The Other Side of Enlightenment

Radio legend Charles Laquidara had an urgent request for Somerville cult expert Steve Hassan: Rescue his son, Ari, who’d become blindly devoted to the mystical Dahn Yoga community. Three years later, it’s unclear just who’s not seeing the truth.

As his plane cruised high above the cloud floor obscuring the vast Pacific below, Steve Hassan felt a familiar anxiety. He’d been doing interventions for going on 30 years—he once pulled a woman out of Aum Shinrikyo after it launched its 1995 sarin gas attack in the subways of Tokyo, and another time talked a suicidal ex–Heaven’s Gate member out of following in the footsteps of his Nike-clad counterparts—but they still always made him jumpy. Plus, he wasn’t partial to emergency jobs. And for this case, which was taking the cult expert from Boston all the way to Hawaii, he’d have very little time to assess his subject, who was in the clutches of what Hassan believed to be an especially dangerous group.

It was December 2004, and just a few weeks since Charles Laquidara, the former WBCN and WZLX radio star, had called Hassan’s Somerville office in a panic. Phoning from his home on Maui, Laquidara said his son, Ari, had become heavily involved with the Newton Centre branch of a group called Dahn Yoga and Healing. After joining Dahn, Ari had suddenly abandoned his plans to pursue graduate studies in California. He’d stopped calling home regularly. He wasn’t eating or sleeping enough. And Laquidara was convinced Dahn was behind it all.

Hassan was not particularly surprised by what he was hearing. He’d been onto Dahn for several years by then, and in his view the group had the qualities of a destructive cult: an authoritarian structure, a shifting organizational identity, deceptive recruitment techniques, and systematic sleep deprivation. Equally troubling to Hassan, Dahn appeared to be growing, expanding from its first U.S. studio in Philadelphia to locations nationwide, 11 of them in the Boston area.

With the jet engines humming in the background, his lanky frame folded into the seat, Hassan went over his plan. Ari would be spending Christmas at his parents’ home, a rare, and crucial, period of uninterrupted time away from the Dahn community. Hassan would arrive two days ahead of him, and use that limited window to determine whether action was warranted. (As with all his clients, he’d told the Laquidaras there was no guarantee he’d go forward with an intervention.) If the situation was indeed as bad as Ari’s parents were making it seem, he’d then have to work around the clock to prep the family and friends the Laquidaras were flying in to lend a hand. Because of the great distance involved, Hassan wouldn’t be able to bring in ex–Dahn members to tell Ari their stories in person, as he usually did, and would have to rely on video conferencing and phone calls instead. Worse, he’d be getting Ari fresh off a 10-day course at Dahn’s main U.S. meditation center in the New Age mecca of Sedona, Arizona. Hassan had been in the business long enough to know that Ari would be high as a kite on Dahn when he touched down on the island.

It was far from an optimal way to work, but under the circumstances, he really didn’t have a choice. The way Charles Laquidara was making it sound, if Hassan didn’t get to the family’s bluff-top home immediately, there might not be another chance to save Ari. It was now or never, he told him.

Steven Alan Hassan’s first intervention took place in 1976, and involved a 21-year-old would-be poet and starry-eyed idealist from Queens, New York. The young man had joined a religious group and abruptly dropped out of college, throwing away all 400 of his poems, distancing himself from his family, turning over his bank account to the church, and declaring that he was ready to kill or die for its leader—a conservative, wealthy Korean man who claimed to be the Messiah. That Messiah was the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the Unification Church. And the young Moonie was Hassan himself.

Hassan spent more than two years in the Moonies, living in communal housing, sleeping only three or four hours a night, praying to Moon, and chanting, “Glory to heaven!” or “Crush Satan!” whenever a negative thought about the group or its leader came to mind. He sold carnations on New York street corners for charities he knew didn’t exist, and he brought in as many as 40 new recruits—his primary duty—13 of whom became full-time members and, as such, his “spiritual children.”

