To work, to pray, to fear: my life in the family cult

“Do you remember me?” she asks hopefully, a smile spreads on her face as she tries to tease the right answer out of me. We’re not kids anymore. We left. Some of us with our families, with our friends and alone. Now we live in another world where we continue to explain why we lived in so many countries, so our accents change when we’re talking to strangers, why can’t we go to school, why we can’t sleep. But with each other, to those of us who grew up like me, in the family, it is not necessary to explain.

Even on message boards, on Facebook, and now, outside a coffee shop on South Congress in Austin, Texas, the same question – “do you remember me?” – comes up again and again. It is usually accompanied by a volley of questions that we tested to find out who we were back then.

“What’s your name? Who were your parents? You were in Osaka? Switzerland?”

Part of the problem with growing up in something so intimate as a cult is that our past is so incredible, we need to witness our own memory. And so we are looking for those who remember.

When I met Ruthie, I was crossing the country in a tiny house on wheels because it’s such a brilliant idea, what do you get when you can’t sleep.

My trip to a dead end in Austin with a broken clutch, I sent a message on the Board for the cult of the children: “who’s there?”

Ruthie replied and I invited her for coffee. I didn’t need to find out who was this woman I knew. She was exhausted German with an American accent, who was clutching her coffee, her fingers are torn. These blisters and scars were a by-product of what our parents would call home schooling, but the training plan which was heavy on diaper changing, cooking and words of our prophet. With its lack of anything that can be considered as real education, some of us are experiencing difficulties in finding work that makes our hands bleed.

We were 13 the last time Ruthie and I saw each other. Her name was Faithy then I was not allowed to speak with her. Actually, I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone, because the last time I saw her we were both still in the family and was in serious trouble.

We lived in a huge, 10-bedroom Chalet in Switzerland, which was once a quaint bed and Breakfast. If not avoidance of the family, even the main content, that would be what you wanted to see on a postcard. Our window boxes were filled with decaying memories of carnations, the roof leaked and the floors SAG under the weight of all of the people they supported. We managed to cram almost 70 of us in this particular house. Her one advantage was that it was close enough to American military bases in Germany that we could pick up Armed Forces Radio. This was important because I had a radio.

Hawk in Elgg, Switzerland in 1991 when she lived with the family. Photo: courtesy of the author

One night, at home shepherd called aunt mercy shook my shoulder to Wake me up. My first thought was that the Romans were at the door. The Romans were the cops and we constantly practiced, when they made their inevitable RAID on our house. Aunt mercy put a finger to her lips to shush me, I looked back and saw that the other children were still asleep. It was not a good sign. I followed her out onto the landing in my shirt and panties, because when home the shepherd calls you, you don’t stop to dress. She said nothing, only turned and I followed her down the stairs.

The punishment came and went, like any fad in the world. The restriction of silence and the sign-wearing was new tactics

The other shepherds were in the dining room with the shepherd my age, uncle Stefan, who waved strange hairless hands on me and said, “sit down, sweetie”. When words like cute, innocent and saccharine, slipping out of the wrong mouth, you’ll want to wear pants. I sat in the chair in front of them and rubbed my eyes, acting sleepy, to buy time, as if looking down a gun and asking for cigarettes.

“Should we pray?” – said aunt mercy. We held hands, my sticky, and we prayed as I clicked the hardened, yellow grain boiled rice with my fingers. Acne began to turn in my stomach as I waited for the inevitable next line.

“You have something to tell us?”

I started small, with recognition. I played this game before. “I wasn’t putting my heart into my work,” I said. If I guessed right the first time, they just dig more. I would like to give them something. I should have been. But I will not abandon radio.

One thing most sects have in common is that you will have to give up everything to join. In the house and every other house I lived in was where a bunch of random subjects who refused to follow Jesus. If grandma or aunt Nancy sends you a packet that goes in the pile too. Sometimes, all this crap is at odds with those who need materials, or those who have enough pull to get what he wants. When I was asked to remove the pile, I found a radio.

