The cult of my childhood: Across three continents, life was a whirlwind of uncertainty

Japan was the worst, for me. Returning 25 years later, with my kids, helped me overwrite the past and set me free

Published July 5, 2015 12:00AM (EDT)

Taylor Stevens     (Penguin Random House/Alyssa Skyes)
Taylor Stevens (Penguin Random House/Alyssa Skyes)

The cult of my childhood, the Children of God, an apocalyptic, isolationist movement, began in California amid the hippie “free love” era of the '60s and '70s, and soon spread across the globe, with communes in up to a hundred countries at any given time.

When most people think of cults and communes, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, may first come to mind, but our communes were often houses in middle- or upper-class residential areas with 40 or more people living inside, and neighbors none the wiser. We didn’t believe in owning property or setting down roots, so rarely did anyone stay in one place for long, even if the commune itself lasted for years. Anything a person “owned” didn’t belong to him or her, but to the commune and to the group. This same concept also applied to spouses and children, so even if a family happened to reside under the same roof, it didn’t necessarily mean they lived as a family.

From my youngest years, life was a whirlwind of uncertainty: a fluid stream of faces, names, accents and personalities. One day to the next, a parent, sibling or friend would be gone. I might know where they went, or I might not. Like a rock around which the eddies swirled, there were also constants: the lifestyle, the beliefs, the top-down control, lack of any individuality and little autonomy, and the daily drudge required to keep so many people fed and clothed.

By the time I was 14, I’d lived on three continents and in over a dozen countries. Japan was, for me, where the worst occurred.

My family moved to Asia when I was 12 and for the next five years I bounced between communes in Japan and South Korea. Occasionally I lived in the same commune as my parents, but most of the time I didn’t. My memories of those years are divided between life inside, and life out on the streets. I have only a vague sense of where many of those houses were, partly due to the haze of time, but mostly to the secretive nature of the cult. I often didn’t know my own address—presumably so that, on the off chance I was forced to tell, I simply couldn’t—and I never left the communes unescorted.

The cult ideology didn’t allow for gainful employment. Money for rent, utilities, and other things requiring cold hard cash came nearly entirely from panhandling and selling cult-produced pamphlets, music, and videos. Most of our food and clothing came from what we called “provisioning:” conning people into giving us what we needed for free.

Most of the on-the-street begging was done by the children because it’s a lot harder for a person to say no to a kid than to an able-bodied adult. Plus, without birth control or family planning there were a lot of us, and education beyond sixth grade was considered a waste of time, so we made a bountiful supply of free labor.

The places where I spent the most time on the streets are the ones I remember well enough to name: Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, Kobe, Hiroshima and Fukuoka.

I had a brief bout with rebellion in Tokyo where, at age 14, I spent eight- to 10-hour days walking store to store, house to house, trying to keep the commune from spiraling deeper into poverty. I was suicidal, and aware for the first time that I no longer believed what I’d grown up believing. I began to act out by disrespecting some of the weaker adults, arguing and back-talking, and turning simple things into drawn-out ordeals. Within the cult’s totalitarian structure, this was shocking and unheard of behavior. The commune leaders believed my attitude stemmed from not getting enough love, and the solution then, was for one of the adult men to have sex with me. They set aside a room with a bed and romantic music. Once in that room, realizing what would happen, I talked, kept on talking, and didn’t shut up until the early morning when the guy suggested maybe we should just get some sleep.

In my memories, Osaka, Nara and Kobe all blend together. In that jumble was the autumn our landlord decided to tear down the house and we were kicked out. Finding an affordable location to fit more than 40 people on short notice is difficult enough in countries where houses are big, but nearly impossible in Japan. Without a place to live, and with winter approaching, the commune split into chunks. I was put with two men, two preteen boys, and a younger teenage girl. We lived out of a van. I spent weeks tromping through the snow in sandals because they were my only pair of shoes. Every day was a repeat of the one before: panhandling, finding free food and, because we couldn’t all sleep inside the van, finding hotels to put a roof over our head for free. When free didn’t materialize, we’d often find cheap hotels in sleazy parts of town, but could only afford one tiny room because most of our money went to the commune leaders to pay for their long-term hotel stay. The men would take turns between sleeping in the van with the younger ones and checking in alongside me because, at 15, I could pass as an adult and nobody questioned when a couple showed up.

My memories alternate between gratitude for the luxury of a bed and hot water, and the nausea that follows when I think back on a few of those nights, but that’s just a passing shiver. What haunt me still are the hard cold hours of asking for money, of being told “no” more often than “yes,” the sinking desperation at the end of each day knowing that we never had enough and that tomorrow would bring more of the same.

