Uncultured, by Daniella Mestyanek Young (+Bonus Author Interview!)
Topics: Groups, Cults, Education, Religion, Military, Trauma, Sexual Abuse
Memoirs with Melissa shares bimonthly reviews intended to expose readers to diverse authors and life experiences. To see more of what I’ve read and what I’d like to read next, browse my virtual memoir shelf on Goodreads.
Uncultured is Daniella Mestyanek Young’s story of two cults: the obvious one she was born into, and the more incognito one she joined as a young adult. At just 15 years old, Daniella escaped the Children of God, a religious cult known for its sexual abuse of children. She went on to enroll herself in high school and graduate as valedictorian of her college class only to land in toxic group number two: the U.S. military.
While many people are drawn to learning about Daniella’s experience with a religious cult, she’s every bit as passionate about exposing the misogyny and cult-like characteristics embedded in our military institutions. It’s worth reading the prologue scene twice: once at the beginning, and again after reading the chapters about her life in a cult. The first time I read the prologue scene anchored in her military training, I was intrigued and ready for an exciting book. The second time I heard the scene in Daniella’s virtual reading at Politics and Prose, my jaw dropped at how closely her military experience mirrored her childhood in a cult.
Make no mistake, Uncultured wasn’t written to make readers feel good (though the epilogue will not disappoint if you’re a fan of happy tears). This is a memoir intended to wake us up. What groups do we belong to? And what are we willing to do to be accepted? It’s also important to note that Daniella’s story isn’t without its heartwarming moments: reading as a young child with her mom in Brazil, sneaking out to be with her teenage love, meeting adults who genuinely want to help her, and finding the life partner who joins her to co-create the safe haven she lives in today.
You don’t have to be a cult survivor or a combat veteran to appreciate Uncultured. Daniella’s work is being described as in the ranks with best-selling titles like Educated and The Glass Castle, comparisons the publishing industry doesn’t make lightly. Uncultured is another achievement in a string of Daniella’s successes, including the President’s Volunteer Service Award. I’d venture to say that finding the narrative thread of her life experiences and sewing them together for the benefit of survivors of all kinds may be her most admirable accomplishment yet.
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Read more from this author on her author website at www.UncultureYourself.com.
Bonus Author Interview: Meet Daniella Mestyanek Young
What are your pronouns?
My pronouns are she/her.
What words are you using to describe yourself lately?
I would say atheist, woman, white but made in Latin America. I'm a disabled veteran, but a mostly able-bodied human. I’m a survivor and a writer. Other words I use to describe myself are passionate reader and lifelong learner.
Tell me more about why “passionate reader” and “lifelong learner” are so relevant to your cult experience.
Being a seeker is the one thing scholars have noticed makes you likely to join a cult. If you're an adult who reads, you're likely to be a joiner. There’s this misconception that unintelligent people are drawn to cults. People are actually drawn to cults in times of social turmoil. They're seeking a different system than the broken one they believe they're living in, which directly ties into why we're living through the culting of America right now. When the world is confusing, everybody loves a guru.
There’s this misconception that unintelligent people are drawn to cults. People are actually drawn to cults in times of social turmoil.
Most of us aren’t living in official cults. Can you explain how the average American lands in a cult-like experience?
Anything can become an idea cult. For example, Brené Brown is an influencer and says amazing things. But if all you’re doing is reading Brené Brown books and listening to Brené Brown talks, you might be in the cult of Brené Brown. If I ever get a PhD, I’d like to test this number of hours per week concept. I would suspect it’s 10 to 20. If you’re giving that much of your free brain time to one thing, you’re too in it to notice when it gets toxic. That’s not to say don’t be a lifelong reader or learner, but vary up your reading list.
“Too in it to notice when it gets toxic” reminds me of abusive relationships. Is there any connection between cults and abusive relationships?
Yes. Cult researchers call abusive relationships one-one cults, because it’s the same process. The modern-day army hired psychologists who studied abusive relationships to teach them how to break someone down and build them back up. Those of us who come out of cults or abusive childhoods need to be aware that we’re actually drawn to these kinds of abusive patterns. Often, we’re seeking a guide for life. In Uncultured, I go from cult to emotionally abusive relationship, and then into the army. I think I was seeking so hard for someone to show me how to fit into the world, and my first husband seemed like the perfect person. Later on, I found my friend Danielle, who became my guide to life in a less toxic way.
What is a truth you know now that you didn’t know before you started writing Uncultured?
