I’m Glad No One Tried to Rescue Me From the Cult

My marriage in the cult, June 1991.

Before we could be married in the cult, Man and I would have to have a counseling session with one of the Fathers.

The counseling was not to make sure that I loved this man and was not being somehow coerced into what — in our world — was a lifetime commitment without exception. I would be telling a different story today if it had been.

It was to make sure that I knew my place and he knew his rights.

The entire town of Saint Marys had been taken over by the cult’s members, and the heart of the life here was the old Indian Mission, now known as “Campus”. It was indeed a college campus laid out like many others, though somewhat decrepit due to age and the organization’s lack of funds. If you were to walk into the large open space we called the quadrangle, you’d be surrounded on all sides by old stone buildings full of dark hallways and dusty claustrophobic rooms where Native American children were once stolen away for indoctrination into European ways.

You’d be standing in the same space where I gave a speech in 1995, unknowingly echoing the sentiments of Harvard’s first Native American graduate Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck two hundred years before. If I had known and had the capacity to understand any of the campus’ history at the time, I might have thought the weight of hopeless captivity I felt in my body was more than just my own plight or the crimes of the present-day occupants hanging over this place.

Man and I would have had to enter one of these buildings by climbing a stylized staircase and opening the heavy old door to the main college building. This was where the priests had their offices.

I walked up this staircase and entered this building for the counseling session. Image from Historical Sketch and Pictorial https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hn5aba;view=1up;seq=25.

We sat in separate chairs facing the priest in his cassock, a long black robe that all of the Fathers wore.

Man reached over to the arm of my chair and took my hand in his as if to prove that we were in fact deeply in love.

“Do that on your own time,” barked the intimidating man in the long black robe. Man quickly withdrew his hand.

His voice then softened. He began to lecture on Man’s dominion over me.

Man, as the representative of Christ in the family, would make all of the major decisions for us, the priest explained. I would have no place in those decisions.

“What kinds of decisions might I make?” I asked tentatively, interpreting his wording as leaving an opening for me to have a say of some kind, at least some of the time.

“Small, everyday decisions”, he replied. “For example, you might decide what kind of soap to buy for the household.”

The delights of sex, forbidden before marriage, would become a virtue after marriage. From this would come children, and we were to accept however many God would send us.

There would be no birth control. Any attempt to avoid pregnancy, even if it would put my health or my life at risk, would put our immortal souls in peril.

The priest declared that we could do whatever we wanted in bed “as long as the sperm goes in the right place”. The purpose of the marital act, he said, was procreation, and we were never to do anything that might “frustrate the end of marriage”. End, in this context, meant purpose. There was only one reason that sexual pleasure could be allowed, and that was as a reward for producing soldiers for the army of Christ, the Church Militant.

He went on to explain that if Man wanted sex, I was to oblige him. I was not allowed to say no. To do what he wanted with my body was his “marital right”.

This was the formula that had created a town full of eternally pregnant women caregiving around the clock for huge families with new children arriving sometimes less than a year apart. I was about to join them.

I gave birth less than a year after my marriage, and then again the year after that.

Trapped in this place, I saw the ocean of misery around me and felt myself being swept away in the same current as all of these women that had begun the journey before me. I was 21, 22 years old, having babies I did not want with a man I did not want — who nevertheless had a God-given right to force himself on me. I looked at women with 8, 12, 16 children and more and felt with a deep, deep dread that this was only the beginning for me.

I found myself kneeling in the chapel on campus on Sundays, looking at the veiled heads of the women in the pews front of me, and next to them the bare heads of their husbands.

“He has sexual rights over her,” I murmured to myself. My eyes moved to the next couple. “He has sexual rights over her. And he has rights over her. And he has rights over her….”

Perhaps if I thought about it enough, turning it over and over in my mind, I would begin to understand something deeper. My second baby was getting older each day. As my body healed from that birth and began preparing for the next, my window of opportunity to change something for myself was closing. I believed that another pregnancy would lock me into the status quo for a time yet again. Maybe forever.

