This might only be funny to you if you’ve escaped a cult…
This might only be funny to you if you’ve escaped a cult…
I have 15 siblings. When many of my siblings and I were children, the parents, running themselves ragged, had little time to soothe us. To soothe herself, one of my sisters sucked her thumb. Another would suck on her bottom lip till it was swollen. The babies rocked themselves back and forth on the couch, back and forth.
Another brother would contort his face, sit on the floor and writhe his body over and over. We’d laugh at him. He’d do this after he’d been provoked to anger by one of us other kids, but didn’t dare fight the provoker back out of the terrifying fear of a belt lashing or worse, from the parents.
He grew up to soothe himself with alcohol. Till he couldn’t function.
The sister who’d suck on her bottom lip till it was swollen, well, the parents at first thought it was cute, until they realized her lip afterward remained misshapen. That’s when they ridiculed her as a way to get her to stop.
The parents handed us Bible scriptures, and told us to soothe ourselves.
As an adult in my 20s, anxiety grabbed me by its tendrils and thrashed me about until I contemplated the sweet release of death. Suicide. I wasn’t the only one. Another of my brothers explained to me in detail, the exact way he could kill himself. It was in a painful, but comical way, since laughter was a way we found to soothe ourselves.
When I think of whether or not people should have more kids than they have the time and energy to soothe, comfort, and love, to me the answer is clear. NO. Just no. Plus, overpopulation.
Despite the dysfunction though, all of 16 of us are still alive. Many of us manage to be happy even, many of us with spouses, careers, and homes of our own. One of us is a Doctor, who helps to heal others. Many of us have children of our own, children that I love dearly. To me, this speaks to the resiliency of the human spirit, as well as the underlying love that our parents did have for us despite their lack of time or their misguidedness.
When I think of whether or not safe spaces should exist on college campuses, I’m not sure. But I am 100% sure that safe spaces should exist at home. People should actively listen to, soothe, and comfort their children. It won’t turn them into spoiled brats, as my mother feared. What it will do is make the children feel loved, and that love will make them more resilient, and help to carry them peacefully through an oftentimes tempestuous world.
I was born into the Children of God, a group some considered a revolutionary Christian movement. The media referred to it as a sex cult. The truth was somewhere in between. I was eleven years old when my mother managed to leave the COG and take her six children with her, including me.
By the time I was a senior in High School, we’d thus been out of the COG for several years and lived in Wilton Manors, Florida, in a small three-bedroom house. The third bedroom was located on the side of the house, with it’s own private entrance and bathroom. To get to that room you had to exit the house, walk around, and enter the bedroom door from the side of the house. My sister Starlight had claimed that bedroom, one with privacy away from the rest of us.
On one sweltering Florida day, the type that left me drenched in sweat, my hair was frizzy, unwashed, and I wore a ragged, skimpy dress so as to have as little fabric as possible bother me in the excruciating humidity-filled heat. I didn’t dare wear a bra even, and hoped to see no one outside of my immediate family.
I walked out the front door to get to my sister Starlight’s room, to ask if I could borrow an eraser. That’s when I saw a man next to a truck. The truck was so giant it dwarfed our small front lawn. I grimaced.
If a person can communicate who they are by the manner in which they park, this man did just that. There was plenty of street parking on our street. But he had parked his truck diagonally atop our lawn as if to say “I’m a rule breaker. I’m entitled and deserve any space I want.” The man wore sunglasses and had a mustache. He stood with his hands on his hips, and leaned against his vehicle, casually yet menacingly. He was about my mother’s age.
“Is Jacqueline here?” he asked. I walked back into the house and motioned to Mom that someone was there to see her. Mom had her headset on which meant she was on the phone so she’d have to wrap up the call. Mom worked as a phone sex operator. This was before webcam sex chat, when men got their jollies from hearing women’s voices. Mom would pick up our landline, and press a few buttons to log into the system when she was ready to work, and her calls would come directly to our house. Mom didn’t have her own bedroom cause she let us have the rooms, so she had us leave the living room when she took her calls as she sat on the couch.
After having been in a sex cult, nothing about human sexuality scandalized her, whether it was the multitude of men who confided that they got turned on by putting on women’s clothing but were too terrified to tell their wives, wives Mom saw as small-minded and referred to as systemites, or the man with a micropenis who was only able to get off by having a woman insult and humiliate him since that’s what had happened to him each time he’d tried to be intimate with a woman. Mom also had a voice that sounded youthful, like a teenager. People oftentimes told us we sounded exactly alike on the phone.
I got the eraser from my sister Starlight, and returned to the house to do my homework.
Less than an hour later there were knocks on the door of the bedroom I shared with my brother. “What were you doing outside, Bel? You shouldn’t have been outside. You had no business being outside. You should have been in the house doing a chore. The dishes are dirty. You shouldn’t go outside like that in the middle of the afternoon. You’re SO lazy” Mom was frantic, another one of her random tirades. I hadn’t been prohibited from going outside before but now for some reason what I’d done was retroactively a deadly sin of some sort. Apparently, no matter what rules of Mom’s I followed, I would always be wrong because the rules changed as I was following them, an ongoing ex post facto thing of hers. Mom continued to nag. “You’re so lazy. Did you know that there are people your age who have children? You’re an ADULT!” In the cult one was considered an adult at the age of twelve and even though my Mom had left the cult she still referred to it’s doctrine if it happened to support whatever crackpot point she was trying to make. Thus at this moment, in my Mom’s mind I’d been an adult for several years already. “You really should be a better example to your younger brother and sisters. What would your dad say if he saw what a SLOB you are? Your room looks like shit! SHIT!”
