Dawn Gandhi: Method and Madness is a true crime podcast and contains descriptions of violence. This episode features themes, of sexual assault and abuse of children. Listener discretion is advised. She grew up in a cult and was a child bride. Today, she’s telling her story. This is Method and Madness, episode 52, Unchained, tomorrow’s story. I’m your host, Dawn Gandhi.
Dr. Tamara MC: There was nobody that had to be outside of me with a whip telling me,
you need to do this. It’s like the whole point and the goal is to get the person to actually impose it upon themselves. And so, I was constantly monitoring every last breath. I mean, how I ate, how I breathed, how I slept. It’s like every moment of the day I was having to monitor. And I was like taught that if I even had one bad thought, like that God would know.
Dawn Gandhi: They vary from group to group, cults that is. But overwhelmingly, they have similarities. Behavioral guidelines, group think. An authoritarian, a leader, sometimes more than one. And they’re looking for people who will be obedient to them. And the way they get others to be obedient is by using deception and influence. Manipulation through fear. Their tactics and guilt. I recently sat down with my very special guest, Dr. Tamara M.C. She’s a mom, an artist, a writer, and loves to help others. She’s curious, observant. And as we talk, I noticed that she has that artsy look about her. Blonde hair and off the shoulder top. And behind her, shelves and shelves of books, photos, and knickknacks. Tamara. Tamara is also a survivor. She grew up in a religious cult, starting at age five. At age 12, she became a bride. As with any survivor, I asked Tamara, what topics are off limits for today? So, we won’t get into some of the specific details. The name of the cult, or the name of the cult leader. The specific religion they practiced. And the name of her husband. It should also be noted that the words cult, community, and commune are all used to describe the environment and the people that Tamara was surrounded by for much of her young life.
Throughout this episode, you’ll hear words and phrases that seem like oxymorons. A child bride. What exactly is that? How can a child be a bride? Well, technically, they can. In the eyes of God, or even in the eyes of the law. In fact, in the United States, between the years 2000 and 2018, nearly 300,000 minors were legally married. How? Well, despite the fact that a child cannot consent to marriage, there needs to be laws that prevent it. And the sad truth is that there aren’t enough laws in the U.S. to prevent child marriage. To stop it. To hold adults accountable for it. There are only a handful of U.S. states that have passed legislation to end all child marriage. Other states eliminate one loophole, only to introduce a new one.
For Tamara, it was the 80s when she was forced to marry a stranger. Someone several years older than her. Let’s dive in.
Dr. Tamara MC: Hi, my name is Dr. Tamara MC. I’m so happy to be here, Dawn. Thank you for having me.
I’m very new to sharing my story publicly. And my why is that I’m ready to share my story, whereas I wasn’t ready before. I just turned 50 this year. And I made a pledge to myself that for the first 50 years of my life, the majority of those years, I was kept silent and I lived in the secret of my story. And that for the next 50 years, I am no longer going to do that. And as embarrassed as I can be about my story, or as difficult as it is to tell my story, it’s more difficult at this point to not tell my story. And I just want to be able to, to like, I want my body and my mind and my heart, my heart to be aligned and I guess the word, I mean, maybe the word is proud, but, but to be proud of what I’ve gone through and to be proud of where I am today and to be able to sit here and to have this conversation with you.
Dawn Gandhi: Tamara only started sharing her story publicly for the first time in writing about a year and a half ago. She’s written essays that have been published and this is her third time appearing on a podcast. She says that she wasn’t sure what to do with her story. What to expect by opening up about her past, but has seen mostly a positive reception. As she puts it, a lot of love has come her way. Here, she talks about her early years as a young child, a happy time when it was just her and her parents in the early to mid seventies. So my mom and dad were just kind of these wonderful, amazing 1960s flower children hippies. Anti-Vietnam, just my mother grew up in New York City and made jewelry and sold it, and sold it on the lower east side. And just my dad was like a cool cat himself. Like they had really long hair and they were just like, I guess like for the sixties, like if you see photos of like the iconic kind of sixties flower children, it’s like my mom and dad fit, like exactly the same. Exactly within that, that photograph. So growing up with them, I guess my life was pretty free and not just, I mean, I guess, I guess it just seemed like a very, very, I guess I shouldn’t, well, it was normal childhood in comparison to what it’s going to be. That’s for sure. But just a really, I felt just happy and secure. And I didn’t, I didn’t really think that much. I just was a little kid and I just remember being happy with my, with my little tiny family, my mom and my dad and me. And it was just the three of us. And I just, we lived in a mud Adobe home and it was like in the shape of a circle. So the home is like really, I used to like go from room to like, I could run around the house in a circle and I could make laps and I could get from each room to the next. So, so the house really stood out. We had Weimaraners. And so, I remember like our, our Weimaraner dogs and like running them. And we just had a lot of land and horses live behind our house. And I just remember being a fairly happy child with not a lot on my mind.
Dawn Gandhi: But then at a young age, something happens that sets Tamara’s life in a new direction. One that completely changes everything.
Dr. Tamara MC: So, when I was five years old, my mother, went on a camping trip to Europe and left me alone with my father for the summer. And during that summer, my father met a spiritual teacher while, while she was gone. And we ended up going to the community center with a spiritual teacher. And it was then that my father decided to follow this person and to follow
the religion and to follow the lifestyle. So when my mother came back, my father was no longer the same person.
And my father then wanted my mother to also kind of take on this new way of life, but she refused. So within, after several months,
my father decided to leave because the community that he had joined was then going to be traveling and leaving Arizona. And I think they were headed to Atlanta, Georgia at that point.
