Cultish Childhood


The Wicker Man, British Lion Films, 1973

From The New Yorker:

“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.”

 “My Childhood In A Cult”, Guinevere Turner, The New Yorker