Following is the full transcript of Freelance Writer & Producer Dawn Smith’s TEDx Talk: Why I Left an Evangelical Cult at TEDxNatick conference. This event occurred on January 20, 2018.
Dawn Smith – Freelance Writer & Producer
In the late ’60s, early ’70s, there was a movement that took place primarily in California, called the Jesus Movement, where ex-hippies grew up a little bit, had some kids and decided to channel all of that anti-establishment angst into religion. My father was one such ex-hippie and together with my grandfather, he started a small cult called the Assembly. Yeah, this is a super light-hearted story.
So, I find myself at five years old. I’m standing on a street corner in my favorite conservative dress, the pink one with the white pinstripes. And I have my favorite white purse slung over my shoulder because I love purses, almost more than I love Christ himself. And my dad is yelling the gospel at people as they walk by because he believes that’s a sure-fire way to win people to Christ. I’m terrified because I’m a quiet kid, and I’m shy and I avoid confrontation at all costs.
And even in my brief five years of living, I have learned that yelling the gospel can be interpreted by some as confrontational. But I’ve been taught that I could be the only thing standing between a soul and the burning, fiery furnaces of hell. So, there I am. It’s at that moment that I see her. She’s an older woman and she’s got this gray flyaway hair. And she’s not wearing any nail polish, and I don’t understand how anybody outside of the group I’m in would go one day without nail polish, because I love nail polish, almost as much as I love Christ himself. But it’s totally forbidden.
She locks eyes with me and she walks up to me, and she gets down on one knee and she says, “One day, you will grow up and you will realize you can leave all of this.” All of us have had to grow up and leave something, probably not a cult. It might have been an unhealthy relationship, or a drug habit. Maybe you just have a really strong sweet tooth. Leaving is incredibly difficult, but it is also completely life-changing. A fun fact that all cults share is that they reject the label “cult.”
Even now, 16 years since I left, my parents will give me a list of reasons why the Assembly was not a cult. So, fine. It wasn’t a cult. It was an evangelical, fundamentalist, non-denominational, religious, fringe group whose charismatic leader could do whatever he wanted. But it wasn’t a cult.
Sure, we had some strange religious beliefs. You might even call them extreme. And we did live in communal homes together. Maybe we didn’t exactly integrate into society with silly things like demanding careers. But it wasn’t a cult because we had mainstream religious beliefs, like “God is all-present,” “God is all-knowing,” and “women can’t pierce their ears.”
We wanted to return to the simple life of the early Christians. Not sure we knew 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 post-Augustine, but pre-feminist early Christians. My grandparents George and Betty were in charge. George was a fantastic public speaker, a charismatic leader and an abusive, narcissistic, pathological liar. My father was an elder and my mother was – his wife. But it wasn’t a cult because women could go to the beach just like anybody, as long as we were fully clothed, because nothing derails the will of an almighty god like a woman in a one-piece.
The Assembly targeted college-aged kids, vulnerable because they’re on their own for the first time, and they’re looking for a community, a place where they can connect with other people. Every summer, my dad would pack up, my mom, my sister and I, and we would drive to another state to build the Assembly throughout the US. These trips are some of my favorite childhood memories. We had good times together and we thought we were doing “the work of the Lord.”
But as I grew up, I started to realize the work of the Lord has a lot of rules. If you’re wondering what this life looks like, here is a list of things that were forbidden: dating, television, science, ambitious females. Those things are so dangerous. Clapping loudly after a performance. God only gets the glory with the soft clap. Also forbidden: psychiatry, dancing, happiness, freedom, adorable baby puppies. But don’t worry, there was still so much in the Assembly that we could enjoy, like – kale. Creepy men. Climate change denial.
Pyramid schemes were a big thing. Weird diets. Also enjoyable: anxiety, sorrow, depression. Untreated, okay? Because psychiatry is for unbelievers. Cults don’t want to be defined as a cult because it empowers its members to take a critical look at it.
Language in cults is controlled because language is powerful. This happens in the real world, too. Despite what 98% of our world’s scientists say, let’s not call it climate change. When I was five years old, my mom was trying to recruit this hairdresser into our group, so she sent me for a haircut. I told her that 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. Maybe a little less murdery. I was ecstatic. My parents were appalled. Short hair was God’s plan for men only.
At five years old, I had already foiled the almighty God in his somewhat specific and kind of fragile plan for my hair. The Assembly had a school for all of the kids to go to, through eighth grade. My mom was the principal for about two seconds, until the elders realized they had mistakenly put a woman in charge! Women were never encouraged to be in the workplace, but if they had to be, they should not be in charge of men. That wasn’t biblical. But remember, it wasn’t a cult. It was a wonderful place to be a young woman. We didn’t have the burden of forming our own opinions. The men got to do that heavy lifting. It’s so luxurious to be told what to think, especially by wonderfully power-hungry men, like elder Earl. Sure, he didn’t see the wisdom in a good stick of deodorant.
But when I was 15 and I had the gall to wear lipstick to a church meeting, he had the wisdom to tell me I had distracted him the entire two-hour meeting, because my lips were on my face. Revlon’s light lip blush number 666 had kept this poor servant of God from hearing God’s voice. That was my bad. I needed to apologize. Because the Assembly did target colleges, I was allowed to go to college. And this was the biggest break of my life.
I had to start a Bible study on campus at UC, Irvine, and I had to live in a training home in Fullerton. Training homes were the Assembly’s communal living homes where groups of people would live with an elder, his wife and kids. Basically, it was a super fun way of making sure that we had no free time.
Cults are all-consuming. They don’t allow their members to invest in a life outside of the group. But college became a refuge for me. It was the first time in my life I could spend hours of my day without seeing anybody from the Assembly. And at the same time, I was getting an education. This world that I had been taught was dark was actually amazing. Get this: women in the arts, women in science. There was a place for me there if I wanted it.