Wounds of a Cult Child
Being a child who has been abused is like growing up in a world where everything is backward. In my mind, that world existed within the context of a terrifying movie. My autobiography, titled “Cult Child,” details how I was taken in by a wilderness cult when I was only three years old.
Up until the age of fourteen, I was completely isolated from the rest of society. My life was an abusive reenactment of the movie “The Village,” and I had no contact with the outside world. Everything outside the forest was presented to us as being far more terrifying than the secluded and secure life that we led in the service of God.
These are the primary ways in which I was impacted by having this kind of childhood.
No Identity Development
Bible verses like “idle work is the devil’s hands” were used as the basis for the ground rules that the Move of God cult implemented for its young members. They adhered to the principle that children should always be kept occupied and not be permitted to engage in any form of play; however, this viewpoint was eventually modified to permit only restricted play.
There was no time for self-discovery due to the intense and demanding daily routine that was being followed. Immediately after a child was born or brought into the cult, these systems and methods were implemented and administered to the child. The notion that children are inherently evil and should be treated as such was another mind-boggling aspect of the theology. It was up to us to rid ourselves of that beast in whatever way was necessary, whether that be through seclusion, severe punishment, or some other approach.
“I’ve seen a woman slap a five-month-old-baby for crying while lying on the floor during a service at 10 pm at night with people around it shouting and singing.” A child, Fife says, has “the same kind of nature the demons have. The demons can’t make him be any worse than he is” because he was “rebellious against God from the day he was born,” he says in a tape-recorded sermon.” (“Harsh Sect,” Charleston Daily, 1975)
We did not have any protection from potential sexual assaulters. I was immediately targeted by predators, and this behavior persisted all the way up until I was a pre-teen. There was nowhere for me to go that was secure and free from sexual assaulters. As a direct consequence of this, I started to feel disconnected from my physical body. It was like walking around in a shell the whole time. A child who is subjected to sexual abuse is tasked with a life-long wound. After so many years had passed, I had become a mindless automaton, and all I wanted to do was survive each day. Inside, I was shattered and broken to pieces.
I was brought up believing that my entire life, including each breath I took and every word I read, listened to, and spoke, should be devoted to an evangelical faith. As a result of this belief, I was not permitted to explore any of my natural abilities unrelated to singing. I had a passion for singing, so when I was a preteen and in my early teenage years, I jumped at any opportunity to participate in the music section of the church.
I sang out loudly during the service because I want my voice to be heard above the rest of the congregation. Because of my excessive volume, I got in trouble. My singing ability was never recognized as anything particularly exceptional by anyone.
I used to enjoy drawing and writing little poems in my spare time. I did this behind closed doors, using scraps of paper ripped out of the notebooks we had to use for the rudimentary education we received. If any drawings were made or feelings were conveyed through writing, these expressions could be used as evidence against us. As a result, I had to keep my writing a secret, and I stuffed my feelings deep inside. In my book, “Cult Child,” I share how I used to write on scraps of paper that were so small that I chewed them up like gum. On other occasions, I would fold the paper or make small little books out of paper, and then I would hide them in a nook in a tree that was located close to our cabin.
Only reading, mathematics, and a small amount of biology, primarily plants and farming, were taught to us so that we could function independently on the self-sufficient compound encompassing more than 200 acres. Classes in baking and cooking were offered to us ladies. Everything we studied was geared toward preparing us for our future roles as members of the cult, so the focus of our education was inevitable. When we turned twelve years old, we were required to undergo training in various survival techniques, including how to build mountain shelters, hiking miles a day with 50-pound backpacks, refining the expertise of shooting weapons and more.
We did not have access to either electricity or running water at the Alaska compound. Our days consisted of beginning with prayer, followed by a brief period of education, and then either laboring in the fields or the kitchens. When the day was over, we were responsible for maintaining both our cabin and the small lot that it sat on if we did not have night church service.
When our thoughts turned away from God and toward ourselves, our own wants, and requirements, we were instructed that this was a sign of selfishness and a violation of God’s will. Any form of self-glorification was strictly forbidden and could result in a child receiving a beating or an adult receiving a tongue lashing that lasted for several hours straight from a group of elders. Everything that we were and did throughout our lives was done as a form of service to the religion.
Because of this, I grew up without any comprehension of my own identity or even of how to function in the society of any other place.
