What is Deprogramming?

When most people begin to search for ways to release friends or relatives from cults, they know little or nothing about mind control, the characteristics of destructive cults, or how or where to begin. Some may think the only available option is deprogramming, a coercive content-oriented persuasion approach, which can be lengthy, expensive and illegal.

In a classic deprogramming scenario, a cult member is physically abducted and held at a secret location or forcibly detained while visiting home. A security team guards the person for several days, 24 hours a day, while the deprogrammer, former cult members, and family members present information. They are held for many days until they snap out of the cult’s mind control (or pretend to do so).

The goal of this process is to reverse the cult’s brainwashing and destructive mind control influence through information control. With cult deprogramming services, power and control are placed in the hands of an external authority figure.

In the 21st century, people search the terms “cult expert” and “deprogrammer” to find help. They need to understand the history of these terms and the processes and how intervention has evolved into a non-traumatizing, ethical, legal approach.

History of Cult Deprogramming

In the early 1970s, Ted Patrick, a man with plenty of street smarts but at the time, no formal training in counseling, believed that members of his family were being brainwashed by Moses David Berg, the leader of a group called the Children of God, now known as “The Family.” Patrick was determined to take action. He reasoned that since cults use indoctrination methods that “program” beliefs through hypnosis, repetition, and behavior modification techniques, he would reverse the process. He called the new procedure “deprogramming.”

In the middle to late 1970s, an increase of media coverage brought about a rise in public awareness of the destructive potential of cult membership. Professional deprogrammers were being hired to forcibly rescue cult members with the aim of reversing the cult’s brainwashing.

For thousands of cult members, this proved successful. However, there were also many cases where deprogramming from a cult failed, resulting in members and cults bringing about lawsuits against families and deprogrammers.

In the 1970s, there were few other options. But by the early 1980s, exit counseling had become the preferred approach. Unlike deprogramming, exit counseling is non-coercive and legal. It is respectful of the person’s free will as participation is completely voluntary. But exit counseling is restricted to simply freeing the cult member by just providing information about cults and destructive influence.

Steven Hassan’s Strategic Interactive Approach

The Strategic Interactive Approach (SIA) encourages a positive, warm relationship between cult members and their families while helping to raise essential questions for cult members to consider. The SIA is non-coercive and empowers individuals by giving them the tools they need to detect and remove undue influence from their own minds. The SIA proposes a “dual identity” model: the cult identity and the authentic identity. The Strategic Interactive Approach liberates and then integrates the parts of the authentic identity that were co-opted by the cult identity. The goal is to restore the creative, interdependent authentic self, and enable the individual to digest and integrate their experience, and become stronger from it.

The SIA focuses on the development of healthy relationships within the family. The safe and nurturing environment created by the SIA offers many opportunities to heal old wounds. As an integral part of the family system, the cult member is automatically included in the process. The SIA provides a long-term recovery process for both the cult member and members of the family. Everyone is traumatized by the cult involvement, even those who are not directly involved. Feelings get hurt. Belief systems are assaulted or shifted. People lose sleep. They get depressed. Anger, frustration, and resentment are repressed. Each person who has been involved in the traumatic experience of having a loved one in a destructive cult needs support on psychological and emotional levels.

It is an ongoing process that makes each telephone call, letter, and visit more effective. The focus is on small, strategic, meaningful interactions that communicate unconditional love and provide space for the loved one to express doubts and fears. In some cases, a formal three-day intervention is beneficial. Many times, mini-interactions may make a formal intervention unnecessary.

Differences Between Strategic Interactive Approach and Cult Deprogramming

Deprogramming does not take into account the problems that may have existed before the cult involvement and which may persist. It doesn’t deal with psychological issues in the cult member or in the family. It does not typically involve counseling family members, so it doesn’t address the damage done to them by the cult experience. Nor does it adequately prepare the former cult member for follow-up care. The experience often leaves scars that can take years to heal, if in fact they ever do. And there is little room to customize the approach to address underlying issues.

During deprogramming, power and control are placed in the hands of an external authority figure rather than within the cult member. The timing of the deprogramming is not based on the best interests of the cult member but, typically, at the convenience of family members and the deprogrammer. Deprogramming does not typically involve counseling with family members beforehand, so it doesn’t address the damage done to them by the whole cult experience. Nor does it adequately prepare them for follow-up care for the ex-member. In the aftermath of such situations, the cult member’s trauma, anger, and resentment can take years to dissipate, even if the deprogramming is successful.

The Strategic Interactive Approach accomplishes with finesse what deprogramming does with force by empowering the individual to be their own person; to think critically, to evaluate, and to reality-test; and to exercise their own free will. The person learns to listen to their inner voice, rather than the instructions of an authority figure.

They are able to reclaim their authentic identity and come to an understanding that they will have a better life ahead of them if they decide to leave the group. The aim is to empower them to make their own decisions, take back their lives and learn to detect and remove the virus of mind control on their own.

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