As dramatic as Benji’s deprogramming was it raised more questions than it answered in the months ahead. How had a bright college-educated agnostic come to believe that his family and friends were agents of Satan? How had he been convinced that a wealthy wheeler-dealer from Korea was the Messiah who would save the World? And most frightening, how was he—and thousands of others like him—transformed into a virtual automaton, with little apparent connection to his former self?
Can cults like the Unification Church be shrugged off as “surrogate mental hospitals for borderline psychotics”, as our fellow kidnapper, Dr. Leof, believed when I first met him in San Francisco? Or are they more—and if so, what can they teach us about the human mind?
For close to a year, I have extensively interviewed Benji and other ex-moonies, talked with authorities in psychiatry, and read much of the literature available, in an attempt to understand the indoctrination process of the Unification Church. This research has convinced me that Boonville’s techniques have an incredible inner logic; one that moves through the human psyche like the knife of a surgeon: a step-by-step process that tears apart the fabric of the recruit’s reality, then eases him slowly into the new.
Much of the trail of this psychological scalpel can be traced with the help of several books published in the early 1960’s investigating Korean and Chinese “brainwashing” techniques. Some of it can also be seen through the work of a handful of psychiatrists studying modem cult techniques—notably Dr. John Clark and Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer.
However, a full understanding, of this harrowing indoctrination process can only begin with the experience of those who have been through it—like Benji.
Benji’s voyage began at the house on Washington Street. He had promised his family he would visit his cousin, Ron, upon arriving in San Francisco—but the initial encounter was “a bit of a surprise”.
“Ron’s hair was a lot shorter than before and he had a funny look on his face, and a false smile that didn’t suit him. He was cheerful, but something seemed to be missing that had been there before—I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.
“Everyone else at the house seemed a bit weird and superficial too. There was this ‘Hello…how are you!’ routine, and everyone kept telling me ‘Oh, you’re Ron’s cousin…he’s such a great guy!’ I must have heard that line a dozen times. Still, I hadn’t seen Ron in three years, and we had once been pretty close…so it felt pretty good to be there.”
Travel-weary, Benji soon found himself in the midst of the evening “lecture” and slide show, and he was baffled by the presentation and apparent scope of the “Creative Community Project”. “It was corny…definitely not my kind of thing, but in other ways it seemed impressive—the businesses, the health clinics, the food give-aways, the doctors and lawyers that were supposedly involved. I couldn’t figure it out at all.”
When Ron said they were leaving for the “farm” that night, Benji didn’t protest; he was in California to see Ron, and his cousin’s description of Boonville made it sound like “a nice place to spend the weekend”. They arrived at the camp well after two a.m. and went straight to bed.
“The next morning I woke up to someone playing the guitar and singing ‘Red Red Robin’—and everyone jumping out of bed. I couldn’t believe it…I mean it was eight a.m., I’d hardly slept and now this. I just rolled over to go back to sleep.”
At his cousin’s urging, however, Benji was soon up too—reluctantly taking part in the Boonville routine. Most of it seemed babyish and ridiculous, but he went along out of politeness, curiosity and a sense of obligation to his cousin, having little difficulty until the morning “sharing” session. Then, as members talked frankly of their “inner selves” and “gut feelings”, Benji was left in an awkward position.
“I’m not in the habit of sharing my feelings with complete strangers,” he recalls. “But at the same time, if I had just talked superficially, I would have felt rude, as though I was putting them down—so I was in a bit of a bind. My only real alternative was to get up and leave…but I had come all the way there to see Ron, and there was no way I was going to leave over something as petty as that.”
So Benji opened up and talked a bit about his own life, his past and his thoughts on being a teacher. He didn’t say a great deal, nonetheless he found that as he talked he began to feel somewhat “closer” to the group, and “sharing” became easier as the day progressed.
“Of course, not everyone would react like me,” he acknowledges. “Some people might just have said ‘screw it’ and left—but at the time, it didn’t seem like such a big thing to do.”
The Boonville day unfolded almost identically to my own stay there: the same strange, frenzied activity; the singing, chanting and chooching; the thick starchy stews; and the dizzying intensity that left one without a moment for solitary thought. Like me, Benji soon found it unbearably claustrophobic.
“Holding hands all the time gave me the creeps, and the chanting really got on my nerves,” he recalls. “The whole thing was just too ‘groupy’ for me—even though they were suggesting that it was my individualism that was really to blame. I just wasn’t comfortable… I felt suffocated.
Each time Benji considered leaving, Ron would plead with him to stay just a bit longer, to give his project a chance; the same guilt-inducing tactic Benji himself would employ when Mike Kropveld came to visit months later.
So Benji stayed. The routine was “trying” but interesting, even “mysterious”, for its very weirdness, and Benji had little reason to be suspicious. It was his cousin’s project, and it seemed harmless enough: he had never heard of the Creative Community Project, let alone been aware that it was a front group for the Unification Church. As well, he was in the middle of nowhere with no way to return but his thumb, and Ron had promised him a tour of California when the “two day seminar” was over.
When he went to sleep that night, Benji was completely exhausted, falling into a “deep black sleep”. Six hours later, he was up again and back into the Boonville routine; amazed to find that more than 100 members had arrived overnight, adding a powerful and moving enthusiasm to the camp’s atmosphere. And as the second day rolled on, the Boonville environment began to have an unexpected effect.
Somehow, the bizarre, unrelenting activity and the intense personal dialogue began to create a mental vice that pushed Benji back into his own mind; as the day wore on and the talk became even more intimate, he began to feel increasingly uneasy. The whole experience was causing him to become extremely introspective, evoking depressing thoughts and questions, dredging up parts of him that he had almost forgotten existed in the busy pace of recent years.
In the previous few years, his life had changed, taken direction, moving on as if by its own force as he had “grown up”; now, suddenly, it was as if he had come to a way station, as if he could see his whole life stretched out before him on a dark, vast plain.
Men and women left suddenly unemployed after years of steady work often find themselves in crisis, confronting their sense of identity for the first time in their lives. Those who lose parents or mates often plunge into similar painful self-analysis, questioning things they have ignored or repressed throughout their lives. Others live with such “life crises” constantly, swallowing a steady dose of liquor or pills to keep these doubts and anxieties at the back of their minds.
Boonville provoked such a crisis in Benji, bringing him to explore the “back of his mind”; pushing him for the first time in a long while to ask himself who he was, what he was doing, and where he was going. He was not entirely satisfied with the answers.
“Before Boonville, I had thought I was at a point in my life where I knew what I was doing, as opposed to a few years earlier when I was still trying to figure things out. Sure, life wasn’t a bed of roses—I had made certain compromises over recent years—but I figured I could live comfortably with them. I had a solid base to do what I wanted in life…friends, family.. .a profession I thought I wanted…
“But all that seemed to fall apart at Boonville. After just two days there my perspective was changing and I was starting to ask myself where was it all really going to take me. I hadn’t really thought like that in years—I mean really analyzed where I was going and what the ramifications were. I had just decided to move ahead with my life and career, and stopped thinking about it…tucked my reservations into the back of my head.
“It was as if Boonville took me backwards…brought out the adolescent still inside me, the part of me that was still looking for something more, but had been covered up by time.”
Benji remembered his youthful idealism, his belief that real change could be accomplished—and his desire to be part of that change somehow. He saw how he had grown more cynical with time, had compromised his idealism in gradual stages, rationalizing each stage by saying it was “practical”. And as he realized this, old questions rose to the surface again.
“I found myself asking: ‘why do I really want to teach?’ Bethie especially would ask me that…The first night we had a long conversation, and she talked a lot about her own experience as a teacher a few years earlier, which was very similar to my own. She brought out a lot of my own frustrations.”
Benji talked about his two years working with emotionally disturbed kids, a frustrating time that saw him ‘fixing kids up, then shipping them back to screwed-up homes…’ “I mean you’ve got the kid for six hours a day…but all you’re doing is fighting what’s happening in the other eighteen.”
He remembered several of the kids in his class—Eddy, for instance, a jumpy 13-year-old who Benji had finally got to “sit down long enough to start reading and learning…he even made a belt that he was really proud of…it was kind of exciting to watch him start to mature.”
But every Monday morning, Eddy would show up at school as nervous and as at loose ends as ever, so finally Benji had gone to see the parents—only to find the same scene as always: an abandoned mother, alcoholic and living with a new boyfriend, while five kids shared the adjacent room.
“This is what the kid had to go home to…its what all these kids had to go home to…that’s why they were so screwed up. It’s so hard to even make a dent…so slow and frustrating…you can work for years thinking you’re doing something, then suddenly find you haven’t accomplished anything at all.
“Every time I work with kids, these kinds of problems are there. The only way to keep working is to believe that the few good things you achieve outweigh the thousand bad ones—which is how I usually see things—but not then in Boonville. Things were happening too fast. I was off balance because of the environment and couldn’t think straight. And Bethie got there before me, as though she were reading my mind…”
“Sure there are some good things in teaching, Benji…a few nice moments,”she said, “That’s what makes it worth it…but in the end, where is it really going? What effect is it really going to have?… Isn’t there more?…”
“And all that touched a part of me…these questions and doubts were inside me, but I had put a lid on them to give teaching a chance. They were things I already knew, but somehow she got them out again and heated them up…made me feel that all my arguments were just rationalizations to hide from the truth.
“Thinking back, it’s easy to think of points to respond with; easy to slough off everything she said as hogwash and idealism; but back there, in that environment, it was all very real and hard to dispute. I was tired and overwhelmed, and there was this whole part of me that felt it couldn’t disagree with what she was saying. Everything was true.”
Bethie was not the only woman drawing the Boonville net tighter around Benji. There was also Linette, a lithe, enticing former dancer who had only recently come to Boonville herself. Benji was immediately attracted to her: he can still recall her dancing on a grassy hill one early morning, a perfect blue sky behind her, her hair and skirt swirling gently in the wind.
And there was Susan, a poised but ingenuous two-year member who accompanied Benji everywhere, drawing him into intimate discussions about their lives and past love affairs. “I don’t usually talk about these things with many people. I’m reserved about my feelings, but in Boonville it’s normal to talk about personal things after just a few minutes. In fact, it’s abnormal and uptight not to. There’s a certain amount of honesty, and that creates a bond. It made Susan and the others feel very close.”
Benji’s attraction to the women was initially sexual, but soon shifted to platonic friendship as he became tacitly aware of the Boonville attitude toward male-female relations: sex was something that came far later, and with much more meaning, not something to be doled out to a casual visitor like him.
“There was no tension or friction between sexes at Boonville. Normally, I’m not really even aware of sexual tension—I guess I’ve just accepted it as part of life and forgotten it. But at Boonville, in its absence, I became much more aware of how important it really is in the ‘outside world’.
“There’s always a certain amount of sexual jockeying, an uncertainty, because you never know exactly what the relationship is. I’ve always been a real perfectionist about women…I’m very choosy. If I start having a good time with someone, after a while, I always start finding faults and an excuse to leave. I do a lot of evaluating about how I want this person to fit into my life…and if I want her to at all. I get claustrophobic. I don’t want to make a commitment…or put myself on the line.
“Susan and I talked a lot about sexual relationships—about the tension implicit in most male-female relationships. And at the same time as we were talking about all this, here was Susan sort of showing me the other side of the coin—a brother-sister kind of relationship…
“She was close, but she was no threat, because there was no possibility of an ordinary lovers’ relationship. The brother-sister thing neutralized the relationship, made it safe. There was never a threat of a sexual relationship, so there was no need for me to evaluate it, and that allowed me to get closer to her…I’d only been there a couple of days, but already I was starting to feel as close to these women as I did to people I’d known for years.
“And the closer I got, the more I felt that they were just like me; and the harder it got to maintain my idea that they were nice kids, but screwed up and into something weird …while I was normal.”
That night, an older “family” member named Stoller gave a long, and moving account of his life—and the parallels to his own life unnerved Benji. Like him, Stoller was Jewish, with one set of grandparents from Poland and the other from Russia. Stoller told the group that his own parents were a break in the family history: settlers in North America, seeking material success to found a family in the New World.
But Stoller said that he could not identify with this; instead he felt more attached to the older, simple values of his grandfather’s generation—an idea that struck a chord deep in Benji. Soon, Stoller’s remarks were flushing up countless old memories from Benji’s mind—memories of his childhood days and his long-forgotten relationship with his own grandfather.
“I was crazy about my grandfather. He took me everywhere—anywhere I wanted to go—walks to the park, the movies, and on Saturday mornings to the synagogue, where he was very respected and everyone would come and ask his advice.”
Listening to Stoller, Benji recalled childhood scenes with his grandfather with intense clarity: taking a walk down a back alley together, shopping on the Main, sitting on his grandfather’s lap in a small park. He remembered being six years old and standing in the huge synagogue, awed by the powerful music and hugging his grandfather’s pleated trouser leg as the old man stroked his chin and conversed in smiling, solemn tones to men in yamulkas gathered around him for a piece of wisdom.
Later Benji would watch his zaidye make wine in the basement, fermenting it like an old chemist. There was something simple, slow, magical about his grandfather; and the long-buried memories of the experience swept over Benji like waves that night in Boonville, provoking a near-religious experience.
“I think that was really the beginning of my sense of religious feeling. Before that I’d always been very critical of religion, considering it as too superstitious, but at Boonville, I began to identify religion with my grandfather, even though I still had no idea that the group had a religious base.
“My grandfather represented so much of the spiritual ‘ideal’ that everyone at Boonville kept saying was part of us; the part our parents had rejected for the good life, the American way. He was the glue of the family. When he died our family was never quite the same. There was more petty bickering…fewer family ties. No one would take the services at Passover seriously any more…they’d be 10 minutes in between periods of the hockey games so nobody would miss the play-offs—including me.
“So by getting me to associate religion with my grandfather, it suddenly became a warm thing that held the family together—not as I had always seen it before, a crutch filled with hypocrisy. They never even had to bring religion up; they brought it out of me instead.”
By the conclusion of Stoller’s talk, Benji was extremely moved. He felt that Stoller was talking to him; about his life, his family, his inner doubts. He felt as though he had been put in touch with a part of himself that was buried under years of twentieth century life, “a sense of simplicity and wonder that Boonville had somehow brought out of me.
“I saw my grandfather. He had no TV, no car; he lived in his district, saw his friends and made his wine. He was a simple man…Then I saw my father and his generation—caught between their human selves and their need to survive and get ahead in the modern world. My father was tied up in consumer society. He needed his car, his TV, and his house, and in order to afford them he had to take part in the rat race, get involved in business deals that exploited the third world and compromised his humanity. And all that kept him from becoming really happy.
