What My Life in a Cult Says About America

Father Ramon Anglés (center) and River Irons(back left) on the Saint Marys Campus in September 1991.

I emerged from a cult and into the real world at the age of 23, a destitute mother of three children. I was 14 years old when I went into the cult, but my childhood years before that had been anything but normal.

My mother’s mission to ensure my salvation began in the months after my birth in February of 1977. She gazed at me in my crib, contemplating my innocence and the seriousness of her responsibility in the eyes of God. In that tiny bedroom in Prince Georges County, Maryland, I became the reason she fully understood the preciousness of an eternal soul.

My mother had grown up with eight siblings in a fanatically religious Catholic household 1960s. When the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962, my mother was seven years old, the age at which most young Catholic children receive their First Holy Communion. The early 1960s marked a turning point for the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council was bringing radical changes to both the Church internally and its demands on the lives of everyday Catholics.

When he called the council, Pope John Paul XXIII was looking to present a friendlier face to the rest of the world by taking the teeth out of Catholic doctrine’s legendary severity, at least on paper. The Catholic Church would now present itself as a more welcoming and far less judgemental space.

My mother would have had quite a few years to become well-versed in the stricter forms of Catholic doctrine before things began to change substantially, but she didn’t live the old Catholic life long enough for it to become a part of her identity. Her father, John, who had served as an altar boy in the 1930’s and who had been proud to see his son John Junior follow in his footsteps as an altar boy at Latin Mass, saw Vatican II as the beginning of the end of everything he had ever known.

In the updated Catholic Church, Mass would no longer be celebrated in Latin while the priest turned his back to the people. The priest would speak English and face the congregation. Of all the changes the Council brought about, this was the boldest and most visible for Catholics as well as outsiders. But behind this new public face, there were a host of other less visible changes: tolerance of other religions, some basic rights for women, and a relaxed dress code for men and women of god as well as for laypersons.

The end of the Latin Mass signaled the end of some of the Church’s more rigid teachings even as John was working to instill those beliefs in his children. For people like John, who had depended on the Church to lay out every aspect of life in an absolute binary of black and white, right and wrong, what we came to know as the “Novus Ordo” Mass became emblematic of the Church’s decline. There was nothing that terrified him more than philosophical and moral ambiguity.

The Catholic Church had, in effect, conceded that there were legitimate gray areas in human life and identity. Cracks appeared in the hull of the Bark of Saint Peter, even as it was supposed to be carrying John and his family to salvation. Traditional family values and all that was good and holy in American life could now be swept away in waves of confusion. Vatican II had set the world on a perilous moral course.

John never smiled again. Of his nine offspring, only three, including my mother, took the religious indoctrination of their youth into adulthood. The other six John believed to be spiritual victims of the laxity Vatican II brought to Catholic practice. He carried within his bosom the agony of a broken heart.

Because my mother’s childhood straddled the line between the old and the new Catholic Church, she had as much chance of being saved as she did of being lost like most of her siblings. She had a brief flirtation with the ways of iniquity, a few years in which her childhood indoctrination and her overwhelming desire to gain her father’s approval through strict religious observance lost their grip on her.

During this time, she married my father, a Protestant man with little to no interest in religious practice. In keeping with his pre-Vatican II convictions, John did not attend his daughter’s wedding.

As she contemplated me in my crib, my mother thought about John’s disapproval of her marriage. She imagined what it must be to lose your children to eternal damnation. Now the very husband who had made this baby with her posed a serious danger to the child’s immortal soul. A gaping chasm of iniquity stretched out before her innocent Rose. As soon as I walked forward far enough in my young life, I might fall headlong into it and plummet to the depths of Hell.

My mother swore to protect me from the evils of the world and the threat that her husband posed right here in this house. She would not be one of John’s lost children. Her innocent Rose would not be lost. And John would smile again because she was going to find him his Latin Mass.

Despite her unhappiness and fear, my mother held herself to the standards that John had set for her in her childhood. Marriage was forever, so she could not leave my father. Reproduction was the only reason God created sex, so she could not thwart His will with birth control. She had three more children. Even in our tiny house, she isolated us from our father and his television-viewing habit so well that we hardly knew him.

