involvements in deprogrammings. She then decided to have a child, and is currently a single, working parent raising her child. To the best of my knowledge, she is no longer involved with deprogramming.
The last I heard from Brian, he had “graduated” from working security and was involved part-time as an independent deprogrammer. He was also involved part-time in several media-related projects. To the best of my knowledge, he continues to work on occasion with Curt and several other well-known deprogrammers and exit-counselors.
Greg Stern completed his undergraduate education and is currently employed as an advertising salesman and executive. He has built a studio in his home where he once again devotes a great deal of time to his life-long dream of composing music. He is no longer involved in deprogramming and exit-counseling, although he continues to engage in public speaking on cult-related topics.
Following his deprogramming and subsequent two weeks at Unbound, a rehabilitation center for former cultists, Ken Butler worked for approximately one year assisting on other deprogrammings. My sources told me he was only moderately effective as a deprogrammer. During part of that first year, Ken lived with his mother and saved the money he earned as a deprogrammer until he could afford his own apartment. He legally changed his name to a unique one with strong Jewish connotations, although to my knowledge he has not returned to practicing Judaism The last I heard from Ken, he had worked at various jobs and was for the moment somewhat settled in as a medical transport driver.
Ken Butter, the deprogrammee and former Krishna devotee, has remained outside of ISKCON. He has remained unmarried, and seems to continue to have some interpersonal difficulties with women. He continues to work as an ambulance driver and has also returned to his first career love, photography, with hopes of becoming a professional photographer some day.
The deprogramming of Ken Butler was primarily a cognitive and social-affiliative intervention within a specific form of extended, intensive conversation. There were some notable changes in content and group process over time in Ken’s deprogramming. These changes and shifts, some of which were discernible only through my qualitative analysis of the deprogramming as a whole, suggested that Ken’s deprogramming had different modalities as well as phases. The information conveyed and eventually accepted, along with the strong trust, rapport and affiliative bonds developed between the deprogrammers and the cultist, combined to produce a dramatic change in Ken.
Anticipating the Conversation Analysis
In addition to the descriptive analysis, I performed a quantitative analysis of three segments (the “Beginning,” “Snapping point” and “End”) of Ken’s deprogramming. An article in a later issue of Cultic Studies Journal will present this analysis. To briefly anticipate the data I will present in this later article, the following summary statements can be made:
In the beginning stage of Ken’s deprogramming, the deprogrammers were primarily focused on providing information, questioning, agreeing (with Ken) and self-disclosing about their own thoughts and experiences. For the cultist, the beginning was marked primarily by self-disclosing, questioning the deprogrammers, giving information of his own, and quoting ISKCON doctrine.
For the deprogrammers, the middle stage (the snap) was marked primarily by giving information, self-disclosing, agreeing, and questioning. For the cultist, the middle phase was marked by giving information, self-disclosing, citing doctrine and questioning.
For the deprogrammers, the end stage was marked primarily by giving information, self-disclosing, agreeing and citing doctrine. The deprogrammer quoted ISKCON doctrine primarily in order to point out inconsistencies with Hare Krishna behavior or to debunk it. For the cultist, it was marked primarily by giving information, citing doctrine, self-disclosing, and agreeing.
For all speakers during all stages, there was surprisingly little overt disagreeing, and few statements that requested of demanded obedience of some sort.
Over the course of the deprogramming, there were some significant changes in the degree of participation in the deprogramming, in discourse (conversation) style, in focus of attention, and in motility. These areas of interest were addressed by specific research questions in my doctoral thesis, and will be discussed in a separate article.
What follows are some conclusions about Ken’s deprogramming based on my qualitative observations.
Summary of Deprogramming Process observations
Cognitive process. The cultist, Ken, entered the deprogramming with many suppressed doubts, some missing information, and some information that was present but was interpreted in an ISKCON context. Initially, the information presented to him had to do with the deprogramming process itself-what to expect, who the deprogrammers were, what they intended to do. In addition to having an affective impact (lowering his anxiety about the immediate situation), the manner in which this information was relayed contradicted ISKCON’s statements about deprogrammers. On a social-affiliative level, this information served to decrease his anxiety and set the stage for growing trust. On a cognitive level, the immediate violation of Ken’s expectations jarred his consciousness, and stimulated information processing (Kahnemann, 1973).
Information processing and persuasion. As expected, the primary focus of the deprogramming was on exchanging information both of an impersonal and a personal nature. The content of the conversation reflected my impression that the cognitive and social-affiliative realms were the ones in which I saw the greatest activity. The development and maintenance of interpersonal rapport seemed intimately connected with the effective communication of information relevant to the cult. Taken all together, the deprogrammers appeared to employ a comprehensive persuasive strategy (Burgoon & Bettinghaus, 1980) in which they skillfully utilized: (a) objective evidence, (b) a familiar message structure (e.g., common familiarity with ISKCON philosophy terminology, and membership), c) moderate emotionalism (d) rewards, and (e) language of relative low intensity (with little confrontation).