Dawn Gandhi: And it didn’t occur to Tamara at five years old that her father, could or would ever come back at that moment. She felt like she had lost him.
Dr. Tamara MC: I think like later as time went on, I would wonder like, is my dad ever going to come back? Is he going to come back and see me? Where’s my dad? And I was going into first grade that year.
And I can almost vividly remember every year of my school year, but I do not remember first grade. First grade is the blurriest year of my life. And I just have, I have like tiny memories,
but I barely have memories. I barely remember sitting in my classroom. I barely remember my, the name of my teacher. Like I have to look it up. Like, like none of it comes. Like I just, I, I just, I remember my mother, like one of the memories, very strong memories I have is my mom, like dropping me off at school in the mornings. And she would have to go to work because she was not a single mom. She always worked anyways. But I just remember like begging her, like, please take me to work with you. Like, I, I just wanted to hold on to my mom. Like I was so scared and I didn’t want to go to school. I just wanted to be with my mom all the time. So I remember just, just that feeling of, um, of like, of like not being able to, you know, I guess because I didn’t have my father, then it was like, I was relying now more on my mother to kind of bring the safety to my life.
Dawn Gandhi: Tamara’s father came back to, to visit once he showed up at the door, surprising her and stayed for a few days before leaving again. My dad really changed that summer that, that he began joining this community.
Dr. Tamara MC: So it was at that point that I lost my father. He was no longer the father I was before I was five. And he became a completely new person. So he resembled the person who left me, but he did not resemble the father that I had before. Um,
Dawn Gandhi: she went and visited him for the first time since he’d left during the summer when she was about six or seven, it was the late seventies. He had settled in Texas and Tamara flew by herself with a flight attendant or stewardess, as they were referred to at the time, supervising her during the flight. She joined her father and the cult in downtown San Antonio. He would be working and Tamara was more or less taken in by the women of the community, not necessarily cared for, but just in their guardianship. That winter, Tamara returned to Texas again to visit her father for the holiday break. He had remarried.
Dr. Tamara MC: So I’d go to my mom’s during the school year, and then I’d be with my father for about four months of every year. And that continued from six or seven, and throughout my childhood, that same schedule continued. And for a few years, we lived in different properties in San Antonio. And then when I was about 11, so maybe it was more than that, so maybe three or four years. And then when I was 11, we moved to a big community north of San Antonio that was midway to Austin. And that was kind of where I spent the majority of my community. So the community, there was nothing else that looked like it, and there’s maybe still nothing else that looks like it. But the leader built an entire, like it was almost 300 acres, and he built a dorm-like facility, like this huge, oh gosh, like huge property with I don’t know how many rooms, but it was actually going to be a teaching facility. So there was a communal, there was a couple of communal kitchens. Some communal bathrooms. And then there were just bedrooms, and there was like no bathrooms in the bedrooms. There were no houses where families could live together. So growing up in this community, my dad and my stepmom had a room, and they lived together. And then I was in a room with my siblings, and we were like across the courtyard. So there was like no central meeting place. It wasn’t like anybody ever saw what was happening with the kids. We were just completely, completely separate and lived like in a room on our own.
Dawn Gandhi: It’s hard to imagine young children, ones even as young as Tamara was at the time, being isolated from the adults in their lives, their own parents. There had to be a reason behind it, even if it was one that most families wouldn’t understand or agree with. That reason becomes clearer later on in the episode, when Tamara describes how the adults lived their day-to-day.
Dr. Tamara MC: In terms of the family, there’s a lot of different reasons. There’s a lot of different reasons for supervision. There were lots of rules. So it’s not like we were free in any way. We had dozens and dozens of rules, but there was no supervision in terms of care. Like, are our clothes dirty? Do we need our clothes to be washed? Just the basic things of how I’m sure you and I take care of our children. Like, there was none of that, like making sure is, does your child need food? Does your child, like, there was no education in that way. There weren’t, like, our basic needs being met, but there were all sorts of rules, so we were always being monitored and, like, supervised in that way.
Dawn Gandhi: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, and statements from hundreds of cult members and their families, quote, quote, normal parental nurturing and bonding is discouraged within a cult because it threatens bonding to the cult leader.
Dr. Tamara MC: I feel like my entire life was just one huge set of rules. The way we dressed was, like, number one. We couldn’t show any of our skin, so, like, we had to wear sleeves that, like, almost went, you know, covered our thumbs. They had to go that low. Our shirts had to completely go up. To our necks. We couldn’t even show our feet, and the rules were always changing because the leader was always adding new rules, so it was, like, there was always something new, so, like, we had to wear socks. We couldn’t wear pants. It was Texas, and it’s really, really hot there, and, like, if we wore a skirt, which would have been a really blousey skirt that would have gone to our ankles anyways, we still had to wear pants underneath our skirts, and then we had to wear socks, and we had to cover our heads and cover our hair and cover our necks, and so there were multiple rules around our bodies. We couldn’t look at the opposite sex.