In 1976, after pulling two consecutive all-nighters in a fundraising frenzy, Hassan fell asleep while driving a Unification Church van and rear-ended a tractor-trailer. After the accident, the church granted Hassan rare permission to visit his sister. His parents, who hadn’t seen their son in a year, pounced on the opportunity. His father arrived with deprogrammers, who whisked Hassan off to an apartment where he spent the next five days listening to a distinctly different interpretation of Moon. On day five, he says, it was as if someone had thrown a switch: He decided he’d been brainwashed by the church.

Though he had escaped, Hassan was tormented with guilt for recruiting others into the Moonies, and also overcome with shame for getting sucked in himself. There were moments when he thought of trying to go back to the church, to reform it from within, but that seemed at best a naive plan. He chose another, more confrontational course: He would dedicate his life to studying cults and developing strategies to help their members escape. And he’d travel around the country and the world to speak about the pernicious nature of the groups in front of any audience that would have him.

After getting his therapy license and spending years reading up on everything from narcissism to “thought reform” in Communist China, from battered-wife syndrome to hypnosis, Hassan devised a diagnostic model he calls B.I.T.E. He uses the model to measure the degree to which behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions are controlled in a given organization, and, if it qualifies as a cult, just how dangerous it is. In the mid-’90s he founded the Freedom of Mind institute, and today posts dossiers on its website on the many organizations he has investigated or received complaints about, including the Hare Krishnas, Al Qaeda, and Opus Dei. One of the groups on the site, as it happens, is Dahn Yoga. The Freedom of Mind site notes Dahn has been the subject of lawsuits alleging brainwashing, manipulative sex, financial exploitation, and even death—and that its leader claims to be able to use a practice called “brain respiration” to teach a form of ESP.

Now 53, Hassan has also written two books that fall somewhere at the literary crossroads of memoir, self-help guide, and mind-control theory primer. He has appeared on 60 Minutes and Nightline, been interviewed by Oprah and Larry King and quoted in the Washington Post and the New York Times. He believes he has even received a nod in the film Holy Smoke, in which Harvey Keitel plays a rough-and-tumble American deprogrammer flown to Australia to pry a young woman (portrayed by Kate Winslet) from the grips of a guru. Hassan thinks that Keitel’s cowboy boots, featured prominently in one close-up, are an oblique reference to his own footwear of choice, worn to support a weak ankle.

Whatever the sartorial similarities, Keitel’s character is hardly an accurate portrayal of Hassan. In the movie, the intervention rapidly devolves into lots of sex and a knock-down, drag-out fight. Hassan, however, is anything but a brawler. Though he dabbled in traditional 1970s-style deprogramming earlier in his career, he has come to favor what he describes
as a gentler and more effective method. “I like his approach,” says one man who hired Hassan to help get his girlfriend out of Dahn after, he says, she spent tens of thousands of dollars on the group after attending a 72-hour retreat. (He asked that his name not be used.) “I researched some cult experts and his ideas and philosophy seemed to be the most sensitive to the cult member, who, after all, is the true victim.” Another client, who was born into a cult she eventually left on her own, worked with three therapists over 15 years in an attempt to overcome her trauma. Then she saw Hassan on television and decided to fly to Boston for a week of intensive counseling with him. She says she made a breakthrough on the very first day. “Steve understands more deeply, and from the inside, what it is like,” she says. “You feel like you are talking to a friend.”

Hassan attributes that empathy to his own personal history. “If I had never been in a cult myself, I would think what most people do, that the people who get into cults are stupid and weak, or losers,” he says. “There are a few other people in the field, but they don’t know what I know and haven’t amassed the skill set that I have. I feel like I have a talent and a gift I am obligated to use.”

