Debate About Deprogramming

August 1997
Edited by Rick Ross



I was awarded the "Wacko site of the Week award" by Richard Harrison.

No, not the famous actor. This Harrison is a photographer and one-time webmaster. And his hobby in the late 1990s was a small Web site dedicated "exclusively for the true wackos."

Harrison concluded that my work warranted an award noting the following:

"One of the Wackos at the other end of the spectrum from Heaven's Gate. This one believes that just because someone decides to believe differently he has the right to kidnap and brainwash them back to his religion. Then charge their loved ones for the privilege. Can we say 'First Amendment'"?

Subsequently, we exchanged emails, which were once published on Harrison's page. His "Wacko" Web site has since been taken down.

But this Debate about Deprogramming seemed worth keeping up. What follows is the exchange between Harrison and I.

The Debate

Rick Ross: It seems like you really didn't review the Web site in any meaningful depth, or that some angry cult member may have emailed you a complaint, perhaps a Scientologist.

At the web site under "Intervention" the issue of "Deprogramming" is discussed.

Only a small fraction of the hundreds of interventions I have done since 1982 were involuntary and a concerned family initiated each of those cases. Some of them were court ordered or involved minor children under custodial parent supervision.

The vast majority of my work has been voluntary, more than 90%.

Don't you approve of people voluntarily consenting to a discussion through a family intervention with professional and/or custodial parents exercising their rights over their own minor children?

The two Waco-Davidians I worked with both participated on a voluntary basis. I actually stopped doing involuntary work with adults as of May 1995.

Many of the people I helped through involuntary interventions keep in touch. I have been invited to their weddings, birthdays, graduations and other family events. They are grateful their families made the effort to help them, even though it was involuntary.

Some families I spoke with after the Waco and "Heaven's Gate" tragedies wish they had been able to do involuntary interventions.

The First Amendment is not a suicide pact. Our courts recognize the criminal nature of physical rape, but unfortunately in most cases, not the rape of the mind. There are millions of Americans suffering under the undue influence of destructive cults.

It seems like you skate laughingly on the surface, failing to understand the serious nature of this issue. You should read the Web site section about "Mind Control," which contains book excerpts by leading experts on this subject.

Your web site seems to be an attempt to promote some type of awareness about radical groups. You might find helpful in the future through its listing of hundreds of articles, group files, links, studies and resources on this subject.

There are articles about some of the groups you mention such as "The Republic of Texas" the
Waco-Davidians and an assortment of "Hate Groups."

Again, I recognize that involuntary deprogramming is controversial. However, you are probably not directly affected by destructive cults and have the luxury of engaging in "politically correct" analysis.

Unfortunately, many families do not have that luxury. They often run out of "politically correct" options and historically have undertaken involuntary deprogramming as a painful choice between the "lesser of two evils."

Perhaps you are convinced that your "view of reality is the true only view" on this subject.

You may be pleased that Scientology and its lawyers along with other wealthy and powerful cults litigated until involuntary interventions became virtually non-existent. They harassed the few professionals who did help in extreme cult abuse cases, to the point where such resources ceased to exist.

Some families I have talked with recently about cult groups such as "Heaven's Gate" felt cut off and impotent. They often cannot help their adult children in extreme cult situations.

What would you say if you were in their position?

Richard Harrison: Isn't it strange how, if you disagree with someone they assume that you just didn't understand them? I had no trouble understanding what Mr. Ross does, I just happen to find it despicable.

If someone comes to Mr. Rick Ross voluntarily to have him or her "deprogrammed" I have no problem with him helping them.

However, if they are kidnapped and brainwashed into leaving the religion of their choice then the Constitution and I have a serious problem with him.

Unfortunately, this has been the case in several instances. Behavior like this makes him no better than the "cults" from which he is trying to "rescue" people.

Rick Ross: I read your response and still am somewhat confused by your position and statements. Do you know what "brainwashing" is? Please review the section "Brainwashing?" and note the criteria listed in Chapter 22 of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert J. Lifton, a M.D. psychiatrist.

Lifton studied "brainwashing" funded by the Ford Foundation and others. His work was based on interviews with exiting prisoners "brainwashed" by North Korean Communists while within POW camps.

It seems that you are postulating a theory based upon the assumption that "involuntary deprogramming" somehow equals "brainwashing." How do you support your assumption?

There is much more than simply involuntary confinement involved in "brainwashing."

Also, what is the program or mindset you suppose "deprogrammers" are "brainwashing" their subjects to accept?

Deprogramming actually encourages critical thinking, objective reasoning and logical analysis. There is no indoctrination into a belief system.

Do you think trying to facilitate critical analysis and reviewing documentation regarding a group's history, practices and thought reform techniques equals "brainwashing"?

Also, you say that your claim of "brainwashing" has been "the case in several instances."

Specifically, what "instances" are you referring to? Please cite them and how they meet the criteria for thought reform as outlined by Lifton, which would be an objective test.

In my work regarding involuntary deprogramming no one was held beyond a few days. And the cult member knew from the onset that their family only wanted time to present their concerns. Subsequently the cult member would be free to go and to make their own choices, which might include returning to the group in question.

