Twilight Moon: The Intertwined Lives of a Poet and a Messiah
Poetry in Motion
Hassan was a 19 year old Jewish college student and aspiring poet, when his girlfriend dumped him. He was despondent, but soon found himself surrounded by three young women in the cafeteria at Queens College in New York City. He asked if they were part of a religious group, but they denied that. He soon found himself at an intensive weekend retreat and was induced into abandoning his former life -- and his bank account. He was asked to throw out some 400 poems into the garbage as a sacrifice, an offering to his new life with the True Family led by the True Parents, Moon and his wife: AKA the Unification Movement. At a meeting at his Belevedere Mansion outside New York City, the Messiah himself would declare that Hassan was a model member and was groomed to become a leader.
And then there was a terrible traffic accident.
Along with mass weddings of people who did not know each other in American sports arenas, one of the more visible aspects of the church at the time was selling flowers on the streets. Fairly or unfairly, these glassy-eyed young people became how the group known as "the Moonies" were best known to the American public. (Moon himself warmly embraced the term, even though it was used by many as an epithet. "Moonies are goodies!" he was fond of saying. Church leaders now prefer the term, Unificationists.)
The flower sellers were deployed into what were termed Mobile Fundraising Teams (MFTs), who traveled from place to place in vans. They often worked long into the night but were filled with the bright light of Truth and True Parents. But the van drivers often had little sleep. One night, Hassan fell asleep at the wheel, broke one leg and severely damaged the other. At the hospital, Hassan slept and recovered and arranged to visit his sister. His parents intervened-bringing ex-members in to deprogram him at his sister's house. He resisted-chanting, as he had been taught, "crush Satan, crush Satan!;" "Glory to Heaven;" "True Parents, True Parents!"
He agreed to listen, to prove he was not under mind control, but on the last day, he says he started thinking for himself again, and left the group.
The use of deception and a variety of tactics that fall under the rubric of "coercive persuasion," by religious and other groups, for recruitment, indoctrination and retention of members, was defined early on in as "mind control" and the groups that employ mind control tactics as "cults."
In the period after his own deprogramming, Hassan participated in some himself. But within a year, he came to oppose forcible deprogramming and has publicly said so many times, including in his books. He went on to study counseling psychology, and became a leader in inventing and practicing a non-coercive approach. He also returned to his Jewish faith and is currently a member of a local synagogue. He says he devotes his creative efforts to his work, but he also still sometimes writes poetry and attends readings.
The story of the poet and the messiah is a paradigmatic story of our time. It not only surfaces ancient and ongoing issues about the nature of religious belief and identity, it is in many ways a story about the meaning of religious freedom.
My conversation with Steven Hassan came at a time not only at the end of the life of Sun Myung Moon, but of increasing disarray in his global web of interests. As Moon's health declined over the years, he turned over authority to various top associates and his sons. This did not go well, and resulted in a flurry of organizational coups, lawsuits, suicides, and divorces. These things too, are part of Moon's legacy and we can expect to hear much about them in the coming years.
Coincidentally, Hassan had a new book Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs, which is a distillation and update of his previous book, intended as a definitive statement about his views on mind control, (what he now prefers to refer to as "undue influence") how it works and why, and sensible ways for friends and family to help those who have fallen victim to unscrupulous groups and characters.
Hassan: At first, he seemed all powerful to me. He barely spoke English, although I had the impression he understood much more than he could speak. He gave me money as a gift one time (as a leader) and an Italian hand blown figurine. He once held me up as the model member in the U.S. to the membership. Another time, I was sitting at his feet at Belvedere as he talked for hours and I had to pee - but I couldn't get up and leave.
My first memory of him was greeting him at an airport gate with ninety nine other members. He walked off first (first class), scooped up some of his little children who were there to greet him, and carried two of them in his arms as he marched down the corridor-a hundred Moonies following close behind. He got to the end of the corridor, realized he walked the wrong way, and turned around-quite proudly (no acknowledgment of his mistake)-and we all parted and bowed as he walked towards baggage claim.
I will always remember when he rented a movie theater in Manhattan so that hundreds of members could see the movie, The Exorcist. Afterward, we drove back to Tarrytown, where he lectured that God had made the film and that is was a prophecy of what would happen to people who left the Unification Church.