Hassan once saved a friend from drowning in the Red Sea, an experience he uses to describe the emotions involved in a successful intervention. “It’s such a high when you’ve made a difference,” he says. Which may have something to do with his perhaps inflated sense of how much help he can actually offer. His sister, Thea Luba, still remembers Hassan’s reaction to the deadly standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. “He went bananas trying to reach the right people, to tell them he could handle this without the firepower,” she says. “He kept hitting the bureaucratic bullshit. They didn’t want his expertise. They knew how to handle it, they said. They pushed him away. He tried with every ounce of his being to prevent Waco, and when it went down he was devastated. For him it was like, if only they had called him, if only he had been there.”

Another tragedy he was powerless to stop haunts Hassan, too. In January 1991, his first wife—whom he’d divorced two years earlier but remained close to—drowned as she was trying to save her golden retriever from the frigid waters of Sandy Pond in Lincoln. After her death, Hassan took ice rescue training. To this day he carries ropes in his car at all times.

When Hassan got to the Laquidara home in Maui, he set down to work immediately. He spent two days getting to know the family, giving them a crash course in mind control and presenting the information he’d collected on Dahn. The person they were about to confront, he cautioned, was not the Ari they knew; he was under a sort of spell. Then Hassan retreated to his hotel to wait.

Ari arrived for what he thought would be a joyful Christmas at home. He’d found Dahn the year before while taking a break from Brandeis to do some “soul-searching and bartending” in Hawaii. The group had brought him happiness, confidence, and the kind of friendships he’d never known. He’d become less cynical and cut back on alcohol. Now he was back in Hawaii and thrilled to have the chance to show his parents the changes he’d made in his life. He got up before dawn each morning to do his Dahn meditation and calisthenics. Then he washed the dishes from the night before and left the kitchen spotless.

The day after Christmas, as Charles, Ari, and his mother, Doreen, were lounging in the living room, the mood shifted. Charles turned to Ari and told him there was something very important he needed him to do. First, he made Ari promise not to call anyone from Dahn for the rest of his stay. Then he told Ari that he had asked a friend of a friend from Boston to spend a few days with them, and he wanted Ari to listen to the guest’s perspective on Dahn. Once Ari agreed, in walked Hassan, dressed casually in shorts and sandals. Ari sank into the couch, a queasy feeling coming over him. He looked at his parents, disbelieving, demanding to know what was going on. But he already knew.

Over the next few days, Ari watched videos about a number of cults, heard Hassan explain his cult-identification model, and took calls from former Dahn members who detailed their problems with the organization and its leader. Hassan informed Ari that Ilchi Lee, Dahn’s founder, had been convicted of fraud in Korea. Lee claimed he could teach children to see while blindfolded—where was the proof? Hassan asked. Where was all the money from the Dahn courses going? Why wasn’t more of it going to Ari’s paltry salary? He asked Ari to think about why a spiritual group aimed at helping people didn’t work in poor countries or even poor neighborhoods in the United States.

Ari began to feel drained, numb. He found himself agreeing with Hassan. His convictions about Dahn, so firm just days before, were weakening. But by the end of the third day, he realized he couldn’t let go of the good feelings he had for Dahn.

No matter how much sense Hassan had made, nothing he said could ultimately shake Ari’s faith. Rather than leave Dahn, Ari announced, he would return to the group in search of answers.

The next day, Ari stood in front of the house with his parents, the lawn beyond them giving way to a cliff that tumbled to the sea below. As the waves pounded the shoreline, Ari limply hugged his mom. A car idled in the driveway, waiting to take him to the airport. Doreen sobbed on the front steps as her son walked away. Charles was despondent. “We lost him,” he said. “The enemy won.”

Mainstream social scientists are divided on Hassan and his fellow cult-busters, with many sociologists of religion believing that what they do is nothing more than stoke hysteria, reminiscent of the witch hunts of the colonial era. They say the word “cult” is itself loaded and derogatory, instead preferring the term “new religious movement.” These scholars say anti-cultists like Hassan focus nearly exclusively on religious groups that are either new—like the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology—or relatively new to America, like the Hare Krishnas. “You can make any group look pretty bad,” says Anson Shupe, who teaches at Indiana-Purdue University Fort Wayne. “You take a woman who wears a uniform, becomes celibate, shaves her head, changes her name, and marries the dead leader of a cult. And she is, according to them, in need of an intervention. Well, that’s a nun.”

