“…they wanted to fit in… they loved the idea of community… I mean, I think everybody wants that sense of belonging.”
Edited by Rebecca Werner.
Transcript for Not at the Expense of Being Myself
PART ONE Everybody Wants that Sense of Belonging [00:00-03:27]
So I was born in 1976 in a small town in Texas. My hometown is Wimberley, Texas. It’s about—just under an hour away from Austin. In my early school years I was very severely bullied. But my parents knew this was a problem. And they were very worried. And at some point when I was in second grade they heard of this new-ish phenomenon called homeschooling. And they decided to homeschool me. So I started homeschooling in third grade. And then when I was almost ten, so 1986, they met a very charismatic leader of a group that—everybody in the group homeschooled. It was a religious group. And after a couple months they ended up joining. In retrospect I know that this was a cult that we joined. So the next twenty-two years of my life were in this religious cult.
At the beginning, though, there’s definitely a lot of love bombing. So it’s like, “This is a fantastic place to be.” Everybody wants to spend time with you and it’s very warm. All of the aspects of your life are within the community. So none of our extended family was part. And we did stay in contact with them but there was still kind of this separation to a certain degree. We generally didn’t have a lot of close friends outside. Pretty much everybody who’s part of the group works within the group, lives on property with other people in the group. So your whole life is within the group and you know if you leave you’ll be shunned. You’re gonna leave, you’re gonna lose everybody. So it’s a very powerful motivator to stay. Even if you realize that things aren’t good.
There were two main leaders when I was young: B and H, I’ll call them. B was the founder. And he had more of a quiet charisma. I personally think looking back that there was probably also some form of mental illness at play. But he could make you feel very, very special. And he could also make you feel very, very awful. Which is kind of a powerful dynamic, actually. And then H was kind of the evangelist. And he was the one my parents first met. And he just kind of had that magnetism, like you remember him. There’s a much darker side to that but he does have a presence about him.
Both my mom and my dad—I feel like they went through a lot of their lives having a hard time finding where they fit in. And they wanted to fit in. I know they loved the idea of community. It was something my dad had talked about for years, that he loved the idea of people, you know, sharing their lives together and doing things together. And I think that that’s why they joined, was to have that sense of belonging. Because, I mean, I think everybody wants that sense of belonging.
PART TWO Gliding from One World to the Other [3:27-8:12]
We continued living in Wimberley the first few years that we were part of the group. And then we were strongly encouraged to move closer to where the group was. By that time they were split between Austin and Waco. So we lived in Austin for a time and Waco for a time. A typical time when I was, say, fifteen or sixteen: on Sunday we would go to a Sunday meeting that would start around one o’clock in the afternoon and usually would go until four to six. Generally, meetings were very long and everybody over the age of two was in them. So you started very young. And then during the day we might or might not do schooling. At one point when I was a teenager, the Brothers (as we called them) told my parents they thought I was getting a big head and they really needed to stop—stop my schoolwork. So at that point I mostly just did, you know, gardening and we did a lot of homesteading-type things. I learned to make soap, I learned to make cheese. I made a lot of quilts. I sewed my mom’s and my clothes. We had a very strict dress code there. Uncut hair worn up. Long dresses. Plain. Simple.
Everybody in the community is in a smaller group that’s usually around I’d say fifteen to twenty families and then there’s leaders of those groups. And they are kind of the more micromanagers of people’s lives. So you had to get permission if you wanted to buy a car. Or move. Or change jobs. Or go on vacation. Or visit your grandma. Or—well, get married for sure because they do arranged marriages. Anything that’s much bigger than what you’re gonna have for dinner is pretty much overseen by somebody.
We were made to feel that the world outside was a bad and scary place. We would be told about people who left and the next thing you know they’re on drugs, or they’ve had their lives fall apart in this way, or—a young man who had recently left died very tragically in a car accident. And they made sure that everybody under the age of twenty-five, I think, came to his funeral where they made sure we all knew that he was headed to hell because he had left before he died. So it’s very fear-based. So I’d go visit my grandparents and they’d have people over or they’d go do things and I’d go with them, or they’d have movies on (we weren’t allowed to watch TV; we weren’t allowed to watch movies) and I wanted to know more about the world. I wanted to understand more people. I wanted to understand more cultures. But I was also kind of scared. What if I got sucked into other cultures? And then I became like poor J who had left and then died horribly, and what if that was me?
As I hit my teens I became better at kind of gliding from one world to the other seamlessly, and like I mentioned earlier, my parents did always kind of nurture a sense of curiosity and a sense of, I don’t know, caring about other people. So, for example, the cult is very, very homophobic. We literally one time were told we should not wear Tommy Hilfiger clothes because he’s gay. And we were, like, “Oh, ok.” Now I look back and I’m like, “Oh, my God! How were they—?” Yeah. Fashion. My mom, though, when she had tried to kill herself five years before I was born was saved by one of her best friends who was gay. She told me, “You will be friends with anybody who cares about you.” So my parents had encouraged that feeling of being more open than the cult. But I kind of had to hide that.
