Emily Deitz was kidnaped the first time on a Sunday in June 1978. She would sometimes come by her parents' home in Silver Spring to see her five brothers and sisters, but that day her mother had taken the rest of the family out of the house. Her father and her older brother David bound her hands with adhesive tape. She was blindfolded, boosted into a van and driven around the Beltway to a house in Capitol Heights.
At 19 Emily was a legal adult, old enough to vote, drink and generally do what she pleased. But for two days her parents held her captive while three strangers vied for her mind.
That was the first time Esther and Leonard Deitz tried to have their daughter "deprogrammed," and it would not be the last. It was an extraordinary excursion outside the law for a law-abiding couple. The Deitzes were reputable, educated people. Leonard Deitz, a balding man whose hair curled over the collar of his suits, was a general surgeon and had served as chief of staff of Holy Cross Hospital. Esther Deitz, a poised, well-spoken woman, had embarked on a career at B'nai B'rith in Washington. They had raised six children in an affluent suburb. They had worked hard and been successful and their children had the advantages of the well-to-do--horseback riding lessons, holiday trips and college educations.
Emily wanted something else. What she found changed her life and skewed the lives of her parents as well. She was a willful, restless, girl of 15 when she devoted herself to Guru Maharaj Ji, the spiritual leader of the Divine Light Mission. Her parents watched unwittingly at first as their once freethinking child became increasingly involved with an adolescent guru who seemed to them to be nothing more than a charlatan with a weakness for cliches and a talent for fatuous analogies. She abandoned her goals. She squandered her advantages. She became, before their eyes, a daughter they no longer knew.
Like the thousands of parents who have turned to deprogramming in the decade since the process was conceived, Esther and Leonard Deitz believed they had lost their daughter to a subtle, sophisticated form of mind control. In trying to break the hold of the Guru Maharaj Ji on Emily's mind, the couple found themselves embroiled in the controversy that has surrounded deprogramming since its beginning, and in the larger debate over the nature of cults, mind control, religious conversion and the protections the First Amendment affords all manner of gods.
Religious cults have flourished throughout history in cultures beset by tumult and change. Today, according to anticult groups such as the Citizens Freedom Foundation, as many as two million people in the United States belong to more than 2,000 cults. The current upsurge in the United States dates from the late 1960s. Many of the major groups rode the counterculture to popularity, capitalizing on an alienated generation of young people that was seeking spiritual conviction in a time of transition and uncertainty. Through such practices as chanting, meditation, encounter sessions, absolutist doctrines, demanding regimens and communal life styles, cults provide not just a spiritual order but the ecstatic firsthand experiences of God absent in traditional religious ceremonies. The major groups attracted bright, idealistic young people, including a disproportionate percentage with Jewish and Roman Catholic backgrounds.
The groups that most concern parents and some religious leaders are the so-called "destructive cults." Bitterly criticized for motives that have more to do with power, exploitation and control than with God, they range from the highly organized Unification Church of the Rev. Sung Myung Moon to small fundamentalist Christian sects of less than a dozen followers. Regardless of size, these groups share such characteristics as living leaders with messianic convictions; restricted environments in which information is controlled; doctrines of exclusion and isolation that emphasize the importance of the group ahead of the individual.
How do these cults implant their simplistic dogma in intelligent people? How do they persuade doctoral candidates from MIT to panhandle in airports and on street corners? Their critics say the destructive cults employ deceptive recruiting practices and sophisticated forms of mental conditioning that some experts feel can result eventually in the permanent impairment of the mind's critical ability.
The Deitzes joined the crusade combating these "new religions," taking the view that the "psychological coercion" practiced by cults presents a greater danger than the temporary violation of civil liberties required to get unwilling cult members into the hands of deprogrammers. They came to the conclusion that a forcible deprogramming was the last move left to them to rescue Emily. They believed this move was a measure of their love and concern, and was justified by reports from experts such as Margaret Singer, a Berkeley professor who wrote, "The cults. . . maintain intense allegiance through the arguments of their ideology and through social and psychological pressures and practices that, intentionally or not, amount to conditioning techniques that constrict attention, limit personal relationships and devalue reasoning."
