How I Escaped From a Religious Sex Cult and Ended Up in the Army

"Nobody was coming to save me from this life." In her new book, Daniella Mestyanek Young describes being raised in the infamous Children of God cult

Rolling Stone/September 11, 2022

By Daniella Mestyanik Young

DAY ZERO, U.S. Army basic training: I struggled to hold a 50-pound green army duffel bag over my head, trying not to wince at the drill sergeant’s yells.

I wondered to myself: Did I just join another cult? The thought brought me some comfort. I knew how to do this.  

I was, after all, born and raised in one of the worst cults there is, the infamous Children of God religious sex cult. I had spent the first 15 years of my life playing at battle drills in “God’s Army,” getting ready for what to do when the Antichrist’s soldiers showed up. I was born a soldier.  

After I went AWOL on God’s Army, and spent years clawing my way to an education, I found myself running hard into the familiar embrace of Uncle Sam’s Army, where I would gain a community, a purpose, and a mission once again. But a woman in the Army is never the good guy no matter how hard we play the game, and I carried my experience as a cult survivor along with the heavy duffel.  

What I came to understand is that the military and the cult had a lot more in common than I ever wanted to admit—more than any of us strong, proud Americans would like to admit. And in both of those worlds, trying to fit myself into the mold of what was expected of women nearly killed me. In UNCULTURED, I tell the story of my life in groups, of groupthink, and of my attempt to find freedom.  

Petropolis, Brazil, 1993
“Everybody get dressed! Grab your flee-bag! Line up by the door!”

I forced my eyes open and saw the blackness outside the window, that kind of darkness where I could tell that it was after midnight, but I had no clue how many hours might be left until the sun would begin to rise.

Ugh, I thought. Another persecution drill. These had been happening more and more frequently lately, at all hours of the day and night. Usually, the Uncles would pretend to be the police raiding our compounds and the Aunties would try to perfect their act of being scared while also flirting, our particular brand of bearing witness to win men over for Jesus, just like our heroine Heaven’s Girl did in the illustrated comics. The kids would stand along the walls until we got the all clear, then we’d return our emergency bags to their neat rows and go back to bed. If we did as we were told, we could avoid adult attention and another round of middle-of-the-night discipline.

But the room felt different this time. Quieter. More on edge. My heart thumped fast in my chest as we scurried from the tops of our double- and triple-decker bunks, throwing on the clothes we always laid out before bed in case of just such an emergency. The older kids were tense and silent as they squatted under the lowest bunks to pull out the flee-bags stashed alphabetically. Mine was thrust into my arms and I ran to join everyone already standing against the wall. I took a deep breath, trying to keep myself calm. This time felt real. There was no room for panic.

I clutched the flee-bag to me, mentally checking off the contents it contained: toothbrush, extra T-shirt, underwear and socks, a flashlight, a small bag of peanuts and raisins, a book of baby and family photos. I needed my American passport. They told us the precious document would shield us above all else, though those were always held by the leaders, nowhere in sight. My stomach flipped as I thought about the kids in Waco, who we knew had been raided months earlier. Their compound seemed so much like ours, though the Aunties and Uncles insisted those Branch Davidians were nothing like us. Waco was a cult, led by a crazy man who thought he was Jesus. We were God’s special soldiers.

Twenty-five children died in that raid. Their American passports hadn’t helped them at all.

At six, I was becoming an expert at reading body language. It was a necessary skill to be able to gauge the moods of the adults, to know who to stay away from and when. As I held my bag in front of me, I studied Auntie Love, who normally stood still but now paced the length of the far wall, shoulders tensed up to her ears. She kept glancing around the room, counting us, fidgeting with the strands of her waist-length red hair, tucking it behind her ears that were as freckled as the rest of her body.

“Hurry up,” she said again and again, her South African accent even more pronounced than usual. “Get in line!”

I clutched Merry’s hand in my own sweaty palm. At almost four years old, my little sister was already nearly as tall as me, with bright green eyes shaped like big almonds, and a warmer, sun-kissed tone to her skin, so different from my own translucent-white complexion. We held on to each other tight as we stood ramrod straight against the wall, waiting to be counted. Persecution drills were one of the few times we were encouraged to stand next to our actual siblings; at almost any other part of the day, Merry would be separated with the younger kids. Grandpa said that being with your own siblings was a distraction. Just like we weren’t supposed to get too close to our parents, being overly bonded with our siblings meant we couldn’t be devoted enough to the whole Family, to Grandpa, and to God.