My sisters and I were not to partake of the outside world, lest it corrupt us, so bizarre homemade clothing ensured that we experienced our short time in public school as “others.” The “normal” children bullied us mercilessly.

Then homeschool sealed us off from the world entirely.

My mother was sure that the days of salvation and the return to the Latin Mass would come. Until then, my childhood would be a holding pattern of daily morning and evening prayer rituals, religious study, Church, and mailing our handmade rosaries to missionaries evangelizing the poor children of Africa.

John was a long-time expert in conspiracy theories and a convincing purveyor of them. I can still hear my mother explaining to me matter-of-factly why her father believed that Holocaust never happened. She told me he had taught her that unmarried women wouldn’t have menstrual cycles if they were genuinely pure. Before the lapse that led to her unfortunate marriage, John had taught her well, and now it was her turn to return the favor. Her quest for esoteric knowledge that could save her family from the chasm of iniquity and make her father smile again became an obsession.

There was but one obstacle holding her back: my Protestant father. In April 1991, when I was 14, he died of a heart attack on the bathroom floor at his workplace. He was 42 years old.

My mother’s quiet 14-year quest for salvation exploded into unchecked evangelical zeal. Through another homeschooling family, she had gotten word of the promised land where we could live “thirty years behind the rest of the world”: a town in Kansas called Saint Marys. This town was what we had been waiting and praying for these last 14 years.

Saint Mary’s was a town full of people just like us, centered around the Latin Mass celebrated on the campus of an old Indian Mission. Nuns wore pre-Vatican II habits that hid more of their hair and bodies. The women didn’t wear pants — they only wore long skirts and sweeping homemade calico dresses. They obeyed their husbands. No one had televisions.

There was no birth control. Couples accepted as many children as God chose to send them.

Ultra-Conservative Catholics were buying up most of the real estate in and around Saint Marys for their huge families. They were taking over most of the businesses, too. Word was that if you went there, it would feel like you had been transported to a different time, as women in long dresses walked the quiet sidewalks with strollers and multiple small children in tow.

There were a few people left who weren’t part of this growing congregation, people the Traditionalist Catholics majority called “townies.” The townies would be easy enough to ignore until they went away entirely, pushed out by the aggressive influx of ultra-Conservatives who wanted nothing to do with them.

To my mother, Saint Mary’s promised nothing but good old-fashioned family values and a straight and narrow path to salvation. We’d be completely safe from the corruption of the modern world, and the delinquency of the Post Vatican II Church.

My father’s body had been in the ground for less than two months when my mother sold our home and nearly everything in it. She destroyed most photographs of my father and my childhood in her quest to leave her mistakes behind and forge a new relationship with God. Her father and mother sold their house too. Her brother quit his job and sold his house, followed soon after by her only other sibling who had kept the faith. They would all follow my mother and bring their children to the Promised Land.

My father’s sister — not religious until my father’s death sparked a close relationship with my mother — would also bring her family to Saint Marys, convinced that my mother had answers that no one else could offer. Such is the immense power that claims of esoteric knowledge wield over people disoriented by fear and grief.

In the heat of July 1991, we started across the country from Maryland to Kansas in a long caravan of vehicles. We laughed and joked on walkie-talkies between the cars and the single moving truck that carried all the material possessions we had left in the world. As we made our journey to the Promised Land, we celebrated and sang together.

“Oh, Give me home
Where the buffalo roam
And the Traditional Catholics play,
Where never is heard A Novus Ordo word,
And the Protestants are far, far away….”

That little town of Saint Marys, Kansas, would form the boundaries of my life for the next ten years.

With her children physically isolated from and conditioned to fear the outside world, my mother was free to spend her days attending daily Latin Mass, praying and meditating on the Passion of Christ, and continue making rosaries to help missionaries colonize the children of Africa. Her father indeed began to smile again.

As for me, I was brainwashed, prepped, and primed for submission to the husband with whom I would enter into a loveless, duty-bound union at the age of 19. Without contraception, obligated to give my husband his “marital right” to my body on demand, stripped of my agency, I gave birth to a child each year for three consecutive years of a four-year marriage.

