Thursday, September 10, 2015

Stories that Come in the Mail

Today I want to share something special with you. I recently had an unexpected gift arrive in the mail from a former first gen.
Jen Kiaba Photography: Blog Photos &emdash; He had found my photography blog circuitously through Facebook, and wrote me a letter.  It was quite the letter - nearly 10 pages of stories detailing his joining the church, his experience on MFT, the Blessing, and ultimately leaving.

You see, on my photography blog I write pretty heavily on the theme of sharing your voice and sharing your stories. I believe that for those of us who experienced the mind control of the Unification Church, accessing our experiences, our feelings, our voice and our stories is a big part of the awakening and healing process. So I bang on about that a lot.

I decided to reach out to him and ask if I could share the contents of his letter here, in the hopes that it will help others who are struggling with the process of leaving or healing.

Thankfully he agreed; so without further adieu I would like to introduce you to Kevin and his story:

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Jen -

Words have been spilling out of me inspired by your blog posts.  Want to catch this word-flow, not lose the head waters of thought.
Reluctance fills me . . . wondering whether what I write will really make any difference.  I ask myself, “Is my story of any value?  Maybe I’ll sound melodramatic.  Old school.  Or perhaps the endurance of decades lost renders my talent simply unknowable?”
It’s been so long . . .  I have no frame of reference to gauge any of this. Whether there really is anything left.  All I know is that my creative voice – however muted, damaged, crushed, devastated, mocked, and compromised – it’s still there.  Incredibly it’s simply not to be extinguished.  

It speaks to me now and I cannot ignore it.
And so I must write.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Dear Jen,

I am overflowing with words.  It’s difficult for me to focus these words unfurling now since reading your July 9th blog post and viewing your body of artwork, “Burdens of a White Dress”.  Your invitation to view this work - accompanied by its story - speaks of such courage it brings me to tears as I write.  I know full well what depths you’ve travelled to free yourself of your Burden.  That journey recalls the same anxieties and relentless self-doubts that casts shadows on my own creative voice now.  This voice has laid dormant inside me for so long behind an ocean of tears I have not yet shed.  My true self, which holds all the genuine and authentic character of Who I Am, has been cast in shadow for many years now.

It’s important to me that you to know how I came about discovering your work and to share something about myself; to underscore the significance of how your words and art have so strongly affected me compelling me to write.

I too was Unificationist, a ‘First Generation’ church member.  I had just turned 26 when I was among the 2,074 in ’82 at Madison Square Garden.  At that mass wedding my bride and I stood next to the woman who introduced me to the church, the mother of a mutual friend.  Her mom is my Spiritual Mother.  I still keep in touch with her and make every effort to see her when she’s in the NYC area.  She’s one of my all-time favorite people.  The last I saw her was with her daughter in Astoria for breakfast one Saturday about two years ago.  So it is not without irony when her daughter commented on your work.  Since she and I are Facebook friends, your words appeared in my news feed.  I am simply overwhelmed by how deeply they resonate within me.  
I would like to ask of you to bear with me now as I know your time is valuable.  Your story has unlocked a door that has strangely opened for me, one that elicits words that have longed to be told by my dormant voice.  I realize that I just need to get this out, tell my story about how I came to this point and become open to how I can and must move forward.  The core of my story, though abridged, will illuminate the how and why of my joining the church - and then leaving twenty years later.  
I was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, thirty miles west of Detroit, the youngest of three boys.  By then my father was a life insurance salesman.  But his real talent was in carpentry, cabinetry and fine woodworking.  An avid golfer and fisherman, he also loved drafting, watercolor and calligraphy.   Along with my mother, when they were first married, they were making side money doing wedding photography.  Growing up I recall a photographer’s dark room in the basement of my childhood homes.  As I grew older I learned that my mother had sacrificed her dream of becoming a portrait artist to be a house wife and a mom.  Hers was an amazing talent and as a child I was often used as her model.  I would drive her crazy fidgeting, as small children do, trying to stay still for long periods of time as she painted in oils and other mediums.

My earliest memories are of these and their many artistic pursuits.  Among the most memorable though were those formed when they became intimately involved in local community theater.  Much of what they performed in was Children’s Theatre and I was fascinated by and drawn into this world of the theater.

I was exposed to every aspect of their theatrical experiences and the Artistic Director of this local civic group became a life-long friend to me and my parents.  My mom and dad’s most exciting, open and artistic selves came alive when enveloped in and acting on the stage.  They painted flats and sewed costumes and learned to apply stage make-up.  My dad cut gels and focused lekos and Fresnels on the sets.  As I learned to read I would watch my parents doing scene rehearsals in the basement and followed their line readings in scripts.  I became so good at this I would eventually know their parts and loved cueing them when they dropped lines or needed stage directions. This went on through elementary into junior high school.  With this background then, from eighth grade on into my college years, I became involved with the theatre through vocal or instrumental music or acting in school plays and local summer stock.  I also learned guitar and studied drums and percussion.


