Dear Susu #16: Cults, Boundaries, & Breaking Ties with Family
"I was raised in a cult and left. Do you have any advice on how to heal those wounds?"
Welcome to Dear Susu, my advice column where I answer your questions about life and writing and everything in between. In this month’s installment, I respond to Petunia, who grew up in a community that was a cult and managed to leave it, but now wonders how to heal from losing the people she left behind.
I was raised in a community that was a cult. I’ve found myself estranged from my parents, as they’re still members of this community. I wrote a petition about an active pedophile who’s a member of the community where I grew up, and now I know I won’t ever go back there. There’s a part of me that knows I did the brave thing to break ties from that culture of abuse and trauma, and there’s the part of me who misses my dad.
My first husband Frank, who’s German, has a degree in psychology, and he explained they had a de-Nazification program in postwar Germany to rewrite the hard drive of the country’s collective psyche. Frank keeps describing the process of decoupling. I was a chemistry major in college and I can see the parallels of how tightly bound molecules cling to each other, and this process of decoupling feels like I’m losing a limb.
My dad called me on Valentine’s and he told me he can never repay all the kindness and generosity I’ve shown him in this lifetime. And yet as long as he’s married to my mother he will take her side against me. They drank the Kool-Aid.
I understand that in order to let go of trauma we must grieve, and our culture does a shitty job at grieving. I have tears streaming down my face—that I’ve moved states away and I spend my hours in my garden in my backyard missing my dad, wishing he were here to help me plant things. He’s a master gardener. There’s part of me that’s relieved all the drama is over and there’s part of me that’s heartbroken he might never see me again as long as my mother is alive.
Do you have any advice on how to heal those wounds?
(My dad’s nickname for me when I was little. In the language of flowers, petunia means “never despair.”)
I read your letter and felt a strange mix of understanding and incomprehension. I know what it’s like to be trapped in circumstances beyond your control, to find yourself fighting your way through a wilderness you didn’t choose to enter. I also know what it is to sunder ties with someone you love, how difficult it is when you can’t reach closure together. But from the very first sentence, I realized there are limits to how my own life and the insights I’ve gleaned might illuminate yours. Cult is a word that our society throws around—we use it to describe everything from the avid followers of a cycling gym to the most coercive and sinister factions. It evokes such a lurid fascination for outsiders, proved time and again by how eagerly we consume any and all media about Jonestown, Waco, and now NXIVM.
What your experience on the inside was like, I can only imagine. As the writer Lauren Hough, who grew up in the infamous Family International, says in her memoir, “A cult is your textbook abusive relationship—love-bomb, isolate, create dependence, and your victim won’t have the power to leave.” In your tender letter, I see not some ripe-for-documentary drama but the very real fallout of that abuse and manipulation. I see your isolation and the grief at losing your father, though I suspect there may be grief at losing other things—like a sense of community and belonging, like your mother too. Maybe grief at losing a belief system that made a complex world seem simple, that provided certainty in the face of doubt and anxiety. Likely it’s hard to talk about growing up in a cult in casual conversation, so it’s possible you’re navigating a loss of your past, maybe even a loss of a part of yourself. The decoupling you speak of is many-layered.
When I read your letter, I was finishing a big-hearted, resonant memoir called Mother, Nature by Jedidiah Jenkins, which comes out in just a few months. In it, he tells the story of tracing a 5,000-mile route across the United States with his mother Barb, an evangelical Christian who loves her gay son but whose faith condemns his sexuality as sinful. It’s a beautifully written book that grapples with a love that hurts, and what we do when someone’s beliefs are a threat to our wellbeing.
Given all this, I reached out to Jed and sent him your letter. We went back and forth a bit, and it was such a rich exchange that I wanted to share it with you. It began like this: