A Case Study of the Benefits of Writing for Cult Survivors
By K. Gordon Neufeld
I was a member of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, popularly known as the “Moonies,” for ten years. The Unification Church is the organization more properly known as the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, which was founded in Korea in 1954 by Moon, a charismatic evangelist who claims to be the Messiah. In reflecting on my life during and since my time in the Unification Church, I can definitely see that writing benefited me greatly, not only after I left the cult, but also for a period of approximately six years before my decision to leave.
In 1976—the same year I joined the Unification Church —I graduated from the University of British Columbia with an undergraduate degree in English. I chose that university specifically because it has a Creative Writing program. Yet, as soon as I got caught up in the Unification Church, which I encountered by chance while passing through San Francisco in August, 1976, I put aside all my ambitions to become a writer. Church leaders told me that when the Ideal World came, and everyone believed in Unificationism, then there would be time for me to develop my writing talents; but in the meantime I should dedicate myself 100 percent to carrying out the will of “True Father” (that is, the Reverend Moon). So I abruptly stopped writing, and for the next four years I wrote only letters to my family and a few fairly prosaic essays for my classes at the Unification Theological Seminary in upstate New York . The first part of this article deals with this period when I had few opportunities for writing or creative expression.
But, as I will relate in more detail later, during my fourth year as a Unificationist, which was also my second year at the Seminary, a seemingly insignificant event suddenly reopened my urge to express myself in ways that put me sharply at odds with church authorities. For the next six years, then, until I finally quit the Unification Church, I wrote often—beginning with sermons for the Seminary, and then journal and diary entries, and finally articles for two grass-roots Unificationist publications that briefly flourished in the mid‑1980s. I will be quoting from some of these sources to show how writing helped me clarify the single biggest issue within myself: that is, the question of whether I should permit myself to feel my real feelings, or whether I should obey the demands of church leaders by completely repressing them. The second part of this article deals with this period of vacillation, when I was still a Unificationist but had started to pull away.
Even after I finally concluded I could not hold back my real feelings, and that therefore I must leave the Unification Church—which I finally did in 1986—the struggle was not over, because I still had not settled the question of whether my choice was the right one—the one that God wanted me to make. It took me another six years, and a near-return to the Unification Church, before I could settle that question.
In the third part of this article, then, I will look at the role that writing played in helping me to reconcile myself, post-cult, to my decision to leave the Unification Church. Indeed, initially it was not writing itself, but merely the goal of becoming a writer, that helped me resist on that one occasion when I nearly returned to the Unification Church . And, subsequently, it was writing in all its forms—not just autobiography, but also short stories, poems, and a novella—that helped me to be able to see that I had, indeed, made the right decision by leaving the Unification Church.
Part One: Repression As a Way of Life, 1976 to 1980
Ironically, the reason I was traveling through California in August of 1976 when I encountered the Unification Church was that I was investigating primal therapy, a therapy first described by its inventor, Arthur Janov, in his famous book, The Primal Scream. I had gone to California to look at Janov’s original Primal Institute and also some other organizations that offered imitations of Janov’s techniques. The situation was ironic because the whole idea behind Janov’s therapy is to break through emotional repression, yet, after I became caught up in the Unification Church, I was required to engage in near-total repression of my feelings.
Repression, therefore, became a way of life throughout the first four years of my involvement with Moon’s organization. And although I was not aware of this at the time, the thought-reform techniques that the Unification Church used on me at the indoctrination camp in Boonville , California conformed in every respect to the eight criteria for a thought-reform program identified by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 study, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. The use of these techniques quickly changed me from a nonreligious person into a dedicated believer in Moon and his teachings, the Divine Principle. I came to believe that my feelings were liable to be “invaded by Satan” and should be treated with utmost suspicion. I was urged to work frenetically from early in the morning to late at night, to pray and chant constantly during my waking hours, and to fixate all my thoughts on Reverend Moon and his wife, whom we called the True Parents. We were to think only of how to please Father, and it was presumed that God could not be happy unless we expended every effort to serve Father. Members would often counsel each other to “just cut” from their feelings, and when they said this they would use a karate-chopping gesture to demonstrate the idea, similar to the hand-chopping gesture that Moon often uses in his public speeches.
