August 3, 2011, The History of Credibility Attacks Against Former Cult Members, by Stephen A. Kent,
The following paper was delivered at the ‘Systematic abuse in cults: testimonies and evidence’ conference in May 2011. More information on the conference, as well as other papers delivered there, can be found on the Fecris website here.
Former members of various high-demand, ideologically driven groups have proven enormously helpful to researchers in the cult information field. By providing first-hand accounts and hard-to-obtain documents, former members have made themselves indispensible in many research projects and in many anti-cult-education organizations. Occasionally, however, significant problems have arisen from relying on a few of them. Drawing upon thirty-five years of anti-cult history in North America, I identify and discuss briefly seven types of former members and alleged former members who caused difficulties for various organizations. These types are: 1) forced deconverts; 2) returnees; 3) delusional alleged former members; 4) con artists; 5) spies; 6) ex-members with ‘histories;’ 7) professional former member anti-cultists; 8) former members who become professionals; and former members who become professionals. I conclude by praising the contributions that former members make to the anti-cult movement, but caution that for some of them, things differ from appearances.
THE HISTORY OF CREDIBILITY ATTACKS AGAINST FORMER CULT MEMBERS
Few academics writing critically about cult abuses today have benefitted more from former members than me. I have interviewed countless numbers of people who have departed high-demand groups; they have fact-checked various pieces before I publish; and they have provided me with literally millions of pages of documents. My career, and my scholarship, would have been greatly diminished without them.
For thirty years, I have utilized the insights and materials that former members provided, and have watched with some amazement as others refused to do so. Problems, however, have arisen with cult critics attempting to work with some former members, or at least people claiming to have left various groups. A brief history of those problems, therefore, provides a cautionary tale worth telling in anti-cult or countercult circles. These problems likely will recur in Europe, if they have not appeared already. In North America, these problems first began in the early 1970s.
1) Forced Deconverts:
In North America, cults tore into public awareness in the early 1970s, with groups like the Hare Krishnas, the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation, the Children of God, and the Unification Church. Certainly controversial groups such as Scientology existed before this time, but the early 1970s saw numerous spiritual claimants attracting youth who had grown alienated from a range of societal values (see Kent, 2001). As youth joined any one of numerous groups during that period, they often cut ties with their families and personal histories. Parents feared, often quite legitimately (see Patrick with Dulack, 1976: 260-264), for their loved ones’ safety. By 1971, a number of them in North America turned to a man, Ted Patrick, who claimed that he could deprogram (see Patrick with Dulack, 1976: 61) these youth out of their new commitments and back to a healthier state of mind. No figures exist about how many deprogrammings Patrick performed over the years, but they numbered at least in the high-hundreds. Others also became deprogrammers on either full-time or part-time basis (see Kent and Szimhart, 2002).
Patrick's extraction of youth from these groups took many forms, from violent (see Patrick with Dulack, 1976: 67, 100, 207-208) to relatively non-coercive. If and when, however, he “convinced” someone to deconvert, then part of his strategy to further cement the person's renunciation was to get the person to sign a statement denouncing his or her former group (see Patrick and Dulack, 1976: 176; 230-230-236), and (if possible) call a press conference in which the new deconvert continued the denunciation. Patrick's assumption was that youth were tricked or manipulated into joining and highly pressured into remaining, and the recent deconverts often would reproduce these perspectives in their own stories.
In reaction, however, to deconverts' stories of negativity and manipulation, sociologists reacted in two ways. One way had a positive impact upon the study of new religions. Sociologists developed a number of conversion models, only one of which involved coercion and deception. Among the most popular was a six-fold model by John Lofland and L. Norman Skonovd, in which “coercive” conversions were only one of the types Lofland and Skonovd, (1981). All of the five others had converts playing varying degrees of active involvement in the conversion process itself.2 These new models, therefore, represented some of the complexities around the conversion process, which was not captured in most of the deconversion stories being told by recent deprogramees.
