Student Remains in Unification Church After Forced 'Deprogramming' Attempt
Five years ago, the parents of Andrew Wilson '71 paid more than $3000 to have their son "deprogrammed" from the Unification Church. But last week, at a lecture by cult critic Dr. Margaret Thaler-Singer, Wilson, who has remained a church member, distributed material labeling the deprogramming process "a denial of basic civil rights of freedom of thought and religion."
Wilson, who prepared the three-page document specifically for the Singer lecture, said he did not want to allow Singer's attitude toward deprogramming to remain unchallenged, despite a university rule banning the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church from distributing material soliciting students. Singer considers deprogramming a "social good," Wilson said. "She essentially legitimizes kidnapping and brain-washing," he added.
Singer, professor of Psychiatry at the University of California at Berkeley, who in the past has defended forcible deprogramming, told an audience of 100 at the Science Center that once a person has joined a cult, it is extremely difficult for him to leave because cult leaders often succeed in destroying a person's ability to think critically.
Wilson, who graduated from the Divinity School last spring, said that in the summer of 1975 two men kidnapped him and held him captive for 33 days in a house with doors and windows boarded shut, while people working for his parents attempted to force him to leave his religion.
Having been a church member for over two years while seeing his parents regularly, Wilson said he suspected nothing. "I knew my parents were upset with my choice of religion, my rejection of the consumer ethic, and my lifestyle of undraising in the street, which they thought was degrading to a Harvard man. But I never dreamed that they had given a man a $3000 down-payment to have me deprogrammed," Wilson said.
"They kept me awake for twenty-four hours at a time," Wilson said, describing his deprogramming experience. "One man would sit with his face twelve inches from me, bring a lamp up to my ear and launch into a third degree, accusing the church's spiritual leader Moon, of being Satan incarnate, a con-man and a snake. They ripped Reverend Moon's picture, and told me I was a pimp, a prostitute and a piece of trash."
The deprogrammers told Wilson's parents that he would kill them if ordered to by Moon, Wilson said, adding that his brother had "approached me with clenched fits, screaming 'You'd kill your mother for Moon, wouldn't you.'" The deprogrammers manipulated his family, Wilson asserted.
By pretending to actually be deprogrammed Wilson said he managed to be left alone long enough to make a phone call to church headquarters and plan an escape. Now, five years later, Wilson is still with the church which has given him a full scholarship to pursue his doctorate in Near Eastern Languages.
In her lecture last Friday, Singer described the effects of cults on members and ex-members, which she said to include subservience and inability to make decisions. One ex-cult member was so accustomed to taking orders that she could not deny any man who tried to make sexual advances with her, Singer said. "This is the biggest re-adjustment problem, making these people understand that they have control over their own lives," she added.
Attributing popularity of cults in recent years to societal breakdown during the drug culture, war protest and sexual revolution of the sixties, Singer, who has studied over 500 current and former cult members, said that people turn to cults to escape real-world complexities. "Whenever existing social structure is weakened, gurus, messiahs and pied-pipers have arisen," she added.
Cults rob members of their free-will, Singer said, adding that cult leaders instruct recruits not to fight indoctrination by repeatedly telling new members to "melt, bliss-out and reach mindlessness."
Wilson refuted the accuracy of Singer's study saying that most people she interviewed had been deprogrammed. Wilson said, "A person who has been deprogrammed is depressed and confused because he has something in his soul lingering on. These people have had their spirit and force taken from them." Singer would have received very different results if she had studied more happy, well-adjusted members of various groups, Wilson added.
Singer represents many "anti-religious" professionals who view mankind as an animal, not a spiritual being, Wilson, comparing the plight of the Unification Church to that of early Christianity before it gained legitimacy, said.
If the attitudes that Singer expresses become accepted, it will mean the reduction of an individual's freedom to be different, Wilson said, adding that Singer talks about "susceptibility" to cults when she is really referring to religious conversion and spiritual revelation.
Since 1979, members of the Unification have been denied access to distribute material or hold meetings on campus because of misrepresentation and repeated violation of soliciting rules, Archive C. Epps III, dean of students, said Tuesday. Wilson disagrees that this was reason for the ban. "I think that Dean Epps doesn't believe in pluralism. He believes in limiting free speech to only accepted views. He thinks Harvard should be a country club with one certain outlook," Wilson said.
Wilson has requested that the ban on Unification Church activities be lifted so that an open forum could be held to discuss church issues. "This ban is a violation of academic freedom," Wilson said, adding that "Harvard students have a right to respond to issues like deprogramming." Epps said Tuesday that he was considering the request.
"I was a child of the sixties," Wilson said, "who became a hippie and went to live in communes. But these were all very temporary. The dream of a new social order was falling apart because people brought their same middle-class hang-ups to the communes. Now I have stopped searching."
"I am fortunate that since my deprogramming experience the breach between my parents and myself has been mended. They have stopped treating me like a child in need of control and have begun to respect me as an adult who has chosen to live life differently," Wilson said.