Under the pressure of my newly frantic schedule, I stopped writing almost completely except for occasional letters to my family in Calgary. During my first four years as a member of the Unification Church, I was sent all over the United States, first to Los Angeles for the International One World Crusade, then to New York to do recruiting, and then to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. to do full-time fundraising (which in the Unification Church is called M.F.T., meaning “mobile fundraising teams”). Such teams would travel all around in vans to sell flowers, candy, and costume jewelry at greatly inflated prices in parking lots, residential neighborhoods, and commercial districts.
It was during my time on M.F.T. that I experienced emotional repression in its most complete form. Such repression was essential just to survive the M.F.T. This is how I describe my own M.F.T. experiences in my new book, Heartbreak and Rage: Ten Years Under Sun Myung Moon:
I had finally achieved what Father demanded above all else from his followers—I had become total action without reflection—pure doing.
This, in fact, was what Father had in mind when he insisted that Seminarians should first go to the M.F.T. He wanted them to have the experience of totally emptying their minds, and of thinking of nothing except obedience to him. Then, later, when they would find themselves in an intellectual environment like the Seminary, they would never let mere ideas get in the way of unthinking loyalty and obedience. (Neufeld, 89)
Only, finally, when I was sent to the Unification Theological Seminary in Barrytown, New York, in the fall of 1978, did I experience a let‑up in the demands imposed by the Unification Church for complete emotional repression. At the Seminary, Moon expected his followers to study a variety of religious ideas and systems and to become able to counter believers in those systems with Unificationist theories that would win them over to Moon’s views. In such an environment, there was less insistence on constant frantic activity, and so there was time for students to reflect and to form deeper friendships. At the Seminary—to again refer to Lifton’s model for thought reform—I experienced a relaxation of “milieu control.” And although the effect was not instantaneous, by the end of two years in that environment, I had become more favorable to emotional expression and had concluded that repressing feelings is not always appropriate, despite what the larger church continued to urge. Many of the other Seminary students likewise experienced a gradual loosening up of their mental processes, and for this very reason the Seminary was regarded with suspicion or disfavor in other parts of the church, where seminarians were sometimes nicknamed “cemetarians.” Nevertheless, the Seminary continued to enjoy the whole-hearted support of Moon himself during that era. In my own case, the change that brought me to this new way of thinking occurred suddenly, due to the friendship and kindness of another Seminary student.
Part Two: Vacillating Between Repression and Expression, 1980 to 1986
Late one night in November 1979, after I had been a Seminary student for more than a year, a well-meaning young woman, also a Unification Church member and a Seminary student, approached me with words of friendship. I had slept briefly that night, and then I woke up to study from midnight to 4:00 a.m. because I could find no other way to keep up with the many demands placed on my time. Because I was a loyal follower of Sun Myung Moon, I felt it would be shameful to even think any complaining thoughts about these extreme demands. Whenever I felt a hint of complaint, I was expected to repress it at once and substitute a feeling of gratitude at how “Father had saved me.” Like most long-term members, I had become so good at doing this that I had completely lost touch with my own real feelings. I wasn’t even aware that I was having a hard time until this well-meaning young woman pointed it out to me. (For the purposes of this article and my book, I have called her Fran).
It is important to understand that Fran’s act of kindness did not, in one swift stroke, “snap” the effects of mind control. Mind control should not be regarded as something that is either completely present or totally absent. Rather, mind control persists in a faded form even in the minds of those who have long since left a totalist environment, and, as such, it often causes emotional difficulties for years until it has been identified and resolved. In my own case, Fran unknowingly stumbled across the key to unlocking my real feelings again. She pointed out to me that I was “having a hard time,” and she offered to be a special friend to help me through this “hard time.” This was not intended as a romantic proposal; it was simply an offer of deep friendship. But I was profoundly touched by Fran’s offer; it was so different from the usual advice I received from church leaders, who would generally say something like this: “Having a hard time? Well, buck up!