Faithy got me to listen to the first night. She slept downstairs in the middle bunk of the triple-Decker. I was at the top. Wherever we went, the bench was built from two-by-four and plywood. The mattresses were bare foam, but not much. The foam was easy to cut, if you want to hide something – hard-boiled eggs, a book, a corner of a chocolate bar, or even a radio. Faithy and I didn’t talk much because I was on the limit of silence and was not allowed to speak with anyone except a shepherd.

The restriction of silence and the sign-wearing was the latest tactic in a randomly assigned punishment. Limit silence is quite easy to understand. Then we wore signs around our necks, made of cardboard or plywood with catchy slogans like “silence restriction” or “should I count my blessings” or “remind me to smile” – which in the past have been worn by eight-year-old, who wishes to smile remained unchanged. The punishment came and went like any other fad in the outside world, but any methods included writing essays, reciting a Chapter from the Bible, a paper-clip, Daisy chain, wrapped around her head and then hooked on to each cheek to make a smile, twisting around the road, pointless manual labor, isolation, public beatings, bread and water diet. These are usually, in some combination, can last for several days or months and there was no way to tell which way it will go.

Faithy was new to our house, louder than the rest of us have learned to be, and she had more than one pair of socks, a sign, she lives in small houses, where children receive things like socks. I met her in the night when I accidentally pulled the headphone cord from radio and heard due to the small built-in speaker. Since that night, when we were sure that nobody would check on us, she climbed on my bunk. I cut the plastic tape fastening the earpieces, each of us will take one and cling to each other under the covers to listen.

Hugh the age of about five, in Chile. Photo: courtesy of the author

Since this was my radio, I had to choose between two English music radio stations. And for hours every night, we have experienced a whole new world.

Families produce their own music, but their songs are not about love or loss or pain. Family songs, praised Jesus, or the prophet, or the family itself. Radio brought music and words that made us feel hope and loss. I could live a different life in music radio, another life where I wasn’t so afraid of everything. Sometimes we hear the Cure or the Smiths. I love psycho, painful voice, I didn’t understand, but felt pouring into me. Faithy is not happy. She loved Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson. We touch the feet on the foot pegs, until we remembered that we are not alone, and stopped, fearing to Wake the baby on the bottom bunk.

Our secret to creating the bond and we started to talk during the day.

We talked about places we’d told the story earlier, when the cult was just a hippie, traveling in caravans and live in campsites, and we remember that was happy. There wasn’t a lot to talk about. She saw and did everything that I saw and did. She was good at remembering movies and how she lived in a more liberal home, she saw more than I did. She told me movie, scene-by-scene and sometimes line by line as they were in history.

After the first hour, I ran out of things to confess. I’m tired and confused. I don’t know what they wanted

I made a lot of friends, or at least not keep them. I was in trouble, and some kids around me were stupid or brave enough to be friends with someone on the radar of the shepherds. Friends in the family was a nuisance, but now I had a girlfriend, or something close to it, and it’s nice to have someone to talk to.

Then a few weeks for a late-night party, aunt mercy caught Faithy in my bed. We accidentally fell asleep. Aunt mercy is not seen, but she told us that it is better not to catch us. When she didn’t say anything to us the next day, we thought she let violations slide. If it was, it would be the first and last time she showed anyone mercy. I didn’t know her well enough to fear it, as I should have.

“What else?” – asked uncle Stephen. His eyes were cold and blue, and he had a German accent, which was fine, really.

I tried to avoid it, but avoiding it was impossible. I haven’t seen any of the Nazi films, or I could guess that it is equipped with a mold, a caricature. His eyes frightened me.

Despite only wearing thin t-shirts, I was not cold. Still, I folded my arms and shivered.

“I was a fool. I told some jokes I know,” I said.

“What else?”

After the first hour, I ran out of things to confess. I’m tired and confused. I stopped talking. I don’t know what they wanted. I closed my eyes and I’m quiet when I heard his boots on the tiled floor.

Uncle Stefan always wore boots in the house. No one else ever did.

