How To Survive a Doomsday Cult

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S1: You know, I knew that we weren’t allowed to have radios, television, cinema, because Satan was in all of those things. That’s what they told us. So I remember the day when my father brought home a television. I remember the day that the radios were installed. You know, like nobody sat down with us and said, hey, you know, we told you that Satan was in the radio and in the television set. Well, we were wrong. So in the logic of my head, my parents had gone to the dark side.

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S2: Welcome to How to. I’m David Epstein. Have you ever heard the phrase drinking the Kool-Aid? Maybe you’ve used it yourself to describe someone who fully and uncritically believe something that you don’t. The phrase actually comes from an infamous cult called the People’s Temple and its leader, Jim Jones. About 40 years ago, more than 900 members died after Jones coerced them into drinking a grape flavored beverage laced with poison.

S3: They were found simply buried under other bodies. There were larger adults that were grouped together, and under their bodies were found the bodies of smaller adults and children.

S4: The Jonestown saga is obviously extreme. Most members of cults survive. They even get out in many cases. But what do they do then?

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S5: Imagine that your whole world view falls apart. You have a family with 12 kids. You were expecting to pop up into heaven this year. You know, that was your expectation. It didn’t happen.

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S6: Joshua, let me let me let me take a few breaths here.

S4: This is Michael from California.

S6: I guess for many years now, I struggled with kind of reconciling the fact that I really love and care for my family and having that contrasted with the shame and feeling unsafe with regards to the fact that they raised us in a in an apocalyptic cult.

S2: Michael was born in Thailand and along with his 11 brothers and sisters, raised in a religious cult called The Children of God. The group is probably most well known for two things. First, celebrities like Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan. They both grew up in it as children and they’ve spoken out about their time in that world. And second, allegations of sexual and physical abuse. The children of God specifically predicted the world would end in 1994. So for Michael, Doomsday defined his childhood.

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S5: I was going to live past six years old. You know, that was pretty much my formative years, was not even thinking about what life would be like after that. Someone’s always predicting the end of the world. That’s always the case. But we were reading about how to prepare for the coming the Antichrist and the, you know, the Marines raining fire and all that stuff and the fissure and the rapture. And we prepared for that. So I just remember being afraid all the time.

S7: How is it that you came to leave the home?

S5: I don’t think we ever left. It was more of a diffusive process where the leadership faltered, the fellow died, and I think ninety four, it was right after the world was supposed to end. We hopped around from house to house, just kind of surviving. There was no sense of closure. Like they didn’t leave the coat. The coat left them.

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S4: Michael was a teenager when his family left. He went off to college and then played professional waterpolo in Europe that allowed him, as he put it, to run away from his upbringing. Now he’s in his 30s and back near his family. And Michael’s acutely aware of how much they’re all still grappling with the cult’s legacy. As one of the middle children, he feels like he should be the family glue, but he hasn’t talked to some of his siblings in years and some of them are really struggling. And as for his parents, Michael’s relationship with them is complicated at best.

S5: Some would say it’s not rational, but love’s not rational. You know, care if you care for people regardless. And I just had this real strong urge to go home and to be by them. They’re getting older. My mother is getting sick. I just wanted to be there for them, I guess in a way maybe that I wish they were there for our family when they were the caretakers, you know?

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S4: You know, it’s almost like I don’t know if it’s fair to say, but it’s how do you keep living when when the world doesn’t actually end?

S5: Totally. Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s like if life became an afterthought.

S2: On today’s episode, How to Survive and Thrive After Leaving a cult, Michael rarely talks about this experience. It’s hard to find someone who gets it, but will bring on an expert who was also raised in a cult and like Michael, understands the challenge of reintegrating into society. Stay with us.

S4: Slate plus members, it’s survey time again, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate plus and Slate, it only takes a few minutes and you can find it at Slate Dotcom Survey. We’re back with Michael, our listener who grew up in a cult, Michael wishes he could talk to his parents in a way that would help the family process what happened and move forward.

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S5: I remember asking my father once I said so I’ll disclose up to you. Of the 12 of us, there’s one to three. There’s four of them who live on the street. And I asked them, I said, hey, like, how much of their problems do you think are caused by the fact that they were raised in the cold and he didn’t have a good answer? He does this almost like he. Didn’t think it was a problem. Mm, and I’ve found one of my sisters, one’s in L.A. and just utter mess. And, you know, the problem is that all she talks about is the call.

S4: And if they don’t view it as a mistake now, would it be more hurtful to you to leave the question unanswered? Or are you concerned that that’s how they would react and that would be even more difficult to deal with?

