Autobiography of a Former Moonie
Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 252-258.
My experience as a member of the Unification Church a Moonie was the most exhilarating and also the most frightening of my life. At the end of my second year in the church I returned to Princeton University to resume my studies in religion. I tried to persuade a dear friend who is a professor there that religious leaders and professors should be open about groups like the Unification Church. My friend looked at me and said, “Gary it's good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out” Two years later, when I left the Unification Church, I recognized the wisdom of his comment.
One of the questions that people ask after hearing about cult life is, how in the world could somebody become a member of something like that? I was probably one of the least likely people you would expect to become a member of a religious cult. But I did. And I want to address the question of how people join by referring to my own personal experience with the Moonies.
Before I tell my story, however, let me review some of the distinguishing marks that separate a cult from legitimate religions. First a cult generally has a living leader who claims for himself either divinity or some uniquely spiritual position, such as messiah, or end-time prophet.
Second, a cult has some special set of ideas, some manifesto, some revelation that clarifies where the world is, where it is going, and why the cult is indispensable to the development of history.
Third, the leader is the absolute judge over the lives of his followers.
Fourth, within a cult group there are wide variations in life-style: luxurious life for the leader and upper echelons of authority; spartan, sacrificial sometimes extremely arduous living conditions for other members of the community.
Fifth, cults exploit people’s finances and resources. After you have been through the Unification Church indoctrination, for instance, members start asking about your possessions. Think about Abraham, they say. He was willing to sacrifice even his own son to prove his faith in God. Will you give up your car? Will you give up your stereo? You have money in your bank account. That’s wonderful. Think of all the starving people in the world. Think of how much God could do with that money -so much more than you could do. Sure, you can hang on to your money if you want. But where will it be best used?
Sixth, cults promote exploitative working conditions. Not only do you give up your property, but you give up your time and energy. You work generally from early in the morning until late at night for no pay. People in the Scientology cult, for example, have been known to sign billion-year contracts to work for ten dollars a week as servants to L. Ron Hubbard on his floating paradise -a converted ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
Seventh, cults have a system of authority, a leadership hierarchy which makes possible total scrutiny and careful engineering of the living circumstances of the members. “Many have a pyramid structure of authority. People are responsible for making sure that everyone beneath them is ideologically in line. If someone expresses inappropriate emotions or ideas, his leader is responsible for correcting him or referring the problem up. That maintains tight discipline.
Eighth, cults isolate members from normal life contacts, family, friends, jobs, and school - the kinds of things that give you a sense of balance, that help you measure the decisions you make in your life against norms outside yourself.
Ninth, cult recruitment procedures break down members' critical thinking. When someone joins the Catholic Church or an evangelical Christian community, there is room and time for that person to evaluate specific Biblical interpretations, for example, and to hear various viewpoints. In a cultic situation, every effort is made to reduce the capacity of the person to avail himself of his resources for dunking and deciding carefully and clearly.
You come to feel that if you have an opinion, you should first be suspicious of it and check it out with your leader; if he says its OK, then you can have that opinion. What your leader says to you is more intimate and meaningful than what you say to yourself. When you do this day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, your mind becomes the property of the leadership of the group. In the end, you find that you have given so much of yourself that you do not even know how to reclaim your own life.
Now let me tell you about the Moonies. Contrary to initial impressions, they have a long and developed systematic theology. It goes like this: when God created the world, he created Adam and Eve, who represented the essential masculinity and femininity of God. Adam and Eve were supposed to go through three stages of growth, become perfect as individual persons, and then be married to each other by God. They would have perfect children, as perfect parents they would perfectly love their children, this original perfect nuclear family would proliferate across the globe, and the whole world would be populated by brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles who love each other, thus eliminating all possibility of distress or enmity or conflict. That was God's plan.