Cults and critics of deprogram- ming belittle the charges of "mind control" and brainwashing leveled by distraught parents, pointing out that such arguments conveniently absolve parents and children of responsibility for family misfortunes. How serious can the charges of mind control be, they ask, when many former cult members seem to have gotten out of their own volition? Deprogrammers have been compared to vigilantes taking the law into their own hands to enforce their brand of truth. How can anyone say who has free will when free will itself is so hard to define?
In an unregulated practice that often involves kidnaping and imprisonment, even defenders of deprogramming deplore its abuses. A Roman Catholic, a lesbian, even a 31-year-old woman whose mother did not care for her fiance, have been targets of deprogramming.
Apart from the vehement protests of religious cults, deprogramming has been condemned by articulate and influential mainstream church groups and civil libertarians. Citing the legend that St. Thomas Aquinas' family locked him up with a prostitute to dissuade him from joining the Dominican order, Dean M. Kelley of the National Council of Churches called deprogramming "spiritual gang rape." It is, he said, "the most serious violation of religious liberty in this country in this generation."
'Americans in China'
Guru Maharaj Ji, leader of the Divine Light Mission, caused a sensation when he arrived in America in 1971 as the 13-year-old "Perfect Master." Four years later, when a suburban teen-ager named Emily Deitz discovered him, his followers had peaked at around 40,000 and the mission was among the half dozen major cult groups in the country.
In their ignorance, Esther and Leonard Deitz had not taken their daughter seriously when she came home talking about her new guru. Through meditation he taught something called "Knowledge," "the experience of one's real self and harmony with the ultimate which is inside of all of us," as Maharaj Ji put it in an interview in 1979. The Deitzes shrugged.
"One day Emily said, 'I'm going to a "Knowledge" session, I'll be gone all day,' " Leonard Deitz recalled. "We didn't know what that meant. We were stupid-ass parents."
But as Emily entered her senior year at Springbrook High School, it was plain to her parents that her behavior and her personality were changing. New tensions sprang up in the Deitzes' handsome house at Crest Park Court in Silver Spring. Planning to work on her bicycle, Emily carried her tools and her 10-speed into an empty room, and before sitting down, thumbtacked a poster of the guru on the wall in front of her. It wasn't enough that she had posters of him all over her room. Her father ordered her to take it down.
"At first I was a closet parent," Leonard Deitz said. "I was embarrassed my kid got involved. I thought my daughter was too smart to fall for anything like the guru. Then right before our eyes she grew more and more distant. We began to read a little, but we didn't know what was happening. We were like Americans in China."
In the fall of 1976, Emily moved to rural Massachusetts to attend Hampshire College, an innovative school suited to her independent ways. Relieved as they were that Emily had started college, her parents were still concerned by her faith in the Divine Light Mission, and they started their own education.
They devoured any information they could find about the mission and the guru. At a conference on cults in Maryland, they met other parents with tales to tell much like their own. Their phone bill jumped from $20 to several hundred dollars a month, as they called new contacts around the country, and developed strong relationships with people they'd never seen.
By the end of 1977, the Deitzes were thoroughly schooled in the message of the Divine Light Mission. They had acquired tapes of the guru's satsangs, or spiritural discourses, and copies of his magazine. Maharaj Ji harped on the theme that the mind was the worst enemy of his "premies," as his followers are called.
He compared the mind to a skunk, a pair of "freaky binoculars," a fly that could be smashed, and a snake. In 1972, extending Eastern precepts in selflessness and surrender, he said, "The mind keeps the secret that you are divine away from you. . . . The mind is a snake and the treasure lies behind it. If you want that treasure you will have to kill the snake."
Conjuring a grim future for premies who strayed from the fold, he compared leaving the Divine Light Mission to jumping off a ship into shark-infested waters. In the kind of remark that never endeared him to parents, he once said, "The only tie you have with your parents is hanging in the closet."
The more they learned, the more dismayed the Deitzes grew. "It took us a good couple of years to realize that Emily was getting deeper and deeper into the cult and developing a distinct personality change," Leonard Deitz said. "It was confirmed to me when she said, 'Dad, you can be Jewish and belong to this group, too.' That was a line fed to her by the cult."
Emily dropped out of Hampshire College in 1977 after the fall term, staying in the Washington area to work cleaning houses, though she was a girl "whose room was always a mess," according to her mother.