Grandpa didn’t like to wear shoes in the room because the shoes are dragging inside the dirt and evil spirits could hitchhike on clothes and shoes.

Grandfather was David Berg, the founder of the family. Adults called him father, which was as confusing as it sounds. In another reality, another time, he would have been locked. In my reality and time, he founded a cult.

I felt uncle Stephen’s breath on my face for a moment. Then he punched me in the face as hard as you can. I heard the shepherds prayed for me again, or maybe they were praying against me. I felt my lips with his tongue and tasted blood. I don’t know where my parents are, or if they knew what was going on. I didn’t dare to ask.

I opened my eyes and met him in front of me. I hated it.

Uncle Stepan has put me on silence restriction for a month. I just recently again allowed to speak. We haven’t seen a movie all year, because we were not “in the spirit”. We are not something, but in any case, the musicals I watched, but they were better than anything we had now. He loved public executions. And he used a bamboo cane, which he carried with him. Spanking wasn’t unusual, but his cane, which broke the skin, only happened behind closed doors. Most of the time they just used a belt or paddle.

So I looked into his eyes, and I blink and I wanted him to see I didn’t cry. I knew he would break me. They didn’t break me, but it was inevitable. All I wanted at that moment was uncle Stefan knew that to break me will not be easy. I looked over the head of uncle Stephen’s and saw a poster with a picture of Jesus. It was not blond, friendly Jesus.

This Jesus came down from heaven on a horse, surrounded by flames burning Land.

If the shepherds watched any COP shows before they dropped out to follow Jesus, they would know the correct way of questioning. While I was sitting in the dining room and tried to figure out what the shepherds wanted from me, Faithy were shepherds in the upstairs office and are probably wondering the same thing. They didn’t know they were supposed to warn me, Faithy was upstairs, and I have to tell them everything before she made a deal. But then again, no deals in the family. Confession may be good for the soul, not good for my immediate future.

I can’t think of a more petty crimes. So I just started doing shit.

“I took some apricots out of storage”.

“Why?”

“I was hungry, and there was a lot, so I thought it was good.”

“What else?”

“I was muttering about having to watch the kids instead of having to go postering last Saturday”. It was a lie, but a lie that might work in my favor. I liked to care for young children. Plus, my mom was behind him, was appointed to help with the children meant to spend the day with her until the majority of the house was not to raise money by selling posters or knock on doors and ask for donations.

“What else?”

The Romans came in that night. But they were too late. Someone tipped off the reporter who brought to the shepherds house

Six hours later, the sun was up, and I could hear stirring upstairs home. Children are assigned to make Breakfast went in a circle of shepherds and me. The children looked straight ahead as they passed. There was a time when I would feel humiliated. But we have been used for public executions now, so I didn’t mind them seeing me. We were all in that chair at some point. Those who did not know that it was only a matter of time.

The shepherds or what they wanted from me or gave up trying. Aunt mercy wanted to pray again. This time I had to hold hands and the words she prayed, and said, that’s just the beginning of my ordeal.

A few weeks later, still in the attic, where they decided to keep problem kids like me, where we read the crazy nonsense of a drunken prophet, where do they expect us to report every thought that went through our heads, where the beating occurred the day I broke. It’s more like a sigh than shattering you feel in your soul. I remembered how it hurt when I broke, as it was easier after.

The Romans came in that night. But they were too late. Someone tipped off a reporter for a local newspaper who had put the house of the shepherds. Before the sun came up, we quietly pushed themselves in the wagons, hid his head under the Windows, and our shepherds drove us to the next house.

Faithy came to the new house and I knew better not to ask where she’d gone. And here, this woman named Ruthie, with face and voice Faithy, began to ask me about radio. “Did they ever find him?”

“You never gave me up,” I say. No, they never found the radio.

“But then why are you so much more trouble than me?” she asks.

“I thought about that for many years. But you know how it goes, you just stop thinking about it. One day I told my friend about the radio, and I finally figured it out. They thought I was gay.”

