November 9, 2023
How do the experiences of children born into cults differ from members who join as adults? Why do some cults that grow out of western evangelical Christianity — which is notoriously obsessed with purity culture — often flip the script about sex and turn promiscuity into a virtue? How does age affect the ease with which one internalizes cult programming? To what extent do cult members approve of sexual abuses committed the name of religion? What sort of tactics do cult leaders employ to keep members from leaving? In what ways are militaries like cults? Why has the US military been so slow to fix its culture of rape and abuse of women? What are "thought-stopping" clichés? What defines a cult? What are the often unseen or less tangible consequences of leaving a cult? What sins are considered unforgivable in a cult? What are some examples of cult-like groups that don't necessarily meet every single criterion for cult-ness?
Daniella Mestyanek Young was born a third-generation member of the infamous Children of God religious cult. She grew up being trafficked around the world before escaping that life and moving to America at age 15. She put herself through high school and graduated as college valedictorian before commissioning into the US Army as an intelligence officer. She deployed twice to Afghanistan (in 2011 and 2014) and became a member of one of the Army's first Female Engagement Teams (an experiment that put women into deliberate ground combat for the first time in Army history and eventually led to the repeal of the sexist combat ban and the gender desegregation of the entire US military). She is a proud daughter of the 101st (the unit featured in Band of Brothers), a recipient of the Presidential Volunteer Service Award from President Obama, and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Organizational Psychology at the Harvard Extension School where she focuses her research on group behavior, social norms, culture, extremism, leadership demagoguery, and cults. Learn more about her at her website, uncultureyourself.com.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Daniella Mestyanek-Young about growing up in a religious cult and the experience of women in the military. A quick word of warning: in this episode the topics of sexual assault and child abuse are discussed. So if those topics are particularly sensitive for you, then please take care when listening. Now here's the conversation between Spencer and Daniella.
SPENCER: Daniella, welcome.
DANIELLA: Thank you so much for having me, Spencer.
SPENCER: Really happy to have you. You have such a compelling story and I think it can teach us a lot about how groups control people. So many elements of your story are about group control in a really fascinating way but I want to start with your story itself before we get into what we can learn about psychology from it. Do you want to tell us a little bit about the group that you were raised in and where you were brought up?
DANIELLA: I was born the third generation into a religious cult called the Children of God, though, of course, we didn't call it a cult. It was one of these cults that started in the late 60s and flourished throughout the 70s in the United States. My grandfather joined it in California and my grandmother in Texas. My great grandmother actually donated land to this 'inspiring' group of Jesus people. My family came in kind of important. Then my mother was brought up all over the world as the Children of God left the US and spread throughout the world especially into more developing nations. I was born in the Philippines when my mother was 15 and grew up mostly in Latin America, in these very intense commune situations where we moved around the world supposedly preaching about Jesus and really intensely believing in the apocalypse. The Children of God is one of these groups where the beliefs of the founder got really dark, especially including religious prostitution and sexuality towards children.
SPENCER: Because you were born into this group, your very first experiences were with this belief system which I feel is so different from someone who joins a group as an adult. Do you want to comment a little bit on what it was like having this be your whole worldview?
DANIELLA: It's so different and it's actually one of the new ideas coming into cult scholarship now that the kids are growing up and doing it. But when you're an adult, I think you have to buy in a lot more to the programming. When you're a kid, this is all you know. From the years of one to six is when we're supposed to be forming our personal identities but instead, we are living, as I describe it in "Uncultured," as these little soldiers in God's army. The Children of God in the 70s was known as a sex cult. In the 80s and 90s, it really rebranded and became this supposedly international missionary group but was really this heavy child trafficking organization. We were all the little worker bees of the group and that really impacts your identity in a fundamental way. So even when you leave, even when you go on to do other things, there's really all of these things to unpack that you don't even know about.
SPENCER: Tell us a bit about the belief system in the group. What were the official doctrines?
DANIELLA: The way I describe it is, it was pretty much your run-of-the-mill fundamental Evangelical Christianity. David Berg's mother was an Evangelical Revivalist preacher in the 30s. What he did was essentially take the Jesus people movement — which was a revival of these conservative Evangelicals — and go in a slightly different direction. He did the one thing which was flipping the control of sex. We can see, or we're more familiar with, these Evangelical movements that push purity culture. He just took control of sex. He called it free love. I call it forced polyamory and it was essentially that everyone in this group is going to have sex with everyone else. We believe our primary belief in the Children of God was that Jesus's love is shown through sex and that is how we win converts, that is how we commune with each other and, even eventually, we have sex with Jesus. When they call it a sex cult, it really was because that was the whole thing that his beliefs revolved around.
SPENCER: It's such an interesting and strange choice to focus on that. Many Christians, I imagine, would say, "Isn't that the opposite of what Christianity teaches?" So how was that justified? I imagine there was some biblical justification given for that view.
DANIELLA: First of all, I'd like to say that purity culture and pedophilia culture are pretty much two sides of the same coin, if you really think about it. It's the obsession with the sexuality of children. The same kind of abuses we see happening in the Children of God that made it very open, we see happening in a lot of fundamentalist movements, not just Christian movements. So I really don't think it's as far away as people think it is. But the justification, I call it the sacred assumption. The sacred assumption was that David Berg was the prophet of God. Once these people believed that, and once these people went through the whole system of coming into the cult — being love-bombed, being indoctrinated, and being isolated — they fully believed that he was the prophet of God and therefore they would justify anything.
SPENCER: So basically, it wasn't so much that he needed to justify it. It was that once they accepted him as a prophet, what he says goes and this is what he's saying?
DANIELLA: Pretty much. There's a cult scholar, Dr. Janja Lalich, who calls this 'bounded choice' when we're talking about cults. Once you fully come into the system and you really are a true believer, you don't have free choice; you have bounded choice because these systems of coercive control are so strong.
SPENCER: Now, my understanding is that you didn't actually interact much with the leader. Did you ever meet the leader?
