Growing Up With The Moonies

Good Housekeeping, December 1999
By Donna Collins, as told to William Falk

It's one of my earliest memories: I'm 4, and kneeling with my parents before the man we call "Father" - the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, head of the Unification Church. Our heads are pressed to the ground, and when I dare to look up I'm filled with gratitude, awe, and terror. Already, I know this man as someone who might hug me one minute and scream at me the next. If it is the latter, I know, my parents cannot protect me. He is God to them, and they will not go against him - even for their daughter.

My mother and father, Dennis and Doris Orme, were among Moon's original Western followers and had become high-ranking members of his organization. As a 3-year-old, I was taken away from them to be raised in various "community houses," as were most Moonie children at the time, including my half sister from my mother's first marriage. Over the next 12 years, I lived all over the world, though as a small child most of my time was spent in England. I had at least 50 different caretakers, whose role was to teach me to preach the word of the man we believed to be the reincarnated Jesus Christ.

At first, it was a world in which I felt special - a "blessed child," the first Westerner born into the Unification Church, a child "without sin" simply because my parents had been married by Moon. He told people that one day he might even marry me to one of his sons. Although I missed living with my parents during my early childhood, I had loving caregivers and was surrounded by people who deeply believed that the world could be better - purged of hatred and racism, with all of us living as equals.

But I also learned that there was another side to the teachings of Moon. by the time I was 5, I was sitting though seven-hour lectures - listening to his heated dissertations on the decadence of the modern world and his plans to unify all Christians under his leadership. As I grew older, I witnessed frightening pre-marriage ceremonies in which the bride and groom-to-be beat each other with bats to rid themselves of evil. I had also learned that the lives of Moon's followers were utterly controlled by him - and that he was the parent I was supposed to rely on. I'll never forget my tenth birthday. I was living near my parents in England, and my mother was planning to come visit to help me celebrate. I couldn't wait to see her. But by late in the evening, she still hadn't arrived, and the next day I learned that she had been sent to work in the United States. I wouldn't see her for a year.

I became devoted to Moon - I covered the walls of my room with his pictures and filled my childhood diaries with scrawled declarations of my love for him.

When I was 11, Moon decided I should leave England. I was to go to Korea to learn the language and culture - a special honor, which was to prepare me to marry in the church. But in England, I was at least able to see my parents occasionally. In Korea, thousands of miles away from them, I was passed from one caretaker to another. I felt abandoned and unloved. And I felt out of place among my black-haired and brown-eyed Asian classmates. I was tall and blond, and I couldn't speak their language.

Initially, I was also terrified of the Korean teachers, who would hit children who didn't do as they were told. In England, I had always been treated well because of my parents' position in the church - and the change was shocking. After six months, I began to grow increasingly bold and angry. Before long I had earned myself a reputation as a troublemaker.

The situation came to a head after I'd been in Korea for about a year. I had an appendicitis attack, and the Moon followers refused to let me see a doctor, sending me to a Chinese herbalist instead. They said that I was faking it to get attention and that I wasn't praying hard enough. By the time they finally relented, I had developed peritonitis and nearly died.

News of my illness did bring my mother to Korea. Despite her years of Moon training, she was appalled at my condition and at the way I had been treated. The Korean Unification Church was very different from the church she knew, and she packed me up and took me to Germany, where she and my father were living. It was the first time in my life that I lived alone with my parents, and I was in heaven. But within months, Moon found out and ordered me to return to Korea. My parents, programmed to follow his commands without question, agreed. I was furious - particularly with my father. Somehow I had held on to the idea that he would rescue me, and when he didn't I was devastated. The day they took me to the airport, I cried hysterically, begging them to let me stay. For the first time, I admitted to them - and to myself - that I had grown to hate the life we led under Moon.

Some months after my return to Korea, a friend of mine got me an audience with Moon, who was visiting the country. Again, I asked him to allow me to return to my parents. His response staggered me: For an hour, I cowered as he screamed at me. I had seen him hit others, and I was terrified he would hit me. He didn't, but he ranted on and on that I was betraying my family and betraying him; that I was his child, not my parents' child, and therefore, had to obey him; that I was stubborn and domineering like a Western woman; and that I had to learn to submit. Finally, I had agreed to stay, knowing that at 13 I really had no other choice.

For two years, I regularly asked for permission to leave, but generally feigned obedience. To do otherwise was to risk incurring the anger of Moon and of the followers with whom I lived. But inside I was increasingly unhappy and confused. I saw that Moon and the other leaders were like royalty - driving expensive cars and living in beautiful homes, rather than leading the frugal, spartan lives of the more lowly members. It was common knowledge that some of the highest-ranking members of the church routinely violated church teachings banning premarital sex, drugs, and alcohol. Even Moon, it was said, had several children out of wedlock; a good friend of mine was believed to be one of them. I began to feel torn in half. Life with the Moonies was all I'd ever known, and everyone I loved was a true believer.

In 1985, when I was 15, I was allowed to rejoin my parents, who shortly thereafter moved to Washington, DC, to help establish the church's operations in the United States. There was no Moon school in place yet, and so for the first time in my life I was sent to a public school. Suddenly, I had friends who were Catholics and Jews, Presbyterians and Mormons. They practiced their religions as faithfully as I had practiced mine, and yet they lived in the world. I began to understand that religion didn't have to be a form of tyranny.

