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Wayne woman’s memoir reveals fraught childhood under the sway of Rev. Sun Myung Moon

For Lisa Kohn, reared in chaos, the Unification Church was a refuge. Until it wasn't. At 18, she found herself on a bridge, considering suicide.

Lisa Kohn, a leadership consultant and coach from Wayne, reads an excerpt from her book, to the moon and back, at a gathering at home of neighbor Elaine Marnell (right, front).
Lisa Kohn, a leadership consultant and coach from Wayne, reads an excerpt from her book, to the moon and back, at a gathering at home of neighbor Elaine Marnell (right, front).Read moreKRISTON JAE BETHEL / For the Inquirer

Lisa Kohn was so unaccustomed to the warmth of family life that the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church at first felt like a “love bomb.”

When Kohn was 11, her mother left her and her younger brother, Rob, to follow the South Korean minister who claimed to be the messiah. Their father, a bartender who used drugs, raised the two children in a rundown Manhattan apartment. On weekends, they visited their mother, to be wrapped in the hugs and attention of Moon's devotees.

For Kohn, reared in chaos, the church was a refuge. Until it wasn't. At 18, she found herself on a bridge, considering suicide.

Now 55 and a leadership consultant and executive coach in Wayne, Kohn has chronicled her tender years in the Unification Church — a cult, she calls it — and her indelibly scarred adulthood in a memoir published last month, titled to the moon and back: a childhood under the influence.

"My brother says that we were raised by wolves," she said recently, reading an excerpt for a gathering of 40 neighbors and friends who had had no clue as to Kohn's past. " … I don't have a more accurate description of our upbringing. A friend of my dad's pointed out that wolves raise their young with more structure than our parents gave us."

Her tribulations did not end with her exit from the Unification Church. She struggled through abusive relationships, dabbled in cocaine, and underwent years of therapy, finally reaching what she told the crowd was a place of joy.

The union of Mim and Danny Kohn, her parents, seemed ill-starred; after barely two years, they separated. Their two babies lived with Mim, a waitress in East Orange, N.J., who got by on food stamps and nude modeling for art students. When old enough, the children visited their dad's New York apartment, where, Lisa Kohn recalls, Danny taught Rob how to roll a joint and smoke it.

Their unconventional upbringing went even further off the rails when Mim, always a religious seeker, discovered the Unification Church and began traveling to its headquarters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As those trips became more frequent, she changed. She was stricter, enforcing regular bedtimes. She laughed and smiled more. "She even wore a bra," Lisa Kohn wrote.

Eventually, Mim became so subsumed in the church that she told her children  that she was leaving them to serve Moon. She moved to headquarters, where she often took care of the children of other church members, while her own lived without her, in their father's dubious digs.

Today, Mim Kohn is 75, divorced, and living near East Orange. The Unification Church "had meaning to me at the time" and "answered some questions," she said recently. But life at headquarters was "chaotic" and "not a good situation for children."

The same could be said of the apartment of Danny Kohn, where the children slept on foam mattresses propped up on milk crates. He had a "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" lifestyle, said Rob Kohn, now 56.

But when the siblings visited their mom every weekend, they were immersed in a world of pancake breakfasts and games, and lavished with affection. Lisa began attending workshops, services, vigils, and lectures.

Moon had moved to the United States from South Korea in 1971 to establish a branch of his Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, which he founded in 1954. In the aftermath of the '60s, the church emerged as an alternative for young people seeking more than "peace, sex and drugs," said David G. Bromley, coauthor of the 1980 Moonies in America: Cult, Church and Crusade.

By the mid-1970s, Moon had from 5,000 to 10,000 followers in America.

In Unification theology, Jesus is divine but not God, and was supposed to marry and create a perfect family that would save humanity, but was crucified before he could. That task, Moon claimed, fell to him and his second wife, Hak Ja Han.

That restoration occurred through the mass blessings of sacred marriages between partners Moon chose or the couples chose themselves, unions that would create God-centered families, said Bromley, director of the World Religions and Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University, which studies new religious movements.

In 1982, Mim was married in one of those ceremonies at Madison Square Garden, to a man Moon selected. But by then, the church was bleeding more members than it converted, Bromley said.

Lisa Kohn recalls the church as a cloistered, high-commitment lifestyle of strict traditional morality. Dating and premarital sex were forbidden, homosexuality was evil. Members were constantly admonished to work harder and sacrifice more.

"We were told we were lucky to have [our mother]  leave, never to cry. It was God's will," Kohn said.  "If I missed her, I was sinful. But I did, and I was."

As a teen, she proselytized on street corners, and handed out pamphlets outside the New York Public Library. But on a high school trip to music camp, she began to question the church's teachings. She met LGBT students. They were friendly and nice, not evil sinners doomed to hell. She liked them. They didn't match up with the church's portrayal of them, and it nagged at her.

"At 17, I stepped away from the church, and became torn and confused," Kohn said.

The further she drifted, the more she hated herself, believing in her own damnation.

As a freshman at Cornell University, she went to a nearby bridge, intending to jump. "I wanted to fall to my physical death to avoid falling to my spiritual death," Kohn said.

Instead, she walked away, although she still isn't sure why.

The close call was a turning point, but for the worse. She developed anorexia, dabbled in cocaine, and got involved with an abusive alcoholic.  Eventually, she sought out Al-Anon, a support group for people with loved ones who are alcoholic, and from there, counseling and therapy.

"I've never said, 'I'm done.'" Kohn said of the church. Her commitment just faded.

The Unification Church has splintered into factions since Moon's death in 2012.

Rob Kohn left long before then, at age 21.

Mim Kohn cut ties with the church in 1996. It no longer "fit me, and I didn't fit it," she said. "I wish I had done things differently — and better." She earned a master's degree in special education in 1998.

By then, Lisa Kohn, married to businessman Bruce Trachtenberg and a mother of two, was starting to write her book.

She describes herself as "spiritual," a believer in the power of love and the universe, and a purveyor of the message that for anyone who has felt "hopeless, damaged and beyond repair, there is hope."