PART THREE I Have No Future Here [8:12-14:22]
I think the thing you have to realize about a situation—a cult, a community, any kind of a situation like that—is how important trust is in that context. If someone else is dictating how you live your life you have to trust that on some level or another they know better than you do. They have a better connection with God, they are smarter, whatever. There has to be a level of trust. So in 2006, I became very, very sick. I was told that I needed to stop being a baby, and I was just having a bad flu, there was nothing really wrong with me. Couple times talked on the phone with my ministers and they were like, “Well, you can go to the doctor.” We were discouraged from going to doctors. They were like, “Well, you can go to the doctor but…” So the wife of one of my ministers came to our house and examined me. And said, “Oh, there’s something wrong. You have an abscess in your stomach.” Oh, that’s bad. Maybe we should do something about it. And she’s like, “Well, maybe we should wait and see what the Lord will do.” And kind of went back and forth like that for a few more days before I finally did go in and I got a CAT scan. And they said, “You don’t have an appendix anymore. And you do have abscesses.”
I ended up going in for surgery. She came with us to the hospital and I had a very strong sense that she was there to make sure we didn’t say anything that would cast a bad light on them. They’re just trying to cover their butts. They don’t care about me. They care about not getting in trouble for what just happened. Looking back that was when I started losing my trust. So it was two more years before I left but that was—that was a very defining moment because they nearly let me die. But around the same time I was called into the office. I was in trouble because somebody had seen me talking to a visitor-man. I don’t even know what they thought I was doing. I was talking about air conditioners. Very, very sexy stuff. And I got in trouble. And they were like, “It should’ve been a man helping him. And even if it had been a woman, I really doubt that God would use you to help somebody.” And I went, “I have no future here.” That was the moment I knew I was gonna leave. I thought, “I have no future here. If this is how the people who are controlling my life to the point I nearly died see me, what am I doing here?”
But around this time, I was on a message board. I had been on a message board for a few years. This is another thing I really wasn’t supposed to be doing: we didn’t have internet in the home but we did at work. And when I would be bored at work, or I’d be sitting on hold, I would go on this message board. And I had made friends with this nice couple. David is the man of this nice couple. I don’t mind saying his name. David and his wife were on this message board. I’d known them for a few years, and David’s brother joined the board. And they were like, “You know, I think you two would like each other.” I was like, “Meh. Not interested.” But we did notice each other. And we hit it off. And he called me and we talked on the phone. It was all very sneaky because, you know, I wasn’t supposed to talk to boys and here I am talking to this guy in Chicago.
To back up a little bit: I mentioned that they had this covenant that you have to do. They decided everybody had to reaffirm it and I was like, “Oh, shit, if they ever bring this out, I’m gonna have to just leave then because I am not—” You literally had to sign it ninety-six times. One Sunday they brought it out and they say, “Everybody has to read this. You have four weeks to read it and sign it.” And so I called him and I was like, “I’ve got to leave here.” He was like, “Ok. Let me talk to my parents.” So he called me back and he said, “My parents said you can come live with them.”
Again, we had Friday night meetings. Everybody was in Friday night groups. My mom and I were actually in separate groups. So that Friday night she left for her group and as soon as she left, I packed up my car and left. And I picked Peter up at the Dallas airport and we drove to Chicago. Moved in with his parents, got engaged ten days later. And married two months later because after two months with his parents I was ready to move to Massachusetts or get married. Which, again, I look back and I’m like, “We were insane.” And I think a big part of that, like, looking back in all seriousness: I feel like some problems we had later in our relationship, we would’ve been a lot better off having more time, having more guidance. I had no clue of how to even find a compatible partner. And I think I—in a lot of ways I got lucky. We’ve had our problems. We actually almost got divorced a few years ago but in a lot of ways we are very compatible. But I had no idea.
PART FOUR Hold My Boundaries [14:22-17:51]
So when I called my mom, she felt that if I would’ve at least told her face-to-face, it would’ve been easier. I’m not convinced it would have. But I do know that for her to come home to a note from me was—she probably did deserve better than that. And she had a very hard time with that. And our relationship was very rocky for quite some time. I am proud of the way I did kind of hold my boundaries. Like, on my birthday she sent me an email saying, “Your dad would be so disappointed in you. I’m glad he’s dead and not here to see how you’ve turned out.” And I was like, “Ok. We’re taking a break for a while.” When I told her I was expecting my first baby she was really excited at first and then she was like, “Well, I hope you don’t take him to hell with you.” So that was hard. She was always a very kind person. So when she would do these things I would know it was coming from someone else. But that didn’t make it hurt less.
And then after that things started getting a little better. We went down for Christmas one year. And then the next year she was diagnosed with breast cancer again. It was her third round of breast cancer. It was very, very aggressive. It was bad. During the last six months or so of my mom’s life, I visited three times with my kids and spent time with her and got to spend time with people that I had not seen in years and really loved.
For me, trying to find where I belong has been very difficult because when I would find a potential friend group, people will have things in common that I just don’t have in common. I actually made myself sit down and watch all of the seasons of Friends even though I absolutely hated the show just so I’d know what the references were. Because I had friends who talked about it all the time. At some point I thought, “That’s crazy. Why am I doing this?” And then I have two children who are special needs. And I’m a forty-six-year-old in college. And I think I’ve hit a point in my life where I realize I don’t have to fit into a group so much as I need to just find people that I can be myself with and I can appreciate who they are for themselves. So even here at school I have a lot of friends who are, you know, in their early twenties. But I appreciate them for who they are. And they’re my friends even though I could be their mother. Taking the pressure off of myself of having to fit in has improved my life. That doesn’t mean I don’t still want some sense of community, but I don’t want to look for it at the expense of being myself.
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