The Cult Chronicles/It’s a Wonderful Life

My first passport photo

I know a lot about cults, because I grew up in one. My childhood memories are littered with outlier stories, some good and some bad, but most unconventional at best. Still, it does me no good to ignore my past. It was what it was and it ultimately shaped the person I am today.

Sometimes, a tiny snippet of my past will ooze out of my fading memories for a brief moment totally unannounced, catching me by surprise.

I’ve started typing little reminders, phrases and single words on my iPad, so that the memory won’t disappear by morning, just in case I choose to delve a little deeper. It happened last night after I went to bed. Boom! Suddenly, I was back in a small town in Indiana with an old memory. It was like watching It’s a Wonderful Life in my head. You know, in black and white nostalgia, but sort of creepy at the same time, because I knew that everyone in the movie was dead.

Well, everyone in this particular memory aren’t dead yet. After all, I’m still alive but a good number are either gone by now or have almost been forgotten.

In this particular movie, I was about eleven years old and my sister was around eight. We were spending the night with a friend and her family. At this point, I will change names to protect the innocent. My friend, I’ll call her Elsie, introduced me to the Little House on the Prairie series that night. Her mom read out loud to us as we huddled around their stove in the living room.

Elsie’s family was from Arkansas.

Her mom, brother and her grandma, who they called Grandmommy, slept on feather mattresses in the single bedroom of their small house. The house also lacked a bathroom. That’s right, they used an outside toilet.

I was intrigued.

As Elsie’s mom read to us from The Long Winter, I felt just like Laura Ingalls Wilder. That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with the Little House books, a relationship that sustained me through some pretty bleak winters of my own.

Elsie’s family was poor.

Grandmommy had suffered poverty in Arkansas. She had birthed ten kids. Ten babies while destitute and often worrying about their next meal. Her relationship with poverty could be summed up with a single story about a tooth.

Back in the day, according to grandmommy, she was suffering unbearable pain from a bad tooth.

It was excruciating but they didn’t have the money to go to a dentist. So, she pried the decaying molar out of her mouth with a fork.

I was aghast at this story.

It haunted me for days. But then, I was cursed with a sensitive nature and registered high on the empathy scale, a dubious gift that I didn’t get to choose but that guaranteed an unusual amount of personal suffering until I finally learned to manage it.

Elsie’s mom was either divorced or her dad had abandoned the family.

I never really knew for sure. However, because they were deeply religious, her mom never remarried. It was considered a sin, punishable by burning in hell for eternity because marriage vows were sacred until death do thee part.

I don’t know what she did for work, but clearly she wasn’t making much money.

Women couldn’t make much money in this version of It’s a Wonderful Life. That was left up to their husbands unless, of course, they didn’t have a husband. Elsie’s family I’m sure were very poor and their religious fervor pretty well guaranteed that they’d stay that way.

Nowadays even the most religious have rewritten the divorce and remarriage rules to no longer count as an unforgivable and horribly indecent sin. But you’ve got to remember that this version of It’s a Wonderful Life took place over sixty years ago.

Yes, times have changed even for the devout.

Their new worst sinners now reside in the LBGTQ communities. The redesigned devout, however, often harbor multiple spouses who they promised to love and obey but then discovered they actually hated. Now, in the religious world, everything is fair in heterosexual love and war, I guess.

It turns out that Elsie’s mom had an older brother who lived close by.

That’s how I got to know Elsie in the first place. My family attended her Uncle’s tiny church for a few months. It was during a time in which my father, a recently converted agnostic to the evangelical movement, was searching for a good fit for his swiftly evolving fanaticism. Quickly, my father clashed with Elsie’s uncle when it came to the interpretation of what constitutes sin, but for a brief stint, I hung out with Elsie.

Elsie’s uncle was married but had no children of his own, so he served as a surrogate father to Elsie and her brother Eddie.

Now Eddie never seemed like a bad kid to me. He was a little red-headed boy with pale skin living amongst all women and with a surrogate father who apparently was more than happy to wield his leather belt if Eddie misbehaved.

You must remember that back in the day the devout loosely defined misbehaving as a mere look on a face that suggested maybe, just maybe, the child was contemplating questioning orders.

