A Time To Conceal and a Time To Tell

Sometimes I come upon an article that speaks to my experiences and struggles so well that I just want to give the author a giant squeeze. Sometimes I come upon an article that explains something about myself that even I hadn’t been able to articulate. An article I came upon yesterday was one of these. Let me excerpt the main points and then explain what I mean. The article is called “Why I Don’t Tell People I Was in a Cult.”

I am part of a minority group that I call “People with a Big Story” for lack of a better term. People with Big Stories have two things in common. First, something has happened in their lives that is so outside the range of the ordinary that it seems unbelievable to most people. The second thing is that this unbelievable event impacts their lives so greatly that they cannot keep it private.

For People with a Big Story, the most private and painful part of our lives, the stories we would want to share only with those we trust the most, cannot be hidden from people who know us. They are so big, so life-consuming that we cannot go beyond being an acquaintance, a casual friend, or a fuck-buddy without having to tell the story. It is like having only two clothing options: a nun’s habit or pasties and a g-string.

For me, the Big Story is that I spent my childhood and most of my adolescence in an isolationist apocalyptic cult. . . . What makes my sojourn in the cult different from other traumatic life events is that it created such a gaping hole in my personal history that I do not have a choice to keep it private. What makes it necessary for me to tell the Big Story is not the trauma of drills or the physical abuse that I survived. It is all that I missed.

. . . Growing up in a cult meant that I learned all of life’s basic lessons while in a bubble, completely cut off from the culture around me. I grew up without television, popular music, and without any of the books and stories most kids hear or read. I have never seen the Brady Bunch or Scooby Do, and I did not even know who the Beatles were until I was in my mid-20s.

You cannot know me very well without having to know this. You would be surprised at how hard it is to go more than a few good conversations with a person that I like without hitting on a subject where an honest response would require knowledge of The Big Story. It may be something as simple as my companion saying, “I used to practice moonwalking in front of the mirror when I was a kid” and expecting me to reciprocate with a similar story.

Faced with such a seemingly innocuous remark, I have three choices: I can say, “I was raised in a cult so I would have gotten beaten within an inch of my life if I even looked like I might be dancing. And I never knew anything about Michael Jackson until I lived near his ranch as an adult.” Alternatively, I could lie or I could hedge—give some sort of a non-response response.

Blurting out the complete truth is, at best, incredibly awkward. People are unsure how to respond . . . . The problem with hedging is that relationships are built on trust, and building trust requires that you demonstrate both trustworthiness and trusting behaviors. So over time, friends stop sharing confidences because I seem closed off or distant. If I outright lie, I run the very high risk of eventually being found out. And the only thing worse than being the weird woman who grew up in a cult is being the weird woman who has a cult secret in her past.

I may not have grown up in an isolationist apocalyptic cult, but the practical effects of my background are in many ways similar. To give an example, in reading this article aloud to my husband Sean, I expressed surprise that the author linked moonwalking and Michael Jackson. Wasn’t moonwalking pretending to be Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon? And there was that look on my husband’s face again, that OMG YOU DON’T KNOW THIS? look. Fortunately, my husband knows where I’m coming from and his response was not so much shock or horror but rather excitement to pull up youtube and show me what moonwalking actually was.

Anyway, the author goes on to quote a friend of hers saying “I learned quickly socializing is mostly people telling their stories. But the fastest way to ruin an entire party is for me to tell one of mine.” There’s a whole lot of truth there.

First, let’s look at casual contexts. Time and again, light social conversations are peppered with anecdotes and stories, and for someone like me navigating that can sometimes feel like a minefield. Don’t let on that you have never heard of the pop star they’re discussing, do share a story about playing in cornfields as a barefoot kid—that one’s okay!—and hope you’re invisible when they’re discussing how much they hated high school pep rallies. If I slip up at a party or social event, it can be a problem. Some people distance themselves and look at me as an outsider, and others treat me as an object of curiosity to be studied. Conversations go in directions I never intended, and any possibility of simply bonding with people on light hearted common ground disappears.

Over time I’ve grown better at navigating these situations. I’ve gained popular culture knowledge, I’ve learned when to speak and when not to speak and which anecdotes sound normal and which don’t, and I’ve also learned to spin my experience—”I was raised really religious” can go a long way in explaining why I don’t know who Brittany Spears is, and “I was homeschooled and we didn’t have a TV” can go a long way in explaining most other things. I’ve learned to give just enough to explain when something needs explaining without giving so much that I look like a weirdo or a freak or have to tell all.