But the Systemites would never understand that. In a real raid, we needed to stay together in family groups so that we looked more normal to the police. We practiced all of the battle drills to Grandpa’s precise orders:

During a raid, hold the hands of the youngest children.
Six- and seven-year-olds carry the infants.
Look toward the cameras.
Young, sad faces make the most sympathetic pictures on the news.

I was six, therefore in charge of Merry. I imagined a camera in front of me and positioned my body so it could see me while I said my lines. “I’ll keep us together,” I told my sister. “I’ll protect you.” It was what we were instructed to say, but I meant every word.

Auntie Love led us as we marched in a line from the dorm, our bare feet matching the silent rhythm of the children ahead of and behind us. We quietly chanted the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” as a cadence to keep ourselves in perfect step. I had a hundred questions. Did Jesus reveal to Grandpa that persecution was upon us again? Or was it worse? Were the End Times starting? Was the Antichrist here? Were we all going to be martyrs soon? But I knew, for once, to keep my questions to myself.

When we reached the main living room, I searched among the crowd of a hundred adults, most in various degrees of dress, and squeezed Merry’s hand in relief when I spotted Mom. But seeing Mom protecting her belly, swollen in the last weeks of pregnancy with Uncle Zephaniah’s baby, made the cloud of doom I felt hanging over the room even heavier.

I heard snippets and whispers floating through the growing crowd: raids, police, children taken. Just like Grandpa had said. I looked around the room, trying to spot if anyone was missing, to see who among us had been taken. I tried to make sense of it all, tried to process what was happening around me, but my mind raced with more questions: Will Mom have to give birth in prison? Will the evil authorities force her to submit to a Systemite doctor? Will they take our new baby? What will happen to us?

Finally, the crowd parted like Moses and the Red Sea as Auntie Dora entered the room. The small, slight, and prematurely whitehaired German woman made her way to the front. Everyone hushed without being asked. All eyes turned to her as she settled into her natural place at the head of the circle. Even though Auntie Dora was a woman, she was our commune leader and the unquestioned head of everything. She had lived with Grandpa, and she was even written about in the children’s liturgy.

“The persecution is here, like we’ve always known,” she said, and I felt the whole room take in a deep breath. “Praise be to Jesus for always fulfilling his promises, and thanks to Grandpa and all of our preparations, we know what to do.”

A murmur of disciples praising God echoed through the room: “Praise you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord. You’ve told us this was coming. Help us to be prepared. Help us to stand up for our faith during these hardest times.” I heard fear in the voices but also something that sounded like excitement.

After pausing for effect, Auntie Dora raised her voice. “A brother in Argentina called. One of our homes was raided by the police. All of the children were taken away, screaming and crying and carrying the babies in their arms, and the littlest ones on their backs. The adults were arrested. It’s just like we’ve known would happen. The Lord showed our Prophet and he has prepared us. Persecution is promised in the Bible to all of God’s true followers. Our children will get the opportunity to speak with the enemy at the gates, and they will defend us. They will be our deceivers, yet true. But we must always be on our guard.”

Merry squeezed my hand, and I felt the stickiness from the sweat building between our clasped palms. I wondered how much of the doctrines she understood, if she could tell this drill was different from the others.

“Most of the American or foreign adults are going to be released, because the Systemite police don’t want an international incident, but twenty-one Argentinian disciples will have to stay in jail. We don’t know when we’ll get the children back. We don’t know what will happen next. But we do know that Jesus will help us. We have faith in him.”

Mom bowed her head, nodding. Was she crying? Was she praying? Was she imagining what would happen when they took me and Merry? Or was she thanking Grandpa and Jesus for guiding us? For this opportunity to be tested, to prove our mettle in fire?

“We’ve received many prophecies from Jesus already, and he promises that the children will be fine. They might have to stay away from their parents for a while. They might be exposed to Systemite music and white sugar, or go to a Systemite school or an orphanage, but we won’t lose faith. Jesus promises that those who believe in him can walk through fire and not get burned. The news is saying the same vile lies about us they’ve said before. Accusing our brethren in Argentina of child abuse. Calling us a cult. . . .” Gasps and sobs reverberated from all around the room. “But we don’t watch Satan’s news, and we know the truth. Let’s all pray for our brethren in Argentina.”

On cue, we took to our knees and bowed our heads and I screwed my eyes shut, wondering what an orphanage would be like. Did they have books there? How did the kids get punished? Did they get to go to school? Were they allowed to sleep with panties at night?

Auntie Dora’s voice droned on, “Thank you, Jesus, we love you, Jesus, we claim your name and the Holy Spirit, Jesus. Please protect us against these wicked Systemites who want to stop us from spreading Your word. Sweet Jesus, please guard our children who are in the lion’s den right now and bring them through without being harmed, like you did with Daniel in the Bible. Please blind the eyes of the evil police officers, the wicked judge, and of all of our enemies. Help our children to stand strong, like we’ve taught them, and to love their enemies. We know that the Devil can’t win and his lies will never hold. Jesus, take these false accusations of abuse against your servants and drown them in a fiery pit, Jesus.”

