TAMPA — Steven Hassan remembers reflecting on his own brainwashing experience the day two planes slammed into the World Trade Center.
"I thought, 'I would have done that,' " Hassan told several hundred people gathered for the National Amber Alert Training Symposium at downtown Tampa's Hyatt Regency. "That's how far gone I was."
Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor from Massachusetts, has spent the last three decades using his two-year experience in a cult to dissect brainwashing that occurs when someone joins a cult or is abducted. He shared his story Wednesday during a speech titled "Psychology of Mind Control Over Abducted Children" at the symposium, which wraps up Thursday and is sponsored by the Justice Department.
In the late 1970s, Hassan spent two years following Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon. At 19, Hassan said, three attractive women approached him on campus and invited him to a dinner. That's where he first learned about Moon. Two weeks later, he said, he had dropped out of college, donated his bank account and become a follower.
Hassan said Moon talked about ascending to national power and making it a capital offense to have sex with someone other than the person assigned to you by the church.
"And I, a Jew, educated about the Holocaust, said, 'yes, Father,' " Hassan said.
He soon rose in rank through Moon's Unification Church and began recruiting others to join the cult.
"I believed Moon and his wife were my real father and mother, and I believed my real parents were satanic," Hassan said.
His parents later staged an intervention to deprogram Hassan. He said the guilt he felt for bringing others into Moon's cult fueled his desire to become a crusader against those who continue to do the same thing.
"There's a lot of very slick, manipulative stuff being transmitted out there," Hassan said. "Ethical people don't take advantage of other people."
He said hypnosis and mind control are real. Abducted children or individuals recruited into cults are brainwashed into forsaking their family and friends. The same thing happened to Hassan when he was a "Moonie," he said.
"I had been mind controlled even though I was manipulated to believe that I had made my own decisions," he said before adding, "Mind control and brainwashing does not erase a person's core identity."
To Hassan, that means there's still hope at reaching someone who has been brainwashed through a cult or by some other form of abduction. He encouraged listeners who see a cult recruiting taking place to approach the person attempting to do the brainwashing and talk with them.
"Keep in mind that's somebody's kid, and their parents may not have seen them in 10 years," Hassan said.
Approaching a cult member with kindness instead of ridicule may sometimes lead to pulling them back into reality, he said.
Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.