Documentary says church methods like ‘brainwashing’
It wasn’t quite an apology, but Utah psychologists got some satisfaction this week during a visit from a national officer of the American Psychological Association.
The visit came Wednesday after members of the Utah Psychological Association complained that the national organization had characterized LDS Church methods of retaining members and motivating missionaries as “brainwashing,” “mind control” and “powerful psychological techniques.”
“It won’t happen again,” said Barry Anton, professor of psychology at the University of Puget Sound.
The descriptions were used last year during the APA’s annual convention in Hawaii to garner attendance at the screening of an independent documentary film called “Get the Fire!” The film followed a pair of LDS missionaries in Europe and included interviews with former missionaries who had left the LDS Church after returning from their missions.
In town Wednesday, Anton said the film’s description was copied and reprinted from the film’s own publicity materials, and — to his knowledge — had not been authored by anyone at the APA. Anton said he didn’t believe the person responsible for putting the film’s description in the APA program had an agenda but was probably in a hurry and was simply careless. A committee has now been put in place to vet any language accompanying films shown at the national convention, he said.
Film producer Nancy du Plessis told the Deseret Morning News in December 2003 that she got the LDS Church’s permission to shoot 12,000 minutes of footage over 26 months, which included filming inside the Missionary Training Center in Provo and inside the home of a mission president in Germany. From that, she produced a 60-minute documentary.
The film aired on KUED in late 2003 to mixed reviews from local residents. At that time the church declined comment on the film.
St. George psychologist Gary Groom attended the film presentation last year at the APA convention “and recognized that it had a negative bias and (was) certainly not representative of the views and feelings of the vast majority of returned missionaries we have known over the years.” He subsequently wrote to the president of the APA and talked with other psychologists who were surprised at the characterizations of the LDS Church in the APA’s convention brochure and urged him to lodge a formal protest.
Groom approached another colleague from St. George, psychologist Chauncey Adams, who also sent a letter of disapproval to the APA. The two “felt that the bias shown in the film introduction (printed in the APA program) would likely cause outrage if it were similarly applied to any other religious or minority group,” they said.
After repeated contact with top APA officials, seeking an official apology to the group’s national membership, the two felt their concerns were not being taken seriously, and they set up a Web site to explain the situation in detail, www.biasfire.com. They continued to tell national officials their concern was with the characterizations the APA provided about the LDS Church and its missionaries, not with the film itself.
Groom and Adams recounted much of their story Wednesday for members of the Utah Psychological Association and other local professionals who gather each month to discuss Utah’s ongoing religious divide. Anton represented APA at the gathering and said the association has now changed the way it puts the national convention program together in an effort to prevent similar problems in the future.
Wednesday’s meeting followed a March confab between UPA officials and leaders of the APA to reinforce the concerns that Groom and Adams had raised. Nanci Klein, who represents the UPA on the APA national council, said she was impressed that the association’s top leaders had agreed to hear input on the issue for two hours earlier this year, and had also sent a representative to the Wednesday meeting.
“It happened because it’s about anyone who has a belief that gets walked on or treated poorly. That’s what psychologists do.”
Responding to characterizations raised by Groom and Adams about how such a characterization of other faiths would not be tolerated, Klein said she’s seen a variety of faith or ethnic groups express similar concerns and get a hearing with the APA.
Groom said he appreciated the chance to discuss the discrepancy with a local group concerned about religious discrimination and prejudice. He and Adams said they still would like an apology from the APA to its national membership over the incident.
The association has 160,000 members nationwide.
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