I was born into a cult—a real, live, Bible-thumpin’, child-and-wife-beatin’, no-make-up-wearin’, no-sugar-eatin’, no modern-dancin’ kind of world. And I wanted out.
Early in the 1930s, an ad man named Herbert W. Armstrong started a new sect. Calling himself the modern-day prophet of the living God, Armstrong began preaching doctrine of what he called “restored truths.” They blended certain Jewish traditions, such as eating kosher and attending day-long religious services on Saturday, with far-right Christian beliefs. He taught that Buddhists and Hindus are of the Devil, in competition only with homosexuals and rock ‘n’ rollers on the bumpy ride to Hell.
Originally, Armstrong christened his ministry the Radio Church of God because it began over the airwaves. People found out about God’s new truth the way Donna Summer found out about her new love, on the radio. With the advent of television, Armstrong changed the name to the Worldwide Church of God, and opened his first church in Pasadena, California, followed by a second enclave in Big Sandy, Texas—population 313—where the blacks lived south of the railroad tracks, the women didn’t work, and everyone spoke in double negatives. That’s where I was.
Growing up, it was hard enough to breathe in a small, backward-thinking town in the Lone Star state, but on top of that I had to follow the rules laid down by Armstrong. If I did anything that went against them, like forget I was born a girl or let it be known I sympathized with the struggle for civil rights, my father would pull out a belt or ball up his freckled fist and beat me bruised. I was then probably doomed to burn in the Lake of Fire, where, according to Herbert W., God sends sinners to roast forever and ever.
As a child, I often wondered if this Lake of Fire could be any worse than living in a community where it was common to be without electricity or food. Armstrong ordered his flock to give him 30 percent of whatever they made, saying that God had told him he deserved this percentage of everyone’s money, because only he was speaking the truth.
In my mind, I questioned everything Herbert W. Armstrong taught, but I seldom spoke about my misgivings because this would have brought on severe whippings. I tried to be good and not to desire all the things Armstrong said were evil, like the Beatles or Snickers bars or The Brady Bunch. I tried not to dream about being a goddess with many arms, or a girl unafraid of waking up because she never knew how many minutes she had before her ears were blasted with screams of filth or blows of hatred from her parents.
I really tried to be the model child and not long for everything Armstrong and his ministers deemed evil. But no amount of self-control could keep me from dreaming about one forbidden item—lipstick. I’m sure that I took my first steps as a baby with an unconscious desire to walk my way to some lip paint and, as a welcome by-product, escape from Armstrong’s control.
Since none of the women in the cult wore makeup, my delight was out of reach—until one summer day when Mom pulled together a few dollars and took my brother and me to a five-and-dime store called Wackers.
In Wackers, I found heaven. Everything we didn’t have at home was there: crayons and coloring books, toys, matching plates and glasses, scissors, tape—endless possibilities awaited me.
I slipped away from Mom, who was pushing my baby brother in a hand-me-down stroller, and glided through the aisles like I’d been zapped into Nirvana. I tentatively touched everything. And then I saw the display that would strip me of my innocence.
How was it possible to find so many tubes of lipstick right there in front of me? Though I knew I was running straight into the Lake of Fire, I walked over to those tubes and I touched each with a reverence unlike any I’d ever experienced. So many colors: girly pink, old-lady beige, Jezebel red.
Urged by powers stronger than myself, I quickly eased out a tube of ruby-delicious delight from its plastic packaging and slithered out of Wackers like that snake who doomed all women into second-class citizenship by offering Eve an apple. I opened the passenger-side door of our old Ford, which was unlocked, and got inside. Turning the rear-view mirror to face me, I uncapped the lipstick tube and rolled up its contents. I slathered and slathered the heathen color onto my virgin lips until I realized that I’d put on so much that I was going to have a hard time wiping it off. I quickly rolled the lipstick back down, replaced its top, and crawled into the back seat, where I hid my stolen treasure under the seat.
I did my best to wipe off the Jezebel stain, using my hands and arms as a towel, vigorously rubbing my lips clean—clean, but swollen and flushed with an illicit hue.
I got out of the car, ran back inside Wackers, and found Mom, who immediately screamed at me for having disappeared. Then she asked why my lips were so swollen and red. I told her I’d been biting them. Amazingly, she bought this and said nothing more about it all the way home—almost.
As the car pulled into the driveway of our home, Mom suddenly braked too hard. My lipstick flew from out of its hiding spot and landed on the floor, next to the front seat. Mom let out a surprised shriek. When she looked down to see what had startled her and saw the Devil-marked tube of poison, she screamed, “Now I know why your lips are so red! Did you steal this lipstick from Wackers?”
I knew I couldn’t talk my way out of it, so I pulled together all the courage I’d stored up living in a cult in Big Sandy, Texas and owned up to my misdeed. Mom said, “You just wait until your father gets home. You are going to get the life beat out of you.”
My butt did feel like the Lake of Fire after my father’s whipping. But I didn’t care. I knew I’d taken my first step into freedom, and while I might not be able to escape until I was 17, my lips had tasted victory. I knew that one day, I would be free—free to believe what resonated with me, free from having my body slapped and kicked around, free to buy all the lipstick I wanted.
Ellen Black is writing a book that describes growing up in a religious cult in East Texas. She earns a living as a technical writer and works as an intuitive counselor, while also blogging about Life on her web site, www.9elephants.com. Ellen’s poetry has been published in Illya's Honey, the Fauquier Poetry Journal, and South Ash Press and will soon be published in The Smoking Poet and Eclectic Flash. In 2005, Ellen won first prize in the Richardson Public Library's annual poetry contest. Ellen and her daughter are still trying to figure out why the Universe won't let them leave Texas.