Errol Morris’ Tabloid Sensationalizes Mormonism and ‘Cult’ Deprogramming

After confronting the Vietnam War and the torture images of Abu Ghraib in his most recent films, Oscar-winning documentary maker Errol Morris turns to a 1977 scandal involving North Carolina beauty queen Joyce McKinney in his new documentary Tabloid—an episode deeply intertwined with, among other things, Mormonism and cult deprogramming.

Morris’ corpus has consistently focused on self-deception and the difficulties in reconstructing past events, and Tabloid is no exception. The McKinney scandal is simple: in love with a young Mormon named Kirk Anderson, the beauty queen flies to his mission site in England, abducts him, and spirits him away to a cottage where they repeatedly have sex; actions eventually leading to her arrest and subsequent media barrage. Was she in love? Was it mutual? What actually happened, and how closely does that hew to tabloid reports? In search of answers, Morris presents lengthy interviews with McKinney, her surviving accomplice, and two journalists who reported the scandal.

Because Anderson did not agree to be interviewed, his perspective is cobbled together, in part, from an analysis of Mormonism given by ex-Mormon and current gay activist Troy Williams. Williams’ former insider status allows him to psychologize Anderson and present details of Mormonism’s more esoteric aspects. Thus, Williams not only discusses the importance of a mission in a young Mormon man’s life, but also the psychological effects of wearing sacred undergarments and taking vows during Temple ceremonies. If Anderson voluntarily had sex, Williams speculates, the guilt would have been crippling.

Williams’ own experience of sexual repression likely feeds the intensity underlying his discussion of (and projection onto?) Anderson, but Morris could have chosen other ways to provide basic information about Mormonism. A scholarly talking head would not have provided such immediacy or been so blithe about revealing details of Church-internal rituals, but might have allowed Tabloid to avoid the sensationalism of its namesake. Mormonism, after all, is not just a guilt-inducing bundle of exotic practices, but also a compelling and attractive religion for millions of people alive today—although probably not for Williams, and certainly not for McKinney.

“Deprogramming” Was All the Rage

Although never using the word “deprogramming,” McKinney and her accomplice use the word “cult” and “brainwashing,” both of which practically beg for further elaboration—which Morris never provides.

Designation of certain socially marginal religious groups as “cults” was widespread in the 1970s and 1980s, and was often accompanied by the abduction and “deprogramming” of adult members. What happens when adults over the age of consent come into contact with a foreign-seeming religious group like the Hare Krishnas and suddenly eschew their previous life and values? In such situations, those left behind frequently adopted the explanation of brainwashing: namely, that an inauthentic religious group deceptively ensnared the converts against the wishes of their true selves and kept them bound in abnormal patterns of behavior through ideology, coercion, and even changed diet or sleep deprivation.

Within this view, cult deprogramming was eminently justified; because the adult converts were not true subjects, they could be legitimately abducted by professional deprogrammers and forcibly kept away from means of control while being reintroduced to familiar people and values and seeing their cult denigrated. When successful, deprogrammees returned to their previous selves and resumed their pre-cult life with few repercussions for their drastic change in behavior.

Nowadays deprogramming may be unfamiliar to many people because of its radical decline, due in part to how scholars undermined major tenets of the brainwashing hypothesis that justified the project. Most famously, Eileen Barker’s 1984 book The Making of a Moonie examined attrition rates during successive stages of recruitment to the Unification Church and disputed that groups termed “cults” could exercise some irresistible power over prospective converts. Similarly, many scholars dispute the idea that an alien personality can be grafted onto cult members, instead seeing this as a desperate explanation of changed behavior by those left behind, and frequently by the members themselves after leaving the groups. [For more on the subject, read “Culting”: From Waco to Fundamentalist Mormons by Catherine Wessinger]

In any case, Tabloid provides ample evidence that McKinney acted as an independent cult deprogrammer attempting to rescue her beloved. She declares that the Mormons “made me think they were a church,” and describes a sudden disappearance where Anderson left possessions in her apartment. She also separates Anderson into “Kirk One” (the man she loves) and “Kirk Two,” who acted “like a robot” and was kept away from “coffee, tea, and Pepsi-Cola” by religious dietary restrictions.

Given this premise of brainwashing, her trip to England resembles a deprogramming mission. Recruiting muscle from Gold’s Gym, she hunts down Anderson by visiting Mormon gathering places in disguise and having an accomplice pose as a potential convert. Kidnapped and taken to a place “where he could normalize,” Anderson is restrained and reintroduced to the foods and backrubs that he likes, while his sacred undergarments are ripped off and thrown into the fireplace.

McKinney further relates how his superiors controlled his sexual behavior, held up the threat of excommunication, and even cued responses during the hearings. Although she gives many of these details in the present-day interviews, many are confirmed by the pilot’s reminiscences, period footage, and news clippings. Then and now, McKinney and her accomplices undeniably lived and enacted, at least in part, the cult deprogramming narrative.

Ultimately, contextualization is an endless task, and a filmmaker must make difficult choices. In this case, however, if viewers don’t possess knowledge of cult deprogramming, the chain of events that lies at the heart of Tabloid becomes less explicable and McKinney’s actions are less justifiable than they were back in 1977.

Because Morris caricatures Mormonism and provides no analysis of the shift in expert thinking on cult deprogramming, Anderson and McKinney are less nuanced and sympathetic figures and thus more likely to be treated as mere objects of entertainment for viewers—almost as if they were again in the headlines of the tabloids. A deeper exploration of the religious narratives that guide them might have led to their fuller humanization and provided another angle on the fascinating questions of narrative that Tabloid so ably raises, and that Errol Morris has so impressively explored throughout his career.