WASHINGTON — In the 1980s, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas had a moment of clarity: She realized she had fallen in with a group she considered “a cult” and sought to be “deprogrammed” from it, she said in decades-old remarks obtained by NBC News.
Thomas’ involvement with Lifespring, an organization advertising training seminars purporting to help participants unlock almost superhuman potential, left her wondering what it was about herself that allowed her to be drawn in. Her successful deprogramming — considered a controversial tactic — led her to become a vigorous anti-cult crusader. For years, she was deeply involved with the nation’s largest anti-cult organization, assisting in setting up workshops for congressional staffers to combat groups like Lifespring.
“When you come away from a cult, you’ve got to find a balance in your life as far as getting involved with fighting the cult or exposing it,” Thomas told attendees at a 1986 Cult Awareness Network panel in Kansas City, Missouri. “And kind of the other angle is getting a sense of yourself and what was it that made you get into that group. And what open questions are there that still need to be answered.”
It’s difficult to reconcile Thomas then and now, four people who worked with her at the height of her anti-cult activism through the late 1980s said in interviews. After she spent years trying to expose cults, these people found Thomas’s efforts to promote outlandish plans to overturn the 2020 results, particularly the text messages and emails in which she referenced false election conspiracies that originated in QAnon circles on the internet, surprising. Democrats and Republicans alike have said QAnon supporters exhibit cult-like behavior.
“Ginni Thomas was out there active in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and then she really went a different path,” said Rick Ross, a prominent expert on cults and a former “deprogrammer” who knew Thomas through their anti-cult activism. “I admire the work she did back in the ‘80s. And she should be given credit for that.”
Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is one of the more influential figures in conservative grassroots activism and her repeating of election conspiracies left open questions about her influence on her husband’s judicial thinking. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment from NBC News for this article and has not commented publicly on her text messages.
Two debunked conspiracies Thomas referenced in the aftermath of the 2020 election were first embraced and promoted by QAnon adherents. One theory involves claims that Democrats and other election officials were being arrested and shipped off to the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba as the votes were still being counted.
Another is the idea that then-President Donald Trump had watermarked mail-in ballots so he could track voter fraud — a claim both false and implausible. Still, QAnon followers spread both claims online following the November 3 vote, and references appear in QAnon-connected videos, social media posts and message boards.
In text messages to Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows in the days after the Nov. 3 vote, she wrote “ballot fraud co-conspirators’’ were “being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition,” according to The Washington Post and CBS News, the The New York Times and other outlets. NBC News has not independently seen the text messages.
She also wrote: “Watermarked ballots in over 12 states have been part of a huge Trump & military white hat sting operation in 12 key battleground states.”
“I don’t know how anybody would go for that — again,” said Peter Georgiades, a Pittsburgh- based lawyer who for more than a decade specialized in suing cults, of the conspiracies Thomas referred to in her text messages.
Georgiades knew Thomas from their mutual involvement in the anti-cult movement and spoke at an anti-cult briefing for congressional staff that Thomas helped organize in 1986.
“Here is Ginni Thomas sort of getting sucked into the basically equivalent of a cult again,” said one person involved with a 1988 anti-cult briefing for congressional staffers Thomas helped organize, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.
It was the early 1980s, and motivational training seminars were in vogue.
Thomas, then known by her maiden name of Lamp, was a recent law school graduate who hailed from a prominent Republican family in Omaha. She’d moved to Washington for a job in the office of newly elected Rep. Hal Daub, R-Neb., a family friend whose campaign she helped run. It was in Washington that she first encountered Lifespring.
Lifespring, like NXIVM and “Sweat Lodge Guru” James Arthur Ray’s course that led to three deaths in 2009, are what some experts call Large Group Awareness Trainings, New Age self-help programs that paradoxically promise to deliver almost superhuman mental abilities that can be achieved only through total submission.
Lifespring put inductees through grueling multiday “educational” sessions where they were psychologically broken down. In a 1987 Washington Post expose of the group, Thomas gave an interview describing one session in which trainees were made to strip down to bathing suits and subjected to body shaming.
