The recent Alex Gibny documentary on HBO, Going Clear, opened the door to renewed discussion about cults, what makes a cult and how you should respond when someone you love seems to have fall in with a cult. Admittedly, Scientology skates on much of the “is it a cult” debate because it’s got billions of dollars in funds, celebrity members and the legitimacy of being religion recognized by the federal government. Meanwhile, if you’re in something called the Church of Jesus Christ of Armageddon, no one thinks twice about asking whether or not you’re in a cult. Still, the matter is far from cut and dry, and the most interesting thing about Deprogrammed is that there’s a sense that the cure may sometimes be worse than the disease.
Deprogrammed deals with the destructive fallout of joining a cult, why people decide to join them in the first place, and what happens in the mind of someone when they join. Added to this exploration is Ted Patrick, a deprogrammer that takes credit for saving 1,600 people from cult brainwashing. One might say that Patrick is doing a public service, but even the people he’s helped wonder if he did more harm than good. He’s got a nickname, “Black Lightening,” which kind of conjures up a super-heroic image to counter the evil conspiratorial image of the cult, but Deprogrammed, I think, is shrewd enough to say that nothing here is that simple.
The film begins by looking at how cults sprang up from the hippie movement in the late 60s, former flower children still looking for a way to change the world and not ready and or willing to take part in so-called “ordinary society.” As one former cult member points out, it starts with someone saying to you, “don’t you think there’s something wrong with society?” Of course, if you’re someone with even moderate engagement in social affairs, you’re going to says yes. Whether we’re talking about the Moonies, Jonestown or ISIS, there’s a power in surrender. When you’ve given yourself over to total devotion, there’s a kind of freedom in that that’s really appealing to those that end up in a cult.
These types of groups are dangerous. They teach group think, dependence on a single charismatic leader and the occasionally extreme punishments for disobedience, so why wouldn’t you want to get a loved one out if they were caught in that web? I’m not sure if it’s implicit by the filmmaker Mia Donovan, but there’s a suggestion here that maybe forcibly deprogramming people sucked up into the cult isn’t just as dangerous. Patrick’s batting record isn’t 1000, after all. It seems to work only part of the time, and it sometimes required repeated attempts that often included obtaining the person by kidnapping. As for the victims themselves, they often describe the deprogramming as akin to an exorcism. That’s probably a pretty apt analogy in a lot of ways.
Some of the ambiguity lies in the difference between what Patrick’s “clients” say about his methods and what his own videotaped record show. They look like talk show segments from the 70s and 80s, with Patrick and the deprogramee sitting together in a living room or basement setting, quietly discussing how they think the deprogramming is going and whether or not they believe that they can think for themselves again. That’s usually followed by a story about how that cult victim bugged out as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
Despite the setbacks, Patrick is an indomitable figure. He tells us that he dropped out of grade 10, should have dropped out at grade 9, but he has a Ph.D. in life experience. His credentials in deprogramming? The over 1,600 people he’s helped. Even though, by their admission, his methods were occasionally not that successful. None of that’s to say that Patrick is peddling a different kind of snake oil, but I think it’s a good sign of Donovan’s dedication to balance that she doesn’t shuffle away her subject’s potential faults and instead shines a harsh light on them. Patrick too seems willing to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers, and to me, that’s the first way to distinguish himself from the people manipulating those into becoming part of a cult.
Donovan’s sense of balance is evident in all aspects of the film. The victims of cults get a fair shake to discuss the things they found appealing about them in the first place, and they’re not made to look like gullible losers. The fact that cults became “an issue” when the victims became affluent white kids is also referenced, and the film pokes holes in the Satanic panic of the 80s and the widespread belief at the time that heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons was turning teens into foot soldiers of the Devil. The film also asks the question why we don’t hear that much about cults anymore. Although, by the time you make it to the end of Deprogrammed, it’s a mystery left for discussion another day.
For anyone interested in the notion of how belief can corrupt as well as save, or perhaps hold a more extreme atheistic view of any organized faith, then this is the documentary for you. Is Ted Patrick a hero? That’s for the audience to decide, but realistically, he was probably the right person, at the right time, with the right frame of mind, to deal with this specific issue. It’s the myth of the self-made man as a myth-debunker, and if for no other reason, that makes Patrick an interesting man to make a film around. Deprogrammed as a doc, meanwhile, will provide much fodder for discussion after the show.
Deprogrammed takes a hard, long look at cults and those that save people from cults, while questioning all sides for their dogma and dedication. It offers no easy answers, but is no less fascinating because of it.