Q&A with Diane Benscoter: Joining, leaving and ultimately defeating the cult

Posted by: Shanna Carpenter


Today, we posted Diane Benscoter’s revealing talk on being a Moonie and how cult thought can lead people to do the unthinkable. It’s a topic that’s not often talked about and that fascinates many, so, to bring you more from Diane the TEDBlog caught up with her for an interview. We talked about her time with the Moonies, her efforts as a deprogrammer and her ideas about how we should be fighting cults and extremism around the world.

Could you speak a little more about how you came to join the Moonies?

I had just turned 17. I was very idealistic. The Vietnam War really bothered me. I had a good friend with a brother in Vietnam. I was determined to find a community that would stop the madness. I went off in search of something like that. I went off on this Walk for World Peace. It was a five day walk, and during the entire walk there would be two people walking with me at all times, talking about this new world they were going to build, saying that I was special and chosen by God to be a part of this, otherwise I wouldn’t be there. There were lectures every night. And slowly I came to believe that they were right, and that Sun Myung Moon was the second coming of the Messiah.

What was it like once you were in the group? What was it like to live as a Moonie?

It was constantly reinforced that we had a purpose that was much higher than that of anyone else in the world. It was pretty appealing to be a part of something like that. But, I missed my freedom. There were times when I really missed being like the people I saw on the street every day. But, it was constantly reinforced that I was saving the world, so I trusted my beliefs and gave up my freedom.

I spent most of my days fundraising — selling candy and flowers. I started in Nebraska and began living in their Nebraska center. I cut my hair off and cut my ties with my family. I was shipped off not long after I joined, for training at a “monastery” in upstate New York. Then I began my mission — fundraising. We lived in vans and went from place to place selling candy and flowers. We also went back for training over and over, and the trainings were pretty long. One of them was 120 days. They reinforced beliefs and erased any doubts during their training. They kept the circular logic intact.

What was this experience like for your family?

They were desperate. You see, it wasn’t like I came from a family that was dysfunctional or abusive. I came from a normal, loving home. My mother was especially desperate to get me out. And when they did talk to me, all I wanted was to get them to join. I thought Satan was using them, was talking through them. They suffered greatly. Now that I’m a parent, I can’t imagine how hard it was for them.

They did everything they could. My mom really wanted to have me deprogrammed, my dad wasn’t as sure. It’s a drastic measure. And what if it didn’t work? He was afraid that if they tried, and it didn’t work, that they might lose me forever.

Could you speak a little bit about deprogramming? You were deprogrammed and became a deprogrammer, but it’s a rather controversial practice and many think that it brings up ethical issues relating to free will.

Yeah, I have a lot to say on this topic, but I’ll try to give the main points first. One — involuntary deprogrammings, which I was involved with, aren’t really taking place anymore and definitely not as they were. Looking back on it, I think there are ethical issues there. Still, I totally understand why people did it, why I did it — desperation, not knowing what to do, love of their child. You’re dealing with a problem that hasn’t been defined psychologically, so you can’t lock people in a mental hospital for it.

Now, I had one foot in and one foot out of the Moonies when I was deprogrammed. My faith was already wavering. Also, I had a loving family. But, to pull a belief system away from someone who doesn’t have the correct support system can be very dangerous. It’s like chemotherapy. Chemotherapy many times cures cancer, but it can also kill people. So, I’m not going to say that deprogramming is the way. And that‘s why I’ve gone in the direction of prevention.

Also, some people came to deprogramming more professionally that others. Some made mistakes and some used really admirable techniques. For the most part, in the ones that I was a part of, we just talked to the person and made sure that they ate and slept well. We were trying to introduce rational thought and a healthy mental state. We presented no new philosophy and no desire for them to take up any of our personal beliefs. We simply tried to explain that much of what they had been told was not true and was possibly brainwashing. We based our techniques on psychological theory, especially the work of Robert Lifton.

READ MORE: Diane talks about how to distinguish a cult from a group, what it feels like to lose your critical thinking and how we can combat extremism — using memes.
What do you think are the identifying traits of a cult? What differentiates cult from group?