Clarkson: You have since become a prominent adversary and have stayed in touch with other former members. How do you now see his role in your life?
Hassan: My relationship obviously changed after I left. He had radically changed who I was, but he was not able to control what I became after I left. I had spent two and a half years recruiting people into the Moon cult, and about the same amount directly opposing it. It was Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, the foremost researcher on Chinese Communist brainwashing, who told me that my experiences in the Moonies were valuable and that I should study psychology and explain what brainwashing in the 70's had become. He said that he had only studied it second hand, but I had lived it. It was done to me and I did it to others -- so I was the expert.
Then Jonestown happened on November 18, 1978 and that, for me, was a turning point as I came to realize that there were many other cults with charismatic leaders. But I am still viewed as a world expert on Moon, as well as on the subject of undue influence and how to help victims. My hope is to help inoculate the public and train mental health professionals and others how to help those in need.
Clarkson: You have said that you feel personally "betrayed" by Moon. What do you mean by that?
Hassan: I was made to believe he was a great spiritual leader-and not the creature of the founder of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency who, a Congressional investigation reported had "organized and utilized the Unification Church for use as a political tool." I thought he was sinless and would have sinless children. But he lied. His children turned out to be at least as sinful as anyone else. Probably more. Hyo Jin, (who I knew) had a coke problem and reportedly died of a heart attack. His ex-wife wrote in her book that he frequented prostitutes. Another son died in a suicide in a Nevada hotel.
Moon told us that he could read minds, know the future, and that Armageddon would come in 1977. All this and much, much more. I trusted him and gave him my total devotion, and he abused that trust.
Clarkson: The idea of cults, mind control, and related issues, are deeply controversial. There are prominent scholars who think that mind control does not exist; or the degree of the influence of mind control on individuals and groups is greatly exaggerated; and in any case, the term cult is a label unfairly applied to new religions such as the Unification Church. Others say that it does indeed exist, and have spent whole careers studying and publishing on it in light of the 20th century advances in the behavioral sciences and their applications in a variety of commercial, military, religious and other settings. We can't resolve all that here. But given that the term cult is at the very least defined by different people differently, let's set all that aside and ask, how do you define the term?
Hassan: I define a cult as a pyramid structured, authoritarian group or relationship where the people at the top have power, and deception is used to recruit and mind control techniques are used to create a new identity which is dependent and obedient to the leadership/ideology. In my books and on my web site, I explain what to watch out for. What I call the BITE model, control of Behavior, Information, Thought and Emotion, is intended to create a new identity which is obedient and dependent to the authority figure.
The kinds of mind control techniques I am talking about here include hypnosis, thought-stopping, and phobia indoctrination which influence how a person thinks, feels, and acts. Like many bodies of knowledge, it is not inherently good or evil. If mind control techniques are used to empower an individual, the effects can be beneficial. For example, benevolent mind control can be used to help people quit smoking without affecting any other behavior. Mind control becomes destructive when the locus of control is external and it is used to undermine a person's ability to think and act independently.
Mind-controlled cult members can even live in their own apartments, have nine-to-five jobs, be married with children, and still be unable to think for themselves and act independently.
I think it is important to remember when we talk about these things, that cults aren't just religious in nature. They can be political, business, large group awareness training, psychotherapy/transformation or even just a controlling individual.
Clarkson: When you were in the Unification Church, what kinds of things were being done to you and others, that you view as deceptive and coercive? Have the church's tactics changed at all over the years?
Hassan: When I was recruited I asked them if they were part of a religious group, they said, "no, not at all" and represented themselves as students (they weren't). Deception was looked at in terms of, well, you wouldn't feed an infant steak -- you would feed them formula -- and people are spiritual babies, so you can only tell them as much as they can swallow. So when I was approached the women were flirty and not telling me that sex was a sin- that they don't believe in masturbation or that people will be told who to marry, remain celibate for four more years and told when they could start a family.
A turning point came in 1993 on the Today Show with Katie Couric. The show featured Cathryn Mazer a student at New York University, who had disappeared, and sent a letter to her mother at the Church's direction, lying about where she was and what she was doing. The Church would not let her family see her until NBC got involved. I was on the show opposite then UC president James Baughman. The group handled the situation so badly they had to send her home to avoid more bad media. After that debacle, I think that they pulled back on college student recruiting, and actively preventing recruits and families from communicating.
