A memoir about growing up in a sex cult.
As soon as I heard about Daniella Mestyanek Young’s book Uncultured (St. Martin’s Press), I knew I had to interview her. Both of us are “cult babies,” children born or raised in cults. Young was born a third-generation member of the Children of God, the infamous sex cult alleged to have encouraged sex with children as a way to get closer to God. I grew up in a Sufi cult in the eighties in Texas, and although our cult was not a sex cult, our girls were sexually assaulted. I was married at age twelve in an Islamic temporary marriage called a mut’ah, and most of the girls I grew up with were married off at age fourteen to men much older than them and usually in plural marriages. So, although we grew up in different places with different religions, our experiences mirror each other in many significant ways.
Young grew up in other countries, including Brazil, Japan, and Peru, but eventually she ran away and moved to America, where she enrolled herself in high school. She then went on to college and graduated as valedictorian. She joined the military to begin a career as an intelligence officer. On the desert sands of Afghanistan though, she realized the army echoed the cult she escaped.
“Where does a cult end, and a culture begin?” Young asks of her readers—a question that echoes throughout our conversation.
Tamara MCOh, I love your earrings. Are they eyes?
Daniella Mestyanek YoungYep. I just got them in Greece. I really like big earrings because, as you know, cult life plus army life—there aren’t a lot of earrings. Now big earrings are one of my things.
TMCIn my cult, I was the perfect girl. I followed every rule, but my sister rebelled against everything and was constantly beaten. What do you think is the difference between she and I? We both had very different issues.
DMY Part of it is just personality. My younger sister, Mary, is like you. Third-culture kids are children that spend significant years outside their home culture, which was the case for all of us in international cults. So, we fit into that category, even though we have a lot of other drama too. But the author of Third Culture Kids talks about how there are chameleons and screamers, and both are forms of maladjustment.
When some cult babies from Children of God left, they moved to small-town America and tried hard to fit in. Usually, they ended up Republican, and many are MAGA people. Many of us screamers ended up in big cities, became liberal, and are not your average white American girl next door. I’m different. I’ve been through different things. I’m more interesting. We don’t want to be considered the same as everyone else. Eventually, you hopefully find a stasis, where you learn to fit in and stand out as you wish. I’m still working on that.
TMCI wanted to ask about your mother and how you portrayed her in the pages. I’m also curious if there was healing that went on as you told her story.
DMYWhen I was nineteen, I was in college in Texas, and my mom came to visit. She has family in Dallas. She was still in the cult in Mexico. I had a lot of anger. How did she kick out a fifteen-year-old and leave her alone with no money in a different country? So, I put my mom in my car from Houston to Dallas for a four-hour drive. As soon as we started driving, and I got her alone, I was like, Okay, you’re telling me about your life, from start to finish.
We spent that whole four hours with her going through her story, and that’s a lot of what you see portrayed in Uncultured. Thanks to my memory, I didn’t even have to go back and re-interview her. When my mom was growing up, they isolated her. She never knew anything about the outside world. When I was ten, the Internet existed, but she never had it, so I had a different experience in the cult. That was the first time she talked about her life.
She was like, Oh yeah, this uncle was really into preteen girls, and then she’d be like, Oh wait; he was a pedophile. She was speaking about my biological father. She began to see her life from a different perspective. Then we spent the last ten years telling each other our stories. This past summer, when I went to do the commencement speech at my alma mater, she came with me, and we just talked for hours about the parallels in our lives. The experiences we have are fascinating. We’re working on a novel about women and families under religious extremism.
TMCWhat year was your mom born?
TMCOh, so she’s exactly my age. I just turned fifty. We were in different places in the world and were different religions but had very similar experiences in our cults.
DMYYeah, exactly. Anyone who writes about Children of God gets a lot of crap from other survivors. They’ll be like, That’s not your story to tell. Especially to those of us who are younger, but we want to talk about religious prostitution. We want to talk about the stuff that affected us. Even though, as young children, we weren’t being sent into the beds of our uncles on a schedule. In my situation, I stuck very closely to telling my own story. But my own story is also my mom’s story, the first set of kids in the cult, and my grandfather’s story, the people who joined as adults. So, I do use their stories as opportunities to look back in time.
I also think I was able to write this book because I didn’t have to lose my mom. I would say the same thing on the army side. I knew Scott Halter, my longest mentor, would support me in this, so I didn’t have to completely lose everyone from the military, even though I lost most of them. And, you know, most of my peers from the cult whose parents joined the cult—they’re so far in their cognitive dissonance that if they stopped for one second and admitted this was one of the worst cults in the world, they’d break down completely.
