To the Moon and Back: Seven Questions for Lisa Kohn
I spoke with the author Lisa Kohn about her memoir of her life in the Moonies
I found a lot to relate to in Lisa Kohn’s memoir, To the Moon and Back: A Childhood Under The Influence. Like me, she was an ex-member of a cult known as the Unification Church. The cult was founded by the late Korean billionaire Sun Myung Moon, in 1954, where he declared himself to be the Second Coming of Christ. Many members of the cult are called “Moonies.” The Moon cult is famous for its mass weddings, people should also know it made high demands of its followers, from ordering parents to leave their children to fundraise, to forbidding any kind of romantic intimacy before marriage. I have read many memoirs of ex-Moonies, but Kohn’s was the first to come from the so-called “Second Generation.” These were the first children to be raised in the cult by their parents. I was one such child and so was Kohn.
to the moon and back
Lisa Kohn's memoir of being raised in and torn between two conflicting worlds.
Much of Kohn’s childhood is split between the worlds. There’s the crazy world of her hippie father, Danny, whose squalid life in New York City is filled with drugs, sex, and neglect. Then there’s the strict, clean-cut life of the Unification Church in Tarrytown. Kohn’s mother, who was a sincere Moonie, left Lisa and her brother alone to serve the cult. Kohn describes some of the strange experiences of the cult, such as having to recite a pledge of loyalty to Moon’s photo every Sunday morning, but also what made it so appealing. The cult provided her with a haven from Danny’s dangerous life, and she made friendships with many Moonies, including with some of Moon’s children.
However, the Moon cult also instilled high levels of fear and guilt around sex and life and selfcare in general. As she grows older, Kohn fears and struggles to make intimate relationships with boys, seeing herself as a failure within the cult. Soon, the demands of following the messiah became too much for her and she contemplated suicide. Even after leaving the cult, she struggled with unlearning toxic behaviors like anorexia. Kohn did eventually find growth and healing from this experience, but only after being open and honest with herself as well as those around her.
Lisa Kohn has a BA in Psychology from Cornell University and a MBA from Columbia University’s Executive Program. She has taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University’s Stern School of Business. She was also designated as a Professional Certified Coach by the International Coach Federation. Kohn currently lives in Wayne, Pennsylvania with her husband of twenty years and two children. Kohn is currently in chemotherapy, but her strength remains undiminished, as she wrote on her blog:
“This is truly a not fun, shitty experience, but it is also, as always, a chance to learn and grow and grow even stronger. A chance to learn to trust myself, to no longer question myself, and to know what I need.”
I am grateful that Kohn took the time out of her busy schedule to do this interview via email.
- To the Moon and Back seems to me about reconciling the good and the bad of the Moonie experience. Like you, I found real friendship and community in the group, but internally, I suffered under the theology. Looking back on those days can be bizarre. What advice would you give to people trying to reconcile their own complex feelings about the cult, and do you still have relationships with people in the Moonies?
To anyone trying to reconcile their own complex feelings, I would say that dualities exist. Not everyone can look back on their time in the Moonies/any cult and see good, and I’m by no means saying that one must or should. For me though, it was very mixed. It was, bizarrely, a haven of safety and love when we first joined — or at least it felt like it. My childhood had been scary and tumultuous up until then, so in weird ways, it was stability. Wrong, but stability. And I liked and needed structure and rules. My brother and I were the only kids in those days in the Church, so we received a lot of love and care from members. And it was a destructive cult that intentionally carved my mind and restricted my thoughts, feelings, and actions in order to control me, and that told my mom to leave us. All of that is and can be true. So, I would tell anyone to let themselves have duality in their feelings and experience and to NEVER judge themselves for that.
As for having relationships with people in the Moonies, I have connected with many Second Gens and I have reconnected with many, many people I knew while I was in, but to the best of my knowledge they are all at least physically out. Some, I would say, are still mentally and emotionally in and still believe. That said, the weirdness and duality of my experience is that the one person I am in touch with who is still in the church is one of Moon’s children, because we were friends when we were kids.
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2. I personally found that the obsession with sexual purity in Moon’s cult had a misogynistic effect. I am thinking of that scene in the book where you were accused of trying to seduce other members. Moon believed these accusations and banished you from seeing his own children. What role do you think misogyny plays in how women are treated in the cult?
