Cult Conversion, Deprogramming,
and the Triune Brain

Dr. Geri-Ann Galanti obviously went to stay briefly at a Unificationist training camp already “knowing” that “brainwashing” was transpiring on the premises. She knew this from her interviews with deprogrammed ex-Moonies. So when, to her surprise, Dr. Galanti actually found herself liking the Moonies at the camp, she concluded that, indeed, she has definitely been brainwashed. Evidently unless one ends up actively disliking the persons whose sinister doings one has been warned about, one has been insidiously brainwashed and is urgently in need of deprogramming.

When Dr. Galanti observes that her thinking is still coherent even after she has dangerously exposed herself to the dreaded mind controllers and that her intellect has not been impaired and that, moreover, Unificationist ideas haven't started to seem appealing, she does not even consider the possibility that what is indicated is that she really hasn't been undergoing brainwashing. Instead she speculates that the Moonies have been working insidiously on the lower reptilian and the primitive mammalian (limbic system) levels of her brain and that here lies the true secret of sinister cultic brainwashing. Of course the only personal experiential data brought forward by Dr. Galanti in support of this thesis is that Dr. Galanti's rational thought process didn't become impaired and that the Moonies seemed likeable. So it seems to me that Dr. Galanti is rationalizing in order to sustain alarmist preconceptions about perilous Moonist brainwashing in the face of potentially disconfirming experiences.

I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall that, judging from Dr. Galanti's earlier article a decade ago in CSJ, her initial impressions of the training center were slightly less negative. I seem to recall that she even eschewed the sinister “brainwashing” label in favor of the more benign and “normalizing” concept of “socialization.” But Dr. Sagan's evolutionary theories have enabled Dr. Galanti to restore the Moonies to their proper sinister and menacing status.

Two decades ago (fall, 1974) I was teaching at Queens College, and a student of mine went to a Unificationist training session at Barrytown, New York. He was converted and I became curious as to what was going on. So I went up to Barrytown and took a 3-day “seminar.” I found the set-up to be somewhat manipulative though in a rather transparent way. It was so overly regimented that one could hardly avoid anticipating a similar regimentation in subsequent communal life in the movement. I thought that the emotionalism of certain parts of the presentations might possibly be hurtful to some persons with fragile psyches. I speculated that other personality types might benefit from the training although the benefits one might obtain might best be consolidated if one ultimately left the totalist movement. I subsequently took some interviews and did some more participant observation. I concluded that the Unificationist ideology was unpleasantly absolutist and authoritarian. But I decided that allegations about brainwashing and “coercive” mind control were exaggerated and ultimately misleading, although they had some small basis or grain of truth in the manipulative and heavy-handed elements of the indoctrination process and in foot-in-the-door deception (which may have been greater at the Boonville, California, center than at Barrytown). My student became a CARP activist at Queens College but eventually left the Church, I think without deprogramming and recriminations.

My conclusions may have differed somewhat from Dr. Galanti's because I didn't go to Barrytown with preconceptions about sinister mind control, “snapping,” etc. Of course I hadn't interviewed recriminating “defectors” and had the benefit of their experience. Yet the views of such persons may partly reflect the influence of deprogrammers, counselors, and ex-member support groups, who operate in contexts which are also settings for indoctrination in which strong social support (love bombing?), authority figures, emotional fervor, and sometimes physical captivity are integrated into persuasive processes. Dr. Galanti simply takes at face value the self-serving formulations of deprogrammers to the effect that their methods work purely on the intellectual level—rational dialogues with “clients” in which emotionalism and nonrational influences are totally absent. Her uncritical and psychologically unsophisticated orientation toward processes of anticult activism and activists' accounts strongly resembles the simplistic and naive orientation toward converts and their accounts allegedly exhibited by “cult apologists” such as myself.

Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the author gives the impression that cults are the exclusive repository of emotional appeals, nonrational processes of spiritual persuasions, and conversionist influences mediated by the lower and more primitive brain structures. Yet as historian Elie Halevy points out, early Methodist preachers such as John Wesley and George Whitfield aimed their sermons “at generating violent emotions in their listeners.” They sought to evoke in their listeners “a crisis of despair followed by a sudden revelation and a mood of blissful peace” (The Birth of Methodism in England, pp. 36–37). Is this the reptilian origins of Methodism?

