An Interview for BreakThru Radio

I was recently interviewed for BreakThru Radio for a story on cults. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“There was a lot of behavior modification from the way we dressed to the way we talked,” [Lisa Kerr] tells BTR. “We had every moment planned out for us, so we didn’t have a lot of contact with the outside world.”

After high school graduation, Kerr moved to Austin, Texas to be with the group. Secluding her in a dormitory-styled building, her days consisted of eating, sleeping, and praying one hour each day with the group.

Benscoter experienced similar isolation as she was tasked with fundraising for the church.

“I was cut off from my family and I was made to believe that Satan was working through them. These techniques were used to control my thought processes, decisions, my view on the world,” she recounts. “One of the most power tools of mental manipulation is religion.”

Both Benscoter and Kerr’s experiences instilled a belief that they could not leave; however, both eventually found a way with the support of their families.

Kerr describes her breakaway as a gradual falling apart after three major events, which reveal just how strongly the Master’s Commission controlled her life. Firstly she was not granted permission by the church to attend college to pursue her dreams as a writer. Then, her pastor revoked his permission for her to date a guy from within the church. Her disillusionment was finally cemented when her parents visited and offered her a way out.

For Benscoter the path was far less simple and despite being initially dissatisfied by aspects of the Unification Church she remained very committed even after her parents expressed concern. Her mother wanted to hire a deprogrammer to hold her against her will; however Benscoter willingly agreed to meet with them.

“I was very resistant at first, but after some time I started listening to what they had to say,” she says. “I agreed to talk to them because I believed that I was certain in my faith so I was surprised when a lot of what they said made sense for me.”

It took many years of counseling and volunteer work at a cult rehabilitation center for her to move past it all, with music playing the largest part in her recovery as it helped her reconnect with the world and herself.

Overall, the experience made her more cynical and critical, she says, and she will not believe anything without the facts.

Kerr experienced a lot more hate when leaving the Master’s Commission. Initially silent, she began to feel like she was being watched from social media.

“They wanted to appear like they were my friend [but] it was almost as if they were there to spy on me and report back to them,” she describes. Her fears were confirmed when some of the pastors’ wives called her and claimed they’d heard she wasn’t doing well.

Kerr says this went on for almost a year after she left. On one occasion, after she posted a picture on her Myspace account wearing a tank top revealing some cleavage, the comments became nasty. (Part of the strict dress code of the Master’s Commission was not to show cleavage.)

“You start to question your morality and whether you even have a good side,” she says. “Deep down you know that you do, but you have been taught that the things you are doing are bad. [After leaving], for me this was just experiencing a normal college life.”

According to van Twist, there’s a misconception that people who join cults were vulnerable in some way, however that is untrue.

“Research has found that even the most controversial groups appeal to white middle-class Americans [like Benscoter and Kerr],” she says.

You can read the full article here.

The OG of Cult Whistle-blowing: Dennis Erlich and Scientology

Image Credit: Informer.org

Image Credit: Informer.org

VICE just did an article about a weed smoking former Scientologist with a very impressive resume. His name is Dennis Erlich and he was the first person who exposed Scientology on the internet. For people like me (the first person to expose Master’s Commission and subsequently the Assemblies of God, Mercy Ministries and other groups), that’s impressive. Also, I feel his pain. Also, he must have giant balls of steel.

Part of Dennis’s credits include being the first internet censorship case in 1994. This happened “when he scanned pages of Scientology texts to an online newsgroup, telling the wider world about Thetans and Xenu for the very first time. In 1995 a federal judge permitted Scientologists to raid his house, a video of which can be seen here.”

Damn.

Image Credit: ScientologyNews.org
Image Credit: ScientologyNews.org

Dennis, the OG of cult whistle-blowing and internet activism had a lot of interesting things to say. Here are the highlights from the interview:

A lot of the things in Scientology knock down the barrier that separates what you’re willing to accept and not.

If you’ve been in a cult, you know this to be true. It’s how they get you to accept such bullshit and go along with the weirdest rituals. They go at it systematically and before you know it, you’re one of them…if you’ve made the cut. They kick out people who are non-compliant or rebellious. And they pick away at your personal rights, your personal space and your personality until you become a drone.

Dennis helps get people back into reality, which isn’t always a smooth transition for ex-culties:

[When someone leaves a cult] I like to get a person plugged back in to reality…basic things that a cult member might not grasp, how they relate to being a person. It’s like coming from a different planet. I know it took me a long time to figure these things out. Scientology arranged for everyone to drop me; even my own family.