We had to keep our eyes down when we walked. We weren’t able to read books, listen to radio, watch television, so this was, like, the 80s. Before internet and everything, then cell phones, so, yeah, so it was, like, radio and television. We weren’t allowed to watch movies. Really, we weren’t allowed any sort of outside thoughts, like, nothing was able to filtrate, like, we were only able to read religious texts and sing religious songs. We couldn’t sing. We couldn’t dance. We couldn’t express ourselves in any way. We couldn’t play sports. We couldn’t go sing. We couldn’t dance. We couldn’t go to the gym. We couldn’t go to the gym. We couldn’t go to swimming um we had to cook all the time we had to clean all the time we had to take care of the children we were monitored how we spoke and the words that we used um our thoughts were monitored like constantly asked like like to make like to control how we were thinking we were told that very often so really every imaginable aspect of our lives was controlled and there was a rule
Dawn Gandhi: a cult leader’s obsession with obedience and behavioral control is particularly manifested in the treatment of children according to the article children and cults a practical guide they’re placed in a confusing situation with unfamiliar rules which do not correspond to anything the individual had previously known you.
Dr. Tamara MC: There was only one way to think and it was the way that we were told to think there was only one way to feel which was the way we were told to feel and we were constantly told how to feel and how to think and so if you did feel something different if you did express it which i didn’t because like i just wouldn’t do that because i saw what would happen but there was like corporal punishment and so if anybody went against anything um there were there were was there were a lot of um what you call it repercussions for it.
Dawn Gandhi: tamara says the rules were laid out in black and white with no gray areas this is good or this is bad this is what you can do and this is what you can’t do no negotiation and the rules varied there were different guidelines for the adults versus the children and then the rules varied based on gender the strictest rules were those placed on the young girls the preteens and teens the boys had it a little easier they didn’t have to follow the same dress code they could wear shorts if they wanted to which made it more comfortable in the humidity if tamara did go swimming with her stepmother it was in full clothing head to toe pants long skirt with the clothing floating up and over her head comparable to a butterfly and she was in full clothing head to toe and she was in full clothing falling into a body of water its wings soaked hardly a fun escape from the texas summers you can imagine there’d be some sort of resentment seeing how the boys are being treated as opposed to the girls but tamara says the resentment was more toward another group.
Dr. Tamara MC: there was a huge resentment for the adults like the young girls would just talk about it all day long like we would just sit there and whenever we were cooking just like the kitchen the kitchen was just like the kitchen was just like the kitchen was just like the kitchen which which i kind of love to speak about and i think that’s why i love the kitchen so much and i’ve been so drawn to cooking but the kitchen was the safest place for us it was like the safest place in the whole community because nobody wanted to go into the kitchen because that meant that they’d have to cook and clean and so it’s like all the adults were like they would like disperse so it’s like when we were alone in the kitchen we could like we had this like we had this like little underground community and we’d like cook and we’d like talk and get angry and it was like the place for us to be and we had this like little underground community and we’d like cook and we’d like cook and we’d like talk and get angry and it was like the place for us to be and we had this all come together and talk about how horrible our lives were and and we knew that like nobody was around so it was like really safe
Dawn Gandhi: cult leaders do what it takes to prevent family bonds which is why isolation is commonly used but that wouldn’t stop another kind of bond while the adult women would sit in their rooms gossiping tamara and the other girls were becoming closer and closer to each other they were going through it all together and they were like oh my god i’m so sorry i’m so sorry i’m so sorry i’m so sorry i’m so sorry together if something bad happened to one of them it happened to all of them they protected each other throughout this time tamara was still returning to arizona during the school year living with her mom those two extremes going back and forth from a normal american childhood where you go to school to living with a cult as a child slave how did it feel for her when the school year would be coming to an end and she’d anticipate it and she’d anticipate it and she’d anticipate it what was coming that summer.
Dr. Tamara MC: I think each year it was different in the beginning there was a dread and i think overall there was a dread but i also had so much i i mean i believe in the word brainwashing because i was very brainwashed and i was very afraid that if i didn’t behave like i was taught to behave on the commune that i was going to go to hell that i was going to go to hell and i was going to go to hell and i was if I didn’t follow all these rules and if I didn’t pray and if I didn’t cover that I was going to an eternal hell. And to me that, you know, we were vividly described what hell was like, like this fire that never ends for eternity. And just like this burning, like there was so many ways to describe hell. And all I thought is, I don’t want to go to hell.
Dawn Gandhi: Tamara was impressionable, as most children are. And as children, we believe what the adults in our lives tell us. We trust them. Inherently, we think they have our best interest in mind. And while she loved organizing things and had dreamt of one day being a secretary and getting to put those skills to use, after her father joined the cult, she no longer had any aspirations but to be a wife, a mother, a good religious woman, and a follower. Of the leader. To get into heaven. But her natural creativity couldn’t be stolen. And it was the cooking, the constant hours in the kitchen, that allowed that creativity to shine through. It was long before the food network, where plating became an art form. But Tamara loved playing with presentation. Something as simple as cutting a vegetable became an art form. So much of that brainwashing, the kind you hear about if you study cooking, is a part of the creative process. And it’s a part of the creative process. Haltz was the group think. Also known as mind controller, coercive persuasion, that it was selfish to think of yourself or your own interests. Your individuality was looked down on. And like when one sense is taken away and another becomes heightened, Tamara being robbed of her individuality gave her a sort of superpower, the power of observation.
Dr. Tamara MC: And so maybe the part that I kept for myself was that I was a little bit more of a person. I was a little bit more of a person. So I was a little bit more of a person. I was a little bit more of a person. And so maybe the part that I kept for myself, which I guess is really useful now, is I just watched everybody. And I listened. And I saw how people moved. I saw what they said. And so I just internalized all these stories. And I was constantly kind of like I wasn’t able to read or to write at that time. So I guess I was like creating books in my head. And like almost like saving up all of these stories for the day that I could write. And so like all of the the characters, like I had all the characters in the commune, all the men and the women and the leaders and the children. And I knew how they moved. I knew what they would say.
