After Joining and Leaving the Cult, Diane Benscoter Has Released a Book About Her Time with the Moonies

This is a guest post by Annie Thomas.


Diane Benscoter’s tale begins in 1974 as a lost 17-year-old who was concerned about the war in Vietnam and wanted to do something to help stop it. When she was invited to join a peace march, she jumped at the chance. Little did she know she was marching with members of the Unification Church who were using exhaustion, hunger, repetitive lectures, and other brainwashing techniques to get more cult members. By the end of the march, Diane believed the second coming of Christ had occurred, and that it was Sun Myung Moon, and that she had been chosen by God to be his disciple.

Diane remained with the Moonies for five years, working mostly as a fundraiser. She would spend her days selling candy, flowers, and little knick-knacks. After five years of this — and no chance of upward mobility in sight — Diane decided to ask if she could have the Church’s blessing to return to school. It was granted.

Returning to school, in conjunction with living away from the cult for the first time since joining, created cracks in Diane’s devotion. The cognitive dissonance she was experiencing frightened her so much that she decided to return to the Church. Her mother, upon hearing of her wish to return, asked to see Diane one more time. She came to see Diane with deprogrammers in tow, thus beginning a process that led to Diane’s eventual freedom from the cult.

In the years following her deprogramming she became part of an underground railroad of sorts, helping other families try to free their loved ones from cults. This led to her arrest for kidnapping. All the while, Diane struggled to rebuild her life, torn apart by the religious abuse she suffered and, at the same time, coming to terms with her sexual identity as a lesbian.

Shoes of a Servant: My Unconditional Devotion to A Lie (Lucky Bat Books, 2013) offers an open and honest account of this time in Diane’s life. Diane’s writing style draws the reader in immediately, as if one friend is telling an intimate tale to another. She uses the names of songs for chapter titles, providing an anchor to the time when the events occurred, as well as a soundtrack of sorts for the reader. Most importantly, perhaps, this book delineates the type of person who is often preyed upon by cults, as well as the techniques used to retain members within a specific religion.


Annie Thomas is a science teacher and writer from Gainesville, Florida. She has previously written about her night at a Kirk Cameron-hosted “marriage-strengthening” event and going to a Ten Commandments monument protest in Starke, Florida.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Christopher Vipond Davies

    I met what was called the Unified Family in 1968 in London, UK. I am still a member of what became known as the Unification church.I have never been subjected to “exhaustion, hunger, repetitive lectures, and other brainwashing techniques to get more cult members.” I did freely, after hearing Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s “Divine Principle” conclude that the second coming of Christ had occurred, and that it was Sun Myung Moon”, and whether or not I had been chosen by God to be his disciple (rather presumptuous), I decided to become his disciple. I am passionate about Celtic culture, music, history and my study of Divine Principle has enhanced these and other interests.

    It is unfortunate that Diane Benscoter did not have an enriching experience, but just as I do not expect that everybody would experience what I have done, I would assert that not every Moonie – a deliberately derogatory term, but it doesn’t bother me (though an African friend of mine finds it as offensive as the word nigger) – experiences what she supposedly did. From what I read here, it would seem that the brainwashing techniques that she was exposed to were those exerted by the so called deprogrammers as they worked to destroy her faith.

    Being someone who wanted to work for an ideal, it seems she has found that a new calling it campaigning against an organization that has been dehumanized by her deprogrammers to appear to be a “cult” (a word that only acquired a sinister meaning when used by the media in the 1970s).

  • Cake

    “From what I read here, it would seem that the brainwashing techniques
    that she was exposed to were those exerted by the so called
    deprogrammers as they worked to destroy her faith.”

    Really what techniques were used by the deprogrammers?

  • Ibis3

    You’ll find that we here don’t distinguish much between a “cult” and a “religious sect” or “denomination” or “church”–there may be differences between this or that one, but they are usually differences of degree, and terminology won’t tell you which is worse than another. Religions are all irrational, all rely on “love-bombing”, coercion and social pressure, all are prone to abuse their members financially, sexually, and morally.

  • C Peterson

    Funny, I remember back when the Moonies were at their peak, thinking of them as the epitome of crazy, religious cults. Of course, crazy they were, and crazy they are. But now I don’t see them as particularly extreme. What do they believe that’s more crazy than what Mormons or Catholics believe? And whether indoctrinated as a child or sucked in as an adult, many religious groups are difficult to escape from.

    Just another kooky religious sect here folks. Nothing to see.

  • Mario Strada

    My wife was once kidnapped by the moonies. That she was able to escape was mostly luck mixed with a bit of cunning on her part.

    She was studying art in San Francisco, she is canadian originally, and she went for a spur of the moment trip to San Diego to visit some friends.

    Once there, she was hanging out someplace public and she and her friends were invited to a party. Her friends didn’t go but my wife showed up for the appointment later on that day.

    Indeed, she arrived at a mansion that was a good deal of distance away from San Diego and the party was in all respects a normal party with music, young people and the usual trapping. Nothing overtly religious went on. She was invited to stay at the compound for the night and she accepted. She was promised a ride back to SD the day after.