The other reaction that some academics took was to turn around Patrick’s assumptions about trauma. In Patrick’s model, one’s involvement in a high-demand group was exceedingly stressful, and the deprogramming freed the person from that stressful environment. A couple of academics, however, argued that the deprogramings were the causes of stress in the accounts of former members, not the involvement with the groups themselves. Deprogramming, therefore, and not the groups themselves were the problem. The stories that they told always and only focused on negative aspects of their former group; hence, they were “atrocity tales” that completely neglected to discuss positive aspects of the group. As biased stories, therefore, these so-called atrocity tales were not acceptable as accurate renditions.
The issue about the accuracy of these obligatory public denunciations after deprogramings was even more problematic after a few deconverts criticized their former groups, thanked the deprogrammers, but then some time later rejoined the groups they had denounced (see Patrick with Dulack, 1976: 176-178). Cult defenders, and other observers, had to ask, “If things were as bad inside the groups as they said, then why did they return?” The assumption, therefore, was that deconverts had made their initial denunciations under duress, and that (at the very least) their former involvement actually had positive aspects.
An early, and dramatic, example of this pattern—of a deconverted person rejoining a group that he or she had denounced— took place in Toronto, Canada in 1975 and 1976. In March 1975, Canadian newspapers carried stories about how Ted Patrick worked with the parents of nineteen-year-old Linda Epstein to trick her into entering a hotel room so that he and his associates could ’deprogram’ her from the Hare Krishnas. As she recounted later, her father did not use force to lure her into the room: “‘My father isn’t yanking me or touching me or anything, he just takes me by the shoulder and we go into the room. There’s nothing there, just the two beds’” (Epstein, quoted in Blatchford, 1975: 1). Immediately thereafter, she saw the deprogrammers, and soon they began to work on her.
After three nights, she signed a prepared statement, which read (in part):
‘I was taught to hate my church, and that education was the Devil and was to be scorned. In fact, my mind was so controlled by the leaders of the Hare Krishna movement that if they ordered me to KILL my own parents, I would have done so. Under their pressure, I became totally unable to rationalize’ (quoted in Schachter, 1975 [capitalization in original]). The prepared statement continued:
‘I once again feel like a useful member of society. If, in any event, the Hare Krishna movement or any other sect or cult psychologically or physically kidnaps me back, I am requesting immediate action by the authorities; to come and physically remove me from this, because, in such case, regardless of what I may say or do at the time, I will not be acting under my free will’ (quoted in Blatchford, 1975: 2).
Copies of this statement went to the American Federal Bureau of Investigation and Canadian Attorney General’s Department in Ottawa (Blatchford, 1975:1). At the subsequent press conference, Epstein’s father and two of Patrick’s associates “railed against the movement” (Schachter, 1975).
In late December 1975, however, Linda Epstein rejoined the Krishnas, subsequently swearing an affidavit that she rejoined “’through my own volition’” (quoted in Harpur, 1976). At a press conference in early 1976, she indicated “she was never happy at home and ‘wanted more than anything’ to devote her life to finding God” (Epstein, quoted in Harpur, 1976). Reflecting back upon the denunciation of the group that she had signed, she now claimed that she had done so “‘under duress,’” and that “‘it in no way reflected my true feelings’” (Epstein quoted in Harpur, 1976).
By no means should the Epstein case be taken as indicative that all statements made after deprogramings are inaccurate, but certainly one can see how Epstein could say that she gave her initial statement under coercion. In any case, around this same period some academics began treating all former members’ statements as unreliable. We can see this drift in academia toward the a priori rejection of former members’ accounts by examining one article by James Lewis, followed by his misrepresentation of it.
James R. Lewis’s 1989 article on “Apostates and the Legitimation of Repression” is one representation of this approach. In a study of 154 former members of a number of groups, he tested their attitudes towards the groups to which they had belonged. Lewis concluded:
Ex-members who had experienced coercive deprogramming tended to express negative, stereotypical attitudes; voluntary defectors who had no links with anti-cultists tended to feel ambivalent or positive about their former movements; and the attitudes of respondents who were not kidnapped but who had experienced some form of voluntary counseling at the hands of the anti-cultists tended to lie somewhere in between (Lewis 1989: 390).The study did not distinguish differing experiences among different groups, nor factor in participants’ levels of involvement within the groups’ respective hierarchies. In addition, it did not evaluate the various levels of stress within each of the ways that people departed (i.e. violent versus nonviolent deprogramings), or the specific information that people were exposed to during their deconversion, regardless of how they obtained it. Nevertheless, Lewis remained sufficiently convinced of the definitive nature of his study that he used it to justify support for blocking a publication of mine on the Children of God in 1993.
