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Why I Left an Evangelical Cult | Dawn Smith | TEDxNatick

May 31, 2021
Translator: Leonardo Silva Reviewer: Cristina Bufi-Pöcksteiner In the late 60s and early 70s, there was a movement that took place mainly in California, called the Jesus Movement, where ex-hippies grew up a little, had some children and decided to channel all that anti-establishment angst towards religion. My father was one of those former hippies and, together with my grandfather, he founded a small sect called the Assembly. Yes, this is a super happy story. (Laughs) So I'm five years old. I'm standing in the corner wearing my favorite conservative dress, the pink one with white stripes. And I have my favorite white bag slung over my shoulder because I love bags, almost more than I love Christ Himself. (Laughter) And my dad shouts the gospel to people as he walks by because he believes it's a sure way to win people to Christ.
why i left an evangelical cult dawn smith tedxnatick
I'm terrified because I'm a quiet kid, I'm shy and I avoid confrontation at all costs. And even in my brief five years of life, I have learned that shouting the gospel can be interpreted by some as confrontational. (Laughing) But I've been taught that I can be the only thing standing between a soul and the fiery furnaces of hell. So there I am. It is at that moment that I see her. She is an older woman and she has flowing gray hair. And she's not wearing nail polish, and I don't understand how anyone outside of the group I'm in would go a day without nail polish, because I love nail polish, almost as much as I love Christ Himself. (Laughs) But it is totally prohibited.
why i left an evangelical cult dawn smith tedxnatick

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why i left an evangelical cult dawn smith tedxnatick...

She looks me in the eyes and walks towards me, kneels down and says, "One day you will grow up and realize that you can leave all this behind." We've all had to grow up and leave something, probably not a

cult

. It could have been an unhealthy relationship or a drug habit. Maybe you just have a sweet tooth. Leaving is incredibly diffi

cult

, but it is also completely life-changing. A curious fact that all sects share is that they reject the label "sect." Even now, 16 years after I

left

, my parents will give me a list of reasons why the Assembly was not a cult.
why i left an evangelical cult dawn smith tedxnatick
Then good. It was not a sect. It was an

evangelical

, fundamentalist, non-denominational, religious marginal group... (Laughter) whose charismatic leader could do whatever he wanted. But it was not a sect. Sure, we had some strange religious beliefs. You could even call them extreme. And we lived together in communal houses. Maybe we don't exactly integrate into society with nonsense like demanding careers. But it wasn't a cult because we had dominant religious beliefs, like "God is all-present," "God knows all," and "women can't get their ears pierced." (Laughter) We wanted to return to the simple life of the first Christians.
why i left an evangelical cult dawn smith tedxnatick
I'm not sure I know exactly how early we were talking. We didn't want to be literally thrown to the lions, but also, "do women really need equality"? So, I guess they were the first post-Augustinian, but pre-feminist, Christians. (Laughing) My grandparents George and Betty were in charge. George was a fantastic public speaker, a charismatic leader, and a pathological, narcissistic, abusive liar. My father was an old man and my mother was his wife. But it wasn't a cult because women could go to the beach like anyone else, as long as we were fully dressed, because nothing derails the will of an almighty god like a woman in a bathing suit. (Laughing) The Assembly focused on college-aged children, vulnerable because they are alone for the first time and are looking for a community, a place where they can connect with other people.
Every summer, my dad, my mom, my sister, and I would pack up and drive to another state to build Assembly Across America. These trips are some of my favorite childhood memories. We had good times together and thought we were doing "the Lord's work." But as I grew older, I began to realize that the Lord's work has many rules. If you're wondering what this life is like, here's a list of things that were forbidden: dating, television, science, ambitious women. Those things are very dangerous. (Laughs) Applauding loudly after a performance. God only gets glory with gentle applause. Also prohibited: psychiatry, dancing, happiness, freedom, adorable puppies. (Laughter) But don't worry, there were still plenty of things at the Assembly that we could enjoy, like kale. (Laughs) Creepy men. (Laughter) Climate change denial.
Pyramid schemes were a big thing. Weird diets. Also pleasant: anxiety, sadness, depression. No treatment, okay? Because psychiatry is for unbelievers. Cults do not want to be defined as cults because it empowers their members to look at them critically. Language in cults is controlled because language is powerful. This also happens in the real world. Despite what 98% of our world's scientists say, let's not call it climate change. When she was five, my mother was trying to recruit this hairdresser for our group, so she sent me to get a haircut. I told her my secret hero was Mary Lou Retton, the Olympic gymnast, and she tried to cut my hair like hers.
Basically, I came out of there looking like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. (laughs) Maybe a little less murderous. I was ecstatic. My parents were horrified. Short hair was God's plan only for men. At five years old I had already thwarted the almighty God in his somewhat specific and somewhat fragile plan for my hair. (Laughter) The Assembly had a school that all children could attend, up to the eighth grade. My mom was the director for about two seconds, until the elders realized they had put a woman in charge by mistake! (Laughs) Women were never encouraged to be in the workplace, but if they had to be, they shouldn't be in charge of men.
That was not biblical. But remember, it wasn't a cult. It was a wonderful place to be a young woman. We were not burdened with forming our own opinions. The men had to do that heavy work. It's a luxury to be told what to think, especially by wonderfully power-hungry men like Major Earl. Sure, he didn't see the wisdom in a good stick of deodorant. (Laughs) But when I was 15 and had the nerve to wear lipstick at a church meeting, he had the wisdom to tell me that I had distracted him for the entire two hours of the meeting, because my lips were on my face. (Laughter) Revlon's light lipstick number 666 - (Laughter) had prevented this poor servant of God from hearing the voice of God.
That was my bad. I needed to apologize. Since the Assembly focused on universities, I was allowed to go to university. And this was the biggest breakup of my life. I had to start a Bible study on the UC campus, Irvine, and I had to live in a training home in Fullerton. The formation homes were the communal living homes of the Assembly where groups of people lived with an elder, his wife, and his children. Basically, it was a super fun way to make sure we didn't have any free time. Cults consume everything. They do not allow their members to invest in a life outside the group.
But the university became a refuge for me. It was the first time in my life that I could spend hours of my day without seeing anyone from the Assembly. And at the same time, I was getting an education. This world that I had been taught was dark was truly amazing. Get this: women in the arts, women in science. There was a place for me if I wanted it. I began to see how small my worldview really was. I could have

