What does the infamous Children of God sex cult have in common with the United States Military? We sat down with Daniella Mestyanek Young to find out.
In Daniella’s eye-opening, gripping memoir, UNCULTURED, she courageously explores her harrowing experiences growing up in the Children of God, and the profound parallels between that tumultuous past and her later service in the United States Military. Daniella’s writing is raw and unflinching, offering a rare insight into the emotional and psychological challenges she has faced.
A powerful storyteller, her experiences have propelled her to become a prominent voice in discussions surrounding the psychology of cults, military service, and the human capacity for strength, growth, and progress. Through interviews, public speaking engagements, professional coaching sessions, and a vigorous web presence, she offers a message of hope, resilience, and the potential for personal growth and transformation. Daniella’s journey is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the ability to overcome the most daunting of challenges. UNCULTURED is not just a memoir but a powerful exploration of the human condition, touching on themes of trauma, recovery, and the quest for identity and belonging.
In sharing her remarkable story, Daniella Mestyanek Young invites readers to examine the parallel threads of her life’s tapestry and to ponder the universal themes of resilience, redemption, and the pursuit of a life worth living. Her work stands as a testament to the power of the human spirit to triumph over adversity and emerge from the darkest of circumstances as a beacon of strength and inspiration. She sat down with Tiny Spoon’s Sam Cook to talk about the world we all live in (the beginning of the interview, which includes a sneak-preview to Daniella’s next book, as well as the transcript of their conversation in its entirety, can be accessed here):
Tiny Spoon: Those of us that look at the world around us and with a critical eye, with a discerning eye, we can understand that, in a certain sense, history is written by the victor. So, there’s a reason that the Taliban [for example] are, thumbs down—a bad group, a cult. Whereas the United States military, or academia, or ‘Western hegemony’ as a more nebulous term, is thumbs up—it’s the drawing of lines and distinctions. The prescriptive nature of: What is a cult? How does it work? Is what I think that you hint at it in multiple spots throughout [UNCULTURED].
Daniella: I like to think that all of my academic theory is tucked into that… [and] story is the best way to move ideas. So [the question was] how do we take these concrete ideas that matter to everyone, and tuck them into the story?
TS: What I see right now is there’s this hyperfocus on American exceptionalism, individualism; there’s a hyperfocus on the individual, and there’s a hyperfocus on identity. What it seems to me is that by putting people into different groups, be it self-proclaimed or otherwise, saying, “Well, I’m this and I’m unique and I’m special…” And of course, we’re all special. Don’t think for a minute I don’t believe that. But to say, I’m different than you and I fit in with this group of people and this is my clan and these are my people—it gives way to political extremism of all sorts. There’s something subversive about it, there’s something that infiltrates the media that we consume… and it’s not a bad thing to have this invisible world that surrounds and connects all of us, but I feel like I’m looking at the world around me, waiting for an impact. When I first read [UNCULTURED] I felt viscerally angry; there’s a feeling of helplessness, like this is the world we live in…
D: Yes. So, a couple of the things— America has the most cults, by far, and I think that American individualism plays into that. One thing we know about people that tend to join cults is that they don’t usually come from very strong cultures, and they’re seeking something that’s missing. So… we see a lot of cults in times of social turmoil and that is because social systems are being pulled down and people are searching for meaning; nobody ends up in a cult on accident; they’re searching for something.
Right now, I think we are living through the end of the American experiment. You hear people say we’re in ‘end stage capitalism’… so, I think one of the hard things with deconstruction, or any time you’ve had a belief, and this goes also to your political parties or whatever, it’s mourning the idea of ‘what could have been’ …[and] we have this ‘live and let live’ attitude in America, with the individualism. [Also, consider] the internet. When I was in intelligence school the worst disaster in the world was the internet going down; millions and millions of people started to die; we saw that in Puerto Rico on a mini scale. And so, it’s like we have created all of these things that we need to survive, and now we’re realizing it’s not the better way.
We understood that we needed to live in groups to dominate everything else alive on the planet and that groups and systems are stronger than individuals. Now, we are realizing that most of those groups and systems are messed up! I think all millennials are going through their crack-in-the-brainwashing moment; leaving their cults and being like, oh, all of this was messed up… we are living through the Armageddon of the American experiment, and something else is going to rise out of the ashes, and it’s going to be different. I think most of the world is figuring out that a responsible kind of socialism is the next evolution of democracy. And I even feel like it’s really conceited of us to think that we are the end-all-be-all; no empire has ever lasted longer than 250-300 years. [Eventually they all create] this triangle where they spread out so much that they then cannot maintain their superiority and no one’s ever beat that before, but we think it’s going to be us, just like no one’s ever won an insurgency before— we spent 20 years trying to pretend like it was going to be us.
