Breaking away from a cult, or not

I didn’t really know I was a weird cult kid until everyone at my new school explained that I was a weird cult kid. Or, no. They didn’t explain that to me, they just didn’t particularly like me because I seemed strange and brought packed lunches that involved sprouted mung beans, and for my part I had no idea how to relate or talk to them. It seemed to me that everyone knew a script that I was only just being shown, and I hadn’t turned up in the right sort of costume. (For one thing, they all knew the catch phrases from adverts, and I didn’t even have a TV).

I didn’t care, though, at first. My main impetus in trying to get to school had been to learn new things, and the thing about schools is that they’re all about teaching you new things, so I’d absolutely lucked out there. First up, fiction books. There was a whole warm wood-panelled library of these, and I gobbled them, telling my mother they were essential for school (they weren’t. In English lessons we read one book per term, and I was reading a book a day. It was bliss). In this way, I found myself with a context for my feelings, and that context was: words. If I could write down what I felt, I thought, like these clever authors had, then it would always be manageable. Sorted. You could even tweak at things retrospectively and make them sound a bit less shit than they were. Genius!

Next on my list of things to learn about was life in general. Apart from my sisters, parents and various cult folk, I had only interacted regularly with one or two neighbours and my cousins for my whole life to this point. I had absolutely no frame of reference beyond the Bible for anything that happened to me, and although I started school still fairly sure the Bible was probably right about everything, it having been so drummed into me, I nevertheless felt the need urgently to cross-reference my mother’s fairly sketchy teachings. Seemed only fair to get a second opinion, after all. For one thing, it would definitely please my non-religious dad.

The second opinion I got, and the third and fourth opinions, suggested to me that my mother’s rules and regulations (handed down as they were by The Message) were very probably spurious and entirely pointless. I had barely got through one RE lesson before the penny dropped that there are lots of faiths, all of which involve a set of rules and tests to prove one’s devotion, and it stands to reason that – since these rules don’t apply to all religions equally – someone’s got it wrong, and definitely won’t be ending up on a cloud playing a harp. Some poor sod is probably going to spend their whole life trying and failing to live up to an impossible cinammon-dodging standard, and then not be transformed into an eternal being after all that dullness and self-torture. For fuck’s sake, I thought. What an absolute swizz.

“For fuck’s sake, what an absolute swizz” pretty much sums up my internal monologue from the age of 13 onwards. I felt conned and betrayed. I won a Mars bar in a spelling competition and ate it and nothing bad happened, so I became obsessed with the confectionery that had been so comprehensively banned from my life til that point, and became increasingly rotund. I started staying at school until well after dark on a Friday, breaking all the Sabbath rules, and again nothing happened. I sneakily tuned my radio to Radio 1, listening to sinful pop music (fun fact: the first song I ever heard in my new rebellious life was Dreams by Gabrielle) and again, I seemed to be all right. A theme was developing, and that theme was, maybe Mum got it wrong.

I didn’t want to argue with or to blame my mother. She was my mum still, I knew she loved me, and I loved her. Quietly, though, I began to distance myself from everything she told me. There was a new cynicism in me to overlay all the preachings and teachings. What I thought then, and what I still think now, is how worryingly quickly that first disillusionment occurred. If I had never gone to school, it would probably have taken me longer to question anything, but once I got there it took literally less than a month in The World for me to realise I’d been peddled a whole bunch of pointlessness. The fact that it was so swiftly exposed once I prodded at it is why I have never questioned the setup of more insular cults and faiths, the ones that cluster together in cities and towns of their own making, like the Mennonites. Of course they need to stick together and not look outside their own self-made boundaries! It’s like the Truman Show – the moment you bump up against the painted sky, everything you’ve relied on reveals itself as a stage prop. It’s a terrifying experience, really.

I still didn’t know how I felt about God as a concept, but I knew The Message wasn’t for me as I moved into my teens. I decided that the best thing to do would be to get myself well educated, so as to guard against any similar tomfoolery being exercised over my mind again. I knew I was bright enough, and off I popped to the selective grammar school, where I started getting nice rows of As on my reports. My dad, rewarding these grades, bought me a tiny black and white TV – not much bigger than a radio – and on that TV I began to watch a new BBC series about young lawyers in London called “This Life”. I was entranced. Anna, with her bolshy outspokenness and big leopard coat! Millie, trip-trapping around in her kitten heels and knowing her way around law books like a pro! Miles and Egg, being all fuckable in suits! It looked impossibly glamorous to me. I decided on a This Life-based whim that I’d probably be a solicitor. I duly chose A-levels that would support a law degree.

Everything was sorted in my head by the age of 16. I was flying. Life was taking exactly the tangent I thought it should take. I had a plan, I had friends now too, and I was getting the grades. I didn’t want to be too smug too soon, but it did seem to me that I had escaped relatively unscathed from quite a strange upbringing, and the future was bright.

And then I discovered boys, and because The Message had told me that sex was wrong, of course the boys, and the sex, became all I wanted. They were everything, all of a sudden. And for more on THAT….

The circularity, the inevitability of it all, from my vantage point of twenty long years later – it blows my mind.

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