Exorcising the demons of thought control

Calgarian pens haunting first-person story of how he was lured into a religious cult and then willingly gave up his individuality for 10 years

Gordon Neufeld didn’t see the sting coming. One pleasant Sunday afternoon in 1976, the Calgarian was basking in the sunshine at San Francisco’s touristy Ghirardelli Square, reading a novel, his backpack close by, when a pair of clean-cut strangers intruded on his quiet reverie and struck up a conversation.

Neufeld, a university student between jobs, was sightseeing and enjoying the youthful freedom of a life with few entanglements.

A polite chat ensued. Neufeld introduced himself as a visitor from Canada. The friendly strangers turned out to be Flip and Drew, part of a group of teachers, students and professionals living communally as the Creative Community Project. They invited him to a free dinner at a home in the historic Nob Hill neighbourhood, even offering a ride on their Elephant Bus.

“After our brief conversation,” Neufeld wrote in his memoirs years later, “I turned around and went to a nearby open-air restaurant, and pondered whether I should go. I couldn’t think of one good reason why I shouldn’t accept their generous offer of a free dinner, so I headed down to find the Elephant Bus.

“A number of members of the Creative Community Project were waiting when I arrived, and they approached me at once. I learned that they liked to call themselves ‘the Oakland Family.’ It was hard not to like these people; they were so friendly and wanted to know everything about me. Some of the family members were attractive young women, and I was delighted when they paid eager attention to me.”

Neufeld was utterly unaware he had just been targeted, hooked and reeled in by a soft-sell recruitment wing of the fanatical Unification Church, led by the infamous Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Neufeld’s 2002 autobiography, Heartbreak and Rage: Ten Years Under Sun Myung Moon, gives an unembellished, disturbing, insightful account of his life inside Moon’s cult.

After his first contact in San Francisco, Neufeld spent much of the following decade living in and travelling between big American cities. He worked tirelessly, raising money, recruiting followers, studying at Moon’s seminary and trying — without success — to make an arranged marriage with a Moonie woman work.

“I had finally achieved what Father demanded above all else from his followers — I had become total action without reflection — pure doing.”

Moon teaches his followers the “Divine Principle” that Jesus’ crucifixion brought about spiritual salvation, but a new Messiah is needed for physical salvation. Moon claims Christ failed in certain ways because some followers deserted Him and He never married. Moon says Jesus appeared to him as he was praying in the Korean mountains in 1935, asking him to continue Jesus’ work.

During the 1970s and early ’80s, Moon grew notorious for indoctrinating new believers such as Neufeld at isolated church farms, organizing massive weddings of followers where couples were matched for the first time, and sending his followers into the street to sell flowers or trinkets.

Moon was convicted in the U.S. of tax evasion and served a 14-month prison term in 1983. He remains head of the Unification Church, drawing most of his followers from Japan and South Korea.

Years after Neufeld’s first encounter with the Oakland Family, his utopian dream began to crumble. He wrestled with growing inner turmoil as he questioned leaders, noticed troubling inconsistencies and wore himself out trying to justify God’s love with endless service on behalf of the organization.

Neufeld returned to old goals of earning a master’s degree and writing. Now 50, he lives in Calgary, works at a part-time job and nurtures a fledgling writing career. Later this year in Edmonton, Neufeld will speak at an international conference on Understanding Cults and Other Charismatic Groups, hosted by the American Family Foundation.

While much has been written by former followers of the controversial Moon, Neufeld says his account is unusual in showing how a believer fell away, rather than undergoing formal deprogramming. As well, Neufeld’s book describes the Holy Wine Ceremony, a private ritual that proclaims the couple are no longer of the blood lineage of Satan and must now be considered the descendants of the True Parents, Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han Moon.

Q: We don’t hear much about the Unification Church anymore. What became of them? Are there any Moonies in Alberta?

A: The Unification Church is still very much in existence, but for some 20 years has been focusing on a strategy of garnering influence by holding conferences for ministers, politicians, religious figures and even media personalities, instead of following the strategy that made it notorious in the 1970s and early 1980s of trying to recruit people directly into the group. I believe that Sun Myung Moon decided to change his strategy following his incarceration. Moon decided to work behind the scenes. Besides founding the Washington Times newspaper, he is now the owner of the UPI news service.

As for Moon’s presence in Canada, and in particular, Alberta, he has never had a large following in this country. I would estimate that at no time has his following exceeded 100 members in Canada.

Q: There are a number of authoritarian religious movements among us that, to varying degrees, use the thought-reform techniques listed by Robert Lifton in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (see sidebar). What risk do these groups pose?

A: There is always a risk, both with larger sects and with tiny splinter sects, that a cult leader will emerge who manipulates the membership using a combination of Lifton’s eight criteria for a thought-reform environment. The usual danger sign is that people who get caught up in a group begin to feel that the group and its leader are more important than they are themselves and they therefore become willing to sacrifice all their time and energy, and even their health, in the service of the group. Certainly, people investigating groups in Calgary should watch out for this type of behaviour among other members and avoid it if they see it.

Q: What advice would you give someone whose son or daughter or friend had become involved in a cult-like movement?

A: The best advice is to stay in touch with the cult member and keep the door open, so that person can leave the group and return to a safe environment. One book I especially recommend for people in this situation is Steven Hassan’s Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves. People caught up in a cult can sometimes be offensive in their behaviour, accusing others and acting in a self-righteous fashion. The family of a person acting this way should not take offence, but always make it clear to that person that they stand ready to receive them back any time.

Q: Do you think North America went through a period where cults were more popular, but that they pose less threat today?