Think of Father’s much greater suffering in the early days of the church!” Instead of being told to repress my feelings, Fran was asking me to go ahead and feel them, and to talk about them to her. This had the effect of plunging me into a profound turmoil as I tried to decide whether God actually wanted me to feel these feelings, or to lock them away again.
If my “mission” (that is, my assigned role in the church) had been anything other than the Seminary, I would have been compelled by my church superiors to repress my feelings again. However, because I was at the Seminary, where Unificationists were expected to wrestle with intellectual questions, I was not compelled.
At first, I was so euphoric about the rediscovery of my own real feelings that I set out to spread the word to the entire Seminary. So I wrote a heartfelt, poetic sermon titled “Seeking the Oasis,” which I gave first to my Homiletics class, and then to the entire Seminary. I still have a copy of this sermon, and I will quote from the last page because this is probably the first piece of writing I produced since joining the Unification Church that proceeded from my own authentic thoughts and feelings:
No one had ever penetrated to touch that depth of my heart before, and I cried in gratitude to God that He had taken such special interest in me as to even find a way to look after me I hadn’t realized I needed. My tears were like a small rivulet from the great, broad river flowing from the heart of God.
If we can open our hearts to it, then this river of love can wash over the roots of our being, bringing forth even the Tree of Life from out of the desert sands. All we need to do is to find the time and take the risk to bare our hearts to our brothers and sisters. Our hearts may be as dry and thirsting as the most barren ground without our even knowing it. Replenish them with the nourishing water of your tears, and from the seed of your liberation will sprout the sturdiest tree to give shade and comfort to all who come after you there, with sun baked, parching lips, seeking the oasis.
For the next six years, the more I tried to remain loyal to these ideas, the more I found myself being pushed to the fringes of the church, and eventually out. Yet, throughout this entire time, I continued to fear that I was straying from the straight and narrow, and I struggled with the question of whether I should force my feelings back down again. (At one point, I even considered voluntarily returning to the M.F.T.).
In the summer of 1980, I started a diary, which in my book I called the Boston Diary, because I started it while I was in Boston as part of a contingent of seminarians in the new three-year Divinity program who were expecting to return to their studies in the fall.
The Boston Diary demonstrates very clearly my divided state of mind, as I swung back and forth between my authentic self and my cult self. This is how I describe the Boston Diary in my new book:
I still have this diary, the only one of the many diaries I kept during my Unification Church years that I did not later destroy in a fit of self-reforming zeal. This one was special to me because the entries in it are so heart-rending, so full of lacerating pain and desperate questioning, that I could not bring myself to repudiate it. It is a small book with cream-colored pages, covered with brown cloth, in which I wrote in ball point pen, my handwriting sometimes scrawling and expansive, sometimes cramped and mechanical, as I vacillated between the two sides of myself. (Neufeld, 111)
My inability during that summer in Boston to voluntarily repress my feelings made it almost inevitable that, upon my return to the Seminary, I would be swiftly shown the door.
However, because of the high regard that Sun Myung Moon had for the Seminary during that era, I received different treatment than I might have received if I had been an ordinary member. The usual way to handle members who are having problems is to send them to a Divine Principle workshop; if that doesn’t work, they may be placed in a demanding mission such as the M.F.T.; or, if all else fails, they are sent home to their parents. But instead of any of these courses of action, I was allowed to decide for myself what I would do next, provided the choice included leaving the Seminary as soon as possible. Therefore, I chose to move to Los Angeles in 1980, so I could undertake Arthur Janov’s primal therapy, the same therapy that had interested me in 1976.
I could never afford to complete this therapy. And although the combination was unusual, I remained an active member of the Unification Church throughout the time of my primal therapy treatments (this flies in the face of Janov’s general view that religious beliefs are artifacts of emotional repression that will fall away after treatment). In fact, I even interrupted my primal therapy treatments so I could participate in the mass wedding that Moon staged at Madison Square Garden in 1982. One might conclude from this situation that primal therapy was ineffective in breaking through my cultic mindset, though this ineffectiveness might simply be due to the fact that I couldn’t finish the therapy.
