Growing up in a cult: ‘We kept our pain silent’

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From the end of the spanking line, I could see the paddle in Uncle Zephaniah’s hand. The oldest kids, the 12- and 13-year-olds, stood at the front. At five, I was the youngest and would take my punishment last. This was the worst – not only did you have the longest wait, but you endured it alone. Just you, an adult, and a paddle.

We stood single file in the centre of our dorm, a room full of rough-hewn bunk beds stacked three levels high, yellowed sheets covering thin pieces of foam pretending to be mattresses, bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

I felt the familiar fear creep over me. Don’t make a sound. Don’t look up. Don’t let anyone see you shaking. Then it started. I kept my eyes on the floor but I could still hear the smacking sound so loud, the thick, unbending slab of wood striking the skin of bare bottoms. We all knew not to cry because that would earn us more swats, so we kept our pain silent, our whimpers as tiny as possible. The older kids were better at controlling their tears; usually, the crying didn’t start until the younger children’s turns.

Suddenly, a high-pitched screech bounced off the tiles and filled every crevice. Who’s doing that? I wondered. They needed to stop. Somebody needed to make them stop. Everybody knows you aren’t allowed to cry like that. The other kids started turning around in line. Everyone looked at me.

My friend Virginia lifted her finger to her lips, her eyes dire with warning. But I couldn’t stop. The sounds burned my throat, hurt my ears. I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t understand why. The injustice of it all bubbled up inside me – this isn’t fair. It was a thought that I knew, if spoken out loud, would earn me an even worse punishment.
Through my sobs, I remembered the fear I’d felt when I had woken up a few minutes earlier from a sound sleep on my trundle bed. My frizzy, dirty-blonde hair had come loose from my braid and I didn’t want to be chastised by the aunties for messiness.

Nap time could be dangerous. All 22 of us kids were expected to maintain perfect silence, either sleeping or studying the prophet’s words, for the entire two-hour time period, always enforced by an auntie-in-charge. If someone talked or asked to go pee, or did anything else that wasn’t allowed, we all got punished. Sometimes it was hard to know why we were getting punished. One thing might make the aunties mad one day, and the next day they might not even notice. Some things made some of the uncles mad, but not others. I tried so hard, but it was impossible to keep track.

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