'I Escaped the Children of God Cult at 15'

I wanted to be free so badly I could taste it. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door. Dad's face was bright red, his breathing heavy with asthma and anger. Then, before I could lose my nerve, I yelled the words that had been building in me for nine years: "I want to leave The Family!"

The Children of God was founded in 1968 by the Prophet David Berg, a failed 50-year-old preacher who finally found his calling by saving "lost souls searching for meaning" among the hippies gathering in California. Berg saw these young people as sheep in need of a shepherd, and began to corral them into his flock.

All adults forsook their worldly possessions and dedicated their lives to Jesus, sharing and living together communally. They called themselves The Family. We were God's Army. Our Mission: to prepare for the end of the world.

Daniella Mestyanek Young as Child
Daniella Mestyanek Young as a child in the Children of God cult. She left the cult at the age of 15.

Our lives were governed by our Prophet's revelations, dreams and whims. He lived in hiding, sharing his beliefs in thousands of publications he called Mo Letters, as well as comic books, movies and music produced by a central ring of his followers. The children of the Children of God were the homegrown and unpaid talent. I'd been trained as a child actress, and I was trafficked to produce and sell religious videos across the globe.

Berg started preaching about how much God loved sex, only the Devil had demonized it. It's part of why I left the cult when I did. In about five months, I would have turned 16, and been considered an adult who was supposed to have sex widely without birth control.

Religious prostitution began in 1974, and lasted until 1987, with attractive women becoming "fishers of men", flirting and having sex with non-believers to hook followers and donations.

The Prophet taught my grandparents' generation that it was their sacred duty to raise sexually liberated children. And to protect ourselves from the outside world—"the System"—we went into hiding, scattered around the world.

Entering the outside world

At 15 years old, I stepped down onto U.S. soil from a Greyhound bus, the last in a long series that had brought me from a cult compound deep in Mexico. Everything I owned fit into a small, battered suitcase.

The only way of life I'd known had disappeared, and the big, bad outside world came rushing in. My family had been in the cult for generations, believing to the core that the outside world was pure evil.

The high school secretary was one of the first "Systemites" I'd ever encountered whom I wasn't trying to convert to our way of life. All I wanted now was for her to let me into hers.

"I'm sorry darlin', we can't enroll you here, you don't exist." I had no scholastic or vaccination records of any kind, so I understood. But her explanation perfectly fit what the cult had always threatened would happen to backsliders. As I stood in that inner-city high school, with 4,000 students milling about me, I had the thought that would plague me for decades: I'm from another planet.

Like a spy, I'd have to find ways to fit in, to disguise my differences, to not arouse any suspicions that I might be different from who I appeared to be on the outside. That would be easy enough—without The Family, I had no clue who I was.

Putting on an act

Taught to be the best from birth, and beaten if I stepped out of line, I was confident I could play any role required to survive. With my closest family members praying for me to fall so hard I'd have no choice but to come crawling back, I started acting for my life.

My privilege of being white, blonde and accent-less helped me to pass unrecognized as a troubled teenager, alone in the margins of America. I lived with my sister, who had previously escaped the cult, in Houston, Texas.

My sister's boyfriend convinced the state to create a plan to allow me to graduate high school in two years rather than four, meaning I had to take a lot more classes than most seniors. I stumbled through this condensed version of high school and into college, where I graduated with honors, never asking myself what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was working hard enough to just be.

Picking up the uniform of an American soldier after college didn't seem strange. I knew I'd be able to fit in. After the chaos of the outside world, I craved the structure of going back inside; of having someone tell me where to go and what to wear; of having brothers and sisters around me, reinforcing that our shared mission was the right one.

Daniella Mestyanek Young in Army
Daniella Mestyanek Young on the day she was promoted to Captain. Mestyanek Young says she enjoyed the structure of the army.

Sometimes a colleague would ask me questions about myself, but I would rarely ever answer them. Would they even believe me? Do people realize that it's possible to become an adult without ever having been a child? How could I explain that, yes, I looked whole on the outside, but I felt my skin was just a thin bag holding the jagged pieces together?

Letting people see the "real" me

A decade after leaving the Family, I felt I couldn't keep up my act of normalcy. I wanted to just quit life altogether. In trying to find connection, I turned to a friend and army superior, and his words changed my life: "Daniella, you need to get over yourself. You aren't as different as you think you are."

He was right. I had been running for too long, fighting every moment since I had left the cult—to feed myself, to get an education, to keep living, to succeed. But nothing I had ever done was good enough to convince me that I belonged or that I could ever be "normal." Despite the shine of my accomplishments, I was breaking inside.

I realized, finally, that I didn't want to be the perfect soldier with nobody worrying if I ever made it back. I wanted people to know me. I wanted to see if maybe I wasn't that different after all.

I made new friends, both in and out of my unit. I started saying, "I grew up in a cult," the first step in acknowledging the truth of who I was. I allowed people to see the real me, and stopped hiding myself behind the sheen of perfection that I had used to cover my secrets and shame. A shame that had never been my fault.

I came to life. And contrary to what The Family had threatened, I found that I fit in all the right places, with all the right people. Maybe these people couldn't understand my life experiences, but I learned that they could understand me.

Daniella Mestyanek Young is a TEDx speaker, a cult survivor, a U.S. Army combat veteran, and author of Uncultured: A Memoir. Learn more about her work at uncultureyourself.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.