The cults many of these people were involved in trained them to run the minute any family member attempted to present concerns about their group and/or brought in a professional to assist in such a discussion.

The consequences of continued involvement within some of these cults was often quite serious. This included such things as arranged marriages, child abuse, sexual abuse, medical neglect, possession of illegal weapons and the potential for violence. One group specifically encouraged its members to become sterilized either through a vasectomy or tubule legation with cauterization.

What would you suggest these families do?

These groups quite frequently would not allow any family contact, often housed their members in isolation and taught them to run when questions were asked about cult influence and practices.

If your loved one was in danger within such a cult what would you do?

What would you have recommended to families affected by groups like "Heaven's Gate," the Waco-Davidians, the Solar Temple, Aum or Jim Jones' People's Temple?

There are thousands of destructive cults in North America. Many of them are potentially physically dangerous. If it were your brother, sister, mother, father, daughter, son, what would you do Richard?

Richard Harrison: I appreciate the trouble Mr. Ross is going through to clarify his position on this issue. He seems to be having trouble understanding my position and statements so I will try to clarify.

What is brainwashing? Instead of finding an expert opinion to support my position, which is never hard to do in the psychology profession, lets use an unbiased definition. After receiving his email I went to Yahoo and clicked on dictionaries. I then picked a fairly well known one, the Merriam Webster online dictionary where I found the following:

Main Entry: brain · wash · ing
Pronunciation: 'brAn-"wo-shi[ng], -"wä-
Function: noun
Etymology: translation of Chinese (Beijing) xinao
Date: 1950
1: a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept
contrasting regimented ideas
2 : persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship
- brain · wash transitive verb
- brainwash noun
- brain · wash · er noun

Since I feel fairly certain we can accept this as an unbiased definition of brainwashing how can you say what you do does not meet this definition.

According to your email you "facilitate critical analysis and review documentation regarding a group's history, practices and influence" As near as I can tell this is almost a textbook use of propaganda (see definition 2 above). And, your hope is that you will convince them to give up their religious beliefs and accept contrasting ones. I also have to stress that the individual being propagandized is being held against their will after being abducted by you. While we are on that note let us check the definition of kidnap from the same source.

Main Entry: kid · nap
Pronunciation: 'kid-"nap
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): -napped or kid · naped /-"napt/; -nap · ping or -nap · ing
Etymology: probably back-formation from kidnapper, from kid + obsolete napper thief
Date: 1682
: to seize and detain or carry away by unlawful force or fraud and often with a demand for ransom
- kid · nap · pee or kid · nap · ee /"kid-"na-'pE/ noun
- kid · nap · per or kid · nap · er noun

It seems that the definition fits.

Now, about the several instances, I obviously do not have access to all the deprogramming cases that you have performed over the years. Let's just refer to the case of 18-year-old adult Jason Scott. It seems that a jury in Washington agreed with my assessment of your methods.

What would I have the families do, or do myself?

If the person involved were under 18 I would rely on the legal system of this country to help me. If, however, he were over the age of majority I would respect his choice. The First Amendment gives me no other option. It is written that way to protect the freedom of religion of people who might subscribe to unpopular beliefs from people who would attempt to force them to believe otherwise.

Rick Ross: The deprogramming case you cite was the only involuntary I have ever done that involved the courts.

First, I was found "not guilty" and acquitted in a criminal trial.

Later, Scientology lawyers used Jason Scott to file a civil suit which I lost.

However, Jason Scott settled that judgement in November of 1996 for $5,000.00 on the condition I provide him 200 hours of additional consultation. We are now friendly and he left the group, which was not simply a "Pentecostal church," but the United Pentecostal Church International.

There is quite a difference, see articles at the UPCI information page.

Jason fired his Scientology lawyer Kendrick Moxon and said he was tired of being used. This was reported by the Washington Post. Another article appeared within American Lawyer that further exposed Scientology's involvement.

For a complete history of the case see Scott v. Ross here.

You linked to an interesting source within your last email, the so-called "CAN Reform" group run by Scientology. It lists Scientologist Leisa Goodman, who does their PR and the so-called "Friends of Freedom" run by George Robertson. You can see George Robertson is listed as a recommended resource by Scientology.

If you're really concerned with "wackos" perhaps you should check out Scientology.

They seem to have a real problem with First Amendment provisions for freedom of speech and constantly harass people on the Internet.

There have also been a number of criminal proceedings and lawsuits concerning Scientologists around the world, see this one complete with photo).

There are many pages on the Internet about Scientology.

Some are listed on my link list including the "Lisa McPherson Memorial Page" about a young woman who died tragically while under their care. Her family is now suing Scientology for "wrongful death."

Your remark in which you concluded that the First Amendment should take precedent over helping a family member is troubling.

What would have happened to the many adults whose lives were saved through involuntary interventions if you were the family member they relied upon?

It seems like you're saying the First Amendment is something akin to a suicide pact and that from "Heaven's Gate" to David Koresh, people should simply forget about any brainwashing involved and ignore the possible consequences.

Richard Harrison: Allow me to reiterate my position. I do not necessarily agree with the religious belief of these cults. However, I do believe that they have the right to believe whatever they like.

Something you say quite often is "The First Amendment is not a suicide pact."

