Schenzhen International Symposium on Cultic Studies 2010

Published by the Institute of Religious Studies Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

By Rick Alan Ross

My work regarding cult deprogramming began in 1982. At that time I was deeply concerned about a group that had infiltrated a nursing home where my 82-year-old grandmother was a resident. The group had specifically asked its members to seek jobs as paid professional staff at the nursing home, with the ulterior motive of targeting residents for recruitment.

My grandmother made me aware of this situation. And working with the executive director of the nursing home we identified the group members on staff, who were subsequently terminated. This personal experience initiated me in the world of radical religious groups and cults. I then became an anti-cult community activist and organizer.

During this period I was appointed to two national committees and later asked to join the professional staff of a social service agency in Phoenix, Arizona. At the agency it was not uncommon for parents to bring an adult child, typically a college student, to my office for consultation regarding involvement in a radical group or cult.

I would work with the families often in conjunction with our staff psychologist and/or caseworkers, in an effort to extricate the individual from any further cult involvement. Little did I know at the time that this process of intervention was called “cult deprogramming”.

During the 1980s I was involved in about 100 interventions regarding cult-like groups. Families would find me through the previously mentioned social service agency, a community educational Bureau that also employed me or were referred by local clergy, educators and community leaders.

During this period I worked largely within the Jewish community, though increasingly through related conferences and professional exchanges, I became of aware of a network of anti-cult activists and helping professionals throughout the United States. It was through my interaction with others doing essentially the same work that I later learned the type of intervention work that I was doing, was known as cult deprogramming.

Margaret Singer often cited as a leading brainwashing and cult expert [I] defined cult deprogramming as “providing members with information about the cult and showing them how their own decision-making power had been taken away from them.”

Over the years that basic process of sharing information and demonstrating to cult members how the power of persuasion may have compromised their critical and independent thinking, has been refined continuously and improved. In fact, the name “cult deprogramming” itself has become something of a politically incorrect term. Today most professionals engaged in cult intervention work prefer other labels to describe their work. For example, “exit counseling,” “thought reform consultation,” or “strategic intervention therapy.” 

Many believe that cult deprogramming can only be applied correctly to involuntary cult interventions.

However, the simple distilled definition provided by Singer remains the most salient and basic understanding of the process of bringing people out of destructive cults through intervention.

Involuntary deprogramming with adults is no longer done within the United States.

The only involuntary interventions that continue concerning cults within North America is done regarding minor children, under the direct supervision of their custodial parent.  Legal concerns have precluded anything else, though for a relatively brief time during the 1970s through a court provision known as conservatorship, involuntary deprogramming did occur legally with adults.

In 1986 I began working privately. That is, working as a private consultant and cult intervention specialist. Over the past 24 years I have been involved in hundreds of intervention efforts. My work has taken me throughout the United States, and to Canada, Italy, Sweden, England, Ireland and Israel.

I have continually developed and refined my intervention approach. The basic foundation as defined by Singer remains the same, but the details of that process has evolved, especially in consideration of improved information technology that has become available, such as the easy access to information through the Internet.

In the 1980s and early 1990s information was provided to cult members during interventions through books, videos and direct interaction with former members.

Today the process of providing information has been directly affected primarily by the advent of the Internet, related streaming video, teleconferencing, DVDs and other technologies. These advancements have made the gathering, organizing and presentation of information for the purpose of an intervention much easier.

My own preparation, presentation and communication approach has been honed and refined over the years.

My hope in presenting this paper is that I can share with you the basic structure and content of my approach in concise language. By sharing my approach with you we can hopefully better understand and further the development of cult intervention work.


The first step in the process of any intervention is preparation.

After a family, spouse or someone concerned contacts me requesting an intervention I must evaluate the situation and assemble a file.

This file includes an intake questionnaire [II] which is composed of about 50 questions. These questions relate specifically to the individual cult members background, history of involvement and specific concerns regarding the immediate situation.

Additionally, I will also collect information for my file, which is specifically about the group and/or leader in question.

Most often a series of phone consultations will follow.

Then there will be a sit down meeting, which typically takes place the day before the intervention begins.

In this process of preparation the family identifies who would be most effective for participation at the intervention. That is, which family members and/or friends have the most respect, admiration and emotional hold on the cult-involved individual.

One net result of the preparation process is to specifically determine what people would be best suited as members of the intervention team.

After identifying and assembling the team, here is what is usually discussed at the final preparation meeting:

  • What are the rules of engagement?
  • What are the boundaries and parameters of participation?
  • What roles will each family member or friend play?
  • What should they say or not say?
  • How will the intervention process begin, proceed and ultimately end?

The basic role of each family member and friend can best be summarized as largely focused upon two primary objectives.

