I Grew Up in a Cult, and Ultimately Found the Truth
Mimi, Robbie, and I were curled up in the big flowered wing chair in my grandparents’ living room. We were so tiny—Mimi being four feet ten inches at the most, and Robbie and I being eleven and ten and small for our ages—that we easily fit.
“He was phenomenal,” Mimi said. She had a smile on her face and a faraway look in her bright blue eyes. “Just amazing.”
“Why?” Robbie asked. I’m guessing he was as curious as I was about this wild change in our mother.
“Well, it just makes so much sense. It’s like I finally figured out the answers. I never could understand why Jesus had to die. I never could. And Reverend Moon explained that he wasn’t supposed to. It just makes so much sense.”
“Wow,” I said. I didn’t understand but longed to agree with her. I wanted to always agree with her. And besides, she vibrated with warmth and elation, and I wanted to keep that Mimi around.
Before that morning in January 1974, Mimi had tried on religions and movements like some women try on clothes. At one time or another she’d embraced Buddhism, Hinduism, born-again Christianity, sensitivity group training, commune living, primal screaming, meditating, chanting “om,” and a vow of silence. The night before, Mimi had gone to hear Reverend Sun Myung Moon— the founder of the Unification Church—speak. If she had found her something in the Unification Church, I was determined to be on board.
“It’s like I’ve been trying to fit a square peg in a round hole for so long, trying to understand this…and now someone finally explained it to me,” she continued breathlessly, a smile stretched across her face. “I sat there and listened and kept thinking, I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.’”
I looked at my mother. I hardly recognized her. She was a new woman, or at least a woman with a vision of becoming a new woman, her heart and mind captured by the Church’s teachings—a mixture of Judeo-Christian and Eastern philosophies that proclaimed it time to unite all world religions and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth. She bounced with excitement in a way I’d never seen before.
“I’m going back,” she said. “And maybe soon we all will.”
My mother, Mimi, and my father, Danny, met in high school and married shortly after, because they had to. And yes, I called them Mimi and Danny. Danny refused to have us refer to him in any other way. “If you call me Daddy, I’ll call you Daudy,” he’d say to me. “If you call me Father, I’ll call you Daughter. I am a person. Call me by my name.”
Mimi and Danny split up when I was three, and my older brother, Robbie, and I stayed with Mimi. She raised us on a macrobiotic diet (basically poorly cooked rice, beans, and seaweed), made her own clothes out of curtains and tablecloths, practiced primal screaming and “not talking days,” and had (at least) one abusive boyfriend. Sometimes I’d visit Danny in New York City (when he wasn’t escaping to Morocco or St. Thomas), but I felt no safer there. He offered to sell me to his friends for drugs, albeit jokingly, and had my brother smoking pot by the age of ten.
Mimi joined the Unification Church—the Moonies—when I was ten, and when she joined, Robbie and I joined as well. In many ways it felt like a haven. Within months of joining, Mimi moved in fulltime—leaving us with her father, who was falling into a full depression. When my grandfather was finally admitted to the hospital, someone finally told Danny that Mimi had left. He came to get us, and we moved in with him into New York City’s then seedy East Village.
We lived with Danny, but I was only more terrified of him and his lifestyle, now that I knew how Satanic it—and he—actually were. The Church was my life, and I longed for the weekends when I could sometimes visit Mimi or at least spend my time surrounded by Church members and doing whatever I could to help ease God’s pain and suffering.
I became best friends with Rev. Moon’s children and a frequent guest at his dinner table or in his pool. I pinned a button with Rev. Moon’s face on it to my shirt when I was in junior high school, determined to convince everyone (and especially the kids and teachers at I.S. 70) to attend the God Bless America speech at Yankee Stadium. I marched with my brothers and sisters to Times Square—then a den of iniquity and XXX-rated movies—and shouted through a bullhorn about the evils of pornography. I must have been a mixture of cute and pathetic, a ten-year-old preaching about God. I traveled to Seattle the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school, waking at the crack of dawn and spending my days walking around the Space Needle, trying to convince strangers that Rev. Moon was the Messiah.
“Excuse me,” I’d say to those walking by. “Do you have the time?”
The idea was to get someone to stop long enough to engage them in conversation. We wanted to find the ones who were seeking, lost, looking for more meaning.
Hoping to find someone, anyone, I’d approach people sitting on blankets on the grass. “Hi,” I’d say, smiling. “What are you doing? Are you from around here?” Anything to get them to listen. I’m not sure what they thought when a tiny kid came up to them and preached about God. I was nearly sixteen but looked years younger.
People today ask me how or why I believed in Rev. Moon as my Messiah, and how I could agree with Church leaders when they told me I was lucky to have my mother leave. My only answer is that when you are told something is the Truth by the person you love and trust the most, you believe it. Mimi said this was right; therefore, it was right. And again, it was in some ways, I think, somehow a safer environment, even though it was a mind-debilitating and emotionally-scarring environment.
People also ask me how I managed to leave. That answer is more challenging.
The summer between my junior and senior year of college, Danny sent me to music camp (I think to keep me away from the Church). While there, I made wonderful friends, who happened to be gay and bisexual. Their sexuality was considered a sin by my Church, and my mother insisted I stay away from them because they were evil. That didn’t make sense to me, and for the first time, my absolute certainty began to crack. I pulled myself away from the Church a bit, determined to make an adult decision to come back and fully commit myself, but instead I found more love and acceptance on the outside (instead of judgment and hypocrisy on the inside). Or maybe I found a bit more of myself—a self I didn’t know was there.
I still (at that time) knew the teachings were true, but I somehow found a way to allow that they might not be true for me. Or that at least they might not be the way I wanted to live. I began to find a life for myself—although I first had to punish myself for leaving God and the Messiah through anorexia, a mild cocaine addiction, and a few abusive (or at least self-destructive) relationships of my own.
When you have been taught—or brainwashed—to believe in an ultimate Truth that someone else gives you, you lose the ability to think for yourself and, even, to be yourself. Stepping away from that ultimate belief is terrifying and traumatic.
Over the years, though, I learned to recognize the weird thought patterns and “self-protecting” practices I developed because of my life as a Moonie (and before), and I found ways to change those thought patterns and self-protecting practices to instead allow more joy, love, and beauty into my heart, soul and life.
ABOUT LISA KOHN:
Lisa Kohn is an accomplished leadership consultant, executive coach, author, and keynote speaker with a strong business background and a creative approach. She has over 20 years of experience partnering with Fortune 500 clients in areas of leadership, communication styles, managing change, interpersonal and team dynamics, and strategy, as well as life balance and fulfillment.
By emphasizing the importance of thoughtful, intentional leadership, Lisa helps clients to not only uncover issues to implement real changes, but also to successfully address their own inner challenges and effectively connect with others to ensure the changes stick.
To the Moon and Back: A Childhood Under the Influence is now available for purchase.