13. John Davis, De-programer

I needed help and I knew it. Who could I turn to who knew about brainwashing?

Many years ago, my internist had his office in a small medical center in the town of Pleasant Valley. The center had a number of medical and dental offices, a small laboratory and a pharmacy. I used to get my prescriptions filled at the pharmacy. The pharmacist was a man of my generation (W.W.II service). I remember him as someone who would go well with an old fashioned drug store, complete with soda fountain. His drug store was minus the fountain. Such stores were of the distant past. Now drug stores sold everything including food, automotive accessories, appliances etc.-but no ice cream and sodas. Pharmacies did nothing but dispense prescription medicines and the staples of the drug trade. The only concession that this store made to the all-embracing function of the drug store was a small rack of candy and chewing gum. A dozen years ago, the pharmacist, a man named John Davis, had appeared in the local paper in connection with the "deprograming" of his daughter, who had been a Moonie. I remembered that it had involved incarcerating her with a deprogramer. That was all that I had remembered, since it was of only passing interest to me at the time. I remembered being skeptical about the outcome of such a procedure. What the hell could you expect from someone who had let themselves be brain washed in the first place. I believed, at that time, that it was the parents themselves who had made their children into puppets, and all that was necessary to get them into a cult was to get them to switch from one bit of nonsense to another; sort of like the much-popularized conversions of people from being dogmatic, party-line communists, into dogmatic, party-line Catholics. If parents taught their kids to be independent thinkers, as I had, such things would not be possible. What could I have done wrong to end up with a son who allowed himself to be brain washed?

Well, all of my theories had gone up in smoke in the last twenty four hours. I had to admit that I really knew absolutely nothing about what made someone join a cult. I needed help, and Davis was the only person I knew who might be able to help me; and even if he couldn't, he might know someone who could. So I took myself to the Pleasant Valley Medical Center Pharmacy. John Davis looked as I remembered him: a slight man with a twinkle in his eyes. The only thing that had changed over the intervening years was his hair, which had turned grey. Well, I knew that he wouldn't be of much help to me if I didn't level with him, so I told him the whole story. He listened patiently for a whole hour, interrupted by a single customer with a prescription that needed filling. I wondered how he made a living with so few customers. When I finished, he said:

"We've come a long way in the last ten years. We don't force ,or coerce people in any way. Now, a cult member has to agree to talk to us voluntarily. When we do it that way, our success rate is close to 100% in contrast to what we used to have -as soon as the cult member got away from us, it was back to square one. We also have a long follow up, to keep people from drifting back into the cult. What makes you think that he's in a cult and not just a legitimate fundamentalist religion?"

I described what had happened to Ellen.

"It sounds like it. You know, the techniques of some religions are pretty much the same as the cults."

"Then what's the difference?"

"It varies from practically no difference, to a person feeling free to walk away from the religion at will."

We talked for another half hour, until I got the courage to ask him the question that I thought I knew the answer to -and it was an answer that I didn't want to hear. "If Allen is deprogrammed, what will I have? What will he be like?" I expected Davis to say "A mindless zombie."

Instead, he replied, "You'll have just what you had before he was brainwashed; no more, no less. It will be as if he awakened from a dream."

An immense feeling of relief washed over me, spilling out through my eyes. Through my tears, I said "I was hoping that you would say that."

Before I left, I hugged John. He had, after all, been the bearer of the best news he had had for years.

It wasn't until the next day that I came down out of the clouds. Davis had told me what he thought I wanted him to hear. Sure, he wasn't dishonest; only kind. He hadn't told me all, because he didn't know "all". All that he knew was from his own experience. Suppose that he was right, and Allen would end up what he was before he had been brain-washed. What had he been? I had thought that I knew; Allen was a thoughtful, reasoning youngster. But my recent experiences told me that I never really knew Allen -what I thought I knew about him was pure illusion. If Allen was such a susceptible beast, he would still be one. I might rescue him, only to have him fall prey to the next Guru who came along. Sure, I myself could become his Guru; but then how would I wean him from me?

