My grandmother’s best and worst traits or fruits come from the same tree. It took both intelligence and ambition to begin nursing college away from home at 17. It took arrogance and confidence, as a new wife in 1963, to insist on her husband changing the pronunciation of his own surname. It took a certain, dare I say it, feminist streak to defy religious gender roles to preach and lead her own cult.
I’ve written before, quite lovingly, about my son’s rebellious nature. He gets that from me, and I in turn got it from my grandmother. It is she who taught me the importance of frequent voting, how to rabble rouse, and a kind of fighting spirit that has kept us both alive longer than once predicted. It is that seed of her narcissism in me that let’s me think my words are worth writing down.
More and more I am coming to believe that who my grandmother became was a result of choices she made, not some inescapable destiny of personality disorder or upbringing or fate. She could have chosen, when she was a registered nurse, to fight sexism in the medical field in so many ways. Instead she chose to respond by starting a faith healing cult which endangered and ended the lives of several people.
Her actions were choices. Sometimes they were choices made from limited options, but she was not a woman without agency. I have spent most of my post cult years worrying that I might somehow, without intending to, become her. I’m afraid of hurting people, of convincing people to do things that lead to early deaths. This fear is not particularly realistic.
People don’t start cults by accident. People don’t take habitual and routine advantage of those closest to them without making choices along the way. Even though some of her traits have passed down all the way to my son, I don’t look at him and fear he will become a cult leader. I see goodness in him that would never let him make the choices she did. This gives me some encouragement for myself.
Fears aren’t always about what’s likely. My fears are based on the risks I feel I can’t control, luck and happenstance. But they’re also based on the realities I’ve seen of the damage cults can do. Yet it is this awareness, and my compassion for my fellow current and former cult members, that makes the fear so unrealistic.
On the TV show Once Upon a Time, they have a thematic quote that’s used again and again. “Evil isn’t born. It’s made.” I’d like to believe that’s true, to think there is no destiny, no certain fate for me. Because I don’t think I’d choose that evil if it were up to me.
I worked for Home in Zion, her cult, for many years. I sent out newsletters, called in outstanding debts, shipped books at the post office, and even answered emails and phone calls requesting prayer. I have long wondered what those devout, rural, homeschooling Quiverfull adults would have thought if they’d known their requests were being received by a 15-year-old with purple hair and no virginity. I feel guilt over my role in promoting faith healing and the cult. In the past I’ve tried to figure out if any of the ones who died got their faith healing supplies after they’d passed through my hands.
It’s not a choice I’d make again. That’s worth something.
My grandmother taught me many skills and passed on many traits. What charisma I possess was honed with her guidance. She had me practice giving press interviews as a child, so that when in my 20s my abortion became a viral news story, I was ready for the media attention. I’ve already used what she taught me to defy her will. She was not a good person, but I think she could have been. And that means I can too.