Actually, the First Amendment does not mention suicide at all. What it is does do is give all religions the right to believe and worship as they see fit. It does not just apply to those religions that you agree with.

People can worship the great cantaloupe or have a ritual that involves symbolically drinking the blood and eating the flesh of their savior. It is all the same to the First Amendment.

Who are you to decide which religions are legitimate and which are not?

You say you were found "not guilty" and acquitted in the first trial. Then you lost the civil case.

Stop me if I am wrong but does this sound like the same thing that happened to O.J.? And the fact that the defendant had a change of heart does not change the outcome of the lawsuit.

Because the defendant was weak, influenced by a "cult" then by you, does not mean his case was.

Rick Ross: Jason Scott was not "weak" for settling. He settled years after his deprogramming and more than a year after that judgement was entered.

Though I appealed the judgement there was no additional intervention, which caused Jason to change his mind, this was his own decision.

Comparing the Scott case to O.J. is really rather silly.

First of all no one was murdered.

Second, I spent about $5,000.00 on my criminal defense, which ended in acquittal. How much did O.J. spend on his Dream Team?

For my civil defense I spent about $5,000.00, but Scientology poured out at least $250,000.00.

Victory in civil litigation is often determined by the participant with the deepest pockets.

Your attempt to compare a deprogramming intervention to brainwashing has some serious holes.

First, in deprogramming there is no attempt at changing someone to "accept contrasting regimented views." And the Chinese Communist model you refer to is based upon people brainwashed to accept a doctrine, i.e. Communism.

In deprogramming there is no doctrine anyone is being asked to accept.

You compound this error by stating that as a result of deprogramming people "give up religious beliefs and accept contrasting ones." Again, no religious belief system or political ideology is being promoted through deprogramming. The proof of this is the wide disparity of beliefs accepted by those who have been successfully deprogrammed.

They come out with everything from no religious belief at all, Christianity, Judaism, New Age beliefs and Hinduism.

This does not reflect "regimented ideas." It appears you are attempting to distort both my work and web site.

Richard Harrison: You kidnap people, hold them against their will and subject them to propaganda in an effort to get them to renounce their chosen religion. If you choose to call this "involuntary deprogramming" instead of "brainwashing" feel free. Go back to the definition from Webster's that I quoted above and try to see how, at a minimum, it does not fit the second definition.

You state that I refer to a "Chinese communist model" in reference to brainwashing. Where do I do so? The only definition I have attempted to use if from The Merriam Webster online dictionary which mentions that the etymology of the word is a translation from the Chinese. This is not the same thing Rick.

In what way have I distorted anything said by you or included on your site? Please supply me with specific instances.

Because the plaintiff in the case spent more money than you did, does not mean they were wrong. At best it is an excuse. As to whether or not Scott was weak is irrelevant. My point was that his case was not. Apparently the jury agreed.

Since it was not answered in your last letter, I feel obligated to once again ask; who are you to decide which religions are legitimate and which are not? Please give me your qualifications for this and tell me who has given you the authority to do so.

Rick Ross: In my last letter I did answer the question,"Who are you to decide which religions are legitimate?" Again, it was pointed out that no religious belief system or political ideology is being promoted in deprogramming and that the proof is the wide disparity of beliefs accepted by those who have been successfully deprogrammed.

Let me spell this out to you succintly. The focus of deprogramming is not to decide which religions are legitimate, but rather the issue is the abuse of power and undue influence.

It's not a question of religious legitimacy to discuss David Koresh's conduct in raping minor children. It is likewise not an attack on the legitimacy of Catholicism, Protestantism, or Judaism to question the individual conduct of a priest, pastor or rabbi.

You have distorted several issues related to my work and web site and here are some specific instances:

  • That I "kidnap people." This is distorted, totally misleading and fails to address the fact that the families concerned held their own children in an involuntary deprogramming. For example, Jason Scott's mother specifically arranged for and supervised her son's "kidnapping." Also, it is widely known that "kidnapping" most often includes a demand for ransom. This is clearly not the case in deprogramming.
  • Repeatedly you have chosen to focus only upon involuntary deprogramming, which I told you explicitly only accounted for a very small fraction of my past work. You seem to largely ignore that the overwhelming majority of my work was and is done on a voluntary basis. I stopped participating in involuntary cases, with the exception of minor children under the direct supervision of a custodial parent, as of May 1995. This is specifically stated at my web site.
  • You have likewise distorted what goes on in deprogramming by attempting to label it "forcible indoctrination" and claiming its aim is to induce people to "give up religious beliefs." This is clarified otherwise on the Web site at both FAQ and Warning Signs groups that might "worship cantaloupes" are distinguished from destructive cults that hurt people.

The reason the etymology of the word brainwashing is a translation from Chinese is a direct reference to the fact that the word is premised on the Chinese Communist model of thought reform.

And are you really that naive you actually believe that in a civil court spending by each party has nothing to do with the outcome?

Let's use your logic and it apply it to the O.J. verdicts. "Because he spent more money does not mean [O.J. was] wrong apparently the jury agreed." I guess O.J. was innocent and believing that all the money he spent on his Dream Team overwhelmed the prosecution "at best is an excuse."