I stood up as tall as I could. I knew my mother well enough to understand that if I let on that I was hurt, she would use that as ammunition against me. If I cried, I’d be ridiculed. Mom knew exactly how to push my buttons. “I CAN go outside if I WANT to! Look at you! You don’t even have a normal job!” I said. I felt sticky sweat trickle down from my armpits. “You’re too scared to even drive a car! YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED NOTHING IN YOUR LIFE, PLUS YOU’RE A FUCKING BITCH!” Thus it went, both of us attacking one another, another huge argument, the type Mom used to have with our Dad.
Later, in the bathroom, the door locked, I’d sit on the toilet lid. Hunched over, I’d sob. All I could see was that I was never good enough. I stayed away from drugs and alcohol, didn’t party in the darkness of night like another sister of mine, and was on the honor roll. I even worked a job and contributed the $60 monthly “rent fee” Mom required from both my brother Taurug and I. But none of that seemed to matter. I desperately wished I could get away. Yet I had nowhere to go.
It was days later when Mom and I sat across from one another in a booth at the Taco Bell blocks from our house. With very little money, Taco Bell was as fancy as it got for us. Mom wore a buttoned-down men’s collared shirt she’d bought at Goodwill. “Remember that man with the truck the other day?” Mom said. I did. Mom let me know that the man who’d parked on our lawn had actually responded to a personals ad she had placed in the newspaper, and that they had spoken on the phone prior to his appearance at our home. She said that when he’d asked her to describe herself, she’d told him her age, that she was a mother of six, that she was overweight, that she ate cookies, and wore eye glasses.
Apparently though, this man had chosen to ignore these facts and use the sound of Mom’s voice to create his own fantasy of what she must surely look like. He had told her to shut up as he just knew she would be sexy and he had to take her out to eat. That day that I’d summoned her to meet him on our lawn, however, he’d looked Mom up and down then said “Who was that?” and pointed toward where I had just entered the house. “She looked nice.” Mom, crestfallen, had nonetheless gotten into his car and he’d promptly taken her to this very Taco Bell. Once there Mom had ordered a meal. He, with his arms folded over his chest, had ordered nothing. He had scowled at Mom as she slowly ate her two tacos.
In that moment I looked into my mother’s blue eyes. I was outraged at the man. Yes, Mom had hurt me repeatedly, but that didn’t give an outsider, someone whom she’d never done anything unkind to, the right to crush her. I also felt helpless. I wanted to cry for my Mother. It sucked that a woman’s worth was based upon her appearance. I was mad too at poverty for making my mother feel that a free meal was more important than her dignity.
It would only be many years later when I would also understand that as difficult as I felt my mom made life for me at that time, life was equally if not more difficult for her. She was lonely. She had few friends, and bouts of depression. She was constantly worried about money. While seeking the companionship of another adult human, the best Mom had was a houseful of teenagers, and we were all disrespectful towards her after years of seeing other parents disrespect her. In fact, at that time, contempt was the bed of my feelings towards her. Yet she nonetheless did so much for her children, with little to no support from our other parents, while we refused to do our chores and didn’t appreciate the financial struggles she endured to put food on our table and a roof over our heads.
Yet in that moment teenaged me was able to see in my mother, a woman who deserved human decency, but instead was reduced to meeting strangers out of newspapers. Men like Mr. Truck who hadn’t yet learned to see beyond appearances.
*Since my reading, the above story has been slightly tweaked as I found words I felt were more fitting (in case you noticed).
I wasn’t allowed to listen to many systemite songs as a small child. In fact, like outside books, most outside songs were curtailed, considered to be mind clutter that of course the evil ol’ devil wanted to use to take us away from Christ. Our strict prophet termed such clutter “vain babbling.”
Bob Dylan* was an exception. His music spoke to a noble aspect of what my parents, deep down, had always wanted: to reject the ills of generations past. Dylan’s words urged that societal change needed to happen. As it still does.
My Dad would pick up a guitar and sit us all down in the living room. My Mom’s breast could be flopped out as she fed one of the babies, and we listened, in awe of the sound of Dad’s heavyhearted voice as it weaved through metal guitar strings.
* Today Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first time the honor has gone to a musician.
At Lake Balboa Park today I read through family letters, documents, notes, and the like, from my childhood, all part of a three-ring binder my sister Lily and I gathered together. The park was slightly chilly so I wore my purple Snuggie.
Some of the letters made me cry, like the ones indicating how much my mother’s mother tried to help our family over the years when it was so difficult to know we, her grandchildren, suffered while my mom looked down on grandma as a lowly systemite, yet begged her for more money for our “missionary work.” Some letters made me laugh though like my grandfather in essence writing to my mother, “That’s lovely you just had another child, but remember, overpopulation.”
That’s part of the pain and beauty of life though. We each get to make our own decisions. Sometimes they hurt us, sometimes they hurt the planet, sometimes they hurt the generations to come, like the Family children who grew up and committed suicide.
My 15 siblings and myself lived in a shit version of polygamy, and are all still alive, thankfully. Currently, I happen to be in a supportive and monogamous marriage, and do my best to be content each day as I continue to tell our story. Or at least my story.
I was so thankful to be a part of Stories Under the Stars this year (a lovely annual event hosted by Story Salon/IWOSC member, and Author Lila Silvern, and presented by the Story Salon‘s lovely Beverly Mickins who graciously asked me to be a part of it).
I am thankful to my ever supportive friends who came out to hear me read about an experience that took place when I was a senior in High School flanked by my younger siblings, as we lived in a tiny house with our mother, who only years prior had left the cult. I spoke of the hijinks, sadness, and insight that ensued when our mother placed a singles ad in the newspaper.
“Here, on a perfect July summer evening, Bel Baca… reads a touching tale to an appreciative, snack-munching and inspired crowd,” wrote Sylvia Cary, Author and Therapist.