I couldn’t decide between committing suicide to end the pain now, or to spend an eternity in hell, so when I did make a suicide attempt after over five years of obsessively thinking about it, I only got so far because it turned out that my fear of hell overrode my desire to not live a life of shame. It’s a shame but I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, because I never planned to live that long. I wanted out so badly, and I’ve always tried to run away from my problems, and it has never once worked out for me. I was in a no-win situation, but at least I was just miserable without burning forever in conscious torment by a “God of love.”
People never know how to respond to me when I tell them that I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist cult in Australia. They think of Australia as such a beautiful country with the reefs and the rainforests, and it’s gorgeous, but that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from its fair share of religious extremists. While Australia is a very beautiful country, growing up in the context of a cult made me not really notice the beauty as I struggled to survive in that fundamentalist society.
I do not remember a time where I did not live with shame. It was ingrained into me before I could speak the word. In this cult it was acceptable to spank babies when they showed their willfulness and their little sin natures. Many, many years later a therapist would tell me that I had low self-esteem, but the fundamentalists did not believe in self-esteem. They said I did not need to proudly elevate myself to think that I was a good person, because I was not. I was told that I needed “God-esteem” instead. Self-esteem was a psychological term and we shunned psychology. I was supposed to live by and believe in a literal interpretation of the King James Version of the Bible and apparently if I did so, my life would be great.
In talking about Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (I love these stories), Lloyd Worley reminds us that the vampire Lestat points out that to make someone a vampire “there need only be brutal force and a vampire’s will and desire,” (86) which totally sums up being raised in a life-destroying Christian fundamentalist cult. We were brainwashed sometimes by brutal force and the cult leader’s will and desire, and it was all carried out in the name of God. This soul sucking cult has destroyed many lives, some are able to leave and rebuild and others are not.
In Hollywood Gothic, David J. Skal says that a Bishop’s wife once described the story of Dracula as “an allegory of sin” (2004, 65) which is one possible interpretation although I go further and use it as a metaphor for shame. Skal goes on to say that “if nothing else, Dracula is a quintessential story of power and control” (2004, 66). Shame coupled with power and control is exactly what I am talking about in this series.
In the cult, they give lip service to the idea of a loving God, but only to where the whole Christian life sounds like a horror movie. I was terrified of frying for eternity in a blazing inferno where not only did you suffer being burnt forever, but worms would also eat my burnt flesh. The book of Revelation in the Bible was used to scare me many times. It didn’t matter if I had “accepted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for me and asked Jesus into my heart” (which I did with great regularity out of sheer terror), if I did things that went against the beliefs of the cult, I was told that I wasn’t “saved,” because a Christian was a person who was so grateful for not going to hell that they obeyed God, which really meant obeying the pastor.
As Hillary D. Raining says in her book Joy in Confession, guilt and shame are two different things, and I actually never understood that until I read her words as I was preparing to make a sacramental confession one day. She describes guilt as something that you feel when you’ve made a mistake, but that shame makes you feel like you are a mistake. Basically, instead of saying “I’m sorry, I messed up,” which would be guilt, shame says “I’m messed up.”
Shame sucked the life right on out of me, almost consumed me completely as I never intended to live to adulthood but instead had dreams of ending my own life many times because the vampire of shame kept making its appearance.
Raining, Hillary D. Joy in Confession: Reclaiming Sacramental Reconciliation. 2017: Forward Movement.
Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, revised edition, 2004: Faber and Faber.
Worley, Lloyd. “Anne Rice’s Protestant Vampires.” The Blood is the Life: Vampires in Literature. 1999: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.