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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


The light in the dressing room of the community playhouse was low-budget fluorescent, and I leaned into the mirror to glean away dried-out mascara clumps from my lashes. David, a flamboyant red headed performer in the ensemble was eyeing me as I stood up straight and blinked away some strays.

“You know,’ he mused ‘you have the facial structure of a drag queen.” There was an uncomfortable pause in the dressing room with the rest of the teen theater group. “But with nice makeup.”  He Added.

The truth is that I never have needed reminders that I’m not considered pretty, or not ‘conventionally-attractive’. Ninety-five percent of the time I hate myself vehemently and think I am one of the most grotesque people on the planet. Add a twenty-pound weight gain, a pimple break out, and a slouching posture I’ll practically feel suicidal when I force myself to look in the mirror.

In issue #3 of Sandy, ‘SLUT’, I wrote about some of my experiences being born and raised within a family that followed Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s cult, The Unification Church. Within their church culture, it was an easily divided hierarchical system of who the REAL chosen people were and the viable attributes they possessed. Being a Korean, Reverend Moon proclaimed the Koreans, not the Jews, were the new chosen people. In speeches he would revere the beauty and the gracious character of all Asian women, and as a result many male first generation followers vied to be matched to a Korean, Japanese, or Chinese wife. Many of the children I grew up alongside were White-Asian mixes, and to be a cute ‘half-ie’ was a badge of honor.  My own father was no exception, and had articulated to my mother early on in their engagement that he wished Reverend Moon had matched him to a Korean or Japanese wife.

American Caucasian women were considered the worst of the draw for the matching ceremonies Moon organized.  White women were described as selfish money-driven creatures that had sex for pleasure. In a speech Moon gave on September 8th, 1996, he declared; “American women feel superior to and scorn prostitutes, but in reality these prostitutes are earning money, this is their job. However, American women are even worse because they practice free sex just because they enjoy it.” Ending up with an American woman meant you were further away from the Messiah’s true blood lineage, and as a result 100% Caucasian/Western daughters of my generation (2nd generation) were less desirable as a match partner for sons who were of age to marry.

In Tina Fey’s new Netlfix comedy series about a cult survivor, ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’, they completely omit the process in which a former cult member has to emotionally and mentally break out of everything they’ve been raised to believe, and then how painful the process is to readjust to a world that thinks you’re bizarre. ‘Operation Re-adjust’ did not help my self-esteem at all, as girls who look like me are neither tops in the Unification Church nor in secular society’s media controlled imagery.

As a human genetic cocktail of Ashkenazi Jew, Syrian, Euro-mutt, and Native American, I mostly resemble my father in Semitic features; I have a large semi-crooked nose and wide gaps between my teeth. I’ve heard a variety of slurs thrown at me. Some more common like “big nose” or more creative depictions such as the archaic “gap-toothed Jewess.” Some of the men I have slept with were generous enough to inform me that I belonged in the ‘weird face – hot body’ category, (sometimes colloquially referred to as “butter face” {everything but-her face.})

In both spheres of my life that I had a foot planted in I simply wasn’t pretty or desirable enough. I didn’t belong to either camps of the chosen people, neither the Koreans nor Jews, and my conspicuously different nose and teeth never made me highly desirable for romantic companionship in any of my social circles. I hit a point in my life where I felt something within my reach had to be done to fix it. I signed up for makeup classes in a small boutique in a town across the river from me, I studied contouring videos on YouTube, and was constantly pulling ads with pretty makeup out of magazines. I’d sit on the floor of my room with pharmacy bought makeup and try to recreate what I was looking at, hoping that enough concealer, contouring, and eye shadow would make me beautiful in the short term.

For my long-term hopes I desire more than anything to undergo rhinoplasty and get braces. At one point I even "contemplated" becoming an escort in order to earn money for the extraordinary cost of the procedures. I spent way more time than I’d like to admit on pouring over testimonies, and envisioning myself looking more like Rachel McAdams. I felt no shame over wanting to change myself, to me it made sense biologically since we trust and vie for friends and partners who are more attractive. Beautiful people often even receive more promotions at work than the rest of us. I wanted to feel loved and socially accepted like all the popular girls I remember in school, and as an adult I wanted to feel desirable and revered.

