This story originally aired on November 9, 2019.
If you went back in time and told 14-year-old Grace Sullivan that she’d grow up to study biology, she probably wouldn’t know what you were talking about.
That’s because 14-year-old Grace didn’t know about cells, or atoms, or what a negative number was. Instead, her schooling covered what her parents considered relevant: quilting, knitting, grinding wheat, canning — and most of all, bible study.
“You’re preparing for a life of motherhood and service,” she said.
Grace Sullivan grew up as a member of a religious commune — a closed community in Tacoma that some, including Grace herself, consider a cult. (We’re declining to name the organization out of concern for family members who remain a part of it).
Absolute submission was required, she says: children to parents, wives to husbands, all men to the church leaders.
It was an especially challenging place for kids to grow up.
“Things could get really serious really fast, and you could be pulled in to a meeting or a correction by any adults at any time,” she said.
She describes being led into a dark room for a "correction," forced to stand on a chair, surrounded by adults who would berate her.
“They were just yelling, ‘You are sinful! You are hellbound! You are garbage!’” she said.
Grace describes the exchange as being almost like an improv exercise: she had to affirm whatever they said without hesitating.
“I think the goal was to get you to stop thinking at all. And it could be something silly, like a leader saying, ‘I’m telling you the sky is yellow. What color is the sky?’ ‘The sky is yellow!’” she said. “Those could go on for hours.”
As difficult as her upbringing could be, it offered something she desperately wanted: acceptance.
“I was really eager to get it right, and to be ‘in,’” she says.
In this story, told to Sound Effect’s Gabriel Spitzer, Grace Sullivan explains how she went from true believer to rebel, from bible student to molecular biologist, and from meek submissive to courageous activist and performer. Click the “listen” link above to hear it.