I began to bargain with God.

While I was cooking, while I was doing the dishes, walking down the street with my two babies in the stroller, the deal I needed to strike with God was all I could think about.

Oh God, please. Let him fall down the stairs and break his neck when he comes home drunk tonight.

Please let his drunk driving earn him a fatal car crash so that he nevers walks through that door again.

Every time Man was even a few minutes late coming home from work, I’d start to imagine that God had answered my prayer and the horror was over. Just for a moment, I could see freedom.

Every night, those fantasies would end with the sight of him, alive and well.

I promise I’ll live on bread and water alone until the day I die.

I promise to spend the rest of my life celibate. I can’t become a nun, but I will minister to this town as a lay counselor and help keep marriages together to make up for the one I broke.

Oh God, please help me before I get pregnant a third time.

Please, God, please. Help me.

I wasn’t consciously looking for an escape from the cult and its belief systems or I might have seen that there were other ways out besides waiting for God to kill my husband. Full escape may have been a distant and vague idea in my mind, but at that time I could not think beyond my most urgent need: to take control of my own body. To do that, I had to be free of Man.

My brainwashing would not allow me to seize control of my life myself. If I were to be saved from Man, it could only be by the hand of God. I was already risking the eternal flames of Hell by presuming to ask that God to end my suffering in this way.

I have often wondered what might have happened if someone had come to me in that time between my second child and my third and told me urgently, earnestly, “Rose. You were born into this world, so you think it’s real. But this is not the real world. You think you are owned and controlled by this man, but it’s all lies they made you believe. You are in a cult. These men in black robes are cult leaders. You are brainwashed and I’m going to deprogram you. Your flawed thinking is the only thing holding you captive.”

How would I have reacted to that?

If you are truly a member of a cult, just by nature of that cult and follower relationship you don’t know what you’re in a cult. This life, as horrifying as it seems when I describe it now, was my normalized reality.

I would not have known the concept of “cult”, let alone the difference between “cult” and “not a cult”, and I didn’t have the mechanisms to begin questioning my own thinking. There is evidence that I may have just begun to grasp that an ideological structure was holding me captive because I had begun trying to look for a way into its logic. I had begun attempting to bargain with it, but I was doing that bargaining from a humbly supplicant position. My language still fully recognized the cult’s validity and its authority over me.

I was still more than a year away from escaping and would give birth again before I did.

“You are brainwashed and I am going to deprogram you. Your flawed thinking is the only thing holding you captive.”

I imagine my response would have been something along these lines: “No! What do you think I am? Stupid? I’m highly educated in classical studies, theology, and logic. How could I be brainwashed? Get out! Now!”

I may not have known how to stand up for myself, but I definitely knew to stand up for the cult and its teachings.

And that would be the end of that rescue attempt. I’d still have more than a year of captivity to go.

Changing other people’s deeply-held beliefs, especially when those beliefs are tied to personal identity, is a complicated and delicate proposition. In my particular situation, the cult used classical education (classical music, literature, art, Greek and Latin) to give me a sense of my own high intelligence and superiority. It was a privilege to be in the cult and to be better than people in the outside world. This intellectual and cultural superiority was a core part of my identity, and it may have been the one thing that preserved my sense of self while I served as a handmaid, household servant, and an object for Man’s sexual gratification.

It probably would not have gone well if someone had come barrelling into the only world I had ever known, proclaiming that I wasn’t really educated and cultured, but had in fact been duped.

They would be asking me to relinquish all sense of self, and in an instant become no one. I’d have to instantly realize that all of my sufferings had not been for some noble divine cause, but literally for nothing.

Yeah, I would have fought that. Maybe I would even have dug in my heels and recommitted myself to my own captivity instead of escaping in another year or so. Perhaps the anchor of the third, then a fourth child would have tipped the scales to make my escape impossible.