“Damn it,” she says, smacking the table. Snap shirts pearl Austinites to stop looking at the interruption of their rest. We both smile three family sins she had just committed – attracting the attention of the female volume, as well as the greatest and least forgivable, taking the Lord’s name in vain. “How much it sucks?”

I laugh and shake my head and say, “suckers.”

It’s shorthand we say, because she knows I can’t tell her how hard it was to give them one. To know they were right, even if only once. But in 13 years I’m not a lesbian, or at least I don’t know. Then I was just a clumsy Tomboy.

She shows me photos of her husband, her children. I show her pictures of my dog. We chatted all day. She says she is doing everything right. Maybe we both caught a glimpse, but I tell her I am too.

And we don’t have to explain. We remember.

The shepherds Lauren Hugh first appeared in Grant 137 (£12.99). To order a copy for $ 10.65 to go bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846
Q&a with Lauren Hogue

Huff, 39, was born in West Berlin and brought up in the family, founded by David Berg in 1968 in California and originally known as the children of God.

Where do you live now?In Austin, Texas. I’ve only been here a couple of months. I sold last year my house in Washington and I was driving in my van. A couple of months in Portland, Oregon and Berlin, and now I’m here. I loved it, but I rented a house in Santa Fe and I’m moving there in a couple weeks.

You moved around a lot with your family?We travelled around in campers, caravans, lived in tents. We moved to Chile a couple of years, when I was four years old. Japan within a few years, then Switzerland and then in Germany.

It must have been something when you left.Oh, God, Yes. I was done. I just couldn’t understand how to get out on my own. I think about it… I’m running to the Embassy? How can I get my passport? One day my mother told us to gather. There was total relief and absolute terror, we stopped in Munich for a couple of weeks and my brother and I were convinced that we were going back. But we didn’t. My grandmother took us to their little house in West Texas.

What made your mother decide to leave?Mom was worried that we would have had absolutely no education and that she could not protect me. My stepdad was just upset that they never intended to make him a leader.

Why Your parents decided to join the family?My mom was upset about the war in Vietnam. She was a hippie, protesting and everything, and here were people who were actually doing something is eliminated, leaving society to follow Jesus. As she saw that, Yes, a utopian thing. She met my father, and he was there for the reason. He traveled around to receive the agenda. My mom says nothing about my family, and I didn’t ask her about it. We’re close, but so much. I just talked to my dad about it [parents Hugh split up when she was 7]. We are close now. We weren’t always.

You can’t blame them for what happened?Well, I know what an idiot I was when I was 19 years old, the age when they joined. It’s kinda hard to hold it against someone.

As you feel it coming out? You have a lot of therapy?Not many and most of them were not so helpful. I had therapists cry and hug me and it was very strange. They just don’t know what to do with it. I mean, I still hide. I still have nightmares, I can’t cope with the crowd. I always feel separately. For a long time, I don’t really have friends. In high school I had no idea how to talk to people. I did not understand the allusion. Ninety percent of the conversations: “Hey, you remember that episode of Seinfeld?” and shit. And it was strange, I was just uncomfortable. I read everything I could get my hands on. It’s just what I did, I hid in books.

What books, specifically?On the road: a book that made me write. Liars club Mary Karr. The glass Castle [Jeannette walls] – after reading this, I realized that you could take a dreadful thing, a bad thing in all memoirs, and make it worth reading. No pity in it.

You know what happened to the so-called “shepherds”?Oh my God… thank God, no. “Uncle Stefan” the last time he was seen in his hands a cardboard “the end is nigh” sign in Amsterdam. I mean, some of these people are parents of my friends. We all connected through Facebook. But… I stay away from the subject, whose parents were doing, who and what I am going to meet with them, but not their parents. There is a very clear distinction between what we communicate. The second generation of the people against the people who have joined. We have our secret Facebook group where we can talk. We provide our own free treatment.

What’s next?I’d like to write more. I don’t know if I can support myself doing it, but I’m working on a book – memoir, trying to put it all together.Interview By Ursula Kenny