DANIELLA: No, I did not and most of us did not. He's one of the more rare cult leaders that really isolated himself from his followers but continued as a presence in our everyday life. I never met him but I grew up calling him grandpa and his words were pretty much the only words we were allowed to read. My mother, on the other hand, was married to him at the age of 13 in a ceremony full of very young girls and grew up in his purview for sure.
SPENCER: How many wives did he have?
DANIELLA: He had multiple wives at the same time but he didn't necessarily take the group into full polygamy. He did these spiritual marriages with all of these young girls. It was 14 young girls ranging from the ages of 14 to three. It included his own daughter and granddaughter. The three-year-old's mother was the one running the ceremony.
SPENCER: Oh my God! That's just heartbreaking.
DANIELLA: It's such a description of the control and the ways that people will justify anything and will absolutely not recognize extremism even when they're that close.
SPENCER: For someone like yourself who was born into it, I imagine, because you knew nothing else, there was a normalcy to it. But one has to think that someone new who's getting involved would be shocked when they learn things like that. So I'm wondering, was that kept under wraps? Would a new member actually find out about things like that?
DANIELLA: Yes. With cults, there's always a cult inside the cult and there's always a level of time before you're really fully a true member. I like to say that it takes six months to onboard into both the US Army and to the Children of God religious cult. Before you really know what the culture is and you really start to see, they need you to be bought-in fully. So it's definitely that, but it's also just that there's this difference of, I don't know that the children ever necessarily fully believe. I think sometimes what cults do wrong is they try to program children the same way they program adults. But I, for example, never remember believing in this. It was all I knew. I knew I had to survive. When I was six years old, I was like, "Well if I'm going to hell by not being in God's army, hell's gonna suck, but I'm out of here." I do think there's this piece that, for me, it just never made sense.
SPENCER: That's so interesting because you might think, if that's all you ever knew, how could you know that anything was wrong about it? But somehow, on some level, you still knew it was wrong. I'm wondering, do you have a sense of why you were able to tell that?
DANIELLA: On the one hand, I think this holds across cultures that there's no amount of abuse that you can call love. Children will not know that it's abuse. I think this is the reality. Children of God has been very controversial and has always denied it but most of us report suicidal ideology starting between the ages of three and four. Those of us that are still alive display all signs of problems. The reality is, it just was that bad, so we knew that it was bad. Then the other thing for me is, I am neurodiverse; I've always liked logic, and cults are not logical. We have this moment in "Uncultured" where I'm three years old and my mom sneaks me out to teach me to read and spend personal time with me. She tells me books are amazing and books are where we get ideas. But then for the next 12 years of my life, books are banned. Things like this, from the beginning, never made sense to me and, because I didn't buy into it, their programming didn't work in some ways.
SPENCER: Do you think that adults were able to pick up on your resistance to it? Or do you think that you were able to blend in so well that they just couldn't tell?
DANIELLA: No, I did not blend in at all. One of the interesting biases about cult books is, the ones like me are usually the ones we hear from. I also think that's part of why the programming didn't work as much, is because I was just always in trouble. I was that kid that never learned to stop asking why, no matter what they did to me for it. In some ways, my life or my experience was a lot worse than the kids that knew how to just go along to get along. I think my mother was a good example of that, even though eventually it became too much for her as well.
SPENCER: To whatever extent you feel comfortable, it would be really interesting to hear about some of the more specific things that you had to go through in the group. Are you up for talking about some of that?
DANIELLA: Sure. The way I actually describe the worst of the abuses is that we didn't have childhoods, we didn't have spontaneous moments of joy. We were always standing in lines and we were always afraid of what we would get in trouble for. It's very group behavior, group punishment-minded. Essentially, anyone could punish you for anything they wanted. Our prophet believed that babies needed to be spanked at six months old to start being set on the right track. There were a lot of very, very brutal physical punishments, but they also used things like very intense isolation. They would put us on (what they called) 'silence restriction' where you wouldn't be allowed to use your voice for however many hours or days. And because we live in big communes, this is often accompanied with a sign that, for example, reads, "Don't talk to me, I'm disrespectful." By the way, I sell those on T-shirts now; it's very popular. [Spencer laughs.] Then with isolation and with power dynamics also comes a whole lot of sexual abuse. At times it was standardized that kids as old as six or seven were considered old enough to be sent to the uncles for sex. Sometimes, as in my case, this was more of an uncle gets you alone for punishment and nobody's going to come looking for you for ten hours and so he just gets to do whatever he wants. One of the things, especially when we talk about these kinds of abuses in groups, is people always say, "How is this allowed? How is this justified?" A big part of this is because the victims aren't given the language. So while we know this is wrong, we don't know how to talk about it. We are being told that everything is love. No matter what is done to you, it is being done in God's love. That is the thing that definitely warps your experience as you grow up and affects everything.
SPENCER: What a mindfuck, to be told that abuse is love and to grow up being told that. You're trying to actually figure out what real love is and yet you're told that this is love.
DANIELLA: It's one of those things that, even when you leave the group, you still don't know what love is and what healthy relationships look like. Many of us go and just repeat a lot of these triggers or bad experiences because we don't even know what right looks like.
SPENCER: One thing I wondered about when reading your book — and I definitely recommend listeners check it out. It's a really amazing book called "Uncultured" — is, to what extent was everyone on board with the sexual abuse versus it being something that was behind closed doors and people didn't make a fuss about it but they didn't actually want it to happen?
DANIELLA: Yes. This is one of those questions that, if you ask any of the adults that were in the cult, they would say they didn't know, it was hidden, it was only the founder, and it was happening behind closed doors. However, it seems to have been happening to every single one of us. The Children of God is also the proud publisher of what has been called the 'worst cult artifact of all time' in which the prophet raised his own son (stepson) and several girls around him as these sexually liberated children, so essentially, openly raised in pedophilia with many adults involved who wrote it all down, took pictures, and published it to all of their followers. So to everyone that explains that they didn't know, my first response is, "You read the literature." We have another one that I mentioned in the book which was called "Heaven's Girl" and it was our comic about the apocalypse and it has all of these scenes of being gang-raped for God and how we were supposed to witness to our attackers. So I don't think anyone at all can claim to have been innocent. The posters we handed out on the street were naked people flying around heaven. But then the other side for me is also parents. Many parents fall prey to many idea systems but it's your job to know. Saying 'we didn't know' doesn't necessarily absolve you of the harm that we all went through.