The ultimate irony in this all is that I’m a career makeup artist and wig builder for people suffering from hair loss. My job is to help actresses, singers, brides, and cancer patients to feel beautiful and accepted by society, but I can’t accept myself. On my days off I’d feel too hideous to get out of bed and meet up with my friends, no amount of makeup or the right outfit could make me feel anything but fat and ugly. When at work I felt like an incredible phony giving women makeup tips or pretending I had any understanding of what society wanted.

My boyfriends would tell me I’m healthy, adorable, and beautiful – even when I wake up in the morning with frazzled hair and raccoon eyes. They'd tell me how my smile lights up my face, and how sexy I look in just one of their t-shirts. They'd hold me and tell me I’m perfect the way I am, and that I wouldn’t be myself if I had plastic surgery. I appreciate the love and support, but then I develop incredible resentment towards the world for encouraging men and women alike to love ourselves how we are, but then bombard us in the media with all the things we must need and have to be truly loved.

It will take time to pull myself out of the pit of misery and self-hatred I’ve spent years in, but a ray of hope hangs above the vanity in my room. In a frame hangs a recent photo of my sister, my mother in her teens, and my grandmother’s picture from high school.  I love them all dearly; I see them in my face and myself in theirs. If I can love and respect them more than anything, then maybe I will love myself some day.

Monday, August 10, 2015

In the end

Her left hand was cold and motionless. I intertwined my pudgy, pink fingers between her delicate icy ones, trying not to look at the missing fingernails or last vestiges of ones the chemotherapy hadn't rotted away. It was so hard sit and listening to the water-choked gurgling that was her breathing. I hope you never have to listen to someone drown from the fluid in their own lungs.

It had only been a week since my mother had broken the news to us. Sitting upright, skinny but with a swelling belly of liquid bile from her failing liver; hospice was finally being brought in she said. While she never explicitly said that this was the end, we knew there was no longer an occasion to feign hope of a miraculous turn-around. Anger rose and fell between tears of disappointed acceptance. She'd never live to plant next year’s garden, never live to start that business she always talked about, never live to meet grandchildren. After that devastating meeting with my mom, siblings, and uncle, gathered around my mother's blanket-laden perch on the couch, my sister and I returned to her house to stew over the inevitable. We sat paused over cups of tea, between bouts of haunted silence we posed questions of what could or should have been done – and more importantly what do we do now?

One of my mother's last requests was to have a funeral service and burial in the style of her religious community; the ‘Seung Hwa’ ceremony of Reverend SunMyung Moon’s Unification Church. Funeral services of any faith are costly, and the estimated costs of my mother’s impending burial was weighing heavily on our minds; there simply wasn’t any money to cover the services.

Seung Hwa of Reverand Moon's eldest son, Hyo Jin, who passed away from a heart attack. Yay cocaine.

My parents had spent most of their life employed in the service of Reverend Moon and his ‘providence’. Once joining the cult back in the 1970’s both had only ever held employment in one of the companies or organizations that belonged to the Moons. The time commitments they made that didn’t fall into free labor category never resulted in pension or a retirement plan - they also never amounted to much income. In fact, it was more often than not that my paternal grandmother paid the rent on whatever home our family resided in at the time, purchased new cars for my father, and paid off the expensive student loan debt he acquired from a PhD he never used lucratively. Thus, with most of the financial bases covered, it gave my father the ability to strut about in a suit with a briefcase, rub shoulders with important members of the church, and have an office in the Unification Theological Seminary without the added pressure of terms such as ‘401K’, ‘retirement’, or 'affordable healthcare' that wasn’t government sponsored. My father could spend the measly income he earned on new toys for himself such as new MAC laptops and Nexus cellphones, while my mother watched from the couch as she lay dying from the lack of care that Medicaid could provide. Services from Sloane Kettering or The Cancer Centers of America simply were not within our family’s financial means.