These objectives are:

  1. Essentially anchor the cult involved individual. That is, to keep them from leaving, by helping to create an atmosphere of support premised upon historical trust and understanding. Simply put, the cult member will not stay involved in the intervention process for my sake, as I am a total stranger. But the cult member will stay out of respect for their family, friends and others concerned. This is vitally important because any intervention done with an adult is on a voluntary basis and therefore dependent upon their consent and ongoing cooperation. In the preparation process possible scenarios and/or potential situations are discussed. For example, the individual may become angry, get up and begin to leave. How should that be handled? Who would be most effective in persuading him or her not to leave and to stay?
  2. The family and friends also are there to provide first-hand eyewitness testimony. That is, what have they seen and observed regarding the cult-involved person’s recent behavior, which has caused them concern? At various times during an intervention a cult member may engage in denial. Since I have not directly witnessed what has occurred, I rely upon the family and friends present to share their experience to counteract any effort to obscure or deny the historical facts surrounding the situation.

We also must discuss and define our roles.

What is the role of the intervention specialist?

When is it appropriate and effective for family and friends to interject their opinions, testimony and concern?

I typically will advise the family to allow me the role of presenting the main body of information, leading and/or facilitating the discussion.

The Intervention

An average cult intervention takes 3 to 4 days, not including travel or preparation.

This means approximately 24 to 32 working hours spread out at eight hours per day not including breaks.

The more time I have, the more likely it is that the cult member will leave the group.

About 75% of my interventions have ended in success. That is, the individual that was the focus of the intervention decided to leave the cult by the conclusion of the intervention process.

Most of my failures have occurred within the first day or 24 hours of the intervention.

Very few cult members I have worked with for 3 to 4 days chose to continue with the group. Ultimately what this means is that the more time that I have the more likely it is that the intervention will be successful.

An intervention is an ongoing dialog or discussion. During such a discussion everyone present offers their impressions, observations and opinions. My role is to lead and facilitate that ongoing discussion, often directing and focusing attention on specific points.

There are four basic blocks or areas of discussion essential for the completion of an effective and potentially successful intervention.

These blocks of discussion preferably can be discussed in the order that follows, but this sequence may be rearranged during the intervention, due to the interest and focus of the cult-involved individual.

The four blocks of discussion are:

  1. What is the definition of a destructive cult?
  2. How does the process of coercive persuasion or thought reform really work?
  3. What is the history of the group and/or leader that has drawn concern?
  4. What are the family’s concerns?

First block of Discussion: Defining a destructive cult

The discussion specifically about the definition of a destructive cult is premised upon a definition provided by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Lifton’s definition [III] is precise and objective, based upon the behavior of the group rather than its beliefs.

Lifton states that “Cults can be identified by three characteristics:

  1. a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
  2. a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
  3. economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.”

The first criterion is that the group can be seen as essentially personality-driven. That is, defined by a living and totalitarian leader. He or she is the focus of the group and its driving force. Whatever he or she says is right is right and whatever he or she says is wrong is wrong. Members of the group therefore ultimately abdicate their ability to make many value judgments of their own in deference to the leader.

Within the intervention examples or profiles are given specifically of historical cult leaders and their personal power.

For example, well-known cult figures can be cited such as Jim Jones [IV], David Koresh [V], Shoko Asahara [V] and Charles Manson [VII]. The purpose is to establish a common thread and historical basis of understanding who and/or what constitutes a destructive cult leader.

Documentary DVDs may also be viewed, which report the history of particular cult leaders.

Conversation then is about how the particular group and/or leader, being discussed as the focus of the intervention, may in some way parallel the established definition and the historical examples given.

The discussion might then focus upon what if any meaningful accountability exists, which limits or checks the leader’s power?

Are there explicit boundaries regarding his or her influence?

Is the leader ever wrong?

Can the leader be meaningfully questioned or contradicted?

If the leader can in fact be questioned, contradicted and wrong, what are some specific examples?

At this point some simple observation might be made about the issue of thought reform, such as a pattern of behavior that demonstrates a lack of independent and individual thinking.

A perspective might also be posited that members of the group can be seen consistently doing things that are not in their own best interest, but that are consistently in the best interests of the group. 

The final criterion is that the group does harm and is therefore can be sees as a destructive cult.

The destructive nature of groups varies by degree depending upon the group.

Some groups may be more destructive than others.

The discussion here focuses upon what specific harm the group in question has done.

At this point documentation may be produced to establish a pattern of grievances and harm historically done as evidenced by previously published news reports, court documents and other sources.

Additionally, family members and others concerned attending the intervention may offer their perspectives.

Again parallels may be drawn between well-established historical cults and the group being discussed.

Second Block of Discussion: How does the process of coercive persuasion or thought reform work?

The discussion of coercive persuasion and thought reform techniques is based upon the writings of Robert Jay Lifton [VIII], psychologist Margaret Singer [IX], sociologist Richard Ofshe [X] and professor of psychology Robert Cialdini [XI]. The writings of these experts form a basis for discussion.

In Ofshe’s paper Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change he offers four key factors that distinguish coercive persuasion from other training and socialization schemes.

1.      The reliance on intense interpersonal and psychological attack to destabilize an individual sense of self to promote compliance.

