Cultic Studies Review, 2(1), 2003, 1-8
On the Outside Looking In: Growing Up in the Moonies
Flore Singer Aaslid
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Social Anthropology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
There is a saying that if something doesn’t kill you it will only make you stronger. A spiritual perspective might interpret this statement as meaning that most challenges in life, however unpleasant or inconvenient, are like trials laid out by some Grand Master Plan for the sole purpose of adding some muscle to one’s otherwise weak disposition. Perceived from such a perspective, being raised in an environment such as that of the Moonies is really a blessing in disguise, with a vast array of potentials and possibilities to grow and expand in every conceivable manner. In my case, I can see how the whole experience has toughened me up in many respects. Nevertheless, for me, the most enduring and overwhelming side effect of growing up as a cult kid (having been set apart from society at large and carefully protected in a dogmatic cocoon for most of my formative years) is the relentless, almost haunting, yet mostly exasperating feeling of never quite fitting in—anywhere. I have yet to discover whether this is a blessing or a curse, but it’s probably a little of both.
Like that of many of my peers also raised in “the church,” as we called the whole ordeal, my childhood was somewhat turbulent. From the age of two, I never lived more than two years at a time in any one place. By the time I was eight, I had already lived in four different countries and learned three different languages (two of which, unfortunately, I forgot as I no longer used them). The number of “caretakers” I had during those years is beyond my recollection (probably more than 20 and fewer than 50), for both of my parents were missionaries, busying themselves with the very important task of saving the world. I was a sacrifice for the sake of a greater good, my mother used to tell me. I was put into God’s Hands, and with the help of a lot of faith and a seemingly endless number of dedicated prayers, He would protect me (sort of like paying holy instalments toward some kind of sacred life insurance). This might have worked, for all I know; I was an almost abnormally healthy child, and even today the most serious illness to fall upon me has been the flu and some nasty stomach problems in India.
Still, it is as if all this moving about, learning new languages, making new friends, adapting to different environments, only to be torn away from it all and repeat the process all over again (and again, and again, ad infinitum), somehow turned me into a weird little muddled misfit. I was doomed to feel like a perpetual stranger, forever the foreigner, like some bizarre product of shoddy enculturation, sloppy socialization, or whatever one wishes to call that process through which young children experience a sense of belonging, and identify with their nearest and dearest. I wasn’t, of course, consciously aware of my predicament at such a young age. I just felt exceedingly lonely, and of course being an only child didn’t help matters. Children, as a rule, don’t like to stand out, and lord knows I did my best to fit in. I made friends easily, was unusually outgoing, learned languages and dialects in record time, joined the Girl Scouts, the swim club, the ski club, and even a glee club (chorus). I wore the right clothes and probably liked the right things, but to no avail; that lonely feeling just never left me. And all this, by the way, relates purely to my experiences with the Outside World (that is how we Moonies referred to what other people might perceive as “normal society”). Children growing up in cults, or in any kind of fundamentalist movement for that matter, always get stuck between (at least) two worlds.
Things probably would have been slightly different, although not necessarily better, had I felt some sense of belonging in the Inside World (my own personal term for the Moonies, or “the family,” as we insiders referred to ourselves). This fate was not to be mine, however, for one big reason that I can explain only by examining the Moonie Belief System (B S). This “family” came complete with a set of True Parents (Sun Myung Moon, also founder and self-proclaimed messiah, and his wife) and True Children (their 14 children). All the other members lovingly referred to each other as True Brothers and Sisters to complete the Holy Metaphor, but also, I suspect, to linguistically prevent any kind of sexual activity from occurring between these “Brothers and Sisters.” Premarital sex was regarded as an almost unforgivable mortal sin. Sex was so terrible that any children born from this impure act were blemished forever with the stain of Original Sin, passed on through generations all the way back to when Adam and Eve had premarital sex. This is “the fall” according to the Moonie bible (otherwise known as “The Principles”)—which, incidentally, was Eve’s fault because she had sex with Satan first and then felt guilty because she remembered that it was Adam she was supposed to have sex with, whereby she seduced him, but, alas, too late or too early, or both, and so women became the inferior sex and suffer childbirth and menstruation and all sorts of womanly misfortunes as a consequence of this badly timed and somewhat bungled-up sex act.
