I’ve been fascinated by cults since the late 1970s. My college years coincided with the heyday of these new religious movements and their charismatic leaders. Campuses were prime recruiting ground for Scientology and Reverend Moon’s Unification Church as well dozens of other lesser-known (but no less infamous) groups. One of my first impressions of Ann Arbor was the outdoor Hare Krishna soup kitchen, where shaved-head devotees in flowing robes served macrobiotic gruel to ’60s leftovers and scraggly street people. While I was arts editor at The Michigan Daily in 1980, the student paper ran a expose about a new campus organization, a politically conservative outfit called CARP. Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles turned out to be a Moonie front.
Flash forward to February 1981. My first full day in New York City. In between pounding the pavement in search of work and a semi-permanent place to live I stopped in a coffee shop. As I laid waste to a hamburger deluxe, the young woman next to me politely interrupted my noisy chewing. “Excuse me but do I know you from somewhere? Haven’t We Met Before?”
“Well I doubt we’ve met before because I just moved here from the Midwest.”
“Oh! Where in the Midwest?”
“Uh, Ohio is where I grew up but I just got out of college in Michigan.”
“Where did you go to school?”
“The University of…Michigan, that is.”
“Oh! That’s where I went too.”
Her alleged Midwest connection sounded more convenient than convincing. Careless in my over-confidence, I let the conversation continue, warming up to my new role as wide-eyed rube in the big city.
“What Did I Major In?” Oh god there’s no escaping this one, I groaned inwardly. “More or less, journalism. Actually I majored in Psychology but I wrote for the school newspaper, and I was an editor my senior year, so I’d like to get a job of some kind in publishing.”
“Oh! I know some people who work for a newspaper right here in New York City. They’re always looking to hire new people, I could put you in touch with them.”
Since my weirdo early-warning system had yet to be activated, I supplied the phone number of my hotel. She reciprocated the gesture with a business card. Kathleen Morrison, let’s call her, employed by an official-sounding organization with a vaguely political title. Some Foundation or Institute preceded by World Peace, with an address on West 43rd Street. With her card in my possession and the hamburger plate done, I diplomatically said thanks and goodbye.
Two days later, as I discretely lumbered through the hotel lobby toward the stairs, the rumpled uniform behind the front desk made a beckoning gesture, gingerly lifting a piece of paper like it was dripping something. My first phone message! Back in the room, I retrieved an inky business card from my new briefcase and warily took note of Kathleen Morrison’s address. A quick consultation with the Manhattan phone directory confirmed my better-late-than-never suspicion – it was the same address as the headquarters of the Unification Church. I never called her back.