It took, therefore, more than six years from the day Fran reawakened my real feelings until I was finally ready to leave the Unification Church. Throughout that interval, I continued to explore my feelings in many journals and diaries; as well, during the final months of my ten-year membership in the Unification Church, I began to write articles and humorous stories that appeared in The Round Table and in Our Network, two grass-roots Unificationist publications that sprang up and briefly flourished in the mid‑1980s. These two informal publications—what are sometimes called “zines”—were put out by disaffected members of the Unification Church without the consent or approval of their church superiors. They were mailed free of charge to anyone who requested them.
The Round Table was sent out monthly or bimonthly from the New York area. The Round Table was a serious-minded publication that saw itself as trying to spark a reform movement in the Unification Church. Its logo included a drawing of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.
The other newsletter, Our Network, was much more quirky and informal. True to stereotype, this one came out of California. It included cartoons, poetry, and comedy lists among its offerings. For Our Network, I wrote satirical pieces. In one of them, I imagined myself going to “Honest Dave’s Used Theology Lot” to try to trade in Moon’s Divine Principle for an alternate belief system. In another, I pictured the world in 2084 after the Unification Church had finally taken over, making joking parallels to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
My final article for The Round Table bore the title “The Benefits of Repression.” I did not intend this title ironically. I was genuinely trying to argue for the benefits of repressing feelings; yet, at the same time, I wanted to put forward the idea—which was considered subversive in the Unification Church —that repressing feelings is not invariably beneficial; sometimes it is merely a habit, what I called “institutionalized repression.” “The Benefits of Repression” appeared in The Round Table in November of 1986, the same month I became an ex‑member of the Unification Church. Writing that piece had been a last-ditch attempt to try to see things the church’s way, but now I was out.
To many people, the fact that I even wrote these pieces for The Round Table and Our Network is proof that I could not possibly have been under the influence of mind control. I believe, however, that although these writings were written in defiance of the Unification Church hierarchy, I was still very much under the influence of mind control, and these writings were merely the final stages of a prolonged, six-year inner struggle. Right up to the final month of my cult involvement, the thought of actually leaving the church remained a terrifying and unthinkable prospect.
Writing helped me throughout the six years from 1980 to 1986 while I sought unsuccessfully to reconcile the church’s insistence on emotional repression with my own insistence on feeling my real feelings. My writings during that period reflected my split personality, in that they often tried to endorse both viewpoints. Even though I was terrified of the idea of leaving, it became more and more evident that I was being pushed to the margins of the church because of my insistence on staying in touch with my feelings.
Finally, late in 1986, after an explosive argument with another church member, I felt there was no point in continuing to stay in the organization. I knew I could no longer be happy as a member, and if I stayed I would be merely hanging on grimly, while feeling miserable the entire time. Therefore, I borrowed some money from an acquaintance and took the bus home to my family.
Part Three: Triumph of Expression over Repression, 1986 – 1992
Following my return to my parents’ home and to the city where I grew up— Calgary , Alberta —I had vague plans of applying to study journalism, but I was turned down by the universities to which I applied. While trying to come up with an alternative plan, I took temporary jobs as a clerk typist and later as a word-processing operator, because typing was the only job skill I still possessed after ten years in the Unification Church. I got an apartment in downtown Calgary and prepared to settle into a life that seemed shallow and empty compared to the apocalyptic fervor of my former cult life.
But, eventually, unhappy with the routine of my fairly ordinary jobs, I sought out a conventional counselor (which is to say he was not an exit counselor), and he encouraged me to return to my original ambition to become a writer of novels and stories. In 1990, I applied to the highly regarded Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.
Around the time I made my application to U.B.C., I received a surprising letter from the woman to whom I had once been engaged by Moon through his arranged-marriage process. She was someone I had not known before we were engaged, but who I came to love as I got to know her better. She was from England, and during the time I knew her she lived in one or the other of England , Scotland , or France . We were never permitted to live together. (I have called her Eleanor for the purposes of this essay and my book).