Without having read the article, he mistakenly assumed that I had built my case primarily upon former members’ accounts (Lewis, 1993). Lewis wrote to one of the journal’s editors, “Research on former members of controversial religious groups (e.g., my ‘Apostates and the Legitimation of Repression,’ Sociological Analysis, winter 1989) has, however, demonstrated that such limited subsamples are nonrepresentative, which calls into question the objectivity of his entire study” (Lewis, 1993).3 Remarkably, of course, his own summary of research findings misrepresented his own study, since that study only concluded that deprogramming and (to a lesser extent, exit counseling) influenced the degree of negativity with which people looked back on their former groups. As this intervention against the publication of my article suggests, by the early 1990s many academics had concluded that former member accounts, regardless of how these people had exited, called into question the information that they provided. The very source of the information—former members— contaminated the contents.
We will never know if the esteemed sociologist of religion, the late Bryan Wilson (1926-2004), knew either of the Epstein case or had read Lewis’s article when he wrote about his total rejection of former members’ accounts:
Neither the objective sociological researcher nor the court of law can readily regard the apostate as a creditable or reliable source of evidence.He must always be seen as one whose personal history predisposes him to bias with respect to both his previous religious commitment and affiliations, [and] the suspicion must arise that he acts from a personal motivation to vindicate himself and to regain his self-esteem, by showing himself to have been first a victim but subsequently to have become a redeemed crusader. As various instances have indicated, he is likely to be suggestible and ready to enlarge or embellish his grievances to satisfy that species of journalist whose interest is more in sensational copy than in a[n] objective statement of the truth (Wilson, 19994: 4).
Not surprisingly, Scientology published Wilson’s statement and makes it available on the Internet. Moreover, Scientology continues to use it whenever former members put forward critical information about it.
Academics other than Wilson have adopted a similar position, as I know far too well. In an article first published in a journal dedicated to the study of new religions called Nova Religio and subsequently reprinted in a book, Canadian religious studies professor Irving Hexham and anthropologist Karla Poewe singled me out among Canadian academics for my supposedly critical position toward “‘the cults:’”
The one exception to the generally neutral tone of most Canadian academics and their rejection of anticult rhetoric is Stephen Kent. Kent has been outspoken in his criticism of many hew religions, particularly Scientology, and works closely with various anticult groups. Although Kent’s views are widely known, few Canadian academics agree with his findings and most disagree quite strongly because of his tendency to use the testimony of ex-members (Hexham and Poewe, 2004: 247).
Undoubtedly, others within the academic community shared this criticism, yet its sharing was by no means universal (see Ayella, 1993: 114).
3) Delusional Alleged Former Members:
Critical analyses of claims, in contrast, not only may verify former members’ accounts but also may uncover poor if not fraudulent research. Moreover, the problem with delusional people believing themselves to have been cult members has not occurred (as far as I can recall) in the general North American anti-cult movement, but it did occur in a controversial subset of it—the anti-satanic movement. A few documented cases exist of people believing that they had been abused, usually as children, in satanic groups when in fact they were suffering from mental illnesses. For example, I remember vividly two interviews with satanic abuse claimants that I conducted with police in the early 1990s who almost certainly were paranoid schizophrenic. A few years prior to those interviews, two authors wrote books about their alleged experiences, only to be revealed later as suffering from psychological and/or psychiatric problems.
One fraudulent satanic book was Rebecca Brown (M.D.)’s 1986 volume, He Came to Set the Captives Free. It discussed a woman’s reputed rise in the satanic hierarchy, as reported by a medical doctor (i.e., Brown, born in 1948 as Ruth Irene Bailey but changed in 1986) who supposedly treated her. The woman, Elaine, was modeled after a patient, Edna Elaine Moses (born Edna Elaine Knost), whom Brown actually treated. Brown’s treatment of Elaine, however, was so irresponsible that she lost her license, since it involved high doses of Demerol (including doses to herself). Side effects include hallucinations and psychotic-like behavior, and Brown had become convinced that satanic demons were everywhere, which were her responsibility to fight. Brown’s fantastical book, therefore, is likely little more than the result of drugfueled, paranoid hallucinations (Fisher, Blizard, and Goedelman, 1989).