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S5: I think I’m beyond being hurt now. It’s not really a question of hurt. It’s more it’s more about hearing something said from someone who you care about. It’s not about being sorry or I just want them to admit they were wrong to raise twelve children around an apocalyptic cult full of pedophiles. You know that that was wrong.

S7: While Michael was sharing his story with us, Rebecca Start was listening patiently. She’s a writer in the UK and author of In the Days of Rain, a memoir about her own family’s experience in a cult called The Exclusive Brethren.

S1: Michael, I just found that very moving because it’s so similar. And the way you describe your childhood, the way you describe your confusion, the way you describe the difficulty of speaking. I mean, when when I wrote my book, I was in my early 50s and it felt like all of my life had been preparation for trying to write it right. My father’s story as well as my own. And I found that as the book came to completion and was about to be published, I developed laryngitis and lost my voice for a whole month now. So 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. You know, of my own reluctance to spill the beans. My mother’s phrase. Yeah, you know, to spill the beans is to betray the cult, even if we left it.

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S5: You know, I’m I’m so happy you said that because I’m shaking right now. Just, you know, it’s that body, the reaction here. It’s touching to hear that from someone else.

S4: Yeah. Rebecca, could you tell us a bit more about the Exclusive Brethren and what it was like growing up?

S1: Yeah, so really a lot of similarities with Michael’s cult. 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 and the tribulation. So, you know, I mean, we read the Book of Revelations again and again and again and again. Meetings were an hour long. Women weren’t allowed to speak. The men had absolute authority in their homes and in their communities. So you lived in constant threat of being excommunicated. They called it withdrawn from. But it was basically if you were withdrawn from from you were thrown out, you would never see your children again. So people state everything was banned. No radio, no television, no holidays, no pets, no wristwatches. So we had no radios. But my father like 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 of underneath the car and listening to the cricket scores. And I remember thinking, am I supposed to denounce my father?

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S7: But then in 1970, the leader of the Exclusive Brethren was caught having an affair with a married woman in the cult. He tried to pass it off as the will of God. But the scandal drove Rebecca’s family and many others to leave. Rebecca was just eight years old. She later described that transition to the outside world as like being lost in a town where all the signs had been changed into a language I didn’t know.

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S1: So I’m 56 now and I have nightmares still, I still sleepwalk sometimes I still have high levels of anxiety, but I would also say I’ve learned to live with them and I’ve learned to go. 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. I think as a small child, I spent a lot of time playing these strange we didn’t have books, so all of my games were from the Bible. And 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 to me, um, and that I am a unique person because of it. I have such a strong impulse to run my hundred percent.

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S5: Yeah.

S8: I’m always looking at like apartments and other cities and like imagining myself going is that it’s that that well we were always on the move to within a year we’d move like six times. And to this day that’s a that’s a it’s a sensation that I kind of enjoy.

S5: I like the feeling of being on the go, but like I know it’s rooted in that. So it’s a bit dangerous.

S1: Yeah. And you have to I mean, for me, I try to catch myself. You know what? I’m sitting late at night like you looking at other houses in other cities. It’s like I’m thinking, why is that coming? You know, like, yeah, I’m looking for a place that’s safe. And, you know, even this house when I bought this house in Norwich where I live now, one of the things I did and I found myself doing it late at night, and when I realized what I was doing, I laughed out loud. I was checking for flood warnings. I suddenly realized that is like 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 that the tribulations will bring massive flooding. Right. Right. Yeah, the my ark.

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S8: Rebecca, there’s something you said earlier. So you as a kid became an expert really quickly at just being afraid. My nephew, I go and visit him sometimes. He’s living with my parents and and he’s just learning about death, you know, and you have to have that conversation with the kid, like teach him what death is. 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’s he was you know, he was abandoned by his mother. She’s out in the street and he’s he’s kind of living with my my family.

S5: And because of what I went through, I am so, so aware. What I say to him at this moment is going to affect him for the rest of his life.

S8: I remember what it’s like being the kid and just being taught how to be afraid. And I don’t 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 that’s not a humble brag. I just know I just know it, you know.

S1: Yeah. That’s beautiful. That’s really beautiful.

S2: This brings us to our first insight, try to find the good or at least the useful in an otherwise painful experience, sometimes maybe that just means learning what not to say or do in the future. Of course, that’s easier said than done, this kind of self reckoning. It’s even more complicated when you’re trying to mend relationships in the process. How can you open up about a difficult experience with people you care about when you’re still making sense of it yourself? We’ll learn more after this quick break.