2.      The use of an organized peer group.

3.      Applying interpersonal pressure to promote conformity.

4.      The manipulation of the totality of the person’s social environment to stabilize behavior once modified.

These basic group factors can then be layered upon and expanded within the discussion. Also examined is Lifton’s eight criteria as outlined within his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, which are used to establish the presence of a thought reform program.

1.      “Milieu control,” which Ofshe describes as the control of the environment and communication.

2.      “Mystical manipulation,” which Ofshe explains as emotional and behavioral manipulation done through the guise of group beliefs and practices.

3.      “The demand for purity,” or what Ofshe describes as demands for absolute conformity to behavior as prescribed and derived from the group ideology.

4.      “The cult of confession,” what Ofshe sees as the obsessive demands for personal and group confession, which ultimately render individual members completely vulnerable, transparent and without a sense of individual privacy.

5.      “The sacred science,” which Ofshe explains as agreement that the group ideology is absolutely perfect, faultless, or what Lifton calls its ultimate vision for the ordering of all human existence.

6.      “Loading the language,” explained by Ofshe as the manipulation of language often characterized by thought terminating clichés, which substitute for critical and analytical thought.

7.      “Doctrine over person,” further described by Ofshe as the reinterpretation of human experience and emotion as seen through the lens and according to the terms of group doctrine.

8.      “The dispensing of existence,” which Ofshe sees as the classification of those not sharing the group’s beliefs as inferior and not worthy of respect.

Distinctions are then must be made between the process of coercive persuasion or thought reform and other forms of persuasion such as education, advertising, propaganda and indoctrination.

Margaret singer provided a chart [XII] in which these distinct forms of persuasions are delineated as expressed in categories such as focus of body of knowledge, direction and degree of exchange, ability to change, structure of persuasion, type of relationship, deceptiveness, breadth of learning, tolerance and methodology.

It is important to discuss these distinctions in order to clarify that thought reform is a unique and separate category of persuasion, which unlike other forms of persuasion, can be seen as both coercive and deliberately deceptive.

In her chart Singer also expanded upon the three stages coercive persuasion as defined by Edgar Schein, an author and expert concerning persuasion techniques. Schein, a professor at MIT, outlined the process of coercive persuasion in three simple steps.

1.      “Unfreezing,” or what Singer describes as “the destabilizing of a person’s sense of self. This process includes “keeping the person unaware of what is going on and the changes taking place. Controlling the person’s time and if possible their physical environment. Creating a sense of powerless covert fear and dependency. And suppressing much of the person’s old behavior and attitudes.”

2.      “Changing,” or what Singer explains as “getting the person to drastically reinterpret his or her life’s history and radically alter his or her worldview and accept a new version of reality and causality.”

3.      “Refreezing,” or as Singer says, “Put forth a closed system of logic; allow no real input or criticism.” Ultimately this culminates in what Singer describes as a person frozen or “dependent upon the organization¦a deployable agent.”

Documentary DVDs may also be shown at this juncture in the intervention process to demonstrate these specific coercive persuasion techniques in action.

These DVDs might include news reports regarding destructive cults, which demonstrate their internal behavior. And also research regarding the suggestible states that can be achieved through hypnosis, trance induction, meditation, yoga, chanting and various repeated physical exercises.

How can such states of suggestibility be manipulated through guided imagery, indirect directives, peer pressure, modeling behavior and emotional manipulation?

The discussion then focuses upon how these criteria and coercive persuasion techniques are expressed by the group in question.

Those participating in the intervention offer their insights and perspectives about how the group demonstrates these criteria.

A review of more general influence techniques is also discussed.

This discussion is premised upon the writings of Robert Cialdini, author of the book Influence. In his book Cialdini, who is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, offers what he calls the “six principles of influence” which are:

1.      “The rule of reciprocity,” which requires that one person tries to repay what another person has provided. Singer explains that this rule can be twisted by cults. That is, the cult provides a sense of security, salvation, well-being and love, but expects its devotees to repay this through absolute obedience and compliance.

2.      “Commitment and consistency,” expressed by the desire to appear consistent through words, beliefs, and attitudes and deeds, which is valued by society. Singer explains that a cult can turn this rule around and make members feel guilty whenever they fall short regarding their consistent performance of duties and obligations through commitments made to the group.

3.      “Social proof,” a means used to determine what is correct by observing what others around us believe is correct. Within a cult environment Singer explains that “if you look around in the group, you will see people behaving in particular ways. You imitate what you see and assume that such behavior is proper, good, and expected.” Singer further explains that this rule can be used within a cult environment to stimulate compliance. “If you look around in the group, you will see people behaving in particular ways. You imitate what you see and assume that such behavior is proper, good, and expected.”

4.      “Liking,” people prefer to say yes to individuals they know and like. But as Singer explains new initiates within a cult group may be the target of seemingly unconditional love, which is frequently called “love bombing.” This makes members feel wanted and loved, and pushes them to like the people in the group. They then feel that since they like and/or love these people they should comply with their concerns, suggestions and be obedient.

5.      “Authority,” there is strong pressure within society for compliance when requested by an authority figure. Singer explains that this tendency to respect authority can easily be applied to a cult leader that claims superior knowledge, power, and a special mission. Members accept the cult leader as an ultimate authority.

