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imgThe Attempted Transformation of a Deviant Occupation into a Therapy: Deprogramming Seeks a New Identity

by Anson Shupe and Susan E. Darnell
A paper presented at the 2003 annual meeting of the SSSR/RRA, Norfolk, VA, October 2003.

The role of coercive deprogramming in the anticult movement has been studied sociologically and historically as well as internationally and from a civil liberties perspective.[1] In this brief note we exam the attempts by coercive religious deprogrammers, increasingly under legal pressures to cease their activities and alter the public persona of their “secondary deviance,” to seek legitimacy during the late 1980s and early 1990s.[2] In doing so they have faced a well known process of self and public redefinition. Said sociologist Harold L Wilensky of this professionalization process:

Any occupation wishing to exercise professional authority must find a
technical basis for it, assert an exclusive jurisdiction, link both skill and
jurisdiction standards of training, and convince the public that its
services are uniquely trustworthy... In the minds of both the lay public and
professional groups themselves the criteria of distinction seem to be two:
(1) the job of the professional is technical – based on systematic knowledge
or doctrine acquired only through long prescribed training; (2) the
professional man adheres to a set of professional norms.[3]

Elsewhere we have documented that it was not exceptional for some (usually male) deprogrammers, aside from physical abduction and restraint, to injest legal and illegal drugs during deprogrammings and also employ sex against their “clients.” Officials in the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), the largest anticult organization, even seem to have been aware of these irregularities.[4] But no one was more aware of these irregularities than the deprogramming operatives themselves, as their efforts to achieve recognition as professional within the mental health therapeutic community attest. It is sociologically understandable that deprogrammers came to acquire “spoiled identities” as vigilantes and mercenaries rather than as bonafide counselors or therapists. Their coercive tactics outraged new religious movements (NRMs) and civil libertarian sympathizers and caused many deprogrammers to face legal and criminal complications when (as often happened) their “interventions” did not work. Operatives’ quest to institutionalize themselves as legitimate professionals acting within the law began not long after CAN was founded.[5]


We rely here primarily on two sources of information. The first source consists of a large number of court transcriptions and sworn testimonies in court records, depositions, and affidavits from anticult leaders, deprogrammers, ex-NRM and current NRM members, and deprogrammees gathered in the courts of civil liberties litigation, many against CAN by various attorneys during the legal investigative process of “discovery.”

The second source consists of approximately 400 boxes of CAN files eventually assigned as assets to a Chicago, Illinois bankruptcy court trustee. There is evidence that during a total of more than fifty-one pending lawsuits against CAN and its directors and during discovery inquiries (all during the early-to-mid 1990s) select documents (possibly incriminating) were being destroyed by unknown persons at CAN. After the surviving boxes were secured by the court and auctioned off (after desperate bids by CAN’s director, the director of the American Family Foundation, and other persons ) to a private individual, they were donated to the Foundation for Religious Freedom (based in Los Angeles, California) where they were catalogued and made available to the public (i.e., researchers such as ourselves and to representatives of a variety of NRMs) for inspection and photocopying. After the Fall of 1999 almost all boxes were then donated by the FRF to the University of California, Santa Barbara and its Davidson Library’s Special Collection Division. However, we were permitted to retain thirty two boxes containing purely financial records (e.g., cancelled checks, ledgers, lists of donors, copies of annual audits and expenditures) which we studied over a two-year period and then in 2002 sent those as well to UCSB.[6]

The Attempted Transition

Many deprogrammers by the late 1980s began to refer to themselves as “exit counselors,” not deprogrammers. The term was a bit of a dodge, since the ultimate goal of this activity was still predetermined before counseling took place, i.e., intervening so as to remove and dissuade NRM members from their groups and some so-called EC’s still engaged in involuntary removals. But such a redefinition helped stimulate a trend toward self-reflection, public image, and non-violence.