Dawn Gandhi: The years went by. And then just as it all changed for her when her dad left her at age five, another moment would change everything forever. Tamara had just completed seventh grade. School let out around May 12th. And then it was off to her dad’s to spend the summer. At the height of the community, there were about 100 to 150 people living there in Texas. And Tamara had grown used to it as much as a child can in that environment. She had her dad, but rarely saw him. He’d travel a lot during the summer. And her stepmother had four children from a previous marriage all around Tamara’s age. She got really close to her sister a year younger than her. Their bond was unbreakable. But they were about to be separated as a result of a special request by one of the cult leaders.
Dr. Tamara MC: When I got to my dad’s, he picked me up at the airport. And then I learned that the leader wanted me to live with him. My father agreed to the situation because no other child had been asked. No other person really went up onto this hill. It was like this secret hill where nobody was allowed except for the family. So kind of like for me to be chosen was like a big deal. And so my father, of course, agreed and was like, you know, this will be a great opportunity for you to get special teachings from the leaders like in any sort of religious setting, communal setting, cult-like setting. And I’m like, to be close to the leader is what everybody aspires to do or to be. And so like for me to have that access was like everything. So my father dropped me off. And that was helpful. how I ended up on this hill. And I had no idea why I was there. I thought I was there because I was special. I thought I was there because they loved me. And I was, yes. But that, looking back, that wasn’t the case, which I was special, but I was only special in that I was like subservient. I wasn’t special because there was anything unique about me that they saw in me other than I would not cause problems.
Dawn Gandhi: The leader had a separate house about an hour away from the rest of the community. The home was on top of a huge hill with a gate and an intercom. And living there with the leader was his mother, his three wives. He had two older children, as well as small children with each of his wives. There was a community center for the family, as well as one or two additional houses. When Tamara arrived, she didn’t have any idea what was in store for her.
Dr. Tamara MC: I was there to work. I had no idea. I found out immediately. But the second wife, I lived in her house and she had, at that time, I believe, four children. And they were all under age five. And there was a brand new baby who was like three months. And a two-year-old and a three-year-old and four-year-old, like right around that age. She had like one after another, four kids, like under five. And so I was there to take care of a baby. And all these kids, by myself at 12 years old. And so that’s why I was there. And that’s, yeah. And I was there to help with the cooking, to help with the cleaning. That wasn’t my primary focus. My primary focus was the children.
Dawn Gandhi: The cult leader had several businessesthat he was tending to. And his second wife, the mother of these children, spent the days doing work for him. There was a cook that made the meals. And Tamara became a sous chef. A sous chef of sorts, on top of her child care duties, which she was on top of from sunrise to 10 p.m. every day.
Dr. Tamara MC: And it was hard. It was so hard managing a little baby that always wants its mother. Like what baby doesn’t want its mother? And so just to kind of take care of the baby and figure out how to not, so the baby wasn’t crying. The baby had everything it needed. It was playing. And then I had, I was like, but it wasn’t even like, like today, like how we could go to the park and like do all these things. Like I was stuck on this hill in this house. And then there was a playroom, which was just like a bed, the size of a bedroom. And they would just close the door. And I’d be in that bedroom with four kids. And there was like, they barely had any toys or anything. So I was just like behind a door for like 12 hours. And I was like, I’m going to go to the park. And I’m going to go to the park. And I was like, I’m going to go to the park. And I’m going to go to the park. And I was 12 to 16 hours trying to entertain four children by myself.
Dawn Gandhi: Tamara would make up stories, dance, what else can you do when you’re 12 and playing the role of primary caregiver to four small children. And she was fiercely protective of them, making sure they never got hurt. Their mother had two more children and Tamara eventually took care of all six of them.
Dr. Tamara MC: I’d put them down for naps. I’d have to like rock them, you know, to get them down to sleep. sleep and I’d give them their baths and I’d feed them their meals. And so it’s like I did everything for those kids. They were like my first children. I consider them my first children. And I loved like now I’m even going to cry, but I mean, I love those kids dearly.
Dawn Gandhi: I asked if there was ever any gratitude from the leader or his wife to sort of thank Tamara for all the work she was doing. She described to me the manipulation tool they would use. She didn’t realize it was manipulation, of course, at the time, but the flattery that the adults would use. You’re so good with the children. You’re such a good cook. The kind of thing a manipulator does when they want you to do something for them. Tamara wanted to make the children’s mom happy, to have her proud. And like when she was living in the dorm-like community, there were rules that varied from person to person. Tamara was a very good cook. She was a very good cook. She was a very good cook. This time, the strictest rules only applied to those outside of the leader’s family. She described it as she was the help and they were the royalty.
Dr. Tamara MC: They had a totally different life. I mean, the cult leader was a multimillionaire. And at that point, like being a multimillionaire was like as big as it got. It wasn’t like now where there’s billionaires. So, I mean, he basically was like uber rich and his wives like wore all designer clothes. And he was like, I’m going to be a billionaire. And I’m going to be a billionaire. And his children wore all designer clothes and they ate the best food and they ended up all going to the best schools. So kind of the whole other area, like the commune where like my siblings were and everybody else, like all the kids were wearing rags and didn’t go to school. And so totally opposite. Like there was no, yes, very different lives.