There have been other reforms as well, for example with mass weddings. Moon has not been picking people directly for some time. They now allow some parental involvement. But claims that the church is no longer a cult or has gone mainstream, are overstated at best.
Clarkson: You have been open about your involvement in several deprogrammings after you left the Church, and how it seemed to be the only option for desperate families at the time. But you came to see that deprogramming was not only wrong, but often ineffective. Why was that?
Hassan: One of the main programming techniques is phobia indoctrination -- the implantation of irrational fears (a la The Exorcist) that if you leave the group you will be possessed by Satan; get hit by a car, be in Hell forever. Thus, forcing someone into that situation was very traumatic, and far from therapeutic, even though deprogrammers were hired by families who certainly wish no harm to come to their children. If my father hadn't cried and asked me to voluntarily agree to listen, I doubt it would have been effective in my case.
Holding people against their will, which was a prominent feature of some deprogrammings, is also illegal.
Clarkson: You have spent years refining your non-coercive approach to helping victims of cults and their families. What has changed?
Hassan: My approach has evolved a great deal. The main thing I have learned is to really customize each case and its approach. I really get to know the family-the person's family of origin, issues, and try to build a model of how that person would think, feel and react. I get ex-members of that particular group to help consult and we try to find ways to incrementally provide experiences to motivate the person to think for themselves (not rescue them from the cult). Information is now readily available that wasn't there before the internet. There is also the he ability to network and to upload videos). So the big issue is how to motivate the person to research for themselves. Freedom of Mind outlines a three-step phobia intervention which represents an advance in what I call my Strategic Interactive Approach.
Clarkson: The tactics used by cult recruiters would probably be illegal if they were used to say, bilk people out of their property. For example, there is a "cooling off period" built into many consumer fraud laws due to the recognized problem of high pressure door-to-door sales tactics. Consumers buying say, magazine subscriptions, thus have the choice to, on second thought, demand their money back. We Americans are rightfully proud of our efforts, however imperfect, to defend and advance religious freedom. But we mostly seem to turn a blind eye, when the methods of con artists and unscrupulous salesmen (or some things pretty close) are used, often with devastating effectiveness, against our most deeply held beliefs. Why do you think that is?
Hassan: I couldn't agree more. High pressure tactics are often used in cult recruitment. I don't really know how as a society we don't connect these dots. But I think part of it is that we are taking our religious freedom for granted, and don't understand - or just don't want to understand - the nature of the threats. I know from my own experience what it means to lose things that are sacred to me. And I have known many others, including my clients, who suffer from this kind of spiritual rape. Many people carry lifelong scars and avoid trusting people and even G-d. People who believe in religious freedom and constitutional democracy should be outraged.
Clarkson: What is the difference between a legitimate conversion experience and for lack of a better term, a cult deception?
Hassan: I believe in G-d and the mystery of faith and do not think it can or should be coerced. I also believe that atheists share the same right to not believe, as I do to believe..
People need to know up front, what the group is, what they believe, and what is expected of them if they join. The more intensive and totalist the group is, the greater the need for transparency. They need to know what they are going to be "in " for, have a trial period and even then, have an exit clause if people change their minds or outgrow the environment. Indeed the Vatican commission on cults and sects, and Fr. James LeBar's book based on their findings, Cults, Sects and the New Age, set criteria that allows for the mystery of conversion to take place, and in the case of Catholic orders, making sure that prospective novitiates fully understand the nature of the life that they are entering.
Clarkson: In your book you call on religious leaders to develop guidelines for ethical proselytizing. Has anyone ever addressed this?
Hassan: Yes. There is a book I quote specifically on ethical proselytizing -- it is in my bibliography - called Ethics of Evangelism by Elmer J. Thiessen. But clearly, there is much more to be done.
Twilight Moon: The Intertwined Lives of a Poet and a Messiah | 10 comments (10 topical, 0 hidden)
Twilight Moon: The Intertwined Lives of a Poet and a Messiah | 10 comments (10 topical, 0 hidden)