What It Is Like To Be Raised In a Cult

For all intent and purposes I was raised in a cult. If you ever want to know why I am the way I am, it is because I was raised in a cult. The biggest embarrassment of my childhood is that I was raised in a cult. There I said it….almost out loud.

My life started off pretty normal..

Christmas 1969
Christmas 1969

I was baptised as a baby into the Lutheran faith, but I do not really remember ever going to church much. My dad died when I was 5.  My mom, who was obviously lost and searching for something decided to join a new ‘ church’. I was 5 and I do not remember it affecting me much at the time, but after a while life just got weird in my 6 year old head.

6 years old
6 years old

I will probably need to back up and try and explain this new church.

I won’t go into tons of detail, but you can read about it here.  ” The Church” as they liked to call themselves, because you know, they were the only true church out there, * please sense the sarcasm* was actually called The Worldwide Church of God and this was around 1973. This church was established in the 1930’s  under the leadership of the self proclaimed apostle and prophet, Herbert W. Armstrong.  Most of the doctrines were later found to not even be biblical. As an adult,  I have ZERO interest in religion of any sort, and I do not even own a bible, so I have no intention of fact checking any doctrine.

I was not surprised to read years later that this church was actually considered and listed as a cult. You can read more links here, here, here and here. There is  also a DVD about it as well.

Throughout my childhood and more so my teenage years, I was horribly embarrassed by my family. I was embarrassed that my family belonged to this church. I was embarrassed to be part of this church. I was embarrassed by the people who went to this church. Even as a child and later a teenager at church events, I would look around and think in my head ‘ what the actual fuck’. ‘This is fucking bullshit’. Shhhh….. those thoughts alone would have me cast into the lake of fire. But to keep peace I smiled and tried to behave myself. Thank goodness prophets were not mind readers.

I wished I could either crawl under a rock and hide.  Or maybe crawl out from under the rock that these people chose to live under. I couldn’t decide which. Actually speaking about rocks, a funny story was that ‘the church’ claimed that at some point…their dates kept changing..all 144,000 of God’s chosen people would be flown off to a place of safety, which happened to be a place called Petra. Petra is actually a tourist destination, but they were convinced that this city made of rock, was protection for the great plagues that God would bestow on all the sinners. OMG, it was imperative that you fully follow every law set forth from the pulpit, to ensure your seat on the ‘wings of a great eagle’ to the place of safety known as Petra.  I am sorry… I just can’t make this shit up.

Throughout my childhood I was angry.  Part of belonging to ‘the church’ meant that you must  disassociate yourself from non believers. In my case this was all of my paternal family. I had just lost my dad and now I lost my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and was only allowed to see them on a very limited basis. I didn’t understand why this was happening and I carried this anger inside for many years. I am happy to say that by my late teen years and early 20’s after leaving the church I was able to have a great relationship with my grandparents. They are both past on now, but I also have a wonderful relationship with the only surviving link to my dad….my Aunt Ilean.

A rare visit with our Gramma
A rare visit with our Gramma

Anger was not an emotion that we were allowed to express. By my early tween years my mom had remarried, and while I am not sure about all church households, ours was run with the same strict rules that were preached from the pulpit.  Breaking rules or expressing anger was usually met with disipline. Rule with an iron fist, spare the rod and spoil the child, is what was preached. Personally, I think it was just residual anger issues on my step dads part, but I am no therapist.  A clue to the makings of a good cult is keeping people subservient …. and obviously my parents were well indoctrinated.

I am still friends with several people who I grew up with in ‘the church’. They also eventually left and now share my skewed up view on religion. They were also the bad ones, the rebels, the ones who pushed the rules. Most of us do have a killer sense of humour, and several are alcoholics. HAHA! Just kidding!  They are not real alcoholics, but we certainly joke about it, because even just in writing this, I am feeling the need for a drink.  If nothing else kids of the WWCof G around the world have probably kept a lot of therapists on fantastic vacations for years.

Growing up in “the church”, with all of the weird rules and crazy doctrines,  certainly did not earn us any popularity in school, but everyone knows that true Christians will be persecuted, so we learned to maneuver in ‘the world’ as best we could.

