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Uncultured: A Memoir

Review

Uncultured: A Memoir

If you are at all familiar with the cult known as The Children of God, you know that a memoir about being raised within it is bound to be very dark and difficult. So you will not be surprised that Daniella Mestyanek Young’s account is replete with horrific abuse and her attempts at building a life beyond the group. From the stifling life within the cult, to the new world of an American high school, to the rigors and rituals of the U.S. Army, UNCULTURED is the story of Daniella’s search for autonomy, control, belonging and safety in the face of almost unbelievable obstacles.

"UNCULTURED is a compelling, frightening and ultimately hopeful exploration of recovery, empowerment and healing."

The Children of God, a Christian cult founded by David Berg in the late 1960s, upended the modesty and values historically expected in many Christian communities by not only focusing on sex, but promoting a terrible belief system founded on sexual activity considered taboo and even criminal, including prostitution, pedophilia and incest --- not to mention the myriad other forms of abuse. Daniella doesn’t shy away from the brutal details of how she was raised and how her early life continued to put her in harm's way, even after she left the cult. Raised to never reject or protect herself from the advances or violent acts of men, she struggled to break free of this terrible pattern, even as she came to recognize that what she suffered was never her fault.

Family meant two things for Daniella, and both are explored in the book’s first (and longest) section. While outsiders dubbed Berg’s cult The Children of God, they knew themselves as The Family. Daniella’s grandparents joined Berg in 1970, and her grandfather became an influential figure in the group. Her mother, Kristy, was born into the cult, and by the age of 12 was expected to freely “share” her body with any of the men in the community. By 14, Kristy was pregnant and gave birth to Daniella, the eldest of her many children. Daniella never knew her biological father but was raised by her mother and a fairly sympathetic stepfather. The blended family lived for much of her childhood in Brazil, where they begged for money and performed on the streets, hawking CDs produced by The Family.

Behind compound doors, Daniella, along with all the other children and women of The Family, was subject to harsh emotional and physical punishments, rape and molestation, inadequate food and medical attention, and a lack of education. Though she loved her mother and siblings, there was not much trust or affection; it was dangerous to form normal bonds or attachments. Finally, as a young teenager, Daniella was able to escape the cult. She found herself living with a half-sister in Texas, and in a traditional educational and social environment for the first time in her life.

Working hard in school and at jobs, Daniella eventually graduated from college, got married and enlisted in the army. She never regrets the education that gives her insight, opportunity and knowledge, but her marriage is problematic and her enlistment causes her to wonder if she has joined another cult. The physicality of the training, the gender issues and the not-so-casual misogyny of the army force her to relive much of her trauma. Additionally, she is the victim of another brutal sexual assault and sees firsthand the devastation and loss of combat when she serves in Afghanistan.

Daniella’s military career is fascinating and forms the final section of the book. In it, she recounts her personal and professional challenges in yet another institution that seems to place little value on the voices and bodies of women.

UNCULTURED is a compelling, frightening and ultimately hopeful exploration of recovery, empowerment and healing.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 23, 2022

Uncultured: A Memoir
by Daniella Mestyanek Young

  • Publication Date: September 20, 2022
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250280117
  • ISBN-13: 9781250280114