Steven Hassan joined the Unification Church in the 1970s and was a member for more than two years. He now works as a counsellor and has written books about cults and their techniques.
I consider myself to be an independent thinker. I was an advanced honours student. I had skipped eighth grade. I cycled across the US when I was 16. I did not think I was vulnerable to being brainwashed by a cult.
I was 19, and it was the beginning of the spring semester at college when three women, dressed like students, asked if they could sit at my table in the cafeteria. They were kind of flirting with me. I thought I was going to get a date.
At some point they said they were part of a student movement, trying to make the world a better place. I said, “Are you part of some sort of religious group?” They said no. They also didn’t say they were celibate and that Reverend Moon was going to match people and tell them when they could have sex. If they had, I would have said: “You’re crazy, leave me alone.” I say this to highlight the point about deception: people don’t knowingly join cults.
Little did I know, within a few weeks I would be told to drop out of school, donate my bank account, look at Moon as my true parent, and believe my parents were Satan. I didn’t even believe in Satan until I met the group.
I hadn’t heard of the Moonies and I didn’t know about Moon himself until several weeks into my indoctrination. These new people picked me up on a Friday evening and drove me to a very expensive mansion, which turned out to be one of their headquarters. As we were driving through the gate, they said: “By the way we’re having a joint workshop with the Unification Church.” I said nobody had told me about a workshop, or a church. They did the classic mind control technique – they turned it around and made it my issue. “What’s the matter?” they said. “Are you closed-minded?’
I was put in a dormitory and couldn’t sleep. I was planning to get out of there the next day, but morning came and I was told I had missed the van. They said I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t stay, and talked me into a 40-day separation, where I shouldn’t communicate with my friends or family.
Each evening we had to write feedback. At the end of the last day I remember writing: “I am too blown away to write anything now.” My mind was exploding. At lectures, they had introduced the idea that all of human history was culminating, that God was sending the messiah and that the third world war was going to happen in the next three years. What did I want to do? Did I want to be part of this great and glorious thing, or did I want to be selfish and go back to my little life?
Within three months I was a cult leader. I got very deeply involved, and I got to the point where I was being told to think about what country I wanted to run when we took over the world.
I was with the Moonies for two-and-a-half years. I worked 21 hours a day, seven days a week – in prayer for between one and three hours. Then I would spend the rest of the day doing PR or lectures for the group, recruiting and fundraising. Everyone on my team was told they had to raise a minimum of $100 a day, otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed to sleep, and as a good leader, if they couldn’t sleep, then I couldn’t either. When I crashed a van into the back of a tractor trailer, I had gone three days without sleep.
They gave me tapes of Moon’s speeches to listen to in hospital when I was recovering from the crash, but you can only do that for so many hours in the day. Out of the controlled environment, I really missed my younger sister. I called her and told her I had been in an accident. She told the rest of my family
They hired former members to do an intervention with me. It was a very difficult experience because I was programmed to fear Satan and anyone who criticised Moon. I thought it was a test of my faith and I was convinced I hadn’t been brainwashed.
My father started to weep at one point and said: “What would you do if it was your son who had dropped out of college, cut off contact?” I could feel he was was genuinely concerned about me, but it didn’t mean I wanted to leave, or didn’t think Moon was the Messiah. He asked me to listen to them for the next five days, and at the end if I still wanted to go back he would take me. I wanted to prove to them I wasn’t brainwashed, but on the fifth day, as soon as I allowed the thought that Moon was a liar into my consciousness it was like a house of cards falling down. I was horrified.
I didn’t do anything for three months after the deprogramming. I just tried to work out who I was and what I believed. After three months, I realised I wanted to go public and expose it, which I have been doing ever since, writing books about how these groups work, and working as a therapist to protect people.
Now Moon is gone, I’m concerned that the cult will start generating stories about how he walked on water and raised dead people. My fear is that for the sake of the franchise they will come together and promote Moon as a great being.