Most of my peers say they’re waiting for their parents to die so they can write their books. My mom was another cult baby raised in that life. She was one of us. She was always much kinder than the mothers of my peers who were completely disassociated.
The way I wrote her is as if she’s the kindest person; she’s still so lovely. She’s so driven. When her husband asked her what she would do if her father wasn’t okay with the book, she said that if it came down to her dad or daughter, she would choose her daughter every time. This is so healing for me—as someone who was kicked out by my parents when I was fifteen.
TMCYou don’t speak much about your dad in the memoir. Can you tell me more?
DMYMy biological father was this man, Samuel, called Uncle John in the book. He’s dead now. But he was the only man who knew everything that happened with the finances. So, of course, part of cult culture is that you must be very secretive, and the Children of God eventually evolved into a very, very, very successful money laundering business and a human trafficking organization. When I was growing up, they almost weren’t a sex cult anymore. It was mostly labor. I was trafficked as a child actress and then made to sell and beg on the streets. And dance. I get a lot more into this in my second book. But my father was the one at the top who ran all of the money. My grandfather worked as his colleague, but my dad was the senior guy.
When you think about the man who was allowed to have sex without impunity with young girls—even after it was outlawed—is the guy that could take the organization down because he knew everything about the money.
I never met him. He was always a secret and kept tucked away. I did try to meet some of my siblings, but they still have a lot of hero worship for their dad, so they could not accept me. Before him, my mom was married to another fellow teenager who isn’t spoken about. He’s my sister Mary’s dad, but I thought he was my dad for the first twelve years of my life. I also thought I was part Mexican.
TMCWhen you say your mom’s husband was a teenager, do you mean they were both around the same age?
DMYYes, he was eighteen when she was sixteen or something like that. It didn’t last very long. She was married off to another man who was also twenty years her senior and known as Uncle Zephaniah. He was like a celebrity artist and musician in the group. It’s hard to explain, but every one of the 100,000 people that have passed through the Children of God knows Uncle Zephaniah. So that was another weird experience. You’re growing up in this very abusive world, but you’re also a celebrity in some ways, which is then interesting when you go into the regular world, and you’re not special at all. That was very confusing.
TMCIs your mom still married to him?
DMYThey’ve been together for about twenty-five years now. In 2009, when I was in basic training, my mom got on a plane with my sister Grace, who was dying, and they never went back to the cult. Then Uncle Zephaniah joined her with the kids; they’ve been out for over ten years. Since then, my mom has been working on understanding what happened. Uncle Zephaniah decided to join when he was nineteen. He was like, well, I was an artist for God for forty years, so now I’ll just move on.
TMCHow many kids total does your mom have?
DMYMy mom has eight children and seven stepchildren, and I have about twenty-five siblings, as I call them. My mom had seven kids by age thirty. And several serious miscarriages, so she probably had ten pregnancies between when she was fourteen and thirty. She also had a child with spinal bifida because her body being so depleted. And then she had one baby, seven years later, so eight total. They still have a thirteen-year-old.
TMCWhat are the differences between your mom and you?
DMYMy mom was a true believer, and I was the one always questioning. There are two ways kids react to cults. One is they go along to get along, and the other is they stand out and take the beatings and just don’t care. In my life, my mom was the go-along-to-get-along type. Meanwhile, I was just born an atheist in a Christian fundamentalist group.
I just never got on board with this god dude.
TMCYou’ve mentioned elsewhere that you’re neurodivergent. Can you explain how that affected you in the cult as well as in your writing process?
DMYI don’t have a diagnosis. But I believe I have ADHD and am autistic. I also know that my trauma started from birth and before birth with my mother. I’m the right kind of neurodiverse to write books. I have a photographic memory that was very helpful in intelligence work too. I am that kid that wanted to know the rules. Everything should play by the rules, and the rules should be logical, which is, of course, is a problem in the cult.
Interestingly enough, readers of Uncultured suggested that I might be neurodiverse while reading the writing.
I think part of why you can’t program children born into cults the same way you can with adults is because adults learn to go into cognitive dissonance on purpose. Children don’t really learn that. You mess children up by raising them in cults. But for me, it was like you said x, right? We see that scene in Uncultured where they teach us how to play broken telephone. I’m like, Well, then how is it possible that the Bible was handed down by Moses 500 years ago, and he just got it all right? A question which, of course, is high blasphemy. I pay the price for it, but that’s just the kid that I was.
Even in the military, my job was to be the devil’s advocate. My job was to be the bad guy, the person in the room going, No, if you do it that way, you might all die. I think this all comes back to whatever kind of neurodivergent I am. It has to make sense to me, and if it doesn’t make sense to me, it’s gone.