The first one is an all or nothing world view. If easy answers to complex questions are handed to you on a silver platter and if you’re asked to believe in them unquestioningly and told not to seek an alternative, that’s a cult. If there’s a clear us and them, and we the insiders have the answers to all the questions about the world — especially if those answers are very simple. For example — Moon is the messiah. I’m a mere mortal so I shouldn’t question anything. Anytime that you feel that you’re inside a group looking out at the rest of the world thinking, “If they only knew what we knew, they’d understand how right we are.”

Also, if the leader is all-knowing. That’s a big one. And of course, the circular logic is the other thing. If everything comes back to this simple logic, if you can’t have rational thought or critical thought, that’s a cult.

What is it like to have this circular thought? What does it feel like for the individual in this logic loop?

Often, I would hear a song, or see a headline, or encounter someone that would bring up issues contradictory to the perspective of the group and it would just bounce off of me, because I knew that that was Satan invading. If it would start to make sense to me, it was Satan invading my thoughts. And this was reinforced by the group that that type of experience was as a result of a lack of faith. We were God’s soldiers and Satan was constantly trying to break down God’s soldiers. I needed to pray harder.

Any critical question — the kind that a scientist would welcome — was not acceptable. In circular logic, anything that questions belief means something evil, bad or Satan. It’s wrong to listen, it’s wrong to even play with ideas that are different. This is how unthinkable things can happen.

So, you stop using critical thought?

Yes. And the thing that takes the place of critical thought is someone else’s voice. That voice literally replaces critical thought.

Could you elaborate on the connection you made in your talk between memetics and combating extremism?

What I theorize is that we’re looking in the wrong place and we’re attacking the extremism in the wrong way at the moment. To try to fight extremism with guns and to simply label extremists as bad or terrible people is wrong. The actions of these extremists are unthinkable, horrific, repulsive, but the person is a person who is passionate and truly believe that they are doing good. A mother who fed poison to her baby in Jonestown is not an evil person. She truly believed she was saving her baby. It’s hard to contemplate, but these are the same motivations that drove Hitler Youth and suicide bombers.

We need to take these phenomena out of the realm of good and evil and into the realm of science. What we really need to do is understand what happens in the brain, and I challenge experts in the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry to do this — perhaps there is some way to identify the extremist brain.

When extremism occurs, something has happened to our mind. The human mind is very susceptible to ideas — to memes. And, much like viruses, memes spread. If we can just define this as a problem, as a memetic infection, as a disease. Ideas can infect our brains, and shut down other pathways of thought.

I suspect that the more a person uses critical thinking, the healthier their brain is. It’s like a computer that is well-tuned and running fast. For some time now, doctors have been recommending to older patients that they do crossword or number puzzles to ward off the onset of senility — suggesting that practicing our thought processes preserves them. Circular logic stops us from using our faculties of critical thinking, and causes our ability for critical and independent thought to atrophy. A lack of critical thought can cause behavior that is dangerous to the person and to others. That person is like a machine that’s broken — they’re simply not functioning normally.

I think that this particularly dangerous state called extremism can be prevented. I realized that when I found memetics. For me, finding memetics was like water to a thirsty person. It was only theory that was able to explain what happened to my brain and how it could be prevented in others. This circular logic I was caught in was a malfunction — if that meme caught on and people started speaking out against circular logic, perhaps the incidence of that malfunction could be reduced. We have memes about which sandal is fashionable for which season, why not a meme against circular logic?

Comments (30)

  • Janette Haugen commented on Sep 15 2012

    I think what some of you are missing is the “bigger picture” here. Diane was simply showing how easily she got caught up in the Moonies and brainwashed into believing she was a “chosen one”. It’s the same mind control techniques used on the Hitler Youth, Jonestown members and other extreme groups in history. This is “cookie cutter” brain washing / mind control techniques used on hundreds of thousands of people Right Now. It is a growing problem and I for one would love to hear TED feature more videos about this!

  • John Golden commented on Sep 12 2012

    Stumbled on this by chance. I’m a big fan of TED but this one makes me realized I’ve been brainwashed. I think I’ve only been looking at the best talks. How this one got through the screening I don’t know.