Unfortunately, the Reverend Moon says, two-thirds of the way through the growth period Eve was seduced sexually by Satan. Her capacity to love as a woman was thereby contaminated by evil. Ever since that time, every relationship between a man and a woman has been contaminated by evil, and that is the root of all the problems of the world. Only when true parents come can people finally know how to love each other.
Jesus was supposed to come and be a true parent. He was supposed to find a sinless bride and together they would become true parents to mankind. By uniting with Jesus and following him as messiah, people would create a theocratic movement that would sweep across the world. The kingdom of heaven would arrive.
Unfortunately, Jesus was crucified. But before he died, he spoke of a Second Coming. “The Second Coming is now here; his name is Sun Myung Moon. He has a perfect bride and is a perfect father. Each of you will bend your knee at some point in history to this man, better sooner than later. The more time that elapses before you submit to him, the more you will suffer in “indemnity.”
There are certain elements of truth and insight in this teaching. It is certainly true, for example, that all of as can find ways in which our parents could have been better parents, times when we wish they had loved each other better and loved us more effectively. So it is easy, particularly if you are at a point in your life where you are weary of burdens and responsibilities (age eighteen to twenty-two or so), to listen to another explanation and try out another viewpoint
But the end result is that because Sun Myung Moon is God's representative on the earth today -the Second Coming -he is the only one who really deserves to own or control anything. If the U.S. government has sovereignty over this land, that sovereignty is contaminated because the members of the U.S. government are sinful Eventually the sovereignty of the United States has to be turned over to Sun Myung Moon.
People become members of Moon’s church through a two-fold process of luring and locking. In our society it is illegal to kidnap somebody, stuff him in a van, and make him a Moonie. Some of the Japanese members tried to do that in New York in 1973 until they got into serious trouble with the police. Moonies have since developed more effective methods of recruitment.
Luring has a series of steps. First, an initial contact; second, inducing a person into making a series of incremental commitments; third, attending a workshop with its accompanying isolation and pressure; and then, finally, agreeing to stay with the community in an isolated environment after the workshop. After luring comes locking, in which the emotional and intellectual flavor of life in that isolated environment locks in certain patterns in a person’s mind, and essentially holds that person's integrity hostage, trapping the person so that he is unable to reflect on what has happened to him there. The locking procedure ends when you become a member by default rather than by choice. You lose your ability to say no. “That decision is very, very different from clear, fully informed consent.
Consider the recruitment process in detail. First there is an initial contact. Someone approaches you on campus or on the street. He is sincere because his motivation as a member of the Unification Church is real. In his heart at that moment he is focusing himself to feel loving, and hopeful that you win discover who Sun Myung Moon is very soon so that your life can be fulfilled and enriched. That genuine sense of sincerity is appealing. There is also real affection. The person inquires about what you are interested in, what you are planning to do with your life, what kinds of values you have, what is important to you. All this information is valuable.
Combined with sincerity and affection is deception. The member does not clearly communicate where your interaction is likely to lead. He may deny, for example, that he is even religious. There may be distortions in his description of the community. Or he may withhold information so that the information base that you have for making a decision about how to respond to him is seriously undermined and your decision impaired.
In addition to infecting the person, so to speak, with a sense of emotional indebtedness in the initial contact the recruiter is collecting information. There is a battery of stock responses for plumbing the sensitivities of different people. If a person is idealistic, then the conversation can be steered in the direction of the problems of the world. If the person seems to be somewhat self-centered, then the recruiter asks, where is the happiness that an individual can have in his own life?
Next comes a series of incremental commitments. After the member has spent some time with you, he will invite you to dinner. How are you endangering yourself by going to dinner? None of the normal mechanisms by which you become alert to danger have flashed into your mind, because one is not used to associating danger with nice people. So it is easy to say yes at this stage.
