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Steve Hassan’s story begins like that of so many cult victims. Deceptively recruited by three “pretty women,” he was quickly indoctrinated by the Unification Church organization (aka, “The Moonies”) run by Sun Myung Moon—who died Sept. 3 at age 92—and sent to recruit others.
When Hassan returned home from his indoctrination retreat, his mother suggested that he see a rabbi, but even the religious leader had no idea what questions to ask or how to guide the misguided Hassan. With no new advice or direction, Hassan returned to The Moonies.
“Within two weeks,” Hassan tells JNS.org, “I was sucked into the cult.”
The Talmud teaches that when someone saves one life, it is as if he has saved an entire world. Hassan, eventually saved from the throes of cult practice, has taken it upon himself to save others whose worlds have been torn by practitioners of mind control.
Hassan has been involved in cult education and counseling since 1976. He is the author of some of the most respected books on the subject, including his 1988 Combatting Cult Mind Control and Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves. This year, Hassan, a Boston resident, released an updated edition called Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs in both paperback and digital editions, both of which are available through his website, www.freedomofmind.com.
Instead of rough “deprogramming” that can often be more detrimental than beneficial, Hassan uses his unique Strategic Interaction Approach (SIA) to offer support with respect and care. Numerous media outlets recently interviewed him during the early days of the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes divorce as an expert on Scientology. Former cult members consider him to be anything from hero to family member, while cult leaders see him as enemy number one.
Personally, Hassan was introduced to mind control as a young boy. His childhood best friend’s father had been involved with an occult guru who espoused a philosophy that people were, as Hassan puts it, “asleep” and therefore needed to be helped with their so-called “evolution” by one who was “awake.”
“I read a number of [his] books,” Hassan recalls, “and…this set me up for some ideas I later encountered when I was recruited.”
Perhaps this explains why Hassan was so susceptible to being influenced by a cult and how he rose so quickly through the ranks of The Moonies, eventually being promoted to the rank of Assistant Director of the group’s Church at National Headquarters in New York City.
Another reason may be that he had become a bit disillusioned with his faith.
“I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home,” Hassan explains, recalling kosher food, regular Shabbat observances and attending Hebrew school until his bar mitzvah. “My grandparents…were Orthodox and I was very close to them growing up.”
Hassan says he began to take issue with the idea of a god who he saw as “angry, jealous and punitive.”
Fortunately for Hassan, tragedy struck.
“I fell asleep at the wheel of a fundraising van,” Hassan says. “It took emergency crews 30 minutes to cut me out of the wreckage!”
The reason why it was so fortunate that Hassan was involved in this accident is that during his bodily recovery in the hospital, his family arranged to have him mentally repaired as well.
“My folks arranged a deprogramming,” Hassan says, noting that the cult had taught him to consider his family “satanic.”
Once he was restored to his own senses, Hassan dedicated himself to helping others become “free.” He scoured the globe for other former cult members, eventually assembling the first and largest ex-member organization in the world.
“As a Jew who had been educated about the Shoah, who learned psychology, but still got sucked into the Moonies, I became obsessed with understanding brainwashing and mind control,” Hassan says. “I felt very guilty for having recruited many people into the cult.”
These days, in addition to standing up against those who would keep people down through mind control, Hassan is also a champion of all human rights. His Freedom of Mind Resource Center offers a beacon of hope for all who are imprisoned in some way. But Hassan suggests that despite his dedicated efforts, such numbers are on the rise.
“People are overwhelmed with information and not taught how to analyze using their critical faculties,” Hassan observes, noting that cult recruiters are also “more sophisticated” and more successful in preying on perplexed people. Instead of random flirtations, cult recruiters now use the latest technology to track and approach their targets.
“I have done some cases where the person was recruited online and…[became] totally isolated and alienated from family and friends,” Hassan says.
Another problem is that many cults are more “underground” than The Moonies and Joneses of old. “Young people in college today do not know about cults,” Hassan suggests. “They are virtually sitting ducks.”
Though Hassan has returned to the Jewish fold, he notes that even Judaism has what he considers to be elements of cultic practices. “The very early Temple worship definitely had aspects of cultism and a fear of the almighty wrathful God who you needed to be obedient to or else,” he observes, recalling some of the very elements of the faith that had turned him away in his early years.
“Many Jews are attracted to cults because of two very deeply instilled values: love of learning and a strong commitment to tikkun olam,making the world a better place,” he adds.
Hassan emphasizes, however, that there is a key distinction to be made between authentic religions and cults. “Legitimate groups tell people up front who they are, what they believe, and what is expected of members after they join,” he explains. “Destructive cults do not.”
So what can be done? Can the “fight” for mental freedom and true tikkun olam be won? Hassan, for his part, tries to repair the world one life and one mind at a time.
“It gives me much happiness to know my work is helping more people,” he says.