Having recently watched documentaries of various dismal cults, notably Buddhafields and Scientology, I bethought myself of Moon’s Church, owner of the Washington Times, and my brief association with it ages ago. Thinking that it might be of sociological or psychiatric interest, I post the following. Early Seventies. Unpublished.
The tall scrawny freak with the red hair converted in the spring of 1972, several months before Jerry wandered, roaring, onto the scene. I had recently graduated from both Vietnam and college and, not knowing what else to do, was living with a collection of hippies at Stafford Court House, Virginia. The other freaks were the usual unemployed prophets, fruit-juice drinkers, tarot-card readers and desert patriarchs in from communes in New Mexico. Most were sane without being extreme about it. A few were psychic train-wrecks trying to reassemble themselves, and mind-burnt druggies who had learned to package brain damage as mystical insight.
The Sixties were waning fast. The freak years had been fun for those who could handle them, but by now everybody sensed that the ride was over. Kids looked sourly at the future, judged that the market for aged hippies was limited, and wanted out. They weren’t sure how to get there.
Seeking the escape hatch, the crowd at Stafford started changing religions the way other people changed their socks. For a while the preferred faith was acid. Everybody stared for hours at patterns in the upholstery, garnering wisdom. Then Buddhism held a corner on truth for a week, but faded. Hinduism had its brief moment. A bearded seer form somewhere out West once peered into my eyes with bovine serenity and said, “Hinduism. You know it’s true, man.” His cow-like assurance was like a current of water, carrying me along so that I thought, “Yeah, hadn’t thought of it, it is true, isn’t it?”
Finally the skinny red-head thumbed to Washington with his girlfriend, who had been a Moslem the week before, and returned full of confused faith in someone called Sun Moon. At first we assumed that anyone named Sun Moon must be an itinerant witch doctor from one of the desert tribes, perhaps a protégé of Carlos Castañeda. We soon heard that Moon was a Korean guru with holdings in an ammunition factory.
“I think I really believe it,” the red-head told me regarding the epiphany of the weekend. “It’s really, like, you know, true. I know it is.”
“I’m not sure yet.”
He wanted to believe that something was true. He didn’t much care what, and anyway he could find out later. Within two weeks several others from Stafford had joined Moon’s church. They were formally committed to the worship of a Korean arms manufacturer. The idea was curious, even for the times.
The Sixties were treasure years for the connoisseur of oddities: bikers, SDSers, hopheads, hallucinating paranoiacs, anything you wanted. Moon’s church, however, seemed a genuinely new kink in the social rope. For the next several months the lunar faithful (I tried desperately not to call them Loonies) was a hobby, sideshow, and source of free meals. Seen from the inside, from the level of the sidewalks of a giddy age, they didn’t bear much resemblance to later accounts in the newspapers. They didn’t bear much resemblance to anything.
Soon the Stafford believers thumbed up to the Moonie hives at 1611 Upshur Street, NW. I went along, wondering what to expect. The Moonies were not the only new product on the faith market. There was the New American Church, which worshipped the better grades of dope, and the Hare Krishnas, who seemed to worship attention and Georgetown, and something called Maharaj Ji, such a tender golden-brown butter ball that one’s instinct was to baste him. The Moonies were the first faith to crack the defense sector however. A faith based on ammunition was categorically worth seeing.
The Moonies had rented several adjacent row houses on Upshur and, as I soon learned, held picnics to attract proselytes, of which there seemed to be a bumper crop. We arrived looking like refried death and discovered a swarm of kids in suits, ties, stockings, pretty dresses, and a state of unearthly cleanliness. An attractive girl in an up-market blue dress hailed us with a bright smile. She was pretty, deliberately pretty, which was startling in an age of funk.
“Hi! I’m Linda Marchant. I’m so glad you could come. Won’t you join us?”
I thought to myself, “Soap.” Even today people think “soap” when they meet Moonies. But the outgoing friendliness was undeniably nice, very nice. They could turn it on and off like water, but it was nice. It appealed powerfully to the lonely and confused who, however they talked of Thoreauvian independence, were getting older and suspected they had missed an important boat. This assertive gregariousness, grown devious and systematized, later become known in Moon-talk as “love-bombing.”