Again, true. This is one of the most important things you can do when you leave a cult: plug in to reality. For me, that’s why pop culture has become such a staple in my life: the TV, films, music and politics of the ‘real world’ have played a huge role in plugging me back into reality. It’s important to see what the world is all about–the color, textures, voices–and join in it. For a cult member, isolation is key. You close yourself off from the world (and are closed out) and in many cases, living in a cult means living on a compound. Getting back into reality feels foreign and uncomfortable…wrong, even.

Dennis has this thing where he smokes people out (gets them high) in order to get them to relax and help them get back into reality. His take on the ganja when he was asked, “What does weed do for people?”:

For a cult member, his [or her] ideas are rigid, very solid. When I smoke marijuana my thoughts become more liquid, they melt. You can do a certain amount of melting away of those fixed ideas from the cult. Since trying to get my feet back on the ground, marijuana has been a great help.
This is true on all ends. When a person enters a cult, they might not be so rigid and black and white but over time and acclamation into the cult, they become fixed, rigid and set in their ways. Actually, set in the cult’s ways. To some degree, being in a cult means you drop the ability to think logically (at least for the time being) and it takes some practice and letting go of it all to learn to decompress from that way of thinking. Relaxing is hard, for someone who’s been so on-guard and uptight for so long. The guilt that is associated with being out of a cult and doing mainstream things is overwhelming.
For me, experimenting with all that life had to offer was the answer. Everyone has a way of getting out of that mindset and trashing the shitty beliefs, but for me a full-on rebellion and pendulum swing was in order. Getting high? It was definitely on the menu.

The whole interview is quotable, so go read it. 

Read more on Dennis Erlich here: 

Scientology and the Internet on Wikipedia

inFormer Ministry (Dennis’s website and where it all started)

 

Why Amway is a Weird Ass Cult

If you’ve heard of Amway, you know that they were exposed for being a pyramid scheme and that some reports even hinted that they acted like a cult.

Dateline and Chris Hanson did a year long investigation on Amway. Chris Hanson compared them to a “old time revival” meeting and said the program was filled with false promises. He called them “true believers” who found the “true path to success” and “wealth beyond their wildest dreams.” Watch for yourself:

 

It’s creepy, right?

After I left Master’s Commission, I dated a guy named Ruben. He was the kind of guy I dated to piss off my dad–Jehovah’s Witness, party animal, etc. (Those don’t go together, I know.) Little did I know that Ruben was in Amway. He was what was called an IBO, or Independent Business Owner. Before we got too serious, he sat me down in a dark room in his house on a black leather couch and put on a projector. He talked me through an entire presentation about dreams and independence and financial success. It wasn’t that different from stuff I’d heard before about business but despite most of it being set in reality, there was a strangeness to the whole thing.

What was really weird was the last slide. It was an illustration of how the IBOs make money–the ‘formula’ behind the pyramid scheme. It didn’t seem to add up logically and in my opinion, someone would have to buy a lot of their own product (and lose money that way) in order to succeed. As it turns out, I was right.

Ruben’s pitch was a test. He wanted to make sure that anyone he dated could not only support his vision of being an Amway “Diamond” (Diamond is the term for the person who holds the top of the pyramid in the pyramid scheme, aka, they make the most money) but help him get there by “working the business” as he called it. Otherwise he wouldn’t date me. I told him that I wouldn’t stop him from doing Amway but that I wouldn’t be an IBO; that I didn’t believe it was a good business model and I doubted seriously that it would work. Ruben and I had met at a club, so it was clear that we both were just interested in having fun. At that moment, I think we both decided it wouldn’t work, but we had fun together, so we kept dating.

Over time, he wanted me to go to meetings with him. Apparently in Amway, it’s very important that you have a significant other and you have one who is supportive of Amway. There are sad members whose wives won’t support them in “the business” (their term, not mine) and Ruben didn’t want to be one of them. I told him I’d go to meetings but wouldn’t speak or participate and I sure as hell wouldn’t buy product or talk anyone into buying product. I wanted to stay low key and I was there for support because we were dating, not to support Amway. Just like I expected him to support me in my dreams of being a writer.

My mistake. At meetings, Ruben’s friends and “upline”, Jim and Pam Chua, greeted me like I was a new convert to Christianity. They were so welcoming–but their lauding was filled with “the business” talk. They didn’t like me, they liked that I was part of the business.

