Content warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of rape and sexual assault.
Daniella Mestyanek Young’s powerfully immersive and exceptionally honest debut memoir Uncultured opens with a scene of Young standing in line to get spanked by Uncle Zephaniah. This man is not her blood uncle, but what the kids in the Children of God cult call the men in the community. The women are called “Aunties.”
Young is 5 years old, the youngest of 22 commune kids in a community of 100. The kids are arranged from oldest to youngest, and Young stands at the end of the line, anticipating her turn.
Suddenly Young spots her mother, Kristie, and speeds over to her, instantly relieved. Her mother, with no warmth in her eyes, barks, “Get back in line.”
At this moment and in similar moments, Young’s mother isn’t her mom but an “auntie,” someone in charge of all the children; just like her stepfather Uncle Zephaniah is a punishment uncle, not a stepfather. Because Young runs over to her mother, she’s punished with nine swats instead of three. After she tugs her underwear back up, she’s forced to hug and thank Uncle Zephaniah for the discipline, as she and all the other kids have been trained to do.
My visceral response to this scene jolted me. Why did I feel such rage towards Young’s mother?
Because this scene returned me to my own past.
Like Young, I grew up in a cult, but mine was Sufi. Just like Young, the men and women in this community were considered “family.” The girls called the women “Mama” followed by their first name, so Mama Yasira or Mama Batul. We called the men “Uncle,” or by their honorific titles such as “Hajj” or “Brigadier.”
But my situation is somewhat different. When I was 5 years old, my mother and father separated after he joined the Sufi community. My mother, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, refused to change her religion and uproot her life. After they separated, I spent four months of every year with my dad in Texas, where he’d moved with the community. I spent the rest of the year with my mother in Tucson, Ariz.
So, unlike Young, I didn’t have my biological mother in the commune, but I did have a stepmother. My dad remarried when I was 6.
After Young was born, she was delivered to the commune nursery. This was a common practice where children were raised and cared for by “aunties.” Young’s mother visits for nursing time unless one of the other aunties nurses her—another common occurrence. After her mother becomes too busy with her workload, she only visits Young an hour a day, returning her to the dorms for nighttime, where she sleeps with the other children.
Again, I was furious reading this because, in our commune, the children also lived separately from their parents. I lived in a room with my four step-siblings, a courtyard away from my dad and stepmom. When bad things happened to us, they never knew. I always felt so lonely and abandoned.
In my commune, the girls never had a break or time alone with their parents. Every day was Groundhog Day, more of the same. Seven days a week, I worked by cooking, cleaning and watching children.
Young had an exception on Sunday—”Parent Day”—a glorious day where Young spent the entire day with her mother. Young writes, “I loved Mom fiercely, even though I really didn’t know her. … She was the most beautiful woman in the world.”
On Sundays, Young’s mother converts from Auntie Kristie to Mom. In a tender scene, we see Young’s mother teaching her to read at 3 years old. Young whispers, “What’s reading for?” And her mother replies, “It’s for ideas. It’s how we learn things. … Once I learned to read, I could teach myself things.”
I lived in a room with my four step-siblings, a courtyard away from my dad and stepmom. When bad things happened to us, they never knew.
For me, this scene was a turning point in the memoir because I saw Young’s mother caring for her. Ultimately, Kristie saved her daughter by teaching her to read, which became Young’s escape from the Children of God.
But the complexity of Young’s mother doesn’t end here. As the memoir continues, we experience more mind-boggling scenes. In the most horrific of all, we are in a room with Young as an Uncle beats her. After he finishes, he rapes her, beats her again and makes her thank him for the beating. He leaves her alone for the night in a room without a bathroom, so little girl Young has no choice but to pee the bed, an utterly humiliating act.
Young’s mother is my age, born in 1972, so we grew up in our cults during the same periods, the 70s and 80s. Young’s mother grew up in the Children of God during the worst years for children, when David Berg actively encouraged sex with minors. Fortunately, during Young’s childhood, sex with children was banned. We also learn that Young’s mother had her when she was only 14 after being raped by an uncle. This information was devastating and made my heart break. I wanted to scoop Kristie up and save her from this horrible man and all the horrible men.
In my cult, I was put in a temporary marriage, called a mut’ah, when I was 12.
I know firsthand what happens when a girl is raped at such a young age—how her mind is messed with and her identity is corrupted. I stayed married to my husband until I was 20 and finally escaped him and the cult. Fortunately, I didn’t have any children, but by the time Young’s mother was 30, she had seven kids. She had little to no sovereignty.
Young never met her biological father. So instead of directing my rage at Young’s mother, who was powerless in an intricate system of control, I blame David Berg. I blame all the higher-ranking men that created and enforced the rules. I blame Young’s father, who is nearly absent in the memoir because he was missing from his biological daughter’s life.
In my situation, while I unequivocally blame the leaders and the men who married underage girls, I also place responsibility on the women. The women in my community were unlike Young’s mother, who was brought up in the cult and knew little else. They actively joined the cult as adults after living “normal” lives. They experienced childhood freedom outside cult walls, where they had the simple pleasures of reading, watching TV and attending school. Their brains were fully formed before they joined the cult. Nothing can excuse their abuse of the children.
But like Young, the buck stops with me.
Like Young, education saved me. I was able to transcend my circumstances through critical thinking.
I have two grown sons from my second marriage, 25 and 26. I helicopter-parented in many ways, keeping them super close, becoming the exact opposite of the mamas who neglected and abandoned their children.
Today, my father and stepmother still actively participate in the community, though by now, group members have scattered, and the physical site no longer exists. We’ll probably never share the same views, but that’s okay. We’re all born with different life paths.
After escaping, I went on to get a Ph.D. in social sciences. Like Young, education saved me. I was able to transcend my circumstances through critical thinking. Today, I stand in my power because I can step back. I analyze my situation, painfully accept the terrible things that happened and know with certainty that I’m never going back.
The intergenerational trauma of cult life ends with my generation—right here and now.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.