Dawn Gandhi: And on top of it, the leader didn’t pay his workers. Tamara said he did pay her father, but it wasn’t much. And none of the pay was comparable to the work that was actually being done. Tamara was on call 24-7, a child on call. Each day blurred into the next. But Tamara didn’t dare complain. To do so would mean going down her own path and burning in hell.
Dr. Tamara MC: I was just very, very obedient. Most of, I don’t know of any other child that was as obedient as me. And the adults didn’t feel that. The adults were the ones who were spewing all this ridiculousness. What they were concerned about is being shunned because if they didn’t follow, for instance, the leader would kick him out of the community. And so they really wanted to be in this community and be accepted and have this lifestyle. So I don’t think it was about heaven and hell for them. I think it was just about wanting to please this leader as if he was like their God, you know, not an actual God, but like somebody they really, really looked up to in a God-like way.
Dawn Gandhi: Generally, people feel like they’re being shunned. People who join cults may be experiencing a rough patch, something distressing from their personal or professional life. They may be lonely, looking for a sense of community. They may be looking for answers, usually to those important questions regarding success, happiness, and how to gain it. And according to Dr. Janja Lalic, a specialist on the subject of cults and extremism, a cult leader doesn’t encourage their members to live better lives. They seek to control them from personal and family relationships. They seek to control them from personal and family relationships. to financial assets and living arrangements. So a member would have to be highly committed. And it seems that if you’re that committed, you’re no longer seeking success, not in the traditional way. You aren’t seeking career growth. Tamara talks about the adults in the cult.
Dr. Tamara MC: They had a choice. They were over 20. Most of them were over 25, over 30. So they had absolutely, every choice to join this craziness. And so they put themselves there. And they really, really benefited. Even though I’m saying they were kind of free worker bees, they also never had to get real jobs. They never had nine to five jobs. My mom, who had to go to work and get a paycheck and didn’t have an option, a lot of these adults were… And then towards the end, they really weren’t doing anything. They were completely lazy. The whole property ended up… Nobody was taking care of it. So the property was just decaying, this gorgeous property. It was just decaying by the year. So why they were staying there, I guess it was a free place to live. They didn’t have to be part of society. They had little girls cooking and cleaning for them. I mean, I would never choose it. But I guess their choice was like, yeah, I’m going to stay. I’m going to stay. I’m going to let’s just live in this place and not have to do anything in life that all of us don’t want to do.
Dawn Gandhi: It’s unimaginable the toll this lifestyle would take on a child working seven days a week, barely a break, restless, uncomfortable nights with little sleep, separated from their family, their loved ones, no creative outlets, no playdates or trips to the park or the beach, not having their own bedroom to retire to. At the end of the night. And as if being chosen to live with and work for the cult leader wasn’t bad enough, it was one of Tamara’s first nights at that big house on the hill, shortly after completing seventh grade, where once again, Tamara’s life would turn upside down. This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. I don’t know about you, but I’m really thankful that mental health and self-care are taking more of a front seat these days. Therapy has helped me when I felt overwhelmed and needed to sort some things out. Maybe you’re feeling more stressed lately or like you’re struggling with work or personal relationships. However you’re feeling, you deserve to be happy and to know that there is no shame in therapy. BetterHelp is customized online therapy. In under 48 hours, you could be communicating with a therapist by phone, live chat, or video if you’re comfortable. Now is a good time to invest in yourself and see what online therapy is all about. And special offer to Method and Madness listeners. You can get 10% off your first month of professional therapy at betterhelp.com slash method and madness. That’s better H-E-L-P-E-R-A-P-S. That’s better H-E-L-P-E-R-A-P.com slash method and madness. Thanks again to BetterHelp for sponsoring this episode.
Dr. Tamara MC: I lived in a little like shack right off of the playroom. It was like a little converted patio. And so like the rest of the house was beautiful. And then I just had like, like you’re sleeping on a patio. It was like a little bit enclosed. And so I was like sleeping on the floor and there was a sliding door. And I was like, oh, I’m going to sleep on the floor. Glass door, but the door didn’t lock or anything.
Dawn Gandhi: It was one of the first nights there. Shortly after she was sent to live and work for the cult leader’s family, there was a boy that lived on the property several years older than Tamara. He’d been working there, working for the cult leader and living there for a few years at that point.
Dr. Tamara MC: And he ended up sneaking into my room and then violated me for several nights. And by about the third night, or so, or within the first three to seven days, something like that. He basically said that he had to marry me because he couldn’t be with me because in our community, boys and girls weren’t able to be together. They definitely were not able to be together intimately. And the only way to do that would be to be married. And so by the third, fifth night, whatever it exactly was, he ended up, coming over like at midnight. So it was after I was done cooking and cleaning and taking care of the kids and then putting the kids down. He snuck into my room and I just like, again, I was just like wearing these huge clothes and I was just soaking wet, like on the front because my clothes in the front were always wet from washing dishes and my sleeves were always soaking wet. And I would just like go to sleep in the clothes that I wore. I didn’t even, I just, whatever I was wearing during, the day I’d just go to sleep in. And so he came in and he had me repeat after him in a language I didn’t understand that I was married to him. And so I basically had a wedding ceremony at about midnight in the middle of the night in a dark room wearing rags. And then I was married. And in this particular ceremony, there’s no witnesses that are needed. And there’s no witnesses that are needed. know, legal document and the man can marry himself to the woman. Of course, I wasn’t a woman, but to the girl or whatever you’d like to call that. So I was then married to him and I was in this like secret marriage at that point.