Eleanor quit the Unification Church in 1984—two years before I also left, so our “marriage” had never really gotten off the ground. But now, some six years later, she had returned to the Unification Church in London. Eleanor hoped to revive our relationship by drawing me back into the church. I agreed to visit her.
During my time in London, Eleanor and the other Unification Church members persuaded me to abandon my plans to return to school in favor of rejoining the church and emigrating to England . If I had gone through with this plan, church authorities would have eventually allowed the two of us to live together, but probably not for a few years. Why would I even agree to such an arrangement? I suppose mainly because I had not arrived at a complete resolution of my cult experience, so one part of myself still felt that I should have remained loyal to Moon; therefore, if an opportunity that was at least marginally bearable came for me to “go back to Father,” I was still vulnerable to being persuaded that I was morally obligated to go back. As well, I still felt some fondness for Eleanor personally.
Fortunately, when I returned to Canada intending to wind up my affairs, I also returned—with difficulty—to my senses. I was feeling very uneasy about giving up my plans to study writing, because this was something I had become more and more excited about. At last, I called Eleanor and emphatically broke it off between us.
When I finally did return to the university, in September of 1990, I had no intention of writing about my cult experiences. I felt that that my Unification Church involvement was behind me, and I should move on with my life. The first poems and stories that I produced for creative writing classes didn’t even touch upon my cult background. However, a professor at U.B.C. urged me to write about my cult experiences. Eventually, I obliged him by writing a short story titled “Partings,” about two teenage girls who leave Calgary on a bus trip to California, and, after they meet the Moonies, one of them gets caught up in the cult, while the other returns home. At the time I wrote this story, I didn’t believe that mind control existed, so to explain the difference between the two girls’ responses to the indoctrination camp, I set up the story so that one girl was more psychologically vulnerable than the other, and it was the emotionally needy one who got drawn in.
The other girl narrates the story. Here’s the closing paragraph from “Partings”:
I got on the bus and sat by the window, and in the last light of the evening I saw her walking up the hill again to join the group of people who were staying for the week. They had formed a big circle around a campfire and were singing a lot of loud, happy songs, with Jacob playing his guitar as usual, and everybody clapping in time. As she got closer to them, she suddenly broke into a little run, and jumped into the circle, clapping her hands in time with the others. I think that’s what she loved the best about them: just the simple things, like holding hands and singing songs about the Ideal World and acting out all the words like some big grown‑up kids. For a moment the campfire flared up and caught her little dark face in its glow, and she was really smiling now, like I almost never saw her smile, and in that moment, I knew how much I loved her, and that I might not ever see her again.
Later, I wrote another short story in which I sought to recreate, as accurately as possible, a typical day in the life of a fundraiser on the M.F.T. That story was eventually published in the Baltimore City Paper in 1993 under the title “True Father Knows Best.” Even though it was written before I understood mind control and therefore contains some logical problems, it remains one of the best things I have ever written about my Unification Church experiences. The story is shot through with the haunting refrain, “There was no time to waste,” and it records one very long day in the life of a young man fundraising for the Unification Church in Baltimore. Near the end of his fundraising day, he is given a chance to make an emotional connection to a young woman on his fundraising team who is having problems, but he rebuffs the opportunity, because he is afraid of where this might lead. Here are the final paragraphs of that story:
Reinhard turned onto the expressway and drove silently for some time. There was a dull strain of tension in the air. Nobody joked, nobody told an inspiring testimony. The pale wash of the streetlights swept repeatedly over the seven faces in the van, first Reinhard and Harumi-san, then Hilda, then the brothers. Everyone was thoughtful, or praying, or staring out at the lowering landscape. When he finally spoke, Reinhard looked up at the rear view mirror. Our eyes connected in the glass. His eyes were as gray and cold as I’d ever seen them, and his words were flat and toneless.
