Teens learn dangers of cults at ALSJCC study session

Michael Lisman wanted to open his mind to new ideas. Janet White was trying to make sense of a tragedy. And Shalon Goldsby simply wanted to join a warm religious group.

All of these well-meaning people now bear the emotional scars of their entanglements with cults.

They brought their stories to the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto recently, where 120 teenagers discovered how similar they were to the speakers: young, bright, inquisitive — and easy prey.

The panel discussion, titled "Cults: An Ever-Present Danger," was sponsored by the Teen Leadership Connection of the ALSJCC, Congregation Kol Emeth, Temple Beth Jacob, Peninsula Sinai Congregation and Congregation Beth Am, and concluded four weeks of study on the subject.

Goldsby, a U.C. Berkeley senior, got involved with a group often called San Francisco International Churches of Christ three years ago. She struggled within its "system of psychological manipulation" for two years.

The group alternated between showering her with hugs and affection — known as "love-bombing" — and telling her that she would go to hell if she didn't join.

Goldsby was pressured to donate huge tithes, recruit 100 new members every week and, ultimately, to fast for long periods of time.

"I had completely lost all my free will and even my will to live," said Goldsby, who eventually left the group.

"You guys would make great cult members," said White to the teens. "You're young; you're bright."

White was nearly coerced into joining the Branch Davidians shortly after her best friend Jennifer died in the Waco, Texas, fire that destroyed the organization's headquarters and dozens of its members including leader David Koresh.

While visiting Waco alone after the fire, White was befriended by surviving cult members who stayed with her for 12 hours, speaking of Jennifer and of the group's dogma.

At the site of the blaze, they told White that Jennifer was "not really dead," and asked, "Don't you want to be with her?" The emotionally drained White nearly yielded.

She then understood how easy it must have been for Jennifer to fall for the cult's manipulations, and realized that individuals are especially vulnerable when no other "outsiders" are nearby to counteract those high-pressure tactics.

Before her visit to Waco, White had felt confident that her knowledge of cults would protect her. But she realized she had been wrong, and felt fortunate to escape.

Michael Lisman, who spent six years as a member of the Unification Church — aka the Moonies — described ways to distinguish a cult from an ordinary, innocent group of friends.

Cult members, Lisman explained, attach themselves too closely to new acqaintances to allow personal space; cult members pressure new acqaintances to do things, and do not accept individuals as they are.

Lisman never made these distinctions when at 19, a disenchanted Jew and a tired hitchhiker, he met Moonies who offered free lectures, dinners, a place to live and a messiah: the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

Lisman had no other source of information to refute what his new "friends" were telling him, and he grew to agree with the cult's beliefs.

"Everyone in this room is vulnerable to that," he warned.

Susan Protter, director of the Teen Leadership Connection, said adolescents often feel invincible: in fact they are vulnerable.

Because they face many pressures, young people today are prime cult targets. They are, she said, "a stressed generation."