Burdens of a White Dress

These photo-based images are a part of an ongoing series called “Burdens of a White Dress,” which explore the internal turmoil caused by being born and raised in the Unification Church, more popularly known as the Moonies. My photographs are about transitions and discoveries in leaving the group and its after effects. They chronicle moments of fear, of awakening.

“Burdens of a White Dress” is comprised of surreal self portraits and the project’s title refers to the emphasis placed on a woman’s role in my childhood. A woman’s purity and virginity were her value; after marriage that value shifted into the realm of motherhood. By using a square format and a stark palette, violently splashed with red, I explore the concepts of shame, of evil, and of the wantonness that was projected upon me growing up in the Unificationist faith.

As a Second Generation, church teaching taught that I was born without Original Sin. Therefore I was expected to grow to perfection while guarding my sexual purity at all costs, lest I Fall and be lost to heaven forever. This heavenly status was conferred upon myself and my siblings because Moon, their messiah, had chosen my parents for one another and were then married in a mass wedding, called a Blessing, in 1982 in Madison Square Garden.

Being born into the group, they indoctrinated me from my earliest years, taught that the outside world was Satanic and dangerous. To question the teachings of Moon, whom we called True Father, was to let evil spirit world invade your mind. So to stay pure, we had to fend off doubts, lest we become vessels for evil.

And yet question we did. Many of us fought internal battles between the cult identity we wore to survive, and an internal intrinsic self that was struggling against suffocation. A growing wariness marred my adolescent and teen years, as I strove to protect that intrinsic self, all while knowing I must be evil for doing so. Although I feared Satan, I feared the sense of losing myself even more.

As I began to question the doctrine and fight for self-identification, the abuse from my parents and the group grew. The final battle occurred a few short weeks after my teens came to a close: my parents were insistent that I let Moon,True Father, match me. Both my age and rebellious nature had marked me as near untouchable for marriage, and they were afraid for my future.

My mother took me to one of the Moon family compounds in Tarrytown where other second Generation would gather to be matched and receive the Blessing. Although I was near sure that I didn’t believe in Moon or the church, my family and the group were still my world. Though I begged and pleaded over multiple phone calls home, my parents refused to take me away from the compound. A few short days later, I found myself married to a stranger from another country with the last remaining shred of my faith gone.

It took me two years to fight my way out of the marriage, and to begin to establish a safety net outside of the cult so that I could leave. It has taken many more years to begin to heal the scars of growing up in a group that diminishes your personhood to the point of near annihilation.

The images in this project are a metaphorical exploration of what it means to leave an identity, a culture, a language and a family behind through the lens of my own story. The white dress is a symbol for the only future and identity that was supposed to matter for me in the cult - and one identity that I could not bear. The project also explores the complex trauma that occurs as young people like myself tried to navigate protecting the rebellious inner-self that helps us survive, and ultimately leave.

Second generation and multi-generational cult survivors have no pre-cult identity to return to, and often lack basic survival skills after having been sequestered within the confines of groups that shun the world. We are refugees in a new world, who can never return to the homeland that we escaped. My hope in creating and sharing this work is to create a visual language for other survivors to recognize themselves within. Many of us feel as though we have to hide our backgrounds and stories, as we often face judgement and criticism for it when we tried to assimilate into the greater world. By attempting to create a larger awareness of the trauma of cult survivors, my goal is to create a safe space for dialogue and healing to occur.

To inquire about licensing an image for your book cover, album cover or upcoming project, please contact me at jen at jenkiaba dot com.