But when friendships grow closer, at some point it has to all come out, and when that happens I once again risk being treated as strange or different. My background has been key in shaping who I am—and relationships are built on trust—so I eventually do have to share my Big Story. If I come out with it too fast, I risk injuring the friendship—and being seen as strange cultural specimen rather than a person—but if I hold on too long the relationship can feel distant. Just like this author explains, it’s a precarious line to walk when forming and building friendships. And there’s also the fact that many aspects of my story can be hard for others to grasp or believe—it’s hard for many people to imagine what it’s like to grow up believing that women’s only role in life is to be wives and mothers, or that you will meet your spouse through a courtship process and not kiss until the alter, or that adult daughters remain under their father’s authority. These conversations get unwiedly, weighted down by the sheer number of “Wait—WHAT?”s, and I can only hope they won’t change how I am viewed.

As the author of the article quoted above explains:

The sad truth is that in most cases, being a person with a Big Story means being a person without community. There is no place where it is safe to be “out” as a liberated sex slave, rescued kidnapping victim, unwilling star of a political sex-scandal, former cult member, or an exonerated former death row inmate.

Perhaps this is why my best friends are online. Perhaps this is why it is among those who have similar background to mine that I find my closest friendships. We get it, we’ve walked that line together, we’ve had those same experiences, and we never have to respond to each other with “Wait—WHAT?

That said, I do have good friends who don’t share my background. Most frequently they have interesting backgrounds of their own, or have had other experiences or interests that help them understand where I’m coming from. And perhaps that’s what’s most important—understanding and accepting. If there is any advice I would give, it is not to treat a friend with a Big Story as different or as an oddity. Everyone has their own stories, but we are all people first and foremost.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Beutelratti

    Hmm, this gives me a lot to think about. I was raised pretty liberal and my surrounding is liberal, too. But because I travel a lot I encountered different stories and different backgrounds and even though I’m studying intercultural communication and already expect differences, sometimes I can’t help but react with “Wait-WHAT” … especially when I expected the person I was talking to to have a similar background.
    I made friends with an American girl while being abroad who was raised by Mennonite parents. Some things she told me made me go “Wait-WHAT” … thinking back I should’ve reacted differently. I guess I didn’t, because she shared a lot of my values and I didn’t expect her to come from a different background. I didn’t see her as a freak after that though. To be honest, I admire her for looking at life with an open mind and being able to develop her own values.

  • Jenni

    Those of my friends who know about my IFB background are now used to me explaining away pop culture things (usually movies I haven’t seen or whatever) by referring to my “Jesus cave.” In fact, that’s usually all I have to say, and then the conversation can continue without any trouble.

    “I used to practice moonwalking in front of the mirror.”
    “Jesus cave.”
    “Oh, yeah, well here, let me demonstrate.” :)

    • sunnysidemeg

      A college friend of my brother’s was so confused by the name of our homeschooling group (really long, cheesy christian acronym; my best attempt at breaking the acronym down is kind of repetitive b/c I think home education is in their twice, although they may have changed that) that she just called it “Jesus, Holy Jesus.” On applications, I use the very shortest version of the name and in conversation I jokingly refer to Jesus Holy Jesus b/c I’m in complete denial over graduating from a school that sounds like a christian incubator.

      • AnotherOne

        That is awesome. My husband and I always talk about the four bazillion things I wasn’t allowed to do, say, feel, or think in terms of how they “make Baby Jesus cry.” Someone mentions the tight-rolled jean craze of the 80s? Those make Baby Jesus cry. Saying “crap”? Definitely makes Baby Jesus cry. He asks me if I saw such-and-such cartoon (though he doesn’t bother asking anymore, just explains it), and I say, “Of course not. That makes Baby Jesus cry.”

      • Jayn

        I’ve always found the ‘makes baby Jesus cry’ line weird at best. Jesus hasn’t been a baby in 2000 years, and being the son of God I doubt he cried even then.

      • AnotherOne

        I don’t think anyone uses the phrase seriously. I use the line in jest to refer to my upbringing precisely **because** it’s so improbable. It’s a shorthand summation of how ridiculous it is to think that tightrolling one’s jeans offends some demigod from millennia past.
        But yeah, I can see how it would seem like a weird/stupid joke to other people.

      • Jayn

        I’ve never been that deep into Christian culture, so while I usually hear it in jest I wasn’t sure if it originated as being a joke or if some people actually used it seriously.

      • Gillianren

        I refer to a friend’s younger stepsister as having gotten pregnant because birth control makes the Baby Jesus cry. It’s definitely a disdainful expression on my part.

    • Guest

      Another – my dad did not approve of us referring to “baby Jesus powers” after Talladega Nights came out. If you haven’t seen it, you’d probably enjoy it (it’s on Youtube, titled “Prayer to Baby Jesus”)

      (also, there* – I should be less lazy and actually sign in so I can edit, b/c I always need to)

      • sunnysidemeg

        Warning on the video – the prayer part is pretty classic, then the scene devolves to swearing/threats of violence.

        I’m having way too many issues with Disqus. I’m signed in and it’s posting as guest…oh well.