“The emphasis was upon abandonment to an undifferentiated, unknowable other,” psychologist Janice Haaken and sociologist Richard Adams wrote in an academic journal article on Lifespring. They participated in a 1981 training in Seattle where they witnessed a man have a psychotic break while organizers berated him, concluding that the impact of the training “was essentially pathological” for even the people who enjoyed the experience.
Several trainees died, including a 27-year-old model who was refused medical attention during an asthma attack, leading to a $450,000 settlement with her family, according to a 1987 article in The Washington Post. The group, which claimed to have trained hundreds of thousands, went defunct in the 1990s after a series of lawsuits.
Thomas, by her own admission in interviews and speeches to anti-cult groups, got sucked in, to the point that it affected both her personal and professional lives, even telling the American Bar Association she had been brainwashed, according to a 1991 Washington Times article. In that same report, a close friend said Thomas’ involvement with Lifespring was “baffling,” while Daub said, “It was something she had to get out of.”
“I had intellectually and emotionally gotten myself so wrapped up with this group that I was moving away from my family and friends and the people I work with,” she told The Washington Post in 1987. “My best friend came to visit me and I was preaching at her, using that tough attitude they teach you.”
Her pastor, the Rev. Rodney Wilmoth of Omaha’s St. Paul United Methodist Church, who kept in touch with Thomas at the time, told The Post for a 1991 profile of Thomas that she “began to sense the organization had a cultlike mentality.”
“There’s a kind of naivete about her, a kind of innocence you have to be careful with,” he continued. “She was looking for spiritual growth and trusted those people would do the right thing.”
‘Getting a sense of yourself’
Thomas decided she needed to leave Lifespring, but it was not easy. By 1985, she was in touch with Kevin Garvey, a former stockbroker who had become a full-time cult deprogrammer. Garvey helped her cut off ties and even move to a different part of the country at one point to lie low, according to a Washington Post report as well as interviews with anti-cult activists who knew her at the time.
“I was in Lifespring and I was what I consider to be deprogrammed,” she said, according to video of remarks of that 1986 panel obtained by NBC News, adding the experience was “very difficult” in part because some in the anti-cult movement downplayed the trauma she said she felt from her experience.
In the video, she can be seen sitting alongside a panel of other former cult members who shared their experiences.
“So all those things that got me to Lifespring are still there,” she said. “And I guess I struggle with not going overboard in fighting the cult, but I know that’s important, too.”
By 1988, Thomas, who had gone on to work as an attorney for the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce, got involved in the burgeoning anti-cult movement and helped organize at least two briefings for congressional staffers on the dangers of cults. But the world of anti-cult activism was not without its own controversy.
A series of high-profile murders and mass suicides by cult members, culminating in the 1978 Jonestown massacre, set off a moral panic over cults and brainwashing — and self-trained “deprogrammers” stepped in to save the day. They believed cultists were converted through mind control or “on-the-spot hypnosis,” as Ted Patrick, considered the “father of deprogramming” put it, so they needed to be forced out.
Some deprogrammers offered their services to parents who would pay them to purportedly rescue their children, which sometimes involved what deprogrammers called “snatching” them and holding them against their will, if necessary, sometimes without food or water for days on end, until they were deemed to have “snapped” out of their alleged trance — sometimes violently.
In one well-known case, a Washington state jury awarded almost $5 million in damages to a member of a Pentacostal sect whose mother in 1991 hired cult deprogrammers to abduct him and hold him captive for five days until he feigned acceptance of the deprogramming.
“Deprogramming is a fancy word for a variety of kidnapping,” the ACLU warned in 1977, while a 1982 survey of over 400 former cult members found that of the almost three-quarters who had been “deprogrammed,” 40 percent had been “forcefully abducted (kidnapped).”