You talked about how accessible the writing was, so, first of all, I had one person tell me, “I don’t think your stories have a market, because I don’t think that a good girl from Milwaukee who’s never had anything bad happened to her can understand growing up in a sex cult or being a woman in military.” And I responded, well, I would check the concept; that there was a nice girl from Milwaukee that never had anything bad happened to her? All women can think of a time when they were a little girl and they wished they had a fairy godmother to take them away and bring them to a better world. All women and girls have had trauma, that’s why Disney is a billion-dollar industry. Then on the flip side, I had a psychiatrist to tell me, “Your stories have value because we study the extremes to understand everyone else.” And what I really tried to do here was sort of that Jane Austen ‘every woman’ thing; you’re reading my story but you’re inside the eyes of that child [in the story] and you’re experiencing all of it. So, you can picture how those things about group behavior impacted you in your world, even though you never went through a cult.
I always say: there’s three steps, or three phases, to leaving a cult. You have to 1. wake up (the crack in the brain-washing) and actually leave. This is where I think [culturally] a lot of millennials are right now. And then I think it takes about a decade, but you have to 2. understand why you were in a cult, and then what impacts it had on you. For me, I was born in one, so that took me to understanding systems and how we’re handed down generational trauma. Just because I didn’t choose it, it’s still having lifelong impacts on me, even though I rejected it, that’s part of the journey. Here was me thinking, oh I walked away from that. I can just run as fast as I can, work hard, you know, one day I’ll hit enough success and when you’re Captain in the Army and it’s not enough and you’re still broken. You’re like, okay, I need to start dealing with this. And then the third phase: 3. once you’ve got everything deconstructed and put in place, then you have to figure out how you move forward with no models.
I think those last two phases often happen simultaneously. For me, writing this book, studying what they call ‘social identity theory’, basically how we identify in our groups, that was what led me to realize literally two years ago that one of my issues is that I never got to develop a personal identity—because that’s what we’re doing between the ages of one and six; we’re understanding that we are separate from our mothers and we’re developing that personal identity, and then a little bit more as a teenager, with pushing the boundaries—I never got to do any of that, so I have to start doing that now.
TS: As I was reading UNCULTURED, I had my own… trip. About this emphasis on identity and finding your place in the world and how that can mold us, and how this emphasis on the individual can be used by groups to kind of… ‘amoeba’ out, and suck folks in.
D: Essentially, we’ve replaced God with the individual. So, one of the things I say a lot: in cults and in any kind of coercive control, from one person to another, you’re going to have these thought-stopping cliches, So, “trust the prophet,” “we keep sweet,” “boys will be boys.” These are all thought-stopping cliches. And then people ask, “Okay, well, are all our religions cults?” No, but all religions have a point on which logic doesn’t explain it and you must therefore go on faith. So, all religions have thought-stopping cliches baked in, which means they have the potential to be manipulated by people for coercive control. That’s why we see trends; religions become cults, gyms, non-profits… that’s sort of what you’re saying, right? Like if someone says, “Oh it’s just me, you can’t question me, I’m doing this for myself in my own health, we kind of take that up, right? [Take for example] when our culture was advocating an eating disorder, right now, as healthy eating— and [this trend is] going around. We have in many ways made the individual bad and we don’t question God. So, we don’t question the individual.
TS: And that’s different than the ancient Gnostic tradition of saying, “Well, no, it’s not that the individual is God, but God is within all of us.”
D: And that’s different than elevating just the individual… I believe that any idea can become its own cult, or can be used to radicalize people.
TS: It seems like a self-perpetuating cycle, where if you have the overemphasis on the individual as a God, you have all of us sequestering ourselves into our identities, (and we all do it, I’m no different; “Oh, I’m a writer. Oh, I’m a musician…”) and we give ourselves these labels. We say this is who I am because it feels safe. It feels good to say this is where I belong and these are my people.
D: One of the human drives is defining yourself and your community—we need an us and we need a them. To get that high of community, you need this polarization. I don’t think the groups that are soulless corporations are on the way to becoming cults, they’re just soulless corporations; they’re their own bad thing. It’s the groups that are ‘people-first’ that are the ones on their ways to becoming cults.
One of my analogies is: in the military, we have operations and we have intelligence, and these two are partners—we used to joke “We’re married!” but you’re set in opposition to each other. So, if you’re operations and your job is going to take that village, I’m security and my job is bring everyone home alive. Well, the best way for me to bring home everyone home alive is to not let them go anywhere near the village, but that’s a really terrible way for you to take the village; that’s not going to be an effective way, right?
When I used to give CEOs these talks about culture, [I would tell them] I can ask everyone that owns a business: “Can I see your business plan? Or, can you tell me about your financials?” And you’re going to be able to do something, but then if I ask you, “Hey does Tiny Spoon have a culture plan?” Well then, I’ve got people staring at me like I’ve purple spots on my face, but everyone will see that culture is the most important thing. So, it’s like… how do you do that?
And this is the kind of career I feel like I’m carving out for myself; everyone in the space of culture and group development focuses on the good stuff. [But my question is:] who’s keeping an eye on the bad guy?