At dinner, a whole bunch of people meet you at the door. Now, have you ever had five or six people come at you at one moment with really sincere smiles, looking you directly in the eye? Certain kinds of social pressures are powerful; particularly when you are not alert you can be swept away. You will find yourself smiling when people smile at you. Even if you are somewhat confused about how to react you will have a good feeling, and then you will start chiding yourself and wondering why you are not as friendly as they are. Then you are in their terrain emotionally. They guide you through the course of the evening, by the end of which they are inviting you to another small commitment, a weekend at their camp.
On the surface it seems simple enough; come to a workshop, learn about some new ideas, try them out; if you don’t like it, leave. But a lot more than that is happening. When a person is isolated, he is not in a good position to discover that he is being deceived. Deception and isolation reinforce each other. It begins with physical or geographic isolation. You can leave the camp in one of two ways. You can wait until the end of the weekend to take the bus home, or you can try to hitch a ride and hope that the right person will pick you up and drive you back to the city. Most people stick it out, even if to some degree they are put off.
Then there is social isolation. No first-weekers are supposed to talk to first-weekers. Why? Well if you have a question about our program, why don’t you talk to somebody who has been here a while? He can answer the question a lot better than somebody who’s new. It seems simple enough, harmless enough. But the effect is that if you are feeling a little bit muddled inside, something does not feel quite right, and you would like to bounce that feeling off somebody who is having a similar experience, you must break a rule to approach that person. Also, in the camp lectures, they seat members between all new guests. You literally have to reach across someone to make contact with another new guest.
Perhaps most important, you are isolated from your own mind. How can that happen? If your day starts at seven o’clock and ends at eleven-thirty or twelve, and is extremely active and filled with group events, it becomes difficult to turn inward and reflect. By the end of the day when your head hits the pillow, you just do not have the energy to stay awake.
In the workshops there is virtually no privacy. Some members actually accompany others to the bathroom and wait outside the staff. “I just want to be near you,” they say. "I really like you. You are becoming a friend of mine.” And, "Heck I have to go, too."
You are intensely pressured to identify with the group. The whole is much more important than the individual. Sure, you may want to take a walk and see the beautiful scenery, but right now if everybody left, that would be the end of our program. You are put in the position of competing with the interests of the whole, which generates guilt. The purpose of the whole is defined by the staff of the workshop, not by the people who are participating. So, in effect, you must defer to the group.
The workshop lectures are an emotional roller coaster and an intellectual barrage. To deal adequately with the concepts explored in a three-day Unification workshop would take months and months, if not years and years. The origin of evil, the mission of Jesus, the purpose of history - these are the kinds of questions that people spend lifetimes studying and interpreting. The Moonies present the answers to you in three days.
An effective lecturer can hypnotically grasp the spirit of a workshop group and use it to influence each member of the group. When I used to give lectures at the Barrytown seminary in New York, I would point outside while the snow was coming down and say, “Why can’t it be that our hearts are as clean as those snowflakes?” Well, there is no answer to that, and I was cashing in on the fact that there is no answer to that, the euphoria of hope is juxtaposed to frustration at the difficulties of life. Intense emotions and a barrage of ideas induce you to associate the genuineness of your experience with truthfulness in the ideas.
Another example: if a speaker talks about how frustrating and unfortunate it is that sexual relationships keep failing in the world, there is truth to what he says. Many people are hurt by that all the time. Then he tucks in the idea that it does not have to be that way, and that we can make it different. Well, that is a lot more problematic. But if you are thinking about the times you have been jilted or hurt someone else, and you feel miserable about it, and the speaker eventually claims credit for the intensity of that moment, that is how you become emotionally indebted and swept along.
