Book Review - If You Want To Know How I Got Brainwashed
ICSA Today, 2021, Vol. 12, No. 3, 28-30
Book Review - If You Want To Know How I Got Brainwashed: Story and Paintings
By Betsy Dovydenas
Reviewed by Joe Szimhart
City Point Press, 2021. ISBN-10: 194791408; ISBN-13: 978-1947951402. Paperback, 224 pages (paperback, $24.00; Kindle, $13.99).
If you want a basic, personally expressive understanding of what we popularly call brainwashing and an inside look at cult intervention by any other name, such as exit counseling or deprogramming, read this book. The book can be read at one sitting, as I did. The text is lean, with an illustration on each page.
Betsy Dovydenas (born 1952) has been an artist since her youth. She cleverly illustrated this text with 200 delightful monotypes (monoprints) that may need some explanation. At first glance, the illustrations can appear crude or childlike, but Dovydenas applied this printing technique to good effect in the context of her succinctly told story. The illustrations are consistent and unapologetically expressive in style.
Monoprinting tends to be a spontaneous, loose application of inks or paint onto metal or plexiglass plates. Artists might use brushes, fingers, sticks, rags, and other objects to manipulate the image before covering it with print paper. The combination is then either rolled through a press, or pressure is applied in other ways. The print paper peeled off becomes the final product, as a reverse version of the painted surface. So, unlike etching, silkscreen, and lithography, which allow for multiple editions of the same image, the monotype or monoprint is a one-off. The plate is then wiped clean and readied for another painting.
As an artist, I could produce 10 to 20 monotypes in a prepared studio in 8 hours, which gives you some idea of the immediacy and spontaneity of the technique. Tight, fussy perfection is not the goal. In Betsy’s case, the loose, spontaneous style speaks beautifully about the artist’s recovery from a Bible-based cult that influenced her to keep fickle religious rules while fussing over how perfectly she looked and behaved.
Published as a horizontal, trade-sized paperback for my review copy, the book’s format also works well to display the illustrations at the top of each page. The back cover features two paintings that appear at the point in the book where the author indicates that she started painting again after she left the cultic group, using nude figures to illustrate “dreams and nightmares of the crazy world I endured for three years” (p. 203). (The cult leaders had told her to stop displaying nudes that she painted in her home because they were evil.)
In the Foreword, Michael Langone, PhD, the Executive Director of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), offers his breakdown of brainwashing as a misapplied and misunderstood term, while suggesting that in common usage it can mean anything from the absorption of deceitful information, to manipulated behavior, to undue influence.
In the book, the author tells us that in 1986 she sued the group she was in, and that her lawyer “nailed the bastards” (p. 208) during a 3-week trial in 1987. Betsy tells the story of her court case against The Bible Speaks after her family conducted a formal intervention in 1985 with the help of exit-counselors “Bob” and “Alice” (as named in the story). The court document uses the legal phrase “a victim of undue influence” as the crux of the crime against Betsy Dovydenas by the cult leaders.1 In the direct and sparse style she uses in this book, the author flat out says she was brainwashed.
The Bible Speaks was founded by Carl Stevens and his wife in 1973. Complaints and criticism about Stevens and The Bible Speaks mounted in the press by the time of the author’s recruitment in 1982.2 While in the group, Betsy remained married with two young children; so she lived a double life, even hiding from her family that she handed over millions of dollars to Stevens at his behest. Initial caring through feigned friendship by a group member, micromanaging pressure from her discipler, and attraction to the leader’s charismatic preaching style were factors that influenced the author’s naïve agreements to participate in the church. The church paid special attention to her because of her wealth.
Betsy’s story tells of a woman who was free-spirited and casual in dress, wearing jeans and moccasins when recruited, to later become a cult clone wearing heels, makeup, and a slick hairstyle that suited the leader. By the third year of her involvement, the tension between her precult family self and the cult creature she had become caused a personal breakdown to the point that Betsy suffered migraines thinking the devil was after her. She was not bathing enough, she lost 25 pounds on a church-ordered water diet, and she was losing sleep. At that stage, her husband wondered why she “smelled like sex,” thinking that she was having an affair (p. 123).