When Shupe and David Bromley of Virginia Commonwealth University coedited a mostly critical book on anti-cultists, they wanted to include a chapter from someone on the other side of the debate. The academics turned to Hassan because they consider him to be perhaps the best in his business—and yet they remain critical of his approach. They don’t believe there’s any such thing as brainwashing, and are also skeptical of the concept of mind control, which they say could be used to explain everything from the effects of television commercials to the methods used to train soldiers or even Mary Kay saleswomen. And then there’s the whole notion of interventions as a form of therapy. “You get people who are caught up in trying to change themselves, become a new person or build a new world,” Bromley says. “And they lose touch with who they are. It isn’t to say some groups don’t take advantage of that process. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that they want someone like Hassan to come in with predetermined answers to their life problems.”

Shupe often calls Hassan a “professional ex
-Moonie,” questioning the livelihood he has built around his past. “Way down deep, it’s like he’s been wrestling with a demon about his own involvement in the Moonies,” he says. “Okay, so he made a mistake. So does that mean the rest of us are to endure this quest he has to liberate minds when what this really is, to play Dr. Freud, is his way of expiating his own earlier mistakes? Is he a cynical opportunist? No. But it is easy for someone to create a moral crusade when it also happens to be how they make their living.”

Hassan fiercely denies these accusations. He points out he’s an active member of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, a synagogue with a distinctively New Age flair, and himself practices both yoga and meditation. He insists that mind control exists—and cites prominent psychiatrists and psychologists who agree with him. He also dismisses the suggestion that he’s some sort of trauma victim who now sees a cult lurking behind every tree. He says he has turned down many intervention requests, including one from the parents of a gay child and another from the parents of a student who had decided to drop out of Harvard Business School. “My job is to empower people to think for themselves,” he says. “People have a right to follow a different drummer. My issue is whether they are being lied to, manipulated, and exploited when they make their choices.”

As overwhelming as Hassan’s sense of self and unswerving confidence can be at times, both are tempered by a surprising ability to admit his missteps. Earlier in his career, he acknowledges, he was too quick to label some groups as cults. He also recently reduced his rates, which had soared during the dot-com era. He currently charges $2,500 a day for home visits and interventions and says he does a lot of pro bono work. (Charles Laquidara declined to reveal how big a check he wrote to Hassan, saying only that it was equivalent to the “yearly wages of an average blue-collar worker.”) Still, Hassan doesn’t appear to be getting rich. He and his wife, Misia Landau, live with their son in a rented three-bedroom on a quiet street in Newton.

After returning from Hawaii, Hassan attempted to reach out again to Ari, sending e-mails from his modest office in Winter Hill, trying to arrange a meeting. As he picked up where he’d left off with his Dahn research, the calls and e-mails about the group continued to come in. But none were from Ari. The case started to feel heavy to Hassan, and sad, like a weight he had to carry around. In Ari, he saw a passionate, idealistic, and talented young man who was in trouble. He saw a younger version of himself.

But if the intervention was haunting Hassan, Ari was doing his best to forget it. The experience had been just a bump, albeit a painful one, on his exciting journey with Dahn. When he got back to his friends, the questions Hassan had raised no longer seemed important. He grew more certain than ever that he was on the correct path. Four months after the intervention, in April 2005, Ari was promoted to head instructor at the Dahn center in Andover, and that fall went on to open and run a new Dahn location just off Centre Street in Jamaica Plain.

As Charles and Doreen watched from Maui, their family life crumbled. They were barely getting along, and Doreen’s health started to falter. Charles wrote dramatic haikus that he e-mailed to Ari, reflecting in sparse language on the infinite pain of losing a son. Ari responded by adding his father to his blocked-senders list.

Charles decided that if he couldn’t convince Ari to leave Dahn, he would drum up so much negative publicity for Dahn that it would simply eject Ari as a liability. Either he would get his son out of Dahn, or he’d use whatever influence he still had in town to drive the group out of Boston.