Somewhere between Osaka-Nara-Kobe was where leadership exorcised demons out of me. I’d always been a storyteller. Life without access to books, music and movies from the outside was very boring, and telling stories provided entertainment.  Eventually, I started writing them down. But when my notebooks were discovered, they were taken and burned, and I was isolated for three days without food. They said it was to weaken my body so I’d let go of the demons that controlled me. They accused me of being a witch, wanted me to confess, and so I did. I wrote about anything I’d done that could be considered a sin, and made up what they wanted to hear. The irony of getting punished for writing fiction and then using fiction to appease my tormentors was lost on me at the time.

I don’t think they were fully convinced the devils were gone, because they soon shipped me off to a commune of much younger children and adults, with no peers I might contaminate. I spent the next seven months assigned to a man who minded me constantly and who was to beat the demons out of me if they manifested in any way. Thankfully, they never showed up.

I left Japan for good when I was 17. If this was a movie, then this would be the two-minute montage: I moved to other countries and many more communes. The control and abuse that had started in Japan followed, and intensified, and then came to a head. By the time I was in my mid-20s, things had begun to ease up and I found myself in Africa, which was where I made the decision to break free. I got out when I was 29, uneducated, married to a man who’d been born and raised in the cult just like me, with two babies, and with none of the social support that most people take for granted. We left together, eventually made it to the United States, and settled in Texas. My children grew. I dealt with and processed the trauma of the past. I taught myself to write, got divorced, became a published novelist, and realized I was older than my 32 year-old mother had been when she and my father had moved to Japan with their five children.

Through the years, Japan was always there in the background and I began to wonder what it would be like to revisit the country that had built the framework of who I was and see those experiences through the eyes of a now-free adult. I wondered if it would be possible to return to where the hurt had been the worst and overwrite the past with the present. I wanted my  children to see the country where I’d grown up, wanted to show them the streets where I’d begged so they could understand where I’d come from, so they’d never take for granted the blessings that they have in normal, suburban, middle-class life. Most of all, I wanted to retexture those streets with who I had become in spite of them, and maybe in some small part because of them. And I wondered if going back was a bad idea: Maybe returning would be like cutting open a wound that had already scarred over.

With each novel I wrote, the wondering grew stronger. I write international boots-on-the-ground thrillers featuring badass information hunter Vanessa Michael Munroe, a woman cut from the same cloth as Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher. The locations in which these stories are set are what ground them in reality, and this time I was ready to set her in the land I’d left behind.

Twenty-five years after leaving Japan for good, I returned to Osaka, the epicenter of my ordeal, together with my children who were now the same age I’d been then. We tracked down temples and castles outside of which I’d begged. For the first time, I paid entry fees, walked past the gates, and became a tourist. The power of each moment arrived, not from finally seeing what had been closed off to me before, but from crossing each threshold simply because I could. We ate food that I had smelled for five years but never tasted. Every yen spent became a cherished moment because the spending itself laughed in the face of those years of deprivation and isolation. I experienced more of Japan in three weeks of visiting than I had in nearly five years of living.

The most emotional moment arrived at Hiroshima Peace Park. Hiroshima hadn’t birthed particularly bad memories; in comparison to everything else they were relatively good. I was 13 when I lived there and, after having spent over a year separated from my parents, was briefly with them again. In Hiroshima we had regularly returned to the same panhandling spot and nearly 30 years later I still knew every turn, every shrine and every monument inside that park. I stood in the middle of a gravel-paved path and looked around. I breathed in what life had been, who I’d been, what returning here represented, and what I had become. I looked at my daughter who was the age I’d been when I’d walked these same paths. The realization fully hit, and I began to cry.

The trip gave me everything I needed to write my next novel, "The Mask," but Japan is in my past now. I no longer wonder, no longer care, and no longer have any desire to return—although there are still days when the weather is cold and wet and I look out the window from the warm inside and feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I’m not out there, walking one place to the next, achingly desperate to get enough money to stop and go home.

By Taylor Stevens

Taylor Stevens is the New York Times bestselling author of "The Informationist," "The Innocent," "The Doll," "The Catch" and the novella "The Vessel." The series featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe has received critical acclaim and the books are published in 20 languages. "The Informationist" has been optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. In addition to writing novels, Stevens shares extensively about the mechanics of storytelling, writing, overcoming adversity, and the details of her journey into publishing -- she welcomes you to join her. Her latest novel, "The Mask," is out now.

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