It was the first time I’d ever been allowed to watch television. I was 14 years old. Glass exploded, metal shrieked, and red flames shot skyward before being enveloped in a mushroom cloud of thick, black smoke. A tower in New York City had been hit by a plane. America stared transfixed in horror as people leapt to their deaths and two landmark buildings collapsed. Terror enveloped the nation.
Was the Apocalypse about to start?
The September 11th terrorist attacks were shocking everywhere, but the most shocking thing in my house was that the adults had turned on the television and images from the outside world were permeating our closed society. Our Prophet had always predicted that America, Babylon the Whore, would feel the wrath of an angry God, and we could see it happening as the buildings collapsed. But worldly television? That was never allowed.
I was born and raised behind the commune walls of an extreme modern-day religious cult, the Children of God (COG). My mother, who was also raised in the cult, was 15 when she gave birth to me, in the Philippines, where she lived away from her own parents, away from my father, yet always surrounded by her cult family. My father was in another commune, in another country, married to someone else.
At 14, I had never set foot inside a school and was not allowed to read anything but the King James Bible or COG religious texts. I had never played on a sports team or even had the overwhelmingly “regular” experience of walking down a sidewalk alone.
COG members believed in Jesus, love, brotherhood and the looming specter of the Apocalypse, when the world would end in fire and brimstone. The group had originally held a unique appeal for American hippies during the late 1960s, but over the course of 40 years the cult’s leader took his unquestioning followers on a very dark journey through religious prostitution, physical and sexual abuse of children, and various forms of religious isolation and extremism, all while convincing them that they were the “true” missionaries of God.
Four generations of women in my family had been taken in by David Berg, a man who claimed to be the “Endtime Prophet of God.” My great-grandmother donated money and land to this “new religious movement,” and her daughter would eventually go all in, sacrificing her freedom, her daughters, and eventually her granddaughters to build the True Endtime Army of God.
On 9/11, I was standing stunned in our commune in San Diego — a brief stopover between the mission fields of Brazil and Mexico — watching havoc, destruction and death rain down. Though we were American citizens, the United States was a country that we had always considered too evil to live in, lest we be corrupted. Over the next few weeks, we would be told by our leaders that the 9/11 attacks were God’s punishments on Americans for their history of evil choices and for rejecting God’s Endtime Prophet. I was unsure.
People called the Children of God a cult, but we rejected that title. They said that we were brainwashed, but I had never believed that either. Second and third-generation members like me were intelligent, fun-loving and lively teenagers, who loved to sing, dance and praise God. We could argue biblical theory with anyone — something we were often called upon to do out on the streets, while hunting for converts or begging for money. People said that we were abused — and yes, we were, but as children we were taught that the beatings we received were an expression of God’s love, and we didn’t question the Prophet when he said that periods of forced isolation were to help us commune with Jesus. He taught us that sex was pure — within marriage, between marriages, and even with children — and his followers obeyed. Knowing that the world couldn’t understand our beliefs, we kept ourselves locked up, hidden, isolated.
After 9/11, the news featured many in-depth reports on the presumed mental states of the terrorists — men radicalized by religion. I recognized in those reports a truth that I had never been able to see in my total isolation: They were no different than us, just another brand of religious extremism carried out on the world stage. I could understand those men perfectly, their complete dedication to an idea, isolating and surrounding themselves with others who thought just like them. I could even understand their willingness to sacrifice their lives.
As I heard “Christians” around me thanking God for his just anger and punishment of the wicked, I realized that I needed to get away before this extremism destroyed me. By 15, I promised myself that I would escape. It wasn’t going to be easy. As a third-generation cult member, my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were all dedicated members, and I barely knew my few relatives who were not. All my life I had been taught that police were out to get me, that schools taught nothing but lies, and that all Americans were evil. Nobody I had contact with worked a paying job, lived alone, or attended school. How could I do all of those things at only 15?
I had to lay low and bide my time, pray and smile, all the while formulating my plan. I believed I could survive in the outside world. I just needed a way out — and, in the end, the extremism is what saved me. In an autocratic society, with no room for differences of opinion, where no questioning of authority is allowed and there is excommunication for anyone who dares to be different, my escape route soon became clear: I wouldn’t have to run away if I could get them to kick me out. I just had to be willing to forsake everything and everyone I had ever known.
* * *
My heart was pounding and my mind was racing as I contemplated my first major act of rebellion — sneaking out for a cigarette. I needed to do something to declare my independence, to prove to myself that I was capable of choice. When God didn’t immediately punish me, I got bolder. While out proselytizing in a Mexican town, I claimed to speak no Spanish at all (an obvious lie to those in charge). When I was supposed to be watching the younger children, I made plans to meet a local boy in the middle of the night. I quickly developed a reputation for being a “problem teenager.” My biggest offense of all would come when I declared that I wanted to attend high school.
