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Pop culture is obsessed with cults, but what does it actually feel like to grow up in one? On a recent episode of How To!, two former cult members opened up about their childhoods in apocalyptic cults. Michael, our 30-year-old listener from California, shared his experience in the Children of God cult, infamous for celebrity ex-members like Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan, who grew up in it as children, and for its allegations of sexual and physical abuse. Rebecca Stott, meanwhile, revealed what it was like growing up in a cult in England called the Exclusive Brethren, a journey she chronicles in her memoir In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult. What did Michael’s and Rebecca’s childhoods actually look like? And have they ever been able to move on? This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Epstein: Michael, why did you reach out to us?
Michael: For many years now, I’ve struggled to reconcile the fact that I love and care for my family with this shame that they raised us in an apocalyptic cult. I was born in Thailand as one of 12 children. We grew up in what I was told for most of my life was a missionary group; later, I found out it was a cult called the Children of God. We were taught from a young age that the world was going to end—I believed I wasn’t going to live past 6 years old. We were reading about how to prepare for the coming of the Antichrist, the raining fire, the fissure, and the rapture, all that stuff. I just remember being afraid all the time.
How is it that you came to leave the cult?
Michael: I don’t think we ever left. It was more of a diffusive process where the leadership faltered. It was right after the world was supposed to end, and so then we hopped around from house to house, just kind of surviving. There was no sense of closure. My understanding of it is that my parents didn’t leave the cult. The cult left them.
It’s like how do you keep living when the world doesn’t actually end?
Michael: Totally. It’s like life became an afterthought.
Have you talked with your family about your time in the cult?
Michael: So of the 12 of us, there are four who live on the street. I remember asking my father, “How many of their problems do you think are caused by the fact that they were raised in a cult?” And he didn’t have a good answer. It’s almost like he didn’t think it was a problem. I think I’m beyond being hurt now. It’s not really a question of hurt. It’s more that I just want my parents to admit that they were wrong to raise 12 children around an apocalyptic cult full of pedophiles.
Rebecca Stott: Michael, I found that very moving because it’s so similar to my experience in the way you describe your childhood and your confusion. When I wrote my book, I was in my early 50s; it felt like all of my life had been in preparation for trying to write it. I found that as the book was about to be published, I developed laryngitis and lost my voice for a whole month. Whenever I have an interview like this, I can feel the frog in my throat. It’s like there’s something still censoring me and that’s in my own head. I’m still really surprised by the visceral nature of some of this stuff, of my own reluctance to spill the beans—to betray the cult, even if we left it.
Michael: I’m so happy you said that because I’m a pretty confident person, but I’m shaking right now. It’s a body reaction. It’s touching to hear that from someone else.
Rebecca, could you tell us more about your experience growing up in a cult?
Rebecca: Yeah, so there were really a lot of similarities with Michael’s cult. We were called the Exclusive Brethren. We also were taught that the rapture was coming and that if we weren’t on the right side of the line, we would be left behind to face the tribulations. We read the Book of Revelation again and again. Meetings were an hour long. Women weren’t allowed to speak. The men had absolute authority in their homes and in the communities. You lived in constant threat of being excommunicated. Everything was banned—no radio and television, no holidays, no pets, no wristwatches. We had no radios, but my father liked to listen to the cricket scores in the back of the car, so every now and again we would see him taking a radio out of the wheel section or underneath the car and listening to the cricket scores. I remember thinking, Am I supposed to denounce my father?
I’m 56 now, and I still have nightmares. I still sleepwalk sometimes, and I still have high levels of anxiety. But I would also say I’ve learned to live with it all. God, this is going to sound very twee and a bit Pollyanna-ish, but I’ve learned to use it in my writing. In terms of my imaginative world, as a small child, we didn’t have books, so I spent a lot of time playing these strange biblical fusion games. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I have come to appreciate the ways in which that strange childhood, painful though it was, fearful though it was, actually produced some quite rich things too. I am a unique person because of it. But I still have such a strong impulse to run.
Michael: 100 percent. I’m always looking at apartments in other cities. We would always be on the move. Within a year we’d move like six times. To this day, that’s a sensation that I almost enjoy. I like the feeling of being on the go, but I know it’s rooted in my childhood in the cult, so it’s a bit dangerous.
Rebecca: Yeah. For me, when I’m sitting late at night looking at other houses in other cities, I’m looking for the place that’s safe. Even when I bought this house in Norwich where I live now, one of the things I found myself doing late at night—when I realized what I was doing, I laughed—I was checking for flood warnings. I suddenly realized: You’ve always bought houses on tops of hills because you’re afraid of water-level rise and that’s because you were raised to think the tribulations will bring mass floodings.
Michael: Rebecca, there’s something you said earlier about as a kid you became an expert really quickly at being afraid that made me think of my nephew. He’s living with my parents and he’s just learning about death. And when kids start to be curious about things that really matter, you have the opportunity there as a caregiver, and in many ways I’m a caregiver to my nephew because he was abandoned by his mother. Because of what I went through, I am so aware of what I say to him at this moment is going to affect him for the rest of his life. I remember what it’s like being a kid and just being taught how to be afraid. I don’t have any children of my own yet. But when I do, I just know that because of what I went through, I’m going to make an awesome dad. And that’s not a humble brag. I just know it, you know?
Rebecca: Yeah, that’s beautiful. That’s really beautiful. At the beginning of this, when I was listening to you tell your story my throat was thickening up, but my throat’s clear now. If this is in our bodies, then our bodies also respond to connection and while I haven’t sorted everything—I’ll never sort everything in this life—it’s so precious to talk to someone who has gone through something similar and speaks a similar language.
Michael: Same. I don’t feel the shakes like I did in the beginning.