I believe Dr. William Sargent has referred to early Methodist revivals in terms of Pavlovian conditioning of salivating dogs. There is a whole tradition of analyses of experiential, intuitive or emotional religiosity as modes of psychopathology. The analyses may reveal more of the biases and secularism of the analysts than they do of the religions being typified. From the perspective of such analyses the only legitimate religion is that in which spiritual experience is limited to attending a sedate church service once a week, putting something in the collection plate, and hearing an edifying sermon. Religions involving emotional fervor, mysticism, and experiential ritual such as meditation, repetitive chanting, or speaking in tongues would probably be labeled “high coercion” religions.

Dr. Galanti emphasizes the role of ritual as a key nonrational factor consolidating the commitment of devotees on a subintellectual level. As an anthropologist, Dr. Galanti is surely aware of Clifford Geertz's definition of religion in his well-known essay, “Religion as a Cultural System” in which he envisions ritual as a vital means whereby religion fulfills its essential nature in creating “moods and motivations” linked to a general conception of existence which ritual helps to reify and thus to appear uniquely valid and real. In a ritual setting, religion “engulfs the total person, transporting him ... into another realm of existence.” What is depicted by crusaders against cults as a pathological aberration may be more akin to the traditional function of religion and religious ritual.

Finally, Dr. Galanti stresses the Moonist emphasis on learning without questioning doctrinal tenets. But similar emphases have long appeared in accounts of parochial schooling, and more recently published analyses of evangelical “Christian schools.” By implicitly treating cults as modes of psychopathology and as standing apart from “normal” and “healthy” institutions, Dr. Galanti perpetuates a reductionist tradition in which stigmatization of intense, fervent, emotional and dogmatic religion really implies a stigmatization of religion itself as regressive and as pertaining to the primitive and prerational, even reptilian residues of human consciousness.

Thomas Robbins, Ph.D.

Reply to Dr. Robbins

I want to thank Thomas Robbins for his extensive comments on my article. It is gratifying to have one's work read, let alone stimulate so much thought. However, I believe that much of his criticism is based on an overinterpretation and misinterpretation of what I said. Dr. Robbins accuses me of being biased against cults; I think his bias against the anticult stance led him to misinterpret much of what I am saying. I find the fact that he consistently misspelled my name [in the original version of his paper] to be a telling example of his inattentiveness. Frankly, if I had said what he says I said, I would have to agree with him. But I did not.

In any case, I would like to address some of the specifics of his comments. First of all, yes, I did come to my Moonie weekend with an anticult bias. Ironically, I did not start out that way. I and two other anthropologists wrote a proposal to study deprogramming. One of the foundations we had applied to sent it to American Family Foundation (AFF) for review. AFF recommended not to fund it; although I forget their exact reasons, it had to do with the fact that we were too procult. So, if I began my research with bias, it was in Dr. Robbins's direction. It was only after I began my research—by reading the literature and interviewing former members and deprogrammers (an admittedly biased group)—that my bias moved in the opposite direction.

This paper (the one Robbins commented on), however, was written many years after I finished working on the project. Since then, my own work has gone in other directions. I have little emotional investment in the subject of cults, and basically wrote this article as an intellectual exercise: here is a model of the brain; I think it can be applied to cult conversion and deprogramming. What struck me about the conversion process was the contrast between my feelings about my training camp experience and the facts I knew about the group. Dr. Robbins writes, “Evidently unless one ends up actively disliking the persons whose sinister doings one has been warned about, one has been insidiously brainwashed and is urgently in need of deprogramming.” Put that way, it sounds ludicrous. But again, he is overstating my case. The facts of Moonie life—the extraordinarily long working hours, the relative poverty of the members versus the wealth of the leaders, the munitions factories owned by a supposedly peaceful religion—I do not believe are in question. I just could not understand why something that I believed (thought) was negative felt positive.