After my first year of high school, I was sent to a Unification Church summer camp in New York State. Physical punishment is common in these camps for anyone who dares to disagree with the church line; in the past, my outspokenness had led to beatings from teachers who thought they would "cure" me of my bad ways. I was never seriously attacked, but it wouldn't have mattered if I had been - no one ever calls in outside authorities: One of the church's central tenets is that followers of Moon will handle their own problems. But that summer, I was fed up with the abuse. When a group of boys followed me out of a lecture center and began to shove me around, I threatened to have my parents call the police. Everyone was shocked by my resistance - and so was I.

My reeducation continued when I entered Mount Vernon College in Washington, DC. Because there was only one Moon college at the time, many Moon children attended public colleges, with tuition paid by student loans and their parents. For me, the taste of freedom was overwhelming, and it gave me the strength to begin an outright rebellion. But whenever I gathered the courage to write my parents and tell them of my doubts, I was met with reprimands for my lack of faith.

It was becoming clear to me that I was headed toward leaving the church. But if I left, I knew, I would be treated like a leper by everyone I loved. I had shamed my parents, and my friends told me I was asking not only for exile, but also for eternal damnation. I couldn't imagine leaving, and yet I knew I couldn't stay. I felt crushed, broken, and increasingly depressed.

Shortly after I started my second year at Mount Vernon, I attempted suicide. I had had a horrible fight with my parents because they were trying to convince me to be more involved in the church - perhaps even marry another Moon follower. When I got back to the dorm, I swallowed almost a whole bottle of sleeping pills. I just wanted it all to be over. Fortunately, one of my friends found me and took me to the hospital. The episode terrified me - and my parents. For a time, they backed off, and I again pretended to toe the line.

By my junior year, there wasn't enough money for college. I was forced to drop out and moved to Arizona with my parents. They had fallen out of favor with Moon because they had publicly questioned many things, including extravagant purchases for him when other members were essentially living in poverty. They were beginning to see some of the hypocrisy in the church too, but years of dedication didn't fall away easily; they insisted that the problems were not their leader's doing - the trouble must be the work of his lieutenants. Their confusion deepened my own, and at 21, I was becoming more and more depressed. Finally, when word came that Moon had decreed I marry a member of the church, I had a nervous breakdown. For weeks, I was unable to get out of my bed. My parents hid my condition from other church members, fearing that I'd be permanently ostracized.

I begged my parents to allow me to return to England. It represented the only place I could call home, and I believed that by reaching back to the past, I could make a decision regarding my future; either I would rediscover my faith in "Father" and agree to proceed with the marriage, or I would walk away from the church forever.

It didn't take long for me to make a decision. When I arrived in England, I was picked up at the airport by two church members who drove me around for hours, berating me for my lack of faith. Finally they took me to the home of a woman who had been one of my caretakers when I was a child. I was crying hysterically - and at last, I had seen enough. People who would treat me so badly weren't people who loved me.

With the help of some other former Moonies, I found and apartment in London and managed to support myself with a series of low-paying jobs. As I made new, non-Moonie friends, I kept my past a secret - even when I met a young college student named Jonathan Collins. He was the son of a regular, middle-class British family. I was afraid that if he found out about my childhood, he'd think I was one of the "nuts" he decried one night as we watched a TV news report on the deaths of members of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, TX.

But as Jonathan and I grew closer, I knew the truth would have to come out. I had left the Moonies, but they hadn't left me. The church teaches its members to be fearful - to see Satan in everyone. I found it hard to trust anyone, and at night I was tortured by fears that because I had renounced Moon, something horrible would happen to me or the people I loved. I would remind myself that it was mind control - utter nonsense - but a lifetime of believing in Moon's propaganda made shaking the lies difficult.

Finally, I told Jonathan about my past, and his response was all I could have hoped for. For the first time in my life, I understood what people meant when they said they were happy.

We decided to move to the United States together, where we settled in Phoenix. In 1994, two years after we met, we were married. Jonathan started to study cults and attend conferences in an effort to understand what I'd been through. We also began rebuilding my ties to my parents and my half sister, all of whom had finally left the church as well. In the wake of my decision to leave, their own doubts intensified. They began standing up to the "official" church on more and more issues and finally came to the painful realization that they, too, could no longer support the work of Moon. After dedicating 30 years of service to the church, my parents have no savings, no pension, and no profession.

At times, it's hard for all of us to let go of the anger we have about losing so many years to a man we now know to be a fraud. And attempting to reconstruct our family has been a painful process. There is much for all of us to forgive, and forget. But we have a wonderful helper in our efforts - my 3-year-old daughter, Arianna. Soon, there will be another grandchild [for my parents]. All of us now have a chance to experience the family life that the Unification Church denied us. My children will never hear that their mother is "going away to do God's work." Jonathan and I will raise them with an awareness of every kind of religion, and we intend to let them choose their own faith when they're ready.

I'm almost 30 now, and I've managed to salvage my beliefs by remembering it isn't God who is tyrannical or egotistical - it's Moon. I once read a Unification Church newsletter that asked whether it was more important to be on God's side or on Moon's side. I didn't know then, but I have an answer now: I'm on God's side.

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