TMCCan you tell me about the title of the book?
DMYYeah. I had called it Cultured. I was still very much in the inspirational vein of Educated by Tara Westover. I’d been working on how you can’t spell culture without cults. I was an English major, and both words come from the same root word, cultus, to care. I had spent a lot of time trying to do organizational development consulting, the same thing male captains do when they get out of the military. “Culture” was a buzzword, the word of the year in 2014 (and I worked in that field in 2015 and 2016). Everyone wanted to talk about motivational influence, but nobody wanted to talk about toxic leadership and toxic groups—the dark triad of narcissistic leadership.
As we moved away from business-first to people-first—which was a wonderful shift—we were also moving into cult territory. So many of these things are two sides of the same coin. And what cults do right is give you motivation and purpose and a transcendental mission and people around you that feel the same way you do. These are all of the things that business leaders are actively trying to create. The documentary about LuLaRoe was one of the best depictions of what it’s like to be in a cult because that’s what’s happening there, but nobody wants to look at it. The benefit of my life experience—other than the trauma and survival—is that I understand group behavior in a more fundamental way than others do.
I wanted the title to reflect my journey, and then my co-writer accidentally wrote Uncultured, and we were like, that’s the title. Our original thesis was that human beings do anything to fit into their voluntary groups. But about halfway through writing the book, my co-writers are like, Yeah, but not you. I’m supposed to fit in, but I was born to stand out. An exciting piece of the book is the title. As soon as my co-writer did the oops, it was just perfect. And so that was the name—Uncultured.
TMCI heard you say three women wrote your book. How does that even work?
DMYI’ve always been thinking about writing a book, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew what I didn’t want to write. I think all of us cult survivors don’t want to just put it out there. What’s the point? When I read Educated, I knew that was my model. This was in 2018. So we’re literally watching a cult leader run America. We’re going through what I call the culting of America.
I wanted to write this book in two years, but I felt like it was going to take me ten years to teach myself to write a good memoir. I was coaching veterans and entrepreneurs at the time, so to me, it was nothing to be like, Oh, I want to create this product, but I don’t have the skills to do it by myself. Okay, find a co-founder. Right. And so, Brandi Larson is the book’s co-parent.
From day one, I had something to say, but I didn’t know how to say it. Brandi said to me, which I think was so significant, “Look, your memoir is not about you. Nobody cares about you. Your memoir is about one idea. What’s your idea?” I knew the idea immediately because I was working on my graduate degree in organizational psychology. My idea was that humans do almost anything to fit into their voluntary groups. I can show you that in the cult world and the army world. Uncultured is set in a sex cult, but it’s a story about group behavior.
We worked backward from that idea. What stories are we going to tell? Even though Uncultured reads like this chronological journey of my life, every chapter has a theme, and every story we told parallels the military and cult. When we’re telling our stories, we need to get everything out. We all need someone to go through our stories and say, like Brandi said to me, “I know you love your husband and daughter, but if you can’t tie them into group behavior, they can’t be in the story of your life.”
We had a book proposal and had most of the concept flushed out on how it would be about group behavior, but it wasn’t selling at the end of 2020. People were scared to touch a book that puts the army and sex cults together. Then we were advised by my agent to bring in a third writer, a published author, who would be a heavy developmental line editor. Amy Reed came and did something interesting with the book proposal, and then very significantly, January 6 happened. That changed everything. The next editor bought it on the spot.
I’d write a chapter, then I’d send it to Brandi, and then we’d send what she added to Amy. Everyone had their role. Amy’s just this amazing prose writer; she specializes in youth fiction. She writes a lot about trauma, which is why I selected her because I didn’t even realize at the time how much disassociation I had to go through to survive my life. When I talk about my life, I sound very emotionless. I needed help with bringing the emotions in. These other women echoed back to me that Yes, we do understand. Yes, this is how I would’ve felt in that situation.
Also, for those of us that come from these closed-off groups, like a cult or the army or whatever, you can’t explain everything. I needed to learn how to connect and explain those experiences to others who hadn’t gone through them. I want to do all my books with my co-writers and be the Taylor Swift of the literary world.
Uncultured is available for purchase here.
Dr. Tamara MC is a child marriage, cult, and trafficking survivor and advocate. She is revising her debut memoir Child Bride about her child marriage at age twelve, for which she is seeking representation. Her work has appeared in Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Independent, Parents, Food52, Motherly, and more. Follow her on Twitter @TamaraMCPhD or Instagram @tamara_mc_phd.