IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Accidentally Joined a Cult After Leaving Another Cult

I decided I needed to get out of this church immediately, before I became some stranger’s child bride.
Publish date:
November 21, 2014

When we opened our eyes, I could still feel the fleeting warmth from his hands placed on my head. We sat in a circle as he led us into a quiet chant known as the “moola mantra.”

“Moola? Like money?” I wondered. The incense smoke snaked throughout the room. I noticed a donation bowl being passed around. Yes. Like money.

“Sat chi ananda. Parabrahma. Purushathama. Paramatma. Sri Bhaghavathi Sametha. Sri Bhagavathe Namaha.”

I readily joined the others in chanting, not really knowing what they were saying. When I couldn’t remember the next phrase, I just Milli-Vanilli’d my way through it, letting the other voices fill in the gaps for me. I’ve had a lifetime of chanting in a language I didn’t understand to prepare myself for this.

In 1982, my parents, among many others, had an arranged mass marriage at Madison Square Garden, performed by the infamous Sun Myung Moon. With a simple hand gesture, Sun Myung Moon matched my parents together among a sea of brides and grooms, and five years later, I was born, the second of four children. It’s always troubling to think about how my very existence was decided by some Washington-Times-owning, money-laundering, homophobic, sushi tycoon/sexist cult leader, but I guess it makes things interesting.

Our childhood was…weird, in a word. Even as a kid I found myself thinking, “Why are we selling flowers at the side of highways?” “Why are we going door-to-door making strangers drink juice?” “Why are we sprinkling salt over our groceries?” “Why are we waking up at 5 a.m. to bow to a picture of a Korean man and a bowl of fruit?” “Why are we chanting right now, I mean, really? What language is this? I’m tired.”

Friends would come over and ask who the Korean people were in the photos around our house, referring to the Mr. and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon.

“I…uh…they’re my grandparents.” I often found myself saying.

“But…you’re…not Asian,” they’d reply, stating the obvious.

I’ll never forget my birthday during the blizzard of ’96. My parents took us to one of Moon’s mansions in D.C. to meet some witch doctor of a woman. She claimed to embody the spirit of Sun Myung Moon’s dead mother. We stood in line behind a closed door in the foyer.

Before the door slammed shut, I caught a glimpse of a large group of people gathered around a woman and a boy. The woman had her eyes closed with the boy sprawled over her lap. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and seemed to be crying. Red marks were all over him. He tried to escape her grip, arms extended to what I assumed to be his mother, who sat silently in the circle. Then, the door shut. I’m haunted.

Finally, my turn came. I nervously sat myself next to the woman. She lifted my shirt, prepubescent chest exposed, as the captive audience watched as I was hit several times on my back. She prayed in Korean over me. And then, applause. It was over. Somewhere, there is a photo of my brother and I standing in front of the mansion after the woman hit us that day. We were smiling.

Beyond the ritual abuse, there was a certain strain of poverty that only a child of a cult could understand. You get used to communal living and sleeping on floors very quickly.

Before we eventually settled in the D.C. metropolitan area, we had traveled around the country, staying in attics, basements, and church-owned hotels and mansions. There’s a very real cognitive dissonance that occurs when you’re living in a mansion, sleeping in a tiny bedroom with all six members of your family. In that mansion, I befriended a young, Japanese opera singer who lived on the top floor. She’d French braid my hair and show me pictures of her fiancé, a man she had yet to meet.

I thought this was so strange, but I would later learn that being “matched,” or engaged to a stranger in another country was common. At 17, it happened to one of my best friends. I’ll never forget the look of misery on her face as she stood in her wedding dress, among the sea of brides and grooms, holding the picture of her future husband.

It was then that I decided I needed to get out of this church, immediately, before I became some stranger’s child bride.

Within days of that decision, I got a phone call from an old friend.

“Do you want to get your third-eye opened?” She asked.

“Do I…what?”

“You heard me. Get your third-eye…opened.”

When we arrived at the house, a blue-eyed man answered the door.

“David!” Joanna squealed. “It’s so good to see you!” He wrapped his arms around her, practically swallowing her tiny frame. “Hannah, this is David. We met at a commune conference. We couldn’t stop staring at each other from across the room. It was kismet.”