I knew that the leaders were debating my fate. I could tell by all the young, “cool” 20-year-old cult officers that they were sending to our commune to counsel me. While excommunicating a “problem teenager” was the usual course of action, my parents were famous members and I was the oldest third-generation member still around. They feared a domino effect should word get out that I had left the Family.
I had never known my mother well, though technically I lived alongside her all my life. While she was working or having babies, I was living in dorms with other kids my age. When we spent time together, we only discussed cult-approved topics. But every once in a while, she would surprise me, somehow teaching me a way to think differently. When I was 3, sitting down with an alphabet book, she taught me that, “the only thing you ever need in life is for someone to teach you to read. Everything else you can teach yourself.” This turned out to be excellent advice, since it’s just about the only education I received.
One day after I made waves by sneaking out of the commune to meet with regular kids, my mother surprised me again. Out for a walk where we couldn’t be overheard, looking down at my scuffed leather clogs and hand-me-down, too-big clothes, I confessed that I wanted to leave but was afraid of what was waiting for me in the unknown. Should I stay here in Mexico, recommitting to the cult, to God, all of it? It seemed less scary than America, high school and making it on my own. She listened silently, then put her arm around me, her long brown hair brushing my cheek, and said, “I’ve already done all the work to arrange a place and gotten permission to bring you as far as Texas. It’ll be hard, but you’re smart, and you’re ready.” At 30 years old, with seven children and seven stepchildren, no education and no support, not ready to break away herself, she wanted to clear a path for me. It would be up to me to decide what kind of life I wanted.
Then I was gone, the gates of the compound closing behind me one last time, with everything I knew about life locked behind them. My mother and stepfather, a man she’d married when I was young and who was quite high-ranking in the cult, used their influence to get a little money for the trip. My parents were free to drop me off in the outside world, even to help me get set up, but we all knew that once it was done I couldn’t come back, even to visit. I would lose my family; I would be a “backslider.” As we drove away, I looked back at the concrete walls surrounding the large house on Del Greco Street in Guadalajara, Mexico, knowing I’d never see it again. From the outside, it looked so normal, beautiful bougainvillea flowers camouflaging the truth of what lay within. They called it excommunication. I called it freedom.
My parents took me to Texas and dropped me off with one of my stepdad’s oldest daughters; she had left the cult a few years earlier. Struggling herself and owing me nothing, we were connected nevertheless — and she’d agreed to give me a place to land. Before they left, I asked my mother for $20, but she had no money of her own to give me. As I watched them drive away, I had zero dollars in my pocket, standing in a country as foreign to me as the moon. I felt free, like the world was full of opportunity, but simultaneously alone, scared and angry that no one had ever taught me a single thing about the real world.
When I showed up at the local high school, thrilled to enroll, they didn’t know what to do with me. According to them, I simply didn’t exist; though I was standing right in front of them, I had no paperwork to prove I was real. It took weeks of visitation to school district officials who could not wrap their heads around a 15-year-old American citizen with no records to show. They finally found a box to check for me, and I was enrolled into an English-as-a-second-language homeroom — little blonde, white Daniella, the girl “from” Mexico with no parents. Overwhelmed in the hallway on my first day of class, with 4,000 other students rushing by, it took me no time at all to realize that I wasn’t just from another country, I was from another world.
* * *
High school never got easier, but I guess that’s a pretty normal teen experience. In college, I began to come into my own. For the first time, I was in an environment that encouraged questioning, searching for answers, and having tough conversations. I studied literature, logic and history, fascinated by a whole world that I’d never known existed. All the while, I felt like an imposter, like I’d snuck in there and didn’t really belong. Giving the valedictorian speech on graduation day, I encouraged my fellow graduates to embrace their futures, while still not being able to talk about my own past.
After escaping a cult and crafting a new identity in high school and college, I felt grateful to America. Earning that degree gave me a concrete feeling of having my feet on solid ground, something that no one could take away from me. In the span of six years, I’d gone from confused and penniless to someone with options. My idea of America had changed completely, from “Babylon the Whore” to “Land of Opportunity,” and I wanted to give something back. The images of 9/11 had always stayed with me, and I thought of that day as the day I became an American. So I accepted a commission into the United States Army, thinking that a three-year commitment would be a small price to pay for the education I’d received and the freedom I felt lucky to have.
Nobody can ever prepare you for what it feels like to get off the bus on the first day of basic training. You have not had a wink of sleep in 72 hours, waiting for hours and hours at airports and bus stations, in transit with other recruits who are just as clueless as you are. You get off the bus in the middle of the night and are greeted by yelling drill sergeants, their broad-brimmed brown hats something that you will learn quickly to fear. It is all a blur of standing in lines, doing push-ups till you fall on your face, and so much yelling. The rigid structure and total control felt so very familiar that a single question rang through my head: “Did I just join another cult?”