Dawn Gandhi: This temporary marriage was used in different parts of the world, meant to be for a certain amount of time, not forever. After saying your vows, you’re legitimately married in the eyes of God. And once the marriage sort of expires in a sense, you can say your vows again and therefore be married again. The purpose of this kind of marriage is that if a child is conceived, they’re considered legitimate. The ultimate end goal though, is to have sexual contact without the guilt or repercussions of doing so outside of marriage. In Tamara’s case, it was done in secret. At the time, neither the leader nor the wives, nor Tamara’s parents, were aware she was in the situation and no witnesses are required. So much was piling up on Tamara. She knew it wasn’t right. And she sort of left her body in that way that girls or women do to protect themselves. Tamara talks about the two worlds she was living in. The one in Arizona, where she’s just finished her first year of middle school and all the challenges that brought on with the switchback. Classes, having different teachers for each subject, lockers, the types of things that a 12-year-old should be dealing with. That summer, while many girls her age were ripping out pages of Ralph Macchio from their issue of 16 Magazine or dancing in front of the mirror to Cyndi Lauper, Tamara was in that contrasting world in Texas.
Dr. Tamara MC: I finally get done with school. The next day, I’m on an airplane with the stewardess alone, which I really did not like flying. And I didn’t like being alone. And I didn’t even have a day to decompress and get over my whole seventh grade year. And then I’m on a plane. And then I arrive in Texas. And I’m with my dad, who’s just, even the way he looked, with a long beard and a cap on his head. And he just looked different than every other Texan. And then my stepmom, who’s all covered up. And it’s just a huge shock, because I go from my mother, to my liberal mother, who wears shorts, to my stepmother, who’s covered and head to toe. So I’m greeted by them. And then I arrive at this compound. It’s an hour drive from the airport to this compound. And then it’s all the changes the second I arrive there, even just the smell of the air and the humidity. I came from a dry climate and just the heat. And there’s no air conditioning. And my clothes are wrong. So it’s always immediately. They need to redress me. And I’m suddenly now wearing somebody else’s clothes. So I turn from one person into another person within a day. And as soon as I get in the car, my dad’s telling me how I need to get it together. Because he sees in my eyes, whenever I arrive, that I’m no longer that same person. Because now I’m the person who’s a seventh grader and an American. And I’m in school. So then he has to bring me back to this child who has to wear all these rags and all these clothes and cover herself. And so I go from that. And then to the next day, arriving at the cult leader’s house in a totally new house where I don’t know these people. And I’m already watching the children. And then to be married. Every night he comes into my room when I’m done working. So I’m basically not sleeping. So I’m being deprived of sleep. And just working is excruciating hours. And I think between the working and I was barely given any food. So I wasn’t eating. And so not eating, not sleeping and working and being 12 years old. And yes, so I just, it was just a huge like, I do have lots and lots of very specific memories. But, but it’s also a blur in many ways, just like, like, you’re inside of a cloud, and it’s all kind of gray and blurry. And you can’t, it’s not like focused. It’s just like, you’re in there swimming around.
Dawn Gandhi: Tamara describes her husband as smart, well spoken and worldly. He became her teacher of sorts of religion, telling her what life was going to look like, how she’d behave as a wife. And one day as a mother, and when you don’t have a friend or parent all day, but this person is there talking to you every night, what’s a child going to do? She thought he loved her, cared for her. And it was a contrast to the hard labor she was put through during the day. She had a protector, a caretaker, somebody who it seemed wanted to spend time with her.
Dr. Tamara MC: So it’s like this person became like all I have. Like, like, he just became kind of my, my reward or whatever for all of my hard work at the end. I mean, it’s crazy to think of that. But it is trauma bonding. It is Stockholm syndrome. It’s like this was the person who I thought was the person that loved me. And I really needed to be loved at that point and to be cared for. Everything else like was about the children or the community or just there was nothing ever about me. And of course, it wasn’t really about me in the marriage. It was about how I was going to serve him. I mean, it kind of seemed like it was about me, but of course, it was never about me. It was him controlling me. Like there was nothing about me whatsoever in that really.
Dawn Gandhi: Her husband told her how she needed to dress, how she was to behave when she returned to Arizona and to her mother, and how she needed to stop talking to the other children and pray. So what about that? The end of summer came. Tamara had spent it as a child slave and a child bride. And now returning to Arizona, it was still a secret as she entered eighth grade. And when Tamara left Texas and returned to her mom for the school year, her sister would write to her, miserable. See, the kids in the cult weren’t going to school or participating in extracurricular activities. Cult leaders will prohibit children from going to school or participating in extracurricular activities. from attending public school as a means to isolate them from mainstream society. So they were stuck in a compound with adults that put them to work. Tamara’s sister, for example, was yearning for school, to learn anything. But Tamara was also miserable. Eighth grade seemed pointless. As she said, there was a Stockholm syndrome aspect to her situation. At the time, she thought she loved her husband. That she needed him, couldn’t survive without him. They’d write letters to each other, back and forth.