“I could see his good sides too; a goodness, a warmth toward people and an honesty that I loved him for. Yet at the same time, I could see where he was a victim of his era. He and his friends were caught up in another reality—a more materialistic one that didn’t appeal to me. My reality, my ambition, were more in line with my grandfather; slow, wise, solid, earthy. I started to realize that as a child he had been a God to me; and in Boonville’s environment, he seemed almost God-like again.”
When he went to sleep that night, Benji felt a tremendous uncertainty, pierced by instances of dread, “as though I were seeing things clearly for the first time in years, and there were gray clouds around even the good things in my life…
“I felt unsure about a lot of things in my life, but at the same time I felt a sense of new possibilities. An idealism I’d buried years ago seemed alive again, and with it a fear that if I went back to my old life again, without doing anything about it, I would lose this vision and sink into my old routine again. I would miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“But the problem was that I wasn’t really examining things and testing them against me and my own ideas. There was no time or space to think in Boonville, so everything just seemed to sink in like truths. I had no perspective. Everything they were saying seemed terribly true, and I couldn’t find the energy to dispute it.
“Still, it wasn’t just the environment of Boonville that got me. That’s too easy an out. They were also reaching some part of me; getting me to go along with them.”
By the middle of the next day in Boonville, Benji was in trouble. The camp’s unrelenting claustrophobia and his growing self-doubts had closed in like a stranglehold, creating a terrifying psychological threat.
“My whole life seemed in crisis. Who was I? Where would I go next? What could I do to change my life? Everything seemed all muddled up.
“I knew I agreed with lots of things in Boonville—the community, the togetherness, the honesty and idealism—and I was starting to feel a growing guilt about leaving it behind. But I also knew I needed perspective badly; my thinking was very, very confused.”
The psychological pressure was so intense that suddenly, it had physical effects.
“My head felt like it was splitting open from pressure, as though something inside me were swollen and about to burst. My body felt light…I was dizzy and scared. My head was stuffed with conflicting ideas and emotions; thoughts were racing through my mind then stopping short. My mood was changing wildly from happy to miserable.”
As he became aware of the tremendous impact Boonville was suddenly having on him, Benji became frightened at his changes; frightened he might actually crack-up—something he had never considered remotely possible before. Panic set in.
“There was a sense of incredible flight. My adrenalin began pumping like I was being chased for my life. I was overflowing with emotion and self-doubts. Anger, tension, confusion, fear…I felt I had to get out of there fast. A voice inside me was saying, ‘You’ve got to get out of here, Benji, you’ve got to get out!’ ”
He confided his dilemma to Susan, told her he was coming apart at the seams and had to leave Boonville quickly to get some perspective on the project and himself; but she turned the statement on its head to induce more guilt at his desire to leave. She told him it was like “meeting someone, falling wildly in love with them and then announcing after three days, that you want to go away for a couple of weeks to think about whether you’re really in love…”
“That really made an impression on me at the time. It made me feel even more guilty about wanting to leave Boonville,” remembers Benji. “The way she put it, it seemed to be part of my pattern of non-commitment, as though I were looking for another excuse to leave something or someone behind,…searching for a flaw so I could avoid committing myself again.”
As he walked away from her, Benji tried to overcome his sense of guilt and fear, and concentrate on leaving; he conjured up a mental picture of himself packing his bag and hitching down the road. He feared a nervous breakdown if he stayed any longer, as though his mind would actually “come apart”. No matter what Susan said, he had to get out of Boonville.
His only barrier was his cousin Ron and the need to explain his sudden departure. As Benji approached him, he made a last desperate effort to pull himself together, steeling himself for a possible confrontation. But his cousin hardly reacted at all, ignoring Benji’s obvious distress “as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening”. Casually, he suggested that Benji catch the “last lecture”, since a van would soon be heading back to San Francisco, anyway. Then he threw his arm gently around Benji’s shoulder and started walking him back toward the lecture hall.
For an instant Benji hesitated, poised to break loose and flee in panic. Then he caught himself and fought down his inner terror and the desperate urge to run. “I had a sense that I was the one who was acting crazy, making a big deal out of this one last lecture, when I could get a lift back once it was over.
“Everything there looked so innocuous…just a bunch of people up in the country listening to some weird lectures and trying to get to know each other. What was I getting so paranoid about? I had to get hold of myself, start acting rationally. I’d catch the van in a couple of hours…”
So Benji ended up going back “like a lamb” to the “final” lecture, where all the energy, frustration and strength he had built up seemed suddenly to dissipate—as though whatever had been building up inside him had imploded, rather than exploded, “I don’t know exactly what happened, but it was a really key point. Something changed drastically, as though a very powerful force were gripping me…as though I’d been wrestling for my life and suddenly got very, very tired, pinned to the mat by the sheer weight of my opponent. Nothing I could do would budge him. I lost my resistance. The intensity of my desire to go just seemed to surrender, and it never returned.”
Soon after, a van heading back to San Francisco loaded up with a few family members, but Benji was not on it. Instead, like several other recruits who had come up with him, Benji stood silently transfixed, “as though I were watching a film”. As the van disappeared in the distance and he realized he was staying, a huge weight seemed to come off his shoulders and his body was gripped with a “strange, disattached feeling. My mouth was parched and numb; there was a tremendous tension in my body, a nervous anxiety that sizzled inside me.”
Electricity seemed to be pulsing, rushing through his veins in a raw buzzing sensation that would last all evening. And the same current of electricity seemed to engulf everyone who had stayed: Bethie, Susan, Ron and the other recruits, as though all of them were linked to a single source of power. His body felt lighter, as though striving to break free of him and float alone through space.
“I had brought out all my problems, and now I felt as though I had thrown them away…They weren’t my problems anymore.”
That night, sleeping on the cold, hard floor of the “Chicken Palace”, Benji awoke and saw a brilliant white light as far as he could discern—so bright that “if I had opened my eyes, it would have blinded me”. He shielded his eyes and the light enveloped him, “warming and soothing me, draining the tension from my body”. He felt as though someone or something was blowing a large breath of air into his lungs, then he slowly exhaled and fell into a perfect, tranquil sleep.
When he awoke in the morning, he could not be sure whether the strange experience had been a dream, a vision or reality, but it seemed terribly important to him. He had never before believed in revelations, but it seemed as though he had been sent a signal, “telling me I was through the impasse, and my decision to stay longer at Boonville had been right”.
He felt better than he had in days: his questions and doubts seemed to have faded, his fear and anxiety were gone. The world looked strangely different, closer, as though he were a living part of “something bigger”.
Something in him or the world around him had shifted, and though he didn’t know what it was, one thing was devastatingly clear: there was no going back.
Benji’s experience may seem somewhat dramatic to this point, but it is borne out by the accounts of many ex-Moonies. Testimonies usually describe a period during which formerly “stable” individuals suddenly feared themselves near emotional collapse from an assault of introspective questions and growing self-doubt.
The emotional crisis often culminates in powerful physical sensations: one woman spoke of “lighting up like a pinball machine”; another felt like the blood in her veins was “on fire”. Finally there is a breaking point at which people find their personalities “coming apart”—not disintegrating into chaos or madness, but settling into a larger “something”.
Typical was the experience of our friend Mike Kropveld, who initially went to Boonville to visit Benji, but soon fell under the camp’s spell.
Mike, like Benji, was at first skeptical of the Boonville routine; he stayed only because his best friend, Benji, kept promising him they’d be leaving soon for a “trip down the coast”. Like Benji, he had never so much as heard of the Moonies or their alleged brainwashing techniques; he went along with the Boonville routine out of a combination of politeness and mild guilt at not wanting to “put them down”. He asked so many questions the first day, that he was jokingly nicknamed “Mr. Negativity”.
But after two days of Boonville’s onslaught, Mike too felt his defenses drifting away, as he retreated inside his own mind.
“The whole thing is very introspective. You look back at your whole life…what you’re doing, where you’re going… and let’s be honest, what are most people really doing that’s so fulfilling they can’t imagine better? Most people are moving slowly, compromising in a lot of areas so they can get by.
“Me, I thought a lot about how my social commitment had faded. When I was younger, social issues were my bread and butter, but after a few years, I started to realize just where I stood in relation to the system; how futile it was for an individual to try to do anything. I realized I wasn’t going to change the world by marching. Things were too complicated. So I kind of settled down. I ended up working with retarded kids, and living my own life.
“But in Boonville, with all those people believing they could change things, a lot of my old feelings started to come out again, and with them a sense of guilt at having given up too easily. A lot of the things they were saying seemed true. Maybe I was living a selfish life in some ways. Maybe I should start thinking more about others…just my daily lunch could probably keep someone in the Third World alive for days.
“Selfishness sort of gets redefined there. It’s not something you’re doing; it’s what you’re not doing.”
Mike too was besieged by women—the ubiquitous Bethie, and a girl from Montreal who drew him into deep personal conversations. He talked about his work, his feelings for his family, and his friends back home.
“Two pretty solid couples I knew had just broken up after years together, and that had sort of depressed me. I started thinking that maybe you had to be more prepared for a relationship. I always knew relationships needed work, but at Boonville I started thinking that maybe the work was needed before a relationship could even begin. Maybe a lot of people weren’t in close enough touch with themselves to be in a relationship…maybe we should be looking after ourselves first.”
By the third day, Mike’s needs had begun to shift from wild optimism to stark depression. He felt like “an emotional tennis ball. It was a very intense time. What am I doing? What are my relationships like? Where is my life going? Can I still change it? I could deal with a lot of the questions they were raising, a little at a time, but they had me in a giant psychotherapy session, confronting my whole life at a single moment. It was a huge rush of ideas, with no time or space to absorb them.
“It’s like a funnel on top of a bottle. If you pour stuff in slowly, everything goes; but take the funnel away and it floods.”
Then, like Benji, the psychological pressure brought on physical sensations. “My head felt like it was physically expanding, so full of thoughts and ideas…connections, conflicts, relationships; coming to terms with every aspect of my life at a single moment. And all this in an alien atmosphere without a second of relief. It was too much for me to handle; I thought my head would blow up.”
When Mike went to sleep, he was dizzy and disturbed. His head felt “as though it was inflated three inches”, and he fell into a troubled sleep. When he awoke the next morning, “everything had changed”. His head had stopped swelling, his anxiety and inner doubts were gone. For the first time, he realized that he saw things with a “new clarity, as though a jigsaw puzzle had been thrown in the air, then fallen to the ground in a perfect pattern.
“I still didn’t know exactly what that pattern meant, but I knew it had something to do with Boonville. I was ready to stay there until I found out what.”
Mike and Benji’s “conversion” experiences are similar to those reported by many former members of the Unification Church and other cults. Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman interviewed members of numerous present day cults for their book Snapping; they found that most had shared a “snapping” moment similar to Mike and Benji’s when their personalities “came apart” in a rush of sensations.
For example, a young member of the Divine Light Mission told them that he was “initiated” in a pitch black room at three am, after little sleep, by someone who “came swishing out of the darkness. I felt his fingers on my eyes and I saw a light that seemed to stab down from the outer darkness. It came from somewhere behind me and created a figure eight of pure white light. It lasted for a brief period of time, and I was blown away by it.”
In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James recorded similar conversion experiences in earlier times. For instance, 18th century evangelist John Wesley could bring mobs of people to their knees, many of whom “leaped like frogs and exhibited every grotesque and hideous contortion of the face and limbs…getting down on all fours growling, snapping the teeth, and barking like dogs. ”
After such experiences, people often reported a state of clarity much like that of Mike and Benji. One 19th century convert testified:
“In an instant the bandage had fallen from my eyes; and not one bandage only, but the whole manifold of bandages in which I had been brought up. One after another they rapidly disappeared, even as the mud and ice disappears under the rays of the burning sun.”
Most North Americans can accept such historical conversions as a product of superstition and lack of education, but we are alarmed at the ability of present-day cults to entrap modern, educated young people.
Harvard psychiatrist John Clark conducted in-depth interviews with more than 100 former cult members, many from the Unification Church. Dr. Clark found that at least 60 per cent of them were “bright, normal developing young people” who were lured in by the groups’ powerful techniques. American sociologists David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe studied the Unification Church for three years and came to similar conclusions. Those interviewed appeared “to have been no more depressed or tension-ridden than most other young people.”
My own research into the Unification Church confirms these findings and suggests a further detail: most of the brighter and more articulate members I met (such as Benji, Mike and Bethie), fell into the cult while visiting former friends at Boonville. Many ex-Moonies also break Church members into two categories: the “seekers”, picked up easily by street proselytizing, and the “normal ones”, lured to Boonville by former friends and lovers.
These people do not come to Boonville troubled and searching for meaning in their lives; they come simply to see what their friends are doing—whereupon Boonville’s assault rips apart their complacency and finds the “seeker” inside them. For some, the vulnerable spot is a lack of fulfillment in their work or personal lives; for others, the guilt of being modern “consumers” who have compromised their past ideals. Their own unused potential is used as a weapon to push them into extreme introspection…and further.
As Dr. Clark concludes in his paper “Manipulation of Madness”: “They (cults) are embarking upon a draconian experiment…one which no ethical scientist would consider taking…a healthy person with a basic neurosis was having it transformed into an acute obsession…psychosis was being imposed.
Then, poised at the abyss of nervous collapse, the recruit is offered only one avenue of escape, which he takes in sheer desperation: he fastens onto the group to escape his pain. It is not said, but it is implicit: as long as he remains in Boonville and continues his inner exploration, he will be accepted, loved—even respected, for the courage to face his problems and try to change.
The recruit did not need such support when he arrived at Boonville, but now, with his sense of identity collapsing, he needs it desperately; he clings to the group like a raft in a storm, carried along on a wave with no idea of where it will break, knowing only that for the time being it will keep him sane and alive.
It is a release to what psychiatrist Joost Meerloo called “the inner traitor in all of us”, in his classic 1950’s text on brainwashing, The Rape of the Mind. “Men yield primarily because at some point they are overwhelmed by their unconscious conflicts,” says Dr. Meerloo. “These conflicts, kept under control in normal circumstances, come to the surface under the strain of menticidal pressure (brainwashing).
“It is as if the future mental patient preferred to surrender to an outward enemy, rather than to the inward enemies of disease and nervous breakdown.” (My italics.)