6.      “Scarcity,” people assign more value to opportunities when they appear less available. Singer says if cult members are told that without the group they will miss out on living life without stress; miss out on attaining cosmic awareness and bliss; miss out on changing the world, gaining the ability to travel back in time; or whatever the group offers that is tailored to seem essential. The group may also may exemplify this rule by claiming exclusivity, i.e. no other group exists that can offer the same and/or equal path of fulfillment.

The discussion once again focuses on how the cult specifically being discussed exemplifies these principles or rules of influence.

At this juncture there may be a review of group literature through which examples can be seen. Participants attending the intervention may also offer their first-hand experiences dealing with the group and its leaders, which exemplify these points.

Third block of discussion: What is the specific history of the group or leader?

At this point the specific group that has drawn concern is examined.

What is its unique and particular history?

What is the background and personal history of its leader or leaders?

The objective at this point in the intervention process is to review the history of the group and also to focus upon and discuss whatever might have been hidden by the group and/or its leader from members.

What events have occurred that might have been falsely interpreted or propagandized by the group?

This process is of often currently made easier by the accessibility of information through the Internet.

Whatever file concerning the group and/or leader, which has been developed, will now be discussed.

Various press clippings, historical papers, court documents and televised news reports and/or documentaries may be reviewed that are specifically about the group and/or leader at this point.

The back-and-forth discussion at this juncture increasingly focuses on how the family views the history of the group and the specific involvement of the individual. Those present at the intervention may add additional important first-hand information about what they feel is noteworthy about the group.

This process offers the cult member a unique opportunity to evaluate and critically examine the group and its history outside of what is most likely a largely controlled environment. Possibly for the first time the cult member has an outside frame of reference, and feedback from different perspectives not controlled by the group.

Fourth block of discussion: what are the family’s specific concerns?

At this juncture family members and those concerned express why they feel it was important to stage the intervention and have the discussion.

They explain in detail, based upon their first-hand observations, why involvement with the group seems to them problematic or even potentially unsafe and/or dangerous.

For example, areas of concern might include the financial demands made by the group, diminishing and strained communication, increasing isolation, substandard living conditions, medical neglect, illegal behavior, sexual abuse, child abuse and neglect, present or potential violence and/or seemingly apparent psychological and emotional instability.

Each participant in the intervention at this point offers their personal perspective.

Anecdotal examples explain how these concerns have become evident.

This this is often the most volatile, difficult and emotional phase of the intervention.

My role through this process is to focus attention on how the group may have caused and/or exacerbated personal problems and situations.

For example, the intervention may have been prompted by a particular crisis brought about through cult involvement. This could be a pending separation or divorce, personal bankruptcy, serious but untreated illness and/or some type of pending or anticipated cult-related legal situation.

Case examples

What follows are some specific case examples of recent interventions within the United States and Canada.

This includes two cases that were successful, one that had mixed results and another, which ended in failure.

The [T] Institute

I was retained by a husband concerned about his wife’s involvement in a Neo-Eastern group called the “[T] Institute” located in […], California.

The couple had been married for more than 10 years with two children ages seven and nine.

The 39-year-old wife had been involved in the group for approximately 2 years. She had a master’s degree and had worked in the private sector as a marketing executive. However, in order to raise their two children she had given up employment to become a full-time homemaker. This ultimately caused the wife to experience a lowered sense of self-esteem and blurred her individual identity.

Initially, encouraged by a friend, she attended yoga classes at the [T] Institute. Her motivation was physical fitness, through regular exercise. She did not initially understand that [T] was a religious group.

But as the classes continued it became apparent that the group was not simply a place to exercise, but rather a group with the spiritual leader and particular belief system. The members of the group demonstrated extreme deference and devotion to their guru [Mr. R.], also known as “[D.S.].”

[Mr. R.] maintained a compound in Thailand in addition to his [T] facilities in California.

The wife’s involvement had continually escalated until it caused conflict within the home.

The young children were neglected due to her ever-increasing commitment and schedule at the Institute.

Ultimately, after many heated arguments the couple separated.

The wife moved out of the family home and took an apartment within a building occupied by [T] members.

After being retained I coached the husband to stop arguing about his wife’s involvement with the Institute, apologize for any angry confrontations they may have had and to filter his future conversations, eliminating anything negative.

After he did this for weeks the friction diminished and their relationship became increasingly friendly.

The couple remained separated, but agreed to take a family vacation in Hawaii for Christmas.

Upon their return from Hawaii the husband urgently requested for me to fly to California and undertake the intervention.

His wife had advised him that on January 1st she would be moving into a more controlled setting within group housing.

I promptly flew to California to begin my work.

Upon my arrival I met with the husband and his wife’s family members, which were included on the team for the intervention. This included both his wife’s parents and her brother.

I coached the family what to say and not to say regarding the parameters of their participation.

The family was encouraged to offer first-hand observations regarding their concerns, but not to be argumentative, accusatory or needlessly confrontational.

