They lined up in their thousands, brides decked in white gowns, grooms clad in black. Madison Square Garden looked like a sea of zebra stripes as more than 4,000 people assembled to marry, a large number of whom had never met their intended before that day on July 1, 1982.

Watching it all, shifting uncomfortably, was a young college student named Lisa from Manhattan’s grimy East Village. Among the brides was her mother, Mimi – and Lisa unsuccessfully strained to catch sight of her. The college student was also looking furtively for other faces she recognized, faces she’d grown up with during her unusual adolescence.

Because Lisa, along with her brother who sat alongside her, was raised in the Unification Church. From the age of ten, she’d been raised a Moonie – a term now considered by many to be derogatory.

And now – as her mother lined up to be married to a man she barely knew by a Korean leader purported to be the second Messiah – Lisa wanted out.

‘I am in the process of pulling away from the Church, so I want nothing to do with it,’ Lisa recalls of her feelings on that day, when Reverend Sun Myung Moon was conducting a mass wedding of 2,075 couples he’d arranged.

She says that, for her, the event was ‘bizarre and uncomfortable and looking at what I’d thought would be my future.’

She’d already rejected many of the practices and teachings of the Church, and she was trying to extricate herself from its vise-like grip.

But as she watched the devoted let themselves be matched by Moon – giving over their lives to a man they called Father and believed to be the second coming of Christ – Lisa felt ‘not joy at being out, but shame and embarrassment: I’ve left, I’ve fallen and I’m evil and I’m sinful.’

Attendees passed through metal detectors and the media whipped itself into a frenzy over the event; the Moonies had already firmly established themselves as an infamous and highly controversial movement, one that many considered a cult.

Members were known for their wide smiles and glassy-eyed expressions, their relentless recruitment efforts that often drew people in with the unassuming attempt to sell them flowers. Those who joined often gave up everything to work for ‘the Church,’ leaving behind their families and other pursuits to dedicate themselves to Moon and his teachings.

Many became so entrenched in the group that relatives sometimes arranged kidnappings to get them out, followed by deprogramming to undo the brainwashing believed to have occurred.

And it was a cult, says Lisa Kohn, now a 54-year-old married mother-of-two based in Wayne, Pennsylvania. She’s written a new book, To the Moon and Back: A Childhood Under the Influence, detailing her dysfunctional family life and youth as a Moonie.

‘For me, it was mostly mentally and emotionally scarring, but not necessarily because of really weird, awful, horrendous practices, but because of how some of the beliefs played out,’ she tells

She adds: ‘It was the cult of all cults … especially because [of] the fundraising and the glassy smiles and the deprogramming and the mass weddings. We were different.’

The Unification Church was started in South Korea in 1954 by Moon, who put forth a theology that mixed Judeo-Christian and Eastern philosophies and proclaimed it time to unite all world religions and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. According to Moon, Jesus (who appeared to him in a vision and explained much of this) had been meant to marry and have children so that he and his wife could become the True Parents of mankind and erase original sin from humanity.

But Jesus was crucified before he could fulfill his mission, so God had to send a second Messiah, which he did around 1930, to a place that had to be Korea (the Church’s text, Divine Principle, outlines various historical and numerological reasons for these conclusions.)

Moon was born in what is now North Korea in 1920 and married Hak Ja Han, and the Church taught that they were the new designated True Parents who would bring God’s Kingdom to Earth. The arranged marriages and mass weddings of members were called Blessings and the Church believed they erased original sin from members and their future children.

The behavioral edicts were puritanical – no alcohol, no drugs, no premarital sex, limited physical contact between genders.

Lisa’s association with the Moonies began in 1974 – three years after Moon moved to the United States and the same year the US media began using the term ‘Moonies’ to refer to the Unification Church.

Lisa’s mother and father, Mimi and Danny, had married young because Mimi was pregnant at 17 with Lisa’s older brother, Robbie. Lisa was born as another ‘mistake’ soon after, and her parents’ marriage didn’t last much longer after that.