My first year out of high school was on a full instrumental and vocal music scholarship to a local community college.  After a year, I transferred to the University of Michigan-Flint, where, as a Theater Arts major, I opened their brand new stage with the first words of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as Orsino.  After two years of study as a theater craftsman, in the summer of 1977, I was invited to San Diego to visit a college friend.  I had done a lot of theater with her while in Flint.  I instantly fell in love with San Diego and decided to stay.  My college friend then encouraged me to audition for a private acting class where she was already enrolled.  Auditions were invitation-only and upon being accepted I began to learn technique for television and film acting.  After several weeks of scene study I was encouraged by my acting coach to keep going, eventually commuting to his Los Angeles classes.  I was determined, at just 21, to become a professional actor.  It made so much sense after all that I had been through as a child with my parents in community theater and then on into high school and local theater. Along with my training in college and summer stock it confirmed my belief that I become an actor.  Acting classes in San Diego and Los Angeles supported this idea.  I got my first headshots and resume together.  I was on the threshold of fulfilling my ambitions of being an actor.
And then I met the Church.
As I was growing up I learned my mother was spiritually agnostic.  She could not wrap her brain around the idea of a personified God.  My father however, was a practicing Lutheran who later converted to the Episcopal Church.  I believe he was drawn to the pageantry and liturgy of the church the same way he was so enamored with acting in the theater.   So Sunday school as a young boy was insisted upon by my dad and then I would attend late morning service with him together.  This triggered an internal fascination with who God is and a search for a way to live life in a godly way.  This aspiration came naturally to me but was further prompted by my experiences with theater.  The theater often presented stories of men of good character, of good conscience and deep heart.  To be kind and empathetic, relied upon for good judgement and known for fairness.  All these things rang true for me.  To become this kind of man seemed intuitive and something I was naturally drawn to reach for.  But I did not know how to go about it or understand the discipline required to achieve this way of life.  And so my spiritual experiences before I joined the church set me to seek those answers.  

A confluence of these experiences began a slow crescendo towards something so profound and so life-altering, it caused me to consciously leave my path of becoming an actor and to seek, rather, a spiritual path.  I wanted to KNOW, truly know the right way to live my life, to become this man of good character.  California was ripe then for that kind of self-discovery.  All those moments lead to this New Way of viewing modern Christianity, so it seemed beyond coincidence when I met this delightful young woman who introduced me to the Unification Church (UC).  I felt I had been guided to what I was looking for.


A year after first arriving in California I met this beautiful young woman from the UC in July of 1978 in downtown San Diego.  That chance meeting prompted a discovery of what I believed to be the path towards this way of life I had been seeking.  I eventually found myself among like-minded individuals who were all seeking the same thing.  Joining the UC set into motion the chance to find out what living that way of life really meant.  I believed it provided me with an environment to pursue it to its fullest.  I soon realized, however, living in the church provided little or no real opportunity to contribute my artistic talents to God’s Providence as it was revealed to me.  Other than my guitar playing I always looked for other ways to do so.

My first four years in the church were devoted to local and National Mobile Fundraising Teams (MFT).  Incredibly I was assigned to the NYC region where I fundraised throughout the New York-New Jersey area.  From 1979 to 1983 I lived in the New Yorker Hotel my entire time on MFT.  It was during this time that I learned that the church had a Performing Arts department.  But as I fundraised, from Montauk to High Point and from Syracuse to Cape May, there was nowhere I could truly ply my deeper artistic passions while on MFT.  Not long after my ’82 Blessing, after almost four years of fundraising, my ‘mission’ then changed and I was transferred to Jacob House in Tarrytown, NY in 1983.  I was to replace the General Affairs member who was transferring to an auto mechanic position at East Garden Garage.


While at Jacob House I worked with prominent leaders of this church facility who lived on Moon’s estate at nearby East Garden. I took care of the main houses at Jacob House and Gracemere Hall where members left their young children while they witnessed and fundraised on International One World Crusade (IOWC) teams throughout the country.  After about a year serving there it was decided that I be sent to Los Angeles where a newly formed LA Jacob House was started by a young Korean mom.  Not long after arriving in Los Angeles I was promptly ‘stolen’ by the church center’s State Leader after they learned of my musical background.  The Korean leader of NY Jacob House had no idea that I originally joined the church in LA and so I was inadvertently returned to where I started.  It seemed as if I was given the opportunity to reexamine why I came (back) to California and to reflect on my original intent before and after joining.  Yet, for reasons that mystify me to this day, I never once seriously considered leaving the church during all that time.

Learning that I had previously cared for New York Jacob House, LA church leadership saw to it that I was eventually assigned to care for Moon’s estate and the grounds of Pasadena House near the Rose Bowl.  My time in Southern California coincided with my spouse’s enrollment at the church’s Unification Theological Seminary as a three year Divinity student.  After her graduation in 1987 my spouse was assigned to be the North Dakota State Leader.  In February of 1988 I moved from sunny Los Angeles to Fargo and into a -10 degree winter.  It was there we began our ‘family life.’  My time in Fargo was extraordinary.  It became clear to me that, after ten years of church life, my sense of artistry had become dulled as time went on.   With no place, no real environment to pursue my art, indifference began to cloud my creative urges.  It was as if I had placed that sense into a very quiet room inside me and simply closed the door.


Still, I continued to seek ways to contribute artistically.  Later that year in August of 1988 I was offered a chance to return to New York City.  An open position with the Artists Association International became available and I took it.  This church organization held conferences on ‘Absolute Values in the Arts’ for professionals in the field of the performing arts.  All the church members working there had backgrounds in music, dance, conducting, composing, etc.  The opportunity to work with this group was as the administrative assistant to the Executive Director who worked for Dr. Bo Hi Pak.  Soon after this my spouse was given permission to leave her state leadership position to join me in New York.  But after a year, the offices were moved to Washington, DC into the Universal Ballet Academy.  I chose not to move with them and stayed in New York where I found work as a Conference Coordinator for the International Religious Foundation (IRF).  In the early ‘90’s, we both worked for various church organizations. I also worked part time at the Manhattan Center Studios.  My theater background and relation to AAI provided opportunity to work on the stage crews of church produced entertainment shows for holiday celebrations.  The seventh floor studio also became quite renowned as a recording facility for musicians and event space for catering and I worked with staff to support those events.

