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.