      • AnotherOne

        Sweet Baby Jesus.

        That is the best takedown of popular religion in America that I’ve ever seen. I can’t stop laughing. Lord have mercy.

    • Eamon Knight

      Hey, I didn’t know what “moonwalking” was (in this context), and my life story is utterly middle-class normal, and MJ is, like, my generation.

      Some of us were just naturally, massively, uncool ;-). Now Star Trek trivia, OTOH….

      • Christine in Australia

        Geek pride! I never liked MJ much either.

    • forgedimagination

      I am using this. It’s perfect, and would be so helpful. I hate it when the whole “I don’t get it” sucks the fun out of what we were talking about.

  • psykins

    I wonder if maybe things will get better as we get older. I was disowned by my parents when I was 19, which made me grow up a lot faster than a lot of my peers in terms of paying for things myself. I was also going to a very expensive private college, and my peers just really didn’t understand why I couldn’t spend money on things that they could (“Why don’t you just get texting, everyone has texting” “Well, it’s an extra $30/mth” “Yeah, but don’t your parents pay for your phone?” *cue me explaining that my parents don’t pay for anything, ever, and why*). It made things awkward, but I can’t imagine what it would be like for my “big story” to come up with every pop culture reference. So for me, at least, I think some of this dissipated as I graduated and entered the workforce, and other people started paying their own bills like I had been for three years (although it’s still hard to explain that I just *don’t* have a safety net – moving in with my parents to save money or pay down debt is not an option). Do you think that, as more time accumulates between your homeschooling experience and your current experience, the awkwardness and disconnect with lessen?

    • AnotherOne

      I think it does get better as you get older. Bonding over pop culture references is more of a young adult thing, and though college and my 20s were really hard to navigate, socially, I find that there aren’t nearly as many assumptions about shared experiences once you get older. People talk less about their childhoods/adolescence, and they bond over current realities more. Or at least that has been my experience.
      One backhanded advantage of having a childhood outside the norm of one’s peers is that it gives you empathy for other people who grew up in circumstances radically different from middle and upper middle class American life. I’ve found that as I’ve gone through grad school, started new jobs, and moved new places, I bond most quickly with immigrants and people who grew up in poverty. People who grew up in another country/culture or in a disadvantaged urban or rural environment in the US who go on to enter social and professional circles in middle and upper middle class America get pretty freaking quiet when people start swapping stories about high school, college, and pop culture. I can spot that from a mile away, and my own experiences give me a sense of how to talk to those people and what questions to ask to get to know them and their backgrounds. And often their experiences have shaped them into people well worth getting to know.
      So it’s a mixed bag.

      • Conuly

        I find that there aren’t nearly as many assumptions about shared experiences once you get older

        Among other things, you’re talking to a wider range of people, some of whom are much older or younger than you, or grew up in different parts of the world/country/city. That pretty much puts the kibosh on that sort of talk, which is great when you, for whatever reason, don’t grasp it.

      • grindstone

        The longer you’re in the work world, the more you bond over shared work experience, especially if you’re in a particular industry for any length of time. At least, this is my experience.

        Psykins, I left home at 16, with minimal financial support, and the thing I noticed was how much older I feel around my peers. Whadayamean you don’t know how to call a plumber/ book a trip/ buy a car?

      • AnotherOne

        Exactly. So much more of my social life now has to do with work or with present realities like my kids/immediate family and various interests in which I’m involved. Basically, as you rack up more life experience, the “abnormal” circumstances of your childhood are a smaller and smaller fraction of your life. (Though I think this is different for people like the woman whose post Libby cites, whose experiences truly are a BIG STORY).
        And it becomes easier to sum up a decade or two of abnormal experience with just a sentence or two. I have basically two freakish stories, the fundy homeschooling part of my childhood, and another piece of my life that I don’t reference here because it would out me in a millesecond. I’ve gotten pretty good at explaining away the first in a quick, offhanded explanation. Still working on the second.

      • AnotherOne

        Should be: “Though I think things are different for people . . .”

    • Gillianren

      Heck, my mother didn’t disown me, and she still didn’t pay for anything when I was out of the house.

  • Composer 99

    I would say posts like this one, where people share their stories for a (potentially) global audience, can go a long way to easing the social burden people with highly isolated or unusual personal backgrounds or stories can face.
    I daresay that everyone has some set of people who are “them”. Sharing stories like this is, I think, an effective way to make “them” into “us”.

  • Mel

    It’s hard to navigate social conventions when you don’t fit social conventions.

    When I was four, my one-year old brother David died suddenly due to a previously undiagnosed birth defect. The “normal” question of “How many kids are in your family?” is really loaded for me. Before I turned 8, I would answer “Four, but David died.” Conversations stopped dead and everyone got really uncomfortable. Since I was very young, I thought I was doing something wrong. At around 8, I started saying “Three.” This was less awkward socially, but I felt guilty about denying the existence of my brother. In my twenties, with counseling, I reverted to my 4 year-old answer and I have felt much better.

