Joe Szimhart has been helping persons, families and organizations with cult-related issues since 1980 after he broke away from a damaging, two-year participation in a large New Age sect. In 1985 he began working professionally with cult awareness groups, deprogrammers and exit counselors.
Services include personal consultation, intervention services, lectures, interviews, recovery education, book reviews, litigation witness, and media appearances.
Two interventions out of many hundreds are described below. All are different.
Characters, groups and places in these stories may have fictitious names, but the events described actually occurred. Although these two case briefs describe successful interventions, around a quarter to a third of my interventions since 1985 did not result in the client's immediate defection from the abusive relationship or harmful cult.
Case 1: Ambushing Lance (1989)
This time the client that hired me had few resources. Kate could not afford to pay for two people to come to help her despite my reasonable rates. Her husband had been laid off for some time, and only recently found work again. Lance was a good husband, an engineer, but somewhat unhappy with his job. Kate’s sister put my expenses on her credit card so Lance would not suspect anything. The last thing Kate wanted was for her husband to find out that Joe Szimhart was flying to Houston on his credit card! The Prophet cult managers knew me well, and they had warned members about "the deprogrammer." Lance may have not heard about me, much as Brian [mentioned in a prior story] had not, because he was not in the group's inner circle or on staff that chanted 'decrees' against me by name, but we could not risk it. Kate and her sister picked me up at the airport. I spent the day with Kate at her home to prepare her for what was about to happen. Her sister stayed until 5 p.m. Lance would be home from work by 6. When he walked in, I was sitting at the kitchen table casually talking to his wife.
Lance hardly had time to hang up a coat and put a brief case away before Kate asked him to meet someone in the kitchen. Earlier I helped her to rehearse what she would say, but when it came time Kate could hardly get the words out. She said something like, "I’m sorry, honey, but I’m so afraid for our family, and I want you to listen to—." And then she broke down in tears. Lance looked confused. His first thought was that one of the kids was in trouble, or maybe that Kate had an accident. Maybe the man in his kitchen was some kind of agent or lawyer.
At that stage I took over the introduction. I calmly asked Lance to sit down with usand I told him why I was there, to talk with them about his religious group. He appeared only slightly perturbed with me. Kate knew that he might either ask me to leave immediately, or that he might leave. Most likely it would be the former, but Kate was prepared for either eventuality. If I left she would have to convince her hsband to invite me back. Her sister, who took Kate’s children to her home, was willing to come over to support her. Kate was ready to talk to Lance for hours alone if necessary. Her job was to convince him to agree to meet me anywhere he chose and for as long as he stipulated. If Lance left, she was prepared to go with him to make the same effort to parlay a meeting with me. In these surprise situations it is best to rely on curiosity to overcome fear. I tried to appear as non-threatening as possible and I apologized to Lance for the intrusion. Lance’s curiosity peaked, especially after I told him that I would leave whenever he wanted me to leave. With the threat removed he was in control. He really had nothing lose other than the group-induced phobia that he could lose his soul if he listened to a deprogrammer.
As it turned out Lance was a very nice person, as were most of the cult members that I confronted in intervention. He was more concerned about his wife’s distress than he was about me initially. He thought that his wife was agreeable to let him go to Los Angeles to a Prophet group conference. He did not know that I coached her to be agreeable so that she would not have to endure any more arguments until I got there.
When Lance first approached the Prophet teachings, he had little experience with esoteric studies. He took a TM course to learn to meditate when he was younger, and that was it. A nominal Christian, Lance was not satisfied with the churches his family attended. He thought there was something missing. What intrigued him about the Prophet group was the apparent direct contact that Prophet had with saints and angels, and that their form of prayer, the decrees, were applied "scientifically." I shared almost the same material with him as I had with Brian, but we got through it quicker. Lance was a practical man who wanted to cut to the chase. Brian pondered information analytically—or analyzed it ponderously perhaps. By the middle of the third day of our discussions Lance was sure he wanted nothing more to do with Prophet’s group.
