Matthew today, recalling his deprogramming. Photo via EyeSteelFilm
Mia Donovan's stepbrother, Matthew, was deprogrammed at the age of 14. It was the early 1990s, Satanic Panic had spread across North America, and Matthew's father was worried that his son was involved in satanism. So he hired famed deprogrammer Ted Patrick to reverse-brainwash Matthew—to free his mind from the grip of an alleged cult.
This is how Donovan's excellent documentary Deprogrammed begins. The film explains how the rise of alternative religious groups in the 1970s led panicked parents to seek the help of deprogrammers like Patrick. Through interviews and impressive archival footage, Deprogrammed discusses Patrick's long career, his questionable tactics, and the difficulty of determining whether a person is or is not exercising free will.
VICE spoke with Donovan about her experiences with Patrick, parental paranoia, and how to tell if someone's in a cult.
VICE: What was it about your stepbrother's experience that made you decide you had to make a film about deprogramming and Ted Patrick?
Mia Donovan: I guess me and Matthew were both about 14 when he was deprogrammed. If you can imagine, you're 14 and this is going on—I thought my mom and her boyfriend were crazy. It just seemed really surreal. I didn't really understand what was going on. I didn't know if [Matthew] was in a cult or not. He was a heavy metal kid. There were rumours at school that him and his friends were sacrificing cats. The whole thing was just very bizarre.
The most bizarre thing was meeting Ted after the deprogramming. I still didn't really understand what this all meant then.
But then Ted came home and they wanted to rid the whole house of any Satanic triggers, so he took away a lot of my books and records, but in a really dumb—like in a way that I remember thinking this made it even more ridiculous. They took away my INXS album, because there was a song called, "Devil Inside." Things like that.
It just always stuck with me all these years, this whole phenomenon. And then…as I was doing my first film, Inside Lara Roxx, I started to think about it. I hadn't seen my stepbrother Matthew in almost 20 years when I contacted him.
I thought maybe it was going to be more of a film about him and the Satanic Panic era and how people were misunderstood. I didn't know if Ted was still alive….I didn't know how I felt about Ted either. Because as a child… I didn't really understand him enough. I thought he was a really bad guy who didn't understand the kids or something.
Now I understand him. I've got to know him really well. He's kind of a tragic hero in many ways, because his intentions were good, but he's just very black-and-white in his thinking.
How did you get Ted to agree to the film? And then, what was it like spending time with him? He's a person who had a pretty negative effect on a member of your family—and some other people as well—but, like you said, he really believes what he did was in everyone's best interest.
Matthew's [second] cousin was deprogrammed very successfully by Ted in the mid-'70s. [He was in] a Hare Krishna cult…So two of his second-cousins ended up working for Ted for about a decade on all these Canadian deprogrammings. So I had that sort of in.
That really helped, because [Ted] doesn't remember Matthew. His estimation is that he deprogrammed about 3,500 people, which I think is kind of crazy. I don't know if that's possible, but maybe indirectly, because at the peak of his career he had a lot of people working for him.
Anyways, it started off just like, "Okay, I'm going to go and meet Ted in San Diego, I'm not sure what's going to happen." And I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about him. But right away, he's just very gentle. He's also 85 now so he's at a very different stage in his life.
I just feel that he was the first person to recognize there was something happening with a lot of these radical groups and to recognize there was a potential danger there, but I don't think he understood how to assess groups later on. Like when my stepfather called him—it's hard for him to really explain all this stuff now, but [in the documentary] he says he always listens to the parent's word. I think that's where things may have made it really hard to assess.
Like, Matthew was hanging out with a bunch of high school kids and listening to Slayer, definitely dabbling with drugs and some violent behaviour, but there wasn't really like a charismatic leader in that sense. It wasn't like a cult in that way. But I think Ted just believed he could help. I think he really thinks he can help.
That definitely came across in the film.
But in the early days, I think, he did have some success with Bible-based groups. Because Ted knows the Bible inside out. The first cases, it was usually [The] Children of God, and he would just expose how these leaders twisted Bible scripture.
But then all these different alternative religions appeared, people adopted different lifestyles…
Yeah, it's like, how do you asses when a group is actually potentially dangerous or if it's just like something different?
Exactly. One of the questions your film asks is who has the right to determine what constitutes personal expression and, like you say in the film, what constitutes undue influence? Do you think there's a good answer to this?
No. I mean, I think it's really hard. I think that there [are] situations where you can assess, but I mean, it's really hard to answer. I've been thinking about this since I started [making the film]. It's the type of thing that every time I interview somebody else it just kind of throws me for a loop. It's just a very complicated situation because you never know. I don't think anybody could have foreseen Jonestown happening.
Or even The Heaven's Gate, if you studied them, they did seem to be very, very controlled in a very closed environment. But there's still no way to have predicted they would have done that. [39 members Heaven's Gate committed suicide in 1997.]
