My Childhood in a Cult

On our isolated commune, we kids were taught that the world was about to end. But my world ended when I was told to leave.

The New Yorker/April 29, 2019

By Guinevere Turner

Where are you from?” For most people, this is a casual social question. For me, it’s an exceptionally loaded one, and demands either a lie or my glossing over facts, because the real answer goes something like this: “I grew up on compounds in Kansas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Martha’s Vineyard, often travelling in five-vehicle caravans across the country from one location to the next. My reality included LSD, government cheese, and a repurposed school bus with the words ‘Venus or Bust’ painted on both sides.” And that, while completely factual, is hard to believe, and sounds like a cry for attention. So I usually just say, “Upstate New York.”

Let me elaborate. I was born into a family of a hundred adults and sixty children in 1968, and spent the first eleven years of my life among them. The Lyman Family, as it was called, referred to itself in the plural as “the communities.” It was an insular existence. I had no contact with anybody outside the Family; my whole world was inhabited by people I had always known. I was homeschooled and never saw a doctor. (Only the direst circumstances called for medical professionals: fingers cut off while we kids were chopping wood, or a young body scalded by boiling water during the sorghum harvest.)

I was also raised to believe that we were eventually going to live on Venus. In my early twenties, years after I left the Family, I was describing my childhood to someone and she said, “That doesn’t sound like a commune—it sounds like a cult.” I still balk at this word and all the preconceived notions that come with it. What’s the difference between a commune and a cult? Here’s one: a cult never calls itself a cult. It’s a term created by people not in cults to label and classify groups they view to be extreme or dangerous. So it feels judgmental, presumptuous, and narrow in scope. It makes me feel protective of my upbringing. You don’t know how it was.

But in time I’ve had to consider some irrefutable truths. I grew up under the reign of a charismatic, complicated leader named Mel Lyman, who was constantly issuing new rules for living. True, Lyman never ordered his followers to kill anyone, the way Charles Manson did. But, if Lyman had asked, I’m pretty sure that they would have complied. In 1973, three members of the Lyman Family attempted to rob a bank; one of them was killed, and the other two went to prison. Also, Mel Lyman wrote a book called “Autobiography of a World Savior.”

To people who grew up in more ordinary circumstances, my childhood sounds exotic, scandalous, and fascinating. Cults are fascinating—but one thing the Manson Family and the Lyman Family have in common is the banality of daily life inside these worlds. If you live in a large group of people, there are always dishes to wash and heaps of laundry to hang up to dry. The travel plans for Venus took place against a backdrop of these everyday chores. As I like to say when I tell people about my background, “It wasn’t all acid and orgies.” (Acid was used by adults, as a tool for spiritual growth. To my knowledge, there were no orgies.) What I don’t always say is that I also had a happy childhood, or, anyway, parts of one. The young Family members sang together almost every day as we harvested strawberries or corn—Woody Guthrie songs, or folk songs like “Down in the Valley.” We foraged in the woods for morel mushrooms. Fishing was big, and every time an adult caught a bluefish or a bass I pasted one of the scales in my diary. We had dogs, goats, cows, chickens, a Shetland pony named Stardust, and a cockatiel named Charles. Older kids read younger kids stories before bed—“The Chronicles of Narnia,” “A Wrinkle in Time”—and we fell asleep in piles, three or four to a bed.

Even the mystical stuff had a mundane quality for those of us who didn’t know anything else. The Ouija board, for instance, was a regular part of our lives. Shelves were lined with notebooks containing transcriptions of the conversations adults had had with various spirits. We kids were allowed to talk to only one spirit, Faedra, and sometimes after dinner we’d gather around the board to summon her. The Ouija board was hand carved, the woodgrain beautifully polished, the pointer covered in purple velvet. Only the older kids were allowed to ask questions, and our eyes would be glued to the pointer as it slid over the smooth surface, gaining momentum, the low swish of felt on wood the only sound as we held our breath for answers. One night, one of the questions was “What does Guinevere need to learn?” The answer came back that I was a lazy little girl. After that, I cleaned every ashtray in the compound for weeks, ashamed but also secretly thrilled that Faedra even knew who I was.

It might make sense, then, that when I was told I had to leave the Family, in 1979, I begged to stay, tears streaming down my face. That night, August 25th, I wrote in my diary, “I am totally stunned and heartbroken. I am speechless. . . . I can’t live away from everything I love. I can’t sleep tonight, nothing. . . . But I swear to god I am coming back and I will be the same person. I will fight the world and get back where I belong.” Even now, it’s hard for me to write about the Lyman Family. It’s been four decades since I begged to stay, and I still care what they think.

