I Grew Up Cult-Adjacent — And Have A Strange Life Advantage Because Of It

Photo: Annie Pratt | Unsplash, Susannah Townsend | Canva 
Young child in non binary clothing, surrounded by books

I grew up adjacent to a cult. My best friend was a Moonie whose family went to extremes like mass marriages.

Because my best friend Lyla* was in a religion that was extreme by default, my childhood involved me getting raised in a cult-like way. Some of the more unusual rules included:

  • No talk about sex, marriages, or other adult male interaction with friends. We could have male friends, but that started to go away once we became teenagers.
  • No talk disparaging the True Parents. That’s what the head of the church and his wife are called. It does not matter what they do or say, you say nothing bad about them or Christianity.
  • Wear baggy, androgynous clothes while with your best friend. I could wear girl clothing, but it was heavily discouraged while with my bestie. Also, I was closeted nonbinary so it worked in my favor.
  • Blacksmithing, glassblowing, fights, sword fighting, and dueling were okay if not outright encouraged. The particular “flavor” that my bestie’s parents subscribed to was already pro-weaponry and already was establishing ties to the gun industry by 1999. It has since become “the church that blesses AR-15s.”
  • No internet was allowed until we were already pre-teens. Even then, most of our entertainment was books, sticks, swords, and other more traditional forms of play. We also would occasionally look for road kill so Lyla could make jewelry out of it, which was somehow just okay to do.
  • Phone conversations, emails, and written communications would be monitored. Occasionally, my friend’s mom would chime in while we were talking to remind us “not to sin by speech.”

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At first glance, this was a pretty awful way to live. And honestly, I get it. There was a lot of trauma that happened because of the cult life, especially for Lyla. Being part of any high-control society means you don’t have agency over your life. 

Being in a cult has a weird effect on you. After you leave, you often question your sanity. You begin wondering if “that” was so abnormal, or if it was “really that bad.” I’ve been told that a lot of the elements of my childhood sound horrific or creepy. To me, that wasn’t the case. It was bad at times, yes, but I liked playing with weapons and I look back to those years with longing. I’d love to relive those days just once more. It’s wholesome to me. 

But, wholesome as it was, it left a mark on every person I’ve seen grow up that way. A lot of my friends who left that religion have long-standing trauma. It affected them, especially during the moments when they first left. There are a lot of moments where you can see someone start to deprogram themselves or question the teachings of their cult life. Lately, I’ve been hanging out with someone who fits that bill and we have a lot of conversations that light me up.

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Max* is a guy who has been having a crisis of faith.

Max is not a Moonie but has a lot of the same upbringing and background. Like Moonies, he’s dealing with arranged marriages, a lack of technology growing up, and segregated behavior. And honestly, I can see him struggle. It’s usually a quick pause before he talks about his religion, a look to the side that says a lot more than what words could say. 

Weirdly, we’ve been kind of bouncing our experiences off each other. We have a weirdly unique similarity in backgrounds that makes it easier for us to vent and not feel "crazy" compared to others. If you were to see the two of us hanging out, you’d probably do a triple-take or check to see if your drink was spiked. We look like opposites, primarily because at first glance, we are. 

I look at Max and I see an alternate universe where, maybe I would have followed Lyla’s parents’ paths. Maybe I would have gotten an arranged marriage at a mass wedding. Maybe I would have an AR-15 in my house, or an AK-47.  Surely, I wouldn’t dress the way I do now. And I’d look a lot more conservative, though not as conservative as Max. (I don’t think the guy owns a pair of sweatpants.) And maybe I’d have a gaggle of kids with my arranged marriage husband. 

Max looks at me and I’m pretty sure I represent that “what if?” to him. In another universe, Max would probably have spent his time belting out tunes to Sisters of Mercy. Maybe he’d be child-free. Maybe he’d wear Swear Alternatives or Demonias. 

Being impacted by having that level of seclusion from mainstream society for so long has a deep impact on you. There are a lot of nuances and limitations that people just won’t understand unless you’ve been there. And you can’t talk about it to people in it, and it’s hard for me to reach out to others in my situation. So, we bounce off each other a lot. 

Both his religion and my friend’s religion had one major tenet that I couldn’t help but notice impacted us all: One of the reasons I truly adore hanging out with Max is the conversation  —  and it’s a conversation style that is very hard to come by in mainstream America. 

Because of the way we both were raised, we read a lot. Reading and radio were two major parts of my childhood, and while I don’t think he has a radio in his home, reading is very much a thing in his place. Max studies for hours every day. The only other people I knew who did that were Lyla and other church members from our time.

As it turns out, I noticed something unusually beneficial that comes from this type of “hyper-sheltered-except-reading” society. When you can’t lean on television, games, movies, or internet forums to have fun, you become very imaginative. Books become a natural go-to, as do card games and board games. (That is if your religion allows for that.)



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Socially-mandated reading leads to several odd things happening to the way you talk to people.

So, as someone whose friend’s parents encouraged us to read things like Gulliver’s TravelsTin-tin, and The Swiss Family Robinson, you become very literate, very fast. As it turns out, socially mandated reading and studying have an odd outcome over time:

  • You start to be able to talk about topics that you normally wouldn’t have any knowledge about. While I regaled Max with information about Tayu, he regaled me with information about electrical engineering. We then both decided to exchange ghost stories with a historical background. 
  • You also will have total cultural blindspots that would make most people give you a funny look. Max didn’t know what a “goth” was until I told him. If you try to talk to me about sports, you will get a very blank stare and a smile.
  • You get a “book accent” over time. Did you ever pronounce a word strangely because you never heard it in real life? That’s a “book accent.”
  • Weirdly, you get both more shy and more social than your mainstream counterparts. Maybe it’s because of our backgrounds, but there’s a certain level of shyness that I notice most people in our situations get. A lot of us get “burned” because of how sheltered we are. 

Oddly enough, that sheltered life often came with social expectations and etiquette that were hard to shake. I’ve had more than my fair share of friends and dates look shocked when I begin to cook and lay out a food spread for them. For me, it’s a matter of honor. I want to show that I have a belief in hospitality and common decency  —  a holdover from my childhood.

Honestly, I prefer hanging out with people who have that sheltered-bookish background vibe.  There’s a certain level of presence of the moment that I notice doesn’t happen in mainstream America anymore. There’s also that natural curiosity that comes with being told “You can read any book you want, but no movies.”

I’m not going to lie, hanging out with folks like that is incredibly refreshing. You learn about a lot of history, artwork, and hobbies that you otherwise wouldn’t know about. Moreover, the etiquette and way we behave come with understandings that are difficult to explain outside.

Looking around me, I often feel bad for people who don’t have a Max in their lives. The knowledge and conversation skills that come from years of an unplugged life are truly a rare treasure. 

RELATED: Man Who Started His Cult At Harvard University Explains How Easy It Was

Ossiana Tepfenhart is a writer based out of Red Bank, New Jersey whose work has been featured in Yahoo, BRIDES, Your Daily Dish, New Theory Magazine, and others.

This article was originally published at Ossiana Tepfenhart's Substack. Reprinted with permission from the author.