The author had noted contradictions in group and leadership behavior before her intervention, but she rationalized away the apparent disparities. She was led to believe that the leader healed a core member of migraines, yet it appeared that the member’s migraines had returned. Despite the elite connection the pastor claimed to God’s protection and to extrasensory awareness, some of his guards carried concealed weapons, and the church bought a lie detector and a device to locate electronic surveillance or bugs. The author mentions the leader’s lurid sexual inclinations and a nasty bathroom habit in certain terms: To wipe himself after toileting, Stevens compulsively soiled terry cloth towels that the group housekeeper had to launder, for example. The pastor encouraged spanking to correct children; so at a command from her discipler, Betsy spanked her young children twice. Although her grown children later told her it was no big deal to them, Betsy felt guilty for decades.
Betsy’s intervention begins on page 153, when she describes how her family drove her to a rented house close to where her parents lived on a lake. Commonly known as a safe house among interventionists, the setting allowed for nine people at the family gathering. These included exit counselors Bob and Alice, who both appeared by surprise with a brother-in-law after a dinner party arranged to celebrate the father’s birthday. After the family explained the purpose of the intervention, Bob talked for hours about troublesome groups, attempting to give some context to the family’s concerns. They went to bed exhausted. On page 156, Betsy writes, “Bob and Alice each had a small room, and everyone else stretched out on the floor in sleeping bags. My father slept blocking the front door.”
The details of her exit counseling aside, on page 185 she writes, “After six days my mind began to clear.” On page 186, “It happened in an instant. I snapped out of it.” After that moment, Betsy spent the entire night with her husband talking like they used to talk years before. She told him the secrets she had kept from her family as if it were “about someone else” (p. 187). By the next morning, she told her father she wanted to write another will. (The author’s lawsuit showed how the cult’s money manager conspired with the leader and a well-paid lawyer to get her to sign over significant assets to the group.)
During that day after she had snapped out of “it” (the cult mindset), she noted that she was still “shaky” and her “mind was slow” (p. 190). Bob and Alice recommended a halfway or recovery house in Iowa, Unbound, that she could go to immediately. She went there with her husband, to good effect. Not identified by name in the story, Unbound looked like a “college hippie pad” (p. 191), where they slept on floor mattresses for a few weeks or so in the therapeutic environment.3
Afterward, Betsy, her husband, and their kids vacationed on the Caribbean. Toward the end of her story, Betsy mentions the lawsuit, and that she spent 3 years in therapy to sort out which thoughts were hers and which ones were the pastor’s.
A Personal Connection
This story brings back a rush of memories for me. The exit counselor Bob in the book is identified in the acknowledgements as David Clark, an enduring professional in the maverick field of cult intervention. I participated in my first formal intervention with Dave in 1986. He and his partner encouraged me to enter the field, based on my performance trying to help a current member of the cult I defected from. By then, on my own without charging a fee, I exited perhaps a dozen cult devotees while amassing a significant library of related books and files. I was chairman of a cult-education and -counseling group in Santa Fe, New Mexico then. My interventions up to that point were based on coincidental encounters with cult members who were curious about my point of view after meeting me or hearing me lecture.
The model proposed by Clark and his partners was family based to avoid illegal use of hired security guards, as was common with controversial deprogramming models. The tools Clark’s group employed were thorough family preparation, with talk strategies in place to encourage the cult member to remain at the intervention. Of course, not all did; so by my estimation, perhaps half or fewer of nonsecurity interventions never got past the first day or two.
In one of my later cases, I recall the cult member calling her group hours after we began discussions. Within the hour, 17 cult members appeared in cars and entered the family home. The intervention ended after one more hour of useless negotiations by the family and me, with the angry and paranoid cult members in the living room. I say paranoid because this group deeply believed in the agency of invisible black magicians and demons, and I had inside information that they saw me as demonic. If you need an argument for security guards, that latter case might be an example. The fact that Betsy’s father initially slept by the entry door could be viewed as a way to keep people out as well as to keep the cult member in.
Perspectives on Intervention
Dovydenas credits her exit from The Bible Speaks to her brave family and to the educational effect that her two exit counselors had on her. Yet, in the past, I have encountered sociologists of religion who condemn intervention in any form as a violation of the cult member’s rights, even calling the model used in Betsy’s case “violent.”4
Quoting Anson Shupe, “It should be obvious that a gentle, voluntary, or nonviolent deprogramming is semantic waffling, a form of what in the sociology of deviance is termed neutralization and ultimately an oxymoron”5 Shupe argued that in any cult-intervention approach, the client is the family or person that hires the interventionist and not the “new religious movement” member; therefore, some level of discomfort or a feeling of an assault exists, at least initially, and especially if the intervention fails.
