My Voice

ICSA Today, Vol. 2, No. 3, 2011,16-19

My Voice—Learning to Speak After the Cult

Alice A.

I don’t remember life before my parents’ divorce, when I was just two years old. My earliest memories are of the years when my grandmother, the leader of our small and loosely organized cult, lived with us. Like most second-generation adults (SGAs), I had no idea that I was growing up in a cult. And even where I could see vast discrepancies between our family lives and those of other people I met, I accepted my grandmother’s two explanations: that we were worse off because of my father’s absenteeism, or that we were better than others because of our superior faith. I didn’t have enough context for what a healthy family should look like to question our own family or to recognize the ways in which we were dysfunctional. But I did know my own thoughts; and so, even as a young child in our cult, I knew at least in part that my young attempts to communicate often fell on deaf ears.

There was a sharp contradiction in our home between the high esteem my grandmother claimed to have for communication, and her dogmatic refusal to allow us free speech. She drilled proper grammatical rules into us from a very young age, and openly encouraged us to expand our vocabularies. Her stated goal was that when we eventually entered into lives of public speaking, we would be received with the respect and admiration apparently reserved for those learned individuals who, for example, knew not to end a sentence with a preposition. As a child, I never questioned her assumption that I would eventually speak in public, but secretly I found myself thinking that I didn’t particularly want to. Despite the importance she placed on choosing the right words, she cared remarkably little for what we children had to say. I remember feeling frustrated, lonely, and unimportant when I was not able or not allowed to express my thoughts and feelings.

As a child, even though I could tell my grandmother didn’t understand me, I rarely questioned the rightness of her responses to me. Today, as a parent, I am finding my voice at last. Years after we had left our cult, right up until my daughter came into this world, I found myself continuing to obey some of my grandmother’s rules, out of my fears that she might really be right. But when I held my baby girl in my arms, a primal, powerful force within me woke up. The inner voice that had scarcely known how to whisper in my own defense roared like a lioness to defend her. All the beliefs that I wasn’t good enough, that I was innately selfish or unlovable somehow became irrelevant—I was free enough by then to believe that my baby deserved everything this world has to offer. And as I have begun to work on my own recovery, my daughter has been a sort of interpreter for me: Every molecule in my body believes in her rights, and little by little I am able to believe those rights are mine, as well.

The following are many of the rights to which I believe my daughter is entitled (as am I, as are we all):

I believe my daughter has a right to have needs, and to expect that they will be met.

Growing up, I routinely heard my grandmother warn against spoiling young children, even babies. I learned at a young age not to ask for things that were inconvenient. I tried not to want things too often, or to “selfishly” ask for help. After we left the cult when I was 12, and as I grew to adulthood, I continued to struggle to make requests on my own behalf. I felt guilty asking for perfectly reasonable accommodations, expressing my preferences, or needing help. And then my baby came. Every parent knows that a hungry baby at 2:00 in the morning is an incredible inconvenience. Most parents understand that there is nothing remotely selfish about it. Babies’ small stomachs need food more frequently. Babies regulate their breathing, their temperatures, and their heartbeats when mommy holds them close. Their small bodies sleep better when they are reassured, by her frequent contact, that they are safe throughout the long dark night. In short, even at nighttime, babies have needs. My daughter had needs. Her needs were not wicked, and she deserved to have them met quickly, and lovingly, and consistently. My grandmother had suggested that babies could be spoiled. But my heart fervently insisted that my baby had a right to have her needs met.

I believe my daughter has a right to have a wide range of emotions, and to express them to me with no worry for her safety.

There were two emotions that were openly allowed in my childhood home: happiness and gratitude. My grandmother claimed that fear and anger were both sinful, and she had a long “testimony” about the time in my infancy when I had been “healed” of sadness forever (which by extension meant I was not allowed to feel it ever again). On rare occasions when I did try to express my “bad” feelings, my grandmother would neatly relabel them to things she could forbid. Sadness, boredom, loneliness, and ennui were all forms of ingratitude or selfishness. Anger and frustration were forms of pride. Fear was a “lack of faith,” which was a sure path to demonic torment in my grandmother’s teachings. I quickly learned to suppress much of what I was feeling; and it has actually been a harsh and startling realization now, as an adult, to discover that my childhood was not nearly as happy as I had been led to believe at the time.

I am still learning how to name my feelings, and still growing confident in my right to do so. But for my daughter, I have no doubts on the matter. I know she’s allowed to feel. I encourage her to express her feelings, and I’m trying to help her learn positive ways to do so. I’m careful not to claim that certain emotions are “bad,” or to suggest that we should hide our less pleasant feelings, although I do acknowledge to her that I enjoy some feelings more than others. “I like to be happy,” I tell her, “but sometimes I’m sad; and that’s okay, too.” I work to be honest about my own feelings without making her feel responsible for them. Wanting her to know the language of her own feelings has been one of the most powerful motivators I’ve found for working through those issues myself.