Dr. Tamara MC: I got through eighth grade, and I’m just going to kind of really fast forward because so much happens. But my husband at the time ended up traveling, and he was living out of the country. And so I would then end up, and then the leader had also moved out of the country as well, eventually. And so now I was back on the commune with my siblings, and I was living with them when I was back with my father. And so I was just kind of doing the same thing of going back to middle school and then high school in Arizona with my mother and acting as if I was like this normal child, which clearly I was not a normal child, in terms of normal being that I was just living a life like most people there. But I had this total underground secret life that I didn’t share. And when I was at my dad’s, like, we had a third leader that came in, and he was the most abusive of all. And our conditions for the young girls got worse and worse. And how we had to cover, how we had to pray, all of that got worse. All of our cooking, our restrictions in our diet. There was always restrictions, but there was so many foods that we couldn’t eat. We mostly lived off of lentils and rice and oatmeal in the morning with nothing on it. So like whatever was cheap, we didn’t have fresh fruit. Rarely like a vegetable. There was no milk. There was no dairy.
Dawn Gandhi: Tamara explains how a lot happened over the next few years, going into high school, flip-flopping from one life to another, and how the manipulation and control that had been ingrained in her since age five had brought her to a place where she just wanted to make everybody happy. Telling her mom what was really going on would only upset her. She didn’t want to worry her. She didn’t want to hurt anyone. She ended up taking her senior year classes during her junior year, so she could graduate early. And so she did. She completed high school at age 16. She’d graduated to make her mom happy. And then immediately after, Tamara packed up her Nissan Sentra and went to Texas to live full-time with her father. She stayed there for some time, but went to live in England with the cult leader and his family. There were more children to care for now, a new baby and a toddler, and the hours were long. Seven days a week, nonstop working. Tamara was going through conflicting emotions. She was still receiving letters from her husband, who was in America, but she rarely wrote him back. His letters, in turn, were mostly him scolding her for not writing to him. And then his letters stopped for several months.
Dr. Tamara MC: It was really hard. I didn’t understand what was happening, because at that point, I was fully in love with him. And it was just like, the only thing I wanted was to have what I called a forever marriage, so we could actually finally live as husband and wife and not have these temporary marriages. Because up until that point, we didn’t just have one of these marriage ceremonies. We had them all the time. Sometimes he would just have one of these marriage ceremonies, get us married for a week, sometimes for two weeks, for three weeks, for a month. So we had all these marriages. So I probably, I don’t even know how many marriages I had up until I was about 20 to him, but at least two dozen, if not more. And there are no divorces with these marriages. They just kind of like sizzle out, like after the time period is completed. So I never had a divorce with him. I just had these marriages. So all I wanted was to have a proper marriage. Like where we could finally live together. And we weren’t able to live together because I was always living with the leader, working, and the leader didn’t want me to have this forever marriage because he wanted to keep me as his helper. And so it was really complicated. So I was really in love with my husband at this time and just wanted stability desperately.
Dawn Gandhi: And then her husband came to England and Tamara wanted to know why his letters had stopped. Why suddenly things… Felt different.
Dr. Tamara MC: He basically told me that he had married another woman in America and he was living in Chicago. And he met someone and fell in love and married her. And so when he told me that, it’s like, like my world completely fell apart at that point because here I was from 12 until 20, like eight years, like waiting for this marriage, like waiting, to be with this man, like graduating early, like going through all, like just doing everything I thought I was supposed to do. And like in every way, like being what I thought he wanted as a wife and, and then to find out that he had married somebody else. And I am a cult where I grew up. Almost all the men were married in polygamy. So I had seen it growing up. And a lot of my, the girls that I had married were, were, were, were, were, were, were, were, were, were, were, were, were, were all married when they were 14 and they were almost always married in polygamous marriages to much older men. And I just knew their lives inside out because they would tell me everything that happened to them and all the problems with their second wives, um, with the second wives, their co-wives. And so I was very, very intimately involved with polygamy because all the women would talk about the horrors of their situation. So it was something I knew very well. So I knew that now that I was in polygamy, that, that like my life was going to be miserable. I just knew it. And that was the one boundary I had was that I was not going to be in a polygamous marriage ever because I knew I could not survive it.
Dawn Gandhi: Tamara had no intention of sharing her husband with another person, completely heartbroken. She begged him not to be with this woman, but he insisted that he loved her. And that the only choice for Tamara was polygamy. It seemed that everything she had worked for was now gone. She had seen how polygamy had shattered other women’s lives. She had been in the middle of fights between the cult leader she lived with and his three wives, the arguments over whose night it was to sleep with the leader, whose kids were more loved or were getting more attention. Every day, new problems or the same problems that Tamara swore, she’d never put up with as a married woman. In polygamy, only one person is happy, the man. And she hadn’t thought it would get to the point where it was presented to her as the only choice. Looking back now, she says it was obvious every other man, including the leader, were polygamists.
Dr. Tamara MC: He didn’t talk to me the same way. I could tell that he didn’t love me the same way. I could tell I don’t know. I’m sure many, many women have seen this, like when they’ve been in love with somebody and they see that that person is now in love with somebody else. It’s like that feeling, like I was no longer that special person to him. We were staying in Spain for a while, but it was after Spain and I was trying to convince him for many months and he refused to leave the other woman and tried to convince me that I was going to be happy and I was going to love this other woman and we were going to be best friends and I was going to have a wonderful life. And we’re just going to live as this happy family of him and us. And I just, I was finally completely exhausted of working in this house, taking care of these children, cooking and cleaning and all these, just the nonstop of all of this. I wasn’t even allowed to sit at the kitchen table with them when they ate. I had to sit at the help table by myself. I could only sit at the kids table. Like I was never allowed. I never had one meal with the leader and his family. And I was supposedly there to be part of the family. And I would just serve their table and I couldn’t even sit with them. Not one time in two years did I sit with them at a table. I sat separately by myself or with the young children. That was the only place I was allowed to be. I wasn’t allowed to sit at the table with them. I was allowed to sit at the table to be in the dining room. I was like in the kitchen. I wasn’t allowed to be in the dining room except for to serve. Right. To work. And I think that just finally caught up to me just like watching all of this happen. Like just kind of looking at how they had certain roles and I had certain roles. They did certain things and I had to do other things. And then this husband, like that was the only hope I had in life. that I was going to be able to escape like this labor by not really labor because I’d go into some like into family labor with my husband but at least it would be for my husband and so that was like my only hope my only thing that I had to look forward to and then once that was gone it was like I had nothing left like I felt like there was finally nothing left like I hit the end of the road at that point.
