Thirty-thousand feet seems like a good altitude at which to question one's life. “I am already in motion,” I tell myself. It's a kind of progress. Shortly after my twentieth birthday I was in progress, between JFK and Heathrow, en route to Oslo.
After takeoff the girl sitting next to me smiled kindly, asking where I was headed. I told her:
“To Norway. To visit my husband.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a stack of glossy women's magazines, offering me several. They promised hot sex tips, orgasm-inducing positions, and advice on how to find a man to orgasm with. She pointed to a few with a wink. “Maybe you can find something nice in there for your husband.”
Today, almost a decade later, to use the word husband feels wrong; I avoid it. But at the time it was what he said I should call him. “I am your husband!” he would say. The word sounded foreign in my ears; "husband" was supposed to be a word attached to “honoring” and “cherishing,” and whatever else heartfelt marriage vows should entail. But I had not been given the choice to say those vows.
My parents were married, along with two thousand other couples, in Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church at Madison Square Garden on July 1, 1982. I was the first of five children, and we were all raised as members of the Unification Church's Second Generation, who were thought to be born sinless and of God's Lineage, through the Blessing marriage ceremony officiated by Rev. Moon. Theologically this meant that Rev. Moon, as the purported Messiah, had created a heavenly lineage through his personal perfection, relationship with God, and marriage with (the much-younger) Hak Ja Han, in 1960.
Growing up, I always had the expectation that Rev. Moon would choose my spouse. In the Unification Church, one didn't date. Flirtatious interactions with the opposite sex were severely frowned upon, all activities were separated by gender, and we referred to one another as brother and sister in order to emphasize platonic relations. Sex before marriage was absolutely out of the question. The Church had a word for that: falling. To fall was the greatest sin that could be committed, and it could not be undone. To fall was to enter the realm of Satan, to be cut off from God and to wound His already-suffering heart.
Perhaps childhood's greatest tragedy is what we learn to normalize. In my upbringing, to question what we were taught was to invite Satan and the evil Spirit World into your mind; to fend off evil, one must quiet the questions and dive further into the readings and teachings of Rev. Moon. Some of the most effective brainwashing was what we had been taught to perpetuate upon ourselves.
At 19 I found myself on a terrifying personal precipice. I was seriously considering leaving the Unification Church, but with no means of supporting myself and no safety net outside of the insular church community, the notion was enough to bring me to panicked tears. Yet I didn't know if I believed Rev. Moon, his world, or his supposed messianic mission. As a reflex, I was ashamed and hated myself for feeling that way.
When word of an administrative opening in the US Second Generation Department reached my family, I was intrigued. What better way was there to understand what this movement was all about than by working for one of the central organizations? So, before making a decision to abandon the culture of my childhood, I climbed into the belly of the beast looking for truth. That’s where I lost my way.
When the Christmas holidays rolled around, I took my miniscule stipend and boarded an Amtrak train home to ponder the nothingness I had found but had not yet accepted. When I arrived home, there was news: after five years of having parents match their children, Rev. Moon was stepping up again, and was going to conduct a matching ceremony for the Second Generation.
My parents sat me down in the bedroom, listing all of the reasons why I should go. Though it was left unspoken, we all knew that at almost 20 years old, my eligibility expiration date was staring me hard in the face. My mother finished with, “If Jesus came to you and said that he had found your perfect spouse, what would you say to him?” She paused for effect. “Now, how much more is Father?”
How could I say no? To refuse was to deny the remotest possibility that this man might be who he said that he was. I simply had not gotten there in my journey. Besides, I told myself, it was just a matching. My match and I would have time to get to know each other before deciding to get married.
My biggest mistake was to assume that I would be allowed to exercise free will.
My mother dropped me off at East Garden, one of the Moon family's mansion-compounds in Tarrytown, NY, and I entered into the ballroom of the estate with approximately 10 other nervous young people. For the next several hours, one of the Korean leaders proceeded to lecture us on our unworthiness. That’s when I found out that by the time we left, we were all going to be Blessed to someone.
The panic blossomed. I had to leave and began approaching anyone, even strangers, to ask to borrow their cellphones. Repeated calls home, begging my parents to come pick me up, were answered in the negative.
By the end of the day, the ballroom was packed to capacity. Young people from all over the United States, Asia, and Europe had answered Rev. Moon's call. Late in the evening, Rev. Moon came out to address us through his interpreter. Though I had never heard them from his mouth before, I desperately wanted to hear words of wisdom — or something that rang true — from the man who held my future in his hands.
One phrase stuck out to me in the monotony: “Do you want me to match you tonight?” A thunderous “Yes” answered Rev. Moon's question, and we were lined up into rows, divided down the middle, and categorized.
I should have left, I tell myself. I should have simply snuck out of the sweltering ballroom, slipped out of the mansion, and found my way through security to get outside of the compound. Even if I had had to follow the train tracks from Tarrytown back home, I should have left. But with no money, no means of communication, and no idea if I would have a home to go back to if I left, I was frozen in place. Besides, I had been trained to obey.
Suddenly Rev. Moon began pointing. A girl, then a boy would stand up, acknowledge each other, bow to Rev. Moon, and then be ushered out to be “processed” by administrators. My breathing was shallow; I tried to quiet my mind and draw upon the things I had been taught.
