By Rebecca Stott
Rebecca Stott spent just the first six years of her childhood in the Exclusive Brethren, a fundamentalist and reclusive Christian sect, but its influence has taken a lifetime to escape…
No one would have guessed that I had been raised in a Christian fundamentalist sect, or that my father and grandfather were ministering brothers in one of the most reclusive and savage Protestant groups in British history.
It was always my fault if the subject came up and, once it did, it would be difficult to make it go away again. People were interested; they asked questions.
‘I was raised in a cult,’ I’d say and then recoil, embarrassed by the melodrama of those words. Were the Exclusive Brethren a cult? ‘We wore headscarves and were forbidden from cutting our hair. We weren’t allowed televisions, newspapers, radios, the cinema, holidays, pets or watches.’
The list of prohibitions seemed endless. I’d watch people’s eyes widen. They’d look at me askance, then compete to ask questions, and I’d think, ‘Oh no, not this again.’
‘We weren’t allowed to talk to the other children at school,’ I’d say. ‘We were told that everyone outside the Brethren was part of Satan’s army and they were all out to get us. They called them “worldly” or “worldlies”. If you didn’t do exactly what the Brethren said, they would expel you. Then your family wouldn’t be allowed to speak to you ever again. People took their own lives. People went mad. Yes, this was Brighton. In the 1960s. In the suburbs. During the sexual revolution. It’s hard to explain.’
And to explain Brethren women, I’d have to tell the story of how my great-grandmother had been sent to an asylum in Australia for 40 years by her Brethren husband, not just because she had epilepsy, but because she was considered wilful. Wilfulness isn’t allowed in Brethren women, I’d say.
But even if the subject didn’t come up, my Brethren childhood would rear up like Banquo’s ghost at the dinner table, refusing to be buried.
At university, when I made new friends, I couldn’t tell them how I’d become a teenage mother, or shoplifted books for years, or why I was impatient, afraid of the dark and had a compulsion to rescue people without explaining the Brethren, the God they made for us and the rapture that they told us was coming.
John Nelson Darby, one of the founders of the movement in the late 1820s, invented the rapture. He had a vision that there would be not just one, but two second comings.
First, Christ would take the Brethren off the planet in a sudden, secret exodus to heaven. All those left behind, the ‘worldly’ people, would suffer terrible storms, earthquakes, plagues and famines. Then Christ would return a second time to save more people, but the most privileged residents in heaven would be the rapture people, the Brethren.
By the time I was born, in 1964, John Taylor (JT) Junior, then the leader of the Brethren, had implemented scores of new rules. Brethren could no longer live in the same house as non-Brethren members. Husbands had to leave non-Brethren wives. Wives had to leave non-Brethren husbands. Brethren could no longer work with anyone who had been ‘put out of the fellowship’ for breaking the rules.
After four years of fierce edicts, Brethren were almost completely isolated from the world. JT Junior, convinced that the rapture was only weeks away, became obsessed with getting Brethren houses clean in time.
He prohibited meals in restaurants, cafés and canteens. Meetings were to be held every day and he banned pets. Brethren had to either find alternative homes for their animals or have them put down. Parents had to find ways of explaining to their distressed children where their beloved pets had gone.
I remember lying in bed listening to my parents’ muffled conversations and seeing Satan – or my idea of Satan, all horns and scales and a grinning mouth – projected on to the darkened surface of the curtains. I managed the terrors of my small domestic space by imagining what God might be like.
Occasionally, if the voices I heard terrified me more than I could bear, I’d call out to my parents and my father would come in. I dared not tell him what I saw projected on the curtains. My mother gathered talismans to protect me from the dark: she crocheted me a comfort blanket and gave me a stuffed toy rabbit with long ears. I discovered that if I tucked one of the rabbit’s ears between my little toe and the next toe on my right foot, the voices would stop.
Brethren women and girls were not supposed to have their hair cut because hair, JT Junior decreed, was their ‘glory’. By the time I was three or four, my hair stretched down to my waist when wet. Thick, heavy and curly, it had to be combed and plaited constantly.
Fridays were hair-washing and nail-cutting nights, a family grooming that prepared us for the five or six Brethren meetings at the weekend, including the compulsory 6am meeting on the Lord’s Day.
It’s not just the nonsense and the trickery that alarms me now, but the number of hours we Brethren children spent listening to the men talk. My brothers and I – and thousands of other Brethren children around the world – attended nine one-hour meetings a week before 1968, and 11 a week between 1968 and 1970.
That makes a total of just over 3,000 hours spent sitting absolutely still, listening to a group of men – including my father and grandfather – preaching obscure biblical exegesis and prophecy before I was six years old. No wonder I heard voices. No wonder they never stopped.
Brethren children were expected to be quiet and well-mannered in meetings. We’d sit in the back row with our mothers, clothes pressed, faces scrubbed, shoes polished, hair tightly plaited or pinned back with clips, Bibles on laps.
My brothers and I understood that the outside world and the people in it were dangerous. The streets were owned by Satan and thronged with his traps: shop windows full of television sets with moving pictures that you tried not to look at but couldn’t take your eyes off; hoardings on news stands; adverts for perfume and make-up; women in miniskirts.
There were snatches of music, too, from open windows or café doors. The grown-ups would say these things were ‘worldly’ and in the meeting room they preached that Satan, the enemy, used them in his battle for our souls.
The teachers at school were used to Brethren children and didn’t put up a fight when parents stipulated what their children were permitted to read or study. The teachers banished us from the classroom whenever they strayed into areas that conflicted with Brethren teachings. That meant we spent many of our school hours in the corridor that ran the length of the Victorian building.