Two ACM leaders, Dr. Michael D. Langone and Dr. Paul R. Martin (both psychologists), have written of this transition:

The term “voluntary deprogramming” came to be associated with this
[noncoercive] process. It soon became clear, however, that the adjective
“involuntary” did not remove the negative connotation “deprogramming”
had acquired. Gradually, the term “exit counseling” replaced “voluntary
deprogramming.” (Some exit counselors prefer the term “cult educational
consultant,” but that term has not yet caught on.)
Exit counseling refers to a voluntary intensive, time-limited, contractual
educational process that emphasizes the respectful sharing of information with
cultists. Although many exit counselors are religious, they are, for the
most part, careful not to “sell” their religion to vulnerable cultists. Those
who do aggressively push their religions on their clients are engaging in
an unethical form of proselytizing that should not be called “exit counseling.”[7]

Aside from the imprecise use of the word “cultist,” the above partially represents a fair ideal definition of exit counseling. One could argue that terms like “exit counseling” or “intervention” muddy the water since the underlying presupposition (as in deprogramming) remains that the purpose of the activity is to “exit” member from their affiliation with NRMs rather than to assess those affiliation in a neutral fashion. (Imagine a marriage counselor whose basic task was uniformly to talk two spouses into a divorce instead of reconciliation.) Nevertheless, this ACM definition provides a flavor of the newer, more education, non-coercive approach to “retrieving” persons from NRMs.

Whereas in 1986 xeroxed copies of documents such as Synopsis of “How Not to Get into Cults – A Manual for Deprogrammers” by Kaihong were circulated at CAN meetings,[8] by 1987 persons who considered themselves “cult interventionists” were trying to clarify their unique ACM roles and legal/ethical issues affecting all of them. Thus, they held a special meeting at the 1987 Pittsburgh, PA CAN conference. By 1988 they were setting out their goals in a Statement of Purpose issued by the newly formed Exit Counselors Group (ECG).[9] They attempted to lay out the limits and responsibilities of offices in their organization and dealt with such persistent issues as exit counselors treading on each other’s practice turfs, who is the client (i.e., “cult members” versus “cult affected families” who pay the counselors), hygiene problems of “clients” in prolonged counseling cases, procedures for exist counselors to receive referrals, and the drugs/sex during deprogrammings issues. Reminiscent of the earlier incarnation of CAN, the Citizens Freedom Foundation, the 1987 counselors wanted to form an Ethics Grievance Committee. But in 1988 in Portland Oregon the counselors (ostensibly meeting in non-affiliation with the CAN conference) were told:

Discussion with an attorney of possible illegal issues would make the
Committee vulnerable to certain actions. The committee should not continue.[10]

It was also decided that ECG notes should be sent to American Family Foundation (AFF) president Herbert J. Rosedale, an attorney, for review before submitting them to the archivist and that the counselors would attend an upcoming AFF annual meeting at their own expense.

Ethics formed a dominant theme at this 1988 ECG meeting, attended by known deprogrammers such as Dave Clark, Noel and Carol Giambalvo, and Joe Szimhart. A resolution of sorts, most of it mirroring precisely those problematic issues of sexual abuse of “clients” and drug use by deprogrammers, which were widely known within the CAN subculture, was issued:

We are a group of individuals coming together that [sic] have some things in common (ethics and standards for exit counselingf situation) and agree on these standards:

1. During a case/intervention, there will be no illicit/illegal drugs used by exit counselors/team members.
2. There will be no illicit/illegal drugs used on/with the clients to influence them.
3. There will be no abuse of legal or prescribed drugs or alcohol used during an intervention/case that limit the exit counselor’s ability to function in their [sic] role.
4. No sex with clients or undue influence through sexual behavior.
5. No physical abuse of clients will be condoned or performed by any exit counselor.[11]

This resolution represented a telling statement of professionalizing concerns and was indicative of some past operatives’ behavior. The exit counselors, cognizant of the need to rein in their more maverick colleagues, were dealing with ethics even if not by formal committee. They were obviously aware of the obstruction to true public acceptance of themselves as professionals posed by past and current excesses.

Further Attempts at Professionalization

The 1989 ECG meeting saw further development of the counselors’ drive to professionalize. Admitting they had a problem with a lack of means to enforce any code of conduct, they decided both to be in direct association with AFF and CAN (in order to add authority to assessments of standards of professional exit counseling) and to consider adopting standards of counselor conduct modeled after the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers. They also considered becoming a trade union, discussed different fee schedules for credentialed and non-credentialed exit counselors, and reiterated the previous year’s ethics resolution.[12] Efforts were made to distinguish between part-time and full-time counselors. A few counselors even suggested the group seek therapeutic parallels to the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step program. By 1990, when the group met in Lincolnshire, Illinois, there was an effort to codify exit counseling terminology: “As it relates to professional terminology in other disciplines. Especially in the mental health community.”[13]