Kate was suspiciously happy when he announced it. "How could someone be so convinced about a several years direction of belief one day, and three days later turn around completely? I can’t believe it happened," she said. "It’s as if ‘poof’ his old personality just reappeared!" To Kate what I did with Lance’s considerable cooperation appeared magical, but all I did was offer new information based on reasonable facts and evidence. As he absorbed it, he found that his awareness expanded with a keener perception so that he no longer fit or felt right in the group.
The hallmark attribute of any closed system or cult by that definition is constriction. To prove his resolve to Kate (and perhaps to himself) Lance asked me to go with him to a local tavern to celebrate his newfound, expanded conviction. To comply with the code of conduct in the Prophet group he had not eaten meat nor had a drink in two years! He was angered when he learned through eyewitness testimony that we saw on videotape that the leader secretly had alcoholic drinks all along, and that she and her family ate red meat. This angered him because the teachings and other members led him to believe that the "Masters" required followers to keep to those restrictions if they were to work through them to help humanity. The "body" and "subtle body" must maintain a level of purity, they said. Why should the leader be exempt from purity?
We ordered ale, and we each drank one (one is generally my limit on any occasion). One of my rules during interventions has been "no alcohol" for everyone involved until it is over. Alcoholic types become disinhibited easily after just one drink especially when they feel anxious. Clients who have a drinking problem are either in denial or they rarely tell me ahead of time. After one drink they may shift personality quickly and can drift easily into argumentative and opinionated remarks, or find other ways to disrupt the meeting with self-centered behavior. For all intents the intervention with Lance was over. He handled the ale rather well. Through Kate I knew that her husband never had a drinking problem.
I asked him how he felt about the intervention overall. With his wry sense of humor he said, "Well, what could I do? You ambushed me!" Lance would do well with recovery on his own with minimal support from me. I gave him a reading list that helped him, and he spoke with several ex-members at my recommendation. He and Kate renewed their relationship. His anxious children felt enormous relief when he told them of his decision to drop out of the group. He told them, "Dad is back home again." I felt like shedding a tear or two when he revealed this to them in front of me just before I left. Lance also told me that he was going to speak with a couple who were in his Prophet-cult study group in Houston. He hoped they would call me.
They did. Two weeks later over a long weekend I successfully exited a group of four people in that family--a middle-aged couple, their adult daughter and her husband at the same time.
Twenty-five years later Kate emailed me. Her kids were grown and doing well. Lance and Kate were yet married but Kate expressed some concern that Lance never got past some of the bizarre beliefs he once had. He was often on the Internet exploring conspiracy and fringe belief sites.
Anomie: 1. Social instability caused by steady erosion of standards and values. 2. Alienation and purposelessness experienced by a person or a class as a result of a lack of standards and values. 3. Personal disorganization resulting in unsocial behavior—American Heritage Dictionary
*NB: This case occurred in 1989, 2 years before I ended all involvement with coercively initiated interventions.
She reminded me of a young Lauren Bacall, the actress with a touch of class who starred with Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo and other films, but Susan was not an actress, nor was she famous. She had straight blond hair, blue eyes, and a slim body. She was shy, but very smart—up to a point. Her sophistication or "class" came from years of violin lessons, a few amateur orchestral performances, and less than a year of living in France after she dropped out of college. She had a year to go to get her undergraduate degree. Not sure of what she wanted to do with her life, Susan moved back from Paris to her family town, a small farming community close to Lincoln, Nebraska. Still not happy, she moved in with a friend outside of Chicago where she took a waitress position at one of the better restaurants. Her last boyfriend had not been faithful, so the last thing she wanted was another relationship. However one of her customers, who often came to the restaurant with his mother, soon noticed her. He sat upright, spoke with an assuredness that belied his thin, almost delicate frame. He was handsome and charismatic. At least that is how Susan described him. After several occasions for small talk while she waited on him, Gerard tried to interest Susan in a project. He succeeded.