Chapter 17 almost broke me because writing it made me realize I used the army to get away from my first husband. My original narrative was that I joined because of patriotism, because I felt lucky to be an American. As I sold the book deal, I was asked to testify against my ex-husband for white supremacy connected to the events of January 6. It turns out, he’s the only way to explain why I joined the army. Admitting that felt like it was going to kill me. I put it on the page because it was the better book. After that, the rest of the writing was so much easier. I had been under all this shame, and finally it was understandable why I made all of these decisions, good or bad.
I also didn’t realize I had absorbed this idea from the cult that the world is bad, and I’m never going to fit anywhere. Uncultured is the story of me picking up armor and putting it on. When I escaped the cult at 15, I was probably going to let the real Daniella peek out, until I was standing there in high school thinking, “I'm from another planet.” Not until studying groups, writing this book, having other writers help me peel back the layers, did I realize I spent 20 years putting on armor I didn't need. The only thing ever actually hurting me, other than the trauma, was trying to hide my story. That was what was making me not fit.
The only thing ever actually hurting me, other than the trauma, was trying to hide my story.
When I first started following you, I remember you sharing a photo on Instagram of a woman holding a sign that said “It ran in the family until it ran into me.” When did you realize you wanted to stop running and face your story head-on?
That phrase makes me cry. So many of us millennials are ending generational trauma, whether we’ve grown up in institutionalized abuse from a single family or a cult. I thought I was fine. Then I had a child. I didn’t know anything about raising children, but I knew I was not going to repeat the patterns I grew up with.
The line in your epilogue that refers to your daughter as “first generation freedom” made me cry.
Parenting for us survivors is very hard. At some point I realized I didn't really have a mom. My mom didn't really have a mom. How did I think I could do this? But that is how we end generational trauma—being humble enough to say “I don’t know how to do this.” The way things were done with me weren’t right, so I’ve had to be open to learning. In our house, we do not say “because I told you so.” We explain ourselves to our daughter. It’s so different than the way I grew up, which can be very frustrating and triggering for me. But it's also very healing to see a child ask why, have an adult pay them attention, and give them a real answer.
So many of us are taught as children to not question authority. Can you talk about how that carried over into your military service?
Studies show you only have 6 months to a year at most to glean knowledge from your new people before they become inundated in your culture. In high control groups, you only have 8 to 10 weeks, which is why basic training is 8 to 10 weeks. As new lieutenants, we're so young and eager. We want to change everything. We want to question everything. But there's this attitude of “sit down and shut up, Lieutenant.” By the time I was a captain with more power to question and create change, I was tired. Whether in a family or an organization, we need to ask how to harness the questions of the newer people. They might be naive, but answering their questions can tell you so much about yourself, your group, and the person who’s asking why.
Before you sold Uncultured, you had an essay about the parallels between the cult and the army go viral. Why do you think so many people relate to your story?
Before I started writing the book, I had this quote above my desk from a psychologist who told me, “Daniella, your stories have value because we study the extremes to understand everyone else.” Most people haven't been a woman at war, but we've all probably been the only woman in the room. And we've all probably been a six-year-old who wanted a fairy godmother to come take her somewhere else. Boiling our extreme stories down to the basic emotions, and then figuring out how to get people to relate to them is a big part of the writing process.
Most people haven't been a woman at war, but we've all probably been the only woman in the room.
You have a page-turning story with the events of your life alone. But you managed to add depth and power with the meaning you make of it and the emotions you infuse into each chapter. How were you able to revisit your traumas long enough to write Uncultured without letting them pull you under? Or did they pull you under for a time?
When I was writing my book, it was what I was doing professionally. I had childcare. I had a husband and friends who were very supportive. Beyond that, it was really the question of “Why am I writing this?” One of the things I said to a family member, whom I lost because of writing this book, was that I need to make some sense of all this pain in my life. Writing was a way to turn the pain into post-traumatic growth. And I wanted to help change the culture in the military for women. So I had some big reasons for writing, which is not to underestimate how hard it was. Crawling into the mind of a 24-year-old lieutenant, thinking about jumping off a tower, wasn't as hard as coming back out each day to having a child, a husband, and a life to get back to. There were days, especially when I was writing about the abusive acts, that I had to just say “No one can touch me. No one can talk to me.” I also had co-writers. Even though I had to live the story and write it down, I had someone to bounce the pages off of right away. When you're writing and you're being very open, you can go into these shame spirals. So it was very helpful to have other people in this project with me to let me know it was normal.
Something I often hear from readers is they have a hard time reading true accounts of traumas and abuses. What would you say to the person not wanting to read a book that is likely to make them uncomfortable?