Out of such activities came a formal name for the exit counseling deliberations: Project Recovery. Various former coercive deprogrammers, ex-NRM members, and some mental health professionals built on the notion of creating a new profession. Meanwhile, as the term “exit counseling” became widely accepted within the ACM (and to a certain extent among the public when it saw persons identified as such in the media), CAN leaders openly embraced the concept of voluntary withdrawals from NRMs and reiterated its public opposition to the old-style coercive deprogrammings. (Private referrals for deprogrammings continued, however.) Counselors also mellowed the old, hard-line notion of brainwashing with more sophisticated language. For example, in the minutes of the board of directors’ meeting at CAN’s 1993 annual conference, the board unanimously passed the following statement to be placed in its brochure:

In awareness of the need to recognize voluntary exit counseling/
deprogramming as a means to restore critical thinking, CAN members, affiliates,
or any persons acting in any capacity for CAN or any of its affiliates,
shall not encourage or in any way assist in any activity which would
contribute to an illegal or involuntary act.[14]

Within a few years few of the persons practicing coercive deprogrammings, even if they continued to conduct them, care to be known as deprogrammers. “Exit counseling” carried a more professional panache. However, the name change did little to restrain some, such as mavericks like Galen Kelly, responsible for the spectacular debacle known as the Dobkowski case (in which he abducted the wrong person; Kelly and others were convicted of kidnapping and went to prison, a profound shock to CAN given his close ties to the organization).[15] Even coercive deprogrammer Rick Ross was terming himself only an Expert Consultant and Intervention Specialist (an unique euphemism for exit counselor) on his late 1990s Internet Website.[16] when, just several years earlier, on January 18, 1991 he and several assistants violently abducted and for a week confined a Seattle, Washington man named Jason Scott. Scott was an adult whose mother wanted him to abandon memberships in a local United Pentecostal congregation. (Mrs. Scott was referred to Ross by CAN).[17]

Thus, shifting the nomenclature from “deprogrammer” to “exit counselor” undoubtedly may have been a sincere move by some (see, ex., Steven Hassan, an author and possessing an actual degree in counseling), but perhaps a linguistic ruse by others. But at least it allowed CAN operatives to pay lip service to the nonviolent retrieval of NRM members back into mainstream society and CAN managers to deny that they endorse coercive deprogramming.


As the list of ethical “principles” emerging from the exit counselors’ deliberations showed, dealing as these did entirely with issues of their fellows using physical force, sex, and drugs as tactics, exit counselors were clearly trying to distance themselves from such excesses and seek acceptance within the larger therapeutic community. However, they never achieved the two fundamental requirements for a profession mentioned earlier in Wilensky’s criteria. In essence they convinced no one but themselves that they had a distinct body of expertise or credibility to which a public should seek redress for personal or family problems. For example, there were no criteria for credentials or training that professions ordinarily maintain. Anyone could set up shop as an exit counselor, much like a palm reader, with no accountability.

The EC’s faced a two-fold problem: they had no accredited organization (and no avenue for seeking accreditation from any parallel mental health community); and they possessed no means of sanctions for their colleagues deviating from their self-imposed norms. Thus, several years after their earnest meetings mavericks like private investigator Galen Kelly and self-proclaimed “Bible-based cult” expert Rick Ross were still physically abducting unwilling adults belonging to unconventional religions and criminally restraining the latter according to the old deprogramming/mind control mythos. Thus, as a would-be profession exit counseling was handicapped internally by a lack of consensus on what constituted legitimate therapeutic means and ends (i.e., force versus persuasion, rational reevaluation and voluntary exit versus forcibly liberating minds); and externally limited by negative publicity thanks to a barrage of attacks by NRMs and increasingly by civil libertarian journalists who claimed the wolves were merely dressing up as sheep to escape public censure and the legal repercussions of their actions.

Finally, for many of the deprogrammers-turned-exit counselors the ethical question soon became moot. After CAN’s demise in late October, 1996 the primary, centralized source of their referrals was gone. (There is no evidence that we aware of that the AFF every made such referrals, thus it only remained a source of moral support to the deprogrammers and perhaps serve as an outlet to sell the latters’ books.) As a consequence, the EC’s were left to set up entrepreneurial lone ranger attempts to solicit customers, like Rick Ross’ website, or offer their services and perhaps sell a few copies of their books as they made the rounds of youth confereneces and scrounged audiences in local churches. The heyday of deprogramming was over, and no degree of aspirations to mimic accredited professionals could salvage it.

