Rick Ross lives and works in the New York City area and makes himself available to the national media on a regular basis. As head of the nonprofit The Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements, Rick and his associates have assisted thousands of families. He's been interviewed in most major U.S. newspapers and magazines and his work has been featured on a host of television shows. The nature of his work involves some of the hardest-hitting headlines from groups you might recognize but know little about. He is also absolutely fearless.
THE DOOR MAGAZINE: How long have you been working with cults?
RICK ROSS: I've been dealing with controversial groups, some that are called cults, for about 20 years. I began my work in 1982. I first worked for the Jewish community in the 1980s and then I became a private consultant working all over the United States. I have worked internationally in Great Britain, Israel, Canada, and [Italy].
DOOR: Were you doing what used to be called deprogramming?
ROSS: Part of my work continues to be what was once called "cult deprogramming" or what I would now call "cult intervention" work. It is done on a voluntary basis, which means that the person I'm working with has agreed with their family to meet with me and discuss things with me, though I very often come in as a surprise. The group would probably not allow the person to meet with me. So initially, when I sit down, it's kind of a surprise and then they agree to continue to talk and their family typically persuades them to do this. Intervention is a large part of my work, but I also lecture at colleges and universities across the United States.
I also act as a paid professional consultant for the media doing analysis and work on film projects. I was hired by Miramax/Disney to consult on the film "Holy Smoke" featuring Harvey Keitel as a cult deprogrammer. I was his technical consultant. I'm now working on a project for an independent film company based on one of Frank Peretti's books.
DOOR: You've also testified as an expert witness in court cases?
ROSS: I'm qualified and accepted as an expert witness in seven states. Most recently I was involved in a wrongful death lawsuit, the largest settlement ever paid by Jehovah's Witnesses in its history, $1.5 million. You can review this case, Coughlin vs. Jehovah's Witnesses, on the Ross Institute website.
DOOR: What got you started?
ROSS: My grandmother. She was a resident of a Jewish nursing home in Phoenix and the staff had been infiltrated by people involved with a controversial group called the "Jewish Voice Broadcast," which was founded by an Assembly of God Minister named Louis Kaplan. It was much like "Jews for Jesus" and essentially a similar organization that targeted Jews for conversion to Pentecostalism.
DOOR: Were you successful in getting your grandmother out?
ROSS: It wasn't a question of getting her out. Group members who wanted to convert nursing home residents had infiltrated the home. My grandmother was confronted by a nurse's aide who was affiliated with this organization and she was very upset one day when I came to visit her. My objection was not that they had no right to share their faith with other people including residents of the nursing home, but rather that they were not requested to be there. They were operating covertly and there should be an ethical understanding that if residents of the nursing home wanted people to come in and witness to them and share their faith, it should be done upon request. It should not be done covertly by placing people in jobs within the nursing home and operating in that way.
DOOR: Where did your objections lead?
ROSS: That situation led to me working with the nursing home director and that led to a series of appointments to committees in Arizona and then national committees regarding cults and missionaries. The focus of my work regarding missionaries was specifically groups that targeted the Jewish community. I spent a period of time working for Jewish Family and Children Service in Phoenix, the Bureau of Jewish Education, The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which is commonly called the Reform Movement of Judaism. Subsequently, I became a private consultant towards the end of 1986.
DOOR: How does your faith tie in with your work?
ROSS: It really doesn't because my approach to intervention work is the behavior of the group. In other words, the group may be hurting people through coercive persuasion, through undue influence, or manipulating them and exploiting them--this harm may even be physical. The group may, for example, deny medical care for members. That may be part of their group's doctrines. There could be mistreatment of children. There might be sexual abuse. My focus is the behavior of the group and not its beliefs. So, when families bring me in, it's not a theological issue but rather the question "is this group harming my son, daughter, spouse or parent by the way they operate?"
For example, I was called in on a case regarding television evangelist Robert Tilton. This involved a woman who was a wife and mother that was giving large amounts of money to the Tilton ministry out of her family's business and her husband found out. He was very concerned that Tilton and his ministry were dominating his wife's life. This also was causing a rift in their family. In fact, she had moved out of the house at the point I was brought in to work with her. The end result was that she left Tilton's orbit and returned to her family. She realized that she had essentially been taken in by Tilton and was under undue influence. People close to the ministry told her that her husband's opposition might be somehow Satanic.
DOOR: What are some of the more controversial groups operating today?
ROSS: The group I've received the most complaints about on a monthly basis seems to be Landmark Education, which is a seminar program that presents something called The Forum. Also, the so-called "Word of Faith" churches, which revolve around the teachings of Kenneth Hagin and/or Kenneth Copeland, seem to generate quite a few complaints, this would include Benny Hinn.
ROSS: Yes. That's another moniker for the movement. Scientology is another group that draws considerable concern. And yoga groups run by some guru or swami. Not yoga groups for exercise, but rather those that have some hidden religious agenda.