He apparently enjoyed that fact that Susan had lived in Paris where she learned to speak French rather well and that she played violin. This set her apart from the average women and men that he knew. She had the potential for cultivation. Gerard was interested in cultivating special qualities among his circle, a small group of women and perhaps a man or two. It was a loosely formed group that met weekly at his home to work on principles and goals based on a system that he devised. He had self-published two books that represented his philosophy and poetry. One book, The Orator, was a cloth-bound, 200 pages long collection of his thoughts, of poetry and sayings by Gerard and famous people, and it had an illustrated model for achieving the goal of self-realization. Gerard was a self-appointed Objectivist in the Ayn Rand cult tradition.
Gerard, a long-time fan of Ayn Rand books, believed that America was a land of destiny and truth, but the "Jews and Christians" have nearly ruined it. It was up to people like Gerard and those he could train to restore the nation to the principles of the founding fathers. Gerard taught that significant framers of America’s Constitution personally decried the religion of the orthodox Christian and Jew. Gerard had been a successful "speaker" at a variety of venues, clubs and organizations who would pay his speaker’s fee. He lived with his mother, but in a rather well-appointed home. Gerard’s other book (1988 money) cost $2,500. It was a collection of his poetry and writings on 500 gilded pages bound in rare wood. Gerard was in his mid-forties when I met Susan in the late 1980s.
Susan’s father contacted me through a female deprogrammer who agreed to help him to convince his daughter to leave Gerard and his circle. For a year the father noticed his daughter withdrawing more and more from family to the point of cutting him off. Susan’s parents were divorced. They continued to communicate to one another especially when it came to Susan’s welfare. Susan’s mother openly tolerated her daughter’s involvement with Gerard’s circle, if privately she despised the fellow who she met only once. The father on the other hand criticized Gerard’s philosophy when Susan presented it to him in book form. The father realized too late that he had made a mistake by speaking honestly. Gerard had conditioned Susan by that time to reject and stay away from people who sided with the forces of moral decay in America. The litmus test for quality and intelligence, of course, was whether the person could both grasp and embrace Gerard’s philosophy. To his cult following, Gerard was a man of taste and destiny, a cut above the Madding crowd, Nietzsche’s great man, the individual paragon of will, reason, and power.
After reading Gerard’s book, the father concluded that Gerard was "full of shit," and he said those very words to his daughter. Susan was deeply hurt. I explained to the father that Susan might not completely believe in Gerard, but to dismiss Gerard so harshly placed Susan’s judgment into question. The father inadvertently told his daughter that she was stupid for falling for a slick con-artist. At least that was what Susan heard through the crude metaphor used by her father whose reaction had the opposite effect he wanted. Rules of argument reverse when one party assumes an absolute or near absolute position. Whether or not the absolute position is correct has little bearing on reaction—right or wrong a rigid thinker will alienate the outsider. Both the father and the daughter assumed a rigid view. The mother’s approach, however hypocritical, allowed for further communication, so the deprogrammer could work through the mother to arrange for a meeting with Susan.
Susan’s commitment to Gerard was strong enough for her to have moved into his household with two or three other women. This formed his inner circle. Gerard’s mother not only tolerated her son’s harem, but also relished the "girls" who did her cleaning and cooking. They worked and paid "rent" in the form of dues to sustain Gerard’s work. Gerard's "work" consisted of writing, lectures, and counseling his circle. Susan’s parents were alarmed by a report from a woman who dropped out of the circle. The dropout contacted Susan’s mother after months of deliberation and inner conflict. She was afraid to speak up for several reasons. After a month of feeling very depressed and confused, the dropout found a sympathetic and insightful therapist who let her tell her weird story without judgment.