A second fraudulent author was Lauren Stratford (b. 1941 as Laurel Wilson). Her 1988 book, Satan’s Underground: The Extraordinary Story of One Woman’s Escape, was a gruesome account of childhood sexual abuse, adult pornography, sadomasochism, child sacrifice, and Satanism, all subsequently proven to have been the creation of a very troubled mind (Passantino, Passantino, and Trott, 1999). After Christian researchers discovered the fraud, the publisher ceased publication of the book, but 130,000 copies already had been sold (Sidey, 1990: 34).
It is instructive to see how the publisher, Harvest House, got duped, especially since members of cult monitoring organizations could make similar mistakes when attempting to assess the accounts of former members:
Harvest House explained what they [sic] felt constituted proof of her testimony. They had a three-part test: (1) several staff members talked with Laurel at different times and got the same stories from her, and all of the staff members were impressed with her sincerity; (2) they talked with ‘experts’ who confirmed that such things have happened to others; and (3) they gathered character references for her from her supporters (Passantino, Passantino, and Trott: 1990: 28).
As the authors to this critical piece explained, “[t]hese tests can establish consistency and plausibility, but they are not tests to establish the validity of actual historical events” (Passantino, Passantino, and Trott, 1990: 28). In short, consistency regarding one’s story concerning prior cult involvement, and a convincing personality, are not sufficient grounds to judge whether former members’ accounts are true and accurate.
A more complicated set of examples came from people, usually women, who had recovered memories of satanic cult involvement after having undergone therapy. In backlash, a wave of opposition grew among people who said that they socalled memories were false ones, implanted by zealous but poorly trained therapists and that in fact no such satanic involvement had occurred (for example, Brainerd and Reyna, 2005). As the 1990s progressed, a number of lawsuits by former clients against therapists worked through the courts, causing chaos within the therapeutic community (and causing great concern among those persons who continued to believe that their memories were real [see Pendergrast,1995]). The false memory debates always circled around the anti-cult movement in North America, but never became part of its central concern. The implications from it, however, were clear: if therapists unintentionally could create false memories of ritual satanic abuse, then so too could deprogramers and exit counselors implant negative memories (or at least interpretations) of one’s former cult involvement.
4) Con Artists:
People caught up in the false memory debate were sincere in their allegations, whether or not they were accurate. Con artists, by contrast, made claims about having been Satanists while knowing that they were false, doing so only so that they could bilk Christians and the public out of money. These cons share a characteristic with the delusional former members: both groups of people were “apostates who never were” who they claimed to be (see Johnson, 1998). The bestdocumented example of a con artist following this pattern was Michael Warnke, author of The Satan Seller (Warnke with Balsiger and Jones, 1972), which was a Christian book best seller. It told of Warnke’s alleged sex-driven, drug-fueled, leadership reign over a 1,500 member satanic group during the late 1960s, prior to his conversion to Christianity. He capitalized upon his past through his Christian ministry and (among other activities) occasional police consultation (even in Australia) about satanic activities. In 1992, however, a lengthy investigative piece, in the Christian magazine, Cornerstone, exposed extensive fraud in his ministry, including the lie about his former satanic priesthood past (Trott and Hertenstein, 1992; see Maxwell 1992). In simple terms, Warnke was a con artist.
Note that these con artists targeted Christian communities, probably because they knew that Christians would donate money to fight what they believed to be Satan. In another instance, a person pretending to be a sixteen-year-old girl escaping from the Unification Church lived with Christians for a month until they discovered that she was thirty and had never been a follower of Reverend Moon. Subsequently, she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show as a person suffering from Multiple Personality disorder, and later got exposed trying to convince Christians that she was a satanic abuse survivor (Passantino, Passantino, and Trott, 1999: 90 n. 68). The point of these stories about con artists may be that people of faith and goodwill are especially susceptible to fraudsters who claim to have left groups that many people oppose (e.g., Satanism, the Moonies/Unification church, etc.).