This conversion process is a giant leap-frogging from one reality to another. It virtually peels the recruit’s identity from his body, and jars him loose from his ordinary way of perceiving the world. According to Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, a San Francisco psychiatrist who interviewed hundreds of present and former cult members, it often results in the glassy-eyed stare and religious visions that marked Benji’s experience. Other changes may include impotence, arrested growth of facial hair and the voice becoming high and shrill.
Yet for all their power, these changes do not signify the “creation” of a Moonie. The resulting loss of self may be sufficient to create a new charismatic, or a Billy Graham convert, but it is not enough to send the recruit out flower selling and proselytizing for Moon; in fact, he usually does not yet even know that Moon exists.
If the recruit were to return to the world and his old “connections” at this point, says Dr. Clark, he would likely fall back into his old life, with little remaining but a sense of wonder at a remarkable experience (and a possible willingness to make regular contributions to the group that “saved” him). But just as evangelist John Wesley discovered 100 years earlier that he required regular “study groups” if his members were not to “slide back into misery”, Moon too requires continuing—though far greater supervision of the “convert”.
The new recruit is weak and frightened; he has lost his sense of identity and is desperately in need of something to restore or replace it, but he is not a “Moonie”. He is only the raw material with which the making of a Moonie will begin.
“The next three weeks were a fog,” says Benji of the period immediately following his “conversion” and he remembers few details. Boonville’s frantic routine seemed to catapult on, as Benji clung desperately to it, burying his newly discovered self-doubt in the group’s frenzied activity.
“Every day was just a carbon copy of the previous one …incredibly busy,” he says. “But as I kept going through the same motions and the same lectures every day, time started to lose all sense. My memory and thinking got duller and duller…”
Dr. John Clark refers to this post-conversion period as “conversion maintenance”, and it is an appropriate term. It is a holding pattern: a time to consolidate the break with the recruit’s old identity; to distance his memories of family, friends, school, work and reality; to heighten his increasingly desperate dependence on the group. By the time the maintenance period is over, says Dr. Clark, “safety and sanity are deemed possible only within the cult.”
Most ex-members describe this early period as a sort of nether world in which they ghost-walked, dumbfounded; uncertain of where they were heading but terrified of returning to their former lives by the emotional wounds now associated with them. This was the period during which Mike Kropveld left Boonville, and the experience had already severely crippled him.
“I was a very vulnerable, frightened person,” Mike recalls of the time following his conversion. “If I was off by myself for just a few minutes, a feeling of loneliness seemed to cut right through me…then as soon as I’d be back with the group again, there’d be a terrific sense of relief…a sense of closeness and growing euphoria.”
In exchange for this now-vital support of the group, the recruit is required to “share” more and more details of his inner self during daily confession periods, excavating his mind for further details of his sordid, selfish life. Some recruits are encouraged to talk about their family problems, others about their greedy consumerism, and as one female ex-Moonie publicly testified, many were grilled for hours on the explicit details of their sex lives: “every boy or girl I had made love to, the times I had masturbated, the time I seduced my younger brother…”
Benji was encouraged to talk of his past relationships with women and work; focusing on the egocentricism and lack of commitment he was now convinced they demonstrated. The more he exaggerated negative aspects of his life, the more enthusiastically he was received. Day by day, his stories grew grimmer and more incriminating, as “I started to believe what I was saying and experience a growing sense of relief at the life I had escaped.
“The more I talked about my life, the more I felt separated from it, until eventually…my old life seemed almost never to have existed.”
All this is well mapped out by the Church’s leaders. Former Unification Church instructor Gary Scharff says he was told to use the first three days to locate and “hook” the recruit’s weaknesses, the following seven days to “reel them in”, and the next 21 to have them go through old experiences and “redigest their lives”.
“Give them an experience of re-birth,” was a recruiting instruction Scharff copied into his notebook at the time. “They must reckon with the past and get a new start…then they can become a part of the body of the Messiah.”
As the maintenance period proceeds, says Dr. Clark, the past “seems almost never to have existed” and the recruit comes more and more to exist in the now. “Reality becomes the present and includes in it elements of supernatural, terrifying magical thought… ”
Benji concurs. “Towards the end of the fourth week at Boonville, the idea of God seemed very real to me, very close by. The less validity my own life had, the more I sensed that I belonged to something bigger. There were incredibly ‘full’ moments. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to think that there was something called the Truth, and that Boonville was somehow tied up with it. I was grappling to understand it.
“My old world seemed to have become dark and black and evil, while Boonville was becoming a bright, shining hope. I still didn’t know where it was I was heading…but at last I had the feeling that I was coming out of the fog. I could almost make out what was ahead, and as I could, I wanted to see it even more and more clearly.”
Benji was ready to make a commitment. His old life was obsolete, utterly without value, his only hope lay in the future, with the Creative Community Project. The “holding pattern” was over. It had been only a month since Benji had arrived for a quick visit with his cousin, but already he was ready to leave Boonville and follow the group—wherever it led.
In leaving Boonville, the recruit takes the next major step toward becoming a Moonie: committing himself to full-time membership in the Creative Community Project. Some are not “ready” to make this commitment for as long as three months, but most are prepared by the end of the first month.
Shupe and Bromley, studying a Unification Church recruiting camp in Texas, found that only 15 per cent of the recruits had actually made a full-time commitment to the organization after the first three days, but a full 60 percent had made it after the first month. Benji joined on his 25th day, actually signing a contractual agreement pledging to remain a member for at least three months. Soon after, he agreed to turn over $2000 in savings, as a gesture of “faith”.
Other ex-Moonies say they were required to make similar overt commitments. Ex-Moonie Jan Kaplan told me that she ripped the pages out of her diary at this point, symbolizing that her life was starting anew; others underwent three-day fasts; most agreed to throw out their clothes and accept communal possessions and a short haircut. Some recruits change their names, the men taking solemn biblical ones such as Noah and Jeremiah, the women more breezy ones like Muffy and Poppy.
The changes are telling symbols, for this is perhaps the crucial step in becoming a Moonie. It is here that some of the most profound implications of cult behaviour can be found; yet here that most cult-watchers lose sight of the winding psychological trail.
To this point, the recruit has been a creature of his emotions, a shredded personality taken to the brink of psychosis, then “saved”, clinging to the group for protection from his still raw inner wounds. Now the nature of the commitment to the group alters drastically: it shifts from an emotional attachment to a powerful intellectual commitment.
“Feelings are what have gotten man into trouble throughout history,” echoes the very first Boonville lecture. Now, after four weeks of travelling through the Boonville “fog”, the implications are at last clear.
“We must overcome our feelings…change them and bring them into line with our new ideals. We must have the strength and discipline to build ourselves into restored personalities… so that each of us can become a better person. God can cure your disease… he can change your character.”
In committing himself to stay, the recruit is not simply agreeing to join the group to serve God and build a “better world”; he is also pledging to try and build a “better self”, to remake himself into a “good person”. It is a tremendous task; in the words of the Church’s own 120-day training manual, it means: “I must deny my way of thinking, my way of feeling, my way of talking, everything. My desire, my hope, my joy, my will must be placed on the altar and given to God… Nothing belongs to myself any more… everything belongs to God. I have nothing.”
So it was for Benji: “The commitment was terribly important, the most important thing I’d ever done. Up until then, I had just been hanging around Boonville out of a mixture of guilt, fear and idealism and I was often participating only half-heartedly. But now I was promising to stay with the group for three months and try to remake myself, even though I had no idea what that involved. I was convinced that I had lived a small, narrow existence…that all my values and ideas, “concepts” as we called them, had been brainwashed into me by the evil, selfish world I had lived in. Now I was agreeing to try and overcome those concepts, no matter how hard that was. If we were going to change the world, first we had to change man…and that meant changing me. Everything about me…
“The way I thought, the values and feelings I had, my attachment to my parents, even my need for sleep and food, all these were parts of the old me I was rejecting. I had to transcend them…get rid of those parts of me and build myself over again from scratch…though I had no idea where that would eventually take me…”
In principle, Benji’s aims could sound almost noble and idealistic, but there was a hideous catch. Since the recruit was still just a “spiritual child”, explains Gary Scharff, he was not yet capable of deciding what constituted a “good person”. So all he could do in the meantime was adopt the group’s standards; serve the “common good” rather than his own, follow an outside model.
“Good was defined as living for other people…evil was when you lived for yourself,” sums up Scharff. “So to become a good person, you had to deny your own feelings and desires and devote yourself to the group…and that meant obeying without question anything that the leaders told you to do. Serving whole purpose rather than small purpose—God rather than self.”
The recruit was agreeing to obey the group standards “in all situations—even when his own “selfish” conscience told him to do otherwise,” explains Scharff. “That meant obeying Reverend Moon…because that’s where the group’s decisions were coming from, even if he didn’t know it at the time.”
San Francisco psychologist and professor of psychiatry Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer worked with the U.S. Army in Korea after World War II examining allegedly brainwashed prisoners of war. She has since interviewed more than 350 active and former members of North American cults. According to Dr. Singer, this moment of “commitment” is a critical step in the indoctrination process of the Unification Church: the point at which new recruits completely expose themselves to what she terms the “soul engineering” that lies ahead.
“In the early weeks, a lot of these kids are just wounded and frightened,” says Dr. Singer. “They’re staying with the group to ease the emotional hurt that they feel. But once they’ve agreed to treat their own thoughts and feelings as dangerous inner enemies…to trust the group before they trust themselves…they’re starting to lose all touch with their old selves…”
From this point on, when the group tells the recruit to sacrifice food, he must readily go hungry; if it tells him to lie or steal, he must obey; if it tells him to believe something—anything—he must strive to do so, no matter how much it defies the bounds of his old concepts. His own doubts and hesitations are to be seen as his inner weaknesses; a product of his self-centered thinking.
He must suppress them and do what must be done for God until such time as he is strong enough to understand, strong enough to have a wider vision that will take account of the whole picture. “Later I will understand…now I must be humble to God.”
In short, the recruit has found a way to by-pass his own feelings and moral values; yet to rationalize this moral surrender as an act of inner strength and discipline. The more his “old self” protests what he is doing, the stronger is his “new self” for its ability to ignore the inner cries and “stay on the right track”.
The recruit’s old identity is capped and almost completely buried. In the words of Dr. John Clark: “At this point consciousness is a very narrow piece of functioning…there is only the last little bit needed to completely seal off the memory of the old person…and chanting provides the tool.” In the days immediately before his departure from Boonville, the recruit has been repeatedly warned of the difficulties he will face on returning to the sinful world; a world so evil, so selfish that it will threaten his new faith and commitment, tempt his old “concepts” out of their hiding place in his mind.
He must be prepared to combat not just the evil outside, but the evil and selfishness it will provoke inside him. “It is so easy to backslide.” To resist these attacks, he is taught to “center”—to chant—a technique of “positive thinking” that will help him to concentrate (center) on the group’s teaching and fight off attacks of “spaced out” or “negative” thought. It will bring him back to God “like a lighthouse in a fog”.
“You learn to use it to stop your mind from wandering or drifting into negative areas,” recalls Benji. “You tell yourself over and over: don’t wander…don’t think…just do what you’re supposed to be doing. Do it…DO IT! That way, if a negative thought comes into your head, you don’t dwell on it or waste time trying to figure it out…you just run over it and do what you have to. DO IT!”
In their first days back in San Francisco, Benji and the other new recruits were kept in a special “halfway house” adapting to these new techniques so they could go out in the world alone. Within a week, the chant had become an effective means of combating the treacherous inner voice within Benji—the weak former self that he was forever trying to repress, but which haunted him nonetheless. No matter how great his resolve, he never knew when it might suddenly attack: a craving for food or sleep while he was busy raising money for God; a flash of some childhood memory lingering in his mind and slowing his work pace; perhaps even a doubt or challenge to the authority of the Project itself.
No sooner did the treacherous thought or desire materialize than the chant would be there to automatically stifle it—a sentry protecting the new found purity of his mind. Hunger, fatigue, lust, laziness, doubt, these were simply old “concepts” still dormant within him. They must be overcome.
“You must not sleep much, eat much, rest much. You must work day and night to make this great task a reality. You must move on right to the moment of death…” said the study guide. There was no limit to what Benji could do, if he overcame his negative concepts.
Already he was living on only one or two meagre meals a day, sleeping less than four hours a night—yet feeling stronger, closer to God all the time. The world could be changed if you gave “one-oh-oh”…one hundred per cent. “BRING IN THE MONEY…STAY AWAKE!…SMASH OUT DOUBTS!” he would chant whenever he felt weakness coming on, and soon, the weakness would fade and disappear.
According to Gary Scharff, the chant was the key to establishing “total control” over the recruit. “Up until then, you were prepared to obey, but you always had to have an older brother or sister around to tell you what to do.
“But we wanted more…we wanted the source for that authority to be within you. A real Moonie is the cult’s own agent in indoctrinating himself…and the chant was how that was established.”
Originally the chant was used only to psyche Benji up when he felt negative thoughts threatening him; but as the days passed, Benji, like most of his brothers and sisters took to chanting to himself any time he was unoccupied. It became a means of keeping his mind filled during idle moments, preempting any possibility of “evil” thoughts invading by keeping his mind filled with “positive” ones.
Idle seconds were dangerous terrain, a possible foothold for the selfishness still lurking in his heart. So instead, Benji silently chanted. He chanted as he walked through the streets; he chanted as he rode the bus to the University to look for members; he even kept a light chant going during idle seconds of conversation with potential recruits he met on the street. While they responded to his approach, Benji would be secretly chanting “Bring in the money…BRING IN THE MONEY!”—psyching up, psyching up as they spoke their selfish prattle, so that he could once again give them God’s word.
“Glory to Heaven. Peace on Earth. BRING IN THE MONEY!”
Eventually, within only weeks of his return to the city, Benji would be actively participating in massive, daily group chants of such intensity they would provoke near-mystical experiences among members. He would also spend hours in feverish prayer, similarly intended to eradicate all glimmers of critical thought or doubt.
“Oh Heavenly Father…Please, please, please forgive me for not giving my one-oh-oh selling flowers today. Oh, I’ve been so unrighteous and so selfish, please, please, please forgive me Father!”
At least three hours a day would be spent in such intensive prayer and chant to psyche members up for their contact with the evil, outside world. The resulting scenes would be reminiscent of the orgiastic “two minute hate” in George Orwell’s 1984, with members repeating the same chant over and over for half an hour, until many were writhing on the ground in “ecstasy”, pounding their fists in the air and shrieking at the top of their lungs:
“GLORY TO HEAVEN! PEACE ON EARTH! BLESS HEAVENLY FATHER!”
