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.