Under spreading trees in the back yard, girls rushed about with bowls of salad. They all looked like Heidi. The guys looked like stockbrokers. Several other freaks stood around, kind of embarrassed but kind of…you know…digging it.
We all sat. After a brief prayer to a god as yet unspecified, whose chief quality seemed to be syllabic extension (“Faa-aa-a-a-ther….”) there were a few words about the sacred mission of the United States. Characteristically the Moonies told us very little about themselves. They preferred that a recruit find out what he was committed to only after he was committed to it, an idea acceptable to a surprising number of people. The peculiar gift of the Moonies was to pursue sincerity, frankness, and a revival of ethical values by means of deception, manipulation, and a disregard of ethics.
A heavily freckled kid next to me, explaining that he was in real life in the Coast Guard, said, “We ought to put naval mortars on the roofs. For protection.” Good idea. “Protection from whom?”
“Communists. They want to break up the church. These people need military advice.”
He kept looking up at the eaves.
Shortly thereafter, in hopes of working the fertile recruiting grounds of the University of Maryland, the Moonies established a splinter cell in Hyattsville in a decaying frame house that is now a parking lot. Like most political cells, it should have been padded. They began rehabilitating the house furiously in shifts. About that time I was angling for a job as a part-time special-education-and-computer-science teacher at Suitland Senior High, and hoped that maybe some of the Stafford converts might arrange to let me stay at the new hive for a week while I found an apartment. They couldn’t unless I converted, which was too much rent. For a week I lived in the back of my 1957 Chevy, the Blue Bomb, which had a mattress running from the back seat into the trunk. By day I helped the Moonies rebuild their house The stability of the set-up was uncertain. Instead of killing the termites, I noticed, the Moonies caulked up their holes.
At a Moonie recruiting session one night in an apartment in College Park Towers, I met Jerry, a short club-footed Nazi who liked blacks and Jews. Actually he wasn’t a Nazi, but said he was, which is stranger than being one. The Moonies were hawking the Divine Principle, as they called their theology, to a gaggle of freshmen. These latter were all agog, what with being at a real college for the first time, and hearing about a genuine exotic oriental religion and all. They had never heard of anything so advanced, not even in Wheeling.
At the time Principle involved something called the Base of Four Positions, which looked on the blackboard like a baseball diamond with God on second, Adam and Eve on first and third, and humanity at home plate. The idea was that Satan, currently in the guide of communism, had long ago gained control of the earth, and God kept sending people to try to redeem it. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus had all tried and failed. (“Oh Lord, whyfore hast thou forsaken me?” was considered corroborative.) Moon by implication was the next redemptive Marine to storm ashore on the cosmic beach.
People drifted and munched on potato chips. I was bored to the point of twitching but didn’t want to go back to the Chevy. The door opened and a deep bass voice growled, possibly not intending to be audible, “Hello. I’m looking for a bunch of maniacs…wait. I think I’m here.”
Jerry was about five feet six inches tall and nearly as wide, with bushy black hair, a tangled beard, and a big orthopedic shoe. A fierce angry energy radiated from him. We shook hands–he had the delicate fingers of a pianist-and he growled, sotto voce, “You don’t look like one of these. Are you?”
“Let’s go somewhere and talk.”
We escaped to the balcony. Jerry then spoke roughly as follows, always in staccato bursts. “Yeah, I’m getting a Ph.D. in political science…god, it’s nonsense…quantification of political behavior. I can make it work but who cares? These crazies, ain’t they something? It’s the decline of Rome all over, the Weimar Republic gone bad…four thousand years of progress for nothing…everything is downhill, heehee. This little Nazi is sick of it…If there any hope, it lies with the proles.”
Jerry called himself a Nazi, but purely as a rhetorical device. He lacked the ideology, the mean streak, any obsession with race, in fact any of the traits necessary to Nazism, and had in most respects the politics of an angry Democratic populist. He said he had been a real rostrum-pounding right-winger in school up north, but reality had grown on him.