“The first few minutes of it were always the hardest,” recalls Benji. “You’d just be doing it by rote, fighting it out till you’d feel it. But then you’d sort of warm into it…get into the familiar rhythm again, where you start working on a higher and higher pitch…until all thoughts, all worries, all doubts are dissolved into a great gush of feeling; as though you were being carried away on a giant wave, totally enveloped.”
After half an hour of chanting, members would link hands and experience a “sense of remarkable calm”, then a slow, rising strength and a fierce togetherness and determination, “as though we were one giant, merging creature—with one mind, one purpose—ready to do anything…anything.”
With this tool, the work of destroying the recruit’s personality is now complete. Private thoughts no longer exist; chanting has replaced thinking, and offered as its reward the increasing frequency of ecstasy.
Not only has the “old self” been imprisoned in a subterranean chamber of the mind, but any possibility of escape has been eliminated by plastering over the cracks in the cell wall with the sealant of the chant. Thought and feeling are now the enemy: no sooner do they begin to operate than they trigger the chant like a burglar alarm, to seal off the prisoner’s cage again. In effect, the recruit is his own jailer.
Whatever thoughts, feelings, relationships, ideas or passions had made up the individual have now been neutralized; they will no longer play a role in determining his future. In the words of Gary Scharff: “The line between self and other is now eroded. Good feeling comes from accepting all the cult’s tenets as your own, as coming from within you…there is no longer an inner voice that talks to you.”
Ted Patrick, a notorious one-man crusade who has deprogrammed more than 1500 cult members sees the chant as a kind of self-hypnosis “that comes in a million forms and every cult uses…it can be induced by repeating a chant, a word, a group of words, by meditation, yoga, tapes, records, the Bible, the cult’s books, any card in the deck.”
“First they empty your brain. Then they stuff it with their ideas, and then they seal you in the new world forever with the chanting technique.”
Dr. Margaret Singer agrees. “The chant prevents the member from ever, ever connecting up with his old self again. There is no conscience, no reason…no rational thought going on. Self is totally obliterated. Now they can start running the program like a tape…and the kids have no defense against it.”
“Programming” is the last, and in many ways the easiest stage in the making of a Moonie. Once the old self has been cancelled, the recruit can be gradually molded into his new identity; virtually anything the Church tells him must be rationalized and absorbed. Those who still show signs of resistance are quickly sent back to Boonville for further training.
The recruit’s hair has already been shorn and his clothes “communalized”; now he is introduced to the rigors of a “life for God” in the Creative Community Project. This, he soon discovers, involves three central activities: recruiting, fund-raising and chanting. Within days of returning to San Francisco and making the three-month commitment, Benji was voluntarily rising at 4.45 a.m. to chant and study the Divine Principle. At 5:30 “late wakers” would arise for several more hours of feverish group praying, chanting and singing. Silence was observed until 7:15 a.m. and a liquid fast until noon.
At 10:30, members were sent to work at recruiting new members, selling flowers in the street or working in one of the Project’s many businesses. Benji usually did recruiting or flower-selling, and he often went without any solid food until suppertime. At 6 p.m., he would return to Washington House to meet whatever new recruits had been rounded up during the day. “I’d be starving by then and would stuff myself with the daily casserole,” he recalls, though fish, meat or other protein substitutes were never served. “An egg in the soup was a real treat.”
At 10:30 p.m., when the nightly lecture and slide show had ended and recruits had either left or gone up to Boonville, Benji and the other members would spend several hours cleaning up tons of dirt and dishes from 75 people eating dinner. As mopping and cleaning continued, exhaustion would overcome him and his mind would become foggy. “I’d start falling asleep on my feet and have to chant to keep awake.”
Sometime between 12:30 and 2:30 a.m., he would retire to the crowded room he “shared” with about 10 other people. There was no TV, no radio, no newspapers or other reading material. He would not need them, crashing into a dreamless black sleep for an average of four hours.
In later weeks, he would often be awakened in the dead of night to participate in a special “family” chant that the San Francisco area Church maintained in serial fashion, 24 hours a day. Every second night he would be hauled from bed at 3 a.m. to splash water on his face, hurry into a white shirt and tie and rush downstairs to relieve the previous “chanter”. He would chant till 3:30 a.m., then hurry back to sleep on the hard wood floor until his 4:45 wake-up hour.
One day a week, most members would do a water-only fast and three-day fasts were regularly encouraged. Sundays provided the only real “break” in the routine. At 4 a.m. often without having slept, members would board Project buses, and drive to a “holy spot” at a nearby mountain for prayer and chanting. The drive back to the city in the early morning light would see many people falling asleep in their seats, only to be woken by a nudge from a mindful neighbor convinced that “the more sleep we sacrificed…the stronger we would eventually become”.
“Sometimes I feel so sick, intolerably,”said the study guide. “But I don’t worry about that so much. I think that even if I am exhausted and die it is natural. So do your best. When you exhaust your energy and accomplish the goal you will become a perfect object for God and you will be revived. This is the Principle.”
Within this maelstrom of unrelenting activity, meagre food and little sleep, the remaining traces of Benji’s personality were gradually replaced by the Moonie prototype. Dress, manner and speech were all pushed to become more “God-centered”: Gary Scharff’s notebook contains instructions specifying the desirable posture, gaze and even eyelash angle for the “perfect soldier of God”.
Speech was transformed too, as the language was loaded with what Yale psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has termed “thought-terminating cliches”. Conscience and values were reduced to disposable “concepts”; the word “sincere” was inverted in sense, to mean being true to God (the group) rather than oneself; and “love” was a universal term to justify anything one did for God, regardless of how unscrupulous. In this fashion, acts such as lying, cheating and stealing could be dismissed as “heavenly deception”.
Like the Ministry of Truth in 1984 which declares “Peace is War and War is Peace! Democracy is tyranny and freedom is slavery! Ignorance is Strength!” the language became “newspeak”, catching members in a mesh of inextricable double-talk that precluded critical thinking.
Even Benji’s sense of humor altered drastically. “I didn’t laugh at things I once found very funny. Everything was urgent…deadly serious. Slipping on a banana peel would have been a loss of God’s time…there was nothing funny about it anymore.” Instead his smile had become a virtual piece of jewelry, worn in public to create a good impression and help spread “God’s work”. Flower-selling and “witnessing” (recruiting) required boundless enthusiasm and energy, so one had to look—even feel—perpetually happy and smiling.
“Witnessing is joy, because through witnessing you can make Him (God) happy, and through fund-raising you can make Him happy,” said the study guide. “You feel joy, therefore, always His joy is my joy.”
Acquiring such “joy” often required diligent practice. Many members had to go through “smiling conditioning”, during which they walked around with permanent smiles pasted to their faces, reinforced by the constant love and approval of the group. Often other members might stop to tickle the “smilers” to teach them how to laugh more spontaneously.
All the baggage of one’s former personality had to be transferred over to the new value system; one had to laugh, smile, cry and fear when God required it, not when the individual did. In the meantime, you simply went through the motions, hoping that one day the new “God-centered” feelings would fill in.
As more and more of Benji’s old concepts fell by the wayside, he could more easily identify the remaining “weaknesses”. Two of the hardest to overcome were the “concepts” of hunger and fatigue, which gave him constant difficulty. As little as he ate, there was always a stronger brother who ate less, as early as he woke, there was always a stronger sister up first—underscoring his weakness and pushing him to drive still harder.
“I will try to challenge the limits of time, ability and effort today,” said a tiny card he carried in his pocket, and he repeated this pledge three times a day.
Another difficult problem that haunted him and most other members was the unmentionable one—lust—referred to euphemistically as a “Chapter 2 problem” (the chapter of Divine Principle dealing with sex as original sin). “It was the most evil thought of all, as horrible as death to contemplate…but one of the hardest to stifle,” remembers Benji. Sometimes when he was recruiting, a woman would pass by and lust would suddenly attack, so Benji would have to exert all his will power to “turn the concept around in my head”.
“I’d track down the concept—namely that I found the woman attractive. Then I’d substitute a new thought immediately, telling myself she was God’s child…and I had to bring her closer to God. Then I’d chant it out until a new, dull kind of feeling would start to well up in me and then suddenly—Bang!—I’d just SWITCH ideas. The old feeling would be gone.”
However, the “concept” that gave Benji by far the most difficulty, was his old “conscience”. Now that he was God’s agent, working to save mankind at this crucial juncture in history, his mission was urgent: he had to bring people and money away from the Satanic world and toward God’s Truth—a task so important that old concepts of “truth” crumbled before it.
When selling flowers, members would often pass themselves off as anything from private businessmen to senior citizen volunteers. Similarly they would cut the stems off three-day old flowers to make them appear fresh, and some members even had short-changing down to a science. “It didn’t matter what you did. It was only Satan’s money…and we were bringing it over to God.
“That was my big weakness,” recalls Benji. “I had a hard time conning old people, cripples—anyone who looked like they could use the money badly. It really went against my grain.
“But by the later months, I had already convinced myself that the reservations I had were my problems, my limited concepts…and I had to have the discipline to resolve them. Intellectually I knew that I was offering people a thread to God by getting them to give us money. It was only a question of learning to live up to my ideals.”
During his last month of flower-selling, Benji was walking down a back street, when an elderly woman keeled over in front of him and struck her head on the pavement, blood trickling slowly from her mouth. For a while the Benji of old emerged, as he rushed into a nearby restaurant, grabbed a tablecloth off a table, and went back to comfort the still unconscious woman. He called a hospital and spent an hour nursing her back to consciousness, until the ambulance finally arrived.
When the woman had been carried away, Benji dutifully reported the incident to his flower team leader, expecting to be commended. Instead he was rebuked for wasting God’s time when he should have been fund-raising. “Let the dead bury the dead!”his team leader snapped.
“At first, a part of me reacted against it…the first time the old me had come out so heavily in months,”recalls Benji. “I felt I was right! Then, slowly, as I centered on it, I began to see, and substitute a new concept. The old woman was a part of the evil world, and I hadn’t helped her get any closer to God. Instead I had wasted an hour of God’s time that could have been used to bring in funds that were crucial to the Mission.
“Helping the old woman had been following my old concepts…old, small concepts I had decided to rid myself of…I felt very, very guilty and realized I had done the wrong thing, and couldn’t let it happen again. I had a mission, God’s mission…and it was far too important to stop for anyone. LET THE DEAD BURY THE DEAD!”
It was not until the end of Benji’s second month with the Project that he finally “accepted” Reverend Moon as Father. In the weeks leading up to it, Benji had been living in a special house for early members in San Francisco, where Moon’s name had come up more and more frequently during daily lectures about great philosophers and psychologists. Films and literature also made increasingly common mention of Moon, until it became clear to Benji and other recruits that he was somehow “associated” with the Project.
Simultaneously, religious indoctrination had evolved into a historical theory demonstrating that “Godless communism” was on the march throughout the world, and that a Messiah, much like Buddha or Jesus, was already somewhere on earth, ready to change the course of human history and win mankind back to God.
Information on the Messiah and Moon began to dovetail in the later weeks, until even their dates of birth were similar. Finally Benji took the required leap of faith; and suddenly “realized” it was him. “Things had been moving in that direction for several days, the possibility growing in my mind…until, one day—Bang! I just knew it. No one had to tell me…no one ever does. Reverend Moon was the Messiah.”
Benji’s initial three-month commitment ended with hardly a passing notice. What had originally seemed a temporary decision by his weakened self to try “living up” to the group’s standards had become a self-perpetuating mechanism.
Just posing the question of leaving at the end of the three months was unthinkable; to pose any question, Benji knew by then, was to question everything—the group, the Church, the very existence of God. The remaining contradictions—such as Rev. Moon’s apparent wealth, or the liquor served at Aladdin’s would take time to understand. But they would be understood; for now, any doubts had to be put aside.
“If there are contradictions, they are always your weakness, not Father’s,” said his group leaders. “You’re either faithful to the new ideal, or you’re not.” And it was true. By the end of the fifth month in the Church, Benji had even come to accept the one new concept that he had never expected to, the one idea he had resisted throughout his indoctrination—the existence of Satan.
In the last two months Satan was an idea that had come up more and more frequently, an almost mythical figure responsible for the evil and “negativity” that plagued the world. But Benji had never taken it literally: “It was always just a sort of image.
“It was one thing to believe in God—even in a guy named Reverend Moon I’d never met, who was the Messiah—but Satan was something I just couldn’t accept, even then.”
Only in his final gruelling month with the Church did Benji realize that Satan was a terrifying reality. It had come to him during MFT—Mobile Fundraising Team—the most intense activity a Moonie undergoes: “Flower selling for God”.
The flower mission had begun soon after his coffeeshop encounter with Marilyn and me, during our first attempt to see him in San Francisco. Only hours later, Benji was off on a suddenly announced “secret mission” to Canada where he remained the entire time we were in San Francisco waiting to see him.
That month in Canada was his most intense period of Moonie life; travelling across the Western Provinces with four other members in a van, sleeping as little as one hour a night and eating almost nothing, driving himself relentlessly in a three-week blitz that took him from the Queen Charlotte Islands off British Columbia to the town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan.
They worked the streets furiously, 18 hours a day, and the results were “Great for God”. On several occasions he and a female partner made more than $1000 a day, passing themselves off as enterprising, clean-cut kids trying to get started in the business world.
In the midst of this unrelenting activity, with virtually no food or sleep, and a skin rash breaking out on his legs, Benji had finally discovered Satan. “The isolation and intensity of my life was so great that I needed some kind of support—an enemy I could hate and fear so much it would drive me harder, and keep the doubt out. Something I could blame for the pain, and the hunger and the hardships…so Satan became a reality, like it already was for the rest of the flower-selling team.”
It was Satan who threw him out of bars where he tried to sell his flowers, Satan behind the drunks who hooted at him at night, Satan who tried to overcome him with sleep and hunger and the skin rash that plagued him and other members of the team as they tried to carry out God’s work. It was Satan who put him to sleep at the steering wheel during all night drives to the next town.
Satan was everywhere. He ruled the entire selfish world, and he even ruled the evil concepts that still lurked deep in Benji’s own mind. His own doubts and negative thoughts were no longer just weak concepts to be rid of, Benji realized; they were invasions of Satan himself, to be fought off at the price of even his life.
“The biggest Satan is you yourself, not others,” said Master Speaks. “If we can subjugate the biggest Satan within ourselves, we can subjugate any Satan, anywhere in the world…he who can control himself, will be able to control the world.”
