Copyright © 1995 by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. All rights reserved.
IN ALL THE WORLD, there is nothing quite so impenetrable as a human mind snapped shut with bliss. No call to reason, no emotional appeal can get through its armor of self-proclaimed joy.
We talked with dozens of individuals in this state of mind: cult members, group therapy graduates, born-again Christians, some Transcendental Meditators. After a while, it seemed very much like dancing to a broken record. We would ask a question, and the individual would spin round and round in a circle of dogma. If we tried to interrupt, he or she would simply pick right up again or go back to the beginning and start over.
Soon we began to realize that what we were watching went much deeper. These people were not simply incapable of carrying on a genuine conversation, they were completely mired in their unthinking, unfeeling, uncomprehending states. Whether cloistered in cults or passing blindly through the world, they were impervious to the pain of parents, spouses, friends and lovers. How do you reach such people? Can they be made to think and feel again? Is there any way to reunite them with their former personalities and the world around them?
A man named Ted Patrick developed the first remedy. A controversial figure dubbed by the cult world Black Lightning, Patrick was the first to point out publicly what the cults were doing to America's youth. He investigated the ploys by which many converts were ensnared and delved into the methods many cults used to manipulate the mind.
He was also the first to take action. In the early seventies, Patrick began a one-man campaign against the cults. His fight started in Southern California, on the Pacific beaches where, in the beginning, organizations such as the Hare Krishna and the Children of God recruited among the vacationing students and carefree dropouts who covered the sands in summer and roamed the bustling beach communities year round. The Children of God approached Patrick's son there one day and nearly made off with him. Patrick investigated, was horrified at what he found, and immediately set out on a course of direct action. His first-hand experiences with cult techniques and their effects led him to develop an antidote he named "deprogramming," a remarkably simple and-when properly used-nearly foolproof process for helping cult members regain their freedom of thought.
Before long, Ted Patrick was in action all over the country on behalf of desperate parents. Through the seventies, he made front page headlines in the east for his daring daylight kidnappings of Ivy League cult members. He made network news for his interstate car chases in the Pacific Northwest to elude both cult leaders and state troopers. And eventually he made American legal history. In his ultimate defense of the U.S. Constitution, Patrick challenged the confusion of First Amendment rights surrounding the cult controversy and drew an important distinction between Americans' guaranteed national freedoms of speech and religion and their more fundamental human right to freedom of thought. In precedent-setting cases, U.S. courts confirmed Patrick's argument that, by "artful and deceiving" means, the new cults were in fact robbing people of their natural capacity to think and choose. To that time, it was never considered possible that a human being could be stripped of this basic endowment.
In many courtrooms, however, Ted Patrick lost his case for freedom of thought, gathering a stack of convictions for kidnapping and unlawful detention. In unsuccessful attempts to free cult members from their invisible prisons, Patrick was repeatedly thrown into real ones, in New York, California and Colorado. In July 1976, during a time when Americans were celebrating their two hundredth year of freedom, Patrick was sentenced to serve a year in prison for a cult kidnapping he did not in fact perform.
Patrick confirmed our own perspective when he described the method of control used by many cults, beginning with the moment the recruiter hooks his listener.
"They have the ability to come up to you and talk about anything they feel you're interested in, anything," he said. "Their technique is to get your attention, then your trust. The minute they get your trust, just like that they can put you in the cult."
It was in 1971 that Patrick infiltrated the Children of God, the cult that had tried to recruit his son, Michael, one Fourth of July on Mission Beach in San Diego. His initial concern over the cults was personal but it also had a public side. Worried parents had already appealed to him for help in his official capacity as head of community relations for California's San Diego and Imperial counties. Patrick had moved to the area years earlier and became active in local politics working against discrimination in employment. During the Watts riots is Los Angeles in 1965, he helped calm racial unrest in San Diego. His public service caught the attention of then California's Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, who appointed Patrick, an active Democrat, to the community relations post.
"Thinking to a cult member is like being stabbed in the heart with a dagger," said Patrick. "It's very painful because they've been told that the mind is Satan and thinking is the machinery of the Devil."
Having gained personal insight into the manner in which that machinery may be brought to a halt, Patrick developed his controversial deprogramming procedure, the essence of which, he explained, was simply to get the individual thinking again.
"When you deprogram people," he emphasized, "you force them to think. The only thing I do is shoot them challenging questions. I hit them with things that they haven't been programmed to respond to. I know what the cults do and how they do it, so I shoot them the right questions; and they get frustrated when they can't answer. They think they have the answer, they've been given answers to everything. But I keep them off balance and this forces them to begin questioning, to open their minds. When the mind gets to a certain point, they can see through all the lies that they've been programmed to believe. They realize that they've been duped and they come out of it. Their minds start working again."
