Seven Questions
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Seven Questions

Cult Fiction, Writing, and Healing: Seven Questions for Kenneth Gordon Neufeld

I speak with the author on the 20th anniversary of his moving ex-cult memoir

Kenneth Gordon Neufeld, like me, is a former member of the late Sun Myung Moon’s cult, the Unification Church. Founded in Korea in 1954, the organization taught that Moon was the Second Coming of Christ, with the mission of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. The Unificationist reading of the Bible interpreted the Fall of Adam and Eve as a sexual one, meaning that instead of eating a fruit, Lucifer had sex with Eve and then Eve had sex with Adam. As a result, all of humankind was cursed with a “fallen nature” that leans us away from God and towards Satan.

Unificationism argues that the crucifixion of Jesus only spiritually restored us by allowing souls to enter heaven, and that a physical restoration of bringing God’s ideal world is still necessary. According to Unificationism’s central holy text, The Divine Principle, a complete restoration of the Fall can only come about when an ideal man marries an ideal woman and starts an ideal family. Moon claims to have accomplished such through his own family, which is why, in the church, we referred to him as “True Father.”

If there are two features about the Moon cult which stick out in Neufeld’s book, Heartbreak and Rage: Ten Years Under Sun Myung Moon, A Cult Survivor’s Memoir (2002), they are sexual repression and spiritual serfdom. Since the Moon organization believes that the Fall was a sex act, they consider sex outside of marriage to be the worst sin one can commit. As a result, Unificationists are asked to refrain from all sexual activity until they are arranged to be married by Moon himself in a mass wedding known as “The Blessing.” To quote from the book, “I had been expected to repress all my sexual feelings, and to think only of how I could be of service to Father and God” (141).

Interview with K. Gordon Neufeld for TheMindRenewed podcast.

While demands for abstinence before marriage aren’t uncommon to many religions, Unificationism forbids even more innocuous acts of love, like dating, hand-holding, and kissing. The result is that many members suffer from internal torture and guilt for having to repress their sexual desires. To quote from the book, “I heard many lectures warning of the terrible consequences of impure thoughts (which would attract evil spirits); we were instructed to pray or chant until such thoughts went away. On one occasion I became quite agitated because I had merely dreamed of having sex” (42).

The spiritual serfdom of Unificationism comes from its doctrine of “indemnity.” This means that if you commit a sin, you will suffer some negative karma for it. Sometimes, you will even suffer indemnity for the crimes of your ancestors. Moon, for instance, once said that the Holocaust was indemnity for the apparent Jewish “failure” to accept Jesus. Now, you can avoid the worst of these consequences by voluntarily paying indemnity through “conditions”, such as taking cold showers or fasting for a certain period of time. There is no point, of course, when you will ever be free of indemnity. You will be in spiritual debt to Moon for the rest of your life, forever the supporting character in your own story.

For Neufeld, these “conditions” involved intense fundraising for Moon (a.k.a. M.F.T.) by selling flowers or evangelizing to the unconverted. This work often demanded reaching unreasonable goals within a very short span of time. This work also involved little sleep and was often exhausting both physically and mentally. As he explains in the memoir,

“My main duty was simply to never stop working. Johann explained it this way: given our fallen state, God’s only condition to accept us is through our work for Father; and so long as we are actively working for Father, God can protect us; but as soon as we stop working, Satan has a condition to tempt us and harm us. This injunction to ‘never stop’ fit in with my emotional need to justify myself through works, so I was careful to never commit the cardinal sin of ‘spacing out,’ ” (99)

Indeed, mental health was sorely neglected in the Unification Church. Neufeld struggled with bouts of depression, loneliness, and self-loathing, but according to Unificationism, “psychological problems are considered ‘spiritual’ problems, and the best solution is to ‘pay indemnity’ through working for the church” (164). There’s a particularly disturbing scene when Neufeld confides to a church leader about his sadness because a former girlfriend of his, Sandy, had recently died by suicide. This leader responded with “dismay at my obsession with my feelings and said, among other things, that I should simply stop thinking about them. He even told me that ‘intense fund-raising is therapeutic.’ ” (127).

