Book Review - To the Moon and Back: A Childhood Under the Influence

ICSA Today, 10, (2), 2019, 16-17

To The Moon and Back: A Childhood Under the Influence

By Lisa Kohn

Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart

New York, NY: Heliotrope Books. 2018. ISBN-10: 1942762445; ISBN-13: 978-1-942762-44-7 (paperback). $15.98 (; $8.99, Kindle). 250 pages

Sex informs much of what obsessed the founder of the Unification Church, popularly known as the Moonies. Moonies preach that Jesus failed his mission because he did not get married, did not appear to have sex, and did not father children. Sun Myung Moon (1920–2012) produced a Divine Principle, pointing to himself as a messiah and the True Parent who would father 14 “sinless” children by one wife. He claimed to have the psychic power to match and bless couples so that they in turn could bear blessed children, thus transforming the world through sinless blood lines. Moon aligned with ultranationalists, and he founded the Washington Times newspaper. Moon loved to gamble in Las Vegas. He had high-level connections with powerful conservatives, and also with the Japanese Yakuza crime syndicate. Moon paid former President Ronald Reagan 2 million dollars to give a talk in Europe. Moon invested hundreds of millions of dollars through banks in Uruguay, the Switzerland of South America. His story could be the basis of a good conspiracy novel by Dan Brown, but it is not. Brown’s novels bend facts into plots that tease the reader’s suspicions about hidden forces in real history. Moon never operated under the guise of fiction—he really wanted people to believe that he met Jesus in 1935 and that Jesus goaded him three times to finish what Jesus had started. By the 1970s, Moon’s new religion and its behavior became a poster child for popular images of a “brainwashing cult.”

to the moon and back… by Lisa Kohn is about her childhood as a Moonie, but moon in her title stands for much more. Her early life was not ordinary on this planet. Kohn grew up in a most unusual circumstance that can only be described as lunatic and often abusive. Splitting her life between the disparate worlds of her spiritual-seeking mother, who drew the author into the puritanical Moon cult before age 11, and her hippie father, who worked as a bartender, lived in squalor, and used drugs daily, the author nevertheless managed to get excellent grades in regular schools. She felt ecstatic at age 10 when she first heard and saw Father Moon lecture. Her finely wrought memoir flows in plain prose that intimately reveals her struggles to come of age. We read about a teenager bewildered by how to approach relationships and sex. We find her as head of household, cooking and cleaning at age 11. The Moon Principle gave her the cover of a puritanical code to live by, a code that she held to until widening fissures appeared in her devotion. She was the only Moonie in her public-school classes. Her peers harassed her for being so different.

Under church pressure, Kohn’s mother, Mimi, abandoned her children to serve the Moon organization totally, ironically to run a children’s program for a time. Her father, Danny, came and went at will, living the free-wheeling lifestyle of a hippie. Her parents eventually divorced. Kohn and her older brother Robbie were forced to live with their father for a time in New York City. Whether with mother, father, or a depressed grandfather, the two functioned as impoverished latch-key kids whose main structure was going to school. Kohn does a masterful job describing this period of her life. It is a wonder that Kohn did not collapse after defecting from the Moonies without a social rudder to help her navigate through awkward and abusive relationships, a cocaine habit, anorexic behavior, feeling suicidal on a bridge, and utter worldview confusion. Somehow, this straight-A student with a stubborn streak managed. Kohn eventually met Bruce, with whom she maintains a good marriage after raising two children despite ongoing struggles with her inner demons, remnants of a wounded childhood. Kohn became a successful leadership consultant with a master’s degree from Columbia.

As a young teen, Kohn hung out with the children of True Parents, so we get an inside peek at what life was like in the messiah’s extravagant household. She ate Big Macs with the children at the Moon family table. She was especially close to Moon’s daughter In Jin. Father Moon became concerned about the effect outsiders were having on his wealthy brats, so he declared that only blessed children raised in the church were allowed access to his brood. Kohn was effectively cut off. A rumor that Kohn had caused a rift between In Jin and her young suitor was behind her ban, as she was later to find out. The ban was the beginning of Kohn’s disaffection with the church that reached its final break years later.

Kohn has found a way to reconcile her past. She frames it with the SARAH process for dealing with loss or death through five stages: Shock, Anger, Rejection, Acceptance, and Hope. I am no fan of stages of anything to do with emotional and intellectual adjustments—facile language games do not fit all players well, but SARAH works well enough in Kohn’s context as a tool to compress her recovery story. The most striking chapter in her recovery comes when, after a quarter century, she reunites with her Moon family friend In Jin, who had become the leading Moonie pastor in New York. In Jin implemented many reforms, loosening up the old world of Kohn’s father, Korean impositions, and mending the dysfunctional, black-and-white family model of the early church. In Jin invited Kohn to speak at an event in the New Yorker Hotel center 25 years after Kohn had last been in the building. Kohn found that she could accept what she felt was good about In Jin’s homily yet clearly reject without rancor what was not right. In cult-recovery terms, she had matured and was no longer triggered or angered by the context and language.

Kohn’s book is not an anti-Moon diatribe, and she is not out to promote her new worldview. Hers is merely an honest, well-thought-out memoir about what happened and how she feels about it now. As she stated in her Forward, “Memory is a weird thing.” After reading her manuscript, her brother felt she was too soft on the church and family dysfunction. As someone who deprogrammed many Moonies back in the day, my reaction is sympathetic. I advised all former cult members not to become anticult crusaders, but rather to concentrate on adjusting to a better life. Lisa Kohn’s book, to the moon and back…, is a testament to a better life after a damaging family and cult experience. And she successfully emerged from her former messiah’s unhealthy obsession with sex control.

About the Reviewer

Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his 2-year devotion to a New Age sect. He worked professionally as an intervention specialist from 1986 through 1998. He continues to assist people with cult-related problems including consultations via phone and Internet. In 2016 he received an ICSA Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas. Since 1998, he has worked for an emergency psychiatric hospital as a crisis caseworker. He maintains an art studio and exhibits professionally. His novel Mushroom Satori: The cult diary was published in 2013.