This was also true for covering the costs of my mom’s Seung Hwa funeral ceremony. None of my siblings worked jobs where we could tuck thousands of excess income into savings, and my mother’s brother worked as a translator in Mexico for less money than any of us were pulling in. The committee of Unification Church members who were helping to organize my mother’s funeral proceedings came over to discuss details, and when they mentioned the cost of her Seung Hwa services  a member looked to my father and asked if there was money set aside to pay for the funeral. He deflected responsibility by insinuating that my mother’s recently deceased parents had set aside funds for her in a bank account, when my usually mild- mannered uncle cut in with “No. There is not a fund.”
At one point my sister was asked to take out a private loan in her name to cover the costs, which seemed unfair as she still carried the weight of student loans. One of my younger brothers had offered to throw all of his savings to help cover part of the funeral, and my uncle suggested we reach out to the Unification Church community for help. As an outsider from the church who hasn’t been exposed to its culture of financial vampirism, it seemed like a logical proposition to my uncle – after all in the real world one’s religious community is meant to provide support to those in times of need. But how could we ask that of Reverend Moon’s ‘first generation’ of followers? People who had spent years living out of 15 passenger vans and fundraising for his cult movement byselling trinkets to strangers.

My mother with the Reverend and Mrs. Sung Myung Moon at a CAUSA event.
People who had tithed most of their income to Moon’s church - instead of paying for their kid’s braces, paying for their children’s education, learn how to invest the money they did have, or setting aside for retirement or worse. This is the conundrum many of us ‘second generation’ face as we approach our late twenties or early thirties. We, the children of parents who chose ‘God’ and a false idol over their own means, are now left with the realization our parents are entering their senior citizen years with no monetary means to support them.

After the meeting with our mother concerning the impending involvement of hospice, my sister Jennifer looked up from her cup of tea-gone-cold and asked; “What do you think about crowd funding?”

As in Amanda Palmer-and-The Art of Asking-crowd funding? Kickstarter and IndieGogo? Was that possible for people like us? I mean, it made sense for the whirlwind/creative/feminist/musical force clad in a kimono+arm warmers that was Amanda *Fucking* Palmer, but who were we to ask the people of the internet for help? 
What would make anyone want to reach out and help us when it seemed this was a situation of my parent’s own making? Could you even make a crowdfunding page for something concerning medical bills or anything unrelated to the receiving of a preconceived product or service? If we had we known that in less than two weeks my mother would pass on we would have begun investigating options sooner.

We took an evening to meditate on the possibility of a crowd funding page, and by the next morning my sister had set up a page on with a campaign acknowledging that our mother was losing her eight-year battle with breast cancer, and explained the financial predicaments we found ourselves in with wanting to fulfill her last wishes.

            Admittedly, I was incredible nervous…and ashamed to ask for the help of others. Many of my friends and coworkers were unaware of the religious cult I was raised in, nor my family’s financial/power dynamics that had resulted in the Give Forward page for my mother’s funeral. After estimates from the local funeral home in town and online research about the average funeral costs in 2014, we decided to set the campaign goal number to $10,000. The account was set up where we would receive email notifications if the campaign page was shared on social media or if it had received a donation, and to my surprise we pulled in well over two-thousand dollars on the first day of it being online - more than $1,500 of it coming from people in my specific social circle. My mom passed away two days after we launched the GiveForward page, and her Seung Hwa funeral services were scheduled for three days after she died.
We surpassed the ten thousand dollar goal with the help from our coworkers, our friends, our friends parents, our significant others and their parents, and even some members of the Unification Church who found it within their means to give money in tribute to a friend. Ultimately, every penny donated through the crowd funding was used to cover the cost of the funeral services and the headstone placed above my mother in Tivoli, NY. We are unsure where the checks and money that were handed to my father at the funeral went, yet he asked us to make a donation from our crowd fund money to give to the Barrytown Unification Theological seminary and to those who presided over the arrangements.

