Ex-Believers Gary Scharff and Barbara Underwood Battle the Dark Side of the Reverend Moon

UPDATED 01/28/1980 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/28/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

"I hated him," Barbara Underwood recalls after meeting Gary Scharff. "I thought he was the most evil person I'd ever encountered—a tarantula." Scharff's impression of the small, intense Barbara was a sentimental cliché. "She was really tough," he confides, "but I also knew she had a heart of gold."

The marriage that eventually resulted was not made in heaven, but just outside the dominion of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church. Since the messianic Moon first came to the U.S. in 1971, the church has attracted an estimated 30,000 members and become a multimillion-dollar business. Scharff and Underwood were two of the young people lured to it by a promise of spiritual fulfillment and a community of loving brethren. After spending a total of eight years in the church, Scharff and Underwood left—feeling disillusioned, exploited and betrayed. Ironically, it was their break from Moon that united them.

In March 1977 an upset Barbara Underwood entered a San Francisco courtroom with four other Moonies determined to fight their parents' legal attempts to win them back. One of the witnesses during the 12-day hearing was Scharff, an ex-Unification Church disciple then involved in the "deprogramming" of former members. He testified on the mind control tactics of church officials. The parents were granted temporary custody and Barbara's deprogramming began. Although Moonies are taught to think that "every word spoken by an ex-believer is a lie," she decided to listen because "I really wanted to know why some of my friends had left." One person she listened to was Scharff. "He showed me contradictions in the movement, how Moon said one thing but did another," she remembers. "The first time we talked we must have gone on for 12 hours straight."

Underwood's rehabilitation continued at Joe and Esther Alexander's Freedom Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., a half-way house for former cult members, where Scharff was working as a counselor. Although he was attracted to Barbara in the courtroom, he remained aloof. "As her counselor," he says, "I considered myself a professional." Underwood made the first move. "It took a while, though," she reports, "because I came out of the movement frightened of sexuality and men in general." (Sex outside of marriage is forbidden in the Unification Church.)

When Underwood enrolled at Berkeley to study sociology in 1978, Scharff coincidental^ ended up at the Graduate Theological Union in the same city. "He says he would have gone there even if I hadn't," laughs Barbara, "but I have my doubts." They were married last September.

Scharff, 28, and Underwood, 27, both joined the Unification Church in the name of scholarship. Gary had studied theology for three years at Princeton and in 1972 took a year off to live with his parents in Louisville, Ky. He went to work in a nearby tool factory and his second week home ran into a team of Moonies. "My initial response," Gary recollects, "was that their beliefs were highly naive and crude. What struck me was the sincerity and conviction of the members." Two months later he moved into a Moonie residence in Louisville. "It's hard to pinpoint when the shift in my focus came," says Scharff, "the transition from earnest student to true believer—and fanatic. My hopes and beliefs began to change and merge with those of the church."

Underwood's path into the church was similar. The daughter of a lawyer and a writer of children's books, Barbara was raised outside of Portland. After she had spent three years at UC-Santa Cruz, a friend persuaded her to enter the church in 1973. "I told everyone that I was going to study the group for three months and write a paper on it," says Underwood. "Five days later I was hooked."

Neither of them was physically coerced to join the church, but both were smothered with "sincere affectionate pressure," in Barbara's words. "You are constantly surrounded by loving people who don't give you five minutes to yourself. They even went into the bathroom and talked to you through the door."

Both Barbara and Gary became important functionaries in the church. He went back to Princeton in 1974 to appease his parents but remained a Moonie and returned to church headquarters after graduation. His job was to train recruits in leadership.

At the same time, Barbara was raising as much as $800 a day peddling roses and carnations on the streets. (She was named the West Coast's top salesperson in 1975.) She and fellow Moonies often lied to prospective buyers, she admits, telling them they were soliciting for Christian youth organizations.

In 1976 Scharff's father (a pharmacology professor at the University of Louisville) persuaded him to meet with an ex-Moonie. "I was so convinced about my beliefs that I agreed to spend a week talking to anybody," says Gary. Then, because of a court order requested by his father, he was obliged to listen to more and more disillusioned members of the church. Gary began to see the dark side of the Moon religion. "Eventually the whole facade began to crumble," he concedes.

Meanwhile, Barbara's doubts about Moon were also growing. One reason was the disparity in their styles of living. "He had his own gold-plated flatware, while we were sleeping on the floor." After the San Francisco hearing, "I slowly felt a sense of betrayal," she recalls. "I had been exploited. I was practicing idolatry by believing in Sun Myung Moon instead of God."

Nowadays Scharff and Underwood worship at the Catholic Newman Center, not far from the large, tidy Berkeley house they share with three friends. They are frequently asked to describe their experiences to high school, college and religious groups. The newlyweds get by on small fees from lecturing and counseling, Gary's $7.99-an-hour salary as a part-time Bekins moving man and the modest advance Barbara received for Hostage to Heaven, an account of her four years as a Moonie and how her parents handled it. The book, published by Crown last month, was co-authored by her mother, Betty. "We're at a career crossroads," admits Gary, who is interested in social work while Barbara is thinking about publishing.

They have continued to help in deprogramming, which took them as far away as Australia in December. They spent a disappointing 13 days there trying to sway a Moonie of 5½ years. "She just didn't listen to us," says Gary sadly. "There are times when I would like to walk away from it," adds Barbara, "but I can't because I understand the pain people are in and the urgency they feel." Her young husband sums up: "For these messed-up souls, it's a matter of life and death."

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