Diane Benscoter: How cults rewire the brain

Back in the 70s, the Moonies recruited 17-year old Diane Benscoter; her family managed to get her out through using the system in place at the time — deprogramming.

She went on to become a deprogrammer; but then she was arrested for kidnapping. Twenty years after this series of events, she asked herself these questions: how did this happen to me? What happened to my brain? Her book, Shoes of a Servant, explores her experience.

I have asked myself the same question, as have many of my “school” colleagues. In this TEDTalk, Benscoter explains how memes become viral, moving from brain to brain, infecting the thinking of those who are susceptible for whatever reason. She says, “… easy ideas to complex questions become very appealing when you are emotionally vulnerable.” Circular logic takes over thought process and becomes impenetrable, creating an us vs. them, good vs. evil, ethos.

When I look back on my “school days”, I recall a slew of memes: we don’t know ourselves, we are not unified, we are multiplicities; ask for help; self-remembering; self sensing; seal yourself off; school rules; what is your valuation for “school”?; a man or woman cannot do; internal considering vs. external considering; identification; 5-Week Aim; What is your AIM?”; “your AIM is your God”; “When you are working on yourself, any man or woman will do”; “As long as you are working, it doesn’t matter what you do”; etc. etc. etc.

Cult experts call the above examples loaded language — a group assigns new meanings to words, encouraging black-and-white thinking. Educating myself about cult techniques reminds me how malleable humans can be in any given moment. I see that my fellow “school” mates were simply well-intended souls, seeking meaning, who simply got caught in the “school” lexicon/matrix — including the so-called “teachers” (although I would guess that some are more culpable than others).

For, as it turns out, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While individual participants may have had the best intentions, we were unwittingly participating in the fantasy world of one woman, as highly evolved leader of a “secret esoteric school”.

Speaking of memes, “school” loves to quote Shakespeare: all the world’s a stage. All the men and women in “school” play their parts to the AIM of propping up one woman’s delusions of grandeur, retirement and properties, to the detriment of everything else. To think that, for the majority of my tenure, I barely knew that she existed, while “school” funneled the lion’s share of my $350/monthly tuition to her.

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …

Recently another “disgruntled ex-student” recommended an episode of the radio program This American Life . It explored regrets; the segment, This is Just as Hard for Me as it is for You, tells the story of a man born & raised in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the Warren Jeffs reign (convicted child molester & polygamist).

It kicks off with church leaders acting paranoid, seeing threats everywhere and asking the congregation’s men to help intimidate some former members. The church instructed these men to vandalize farm equipment, etc., owned by the apostates. The church told these men, “You can’t tell your wives.” (By the way, The Witness Wore Red, by Rebecca Musser — formerly a child-wife married to “the profit” who escaped the group with her children — corroborates this account).

The secrecy rattled this man — but he didn’t question: “That wasn’t something we did,” he explained. The party line was that he “didn’t owe his wife an explanation”, “if she wants answers, she should pray harder” and “a man doesn’t need to tell his wife everything.” At times, he said, she would hide in the bathroom and “weep it out and I would turn my back on her and force myself to not feel… I drove her to a place where she was very depressed.” Eventually she left him and their five children.

Other bizarre edicts followed including the decree that kids weren’t allowed to have toys and play. He could not abide this; so he turned to the church for help. Like his wife, the church told him: you just need to pray more, get over it. Like his wife, he became dangerously depressed. His kids were his lifeline; determined to give them a real childhood, he drove away one day, kids in the car, never to return.

The escape yielded mixed results; eventually, he lost his entire family. But he fulfilled his intention — to free his kids, who now live with adopted families and are able to play and learn like kids should.

Perhaps some of the cultic hallmarks and tactics sound familiar? Paranoia; secrecy; dismissal of “only life things”; pat and canned responses to legitimate concerns and questions, i.e. one-dimensional “help”; the dismissal of his wife as a person, their relationship as incidental, his struggle as insignificant; the required surrendering of everything to the higher cause; the victim blame, etc. etc. etc. Some readers may have had the visceral experience of losing everything.

At this point, I’ve talked to many ex-members of various high-demand groups; these groups all use the same tactics, exactly like “school”. Each one has its specific nomenclature, but the gears grinding the wheels are exactly the same.

Admittedly depressing, it is also empowering to awaken to the widespread disease called cults.  Educating myself freed me of the magical thinking that assigned mystical power to the group. “School” is just one more sleazy cult, misusing philosophical ideas for selfish gain.

 It is no different than Scientology, except smaller, more hidden, less successful and perhaps not quite as extreme. But …then again… who knows. You can read this book and determine for yourself.

A New Resource: sharonganscult.com

This site has come to my attention lately — http://www.sharonganscult.com/

It changes often, but today’s iteration encourages current “students” to leave the ranks. It provides an email address for those who want to reach out and addresses the following “school”-bound fears and obstacles:

1) Losing friends

2) Losing marriage or relationship with another “student”

3) Working for a “school”-based business

4) Losing “the work”

It suggests taking a 3-week experimental hiatus from all things “school”.

When I think back, the only thing that kept me from taking a break was my belief in the institution and the control I gave it — I felt like I had to ask permission. I knew the answer would be no. I bought into some idea about “not letting the work go cold for more than 48 hours”, or something like that. I felt “school” lording over me, as if monitoring me from above, documenting all of my sinful and “coarse” thoughts and feelings. I am amazed at the amount of control I gave this thing over my time and life.

Yep. If you’re thinking about a break, take it. I believe you will soon discover that “school” isn’t God, can’t control your life and you might even get some perspective on the experience and start to feel the freedom that comes when not participating in its bi-weekly indoctrination rituals.

It’s a sweet freedom. It’s your life. I encourage you to reclaim it.