Why I Left an Evangelical Cult | Dawn Smith | TEDxNatick

Why I Left an Evangelical Cult | Dawn Smith | TEDxNatick

October 22, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Cristina Bufi-Pöcksteiner In the late ’60s, early ’70s, there was a movement
that took place primarily in California, called the Jesus Movement, where ex-hippies grew up
a little bit, had some kids and decided to channel all of that
anti-establishment angst into religion. My father was one such ex-hippie
and together with my grandfather, he started a small cult
called the Assembly. Yeah, this is a super light-hearted story. (Laughter) So, I find myself at five years old. I’m standing on a street corner
in my favorite conservative dress, the pink one with the white pinstripes. And I have my favorite white purse
slung over my shoulder because I love purses, almost more than I love Christ himself. (Laughter) And my dad is yelling the gospel
at people as they walk by because he believes that’s a sure-fire way
to win people to Christ. I’m terrified because I’m a quiet kid, and I’m shy and I avoid
confrontation at all costs. And even in my brief five years of living, I have learned that yelling the gospel can be interpreted
by some as confrontational. (Chuckling) But I’ve been taught that I could be
the only thing standing between a soul and the burning, fiery furnaces of hell. So, there I am. It’s at that moment that I see her. She’s an older woman
and she’s got this gray flyaway hair. And she’s not wearing any nail polish, and I don’t understand how anybody
outside of the group I’m in would go one day without nail polish, because I love nail polish, almost as much as I love Christ himself. (Laughter) But it’s totally forbidden. She locks eyes with me
and she walks up to me, and she gets down
on one knee and she says, “One day, you will grow up and you will realize
you can leave all of this.” All of us have had to grow up
and leave something, probably not a cult. It might have been an unhealthy
relationship, or a drug habit. Maybe you just have
a really strong sweet tooth. Leaving is incredibly difficult, but it is also completely life-changing. A fun fact that all cults share is that they reject the label “cult.” Even now, 16 years since I left, my parents will give me a list of reasons
why the Assembly was not a cult. So, fine. It wasn’t a cult. It was an evangelical, fundamentalist, non-denominational,
religious, fringe group – (Laughter) whose charismatic leader
could do whatever he wanted. But it wasn’t a cult. Sure, we had some
strange religious beliefs. You might even call them extreme. And we did live
in communal homes together. Maybe we didn’t exactly
integrate into society with silly things like demanding careers. But it wasn’t a cult because we had
mainstream religious beliefs, like “God is all-present,”
“God is all-knowing,” and “women can’t pierce their ears.” (Laughter) We wanted to return to the simple life
of the early Christians. Not sure we knew exactly
how early we were talking. We didn’t want to be
literally thrown to the lions, but also, “do women really need equality”? So, I guess post-Augustine,
but pre-feminist early Christians. (Chuckling) My grandparents George
and Betty were in charge. George was a fantastic public speaker, a charismatic leader and an abusive, narcissistic,
pathological liar. My father was an elder
and my mother was – his wife. But it wasn’t a cult because women could go
to the beach just like anybody, as long as we were fully clothed, because nothing derails
the will of an almighty god like a woman in a one-piece. (Chuckling) The Assembly targeted college-aged kids, vulnerable because they’re
on their own for the first time, and they’re looking for a community, a place where they can connect
with other people. Every summer, my dad would pack up,
my mom, my sister and I, and we would drive to another state
to build the Assembly throughout the US. These trips are some
of my favorite childhood memories. We had good times together and we thought we were doing
“the work of the Lord.” But as I grew up, I started to realize the work
of the Lord has a lot of rules. If you’re wondering
what this life looks like, here is a list of things
that were forbidden: dating, television, science, ambitious females. Those things are so dangerous. (Laughter) Clapping loudly after a performance. God only gets the glory
with the soft clap. Also forbidden: psychiatry,
dancing, happiness, freedom, adorable baby puppies. (Laughter) But don’t worry, there was still so much
in the Assembly that we could enjoy, like – kale. (Laughter) Creepy men. (Laughter) Climate change denial. Pyramid schemes were a big thing. Weird diets. Also enjoyable: anxiety,
sorrow, depression. Untreated, okay? Because
psychiatry is for unbelievers. Cults don’t want to be defined as a cult because it empowers its members
to take a critical look at it. Language in cults is controlled
because language is powerful. This happens in the real world, too. Despite what 98%
of our world’s scientists say, let’s not call it climate change. When I was five years old, my mom was trying to recruit
this hairdresser into our group, so she sent me for a haircut. I told her that my secret hero was
Mary Lou Retton, the Olympic gymnast, and she tried to cut my hair like hers. Basically, I came out of there looking like Javier Bardem
