Jessie’s Girl: On Guinevere Turner’s “When the World Didn’t End”

By Tamara MCOctober 9, 2023

Jessie’s Girl: On Guinevere Turner’s “When the World Didn’t End”

When the World Didn’t End by Guinevere Turner

ON JANUARY 5, 1975, when Guinevere Turner was seven, the world was supposed to end. She grabbed her favorite toy and donned a fancy dress, but the spaceship to take Turner to Venus never arrived. Turner’s new memoir, When the World Didn’t End, follows her life as she grows up with the Lyman Family, an apocalyptic cult spearheaded by Melvin Lyman, a self-proclaimed prophet. She lives in close quarters with around 60 other children and 100 adults on a compound in Kansas where she roams free in sorghum fields nibbling mulberries. Everything about Turner’s childhood seems idyllic. And in many ways, it is. The urban hippie commune offers a cozy youth—a beautiful setting with goats and blooming jasmine. Belonging. Structure. And hope, despite the converted school bus being painted with the words “Venus or Bust.” Cults often excel by providing what is missing from prospective members’ lives. Some young individuals, like Turner’s mom, who joined when she was 19 and pregnant with Turner, are attracted to what they think will be carefree, free-thinking living. People don’t join cults—they join communities.

In 1971, when Turner was three, David Felton, a reporter from Rolling Stone, arrived at the compound to interview Mel Lyman for his article “The Lyman Family’s Holy Siege of America.” Felton had already interviewed Charles Manson and saw similarities between the two men though Lyman, unlike Manson, didn’t order his followers to commit murder. Turner was too young to understand the implications of the exposé, and to understand her home was considered a cult. For kids who grow up in cults, like Turner and myself, this was all we knew. Our identities were intrinsically connected, entangled with cult life, and not easily, if ever, completely unraveled.

Like Turner, I also grew up in an apocalyptic cult, but mine was Sufi and in Texas. A spaceship wasn’t coming to take us to Venus, but the Messenger of God was going to appear to us on the Last Day. Because we were believers, we’d follow him through the gates of heaven while the unbelievers burned in eternal flames. Unlike Turner, the adults in my community didn’t drink wine, smoke weed, or drop acid. Sex was forbidden before marriage. Bodies were hidden under bulky fabrics. Even so, as a fellow 1970s cult kid, I share many similarities with Turner. Certain parallels appear across cults: charismatic leadership, black-and-white thinking, and an “us-versus-them” mentality. And, I would argue, the fetishizing of girls and girlhood.

Like Turner, I carry the burden of loving a home that was deemed destructive by outsiders. Children born or raised in cults are called second-generation adults (SGAs) and face unique challenges. The most striking difference between us and those who join cults as adults, such as my dad and Turner’s mom, is that we don’t have former identities to return to after we escape—we must build ourselves from scratch. When cult kids join the world, we often feel lost, confused, and different from others, which is the case for Turner when she is thrust into public school for the first time. She joins elementary school wearing clothing she had sewn herself, her hair long, straight, and shiny, like Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie. Turner’s mother was shunned by the cult when Turner was three; however, Turner remained and was raised by community members. It wasn’t until Turner was 11 that she was also shunned and rejoined her mother. Turner wanted to stay, but was propelled into the world, a place she had been taught was evil.

When Turner’s mom tries to enroll her daughter in school, she responds to a secretary’s request for transcripts with an untruth: her daughter’s former school had burnt down. When asked instead for her daughter’s birth certificate, she avoids the truth again, saying the hospital had burnt down too. Starting school is the beginning of Turner crafting a new persona for herself outside commune walls. She stares at the other kids, looking directly into their eyes, which had been normal in the cult but is socially inappropriate in her new school. We experience Turner’s culture shock as she is awakened to new smells like Windex and dirty sneakers, and learns what a cubby is and how to ride a school bus.

Turner traveled the country with the Family in caravans. She grew up in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Boston. Our Sufi community was also nomadic and caravanned between Atlanta, New Mexico, and Washington State, but also Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and England. Nomadism in coercive communities is common because it keeps people from getting too comfortable in one place and forming roots, with the added benefit of protecting cult leaders on the run from authorities. Regardless, both Turner and my group usually stayed isolated in compounds. In my cult, like Turner’s, kids were homeschooled. We didn’t have access to books, newspapers, televisions, radios, or phones. Information was controlled—we lived in a propaganda bubble.