We also discussed who had the most emotional pull, to keep the wife from leaving. We discussed and rehearsed how to handle any sudden effort by the wife to abruptly cut off the intervention and leave.

I also reviewed with the family our main blocks of conversation, which we would go through during the days ahead. They asked questions about our schedule, breaks, food and what to do during the intervening evenings between each day of the intervention.

Our preparation process took several hours, the day before the intervention began.

A plan was set in place, which involved the husband requesting that his wife come to their home to watch the children while he attended a business meeting.

But when she arrived at the family home her parents, brother and I were all waiting and the children were being cared for by relatives at another location.

Immediately the wife recognized that this was a type of family intervention. She reacted angrily and initially refused to participate, running back into the garage. The wife was followed immediately by her parents. Prepared from the day before, they pleaded with her to return and talk things out. After about 30 minutes she came back.

At this point the husband introduced me as a consultant retained to facilitate the meeting and offer expert input. The wife asked me questions about my background, experience and the ultimate goal of the meeting.

I explained that the purpose of the intervention was to share information in an effort to present alternative perspectives, opinions and to explain concerns.

It was emphatically stated by everyone present that the final decision to separate, divorce and/or continue with the group was hers to make. We expressed hope that part of her decision-making process would include the consideration of relevant research, our sharing of information and discussion.

I talked about my many years of experience dealing with controversial groups and movements similar to the [T] Institute. And I pointed out that I had reviewed materials produced by the Institute and its leader regarding its history, structure, practices and purpose. I concluded by telling the wife that an organization with nothing to hide has no reason to fear examination.

At this point the wife agreed to stay and participate.

During the first day of the intervention we discussed an array of subjects which included portions of each of the four blocks of discussion previously outlined.

We touched upon the definition of a cult, the process of thought reform, talked about the history of the group and what concerns the family had.

We spent a full eight hours devoted to discussion and review on the first day.

At the conclusion of the first day I asked the wife to meet with us the following day. I also asked her to refrain from having contact in any way, shape, or form with anyone associated with the [T]. This specifically included e-mail, text messaging phone calls and/or communication of any kind. I explained that the many hours of her training at the Institute had been uninterrupted. And that our discussion on balance would also not be interrupted by [T].

The family expressed concern that her response to the information presented be her own thoughts and spontaneous, without any coaching or input from the group.

Once again there was an emotional outburst. The wife became angry and attacked her parents and husband, accusing them of interfering in her life and attempting to control her.

At this point the brother stood up and expressed his feelings. He stated that this situation was so important to him that he had given up time with his wife and children, driving many hours to attend the intervention. This immediately impressed upon the wife the importance of the family’s concerns again.

She then agreed to continue the discussion the following morning, without communication or interference from the group and to stay at the family home overnight.

As the husband drove me to my hotel we went over instructions given during the previous day of preparation. That is, that no one should talk about the group and/or related topics until we gathered together the next day. This must be done to avoid an argument, which might explode without me there.

The following morning we resumed our discussion. During this day we focused on the definition of a cult much more and in-depth. Our conversation frequently focused on examples of cult-like behavior, dynamics, structure and how this was paralleled by the [T] Institute and its leader Mr. R. Building upon these guidelines we also reviewed the group’s published literature and some e-mail communication between members, which had been obtained by the husband.

We watched a documentary DVD with historical footage about an assortment of well-known cults, which included the commentary of former members.

This concluded the second day.

At the end of our second day the wife seemed curious, asked questions and was neither angry nor argumentative about the intervention.

She agreed to meet again for third day without any difficulty.

On the third day we discussed in-depth the thought reform process of coercive persuasion.

This discussion included going over research material previously cited by Lifton, Singer, Ofshe, Schein and Cialdini, which served as a basis for talking points.

Again, there were frequent comparisons made regarding the similarities of [T]’s internal behavior and practices as parallel examples concerning the techniques being examined.

Towards the end of the third day we watched another documentary DVD, which was specifically focused on psychological and emotional manipulation. This included trance induction and related meditation techniques, hypnosis and the use of indirect directives. As altered states of consciousness are a primary focus of [T] Institute, we discussed the suggestibility and vulnerability of individuals while experiencing such altered states of consciousness.

At the conclusion of the third day the wife appeared intensely interested in, though also deeply disturbed by, the information we had covered. She was much more at ease with her family and particularly her husband.

There was no hesitation regarding an agreement to meet for a fourth day.

On the fourth day we discussed in-depth the history of the [T] Institute and its leader [Mr. R.]. We reviewed corporate documents, disclosure statements, real estate records and finally personal e-mail communications between [Mr. R.] and his followers, which the husband had obtained.

A pattern of exploitation began to emerge.

The organization purportedly had a charitable purpose and supposedly sought to improve the human condition. However, it was apparent that the guru lived a life of ease and luxury at the expense of his followers. This was made evident by the documentation, living arrangements at the group compound in Thailand and also through the persistent and personal demands made by [Mr. R.] through e-mails. All of this hardly reflected an “egoless” or “enlightened” being, but rather a selfish opportunist.

