Documentary film by Mia Donovan, 2015
Eye Steel Film, Canada
Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart, 2016
In 2011 someone posted this on a religion chat group: “What ever happened to deprogrammer Ted Patrick?”* The writer, Snapdragon, had read Let Our Children Go by Patrick and Dulak (1976) and Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change by Flo Conway and Jim Siegalman (1978). Snapdragon noted no news in twenty years about Patrick. One response to Snapdragon indicated that cults were no longer big news and that the Children of God sex-for-Jesus cult, one of the big five or six new religions targeted by Ted Patrick in the 1970s, had morphed into a smaller, tamer version restyled as The Family. Mia Donovan’s documentary film Deprogrammed goes a long way to answer Snapdragon’s query (not in the film). Donovan offers intimate insights into the origins of and controversies surrounding deprogramming Ted Patrick style, which often involved abduction of the cult member and indecorous debate about cult beliefs and leaders.
Patrick, now 86, began his cult intervention career in 1971 in San Diego. He inadvertently initiated a shadowy industry of interventionists as well as several anti-cult organizations. The latter found in Patrick’s approach something concrete to do about thousands if not millions of mostly young adult seekers suddenly taken in by controversial new religions and unmoderated self-help movements. Simply put, families could kidnap a cult member and hire deprogrammers, hopefully to break the “spell” of the cult, thus curing the problem. It was not that easy, of course, and Donovan’s careful film makes that very clear. Coercive deprogrammers operated in America and abroad for perhaps two decades—Patrick attempted one of his last kidnap-style interventions in the early 1990s. The majority of his attempts occurred between 1971 and 1980. Donovan’s interest in this topic was personal. One of her main subjects in the film was her step-brother, Matthew Robinson, who was one of Patrick’s last, if ill-advised interventions. Matthew is yet embittered by his interaction with Patrick around 1993.
By way of disclosure, I have had some skin in this deprogramming game. I stood trial in Idaho for one month in 1993 for criminal charges of allegedly abducting a cult member—I was acquitted. My formal intervention career began in 1985. That was when I first agreed to assist two seasoned deprogrammers in an intervention. That intervention was semi-coercive. There was no security save a husband and his parents and the thirty-degrees below zero weather in Minnesota at the time. We stayed indoors. The wife, age 31, had become immersed in a large New Age sect, one that I had been devoted to for over a year until I defected in 1980. So, I was the token ex-member there to explain why I defected. My reputation grew. Subsequently, I got caught up in the intervention business and made most my living as a cult interventionist from 1986 through 1998. Most cases by far involved no illegal coercion. The last case I did that involved coercion was in 1992 with a naïve, female college student who fell under the sway and sexual abuse of a bizarre music teacher, aged 55. He manipulated the 19 year old student with Applied Kinesiology, a bogus channeling technique. The family members would not allow the young lady to leave the house the first night. The next morning, she agreed to stay and talk with me and Galen Kelly for three days. That intervention was successful.
Donovan concentrates on several individuals who encountered Patrick decades ago as subjects of deprogramming. We hear from them currently as well as from them on archival news videos with Patrick confronting them. Patrick regularly used the curious news media to get his message out. One subject was in the Unification Church or Moonies, another followed Swami Rudrananda or “Rudi” who was of German heritage, and another was in the Christ Family led by Lightning Amen. The last man, now elderly, is yet a believer living on the dwindled group’s communal grounds after the leader died. After Patrick freed the son of Sondra Sacks from the Hare Krishna movement in 1973, she became his secretary. Sacks appears in the film to tell her story. Professor of sociology Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta offers a social science perspective on the cult phenomenon and the impact of deprogramming. We also meet Flo Conway and Jim Siegalman, mentioned above, the researchers who met with Patrick and dozens of ex-members. As brought out in this film, their 1978 book Snapping utilized subjects of Patrick’s interventions for much of the data. Snapping may have been science deficient, but it did address a very real problem that no other journalists had tackled to that depth. The problem was “information disease,” a phrase the authors coined to indicate the content of mind in converts influenced by deceptive, controversial movements.
Richard Dawkins, the famed atheist, in 1976 coined the neologism “meme” (imitated idea) that reinforces the possibility of information disease. Memes, per Dawkins, can “go viral” using an evolutionary or biological model, so flawed, dangerous, or “diseased” memes can go viral. This is another way of saying that cult members participate in a shared delusion. The evidence was noted by Patrick in his nephew and his friends who nearly got recruited by a local Jesus cult and when Patrick infiltrated that cult in 1971. Within days, Ted said he felt his mind giving in to the ideas of the cult despite feeling armored against it going in. Patrick called it hypnotism or a spell—he was not far off though his grasp of cognitive function lacked sophistication.
