AHA Foundation: Can you start by telling us about your upbringing? Particularly the religious culture that you were brought up in.
Tamara: When I was 5 years old, my life completely changed. My father joined a new religion, which he thought would be a utopian community where all was going to be good. However, that quickly deteriorated.
This group changed a lot throughout the years. For a while it was nomadic, and my father left with them as they traveled the east coast. They eventually settled in Texas, and that is where I lived with him during summer and holidays—about 4 months of the year. The rest of the time, I lived with my mom.
AHA Foundation: And your mother was not part of this group?
Tamara: Correct. My dad wanted my mom to convert as well, and she absolutely refused. My dad then decided to join the group and left behind my mom and myself. And that’s how I ended up spending time with both of them in different places. This was around the 1970s/1980s, so we didn’t have the internet. There was so much happening that she couldn’t have known about, and I didn’t tell her what was happening. My life at my dad’s was my secret, and I was told that I had to keep it a secret. So my mom didn’t actually know what was happening with me when I was away.
AHA Foundation: Tell us about your life with your dad in this community. Why did you have to keep it a secret?
Tamara: The cult leader built a kind of community center. It was like a school and had a dorm-like setting, built over about 150 to 200 acres. That’s where I grew up when I was staying with my dad. I was an only child until my father remarried a woman who already had 4 children, and then they had a baby together.
In this commune (I pretty much use ‘commune,’ ‘cult,’ ‘community,’ and ‘group’ interchangeably when I speak about this), there were about 150 people in total and maybe 30 or so children as a guesstimate. I would have been about 9 years old when I started staying in Texas for parts of the year.
Everything was communal. The children didn’t live with their parents. They lived in separate rooms by themselves. We got up very early to pray before sunrise. Sometimes we would have all-night chanting sessions. During these, the children were not allowed to sleep. We just had to sit. If we nodded off in any way, somebody would catch us, and we would be punished.
There were very strict rules, especially on how girls dressed and how much they had to cover their whole body. They had to wear very long dresses that went past their ankles and wrists. The girls were also expected to do most of the cooking and childcare for the babies.
AHA Foundation: Can you tell us about your marriage in this community?
Tamara: I met the leader of the group when I was young, and he always took a liking to me, and he named me ‘most beloved,’ which is the translation of my name. I became the ‘most beloved’ child in the community—or, rather, the ‘most beloved’ girl child in the community.
When I was 12, the leader told my dad that he wanted me to live with him and his family. His house was actually about an hour away from the main commune. He lived on a hill with several houses. He had 3 wives and 6 children at that time, and his mother and other extended family lived with him as well. My dad thought it was a wonderful opportunity because nobody was allowed on this hill, not even the adults of the commune. My father said yes and dropped me off on the hill at one of the leader’s wives’ houses.
My father thought I was there to help with the children, but I didn’t quite know why I was there. I very quickly learned I was there to become a domestic servant, although I didn’t have those words at that time. On the first day, I didn’t do any work, but on the second day I was woken up very early and the leader’s wife left me in a playroom with her very young children, who I had to care for. So I ended up spending my whole summers taking care of these children by myself, in a closed-off room.
The leader had an adopted son and, probably within the first few days of my being there, the son snuck into my room and began sexually violating me. Around the third night, he said that he had to marry me because you couldn’t have intimate relations with somebody outside of marriage in our religion. Then he conducted a ceremony between just the two of us in a language that I didn’t understand and which probably took about 10 seconds.
“I didn’t tell anybody… [At] the end of the summer, I went back to my mom and I started eighth grade like everything was normal.”
This was a special marriage called a temporary marriage, lasting only a certain amount of time. In our case, it lasted for the 90 days that I was going to be in Texas. It was kind of a secret marriage. He told me I couldn’t tell anybody, so I didn’t tell anybody. Not the leader. Not the leader’s wives. My father obviously wasn’t there with me, so I didn’t talk to him about it, and my mother wasn’t there either. So at the end of the summer, I went back to my mom and I started eighth grade like everything was normal. I did not tell my mother what happened that summer. I didn’t tell anyone.
AHA Foundation: So the marriage was not a legal one, but it was binding within the context of your community?
Tamara: It was not legally binding at all, but no one in our community got legally married. Their whole goal was not to be part of America, and not to be part of the Western system. And so they didn’t believe in legally sanctioned marriages anyway. They believed in spiritual, religious marriages, and my marriage was therefore a religiously binding marriage.
AHA Foundation: And how long did these temporary marriages go on for?
Tamara: About 8 years, so probably until I was 20. I don’t know how many marriages I had with the son. Maybe a dozen to 3 dozen different ones, because sometimes we would get married for a week, or a few days. He would marry me and I had no say. But in this type of marriage, there are no divorces. So when I finally left, when I was 20, I had been married multiple times, but I had no divorces.
AHA Foundation: And the marriages remained secret?
Tamara: My mother didn’t know about any of this. I graduated high school early, when I was 16, so I began living with the community full time from 16 to 20. So I wasn’t going back and forth at that point. By that time I was probably the first girl that was married in our community as a child bride. But within no time almost all the girls were being married off by 14 years old. It became a very common practice at that point.
