By Nicole Stinson
Unification Church in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
At 17, Diane Benscoter was attracted to the Unification Church. What started as joining a march for world peace, led to hearing a compelling lecture on why to stay. Benscoter committed five years of her life to the church.
“I can see myself in the Boston bombers as the utter unquestionable devotion was the same,” Benscoter explains her experience to BTR.
The word “cult” has been appropriated to explain innocent pop cultural fads such as cult movies. As a result, it is sometimes easy to forget the severity of the word to society’s more marginalized groups and practices.
According to Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist, Deputy Director at Inform (the Information Network on Religious Movements at the London School of Economics) it is easy to label groups we do not like as cults.
However, for those like Benscoter, “cult” is reminiscent of her experiences, the memories of which are strong and real.
“I was at a stage in my life where I felt a little lost in my world and I didn’t fit in with my family or my small hometown in Nebraska,” she recalls.
Lisa Kerr was the same age as Benscoter when she joined the Master’s Commission, a faction of the Assemblies of God.
“I think just the nature of being 17 years old, you’re more vulnerable because your personality is still developing,” she explains. “You’re still figuring out what you want from life.”
While Kerr would not describe the Assemblies of God as a cult because it has too many different factions, she describes her experiences with the Master’s Commission as cult-like.
“There was a lot of behavior modification from the way we dressed to the way we talked,” she tells BTR. “We had every moment planned out for us, so we didn’t have a lot of contact with the outside world.”
After high school graduation, Kerr moved to Austin, Texas to be with the group. Secluding her in a dormitory-styled building, her days consisted of eating, sleeping, and praying one hour each day with the group.
Benscoter experienced similar isolation as she was tasked with fundraising for the church.
“I was cut off from my family and I was made to believe that Satan was working through them. These techniques were used to control my thought processes, decisions, my view on the world,” she recounts. “One of the most power tools of mental manipulation is religion.”
Both Benscoter and Kerr’s experiences instilled a belief that they could not leave; however, both eventually found a way with the support of their families.
Kerr describes her breakaway as a gradual falling apart after three major events, which reveal just how strongly the Master’s Commission controlled her life. Firstly she was not granted permission by the church to attend college to pursue her dreams as a writer. Then, her pastor revoked his permission for her to date a guy from within the church. Her disillusionment was finally cemented when her parents visited and offered her a way out.
For Benscoter the path was far less simple and despite being initially dissatisfied by aspects of the Unification Church she remained very committed even after her parents expressed concern. Her mother wanted to hire a deprogrammer to hold her against her will; however Benscoter willingly agreed to meet with them.
“I was very resistant at first, but after some time I started listening to what they had to say,” she says. “I agreed to talk to them because I believed that I was certain in my faith so I was surprised when a lot of what they said made sense for me.”
It took many years of counseling and volunteer work at a cult rehabilitation center for her to move past it all, with music playing the largest part in her recovery as it helped her reconnect with the world and herself.
Overall, the experience made her more cynical and critical, she says, and she will not believe anything without the facts.
Kerr experienced a lot more hate when leaving the Master’s Commission. Initially silent, she began to feel like she was being watched from social media.
“They wanted to appear like they were my friend [but] it was almost as if they were there to spy on me and report back to them,” she describes. Her fears were confirmed when some of the pastors’ wives called her and claimed they’d heard she wasn’t doing well.
Kerr says this went on for almost a year after she left. On one occasion, after she posted a picture on her Myspace account wearing a tank top revealing some cleavage, the comments became nasty. (Part of the strict dress code of the Master’s Commission was not to show cleavage.)
“You start to question your morality and whether you even have a good side,” she says. “Deep down you know that you do, but you have been taught that the things you are doing are bad. [After leaving], for me this was just experiencing a normal college life.”
According to van Twist, there’s a misconception that people who join cults were vulnerable in some way, however that is untrue.
“Research has found that even the most controversial groups appeal to white middle-class Americans [like Benscoter and Kerr],” she says.
Steven Gelberg, who was a part of the Hare Krishna cult movement in the 1970s, says that he was not by nature a blind follower and was mixing in academic circles during the time of his involvement.
Stephen Kent, a professor and researcher of sociology and cults at the University of Alberta, attributes the success of a cult to the charisma and narcissism of the leaders, rather than the vulnerabilities of their followers.
“These leaders have no doubt that they are God and in some way above humans,” he explains. “That certainty can lead to misinterpretation by other people and a lot [of] people misattribute that certainty to godliness.”
Additionally, Kent classifies cult leaders as narcissistic because they lack empathy, and are willing to do anything in order to reach their religious mission or goal, no matter the human cost involved.
Those goals–which appear to support a greater good–are often what deceive people into following potentially harmful groups. At first glance they appear normal.
As long as there is anger, confusion, and frustration in the world, cults will play into humanity’s desire to change the world for the better and continue to thrive.