Shifts in attention and consciousness. Ken’s attention tended to be more stable toward the end of the deprogramming. As he stated, “flitting” tended to be his ideational (attentional) style while in the cult, Ken’s agreement at least temporarily to cease chanting his rounds was a significant event in this deprogramming’s cognitive process. This action served to break the thought-stopping cycle, thereby removing the most active barrier to information processing. As an autohypnotic technique, chanting may have also contributed to Ken’s “floating” state of consciousness. By ceasing his daily “rounds,” Ken changed in attentional motility and increased in information processing, which thereby resulted in a shift in consciousness.
Utilization of dissonance. As predicted by the deprogrammers I interviewed prior to Ken’s deprogramming, Ken’s deprogrammers tended to ask him to reflect on his pre-cult life. Most deprogrammers and exit counselors have acknowledged the importance of focusing on the cultists personal history during deconversion (Hassan, 1988). In Ken’s deprogramming, these requests tended to come most often from Greg Stem, whose background was most similar to Ken’s. The request to reflect on the past served to generate tension and to reconnect Ken with his own internal fund of information that contradicted ISKCON. For example, after Ken admitted to having cheated someone out of his money, Greg asked him if “that (was] something you would have done before you got involved” with ISKCON. When Ken replied in the negative, Greg responded, “So that’s something you picked up from hanging around Krishnas … how to con, to cheat.” This question reminded Ken that he had violated his own ethical values (the ideals that led him to ISKCON in the first place), which generated a moderate level of anxiety, enhanced his listening, and motivated him toward change. The statement that immediately followed also served to confirm Ken’s suspicions that ISKCON utilized an inverted moral system. Thus, Greg’s statement served to make internal information (previously stored and suppressed memories) more salient
The role of suggestion. I noticed a tendency to ask Ken to verify certain pieces of critical information. In addition, it seemed important for the deprogrammers to present Ken with information he already knew, but was suppressing. To me, this tactic seemed to add weight to the validity of the deprogrammers’ information and presented them as credible and honest individuals. As the deprogramming progressed, the amount of new information being presented to Ken seemed to increase. Iike acceptability of this new information was enhanced by its temporal association with past more painstakingly verified information.
Some of the statements made by the deprogrammers seemed especially powerful; these tended to convey subtle suggestions for change. For example, at one point Curt stated that ‘I don’t mean to be facetious, but I am being a little bit, because I think that it’s like, you wanna .. not you, but Krishnas … I hear the same raps all the time…” In stating “not you, but..Krishnas’ Curt seemed to be subtly suggesting to Ken that he was not a Krishna. Subtle, embedded messages that distinguished between Ken and ISKCON devotees (thereby implying that the two identities were separate: occurred fairly often throughout the deprogramming.
Models of Change
Cognitively, the deprogrammers very closely followed the model mapped out by Sandy. The deprogrammers began with a critical review of ISKCON’- activities, comparing them to their claims. Concurrently, they critiqued Prabhupada and the Governing Body Commission, the council of gurus that formed the governing body of ISKCON after the swami’s death. The second day was devoted to a more thorough critique of ISKCON doctrine as it was expressed and practiced by ISKCON leaders and devotees. Ken renounced ISKCON that evening. The next day, the deprogrammers began the process: of educating Ken about coercive persuasion.
Garvey’s (1988) four-stage theory of deconversion also provides a basis for summarizing Ken’s cognitive change process. Initially, Ken demonstrated hostile denial, followed relatively quickly by a prolonged period of questioning. As the deprogramming progressed, Ken became more and more willing to provide information, about both ISKCON and himself. A major turning point came when Ken admitted to participating in illegal fund raising, something he initially denied. Finally, Ken became very excited about the connections he was making; it became difficult for him to take breaks or get to sleep. His mind was, as he put it, “racing” with suppressed questions and new viewpoints. Ken began to analyze information on his own.
