I’ve been on a bit of a bender – in this instance, of books by people who have left cults and lived to tell their tales. I’m fascinated by cults, especially since many are known for sucking in highly intelligent people who many think should know better. Winding up in a cult has little to do with how smart or savvy someone is, it’s often the result of a period of vulnerability or even seeking answers in the way all curious people do, and a matter of meeting the right person/people at just the wrong time.
Some people, though, are born into cults, and those are the stories I’m most interested in. In a sense, it’s like watching someone time travel when they emerge from the cloistered lives that are the hallmark of the control involved. It’s also fascinating to hear about those moments when the switches flipped and they knew they had to leave.
I often wonder who I would be if I’d grown up in a strict religious environment. There is no way to know, for obvious reasons, but it’s an interesting hypothetical. After all, with a very liberal upbringing, I rebelled rather a lot. It’s hard to imagine being someone who would just take control and abuse, far easier to imagine being a rebel under any circumstances. Still, I was raised with love and support by people who thought I could do anything I set my mind to and should try for all of my dreams. That’s part of why I’m me. Maybe if I was disparaged or even beaten all the time, I’d be meek and submissive. Maybe I’d even think that was the right way to live. Maybe.
Yet… There are so many stories, from history and our own times and all parts of the world, of members of oppressed groups standing up, at great risk to their own safety. There clearly are people who can see through how they were raised, while still in the same environment, and call, “Bullshit!” with every ounce of strength they have.
I’ve just listened to the audio version of Escape by Carolyn Jessop, and she’s a great example of the above. She was raised in the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints) and, while absolutely a true believer while growing up, had a burning passion for education despite it being held in low regard in her community. She wanted to be a pediatrician and battled with a highly disrupted secondary school experience (due to religious disputes) to get into college. When she went to her father at age 18 for permission to attend college he went to their Prophet at the time, who told her she could go to college as long as she married a 50-year old man. In two days’ time. Oh, as long as she studied to become a teacher, nothing else would be allowed. The man she married so she could go to school treated most of his wives terribly, he was a relatively well-off businessman who would do things like refuse to give his wives enough money to feed his dozens of children, and then tell them to be grateful to live on tomato sandwiches for weeks on end while he went out for steak dinners. He and his favorite wife would conspire to keep children away from their own mothers for weeks at a time, refuse medical treatment for the children’s emergencies, and drove wedges between all of the other wives so they wouldn’t help each other out. Let’s just say her experience was pretty much the opposite of the happy polygamous families featured so frequently on television these days. Everything bad that happened was blamed on a wife’s disobedience, from physical abuse to deprivation to her child’s cancer.
“Disobedience” in this context, I should note, is not just a matter of disobeying an order. It’s considered an “act of rebellion” to like any foods that your husband does not like. You are not only expected to obey orders, but to anticipate them and have the task done before your husband even tells you what he expects. The requirements are endless and clearly designed to make sure that pretty much every woman is “disobedient” and not “in harmony with her husband.” It is entirely up to the husband whether an action is obedient or punishable.
Fortunately, Carolyn’s a very clever woman. Just as the sect was banning the internet except for business purposes, she taught herself HTML, left teaching, and started a web design firm, retaining access to the outside world. She found ways to become a little more financially independent from her husband, instead of turning every dime over to him. When her son was diagnosed with spinal blastoma she navigated the complicated world of accessing medical care with little money and without her husband’s permission. Little by little, she put together the skills to survive both inside her religion and out in the mainstream world. She also discovered that, far from being the evil place she’d been taught to fear, the outside world was filled with far more kindness and generosity than the only world she had known.
And here’s the thing – she not only got out, but by planning her strategy for a long time and keeping tabs on the abuses around her, she became the first ex-FLDS woman to gain full custody of her own children, all 8 of them. She endured caring for a disabled child while hiding from her husband and his cohorts. She’s gone on to testify repeatedly in court and even in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including helping the State of Texas get the maximum sentence for her ex-husband, who was convicted of performing an illegal ceremony in the form of marrying off a 12-year old girl to Warren Jeffs. She lost her eldest daughter to the FLDS at the age of majority, but she got the rest out on a permanent basis and has helped others find their way out, as well.
Inside the FLDS, children are taught that she is a (the?) devil in earthly form. In TLC’s show Breaking the Faith, she gave some freshly-escaped young women a place to stay and good advice, but they were clearly terrified by her mere presence.
Funny how being called a “devil” can be the highest of compliments. It means you scare men in power, really scare them.