    Any idiot can see that terrorist groups, Hitler Youth and the rest are one thing and that small religious cults are simply one-offs that die with their founder or are future established religions in the making. If you pick on the Moonies, you have to man up and explain the Christianity and Islam were once the same – if not worse. the idea that Moon is the messiah is no more preposterous than the idea that Jesus is the messiah. Why can’t people get this? As I understand, the Moonies believe that religions should unify, that countries lay down their arms and the world should unify, and that this process begins with the individual improving themselves. Not for most, but hardly Jonestown. Seems like a late 20th century version of the Bahai’s to me.

    This woman was a deprogrammer. She didn’t say what sentence she got, just that she decided depropgramming was not for her. Until the law got to them, these villains were worse than the cults – driven by conviction and presumably large sums of cash, they were the ones who kidnapped, incarcerated and manipulated people’s minds.

    I’m so disappointed. I think I need TED exit counseling. Is there a similar thing to TED out there? Another speechifying cult I can join?

  • Tigo Schauffler commented on May 5 2012

    I have stumbled upon this post recently although it was posted a few years back. I am another person born and raised in the Unification church. I do not think if you analyzed her brain that you would find it looked any different than any others. That seemed to me like she was throwing out a scientific answer with no backup whatsoever. On the other hand, looking at the mentality she speaks about gets more to the problem. The point that I took from it is the theory that continually mentally telling yourself that “We have the right answers and they have the wrong ones” can end up with disturbing consequences. One can see this in a lot of politics and religion where the disturbed leader’s mentality is perpetuated by his followers. That is why everyone should truly think for themselves and not categorize themselves. Do we have to be a democrat or republican or Jewish, Muslim or Christian (or a Moonie for that matter) or country, goth, hipster, hippie or jock. I have no problems with people that would categorize themselves, as I see that is how society works, but an alternative that makes sense to me is to understand all categories and decide what is right and wrong on a very narrow basis rather than answering all questions with one answer.
    In regards to Norbert’s post. He was a man that was involved in “workshops” while I was growing up. I knew him. He is not a bad man because he is Unificationist (proper term) and for any other reason. That being said I disagree with his reaction to Diane. To compare a Unification blessing, Hitler youth and suicide bombers is entirely extreme on its own merits. As she states extremism is the problem here. She does nothing for her argument by portraying it this way. She is essentially using deprogramming techniques on TED viewers, which in itself is extreme as I believe Monica was stating. None the less, within a social group structure based on the answer to all questions being “he has the answer”, it may lead to Jonestown or holocausts as both Hitler and Jim Jones essentially had “the answer”. The Unification movement is not that extreme and I beg that it does not become so, but the philosophical foundation of the movement is entirely the same.
    Norbert also speaks of “FACTS and LOGIC” being absent in what Diane speaks of. I would ask Norbert this and any other Unificationist. Are there facts and logic that Rev. Moon is the messiah and that what he says is the one and only truth? I can see the dissatisfaction creep in to your train of thought the minute she proposes her opposing theory because the foundation of what you believe has trained you to have one answer. “You are wrong and I am right”.

  • Chestner D. commented on Nov 7 2011

    Hi Diane and everyone,

    I’m trying to offer some explanations for the manipulative tendencies used by cults and about what happens to one’s brain during the experience.

    I believe it’s all dependent on the molecule ‘Oxytocin’ in our brains which is responsible for increasing trust, empathy, generosity, and even ethnocentrism ( the feeling of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’).

    I really feel that understanding the effects Oxytocin has on the brain, and the techniques used by manipulative people to spike it in normal people will go a long way in understanding what really happens to victims of cults.

    I also draw a link between ‘viral memes’, imitation and ‘mirror neurons’ in our brains, empathy and Oxytocin.

    I also believe that deprogramming may become a matter of temporarily inhibiting the Oxytocin receptors (using drugs like Atosiban or hormones like progesterone) and letting members continue to attend ceremonies (to let them see the foolishness of their ways without the effects of Oxytocin flooding their judgement) and then maybe psychotherapy attacking the beliefs that have entered the long term memory.

