Diane Benscoter on Religious Cults' Use of Memes

Jim Fleming: Why do people join religious cults? Or become suicide bombers? Could the answer lie in the dangerous memes that organizations use to brainwash people? Diane Benscoter thinks so and she's had personal experience with the technique. Benscoter joined the Moonies in 1974.

Diane Benscoter: I was young, idealistic, very anti-war seventeen year old. I was searching for a way to make a difference in the world. There was a walk from Omaha to Des Moines that the Moonies were sponsoring and I happened to get one of the flyers for it. I decided to go on the walk. I was going to write a story about it. I was hoping to be a writer and this little newspaper said that if I brought back a story that maybe they could find a place for me in their newpaper and so I went off to get a story and along the way heard the lectures and ended up joining the group.

Fleming: So you actually found yourself a member of the Unification Church. I guess I don't quite understand. You talk about the lectures. What kind of thing did they do to make you feel that the Unification Church was your potential home?

Benscoter: From the beginning, there were always at least two people with me and talking to me about how they were going to make a better world and how they were going to create the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth and how they thought that God had chosen me to be part of something great. Then in the lecture series would be that night. We walked all the way from Omaha to Des Moines. So in the evening there was a lecture that began explaining why there were problems in the world, according to Moon's teachings, and each night it built up more and more and led you down this path to where you came to understand that the Messiah, the second coming of the messiah, had happened. That he was born in Korea and around 1920. So by the end of it, you realized that you were on your way to meet the messiah and there was a lot of excitement about it.

Fleming: And did you feel that excitement build until the point you got to Des Moines and was he there then?

Benscoter: Yes, he was. I actually met him, in person, was invited into the house he was staying at. He was going to be speaking there. He was on tour.

Fleming:  Must have been almost overwhelming. To meet the Messiah.

Benscoter: It was. It was. I cut off all my hair, started a fast, and immediately decided to devote my life to him.

Fleming: Wow. Once you had joined, did things change?

Benscoter: I moved in with them and my family was, of course, very upset. I started selling flowers and trying to recruit new members and then was eventually sent off to what was called the MFT. The Mobile Fundraising Teams and I spent almost five years selling candy and flowers on the streets all over the country. Out of vans. After five years, I really thought maybe there was something I could do besides sell candy and flowers on the street. That maybe there was a greater cause. The group is very women's place is to serve men. You're always subordinate to men and you're always subordinate to your leader, whoever that is, and so you're never supposed to go outside of that. I became kind of rebellious and eventually, because my rebelliousness and after a few intensive indoctrination kind of sessions. One was a hundred and twenty days. Very intense, but still I kept saying I know I could do more and please let me try to do more. If I could just go to school. So eventually, I became such a rebel, if you will, that they allowed me to go to school and I actually moved in with my brother in Iowa City. He was just a new doctor going through his residency there.

Fleming: Was a reintroduction to the world you had lived in before, in some sense, then?

Benscoter: Yes, but I was still totally committed to Moon and the idea that he was the messiah and that we were building the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. I was just doing what I felt God wanted me to do.

Fleming: But then your family intervened?

Benscoter: Yes, because the cognitive dissonance was so great that I began to feel like I was losing my mind. So I called them and said I had made a mistake and that I needed to come back and repent.

Fleming: You called your family or you called the Church?

Benscoter: I called the Church and they were getting me an airplane ticket to go back to New York and it was at that point that, when I called and told my mom, she brought deprogrammers to where I was and that's where the Deprogramming happened.

Fleming: Can you tell me about that? I don't think I understand what deprogramming really means.

Benscoter: There was an ex-member of The Moonies. She brought a suitcase full of information. Tapes of ex-members and why they left. She showed me how the doctrine had holes in it throughout. I kept thinking maybe I could convert her back to the group. Eventually it started breaking down, but the key that really affected me was there was a book by Robert Lifton about idealistic totalism. In that book, he defines the psychological elements that are in a totalistic environment. As we started reading through those, I could see that every one of them painted an exact story of my life in the group. It was at that point that I started to break down and realized that that's what had happened to me and it was quite dramatic, actually, from an emotional perspective.

