When Tamara MC was five years old she became her grandmother’s translator.
Her Bubbe, as Tamara called her, was a Holocaust survivor and spoke very little English.
I would go on buses with her because she didn’t know how to drive and we’d take buses and even just going on to the bus, the person who would, you know, who she tell like where she was trying to go. They would never understand her. So I became her translator at a very young age.
Tamara saw what a disadvantage this was and came up with a solution.
She didn’t know how to read or write. So I love to read or write. So as soon as I learned my ABCs, I would come home to her every single day because I came because my mom was working. So I always went to her house right after school and everything I learned I would teach my grandmother. And so I became her English teacher.
Everyday after school Tamara would sit down at the kitchen table with her Bubbe, who lived next door. Tamara looked forward to these lessons.
And I would stand in front of her with my little chalkboard and I would write the little you know, I’d write a big A, and I tell her this is a capital A, and then I chose a capital B, and then I’d go through and my hands would get all chalky. And I would have her repeat after me A, A for Apple. And she would like say A like kind of in her, in her very thick Jewish Yiddish accent.
Often Bubbe’s partner came with her.
And so I taught the two of them. So I really had a classroom. It wasn’t just my grandmother, like I had two people. And both of them learned how like both of them learned how to read and write with me, the two of them. So it wasn’t just like a fluke. It wasn’t just like one person. It’s like I actually taught two people. Even had like a little bell that I would ring like that they would know that it was time for school. And I always had like a closing ceremony at the end.
In this way Tamara felt tied to her grandmother and all her Bubbe had endured before she immigrated to the United States.
My life hasn’t ever been separate from her story. Her story is my story. Her suffering always felt like my suffering. And so in me teaching her, it wasn’t just like it was beyond her, just even learning the ABCs. It was me knowing that by learning English, she would be able to be understood in a community where she wasn’t being understood and to where she could also gain power.
…to be understood in a community where she felt powerless… This is a story about the strength of human spirit Tamara’s grandmother stood for. This is 2 Lives. I’m Laurel Morales.
Age 5 – Tamara’s Dad Joins A Cult
Tamara’s parents were hippies – her mom a liberal feminist, her dad a religious zealot. When she was five her mom took off backpacking around Europe while Tamara and her dad stayed home in Tucson. One day her dad, who’d always been a seeker, was reading a book on Sufism in a bookstore.
These men came in and he noticed them and they ended up speaking. And I don’t even know, like, how this happenstance happens, but they were the followers of the leaders book that he was reading in the bookstore at that time.
The men invited Tamara’s dad to their community center, so he took it as a sign that he was meant to go and brought Tamara with him. The first thing she noticed was all of the people and activity.
I was an only child, and both of my parents were also only children, so I didn’t have any aunts or uncles. And because of the Holocaust, I didn’t have any extended family. So I had a tiny, tiny family. But when I came into the community, what I was most drawn to was the community. There were people and it was full and it felt lively and there was people speaking and there was food and there was activity. Whereas my house was so quiet and it was just just like the three of us.
The moment they walked in the door a group of women whisked Tamara away from her father and took her to a courtyard with other women. She was told she was to be with the women from then on.
My dad would pray separately from me. He would eat at a different table than me. Everything would be separate from the moment we came in until the moment we left together. So I would walk in with him, and then I’d walk out with him after sunset.
And Tamara’s dad was hooked. They came back the next day then every day after that.
The feeling I had at the time was, I want my daddy. Why aren’t I with my daddy? I want to sit at the table with him. It was more than loneliness. It was really almost been abandoned in a way.
During those initial weeks the leader gave Tamara a new name.
He put his hands on my head and he said, you are the most beloved, the most beloved of all… So the translation of my name meant most beloved. And from then on he, my father would refer to me as that.
At the end of the summer Tamara’s mother came home to find her family indoctrinated into what was essentially a cult.
I was really excited to see her. I was really excited to tell her about this new life that both my father, that we had both adopted. I think my father was also excited to tell her about this new community and the new life that all of us would be adopting and taking on. When he approached her. I don’t think her response wasn’t what he had hoped for, but she was pretty much like, ‘hell, no!’ I’m not joining that community. I’m really happy the way I am.
So her parents wound up getting a divorce. Around this time the cult leader had a vision that the community needed to move East, and her father wanted to go with them.