I fully agree that there is discomfort and anxiety: Most of the many hundreds of nonsecurity interventions I did alone with a family or spouse who hired me did result in initial discomfort for the cult member, and that lasted until we could gain some rapport and agreement. But to call this approach violent is, well, in the realm of an oxymoron if not outright blindness to the difficult duty to inform when evidence for deception, manipulation, and harm exists.
Also, at a Sociology of Religion conference, one sociologist, Thomas Robbins, told me that new-religious-movement members have a right not to be better off. That pinheaded observation has no need for counterargument. Of course, we can all agree that happy hippies living on communes without electricity and running water in 1969 had some relevance for the back-to-nature crowds. But we know people with schizophrenic beliefs in paranoid delusions about FBI chips in their heads, or grandiose voices telling them they are God, and who never bathe and prefer to be homeless. We also know of cult members who complied with abusive and delusional rules to gain enlightenment. If you wish to leave them alone, that is your privilege—your “right.” In this story by Betsy Dovydenas, the argument for intervention as caring for someone is a strong one.
One observation I will make regards a mistaken notion that an intervention can return individuals to their precult selves. Of course, this can only apply, if it applies at all, to people who joined as adults and not to those who were raised in cults. If we view the harmful cult experience as a rite of passage gone awry as the result of deceit, poor or abusive group governance, and a highly delusional basis for belief, then we can see that the cult experience was tainted, toxic, or diseased.
When someone heals from a disease or toxic episode, that person is restored to a healthy state, but with some changes to their prediseased self. Depending on the disease, the renewed self develops antibodies and may retain scars or post-disease stressors, nevertheless. Now I know that some of my friends in sociology hate the idea of medicalizing or applying psychology to the religious experience, but medical terms occur throughout religions. Jesus, for example, conflated healing and salvation in the Gospel.6 The holistic experience in New Age religions does the same. “The Buddha is sometimes described as a physician because his analysis for the human condition proceeds as a doctor might in observing the condition, seeking the cause, prescribing the cure, and applying it.”7
In Betsy’s story, we encounter her first as a relatively healthy woman who drifts into a constricted emotional and intellectual state to comply with a group’s grandiose delusions about what it means to be Christian. The intervention kick-starts her healing process, but she is changed. Unlike her matured adult self who tells this story as evidence of psychological scarring that she yet carries in her memory, her precult self was naïve and inexperienced about group-influence techniques. Those memories also carry antibodies, or lessons that guard and protect her from making similar mistakes in judgment or succumbing again to undue influence.
A corollary to this mistaken idea of reestablishing the precult self is the idea that an interventionist must replace the false cult belief with something else, lest the former cult member come away bereft of any foundation. Interventionists who work to restore someone to a family faith or tradition generally run into serious problems because the old religion, so to speak, can easily trigger anxieties in the newly recovering former member. Much better outcomes occur when one views the exit counseling as a healing experience, so a healthier grasp of bad versus good group behavior arises. When we heal from cancer, we are not looking to replace it with anything. This book by Dovydenas underscores what I am getting at here: Her healing had nothing to do with adopting a philosophy or religion; rather, it represents the tools she gained from the intervention and years of therapy, which gave her more power to sort through what might turn out to be her personal philosophy, with or without a religious context.
 Unbound operated as a postcult recovery house in a residential neighborhood in Iowa City, Iowa from 1980 through 1990. Typically, clients who had been deprogrammed or exit-counseled out of a group could spend 2 to 6 weeks in a casual, educational environment with a curriculum tailored to their group experience. Unbound could handle six clients at a time. Recreation and free time were major components of the therapy.
 Violence and New Religious Movements; Lewis, James R., editor (2011), p. 411.
 Violence and New Religious Movements; Lewis, James R., editor (2011), p. 411.
 For example, see https://www.amazon.com/Salvation-Means-Creation-Healed-Overcoming/dp/1608998886
About the Reviewer
Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his 2-year devotion to a New Age sect. He worked professionally as an intervention specialist from 1986 through 1998. He continues to assist people with cult-related problems including consultations via phone and Internet. In 2016 he received an ICSA Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas. Since 1998, he has worked for an emergency psychiatric hospital as a crisis caseworker. He maintains an art studio and exhibits professionally. His novel, Mushroom Satori: The cult diary, was published in 2013.