The most moving relationship at the heart of his book is that with his arranged wife, Eleanor. She shows genuine empathy for him and his struggles with depression. The two of them enjoy a loving, organic relationship away from the rigid doctrines of the Church, where they experience “true love” for its own sake and not for the sake of Moon. As he wrote in the book “Those times of loving Eleanor were such a rarity for me, piercing as they did the loneliness I have mainly known” (155).

Neufeld is also a gifted short story writer and satirist. His works can be read in the collections Cult Fiction (2014) and Prophet and Loss (2018). His best satire on Unificationism is “2084", which resembles George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It imagines a future where Unificationism has succeeded in conquering the world, but far from being paradise on earth, the repression and subservience continues: “I imagined people still waiting years and years to be allowed to live with their Blessed partners, and people being sent to M.F.T. missions on other planets” (185).

His short stories written after he left the Church capture the mentally and physically broken states of many members. One story in particular that sticks out is “The Block: October 28, 1977” (1994), where we experience a typical M.F.T fundraising run through the eyes of a young convert. He fears the judgment of his superiors and struggles with his sexual feelings, trying to blot out any temptation with the chant, “Glory to Heaven and peace on Earth, victory to Father, smash out Satan.”

Neufeld was born in Alberta, Canada. He studied Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and graduated with a B.A. in English in 1976. After leaving the Moonies, he later received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from that same university in 1997. The following interview was conducted via email and I am grateful that Neufeld took the time out of his busy schedule to do this.

  1. What are some of your favorite books or writers? Particularly those who have had a major influence on your writing?

Perhaps my favorite novel is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, simply because it is so extraordinary in the way it leads to the conclusion it does. I am a Canadian, so some of the novels and short story collections I think about often are by writers such as Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. I have been greatly influenced by Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments.

Until recently, I wrote short stories that were mostly realistic and tried to imagine people in situations that were similar to being in a cult. Only a few of my short stories are about people who are, or were, in the Unification Church. Lately, I have decided to try a new angle. I am writing things that are surrealistic and speculative, almost sci-fi like. The stories have a humorous and satirical character. I am especially influenced by American writer George Saunders, who writes stories that are somewhat like the ones I am now creating. Other writers I am using as examples for the work I am now doing are science fiction writers Spider Robinson and Douglas Adams.

2. Twenty years have passed since the publication of Heartbreak and Rage. Do you have any reflections on the book and what the responses have been like?

I’ve been told that my memoir was an early example of the kind of writing that is now much more common, with many people now publishing books about their cult experiences. Back when I published Heartbreak and Rage, I was somewhat disappointed that I had to resort to doing it through a print-on-demand publisher instead of a regular publisher, but the fact is, that in 2002, the public had largely lost interest in the kinds of narratives that appeared in the late 1970s. Self-publishing meant I didn’t get to reach as many people, but it had one really valuable outcome: it is because of my book that I met Mary Jo Downey, who is also a former Unificationist also. So I guess it worked out very well indeed.

3. I consider your memoir to be a great work of literature. I want to know if you’ve read Moonstruck, another memoir written by Ex-Moonie Allen Tate Wood? This is because I also think of Moonstruck as a great work of literature due to its rich glimpse into America during the 1960s. Parts of it even reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. If you have read the book, I want to know your thoughts on it, not only as a fellow Ex-Moonie, but also as a writer.

I have read Moonstruck, but it was so long ago (1993 or 1994) that I don’t remember a lot about it, except that it cast light on a part of the Unification Church experience in America that is often not discussed elsewhere. It sounds like I should read that book again.