Aaron, who's in the film, whose parents tried to deprogram him three times from the Christ Family, [which was] considered a very dangerous, high-controlled cult in the '70s and '80s, but now [the members are] in their 60s and they're all living quite happily together. I think it would be kind of sad to pull them away from that family.
I have conversations with them, I can hang out with them, and they believe this man Lightning Amen is the second coming of Jesus. They believe it so much, but it doesn't seem to really harm them.
That's the difference, I guess? Like when does this actually harm a person? Because a lot of the times in the film, it seemed as if these parents who were deprogramming their kids were just hysterical that their kids had completely different lifestyles than what they expected them to have. That seemed common in the '70s. These parents grew up in a totally different time, and now their kids are out like meditating all the time.
Yeah. And being vegetarian.
There was this moral panic. And then because of Manson and I think Jonestown, this fed into this paranoia, because deprogramming became very popular right after Jonestown. Parents were just like, "Oh my god, we have to save [our kids]." In some cases people say that [deprogramming] really was helpful. Like Steve Capellini in the documentary, he's so thankful that his parents hired Ted.
Ted's methods were pretty controversial though. He kidnapped people, held them against their will and then harassed them with questions for sometimes months at a time. One of the things the film shows is that some people were so worn down by the process that they just acquiesced, said whatever they needed to say to make it end. It made me wonder, does this guy have any clue what he's doing? Or is he just persistent?
I think there are so many approaches…
I just think that it worked some times so he kept doing it. And when it didn't work, it didn't work, but he didn't necessarily adapt. But other people after him adapted. A lot of people he deprogrammed out of different groups became deprogrammers themselves and really refined it and changed the method a lot. So Ted is not—I mean, he is sort of like the extreme version of deprogramming, the sensational version.
It's really hard because there are no real statistics and I can only go by the people I met. I think a lot of people did—like my stepbrother and Kathleen Crampton—a lot of people did just talk their way out of [deprogramming] and then [went] back to the cults. But back then, Ted and his secretary didn't keep records, they didn't follow up with people. So a lot of people, maybe left for a few months to make their parents happy or whatever and then who knows?
I've heard of other stories where people wanted to leave and the deprogramming was just a really good way for them to get out. It's so complicated. The film kind of, I feel like I just scratched the surface. It's so complex.
Did you ever get a sense of how Ted defines "cult"? Does he have a definition?
His definitions are very black and white. To him a cult is just somebody who controls your mind and controls your critical thinking. Someone who destroys your ability to think critically and controls your will.
How does Ted distinguish between a cult and what we think of as traditional religions?
Ted today, he doesn't explain himself very clearly, but from the archives he always described the difference being personal autonomy and how [cults]…through sleep deprivation and repetition and a form of hypnotism, would interfere with your ability to think critically. Then you become sort of enslaved by it, the will of the leader.
We talked about some of the people who didn't think that deprogramming worked. Then on the flip side, there were people who really felt that it did work. That it helped them come to their own conclusions about the alternative religions they were members of. Is it possible to say if deprogramming was actually necessary? Can you say the ends justified the means?
That sort of comes back to the other questions. I personally think that most of the people he deprogrammed probably would have left the group on their own eventually. I think it was just part of that era. I've met so many people who had spent a lot of time, months or years, in different communes or groups in the '70s and then eventually left. Without the moral panic I think that some people may have stayed, some people may have left. But like I said, it's so difficult to tell.
Steve Capellini told me he really believes he could've still been a [Unification Church member] today if he had not been deprogrammed. Even Cheryl, whose deprogramming, she described [it] as not being perfect, she thinks she would've still been in a cult had her parents not hired Ted.
I think the question is… I guess it's like would they be better off?
I can just talk about the cases that we see in the film, but both Cheryl and Steve say that they're really happy and they are better off now that they're deprogrammed. Somebody like Aaron who was never successfully deprogrammed, it's hard to say. Would his life be better today had one of those deprogrammings worked? I don't know.
He seems very happy.
Do you think Ted ever questioned the parents who were hiring him? Like, did he ever think these parents just didn't understand their kids?
No. Yeah, I don't think he [did], and I think that's where he sort of discredited himself in this history. Because there are other well-known exit counsellors who are around today and who are very well-respected.
Rick Ross, who is in the film, said that he declines half of the calls he gets. He'll say, "This is not a cult situation. This is a family issue."
Has Ted seen the film?
No, he's going to see it on Sunday.
How do you think he'll react and are you excited, nervous?
I'm really excited. I'm nervous. I don't know how he's going to react. I think he'll be fine because I've told him who I was interviewing. I've always told him. He understands the controversy. But he loves it. He's like "Anybody wants to debate me, they can debate me." He likes the controversy.
Deprogrammed screens Sunday April 26 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Regan Reid on Twitter.