Updated: Sep 4
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One popular show out on Amazon Prime is called The Man in the High Castle, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick. It imagines a nightmarish scenario where Germany won World War II and America is split into two parts: The Pacific States, run by the Japanese, and the American Reich, run by the Nazis. One of the main characters is Joe, a reluctant Nazi operative who begins questioning the ideology and becomes briefly involved with the American Resistance movement. After a series of events, he is sent by the Nazis to a reeducation camp and brainwashed into becoming a ruthless, psychopathic killer with zero remorse; all aspects of his old identity are decimated.
Joe is eventually killed by heroine Juliana Crane, who at one point had feelings for him. We never get to see if “old” Joe comes back; or if he could be “de-programmed.” This begs us to ask if one could ever be de-programmed after experiencing a traumatic reeducation camp. Could people like Joe ever be who they once were?
Though this is an extreme example, it’s important to remember that many people are brainwashed in less torturous ways every day. We hear about those who commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of an ideology, or change personalities after going to a certain church, or become radically obsessed with a political philosophy. Some of us can even be brainwashed by our own upbringing-we think we are useless, worthless, ugly, stupid, etc. Nobody tortures us, and yet we are imprisoned in our own minds-unsure of how to make it out, or if we even want to. So, can one “un-brainwash” oneself? Here is what the psychology community has learned and practiced over time:
In the mid 1970s, there was a powerful cult called The Children of God (The Family). Psychologist Ted Patrick, wanted to help parents who were desperate to get their children out of the cult. As a result, people were forcibly taken and locked up for 5-7 days, a traumatic experience in itself. Sometimes, Patrick and his team of deprogrammers would tie the subject to a chair and stage an “intervention” on them. Though he did help many people leave, his methods got him into legal trouble, and caused the victim to go through further trauma. In a sense, he was kidnapping people against their will and doing to them what had been done to them by others. Deprogramming methods are no longer advised.
By the 1980’s, a softer approach called “exit counseling” was the preferred method. Unlike deprogramming, this approach was both legal and completely voluntary on the part of the patient. Exit counseling teaches victims how cults work, what their brainwashing technique are, the methods they utilize to control people, and the negative consequences of membership. In short, it’s an educational process. It does not force someone to leave, but simply gives them enough information that could help them decide for themselves. Though helpful, exit counseling does not teach victims coping skills to deal with the trauma of their experience.
Strategic- Interactive Approach
Considered the most ideal method, this approach helps cult members restore relationships with their families while raising essential questions for victims to think about. It gives individuals the coping mechanisms needed to detect and remove negative influences in their minds. Strategic-interactive approaches defines the two identities with cult members: The Cult Identity and The Authentic Identity. Psychologists who utilize this approach integrate portions of The Authentic Identity that were hijacked by The Cult Identity so the person can be gradually restored to their original self. It allows the individual to understand their experience, learn from it, and recognize that old beliefs are no longer part of their identity. The person learns to listen to their own inner voice before taking the word of an authority figure.
Counseling & Continuing to Heal
Though the strategic-interactive approach is quite effective, it isn’t a quick fix solution. It also doesn’t help the individual cope with any prior traumas that may have made the individual susceptible to groupthink, nor does it involve counseling family members. Once the patient has gone through this approach, he/she needs to continue the healing process understand what made them join a cult in the first place. It is suggested that the individual continue therapy for quite some time in order to continue strengthening The Authentic Self/inner voice. It’s a difficult road and it takes a strong willingness on behalf of the victim to recover. If they work hard and give themselves grace, healing is possible.
Have you or someone you’ve loved struggled with a false belief system? Has this belief system caused pain or personal problems to surface? If so, please contact Straight Talk Counseling at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at straighttalkcounsling.org. One of our professional therapists would be happy to speak with you.