DOOR: How would you define a cult?
ROSS: Any group of people that are intensely devoted to a person, place or thing could be seen as a cult following. The question really is what defines a destructive cult. There are many groups that might be generally called cults, such as the Amish, Elvis fans, or Trekkies. But these groups are benign and may actually even be beneficial to the people involved. Trekkies have a good time at conventions. Elvis fans also have a certain camaraderie. The Amish are a peaceful, productive society.
When most people use the term "cult," they mean a destructive cult. A destructive cult first and foremost can be defined as a group that has an absolute totalitarian leader and that is essentially personality-driven. Regardless of what they quote, whether it's the Bible, Freud, or Marx, what they really are about is the leader. Their leader is the focus of power within the group and defines it. He or she dictates virtually anything and everything, without any meaningful boundaries.
Second, you have an ongoing dynamic or process in the group that could be referred to as "thought reform," commonly called "brainwashing." People systematically are robbed of their ability to critically think or make independent choices. Ultimately, they essentially become dependent upon the leader to make value judgements and do their thinking for them, or through the leader's delegated counterparts. Members no longer are really thinking for themselves.
Third, the group is destructive. It hurts people. This can be seen through abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, labor exploitation, psychological and emotional trauma. A pattern of destructive behavior emerges. Not all destructive cults are the same. With some groups, certain facets of these three criteria may be expressed more strongly than in others.
DOOR: Do you see any distinctive patterns with race or educational background?
ROSS: No. What I see are people from all walks of life. All social and economic levels, all educational levels. David Koresh's second in command, Wayne Martin, was a Harvard law school graduate. Steve Schneider, his third in command, was a seminarian.
I've also heard a lot about the Nuwaubians, who were in the news a lot...
DOOR: Nuwaubians? Any relation to the Wauhobs of Iowa?
ROSS: The Nuwaubians are a group composed of African Americans near Atlanta led by Malachi York. York did some time in a New York state prison before moving his group to Georgia. There are the white supremacist groups composed solely of white Anglo Saxon Americans, such as the Aryan Nations, once led by Richard Butler. And then there are groups in the United States like Suma Ching Hai, which is mostly Vietnamese. Or Falun Gong, which is largely Chinese, led by Li Hongzhi and originated in China, but now has many followers in the United States, often recruited from Chinese community.
DOOR: Any future "Heaven's Gate" or Jim Jones type groups out there?
ROSS: There are two groups I'm deeply concerned about. The first is the "House of Yahweh" in Texas, led by Yisrayl Hawkins, which is part of the Name of Yahweh movement. Hawkins basically took some of the beliefs of the Worldwide Church of God and melded them together with the beliefs of the Yahweh sacred name movement and they celebrate various Jewish holidays and customs within a unique church. Most of the members at the House of Yahweh compound have taken the leader's name and they're called Hawkins.
DOOR: Dang. Texas again. Are they armed?
ROSS: There have been persistent rumors that there is an arms stockpile hidden by the group. There have also been very serious complaints about the "House of Yahweh." They have a very troubled history. That's a group I'm concerned about. They have a compound. Groups with compounds tend to be more intense, more controlled and more problematic.
Another group that I'm concerned about is the Endeavor Academy in Wisconsin in an area known as the Wisconsin Dells. The group is led by Chuck Anderson, but members call him "The Master Teacher." He works from a book titled "A Course in Miracles" (ACIM). However, he has his own peculiar idiosyncratic interpretation of that book. It is not consistent with what most of the ACIM people would subscribe to. In fact, I don't get many complaints about that book and its students, even though it's controversial. The issue is the way Anderson runs that group. The behavior of that group has been very troubled over the years. In fact, the CBS television program "48 Hours" did an exposť about them a few years back and I participated as a consultant. Anderson teaches the people to disconnect from the world around them. He basically defines reality for them in much the same way that Marshall Applewhite did for his followers in "Heaven's Gate." It seems like the group is becoming more and more fanatical. The more recent videos produced by Anderson are increasingly disturbing and I'm concerned.
DOOR: OK, are they armed?
ROSS: They're not armed. But Anderson talks about his students being attached to him in a way similar to what Applewhite said about his "class," as he referred to his followers in "Heaven's Gate." He claimed they were attached to him. He said that through him they could reach the "level above human" and there's verbiage very similar to that within the Endeavor Academy and Anderson's teachings. That causes me great concern because Chuck Anderson is getting old. I think he's in his late seventies. This was a problem with "Heaven's Gate." I believe Marshall Applewhite thought he was dying; though he wasn't. He was a deeply disturbed man, as many cult leaders have proven to be over the years. When Applewhite felt he was dying, he felt his students needed to come with him. That apparently precipitated the mass suicide at "Heaven's Gate."
