Table of Contents

 

REVIEW

Daniella Mestyanek Young, Uncultured, St. Martin's Press, 2022

Reviewed by Tamara MC

[Review Guidelines]

 

 

Uncultured, Daniella Mestyanek Young's powerful debut memoir, is perhaps the next runaway sensation, the succession to Educated (2018) by Tara Westover. Both memoirs are stories of triumph, resiliency, and audacity. Both girls blaze from the confines of their fundamentalist Christian upbringings to shelter identities separate from their groups. They escape their families and communities in quests to make sense of what transpired in their lives, prostrating before education to dismantle their puzzling childhoods.
     Unlike Westover, born into a survivalist family, Young was raised in a more traditional cult with 100 intimate members. Young was brought up in the Children of God, also called The Family International, founded in 1968 by the infamous David Berg, who has been alleged to encourage sexual relations between adults and children. 
      Both girls were denied proper education and lived secluded without outside influences, such as television, books other than religious texts, and radio. They were homeschooled intermittently and inconsistently by family or community members. After they broke free from their family prisons, Young and Westover turned to education and overachievement.
      While Westover pursues graduate school after her bachelor's degree, Young joins the military; this is where the two memoirs diverge. While both women excel in their journeys, Young realizes the army and the cult she escaped are more similar than different. Both institutions operate under male-dominated power and the ever-spreading bacteria of groupthink. As Young excels in the military, Westover shines, receiving degrees from Cambridge and Harvard.
      Each coming-of-age memoir is lengthy (Uncultured is a whopping 125k words, a quarter more than most at 80k), which is important because each story is complex and needs more words to paint an un-average America portrait. Each is also exceptionally well written and crafted, with a clear sense of the reader in mind. Both follow the classic three-act structure of survival memoirs, which includes dire childhoods, escape, and overcoming adversity.
      Like Young and Westover, I was also brought up in a cult, but mine was Sufi. My cult was in the Hill Country of Texas between San Antonio and Austin. I was also denied all forms of media other than religious propaganda, and like them, I excelled in education. After fleeing my cult at twenty, I enrolled in university. I began my lifelong journey of education, even obtaining a Ph.D. in linguistics, where I studied the manipulation of language in coercive groups.
      Young was trafficked, working as a child panhandler, and lived in Brazil, Japan, and Peru. But still, in Uncultured, we get little sense of the cultures and languages because when she isn't peddling, she's locked behind a wall. One of the top mechanisms in a cult is isolation and removal from outside culture, thought, and humanity. 
      Cults often pit the "satanic" outside world against the "holy" inner sanctum of the cult, making adherents terrified of everything that isn't contained within the cult. 
      We learn little about Young's dad because she never met him. He was an older man who raped young girls, like Young's mother, when she was fourteen. However, Young's mother is prevalent in the story. In the beginning, a reader could be angry with her because she was absent in her daughter's life, not protecting her from horrifying abuse. However, this type of behavior is widespread in cults. Parents are often forced to separate from their children. 
      Cults purposefully snap familial ties, claiming a weakness in members if they're too attached—the exact opposite of attachment theory that claims attachment is healthy. The purpose of this disruptive behavior is to return allegiance to the cult leader. 
      However, as the narrative moves forward, we learn Young's mother was also a product of the cult, a survivor like her, who survived some of the most extreme physical and sexual exploitation because she was part of the cult when sex with children was allowable. Young's mom endured multiple miscarriages and births and raised children as a child. By thirty, she had seven children.
      Unlike Young, I wasn't raised in a sex cult. Sex was taboo and hidden. Girls were covered in fabric head to toe; Young, on the other hand, was forced to wear lingerie in front of men. But grown men sexually assaulted our girls. I was married at twelve, and most of my girlfriends were married at fourteen to men much older than them in plural marriages as second or third wives.
      At fifteen, Young escaped the cult and put herself through high school in Houston, graduating as valedictorian. Post-college, she was commissioned into the army. Basic training was a familiar feeling: all the yelling, decisions being made for her. But soon, Young began to experience nightmares and flashbacks, dragging her back to the trauma of her youth. After six years of serving as an intelligence officer for the U.S. army, Young's trauma manifested into a debilitating illness, forcing her to be medically evacuated to Walter Reed.
      Children in cults are trained to follow. Young's story is not uncommon for children born or raised in cults, which is the case for all three of us. We often find new high-control groups to follow after our escape. New communities replace old communities. New leaders replace senior leaders. Some of us join the military; others join spiritual communities, including yoga and self-help, worldwide. Others join different new religious movements. 
      The scene work in Uncultured is vivid because girls like us, who've grown up in cults, often have photographic memories. We remember our surroundings vividly to survive.
      Institutions try to confine and define women, but Young breaks through her captor's chains to find her deep-seated courage. In an interview, Young claimed that Westover gave her permission to tell her story. We need more stories of people transcending their circumstances. While most haven't lived as extremely as Young, Westover, or me, many have suffered violence.
      Survival stories permit one more person to tell their truth, allowing the next person to speak their truth, resulting in a domino effect. Uncultured is a message for trauma survivors that there are more of us than we know and that we can band together to write the end of our stories, even though we weren't given the resources and freedom to write the beginnings. 
     Uncultured is about Young choosing herself and her chosen family, her husband and daughter, over any group or idea. Is this the end of her story? Definitely not. Healing is a process, not a destination. But Young's story is a testament to her will to survive and thrive, despite the direst of childhoods. Young and Westover are poster children for posttraumatic growth. Both women were able to reimagine new possibilities. Young's survival story reminds us that we, too, have the power to fashion our futures.