So my father told me like five minutes before or something like that, that everybody was moving and he was leaving and he didn’t even know if he was going to come back or when or if he’d ever see me again.
Married At Age 12 – A Child Bride In The Dark Of Night
Once again Tamara felt abandoned by her father.
So her parents came up with a plan – Tamara stayed in Tucson with her mom through the school year but every summer went to live with her dad. And every summer Tamara became more and more drawn into this way of living.
My life with my mom would seem much better and much simpler and, like, I’d want to be there more. But really, as what was happening, as I was being kind of inducted into this new way of thinking, that I thought that already, that I had to live with my dad because that was what was going to save me and get me to heaven. And I was very quickly taught that my mother’s life, like she was living in sin because she was single, because she wore shorts, because she had a job. In their community, none of that was happening. Women weren’t to work outside of the home. My father was very vocal about this.
The summer after seventh grade Tamara flew to what was called the farm, 150 acres in Texas hill country, 30 minutes from the nearest town. The community was completely isolated from the outside world. Children were homeschooled, adults lived and worked in the commune.
We weren’t allowed to have television. We weren’t allowed to have magazines at all. We weren’t allowed to have books, except for religious texts. We couldn’t listen to the radio or listen to music. The site was in the middle of pretty much nowhere … and there were only a couple of cars that were actually allowed on to the property. And so only a couple of men were able to leave to go grocery shopping. So we didn’t leave when I was there.
Her father had remarried a woman with four children.
Already I had four siblings in my life in comparison to the life with my mother. So I had a much larger life with my father and many more voices in my ears. And my mother was just kind of a live and let live sort of person. My father became so much louder in my ears that I really thought that I wanted to live with my father. And so when I was with my mother, I was very unsettled because I couldn’t wait to get back to my father.
But her parents agreed that Tamara would finish high school before she was allowed to live with the commune full time. In Texas she was one of the few children who had an outside education and knew how to read and write, so once again she found herself as the teacher, a role she loved.
When Tamara was 12, the leader ordered her to move to his lavish estate to be a nanny to his four kids.
My father just thought it was the greatest honor… ‘You’re going to have the teachings like every single day. You’re going to get to see him. You’re going to be able to learn from him.’
The leader’s wife shut Tamara alone in a room with four children all under the age of five, the youngest, an infant.
The playroom had no toys. It just had a futon on the floor. There weren’t any pictures on the walls. I was just put alone in this room. And I was supposed to then keep these children quiet from sunrise until about 10:00 at night…LAUREL: Oh, my gosh. And what’s going through your mind as you are left with these children? TAMARA: Just my personality. I’m very dutiful and responsible. So my biggest fear was that they would hurt themselves like if they were roughhousing or playing or kicking, I would be so afraid that they would hurt each other or like the baby. If it was crying, I would be so fearful. Why is the baby crying?
And sometimes the community was fasting between sunrise and sunset. And by 10 o’clock at night when she was done with her chores, Tamara was often too exhausted to eat.
So I had to figure out things, just by myself. I began singing songs to them. I began telling them stories. I danced like at elementary school and stuff I had P.E. classes, so I do P.E. classes with them. I kind of again teach them almost like my grandmother, like they’d kind of be like my new little students that I would then kind of turn into, okay, this is my little preschool… I also had a six month baby that I also had to like hold the entire time. And this was a nursing baby. So I people who know nursing babies, they always want their mothers.
When she came to Texas Tamara never had the appropriate clothes that covered her whole body, so she would get hand me downs from the other women.
So I was very small. I’m only four foot 11 now, so I don’t even know how little I was when I was when I was 12 years old. But I was extremely small. The leader’s wife that I lived with, she was probably five ten . …So I was wearing her clothes. You can imagine what I look like, like my sleeves went way beyond my fingernails. Like like I would I would trip over the back fabric of my dresses.
And after she had cared for children all day the leader’s wife sent Tamara to wash dishes. So at night Tamara would collapse on a futon in her room, a converted shed called the servant’s quarters. She recalled her oversized sleeves always being wet from dishwashing.
I’m maybe getting one hour to 2 hours of sleep. I’m being deprived of food. I’m being deprived of water and being overworked. I’m not thinking. I’m surviving. I’m doing what I need to do to get to the next thing. How do I wake up in the morning to watch these kids because the mother would come into my room at about 4 a.m. and start screaming, ‘you need to wake up!’