SPENCER: One of the details you mentioned in your book is them checking the young girls' panties before they go to bed. That just seemed so bizarre and insane and I was so confused reading that, just how cult members could justify that.
DANIELLA: You know what? This is one of those things that seems so bizarre but I put it in there for a reason and, in my next book, I have a whole section on underwear control. There's a lot of different reasons and, once again, the prophet is never wrong. The prophet says that girls are ugly and dirty and girls should not sleep with underwear because they need to air out. There's this interesting thing when you put underwear requirements in any way, shape or form, We see this again in the military as a parallel, that once you put a requirement to wear or not to wear a certain kind of underwear, now people are allowed to check and nobody raises an alarm because they're checking. We can see this throughout dress codes. It is a creepy part of the book and everyone thinks it's awful. I put it there to show that this is what they were trying to do. They were trying to raise us to believe that we were gross and dirty, and also to believe that any uncle — any man or boy in a position of power — had the right to inspect us and put his hands on us anytime they wanted.
SPENCER: Another detail that stood out to me in your book is how often you felt hungry, not having enough food to eat while your group was sending all this money (I assume) back to the leader.
DANIELLA: For sure, and the leaders always presented themselves as equally poor. Of course, that was a huge lie. I know because my grandfather is the one that runs the money. So millions and millions of dollars were being made. Of course, most of it is funneled up to the leadership and most of your people on the frontlines are barely getting by. Being in the leadership circles, I was actually in a better situation but food control is just a means of control. Sometimes I don't know whether it was that we didn't have enough or whether it was just controlling people's food and also keeping people skinny. These are two pretty important parts of control. Again, for me, this is mirrored in the army, except this time, it's the army which is such a skinny worship culture. I don't know how to eat properly so I'm essentially doing it to myself. I have this entire life of hunger that's definitely a theme throughout the book.
SPENCER: What Daniella is referring to there is that she joined the military after leaving the cult and so we can get into that more as well. On the question of hunger, I think one thing that might be counterintuitive to people is, you might think if you leave your followers in a desperate situation where they don't have enough food to eat, isn't that going to make people leave? Isn't that going to drive people away? And it's fascinating to think of that as doing the opposite. Could you maybe shed some light on the psychology there of why might that actually make people stay rather than the more naïve view of, "Oh, okay, people are gonna leave. They're gonna be unhappy."
DANIELLA: Yes. The interesting thing is, if you accuse any group of being a cult, they will almost always automatically say, "We're not a cult. You're free to leave anytime." To which I say, "That is just a reminder of the dichotomy that it's my way or the highway." We can hear this when people say, "If you don't like America, then leave." But the reason people don't leave is because cult leaders know how to keep you. There's six important things here which are: keep you isolated, keep you busy, keep you skinny, keep you poor, keep you hungry, and keep you pregnant (breeding) or sometimes forcibly not breeding. But all of those things work together to keep you under control and also keep you never realizing that you are under control. So any amount of us being hungry, we would just tell ourselves, "We are not in God's will. We are not doing enough. We need to work harder. We need to be busier. We need to pray more. We're gonna be less idle." Then it just keeps going and going.
SPENCER: You sometimes hear about people having big revelations that the group they're part of was doing something bad when they finally have the space to think.They are kept so busy and so focused on the group's will that they don't even have time to step back and say, "What is really going on here?" in a big-picture level. I'm wondering if you think that's an element.
DANIELLA: That's exactly an element. All these separatist communities, you're always gonna find a demonization of any kind of self-care or being idle. That usually goes into medicine bans, too. We saw that with QAnon also. The reason QAnon spread so fast and so wide was because they gave them a mission and this mission kept them very busy going down their rabbit holes, checking all their clues. And people describe exactly what you said, that it felt like they woke up later and were like, "Whoa! What happened?" I really do think fundamentally, that anything can be a cult if you give it everything.
SPENCER: Something that struck me as well in the book is this feeling that I sensed that you had, which is, "I can't stay here but I also can't leave." Am I right that that is a feeling that you were grappling with for a long time?
DANIELLA: Yes. I would even say one of the things that the cult programmed me very well with was a fear of the outside world even when I didn't believe it. A big part of cults is this us-versus-them theory and holding yourself separate from the world, telling yourselves you're special and you're better which, of course, means you need to have the bad guys coming to get you. There's actually a chapter of my book in Rolling Stone magazine that people can read if they want a sample. It shows how they programmed the children to lie to the police. The Waco massacre had just happened and one of our communes had just been raided and so they use all these fear elements to train us that we're not a cult, but if they think we are, this is what they're going to do to us. So you grow up being very torn because again, you know it's abuse, you know your life is awful but you also believe that the outside world is really evil and really scary.
SPENCER: Could you tell us the story of Davidito and what happened to him?
DANIELLA: Davidito is the little boy we mentioned earlier. Davidito specifically was the first of what we would call 'Jesus babies.' When Berg was having all of the women work as religious prostitutes, children started coming in, cult leaders almost always (again) want to keep you pregnant. So we're going to accept all babies and we actually gave this special status to these 'Jesus babies.' Davidito is the first. He's the son of the prophet's wife, raised by the prophet to literally be the next head of the Children of God. He and his mother, Maria, were supposed to be the ones that saved us in the End Times and he was also this child who was, not only horribly abused, but was documented and then modeled by a group of 10,000 other people. Davidito grew up and got away. His name was Ricky Rodriguez and he tried, for about four years, to live his life. I feel so heartbroken because I wish I could have told him that four years isn't long enough; you need at least ten. Eventually, he just decided that he was never going to be able to get over it so he was gonna go get justice. He made a video. You can actually see it reenacted in a movie called "Last Testament" that was on Amazon Prime. Essentially, he made this really violent video and he was out to kill his mother and a bunch of the cult leaders, specifically the women who had done this to him and also supported and gone along with all the horrible things that have been done to the children in the group. Essentially, this ends up being a murder-suicide where he does get one of his nannies and abusers and he kills her, and then he says two things that I think were very heartbreaking. Even as she was dying, she had no idea what she had done wrong; that is how strong their belief that they are right is. Then he called his wife and told her that he had no idea how hard it would be to take another life. Shortly thereafter, he took his life. This is all a scene that is shown in the book because, for me who was 17, two years out of the Children of God myself, struggling to put my life together, this was a huge moment because, not only was it very significant to me, but it was also the first time I realized that it was a cult because I kept hearing the word 'Children of God cult' over and over again on television. That was my moment, as you mentioned earlier, of being like, "Oh, that makes so much sense."
