Documentarian Mia Donovan was 13 years old the first time she met Ted "Black Lightning" Patrick, the father of modern cult deprogramming — and eventual subject of her 2015 documentary, Deprogrammed (available to watch on Netflix). Patrick didn't make a good impression on the young Donovan, and it's easy to understand why. He was a stranger rummaging around her house, confiscating anything he deemed vaguely connoted with Satanism, a broad category that included her Sonic Youth albums and Stephen King books.
Like many concerned parents before him, Donovan's step-father hired Patrick to rescue his son, Matthew, from what he believed were the clutches of a Satanic cult. Back in the '70s, Patrick had established himself as a rogue cult deprogrammer, shirking conventional laws to abide by his own conception of right and wrong. In Patrick's mind, cults were wrong – and so anything he did to get individuals out of cults, including forceful kidnapping and non-consensual questioning sessions, was right.
"He was the first person to advocate that there was potential danger with these kind of groups," Donovan told Refinery29. Patrick identified the kind of coercive manipulation that tethered people to new religious movements like Children of God, the Unification Church, the Twelve Tribes — and how that kind of thinking could eventually lead to tragedies like Jonestown's mass suicide. During days-long questioning sessions, Patrick tried to reason people out of cult thinking.
But sometimes, Patrick and the well-intentioned parents who hired him got the situation wrong. Donovan's step-brother bears the psychological scars of the five days he spent tied up in captivity in an effort to "deprogram" him from a cult he was never in. In Deprogrammed, Donovan tracks down some of Patrick's subjects, like Matthew, and juxtaposes interviews with tapes of their deprogramming. Donovan doesn't shirk from grappling with the ambiguities of Patrick's deprogramming crusade. Was Ted Patrick, with his multiple arrests, an unqualified menace? Or was he, with his many successful deprogrammings, actually leading a movement? We unraveled the mystery with Donovan.
Refinery29: How does the cult landscape in the '60s and '70s during which Ted Patrick rose to notoriety compare to today?
Mia Donovan: “There were definite human rights violations happening in the ‘70s in these new religious movements. The Moonies [members of the Unification Church] would send members out to the streets or airports to meet quotas of $100 or $200 dollars a day before they could come back to the group. Then, they’d all give the money to the leader. They were sleeping in vans and not really eating. They were going through extreme, intense indoctrination programs. They were very easily influenced and controlled.
“If you look at those situations, you can understand where Ted Patrick comes in. Parents could not reach their children, couldn’t get them on the phone, couldn’t get them to come home. They had to resort to these extreme measures. Ted had good instinct for the techniques that the groups used because he had infiltrated a Unification Church workshop program one weekend. There were a lot of techniques that weaken your mind. Ted was trying to do the reverse. For example, the Children of God manipulated Bible scripture as a way to lure people into the group. Ted was able to sit people down because he knew the Bible so well and expose the contradictions in the group’s interpretation of the Bible. He’d debate."
Can you speak to Ted Patrick’s intense tactics, and how he justified them as the lesser of two evils?
“Parents would hire Ted to kidnap their kids. Then, the cults would often turn around and press charges on Ted for kidnapping. That’s how he ended up going to jail. When he got to court, the parents would show up and say, ‘Yes, we hired him to kidnap our child, but we were worried about their safety.’ They’d cite situations like Jonestown or Charles Manson, which were still very much in people’s minds, and the courts always sympathized with the parents.
"Ted’s really old school in the sense that a parent has a right to kidnap their child. Any time a parent would approach him, he’d think, ‘Well, the parent knows best.' I think we know that when we think about where we were in our late teens and early 20s, our parents were probably the ones who knew us the least. That’s where it gets very gray and murky, and where things went wrong.”
You saw that firsthand with your step-brother. What do you remember of your step-brother’s deprogramming?
“It was the early ‘90s. Matthew was really into heavy metal and its iconography; he painted his bedroom black; he had upside -down crosses painted on the wall — a very typical heavy metal kid. As a teenager, I knew that Matthew was rebellious and hung around with the ‘bad kids’ — but they weren’t in a cult. My step-father, though, was convinced that Matthew was in a cult. He was desperate to control Matthew.
"When my step-father hired Ted, I didn’t understand that they brought Matthew to a hotel for five days and tied him to a chair. I just knew they were overreacting. I knew, from where I was, that me and my step-brother were sane, and they were crazy. Then, Ted left. When I was 17 or 18 I read Ted Patrick's book, which was in our house. His deprogrammings made more sense when I was reading about Jim Jones, the Moonies, or these other, more stereotypical cults.”
What does cult deprogramming look like today, now that the Ted Patrick method of kidnapping people by the side of the road has gone out of style?
"Several people that came of age in the ‘70s are called exit counselors. Their approach looks more like an intervention. Say a family member is in a group that people are concerned about. They’ll work together to lure that person home. Then, everyone who cares about that person will be in the room and will have an intervention. They’ll ask that person if they’ll consider talking to the exit counselor for three or four days. If, after that, they’re still convinced that the group is the right place for them, they’ll leave after. It has to be completely voluntary. There really can’t be any force at all."
What’s the craziest Ted Patrick story?
"They're not in the film. He kidnapped a girl from the Twelve Tribes while she was wearing a wedding dress to get married. The Twelve Tribes is still around — they’re a Christian group really into having as many kids as possible. So, they’d marry people within the group quite young. The family hired Ted to get the girl out of the group the day she was married, and he did. He kidnapped her and deprogrammed her successfully. But her twin sister is still in the cult 40 years later with 11 children."
What does your step-brother think of the documentary?
"He didn’t see it until the film was cut. He likes it, but he feels that I was too generous with Ted. His situation was one of the most extreme. He was only 14, too young to know what was going on — he didn’t even know what a cult was. He didn’t understand why he was being attacked, tied to a chair, and unable to go to sleep. They psychologically tortured him. For him, the scars are really deep. I tried to explain the other perspectives, but it’s hard for him to let go."