We also learned to pack a bag, because we were going on a guilt trip….Oh my Lord the guilt trips, either the guilt in our head for calling out ‘fucking bullshit’ silently, or the guilt trip we were sent on for breaking a rule. This is where I learned to be a people pleaser, and to do things I didn’t always agree with to avoid guilt trips or the dreaded lecture. I learned to stay quiet, stay small and fly under the radar not making waves.  I suppose what does not kill us makes us stronger…. along with bitter, angry, spiteful and alcoholics. Did I mention kids of the WWCof G drink a lot?  ( back to the therapist I go…)

I am only speaking for myself for a lot of this story, because like I said, I am not sure how other church families operated. Mine was pretty strict. Because my parents didn’t want to be called out for having children who didn’t follow the rules. They certainly did not want to be called out publicly during a sermon for some infraction…. somehow this would bump them down on the list for their seat on the great eagle I suppose. Keeping people fearful was the cornerstone of this and every cult.

Some might be thinking…. why didn’t you just disobey. Break the rules, tell your parents what you thought.  Well… it was complicated. As a member of ‘the church’, if you disobeyed, didn’t follow the letter of the law, questioned anything or showed any sort of disloyalty to ‘the church’ then you would be held to the ultimate shame of being disfellowshipped. Once you were disfellowshipped you were destined for the lake of fire with all of the other sinners. This was the ultimate way that they were able to control their members. Our household was run the same way and our life was fear based. Should you disobey or question anything, then you would be cast out on the streets as the ultimate punishment. Left homeless with no family. Your life would forever be a living hell, until death, when you went to the lake of fire.  Now I don’t know if it came down to it, if they would have actually thrown me out, but I really didn’t want to find out. As it was… at least I had a roof over my head. So I just bided my time and developed trust issues….only half joking!

We did go to public schools, and could interact with others during school hours. But for the most part friends “in the world”, what few friends I had, were limited to school hours.

As kids, we spent quite a bit of time in the library. Since we did not observe Christmas, Easter, Halloween, St Patrick’s Day or anything else that looked like fun, we had to sit out for all related art classes and concert preparations. Can you say segregated and  lonely? All you could do is hope that the weird(er) kid who ate the paint was also sent to the library so you would be the normal one.

Speaking of not celebrating holidays…. have you ever hid in the dark on Halloween not being very quiet when the doorbell rang? I have!  Christmas was certainly a fun time….said no Church kid ever! Those Christmas presents Gramma sent you…. yeah sorry, she knows we are not ‘of the world’. How dare she try and make us sin by wearing those Christmas socks!  Return to sender. It could totally explain the 3 Christmas trees that you find in my house for the whole month of December now and everyone gets lots of socks from Gramma!

We could not go to any birthday parties.. well because it was better to celebrate the day of ones death than the day of their birth. So no birthdays for church kids.

We could not do sports or any extra curricular activities. Why not…? Well, because most of these activities took place on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was sundown Friday to Sundown Saturday.

We did no manual labour on the Sabbath, except minimal cooking. If you had a job that required you to work on the Sabbath, you were commanded to quit. The fact you needed that job was irrelevant.

We couldn’t spend money on the Sabbath… so it was very sinful if you forgot to get fuel before sundown and you needed to fill your car to get to church…seriously people, I am not making this shit up.

Oh and yeah… we went to church on Saturday. There is nothing weird about that at all when you are 12 years old and trying to fit in. If I was lucky enough to have a friend, they usually went to some sort of church, but never on Saturday. Yeah I was a freak even amongst the other freaky religious kids.

We did have activities for children and youth of ‘the church’. Track meets, summer camps, and other supposedly fun things. I avoided them and faked many an illness to get out of them, because well…. it goes back to looking around at all those fresh faced, happy, young people and all I could think was ‘ this is fucking bullshit’.

Lets see…. what else? It was a sin to be rich. Something about it was easier for a poor man to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven. Or something like that… whatever it was, blessed are the poor.