It was no longer just guilt or idealism that motivated Benji, but sheer terror: terror that if he stopped, even for a second, Satan would steal his mind and take him back to the evil, demented existence that awaited those who abandoned God…back to a fate “worse than death”.
There was God and ecstasy on one side, the horror of Satan on the other, and nothing in between, Benji realized as he raced through the streets chanting, praying and running for God. One false step and he was doomed.
“Glory to Heaven. Peace on Earth. STAMP OUT SATAN!”
As bizarre and unrecognizeable as Benji’s behavior may have been he never really became the “restored personality” that he appeared to be. “Inside, I was always struggling, trying to overcome my old concepts and live up to my ‘ideal’ ones. That struggle was never resolved.”
Like most Church members, Benji’s Moonie personality was completely severed from his feelings, acting according to a set of ideas—an ideology—rather than any emotions he actually experienced. He was always doing “what I was supposed to be doing…not what I felt like doing.”
Perhaps it is this gap between what they are doing and what they are actually feeling that accounts for the glassy, detached look that we saw on Benji. Many others have reported the look in Moonies and other cult members: a hollow, disconnected appearance that gives one the impression, in Daphne Greene’s words, that “No one is at home”.
“They’re looking at you with a big grin and saying, ‘I love you!’, but somehow it doesn’t seem real at all…because it isn’t. They’re just doing what they’ve been programmed to do…there’s no feeling behind it at all.”
In time, this too would have changed, had Benji stayed with the Church long enough. Cult-watchers and ex-members all report that after one or two years in the group, the member gradually loses his “thousand-mile stare” and plastic smile and returns to an apparently genuine state, like Bethie. It is, says one psychiatrist “like an actor who plays his role so well and so long, he becomes lost in it forever”.
These Moonies make the best recruiters and the most convincing spokespeople; the ones who are thrust before the cameras and the microphones to deny charges that the Unification Church uses any form of “mind control”.
Like Bethie, they are still totally obedient servants of Rev. Moon and his doctrine, but they seem to be as alive and spontaneous as anyone else.
Exactly why this transformation occurs remains a mystery, in a field that is shrouded in many mysteries; but the most likely explanation seems to be that the recruit simply grows into his new role. As a child is socialized to obey and then internalize society’s complex rules, so does the Moonie learn to fill his part, by obeying first and learning to feel later.
“If you keep on repeating an expression or behavior pattern long enough,” says Dr. Clark, “eventually it will be learned and internalized…just like a foreigner in the English-speaking culture learns how to laugh at the correct times, and becomes increasingly natural with Western ways and body movement.
“In time, everything about the cult member sort of shifts over and adapts to the new behavior. The old person is effectively destroyed…and the person has become a valid new personality.”
Fortunately, Benji never got quite this far. Midway through his flower-selling mission, his “team” arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, to pick up their latest shipment of flowers, sent by plane from California. With the flowers came an urgent message for Benji from his sister Debbie in Montreal.
Three days later Benji was on a plane back to San Francisco to meet his sister and mother. He had talked to Debbie twice since receiving her message, and had reacted in typical Moonie fashion.
“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to see Debbie personally, it was more of a chance to bring her over to God. She was young, bright and idealistic…we figured I’d spend a day at Washington House with her and my mother…then convince Debbie to come up to Boonville alone. God had sent her to us.”
Hours after he arrived in San Francisco, Benji returned to the airport to pick up his mother and sister. Soon he was on his way to their hotel room to drop off their luggage. The kidnap that followed was a blur of events, as he was hauled from the hotel room with “a thousand things whirling through my mind.”
“Part of me felt a tremendous fear. This was it—Satan had come to get me. But at the same time, another part of me was stunned to see everyone there—my friends, family…I remember my father standing at the back of the room, crying…”
By the time he was back at the hide-out, the Moonie part of Benji was in firm control, determined to be strong and stave off “Satan’s attack”.
“I didn’t see you guys as real or sincere people—just agents of Satan. I was God’s servant…you were plotting to steal me back to Satan. Everything was black and white.”
Somewhere inside him, a part of his old concepts still tugged at him, wanted to talk to his friends and his parents, but he had been warned that “Satan works best through those you love.” It would be selfish vanity to think he could possibly argue with Satan and win.
He made a “silence condition”: say nothing, hear nothing and chant—to center on God. “I had to shut you out…shut out every word that you said.”
From the start of the kidnapping to Ford’s arrival next day, Benji’s tactics worked. Chanting continuously during every second of his waking hours, he was able to shut off his mind completely and shut out the evil appeals of those about him. “I was way above you. By the second day, I was very confident that I could outlast you…all I wanted was a chance to escape.”
Everything changed when Satan arrived, in the person of Ford Greene. “When he first touched me, I was so terrified I just about had a heart attack!” Benji recalls. “His name, his face…everything about him reeked of evil. I was in a total state of fear from the second he walked in.”
Benji sensed that Ford knew everything going on in his mind. His presence was like an electric bolt, shocking Benji off God’s track. As Ford’s arm draped round him, Benji was seized with utter terror, and could no longer concentrate on chanting. Without the chant to guard his mind, “all I could do was sit and listen.”
Soon Benji was listening to Ford’s onslaught of questions and accusations about the Church then to Virginia’s quiet plea for Benji to give the “other side” a chance. Frustration at his own silence began to grow inside him, until he unexpectedly found himself talking back—and feeling “tremendous relief” at doing so.
“The minute I opened my mouth I was in trouble. As my words came out, I had the feeling they weren’t really coming from inside me. They sounded more like tape recordings of something I had heard.
“I knew that I wasn’t making sense…that I was starting to break down…but a part of me wanted to keep on talking.”
Within hours of the start of the discussion, Ford’s grinding questions seemed to have opened a fissure in Benji’s head. He found himself asking questions he had suspended months ago, and been terrified to reconsider since.
How could “serving God” require him to con little old ladies and cripples out of their last pennies? Why did he spend so much time collecting money when the Church was trying to eliminate materialistic thinking? Did Reverend Moon really manufacture machine guns in Korea—and how could that serve “unconditional love”?
The lines of logic had once seemed so clear, but now everything had blurred…why was it all so hard to explain?
More than anything else, it was the presence of his friends and the near-presence of his parents that undermined the Moonie in Benji, invoking the contradiction between “what I felt and what I was supposed to feel.
“I had started off seeing you all as incredibly evil…agents of Satan. But gradually, it became harder and harder for me to see it that way. The more disorganized you seemed, the more haphazard and ridiculous your plans were, the harder it was for me to see you as part of a plot by Satan.
“It all seemed so incredibly honest…and human. You had travelled all this distance, put in all this time, money and risk…all just to talk to me. It was overwhelming.”
When he heard his parents had been arrested that morning, Benji had felt “terrible…just awful. There was no way I could convince myself they were Satanic, no matter what I knew I was supposed to believe.”
His old concepts were churning inside of him, boiling over the barriers of guilt and terror that held them in. It was as though there were two different people inside of him—the old Benji on the bottom, trying desperately to escape, and the Moonie on top, struggling to maintain its mental grip; as though two separate people were fighting for control of his mind and only one could survive.
“The more I believed what you were saying, the more the old part of me wanted to break out. My mind was working for the first time…it didn’t want to go back to not thinking again.
“It was harder and harder for the Moonie part of me to keep the lid on…so much was happening underneath. I felt like a dam was about to burst in my head.”
Lenny’s tears were the final jolt. As they streamed down Lenny’s cheeks and Ford stood nearby transfixed, Benji knew without a doubt that this was not Satan or selfishness before him—no matter what the Church said. “It was concern and love…”
And if it was, he knew, the implications were enormous …unthinkable…“I felt a tremendous sense of momentum building inside me and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. All the thoughts and feelings I had been holding back for so long just started rushing up inside me…swelling and swelling, until—POW!—the Moonie me just broke wide open, and I was flooded with a thousand different feelings.”
In the very moment after this had happened, the Moonie part of Benji was suddenly there again, filled with shame and terror at his weakness, and the horrifying consequences that would follow.
“I had a horrible dread that this was it—I had sinned and now I would pay the price…become possessed, insane and all the other things the Church had convinced me would happen if I lost God. There was a sensation of falling…falling out of control through mid-air. It was absolutely terrifying…the most insecure moment of my life…
“And then gradually, there was this incredible sense of relief, as I started to realize that I wasn’t going to hit bottom…there was no Satan waiting for me—just my friends, my family and me. The Moonie me was gone—but I was still there.”
Not all deprogrammings are as sudden or dramatic as Benji’s. According to Ford Greene and other deprogrammers, there are as many varieties of deprogramming as there are individuals in the Church, “it all depends on the person beneath the Moonie.”
While Ford took a “hard-line Satan” approach because of our tense circumstances, Moonies are often left to “chant it out” until they tire of it on their own—sometimes as much as four or five days later. Some may snap out of Moonie reality as suddenly as Benji; but others may “smoulder and smoke” for hours, the Moonie identity gradually falling away “like dead skin”, with no discernible breaking moment. In some cases, Church members may simply walk out of the cult on their own, and show up at a deprogrammer’s home—so torn by inner conflicts that something in them pushes them to seek “outside” help.
But regardless of the circumstances surrounding them, deprogrammings are almost always extremely emotional experiences. According to Kent Burtner, an Oregon priest who has been dealing with Unification Church members for several years: “People’s emotional lives don’t die when they go in there; they’re very much alive, but they’re just corked. So there’s all kinds of emotional stuff going on, and it may involve a dynamic with parents. It may involve feelings about an old relationship.”
The key, says Burtner, is to “elicit some genuine emotional responses from the individual, to help him get back in touch with his own emotional life”.
To Benji, Boonville’s indoctrination managed to exaggerate all the negative things in his life and the world, to “make everything seem evil. Deprogramming was the opposite… it reminded me of the good things I had managed to wipe out of my mind. It reminded me of all of you and what you meant to me… that there were people and things of value in my old life.”
“When I was in the Church I thought nothing could break me, but my weakness was you guys.”
His first weeks back were the most difficult. Several California Moonies had been sent to Montreal to find him, so at his own request Benji went into hiding again. He spent the time in a tiny lakeside cottage in the Laurentian hills outside Montreal, recuperating in near-seclusion. His only company was Ford’s “assistant”, Virginia, who had agreed to come to Montreal to help Benji sort out his myriad questions.
“I was very fragile and felt I needed to be taken care of,” recalls Benji of those first two weeks. “There was a transition period in which I had to learn to make my own decisions again. I hadn’t made any decisions whatsoever for almost six months.
“I couldn’t even decide the smallest things…like what to eat, or read or wear. At Boonville, everything had been taken care of for me.”
The period of readjustment following deprogramming is generally referred to as “rehabilitation”, and can last weeks or months in some cases. Returning to normal life, ex-members face a “culture shock” so extreme, one therapist compares it to “returning from another planet”.
Some ex-members may even “float” back to their Moonie reality on occasion, a frightening experience that has been compared to the hallucinogenic “acid flashbacks” reported by LSD users. Fortunately, Benji did not suffer this problem and readjusted quickly to his old world.
He spent most of his time in the country quietly reading “junk” literature, canoeing and discussing his experience with Virginia, “the only person who understood what I’d been through.” He also started a diary as “therapy” to put himself in touch with his emotions again.
“I’d lost a connection with my own feelings. I’d spent so much time doing what I was supposed to do that I’d lost the ability to know what I wanted to do. Just taking a walk in the country with the dogs was a really special experience. In the Moonies the only way you could do that was with 50 other people.
“That time in the country was like getting reacquainted with an old friend I hadn’t seen for a long time…except in this case, the old friend was me.”
At the end of the two weeks, Virginia returned to California and Benji to Montreal. He found a small apartment and spent the next few weeks on his own, fixing up his flat and regaining the rest of the thirty-five pounds he had lost during his stay with the Church.
“I liked being alone…doing quiet stuff like cooking, painting and reading. I needed lots of personal space.” As time went by he became more social, and began looking up old friends. In the early weeks, he was hesitant to explain his experience publicly, worried “people would think I was crazy—that only some idiot would become involved in that kind of thing”.
Eventually his confidence grew, and he decided to do all he could, and “whatever people learned from it would be better than nothing at all.” Since then he has given occasional lectures at high schools and community centers, and appeared on media, in hopes that he can spare other young people from learning about the Church the way he did.
He has also met numerous parents with children in cults. He tries to help them understand their child’s “new world”, and in one case he consoled a set of Montreal parents whose daughter was killed in a car accident, working on a Moonie Mobile Fundraising Team in the U.S. He does not wish to get involved in kidnapping people he doesn’t know, though he has “talked out” several cult members who agreed to see him voluntarily.
Looking back, Benji thinks he was deceived by a “remarkably clever scheme that got me believing I was in the most loving, sincere, idealistic environment in the world…when all I was really doing was giving up my personality. I see where I was becoming more and more totally obedient, and less and less human…treating people coldly and callously in the name of ‘love’.
“It scares me to think what I would have been willing to do “for God” a few months later—probably even pick up a gun and go off to war for Moon in Korea. ”
Benji is convinced that had he been found by the Church during his deprogramming, he was sufficiently “programmed” to press charges against his own family. “The Church would have made me feel guilty about my selfishness—my small purpose—in not helping them to fight future kidnappings by setting an example. Given my perspective at the time, I’m sure I would have gone along.”
For all the frightening aspects of his time with the Moonies, the experience has not left Benji pessimistic; in fact, it has strengthened his “belief in humanity”.
“I felt good about the people I knew before the whole experience, but now I have even more faith in people in general and my friends in particular. I see where everyone is special in his own way, and you have to respect them for that—not for their potential to become something else. Everyone has their own unique value.”
He is convinced that “there are all kinds of forces in society that want to control people and take away their individuality. The Unification Church is just one of the most extreme examples. It’s ironic—a lot of people like me go into the Moonies to try and escape being limited by society’s rules and controls—but they end up doing just the opposite. They get themselves locked in a deeper rut than they ever imagined could be possible.”
Today Benji has completed the second year of a three year physiotherapy program at McGill University. The decision to change careers was a largely practical one, as the prospect of finding teaching jobs looks increasingly grim in Quebec. He finds it “hard work, but extremely satisfying.
“I feel quite excited about life” he says cheerfully. “I like the prospects for the future, even if a lot of things are still uncertain. I’m very confident that things will work out well for me.
“In the long run, I think I’ve actually gained from the Moonie experience. I understand myself and my susceptibilities better…and I think I accept the complexities of life with no delusion at all about finding any magic solutions. I guess the whole experience has taught me the danger of looking outside myself for solutions.
“The only person who can run my life is me.”