We watched additional DVDs illustrating the behavior of an array of cult leaders.

Repeatedly the family interjected their observations about the group and its influence upon the wife’s life.

Near the conclusion of the fourth day the wife was very quiet and finally began to cry.

She asked her family for their forgiveness concerning her “stupidity.”

At this point I interjected that it was impossible for her to realistically evaluate the group given the deceptive way in which she had been recruited and manipulated. And that her harsh self-judgment seemed misplaced.

What about the group and its leader?

What responsibility did they have regarding the negative consequences of their influence?

Didn’t they deserve at least some of, if not most of the blame?

We later discussed follow-up counseling and the various resources available in California for her continuing recovery.

The conclusion was a very emotional, but happy one, for everyone there.

The husband-and-wife reconciled. She had no further contact with the group and/or group involvement in any way.

The wife subsequently contacted me regarding concerns about the group potentially bothering her and/or her family.

[T] Call of God

A 30-year-old website developer, project manager and married mother with two children, ages six and two, became involved with an online religious group known as the “[T] Call of God.”

The group included about 20 to 30 active members connected entirely through the Internet.

The leader of the group, [S.T.R.], claims that he receives revelation directly from God. These revelations are then transmitted in the form of “letters from God” released through and published by [Mr. R.].

The group communicates almost entirely online using teleconferencing, frequent e-mails and website message boards.

Members are located throughout the United States, Canada and Australia.

[Mr. R.] himself runs the organization from his home in the state of […].

Contributions to the [T] Call of God are made primarily through the Internet.

The young mother living in Canada had been a member for two years before her husband and family contacted me. At this point she had recently told her parents and brother that she would no longer communicate with them due to her beliefs.

Her 10-year marriage was also becoming increasingly strained, though she still lived with her husband.

I was retained by the parents for the intervention, which was also supported by the young woman’s husband.

The preparation day meeting included all the family members together. Just as in the previous case preparation time was used to explain and discuss the parameters of our respective roles and what might be reasonably expected.

The following day the young woman arrived at her parent’s home for a special visit, ostensibly to share her beliefs and explain her commitment.

My presence was as usual a complete surprise.

She also did not expect her brother, sister-in-law and husband to be present.

All phones and Internet access within the family’s home had been disconnected.

After several hours of conversation the young woman became visibly agitated and protested that this was an “attack” upon her beliefs. I assured her that no one present wished to criticize her Christian faith, but rather the behavior of the group and its leader.

She calmed down.

At the end of the first day of discussion, which totaled approximately 8 hours, the young woman agreed to sleep over at her family’s home, turn off her cell phone and give it to her mother. We also asked that she make no effort to communicate with or contact anyone associated with the group. She agreed to these terms at the urging of her family and husband.

We spent an entire day discussing the definition of a cult, historical cults and how many cults are supposedly “bible-based.” Aspects of bible-based cults were then outlined in parallel to the [T] Call of God.

For example, David Koresh and the Waco Davidians was discussed, as Koresh had historically claimed special revelations from God.

Jim Jones had a penchant for twisting scriptures and using them to manipulate his followers. We talked about Jonestown and the so-called “Davidians” that followed Koresh in some detail.

The next day was spent examining thought reform and coercive persuasion techniques, but specifically as they might be used within the context of bible-based cults.

Documentary DVDs about the Waco Davidians and Jonestown were viewed and discussed.

We also discussed how a lack of financial transparency and accountability is typical within such groups. That is, how no one but the leader actually knows where the money ultimately goes.

A private investigator’s report commissioned by the family was then reviewed.

The report included a listing of [Mr. R.]’s real estate holdings, some corporate referenced records and his recently declared income, which was substantial. All of this information directly contradicted what [Mr. R.] had been telling the group and his repeated claims that he was not motivated by money.

Finally, on the last day each member of the family shared his or her specific concerns regarding the group and how it had affected the young woman’s behavior.

Her parents expressed profound sorrow concerning her recent decision to stop communicating with them. They explained that regardless of her beliefs, they would always love her and could not understand why she had decided to cut them off.

Her brother talked about the many months that had gone by without any word from her and how he missed her.

In conclusion, the husband explained how her commitment to the group seemed to supersede any other practical consideration, including both her marriage and the care of their children.

During the final two days the young woman increasingly asked critical questions.

On the third day she began to divulge unknown inside and critical information about the group. She talked about others in the group with strained marriages that had neglected their children. The young woman also disclosed that one extremely devoted member was ultimately forced to declare bankruptcy, which she suspected was due in part to excessive contributions made to the group.

These disclosures offered evidence that the group influence and control was fading.

In the end the young woman’s primary concern was how to warn others not to become involved with the group.

We discussed sharing information through the Ross Institute message board and the possibility of contacting others in the early stages of group involvement.

The young woman totally terminated her involvement with the [T] Call of God.

Falun Gong

A 36-year-old married mother with four young children all under the age of 10 became involved with Falun Gong through a close friend.

