It is hard to fully comprehend the all-encompassing subjugation, the reality-altering doctrine, which growing up in a cult can embed into the mind. Even more so, it can be difficult to fully appreciate the bravery needed to finally break free. Being born into a cult means you often know nothing about life outside of its walls, and even if you physically disconnect ties with the movement, the grip it can have on your mind is an entirely different obstacle to overcome. Yet it is not impossible. And one individual who managed this is American photographer Jen Kiaba.
The Unification Church
Born into The Unification Church (known informally as the ‘Moonies’), life up until her early twenties was consumed by religious fanaticism. It took years for Jen to mentally and physically break from this cult, and the journey to fully heal is still far from over. To help depict and process her experiences of the Church, Jen created the ‘Burdens of a White Dress’ series, a selection of surreal self-portraits delving into the emotions and mindsets of her life as a Moonie.
Founded in 1954 in South Korea by Sun Myung Moon, The Unification Church soon had members all over the world. It became one of the most notorious cults, at its height of influence during the 70’s and 80’s. After her parents married during the Church’s mass wedding at Madison Square Garden in 1982, Jen Kiaba was soon born as part of The Unification Church’s Second Generation. “[This generation was] thought to be born sinless and of God’s Lineage, through the Blessing marriage ceremony officiated by Rev. Moon” Jen explains. “Theologically this meant that Rev. Moon, as the purported Messiah, had created a heavenly lineage through his personal perfection, relationship with God, and marriage.”
A woman’s value
Growing up in The Unification Church warped Jen Kiaba’s self-perception of what it was to be a woman. Furthermore, it undermined her personal inherent value as a female human being. The Unification Church obsessed over sexual purity: flirting was frowned upon, no dating allowed, all activities separated by gender. Once old enough, members were then matched with a spouse of which they had no say in.
Virginity was, of course, expected to be intact. “Sex before marriage was absolutely out of the question. The Church had a word for that: falling. To fall was the greatest sin that could be committed, and it could not be undone. To fall was to enter the realm of Satan, to be cut off from God and to wound His already-suffering heart.” Women within The Unification Church were expected to stay ‘pure’ until marriage, and then give birth to the new generation of followers.
Perhaps childhood’s greatest tragedy is what we learn to normalize. In my upbringing, to question what we were taught was to invite Satan and the evil Spirit World into your mind; to fend off evil, one must quiet the questions and dive further into the readings and teachings of Rev. Moon.
Some of the most effective brainwashing was what we had been taught to perpetuate upon ourselves.
At 19 years of age, Jen Kiaba had begun to question her faith and the Church’s practices. But with no safety net outside of the insular community she knew, panic overtook. She also felt the well-ingrained shame and self-hatred at questioning Rev. Moon’s teachings.
Absolute faith. Absolute Love. Absolute Obedience
Before she was 20, she was summoned to a matching ceremony. With her parent’s firm encouragement and no alternative escape routes, she submitted. The matching ceremony took place in Rev. Moon’s East Garden estate in Tarrytown in 2004; the only exit was through a wrought iron gate, with sentries and security guards stationed everywhere.
Jen and the others waiting to be matched were locked predominantly in the ballroom. They stayed there for several days straight without proper sleep or food – classic techniques applied by cults to preserve control.
My biggest mistake was to assume that I would be allowed to exercise free will. I should have left [the ceremony], I tell myself. I should have simply snuck out of the sweltering ballroom, slipped out of the mansion, and found my way through security to get outside of the compound. Even if I had had to follow the train tracks from Tarrytown back home, I should have left.
But with no money, no means of communication, and no idea if I would have a home to go back to if I left, I was frozen in place. Besides, I had been trained to obey. […] Absolute faith. Absolute Love. Absolute Obedience.Jen Kiaba shares details about the confinement of the matching ceremony
The battle and the scars
Jen was matched with a Norwegian man. By the end of the few days’ events, they had become husband and wife during Rev. Moon’s Blessing ceremony. Several months later, Jen found herself on a plane to Norway, to live with her new ‘husband’ and his family.
It took two more years for Jen to break free from the world that had been encompassed around her. Two years of fighting with her partner, his and her own family, and the Church itself. Eventually, The Unification Church granted the divorce. “The decision to ‘break the Blessing’ was an agonizing one that took me turning myself inside-out… but finally, I walked away - free but with a proverbial Scarlet ‘A’ branded into my chest, as far as other church members were concerned. Today I am proud of it. It is my battle scar from a fight I am proud to have survived, because I fought my way into this new world.”
A new life and ‘Burdens of a White Dress’
Since extricating herself, it has been a long and difficult path for Jen to heal and grow her own individuality as a free woman. Even bigger was the challenge to rewire her mind from the damage done from the cult.
Thankfully, photography became a curative tool to help make sense of the world around her. However, fear of what she may have to face meant it was a long time before she could turn the camera onto herself.
It is with all of these reasons that the ‘Burdens of a White Dress’ series is so profound. Here, Jen Kiaba goes truly inwards into her trauma. She picks apart her memories, feelings and experiences within the cult that shaped more than twenty years of her life, and relives them to help work through the long-lasting effects that The Unification Church has had on her psyche and sense of identity.
Her work is beautifully articulate, educating the viewer through symbolic and surrealist images as she explores concepts of submission, shame and evil, fear and awakening.
Soho Photo Gallery: International Portfolio Competition
Earlier this year, Jen Kiaba entered Soho Photo Gallery’s International Portfolio Competition with ‘Burdens of a White Dress’ and immediately caught the eye of the judges involved. Not surprisingly, Jen was announced as one of the winners.
Larry Davis from Soho Photo Gallery shared his thoughts. “In Burdens of a White Dress, Jen’s early traumatic experiences expressed through her photographs are riveting. Her stark portfolio and her skill as a photographic artist resonated with the jurors, who selected Burdens of a White Dress to be exhibited as a winner.”
Additionally, as part of the winning award Jen Kiaba will have her series exhibited at Soho Photo Gallery. The exhibition has been deferred from 2020 due to the pandemic. However, it is now due to take place early next year.
In Burdens of a White Dress
January 29 – February 21, 2021
15 White Street, New York, NY 10013
As well as continuing to work on her photography, Jen also contributes to workshops and conferences relating to religious trauma and cult survivors in America. To keep up to date with her projects, be sure to follow her social media channels and sign up to her newsletter.