SPENCER: I imagine it must have been earth-shattering when he committed suicide among group members but you had already been out for a couple of years so you may not have had a perspective on how it impacted the group, or perhaps you did through other means?
DANIELLA: My mom grew up with Davidito and had this sibling relationship with him but every single one of us grew up with him, knowing him as a sibling. Maybe it feels similar to when River Phoenix died, for those who were in that culture. River Phoenix was also from the Children of God. But for us, we felt like he was our brother, so there's that impact. He was the only person that ever and still ever has tried to get justice for us. You feel that part of it and that impact. Then the cult did what cults do and they turned it. Fortunately for the Children of God, they happened to have a direct pipeline to Jesus where Davidito can apologize for everything he did wrong and tell them that the Children of God are on the right path. Even so much more of a mindfuck for the children of the Children of God that were still in the group, now being told we're not allowed to be sad for this, that he was wrong and we're still right. I don't think anyone has gotten over that one yet.
SPENCER: What was it for you that was the last straw or the thing that led to finally leaving for good?
DANIELLA: I talked earlier about how I never believed it. I feel like I was a critical atheist just growing up waiting to escape these people. But I don't think I ever questioned whether they were right until, for me, it was on 9/11 and I was 14 years old. We'd just recently come to the US for the first time. It was my first time seeing live news on television and it's the terrorist attacks of 9/11. There's this horrible dissonance between my people essentially praising God for His promised judgment and this is what America deserved, and me watching the carnage on television and then I heard the reporters say the words 'religious extremism.' I described this moment as the crack in the brainwashing. This was when your sacred assumption cracks and I realized, "Oh, are we the religious extremists?" Is it not just that the Children of God is bad for me but that the family, the Children of God, is actually a bad group of people? So for me, that was my, "That's it. I'm out of here." Unfortunately, being a third generation, I didn't have grandparents or anyone to go back home to so it took me another year and a half to figure out how to get out. It was very significant for me that I got out before 16 because 16 was the age you are considered to be a sexually mature adult and would therefore very likely be having children after that, which had definitely made it impossible for my mom ever to get out.
SPENCER: So between that time — between 14, when you saw the news feed of 9/11 — and when you left, was it just planning your escape or trying to figure out what you would do next?
DANIELLA: I was planning all kinds of escape. I was trying to get away to a family commune in India. I thought I could get away easier from there and my mom didn't let me go do that, for which I'm very grateful, because I know I would have gotten stuck there. But really, it was just biding my time and just being difficult. And the way I describe it is that, if they think they can save you, they will try, and exorcisms are not fun. I quickly realized I just need to do the worst sin, the excommunicable offense, the thing for which they will kick me out of the community. This climaxes with me at almost 16, literally climbing over the roof out of the commune and going to have sex — we're in Guadalajara, Mexico at the time — with this boy that I know from outside the commune and this now makes me untouchable and dirty and done to them. That became the beginning of my freedom.
SPENCER: Essentially, through the act of rebellion, they no longer were going to try to coerce you so hard into staying?
DANIELLA: Pretty much. Even in my case, it was interesting because all their rules said they had to automatically kick me out but I was actually the oldest third generation still in. I was somewhat famous myself because I had been this child star in their propaganda videos. My family was very important and so they were actually hemming and hawing (you know how organizations do). Do we just send her somewhere else and pretend it never happened? My mom, which I'm grateful for, took me outside the commune and she said, "Look, we've got a place for you." I was being sent to Houston, Texas to go stay with a stepsister that I didn't know. And my mom said, "Just go."
SPENCER: And your stepsister was already out of the group, right?
DANIELLA: She had left a few years before.
SPENCER: I can't even imagine what it must be like starting over in the world, coming out of that belief system and realizing, okay, now you're in the world, what do you do? Was it just a complete shock for you?
DANIELLA: It's like the scene in "Mean Girls" where she's walking through the high school. It's like that, times a million. I went from never a day in school in my life to a 4000-student high school in Houston which has every kind of person you can imagine. I walked up; I had a social security card and a passport and that was it. They're just like, "We can't enroll you because you don't exist, but now that we know you exist, we'd need to see proof you're in school somewhere in five days or else we have to call the police." And this whole day is a pretty good chapter actually in the book called 'Dazed and Confused.' I finally got into school but I'm just very much left with this feeling that I'm from another planet and I just hardly know anything about this world.
SPENCER: I also got the sense — tell me if I'm accurate on this — that you really had trouble trusting people and that you had trouble believing people would do something nice just because.
DANIELLA: I think that is very real when you grow up as a trafficked child but you don't know that you have been trafficked. I tried to describe it in the book. I didn't do it justice but it was the fact that everyone in high school had a cell phone that their parents paid for. I could not wrap my mind around that because I had been a source of money to my parents and all of the adults in my life. This idea that anyone would do anything for you — whether money, whether help — without wanting something in return was completely foreign to me. I'm so lucky that I had a wonderful experience with my counselor. They had four counselors for 4000 students so I was literally one in a thousand and she saw me and she put me on a track to go to college. I like to say that, at several different points in my life, I had women see that I needed help, even though I was trying to really hide it, and reached out and helped me and, almost always, they were women of color.
SPENCER: After school, you enrolled in the military. Some people might find that surprising because they might think you were in such a high-control group. Wouldn't you want to be in something the opposite, whereas the military is famously high control? I'm curious to hear what your mental state was then and what appealed to you about the military?