Social-affiliative process. Like most individuals vulnerable to the social engineering that typifies destructive cults, Ken was responsive to his interpersonal setting. From the beginning, the deprogrammers treated him with honesty and acceptance, which was contrary to his expectations. Ken found it difficult (as did I) not to like the deprogrammers. They were informed, articulate, interesting, very witty, and highly charismatic. Yet he had been told by ISKCON that deprogrammers were worthy only of hate. Liking both deprogrammers and ISKCON leadership was inconsistent (Heider, 1958), generating an urge to restore some kind of affiliative balance (by rejecting ISKCON). The deprogrammer also immediately introduced the idea that they took issue with Ken’s Krishna practices, but not with Ken as a person. They insisted on a demarcation between Ken’s pre-cult and cult identities, accepting the former while challenging the latter. This seemed to throw Ken off-he was expecting only to be attacked, and in fact had become accustomed to deeply personal attacks at the hands of his guru and other ISKCON leaders. The fact that Ken was already deeply involved with his own internal struggle between his pre-cult and cult personalities was of considerable help to the deprogrammers. The deprogramming served to provide a powerful and ultimately decisive “push” toward intensifying this ongoing conflict and making the pre-cult self-system more salient. By raising his anxiety moderately and facilitating self-examination, the deprogrammers enhanced Ken’s need to affiliate (Festinger, 1954; Gerard & Rabbie, 1961). As the deprogramming progressed, team members continued to be generally accepting of Ken.
Violating Expectations and Counteracting Social Manipulation
As their behavior continued to violate Ken’s preconceptions, the deprogrammers began to chip away at the motives and intentions of the ISKCON devotees (e.g., his guru) with whom Ken felt the most affiliation. A crucial phase in this process appeared to be when Curt and Sandy utilized Ken’s own letters to his guru, along with the latter’s replies. They made it clear that Ken’s relationship with his guru was a perversion both of the father-son/teacher-student intimacy Ken was clearly missing in his life, and of his own stated desire for an egalitarian and spiritually-based love. Curt’s quick introduction of Greg and later introduction of Dara utilized an established affiliative pattern: we tend to affiliate fastest with others most like ourselves (Schachter, 1959). I observed the fastest and earliest bonding between Ken and Greg. They were from a similar social-cultural, religious, and demographic background, were not too far apart in age, were both male (an important consideration with Krishnas) and, of course, Greg had been an ISKCON devotee. My analysis of individual programmers’ conversational style tended to support Greg’s central role as a bridge between Ken and those deprogrammings to whom he was relatively dissimilar.
The deprogrammers were in my opinion immensely charismatic and likeable people. They seemed genuinely to believe in and enjoy their work. They did not present themselves arrogantly or condescendingly, and they seemed skilled at making people feel comfortable and at the center of attention. While Ns affiliative process lacks the deceptiveness inherent in “love bombing,” the n=e fact of the deprogramming (the expense and energy, the time commitment and attention) seemed to enhance Ken’s feelings of being important, which in turn facilitated the bonding process. His mother’s concern and the sacrifices she made for the sake of his deprogramming had a major impact, once he was able to allow himself to be aware of these feelings.
Curt and Sandy tended to balance each other out, as well. Curt was typically more serious, while Sandy laughed and joked continuously, providing permission for Ken to use humor to reduce anxiety. Physically, Curt and Sandy were dissimilar. Also, Sandy was a long-term and established family man, while Curt at the time had a troubled marriage and no children.
Throughout the deprogramming, but especially during the final three days, Curt “trusted” Ken’s sincerity. For Curt, I suspect this testing was a necessary safeguard. On a social-affiliative level, I think it also served to solidify the relationship by making it somewhat difficult (and therefore, in accordance with cognitive dissonance theory, a more “valuable” goal) to join the ranks of the successfully deprogrammed (Festinger, 1957).
Curt was able to negotiate expertly the thin line between being open and honest about his own rejection of ISKCON, and being confrontational toward Ken. In the early phases of the deprogramming, Curt rarely confronted Ken and almost never attacked Prabhupada. He seemed to follow Ken’s pacing with regard to how much and whom to attack. Those relatively rare occasions when he became personally confrontative with Ken occurred only after a bond between the two seemed fairly well established
In general, I was surprised at how rarely the deprogrammers engaged in personal confrontations of Ken. Some of the anecdotal literature, including the more critical reviews (e.g., Barker, 1984; Beckford, 1985; Bromley, 1979; Bromley & Richardson, 1983; Levine, 1994) as well as friendly reports (e.g., Patrick & Dulack, 1976), suggested that confrontation played a central role in successful deprogrammings. Like the previous ones I had observed, Ken’s deprogramming lacked su-mg personal confrontations.
Affiliative behavior can be increased by introducing moderate levels of anxiety (Gerard & Rabbie, 1961). Brian spoke of the “management of tension” which involves a “very artful use of confrontation.” The deprogramming generated a certain level of tension, and the cultist almost had to affiliate to obtain some relief. Brian noted that “the most successful deprogrammers have a range…they use what’s necessary” to generate moderate levels of anxiety. The use of guilt, however, was avoided. Instead, with Ken, the deprogrammers quickly sensed that Ken had many suppressed doubts, and they constantly harked back to these to generate tension.