By the end of the workshop, you have been through an intense period of no reflection, constant activity, no privacy, immense pressure toward identification with the group, suspicion of your desires to be separate from the group, roller-coaster emotions, and a barrage of ideas that have left you confused and unsure of yourself. Then the members suggest, “Why don’t you stay a little while longer and try out the lifestyle?” If you say, "It was a fantastic experience but I don’t think it’s for me, at least I'd like to leave for a while to think about it.” Then they will ask, “Do you really feel that you can evaluate what has happened here by yourself? Don’t you think that if you go back to your old life-style to evaluate this experience that it will look crazy? You should stay until you have proven to yourself - and to us, too, because we care a lot about you - that you are really a good enough and sincere enough person to have at least tried out these ideas." In psychology, that is called a double bind. You are not qualified to say no until you have proven that you are qualified to say no by having said yes.
By now the world has been polarized from the group. Everything out there is frustration and loneliness; everything here is camaraderie and solidarity. You are helpless if you go back there. Helplessness leads to passivity, and passivity leads to deference and docility. You become fearful of retribution for leaving. You have developed a severe mistrust of yourself based on shame and guilt. And while you are psychologically breaking down, changes in your diet and in your sleeping habits leave you constantly tired. Your body feels different. You are confused. Finally, you commit yourself to the movement, thinking that it is the only way to assert your own integrity.
In December, 1973, Sun Myung Moon decided that President Richard Nixon needed some help. Every year there is a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Washington, D.C. The President flips the switch and the lights go on. The Unification Church managed to get 250 tickets to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony that year, which was to take place on the lawn of the White House. A telephone call came through ordering about 1,200 members of the Unification Church in the East Coast area to assemble in Washington. We assembled there and spent an entire day rehearsing a “spontaneous” rally that we were going to put on that night for President Nixon.
True to religious form we were divided into twelve tribes. The president of the Unification Church, Neil Salonen, played the role of President Nixon. He turned the tree on, stepped down from the podium and signaled tribes I and 7 to move in, then tribe I to go back and tribe 3 to come up, then 11 to come up and 7 to go back, and so on. The basic idea was to make 1,200 people look like ten thousand for the television cameras. In the midst of all this, a secret mission was to take place. The result was to be that President Nixon would be discovered again by the American people to be God’s gift to this nation. The American people would receive him back and stop all this hatred over Watergate. And then President Nixon would realize that it was only through Reverend Moon that it could come about.
Eight brothers were designated to participate in the secret mission. I was among them. We were chosen because we were considered among the most faithful and the heftiest of the brothers. Our mission was to be the horse team. We were to be in the front row of seats at the lighting of the Christmas tree, and as the tribes rushed up, the eight of us were to converge on President Nixon, hoist him on our shoulders, and carry him through the streets of Washington.
It was very cold that night, but we waited. President Nixon turned on the Christmas tree, then unexpectedly walked to the other side of the platform, got into his limousine, and was driven the hundred yards bark to the White House. Satan had intervened! So we filed across the street to Lafayette Park and started singing pro-America songs. Nixon emerged again and crossed the lawn toward us. Despite the careful rehearsal of our spontaneous rally, bedlam broke loose. The power of God was announcing itself. Everyone tore out toward the President.
Only two of the eight horse-team members made it to the President. We were determined to get him on our shoulders. There was only one problem: the Secret Service. An enormous man was holding back the crowd. I tried to dive under his arms, but he caught me by the scruff of the neck and tossed me like a puppy back into the crowd. Three is an important number in the Unification Church, so I had to try three times. I was absolutely focused. God would make it come true. I tore into the line a second time. Thrown out, clunk. Then I said to myself, I know that this man will probably shoot me if I try it again, because it win not make a good impression with regard to the safety of the President. I decided that he would shoot me, but I tore back into the line. I was tossed out again.
That was a pivotal point in my life. I came close to the President. I am sure that if I had reached him, I could have hoisted him on my shoulders. And I was willing to die trying. There was nothing I would not do for the Reverend Moon. But what if he had asked me to do something else? What if it wasn’t lift the President ..?
Gary Scharff, a graduate of Princeton and The Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA), was a member of the Unification Church from 1972 to 1976. He is currently in law school.
* Reprinted with permission from the Center Journal (March/April 1982).