WHAT IF YOUR CHILD JOINS A CULT?
By Jo Anne Parke and Carroll Stoner
At one point, former Eagle Scout Michael Fischer seemed destined to spend his life chanting on street corners and in airports with the yellow-robed, shavenheaded Hare Krishnas.
When Michael's mother found him working in the basement of the Krishna's Brooklyn temple, she says she was shocked at his poor health. She took her son home to Chicago, where he was hospitalized and fed intravenously to counter the acute malnutrition he suffered while a member of the Krishna sect. Eventually Mrs. Fischer persuaded her son to leave the Krishnas.
Dr. Eli Shapiro, a Boston physician, and his wife were not so successful when they tried to get their son Edward to leave the offbeat Eastern sect. The Shapiros had their son kidnapped. He fled back to the Krishnas.
Still worried about Edward's health - he is a diabetic - Dr. Shapiro recently asked a Massachusetts court to appoint a legal guardian for him. In spite of Dr. Shapiro's pleas that his son may even die without guidance, the court said Edward - who is 23 and married - is an adult with a right to live his life as he chooses.
Since the late 1960's, scores of new religions have appeared on the American scene. And, instead of fading away, many of these new cults have become well established. At a national conference on the new religions, Dr. Jacob Needleman, a professor at San Francisco State University, observed, "The new religious movement can no longer be taken as a transitory cultural aberration but rather as a central force In the profound change through which American civilization is passing."
The cults provide a way of life that, he says, fills a void for many young people. For one thing, the groups offer what appears to be a purposeful existence to youths who can't find jobs or who are at a low point in life. Whatever the organization, the recruiting techniques have much in common, as we discovered on our yearlong investigation of the cults. As we toured the country, posing as potential converts, we found that recruiters first get prospects away from familiar surroundings, often inviting them to country retreats or communes. Yale psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls this essential element in psychological coercion "milieu control."
In the camps and communes everything the recruit sees, hears and does is controlled by already fervent believers. Yet the process is not nearly so dramatic as the term brainwashing suggests. The change is gradual and begins when a recruit starts to conform, long before he starts to believe the teachings of the cult leaders.
Just who are some of the self-proclaimed prophets and messiahs who command the attention of so many sons and daughters of the American middle class?
• Sun Myung Moon, who heads the Unification Church, Is a multimarried Korean industrialist and recent American religious leader who was born in 1920 in what is now North Korea. This man, whose followers believe him to be divine, lives in superb luxury on a Westchester County, N.Y., estate. The young Moonies, as they are called, live communally in Unification Church centers in every state or travel with mobile fund-raising teams. They work long hours each day selling candy, flowers, peanuts or candies to raise money for the Moon cause.
• The spiritual leader of the Hare Krishnas, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, is a retired Indian pharmaceutical executive. After the swami arrived in New York in the 1960's. he caught the imagination of the media with his colorful parades and ceremonies.
• Guru Maharaj JI, the corpulent young man who is the "Perfect Master" to thousands of Divine Light Mission "premies" (as the devotees of this movement are called), was brought to the Untied States from his native India by a hand of Boulder, Colo., benefactors when he was a pudgy little boy. They set him up in a tepee on the side of a mountain so he could teach them and their buddies how to "bliss out' without drugs.
Today the multimillion-dollar-a-year Mission is administered from an office building in downtown Denver. The boy-guru lives on a quarter-of-a-million-dollar oceanside estate in Southern California with his wife, a former airline stewardess who became a Mission devotee, and their two infant children. The mission premies often live communally, in houses the group calls ashrams, and spend their time either working full time for the Mission or working outside and turning over all their money to the movement in exchange for the privilege of living in one of its communities.
Many parents who become estranged from their children eventually turn to "deprogramming." Most of these middle class parents know they are breaking the law when they kidnap and forcefully deprogram their adult children. They are usually law-abiding citizens who have never had so much as a speeding ticket. Yet they feel justified because they believe their sons and daughters are prisoners who have been brainwashed or hypnotized.
Just what is deprogramming? It is, simply put, any method used to undo cult influences and may involve anything from persuasion to threats. Many parents first leaned about it when they read news accounts of the work of a former California civil servant named Ted Patrick, who described deprogramming techniques in his book, Let Our Children Go. His particular technique is one of force and intimidation.
Deprogramming often falls, thus widening the gulf between parents and child. Sometimes the rift becomes almost irreparable, as it has in the cases of young people who have taken their parents to court.
Another deprogrammer, Joe Alexander, has been remarkably successful in getting courts to grant parents temporary conservatorships - guardianships -- over their often "adult" children so that the young people may be deprogrammed legally. Alexander and his wife Esther run the Freedom of Thought Foundation, a center for former cult members near Tucson.
Father Kent Burtner, Roman Catholic chaplain at the University of Oregon, and Rabbi Maurice Davis of the Westchester Jewish Community Center in White Plains, N.Y., use none of Patrick's fright tools, and yet they have convinced many young people to abandon religious cults.
Deprogrammings can be expensive. While clergymen who do it usually don't charge, a deprogramming by a well known "professional," coupled with the legal costs of a conservatorship, can run thousands of dollars. Parents have taken second mortgages on their homes and spent savings intended for college educations to get their kids back.
Former cult members have described life in a cult to be a severe regime in which leaders make all decisions. "We were told when to sleep, when to get up and what to eat. We were told what to do every hour we were awake." In the Hare Krishna cult couples don't engage in sexual relations in marriage unless the temple president thinks it's time to bring another Krishna baby into the world. Even so, scores of Krishna babies have been born in the United States in the last 10 years. They are the first batch of "pure" America Krishnas, untainted by the worldly temptations their parents had to overcome to find bliss in the cult. Krishna life is not strange to them. They don't go to public school. They've never seen television or a movie. They've never tasted hamburgers, pizza or an ice-cream cone.
Ultimately, it may turn out that the cult question isn't one of religious freedom at all. It may be a question of who first violates the civil rights of these kids: the cults that entice them or their parents who want them back.