The reason I stayed in New York was to make a genuine effort to pick up where I left off in Los Angeles with my acting pursuits ten years earlier.  I found a great New York TV and commercial acting coach and gave it another try for a good two years.  Ostensibly I came to work for AAI but I saw returning to New York as an opportunity to try acting again.  However, I was on my own.  The Performing Arts department of the church became incredibly cliquish.  I could find no person and no department in the church as an advocate or supporter.  Even so I gained some momentum in commercial acting and became adept at auditioning.  As it happened the birth of my first child coincided with this time so I had to get serious about modern world income.  Working in various church businesses offered some pay but the scale was not even close for family life in New York City.  


It was in the theater that I had my first experience with computers.  The newly built stage and theater building of U of M in downtown Flint housed state-of-the-art sound, lighting and stage craft equipment including a fully equipped scene shop.  The lighting board in the theater’s control room (a Westinghouse ‘Recall 100’) featured a built-in computer that recorded and memorized on cassette all the light levels of every dimmer of every lighting cue a director issued for an entire play.  It was this exposure to technical theater that sparked my interest in personal computers.  In the church while I was living in Pasadena I was introduced to computers again through the church’s ICC events.  I learned to use these personal computers to create contact records and mailing lists for clergy.  We sent thousands of invitations to clergy all over southern California to come to Korea and learn more about the church.  This later provided a strong base for pursuing a career in computer support.  I re-tooled and re-trained myself becoming a Microsoft Certified Professional working in corporate, enterprise-level IT for seventeen years now.

Working in the professional world offered a new perspective.  After a twenty year commitment to the UC, it was the church leadership which grew into something I could not continue to align myself with.  The final straw for me was right after Nan Sook Hong’s story broke alongside the release of her book.  Many, including my spouse and me, choose to disassociate with the church.  This, along with my growing indifference, naturally began to dissolve the underpinnings of our church-arraigned marriage.   Although we sought different types of counseling outside the church, after twenty-two years, we chose to separate and divorce.  It was an agonizing decision that we made. Throughout our engagement and marriage years of MFT training instilled within me a military-like duty and devotion to follow the culture and keep the promise of my marriage.  All the core beliefs as I saw God had revealed them to me, however, fell by the wayside when it was clear the internal behavior of the Moon family and church leadership did not align with that core.  As such my exit and separation from the church has allowed my children to nurture and grow in a very different way.  I’ve been blessed with three of the coolest kids a dad could ask for and they are emerging into fine young adults in spite of our choices. (We don’t consider them “BC’s”.  They have little exposure to or understanding of the church.)


After Moon’s passing and the ensuing upheaval in the church itself (which, apparently, continues today,) this ongoing division among his family became a deep and sorrowful time for many.  But those events confirmed my choice for breaking away from that environment.  I seek my own spirituality now in other ways.  I’ve long reflected on how to view all this lost time and youth.  Clearly this is something I cannot regain.  But I can continue my original pursuit of being a good man by living truthfully.  I can never again have my own dreams subverted for someone else’s world view.  From this perspective, I realize that all this time has not been completely wasted.  I’ve experienced things no one else would ever have imagined considering my proximity to the leadership of the church and the events that I witnessed because of it.   I recognize that I can no longer feel as though I am beholden to that past and that the mark of a truly courageous man is to move forward and trail-blaze his own path on his own terms.  My work now is to ensure my children are financially free to complete their educations and become independent on their own.  Soon I will have the time to pursue my own artistic interests once again.

Present Day
There’s a novel’s worth of events I’ve experienced but left untold in my story.  At some point I will chronical all of it.  Clearly you’ve had your own experiences coming from this environment yourself.
Jen, your sense of freedom now is palpable.  I can sense your painful emergence out of suppression into freedom and your ongoing reconciliation with the loss of your feminine agency, as you put it, has profoundly fueled your creativity and sense of artistry.  For me it occurred the other way:  my first steps on the way towards the fulfillment of, and at the height of my young artistic output, my loss began the moment I entered into that same environment you found to be so toxic.  And it became a twenty year journey of self-denial.  My consequent transition out of that place, even now, seventeen years later, has severely clouded my sense of loss.  Loss of my youth, my young adult life.  Loss of my genuine and authentic Self.  I feel I’ve been artistically paralyzed in a fog ever since.  Indifference caught that spark and all but extinguished it.
In UC parlance, the choice to walk away from my artistic desire then was my “Isaac”. That I did so in the midst of a point in time when I was just stepping into the threshold of my artistic launching – and then changed course – I will never know ‘what could have been’.  You could say my longtime reflection on this point has become a block which segued into a myth of a million excuses with ensuing church life and family and more life unfolding and the results of that choice now raining down all around me.  But when I read your words prefacing your artwork – your Artist’s Statement - that blew me away.
“What are your blocks?” you ask.  For me this question appears so complex.  By reading and viewing your words and art, there has been an epic shift in my perception of how I could be freed.  That I could go back to that twenty-two year old me and relive those choices differently, well that’s just foolish thinking.  I’m seeing it’s time to be courageous and step out and just start creating again.  Writing poetry and music again!  Perhaps find community theater, see if I have any acting chops left.  My challenge now is to be at peace with my choices and to embrace the Now with all my heart.  To reconcile those choices I made all those years ago has been so very difficult.  
I’ll close here in saying Thank You for illustrating your courage, for the uniqueness of your creativity and for the deep and profound beauty you’ve shared.  I hope my ramblings, though long-winded, can speak to how your words and art have affected me.  It’s a spark that has triggered a long time awakening.   
So I would like to give something back, if I may, a poem I wrote to a beautiful ballet dancer.  She is a dear, life-long friend who knew that creative young man all those years ago.
To Artistry and the Beauty of Creating, I remain –
Kevin J. Ribble

