Everyone has that period in their life when they reflect back, it feels like it never happened. Affairs, ketamine, bad relationships, surprise pregnancies are the kind of impactful moments we tuck safely into the part of our brain that we don’t go to often. Sometimes they mean something big, and other times it’s just another surreal moment you survived. Everyone has these moments and for my friend Courtney, hers is when she joined a Christian cult.
Today, Courtney is a nurse in a psychiatric ward. She’s got a cute dog, good friends and a special affinity for glitter. But at one point in her life, she was engaged to a guy she wasn’t allowed to fuck, living in a dorm and babysitting junkies all in the name of Jesus Christ.
VICE: Do you want me to use a fake name or are you cool with using your own name?
Courtney: I don't care. You can use my name.
How did you get involved in this religious group?
A boy I knew told me about the group. He didn't give me details, just that this was his "urban mission" and I was looking for an escape from my hometown of Whidbey Island, WA. I was depressed, I hated myself and I felt like becoming a Christian would solve all my problems. So, I moved to San Francisco and joined this group having no clue what I was in for.
What was it like going from a small farm town to a Christian community in a big city?
I never had close friends who I trusted at home. I had always been an outsider, I couldn't relate to people, so moving to this community seemed great at first because I felt like I had support all of a sudden. When you first get there you have to do six months of "Discipleship Training School" and you live in dorms with the other new members.
What's "Discipleship Training School?"
You learn about the nature of God and how to hear God's vice. There is one week called "plumbline" where shit gets pretty fucked up.
You must confess your deepest, darkest secrets in front of the whole group and then ask God for forgiveness. People talked about being raped or molested, or raping or molesting others. Lots of sexual deviance, crimes, physical abuse, drug histories, homosexuality, anything the group taught us God would be ashamed about. But the fucked up thing was that there was no follow-up, no counseling after. Nothing but shame and a bunch of broken kids walking around waiting to be "redeemed".
What was your daily life like in the community?
Well, I worked 50 hours a week for the "organization" with no pay. I woke up at 8a.m. everyday to go to workshops, sing, pray. Often we would do this prayer "Intercession" where you wait for God to speak to you. I faked it every time and felt horrible. After the meeting, I'd go to work. My job was to run a day program for homeless people. It would be like ten to 15 homeless men, and myself and another young girl, teaching them life skills, religious stuff, doing chores, etc. Sometimes we'd have to go on field trips, like to the MOMA or the zoo. It was insane. Imagine two 19-year-old girls leading 15 grown men, who have serious issues, around an art gallery while trying to keep them from running off to smoke crack in the bathroom.
What was your training? Like, confess your "sins" and become a mental health care worker?
Did you get along with your community members?
Sure, but everyone was weird. My apartment was infested with rats at one point, like crawling on my legs at night and shit. So, I told one of our female leaders and she said that I brought the rats in by listening to demonic, Non-Christian music. Then, we prayed for the rats to go. That type of stuff was the norm.
Did you always question the way things were there?
Yeah, I got in trouble a lot. They always told me I was "rebellious".
Tell me about your marriage.
I met one of the leaders, Jody, during my Discipline Training. He was the only single male out of four males in our community of 25 people.
So, naturally I started hanging out with the only available man. We weren't allowed to hang out with non-Christians alone and I worked so much, taking the heroin addicts to the zoo and stuff, so Jody seemed pretty okay next to all of them.
What was your relationship like?
We were not allowed to be in a room together with the door closed. We were constantly under the microscope of the community. It wasn't a real relationship. I kind of gave him a blow job, like once. Then we prayed for forgiveness together.
And you married this guy....
I felt a lot of pressure from our community to marry him. I thought the way it worked was that God would bring two people together and you got married and made it work because it was God's will. Everyone around me told me it was what God wanted. We had sex for the first time on our wedding night. Awkward.
Were you a virgin?
No, I'd been having sex since I was twelve. I only became a Christian when I was eighteen.
How did you get out of the cult?
Things turned one night when one of our leaders made a good friend of mine sleep in our doorway instead of in a bed, of which plenty were available, when he was detoxing from heroin. And I didn't argue it, I just agreed even though I knew it was wrong. That freaked me out and I kind of snapped out of it.
The spell was lifted.
Yeah, but I had signed a contract that said I would stay with the group for two years and even though the two years wasn't quite done I told them I thought what they were doing was manipulation and fucked up. They blew me off as rebellious. I think they were relieved that I left. I was a broken mess when I left that place.
I had no identity. I didn't know how to think for myself which is why I stayed married to Jody for three years even though I was no longer in the cult. He was controlling and I did not trust myself yet. I stopped caring about anything for a while and became self-destructive. I would lock myself in my room [away from my husband]. [My husband] thought I was insane. We started going to counseling and he asked our therapist to put me on medication. That was the last straw. It pissed me off so much.
That fueled me to file for divorce. My therapist was very supportive. He helped me realize that I was depressed because I didn’t really exist outside of what other people were telling me what to do. It was the most freeing experience not only in a literal sense with the divorce, but just realizing that I was ready to be my own person and find myself for the first time in my adult life. I was 25 years old. I feel very immature to most people my age like I just kind of woke up at 25. Everything from 18 to 25 feels like a dream.