    With my deaf twin sister, I’ve learned a different strategy TIP (Tell, Ignore, Private). When people ask any questions about my sister or her disability, I have three choices. Tell – Answer the question. Ignore – Change the subject. Private – Explain that that question is a private family matter. The questions still range from normal/polite to normal/mildly rude to odd/rude, but I felt much better once I had a strategy in place.

    • psykins

      When you tell people “Four, but David died,” how do they typically react? My younger brother committed suicide about four years ago, and I am struggling with a similar conundrum – it feels dishonest to say that I have two siblings, when I grew up mostly with three. I still haven’t dealt with the loss very well, though, so I don’t want to break down crying if I have to talk about it….

      • Mel

        I am so sorry about your brother.

        There are three common reactions:

        1. Awkward silence. The other person looks shell-shocked/afraid/embarrassed. In this case, I just change the subject gently.

        2. “How did he die?” That’s a hard one. It’s been over 25 years and I still tear up sometimes describing how David got sick one day and died the next. If it’s too hard, I say “Talking about his death brings back a lot of painful memories and I’d rather talk about something else right now.” If when I’m feeling strong enough, I may share how he died then explain why that question is like getting stabbed in the heart. I mean, I hate having to explain my brother’s death. It brings back a wave of memories.

        3. “I’m sorry about your brother.” That’s the easiest one for me since it shows empathy and lets me lead where the conversation is going. I can share about how he called me “DAH!” (My full name is Melinda) and how he looked like my Grandpa.

        I’ve learned bursting into tears isn’t the end of the world. Many people are going through similar things. Just be gentle to yourself.

      • Noelle

        Answer #3 is a hint you’re dealing with someone who knows loss themselves.

    • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

      Same here. When I was 10, one of my sisters committed suicide (she was 26). I still haven’t figured out a good answer to “do you have any brothers or sisters?” If I say that I have one, I’m lying. If I say that I have two, I’m lying. If I say that I had two, we have to go through the whole song and dance of me explaining, them being sorry for me, and me trying to pull off looking okay with it but not so okay with it that I’m callous. It’s ALWAYS awkward. Always.

      I also grew up moving around a lot, and neither of my parents were ever in the military (in fact, my parents moved to our first country *because* of the military culture in the US!). And that’s something that gets awkward pretty fast because when I share stories of “when I was growing up,” sometimes they’ll be set in Switzerland, sometimes the UK, sometimes the US, and I’ve been accused of lying and “not keeping my story straight” more than a few times.

      • Mel

        Yeah, sometimes I try ” There are four of us” in present tense trick. As long as there are not many follow up questions, it can work. Have you ever tried blurting it all out at once? Like “Oh, there are four of us; my twin is deaf; We’re identical except for that hearing bit; my brother David died when he was four; and my other brother is fine.” It generally stuns the other person enough that I can change the subject. I imagine adding a list of countries to the mix would make it even more fun.

        I’m sorry about your sister. I wish we had a better way of discussing loss and grief in the US.

      • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

        I do try to pre-empt it. Like “I had two sisters, but one died. It was a long time ago and I’m okay with answering questions if you have any.” But yes, grief is very difficult and I do find that most people just don’t know how to act or what to say around the subject of death.

      • Eamon Knight

        And you see how it goes? I’ve known MrPS for, what five years IRL, and I didn’t know about the other sister (only the cool scientist one; details elided to avoid risk of exposure).

    • Jayn

      That’s something that’s always confused me a little about my mother, because she says she was the youngest of 9, but from what I can figure out (which I’m not *entirely* sure of because I have a hard time keeping track of her family anyways) includes the infant who would have died before she came along. At this point it’s a question of had vs. has anyways–she’s lost two sisters in adulthood–but I’ve always found it a little odd that her count seems to include a sibling that, as far as I know, she never even knew. (Heck, as far as I know ze may have never had a name)

      • Mel

        I’d ask your mom to explain. She may want to explain the whole thing, but not be able to bring it up herself. My youngest brother is in the same boat as your mom – he was born a few months after David died. He said 3 when he was younger and when he’s not interested in divulging the whole story and says 4 to people who are close.

      • http://kathrynbrightbill.com/ KB

        My mom will sometimes say she’s the 7th of 9 kids, but she usually says that she’s one of 8 kids because the one older sibling that lived only a few hours. I don’t think anyone ever really talked about it, it was only in relatively recent years that she found out any details from her oldest sister.