Benji’s deprogramming was a success, but not all have such fairy tale endings. Benji had gone into Boonville relatively untroubled, and he came out much the same way; but others who plunge into the cult to escape longstanding problems often find life equally or more difficult when they emerge.
Old relationships, career problems, guilt and anger at being taken for a sucker by the cult can all play on the ex-member, leading to severe emotional difficulties. “When you go into the Unification Church”, says Burtner, “these problems go into the ice box, and when you come out, these things are going to thaw out.”
Conscientious deprogrammers will often continue working with an ex-cult member long after the actual deprogramming has ended—a “rehabilitation” process that can take months, and even years, to complete. One Canadian therapist says it takes an average of an hour of therapy a week for six months before most cult members feel “liberated” from the group’s influence; thus deprogramming may be only the beginning of the story.
Some deprogrammers do not take such care, and the results sometimes lead to renewed problems. The most notorious example of this approach is Ted Patrick, who claims more than 1500 deprogrammings in the past seven years. Patrick’s “lightning” deprogrammings result in many instant successes, but sometimes youngsters are left behind in confusion.
Similarly, for Moonies and others immersed in a cult for several years, deprogramming can sometimes be a risky business. The longer the member remains in the cult, the more his “old concepts” get buried under an avalanche of new ones, and the higher the chance they will shrivel, rot and die.
Deprogramming at this point can sometimes leave a “pretty hollow shell,” says Singer, who has seen several long-term cult members deprogrammed. “They were sociable and smiling,” she recalls, “but I noticed a certain superficiality, an emptiness that remained for as long as two years afterwards.”
According to Dr. John Clark, some veteran cult members, particularly those in groups that do too much chanting, may burn out their old personalities so completely that “the process becomes irreversible.”
“Nothing is left when you deprogram them except a black space between the ears,” he warns. “They’ve been in too long and chanted too much…their minds are gone.”
Most cult members who have not been in the group for too long can be successfully deprogrammed—often without even recourse to kidnapping. Toronto psychiatrist Saul V. Levine works with cult members who see him voluntarily. All of these are members who have been reluctantly convinced to come to Levine by their family—none of them has been kidnapped—and Dr. Levine discards the term “deprogramming”. He sees it as a “very intensive conversation”, and says the results are “impressive”.
“But there has to be at least a tiny crack in the armor for them to have agreed to see me,” he points out. “The fact that they’re willing to talk means that there’s already a touch of skepticism inside, even if it’s only miniscule…If you can get them to ask one question, all the other ones they’ve repressed come rushing out.”
Once members have remained in several months, however, they often become like Benji—totally unwilling to discuss or even hear the “other side”. “They’re closed off. With kids like that,” admits Dr. Levine, “I haven’t gotten to square one.”
Dr. Levine is critical of forced deprogrammings like Benji’s in all but the most desperate of circumstances. Like many others he feels that using force violates the cult members’ civil liberties and sets a dangerous precedent for the deprogramming of other religious, and even political, groups. He has also seen the results of numerous “failed” kidnap-deprogrammings—that have resulted in emotional problems, estrangement from families and sometimes a return to the cult.
He has heard of some successes like Benji’s, but overall Dr. Levine says bluntly that he is “not impressed…with the process, the people who do it, or the results.”
Yet for all of his misgivings about kidnapping, Dr. Levine understands the painful dilemma of parents faced with the “overwhelming power” of some cults.
“Something like Jonesville makes you think again,” he acknowledges. “If any parent of a young person in Jonesville had considered deprogramming prior to the holocaust there, they might have saved their lives. Much as I don’t agree with it, I can sympathize with a parent who just doesn’t want to take that chance.”
Deprogramming is a tremendously complex issue, with no clear-cut answers. Unquestionably, cults with the psychological hold of the Moonies are a frightening phenomenon, with grave and possibly lasting effects on those they entrap. It is not hard to understand those who would like to send an army of deprogrammers into the many Boonvilles in North America, to end the problem of cults “once and for all”.
Yet force is rarely more than a temporary solution, that addresses symptoms rather than genuine ills. Just as the Moonies err in clasping onto a single, simple solution to the infinite cross-currents of life, it would be a mistake to see deprogramming as an instant solution to the complex problem of cults.
Deprogramming is a tool—an extraordinary one that can sometimes work “miracles” like Benji’s—but it is not the real answer. That answer lies in understanding the soil in which cults such as the Moonies grow.
Trying to comprehend Benji’s experience is a bit like peering into a black hole in space: the deeper you look, the more unfathomable it becomes. The only time you can really understand it is when you are already being sucked into it; and by then, it is difficult to escape.
Moonie reality is so foreign to most current North American life that it will never really make sense to one who inhabits our own world. But like a black hole, we can learn something about it by studying the elements on its periphery.
A good starting point is modern psychotherapy. The general goal of most psychotherapists is to help people get “in touch” with themselves; to have them understand the relationship between their outward behavior and their inner thoughts and feelings. For instance, a depressed young medical student might examine whether he really wants to become a doctor, or whether he is only living up to the expectations of others.
Most traditional therapies operate slowly. They use increasingly personal conversations to gradually open up the patient to his own feelings, in a process that may take months or even years. But in recent years, several new therapies have produced more sudden and dramatic results by “heating up” the therapy environment. Techniques such as those of encounter groups create highly-charged emotional situations in which people’s defences break down quickly, bringing them to a point where they see their behavior more clearly and are often highly vulnerable to change.
This “moment of truth” can sometimes be frightening. Some of the newer therapies have come under criticism, because rapid destruction of “defence mechanisms” may have dangerous results: some patients may suffer psychotic breakdowns, and others may become so desperate they go through near-religious conversions, endowing the therapist with magical powers.
Consequently there is a tremendous burden on the therapist in these situations: he must make sure that the environment remains supportive, and that the patient looks to himself for the solution to his problems, not to the “all-knowing” therapist.
“The purpose of psychotherapy is to help the patient to be more independent,” says Dr. Terry Wilson of Rutgers University. “Everything in our training has been aimed at teaching us how to be supportive…to allow the patient to come to the insights himself.”
It is at this point that psychotherapy and Moonie indoctrination move in exactly opposite directions. Like some kinds of therapy, Boonville creates an intense emotional environment that pushes the “patient” into the recesses of his own mind. In fact, Boonville is far more intense than any recognized therapy, since the recruit is totally isolated from the real world for days on end—food and sleep are cut back; the routine is bizarre and unsettling; and throughout, the recruit does not even know he is undergoing a “therapy” experience.
As a result, many recruits break down quickly, coming to a volatile and vulnerable state that is sometimes the object of intense therapies. However, at this point, it is as if the “therapist” has gone mad: rather than pulling back to help the patient find answers in himself, the Moonies close in, deliberately using the recruit’s growing vulnerability to drive him to the very brink of a nervous breakdown. Then, as he teeters in terror on the fringes of sanity, he is offered only one refuge to avoid going insane: abandoning his own identity entirely and fastening onto the “benevolent therapist” to lead him to safety.
The therapy process has been perverted to achieve exactly what responsible therapy labors to avoid—the creation of a total, God-like dependence on the “therapist” as the only barrier between the recruit and madness. The love and support of the group around him (the Moonies) is now the only defence against the recruit’s inner terror. Worse yet, once this has been achieved, the group then systematically turns this awesome power back upon the weakened recruit to dismember and obliterate all remnants of his former identity.
In the weeks ahead, the recruit is convinced that he has lived a hopelessly selfish existence: the only way out of his horrifying plight is to annihilate his old personality and rebuild it from scratch at the “therapist’s” directions. This is never stated explicitly, but it is understood: from this point onwards, the recruit may trust only the group’s standards—rigorous and strange as they may seem—and not his own ego-centered perspective. Whatever experience, knowledge and emotions that previously guided his behavior are worth nothing in the days ahead. They are “old concepts” that he must be strong enough to subdue.
This is the crucial juncture in becoming a Moonie; it is at this point that whatever makes up the person’s identity is totally invalidated, blotted out of any role in determining his future path. The recruit has been so terrified that he has lost all confidence in his own thoughts and feelings to guide his actions. To be accepted, he is ready to disbelieve everything he thinks and feels and obey anything the group tells him: a state of such utter submission that, like Benji, recruits can be steered not just off the path—but in the very opposite direction to that in which they had intended to go.
A desire for more freedom is used to lead them into slavery; an ache to express more love for humanity is turned into hatred for all but a few; and a yearning to liberate their potential from society’s restrictions is used to transform them into fossilized zombies, with almost no spontaneous behavior remaining.
As grotesque as this metamorphosis may be, the power that fuels it is not new: it is obedience, in its purest form—not because the recruit fears authority, but because he has no confidence whatever in his own worth. The only thing that now gives his life meaning is the love and respect of the group—and the group will love him only so long as he continues to obey them.
In the apt words of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychoanalyst who has studied the effects of “brainwashing” for more than 20 years: “Self comes to depend on authority for its very existence. ‘I exist, therefore I am’ has been transformed into ‘I obey, therefore I am.’ ”
This total annihilation of self-worth and utter willingness to obey is the very essence of the Unification Church’s control over its members. It is why the Church appears to exercise “mind-control”—because in a sense the person’s behavior is no longer directed by his own mind. He is discounting all his own thoughts, feelings and values as “inner enemies” and acting entirely at the direction of an outside authority. He no longer trusts himself. And it is very scary, because we can see it at work in the glassy expression of many early members, like Benji, so obviously detached from their inner emotions. They look like puppets on psychological strings. They sound like “opinionated robots”. We know that they will obey anything they are told and we wonder how far they would go, if asked.
This absolute authority the Moonies exercise over their members is the basis of their cult’s power. Yet while the Unification Church may acquire and use this weapon more ferociously and systematically than others, it is by no means its sole proprietor. This same “giving up” of thoughts, feelings and values to an external authority can be found to varying degrees in a number of areas of human life.
To begin with, not surprisingly, we can see it at play to some extent in other North American cults. Few, if any, pursue it as relentlessly as the Moonies; in some groups, the degree of control seems far less marked; but it appears to be a theme common to the control techniques of almost all.
Many North American “spiritual masters”, from teenage gurus to aging yogis, routinely demand that their disciples obey even the most bizarre and “nonsensical” of commands; members must assume that all contradictions stem from their lack of knowledge rather than the master’s possible imperfection. Thus Guru Maharaj Ji and Rev. Moon can live in luxury, and other “spiritual leaders” can flirt with drugs and women while their emaciated members live in barren poverty, passing off their own lack of comprehension as an inner weakness. “Everything is my inadequacy, not Master’s…Later I will understand.”
In the meantime, these young members must construct endless rationalizations to explain away contradictions, as with one disciple of Guru Maharaj Ji, who told me: “It’s true that Maharaj Ji drives fancy cars and drinks liquor…but that’s because he is already perfect. He isn’t corrupted by material things like you or me…”
Implicit in all these mental contortions is the same message: I cannot trust my own feelings or thoughts, because I am hopelessly inadequate. “The family would always tell us ‘What’s inside your mind is lies’,” reports one former member of the Love Family, a cult on the U.S.Pacific Coast. “We are your mind. The group is your mind.”
Guru Maharaj Ji also pulls no punches in this hypnotic Satsang lecture, explicitly telling his disciples:
“So whatever you have got, give it to me. I am ready to receive it. And the extra thing you have got is your mind. Give it to me. I am ready to receive it. Because your mind troubles you, give it to me. It won’t trouble me. Just give it. And give your egos to me because egos trouble you, but they don’t trouble me. Give them to me.”
According to Ted Patrick all cults gain their authority by getting the members to hate or distrust their inner thoughts. “They all use the same set of techniques to turn their members into zombies,” says Patrick. “The cult teaches you to hypnotize yourself. It tells you that your mind is evil…that thinking is the machinery of the devil…like being stabbed in the heart with a dagger. Then it tells you that you are supposed to use your mind only to serve God—and God is always the leader.”
Patrick may be excessive in his blanket statement, but certainly many cults use this form of control to some extent—ranging from the benign degree of some yogis to the near-total control of the Unification Church. I am not familiar with enough cults to enumerate and differentiate them— but a consumer guide to the relative “obedience index” of various North American groups might prove a valuable contribution to existing cult literature.
It is important to note however, that not all so-called fringe groups in North America necessarily encourage members to distrust their own thinking and feeling processes. Traditional Zen Buddhism, for instance, is a strongly anti-authoritarian movement that calls upon its disciples to use their own strength, mind and experience to guide them before all else. “One has to walk the path of enlightenment alone,” is the essential message of this religion. “All a teacher can do is provide the occasional signpost along the journey.”
Buddha is the “enlightened one,” but he speaks in the name of a person’s own wisdom, not in the name of an all-powerful supernatural force. Consequently, members are encouraged to use their own senses to interpret the world around them; to see that no knowledge is of any value unless it grows of themselves. Serious Zen Buddhism is not a form of mind control, though some individual cult leaders may use such techniques in the name of Zen.
Conversely, just as groups sometimes perceived as cults do not eradicate inner values, others which are not seen as cults sometimes do.
Ehrard Seminar Training (EST) for example, is a modern “group therapy” popular in California, and would not be considered a cult. Its initiates continue to live ordinary, individual lives upon “graduating”, and EST claims members such as actress Valerie Harper and singer John Denver.
Yet certain similarities between EST and the Unification Church are at least unnerving. EST too gains its members through an intensive “group experience”—two successive weekend seminars that are sold as “60 hours that transform your life”. People are warned in advance that EST is going to “tear you apart, and put you back together again”. The weekends are spent essentially locked in a hotel ballroom with 250 people (at $300 a head) for 18 hours a day, during which participants are permitted only limited bathroom and food breaks—determined by EST trainers.
Some people reportedly urinate in their pants. Participants are harangued, confronted and verbally assaulted by EST trainers who tell them they are “turkeys” and “assholes”. At the peak of the second weekend, as their defences are battered down, many participants fall to the ground sobbing and crying, some shouting “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!”
What EST graduates appear to “get” is a theme similar to that sold in many cults. Their identities have been pried open, then stuffed full at the crucial moment with the EST philosophy: everyone is responsible for his own life, and whatever befalls them must have been “created” by them. This has reportedly led at least one EST graduate to state that raped women wanted to be raped, Vietnamese babies wished to be napalmed and Jewish concentration camp victims desired to be exterminated.
