It's not easy escaping
by Gordon Neufeld
The following article appeared in the Vancouver Sun
on Saturday, August 29,1992:
~You can leave a cult by walking out the door. But how much of your mind goes
with you, and how much remains vulnerable to cult manipulation, depends on the
extent that mind control was used to obtain your original conversion.
~I speak from personal experience. I was a member of Sun Myung Moon's
Unification Church for 10 years and I left voluntarily in 1986. Yet it took me
six more years before I finally admitted that I had been deceived into joining
through the use of sophisticated mind control techniques (often inaccurately
known as "brainwashing").
~The year was 1976. I had just completed my bachelor of arts at the University
of B.C. when I decided to travel alone to San Francisco for a two-week trip. I was not then of a particularly religious inclination, and I had my plane fare
back to Vancouver already booked.
~What, then, could possibly have persuaded me to drop everything to live and work
illegally in the United States for many years in an intensely religious
environment? An ordinary conversion experience?
~Until quite recently, that was how I thought of it - until, that is, I got up
the courage to read the words of a former Unification Church member who had been
"deprogrammed" (Steven Hassan, author of Combatting Cult Mind Control).
~Previously, I had resisted reading the writings of former members because I
regarded deprogramming as an unspeakable violation of human rights. I now
realize that the church had programmed me to deny that there was such a thing as
mind control, and I continued, even after I left, to hate anyone who claimed
that it was real.
~All of this argues for using an active approach for getting cult members to
leave. (Hassan's book describes a voluntary method known as "exit counselling,"
which does not carry the legal risks of forcible deprogramming.)
~However, Douglas Todd, in his article "Prying the Trap of Cult Control" (in last
week's Saturday Review), took a rather more sanguine view of cult involvement,
concluding that it's best to give a family member who joins a cult "non-coercive
love" in the hope that he or she will leave voluntarily.
That approach would appear to be borne out in my own case. My family never
directly opposed my involvement in the "Moonies" and did not attempt a
deprogramming to get me out. Eventually, I did leave voluntarily, disillusioned
by the gap between the grandiose promises of Moon - who told members that one
day they would be "world leaders" - and reality, which was that I had developed
few job skills and was constantly engaged in repetitive, meaningless 'campaigns'.
~Externally, leaving the Unification Church was simply a matter of taking the bus
back to my parents' home in Calgary, where I knew I would be received
unconditionally. But my internal departure took somewhat longer - and indeed,
as recently as 1990, I considered rejoining the cult.
~How is it that I could even think of going back, despite my disillusionment?
The answer is that I had not merely changed my beliefs: I had adopted an
entirely new identity in the Unification Church. This cultic identity was like
a mask I pulled over my eyes to screen out influences and ideas that might
challenge my new belief system.
~Anything that contradicted Moon's teachings was regarded as coming from Satan,
and we were instructed not to have "give and take" with these influences. They
were to be shut out.
Adopting the cultic identity brought rewards in the form
of approval of other cult members. On the other hand, letting it slip for a
moment brought about their disapproval and fear that I was being "invaded by
~It is this total substitution of a new identity that is the ultimate goal of
mind control cults.
~I can still recall vividly the process by which, with great [initial]
reluctance, I came to adopt this new identity. I had met two friendly young men
from the "Creative Community Project" in San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square one
August afternoon. They invited me to a free dinner, which seemed innocent
~Once there, I was prevailed upon to go to their farm in northern California for
a three-day seminar. When the seminar ended I was persuaded to stay two more
days for a "really exciting" weekend workshop. At the end of the weekend, they
convinced me to stay for the "advanced seminar" for another week.
~And so it went. I did not even hear the name Sun Myung Moon for four weeks. By
that time, it was difficult for me to discard the new identity I had just
adopted (and for which I was receiving such enthusiastic approval) even though
the new ideas I was being taught were more bizarre and extreme than anything
they had previously taught.
~My case was unusual.
Most newcomers learned about Moon after one week.
Nevertheless, the process was roughly the same for all who went through it.
~They were encouraged to view their past lives as nothing more than a painful,
desperate search for the "truth" (which now they had supposedly found).
They were encouraged to feel that their lives before joining the Unification
Church had been selfish and meaningless, and especially all prior sexual
relationships were the subject of numerous prayers of repentance.
And they were praised most volubly when they gave themselves over to every
activity with childish gusto. (It was remarkable how quickly I came to enjoy
the most simple-minded rituals, such as the one where everyone held hands in a
circle and yelled: "Choo-choo-choo, yea, yea, pow!")
~To get people to "unfreeze" from their old identities so that a new identity can
be imposed, cults often encourage people to regress to a childlike, obedient
state. Within weeks I, who had written studious essays on Virginia Woolf and
Gerard Manley Hopkins in college, was writing simple, childish-sounding
postcards home to my parents in Calgary. (My mother still has a few of them and
I am amazed to read their simplistic words.)
~As I advanced in my cult membership, I grew out of this regressed stage, and was
even allowed to attend the Unification Theological Seminary in upstate New York
- but by that time, the cultic identity wass second nature, so the childish
regression was no longer needed.
~I learned to accept without question that Moon knew better than me who would be
a suitable spouse. When he matched me to an English woman I had never met (at
the end of 1980) I accepted. When he "blessed" us together in a mass wedding of
2,075 couples in 1982, I went along with it. And when he withheld my right to
actually live with and make love to my wife (until each of us could convert
three new members, which never happened), I acquiesced in this, too.
~However, mind control techniques can never succeed in totally erasing the
original man or woman, no matter how they try. Even though my cultic identity
was strong, my original identity, freed by the intellectual atmosphere
of the seminary, started to fight back.
~I became a bit of a maverick and eventually drew the ire of the seminary
authorities, who dropped me from their program. From this point on I was
regarded with suspicion by the church leaders and members, and was sometimes
made to feel unwelcome by them, but the power of the cultic identity was so
strong that I continued to strive to be a member of the Unification Church for
several more years before I finally gave up.
~What, if any, benefits did I derive from this experience? I think the only
thing of lasting value was that I established a relationship with God and
learned the value of prayer.
~Happily, I am a prodigal son who was able to make the trip back on my own. But
there are many more prodigal sons and daughters who are not given the chances I
received to break out of the cultic identity, and for this reason I do not think
their families should sit back and wait.
~They should seek the advice of an exit counsellor who is familiar with the
techniques of mind control. They should use every legal means to get the cult
member out of the controlling environment. Direct criticism of the cult is
rarely helpful, but there are other ways to approach these people so that they
can get their real selves back.
Gordon Neufeld: firstname.lastname@example.org