[1]. See J. Gordon Melton, 2002. “The Modern Anti-Cult Movement in Historical Perspective.” Pp. 265-89 in Jeffrey Kaplan and Helene Loomis, eds., The Cultic Mileau: Oppositional Subcultures in the Age of Globalization. New York: Altamira Press; John A. Saliba, 1990. Social Science and the Cults: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland; Anson Shupe, Susan E. Darnell, and Kendrick Moxon, 2002; “The Cult Awareness Network and the Anticult Movement: Implications for NRMs in America.” Pp. 21-43 in Derek H. Davis and Barry Henkins, eds, New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America. Waco, TX: J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies and Baylor University Press; Anson Shupe, David Bromley, and Susan E. Darnell, 20002. “The Modern North American Anticult Movement: Vicissitudes of Success and Failure.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. August, Chicago, IL; Anson Shupe and Susan E. Darnell, 2002. Agents of Discord: Deprogramming, Pseudo-Science, and the American Anticult Movement. Unpublished book manuscript; Anson Shupe and Susan E. Darnell, 2002. “Agents of Discord: The North American-European ACM Connection.” Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference: The Spiritual Supermarket. Religious Pluralism and Globalization in the 21st Century: The Expanding European Union and Beyond. London, England: The London School of Economics; Anson D. Shupe, Jr. and David G. Bromley, 1980. The New Vigilantes; Deprogrammers, Anticultists, and the New Religions. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

[2]. Edwin Lemert, 1951. “Primary and Secondary Deviation.” Pp. 75-8 in Social Pathology: A Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[3]. Harold L. Wilensky, 1970. “The Professionalization of Everyone” Pp. 483-84 in Oscar Grusky and George A. Miller, eds., The Sociology of Organization. New York: the Free Press.

[4]. See Anson Shupe, Kendrick Moxon, and Susan E. Darnell, 2000. “CAN, We Hardly Knew Ye: Sex, Drugs, Deprogrammers’ Kickbacks, and Corporate Crime in the (old) Cult Awareness Network.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. October, Houston, TX.                                                            

[5]. See Preliminary Program for the October, 1987 annual CAN conference in Portland, Oregon.

[6]. Most of the documents cited here were found in the box of CAN materials labeled “Conference/Council Minutes.” For a more extensive discussion on the methodological nuances of using such materials, see Shupe and Darnell, 2002, op. cit.

[7]. Michael D. Langone and Paul R. Martin. N.D. “Exit Counseling and Ethics: Clarifying the Confusion.” Unpublished manuscript. found in CAN Box 230 entitled “Deprogramming.”

[8]. Kaihong, 1986. Synopsis of “How Not to Get into Cults – A Manual for Deprogrammers.” Unpublished copyrighted manuscript, 176 pp.                                       

[9]. Vanessa Weber (ECG archivist), 1988. “Statement of Purpose.” Exit Counselors Group. Pittsburgh, Pa. October 18.

[10]. Vanessa Weber (ECG archivist), 1988. “Exit Counselors Meeting Notes.” Exit Counselors Group. Portland, Oregon. Unpublished Notes. October 18. Ms. Weber, in an announcement of the meeting mailed to “All Counselors” on October 3, 1988 concerning the upcoming Portland meeting, wrote: “No signs will and should be post regarding this meeting. If you see one please remove it or have it removed.”

[11]. Vanessa Weber (ECG archivist). “Notes on Exit Counselors’ Meeting–National Conference. Second day only.” Portland, Oregon. Unpublished notes. October 4.

[12]. Vanessa Weber (ECG archivist), 1989 “Exit Counselors: An Association of Individuals.” Unpublished Notes. October 25-6.                                                      

[13]. Michael Lisman (ECG archivist), 1990. “Exit Counselors An Association of Individuals. Lincolnshire, Illinois. Unpublished Notes. October 3-November 2.

[14]. Cult Awareness Network, Minutes of the Board of Directors’ Meeting. Minneapolis, Minnesota. November 4, 7-8, 1993.                                                                                       

[15]. See Nora Hammerman, 1994. “Don Moore: Headed for the CAN.” The New Federalist. Vol 8 (April), P. 12; and CAN deprogrammers hit with arrests.” The Bakersfield News Observer February 12, 1992.

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