Saturday, September 26, 2009

Long Story Short

Someone asked for my story in an email. I realized my response was way too long for an email, and would probably be a good FAQ post, so here it is.

My story? My grandmother wrote a fiction end times thriller that sold on the NY Times Best list for 18 weeks in the religion category, back in (I think) 1979. At the same time, she delivered a couple babies - for a girl at church, for my mom. She was a nurse at that time, and did have some medical experience, but no midwifery or obstetrics experience. A "baby ministry" started, where my granmdother would tell pregnant women why God wanted them to have their babies at home, without a doctor or a midwife, but with a "spiritual midwife" or birth attendant (read: her). She made up a handbook for those meetings, which eventually got turned into the book "Born in Zion". It was published by a Word of Faith pastor in Texas and over the next two decades it spread to the far corners of fringe society - all the way from the Florida trailer park where we ran the cult to daughter sects in Australia and New Zealand. She wrote other books which were even more extreme in their message, but they didn't sell as well. I don't think anyone bought "Egypt or Zion" or "Healing in Zion" as their first book of dogma. They were much more legalistic, which is hard to imagine if you've read Born in Zion, heh.

I was born the same year the book was published the first time. (She had four editions, but none of them were actually *edited*. She just stuck new forwards and updates into the newer editions.) Like my older siblings and three younger cousins, I was born at home with no access to medical personnel or equipment. My mom and dad had separated while I was in the womb, so my grandmother lived with us to take care of the house and kids while my mom went to school and work. (She finished her PhD when I was 8 or 9, so I don't really remember her much before then, even though we lived in the same house.)

The homebirth was what my grandma was best known for, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. She advocated total reliance on God for everything, and total isolationism from the "seven world systems": education, religion, commerce, science, entertainment, medicine, and government. She said those things in her books, but the only one we lived 100% was complete abstinence from the medical system. We were born at home, never saw a pediatrician, never got vaccines. I stepped on a rusty carpenter's nail in my cousin's back yard. It went clean through my foot, but I didn't get taken to the hospital for a tetanus shot. We also never locked our house or our cars, because that would putting our faith in man and man-made things, rather than in our heavenly provider and protector.

Because of the isolationism, we were cut off from all other sources of help or information. And then she told us that we weren't allowed to do anything to protect ourselves from danger, that we had to just rely on God and not lift a finger to prevent a bad thing. Instead of trying to solve a physical problem or treat a physical illness, we were supposed to discern the "root cause" in the "spirit realm" that was the *actual* problem. Because I was born into this mentality, being taught that my imagination was a more reliable source of knformation than my five sense, it's given some problems. I spent a few years as a kid, on and off, worrying that I was imaginary, that I was a dream some other girl was having, or that I was invisible or translucent. My world was so insubstnatial, I didn't believe I had physical substance. Add a serotonin imbalance and a childhood filled with neglect, abuse, and trauma (my grandmother ran over and killed a pedestrian, while I was in the front seat, when I was 7), and I gotta say, I'm pretty pissed at religion.

At first I was just mad at cults, but then I realized - we went to Christian school some of those years. We went to public school for most. We had guidance counselors (and I talked to mine - a LOT). My brother reported we were being abused to HRS when I was 8 and he was 12, but they did a lazy half-assed job and shut the case without recognizing how hellish it was (because my sister and I were so brainwashed, we cried and defended our grandmother from the allegations from our wicked, sinful, rebellious brother - which I totally regret now). In retaltion for the report, my grandmother kicked my brother out, and he was shipped across teh country to California to live with our dead beat musician dad. It was a horrible threat to my sense of security, the idea that you could get kicked out of the family if you didn't toe the line.

