I Was in a Cult, and Maybe You Were Too
I was born on the shores of northeastern North Carolina to a schoolteacher and a commercial fisherman. We were the idyllic corn-fed, blue-collar, middle-class family. Religion was background noise in our home. Neither of my parents practiced much, but it didn’t prevent them from belonging to the small-town, pious lot. A trip to church was a rare occurrence, and when we did go we were usually late. We didn’t own frill-trimmed dresses or Sunday shoes, and if there was a Bible hidden in a dresser drawer somewhere around the house, I never found it.
Then something shifted. Fractured, really. My brother and sister were born in late summer, 1999. Twins. And, in tandem, my maternal grandmother began losing her battle with breast cancer. The stress of welcoming both new life and death put a strain on my mother so great that she started relying on religion. And by proxy, my siblings and I did, too.
By the time my grandmother passed away in 2001, on Veteran’s Day, we had been attending Sunday school, 11 a.m. services, and Wednesday-night Bible studies for a year with nearly perfect attendance. I’d started developing an anxiety disorder, nervous tics, and an obsession with the book of Revelation. Even at that age, I saw the correlation: go to church so no one else dies.
Our denomination was Southern Baptist, which is an offshoot of evangelical Protestantism. Its current iteration promotes the idea of predestination: You have been born into this world with a stamp on your head that either reads “saved” or “damned.” As per my hellfire and brimstone pastor, we were of the former group so long as we were baptized and paid our tithes. However, to lead long and happy lives we must obey the teachings of the Bible, which by Baptist standards is to be read literally and interpreted as infallible. Which is exactly what I did for 13 years, much to my detriment.
I started reading the book of Revelation when I was seven years old. I didn’t understand it. And the less I understood it, the more tics I developed. For instance, I would tap my pinky finger once, my ring finger twice, and so on and so forth otherwise my mom might die. I developed a prayer list the length of my arm and repeated it at bedtime like a mantra or my grandfather would have a heart attack. I would make a low-octave humming noise at the back of my throat from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed or my dog would get hit by a car. I kept reading Revelation until I got to the end and realized that when I died, my world would be a stark white abyss with no end or beginning. And so I dropped to my knees and bargained with a book and a man in the sky to help me keep the world spinning, because it was too much to carry the weight of it all by myself.
I started talking to my mom about my fears, specifically the idea of eternity. She assured me I wouldn’t feel the passage of time up there — that years would feel like minutes, centuries like days. But even a mother’s promise couldn’t abate the creeping pandemonium that was developing into generalized anxiety disorder.
I started doing school plays that same year. I ended up playing Santa Claus in a cutesy production of The Littlest Reindeer. Some kid got stage fright and I’d already learned everyone’s lines because, again, I was neurotic. I didn’t think anything of it, I was seven and wanted to wear a beard. But my mom saw something in that weird, niche performance that made her believe I had been chosen by God for a greater purpose. I was “destined,” as they say, to be something bigger than my peers. She decided God spoke to her — her child would be famous.
For the first time since we had joined up with the cult of predeterminers, I forgot what I was anxious about. I held my newfound calling tight to my chest, regarding it as more of a prophecy than flattery.
Funny how you can denounce something so deeply traumatizing yet still rely on one of its most toxic foundations.
Fast-forward 15 years and you’ll find me as a 22-year-old film school graduate, walking the stage at a conservatory in North Carolina. At this point, I’m cresting my five-year anniversary as an atheist, and it’s starting to dawn on me that I might not be special after all. I reached peaks and valleys during my tenure as an art student, making a few things I was really proud of, but perhaps more that I was embarrassed by. I brushed shoulders with people you watch in movie theaters and on Netflix. I’ve seen peers travel across the country to show their films at prestigious festivals. And I’m left with the whisper of my mother and the ghost of a religion, the reminder that even now, “I am destined.”
Funny how you can denounce something so deeply traumatizing yet still rely on one of its most toxic foundations. It exemplifies how religion codifies your decision-making. Religion sells you the idea that so long as you heed the warnings of the universe, you will find your path. It keeps people from achieving the things they desire, and dissuades them from learning from failure.
Take it from me, someone who’s given up at each sign of deficiency. Don’t like my performance? Cool, I’ll quit acting. Hated that movie I made? Oh yeah, me too I don’t think filmmaking is my bag. This article isn’t to your liking? No worries, I’ll just publish once and not work on getting better. What I didn’t realize was that the very essence of being a writer or performer or human is resilience. Moreover, failure.
Even now, as an adult, with years between me and a group of people who sold us a farce disguised as a promise, I struggle with the idea of purpose: The purpose of existence, the purpose of morality, the purpose of me. So, as the part-time chef, part-time philosopher Kenny Shopsin once put it, “You’re not so terrific, and that’s okay. That’s what the whole ball game’s about. Accepting that and moving on.”
Now that I’m older and sober from the addiction I once called Sunday, I can finally reflect on how I’ve been harmed by predestination. To have been gaslighted with obscure scripture throughout my childhood and touted by my mother as some kind of “prodigy” is not something I can forget overnight. I had visions of youthful success and accolades. Childhood journals filled with fantasies of being special and “chosen.” All of these delusions (as I’ve come to define them) stemmed from a branch of Southern Baptists who brainwash unassuming children into believing God has declared them “other,” built for a bigger purpose and a finer world.
It’s taken me 24 years to realize that my life is not predetermined, that when I lose my debit card it’s because I was tired and not because of transgression.
So I left. I stopped praying to the decider in the clouds and tipping the pastor who threatened us with hell. And you know what? Nothing bad happened. My family is still breathing and the world hasn’t ended. I let go of an imaginary burden that rested on my shoulders for over a decade. But it was hard. And I don’t condemn Christianity, nor do I look down upon those that still practice. Religion gives a lot of people hope in times when they’re most lost, and therein lies its greatest, purest purpose.
I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m ready to take back control of my destiny. It’s taken me 24 years to realize that my life is not predetermined, that when I lose my debit card it’s because I was tired and not because of transgression. That my mother’s health is equal parts genetics and lifestyle, and does not rest in the hands of my prayers. That if I am to be successful one day it will be due to hard work, not repentance.
Predestination’s reach goes far beyond the confines of a congregation or a theological base: It burrows into your aspirations. Even after you’ve left the cult.