This went on for awhile. Ruben and I dated for a year and during that time, I went to several Amway meetings–large and small. I went to one major conference in Portland and one in Las Vegas. They were exactly how the Dateline video above showed them. Diamonds walked up on stage to give talks–the women dressed in sparkly cocktail dresses and the men dressed in tuxedos. Videos of their houses, cars, and yachts played behind them as the audience roared with applause. The Diamond wives instructed women to submit to their husbands and also, to use the products. Even the makeup. For me, strangely, this was one area where I drew the line. I love makeup–good makeup, like MAC and anything in Sephora–and I was not about to give up my MAC for some cheap, shoddy product. Amway’s makeup was subpar to just about everything. It was like the stuff you’d buy on an after Christmas sale at K-mart. There was no way in hell I was going to throw away my makeup and replace it with that, like the Diamond wife (and Ruben) suggested. He even said he’d pay for the makeup. I refused.

I never expected Ruben and I to stay together as long as we did. It was a fling that ended up carrying on way too long. But I observed a lot about Amway during that time and I know I almost got sucked in a few times. Some of the creepier stuff started happening after Ruben started listening to “the business” teaching CDs religiously. Every week you had a new teaching you had to buy and listen to. It was the story of a Diamond (or someone else) who found success in Amway. They gave a life lesson and Amway business lessons. It felt very much like Master’s Commission in that you had a specific set of media you could listen to and only that which was on the list was approved to motivate you. The constant CD buying reminded me a lot of televangelists. And we all know that’s how televangelists make their money–pushing books and talks. The weirdest part, though, was that I started feeling like being the girlfriend or wife of one of these “successful” Diamonds was that it was just like being a megachurch pastor’s wife. The husband was the head of the house, the dreamer, the leader. You, the wife, were subpar. Despite the similarities to what I’d just ran from, I wanted a relationship, so I stayed.

Somewhere in the middle of my relationship with Ruben, we met Glen and Joya Baker. They were above Jim and Pam, Ruben’s “upline” and they were the Diamonds of the group.

Amway Diamonds, Glen and Joya Baker
Amway Diamonds, Glen and Joya Baker

Glen and Joya lived just a few hours south of us, so we went to an event at their large house once. It wasn’t a mansion, despite how their talks depicted it, and it was filled with Amway product. The whole purpose of the visit was to see product, not for a normal visit to someone’s house. That was strange.

But what I’ll never forget is one day Glen came to Bakersfield to speak on his own. All of Ruben’s friends, and Ruben, were obsessed with Glen. They wanted to be like him and they wanted Glen to talk to them. Like Master’s Commission, it was the dream of the little people to be noticed by the big dogs. Ruben walked up to Glen to shake his hand and try to schmooze and Glen turned to him and said, “Where is Lisa? Can you go get her for me?” All of Ruben’s friends, and Ruben himself, were aghast. Here I was, not even trying (and quite frankly, hating all the Ambots), and Glen wanted to hang out with me. There was a reason, of  course. There’s always a reason. Ruben had told him my dad owned a business and was quite successful. Glen saw cash. And  he was right–not only was my dad doing pretty well for himself, he had friends who were way wealthier. Some who actually owned yachts, not just videos of them. Glen asked me if I could talk to my dad and get them him and his friends together at my parents house. He’d come do the talking. I told him absolutely not, but later I went home and asked my dad. Deep down, I still had that people pleasing nature from Master’s Commission. I’m sure I asked my parents more than once if we could have some people over and sell them Amway. I fluctuated a few times and gave in–and it’s not hard to do when that’s all you’re taking in through relationships and CDs.

My parents said ‘hell no, that will never happen’ and explained that my uncle Jimmy and his wife had been in Amway for years and turned into utter zombies over it. They wanted nothing to do with Amway or the Ambots. And they wished I wouldn’t either. I was convinced I was too strong to actually be a part of it, but asking them this proved I was swaying.

It was all very comfortable to me. I’d just spent seven years in a cult that resided in a megachurch. Televangelists came to speak regularly and sold their books and teaching materials. At the time I was dating Ruben I was still a Christian and I hadn’t started blogging yet. I was still figuring life out and it was easy to get sucked into again.