Hassan is hardly alone in his concerns about Dahn, which he now considers among the top cult threats in Boston. Yoga chat rooms are filled with posts about Dahn, which many argue doesn’t teach yoga at all. And indeed, its practice is more reminiscent of Korean Qigong and martial arts. Ari Laquidara says Dahn uses the term “yoga” in a loose sense because “it’s the closest thing to what we do that people understand.” Some former members, though, feel this is an intentional deception, the first of many they say they eventually encountered.

Dahn founder Ilchi Lee preaches loving the earth, but used to drive a Hummer. He calls himself a doctor, but holds only honorary doctorates from two colleges, one of which is unaccredited. (The other, South Baylo University in Anaheim, California, teaches acupuncture and “Oriental medicine.”) The ex-members I spoke with say they were not informed until they’d been with Dahn for some time that Lee is revered by instructors as their spiritual leader. (His given name is Seung Heun; Ilchi is an appellation, given to him by students, meaning “one finger, pointing the way.”) They were also not immediately told of Lee’s call for his followers to recruit 100 million “New Humans” for an enlightenment revolution. And they were surprised to learn about the jail time Lee did in Korea on fraud charges. (Dahn’s spokesperson, Charlotte Connors, says Lee’s only crime was misunderstanding the laws governing the licensing of the herbal supplements the group was selling, and that his beliefs are hardly kept hidden, as they’re made clear in books and videos sold at Dahn centers.)

A civil suit filed in California in 2002 against Dahn by a former employee claims that, among other things, she was brainwashed by the group and then coerced to take a vow of celibacy and divorce her husband, and that later, while working without pay to open a string of Dahn centers, she was sent to the Dahn headquarters in Sedona to have sex with Lee. In 2005 Lee was also sued in connection with the death of aspiring Dahn master Julia Siverls. In the case, Dahn employees are accused of secretly drugging Siverls and forcing her to hike in the 90-degree heat of the Arizona desert with little water and a backpack full of rocks during an initiation ritual. Dahn denies the allegations in both lawsuits.

Six former Dahn members—all of whom asked that their names be withheld out of fear of retribution—say they believe they were under some form of mind control when they allowed Dahn to consume their thoughts and bank accounts. “My relationships with my friends and family suffered,” says one. “I lost my job. I racked up thousands of dollars of credit card debt. Dahn became the only thing I thought about all day long.” Other former members say their “masters,” as instructors were called, had such aggressive sales quotas that they put unrelenting pressure on students to sign up for more classes, workshops, and healing sessions. The former members say the masters appeared to be “Dahndroids,” with matching clothes, mannerisms, speech patterns, and incessant smiles.

But there are also thousands of happy Dahn customers. In 2006, in fact, Dahn was voted the top yoga studio in Boston on WBZ’s A List. Dahn supporters say the cult accusations originated partly from online smear campaigns started in Korea. They say the poor experiences people report stateside are largely the result of cultural misunderstandings, and insist the organization has gotten a bad rap because Americans are naturally suspicious of anything that falls outside the mainstream. “Who expects a corporation to have 100 percent customer satisfaction?” says Connors, the Dahn spokesperson. “No one flinches when a car salesman puts a hard sell on a customer, but if we try to promote our product, critics complain we are pressuring our customers.”

Ari Laquidara wonders why people think nothing of spending thousands on furs, shoes,
and hairstyling on Newbury Street, but then criticize as exorbitantly priced the health-improving Dahn practice. Another satisfied member wonders why Dahn classes are deemed cultish when no one questions her relatives who spend all day, every day, at a country club playing golf and bridge. Why is working 18-hour days to get rich acceptable, another member asks, but working long days for the cause of health and spiritual enlightenment is evidence of brainwashing? These members say it hurts that a practice that has made such a difference in their lives is derided as a cult.