Another favorite read is Jenna Miscavige Hill’s account of her life in Scientology, Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape. She wasn’t just raised as a Scientologist, she became basically royalty within her sphere when her uncle, David Miscavige, became the leader in her toddler years, upon the death of L. Ron Hubbard. Her grandfather had found Dianetics and Scientology while looking for a cure for David’s asthma, and the whole family got involved. She was raised by 2 generations of dedicated Scientologists on one side and one generation on the other. Some were what is known as “public” Scientologists, people who have otherwise mainstream lives (jobs, families, etc.) and pay to study in the Church. Others, including her big-fish-in-a-small-pond uncle, were members of the Sea Org, the group that runs the various entities under the corporate umbrella, working full-time (and I mean FULL time – about 14-16 hours per day, usually 7 days per week, for less than $50 per week) to keep the whole entity going. When Jenna was a child, members of the Sea Org were still allowed to have children (a later policy banned them), but families were split up most of the time even if they were lucky enough to technically live together. Eventually, all the kids were put into a sort of boarding school, but much more like the sort Roald Dahl wrote about than anything you’d expect to have existed in California in the 1980s.
Hubbard didn’t care much for children. He believed they were fully-grown “thetans” (or spirits/aliens) in little human bodies, and thus the problem with most child-rearing was that parents treated their children like children.
This was extrapolated into expecting children to do jobs that only adults should be doing. The kids built their own school and landscaped the grounds, with a few exceptions where contractors were absolutely necessary, like wiring. Jenna was appointed Medical Officer and expected to take care of all the children’s medical needs… at age 7. With barely any instruction.
Jenna somehow managed to retain parts of her true self despite a life that was all about indoctrination. Along the way, she realized that she disagreed with teachings that told her the larger group was more important than her individual friends, she was a kind girl who didn’t fit in well in an environment that bred distrust and fear. She loved reading, until she had to spend years toiling at the “Word Clearing” method of education L. Ron Hubbard had created, which involves having to look up every single word in a document in the dictionary and being able to define it on command, even words like “a” and “the”. It stifled her mind and made reading a chore.
They were taught almost nothing. Their mornings were spent doing manual labor and their afternoons were spent learning such useful things as how to recite L. Ron Hubbard’s prolific quotes from memory. What passed for academics was done by students on their own, just ticking off tasks on checksheets. Then they studied Scientology until bedtime. Rinse, repeat..
She dutifully, if fearfully, signed the infamous billion-year Sea Org contract at age 7, pledging to serve not only for the rest of this lifetime but for many to come, as their motto states, “We come back.”
By the time her parents decided to leave, in her teen years, she was so indoctrinated that she was completely unwilling to go with them. This was the only life she knew. They’d dragged her into it as a toddler. By that point, she barely even knew her parents, as they had not lived together as a family for over a decade.
It was a different sort of love that got her out, in the end. When she got engaged, her superiors told her to keep the engagement quiet while they investigated a family member who they thought might cause problems at the wedding. This stretched on and on, until the young couple broke down and slept together out of wedlock, a major infraction within the Sea Org. When the pair were caught they were immediately separated and remained so for weeks until Jenna went out on a high ledge and threatened to jump. They were finally given permission to marry and eventually were sent, together, to work on a project in Australia, where they were exposed to public information about their religion and its leader they hadn’t been able to look at before. She was also exposed to babies for the first time since she was one herself, and realized she deeply wanted to have her own. When she decided to leave, her husband was going to stay, and she struggled with one of the hardest decisions a person can make – freedom or love.. At that point, they were told that she was no longer allowed, and so they left together instead, even though they knew their choice might mean they would never be able to communicate with their family members still inside.
Now she’s one of the most outspoken critics of her former church, despite its infamously relentless harassment of critics. She wrote her book with journalist Laura Pulitzer and she created exscientologykids.com with two other women raised in the church to collect and share the stories of others who had grown up that way, to give the silenced a chance to speak to the world.
She’s also a very proud and happy mother at last.
Both of these women did not get to choose to the faiths they were raised in. The FLDS and Church of Scientology could not be more different in doctrine or values. They might not seem relevant to any subject outside of cults, either. However, these are two living, breathing American women who escaped some of the worst life in America has to offer. They’re not semi-abstract women from the pages of history, they’re not from thousands of miles away from places and cultures and belief systems that support basic freedoms and women’s rights. They escaped two of the many forms of modern-day slavery, told their stories, stood up to their abusers, and represent countless other brave, strong women in many places and times.
Bravery can take on many forms, and I suspect it’s a lot more common that we generally realize. While these stories are extraordinary, they belong to women who would consider themselves anything but.
Maybe we all have it somewhere within us, it just takes the right circumstances to bring it out.