An ultra-conservative Utopia that could allay all the fears of damnation my mother had carried with her since her childhood meant a dangerous and unfree life for me.

“Annunciation (I am the Handmaid of the Lord)” — Pigment Print from Digital Photo Composition, 26 inches by 36 inches, Artwork by River Irons, 2019

At the time of my escape in 2001, my abusive husband and the cult of Saint Mary’s had consumed nearly half of my young life. I had long been watching, waiting, for that moment I would know intuitively was right for me to take my children and flee with only the clothes on our backs. When that moment came, I knew.

Even though fleeing my marriage had become a matter of survival for my children and me, my family would never “condone” my actions. God had blessed my union with this man, and what God had joined together, no one could pull asunder, at least not without dire eternal consequences. To my family, the salvation of my immortal soul was more important than my happiness. It was more important than my physical safety — or at least I knew that’s what they would have said had they have allowed themselves for a moment to believe me about what happened behind closed doors.

I knew that I would be damned to hell for all eternity. I knew that I had nothing — no real-world education, no job skills. I didn’t know how I would navigate the complexities of a world I had not even seen since those limited glimpses I’d had through the age of fourteen. I didn’t even know how to dress or speak like someone on the “outside.” My three toddlers and I had little chance of survival without the support of my husband or the community of resources within the cult.

But beyond my fear, I ached desperately for freedom. I decided to flee, and that choice was all mine, but I may as well have been banished. Those were the rules of the constructs within which I had lived the last ten years of my life: my family would be allowed to speak with me only with the sole purpose of bringing me back into the fold. I accepted my banishment and went to live alone with my children in low-income housing on the far edge of town.

Food stamps and welfare were all I had. My rent was $3.00 per month because charges were based on a sliding scale, and my income was $0. Medicaid and food pantries took care of my kids.

I adamantly refused to enter the workforce because I feared placing my kids in daycare. I had been brainwashed to believe that it would seal the damnation of their souls and mine. My mother had never held a job for precisely this reason, nor had any woman of childbearing age in the cult. God provided through the husband, the head of the household. But how would God provide now that I had rejected my husband?

Desperate and alone, I clung to the routine of making my kids breakfast, taking them for walks and to the park, putting them down for naps, and cleaning the apartment. After all, this was the role my mother and the cult had prepared me for: motherhood and domestic life. This I knew how to do. Make a living, making a living in the real world, providing a future for my family — I had no clue where to even begin to do any of that. I couldn’t face the nebulous, looming horror in front of me.

I had no plan to go forward but couldn’t fathom going back.

I waited for God to take care of me. But the God of my Mother, the God of my Grandfather John, was silent as I waited in the dark.

God wasn’t going to take care of me. It didn’t work like that.

Perhaps there was another way. As my mother’s daughter, and her father’s granddaughter, it was nothing strange for me to seek esoteric knowledge to allay my fears. I found a book about “attracting money.” It said that I could magically draw toward me as much wealth as I needed. Perhaps this was how I would save my children from daycare and myself from being the unholy absentee parent.

I sat in a lotus position on the floor in my $3-per-month apartment and closed my eyes. I pictured coils of energy pulsing from the universe toward me. That was the money on its way. I was sure of it.

Weeks passed. No money came. The repo man came for my van. I hadn’t made any payments since I left my husband. With my vehicle gone, I had to admit that denying the difficult road in front of me wasn’t going to take it away.

The next day, with renewed determination to survive, I decided to ask the bank for help. It was even farther out towards the edge of town than the low-income housing project and one of the few remaining businesses owned by the “Townies” I had so despised as part of the cult. Now I looked to them for a lifeline.

I put two kids in the double stroller and started out across the fields between the low-income housing and the bank building beyond. I pushed the stroller with one arm and led my oldest child by the hand with the other as he toddled over the brown grass and the hem of my long dress swept the dusty soil.

I sat in front of the loan officer — me, an impossibly young woman clad in a handmade calico dress like a relic from a bygone era, with three children under the age of three climbing all over me.

I asked for a car loan.

With my three noisy toddlers fussing about, I told the loan officer what had happened. I had left an abusive husband, and the lender had repossessed my van yesterday. If he would give me money for a car, I told him, I was going to get a job, and I was going to make every single payment.