To remedy this calamity, all lowly mortals (both men and women) must pay Indemnity. Any kind of personal misfortune could be seen as one form of paying Indemnity, but most members supplemented this payment with additional suffering, just to make sure that Indemnity was indeed being paid. There was fasting (often for 21 days with absolutely no food whatsoever); getting up very early and praying hysterically for days, weeks, or months on end; as well as fundraising (practically all the members fundraised at some point or another; many did nothing but fundraise) and witnessing (getting other unsuspecting outsiders to join the happy family). The only other activity that could remove the stain of Original Sin was The Blessing. Here, several hundred (sometimes several thousand) couples, whom True Father himself picked out from pictures or in a great big gathering called “The Matching,” would all get married at the same time by True Parents, in some very big place, like a football stadium, or Madison Square Garden. Not only the Blessed Couple, but all the future children born from this holy matrimony, would then be freed of Original Sin (which explains why it was so popular; I think the Moonies are even in the Guinness Book of World Records for the biggest mass weddings in history). The offspring of these decontaminated couples were then subsequently called the Blessed Children since these lucky little cherubs were born into the world unblemished and completely free of Original Sin. In all metaphysical respects, as perfect as can be.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one’s point of view), I was no such child. Born to an unwed mother before she joined the church, I was doomed to carry the burden of Original Sin. I and others like me were continually reminded of this disgraceful state of affairs by simply being given the rather unflattering designation of Unblessed Children. As an Unblessed Child, I was excluded in several different ways: Ritually during Sunday morning prayers (which always took place at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m.), for example, where I was consistently prohibited from saying the Pledge of the Families (not belonging to a Blessed Family myself). Socially, during big Moonie celebrations such as God’s Day, where special seats were always reserved for Blessed Children (I was allowed to sit there on many occasions, but hardly ever without first being solemnly informed that these seats were really for Blessed Children). Then there was the obligatory trip to Korea (often lasting several years), which was an absolute must for most Blessed Children, but not for me (although from what I’ve heard, I think I was blessed to have missed it). And of course, as opposed to most of the Blessed Children, I was in no way exempt from the fundraising and witnessing. After all, Indemnity must be paid, and I have many (not so very fond) memories of myself standing on street corners selling flowers with my mother, usually for some worthy “Christian” cause (we hardly ever said it was for the Moonies, unless we happened to be in the mood for some rather unpleasant “persecution,” as we called the stone throwing, name calling, and other mostly verbal abuse).
Understandably, after many years of this kind of treatment, one is always in danger of feeling vaguely inadequate and prone to a slight sense of inferiority with respect to those Holier Than Thou. So, to finally make my point, even in the Inside World, amidst my own True Brothers and Sisters, I felt like an outcast, a recluse, a misfit, and once again, the freak in the group.
Psychologically speaking, there are probably several ways to deal with this type of dilemma. I have ascertained two primary methods: Either you buy the crap (pardon my French), or you don’t. Choosing the first method would have been highly destructive to my fragile psyche. No complex psychological analysis needed here; I simply state what to me seems obvious: believing that one is fundamentally inferior to most of one’s peers, for whatever reason, can dangerously stagnate one’s own personal growth and development. (However, believing that their superiority is due to a somewhat more elaborate mating ritual between their parents than that of one’s own does make it all the more absurd, even though some 50-odd years back, the majority of our God-fearing citizens adopted this view regarding unwed mothers and their “bastard” children. But this just goes to show how cruel and easily duped we humans can be.) Therefore, probably to protect myself and spare myself serious damage in the long run, somewhere in the depths of my psyche (possibly even subconsciously), I decided at a relatively early age that I was surrounded by a group of gibbering morons.
This was, perhaps, not the most sophisticated strategy, but it was effective, and it worked wonders when it came to ignoring and shutting out most of the ranting and raving that appeared to compose the greater part of my conceptual reality tunnel (the Inside World), although, admittedly, many times the two worlds collided. The resulting clash was so straining that I did my best to convince myself that this plump little Korean guy jumping about on a stage, flailing his arms energetically and barking loudly in gibberish (Korean), really was the Messiah, here to save the world and populate the planet with little Blessed Children. Fortunately, this phase was usually fleeting, and then I was back to my familiar miserable, cynical self. Ironically, I strongly believe today that had I been a Blessed Child, this strategy (deciding that I was surrounded by a group of gibbering morons) would have been very difficult to adopt. This is because Blessed Children had, for the most part, been told all their lives how very special, important, and unique they were, sort of like Holy Super Kids. The whole world depended on them, and if there is still widespread misery and suffering today, it is because they haven’t taken their role and mission seriously enough (what a burden, poor kids). Basically, my guess is that it is much harder to disregard and block out positive affirmations that build self-esteem and make one feel like a Very Important Person than it is to ignore a Belief System that ultimately makes one feel like a little piece of poop. In other words, I think I was blessed to have been unblessed (life is funny that way).