Fleming: Was it a relief to reach the end of the deprogramming and feel? I mean, did you feel free at that point?

Benscoter: I felt free in some ways. I knew that I couldn't go back. I knew that I would need to start my life over, but it left me feeling extremely empty. I didn't know anything about myself. I didn't know what I believed. I didn't know what music I liked, because it had all been fed to me. I didn't know what I believed politically. I didn't know what to do with my life. I didn't have friends anymore.

Fleming: And you went on to become a deprogrammer yourself? You did that for about five years. Why did you stop?

Benscoter: There was a case that didn't go well and everything that could go wrong went wrong and she ended up climbing out a window while we, everyone, was asleep. I ended up getting out of there and going home. We didn't use our own names during those and eventually what happened was that the FBI found me and arrested me for kidnapping. And there was a plea bargain.

Fleming: That's a big deal.

Benscoter: Yes, it is. The others had already gone through trial. They had won the case using the lesser evil defense, which is rarely used and rarely won, but they did win. But this would have been a whole new case. So I accepted a plea bargain and hung up my Deprogramming shoes at that point.

Fleming: You've compared your discovery of memes and memetics to water for a thirsty person. When did you discover memetics?

Benscoter: Probably a decade ago. I think I was listening to a story on the radio on OPB and heard the term and it immediately sounded like this explains so much. So I began to research and read everything I could get my hands on about it, because it seemed extremely important in understanding how cults and how organizations who are polarized against each other are formed.

Fleming: So how do you use this ideas or memes, of memetics, to explain your experience with the Unification Church?

Benscoter: What fascinates me is when they clump together to form a memeplex and what I think is important is to understand the glue is that holds those together and what the fuel is that causes them to be self-perpetuating. When you examine those, especially with an underlay of Lifton's work on totalistic environments, there's these psychological themes. Each have a polarizing nature and so those memes come together in a polarizing nature that causes an us and them kind of an environment and if  you look throughout history it's easy to see that many religious wars, many organizations, many cults have this our ideas are the idea. We are different. We are best. We need to fight anyone who opposes us and it's those clumps, those memeplexes, I think that need to be deconstructed and looked at in order to hope for a more peaceful world. Those people in Jonestown haunt me and suicide bombers haunt me, because I understand. I know that I would have done such a thing. I know that I was so dedicated to my messiah, it had taken over my thought processes, my rational thought, such that I would have done anything and so I empathize with those people greatly.

Fleming: You're writen that we need to act on this. That we need to do things and what you've suggested is that we deconstruct these memeplexes, these clumps of memes. Can you explain what you mean by that? How would you do that?

Benscoter: The first step toward anything is understanding. So instead of just pointing to groups that are cult-like or that are dangerous, I think we need to tear it apart and say, okay, what are these psychological elements that are so appealing? What is it that's causing people to join? Who are those vulnerable people? And how can we spread peace memes? Really, how can we create other uses, communities, if we tear them apart and look at what are these psychological elements? Like, for instance, a need for community, a need for easy answers to hard questions, and then start to educate those most vulnerable about what a memeplex is. How these work. The more we as a species understand how these memeplexes work and really understand how these psychological elements cause this clumping, the more we'll be able to avoid losing ourselves to them.

Fleming: How do you get it to spread, I guess is the question? I understand that if you get to the people who are susceptible, but how do you get to the people who are susceptible?

Benscoter: I think that we look at vulnerability and we tear that apart to and say, okay, where are the places that someone is most vulnerable to being sucked into this kind of a memeplex and what are these memeplexes? And so, if we educate youth, for instance, and if we begin to. For it to be a conversation that becomes more and more in the public eye, I think that we can see that these are things we don't want to be part of. I think that instead of just pointing to these huge organizations and saying, "Well, that's the problem. They're evil. We're good. We're christians. We're better than Islams." Or, "We're Islams. We're better than christians." Instead of getting caught up in that, to really realize that these are similar to viruses, similar to diseases, that have plagued humanity for a very long time. The more we understand, the more we can free ourselves of this.

Fleming: Diane Benscoter is a former member of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. You can find a link to her website on our website: ttbook.org