Brainwashing’s Nemesis

“I’m ready to disbelieve you” would be a good motto for the Egon of Cult Busters, Rick Ross.You’ll notice his name in bold on most any Page Six item about Britney’s red bracelet fad or TomKat’s natal nuttiness.   As … Read More

By / February 22, 2007

“I’m ready to disbelieve you” would be a good motto for the Egon of Cult Busters, Rick Ross.You’ll notice his name in bold on most any Page Six item about Britney’s red bracelet fad or TomKat’s natal nuttiness.


As the media’s go-to guy on Scientology and the Kabbalah Center, Ross has helped expose such these and other groups as creepy enterprises which prey on the psychologically vulnerable, rob them of their fortunes and get away with it all by packaging themselves as “new religions.”


He entered the cult monitoring and deprogramming biz in the early 80’s after witnessing a sinister Christian sect try to convert aged Jews in his grandmother’s Arizona nursing home. Ross now heads up his eponymous New Jersey-based institute, whose website features one of the largest and most comprehensive databases on controversial social movements, anywhere.


Ross’ quarry includes “everything from the power of miracles, mysticism to ‘God Men’ gurus and traveling prophets.” Al Qaeda, Nation of Islam, Chabad, Mormonism, Burning Man, even AmWay – all receive their own dossier.


But with such a widely cast net, he’s invited plenty of backlash, most of which depicts him as an semi-educated profiteer who’s as obsessive in his methods as the purported mind-fuckers he aims to take down.


Ross has been sued countless times, and was once tried criminally for “kidnapping” 18 year-old Jason Scott, whose mother had hired the deprogrammer to save her son from the clutches of the Life Tabernacle Church, to which she’d formerly belonged herself. Ross was acquitted, though the concomitant civil suit – which ordered him to pay $2,500,000 in damages – forced him into bankruptcy. (He later settled with the plaintiff for a much-reduced sum after Scott reconciled with his family.)


Ross’ consultation on the Waco fiasco of the late-90’s also had his tactics called into question, this time by the federal government. (The G-men of course otherwise did a bang-up job rescuing Branch Davidians).


Yet Ross responds that his slanderers are embarrassed apologists for cults, if not masquerading agents of them. See the extensive Scientologist-suborned campaign to discredit him, especially the Church’s front website Religious Freedom Watch.


After chatting with brainwashing's nemesis, I’m ready to believe him.


The Kabbalah Center could teach a course in brilliant marketing strategies. What do they do right, and can legitimate businesses or religions learn a thing or two from them?


First of all, what the Kabbalah Center does to a large extent is tell people what they want to hear, which can be very appealing. This includes various magical means to supposedly stop or slow aging, ward off evil and generally gain greater control over the world around you. This is not something the organized Jewish community can ethically offer.


Having said that, there are some things the Kabbalah Center does that may make sense, such as targeting demographic groups with specifically relevant programs, making holiday events such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur generally accessible through a per event ticket price. The Kabbalah Center also tailors its courses, classes and seminars to fit themes within popular culture and to answer common questions concerning people’s daily lives.


The various branches of the Kabbalah Center also offer a sense of community through constant ongoing activities. This appeals to many people, in a world that increasingly includes fractured families and a growing sense of individual isolation. A tight-knit small group structure affords more intimate personal connections and is the key to success for many so-called “cults.”


You stopped performing interventions a while ago due to the legal nightmares these entailed. Tell me what an intervention looks and feels like. What’s the procedure for confronting someone who’s been brainwashed, and what’s the most harrowing experience you’ve had doing this?


I have not stopped performing interventions on a voluntary basis. Families often retain me to do an intervention with an adult on a voluntary basis. I have done about 500 interventions since beginning my work in 1982, perhaps two-dozen were involuntary and those took place in the early 1990s. About half of these involuntary interventions were with minor children under direct parental supervision.