As I looked up innocently at this distinguished gray-haired businessman in his beautiful office, I had no idea what I must have looked like to him: a desperate, impoverished single mother asking for a loan while her three children climbed all over her. It was a bold ask coming from an uneducated single mother with no job and none of the skills or experience or even a modicum of real-world knowledge about how to get one. I had to look and sound like I was entirely out of my mind.

At that moment, I was putting my fragile life in the loan officer’s hands. He chose to let me live.

This loan officer in his sharp suit treated me as if I were a normal person, normally dressed, with paystubs from a steady job, and sense to leave the kids with a sitter.

With that loan, I bought a used car. I put my kids in state-subsidized daycare and began the life of commuting daily to Topeka, almost an hour away, for the low-paying but relatively comfortable office job I landed almost immediately.

Maybe it really was true, I thought, that God helps those who help themselves.

I fought my way up the corporate ladder. I became an entrepreneur. After a relatively short while, I didn’t have to worry too much about having “enough” for myself and my children. I had “extra.” I enjoyed the benefits of private health insurance. I bought a house and hired someone to clean it for me.

I should write a book so others can follow in my brave footsteps, I thought. Just like that, I had become a poster child for rugged American individualism. I was living proof of the American dream.

I beat the system. And if I can make it, anyone can.

Right?

No. Something wasn’t right at all.

When I fled the cult, I left behind the only roadmap I’d ever had for navigating human existence. I could no longer believe the patriarchs and prophets that told my mother what to think, but I didn’t know who or what to replace them with. Did they really need to be replaced at all? The only voice I trusted now was my own.

I was free in that the cult and my husband could no longer claim ownership of my body. I was also quickly gaining a new capacity for free thought that could only come from recognizing that I’d been lied to and fully understanding the manipulation that made the lies look like the truth.

As I explored my new free life, I began to discover that the “outside world” I had so yearned for was built on fictional constructs and social hierarchies like the ones I had already lived under and escaped. Had I escaped one cult only to find myself in another? My initial joy and relief became tinged with disillusionment.

My mother and grandfather were right. There was something terribly wrong with this new world. It just wasn’t what they thought it was.

Over the next fifteen years, as I was working to secure my children’s futures, I thought back to elements of my life story over and over again. I knew it was important to tell my story, but if it wasn’t about how anyone could make it in America, what was it about?

Could it be about an isolated childhood and triumph over trauma?

What about a sensational story about the suffering of an abused wife and her dramatic escape with her three children?

Was it the story of a woman who fought misogyny and oppressive old-fashioned ideals to join the world of business?

My life story had elements of all of those things, but none of those seemed right either.

In my mind, I traveled over and over again back to that day when I sat in front of the loan officer, impoverished, jobless, and uneducated. I couldn’t shake the idea that not only had I not proven that anyone could make it in America, I was actually the exception that proved a rule that no one wanted to talk about.

I imagined what he must have seen as he looked at me from behind his big wooden desk. He must have seen my fierce intelligence as I argued my case. He saw my strength and my determination. He saw an oppressed woman preparing to leave behind the calico dresses and take ownership of her own destiny. He saw what motivated me: my children, whom I would save at any cost.

And then I imagined just one change to the scene before that loan officer’s eyes: what if I was a black woman?

Would he have seen someone threatening and unhinged instead of strong and determined? Would my intelligence have been dismissed as “uppity”? Would he have seen my expectation of salvaging my life, backward and uneducated, the day after a repossession as unrealistic? Delusional? Would the three young children climbing all over me have signaled promiscuity and irresponsibility?

If I had been Black, would this powerful white man have let me live?

And there it was. Not everyone makes it in America.

But I had nothing to fear. The American systems of white privilege saw my white body and rushed to claim me as one of their precious own. In a story filled with childhood trauma, brainwashing, misogyny, domestic abuse, and poverty, my whiteness was all I needed to put all of it behind me forever.

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I grew up in a religious cult. Years after my escape, my storytelling and visual artworks still search for freedom from oppressive constructs.

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River Irons

River Irons

I grew up in a religious cult. Years after my escape, my storytelling and visual artworks still search for freedom from oppressive constructs.

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