No assembly. No prayers. No classes about poetry or fiction. No science that conflicted with the creation story. No gym. No ballet. No music classes. No discussion of ethics or philosophy. The teachers handed us worksheets – comprehension practice, quizzes and maths sheets.
Sometimes I’d glimpse one or both of my brothers further up the hallway. The only other people we saw there were the ‘worldly’ boys who’d been sent out of the class for misbehaving. They’d sit outside the headteacher’s room, fidgeting, waiting to be called in and reprimanded.
One day my teacher told me that when I got to the end of a worksheet I could go to the library for independent reading if there was time left before the bell rang. I still don’t know if she realised what she was saying. I nearly told her but swallowed the words. When my classmates had library time I had to sit on a faded, red plastic chair outside the door. I’d peer in from time to time, astonished that there were so many books, that someone had thought to put them all in one room and that they came in so many shiny colours.
There had been books in our house once, I discovered later – my mother’s adored, beautifully leather-bound Jane Austen collection, my father’s Shakespeare and poetry. But in 1962, when JT Junior ordered all Brethren to cleanse themselves, my father had boxed up all the books and packed them into the boot of the car.
God had not exactly said it was all right for me to go into the school library, but he hadn’t said it wasn’t either. Usually he sent a sign. I was good at looking for signs – a bird flying one way or another, even car number-plates could be signs. The library door was open. That, I persuaded myself, meant it was probably all right. The Lord must be showing me the way.
I headed for the far corner, the old floorboards creaking noisily. A teacher might usher me out. My brother might glimpse me through the door and tell our parents. But I was in and the bell had not yet sounded. I reached up and pulled out Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island.
I read as if turned to stone. Before this moment I had only read the Janet and John books with my mother. And the Bible, of course. But there were very few stories about children in the Bible – other than Jesus. When the bell rang I stuffed the book underneath a dusty red beanbag. Brethren children were not allowed to borrow library books. I had to hide it so that nobody else would borrow it before I came back. Over the next few weeks I read the whole of The Secret Island without discovery, punishment or consequence.
Rebecca’s family left the Exclusive Brethren in 1970 after the ‘Aberdeen incident’, when JT Junior was accused of being found in bed with Mrs Ker, another member’s wife. John Railton, leader of the Brethren in Brighton, announced at a meeting that if JT Junior wanted to take his wife to bed, he would be honoured.
But 200 people, including Rebecca’s father and grandfather, walked out in disgust.
Perhaps our parents thought we were too young to understand why we’d left. Perhaps they thought we hadn’t been listening when they told us that television and radios were wicked; that Satan was in cinemas, newspapers, pop music, theatres; that the world outside our meeting room was evil, and would corrupt us if we went anywhere near it.
Perhaps they had forgotten that they’d been telling us since we were born that the rapture was about to come, and that if we had not given up our wills and desires and natural minds to the Lord, we’d be left behind and the bad people would be drowned, burned or buried alive.
But we children did not cast off our Brethren teachings so easily. I became, in this post-Aberdeen confusion, preoccupied with sin and salvation. Everything felt upside down. My father announced one Saturday afternoon that he was taking us to the cinema to see Gone With the Wind. I glanced at my mother, alarmed, but she did not protest.
It seems astonishing now but I remember almost nothing of the film. But I do remember reaching for my mother’s hand as we stepped across the threshold into the richly coloured entrance hall and, later, her face in profile in the light of the screen, rapt and terrified by turns, happier than I’d ever seen her. It wasn’t that I believed we were now Satan’s people, or that we’d been plunged into some dark new world. It was like being lost in a town where all the signs had been changed into a language I didn’t know.
I recently found a picture of my brother and me taken in 1972, launching a ‘hot-air’ balloon I’d made with a basket fashioned from matchboxes. Having seen a full-size hot-air balloon drift across the sky above our house, I wondered if I could engineer one to escape the imminent floods. But when the balloon I’d made got snagged on our television aerial, I decided it was a sign of the Lord’s disapproval of our new television set.
When I started a new school that year, I was allowed to attend assembly for the first time and didn’t understand the mild sentimental Anglicanism that my teachers used. When I walked the school grounds – from the gym where we did PE to the outdoor pool where we had swimming lessons – I sometimes felt as if I was walking on the moon. I failed to find a way to explain why I didn’t know the rules of rounders or netball. After years of being asked to leave the classroom for so many lessons, I still found myself waiting for a teacher to send me out.
The language that the non-Brethren spoke seemed different, too. I did not know how to talk to the other children or how to bridge the void between their world and mine. I was pretty certain the rapture was still coming – after all, nobody had told me otherwise – but I had no idea who would be taken now that my parents had started to watch television.
I’d stand with my back to the wall in the playground watching the others playing, imagining tidal waves sweeping across the tarmac, storms tearing down the playground walls and trees. They still didn’t know what was coming. But nor did I any more.
There are counsellors now who specialise in treating ex-cult members after they’ve experienced long periods of mind control. One of them told me it sometimes takes him years to get his clients to return to normal levels of scepticism.
He has to keep on reminding them that there are many different ways of looking at things; he has to help them to think for themselves again. They used to call this process ‘deprogramming’, but I’d call it ‘decompression’. We’d been a long way down to the bottom of some kind of sea; there was no easy way back up without getting the bends.
This is an edited extract from In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult by Rebecca Stott, to be published by Fourth Estate on 1 June, price £16.99. To pre-order a copy for £12.74 (a 25 per cent discount) until 4 June, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15