Need something to read? New Yorker Article – My Childhood in a Cult

Good afternoon Readers –

Several people emailed me links to this article: My Childhood in a Cult.

I just finished reading and recommend it for several reasons! What I appreciated the most – no glorification, no salaciousness. In fact the author, Guinevere Turner, says of her childhood in “The Lyman Family” –a group that fancied itself destined for Venus– is this: “Cults are fascinating — but one thing the Manson Family and the Lyman Family have in common is the banality of daily life inside these worlds … there are always dishes to wash and heaps of laundry to hang up to dry. The travel plans for Venus took place against a backdrop of these everyday chores.” Or … “It wasn’t all acid and orgies.”

She also points out “irrefutable truths” of cult-i-ness, such as …
“a cult never calls itself a cult” & the presence of a “… charismatic, complicated leader” (i.e. Mel Lyman) & one who constantly issues “new rules for living”. By the way, Lyman apparently memorialized himself in the book, Autobiography of a World Savior. Additionally, cults always have to include mystical components – the Lyman’s preferred the Ouija board and a spirit they called Faedra.

Other familiar characteristics: the family were the only people with souls. In “school” you could “grow a soul” but only if you followed the “instruction” to the letter. After leaving, Turner’s mom would tell school administrators seeking records, “Oh the school burned down.” Turner’s reaction: “It was the first of many lies we had to tell to seem normal.” In “school” we called such lies, “clever insincerity”.

In my opinion, the most important and poignant line was the subtitle: Growing up in an apocalyptic cult wasn’t nearly as hard as leaving it. To be clear, the group told Turner to leave. She was still a kid when the group stuck her on a plane to Boston to pick up her 4-year old sister, who lived in the Boston-branch compound.

Years later, she returned to visit the “family” before heading to college. She was tempted to stay, to blow off college. “These people really knew me … I felt a surge of love and belonging.” But it turned out to be too late, for her. As a World Person, she could see it — the gender disparity. Women served. Men dominated. That’s the way it worked inside the “family”. “… the custom put me in a kind of panic.”

Interesting that the more dramatic, salacious cultic aspects came as an afterthought in her article … a kind of, I should tell you the “hard things” way … “…kids like me were punished by being locked in a closet for a whole day, or being deprived of food, or being beaten while everyone else was brought out to watch…” Etc.

I think that there are two interrelated human characteristics that make people especially vulnerable and able to normalize abuse: social wiring, the need to belong, and identity, the need to know and be the person you’re meant to be, your authentic self. Often times the social wiring, the need to belong, over takes the need for authenticity. That’s how deeply it runs. Turner writes, “It’s been four decades since I begged to stay, and I still care what they think.”

Alternately, though, these two characteristics are also the components that set us free from predatory groups — the need for authenticity is, itself, deeply wired in us, as well. For as Emerson once wrote: What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. Turner says “I had to accept that I had become a World Person” … in other words, a woman who didn’t want her life reduced to serving men. She then returned to The Others, the World People.

Now she writes screenplays and teaches at UCLA.

So … if you feel the need to read about cults this weekend, if you’re still grappling with a personal misadventure, if you’re feeling alone, her article is definitely worth your time.



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