In Search

In spite of all that I have chosen
Along the path of my own heart
Eclipsed by the shattered dreams of
My own Way
I have never wavered from the sanctity
Of our friendship nor its precious
Innocence and clarity

This vision I will hold for eternity
That line of purity connecting
Me to the One True Self of who I was
And at its other end there is only you
Who witnessed my birth by way of
Blind Naïveté and utter self-forgiveness
There, I (we) walked through a door of what
Was otherwise a deserted path that led to Now

And once again,
I am whole.

Kevin J. Ribble
© All Rights Reserved

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Purity Knife: Sex, Death and Human Trafficking in the Unification Church

The distinct "ping" of an incoming email on my phone jogged me from my reverie one evening after work. Out of habit I palmed my phone and thumbed through to see the newest delivery.

The subject simply said Reporter.

My curiosity piqued, I opened the message to see what it could possibly be about.

In brief, I was being asked to speak to a journalist on the issue of human trafficking and indentured servitude in the church.

"That was thing?" I wondered, and began to type my response: "Sorry, not sure I have any kind of experiences that relate to that," I began.

Then I paused for a moment. A little spark went off in the back of my brain, and I held it there to examine where it was trying to shed light in the dark cache of my buried memories.

Frowning, I tapped out an erratic rhythm on the delete button.

I began again: "Not sure this is what you're looking for, but I did do STF."

was the acronym for Special Task Force (named with the intention of evoking the elite army-unit association), a near-compulsory "leadership training" program that the church tried to institute at the turn of the century.

It was part of a larger program for second generation who had graduated high school, called the Seven Year Course.

The first year of the program consisted of living in a van and fundraising 18+ hours a day while traveling across the country. We were discouraged to ask where the money we handed over each evening went.

Like many of my comrades on STF, I only lasted a handful of months before needing serious medical attention. When I arrived home I spent two bedridden weeks on heavy medication.

In those days of recovery, it felt as though lead coursed through my veins. My body felt too heavy to move. "I wonder if this is what it feels like to die," I would think in my antibiotic-addled haze.

By the time I recovered enough to go back, I began to have panic attacks. I would sob for hours on end, curled up in a ball in my room awash with guilt. "I don't want to go back," I half confessed and begged to my mother. "Please don't make me go back." She didn't.

Others' knees or backs gave out from the days on end of carrying backpacks burdened with product to sell among neighborhood cul-de-sacs and along city highways.

But our injuries were hardly the worst casualties of those long months. It was the slow death of ourselves and, in some cases, the actual loss of life that we experienced that was the worst tragedy.

Living on cheap fast food, getting four hours of sleep a night, constant praying, chanting and force feeding ourselves feeble theological rhetoric began to chip away at the core of who we were.

One afternoon, a young woman of our ranks wandered into a city apartment complex alone. Carrying hundreds of dollars on her person and a backpack of product, she believed that anyone who purchased or donated was setting a condition to be saved by God and Rev. Moon.

Hours later, when she failed to rendezvous at the appointed place, her absence was noticed by her fundraising team.

The media found out what had happened before we did.

As I stared at my unfinished email to the reporter, I thought back to an essay I had written about that day called The Purity Knife, which was published on my photography blog last year:

I walked into a barbershop and began my sales spiel. "Hi sir, I'm fundraising for my church's youth group and -" 
The gentleman at the front counter stopped me mid-sentence. "Are you with the Moonies?" 
I paused, trying to gauge how I should answer. My heart always jumped at the question, remembering my parents' stories of first generation members being physically threatened, jailed or kidnapped. But, I knew that if I lied I might allow 'Satan to invade.' 
"Yes," I answered, hoping that God would protect me for telling the truth. 
"Oh shit," he said, shaking his head. "Awww shit; I'm sorry for your loss," he said again with a humane empathy that I rarely encountered when people discovered my affiliation. We were usually cursed at, or thrown out of an establishment, but he didn't make a move to do either. 
My confusion must have shown on my face. 
He grabbed a remote from the counter, turned the channel on the television to the local news, watching my reaction as the pictures on the screen sunk in. What I saw there defied everything I had ever been taught. 
In a monotonous voice the news anchor reported that just a few short miles away another fundraiser, a girl I had considered to be a sister, had been lured into an apartment, sexually assaulted, killed and robbed. 
A wave of shock overtook me. I thanked the man in a daze, backing slowly out of the barber shop and fled down the highway of the strange city. Every passing car suddenly sounded like a threat. 
We had been taught that we were special, that God would protect us while we were doing His work. How could something like have happened? 
I found my way into a local McDonalds and, sobbing, asked to see the manager and borrow the phone. Patrons kindly left their meals to come over and comfort me, but I was wild with fear and could barely speak coherently while I dialed home. 
My parents answered and took in my story as I choked out the words. The respondent silence on the line was deafening. Their world had just ruptured a little bit too and they had nothing of comfort that they could offer. 
Shortly after that day, hundreds of young people convened for a workshop where leaders did damage control and praised the young woman for being such a pure sacrifice to God and True Parents. Initially leadership denied that she had been sexually assaulted, presumably to keep parents from reacting and removing their children from STF. 
Later, when enough news reports were out and had confirmed that undeniable truth, "mediums" claimed that she was "separated from her body very quickly as a way to protect her from pain. She was allowed to escape the trauma of what happened to her to a very large degree." 
Leadership encouraged parents not to take their children home, otherwise Satan would be able to claim victory after the tragedy and, publicly, the young woman was given something akin to sainthood.  
But privately it was whispered that she had been struggling with her arranged marriage. How else could she have been "opened for attack from Satan"? 
As we prepared to go back out into the streets to fundraise, the young women were each armed with a personal alarm and mace. A few sisters said that their mothers had given them Purity Knives, and that all of the mothers should have given one to their daughters. 
This ideological relic comes from the old Korean tradition where young of women of high birth wore a knife and were "expected to commit suicide to ‘protect’ their virginity, as opposed to using the knife to defend themselves." 
While giving out these purity knives was never an official church custom, Moon did recommend that members carry "a knife to kill yourself before you will be violated" because it was a theological belief that losing one's purity was far worse even than dying.  
The Purity Knife