Richard Harrison: You state that the fact that I accuse you of kidnapping is "totally misleading and fails to address the facts" then go on to say "Jason Scott's mother arranged for and supervised his 'kidnapping.' "

Just because you were doing it under the instructions of another person does not mean that you did not kidnap him. Using this, as an excuse is akin to saying, "somebody else told me to kill him." While it is true kidnapping often involves a ransom demand, it is also not a requirement. Or did you get payment up front?

While it is true I have focused on the "involuntary deprogramming" aspect of your business, I have also stated in a prior letter that if a subject comes to you voluntarily and asks your help in getting himself out of a cult I have no problem whatsoever with you supplying this help. If, as you state, "The focus of deprogramming is not to decide which religions are legitimate, but rather the issue is the abuse of power."

If you are only concerned with illegal behavior by the cult, then why do you not let the legal authorities handle the case? They have the authority and the legal right to intervene in situations like this where you do not.

You claim that I "distort what goes on in deprogramming cases by attempting to categorize it as 'forcible indoctrination,' or inducing people to 'give up religious beliefs' etc."

So, by this statement are we to believe that you do not induce, per Webster's online dictionary the definition of which is (1a) "to move by persuasion or influence," them to give up their religious beliefs?

You don't try to persuade them to give up the beliefs they held in the cult? Are these just potential bridge partners you are kidnapping then?

The etymology of the word brainwashing is obvious, however it is not for the reason you gave.

It is obvious because it is a translation of a Chinese word for which we had no equivalent. It likely did originate with Communist China.

However, this is beside the point. I was using an obviously unbiased definition from Webster's online dictionary instead of using what some handy psychologist who happens to agree with me said. Obviously you are just looking for a definition that agrees with your opinion and supports your business. Sort of like hiring an "expert witness" at a trial whom you pay to agree with you.

No, I am not naive enough to believe that money has no bearing in the outcome of a civil case. I am also not naive enough to believe it is the only issue. Just because they outspent you when you lost the case does not automatically mean you were right. You seem to imply that this is the case.

Who are you to decide which religions are legitimate and which are not? Please give me your qualifications for this and tell me who has given you the authority to do so.

Rick Ross: You are being redundant by asking the same question once again after it has already been answered repeatedly.

Again, I do not "decide which religions are legitimate and which are not." Please read the previous emailed responses again.

It seems that when you don't like an answer you refuse to acknowledge that it was given.

My qualifications are detailed at my site, which include many years of direct experience.

That includes time on the professional staff at a social service agency, creating and teaching courses on destructive cults, national committee work for a major denomination, lecturing at universities, analysis for the media, advising law enforcement and serving as an accepted expert witness in numerous court cases.

Since 1982 I have handled hundreds of interventions and consulted with thousands of families.

Of course I cooperate with the "legal authorities" in a cult case that involves criminal acts.

One example was a pedophile cult leader arrested by the FBI who sexually exploited children he recruited through the Internet.

You say that "just because [Scientology] outspent [me] when [I] lost the [civil] case does not automatically mean [I was] right."

At the risk of belaboring this point a bit, they did outspend me fifty-to-one.

Your comparison that citing parental involvement and supervision in an involuntary deprogramming case is "an excuse akin to saying, 'somebody else told me to kill him'" is fairly ridiculous.

Comparing deprogramming to killing someone for hire clearly misses the point.

By citing family involvement I simply meant this was not a typical "kidnapping." Obviously these families have no intention of harming and/or exploiting their own children.

Family interventions regarding destructive cults typically begin without telling the cult-involved person in advance. This is standard procedure for almost any serious intervention, such as drug abuse.

But once a family begins the cult-involved person is asked to continue voluntarily.

You said, "That if a subject comes to you voluntarily and asks your help in getting himself out of a cult I have no problem whatsoever with you supplying this help."

Do you then believe families should mail an invitation RSVP regarding a planned intervention?

Or, can you accept the basic principle that people in serious situations, such as cult involvement, drug or alcohol abuse, don't always recognize the need for an intervention?

Also, are you questioning the right of a legal guardian to exercise parental prerogatives concerning a minor child?

If you mean that through deprogramming a member might be persuaded to "give up the beliefs they had in the cult" such as bearing the "Divine One's" seed, eating the poison pudding, sterilizing themselves or becoming a killer in the "Name of God." Well yes, those beliefs might be questioned.

Deprogramming does revolve around questioning a cult member's submission to the whims of their leader, which may cause harm to themselves and/or others.

Your mistaken understanding about Chinese brainwashing appears to be one example of a general failure in research. Regarding the etymology within the definition that you cited you say, "It likely did originate with Communist China. However, this is beside the point."

But that is precisely the point.

This is why I previously cited Lifton, not because he is "some handy psychologist who happens to agree with me," but because his research largely defined the term "brainwashing" through a study of the Chinese Communist model your cited definition is based upon.

If you are going to accuse someone of brainwashing, you should at least understand the term and its history. You don't seem to grasp what brainwashing really is.

Brainwashing can easily be seen as "kidnapping" a person's capacity to think independently, question critically and reflect. It is in this sense the "kidnapping" of someone's individual identity.