That, according to Patrick, was all there was to deprogramming. Yet since Patrick began deprogramming cult members, both the man and his procedure had taken on monstrous proportions in the public eye. Patrick's legendary kidnappings, a tactic he employed only as a last resort, often brought him into physical confrontation with cult members who had been warned that Black Lightning was an agent of Satan who would subject them to unimaginable tortures to get them to renounce their beliefs. Cult members who managed to escape their parents and Patrick before being deprogrammed frequently ran to the media with horror stories about the procedure. One young woman charged on national television that Patrick had ripped her clothes off and chased her nude body across the neighbors' lawns. Other active cult members claimed to have been brutally beaten by Patrick, yet no parent, ex-cult member or other reliable witness we talked to ever substantiated any of those charges. In truth, Patrick told us, and others later confirmed, many of the distortions that had been disseminated about deprogramming were part of a coordinated campaign by several cults to discredit his methods. In the end, he said, the propaganda only worked to his advantage.
"The cults tell them that I rape the women and beat them. They say I lock them in closets and stuff bones done their throats." Patrick laughed. "What they don't know is that they're making my job easier. They come in here frightened to death of me, and then because of all the stuff they've been told, I can just sit there and look at them and I'll deprogram them just like that. They'll be thinking, What the hell is he going to do now? They're waiting for me to slap them or beat them and already their minds are working."
In the beginning, Patrick admitted, he developed his method by trial and error, attempting to reason with cult members and learning each cult's rituals and beliefs until he cracked the code. Refining his procedure with each case, he came to understand exactly what was needed to pierce the cult's mental shield. Like a diamond cutter, he probed with his questions the rough surface of speech and behavior until he found the key point of contention at the center of each cult member's encapsulated beliefs. Once he found that point, Patrick hit it head on, until the entire programmed state of mind gave way, revealing the cult member's original identity and true personality that had become trapped inside.
We asked him to describe a typical deprogramming from the beginning and, then, how he knew when a person had been deprogrammed, that is when he could say for sure that he had done his job.
"The first time I lay eyes on a person," he said, staring at us intently, "I can tell if his mind is working or not. Then, as I begin to question him, I can determine exactly how he has been programmed. From then on, it's all a matter of language. It's talking and knowing what to talk about. I start moving his mind, slowly, pushing it with questions, and I watch every move that mind makes. I know everything it is going to do, and when I hit on that one certain point that strikes home, I push it. I stay with that question whether it's about God, the Devil or that person's having rejected his parents. I keep pushing and pushing. I don't let him get around it with the lies he's been told. Then there'll be a minute, a second, when the mind snaps, when the person realizes he's been lied to by the cult and he just snaps out of it. It's like turning on the light in a dark room. They're in an almost unconscious state of mind, and then I switch the mind from unconsciousness to consciousness and it snaps, just like that."
It was Patrick's term this time we hadn't said the wordfor what happens in deprogramming. And in almost every case, according to Patrick, it came about just that suddenly. When deprogramming has been accomplished, the cult member's appearance undergoes a sharp, drastic change. He comes out of his trancelike state and his ability to think for himself is restored.
"It's like seeing a person change from a werewolf into a man," said Patrick. "It's a beautiful thing. The whole personality changes, the eyes, the voice. Where they had hate and a blank expression, you can see feeling again."
Snapping, a word Ted Patrick used often, is a phenomenon that appears to have extreme moments at both ends. A moment of sudden, intense change may occur when a person enters a cult, during lectures, rituals and physical ordeals. Another change may take place with equal, or even greater, abruptness when the subject is deprogrammed and made to think again. Once this breakthrough is achieved, however, the person is not just "snapped out" and home free. Deprogramming always requires a period of rehabilitation to counteract an interim condition Patrick called "floating Patrick told us, he recommended that his subjects return him to everyday life and normal social relationships as quickly as possible. In that environment, the individual, must then actively work to rebuild the fundamental capacities of thought and feeling that have been systematically destroyed.
"Deprogramming is like taking a car out of the garage that hasn't been driven for a year," he said. "The battery has gone down, and in order to start it up you've got to put jumper cables on it. It will go dead again. So you keep the motor running until it builds up its own power. This is what rehabilitation is. Once we get the mind working, we keep it working long enough so that the person gets in the habit of thinking and making decisions again."
Deprogramming added a whole new dimension to the already complex mystery of snapping. In one sense, deprogramming confirms that some drastic change takes place in the workings of the mind in the course of a cult member's experience, for only through deprogramming does it become apparent to everyone, including the cult member, that his actions, expressions and even his physical appearance have not been under his own control. In another sense, deprogramming is itself a form of sudden personality change. Because it appears to be a genuinely broadening, expanding personal change, it would seem to bear closer resemblance to a true moment of enlightenment, to the natural process of personal growth and newfound awareness and understanding, than to the narrowing changes brought about by cult rituals and artificially induced group ordeals.
What is it like to experience the sudden snap of a deprogramming? As a result of Ted Patrick's efforts, and others, there are now thousands of answers to the question. Patrick claims to have personally deprogrammed more than two thousand cult members; thousands more have been deprogrammed by other deprogrammers and professional "exit counselors" who have since entered this fledgling field. In our first round of cross-country travels, we spoke with dozens of ex-cult members, many of whom had been deprogrammed by Patrick. As far as we could see, his clients showed no scars, either physical of mental, from their deprogramming experience. Most seemed to be healthy, happy, fully rehabilitated and completely free of the effects of cult life.
