Uncultured: A Memoir
“This kind of self-awareness is a crucial ingredient for any memoir. In this one, Mestyanek Young’s intelligent eye casts a shrewd appraisal at much more than herself—she questions culture itself . . .”
In the vein of Jesusland and The Glass Castle, Daniella Mestyanek Young delivers a searing portrait of surviving an unimaginably horrific childhood. Growing up in a cult called The Family, in which children are physically, sexually, and emotionally abused, Young is somehow able to hold onto a crucial sense of self:
“This was wrong, and even though I was the one getting punished, somewhere deep inside I suspected the wrong thing wasn’t me.”
In the face of a community that commands every aspect of her life, Mestyanek Young fights against the injustice she understands intuitively. No adults shield or help her, yet somehow she has the tough resilience to see the hypocrisy of those around her, naming the ugly abuse for what it is. When she is 15 she fights for herself, finally escaping the prison that has been called her home:
“Then, before I could lose my nerve, I yelled the words that had been building in me for nine years: ‘I want to leave The Family!’”
After the shockingly painful chapters that describe in excruciating detail The Family’s vicious control, the liberation of this cry vibrates powerfully through the reader. We cheer on this young girl who claims her life for own, hoping the strength that’s carried her so far will take her the rest of the way to finding who she really is, to making her own life at last.
High school, for someone who has never been to school at all, is predictably tough, but after all the horrors Mestyanek Young has experienced, the confusion of figuring how to act “normal” seems like a small hill to climb. Focusing intently on her studies, entranced by the world that books open up for her, Young excels academically, putting herself both through high school and college with scholarships and odd jobs, independent and self-motivated far beyond her years.
After graduation, Mestyanek Young, now married to her college boyfriend, joins the military since that’s what he is doing and she doesn’t want to simply be a military spouse, trailing after her husband. She finds basic training to be oddly familiar:
“I spent my life playing at battle drills, getting ready for what to do when the Antichrist’s soldiers showed up. I can’t count the hours I spent as a child standing in lines, eating mass-produced food that tasted like cardboard, never quite getting enough to feel full. I was always next to a handler, sleeping and waking, always watched, always commanded. My mind couldn’t wander, not even an inch. I know how to follow orders, how not to ask questions. I was born a soldier.”
The training gives her flashbacks, nightmares of her days with The Family. Her life now follows the same kind of tearing down of individual will, the same imposition of the group, of arbitrary, punishing rules. With horror, she wonders, “Did I just join another cult?”
Just like in The Family, women in the military are devalued, never treated as equal. Even the body armor isn’t made to fit their contours, offering limited protection. Women are insulted, harassed, and told they have a one in four chance of being raped—by the men they serve with. Still, Mestyanek Young sticks with it, trying for—and getting—a tough spot in military intelligence. She serves two tours of duty in Afghanistan as one of the first women put on ground combat missions. She’s rightly proud of proving that women can do the work, but she’s also clear-eyed about the deep-rooted sexism in the military.
What raises this book above the level of survival story is how Mestyanek Young takes what she experienced in The Family and recognizes similar issues outside of cult communities, even in what we call “normal” life. As an outsider, she sees clearly the same kind of efforts at mind control:
“It was part of why I never really felt at home, never American enough—I hadn’t gotten the same indoctrination as everyone else growing up. America does what the army does, just at a larger and more insidious scale. The programming begins at birth: America is the greatest country on earth. We are the best, down with all the rest, and if we have to torture a thousand innocent people to prove it, so be it. When you believe you’re the best, the chosen ones, then the end can always be made to justify the means. . . . Where does a cult end and a culture begin? What is the difference between a good organization and a bad cult?”
These are courageous, thoughtful questions to ask, the kind of critical thinking that allowed a little girl to hold onto herself despite harrowing, all-encompassing brainwashing. This kind of self-awareness is a crucial ingredient for any memoir. In this one, Mestyanek Young's intelligent eye casts a shrewd appraisal at much more than herself—she questions culture itself, how it supports some and casts down others. This book starts as a gripping horror story but evolves into something else entirely, a thoughtful book that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.