Didn't you notice the blank stares in the eyes of many of the members of "Heaven's Gate"? How they all ate the same last meal and committed suicide in exactly the same way? They were not acting as individuals and/or exercising free choice. Instead, they essentially became their leader's pawns or robots through a brainwashing process.

Richard Harrison: In several of your previous letters you have referred to my lack of compassion for the families of these "cult" members. Are we to take it, then, that you act on this out of the goodness of your heart? Or, is this something you do to make money from these poor distraught people?

You have answered the question about your qualifications.

Should I also assume that these include some sort of degree in psychology or a related field?

Since you are "deprogramming" these people I would assume that this is a minimum requirement.

Unfortunately, you once again did not give the source of your authority to kidnap and "deprogram" these individuals.

If you, as you say, "always cooperate with law enforcement in a cult case that involves criminal acts," should we assume that the law enforcement agencies tell you to go snatch the person for them? Or do you only handle the cults that are not breaking the law. If this is the case then, again, how do you justify acting against a member of a law-abiding religion?

You state that "once a family begins [the cult-involved person] must agree to continue voluntarily." Are we to assume, by this statement that you did not hold Mr. Scott against his will or any of your other subjects? You just kidnap them, ask the equivalent of "is this ok with you?" And, if they disagree, instantly let them go. Or do you hold them against their will until they agree to be "deprogrammed" by you?

You display an appalling ignorance of First Amendment issues. If a religion is breaking laws then it is a situation for the legal authorities to handle. If they are not they have the right to worship as they see fit.

You say that I am "comparing deprogramming to killing someone."

If you go back and read my statement that you are referring to it is obviously a comparison with kidnapping someone for hire and murder for hire. In both cases the fact that you were hired to do the deed does not make you innocent.

Please attempt to notice the context of the statement next time.

Contrary to what you think, I did review most if not all of your site.

Again, just because I disagree with you, does not mean that I do not understand what you are saying.

Let me again state some of my reasons for disagreeing with your positions.

  • You are a person who kidnaps people and "deprograms" them into thinking in a way that you approve of and leaving the religion of their choice.
  • You have no right to interfere with the worship of the chosen religion of the people you "involuntarily deprogram."
  • If the religion is breaking the law it is the job of the legal authorities to handle it. Not for you to kidnap the person and "deprogram" them.
  • You take money from the distraught families of these "cult" members for your kidnapping and brainwashing services.

Hopefully that makes my position fairly clear. I am in no way saying that the cults that you deal with are fine people and wonderful neighbors. Just that you have no right to judge them, kidnap them, or "deprogram" them. The First Amendment protects them as it does you and I.

Rick Ross: You continue to ignore several points repeatedly.

  • Again, I stopped doing involuntary deprogramming work in 1995 and only did a handful of such cases before that. That work ended before I began the Web site. So why do you continue to focus on this?

If "contrary to what [I] think, [you] did review most if not all of [my] site" then didn't you read the section titled Intervention?

In the very beginning you should have known that the Web site contained a statement that I no longer do involuntary cases with adults.

You raised the issue of fees for my work.

Typically I do not work for free. At times I have done pro-bono work and provided consultation without charge.

Again, this is covered in the Intervention section you claim to have read.

I do not have a degree in psychology. But my intervention work has often included cooperating and/or working with mental health professionals. The writings of psychologists and psychiatrists are also on my web site in areas such as within Recovery and "Brainwashing"?

It seems you don't know what actually happens in an intervention.

This is essentially a dialogue that includes the cult-involved person, specialist or deprogrammer, along with the family. This dialogue or discussion revolves around various issues of cult involvement such as isolation, estrangement, thought reform techniques, control of information, submission and totalism. There are also often specific concerns, which might include potentially harmful practices related to diet, medical care, childcare, sexual or financial exploitation.

An intervention is an exchange of ideas through conversation that may utilize documentation through videos, court records, group literature, affidavits, former member's testimonies or other sources of information about a specific group.

This is not therapy or mental health counseling, but rather an educational process. The implicit understanding is always that the subject will decide about his or her future commitment.

We live in a free country that promotes public discourse on a wide range of issues and that includes religion. It is within my First Amendment rights to criticize and form judgements about destructive cults. It is also a First Amendment right for families to freely voice their concerns to a loved one. It is also my First Amendment right to speak within the context of an intervention.

It is each American's right to freely "judge" for themselves whether they think a religion is right or wrong, good or bad. Certainly, in view of cult tragedies like Waco, Jonestown and "Heaven's Gate" there is ample reason for concern within today's religious marketplace.

Now will you please finally answer some of my questions?

  • Do you or don't you support the rights of parents to do involuntary interventions concerning their own minor children? A simple yes or no will suffice.
  • Do you oppose voluntary interventions staged by a family with a professional of their choice, when their adult child is free to go at any time?

Richard Harrison: You stated that you quit doing "involuntary deprogramming" in 1995. If this means that you have given up kidnapping people totally I applaud your decision to behave legally. If, however, you only gave it up for adults, I still feel the need to question this decision.

You ask if I "support the rights of parents to do involuntary interventions concerning their own minor children" then ask me to limit my answer to "a simple yes or no." I will be happy to answer these questions but please indulge me and allow more than a limited answer.