At some point during the latter part of my relationship with Ruben, Joya Baker messaged me on MySpace. I had posted that I had just applied to UC Riverside for a transfer to their creative writing program. I shared with my MySpace friends that I’d always wanted to be a writer and UCRs program was really good. Joya’s message was strange. She asked me why I would want to move to Riverside when I had such a great life in Bakersfield. She asked me why I wanted to leave Ruben and “the business” behind and told me that I should really consider staying in Bakersfield because that’s where my “uplines” were, Jim and Pam Chua. I was shocked that she’d have the balls to say anything like that to me, but she did. And it makes me wonder how many other women she’s tried to convince to support “the business” when they want to walk away. I told Joya off. I explained to her that my dream was to be a writer, not to be an IBO or a Diamond. I told her that Jim and Pam were Ruben’s upline, not mine, and I could think for myself, thank-you-very-much. I also told her that anyone who doesn’t support my own dreams of being a writer doesn’t deserve to be in my life. And that pretty much ended it.

Thankfully for me, Ruben’s Jehovah’s Witness family and friends spied on us and reported us to his church elders. I’d stayed overnight a time or two and the elders threatened to kick him out of the church. Along with that was a threat that his family would also never speak to him again (I guess that’s what JWs do to their own). That was the end of Ruben and Amway. Oh, except for the time Ruben called me to tell me he’d finally gotten the butt implants he’d wanted all his life.

(Note: Amway and Quixtar are both the same business. Amway changed it’s name to Quixtar for a period of time–probably after the Dateline expose. After the dust had settled, they changed their name back to Amway.)

Cream Cheese and Memories

We’ve all had a moment where we pick up something or hear a song and it takes us back to a specific moment in time. I’ve been having that experience lately with whipped cream cheese. The past few mornings, I’ve been off work and have been waking up to a bagel and coffee at home. As I spread the cream cheese across my bagel, I’m taken back to the years I lived in the Phoenix, Arizona area and first attended Master’s Commission.

After my first year in Master’s Commission Phoenix (which is now Master’s Commission USA, and I’ll refer to Master’s Commission Phoenix as such), I took some time off to work and figure out how to pursue ministry (since my future plans changed drastically after being in Master’s Commission). Many mornings or afternoons, I’d drive to Einstein Bros. Bagels (and no, I’m not getting paid to endorse them, but I would accept sponsorship from them in the form of their honey almond shmear) and get a bagel and coffee for breakfast.

Master’s Commission USA was less of a militaristic boot camp than Master’s Commission Austin (the group is now called Elevate 3D, after getting kicked out of the Master’s Commission International Network) was. Because of that, I have some pretty decent memories of my time living in Phoenix, since I was able to experience the city from time to time.

Master’s Commission USA wasn’t perfect, though. My year there wasn’t something I’d do over again. I was constantly conflicted by what I saw displayed as “Christlike” and what I’d learned was Christlike. I thought to be Christlike, a person should be themselves, be kind and study the Bible to the best of their ability. What I learned in Master’s Commission USA was that to be Christlike, you should compete for a celebrity status, show off your performance skills, and worship God with an outward display louder and better than anyone around you (yelling and screaming, jumping and dancing, and waving your arms were all smiled upon). Becoming Christlike wasn’t a pleasure; it was a task and it was expected of us.

I was absolutely confused, because I wasn’t the type of person that would be accepted in that type of group. I was shy, academic, and independent. I didn’t sing. I couldn’t dance, and I didn’t really like yelling in church. So, I changed. In all honesty, it wasn’t like I changed strictly to fit in. In fact, I tried to stay “me” as much as possible. But, each day we’d have some kind of activity that reinforced the “normal” Master’s Commission behavior. If we weren’t like everyone else, we soon started becoming like them, or being taught how to act like them.

We’d start off prayer in the church sanctuary every morning and we’d be surrounded by our fellow students. Some would be pacing the church floor, shouting out their prayers. Some would be laying on the floor crying out for their freedom or someone else’s.

After prayer, we’d have a number of activities to do, but sometimes we’d have dance practice. I was kind of girl at high school or junior high dances that either didn’t go because I couldn’t dance and so had a fear of dancing, or stood around with a group of friends and couldn’t even sway to the music because my rhythm was off. Now, all of a sudden, I was supposed to be in a large group of my fellow first year students and learn choreographed dances in one afternoon? Oh god.

I wasn’t the only white girl, but I was surrounded by students of different cultural backgrounds and let’s just say that most of them were coordinated. It was terrifying to learn these dances, and even worse when everyone was picking up the dance moves and I wasn’t.