    I am not a neuro-scientist so that exact technical terminology may falter in places, but you might be able to see how the overall picture falls uncannily into place.

    I invite you to read my submissions at: http://www.ted.com/conversations/6917/are_cults_abusing_oxytocin_is.html


  • Cher Anne Valentino commented on Dec 29 2010

    Thank you for sharing Diane.

  • Theresa Van Etta commented on Jul 12 2010

    I had a childhood friend who died in the “Heaven’s Gate” cult in the 1990′s. Her mother was kind enough to share handwritten letters of her gradual descent into the cult. In short, she went out to California to start her own business. She had a shop, a boyfriend, and money. Then in time, the boyfriend left, and her shop failed. Sadly, she was too ashamed to ask her family for money or to come home. Flyers advertising a local speaking event were posted. In her loneliness and a sense of helplessness and vulnerability, she attended the meeting, merely thinking it was a motivational speech. Within 2 years, she was gone – but the video of her impending doom found her completely happy and at peace with the coming of the Hale Bop Comet. I believe to be brainwashed, there are certain elements that need to be present — youth and naiveness – intense fear – extreme idealism – a current, unmet need towards self-actualization – and finally willingness.

  • Aaron Wieschedel commented on Jul 3 2009

    I was also born in the Unification Movement. My parents joined in Benscoter’s era, and I will admit that the Church functioned very differently back then than it does now. There were some corrupt leaders and some deceptive tactics taken on by the church, but my parents are the strongest people I have ever met—emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Though I no longer believe in Rev. Moon as the “messiah”, the Church can never be compared to Hitler Youth. Unificationism is about building up strong families individually as well as the overall goal of bringing all people into one family under God. It’s also about seeking truth in all forms and living a pure lifestyle.

    I appreciate my Unificationist heritage. It is apart of who I am. The community I was offered and the spiritual principles I lived are still very much apart of my life. It built me up to be a stronger, more loving, more honest person.


  • Sylvie Dale commented on Jun 28 2009

    I enjoyed watching Diane speak, and then reading more in the QA. She is just beginning to effectively articulate something that will be very important to our current culture – making a shift in your mindset which gets away from wrong/right thinking. Her supporting arguments have perhaps not fully matured, but we would do well to understand her underlying message. Some of you have furthered that discussion with more ideas and some of you have engaged in tiresome nitpicking. In my view, two things are clear: the answer is never one thing or the other, but something in between, and the questions are always more important than the answers. I am learning to forgive and allow others to develop their own views based on their own processes and needs. It’s liberating, because the focus comes off the opinion and returns to the human beings we are living with. And in turn we forgive ourselves too. That will be the basis for lasting world peace.

  • marilyn murphy commented on Jun 23 2009

    Dara, Your circumstances are identical to mine. My experience has lead me to think a great deal about why humans fall prey to all manner of convoluted beliefs. I do not think loneliness is the main factor. I think it’s being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hence religion runs in families.

    I too believe that neuroscience will provide us with the answers for how our minds betray us when we become involved in cults – Diane is on the right track. As one poster said, it is a very complex issue. But for those of us harmed by cults it’s very traumatic – and we want answers to how it happened.

    To spend your life dedicated to a lie is a form of madness. There is something like a 99.9% satisfaction for those who escape thinking the devil is making me doubt (think).

    To the poster who said that excultists are as closed minded ‘out’ as ‘in’ is nonsense. To want to learn how it happened and to find answers is to find a way to move forward and find acceptance and peace

    • Tigo Schauffler commented on May 5 2012

      The poster did not state that excultists are closed minded “out” as “in”. She stated that excultists SOMETIMES turn around and do the same thing with there post cult explorations. What she is suggesting is Diane has one answer to all questions (memes). That is the same thing as Rev. Moon would have you believe. He has all the answers, do as he says (I am the messiah).