If the minor in question is not involved in a custody dispute battle between parents and is involved in a religion that, in the opinion of a qualified psychologist, is causing him harm I fully support the authority of the legal authorities to intervene.

Do I support your right to kidnap this person? Not even a little bit.

I don't care if you have hired people with a broad range of kidnapping skills and a great amount of experience in snatching people against their will. It is still the responsibility of the legal authorities to intervene if the need arises. Then the parent involved would have every right to seek help from whomever they see fit. In my opinion that should be a trained psychologist or psychiatrist, but that is their own choice.

On the same note you seem upset that I feel "kidnapping someone for hire" has some sort of relationship to "murder for hire." I will try, once more, to explain. Just because someone hires you to perform an illegal action does not make the action legal. This is a fairly simple concept.

By concentrating on the etymology of the word "brainwashing" you are trying to avoid the fact that what you do fits the definition. I already acknowledged the etymology of the word in a previous letter. It is a translation of a Chinese word. It most likely was invented by Communist Chinese although I have no evidence of this it is likely true and I will grant it for the sake of clarification. However, you have still not told me where it is that what you do does not fit the dictionary definition of "brainwashing."

I have tried to find the lowest common denominator of the definition of the word so we can agree on a definition. Should I use a definition that Scientology supports, possibly one that the ACLU would approve, or one that you found that supports your position? No, I believe that we should stick with the one in the dictionary. Try not to get lost and obscure the issue on the fact that the word comes from Chinese. Instead please address the definition and whether or not what you do fits that definition. A simple yes or no will suffice.

The following paragraph is a quote from your last letter:

"We live in a free country that promotes public discourse on a wide range of issues and that includes religion. It is within my First Amendment rights to criticize and form judgements about destructive cults. It is also the First Amendment right of families to freely voice their concerns to a loved one. It is also my First Amendment right to speak in conjunction with such an intervention."

You also say that "It is each American's right to freely 'judge for themselves whether they think a religion is right or wrong, good or bad." While this is true. It is not their or your right to impose by force this opinion on others. It is not your right to speak to a kidnapped, captive audience.

Please tell me how you interpret the First Amendment to support this. If they do not want to hear what you are saying it is their right to leave. Feel free to think what you like. Tell others about it. Just don't kidnap them to do it.

As I have said several times, if someone comes to you of their own free will and wants your help in "deprogramming" themselves then do your best to help them and charge all the market will bear for your services. If you are abducting them or holding them involuntarily I feel I have to agree with your statement that "is not therapy, (sic) or mental health counseling" it is brainwashing.

I have read your site. If I missed some of it then it is because of just that, I missed it. I made an honest effort to follow all of the links but there are quite a few and I did not want to jump back and forth and lose the context of whatever page I was on. Now, having said that once more, I understand what you are saying. I just disagree. Any questions?

Rick Ross: You ask again if "what [I] do does not fit the dictionary definition of 'brainwashing.'"

The simple answer is NO.

According your cited definition the purpose of "brainwashing" is to make the subject "accept contrasting regimented ideas" and ultimately surrender "basic religious beliefs." As I have pointed out again and again that is not the purpose or end result of my work. There is no doctrine or dogma I program people to believe and the fact that former cult members retain their "basic religious beliefs" is proof of this.

Why do you repeatedly raise this same issue when it has been addressed and answered before?

Now let's look at the points we agree on.

Correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to say that families have the right to speak about their concerns with their loved ones under voluntary conditions. That is, with the understanding that an adult can leave at any time. Also, you seem to accept "that [it] is their own choice" to include me in such a discussion.

Have I missed anything in this area?

If you agree to this you would approve of the conditions concerning all my current intervention work and would have approved of more than 90% of my past cases.

Regarding minor children you state that "if in the opinion of a qualified psychologist [a group] is causing [a minor child] harm... then the parent involved would have every right to seek help from whomever they see fit."

Though most parents would take issue with your requirement of seeking the approval of a third party to clear their actions, we essentially agree on this point too. In most of my cases with minors a mental health professional has made a determination such as you have outlined. Also, I often work on cases in conjunction with "a trained psychologist or psychiatrist."

Some of these cases have been well documented. One involving a fourteen-year-old boy in Alaska was featured on the program "48 Hours" on CBS. They filmed an interview with a "qualified psychologist" who stated that in his "opinion" a group called the Potter's House "causing harm." He also provided assistance during and after the intervention.

By the way, in an out of court settlement the family received $45,000.00 from the group for pain and suffering.

And in another situation previously mentioned a pedophile cult leader who recruited minor children through the Internet, both a "qualified psychologist and psychiatrist" stated in their "opinion" he was "causing harm" to a minor child. They then called me in and the intervention took place within a mental hospital. I worked with those same mental health professionals and the custodial parents.

We seem to agree again regarding working with minors when you state that you "fully support the right of legal authorities to intervene." In both of the cases just cited the police and the courts were involved. They not only determined "harm," but also per your advice did "intervene extracting the minors when necessary."

In situations with minor children the police "seize, carry away" children from the groups in question. Neither the parents nor I "kidnap" them. Once the "legal authorities" extract minors they are not permitted to leave and rejoin the group. Likewise, the group is not allowed to interfere with the intervention. Any group interference is prevented as you advise by the "legal authorities."