A voluntary intervention means the person is free to go at any time and usually cooperates to please their family. Most often the person that is the focus of the intervention is not told in advance to avoid group interference. But after the initial introduction and explanation, an adult is free to go if they wish.


About 70% of my voluntary interventions end successfully, which means the person who was the focus of the effort decided to leave the group or situation that drew concern. I still do involuntary interventions with minor children under the direct supervision of their custodial parent(s). At times I have also worked with adults under court orders, who were restrained legally due to some safety and/or welfare concern.


Interventions regarding groups called “cults” are much like alcohol or drug interventions. They almost always include family members. I never work alone. This type of intervention is not therapy or counseling, but rather an educational process that revolves around sharing information and discussing concerns. This process includes providing relevant historical material and documentation, discussing various persuasion techniques and related undue influences.


The concerns that typically prompt interventions are increasing isolation, estrangement from family and friends, the exploitation of the person involved potential safety issues and the probable consequences of further involvement. An intervention usually takes about three or four days, eight hours a day.


Perhaps the most harrowing intervention effort I have ever undertaken was working with a Waco Davidian locked out of the cult compound in 1993 because of the standoff that took place between the cult and federal law enforcement. That intervention actually occurred in Waco only a few miles from the cult compound during the standoff. And despite the media being everywhere no one ever intruded and the intervention ended successfully.


On your website’s FAQ sheet, you give the Merriam Webster definition of “cult”: “1. A formal religious veneration 2. A system of religious beliefs and rituals also its body of adherents.” You also claim that the “cult mentality” consists of “black and white thinking, a low tolerance of ambiguity and a relentlessly judgmental attitude.” Taken together, these characteristics make every person alive a cultist, don’t they? No.


There are three salient features that define the overwhelming majority of destructive cults and make them distinctly different. And these three features are common to most groups called “cults.”


First, there is an absolute authoritarian form of leadership without any meaningful accountability. A single living leader most often becomes the defining and binding element of the group. And members almost always submit to that authority without question. He or she becomes the locus of power and focus of attention, the hub of the organization and its driving force.


Second, there is a group process of indoctrination that generally denigrates critical or independent thinking and promotes a kind of group mindset. This mindset is based upon the leader’s value judgements, agenda and personality, rather than the individual thoughts and feelings of group members. This mindset can also be seen as the result of undue influence. The process used to achieve this mindset has been called “brainwashing.”


Third, the group does harm. The most extreme examples would be death due to medical neglect, suicide or violence prompted by the group. Cults often harm people through financial or sexual exploitation and also unfair labor practices. People involved may be damaged psychologically and emotionally because of the group’s demands and its practices.


Put these three things together and they make up the basic profile of most groups called “cults.”


What’s the difference between a “guru” like Deepak Chopra and a “cult leader” like David Koresh?


First of all, Deepak Chopra is a medical doctor and David Koresh, whose given name was Vernon Howell, never graduated elementary school.


Koresh was a stereotypical cult leader. He made grandiose claims and was described by psychiatrists as a “psychopath.” Koresh also exercised absolute power over his followers. He exploited women and children sexually and demanded total commitment. That mindset of total loyalty and devotion to Koresh and his mission ultimately led to the deaths of most of his followers.


Deepak Chopra is essentially a benign spiritual entrepreneur and seems more interested in making money then in creating a cult. Chopra was once a devotee of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the old guru who once influenced the Beatles.


Other than claims about Dr. Chopra supposedly sexually harassing women he works with, he appears to be a relatively harmless proponent of the so-called “New Age” self-help movement. Chopra is a fairly straightforward businessman that makes money from books, seminars, lectures and various other products and services and I have never received a complaint to date about him from any family.


If you weren’t busting cults, what line of work would you be in, and why?


Before cult busting my work revolved around restoring old cars and auto salvage. I once worked as a vice president at a large salvage business in Arizona. I am still something of a car enthusiast, and if I wasn’t working to expose destructive cults and helping families to salvage the lives of loved ones, maybe I would still be salvaging cars.


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