May 29 - June 5, 1997
By Jennifer Rauch
"We don't like the word 'deprogramming," says clinical psychologist Linda Jayne Dubrow. "Brainwashing and kidnapping are out, too."
These words imply something involuntary, says Dubrow, co-founder of the Re-Entry Therapy, Information and Referral Network (RETIRN), which helps cult members exit groups and re-enter society at large. "We don't see ourselves as deprogrammers, but as mental health professionals who can offer specialized counseling," she says.
Dubrow, who will speak Friday at a Philadelphia conference sponsored by cult awareness organization AFF, formed RETIRN with Steve K. D. Eichel (who once infiltrated the Moonies, a group known for holding mass marriage ceremonies in Madison Square Garden, as an undergraduate psychology project) to counsel people who have lost loved ones to cults and to help those in cultic groups decide when they're ready to leave -- voluntarily, of course -- as well as how to do so.
RETIRNers Eichel and Steve Eisenberg, a Hare-Krishna-turned-"thought-reform consultant," will also participate in the event.
Thought-reform consultants -- or, to sound less Orwellian, exit counselors -- play the role once portrayed as "some guys in a van" in this made-for-TV scenario: some guys in a van kidnap someone who's been brainwashed by a cult, lockthemselves in a hotel room and proceed to deprogram the subject by performing a good cop-bad cop routine until the person snaps out of it.
Today's thought-reform consultants consider the previous methods unethical. "We've worked long and hard to establish ethics and principles like respect, confidentiality and responsibility," says one former member of Transcendental Meditation (TM) who is now a Philadelphia thought-reform consultant.
The professional spirit of cult counseling in the 1990s is also due to the efforts of AFF, an organization of scholars, psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors who conduct research on cult involvement and provide information about cultic and support groups to the public and media. AFF stands alone in this field since its well-known predecessor, the grassroots Cult Awareness Network, declared bankruptcy last year after losing a civil rights lawsuit filed by a prominent, well-financed cult.
"There's nothing wrong with cults per se," says the thought-reform consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's an academic term that refers to the way a group is managed, and that isn't synonymous with mind control.There are cults that don't use mind control and there are non-cultic groups that do. AFF offers objective information, which is something the cults themselves don't always do."
That information is in great demand, says the ex-TMer, also the editor of AFF's newsletter and Web site. So far this month 122,000 people have accessed the http://www.csj.org site, he says, and the Heaven's Gate mass suicide generated more than double that number of hits last month.
Although AFF studies dozens of large and small groups -- such as Hare Krishna, EST, Free John, Heaven's Gate, Amway, Lyndon LaRouche, Eckankar -- it distinguishes ordinary cults from destructive ones. Destructive elements, says the ex-TMer, include a pyramid structure, deception in recruitment, a hidden agenda, and thought-reform processes that bind people together and impair their critical thinking skills.
As an illustration, he compares the Catholic church with Transcendental Meditation. "Catholics say, this is what we believe: there was a guy named Jesus who was the son of God, who died on the cross for our sins," he says. "That might be a tall order for some to believe, but it's up front and the belief doesn't change as you rise through the organization."
"In TM, though, there's a lack of informed consent," he continues. "When you join, they say it's about living in tune with the laws of nature. If I drop this pen, it will fall to the floor. That's the law of gravity. But at the upper levels, they teach you that there's a being that runs gravity, that runs the wind, and so on. TM tells some of its members that the world is being run by evil beings because the gods who make the world a better place are asleep, and that humans must wake them up by feeding them soma, which is released by meditating."
While some of the aforementioned groups do have a presence in Philadelphia, this area is not a hotbed of cult activity, Dubrow says. Not until this weekend, anyway, when cult specialists, ex-members and their families from all over the nation and the world gather at the Holiday Inn, Philadelphia Stadium for the AFF conference.
Margaret Thaler Singer, the grande dame of cults and author of Cults in Our Midst and Crazy Therapies, will speak at a free public program on Friday. A professor of clinical psychology at UC Berkeley who has worked with people involved in the Jonestown massacre and served as Patty Hearst's psychologist, Singer has developed many contemporary theories on cultic influence and treatment.
Dubrow will join a panel discussion looking at the abusive family environment as a cult. "In my clinical work, I noticed similarities between domesticviolence and cults," she says. "Women in abusive relationships are subject to undue influence or coercive persuasion. Why else do they stay?"