“Margaret wasn’t at her pick-up point,” he said. “I asked inside the restaurant where she starts her run, and they said she asked for directions to the bus depot. She said she was going back to her family in Chicago. She gave them her flowers, and left. When I got to the depot the bus was already gone.”
So that was it. Margaret had left. She’d joined the ranks of the unbelievers—the walking dead. To keep Reinhard from noticing the tears that came to my eyes, I put up my hands and began to pray. Only now that she was gone, could I finally let myself feel that I loved her. I prayed that she would realize her mistake and come back to the True Family. I promised to God that I would work even harder as a heavenly soldier for Father. And then I turned my thoughts to preparing the product for the next day. There was no time to waste.
Both these stories were good attempts to process my cult experience, but they were deficient because they were based on the false premise that mind control did not exist and that people joined the Unification Church based solely on their emotional need.
However, in 1992, as I was planning a novel that would include a forcible deprogramming—a procedure to which I was strongly opposed—I realized that I understood very little about the rationale behind deprogramming and why anyone might attempt to do this. I decided that even though I had an intense phobic reaction to the mere idea of reading books by former Unification Church members, I was unlikely to be able to write convincingly about a deprogramming unless I read something about it. So one day I noticed a copy of Steven Hassan’s book, Combating Cult Mind Control, in a bookstore, and after much hesitation I reluctantly bought it and began to read. To my own amazement, I was completely won over by Hassan’s arguments. Reading that book opened the floodgates for me—soon after that, I read Lifton’s study of thought reform, and I began to devour all the published accounts written by former Unificationists. I realized that mind control was a real thing that I had personally endured, and I began to recast my writing to take this new understanding into account.
It was only after I reached this key understanding that I stopped writing about my cult experiences exclusively in fiction and poetry and also began writing about them in non‑fiction articles for the Vancouver Sun newspaper. Later, when it became clear that no newspaper article or personal essay could answer all the questions people have about my cult experiences, I decided to write the entire story from start to finish in a book-length memoir. That project eventually became Heartbreak and Rage: Ten Years Under Sun Myung Moon.
For twelve years, from 1980 to 1992, writing encouraged me to engage in emotional expression in situations in which I was constantly being told, and I generally believed, that I had a moral obligation to repress my deepest thoughts and feelings. This is not to say that it is impossible to write entirely out of a cultic mindset, but such writing tends to read more like propaganda than serious literature. Consider the artistic style known as Socialist Realism, which was once the official style for artists in the former Soviet Union —and then consider how little art of merit was ever produced using that style. Serious personal writing, by contrast, puts a person back in touch with his or her real feelings, and therefore provides the tools for him or her to escape the maze of cultic thinking and repression.
Henriette Klauser, PhD, in her recent book, With Pen in Hand: The Healing Power of Writing, offers a number of helpful tips for using writing as an aid to emotional healing. The most helpful suggestion for the purposes of cult survivors is probably the one that appears at the close of Chapter 13, in which the struggles of Mike, a Vietnam War veteran, are described:
Consider writing a memoir about an important event in your life. Not for publication, but for yourself, to name what shaped you, and perhaps to share with a few select close friends and family members. Mike told the people he shared his story with, “If you want to understand me, here it is—this is what I went through.”
Be honest; write continuously, without worrying about style or grammar. The more you write, the more you will remember.
Just start. (Klauser, 218)
Hassan, Steven. (1988). Combating cult mind control. Rochester , Vermont : Park Street Press.
Janov, Arthur. (1970). The primal scream: Primal therapy, the cure for neurosis. New York , N.Y. : G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Klauser, Henriette Anne. (2003). With pen in hand: The healing power of writing. Cambridge , Massachusetts : Perseus Publishing.
Lifton, Robert Jay. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York , N.Y. : W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Neufeld, K. Gordon. (2002). Heartbreak and rage: Ten years under Sun Myung Moon, a cult survivor’s memoir. College Station , Texas : VirtualBookworm.com, Inc.
This paper is based on a talk given at AFF’s June 2003 conference in Orange , California .
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