Many Unification Church members were dressed in white or light colors (as do Koreans at a funeral,) when we arrived at my mother's Seung Hwa. A man who had never met my mother emceed the services, making grand proclamations about her character and dedication to God. Those who knew her and planned the Sueng Hwa for my mother, knew so little about her that they chose ‘America, The Beautiful’ as a funeral hymn – because of her allegiance to America? A man whom both my parents had worked for in many capacities over the years, Dr. Bo Hi Pak, did not attend but sent a letter meant to be about my mother but instead glorified “True Father” (Reverend Moon.) Someone even had the audacity to hire a photographer to document the entire event, a young teenager whom my father waved over to the family table at the funeral reception to “take a group photo”. Despite being an innocent party, I ripped the teen photographer a new one as he attempted to photograph me with a table of my friends. Who wants to pose for pictures on the day they bury their mother?

I am sitting here in a coffee shop in Queens writing this 6 months to the day of my mother’s passing. My love and gratitude goes out to the friends of mine who went out of their way to be there with us on the day of her funeral; those who dropped their previous engagements and drove hundreds of miles out of the way to be there. My love goes out to the ones who couldn’t make it, but sent money and love even if they themselves were experiencing battles with cancer themselves. So much love to the friends who sat with us and witnessed one of the strangest events they’d ever experience - a Unification Church Seung Hwa is nothing like what one’s contemporary understanding of what a funeral should be.

There are days where I have to pull out a brown leather-bound photo album off my bookshelf to remember who she really was. It was the last gift my mom gave to me, compiled with the remaining energy she had before she became bedridden. The album is full of pictures of my mother and I together, beginning with a photo of her in a Mexican-style day dress with her hands laid on a 9-month baby bump. By pouring over these pictures I am reprogramming my brain to remember the love, the dreams, and the flaws she was as a person before she became before she lay cold in the hospice hospital bed in her bedroom. I held onto her still hand, feeling the echoes of butterfly twitches that pulsed in her wrist tendons after there was no more breath to breathe, only fluid. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Very Long Year

Well dear readers, Lani and I are back after a very long hiatus. We spent this last year very quietly, saying our goodbyes to our mother and trying to heal our relationships as much as possible in our last months together.

Out of respect for our mother and her declining health, we decided to make the blog private. It had become a little too well known amongst some of the church community and we felt like she didn't need the judgement from her community hanging over her.

Tomorrow will mark six months since she died. Both my sister and I sat by her side in the early morning hours as she passed.

I still haven't had the strength to write about those last months. But it's a story that needs to be told because many young people, like my sister and myself, will face painful circumstances like ours.

When our mother died there was no money for her funeral. Both she and my father had given everything over the years to the church. I was asked to take out a personal loan to pay for the $10k+ it would cost, just for a simple burial. That was something I just couldn't do.

Lani is writing about how we were able to give our mom the small funeral she would have wanted. I'll add to the story in time, because like I said: our story won't be the last of its kind. As our parents' generate ages with no safety net provided by the church, it will be the second generation that will have to figure out how to care for them.

While you're waiting for the new post, Lani and I do have a few things for you to check out.

Lani wrote two excellent articles in this past year. The first one was for Sandy 'Zine, which unfortunately didn't publish the article online. But you can order a copy here, and we got permission to reprint it here.

The second article was for XOJane and can be found here.

I wrote a some articles as well. One was for The Huffington Post, and a few were for Conscious Living TV.

I also completed a body of photographic work specifically about growing up as a woman in the Unification Church:

Please also take a moment, if you haven't already, to watch the video of Sam Park's speech given at the 2014 International Cultic Studies Association Conference. This is perhaps the most important recent event in Unification Church history, as Rev. Moon's illegitimate child gives deep insight into the origins of the organization.

Until next time,