That’s not to say Dahn supporters haven’t taken some of the criticism to heart. Ari and a few other Boston-area Dahn instructors recently formed a board and are trying to get headquarters in Sedona to allow them to run the centers here as more egalitarian, member-driven enterprises, and to be more up-front about Dahn’s spiritual tilt when recruiting new members. The group has made other modifications in recent years. Masters are now called instructors. Lee no longer drives a Hummer. There is a professional customer service department attending to complaints. And a nonprofit arm of Dahn does community work.

Dahn members like Ellen Miller of Arlington say they couldn’t be happier. “I’ve never felt better in my life,” Miller says. “I feel 10 years younger. Since starting Dahn I haven’t been to a doctor, haven’t had a single cold. I’ve lost 25 pounds. All my friends say my eyes sparkle and that I look great. Cult-shmult. I am more well than any friend I have.”

On a warm Wednesday evening
in June, Ari Laquidara led his students through a series of stretches intended to awaken the energy centers of the body. Standing at the front of the classroom in the Copley Square Dahn center, he wore a navy Korean vest, baggy pants, and an effusive smile. Soft New Age music played over the muted sounds of Boston at rush hour. To Ari’s left stood one of his newest students—his father.

After doing what he could to call attention to Dahn in Boston—including an on-camera interview in a critical WBZ report on the group in February 2006—Charles Laquidara resolved last year to take another look at Dahn. He and Doreen had decided that their efforts to protect their son were only driving him further away. It was possible, they concluded, that the changes in Ari that had once seemed so alarming were actually the signs of a young man growing up, and choosing his own, less conventional path. The couple did countless hours of research, with Doreen going to Sedona last year to take a Dahn Healer course. This June, Charles came back to Boston for two and a half weeks to try out Dahn for himself. “I did the whole enchilada: workshops, classes, healing sessions,” he says. “It was weird as hell, but I loved it. It took me two years to see through this thing I thought was a cult. There’s no poisoned Kool-Aid in this group. After doing more investigation on this than anyone else on the planet, I can say that not only is Dahn not a cult, but it’s a great organization.” Of Hassan, he says, “I believe he thought he was helping our son, but he was dead wrong about Dahn. People who know my radio show know how cynical I am and that I’d have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting sucked into a cult.”

When I told Hassan that Charles had gotten involved with Dahn, he was both surprised and concerned. “The question is, how could someone who has learned about cults and mind control then decide Dahn is a good thing? I don’t know the specifics, but I’m sure Charles’s son was one of the main instruments of indoctrination.” Hassan felt it was understandable that Dahn would want to win Charles over: While he’s not exactly Tom Cruise, Charles’s local celebrity could make him useful to Dahn in the way Cruise has helped Scientology. Charles acknowledges that people from Dahn recently asked him to promote some of their events, but says he has no plans to become a spokesperson for the group.

When I also mentioned that I had been talking to Ari, Hassan asked me if I would reach out to him on his behalf. The two hadn’t communicated in more than two and a half years. I relayed the request, telling Ari that Hassan wanted to meet with him, free of charge, just to talk. Ari was wary, but eventually accepted the invitation.

The two met over coffee in the back of Nashoba Brook Bakery on Colum-bus Avenue in the South End. Ari spoke passionately of the changes he and others in Boston were trying to make in the organization. Hassan later told me he saw this as evidence Ari would leave Dahn within a year. “He basically was admitting that the way they were doing things was bad,” Hassan said. “I think he is on his way out. He has one foot out.” But Ari says he has no plans whatsoever to leave Dahn, and that he’d used the meeting to tell Hassan that he’d been unnecessarily hurtful during the intervention in Hawaii. “He apologized,” Ari says. “It confirmed for me that his heart is really good, but his tack is not.”

After almost two hours, the meeting came to an end. Ari and Hassan left the bakery and walked to the garage where Hassan had parked. The two men hugged for a half minute or more before Hassan finally pulled away. He looked at Ari and said, “You really do remind me of a younger me.” Then he turned and headed for his car.