Others have reported that their pasts are just “troublesome tapes” that must be completely shut out of their minds. On accepting the new “philosophy” (along with the love and acceptance of their fellow graduates) EST graduates often report that they have been liberated from feelings of “shame, blame and guilt”. To others, however, it seems they have found a perfect way to shut off their conscience: if they feel guilt about living well while others are in want they shouldn’t—it is not their responsibility. Those who are suffering have “created” their own problems.
The EST philosophy is relatively innocuous and even seems helpful to some people; one could argue that it is just a psychic booster shot of the system’s current values—getting people to enjoy their good fortune while putting other people’s misfortune out of mind. Another West Coast operation called Gideon has recently gone a step further, offering a similar “training program” to those who feel pangs of conscience at inheriting large sums of money.
After a weekend of EST-style training, Gideonites suddenly “get” that it makes sense to inherit great wealth without guilt or obligation. Wealth is suddenly seen as “inherited talent”, and any qualms have been abolished from the mind.
Neither EST nor Gideon is to be compared with the Moonies. These groups control people for only a weekend, then allow them to go home (though “booster sessions” may be taken regularly). Participants are warned in advance of what they will undergo. But the underlying process of breaking down one’s inner values and sense of identity in order to replace them with those of an outside party, however comforting it may be, is similar enough to be disturbing. And one wonders how much control EST could gain over its “graduates”, if its techniques became more intensive and its leaders had more malevolent goals.
Yet this potential for giving up one’s values to an outside authority may have a wider application than cults and a few “weird” therapies. Some people believe that the same loss of identity can afflict entire nations, if historical conditions create a national mood of confusion and despair.
In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer argues that mass movements often exhibit this characteristic of “stripping the person of his distinctedness and autonomy…turning (him) into an anonymous particle with no will and no judgement of its own.” If information is sealed off during periods of national confusion, Hoffer believes, people become frightened, insecure and ripe to dissolve their identities in an authoritarian movement whose only credo is ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die.
At least two 20th century novelists, George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, have been haunted by a similar spectre. Writing in the wake of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, both authors saw the potential for totalitarian leaders or ideologies to obliterate an individual’s capacity for conscience and thought. The scenarios they envisioned bear an eerie resemblance to Benji’s and other descriptions of Moonie life. Many ex-Moonies have noticed the similarities.
In 1984, Orwell imagined a society resting on the belief that Big Brother was omnipotent and the ruling party infallible. All activity was directed at glorifying and perpetuating the Party, while the greatest offence was thoughtcrime—critical or negative thoughts about Big Brother or the state.
To resist this inner danger, citizens were taught a mental technique known as crimestop—“the faculty of stopping short as though by instinct at the threshold of dangerous thought”. Similarly, all goodthinkers were expected to have “no private emotions” and no respite from enthusiasm, cheering and laboring for the Party. There was to be no spare time, no time alone: a taste for solitude, “even a walk by yourself” was individualistic and dangerous. There was even a name for it: ownlife.
The book was fictional, written in 1949, but the eradication of individual thought and feeling that Orwell warned of bears striking similarity to Moonie life. So too do the rewards the citizens of 1984 received in exchange: a sense of belonging to a great, immortal movement that was fighting to save mankind. “If he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity,” wrote Orwell, “if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.”
Arthur Koestler, was similarly frightened by the bloody turn that Stalinism took, and the blind eye turned by millions of revolutionaries—including himself, when he was a member of the Communist Party. His novel, Darkness at Noon, is a veiled commentary on where unbending allegiance to the Stalinist “line” was taking Russia. Again, the psychology described is more than reminiscent of Benji’s state of mind.
The tragic hero of the novel is the old Bolshevik, Rubashov, who has spent his whole life deliberately repressing his inner emotions and conscience as “bourgeois sentiments”—selfish sentimentality—so he could serve the Party faithfully at every bloody turn in the revolutionary road. Sitting in his cell awaiting execution at the end of the novel, Rubashov’s mind is flooded by silent memories of friends and lovers he has ruthlessly betrayed over the years, “for the good of the cause”.
Yet to the end, Rubashov is still so grafted to the ideology of the Party that he cannot accept these memories as valid, or even as part of himself. Self does not exist. Even the word “I” has no meaning for Rubashov: he refers to it instead as “the grammatical fiction”.
“The I (was) a suspect quality. The Party did not recognize its existence. The definition of the individual was: A multitude of one million, divided by one million.”
In a recent work, The Nazis and the Occult, Dusty Sklar examines the same theme of “loss of self” to explain how millions of Nazi members could change in just a few years from “ordinary citizens to mass murderers”.
Sklar traces the Nazi’s Kadavergehorsam—“cadaver obedience”—to the party’s roots in German mystical society, where members gave themselves up to their teachers and “obeyed even the most eccentric commands, whether or not these commands do violence to one’s conscience”.
Stepping into a vacuum of social disintegration, Hitler took absolute control over the arts, literature and the news media; then with ceaseless propaganda, torch-light parades and fiery speeches, he was able to heat up Germany’s emotional climate to near-religious fervor. “To many Nazis,” says Sklar, “Hitler became a Messiah, leading them in a holy cause…pathological blindness convinced them that they were participating in the superhuman task of ridding the world of a menace.”
This menace was the Jew, a Satanic figure to whom Hitler attributed evil qualities that included conscience, intellect and intelligence—which held the German people back from becoming the predator Ubermensch. “Will” had to triumph over conscience in the New Germany.
“The intellect has grown autocratic and has become a disease of life,” Hitler said. “Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish, like circumcision.” Instead Hitler would teach the German people to develop the “will”: he would create a German youth before whom the world would “shrink back”.
“There must be no weakness or tenderness in it. I want to see once more in the eyes the gleam of pride and independence of the beast of prey…in this way I shall eradicate the thousand years of human domestication.”
To help eradicate their bourgeois conscience, young Nazis were sent to Boonville-type training camps, isolated from the real world, and cut off from the influence of their parents. There they were kept busy from day to night, working, marching and marching: in former commander Hermann Rauschning’s words: “Marching diverts men’s thoughts. Marching kills thought, Marching makes an end to individuality.”
At the camps, youngsters were subjected to a “hate” training that included ripping the eyes out of cats with “utter indifference to sorrow” to steel them in pitilessness. Similarly those sent to work as executioners in concentration camps were continually told to regard their work as sacrifice—as though any pangs of guilt one felt were not due to the crime, but rather the price one had to pay to cleanse the nation of its inner weakness.
Erich Fromm has a similar theme in Escape from Freedom, his psychological analysis of fascism in Germany. He too sees a messianic, religious base to the strength of the Nazi movement and a willingness to overcome one’s moral code to serve a “higher” one. He links it to other mass movements.
“Where the State or the Race or the Socialist Fatherland or the Fuhrer is the object of worship,” concludes Fromm, “the life of the individual becomes insignificant, and man’s worth consists in the very denial of his worth and strength.” (My italics.)
In short, a member of a fanatic movement like the Nazis is judged—like Benji—on how well he can repress his personal thoughts and feelings: the more he succeeds in burying his self and his conscience, the “stronger and more generous” he will be considered by the movement. Strength is ability to overcome conscience.
The result of this logic was a breed of men who could say, as did one young soldier testifying at Nuremberg: “I saw women and children killed, but I did not pay attention to it. I have no opinion: I obey.” Or as Hermann Goering did: “I have no conscience. Adolf Hitler is my conscience.”
These were men who Hitler could boast were not only uniform in ideas, but “even the facial expression is almost the same. Look at these laughing eyes, these fanatical enthusiasms, and you will discover how a hundred thousand men in a movement become a single type.”
Yet one does not have to go to Nazi Germany, or 1984, to find symptoms of this disease: its germs can be found right here in North America, where most people take their right to “be themselves” for granted—yet often willingly sacrifice it to those in authority.
War is generally the easiest time to see this process at work. During the heated emotional climate of war, many ordinarily peaceful people are easily convinced that “national purpose” calls upon all good men to support their country “right or wrong”. Those who opposed the Vietnam War during the 1960’s and fled their country were branded “traitors” because they could not obey orders that their conscience told them were an inhuman attack on the Vietnamese people. Yet thousands of other Americans who marched obediently off to fight the “Communist menace” (and tens of thousands of parents who sacrificed their children) were applauded as patriots for a war that later proved to have been based at least partly on presidential deceit.
At what point does conscience become treason? When must one’s inner values be stifled in the name of authority?
Even in peacetime there are strong indications that the same submissive mentality is latent in North Americans. The need to obey authority is hammered into us from an early age on this continent—often regardless of whether that authority is right or not. Foreign policy is something we must generally go along with, because “we don’t know all the facts”. Doctors, lawyers, parents, and teachers must be obeyed because they have titles—even if one suspects they are wrong.
There is evidence to suggest that people become far more accustomed to obeying authority automatically than many of us suspect. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience in America.
In this experiment, randomly selected people were asked to help test the effect of punishment on learning. On arriving at the elegant Yale University laboratory, they were introduced to another volunteer—a likeable middle-aged man who was then strapped into an “electric chair” contraption, while the first person was led to the adjacent room.
There he was faced with a control panel with 30 levers, beginning at 15 volts and going up to 450 volts, graded from “slight shock” through “very strong shock”, through “danger: severe shock” up to the last levers, marked simply XX. A stern-faced scientist instructed him to ask questions via intercom to the “learner” in the other room, with the response to be flashed on a panel in the control booth. Every time the “learner” made a wrong response, the person in the booth was to increase the shock one level.
The person did not know that the man in the electric chair was a plant, and was not being shocked; yet all the subjects continued to give what they thought were real shocks up to 300 volts.
At that point, no answer appeared on the control panel and there was a frantic pounding on the wall of the room in which the “learner” was presumably bound to the electric chair. If the person turned to the scientist for guidance, he was coldly instructed to ignore the pounding and treat the lack of a response as a wrong answer.
After the 315-volt shock was administered, the pounding on the wall was repeated, and then there were no further sounds and no more answers on the panel. Despite the ominous silence that followed, an astonishing 26 of the 40 subjects tested continued to administer shocks to the victim past the “Danger” marking and into the XX levers. During this time, most of the subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan and dig their fingernails into their flesh. In a number of cases, they even showed signs of “bizarre” nervous laughter.
Said one stunned observer who watched the proceedings through a one-way mirror: “I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within 20 minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck, who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse. He constantly pulled on his earlobe, and twisted his hands. At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered: ‘Oh God, let’s stop it.’ And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter, and obeyed to the end.”
Milgram’s experiment underlines the same frightening principle at work in North American life: many people appear to be so conditioned that under pressure they will obey authority automatically—even where it clearly contradicts their own feelings and conscience. It offers an unnerving vision of just how far many might be willing to follow under stress.
Why? Why does a society that prides itself on its freedom still produce so many people ready to sacrifice the right to be themselves? Why do people so often lose their sense of integrity and conviction when placed under pressure? And what, if any, relationship does this have to the mushrooming number of cults in North America?
In recent years, a variety of books have been written on the increasingly sophisticated tools of propaganda in use, in particular for “brainwashing”—or otherwise altering the personality of individuals.
Rape of the Mind, by Joost Meerloo, Propaganda by Jacques Ellul, and Techniques of Persuasion by J.A.C. Brown are among a growing literature on the subject of how people are influenced and shaped by propaganda and psychological techniques. Snapping, by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, is a recent addition which looks specifically at “personality transformation” in contemporary cults.
All come to similar conclusions as to why indoctrination techniques are so easily able to take control of peoples’ personalities and alter them. They suggest it is because we are already so accustomed to being controlled and altered by the forces of authority in our own society, that we do not have the inner resources to resist a “brainwashing” attack.
As Meerloo writes in Rape of the Mind:
“Although there is a horrifying fascination in the idea that our mental resistance is relatively weak, that the very quality which distinguishes one man from another—the individual I—can be profoundly altered by psychological pressures, such transformations are merely extremes of a process we find operating in normal life.”
As these studies point out, the process of control begins in early childhood, where there is enormous pressure on youngsters to follow traditional routes of behavior. Despite some changes, much of public school is intent on training children to do what they are supposed to—teaching them to memorize meaningless facts, obey the rules and generally “fit in”.
At home, many families provide similar training. With the child’s interests at heart, parents may hammer home timeworn norms about the kind of spouse, friends and job one should have to live a “successful” life. Attempts by the child to break away in independent directions may be discouraged through strict rules or oppressive guilt. “Don’t be different…play it safe” is a common parental theme.
In his studies of brainwashing victims in the Korean War and other situations, Meerloo found that those educated under strict rules of obedience and conformity broke down more easily under pressure of a mental attack. Training to conform served people well while they were in their own society—but undermined their inner strength and ability to adapt once those traditional supports were gone. Under pressure, Meerloo concluded, these people often welcomed the relief of an authority figure. They were used to having decisions made for them.
Psychiatrist Margaret Singer draws conclusions that are quite similar in her interviews with youngsters who fell into cults: in many of these cases, she notes, parents had often “wiped out interest in the kids’ own needs and choices…
“For instance, the child may have wanted to become a botanist…and he had a real beginning of talent at it, but the parent thought that being a lawyer or a dentist was far more important. So they discouraged his enthusiasm for botany and pushed him toward law…and pretty soon he was unenthusiastic about botany, but not really committed to law. So he was no place at all when a cult member approached him…
“I find this sort of thing very common among kids who fall into cults…in all kinds of areas—friends, jobs, opinions. The ones who don’t fall in are often those whose parents endorsed certain of their choices, and made them feel secure in who they were…made them feel confident about being themselves.”
The grip of parent and school authorities has been loosened somewhat in recent years. But new forces have emerged—what Fromm calls “anonymous authorities” —that similarly discourage people from learning to think and act for themselves. We live in a period where advertising, fashion, television and the corporate ethic assault people with messages of what acceptable behavior is—pressing them to conform to these standards. There is tremendous pressure on every individual to follow certain roles, regardless of how he or she feels inside.
Fashion and advertising—which Meerloo terms “the art of making people dissatisfied with what they have”—bombard us with messages of how and what we should drink, drive, dress, smoke and smell of, in order to be accepted. Television news gives the same information to all of us, at the same time and in the same order, making it more likely we will develop the same opinions, no matter how much we protest they are our own. We even learn from canned laughter what we are supposed to find funny.
These forces may guide and subtly control a youngster, undermining his ability to think for himself, as much as the more obvious authorities of past generations. Despite more permissive attitudes, few kids are encouraged to figure things out for themselves, to make choices and develop their own personalities. Often, they are simply filled up with the values of the society around them.