Initially, she saw the group as an opportunity to exercise and become physically fit.

However, step-by-step the organization manipulated her mind and progressively influenced her personally held religious beliefs.

The young mother came from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish background. Her entire family was devoutly committed to a well-known Hasidic Jewish sect. Their observance included strict dietary rules, observance of the Sabbath and stringent guidelines concerning dress and appropriate relationships between men and women.

Her husband and family were shocked when they discovered her commitment to Falun Gong, which they correctly viewed as a contradiction of the family’s long-held traditions and cherished religious beliefs.

I arrived at the preparation meeting on a Thursday morning. Our meeting took place at her brother’s home where the family had agreed to meet for the Sabbath, which begins at sunset on Friday and concludes at sunset on Saturday.

Orthodox Jews that observe the Sabbath are prohibited from using any electrical appliances or electronic devices, during the Sabbath. Using any form of transportation is likewise prohibited.  We had agreed that the best time for staging the intervention would be at a private home on the Sabbath due to the stringent rules, which would inherently preclude any outside communication with members of Falun Gong.

The preparation meeting was attended by the young woman’s parents, her husband and brother. The parents had flown in from […] and the intervention took place in […].

Everyone present was deeply concerned that if her involvement with Falun Gong continued, a divorce and child custody battle was inevitable.

On Friday I arrived at the brother’s home just before sunset.

I was introduced by the family as an outside expert and consultant. We all sat down in a comfortable den and began our discussion.

I further outlined my background and the purpose for our meeting.

She plaintively asked her family why this meeting was necessary, considering that Falun Gong was a “harmless” and “benign” group?

Each family member individually explained their concerns.

Her parents said that there was a tradition of Orthodox Jewish religious observance within their family and they could not understand why their daughter had apparently rejected this and abdicated her role of an Orthodox Jewish mother.

Her brother expressed similar dismay concerning her choices. He said that for many years his sister had been an inspiration concerning his own involvement in Orthodox Judaism.

The husband was the most pointed, emphatically and flatly stating that they had a Jewish wedding and had made a mutual commitment “before God” to raise a Jewish family and honor “God’s Commandments.” He concluded that she had broken those vows and ignored her promises.

Repeatedly the wife assured everyone that Falun Gong was not a religious choice but rather a exercise practice, which did not contradict her religious beliefs.

She also claimed that there had always been problems in her marriage and then broke down in tears.

The family contradicted her claim and said that though no marriage was perfect, her marriage appeared to have been reasonably happy, until her deepening involvement with the Falun Gong.


At the conclusion of the first evening we agreed to meet the following day.

There was little need to solicit a commitment to cease communication with the group, due to the rules regulating the Sabbath regarding phones and/or any electronic communication. And everything in the house had been shut down.

The following morning our discussion centered upon the definition of a cult and whether or not Falun Gong fit that description.

We talked about the role of “Master Li,” his supernatural claims and the way in which his personality defined the group.

We also discussed the meditation practices of Falun Gong and the process of trance induction.

Did Falun Gong encourage suggestible altered states of consciousness?

Could some of the group’s exercises be seen as self-hypnosis?

How could any subjective results achieved through Falun Gong based upon a member’s feelings be objectively measured?

Other than anecdotal stories wase there any scientifically measurable results produced by Falun Gong?

How could Li Hongzhi substantiate his supernatural claims?

These points were discussed throughout the day and well into the afternoon.

As sundown approached the young woman pointed out that the supernatural claims made within the context of Judaism could likewise not be proven.

Did the miracles mentioned in the bible really occur?

Did Moses part the Red Sea?

What about Noah’s Ark?

What accounts within the bible were actually proven and historical?

I then asked the young woman if she meant to imply that the supernatural claims made by Falun Gong were to be understood as religious claims based upon faith.

She didn’t readily respond.

I pursued the point and asked specifically if she meant to say that Li Hongzhi’s claims were religious claims. And if they were religious claims, then how could she could she practically hold two religious belief systems simultaneously?

We also discussed the racist statements made by Mr. Li.

Part of her explanation given concerning Li’s racist remarks included a cosmology of many gods assigned to various races. 

I pointed out the problem of holding two belief systems simultaneously, especially when they directly contradicted each other. That is, on one hand Judaism is monotheistic, but Falun Gong is not.

How could she hold two such conflicting belief systems simultaneously?

I also asked her if it was appropriate for Falun Gong to deliberately deceive her in the recruitment process, by withholding and/or obscuring the fact that they are a religious belief system and not simply an exercise practice? Didn’t she deserve to know all the facts before becoming more involved?

As the sun set she seemed to have reached an impasse.

The young woman insisted that somehow her involvement with Falun Gong was possible without any conflict.

She then promised her husband and family that her children would be raised in a “Jewish home.”

I then reiterated that monotheism was the single most important feature of Judaism and therefore the basis for a Jewish home. And how could she reconcile this with the teachings of Master Li?

There are was a kind of meltdown.

At this point the young woman refused to talk further and said that our discussion must be concluded.