A common practice among high-demand groups is to use familial terms to refer to one another, which was the case with Turner’s community. In doing so, adherents are lured into false bonds, where they think they will be cared for and loved because that’s what families are supposed to do. Families demand loyalty, but they also offer comfort. I was rarely lonely because I had my commune sisters. We ate, slept, and prayed together. I had built-in best friends. This is the case with Turner as well. She was part of a closely knit group and belonged to something larger than herself. She had girls to giggle with and banjos to sing along with. People are often recruited into cults with the allure of this promise of a forever family.

Turner’s memoir is written from the perspective of an 11- to 16-year-old girl. She doesn’t include a wise narrator who comments on what’s happening. We’re in the scene with her, knowing as little or as much as she does. At one point, Melvin Lyman, the leader Turner has yet to meet but knows of through stories, has chosen a 13-year-old to be his “wife.” The girl lives in a room Mel can only access through his bedroom. At this moment, we’re in the murky middle with a young girl who senses something isn’t right but is unable to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Girls in Turner’s community were given to men at age 12 or 13, like ours were.

When I was 12, the cult leader demanded that my father let me live with him. This wasn’t abnormal since the leader controlled the children in the community, making ultimate decisions regarding their upbringing. My father thought it was an honor because anyone close to the leader was considered special; living with the leader was the greatest blessing. And so, my father dutifully drove me to the leader’s private residence, over an hour from the commune.

In the car on the way over, I remember thinking that I didn’t want to leave behind my commune sisters, whom I loved dearly, and the routines I’d become accustomed to, even if I disliked them. I was terrified of living with strangers, but I didn’t have a voice and so I had no choice. I had seen and known of the leader and his wives for years, and we’d had short conversations here and there, but little else. Living with them was a huge change, and not one I looked forward to. At the same time, I also saw how happy my dad was that I was chosen, which gave me a sense of vicarious pride. A small part of me felt “special” too. Regardless, I felt intuitively that something wasn’t quite right, a sinking feeling. Maybe because I was alone. Or because I assumed something bad was going to happen, because something horrible always happened. Though I could never have imagined the horror of what would transpire next.

I slept in what was called the servants’ quarters, a converted shed with only a mattress on the floor. Only a few days after arriving, the leader’s adopted son snuck into my room and sexually assaulted me. The person had every right to do what he was doing, I’d been taught, because men and adults knew what was best. Girls couldn’t question or think for themselves. If we did, it meant we didn’t trust God’s will, which would lead us straight to the place that never stopped burning and would corrode our skin layer by layer, forever. From my earliest memory, I was taught that I had only two roles: to be a wife and to be a mother. My purpose on earth was to serve and to birth.

Because girls had to be pure and couldn’t be intimate without marriage, a couple of days later, the person used the excuse that he must marry me, so he wed me in what was called a “temporary” marriage, set for a specific time (in contrast to what my community called a “permanent” marriage). In my case, it was for 90 days, the entirety of the summer. No witnesses were required, which meant that my wedding took place in secrecy with just the two of us. At midnight, while I was wearing a long pajama-like getup, my sleeves still wet from washing dishes, a strange man conducted a ceremony that couldn’t have lasted more than 20 seconds, in a language I didn’t understand. I repeated after him, “I take you to be my husband.”

And just like that, I was a 12-year-old bride. As a child, I couldn’t give consent to be married, so according to the group’s belief system, I was married in front of God, with His approval. Although my marriage was meant to be temporary, it stretched eight excruciating years. I couldn’t escape him or my traffickers, who had used me as free domestic labor, until I was 20. The rules of our community constantly changed, but girls were considered women at age nine or when they first got their menstruation. The leaders demanded that we marry as young as possible, lest we might run away and join the world, where the devil resided. Really, it was just one of many excuses to control girl children and promote pedophilia. But it’s more complicated than that because turning girls into women at age nine also benefited the women.