At 12 years old Tamara had just had her first period and still wore a training bra. She’d never even kissed a boy, when the leader’s adopted son began to visit her. John, not his real name, was very tall, several years older than Tamara, spoke multiple languages, and had lived on three continents.
So he was a man in all intents. And I would just put my feet into his shoes and they were more than double my size, like it would be like I was walking in a boat. They were so big. There was a glass door to the room that did not lock, and within a few days, the adopted son of the leader snuck into my room probably around midnight, and he would continue to sneak into my room and he began molesting me at that point.
This happened several times before one night after Tamara was done washing dishes, he snuck in her room and told her they had to get married.
And he said that he could not be with me without marriage and that there was no choice. And so in the dark of night, at midnight-ish when I’m wearing these horrible, wet clothes, he conducts a marriage ceremony.
Within a few seconds, they were married. In this type of temporary marriage, there’s no need for divorce, instead a specific time period is set. In this case, 90 days.
TAMARA: He married himself to me for three months, the whole time that I would be there. LAUREL: And you have no choice in the matter. TAMARA: Absolutely no choice. I am alone on this hill. When you come in, it was accessed through an intercom system. And like this gate that opens and closes. Obviously, I don’t know how to drive. My dad’s not there. My mom’s not there.
Unlike forever marriages, the man doesn’t need to take care of the woman financially. But this covers the man if the woman or girl gets pregnant. The baby won’t be considered illegitimate.
There was nothing good about it. I was not being supported, I was not being looked after. I was not being housed by him. The only thing was to his advantage that he could be with me sexually without supposedly going to hell.
Tamara had seen many girls her age marry men 20 and 30 years older than them, so it didn’t seem odd to her. She’d been taught that this was her duty.
Not to mention, John filled a void. Tamara felt isolated and alone, so when John came along, and made promises of a wonderful life, she wanted to believe him.
This person then became almost my savior. He told me like he was going to save me from like the situation I was in with the leader…and we were going to have our own house. And like he was building up all this hope in me and all these dreams to where I was going to be loved and cherished. I was really seeking that attention and that love and that care that I wasn’t getting. But now all of a sudden, I’m being seen for the first time, like somebody seeing me. And so by the end of the summer, I really thought that I loved this person and that I was supposed to be with this person. And so when he left, I was so sad. I felt like my whole world had fallen apart. Just like when my dad left the first time when I was five years old. It felt like with that intensity. There was also something very deep down that was very concerned about this and knew that something was incredibly wrong with the situation. I didn’t have any words to verbalize it.
At the end of the summer her dad picked her up to take her to the airport to fly back to Tucson.
I did not tell him what happened, began eighth grade the following day. Never told. My mother didn’t tell anybody. I just kept this a secret. I was told to keep it a secret. He told me I had to keep it a secret. I couldn’t tell anybody. And that’s exactly what I did. PAUSE If there was anybody skilled in like, what are the signs to look out for, somebody would have known something was terribly wrong with me. But there wasn’t a teacher that noticed anything about me. My mother didn’t notice anything about me. Nobody noticed anything about me. So it was just this horrible, shameful secret that I had to live completely alone with.
She stopped talking and withdrew from the outside world. Her relationship with John continued through mail. He was a gifted writer so Tamara cherished his letters reading them over and over again and imagining her future together. Even though polygamy was accepted and even encouraged in the community, John promised Tamara it would only be the two of them.
So every summer he’d perform a temporary marriage ceremony. And every fall Tamara could not wait to be with him again. John grew impatient and would get angry when she didn’t respond immediately to his letters. In high school she took college courses and at 16 graduated early so she could live with the commune full time.
Age 20 – Tamara Gives Her Husband Back His Words And Finds Her Own
In the late 1980s the cult was forced to flee the United States so the leader moved. Tamara was asked again to live with them to cook and care for the children. She complied even though it meant being apart from John.
I really had a smile on my face because I was happy. I thought I was happy. I was in a place where I thought I was with the leader. I loved little kids in a way. I mean. Probably if I wasn’t in the situation, I wouldn’t have loved him as much. But I was with these kids and I’d grown to love these children so much as if they were my own. And I thought that I loved to cook. I thought that I wanted to be a housewife. I thought that I wanted to be a mother like a mother in this way.