DANIELLA: Two pretty important things, especially the more I tell my stories, people go, "But didn't you know?" We have to remember that I grew up with no associations of the US military whatsoever. Neither good nor bad because I grew up with no access to American culture. All I knew was, I almost joined in high school because they were gonna pay for college. I almost joined the Marines then, and I ended up in the army after college. An important part of my story is, I got into very toxic relationships and no spoiler alert but, by the end, you know absolutely he was the bad guy. Cult scholars will call domestic violence or abusive relationships a one-one cult because the means of coercive control are so similar. Looking back, it's unsurprising that I escaped a cult. I fall for this guy very early on and then he ends up pulling me into the military or I end up following him into the military. But I also think, looking back, that I was looking for a group and a sense of purpose and a mission. I had no idea how to operate. I was successful in college because there's a system in college and I was number one at that. And then I needed the next thing to do and be successful at, and the military just seemed like, "Why not?" And I had this interesting experience — this is the prologue of the book — where I'm in basic training and I'm holding this 50-pound duffel bag over my head, getting yelled at and I think, "Oh, I just joined another cult." That was the moment where I was like, "Huh, there's gonna be a bunch of parallels. That's unsurprising. We were God's army and this is Uncle Sam's army." But I was also hopeful that I could do this. I can do this better than the rest of these kids because I know how to not be an individual and how to just be a group member. I honestly think this is why many children from high-control religions do very well in the military and other government agencies.
SPENCER: As grueling as the military is, it's really not as grueling as being in Children of God.
DANIELLA: There's also that. [laughs] At one point early on in the book, the physical abuse descriptions can get pretty intense. Towards the end of the book, I win a marathon while I'm at war and they do this article on me and people are so amazed. In my mind, I'm just going, "You thinking that running for three hours is painful is so foreign to me," because this is not painful. When you walk away from the truly terrible, you have this attitude that nothing can ever be as bad as that, which is interesting because I think that helps you overcome a lot but it also helps you continue to beat yourself up on the outside by always pushing yourself to be perfect, no matter what it costs you or how much it hurts you.
SPENCER: What were some of the parallels you started to see between the military and your childhood?
DANIELLA: Oh boy. [laughs] I think you have your very obvious militaristic parallels. There's actually a thing that sociologists call a 'total institution.' When you live and work separate from the rest of the world with like-situated people and you have some formal overlay, you are in a total institution. These are cults, military (whenever you're activated or deployed together), nunneries, monasteries, even prisons, and mental institutions. So in total institutions, there are similarities and one of the biggest similarities, in my opinion, is for success in any of those institutions, you have to tamp down your individuality and do a lot of self-sacrifice for the purpose of the group. We had a lot of these army parallels. We were God's army. I grew up doing what the military calls battle drills. A lot of military training scenarios — running through the forest, lying in wait — I did that my whole childhood in an organized fashion with grownup supervision. We were just fighting the Antichrist. So those parallels — very specific, group behavior — are something that was very familiar to me. The biggest surprise, I say, and the reason I ultimately wrote the book was that the parallels of the rape culture and the sexual violence for women — specifically from our brothers, our uncles, our bosses and our colonels — was the same in the world's most notorious sex cult and in the beloved US Army. And then the biggest similarity was, this is happening to all of us and none of us talk about it.
SPENCER: I imagine that might come as a shock to some listeners who are maybe not aware of this topic. Can you tell us a bit about what the experience is like for a woman in the military, especially when it comes to sexual assault and risks that are unique to women?
DANIELLA: First day of basic training, our male drill sergeants stood over all the women and said, "I'm gonna tell you one thing. As a woman in the army, you're either a bitch, a slut, or a dike." Implication here being — remembering that we're under 'don't ask, don't tell,' so the slur for lesbian is a threat to end your career — now you are left to pick between sexually promiscuous or a bitch that we can all respect. This is openly talked about. I feel like we are other from our first day in uniform and our biggest job becomes to convince them that we are not women so that they'll let us do our job. I was serving under the combat ban which I'm very proud to have been part of helping to repeal. You have this population of people that are violently trained to conduct violence on behalf of the state. And then you have ten to 15% of us at the time that are not as good as you. In military history — especially American military history — rape was used as a tool of war when it is convenient. This has continued to reverberate down through our Armed Forces culture until very recently. Things have changed.
SPENCER: Could you elaborate what is the combat ban and then how things changed?
DANIELLA: Women have been fighting in combat for the US military since the Revolutionary War and they have never officially been recognized. When they changed some things around in 1993 so that women could fly helicopters, they put this ground combat ban in which said women could not hold any position which would put them in the frontlines. It was a really ridiculous policy because, at that point, we didn't even have frontlines anymore. But it did mean that we didn't get good combat training. We didn't get put in operational units where our careers could advance. And, of course, separate is never equal. So when you see things like Jessica Lynch, the prisoner of war in Iraq, the army will talk about her as the one weak link that got good men killed. Jessica Lynch was the supply sergeant and she was doing what a female supply sergeant was trained to do. Interestingly enough, I ended up becoming one of the first women on deliberate ground combat teams. When they made that change to that word 'deliberate,' it changed everything really fast because it made it really obvious that you shouldn't be sending in untrained, improperly armored soldiers to go do a job just because you thought they couldn't make it through the training. So that was the combat ban. In 2011, I was part of the first group of 43 women that started doing the deliberate patrols. In 2013, the combat ban was repealed. In 2014, we had the first women go through Ranger School and it's been reversing since then. What's changed really recently in terms of sexual assault is the military has this doctrine called the Feres Doctrine which says you can't sue the military for anything incidental to military service. Courts have always interpreted rape to fit under that category. In my opinion, because they haven't had to care — because they can't be sued for it — they've never cared. Last year, a judge said, "There's no way that rape furthers a military purpose, so you cannot call it incidental to military service." Two weeks ago, the first lawsuit was won against the military for sexual assault for almost a million dollars and today, President Biden just signed an executive order taking the prosecution of major crimes away from the Command, something which we've been trying to do for decades and decades and decades, and the military has always fought. It remains to be seen if the floodgates are gonna open and we are going to go make them pay and change the culture. I think that's the only way that it happens.