Thet cult itself was nebulous. It was families and home churches and small country churches across the US and the Oz. There was no central authority, and in some definitions she techinically wasn't a cult leader. She wasn't interested in the work involved in actually caring what any of them were doing. She wanted attention, and she wanted to not have to work. She was never ambitious enough or organized enough to make a central authority out of it, or to make a lot of money. We never *really* lived on a compound (just a bunch of families in a trailer park) and most of us went to other churches at the same time. The vast majority of her followers were out of state, and she kept in touch with them through a monthly newsletter/catalog, then through a website, and eventually through a blog. I worked for her cult's office (which was just the kitchen of her single-wide mobile home) putting together that newsletter, that website and that blog, and shipping out her books and teaching tapes to dozens of people a week, from the time I was 12 till some nebulous time in my early twenties. (It was never a full-time job: whenever I went to my grandma's house, she had something I could do for $10 or $12 an hour, so I did it.)

Last spring I was taking a class on US history the Age of Jackson, (1800-1850s). One of the social/cultural trends of that period we studied was the Second Great Awakening, a protestant religious revival movement that spawned a lot of early native cults. Joseph Smith founded the Mormons and Brigham Young trekked them out to Utah (which is impressive as hell, I will grant them that!). The Shakers attracted a lot of widows with kids as converts, because they were a celibacy cult. A woman could provide for her family by living comunally like this. A lot of utopian societies were started, on all different things - enlightenment, health and wellness from Alexander Graham (of cracker fame).

And the Oneida utopia was founded by the charismatic horndog John Humphrey Noyes. Everybody who joined was married to everybody else of the opposite sex (each woman to every man, and each man to every woman). However, they had a major policy against, ahem, completion of the sex act and engaged instead in "male continence". (No, they did not just masturbate after. I asked the professor.) They lived communally and started a silverware company, which is still owned by the desendents of that original utopian society today. Which is pretty neat and an example of why I like history.

It was also a pivotal moment in my life, one of the most life-altering. Everyone else in class was so clearly thrown by the way this community lived. They found it utterly foreign and couldn't relate to the motives or reasons these people had for doing something so completely different from the mainstream. And it made me realize, like a light clicking in my mind, my childhood was just as foreign. I could relate to the Oneida members, especially the second generation, product of chosen exceptions when a man was permitted to impregnate a woman. (Most of the time it was the leader who got to do the impregnating, because he claimed to have spiritually superior semen.) The cult split up over disagreement about deflowering virgin girls - who should get to do it and how old the girls ought to be before it's done. And as weird as all that sounds, and even though my cult had nothing like polygamy or polyamory in it, I felt a connection on some deep level.

So much so that later that night I Googled my grandmother's name and the word "cult". Here's the search results that come up today for it, which are largely the same. More news articles have come down in the meantime, or you have to pay to access them as archives. There were horrible stories of children who died, one who was starved to death because his parents thought God wanted him to go back to breastfeeding from an underfed woman, after he'd been on solid foods. His brother who died shortly after birth, because his parents didn't know to aspirate him and it's thought he slowly suffucated from blocked miconium in his wind pipe. (It's thought, rather than known conclusively, because the parents buried both bodies in a state park, rather than reporting their deaths at the times they occurred.) These were followers of my grandmother. The man who ran that sect, that cult, used her book and her words to justify his actions. She wrote the manifesto for any arrogant prick, a blue print to follow, to keep people in submission and terror, and to get your own ego stroked on a near constant basis. She created Be a Prophet 101, but no one recognized it for that at the time, or at least no one I was talking to.

That night started the 6-8 week jump from being a creationist Christian true believer to an outspoken atheist. Once I realize I've made a mistake, I don't want to keep doing it. :) And it's been a little over a year now. I'm blogging and writing a book about growing up in the cult and why we have to reform the laws that allow religious exemptions for medical neglect and pissing off my relatives. So that's the short version. The book will be the long version. I'll let you know when that's finished. :)

(No, I'm not embedding links this time. They're all the same ones from every other post about my crazy grandma. I'm lazy and it's the weekend and my son wants me for something.)