The security officer in the army is always resented. We’re told that from the beginning, you’re seen as the bad guy— you’re seen as the person that’s always bringing up the negative. And so, I get it; nobody wants to do that in operations. And I feel like in every company, if you have two people, one of you should be in charge of operations—usually companies have that—then the other person is in charge of culture; everything that you do: how’s this going to affect your people? And then you don’t know, so you have to forecast out, understand what you expect to see, build some checkpoints in, and see if you’re doing that. And if not, you re-adjust. So, [I think that] all of these things are almost easy and obvious, but because it’s negative, because it’s dangerous, because nobody wants to think that they’re going to become manipulative, or that they’re going to build a group that has toxic power over people, people don’t look at this stuff.
In the military, every brief has a place for the security officer: What’s going to happen to us? What is the danger? It’s not if it’s when. When things go wrong, what are we going to do? My favorite example of this was maybe back in 2012, the Department of Homeland Security made ‘Prepare for the Zombie Apocalypse’ posters. Because they thought, well, Americans won’t care about preparing for a tornado, but if we say “prepare for the zombie apocalypse” people will think that’s cool, and then they’ll be more prepared for the tornado. That’s what intelligence is in the military; [I remember] I couldn’t get my soldiers excited to do a country brief about Afghanistan, so I let them do it in World of Warcraft instead! You tell me you’re going to go do X mission and I’m thinking, what am I going to do? I do this in leadership seminars with paint, and they’re all painting their canvas… and halfway through I come by and I throw black paint on their canvas! Or, sometimes I just make everyone switch canvases.
TS: That is profound… so, I think we agree that we are living through the end of the American experiment, and the question is: What happens next? Well, we don’t know exactly. But we know that it’ll be different… and that it’ll be a lot more of the same in a lot ways—the power dynamics that come out of class, race, and social strata… these things offer a certain degree of protection for certain folks, maybe not so much for others, but as we navigate the changing of Empire, I think that there’s an inclination to not look at the negatives, to not talk about things honestly, and I think that where you’re making a difference is that you’re rejecting that ethos and saying, no, in fact, we need to have books like UNCULTURED, and the next one. What we need to do is be able to talk about the less-than-savory aspects of the way politics works—the way that any of this works.
D: Yeah! And to understand that our propensity is to love the group we’re in and to justify the group that we’re in. We have one of the rules, Tom, [my husband], came up with this one: anytime you’re chanting your own last name, you’re in a cult. There’s organizational science behind this—they’ve done studies with middle schoolers where you divide them all up into groups and they have to work together as a group to get the grade, and everybody thinks they just got the best group ever— everybody thinks that— every group will go on and on about how their group is the best ever. Usually when this is done in business, at a conference or whatever, you only do one, right? You break up into groups, one group, your group is the best blah blah blah etc. So, with this study, they keep putting them in different groups and by the time you get to the third or fourth group, you start to realize that all the groups are awesome! Human beings interacting with each other is awesome, human beings working together does more than an individual can do, but it’s just to say: anytime you think your group is awesome, just because it’s your group, it’s for politics. Anytime you’re chanting your own last name, it’s a cult. One of my other rules is that you need to ask yourself all the time: is this a cult? If you asked your other members of Tiny Spoon “Is this a cult?” What would be the first reaction?
TS: Probably laughter.
D: Bingo! If you can’t laugh about it, you were already on the downslope. [For example] my dad is a literal comic artist. He’s a funny, funny man, my stepfather, but if you called The Family a cult… he’s not funny anymore. If you say to a Mormon that Mormonism is a little bit cult-y, they do not like that joke, they will not laugh! So, I think that’s your sign; in a healthy organization, you should be able to ask yourself: where does this go toxic? So, you should be able to joke, and say, “this is a little bit cult-y… but here’s what we do” right?
TS: Yeah, this is how we know: we’re not a cult.
D: Yeah, like every organizational conference? Cult. I’m probably going to go do an MFA next, and I’m really excited because every semester I get to go out and do a 10-day residency in a literary cult world at [someplace] like Tahoe; that’s going to be amazing. The difference is you go home after those ten days. If you stayed living there you would start to become a cult and if things got toxic, if the logic broke down, (where humans tend to trend towards wanting power), then you become a toxic cult.
TS: I can confirm that MFA-world is absolutely a cult, not to say that people shouldn’t do it— I don’t regret it, but you have to know that going in; I didn’t realize that until about halfway through my MFA program.
D: I’ve already been warned that because I have a successful book in the popular press, I will be a writer*… with an asterisk; this book needed to be published by an independent university press for me to be taken seriously as an MFA student.
TS: People can get envious… if anyone is successful in any field—more successful than other folks in that field—they’ll look at you with a higher degree of criticism.
