i was going to write another post to talk about my body image, and my relationship with my body as a result of being ritually abused, but i’m not going to get into that quite yet. what i do want to emphasize, though, is that, despite having identities that were female, i’ve never experienced what psychiatry calls “gender dysphoria” or “gender identity disorder” (i also don’t believe for a second that there is anything disordered in how people experience their gender, or their mental health, despite what psychiatry says), and i was born male, and experience myself as a man – although i certainly don’t identify with the stereotypes of patriarchal masculinity.
i was a little girl: cults, dissociated identities and gender
my life is a *trigger warning*
notes on surviving ritual abuse
i was a little girl: cults, dissociated identities and gender
I was a little girl
i have a clear memory of being in the kitchen drying dishes while my biological father stood nearby watching me. he was naked. i was dressed, and i had a long sleeve shirt tied over my hair, to simulate long hair (“like a girl would have”). i was standing on a chair so that i could reach into the sink, and so i could put the dried dishes onto the drying rack.
i had just washed the dishes: 2 plates, 2 glasses, 2 forks, 2 spoons, 2 knives, and one frying pan. and i had just been coerced into performing oral sex on my biological father. i had to do this in order to get the chance to wash the dishes, and i would have to do it again in exchange for being permitted to dry the dishes, as well as watching television with him “like a good boy”. this last part was, of course, impossible as i was a girl, but I humored him. rose was not an obedient personality, but neither did she engage in pointless defiance.
standing on the chair, drying dishes, with my “long hair,” i was happy in that moment. i was a little girl – “rose,” and rose was one of my favorite personalities. i had just got to both wash and dry the dishes, which meant that i was learning to take care of myself so that when i grew up i would be able to be independent, live on my own and take care of myself.
as rose, i was a rebel, and i did both what i wanted, and what was necessary. i didn’t always play nice with the other personalities, or the other children, or even with the adults. i was able to compromise, though, and to plan ahead, which wasn’t the case for some of my other more rebellious and intransigent personalities.
rose was what i think would be called a protective personality. She existed to keep me safe from harm, to help me be happy, and to help me plan for the future. the future being, always, my ultimate escape from the cult. and she was a real good kid, too.
like many people with “dissociative identity disorder,” maybe most or even all of us, some of my personalities were not the same as my biological sex. in fact, some of my personalities had no gender, or were intersex, some of them were machines, robots, computers, or even household appliances. some of the time these personalities formed more or less spontaneously, as with rose, while others formed more in response to suggestions from cult programmers – in all cases they formed due to the intense traumas that were repeatedly done to me.
rose was one of my more substantial personalities, and, as i said, one that i liked, as well as being, not surprisingly, one of my personalities that the cult did not like, and wanted to control or eliminate – but she was always too clever for them. she had a strong personality, in the sense of being assertive and self-determining, having her own, unique character and in having more life-experience as i spent some time being her. she was very much convinced that she was a girl, to the extent that when i rediscovered her in counselling she was surprised, and somewhat disbelieving that i hadn’t grown breasts. but then rose was always very confident of her own opinion and interpretations, and was willing to overlook certain facts in order to maintain her own world view.
i chose the vignette at the beginning of this essay carefully, and for multiple reasons: it introduces rose, one of my female personalities, gives further insight into my childhood in a satanic cult, and demonstrates some of my biological father’s, and the cult’s perceptions of femininity and girlhood/womanhood.
for example, it was no accident that i was in the kitchen washing and drying dishes, and that i had “long hair” while i was in my girl personality. in my biological father’s world view, as well as the cult’s, girls and women “belonged in the kitchen,” and they were responsible for cooking, cleaning, child care and all other domestic responsibilities. they were not supposed to work outside the home, they were obligated to have children, and supposed to have long hair, wear skirts and dresses, and otherwise conform to the ideal of patriarchal femininity, although the cult ideal was, by that time, somewhat dated; cult’s do not deal easily with social change, and the feminist movement’s impact on patriarchy was resulting in some loosening of gender roles in the cult as well and, concurrently and consequently, internal strife.
my biological father was also comparing me, and through me, girls and women, to drying racks and dishwashers. In his opinion, girls and women were equivalent to these useful inventions and machines, but were not, essentially, necessary, except for reproduction.