        A few years ago I was looking through old census records and discovered that my grandfather had another older sibling who must have died very young. I think nobody must have ever talked about it, if my grandfather knew about that sibling he never talked about it because all my mom ever knew was that he was the youngest of 10. Even when my aunt did a whole bunch of genealogical research that older sibling wasn’t included in the lists she made. This was well over a hundred years ago so anyone who would know is long since gone.

    • Anon

      I’ve managed to baffle people with answering ‘I’m not sure’ when asked if I have any siblings.

      It’s a childhood answer that I’ve held on to because it’s the truth.

  • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

    My husband grew up in the USSR and has a very similar experience. He didn’t know who Indiana Jones was when I met him, and he heard Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time just two years ago. He’s always playing “catch up” on pop culture. And his stories of American pop culture stuff that did filter through to him during his childhood are always very different (such as having every American movie he’d ever seen be dubbed by the same guy who was pinching his nose so that his voice wouldn’t be recognized by the authorities).

    And, like you describe, it puts a wedge between him and whoever he’s talking to because suddenly either his story is just too weird and they shut down, or he becomes a specimen to be examined, which just makes him uncomfortable.

    But I think that there may be a difference between your experiences. No one blames him for growing up in the USSR – especially since he never really bought any of the craziness. But for you, I imagine that you get questions like “wait, you actually believed this stuff?” As in “okay, fine, you grew up in this environment, but how could you actually participate?” In the same way that women who’ve been in abusive relationships are always fielding questions about “why did you stay with them?” The assumption being that this is a “free country,” surely you must have the knowledge and freedoms to just walk away. So if you stayed, or if you participated in what you were taught, you are complicit.

    • AnotherOne

      Yes. There’s also the fact that if you look and talk like a white middle class American and grew up in America, people are pretty likely to assume that your upbringing fits the norms associated with that. That’s less the case if it’s obvious you’re not from the US. (Of course then you have to deal with think kind of stuff you mention, where people get all awkward around you or treat you like a piece of exotica. Which can be a lot harder).
      It’s actually dwelling on immigrants’ experiences and those of my friends from truly destitute/disadvantaged backgrounds that has made me get over my frustration about being “weird.” To be honest, I think there was a good bit of privilege behind me feeling like I had the right to be normal. (“Normal” being construed as middle- or upper-middle class white American life). I still think I have the right to say that my siblings and I shouldn’t have been brainwashed and emotionally and somewhat physically abused. And yes, my parents made significant mistakes in the way they hyper-controlled us and isolated us, to which they’ll probably never own up. But I’m a lot more conflicted about the rightness or wrongness of my not fitting into middle American norms of socialization. Don’t get me wrong–I think there are HUGE problems related to homeschooling and socialization. But I also think that “average” white Americans are pretty gross offenders when it comes to thinking that everyone should be like them, and I don’t mind doing my little part to change that. (Of course that’s a lot easier to say from my upper 30s, when I’ve more or less adjusted, than it would have been during the social agony that was my first two years of college).
      I’m all over the place. Suffice it to say that this is something I still mull over from time to time, never really settle, and constantly contradict myself about.

      • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

        My husband moved to Canada in his mid-teens. His accent is now so slight that most people assume that he has a speech impediment rather than an accent – made all the worse by the fact that he lives with me, so his English vocabulary is actually quite a bit better than most natives.

        So in many ways, he’s stuck in the middle. He doesn’t “fit in” around other immigrants, but he doesn’t “fit in” among the natives, either.

        I think that you’re also touching on a very important point, which is that very few people (proportionally) actually fit the pop culture idea of “normal” (in terms of childhood experiences, etc). Even among the white middle class, so many people have “Big Stories” behind them – abuse, siblings who’ve died, many kinds of disabilities (especially “invisible” disabilities like juvenile arthritis, or high functioning aspergers) things that have forced their life off the normal track and that can make conversations awkward.

        There’s a scale of it, of course, some people’s deviations are quite a bit larger than other people’s. But I think that it’s important to remember that the experience of not fitting in, not having a place, feeling awkward around others – that’s all part of the pop culture “normal experience” too.

      • yazikus

        I lived in various different countries growing up, though I held a us passport. When I moved to the states at 16, after 7 years abroad and nine months of religious homeschooling in the states I had a hell of a time adjusting. I had a ‘weird’ accent, the lack of pop culture understanding, and an inability to relate to my peers. There is a name for this, Third Culture Kid. I’m still working on catching up.

  • http://cuterus.blogspot.com/ Palaverer

    As a Jehovah’s Witness, I managed to stay current with pop culture, but holidays are another matter. Learning the songs and customs has been awkward and of course, I have no stories of family holidays or traditions.

  • Alexandra

    I really relate to this, but of course not to the same degree. While I wasn’t home-schooled my parents were really over protective, and severely limited my media consumption. As a kid, I really struggled to have conversations with my peers because I had no idea what they were talking about when they talked about the latest movies and music. It was really isolating, and as an adult I found myself having to play catch up.