Target of Conversation and Focus of Group Process
As a unique form of group process, Ken’s deprogramming had two distinct modes differentiated by the target of conversation.
The “Formal Deprogramming” mode. Throughout the deprogramming, there seemed to be some clear differences in the group process. In the early deprogramming period (Days I and 2), the deprogramming was clearly focused on Ken, with most conversation flowing to and from Ken and the various deprogrammers present. During this period, there were very few “lapses” into smaller, concurrent, and independent conversations. I have termed dim periods the “Cultist-focused” (CF) or Formal Deprogramming mode.
The “Casual Deprogramming” mode. Later, as the deprogrammers became increasingly more convinced of Ken’s decision to exit the cult, the deprogrammers loosened up and the conversation flowed more spontaneously. This loosening led to occasional subgroupings of dyads and triads that talked amongst themselves, which allowed for more one-to-one bonding. I have termed these periods the Subgroup-focused (SF) or Casual Deprogramming mode.
Cultist vs. subgroup focus. Although the conversation always seemed to vacillate to some degree between these two modes, during the pre-snap phase the time spent in Formal Deprogramming was clearly greater than the time spent in Casual Deprogramming; or, CF>SF (Cult Focus predominated over Subgroup Focus). Post-snap, I noted a reversal, with SF>CF. The exception to this rule was the introduction of a new deprogrammer (Dara), which seemed to result in a reversion to Formal Deprogramming. Ken, who by this time had become comfortable in the more loose SF mode, occasionally resisted Dara’s attempts at reformalizing the deprogramming.
Therapeutic Relationship and Counseling Process
The goal of any deprogramming is change, on both cognitive and behavioral levels. All interactions between people involve influence and change, but therapeutic relationships differ from other interactions in discernable ways. Ken’s deprogramming met the six criteria of therapeutic relationships as summarized by Marmor (1987):
Nature of the relationship. Ken’s deprogramming was contingent upon the establishment of rapport. His relationship with the deprogrammers was (eventually) based on trust, empathy, and the belief that they would be supportive. As Rogers (1987) noted, decades of psychotherapy research have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of empathy as a change agent in therapeutic relationships, regardless of the therapists school of though. In contrast to casual relationships, Ken was not expected to return empathy and support to the deprogrammers.
Cognitive learning. A major goal of Ken’s deprogramming was the imparting of new information specifically aimed at giving him “an intelligible, meaningful, and rational framework for understanding why and how his problem developed” (Marmor, 1987, p. 269). A very significant portion of the deprogramming’s content consisted of suppressed information about ISKCON, new information about totalism and theories of coercive persuasion. By virtue of their goal-directed questions and interpretations, the deprogrammers, like therapists, presented Ken with a cognitive framework. His cult conversion had been covertly coerced.
Operant conditioning. Like all change-oriented interactions, some of Ken’s behaviors were approved while others were disapproved. In this study, the amount of direct reinforcement (as measured by the incidences of the codes “Agree” and “Disagree) was relatively minimal; however, the incidence of less direct reinforcement was substantially higher.
Modeling and identification. Social learning (the modeling of appropriate coping strategies) is an important facet of the therapeutic relationship. Psychoanalytically-oriented therapists use the term “identification” to describe the tendency of clients to begin to act, feel, and think in ways that resemble their analysts. For Ken, self-disclosure was one behavior that was repeatedly modeled. As the deprogramming progressed Ken began to identify with his deprogrammers. Half-way through the deprogramming, he announced that he would be interested in becoming a deprogrammer himself. (He eventually did, for about a year.)
Suggestion and persuasion. Traditionally, counseling relationships tend to be less directive than therapy relationships; Ken’s deprogramming involved a great deal of persuasion and suggestion. Although there were few overt directives (as measured by an “Orienting” code), suggestions tended to be ever-present in the background; when they were over they were often well-timed and highly incisive (as when Curt suggested that Ken forgo chanting), if sparse.
Rehearsal and repetition. In therapy, rehearsing and repeating new behaviors aimed at improved coping increase the likelihood that they will replace maladaptive behaviors and helps the client to be more confident In Ken’s deprogramming, the deprogrammers often repeated key themes (e.g., ISKCON corruption, comparisons between ISKCON and other totalistic movements) and the deprogrammee was continually encouraged to think (e.g., to view his ISKCON experiences from the deprogrammers’ perspective), interpret, explain, view alternatives, and reminisce (eg., about his pre-cult past).
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Steve K. Dubrow-Eichel received his B.A. from Columbia University in 1976 and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989, where he was honored for having defended his doctoral dissertation on deprogramming with distinction. In addition to his work with cultists, Dr. Dubrow-Eichel is the supervising psychologist and Clinical Director of the St. Francis Home for Boys, in Bensalem, PA.
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1989