I’m sure that both Esther and Eddie at times slipped up and their Uncle stepped in to perform his surrogate father duties, that is, beat the holy crap out of his niece or nephew. The last time Eddie was beaten that I’m personally aware of was when he was about sixteen. To this day, I have no idea what he did that merited the beating, but I do know that he was told to drop his pants and take a beating on his bare ass with the belt.

How do I know?

Because later, his Uncle sat with everyone at the dinner table laughing about how Eddie’s buttocks quivered with each stroke of the whip. Once again, you must remember that women and children were not full human beings sixty years ago. The man was the head of the house, even as a surrogate. You may not have liked it. I sure didn’t. But you had to endure it until you were old enough to leave home and make your way in the world. I left home and the cult when I turned eighteen, but that’s another story.

Beating women, children, and dogs was very acceptable behavior back in the day, too.

Certainly it was nobody’s business to intervene. A man was given the unalienable right to manage his own household as he saw fit. Neither the law of the land nor a concerned neighbor dare interfere with what was presumed to be God’s law. After all, America was a pious culture that touted freedom in one breath and punishment for refusing to conform in the other.

Plus, society’s no talk rules ran deep.

You simply didn’t air your dirty laundry in public. Not that beating a child was considered dirty laundry in the first place. If Esther and Eddie had sought a compassionate ear, they’d most likely end up getting beaten again, so as a measure self preservation, nobody talked.

Yet, here I am writing about it as though I’m a Celtic warrior unafraid of a damn thing.

It may be sixty years after the fact, but victims are like that. If you’re one of those people who question why victims wait sometimes decades to tell their stories, this is why. We didn’t say or do anything when we were being beaten because no one would’ve given a shit. In fact, there’s a strong chance no one would even believe us. We knew we’d just end up being blamed in the end, so we kept our mouths shut.

Sixty years later, however, a few things have improved for women, children and dogs.

It’s still far from perfect, but more and more victims are at least talking about it. A lot of women have their own money now and women can get the support of law enforcement if their husbands beat them.

Children still don’t have a voice, however.

A lot of adults continue to champion the beating of kids, unfortunately. I presume it’s a power thing. Children have zero power. However, there’s a growing consensus that the beating of dogs is cruel so there’s hope yet for kids.

Well, now you can see why I have to jot these memories down when they pop into my head uninvited.

Sometimes, I’m forced to ask my sister if she remembers the movie exactly the way I do. Her perspective adds clarification and details to my waning memories of an old black and white movie that has been heralded as the good old days but for some reason makes me feel uncomfortable whenever I recall the details.

Finally, I’m sharing these stories as part of the Cult Chronicles, a collection of memories that are fading with each year that passes. People who read my memories often give me that wide-eyed stare. You know what I mean? The look that asks without actually asking,

“Where was I when these horrible things were happening to you?”

And, I just answer with,

“Probably in denial, because it hurts to admit that it’s not such a wonderful life after all, I guess.”

Then everyone goes back to living the current culturally accepted version of It’s a Wonderful Life until new victims begin to tell their stories. And, what about The Little House stories?

Well, it turns out even they were a glorified version of the good old bad old days. You try living through a long, cold, dark winter while shivering and twisting hay to put in the wood stove and tell me what you think. C’mon! I dare you.


About The Cult Chronicles: There are memories that can haunt us. They often stay buried for years until something triggers the memory and suddenly, you’re there once again. These memories can be so forceful as to elicit the same emotions, even physical responses in our bodies that we felt originally. They often shape our world view and influence our decisions throughout our lives. My life growing up in a religious cult created hundreds of memories that sixty years later I’ve decided to write about. As a form of therapy as well as a way to acknowledge others who have been forced by our culture to bury pain and suffering, How will this help? I don’t know, but in order to protect the offender, victims have always been refused a voice. That needs to stop!

This article first appeared on Teresa’s Books blog

Teresa Roberts is a retired educator, author, world traveler, and professional myth buster. You can buy her books on Amazon.




Teresa is an author, world traveler, and professional myth buster.

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Teresa Roberts

Teresa Roberts

Teresa is an author, world traveler, and professional myth buster.

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