That was the turning point. Their worst fears realized, the Deitzes decided to have Emily deprogrammed. They were influenced by the book "Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change," and by the research of Harvard psychiatrist John G. Clark Jr., who warned that continuing membership in a cult leads to the "gradual degradation of ordinary thought processes necessary to cope with highly differentiated and ambiguous external life problems of the future. The intellect appears to lose a great many I.Q. points; the capacity to form flexible human relationships. . .is impaired and all reality testing functions are difficult to mobilize so that judgment is poor."
The Deitzes asked their lawyer to investigate the possibility of securing temporary custody of Emily through a conservatorship. Conservatorships have been granted in some states to parents seeking legal ways to get their adult children to deprogrammers. The lawyer sounded out judges in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, but reported back to the Deitzes in June 1978, that "the climate wasn't right."
Now in their distress, the Deitzes believed they had no choice but to compel Emily, for her owne, Emily sake, to attend what she would not voluntarily sit for.
"Emily had reached a point where she was hardly a member of the family," said Esther Deitz. "If the deprogramming were unsuccessful, we ran the risk of losing her completely. Since we didn't have that much of her already--she was so distant, so alienated--the risk didn't seem so much."
Among the people the Deitzes were acquainted with through their contacts in the anticult network were three ex-cultists not much older than Emily. They had not belonged to Divine Light, but they agreed to try to deprogram Emily, inexperienced as they were about life as a premie. At the time the Deitzes couldn't find any ex-members of Divine Light.
Though it would be conducted under the shadow of coercion, the deprogramming planned was a simple matter of talking and reasoning with Emily to help her overcome the psychological and emotional control of the cult. If the process was a success, Emily possibly would thank her parents as many successfully deprogrammed cult members have afterward. Their aim, the Deitzes said, was not to dissuade Emily from her beliefs, but to restore her ability to think critically and exercise her own free will.
Their misgivings about breaking the law were balanced by hope. Ted Patrick, the man known as "Black Lightning" who coined the term "deprogramming" and who claims to have gotten more than 1,600 people out of cults since 1971 at a success rate of 90 percent, once said of his method, "The only way I can describe it is that it's like turning on the light in a dark room. . .It's like seeing a person change from a werewolf into a man."
No such dramatic transformation came over Emily in the two days she underwent what her parents later lamented as "a very poor, inadequate deprogramming by well-meaning but inexperienced people." As Leonard Deitz left the house in Capitol Heights, accompanying Emily to a house in Minneapolis where she was to spend a while in what the trade calls "rehabilitation," Esther Deitz was uneasy. "It was a gut feeling," she said. "I never had the feeling they had really reached Emily."
A few days later, after Dr. Deitz had dropped his daughter off in Minneapolis, news came that Emily had escaped with the help of premie friends, who had called posing as her sister Leslie and arranged to meet her on a supervised trip to a health food store.
To this day Emily has never been back to her parent's house at Crest Park Court, the home of her childhood. The garden of tomatoes and peppers she had started near the top of the driveway went untended, and the image of it haunted her father over the years with its intimations of failure and loss and of a relationship that never bloomed.
"From that point on, she was gone," said Leonard Deitz. "She literally went underground. We didn't hear from her. She didn't call. We didn't know if she was dead or alive."
To Emily the situation was simple. "My parents made their statement with the first kidnaping," she said. "I never thought I'd speak to my father again after that. It was a complete injustice. He said 'We just want you to talk to some people.' He never tried to talk to me himself."
Emily had left behind an unmailed letter when she fled from the house in Minneapolis. It was returned to the Deitzes along with their daughter's things. They reread it many times, pondering the handwriting and tone, the intangible clues between the lines.
"I see now," the last paragraph read, "how subtle the whole thing was with me getting involved in the DLM [Divine Light Mission.] The whole time as a premie the strings just got pulled tighter and tighter on my mind in such a way that it really seemed like it was actually me doing the pulling myself. The peer pressure was very strong, and in an effort to please, one always went along with the general group feeling about something. I'm truly glad to be away from the whole thing now, as I can see it for what it is. It's amazing how similar all the cults are."
"When I read that," said Leonard Deitz, "I went to the FBI and said my daughter's been kidnaped."
Then in September came a blow, the first word her parents received from Emily since she'd vanished. She scorned her parents' secondhand knowledge of God. "I have experiened truth," she said, "I have experienced the real, practical experience of the source and essence of this creation."
