November 18, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Cara Jones
World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 9, 2019.
Is the controversial Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, also known as the Moonies, a misunderstood Korean religion or is it a cult? It’s a cult, according to “Blessed Child” director Cara Jones, an American from upstate New York whose parents raised her and her four brothers in the church. Now in her 40s, Jones takes a riveting, autobiographical look back on her life as a former devout Moonie. She says early on in the film why it was so difficult for her to leave: “To me, the church never felt like a cult. It felt like an extension of family.”
She’s emotionally conflicted because her parents are still in the church. And she’s emotionally recovering from the damage that she says the church inflicted on her and other members because of the suffocating control the church had over their lives, including marriages arranged by the church, teachings that enforced sexism against females, and the Moonies’ condemnation of pre-marital sex and any sexuality that isn’t heterosexual.
The Moonies are perhaps most notorious for their massive group weddings, which often take place in arenas, and the brides and grooms usually don’t know each other very well before getting married. Jones was one of those brides in her early 20s, and her arranged Moonie marriage turned out to be a loveless disaster. Her Moonie husband ended up being more like a roommate to her (they didn’t have any kids together), and they eventually got divorced, even though divorce is a major stigma in the Unification Church.
Complicating matters, Jones’ parents are prominent members of the church, so she was considered a “blessed child,” which made it harder for her to leave the Moonies. (Her mother used to be Catholic. Her father, a former atheist, was president of the Moonie church from 1969 to 1972.) In the documentary, Jones tries to make sense of how the Moonie religion affected not just her family but also other current and former members of the church, whom she interviews in a style that is admirably non-confrontational and non-judgmental.
However, she doesn’t gloss over a disturbing pattern that she sees with former Moonie members, particularly with those who grew up in the church. These former members say that they often experienced childhood physical and emotional abuse, done in the name of discipline by church members. That trauma led to abusing drugs and/or alcohol in their teen and adult years—and tragically, in some cases, suicides or suicide attempts.
These self-destructive patterns are especially prevalent with former Moonie members who are members of the LGBTQ community, as was the case with Cara Jones’ younger brother Bow, who came out as gay when he was in his 20s. (Bow is also in the documentary as one of the cameramen.) Cara also mentions her own rebellious phase of hard partying before she came to terms with her past and decided to leave the church. The documentary also has a subplot of Cara’s quest to become a mother (viewers see her getting IVF treatments and freezing her eggs), which she wants to do regardless of her marital status.
To her credit, Cara doesn’t dismiss the positive aspects of the Moonie church, such as its tolerant views on interracial relationships, its philosophy of peace and its emphasis on helping people who are less fortunate. The movie also doesn’t demean current members of the church. There’s an emotionally touching scene in the movie where Cara goes back to visit Mary Larson, the Moonie member who raised her for the first two years of Cara’s life, when Cara’s mother was away on missionary duties. Larson was a caretaker/guardian for several other Moonie kids.
However, the movie points out that for all the goodness that comes from church members, the Moonie church has been tainted by too many stories of greed, abuse and corruption. (Moon, who died in 2012, and his family have been involved in scandals alleging infidelity, domestic abuse and embezzlement.) Where does that leave Cara’s relationship with her parents, who are still devoted members of the church? The documentary answers that question in a way that is testimony to how family ties can be complicated, but not broken, by religion.