“Right wing politics in nonsense. So’s left-wing politics. The center doesn’t have politics…Took me a long time to see that…God, it’s awful.” He was mad at everything in general, perhaps because of a difficult life and a crippled leg, or perhaps because of excessive observation. He was too rational to be mad at anything in particular.
Anyway, Jerry was drawn to the Moonies by their psychiatric interest, by his lack of anywhere else to live, and by Caroline Libertini of the Hyattsville nest. Lib was a basic broad-hipped Italian earth-mother with bronzed skin and high cheekbones that looked almost Indian. She radiated the Italian womanly virtues, genuine in her case, like an antenna: Warmth, security, friendliness, concern, and a funny sense that you were part of her family. The lonely and shell-shocked fell in love with her, absolutely inaccessible though she was, whereupon the Moonies tried to convert them. I don’t think it was conscious tactics, but it worked.
Soon Jerry was following her around like a growling congenial puppy. Then he moved into the Moonies’ tiny unfinished basement on the tacit understanding that he might convert any day now, which he had not the slightest intention of doing. It was strange to see him stomping around the kitchen making spaghetti or acting as a towel rack for Lib, a troll among Snow White’s dwarves. Beneath the fuming, he was sociable, and they were pleasant by ideology.
The Moonies didn’t know what to make of Jerry. They themselves were given to indirection, manipulation, diplomacy, and a certain understatement of the truth. Jerry had the finesse of the Wehrmacht. Upon listening to a circuitously phrased obliquity intended to get him to do something, Jerry would amiably say, “Dumbest goddam idea I ever heard. What idiot thought of that?”
“Hey, Reed, gimme a hand moving my hate. Gotta lot of hate to move,” Jerry said to me one day.
By this he meant a large collection of screwy far-right books. He also referred to mail as hate: “Gotta go check my hate-box.” Soon we were laboring up and down the stairs to his bare cubby hole with some of the strangest literature known to man: Six-volume sets about the communist influence behind the fluoridation of water, and disintegrating works by obscure syndicalists. I felt trapped in a comic book: In the basement of a weird Christian cult somewhere in the nation’s capital, a right-wing troll and his accomplice, a crazed hippie anthropologist, discuss the destruction of America’s brains by toothpaste….” Jerry banged away with hammer and scrap wood. He didn’t believe in his books any longer, but he collected them as a connoisseur.
“Need some more hate shelves.”
“Jerry, this stuff is nuts.”
“Yeah, bonkers. Real loony-tune stuff. Let me show you something really wild….”
We became friends, in part because of a common fascination with the curiosities inhabiting the ground floor. We discussed them endlessly in the beer dens of the University. Jerry would sit bristling with horror and foretell the collapse of society.
“It’s all over. You see, don’t you? Cults are the sign of collapse. The Orphic mysteries all over. Except they’re sexless. Like monks. I’m going to go to Canada and live. Tell them I went to Mexico, will you?”
Sexless they were. Despite all the mass gimme-eight-hundred-volunteers weddings, mostly in the future then, they were as hostile to sensuality as the early Christians. The few married couples had pledged four years of abstinence to Fa-a-a-ther. I forget why they thought he wanted it. Dating outside the church was discouraged. So was dating inside the church.
“Oh, twaddle,” I said, “It’s just…well, auto-therapy.”
“It’s brainwashing. Just like a North Korean POW camp. You see how much sleep they get? None. They don’t sleep. It’s destroying their biochemistry.”
“Moon doesn’t make them crazy, Jerry. He just collects them. I think.”
Actually I had to admit that Jerry might be right. No sleep, constant frantic activity, the unvarying presence of the group, rigorous discipline, lots of ritual. Maybe it did gum up the old metabolism.