I think misogyny is HUGE in the cult. It is a damn good way to control members, especially women and girls. All evil and sin and the “fall of man” are blamed on Eve. The cult teaches that women are always to be object to men, who are their subjects. That women are to obey, to serve, to suffer for Eve’s sins. Forget sex and purity, even in day-to-day life I can have a very hard time acknowledging that I have wants and needs and rights and then, an even harder time asking for them. Or knowing it’s “ok” to feel that way. This is so tied to misogyny and, again, an intentional form of control.
3. I have you read the books of other ex-Moonies or of other ex-cult members? Allen Tate Wood’s Moonstruck (1979), for instance, also looks at America in the 60s and 70s, but from an activist’s perspective. Diane Benscoter’s memoir, Shoes of a Servant (2013), takes a perspective on the cult as a queer woman.
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I somehow haven’t read Moonstruck yet, but I have read Shoes of a Servant. As a Second Gen, it’s interesting to read First Gen experiences. It actually gives me more compassion and understanding for my mom and why she left us and did all she did.
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4. What do you think the future of the Moon cult will look like? It is now split into three branches: Moon’s widow, Hak Ja Han, runs the main organization, one of Moon’s sons, Preston Moon, runs the Global Peace Foundation, and Sean Moon, his other son, runs the Rod of Iron gun cult that is gaining popularity with MAGA Republicans.
I don’t know what the future will look like, but I do worry about it, especially the Rod of Iron, since Sean Moon teaches members to be armed and to kill. And we all unfortunately know what extreme belief does to you, and if your “messiah” tells you to kill someone, you will. You will know it’s “God’s” will. I like to think that somehow the three branches will cancel each other out or that somehow many Second and Third Gens will finally leave and therefore the cult will lose its power and control, but unfortunately, I don’t think that’s what will happen, which is why I try to speak out about it.
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5. Former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, was assassinated by Tetsuya Yamagami, an ex-member of the cult. The heavy donations that the cult demanded of his mother threw him into poverty. He murdered Abe because of the Prime Minister’s friendly relationship with the cult. Yamagami went to this terrible extreme because he did not expect to get help from the government. What actions should be taken to help ex-members before they go to these extremes, and to what extent should the government be involved?
This one I honestly don’t know how to answer. The message I want to share is a message of healing and hope, that no matter how broken or scarred you may feel (or be) from your time in the cult, especially as a Second or Multi Gen, you are not damaged and broken and you can heal and there is hope. So, with limited thoughts and knowledge on how the government can or should be involved, I would press for counseling and support groups and healing modalities to undo the wrong that was done to our brains, hearts, and psyches.
6. The most surprising thing about you memoir is your friendship with Moon’s daughter, In Jin. She was even kind enough to reunite with you once you left and invite you to one of her church services. I recognize, as you do, that Moon’s children also suffered under the expectations of their father, but they are still promoting an abusive organization, and I feel that many of them know better. Should ex-members have sympathy with Moon’s children, and if so, how do we balance that with holding them accountable for continuing to support this cult?
I cannot and will not tell others how to feel about Moon’s children. I can only say that it was outrageously difficult to be his kids in SO many ways, that people who were abused often end up abusing others, and that I am not surprised that so many of them are now complicit and/or dead. That being said, abusers still need to be held accountable for the abuse the do and the harm they inflict. It is, again, a duality I hold. I can have compassion for and care about InJin and also, while I did not suffer harm from her, not forgive the harm others tell me she has inflicted. And at the same time, I know where and how some of that came about. But, most importantly, this is how I hold this duality, and I don’t ask others to hold it in the same way.
7. Your book gave me hope that I could grow from my experiences with the Moon cult. What gives you hope for the future?
Again, I hope to spread a message of hope, and I am beyond thrilled that you got hope from my story. It has been a LONG journey. I believe I may always have scars from my experience, but I also know that all of that made me who I am and I have learned to love and adore and treasure who I am. I have learned to call out the “cult thinking” in my brain that was intentionally put into my brain. What gives me hope is spreading this message, sharing what I’ve learned, and giving others hope. Thank you!