John promised to write but soon the letters came less frequently and when they did arrive the tone had changed.
He didn’t seem as interested in me. He wasn’t yelling at me. So obviously something had changed.
Then one day the leader told Tamara he wanted John to move to be closer to them. When he arrived Tamara confronted him about his letters.
He just was so distant from me and I was just begging him, ‘please tell me what happened. Please tell me what happened.’ And then one day we were sitting on a rock and he just said to me, ‘I married another woman.’ And that was probably one of the most difficult times in my life because I had grown up in a polygamous cult. But he had promised me that we weren’t going to live in polygamy.
At 20 years old Tamara had been married at least three dozen times to Ali. She believed his promises. So when he proposed polygamy, Tamara drew the line.
I begged him for several months, ‘please leave this other person.’ And each time he would tell me that he loved her. He loved us both and that we were going to be best friends.
Around this time Tamara received news back home in Tucson that her grandmother’s partner had died.
And so I had an excuse to go back to America and I had planned to come back to work again for the leader. That was my intention. But it was then that I just told my husband that I was leaving and that I couldn’t be married to him anymore. And that was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life.
It was just a knowing. It was so deep within that I knew that I couldn’t stay. There was no options. It wasn’t as if I could try to make this marriage work with him. There was there wasn’t even a 1% chance that I thought that I could survive in polygamy and that it could work, because if there was even that threat of a chance, I probably would have stayed. But everything in my body said no. No.
On the day she left, the leader’s driver picked her up from the servant’s quarters.
I had no idea what my life was going to look like. I had left education pretty much when I was 16. I didn’t go to college like my mother had wanted. I hadn’t imagined my life being anything than his wife and the mother of his children. I had no dreams beyond that. So. Like I was in a tunnel. Like I couldn’t see anything outside. I couldn’t imagine. There was nothing that I imagined… I didn’t have any dreams other than to be his wife and a mother and to grow up in this community and to be a religious follower. That was the extent of it. …so beyond that I couldn’t see.
It was the first time in her life Tamara had made a decision for herself.
So at 20 was the first time I had probably said the words, ‘no, I’m not going to do this. I’m leaving.’
Dove Into Studies
Back in Tucson re entering the world outside the cult was difficult. Tamara felt lost. And when she looked in the mirror, she didn’t recognize herself.
My grandmother commented on it like she couldn’t even recognize me. And I didn’t realize how different I looked until that point…I was always thin and small, but I may have gained 50 pounds when I was there… I was living with the most food I had ever had…And so I would be cooking and I’d be tasting things and whatever. So I was definitely eating more. But I just also think there was this deep, deep depression that was happening at the time and just this hopelessness … My face was a different shape. Just just pretty much my whole persona was different. I just felt hopeless in a way. Like I didn’t even know how I was going to get out of this hamster wheel, like. Like how it was going to happen.
Tamara recalls her Bubbe and mother standing behind her and commenting on her appearance.
I heard her whisper to my mom something about me and like, how I looked from the back there that I was like, oh. And then I just remember kind of looking in the mirror and looking at myself and saying, like, I didn’t. Yeah, I did look different.
Soon Tamara got a job waitressing and looked into taking classes at the university. When she discovered she could study the religious community that had been a part of most of her life, she signed up immediately.
All of the history and political science classes I was taking had directly to do with the religion that my father had converted to. So I was directly learning this knowledge because I already had a history in it. Like I’d already been taught these things from a child, but I was now able to come at it from a different angle. I was so interested in my subject matter. I was just ravenous. I was just like, give it all to me. I want to know everything. And I couldn’t get enough. And so. Before I knew it, I was taking, I think one semester I might have taken 33 credits, which is like. Like normal workload would be like 12 credits. So I was taking like three times that, which was insane.
Marries And Has Two Sons
Her sophomore year she met the man who would become her second husband. He belonged to the same religious community but on the liberal end of the faith’s spectrum. Women didn’t have to cover themselves; polygamous marriages weren’t accepted. It was refreshing for Tamara to learn there was another way to be.
He was like the segue, like the transition from this extremist religious cult that I had lived in to kind of, you know, then I had like studied about this religion and history and politics on my own. And then like being with this man and this family and this culture, which I would then spend time in his country as well. So I would see that there were moderates in the world like that. There were many ways to be something. There wasn’t just one way.