  • Bill Baxter commented on Jun 19 2009

    The term circular logic doesn’t seem to be quite right here to me. Bear with me. Ms Benscoter’s example is “Moon is one with God; God will fix all; All I have to do is follow”. There’s no circular reasoning there. There’s just a linear chain beginning with an unsubstantiated premise that Moon is one with God, which if untrue invalidates all conclusions deduced from it. Circular reasoning would be like “God is never wrong; Moon says he is god; Moon must be right when he says he is God, because he is God and God is never wrong”. I.e. you prove the premise using a chain of deduction that assumes the premise to begin with. That’s not how religions convince people to believe something without solid proof in my experience. It more just involves convincing people to believe some one unsubstantiated premise on “faith”. Then this one assumed premise generally serves to justify everything else. So “circular reasoning” seems like the wrong meme here to me.

  • Monica Pignotti commented on Jun 19 2009

    Additionally, it sounds like Diane is using Memetics as yet another black and white answer to a very complex problem. It sounds like she carried over her stated propensity for wanting easy answers from the UC to now the anti-cult. She’s now found a simple, pat answer for her experience — memetics and circular logic. There’s nothing wrong with developing a theoretical model about this, but at this point to state this as if it were scientific is far from fact. Interestingly, the many ex-cultists i have been in contact have described their cult doctrine in a similar fashion — that hearing it seemed to have explained everything for them, indeed like “water for a thirsty person”. Unfortunately, some then turn around and do the same thing with their post cult explorations.

  • Monica Pignotti commented on Jun 19 2009

    The description that accompanied your video mentioned that Ms. Benscoter has done 20 years of research. I am quitefamiliar with the research in this area and I had never come across any research by Ms. Benscoter. I was wondering if she would be willing to provide specific references to the research she claims to have done as I would like to see the methodology used, or was this just library research? Claiming 20 years of “research” can be rather misleading and unless the person has actually conducted studies and published them, it is really pretty meaningless. If this person is an ex-Moonie with a story to tell why not just tell it rather than using scientific sounding jargon that to date is highly speculative in nature and has no real evidence to back it up? If I am mistaken and Ms. Benscoter has actually authored peer reviewed research that I somehow have overlooked, I would be interested in the specific references.

  • Laura Cococcia commented on Jun 18 2009

    I found this absolutely fascinating, primarily since I’ve only done minimal research on cults but have been recently intrigued on the topic from a course I’m taking. Of course, reading facts is only one aspect of the research. That’s why I would respectfully disagree with Norbert’s comment, primarily because both primary and secondary research is how we put together as much of a story as we can. I would suggest that perhaps Diane’s experience is actually fact since it is her experience, she owns the story, it is her fact. Just one more piece of input that we can use to better understand the world from a sociological and cultural perspective.

  • Anders Rosendal commented on Jun 18 2009

    I can’t believe that moonies would actually come here and try to argue that we should not talk badly about them just because they brainwash people. It’s a crazy world we live in.
    And moonies: I love you and want you to get better. Hope you get out of the cult.

    • Jaedon Avey commented on Jun 18 2009

      I was raised in the Unification Movement. My parents are of Diane’s era. I had as much choice in the church I went to as a child as anyone else. When I moved away to college, I stopped going to church and married a spouse of my choosing. The Unification Movement shaped my life and in many ways that leaves lasting impressions on one’s identity (e.g. non-practicing Jew). We aren’t brainwashed. Of the cohort I grew up with, 5/6 have bachelor’s degrees and 1/3 have graduate degrees.

      Anders, you can start respecting other people any day. I suggest you start now.

  • Norbert Szolnoky commented on Jun 18 2009

    I don’t want to spam but 1000 character is not enough to express my feelings about this “presentation”.

    I have no problem with legitimate discussion about cults/religions and their positive and negative effects on individuals, families, societies and the world. BUT that discussion have to withstand scientific rigor with FACTS and LOGIC, not based on largely or exclusively on biased emotions and false associations without any proof designed to elicit emotional response. There’s way too much of the latter garbage already in our “news media” – I don’t need TED jump on that bandwagon.

    Diane’s talk presents false associations without any proof – that is wrong, misleading and harmful. Additionally this is a complicated topic and her analysis is way too simplistic. I have gone through many phases of my faith and I was an “extremist” once (the immature state) but never killed anyone and would have never done so. There are many other elements she never discusses.