Most dispiriting, she wrote: "I know that you are hanging on to every thread of hope, so to ease your mind let me inform you that the unfinished letter from Minneapolis was 100% fake. Made up. In fact it sounded so fake to me that I didn't even bother sending it."
If the Deitzes had any doubt about their effort to deprogram Emily, it was obliterated two months later by the horror of Jonestown, where more than 900 members of the People's Temple cult, urged on by the demented exhortations of the Rev. Jim Jones, drank from a tub of cyanide-laced fruit drink and died. Jonestown triggered nationwide inquiries into the nature and practices of all religious cults.
Suddenly there were new reports from people who'd actually managed the Divine Light Mission--Robert Mishler, the man who organized the business side of the mission and served for 5 1/2 years as its president, and Robert Hand Jr., who served as a vice president for two years. In the aftermath of Jonestown, Mishler and Hand felt compelled to warn of similarities between Guru Maharaj Ji and Jim Jones. They claimed the potential for another Jonestown existed in the Divine Light Mission because the most fanatic followers of Maharaj Ji would not question even the craziest commands. As Jim Jones convincingly demonstrated, the health of a cult group can depend on the stability of the leader.
Mishler and Hand revealed aspects of life inside the mission that frightened the Deitzes. In addition to his ulcer, the Perfect Master who held the secret to peace and spiritual happiness "had tremendous problems of anxiety which he combatted with alcohol," Mishler said in a Denver radio interview in February 1979. His former officers claimed the Guru had "a sadistic streak," and that practices Maharaj Ji employed, theoretically to subdue the ego, included "stripping devotees, pouring abrasive chemicals on their bodies and into their mouths, administering drugs, having them beaten with a stick or thrown into swimming pools."
For the Deitzes one revelation struck home. "Our hope," Mishler said, "is that the families of these followers will try to exert pressure to save them."
But her parents did not know where Emily was, and Emily did not want to be found. Esther and Leonard Deitz's interest in contacting former premies redoubled, for now the parents asked for news of their daughter as well as information about the mission. All the while they were planning another attempt to deprogram her, feeling they had not given Emily the benefit of a "first class" job the first time. For the second try they had lined up Ted Patrick, "Black Lightning" himself.
After months of searching, the Deitzes located Emily in San Francisco, and in March 1979, they tried again. Dr. Deitz had shaved off his beard to disguise himself while he kept his daughter under surveillance in the tense days before the "pickup." This time, Dr. Deitz and hired hands were able to get Emily into a station wagon, but she raised such a commotion they could not remove her to a motel room where the deprogamming was to be done. A suspicious bystander alerted the police, and the Deitzes' careful plans collapsed.
Esther Deitz remembers that moment. She was waiting in a motel, expecting her husband and her daughter to arrive any minute. Ted Patrick was scheduled to meet them. The door opened. There was Emily and Leonard and--her heart sank--the police.
"That was the worst moment of my life," Esther Deitz said. "It was a feeling of having lost everything in one instant, in a stroke of fate. We had pinned so much hope on Ted Patrick. My mother has died, my father has died and I never reacted to those deaths the way I did to seeing Emily at the door with the police, knowing it was over, knowing that we had had her and now we'd lost her. I just--got hysterical. I was crying, 'Emily, won't you come in, won't you stay for minute?' I put my arms around her and held on. I was just holding on, begging her to stay and talk to us. Len was hugging the two of us. He was crying, and he never cries."
The reunion lasted a few minutes while the cops stood around looking at their shoes. They weren't making arrests, it was just another domestic case. At length Emily said, "Well, I've got to go," and she was gone.
The Deitzes flew home in a pall of grief. Esther Deitz felt she could never go through anything like the past few days again, and she was utterly resigned.
Emily's older sister Leslie greeted her mother and father at the house. "When they came home after the second attempt I could see my parents age," Leslie said. "My father came over and fell into my arms. He was crying. I'd never seen my father cry. I said, 'You've done everything you can, you've got to forget it, you've got to put it behind you.' "
But Leonard Deitz, a man noted for his stubborn streak, still believed he had not done his daughter justice. He had yet to give her that "first class" deprogramming. His wife's hopes for Emily had been extinguished. His had not. Slowly, over the weeks, over the months, long before the family knew where Emily was or if they would be able to find her again, a resolve took root in Leonard Deitz's mind. He would try again.