Three ex cult members dedicate their lives to helping people avoid the same mistakes
By Alessia Peretti
More than 40 years on from the Jonestown mass suicide, Laura Johnston Kohl can still remember her feelings on that day.
“I was a zealot ‘till the very end, ‘till I heard that Jim (Jones) had murdered 917 of my adopted family,” she said.
Cults, of which People’s Temple of Jonestown is one of the most infamous, are systems of religious devotion towards a figure or object. In many cases, they are led by a charismatic leader. Beliefs within them are strong and those that leave them are often derided by other members as people who have lost faith.
Despite what cult members may think, Mario Cardano and Nicola Pannofino, authors of the 2015 book on cult deconversions, Piccole Apostasie, say this is not necessarily true.
“What is recurring in most of the accounts is that people choose to enter a cult not for their beliefs but for how they are made to feel important by the group,” said Pannofino. “The reason why members stay in cults is more one of trust than faith: they accept the doctrines as long as they trust the people in the organisation.”
Here are three stories of people who after long, difficult deconversion processes, have dedicated their lives to help other cult members do the same.
Laura Johnston Kohl
Laura Johnston Kohl joined the People’s Temple when she was 22. At that time, she was so excited by the cult’s idea of a world without racism and any kind of division. Blinded by these revolutionary ideas, she did not see the warning signs that eventually led to the mass suicide-homicide in 1978.
“He was abusive to females and males, so I just chose not to see that. I should have been able to see that. I’m a smart person,” Kohl said.
“Jim Jones used to blame the victims rather than admit he was someone who could make mistakes. She remembers that “he would have sex with somebody and then the day after he would say ‘I had to have sex with her, she thought she wasn’t beautiful, and I had to show her she was.’”
“Keep them poor, keep them tired, and they’ll never want to leave”
is what Jim Jones once said to his secretary. The members of the People’s Temple were busy every minute of the day doing things that they could see were constructive and helping somebody.
When Kohl escaped after nine years of the People’s Temple, she “was just so full of energy and had no place to go.”
Just one year after leaving the People’s Temple, she joined Synanon. “It was a cult, they had a crazy leader and there were many abuses. But for me, since I was in survival mode, I really needed a community 24 hours a day that was diverse and involved in humanitarian work,” she said.
Ten years after she joined, the group disbanded. In the years that followed she focused on recovering from this period of her life, before reconnecting to her past at the Jonestown tragedy’s 20th year anniversary event – something that inspired her to speak about her experiences.
On the 40th anniversary of the tragedy she returned again, this time accompanied by her family and other ex-members, some of whom she still considers best friends. “I felt like all that part of me that was happy, goofy, excited died when the people died in Jonestown,” she said.
“When I went back, it was like I met back up with that part of me.”
Ian Haworth is one of the British anti-cult movement’s most prominent figures and is general secretary of the Cult Information Centre in London. He has been helping people recover from cults for over 40 years, lecturing in particular on how to make people immune from recruitment techniques.
One way he does this is by dispelling the myth that only the weak and the lost join cults.
“The easiest people to recruit are intelligent people. The safest people are the mentally ill,”
he said. “Your mind has to be flexible and a flexible mind is the healthy mind. An inflexible mind is a thick mind.”
His motivations to help people avoid life in a cult stems from his own experiences.
In 1978 he went on a course to quit smoking in Toronto. “After four days I had given the group all the money I had, dedicated my life to it and resigned from my job,” he said.
Whilst serving his notice at work prior to joining the group full-time, the group was exposed in one of the Canadian newspapers.
“Most ex-cult members don’t realise that there’s anything to recover from initially. They’re just programmed to understand that leaving the group will be terrible,” he said.
“I had been in the group for two and a half weeks at that time, but it took me 11 months to recover from the damage done,” he added.
Aged just 17, Diane Benscoter joined Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, a cult that aimed to unite all world religions and bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. “I believed that God had appeared on Earth, that Moon was essentially God, and that I was chosen by God, I was a disciple of Christ,” she said.
She said that one of the great difficulties in leaving cults is the universal attitude within them that: “to question is like an evil force trying to get you away from goodness.” In her case the evil force was an ex-cult member that her parents forced her speak to in a desperate attempt to make her leave the cult she had been a part of for five years.
“My initial reaction was that I could maybe bring this ex-member back into the group. I was confident, at first, that my faith was strong enough to withstand this challenge,” she said. “I was also mad at my Mum. I felt betrayed. They didn’t get that this was God’s work I was doing. I wanted them to be proud of me.”
After recovering from her experience in the Unification Church, Benscoter became a deprogrammer. She helped ex-cult members recover, until she was arrested by the FBI for kidnapping in 1988. After taking a 20-year break from anything cult-related, she decided to share what she has learned from her experiences and wrote a book and started a non-profit organisation.
“I learned that addiction to power and money can lead to an abuse of power that takes advantage … of a desire to trust someone you admire to the point of becoming a slave to them. It doesn’t happen all at once and it feels very right at the time.”