It was a complicated situation, because my marriages were always temporary marriages, and I was often living away looking after the leader’s children, so some people within the community knew and some didn’t. This was different from the norm, where girls were married in a very public ceremony.
AHA Foundation: How did you come to leave the group?
Tamara: I joined the leader after he began living internationally. I was still a caregiver for his children and I was living in his house with his wives and family again.
My husband at that point was still in America. We had been corresponding through letters, but his letters became less frequent and eventually, he pretty much stopped writing to me altogether. I kept asking him what was wrong but never got an answer. When I got to see him in person again, I discovered that he had married another woman. So I was now in a polygamous marriage.
I begged my husband to divorce the other person, and he refused. He said he loved her. I begged him for months, to no avail.
Then, I heard that my step-grandfather had died in America, and I was very worried about my grandmother being alone. I told my husband and the leader that I had to go to look after her, and that was how I ended up leaving the community.
AHA Foundation: What happened next? Did you have any further contact with the group?
Tamara: I did plan to go back. I couldn’t imagine my life being anything else. Being part of this belief system, I had no intention of going to college. I only wanted to be a mother and a wife and a devout believer, so I didn’t really have any dreams other than that.
“It was college that completely changed my life…I didn’t look back.”
When I came back to look after my grandmother, I started waitressing. And then I found out that the local college offered classes in the language that I had learned in the commune. I ended up taking the class, and I absolutely loved college life. I took more and more classes and before I knew it I was just so involved in going to school that I didn’t even have a thought of going back to my community. I was taking the equivalent of about 3 full-time loads of college courses per semester—about 10-12 courses when usually you only take about 4 courses per semester. I eventually graduated with my bachelor’s degree in just over 3 years (it normally takes 4 years).
It was college that completely changed my life. It was not planned. I just learned about this class and took it, and that was that. I didn’t look back.
AHA Foundation: How did your husband, father, and community react?
Tamara: Well, now, he was no longer my husband. He was my ex at this point, so he knew that I wasn’t returning to him. It was over between us. My father was still following the leader’s teachings, but he remained in America and wasn’t living abroad. The actual community in Texas no longer existed. The members had moved to a different city, but they were still getting together regularly. But it wasn’t the same.
I was still very much connected with my father, my stepmother, my siblings, and many of the community members. But I had my own life to live now.
AHA Foundation: Tell us more about this new life.
Tamara: While I was working on my bachelor’s degree, I met the man who would become my second husband. We were the same religion, but he wasn’t extreme in his beliefs. It was nice to be around somebody who was moderate. We got married a year before we graduated and then, right after we graduated, I found out I was pregnant. I then began my master’s degree and had another baby. And then I began my PhD. It was a busy time!
So for about 17 years or so I was in school and raising my children, and not thinking about the cult that I grew up in. I had pretty much shut down all thoughts of that. I just moved on with my life and was so busy raising children. I didn’t see my husband nor the leader. I was only in contact with my father and some of the community members living in America.
But then, in my late thirties, I ended up divorcing my second husband, while I was finishing my PhD. Then I was a single mom, getting my children through high school, so I was always busy. It was only when my children left home that I was able to revisit my life before I was 20. It took around 25 to 30 years for me to actually be able to process things.
AHA Foundation: Was it a conscious decision at that point to look back?
Tamara: I remember taking anthropology courses during my bachelor’s degree. I was just trying to figure out what had happened to me. One of the first papers I wrote was about cults. I was determined to find out what had happened to me. Had I been in a cult?
At the same time, all through academia, I was distanced from what had happened to me. It was research. Yet I was always looking at questions related to what had happened to me in the community, as if I was trying to make sense of it. So it was there, though mostly under the surface. I wanted to become an expert so that I had the academic credentials and understanding and not just the lived experience. At the back of my mind, I thought to myself that I wouldn’t speak about what had happened to me until I had my PhD. I also wanted my boys to be in their mid-twenties before I spoke about it so that they would be better able to handle it all.
I took a couple of memoir-writing programs, and I wrote about my life. It was then that I was able to actually see my life exactly as it did happen.
AHA Foundation: How did your new understandings from academia and memoir-writing help you to make sense of what had happened to you?
“In the cult, we didn’t call ourselves child brides. We just called ourselves married. [Later] I understood things so much more… And now I have a community of survivors like myself.”
Tamara: When I was in the cult, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what was happening. I knew that I was working for free, but I didn’t see it as human trafficking, which it was. When I started researching human trafficking and modern slavery, I realized that what I had gone through fell within these terms, and that just opened up my mind. I started researching like crazy about free labor.
In the cult, we didn’t call ourselves child brides. We just called ourselves married. So later, when I started researching child marriage and forced marriage, I understood things so much more. When I was in the cult, there was nowhere I could have gone as a child bride. There were no services that could have helped me. Luckily, there are now organizations like Unchained at Last and AHA. And now I have a community of survivors like myself.
AHA Foundation: Is there ever any complete healing for survivors?