Patrick sorely lacked training or education about social influence. His limitations led to his often-abusive tactics to “break” someone of a cult “spell” and that got him into legal trouble often. Conway and Siegalman called this sudden change process “snapping” indicating that moment during a conversion or deconversion experience when someone snaps into or out of identification with a cult belief. The film brings out deprogramming controversy when it portrays Patrick as a kind of crusader with good intentions if not the best of techniques. Social scientists viewed Patrick’s “cure” as more harmful than the “disease.” The film exposes that the worse Patrick could paint the cults, the more heroic he could appear. Nevertheless, Patrick had a direct hand in freeing many hundreds of cult members from cult memes or information disease.
I first met and spoke with Ted Patrick late in his career in the early 1990s at a national cult awareness conference that had, years before, moved to reject all forms of coercive intervention or deprogramming. Not everyone attending these conferences agreed, especially the old guard of Patrick devotees who felt that deprogramming was necessary to truly un-brainwash a cult member. Among these devotees were fundamentalist Christians, who in one survey that I recall, were more inclined than other demographic groups to approve of coercive deprogramming. Fundamentalists are especially invested in saving a cult member’s soul by bringing them back to the true Gospel.
In the film, we learn that Patrick grew up with Black church, Protestant values as well as a recognition that the Black churches had their share of bad cult leaders like Father Divine and Billy Sunday. Patrick revealed his myopic vision of cult history when he affirms that as a Black man he already knew of this cult phenomenon that lately, around 1970, hit White America. White America was well aware of cults--we have only to go back the the I AM Activity in the 1930s when it had tens of thousands of members, or to the 19th century communal movements.
The film does not bring out why Patrick had a string of successful deprogrammings in mid-career. People I knew that worked with Ted Patick were mainly ex-members that he might employ for relatively low fees to assist on cases. At his peak, Patrick had many cases going on simultaneously or overlapping, so he tended to show up days into the interaction with a captive cult member. Often, by that time, the ex-members had done their job well, but Patrick would come in, interact with the now ex-member for a day or less, take credit for the success, and collect the lion’s share of the fees. Patrick created a business model, a machine that made him famous and that many came to believe was the only way to free brainwashed people.
One of my peers in this intervention business, Rick Ross, appeared in the film to address the evolution of Patrick’s model into the non-coercive exit counseling approach. The latter approach allowed the targeted cult member to refuse to talk and to leave the intervention at any time. Ross claimed that Patrick laid the foundation for what later became the non-coercive model. Other peers were consulted including David Clark and Steve Hassan but do not appear in the film. No, I was not among those consulted, but had I been I would argue that the so-called exit-counseling model existed long before Patrick and Galen Kelly (not mentioned in the film) employed kidnapping to deprogram in the early 1970s. Uncounted thousands in the late Sixties entered and defected from cults either on their own or through contact with ex-members, concerned families, and ministers. Persuading someone to change his mind without kidnapping is an art we find already in Socrates.
One study conducted by the United Kingdom sociologist Eileen Barker indicated that fully 80% of Unification Church converts (Moonies) defected within a year or two by means mentioned above. Others might take several years, even decades before defection. Some die as believers. Being under a spell or brainwashed is never a fixed state—that is not how the average human brain works and most cult members are average people. Of course, there are exceptions with some people stubbornly holding onto a conversion no matter what. The clear majority of my many hundreds of interventions over the years were done through an educational model and without coercion. A version of that model was uniquely defined by Steve Hassan with the publication of Combatting Cult Mind Control (1988).
The purpose of this film was quite simple. It concentrated on the legacy of Ted Patrick. As I mentioned above, the filmmaker’s step-brother Matthew was the spark that brought Donovan into this project. She had not seen him in 20 years until she learned of her father hiring Patrick in the mid-1990s to deprogram Matthew out of what appeared to be a devotion to Satanism. Matthew, a heavily tattooed man who employs the F-word liberally, as a youth was troubled, rebellious, into heavy metal music, and most likely suffered from social anxiety and other disorders that were never properly diagnosed or treated. As we learn in the film, Matthew’s allusions to Satan were more for effect than devotion (there was no cult), so Patrick’s kidnap technique was totally misguided. It essentially failed after eight days of verbal and emotional assault, and at times sleep deprivation. The intervention may have done harm if we believe Matthew decades later.
In sum, the film was much better than I envisioned. It portrays a unique era of the so-called cult wars when American news was more focused with concern over bourgeoning new religious movements and therapies. The movements have not all gone away and new, radical ones continue to emerge. If nothing else, Ted Patrick helped to bring attention to a serious problem despite not coming up with the best or legal solutions. The problem has not gone away and viable solutions are still lacking. The film reminds us that the problem is complex as might be any solution. The film captures a unique aspect in the history of social reaction to radical new movements.