Jason Scott's mother Kathy Tonkin acted through the "authorities" concerning her two minor children and obtained orders of protection regarding the Life Tabernacle Church of Bellevue, Washington. Though you strongly disapprove of the subsequent intervention regarding her then 18-year-old son Jason, Ms. Tonkin's previous actions concerning her minor children were well within your stated guidelines.

Since I no longer do involuntary interventions outside the guidelines we both appear to agree upon, this seems like a moot point.

Cults like Scientology seem to be a far more pressing concern regarding their apparent attempts to suppress First Amendment rights, both on the Internet and through the press. Perhaps they warrant your Wacko of the Week award?

Richard Harrison: Once again lets revisit the definition of "brainwashing" I asked earlier how it is that your "deprogramming does not, at the very least, fit the second definition of the word " persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship"?

The question still stands.

Let me ask a few clarifying questions. In every current deprogramming that you do is the subject allowed to leave at any time including the initial "intervention"? And do you deal only with children with whom there is no custody dispute? Or is it sometimes a case of "mom wants me to be a Catholic and dad wants me to be a Baptist"? If this is the case do you always work with the permission of both parents?

You say "families have the right to speak about their concerns with their loved ones under voluntary conditions," which I absolutely agree with. Let us just make sure of the "voluntary conditions" involved. Is the "cult member" free to decline attendance at the original meeting?

Other than these few questions that I still have it seems that you have cleaned up your act to a considerable extent. Now, there is one final question that I feel the need to ask. It will seem to be more than one question but it was phrased the way it is in an effort to avoid the world record for a run-on sentence.

Did you quit doing "involuntary deprogramming" with adults because you belatedly realized that it was their right to worship as they please? For that matter, their right to follow whichever charismatic leader they chose to, whether it be a cult leader who wants to take their money to pay for his collection of Rolls Royces or a televangelist who wants the same thing.

Did you give this up because you believe that, upon reaching the age of majority these people are protected by the First Amendment against the "tyranny of the majority" and, just because their methods of worship seem unusual or even crazy to most of us they are just as protected as Southern Baptists? Or was this just a decision by you to avoid prosecution and lawsuits?

This is an important question. Being a Wacko is not about actions as much as it is about beliefs.

Rick Ross: I will try to answer your questions as succinctly as possible.

  • "Isn't your deprogramming at least persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship?"

Here your dictionary definition of choice is so broad that almost any politician; car dealer or teacher could be accused of "brainwashing."

The answer though is still NO.

My work is not to persuade people to my side, only to present facts and documentation, such information is not "propaganda."

I have nothing to sell; therefore "salesmanship" is not a factor.

The differences between propaganda, education, advertising and thought reform or "brainwashing" have been well researched. On the web site there is a chart demonstrating the contrasting elements of these distinctly different categories prepared by a respected psychologist.

  • "In the current deprogramming you do, is the subject allowed to leave at any time including the initial intervention?"

Yes. In fact let me cite paragraph number 8 of my Fee Agreement:

"Rick Ross may in some cases only begin working with an adult subsequent to that individual signing a release stipulating their consent and willing cooperation. If at any time such action is taken by client to compromise the consent and willing cooperation of any adult subject involved in this case (i.e. physical restraint and/or coercion) Rick Ross will discontinue all work and leave immediately ending any commitment."

Is that plain enough?

This was included in my fee agreement as of May 1995, long before the web site went up.

  • "Do you deal only with children with which there is no custody dispute?"

When I "deal with children" in an intervention it is with the implicit understanding that I am working for the custodial parent(s). Usually, there is not even a history of a custody dispute.

  • "Is the cult member free to decline attendance at the original meeting?"


  • "Did you quit doing 'involuntary deprogramming' on avoid prosecution and lawsuits?"

Yes. I gave my reasons specifically in a statement published in the "Boston Phoenix" in 1996.

But to understand this in context you should really read about the history of deprogramming as chronicled by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman in their best seller Snapping. You can see additional context by reviewing my section on Deprogramming.

You now say that "being a Wacko is not as much about actions as much as it is about beliefs."

My continued belief, even though I have stopped taking such cases, is that the involuntary deprogramming of adults is sometimes the "lesser of two evils."

Are you one of "those unfortunates who are truly convinced that their view of reality is the true only view."

It seems to me that you should ask yourself some practical questions.

  • Do you believe there is such a thing as "brainwashing?"
  • If someone is "brainwashed" to follow a cult group, did they freely choose their beliefs or were they essentially tricked and/or coerced?

If you answered yes, than why is deprogramming people who have been "brainwashed" a "First Amendment" issue?

Cults seem to oppose all related intervention work whether it is voluntary or involuntary. I have never heard them express any other attitude, not even support for parental rights concerning minor children.

For example, Scientology never stated they supported Kathy Tonkin asserting her parental rights regarding Jason Scott's two younger brothers.

It seems that cults are against any form of deprogramming, simply because it works.

Obviously you cannot deprogram someone unless they have been programmed in the first place.

Successful deprogramming exposes the fact that destructive cults "kidnap" the minds and emotions of their victims.

