April 16, 2008 — -- Between hysterical sobs, the women of the Yearning for Zion Ranch in rural Texas tearily pleaded Monday for the return of their children from state custody, but at the mere turn of a phrase, those tears mysteriously, uniformly stopped.
When conversations with reporters shifted away from the 416 children in state custody toward touchier subjects surrounding the mysterious religious sect, the overflowing emotions were quickly replaced with blank stares and terse replies.
Clad in conservative prairie dresses, hair back in buns and tight braids, the women stuck to monotone, emotionless responses in declining to answer reporters' questions concerning allegations of plural marriages and sexual assault within the sect.
Asked whether 14- and 15-year-old girls get married on the compound, a tight-lipped woman who would only give her first name, Marilyn, gave what appeared to be a rehearsed response.
"We are talking about our children now," she said, shaking her head, unwilling to stray from the subject of her children.
The shift to blank-faced denial was jarring in both its immediacy and consistency. Not a single one strayed from the script, an impressive display of solidarity, if a bit peculiar to the outsiders granted unprecedented access to the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
To outsiders, everything about these people is strange — from the way they dress to the way they talk and especially the way they live. To the uninitiated, it may even appear that these women must be brainwashed to live within the confines of the isolated, controlled sect.
Questions about rumored child brides, teen pregnancies and men assigned multiple wives garnered stoic expressions and a relentless determination to defend the sect's lifestyle.
"Do you know the definition of Zion?" responded Marie, when asked by a reporter what life within the sect's gate is really like. "Heaven on Earth."
It's an extreme statement, and the women of the sect have begun to realize that their devotion to their lifestyle is unusual to those on the outside.
So, are these women just fanatically, independently religious, or are they victims of something more sinister, like mind control?
Mental health professionals told ABCNEWS.com that it may all depend on how you define brainwashing.
"Just because they are different doesn't mean they've been brainwashed," said H. Newton Malony, a senior professor of psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "Brainwashing occurs when a person is physically incarcerated in order to believe something."
As far as we know, said Malony, these women and children — and even men, for that matter — have not been held against their will, but rather, have grown up in the sect and have become socialized to its customs.
"Are these woman just parroting strong pleasure or is this a strong religious conviction?" asked Malony. "I doubt it; they grew up in this [environment].
"This is just an example of a different culture," added Malony.
But Joe Szimhart, a cult information specialist for more than 25 years, told ABCNEWS.com that even true believers can be brainwashed.
"I have no doubt that they've been brainwashed," said Szimhart. "Just because it's different doesn't mean it's wrong, but there are levels of being different.
"Any common definition of brainwashing or of a totalistic cult is when someone is involved in a self-sealing belief system," said Szimhart. "They see themselves apart from the rest of the world, and elitist, and think that everything outside is evil."
Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University and author of "Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World," also discourages the labeling of the West Texas polygamists as victims of brainwashing.
"Brainwashing is actually extraordinarily rare," said Ammerman. "It implies that the person has literally lost the ability to think independently and to make choices.
"We really don't have any evidence that anything even vaguely resembling that is going on with this particular group or with most religious groups," Ammerman told ABCNEWS.com.
"What you see is people, who have spent their lives talking to only each other, now suddenly talking to reporters and people on the outside," said Ammerman. "They develop a group jargon and a particular posture. Their gestures, their language, is all going to look like each other because they are so tied to each other.
"That's not because someone has forced them to do that — it's simply coming out of living together in a relatively isolated kind of situation where they're not interacting with a lot of people," added Ammerman. "You'd find the same thing if you interviewed clustered nuns."
According to Szimhart, one can be socialized and brainwashed.
"When you're looking at the fundamentalist Mormons within an American society, you have to look at it within the context of reasonable human behavior," said Szimhart. "They've been socialized in an extreme way.
"When I exit counsel someone, I see a person waking up, their brain function begins to expand and integrate to a wider frame of reference," said Szimhart. "They don't necessarily lose their belief in Jesus, they just have a more sophisticated belief."
While experts may argue that the members of the West Texas sect were born into the lifestyle and know no other way to exist, what about those who join cults like The Family and The Moonies later in life?
"Many of them were looking for a kind of meaning for life in their 20s, and found it in the influence of the group," said Malony, who has counseled members of several religious groups during and after their involvement.
"There are new religious movements, which are examples of what we would call high demand religious groups," explained Malony. "Scientology, for example."
"But as far as we know, nobody is forced to become a scientologist, and although there is a lot of pressure to stay, once you're in, you can always leave," he said. "It only becomes brainwashing when a person is physically held against their will."
But in his own counseling experience, Szimhart said he's seen individuals join cults as a result of their naivete, not because they were incarcerated.
"Someone convinces a group that what they're saying is the truth, and the group is too naive to question it properly," said Szimhart. "[Getting brainwashed] is like having an illness or a sickness."
Texas authorities took the 416 children into state custody for what may become the largest child abuse custody battle in the nation's history, stemming from a reported phone call from a teen girl claiming she had been beaten and forced into marriage with a 50-year-old man. The members are now clamoring to get their children back.
But before a trial is held, the sect is free to exist — no matter how foreign and bizarre their customs may seem to the general public.
"[The Yearning for Zion Ranch] is a religious community that, like many other religious communities, has a chosen way of life that is different from mainstream American culture," said Ammerman. "Until they step over the line of the law, American culture and American constitutional law protects their right to do odd things in the name of religion.