The telling alone in the presence of an "outsider" allowed the dropout to realize just how absurd her life with Gerard for two years had been. Secondarily, she would have to admit to someone if not the world that she had made a mistake. Also, she did not want to interfere with Susan’s life behind her back, as they had been friends in the group. And the dropout feared repercussions from Gerard in the form of character assassination. She had been there during his diatribes against other members who dared to criticize him during a meeting. Even after one member left, Gerard continued with his caustic analysis of her personality. Since Gerard knew and had befriended the dropout’s employer, she was afraid of losing her job.
Behind the scenes the father paid for everything involved with Susan’s intervention, but he had to wait many months before she would approach him to hear his apology. Susan’s parents feared that Susan might get pregnant and not realize Gerard’s true nature until that point. Gerard did not want to raise a child, nor did he want children around. The dropout told a story of one of Gerard’s circle that was banished for just this reason—she did not want an abortion. Gerard would not admit to being the father. In fact, the men in the group did not believe that Gerard had relations with any of the women, and some of the women thought he was celibate too.
Susan’s mother began to worry after Susan gave a vague response when asked about sexual relations with Gerard. "Your question comes from a corrupt tradition that has lost the truth about sexual meaning," she told her mother. Susan would not answer the question directly, but she engaged her mother in a meandering debate about American values. Susan’s mother later realized that Susan was practically parroting Gerard’s teachings and not thinking for herself. The dropout confirmed that all the women and men in the circle talked like that. "It may be legal, and she has a right to follow that man, but there is something very wrong with my daughter. She’s not the person we raised," Susan’s mother told us.
My colleague in the deprogramming business asked me to assist with the case because she believed that my artistic and literary background (for what that was worth) would give me an advantage in communication with the client. Her hunch was correct in this case. My problem was not so much to relate to the philosophy and poetry of Gerard as it was to not laugh at it.
"A poet has risen among the people. He is called the Orator. Gods and Kings tremble when he speaks. Listen to him." And that was merely the opening page!
Susan’s father copied more than half of The Orator and forwarded it to me. I read the rest while on the case. The text was full of platitudes and empty of substance. No references save for simple attributions to quotes by Aristotle, Beethoven, Nietzsche, Genghis Khan, and less famous authors. Most quotes were from Gerard among those he proposed for a thirty-day meditation, one each day. Troubling to the family was what the father called a Fascist philosophy. Gerard wrote, "What about evil people? What shall I do about evil people who continue to hate me and fight against me because I am good? Good has a moral right to destroy the evil that seeks to destroy the good…It is a great achievement to destroy evil; to look it in the face, seize its neck with your bare hands and choke the life from it."
And who were the most evil people?
According to Gerard they were those Christians, Jews, and socialists who "have lied to you all your life seeking to control you."
"Sex is good and the Church says its bad."
"The majority of Humanity are fools. The majority of Americans are fools."
"I say it loud, proud and clear. You assholes have shat upon our world for more than five thousand years. The stench of your Jewish and Christian lies pours from your millions of churches built on rotting bodies of children who never knew what it was to be free."
At least Gerard was clear about the enemy.
I wondered if this man had been abused or abandoned by a father figure and stung by a rigid, fundamentalist upbringing. His writing style and content revealed a middle-aged man stuck emotionally and intellectually in an angry adolescent funk. He raged at an extraordinary caricature of a Christian or a Jew. His grandiosity spoke to a deep personality disorder called narcissism. Everything about his writing appeared superficial to me, like a costume of a king or a hero worn by a fantasy prone boy on stage. Gerard was the playwright, the director, and the lead actor among his small circle. Why had he struck such a loyal chord in those few in his audience, while so many others would turn away laughing at him? Why was Susan so enamored of him? I would soon find out.
Before I arrived my colleague had arranged to bring Susan to a safe house, a small cabin-like structure with two bedrooms and a living area. There was no furniture save for cushions. Windows in back rooms and bath area were boarded up. One, large affable man with long curly blond hair and a trim beard served as security. Reg was a forty-year-old carpenter in between jobs. He had two teenage daughters. He had served in Vietnam with the Army in 1971. Susan’s mother and brother were also present. They all slept there for one night before I arrived on the following morning. I soon discoverd that Susan had not only agreed to speak with me, but she seemed quite willing to stay without force. Her mother had paid for Susan to fly home ostensibly for a celebration of mom’s 50th birthday. I found out how they got Susan to the cabin.