in No Country for Old Men. (Laughter) Maybe a little less murdery. I was ecstatic. My parents were appalled. Short hair was God’s plan for men only. At five years old, I had already
foiled the almighty God in his somewhat specific
and kind of fragile plan for my hair. (Laughter) The Assembly had a school
for all of the kids to go to, through eighth grade. My mom was the principal
for about two seconds, until the elders realized they had
mistakenly put a woman in charge! (Laughter) Women were never encouraged
to be in the workplace, but if they had to be,
they should not be in charge of men. That wasn’t biblical. But remember, it wasn’t a cult. It was a wonderful place
to be a young woman. We didn’t have the burden
of forming our own opinions. The men got to do that heavy lifting. It’s so luxurious
to be told what to think, especially by wonderfully
power-hungry men, like elder Earl. Sure, he didn’t see the wisdom
in a good stick of deodorant. (Laughter) But when I was 15 and I had the gall
to wear lipstick to a church meeting, he had the wisdom to tell me I had distracted him
the entire two-hour meeting, because my lips were on my face. (Laughter) Revlon’s light lip blush number 666 – (Laughter) had kept this poor servant of God
from hearing God’s voice. That was my bad. I needed to apologize. Because the Assembly did target colleges,
I was allowed to go to college. And this was the biggest break of my life. I had to start a Bible study
on campus at UC, Irvine, and I had to live
in a training home in Fullerton. Training homes were the Assembly’s
communal living homes where groups of people would live
with an elder, his wife and kids. Basically, it was a super fun way
of making sure that we had no free time. Cults are all-consuming. They don’t allow their members
to invest in a life outside of the group. But college became a refuge for me. It was the first time in my life I could spend hours of my day
without seeing anybody from the Assembly. And at the same time,
I was getting an education. This world that I had been taught was dark
was actually amazing. Get this: women in the arts, women in science. There was a place
for me there if I wanted it. I started to see how small
my worldview really was. I could have left the Assembly
by then, I was over 18, but in a cult, when you leave,
you’re shunned. And I wasn’t ready
to lose my family and my friends. Women, children and people of color were
second-class citizens in the Assembly, to put it mildly. There was emotional
and psychological abuse, but there was also physical abuse. When I was a young girl,
I saw my uncle abusing my cousins, and I told my dad what I had seen. He told me he would take care of it. And the Assembly did, by covering it up. Shortly after I graduated from college, I found out that my uncle’s abuse
had just continued the entire time. My grandparents had
systematically covered it up, and my own parents
and the leadership in the Assembly had maintained a code of silence,
“trusting the Lord,” when nothing of substance had changed. Cults view professional help
from anybody outside of their group as a threat to their way of life. Women were never to leave their husbands, and we did not believe
divorce was biblical. So, my aunt and cousins had
no safe place to go in the Assembly. It was time for me to leave. I could not be in a group
that sacrificed women and children so that a few men could stay in charge. Staunch loyalty to any group is wrong if it means supporting an abusive,
narcissistic, pathological liar. Thank you. (Applause) Because that abuse and that pathology,
it doesn’t stay up with the leader. It trickles down in the group, and good people end up
doing really bad things. My sister and I left
the Assembly together. We confronted our grandparents
with what we had found out, and George kicked us out of the house. I have never seen my grandparents
since the day I left the Assembly, and my relationship
with my parents is complicated. It takes a lot of work
to unlearn behaviors after you leave something like that. There was a lot of questioning
the paradigm I had been raised to believe, and it was hard. But I can tell you that even
the hardest day of freedom was better than the best day in a cult. So, what does a young woman do once
she’s left the cult she was raised in, besides a lot of therapy? (Laughter) I went crazy, you guys! Crazy. I watched every rated-R movie – (Laughter) that had ever been produced
since the dawn of time, OK? I don’t regret a minute of it. I cut my hair short,
painted my nails Satan-red, pierced my ears. More importantly, I admitted, “I want to have a career. I’m going to be one of those
scary independent women. I believe that I’m a feminist
because women are humans.” I started writing comedy because comedy for me is the absolute
best way to take ownership of my past. Laughing is powerful. A few years after I had left the Assembly, the romance of short hair
and nail polish had kind of worn off. I was walking down the street in LA, when I saw her, a young girl, in a conservative dress. She was standing on this street
corner next to a man, who was yelling the gospel
at people as they walked by. I walked up to her and I knelt down in front of her and I looked her in the eye and I said, “One day, you will grow up and you will realize
you can leave all of this.” Thank you. (Applause)