David laughed and put out his hand to shake mine. “Nice to meet you, Hannah.” He led us inside, where a bald-headed man was sitting cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed deep in meditation.

He opened his eyes and spoke with a soft cadence. He introduced himself as Daniel. He told us that he had recently returned from a trip to India, where he received a special blessing known as “deeksha,” from a group called “The Oneness Movement.” By taking part in this expensive ceremony in India, he became empowered to pass this gift of enlightenment to us.

He instructed us to close our eyes as he guided us into meditation. He came around the room and gently placed his hands on our heads. I was struck by the similarities of this ritual with another my parents performed for my birthday. There is something spiritual about having someone caress the crown of your head while they speak in soft tones over you. I felt enlightened, or at least relaxed. Like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe. But there was a Dana Scully in the back of my head that wouldn’t completely let me.

I began attending meetings regularly. Daniel and I developed a close friendship where we spoke on the phone daily. At one point, I was $300 short for my rent, and without blinking, he loaned me the money. Three months later, I found myself riding in a car with him to attend a Oneness Movement get-together in Pittsburg.

We pulled up to a row house in Pittsburg, where we were greeted warmly by a jolly man. He placed prayer beads over our heads, luau-style. “Namaste,” he bowed, and we did the same. He led us upstairs to his railroad apartment and gave us a tour.

“And this…is my Christmas room.” It was August.

There were two entirely decorated trees with trains circling around them. Presents galore. Reindeer, flashing lights, snowmen. It was Christmas hell. I took a seat, completely entranced and horrified by the mechanical Santa’s never-ending “ho-ho-ho” mantra. I kept thinking, “Where am I?”

Daniel called me into the next room where others had already gathered and were chanting in harmony.

“Sat chi ananda. Parabrahma. Purushathama. Paramatma. Sri Bhaghavathi Sametha. Sri Bhagavathe Namaha.”

I sat on my knees, and just as I was about to lower my head in a child’s pose bow, I noticed a familiar face from across the room. She looked a lot like Diane, a Moonie truck driver who would stop and make us oxtail soup when she passed through town. She loved talking about God with my parents. No. It couldn’t be. It was. Our eyes met. In a panic, I lowered my forehead to the ground to hide my face.

Finally, the chants subsided, and a faint voice spoke up. “Hi, I’m Anthony and I prepared a song for you all.” I slowly raised my body, trying to hide my face behind my hair. A mousy-looking teenager stood before us, boom box ready. The familiar sound of chimes and wind instruments filled the room. I knew this song.

“Olha eu vii lue mostar…” He sang. “Como é belo este mundo…”

He was singing “A Whole New World,” the Disney classic, in Portuguese. I noticed Diane was full-on staring at me. I panicked just as Anthony’s falsetto kicked in for Princess Jasmine’s part of the duet.

“Um mundo ideal…Um mundo que eu nunca vi…”

I looked around the room, scanning for any sign of acknowledgement from another human. Nothing. I noticed everyone in the room was in fact, crying. Was I that cynical? Should I feel something right now? Watching Anthony shimmy his way through the intense key change was definitely a spiritual experience, but I still didn’t want to give these people my money. I felt duped. This “whole new world” suddenly felt a lot like the old one.

I retreated to the Christmas room in an attempt to hide from Diane. On a table, I noticed a photograph of Sri Bhaghavan and his wife, the founders of the Oneness movement. They were sitting in chairs, like royalty. The photograph was nearly identical to ones my parents kept of my pseudo Korean “grandparents.” Horrified by the parallels, my inner Dana Scully finally broke through.

I spent the rest of my time at the retreat doing just that -- retreating. I slithered along the walls, and managed to avoid a conversation with Diane other than, “funny meeting you here” and “please don’t tell my parents.”

When I left my respective cults, I was excited to be integrated into the real world, a place without cults, or so I thought. Not so. These days, I see cults everywhere: cults of influence, cults of institutions, cults of politics. You learn a lingo, you follow a set of rules, a code of ethics. Sometimes you wear a uniform and a name tag. Sometimes you are sleep-deprived and haven’t seen your family in weeks. In a world where CEO’s are more likely be to sociopaths, it’s harder to define what is a cult and what isn’t.

What’s important is listening to your inner Dana Scully, no matter how badly you want to believe. The truth is out there, sure, but it’s also inside you.