In order to help parents decide what to do about children in cults, the American Family Foundation’s ADVISOR (predecessor of The Cult Observer), a periodical read by several thousand people, most of whom are disturbed by aspects of the cult phenomenon, published a questionnaire in 1982. Ninety-four parents responded, providing a variety of data on family background and experiences with cultism. The results were published in Deprogramming: An Analysis of Parental Questionnaires, by Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., AFF’s Director of Research. Despite the methodological problems inherent in such a survey – which render many of the conclusions suggestive rather than definitive – parents and helping professionals searching for constructive responses to cult involvement can benefit by considering the report. Subsequent issues of The Cult Observer will carry additional excerpts, including parents’ verbatim answers to a variety of questions asked in the survey.
Of the 94 parents who responded to this questionnaire, 72 (77%) had children in five major groups: Unification Church (UC), Hare Krishna(ISKCON), The Way, Scientology, and Divine Light Mission (DLM). Only 22 (23%) had children in other, lesser known groups.
Males predominated over females 63% to 37%, a finding consistent with other studies. Although this sex ratio did not hold for ISKCON, The Way, and especially Scientology, the small numbers in these groups may – but do not necessarily – mean that the differences could be due to chance factors.
The children of 69% of the respondents were no longer in a cult. These ex-members had spent an average of 28.3 months in a cult, whereas the 31% still in a group had been members an average of 81.9 months. 20.7 years was the average age at joining the group.
Nature of Departure
With regard to the question, “Did your child ever quit the cult and then return?,” 15% of the sample’s children had left and returned to the cult (so far as parents knew), nearly all having done this only once. It is not clear how many of these returns were associated with failed deprogrammings.
Of the 62 (68%) converts who were forcibly (i.e., abducted) deprogrammed, 23 (37% of those deprogrammed) returned to the cult. Of these 23, 6 later left the cult voluntarily, while 17 remained in the group. Deprogramming required an average of 8.5 days. Ten of the 62 deprogrammings (16%) resulted in law suits. (This percentage seems much higher than informal reports suggest and should not be treated as representative.)
Twenty-two (23%) of the converts left the group voluntarily, 6 (27% of voluntary leavers) after a failed deprogramming. This finding is consistent with other studies, although some of the latter suggest that the voluntary departure rate (including ex-members who did not come into contact with concerned citizen networks) is even higher. It is interesting to note that none of the 11 DLM members and only 1 (10%) of the ISKCON members in this sample left voluntarily.
Despite the relatively high rate of deprogramming failures (37%), only 7 parents (12% of 54 people who responded to this question) felt that deprogramming was more harmful than leaving the person in the cult.
With regard to rehabilitation [formal counseling prior to a return to non-cult lifestyles], 57% of the respondents employed rehab and 82% felt that rehab was useful.
Deprogramming Failure Rate
The ADVISOR study appears to be the first to systematically collect data pertaining to deprogramming failure rates. The finding that 37% of deprogrammings resulted in the convert returning to the cult may seem high to advocates of deprogramming. However, other data suggest that it may be more or less valid. An informal tabulation of known deprogrammings in Montreal found that 8 of 23 deprogrammings (35%) resulted in the convert’s returning to the cult, a finding very close to that of this study. Even some advocates of deprogramming admit to failure rates on the order of 20%-25% (although some deprogrammers reportedly are much more successful than others). Hence, it seems reasonable to conclude that, on the average, one-fourth to one-third of forced deprogrammings result in the convert’s returning to the cult.
It should be kept in mind that these data reflect only an association between a designated procedure (deprogramming) and an outcome (leaving a cult). The data do not necessarily reflect a causal relationship. Hence, deprogramming successes need not necessarily be due to the deprogramming itself. Some, for instance, may be more a function of reawakening family feelings or fortuitous timing (i.e., “snatching” someone when he/she is on the verge of coming out voluntarily anyway).
[Asked of parents whose deprogramming attempts were unsuccessful] Why do you think the deprogramming failed?