left

the Assembly by then, I was over 18, but in a cult, when you leave, they reject you.
And I wasn't prepared to lose my family and friends. Women, children, and people of color were second-class citizens in the Assembly, to put it mildly. There was emotional and psychological abuse, but also physical abuse. When I was a child, I saw my uncle abusing my cousins ​​and I told my dad what he had seen. He told me he would take care of it. And the Assembly did it, covering it up. Shortly after graduating from college, I discovered that my uncle's abuse had continued the entire time. My grandparents had systematically covered it up, and my own parents and the leaders of the Assembly had maintained a code of silence, "trusting in the Lord," when nothing substantial had changed.
Cults view professional help from anyone outside their group as a threat to their way of life. Women were never supposed to leave their husbands and we did not believe divorce was biblical. So, my aunt and cousins ​​didn't have a safe place to go at the Assembly. It was time for me to go. He couldn't be in a group that sacrificed women and children so that a few men could remain in charge. Unconditional loyalty to any group is wrong if it means supporting an abusive, narcissistic, pathological liar. Thank you. (Applause) Because that abuse and that pathology do not fit the leader.
It seeps into the group and good people end up doing really bad things. My sister and I left the Assembly together. We confronted our grandparents about what we had discovered and George kicked us out of the house. I have never seen my grandparents since the day I left the Assembly and my relationship with my parents is complicated. It takes a lot of work to unlearn behaviors after leaving something like that. There was a lot of questioning of the paradigm I had been raised to believe in, and it was difficult. But I can tell you that even the hardest day of freedom was better than the best day in a cult.
So what does a young woman do once she leaves the cult she grew up in, besides a lot of therapy? (Laughs) I went crazy, guys! Crazy. I watched every R-rated movie (laughs) that had been produced since the beginning of time, okay? I don't regret a minute of it. I cut my hair, painted my nails Satan red, and pierced my ears. More importantly, I admitted, "I want to have a career. I'm going to be one of those scary independent women. I think I'm a feminist because women are human." I started writing comedy because for me comedy is the best way to take ownership of my past.
Laughing is powerful. A few years after leaving the Assembly, the romance between short hair and nail polish had faded. I was walking down the street in Los Angeles, when I saw her, a girl, in a conservative dress. She was standing on this corner next to a man who was shouting the gospel to people passing by. I walked up to her, knelt in front of her, looked into her eyes and said, "One day you will grow up and realize that you can leave all this behind." Thank you. (Applause)

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