 I took a few minutes to re-read the essay while my email to the reporter sat unfinished.

Until receiving that email, I had never thought of my experience as trafficking. It was just something that we were expected to do growing up.

To not go on STF was to jeopardize our chances of being accepted by the community and ultimately marrying well in the church. But as a young teen I had never thought of it as coercion or an abuse of power, despite the fact I truly feared the consequences of not cooperating.

I stared long and hard at my screen.

My teeth began to grind and fear welled up in my throat as I stabbed at the delete key once again.

"I think I have a story for you."

Then I hit Send.

For more on human trafficking in the Unification Church, see this post by How Well Do You Know Your Moon:

Friday, August 21, 2015

The un-measurable weight of an orange plastic container.

I had my first panic attack at thirteen.

Granted, I had no idea that’s what it was called. The un-tamable anxiety that coursed through my body would creep and ebb like tides, unsure of what I was feeling I’d fluctuate between trying to nap it away or pace the large carpeted home my family just moved into.

I believe it was then when I became truly aware of how trapped we were as children; bound to the decisions the adults in our life made regardless of the ways in which it affected us. As the second of five children I was able to exist in a clouded delusion of youth – up until a certain point. My older sister began to experience panic attacks at the age of eight, so I suppose the luxury of my birth order revoked my ability to be fully present to our circumstances until I turned thirteen.


Contextually, our family had just moved into a home within the Mormon district of Mesa, Arizona, and it was to be a much darker presence in our lives than even the mauve/charcoal brick and darkly shuttered windows outside entailed.

It was within the first day we discovered the bark scorpions. Turns out, only our cul-de-sac of the neighborhood sat atop their nest. We would find them scuttling about the house; on the walls, the ceilings, our bedrooms. The first time I was stung I was sleeping in my bed when one lashed out at the back of my knee as it wandered beneath my comforter. The second time was during a foolish attempt to fling a large scorpion off my younger brother’s sandal, when it lashed out and stung the ring finger on my right hand. Try to imagine the pain of a couple angry hornets accompanied by the sensation of said-limb being slammed in a heavy steel door. By themselves the scorpions would be enough to send anyone reeling into a constant state of fear. One decided to ninja my dad in the face when he slept, you never knew when you’d encounter a crunchy tan alien and be sent into a desperate fight or flight response.

On the third day, a matriarch of a local Mormon family came by with an upside-down pineapple cake (seriously, who eats those?) She hadn’t been inside more than five minutes before bursting with curiosity;

            “So, did they tell you about the house…?”

Two weeks before my parents had signed the rental agreement for the house in Mesa, the Arizona State Legislature passed a bill allowing property owners the right to withhold information from tenants if they chose not to disclose specific information about their real estate.

The previous tenant had been a solitary man in his thirties who occupied the house for eight or so years. Eventually he had been convicted of being a sexual predator and possessing child pornography, and after a brief stint in jail (fuck you, Arizona,) he returned home and took a gun to his head. Due to nerves or shitty aim his death wasn’t instant, and he dragged himself from the kitchen to the laundry room to bleed out. He was found months later by an ex-girlfriend, whom the neighbors had contacted due to his absence – and an unbelievable smell emitting from the house. That definitely explained the residual odor that no amount of air freshener ever covered, and the tiny splatters on the sections of wallpaper the owners didn’t replace.

Thus began the hatching of panic attacks and depression. They pecked their way through my youthful haze of ignorance and a heavy fear settled in. If I had to pinpoint what exactly set me off, I would say it was the feeling of being trapped. In this particular incident the rental agreement did trap us there. With a racing heart beat and quivering limbs I constantly felt as though I was on the verge of an incomprehensible break down or sob fest. I didn’t want to live there, why couldn’t we leave? We had already moved three times in three years, away from the only friend I had made in Ahwatukee (Phoenix has mini cities) and further from our maternal grandparents who lived in Arcadia. We were the only non-Latter Day Saint family in our part of town, in the only non-adobe-stucco style home, which happened to be haunted by semi-poisonous arachnids and the aroma of a dead pedophile.

My mother perceived the panic attacks, shakes, and gasping for air as pre-teen dramatics, therefore I was left to my own devices to find reprieve. My siblings and I would often walk to the gravel-covered playground of a nearby school we didn’t attend or walk to a convenience store across the road to escape the tension and auditory violence of my parents constantly arguing. At thirteen and fourteen my sister and I had christened the constant sense of anger, fear, and conflict between our parents “the family situation”. A term that would reappear in conversation even up until this past year before my mother’s passing. When I was stuck at home I would wait for my turn on the ancient Dell computer that sat on the unfurnished parlor floor carpet, connected to a screechy dial-up modem. I would waste away hours reading anime fanfiction or chatting on AIM to my new schoolmates from Fountain Hills. If possible, I tried to spend the night with a friend out there as often as I could – the panic attacks were worse at home.