Most parents attributed a failed deprogramming to deficiencies of the deprogrammers, whether in regard to security or sensitivity to psychiatric issues. One respondent, however, noted that “the deprogramming left her with nothing to hang on to,” while another commented that “it should have been a united family effort!”
Do you think the deprogramming caused more harm than would have been caused by leaving the child in the cult? If yes, why?
Even though 37% of deprogrammings did not persuade the person to leave the cult, only 12% of those responding to this question answered “yes.” Most supported this response by noting a major deterioration in their relationship with their child. One person commented that her son’s resistance to the deprogramming led to his being treated like a “hero” by the cult.
If your child left for reasons other than forced deprogramming, what, in your opinion, led him/her to leave the group?
The variety of answers to this question would probably astound those who subscribe to the extreme brainwashing stereotype. According to parents, some converts left because they became aware of deception, manipulation, or broken promises. Some tired of menial work or rebelled against peer pressure. Some, who had been subjected to a failed deprogramming, were apparently moved by their parents’ desperation and later returned home voluntarily. And some left because personal hardships or abuse apparently induced them to reconsider their cult involvement.
[Asked of parents whose children underwent formal rehabilitation] Was rehab, on the whole, a useful and successful experience? Why or why not?
The overwhelming majority of respondents praised rehab because it provided their children with emotional support, education about cults, an opportunity to talk to members of other cults, which used similar persuasive techniques, and encouragement to make it in the mainline world. The few negative comments dealt with internal staff problems that detracted from the rehabs effectiveness.
Based upon your experiences, what do you think parents can do to influence a child to reconsider his/her cult involvement?
Responses to this question can be placed in several categories. First, those who feel helpless: there is nothing parents can do. Second, those who see deprogramming as the answer – the earlier the better. Third, those who emphasize the importance of maintaining communication, building trust, and challenging the convert respectfully and at the proper time. And fourth, those who feel that the best course of action is to educate young people before they become involved with cults.
Please describe your child’s state of mind in the first few months after leaving the cult.
Responses to this question tended to be consistent with clinical descriptions of post-cult experience. Ex-members were described as confused, lacking in self-esteem, ashamed, distrustful, depressed, guilty, indecisive, unable to concentrate, in a state of floating (snapping back to cultic states of mind), emotionally volatile, angry at the cult, fearful of reprisals, psychologically regressed, and – in some cases – in a state of nervous breakdown. A few ex-members, however, did not appear to have had much difficulty in adjusting.
In your opinion, what kinds of help do ex-cult members need?
This question also received many comments. The most common response was that ex-members need much love, understanding, patience, and encouragement from family and friends. Many also felt that talking to ex-members, attending a rehabilitation facility, or receiving professional counseling were important. A few mentioned the need for religious guidance or help in obtaining meaningful employment.
What kinds of help do parents and siblings of cult members need?
The majority of the many people responding to this question stressed the family’s need for education, support groups, and counseling. Several also advocated the need to educate helping professionals and legislators.
Parents and helping professionals should note that there are a number of ways to view a convert’s potential departure from a cult.
1. Some converts may never leave – with or without forced deprogramming. (Sometimes this may be unfortunate because the convert’s cult affiliation is harmful. Sometimes, on the other hand, staying in a cult may be beneficial.)
2. Some converts may leave only if they are forcibly deprogrammed.
3. Some converts may leave if they are properly counseled or if they are deprogrammed (the latter being, perhaps, faster, but riskier and more expensive).
4. Some converts may leave if properly counseled, but will not leave if forcibly deprogrammed (because anger at their parents’ manipulations will induce them to stay in the group).
5. Some converts may leave voluntarily, even with no formal intervention.
Unfortunately, there is no easy, reliable way of determining in which of these groups a given person will fall. However, the data of this study suggest that a high percentage of cultists leave without forced deprogramming, that many deprogrammings fail, and that a number of deprogrammings end in lawsuits. Furthermore, it seems reasonable to assume that many who would respond favorably to deprogramming would also respond favorably to voluntary methods of reevaluation. Therefore, parents should deliberate very carefully before deciding to try to have their child deprogrammed. There are other options for helping a family member harmed by cult involvement.