Richard Harrison: So, as near as I can tell, you quit kidnapping and brainwashing adults because you finally realized that it was illegal. You then found victims that don't have all the legal protection of adults. And you consider this a moral action?

On most of the questions that I asked you hedged the question with responses like "begin working with an adult subsequent to that individual signing a release stipulating their consent and willing cooperation." The question included children. Or do you still restrain them to do your brainwashing err, deprogramming? Is it sometimes a case of the parent subjecting the child to a second brainwashing because the parent changed their mind about the first one?

Just because you don't consider the "facts and documentation" that you present to one of your "deprogramming" clients to be propaganda does not mean that it isn't. Let's go to my favorite online dictionary.

Webster's online says the definition of propaganda is as follows:

Main Entry: pro · pa · gan · da Pronunciation: "prä-p-'gan-d, "prO-Function: noun Etymology: New Latin, from Congregatio de propaganda fide Congregation for propagating the faith, organization established by Pope Gregory XV died 1623 Date: 1718 1.capitalized : a congregation of the Roman curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions 2.: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person 3.: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect

Hmm, It seems that the second and third definition fit.

Speaking of definitions, you state that "a really detailed criteria for 'brainwashing' or thought reform is meaningful," then proceed to go back to the same criteria that I have already given my reasons for rejecting.

While you have found some psychologists that give criteria that are useful to your argument you would have to admit that the Scientologists could probably give me other criteria that would be useful to theirs, probably by their very own pet psychologists.

In a case like this I always feel that it is useful to find the most unbiased definition possible. Hence the one out of Webster's online that I quoted above.

Since you answered my questions I feel it only fair to answer yours in a similar format as follows:

  • "Do you believe there is such a thing as 'brainwashing'?"

Yes, anyone who has ever trained a dog has practiced it.

  • "If someone is 'brainwashed' to follow a cult group did they freely choose their beliefs, or were they essentially tricked and coerced?"

Some atheists would say people who follow any religion have been tricked or coerced. Quite a few followers of popular "televangelists" in my opinion have been brainwashed into giving their hard-earned money to the cult that TV personality represents.

  • "If you answered "yes" to questions one and two--why is deprogramming people who have been 'brainwashed' a 'First Amendment' issue?"

Because, to put it simply, unless they were forcibly abducted, duct-taped and made to listen to the propaganda of their cult, our First Amendment gives the religion they follow the benefit of a doubt.

Neither you nor anyone else has the right to classify a religion as legitimate or not. Who draws the line and who elected them to do so? The First Amendment was designed to allow smaller and yes, unpopular religions the same freedoms as the more popular ones enjoy.

The basis of the Wacko award is still legitimate. You forcefully kidnapped and propagandized members of a religion that you judged a "cult" in an effort to get them to give up their association with their chosen religion. Then, belatedly, you found that gee, this is illegal and decided that you better find someone you could brainwash legally. So, you decided to prey on distraught parents to the tune of what, $500 per hour for your deprogramming sessions? You prey on the fears of people to justify your trashing of the rights of others. For this, you have earned your award.

Rick Ross: I don't charge "$500.00 per hour," my rates are published on my web site under "Intervention."

Also, I don't "prey on the fears of people," - but simply respond to requests for my services initiated by others, much the same as any other professional.

It seems now you are changing the basis for your criticism and ignoring what you have previously said.

You say that I have "found victims that don't have all the legal protection of adults," it seems here that you mean minor children.

However, previously you stated that a "parent...would have every right to seek help from whomever they see fit."

Are you now questioning a custodial parent's right to restrict and/or supervise their own minor child? This is certainly not "kidnapping" by any definition.

Please read your previous guidelines.

Now it seems you are revising your objections from "brainwashing" to "propaganda."

However, the "facts and documentation" presented during deprogramming are court documents, book excerpts, newspaper articles, affidavits and videos of news programs and documentaries. Is it your contention then that any information, which portrays a cult group in a negative light is somehow "propaganda?"

Based upon this interpretation a Holocaust scholar would be guilty of spreading "propaganda" by presenting negative historical information about the Nazis. Likewise, investigative journalists that report unflattering information about politicians are also engaged in "propaganda" or perhaps they are even attempting to "brainwash" the public.

No, I don't think exposing cult members to information and facts to balance the propaganda and brainwashing techniques they have been subjected to is "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause," or "ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause."

Instead, it is an attempt to allow them the opportunity to review information that has often been withheld within a cult environment.

Brainwashing is far more complex than you have surmised.

Your emphasis on forcible restraint and a dictionary definition also falls woefully short. This is why I referred you to an objective expert in the field, whose book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, was first published in 1961, many years before cults and deprogramming were even an issue of public concern.

Lifton's observations, unlike a dictionary definition, are based upon direct experience and highly specific research.

By the way, Scientology probably doesn't have "their very own pet psychologists," since they are deeply opposed to the mental health profession entirely, i.e.psychologists and psychiatrists.

You say, "I have read your site." But your frequent mistakes regarding basic published facts at the site prove otherwise.

Again, the only work I do is well within your previously stated guidelines.

Now you are changing your premise and recasting your guidelines. Who is the "true wacko"?

  • Note: Richard Harrison never posted and/or responded to the last email.

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