In the summer of 1974, over the objections of my parents, my sister G. and her friend D. set off on a long bicycle trip to New England. Their ambition was adventure and a much needed change of scenery from the dead-end job she had been working in central Pennsylvania.
My parents feared for two 19-year-old girls out on the road alone, and with more reason than any of us could imagine at the time. Of course the obvious danger for any young women traveling alone was to encounter a man with ill intentions; this was probably what my father feared most. He could not have imagined the real dangers that waited for them at a festival in a park in Amherst, Mass., one sunny summer day.
The Celebration of Life seemed like a hippie fest—free food, free drink, and a message of love and acceptance for anyone who cared to stay and hear. D., the worldly skeptic, had no great attraction to the raggedy kids who preached the gospel of love and peace that day; G. was a different story.
“They all seemed so happy,” G. told me later. “I had to find out why.”
The “why” was ‘The Divine Principle’ as practiced by members of the Unification Church. Long before any of us had ever heard the phrase “Moonie,” the Rev. Sun Myung Moon had established a network of communities through New England and the Mid-Atlantic states—group houses occupied by eager, easily manipulated young people who were sent out by the busload to sell flowers in the name of fighting poverty around the globe.
For six weeks that summer, my sister was one of them. But as she told me later, she “wasn’t a very good cult member.” Though she did her best to push flowers by day and join in community prayers at night, she had a habit that alarmed the house leaders. She liked to take walks alone after dark, to clear her head and think. But being alone was not something the church particularly cared to encourage in its members, and thinking was an especially dangerous pastime.
During those lone night walks she tried to sort out the conflict between what she knew to be true and the reality that was being created around her by an organization that sought to control every moment of her long, waking day. Yet she could not bring herself to leave.
At the house she had met other young people with troubled pasts. A girl named China had grown up amid poverty and abuse. China had never been happier than that summer in Amherst. Did things really need to make sense if, in your heart, you’d found peace?
What finally brought G. back was the work of a newspaper reporter for the Boston Phoenix. I’ve long forgotten his name, but he was working on an expose of Moon when she ran into him in the park in Amherst. He interviewed her and took down our address. Later that summer, an envelope came for her with his article enclosed. My mother and I both read the article and agreed: Moon was a charlatan setting himself up as a Christ-like figure. In reality, he was well into a third marriage and living anything but a life of poverty on the proceeds from his so-called church.
To my sister, raised a conservative Catholic, a twice-divorced preacher could not possibly by an agent of God—and it was that detail that convinced her—when my mother read the article to her over the phone—to abandon the house in Amherst and come home. By then she had surrendered all of her belongings—her camera, her bicycle, everything she had—to join their life of poverty and service—to join their lie.
Her heartfelt desire to be part of something greater than herself, to find an answer to the questions churning within her, to contribute to some greater good—the honest longings of a young person on the road to discovering herself—made her easy pickings for an organization intent on exploitation. How they hooked her, how they kept her on the hook and very nearly sucked her deeply into a mind-control cult is a deceptively simple story of how a cynical organization can manipulate idealistic young people.
Her friend had escaped them simply by her reluctance to surrender her worldly goods to a greater cause. G., steeped in the Roman Catholic gospel of self-sacrifice, was eager to trade her bicycle and camera for the key to salvation.
What is more horrifying to me, though, is the prospect of what might have been had that reporter never sent the clipping to our home. Would G. have eventually returned on her own? Or would her psyche have cracked under the pressure?
Years later those questions have worked themselves into a play. SALVATION ROAD wrestles with, but does not answer, the mystery of why young people are drawn into cults and cult-like organizations. But these controlling groups are still very much with us, better funded than ever, as the Unification Church has gone mainstream; its founder now a billionaire contributor to right-wing causes, the publisher of the conservative Washington Times, and the owner and operator of thousands of businesses that feed into his media empire. The irony is almost laughable, that a political movement which prides itself on the elevation of individual freedom would take contributions from an organization dedicated to the virtual enslavement of its members. And yet there we are.
SALVATION ROAD is scheduled for a workshop at New York University’s Steinhardt New Plays for Young Audiences Program, with readings June 16 and 17 at The Provincetown Playhouse, 133 MacDougal Street, New York. Deirdre Lavrakas-Kelly directs.