My mother joined the Lyman Family when she was nineteen and pregnant with me. Children and their biological parents tended to be separated early on in the Family, and I was no exception. My mother and I were rarely on the same compound, and I didn’t know her very well. The afternoon when, at the age of thirty, she sneaked out of the Family’s Manhattan brownstone, knowing that she would never be able to return, I was on the Family farm in Kansas.

On every compound, there was a house for kids and a house for adults, which we called the Big House. That night, I was at dinner in the kids’ house, a chaotic ruckus of thirty of us eating and laughing, with only a few women there to keep us in line. We were excited about a play we were writing—it was about a man who had the power to end the world with a giant button, and historical figures came and went, trying to persuade him to press the button or let the world go on. I was going to play Eleanor Roosevelt. We heard the buzz of the intercom that was used to communicate between the houses. Then one of the women approached the table and told me, “They want you up at the Big House.”

Everyone got quiet. I assumed that I was in trouble, though I was pretty sure I hadn’t done anything wrong. Of course, we were all used to being in trouble for nothing concrete: I was punished once for looking at someone “with that Scorpio soul in your eyes.”

I went out into the summer night and started the long walk uphill, listening to the crickets and katydids, pulling anxiously on my braids. I wanted to be alone in the quiet, to linger on those smooth pieces of slate embedded in the grass. But I didn’t dare walk slowly.

When I got to the Big House, the adults were more serious than usual.

“Go talk to Jimmy,” someone said. “He’s upstairs.”

I breathed a little easier. Jimmy was the least scary of all the adult men: he had taught me how to play the banjo and sang kids’ songs with us, making us laugh.

When Jimmy told me that my mother had left the Family, my first reaction was relief. It meant that I wasn’t in trouble. I was scared for what would become of my mother, and that made me cry. But Jimmy had more to say, and it was far scarier: I had to go join my mother, wherever she was.

I was devastated. He hugged me. “Why?” I asked.

“Every kid here has at least one of their parents in the communities, and your father isn’t here,” he said in a soothing tone. I didn’t bother arguing—I just begged and sobbed.

It is hard to convey the shock of being kicked out. I had been raised to believe that World People—everyone but us, that is—were soulless. If you had too much contact with them, you might get your soul sucked out as well. It wasn’t something I was eager to test.

Nonetheless, the next morning I was driven to the airport and put on a plane to Boston by myself. I then went to the compound there, at Fort Hill, in the center of Roxbury, and picked up my four-year-old sister, Annalee—my mother’s second child, whose father had died three years earlier. I again begged to remain in the communities, to no avail. The next day, we were driven to my grandmother’s house, in a small New Jersey town, where I found my mother sitting on the front steps.

“I knew they’d send me Annalee,” she said, folding my sister in her arms. “But I never thought I’d see you again.”

I looked up at the sky, where a rainbow had actually appeared. “See?” my mother said. “It’s all going to be O.K.”

I couldn’t imagine that to be true, not out here among the World People. I saw my mother as a traitor who had destroyed my life, and I felt completely alone. For the next few weeks, I cried myself to sleep every night. I wasn’t crying about the fact that she had clearly defected with the assumption she’d never see me again—after all, I had been just as willing to live my life without her. I cried because I wanted to go back. Every night, I would tell her so, and she would say, “Just wait a few more weeks.” I cried because she was the obstacle between me and going home.

Then came a new frontier: school. I was nervous (because, you know, the soul thing). But I was excited, too. Accustomed to being surrounded by dozens of kids my own age, I had been cooped up in my grandmother’s house for two months. I was dying for people. I was wearing green velour bell-bottoms and a blouse with big purple flowers on it, both prized items I had sewn myself. My hair hung down to the small of my back, and I brushed it until it shone.

It was the middle of the school year, and as my mother talked to the administrator I could see that girls were crowded around the office window, straining to get a look at me.

“Where can we send for her school records?” the administrator asked.

“Oh, the school burned down,” my mother replied, in a matter-of-fact tone. It was the first of many lies we had to tell to seem normal. I soon learned to say I was from Boston.

School was a minefield. While I was being introduced to my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Winter, a girl raced past, crying out, “The hamster is in the ziggurat, the hamster is in the ziggurat!” I sank into an immediate despair: would I ever understand the outside world?

It turned out that there was a model of a ziggurat in the room, and it was just the right size to appeal to the class pet. I was relieved that this small mystery could be so easily solved. Still, my classmates could sense that I was a stranger in a strange land.

“You look like Laura Ingalls, from ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ” one girl said. My homemade clothes and long, straight hair stood out among all the designer jeans and Farrah Fawcett feathered looks. I learned that bragging about playing the banjo and how much I loved Glenn Miller wasn’t going to make me popular. I learned to pretend that I got all those references to “The Brady Bunch.” (I had never seen any modern television.) Most important, I learned a lesson about eye contact. “You can’t just stare at people,” one girl whispered to me, in an act of kindness. Never having met anyone who hadn’t known me since I was born, I hadn’t grasped that direct eye contact with someone for more than a few seconds makes you seem very weird.