Tamara: I will say that I am not fully psychologically healed. I don’t think there’s one day that suddenly you’re healed. I mean, I’ve been healing for years and years and years, and I’m still hardly close to being healed. These are wounds that can never fully be healed. I go to therapy. I write. I’m an activist. I’m an advocate. I work with different organizations, and that helps me. But there’s something that happens to a girl when she’s married at 12, during the most formative years of her life, that can’t ever be fully healed. I still suffer with relationships. I feel like I’m always going to be working on all of these things probably until my last breath. When anything like this happens to a little girl, their lives are forever changed.
AHA Foundation: Can you tell us about your activism?
Tamara: In the past couple of years, I have been writing articles. It took me a long time to work out how to pitch and write articles, but in the past couple of years I’ve had more than 50 pieces accepted. I write about my experiences, I write about shows that tackle the issue, I write about survivors’ memoirs. For me, that’s my activism. It’s about being on the page more than being a picket-holding activist. There are so many ways to be an activist. I think that whatever style of activism works for your lifestyle and your personality is as valid as being on the frontlines with a picket.
At the same time, I have done some protesting! I went to a chain-in event with Unchained at Last where we all wore white wedding gowns and stood in front of the state capital in Sacramento. That was super exciting. There were maybe 15 different survivors there and I gave a speech. And I am on the steering committee of the National Coalition to End Child Marriage.
But working behind the scenes as a consultant or as a lived experience expert is just as important because organizations that work in these areas may or may not be led or run bysurvivors. And even if they are founded by a survivor, there will be so many people who work in the organization who aren’t survivors themselves.
And I would also like to say something I’m really passionate about right now: paying survivors for their labor. Almost all of the work I do for various organizations is unpaid. I think organizations should pay their lived experience experts for the time and effort that they put in.
AHA Foundation: Are you heartened by recent legislative victories against child marriage? For example, child marriage was banned in 3 more states in 2023.
Tamara: What has been accomplished is super exciting. It is all a result of the tireless work by AHA, Unchained, and other organizations.
But when I was in the cult, I was a hidden girl. No laws could have changed what happened to me because I wasn’t legally married. So, while having laws against child marriage is important, I feel that there is also a lot more work that needs to be done for girls who are in hidden communities and hidden environments. This is my main focus. How do we find hidden girls? How do we support hidden girls? And how do we help them in their situations? So that’s much more where my activism is focused.
AHA Foundation: That sounds similar to work against female genital mutilation (FGM). Laws are important, but you really need to do work on the ground, too.
“If there had been one teacher who knew what to look out for, my life could have been changed forever.”
Tamara: Absolutely. When I think about my experiences, I remember going back to school after summer and nobody knew anything was wrong with me. Nobody picked up on anything, but when I look back there were so many signs that something was wrong. If there had been one teacher who knew what to look out for, my life could have been changed forever. So it is essential to train professionals in schools, hospitals, police forces, and so on. We have to go to where a girl may be found if she does come into the system, though not all girls will be in the system.
By the way, I’m using very gender-specific language here, and though child marriages happen mostly to girls, I just want to note that abuse can happen to all children.
But then there are other problems. What do we do when we learn of these cloistered communities? Just look at Waco. How do authorities go in? How do they act? How do they speak to girls and women in these communities to help them to leave? If somebody had approached me when I was a girl, I would just have told them I was fine. I would have said, ‘Everything is great. I love my life!’ So these are things that we have to think very carefully about.
AHA Foundation: What advice would you give to readers who want to help in the fight against child marriage?
Tamara: I think the first thing somebody could do in regards to child marriage is acknowledge that it exists. So many people don’t even know that it exists in the U.S. The first thing you can do is to educate yourself by looking at AHA’s website or Unchained at Last’s website and just looking at the statistics and the facts. How many children are being married in the U.S.? In your state? Are there any legislative actions against child marriage in your state that you can support?
I also think that each of us has specific skills and we have different gifts that we’ve been given, or we have a specific platform.
If you are in law enforcement, for example, then speaking to your colleagues about the issue, or bringing in people to educate your colleagues about the issue, is something you can do. You can ask what your organization can do to support survivors, especially since survivors can get in trouble with the law. There’s so much else under the surface that is so important, too. Good interviewing skills, especially when it comes to young girls, are so important. So all of these things are ways in which someone in law enforcement could make a positive impact. And people in other professions can do similar things.
AHA Foundation: Do you have anything else you would like to add?
Tamara: Right now, it is so important to understand fanaticism, fundamentalism, and extremism. Practices like child marriage can often take place in fundamentalist communities. Whenever there’s a religious belief that allows child marriage or FGM, that is very difficult to change. And the extremists have the loudest voices, so you always hear them. But, though it is hard to appreciate sometimes, most people are moderates. Most people do believe in freedom and girls’ rights. This is why it’s important to tune out the angry, loud voices and work with the moderates.
Whenever there are people talking about ‘us versus them’, we should reject it. We all have the right to live and love freely and to be of any religion and to have the education we want and to become who we want. And if there are any cultural norms blocking those freedoms, then they should be challenged.