“Everywhere,” writes Ellul in Propaganda, “we find men who pronounce as highly personal truths what they have read in the paper only an hour before and whose beliefs are only the result of a powerful propaganda. Everywhere we find people who have a blind confidence in a political party, a general, a movie star, a country or a cause, and who will not tolerate the slightest challenge to that God. Everywhere we meet people who…are no longer capable of making the simplest moral or intellectual distinctions, or engaging in the most elementary reasoning…we meet this alienated man at every turn, and are possibly already one ourselves.”
Perhaps people who can think independently of the society around them have never been very common—but rarely has this ability been so essential as today. In the past, a young person emerging from childhood entered a relatively close-knit society that was largely supportive of the way he or she had been raised. Traditional, expectations of a spouse, a job and a way of life made available choices limited and relatively simple—without much need for independent thought. Barring disaster, the culture around him would undergo few major changes during his lifetime; if it did, he could rely on the traditional models set by religion, family, government and other institutions to help him adapt.
Today, this is much less true. Long-standing traditions and authorities around which people used to model their lives have lost respect and weakened under the pressure of rapid change and information. The family, traditional sex roles, the work ethic, government and other models have lost much of their legitimacy, while newer ones do not seem to have emerged to replace them. People are without roots.
Today, on reaching his teens, a person is thrust into a chaotic world of multiple choices and varied lifestyles, a galaxy of ideas and identities. Will I work? At what? Will I marry…have children? are among a thousand questions that assail him from every side.
He is like a shopper in a gigantic supermarket. If he knows what he is looking for, the choice can be stimulating; but if not, the choice only serves to confuse and threaten him —pulling him from one product to the next by the color and attractiveness of the packaging alone.
Worse still, the packages on the shelf keep changing. What is in one day may be out the next; what is acceptable dress, language or behavior may be out of style soon after. Even the trade or profession he chooses may become obsolete. No sooner does a youngster begin to grasp and develop one identity then tastes shift, and he must adapt to another —changing clothes, jobs, opinions and manner as fast as current fads dictate.
And he must change with these fads, because he has never learned how to think for himself: his only real sense of identity is his ability to fit in with those around him.
“It gets so that you’re doing what’s expected of you all the time, gradually losing parts of yourself to the society around you,” says one young acquaintance of mine, a successful marketing executive of 30. “You start dressing like you’re supposed to, acting like you’re supposed to, buying what you’re supposed to…all to create the right image. You don’t decide…society decides and you just go along…or else you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
“Even your conscience has to start changing to fit in with the corporate conscience, if you want to get ahead. It gets so that taking advantage of people is normal. You’re doing things you could never have imagined yourself doing a couple of years earlier—but eventually, you fall so far behind it all that you start losing touch with what it was you used to feel…
“You don’t even know who you are anymore…only who you’re expected to be. You can work to become that—maybe even make it, like I’m doing—and that gives you a certain satisfaction. But it’s an empty satisfaction…something is always missing.”
Not only those in the corporate world may feel such pangs of emptiness. It afflicts us all to some extent—from the obvious “seekers” ever in search of new lifestyles, to the suburban housewife, swallowing pills to avoid thinking of her real problems. Even those who rebel against society’s ill are not immune: some may march with protestors, vehement about what they do not want, but unsure of what they do. “Different strokes” may mask the same problem.
Yet as society grows ever more complex, as its major institutions seem to “work” less and less, as our lack of inner strength becomes more and more apparent, many people are showing the strain. Often a personal setback, such as the loss of a job, may send us into long depressions, provoking an “identity crisis” that is the consequence of people looking inwards after years without practice.
Others sense germs of the same disease before crisis sets in, and turn to various forms of therapy—trying to get in touch with their inner thoughts and desires—hoping to learn who they are and what they want, before it is too late. If they are lucky, and find responsible help, they may eventually find some balance in their lives.
But others, far less fortunate, fall into the hands of cults, or cult-like groups, that seem to offer a similar path to self-discovery—but really have violent intent. They artfully create a therapy-like environment, and use it to confront an individual with powerful inner questions he has not squarely faced before: Who are you? What are you doing with your life? And most importantly…is this what you really want?
These can be valuable questions for a person to ask, if he is ready for them and if the environment is supportive: if friends, tradition and love are there to fall back on should trouble arise. But instead, these questions are presented in a Boonville environment—an isolated, foreign atmosphere that is deliberately orchestrated to drive the individual toward a crisis he is not equipped to handle.
And as many like Benji have painfully learned, the crisis can then be savagely manipulated toward whatever end the “therapist” intends.
What amazes us about the Moonie techniques is the sophistication and brutality of the attack they launch on personality, and the rapidity with which it is completed: they manage to transform a person radically in only weeks, or even days. But underlying the extremity of their methods may be many clues as to how our own society gradually represses and controls personality while it is still in its growth stages.
In the words of former Unification Church leader Alan Tate Wood [Allen Tate Wood]: “To some extent, we have all compromised much of our spontaneity to the outside world. The unique thing about a Moonie is that he is so completely disassociated from his real self. There is practically nothing spontaneous about him…and that allows us to see the process much more clearly.”
In this light, perhaps cults do not grow simply out of our society’s weaknesses but are at the same time a projection of where those weaknesses may lead us—a macabre but revealing caricature of where our lack of control over our own lives may lead. Perhaps they warn us that the lack of inner strength and firm sense of identity fostered by our society may be the psychological material out of which blind obedience to a person, cause or country can be fashioned in times of crisis.
In a sense, the Boonville environment acts like a giant psychological bunsen burner: it heats up the unconscious fears and doubts of an individual within it until they boil over, threatening him with the terrifying existential question: If I am not who I think I am, then who am I? But it is possible that economic and social factors can transform an entire nation into a heated Boonville-type environment in which collective fears and doubts similarly rise to the surface.
If North America’s social climate were to become more chaotic and uncertain under the pressure of historical and economic forces, could large numbers of people similarly lose hold of their fragile sense of security and self? As unemployment, inflation and chaos wreaked havoc on patterns of life that had been taken for granted, would many people begin to question their own values and sense of identity? And under such collective fear could they, like individuals at Boonville, seek to assuage their terror by binding to an authoritarian leader who promised an all-powerful solution to their problems?
In Rape of the Mind Meerloo sees just such a danger for the Western world. He warns that “If the complexity of a country’s political and economic apparatus makes the individual citizen feel powerless, confused and useless, if he has no sense of participation in the forces that govern his daily life, or if he feels these forces to be so vast and confusing that he can no longer understand them, he will grasp at the totalitarian opportunity for belonging, for participation, for a simple formula that explains and rationalizes what is beyond his comprehension.”
Both he and Erich Fromm argue that the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany was at least partly a psychological reaction to economic and social disintegration: inflation and unemployment were rising, destroying traditional concepts of thrift and savings; traditional authorities were confused and discredited causing parents and government figures to lose respect in the eyes of the young. Old models were breaking down with no evident replacements, so the psychology of the country was confused and searching. Not surprisingly, the period was marked by the mushrooming of numerous mystical cults, all of which were later swallowed up or eliminated by the Nazi party.
Is the current rise of cults here in North America merely a warning of a broader underlying malaise afflicting the current North American personality? If North America suffers further social disintegration, could she too become ripe for some form of charismatic political movement?
Many people would like to believe that cults are an aberration, a marginal phenomenon whose weirdness makes us feel more comfortable and secure in our own “normality”. They take satisfaction in their certainty that “nothing like that could ever happen to me”.
But perhaps there is more to be learned from the Boonville experience—extreme and alien as it may seem—than about Moonies or cults. Perhaps cults give us the signs to look for, not just in the outside world, but in ourselves.
And if that is the case, perhaps Boonville might be better seen not only as a place in California, but as a state of mind—a state of mind in which one loses confidence in oneself to such a terrifying extent that one agrees to turn over responsibility for all decisions to an external authority. A process in which, in exchange for solace and certainty, one gives up one’s humanness and critical judgement to a person, religion or way of life that offers a simple and easy solution to the complications of life.
This is the conclusion that the authors of the book Snapping arrived at after their intensive study of “personality transformation” in cults. They found that people “snap” not only in cults, but in everyday life too, by submitting to gruelling work routines, political ideologies, therapies and other systems of rote living that rob them of their personal integrity and humanity.
They concluded that “snapping” is a phenomenon that occurs any time an individual “stops thinking and feeling for himself… and literally loses his mind to some form of external control…as individuality is surrendered to some religion, psychology or recipe for good living that requires no real conscience and no consciousness, no effort or attention on the individual’s part.
“Snapping, in all its blind detachment from the world, its disconnection and self-delusion, is a product of a futile attempt on the part of millions of North Americans to escape the responsibilities of being human in this difficult, threatening age.”
From this perspective, one can see that there may be many conceivable doors to Boonville: from the religious and from the secular; from the left and from the right of the political spectrum; from broad movements that sweep across a nation to singular, all-consuming love affairs in which one person’s identity is swallowed up entirely by the other’s.
Anything that one submits to, rather than participates in; acquiesces to rather than challenges, examines, considers and then considers again may have the potential to become a Boonville under the wrong circumstances. As Erich Fromm points out: It is not only what one believes in that is important but how one believes in it.
Does a person understand who he is and what he is committed to, and adapt and change it according to his own self—or does he simply follow it in good faith wherever it may go? Does he participate in his own life by actively thinking, or does he obey—for if he obeys, it matters little whether he follows Sun Myung Moon, Hitler or the “national interest”—he will be incapable of knowing if his god has failed. And if his god degenerates into irrational and even inhuman behavior, the ever-obedient individual may unknowingly respond with little more humanity or spontaneity than a modern-day cultist.
How can we protect ourselves and our society from this danger? How do we assure that we and our children do not unknowingly slip into similar behavior in the name of some Cause, State or other Messiah?
One way is surely to be aware of the threat, to recognize the frailty of the human, and one’s own personality, and be on guard for subtle attempts by any authorities to take it over. In Ellul’s words, “to show people the extreme effectiveness of the weapon used against them, to rouse them to defend themselves by making them aware of their frailty and their vulnerability. ”
As my own experience underlines, it is harder to fall into Boonville, if one knows that Boonville exists.
But obviously this is only a stop-gap. The underlying issues go far deeper and strike at the very origin of personality —childhood—and the means we must develop to bring up people to face the responsibilities, and risks, of modern-day freedom. If we cherish our supposed freedom and hope to retain it, how can we encourage our children to be strong enough to use it, brave enough to move about in it without fear? How can we develop people who have enough inner strength so that their values do not begin to crumble as soon as the world around them begins to change?
To equip our children, and ourselves, to meet this challenge is a large, perhaps utopian task. But if we do not soon find a way to begin, perhaps Boonville is not so far away, or half so alien as we may think.
The Unification Church is still in its infancy in Canada, but is growing fast. In 1977, the Church’s Canadian wing was almost imperceptible; today it owns more than a million dollars in property and claims over 300 members.
Moonie activities are centered in Quebec and Ontario, particularly Toronto where they have four centers. These include an enormous 42-room house in the Kensington Market area that was acquired for $330,000 in mid-1979. The Church’s Ottawa group has bought a large cottage near the University of Ottawa, and the Montreal group recently moved from a run-down inner-city flat to a $110,000 house across the road from the Russian embassy.
The Church also owns Clearstone, a 95-acre estate on Rice Lake near Peterborough that was formerly used by Governor General Vanier. The $270,000 property includes an elegant greystone mansion perched atop a hill, amidst dense forest; the Moonies are constructing a wall around the property. When they purchased Clearstone in 1978, the group said it would be used as a “sheep farm”; instead they are gradually developing it into a Boonville-style training center.
According to Mike Kropveld, who now operates Cult Information Center (CIC), an anti-cult research and referral center, the camp’s routine was “pretty slack and ineffective in the first year of operation. But the structure is becoming more and more intense all the time. The seminars still don’t rank with Boonville’s, but from what we hear, they’re definitely getting more sophisticated.”
Moon business enterprises in Canada are also growing. The Church operates a posh cosmetic store called Hanida Ginseng Cosmetics in Toronto’s Yorkville district. The shop is staffed by glamorous Korean women who sell a variety of potions, lotions and perfumes. Church members also go door-to-door in Toronto and Montreal selling candy, chocolate, peanuts, and dried flowers in glass jars. They often do not identify themselves; if questioned, they say they represent the “Unification Center”.
Moonies also congregate regularly at Toronto’s Eaton Center to recruit members to their Rice Lake camp. The Church’s college wing, CARP, recently set up operations on the University of Toronto campus, where they hold weekly Thursday lectures in the Library Science Building.
“The Unification Center warmly invites you to an evening of discussion and exchange on various subjects relating to social, moral and religious problems today,” says a flyer advertising the lectures. Guest speakers are generally officials of the Unification Church.
Another Moon group operating in Canada is the Canadian Unity Freedom Foundation (CUFF), which holds occasional functions in support of federalism. Their PR material makes no mention of the Unification Church. CUFF also turns out a monthly newspaper called Our Canada, a small tabloid that takes a strong anti-communist stance.
According to the paper’s officials, it has a circulation of some 40,000; however many of these are distributed for free on street corners and at the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] and U of T [University of Toronto]. The publisher is identified as simply “Our Canada Publications”.
In 1977, a group called the Committee for the International Rally for World Freedom drew a thousand people to a Toronto rally to “mobilize the forces of World Freedom”. The event received written endorsements from Premier William Davis, then Toronto mayor David Crombie, and several MP’s. Though the rally made no mention of the Unification Church, its officials were all Church members.
Apart from the 300 members living in Canadian centers, several hundred Canadian youngsters are believed to live in U.S. Church centers. Many ex-Moonies say that a sizeable percentage of Moonies throughout the U.S. are Canadian—from cities as diverse as Montreal, Halifax and Vancouver.
As well, Mobile Fund-raising Teams [MFT] from the U.S. make frequent excursions through Western Canada to sell flowers. During one such trip by Benji, members were told they were “laying the foundation” for a future Boonville-style training camp in the Canadian west.
In the meantime, troops of U.S. Moonies have been seen recruiting members everywhere from Gander, Newfoundland to Vancouver, B.C. California Moonies regularly recruit at Edmonton Airport, offering to transport potential recruits to a weekend seminar at Boonville, free of charge.
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[Added: Wood, Allen Tate (with Vitek, Jack). Moonstruck: A Memoir of My Life in a Cult. 1979]
Billet pour le ciel – 1, Josh Freed (français)
Billet pour le ciel – 2, Josh Freed
Billet pour le ciel – 3, Josh Freed
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Sun Myung Moon’s theology used to control members