Being cut off from the rest of the world makes a person oblivious to society’s standards. If we are not allowed to interact with other children outside of the environment in which we are being controlled, we will never learn how to navigate the various social sectors that exist in our society. For example, I only knew other children who were like me, little girls who always wore skirts and whose conversation was frequently geared toward the responsibilities that were involved in our life of self-sufficiency.
I never watched any of the popular television shows or heard music or any social constructs from the 1960s, 1970s, or early 1980s, because I was never exposed to any of that popular culture.
This kind of social divide can also be seen in children who are homeschooled or who are raised in home religious environments that do not permit them to be exposed to parts of society that will help them navigate the world better as adults. Additionally visible in adulthood is this type of social stratification.
When I was fourteen, we escaped the cult, and after we moved on, I enrolled in a traditional school. I could only understand a fragment of what my contemporaries were often discussing.
One day in school, just a month after leaving the cult, the most popular boy in my class was discussing with a few other students about a musician by the name of John Cougar Mellencamp. I had the impression that they would discuss a particular subspecies of cougars. Therefore, to blend in, I blurted out, “Oh, yes! That kind of cougar is well-known to me!” After hearing my response, the young man and his companions gave me an odd look and inquired whether I was even familiar with John Cougar Mellencamp.
I froze. I was oblivious to the fact. I was put in an awkward situation, but I quickly got out of it by acting as though I was making a joke. This allowed me to get out of the situation without further incident. They regarded me as odd and peculiar in their eyes. There are a lot of situations that are very much like this one.
The case of Jordan Turpin provides an unsettling illustration of how extreme isolation can lead to a lack of knowledge of basic life skills. In response to a police officer’s inquiry about whether she was taking medication, Jordan Turpin asked, “What is medication?” This is an example of how extreme isolation can lead to a lack of knowledge of basic life skills. She was completely oblivious to the meanings of terms such as scrapes and injuries.
This short video, which is only eight minutes long, is an example of what can happen to the mind of a child when that child is isolated from the rest of society.
My upbringing in seclusion, away from other people and their influences, held me back for many years. I was clueless about the fundamentals of common forms of social interaction. I was completely ignorant of history and the dynamics of different races and cultures.
I never felt comfortable in groups or cliques. The transition into the working world was difficult. Childhood trauma trained me to be the most objective observer possible. It was this very skill that embedded itself into my central nervous system, heightening my senses and working to try and keep me safe by avoiding danger through hyper-awareness of my surroundings.
As a child, I experienced multiple forms of fear in my environment. The biblical instruction that we followed was extremely heavy on eschatology and demonology. Every single evil from the Bible was mined to create a tool for mind control and to keep us in constant fear. There was a consistent fear of being physically abused, which stemmed from the practice of justifying many traumas, including but not limited to the killing of animals in the name of God, as well as the abhorrent treatment of children, including beatings and exorcisms.
The concepts of fear were used to carry out abusive behavior that was psychological in nature. We dreaded the arrival of the end of times when everything would be annihilated forever. I would find out later that ever since the beginning of human history, people have had naturally evil tendencies.
The uncomfortable paranoia that God was always watching, everywhere, always was present.
My post “How I Was Trauma Bonded With God” explores how God was utilized to instill fear into our minds.
We were instilled with an irrational fear of medical professionals because they practiced science, which was considered a demonic instrument. Going to medical professionals was also seen as showing contempt for God. In my book, “Cult Child,” I go into detail about the time that kerosene exploded in my face, as well as how the cult and my mother dealt with the situation.
Fear of a Russian invasion served as a tool of control during that time, a product of The Cold War. We were repeatedly warned to keep an eye on the mountains because the Russians could potentially send troops through them. From time to time, aircraft from Eielson Air Force Base would pass through the area. My ignorance regarding the location of a nearby Air Force Base, and my lack of familiarity with general military information, caused my heart rate to quicken whenever I saw a military aircraft in the sky.
My first thought was that it was a Russian bomber about to release its payload of bombs. After it completed its circuit over the compound, I’d finally be able to take a deep breath.
We ran drills to prepare for a Russian invasion and for the possibility of a bomb being dropped, during which we practiced falling to the ground and curling up into a ball with our heads tucked. Given the fact that this would not shield anyone from the effects of a bomb, it seems laughable to even consider doing so now.
