"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, February 17, 2014

New Light


A colleague asked me this week what I did before I was a teacher. I gave her the simple answer, the true answer: "I was in a cult." It had been a long time since anyone had asked that particular question, and the same amount of time since I'd really thought about what my answer meant. I realized that over the years, I've told the story in different ways. Each story is true, but none is all the truth.

In the early years after I left, the story was full of pain and outrage and betrayal. I had sought God in as clean a way as I knew how and ended up giving up my whole self to men whose good intentions were corrupted by the seductions of power. In obedience I married the man that was chosen for me. I foreswore material possessions. I strove to serve and study and to humble myself. I read and prayed and obeyed. I obeyed. I obeyed. And still at the end I was unchanged and my life made no more sense than it had when I joined.

There were some years when I was reluctant to talk about the cult at all, so I told the story in another way. I was a housewife whose life was centered around a small home-based church. My husband made enough money that I could stay home and be domestic to my heart's content. I had a built-in family with the church. We lived across the street from the head of our little church and shared everything. I gardened and canned and made a home. I took in foster kids. I sewed and volunteered and did respite care. I trained a golden retriever and went for long walks.

I wrote a book about my time in the cult. I called it God Has No Daughters. The title pretty much tells the point of view of that story. It wasn't until I tried to get the book published, after spending years writing and revising and polishing, that I realized how skewed and wounded it was. It wasn't until I was on the other side of the agency rejections and careful feedback from friends that I realized clearly that I hadn't actually left the cult behind.  I'm not sure how I managed to believe that I could simply decide to be finished with a decade of my life which started with a vow to God and ended with an affair (because that was the only way I could figure out how to leave). But for a long time that belief held. Until it didn't any more. When I had evidence of its wrong-headedness in my own writing.

In more recent years I've told the cult story as tragicomedy. Sort of a David Sedaris approach. I joined trying to get away from a rough childhood and a young adulthood fairly typical of the free love era. I was given a husband and we married in obedience to God and the elders of The Body (the name of our church). A primary tenet of the church was obedience, especially wives to their husbands. I tried. And failed. At this point in the story, my listener, without fail, laughs. The assumption is that, of course, I would fail at being a submissive wife. There is nothing about my personality, at least the part people see, that indicates I would find submission and obedience appealing let alone possible.

Last week, for the first time even as I laughed along with my listener, I wasn't sure how I felt about being perceived as the kind of woman who would naturally fail at attempts to be a submissive wife and obedient servant. One of the foundation blocks of my childhood is that anything can be achieved if I'm willing to work hard enough. And so failure at anything means I simply needed to work harder.

There is a new story wanting to be told about my time in The Body. One that is deeply shaded in the nuance and complications of being human. This one neither black nor white, but more like a winter sky at sunset full of gradations of gray and shot through with color that cannot in any way be seen as anything but beautiful. Not failure. Not betrayal. Simply a life lived toward healing in the gloriously messy way of all lives.

16 comments:

Barb said...

I've often thought back on various aspects of my life, many times with a different story-line. I do believe we become the people we are meant to be eventually. Sometimes, it just takes years of work. (And maybe lifetimes.) There are lots of paths through the forest - we choose one and follow it, but finally, we may realize we must backtrack and start again to reach our destination. Hope you've enjoyed your holiday weekend Deb.

Donna said...

That's as powerful and intriguing a background as you can get. No wonder you are such an interesting writer. You can look at something from so many different view points.

Retired English Teacher said...

I encourage you to tell your story. It is your story. Tell it. As you know, we have so much in common with our backgrounds. We both came out of cults. It is so difficult to have a perspective of that experience that captures the entire experience because our perspective does shift as we distance ourselves from the experience.

Richard Hughes said...

I'd be interested in reading about your experience, but only if it helps you to a more wholesome self. You've definitely grown a lot since leaving the cult, so now may be the right time to tell your story.

Linda Reeder said...

What a wonderfully complex person you are! Some of us are just a lot more simple.

Teresa Coltrin said...

Write it! I really like how this experience can be told in different perspectives and still be true.


patricia said...

I do think this version of your story would look much different than the original book. You are such a different person than you were when I first met you. Btw, I am dying to know who asked and got that answer. =) Fun spending time with you today, my friend. Love you.

yaya said...

Your past has formed you into a wonderful, interesting, and caring person today. You have to be proud of how you took a difficult situation and turned your life into one of service for many children, and a loving relationship with your husband and others. I don't know you personally of course, but reading your words is like looking into your true self. So inspiring.

DJan said...

Your story needs to be written, not only because you have the gift of communication through the written word, but because you are feeling the pull to do so. Perhaps there are others like you who cannot express what they went through, and you can. I don't know, but I do know that your words never fail to speak to my heart. Sending you love as I hold the stone heart you gave me in my hand. :-)

lily cedar said...

I am always amazed and astonished at the resilience of human beings. I am thankful as well.

Dee said...

Dear Debra, your posting today was a confirmation to me that all of us are on the same journey to wholeness. You ended by writing that you have a life "lived toward healing in the gloriously messy way of all lives." I do so hope you will begin with a blank page and write your story from the wholeness of your life today.

The gift that's been given to me, Deb, in writing my on-line memoir is that I truly have "come home to myself." I chose that as the title for the blog because it was my hope. And it's been happening. Slowly I am embracing the all of my life and the complexity and beauty of my own self. I so hope that you will give yourself this gift. Peace.

BLissed-Out Grandma said...

It sounds like you are getting yourself ready to write. Selfishly, I hope you do because you have so much wisdom to share and this story seems to want to be told (again).

Deborah Barker said...

The written word is a wonderful tool. Write your story in as many ways as you need, Deb, as many times as you need. It is after all, your story and no one else's. However you write it, will be the way it was. I know mine would go through as many changes, viewed from different times in my life.

Deborah Barker said...

The written word is a wonderful tool. Write your story in as many ways as you need, Deb, as many times as you need. It is after all, your story and no one else's. However you write it, will be the way it was. I know mine would go through as many changes, viewed from different times in my life.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

Having had the pleasure of reading you for the past five or so years, I can see the changes - the maturity. The perspective gained.

Perhaps it is time to rewrite that book. Or begin anew. Or to move onto something new. For that experience, now understood much better, is integral to where you are today.

Okay, I helped. Right? Write

kario said...

I don't know how I missed this post for so long, but I'm glad I found it. I love that you are able to revisit the stories you've told about this time and see them in a different light without self-judgment. It is so amazing to me the power our stories hold for us when we tell them again and again and when we are able to break them open a little bit and talk about them in a different way, it helps us to see ourselves in a more holistic way. May your integration of these perspectives continue to evolve within the framework of self-compassion, my friend. You are a wonder!