I’ve heard from several people that I should talk to you because of your interesting childhood. Can you tell me about it?
My mother got pregnant with me while my folks were living in Morocco. She’d grown up in the well-to-do suburbs of Detroit, near the Ford family, and she and my father were able to live like carefree vagabonds off her allowance.
They moved back to the United States to be closer to family before I was born. Then, when I was about one year old, my parents moved to a health spa in Mexico, where we lived for 18 months. My mother taught hatha yoga, while my dad worked in the garden. They ate nothing but fruit and my father took a vow of silence for a year.
Did it drive your mom crazy to have a husband who wouldn’t talk?
My mother has always been a tranquil person, and I’m guessing she really took to the meditation part of yoga to stay calm. She also had a young baby (me) to keep her occupied.
What did she do during your dad’s vow of silence?
It’s funny, my whole life I thought my dad was the yoga teacher, but when I called my mom for clarification, she told me that she taught yoga. It makes sense, because, as she said, “I was willing to communicate with people.” What an interesting way to put it. That’s why Dad worked in the garden.
In 1969, when I was three, my folks met a group of sincere young “Jesus Lovers” in Encinitas, California. We simply referred to this group as “the church.” The men were our “brothers” and the women our “sisters.” There was an instant feeling of family, which was no doubt why it appealed to my parents, who had both come from broken homes.
But there was also a huge amount of pressure to appear more pious than the next person. A sort of spiritual game of “I can do anything better than you,” but with your soul on the line. Upon joining this group, we moved to East Los Angeles and later to New York City, before eventually settling in Fullerton, CA, when I was eleven.
Were the moves prompted by the conversion?
Yes. Every move was called a “migration” by the church and was to spread “God’s Move on Earth.” We were doing His work.
Since I had already been to six elementary schools by 6th grade, it was hard for me to make friends. This was compounded by the increasingly cult-like tendencies of our church.
We all dressed pretty much the same: girls in modest navy blue or beige skirts. We were discouraged from questioning the church leadership and from “mingling” with the outside world, including family members. Communal living was encouraged so that we could exhort one another in the faith.
We were not supposed to read any Christian literature not published by “the Ministry” and marriages needed to be approved by the elders, and sometimes were arranged by them.
We were not supposed to speak our own opinions or even to have them, because anything of yourself was considered unGodly. There were meetings at least seven times a week, and we were supposed to have a time of prayer (a so-called “morning watch”) first thing every morning. There were excommunications and shunning.
We were encouraged to be “in the world, but not of it,” and I always felt isolated in school. Because of this, my best friends were books. When I was six or seven, my babysitter was reading The Hobbit and Jane Eyre for school, and I picked them up and devoured them before she could finish. I don’t remember a time when reading didn’t provide me an escape from the real world.
From the time I was three until the time I was in college, we always had a minimum of 12 people living at our house. At first it was a family of six who lived with us, then it was a few brothers from Ghana and Nigeria, one from Taiwan, and a couple from the U.S.
We had “brothers” in our home until I hit puberty. After that, my parents decided that with five girls, it might not be such a good idea to have so many men in and out of the house. Of course, we’d probably had over 70 men live with us by then.
Even though we weren’t allowed to listen to “worldly” music, watch television, or see movies, there were some exceptions. I got to see Star Wars when I was 11, and Pete’s Dragon when I was 12. We got a TV when I was nine, but it was only for Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. My Dad would feel the set when he got home to see if it was warm.
But still, I had it easier than many of my church friends. I was allowed to listen to the radio on days home sick from school. My friend Brent restored an old fashioned radio from the 40’s, and his dad caught him listening to music and smashed the radio, because he was listening to devil rock ‘n’ roll music. My parents would have just asked me if I was listening to my conscience, and then I would have felt too guilty to do it again for a few months.
By the time I was 19, there had been a few scandals and shake-ups in “the church” and my parents were beginning the process of leaving.
They finally left due to a sex-scandal involving the leader’s son. The leader refused to hold his son accountable and tried to blame everyone else for it.
My dad was heartbroken, because he had given 20 years of his life to this group by this point and had been an elder, so he felt like he himself was culpable in deceiving people. It took them a few years to leave and they still meet with ex-members often in what feels like a replica of what I grew up with.
What are your parents doing now?
They are both retired. My father became a school teacher after he left the church, and my mother was an administrative assistant at a local university.
What is your relationship like with them now?
It is strained, due to old wounds, but we are all working to mend fences. I’ve spoken with them quite a bit in the past month. I don’t want to have regrets when they are gone.
I’m amazed your parents stayed together through all those life changes: fruitarian to super Christian and all those cross-country (and continental) moves! What do you think it was?