If you've had any kind of trauma, which I think every woman alive has, reading accounts of other people's trauma can be difficult. But it can also help you learn how to explain your own story. I was really drawn to certain kinds of memoirs, like child trafficking stories or even enslaved people stories, before I realized I was trafficked as a child. I was slave labor growing up. Our trauma is not presented to us in plain packages when we go through it. Sometimes I have to stop reading a book because it’s too triggering. People should definitely respect that. But there’s no superfluous trauma in Uncultured. I didn’t write anything for shock value. I've had friends say they barely got through the cult portion, and I say please keep going. You'll get to the parallels in the second half. If you're triggered, take care of yourself. But all the stories are shared with a “so what” at the end. The entire point is to show that these groups we love can be toxic so you can start looking at the groups you love.
Our trauma is not presented to us in plain packages when we go through it.
In addition to experiencing a lot of trauma, you’ve experienced a lot of success—a presidential award, winning a marathon, a book deal with a major publisher. Does success come with its own stressors and challenges?
Success makes you stand out, and anytime you stand out, you're more of a target. But I've also learned perfectionism was kind of my drug addiction. A lot of my cult baby peers got out, and said the only thing they knew how to do was dance and perform in public. So they became strippers to survive, and a lot of them had these crazy drug lives and recovery like you might expect. I happened to pick socially acceptable addictions. I picked being a straight-A student, and then running so hard it destroyed my body. Completing my master's is the only time I went through school in a healthy way, without that obsession and need to be perfect.
What are some cult dynamics or toxic group characteristics you’ve noticed from your experience in traditional publishing?
The most obvious thing, which applies to the entertainment industry at large, is it’s literally about followers. If you have 100,000 followers on any social media platform, you can get a book deal about whatever you want to write. Then there’s the whole thought influencer thing, which makes me a bit uncomfortable. I want to be more of an expert on a topic and less of a thought influencer.
What benefits have you received from publishing the traditional route that you wouldn’t have otherwise had access to?
One-hundred percent, the network is the benefit. I got a book deal with St. Martin’s Press with a lot of emphasis behind it. And Macmillan, who is the parent company, promotes and manages the audio. Depending on what you're writing and why, you can be very successful in a small press or independent publisher. But because my book involves so much trauma, and I felt writing it was going to blow up my life, I thought I should go with a big publisher. Also, I hate doing sales and development, which I've done since I was a child in the cult. I am always a fan of teams and group effort.
Has an unimagined reader of your memoir emerged outside of who you thought your target audience was?
I didn’t know about this entire community called Exvangelical. My editor is an Exvangelical, and the reason she took on the book is because she could see its potential with that audience. I often say I’m lucky my cult is considered a cult, because my religious trauma is recognized. So many other people are just starting to realize they experienced trauma. It was new for me to see there’s this whole huge audience who has similar experiences of religious abuse and cult-like control. Another one I expected, but I don’t think the publisher expected, was male military members and veterans. Publishing wisdom says men don’t read books by women. But soldiers read books by soldiers. The completely surprising audience is active Christians. The book doesn't demonize religion, and it’s not political. Anyone can read and get their own stuff out of it. I just wouldn’t have expected that. The things other people read in your work are so interesting.
I often say I’m lucky my cult is considered a cult, because my religious trauma is recognized. So many other people are just starting to realize they experienced trauma.
What topics are you passionate about using your writing to address or explore lately?
My chosen topics of expertise are toxic group behavior, toxic power, and leadership demagoguery. Even in my organizational psychology degree, I've spent most of my life studying the bad guys. I want to explore toxic controls in all the different ways. I'm working on a novel about five generations of mothers and daughters who go through religious extremism and what that does to the sacred parent-daughter, mother-daughter relationship. I'm also working on another book called Culting of America, which is about how programming, influence, isolation, and all these group dynamics work and can turn toxic.
How can readers best support your current creative life?
If you find the book interesting, tell your five best friends. We really think this is a word-of-mouth book, like Educated and a lot of memoirs. Also, I’m a corporate speaker with the Macmillan Speakers Bureau. If anyone wants a speaker to use fun, interesting stories to teach about group dynamics and how to spot toxicity in the workplace, that’s me. And follow me on Twitter. I love talking to people.
What is your favorite memoir?
Hunger by Roxane Gay is probably my favorite. She directly relates really bad trauma to body issues and control issues, which I’ve experienced in very similar and very different ways. I also loved The Glass Castle, and Educated has been a huge model for me. Then there’s Untamed, by Glennon Doyle. I expected it to be a story of her and Abby, and it was. But it's all these mini essays and mini thoughts that she pulls story into. It's definitely one where you read it and think about your own life.
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