At age 16, Neil Beagley died from a highly treatable urinary tract blockage. His parents were found guilty in his death and convicted of criminally negligent homicide two years later.
Jeffrey and Marci Beagley had adhered to the policies of Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City by relying on prayer and oils to heal their son instead of seeking medical care.
To gain insight into the minds of the Beagleys and their community, I interviewed nationally renowned cult expert Rick Ross. Ross is founder and executive director of the Ross Institute of New Jersey, and has been recognized as an expert on cults in 13 states and U.S. Federal Court.
Q&A with cult expert Rick Ross
Was this teenage boy capable of making the choice of whether to seek medical treatment?
Not without great difficulty, given the environment he apparently lived within.
People in tightly-knit groups like the "Followers of Christ" frequently live within what can be seen as a form of environment control. That is, their environment is largely dominated by the group and/or its leaders.
There is little meaningful opportunity to get outside feedback from an alternative source or perspective. Members of such a group closely associate with each other and have relatively little significant social contact with outsiders, other than through work and business concerns.
Children are often home-schooled.
Were his parents capable?
Not really, given their history in the group. In a sense they couldn't think outside the box. Like other members of the Followers of Christ, the Beagleys would predictably remain obedient to the group and its rigidly proscribed doctrines, despite the medical needs of their son. Anything less could potentially be seen as a form of betrayal.
People in such groups often find it difficult to differentiate between loyalty to the group and loyalty to "God." That is, the group essentially promotes a mindset where both become the same. Therefore, disloyalty to the group can be seen as disloyalty to God.
What is brainwashing exactly?
Essentially, "brainwashing" or what is technically called "thought reform" is a process of breaking down and subordinating critical thinking to the dictates of a group and/or its leader.
Robert Jay Lifton, noted psychiatrist and former instructor at Harvard Medical School, specifically laid out the criteria to identify a thought reform program in his seminal book "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism."
Thought reform is quite different from other forms of persuasion such as education, advertising, propaganda and indoctrination.
Psychologist Margaret Singer made such distinctions in her book Cults in Our Midst.
Perhaps the most visible net result of a thought reform program is that those subjected to it can be seen doing things that are not in their own best interest, but rather consistently in the interest of the group/leader.
In a court of law this net result might be described as gaining "undue influence."
Is the Followers of Christ Church community a cult? Are its members brainwashed?
In my opinion the "Followers of Christ" would fit within the criteria of "cult formation," as established by Robert Jay Lifton, which are
- Evidence of a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power.
Though the reportedly totalitarian leader of the Oregon City "Followers of Christ" Walter White is dead, the force of his personality remains evident in the absolute authority of his teachings, which continues without question. Many groups called "cults" continue beyond the death of a leader and/or founder. For example, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who has many remaining devotees in a group known as "Osho."
- Evidence of a process, which Lifton calls coercive persuasion or thought reform.
In my opinion Followers of Christ exercise coercive persuasion over its members.
- Evidence of economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie, which would define a group as destructive.
The exploitation of Followers of Christ can be seen through the medical neglect of children and adults, which has resulted repeatedly in unnecessary deaths.
Is there any way to resist brainwashing?
Yes. By moving outside of a controlled environment or social network and then studying the process of thought reform independently to identify its components and understand how it works.
The success of a thought reform program relies largely upon deception and/or ignorance. Those who can see how it operates and understand its implications can be in a sense substantially inoculated.
We sometimes hear that former cult members undergo deprogramming. What is that? How does it work?
What is called deprogramming is the process of unraveling and identifying a thought reform program. This is often done somewhat like a drug or alcohol intervention.
During deprogramming, a person is exposed to information which helps them identify parallels between thought reform and their personal experience with a certain group or leader.
The issue of cult formation is likewise discussed.
The net result is often someone who is then able to make a more informed decision concerning their continued involvement with a certain group or leader, which has been the focus of the intervention.
How feasible is it for people who have lived their lives inside the cult?
If someone is submerged in a cult it may quite difficult to work with them due to limited access. That is, until they step outside the group environment and/or become relatively accessible.
This group has been in the news three times in recent memory for deaths related to faith healing situations. This is the first time that parents have been found guilty of homicide. Do you think this will be the last time something like this will happen to them?
Given the troubled history of Followers of Christ, it is more likely that the Beagleys will be portrayed as "martyrs" and the group will continue its practices.
Perhaps, as it becomes clearer to the group that those guilty of medical neglect will not escape punishment, the group's behavior may change.
Meanwhile, in my opinion the children in the group must be protected by the law.
A religious group has the right to believe whatever it wishes, but that does not include the right to do whatever they want in the name of those beliefs.