I started seeing a therapist for the first time in my third year living in NYC. It’s funny how unemployment finally allows you access to health insurance, where as being a low-income earner does not. I spent six months with my therapist unpacking my family history, how little faith I had in myself to function in this world outside of my youth in the Unification Church, and mostly how desolate the future looked to me. It was after a two-week drinking binge where my therapist put her foot down and finally suggested medication.

It worked for a while. It felt like a trapeze net that held me above an oubliette, it gave me a higher starting point in which to claw back out of the pit all the while seeing how much further down I could be. I spent about two years on Citalopram (Celexa,) and as my summer apprenticeship in Santa Fe working for the Opera came to a close, I began to feel the depression and anxiety suffocate me like a fish gasping on a dock. My coworker would often let herself into my apartment at the opera-owned complex, and find me lying motionless and staring on the carpet of the living room or my bedroom.

From my understanding, the Unification Church doesn’t hold much bearing on mental health issues and services people may require. Much like my mother’s Bell’s Palsy that resulted from untreated Lyme’s Disease, medical issues like depression, chemical imbalances, bipolar disorder, were often pinpointed as being “attacked” by spirit world. Some impure thought, action, or lifestyle choice of yours opened up your subconscious up to evil spirits who were now controlling you. There were times when I would phone my mother and confess I was too depressed to get out of bed, how everything felt meaningless and that I wished that there was a way to make the pain go away. My mother would quietly listen and then respond explaining my sadness was a result of the way I chose to live my life. If I had chosen the ‘true’ path, stayed within the church, believed in God, and had gotten blessed (“married” in church-lingo,) that none of this would be affecting me.

In church run summer camp events, religious workshops, or on trips to Reverend Moon’s Cheongpyeong retreat center in Korea, Unification Church members would sit in rows and physically beat on each other with fists to release the evil spirits out of each other’s bodies.

My mother never truly admitted to her own depression, or that mental illness also ran rampant through both sides of my family. She even spotted signs of a chemical imbalance in one of my brothers, who showed signs of severe depression as young as three years old, but never acted to have a medical professional look into why a diaper-clad toddler would lay about the floor, motionless and sad. It wasn’t until we were older when we began to look back at my mother’s behavior and see beyond her veneer of cheery optimism; that she too felt unequivocally helpless and depressed.

When I returned to New York from New Mexico I moved to Queens, where Medicaid limited me to lower-economic level health clinics servicing downtrodden outpatients of the outer-boroughs. Without much attention or interest, a psychiatrist with a ‘Monkees’-esque toupee scribbled out a prescription for Zoloft. I was bounced to another Spanish-speaking family clinic in Rego Park where the new psychiatrist wasted no time putting me on Effexor.

As any mental health blog will tell you; Effexor is a bitch to get off of. My friends and boyfriend at the time witnessed the physical effects Effexor-withdrawal had on me at a time when I couldn’t afford the cost of my medication. I began to develop withdrawal symptoms similar to Parkinson’s; involuntary shaking, balance issues, and trouble speaking. Even when on the medicine, the depression and anxiety still followed me around, waiting for a moment to slip in when I was alone in my room wondering what to do, or alternatively standing on the outside perimeter of a swing dance event I couldn’t emotionally engage in.

If I had to circle back and say what I think the root cause is, I’d still go with the feeling of being trapped. I often feel trapped as an introvert, stumbling in my social interactions and chalking up the constant sense of loneliness to being ‘too different’, only now on the other side of the line outside of the Unification Church.

I question my ability as a person to develop the tools to be a successful person. I’m approaching thirty and I find myself unemployed – again. Without a savings account – again. In credit card debt- again. No amount of self-help books, positive thinking women’s online business courses, or pep talks from friends ever boost me above the waters murky surface. Attempts to crank the wheel of my thought processes towards optimism often cracks a demented smile on my face - nothing feels more insincere than telling myself things will pick up. It’s not that I think I’m a pessimist, but ‘realist’ feels more applicable. I can march up and down the hallway of my apartment repeating mantras; “It’s MY time, I’m ready for the NEXT STEP!”
…But the reality often ends up being that I’ve spent another day at home applying to food service or menial-labor desk jobs, because gigs offered to me in my industry all seem to be labeled ‘unpaid’. I can’t tell my roommates how much of a failure I feel like since I had to put rent on a credit card again, and that no new prospects have cropped up. I don’t particularly want to end up broke and unemployable the way my parents have, but I’m not sure how else to qualify it when I’m digging through our apartments communal fridge and discover I’m the only one without food – again. You know what the best medication would be? A good job with a steady wage and a sense of purpose (like that time I was building wigs for cancer patients.)

For both economical and personal reasons I’ve chosen to ween myself off of Effexor – slowly. The mental and physical effects of the withdrawal are still there, resulting in an involuntary twitch of my arm or an entire day spent sleeping to ward off sadness. Jiji, my kitten helps; a purring tuft of black fur nestled against my stomach in the morning temporarily chases the demons away, and I think she’s a major reason I was able to carry after my mom passed away.