D: I always say about this book: when I set out to write a book about groups, I knew I needed the right group to help me do it. One of the things my co-writer told me was that “publishing is the most collaborative art form!” This book is so good because like a hundred different people worked on it! When I started on this journey of what I call ‘turning my brain into money’ I was having some lunch conversation with someone at this networking thing, and they asked “Do you have fascinating conversations, like this all the time?” and… yes, I do! and when I worked in security, I did not. And now I’m very popular on TikTok because I have learned [a process where] all I’m doing every day is reading a whole bunch, thinking of stuff, and then writing my next book. So, I thought, y’know what? TikTok will find this fascinating. So, 50,000 people watch me read a clip about ADHD and then start talking about rape culture from there. Anyways, I got 20,000+ followers pretty quickly. I’m just the girl with the degree from Harvard that has a bona fide cult background but also wants to apply it to the world all around you.
TS: It’s clear to me that you’ve had so many experiences, experiences where not every person makes it through to the other side, especially with this zest for life. Obviously, you want to change the world, you want to make things better for other people; in the simplest way possible: you want to make a difference.
D: Which also puts you at risk for joining cults!
D: So, the one thing that scholars have identified that makes you want to join a cult is… just being a seeker; being overly idealistic and being a seeker. So, people tend to think it’s that people [who join cults] are dumb or they need money, and so you know, my favorite example is that a Harvard-educated lawyer died at the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco. So, it’s not stupid people, it’s good people…[and] I’ve always had a mission; first I was a missionary kid winning the world for God, then I was in the military, and then I was writing this book! So, it’s one of those things I identify that is not bad, but it puts me at a risk of joining a cult.
TS: Certainly! That personally resonates with me, as I consider myself a bit of an idealist, and it’s something that I work on too. I’m critical of myself enough to do the metacognition to notice what I notice about the way I think and about the way I act. And also, to notice what I notice about the world around me.
D: It’s the same with charismatic people. There’s a really great book called ‘Influence’ by Robert Cialdini, and it [delves into] people that have charisma, this quality of charisma, that people are always trying to define because it can be so great, but also so harmful… So, the problem is: charisma is different than likeability… but that’s kind of how it presents, right? Which means the only way to protect yourself against charismatic people is to spend your life avoiding likeable people… but, you’re not going to do that, so, what can you do? And the answer is: you can notice [what you notice about individual and group behavior]. …All that to say, there isn’t necessarily an answer to a lot of these things. Human dynamics and group dynamics have inarguably changed in all of human history. And so that’s why I think, we need to talk about cults; we need this stuff because it is kind of the ultimate [mechanism] in human control, but that same control factor is everywhere. It is the ultimate in ‘us versus them’ and dehumanizing [others], but human beings always stack rank and always kill the ones at the bottom.
It is really weird walking around in the world as a cult survivor, which honestly, one of the things I wanted this book to show was that we bring something else to the table other than just how to survive trauma… [and] some of the things cults really do right are… community, motivation, purpose. And you can ask any [military] veteran to tell you about their service and it will be: horror story, horror story, horror story, but I made the best friends ever, and I had the time of my life—and it’s the same with us ‘cult babies’. Even someone like me who ran away as fast as I could from that environment, I spend the rest of my life looking for that connection, that feeling of when you meet someone and you have so much in common with them—the first time you meet you’re talking for five hours— that is an amazing feeling, and I rarely had that outside of the cult world except as a veteran. So, one of the things that drew me into the army is that I kind of failed at socializing in the outside world, which is what drives a lot of people into cults. And then I was handed a uniform, and an immediate group, and jokes that everyone understood… and all you have to do is essentially sell out your individuality for that higher community. And I would say, from the literary perspective, it’s hard to find cult books that aren’t just the trauma narrative. Which is just… “and then she survived,” and I really didn’t want to write that. I really wanted this to be a page-turning story, which I think it is. Also, [I wanted it to contain] the ideas that matter to everyone.
TS: Absolutely. And there’s this through line, this idea that the runs through UNCULTURED where you clearly are making parallels between Children of God and the US military, all while fitting your experience and perspective into it, as so aptly put at the end of the book when your colleague in the military says, “You need to write about this, you need to write all this down.”
D: I get this statement all the time, people say, “Well, you don’t seem like a cult survivor.” And I got a lot of rejections on [pitching] UNCULTURED [to publishers]; “Oh, we don’t do Children of God it’s too awful,” and then by same token, “Oh, you don’t look like a veteran.” And by the publishing industry; “Oh we don’t do books by military women because they don’t sell,” and there’s this parallel: We think we know what cults are, we think we know what happens to the daughters of America when they disappear behind the high commune walls of the Department of Defense, but we really don’t. And that was my realization; that someone just needs to talk about it all. It’s stood out to me that every generation of woman veteran has reached out to me to basically say, “I thought it got better after my time, I thought it got better.” —and it was a big wake up call for a lot of the men that worked with me, to say, “I just thought you were so professional, and your whole career was easy…” So, for them to realize it— that’s the only way we make change, talking about it… [and] nothing made me special, I just put it in a book. I was the first one to write it down. The fact that we’ve all gone through this, and no one says anything, and no one questions anything, is what makes it cult-y.
TS: And that’s part of the design too, right? Because the atomization of the individual, and the overemphasis on the individual, again, works in that self-completing cycle.