Seriously… there was serious money hangups, if you had any money, you had better get rid of it as quick as possible, preferably through a donation to ‘the church’. One way they kept everyone poor was to use a tithing system. At least 20% of your gross income was paid in tithes and every 3rd year you paid 30%. Once again…. fucking bullshit.

The ministry and higher up people in ‘the church’ were paid from these tithes, and they were paid well. The church pulled in over 200 million dollars a year back in the 70s. The fearless leader Herbert W. owned several mansions along millionaire row in Pasedena, California and was at the center of nurmerous scandals. Herbert W. was also the subject of a 60 Minutes investigative report.

Ministers at a local level lived in nicer houses and wore nicer clothing than members of the congregations because they were obviously in the power positions and need to present themselves well to the world and those they were trying to convert.

Every aspect of our life was managed and monitored by these people in the power positions. Everything from what we could wear to how we wore our hair. Modest clothing always, preferably skirts or dresses and long unadorned hair for the women. While men’s hair must be cut around the ear and could not touch the collar of their button up shirt.

Makeup was also not allowed. Something about vanity and harlots. It was also not advised to tell your daughters they were pretty and all that other vain nonsense. They certainly didn’t want to build self esteem in your children, which meant you were full of yourself and not God. So beat them down and tell them without God they are nothing.

Men ruled the household, and managed the money. Women were to be meek and submissive. Ummmm…. more bullshit.

And sex only in the missionary position….haha, I bet you didn’t expect that did you? I am not sure how many people followed this one. But knowing what I know about a lot of those people, I will suspect a lot of them did. They were not going to risk the lake of fire for carnal yearnings.

Anyway… I could go on and on. But I think if you managed to read all of this, you get the drift of what cult life is like. I am positive that if everyone arrived at church to a jug of kool aid and instructions to drink it and lie down, everyone would have drank it and settled in for a nap, no questions asked.

I did eventually grow up and leave this cult. Nothing bad happened. No hell on earth, no boils or sores. Actually life got much better. I spent several years not talking to my family because of it. My mother took it rather hard at the time. But the funny thing is, she and my step dad are now divorced and she no longer attends any church that I know of. If she does, she doesn’t talk about.

As an adult over the years, I have done a lot of work on myself to fix some of what ‘the church’ left me with. I and alot of my friends came out of it OK. But it is sad to realise that ‘the church’ really fucked a lot of people up. How many peoples lives were ruined, how many families broken and relationships that were torn apart.

I have never talked about how I was raised, and I try to spend as little time as possible talking about or remembering my childhood. It can be summed up in a couple of words, sad and lonely. I think I am ready to come out of the shitty childhood closet though, tell my story and hopefully help that little girl realise that her childhood wasn’t her fault and she no longer has to be embarrassed by it.

Me at 11
Me at 11

When you know better you do better and I think I have done much better providing happier childhood memories for my own children.

*you can read a follow up to this post here*

 

 

 

 

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31 Comments

  1. That was an excellent job of describing a shitty situation…..good job….you won’t here this often, but I’m proud to call you my sister….now I’m going for another beer….just so I don’t get all emotional

  2. Wow Michelle ! When I first read “cult” I was thinking that is a strange word to use, but you were so right. I can understand so many things about you now. That’s huge for throwing it all out there, but well done. I hope this allows you to heal. Hugs

  3. This reminds me so much of a friend of my husbands who left another well known ahem “religion”. It was very difficult and he had to keep playing along even when he didn’t believe anymore. This “religion” required him to preach around neighbourhoods for a certain number of hours a week on top of a full time work week otherwise he would be held up as a bad member. He couldn’t watch certain films or read certain websites or books so he had to self censor. I wasn’t until he moved interstate for work he felt he could leave. Thankfully his family didn’t disown him, but I think they have to keep his leaving a secret so they are not expelled. Cults are so damaging to family ties and it’s so important people like you tell your story. Well written as always too! 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing. Let the true healing begin my friend. These religious cults are very scary and have deep reaching fangs into every aspect of their members lives. The true motive is always hidden from outsiders. Money, power, control for those who hold that power. I believe many members don’t join on “free will” but out of desperation to belong, to have support, security. They see no other way out… they drag along their children who have no choice. The lies told to members who are seeking these and other human necessities on Maslow’s Hierarchy are not realized until too late… if ever. The damage done is deep. It’s important that you shared this and you should share it far and wide.