Another factor worth mentioning here is that many of the Blessed Children, in addition to being conveniently Blessed to one another, later became very economically dependent on the church, which mediated and sponsored both jobs and higher education, making it hard for a recipient to break free on any level, even if one did start developing a mind of one’s own. Put slightly differently, where subtle and sophisticated mind-controlling techniques fail, hard economic facts still tend to win out in the end (I, of course, was never worth sponsoring and have had to make do with a combination of student loans and welfare, sigh). Finally, I do believe that all that moving about during my early years, and the fact that I never really managed to “bond” successfully with my mother, made it much easier for me to break out later on. Filial piety (playing the role of obedient and devoted daughter) just didn’t seem to be in my nature; and as for my father, he drifted out when I was 12 and later helped me do the same.
I have often wondered why it was so easy for me to turn my back on my True Family, and (almost) never look back. I left to live with my father in California when I was 14 (although mentally I was long gone way before then). About two years later, I decided to re-join, and become a missionary myself in France (the Outside World was too much for me at such a vulnerable age, and I had to escape before it gobbled me up—“from the frying pan into the fire,” as they say). Being a missionary in France was probably the most serious attempt I made at “buying it” my whole life. Growing up in the Moonies was due to unfortunate circumstances way beyond my control, but becoming a missionary at the age of 16 was a desperate and conscious choice. It was, in many ways, a matter of survival, at least existentially. The loneliness and emptiness I felt in the Outside World at the age of 14 was so intense that I’m really quite surprised I emerged from it all as relatively unscathed as I did (my mother was almost certainly paying holy instalments to my sacred life insurance more than ever at that point).
The best illustration I can think of to illustrate this feeling is that of a small animal, locked up in a cage most of its life, and then suddenly set free to manage as best as it can in the jungle. Or, as another cult kid I read about in a Norwegian newspaper described it, being raised in a sect is like growing up in a spaceship, protected and confined, and then one day leaping out into space. Compared to the chaos, the overwhelming freedom and the incredible loneliness I encountered out in the big cruel world, being an Unblessed Child in the Moonies seemed like peanuts. After all, here at least I was part of something, even if it was the lesser part of an otherwise perfect family. Orbiting the Outside World, having cut all ties linking me to the Mother Moonie Spaceship, I felt utterly and completely alone. Therefore, I quit high school and set off to become a missionary and sell flowers (more out of necessity than conviction). A stranger in yet another strange land, but, as fate would have it that was probably one of my wisest and most courageous decisions. Sunny California would have been the death of me, and even though I ended up staying in France only for a year (after which I fell in love with a young Norwegian and moved to Norway), I knew instinctively that I had to get away, no matter where, no matter how.
The Moonies (or whatever they call themselves today) are not the Ku Klux Klan, as one of my childhood friends has already pointed out in a previous article. They do have some positive values, and they do mean well (yes, I know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions). On the whole, my experiences have taught me a lot about society, human nature, and this very bizarre and sometimes unpleasant state called life. The feeling of being a misfit, a social freak, doomed to dwell forever on the outside looking in, still haunts me wherever I go. However, I do have a new “family,” I have my friends, and I have my son (and I can rest assured knowing that when it comes to child rearing, I certainly know what NOT to do). I also have my sense of humor to chase away any new devils (traumas and tragedies) that might happen to fly my way. I have noticed that fanaticism (in its many forms and guises) and humor are unhappy bedfellows; they just don’t mix very well. So for those of you who find this article somewhat offensive in any way, my sincere apologies; but when it comes down to a conflict between preserving other peoples’ Belief System and my own mental health, I tend to get a little selfish.
In many respects, I suppose that growing up the way I have has made me stronger and wiser. But I certainly didn’t choose the easy way out, and sometimes I can’t help but wonder if things might have been less problematic if I’d just stayed on the inside, content with looking out. But then, I seem to attract adversity; and besides, I was never really on the inside, just like I’ll never really be on the outside. You’ll find me floating in those fuzzy grey zones in between.
This material was originally prepared for a presentation at AFF’s annual conference, June 14-15, 2002, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Orlando (FL) Airport.
Flore Singer Aaslid was born 12 October 1972 in Rosenheim, Germany. She was raised as a "non-blessed" child in the Unification Church and grew up in Germany, England, USA, France, and Norway, respectively. Currently, she is a social anthropologist based in Trondheim, Norway, where she lives with her son. (email@example.com)