Years later, when I visited the Lyman Family’s compound on Martha’s Vineyard, I noticed how everyone I grew up with looked into one another’s eyes, always. It all seemed perfectly normal again.

I was eighteen at the time. I had been out in the world for six years. In high school, I had effectively erased any signs of my childhood—I didn’t talk about it, and that made life so much simpler. A year after I left the Family, one of the more powerful adults had written me a letter. “I want you to know that you are always welcome here and that everyone misses you,” it said. A letter I received a few weeks later explained, “We work at it, striving for inner consciousness, self development on the inside instead of the outside. This life we live is not for everyone, only if you have Mel inside of you. ” When I was about to go off to college, I wrote to the Lyman Family to ask if I could visit before I went. The members welcomed me warmly, and I spent a glorious few days there. Slowly, people in the Family encouraged me to stay with them instead of going to college: this was home, they said, where I belonged. I did feel as if I were home, and, after a day or two, I thought I might not go to college after all. These people really knew me. They looked into my eyes.

One night after dinner, as everyone sat around in the living room drinking wine and talking, as they usually did, I was sitting on the floor, taking it all in. I felt a surge of love and belonging. I was just about ready to stay for good. At that moment, a man who was seated in a nearby armchair put his empty glass in front of me as he was talking, the unspoken command being “Get me more wine.”

Dutifully, I took the glass and got up to refill it. As I entered the kitchen, it struck me that most of the women were doing dishes, floating around to refill glasses, or getting the kids ready for bed. Women served men here. I had been raised that way, of course—but now the custom put me in a kind of panic. Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine staying.

I suspect that I latched on to the rigid gender hierarchy of the Family because it was easier than facing up to some of the other disturbing truths about them. At the very least, I had to accept that I had become a World Person. Just as the Family had warned, the outside world had seeped into my soul. I didn’t consider myself better than them, but I did feel different—as if I no longer belonged. Letting go of that sense of belonging was hard, and I cried when I said my goodbyes, two days later.

I went off to Sarah Lawrence, where I discovered that an ironic inversion had taken place. When I was in high school, I effectively erased my past; at college, my background became a valuable commodity. Everyone there tried to outdo one another with his or her wild backstories. Mine inevitably won. When people asked me where I was from and I grew circumspect, my best friend would egg me on: “Tell them about the Moonies! Tell them about the Moonies!” He couldn’t wait to see their reaction to my stories.

I eventually tried to write about my past in a fiction workshop, and found the experience frustrating. Instead of critiquing my writing skills, readers simply wanted more details about my exotic origins. I understood their curiosity, but that didn’t solve my dilemma. How could I talk about an upbringing that was so strange to people? How could I make sense of my own history without sensationalizing it, or turning it into a punch line?

I’m starting to learn that I can’t be afraid to reveal the hard things. That kids like me were punished by being locked in a closet for a whole day, or being deprived of food, or being beaten while everyone else was brought out to watch, or being the object of shunning, when no one was allowed to look at you or talk to you for days. Sometimes we were pitted against one another. I overheard adults having sex in a bed just a few feet away from me, while half a dozen other kids slept, or maybe didn’t, on the floor.

Several girls who were thirteen and fourteen had been “chosen” by adult men. They called it marriage, though there was no ceremony or anything official. One thirteen-year-old lived in a room off of Mel Lyman’s room. It was commonly known that she belonged to Mel, and no one else would be allowed to have her or think about having her, for the rest of her life. When we were alone, she would cry and say that she didn’t want to have sex with Lyman but knew that soon she would have to. She already slept in his bed. If I had stayed a few months more, I probably would have been chosen by a man, too.

See, now the whole story has taken a turn. You’ve maybe forgotten everything I wrote before. You’re horrified; you want to know more. I’ve told you these things because I didn’t want you to think I was weak or timid, or apologetic about some of the uncomfortable truths. Now I can’t take them back.

Today, as a fifty-year-old screenwriter, I’m drawn to the stories of cults and their behavior. My next film, “Charlie Says,” focusses on the women who killed for Charles Manson and the time they spent in a prison isolation unit. One thing I wanted to show was how keeping these women in that unit trapped them for years in the echo chamber of Manson’s manipulations. I’ve always been struck by the sensationalist and reductive way that sixties and seventies cults are portrayed in the media. In a nation fixated on individualism, cults and communes are easy objects of disdain—and perhaps envy. Their members are breaking the rules, discarding the sacred nuclear family. It’s libertarianism plus sex and drugs, and it’s wrong, but do tell me more.

