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 became a deprogrammer, herself; but then she was arrested and convicted of kidnapping. Cults accused deprogrammers of kidnapping because they were taking people against their will and I guess in some cases it was an effective tactic.

Twenty years after this series of events, she asked herself how did this happen to me? What happened to my brain? (her book, Shoes of a Servant, explores her experience and attempts to answer those questions.)

Those questions plague me and many former “school” colleagues (a.k.a. “disgruntled ex-students”). At times, my “school” days still play back in my mind, like a movie, bringing the thought: how did I get there and what the fuck was I doing?

In the video above, Benscoter touches on memes – specific phrases, incessantly repeated, until they become pat, one-dimensional messages; susceptible souls take on these contagious phrases, accept them, repeat them and a group-think, an ideology, takes over.

Benscoter says, “… easy ideas to complex questions become very appealing when you are emotionally vulnerable.” Circular logic replaces critical thinking, becoming impenetrable, and dividing the world into an us vs. them, good vs. evil, ethos.

Cult expert Steve Hassan, calls these memes loaded language — words that trigger a cult-induced state of mind. Mr. Hassan once advised me to stop calling “school”, school; he said, “Name it rightly; this group is not a school, it’s a cult.”

Yep, it is a cult. The following memes echo down its hallowed halls; like any good mind control cult strategy,  they lulled me into a cult-induced coma — perhaps you will recognize them:

    • ” … it’s private; just for you!” –  My recruiter, Lisa, introduced this meme early, early, early! Before my feet walked the hallowed halls. Every recruiter employs the “privacy” meme to their potential recruits; after all, they can’t risk exposing the invisible world. It’s a great way to weed out trouble makers — those savvy enough to question this “privacy”, or smart enough to run away screaming. I didn’t, so Lisa knew she had me. It also seduces with the lure of exclusivity and superiority – I’m invited into a secret club! Must be special! Years later, when “school’s” “privacy” policy started devouring time, energy and the pathetic amount of money I had, triggering inevitable marital tensions, “it’s private; just for you”, morphed into “tell your husband to mind his own business”.
    • “…everyone needs help” –  I can still hear Robert’s voice, with the all the inflections and emphasis, on the world “help”. This little phrase sounds true enough; after all, at some point, every human needs help. With enough exposure and time in the ivory tower, the subtext ” I never could have done [FILL in BLANK] withoutschool’!” echos the halls and rattles the walls of Billerica’s Faulkner Mills, feeding dependence to the group. The longer you attend “school”, the more you find yourself unable to do [FILL in BLANK]  without school! Others who “never could have [FILL in BLANK] without school!”  surround you. Your gratitude to the institution becomes your debt. You owe, you owe, so off to “school” you go. “School” neglects to mentions it’s “aim”: recruit and retain dependent and tuition paying “students” until death do you part.
    • “Sleepwalking humanity” – The not-so-subtle sub-text of this is we are superior!  We are doing THE WORK  of awakening! We are growing souls!  Tragically, EVERYONE ELSE is soul-less “school”-less empty shells, living empty lives, until they die! Even worse they are asleep to their soul-less existence – they actually believe they have souls!!! Oh, the horror. This “we are the superior beings with access to secret knowledge” narrative is common cult fair – every cult has a version. Stay in “school” long enough, and you’ll hear, Robert (or Bob, as he used to be called) refer to “school” as “THE SOURCE” — the real question is “the source” of what?
    • “THE WORK” – This is the “secret knowledge”, i.e. Gurdjieff’s teachings/body of work, that lucky “school” doobies have encountered. “School” never mentions its source, Gurdjieff; it instead takes ownership of the ideas and THE WORK. “School” claims that one does not encounter THE WORK, unless s/he has a “magnetic center” — more “proof” (cough) of superiority (not everyone can have one of those!) “School” claims that the work is “oral teaching” and omits the myriad of written material you can find on Amazon.com. I was was instead told: you won’t find these ideas anywhere else.
    • “We are not unified; we are multiplicities” –hijacked, of course, from Gurdjieff, “school” lectures that we humans have a revolving cast of characters inside us; at any given moment, one character (or “I”, as “school” refers to them) will wrestle the wheel from another and take over — think multiple personality disorder. We are unconscious, asleep, to our multiplicity. 

      Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapy practice with a similar philosophy — people have several parts with competing needs. However, IFS therapists guide clients towards dialoguing with their inner parts — observing, listening and getting to know the cast and crew, and encouraging them to dialogue with each other. The goal is to unify and ultimately empower the individual. “School” insists that its primary aim is to “unify”! However, “unifying”, is – of course – nearly impossible with guidance and definitely impossible without a “SCHOOL”. And ONLY possible if you follow the directives to the letter and don’t break “school rules”. How convenient for “school”!

    • “… those are only life things” – The longer your “school” tenure, the more time “school” consumes. When the “schooled” masses ask for “help” due to inevitably rising tensions between spouses, children and/or friendships; as well as dwindling finances, health, passions, etc,teachers” employ this phrase repeatedly, pitting up your insignificant “only life things” against “school’s” illustrious and evolutionary aims — guess which category out weighs the other and win a lifelong membership for at least $350/month.
  • “People lie” – This meme comes in early and often. According to “school”, because we are “asleep”, because we are “multiplicities”, because “we don’t know ourselves”, we are constantly lying. In fact, every time we begin a sentence with “I”, we lie. We have no unified “I”.  Since we can’t help but lie constantly, “school” dictates that we might as well use our tendency to lie to bolster its evolutionary cause (cough, expanding Sharon’s retirement fund and paying her Park Plaza mortgage).

    “School” omits Sharon’s financial security from it’s “teachings” (some students will never know of Sharon at all). Instead, “people lie” evolves into “practice clever insincerity to protect the secret ideas and invisible world”. My recruiter, Lisa, was cleverly insincere when she presented “school” as a casual bi-weekly discussion group; people come and go, she said. We laugh a lot! she said. If she’d been honest, she would have said: “This group is a cult, with the aim of hijacking your time and energy into cult-related tasks like recruiting newbies, and plugging a monthly IV drip into your bank account at $350/a pop.” That’s probably not the best recruitment tactic.

  • Man has a skewed relationship to time – One of the first things Robert tells newbies is this: if you tell me you don’t have time for this & that, I won’t believe you. He plants this seed early. People who respect their own time, disappear. Those who stay, find themselves dismissing the time they need for “only life things” a little more with each passing day; the longer your tenure, the more you neglect “only life things” for the higher calling. Stay in long enough and your inconvenient “only life things” will disappear; the “only life things” that serve the cult will be approved, and funneled into the cause, of course. I suspect, and have heard, that those with money often contribute their wealth to various “school” projects – standard cult fare.

I could fill reams and volumes with “school” memes, but you get the idea. Some others that didn’t make into the above list include: 5-Week Aim; What is your AIM? Maintain a healthy skepticism, while extending nickel’s worth of trust;verify for yourself; we don’t know ourselves; 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; “; “your AIM is your God”; “”As long as you are working, it doesn’t matter what you do”; and of course, my personal favorite bit of relationship “help”, saved for the properly indoctrinated: ” … if you are working on yourself, any man/woman will do.”

I’ve read extensively now about how cult techniques work and it drives home how malleable I was; how malleable we can all be in vulnerable moments. My fellow “school” mates were 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 unwitting participants 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. “School” doobies play their parts to the AIM of propping up one woman’s delusions of grandeur, 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. In the spirit of bolstering Search Engine Optimization, so others can find this site, I invite you to contribute your favorite “school” memes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *