After escaping religious cult the Moonies, Diane Bencoster committed herself to rescuing other recruits—even getting arrested in the process. Now in her sixties, she reflects on a life spent in the shadows of one of world's most famous cults.
Photo courtesy of Diane Bencoster
It took Diane Benscoter five years to figure out she’d been sucked into one of the world’s most notorious religious cults.
She’d joined Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church—whose followers are more commonly known as the Moonies—in 1974, when she was just 17 years old. After being convinced that she’d been chosen as a disciple of Christ’s second coming, she immersed herself in the organization, travelling across the US to raise funds and spread its philosophy of pre-marital celibacy and anti-communist teachings.
It was only after a tightly planned intervention, staged by her mother and two cult deprogrammers, that Benscoter realized she’d been brainwashed.
“I began to hear the sound of glass breaking around me,” she wrote, recalling the moment in her 2013 memoir Shoes of a Servant. “I could hear it crashing down in a million pieces from every direction. Something was wrong inside my brain.”
Today, Benscoter’s life would be unrecognizable to her teenage self. In the decades that followed her deprogramming, the 60 year old has strived to stop others from succumbing to the lure of the cult mentality. She’s embarked on public speaking tours, extensively studied the cognitive neurology of brainwashing, and counseled numerous other former cult members (including ex-followers of Al-Qaeda and ISIS). She’s also worked briefly as a deprogrammer herself—a stint that was cut short after her dedication to the cause saw her get arrested for kidnapping.
Cult members tend be stereotyped as wide-eyed and naive, but the Benscoter of today is cool, calm, and articulate. Does she find it hard, given that over 40 years have passed, to recognize the girl she once was?
“I think that a lot of young people feel lost in their world for various reasons and are quite vulnerable to those who would manipulate them to take advantage of them,” she says. “I just felt like there had to something else, and I was off to find that.”
Brought up in York, a small town in rural Nebraska, Benscoter felt like an outsider while growing up. After becoming entranced by the music, drugs, and social politics of the 1970s, she dropped out of high school at 16 to try and become a writer for a local paper. The more she learnt about the world, she says, the more abhorrent the idea of settling down and “marrying the boy down the street” became.
Benscoter’s eagerness to leave her small town and desire to become part of something bigger made her a prime target for the Moonies. She met some representatives at an anti-Vietnam war march, and they offered her acceptance, abundant travel opportunities, and, most importantly, a higher sense of purpose.
“I honestly went from this lost soul to being a follower of the second coming of Christ, so that’s a pretty big promotion,” she laughs wryly. “We were all constantly told that we were very special. So our identity became part of this group.”
The Moonies are renowned for their highly effective exploitation tactics. New recruits were often sent to indoctrination seminars—lasting between two to 21 days—where they were encouraged to embrace ultra-conservative and frugal lifestyles. (Followers would often donate their bank account details to the church). Cult leader Moon, who died in 2012, was a self-proclaimed Messiah, who played on his followers’ vulnerabilities to get what he wanted.
For Benscoter, the work mainly involved travelling, missionary work and fundraising. She would sell candy, make arts and crafts, scope out potential members, and indulge in Big Mac picnics (Moon’s favourite food). Occasionally, she would take part in group prayer sessions, including one to prevent then-president Richard Nixon’s impeachment outside of the Capitol Building, and she was also encouraged to fast— at one point going for eight days without any food or water.
Benscoter’s dedication saw her completely ostracize herself from her family, even when she was told that her mother was suffering from breast cancer. In an effort to serve her higher purpose, she chose to be absent for her mom’s entire treatment. “Moon was the embodiment of God,” Benscoter recalls in Shoes Of A Servant. “If I did what he said, Satan would be defeated.”
After being locked into this mindset between the ages of 17 to 22, it took days of deprogramming for Benscoter to break the habit. The intervention was instigated by her now-healthy mother, who turned up at her door with two former Moonies in a desperate last-ditch attempt to bring her daughter back home. It proved effective, with the ex-members drawing from their own experiences to slowly talk Benscoter out of her beliefs.
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“It’s really hard to figure out who you are [after leaving a cult],” Benscoter explains. “You don’t feel exceptional anymore. You don’t feel like one of the chosen people. You were going to save the world and go down in history as being this very important person. Now who are you? And what do you believe?”
Benscoter temporarily alleviated this struggle by becoming a deprogrammer—an “adrenaline-fueled” occupation that acted as a substitute for those lost feelings of exceptionalism. But when police thought that her 1984 attempt to rescue a young Swedish woman from the Moonies was a kidnapping (the woman didn’t actually want to leave the Church), Benscoter ended up getting arrested and nearly imprisoned.
Her brush with the law that proved to be a wake-up call. “I could have gone to prison for many years for that had it gone the other way,” she remembers. “I needed to just get a job and do something that was not related to cults or fighting cults. I just really needed to do something else.”
What followed was over four decades of mental adjustment, reflection, and healing. She took up a job in sales, came out as gay, and began therapy, a process she stuck with for 10 years. But she was still plagued with questions: How had she been persuaded to leave her home and family? What had made her so susceptible? And what made the unbelievable suddenly so believable?
Benscoter began to do her research. She read up on psychiatry, memetics, neurological brain patterns, and also embraced feminist theory. “I just felt really strongly about women’s role in creating a more peaceful society, and that women’s voices were still important and often oppressed,” she says. “It became just a knowing that I had, and it became a part of who I am. Women were very subordinate in the cult, and that was always very hard for me to believe—that men were closer to God, and that women were created to serve them and have babies.”
She notes that men have run most of the cults she’s come across, and that this may not be a coincidence. “The way these groups, or any kind of extremist doctrine, form is out of addiction to power,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “It’s more prevalent to be addicted to power in the male of the species—[wanting] that power over others tends to be more of a male thing.”
Benscoter’s belief is not supported by any formal research, although some experts have alluded to it in their own theories. The psychosexual domination of women in cults was explored in detail by cult expert Dr. Janja Lalich in 1997, who reported that 40 percent of former female cult members had been forced to endure sexual abuse. She claimed this kind of treatment was mostly from other male members and leaders, and was an effective method of manipulation and control.
“Once sexual control is in place, no part of life is left untouched by the cult leader’s influence. The satisfaction of the leader’s desires (be they real or conjured up for the purposes of sheer display of power) becomes an expression of the cult member’s faith—her cross to bear, so to speak,” Lalich wrote. She also noted that the majority of cults—in the most high-profile cases, at least—have been led by men.
For the last 30 years, Benscoter has lived in Portland, Oregon. While her days of deprogramming are behind her, she remains dedicated to understanding more about the dangerous appeal of cults, gangs, and terrorist groups. She's starting a non-profit that examines the link between vulnerability and mental manipulation, and is collaborating with former white supremacist Christian Picciolini to create workshops that help mental health professionals understand the brainwashing tactics used by cults and hate groups.
Benscoter claims that she remains judgement-free, even when confronted with former members of the world’s most infamous terrorist and hate groups, including her work with former ISIS followers. “I know that I would have done anything for my messiah, and I know how that happened to me,” she says. “I’m able to have empathy even towards people that do horrendous things, because I can understand how they got there.”
Alarmed by the rise of social media—which Bencoster believes can help recruit impressionable young people on the fringes of society into hate groups—she’s nonetheless hopeful for the next generation.
“When I travel across the country and when I speak, it's 20 year olds and 30 year olds that are really interested in what I’m doing and get it right away,” she says. “That’s where I get my hope.”