As questions — and lawsuits — mounted around involuntary “deprogramming,” many deprogrammers repositioned themselves as “exit counselors” who only worked with consenting participants, akin to more familiar drug or alcohol interventions. Garvey, who helped Thomas escape Lifespring, emphasized the need to gain a cult member’s respect and trust as the first step to “deconversion,” according to a survey of deprogramming techniques published in the Cultic Studies Journal.
Such criticism was front-and-center with Thomas’ anti-cult work. The Cult Awareness Network, the group she was prominently involved in, was accused of facilitating kidnappings and the forced “deprogramming” of cult members by connecting concerned parents with deprogrammers.
When Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1991, critics ranging from the left-leaning Americans United for Separation of Church and State to the religious right raised concerns about his wife’s involvement in the anti-cult movement, since it often targeted as “cults” groups that others saw as legitimate religions, and distinctions between the two were blurry and often subjective.
At a 1989 dinner in Washington that the Cult Awareness Network hosted and Thomas served as master of ceremonies, Pat Ryan, then a top official with the network and the daughter of Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., who was killed at Jonestown, described the backlash the group had faced around town. (Clarence Thomas, then the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was there as a “distinguished guest.”)
Ryan said she, Ginni and another organizer “have been looking at this crap that they’ve been putting out about us and you start thinking, ‘Well, are we OK?’” according to previously unreported audio of remarks she gave at the dinner heard by NBC News.
“Am I involved in a group that’s legitimate?” Ryan added, according to the audio. “Is there any truth to what they’re saying about us? We start really questioning ourselves and we start sort of exchanging stories with each other and saying, ‘Are we OK? Do we do this?’ … But I really think it’s important that we keep reinforcing each other that we are right. We’re David, they’re Goaliath. And we keep going.”
The issue of QAnon
With the revelation of Thomas’ text messages to Meadows, in which she made wild assertions of a stolen election and secret plot to set it right, her husband faces calls to recuse himself from all cases involving the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Critics argue that even the perception of a conflict of interest like this would be automatic grounds for recusal for any less powerful judge. Meanwhile, Congress is considering whether to change ethics requirements for the court in response to her texts.
Speaking with The Washington Free Beacon in March, Thomas said she and her husband “have our own separate careers, and our own ideas and opinions too.”
“Clarence doesn’t discuss his work with me, and I don’t involve him in my work,” she added.
Justice Thomas did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News to the Supreme Court.
As for QAnon, there is widespread debate as to whether it is in fact a cult — and whether that label is even useful. The QAnon conspiracy, born out of anonymous message board posts saying a man known as “Q” had high-level access to Trump, claims that Trump is secretly fighting a pedophile ring run by Democrats. A number of rioters present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were clad in gear and clothing that contained QAnon symbols or phrases, and the conspiracy’s adherents have been linked to several violent outbreaks, even killings.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., in March called QAnon “a bizarre and dangerous cult.” Federal prosecutors in the Capitol riot case of Jacob Chansley, the self-described QAnon “shaman,” have called QAnon “a group commonly referred to as a cult.”
One thing most agree on, though, is that people buy into the alternate reality that the anonymous “Q” was selling because they prefer it to the real one and wanted to be part of Q’s epic secret struggle against the forces of evil.
“I think Ginni Thomas probably feels that Lifespring is something that she understands and can break down and that QAnon is something entirely different,” Ross said. “My impression is that she’s just an extremely conservative political activist. And that she’s very anti-anyone on the left.”
“Speaking as someone who has done more than 500 cult interventions,” Ross continued, “you can’t deprogram someone’s sincerely held beliefs.”
As the years passed and anti-cult activism disappeared from the mainstream in a cloud of lawsuits, Thomas’ activism turned elsewhere.
“Some of the team that did her intervention has stayed in touch with her over the years,” a person who worked with Thomas in the anti-cult sphere told NBC News, requesting anonymity to speak candidly on the matter. “But she became progressively this level of right-wing. This is off the scale for me.”
Allan Smith reported from New York, and Alex Seitz-Wald from Washington.