As she prayed, I released Merry’s hand and settled from my knees down onto the backs of my heels, the most comfortable position to rest during long prayer sessions. It felt like this one was going to last for a while.

“Burn down these claims of the wicked judge and police who swear false oaths that our children are abused, touched by our brethren’s own hands. Our children, our precious children, who are a heritage of you, Lord.”

I opened my eyes to narrow slits, even though I knew I would be in big trouble if anyone caught me peeking. I focused on Auntie Dora’s husband, our commune’s First Man, sitting to her right. Uncle Jerry held her hand in his big, hairy one, his own eyes closed. I felt the anger in me rise, felt rage burn through my fear. How could they act so peaceful and reverent as she told such big lies? If the police knew about Uncle Jerry’s punishment sessions, they’d take us away too.

But I was equally convinced that in the hands of the Systemites, we’d end up worse, and I was almost as afraid that I’d have to go as I was that I’d have to stay.

DESPITE THE FACT that we practiced persecution drills all the time, were constantly quizzed on what we’d say to suspicious Systemites, it never felt routine. The leaders always managed to add a new detail or twist to keep our fear fresh. They picked apart every mistake we made, perfected our word choice, and coached us on our behavior. They needed us to defend their reputation. There was no doubt: We, the youngest of children, were responsible for what happened to the whole Family.

Our actions could save or damn us all. We were taught to smile and say we were happy. Nobody ever hit us. Nobody ever touched us. We could see our parents whenever we wanted. The adults loved us and wanted what was best for us.

Even when we knew we were lying, we were taught that it was what God wanted. We had a whole doctrine called Deceivers Yet True. We dedicated hours of “schooling” each day to practice what we would say when the dreaded persecution inevitably arrived:

“Has anyone ever hit you?”

“No, of course not. The Children of God is my true Family! Everybody loves me and would never hurt me.”

“Has anyone ever touched you sexually?”

“Of course not! We have a very strict policy that prohibits adults from any sexual contact with minors.”

Deceivers Yet True had been distributed throughout the world for every Family child to read, memorize, and repeat. It was a fun read, illustrated by Uncle Zephaniah, Uncle Jerry, and others, and helped show, especially to us youngest children, the duality of living under a system in which lying could get us into the worst trouble, but was also a technique necessary against police and evil authority figures. I loved the dramatized Bible stories and tales of famous Christians who had to lie to continue God’s work—every narrative centered our superheroes evading the bad people. There was Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho, who hid the two Israelites and lied to authorities to help them escape—that was an example of lying for God, and also of “good prostitutes,” like in the old days when my friends’ moms had done Flirty Fishing, going out to sleep with the Systemite men to bring money and disciples to The Family. That practice ended before I was born, but it had brought a lot of good men to the cause. Then there was Brother Andrew, a Bible smuggler who brought the word of God behind the Iron Curtain, misleading border guards to evade arrest and execution as he spread the Gospel through the godless Soviet Union. I especially loved the story of the Prophet Samuel, who deceived King Saul to anoint David as king. God himself was the one who showed Samuel how to lie by pretending to sacrifice a heifer.

On and on it went, with example after example of the good guys lying to the bad guys. We understood that, under persecution, anything was justified if it got us home again. Lying to the good guys was forbidden, but lying to the bad guys was our sacred right and responsibility. If heroes, and even God, could lie, we could too. It was us versus them. I also understood that Brazil and Argentina were neighbors. We’d visited that exact commune earlier in the year during one of our biannual faith trips, where we’d leave the country and reenter at a different place to maintain our tourist visas, which Auntie Dora reminded us was another example of how the Children of God needed to lie to evil Systemites to do God’s will. I tried to remember the faces of the kids I had met at that commune. I wondered if they were scared, if they were remembering how to lie right. I pictured the little girls with whom I played, like eleven-year-old Abigail, with her long straight black hair, beautiful dark eyes behind donated glasses a lot like mine, and her nondescript flowery dress from the donation pile. In my mind, I saw her huddled together with the other kids, afraid, enduring hour after hour of questioning.

What would I do when I was tried and tested, like my heroes in Deceivers Yet True? How would I act when the enemy was at our gates? Could I be a good girl who would defend our life for Jesus? I hoped so.

But then I imagined the kids doing worldly things like eating ice cream, drinking Coca-Cola, and watching television. We had been warned the Systemite authorities might use those tactics to bribe us into talking. My stomach growled. Maybe I wanted to be bribed, too.

