How Deprogramming Works

Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple, was responsible for the deaths of more than 900 people at his Jonestown compound in Guyana in 1978.
Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple, was responsible for the deaths of more than 900 people at his Jonestown compound in Guyana in 1978.

Guyana, 1978. On the grounds of the People's Temple Agricultural Project, men, women and children are lining up to get a drink. Within five minutes of swallowing the cyanide-laced concoction, they're dead. More than 900 people die over the course of the day in the largest single, non-natural loss of American lives prior to Sept. 11, 2001 [source: Miller]. The People's Temple Agricultural Project is better known as Jonestown. If you've ever wondered where the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" comes from — this is it.

The People's Temple was formed during the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and '70s. The group's charismatic leader, Jim Jones, preached a fusion of racial integration, socialism and spiritual awakening. Jones attracted a sizable following and enjoyed popular support from political leaders around the U.S.

But government investigations into the inner workings of his organization led Jones to relocate his operations to a remote corner of Guyana in 1976. There, convinced that his group was under threat from outside forces, Jones arranged rehearsals of mass suicide.

Anxious relatives of some project members lodged complaints against Jones in court and in the media, leading U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan to visit Jonestown in November 1978. After a short visit, Ryan left with a generally favorable view of the project. But he took with him a number of people who had chosen to leave the group. As he was preparing to depart from a nearby airstrip, members of the project's Red Guard shot and killed Ryan and several others.

This event triggered Jones' decision to carry through with the long-planned mass suicide that has since become known as the "Jonestown Massacre."

In the wake of the catastrophe, a group called the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was formed. The service CAN provided was called "deprogramming."

Programming Deprogramming

Guyanese officials found piles of paper cups with cyanide-laced fruit punch and syringes at Jonestown.
Guyanese officials found piles of paper cups with cyanide-laced fruit punch and syringes at Jonestown.

Jonestown was just one of many countercultural groups that emerged during the social and political ferment of the 1960s and '70s. Around the country, thousands of disaffected young people were joining communities organized around social and spiritual principles that were often at odds with the larger society.

Some of these groups persisted, most disbanded after a short time and a small minority took the form of cults. For mainstream parents, now panic-stricken by the deaths in Jonestown, it was sometimes hard to tell whether their wayward children had joined a harmless cooperative venture or a dangerous personality cult.

The term "cult" is slippery. It has several meanings. In its most traditional form it refers to the veneration of a particular person, often a saint. Devotion to the Virgin Mary, for instance, is sometimes referred to as the Marian Cult. Christianity itself began as a cult devoted to Jesus.

Today, small religious communities that coalesce around a single charismatic leader are frequently referred to as cults. And in that context, "cult" has come to have negative connotations in the popular imagination. When we hear the word "cult," many of us imagine brainwashed devotees of some megalomaniacal, self-appointed messiah figure who, at any moment, might incite dangerous behavior.

It was with this notion in mind that the Cult Awareness Network began offering its services after the Jonestown Massacre. For a price, concerned parents could hire the network to get their children out from under the influence of their chosen cult and de-brainwash or "deprogram" them. The hope was that, once deprogrammed, the former cult members would return to their pre-cult ways and reintegrate into mainstream society.

However, many so-called cult followers professed to have freely chosen their lifestyles and CAN couldn't simply persuade them to leave their group. From the get-go, the network adopted the practice of kidnapping the very people they'd been hired to help. They would then sequester them and begin the deprogramming process. Their methods soon proved highly controversial.

Theory & Practice

High-school dropout Ted Patrick charged thousands of dollars to perform his deprogramming techniques on people whose families feared they were losing themselves in destructive cults.
High-school dropout Ted Patrick charged thousands of dollars to perform his deprogramming techniques on people whose families feared they were losing themselves in destructive cults.
David Cupp/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The founder of the Cult Awareness Network was Ted Patrick, a high-school dropout who was among the first to develop deprogramming techniques. There were a few others who set themselves up as deprogrammers, but Patrick was, by far, the most prominent of the bunch. Patrick was self-taught; he first developed his techniques when convinced his son had been brainwashed by a cult. He had no formal training and created his deprogramming methods from scratch.

Starting in the early 1970s and working for fees as high as $25,000, Patrick would hire muscle to kidnap targets and bring them to an isolated location [source: LeMoult]. There, he would deprive them of sleep, berate them endlessly with questions and accusations, bring in relatives to question and shout at them, and tell them that all this would continue until they recanted their unacceptable beliefs and practices. In some cases he used physical violence to get results. Remarkably, police and other authorities rarely intervened because of a widespread fear that the deprogrammers were doing what they had to do in order to counter the threat of a supposed brainwashing conspiracy. It was feared that the goal of this alleged conspiracy (possibly Communist in origin) was to deprive young Americans of their free will [source: LeMoult].

What deprogramming amounted to, of course, was a form of forced behavior modification. It was, itself, brainwashing. Patrick, and the parents who hired him, assumed that cult members must have been brainwashed, and therefore it was necessary to brainwash them, in reverse, in order to return them to "normality." Parents turned to Patrick and his ilk because even if they were to somehow extract their children from a cult, unless deprogrammed, these children were likely to return to their strange new community, like zombies. But as John LeMoult pointed out in his 1978 legal study of deprogramming, there's no evidence that cult members were ever brainwashed. Rather, they had converted to a new set of beliefs. And the expression of a person's beliefs, however unusual, is protected under the First Amendment.