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S4: We’re back with Michael and our expert, Rebecca Start. Even though Rebecca’s family left the Exclusive Brethren when she was relatively young, the fallout stretched on for decades as her father traded one obsession, the cult for another gambling.

S1: So he became addicted to roulette really, really quickly. So he went to prison when I was 16 and he was arrested for forgery and embezzlement because is that related to gambling to fund the gambling habit? And he went to prison, but he never lost the gambling addiction.

S4: Michael has talked about not expecting to get any sort of perfect explanation, but wanting to hear some reasonable explanations. Was your decision to write a memoir part of that, like looking for the best explanations you could get?

S1: A very close friend of mine who’s who was a writer just said, you keep telling this story in bits. What would it be like to tie it all together? And it might help you to understand the connections between things. So they also gave me a chance to step inside. My father adored my father and one of the most important people in my life and an incredible, charismatic, eccentric, larger than life person who taught me so much about the world but stole from me, you know, like did all kinds of terrible things in our family. And I mean, literally still. Yeah, yeah. But I managed to get into his head. I had to for the book. I had to understand what the world looked like for him. And it just released this kind of incredible compassion for him. But the more important thing was that I thought I was writing this book from my father. And one night, quite late on in the writing, I suddenly realized I was writing for my six year old self. I was writing for that geeky girl who just really wanted to understand things better and I was talking to her. So, Michael, when you were talking earlier about how one of your skills now is that you can talk to children? I was able to talk to the six year old self that I was.

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S5: Yeah, I think that’s a huge, huge part of the healing process.

S1: I think really, really useful because it gave me a chance to understand the men in the boyfriend to like, you know, when I lay there as a six year old child, terrified, and my father didn’t come and make me feel safe again, it was because he didn’t feel safe either.

S2: Here’s our next insight inhabit someone else’s perspective, the more you learn about how a loved one felt, the more you’ll feel useful compassion for them. As Rebecca notes, that doesn’t need to come at the cost of anger. You can be furious and compassionate at the same time. And while Rebecca’s memoir helped her find a helpful connection with her father, her mother was another story.

S1: She did not want me to write the book. She just said, you will not write this. She was so terrified of the consequences of spilling the beans, as she called it. She accused me of narcissism. I mean, I’ve never seen her speak to me in that way. So in the end, I just said to her, I’m going to do it. And she said, yes, I understand you need to do it. We will never speak of it again.

S2: Rebecca’s book got glowing reviews, and it even won a prestigious award, but it was only a couple of months ago that her mother finally asked her for a copy three years after it was published.

S1: And when I rang her six weeks ago, she said, I’m sorry, I can’t talk. I’m reading your book. And I literally did not know. I paced up and down in the kitchen. I did not know what to do. When I rang her the following day, she said she had read it in a single day. She’s 86 now. She had read it until two o’clock in the morning. She said if she could have not gone to the toilet, she would have not gone to the toilet. She didn’t eat. She just read it. She devoured it. And she said, you’ve got every single part of this. Right? And she said to me, I’m sorry, because in the book I describe, like, lying awake and being terrified. And she said, I never knew that I would have come and comforted you if I’d known. I never knew. And so there was a kind of an apology.

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S4: And this this was like six weeks ago. Yeah. Wow. So, I mean, that’s why you had obviously you had come through this and had a whole life before this. We’re talking about something so recent. That’s that’s kind of remarkable. Yeah.

S8: I have a question. Were your parents were they born into or did they decide to enter it so they never knew any other way of living?

S1: Well, they were both born into it.

S8: That’s one that for me, putting myself in their shoes, I can imagine the embarrassment of that decision being a choice.

S1: Yeah, I bet they went into it with the best intentions. I think it would be really interesting for them and for you to listen to them trying to articulate what hope they had for the life that they were about to choose and maybe would be useful for you to hear that from them, what they thought they were entering.

S9: Yeah. What sparked that curiosity?

S4: And yeah, like you, obviously, it seems to me you obviously feel like a burden of, oh, I don’t want to burden like you’re sort of a glue.

S9: No, no burden is the right word. That burden kind of crippled me and it affected my relationships like this, especially a long term romantic relationship was kind of cut asunder because of my need to be around my family.

S5: So I was all tore up and I was I was a mess. And we had to part ways.

S4: Relationships take a lot of work, even when everything with your own family is going great. Yeah. And is that something that you think might continue to be a challenge for you? You know, as you you’ve talked about, you’ve you’ve said things that imply to me that you want your own kids at some point.