Lisa says that her father was an alcohol- and drug-loving free spirit who would disappear on travels all the time, and her mother was an eccentric who’d fashion clothes out of curtains and tablecloths and immerse herself in fads such as a macrobiotic diet – which she fed to her children, as well, at their New Jersey home.

Mimi first heard Moon speak in January 1974, then began spending time at the Church compound in Barrytown, New York – where Lisa explains how she brought her children to visit, indoctrinating them, as well. Lisa was 10 and Robbie was 11. She writes about how her mother soon moved there full-time, leaving the children with her father, a judge – who fell into a depression after the death of his wife and was institutionalized.

Relatives debated what to do with Robbie and Lisa until they were ultimately sent to their father, who, Lisa says, was living a wild and partying lifestyle in the East Village – certainly no place for children at the time.

They clung to the Church, visiting their mother as often as they could and socializing with fellow Moonies.

They played and became close friends with Moon’s children – the ‘True Children,’ offspring of the Messiah, who were revered by the entire Church.

‘It was wildness for kids, because they could get away with anything … jumping off the loft in the barn and running through the hallways screaming and playing tag and basketball and riding motorcycles,’ Lisa says. ‘It was just playing, albeit with all those other layers to it.’

She adds: ‘There were times when stones would be thrown at members and they would be grateful for that … It was insane to think about, but they’re the Messiah’s children.’

Lisa’s attempts to share the ways of the Church alienated her from other kids at school, and her adherence to puritanical Church rules also moved her further away from mainstream socializing in her early teen years.

‘I did spend a summer trying to proselytize, trying to bring people in,’ she says of her few months traveling the country as a veritable Moonie missionary. ‘You would talk to strangers on the street, anybody alone, groups of people – invite them to a lecture about truth or something positive.

‘You would never say Moonies, and you would never say Reverend Sun Myung Moon. You would never say Unification Church – but “Come to a fellowship, a Christian fellowship; Come for an evening.” And then [on] the evening they would teach some of the hopes and not go into the details … there was music and songs and community and games, and it gets you all excited.

‘And then they’d say, “Come away for a weekend” – and they’d take you to a weekend workshop, which was generally in the middle of nowhere. It’d be wake early, go to lectures, never alone, always in community, always with people around you and lovebombing you – which was being really, really loving to everybody who walks in, brother or sister; making them feel welcome and special.’

She adds: ‘Then, at the end of the weekend, press you to stay longer – and then, at the end of that, press you to stay longer – and then it becomes truth.’

The dichotomy between that lovebombing and Lisa’s chaotic New York life with her father makes it unsurprising that she devoted herself wholeheartedly to the Church, along with her brother. The structure also seemed to make their mother more stable, Lisa says, despite the fact that she abandoned her son and daughter for the cult.

‘In some ways, the weird thing is, it was a haven for me,’ Lisa says, pointing out that her father first let Robbie try marijuana at age 10. Her brother once asked her: ‘Do you think I didn’t become a drug addict because of the Church?’

‘I think that’s true, because I think, in some ways, the Church was a stabilizing factor for us,’ Lisa tells ‘Our mom became, in some ways, more normal, which is a weird thing to say – and more paternal and happier.’

She describes ‘the affection and love we received from our older brothers and sisters, who just thought we were adorable’ – calling it ‘intoxicating and wonderful.’

She says: ‘People ask me, “Why did you believe it?” Well, why do Catholics believe in Catholicism? Because my mom said it was true, and every lecture we went to said it was true, and every Sunday service we were in, they said it was true. So as a kid, you very rarely question at that age.’

She and Robbie would spend weekends helping their mother with various chores – such as in the kitchen or caring for Church children, whatever task Mimi had been assigned – as well as playing with the True Children. Lisa began saying the Pledge, a weekly ritual in which members rededicate themselves to God, True Parents and the Church.

Some developments within the Church, however, seemed arbitrary and unfair. Lisa writes that, at one point, she and Robbie were banned from seeing their mother; at another, Lisa says, they were barred from hanging out with the True Children, as members of the Church hierarchy believed they were bad influences.