And so, in addition to everything above, it was also an attempt to damage and, ultimitaly, dispose of rose, one of my protective personalities.
gender in the cult
girls and women in the cult who did not meet the expectations that others had for them were punished: raped, tortured and abused. If they did deviate from patriarchal standards, they would still be expected to fulfill their “womanly duties,” much as women who aren’t in cults are expected to do:
in some ways this is little different from the sexist expectations that patriarchal culture has for all girls and women. however, in broader society, while the punishments from sexist institutions and individuals can be terrible, in the cult, the punishment for deviating from the extreme patriarchy practiced in the cult is not only more brutal, but also more routinized – it is normalized in the cult, as are so many other acts of horror and cruelty. and while women are all a half rung lower in the cult hierarchy, girls and women who fail to meet the accepted feminine standards are pushed even further down the metaphorical ladder.
but standards of femininity weren’t for rose, just as cult rules and laws weren’t for us – in fact they were simply rules that were made to be broken, and any obedience was only for if and when it was to our advantage.
20 years later
i have another clear memory of rose, this time as an adult. i was in the psychiatric ward at the jubilee hospital in victoria, british colombia, coast salish territory, and i was smoking in the bathroom. the door was closed and i was sitting on the floor. I didn’t need to be smoking in the bathroom – i was permitted to go outside by that point. occassionally i’d have a cigareetter after curfew, but for the most part i simply enjoyed gratuitously breaking the hospital rules.
i was still in my main personality, the personality that didn’t remember the abuse, meaning that i wasn’t entirely rose, she was more of a feeling and a voice in my head, but when i remember back to that time, i partly remember myself as her, although i was not her at that time. although i wasn’t her, she was just below the surface, and she was closer than she often was. i don’t find this surprising as my recent descent into madness had been scary. and i didn’t like being in the hospital, and i wanted to leave, and rose existed to protect and help me.
at the time i didn’t realize that the voices in my head were dissociated identities and programming – i had been diagnosed as “schizoaffective,” and while i was skeptical of the label, which seemed to be a diagnosis that was both a catch all for anyone whose symptoms couldn’t be neatly categorized as schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder, as well as a way for psychiatrists who weren’t actually sure what the problem was to throw up their figurative hands and at least attach some label to me. i didn’t realize that the female voice in my head was not only a voice, but also an identity, a part of myself. what i did know was that i felt safe with this voice, that i liked her, trusted her and listened to her.
gender: from then to now
growing up in the cult was to grow up in a brutally heteropatriarchal environment (as well as white supremacist, etc). the cult was, to be certain, brutal in almost every way, but girls and women were more likely to be more brutalized more often than boys and men.
the cult didn’t acknowledge that transgendered people really existed, but any deviation from rigidly stereotypical patriarchal gender roles was/is punished severely, so i can only imagine that they too would experience additional horrors due to their genders.
during the period of time that I was coerced and forced to associate with cult members – before I ran away from home at 18, the misogyny that I remember was overt and violent.
how did I avoid adopting these misogynistic and patriarchal values?
for the most part it was because, simply put, it seemed wrong to me. although I wouldn’t have used these words then, it violated my ethical sensibilities. it was also, as far as I could tell, irrational – I never found any of the intellectual justifications for patriarchy and sexism to be anything but nonsense.
this ethical sense that i had, as well as my reasoning told me that girls and women were/are equal with men and boys (i did not know that transgendered people existed at that time, but certainly every person of every gender is equally human, equally deserving of respect and love).
this refusal to devalue and dehumanize women helped me value my own female personalities (and i probably was also more resistant to patriarchal lies given that I had a strong female personality who i liked and trusted), and it helped me survive and maintain my self-respect when I would be forced to take on the role of a female “sex worker” in the cult. To be ABSOLUTELY CLEAR I was never really a sex worker (and cultists didn’t call me a sex worker, they called me a wh___ and a h_), as I was being raped, not engaging in consensual sex. i wasn’t able or permitted to say no, and so i was in no position to consent in any meaningful way.
my options were to do what my “client” wanted in order to hopefully avoid particularly brutal rapes, tortures and abuses, and, maybe even get something out of being raped, something that would make it easier to survive. i was forced to be compliant, but the difference between compliance and consent are as starkly different as the difference between no and yes.
however, to return to the thread of the narrative, I had, due to my innate ethical understanding, and my intellectual reasoning about gender, or as I thought about it at the time, boys and girls, reached the conclusion that girls and women were not inferior, and while they were different, they were equally human. not only this, girls and women in the cult had it worse than boys and men, at least in most ways. all of this lead me to reject the models of masculinity and femininity that the cult offered. sadly, i had essentially no positive role models to learn from – my cat cicero was the closest being to a loving parent that I knew as a child, but he was just a big tomcat, and as much as he taught me about survivng and being good, he couldn’t teach me what I needed to know about how to be a good human. the closest I could get to positive role models were complete starngers, and various forms of media. reflecting on it now, I realize that I did my best to learn about humanity, and being a good man through books.