DOOR: Are any of the "Word of Faith" groups that are in a similar position?
ROSS: I receive many complaints about "Word of Faith" groups from families and former members. They talk about families being broken up, divorces, and people just feeling very broken. They've been told their disease, their financial situation, or whatever, could be resolved by their faith commitment. When it wasn't, they felt they had somehow betrayed God or that their faith was not true enough. There was somehow something wrong with them spiritually or ethically and they felt very isolated, very broken, very lost. Families have become estranged because one member of the family is involved and others are not and become concerned.
For example, one case I recently dealt with, someone stopped taking medication for a chronic illness and as a result they had a severe attack of that illness. This could really harm a person. That is, when they give up medication because of a "Word of Faith" group.
DOOR: What is the most appealing thing about these groups. Is it community?
ROSS: So often, what people don't understand about groups that have been called cults is that what people believe they are getting involved in is not what they are getting involved in. There's this element of "bait and switch." Very often there is deception in the recruitment process. People believe they're entering into a group that is political, that is philosophical, or that is a charity that helps others. They enter for a variety of reasons: to improve their study, for example Scientology has a study program called "Applied Scholastics," through which people might become involved because they want to read better. Rev. Moon, the leader of the Unification Church, has historically had hundreds of front organizations where people might enter because they are interested in abstinence, honoring their parents, or even ballet. Oftentimes groups can be misleading in the way they bring people in.
Having said that, once people become involved, it is a process of increments that I would liken to boiling a frog in a pot on a gas stove. Increasing the temperature gradually so the frog won't jump out. The changes that occur progressively are very often through a fairly long process. Indoctrination is accomplished step-by-step, spoonful by spoonful. Very often people are not allowed to make an informed decision about the totality of what the group wants them to believe or accept from the very beginning.
If I wanted to become a Jesuit or to join the Marine Corps, I would know before I joined what the expectations of the group were. I would have a good idea of the strictness that would be a part of my life and how my life would be structured. In many cases, if the people that I work with knew in the beginning what they later came to find out, they never would have joined in the first place. For example, I just finished a case involving a multi-level marketing scheme. They painted a very rosy picture as a business opportunity to supplement existing income. But it really wasn't like that. Certainly people that become involved in tight-knit groups find themselves in the midst of a community where they have a sense of belonging, a sense of acceptance. However, in destructive cults, the friendships they experience and the acceptance is highly conditional. There is no legitimate reason to leave. Those who leave become marked or estranged from the group. People in the group then are no longer so friendly.
ROSS: They're called losers, backsliders and reprobates. They're labeled rebellious against God, whatever the group term is. The bottom line is the friendships they feel they've made and the sense of acceptance they feel the group offers is really not unconditional and instead quite the opposite. Most people could leave a church, a club or an organization and still have friends in that group, still communicate and still have a sense of history with the people and a continuing relationship. But that is most often not the case with the groups I deal with.
So even though people have this warm feeling about community and acceptance that, in and of itself, is often deceptive. It is not quite the way it seems. There is a certain sense of security and comfort that comes from the certainty that many of these groups offer. They have all the answers. There are no holy mysteries. There are no loose ends. People feel that the organization can answer every issue in their life. Of course, most of us know there is no such perfect organization with all the answers. It can be very reassuring when people are told, "Yes, you have found that one organization that has all the answers" and "Our leaders can answer all your questions." Or they are told, "You are on the cutting edge, on the side of the angels and those on the outside are not." With the groups I deal with, it is very extreme, black and white. There are no shades of gray. One of their attractive features is that there is little or no ambiguity.
DOOR: Do you really enjoy what you're doing?
ROSS: I really feel that my work is satisfying to me personally. I feel good about my work. I expect to continue as long as I can.
DOOR: Do you still personally do every deprogramming that comes along?
ROSS: I do intervention work myself. Where I have staff, if you could call it staff, these are people that I sub out work to, is the web site. I have a technical designer and advisor for the site. There is a webmaster. Various people do a lot of work for the Ross Institute database. It's a very large database that contains thousands of documents and articles. There are thousands of individual unique users coming to the web site each day and downloading information from it. It's one of the most visible databases of its kind on the worldwide web.
DOOR: Has the Internet made your work easier?
ROSS: With the Internet, the process of educating people is far easier. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they can access a wealth of data. Also, on the Ross Institute database there is a huge collection of links to other web-sites divided up into categories, groups, topics, etc. What I think is so wonderful is now we can educate the public so easily. People can find out about these groups from their home computer. If they or a family member is being recruited, they can get on the Internet and find the information. This has made education more viable. That's all it boils down to. These groups then find they must live with their history through the Internet and that people can access this history easily and are thus able to make more informed decisions about becoming involved.
DOOR: How can people get to your web-site?
ROSS: The Ross Institute web site is www.rickross.com.