D: And it’s in our culture too, and it’s the individualism, and it’s also the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality… [Furthermore,] you need to tell our stories [everywhere], not just over here in the military women’s museum, it needs to be told [in all the museums]; we need to be able to talk about all of it, because this is the only way [to change things for the better]. What you have is all these men at the top trying to fix something that they know is a horrible problem, but the men at the top are either the predators or they’re the good guys, so they can’t see it—one or the other.
TS: I could assume that the men at the top, even if they’re not the predators, then they are at least complicit in that [predatory behavior] because to get to that level—and it could be in the military, could be at a company, it could be at a university—you become part of the problem by your acquiescence to the issue.
D: [Many of the folks mentioned in UNCLUTURED] …were good people, they loved me, they tried to help me, but ultimately, what can they do in these groups that they’re sort of complicit in? When I started writing this book, I did not know it was going to be as critical as it turned out. And I think part of why it’s so hard for us to deconstruct any group experience is because then you can’t be proud of it anymore.
TS: I think that pointing to contradictions saying, “Yes, I suffered abuse but I am proud of my service,” the two things exist in tandem— right and left, black and white; it’s one thing. To point to these contradictions in the way that you have, and to use your observations of your own experience, it takes, of course, discernment, and also courage— and in doing so you’ll never know exactly how many people you’ve helped with this book, or the next. What you’re doing is making a tangible difference in this world and serving as that opposite side. You’re completing the contradiction as it stands. To write this book, and to write the next, and to make this your pursuit, your mission, your career, whatever you want to call it— this is the way. This is the way that things change, and how things could get marginally better.
D: One of the things you said earlier was so beautiful, and I think about this a lot: usually the victors are the ones that get to write down the story. And so, I didn’t set out to write a book; I set out [interested in] cult culture, [thinking] I want to spend the rest of my life talking about culture… and one of the things I realized on both the Children of God side and the Army side was that I was not finding what to me felt like a complete representation of the culture of what I went through. I didn’t write the first Children of God book, I definitely didn’t write the first military woman book, but if I had found a book that I thought [represented my experiences and the parallels between them] well, I wouldn’t have written mine.
I did have a really belated realization after writing a book called UNCULTURED that was, oh, I am part of defining the culture for women —you can no longer say that you fully understand the Children of God, or the experience of being a woman in the army, if you haven’t read this book, because you’re not getting the whole picture. And especially for people that want to change the world, it’s like, well, writing a book makes you immortal in some ways, doesn’t it? Actually, one of my signs of success, of keeping count: 12 people have told me that they’ve gotten their therapists to read this book. And so, that’s like you said; it’s making a difference, and religious traumas are still really just being defined, and people are giving my book to their therapist so that they can understand them. That was the mission… and I lost my little sister, she won’t talk to me anymore because I wrote a book, and the only thing I could tell her was, “Look, I am not religious. I struggle with meaning, a lot of meaning in my life, in order for me to choose to stay alive, and this is a way that I can see to do that— to help other people.” That’s the whole point of memoir.
TS: I think that across the across the board, many people will make excuses for silence, especially after the fact. And I think that in a lot of different fields, hindsight is 20/20, where when after the atrocity is said and done, you’re able to look back and then you could say “Okay, well… this is what this was… that was really messed up,” but when you’re in it…
D: And then also people will say, “Oh, you know, the rape in the military is almost the same rate as the population, we can’t control it.” Like when the bad thing does happen, when someone does rape the children, when there’s just a bad apple, get rid of the bad apple! Because that is what almost never happens. And that is what comes from the deification of the military— we can’t criticize. Every time I say: “Look how basic training is just programming, they learned it from psychologists who studied abusive relationships, that is what they did.” People go, “Well, yeah, we need it!” Maybe we need it, but we need to be talking about it. We need to be understanding it… It’s just sitting with a discomfort, and again, this is another thing about cults— why people love cults is: clarity. When the world is confusing, being surrounded by other people that look just like you, think just like you, and confirm that your mission in life is the right one—that feels really, really good. This is why when veterans leave the military and they’re struggling with suicide, I tell them to go find a nonprofit; go find a veteran non-profit because it’s really hard once you’ve had all the hype of the military to feel like anything you do after that is going to be useful. [For instance,] Tom is studying plant science and global poverty, so he can go try to solve world hunger; he was not just going to go be a Southwest pilot, that wasn’t enough for him… So, one of my final things up for groups is always that values are gray—we act like love is good, and money is bad, and I grew up in a world where love was weaponized. So, values, nothing’s obvious— and the hardest thing is to just get comfortable living in the gray and to understand that clarity is not coming; we live in a complicated world. Nobody’s ever going to give you the handshake [and say] “Great job, you made the right choice for your life.”
TS: So, as the material conditions of the world around us continues to slowly degrade, people are struggling, and I think there’s an emphasis on finding community and feeling to be a part of something that, as you’ve said, is innately human that we all—doesn’t matter who you are—we all strive for a way to find a community to combat (either the internal or the external) stressors of life, this way seems to be education; reading, writing, and through that some kind of mental—and in your case, physical—liberation from oppression or oppressors.
