A Onetime Moonie Helps Free Cultists From Mental Bonds - Without Force

Forward/April 30, 2004
By Matthew S. Robinson

Sitting alone in the cafeteria at Queens College in 1974, Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.] was feeling down.

"I had just broken up with my girlfriend, and three attractive women approached me and asked if they could sit at my table. They got me into a conversation and eventually invited me over for dinner."

Hassan, who spoke to the Forward during an interview from his office in Somerville, Mass., described this encounter as the beginning of his journey into the world of cults.

It would take more than two years for Hassan - who was raised in a Conservative home - to discover the ulterior motives behind the seemingly harmless invitation. The women were not students; they were members of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church (a.k.a., "The Moonies"), and he was "hooked."

"We were taught that Rev. Moon was not only the 'perfect' man but also the messiah and that the only way to be saved was to be married by him," Hassan said, describing how close he had come to participating in one of the Unification Church's mass weddings. "Within a few months, I was totally indoctrinated!"

Hassan said he dropped out of college, quit his job, isolated himself from his friends and family, and began recruiting on behalf of the Unification Church. He said it took nearly two and a half years and what he refers to as an "act of God" to wake him up.

"I was in a near-fatal van crash" in 1976, Hassan said. "I hadn't slept for days, because sleep deprivation was one of the tools the Moonies used. So I fell asleep at the wheel."

While in the hospital, Hassan said, he called his sister, who broke her promise not tell their parents. After his family's intervention, Hassan said, he realized that he had been brainwashed by a cult. He recounted his efforts to understand the phenomenon and reclaim his life. He said it was far from easy.

"During the 1970s and '80s," Hassan said, "forcible deprogramming was the only known way to help people in cults." Deprogramming usually comes at the behest of family or friends, against an individual's will. Back then, according to Hassan, it tended to be involuntary, and sometimes included physical restraints, sleep deprivation and psychological warfare - even kidnapping.

Although Hassan said he was thankful to have escaped the cult, he said he knew then that there had to be a better way. So he developed what he calls the "Strategic Interaction Approach" - SIA. This educational approach uses a series of steps to counter cult-instilled phobias and to strengthen a person's sense of self.

"It's a family- and communication-based system that teaches people how to effectively influence a loved one who has been recruited by a destructive cult," Hassan said. Through SIA, he said, he helps "empower people to think for themselves," one of the most important lessons he said he has learned in his nearly 30 years of work. "I meet with the family and friends and teach them about mind control - how cults operate - and then try to empower the person in the cult."

After a year as a cult deprogrammer, Hassan moved to Boston in 1977 to attend Boston University, where he began taking psychology courses. During this time, he said, he served as an expert witness in the congressional investigation of Rev. Moon, aka "Koreagate."

"I wanted to help expose the Moonies and close them down," Hassan said.

By 1979, Hassan had founded a group called Ex-Moon Inc. The group's membership soon swelled into the hundreds, and Hassan concluded that the cult problem was bigger than Moon. Hassan returned to school for a master's degree in counseling psychology.

"Not surprisingly, cult groups have been very unhappy with my work," said Hassan, now a licensed mental health counselor and the author of the highly successful "Combating Cult Mind Control" and "Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves."

So unhappy, he said, that he has received death threats. Hassan has traveled the world: raising awareness, training others and helping families. He has appeared on popular TV programs including "Dateline," "60 Minutes" and "Nightline," and makes presentations at American Psychological Association conferences.

"I am not afraid," he said. "I want to help."

"Many other former members have also come forward to tell of their experiences," he said. "I also have a number of volunteers who help out and a Web-based network of activists from all over the world."

While the Internet is an invaluable resource, it can also be an engine for cult proliferation. "People can go to sites like my own freedomofmind.com to find out information that will help them avoid cults," he said. "But there are also at least as many sites promoting them."

In addition to the Internet, many cults have made major inroads into the media and other means of mass promotion and influence.

"The Moonies claim to have over 3 million members," Hassan said. "And though that may not be true, it is true that they now own The Washington Times and UPI."

"There is a misperception that there are fewer cults these days," Hassan said. "There are actually more, but many have mainstreamed. Even the Church of Scientology has tax exempt status."

In addition to the larger cults, which he identified as including the Moonies and Scientologists, Hassan cited myriad smaller cults that have popped up in recent years. And in this post-9/11 age of uncertainty and fear, cults are appealing to more people each day.

"Because people are so scared of terrorism, disease and so many other things," Hassan said, "they are looking for hope and meaning - and many of them are finding it in cults."

Hassan also warns against what he described as the plethora of intentionally misleading information on the Internet. He cites cultawarenessnetwork.org, which he said is owned by the Church of Scientology. "There is a lot of false information out there," he said, "some of it about me."

Among the "facts" that cults have claimed about Hassan are that he is an "anti-religious bigot" who "violently deprograms" people. To Hassan, this is just more misinformation.

"Spirituality is a central part of my life," he said, adding that he is a longtime member of Rabbi Moshe Waldoks' Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Mass. "I do not think I would have the courage to stand up to multimillion dollar groups if I did not have a strong belief in God."

Hassan said that cults often prey on people who are, as he puts it, "situationally vulnerable."

"People who are ill, in mourning, or just away from home are more susceptible," he said. "Nobody joins a cult. They get deceptively recruited and systematically manipulated, and these tactics work best when the person is off-guard."

"Now that I know what I know," he said, "I have dedicated my life to helping others, hopefully before it is too late."

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