By far the most serious problem involving alleged former members involves spies, who have much in common with con artists. Con artists deceive for their own gain, while spies deceive for the gain of an opposing organization. Spies still are members of a controversial group, and the group directs them to infiltrate a countercult organization or befriend cult critics (often legitimate former members themselves). Very many of the early North American countercult figures—Kurt and Henrietta Crampton, Nan Mclean, Priscilla Coates, etc.–had spies visit them with fake stories about their own defections and queries for cult-recovery help.
Of course, the obvious purpose behind these spies was to gain information about opponents—what they were planning; who was in their networks; etc. Other reasons were more sinister— to steal documents or to get the critic to engage in some form or illegal activity (i.e., entrapment). Two now-defunct, California-based anti-cult groups, the Freedom counseling Center and Spiritual Counterfeits Project, had a husband-andwife- team of Scientologists (Andrea and Ford Schwartz) infiltrate it. After this couple defected from Scientology, they spoke about the preparations that they had undergone prior to their secret assignment:
To prepare himself as a counter-intelligence agent for Scientology, Ford received 400 hours of auditing and read up on other spy agencies, such as the CIA and the KGB. He performed national and international work, but took most of his orders from the Guardians Office in San Francisco. He met his ‘operative’ at least once a week, in bars, restaurants, or parked cars. All calls to his operative were from pay telephones.
Andrea also became a counter-intelligence agent, infiltrating a Berkeley cult-awareness group called the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. ‘Our friends and family all believed we were out of Scientology,’ she says. ‘We started living our cover as real as we could—we had to remember that anyone contacting us might be checking our cover’ (Wheeler, 1982).
They maintained their covers within the two organizations for over a year, and managed to feed Scientology some useful intelligence.
America’s largest anti-cult group, the Cult Awareness Network, also had plants. One worked within it during the period immediately prior to Scientology’s take-over of its material, when officials of the group were strategizing (ultimately with no success) how to keep its files out of Scientology’s hands. Presumably, the plant kept Scientology officials informed until Scientology finally was able to obtain them through bankruptcy. An earlier Scientology plant, Garry Scharff, infiltrated the Cult Awareness Network for nine years in a clever manner—he claimed to have been a member of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple, so almost anyone who could have disproven him was dead in the 1987 murder/suicides in Guyana (Scarff, 1992: 1). Apparently, he worked closely with a Scientology law firm that was working in part to destroy the Cult Awareness Network (see Scarff, 1991: 3, 6), but he eventually defected from Scientology itself and began feeding information to the Cult Awareness Network instead. The information that Scarff fed back to the Cult Awareness network included disturbing allegations that Scientology attorneys were plotting the murder of the Cult Awareness Network’s director, Cynthia Kisser (see Scarff, [undated]). Largely because of Scarff’s years of deception, however, his credibility was nonexistent, so no one could or did act upon the allegations that he made.
Spies worked so effectively against some anti-cult groups in North America that I must assume some groups have tried to plant them in Europe. Scrutiny regarding new, enthusiastic volunteers early on is exceedingly wise, since discovery afterthe- fact leaves everyone in an organization with a sense of violation and vulnerability. If a group discovers one, however, I recommend kindness as the group withdraws its privileges and access. I do so because sometimes spies turn against their handlers, and seeing their targets react with decency after uncovering them might have an impact.
6) Ex-Members with ‘Histories:’
Con artists become spokespersons built upon fraudulent claims, but quite a few former members become spokespersons against their former groups based upon quite legitimate claims. Sometimes these former members were high-profile spokespersons, appearing in the media to dispel negative information about the group and defend its image. In other cases, the defecting members had been active in their respective groups for a number of years. These people know a great deal, but—as group members—they also may have done a great deal that the group can throw back at them. Public statements, for example, by spokespersons can come back to haunt people in their new, cult-critical lives. Perjured court testimonies, violations of civil or criminal law, and interpersonal relationships with other group members or their families may have involved actions that defecting members now regret, but which have the possibility of blowing up in their faces through negative public relations campaigns that groups may run in their own defense.