After the initial shock, I easily found my groove. The rigidity and structure of the Army quickly became a comfort — another institution that, like the one I had grown up in, told me what to do, when to do it, and how I should feel about it. The command structure was comforting. The laser focus on ideas and action seemed familiar. There was love and connection to other humans. There were values that drove us and a mission to achieve. We memorized, we chanted, we marched. We called each other brother and sister.
Officer school was more of the same. There was an easy goal — get through 12 weeks of hazing and hardship and you earn the right to wear the rank. Along the way, we brushed on topics of human psychology: how to motivate, how to lead, how to control. Soon, I shipped off to Afghanistan as an Army lieutenant. Without anyone knowing my history, I had been trained as a military intelligence officer — an expert in studying other groups, communities and cultures, and in switching perspectives to figure out what the other side was thinking and planning.
* * *
I was one in a group of dozens of soldiers crowded around a radio in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Every fiber of our beings was taut with fear and dread as we listened to the sounds of our buddies dying. Over the radio waves, we heard the horrifying mayhem of exploding bombs, frantic commands and high-pitched screams.
My official role was in a makeshift office, doing intelligence operations — collecting crucial information and getting it to the right people. I’d also been trained for combat missions, part of a new experiment putting women on special teams conducting deliberate ground combat operations. Listening to that radio, images streamed into my mind unbidden, of my friends out there, trapped and scared on that hot sand. That was my patrol team out there in trouble, my colleagues and friends who’d wandered into a death trap.
We clicked into action, shoving aside feelings as we let our training kick in, automating our responses to the tragedy. There was enemy activity to monitor, an operational response to plan, and body parts to recover and send home. We all had a part to play, while waiting to hear the names of the 10 people who had just been slaughtered. I couldn’t let myself think about them — not John, or Osman, or Mills or anyone. I had a job to do. This is what I was trained for. This is how I’d been taught act — no feelings, no questions, just response. This was my new reality.
Back at my station, running the intelligence operations and the various eyes in the sky that helped us with recovery missions, we heard the names coming in — 10 casualties, names that I knew, and every one of them felt like a punch in the face. I was hit with a profound feeling of loss and the realization that 10 families back home would soon be having the worst days of their lives. Because of the actions of insurgents that day, 10 human beings were never going home. Their lives had been claimed by religion, their families shattered by homemade explosives — bombs powered by an idea.
In that moment, I suddenly felt trapped. Eight years had passed since I’d left the cult — a community that had controlled my thoughts and actions in a blatant way. Yet here I was, a world away from where I’d started, and again my friends and I were under the complete control of someone else — following in unquestioning obedience. That day, obedience had claimed their lives, and I wasn’t even sure that any of us believed in that mission. Folks around me were calling them heroes, saying that they were part of the greater good, but all I could see through my tears was that they’d died following an order from high above, powerless to make any decisions on their own. Here I was, surrounded by a group of people, so dedicated and so connected to an ideology that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for it. What had made so much sense to me now felt nothing but horrifying. It felt like too much. Once again, it was time to get out.
Throughout my time in the military and even after I left, fellow soldiers and veterans have asked me time and again, “Why did you escape one cult and then join another?” There’s always a laugh in their voices, hiding the incredulity that they feel. The truth is that it seems strange to me as well, like it was a path that chose me, rather than the other way around. Oftentimes, I have the feeling that I don’t know who I am without some kind of group structure around me. But then again, isn’t that something that we are all searching for?
Life in the cult was hard, and given the chance, I would definitely have chosen an easier path. But while it’s difficult to explain exactly how abusive and isolating it was, there is also a deep, lasting and important connection that I still have with my fellow survivors — to this day.
My Army buddies get it, because we’ve experienced that kind of bonding. We all suffered through the painful process of joining up and going through a training regimen so intense that we feel as though it’s changed our souls. Our randomly assigned groups became teams so strong that we were willing to take bullets for each other; we ignored pain and fear of death in pursuit of a higher cause. There’s even a sense of nostalgia for the intense bond that we shared — a camaraderie that is hard to find on the outside.
These days, I still find myself joining teams and groups; I recognize my own desire for a strong bond with others and a shared ideology. I find drive in running clubs, purpose in volunteer opportunities, and focus in my daughter’s parent-teacher association. I’ve learned to harness my love of community, my sense of safety in a group, and my belief that I can always find a purpose, focus and mission where I will be truly fulfilled.
Daniella Young is a former U.S. Army captain and one
of the first women to conduct deliberate ground combat operations with
the Army’s female engagement teams. She is currently at work on a memoir
about her experience being raised in a religious cult, being
excommunicated, and serving in war.