Ultimately, the tiny white beads inside the orange Effexor capsules weigh out to be a lot more than milligrams or a piece of mind. For me it’s accepting that biologically/circumstantially depression and anxiety are very real, they’re not God’s way of telling me he’s displeased and letting Satan punish me for choosing the life of an atheist. But like most of my life’s journey, I will have to develop the muscles to survive on my own and I hope I will become strong enough to stand without the pills. Even on my darkest days. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cultural Perceptions of Beauty

Yesterday Lani posted about how our culture of origin and the emotional scars it left on her, inhibiting her ability to see her own beauty.

This is a topic that she and I have discussed frequently, as we share similar scars.

The more I dive into this topic, I realize that there is an unfortunate resonance between the way women were valued and categorized in the Unification Church (which my sister touches on her in Ugly post) and how women are valued in our culture at large.

Last year I was invited to New York City to speak on this topic and its intersection with my work and growing up in the church. Because it was in the midst of our mother's struggle with cancer, I never really shared this beyond uploading it to my YouTube channel or posting it as an afterthought on my photo blog.

But here is where it's most relevant. So I'm finally sharing this where it belongs and where, hopefully, it will do the most good.

Huge thank you to my sister and friends who accompanied me to the event, and especially to Lani for filming me:

Below is the transcript of my talk if you would rather read than watch:

Hello thank you so much for having me here. My name is Jen Kiaba and I am a fine art and portrait photographer from Rhinebeck, NY – about 90 miles north of here.

Tonight I want to share a little bit with you about my journey in reframing my perspective on beauty, especially as it pertains to femininity and personal value. 

To give you a little bit of background, I am the eldest of five children who were born into the Unification Church. For those of you who are not familiar with the group, it is a religious movement that was started by the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon in Korea and had its heyday in the United States in the 1970s and 80s. In popular culture, Rev. Moon is best remembered as the purveyor of mass arranged marriages.

So tonight I want to talk to you a little bit about what I learned growing up in this group, how the ideology framed my sense of beauty, femininity and value – and finally what I learned from leaving the group and what I feel is applicable to our wider culture's binary views of beauty and value.

In order to give you some perspective on the world of my youth; I have to invite you down the rabbit hole a little bit. Therefore, in the immortal word of Lewis Carrol I will begin at the beginning.

According to church legend, Sun Myung Moon had a revelation on the Easter Morning of his 15th year while praying on a mountain top, where Jesus appeared to him and revealed to him that dying on the cross had actually been a failure of his mission and it was the young Moon who was supposedly qualified to take up that mission, restore humanity and become the King of Kings. 

By the time Rev Moon's church gained traction in the United States, many parents were afraid of losing their children to the organization. And they hired deprogrammers to abduct their children in order to extricate them from this, and other groups. Growing up I heard stories of my parents' peers who had been kept against their will for weeks on end, in slimy motels, sometimes tied to the bed, while deprogrammers read to them from the bible, trying to break the spell that Moon had on them.

My parents were married, along with two thousand other couples, Madison Square Garden on July 1, 1982. I was the first of five children who were raised as members of the Unification Church's Second Generation, who were thought to be the first people born sinless and of God's Lineage.

The theological text governing the Unification Church is called the Divine Principal, which combines eastern mysticism with biblical beliefs. In the church's theology it states that 

“Love is an emotional force given by the subject to the object; beauty is an emotional force returned to the subject by the object. The power of love is active and the stimulation of beauty is passive.
In the relationship between God and man, God gives love as the subject, while man returns beauty as the object. Between man and woman, man is the subject, giving love while woman is the object, returning beauty.

From this theological basis I learned that as a woman I was object, to give beauty was my main purpose, and that it was a passive behavior. I learned that to be woman was to be mailable and to remain as unformed as possible until such time as I was given to a husband of Rev. Moon's choice.

In the Unification Church, one didn't date. We referred to one another as brother and sister in order to emphasize platonic relations and dissociate ourselves from hormonal, sexual and emotional urges.

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. The church also believed that the fall of man was a sexual sin, perpetrated by Eve having a spiritually sexual relationship with the angel Lucifer.

Therefore we had a very interesting cultural dichotomy that we were raised in. While we were taught that the ideal role of woman was to give beauty to man, our subject, we were also taught to believe, like in many religions, that sin had entered the world through a woman. 

Thus it was a woman's role to cut off from sexual temptation – and essentially her sexuality as a whole. Purity was the defining value for a woman and it was through this lens that we were taught we would eventually be able to express our value: our beauty, once we were married. We were taught to dress, act, and think modestly until that time, so as not to lead men into temptation.

It took me until 21, after being coerced into an arranged marriage and then fighting for two years to get out of that marriage, to gather the emotional and financial resources to leave the group. Interestingly enough, the moment that I knew I was going to leave, was while I was on a trans-atlantic flight from JFK to Oslo to visit my then-husband, and the young woman in the seat next to me handed me a few beauty magazines to occupy my time. She was from Romania, and therefore most of the magazines' content was illegible to me.

However the images that the magazine contained showed my a very different world than what I had been raised within. The women in these magazines looked like agents of their own lives, women who owned their sense of identity, sexuality, and beauty.

It took me many years after leaving the group, and assimilating to the current culture to realize that actually many of the issues that I had with my religious group of origin can be found within the our secular beauty culture and gender norms.

We live in a culture that looks at women's value, in particular, from a very binary point of view: hot or not, slut or prude. The ideas of a woman's value coming from an arbitrary standard of beauty is not a foreign one, nor is it one that exists only within extremist religious groups.

Women's bodies, and their sexuality, are politicized. Every time you look at the news, it seems that there is new proposed legislation concerning women's sexual engagement, reproduction and access to contraception.