SPENCER: Based on your experience, how common is sexual assault of women in the military?
DANIELLA: The official numbers are one in three women and one in six men. They suspect that, for the men, it's almost actually 100% because so much of what is seen as military hazing is actually sexual assault. For the women, most of us don't know another woman that hasn't been assaulted. Most of us have stories of when we were warned by our male peers that it was when, not if, we would be assaulted. Those are the numbers.
SPENCER: I recall the scene in your book where you were talking to someone — if I recall it was someone you actually trusted and respected — who basically said, "Yeah, you might be raped." Am I remembering that accurately?
DANIELLA: Two things: it was someone I trusted and respected, who was my boss, who was pressuring me into sex, on the one hand, and, yes, it was not just him; it was one of those things I wanted to show in the book when we talk about telling our stories. People will say, "Aren't you proud?" I am very proud and you see this scene in the book where I am sent out on a mission alone with 25 men. And equally important to talk about is where I get pulled aside and told to watch my back against those men. This happened to me three separate times. That's rape culture.
SPENCER: Basically, people are telling you that one of those people you're working with is probably going to rape you, watch out.
DANIELLA: It's not even that. They're telling me to watch my back out on patrol. Let's think about this. You're going out in combat where your buddy is supposed to be watching your back but I'm supposed to be watching my own back.
SPENCER: That's insane.
DANIELLA: We are so afraid... Why are we afraid that 25 American soldiers are simultaneously going to lose their minds and sexually assault an officer? That's rape culture. The reality of this — and we're starting to get numbers now that women are suffering PTSD 90% higher than men — in my opinion, it's because they got to come back from behind the wire, put their weapons down, take off their armors, and relax and go off and hang with their buddies. We always had to be on our guard against them, no matter whether we were outside the wire or behind it.
SPENCER: One thing that I've heard debated is to what extent these kinds of acts are done by a relatively small number of people who are many-times repeat offenders versus whether it's more widespread. I'm wondering what your opinion is on that?
DANIELLA: I know that every single male soldier seems to know a friend of a sergeant's cousin's brother whose career was ruined by a false accusation, but none of them seems to know a rapist. But I think the idea that we try to falsely represent it as 'onesies' and 'twosies' is wrong. In my book, you see there's a place that we call rape alley. Men are warned not to go there, making it the women's fault if they get assaulted, and we are told, "Don't get yourself raped." It's unimaginable that there would be any place on an army base that was dangerous for the men to go, that they wouldn't solve that problem. And in fact, when there was a rapist in Kandahar going after men, that problem was solved very quickly. I believe it's widespread. I believe the training makes it acceptable and the culture makes it acceptable. I also believe it can be fixed.
SPENCER: Do you think that there's an implicit message that people get that it's okay to do? Or do you think it's more of a disbelief thing that, if someone says, "I was raped," people are like, "No, he would never do that. I couldn't see my comrade as being the sort of person that could do that."
DANIELLA: There's definitely a message that it's okay to do. This starts in basic training on day one when you're doing marching cadences and they're all about killing and drinking your enemy's blood or raping. There are many, many different kinds of rape jokes that are so common in the military; I don't think the men would even realize they are rape jokes. It is definitely very accepted. Anytime we talk about addressing the issue, we're just told you have to keep yourselves safe. At the end of the day, I just come back to, there's another dead woman soldier at Fort Hood, and all of these good guys that supposedly don't know what we're talking about are not screaming at the tops of their lungs about it.
SPENCER: Sorry, is this a recent news story you're referring to?
DANIELLA: In 2020, there was a big murder at Fort Hood of Vanessa Guillén and, a few months ago, there was another dead woman soldier. It seems like it's a cover up. It's the same base. It's the same problem, this parallel between the good uncles in the cult and the good men in the army that supposedly don't know the problem and have no idea how to fix it but always fight back when we try to get them to fix it. That's why I have a problem accepting anyone's argument that it's not openly known and accepted as part of the culture.
SPENCER: You're saying that even the people that don't engage in it, they're resisting the reform of the problem?
DANIELLA: Yeah. I sent this book out — "Uncultured" was a major book published by Macmillan — to ten well-known male military names and zero of them got back to me. We have the former Secretary of Defense in 2019 talking about how we know rape culture is a problem. It's a cancer on the military. But in 2021, he doesn't have time to read my book because it's not in his area of expertise. Obviously, I'm personally invested in this example but this is the problem. Even when we write it down... I wrote it down so that all the good men could see the problem, but they won't read it.
SPENCER: Have you had military folks reach out to you separately?
DANIELLA: Yes, I've had many. In fact, traditionally in publishing, men do not read books by women but I've had many military men read this book and reach out. These are the ones that want to help. I am married to one of these. I say I wrote it so that he could see the problem and then we could have the conversation about how to fix it, which I'm also very qualified to advise on. Then, of course, I've also heard from women and the heartbreaking thing is, I've heard from every generation of women still alive that has served and they've all said, "It sounded like you were telling my story and I thought it got better after my time."
SPENCER: Just getting practical for a moment. What do you think needs to be done to reform this aspect of the military?
DANIELLA: I have a ten-part plan that is probably way too much to get into here but, if any leaders of the military out there would like to speak to me about it, I'm very happy to do that. It's a couple of deep-level things. One, and most importantly, is we need to have the conversation just like the conversation of how the racism in policing goes all the way back to the founding of modern-day policing as slave patrols. The history of the US military includes rape and genocide, especially of native peoples going all the way back. We've never had this conversation with this very one-sided, very cult-like deification of the military cult of the veteran. The veteran can do no wrong and most women veterans won't even identify as veterans or go to get mental or physical healthcare because those clinics are full of our predators. It's a very different conversation for us. The first thing is, we need to have that conversation. Our stories need to be told as part of the main story. There's a whole bunch of lower-level cultural things which definitely starts with the Command taking it seriously, which I don't think they've ever done until today. Things like the language, there's so much dehumanizing language of women in the military. The constant uttering in that kind of environment makes us the enemy. We need to take that. Finally making us part of the team is gonna be what stops it from happening because armies are actually really good at preventing fratricide of their buddies, when they consider it fratricide.