A: No, cults have simply changed in their nature, but they are no less active. In the 1970s, several large cults became prominent: the Unification Church, the Hare Krishna, Transcendental Meditation, Church of Scientology and others. Most of these groups are still around, but operating more quietly now. This may in part be due to the fact that those who joined those groups in the 1970s are now parents of their own children, and no longer have time and energy to be full-time devotees. But, in their place, a number of other groups have sprung up, though they are not as widespread. The Raelians probably do have an Alberta following and the Scientologists unfortunately continue to have considerable influence. I would say that today, the threat is not from the large groups, but from small splinter sects, many of which are never heard about in the news.

Q: In your book, you present yourself as someone who felt worthless and separate, who needed to justify his existence in some way. Does this explain your, or anyone else’s, attraction to a cult?

A: It was important for me to be as honest as possible in writing my book, so I placed that idea up front. But in my opinion, this characteristic of mine had more to do with my taking a long time to leave the group (10 years) than it had to do with my joining it originally.

It is important to understand that cults are not a haven for the emotionally distressed. Indeed, cults usually drive away people who are troubled, because they can’t be bothered to try to help them. So, people who have emotional problems may find that the cult initially helps them to escape their distress by ignoring it, but eventually, when they want to come to grips with their problems, they will find the cult is unsympathetic and of absolutely no use whatsoever.

The primary vulnerability that gets people into cults is not an emotional or spiritual state, it is a purely practical consideration: are you in a state of transition, in which you are looking for new directions in life, or open to them? If you are too busy or preoccupied, you will likely not have time or patience for a cult recruiter.

But, if you are at a transitional moment in your life, you may decide to give them your ear and that is when they’ll go to work on you.

Q: In retrospect, your time as a Moonie must appear as a kind of black hole, a learning experience that was mostly bad. How do you view that time now? Has any good come from the experience?

A: I hate to give them credit for anything. But it has, after all, given me lots of good material to write about.

Q: In the book, it seemed you didn’t make a final break from Moon’s movement until you read Steven Hassan’s book, Combatting Cult Mind Control, and you at last stepped back and identified what you had been subjected to. And yet, you’re obviously an intelligent, observant person, not the type to carelessly join anything. How do you to explain to someone who’s never experienced a cult how one can become so enmeshed in an environment of mind control?

A: You’re right, it’s not easy to explain. This is one of the problems I keep encountering in my attempts to treat the cult experience in short stories; the complicated process of getting caught up in a group like the Moonies cannot easily be explained or summarized in a few words.

Basically, anyone can get caught up in a cultic group if they allow the group enough time to go to work on them. Because once you’ve been exposed to their ideas and practices initially, you may not feel you agree with them, but you may be reluctant to reject them categorically either, just because the people teaching these ideas and practices are nice. And that’s how a cult will draw you in; they will be so nice to you that you feel ashamed for wanting to reject them or their ideas, so you will go along with it in order to oblige them.

Q: You’ve settled in Calgary and written a book. What’s Gordon Neufeld doing now?

A: I’m now at work on a short story collection, tentatively titled Twelve Gates and Other Stories. The title story is a novella about a young man during the last two days of his membership in the Moonies. I also have a number of other short stories, some of them about people involved with other groups besides the Moonies. Keep Sweet, for example, is a short story about a young girl caught up in a polygamous sect in southern British Columbia.

Besides my writing, I work as a word-processing operator for a Calgary law firm in the downtown area. I am single and live with my elderly mother, but hope to eventually marry and perhaps even yet to have a family, if that’s not too optimistic a dream. Also, I want to write several more books, including possibly a mystery novel called Nose Hill Park.

For more on Cults

– Gordon Neufeld’s book is available in Calgary at McNally Robinson Booksellers, Annie’s Book Company, Pages Books on Kensington, Owl’s Nest Bookstore, New Age Books and Crystals, or from his website at http://www.moonbook.com/

– Neufeld will speak at a conference June 11-12 in Edmonton, entitled Understanding Cults and Other Charismatic Groups — Perspectives of Researchers, Professionals, Former Members, and Families. Organizing the conference is the Florida-based American Family Foundation, a non-profit research centre that studies psychological manipulation in cultic groups, and supports education for youth, the public, professionals and families affected by cult-related experiences. http://www.csj.org/

Brainwashing Techniques

Eight criteria needed for an effective thought-control program, according to Robert Jay Lifton, professor of psychology and psychiatry, and author of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism:


– Control over what a person sees, hears, reads, writes and how he or she travels; isolation from others.


– Totalist leaders claim to be agents chosen by God, history, or some supernatural force. The cult’s “principles” are the only true path to salvation or enlightenment. The leader can be more real than an abstract god and, therefore, more attractive. Deception of the outside world to recruit members or raise money is legitimized.


– The world becomes sharply divided into the absolutely good (the group or ideology) and the absolutely evil (everything outside the group). One must continually change or conform to the group norm. Tendencies towards guilt and shame are used as emotional levers.


– Confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself, making it impossible to attain a healthy balance between worth and humility.


– The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic doctrine as the ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. Criticizing those basic assumptions is prohibited. This behaviour combines a sacred set of dogmatic principles with “science” embodying the “truth” about human behaviour and psychology.


– Language characterized by thought-stopping cliches, such as “when the Prophet speaks, the thinking has been done.” Familiar words are given new meanings.


– The underlying assumption the ideology is more true and real than any aspect of human character or experience. One must subject one’s experience to that truth. Doubts are reflections of inner evil or weakness.


– Those who are not in the group are bound up in evil, not enlightened, not saved and have no right to exist. Those outside the group may receive the right to existence by joining the group. If a person leaves this group, that individual has left God and loses their transformation.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Calgary Herald, Canada
Mar. 28, 2004
David Hedley

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday March 30, 2004.
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