I believe my daughter has a right to her own thoughts, even to disagree with me, and to share those thoughts without fear of punishment.

In my childhood home, any disagreement was considered sinful. If we questioned our grandmother’s claims, this was considered a lack of faith. If we argued, it was “willful disobedience,” which demanded punishment. And so when my daughter stomps her small foot and scowls at me and announces, “You’re wrong about that, Mommy!” I want to stand up and cheer. I may be frustrated by our argument of the moment, but I am elated that in her little body there is a fierce spirit and a strong voice. I don’t always let my daughter have her way, but I do my level best to always let her have her say.

I believe my daughter has a right to be treated with respect.

My grandmother had a great deal of contempt for most other people. I remember running errands with her, and seeing other children with their parents. If a baby cried, if a toddler threw a temper tantrum, or if an older child “talked back,” my grandmother would turn to me and say in a haughty voice, loud enough that she was sure the child’s parents would hear, “You can teach a child not to do that.” Intuitively, I knew it was rude of her. Meanwhile, of course, I believed her completely; and so I was always uncomfortably embarrassed both for the parents and for her in such moments. And I knew better than to do that myself—whatever the that in question happened to be.

At other times, my grandmother would tell us with disgust about a woman who didn’t wash her hands before lunch, or she would tell cruel jokes about someone’s lack of intelligence. She was, in fact, a bully. As part of her circle, I was supposed to agree with her always, and to make note of the ever-growing list of things to avoid myself. The lack of respect she showed to others and to me led me to internalize the message that I deserved to be treated well only if I was meeting her exacting standards. Later in life, this belief led me to tolerate mistreatment as though I deserved it.

In truth, no one deserves to be mistreated. In truth, respect is not a reward for good behavior. Every single person deserves respect simply for being human. I want my daughter to know she deserves respect. I want her to know she is allowed to protest if someone treats her with contempt. I want her to have the strength and courage to stand up for herself. I want her to have confidence in her own worth.

I believe my daughter has a right to be her own self, and to be loved completely for who she is.

I learned to censor myself as a child. When something as innocent as playing make-believe could be punished (if the theme of that game was, in some way, “wicked” or “selfishly” motivated), it was very hard to be my whole self. I shared those thoughts I believed my grandmother would enjoy hearing, and kept secret the thoughts I imagined would anger her. I learned to lie to her about the games I played with my friends rather than risk being forbidden to play with them anymore. I learned not to ask questions that would be interpreted as a lack of faith on my part, even when it meant I was perplexed and isolated instead.

In addition to constantly censoring myself, I allowed my grandmother to lie about me to other people. One of my most important jobs as a child was to make my grandmother look good. One of the ways she used me to achieve this was to make me the subject of many of her parables. She would retell tales from my life like the proverbial “big fish” story. She took excessive license to reshape the events of my own childhood. She boasted about my “faith” and exaggerated the “glorious” benefits I reaped from it, in order to create more effective testimonies for her teachings. She could claim I had said or done whatever she wanted, and she could claim any outcome she wished to instruct others by my example. She called the little girl in those stories by my name, but her stories bore little resemblance to me or my life. My job in real life was never to dispute any of her claims about me. At best, I was allowed to watch on in confused silence; at worst, I came to believe this version of myself she described. My true identity was stifled when I was a child.

In contrast, I want my daughter to be herself, her whole self. I want her to grow up free to be honest about who she is, free to demand respect, and free to expect unconditional love from the world around her. I want her to imagine vividly, to dream big, and to make her own path in the world. I want her to have failures without letting them define her. I want her to have a basic, fundamental belief that who she is deserves to be loved. I want her to be able to discover who she is without anyone else’s plans for her getting in the way. I want who she is to matter, instead of how she can be used to benefit someone else.

Recently I told my daughter, as I often do, “I love you.” She grinned, threw both hands in the air, and shouted back, “I love you, too!” I laughed at her exuberance and said, “I think you’re awesome.” She lowered her hands, cocked her head to one side, paused, and then told me with joyful confidence, “I am awesome.” Words can’t express how happy I was to see her express that calm, assured love for herself.

I wasn’t aware of our family’s dysfunction when I was growing up, but I was aware of feeling frustrated when my grandmother refused to hear me. I was aware that there was a disconnect between what I tried to communicate and how it was taken. Furthermore, as I think back, I believe that a great deal of the “misbehavior” my grandmother perceived was just developmentally appropriate attempts at communication (babies crying, toddlers having tantrums, older kids beginning to exhibit critical thinking). I’m determined that my daughter be allowed to communicate. I’m determined that she be allowed to have a voice. And as time goes on, I am determined to find my own voice, as well.