This whole business took me back to my childhood. Then, and now, it amazed me that there were people who couldn't reason. Even now, after studying psychology and knowing that people learned to think in much the same way as they learned to drive a car, it surprises me that logic makes no impression on most people. Even the great Gregor Mendel, whose reasoning as a scientist was impeccable, was able to live as a priest, and to do it so well that he became the Abbott of his monastery. And it is not peculiar to a belief in God. In high school, I knew several communist atheists who seemed to be as immune to reason as my son is. Apparently adherence to any dogma requires the abandonment of reason -that is if reason ever existed at all in the mind of the believer. Monsignior Fulton Sheen was very successful in converting communists to catholicism. It seems that it is really no such a great step to go from one dogma to another. Further, a person who rejects a dogma seems to find himself with a void that has to be filled with another. It was also strange that one could be perfectly rational in one area and irrational in another as Mendel was.

I tried to find some incident or time in my life that would help me to understand believers. There were lots of little incidents, such as the time that I decided to apprentice myself to a transactional analyst. This woman had written an excellent, and very popular book on Transactional Analysis. I came to realize that she was as crazy -or crazier- than her clients; but at the time I believed everything that she said. I remember asking her what dreaming in color signified. She gave some ridiculous explanation that I bought completely. It never occurred to me at the time to question it, even though I questioned everything else. -Yes! that's it: that experience is called cathexis; that strange process whereby a person incorporates someone else into themselves totally. It's a phenomenon that makes falling in love with a pig (why can't I remember her name? ,oh yes, Miss Piggy), as Kermit the Frog did, seem logical; or is it the same thing? But giving it a name really doesn't explain it. And, even more important, how did I snap out of it, and why isn't Allen reactivating his reason? I could find no answer. I had a faint hope that, perhaps if he separated from Brother James he would return to normal. Normal? Was rationality normal for him, or just normal for me and a few others. Is it temporary insanity for him or a way of life where he would only find another dogma if he abandoned this one?

I came to psychology from being a biologist. In biology, the key question for everything is: How did it happen? How did it evolve? I walked into a world of psychologists who seemed, mostly, to have come out of churches, where the question of how it evolved was already answered -God made it- and was therefore trivial. People were divided into sick or healthy, which sounded better than good or evil; but that was what it was. The therapist was good or healthy and the patient was sick or evil. How did this come to be? The answer was never given, but it was assumed that God in his mysterious way had made it so. It was God's work to heal the sick or stamp out evil, which is what the priests of psychology did. There were, of course, exceptions: people who had great understanding -the Popes of psychology: Freud, Bern, Lang, Masslow, Erickson, Reich, Jung and so on. One who was not a believer would have great difficulty determining who was the true and who the false prophet. There were prophets like Reich and Jung, who spouted nonsense, and Masslow the empiricist; and the rest who all had a good deal of understanding. An unbeliever like me, who was simply looking for understanding of myself and others, didn't seem to fit. It was back to a school where the teachers were the adults and I the child. But it wasn't that way at all this time round; I was the emerging adult, and they were children in a never never land where no one grows up. They would continue to play their games until they died.

I plunged into the games with the ingenuousness of the true child. Things about myself and others unfolded one by one and my understanding grew. My own evolution began to unfold. I could see through the problems that people had --and suddenly I was alone. I had left my peers. I realized then, that I could become a high priest, a guru. But that wasn't what I wanted. All that I wanted was to understand; not to manipulate people -so I left. I realized later, because the road to understanding never ends, that some people who had the ability to understand had stayed in psychology because they thought that they had nowhere else to go. To me, it was not a pleasant place where I wished to spend the rest of my days. I preferred the pristine world where I had spent the best days of my childhood; among the trees and flowers and birds. The insane din of the city frayed my nerves, so I again decided to seek, this time, not an Emerald City in Oz, but a place with clean air and water where one could see the stars at night.

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