  5. Thank you for sharing, that is part of a healing process even though u may think you don’t need the healing, if these thoughts came to you in the night it must be a sign to talk, I am sorry you had to be put through this, kids don’t understand when families are different……I feel so blessed to have grown up in a pretty regular family, I think this is why I am so close to my family & cousins, we celebrated everything from New Years, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas together, not to mention many family occasions!

  6. I grew up in a cult. My parents joined when I was 8 and moved into it when I was 12. I feel like you’ve written all my emotions and experiences down. I also escaped, but it hurts to have people still in it.

  7. Oh my…you hid this well Michelle. Was “the church” also a big part of the reason your mom moved out west? To get away from family?
    I am your godmother and when you were baptized, I vowed that I would be be sure that you were brought up to believe in God and to learn his commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. When I heard that you had joined “the church”, I spoke to my pastor and asked him what I could do to get you out of it. He told me that as long as you were were under your parent’s guidance, there was not a thing that I could do about it. THAT really made me think long and hard about organized religion. I was truly upset that I could do nothing and felt so bad that you were not allowed to celebrate special events, especially Christmas.
    I am sure that it was very hard for you to tell the world about this cult that robbed you of your childhood. But I am also quite sure that your heart now feels lighter and you are feeling free. Good for you! I now understand the changes I have seen in you over the years … All for the better I might add.
    Love you lots and you take care.

    1. Thank you! It certainly wasn’t your fault. Its hard to prove emotional abuse within the walls of religion. After years of doing a lot of work on my own mental and emotional health, it wasn’t that hard to write it. It was a little harder to show it to my friends and family…. but it does feel so freeing.

  8. What a fascinating read! I’m so sorry you had to endure that kind of life but I love that you are sharing your story. I think this life happens to more people than we realize but no one is talking about it. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Thank you for sharing! I’ve been contemplating talking about how I overcame my anxiety issues and this post helped me find the courage to post about it. I’m still not ready to talk about what happened, but if I can help others overcome their anxiety/panic attacks that are a result of PTSD, then at least I could help in some small way.

    1. It does take time! I actually left this church about 30 years ago, at the age of 20. I have been avoiding, processing and overcoming for a long time. Until last week, no one knew.

  10. Wow! This was one hell of a read. Thank you for sharing your amazing story. It can be rare to get an honest window into the shared insanity that is some of these cults!

    1. Thank you for reading! The scary thing is that people who are in them seem to think they are enlightened and they are living the right way. Its not until you are out you see just how delusional cults really are.

  11. I know there are cults out there like this. I’m heartbroken to read how it affected your life. Brava for finding your voice and your way out.I hope you continue to talk about it with someone, because it will help you heal. Herbert and is mignons were twisted. They were all about power, control and money. They had nothing to do with church or God. I’ve not always believed in God, but I am now a woman of faith (who likes sex in lots of position)s and doesn’t judge anyone for anything. I hope you draw all good things into your life from now on. Brenda

    1. Thank you for reading Brenda! I left about 30 years ago, and it is so nice to finally get it out in the open and go public. My life since leaving has been very good. I know I am not alone… as so many people have messaged me saying they shared a similar experience growing up.

  12. Great read! I think when people think of cults it seems as if the people involved are those you could never relate to. Without pausing to thinking that it could be your neighbor down the stree

  13. This is fascinating. Thank you for sharing your story. I have to wonder (and my apologies if this has come up somewhere that I haven’t read yet), but what did all those “faithful church goers” do when the ‘cult’ broke up? Did they move on to new cults/religions? I’m glad you were able to escape and have been able to raise your children with the things that you did not have. I think that takes a lot of bravery.

    1. Thank you! I do believe the church is still going. Under a different name, but a lot of the high up leaders are still the same. There was a great division a few years ago, and some of the leaders left and took half the congregation with them. So there are different branches of it now. Same shit different piles. At some point, just for curiosity, I do plan to do a bit more research into what is going on now.

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