What A Former Cult Leader Taught Me About The Real World
Put yourself in Steven Hassan’s shoes, you’re a freshly single college student and two girls rush to sit with YOU in the university cafeteria. What Hassan didn’t know about these women flirting with him, was that engaging with them would send him into a 2.5 year long membership into the Moonies cult.
The Moonies refers to the members of the Unification Church who see the leader, Sun Myung Moon, as a godly figure. The cult is most notorious for their mass weddings, where 400 couples are matched by the Church.
Steven Hassan made his debut in TEDxBeaconStreet at our Emerging Technology Salon in Kendall Square. Steven’s story was so captivating to me, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask him questions and learn a little more about his life story.
When Steven joined the Moonies cult he was my age, but I have never imagined running off with cult members. What I learned through our interview was that it is so much more complex than that; nobody joins a cult, rather they get deceptively recruited. Steven says, “I was at a vulnerable moment in my life, and they seemed interested in me so I told them [recruiters] everything”. It wasn’t until a weekend retreat that he learned they were apart of a much bigger scheme.
The first few months of the Moonies, Steven tells me, is meeting different people and attending weekend workshops. Once he learned more about the Unification Church, he confessed to the group “I am Jewish I am not interested”. However, the recruiters were highly skilled in mind control and would guilt him into returning. Steven told me they would say “Are you close minded? What is wrong with you?”.
Despite being highly respected and promoted to Assistant Director of the Church at National Headquarters, Steven’s membership in the Moonies only lasted 2.5 years. A horrible car crash that landed him in the hospital gave him time away from the group for self-reflection and a reality check.
What can being in a cult, even for a couple of years, change about a person? Steven can say from a first-hand experience that the experience can affect a person immensely. He says, “before the Moonies I was a liberal, but then I became a right-wing fascist who believed my parents were satanic”.
While in the hospital, Steven contacted his sister, which was allowed only because of his leadership position in the cult. With the support of his family, Steven began a deprogramming course with 3 ex-members.
Steven tells me the deprogramming is “content driven and very direct”. They learned about Chinese Communist brainwashing as well as stories of abuse; suddenly it clicked. Steven came to the realization that “Moon is a liar, and he cannot be the Messiah if he is a liar”. He describes the program as a “breakthrough” from his brainwashing.
Something not a lot of people expect comes from leaving a cult is the likeliness to suffer from PTSD. Even if the group you are a part of is bad, suddenly leaving an organization can trigger feelings of loneliness and depression. Steven was one of many ex-members that suffered from PTSD and also a Disassociative Disorder. The deprogramming helped Steven’s mind leave the cult, but he had to work on relearning who he was as well as the English language.
The famous saying that you can turn a negative situation into a positive one reflect entirely on Steven’s career path following the cult. Prior to his membership, he was on the path to being a creative writing teacher. He was a highly skilled writer, but threw out all of his pieces once joining the Moonies; they had no purpose to him.
Steven uses his first-hand experiences and understanding of mind-control and cults to counsel people who are victims of human and sex trafficking. He also has patients who are leaving terrorist groups. Steven asks questions to these people to empower them, and teaches them the difference of an ethical and an unethical group. He says, “the more mind you have, the more you can be controlled.”.
Going forward, Steven would like to see the world destigmatize victims, and understand a person is not weak or stupid to fall under mind control; people need to get past the idea that this could never happen to them.
What was the most eye-opening part of my interview with Steven, was when I asked him if he would take back that afternoon at the lunch table. Steven has lived a very successful life since the Moonies, and has helped dozens of people because of what happened to him. Despite this, he tells me he would never have done this if he got the chance. Steven says he was on the road to being a successful writer, and that was always his passion.
Steven is a huge believer in accepting reality, and using what happened to him as motivation to help others. My interview with Steven taught me to not dwell on the things I cannot change, rather use what can be horrible situations, for good.