A songbook the cult members had to sing from. (Photo by Celeste Miller)
Granada Hills Charter High School

I survived: My experience leaving a cult

I normally do not share this experience openly, but I am doing this to help other high school students who may be in a similar situation. My goal is to bring light to what leaving a cult is really like. For high school students who are stuck in a cult or difficult situation, I hope my story gives you the courage to speak up. 

I was a part of a cult and I didn’t even know it. Ever since I was little, I had been going to the same Charismatic Christian church my dad and his parents had been attending since 1969. 

In this church, members were discouraged from attending college outside of the cult’s system. The leaders had to approve who you married and you had to get permission to have children. Young girls, such as myself, were groomed to become possible future wives for the leaders. Most importantly, no one was allowed to speak against the leaders — they were treated like “gods on earth.”

Growing up, I hated going to this church. I never understood why anyone voluntarily went to church every Sunday. Sometimes, after being pulled out of bed on weekend mornings, I would sit on the stairs in tears, dreading going to church. There wasn’t any particular reason why I hated it — I just did. I guess something inside me was warning me something wasn’t right.

From kindergarten through sixth grade, I attended the small private school that was connected to the cult. My memories of the school mainly revolved around teachers who would rather talk about personal stories than teaching an academic subject. For example, instead of learning math or history, we learned about the time my teacher almost committed suicide but was saved by the teachings of the church founder. She told us about her nearly fatal experience where she faced a bear and sang a hymn to it to soothe it, or even creepier, when she revived a dead rat with her own breath. 

After years of attending the cult’s secluded school, I knew I wanted out. I, like a few of my fellow students, wanted to experience what “normal” school was like. I saw no future for me there. I had to get out to experience the real world.

Leaving the cult’s school was scary to do, especially since my two younger sisters still attended the school at the time. Since I still went to the church with my family, I regularly saw all of my old peers and teachers. I was chastised by the school chaplain for leaving. I felt guilty, but I was strong in my decision. 

My family was also treated poorly because of my exit. But eventually, more students followed my lead, including my sisters. They saw that I was doing just fine, which gave them the courage to leave as well. Switching to public school opened me up to numerous opportunities, and I’m very happy that others were able to experience them too.

Ever since my sisters and I left the school, we began to attend the cult’s church less and less. However, it was often a struggle between my mom and dad. My dad was loyal to the church, but my mom resisted. Usually, my dad would put up a fight and plead my mom to go to the cult’s church. However, after a while, he stopped pushing us go to the cult’s church. Deep down inside, he knew something was wrong too. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that he also hated going to that church as much as my mom did.

Since we hadn’t lost our faith, we began to attend a well known, credible Christian church in our area. Instead of focusing on the cult’s selfish needs, the new church focused on giving back to the community. I got involved in a project where I would help sew dresses for little girls in Africa, or eyeglass cases for prisoners in Mexico. It was then that I finally understood why people go to church, the true meaning behind my faith.

I am the only one of my friends who has had this experience. After escaping the cult, I wanted to find someone who understood what I went through. I looked online for resources that could help me understand my cult experience. Unfortunately, most of what I found were outdated books and articles from the 1980’s on America’s history with cults. 

I read an article on Medium, and I especially resonated with the statement “every cult has its currency — ours was fear.” The author, Fleur Brown, talks about her experience growing up in the cult Worldwide Church of God. The rules of her cult revolved around the fear of catastrophic events. 

While there are no official organizations that help high school students escape cults, it was reassuring to read a few articles written by former cult members. I believe there is a lack of resources on cults because there is a fear amongst current and former cult members to speak up.

I know I must not be the only one out there who has had this experience. I believe we need to provide support to high school students who not only have endured living in a cult, but also students who have endured traumatic moments in their lives. We need to be able to talk about it openly, and not live in fear. 

Leaving the cult was the best decision my family made. Although I am left with many emotional scars, I have gained a new perspective on life. I grew courage and strength to stand up for my beliefs. I grew compassion and empathy for those in difficult situations. But most importantly, I learned to trust my instincts and intuition.

So for anyone out there who has experienced what I have experienced, I want to let you know that you are not alone. If you feel that you are in a cultish situation, open up and talk about it. Express your doubts to your parents or a counselor. Don’t be ashamed. There will be someone who will listen.