Once girls were of maturity age, we didn’t need education. This was welcome news to the women tasked with teaching us through their sporadic homeschool system, which they seemed to hate anyway, given that they spent most of this time yelling at us and calling us stupid. Girls were then required to work instead of study. Some of the women were eager to take full advantage of this. They became our whipmasters, sitting around gossiping and grumbling about a missing cooking pot or their husbands taking ever more and younger wives. Like Turner, I was also separated from my biological family, a common practice in cults, which systematically pit blood families against each other in a game of divide and conquer. Leaders separate parents from children and siblings from one another, disrupting age-appropriate attachment and confusing children. By isolating individuals in this way, the leader gains greater access to each, since none of them have a family to protect them.

In my community, girls were segregated from boys and men. We had rules that only governed us, for example, regarding dress. Girls were covered from head to toe in suffocating fabrics as boys ran free wearing shorts. We piled into bunkhouses with the same gender, which was also the case for Turner. Unsurprisingly, bunkhouses became a breeding ground for abuse since the kids were left unattended. I’m all too familiar with bunkhouses because we had our version. Boys slept with boys and girls with girls. But at night, it was as if there was a thoroughfare straight to our rooms with flashing red letters glowing, “Kids ahead. Unrestricted access.”

Isolation was also used as punishment in Turner’s memoir. In my cult, the leader built a standalone building for solitary confinement. When someone’s ego “raged,” such as when they disagreed with the leader or the group’s rules, they’d be sent there indefinitely. They’d stare at a wall and repeat God’s names until the leader was given a message from God that they were ready to come out. The sentence lasted for hours, days, weeks, even months. But there was no lock on the door. Members could leave at any time, but never did. Cult leaders don’t need to hold guns to their adherents’ heads because the weapon is already inside; they don’t need to police their members because they’ve trained their members to patrol themselves.

After Turner’s mom left the Family, she was considered an outsider and accordingly shunned. When someone doesn’t follow the rules, they are rejected. Shunning warns others what might happen to them if they step out of line. It’s also a way to eliminate bad seeds before they influence other members, the tossing of a rotten apple to save the bushel. Like Turner, my mother was not part of the group. But unlike Turner, my mother was never part of the group. When my dad joined, she refused to accompany him. I shuttled back and forth between my dad’s cult and my mom’s liberal upbringing. When I was with my dad, the group told me my mom was living in sin because she had boyfriends. Because she didn’t pray. Because she wore shorts. My mom was going to hell, and if I followed her lifestyle, I’d join her.

Turner kept a diary, and short excerpts from it are peppered throughout the memoir. But Turner explains that she was not the only person reading her diary. She knew there were wandering eyes, but she continued to write, almost as a rebellion. Anaïs Nin, the famous diarist, wrote, “I am aware of being in a beautiful prison, from which I can only escape by writing.” Often for girls like us who grow up in patriarchal prisons, writing is where we escape and gain power. Writing allows us not only to process the chaos but also to imagine alternative endings. Turner writes, “There have been points in my life when keeping a record of what was happening to me felt like the only power I had.”

A pivotal moment in the memoir is when Jessie, Mel’s partner, notices Turner and invites her to travel with their family. This decision instantly elevates Turner’s status. While the other kids on the commune stay put, Turner travels back and forth with cult royalty. My story also intersects with Turner’s here because I also gained the notice of our leader’s second wife (he had three) when I was invited to live in their private residence. I was told I was special, the most beloved child. But really, I wasn’t—I was responsible, dutiful, and easily coerced, which made me the perfect servant.

Like Turner, I felt honored to be chosen. Turner and I were “love bombed,” or showered with affection and praise. Even though I was raised in my religion, the leader told me I would still be tested, and when I was, I’d have to choose for myself. Did I believe? Or was I an unbeliever damned to everlasting misery? Children raised in or born into cults aren’t spared from love bombing, which creates a sort of debt repaid with obedience.

In thinking I was special, I was willing to jump through hoops and prove the leader right. I was a hard worker. I was strong. I was special. But both Turner and I were also disposable. Everyone in a cult is, other than the leader. Jessie can at any time tell Turner she doesn’t want, need, or love her, and eventually she does. At one point, Jessie says, “I used to love you, but I don’t love you anymore.” Turner is now shunned for a reason she doesn’t understand, and so she begins a mission to win back Jessie’s love. Her days and nights become filled with finding her way back to being Jessie’s girl.

