It was freezing in Worcester, Massachusetts, when Beth Pensky pulled her SUV into the dark parking lot of her daughter’s apartment complex after a marathon 24-hour drive.
She’d loaded her German shepherd and Yorkie in the vehicle and closed the gym she runs in Florida for the week, embarking on what she saw as a do-or-die mission to see her adult children again, she told The Epoch Times.
After they’d gone off to college, she saw a startling change in her son’s and daughter’s values. They’d distanced themselves from her. And she feared that the estrangement was more profound than the typical tension between parents and their children growing into adulthood.
But she never expected what happened next.
Instead of opening the door to her apartment and embracing her mother, Pensky’s daughter—who had been alerted to the visit by a call from her father—opened the door looking fearful and clutching a baseball bat.
In that moment, Pensky feared that something far more sinister had come between her and her child. It’s the same realization that’s causing parents around the country to enlist the help of specialists trained in deprogramming people brainwashed by cults, experts told The Epoch Times.
Those experts disagreed on whether “woke” beliefs of the political left qualify as a cult. But they did agree that the tactics used to spread those beliefs mirror strategies used by cults to indoctrinate followers and solidify allegiance.
Cult or Cultural Movement?
Parents seem split along political lines on whether they approve of students being taught so-called “progressive” ideas. One that’s popular on college campuses is that racism is inherent in America and must be countered to form a better society.
Religion is criticized by some historians, too, for its alliance with Western civilization, seen as treating native populations unfairly.
Still, some conservatives hold that woke culture uses coercive brainwashing tactics developed by communist revolutionaries.
“It is a cult,” James Lindsay, an author who has written about critical race theory and Marxism, told The Epoch Times.
Lindsay, creator of the “New Discourses” website and podcast, argues that “wokeism” is a cult because it reprograms a person’s thinking and paints as dangerous anyone who might resist that belief system.
College students in particular face psychological manipulation techniques to get them to believe ideas counter to their upbringing, Lindsay said.
Pensky’s daughter, now 27, went to the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Her son, now 24, attended Northeastern University in Boston.
In college, both young adults developed strong new beliefs that shocked their mother. Soon, everything she said to them seemed to provoke a disagreement.
Both came to reject God and profess atheism. Her daughter wasn’t concerned about the COVID-19 vaccine and couldn’t accept their mother’s hesitancy. They objected to her move to Florida because, they insisted, that’s where “white supremacists live.”
“They’d say, ‘You’re moving down to a racist area. There are too many Confederate flags around. It’s very unsafe,’” Pensky said. “All this rhetoric would start coming out of their mouths.”
It also became clear that her daughter’s college roommate was, in fact, her romantic partner.
Instinct nudged Pensky to drive up the Atlantic coast. She’d make things right with a visit, she told herself. She and her children had once been so close.
While driving, she imagined a reunion with hugs from her son and daughter. But when her daughter opened the door, she asked if Pensky had a gun. She seemed afraid.
“She opened the door with a bat in her hand,” Pensky said, still incredulous.
Pensky stood there shaking with emotion and disbelief, she said. How could her daughter think she was a threat?
After some convincing, the young woman let her mother and the two dogs into her home. They sat at the kitchen table for hours, talking about their differences. At times, Pensky wept.
“I’m here because I love you,” Pensky told her daughter. “I don’t want to argue. I want to talk to you!”
Grappling With Groupthink
Pensky didn’t understand what possibly could have destroyed her relationship with her adult children until she heard in November 2022 about Annabella Rockwell.
Rockwell has been speaking publicly of her belief that she was brainwashed while attending an elite private college. Now 30, she works as development director for PragerU, a nonprofit organization that promotes conservative points of view on a wide range of topics through short educational videos that reach millions online.
But Rockwell’s life nearly went in a very different direction.
She said that under pressure from friends and instructors, she turned away from her conservative beliefs. She began to reject her belief in God while attending college. She started seeing gender as a choice. She felt convinced that America was a nation built on racism and oppression.
When Pensky heard Rockwell’s testimony, she realized what likely had caused the division between her and her children.
“I always had my suspicions [that it had to do with college], because I was extremely tight with my kids, and for them to turn around and not speak to me without giving me reasons—I knew it was something that had to do with the school,” Pensky said. “I just didn’t know where the influence was. Was it professors or friends?”
Rockwell grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side before her family moved to Palm Beach, Florida.
She started at Mount Holyoke College as a bubbly college freshman who loved God, her family, and America, she told The Epoch Times.
But soon she was an atheist battling depression. She came to believe that gender was fluid. She felt oppressed by America and alienated from her family.
“It is very heavy to think everyone is out to get you, and that you have the weight of the world and all of society’s injustice is on your shoulders,” Rockwell said.
She was anxious, too, because her new belief was that America was so morally corrupt that it needed to be rebuilt from the bottom up.
Feminist professors at her all-women’s college taught that men had subverted women’s rights, Rockwell said. So when she expressed support for then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Republican running against Democratic contender Barack Obama, her friends were fuming.
A Republican win, they insisted, would erase all progress in women’s rights, she said. “I was really shamed and pressured by my peers.”
