I wanted to be free so badly that I could taste it. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door. Dad’s face was bright red, his breathing heavy with asthma and anger. Then, before I could lose my temper, I shouted the words that had been building inside me for nine years: “I want to leave The Family!”
The Children of God was founded in 1968 by Prophet David Berg, a 50-year-old failed preacher who eventually found his calling by rescuing “lost souls searching for meaning” among hippies gathering in California. Berg saw these young as sheep in need of a shepherd and began herding them into his flock.
All the adults gave up their material possessions and dedicated their lives to Jesus, sharing and living together in community. They were called The Family. We were God’s army. Our mission: prepare for the end of the world.
Our lives were ruled by the revelations, dreams, and whims of our prophet. He lived in hiding, sharing his beliefs in thousands of publications he called Mo Letters, as well as comics, movies and music produced by a core circle of his followers. The children of the Children of God were the local, unpaid talent. I had been trained as a child actress, and was trafficked to produce and sell religious videos around the world.
Berg started preaching how God loved sex, only the devil had demonized it. That’s part of why I left the cult when I did. In about five months, I would have turned 16 and would have been considered an adult who was supposed to have full-scale sex without contraception.
Religious prostitution began in 1974 and lasted until 1987, with attractive women becoming “manfishers”, flirting and having sex with non-believers to attract followers and donations.
The Prophet taught my grandparents’ generation that it was their sacred duty to raise sexually liberated children. And to protect ourselves from the outside world – “the system” – we hid ourselves, scattered all over the world.
Enter the outside world
At 15, I descended on American soil from a Greyhound bus, the latest in a long series that had brought me from a cult complex deep in Mexico. Everything I owned was in a small battered suitcase.
The only way of life I had known was gone, and the big, bad world outside rushed in. My family had been in the cult for generations, deeply believing that the outside world was pure evil.
The high school secretary was one of the first “Systemites” I met that I wasn’t trying to convert to our way of life. All I wanted now was for her to let me into hers.
“I’m sorry honey, we can’t register you here, you don’t exist.” I had no school or vaccination records of any kind, so I understood. But his explanation fit perfectly with what the cult had always threatened to happen to the backsliders. As I stood in this inner-city high school, with 4,000 students milling around me, I had the thought that would torment me for decades: I’m from another planet.
Like a spy, I had to find ways to fit in, to hide my differences, not to arouse suspicion that I might be different from what I appeared to be on the outside. It would be pretty easy – without The Family, I had no idea who I was.
Play a role
Taught to be the best from birth and beaten if I stepped out of line, I was confident I could play any role necessary to survive. As my closest family members prayed that I would fall so hard that I would have no choice but to crawl back, I began to take action for my life.
My privilege of being white, blonde, and accentless helped me come across as a troubled teenager, alone on the fringes of America. I lived with my sister, who had previously escaped the cult, in Houston, Texas.
My sister’s boyfriend convinced the state to create a plan for me to graduate from high school in two years instead of four, which meant I had to take a lot more classes than most. the elderly. I stumbled through this condensed version of high school and into college, where I graduated with honors, never wondering what I wanted to be when I grew up. I worked hard enough to just be.
Picking up an American soldier’s uniform after college didn’t seem odd. I knew I would be able to fit in. After the chaos of the outside world, I wanted to go back inside; to have someone tell me where to go and what to wear; to have brothers and sisters around me, reinforcing that our common mission was the right one.
Sometimes a colleague would ask me questions about myself, but I rarely answered them. Would they even believe me? Do people realize that it is possible to become an adult without ever having been a child? How could I explain that, yes, I looked whole on the outside, but I felt like my skin was just a thin bag holding the shredded pieces together?
Let people see the “real” me
A decade after leaving the family, I felt I couldn’t continue my act of normalcy. I just wanted to leave life. Trying to find a connection, I turned to a friend and superior in the military, and his words changed my life: “Daniella, you have to push yourself. You’re not as different as you think.”
He was right. I had run too long, struggling every moment since I left the cult – to feed myself, to get an education, to keep living, to succeed. But nothing I had ever done was good enough to convince me that I belonged or that I could ever be “normal.” Despite the brilliance of my accomplishments, I was breaking inside.
I realized, eventually, that I didn’t want to be the perfect soldier without anyone worrying if I ever came back. I wanted people to know me. I wanted to see if maybe I wasn’t so different after all.
I made new friends, both inside and outside my unit. I started saying, “I grew up in a cult,” the first step to recognizing the truth about who I was. I allowed people to see the real me and stopped hiding behind the sliver of perfection that I used to cover up my secrets and my shame. A shame that had never been my fault.
I came to life. And contrary to what The Family had threatened, I discovered that I was in all the right places, with all the right people. Maybe these people couldn’t understand my life experiences, but I learned that they could understand me.
Daniella Mestyanek Young is a TEDx speaker, cult survivor, US Army veteran, and author of Uneducated: a memoir. Learn more about his work at uncultureyourself.com.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.