‘It was all about protecting the lineage,’ Lisa says, adding that ‘hierarchies exceptionally mattered’ within the Church.

She adds that Moon – who died in 2012 at the age of 92 – had ‘absolutely had a cast of lieutenants.’

She viewed Moon himself, however, with a ‘combination of awe and terror – but not like terror because he was bad; terror because I was bad and that he would know and he would see.

‘And if they knew about my dad, and if they knew how awful and evil and sinful I really was…’ she trails off, thinking back to the mindset that convinced Moonies that they were constantly letting God down.

‘It was reverence,’ she says. ‘We did bow when he came in or left the room. It was terror – [which sounds like a bad word ] – but like, oh my God, I’m in his house; what if I see him, what if he’s there, what do I do, how do I act kind of stuff.’

If she found herself in the same dining area as Moon, she says, ‘you couldn’t eat. You were so beyond lucky to be in that room and have him look at you, and you didn’t know how to act. He’s the son of God, and you’re just you.’

Lisa says that as she grew older, however, the Church teachings were warping her world view and harming her relationships. She told boys she couldn’t date them, though she began relenting as she got further into her teens. Then she agonized over behaviors such as drinking and sex, eventually giving into both and mentally flagellating herself for it.

She went away to college to Cornell in upstate New York, and the distance seemed to deepen the gulf between Lisa and the Church – but, again, she was going through emotional and mental torture as she debated walking away from everything and everyone she knew.

‘For me, it was like, there’s these eight, ten years of my life, and then my leaving, they were gone – like everything I knew in life and everything I experienced and every place that important to me, it was gone. And so a black hole that never happened.’

She says she left gradually, never officially, weaning herself from the Church between the ages of 18 and 20 during her time at Cornell. It was difficult; at one point she considered jumping from the infamous suicide bridge at the university. She went on to develop anorexia and a mild cocaine habit, as well as later get embroiled in an abusive relationship.

‘For a long time, I survived by keeping [the Church years] a big black hole that never happened, but then it started to catch up on me,’ she says.

Lisa adds: ‘My life is a series of complex traumas, my childhood’ – referring to her mother leaving, her involvement in the Church, her father’s drug and alcohol use and general behavior.

‘I do believe I was partially punishing myself for leaving the Church … it’s too convoluted to say the Church was the only thing that messed me up.’

Through therapy and meetings with groups such as AlAnon – which offers support for friends and families of alcoholics – she began to heal, and she entered into a loving marriage with her husband, Bruce, as well as welcoming two children.

It was during her second pregnancy that she began writing about her experiences and eventually settled on a memoir.

‘At some point, I felt like, if I could tell my story and it’d do good, it’d help people who had similar or different situations with similar results, then it’d be worth it,’ she says.

Her research involved contacting old friends from the Church, including one of Moon’s children with whom she’d been close, In Jin, before Lisa and Robbie were banned from hanging out with the True Children. This was about ten years ago, and In Jin had taken over Church leadership.

Since Moon’s death in 2012, the Church has splintered into different groups. His widow has come to be called the co-Messiah by many followers who founded the Women’s Federation for World Peace International. Supporters of his oldest living son, Hyun Jin Preston Moon, led the Family Peace Association; his youngest, Hyung Jin Moon, started Sanctuary Church.

While In Jin was still in charge, however, to hear her speak – with some trepidation.

‘I can tell you that the glues in my brain are so strong that, like, I know [Moon’s] not the second coming … although when I went, at the end of the book, when I went to hear In Jin speak, I was terrified that I would think it was true and have to join. I didn’t tell my husband that, but I was. And I didn’t and I don’t, but it’s this weird sense of, I don’t know [Moon] as evil, as many people portray him, because it wasn’t my experience.

‘So I know he’s not the second coming, and I know he’s not the Messiah, but there’s something weird in my brain that goes, “Don’t look at that,” if that makes any sense. And I just think that’s how carved all that was in my brain.