The Moonies were a peculiar phenomenon: Extremists of the center, militant middle-wingers. Yet theirs was a cultural, not a political, centrism. They were kids who had grown up in the optimistic brick-box suburbs of 1953 when the economy was booming and it really seemed possible that all of humanity, after thousands of generations of struggle and evolution, might finally get a washing machine. On countless Saturday mornings the Moonies had watched Superman jump out of the window in a howl of wind while the announcer intoned approvingly of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” which were then thought to be synonymous. Two Buicks and glossy teeth were ingrained in their psyches.
Then somehow they had fallen into the fetor and anomie of the Sixties. For them the age was not a time of thumbing through glowing green mountains and having adventures. They were the casualties. They had waked in too many sour crashpads, engaged in too much thoughtless sex, done too many drugs. Moon’s church was the way back. It was the faith of clean shirts and fanatical normalcy. Thus they managed to be those strangest of creature, zealots of moderation.
I was still living in the Blue Bomb when Jerry saw his first prayer session. The Moonies knelt in the living room as the spirit moved them, put their foreheads on the floor, and gasped, “Fa-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a…ther!” with a little explosion on the last syllable. Then a tumult of prayer would burst from the penitent, mostly apologizing to Fa-a-a-ther for the pain caused by errant humanity. Then they looked at Jerry and me to see whether inspiration might have taken hold of us. Invariably it hadn’t. The first time Jerry looked at me in candid dismay. “This isn’t happening, is it?” he whispered.
“It can’t be happening. That’s obvious.”
“It’s the end of civilization.”
Later, Jerry learned to grin an aw-shucks-fellers, maybe-next-time grin. The Moonies waited, figuring he had to crack sooner or later.
Washington had now discovered the Moonies and contemplated them with a pleasant sense of alarm. The war in Vietnam had grown boring. Here was a new lunacy to titillate the jaded palate of the Potomac Byzantium. With luck, the Moonies might do something horrid and interesting.
Liberals, easily puzzled by unfamiliar categories, decided the Moonies were fascists. Almost everyone assumed that they had some hidden agenda, the reason being that they had no obvious agenda. Generally ignored was another possibility, that they had no agenda at all, a suspicion supported by the eerie pointlessness of everything they did. All zealots are narcissistic tragedians, wrestling with destiny beneath their inner Klieg lights, and not especially interested in practical results. This is a truth that few in Washington could afford to concede so they figured the Moonies had to be up to something.
Actually they seemed to be engaged in the passionate, urgent, frantic pursuit of nothing in particular. Nothing they ever did had an effect. Their propaganda persuaded no one, and wasn’t well calculated to persuade. If Moonery was a conspiracy, it was a conspiracy without a purpose.
One day in late fall they came running into the house from a local shopping mall, faces red with cold, an ecstasy of self-sacrifice lighting them like bulbs.
“We’ve been having a Rally for God! It was great!”
“Yeah! People were spitting on us!”
They constantly invented new religious tics. For a while they made a fetish of standing for a second of silent prayer before entering any door. Then there was Holy Salt which they sprinkled around at times of solemnity. I’ve seen sumo wrestlers do the same thing.
One evening in winter I dropped by to see Jerry in his cubby hole and found the whole cell bundling up.
“Hi! We’re going to Holy Ground. Want to come?”
Holy Ground, it seemed, was a patch of earth on the Mall which Moon, for mysterious reasons, had declared sacred. Stranger things have happened, though probably not much stranger.
“Sure, why not?”
Off we went down Michigan Avenue. They were bubbling and happy, infused with the usual sense of warmth and illusory direction. They knew Fa-a-a-at-ther was with them, pulling them through life like a rope, and they left a broad wake of enthusiasm. At the Monument they piled out, well-groomed and middle-class and home at last from the alien ideologies of scag and Lenin. They rushed to a spot apparently located by triangulation, stood in a circle, and looked reverently at the sod. It had grass on it.
The church was starting to get a bad name, not so much because of anything it really did as because it stole children–or so the parents preferred to put it. With few exceptions the Moonies were so warped by a wretched home life that they became susceptible to Moon–but this was not the wisest thing to tell parents whose kids were buzzing and clicking.