I was supposed to be scared of being captured, of being stolen away, but the fear intertwined with a secret yearning I could never name out loud: I wanted to experience the freedom of the outside world. I wanted to be brave and good, but I also wanted to be far away from Uncle Jerry and all the other leering Uncles.

Over the next few weeks, the sensational news penetrated our closed world as Auntie Dora filtered each outrage of our persecution. The Systemites attempted to brainwash the children to think they had been sexually abused, even though everyone knew that all our sex was from God and done in love. An Auntie described rigorous medical examinations in detail, how children were stripped naked and held down on tables, then poked and prodded with cold, metal tools until they cried. Her descriptions did their job of terrifying me, and I decided never to let a man in a white coat touch me. I believed the adults when they told us doctors were evil.

Again and again, Auntie Dora called everyone into the great room and we spent hours, days, weeks going over the explanations:

We were not a cult. “Cult” was an evil, horrible name that Systemites used to describe any group they couldn’t understand. Cults committed suicide, like in Jonestown. They told their followers that their leader was Jesus and spread false doctrines, like David Koresh did in Waco.

We were different. We were the only ones living the true word of God. That meant persecution.

The governments of evil countries like America and Argentina demonized religious groups so that they could slaughter them— slaughter children—with impunity. Like what had just happened in Waco.

We were not like Waco. We were like Waco. It was so hard to keep track.

Waco embedded itself in my nightmares and scared me enough to stop wishing for the police to raid our commune: Systemites killed children. As much as I loved to fantasize that I had different parents, a family with money and real jobs who sent their kids to normal school, who weren’t punished for their spontaneous moments of joy, I spent my days equally terrified of being taken away from my family and the Children of God.

I couldn’t survive in this world. But it was the only world I knew. At age six, these two truths were already at war inside me.

Finally, after almost two months had passed, we learned that all of the children and jailed adults had been released and reunited. The Systemites dismissed every charge, and the evil judge fell from his high perch, sanctioned by the courts for religious persecution. The kids had done their job and protected the adults. They had convinced the law that we were good, that we were God’s children. Here was proof that God would protect us, like Grandpa promised.

It was proof, too, that nobody was coming to save me from this life. Not the police. Not the big, bad System. No one.

The story of “The Raid” became larger than life, the center of our make-believe games. Grandpa even had Uncle Zephaniah and some of the other artists make a new comic book, Victory in Babylon, telling a fictionalized version. We loved reading about the excitement of the police raids, imagining the taste of the white sugar and soda pop the children had been given. We were awed by the depictions of the court cases where young children, like the fictional character Gabriella, valiantly defended the Children of God on the witness stand. She became a superhero to us. We read her words over and over until they became our script. I imagined that Abigail, who’d come to live with us now, had been like her, eleven years old and called on to testify for her faith.

There is something comforting about wanting what other people want, to be united in the fervor of shared desire. I hoped and prayed that, one day, I’d be one of the chosen ones asked by God to defend against the enemy at the gates. I wanted to be a hero like Gabriella, like Abigail. I took the drills as seriously as every child in the commune. No one wanted to be “tried and found wanting” when our turns inevitably arrived.

But still, there was that nagging desire to escape the fear, hunger, and what I knew must be abuse even as we were drilled tirelessly to deny it. What I couldn’t understand was how no one else saw what I did. In the adults’ minds, they told the truth when they denied the abuse. Their lives revolved around the Prophet’s teachings and they believed him: If you spare the rod, you spoil the child. In pictures of us, we seem like happy children, dressed in matching outfits, photographed singing and dancing on the streets. The mind can believe whatever it wants, can handpick the evidence, and can throw away the rest.

But behind those happy Family photos, behind the singing and praying and praising Jesus, there was a little girl who had already started fantasizing about her own death. Who, from the age of four, developed a nail-biting habit so severe that blood constantly dripped from her nail beds and cuticles, who couldn’t stop ripping and tearing her skin, despite the adults praying over her, despite the burning hot sauce they poured on her wounds.

After The Raid, I began making a low, guttural humming noise in the back of my throat. The scratching feeling soothed me. I couldn’t stop, even though it constantly got me in more trouble. My ability to control this nervous tic at some times, but not at others, was seen as proof of my willfulness and often earned me more beatings, after which it would become even harder to control.

When I began to wet my bed again after years without accidents, nobody connected it to harsh punishments, or to the sexual abuse we would never name, that we never talked about. The Aunties only spanked me more, telling me it was my rebelliousness, telling me it was my sin. All I knew how to do was believe them.

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