My parents made me believe in true love. They have made so many mistakes that I can fault them for, but they have always been each other’s refuge. And they both have a lot of wit and humor.
When did you start to realize your childhood was unusual?
I was a National Merit Semifinalist in high school, but I never knew that there was a next stage to the competition, so I never took it further. It’s possible that the school informed my parents, but the notices got misplaced. Things of the “world” just weren’t that important; what was important was to be Godly.
I think I always knew my childhood was different, but we were taught that we were “the salt of the earth” and different was good. But I was too smart, and part of me knew there was something off, and it threw me into depression starting at about age 12. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until I was 35 that I realized that I had grown up in a cult.
This group had been called out for being a cult many times (and sued), but I never wanted to believe it. It was easy to rationalize the attacks on the basis that the righteous would always suffer for their beliefs. I still don’t ever mention the group by name on my blog, because it will inevitably cause attacks from the faithful.
When it came time to choose a college, I had many options, but decided on Cal State Fullerton, because I wasn’t ready to leave home.
Really? Seems like you would have been eager to get out.
Not at all. I was a shy bookworm. Until junior high, I had been almost unable to make eye contact with strangers or make appointments over the phone.
I met my husband, Nick, the summer after my sophomore year of college, when I was 19. That was strange, because my town felt like a fishbowl, and I was afraid everywhere we went that church members would see me with a man who wasn’t one of us and would disapprove.
Nick told me later that he knew there was something scary about my church by my reaction and the way I always looked over my shoulder like I was in hiding. My father talked with me a lot about being “unequally yoked,” a reference from 2 Corinthians that was used to keep us from marrying outside the church.
Was Nick religious?
He’d been raised Catholic, like most Mexicans in California, but his mother did a lot of questioning in the 1970’s, so he got to experience many different Christian denominations, whether he wanted to or not. He is sort of a non-practicing theist.
Nick and I dated for seven years, then I moved to San Diego, because I was accepted into a Ph.D. program at U.C.S.D. studying English, and I had open-heart surgery in 1991. I was at U.C.S.D. for two years before we got married.
As a byproduct of my sheltered upbringing I had promised myself that I was going to travel internationally and live on my own before I got married. I did not want to be one of those church girls who went from her father’s house to her husband’s house. That was a very common path among my peers, and I always knew that was wrong for me, no matter how much I’d been indoctrinated.
I did manage to get to Morocco, Israel, Egypt, England, Scotland, Spain, and France, among other places.
I’ve been to 17 countries in all. I never lived by myself, but I did share two different apartments with two different roommates, which was fun.
How did your parents feel about your path?
I had a conversation with my mom not too long ago in which she told me that she doesn’t worry about me. Of the six “kids,” I think she can only say that about two of us. So I’m going to take that as positive validation.
I’ve been with my husband for almost 27 years now. I have wonderful, brilliant children, even if they drive me crazy with their stubbornness at times, and I am working on my own issues, because I am absolutely worth it.
What parts of your childhood do you try to offer to your kids and what parts do you try to shield them from?
I’m still not comfortable with much from “the church.” My father used to pick my kids up after school and have “homework club” with them and their cousins. I thought this was great, until I found out he was giving them Bible lessons. I told him that was not okay with me, but he continued it behind my back.
I had to discontinue “homework club” for my kids, and sadly, they have had a lot less time with my parents since then. I feel like the bad guy, but I feel like it’s a threat to them.
My son goes to church group once a week, and he went to a sleepover camp last weekend. I jokingly told him not to let anyone touch him inappropriately. He said, “But, Mom; it’s a Christian camp. Nobody would do that.” I just reminded him that people are people no matter what the label is.
I don’t want my kids to be cynical, but I’d rather they were safe. Having grown up in a group where I wasn’t allowed to voice my own opinion, I am proud that my kids are independent thinkers and have strong voices of their own.
Where are you living these days?
We got what I think of as “sidetracked” for 11 years, during which we lived in Temecula, CA, in the Inland Empire. Known for low-cost housing, wineries and heat, this town never felt like home to me, even though I gave birth to three children there.
In 2004, we made the decision to move back to Fullerton, where both of us had lived through college. I liked that my family lived here, because I’d always wanted my children to be close to my sister’s kids.
We didn’t end up being as involved with my family as I had hoped, but the neighbors were amazing and I made friends at the kids’ school almost immediately.
Although Fullerton is Orange County, it is not very “Real OC Housewives.” People are generally here to go to college or to raise a family, so there is a dichotomy between the party town and the family town. If you are raising a family here, it feels a lot like Mayberry. People stay here for generations.