Diane Benscoter can empathize with many of the QAnon believers who stormed the US Capitol on January 6.
As a former member of the Unification Church — a religious cult whose members are commonly known as “the Moonies” — Benscoter knows what it feels like to be completely fixated on a common belief.
“I know about the righteousness you feel when you believe you’re on the right side of history,” Benscoter told Insider. “And the camaraderie you feel with the community you’re a part of.”
But while she can relate to the mentality of the Capitol mob that day, Benscoter also knows what it’s like to come out on the other side.
As a young woman, Benscoter spent five years in the Unification Church but left in 1979 after her increasingly desperate family arranged to have her deprogrammed.
Reflecting on this time, Benscoter said she is all too familiar with the “shame and indignation” that a person experiences when they leave a cult.
This led her to set up a non-profit called Antidote, which runs support groups for people who have been engrossed in cultic ideologies and are trying to reconnect to reality.
In recent months, and especially since the Capitol riot on January 6, Benscoter has become the last hope for relatives of people lost to the QAnon delusion.
Her work has become as prevalent as ever. According to a recent Ipsos poll, more than 40% of Americans said they believe the deep state, a term used by QAnon and other conspiracy theories, is actively working to undermine Former President Donald Trump.
Around 17% of participants said they think that a “group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media” — another core belief of the discredited conspiracy theory.
Recent news reports have described how the QAnon conspiracy theory has seeped into all corners of society and as a result, has ripped apart families, devastated friendships, and broken up romantic partners.
Benscoter told Insider that her inbox has been flooded with around 100 new emails a day. Most of them are from concerned family members of QAnon followers who are desperate to build bridges.
While there is no quick fix, Benscoter said she is able to give people the tools to “begin to break down barriers … so that they can be more effective in helping their radicalized loved one get to the point where they might consider the possibility that they’ve been taken advantage of or lied to,” she said.
One approach Benscoter teaches family members is to speak to their loved ones in a gentle, non-judgmental, and open-minded manner.
“You can’t argue facts, because they’ve already come to believe that any source of information outside of what they’re digesting is a lie, and is evil,” Benscoter said. “But if you can have them take a look at the possibility that maybe they were tricked or taken advantage of or lied to, then that’s already a good starting point.”
Another former Moonie, Dr. Steven Hassan, a mental health counselor and author of “The Cult of Trump”, has made educating people about mind control his life’s work after he left the Unification Church in the 1970s.
He told Insider he too has witnessed a dramatic increase of interest in his work ever since QAnon. Like Benscoter, Hassan believes it’s important to not stigmatize those who have fallen prey to disinformation.
“The public tends to blame the victim when trying to understand why they get involved with unhealthy cult groups and they believe people are weak or stupid or something’s wrong with them,” said Hassan.
“When really, it’s more a case of they were lied to, and were incrementally influenced to adopt certain beliefs and behaviors. And that, in a sense, is not their fault.”
Hassan recently launched a hashtag campaign, #IGotOut, which he hopes will make it easier for QAnon followers to seek help.
Leaving a cult is by no means easy, he said, but it is possible. For him, that moment came when he woke up as he was driving into the back of a trailer truck after he had been deprived of sleep for days.
The almost fatal accident put him away from the group for three weeks, which led him to reach out to his family who then organized an intervention.
Hassan is hopeful that other family members can also help those who have been lost to QAnon but believes it is ultimately up to the person themselves to leave.
“Family members can help, the media can help, but in the end, I think people almost always get themselves out of cults. Not because someone’s pushing them, but because they realize with time that it isn’t what they thought it was,” Hassan said.
“In the meantime, I’m encouraging family members and friends to get educated about cults, and how to talk effectively and strategically with people involved in these groups and engage them with love and respect, and curiosity and asking questions in a non-confrontational way.”