Friends and professors talked about religion, portraying it as a way to control people. Some repeated the views of Karl Marx, who called religious faith “the opiate of the masses.”
“[If] you hear it over and over again, you eventually believe it,” Rockwell said. “I totally stopped believing in God.”
The drinking that is common in college helps make young adults more susceptible to ideologies that clash with their upbringing, she believes. Looking back, she thinks that alcohol made her vulnerable to the incessant push to accept woke ideas.
“There was not a class that I took that didn’t have some sort of leftist bias in it with the goal of me believing that men are evil, [and] Americans are racist,” she said.
Conservatives she knew on campus moved off campus or transferred to other universities, she said.
By the time she graduated, she’d been conditioned to aim to “change the world from the inside out,” she said. The mission: spread the beliefs she adopted in college into the workplace.
Her belief in woke ideology began to crack in 2020 during the Black Lives Matter riots that resulted in millions of dollars in damage to buildings and property. The looting and burning of neighborhoods didn’t make sense to her.
Browsing for information about police and racism, she clicked on a PragerU video called “Are the Police Racist?”
She began to feel that her new liberal and progressive views made less sense than her old conservative views, which seemed to represent truth.
It took seven years to find her way back to her faith, family, and country, she said.
Annabella Rockwell’s story is similar to those of six conservative university students in Florida, who spoke to The Epoch Times on condition of anonymity. The students described their troubles navigating an anti-white, anti-Christian, anti-American culture on their campuses.
One of the students, who asked to be called Mia, described being forced to repeat the “leftist political views” of her professor on race, gender ideology, and other topics, in order to pass the class. The more she repeated the ideas she didn’t believe, the easier it became—and the harder it was to remember why she’d found those ideas objectionable. She worried she was a victim of brainwashing techniques, she told The Epoch Times.
‘Cult Indoctrination Centers’
Professors often tell impressionable teens that their parents and the establishment have hidden the “truth” about America’s roots, race, and gender, Lindsay said.
It’s true, the Florida students affirmed.
Colleges and universities “are cult indoctrination centers of the first order,” Lindsay said.
He added that wokeism is pushed with techniques similar to those used in Mao Zedong’s communist takeover of China, pointing to the work of author Robert Jay Lifton.
For the book “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism—A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China,” Lifton interviewed people who were released from Chinese prisons or kicked out of the country for failing to submit to reeducation.
One of the Chinese communist oppressors’ techniques was “milieu control,” a mind-control tactic that keeps members isolated from society as a way to deepen ties to an ideology.
Another was the “struggle session”—public shaming and humiliation used to crush ideas in opposition to Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
These tactics are used today on university campuses, Lindsay said.
Struggle sessions occur when professors and peers pressure students to accept ideas now common on campuses. One that’s popular is that America was founded on racism and continues to oppress women, gays, and minorities. If students refuse to profess acceptance of those ideas, they’re often bullied and ostracized socially.
“This is exactly like the struggle session, the social environment they erected in the prisons and schools in China,” Lindsay said.
Alternative viewpoints on campus are often eliminated by shouting down or canceling people, he said. That explains why conservative views are virtually nonexistent on most campuses.
“They’ve converted our universities into brainwashing centers,” he said.
The goal of communism—often called socialism, Marxism, or progressive policy—is to break down the family, religion, the existing culture, and its values, Lindsay said.
A communist takeover is often called “the long march through the institutions.”
Lindsay believes the march is complete, because wokeism has infiltrated America’s institutions, including the workplace, education, entertainment, medicine, law, the media, and the military.
Wokeism Is ‘Cult-Like’
Rick Ross, a 40-year deprogrammer of cult members, has helped families break loved ones away from cults such as the Church of Scientology and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.
Ross told The Epoch Times that he has seen more calls from parents worried about their college students adopting a passion for woke ideas in the past few years, but believing wholeheartedly in woke culture does not equate to belonging to a cult.
He added that likewise, the MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement, started by former President Donald Trump, isn’t a cult, either, despite the claims of some.
Destructive cults have three characteristics, he said. The most salient feature is a totalitarian leader who becomes an object of worship.
“They create unreasonable fears of the outside world” in followers, Ross said. “They socially isolate them, and they use coercive persuasion techniques that can be identified.”
The leader knowingly and methodically manipulates followers who are then exploited and harmed through such things as providing free labor.
And cults demand members to believe their way of thinking is the only correct way, he said.
Cult doctrine requires members to see the world through the group’s beliefs and confess “wrong” thoughts. People who leave the group are often shunned, he said.
“There are some of those things that are evident in the woke movement,” Ross said. “In that sense, you could look at the woke movement as in certain aspects being cult-like or cultic.”
But labeling people who believe in that movement as “brainwashed” only produces more polarization, he cautioned.
Signs of Indoctrination
Parents should look for radical changes in their college student’s beliefs and demeanor, Rockwell said.
Young adults often go off to college happy and excited, but come back during a break seeming serious and joyless, she said. Radical changes in their beliefs may be to blame.