Their courtship was quick and they decided to get married within a year of meeting.
On the day that I graduated, I was meeting my husband’s family for the first time. We were both together like. Like with our caps and gowns on. And my mom was there and I had a baby in my belly. And so it was just this really, really beautiful moment like like it all had come together where, like, I had left my circumstances and I had this wonderful new husband and his parents who I would grow to love very much, and my mother and my grandmother and my baby. So it was like really the beginning of my whole new life.
They wound up having two sons. All the while Tamara continued her studies and began to teach English as a Second Language and frequently thought of her Bubbe and their lessons at her grandmother’s house. When she started her PHd program she was caring for two young children. It was around this time that Tamara’s beloved grandmother died.
And within days of Bubbe’s death her husband asked Tamara for a divorce.
And so I lost like the most special person in my life at that point. So it wasn’t just the divorce, it was my grandmother.
Up until this point Tamara had kept herself busy – busy studying, busy caring for children – and she continued to cope this way. So it wasn’t until several years after the divorce that she finally looked at her past.
It’s like my whole identity. Like after I left the cult, my whole identity was still being away then. But more than being a wife, it was being being a mother. And that’s like, what I. It’s what I do best in this world. It’s. It’s who. It’s it’s like my identity that that I’m most proud of…And so for the past 12 years, it’s taken me so long to kind of process the loss of my grandmother on top of everything else. Because in the divorce, I lost my house…Although I have freedom, I am also alone in so many ways, like I am alone in a home, like I don’t have what I used to have, which is a house with kids that are happy and laughing and screaming and yell whatever it is. But there’s noise in the house. And so for many years I couldn’t like, it’s not even accept, but it’s like I didn’t know who I was without my children. I didn’t even know what type of food I liked. I’d go to Trader Joe’s and I knew exactly what every kid like denied, you know, accidentally put in their food. But I was like, But what do I like to eat?
She’s also still processing her anger. The more she learns about cults and pulls apart the one that indoctrinated her and her father, the angrier she gets.
My anger is directed at the leaders. It’s really directed at the second wife of the leader who worked me so hard and who masked it was like a mask, like she was. Helping me in a way to become a better woman in life. But just looking at it, how much she used me. I’m just angry that all these young girls have had to experience this and often live in silence about it. It’s like a lifelong struggle. It’s like I still have beliefs that are still attached to it today that that I have to deal with.
Her two boys are in their twenties now (and she’s proud to say she’s brought them up to think for themselves.)
Through Her Writing She’s Transitioned From Servant To Master Of Her Own Life
And now in her early fifties Tamara is an empty nester.
I am fully okay by myself. I’m beginning to learn how to be on my own and not just how to be on my own, but really how to thrive within the space of being alone. So I feel freedom now. Everything is within ourselves. Like, everything we need is held deep within and we can find the answers on our own. And even though we don’t have somebody to talk to and we’re holding this horrible secret within like all the power and strength is within us.
Tamara is working on a memoir. As she sat down to write she realized even when she was living with the cult she was memorizing the details and characters that would make up her book.
But even when I didn’t have writing, I was writing my story when I was going to sleep, when I was watching children. It was all in there. And it was all like, brewing and coming together that at this point I’m able to tell my story in the way that I am. So even though it doesn’t seem like anything’s happening or there’s like this stagnation and like, maybe you’re not moving forward, we’re always moving forward. In the end, it’s like there’s so much happening under the surface that can all culminate together that when you actually are able to have your freedom and you are able to fight for it and you’re able to get out of whatever jail you’re being held in, at that point, you’re going to have the strength to do it because you’ve already built it up within yourself.
She’s found the act of writing to be the best form of therapy.
I could accept my situation once it was on paper in front of me. There was no denying what happened to me. To actually see it in front of you this is my life, like this happened to me. It’s all part of the healing. So to kind of be able to say, ‘this is everything, here it is, it’s all right here.’ But now what do I do to make sense of this?
A key character in her novel and constant source of inspiration remains her Bubbe to whom she continues to feel deeply tied.
My life was easy compared to my grandmother’s life, easy. And so if my grandmother could get through it, then then I can get through it. …There is this strength in the human spirit.
This is 2 Lives. I’m Laurel Morales.
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