  • Naomi

    The story of my life! I do agree with the commenters who have pointed out that it gets better with time. I’ve been out of my family’s Amish Mennonite tradition (with a side of homeschooling/IBLP) for 15 years and out of fundamentalism generally for 12. I have to say that in my experience most people are pretty cool about it, but that doesn’t eliminate my anxiety that the person in front of me might be the exception to that rule and that there’s no way of taking that info back once shared. Few people are intentionally jerks, but a surprising number simply have no idea that I may not find their Amish jokes funny or that I may not want to hear “Oh, yeah, you wouldn’t know about THAT” multiple times in every conversation or that I’m not intimidated by technology. As annoying as those situations are, what I find most frustrating is that my upbringing simply didn’t equip me for dealing with jerky statements in a polite but assertive way. That is what makes me feel most vulnerable and upsets me most.

    Unfortunately, in my experience, counselors are often unintentionally guilty of making lots of cultural assumptions too. Usually it’s relatively subtle, something I realize in hindsight that the counselor either thought that I was unable to disentangle myself from cultural norms (as if the reason I was torn about the timing of starting a family was because I felt culturally pressured into have children when I was actually stressing out about whether I’d be taken seriously professionally) or thought my background wasn’t relevant at all or doesn’t bother to define terms.

    And I suppose I’m part of the problem too because I have worked so dang hard to cultivate a mainstream middle-class white-bread persona in order to succeed professionally that finding out I’m not as normal as I try to be throws some people off.

  • smrnda

    I wanted to add that if you look different or unusual enough, people tend to expect that your life story will be really different because they’ll assume you’re from another culture. For you and a lot of other Christian homeschoolers, everybody looks like an ordinary white American, and the culture you grew up in was more or less created very recently just as a reaction against mainstream culture.

    It’s probably even more difficult since the home-school Christian culture is overtly hostile to mainstream culture. It’s not just “we didn’t see that movie” but “we were told that movie was evil and satanic.”

  • http://twitter.com/JinxA2P2B2 Jinx

    In some ways, this is like my experience of being gay. I face the issue of whether or when to come out every time I meet someone new. Fortunately, I have found my community! Unfortunately, I sometimes get grief from straight people: why do I belong to a gay social club and a gay travel club? (Etc) I don’t get why they don’t get it, but your article helps me understand it. They haven’t experienced how any little thing you say might be a conversation stopper.

    • smrnda

      This is something I wish all straight people would realize. Not being ‘out’ requires you not to talk about such a huge part of your life, and ordinary questions like ‘what did you do last night?’ can be incredibly loaded since answering them might be equivalent to coming out.

  • AztecQueen2000

    I’m actually in the middle of a “Big Story” of my own. Seven years ago, I married a man who was sort of a “Bachelor of the Year” in our area–charming, charismatic, and helpful to everyone. (I should add that he is 31 years my senior, but looks younger–I’m probably one of the members of the AARP who is under 35). Who would believe that behind closed doors he was terrorizing me and our children? Only four people knew what was really going on. About a month ago, I left, and the whole thing started blowing up.

  • CarysBirch

    Oh my god, yes yes yes. My background is so much milder than yours, but I’m navigating this pit right now. I just spent an entire year with no social life *whatsoever* because I moved back into the state I grew up in, all my old friends are… well still fundamentalists and I have nothing in common with them anymore. I don’t meet new people well.

    I was fortunate to run into someone I knew peripherally as a child – she is the oldest daughter of one of my parents’ good friends, the child of his sinful youth, and she grew up with her Mother who was NOT a fundamentalist. So she understands where I come from, because she spent time with her dad and his younger children who had the same upbringing I did, but she didn’t live it the way I did either, so she has… you know, well-developed social skills. Since I ran into her (in January) I suddenly know people again, and it’s both liberating and terrifying! It’s amazing to know people, people who don’t look at me like I’m an alien for not being a fundamentalist anymore… but terrifying to realize that despite all my hard deprogramming work, I’m not one of them. I have the gaps you describe, I have the elephant in the room during just about any kind of intimate conversation.

    I can’t talk about TV or movies (wasn’t allowed). I don’t even really like movies, I never watched enough of them, it’s like a cultural void I can’t catch up on after the fact, I find the whole medium kind of baffling. I don’t have any bad date stories that aren’t very recent. I have a prom story, but it involved having a massive guilt trip because I wanted to dance and my date was more “self-controlled and virtuous” than me and “kept us from sinning.” It’s not really a good story. I never know the song on the radio. And so on. Aside from a few things like Star Trek that I was actually exposed to, I’m pretty much a total pop culture ignoramus. There is no catching up, it’s like a language, if you didn’t learn it young, you’ll never be a native speaker. Eventually I have to explain. I’ve learned to brush it off with a slightly self-deprecating comment about being an “ex-Puritan” or a “recovering Puritan”, but if I get close to someone the whole story comes out.