by my own standards, my current standards, i still had a long way to go from my intuitive and intellectual rejection of sexism to being a consistent anti-sexist man who is able to love and be compassionate with myself, as well as the women, transgender and two-spirited people in my life.
that is to say that while I stumbled along with the best intentions – and i did stumble – there was certainly a discrepancy between my thinking, my values and my actions. i’m also not trying to say that i am now at the end of this journey – while i feel certain that I’ve left behind me the worst of my actions, and I AM positive that I would never hurt women in those ways again. the phrase that has been in my head these days is “commitment, not perfection,” and while i know i’m not perfect, and that i will make mistakes, i also know that i am committed to gender justice.
cult hierarchies and gender oppression
the ideal cult member was/is everything that the dominant culture values most: rich, white, male, 20 – 40 years old, heterosexual, able-bodied, “normal”, physically fit in stereotypical ways, and law abiding (with the exception, of course, of cult activities). the difference being, clearly, that cult members were all ritually abused as children, and continue to engage in the abuse of children, animals, plants and each other as adults, while members of ruling elites are only responsible for implementing policies that result in the deaths of millions of children and adults every year as they sell us about the value of empire, capital and oppression.
the extremely (hetero)patriarchal nature of the cult is evident in the fact that children are considered to be the property of their father, family and the cult. men are considered more important than women, with the important exception that women can have children -this is the most important role that women can have in the cult. all women are expected to have children. all women are expected to marry and/or be available to important male cult members for sex. as always, if girls and women deviated from what was expected of them, they would be punished.
The cult was/is intensely hierarchical. The hierarchy can be pictured as a triangle, or maybe, if I were to be more thorough, as a pyramid – for now I’ll stick with the triangle image. There are a small number of people at the top, and the number of people grows the further you get to the bottom:
/\ – A
/ \ – B
/ \ – C
/ \ – D
/ \ – F
(with A being the most important, and in command, then B and so on. my choice of “A,B, C, etc.” is based on what i remember, but is also probably reflective of the fact that the period that i was most involved (always in a coerced and forced manner) was until i ran away from home, which i did when in was in my last year of high school – which is to say that the grading system i’m elaborating here is both simply what I remember, and, i think, reflective of the fact that at that time i and the other people i knew in the cult were all in high school.)
as one would expect, the people at the top of the triangle had more power, at least inside the cult, and they were less likely to be raped and tortured themselves. however they were both complicit and actively involved in all of the worst activities that the cult engaged in.
importance within the cult was not necessarily connected to importance outside of the cult, although there was a connection between the two. as anyone can understand, the ideal cult member is also the individual that is most privileged by the dominant culture (white, rich, male, etc.). wealth and status in the non-cult world could and did also impact on individuals importance in the cult – wealthy cult members could invest in various cult related projects, and cult members with high status, and/or important positions help other cult members get access to important positions. positions in law enforcement were/are also highly valued.
most, maybe all, cult members had male, female and other gendered personalities. these differently gendered personalities were expressions of our own understanding of gender, of our desire to resist, to conform, to escape.
for example, i was frequently told by family members that they wished i was a girl (mostly by the men, and I think because most of them preferred raping girls). they told me that my life would be better if i was a girl. they told me many things, anything, i think, that they believed would make me more eager to be a girl. and then, at some point while they were torturing me, i suddenly formed a girl personality. it is more complicated than this, but that gives you a bit of an idea.
after I formed a girl personality, though, and after a brief period of being treated well, I was then subjected to brutal shaming, torture and programming. fortunately, very fortunately, as in I don’t know that I would have survived and/or escaped if i’d accepted that there was anything wrong with my having a female personality.
there was absolutely nothing positive in the cult’s attitude towards, and practices of gender. the only acceptable genders were the “masculine” boy and man and the “feminine” girl and woman. the acute heteropatriarchy is used to maintain the hierarchy, and to ensure that cult members hate and fear each other – men and women hating each other, queers and heterosexuals hating each other, all of these divisions exist intentionally in order to maintain the cult status quo. it is a frightening and horrific vision of the oppressive values existent in mainstream culture taken to their illogical conclusion.