4. In Heartbreak and Rage, you mention working for Moon’s anti-Communist outfit, CAUSA, amidst its ardent support for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. While the Sandinista dictatorship was undoubtedly oppressive and cruel, the Contras were hardly any better. Human Rights Watch wrote at the time that they routinely violated “the most basic standards of the laws of armed conflict, while Americas Watch accused them of murdering two Catholic nuns in 1990. Were the Unificationists working at CAUSA aware of the Contra’s human rights violations? And if so, did they have any moral reservations about this support?

Ordinary CAUSA members in 1985–1986 were just doing it because “Father” was into it. We feared the Communists so much that the depredations of the Contra seemed like an understandable reaction. If we heard reports of murders, etc., we would always reject these reports as coming from the left-wing press, and we gave such reports little thought.

5. Since the first publication of Heartbreak and Rage, many changes have occurred in the Unification Church. Sun Myung Moon died in 2012 without bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, his first daughter, In Jin Moon, referred to the Blessing as “institutional rape”, his son, Hyung Jin Moon, has started his own cult that was recently involved in the Capitol insurrection, and a son born out an affair, Sam Park, has spoken out against his late father. What do you make of some of these changes and how the Moon organization has changed today?

Moon’s death had what, in retrospect, seems a predictable result: it shattered the movement into contending pieces. There are now 3 main factions of the church, and each bears little resemblance to the church I joined in 1976. It will take a long time, but all of these factions will gradually disappear from public view, and despite Moon’s grandiose vision, nothing significant will remain in the long run of all that effort to create a heaven on earth.

6. After leaving the Moons, I became very angry and lashed out in ways that I now regret. I have also suffered from bouts of depression due to my own loneliness or feelings of inadequacy. I was very moved, though, by the ending of Heartbreak and Rage, “All That Remains”, where you wrote about what it means to come home. I received the impression that you had achieved a level of peace and self-acceptance. What advice would you give to people seeking to overcome their own rage and depression?

It is important for former members of cults to write down their own experiences. This will help you process them fully. It doesn’t matter that there are other books out there; I would still suggest that you craft a book about your own experience. Your experiences will likely be different from the other books out there. I was also very angry in the mid-1990s. That was after I read Steven Hassan’s Combating Cult Mind Control, which made me realize that the whole grand endeavor to save the world had essentially been a fraud.

After I read Hassan’s book, I wrote a number of articles for the local newspaper comparing cults that were in the news with Moon’s church. I only gradually came to the conclusion that I should write a whole book about my experience. At first, I was going to try to turn my experiences into material for short stories. Later, I thought I would do a series of personal essays examining particular aspects of my experience. But, finally, I concluded that there was nothing for it but to write about the entire experience from beginning to end. This ended up taking a long time in my case (1995 to 2002).

Still, it was worth it, because in the end, I had a clear understanding of what caused me to make such an unlikely choice in 1976, and what finally got me to choose otherwise in 1986. I would also suggest that you seek the help of a counsellor or therapist. My book mentions in the acknowledgments that I was helped by a couple of such professionals. One of them convinced me that I should go ahead and self-publish, even though I was reluctant to do so.

7. What advice would you give to fellow or aspiring writers?

The only advice is something I think you already know. Writing is hard, and it takes a long time to find an audience for most writers. I am still trying to crack the literary publication market, though I have a few short stories to my credit. So, the main thing is to keep going. And as George Saunders suggests, write from the part of you that makes you most excited. You may like other writers (Saunders liked Hemingway, but found that it was a dead end to try to imitate Hemingway), but you can’t be that other writer. Be yourself.

By the way, my second self-published book, Cult Fiction, describes the kind of writing I did before, during, and after my involvement in the Unification Church, and provides examples of each. You may find that book helpful for understanding my development.

I wish you the best of luck in your continued writing.

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Sansu the Cat

Sansu the Cat

I write about art, life, and humanity. M.A. Japanese Literature. B.A. Spanish & Japanese. email: sansuthecat@yahoo.com