Nansook Hong was 15 when she was forced to marry into the ‘True Family’ at the head of the Moonies religious cult. It was the start of two decades of physical and mental abuse, from which she has only recently escaped. Here, for the first time, she tells James Langton of the ‘hypocrisy and evil’ at the heart of the Unification Church.
In the comfortable anonymity of a Boston coffee bar, a slender and solemn but pretty Korean woman in her early thirties is sipping a cup of raspberry tea and talking openly about her marriage. It is a story of beatings, drugs, under-age sex, adultery and fraud.
What makes Nansook Hong different from other abused women is the name she shed in the Massachusetts divorce courts. The husband she disparagingly refers to now as “my ex” is Hyo Jin Moon, eldest son of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon – a Messiah to the faithful of the Unification Church, but to the rest of the world the leader of the religious cult known as the “Moonies”.
At 15, Nansook became the child bride of a deeply disturbed young man who already had a history of heavy drinking and drug abuse. Smuggled illegally into the United States by church officials in the mid 1970s, she arrived at the Moon family mansion north of New York speaking no English and never even having dated a boy.
“I have never known exactly why Sun Myung Moon chose me to marry his eldest son,” she writes at the beginning of her recently published autobiography, In The Shadow Of The Moons. “I came to believe that my youth and naivety were the central reasons for my selection. His ideal wife was a girl young and passive enough to submit while he moulded her into the woman he wanted. Time would prove that I was not nearly passive enough.”
Nearly two decades later, Nansook has emerged to tell her story. It is set against the background of the increasingly turbulent affairs of the self-proclaimed “perfect family” at the head of one of the world’s most controversial religious cults.
“The evil at the heart of the Unification Church is the hypocrisy and deceit of the Moons,” she says now, “a family that is all too human in its incredible level of dysfunction. To continue to promote the myth that the Moons are spiritually superior to the idealistic young people who are drawn to the church is a shameful deceit.”
At the peak of their powers in the late 1970s, the Moonies mesmerized the popular imagination. Worldwide membership was believed to run to hundreds of thousands. The Reverend Moon would marry off thousands of young acolytes — who had never previously met — in huge public ceremonies which were every parent’s nightmare. At a higher level, Moon enjoyed the patronage of Republican power-brokers drawn by his deeply conservative message on family and marriage and, perhaps, by his lavish hospitality.
What Nansook is saying now would once have seemed to her blasphemous. From her earliest memories, the Rev Moon was the Lord of the Second Coming, his wife the True Mother and their offspring the True Children. Her own parents were one of the 36 Blessed Couples, the original followers of Moon when he was an itinerant and persecuted preacher seeking disciples in the chaos of post-war Korea. Like all members of the Unification Church, Nansook knew that she would one day be “matched” to her husband by the True Father, perhaps to a man she had never met.
Nansook was studying music at The Little Angels, the exclusive performing arts school founded by Moon in Seoul, when she was ordered into a limousine and driven without explanation to the True Family’s Korean mansion. Her parents were also there, but said nothing. “My mother?” says Nansook now, “I think she knew what my life would be like. I know that she did, but that she also believed she was sacrificing my personal happiness for God.”
Nansook had been aware of Moon’s son Hyo Jin, a student three years her senior at Little Angels. In contrast to the other members of the deeply conservative church, he wore tight jeans and his hair long. There were rumors of cigarettes, girlfriends and drinking. He was, however, the heir to the True Father and, therefore, in the church’s teachings, without sin. When the Rev Moon asked her if she would marry his son, it was a question with only one answer.
For much of his early life, Hyo Jin was raised by babysitters and church elders. In 1971, when Hyo Jin was in his teens, the Moonie entourage moved to America. In a confessional speech before church members in 1988, Hyo Jin revealed that he began to take drugs after being sent to live with an elder in a wealthy suburb of Washington. The son of the “Messiah” also complained that his father was remote and uncaring. “I thought the best way was to disappear, then I would have no burden,” he said. “Many times I sat with a gun pointed to my head, practicing what it would be like.”
This was the 19-year-old who was to be given a virginal school-girl as a wife. Nansook says she was barely aware of the facts of life when she arrived in the US under the pretext of being a competitor in a piano festival, hastily organized by church officials as a cover story.
Life with the True Family proved anything but perfect. Church rules say that couples must not have sex in the first three years of marriage. Hyo Jin was having none of that. No sooner were they alone after the wedding ceremony than he demanded that his bride strip naked.
“He was very rough, excited at the prospect of deflowering a virgin,” Nansook writes. “I just followed directions. It was all I could do not to cry out from the pain. It did not take him very long to finish, but for hours afterwards my insides burned with pain.”
Nansook says now that she knew from the very beginning that her husband was a monster and that her in-laws were little better. The honeymoon was in Las Vegas — a place she had never heard of — with the True Family in tow. In the casino she watched the Mother of the True Family “cradling a cup of coins and feverishly inserting them into a slot machine”. The “Messiah”, who publicly condemned gambling, explained that it was his duty to mingle with sinners to save them. He would position a senior church official at the blackjack table and whisper instructions from behind. “So you see, I am not actually gambling myself,” he told his young daughter-in-law.