    I’m currently navigating an early relationship that I’m really excited about, but completely struggling with, because I have so many hangups leftover from the courtship days and I can’t read him properly because of it — and vice versa. I know it’s getting to the point where the story has to come out before we can really honestly proceed but… I just don’t even know how to broach the subject because I KNOW he won’t be able to really understand. I’m confident that he’ll be *understanding*, but that’s not the same thing as being able to relate. It’s so difficult, you don’t want to tackle something of huge import early in a relationship, but I can’t be authentic without at least hitting the high points, and if it goes too long it’s dishonest and will muck things up down the line. I really have no idea how to approach it, this is the first time I’ve dated someone without a frame of reference! Past boyfriends were a lapsed Catholic whose parents are more Catholic than the Pope, so his background wasn’t the same but he at least understood the paradigm, and someone who grew up atheist but whose entire extended family were members of my parents’ church so he also knew the environment intimately. The guy I’m seeing now grew up in a nonreligious home and became an out Pagan more than twenty years ago. Every attempt I’ve made to allude gently to my background has met with total noncomprehension. Advice would be welcomed, really.

    Libby Anne, I’m sorry for my total word vomit here, but this resonated so strongly with me and where I am right now. Thank you so much for providing a place where people like me can process some of these experiences. I don’t know if I’ve thanked you recently — your blog and others like it have changed my life. :)

    • Sophie

      I think sometimes it’s best just to go for it and tell the big story. If you really like this man and you think that he will try to understand then let him try. And if you get a negative reaction then maybe he isn’t the person for you. The longer you don’t talk about it, the bigger a thing it becomes and the more hurt he will be that you’ve kept it a secret which can increase the chances of a negative reaction. Tell your story, give him some time to process and be prepared to answer a lot of questions. Obviously only you can judge if you are in the right time in your relationship to do this but it seems you already know about his background, so maybe it’s time he knows about yours?

  • Rilian Sharp

    talking about siblings.
    I haven’t had any siblings that died. But when someone asks me how many I have, I just say I have a brother, and a sister, and she has a husband, and we have another brother who was given up for adoption, and my sister has another brother. Let them worry about how many siblings that is.

  • Sophie

    I don’t come from a fundamentalist background but I do come from an abusive one. For years I didn’t talk about my homelife to anyone because I thought that was what was normal, and then as a young teen I realised it wasn’t normal but nor was it something you talked about so still I kept quiet. My mother’s emotional abuse has very much affected how I relate to people, I expect to be treated badly. For years I allowed people who said they were my friends to say horrible things to me, to drop me for other people and then let them come back, to share my secrets with other people and laugh at my reaction. I let people treat me like crap because that’s what my experience was. Fortunately I worked out that treatment like that was not ok before I started having relationships, otherwise I would have been the perfect victim for any abusive arse who had shown any interest in me.

    I was 24 when I realised what had happened to me was abuse, before that I just knew that I had been emotionally manipulated and blackmailed by my mother my whole life. I was sitting in a lecture during my nursing degree and the lecturer started talking about emotional abuse, and everything she was talking about had happened to me. It was a complete eureka moment for me especially when she started talking about the long term effects of that abuse; the inability to trust, the feeling of being unworthy of love, being incapable of believing people when say they love you, and so much more. At that time I had been in a relationship with my partner for 2 years and he hadn’t met any of my family. Partly that was down to circumstances but mostly that was very deliberate. I didn’t want him to meet my mother because I thought once he did that our relationship would be over. I knew she would do something or say something horrible and he would see how damaged I was and that would be it. But after that lecture I was finally able to accept that nothing that happened to me as a child and teenager was my fault. I had been emotionally abused and all my emotional damage was a result of that.

    After that I was able to start talking to my partner about the more difficult parts of my childhood and he was able to see where many of my more difficult behaviours came from. Later that year he met my mother when she was visiting me for the weekend and the next year he went home with me for a week and met my dad, step-dad and my brothers. We’ve now been together for 7 years, we’ve lived together for two and he is part of my family. He doesn’t like my mum at all, he hates the way she treats me and my brothers and she has tried manipulating him into being horrible about me which he responded to by walking away. I know that he would like to say something to her about her behaviour, but he understands that could destroy the delicate relationship I have with her and I wouldn’t be able to see my younger brothers. Most importantly he understands me and knows how to deal with my emotional problems, although I have done a lot of healing. He was the first person that I ever told my ‘big story’ to, and the way he reacted with understanding and love has allowed me to tell other people when I have needed to.