D: Yes, so one thing I think about education and cult leaders that most people don’t think of, is obviously, when people are trying to limit what you’re reading, that’s a bad sign, and in my next book, I’m going to have a “How Culty Is Your Organization” survey at the end, and one of the question trees will be about: Do they tell you what to read? Do they control what you read? So that’s super important; you just need to have a reading list that nobody controls, even you. Just think oh that looks interesting, pick it up, read it, because you never know what things are going to speak to your experience or simulate ideas for you. But I think the thing about participating in actual formal education is that you understand that experts always have a limit to their expertise; nobody knows everything.
TS: What role do you feel education, agency, and liberation play in today’s society? And/or why is education, reading, and being critically engaged in the world so important?
D: So, from the perspective of things I talk about: it helps you realize your own programming.
So, for instance, education and agency; I really do not enjoy talking to people who are religious by default, whereas I’m fascinated by talking to people who, as adults, have chosen their religion— could be the same one as their parents, but they’ve actually investigated it, they’ve actually figured out why they are the religion that they are… [it’s important to be] getting educated, taking agency over your own life, and really understanding what are the things that you do, and why? Because every time you’re thinking, “That’s the way we’ve always done it, it’s the way my parents have done it, this is in the Army…” I call this ‘shut up and sit down lieutenant’— you’re more at risk of just going along with the group, whatever it might be… so, there’s this picture out of 1939, Poland, everybody’s hailing Hitler, and one guy is like this [not doing the salute, arms crossed], the spotlight’s on him, and the message is be this guy, everyone thinks they would be this guy, and now people say, “I don’t understand the Nazis,” [but] I think we’re all starting to understand— sociologists say that most of us would have supported Hitler, by far and large. I comfort myself with the fact that I wouldn’t probably have, you probably wouldn’t have, the people that are always criticizing and always standing out [wouldn’t have] …generally when you’re good at going along with groups your life’s going to be easier, you’re going to have much more friends, all that stuff—you’re just also broadly more at risk for toxic control, and being a part of toxic systems too, which I think is worse.
TS: Yeah, and you know you can’t blame folks too much for following the path of least resistance. The pragmatist in me understands that, but that is also where the disjunct occurs between what makes the most sense in the short term, and what makes better sense in the long term, which is to be true to yourself, to your values, your beliefs.
D: I think it’s a balance of both, right? So, my little sister, love her to death, but she, and with my mom it’s very much the same, their personalities are they want to be liked, they want to fit in, not necessarily in a bad way, but they like to be a part of the group, and I don’t like to be a part of the group. So of course, my challenge is then that I always feel alone and isolated, and like nobody likes me, but their experience in the cult really was better, and really was less toxic than mine, and really was less abusive than mine, because ‘go along to get along’ is in their personality. So, another thing of the book that I really wanted to pull out was: anytime you’re in a system that is not made for you, it’s traumatic… For me, I’m happy to be an expert on groups, but I never want to work a nine-to-five again, I never want to be in a large organization. I don’t group very well. I’m always the one standing out, pointing things out, and so I’ve kind of learned that I have to make my own group instead of trying to fit into pre-existing groups.
TS: I think that all of us needs to recognize ourselves and it’s again this contradiction of being able to say, “Okay, this is who I am not because I so much choose to be, but because of the choices that I have made” This is who I am, this is how I move through the world, and this is maybe what my purpose is. A little background about me; what brought me to Colorado [and Tiny Spoon]— back in 2017 I took a really hard fall; I was nonresponsive for a week; I came out of it with a TBI. I should not be alive. None of the doctors could figure it out. And I decided to take some advice and to go out and get the MFA and really dive into education, and it totally shook up my life. I have no idea where I’m headed or what’s going to happen, but it’s just this feeling of well I got a second chance, so now I just need to pay attention, and the path will be illuminated, like in a video game; look where the light shines.
D: …It sounds kind of spiritual and frou-frou, how it’ll be illuminated, and that was kind of what Scott Halter told me; everyone was telling me, “Don’t write about the cult, just write about the army, nobody will take you seriously,” and he was the only one [who told me] don’t just write about the cult and the army, write about being a mom, write about running, just write! Every time I’d write something and send it to him, I’d be so proud, and he would respond with “Ok! Keep writing.” And after four years, I finally realized it, and it’s fascinating— I think once you finally find your thing, you look back and you see how everything was connected all along, because again, we don’t fundamentally change. I was always fascinated by group behavior, in basic training I would get yelled at because I would just be watching the drill sergeants, doing their game of breaking us down and training us, I thought this is fascinating.
So of course, once you find it, once everything comes together, when you find your thread, you find your thing, you think, oh yeah, this has been me all along, and I can find the parts that connect, but really, without taking the time, taking the risk, to do it, you just stay in what you were programmed to do, or [who] you were. Almost everyone, I feel like, has these great stories of things they’ve created or, people that have changed the world— they always have this moment where they had to take their time to figure out what their value was and then do things that were outside of norm, if that makes sense.