By the way, Robbins keeps referring to my use of terms like sinister and brainwashing. In fact, I never use the term sinister, and I generally used the term brainwashing in quotes. If he read the title, he would see that I am looking at “cult conversion.” I do not see that as very sinister. I still hold that what people refer to as “brainwashing” or “conversion” is a form of socialization. While I personally am opposed to any group—whether it is religious or secular—that unduly limits an individual's personal freedom and autonomy, I never intended either of my CSJ articles to take the kind of strong stance Robbins is accusing me of. I am merely trying to shed some light on what people refer to as “brainwashing”—and why it is often so effective in causing people to make massive changes in their lifestyle, family relationships, and beliefs.

Dr. Robbins accuses me of taking “at face value the self-serving formulations of deprogrammers to the effect that their methods work purely on the intellectual level—rational dialogues with ‘clients’ in which emotionalism and nonrational influences are totally absent.” I do not think that at all. Exit counseling is not a soiree, with people having intellectual conversations over a cup of tea. Many of the accounts from the early days (prior to all the lawsuits) were highly emotional and manipulative. What I meant to point out was that the turning point in many of the accounts hinged on intellectual issues.

Dr. Robbins also says that I give “the impression that cults are the exclusive repository of emotional appeals, nonrational processes of spiritual persuasion, and conversionist influences mediated by the lower and more primitive brain structures.” He goes on to say that other (noncult) religions do this as well. I certainly never meant to give that impression. I could not agree more with Dr. Robbins's perspective. I would add that most rites of passage—whether to religious groups, the army, or fraternities—use a similar approach. Dr. Robbins seems to be inferring a value judgment—somehow, activities which involve neocortex (the intellect) are better than those that affect the limbic system (emotions) or R-complex. I never intended to attribute differential value to any of those systems, merely a difference in strength. The limbic system and R-complex are phylogenetically older and more powerful than the neocortex. I do not think that makes the neocortex better. Perhaps this reflects Dr. Robbins's belief in the superiority of the intellect, but it does not mirror my own.

Dr. Robbins has no way of knowing this, but one of my major interests is in the anthropology of consciousness. Cross-culturally, sedate church services are a rarity. A large portion of the world's spiritual experiences involve “emotional fervor, mysticism, and experiential ritual.” Personally, if I were more religious and hadn't been so conditioned by my Jewish upbringing, I would vastly prefer attending a “high coercion” religious service.

Dr. Robbins points out that the “Moonist emphasis on learning without questioning doctrinal tenets” have “long appeared in accounts of parochial schooling.” He implies that I attribute this approach only to the Moonies. Once again, I agree with Robbins's position. I do not recall contrasting the Moonie approach with other religions. I never intended to hold cults up as a negative example to contrast with the positive example of other religions. He accuses me of “implicitly treating cults as modes of psychopathology and as standing apart from ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ institutions.” If he is referring to my comment regarding the emotional damage that is done during the process of cult conversion, I would also add that I have observed emotional damage done by the Catholic Church, and from watching too much television. If he is referring to something else I said, I have no idea what it was. However, similarities—whether negative or positive—between cults and mainstream groups do not make the groups equivalent. Dr. Robbins seems to ignore that logical truism.

In short, I believe Dr. Robbins is reading much more into my paper than is there. I think he and I actually agree on many points. I do not think that the process of cult conversion is all that different from the process of conversion to any group. While I do admittedly have a bias against cults, I have a bias against any group that controls an individual's thoughts and behavior to a great extent. This includes many mainstream religions as well as secular organizations. However, I never intended my paper to be a “position” paper one way or the other. As I said before, I merely offered a model that might give people a new way of looking at the processes of conversion and deconversion.

Geri-Ann Galanti, Ph.D.
California State University
Los Angeles, California

Geri-Ann Galanti, Ph.D., is on the faculty at the Department of Anthropology at California State University, Los Angeles, and at the Statewide Nursing Program at California State University, Dominguez Hills. She is the author of Caring for Patients from Different Cultures (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

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