Rebecca Stott Q&A: childhood in a cult

Recent allegations that singer R. Kelly has detained women against their will has brought the cult back into public consciousness. Rebecca Stott talks to John Williams about her book 'In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult' and the 'collective PTSD' she and the other victims of an extreme religious sect are still exorcising 

John Williams
Monday 24 July 2017 13:38
Writing the book was an uncomfortable experience for Stott: 'What I discovered was far worse than I could have imagined'
Writing the book was an uncomfortable experience for Stott: 'What I discovered was far worse than I could have imagined'

As a child in Brighton, historian and novelist Rebecca Stott knew her upbringing was strict and different, but it was only later in life that she could admit to herself she was raised in a cult. Her father, Roger, had been an officer in the Exclusive Brethren, a radical Protestant sect that closely controlled the lives of its members.

“My family hadn’t belonged to the Brethren,” Stott writes in her new book, “we’d been caught up in them. Caught up like a coat catching on thorns. Caught up in a scandal. Caught up in the arms of the Lord. Whichever way you phrased it, it meant you didn’t get to choose, and that there was no getting away.”

Her father eventually left the group, and expressed great regrets at the end of his life about his role in enforcing the sect’s codes of behaviour. With the help of rare pamphlets, diaries and other documents her father left her, Stott wrote a memoir and history, In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult. Below, she talks about the emotional drain of writing it, the “collective PTSD,” or post-traumatic stress disorder, that she found, and more.

When did you first get the idea to write the book?

When my father lay dying, he struggled to try to explain to me why in the 1960s things got so bad in the extreme religious group into which I had been born and he had been born before me. It was terribly sad, and I tried, with a tape recorder, to get him to explain what happened and why it was so distressing for him on his deathbed. He died before he could explain. I promised him, two or three days before he disappeared into the morphine, that I would do my best. The main question was: How had a good, decent group of people gotten caught up in a cult? How did they become compliant?

I thought all I had to do was study the paperwork, figure out what happened in what order, and then I would understand. What I didn’t anticipate was that there were so many holes in the story. It was more difficult because so much of it was personal, moving, difficult, really upsetting.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

How much worse the history was than I had thought. How shocking it was. If we go back to the point that I was researching and that my father couldn’t talk about, 1959, the sect was taken over by a man named Jim Taylor Jr. and became what can only be called a cult by all the criteria experts agree on. There were rules about everything: Who we could eat with, who we could speak to. No wristwatches, no trousers for women, women had to wear their hair down.

As I started to record in a very systematic way, as I’m trained to do as a historian, the number of rules and the months when they were introduced, those were the parts of the book that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Since the book came out, I have had on average three or four letters or emails every day from people who lived through this same period and haven’t been able to tell their children what happened, about the horrors, the suicides, the breakdowns, the people being expelled. They say that for the first time they’ve been able to have conversations with their children and grandchildren about why they’re a bit odd, or why they can’t talk about that period in their lives or pick up a Bible or go to church.

What we’re really talking about is collective PTSD. I knew it happened to my family, but I didn’t know – I do know now – how bad it was. We need to remember that cults can flourish not just in the desert or remote places but in suburbs as well, and that people have the capacity to do this to each other.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I had set out to write a short book, the story of that decade: In comes Jim Taylor Jr., and he turns this group of people into a cult, and at the end of the decade he’s caught in bed with the wife of one of his acolytes. But to understand my own family, I had to go all the way back to a Scottish fishing village in 1850 to figure out why they had joined this group at the end of the 19th century.

And I had to go forward further than I expected. My father was still in the aftermath of the cult when he died. He was still wrecked by it, shaped by it, struggling to answer questions for himself. When he left the Brethren, he thought: “I can do anything I want now. There are no rules.” He lived with such excess that he made life very difficult for those close to him, and for himself. He was an astonishing man, very brilliant, very talented, but wrecked by being born into a controlling, world-hating group.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

There is a dramatist called Shon Dale-Jones who’s been making plays that are basically storytelling pieces, and I see them for inspiration. He is so brilliant in terms of the way he changes pace and tone. And he sticks with the story, allows it to lead him, even though it’s hard to figure out where it begins and ends, and it’s always looping in time. You trust him even though he’s constantly reminding you that memory is problematic, that we remember things in bits and fragments. But as long as you acknowledge your infallibility, there’s truth in the fragments.

Persuade someone to read “In the Days of Rain” in less than 50 words.

Cults – religious and political – work in similar ways. I set out to learn about the cult I was born into in the 1960s, the decade my father described as the “Nazi decade.” I did it as a promise to my father. What I discovered was far worse than I could have imagined.

© New York Times

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