We’d move on to human video practice, which is where Master’s Commission staff or students had taken a song (Christian or not) and choreographed movements to tell a story. Sometimes it was acting. Sometimes it was dance-like moves. Either way, to me it was hard. I was an actress in high school plays, but I’d had no major roles. Not to mention, it seemed like everyone in Master’s Commission had been an actress, a singer, a musician or something creative and done bigger and better performances than I had. Which may have been true…or it may have just been the competitive environment I’d stepped into without realizing it.

Because I failed to learn dances and was horrible at human videos, and because I couldn’t sing, there wasn’t any ministry left for me to do with the exception of janitorial work and discipling people in the youth group (which we were required to do). At Phoenix First Assembly of God, we often had celebrity ministers come visit. On one occasion, Joyce Meyer came to hold a conference. While I wasn’t allowed to attend, because we were busy with our Master’s Commission duties, I was allowed to help out the church janitor clean up the church after the sessions got out. The entire weekend, we spent cleaning bathrooms and vacuuming the three story mega-church.

Although I never got to travel, and experience what all the other students were experiencing on the road, I was able to stay in Phoenix and attend every church service. This allowed me to meet some really wonderful people. I made friends with dozens of people and families. It was so nice to meet families who’d invite me over for a Sunday afternoon lunch and a movie, especially since I was away from home for the first time. On my day off (which I had in Master’s Commission USA and not in Master’s Commission Austin), I’d have people to go have coffee with, or go shopping with and that was really nice.

My experience in Master’s Commission USA wasn’t awful, admittedly. It doesn’t haunt me like my time with Master’s Commission Austin and Elevate 3D in Lafayette, LA now does. It did derail my plans for college for several years and led me into a misguided relationship with God and ministry. Because of that and many other reasons (including their unethical treatment of staff members across the entire network of affiliated groups), I don’t support Master’s Commission and I don’t endorse it.

Since starting this blog, though, what I’ve learned is that when you become a staff member in Master’s Commission, the negative experiences really tend to grow. I’ve spoken with many former Master’s Commission USA staff members who have a very different perspective of the same year I was there simply because they were on staff. They knew Lloyd Zeigler better, had a different relationship with the other staff members, and most importantly, saw everything that was behind the scenes. Sometimes, what we as first year students saw on the front end was incredibly different from what we were told was happening or what happened. My own experience on staff with Master’s Commission Austin and what is now Elevate 3D is a testament to that. As a staff member, you’re held to a certain level of responsibility that students aren’t and that often has a negative effect. Though, in Master’s Commission Austin and Elevate 3D, many former (and current) students have emailed me or spoken to me saying that they had experienced much of what I had.

My experience with Master’s Commission is bittersweet. I met some great people along the way, and lived in some wonderful cities filled with entirely new (to me) cultural elements. I even traveled to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Myanmar. I learned to cook crawfish etouffee and blackened alligator. These experiences are special memories I like to remember.

But in Master’s Commission, I was convinced that I would be a better Christian if I were in the group and in ministry. I developed an elitist Christian mentality, where I believed I was better than the typical church member (also a sign of a cult). I felt I had to invest my energies into constant prayer and Bible study, and had to restrict any fun or recreation and worse yet I had to deny my ability to get a college degree, start a career and start a family.

I wish I’d never met the Master’s Commission group when they came to my church and my high school to perform a school assembly. I’d be long finished with my master’s degree, and be better off psychologically. I don’t believe in the cliche, “Everything happens for a reason,” but I do believe that I’m responsible for my choices and my actions. I also believe that I can still make the most of my life, can still achieve my goals, and can eventually heal to a point where I’m not haunted by my time there.

I do feel a little like someone who’s gone through war, or a terrible divorce, instead of someone who joined a discipleship program. Instead of the claims they promised, I find myself battling nightmares and being afraid of people and new situations.

After Master’s Commission, I stopped journaling, because it was something we were forced to do while there. Journaling was something I’d done since I was a child, because my favorite writer, Ann M. Martin gave me writing advice to “journal every day.” My love for journaling was destroyed after seven years of forced note taking and writing.

This blog has restored that love for journaling, as you can tell. And all the therapists are right–journaling is extremely therapeutic. Even as I write these blogs, knowing my inner thoughts are going to be seen online by thousands of people, I still feel like it’s my own personal journal. I feel a great sense of relief when my head is cleared of these memories, instead of letting them sit inside, rolling around, and getting mulled over and over and over.

I also feel a great sense of relief that I should be able to eat a bagel and cream cheese without having to necessarily associate it with much of the negative things I’ve dealt with in life. We’ll see. I’m sure you’ll hear from me soon if the cream cheese keeps me thinking about all of this.