SPENCER: How linked do you see this as being to the extreme masculine orientation that militaries have often had, where they try to emphasize the masculine and get people to be as macho as possible?
DANIELLA: It's 1000% related. In fact, I'm currently writing an essay all about this. Toxic masculinity is essentially what the culture of the military is. They see it as their last bastion of the boys' club. If you let the women in, if you let the LGBTQIA in, and if you (heaven forbid) let trans people in, then you're going to have to admit that you treat genders differently, if you don't know how to treat someone. All of this becomes their need to protect their masculinity. Women who choose to join the military — actually sociologists had to come up with a word for this, which was 'the third gender,' different from the indigenous use of the third gender — to the outside world, we don't fit because we're seen as overly masculine but, to our peers and our supposed brothers, our femininity is the most salient thing about us and about our service. We have no way to actually be and be accepted.
SPENCER: Do you think that the military views their culture as part of the strategy of war? That this extreme masculinity is part of making killers who can go into battle?
DANIELLA: I think they absolutely do and I think there's a reason that we saw that 20% of the defendants that stormed the Capitol were veterans and that none of us that are veterans were surprised. In fact, when I say the guy who I joined the army for is a bad guy — you're gonna find out at the end of the book — but he was selected for all the qualities of being an angry White man that will be good at killing people. Definitely these concepts, they fought taking sex crimes away from commanders by saying this will decrease good order and discipline. You're literally making an argument that less raping is going to decrease good order and discipline. Rape has only been considered a war crime since 1996. We have a very long history of this just being considered either 'boys will be boys' or rape is literally the spoils of war. "You knew what you signed up for," which is in all kinds of reviews of "Uncultured." "Does she expect us to feel sorry for her? She knew what she signed up for." It's really interesting because, going back to cults, we have this thing called the thought-stopping cliché which is just intended to shut down critical complaints or critical thinking. 'Trust the prophet' is a culty one. 'Boys will be boys' is a society one. All kinds of organizations use the 'you knew what you signed up for' all the time. We wrap it up by saying, "They said it was incidental to military service." In the law, it said that for 72 years.
SPENCER: Sounds like there's a long way to go but there is at least some progress. Do you have hope that it's gonna be better for women in the future?
DANIELLA: I cannot even describe to you how many commanders' briefs they have been having since that lawsuit was won, and how many they are going to be having since President Biden now took it away. Now that they're going to be held responsible and they're going to have to pay, it is going to change so fast and I have two pieces of proof: one is that, about a decade before I joined the military, they decided they were going to end DUI culture, a culture where they used to say you can't make enroll without at least two DUIs. They completely changed the culture on that, and they did it by making it unexplainable (the alcohol didn't make you do it) and unforgivable (it was going to be a career-ender). Within a decade, the culture had completely changed. I was also recently talking to a German military scholar who said that the Americans and the British were very well-behaved when they came into Germany after World War II because their leadership cracked down so hard after what the Americans and British did to the women in Normandy. This tells me, in two ways, we have examples of where they can change the culture when they want to and they specifically can change rape culture when they have to.
SPENCER: So going meta on everything we've talked about, you grew up in a cult, you were part of the military, which has many cult-like aspects, even if it wouldn't meet the standard cult checklists probably. What do you see as a cult now, having gone through all these experiences?
DANIELLA: I have a ten-part checklist of a cult. I think the thing that's different from other cult explanations is, it's the qualities of a group, like you have to have a charismatic leader; you have to have this level of separation; you have to have this level of dedication. But you also have this journey part of it. You have these ten specific parts. I feel if you have all ten of these, you are a cult. However, most groups have a lot of these, and I think we see them in a lot of places. I'm also, by the way, the first scholar that is not willing to give the military a pass on being a cult. They meet every model definition of a cult as soon as they go away to a training or a war situation together. I think that, by looking at it like that, we understand a lot.
SPENCER: Because, normally, I think I would say one thing that prevents the military from being a cult is the lack of a charismatic leader. But maybe you would say when they're deployed for war, there is a charismatic leader who potentially could be in charge.
DANIELLA: Correct. The first thing I say is we have a charismatic leader. He's called the Commander-in-Chief, whom you are required to obey without question. I also think — just like if you're looking at a Catholic Church or anything like that — you have to look down at the unit level. Absolutely, when a unit deploys to training, they meet every part of my ten-part model including exploitation of labor — because we work around the clock — and the charismatic leader, which is either going to be your battalion or brigade commander. In "Uncultured," I give you two of these and one is your malignant narcissist and one is your more transformational leader. Even for me, I realized that I fell under his spell quite a bit because of all of the other cult-like things. We are isolated. We are expected to self-sacrifice. We have an us-versus-them mentality and a black and white view of the world. I do think that things like the charismatic leader... They say you can leave the military at will, which is almost not true for any soldier. In theory, that's true, but in reality, that is almost definitely untrue for any soldier at any given time. You cannot leave the military at will.
SPENCER: What happens if you try to leave?
DANIELLA: In the times where I'm talking about, which is when you're activated, when the military is giving you a place to sleep, you're either in long-term training or you're out, or your exit costs are death or the end of your career. That's how you get out of there. Even if you're back home, even if you're not under a service contract (which probably 80% of soldiers are), it still takes you six months to a year to leave and they have millions of dollars in retention. Like I've told several cult scholars, it's much easier to leave the Children of God at any point than it is to leave the military.
SPENCER: I'm surprised about that last point because, when you leave a traditional cult (I don't know what you want to call it), you often lose your friends and family and you're told you're gonna go to hell. I'm a bit surprised that you think that leaving the military is harder than that.