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S9: You know, absolutely. It’s it’s probably the biggest problem areas for me. I mean, so let me go back in time. My first friend, I remember his name, his name was Philip. He was a kid that was paired with me in the group. And he was my first close friend all of a sudden were gone. I have no idea what happened to him. I don’t know where he is, what he’s doing with his life. I’m a kid and that was my first, like, close relationship. And there was no there no conversation about, hey, we’re leaving now. No, we’re just gone all of a sudden gone. And that has I think that left a really strong imprint on my ability to form close relationships. There’s always this fear of losing a friend. And I mean, it’s that this is the apocalyptic feeling. It’s that feeling everything is going to go away and that manifests in personal relationships. So that is an area that I really want to improve on.

S1: Yeah. Oh, goodness. So interesting. I mean, I’m single now and I’ve had I had an eleven year marriage. I’ve had some amazing relationships, amazing, important relationships, but I’m not in one now. I struggle with friendships for that reason too is like this is still a part of me that doesn’t expect to be around very much longer and is surprised at how long I’ve been here anyway. Yeah.

S4: I mean I would also guess just thinking, you know, in a relationship like when to disclose these very unusual things about your history exam is a time to meet the parents.

S8: Like there’s some things I have to tell you.

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S5: I was just going to say that that’s like the most dreaded moment is I say I go on a date or something, and then eventually the conversation comes up. So where are you from? I, I, I, oh, I have to go to the restroom, you know. But in establishing relationships and maintaining relationships, it’s still something I don’t talk to about with some of my closest friends because I do feel embarrassed and I know I shouldn’t. I know I shouldn’t. But I do. Yeah. I’ve spoken more to you too about it than I have my closest friend. It’s it’s hard. It’s hard for me.

S1: And it may be that now once you’ve done this recording and you know, it’ll be out there in in the world that you might be able to, you know, signal to people that if they want to know a little bit more, that they can listen to you talking about it here.

S5: I think you’re right. Yeah. One of my selfish hopes and doing this was that. Having this conversation with y’all would somehow open, I guess, the floodgates to having it with with other people.

S4: Here’s our final insight. A single conversation with someone who understands your experience might lead to even more conversations. Rebecca’s memoir melted her mom’s 50 years of silence about the cult. It was a risk for Rebecca to write the book. But now the subject has become less taboo between her and her mom and maybe more importantly, less taboo for Rebecca.

S5: One question I did have. I have my struggles like I have lots of challenges that I still face and deal with. But I feel like of my entire family, I’ve been the most proactive about dealing with it. But hearing you talk and hearing you express, I want to know some of the tools were that you used so that I can kind of at least nudge some people that I do care about in my family.

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S1: Yeah. Oh, goodness. So one of the things I learned, one of my children had a period of time suffering with an eating disorder, and I got incredibly anxious about her. I was reading everything, you know, like I was obsessed with finding a way to cure her, fix slash, help her talk to her. You know, it was just like in my head all the time. And her boyfriend took me aside, lovely young man. And he said to me, Rebecca, I’ve been reading about this condition and it’s really important that we remember to walk alongside her. This is her walk and oh, my goodness, I understood the truth of that as soon as he articulated. I suppose that’s what I would say to you and say you’ve got these wonderful siblings and they are all on their own walk. You can walk alongside them, but you can’t you can’t hear them. They have to do that for themselves. You have to let them go at their own pace, in their own right. And you just walk alongside them.

S8: That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful. Why do you tell me that? Five years ago?

S1: But, yeah, it took a young a young 24 year old man to tell me that, you know, it’s funny.

S10: Well, yeah, that’s amazing. Yeah.

S5: Yeah, I’m writing that on my whiteboard.

S1: Right.

S10: Can I just say that at the beginning of this, when I was listening to you tell your story and my throat was like thickening up and I was like, oh, I’m not going to be able to speak where my throat’s clear now and say, same thing. Yeah. No, yeah. Like we did it, you know, like if this is in our bodies, then our bodies also respond to to connection. And yet I haven’t sorted everything I never saw to everything, not in this life. But you know. Oh it’s so precious to talk to someone who has gone through something similar and speaks a similar language.

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S9: Really well said. Same. No, I don’t feel the shakes like I did in the beginning. And yeah, it’s it’s been great.

S2: Thank you to Michael for sharing your story with us and thanks to Rebecca Stott for her great advice. Be sure to look for her book In the Days of Rain. A daughter, a father, a cult. Do you have an unusual problem that needs solving? Send us a note at how to at Slate Dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And if you like what you heard today, please leave a rating in a review. It helps us help more listeners. How TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director, Charles Duhigg is our host emeritus. I’m David Epstein. See you next time.