And there was the practice of Divine Deception, which is exactly what it sounds like. Some of it was airport technique (“Hi! I’m taking a survey….”) but through the years a lot of kids would go to what they thought were summer camps, only to find out later that they were at the robot factory. Angry apostates told tales of psychological ruthlessness that wobbly proto-Moonie egos couldn’t take. The Moonies responded that anyone who wanted to could leave. Unfortunately many of those sufficiently off balance to be Moonies in the first place were not good at independent action.
The Moonies earned their worst reputation among those groups who produced the most Moonies. Jews seemed especially hard hit, perhaps because they were especially vulnerable. The Jewish Moonies, all from secular families, had the usual Moonie problems of unloving homes. They also had the additional burden of not being Jewish enough to feel rooted in it, but too Jewish to be entirely at home in the surrounding society, and not about to convert to Christianity to assuage their spiritual yearnings. So they ducked the question by joining Moon.
Kids from military families also showed in up numbers. Having authoritarian fathers possessed of a certain combative simple-mindedness and not much affection, and having gone through the terrible insecurity of moving and losing their friends every two years, they needed something warm and fuzzy to hold onto. A fair number of Catholics showed up, feeling at home in a heavily ritualized faith. So did kids from Protestant families in which a great show is made of Christianity for the purpose of browbeating the child and out-holying the neighbors. The parents were furious, twenty years too late.
For a while Jerry resisted my view that the Moonies were dynamic idlers, but the evidence kept coming in. For example, they held what everyone called a Nuremberg rally on the Monument grounds. It was wonderful. Scaffolding went up. Technicians in white jump-suits scurried about, assembling great banks of phenomenally large loudspeakers and a big platform for dignitaries. An enormous speaker’s platform went up. The reverend Moon’s face in cyanotic blue began to peer from posters on every fence in the city. Sound buses drove crazily through the streets. Suddenly in front of Woodies would come an unintelligible blare of loudspeakers. A bus would turn the corner, plastered with blue Moons. As it drove past bellowing nothing understandable, which echoed from buildings (“Arblewargmonumentwunhwarbworworworld”), scrubbed faces peered out with the characteristic crazed expression, hands waving mechanically. “Join us, join us!” The impression was of a mechanical asylum worked by a spring.
On the day of the rally the big speakers roared, perfectly intelligible from anywhere on the grounds. The technicians had not been amateurs. The grounds began to fill as an efficient Moonie organization bussed people in from Philadelphia. A hootenanny outfit began singing to pull in more audience. The chestnut smell of dope wafted about in clouds. The scale, the volume of sound, were Orwellian. The moment demanded a howling demagogue to bay hatred at the cosmos. This was it, everybody figured with a little frisson. The Moonies were going to demand that Nixon be made Reichschancellor. Instead, the political speech was brief, a hiccup in the hootenanny, and said America was a great country and the world depended on us, and now have a nice day and back to the music. That…was…all. I walked through the crowd, mostly hippies and inner-city blacks, and asked what the rally was for. Hey, man, I don’t know, wanna toke?
I didn’t know either. Neither, I think, did the Moonies.
One night Jerry and I were sitting in my largely bare apartment, drinking beer and trying to figure out Moon’s Barbie Dolls. He started talking about himself, and I suddenly realized why he knew so much about nickel-and-dime politics. He was a celebrity of sorts. A few years back on the strength of his then-impeccable conservative credentials, Jerry had gotten a job with Liberty Lobby, which exists in the airy region where the right wing runs out of feathers and empty space begins. Discovering a lot of virulent anti-Semitism in the Lobby’s files, he had decided that Liberty Lobby was nuts, stolen the files, and given them to Drew Pearson.* There was a certain brutal directness in Jerry’s approach to things. The resulting expose had somewhat tarnished his reputation in the circles of the loon Right, and left him unsympathetic to cults, political or otherwise.
Who did he like, I asked? Well, just sort of folk, he said. Especially the under-folk, such as blacks, and those who had otherwise suffered discrimination-you know, Italians, Jews, Poles, Indians, and so on.