TS: On a personal level, I really appreciate [you saying] that, because the last couple of years have been a real crossroads for me, and I’m trying to figure out how do I maneuver and where do I go, what am I going to do? And how do I live my best life? Whatever that is.
D: There’s this great exercise: close your eyes, get a writing pad, and imagine that you’re 80 and then just go through all of your senses— What are you seeing? What are you hearing? What are you smelling? What are you feeling like? What do you want your life to be? And then backwards plan from there. I really like that one.
TS: I like that one, too. So, another question: if readers took at least one moral, value, or insight away from your book, what do you hope it might be? And, without putting words in your mouth, it seems that taking the risk [of writing with intention], is this the insight?
D: I think it’s question everything… There’s this exercise: Ask yourself Why? five times— Why do you want to write a book Daniella? Well, XYZ. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why this coaching thing? And when you finally get through all of your BS answers, you realize what you want to do.
When veterans are getting out of the military, I’ve identified that those first two years out are where there’s the real risky part, because you’re jonesing for the group, for the mission; you’ve lost all of these things and you’ve got to find your purpose— ask yourself, “What you want to be when you grow up?” and ask yourself, Why? over and over and over again. The government thinks that as long as they’ve got you a job on the outside then you’re successful, and then they scratch their heads at 22 of us a day killing ourselves. I’m going to bring you back to the social identity theory versus personal identity, that from birth we are being taught to fit into groups, and we are being taught not to question ourselves, and we are being thrown thought-stopping cliches about the culture and why it is the way it is. Just question everything. What I want people to take away from this book is: wow, I never thought of the parallels between a sex cult and the US army and now I’m going to question all of my groups. I want this to change the way that you look at group behavior for the rest of your life. And it comes back down to that. It’s so easy to not question when everyone else is doing something, and there’s no way to just put a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ label on that; everything’s context, everything’s culture, everything makes sense [some of] the time. So, you really have to just question, just question everything that seems to be obvious; Why do I do this? Why do we do this? And if you don’t know? As parents, this translates to: we do not say the words ‘because I said so’ in my house, those words are absolutely not allowed.
TS: No disrespect to my parents, but I got hit with the ‘because I said so’ a lot as a child, I was very inquisitive, and I’ve carried this this habit with me into adulthood, but what I notice in my own head is that I’ll ask, “why?” about some things, but then there’s other things, maybe about myself and habits that I notice, where I’ll think: I think I know why I do that… Why, why, why— I can follow that to a certain point. And I’m happy to ask— “why does the political system work the way that it does? Why is it just different flavors of Kool-Aid? Why is it all set up like a sports match?” Why, why, why? But then the second that it becomes a little more pointed, a little more personal, maybe that’s when I shy away from asking these ‘why’ questions— it’s a lot to think about!
D: What I have found is that all Americans seem to be able to very easily understand that I was brainwashed, nobody understands what brainwashing is or isn’t, but this concept of: you grew up in a cult, you were taught bad, wrong, things and you had to reteach yourself and understand different things… what Americans don’t seem to realize is that they also were programmed. If you were born in China, to different parents, you would probably have very different beliefs about why, and how, to do things. And that just goes back to a good definition of culture, which is “just the way we do things around here” and so if you think anything is wrong with the culture of America, then you need to start asking ‘why’ about everything, because all of it is so deeply baked in to that.
TS: What advice might you have for other writers that want their story heard? Other than ‘just do it’, just write, write, write—other than that.
D: So, that first is: why do you want to write a book— why are you doing it? And what’s the idea? I started writing a book when I was 24 years old, before [UNCULTURED]; the best thing I ever did was not try to write an actual book until I was ready. But also asked yourself, what is that one idea? I wrote a book that could be very easily sensationalized in a lot of ways and I think that I have almost completely been able to maintain control of that narrative. I got to write exactly what I wanted to write. The first hard thing I had with my publisher was the cover, which turned out great, but they let me write exactly what I wanted to write, and I think that is because I so strongly knew why I was doing it, for me, which also meant I needed to go to this high level— why you’re doing it is going to indicate what level you’re trying to get into the game.
But also, what is that one idea? My book is about group behavior, about how humans will do almost anything to fit in with their groups, and I’m going to show you that through this parallel of cult and army, rather than asking you a question. Because I know that elevator pitch; I could have been proud of this book in a lot of different formats. People can have their own agenda for why they want to read this book or talk to me about it. But I’m still going to get my message across, and I think that’s what is going to allow you to [feel good about your own final product], especially if you’re writing about your own personal trauma, your sex life… You have to put in things that make you look bad and feel bad, but I knew exactly what it was all going to. Every chapter in UNCULTURED, could be an essay; Chapter One: Corporal Punishment, Chapter Two: Split Personalities and Groups Versus Individuals, Chapter Three: Medical Neglect. So, another good [bit of] advice along those lines I heard is: treat every chapter of your book like it could be its own Ted Talk. We had this one idea for UNCULTURED, even though it’s a memoir, we built it almost like an academic paper. So [we had] one idea and then it was the really detailed outline about everything, which is also really helpful because when you’re doing the creative part of writing and you need to get in the mood and put yourself in a trance and lose yourself in the writing, it’s just like salsa dancing. [When] you know your back step, you can do a whole bunch of crazy spins and still find your back step and you’re fine. So having that why, having that elevator pitch, and then having a strong outline— that is going to help you write a best-selling book in six months.
