My Life Inside ‘The Family’ Cult
They called him The Shepherd and he fit the stereotype of a sadistic German. His beatings were meant to break us.
“Do you remember me?” she asks, as a hopeful smile spreads on her face, like she’s trying to tease the right answer out of me. We’re not children anymore. We’ve left. Some of us left with our families, some with our friends, and some alone. Now we’re living in this other world where we keep having to explain—why we lived in so many countries, why our accents change when we talk to strangers, why we didn’t go to school, why we can’t sleep. But to one another, to those of us who grew up like me in the Family, we don’t have to explain.
Yet on message boards, on Facebook, and now, outside a coffee shop on South Congress in Austin, this same question—“Do you remember me?”—comes up over and over. It’s usually followed by the volley of questions we’ve tested to figure out who we were then. “What was your name? Who were your parents? Were you in Osaka? Switzerland?”
Part of the problem with growing up in something so secluded as a cult is that our pasts are so unbelievable we need a witness for our own memory. And so we seek out those who remember.
When I met Ruthie, I was crossing the country in a tiny Winnebago because this is the sort of brilliant idea you get when you can’t sleep. My trip stalled in Austin with a broken clutch, so I sent out a message on a board for cult babies, “Anyone here?”
Ruthie responded and I invited her for coffee. I didn’t need to figure out who this woman was, I knew. She was a frazzled German with an American accent who clutched her coffee, her fingers worn ragged. Those calluses and scars were a by-product of what our parents would call “homeschooling,” but whose curriculum was heavy on diaper-changing, cooking, and the words of our prophet. With its lack of anything that might be considered a real education, some of us have difficulty finding work that doesn’t make our hands bleed.
We were thirteen the last time Ruthie and I saw each other. Her name was Faithy back then and I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone, because the last time I saw her we were both still in the Family and we were in serious trouble.
We lived in a huge, ten-bedroom chalet in Switzerland which had once been a quaint bed and breakfast. If it weren’t for the Family’s avoidance of even basic upkeep, it would have been like something you’d see on a postcard. Our window boxes were filled with rotting memories of carnations, the roof leaked, and the floors sagged under the weight of all the people they supported. We’d managed to cram nearly seventy of us into this particular home. Its one virtue was that it was close enough to the American military bases in Germany that we could pick up Armed Forces Radio. That was important, because I had a radio.
One night, a home shepherd called Auntie Mercy shook my shoulder to wake me. My first thought was that the Romans were at the door. Romans were cops and we practiced constantly for when they made their inevitable raid on our home. As Auntie Mercy put a finger to her lips to shush me, I looked around and saw that the other kids were still asleep. This was not a good sign. I followed her out onto the landing in my undershirt and panties because when a home shepherd summons you, you don’t stop to get dressed. She didn’t say a word, only turned, and I followed her down the stairs.
The other home shepherds were in the dining room along with the shepherd for my age group, Uncle Stephan, who waved his weirdly hairless arm at me and said, “Have a seat, sweetie.” When a word like sweetie, so innocent and saccharine, slips out of the wrong mouth, you’ll wish you were wearing pants. I sat in the chair facing them, and rubbed my eyes, acting sleepy to buy time, like staring down a gun and pleading for a cigarette.
“Should we pray?” asked Auntie Mercy. We held hands, mine clammy, and we prayed as I flicked a hardened, yellow grain of overboiled rice with my toe. The eels began to turn in my stomach as I waited for the inevitable next line.
“Do you have anything to tell us?”
I started small with the confessions. I’d played this game before. “I haven’t been putting my heart into my chores,” I said. If I got it right on the first guess, they’d just keep digging for more. I would give them anything. I would have to. But I wasn’t giving up my radio.
One thing most cults have in common is you have to give up everything to join. In that home, and every other home I’d lived in, there was a pile somewhere of random items someone had given up to follow Jesus. If Grandma or Aunt Nancy sends you a package, that goes in the pile too. Occasionally, all this crap is divvied out to those who need the supplies, or those with enough pull to get something they want. When I had been tasked to clean up the pile, I found the radio.
Faithy caught me listening the first night. She slept below me, in the middle bunk of the triple-decker. I was up top. Wherever we went, the bunks were built out of two-by-fours and plywood. The mattresses were bare foam, but weren’t too bad. The foam was easy to cut into if you wanted to hide something—hard-boiled eggs, a book, a corner of a chocolate bar, or even a radio. Faithy and I hadn’t talked much because I had been on silence restriction and not allowed to speak to anyone but a shepherd.