There is also a resurgence of “purity culture” in the more right wing religious groups, which has helped give rise to some of this political discourse. Within this new purity culture, we also see the phenomenon of things like the Purity Balls, in which daughters pledge their virginity to their fathers until they are married.

Therefore, it seemed to me, that the same problematic equation was presenting itself again and again. Woman as object. Woman as passive. Woman as either completely pure, until an outside authority figure deemed it ok for a woman to engage in sexual activity, and then it must only be within certain culturally approved constructs – or woman as completely sexually available and in many cases as an object.

Unsurprisingly that this kind of objectification has been linked by psychologists to shame, depression, substance abuse, and sexual dysfunction.

As a photographer who works mainly with women, much of my goal is to facilitate a conversation around self and body love before and during the photographic process. My goal as a photographer is to give people – women primarily – a safe place to witness themselves and their unique beauty without judgement or subjective standard.

The biggest problem with that, was that it had to start with me. I had to walk my own walk and truth be told, for many years I was not comfortable sharing my story or turning the lens on myself. I realized that I had to change that and from that place came my newest body of work: Burdens of a White Dress; it addresses these pervasive cultural norms that I see around femininity both in my childhood religion and our beauty culture. 

The first piece that I created is called “Hold your Peace,” because in a conventional marriage contract one is asked to confirm that they have come to the marriage agreement free from any duress or any obligation.
Hold Your Peace
Hold Your Peace by Jen Kiaba
 My experience lacked that confirmation, but I have also seen how many women enter into culturally approved feminine roles under psychological duress and obligation without having been given the opportunity to explore and address their own needs and goals first.

Within this image I wanted to address the idea that women are bound by the cultural notions of purity and virginity as virtues that are something for a man to claim as his domain either as a father, or a husband. 

My next image addressed what goes on for young women as we are raised in these cultural norms. This one is called “My Mind is a Lie” and it asks the viewer to really consider what is at stake with this culture.

My Mind is a Lie
My Mind is a Lie by Jen Kiaba
Essentially we ask both men and women to remove their logic and humanity from the equation as we fill their heads with these dehumanizing constructs of what it means to be beautiful and desirable and that that is the core of where a woman's value lies. 

This image is called “At the Helm” and it looks at the absolute loss that I felt in navigating my way out of a controlling environment: In the middle of a murky fog, without a paddle, left on my own.

At the Helm
At the Helm by Jen Kiaba
Unfortunately, as in the first image, the subject is blindfolded. This plays two roles in the unfolding on the images. Not only is she unable to see and navigate around her, but she is also dehumanized by her identity being obscured. Young women today, without many other options being presented to find value within are also like this figure, lost and passive and looking for outside influence to guide them, with their true identities obscured

I want to jump forward ahead a few images in the chronology of this project. This image is called “Matched,” the photograph deals with an overarching theme from my religious childhood and the ways in which women were raised and treated, expected to come to the marriage state as completely pure and malleable.
Matched by Jen Kiaba
Uncondoned sexual activity aligned us with murderers in our theology. In that sense many of us did not make it to be married without “blood” on our hands.
But again I have had to reflect on how this ideology is also present in the world at large. Certainly we see this treatment of women in other cultures, but even in our own we could point to many instances of women being devalued for their sexual experience and how much these ideas hurt women.

To take that idea even further and examine how it plays out in our culture, I want to speak about briefly tonight is one that I call “The Purity Knife.” It references a time in my mid-teens when I was sent out fundraising for the church. Living in vans, we travelled across the country selling trinkets as a part of our "fundamental spiritual education."

The Purity Knife
The Purity Knife by Jen Kiaba
While I was fundraising I found out that one of my friends had been found dead, after being sexually assaulted and strangled. The church leaders did their best to cover up the incident and urge young people to stay in the fundraising program. As we prepared to go back out into the streets to fundraise, the young women were each armed with a personal alarm and mace; some young women's mothers had given them Purity Knives. This ideological relic comes from the old Korean tradition where young of women of high birth wore a knife and were "expected to commit suicide to ‘protect’ their virginity, as opposed to using the knife to defend themselves."

And this was an idea that was pervasive in our church culture, as Moon did recommend that members carry "a knife to kill yourself before you will be violated.” According to Moon, "if someone is trying to invade you, you would rather kill yourself than go through the fall. At least you won't go to hell that way. Even if you die, you don't go to hell.”

The victim shaming in that ideology is horrifying. And yet America itself has seen many instances of terrible victim shaming – with the Stuebenville case as simply one of the most recent in memory. So women are being raised to be passive objects, beautiful for man's consumption, they are also being told that their choices in matters of dress, drink and behaviors means that they deserve to be victimized and acted upon.

So at the end of the day I want to ask the question: is that beauty? Is beauty what our culture is so pervasively trying to convince us it is? A commodity to be owned and subjugated. Or is it something more intangible and less binary than the hot or not, pure or sullied, virgin or whore, subject or object, and even male or female scale that we have been presented?

To me, beauty is a spark that exists within a person, not something that can be owned or objectified.

And so I want to leave you with a few final pieces and a call to action: simply to open your minds to the varied shades of beauty. That it can be powerful, it can be clean and it can be dirty. It can be conventional and it can be unexpected. This piece is in its sketch phases, and it is called “Rewiring” which is something that I hope we can all do.
Rewiring by Jen Kiaba
We need to emerge anew in order to perceive beauty in its varied and manifold forms. I believe that our ideas of beauty need to be completely transformed, and in that way our full spectrum of humanity can be experienced and expressed. Thank you.