God, I thought. I’m living with a liberal Nazi.
The ferment rose again at Upshur Street. The Moonies were gearing up to smash world communism. The trouble was that, being mostly kids, they identified communism with the student Left, the only Left they knew. Consequently they attached great importance to the Trotskyite left-deviatonist schismatics of the International Bracero Labor Party’s Maoist-revanchist wing, consisting of two half-literate sociology majors who were about to graduate and become management interns. The central hive on Upshur Street seethed with excitement. They began having workshops on the techniques of political action. Jerry and I showed up for one of these.
We got a chilly welcome. Friendliness to the Moonies was a political technique only, their real interest being their spiritual scar tissue. They got real cold real fast.
“Are you expected?” asked a prim girl who reminded me of a motel manager. All Moonies reminded me of motel managers. I’m not sure what brought on the freeze, but I think too many hippies had learned that you could, as at the Salvation Army, get a free meal if you listened to the prayers.
“We’re from Hyattsville,” I said, thinking it would be adequate explanation.
“Who do you wish to see?”
“Barry Cohen,” I told her, Barry being head of the Hyattsville cell.
“One moment. I’ll check with Mr. Cohen.”
Mister Cohen? Another administrative lunge. First names were too informal for a movement that saw itself as a spiritual IBM. The frost princess finally let us in. The basement was full of folding chairs. A fellow with a flip-chart was lecturing approximately as follows:
“To be effective we have to know the enemy and how to counter his techniques. The communists and their allies use street theater, for example, a powerful technique. What do you do when you see three SDSers dressed as Vietnamese peasants with American soldiers beating them? We have to learn to speak effectively, how to handle hecklers. And remember, it won’t be easy or pleasant. We will be abused, even beaten up. Possibly some of us will even lose our lives….”
Hard and lonely work, I thought, but somebody’s gotta do it.
“Martyrs looking for a stake,” growled Jerry. “It’s the end, I tell you. This stuff is spreading.” Jerry’s problem was that he took the collapse of civilization personally.
To demonstrate counterhecklerism, the instructor appointed some Moonies to simulate the SDS and launched into a speech on American values, a big Moonie theme.
“Fascist pig! Fascist pig!” shouted the heckler-appointees, warming to the role. The speaker, demonstrating correct countermeasures, waited in lofty silence and continued with heightened feeling.
Jerry was chortling with delight. “Aw right! Belt out that hate! Let’s hear some good hate!” The Moonies weren’t sure what to make of this, not understanding that his was the technical appraisal of a student of maniacs.
“Hate! Hate! Hate!” shouted Jerry encouragingly.
“Stop giggling, dammit,” I said, “or they’ll turn on us.”
The Moonies thought they were combating communism, but really they were just scraping up fill dirt for the inner emptiness. None of it mattered at all.
Nothing lasts, not even the end of civilization. One day Jerry got seriously fed up with political science and decided to go to Florida and live by tuning cars. Exposure to a political-science department will make any sensible person want to work with engines. My teaching job ran out. For that matter, the Hyattsville hive was showing sings of falling apart: Only the hardy can stay with a cult for long.
One last time Jerry and I sat in the apartment with a case of beer, trying to understand Moon’s giddy sideshow, lobbing the empty bottles across the room into a cardboard box.
“Its the age of the cult, amigo,” he said. “They’re starting the slide into the mist. The whole show’s gone bonkers…If there’s any hope, it lies with the proles.”
The next day he disappeared southward. I never heard from him again. I packed the Blue Bomb for a drive to California, planning to go on to Taiwan and learn Chinese. For several years I heard nothing from the Moonies. Then in maybe 1979 I bumped into Diane Something-or-other in Dupont Circle, a nice kid from the Upshur Nest. She wore a turban and spoke of her devotion, to Islam, which had given meaning to her life. Her eyes were unhappy and she was looking a bit old for that sort of thing. Moonies? Oh, she had passed that stage. We said we should have lunch soon and, by tacit agreement, didn’t.
*Drew Pearson was a noted political columnist.