Back in the Moon compound at Tarrytown, 40 miles north of New York, Nansook was sent to the local high school with instructions not to mention her marriage or the Moons. In the evenings she would finish her homework and then brace herself for the arrival of her husband, usually drunk and demanding sex. Within weeks she was pregnant. She also contracted a sexually transmitted disease, the result of her husband’s continued philandering. “I tried to love him as a husband,” she says of the early years of her marriage. “I asked myself later if there was any happiness in our relationship. There was not one moment.”
In 1982, the Rev Moon was imprisoned for tax evasion, claiming the church was a charity and then spending the money lavishly on his family. There is a photograph of Nansook in a staged demonstration outside the Danbury Federal Penitentiary. Her neatly stenciled placard reads: “Religious Freedom Now.”
Today Nansook says that the family saw her as “a china doll”. For her part, she attempted to make sense of her unhappiness. “I had my faith in God that I had been put there for some purpose. I struggled for years over Moon. He was so egotistical, so selfish. How could he be the person he claimed to be?”
In 1992 she went on a fundraising trip to Japan with the True Mother. Before the return journey, she says: “I was given $20,000 in two packs of crisp new bills. I hid them beneath the tray in my make-up case. I knew that smuggling was illegal, but I believed that the followers of Sun Myung Moon answered to higher laws.” Much of the Moon money was given to Hyo Jin to fuel his cocaine and alcohol binges.
Hyo Jin, she says, would frequently beat her. “I once tried to flush his cocaine down the toilet. He beat me so severely I thought he would kill the baby in my womb. He made me sweep up the spilled white powder from the bathroom floor even as he continued to beat me. Later Hyo Jin would offer a religious justification for beating half-senseless a woman seven months pregnant. He was teaching me to be humble in the presence of the son of the Messiah.”
Her children, she says, were her only reason to live. “My main goal was to raise them decently.” Her children would ask her: “Why do we have a bad dad?”
By the middle of the 1990s, Nansook was old enough to realize that life could be different. Hyo Jin had all but abandoned the marriage, retreating to New York to make bad rock’n’roll in a studio bankrolled by his parents. Nansook’s parents had abandoned the Unification Church. So had her older brother and his wife.
In August 1995, she finally found the strength to leave. “I was frightened that Hyo Jin would stop us if I was open about my plans,” she writes. “He had threatened to kill me so many times, and with a veritable arsenal of weapons in his bedroom, I knew he could.” Her brother, and a close friend who had left the church, helped to smuggle her children and a few possessions past the guards at the Moon compound. A bitter and protracted legal battle followed. In the end, a settlement was reached and the divorce finalized last year, although the Moons refuse to pay maintenance.
Nansook now lives in a modest house in an anonymous suburb. In the gilded cage of the First Family, she had never cooked, never even folded clothes. Now she must do everything, but says she feels free for the first time in her life.
She wrote her book — for which her advance was said to be small — “because by writing it all down I made something of my life, it had not been just wasted. I also don’t want anyone else to go through what I did.” She has returned to college and plans to devote the rest of her life working for battered wives.
Her former husband still retains visiting rights. The children visit him in New York and return with lavish presents paid for by the True Grandmother. The exception is her eldest daughter, who refuses to see her father. She is 15, the same age as Nansook when she was handed over to the Moons. “She seems such a baby to me. I can’t even begin to think that she could get married.”
On the loss of her own youth, Nansook says: “I feel duped, but I do not feel bitter. I feel used, but I feel more sad than angry. I long to have the years back that I lost to Sun Myung Moon. I wish I could be a girl again. I wonder if I will ever know romantic love, if I will ever trust a man or any so-called leader again.”
Nansook can never fully escape the Moons. It is not just the occasional church official who arrives unannounced on a mission to reclaim her for the church. The Rev Moon, despite “shoe-polish black” dyed hair, is 78 and in the final years of his life. At least two of his children are known to have deserted the church which, according to Nansook, now has only a few thousand supporters in America, his country of adoption.
In Japan, the main powerbase of the Moonies, there are thought to be only 10,000 active members, and in Britain no more than a few hundred.
Moon’s natural successor would be Hyo Jin. But because of his obvious failings, it is believed that the True Father and Mother have decided to anoint their third son instead (their second, Heung Jin, died in a car crash, aged 17, in January 1984). Hyo Jin is unlikely to abdicate his throne without a battle, however, and since he has supporters even inside the True Family, a power struggle seems likely after Moon’s death.
Nansook knows that her oldest son Shin Gil, as the crown prince, could become a pawn in any Moonie civil war and fears, as with all her children, that he might he tempted back to the Unification Church. Even as he wanes, Moon still has the power to take hold of weaker minds than his. Nansook says that he enjoys the process of humiliating those beneath him.
Even so, she suspects that Moon is haunted by the problems in “the family without sin”. “Deep down, under the ego, I think that the failures of his children do bother him,” she says.
As for her former husband, she believes he is crushed by his relationship with his father. “He has hatred towards him, but he also knows that without his father he is nothing.”
The Moons, she says, would accept her back if she was prepared to apologize, even after the publication of her book, which they have studiously ignored. She still appears on official Unification Church photographs and no mention is made of the divorce.
At the lavish banquet for the Moons which followed a mass wedding in New York last year, there were place cards and empty chairs for Nansook and the other children who have long fled the True Family.
More and more, it seems, the Rev Moon is simply deceiving himself.
In the Shadow of the Moons: My Life In The Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Family, 1998, by Nansook Hong, is published in America by Little, Brown & Co.