To describe her feelings, Turner writes, “I didn’t love or hate [my mother].” Jessie has replaced Turner’s mother, at least superficially. In my case, the leader’s second wife was also meant to replace my mother. I was told that I must call her Mama, which was strange because I already had a mother. Turner’s memoir shows us a good example of this obsession with “the Mother,” this relentless longing for acceptance. Jessie strings Turner along. Could she return to the Family as someone who was now “of the world”? After many challenges, Turner eventually enrolls in public high school, and suddenly the 1980s flood her with everything she hadn’t been part of during her time with the group. Wham! plays in the background of a local mall (in an era when malls are the place to see and be seen), Orange Julius shops serve up foamy Creamsicle beverages, and kids rep “Frankie Says Relax” T-shirts. But just as we think Turner is finally free, we quickly learn that she isn’t.

The real devil, it turns out, is FP, the partner of Turner’s mother. FP represents the worst of men, and I couldn’t help comparing him to the men in my community, who abused and terrorized little girls. Maybe Turner’s nostalgia for the Family partially comes from the childlike wonder we all have in our early years. We tend to look back at our childhoods fondly because it represents a time to which we can never return—and because it’s when we are still largely shielded from life’s vicissitudes. But for Turner, childhood also represents a time before FP and a time when her relationship with her mother was also better because it was nearly nonexistent.

If Turner hadn’t been ripped away prematurely from all she knew, would she still love so fiercely? When something is taken away without our permission, we often long for it even more. I wonder, too, if Turner had stayed in the cult through her teen years, would her yearning for the Family be as intense? I remained in my cult until I was 20 and had to become a “woman” far too soon. Turner left before she was 12, before she was married off, and would have to live the life of a woman in a child’s body.

Many cult memoirs are triumphant stories about girls successfully escaping their cults, but I don’t find this true of Turner’s story. Yes, she literally escaped, but just as important, she ended a cycle of familial abuse: she escaped FP. And her mother, who didn’t believe the abuse and blamed her for tempting FP, as Humbert blames Lolita. In the end, Turner builds her identity on her terms. How should she wear her hair? Feathered like Farrah Fawcett? What type of music does she like? What are her dreams? To become a journalist? An actor? And who is she, separate from community? Separate from Family? As Guinevere?

When I read Turner’s memoir, I felt like I was reliving my childhood—both the darkness and the light. Love, innocence, and anger tore at me simultaneously. What I related to most was her longing for a lost home, a homesickness for a place to which one can never return. And even if we could, everything would be different—or perhaps we would be different. The site of my commune still exists. The property was sold, and now a different religious group lives there. I’ve visited several times, and the new owners tell me I’m always welcome. But when I return, the loss is palpable. My commune sisters are gone. So too are the poopy peacocks who once traipsed about with their shimmery tail feathers. Time has passed.

I had a favorite elm tree when I was a kid. We built a circular rock wall around it and I often sat there daydreaming with my commune sisters. We were rushing to leave, to grow up; time couldn’t pass quickly enough. The elm remains, and now when I visit, I sit and close my eyes. Everything glows again. I hear my father’s booming voice. I see myself skipping, and even though I’m weighed down by heavy fabrics, I feel light. I’m part of something bigger than myself. I have a love unlike any I’ll ever experience again. And I have hope.

“Both/and” thinking teaches us that multiple things can be true simultaneously, and that we can feel more than one emotion at a time. Perhaps wholeness is about embracing these ambivalent feelings, the grief and gratitude, confusion and elation. I both love my cult home and find it dangerous. That’s the beauty of letting go of “either/or”—we can appreciate and be critical at the same time. I believe this is what Turner is doing in her memoir: showing us her home in all its pain and pleasure.


Dr. Tamara MC is a cult, child marriage, and human trafficking survivor and advocates worldwide for girls and women to live free from gender-based violence. She’s currently revising her debut memoir, Child Bride: My Marriage at 12.

LARB Contributor

Dr. Tamara MC is a cult, child marriage, and human trafficking survivor and advocates worldwide for girls and women to live free from gender-based violence. Her PhD is in applied linguistics, and she researches how language manipulates vulnerable populations. Tamara attended Columbia University for an MFA and has been honored with residencies/fellowships in places such as Bread Loaf, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Sewanee, Ragdale, Cave Canem, VONA, and VCCA. She’s published in prestigious outlets such as The New York Times, New York magazine, Newsweek, Salon, The Independent, Food52, Parents, and Thrillist. She’s currently revising her debut memoir, Child Bride: My Marriage at 12. 


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