Many leave of their own accord because they become disillusioned,
fed up or burnt out, or they realize the cult was not what it said it was. …
Cult members who leave in this way are known as walkaways.
Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.
I celebrate my twenty-ninth birthday by fleeing from my husband and a fundamentalist cult I joined when I was fourteen. My mother and I and my two kids barely make the jet from Portland, Oregon to New York, afraid that someone will follow us. But no one does. We crowd into the fifteenth row, in the last available seats, and we seem to be safe.
The plane lands at JFK at close to eleven'o'clock at night. Two-year-old Joshua is just starting to wind down, having whined and thrashed since Chicago, tormenting not only his grandmother but all the passengers within earshot. Grace, on the other hand, at one month, slept peacefully the whole trip, crying only when she needed my breast.
The stewardess kindly allows us to leave first. We're that family on the plane whom everyone stares at, daggers in their eyes, for keeping them up for the last three hours of a transcontinental flight. No one offers a hand, not a single expression of compassion. It's not like in The Way where believers would be tripping over each other to help. The Doctor always said the world is like this - cold, indifferent and hard, just like the devil. I pass a row of adolescents dressed in green and white soccer jerseys and one of the boys says, "Cute kid, but try some Ritalin next time."
Mom exits first, pushing the stroller filled with a baby satchel, purses and toys. She maneuvers through the hatch and leads us into the tunnel towards the terminal. I'm carrying both sleeping children, Joshua who has finally dozed, and Grace in her Snuggly. My arms feel like sledge hammers but I don't want to wake up the kids by calling for help.
I straggle behind when suddenly, Mom stops and turns around. She seems tiny compared to the other passengers who have started to deplane. Her dyed black hair is mussed and flattened on one side from pressing it against the window.
"Where are you?" She says with a hint of irritation. Guilt rips through me. See how bad you are, some voice in my head says. You're bad for upsetting her. Bad for leaving your marriage, bad for leaving the believers, bad for being alive. The Doctor always said that if we left The Way, we might as well be dead. "The only way you leave is feet first," he would say.
I train my eyes on Mom. The avalanche of thoughts keeps coming and I'm in free fall. When she sees me, she circles back. She looks angry now, deep hellish circles etched beneath her eyes. Bad. Bad. The voice gets louder. She stops in front of me, empties the stroller and takes Josh. His head is lolling back and forth and Grace is beginning to fuss. We're stopped in the middle of the aisle and New Yorkers are starting to stream by at an alarming rate. A bottleneck is forming behind us.
"What's the problem?" a man shouts from the crowd.
"YOU'RE the problem," Mom yells. She grabs the stroller and starts towards the terminal without me. I take a step back, holding Grace's head to my chest and someone bumps into me hard from behind.
"Watch where you're going," he says.
I move over as far as I can and hug the wall. The strangers rush past me. I'm rocking Grace against my shoulder, praying God will show mercy and get us through this alive. There's no sign of Mom or Josh. The sounds around me are deafening, feet pounding against the hollow floor, voices echoing off the aluminum frame, the roar of air in the tunnel. My heart is pounding hard. I close my eyes. Bad. Please God, help us.
"What are you doing?"
I open my eyes and Mom is staring at me, a quizzical look on her face. Josh is strapped in the stroller, calmly drinking from a bottle filled with apple juice.
"Nothing," I say.
"Well, come on then. We have to get home."