I thought it odd that Susan did not put up a struggle when told to get in a car between the security fellow and the female deprogrammer in the back seat. The brother drove the car with the mother in the front seat to the cabin. Why they chose to begin the intervention this way, on hindsight, was influenced more by convention than reality. The conventional deprogramming model in 1989 stated that brainwashed people needed to be confined at first or they would merely run away. The non-coercive or exit counseling approach entailed that risk of a person leaving, but it would have worked with Susan. In this case, the argument over which way was best was moot. Susan agreed to talk with us.
Despite his protest we released Reg from his duties that first day. His protest had nothing to do with security needs. He was fascinated with the discussions and was truly interested in Susan’s fate. He merely wanted to stay, listen, and help in any way he could. He turned out to be a big part of why Susan felt safe during her "kidnapping." From the start he was both firm and apologetic. Reg acted as an intermediary to help reduce Susan’s hostiliy toward her family for tricking her this way.
Initially the entire abduction scene irritated Susan. She cried at first, but she later began to appreciate it as another surreal chapter in her increasingly asymmetrical life. Gerard, as it turned out, provided relief for her with his self-assuredness, simple system, and lofty if overvalued goals. He flattered her when she needed it, then gradually increased strict guidelines for her self-improvement. The guidelines became a closed system of fickle rules totally dependent on the Orator of the New Age of Man—Gerard.
Like the proverbial, legendary frog that will jump out of a pan if the water is hot, but stay in it if the heat is gradually increased, Susan adjusted and adapted to the "heat" as well as she could. When Susan met Gerard he was kind to her, he built up her self-esteem, and she felt comfortably excited by his wit and aesthetics. He could quote Nietzsche and he loved Beethoven. His tiny circle treated her well at first, but she soon learned that there was a pecking order or hierarchy surrounding the hero. Gerard’s mother was dominant in the household even though she rarely participated in Gerard’s activities. She expected that Gerard would either become a political leader or manage a company that offered self-improvement courses. But the project had grown slowly with little to show that America even noticed her son a tiny bit.
Susan’s will to remain had become dependent on Gerard’s will to affirm her progress. She kept a journal of thoughts about her progress. Long sessions into the wee hours of the day at the kitchen table served as therapy, and, according to the dropout, as a confessional. Gerard relentlessly micro-managed each member of the circle. He made each person feel that he could help him or her to purge all secrets, anxieties, and limiting thoughts of "error." Susan often went to work tired as much from lack of sleep as emotional exhaustion. Gerard often slept until late morning. It was not all drudgery however. Once a week the small Orator circle went to the movies to view films chosen by Gerard. Sometimes they attended classical music concerts. Susan’s life finally had purpose, or so it seemed.
At first Susan appeared submissive during the intervention, but we needed to determine if this was a form of passive aggression or her natural shyness or both. A person can appear to listen with interest, yet not engage in discursive thought. To know what a person is thinking I have to hear them say it. Apparent listening can go on for days during interventions and it will waste a lot of time. A passive aggressive reaction will allow an exit counselor to pontificate about the subtleties of mind control, hypnosis, historical facts about groups, ex-member experiences, and their personal stories for hours on end with little or no effect on the client.
I have observed many deprogrammers (and I include myself) fall into the pontificating pattern with passive aggressive or shy clients. My goal was to encourage Susan to talk about her experience. Not an easy task in her case, but she did offer a sketch of her life at the cult house and some insight into her sense of disengagement from life prior to meeting Gerard. It was enough. We sensed that Susan had leveled out in her experience with Gerard, but had no alternative in mind. In her heart Susan very much needed to seek outside of the Gerard circle, but it took her time to trust us as catalysts, two long days of time. By the third day she and we knew that she was not going back to Gerard except to get her belongings. Her brother volunteered to take her.