    Without making this story too long, the ride back never materialized. She was assigned a “minder” and she was forced to attend these study groups that were a poorly veiled instrument of brainwashing. She was often denied sleep, by a variety of reasons, and she was fed a starvation diet.

    In addition, she could not go anywhere without her “minder”.

    Other people tried to flee, but they were quickly recaptured and returned to the compound, only to disappear again. some for a time, some forever.

    She eventually was able to escape by leveraging their puritanism. She told them she had to go to the bathroom but told her minder that she had to apply her tampons and she had some sort of issue with extra bleeding. The minder was not interested in entering the bathroom with her and she was able to pry open a window and escape outside. She then scaled a fence and made a mad dash down the hill.

    Soon they sent teams looking for her but they couldn’t find her because in the meantime she had asked for a ride to a passing motorist, who took her off the road and tried to rape her. She started crying and made such a scene that the guy let her go.

    She was once again at the mercy of the search teams and she had to hide in the brush every time a vehicle went by. (when she got her first ride it was too soon for the moonies to have organized).

    Eventually, she came across a house on the way down the hill and she knocked at the door. The homeowner offered to give her a ride back to a nearby town and from there she was able to make her way back to San Diego and then San Francisco.

    Since she told me of her experience, I have been following the moonies closely. It seems to me that they have abandoned these practices, but they surely did happen. I have since read many more testimonials along those lines and once, after I married her, my wife run into another victim of the moonies at a party in San Francisco. They exchanged memories about their life in the compound, their “recruitment” and how they escaped.

    her friend took the long view. She adapted to the strict rules and gained their trust. She stsarted doing fund raising, still strictly supervised, for a few weeks. The first time the chance presented itself, she made a run for it and disappeared.

    The moonies were a dangerous cult back then and even thoiugh they may not be recruiting in this fashion anymore, they may be even more dangerous now, because they are more subtle and they engage in revisionist history, they ally with the christian fundamentalist and they have been buying up media outlets and other profitable companies to finance themselves. The Washington Times is one such newspaper and it is often confused with the Washington Post. I doubt that was unintentional.

    They are very dangerous and their vision for our society is everything we, as secular humanists, agnostics and atheists, abhor. We need to be vigilant and not let them gain ground without a fight.

  • Mario Strada

    I find it curious that yours was the first post on this article. This blog usually has a number of people ready to let everyone know their opinion about a new article, but somehow Christopher Vipond Davies got here and commented before anyone else did. I find that very suspicious.

    I would not be surprised if Vipond was a professional apologist for the moonies. In fact I am almost positive he is.

    I am happy @Christopher was not kidnapped and brainwashed (the latter, of course, is still open to interpretation). If the moonies changed their MO since the 70/80 it can only be a good thing, but make no mistake, they did most of what they were accused of and then some.

    And I really don;t care what the outward mission of the movement is. The reality is that they meddle with politics and influence policy for their benefit and not for the ideals they officially spout.

    Even if they recently turned into ethical saints and repudiated their earlier activities, I still wouldn’t trust them and I would hold the kidnappings and brainwashing against them.

  • Diane Benscoter

    Hi Christopher. Thank you for your comment. If you are interested in knowing what happened to me in the group you are part of, or what took place during my deprogramming I would be happy to give you a copy of my book. Just go to my website and contact me. I will be happy to give you a free copy. I also blog about it on the site. All the best to you.

  • Rain

    Sounds like a hit n’ run “damage control” spam.

  • Rain

    Ah beat me to it. Yep it’s probably in his google alerts. Good call.

  • Diane Benscoter

    It was frightening to consider that what I had devoted my life to, had spent years giving everything I had to, might have been a lie. After being given information from Robert Lifton about thought reform techniques, during my deprogramming (really just a conversation with an ex member of the group) I allowed myself to consider the possibility that …just maybe my idealism and vulnerability had been taken advantage of. I came to realize that I had been a victim of organized coercion. The techniques used during my “deprogramming” had to do with opening up the possibility of rational thought in place of circular logic.

  • Scott_In_OH

    I like the subtitle of the book a lot. It captures a great deal about being a true believer, and not just in a full-blown cult.

  • Diane Benscoter

    Thank you. While I hope there are lessons in my story – the issue of unconditional devotion to a lie is at the heart of the matter. Mysticism, magic, and the idea of God are all powerful tools which can be utilized for control. The ridiculousness of a doctrine is interesting, but when evangelists wield a controlling memeplex for power and/or profit it is not simply interesting. These coercive tactics are dangerous and must be exposed.

  • DoctorDJ

    A religion is a cult with a university.

    In the moonies’ case, it’s the appropriately named Sun Moon University. Oh, and a newspaper, too (The Washington Times).

  • Pofarmer

    Soooo, would this deprogramming work on Catholics? I really want some more info on that part.