  • Norbert Szolnoky commented on Jun 18 2009

    I am appalled that TED would actually invite her and present her ideas in such a fashion, then play along and magnify the idea that “Moonies” are a dangerous cult bent on killing and suicide bombing. There is a place for legitimate discussion about the effects (good and bad) religions and cults have on a person (note that suicide bombers are mainly religious and NOT cultists) but this talk doesn’t belong to that realm. This post is actually very mild compared to her presentation where she makes comparison (both direct and implied) of Moonies to Hitler Youth and suicide bombers – totally false, unproven, biased. Unificationists are very peaceful, loving people – I have been one for 19 years and I am doing fine, thank you.

    If she discussed extremism and associated violence solely then it would be legit; mixing up extremist violence, cults, and Moonies in false associations is wrong and harmful. I am utterly disappointed in TED for not seeing the difference – where are your standards?

  • Becky Cummings commented on Jun 17 2009

    The Well Spring Retreat Center in Southern Ohio is a resource for anyone who has been involved in an abusive group or one on one relationship. They offer a two week in house program that saves lives. They provide a language and a system in which to understand and talk about how people get pulled into closed systems of thought. Visit:


  • Alan Richard commented on Jun 17 2009

    The viral/genetic metaphor bothers me, but this is much clearer than the talk itself. I too think that circular logic is at the core of dangerous movements and that critical thinking is important. I think that Hannah Arendt was right when she identified loneliness as the condition under which circular logic becomes attractive, and meaningful and extra-ideological social intimacy as insurance against absorption into a total thought system.

  • Dara Poznar commented on Jun 17 2009

    Diane- thank you for speaking about about this! My mother and siblings belong to a religion that is often called a Cult… having been baptized in as a teen and later chosing to disassociate myself, I am left with my closes family members mandated to shun me. It is very painful, but I decided on having my personal Freedom above anything else. It was a difficult and guilt ridden existence.

    Again Thanks- Dara

  • Jaedon Avey commented on Jun 17 2009

    I appreciate the courage it takes to share an intimate and personal narrative of this kind. I have three thoughts for Diane, the TED organization, and other readers.

    1) Diane, your comparison of the Unification Movement to Hitler Youth and suicide bombers is false. The Unification Movement promotes peace and nonviolence. To my knowledge no suicide bombings have ever been claimed by the Unification Movement. You yourself became involved in the organization during a peace march.

    2) You are generalizing the Unification Movement (still active today) based on out-dated information. The zeitgeist of the time of your experience was of revolution which only served to demonstrated extremes of many organizations.

    3) Please stop using the word ‘Moonies.’ I strongly suggest that you change the title of this video/blog/message. It is a derogatory name, a religious slur, or at least a pejorative. We do not refer to Evangelical Republicans as Jingoes do we?

    Thank you

    • Bill Baxter commented on Jun 19 2009

      I’m no fan of religious cults, but I heartily agree that Ms. Benscoter crossed the line a bit with those pictures. If we are to take those pictures at face value then I suppose we must also be wary of *any* group of people that stand in a row and hold their hands up in unison. Like those damn theater actors. Suspicious lot, them. Always raising their arms up together at the end of a performance, a little too much like the Hitler Youth if you ask me!

    • Ken Stuczynski commented on Jul 8 2011

      No, the comparison is apt. It was not meant to be a comparison of degree of violence or scope of impact, but the conditions by which much worse things CAN and DO happen. these groups are capable of making their followers do ANYTHING. The fact they do not kill people (physically) is moot and irrelevant.

    • Micheal Saviour commented on Dec 4 2011

      It’s funny how you see it fit it to reduce to entire article on historical inaccuracies and incorrect labeling.
      Of all the slurs and pejorative terms that religions themselves come out with, don’t get worked up on one that’s been made up for the movement that is supposed to react peacefully as it’s pacifist principles.

      To answer your last question about whether or not we refer to Evangelical Republicans as Jingoes, my opinion is that we should.