'I grew up in a cult'

Historian and novelist Rebecca Stott, who was brought up in a Christian cult, remembers her father, Roger, in 1983

The Telegraph, UK/June 9, 2017

By Jessamy Calkin

This was taken the year after my father came out of prison [for fraud and embezzlement – he had developed a roulette addiction] and just before he started working for the BBC. He was living in digs in Tunbridge Wells – my parents were divorced by then – and had very little money, so I would cut his hair.

Whenever I came over, he’d have lined up films he wanted me to watch, music he wanted me to hear, passages from books he wanted me to read there and then so that we could talk about them together. He was just like a big kid. In the end, me and my  siblings would just give ourselves up to it.

There would always be plenty of wine and great slabs  of bread and ham and wholegrain mustard,  however poor he was, and we’d sit in front of  the TV with a stack of videos that he’d recorded. He never did anything in half measures. In between there’d be the most amazing conversations – ‘what did you think of that?’ ‘What did it remind you of?’ You’d always leave with your head spinning.

Whenever my father talked about literature and art and painting and music, it was peppered with the most infuriating hyperbole. ‘Auden, of course, is the third-greatest poet of all time,’ he’d say.

‘The thing about literature is that it gives us the great questions, it doesn’t dish out rules or easy answers. It makes us think for ourselves.’  His breathless enthusiasms and passion for literature were driven by a perpetual sense of prohibition.

I was born fourth-generation Exclusive Brethren. That meant that for decades my family kept themselves to themselves, living separately from the world in an extreme conservative Christian sect that in the 1960s, just before I was born, turned into a cult: it introduced a new leader and scores of new rules – you couldn’t eat with non-Brethren, you couldn’t live or socialise or even share party walls with non-Brethren.

There were terrible consequences to the new extreme separatism that was established – suicide and breakdowns and people being shut in their homes until ‘they’d got themselves right with the Lord’.  We left when I was about seven, because there was a huge scandal when the leader, then in his 70s, was found in bed with a much younger married woman. Eight thousand people left – though 40,000 remained, who could never make contact with us again.

My father spent the rest of his life damaged by that, but also trying to work out what had happened to them all.  How, he wanted to know, could a group of decent Christian people have allowed that to  happen? On his deathbed he was still wrestling with that question, and the task that he gave me was to take his unfinished memoirs and try to figure out the answer.

My book is an attempt to make sense of growing up inside a cult, and my promise to him was that I would try to tell the story of his life and its aftermath, which of course was my aftermath too, because we all lived through the fallout from that experience.

We lived in the turbulence my father made in his wake, because he was volatile and unreliable and always getting into scrapes. But I’ve never met anyone like him. A day spent with him was like the last day you  had to live, and you knew you’d lived it richly.

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