09/26/2013 10:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Cults Gain Power Over an Individual: a True Story

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

When I heard Diane Benscoter's TEDTalk, I felt like I was listening to myself. Like Diane, I was a 17-year-old idealist when I was recruited into a group I would later call a cult. In 1997, I was attending a holy-ghost filled church in a small town in California where I was introduced to a group called Master's Commission. They were "disciples" of Christ and used terms like "sold out" and "on fire"; terms I was familiar with from my upbringing in a charismatic church. Despite some familiar traits, this group was different. Almost immediately, the Master's Commission disciples had me convinced that, by joining them, I would be joining an elite group of soldiers for Christ that would change the world by drawing people closer to God. As "soldiers" we would go to the ends of the Earth, using any means necessary to bring people to salvation. Within weeks I submitted my life to their cause and gave up my dreams to follow theirs.

What makes a bright young woman join a cult and sacrifice her life to someone else's dreams? For starters, nobody joins a "cult." From the outside Master's Commission looked like the quickest path to change the world. Though, once I was inside the group things began to take a dark turn. I was instructed to burn my possessions and dig a grave where my "old self" would be buried. Later, I had to wear a paper mask in public with my sins written all over it. This was not the dream I had for my life when I first encountered the group.

Brainwashing works in a layering process. First, the victim is isolated; second, limits are placed on what they see, hear and do; and finally, the person doing the brainwashing raises uncertainty about the victim's old beliefs and habits. In the book Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Kathleen Taylor says there "... is a systematic processing of noncompliant human beings which, if successful, refashions their very identities." In order to refashion my identity, I was taken through a series of rituals and events that would reshape me into a compliant individual.

People don't go from being free to being robots dedicated to a strange new cause without an outside force contributing to that change. Taylor points out, "[B]rainwashing is not just a set of techniques. It is also a dream, a vision of ultimate control over not only behavior but thought." As Diane Benscoter points out in her 2009 TEDTalk, those doing the brainwashing plant ideas which replicate and become viral within large groups of devoted followers. The group think encourages the ideas to become impenetrable. Soon after the idea is introduced, the robotic compliance takes over and followers refuse to think for themselves.

After exiting the cult, I enrolled in a class on the Holocaust. I remember sitting in Dr. Campagna-Pinto's class as he lectured on the Nazi Youth soldiers, outlining their progression from "normal" teenagers to soulless killing machines. In one lecture, Dr. Campagna-Pinto shared the words: "I was just following orders." This was the explanation a soldier gave as to why he killed a house full of innocent people.

He threatened to kick me out and said he would make sure no one hired me if I went against him. I was terrified that God would turn His back on me, so I rationalized to myself, "I'm just following orders. The discipline will make them better people." -- Lisa Kerr

Those words sent chills down my spine as I remembered my time in Master's Commission. I remember being asked by my director to police student behavior and report back to him anyone who broke the rules or was spreading dissent. Rebellion would not be tolerated. Initially, I hesitated, but I was eager to please so I did it. I realized later my reports had consequences. The people I reported were threatened, forced to publicly confess their sins and sent out to do hard labor. Later, reports emerged that some students had been physically abused in order to get them to obey.

I questioned the director and he threatened me. He threatened to kick me out and said he would make sure no one hired me if I went against him. I was terrified that God would turn His back on me, so I rationalized to myself, "I'm just following orders. The discipline will make them better people."

This sounds absurd now, but at the time I believed I was doing God's will. To add to that, leaders of the cult cleverly misused the Bible in order to transform me into a meek robotic woman. Brainwashing silences those who disagree with you to gain power over them. They'd gained power over me.

When I left my cult, I had to figure out how to live life again, without someone dictating to me what to think and say. Eventually, I gained the power to think for myself, to think critically, to wonder and dream, and, often to embrace that the questions are often more important than the answers. I learned that when you think for yourself, you transcend rigid belief. It's through this act that you become a more powerful version of yourself; a person that learns not to just obey, but to dream, innovate and be open-minded. This is how the world is changed.

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