My family feels like a cult.
Maybe it’s because I’m the eldest son. Maybe it’s because, growing up, I had a chronic health condition that kept me hooked to machines watching through a window while my siblings and the neighborhood kids played outside. Maybe it’s because my earliest memory is a near-death experience (I know, I’m so goth). Maybe it’s because my father treated his sons like shit and his daughters like their shit didn’t stink. Probably, it’s because they’re evangelical xtians, and I’m an atheist. Whatever the case, I’m the black sheep.
Anyway, ever since I ditched religion, and especially since I moved out, I’ve felt like an outsider. And the feeling has only gotten stronger with time. At first, things were awkward, but not like they are now. Back then, I had a sister living in the midwest (USA), another in the southwest, and another in the southeast a couple hours from our hometown.
Even then, I felt like an outsider. My friends would ask me if I was adopted. And they would tell me my family gatherings gave them the creeps, because my family felt like a cult. And I felt it too. And it’s gotten worse.
Over the last few years, my entire family moved back. My eldest sister’s husband lost his job, so my mother offered her a job. A few months ago, they bought a house a mile from my parents. My youngest sister moved into our childhood home, which is about two miles from my parents. My middle sister, a month ago, moved her family into a house half a mile from my parents. I live three hours away.
When I visit, I feel like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, entering a building whose inhabitants are all members of the same cult just watching and waiting for her to join them. Seriously: When I walk in, conversations stop, everyone just turns and stairs. The stairs are followed by forced smiles and forced conversation, fake laughter, exaggerated hospitality. When I bring my girlfriend, it’s even worse. It’s like she’s got a scarlet letter on her forehead that everybody’s too polite to say anything about. There’s the whore. I see god hasn’t answered our prayers yet.
I’ve thought about this a lot; and, honestly, I don’t think there’s any fixing it. They kind of are a cult: They’re hardcore evangelicals and a close-knit family. In What Is A Cult?,Tara Isabella Burton writes that there is no legitimate distinction between a cult and a religion and describes both as systems defined by “a cycle of power, meaning, identity, and ritual.” She cites Geertz in asserting that how we experience the world is unavoidably “mediated by the semiotic network in which we operate.” People like myself, with no strong group ties, are pretty much just half-assing it: bumbling about, picking up odds and ends along the way from which to piece together an eclectic, subconscious “semiotic network” to give our lives some semblance of meaning. People like my family have picked a group and gone all-in on its “ascription of meanings that define how [they] see [themselves], others, and the world.”1
Me walking into my parents’ house is like Toby Maguire walking into Pleasantville: We’re playing out different movies. Who’s living in gray scale and who’s living in color is another question altogether.
1. Burton, T.I. (2017, June 7). What is a cult? Aeon. Retrieved from https://aeon.co/essays/theres-no-sharp-distinction-between-cult-and-regular-religion.↩