Fortunately, these are just hypotheticals. No one actually made a ham-fisted attempt to rescue me.

Over the next eighteen months, I slowly picked apart the false logic that held together the belief systems that gave the cult its power over me.

Why did I believe what I believed?

I came to understand that the men in black robes created and sustained the world I lived in. What gave them the authority to dictate my life?

I extended my analysis to my mother’s history and how that history might have informed her motives for beginning my indoctrination at my childhood home in Maryland, and her motives for bringing me here. She was passionate, and unwavering in her beliefs, and conveyed them with convincing stories and charisma. So did the men in black robes. But did the manner of delivery necessarily mean that those beliefs were based on sound logic?

I learned to see and quantify the relationship between myself and the cult, and how that relationship created my sense of identity and sense of duty. I could now re-examine my beliefs about my societal role and obligations as a woman in that context.

Then, I re-examined the relationship between myself and Man.

I had a right to tell him no. I had a right to expel him from my life and never let him put his hands on my body again. I had a right to freedom, agency, and control over my own body. I had to claim and protect the right for my children to control their own lives, make their own choices, and control their own bodies.

What ultimately saved me was a process of analysis that deconstructed my place in a hierarchy and the ideologies that were designed to keep me in that place.

Imagine that my hypothetical rescuer — instead of barrelling in and confronting me, threatening violence against my entire identity — carefully and intelligently helped facilitate that process of analysis I must have been born knowing how to do?

How might they have accomplished this? How would they find a way in without antagonizing me and risking my shutting down? How could they start facilitating my progress while respecting my emotional state and where I would have to begin the process?

If we can answer this question — and I know we can, because we do it in other areas — then that is how we have to approach things like antiracist education and implicit bias training.

I have no tolerance for white supremacy, but understanding how to approach people and how people become receptive to new information is important. No education program will succeed unless those things are carefully considered. But as of today, here we are asking people — in their places of work in front of all of their coworkers, no less — people to “confront their unconscious bias” and “admit their privilege”.

What result can we realistically expect from barrelling in like that?

We can expect emboldening and renewed entrenchment of racist ideologies.

Defensiveness. Rage. Redirecting to irrelevant topics. Crafting arguments from logical fallacies, and repeating them ad nauseam to bury truth every time it tries to surface. Public figures collecting money from people who weren’t ready and felt their identities threatened, promising them their funds will go toward protecting them, keeping the communal feeling of righteous indignation going, and helping people with more power than them fight the good fight on their behalf.

Poorly-considered antiracist education brought Christopher Rufo on itself. Read Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” or anything Jane Elliot ever produced and think of it in the context I’m presenting with this story. If we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s not hard to predict people’s reactions to DiAngelo’s or Elliot’s rhetoric.

“No! What do you think I am? Stupid? I’m highly educated and do my research. I have black friends. My partner is Asian. I’m 1/16th Native American. How could I be racist? I don’t have a racist bone in my body! I don’t see color! Get out! Now!”

I’m convinced that antiracist education can and will be better designed and more appropriately presented. I will never give up on that, and I’ll do my part to make it happen. But here’s the biggest problem.

I deconstructed a hierarchy, a cult, and revealed myself as a victim at the very bottom of the structure. Once I was out of reach to the people at the top of the hierarchy, my plight could only improve.

How do you craft your approach when you want someone to deconstruct a hierarchy and not only see themselves at the top of it but also voluntarily renounce their superior position?

As I looked up from the bottom of the hierarchy and begged God to end my suffering, the men in black robes were relatively happy at the top. As I’m watching antiracist education barrel its half-baked, clumsy way into the mainstream, I’m pretty sure the right approach isn’t anything it’s already doing.

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I grew up in a cult. I escaped. I still search for freedom from oppressive constructs. Digital Artist, Storyteller.

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River Irons

River Irons

I grew up in a cult. I escaped. I still search for freedom from oppressive constructs. Digital Artist, Storyteller.

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