TS: And honesty, right? Being honest with the yourself, also, for the sake of being honest for the reader at which ties into the questions of why.
D: I had to just tell myself like I’m going to make a decision right now: I’m going to put it all in the page or I’m not. And I eventually did and I thought, it’ll be a better book, writing about the toxic relationship, writing about the affair at war, these are all things that could really blow up for me, and I just have to trust that, if I’m honest, the reader’s going to come through this journey with me. It’s just one of those things; if you’re creating any art, some people are going to hate it. So, that’s the other part— it’s like they say, “learn to ignore the trolls” and trust me, it takes a long time. I think you actually have to go viral before you learn to ignore them. Once it just becomes too much then you’re like, oh yeah, it doesn’t matter what you say. I can just ignore you.
TS: You have to turn off the ‘comments’ section!
D: Yeah, I’ve had military veterans come for me really hard on Twitter for about two years now, and it’s sucky every time, and it’s the flip side of being honest (and it ties back into that why are you doing it) because you’re going to lose family, you’re going to lose friends—not everyone’s going to go on this journey with you, and part of that is because the people that were closest to on that journey are not ready to go there themselves yet, and so you can’t pull someone else through their own internal work…. is what I’ve learned. It’s why I have 25 siblings and very few of them speak with me.
TS: Well, I think I speak for anybody and everybody to say: I’m really grateful for you, for going on, and for recounting this journey that you have been on, for having the courage to write it down, and to write it down in a way that is as accessible and personable and as heart-wrenching as it is.
D: I did the audiobook, (when you talk about how the winners usually get to write the narrative): so, one of the things about Children of God, was when they stopped being religious prostitutes, then they just became childhood entertainment, [in the] eighties and nineties [they made] movies and videos and sold them all around. I was like a little ‘Lindsay Lohan of the apocalypse’ growing up, a world child star, and so, when I went to a record my own audiobook, I thought, well, is it this kind of cool… even the cover, I [initially] did not want that picture to be used. I thought, that is a picture of me being exploited and trafficked and I don’t like that, but in the end what I realized was that by doing this, writing these stories down that I couldn’t control, I can control them now. That picture, I couldn’t control it then, but now I use it, and I’m going to make [money] off of it. I was not a bad voice actress, and the New York Times recommended the audio, actually, the audio sells faster than the hardcover! And I thought, well, yeah, I am a trained actress since I was a child. And now I’m going to use this, you know, or [take for instance when I was] making balloon animals in college. I’d make $250-$300 an hour making balloon animals (I do it now for kids’ birthday parties sometimes) and people always ask, “How do you know how to do that?” …I was a teenage carnival clown in Mexico, you know?
To leave it on a happy note, one of the things we go through when we write our memoirs, when we do any kind of internal work, is learning how to live in one space—how to not be all fractured— which is what the culture does to us, what trauma does to us… before I wrote this book, not only did I not have a good idea of who I was, but I also didn’t know how to explain it. How do I explain where I’m from? It’s very, very difficult, but once you put it all out there, now I can say, “I’m American. I was born in the Philippines, but I’m also from Brazil, and if that is confusing for you, good news. Here’s the best-selling book I wrote about it.” I think part of why making our own clothes is so fascinating for me and my daughter is because I can take an American jacket, rip it up, put some Japanese scarves as a liner, crochet some fringes on the edge, and do it in Brazil colors and say, “This is me. And you don’t have to understand it. That’s okay. I know who I am.”
TS: There’s the metaphor: taking the discarded, the tattered, the torn, and fixing that back together into something really beautiful, something meaningful, and something that has clearly had an effect on the culture. It’s going to lead to a second book, which again, I cannot wait to read.
D: When you do start to speak out, when you try to tell your own stories, when you’re trying to explore your trauma, when you’re trying to figure out your neuro-diversity, whatever it is, when you start to question the structure, you’re going to have a lot of people try to shut you up, and a lot of the times, that’s the people [that are] the closest to you. One of the phrases people use a lot with me is, “Well I just don’t talk about those topics— it’s just too complicated.” So, my response, and where Tom and I live these days, is, no, we don’t do off-limits topics. So, if you’re the kind of person that has off-limits topics, you should know I write books about cults and nasty stuff, and you probably just don’t want me in your life. Easy! Again, we need the them as much as we need the us, right? So, finding yourself: defining who you are is also defining who you’re not. That part hurts. I don’t know that I’ve ever said that out loud.
TS: Thank you so much Daniella, we really appreciate it.
You can keep in touch with Daniella here:
& you can read the full transcript of our 2-hour conversation here.