Silence restriction and sign-wearing were the newest tactics in arbitrarily inflicted punishment. Silence restriction is pretty simple to understand. Then we wore signs around our necks made of cardboard or plywood with catchy slogans like SILENCE RESTRICTION or I NEED TO COUNT MY BLESSINGS or PLEASE REMIND ME TO SMILE—that last was being worn by an eight-year-old whose desire to smile remained unchanged. Punishments came and went like any other fad in the outside world but favorite methods included writing essays, memorizing chapters of the Bible, a paper-clip daisy chain wrapped around your head and then hooked to each cheek to force a smile, running laps around a driveway, pointless manual labor, isolation, public beatings, bread-and-water diets. These, usually in some combination, could last days or months and there was no way to tell which way it would go.
Faithy was new to our home, louder than the rest of us had learned to be, and she had more than one pair of socks, a sign she’d been living in smaller homes where kids get things like socks. I met her the night I accidentally pulled out the headphone cord from the radio and she heard the static from the little built-in speaker. From that night on, when we were pretty sure no one else would check on us, she’d climb into my bunk. I snapped the plastic band attaching the earpieces, we’d each take one and huddle together under my blanket to listen.
Since it was my radio, I got to choose between our only two English music stations. And for a few hours each night, we experienced a whole new world.
The Family produced their own music but their songs weren’t about love or loss or pain. Family songs praised Jesus, or our prophet, or the Family itself. The radio brought music and words that made us feel hope and loss. I could live another life in the radio’s music, another life where I wasn’t so afraid of everyone. Sometimes we’d hear the Cure or the Smiths. I loved the angst-ridden, painful voices I didn’t understand but felt pouring into me. Faithy wasn’t as enthralled. She liked Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson. We’d tap our toes against the footboard until we remembered that we weren’t alone, and stopped for fear of waking up the kid on the bottom bunk.
Our secret created a bond and we started talking during the day. We talked about places we’d been and told stories from before, when the cult had been just hippies, traveling in caravans and living in campgrounds, and we remembered being happy. There wasn’t much else to talk about. She saw and did everything I saw and did. She was good at remembering movies and as she’d lived in some of the more liberal homes, she’d seen more than I had. She’d tell me the movies, scene by scene and sometimes line by line, like they were stories.
I hadn’t made many friends, or at least didn’t keep them. I was in trouble a lot and few of the children around me were stupid or brave enough to be friends with someone on the shepherds’ radar. Friends in the Family were a liability, but now I had a friend, or something close to it, and I liked having someone to talk to.
Then a few weeks into our nightly listening party, Auntie Mercy caught Faithy in my bed. We’d accidentally fallen asleep. Auntie Mercy didn’t see the radio, but she told us she’d better not catch us again. When she didn’t say anything to us the next day, we thought she’d let the infraction slide. If she had, it would have been the first and last time she’d shown anyone mercy. I didn’t know her well enough yet to fear her as I should have.
“What else?” asked Uncle Stephan. His eyes were cold and blue and he had this German accent, which was perfect, really. I had tried to avoid him, but avoiding him was impossible. I hadn’t seen any Nazi movies or I might have known that he fit the mold, like a caricature. His eyes terrified me.
Despite only wearing a thin undershirt, I wasn’t cold. Still, I folded my arms over my chest and shivered.
“I was foolish. I told some jokes I know,” I said.
“What else?” After the first hour, I ran out of things to confess. I was tired and confused. I stopped talking. I didn’t know what they wanted. I closed my eyes and I was quiet when I heard his boots on the tile floor. Uncle Stephan always wore boots in the house. No one else ever did. Grandpa didn’t like wearing shoes indoors because shoes dragged filth inside and evil spirits could hitchhike on shoes and clothing. “Grandpa” was David Berg, the founder of the Family. The adults called him “Dad,” which was as confusing as it sounds. In another reality, another time, he’d have been locked up in an institution. In my reality and time, he founded a cult.
I felt Uncle Stephan’s breath on my face for a moment. Then he slapped me hard across the face. I heard the shepherds praying for me again, or maybe they were praying against me. I felt my lip with my tongue and tasted blood. I didn’t know where my parents were or if they knew what was happening. I didn’t dare ask.
I opened my eyes and met his across from me. I hated him.