Anti-cult organizations and personnel have an obligation to help a defecting or defected member weigh all the pros and cons associated with speaking out. An important role for anticult organizations to play is the assist former members in efforts to integrate into mainstream society, and sometimes this integration is best accomplished quietly and outside a public spotlight. Besides, in a few years these people may be in different social, legal, and/or emotional conditions that will allow a more public stance. No one likes to be used, and a danger exists that anti-cult groups may use some former members to heighten criticism of various groups but at the expense of former-member critics.
What I am calling professional former member anticultists are people who exit a group and then attempt to make a living by battling it and probably others like it. In the past these people have become expert witnesses, authors, deprogrammers, exit counselors, officials in anti-cult organizations, etc. This road, however, is a tough one. Very little money circulates in the counter-cult movement and eventually court cases dry up and one’s information (based upon one’s experiences in a group) becomes dated. Consequently, only a very few people who have exited cults have been able to make a living fighting them. One of the few examples of someone who has succeeded is Michael Kropveld of Montreal Canada’s Info- Sect/InfoCulte, and Ian Haworth of the United Kingdom’s Cult Information Centre. Others have failed. For a number of years, for example, Stacey Brooks Young worked as a consultant and then as an organizational staff member in a Florida anti-Scientology organization. Apparently, pressures to maintain the viability of the organization for which she worked led her to commit perjury, thereby destroying her credibility (see Brooks, 2002).
The most effective former members of groups are persons who acquire advanced degrees in any number of fields (mental health, social sciences, law, medicine, etc.) and who then either speak about their former cult experiences and/or assist others who have difficulties with these groups. Having undergone professional training, these people cannot be so easily dismissed as biased, non-credible former members. Moreover, they write and speak with an authority that comes from firsthand experience. Growing numbers of people with PhDs and professional training now exist in sociology, psychology, mental health, law, etc. Some of the work that they produce on cults is exceptionally good, because they can see readily the gaps or mistakes that exist in current scholarship. They have cult experiences, and they know the academic and professional language and decorum to use when expressing those experiences. Alas, higher education is no necessary indicator that the holder of an advanced degree will write critically but objectively (James R. Lewis, for example, was a member of 3HO, but has a reputation of downplaying abuses in various groups [Lewis 2010]), yet the numbers of former-members turned- professionals is growing rapidly.
The total rejection of the ‘testimonies’ of former members is not social science, and future generations of scholars will look back on this rejection with incredulity. What should matter in the social sciences is that researchers obtain accurate information under ethical circumstances. Regardless of who provides it, social scientists simply should attempt to verify its content by comparing it to information that others provide or that the researchers obtained in other ways—a process called triangulation. The more that independent sources point to the same facts, the higher the likelihood of the facts being accurate. Rejecting former members’ accounts, therefore, without checking them is more than simply bad social science, it actually is ideology. It is a refusal to question one’s basic assumptions that privileges the controversial groups—the cults— themselves. It privileges these groups by categorically excluding from research the wealth of information that people have who have seen these groups from the inside. Scientology, therefore, published Bryan Wilson’s statement in an attempt to discredit former members’ accounts of life within that group. It is astonishing that so many social scientists bought into this uncritical, exclusionary process.
My primary reason for writing this paper was to remind Europeans to be vigilant concerning who it admits to its important information. Undoubtedly, former members of controversial groups will want to assist them in various ways, and they bring with them a wealth of information and material that is difficult to obtain elsewhere. Because of their values, however, the groups themselves can exploit their valuable role by creating espionage or spy rings that take advantage of the apostate or former member role. Moreover, some people may leave controversial groups only to return some time afterward, and it is at least feasible that a few people may concoct stories about former cult membership in order to receive material and emotional attention. For their own good sometimes, former members should focus on building or rebuilding their lives and not opening themselves up to counterattacks by persons (including family) whom they once considered friends. All that said, former members continue to enrich our understanding of many controversial groups, and we are wise to welcome them in our midst and grow from the information that they impart.
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