‘I know there’s some good in the practices and teachings; not everybody believes that, but I do … and I know, basically, it is a cult and it is bad and it really hurts people and it hurts lives. But there’s some sense of, it is part of me.’

Robbie, like Lisa, rejected the Church’s teachings, though it took him until after college to leave, since he attended a campus with a much larger Church presence than Cornell and he felt watched and pressured. Lisa says that, regarding her new book, Robbie ‘says that I was much too easy on everyone; I made it sound a lot better than it was.’

She counters that she was only writing from the perspective of her own memories.

Lisa’s mother eventually left the cult, too, following the birth of Lisa’s first child; she and Mimi – who lives in New Jersey – now have a ‘guarded’ relationship, she tells Lisa’s not totally sure why her mother left or what she still believes, and the pair rarely go into great depth about, given the related issues surrounding the cult and their historically complex family dynamic.

‘One time she said, “I couldn’t even be a Moonie well,”’ Lisa says. ‘She has said she still believed – I don’t know if it’s “believe” or “believed” … in the teachings, in the truth.

‘The hypocrisy of the leadership and what people did with it, she could not follow any more … arbitrary rules and power and who’s more equal than other people, and the things that happen when people jockey for power.’

Lisa adds: ‘When pushed, my mom’ll say about leaving … She’ll say: “It’s what I knew I had to do at the time.” So I don’t think that she regrets her time in it; I do thinks he regrets not being with us.”’

She says that her father, for all his flaws, had always been frustrated by his children’s involvement in the cult, though he tried to let them lead their own lives – and Lisa adds that ‘he does think the worst thing he ever did was leave us with my mom.’

Danny had a stroke more than a decade ago and remains in a care facility, with damage that Lisa says means he will never read the book – ‘which is wonderful, because he would not be okay reading it,’ she says.

Her mother, however, has been a huge supporter of the project, Mimi says.

‘She’s my biggest fan, even though she’s terrified of what it’ll do to her,’ Lisa tells

And Lisa’s own reasons for writing the book, she says, were to give other people hope. She says she wants her story to be uplifting and inspire others, not just because she left the Church but because she also survived such a turbulent home life.

‘There isn’t really any reason I should be as happy and functional as I am,’ she says. ‘What happened to me, I shouldn’t be okay, and I am – and so I really hope that people realize that there’s hope, that there’s always hope, that our lives can be good, that you can rise out of any situation, that there’s a way to live with intention and joy and it’s possible.’

She adds: ‘The results of that childhood on me and on my psyche and my emotional state, the things I did and how I felt and stuff and what I did to myself, is too common. It’s universal. So I hope that someone who feels like, “I am so damaged … that there’s no way I’ll ever be okay or anyone will ever love me or I’ll ever be happy,” will be like: “Wow, she’s okay, maybe I can be okay, too.”’

She’s also happy to add a few words of caution for anyone who might be susceptible to the recruitment tactics of cults or similarly damaging groups – warning against ‘anyone or anything who claims to have the truth. I don’t there there’s a truth.’

‘Anyone or anything who passionately, fervently tells you, “this is the truth and this is the way” … there are religious cults now, there are political cults now. I think some of our political situation is kind of cultish now. There’s self-help cults now, they’re all here …

‘So as soon as someone says, “This is the way, and spend lots of time and potentially lots of money with us” … Anybody who tells you, ‘We know better than you or what’s right for you” (and one could argue many religions do that) but the ones that do it in a very strong, intoxicating way: Again, I say there’s nothing more intoxicating than knowing you have “the truth.” That is why people fly planes into buildings.’

All these years later, however, Lisa says that she’s almost always met with shock when people find out about her close association with the Moonies during her youth.

‘It invariably blows people’s minds, because I quote-unquote look so normal,’ she laughs. ‘And I don’t actually look that normal and I’m not actually that normal … but I am way more functional and have a wonderful marriage, two happy kids. I have a white picket fence now in front of our house!’