For as long as I can remember, books and and the written word have been an important part of my life. In fact, I wouldn’t be who I am without them. For me, it was a very special privilege to be invited last May to participate, along with four hundred other authors, in the first annual two-day Tucson Festival of Books in March 2009. Scheduled to be held on the lovely University of Arizona campus, I could not imagine a better setting for the fifty thousand readers that were expected to attend.
Seven months before the book fair, I received a phone call from a lady on the Festival’s planning committee. She had read my book,Growing Up in Mama’s Club, and Esther Royer Ayers’ Rolling Down Black Stockings, a memoir about growing up as an Old Order Mennonite. She believed we both had interesting stories to tell and wondered if I would be willing to put on a one-hour presentation with Esther to share our childhood experiences. This presentation would be in addition to the time each author would be allowed to sell and sign books at their assigned booths.
When I put the phone down, my mind was racing. Why had they paired the two of us? Could Esther write? Would the chemistry work between us? What did we have in common, since I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and Esther as an Old Order Mennonite? I immediately ordered her book and found it to be a quick, easy read. I posted the following Amazon.com review:
How could you not fall in love Esther Royer Ayers after reading her stirring story in Rolling Down Black Stockings? I know that my wife and I did. Perhaps it’s because Esther and I had strong, dominant mothers who chose non-mainstream religious beliefs and practices over common sense to raise their children. Maybe it’s due to the ghosts that haunted both our adult lives because of how fear trumped love in our parent’s decision making skills while we were growing up. Then again, it may be that as an author, I especially enjoy writers with a gift for words, engaging their readers with eloquent prose, poignant metaphors, and down-to-earth analogies.
After I read her book, I felt that I had found a sister and called her immediately, knowing she had also just finished reading my story. We had lots to talk about and commented about the commonalities of our childhood experiences. Although we were reared in totally different religious groups, we shared the same pain and shame as children, and we reacted in similar ways when rules and regulations were forced upon us. It did not take us long to figure it out: we had both been raised in a cult and this was our common bond. Esther shares her thoughts on this matter on her own website at EstherRoyerAyers.com. – Click here to read her article.
As we began talking about what we would say and how to present our stories at the Festival, the title for our presentation, Two Remarkable Stories of Growing Up in Cults – Told with Compassion and Humor, became self-evident. We decided to have a lively interactive dialogue about growing up in different cults—exposing surprising and shocking similarities between these two very unique and secretive religious groups. Then we would open it up for questions from the audience. We also came up with the following list to help people identify if they belonged to a cult:
You Are Probably a Member of a Cult
[If your church advocates at least ten items from the following list - per Esther and Dick]
- The Church’s leaders or leader tell you that your religion, and only your religious group, is directed (exclusively) by God.
- You are taught that only members of your religious group have the potential to earn God’s good graces and salvation.
- You are taught that Satan and his demons are the instigators of all false religions (any religion but yours).
- There is an autocratic, dictatorial, tribal organizational structure in place with “Unquestionable Authority” given to the church leaders.
- You can’t challenge church beliefs or practices. If you do, you are disciplined or excommunicated, shunned, and treated as apostate. (Blind, robot-like obedience to church authority is required.)
- You are told to associate with only members of your religious group. Friendships with non-church members are frowned upon.
- You are told that your church leaders receive divine inspiration from God on how to interpret the Bible, or you believe in a literal (word-for-word) translation of the Holy Bible.
- Your loyalty to the church and God is continually tested with rules, regulations, and no-no’s that alienate you from societal norms.
- You are constantly reminded you are never doing enough to please God. In order to win His favor and salvation, you must do more.
- Women are treated as inferior to men – and the subjugation of women permeates all areas of your life.
- You are told to sacrifice pleasures and opportunities in this life in order to be rewarded in your next life.
- Public education is controlled and limited. College is a no-no. Optimum schooling is best provided only from church leaders/journals.
- You believe the world will be destroyed in your lifetime. (JWs)
- You are told what books and literature you can and cannot read.
- You aren’t allowed to pledge allegiance to the flag of your country.
- You are forbidden to celebrate holidays.
- Parents are advised to spank or whip their children, and told this is God’s preferred form of discipline to raise them wisely.
- You are not allowed to investigate the history of your church.
- Your church advocates beliefs that are not scientifically possible.
- You are forced to comply with a strict dress code.
- Members police other members to enforce church rules.
- You believe irrational human behavior is caused by the Devil.
The first day of the Tucson Book Festival was Saturday, March 14, 2009. Activities for people of all ages began at 10:00 AM and lasted for seven hours. I was assigned to a booth, shared with two other authors, to sell and sign my books from 1:00 to 2:30 PM. We had lots of curious visitors who asked some very good questions. Overall, it was an eye opener to see that so many happy family-oriented people were in attendance. At the end of the day, I had some time to meet and talk with many of the other authors in attendance.
My big day came on Sunday. Esther and I started our one-hour presentation at 4:00 PM in Koffler Hall, followed by another half hour to sell and sign our books. As the Hall began filling up, I was excited to see so many new faces along with a few close friends. After Esther and I were introduced, the next hour just flew by. The chemistry between Esther and me, and our audience, was what writers doing a presentation can only dream about. When it was time for questions and answers, this engaged group was fully energized with many arms waving frantically to have the moderator call on them. We handled several excellent and well-thought-out questions.
After selling and signing books – and answering many questions on a one-on-one basis – I was left with an incredible adrenaline high and a special kinship with this newly-found sister of mine. I felt very grateful to those people on the Tucson Festival of Books committee who saw the wisdom in pairing Esther and me – and letting us tell our own stories of growing up in cults.