Ultimately everyone agreed to honor her wishes and end the intervention, but with the understanding that the couple would participate in professional marriage counseling.

The young woman also agreed to completely terminate her involvement with Falun Gong and/or anyone associated with the group. Subsequently though her actions seemed to indicate that this promise was not fully kept.

The Kabbalah Centre

A Jewish family […] decided after [many] years of committed membership to terminate their involvement with a controversial group known as the “Kabbalah Centre.

This organization is led by Rabbi Philip Berg, his wife Karen and their sons Michael and Yehuda Berg.

The Kabbalah Centre is not officially recognized by the leadership of the organized Jewish community, nor is it generally considered very credible within the larger community of Kabbalistic scholars.

Instead, the Kabbalah Centre has frequently been referred to as a “cult.”

The father and mother had raised their […] children within the group. When they left, their […] youngest teenage children readily left the group with them. However, their [oldest child] refused to leave. She insisted that the parents were wrong to separate from the organization.

I was retained for an intervention focused on exiting the [adult] daughter from the group.

We met numerous times for preparation meetings.

Finally we gathered for the last preparation meeting in […] the day before the intervention was scheduled to begin. Those present were the parents, an aunt and uncle from […] and a former member of the Kabbalah Centre […].

Within our meeting we determined that the daughter would be most sympathetic to her uncle.

Both parents had numerous arguments for more than a year with their daughter concerning her continuing involvement with the group.

But her uncle had never been critical of the Kabbalah Centre.

We specifically discussed the importance of blocking communication with the group and its subsequent influence for the time we spent together, which had proven to be a problem regarding her behavior before.

It was hoped that the daughter would share a room with her aunt at the […] hotel where the intervention was being staged.

Her parents would be in a room on the same floor.

Shortly after the intervention began the following morning the young woman burst into a rage. She was furious with her parents for not warning her in advance about the meeting.  I explained that this was my decision due to concerns about the Kabbalah Centre’s ongoing influence and potential interference.

She found this very difficult to accept and stormed out of the room.

Her uncle followed her into the hall and eventually persuaded her to come back into the room and sit down.

A former member of the Kabbalah Centre […] shared her experiences. She was once a staffer, though her pay was little more than room and board, without any meaningful fixed benefits, such as health insurance.

The former member explained how staffers like her were exploited by the leaders. She also offered an insider’s view of the harsh treatment often endured through the extremely authoritarian leadership style of the Bergs.

We discussed the definition of a cult and how the Kabbalah Centre can be seen to fit the specific criteria.

The discussion that followed, focused on thought reform and coercive persuasion techniques.

At times both parents and the former member would offer their personal recollections about the Kabbalah Centre and specific experiences, which I then copared to coercive techniques of persuasion.

Throughout the day as the discussion continued there were periodic emotional outbursts, and the daughter would once again leave the room in a fit of rage.

Her uncle would quickly follow her out, talk to her at length in the hall, and ultimately they would return to the room together again.

This happened about three times.

Finally, after eight hours of discussion punctuated by these periodic outbursts we concluded the first day.

But the daughter refused to stay with her aunt or anyone else at the hotel.

She eventually agreed to stay at her uncle’s home in […].

We all agreed to begin again the following morning. And the daughter specifically agreed to have no communication of any kind with the Kabbalah Centre during the interim.

However, the next morning she was gone.

Her uncle had left her alone at his home, when he took his two children to school.

Apparently, shortly after he left she contacted the Kabbalah Centre and then ran away.

Subsequently, for several months, the daughter moved out of her family home, refused to meet with parents and lived instead with a member of the Kabbalah Centre.

Today the daughter continues to be a member of the Kabbalah Centre despite her family’s concerns, though communication with her has resumed and greatly improved.


Hopefully, this basic explanation of my intervention/deprogramming approach has been helpful in gaining a better understanding of the process.

Deprogramming in its various forms has essentially endured for more than 30 years within the United States as the single most effective organized approach used to break through cult programming through an intervention process.

As you can see from the case vignettes offered this process is difficult and not always successful.

It is my hope that by working together, comparing approaches, sharing our collective knowledge and relevant information, we can better serve the many individuals and families adversely affected by destructive cults.

End Notes:

[I] “Margaret Singer, a leading brainwashing expert, dies at 82” the New York Times December 7, 2003 by Anahad O’Connor

[II] Intake Questionnaire located at

[III] “Cult Formation” the Harvard Mental Health Letter February 1981 by Robert Jay Lifton

[IV] Ross Institute bio located at

[V] Ross Institute bio located at

[VI] Ross Institute bio located at

[VII] Ross Institute bio located at

[VIII] “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism” by Robert Jay Lifton University of North Carolina press 1961

[IX] “Cults in Our MidstJossey-Bass Publishers 1995

[XI] “Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change” Encyclopedia of Sociology Volume 1, Macmillan publishing Company, New York

[XII] “InfluenceRobert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. Quill, NY, 1984 Revised 1993

[XIII] “Cults in Our Midst” Chapter 3 located within the Ross Institute archives at


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