  • Winifred

    So, I feel like it’s all about expectations. When we meet somebody with similar ideas and values to our own, we tend to assume that they have a similar background. This is not a completely unreasonable assumption, because our opinions are in some manner based on what we’ve learned and what we know, which is our stories. At the same time, it’s not always accurate, because people can and do reach the same conclusions by different means (and different conclusions by the same means, but I feel like that is less the issue here).

    When someone says, “I grew up in a cult,” or “I’m gay,” or “I have three siblings, but one is dead,” and I respond, “WHAT?!” — it’s not really a question, I’m not really listening, instead I’m telling them, “but that’s not like me, that’s not what I expected!” And the sense of betrayal is, “how could you have withheld this from me, this is so different from the you I thought I knew!”

    But for myself, I think it’s important to know that this sense of betrayal is false on two counts. First, they never lied. What I thought I knew (she went to public school, he was born male, she was raised by her birth parents) was something that I assumed, with little or weak evidence. No one lied to me, except myself, so if there is anyone to blame for the misunderstanding, it is me. Second, just because I now understand that this person arrived at where they are by a different path than mine, or than that which I expected, doesn’t mean that anything (much less everything) that this person has told me about him or herself is false, or any different than I knew a second ago. The things this person has shared with me, those that caused me to want to talk to them, or ask questions, are still the important parts of who this person is, and is to me, now. And I think if I am open-minded enough to remember these two things, that goes a long way to making people comfortable to share as much or little as they like, to just talk.

    As a final thought, my job as a good friend and a good listener, is to listen and to be trustworthy. If someone says “I don’t understand,” and I respond, “WHAT?!” (or, “but you should! I thought you would!”) — that isn’t polite, but a simple explanation and returning to the point I was originally making is. Similarly, in response to “My sister died,” things like, “why did you never tell me?” or “I wasn’t expecting that!” aren’t kind — but a simple expression of sympathy, “I’m sorry for your loss,” followed by something that allows them to continue the conversation in this direction or not, as they chose, “I have a brother, and we were so isolated growing up, I was glad he was around to play with!” can go a long way.

    I try to remember, as a listener and as a teller, that no one tells all right away. You give a little, get a little bit back, and so forth, and that is how trust and friendship are built. Forming expectations, and feeling betrayed when they are not met, is the opposite of that. So, I just try to be a good friend. ;)

  • aim2misbehave

    Yeah, people at my new job are starting to get used to my reaction of “My parents were really religious” *shrug*

    On the other hand, when I saw Avengers in theaters, that line when someone said something about flying monkeys and Steve Rogers was like “I understand that reference!” I was like “I do too!” and then I’m like “Oh my god, that’s me.”

    I think I may simply start telling people I’ve been frozen in ice for 70 years.

  • Lorelei


    The hardest and easiest time I had with this entire issue was when I ended up at a shelter with a girl who had also been in the cult. For the first time, we each had someone else backing each other up. No one could say, “No, that’s too bizarre, you must be making it up,” or “That couldn’t happen HERE” because there we both were.

    But she was also a constant reminder of her father the elder, who nodded along that I was property, and that the sexual abuse was his right. It certainly wasn’t HER fault, but she looked just like him. I was glad her mother had gotten a divorce.

    But the sheltering, the lack of knowledge for a period of about 10 years, the complete social awkwardness… I have it. At this point, I’m just upfront about it. Yes, I was brought up in a cult. I was sexually abused for 3 years. I have Complex PTSD. I understand if that’s too much for you to handle. I do my best.

  • Y. A. Warren

    All children seem to go through a phase of wondering if he or she is “normal.” When my children went through this phase, I would tell them that nobody had defined normal satisfactorily for me to have a definition or answer for them. I also told them that, if what I saw around me, in other people, was “normal,” I certainly hoped that they weren’t “normal.” They have, as grown-up parents each found their own niche in which they feel “special,”which is so much better, really, than being boringly, copycat “normal.”

  • kittehonmylap

    This this this. Thankfully as I’ve gotten older my Big Story (father died when I was 14, mom remarried <6months later to the pastor of our church, whom I strongly disliked as a stepfather- also have a smaller one, that I got married at 19 & am still married to the same guy 9 years later) has gotten rather less awkward as having lost a parent is more common among one's peer group as one gets older & so an "oh, my father's passed" if it comes up doesn't usually get a lot of questions. But when I was younger I hated it- as soon as I said the word "stepfather" to anybody new I knew some question about my dad & his lack of presence would come up, thus spawning the inevitable half-hour-at-least conversation of My Dad and How Did He Die, Wait How Old Are You Again, That Must Have Been So Hard For You, When Did Your Mother Remarry, Oh Goodness Really It Was That Soon, How Do You Like Your Stepdad/Do You Get Along With Your Stepdad,, & there were no short answers to any of these questions, as I was not even remotely about to say that my stepdad was my father. I do not miss this. At all.