In contrast to the many tales of cult conversion that we heard, which after a while began to sound virtually identical, each story of a Patrick deprogramming was its own spellbinding adventure, rich with intrigue and planned in minute detail. The first step in the process was almost always to remove the member from the cult, which might be accomplished by abduction, legal custodianship or, as Patrick seemed to prefer, simply a clever subterfuge.
One puzzle of snapping that the deprogramming process illuminates is the enormous amount of mental activity that takes place in the unthinking, unfeeling state many cult members are drawn into. Ironically, most people we spoke with fought desperately to preserve their blissed-out states, although they often were saturated with fear, guilt, hatred and exhaustion. In the beginning this seemed to present a disturbing contradiction: How could an individual whose mind has apparently been shut off, who has been robbed of his freedom of thought, display such cunning and initiative? What the deprogramming process demonstrated is that cult members do not simply snap from a normal conscious state into one of complete unconsciousness (and vice versa during deprogramming). Rather, most pass from one frame of waking awareness into a second, entirely separate, frame of awareness in which they may be equally active and perceptive.
We talked with an ex-member of the Church of Scientology, one the oldest and cagiest of America's cults, who took steps to preserve his cult frame of mind during his deprogramming, until Patrick's adept conversational skills caught his attention and he snapped out.
"I tried to pretend that I was listening," this former Scientologist told us, "but I also tried to stay spaced out and not really pay attention. Occasionally, something would go pop and I would suddenly be listening to him. From his continuously talking like that, he just snapped me out of the spaced-out state I was in. All of a sudden I felt a little flushed. I could feel the blood rushing through my face."
Through two decades of legal battles and repeated periods of imprisonment and probation, few people spoke up in defense of Ted Patrick or the pioneering work he was doing, ultimately, at his own great personal and financial expense. No mainstream mental health organization or established social institution has yet taken a stand on behalf of his concept of freedom of thought. Part of the problem, especially in those years, was attributed to Patrick's manner of action. In his single-minded focus on rescuing cult members, he minced no words and wasted little time on social niceties. As a result, he often irked and alienated those parents, clinicians and law enforcement officials who might otherwise be his natural allies.
Yet, regardless of his style, the grave questions Patrick first flamboyantly brought to public attention are not the ones we can choose to like or dislike nor will they simply go away if we ignore them. Is an individual free to give up his freedom of thought? May a religion, popular therapy, political movement or any other enterprise systematically attack human thought and feeling in the name of God, the pursuit of happiness, personal growth or spiritual fulfillment? These are questions that Americans, perhaps more than others, are not prepared to deal with, because they challenge long-standing constitutional principles and cultural assumptions about the nature of the mind, personality and human freedom itself.
In the months after out trip to the Orange county Jail we spoke with many people about Ted Patrick: parents, ex-cult members, attorneys, mental health professionals and others who, at the time, were only dimly aware of the building controversy over some alleged forms of religion in America. Some denounced him as a villain and a fascist, others hailed him as a folk hero and dark prophet of what lay ahead for America. Yet Patrick himself showed little concern for titles or media images.
Through the eighties, Black Lightning remained a lightning rod, a target for aggressive counterattacks and disinformation campaigns waged against deprogramming by major cults and more mainstream fundamentalist Christian sects. By the mid-nineties, he was widely presumed to be out of commission, but Patrick was still active, working mostly on voluntary deprogrammings and rehabilitation counseling. In the interim, swayed by a changing religious, political and social climate, courts across the country grew cold to deprogramming. Another pioneering deprogrammer, New York cult counselor and private detective Galen Kelly, was prosecuted on criminal charges in two separate cases but was convicted and spent more than a year in prison on the second before an appeals court overturned his conviction.
Those cases and others brought a global chill. In the new climate, judges were deaf to the pleas of the parents and families of cult members, and the precarious deprogramming profession was largely eclipsed by the efforts of the new generation of cult "exit counselors." Exit counselors we talked with, many of them one-time sect members themselves who had gone on to acquire clinical training and credentials, were testing a wide range of eclectic approaches, some more successful, some less so. Many were generalists, counseling cultists and families across America and, increasingly, in other countries. Some specialized in counseling ex-Moonies, members of Eastern cults, of controlling charismatic groups and extreme fundamentalist sects.
Most confirmed a pattern we, too, had noted: the new methods of voluntary deprogramming and exit counseling, while far less controversial and much safer from a legal standpoint, prompted fewer cult members to experience a sudden "snapping out" of their controlled states of mind. Instead, most experienced a slower process of emergence, or as Rick Ross, an exit counselor from Arizona, called it, a gradual "unfolding" from the cults' ingrained altered states. Afterwards, many required additional counseling, specialized rehabilitation and, for some, ongoing psychotherapy to recover their personalities and regain full control over their impaired powers of mind.