DANIELLA: Of all of the parallels that I did talk about in the book, I didn't get to talk about the parallels of the shunning when you leave but they are very much there. I described leaving the cult and leaving the Army as some of the biggest parallels. I just decided to leave but I watched my husband go through it. He retired after 20 years, 19 of them at war from the most dangerous aviation job in the world — these are the guys who went to get Osama Bin Laden — and they still acted like he was quitting the team. There still is this huge amount of shunning. The cult tells you no one's gonna love you on the outside. The army tells you you'll miss the camaraderie; so many people tried to scare me that, "The economy's bad. What are you going to do on the outside?" One of my leaders told me I couldn't just expect to waltz into an Ivy League education and get a degree. When I got my Harvard Masters, I told him that I salsa-danced in, not waltzed. It still is and I think it's one of the things that organizations can really easily look at, because one of the things that makes you a cult is the shunning of the outsiders and the way that they treat people that decide to leave. "Uncultured" opens with me saying the first rule of cults is you're never in a cult. Then I say that all of my leaving experiences and also watching the Harry-Meghan saga taught me that the second rule of cults is we will forgive any sin (Prince Andrew) except the sin of leaving. So when you have these high-demand groups with these super important missions that require so much of their members, any version of choosing yourself over that mission is always going to be denigrated or separate you out from the group.
SPENCER: You mentioned the idea of this ten-point checklist and that suggests that cults really fall in the spectrum. You could meet any number of those items. I often see people debate, "Oh, that's a cult. No, it's not," etc., maybe missing the nuance that 'cultiness' is really a continuum.
DANIELLA: Yes. This is actually the book I'm writing now. It's called the "Culting of America" in which I'm introducing the 'cultiness' spectrum and that's exactly what it is. It's that the question, "Is this a cult or not?" is not even a real question. We're only willing to call something a cult in America once it has gone the absolute worst and we usually measure that in bodies. My entire theory though is that coercive control is coercive control is coercive control. If you take these ten parts (in my next book), If you relate to all ten chapters, congratulations, you are in a cult. But most people I know are gonna relate to four or five of them. There are gonna be these areas and what I do is I break it out and I show it to you that, in a real cult, in a socially-accepted cult like the military, and everywhere around you, you're seeing the same kind of behavior.
SPENCER: What are some examples where maybe more, (quote) "regular groups" looked at through this lens, you could start to see them as having cultish elements?
DANIELLA: We work with a really great one. Actually, in my book, each chapter, we're starting off with a vignette of a regular organization but some I can rattle off. We work Alcoholics Anonymous groups, the Salvation Army, and just nonprofits in general can get very culty. Sororities and fraternities can get very culty. All kinds of health and wellness groups are a huge feeder into Right-wing extremism right now. All different kinds of groups can trend culty. This is the work I do now. I like to say I'm still the intelligence officer telling you about the threat. Now it's just the culture threat; help you stop before you are a cult.
SPENCER: Suppose someone is getting involved in a new group? What are some things they should be on the lookout for, whether we want to call it culty or just say potentially attributes of toxic groups that might help tip them off earlier?
DANIELLA: Absolutely. Cults are always about labor. This is the super important thing to know. That's because what the cult leader wants the most is power. Once you've taken everything else from someone, you can take their labor. If we flip this around, I say to people, always ask how much labor are you giving an organization and what are you getting in return? What you're getting in return has to be in this lifetime. That is an easy way. Similarly for organizations, if your mission is so important, if you need to be a 'good cult' (as many groups try to call themselves), what are you doing to give back, to give aftercare to your organization members after you exploit their labor for the purpose of achieving this super important mission? For example, this is one of the ways that nonprofits get culty really fast because their missions are always good ones. It's easy to just require the constant sacrifice of the individual. So be a little selfish; ask yourself what you're getting back. Then my other favorite quick tip is that information is never bad. Groups always in the process of becoming culty or coercive control are really toxic, isolating you and controlling information. This means we see now that the people that burn books or ban books have never been on the right side of history. Anyone ever trying to control what information you get is a really important place to look for where it's gonna start getting toxic.
SPENCER: On both of those points, what would the cults say about it? Because of course if you challenge them and you say, "Oh, you're suppressing information," or you say, "You're not giving enough back to your members," they're gonna have a response to that. What would you expect to hear?
DANIELLA: This is the problem of every list of a cult. As soon as you put a list, a cultic organization is going to take that and use that to train their members. Actually, one of my signs, one of the things I say if I had gotten the podcast — and I usually do this but I forgot — I would have been like, "Spencer, tell me about your show. Is it a cult?" I either want to hear you laugh or say, "Oh, yeah, kind of" or any of these things. But if your first response is a very practiced explanation of why you are not a cult, all of my spidey senses have just gone off.
SPENCER: I was just gonna say I'm not charismatic enough but... [laughs]
DANIELLA: But most people don't understand charisma so actually... [laughs]
SPENCER: [laughs] No. I completely see your point. There's nothing that seems more cult-like than someone being, "Here's why we're not a cult. There's 15 reasons that we've pre-prepared."
DANIELLA: You remember that I talked about the Davidito and the murder-suicide and when I realized it was a cult — they were saying 'cult' on television — and practically my second thought was, "Oh, that's why we spent so much time practicing explanations about why we weren't a cult." Most 17-year-olds probably have no idea of what makes a cult but I could argue it with the Pope.
SPENCER: Reminds me of multilevel marketing companies which will have extensive analyses of why they're not a pyramid scheme.
DANIELLA: 100%. I will say most cult scholars consider multilevel marketing to be cults. Keith Raniere, the founder of NXIVM, was legally banned from being involved with a multilevel marketing scheme before he started NXIVM and there's the most MLMs per capita in Utah.
SPENCER: Just as an aside, any other things you want to touch on before we wrap up?
DANIELLA: Just an invitation to the listeners, if you find this interesting, please come join me on Tiktok where I am 'The Group Behavior Gal.' Type in "#group behavior gal," you will find me. I am always furiously knitting and decoding cults and talking about group behavior. It's a fun conversation. I'm writing this next book. We're developing the arguments in public so come join us. If you're not a reader, The New York Times says that the audio of "Uncultured" does not suck.
SPENCER: If you heard a little clicking in the background on this episode, you might have gotten a taste of Danielle's knitting. This was such an interesting conversation. Thank you so much for coming out. Really appreciate it.
DANIELLA: Thanks so much for having me.
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