Uncle Stephan had already put me on silence restriction for a month. I’d only recently been allowed to talk again. We hadn’t seen a movie all year because we weren’t “following the spirit.” It’s not like we ever watched anything but musicals anyway, but those were better than the nothing we had now. He liked public punishments. And he used a bamboo cane he carried around with him. Spanking wasn’t anything unusual, but his cane, which broke skin, only happened behind closed doors. Most of the time they just used a belt or a paddle.
So I stared at his eyes and I didn’t blink and I wanted him to see I wasn’t crying. I knew he’d break me. They hadn’t broken me yet but it was inevitable. All I wanted in that moment was for Uncle Stephan to know breaking me wouldn’t be easy. I looked above Uncle Stephan’s head and saw a poster of Jesus. This wasn’t the blond, friendly Jesus. This Jesus was coming down from heaven on a horse, surrounded by the flames of a burning earth.
If the shepherds had watched any cop shows before they dropped out to follow Jesus, they would have known the proper way to do an interrogation. While I sat in the dining room and tried to figure out what the shepherds wanted from me, Faithy was in the shepherds’ office upstairs and probably wondering the same thing. They didn’t know they were supposed to tell me Faithy was upstairs and I should tell them everything before she cut a deal. But then again, there were no deals in the Family. Confession, while possibly good for the soul, was not good for my immediate future.
I couldn’t think of any more small crimes. So I just started making shit up.
“I took some apricots from the pantry.”
“I was hungry and there were lots so I thought it was okay.”
I murmured about having to watch the kids instead of going postering last Saturday. That was a lie, but a lie that might work in my favor. I liked taking care of the little kids. Plus, my mom was in charge of them so being assigned to help with the little kids meant spending the day with her while most of the home was out raising money by selling posters or knocking on doors and asking for donations.
Six hours later, the sun was up and I could hear the home stirring upstairs. The kids assigned to make breakfast walked around the circle of shepherds and me. The kids looked straight ahead as they passed. There was a time when I might have felt humiliated. But we were used to public punishments now so I didn’t mind them seeing me. We’d all been in this chair at some point. Those who hadn’t knew it was only a matter of time.
The shepherds either had what they wanted from me or gave up trying. Auntie Mercy wanted to pray again. This time I had to hold their hands and the words she prayed told me this was just the beginning of my ordeal.
A few weeks later, still in the attic where they’d decided to store problem kids like me, where we’d read the insane ramblings of our drunken prophet, where they expected us to report every thought that passed through our heads, where the beatings happened daily, I broke. It sounds more like a sigh than the shattering you feel in your soul. I remembered how it didn’t hurt when I broke, how it was easier after.
The Romans came that night. But they were too late. Someone tipped off a reporter at the local newspaper, who tipped off the home shepherds. Before the sun rose, we quietly crammed ourselves into vans, kept our heads below the windows, and our shepherds drove us to the next home.
Faithy didn’t come to the new home and I knew better than to ask where she’d gone. And now, this woman named Ruthie, with Faithy’s face and voice, was asking me about the radio. “Did they ever find it?”
“You didn’t rat me out,” I say. No, they never found the radio.
“But then why did you get in so much more trouble than I did?” she asks.
“I wondered about that for years. But you know how it goes, you just stop thinking about it. Then one day, I was telling my girlfriend about the radio and I finally figured it out. They thought I was gay.”
“Goddammit,” she says, smacking the table. The pearl-snapshirted Austinites stop to stare at the interruption of their peace. We both smile at the three Family sins she’s just committed—drawing attention, unwomanly loudness, and the greatest and least forgivable, taking the Lord’s name in vain. “How much did that suck?”
I laugh and shake my head and say, “Fuckers.”
This is the shorthand we speak because she knows, without me having to tell her, how hard it was to give them that one thing. To know they were right, even if only once. But at thirteen, I wasn’t yet a lesbian, or anyway I didn’t know it. Back then I was just an awkward tomboy.
She shows me pictures of her husband, her kids. I show her pictures of my dog. We talk all afternoon. She says she’s doing all right. Maybe we’re both grading on a curve, but I tell her I am too.
And we don’t have to explain. We remember.
“The Shepherds” appears in Granta Magazine’s latest issue, #137 and is reprinted here with permission. For more information visit www.granta.com.
Lauren Hough was raised in The Family and has lived in seven different countries. She’s been an Air Force airman, a green-aproned barista, a bartender, and a stand-up comic. She lives in Austin, Texas.