“Their basic weapon was friendliness,” said Marybeth Ayella, Ph.D. on her experience with the Moonies, a California-based cult.

Marybeth Ayella, Ph.D. is a professor of sociology at Saint Joseph’s University.

Ayella asks questions. About society, about people, about life, about cults. Asking tough questions made her career as an academic. But ask the wrong questions to the wrong people, and you may find yourself in a sticky situation.

Such was the case in the 1960’s when Ayella, an assistant professor of sociology at Saint Joseph’s University, encountered the “Moonies,” a group of cult members in Berkeley, California. It was curiosity that made her stay with the Moonies for three weeks. She intended to write about them but found herself witnessing bizarre rituals.

As people meditated, chanted, and listened to lectures, Ayella scanned the room looking for other skeptical eyes. Every time she looked up in disbelief, she met the eyes of another non-believing man…until he was gone. He simply vanished one day, without a car or any means of transportation.

This was common for the Moonies. Their recruitment program was similar to a college orientation. People bombarded potential recruits with friendliness and smiles and walked them through lectures and ceremonies. New members were expected to get with the program or get out.

Marybeth Ayella, Ph. D. has her collection of books for the many courses she teaches on cults. Among the collection are books about the infamous cult leader, Charles Manson.

They boasted a peaceful community of positive relationships, dedicated to social change and achieving world peace.

The cult purposely sought out people who were alone or on vacation and people who looked lost, warmly inviting them into their community. New recruits were encouraged to stay for only a few days at a time. But three days turned into six, six turned into twelve, and twelve days turned into years.

Ayella agreed to stay only if she could write about the cult, from a sociological perspective. But as she asked questions to understand the organization, others were searching for information about her too. She was assigned a partner, Angela, who attempted to glean secrets and sensitive details about her to feed to the higher-ups in the cult.

“I didn’t realize that they were a cult right away, only years later did I say ‘oh my gosh that’s a cult,” said Ayella. 

Listen to more details of her encounter with the Moonies below.

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