I padded barefoot across my loft apartment, relishing the cool tiles, typical of Mediterranean homes, under my feet. Outside, dewy vineyards stretched down the hill, disappearing into the mist and beyond them, the silhouette of Ischia rose from an iridescent Mediterranean Sea. The sun had not yet reached its zenith and a fresh wind blew through the open windows, carrying on it the smell of fresh Italian espresso. Enticed into the kitchen, I filled a miniature porcelain cup from the bubbling percolator and sipped the thick, bitter brew, savouring the rich flavor that always lingered at least 30 minutes after its ingestion. This is coffee at its best and the Napoletans know it. Even an hour outside of Naples, and the taste changes to something ordinary. The secret is in the water and perfect altitude, the locals will tell you with flagrant pride.
My wanderings led me here to southern Italy where the people are as warm and fiery as the burning lips of the sun kissing their land. The general lawlessness of this country attracted the rebel in me, the organized chaos was decidedly third world, and it would follow that its shambolic qualities seemed familiar, comfortable, almost like home.
If only I knew where that was.
‘Where are you from?’ Is the most normal, no-brainer question that I dread for the tedious exchange that inevitably follows it. My mouth does the open-shut-open blank goldfish routine, to eventually spit out a befuddled ‘I don’t really know’.
‘Oh come on! Of course you do! Everyone’s from somewhere.’
‘Be serious now. What nationality are you?’
‘So you’re German. Whereabouts in Germany?’
‘I don’t know. I never lived there. I got my mother’s nationality.’
‘Where were you born then?’
‘Greece, but I never lived there either.’
‘So where did you grow up?’
‘Everywhere. In over 30 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe.’
An amused agreement is reached at this point, ‘Yeah, I guess you really are from nowhere!’
In Naples, I lucked out. Since most Napoletans continue to labour under the post-WW2 notion that all English-speaking straniere are American, I am happily relieved of any incumbent prodding over my origins. With longer term friends and acquaintances, I’m usually assigned the nebulous distinction of ‘foreign’ or ‘stranger’, while questions over home and identity are avoided since ‘what cannot be understood must be passed over in silence’.
Draining off the last bit of coffee, I plunked down in front of the laptop to check my emails, as per my usual morning ritual. But there was nothing ordinary in the news that greeted me that day in May, 2010.
‘The cult is dead.’ They were the words I’d waited 5 years, 4 months and 24 days to hear, but nothing could have prepared me for that moment. The internet was buzzing with the news. The world that used to be my home for the first 23 years of life, was self-destructing, imploding on itself, soon there would be nothing recognizable left. I felt a silent awe, and the post-battle elation of a victor. I felt sadness, like a creature that discovers the last of its species has gone extinct and of having contributed to their extinction. I felt the settling peace of vindication.
My siblings left within the cult were now free to get an education, free to choose their futures and realize their full potential in life. I tried to imagine what my parents felt seeing their dream dematerialize before them, and knowing their own children were responsible for destroying the world they had worked so hard to build. The Children of God turned Family International was a doomsday cult, and everything my parents endured was for the one redeeming belief that when this world ended, they would be rewarded for their sacrifices in the next.
What did they have to show for over 40 years of unwavering dedication? With the best of their youth spent fighting for the ideals of a megalomaniac, they are left in their old age without money, pensions, social security, or even the support of their own families. Suffering and loss have been their only recompense. Where I once felt anger over their life choices, today there is a sense of detached pity. How many lives were destroyed over an illusion?
My parent’s decision to join The Children of God continues to affect the lives of my siblings and me to this day and yet, as much as I resented the nature of my upbringing, it was still an identity. For better or worse, it is where I came from, the only home I knew. Home was not a country, a house, or a city; it was not even a person. Home was a group, a collective identity which spoke the same language and lingo, sang the same songs, followed the same belief system, and as long as you spoke, sang and thought the same, you belonged to it.
Even after I left, fighting against the destructive practices of the group became another validation of my identity. Now as I watch all that remains of The Family International dismantling before my eyes, a sense of dislocation destabilizes me like a punch to the gut. This is what I wanted, after all. What I, and others like me, worked for years to realize.
Yet, even though The Family was an abomination, it acted as a kind of nexus, my centre of gravity, always there as a contender, a foe who had been with me so long that its loss was as devastating as that of an old friend.
I belong nowhere. A planet without a solar system. A homeless vagabond. Who am I, without an identity? What is home, if not a place, or a person?
Have I become one of a lost generation?
Like the last of a species going extinct, many ex-Family kids are afraid of forgetting and being forgotten. Our only collective identity has vanished, so we search out and attach to whatever is left. With a history as tangible as a waking dream, we find each other on the internet, swapping stories and stupid slogans like children trading shiny stickers, desperate to confirm that our memories are real, that we existed. We befriend people we never knew and cling to their friendship for no better reason than a shared past. Like Hiroshima survivors, we huddle together in the ashes of our former nation, finding comfort in the mutual disfigurement of our childhoods. Like it or not, where we come from claims some part of our identity.
Over the past three years since the success of my first book Not Without My Sister, co-written with my two sisters, I have circled the globe numerous times, meeting people from every race and walk of life. Throughout my travels I discovered that the story of my family is not unique, it is shared by millions around the world. This has led me to question, ‘are cults really just a social phenomenon affecting a minority of susceptible individuals, or are they the inevitable manifestation of a natural propensity lurking at the core of every human?’ When given the choice between the solitude of Nietzsche’s Übermensch or conformity to a group, do the majority always choose the latter?
The roots of cultism are spread beneath the surface of society, touching almost every aspect of our lives. Thought control and manipulation is used by governments, corporations and marketing agencies as much as by gurus, religious leaders and narcissists. The more I see its manifestations in religious and/or terrorist groups, self-help groups, the military and even controlling families, the more inclined I become towards solitude.
Once you have rejected everything that was your life, discarded everything you knew, and lost everything you loved, believed in and lived; once you’ve uprooted and turned against your own identity, then there is nothing left to lose. To lose the fear of loss itself is the greatest self-emancipation and nothing can truly control you again.
The lack of identity is really not such a bad thing. Without attachments to an idea, a belief, a location, or a possession, I am free to question and explore outside of the usual constraints associated with family, religious or social expectations. The world is too large and diverse to limit my mind, beliefs and life to any one group, religion, organization or culture. If there was a single guiding dogma to live by, mine would have to be, ‘to thine own self be true.’ Although the sum total of past experiences, cultural, religious and social, are indeed partly responsible for shaping the people we are today, it needn’t define our future.
Perhaps instead of ‘where are you from?’, the question should be asked, ‘where are you going?’