To-do List for Leaving the Cult:
1. Emancipate myself and my children.
2. Enter the free world.
3. Get rich so I can be in control.
When I self emancipated from the cult in Kansas, I had very little understanding of just how long and how intense the journey ahead of me would be. But I began it aggressively. I was alone with three children, and failure was not an option.
I would have to make money. A lot of money.
I had no family--I had left them in the cult. I had no time for friends. I had left them behind too and come back to Maryland with nothing.
I was walking a high wire with no safety net, carrying three children under the age of three.
I was throwing caution to the wind because I really believed that nothing could possibly be worse than where I had already been. I had one goal, and one goal only: to free myself and my children. The specifics of how to do that I did not know--I only knew that freedom was what I wanted.
I didn't want just necessities and safety for my children. I wanted a future.
In the shorter term, I wanted to be one of those privileged few who rose to such a status in their workplace that their value could translate into power and flexibility to take care of the other important things in life.
I wanted a future, but I also wanted the present. And just aiming for flexibility at my job would be settling. Nothing short of freedom would do.
Because I hoped that I might still be able to fall back into that life of making meals for my children, putting them down for naps, and cleaning the apartment. I made myself believe that if I worked hard enough, I could get there. I didn't understand that I was trading my emotional connection with my children for the responsibility of having to provide a life for them.
I learned a lot about the world from watching television and movies for the first time since my limited exposure to popular culture in elementary school. To acquire what I believed would be the business acumen I needed for survival, I turned to books.
I hadn't grown up in the real world, and I definitely hadn't gone to school in it. Books were my window into how the world really worked, particularly the world of business and the science of human psychology.
I was on a mission to outrun my past, and to outrun my children's growing up.
As I read, I went to work each day and immediately applied what I had learned.
I overachieved in the first low-level positions I held, and began to climb up the corporate ladder.
Even after being back in Maryland several years, I was still voraciously consuming all of the worldly knowledge I could find, immersed in this journey to succeed and taking nothing for granted. But the new world in which I found myself was not without danger.
I was working for a company in Baltimore. At that time my commute to work was 90 minutes each way. Not a second of that was wasted thanks to the local public library and the audio books I could borrow there for free.
During my hour lunch breaks I would sit in the back bench seat of my van in the parking lot, surrounded by library books, devouring information.
One particular day I happened to look up and see a man peering into the front passenger side window.
The windows were tinted, which made it less obvious that someone was inside the car, but he wasn't expecting me either. Either way, he didn't see me.
His hand a visor above his eyes, his face close to the glass of the window, he was checking to see if the doors were unlocked. He could see that the buttons for the locks were up.
I could have hit the electronic lock on my key fob lock him out and protect myself, but in the intensity and shock of the moment I couldn't find my keys.
Photo: Rose Anderson
"Who Moved My Cheese". "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People". "The 80/20 Principle". Psychology. Marketing. Business. People management. Behavioral economics. Communication. Negotiation. All helpful with business skills, but not so with much-needed street smarts. My self-protection skills would guard me against poverty and against my past resurfacing, but had not been sharpened for this very real world.
I knew the keys had to be on the seat, perhaps under the scattered piles of books, but I couldn't look down. Unable to take my eyes off the man just outside the window, I shifted books around on either side of me, feeling with the flat palms of my hands, trying not to move too quickly or make any sound that would cause him to notice me.
All of these books surrounding me, and all I wanted were my keys, buried in this now seemingly useless pile of my efforts to become wealthy.
He walked around the front of the van, and came around to the drivers side door.
What happened in the next few seconds could determine whether or not I got to be on this earth long enough to succeed at anything.
Or to take care of my children.
Where were the keys? Oh my god, where are my keys?
He opened the driver's side door and got in.
I could hardly believe my eyes as the man, now seated in the driver's seat of my van, reached under the steering wheel, presumably to hotwire and start the engine.
I could not have navigated the corporate world at all without the overly-obsessed drive to read all of these books and immerse myself in corporate culture. However, at this moment I had to react instantly and save myself from an immediate reality for which no one had prepared me.
In a flash, I made the decision to act.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" I bellowed from the back seat in my most terrifying, powerful voice.
If this man was going to kidnap or kill me, I wasn't going to make it easy for him. I wanted him to know that.
Without ever turning around, the man yelped "Oh, I'm sorry!", opened the door, and exited the vehicle.
Once outside, he hesitated for a moment, as if contemplating getting back in. But I had reacted with anger rather than fear. Common sense got the better of him, and he began to run away from the van as fast as he could.
He had still never seen me.
By the time the police came, he had gone a few blocks away and helped himself to an unlocked car, this time with no one in it.
For awhile, I thought it would be fun to have a cool story to tell. But it wasn't long before I realized I couldn't tell the story any more. I had gotten the same question at the end of the story enough times that a clear pattern had emerged. How to even begin to understand or handle this situation was not something I had found in any of the books I had read.
The question was not about how I had felt, or what I had thought about as I sat helpless and in danger. It wasn't about why I couldn't pull myself together enough to just look down among the books and see the key fob that could save me. It wasn't about why I had said what I did when I made my presence known, or how I had known to say it in just the right tone to scare the man away.
It made me uncomfortable, but I couldn't articulate why, nor could I understand why the question was being asked so consistently, in the same way, by different people in different places, completely independent from one another.
And so I began to slowly become aware of the intricate, multi-layered architecture of constructs that created life in the "real" world. It wasn't deconstructing them that was difficult or mysterious. It was becoming aware of them in the first place. When I left the cult I had escaped my cell, but I was slowly realizing that I had not yet escaped the prison.
"What color was he? Was he black?"