A turning point for Susan had nothing to do with talk about cults, mind control, or Gerard. We evaluated her state of mind prior to Gerard through family input. Susan reminded me of a woman that I knew in art school. That woman grew up in privileged circumstances, did not apply her talent at school, had a hedonistic approach to life, had three abortions in as many years, used drugs recreationally, and the last I heard she was dealing art and cocaine for a famous young artist. My art school friend's life was fascinating, the stuff of pulp fiction, yet she was only superficially happy. Depressed would not describe her mood. Without using the word I described a person who lived in a state of anomie.
Susan’s mother told me that she suspected that Susan had an abortion or a miscarriage while in France shortly after she broke up with a boyfriend. Susan never talked about it to her mother or us. I was not interested in knowing if indeed she did, but I told the story of my art school friend to illustrate a point. The point was easy enough for Susan to grasp. She thought she was going to live the Bohemian life and enjoy it in the fashion of the left bank writers and artists of another era. Unlike the artists of that era—Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, and all the rest—Susan had not developed a drive to create no matter what. She also had no connections among an emerging elite group of creative people. In France she had only her boyfriend who wanted to compose music and make his mark in the business, but marijuana became his muse.
As for Gerard, my colleague and I approached his cult obliquely. We happened to have been both involved in the same cult, but at different times and with different experiences. I told Susan about my old group and some of its beliefs. Mother Prophet’s self-proclamations made Gerard’s look tame. He may be the Orator who makes Kings and Gods tremble when he speaks, but our old guru was Mother of the Universe and the only spokesperson for Gods, angels, and all cosmic beings. She had 10,000 followers. Gerard had a mere ten to fifteen on a good day.
Susan laughed when I told her that my old guru could speak to gnomes and water spirits or undines. She found my cult beliefs ludicrous. But her casual effort of assessment of my cult beliefs opened various opportunities. We were then able to discuss Gerard’s statements and proclamations that Susan had not yet questioned in depth. She agreed with me that belief did not necessarily mean understanding or complete acceptance. I once "believed" in the possibility that Mother Prophet spoke for the cosmic hierarchy. Susan believed in the possibility that Gerard was a great man. If he was a great man, then she was a follower of a great man. That was better than being the failure that she saw in her future before joining with Gerard.
Gerard equivocated by presenting himself on par with Aristotle or Genghis Khan. I pointed out that Aristotle studied with some great minds, with Plato’s academy, and he developed a sophisticated set of arguments that supported his philosophy. The very Christian Church that Gerard so hated was also the Church that embraced St. Thomas Aquinas. It was Aquinas who incorporated Aristotelian thought into Christian theology, thus strengthening the scholastic tradition of that same Church. Had Gerard ever discussed that aspect of the Christian tradition? "No," she said.
My point was that history and philosophy were wider and deeper than Gerard would or could let on. We had some pages from Gerard’s book as concrete examples. Susan could not defend or support the philosophy beyond what she heard from her leader, so it became apparent that she had not begun to refine her questions. Gerard managed to impress her, but he also managed to suppress her and her quest to ask questions. His system was closed.
"What about evil people? What shall I do about evil people who continue to hate me and fight against me because I am good? Good has a moral right to destroy the evil that seeks to destroy the good…It is a great achievement to destroy evil; to look it in the face, seize its neck with your bare hands and choke the life from it."
Was that Gerard’s simple answer to a critic?
Susan never returned to Gerard the Orator's circle after the three day intervention. Susan had a lot of work ahead of her. Anomie would not evaporate overnight, and in her case not without some therapy. I saw her again one year later at a conference. She started school again and had reset her goals. She certainly presented as an attractive young lady, more self-assured and with a better command over her fate. Narcissus and his theater had no more power over her. During the intervention I mentioned that I failed to find a souvenir with the name of the small town we were in. At the conference Susan handed me a green John Deere cap with the town’s name on it.
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