This becomes even clearer when considering cases like that of English professor Sarah Wirth, a civil rights and anti-nuclear activist. Wirth's mother was so disturbed by her daughter's politics that in 1980, she hired Patrick to do some deprogramming. Patrick's henchmen grabbed Wirth off a street in San Francisco and hustled her into a waiting van. Handcuffing her to a bed for nearly two weeks, the abductors used food, drink and sleep deprivation in their attempts to change her political views. It didn't work [source: Rusher].

In another instance, the parents of Stephanie Riethmiller of Ohio believed their daughter was sleeping with her female roommate. Accordingly, they paid Patrick $8,000 to remediate the situation. Patrick's accomplices snatched Riethmiller from her doorstep and drove her to Alabama where, she later alleged, not only was she deprived of food and sleep, but also raped with the intention of returning her to heterosexuality [source: The New York Times].

Riethmiller sued Patrick, and although (incredibly) the jury acquitted him in that case, there were other, similar indictments and some convictions, with one resulting in his incarceration [source: Armstrong]. Cases against other deprogrammers were also mounting, and by the early 1990s, the whole idea of deprogramming was in trouble.


Worried parents sought conservatorships over their adult children in an effort to regain control and allow the deprogrammers to do their work.
Worried parents sought conservatorships over their adult children in an effort to regain control and allow the deprogrammers to do their work.
Marcin Balcerzak/iStock/Thinkstock

Such was the fear of cults in the 1970s and '80s that parents could apply for something called a "conservatorship," which would grant them and, by extension, the deprogrammers they hired legal authority over their adult children. Typically, conservatorships are granted only in cases where a person is deemed to have severe mental health issues. But when it came to deprogramming, conservatorships were often granted with no attempt to discover the mental state of the adult child in question. For civil libertarians, this was a clear breach of individual rights.

As early as 1977, before Jonestown, before the formation of CAN, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Executive Director Aryeh Neier was already voicing concerns about early efforts at "deprogramming," stating that it was a "dangerous trend." The Rev. Dean Kelley of the National Council of Churches considered deprogramming to be "the most serious violation of religious liberty in this country in this generation" [source: Nashua Telegraph].

It took another 20 years to effectively bring the practice of deprogramming to an end. In the mid-1990s, three deprogrammers named Rick Ross, Mark Workman and Charles Simpson kidnapped a man named Jason Scott, brought him to a remote area of Washington State and held him there for days against his will. There they physically abused Scott in their efforts to force him to leave the United Pentecostal congregation he'd joined. The three men had been hired by Scott's mother to deprogram her son. She'd been referred to them by none other than the Cult Awareness Network [source: Shupe and Darnell].

The deprogramming effort failed, and Scott brought a suit against Ross, Workman, Simpson and CAN. The jury found in Scott's favor, and the fine they imposed on CAN forced it into bankruptcy in 1996. Many consider this the end of deprogramming as a common practice [source: Shupe and Darnell].


Exit counselors maintain their practices are a safer and healthier alternative to deprogramming for people who have been in cults.
Exit counselors maintain their practices are a safer and healthier alternative to deprogramming for people who have been in cults.

But what about Jonestown? In other words, what about those anomalous communities that really do pose a threat to their members? Even if their children are grown up, should parents just stand by if they suspect disastrous consequences? What if they discover that their grandchildren are being subjected to questionable psychological or physical treatment?

Although for-profit deprogrammers exaggerated the scale of the threat posed by supposed brainwashing, they owed their existence to real anxieties in the culture at large. To help cope with these anxieties in the wake of deprogramming's demise, a new, modified methodology emerged, commonly referred to as "exit counseling."

No organization governs the use of the term "exit counseling," but in general it refers to a non-coercive, dialogue-based intervention that involves all stakeholders. In other words, all concerned parties, including the cult member and her family and friends, meet voluntarily with an exit counselor for an agreed-upon length of time. During these meetings, exit counselors might provide educational material about a given cult, facilitate a discussion of family matters and try to assess relevant identity issues. According to such models, issues such as unresolved family problems, learning disabilities and low self-esteem can be among the reasons why an individual might join a problematic religious group like a cult [source: Kent and Szimhart].

With all this in mind, it probably goes without saying that exit counseling bears a much greater resemblance to addiction counseling than it does to deprogramming. As with addiction counseling, family members and exit counselors sometimes spring a surprise intervention, but any follow-up counseling must be entirely voluntary.

Not all exit counselors are the same: Some use a therapeutic approach, some a rationalist one and still others come at the situation from a religious perspective. Prices for the services of an exit counselor can vary widely, but in 2002 it was estimated that the average cost is $1,000 per day [source: Kent and Szimhart]. Exit counseling has its skeptics who argue that individuals have the right to their beliefs without intervention, voluntary or otherwise. But others feel that in some cases intervention is warranted and necessary.

For those who are worried about their nearest and dearest but don't have a spare $1,000 to spend on exit counseling, there's also the waiting game. Given time and disillusionment, your loved one might just do what every cult leader fears most — get bored and leave.

Author's Note: How Deprogramming Works

This was a very tricky subject to write about. Open questions plague the whole matter — what's the difference between a cult and a "new" religion? Should parents feel justified intervening in their adult children's life choices? As a parent, I know it would be nearly impossible to stand by if I felt my kids were being manipulated and mistreated. On the other hand, of course, I wouldn't enjoy having my parents poke their noses into my business. But if minors are under threat or self-harm is imminent, doing nothing doesn't seem like an option.

Related Articles


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  • Armstrong, Lois. "The Deprogrammer of Young Religious Fanatics, Ted Patrick, Goes to Jail for his Zeal." People. Aug. 9, 1976. (Aug. 27, 2015),,20066755,00.html
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