Dawn Gandhi: The end of the road for Tamara also came with some personal news as her grandfather back in Arizona died. She wanted to go and be with her grandmother and it was an excuse to get away so she told her husband I’m leaving and she never went back to the leader. Back in the states Tamara started working as a waitress but there was something a little too familiar and depressing about spending her days serving food to others. She decided to take a class at the local university and before she knew it education took over. She was figuring out what her interests were and what she loved doing. Her curiosity about life was flourishing and she says that curiosity is the key that leads us to ask questions to look things up that we don’t understand to keep questioning until you feel satisfied and it’s those questions that Tamara still asks. She says there was no aha moment where she figured everything out and began understanding what really happened. to her. She’s studied, she’s spoken with other survivors. There’s no timeline for when this gets figured out. She had the privilege of going to school. Tamara received a bachelor’s, a master’s and a PhD and from age 20 to 50 has researched, written and actively looked for the answers to her questions about what happened to her.
Dr. Tamara MC: So kind of when my father joined this community when I was five up until 20 and I ended up writing it for an entire year. I wrote the story from beginning until that end and it was 350,000 words which is the equivalent of like four novels. A novel is about 80,000 words so it was close to like four four huge books of writing but that’s how long it took me to get out my story and it was in writing my story and putting it down on paper that I could actually stand back or sit back whatever it is and kind of like really look at the pages and be like wow this happened.
Dawn Gandhi: Brene Brown says quote when we deny our stories they define us. When we own our stories we get to write the ending.
Dr. Tamara MC: I don’t like to say that I was trafficked but I was trafficked. I don’t like to say that I was a modern-day slave but I was a modern-day slave. I don’t like to say that I was domestic like domestic labor but I was and but I think there’s also power in like understanding those words but then also saying like yes I am those things but I am so much more.
Dawn Gandhi: With all that Tamara has been through and triumphed over she got married to her second husband, had two children who are now adults, two men that she’s so proud of it just emanates off of her. She’s now single and an empty nester learning what it’s like to try and put herself first to take care of herself. I asked her what she’s most proud of.
Dr. Tamara MC: I love who I am. I just like really really love who I am and I love how I love like my grandmother is a holocaust survivor and I grew up with her and I grew up with her and I grew up with her and I grew up with her and I grew up with her. I grew up with her stories and just being able to listen to her. I just grew so much empathy and compassion and and I saw my grandmother like after the holocaust it’s like whenever anybody was in pain my grandmother was in pain. If anybody was on the street and needed money or was hungry or whatever my grandmother just gave everything and even after the holocaust she didn’t have anger. She just was always filled with love. And I think through her I know through her I learned to love and because I just she was the most extraordinary human being on earth and I will literally say that she was the most extraordinary human being on earth for for what she went through and for how she came out of it.
Dawn Gandhi: Tamara is proud of the granddaughter she was the mother she is and of her curiosity.
Dr. Tamara MC: And I guess like going back to proud it’s like both of my sons. I know like I’m bragging about my grandmother and my sons but they really are who I loved like they’re they’re they’re worthy of being bragged about but my younger son’s been in a relationship for eight years and I just watch how he treats his girlfriend and it’s like kind of like going back to like how can things change like I see it in my son. They just he in all these years I’ve never seen like tension but and and they live in the same city as me. We live close by each other. So we’re always together but I’ve just never seen tension between them and they speak so respectfully to each other and they just have like a balance like they work out together they work together they cook together they clean together and I think like when I look at that it’s like that’s the way it’s supposed to be like like that’s it right there and when I look at relationships my youngest son is my mentor for like my like the relationship I want to have with her. I want to be in in my life so it’s interesting that like my mid-20 year old son is like who I look up to is like the ideal relationship. It’s not like parents or 50 year olds or 60 year old 70 year olds it’s like this 25 but I think like this next generation really has an amazing opportunity to kind of live like that. I don’t think women are going to put up with what my generation put up with like no way.
Dawn Gandhi: She’s a force. Thank you Tamara for joining me. I’m grateful to you for coming on and sharing your story. Here’s a call to action. I’ve been working with a non-profit organization out of Westfield, New Jersey, Unchained at Last, which is fighting to end child marriage in the United States. To join the fight check out the show notes or visit unchainedatlast.org. Thank you so much for joining me and for listening to Method and Madness. Don’t forget to subscribe, share, leave a rating on Spotify, or review on Apple Podcasts or on Podchaser. I appreciate you. I’m on Twitter at MethodPod and on Instagram at MethodandMadnessPod. There’s a Method and Madness page on Facebook. To chat or discuss the episode reach out to me at MethodandMadnessPod at gmail.com. Method and Madness is research written and hosted by me. It is edited by Moen Spoh. That’s it for this episode of Method and Madness. I’ll see you next time. Until next time, take care of yourself. For crisis support, text HELLO to 741-741.
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