When a person is only aware of or believes in the things that contribute to their fear, that fear is at its most potent. Fear was extremely prevalent among the adults in my immediate environment. I could see it in their eyes, in the way that they would stop what they were doing to pray, in the urgent conversations they were having, and in the constant chaos that their paranoia created in the energy that was around me.
I harbored a lot of resentment toward the adults and the general governmental and social systems that I felt were responsible for my suffering. My actions were dictated by it for a period. I didn’t let anyone close. I detested bullies and frequently got into fights with them, but because it was the 1980s, we had to settle our differences after school. We devised strategies for combat, and I quickly responded to specific challenges involving bullies.
I channeled my rage into defending myself and others, which was something I was unable to do while I was a member of the cult. I felt empowered.
The birth of my children caused a shift in this anger, bringing the pain to the surface. It was extremely loud. The anguish and confusion that I had been going through at the time seeps through every poem that I wrote during that period. While I was living my life and raising my sons, the pain kept my mind from settling down and became too much for me to process. The suffering would shake me to my very core.
The sense of loss associated with a childhood that can never be reclaimed is a chasm of grief.
My happiness was suffocated for a very long time by the pain, which turned into quicksand. That anguish was being projected through the anger. The suffering felt all too familiar. The only time I felt I could express myself freely was when I was angry. My inability to articulate my feelings prevented others from understanding them. I’d never been given the opportunity to voice them. No one ever taught me how.
“There are two types of people who develop Complex PTSD. Soldiers of war and abused children. No child should ever know war.”
~ Hillary Whitaker Clark, PsyD
My childhood was spent in an atmosphere that was fraught with peril, and as a result, I have some physical limitations. In addition to developing physical impairments like joint pain and fibromyalgia, I also struggled for years with other aspects of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).
From childhood into adulthood, I lived in a state of anxiety. My musculoskeletal system automatically transformed into a state of constant fight or flight readiness. Nothing in my environment or in my life gave me a sense of security. I didn’t trust people. I was always acutely aware. I took measures to make myself feel more secure in the world by developing various systems.
I lived in a cloudy state of dissociation and had the constant sensation that I was moving between worlds that were otherworldly. My entire being, including my mind and my body, had become accustomed to the process of getting ready to fly. My childhood experiences with near-death situations and being outside of my body have conditioned me to run away from anything that even remotely resembled a threat.
In my article titled “What Happens When We Dissociate,“ I go into greater depth regarding the emotions and sensations that are associated with living with this disorder.
My surroundings were like a constant mist; they were full of stimuli that could set off my anxiety. They were present in the tones of people’s voices, the way things were said, moments on television, life situations, and things I read, and it was difficult for me to get through the day as I attempted to process the weight of the secular world. They were present in all these locations as well as others.
The effect of this wounding persisted for many years, and it continued to have a profound influence on my life even as I struggled to make sense of what had happened to me. There were many times when I had the sensation that my childhood was a distant mirage; it was so fraught with horror that it felt as if it happened to someone else. My childhood experiences of being abused and tortured created a dreamlike layer over my brain.
I tried to forget what happened to me, and as a result, I slipped into traumatic amnesia, which caused my physical body to suffer.
Repairing all these gaping wounds, caused by repeated blows, would be a challenging and time-consuming endeavor. I was a ruinous heap of ruins. As I stood there and looked at it, I felt completely overwhelmed with how to take the pieces and construct my structure in a way that was unique to me. After that, I learned how to do the work, and I started an extended and challenging process of letting go of traumatic experiences, with the goal of bringing everything to the surface and getting it out of my body.
There will be peace after the storm for those who are struggling under the weight of these woundings.
Please subscribe to my personal blog if you would like to receive Part Two of this article, which will discuss the various ways that I processed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and created a life that was centered around healing.
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Vennie Kocsis is the author of “Cult Child,” notably on Book Riot’s 100 Must Read Books About Life In Cults and Oppressive Religious Sects. Vennie is a trauma healing advocate and outspoken ambassador for the rights of children in America. Please sign and share her Petition To End Child Abuse and Neglect In America.
Vennie supports healing through the arts. Visit her website to browse her art gallery. Vennie hosts Poetry Lights, a live podcast broadcast through Twitter Spaces (audio-only).
John Harvey saysDecember 9, 2022 at 7:17 pm
A powerful story from a strong woman and was very moving to read.