Absolute faith. Absolute Love. Absolute Obedience.
When Rev. Moon's finger pointed to me, time stopped. I looked deep into the eyes of the man who had bidden me to rise with his gesture and saw nothing. I was gazing into the eyes of the man who was determining my future, and I had expected to see some sort of timelessness, or to feel as though his eyes were digging into my soul. But he was looking through me, as though his finger had arbitrarily found its way to me in a game of love roulette. I felt suspended over an infinite emptiness.
Then time sped up, his finger jabbed in another direction, then another and another. Three other people stood up, and I had no idea which of the other two men I had been assigned to. One I had met at a summer camp several years ago, but he was looking at someone else. The other man gestured to me and I found myself eye-level with a shrunken and pilled sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “Norway.”
In an instant, I was no longer suspended. A kind of darkness engulfed my mind, the words “game over” ringing in my ears. Afterward, everyone was abuzz with excitement; I desperately looked around to try and find someone whose face mirrored the same panic I was trying to fight. A gesture from above caught my attention. “Norway” was trying to introduce himself to me.
Finally I looked up at the man that Rev. Moon had chosen for me. "Tall" was the only word that came to mind. Over the noise, he tried asking me questions; what they were and how I answered, I forget. Those next hours were a strange blur — alternating between sadness and terror. At one point I borrowed someone's cellphone and called home. It was 2 a.m. and my mother's sleepy voice answered. “I'm matched,” I said without emotion. “To a Norwegian. His name is Chris.” Then I hung up.
We were woken up the next morning at 5 a.m. for morning service. I had lain awake all night, clutching my stomach, trying to keep nausea at bay. Chris found me and approached me with a bagel — the first meal I remember receiving in 24 hours. The smell of food made me ill and I politely refused. Despite his best efforts to chat with me and have the “getting to know you” small-talk, I could barely muster words.
Every so often I would sneak away to borrow another cellphone, calling home in tears. But if my parents had refused to budge before, they certainly weren't going to now that they had a son-in-law waiting in the wings.
The day after Christmas, at the back of that crowded ballroom, I was wearing a wedding dress that didn't fit, standing next to a tall stranger, and repeating vows in a language I didn't understand. After the Blessing ceremony, we had official photos taken. As the photographer told us to say “cheese,” I realized that I couldn't remember how to smile.
I still have that photo. I look like a confused child playing a bizarre game of dress-up; I'm gazing into the camera with a lost expression. Chris is looking away, dressed in an equally ill-fitting tuxedo. The picture would have been funny if it weren't so sad.
That was how I found myself several months later at 30,000 feet, bound for Norway. To fight the mounting dread of the impending arrival, I immersed myself in the magazines that my neighbor had kindly lent me. It was the first time I had ever picked up any material that encouraged an expression of sexuality, and I felt a delicious bit of rebellion wash over me.
As I pored over the pages, I could feel certain gears shifting as pieces of me unlocked and unwound inside. The women in these pages catapulted me into an exhilarating daydream in which my choices were my own. That daydream left an intense hunger within me.
As a 20-year-old virgin, I wanted to know what it would be like to sleep with a man because you wanted to, or because you loved him, not because you were pressured by your parents and his parents to “start family life.” The idea of sex with Chris made my skin crawl, and I had no idea if I would face pressure from him or his parents when my plane touched down.
Rev. Moon died on September 3, 2012, at the age of 92. His daughter, In Jin Moon, stepped down from her role as leader of the American church a few days later, after having given birth to a child from a three-year affair with a married man. While the church has not been a part of my life for many years now, I've watched these recent events and their fallout with interest.
At first, this news of Rev. Moon's daughter didn't bother me. Then the leadership began trying to explain away her actions and affair, saying that she "chose love when she had a chance.” How many of us were given the allowance to "choose love when we had the chance"? That was something we were explicitly denied; instead were taught to feel ashamed for our feelings unless they were chosen for us, and then sanctioned by someone with power over us.
Sometimes I wonder where my life would be if I had sat next to someone else on the plane, who offered to let me borrow a copy of The Economist instead. The girl next to me on the plane offered a small form of salvation; in a kind gesture she offered me a glimpse into a world that I had had no idea existed. It was a world in which I did not need to be ashamed of my body and my sexuality. My desires for love were not evil. It was a world that encouraged me to discover who I was, not a world in which I had to break my inner-self down to fit a preconceived notion of goodness and of womanhood. Most important, it was a world that let me take ownership of my future, my free will, my reproduction, and my heart. It was a world that I finally knew I needed to escape to.
And I did. It didn't happen overnight. It didn't happen while I was in Norway. It took me almost two years of fighting with Chris, fighting with his parents and my own, before a church divorce was granted. The decision to "break the Blessing" was an agonizing one that took me turning myself inside-out, trying to reform into the kind of person who could love and accept Chris. But finally, I walked away — free but with a proverbial Scarlet "A" branded into my chest, as far as other church members were concerned. Today I am proud of it. It is my battle scar from a fight I am proud to have survived, because I fought my way into this new world.
Jen Kiaba is a photographer living in New York's Hudson Valley. Her work explores dreams, memory, fantasy, and the realms where all three blend. This is her first personal essay. She and her sister also have a blog about their experiences within the Unification Church.