The truth is far more complex, though no less insidious. As individuals, how well are we positioned to say which systems of belief are right or wrong? When I was a teen-ager, I would ask my mother, “Did you really believe we were going to live on Venus? I mean, just for starters, we know that Venus is uninhabitable by humans.”

“It’s complicated,” she would say. “You can hold a lot of conflicting ideas at once sometimes.”

She clearly didn’t want to talk about it. There was, I came to see, an important distinction between us. I had been born into a belief system and simply accepted it, as children do. She, on the other hand, had made a choice to be there, and that choice was no doubt becoming increasingly hard to live with. Did she feel embarrassment? Regret? Guilt? She never told me.

“Not everything is black-and-white,” she would say. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

I don’t, really. Because I neither chose to be in the Lyman Family nor chose to leave it, I can describe my experience without being judged for it. But, to be fair, the notion that U.F.O.s are going to take you to live on Venus is not obviously crazier than the Christian idea of Heaven and Hell, not to mention the unscientific beliefs put forth by other mainstream religions. Sheer popularity and longevity can do a lot to render odd convictions reassuringly familiar.

Compensating for their smaller size, perhaps, cults usually outdo conventional religions in their commitment to apocalypse. The Big Confrontation is coming, they always seem to insist. We need to be ready, and even willing, to die. We will be brought to a higher consciousness, or to a better place. The Lyman Family predicted that the world would end on January 5, 1974. On that date, Mel Lyman told us, we would be taken away to Venus. As the day approached, we children were told to put on our favorite clothes and pick one toy to bring on the journey. We sat in the living room all night, listening for the hum of the U.F.O.s.

The prophecy’s failure didn’t make anyone believe in Mel Lyman’s wisdom any less, though. We were told that the spaceships hadn’t come because our souls weren’t ready. We hadn’t done the work on ourselves that we needed to, and we had ruined things for Mel, whose soul was exactly where it needed to be. The year was set to 00, he decided we would no longer observe daylight-saving time (there would now be World Time and Our Time), and we kids weren’t allowed to speak for the foreseeable future. We passed notes; we whispered to one another when we were sure no adult was within earshot. Meals were silent. It was a dark and uncertain time.

Manson preached the coming of Helter Skelter, when black people would rise up against white people but spare his followers (all of whom were white). David Koresh claimed that he was the final Christian prophet, who needed to father lots of children in order to make it all work. Marshall Applewhite, who led the Heaven’s Gate cult, near San Diego, persuaded dozens of his followers to commit suicide in order to board a spaceship that would convey them to a “level of existence above human.” Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh focussed on the need to create a new society because “the third and final war is on its way.”

None of these apocalypses came to pass. Which doesn’t mean that some version of them never happens. In 1993, during the standoff between the F.B.I. and Koresh and his followers, in Waco, Texas, I remember thinking, Don’t confront them like that! You’re making his predictions a reality. People are going to die! And seventy-six people did. That was preferable, it seems, to admitting that your God had failed, or that the Great and Powerful Oz was in fact a small, desperate person.

At least these self-anointed leaders earned themselves a measure of fame. In my experience, people tend to be almost apologetic that they’ve never heard of the Lyman Family. What I tell them is that, if you haven’t heard of a cult, it’s because it didn’t go down in flames. Its members are just quietly doing what they do, which means that there are many more active cults today than we are aware of. The community founded by the late Mel Lyman is still around today and runs a flourishing home-renovation business in the Los Angeles area. I don’t know much about how they live now, but I am certain they wouldn’t call themselves a cult. They’ve always called themselves a family. They would also urge you to discount my childhood memories as “sometimes inaccurate, incomplete, exaggerated, or otherwise flawed” (as their law firm assured this magazine); make of it what you will.

For the cult members who’ve survived over the decades, it’s possible that the ideals they started with have given way to the demands of their daily lives, to the buffeting effects of the larger culture, to the familiarity of routine. Or maybe they just haven’t been found out.

There will always be people in search of what cults have to offer—structure, solidarity, a kind of hope. In the back yard of our Los Angeles compound, the adults built a wooden pyramid, big enough to hold about twenty kids, small stilts raising it a few feet off the ground. The smell of blooming jasmine surrounded us as we climbed into it at night, sat cross-legged in a circle, and sang one note all together. We would do this for hours. There were skylights in the ceiling, and we stared up at the stars as we sang. I loved those moments, holding on to the note until I thought my lungs would burst, then taking a deep breath and starting again. It felt as if we were one being, and we were proud of that. Most of all, we hoped that the spaceships could hear us, and that they would be summoned at last. 

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