  • Godlesspanther

    I was invited to have dinner with the Moonies about 30 years ago. I got good and drunk with a friend and we thought it might be fun to go to the dinner.

    We got into a fight while we were there. Two big guys going at each other in the midst of their spiritual what-not.

    It took some doing to throw us out.

  • Mario Strada

    Interestingly, even after my wife was kidnapped and managed to return to civilization, she was very much unaware of the fact that every little thing that happened to her while inside the compound was carefully designed and implemented for teh purpose of brainwashing her. She knew that was the ultimate goal of the sect, make no mistake, but she didn’t associate it with some of the techniques they used. She realized that the “minder” was more of a security guard than a friend to her, tasked with making sure she didn’t escape, but she did not relate to the other things they did, such as lack of sleep and food and other strategies I did not recount here.

    I have always had an interest in cults and how they manage to recruit otherwise intelligent and “normal” people. When I was in High School, one of my girlfriends one day turned into a hari Krishna, but it wasn’t really a surprise for me because she was sort of a “blank slate” as a person. Definitely a follower and one that was unable to have an original thought.

    However, shortly after another couple of friends joined another cult and I knew these guys well. They weren’t the type. Seeing them wearing funny garbs and strange haircuts shook me to my foundation.

    Hence I was interested and wondered if maybe their tactics would work on me as well.

    I have even had people try to “convert me” and I joined orientation meetings where they got pretty heavy handed, but it never occurred to me to even remotely considering joining those jokers.

    Of course, I was never the project of a serious sect so I cannot say for sure, but I’d like to think that at worse, I would feign conversion as a means to escape their clutches.

  • Feminerd

    A lot of the techniques work less well if you know what they’re trying to do. It’s a lot harder for them to slip “we know everything, we are your friends, we are your only friends, trust only us, everyone else is evil” into your mind if you know that’s what they want to do.

  • Mick

    “By the end of the march, Diane believed the second coming of Christ had occurred, and that it was Sun Myung Moon, and that she had been chosen by God to be his disciple.”

    I’ve heard claims about these super fast brainwashing procedures, but always thought they were anecdotal bullshit. Is there any solid evidence (not just anecdotes) for brainwashing techniques that work in the space of a few hours and last for a lifetime? I mean really solid evidence – not just stories about one or two gullible people who joined a cult on the spur of the moment…

  • Pinky Nixon

    I’ll second that question, because it sure sounds like post-hoc rationalization to me.

  • Tel

    Given that food and sleep deprivation were part of the techniques, I think it was more than just a few hours — sounds like a march or camp that lasted a few days.

  • Ibis3

    Try looking up studies on Stockholm Syndrome.

  • The Other Weirdo

    In a cult, there is one person somewhere at the top who knows it’s all bullshit. In a religion, this person is dead.

    Hope that clears it up for you.

  • hammerdog_callahan

    My sister became a moonie in 1970. She still is. She married someone she never met and had seven kids who are all not moonies. When I was 17, I went to a dinner at a moonie compound in Berkeley and we were fed rice and overcooked broccoli for dinner with water. A cute moonie girl held my hand and asked me a lot of personal questions with a forced phony smile pasted on her face the whole time. Then my brother and friend were herded into a room where someone tried to explain why Jesus failed because he didn’t raise a family and that Rev.Moon was the messiah. I was a skeptic then and recovering Catholic and I scoffed at the whole absurd idea. The whole experience was very creepy. I think we ended up at Pizza Haven on Bancroft for a satisfying meal with beer.

  • Diane Benscoter

    Great question. There is much research to be done. I look forward to beginning a research project that will hopefully help to answer questions of how the brain can get caught in circular logic. I can tell you from studies that have been done, the control is most effective in the meeting ground of vulnerability and coercive tactics. It is especially effective where milieu control is extensive and where there is a mystical or supernatural aspect of the milieu.

    When an individual is in a psychologically vulnerable place. i.e. feels lost in their world, and is presented with instant community, easy answers to life’s hard questions, and a clear purpose for their life their ability to be controlled is very high. Again, there is much research to be done but there is no question in my mind that the human brain is susceptible to being controlled under certain circumstances.

  • anniewhoo

    In Diane’s book, she does discuss how recruitment tactics changed once members started having children and raising them in the Unification Church. In the beginning, they seemed to be much more aggressive to build membership. Of course, when you indoctrinate children at an early age into a cult it is much easier than trying to attract young adult members.

  • Erwin Lin

    My oldest sister is a victim of Moonies. I was the youngest in my family and I am ten years younger than my sister. I remember my sister left home and lived in the Moonie community for years. It was a hell on earth for me. My parents blamed each other and I felt I lived in a broken home family.
    My sister was matched by the Moonie with a psycho Japanese guy. They only married for 2 years and then he abandoned my sister and the son.

    The moonie is a dangerous cult as it does not have a wisdom. The moonie is only thinking how to make itself richer and more powerful.
    I love to hear more story about people who have been brainwashed by the moonie or from the family members whose sons and daughters have been kidnapped by the moonie. Please feel free to email me at