If they say things like “you don’t understand the horrors of this country and world,” it is cause for alarm, she said. They may denounce their long-held religious faith.
Her mother, Melinda Rockwell, told The Epoch Times that she consulted with several deprogrammers to get her daughter back.
“These people smashed my soul—they smashed her soul,” Melinda Rockwell said of the influencers at her daughter’s college, the same school she had attended.
Melinda recalled that Annabella’s friends at school ridiculed a video she sent her daughter showing images of her ice skating through the years to celebrate her journey from childhood to becoming a college graduate. They assured Annabella that her mother just wanted to be a social climber, that her mother didn’t love her because she wanted a perfect Barbie doll instead of a daughter.
Advice on Bridging the Gap
Parents should not automatically affirm radical new beliefs of their children—especially if they seem harmful or based on falsehoods, Annabella Rockwell advised.
Instead, it’s best to ask questions that will remind them of their roots—a time before their views changed, she said.
When her uncle reached out and invited her to lunch with love and not judgment, it helped “just knowing that that line was still open,” she said.
Rockwell began reading more and soon recognized that her new beliefs were wrong. She realized the foolishness of people who’d taught her that, for instance, all whites are oppressors.
The consequences of affirming radical new beliefs can be devastating, Rockwell said.
A college friend’s mother took the advice of a therapist and affirmed her daughter’s new beliefs on gender ideology.
The girl would likely snap out of it, the therapist reassured her.
But that didn’t happen, Rockwell said. Now, her old friend is trying to transition to a man.
It helped Rockwell return to her long-held values to reconnect with people from her childhood, such as a Christian tennis coach she respected, who stayed in touch via email.
Students committed to their long-held conservative beliefs should consider attending colleges more aligned with their values, such as Hillsdale College in Michigan, Rockwell advised.
And parents should keep their children busy in high school and involve them in sports and church, her mother said.
Lindsay urged parents to reconsider sending their children to college at all and to remove them if they see a troubling change in values.
Ties That Bind
If adult children do show their values have changed dramatically, it can be difficult for parents. But it’s important to stay connected, he said.
Lindsay recently heard from a Canadian mother who won back her three children with home cooking.
“She said, ‘Food is love,’ and baked her way back into her kids’ lives by making cookies and cakes and having them around for tea,” he said
Parents should not confront or argue with their adult children because it will drive them away, Ross said.
Instead, parents should tell their children they love them but don’t fully understand their new beliefs, then suggest they talk about it at some point. He said that in some cases, a family therapist might help.
The main objective is to keep the lines of communication open.
A Parent’s Pain
Beth Pensky was encouraged after talking to her daughter until 2 a.m. on that November night.
The young woman offered to help her find a hotel, but Pensky declined because of the dogs.
Instead, she spent a fitful night trying to doze in the freezing SUV, snuggling with the two dogs for warmth.
The next day, she and her daughter walked the dogs together, talked, and hugged.
“She started crying,” Pensky said. “And she’s like, ‘I’m so sorry. I really miss you.'”
They agreed to keep politics and religion off-limits, and they kept in touch through phone and video calls after the visit.
Two weeks after she returned to Florida, Pensky told her daughter about how happy she was to have reconnected. That’s when her daughter crushed her, saying the feeling wasn’t mutual.
The young woman said she was still dealing with the trauma of her mother showing up at her door unannounced. She added, “And I feel that this is just not going to work out.”
She said she’d felt pressure to give her mother a hug during their reunion.
“I was so involved in their lives,” Pensky said, trying to understand the rejection. They vacationed together, shared belief in God, and didn’t discuss politics when the children were growing up.
After the children went to college, Pensky noticed that her daughter’s increased interest in LGBT topics coincided with college writing assignments on such topics as how bisexuals are portrayed in the media. She joined an LGBT club as a sophomore.
She talked of America’s racism in a history assignment. One of her reading lists included books on how white supremacy controls America, Pensky said.
Pensky’s son started advocating for “women’s rights” as a freshman and became “hypervigilant,” she said, about climate change, a topic that hadn’t concerned him before. His anger flared if she didn’t recycle at home.
When her children came to Florida for a visit, she wanted them to watch a Christian movie on creationism. Her daughter shouted during the film that it was “stupid,” Pensky said. Her son indicated he no longer believed in God.
She tried to stay in touch with her son with daily text messages after his last visit to Florida. But one day, she got no response.
Several days passed, and Pensky was so worried she sent one last text saying she was going to contact police to check on him.
He finally texted her back saying he was busy and would contact her when he could, adding that he didn’t take kindly to her idea of calling the police, she said.
She added that she never heard from him after that.
Neither of Pensky’s children returned phone calls from The Epoch Times. Likewise, Mount Holyoke College didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Neither the University of Massachusetts–Amherst nor Northeastern University responded to requests for comment.
Pensky blames campus culture for her shattered relationship with her children. By sharing her story, she hopes to help others avoid the same pain. And she hopes schools that seek to steer students away from traditional values eventually stand empty.
“If somebody would have given me the heads up like I’m doing now,” she said, “I would have thought differently about trade schools, homeschooling,” or online studies—to keep her children close.